In the Bhagavad Gita, the Lord in his manifested form as Krishna makes a rather stark – even frightening – prediction: “Out of a thousand who seek Me, perhaps one knows Me as I am.”
When Swami Kriyananda came to this passage while writing his interpretation of Paramhansa Yogananda’s Gita commentaries, he translated it: “Out of many thousands who seek, one finds God.”
When I first read it, I thought: “My, he’s worsened our odds!”
But I remembered how Paramhansa Yogananda, in his talks and writings, often reassured us: “Our percentage is much higher.”
So that’s a relief – if you follow the path of Kriya Yoga, your odds of knowing God are much better than the Gita’s dire appraisal.
God sent Paramhansa Yogananda to earth with a mission to give seekers a practical, scientific way to achieve inner communion with the Divine.
That’s the good news. But a point that’s worth considering is that the path of Kriya Yoga is not literally “scientific,” in the sense that it will take us to God if we simply practice with machine-like efficiency. It’s not a straightforward mathematical formula: “If I do so-and-so many Kriyas, I’ll know God.”
While it’s true that our own efforts have a tremendous influence on how rapidly we’ll make the journey, it’s important to understand that the route to God is never straight. That’s because, while the method is simple and straightforward, we are complex.
The Gita has a special name for the vast cycles of time in which God projects the cosmos from His being, and then withdraws into Himself again. The Gita calls these cycles the “Day and Night of Brahma.”
Yogananda made a shocking statement. He said that there are souls who were living at the start of this present Day of Brahma who will be wandering in delusion at the end of the cycle. And the part that’s shocking is that these cycles last billions of years.
From our perspective, it’s almost impossible to imagine such a vast expanse of time. Immersed in this fleeting moment, it isn’t easy to envision a billion years.
The good news is that we don’t have to try – we don’t have to try to inflate our imagination to encompass it all.
The important thing is that we simply be practical in our understanding of the spiritual path. Our role is straightforward – we need to go about our business in a way that will bring us as much happiness and inner freedom as possible.
Around the time Swamiji was editing Yogananda’s Gita commentaries, he wrote a book called God is for Everyone.
It’s based on the first book that Yogananda published, while he was still living in India, before came to America. He called it The Science of Religion. And because he didn’t speak English very well, he asked a disciple to write it for him. But the disciple was proud of his intellect, and it put him out of tune with the Master’s consciousness. As a result, the book was uninspired. So Swamiji re-wrote it to make it reflect Yogananda wishes more closely.
God is for Everyone is based on the central idea that underlies all of Yogananda’s teachings, and all that Ananda has done and is doing. It’s an idea that can be stated very simply: “What all human beings are seeking is to experience greater happiness, and to avoid suffering.”
In this life, we’re battered by the swirling tides of our experiences. But the secret of a successful life is simple: in every situation, the answer is happiness. And when we’re confused about the next step we need to take, we should always look for the path that will give us greater, lasting happiness.
Religious institutions have woven a tremendously complex fabric over these simple teachings. But the urge that drives people to seek a spiritual teaching has always been the simple yearning to experience more happiness.
For centuries, religious authorities tried to motivate people by threatening them with eternal damnation. They told us that if we would give up our worldly impulses, we would reap a reward of happiness in heaven after we died.
The problem is that it doesn’t satisfy people’s desire to be happy here and now. Most people can’t imagine trading the simple pleasures of this life for a far-off happiness after they die. The breakdown of traditional morality has happened because people are no longer willing to believe in the threat of eternal damnation.
People are more inclined nowadays to think in terms of immediate satisfactions. “What can I do, in a practical way, to get more happiness right now?” Partly, it’s the result of the scientific approach to life, which tells us that if we do X and Y, we’ll get a definite result. People feel empowered to take their happiness into their own hands. And they scoff at the idea of an invisible God who’ll punish them for their seemingly innocent enjoyments.
The current attitude is that life is meaningless, and that we are the product of a series of biological mutations. And if the material world is all that exists, and we think we can fulfill our desires and get away with it, why not try?
We see people everywhere indulging their moods, their appetites, and their basest emotions, and trying to get away with it. In the popular imagination, our first priority should be to stand up for ourselves, satisfy our desires, and “look out for Number One.”
If you thing that being dishonest will get you what you want, and you think you can get away with it – fine, go ahead! What difference will it make? You certainly won’t be damned to hell by an imaginary God.
In fact, it’s not a bad thing that we’ve turned away from the old belief in hellfire and damnation The early American colonists had a dogma that if one member of the congregation transgressed, God would punish the whole community. It was intended to keep the congregation in line. But it had a terrible effect, because it gave ordinary church-going people a license to behave with extreme cruelty toward their brothers and sisters.
They feared for their own salvation, and the salvation of their loved ones. They were terrified that their children would be damned for the sins of their neighbors. So they sought to correct the sin by punishing the wrongdoers in horrible ways – hanging them, drowning them as witches, and so on. It was a terrible teaching, and, thank heaven, it has mostly died out.
But despite the spread of a more inquiring and humane, scientific spirit, we still find people clinging to completely insane dogmas and justifying their narrowness and cruelty in the name of God. And it’s all because they’ve become completely separated from the original teachings of the religion they claim to be following.
Lacking any inward, personal experience of God’s love, they have only their perverted imagination to guide them. But fear and fanaticism can never satisfy the soul’s longing for happiness.
In his explanation of Yogananda’s Gita commentaries, Swamiji makes another fundamentally important, but very simple statement.
He talks about Christ’s saying that if we want to be happy, it isn’t enough simply to be good. As Jesus says, “Do not even the tax collectors behave this way?”
Even the worst materialists take care of their own. But God is asking us to become perfect. And this is why Krishna tells us that very few of us will find God in this lifetime.
A natural reaction is to throw up our hands. “If my chances are practically nonexistent, why should I even try? Why not eat, drink, and be merry? Why try to know God, if I’m doomed to fail?”
The answer is that the divine laws are inflexible. God didn’t create them to punish us, or to help us satisfy our desires, but to give us what we truly want – an experience of permanent, lasting happiness and freedom.
The secret of happiness is to understand the divine law and follow it scientifically, knowing that it will take us, step by step, ever more into God’s perfect joy.
Boiled down to its essence, this is the teaching of Self-Realization. And whereas for centuries the church posed as an intermediary between us and God, telling us that we had to accept its rules and dogmas if we wanted to be saved, Yogananda put the responsibility for our spiritual salvation squarely back in our own hands.
Instead of keeping the teachings secret, with arcane formulas and elaborate rituals, he brought us the simple techniques of Kriya Yoga. He wanted to tell people how they could work with their own energy, in cooperation with God’s grace, to become free. Because it isn’t the effort of the church on our behalf that saves us, but our own wisdom, born of our direct experience.
Swamiji gave Yogananda’s book the new title God Is For Everyone to declare the good news that there are definite laws that anyone can follow to know God directly and find true and lasting happiness in this life.
God Is For Everyone is a radical departure from the old idea that we can only find salvation when we die, and only by following a set of narrowly defined rules.
Yogananda taught that God has given us the freedom to live as we choose, but when we break the laws of our own nature, we have to suffer the consequences.
When I was eighteen and starting out on the path, I read a series of books on Hatha Yoga by Ramacharaka, an Indian yogi who wanted to help people live a healthier life. I remember a chapter where he painted a gruesome picture of what happens in the body when we don’t drink enough water. It put such a fear in me that even today, I’m conscientious about drinking all the water I can. I believe it’s a reason why I’ve been healthy for so many years – by following a simple law of God.
It isn’t that God is pleased when we drink water, but that He has set up a system that works in a certain way. The divine law is that when we don’t drink enough fluids, or if we’re selfish, or if we give in to our anger, or if we insist on our own version of reality, we suffer.
Our personal theories about life don’t matter. Contrary to the insane modern notion that life is meaninglessness and we can do whatever we want, we can never get away with violating the divine laws.
Those laws aren’t always easy to follow, because a large part of our nature is hidden to us. We lose sight of the actions of past lives that have made us the way we are. But we must live with the consequences. And from one life to the next, we find ourselves acting in perfect consistency with the thoughts and feelings we’ve cultivated in the past.
Every iota of energy that we’ve ever expressed is recorded in subtle centers of consciousness in the spine. These spinal centers, or chakras, represent a spectrum of awareness from a total commitment to matter as the only reality, to a complete realization that everything, including ourselves, is part of the Spirit of God.
Our every thought and action affirms a reality that is stored in the inner spine. In our journey to freedom, we must deal with these facets of our nature, and they often prevent us from walking in a straight line toward God.
The spiritual path isn’t a matter of following rules, imagining that if we perform the right actions God will smile on us and grant us spiritual progress. Before we can experience a real and lasting increase of inner freedom, we must transform our consciousness by learning permanent lessons from our own experiences.
When I was eighteen, I was starting out on the path together with a friend, and we would share what we learned. We were completely green, and we had no teacher, so we learned from books, and whenever we’d get a fragment of information, we would try to work it out with our clever American minds.
For example, we read that our consciousness at the moment of death determines whether we’ll go to a high or low astral plane, and what our next life will be like. My friend got the inspiration to make a tape of himself chanting AUM, which he would play through headphones at the moment of his death, so that he would go to a good astral world.
It wasn’t a bad idea. In fact, Paramhansa Yogananda recommended that when someone dies, we should chant AUM softly in their right ear.
When you’re with someone in their final hours, it’s beautiful to play the recording where Swami Kriyananda chants AUM, because it has a wonderfully reassuring vibration, and the dying person can benefit from attuning his or her consciousness to it.
But this man thought that he could cheat his karma. But it was a reflection of the old idea: “If I follow the outward rules, maybe I can be a little bit bad and get away with it.”
Swamiji said that the problem with promising people that they’ll be rewarded after death is that they’ll begin to wonder, “Why bother?”
The church resolved the issue by telling us exactly how bad we can be, and how we can mitigate the results by confession, by performing penances, donating money, and so on.
But the divine reality is uncompromising. The way we behave in this life is, to a great extent, due to the instinctive reactions we’ve created in the past. And no amount of external formulas and rituals can change it.
I was driving on the freeway, years ago, when someone made a dangerous move, and I thought my car would crash. And whereas I’m always affirming that I’m one with the Infinite Spirit, and that this life is an illusion, in that moment I let out a loud yelp.
And then I asked myself, “What are you afraid of?” Because deep in our chakras, we’re vibrating with the thought, “I am this body.” And if the body is threatened, the consciousness we’ve been creating for many lives takes hold and makes us afraid that the body might be injured or lost.
In Autobiography of a Yogi, Yogananda tells the story of a sage who was walking by a river near Rishikesh in the Himalayas. A policeman saw the yogi strolling along and decided that he resembled a murderer they were looking for. He figured the criminal must have dressed as a sadhu to avoid capture.
The policeman shouted, “Stop in the name of the law!” But the sadhu kept serenely walking. So the policeman took his sword and attacked the saint, severing his arm. The yogi didn’t even flinch at having his arm cut off, but calmly stopped and picked it up and re-attached it. Then he said to the policeman, “I am not the criminal you are seeking.”
He was completely aware of what was happening to his body, but there wasn’t the slightest hint of identification with it: “I am this body, and what happens to it affects me.” He was no more affected by having his arm cut off than if the policeman had lopped a branch off a tree.
When we’re one with God, and aware that we exist in every speck of creation, we will know that we are no more identified with this single body than a tree branch.
But the reality that we must live with is that we’ve separated out this particular body from the whole, as if it’s something special, and we’ve identified ourselves with the body, so that what happens to it matters a great deal to us.
This is why people do selfish things. And it’s why the saints sometimes undertake great austerities. They’ll refuse to feed the body, or they won’t give it water. They’ll meditate all night, immersed to their necks in freezing Himalayan streams. Or they’ll meditate all day under the blazing desert sun. They’ll refuse to coddle the body in the ways we feel are essential to our well-being.
The saints hold the thought with total consistency: “Why should I be concerned with something that is temporary, and that isn’t me?”
Yogananda taught us to be balanced in our attitude toward the body. Still, he said, “Don’t coddle your children too much. Don’t always put a sweater on them when they’re cold. Don’t always feed them when they’re hungry.”
When I quoted this in a talk, I got a great deal of flack from some people in the audience. Believe me, Master was not counseling child abuse! He was saying, “Train your children to be a little stoic. Train yourself to be a little stoic. Not for the sake of suffering, but for the sake of always affirming, ‘I am not limited by any conditions, least of all by the condition of my body. I am one with the Infinite Spirit. My Father and I are one.’” It’s a wonderful practice.
Our lives are comfortable in America, and ascetic extremes aren’t really our way. Master lived comfortably, compared to St. Francis, who went barefoot in the snow and lived without any heating.
We visited several of the places where Francis would spend the freezing Italian winter, and believe me, it was painfully cold, even for a brief visit. It’s hard to imagine how they could go about barefoot in those conditions, without warm clothing. But that was his way. And Francis said that the extremes of renunciation are only for people who are spiritually prepared for them.
Our way is slightly different, but don’t think, therefore, that you can be like the tax collectors, and get away with following the outward forms while ignoring the inner laws of the path.
Many thousands of sincere devotees won’t make it all the way to cosmic consciousness in this lifetime. But they won’t go to hell. It’s not as if God measures our success by how far we’ve come, or that He judges us harshly when we don’t live up to His expectations. The more we have of God, the more we have of His bliss and freedom. And the more we have of ego, the more we suffer. It’s simply the divine law.
It’s not as if anyone will come with us in our suffering. We’re completely alone with our karma. And how many times in an ordinary day does some painful thought cross our mind – some small regret, some sadness, some grief, some petty concern for ourselves – “Oh, but what about me?”
And then imagine how much freedom and happiness you would enjoy if you were so constantly aware of God that no slightest shadow of sadness could touch you.
There isn’t a moment in our life that is outside the will of God, and there is no aspect of creation that is vibrating with anything but perfect Spirit.
The ego draws our attention into a tiny corner of the whole, which it tries to fill with agitation and self-concern based on our identification with the body and matter. And the whole of spiritual practice is a steady, inward movement to shed the little, whining ego’s self-definitions so that we can assume our rightful existence as children of God.
The ego can’t do it alone. It’s not as if the ego can talk itself out of being an ego. Our transformation will come by grace, as we attune ourselves to God ever more deeply through meditation, prayer, and service. In this way, we can grow into oneness with His reality, which extends infinitely beyond the ego’s little realm.
The rightful role of the ego is to align itself ever more fully with the power of Spirit. Unlike the tax collectors, who conform in order to look good, we can make real spiritual progress by supplementing our ordinary human instruments of body and mind with the instruments of soul and heart and spirit, so that we can be divinely guided by God. The practices that bring us joy and freedom are Kriya Yoga, discipleship, attunement, service, and deep receptivity.
Christ gave us a wonderful saying, which we affirm during our service on Sunday morning in the Festival of Light: “As many as received him, to them gave He the power to become the sons of God.”
What does this mean? It means that the ego must step aside, as we surrender the little self-identity which keeps us bound into the greater awareness of our eternal oneness with the Lord, by devotion and yoga practice.
Master’s greatest wish was to inspire us to learn and practice the techniques that will set us free, because they work in harmony with the divine law.
Just as God imposed the ego on us, He gives us the mystic keys of awakening. And abundant now is our hope, that by the divine law by which our soul became identified with the body, we can now free ourselves from that identification and become perfect – as Christ said, “even as our Father in Heaven is perfect.”
Out of a thousand, one seeks God, the Gita says. We are fortunate to be among those happy few. Let us move into the “higher percentage” that Master spoke of, who will be successful in their search. Those whose feet become firmly planted on the path, whose hearts become firmly anchored in God, who become committed with mind, soul, heart, and strength, are devoted to God’s ways for one reason only: to become one with His bliss.
(From Asha’s talk at Sunday service on April 30, 2006.)