Because I was born Jewish, there have been many times when I’ve had to talk with folks who’ve come to Yogananda’s teachings from Jewish roots, only to find themselves thoroughly befuddled by the picture of Christ on our altars.
If you’re Jewish, you can handle images of the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesha, far better than you can handle pictures of Jesus Christ.
In fact, there has been a single-minded determination in Judaism to define itself as anything other than Christianity. And, of course, there have been so many persecutions of the Jews in Christ’s name that it can be a little dicey to try to introduce the idea that Jesus might have been a great master, sent by God to reform the Jewish religion.
Jewish people tend to be at the forefront of new movements, perhaps because, as perennial outsiders, they’re comfortable going along with fringe causes. They’re used to living at the edge, and they’ve never really been able to define themselves as living at the center.
In the new spiritual movements that sprang up in the 1960s and 1970s, there were lots of Jews, and at Ananda, as many as ten percent of our members have come from Jewish backgrounds.
I had a friend about whom I quickly realized that she was the perfect definition of a person of white Anglo-Saxon protestant extraction. She was a consummate “WASP.” And it was very interesting to me to see how differently she had been raised than I had – how she had the typical WASP’s concern for other people’s opinions, and for doing things the way they had always traditionally been done. She had grown up living at the center of the culture, and it was eye-opening to see how powerfully it had influenced her thinking.
But to return to my theme, I’ve had to sit with many Jewish people and try to help them understand what they’re getting into.
They’re inspired by Paramhansa Yogananda and his teachings, but it’s a significant hurdle for them to get used to idea that Jesus Christ was a divinely appointed world savior.
I finally realized that the best way to help them was by reminding them that you cannot let the ways other people have misinterpreted the truth become your definition of reality.
Many of you have heard me talk about the years before we acquired this temple. Our church was located in an office building on California Avenue, and whenever we wanted to put on a big celebration, on Yogananda’s birthday for example, we would have to rent space in one of the local churches.
I remember a church that we rented, and how they wouldn’t let us return the following year, because rumors had begun flying around the congregation that we had introduced a cow into the sanctuary.
It was the typical narrow-minded fundamentalist Christian thinking – this vague idea that because Hindus worshipped cows, we must have brought a cow into their church.
Yogananda said, “Ignorance is pretty much fifty-fifty East and West.” No culture has a monopoly on stupidity, and there will always plenty of people who will pride themselves on taking the narrowest possible approach to whatever path they’re on.
At any rate, I was trying to persuade this so-called Christian minister that we should be allowed to rent their facility. And he began asking me about our teachings, because he was concerned that we had been disrespectful of theirs. I told him about Yogananda, and that he taught from the Bible and the Bhagavad Gita. And I’ll never forget how he drew himself up indignantly and said, “Well, Yogananda doesn’t consider himself a Christian, does he?”
I thought, “You narrow-minded person, how dare you presume to determine who does and doesn’t have a relationship with Christ.”
I said, “Yes, he does, but he takes the teachings directly from Christ, and not from the churches.” Because I knew that our relationship was at an end, and I thought that I might as well say what was on my mind.
To be fair, after my failed meeting with the minister, I met several members of his congregation who told me how outraged they were by his behavior, and that they didn’t at all approve of his narrow-minded views.
But to come back, I’ve had to sit with lots of Jewish people over the years and try to talk to them about Christ. And I feel it’s extremely important for us all to remember the very significant fact that Jesus never stopped being a Jew.
Jesus was a rabbi, and his followers were all Jews. He was born a Jew, and he died a Jew.
Now, he didn’t care about being a Jew, because he was doing the will of his heavenly Father who had given him the mission to renew the teachings that the Jews had received from Moses.
Judaism is a true religion, in the sense that Moses was a God-realized master – he was an avatar. Not all religions are true, because water cannot flow higher than its source. And if the source isn’t a God-given transmission through a fully liberated soul, you can be fairly certain that whatever truth it contains, it’s been watered-down by human ignorance.
In fact, even those religions that are started by a true master will suffer the same fate, as people of imperfect understanding begin to interpret the teachings in their own ways, believing that they understand them better than those who were present at the start.
This is why Jesus came, because Judaism had become diluted.
Centuries earlier, at the time when Moses led the Jewish people out of their bondage in Egypt, there was a longing in their hearts for a revelation that would show them how they could overcome the sufferings of this world. And so God sent Moses to be their savior, first by freeing them from their outward enslavement, and then by showing them how they could free themselves from their inner bondage.
Every master comes with essentially the same message. There cannot be a master who is greater than any other, or more completely Self-realized. And while it’s true that there are degrees of Self-realization, once you are completely free – once you are a siddha, as it’s called in Sanskrit; one who is free from all his past karma – you cannot be more free than any other siddha.
Final liberation is a state of absolute oneness with God. As Yogananda said, when you reach that state, you are God.
Swamiji explained that state with wonderful clarity. Speaking of the consciousness of the avatars, he said, “They are free in their own consciousness. They have a complete understanding of the same truth of our oneness with Spirit. But they are bound by the karma of their disciples. They are bound by the karma of the time and place in which they take a human form, and they can only communicate in such a way that the people who are living in that time and place will be able to understand.”
When Moses came, the great need of the people was to understand the divine law.
They had emerged from their enslavement, but they didn’t know how to satisfy their longing for an intimate relationship with God. So Moses gave them the Ten Commandments, among many other teachings, because it was how God could help them. Moses needed to give them the truth in a clear-cut form that they would be able to understand. “If you behave in such a way, you will find inner peace and freedom.”
It’s essentially the same teaching that Jesus brought: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the sorrowful, for they will be comforted.”
In our relationship with God, there is always a cause and effect. “If you do this, this is the result that will follow.” And the message that Moses gave them, which was appropriate to their time and acceptable to their understanding, was that they could find their joy and freedom by living in harmony with the divine law.
Moses didn’t come to tell them to organize themselves into a well-ordered society – “You must be bankers, and you must be tailors, and you must be shepherds.” Because, who cares?
He came to free them from their egoic self-definitions. But as time passes, the teachings will always become watered down, as people of limited understanding begin to interpret them in increasingly worldly ways, until at last the magnetism of the teachings is almost completely worldly. And then souls will be drawn who love that level of teaching, and they will dilute it even further.
And so it invariably happens, until a new dispensation is needed. Because, as it says in the Bhagavad Gita, “Whenever virtue declines and vice predominates, I the Infinite Lord take human form.”
The Festival of Light that we offer in our Sunday services tells us that God returns again and again to help those who have chosen Him.
Whenever I talk with Jewish people who’ve become interested in our work, I have to explain that Jesus was not a Christian but a Jew, and that it was his mission to reawaken the idea in the Jewish people that God’s children can commune with Him as their own loving Father.
But, as it happened, the Jews weren’t interested. And the first disciple of Jesus who began to create a separate church was Paul.
Paul became a disciple as the result of a life-changing ecstasy that he experienced on the road to Damascus, whereupon he became on fire to spread the good news that salvation is possible by inner communion with the Christ consciousness.
Paul had the direct teachings of Christ to guide him, and he began his mission by going around to the Jewish temples and trying to tell them about the new dispensation. But they weren’t interested. The priests and the people were locked into their system. And if a new teacher came along and claimed to offer them a direct revelation from God, they weren’t going to listen, any more than you would receive a hearty welcome in the Catholic Church, if you tried to give them a teaching that was bound to undermine the authority of the Church.
You cannot put new wine in old wineskins, as Jesus so pithily put it. You have to find a fresh audience and begin anew. And although Paul tried hard to interest the Jews for whose sake Jesus had come, he failed utterly.
Paul had a tremendous desire to spread the word, and in the end he found a fertile field among the Gentiles. So he began spreading the good news in Asia Minor, and it was Paul who created the new religion of Christianity.
He brought them the teachings of Jesus, and the great division between Judaism and Christianity came about by his efforts.
There was an enormous controversy at the time, which you can read about in Paul’s letters, about whether you could be a Christian without first becoming a Jew. Because there was a faction among the first Christians who believed that this was simply a new expression of Judaism, and that you had to convert and become a Jew before you could receive the teachings.
There was a tremendous amount of discussion about whether you had to be circumcised in order to be saved. And you might wonder why they made such a fuss, reading about it today, because it seems so quaint. But they were talking about whether it’s possible to have a new dispensation, and what will become of the old one?
This isn’t meant to be a discourse on the history of Judaism and Christianity; but it’s extremely important for us to understand, especially those of us who’ve become self-identified as Jews.
The Bible is telling us that Christianity’s roots were firmly planted in Judaism, and why it had to become its own separate religion. And if we understand the truth of it, we’ll be less likely to let the interpretations of small-minded Jews and Christians prevent us from understanding Jesus’ true message.
I was very frustrated, when I visited my parents in Southern California and I accompanied my father to the celebration of the Holy Days at the local Jewish temple. As I held the prayer book, I could feel that it was filled with wonderful, uplifting teachings. And, with all due respect, the rabbi didn’t know what they were holding in their hands. He was talking about trivial things. And in my fantasy, I thought, “I could walk up and say, ‘Excuse me, sir, can I have the microphone for fifteen minutes?’” Because I wanted the people to understand the tremendous promise that was right there before them.
We are the new wineskins, seeking to fill ourselves with truth. And we are presented with the challenge, over and over, of understanding how to be true to ourselves, even as we’re becoming something wholly different and completely new.
It’s a process that we are all continually engaged in. We must each individually go through the same stages on the spiritual path. And one of the first stages is the desire to try to become better by arranging our behavior outwardly.
Of course, we need to be careful when we talk of these things, because there’s a certain amount of truth in the notion that as our consciousness changes, our outward behavior will change as well.
But I remember how, in the early days of Ananda, people would play-act at being devotees. I remember one woman in particular who had the role of a devotee refined to perfection: always soft‑spoken, never allowing anything to upset her, generally dressing in white, and always carrying a book of Master’s. And, again, there’s nothing wrong with it, if it’s who you are. But it’s a little boring, if nothing else.
Swamiji talked about a convent that he visited in Europe, and how one of the nuns was showing them around. She was speaking in hushed tones, “And this is the chapel where we worship the blessed Jesus.” Swami was courteous, as was his way, but he recalled how a second nun burst into the room with a box of chocolates, and how the first nun got all excited and exclaimed, “Oh, chocolates!”
Swami said, “Why don’t you talk about Jesus with that kind of enthusiasm?” Because Jesus would love it if you got all excited about him, if that’s who you are.
Swamiji remarked about a certain famous person, “The difficulty with him is that he’s always trying to act spiritual. I don’t even mean that he’s insincere. It’s just that he has it in his mind that spirituality is something to paste on. Spirituality has to grow like a seed out of the inside of who you are.”
We have the thought in our minds that what we really are isn’t remotely good enough and spiritual enough, and that we must become something else before God will accept us.
And, really, it’s a paradox, because what we truly are, in our souls, isn’t what we think we are; and what isn’t good enough in us isn’t who we are, either.
It’s not as if God is judging us in the slightest degree for who we are. It’s that we instinctively know that our lives, generally speaking, are not creating perfect bliss for us. But there is simply no getting around the fact that the only place where we can begin to grow spiritually is exactly where we’re standing.
We can’t simply paste a higher truth onto ourselves, because the underlying reality of our nature will be like a wound that never heals, and it will fester until it bursts out in all its messy glory.
It’s what happens when we’re outwardly very nice and kind, and we refuse to let ourselves respond to other people’s insults, and then we blow up like a volcano and we don’t know why. And, generally speaking, you can’t stay on the path unless you’re bringing your complete self along with you.
You can’t offer yourself to God until you own yourself. Because it’s not as if God is going to reach down and suddenly take all your limitations away. The reality is that we have to offer it all to Him, all the time – all of our consciousness, including our limitations, our worldliness, and our spirituality.
You cannot give something away that isn’t yours to give. If I open somebody’s purse and take out some money and put it in the collection plate, the church may receive some benefit, but I haven’t offered anything that was mine to give.
God isn’t suddenly going to take notice of us and remove all of our less than shining tendencies. The Divine isn’t going to reach inside us and lift us out of our delusions and free us for now and forever. We must come to a point where we can say, with deepest sincerity and understanding, “Lord, I don’t want any of this anymore.” And before we truly don’t want it, we must come to the point where we are no longer afraid to look at it. We are what we are, just that and nothing more. And that is how God wants us to come to Him.
In this time that we’re living in, a new teaching has come, called Self-Realization. And it is challenging us to become something that we may never have dreamed we could be.
We have so many ideas about how our lives should be. We try so hard to get our little scene arranged just right, and we have so many ideas about who we are and how our destiny should unfold, and where we’re going. By the power of our ego, we generate a torrent of energy to make our vision true, creating our little plans and, if need be, even imposing them on others, carried on the tidal wave of our desires.
We learn to negotiate so that we can get what we want, and we learn to “look out for number one.” And once we’ve gotten our systems nicely in place, we suddenly discover a new and different teaching that is telling us that our truest happiness will only ever come by learning to let go and let God, to trust Him to guide us, and to follow our highest dharma wherever it may take us.
We hear about being an instrument for the divine light, and about using our intuition to tune into the one Power that exists. And we’re not quite sure. Yet we intuitively feel that it’s the first and only step we must take toward the light: to invite the light to come into every part of our being, and not hide any part of ourselves from the light, through fear.
Master said, “Don’t tell anyone your faults, lest someday in a fit of anger they hold them against you.” And the point is that not everyone in this world deserves our trust, so we need to use our discretion about how much of ourselves we reveal. “But from God,” Yogananda said, “you should have no secrets.”
The Divine is within you. The Divine is you. So what I’m telling you is not to be afraid of yourself. Who are we trying to hide from? We are ultimately trying to hide from ourselves.
“I’m so ashamed, and I don’t want God to know.”
But it isn’t God who is telling us that we dare not come to Him with all our faults. It is we who don’t want to be frank and open and relaxed with Him. And this is the most crucial point of all. Because God cannot free us from our lower qualities until we can be fearless enough to present them to Him without the slightest reservation.
And then such an extraordinary sense of inner freedom comes, when we can be as unprotected as little children with God. And it all comes down to this – that this is the most important thing to practice on the spiritual path.
We talk about loving God, but it’s very, very important to allow God to love us, and to accept that we are completely lovable, just as we are.
Of course, there’s a fine line that we need to respect. Because this teaching is not telling us to say, “I’m perfect just the way I am.” Quite frankly, most of us are pretty messy!
Swamiji would joke about that attitude. Someone would say, “I like myself exactly the way I am.” And he would say, “Well, I don’t.”
There is so much about me that I want to shed and be rid of forever. But I know that my relationship with God is completely separate from that part of me that is still capable of error. To know that God loves me just as I am, is to know that God can help me become what I’m destined to be. And that is our one true path.
Our reading today is explaining why there are so many paths to God, and the special role of the Jesus’ message. The highest truth is one. But we must find our own way, and our own special, personal relationship with that Truth. And no matter that it may put us out of step with others, because we will only be able to get there by our own understanding.
Better to die trying to live our own dharma, than try to assume another’s. This isn’t complicated or hard to understand. It’s telling us to humbly be who we are, even as we come before God. And maybe then we will be able to make a strong resolution to develop new qualities, because that’s what we’re supposed to do.
We aren’t supposed to stop working on ourselves and rest in our ignorance. But you can only start where you are. And if you have a tendency to be depressed, or to overeat, or to be hateful or resentful or to be clumsy – just know that all of these things are merely your starting point, and that God doesn’t mind them at all.
As Swamiji said, “You become the kind of saint that you already are as a person.”
He told us about a swami he met in India whose name was Murkhananda. Now, “murkh” is the Sanskrit word for “silly.” And a friend of Murkhananda’s remarked, “Well, ‘Murkhananda,’ that’s no kind of a name for a swami.” But Murkhananda calmly replied, “I know myself.” And I love that answer.
I consider how lovely it would be to be “Murkhananda.” Wouldn’t it be marvelous to have a spiritual name that was announcing to the world that you had found your way to ananda, to the divine bliss, by accepting your essential nature as being basically murkh – perfectly silly? And to have God’s permission to come to Him by accepting that your essence is silly?
Isn’t that a wonderful thought? Here I am, an expression of God who is wanting to be completely and utterly silly through me. And even though neither of us is defined by our silliness, God loves me exactly as I am.
God cares so little for those temporary, superficial aspects of our nature, because the only thing He is asking of us is that we realize Him as our own truest Self.
(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on September 18, 2003.)