Monday, January 3, 2011

Paramhansa Yogananda: Avatar of a New Age

On Wednesday, January 5, 2011, we celebrate the birthdate in 1893 of Paramhansa Yogananda. At Ananda in Bothell, WA (near Seattle) we hold a meditation retreat from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. The evening segment is a program of music, readings, and inspiration while the 1 to 6 p.m. segment is mostly meditation. In between we conduct vows for those entering the worldwide, nonsectarian Nayaswami Renunciate Order.

Through his now classic life story, "Autobiography of a Yogi," Paramhansa Yogananda has become well known throughout the world. Millions have read the story. As a piece of literature in the English language it stands out among the finest of the 20th century, irrespective of content. As a book of wisdom and insights into the human mind and heart, it offers modern, rational humanity a new vista into human possibilities. As a book of the science of yoga and the art of devotion to God, a new scripture for a new age has been born.

This wonderful story appears to tell the story of Yogananda's life but hides the true man except to those with eyes to see. Just as Jesus Christ was primarily viewed as merely the latest spiritual teacher wandering the countryside with unorthodox teachings and was reputed to have miraculous powers, so too Yogananda seems to have attracted the attention of thousands as a charming, magnetic, unorthodox, and charismatic speaker and spiritual teacher.

The number of people who actually left their homes and gave up all they had to follow him were not much more than those who followed Jesus. Though Jesus' teachings had, some fifty or sixty years after his death, spread throughout the Mediterranean region, so too Yogananda's teachings have spread around the world. But in both cases, a historian of the times would possibly not even have noticed this new spiritual movement. But as the life of Jesus Christ changed the course of history, so too many disciples of Yogananda feel that he is the world teacher for the new age that has unmistakably dawned in the time since his birth in 1893.

In this new age, which Yogananda's guru, Swami Sri Yukteswar called, in his only book, "The Holy "Science," Dwapara ("Dwa" meaning second age, out of four), the attention given to Yogananda as its avatar will be less personal than in the former age (known as Kali Yuga) when the followers of Jesus Christ institutionalized his teachings and deified the man as the one, and only, son of God.

This "less personal" aspect of the age's world teacher is reflected in his own scripture (his autobiography). In it he hides his own spiritual achievement and makes no claims for himself. He did reveal his stature as an avatar to close disciples, but only hinted at it publicly. This new age, he taught, emphasizes, self-effort as the key to attract God's grace and strength. The prior age taught that man was essentially sinful and helpless to affect his own salvation and hence needed a redeemer who, though self-sacrifice, would redeem men's souls.

As Jesus came to "fulfill the law and the prophets," so too Yogananda did not come to overturn the truth teachings of Jesus. He did come to correct the teachings of what he jokingly called "Churchianity," however. Thus Yogananda affirmed the need for a guru to achieve liberation in God but emphasized that this is based first upon our own efforts. Hence the science and art of yoga-meditation, especially the advanced technique which he termed Kriya Yoga.

Yogananda predicted that a great change would take place in the churches and that "Self-realization" would become the religion of Dwapara Yuga. By this he did not intend to state that some new Pope and Catholic Church would unite religions. For indeed he termed his own teachings, both their practice and the goal of that practice, "Self-realization." By its own terms this means that it is to EACH person, individually, that salvation comes. It is NOT a matter of religious affiliation. The effort must be made and can only be made by EACH person, individually.

So what he meant was that religious people the world-over, regardless of whatever faith tenets, dogmas, and rituals they were born into or otherwise adhered to, would come to "realize" that it is within themselves that their spirituality, their faith, flowers. Anything they do outwardly in the form of ritual or good works would be a means to this end but not the end itself. Put another way, Yogananda's prediction was that meditation would become the primary and most prevalent practice among those seeking God and expressing their our spirituality.

From the realization of our own higher, non-egoic nature would flower new lifestyles and attitudes: cooperation, mutual respect, and creativity for the greater good. It's not that he foresaw earth becoming some final paradise: quite the contrary. This planet of ours is essentially an active and restless one. Good and evil will always vie for supremacy according to the cosmic law of duality: the play of opposites.

What he sees ahead is that God's plan for human history includes giving us a "weapon" or the "keys" to balance the great powers of technology and information, which would unite all nations and all peoples, and without which we would probably perish. Orthodox faiths have sunk to the level of divisiveness, not harmony. Religion is the one aspect of human life that offers, or should offer, a view of life that transcends competition and conquest. And yet most faiths have leaped into the very fray of global competition and warfare.

Despite even his own language to the contrary, when Yogananda spoke of a United Nations of the World or Self-realization for all, this did not mean he advocated, predicted, or preached a new world order the fearful likes of which would control the planet. To him being "united" meant in our hearts, in our avowed high ideals and in our cooperative, respectful and creative efforts to achieve them.

What makes Yogananda a world teacher for this age? Why not other spiritual giants of our times? It is not my intent or place to make comparisons. Each of us must find for ourselves, should we desire it at all, our spiritual family and that teacher whose teachings resonate deeply with our own needs and growth. One indication however of his role in this age is the universal popularity of his life story. All feel his warmth, his sincerity, and his wisdom, regardless of whether their own spirituality draws them to go further in his teachings.

Another is the very nature of what he taught. He taught the principles of vegetarianism even as he gave instruction for those for whom this would be too strict or not the right diet for them. Yogananda developed a new form of simple tense and relax exercises to keep the body fit. These require no expensive gym fees or equipment, can be practiced sitting, standing, lying down and by virtually anyone.

He taught the principles of success appropriate to this age: in business, in the arts, in the home and in marriage. He initiated the example and precepts of establishing small intentional communities of like-minded residents embracing high ideals with simplicity and which includes all races and nations. He said this lifestyle would someday spread like wildfire (presumably as a balance and anti-dote for the impersonal forces and technology of globalization). He taught the art and science of meditation, the value of yoga postures, and was the instrument destined to bring out into the world the previously secret but highest technique of meditation: kriya yoga. He taught and encouraged by his own example, respect for all religions and especially the saints of all religions (as opposed to the theologians and church dogmas and rituals). He showed how those saints give to the world the same essential and universal precepts and living examples.

I can think of no other so complete appropriate description of a world teacher for this new age. As I said at the beginning, this does not mean nor did Yogananda anticipate, that this would put him and his personality on some pedestal or his picture in every home, church or mosque. This means that what he taught - even when not ascribed to him - would become the lifestyle and attitudes for this planet if we are to survive and not perish.

He also taught the validity of the guru-disciple relationship and its essential power to uplift individual souls into final, perfect union with God. But it is also true to say that those who personally acknowledge his wisdom and grace, and who deliberately draw upon these by conscious attunement (through gratitude, study, practice, and sharing), will receive more. There will be, over the generations to come, millions who will become in tune with the new wave of consciousness that he and his teachings epitomize and symbolize. Some will not necessarily even be aware of Yogananda's life nor yet would even consciously understand the universal truth that wisdom and creativity itself flow from "above," from divine consciousness. (Though more and more people in this age of increasing awareness, WILL!)

For those of us who are disciples of Yogananda and the line of masters who sent him, and who practice kriya yoga, we have a great opportunity and responsibility to become the lightbearers for a new age. A great war is taking place here on earth and in the astral heavens above between the forces and consciousness of Kali Yuga and Dwapara Yuga, and between good and evil. To be neutral is to become instruments of inertia, which is a form of darkness.

New lifestyles of renunciation, devotion, and harmonious, sustainable living are needed. And they cannot be only personal and therefore invisible. They must unite in some way to become a force for positive change in the world. The suffering due to change and due to misuse of the earth's resources and exploitation of the disenfranchised masses can not be entirely avoided at this point. But those who will work in tune especially with Yogananda as a world teacher will have a great opportunity for personal spiritual growth, and will receive protection on many levels for the hardships that are to come as a new understanding is being born.

Whether disciple, friend, or admirer I invite you to celebrate Yogananda's birth and life in your heart and, if possible, by your presence at our meditation retreat this Wednesday, January 5, or at our Family Service and banquet following, this Sunday, January 9.

Blessings to you,

Nayaswami Hriman