Do I REALLY Need a Guru?

In the beginning of our spiritual search, it’s important to create a solid foundation, because the understanding we build at the start will set a pattern for the years, decades, and even lifetimes to come. And if there’s anything wobbly, there’s a danger that it will cause us problems as time goes on.

In the first years of Ananda, our approach to constructing homes was helter-skelter. With little funds, we had to make do with the whatever resources were at hand.

Swami Kriyananda’s house was a simple dome, built on the slopes of a steep ridge that falls away to the Yuba River, far below. Most of the monks in the early days lived in ramshackle huts or small travel trailers, but one man built an actual house. Of course, “house” in those days was very different from what we would envision today. It was just one small room, but he managed to build a platform that was cantilevered out over the steep slope, giving his little dwelling a marvelous view of the canyon, river, and mountains beyond.

I imagine you can guess where the story is headed – no sooner had he put the finishing touches on his new home than – sure enough – it collapsed and spilled in a heap of broken lumber down the hillside.

I admired the way the man was able to joke about it afterward. With lighthearted detachment, he said that it was a lot like his spiritual life, because he had cantilevered it over an abyss, and he wasn’t all that clear what he was doing.

In the beginning of our search, it’s important to be very clear about what we’re letting ourselves in for.

Nowadays, there’s hardly any clarity about spiritual matters. The word “avatar,” for example, has been co-opted by the popular culture and given meanings that are completely misleading. The avatar is a very sacred concept, and it isn’t going to help our culture’s karma that we’ve been so willing to trivialize it.

The avatar is a descent of God into the world in human form. It refers to those great souls who have merged their consciousness in God, and who descend as expressions of the divine mercy to help us. And even as they are born into this world and take on a human form, their consciousness remains unbounded.

In every true religion we find that the avatar plays the central role. And while the best-known avatars are Krishna, Buddha, and Christ, many other fully realized masters have descended, such as Zoroaster, Ramakrishna, Patanjali, and Chaitanya. And the lives and teachings of the avatar always have tremendous consequences for the world.

The full effects of the avatar’s coming are never manifested during his own lifetime. The world may take notice of the avatar’s presence, but the power of his mission is much too great to be fully expressed in a single lifetime.

The avatar is a descent of infinity who sets in motion a power that needs many generations to inch its way into the general consciousness. And, depending on whether the planet is in an upward cycle of consciousness, as we are now, or a downward cycle as it was in the time of Krishna and Jesus, the avatar’s mission will manifest accordingly.

“The Last Smile” — photo taken an hour before Paramhansa Yogananda’s mahasamadhi, March 7, 1952. His divine mission will guide Dwapara Yuga, the age of energy-awareness.

For many centuries after Christ lived, his teachings had to be hidden away in catacombs and monasteries to protect them from the forces of darkness. In the Dark Ages, it was the Irish monks who saved civilization by settling at the farthest edges of the known world and bravely eking out an extremely harsh existence as they held onto the truth. And the truth that they preserved was the divine power of Christ.

It was not until a thousand years after Christ lived that the general consciousness of the planet had risen sufficiently that the teachings could be openly spread. And then it was the monks and nuns in the Christian monasteries who held the high truths alive, empowered by Christ himself.

In these times, we find ourselves at the beginning of an upward cycle of expanding consciousness. And it was for this moment that the most recent world avatar was born, in the form of Paramhansa Yogananda, to whose teachings this temple is dedicated. Paramhansa Yogananda was a fully Self-realized master who brought the divine revelation for this age.

In the world today, a great many people are empowered by darkness, but there are also many who are empowered by goodness. And while we haven’t yet come to the final conflict, it is building, because the darkness is becoming darker and the light is becoming stronger, and a tension is being created that cannot be sustained.

The co-opting of the word “avatar” reflects an utter disregard for the sacred that is deeply symptomatic of the power of darkness in the world today. Selfish politicians and evil dictators, and all of the other expressions of negativity in the world are outward expressions of the darkness, but its essence is the disregard for the sacred that makes those people’s consciousness dark – the complete absence of respect for humanity and for higher values, and even for themselves, except in terms of power and appetite and indulgence. The essential credo of the darkness today is that nothing is sacred, and it’s perfectly embodied by the communist philosophy that utterly disregards humanity and higher values.

Ananda Palo Alto church
Ananda Church of Self-Realization in Palo Alto, California.

Paramhansa Yogananda was born to lay the spiritual foundations for an ascending age. And this is why our church came to be located – oddly enough – on El Camino Real in Palo Alto.

In the early 1990s, when we were looking for a temple, the search stretched out to seven years. We investigated a number of promising churches that were for sale, but all of those options fell through.

We were looking for an environment that would be deeply pleasing to us – it would be secluded with lots of land all around, because the last thing we wanted was the constant sound of buses and sirens. But none of those cherished hopes came to fruition. And then, when we were on the point of purchasing this church, Swami Kriyananda casually remarked, “Oh, yes, that’s the one I always thought would be ours.”

And of course it was tempting to protest, “You could have saved us a lot of trouble, sir!” But he never presumed on his intuition.

We had learned that the Catholic Church was consolidating some of its dioceses, and that some of the churches would be sold. But it took seven years until this one became available. And to my way of thinking, it was profoundly symbolic of the shifting of the guard from the old, institutional ways of Kali Yuga, the former materialistic age, to the teachings that Paramhansa Yogananda brought for an expansive new age of energy-awareness.

When we began giving services here, the church was still set up the old way, with a huge cross and a big table on the dais, and it was arranged so that the priest would stand facing the altar with his back to the congregation.

It had been a devoted Catholic Church for almost fifty years, and the first time I stood up here to give Sunday service – a woman, dressed in white instead of black, and speaking English instead of Latin – I sensed the presence of all the former priests. They were standing at the rear of the room, and I could feel that they were deeply offended and annoyed.

This went on for several Sundays, until I finally said, with silent inner force, “Get over it!” My feeling was, “I bear you no malice, and I’m grateful for this church, but it is no longer yours, and it belongs to the new way.” And after that they didn’t return. And I don’t know if it was a true vision, but it felt very real.


Ananda Palo Alto church interior
Ananda Church of Self-Realization interior view.

It’s not as if we’ve repudiated Jesus, because we still pray to him. In fact, Yogananda called his teachings the second coming of Christ. So I feel it’s entirely appropriate that Self-realization should move in and take over.

The teachings of the Catholic Church have become somewhat altered from what they were in the time of Jesus, and it’s why Yogananda said that he had come to restore the original teachings of Jesus Christ, as opposed to what he called “churchianity.”

Master came to America in 1920. In 1946 he published Autobiography of a Yogi, and ever since that time the Autobiography has served as the vanguard of what we might call the ship of Yogananda’s spirit. In this age, publishing a book is the first step toward establishing a master’s mission, and the number of people in the world who’ve read the Autobiography and who’ve been influenced by it is staggering. And while it’s true that only a certain number have given their lives to the teachings, its influence has been tremendous.

Nayaswami Ananta, our former minister in Sacramento, told a story that was included in the book Loved and Protected – Miracles and Answered Prayers.

They had taken the roof off the church, and Ananta couldn’t get the city to give him a permit to replace it. As he said, the little pictures of clouds with raindrops in the weather forecast were getting closer and closer, and still he couldn’t get the city to listen.

And then he happened to meet the building inspector one day, and he introduced himself and said, “I’m the pastor of the Self-Realization church.” And before he could say another word, the man said, “‘Self-realization’ – is that about Yogananda? Hey, you know, I read that book twenty years ago.” So he and Ananta had a conversation about Self-realization, and two hours later he had his permit.

When we built Chela Bhavan, the large main house in our Ananda community, we played it very close to the edge with the building permits. There were lots of issues that needed to be resolved, and we were dealing with a man who seemed like your typical building-inspector guy, sort of gruff, with a strong exterior, because everybody’s trying to get something from him, and he isn’t about to give in easily.

So we were resolving the issues little by little, and they all seemed to be strangely breaking our way. And finally, at the end of the process, Daiva, one of our builders who now lives in Portland, had a conversation with the inspector.

The building inspector mentioned that he’d seen Yogananda’s picture all over the community. And in the course of the conversation it turned out that his mother was a direct disciple of Yogananda’s, and that he’d had a miracle cure as a child. He couldn’t remember it clearly, but he’d been miraculously healed by Paramhansa Yogananda, and now he was our building inspector – and you’ve just got to wonder about the forces at play behind the scenes.

There are so many ways the influence of an avatar spreads, and of course Autobiography of a Yogi is one of them.

The first words in the Autobiography are: “The characteristic features of the culture of India have always been the search for eternal verities, and the concomitant disciple-guru relationship.”

So here’s this book, about which Master said that it would transform the lives of millions, and it starts by telling us that our search for truth will lead inexorably to the disciple-guru relationship.

Now, discipleship isn’t a concept that Americans naturally gravitate toward. The American character says, “Thank you very much, but I can do it myself.” Or, as the New Hampshire state motto puts it, “Don’t tread on me.”

It’s a tremendous strength of this country, and one that Master praised highly. “Americans say, ‘Eventually? Eventually? Why not now?!’” That’s how he expressed it.

Lahiri Mahasaya put it slightly differently: “Banata, banata, ban jai!” Which is to say, “striving, striving – one day, the divine goal!”

Yogananda joked that in America you’ll drive by a vacant lot in the morning, and when you drive by again in the afternoon there’s a building on it. He loved the American go-getter spirit, that nothing can hold us back. It’s why we became a wealthy nation, and influential and effective in so many ways, because we aren’t looking for somebody to tell us how to do it, or to do it for us.

But there is an eternal verity that cannot be denied, and it says that without the help of a guru you cannot attain Self-realization.

It can be a little disconcerting at first, because it sounds like just another imposition of religious authority. You might even think it sounds like the “churchianity” that Paramhansa Yogananda rejected, which says that you can’t get into heaven without the intercession of a priest. And not just any priest, but the priest of our particular church. And not just the specially appointed priest, but you must perform the right ceremonies. And, incidentally, it may cost you a little.

Hinduism is just as confused. A friend of ours, an Indian man, said to me that you can’t practice Hinduism on your own because you have to get a priest, a pujari, to practice it for you. You have to pay the pujari to do the proper ceremonies, and that’s their profession, to know how to do all the ceremonies. It isn’t institutionalized in the way that religion is here in the West, but it’s the same kind of Kali Yuga thinking, where the institution and the rigid rules and ceremonies are the most important thing.

Paramhansa Yogananda taught that the only place God can truly be worshipped is in the human body. “At the inner end of the human nervous system,” he said, “the mind, interiorized, communes with God.” Which means that we must look inward in our search for the Divine.

It’s not in the churches, and it’s not in the confessional. It’s not in the ceremonies or the Vedic rituals before the sacred fire. It’s in our own consciousness that we can find God hiding. Kriya Yoga puts the responsibility for our spiritual lives entirely in our own hands, which is something that Americans can understand and wholeheartedly relate to.

But then he talks about the disciple-guru relationship. We have pictures of the gurus on our altar, and we say prayers that name the gurus. And, quite apart from any personal resistance we may feel toward religious organizations, this is the right foundation. Because, while we have to recognize our unlimited potential, we also need to acknowledge our extremely limited ability to achieve our potential without the guru’s help.

People would challenge Swami Kriyananda, particularly in the early years, “Why do I have to have a Guru?” “Do I really need a guru?” And Swami would reply, “Not if you don’t think so.”

If you don’t think you need a guru, you don’t, because your need for a guru depends on what you’re trying to accomplish.

It helps to realize that we aren’t talking about discipleship to a particular master; we’re talking about the larger principle – that without the help of these perfected beings, these descents of God in the flesh who’ve come to serve as our guides, we are sunk.

But not if you don’t think so. Because you have to reach a point in your own understanding where you know that what you want is far beyond what you’re able to grasp with your own mind, or achieve by your own will power.

Nobody can persuade you of that truth. You can only come to respect those in spiritual authority, who have what you want, in your own time.

In 1969, when I was twenty-two, I had the extraordinary blessing to meet Swami Kriyananda. I knew about Self-realization, because I had been studying the teachings of Sri Ramakrishna, who was an avatar. He lived in the 1800s, and his power, both then and now, can still be felt everywhere in India. There are many temples dedicated to Ramakrishna in this country, and I would go to them and talk with the swamis, and the teaching was extremely elevated and consistent with what I follow today. But it was a different family, so to speak, in the great nation of those who follow the all-embracing truths of Sanaatan Dharma.

I would go to East West Bookstore, which was in Menlo Park at the time, and I would browse and buy books and study them. But then every morning I would get up and go to work, and hack at the little job I had. And then I would go home and have my dinner and visit with the people who were my friends, and then I’d go to sleep and get up again. And Yogananda had a perfect phrase to describe my existence – in the Autobiography he calls it the “anguishing monotony” of these endless earthly lives.

So I was reading everything about Self-realization that I could get my hands on, and I’d begun trying to meditate in earnest. But I had run smack up against the fact that I was incapable of seeing past the consciousness I already had.

I could read that there was a higher consciousness, and listen to people talk about it, and I could believe it, but no matter what I did, there seemed to be a wall around me, and I didn’t have the power to lift myself out of it.

And then Lakshmi Selbie, who lives at Ananda Village, phoned me and said, “I have met a real teacher, and I think you’ll like him.”

So I went, and I knew absolutely nothing about him. And then he walked into the room, and in that moment I saw the consciousness that was described in the books and lectures. I don’t know how I knew, but he was different than anyone I’d met. And where my consciousness was like a box, and I felt so confined by it, Swami walked in, and the only way I can describe my first impression is that I could not see or feel the edges of him.

One of my first plans to get out of the box of my own consciousness had been that I would have a dozen children, so I would multiply myself. But I realized that they would be on the outside of the box, and they wouldn’t break it open. So I knew that it was my own limitations that were torturing me. And then Swami walked in.

It was a small room, and I sat as far away as possible because I’d come with people who didn’t really want to be there. But when he walked in, his consciousness came all the way back and sailed right by me, and I didn’t know where it was.

My first thought was, “He has it – he has what I want.” It wasn’t a rational deduction. It was a bigger part of me that simply knew. And how was I going to get from here to there? I didn’t have the foggiest idea. I could have quoted all the books and said all the right words, but I didn’t know.

So that was the point at which I accepted, “Yes, I need a guru.” And I knew that I was looking at someone who could take me there.

He talked to us about Paramhansa Yogananda and the Autobiography of a Yogi, all of which was vaguely known to me, but none of it had touched me until I saw it manifested before me.

Now, Swami Kriyananda is no longer on the planet, and Yogananda is long gone. But the power that defines them never leaves. Yogananda said, speaking of the power of pilgrimage, “Wherever a great master has lived, his consciousness remains there forever.”

In actual fact, where a master lives is anywhere we are willing to make the effort to draw him. In the Festival of Light, the minister reads: “When we need You, Lord, our Beloved, You descend. Our human griefs Your love alone can mend. By proud indifference unaffected, though eternally rejected, You remain our Friend.”

No matter how many times by my proud indifference I reject Him, He remains my Friend. That’s what’s happening all over the planet at this time, isn’t it: proud indifference. And still, though eternally rejected, “You remain our Friend.”

Why does the avatar descend? Why do the masters come to this world? They have nothing to gain here. Yet they come again and again – “From a life of infinite joy and freedom in God, willingly to embrace limitation, pain, and death for the salvation of mankind.”

The master lives like us and seems to suffer like us, willingly embracing limitation and death so that we can pick up a copy of the Autobiography of a Yogi, or look at a picture of Yogananda, or feel the presence of Christ. Or maybe we can go to a Buddhist temple and know that there is something there that I don’t have, and that I want.

As soon as we say “I want this,” we open the door, and then the avatar descends. But where he most truly descends is into our hearts. At some point in our spiritual life, it becomes a relationship of heart to heart, and when that inner relationship begins to be formed, that’s when the master can say, “Now I will take charge of your life.”

God bless you.

(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on February 4, 2018.)

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