Friday, January 4, 2013

Who is Paramhansa Yogananda?

Who is Paramhansa Yogananda?
Happy birthday, Sri Yogananda: January 5, 1893!

Tomorrow, January 5, 2013, students, members, friends, and disciples will commemorate the life and teachings of Paramhansa Yogananda (1893-1952). Best known for his life story, "Autobiography of a Yogi," Yogananda came to America in 1920 and except for a tour of Europe, the near East, and a visit back to his homeland of India, remained in America (and became a U.S. citizen) until his passing in 1952. He is also known for having introduced Kriya Yoga (a meditation technique) to the West.

Throughout the world, there will be meditations and public programs to celebrate this great yogi and world teacher. At Ananda Meditation Temple in Bothell, we will conduct a meditation followed by a public program, and, the next day, Sunday, January 6, a family service (with skits taken from his life) and catered (Indian) banquet at the nearby Ananda Community in Lynnwood. For more information on these events, call the Temple at 425 806 3700 or check the website at

While Yogananda's autobiography is a must-read, there's also Swami Kriyananda's recent book: Paramhansa Yogananda: a Biography. But my interest here today is not biographical. My thoughts are those of a disciple and student of Yogananda's life and teachings. Nor am I making any effort to compare his life with that of other teachers or gurus. Certain qualities of his personality and aspects of his teachings are what I wish to make note of today.

Paramhansa Yogananda came to America as a young man, age 27. His popularity as a speaker and celebrity rose steadily and a time came when his lectures in large and famous halls (like Carnegie Hall) were filled to overflowing. He was dynamic, spontaneous, accessible, youthful, exuberant, witty, child-like, and even a bit of a showman. He expressed both playfulness and deep devotion. He was everyone's friend, yet candid and bold at times.

Though he was to become a respected and renowned spiritual teacher, he was not pompous, aloof, overly-intellectual or grave. As a guru, he was one’s friend and intimate. He promoted all things Indian even as he lavishly praised all things American. ("All" is of course a slight, however appropriate, exaggeration!) He wore his wisdom as a comfortable old coat, easily removed, and lightly donned.

But no intimacy or lightness could disguise the depth of his message, and its radical and revolutionary nature. Declaring his line of gurus and India's rishis of old to be equal in spiritual stature to Jesus Christ should have got him lynched or deported during those times in American history. But his demeanor and vibration conveyed truth and spiritual power and he could hold and inspire a crowd as easily as a soul.

He effortlessly combined devotion with deep philosophy, and practical wisdom with creative action. In consequence, he inspired such responses from others. He reconciled centuries old theological debates in a few sentences. For example, instead of contrasting and condemning the material world in favor of God in His heaven, Paramhansa Yogananda described this world as a "dream" of the Creator, a dream made to seem real by the principle of power of illusion, the ceaseless motion between opposites (duality).

In the long running debate in Christianity as to whether Jesus was a man or God, Yogananda Jesus as a soul who, through many lives and achieved in a past life, the expansion of the limited ego consciousness (identified with the body) into divine consciousness (beyond all form). Jesus becomes not a divine creation but a soul, like you and I. His soul had awakened from the dream that this creation and the ego are real into the full realization of the underlying divine consciousness as the sole reality in and beyond creation. There is no difference, then, between Jesus Christ and us, only a difference of the degree of awakening.

Is God "wholly other" or is God immanent in His creation? In “becoming” the creation, God, being infinite, is both transcendent and immanent in creation. As the wave is but a part of the great ocean, so our soul is a wave upon the ocean of God's infinite consciousness. We, too, possess the divinely rooted impulse to create and to share. Looking outward into form and into matter, however, the soul begins to lose contact with its infinite Self and becomes identified with its limited self. The guru, or savior, having become fully awakened, comes to awaken the sleeping memory of our divine nature and to guide that awakening towards its goal in Self-realization.

In the debate between monotheism and polytheism, Yogananda explained that God is One because God IS the creation. There is no other reality than God: thus the ONE became MANY but the many is but an illusion.

Buddha refused to speak of God not because he was an atheist but because his mission was to help people understand what they, themselves, must do to achieve liberation from suffering.

Yogananda, as the rishis before him, used the human experience of sleep to describe the process of meditation and the state of superconsciousness. Sleep is something anyone can understand (and appreciate!). In sleep, the sense organs are turned off. In deepest sleep, the mind is quiescent but blissful. We always know how we slept upon waking. Sleep is necessary for life itself to go on. Meditation is the process of conscious sleep and superconsciousness is a state of feeling beyond thought but in a higher octave of intensity of awareness that is deeply rejuvenating. Meditation nourishes our creativity, sharpens our intuition, enriches our capacity for deep feeling, while it graces us with well-being and a sense of connection to others and to all life.

Paramhansa Yogananda taught the core precepts and techniques known to adepts and yogis in India since ancient times which he called “raja yoga.” The essence of the yoga techniques of breath awareness and life force control is distilled into the science of kriya yoga. Kriya is both a technique and a body of techniques and teachings designed to still the turbulence of the mind. This turbulence brought upon by the ceaseless play of the senses, thoughts and feelings creates a veil of delusion that prevents us from “seeing” God as our own, true Self. This science of breath and mind is one of God’s greatest gifts that Yogananda was commissioned to bring to the West and to the world. Kriya Yoga is for every true and sincere seeker, regardless of outward religious affiliation.

Yogananda wrote commentaries on the Bible, Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Sutras, and the Rubaiyat to show that all great spiritual teaching points to the promise of soul immortality through union with God, the sole reality, both transcendent and immanent.

All true religions can lead us to God because each reflects various aspects of human nature. We use our thought, feeling, will, and action as “organs” which express our intention and consciousness. Thus the different practices of religion reflect these aspects of human nature: devotion, ritual, prayer, self-improvement, and good works. But the goal of religion is union with God, or Self-realization of our divine nature.

This occurs most directly through consciousness itself. To know God we must lift our consciousness towards perfect stillness, towards His Infinite consciousness. The inner path of meditation works with and upon our consciousness, utilizing our God-given and nature-made subtle life force pathways to Oneness. Combining the inner path with the outer practices to purifies our consciousness and makes us fit to “receive Him.”

Yogananda predicted that "Self-realization" would become the religion of the future. By this statement he was not referring to any particular theology or practice but to the understanding among devotees worldwide, regardless of religious affiliation, that our personal connection with God and its practical expression in daily life are the essence of the religious impulse and purpose.

He saw in individual creativity, initiative and responsibility the solution to the challenges of globalism. He sowed into the “ether” the seeds for the establishment of independent, intentional, self-sustaining communities around the world by people of high ideals living simply, modestly and cooperatively. Imagine! This lifestyle alone can potentially solve all of the key issues that we face today: global warming, pollution of soil, air, and water, destruction of habitat and species, alarming rates of population growth ("simplicity" encourages family planning, quality over quantity), domestic violence (by sustainable, appropriate and committed relationships), ruthless competition (replaced by intelligent cooperation) and inequity of race, class, or cultures (with all types living in harmony). He did not envision that everyone would live in such communities. Rather, he saw that such would serve as examples of “how-to-live” for everyone.

Already in his time, he promoted vegetarianism (ovo-lacto) and encouraged others to reduce intake of red meat or pork, substituting fish, chicken, lamb, and emphasizing fresh fruits and vegetables. This counsel is already accepted and promoted by health “gurus” and government officials.

He taught the principles of success in business, harmony in relationships, health of the body and mind, raising whole and happy children, and the importance of spiritual seeking as the centerpiece for finding true happiness.

The core of his teaching can be summed up in the words of Jesus: "Seek ye first the kingdom of God.....and all these things shall be added unto you." He identified that all beings seek happiness and that the path to happiness lies in seeking God through expansion of consciousness and sympathies through right understanding, meditation, and selfless action. Pleasure and human happiness based on outward conditions cannot bring to us lasting peace and joy. God is joy. Seeking God brings to us ever-increasing, ever-new joy, for God is infinite, omniscient, omnipresent Bliss. This is our nature and it is fulfilled in God alone!

Could this teaching be anything but “hope for a better world?” Could this teacher by anything less than a world teacher for this age?

Blessings to you, and "Happy Birthday, Master!"

Nayaswami Hriman