God’s Play — and the Way of Escape from Endless Cycles of Pain and Pleasure

When I’d been on the spiritual path for about six or seven years, I began to get a glimpse of what I’d gotten myself into.

At the time, I remember how we would joke about this. We had dived into the spiritual waters with great enthusiasm, and we’d swum out toward a beautiful island that seemed so close. And then we realized that it was a lot farther away. But we’d come so far that it wouldn’t be easy to turn back. And we realized that our best option, at this point, was to cut all ties with our former life and carry on.

It’s strange how we only realize the depth of our commitment as we go deeper on the path.

Climbers at the summit of Mt. Everest, 29,028' altitude. Click to enlarge.
Climbers at the summit of Mt. Everest, 29,028′ altitude. Click to enlarge. (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

I remember reading about a man who wanted to climb Mt. Everest. Before he started, he hired an airplane to fly him over the peak so that he could reconnoiter.

As he peered through the window, he realized that he would shortly be out in the terrible weather that he could see from the warmth of the airplane. And he remembered thinking, “I can’t imagine how I ever thought this was a good idea.”

There’s a Sanskrit word that means “God’s divine play” – it’s “Lila,” pronounced “Leela.” There’s a sense of lightness in the word. It suggests that when God sends us out into this world, He’s playing with us.

Of course, it doesn’t seem like play to us all the time. But from God’s perspective, it is indeed all a play. And when we awaken in God-consciousness, we realize that none of it ever happened to us personally, as a separate ego, but it was God who did it all through us. It was His lila – His joyful play.

Yogananda said that in a former life he was William the Conqueror. William was a mighty warrior who sailed with his troops from Normandy to England, where he defeated the English armies. In the grand scheme of history, it was an important moment, because William would set a course for England that would influence all of western civilization, and in turn, the world.

William the Conqueror, c. 1028-1087. Click to enlarge. The “Doomsday Book,” held in his left hand, was a minute accounting of all the property in the land — it helped  unify the country against the invading heathen hordes.
William the Conqueror, c. 1028-1087. Click to enlarge. The “Doomsday Book,” held in his left hand, was a minute accounting of all the property in the land — it helped unify the country against the invading heathen hordes. (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

But it raises an interesting question: why would a master be born as a warrior, when he could as easily spend his time meditating blissfully in a Himalayan cave?

We must understand that the masters play a tremendous role in furthering the spiritual development of the planet.

In this world, we find two stories being told simultaneously. First, there’s the story of the individual soul, as it progresses from ignorance to divine liberation.

And then there is the grand story of history, as human consciousness rises and falls in harmony with great currents of ascending and descending spiritual energy.

At this time, our planet has recently emerged from a dark age of materialistic consciousness. We’ve now entered an age of increasing energy-awareness. And in about 2400 years, the world will enter an age of mind-awareness, where people will recognize that the cosmos rests on a foundation of consciousness. Finally, the mental age will be followed by an age of spiritual awareness.

These grand cycles of history are described in a fascinating book called The Yugas, co-authored by two Ananda members, David Steinmetz and Joseph Selbie. It describes how the general level of consciousness on this planet rises and falls in a cycle of twenty-four thousand years.

Watching the news, we see people carrying out unimaginable atrocities around the world. At this time, many dark souls are being born on this earth

The darkness is exaggerated during the periods of transition between ages. At this time, people have lost faith in the older, rigid, materialistic forms of religion, but they haven’t yet understood how they can make their religion practical, in response to the challenge of modern science.

The widespread confusion in the world today is attracting chaotic souls to be born here and give expression to their nature.

Fortunately, a planet in transition also attracts great spiritual beings who come to help usher in the next age. And they don’t always come as meditating yogis. Thus Yogananda was born as William the Conqueror at a crucial time in history.

Many of us at Ananda feel that we lived with Yogananda at that time, or that we were with his son, Henry I, who would be born again as Swami Kriyananda.

The story of William and Henry is told in inspiring detail in a book by another Ananda member, Catherine Kairavi: Two Souls: Four Lives. The Lives and Former Lives of Paramhansa Yogananda and his disciple, Swami Kriyananda.

two_souls_four_lives_400William and Henry unified England under a single monarchy with a system of fair and equitable laws. The deeper spiritual purpose of their mission was to strengthen England against the heathen forces from Scandinavia who had gained a foothold in the north of the British Isles and were threatening to drive out Christianity.

After William died, Henry continued his father’s work, with the result that England enjoyed thirty years of unbroken peace – an unheard-of respite, at a time when the rest of Europe was plagued by constant warfare.

In their recent lives, Swami Kriyananda and Paramhansa Yogananda were once again sent by God to defend Christianity –not against invading hordes, this time, but against the threat of a growing atheistic materialism that is based on false interpretations of modern science.

I read a fascinating biography of Henry that told how he was deeply misunderstood and maligned by his peers, and how history eventually vindicated him as a great man and an inspired leader. The parallels with Swamiji’s life are obvious, especially how he has been rejected and persecuted by his own brother disciples.

Toward the end of his life, King Henry devoted careful attention and great energy to preparing his successor to continue his legacy after his passing.

At one point, Henry planned to sail across the English Channel with his court, including his son. There was a man who had a very good ship, and he said to Henry, “My father had the honor of ferrying your father, William, across the channel. I would like the honor of taking you and your son across.”

Henry said, “We’re well settled on this ship, but you can take my son.”

And so the son boarded the ship, accompanied by most of the young noblemen of the kingdom. Whereupon the wine began to flow freely, and in a magnanimous gesture, they passed the wine to the crew. And then the ship plowed into a rock and was sunk with the loss of about three hundred people.

The result was that Henry died without a recognized heir, and there was no stability in the country for several generations.

Over the years, I heard Swami speak many times of his intense aversion to having children. It was a feeling that he was born with, and that he traced to that tragedy.

I knew of his feelings, but I didn’t realized how intensely tragic the loss of his son and heir was until I read that book. I felt so overwhelmed with sorrow that I wrote him a note of condolence: “I know this sounds ridiculous, Sir, but I feel that I need to express my sympathy for your great loss.”

He said, “Asha, it happened hundreds of years ago.” Swamiji had long since realized that it was God’s lila – tragic at the time, but no more than a fleeting moment in the vastness of God’s consciousness.

We recently spent time with Swamiji in Goa, a resort city in south India. Every day, we would go for a short walk with him, and we would pass a shop that had a painting in the window. It was a very bad painting that showed a man in a turban eyeing a woman with obvious romantic interest. Swamiji said, “he looks lustful and she looks flattered. That about sums it up, doesn’t it?”

She was proud that she was able to arouse those feelings in him. As if to say, “Look at how much I’m getting out of his attention.” Both of them were thoroughly identified with God’s lila, feeling that it was their whole reality.

The only way to escape from being identified with the divine play is to expand our consciousness beyond the narrow boundaries of the little ego.

The romance of the man and woman in the painting expressed a very different aspect of God’s play than the selfless love of a mother and father for their child. The willingness to sacrifice for the child is planted in us by God, to help us understand the joy of expanding our hearts and loving selflessly.

Jesus said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” There has been far too much emphasis on the gory details of Jesus’ sacrifice. But that wasn’t the point of his life. He gave himself willingly, because he knew that true joy comes by giving.

A woman told me of a dream she had of Swamiji, where he took upon his own body the illness and suffering of others. In the dream, he said, “I’m doing this for you. I’m taking on your karma.”

In the dream, she said, “But I don’t want you to do that. That’s awful!” And Swamiji looked at her and said, “giving is the real joy.” And she understood.

What we see as suffering isn’t suffering at all, in the end, because it’s intended to soften our hearts and open a portal through which we can escape and expand our consciousness into a greater reality.

God gives us a tremendous inclination to love one another, and a noble desire to sacrifice our self-interest for others. But He wants us to understand that the purpose is not to give us lovely relationships, but to help us experience the joy that comes by expanding our hearts to include others.

“Behold the Man.” Pontius Pilate presents the scourged Jesus to the masses in an attempt to find a way to set him free. Painting by Antonio Ciseri. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons.)
Ecce Homo: “Behold the Man.” Pontius Pilate presents the scourged Jesus to the masses in an attempt to find a way to set him free. Painting by Antonio Ciseri. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons.)

This is why Jesus lay down his life. Pontius Pilate wanted to release him, but Jesus did nothing to help him find a reason to let him go.

Finally Pontius Pilate said, in frustration, “Don’t you understand that I have the power to put you to death?” And Jesus answered, “you have no power over me except what my Father in heaven has given you. Even now, I could summon legions of angels to come and rescue me. This is happening because God wants it so.”

It was the worst fate that we can imagine, and Jesus accepted it willingly to set an example for us – that we, too, can transcend the flesh and be one with the Father. That was the power of his love.

Otherwise, the story of Jesus’ life makes no sense. Who would want to follow him, if the end was merely the darkness of the tomb? We wouldn’t want to follow, because it’s a nightmare. But we follow because he showed us that it’s the escape.

It’s very tempting to cling to the warmth of familial love – to say, “this child is mine. This happy home is mine, this body is mine.” But we must learn that there is no satisfaction in clinging to the outward play of the divine lila.

Sooner or later, we must find the door through which we can escape into a higher life, where we will see this life as God’s divine play. We must remember that this body will turn to ashes. And maybe we’ll step out quickly, or maybe it will be a slow, agonizing decline. And why does God give us suffering? Why has He made a world in which we are endlessly disappointed? Because He wants us to escape into the consciousness that lurks just behind the play and sustains it. If this world were to work beautifully for us, would we seek anything more?

We have the misguided idea that the astral world is better — that we’ll have “pie in the sky when we die.” And it’s true that the music in the astral world is beautiful, and the colors are infinitely more intense. Swamiji said that, really, it’s a lot like Hawaii. It’s beautiful and warm, and you don’t have to wear a lot of clothes, and you can eat the food that falls from the trees. But it isn’t where the greatest joy comes from.

In the astral world, the heaviness of the material world is removed for a time and we feel everything more acutely. But we’re also more keenly aware of our limitations. In this world, we can dull ourselves in a thousand ways. But in the astral world, we have no such protection. Our awareness increases, including the agonizing awareness of our separation from God. And so the desire to become perfected is also intensified.

We take off this body for a little while and rest, just as we like to escape the cold by going to Hawaii to lounge on the beach and recover from all our hard work.

The astral world is like a pleasant vacation spa. But we don’t advance spiritually by only relaxing. We advance by expanding our awareness, so that we can understand truth on deeper and deeper levels.

People plead with God, “Please change Your divine law to match my desires. I don’t want my children to have this karma. I don’t want my body’s karma to be this way. I don’t want to work so hard to advance spiritually. I’m caught in my life’s icky middle, and I want to be rescued and released.”

Everybody wants to be evolved, but how many of us are eager to do what’s required?

This is why Jesus said, “For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.”

God urges us not to cling to the play of this world, but to cling ever more fervently to His inward presence.

God knows that we can’t stop loving our children, and He knows that we can’t stop worrying when their karma frightens us. In fact, He doesn’t want us to stop loving them and wanting the best for them.

The Bhagavad Gita tells us that the man of wisdom sees a bar of gold and a clod of clay exactly the same way. But he doesn’t regard this world with indifference. He regards it with undiminished commitment and love, because he knows that every aspect of creation is a gift from the Infinite Father.

This life is a divine opportunity to test ourselves and see if we can hold on to the awareness of God even when He expresses His lila as the most frightening and anguishing moments of our life.

It’s very important to understand that we can never fool God. It’s not enough to put on a good show – to breezily proclaim, “Oh yes, I know that it’s all God’s play.” No. The most honest prayers are the ones that God listens to with the greatest attention.

“I absolutely hate what’s happening, and it’s terrifying to me.”

Talk to God exactly as you would talk to the closest friend you can imagine.

“You must do something about this! And if You can’t change my situation, You must change me! Because I can’t bear this fear. I can’t bear this disappointment, this loneliness, this grief.”

Radha and Krishna: Spirit and Nature dancing together, representing God’s divine play.
Radha and Krishna: Spirit and Nature dancing together, representing God’s divine play. Click to enlarge.

When you begin to understand how God plays with this world, you realize that it isn’t a question of hiding your feelings of weakness, of vulnerability, of confusion and pain. It’s realizing that your true mission is to express those feelings fully, because then you form a relationship with God that draws you close to Him.

A friend of mine said to Swamiji, “Sir I have a difficult decision to make. I’ve prayed and prayed, and I didn’t get an answer. I don’t know what to do.”

Swami said, “do anything. It doesn’t matter. All God wants is that you ask for His help.”

We think it matters so much. But our actions don’t matter very much at all, including our mistakes. The only thing that matters is that we call on God no matter what’s happening and how we feel about it.

Swamiji said, “why do the scriptures tell us how to beat our enemies and things like that?” He said,” So that you’ll get in the habit of turning to the scriptures to solve all your problems.”

That is a profound explanation. We can never change our state of consciousness by pretending it’s different. What you’ve got, right here and now, is what you’re stuck with. And that’s exactly what you have to work with. God knows your situation in the deepest, most embarrassing details, because He put you here. And all you have to do is say, “All right, Lord, here we are,” and then go to the Divine for every solution.

The Gita gives us a list of things we can bring to God. And in the end it concludes, “If you can’t bring Me anything at all, then bring Me your failure.”

If you can’t do anything else, then just whimper to God. Pray to the masters, pray to Christ, pray to the Divine Mother. “Be with me. Be with me even as I fail to accomplish what I hoped. Be with me as I fail even to hold my consciousness up to You in my despair.”

Swamiji said, “God is pleased when you lay the fruits of your success at His feet. But He’s far more pleased when you offer Him a failure.”

Isn’t that odd? But, you see, it’s how we realize that we can do nothing on our own, and that we have nothing, not even our own ego. We have nothing except the power of God within us. And that power alone determines the outcome of everything. So cling to that power. In this way, you’ll develop a power of discrimination that will cut away everything that you falsely think will comfort you.

We need to seek our comfort in God alone. And once you see that God is comforting you, then in all of the things you must do, you’ll be able to do them with God’s inward help and understanding.

You can then face your fears and disappointments, you can face your challenges and the trials of your children. But you can face them with God. And then you’ll find that the quality of creation changes around you. You become like the sage who said, “This I enjoy, this I don’t enjoy, this is dark, this is light. But behind it all I perceive the one Spirit, the Spirit of God.”

(From Asha’s talk at Sunday service on October 9, 2005.)

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