In the great Indian epic, the Mahabharata, the five main heroes, the Pandava brothers, set out in search of a deer that has impaled on its antlers a fire-making tool that belongs to a Brahmin.
After tracking the deer for a many hours in the hot sun, the Panavas are desperately thirsty. Yet when they arrive at a beautiful lake, Lord Yama, the God of Death, appears and warns them, “Before you can drink, you must answer my questions, or the crystal-clear waters of this lake will poison you and you will die.”
The four younger brothers, brashly self-assured, drink the water and die. But the elder brother, Yudishthira, who is an incarnation of Dharma, divine duty and righteousness, courteously submits to the crane’s questions despite his intense thirst.
A long philosophical discussion ensues, and then Yama asks Yudishthira the ultimate question: “What is the greatest wonder?”
Yudishthira says, “Oh, that’s very easy to answer. Day after day countless people die, yet the living wish to live forever. O Lord, what can be a greater wonder?”
This is the essential fact of our lives – that everything changes. Death is merely the most dramatic change, since it interrupts everything. Even in the midst of the most difficult trials, we get to keep something – we still have a sense of our self in relation to the world around us. But in death nothing of ourselves remains in this world.
It’s fascinating to see how the personality persists, even after a person has lost their mental faculties, and in the final moments before they die.
My father had an obscure health episode at some point in the final two years of his life – we never knew if it was a stroke or a decrease in the oxygen supply to his brain, but the result was that there was an abrupt shift in his intellectual capacity.
My father was a wonderful man, but he could be a little persnickety. He was a Virgo, and he had lots of anxieties about small things. But after this life-changing event, he suddenly forgot what he was worried about. The sweetness of his nature was liberated from the prison of his exacting mind, and it was delightful to see how he became such a dear soul.
His brother, whom I also got to know in his later years, was a very nice man, but very controlling. When I visited him toward the end of his life, there was a bagel on a paper plate that was taped to a table, and my uncle had written on it, “Do not move this bagel.”
His wife, who lived almost as long as he did, would say, “Theodore, what do you think would happen if that bagel was moved?” So they would chat back and forth, but he was adamant that the bagel would not be moved. He had lost the ability to run his world, but by God, he was going to hold onto that bagel. Fortunately, he wasn’t unpleasant about it, just emphatic, so we left the bagel, and it stayed there for about two years.
I doubt there are any of us who haven’t experienced difficult life changes – and they are not a joke. We work so hard to get our life in order and arranged exactly the way we like it, only to have it all taken away.
My friend Tushti had cancer. Her death came slowly over the final weeks, and we were able to watch everything very gradually being taken from her, piece by piece, until she was unmoving and all that was left of her was a tiny breath and a tiny heartbeat, and nothing else.
She was still completely there, but when she stopped breathing, she was clearly and emphatically no longer with us, even though there had been barely enough life in her to sustain the body.
And, my, my – that’s the end that awaits us, isn’t it? The carefully constructed story of our lives, and the tremendous effort we expend to take care of our bodies and set up our little systems will someday be reduced to a final breath, and then no part of us will remain in this world.
I have my little systems, as I’m sure you have yours. I like to do this little thing before that thing, and I like to keep the sponge here and the towel there. And, in the end, what difference does it all make?
Insofar as we rely on our little systems for our sense of happiness and security, we will be astonished to find that it’s all hopeless in the end.
It’s hopeless because it can never stay the same. But, you see, that isn’t actually such bad news.
I’m reminded of how Jesus talked with his disciples. At the Last Supper he tells them:
Behold, the hour cometh, yea, is now come, that ye shall be scattered, every man to his own, and shall leave me alone: and yet I am not alone, because the Father is with me. These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world. (John 16:25-33)
Now, his disciples were having a rough time, and Jesus is telling them that it’s going to get even tougher because the world will scorn them for embracing his reality. And then he utters those wonderful words: “But be of good cheer; I have conquered the world.”
He isn’t speaking of the physical person of Jesus, or telling them that he will come in a flaming chariot to conquer the world. He’s comforting them – I, the infinite awareness, stand above this world.
A friend of mine was diagnosed with terminal cancer, at a time when he was facing a completely fraudulent, terrible lawsuit. He was in so much trouble, and because I felt a great deal of sympathy for him I called a friend who’s an attorney, and I said, “Can you help this guy?”
He said, “Sure, just tell him to come to my house and bring his bank records.”
“Oh,” I said, “in addition to the cancer and the lawsuit, I forgot to tell you, his house burned down and he has no records of any kind.”
My friend the attorney, who had worked for a long time in the field of family law, said, “Yes – yes, it would. It would burn down.”
I love that. Of course it would burn down, because we’re in a cycle where we’re losing everything, and we’re having an incarnation where nothing goes right.
We’re born into this ever-changing world which is marked by chaos and confusion. And by the grace of God we are only aware of our former lives in the vaguest way.
People who’ve recently come onto the path will often ask why we can’t remember our past incarnations. And, just think about it. Consider how much effort you’ve expended in this present life to sort out one mother, one father, one set of siblings, one physical body, two kidneys, and all of the complexities of living this one life. And then imagine hundreds of thousands and millions of mothers, fathers, disappointments, and kidneys. And think how you might go completely mad if you were suddenly confronted with all those lives.
Nevertheless, those lives remain with us as subtle impressions – samskars, as they’re called in the Sanskrit language. There is no equivalent word in English – “samskars” means the impressions that have been formed in our consciousness in past lives, and that are pushing us in certain directions in this life, whether we’re aware of them or not.
I chose a particular father and mother and siblings because my samskars, the subtle impressions in my consciousness, made them suitable for me.
It’s because of our samskars that we perceive the world in our own unique way. Even as small children, we see the world in a way that reflects the countless other times we’ve been born.
Most people will rush out and embrace this most recent of many lives, because it’s just all so very exciting and so much fun, while others will hunker down and pull the covers up over their heads and barely move. And then there are a few who, because of the subtle impressions of their samskars, have begun to suspect that there’s something fishy about this picture.
I remember, when I was eight years old, standing at the front window of my parents’ house at 3809 Hillcrest Drive in El Paso, Texas and staring at the man across the street who was pushing his lawn mower. And I remember thinking that there was something else going on.
I didn’t know about the spiritual eye, but I remember wrinkling my brows and concentrating very hard and thinking that if I would just stare long enough at the man with his mower, he would shift into what he really was.
I couldn’t have told you what he really was, but I knew he wasn’t what he appeared to be. And I knew that none of it was as it appeared, even though the people all around me seemed to be going along with the game and behaving as if it was real. And it’s into this confusing, chaotic world that the masters come. They come, as we sing in a song by Swami Kriyananda, “seeking grieving hearts to mend.”
Each Sunday we repeat the story of the coming of the masters. “A prayer of love went up from Earth, and God responded.” A being descends into a human form from the divine consciousness, a being who sees the divine light of Spirit in everything, and who knows the path that can lead us out of change and disappointment.
Swami Kriyananda said something very interesting about the way he had lived in this world. At a time when there was lots of chaos and confusion in our community, and relentless attacks from outside, he said, “I never demand anything of you.” He said, “I’ve never asked anything of you. I’ve merely lived my life with enthusiasm, and welcomed those who wanted to come with me.”
Now, that is the way a true teacher helps us. If he were to try to force himself upon us – “This is what you must do!” – or if he tried to frighten us or grab us and turn us in the right direction, it would no longer be our path that he was giving us, it would be his path.
When the masters come, they live with tremendous joy and enthusiasm. They personify everything that we are longing for, and we say, “Ah, that is what I’m looking for!”
All of you who are sitting here in this room have found something that resonated deeply with you. You recognized it with every cell of your being as your own, and you said, “This is what I want. This is what I’ve been looking for.”
Whether someone handed you the Autobiography, or you were attracted to the church, or you came to a class or a Sunday service, you recognized that it was offering something that you wanted.
My own recognition was dramatic. Approximately two years before I met Swamiji, a friend gave me a book by Swami Vivekananda, and I immediately recognized that it was pointing me toward something I desperately wanted. And the first time I saw Swami Kriyananda, I knew: “Ah – that’s what it is.”
I knew: this is what a human being is supposed to look like. And it wasn’t his face or his physical form, but the extremely magnetic and enthusiastic aura of joy and spiritual freedom that I felt as he walked into the room.
For the first time, I saw someone who looked like they were supposed to look. When I was eight years old and watched the man with his lawn mower, I saw that his whole consciousness was about his lawn mower and his lawn and his little house. And it was perfectly nice, but his consciousness was limited to pushing a lawn mower. And as I watched Swami Kriyananda walk into the room, I felt that his consciousness was absolutely unbounded, because he had met a great liberated being who had taken the form of Paramhansa Yogananda, and he had given himself completely to his Guru’s light.
Although Jesus came to the world in a human form, his consciousness had no boundaries. In the Bible we find wonderful stories that tell how his disciples, when they first glimpsed him, instantly recognized what he was and what he could give them.
He was walking by the Sea of Galilee when some fishermen saw him, and they were immediately attracted. Jesus said to them, “Follow me.” And who knows what else he might have said. But his radiance was such that they felt it, and they understood and followed.
I don’t remember a single that Swami Kriyananda said on the day I met him, but I got the message, and I vividly remember the occasion.
This is what Jesus offered to his disciples. He gave them a touch of his consciousness, and he said, “Follow me.” And they knew in their hearts what he had, without the slightest need for labyrinthine reasoning.
When Jesus taught in the temple, he interpreted the ancient scriptures in a way that set up a new and very different understanding of Judaism, and it was the beginning of the conflagration that would follow. The disciples could have chosen to follow any of the rabbis who taught in the temple, but Jesus was radiating such a transcendent aura of divine bliss and enthusiasm that they felt it with every cell of their bodies, and they knew that he had the truth they were longing for.
Jesus captured them heart, mind, and soul, in such a direct and powerful way that they would never dream of turning back, because they had felt what he had, and they had given themselves to him completely.
Jesus taught them, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God.” And where is the kingdom of God? As Jesus taught them, it is within you.
In one of Swami Kriyananda’s songs, “The Temptation of Christ,” the devil says:
Behold all the wonders God’s grace can bestow:
If you but reclaim what you’ve given.
Why not ask of God any wonder you crave?
Worship means to satisfy all human needs.
Dominion now over all this noble earth!
All I ask of you is: Worship me!
But Jesus and his followers wouldn’t dream of reclaiming what they’d been given, because the Christ consciousness had won them over completely. Jesus had given them a touch of the true light, and they had given him everything. And then he began to take them to places that they wouldn’t necessarily have chosen to go on their own.
Jesus said to Peter, “You now go everywhere you want, but later they will bind you and take you into places you don’t want to go.” He was speaking of the difficulties that Peter would endure. But he was also talking about our tests.
When we enter the spiritual life, there’s a kind of honeymoon period when we can still more or less get what we want, and it’s so much fun compared to what we’d been doing. But then God challenges us to go deeper. He gives us tests that force us to examine our consciousness and strive harder to know Him. “What do I really believe? What is true? What can I give my heart to? How great is my faith in what I’ve experienced?”
It isn’t that our tests will throw us into a turmoil of doubts over whether Jesus is a true master, or Kriyananda is a great soul, or Yogananda is an avatar. We can hash over these things forever intellectually, without coming to a conclusion that will satisfy our souls.
There’s story about a woman sadhu who became convinced that Sri Ramakrishna was an avatar, a fully Self-realized being, and so she convened a convention of pundits to find out. I love India, and that is so Indian, to gather a convention of pundits to decide some weighty spiritual issue.
When they were all gathered, the idea was that they would talk about whether Ramakrishna was an avatar, and they would consult the scriptures and have a discussion about it. So they had their little get-together and they talked and discussed while Ramakrishna sat there, and afterwards he said to his disciples, “What do you know, they say I’m an avatar!”
The way he said it was very childlike – well, now, isn’t that interesting – that’s what they say.
But it was all just words, and Ramakrishna was having fun with it. Because what awakens the light within us is the avatar’s consciousness, not his words. And for our part, what matters is how much we can make that light the single reality of our lives.
The week between Palm Sunday and Easter was a dramatic time for the disciples of Jesus. Jesus had got everybody’s attention. He had raised Lazarus from the dead, and the word had gone out about this great miracle, which was impossible to dismiss. So things were heating up with the authorities, and to have Lazarus walking among them, after he’d been dead in the tomb, was something they couldn’t lightly gloss over.
Those who were trying to get rid of Jesus were becoming increasingly alarmed and incensed. But the disciples were filled with a spirit of joyous expectation as they entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, thinking that they not only had the inner rebirth, but that Jesus would now be recognized as the Messiah, and that the priests and the people would come around and be changed, and that they would recognize what he was. And, instead, by the end of the week they had crucified him.
And what was the disciples’ reaction? Before the cock crowed, Peter had denied not once but three times that he knew Jesus, because he was terrified that they, too, would be killed.
On Easter morning, Mary went to the tomb, and when she found Jesus’ body missing, her first thought was, “Oh, those rascals, not only have they killed him, they’ve taken his body away.” Because she was mightily peeved, as we can imagine.
Her first thought was that the Roman soldiers, not content with crucifying him, had done something worse. And then she found Jesus standing before her, and everything that she had deeply felt to be true was suddenly affirmed.
When she tried to tell the others what had happened, they understandably had a hard time wrapping their minds around such a radical notion. But in the evening, when they were gathered together behind locked doors for fear of the authorities, Jesus appeared to them in the flesh, and they found that everything they had hoped for was true, and that the reality that he had showed them transcended even death.
And then nothing else mattered – the humiliations, the suffering, the fear and disappointment – none of it meant anything, compared to his radiant presence. And, “Be of good cheer,” he told them. “I have conquered the world.”
This is why Easter continues to hold us with extraordinary power, because everything that we’ve ever hoped for was shown to be true. Death itself is nothing. Sorrow of all kinds is nothing. Every story, every journey, and every suffering is as nothing, because they are all resurrected in bliss.
When we choose God, we have not chosen the world. The world may continue to trouble us – but be of good cheer, as Jesus said, for I have conquered the world.
God bless you.
(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on April 16, 2017.)