What’s the Best Way to Achieve Our Liberation?

Bhagavad Gita: the death of Jayadratha.
Bhagavad Gita: the death of Jayadratha.

In a particularly alarming and potentially dispiriting passage, The Bhagavad Gita warns us that liberation is not easily won:

Of many thousand mortals, one, perchance,
Striveth for Truth; and of those few that strive –
Nay, and rise high – one only – here and there –
Knoweth Me, as I am, the very Truth.

When Swami Kriyananda explained this passage in his Gita commentaries, he expanded upon its meaning: “Out of many thousands who seek, one finds God.”

In other words, Swamiji was effectively making the percentages much less favorable!

But lest we fall into despair over the seemingly negligible odds of our being freed in this lifetime, let’s remember these comforting words that Paramhansa Yogananda offered us in consolation: “On this path, our percentage is much higher.”

Paramhansa Yogananda said that the path of Kriya Yoga is a special dispensation, sent by God to enable millions to find Him.

That’s the good news. But the important thing to remember, at whatever stage we’ve reached in our soul’s journey, is that we need to be practical in our understanding.

Rather than brood on the difficulties, our only real need is to understand how we can keep moving forward, day by day, step by step, so that we can make deliberate, gradual but relentless progress toward the Divine.

Swamiji gave one of his books the intriguing title God is for Everyone. It’s based on a book that Paramhansa Yogananda asked one of his disciples to write, shortly before he left India for America in 1920. He called that book The Science of Religion.

He had the idea that when he came to this country, he should be able to offer people a short book that would tell them how they could make their religion practical and scientific.

god_is_for_everyone_400_PerfectlyClearIt was a tremendously important part of his mission, to show believers how they could know God by their own direct experience. But it was also urgently needed as a defense against the threat that modern science had begun to pose to people’s faith, by inviting them to adopt a materialistic, atheistic view of the world.

He wanted the book to present the central premise of his teachings, which is based on the simple idea that what all people are seeking is to experience happiness and to escape from suffering.

The spiritual path is not difficult to understand. The teachings of all true religions give us practical answers to the most fundamental question of our lives: “How can we be happy and avoid suffering?”

Religious institutions go to great lengths to try to motivate their members to remain steadfast in their faith. But Yogananda said that they could greatly streamline their efforts, if they would simply understand that what all people want is to know how they can find happiness and avoid pain.

For many centuries, we were told that the greatest suffering we must try to avoid is eternal damnation. We were urged to deny our worldly impulses, because we would have to suffer an eternity in hell for our transgressions, and the tradeoff wasn’t worthwhile.

Unfortunately, the breakdown of this rigid belief system has led to a widespread collapse in morality. As people began to adopt the new scientific skepticism, rejecting the demand for blind belief, they also rejected much that was valid in religion, including the very practical need for morality.

Many people today have made it their highest value to follow their own selfish impulses. After all, if there is no objective proof of the existence of hell and damnation, why shouldn’t we feel free to follow our desires wherever they may lead us? And if you believe you can get away with doing whatever you want, why wouldn’t you try it?

What we’re seeing today is great masses of people who believe they can get away with indulging their moods, their appetites, and their urge to acquire, even if it means hurting others or resorting to dishonest means. And it’s entirely because we no longer have the threat of damnation hanging over our heads, and because we’ve found no adequate system of values to replace it.

I recently watched a documentary about the Puritans, the early American colonists who came to this continent to escape from persecution in England. The Puritans followed a dogma that if any member of their congregation committed adultery or some other terrible sin, God would punish the whole community for it.

It was how they maintained discipline and order. And it was the reason why entire communities of otherwise good, God-fearing people were able to behave with extreme cruelty toward their brothers and sisters, if they felt that their own salvation was at stake, and that of their loved ones.

They were absolutely convinced that their children would suffer for the transgressions of a single sinner in their midst. And as a result, there was terrible cruelty.

It was an awful teaching, and thank heaven, it’s either dead or dying, because God wisely enlisted science to help Him kill off a great deal of that kind of ridiculous thinking.

There are still plenty of completely insane dogmatists who call on the name of God to justify outlandish statements and terrible crimes. And the irony is that their beliefs and actions have nothing whatever to do with the religion they’re purporting to follow. Their cruelty and lack of compassion are born of their own perverted understanding of the teachings.

This is why Paramhansa Yogananda brought a teaching that isn’t the least bit dogmatic. On this path, we’re concerned with working with reality as we find it, and adjusting our behavior accordingly, as the only really practical way to improve our lives.

In his Gita commentaries, Swamiji refers to these inspiring words of Jesus:

Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect. (Luke 6:43-48)

In the ancient world, the publicans were government contractors who performed various civic services, including collecting taxes. So Jesus is telling us that it’s not enough just to be as good as the tax collectors.

It’s a statement that’s laced with humor and irony: “Don’t pat yourself on the back when you treat your fellow man well – do not even the tax collectors so?” Even the crassest materialists are concerned to take care of their own. But God is asking much more of us – He is demanding that we make it our goal to achieve perfection.

Icon: Publican and Pharisee
Icon: Publican and Pharisee

And yet, if the odds are such that very few of us will be able to achieve our salvation in this lifetime, why shouldn’t we say, “If the odds are stacked so heavily against us, let us eat, drink, and be merry!”

Why should we try to strive for perfection, if we’re doomed from the start to fail?

The answer is simple. The divine laws that all great masters proclaim are not arbitrary. They aren’t based on our convenience, or the whims of a Deity who may choose to prefer this or that one, depending on His present mood. They are objective laws, created by a God who has our highest interests always at heart.

This is the greatness of the path of Self-Realization, that God has put the responsibility for our spiritual well-being in our own hands. He has given us the methods of Self-Realization, including Kriya Yoga, that we can use to cooperate with God’s grace.

Yogananda came to tell us that we no longer need to believe blindly, but that we can follow the “airplane route to God,” as he called Kriya Yoga, and achieve our freedom by our own effort.

The Indian devotee that Yogananda asked to write a practical book about the science of religion didn’t do a very good job. He was overly intellectual and proud of his learning. And this is why Swami decided to turn it into a book that would more accurately reflect Master’s wishes.

He called it God Is For Everyone, because God has given every one of us the freedom to find our own happiness by living in harmony with His laws, or to ignore the laws and suffer accordingly. If we break the divine laws, which are the laws of our own nature, we will have to suffer the consequences.

When I was eighteen and just starting out on the path, I read several books on hatha yoga. And when I was in East West Bookstore the other day, I was delighted to find one of those books on the shelf. It was by Yogi Ramacharaka, and I remember how he urged his readers to live a life that would be in harmony with the divine law as it relates to the body. I particularly remember being deeply impressed by a chapter where he spoke very strongly about the need to drink enough water.

Ramacharaka painted an extremely grim picture of what happens when the human body is deprived of sufficient liquids. It put me in such a fear of inner contamination that since age eighteen I’ve drunk all the water I could, every day since that time. I believe it’s been one of the reasons I’ve been very healthy all my life, by following a part of the divine law that applies to the body.

It’s not that God is pleased when you drink enough water, or that He’ll be displeased if you don’t. It’s simply that your body works better when you follow the divine law.

It’s the same when you’re kind and compassionate toward others, and when you manifest other expansive attitudes. When you follow the law, you find that even if it may seem like a bit of a stretch for you, or a little strange or uncomfortable, you’re happier as a result. But when you give in to your anger and other negative attitudes, and if you insist on following your own interpretation of reality, you’ll always end up suffering.

People come up with all kinds of theories about life to suit their convenience, their prejudices, or their own wild imagination. We cling to our views of what people are like, and why they ought to be rewarded or punished, and on and on. But our theories ultimately make no difference, because this life is simply what it is.

Now, the divine laws are not always easy to perceive, in part because cosmic delusion sees to it that we very easily forget the things that have caused us suffering in the past, and that we should take care to avoid in the present. And this is why we learn very slowly.

From one incarnation to the next, most of our conscious memories are obliterated. But the patterns of consciousness and energy that we’ve established over many lifetimes are faithfully preserved in our spinal chakras. And it’s these deeper currents that determine our true nature.

When I was eighteen, a friend and I were trying to understand the nature of reality by reading spiritual books. We would get hold of a fragment of information, and we would try with our clever American minds to figure out how it would work in the real world.

For example, we read that the consciousness you have when you leave the body at death has a powerful effect on determining the place where you’ll go in the astral world, and the nature of your next incarnation.

My friend made a tape of himself chanting Aum. He would put on headphones and listen to himself chanting Aum, with the idea that he would be doing it at the end of his life, and he would get a better life the next time around.

It wasn’t entirely a bad idea! In fact, Master recommends that when someone is dying it’s a very good idea to chant Aum quietly in their right ear. Swamiji made a recording of himself chanting Aum, and it’s beautiful to play it when someone is dying, because it has a wonderful astral vibration that a dying person can tune into, to help them be more sensitively aware of the Aum sound that many people hear at the time of death.

My friend thought that if he could shortcut the karmic system by listening to Aum at the end of his life, he would have a better life when he was reborn.

But the trouble is, it’s like saying “How bad can I be, and still get away with it? Why should I make a special effort to be good, if all I need to do is be standing in the right place at the end?”

If you imagine that your greatest reward will only come to you after you die, there will be a natural inclination to think, “Why bother to be good?” It’s why the Catholic Church tells you very precisely how bad you can be and get away with it, and exactly what you need to do to mitigate the payment for your sins, according to the Church doctrine.

But Paramhansa Yogananda reminded us that what matters is our consciousness. It’s not a question of counting X sins and saying X prayers to neutralize them. Because our consciousness is revealed in the way we instinctively respond to reality.

When I’m driving on the freeway, I may be able to affirm with deep conviction, “We are all one with the Infinite Spirit. This life is an illusion.” But when a reckless driver cuts me off and I fear I’m about to crash, I’ll give a yelp.

Regardless of what we may say and think, there’s a deeper level of our consciousness that’s stored in our spinal chakras and that defines our true inner nature.

We are all, to varying degrees, laboring under the delusion that we are defined by this human body. But when my body is threatened, my deepest level of consciousness is revealed when I yelp.

We find a rather stark illustration of this in a true story that Paramhansa Yogananda tells in Autobiography of a Yogi.

Two policemen were looking for a murderer in a town in the Himalayas. They saw a sadhu walking by the river who matched the description, and they decided that the criminal had disguised himself as a swami to avoid being captured. One of the policemen shouted at him to stop, but the sadhu indifferently kept walking. So the policeman took his sword and cut off the arm of the sage. And to his astonishment, he didn’t even flinch. He stopped and picked up the arm and re-attached it. And then he turned and said calmly, “I am not the criminal you are seeking.”

There was no consciousness remaining in the sadhu that could be captured by the delusive thought: “I am this body, and what happens to this body affects me.” He was no more affected by having his arm cut off than if the policeman had cut a branch from a tree.

When we are one with Infinity, and when we are completely aware that we are part of God who is everything, there really is no difference between the body and the branch of a tree. But because we’ve identified ourselves with the body, and many bodies in past lives, we’ve invested our sense of self-identity in something that is separate and independent of all that is.

It’s why we behave selfishly. And it’s why monks and nuns in various religious traditions have performed great austerities to free themselves of their identification with the body. They don’t feed it, or they don’t give it water, or they don’t protect it from the cold. In short, they don’t coddle it, because of the thought: “Why should I be overly concerned with something that is temporary and that is not my true Self?”

Yogananda taught a more balanced way. But, even so, he would tell parents, “Don’t coddle your children so much. Don’t always put a sweater on them when they’re cold. Don’t always feed them when they’re hungry.”

I caught a great deal of flack from the students in a class I gave, when I quoted Master on this. But, believe me, he wasn’t counseling child abuse! He was simply advising parents to train their children to be a little bit stoic and impersonal. “Oh, we’ll be late for lunch – that’s fine! We’re strong. We can do it!”

Train yourself to be a little stoic. Not for the sake of suffering, but for the sake of affirming, “I am not limited by any outward conditions, least of all by the condition of this physical body.”

It’s a wonderful practice, even if extreme austerity is not our way. Master lived comfortably, as opposed to St. Francis, who went barefoot in the snow in the dead of winter. We visited some of the places where Francis lived in the winter, going barefoot and dressed only in a simple robe, and the cold was painful even during our brief visit. You simply can’t imagine how he could have lived there, with no shoes or warm clothing. But that was his way.

Our way is different. But don’t think therefore that you can be like the tax collectors, and believe with half your mind that you aren’t this body, while indulging your desires with the rest of your mind.

There are millions who won’t make it to the Infinite in this life. But they won’t go to hell for their troubles, because it’s not as if you’re either in or out. And yet the law is very simple: the more we have of God, the more we have of happiness and freedom and bliss.

The more we have of ego, the more we have of suffering. And it isn’t someone else who suffers, or that we can blame for our suffering, but only us.

How many times in the course of the day does some painful thought cross our mind, some small regret, some sadness, or some grief? And then imagine being so continually aware of God’s all-satisfying bliss that no trace of sadness can ever touch you.

There is no aspect of creation that isn’t radiant with the vibration of the perfect Spirit. It’s only our little egos that draw the fences that separate us from that Spirit. And within these fences we create tremendous agitation and concern, based on our small perception of ourselves.

Spiritual practice is a question of slowly but steadily escaping from our identification with the little ego, and realizing that in our truest definition we are one with God.

The ego cannot free itself. It’s not as if the ego can talk itself out of being an ego. Freedom from ego-identification has to come by the grace of God. It comes by attuning ourselves to a reality that exists beyond the ego’s narrow realm. It comes by obeying the divine law, and by following the counsel and guidance of the masters.

The ego’s role in the process is to motivate us to seek our happiness by aligning ourselves inwardly with Spirit. And the method is Kriya Yoga, plus discipleship, attunement to the Guru, service, and receptivity. Jesus said, “As many as received him, to them gave He the power to become the sons of God”

What does it mean to receive Him? It means that the ego must step aside, and that we must offer to God all of the self-identifications that are keeping us bound. We can offer ourselves to God through devotion and Kriya Yoga, and by our growing understanding that we are already one with the Spirit.

Let us be inspired to learn these techniques and use them, because they are based on the divine law. As God has imposed the ego upon us, He has given us the mystic keys to awakening.

“Abundant now is our hope” – that by the same divine law by which the soul became identified with the body, the soul can free itself from its lesser identifications and become perfect, as Christ said, “even as our Father in Heaven is perfect.”

We are fortunate to be among the thousand who have committed our lives to seeking God. But let us now dedicate ourselves to being the one seeker among a thousand who knows Him.

Master promised that for those of us who faithfully follow this path, the percentage is much higher. Let us walk together with those whose feet are firmly planted on the path, whose hearts are given to God, and whose minds are concentrated on Him. With all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, let us be committed to God’s way for one reason only: for His bliss.

(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on April 30, 2006.)

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