“Who Do You Think I Am?” How Should We Answer Christ’s Question?

There’s a mystical tradition that the body of a Self-realized master casts no shadow.

In fact, Swami Kriyananda once asked Paramhansa Yogananda if his fully liberated guru, Sri Yukteswar, cast a shadow.

Swamiji said that Yogananda answered rather impatiently, “I never noticed.”

As if to say, “Don’t waste your time on such trivial things.”

Christ between Saints Peter and Paul, Pietro Lorenzetti c. 1320.
Christ between Saints Peter and Paul, Pietro Lorenzetti c. 1320.

Whether a master’s body literally casts no shadow, surely the old tradition is meant to symbolize that a God-realized master is a channel for a light that no worldly light can outshine.

The Bible tells us that Jesus asked his disciple Peter, “Who do you think I am?”

The common interpretation is that Jesus was testing his disciple to see if he recognized him as the Christ. But Paramhansa Yogananda said that the question held a deeper meaning.

Jesus wanted Peter to tell him, in perfect frankness, how much of the light of Christ consciousness he could actually perceive in him.

The disciples saw Jesus walking and talking among them. They saw him doing all the things that ordinary people do – eating, laughing, sleeping, talking. They saw Jesus’ physical body that looked like theirs and seemed to have its own separate existence, apart from his spirit.

Jesus was challenging Peter to look past his outward form and recognize that it was God Himself standing before him. At the same time, he wanted Peter to be perfectly honest in his reply.

The disciples who lived with Paramhansa Yogananda reported that it could be confusing to live with him.

Swamiji said, “He was entirely indifferent to the effects he had.” Meaning, he wouldn’t dream of striking a pose to win people’s approval, and he wasn’t ruled by the customs of the day.

It wasn’t that he was unaware of the world around him, but he was merged in God, and he did only as God guided him. And he didn’t care in the least about the world’s reactions.

In The New Path, Swami Kriyananda describes a powerful talk that Paramhansa Yogananda gave, during which God used him to send a message about the need to create spiritual communities.

The talk took place at a garden party in Beverly Hills. It was the most unlikely venue you could imagine to deliver a message of such world-shaking importance.

Paramhansa Yogananda sends his blessings “into the ether, in the spirit of God” for the creation of spiritual communities such as Ananda.
Paramhansa Yogananda speaks at the Beverly Hill garden party referred to in the text. The photo has been artistically altered with the background replaced. The Master sends his blessings “into the ether, in the spirit of God” for the creation of spiritual communities. Click to enlarge.

When I was in Los Angeles recently, Ram, one of the devotees at the Ananda center, found the address of the home where Yogananda gave the talk, and we jumped in the car and drove over to see it. We found a huge, gorgeous estate in one of the most exclusive neighborhoods of Beverly Hills.

Many public figures were present at the party, including quite a few Hollywood celebrities. And you might think that Yogananda, recognizing that these people were hardly ideal candidates to go out and start spiritual communities, would tone down his speech. But it simply didn’t cross his mind.

This was the moment that God had chosen to send a message that would change the course of civilization. And without the slightest attempt to hedge its power, he spoke in thundering tones of how he was “registering his thoughts in the ether, in the spirit of God,” and how they would “move the West.” He talked about the need for thousands of youths to go north, south, east, and west to make the communities movement a reality, and populate the world with examples of plain living and high thinking.

Swamiji gave us many examples of how Yogananda would speak as God’s power directed him, regardless of his surroundings.

During the Depression, he attended a banquet where a large number of wealthy and influential people were present. And because he was a well-known speaker, the hostess insisted that he address them.

Master said, “You don’t really want me to speak. It will be better if I don’t.”

“Oh, yes! You’re the guest of honor. You must speak.”

She kept insisting, and finally he stood up and excoriated the people for their wasted lives.

He said, “You’re supposed to be the leaders of society, and all you do is get drunk and chase each others’ wives.” And it was true.

He said, “You’re living selfishly. You’re living off of people’s suffering, and God is not pleased.”

How many of us would have the sheer nerve to speak so frankly to an audience of rich and famous people?

But it wasn’t a question of his nerve. It was simply that in every circumstance he was fully merged in God, and he lived in that separate reality.

Toward the end of Swami Kriyananda’s life, he spoke with tremendous frankness about his relationship with Self-Realization Fellowship.

Ever since his dismissal from SRF in 1962, his relationship with the organization had been, as he called it, “a one-sided divorce.”

SRF had divorced him, but he had never divorced them, even though they treated him with the greatest hostility.

Through all the years after his dismissal, he felt that he had a divine responsibility for Paramhansa Yogananda’s work. And at the end of his life, when we thought he might put the subject aside, he wrote his fiercest and most plainspoken books on the issues. And whenever the opportunity arose, he spoke very strongly.

When Daya Mata died, he said, “They should make me president. No one is more qualified than I.”

I don’t know if it’s possible to convey just how radical a statement it was. It would be like suggesting that Russia or China should make George Bush their president.

Swami Kriyananda in Calcutta, in the attic where Paramhansa Yogananda received a vision of the Divine Mother. Click to enlarge.
Swami Kriyananda in Calcutta, in the attic where Paramhansa Yogananda received a vision of the Divine Mother. Click to enlarge.

To ears finely tuned to worldly proprieties, it was absolutely insane. And naturally, many people tried to say to Swamiji, as if he didn’t know it already, “Excuse me, Sir, but this is a nutty idea. Can you see that this idea is completely nutty?”

The objective answer, from the perspective of a man whose consciousness was entirely offered to God and Guru, would be, “It is not a nutty idea.” It was a point that needed to be made very strongly, because it would have set the right direction for Paramhansa Yogananda’s work, if they would allow it to be guided by someone who would move it away from its present direction of narrow sectarianism.

He was utterly indifferent to his effect, because he was acting with the power of Spirit, and he was seeing a reality that spanned the generations. He recognized a direction in SRF that needed to be corrected, and correcting that direction was the mission that Paramhansa Yogananda had given him to do.

Now, we cannot act with that kind of power unless we’re one with God. That’s the bottom line. And Jesus wanted to train his disciples to merge their consciousness with his, so that they could spread his message.

He challenged them, “Who do you think I am?” And the disciples had to ask themselves, with utmost sincerity, “Who, indeed, DO I think he is? Am I attracted by his magnetism, his humor, and his other human qualities? Or am I dedicated to him as the living God who rules over all creation?

The people who compiled the Bible, and who changed it over the centuries, allowed no mention of Christ’s humor, or his ability to relate to people with joy. Yet it must have been his way, because the masters are unfailingly joyful and kind. Otherwise, why would we follow them?

Jesus had to be a man of great joy and courage. What he offered people had to be inspiring and exciting to them – it had to touch their hearts. Surely, they could feel the light that emanated from him, elevating their consciousness and filling them with hope and happiness.

And then he had to prepare his closest disciples to remain strong in their faith.

“Who do you think I am?”

Which is to say, “Why are you following me? How deeply do you understand what I am, and what it is that you are truly following?”

This is a question we would do well to ask ourselves daily. Why am I following this path and these masters? To strive in this way to deepen our understanding is a very good preparation for the day when our faith may be challenged.

St. Francis and his closest disciple, Brother Leo, were walking in the bitter cold and snow, in their simple robes and sandals, struggling to return to their monastery.

Francis turned to Leo and said, “What is the nature of true joy?”

Francis answered his own question. “Brother Leo, if in this terrible snowstorm we would arrive at our monastery, and we would knock on the door and our brother monks would say, ‘Who are you? You can’t come in!’ And if they would throw us out into the snow and heap abuse on our heads – that is perfect joy!”

If we can maintain our devotion in the most difficult circumstances, and if we can see the hand of God behind it all – that is true joy.

Is it easy? The question answers itself – it’s a tremendous challenge. Yet we know from the example of the saints that it is possible. And it is, in fact, the solution to all our problems, including our most difficult tests.

We can begin with the simple premise – and it’s an annoying premise, let’s admit it frankly – that our karma is always fair.

I find this truth extremely annoying. Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time looking for a loophole, but I have yet to find one. And I’ve found no spiritual authority that supports the notion that we can escape our karma, or that it isn’t completely fair.

Does God sometimes make a mistake and punish us unfairly? No. The energy of our past actions is stored in the subtle centers of our spine, where it sends out signals to the cosmos that draw to us exactly the right experiences.

And, while it’s true that the guru in his compassion will sometimes step between us and our karma, we may as well recognize that our tests are a rare and precious proof of God’s love.

Instead of easing our burden, the guru may heap an even greater load on our shoulders, to help us come more quickly to God.

You’ve settled into your comfortable life, and the guru comes along and strips away your comforts to show you an inner reality where divine joy is unceasing.

Swami Kriyananda said that when we understand our tests in the right way, we know that they aren’t tests at all. They are given to show us our limitations, so that we can overcome them and be free.

How many of us are diligently purging our karma, by setting our desires aflame and burning them away? We don’t even know what karma is lurking in our spine.

In my early years at Ananda Village, I had a tempestuous relationship with a close friend. We were always hurting each other’s feelings, and we were very, very good at it.

There came a time when our circumstances drew us apart, and I began to feel that it was because God saw that we had healed our differences.

When our lives brought us together again, I cheerfully and bravely, like an idiot, felt that it would be no problem. And within thirty minutes I found myself growling at her inwardly again.

I was so depressed. “Does our karma never end? Will I never learn anything?”

I was deeply unhappy, and with tears streaming down my face I lamented my situation to Swamiji.

He responded matter-of-factly. “You thought you were free, and you weren’t. So you weren’t putting out any energy to get better.

“Well, now you know.”

This is why our tests come. They tell us, “This is a weakness I didn’t even realize was there. God is showing me how I can become strong and happy.”

The people who write computer programs will invite beta testers to poke holes in them, so that they can improve the product before they send it to market.

Our lives may sometimes seem perfectly ordinary and humdrum, yet we need to understand that what we’re doing is very important. And if we haven’t yet perfected our nature, that’s perfectly all right with God.

We are the test model, you might say. We are the beta version – we’re version oh-point-one. And when we discover that our program isn’t perfect, we’re terribly embarrassed and discouraged and disheartened and unhappy.

The Buddha as an ascetic. Renunciation of worldly desires enables us to discover the paradise within. Click to enlarge.
The Buddha as the ascetic Shakyamuni. Renunciation of worldly desires enables the saints to discover the supreme paradise within. Click to enlarge.

But the masters see our weaknesses very differently, and it’s extremely important to understand our imperfections in the right way.

It’s not as if the masters are mocking us, merrily telling us that we should be ashamed and discouraged because we’re riddled with faults and we can’t possibly live up to God’s high expectations.

The masters tell us that our present reality is exactly where God has placed us and where He wants us to be. And before we can travel any farther down the road, we need to work out the glitches that keep breaking us down by the roadside.

No judgment is implied, and no amount of despair or bitterness about our situation will fix us and set us on our way. Nor does it help to blame others for our failures. “Those creeps – they made me fail. How can I get back at them? What a victim I am!”

You may, in fact, be a victim, because people have their own karma, and they may be working it out on you. But it won’t advance you a single step on the path if you stop in your tracks and spend all your time blaming them.

Swamiji made a beautiful comment. He said, “Bliss is consciousness, fully aware.”

Consciousness is what we ultimately are. It’s what everything on the planet is. And there is nothing that exists except consciousness.

Someone asked me, “What is the definition of consciousness?”

We often use the word “consciousness” as a synonym for our attitudes, our feelings, and our way of moving through life. But Lakshman, Swami Kriyananda’s secretary, told me that when someone asked Swamiji the definition of consciousness, he said that it cannot be defined, because all definitions have to be related to something else. And consciousness is fundamental.

What is a giant? He’s a large person. So we’re measuring him against a normal person, and we have to know what a normal person looks like. What is a lemon? It’s smaller than an orange and more sour.

But there’s nothing that you can compare consciousness to, because it simply is.

Paramhansa Yogananda defined the highest consciousness as satchitananda, which he translated as “ever existing, ever conscious, ever new bliss.”

That’s the ultimate foundation of reality, and each of us will someday merge back into that fundamental state. And when we become fully aware, we will realize that only that bliss exists, and that we are an expression of God’s bliss.

In his poem Samadhi, Paramhansa Yogananda wrote: “A tiny bubble of laughter, I have become the sea of mirth itself!”

Again, he wrote, “Myself in everything enters the great Myself.”

And, “From joy I came, for joy I live, in perfect joy I melt.”

These beautiful phrases tell us that God’s blissful consciousness is all we ever are. And if we aren’t aware of that bliss, it’s only because something is impeding that consciousness in us.

It’s easy to talk about bliss, but it’s not so easy to realize it. We aren’t aware of that perfect bliss because of the millions of lives we’ve spent distracting ourselves. And when we finally reach a point where we begin to yearn for that blissful consciousness, God gives us the roadmap.

“What is this wonderful thing that I’m missing? I want to look deeper. I want to seek truth with all sincerity. I want to persevere with all my energy, so that I will make progress. I want to persevere to the end and not quit.”

There was a time when I was having a great deal of difficulty knowing God’s will. I was very confused and distraught about it, and I asked Swamiji, “How do you know God’s will?”

Swami said, “Oh, it’s easy to know God’s will.”

My initial thought was that he seemed to always know God’s will, and it appeared to be easy for him, but it wasn’t so easy for me!

But then I realized, “It’s difficult for me because I don’t want to know God’s will, and because I have my own ideas that I’m infatuated with.”

I entered the path of Self-realization, to a large extent, because I had stumbled on the idea that everything in creation, including my own life, was consciousness. And I realized that if everything was consciousness, my response in every circumstance could be completely under my control.

Think of the power it would give you over your happiness, if you could be fully in control of your reactions. It’s a defining power of the great masters. And our fears are all due to our lack of control over our reactions.

I once asked Swamiji, “How can you tell when a karma is over?”

He said, “When you’re not afraid of it anymore – when it can’t conjure any fear in you.”

Now, there’s a long list of things that most people are afraid of. My personal list is a long one, and it includes many of the things it’s possible to fear. And until we’re in the state of perfect oneness with God’s bliss, there will always be some fear or another that’s pushing us to be resolved.

We’re afraid of the sadness that we’ll experience over a great loss. We’re afraid of how our circumstances may change. We’re afraid of the energy that’s required to know God. We’re afraid of the shame of having our weaknesses exposed.

There’s a vast number of things it’s possible to be afraid of. And it isn’t as if you can just snap your fingers and dismiss them.

The solution is to answer the question that Jesus asked Peter, “Who do you think I am?”

Who do I think the Christ is? Who do I think the great masters are?

Our single greatest need is to answer this question. And the answer isn’t something our inquiring minds can arrive at. We can only answer from our own direct experience.

I find there’s a tremendous difference between my experience of life when I’m feeling directionless, wandering without any idea how I got here and where I’m going – and when I realize that I hold the map in my hands.

I’ve been profoundly blessed to traverse a certain distance on this path, but the first and greatest blessing was to be handed the roadmap.

Elsewhere, I’ve related how Swamiji once asked a woman to look at a manuscript he was writing, because she had a certain expertise in the field he was writing about.

Jesus washes the feet of his disciple Peter.
Jesus washes the feet of his disciple Peter. Click to enlarge.

But then she began to call me every night with an endless series of incredibly petty objections. They were maddening conversations about completely trivial, imaginary issues with the manuscript.

This went on for several nights, and then I said, “What are we really talking about?” And she blurted out, “If he’s not wrong, I’m going to have to listen to him!”

She was attacking the manuscript, hoping to prove, “I know more than he does,” so that she wouldn’t have to humble herself and find the openness to pay attention and follow.

“If he isn’t wrong, I’ll have to listen to him.” And she wasn’t talking about the flaws in the manuscript.

If I’m offered an opportunity to live in the presence of Christ, and if I have a God-realized master to guide me, and I’m living in a community and a Sangha of like-minded seekers, with a temple where God is actually speaking to me in meditation and through the people around me – will I have the courage to accept this tremendous opportunity and humble myself to receive it?

Jesus’ question to Peter wasn’t about who Jesus was. God was asking Peter through Jesus, “Have you overcome your pride and blindness enough to open your heart and see who I am and receive My reality?” And when Peter replied correctly, saying, “Thou art the Christ,” Jesus said, “Now we can start to build.”

When Jesus recognized that Peter understood who he was, he was reassured that Peter would be safe, even though he hadn’t yet completed the journey.

In our lives, the moment when we become receptive and courageously determined is when the divine consciousness can begin to grow in us.

The more we open ourselves to receive the Light, the more the Light can change us. And the simple question that God is always asking us is, “Are you ready to receive My perfect Light?”

God bless you.

(From Asha’s talk at Sunday service on March 15, 2015.)


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