On every inhabited planet in the universe, of which Paramhansa Yogananda said there are untold millions, two separate stories are always being told.
The first is the story of the consciousness of the planet as a whole – the particular Yuga through which the planet is currently passing, as the eras in the great cyclical turning of the ages are called in the Indian scriptures.
The second story is the individual dramas of the souls who have come together to have their own, separate, individual experiences on that particular planet at that time. Their stories form a mighty river, with the life of each soul a streamlet in the shifting currents of countless individual realities.
Their experiences may be congenial or unpleasant. And most of the beings on the planet, lacking the unbounded consciousness of the masters, can only see the external portion of the story.
Many people believe that our planet is on the ascendant. They point to the number of spiritually gifted children being born, who seem to represent the next step in human evolution. Or they’ll point to the outward improvements in our lives – how in earlier times people lacked indoor plumbing and advanced medical care, for example.
The trouble with this rosy vision is that it can be very confusing, when there’s a sudden downturn and the world seems to be reversing its course – when there are wars, natural disasters, economic depressions, epidemics, and the like. And if we aren’t able to look beneath the surface, it can be hard to maintain an upbeat point of view.
At the same time, there is the drama of the individual soul on its own long spiritual journey. The masters tell us that each soul is like a raindrop, flowing toward a great ocean, seeking its true happiness in God, and that every soul is on a trajectory that, despite countless temporary dips and reversals, is destined to return to its infinite source.
When a visiting professor asked Paramhansa Yogananda if there is an end to spiritual evolution, he replied, “No, no end. You go on until you achieve endlessness.”
In our individual journey, there will be times of rapid progress, interspersed with times of struggle. But, through it all, there is a silent pulse, like a heartbeat, that is sustaining us and trying to guide and encourage us in our search.
In Indian music, the tamboura is a stringed instrument that plays a simple series of notes that support the main melody. Indian musicians will spin elaborate improvisations on the melody, exploring endless variations while the tamboura plays its constant sustaining pulse.
It’s a lovely image for the spiritual path, because it tells us that, no matter how far we may wander from our source, we are inextricably tied to that central reality of our being – the pulse of AUM that is calling to us, inviting us to return to our home in God.
Years ago, a young man had an interesting conversation with Swami Kriyananda. He said that he was worried about his Gemini nature, which seemed to be posing an obstacle to his spiritual progress. He considered himself a serious seeker, but he would be attracted to follow one path for while, and then he would find that it no longer held his interest, and he would go off in search of something else and begin a new cycle. And, while he felt that he was gaining some value from each of his spiritual sojourns, he was concerned that he hadn’t found a true path that he could commit himself to and follow to the end.
Swamiji said, “Yes, going in circles does give you a certain sense of satisfaction.” He added, “And the bigger the circle, the greater the sense of satisfaction.”
This is the story of our lives. We’ve been born on this planet to try many things and learn important lessons from our own experiences. Will I be happy if I’m an actress? A banker? A filmmaker? A musician An engineer? Will I find happiness by having children? Will I be happy if I can become the leader of a big, important country?
We conduct endless experiments in search of the one, perfect experience that will give us perfect happiness and joy. Meanwhile, the pulse of AUM never stops calling, as we slowly realize that no outward experience can satisfy our souls. And we will only be able to come to that understanding by having our own experiences, because nobody can hand us wisdom until we are ready to receive it.
The story of the soul is the drama of its journey away from God, and its inevitable return. And the other story is the backdrop against which we play out our individual dramas.
The fact that we have been born in America at this moment in time and in these circumstances sets the stage for the real story. But we cannot avoid participating in the back story, because we need to have the experiences that will teach us where true happiness lies.
We cannot develop the qualities that will bring us happiness simply by thinking about them. To develop spiritual qualities of courage, generosity, and love requires that we actively participate in the backdrop.
Some people imagine that the background is irrelevant to their search, and that they can get there by meditation alone. But we need to understand that God has designed the back story to help us grow.
Paramhansa Yogananda played an extremely active role in the world. Many of us were shocked when Swamiji revealed that Master was not only a great avatar, but that in a former life he had played the role of William the Great, who conquered England for the purpose of uniting the country under a Christian monarchy, to prevent further incursions by the heathen Vikings from the north.
William’s son, Henry I of England, who was Swami Kriyananda in that life, completed his father’s work by creating a system of laws and government that brought stability to the country, and that would eventually be adopted in America. In fact, it would set the stage for Paramhansa Yogananda to bring a teaching that would empower this country to lead the world into an age of energy-awareness, by exemplifying the spiritual values of that age.
When we study the present and former lives of Master and Swamiji, we find that they participated very actively in the great arc of Western civilization. The masters understand that we need the backdrop for our spiritual growth, and God gives them the power to set it up for us in the right way.
Whenever a great master comes, the pulse of AUM becomes very powerful, to remind us that the spiritual teachings are not mere empty rites and intellectual abstractions, but that they offer us the living truth. The masters come to renew the timeless truths of religion. And by living those truths they show us how we, too, can find the same happiness that they know.
Over time, the truths of all religions become diluted through priestly misinterpretation. But when the masters come, the teachings blossom into a reality that we can understand with our hearts. And this is what we saw in the life of Swami Kriyananda.
Driven by their tremendous compassion for struggling humanity, the masters work very hard on our behalf. They have to work to earn money. People get angry at them and persecute them. They are dragged into the courts. And in all of these ways they interact with the backdrop.
And, in the midst of the turmoil of their earthly lives, they are asking us to ponder the most central question of all: “Where is my consciousness in relation to the divine pulse?”
Before the choir sang this morning, Karen struck a tuning fork to give the singers their notes so that they could sing together in harmony. We could say that she was playing the role of the master, reminding us to harmonize ourselves with the pulse that sustains all creation.
God is asking us to sing our own, unique melody in harmony with His great reality. He wants to play His song through us. And some of us are listening intently, or we may be distracted, or we may hear the pulse but resist attuning ourselves to it.
Master was passing out roses to some of the nuns. And when he gave one of them a yellow rose, she said, “I want a pink one.” It may have been a perfectly innocent request, indicating that she preferred the color pink. But he looked at her gravely and said, “What I give, you take.”
Our greatest mistake is to think, “I want! I want!” And the masters remind us, again and again, gently or through difficult lessons, “What I give, you take.” Because when we follow them, we find ourselves becoming inwardly harmonized with the blissful divine pulse. The sole aim of the masters is to help us find that inner attunement, because it holds our highest happiness.
I love the beautiful language in which the story of Jesus is told. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:15)
It is no small thing that we have perceived His glory. Some of those who stood next to Jesus’ physical body were unable to perceive it. Some of them heard the divine music that emanated from his presence and gave up everything to harmonize their lives with that divine sound. But there were those who could only think of how they could get rid of it as quickly as possible.
I was in Israel a little over a year ago. It was the first time I had visited the Holy Land, and because I grew up Jewish, I was interested to see the remnant of the temple from Jesus’ time.
God sent Jesus to the Jews with a divine dispensation. Judaism is a true faith that had fallen into the hands of a corrupt priesthood. Paramhansa Yogananda said that Moses was a great master, and that the teachings of Judaism are an expression of sanaatan dharma, the eternal truths of all religions. But the priests were only interested in finding ways to wrest power and wealth from religion, and their role in the drama was to be part of the backdrop.
Today, all that’s left of the temple is a huge wall that is actually just a fragment of the outer wall of the original temple complex. They’ve decided to call it the Western Wall, because “Wailing Wall” doesn’t have very good marketing appeal. And although it was just one corner of the outer support wall, the rocks are gigantic, so you can easily imagine how impressive the temple must have been. It was made to project an impression of immense weight and immovable force. And even though the priests held the worldly power, Jesus’ message was not for them.
Jesus only rarely came to Jerusalem, to wander in anonymity and pick up a few of his disciples, because he knew that their small band didn’t have a prayer against the entrenched priesthood and the heavy establishment. So he spent most of his time at the Sea of Galilee or in Capernaum, and other places where the vibration was much lighter.
The Bible tells us that Jesus was walking by the Sea of Galilee, when he saw a group of fishermen whom he recognized as his disciples, and how he said to them, “Follow me,” and they dropped everything and followed.
This is our story, how we are wandering through the backdrop of this deeply materialistic world which is exceedingly insecure and unstable. Sometimes this world is pleasing, and we can easily be fooled into imagining that it can give us what we want. And, in this country especially, we’re accustomed to thinking that we can make the world go along with our wishes.
After 9/11, there was a big public service in Palo Alto, and one of the speakers was an engineering student from Stanford. He spoke of how, by the time he was ten, his family’s home in the Middle East had been bombed four times.
The backdrop of his existence had interfered greatly with the flow of his life, in contrast to our lives in America, where we can count on being able to turn on the lights, and we have clean water, and we can walk in relative safety on our streets.
When Jesus lived, the backdrop was far from ideal. The Romans were in charge, and a significant number of Jews were longing for a Messiah who would come and deliver them from Roman rule and tell them how they could have a true relationship with God. And it was for those Jews that Jesus came. But God did not send him to improve the backdrop by driving out the Romans, because, in fact, the background can never be fixed.
Also, the backdrop isn’t the true plot of this world. This world is not our home, and the divine plot is not that we will eventually get it all perfectly organized and make it fall in line with our own vision. Some ages are higher than others, but it’s good to remember that no age is perfect on this material plane, and that at this point we have barely traversed the lower one-eighth of the ascending cycle of the yugas. So things are getting better, but they will also get worse many times before we enter the enlightened age of Satya Yuga.
We should not expect the backdrop to change very much in our lifetime, because the yugas shift very slowly, over thousands of years, and in any case, the outward scene is not the point of the story.
The true story is that the world was designed by God as a place where we can have our consciousness tested and expanded, and find out who we are. And this is why the avatars are born among us: to help us in our search. And they are constantly transmitting the call of God.
They are sending forth that call in all its power, but their physical presence is not required for us to answer the call and harmonize our lives with their consciousness.
They come to implant a great power in the world. And Paramhansa Yogananda’s special mission was to show people how they can attain divine realization by attuning themselves inwardly with the Christ consciousness.
St. Francis was born more than a thousand years after Jesus lived, yet when he walked the forests of Assisi he found Jesus walking with him. After Paramhansa Yogananda visited Assisi, he exclaimed, “Christ was everywhere!”
We can feel the blissful power of Jesus’ presence in the locations that played a part in Francis’ life – at Laverna, for example, where Jesus would come and sit on the altar while Francis was praying.
When Teresa of Avila would meet with guests from the outside world, she would excuse herself after a time, saying, “A guest is waiting for me in my cell.” And she would find Jesus waiting for her.
Jesus said to the fishermen, “Follow me.” And even now he is calling to us every day.
We go to work, we go to the grocery, and Master is always walking with us. And when he says “Follow me,” he isn’t demanding that we enter a different way of life, but that we walk where he walks, and be who he is.
People frequently ask me what they should do in response to the world situation, or the environment, or the latest elections, or whatever. There are so many alarming scenarios, and we naturally think that we should do something about it. And the response that I always give is, “Well, my friends, we are doing something,” and we’ve been doing something extremely meaningful for a very long time – we’ve been listening, and we have been following.
Whether we’re here in the church or standing in line at the supermarket or driving, we are asking ourselves where our consciousness is, and what we are doing for the good of all.
Am I going to grab the energy of the universe and try to use it for my own comfort? Am I going to cultivate the thought, “But what about me?” Or am I going to think, “How can I serve? How can I offer myself more completely to the masters to use me as an instrument for their love and joy and peace? What can I do to help others?”
Swami Kriyananda was one of the great souls whom God has sent to help renew people’s faith. And he was far ahead of the times in which he lived. As he said, “I’m just completely out of tune with this age.”
There was a teacher called Stephen Gaskin who was a leader of the hippies in the Haight Ashbury. In 1970, he gathered his people and they drove in buses to Tennessee where they started a community called The Farm.
It was at about the same time that we were starting Ananda. Swami liked and admired Stephen, because, as Swami put it, he was completely himself. He was kind of an odd duck, and Swami said, “He’s so popular because he’s completely in tune with the times.” He added, “Which reminds me that I am completely out of tune with the times, and in fact, I have no wish whatsoever to be in tune with them.” He said, “Anytime I find myself even slightly following a fad, I conscientiously extricate myself as fast as I can.” Because, he said, “I’m building for the ages.”
He was building for us and for the centuries far ahead, because he was giving Master’s great light that would help people overcome the darkness.
The back story is always about the struggle between light and dark. And it’s unthinkable to imagine that we are spreading the light so that we can change the world outwardly and have a good time and all feel good together.
When Jesus walked, he walked physically in this world, and when Yogananda walked, he walked physically. But now that their physical bodies are gone, the emanation of their presence remains, as it always will.
What was it like when they came? It was a festival of light. It was a tremendous celebration of gratitude for the outpouring of God’s consciousness that they were divinely empowered to share.
Swamiji created the Festival of Light as an offering to the world, to give us a way to celebrate the descent of the masters, and receive a touch of their light.
What does the Festival say, over and over? “Make me an instrument for the Light.” It speaks of the final stage in our soul’s long journey, in which we do nothing for ourselves, and everything for God.
What can I give? Our participation in the backdrop is very helpful to us, because it makes the spiritual principles real for us. But if we will only participate mechanically, we will be running hard and getting nowhere, like mice on a treadmill.
“Look at me, I’m the premier of the country!” How many powerful people end up in prison or prematurely dead or devastated by some great tragedy and lose everything? But those who never forget what they are here for are never forgotten by God.
We have only our consciousness. Everything else is insecure except our consciousness, and no one can take it from us. Viktor Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who was imprisoned in the Nazi concentration camp at Theresienstadt, where he had many moving experiences that he described in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning.
He was in the camp for a long time, and absolutely everything was taken from him. He said that some people, when they lost everything, lost everything, while others, when they lost everything, lost nothing. He said that it completely changed his understanding of what has value in this life.
This is our story. Wherever we go, we have complete security, because no one can touch our consciousness. And the more completely we can unite your consciousness with Jesus, the more we will feel his presence when we’re sleeping and when we get up and in every minute of our day – and the more clearly we will hear his voice saying “Follow me.”
Let us give our lives to him, and follow. God bless you.
(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on January 29, 2017.)