Does Satan Exist? A Spiritual View

The Archangel Michael battling Satan, by Guido Reni. (Creative Commons License.)
The Archangel Michael battling Satan, by Guido Reni. (Creative Commons License.)

I’ve been studying these teachings for a very long time –it’s been more than forty-five years at this point – and I’m continually surprised by how very different they can look each time I return to them.

I’ve been working on a book about my life with Swami Kriyananda – actually, it’s a book about his life, or what I witnessed of it for so many years.

Which, of course, means that it’s also the story of Ananda, and of the tremendous energy he poured into bringing Paramhansa Yogananda’s work to the world.

At the moment, I’m reviewing my notes from 1969, when I first met him, until about 1984. And it’s been slow going, because I’m having to work through many incidents, and I have to be sure I understand them in the right way before I can start writing about them.

In the last ten years, I’ve gone through my notes many times, trying to shape them into a cohesive story. It has forced me to try to understand how one thing led to another. And I’m finding that I often had no inkling of the broader picture at the time, to the extent that the way the pieces are falling into place is often startling.

There are many, many pieces of paper in the file, and they have my fingerprints all over them; yet it’s as if I’ve never seen many of them before, because I simply wasn’t capable of seeing the patterns, and understanding Swami’s vision.

I could read the words he wrote, or listen to the words he spoke, but I couldn’t feel the consciousness behind them. And it has brought into stark outline for me, how we’re hypnotized by the delusion that our own understanding is the reality, even though it’s what’s keeping us separate from the true reality, which is God.

It’s the delusion that this little space in which I’m living is unique, and that it’s entirely my own. And it prevents us from seeing what’s really happening.

In his book on the Yugas, which are the ages that the world passes through in regular 24,000-year cycles, Purushottama Selbie says that a time will come when we will be able to read each others’ thoughts, and communicate without speaking.

yugasHe describes the age in which we’re living today, where we’re limited to conversing with words, so it’s possible to tell lies, because we can hide our thoughts from other people. And depending on the person you’re speaking to, and how skillful you are, you can often get away with it.

The world today is full of con artists who are eager to take advantage of their ability to hide their true motives. A man will marry a series of women and take their money, and then everybody is surprised because he seemed like such a nice guy. And it’s possible because you can hide your true self.

We’ve recently entered an age called Dwapara Yuga, when we’re becoming increasingly aware that the fundamental reality of creation is energy, and not matter.

The next age is called Treta Yuga. It won’t start for another 2000 years, and it will be an age of mental awareness, where we’ll begin to be able to communicate telepathically.

At the point where we’re standing now, it’s easy to observe the new awareness of energy, with email replacing fax machines that required physical paper, for example. The fax is a remnant of Kali Yuga, the previous age when people believed that matter was the fundamental reality.

Today we can use our smartphones to connect with people anywhere. “I need to ask someone a question in India. Let me ring them up and talk about it.”

We’ve begun to use energy to annihilate the distances between us. Still, if you’re talking on the phone you can’t see the person at the other end, and a lot can be happening that you don’t know about. But in the age of telepathy, you won’t be able to hide your thoughts.

Fortunately, moral consciousness rises with the ascending ages, and at that point we won’t care as much about hiding our thoughts.

As we grow spiritually, there’s a continual shifting in how we relate to the world around us. As we come into an expanded sense of connectedness, and as we begin to trust in a reality that’s greater than ourselves, there’s a gradual relaxing of the tight individuality that we’ve been protecting all the time.

Many of us recently returned from Ananda Village, where we celebrated Spiritual Renewal Week. I’ve attended SRW since 1971, and I’ve often stood on the platform, talking to groups that have grown larger over the years. Last week, looking out at over three hundred people, it occurred to me that what we’ve all gradually developed together is a growing trust in the deep reality of the spiritual path.

When I first came to Ananda Village, in the summer of 1971, I found myself suddenly faced with a new reality.

Ananda Retreat Kitchen circa 1975. L-R: Prita, Asha, Kalyani, (unknown person), Arati, Anandi. Click to enlarge.
Ananda Retreat Kitchen circa 1975. L-R: Prita, Asha, Kalyani, (unknown person), Arati, Anandi. Click to enlarge.

I was born into a family that was very nice in every way, but I knew that my birth family would have no part in my destiny. As a child, I found myself with a great sense of destiny, but without anyone to tell me what it was. And you may have had a similar sense of standing alone with your destiny, with lots of questions and no immediate answers. And it can be a lonely place.

Fortunately, it never became really agonizing for me, because I was still quite young when I found my destiny.

But when I came to Ananda, I realized that I had been accustomed to being solitary and protected, and self-protective. As a newcomer, I naturally wanted to be well thought-of, partly I suspect, because before I moved to Ananda I really didn’t belong anywhere.

And then two things happened. The first was that I realized that I had a great deal of intuition, and that I could sense a lot of what was going on with the people around me, whether they told me or not.

And then, with a chilling sense of foreboding, I realized that everybody else at Ananda could probably see into me in the same way.

There are moments on the spiritual path that may seem trivial at the time, but that when you look back at them you realize that they were true watershed moments, where you could have chosen one path or another.

I realized that I had become part of a spiritual family, and that I was opening myself to live in the constant presence of God. And if I continued to walk this path, I was going to be exposed, and I was going to be seen. And it was terrifying.

But I thought, “What else can I do?” I could simply close myself up and walk away, or I could go forward and accept that everybody was going to see whatever was inside me. And I can remember exactly where I was standing when I realized, “I have no choice but to go on.” So I went on, and I’ve never regretted it.

I’ve certainly been embarrassed and mortified, many times. I hope there’s a stronger word than “mortified.” (laughs.) “Humiliated” is probably the most accurate word for many of the things that happened to me.

Fortunately, we had Swami Kriyananda, whose life was spiritually extraordinary, and extremely interesting on the human plane, because so many things happened to him.

A good example is the time, in the early 1980s, when Swamiji decided that it would be important for Ananda’s future that he provide us with a model of the life of a householder.

Paramhansa Yogananda had made him a monk, but he saw that Ananda was supposed to develop as a householder community, and that there weren’t enough valid models for that kind of life.

The married couples in the community were sort of embarrassed to be householders, and ashamed to have children, and it wasn’t the way the community was meant to develop, with the married people thinking of themselves as spiritually inferior to the monks and nuns.

So Swami felt that he, as the one who had always set the tone for us, needed to make a change.

He prayed to Master: “It’s always been up to me. How are we going to deal with this?” And he felt Master’s reply, “You could get married.”

Swami responded, “But I’m a monk!” And Master said, “You don’t have to stay that way.”

So Swami opened himself to the possibility, and shortly thereafter he met a woman in Hawaii with whom he had an extraordinary spiritual connection. To this day, he can’t fully explain the connection he felt, but he said that he had never had a connection with someone that was so deeply inward, and that it wasn’t related at all to the outward form. As he put it later, it was so powerfully inward that when she left, which was very soon after, the feeling of expansive completeness that he had felt in her presence stayed with him.

He said that in a strange way, it wasn’t even related to her, but that he couldn’t explain it any more clearly than that.

When she came to the community, it caused a major kerfuffle, because we all had him fixed in our minds as a monk and a swami, and we thought it was where he was supposed to stay. And now there was a wave of shock and outrage – “How dare he step out of the image we’ve made for him!” And his response was just to smile, as if to say, “Really? You’ve never owned me. What are you thinking?”

But a whole lot of adjustment had to take place, and we eventually made peace with the new reality. And then, just as we were all going along with the new direction, the woman abruptly left, eight months after she arrived, and she never returned.

Unfortunately, she left just before several national magazines published articles announcing that Swami Kriyananda had married. Yoga Journal was the biggest magazine of its kind in America, and because there was a three-month publication delay, the announcement came out with the whole surprising story, and a photo of the loving couple, complete with a detailed explanation, except that by the time it was published, it was over.

And for Swami, it posed a spiritual crisis. The crisis came in the form of a question: “I’ve always trusted my guidance. Have I misinterpreted my Guru’s will for me?”

It struck at the heart of his understanding of what Master wanted, so it was a very serious question.

He withdrew for several weeks, and when he came out, he said, “All of the transformation that I felt Ananda needed has happened. I had assumed that the relationship would last longer, but it didn’t, and yet the purpose of the guidance was fulfilled.” And then he was perfectly cheerful.

But then the magazine came out, and the congratulations began pouring in, and I remember him sitting in the living room, and how he said, “This is an embarrassing situation, but I choose not to be embarrassed.”

It was as if he was showing us the appropriate response – yes, it’s highly embarrassing, but we are a part of all that is, and we’re all related to each other, and these are just the kinds of things that will happen.

Later, in Italy, he met a woman whom he married, and many wonderful things came out of the marriage for Ananda. And then, after about twelve years, she left, and he reassumed his sannyas vows.

Swami and Rosanna, 1986
Swami and his second wife, Rosanna, 1986

But to come back to the point I wanted to make, we are all connected by a greater reality, even though we may express the spiritual path in many ways.

There are so many reasons why people come into these four walls. Some of you have been coming here for a long time, and others may have come for the first time. But always, it’s because I have a sense that there’s something more going on in my life, and I need to understand what it is.

There’s my little world in which I seem to be moving all by myself, and even if I’ve gathered a few others to move along together with me, there’s a sense that I am ultimately alone with my destiny.

But then we begin to question: is it really just me? I get to do more or less whatever I want. I can make my little plans, and I have my little job and my savings, and I’m moving along by myself with my own ideas. And then something cracks in my world, and maybe it’s a transcendental experience, or maybe it’s an unbearable sorrow or grief, on such a colossal scale that I cannot carry it alone.

And then you sense that you’re part of something greater. And there’s a turning point in the cycle of many lifetimes that no one can push you toward until you’re ready to face it.

It’s the point where we finally begin to know that there’s something more. And then we slowly realize that we were never this little isolated entity in the first place, and that we were always being influenced by something greater than ourselves.

I remember how, as a teenager, I was trying to find my way. I was fourteen or fifteen, and I didn’t know the word “bohemian.” The word “beatnik” had come into circulation, and it was a helpful word, but the only word that I could find to describe my state was “misfit.” Because I could never figure out what “they” were doing, and I couldn’t figure out why they were doing it.

It was all very weird to me. And my weird sense of being different manifested at the time in a “girly” way. I had become extremely annoyed that you had to dress like everybody else, and that you couldn’t buy anything but what everyone else was wearing.

There was a very classy department store in our town – it was like a Nordstrom’s, and they had a policy of hiring local high school kids. They called us “young careerists,” and you got to wear a little special uniform, even though you were really just a clerk in the store.

I have a really good mouth, and I talked my way into one of those jobs. And because I looked like a promising young careerist, they gave me a plum assignment, which was working in the teenage girls’ clothing department.

There was all this poorly made, ugly stuff that I was supposed to sell. I was supposed to dupe my peers into buying this junk, and I got a very bad reputation in the store because I just couldn’t do it. So they moved me to sheets and towels, where I did great, because it was something that people actually needed.

It was a terrific experience, but through it all I had big questions about who had the right to be telling us who we were supposed to be. It annoyed me so much, that somebody was making all of these decisions for us, and then we all had to run along like sheep to conform to what they told us. And it infuriated me, even though I could think of no alternative.

I met an older woman who was a true bohemian. I remember how she put her arm around me and patted me on the shoulder. She was dressed like a gypsy, and we were talking about clothes, like gypsies together, and in 1964 it wasn’t a common thing to do. But I remember how she told me, “Don’t worry, honey, you’ll figure it out. You’ll find your way.” And of course I found my way, truly and completely – and, thank You, God!

But I was aware of these forces that were trying to push us, and how nobody seemed to mind. On the contrary, they seemed to get terribly excited when some new idiotic fad would come along and push everybody in a new direction.

And then, when I became a devotee, I realized that, wow, there’s a whole philosophy about this!

There’s a whole philosophy about how we are part of a greater reality, and how the greater reality has light and dark dimensions.

When I was a teenager, the darkness was just ridiculous fashions, but now we have real darkness. We did then, too, but I wasn’t aware of it. And the good news is that we are part of a greater reality, and that the greater reality exists on a spectrum, and that there is only the light, and then we have things that are existing at various distances from light.

If you get far enough away from the light, you might not be aware of the light at all. But the good news is that you were never really separated from the light.

You can get so far from the light that you can no longer feel or see it, but you only need to move closer to know that it was with you all the time.

We need to realize that we are part of a greater reality, and that we are always being influenced by that reality. And what we proudly think of as our own ideas are just waves of consciousness that are influencing us. And our only real choice is to decide what wavelength we’re going to attune our consciousness to.

The husband of a friend of mine unexpectedly died. She’s a very powerful devotee, and she understands life and death and karma and reincarnation, so it wasn’t as tragic as it might have been, although it was very sad, of course, because she loved him, and she wasn’t ready to say goodbye. But it wasn’t tragic in a devastating way, because she knew that he was just finished with this life and he’d gone somewhere else.

Reincarnation is so interesting – I’m here, but I haven’t always been here as this person called Asha. I was someone else, with another name. I’ve always been myself, but I’ve had countless names, and I’ve even lived in the astral world, where there’s a wholly different reality, and then I entered my mother’s womb.

Yogananda said that a birth on earth is a funeral in the astral world, and a funeral on earth is a birthday party in the astral world. And when people die, or when they have a near-death experience and they come back, they tell us that they’ve met the folks they’ve known and that they liked, and who might have been missing them for a long time.

Or you’re born again, and you’re with a group of people that you might not have incarnated with for a long time, and you’re happy to see them again.

We never lose our consciousness, although we aren’t always in the same place with the same people, and we’re not always aware of how much traveling we do, and how much we’ve done.

My friend Tushti died in March. When she stopped breathing she was no longer with us, and yet she’s somewhere close by at this very moment. Where is she? What is she doing? To what wavelength has she attuned her consciousness now?

We are always conscious. But our experience of reality is determined by what we’re conscious of, and even more important, the consciousness that we allow to flow through us.

I mentioned my friend whose husband died, and how there was no great sense of tragedy around his passing. People would say to her, “I’m so sorry you lost your husband.” And she would reply, “I didn’t lose him. It wasn’t like I left him at the grocery and forgot to take him home. I know where he is, and he’s just not here.”

She said that, especially in the first weeks and months, he was always lurking in the background. And she said, “There is this almost irresistible temptation to be sad.”

I’m sure that many times she gave in to the temptation. Because there is always a force hovering around us that is trying to convince us, “The light is too bright. It’s too much to handle, to try to be always in the light. It’s tiresome to be trying to stay in the light all the time. Why do I need to be trying so hard? Why am I working so hard? Oh, you poor thing, just come over here, and yes, those people who’ve been nasty to you, you really should give them a dose of their own medicine, don’t you think?”

And so the cycle goes on. And we’re not likely to do the horrible things we see people doing in the world today. But it’s all just points on the spectrum, and some of those poor souls are doing unimaginable and horrifying things that we don’t even want to contemplate. And it’s all because of the almost irresistible temptation to try to go far enough away from the light that maybe we’ll get something we want.

There’s a force in us that is always trying to resist the light. And many times we’ll give in, and so we rise and fall, and in the process we slowly learn from our experiences. And it takes a long time because we’re so hard-headed.

There’s a series of beautiful videos that Swami recorded at the end of his life, called “Ask Me About Truth.” They were filmed in a hokey setting, with Dharmadas and Nirmala sitting in chairs facing Swamiji, and they would talk back and forth, with Dharmadas and Nirmala pretending to be more ignorant than they actually were, so that they could ask some very basic questions about spirituality. And it was so quintessentially Swami Kriyananda, and it’s wonderful to watch.

At one point, they were talking about the meaning of life, and Nirmala quoted something that Paramhansa Yogananda wrote about astrology in his Autobiography of a Yogi: “If ignoramuses misread the heavens, and see there a scrawl instead of a script, that is to be expected in this imperfect world. One should not dismiss the ‘wisdom’ with the wise.”

Swami chimed in and said, “Because we’re stupid.” And the three of them laughed with such beautiful freedom. As if to say – yes, that’s the story, isn’t it? We keep going forward, and we keep trying. And it turns out that we were just listening to the wrong music, and that’s why we had to fall to the ground in discouragement.

I remember someone saying, “We get so discouraged that we just want to lie down and die. But it’s not so easy to die, is it? You lie down and hope to die, and after a while you get hungry, or your elbow hurts.” (laughs)

I’m going to come right out and say the word “Satan.” Because that’s our reading today. Satan is the force of darkness, the force that makes us want to distance ourselves from the light. The satanic force tries to lure us with the almost irresistible temptation to move away from the light instead of toward it. And as Paramhansa Yogananda told us, it’s an active, conscious force. And whether we call it Satan, the Devil, or our own delusive inclinations doesn’t matter, but only the fact that we are living with that force, and we must resist it.

For a very simple reason: not so that we won’t go to hell when we die, but because we’ll be putting ourselves in hell right now. And we will enter willingly, which is far worse, until the point when we finally realize, “Oh! I’m part of a greater reality, and I can choose which part of that reality I want to invite into my life.”

It’s simple enough to say it, but very challenging to do. And we need to be able to say it with great energy and clarity of purpose: “This is an almost irresistible temptation, but I will resist, and with the grace of God to help me, I will live in the light.”

Who benefits from that decision? I do. What kind of experience do I want to have of my life? Do I want the light or the darkness? It’s in our hands. And with the grace of God we will choose wisely.

God bless you.

(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on August 14, 2016.)

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