In a conversation with Swami Kriyananda many years ago, he referred to the life of Jesus as “the greatest story ever told.” And because he had trained me as wordsmith, I said, “Really, Swamiji, would you say that about his life – ‘the greatest story ever told’?” Because it’s been used so often that I wondered if it was still the best way to refer to it.
When Swami answered, his entire demeanor changed. Like a child, with eyes wide, he said, “Yes – don’t you think so?”
It was a powerful reminder that there are many dimensions on the spiritual path.
On the one hand, our Sunday service readings raise questions of a deep philosophical nature – for example, today’s subject is twofold: “Who was the Son of Man?” And what does it mean when the Bible tells us that Jesus was “lifted up”?
On the other hand, we have the enduring human story of Jesus that continues to touch our hearts today.
At a time when Swamiji was writing about Yogananda, he lamented that, compared to the story of Jesus, Master’s life was relatively un-dramatic. Although he had to face betrayals, financial challenges, persecutions, and lawsuits, you really wouldn’t refer to his life as “the greatest story ever told.”
Swami said that when he first began writing about Master he resented this a bit, because he was thinking as the playwright he had once planned to be, and there simply wasn’t the same drama in Master’s life.
But, as he explained, the reason Master’s life didn’t have the same outward drama is that the emphasis today needed to be on the teachings, rather than the events of his own life.
We no longer need a story with such high drama, because the world has entered an age when people are capable of being inspired by the principles he brought that carry a power to restore the eternal truths to their rightful place, even as the story of Jesus did, in its time.
Nevertheless, our human hearts are captivated by a good story. I recently visited a friend and her four-year-old son, and when I was left alone with the little boy, he turned to me and said, “Tell me a story – I love stories!”
It was so sweet to see how his heart longed to listen to a good story. It reflected a truth of Swami’s system for educating children, where we’re always relating to them at their own level. And children are constantly engaged with stories.
At the time when Jesus lived, the world was passing through an age when human understanding could only comprehend truth through solid images. And this is why the example that Jesus set had to be very dynamic and concrete, so that people could relate to it from their own understanding. And also, so that his message would have the power to endure during a period of great darkness that would sweep over the world for eight hundred years, when the barbarians would pose a terrible threat to people everywhere.
His message could not have survived, if it had been expressed with subtle ideas, because those high truths needed to be impressed on people’s hearts with great power.
In 1893, when Paramhansa Yogananda was born, the world was just six years away from entering Dwapara Yuga, a higher age when the consciousness of mankind would be capable of grasping truth in subtler forms.
Yogananda came with a mission to restore the clarity of the original teachings of East and West, in order to rescue religion from the confusion into which it had fallen, and to give people a renewed sense of the high purpose of their lives.
Toward that end, he brought out aspects of Jesus’ teachings that could not have been revealed formerly – such as what really happened during the “lost years” of his life. And this is why I want to share with you today how Master explained that great life for these times.
The group into which Jesus was born is now generally recognized to have been the Essene community. And this is very relevant to the times in which we are living, because all of the cultures that surrounded the Essenes were pagan, in the sense that they didn’t understand the transcendent reality of Spirit.
Those traditions had either never known or had forgotten the principles of Sanaatan Dharma and satchidananda – the truth of the ever-existing, ever-conscious, ever-new bliss of which this world and we ourselves are manifestations, and that the purpose of our lives is to become perfect expressions of that bliss.
All true religions express the same high truths, though each religion will express the truth in its own way. For example, Paramhansa Yogananda said that Moses was a fully liberated master, and that his teaching was identical to that of other true religions, but that he expressed it in a form that was suited to the time and place in which he lived.
But as will always happen when the masters come with a fresh revelation of the truth, lesser minds will gradually begin to interpret it according to what they are able to understand – whether for nefarious, self-serving purposes or more innocently, owing to their own ignorance.
In that corner of the world, at that time, the Jewish culture alone retained elements of the highest truth, even though the Jewish religion was divided between what can only be called a corrupt priesthood on one side, and the Essenes who held the inner truths, on the other.
But whether they were Jews, Christians, Muslims, Zoroastrians, Pharisees, or Parsees didn’t matter, because a corrupt priesthood is a corrupt priesthood, and the worst corruption is when people use the sacred truths for personal power and monetary gain.
And so Judaism, which was a true faith, was divided, and the mystical elements had become concentrated in the Essene community, which was somewhat secretive, because the power and authority were in the hands of the corrupt priesthood.
The Essenes were aware that a tremendous shift was about to take place. They had anticipated, through intuition and prophesy, that a great master would be coming. And so the birth of Jesus was anticipated, and Paramhansa Yogananda said that the three wise men from the East were the gurus of our path, Babaji, Lahiri, and Sri Yukteswar, and that they came from India to pay homage to this incarnation whom they recognized as one of them.
Until Jesus reached the age of twelve, his parents raised him in obscurity, and then he separated himself from his human family and began his mission.
The family had gone on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and when they returned they noticed that he was no longer with them, and they were alarmed, because they had assumed that he was in some other segment of the large caravan in which they were traveling.
When they realized that he was gone, they rushed back to Jerusalem, where they found him seated in the temple discussing with the rabbis, as if it was his natural place. The rabbis were listening to him with rapt attention, because he was answering their questions, and the people were amazed that one so young would be so wise.
His parents said, “Why did you not come home with us?” And his answer was profound. “Don’t you know that I must be about my Father’s business?” And, “For this was I born.”
It was a clear demonstration of the conflict between human attachment and higher awareness. But Jesus accepted the need to return with his parents. And then the biblical narrative of his life abruptly ceases, and Yogananda explained that this was the point at which Jesus began his sadhana. Because even though the masters come with full Self-realization, they demonstrate for us what’s required of us if we want to live in accordance with God’s law. If the masters never disciplined themselves, but only showed us the majesty of their own Self-realization, what kind of example would it set for us? “Oh yes, Jesus can do it, but that high state doesn’t have anything to do with me.”
And this is one reason why, when the theologians removed the account of the missing years from Jesus’ life, it completely confused his teachings.
The truth is that, as Yogananda explained, his family had begun to make plans to find him a wife so that he would settle down. But Jesus said, “I’m having none of it,” and he joined a caravan to India. And then the Bible is silent about the events of the next eighteen years.
Many of those who became Jesus’ disciples after he returned from India were members of his own community, and it’s difficult to imagine that he would disappear without making contact with them. Perhaps some of the disciples went with him, or they joined him later, or he may have returned to teach them. But Master says that during those eighteen years Jesus first went to the Himalayas, where he joined Babaji and the other masters and did the sadhana that was divinely appointed for him.
And then he completed a mission in India, traveling around the country and teaching. Varanasi and Puri are two sites that are often mentioned in connection with Jesus’ life, as well as a number of places in the Himalayas.
Jesus was recognized in India as a great master, although he argued with the traditionalists, trying to get them to be more liberal in their thinking. So he wasn’t popular there, either.
But the mission for which he was born was to the Essene community and to the West, and so he returned, and the Bible has him simply popping up again, because some two hundred years after he died the church fathers got together and decided to remove that account from the Bible.
Their idea of what it meant to be a Self-realized master had become thoroughly confused, and they thought – and these are Master’s exact words – that it would lessen people’s faith to think that Jesus had to study with anyone.
The disciples knew where he had gone, and it didn’t seem to bother them, but the church authorities had their own opinion, and so they simply lifted that part out of the Bible.
As Swamiji said, they had the nerve to take it out, but they didn’t have the nerve to create a new narrative. So that period of Jesus’ life simply disappeared, and now he pops up again as a grown man, and the full expression of his mission lasts just three and a half years, which is a very brief time.
Jesus comes onto the scene like a comet, and at first he gathers his disciples. And it raises a number of questions. Was this the first time they had seen him in eighteen years? And what of their training, and the spiritual power they would need to complete their missions? And what of their relationship with the other masters? But the Bible doesn’t answer any of those questions.
So Jesus simply appears, and he has a single purpose, which is to create an extraordinary wave of energy that will endure even up until this day. And while every Self-realized master has the same state of consciousness, the mission with which they are tasked is always specific to the needs of the times into which they are born.
They come to launch a wave of consciousness that will serve many generations now and to come, but they also have a mission to help their own disciples. And we may marvel at the vast influence of their lives, but they also come for the souls they have been guiding for many lives.
In his book Conversations with Yogananda, Swamiji mentions a fellow disciple, Norman Paulsen, who had a vision of himself as Yogananda’s disciple in the ancient civilization of Lemuria, about 80,000 years ago. And while Swami wasn’t particularly interested in Lemuria, he said that the vision raised a question in his mind of how long it takes to become Self-realized.
So he asked Master, “Have I been your disciple for thousands of years?” And Master answered him diplomatically, “Well, it’s been a long time. That’s all I’ll say.”
Swamiji then asked, “Does it always take so long?” And Master said, “Oh, yes. Desires for name, fame and all the rest take them away again and again.”
But once the bond with the guru is formed, the guru will never abandon us. Because, as Master says in his poem “God’s Boatman”: “A trillion times, if necessary, I will return, so long as one stray brother is left behind.”
The human mind can’t grasp the dimensions of that promise, but the masters have that responsibility for us, and their infinite consciousness isn’t limited to the times in which they are born.
Nevertheless, the life of Jesus was for the age into which he came, which was Kali Yuga descending, when it needed to be very dramatic, because there was no possibility of speaking of subtle truths. It had to be an unmistakable demonstration of a power, an unconditional love, and a triumph that no one could mistake. Because in that age of matter-bound awareness the divine inner truths need to be expressed with intense outward drama.
So Jesus after has been in India for eighteen years, he begins to gather his disciples as an essential part of the final chapter of that great life.
The masters don’t always keep their disciples with them throughout their lives. In Ramakrishna’s case, his disciples didn’t come until the end of his life. Ramakrishna was a fully Self-realized avatar who lived in India in the late 1800s, and his life is full of odd occurrences.
At one point, his body began to glow with a golden light, and of course people began to be drawn to him because of that phenomenon. You can just imagine that if someone is sitting there glowing it will attract lots of attention, even in India. But it wasn’t the right time for him to become widely known. So Ramakrishna, who was very childlike in his relationship to God, went up to the rooftop where he prayed to the Divine Mother, and then he began slapping his body and saying, “Back inside! Back inside!” And he drove the light back inside because it was too soon.
Even so, it was time for Jesus to begin the most dramatic phase of his mission. But first he had to gather around him the sheep that he was designated by God to care for, and who were waiting for him.
The Bible tells us that he took a winding route through the land to find his disciples, and that he stopped in Samaria to meet the woman at the well, of whom Master said that she was a disciple of former lives who had fallen.
They begin by having a mundane discussion about the quality of the water in the well, and then Jesus says to her, “If you drink of the water from this well you will thirst again, but if you drink of the living water that I shall give you, you will never thirst again.” And she says, “Oh, tell me about this water.” And he says, “Go and get your husband, and I’ll tell you both.” And she says, “I have no husband.”
Master explains that it was a test of her willingness to be truthful, and to receive what he had to teach her, because she had fallen in the past. So he said, “You have spoken truly. You have no husband, but you have had five men, and the man that you live with is no more your husband than the others.”
She has said nothing about these things, and she realizes that she’s in the presence of greatness. And he says to her, “I bless you for your truthfulness.”
Master explains that she was a straggler – that desires for name, fame, and all the rest had drawn her away, and Jesus had come to find her. And now she runs and tells everyone, “I have met a great prophet at the well, and he promises that if we drink of the water that he will give us we will never thirst again.” And so she becomes a spokesman for his teachings.
Jesus is walking here and there, picking up his disciples, because he needs to take the disciples through the extraordinary experience of defying the powers of the world. And throughout the final phase of his mission there is a growing tension, because the corrupt priests have begun to sense his power, and the enormous threat that he poses to what they’re doing.
He’s openly defying their laws and the rules by which they are controlling the people, using the threat of divine consequences if you don’t do this and that, and if you don’t pay us, and if you don’t abide by what we tell you.
So everyone is under their sway, and because they seem to speak with authority the people are afraid of them. But Jesus isn’t the slightest bit afraid, and the Essenes, too, have attuned themselves to his power, so the conflict is building.
Up to this point, every time Jesus has pushed to the brink of open conflict, he has stepped back. And while a few of his disciples understand his inner message, to most of them he seems poised to become their king, and they are dreaming that he will not only throw off the corrupt priesthood, but he will also free them from the Roman yoke that binds them.
Their minds are mixed up between spiritual power, worldly power, military power, governmental power, and money power, and they’re trying to understand what’s about to happen, and how they should hold themselves in readiness in the face of it.
Do those events remind us of modern times? Because the story is always the same. We spend thousands of years searching for name, fame, and all the rest, and then the master comes and confronts us with the truth of the highest teachings, and the conflict between our higher longings and our desires.
The worldly power is focused in Jerusalem, and right up until the final days, Jesus has spent most of his time at the Sea of Galilee, and particularly in the town of Capernaum.
Israel is a small country – you can drive across it in a couple of hours, and even if you were walking it wouldn’t take you very long. And at first Jesus avoids Jerusalem because it’s the powerful city of the corrupt priesthood, and each time he comes close to it the story becomes much more dramatic.
So he gathers his disciples in the beautiful surroundings of the Sea of Galilee, although it isn’t where their destiny is ultimately calling them. And when he feels the divine call, it’s the season of the Passover, when everybody who’s sincere is going to celebrate the Passover in the holy city of Jerusalem.
The people are wondering if Jesus will be coming, and what he will do. Because he has raised Lazarus from the dead, so he’s blown his cover, you might say, and everybody has heard of him. Lazarus was resurrected in a very public way, and he doesn’t live far from Jerusalem, so everybody knows that he was dead and that he’s walking around, and it’s making a big stir.
One of the priests says, “We will not only have to kill Jesus, we’re going to have to kill Lazarus as well.” Because it’s the practical solution to their problem. Jesus has raised Lazarus, and it’s a little hard to dismiss, and now Jesus is in Jerusalem, and everybody’s agitated. “Will there be a great confrontation?” And the disciples are thinking, “This is our moment, when what we’ve known of him will be manifested to all.”
And Jesus is behaving as if it’s true. He allows himself to be carried into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, and he allows the disciples to do what they’ve always wanted to do, which is to sing his praises as he rides in triumph into the holy city of Jerusalem. As the Oratorio describes it, they are rejoicing – “Sing out, Hosanna, to the son of David. Blessed he that cometh in the name of God!”
And not only are his close disciples gathered in that scene of rejoicing, but everyone else is there, and an uplifted mob develops, and people are putting their coats on the ground so that he can walk on them, and they’re stripping branches from the trees and laying them before him. And it’s a magnificent moment, because they recognize that he is a teacher of exceptional spiritual power.
What worldly leader has ever left a permanent mark on the scroll of history? Their lives, whether glorious or horrible, are like writing on water, because they are here for only a brief time before they are forgotten.
Which are the lives that endure? Buddha, Krishna, Ramakrishna, Lord Rama, Chaitanya, Yogananda, Jesus Christ. Theirs is the only power that we remember.
So the crowds are singing and rejoicing, and Jesus is telling them, “This is my power, and if you silence your voices the very stones will cry out.” Because creation itself will declare the presence of the Divine.
But the previous song in the Oratorio has issued a warning.
Who dreamed of the tragedy soon to befall?
Who dreamed that the Savior would perish through hate?
Palm Sunday, the multitude gathered in joy –
Strewed palm fronds before him at Jerusalem’s gate.
How few in that music could detect the sad note
Of approaching disaster human destiny wrote.
And so Jesus manifests his truth, even though it means that he will suffer the humiliation of dying on the cross between a pair of common thieves. And the disciples don’t know what to make of it, until three days later, when he arises from the tomb and demonstrates his victory and the liberating message of the greatest story ever told.
God bless you.
(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on March 25, 2018.)