Paramhansa Yogananda’s Message of Religious Unity

Who knows, then, where we stand; whether in the morning or the evening of our lives? The search for God as an actual experience becomes urgent, when the satisfactions of the material world reveal themselves for what they are — empty, and unable to satisfy our souls. (Image: Diana Undulna, Wikimedia Commons)
Who knows, then, where we stand; whether in the morning or the evening of our lives? The search for God as an actual experience becomes urgent when the satisfactions of the material world reveal themselves for what they are — empty and unable to satisfy the longing of our souls. (Image: Diana Undulna, Wikimedia Commons)

In the introduction to his book of inspired poems, Whispers from Eternity, Paramhansa Yogananda urges his readers to look past the words and feel the consciousness behind them.

Whenever I read those instructions, I’m reminded of the unfolding drama of Swami Kriyananda’s life, and how it would sometimes take us years to understand the inner, spiritual meaning of his actions.

For example, in 1989 Swamiji proposed that we build a new temple at Ananda Village.

The building that we were using as a temple at the time was built as a classroom for the Expanding Light retreat. Swamiji felt that it was time we had a “real” temple that would serve as a spiritual center for the community.

Some practical-minded people objected, “Our greatest need at present is for more housing.”

Seeing that the plan wasn’t feasible, Swamiji modified it, suggesting that we build a small “Chapel of Divine Inspiration” instead.

He reached in his pocket and pulled out a photo of a drawing that he had made in 1961, for a temple that he wanted to build in New Delhi.

Partly to win the support of the Indian government, which controlled the use of the land, he presented it as a “shrine of all religions.”

He knew that it would be more acceptable to the government if it was inclusive. And, in fact, the unity of all religions was a central point of Paramhansa Yogananda’s mission.

Soon after he proposed the construction of the chapel at the Village, he wrote an article on the need to put religion on a unified footing, to break down the foolish sectarianism that is giving religion such a bad name today.

In the fall of that year, we invited Yogananda’s nephew, Hare Krishna Ghosh, and Lahiri Mahasaya’s grandson, Shibendu Lahiri, to come to America.

Swamiji honored the Indian guests by calling the week-long celebration of their visit “A Pilgrimage to Joy.”

One morning, several hundred of us walked with Hare Krishna and Swamiji to the site of the proposed chapel to dedicate the grounds.

Swami Kriyananda dedicates the site of the Chapel of Divine Inspiration, Ananda Village 1989.
Swami Kriyananda dedicates the site of the Chapel of Divine Inspiration, Ananda Village 1989.

For a number of reasons, the chapel was never built – it was one of many projects over the years at Ananda that had to be postponed or abandoned, owing to the pressing needs of the moment.

Now, what Swami actually did in the dedication ceremony was very different from what it appeared on the surface. Quite apart from any plans for building a physical chapel, he was dedicating the retreat area to the unity of all religions.

In the article I mentioned earlier, Swamiji pointed out that people of all faiths have their own approaches to God. And, while it’s essential that we be loyal to our own path, we can recognize that all paths lead to the same goal. And this is the understanding that’s needed in religion today.

In the article, he noted that Yogananda called his Hollywood temple a “Church of All Religions.”

(L-R) Vidura, Harekrishna Ghosh, Durga, Swamiji, Anjali Ghosh, Shibendu Lahiri
(L-R) Vidura, Harekrishna Ghosh, Durga, Swamiji, Anjali Ghosh, Shibendu Lahiri

When people speak of “the unity of all religions,” usually what they’re visualizing is that we’ll all get together, and the Lutherans will do their thing, and the Native Americans will do theirs, and the Hindus will chant, and we’ll end up with a kind of mishmash of all religions.

But Yogananda intended something very different, and much more profound. He didn’t believe that people should compromise their paths by watering them down for the sake of an outward, superficial kind of unity.

He taught that Kriya Yoga is the “airplane route to God.” And he offered Kriya to people of all faiths, as a universal, nonsectarian, scientific method by which they could experience God for themselves.

At the same time, whenever he spoke to his disciples, he preached one-pointed dedication to their own line of masters.

When Yogananda built the Hollywood church, he installed two pulpits – one was to be used by the SRF minister, and the other would be for guest ministers to speak.

It was almost never used that way, but he went to the trouble of installing two pulpits, and a master never acts without God’s inspiration.

Similarly, even though the chapel at Ananda Village was never built, the construction of a physical temple was the least meaningful part of the project.

Although the chapel never took a physical form, God infused the land with an enduring blessing, so that people could come there and experience the inner oneness of all faiths as an actual experience in meditation.

There is an unbreachable gulf between those watered-down ecumenical get-togethers, and the inner knowing, born of meditation, that the same one Spirit is the source of all religious truth.

Yogananda called his first book The Science of Religion. And as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, in the last years of his life Swami Kriyananda rewrote it and published it as God Is for Everyone. The first version was written at Yogananda’s request by Swami Dhirananda, a disciple who was very proud of his intellect, a defect that prevented him from conveying his Guru’s inspiration.

Dhirananda ended up betraying Yogananda, publicly denouncing him and even suing him in the law courts. Yet some people have claimed that because Yogananda was a master, he was able to inspire Dhirananda to write the book as he intended.

But this isn’t how a master works. A master will never impose his will upon a disciple, but will only be able to give them his inspiration to the extent that they are able to receive it. And Dhirananda proved by his dry and rambling exposition that he wasn’t receptive. He was merely a next-best option, as the only disciple of Yogananda’s in Bengal in 1920 who could speak and write English well.

As a result, that first book had little of Yogananda’s magnetism and inspiration. Yet the idea of helping people make their religion experiential and scientific was central to his mission on earth. It was the single most important reason God sent him to the West: to help people understand, by their own direct experience in meditation, that all paths lead to the same goal.

When we try to be outwardly eclectic, holding what amounts to little more than an old-fashioned camp meeting, we become sentimental. “Oh, how wonderful! You’ll do your thing and I’ll do mine, and we’ll honor each other in spite of our differences.”

With all due respect, on the rare occasions when I’ve been involved in such efforts, I’ve found that they lacked any power to transform people’s consciousness.

Before we can perceive the one Divinity behind all religions, we must open ourselves to the enlightening spiritual power of an instrument of God. And, as Yogananda taught, this is something we can only do by following one path very deeply.

Naturally, we don’t want to condemn those ecumenical efforts, because who would want to be against them?

But the truth is that the separation between the religions is an illusion, and no amount of sectarian squabbling or mind-born ecumenism will give us the actual experience of their oneness.

The sea on which all seekers travel is the same; the paths, many, but with one destination. (Wikimedia Commons)
The sea on which all seekers travel is the same, the paths many but with a single destination. (Wikimedia Commons)

The message that Yogananda gave to the world isn’t one that all people are ready for. Some believers simply aren’t capable of understanding an inward teaching – they may still need the comforting certainties of a fundamentalist faith. Yogananda’s message is for those who “have ears to hear,” and who can never be satisfied with anything less than the actual experience of God.

It may take millennia for the world to wake up and understand that all religions are expressions of the same Truth. But Yogananda predicted that Self-realization will one day be the religion of the world, and that everyone will be a Self-realizationist.

Today, the world has barely emerged from an age in which people were wholly focused on external forms. It was an age when people could only understood reality in outward terms, as solid physical shapes and rigid, fixed ideas. Today, we’ve emerged into a more expansive and flexible age of energy-awareness.

In the centuries when people were bound by matter-consciousness, they worshiped God through outward forms and rituals. In the age of materialism, each church had its own set of fixed dogmas that appeared to be different and incompatible with the others; and people were focused on the differences as defining their identity.

The narrow beliefs that most people hold about religion today have been handed down from the age of matter-awareness.

Those who cling to the old religious forms are incapable of understanding a more flowing and unifying, energy-based reality. At best, they can only envision the churches standing side by side and tolerating, or at best respecting each other.

For people of expanded vision, the outward efforts toward ecumenism seem unsettlingly false, incomplete and unsatisfying. We sense that they are a step in the right direction, but they aren’t based on an actual experience. They demand blind belief, rather than a willingness to investigate religious claims scientifically and objectively.

If, as Yogananda predicted, all religions will eventually be based on Self-realization, what will become of the separate faiths? Will Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity merge into a single religion?

Human nature is incredibly diverse. People have very different temperaments that require them to take different paths to the same understanding. Thus there will always be a need for separate approaches to God. But in time we will understand that Self-realization is our common goal.

BenedictineVespers-300x225When I ride my bicycle to the Sangha on Saturday to teach classes, I pass Jewish families walking to their temple. Their conservative tradition prohibits them from using machines or doing any work on the Sabbath, so they walk to the temple instead of driving, and the women don’t carry purses. The men are dressed in black suits and black hats, and the women are dressed nicely but conservatively.

I’m riding my bicycle to Ananda, and they’re walking to their synagogue. And it gives me such a joyful feeling as I ride by, because I’m inspired that we’re all doing something spiritual on this day.

It makes me think that this is what a higher age will be like. The Jews will be going to their temple, the Muslims and Hindus will be going to theirs, and we’ll be going to ours, and there will be a fellow feeling, and a wonderful spirit that we’re all doing the same thing, in our own way.

Praying_Stone_of_Anointing-682x1024In a higher age, the differences will be no more than a paper-thin veil over the great swell of Spirit that is always coming from God and that is eternally and everywhere the same.

Recently, I read a thick book called The Making of the Atom Bomb. I carried it through several European airports, and my friends suggested that maybe I should keep it in my bag, because the title looked like a manual for making an atom bomb.

It’s a history book, and I can’t pretend to understand the science, but I found it interesting nonetheless.

Later, I picked up a book in Swami’s house called The Biography of the Equation E=MC2. It’s a charming little volume, and for a novice like myself, it explains the problems the scientists faced in working with the atom, and how splitting the atom enabled them to build the atom bomb.

The point is, I’ve been immersed to an uncommon degree in science and the lives of scientists recently, and it’s helped me appreciate how the scientists work.

They go to the laboratory and perform an experiment, and they get a result and publish a paper about it. Then someone reads the paper and does another experiment and publishes it, and they argue back and forth. And if it can be proven true, it becomes an accepted fact that all the scientists have to factor into their experiments henceforward.

claude-renault800px-Madurai_Meenakshi_temple_prayerThe spiritual lesson is that science never invents anything. The scientists simply perform their experiments and discover what’s there. They discover what God or Spirit or a Supreme Intelligence has hidden from our sight.

When Yogananda came to this country and began talking about science and religion in the same breath, people were very surprised, because they had come to accept that science was the antithesis of religion. After all, science was objective and factual, whereas religion was based on unprovable hypotheses that its followers were expected to accept blindly.

The teaching that Yogananda brought was revolutionary at the time, and it’s even more revolutionary today, when people have become so stupefyingly materialistic and completely immersed in a materialistic worldview.

At one point, Swamiji wanted to start a “One Faith Federation.” He wanted to publish a magazine called One Faith, because he felt that the magazines about yoga were too limited in their scope: Yoga Journal, for example, with its exclusive focus on the yoga postures.

750-Tbilisi_synagogue_Hanukkah_-_prayer_01He wanted an outreach that would be much broader. It was an idea that didn’t come to fruition in his life, just as Yogananda wasn’t able to complete his vision of spiritual communities. But Yogananda seeded the communities idea with a divine power that enabled others to fulfill the dream after he was gone. And this is why Swamiji felt it was so terribly important to publish God Is For Everyone, because it completes something that Yogananda wanted to establish as the very foundation of his work, and that was never adequately expressed in his lifetime. So Swamiji restated it in a way that he hoped would gradually capture people’s attention and inspire them. It would inspire them with the hope that they could know God in meditation, and that the same God is guiding the followers of all paths.

Those of us who are Yogananda’s disciples may not feel that we have a major role to play in his work. But it’s extremely important to know that large changes happen by individuals adopting new ideas, one by one.

I was present at the birth of the health food movement. At the time, those of us who were trying to eat more healthily were widely mocked – no one in the mainstream understood what we were doing. But because one of us started making granola, and somebody made health cookies, and we shared them with our friends, and they liked it, the whole world has changed.

The point is that change rises up through consciousness. It doesn’t come down from above, by somebody making a law; it rises from the grass roots and spreads by changing people’s awareness, one soul at a time.

zen monk meditationPeople are blowing themselves to bits over religion, and it’s a complete travesty. There’s very little that you and I can do about it. But if we can contribute to a groundswell of expanded understanding, and if we can become increasingly clear in our own vision, we will be able to communicate a new consciousness that will have the power to change the world.

We’ll change the world by changing ourselves, and by embracing the revolutionary principles and practices of Self-realization and religious unity.

A tremendous part of Paramhansa Yogananda’s mission was to show that the Bible and the Bhagavad Gita are identical in their inner meaning. Now, you may wonder why he chose those two particular scriptures. Swamiji said it’s because they represent all of the world’s religions.

In those two scriptures, we find everything that all true paths have taught. Jesus’ teachings are an extension of Judaism, and Buddhism is an offshoot of Sanaatan Dharma – the “Eternal Religion” which the British called Hinduism.

Thus we have four great religions tied together at their roots; and Islam is based on parts of the Bible. So you’re sweeping them all together, and God Is For Everyone shows us the common principles at the foundation of them all.

People justify their narrowness by quoting Christ: “Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” (John 14:6)

His message was simple: know God and you will know that He is everywhere, in all paths.
His message was simple: first experience God in meditation, and then you will know that He is in all paths and everywhere.

They insist that Christ died for our sins, and that we don’t need to work for our salvation. And in support of their beliefs, they’ll quote scriptural passages that have absolutely nothing to do with the understanding that you arrive at when you meditate and have an experience of God. It’s only then that you can truly understand: “No one cometh unto the Father, but by the Christ Consciousness.

In God Is For Everyone, Swamiji spends almost no time responding to the narrow views of rigid fundamentalists. When you find that people are blindly committed to a point of view, you can be sure that they won’t be receptive to anything else. God Is For Everyone is for people who are ready to be open-minded and scientific in their search.

We can never persuade people against their will. And if they cannot conceive that Christ is one of many liberated masters who’ve come as saviors to the world, we aren’t going to be able to convince them otherwise.

Yet it’s important to grasp that these teachings aren’t a matter of opinion or mental gymnastics. They are describing the way things are, as the great redeemers have always declared it, by studying reality objectively and scientifically.

After so many years of living with the concepts of karma and reincarnation, I’m delighted when I realize how these thoughts have become second nature to me. I may harbor rebellious thoughts at times, as we all do, wishing that my karma were different, and so on. But I’ve never believed that my karma could actually be different. And it’s been a great comfort to arrive at this level of understanding, because it gives me a roadmap of reality.

When you’re trying to live by truth, and you’re receptive to a higher guidance, you find that it’s a way of life that simply works. And it works in the most important way of all, because it increases joy and diminishes sorrow.

This is the point of religious unity and Self-realization – that by following the truth, regardless of its particular flavor, the truth will set us free.

(From a class by Asha at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on the book God Is For Everyone, given on August 24, 2004.)

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