Spiritual Essentials for Knowing God

Many of us who follow Yogananda’s teachings have a special affinity for the Indian culture. But Swami Kriyananda said that people make a mistake when they think of that culture as its clothes, food, and deities.

The true culture of India, Swamiji said, is its vibration. It’s the sense of God’s presence that permeates the land, imprinted by the vibrations of high spiritual souls who’ve known God.

Indian women laughing
India’s culture is beautiful — its hidden essence is more beautiful still. (Click to enlarge. Photo source: McKay Savage, Wikimedia Commons)

It’s that deeper culture that Yogananda brought to the West. He came with a message that the purpose of life is to free ourselves from delusion, and that the most direct path to that freedom is Kriya Yoga.

India’s ancient tradition is known as Sanaatan Dharma – “the Universal Religion,” so called because it encompasses the core principles of all true religions.

Swamiji observed that Sanaatan Dharma is the only tradition that holds moksha – complete soul-freedom – as its goal. Other religions that teach Sanaatan Dharma – mystical Christianity, for example – pursue the same goal. “Moksha” is the state the soul attains when it is fully liberated and reunited with God.

Swamiji compared Sanaatan Dharma with the modern, superficial expressions of Christianity, which was originally founded on the bedrock of the Eternal Religion, but as taught today tells us that if we’re merely good, we’ll go to heaven and we’ll get to spend an eternity in the same ego that we’re presently identified with.

For those who follow the path of liberation, including the teachings of Christ and the great Christian mystics, such a “heaven” would be a perfect hell, because the ego can never satisfy our souls.

Other religions tell us that our sensual desires will be fulfilled in heaven when we die – we’ll have dancing girls, delicious food, and gold and jewels – as if these outward things could satisfy the innermost longing of our hearts.

When Jesus urged his followers, “Be ye therefore perfect,” he wasn’t talking about having perfect pleasure and comfort in this world. He was calling us to leave this life for a completely different world of superconsciousness. Yogananda wrote a beautiful chant in which he described that world as “the land beyond my dreams, where no clouds come and golden dreams dwell.”

Now, the path to God is not a happy little walk in the park. What God asks of us is complete self-offering and self-transformation. And because our minds are tempted by maya, the power of cosmic delusion, we’re strangely reluctant to embrace the path of self-offering that leads to bliss.

You would think that, having tasted even a small touch of freedom in God, we would embrace the spiritual path eagerly –we would willingly renounce our ego-attachments, recognizing them as a source of terrible suffering and a barrier to our complete happiness in God.

Buddha in the ascetic phase of his life, known as Shakyamuni. The Buddha looks suspiciously happy in his sacrifice.

What is the sacrifice that God is asking of us? In simple practical terms, it’s that we be impersonal with ourselves.

Swamiji said, “To be impersonal is to want nothing in the world; to want nothing from other people, to be impersonal in our love.”

He said, “We need to be extremely impersonal where we ourselves are concerned, to the point where we expect and want nothing from life.”

He added, “But impersonal love is intensely personal where other people’s needs are concerned.”

And that’s a mistake people often make. They think the divine principle of being more “impersonal” gives them a license to be coldly indifferent to the needs of others. As Swamiji explained it, being impersonal with ourselves means we’re able to rise above our own needs and identify with others and feel their needs as our own.

In his final years, Swamiji’s life was one of intense tapasya. The word tapasya has a double meaning. It’s generally translated as “austerity.” But a truer definition is “devotion.”

Tapasya is a depth of devotion that happily embraces personal sacrifice for the sake of others. In this sense, tapasya is fundamental to our spiritual progress.

In the early years of Ananda, Swamiji would give Sanskrit names to those who requested them. The names reflected qualities that he felt we should develop for our spiritual growth.

We used to joke about how we were afraid he would give us a name like “Tapasyanand” or “Tapasyadasi” – “bliss through tapasya,” or “devotee of tapasya” – because we thought of tapasya as extreme asceticism, renunciation, and suffering.

There was an Indian saint whose early years were very challenging. His parents died early, and he grew up in poverty. Yet his spiritual stature was so great that he became widely known for his sanctity.

Years ago at Ananda Village, we got together to watch a movie about the saint’s life. At one point someone in the film says the word “tapasya.” In the subtitles it was translated as “devotion,” and we all burst out laughing, because we thought of tapasya as painful renunciation. But when we mentioned to Swamiji how bad the translation was, he surprised us. He said, “No, the definition of tapasya is devotion.”

We tend to think that God sends us painful challenges so that we’ll be forced to reject this world. But the reason Divine Mother tests us is to give us a chance to run to Her.

How can self-denial, suffering, and extreme austerity be an expression of devotion? It’s good to remember that the soul requires none of the comforts of this life. In fact, the soul considers bodily comforts to be a bondage.

When I visited India several years ago, it was extremely hot. It was 110 degrees during the day, and the air conditioning wasn’t working.

When the air conditioning finally came back on, I decided not to use it, because it was expensive. I tried to tough it out, but the pressure of the heat soon began to weigh on me.

I watched myself walk around, thinking it might be cooler in another part of the room. It was interesting to watch how trapped my ego felt because conditions were slightly different than I liked.

From the day Swamiji arrived in India, his health was poor. Within the first few days he had a terrible fall in the bathroom and bruised his nose and arm. It was a sign of how his life would be, as he developed the work in India. The whole time, he suffered physically, to the extent that he’d been in the hospital three times when I last was in India.

Most recently they put him in the hospital partly because he wouldn’t rest otherwise. Unless the doctors confined him to bed, he would try to carry on serving his Guru. In the last days I was there, we had to take him to the hospital because his heart wasn’t functioning well and fluids were beginning to accumulate in his body.

So there was Swamiji in his hospital bed, calm and comfortable. He resisted going, but once he saw no alternative, he accepted it as the present reality.

At one point, a perfect stranger dropped in to see him. Swami spent time talking to this man, who was a brahmachari, a renunciate. Swami said, “When I started Ananda Village in the late 1960s, a spiritual teacher named Sant Keshavadas came for a visit. When he looked around Ananda, he made a simple comment, ‘Somebody did a lot of tapasya to create this.’”

Somebody had willingly endured a lot of pain, a lot of sacrifice, a lot of hard work, a lot of self-denial to make Ananda happen. And, of course, the person who willingly and happily engaged in the sacrifice was Swamiji. He sacrificed everything, including his health, and even the possibility of his salvation, to build this work for his Guru.

What we all saw as that a great power was generated by that selfless energy and complete willingness to say to Divine Mother, “Yes – I will do this, and I will not count the cost. I will not say ‘What’s in it for me?’ I will not rest, and I will not worry about my salvation. I will do the work You’ve given me.”

It was a focus of energy that demonstrated, over and over, that it was capable of moving the physical world, and it drew great blessings to Ananda and to Swamiji.

So here was Swamiji, sitting in his hospital bed, and to this perfect stranger he said, “Yes, I did a lot of tapasya to create Ananda in America. And since I got here I’ve been doing tapasya to create Ananda in India.”

At that point, Swamiji was no longer outwardly doing very much, partly because his health was so poor. He spent almost no time with people, and he didn’t give any public programs. He had recorded lots of television talks, but he didn’t give darshan, a public appearance where people can spend time with a saint.

He met with few people, yet somehow you felt that it was the power of his concentrated energy that was pulling all of the forces together to make the work in India succeed. It was the power of his tapasya.

In his physical body, Swamiji was suffering a great deal. He broke a rib, then he fell and strained some muscles very painfully, and he’d been having muscle spasms. It was a horrific story. So he was stretched out on his hospital bed because his body wasn’t functioning, and he said, “I’ve been doing this tapasya. It’s not as if I’ve suffered or anything like that. It’s just what I’m doing.”

Now, the scriptures talk about the sacrifice that it takes to achieve freedom in God. They talk about the suffering, and worse than physical suffering, the misunderstanding and persecution from people.

Elder Paisios
A very famous Greek Orthodox saint, Elder Paisios (1924 – 1994) told his disciples that the reason monks are able to perform extreme sacrifices such as living for forty days on bread and water, is out of love. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

And that’s why so many people don’t finish the spiritual path. As Master put it, “People are drawn to the spiritual path for the romance.” They’re drawn for the outward glamour.

In The Path, Swamiji describes how Master was the most charming human being he’d met. He was humorous, he was sweet, and he was kindness personified. He could express more love than any other human being, because his love was the infinite love of God.

And Swamiji describes how some people, seeing Master in that light, “didn’t understand how complete was the revolution to which he was calling them.” It asked complete transcendence of self-concern, and the understanding that tapasya is not suffering, but devotion.

If your baby is sick, and you have to stay up late and make many trips to the doctor, do you think of it as suffering?

You may suffer for what the child is enduring, but you consider it a joy to give up the comforts you’re attached to for the welfare of the child.

Years ago, a friend of mine had a baby. It was the first time I had the opportunity to watch a friend be a mother. The baby was starting to walk, and she was so excited, running in all directions. My house wasn’t baby-proof, and my friend had to chase the baby to the point where we couldn’t have a conversation of more than two sentences before she had to run after the child again.

Finally I said, “How can you stand it?” As fond of children as I am, the chaos of her life was more than I felt I could endure.

She said, “You see the child as separate from me, but I don’t. That child is an extension of me. It’s no sacrifice of myself to take care of him. It’s being myself to take care of him.”

Isn’t that beautiful? Now, that’s the natural human impulse. It’s a power of love that God gives us. We’re drawn to have families and children, to learn to expand our hearts beyond ourselves. In the end, it’s practice for the kind of love we need to develop to know God.

God doesn’t want us to love only those who are close to us. The Bible says that even the Pharisees do this much. It’s no special act to love those who love us, and those whom we call our own. It’s better than not loving them, but it can only expand our hearts so much.

Master lamented in the 1940s how families would define their lives as “us four and no more.” It was why he had such a hard time starting communities, because people were fixed in the idea of having their little family and their little house. Of course, having families is a responsibility that God gives many of us. But in a deeper way, God gives us families so that we will expand our hearts to embrace the whole world.

Master said about the parents’ love for the child, “They love the child so much, and if the child dies and is born next door as someone else’s child, where is the love they had?”

It’s not theirs, and so they don’t love it the same way. God is telling us to love the whole world as our own. The affinity we have for some people is given to us, not so that we’ll limit our love to them, but so that we’ll learn the joy of expanding our love completely. It’s given to give us a taste of the perfect love of God.

That’s the power of love that frees us. When God takes away what we want, it isn’t because He wants us to suffer, but so that we’ll develop greater love – so that we’ll realize that all life is tapasya, devotion, and that everyone and everything is the Divine Mother.

In our path, we think of God as Father, Mother, Friend, and Beloved. These are four ways we can relate to the Divine. But whatever the form of God that pulls the greatest love from our hearts, that’s the way we need to follow. Perhaps we’re inspired by seeing the whole world as Divine Mother, and ourselves as Her servant and instrument.

There’s a form of God that we don’t include in our formal worship in America, but that Master heartily endorsed. And that is to see God as our child, and to serve everyone as if they were our children. It’s a very powerful way to think of God, because it reflects the selfless love of the parents serving the child.

The secret of spiritual progress is to love God in whatever relationship we can embrace with selfless love.

Maybe it’s perfect friendship that inspires your love for God. Maybe it’s a relationship with a mother, a father, a spouse, or a child. Maybe it’s your relationship to your art, or to music.

Any aspect of your life that calls forth complete self-offering and self-sacrifice, in a way that doesn’t feel like suffering – that’s the direction you should follow. If it feels like tapasya in the true sense of the word, an offering of love to God, then that’s a feeling that will lead you, in time, to freedom.

I remember a time when I was trying to learn to be more kind to myself. I had a friend who, for some karmic reason, no matter how difficult she was, I never hesitated in my acceptance and love for her. There was nothing she could do that would cut off my love. And I suddenly realized that I treated her much better than myself.

I would extend divine love to her, but I wouldn’t extend it to myself. And from that point, if I did something I didn’t approve of, I began to imagine that my friend had done it, and how I would respond to her. It was very instructive. In time, I began to apply that practice to other people.

The most important key to our spiritual life is to find the channels that help us learn to love in that way.

The power of devotion that moved Swamiji, starting on the day he met Yogananda and became a disciple, was his relationship with Master. It wasn’t a personal relationship. His relationship with the guru was different from the other disciples. It reflected his unique role in Master’s work, which was different from theirs.

It wasn’t that he didn’t have a personal relationship with Master, and personal devotion to him. He did, of course. But even whenhe was in Master’s presence, he understood that Paramhansa Yogananda was a ray of the Infinite Lord that had been sent to the world to effect a great transformation.

There were many disciples, especially among the women, who had come to Yogananda long before Swami, including Daya Mata and her sister, Ananda Mata, and others who were leaders in Self-Realization Fellowship, and who thought of Master in a more personal way, and of serving him personally. And, of course, Master needed that service. But Swamiji never saw Master in that personal way.

He saw that his way of serving Master was to serve the mission that he had come with, and to help make it a reality. He saw that Master had been born to plant a new power of Self-Realization – the power of people living together in small spiritual colonies, practicing Kriya Yoga for inner communion with God – and to spread this message over the globe. And Swamiji said that from the first day, that’s what he wanted to help his Guru do.

He said it wasn’t only that Master commissioned him to do it, but that Master saw his desire and made it clear to him that he was in favor of that thought, that he supported him in it, and that he would give him the power to do it.

The thought was always in Swamiji’s mind: “I have the responsibility to make this work happen for my Guru.” And it was paired to an awareness of how much more important it was, than any purely personal service.

That’s the divine service we’re being called to. That’s the power that God will give us – to say “It doesn’t matter if I’m tired. It doesn’t matter if my body is unwell. It doesn’t matter if I’d rather rest, or live in my comfortable home in Italy. If this is what’s needed, this is what I will do.”

Seeing it from the outside, a person might think, “What a sacrifice! What suffering! What pain!” But as Swami said to the man who visited him in the hospital, “It’s not as if I’ve suffered or anything like that. It’s just what I’m doing.”

Yogananda would often quote the Bhagavad Gita: “Out of a thousand who seek Me, perhaps one knows me as I am.” He said the odds on our path are much better. Nevertheless, the numbers are small. But the reality is that we need to refuse to identify with anything but the flow of energy that is moving toward the Divine. We have to be very impersonal with ourselves.

As Swamiji wrote, “The value of persecution is that it helps us realize ‘This isn’t happening to me.’” To be persecuted is to be mistreated for something you haven’t done. It’s your karma, in the sense that it gives you an opportunity to do tapasya. But it’s not your karma, in the sense that someone needed somebody to hate, and you’re the one. And you begin to realize, even as this negative energy is coming toward you, “You don’t have anything to do with me.”

It’s just an energy that other people are expressing, and I happen to be in the way. My accepting it and enduring this embarrassment, or suffering, or persecution, or physical mistreatment doesn’t have anything to do with me.

It’s a force of maya running through the universe, and I am one with the Infinite. That is the thought that will keep us true to the path and free us.

We’re in it for the Divine Mother, or Heavenly Father, or the divine child. If we’re serving the cause of light, no matter what comes, we will serve this world enormously. You have no idea how effective it is. Having the right consciousness changes the planet. Our outward actions can help a little, but what changes the planet is holding the right consciousness. And the only thing that matters is love. Then God’s power comes and carries us back to our Infinite home.

(From a talk by Asha on May 2, 2004)

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