Friday, January 6, 2012

Who is Paramhansa Yogananda?
Mukunda Lal Ghosh was born January 5, 1893 in India. Destined to become one of the first swamis to come to America (he came in 1920), he became a sensation in America, touring in the 1920’s and 1930’s to crowds of thousands of people in cities throughout the USA.

This time of year the Ananda Communities and centers around the world are among the thousands who commemorate Paramhansa Yogananda’s life and teachings. At his initiation as a swami when a young man by his guru, Swami Sri Yukteswar Giri in Serampore (near Calcutta), India, he took the monastic name Yogananda: “union with God in bliss through yoga practice.”

Years later his guru conferred upon him the honorific “Paramhansa,” an acknowledgement of his disciple’s high spiritual realization. Yogananda came to America in 1920, returned to India for a last visit to his guru, family, and homeland in 1935-36, but otherwise stayed in America and became a U.S. citizen. He established his headquarters in Los Angeles in the mid-1920’s. He left this earth plane in 1952.

Those are the barest facts of an extraordinary life. We who are his disciples honor his contribution to the world and to our lives especially at this time of year. At Ananda this celebration concludes the holiday season at about the same time as Christians historically commemorate the three wise men coming from the east to honor the Christ child.

Paramhansa Yogananda is most famous for his life story, “Autobiography of a Yogi.” This book, first published in 1946, has been read by millions in many languages around the world. For modern ears, hearts, and minds, Yogananda opened up for westerners insights into the mysteries of Indian culture and especially its timeless precepts, practices, and its modern saints and sages with their extraordinary powers and states of consciousness. As a work of literature his autobiography stands tall in the pantheon of twentieth century writings.

But it is not the details of his life or even his consciousness that I wish to reflect upon here. Swami Kriyananda’s own autobiography, “The New Path,” details life with the “master” with such wisdom, humor, and love that I must refer the reader to this parallel work of art and inspiration.

One hears a common saying that “When the disciple is ready the guru appears.” For the relevant question is not “Who is the greatest guru (or teacher)?” The more important  inquiry is “Who am I” and “What kind of a disciple of life and truth am I?” The law of karma (action and reaction) and the law of attraction and magnetism remind us that the world we inhabit is filtered by our own magnetism such that we attract to ourselves those circumstances (and people) best designed to reflect back to us aspects, high or low, of our own self.

So rather than ask ourselves “Who was Yogananda” we can also ask ourselves “Who am I?”

Some see in him a world teacher and avatar whose life has started a revolution in spreading the practice of kriya yoga into all nations that millions may have a direct personal perception of divinity and hence empower humanity to make the changes needed to sustain life, health, prosperity and God remembrance in all nations.

Others will see him only as another in an endless procession of teachers from India seeking to profit by the prosperity of the west. Perhaps some will see more flamboyant or more recently popular teachers as the real “deal.” No matter.

It depends what we are capable of seeing and seeking. It is enough for me that he has changed my life and the lives of uncountable others worldwide. Who am I to speak of him as an avatar? I wouldn’t know an avatar  if he was a card-carrying member of the Avatar Club. Even if I were to be so unrefined or unaware as to simply find inspiration and practicality in his words and yoga techniques and ignored him altogether (because no longer incarnate), my life would not be the same.

The question is by what influence and magnetism has he, whom I have never met, inspired me to leave everything of a material nature (career and life in the “world”) as a young man, move to a poor and rural intentional community in the Sierra Nevada mountains, and dedicate my life to the daily practice of meditation and service to spreading Yogananda’s ideals and practices? Were I alone, then you’d have to conclude that I am just basically weird. But hundreds and by now thousands have done the same.

And we are not talking the disenfranchised or the “sick, lame, and lazy” (as my old father, God rest him) would have said. The people I associate with are highly educated, high energy, creative, noble-minded, kind, compassionate and dedicated people who are very aware of the world we live in and eager to serve God through humanity and through kriya yoga.

Yogananda’s influence has spawned a network of intentional communities, schools for children, yoga centers, publishing, nature awareness programs, creative architecture, new forms of music and worship, a cooperative style of leadership and decision making, creative parenting and harmonious relationships.

The chief architect of this expansion has been the foremost of Yogananda’s direct disciples in the service of humanity at large: Ananda’s founder, Swami Kriyananda. Kriyananda’s influence reflects not only his dynamic will but his attunement with his guru, Yogananda. The worldwide work of Ananda is largely a transparent expression of Yogananda’s guidance. Though stamped indelibly with Kriyananda’s signature, members and students of Ananda function independently, creatively taking seed inspiration (rather than any detailed blueprint) from Kriyananda’s guru-guided creativity. Kriyananda, as such, functions more as a focal point and funnel for energy rather than a personality. The result is that scant attention is paid him in the way we see so many spiritual teachers being fawned upon or held high upon a pedestal of undying admiration.

Ananda is not a top-down hierarchical organization, though the value and importance of inspired and supportive leadership is emphasized. Cooperation rather than coercion is the guiding principle. The spiritual welfare of people is the measure of success, not the otherwise worthwhile and measurable accomplishments of Ananda as a spiritual work. Thus the Ananda centers and communities function independently but in cooperation with its first and original community in California. Europe has its own central vortex just as India has two parallel centers: one rural, the other urban.

Yogananda created a new system of tension exercises at a time when millions were just beginning to seek forms of exercise. Less than a century ago exercise for its own sake was only for aristocrats and a few privileged athletes. Already we see the incidence of injury from running, weight training, extreme sports and even intensive one-size-fits-all yoga. He created numerous formulae and recipes for the future millions of vegetarians even as our culture flounders fanatically with every extreme dietary fad that comes along each year.  

He spoke of a future when international criminals would cause havoc in every country and how an international “police force” of freedom-loving nations would be required. He predicted that English would become the “lingua franca” of the world. He also warned of future wars, cataclysms, diseases, and economic devastation as a result of unparalleled greed, exploitation and ruthless competition.

Yogananda with words of great spiritual power “sowed into the ether” a call to high-minded souls to go out into rural areas and create small communities, pooling resources, skills, and living close to the land in what we now realize and describe as a sustainable lifestyle. He predicted that a time would come when small communities would “spread like wildfire,” presumably as an antidote the crushing and impersonal forces of globalization.

Each of these concepts, precepts, and trends are taking shape in the lives of people like you and me, around the world. Yes, it’s true these things would be happening with, or without Yogananda. But to come as a divine messenger to bless these efforts is as reassuring as it is an ancient tradition (to seek divine blessings upon one’s journey and new undertakings). Those who are in tune with these trends are, in their own way, drawing upon those blessings whether they have heard of Yogananda or not.

In theological matters, how many like you and me are weary of sectarianism and desirous of harmony between faiths? It is not religion we should fight but selfishness, greed, and delusion. To this end those who love God should help, support, and respect one another. But how can we find our way out of the box of our dogmas and customs?

All theological bypaths meet in the sensorium of inner silence. God as One, God as many, God of many names or no name are all found united in silent, inner communion. The only real idol worship is found in the worship of matter, the senses, and the ego. These are the false idols, not the saints or deities who serve as symbols and aspects of the One beyond all symbols.

Thus it is that our own and personal vision of reality draws to us the life and teachings of such a one as Paramhansa Yogananda. To achieve Self-realization, he said, we must simply improve our “knowing.”

A Happy Birthday to Yogananda and to all of us!
Nayaswami Hrimananda

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