America’s Importance and Spiritual Destiny

Today is the Fourth of July, the day when we celebrate America’s independence.

Only once every seven years do we get to celebrate the Fourth on a Sunday, and I’m delighted, because we don’t normally celebrate America’s birthday as a religious holiday.

4th of July at Ananda Village
Ananda Village celebrates the 4th of July. (Click to enlarge.)

We don’t celebrate many religious holidays in America. Yet the founding of our country was a wonderful event, both for its human principles of freedom, and its spiritual significance in the panorama of world history.

Someone asked me recently if I’d given any sermons on world affairs lately.

I said, “are they particularly notable at this point, that we should talk about them?”

She recited a litany of the world’s woes which would leave anyone believing that we’re living in very difficult times. And it may be worse than usual today. But none of it has anything to do with us. Because whether the world is going well or badly, for the devotee it’s just a backdrop for the real drama, which is the individual soul’s evolution, and our steady progress toward Self-realization.

And yet, in this particular age, Paramhansa Yogananda came with a great outward mission to change the world. And we who are his disciples are destined to play a more outward role than if we were living in easier times.

Yogananda himself set the tone for the life that we’re asked to live today.

The Master said that he would be born again in about a hundred and fifty years. He said that he would spend that life meditating in the Himalayas with Babaji, to balance the intense outward work of his most recent incarnation.

Swamiji is in India, working to fulfill Yogananda’s dream of spreading the teachings in his native land.

The first time Swamiji tried to start a work in India, thirty years ago, he was thwarted by the narrow-mindedness and misunderstanding of his own gurubhais. And now, forty years later, near the end of his life, he has returned and is performing tremendous sacrifice, considering his age and the poor health of his body, to push forward this great movement.

In fact, all of our friends in India are undergoing tapasya – a loving sacrifice for God. It’s difficult to live in India in the summer months, when it’s 100, 110, or 120 degrees. Sometimes the electrical panels catch fire, and the air conditioning keeps breaking down.

Lila was in the shower, when electricity started coming through the water. She was standing in the shower and suddenly sparks were shooting out. She said it was quite exciting. Our people are doing tapasya to make Yogananda’s great work a reality, and there’s great joy in the work that’s being accomplished there.

Swamiji told us about a man who was visiting Brindaban, the birthplace of Sri Krishna. He went to the great temple, where there’s a beautiful statue of Krishna, and they were having a big celebration. Swamiji said it’s the time of year when they bury the images of the saints in flowers. And he said that this devotee of was looking at Krishna’s statue, and Swami Kriyananda’s face kept imposing itself over Krishna. And then it would move away and Krishna would be there again, and then Swami’s face would reappear.

The man came and told Swami about this experience. And Swamiji said he felt that it was a true vision.

Babaji was Krishna in a former life, and now Babaji is working through us to restore the great teachings of Self-realization in India. Swamiji said that he believed Babaji was telling us something meaningful through the vision. The man was looking at the ancient form of Krishna, but in his present expression as Babaji he is telling us to devote ourselves to helping build the great work that he is doing through Yogananda and Kriyananda.

Now, this is what led me to meditate on the spiritual meaning of the Fourth of July. I’m quite patriotic in a very simple way. I love our patriotic songs: “God Bless America,” “America the Beautiful,” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” But I’m even more deeply inspired by a sense of America’s spiritual mission.

Yesterday, I was buying vegetables at the farmer’s market in Palo Alto, which is a quintessential “Palo Alto” kind of event.

I love this area. I joke with my friends that if you want anything at all on the material plane, you can get it within a ten-minute drive in this area.

Palo Alto farmer's market
Palo Alto farmer’s market. (Click to enlarge.)

I read recently that they fly French bread from Paris so that you can buy it fresh in Palo Alto. You can find every indulgence of the intellect, the arts, and the senses here, and it’s all done with a sense of refinement. The people here have great intelligence and education, and it’s their last, desperate attempt to find satisfaction on this material plane. You see it everywhere, in the homes, and so on, and for those of us who enjoy refinement, it’s lots of fun.

So there you are at the farmer’s market, and as you look around, you see the parents with their adorable children and their Nordstrom clothes and their hiking gear and their dogs. And I love it.

Yesterday, a group of about twelve men of diverse ages, races, and personalities were singing barbershop songs, with the amazing harmonies and clever melodies, and they performed beautifully. And then they began to sing patriotic songs as I gazed around at the people eating their fresh rolls and melons. And I thought, “Oh, what a lovely panorama.”

I remember visiting Disneyland with Swami years ago. It was in the early days of Ananda, in the early 1970s. Swamiji has always loved Disneyland, at least when it was still childlike and magical.

He would take us there, because, he said, “These are karma yogis. Look at how well they do everything.”

So he would take us to Disneyland to show us how things are done well. And one year, for some reason, we went in our Indian clothes. Swami was dressed in his orange robes, and we all wore saris, and I have this memory of being dressed in our Indian outfits and roaming around Disneyland together.

At the time, Swami was very strong, and he walked very fast. He was twenty years older than most of us, maybe in his fifties or sixties, but we had to scramble to keep up, like ducklings running after their mother through Disneyland.

At the end of our visit we decided to line up and watch the famous Disneyland Electric Parade. We wanted a good view, so we arrived early and stood on the sidewalk. And then a tremendous sense of otherworldliness came across Swamiji’s face. He very slowly looked out at the hundreds of people, and then he turned to us and said, “It’s not enough just to love these people. You must understand that you are every one of them.” And all of a sudden, right there in Disneyland, this completely transcendent mood came, and we all sat down on the sidewalk and meditated. Just waiting for the Disneyland parade to start.

It was nearly half an hour of total silence. And then the parade started, and we came out of our meditation with all these people standing around. I don’t know what they thought, but that was the mood we had, and in America you can do things like that.

In this country, even though there’s this absurd conformity, and this ridiculous materialism, on the other hand this is an extraordinary country. This country was made for people to be free to express who they are, and the law protects your right to do that. That’s why this country was founded, and it’s the real spiritual power of America on the world stage.

I was thinking about a simple statement that Swamiji made not long ago. He said, “Now we can take what Ananda has to offer all over the world. But there’s no other place in the world we could have started except this country.”

It’s because of the simple freedom of thought that we have here. We were talking with friends from Italy, and describing how we had to change our name from Ananda churchto Ananda Sangha, in part because when we tried to start a church in Europe they thought we were crazy. How can you start a church? There’s The Church. You don’t start a new church. But in America we would say, quite naturally, “oh yes, you can. We can start churches, and it’s why we have hundreds.”

So Swami Kriyananda founded a church, and Paramhansa Yogananda founded a church. And if you go through the phone book, you find an amusing list of churches – the “First Church,” the second, the first reformed, the second reformed, and the third innovation of the sixth reform of the seventh version.

People are constantly rolling out new churches, based on their freedom to say, “This is what I feel God is inspiring me to do.”

There’s a rich tradition in this country of people believing, “If that’s what you’re inspired to do, that’s what you should do.”

writing the Declaration of Independence
This idealized depiction of Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson working on the Declaration (by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, 1900) was widely reprinted. (Click to enlarge.)

The American Declaration of Independence is a glorious document. The people who wrote it were doing something no one had ever done before. And it begins and ends with stirring words of divine power. In the middle, it’s politics, talking about how Britain was trying to oppress the colonists, trying to arrest them inappropriately, trying to take away their goods, trying to prevent their livelihood, trying to tell them what to do. And these men and women had the courage to stand up and say, “This is wrong, and we aren’t going to stand for it.”

But the Declaration of Independence puts it in wonderful words that transcend the circumstances. “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Our life in America today is based entirely on that principle. Not only our political life, but our spiritual lives. This is our inalienable right – to live, to be free, and to pursue happiness in the way we understand it. And Self-realization is based on that principle as well. Because America is the country of the New Age.

Yesterday, I watched a young girl play in the Wimbledon tennis tournament. Her father and mother emigrated from Russia with $700 in their pocket, and now she’s winning this great tennis tournament. She’s a beautiful seventeen-year-old, a typical American teenager except for her Russian name. But that’s America, and it’s marvelous not only politically but spiritually.

I deplore the present cynicism about this country. God knows there are bad apples in any barrel. And some of those bad apples will get elected to public office. It’s almost guaranteed that if you’re elected nowadays you’re a bad apple. Good apples don’t go to Washington, because it’s such a rotten place.

People ask me who I’ll vote for. I voted for Governor Schwarzenegger, because he was interesting. At least he wasn’t boring. It’s the only vote I’ve cast in years. I also voted for him because we had a friend who was falsely imprisoned, and I thought Governor Schwarzenegger would get her out, and he did.

People do lots of wrong things in the name of religion. People do wrong things in the name of Christianity. And, with all respect, they’ve done some fairly bad things in the name of Paramhansa Yogananda. But we can’t let the good be defined by the bad.

Master said that America has a special destiny. Not as a country, but what this country represents – that all men and women are created equal. That we are made by God in a certain way, with inalienable rights and responsibilities. And we must live in attunement with that reality and make our lives stand for something.

The course of history is guided by the masters. Yogananda said that it was he who inspired President Truman to enter the Korean War, to stop the expansion of Communism with its atheism and destruction of human values. It was a great threat at the time, and Master inspired Truman to enter the war and hold the line, to keep that force in check.

In World War II, Yogananda said that it was the masters of India who inspired Hitler to divide his forces and wage war on two fronts. It was foolish from a military point of view, but the masters blinded him so that he would do it and the forces of good would win.

So we can see the important spiritual role that America will play in history. I once said to Swamiji, “Certainly America must have been founded by our masters.” And he said, “but of course.”

And when you think of the spirit of courage, and the willingness to die for high principles of the people who founded America, it’s something worth emulating.

The last paragraph of the Declaration of Independence says: “and for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence, we mutually pledge, those who sign, to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”

Isn’t that beautiful? Don’t you love that phrase, “our sacred honor”?

Why is honor sacred? Because our honor is our consciousness. We will live and die for what we believe. And why were those men willing to do that? Because they understood that the little moment that is our brief life makes very little difference. We’re here for history. We’re here for the good that we can do. Bodies come and go, and what difference does it make?

They lived according to what they knew to be true, and they didn’t count the cost. And in that sense, they represent the ideal of a devotee. They were called to an external destiny, on the great stage of history. And in carrying out that outward destiny, it was their inner self that was exalted.

Swamiji describes the early years of Ananda, when he had to work very hard to establish this work. He had been a monk, living on an allowance of $15 a month, and he never thought about money. And then, for many years, even to the present day, he had to be concerned about raising the money to fulfill Master’s vision. Even now, in his eighties, with his frail body, he’s working very hard in India to create a study course about the principles of living wisely and successfully in this material world.

The name of the course is “Material Success Through Yoga Principles.” It’s about the practical application of yoga principles in our everyday lives. And he’s doing it because he wants to help put the work in India on a self-supporting footing. Because it won’t be possible to lead the work from America forever.

Swamiji said that in the early years, when he had to work so hard for an external cause, he used to think, “Why can’t I just meditate?” And yet, after applying himself with so much energy to something external, he realized that the true power and blessing he had gained was inward, from giving his life and energy to further his guru’s work.

And we, each of us, should ask ourselves, “What principles will guide my life today?”

Because I grew up Jewish, I used to think about being put in a concentration camp, and how I would cope. I would imagine being a prisoner, completely helpless, and somebody in power behaving cruelly toward someone who was close to me. And I used to ponder this serious dilemma – should I intervene, even though it would be foolish, or should I protect myself and let it happen?

I asked Swami about it. And his answer so far transcended my little thinking that I’ve never forgotten it. He said, “what you’re really asking is, in a moment of crisis, what does God want you to do? And if it’s a life-or-death situation, what does God want you to do?”

He said, “the only way you can know that, is if in all of your life up to that moment you have practiced living in attunement with God’s love.”

Isn’t that a wonderful answer? I’ve translated it as a simple reminder: “if you want to be able to do it when it’s difficult, you have to practice when it’s easier.”

There are great moments in history, such as when the founding fathers wrote the Declaration of Independence, and in these times when we are living today.

America’s founders faced life-and-death issues, the outcome of which would have a lasting impact on millions of people. And is it any different for us? America was a new political reality, and we’re creating a new spiritual reality.

We’re creating an example. We’re creating a vibration. We’re creating a new force. We’re creating the future of this country and this planet.

Swami said, “I don’t say this in any way to be sectarian, but history will show that the most important thing happening in the world right now is Ananda.”

When Swamiji first went to Italy years ago and began connecting with people there, his initial contact was with a group of charismatic Catholics. They were interested in our teaching, and Swamiji saw in them, as he put it, a wonderful devotion and centeredness for God. He said that when he saw them, his first thought was, “that’s what we need for Ananda.” And over five years we forged an alliance in Italy that continues today, with the wonderful Ananda center in Assisi.

Tosca poster
On one hand, Puccini… (Click to enlarge.)

Swamiji talked about the quality of consciousness in Italy, which he said is so much from the heart. And, of course, when it goes into emotion it’s a Puccini opera.Swami joked that he used to think Puccini was exaggerating, until he started doing personal counseling in Rome. Then he figured that Puccini was understating the reality of life in Italy.

... and on the other hand, St. Francis. (Click to enlarge.)
… and on the other hand, St. Francis. (Click to enlarge.)

On the other hand, he said, when Italians can direct that emotion into devotion to God, the result is that Italy has more saints than any other country. And it’s not just because they’re close to the Vatican – it’s because they understand how to engage with life from the heart.

Italy has been the starting point of many great movements, in art, science, politics, and religion.And Swamiji said it’s all because of the heart quality. He said that America has that heart quality, too, and it’s a defining characteristic of this country – the extraordinary kindness.

He loves a joke about the space race, when America and Russians were trying to be first to put a man on the moon. Someone suggested that all the Americans had to do was get a dog to the moon, and they’d be so worried about the dog that they’d devote all of their national resources to get him back.

And it’s true. There’s a softness in our hearts. And then Swamiji said, “But Americans are ashamed of that side of themselves. We’re embarrassed by our feelings.”

And then he joked, “Italians crossed that bridge a long time ago. Now they don’t care.”

When Americans get a little too close to their feelings, they start to be afraid that people will think they’re foolish.And for devotees that’s a big problem. Because if we start feeling a wonderful sense of the divine presence, and then we get concerned that somebody will think we’re foolish, it can become a serious obstacle between us and God.

It’s interesting to see how people regard in Italy, India, and America regard Swamiji. In America, he has to talk more intellectually – he has to be persuasive, giving sound reasons for everything he says. He’ll let a little bit of that heart energy out, and people will feel it and be entranced, but then they’ll wonder if he’s trying to put something over on them, and when they return it’s back to square one, waiting to see where the flaw is. “What’s he hiding? What’s really up with him?”

But in Italy they just accept him, and in India they fall at his feet because they know what they’re seeing. They understand that power, and when they see it they recognize it and embrace it.

Our job as Yogananda’s disciples, and as part of this great movement of Self-realization, is simple: don’t be ashamed of our hearts. Don’t be afraid of God’s love. Be willing to live on a level of devotion, and have the courage of our convictions, and trust in Divine Providence. Be willing to pledge to God and to one another our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor for the wisdom that God has given us to understand the world. Be willing to attune ourselves to the adventure that our forefathers started, and that we are continuing, by initiating the next step in this country’s spiritual evolution. What a great opportunity this is!

As I watched the barbershop singers and looked out at the wonderful Palo Alto people, it brought tears to my eyes. I put my sunglasses on, and I thought, “oh, how wonderful God’s creation is, with all its sweetness and suffering. But underneath, what an opportunity!” The human body has the capacity to have divine consciousness, even as we stand here today. And let us remember that at every moment of our lives.

(From Asha’s talk at Sunday service on July 4, 2004.)

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