In our Bible reading today we hear, “For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.” (John 1:17)
On the surface, it seems to be giving us a powerful argument in favor of Jesus and against Moses. And, sure enough, people have used it that way during the two thousand years since John first spoke those words.
It’s human nature to want to make sure we’re at the top of the pile, and everyone else is a little bit farther down. Sri Yukteswar warned against the tendency to want to make ourselves “appear taller by cutting off the heads of others.”
We feel very insecure in this world, very uncertain of our place and our stature, and the reason is that we’re identified with the little ego, and the ego is utterly helpless in the face of forces so much bigger than it is.
We can talk about frightening volcanic eruptions and doomsday cataclysms and climate change and drought and pestilence and sudden, unexpected death, and then we can add the horrifying realization that our lives are fraught with endless disappointments.
Haanel Cassidy, our head gardener at Ananda Village in the early days, was in his seventies when he came to the community. Haanel used to say, “Well, you see, A is madly in love with B, but B is madly in love with C, and C is madly in love with D.”
We can never quite get our lives perfectly aligned in this world. And who knows where the urge comes from to latch onto the oddest ideas about what might be a good thing to do.
If we’re completely invested in the little ego-self, there’s always a chance that we’ll have to endure the experience of being deeply afraid, insecure, and bitter – and for very good reason.
A friend of mine was telling me about her young adult son who was struggling with depression. And, really, it’s quite understandable, if you don’t have a spiritual context for your life.
If you’re just looking at the facts of this earthly life as you find them, I think it might be a very intelligent response to feel insecure and depressed.
But the truth is that, as Swami Kriyananda put it, this is the suffering that brings us back to God. Because simultaneous with our countless, extremely nervous egoic attachments, there’s a relentless undercurrent of our soul nature that is always whispering to us about our potential for divine bliss. And the ego cannot compare.
The ego is just an ephemeral brushstroke of misunderstanding that’s smeared over the eternal reality of our soul, which is throbbing below the surface and waiting for us to invite it into our lives.
I came onto the spiritual path when I was just eighteen, but I can remember a time when I was much younger, just two or three years old, and how I solved my problems by going into an inner reality.
We were driving in the car and my mother had scolded me, unjustly as I thought, and my feelings were hurt. And I remember thinking very consciously, although I was too young to express it in words: “If I can just go deep enough inside myself, there’s a place where none of this pain can touch me.” So I lay on the floor in the backseat of the car and listened to the hum of the wheels, and I went deep inside to a place where I was untouched by the hurt.
I didn’t have the language – I didn’t even know how to find my mouth with a spoon! But my whole consciousness was present in that little version of me, and my whole experience of innumerable past lives was there.
I remember another childhood experience. I was, again, probably two or three, and I decided that I would clean my room, so I pulled everything off the shelves and made a big mess in the middle. And then I got tired of the project and I went and got interested in something else.
When my mother saw the big mess I’d made, she brought me back and told me to clean it up. And I remember sitting in front of this pile that looked as big as a house to my eyes, and I was feeling oh-so-dramatic, as if the project was overwhelming to my frail little heart, and I sat in that child’s rebellion where you keep crying even though there’s nothing to cry about, but you’re hoping that somebody will come and rescue you. I would pick up each toy as if it was a huge lead weight, and with great effort I would put it back on the shelf, and then I would collapse in despair again. And I remember suddenly hearing a voice inside that said: “Just put the damn toys back on the shelf!”
This is a one-minute job – just do it! But I didn’t want to, because I wanted to suffer, and it was one of the first times I noticed that there was an inner reality that was very different from the external.
I’m unable to recall the exact moment when I came on the spiritual path, but I was relatively young, and it was a sudden and complete and final shift that felt very natural, as if to say, “Oh, okay, here you are again.”
But for all of us there comes a point where we’re sitting in front of the big mess of our lives, whether it’s a pile of stuffed toys or there’s some task before us that we’re making ourselves miserable about – and from time to time it occurs to us that we actually have a choice.
And that’s what we’ve been doing through all our incarnations. We’ve been testing the theory: “Is this true? Do I have an alternative? Is there something else I can do? Is there an easier way?”
I’m amused by how often the questions people ask me, when you dig right down to the heart of them, and after you remove all of the spiritual conversation and the anguish, they’re really about, “Isn’t there an easier way?” And, “Please tell me the shortcut.”
People imagine that if you’re still hanging out on the spiritual path after a few decades, you must have discovered the magic answer. But, alas, no. Because what happens is that we discover that there’s only one way. And even now, or I should say especially at this late stage of my life, the most useful thing I’ve figured out after so many decades of study and living is, “What choice do I really have?”
Every karmic debt has to be paid, and sooner or later every buried fear will have to be faced, and every wrong that you’ve done will have to be balanced, usually by having it inflicted on you.
“But what choice do I have?”
Many times people would ask Swamiji, “What is the secret of success on the spiritual path?” And he would usually give an answer that had two parts.
First he would say, “It’s a matter of life or death.” Because there really is no other option.
And the second part of his answer was, “And there is no choice.”
There is no “other.” There’s no secret formula that you discover after you’ve been on the path for a certain number of years.
And this is why, when everyone was leaving Jesus at the end of his life, he asked his disciple Peter an important question.
He had told his followers to “eat my body and drink my blood.” And the Bible says, “The disciples said one to another, ‘This is a hard teaching.’”
I love that scene, because I can see it very clearly before my eyes. And I can see that Jesus isn’t wanting to make it easy for his disciples.
Paramhansa Yogananda said that this is often what the master will do at the end of his life. Swamiji witnessed it in the last year of Yogananda’s life, where he actually seemed to be driving people away, because they had gotten as far as they were able to in that lifetime, and he knew that he’d be leaving, and he needed to leave a strong core to continue the work.
He wasn’t dropping those people out of his heart, or releasing his commitment to them, but he needed the core to be strong so that they could carry on. And, my goodness, Jesus knew what a tough story was coming for the disciples, and that they couldn’t afford to be fractured among themselves.
They had to be very strong. And so he asked Peter, “Will you leave me, too?” And the Bible doesn’t tell us how many of the disciples had already left him. Had Peter’s closest friends left? Had Peter’s own relatives left the Master?
Peter responded, “Where would I go?” And that’s the point we come to, where we may not even be able to know with absolute certainty that the master’s promise is true, but we’ve traveled far enough to know in our hearts, “Where else would I go?”
Where could I go, where the same reality wouldn’t confront me? Because everywhere I go, there I am.
This is what we discover: “Wherever I go, there I am.”
I find that I’m not good at taking short periods of seclusion, because “she” will hang around, and it generally takes a few days before she goes away and I can be relatively free of her for a time. I like to think of myself in the third person – that there’s the ego-self that keeps us limited, and there’s the real Self that is forever free.
But to come back to Moses and Jesus, our human nature wants to make itself feel important and safe. “I’m better than you.” “I have the right one, you have the wrong one.” “I’m the one who’s saved.” “We’re the chosen people.”
In the Festival of Light, which we’ll celebrate in a little while, there’s a wonderful passage: “Your ‘chosen people’ have always been those of every race and nation who, with deep love, chose Thee.”
Now, being the chosen people is a big part of the identity that the followers of Moses have co-opted for themselves. And Swamiji is trying to enlarge that definition to help us understand that the they became the chosen people because they had chosen God.
God isn’t arbitrary – “You I like, but you I don’t.” None of that. It’s entirely a question of the heart, and the descendants of Moses had, with deep devotion, chosen God, and so of course He responded.
God is always trying to take care of us, but we have to call on that power with great devotion before it can happen.
I was amused when a gentleman from Israel came to one of our Sunday services, and he was deeply upset by the Festival, because he wasn’t only devoted to Judaism, he was an Israeli, and Israelis are very strong-minded in their commitment. They’ve had to be, to accomplish what they’ve done in that country. And I greatly admire that. But he was a friend of someone in the congregation, and he was deeply upset about the way Swamiji had disrespected his tradition.
I told him, “Oh, you didn’t catch all of the similar references to Christianity and other teachings, where he dismantles fundamental tenets that are based on an older understanding, including the very materialistic thought that if you’re chosen, then I can’t be chosen, too, and that God plays favorites, and that some of us are loved by Him and some are not.”
What the Festival is really telling us is that we’ve been born into a dawning age of energy-awareness that is very different in its understanding of the spiritual path, and that all of the old materialistic understandings have to go.
There’s a flow of development in the way we understand spirituality today that’s mirrored in the historical development of religion.
Swamiji described the progression of spiritual understanding in a very interesting way.
In the first stage, we come to the spiritual teachings because we’ve suffered. And then we’re afraid. What are the rules? What if I break them? What is God going to do to me next?
When we first enter the path we think of God as a powerful being who’s absolutely threatening and scary, and at that stage our spiritual efforts are directed toward trying to propitiate the Divine.
Now, bear in mind, I’m not talking about pagan rituals or sacrificing maidens to appease the angry gods. I’m talking about the way our personal spiritual awareness develops within us, over time.
At first I’m fundamentally concerned that I’m not worthy, and I’m trying really hard to be absolutely good so that God will accept me. And this is the point where we have the thought, “I’ve got to get to heaven, or else I’ll go to hell!”
It’s a powerful incentive to behave so that we won’t go to hell. And when the church had real control over people, because they could excommunicate you and they could send you to hell and eternal damnation, it was a powerful incentive to be good and behave.
As a young child, Teresa of Avila, who would grow up to be a great saint, was already deeply devoted and spiritually minded. And because her family were devout Catholics and she was raised to be deeply steeped in that tradition, she calculated the odds of salvation.
She weighed the pleasures of this life against the possibility of falling into sin and going to hell for all eternity, versus being able to go to heaven. And from the stories she’d heard her family tell, she decided that the quickest way to get to heaven was to be martyred. So when she was eight years old, she convinced her brother to join her, and they set off to look for the infidel in hopes that they could get their heads cut off and go straight to heaven, and they could skip the whole middle part.
But, of course, their plans weren’t very well thought out, and their father found them on the road and brought them home. But it was a very reasonable thought, because God is eternal happiness, and the thought of being without God is terrifying.
So we start out on the path by being afraid of God, and that’s where the law comes in. Because it becomes clear to us that we really don’t have to be afraid so long as we behave.
And then it gradually becomes the common understanding, and again, it’s symbolic of what we go through individually. “Okay, now I don’t have to be afraid, because I know the rules and I’m following them very carefully.”
It’s a helpful thought at the beginning of our spiritual search, because it makes it extremely clear: this is what I have to do, and this is what I cannot do.
At one point in the early years at Ananda, my friend Shivani and I were looking at some Catholic materials that had somehow fallen into our hands. We had both come from Jewish backgrounds, and Shivani was extremely devoted, but the aspect of Judaism that she was in wouldn’t ordain a woman as a rabbi, so she couldn’t fulfill her aspirations that way, and it’s partly what led her to become a founding member of Ananda.
But we were looking at this Catholic book, and it had a prayer for every day and every situation – everything was spelled out and every question was answered. Because once you start answering questions, you have to keep on until you’ve answered them all.
So as we were looking at the book, I turned to Shivani and said, “Shivani, did you write this?” Because it seemed so like her at the time.
My Catholic friends tell me that when they were children they used to go around the neighborhood collecting money for “the pagan babies,” to help them be baptized, so that they wouldn’t have to go to hell if they died. Because if they did die before they could be baptized, they would have to go into “limbo.”
And then the Church recently decided that limbo needed to be dissolved, and the natural question becomes, whatever happened to all those babies in limbo?
One of our friends said, “Oh, well, they gave the babies to the Hindus to be reincarnated!”
Forgive my irreverence, but once you start down the road of answering questions, you have to answer every one of them, and then all of those answers become the law. And at that stage it’s actually progress, because it’s progress to want to know the rules and to be on a quest for understanding. What is reality? What is true? How do I need to behave?
Long before I realized that I was interested in God, I already wanted to know what was true. But then you come to the first stage, where you’re very afraid because you’re thinking of God as a stern Judge, and at least you know how you need to behave. But there’s a certain tension at that stage, because sometimes I don’t want to behave. And, as Swami said, it’s natural to ask, “How bad can I be and still get away with it?”
And of course, that question has to be answered, too, and the dogma of the church tells you exactly how bad you can be and get away with it. So now you know that you can push it right up to the edge, and then you can get another priest to tell you that you can push it a little farther. And then someone will tell you how you can buy your way out of your karma. And meanwhile, the force within us that’s looking for perfect bliss keeps insistently throbbing.
At the time when Moses incarnated as the avatar to the Jewish people, they had been enslaved for a very long time, and their whole culture had been dismantled. So Moses took them out of bondage and across the desert, where he climbed Mount Sinai and received the tablets of the law. And while Moses was away getting the tablets, the people had received a promise of good news, but at the same time they had no real context for how to behave, and because they had no structure they fell into loose living.
Moses was the avatar that God had sent to those people who were deeply longing to know how to love Him again, after their culture had been dismantled and they’d been living for a long time in slavery. So the laws were exactly what they needed, because they were longing to know how to pray to God and how to behave in a way that would please Him.
Moses was a true master. He was the avatar that God sent to those people at that time, and he brought them a true religion that was a genuine expression of the timeless truths of Sanaatan Dharma.
But over the centuries Judaism became increasingly confused, and finally it was time to clean out the confusion and elevate the teachings again. And because the world’s consciousness had changed, God sent a new teaching that told them that their relationship with God could be about something more than simple obedience to the law.
The new divine dispensation brought them the promise that they could have an actual inner experience of Truth. Now, of course Moses and his advanced disciples had had that experience, too, but the religion that Moses brought was deeply involved with forms, and less overtly with the individual, and over time the authorities fell into the error of worshipping the form over the inner longing of the individual soul.
And so Jesus was sent to bring the next stage, which was truth and grace.
Grace is the power that God gives us to rise into the experience of that which is. And once we’ve learned how to behave and we’re no longer afraid, we’re ready for a teaching that declares that the rules of religion are just a very useful tool – they’re merely a means to an end, because the Sabbath was made for man, and blind obedience to the rules isn’t the end of the story.
The end of the story is grace, and with grace comes the revelation of Truth. And this is why the Bible says that Moses brought the law, but grace and truth came from Jesus Christ.
Not because one was greater than the other, but because each of them served in his own way, and they gave the people what they needed in their time. And then together they created an extraordinary flow of understanding, where we could have truth and grace through Moses, because he was an avatar, and he could give it to us.
But when we look at the progression, Jesus came in response to the sincere longing of the descendants of Moses, because the Jewish religion had made God into a fearsome judge once again. And it’s why Jesus kept telling them that God is our Father, and that our Father loves us, and that we are His offspring, and that which belongs to the Father is ours, and we can inherit His wealth and His greatness.
We no longer have to cower in fear, because as Jesus said, “If you ask of your Father a loaf of bread, will He give you a stone?”
Well, if you’re in a court of law, you might not be completely sure that He won’t give you a stone. But if you’re in the home of your Heavenly Father, there’s a promise of truth and grace. And Jesus brought a teaching that tells us how to receive the grace to rise. The grace of the Father is that He can pour out to us His wealth and His divine inheritance and His greatness.
And now, in the unbroken chain of the masters, Paramhansa Yogananda came along at the appropriate time and said, “You can pray to God as the Mother, because the Mother is closer than the Father.”
He isn’t denigrating what Moses and Jesus taught. It’s simply that the world’s consciousness is ready for a different teaching, because we’ve progressed to the point where we can relate to God more intimately, as a loving Mother.
One of my favorite sayings of Master’s is on a recording of his, where you can hear him say: “Pray to God as the Mother. He can’t resist you when you do!”
It’s not up to the Divine to come uninvited and give us what we want and decide what we’ll become. Because it depends entirely on us. Can we let go of the clear-cut rules that tell us what to do? And can we simply open ourselves to His grace?
And then, will we have the courage to perceive what’s true, and to live by that perception?
This is the invitation that the Divine is giving us for this age. And how we respond will be our own choice and entirely up to us.
(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on February 14, 2021.)