What Was Yogananda Really Like?


During his early years in America, Paramhansa Yogananda spent a great deal of time traveling back and forth across the country, lecturing in the major cities.

He would start each lecture by quite literally running out onto the stage with his long hair flowing behind him. He would demand of the audience, “How feels everyone?!” And he would lead them in the response: “Awake and ready!”

In the early days, he took deliberate advantage of his exotic appearance. In his later years, he generally wore a business suit in public, with his hair tucked neatly into the collar. But when he arrived in America, he went everywhere in his swami robes, with his long hair worn loose, and it was an astounding sight.

When Yogananda arrived in this country in 1920, very few Americans were familiar with swamis and yoga. Nobody had the slightest idea what to think of this decidedly odd-looking Indian teacher. And when he talked to them about the science of religion, and the unity of all religions, and God as the Divine Mother, and meditation and Kriya Yoga and karma and reincarnation and the chakras, it was exceedingly strange and new.

Having barely landed on these shores, he immediately began demanding that the Americans change their understanding of their traditional beliefs. And, in fact, very few were prepared to receive his message.

In those days, people didn’t have the wide variety of entertainments available to us today, with television and the movies and the Internet. And the opportunity to attend a lecture by a visiting swami was a highly unusual and exciting diversion.

They came by the thousands, eager to hear what he had to say. And for a time he was the most popular speaker in America.

They came and sat, waiting to be entertained, as if he were just another interesting lecturer. And the first words out of his mouth were a rousing demand that they stand up and shout, “Awake and ready!”

His teachings were meant to break through their old understanding and give them an entirely new revelation of divine truth. It was a radical new message for which nothing in their previous experience could have prepared them. Because he was that rarest and most exotic of all God’s creations: an avatar, an actual descent of God in human form.

He was bursting with the vitality and enthusiasm an power of God. And this is why he would run out onto the stage and demand that they prime themselves to receive what he had to give them.

And, even then, it wasn’t enough for them simply to say, perhaps with a certain mild amusement: “Awake and ready.”

He would insist, “I can’t hear you!! I don’t believe you!! How feels everyone?!”

And to those who were able to summon the energy to meet him at his level, he could give a measure of the divine power that was coursing through him.

Until Swami Kriyananda published two books about Yogananda, The New Path – My Life with Paramhansa Yogananda, and Paramhansa Yogananda: a Biography, there wasn’t a definitive biography, written from the perspective of someone who had known him and had lived and studied closely with him.

Yogananda’s own Autobiography doesn’t reveal him as others knew him. He presents himself as a humble devotee who was fortunate to meet a number of saints in India. And until Swamiji’s books appeared, we didn’t have a very clear idea of what it was like to be in his presence.

He lectured in the biggest American cities and filled the largest halls. Thousands came to hear him, and his name was known everywhere. President Coolidge received him at the White House, in acknowledgment of his stature as a great spiritual ambassador from India.

He took the country by storm. Yet only a handful ever really took him seriously.

It became a fad to go and hear Yogananda talk. On one occasion, while five thousand people were waiting in a great hall to hear him speak, Dr. Lewis, his first disciple in America, exclaimed, “Oh, just think how many will come to the classes afterward!”

Yogananda said, “Five.” And, indeed, five people came, out of five thousand. Because it was one thing to listen to a rousing talk and to experience the energy and excitement of his presence, and then talk about it afterward with your friends. But it was quite another thing to make his teachings part of your life.

yogananda-crowdToday, we have a better idea of who Paramhansa Yogananda was. Yet it’s still a stretch to imagine what it was like to spend time with him. And for those who met him in the years before the Autobiography appeared, it took time to begin to understand what they had in him.

In Durga Mata’s wonderful book, A Paramhansa Yogananda Trllogy of Divine Love, she tells how little they really knew of Master, and how she and the other young disciples had hardly any context for understanding his greatness.

She tells how some visitors from India came to meet Master, and how they bowed before him and touched his feet. And it was the first time the American disciples had witnessed such a thing.

It was how the Indian disciples would relate to the guru, recognizing him as a manifestation of God. But Durga said that they had never imagined such a thing, and they had no tradition to tell them how to behave toward the guru, so they had to learn to relate to him gradually, through their own experience.

Nowadays, thanks to the many books on India’s spiritual teachings, we have a better idea of what a master is. We know that he is born without karma, and that he is inwardly detached from this world, and that he is omnipresent and omniscient with the consciousness of God.

But it’s easy to forget that in the human aspect of his consciousness, Yogananda expressed tremendous enthusiasm and energy and determination and joy.

Even though his consciousness was far removed from this world, and wholly anchored in God, he entered into the human side of his life with complete zeal.

In The New Path, Swamiji reveals how Master could be utterly charming. He tells how, after Master hosted a lunch for some guests at Mt. Washington, he and Swamiji were sitting together at the table, and Master began trying to flip a fork into a water glass. He kept trying and missing, with total concentration and seriousness, and when he finally got the fork to go in, it smashed the glass. And with an expression of great determination and triumph he looked at Swami and said, “But I got it in!”

People sometimes get the wrong idea about what it means to be spiritual. They imagine that they need to put on an appearance of being aloof and above it all. But as the Bhagavad Gita tells us, and as Master demonstrated, you cannot escape from action by refusing to act.

You can’t transcend this world by refusing to engage in it. And when we refuse to give this life our full attention and energy and enthusiasm, it’s hardly ever because we’ve actually transcended the world, but because we’re afraid.

We’re afraid to open our hearts. We’re afraid to risk being rejected. We’re afraid to try to be creative or artistic or successful. So we put up a facade of indifference, pretending that we’re above those petty concerns. And it confirms the old saying that a little philosophy is a dangerous thing.

It’s easy to feel justified in withdrawing our energy and interest from the world, because in fact the scriptures do tell us that a yogi should be non-attached. But what’s generally happening is that instead of expanding our consciousness to a point where we’re more identified with God than with this world, we’ve simply closed our hearts and shrunk ourselves into a self-protective ball.

But that isn’t remotely the example that Master and Swamiji set for us. The masters and their close disciples are people of boundless energy and enthusiasm. And even if their role is to live a deeply inward life, meditating all the time in a Himalayan cave, they are nevertheless offering themselves to the Lord with tremendous energy.

Last week we asked the question: “Why do devotees fall?” We looked at the example of Judas. And we need to understand that Judas was a great soul, and that he was tremendously energetic. Although he made a terrible mistake, he lived his life with great energy, and he was one of Jesus’ closest and most beloved disciples.

Paramhansa Yogananda said that Jesus appeared to Sri Ramakrishna in the nineteenth century and asked him to free his fallen disciple. And in this story we find a key for understanding how we, too, can rise when we’ve fallen: by putting ourselves wholeheartedly behind whatever we’re doing, even if it means that we will occasionally fail.

When I taught beginning meditation classes, I would often spend the last class trying to help people understand how they could stick with their practice. Because the reason meditation most often stops working for us is that we stop giving it enough energy.

And then – what do you know? – it no longer inspires us, so we give it even less energy, and pretty soon we’ve lost all enthusiasm for it.

We need to understand that, as Swamiji often reminded us, the spiritual life is a matter of life and death. This world can never give us the happiness we’re seeking. And with something as delicate and subtle as our spiritual life, we need to feed it by giving it our full attention and energy, if we want to keep it alive.

We started our service this morning by challenging you, “How feels everyone?” And we heartily shouted the answer: “Awake and ready!” And then we said, “And when God asks us to dedicate ourselves to Him ever more perfectly, how will He find us when He comes?” And we shouted, “Awake and ready!”

And – really? Because, you see, what happens when we stop participating with all our energy is that the spiritual life ceases to inspire us, and we wonder why.

We need to be aware that there’s a powerful force that is always trying to pull us back into the ways of the world, and tempting us to let go of our aspirations.

When you begin to get really serious about the path, that’s when the satanic force begins to try to discourage you in endless clever ways.

Your family, and the culture, and television and the movies and the Internet will suggest in countless subtle ways, “Hey, you really don’t have to do this anymore if you want to be happy.”

“Don’t try to be so awake and ready! Just be like everybody else. Come back and join us.”

St. Anthony spent decades meditating in a remote cave in the Egyptian desert. Toward the end of his search, Satan appeared to him in the form of all manner of monsters and demons and tempting apparitions, to try to get him to give up. But Anthony held fast. When Jesus finally appeared to him, Anthony said, “Lord, why didn’t you come?” And Jesus said, “Anthony, I was with you always.”

Now, St. Anthony was a highly advanced soul, and our lives are played out on a more moderate stage. Our tests don’t come in the form of Satan threatening to smash the roof of the cave down upon us.

Our tests are simpler, but no less important:

“Do I really need to get out of bed and meditate?”

“Do I really need to exercise and eat properly?”

“Do I really need to summon the patience to be kind and compassionate toward those whom God sends me?”

“Do I really need to marshal the courage and humility to open my heart and ask for God’s guidance?”

One of Swami’s most wonderful songs is “Go on Alone.” You could say that Ananda’s our theme song, because the glue that holds Ananda together is the individual commitment of each of us to follow the star of God-realization. And the song is urging us to learn to stand on our own two feet.

Walk like a man, even though you walk alone.
Why court approval, once the road is known?
Let come who will, but if they all turn home,
The goal still awaits you: Go on alone!

Follow your dream though it lead to worlds unknown.
Life’s but a shadow once our dreams have flown.
What if men cry, “Your dream is not our own”?
Your soul knows the answer: Go on alone!

Give life your heart! Bless everything that’s grown;
Fear not the loving: all this world’s your own.
Make rich the soil, but once the seed is sown
Seek freedom, don’t linger: Go on alone!

Now, that’s the attitude that will carry us safely home.

Fear not the loving. Don’t be afraid to give your heart to this life. Fear not to love the role that God has given you. Fear not to love everyone in His name.

Don’t think that you’re being God-centered and spiritual, if you’re closing your heart. We must find God in the circumstances where He has placed us.

We must learn to be awake and ready in the midst of good and ill fortune, health and disease, life and death.

We may find our lives going wonderfully, and there may be incarnations where everything goes well. And it’s meant to give us the confidence to take the next step on our journey.

The only way we will ever fail is if we stop trying. Whenever you find yourself thinking, “Oh, this is too much! This test isn’t right for me!” – remember that it’s all coming from God’s hands, and that if you keep trying, He will sustain you.

Master said that God doesn’t have a plan for us, as many traditional Christian teachers claim, so much as that He wants to help us return to our own divine consciousness. But He can’t break His laws. He can’t make this life work for us, if we aren’t willing to cooperate.

We can’t presume to put our hands in the fire, and expect not to be burned. We can’t put out lackluster energy and expect great graces to come. We can’t give dark, contractive or fearful energy, and expect to be happy.

We must have the courage to face the karma that we’ve created, and the courage and faith to know that if we will just keep following the light, the light will greet us and show us the way.

It’s impossible to understand this path with the rational mind. I often joke about “the divine matching fund” – where you put a penny in the collection plate and you expect God to give you a dollar, or you put in a dollar and you expect Him to give you twenty.

God’s grace is so much larger than these petty calculations. God is eager to give us a grace that is far out of proportion to the little part that we must play.

As Master said, “Self-realization is twenty-five percent the devotee’s effort, twenty-five percent the effort of the guru on the devotee’s behalf, and fifty percent the grace of God.”

Now, the point is that our twenty-five percent needs to be a hundred percent of our effort. God will ultimately demand that we give Him everything. And if we will give Him as much as we’re able, we don’t need to worry about the details, because God and Guru will take care of them.

I remember someone who said to Swami, “I’ve prayed and prayed, and I still don’t know what I’m supposed to do. What does God want me to do?”

Swami said, “It doesn’t matter which choice you make. God is pleased that you’ve thought to try to attune yourself to Him.”

All we have to do is try with all our hearts, with the greatest sincerity. All we have to do is sincerely want to be in tune with Him. And then He can help us.

It doesn’t make any difference how you’re feeling on a given day; just keep going and don’t quit.

When you plant a seed, you can’t see how much it has grown. And if you plant the seeds of prayer and meditation and just keep putting one foot in front of the other, that’s what will take you to God.

Spend time in places that inspire you. Do the things that keep your energy high. And don’t quit. That’s how you can learn to walk on the spiritual path with confidence.

No matter how many times you fall, just stand up, brush yourself off, and keep walking. If you keep moving toward the light, God will draw you into His arms and bless you, and give you everything your heart desires.

(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on June 15, 2003.)


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