Approximately two centuries after Jesus died, there was a convocation of church fathers who sat down and decided which scriptures would be included in the New Testament, and which would be left out.
The underlying assumption was alarming: “This is what Jesus taught, because eighty of us got together, and sixty of us say so.”
The tradition in India is very different. The ancient Indian scriptures are based on an objective, scientific study of reality, as a result of which the sages arrived at a set of universal principles that are timeless and unchanging, and which they called Sanaatan Dharma – “the eternal truth.”
“Truth is one and eternal,” as we say in the Festival of Light. People are capable of understanding more or less of the truth, but there are certain eternal principles that are fundamental to all true religions. One of these truths is the guru-disciple relationship, and another is reincarnation.
The teaching of reincarnation gives us answers to many pressing questions about our lives. What does death mean? What does birth mean? Where did we come from? Where are we going? What is the goal?
These are questions that cannot be answered by taking a vote. Reincarnation isn’t a question of individual taste. “Well, you may reincarnate, but I’ve decided not to.”
Through many lives, and by countless lessons, we gradually begin to understand the eternal truths of Sanaatan Dharma.
A member of our community was born of an Indian father and an American mother. The father had been extremely happy to shake off the dust of India – he was so pleased to come to America; and now he’s absolutely horrified that his half-Indian son has embraced everything that he ran away from.
Who can say where our intuitive grasp of the eternal truths comes from? We don’t come around to understanding something simply because there’s a certain logic to it, but because we recognize the truth of it in the depths of our hearts.
I wasn’t raised with the concept of reincarnation, but when I was introduced to it, at age nineteen, there was something in me that immediately recognized, “Oh, this is true! This is what I’ve been looking for.”
Reincarnation was such an interesting idea for me. It wasn’t that I had memories of my own past lives, but it just made so much sense. It explained many things that didn’t seem to have any rhyme or reason to them, if we were to assume that birth was the beginning, and death was the end.
It made sense to me that there was progress from one life to the next, and that that we were all moving toward something that was much more expansive than we could achieve in the tiny cycle of one life.
The mother of a friend of mine was dying. She was a sweet woman, and she said, “I thought that as I got older I would get wiser, but I didn’t.”
We imagine that we’ll become wiser with the passing of the years. And I hope that when I’m re-born, I’ll recognize that the adults around me may have a little more experience, but we’re basically all in the same boat. Maybe you’re bigger and you can drive a car, but as we get older we realize that we don’t automatically become wise. And the upshot is that we must either apply ourselves and try to understand this life on deeper levels, or time will pass and there will be no accumulation of wisdom, but only of years.
While I was shopping recently, I saw a man who was big and powerful, with gym-created muscles. He wore a shirt with the emblem of a professional basketball team. And as I watched him, I didn’t know what to think, so I just tried to remember that we are all children of God, and that we are moving toward God in our own ways. Because we’re looking out at the world with our own understanding, and that’s all we can do.
When I was introduced to the idea of reincarnation, I didn’t resist it, because it made so much sense. But I was far too independent to take it for granted, so I began to try to understand it by looking at the world as if it were true.
I would wonder about my own likes and dislikes, and where they had come from, and the horrible consequences of my own past actions that I couldn’t remember, but that seemed to be causing a terrible mess in my life right now.
I read about two people from the same family who both won the lottery. And just imagine the karma. There’s a woman at Ananda Village, Mary Weber, who wins every raffle she enters, to the extent that Swamiji was tempted to suggest that she make a profession of it.
She won a raffle that hundreds of thousands of people had entered, and she and her husband got to ride on a float in the Rose Parade. And how does that happen? What are the forces at play? We’ve all heard stories of people who were in the right place at the right time. And it’s all part of the great cycle that Master called “the spiral stairway of awakening.”
The point of reincarnation is the same as the central truth of the spiritual path, which is that we must never lose hope.
Many years ago at Ananda Village, we had a treasure hunt, and a girlfriend of mine wrote lots of extremely clever clues. One was: “Hope is where you find it.” The “treasure” was a little note that I had in my pocket, because my name means “hope.” And of course nobody guessed it. But because “Asha” means hope, and because it’s the name that Swami gave me around 1972, I’ve given it a great deal of thought
If you lose hope, it’s all over. “I’ll never be a success.” “I’ll never have my health again.” “This relationship is never going to work.” “I’ll never be a mother.”
Some friends of mine were having lots of trouble with their teenage son, and they went to see Swami. The mother was weeping, and the father didn’t know what to do. They were wailing, “What are we going to do with this boy?”
Swamiji very calmly said, “Well, sometimes you get a lemon.” And they were horrified.
He let that thought rest for a while, and then he said, “But I don’t think so.”
But, yes, sometimes you do get a dud. You may have conceived the child and carried it, but you didn’t make its karma or its destiny.
As Swami said, the physical body makes a vehicle for the soul and its destiny, but the parents don’t make the soul or its destiny. And, depending on your karma and the child’s, sometimes you’ll get a lemon. But the larger spiritual issue is whether you’ll lose hope, because that’s when, as Paramhansa Yogananda said, you’ll have lost the battle, at least for this lifetime.
It’s when people, in their desperation, commit suicide or turn to drugs. They reach out for the things people grasp at to try to close down their consciousness, because they can no longer see any hope.
But the world looks very different when we bring reincarnation into the picture, because we realize that the story cannot end until it ends happily – in fact, in the greatest happiness.
In his autobiography, The New Path: My Life with Paramhansa Yogananda, Swami tells a story about one of his fellow monks, Norman Paulsen. Norman had a wonderfully loving heart, but he was very emotional and dramatic, and whenever he became depressed, he would hit rock bottom.
Swami was new to the monastery, and when he saw that Norman was in one of his moods, he said very cheerfully, “Well, Norman, how long can it last? Forty or fifty years?” And Norman wasn’t terribly comforted. But for Swami it seemed like great news, because it’s only our wrong concept of time that robs us of our hope, by making us imagine that our tests will never end.
Reincarnation opens the door for eternal optimism. But to reach the goal requires lots of patient self-discipline – tapasya, as it’s called in India. And it requires lots of kshama, a deep, patient recognition that I just need to keep standing in my center until all of these difficult karmas will finally work themselves out.
As Master said, it’s a spiral stairway at every step of the way, and each step builds upon the ones before. And even though you may not be aware of how far you’ve come, it’s good to remind yourself that your life is happening within a tremendous flow of divine energy that’s rushing toward a happy ending.
Several years ago, here in our Palo Alto Sangha, we performed a play called “The Meeting of the Masters,” which was written by one of our members, Kristy Norfleet, who’s since passed away. It was based on stories of Paramhansa Yogananda and his most highly advanced disciples, and I was particularly struck by the story of Kamala Silva, a disciple who met Master as a young girl. Kamala’s mother was a disciple, and Master had become, in a sense, part of their family.
When we were young devotees, we had great respect for Kamala, because she had prayed to be able to work out all her karma in this lifetime. It’s a prayer that I wouldn’t dare pray, because of the courage it would take. But I found it very interesting how she expressed the desire – she asked that all of her “karmic debts be settled.”
We are manifested from God, who put us here to see what we would do with the illusion of freedom. And we must all sooner or later find the courage to shake off this illusion and make the effort to be free.
In the very early years at Ananda Village, when it was so small and we were running around like crazy people trying to make this work of Master’s happen, I remember thinking that maybe it was an extremely sophisticated experiment with lunatics. Maybe God had given us this enormous illusion of freedom, and maybe He was observing us closely. He had given this group of crazy people the illusory feeling that they were running the asylum, and what would they do?
And, really, it’s not so far from the truth, because God has manifested us to see what we will do. It’s a divine experiment on a grand scale, and what it all ultimately boils down to is that it’s a test of our capacity to love.
When we think of our human relationships, we find that we are acting out a great cosmic drama, on our own scale. Everything that happens on a cosmic level is being acted out on this level as well. And because the cosmic truths are difficult to understand as abstractions, we have to be very active in this world so that we can experience them for ourselves.
We have to have children, and we have to love them. We have to have husbands and wives and siblings and friends, so that we can have lots of experiences that will help us learn.
“Will you still love me?” “Will I still love you?” Human love is a tricky business, because we’re so attuned to the idea that true love is what we’ll feel when love comes to us in certain ways we’ve carefully defined. And the goal is, over a long span of time, to gain a greatness of heart where our love will be unconditioned by anything that happens to us.
Please don’t feel bad if you don’t have perfect love. Just remember that we are manifestations of the Divine, and that pure, unconditioned love is a central quality of the Divine that lives within us.
We were sent here to find out what stuff we are made of. Are we capable of holding the power of love that most truly defines us at our core, and the gift of love that never changes – love to you, and you, and you, and to the Divine?
That is the whole exercise in a nutshell. And the point of this great story is that we instinctively know that we were not meant to suffer. Deep in our hearts, we know that we were meant to be in perfect bliss.
There is a quiet awareness in us that is always whispering, “And, and, and…” We’re always thinking that there has to be something more. And whether we try to act out that yearning by murdering people, in the mistaken belief that they are the source of our limitation, it’s all part of the process of learning from our experiences.
I hope that no one in this room is still capable of that level of delusion, but it does cross our minds occasionally, doesn’t it – that you’re the problem, and if I could just get rid of you I would feel a little freer. But what people who act on that impulse fail to understand, in the heat of the moment, is that it will create a crushingly painful lesson, designed to help us open our hearts and develop compassion.
It’s relatively easy to envision ourselves standing in our own perfect center and one with the infinite Spirit. But then what happens is that we catch a whiff of some illusory satisfaction, and we try to capture it for ourselves by grabbing something that doesn’t belong to us. And in the end we discover that it was all for naught, because it was never our own, and that it’s not up to you to be good enough for me to love you, but it’s up to me to be good enough to love you. And whenever we believe otherwise, we find ourselves suddenly feeling out of balance, because we’ve grasped for something outside ourselves that wasn’t ours, and we’re being forced to learn to let it go.
People take Kriya initiation, and they’re so enthusiastic about their new life. “I’m practicing Kriya, and I’m raising the kundalini, and I’m moving the energy through my chakras, and I’m feeling very happy.” And then someone comes along and says, “Oh, you’ve taken Kriya – now your life is going to get really hard!”
No, no, no, no, no! Now your life is going to get really wonderful. You may have to start repaying those old karmic debts. But the gains far outweigh any effort that’s involved.
I’ve taken something that was never mine, and now it’s bound to be taken away from me. Because, as Swami said, all of our karma has to come back to zero.
We have so many karmic debts to pay off, and we find ourselves in the weirdest situations. Our bodies fall apart, our lives fall apart, our children disappoint us, and we have to find our way through it all. We have to love the child unconditionally, and we have to discover in all these various ways that my life isn’t what I imagined it was supposed to be. And there’s nothing wrong with the process, because it’s simply what is.
Swamiji had a wonderful way of coming to peace with people’s suffering. For many years, I imagined that he was above suffering, but I gradually realized that it was a serious misunderstanding, because his heart was so tender, and so much more so than any other heart I had known.
Last summer I made the long drive to northern Washington. I had never listened to Swamiji read Master’s Autobiography of a Yogi. And if you haven’t done so, I strongly recommend it, because he reads it with such sensitive attention. And one of the things that stood out for me is how many occasions there are in that book where Master weeps.
He’s a Self-realized avatar who’s living in a state of perfect bliss, and he’s come here solely to help us. But in doing so he has taken on the human condition, in all its poignancy. He weeps for his mother, and he weeps for his brother. He and his brother Ananta were never particularly close, but when Ananta was dying he was heartbroken, and he went to Japan because he couldn’t bear to be there when he died. The poignancy of this world affected him deeply. And it’s a great misunderstanding to imagine that it’s somehow spiritual to be hard-hearted.
When people suffer, they really are suffering. I remember feeling deeply upset about something, and someone lightly remarked, “Now, don’t be attached!”
I thought, “What a stupid thing to say to me!” Of course I’m attached. That’s why I’ve incarnated. I’m filled with desires and attachments. Don’t say the obvious thing to me. I am attached, and the only sensible question is what are we going to do about it? How can we be ourselves, and at the same time continue to keep climbing up the spiral staircase?
Swami had a very wise way of thinking about suffering. Suffering causes us to think more deeply about life, doesn’t it? And if our lives were always flowing perfectly, why would we ever want to ask those deep questions?
When your life begins to break apart, that’s when you’re forced to ask the really important questions.
Oliver Black was Master’s second most advanced male disciple, after Rajarsi Janakananda. He was running a center for Master in Detroit, and one day he said, “Master, all I get is the blind, the halt, and the lame.” And Master said, “Oliver, they are your people!”
We are the stumbling ones who’ve come to God because we’ve hit the wall with everything else. And on one side of the picture, when people are suffering we should rejoice for them, though by no means unkindly. Yes, you have to get more serious about the big questions. Yes, you have to be disappointed. Yes, those things that you mistakenly seized as your own will have to be taken away. Those karmic debts will have to be resolved.
But the other side, as Swamiji frequently said, is that after we’ve been really unhappy, how much more we appreciate happiness when it comes. He said that after intense suffering, how much greater will be the joy when you find the bliss of God, and when you realize that you didn’t really need any of it anyway. It was something I took that wasn’t mine, and now I know that everything I truly own is here within me.
So we keep climbing the spiral staircase, and we come around again and again and keep trying. It’s like what we say jokingly about Ananda’s growth, that we’re just as poor as ever, but with more zeros.
And maybe we’ve learned to be a little more subtle about love, a little more subtle about friendship, a little more subtle about self-importance, a little more subtle about generosity. And each time the lesson won’t be easy, but we’ll find in the end that it’s really very simple. It’s the understanding that, Lord, if You’ve given it to me, it’s mine, and if You give it to me, You have to give me the power to overcome it. And that’s the beauty of it.
I recently re-read a letter that Swamiji wrote a to someone who was experiencing a great trial. “I know how much God is asking of you,” he said. “But it’s your karma, and if you have the courage to face it, He will give you the strength.”
God’s is the hidden power that we can invoke to overcome every test in our lives. And we have all the time in the world to learn our lessons. Go ahead and fail. Fail for forty or fifty years, if you need to. Fail for forty or fifty incarnations if you must. Sooner or later the longing of the heart, and our love for God, and God’s love for us will lift us and we will be free.
God bless you.
(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on November 19, 2017.)