Where Does Progress in the Spiritual Life Begin?

Photo: Thanks to Kalen Emsley on Unsplash!

Our reading from the Bhagavad Gita today tells us that if we set out to realize God, but we die without reaching our goal, we will be blessed to enter the astral world, where we’ll enjoy the kind of beautiful, refined experience that is in tune with our higher aspirations.

However, as Swamiji explained, a life in the astral world can be a mixed blessing, if our desire for beauty and harmony is so deeply gratified in that world that we’re tempted to set aside our impetus for further growth.

On the other hand, Swamiji said, we may be so filled with zeal for God that the beauties of the astral world will just seem like an unnecessary distraction, and we’ll want to be reborn right away so that we can get on with the spiritual work.

We cannot make lasting spiritual progress in the astral world until we have satisfied all of our desires related to the material plane. Thus, death is a vacation, but it’s not a liberation. And so we come back, and the Gita says that if we have good karma and we’re very spiritually sincere, we may be born into a prosperous family. Because being born into comfort and abundance will give us the opportunity to experience the fulfillment of any material desires that we might otherwise have to spend whole lifetimes struggling to satisfy.

I’m thinking of a friend who was adopted into a prosperous family. Her adoptive mother died when she was in her mid-teens, and from then on she more or less became her father’s hostess. He recognized that she had the right qualities, and so he gave her his credit cards and let her run the household.

She thoroughly enjoyed the experience. None of it was the slightest bit oppressive for her, and the upshot was that by the time she was twenty she had lived the life of a wealthy matron. She had taken care of a beautiful home, with all of the responsibilities that went with it, and she was able to check off prosperity and worldly comforts from her spiritual to-do list.

It’s notable that the majority of us on Master’s path, although by no means all of us, were born into relative comfort and privilege. And the reason is that we’re no longer craving those experiences; rather we have the good karma to be able to say, “I know what those fulfillments are like, and I no longer need them – I’ve had enough, and I’m not interested anymore.”

Swamiji often said that we can learn a certain amount from having our desires thwarted, but we learn more from having them fulfilled. When we’re thwarted, there’s usually a part of us that thinks, “Okay, I can accept it, but I’d be a lot happier if I were able to experience those things.” So those attachments continue to keep us restless and unable to come to rest in God. But when we have those desires fulfilled, as they were for my friend, we’re able to say, “Well, that was lovely – but is that all there is?”

Those of us who were born, if not into wealth, then at least to comfort, were able to say, “Yes, I see what this looks like, but no thank you – there has to be more.” And it’s why a great many of us found ourselves at Ananda at an early age.

I’ve been reading a book that I highly recommend. It’s called Transcendent Journey, by Swami Jnanananda, pronounced “Gyanananda.” Jnanananda was a disciple of Paramhansa Yogananda through an Indian lineage of teachers. He died about five years ago, and I had the opportunity to meet him several times when I was in India.

Jnanananda in later years.

He was born in Switzerland, and on March 2, 1952 his aunt gave him a copy of Autobiography of a Yogi. The date is highly significant, because it was the day Master left his body.

So he was given a copy of the Autobiography when he was in his early twenties, and he immediately recognized this path as his destiny. But Master was gone, so he left his home in Switzerland, never to return and never to see his mother again, and he began to hitchhike and walk to India, which he succeeded in doing, and the book is about his travels in India and the people he met.

This was in the 1950s, when India was very different, and he met many sadhus. But there was one in particular that I want to talk about. He was called Sripad Baba, or more affectionately, Choto Babaji, which Jnanananda translated as “Little Grandfather,” because he was only eighteen years old when Jnanananda met him.

He said that it was very hard to get Sripad Baba to talk about his previous life, but over the years he revealed a little of it to him.

He was born in India to a comfortable family, and when he was eight years old he was in school one day, seated at the back of the classroom where he could observe the whole class and the teacher. The teacher was giving a lesson, but none of the children were paying attention, because outside the window they could see a kite battle going on.

Sripad Baba, Click for larger view.

In India they play a game where they put pieces of broken glass on the kite strings, and then they have battles where you try to cut your opponent’s string. So there was this fierce battle going on outside the window, and the little boys were much more interested in it than whatever their teacher was droning on about.

When one kite finally won, one of the little boys inadvertently let out an excited cry. And the teacher was unfortunately standing behind him, and when the child showed that he wasn’t paying attention, the teacher slapped him across the head, because corporal punishment wasn’t uncommon in those days.

Watching this, the eight-year-old child Sripad Baba thought, “What am I doing here? This is not education. I don’t want to be in a place like this.”

I don’t know whether immediately he stood up and walked out, or if he waited until school ended, but he was walking toward his home, when he had the thought, “My parents went to a lot of trouble to find the school for me, and if I tell them that I don’t like it they’re just going to find another one.”

He thought, “And I’m not going to like that one any more.” So he turned around and walked away and never came back, and he never saw his parents again. He went off to be a sadhu, and he found his way. And of course he was no ordinary child. But he found those who could help him, and at eighteen he was already a great and remarkable saint.

Now, I’m reminded of a story that Swamiji would often tell, and I believe Master told it, too, about a woman who goes to her brother and says, “I’m very concerned about my husband. He keeps talking about renouncing the world, and every year he gives up something else.”

Sripad Baba

The brother looked at her and said, “Oh, you needn’t worry about your husband. That’s not how people renounce the world.”

She said, “What do you mean?” And he took off his clothes and ripped one of the garments into a loincloth and tied it on and said, “This is how it’s done.” And he announced, “From now on I regard you and all women as my mothers.” And he walked out the door and never came back.

Now, that’s what it looks like to turn your back on the world. And no one can take up that kind of path unless the Lord has called them to it. And for most people it’s not even right to try.

Swamiji was talking to the members of our renunciate order, the sadhakas, and he talked about the period in his life after he’d been thrown out of SRF and he had to make his own way. He was giving classes in the Bay Area, which required that he drive everywhere, so his father lent him his car, and then he very generously insisted on giving it to him. And as Swamiji was telling the story forty years later, he was weeping. He needed the car, so he couldn’t decline it, but he was weeping because he’d walked away from everything, and now he was compelled to go back to owning material possessions and having to take care of them, and the pain of it was almost unbearable, even all those decades later.

And as we were listening to him, we didn’t quite know what to think about it. Because we were all working hard to have a car, and maybe we were hoping to get a better one, and maybe it would be a Prius, and then maybe we could get a Tesla. So we were hoping for these things to make our world a little bit less unpleasant, and Swami was weeping because his father had generously offered him a car.

So this eight-year-old boy simply walked away, and Swami Jnanananda, too, had walked away from the world. And you have to be called by God to do that, because you cannot force that understanding.

In our Bible reading today, we hear the story of the foolish virgins who fell asleep and didn’t mind the candle, so that it went out and they missed the bridegroom. And I’m not fond of that verse, because all I can think of is how heartbroken the foolish virgins must have been, to have been waiting for the bridegroom, and then to have him come and cast them out. And it seems so unfair.

But Swami balances the story by offering us Krishna’s words, where he consoles us that it’s all right. Even if you disappoint yourself and you aren’t able to be all that you aspired to be, it’s all right, because I, the Supreme Lord, will never abandon you.

But it’s a terrible fear that we must all live with, that no matter what we do, something is bound to go wrong and it isn’t going to work out the way we hoped. And everything in our experience supports that thought, because we’re constantly engaged in the struggle between the upward and downward-pulling energies in us. And even great souls aren’t free of those fears.

Ram Gopal Muzumdar

Ram Gopal Muzumdar, the Sleepless Saint that Master writes about in Autobiography of a Yogi, was meditating twenty hours a day, and yet he remarked to Master that he wondered if he had succeeded in pleasing God. And the story is both exhilarating and utterly baffling. Because what are we supposed to do with that message? How can we possibly measure up to that standard? And that’s what’s frightening about the story of the foolish virgins. Did they even know that they were being foolish? And did they think that they were doing the right thing?

And now here we are at Christmastime with its promise of joy to all the world, yet we’re having to deal with these very challenging stories. And it’s why so few people persevere on the spiritual path, because they become discouraged and decide that it’s too much for them.

Years ago, there was an equally challenging reading that fell close to Swami’s birthday in the yearly cycle, and we actually had to change the order of the topics so that we wouldn’t have to keep saying, every year in May, “Happy birthday, Swamiji! And here’s what happens to those miserable curs who never make it on the spiritual path.” And it’s not much better in December.

One of our favorite songs at Ananda is “Walk Like a Man.” The words are: “Walk like a man, even though you walk alone. Why court approval, once the road is known?” And for a time Swami would insert an alternate line, “What if men despise you? – Go on alone!”

When I lived with Swami I was constantly doing the dopiest things, and when I look back I can’t believe some of the things I did. Among the many, many, many lessons I learned from him was how to put up with an idiot, because of the way he put up with me. But, at any rate, he was singing those words, “Let them despise you – go on alone!” And I said, “Swami, that’s a horrible verse. You can’t have us stand up there and sing ‘let them despise you.’”

And he just looked at me. I remember many times in my forty-five years with him when he just looked at me. He had this way, especially when I had done something particularly stupid, where there would be not even the slightest ripple of, “Oh well, she’s an idiot, but she has potential, so I’ll keep working with her.” None of that. He would be absolutely neutral – no vibration of judgment, no vibration of impatience, nothing. But he would tell me the truth. There would be no “Oh, there, there, little girl!” None of that – no sympathy, but no judgment. Just, “This is the way it is.” So he looked at me, and he said, “But they will.”

I was twenty-three or twenty-four, and nobody had despised me. Because, you know, I’m kind of cute and people like me as a general rule. I can ruffle feathers, God knows, but overall nobody had ever despised me.

And Swami said very objectively, without a hint of reactive emotional feeling, “But they will.”

And when it happens, what will you do? Why are you on the spiritual path? Are you on it because you’re wanting to enjoy yourself and you’re expecting that the bridegroom will take you in regardless? Or do you recognize that you need to be very vigilant and prepared, knowing that a great deal will happen to test your resolve?

There was a young man in India that Swamiji asked to come and live with him in the ashram. The man said, “But my mother would be so disappointed.” And of course this was India, so it was a big deal. It’s always a big deal, but it was bigger there.

Swami said to him, “Sooner or later we all have to disappoint our mothers.” And when I wrote about the incident in Swami Kriyananda: As We Have Known Him, he corrected me, because he wanted to give credit to those wise mothers who would understand their child’s spiritual aspirations. So he said, “We all have to be prepared to disappoint our mothers.”

We have to be prepared not to flinch. And it’s definitely true that we will sometimes have to say to our family, “I’m sorry, I know that what you’re expressing you perceive as love, but I have a higher loyalty.”

Swamiji’s father never understood or approved of what he was doing. His father had wanted him to be an electrical engineer, which was a preposterous suggestion, because there was no chance that Swami would have done that. After Swami chose a life with Master, his father was never completely reconciled, and that’s putting it mildly. He was a very good man, but he didn’t understand the life that Swami was leading. It was interesting, though, that after his father died, someone who had known him said that he was quite proud of what Swami had accomplished, but he was never able to say it to him directly.

At one point soon after Swami came to Master his father began criticizing what Swamiji was doing, and Swami had to write to him and say, “You are my father, but God has been my father for all eternity, and don’t ask me to choose, because if I have to choose, I will choose God.” And his father never said another word about it.

Do not ask me to choose, because of course I will choose God. And we may not have to make that decision, but we have to be ready to make it, and we have to be exhilarated by the thought, even though different parts of us may be pulling us in different directions.


The boy sadhu Sripad Baba spent time deep in the forest with an ancient sadhu who trained him, and he talked about how an actual force began compelling him to move with the Spirit and not with the ego. He was eighteen when he told Jnananda about the experience, and he said, “I can talk about it easily now, but it was very, very difficult when it was happening.” Because he was at war, fighting the Battle of Kurukshetra within himself, between everything that the ego insists on wanting, and the fact that sooner or later we must be prepared to give everything to God.

But, to return to how Swamiji was weeping as he talked to the sadhakas about having to accept the car from his father, he then added, “Don’t even try to live the way I’m living.” He said, “You wouldn’t be able to do it, and it wouldn’t even be appropriate for you to try.”

It wouldn’t be appropriate for us to try? But aren’t we supposed to be doing exactly that – radically renouncing the world? No, we’re not supposed to do anything. Spiritual growth, Swami said, must be relaxed and natural. It has to grow like a seed from within the heart, and our part is that we simply need to nourish the plant.

We have to give the plant what it actually needs at each stage of its growth. We cannot give it something that we imagine would be better. And then we have to come to peace with that reality, with the fact that at this stage it’s not even appropriate for us to try.

These stories are telling us what ultimate renunciation looks like. I’m eight years old, and I can see that this school is awful, and I’m simply going to walk away, and I’ll forget about my parents, and I’ll thrive in that renunciation.

By their fruits you shall know them – you must be able to thrive on that degree of renunciation before it will be yours to do. Jnanananda also simply walked away, and it nourished him, and the young Choto Babaji walked away and flourished in that renunciation. Because, as extreme as it might seem to us, it was actually relaxed and natural for them.

So this is the balance that we’re trying to achieve in our spiritual life – to be sure that we are doing everything we can, but that we aren’t setting unrealistic goals for ourselves that are not relaxed and natural and appropriate.

And then when God calls us, or more profoundly when He calls and we don’t answer properly, we must have the sheer courage to persevere, knowing that, as the Gita tells us, “My devotee is never lost.” So it really doesn’t make any difference if we’ve stumbled.

I owe everything to Swami, and it’s as simple as that. I recently listened to a beautiful talk that he gave, about what he had learned from Yogananda. He said, over and over, “Master loved us. Master loved us and believed in us and always encouraged us.” And I can say from my own experience that it’s true, because I’m certain that Master never flinches at our limitations and never perceives them as such. Just, “Hmm, okay, this is what’s needed now. This is what we have to do.”

I remember being with Swami and weeping my heart out because of some horrible attitude of mine that I thought I had transcended, and it had come back like a wild monster just when I was thinking that it had gone for good. And It was so profoundly disappointing to me, but Swami said, without a hint of judgment, “Now you know. You thought you were over it, so you weren’t putting out any energy, and now you know you have more work to do.”

From the tone of his words, he might just as well have been saying “Pass the crumpets.” Like it was nothing, and not a word more needed to be said. Here I’m having this huge existential crisis, and Swami is saying, “What did you expect?” Are you an avatar?” Well, no, actually. He didn’t say that to me, but it’s what I said to myself. And Swami just said, “So?”

And that’s the razor’s edge that we are always walking. There are the poor dopey virgins who’ve been locked out of the bridal chamber. And that was a bad moment for them, but the most important moment is the moment immediately after. Are the foolish virgins going to smash their lamps and say, “To heck with this path!” Or are they going to say, “Hmm. Well, that didn’t work, so what comes next?”

The secret of success, and the secret of prosperity, Swami said to me, is creativity. I didn’t get it at first, but now I understand. If one thing doesn’t work, you just find something else, and if that doesn’t work out, you find something else to do. You keep going, and sooner or later it will work, because “My devotee is never lost.”

We had this little plan that didn’t work, and this little idea that didn’t pan out, and this little thought that maybe I’ll keep a few things for myself. So maybe an attachment or two or three. And when it doesn’t work out, what are we going to do next? Because that’s all that matters.

And what we do next is recognize, without getting upset, “Okay – so what? So now I know.” And we should always remember Krishna’s promise that we are never lost.

Every time it happens, just keep picking yourself up, dry your tears, lift your head, square your shoulders, and keep going. I loved the way Swami would take a big double-breath, “Huh-huh!” and go forward as if nothing had happened.

Because nothing has really happened. All that happens is that a little time has passed. And they tell us that when it’s all over we won’t feel that any time has really passed at all. And maybe it seems like a lot for us to take in at this point, but it’s actually nothing.

These are remarkable promises, and they are our raft over the ocean of delusion. And it’s why the Bible may warn us against our own carelessness, but the Gita reassures us that the masters will still always have our backs. They know what they’re doing with us, and if we just keep listening to them, they will take us home.

Bless you.

(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on December 6, 2020.)

1 thought on “Where Does Progress in the Spiritual Life Begin?”

  1. Your article is like a spiral, honing in on our greatest fear: what if we are going about it wrong? Here is one sadhu, and another. Even he doubts if God is pleased. And out again, with humor and curiosity to aphorisms. Then back. This time to the modern world, to the discover of parts thoughts fixed but as deeply broken as when first perceived.

    Are we doing this right?

    I guess the answer is go and sit, and let the evening descend.


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