Note to readers: The Christian Feast of Epiphany celebrates,
in part, the visit of the Magi (Wise Men) to the Christ child. It takes place
on January 6, twelve days after Christmas, and is sometimes called the Little
Christmas. January 5 is known as Epiphany Eve and is the birthdate of
Paramhansa Yogananda in 1893. Traditionally this marks, for many, the end of
Christmas and the taking away of Christmas decorations! This
becomes also for Ananda worldwide a natural endpoint to the sacred holiday
season of Christmas.
Yogananda, author of the now famous and popular life story, “Autobiography of a
Yogi,” lived and taught in America for most of his life beginning in 1920 at the
age of twenty-seven. One of the many curious and interesting things he said was
that the wise men of the gospel of Matthew were none other than the three
Indian yogis (in a past life) who, in succession, were part of his personal
lineage, training, and tradition.
While there’s no objective way to substantiate that, this idea certainly has
implications for who he, Yogananda, was and why he came to live in America.
in the world identifying themselves as Christians are said to be 2.5 billion,
almost one out of every three people.
But the percentage of Americans identifying themselves as Christian is reported
to be declining.
seem that if Christianity is to grow and thrive in America (and the West
generally) as a viable religious tradition some kind of rescue is needed. Could
it be that the wise men of East have come again to acknowledge, honor, and
worship the Christ? Can Jesus too be “born again?”
Yogananda described his work in America as “The Second Coming of Christ.” Like
Jesus, one might have thought that he, Yogananda, too would be condemned for
blasphemy. What did he mean by this description?
How can we
bring these ideas together? When Yogananda was asked point-blank by a young
monk, Swami Kriyananda, “Were you Jesus Christ (in a prior life)?” Yogananda
replied, “What difference would it make?” What a curious statement to make.
Where I am
leading is to suggest that Paramhansa Yogananda came to resurrect the deeper
meanings and teachings of Jesus Christ from their imprisonment in the confines
of what he called “Churchianity.” It doesn’t matter who he was in a past life.
I think that’s mostly the reason for his response. Part of what is making
orthodox Christianity increasingly irrelevant and uninspired today is the
narrowness of its claims and the rigidity of its rituals.
concept of reincarnation symbolizes the soul’s phoenix-like capacity to be
“born again!” Again, it is not important whether one subscribes to
reincarnation as a dogma.
We see rebirth all around us: civilization being reborn into a new era, a new
age symbolized outwardly by science and technology and in consciousness by a
new acceptance and interest of diversity of cultures, religions, and history
beyond one’s own. There’s hardly a point in listing the number of cultural
beliefs, taboos, lifestyles, and attitudes that have changed (for “better or
worse” according to one’s point of view) in just a few years or decades. In the
lives of individuals, stories of recovery and new life abound. So why can’t
Christianity be born again?
juxtaposition to scientific beliefs of the age of planet Earth, the age of the
universe, and the existence of billions of galaxies, core Christian dogmas seem
weak and difficult to believe: could one human being on this mudball of a
planet in a distant galaxy on the edge of space be the ‘ONLY” son of God? And
he lived a mere thirty-three years on the edge of an empire that has long ago
faded into dust? What about those billions of other religionists? Are they condemned
to eternity for being born on the “wrong side of the tracks” of centuries
and continents? Can the crucifixion of this one individual that took perhaps three
hours be sufficient to “save the sins” of all humankind? And what about heaven and
hell, places where, after death, our souls (later perhaps to be somehow reunited
with our long-disintegrated bodies) live happily ever after or are burned alive
not-so-happily-ever-after for an eternity?
The fact is
that Jesus and his disciples initiated their own world-changing version of a religious
rebirth in the context of Judaism during their lives. And yet, Jesus said that
he came not to “destroy but to fulfill the law and prophets.” In Chapter 5 of
the gospel of Matthew alone, Jesus made significant changes to the interpretation
of the Ten Commandments and other laws at that time. Later, his disciples set
aside the circumcision (the primary symbol of God’s covenant with the Jews),
the Sabbath and countless lesser dietary laws. Then they declared that Gentiles
could become followers of Jesus without being Jews! A new religion was born.
And the intention behind its birth was to “fulfill” the Old Covenant not
destroy it. Do you see the pattern here?
at least one example of why changes in letter of the law can be made when he
modified the rules surrounding divorce. Jesus stated that the rules given to
them by Moses were “for the hardness of your hearts.”
By this, he meant that Moses knew that the Jews of his time were not ready for a
more fair and refined view of the grounds for divorce.
examples in history include the birth of Buddhism. Buddha and his disciples
were originally Hindus. They, like Jesus’ disciples, sowed the seeds for a new
religion with a fresh understanding of basic, universal truths. Their core
concepts are based on the teachings of India derived from the Vedas and other
scriptures of ancient India. Like the Protestant revolt, however, Buddha urged
seekers to abandon the abusive lock hold of the priestly class and take responsibility
for their spiritual awakening.
And yet, the
impact of the life of Jesus Christ cannot be denied. His short life changed
world history. His teachings have inspired saints and sinners alike; have
produced great works of art, music, literature, architecture, civilization, and
worship. And these are the positive aspects. There are negative ones as well
where some humans corrupted those same teachings for their own, misguided,
ignorant or sinful reasons.
The stage is
surely set for the return of the Wise Men.
Is it no coincidence that the very first and most serious crisis in the history
of the early Christian church was the Arian heresy which centered on the
definition of the person or nature of Jesus Christ? This was then and remains
today the crux of the question Jesus asked: “Whom do men say I AM?” The rebirth
of Christianity will, I believe, center on a deeper understanding of what is
meant by “Jesus being the only begotten son of God.”
Yogananda universalized the understanding and interpretation of the divinity of
Jesus Christ. He
often quoted the first chapter of St. John’s gospel, “As many as received him
to them gave He the power to become the sons of God.” Yogananda taught that the
difference between Jesus and the rest of us is not a matter of kind, but of
degree. We have not yet realized our birthright as souls made in the
image of God. The soul of Jesus inhabiting the body called Jesus had long ago
(in a prior life) realized its eternal nature as ever-pure, immortal, and “one
with the Father.” We, too, are called to the realization of this birthright. It
has been said that we are “as old as God” because God has manifested us (and all
creation) from “His” own nature. How else can God—who is pure
Consciousness—create anything except as part of Himself?
is not the place to continue with creation theology and the existence of evil it
is the place to note that this very understanding—endorsed by great saints
within Christianity and in many other traditions—has the potential to
reinvigorate devotion and appreciation of the Christian Way. Orthodox
religionists may initially fear that this dilutes the importance and uniqueness
of Jesus. Yet Jesus’ life, teachings, and omnipresent spirit have been proven
and attested to down through the centuries and in modern times through the
Christian and even non-Christian saints.
would such recognition of other Christs in history result in a dilution of the
reverence one feels towards Jesus Christ? Does the sheer number of saints
through the ages detract from their respective sanctity? Just as modern men and
women accept and appreciate the diversity in races and cultures without denying
or condemning their own, why should a Hindu devotee or Christian devotee feel
slighted that another religion also claims that its founder has achieved
Self-realization? Are we not all potential sons of God?
does not need, nor could possibly abide by, a “One World Religion.” History,
culture and tradition, what to mention human nature, recoils from even the
thought. Why can’t mature devotees recognize and validity of other faith
traditions? Are we so insecure in our own faith that we are not able to abandon
the slogan “My way or the highway?”
It is not
that Christian teachings are wrong: Jesus did die for sins; we can
experience heaven or hell; Jesus is a savior. But a new
understanding—what Yogananda called a New Dispensation—is needed to revitalize and
universalize the eternal teachings and spiritual power of Jesus Christ.
considers that our planet alone has had a number of “saviors” or “Christs,” if
you will, then other possibilities emerge. The man known as Jesus embodied the
realization of God in his soul and in his human manifestation. So have others.
“I am the Way, the Life, and Truth and no one comes to the Father except by Me” can
now take on a powerful and universal new meaning.
The savior or
living Christ is both an outer and human reality as a person and an inner
reality as in the conscious presence of their divine nature. We too partake in
this dual nature even at our level of awareness. We have a body and personality
but we can also experience ourselves as the observer of our own thoughts and
actions unaffected in our observation by the nature of the present tenor of our
emotions and actions.
Jesus is the
outer guru for innumerable souls just as Buddha (and other saviors) is for
countless other souls. The statement, then, that “I am the Way…” applies to the
guru, whether still in a human body or accessible because omnipresent in
spirit. But the outer guru in human form comes to awaken the inner guru which
is our invisible but omnipresent and eternal soul. Jesus as guru was the “first
coming” of the son of God for his disciples while his “second coming” takes
place in the awakening of the inner, soul-Christ in each disciple.
This is what Jesus’ promise concerning the coming of the Holy Spirit after his departure
symbolizes. The Holy Spirit is grace manifested in the consciousness and acts
of the disciples and descends upon the soul through the work of the guru.
has a family of souls given by God. In the poignant “accounting” that Jesus
gave at the Last Supper, he makes it clear that his disciples were given to him
The teaching in India is that from the beginning our soul’s creation, that
savior who will forever stand ready to reach out to us (when we have made the
choice to be helped) is already known.
Buddha and others like Yogananda. Whether in the outer form of the embodied
Christ as a guru or in the inner form as the Christ consciousness potential of
the soul, the statement “I AM” applies progressively, that is, step-by-step in
our spiritual evolution. Christian teachings thus, however unknowingly and
limited to the person of Jesus, essentially reflect the teaching that to
achieve God-realization the soul needs a God-realized guru.
sins means to dissolve or erase the karmic consequences of our sins. And what
is sin? Ignorance: ignorance of our true Self. Our fall from grace takes place
daily when we mistake the unreal for the real. Like the beautiful story of the
Prodigal Son, we have the choice at any time and in every moment to turn away
from the “foreign lands” of matter attachment and journey inward to our soul’s
home in God.
It is the
Christ—or the Christ or soul Consciousness—that baptizes and forgives us. First
through the outer guru which awakens our souls (as described above), and then
progressively as our soul ascends through effort and grace toward perfection. The
Holy Spirit, the Comforter, awaits us in the silence within. But we need outer
instruction in the precepts of right living and in the techniques of God-communion (prayer and meditation) to purify our body and mind.
It is a
teaching in India that a guru—not merely an ordinary spiritual teacher but a
true savior—can take on the karma of a disciple. A savior (known in India as an
avatar) can free untold numbers of souls who “receive him.” But just as a wise
father would not pay off the debts of an errant child unless that child was
repentant, so too the guru’s grace to release karma is not given randomly or
without just cause. Since our true nature is that of a Christ, it is always the
Christ consciousness first awakened by the outer guru and then nurtured by the
Holy Spirit in the inner, soul guru, that dissolves the knots of past deeds. Jesus’
crucifixion showed how we must surrender the ego to the will of God while the
resurrection of his body shows us the immortal and victorious nature of our
soul. His pain and suffering are examples and to a modest degree, related
largely to his taking onto himself the karma of his direct disciples. When it
is said that Jesus redeemed the sins of the world its deepest meaning is that
the Christ Consciousness, truly the “only” begotten of the Father, is what
redeems the soul.
without the concept of reincarnation, this New Dispensation is not “fulfilled.”
But just as Christian teachings adapted themselves to a one-life incarnation so
these concepts could stand on their own, just as lamely as the Christian
teachings, without the benefit of reincarnation. Christian theologians and saints perceived
what became known as Purgatory, Limbo, and mortal and venial sins to account
for the wide variety of human experience and consciousness in just one human
life. It’s not that such stages on the astral plane do not exist so much as
their interpretation is incomplete.
leads us to heaven and hell. I’ve often said you don’t need to die to
experience heaven and hell. It is right here on earth and within us. We can be rich
and famous, yet at the same time, miserably depressed. We can be a wanderer,
penniless but ever-cheerful. When we are in “heaven” we think we have arrived;
when we are in pain, it seems forever.
It is also true,
however, that other traditions, including that of India, teach that there is an
after-death realm that contains “many mansions” of “my Father’s house.”
Here souls rest or reside awaiting their next incarnation. These more subtle realms
range as far and wide as our minds are able and beyond. We go to “our own,” according
to our soul’s misidentification and consciousness. But as the saying goes,
“nothing is forever” (except God alone).
This is a
short summary of the promise of the scriptures that is found in all true faith
traditions. Increasingly in this new age, beliefs will wane in importance as
personal experience grows. We have learned from science to test our hypotheses
to see if they are real. Who we are in ourselves and how we behave is far more
important than our “credo,” what we believe. Meditation is growing in
popularity because it offers a tangible experience of consciousness without the
burden of belief. What else is God than Pure Consciousness? What else is the
soul but a reflection of God? “Be still and know that I AM God.”
begotten son of God is that soul that is fully awake to its own nature. This
nature is hidden by the sheath of all material creation and forms but has the
potential to awaken to its-Self in humankind. This is the promise of the
scriptures and is found in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ as in the
lives of all awakened sons of God.
could only give to the Israelites what they could accept, it is also true that
Jesus could not directly teach the dogma of reincarnation (known otherwise as
the “transmigration of souls”). In addition, given the controversy that Jesus
aroused during his life, he could hardly have taught the existence of other
Christs in other lands and times. To have taught each of these dogmas would
have sidelined his mission to the point of irrelevancy. Why is this?
Reincarnation. That reincarnation was discussed in
Jesus’ time is illustrated at several points of the New Testament. Modern scholars
concur. One example from Jesus’ own words that the concept was known can be
seen when the three disciples with Jesus descended Mt. Tabor after the
Transfiguration at which both Moses and Elias appeared. Their reported conversation
goes something like this: “Elias has come already and they knew him not….Then
the disciples understood that he spake of them of John the Baptist.”
There are several other points in the Bible, New and Old, that can be cited.
reasons for Jesus to sidestep the dogma of reincarnation include that
reincarnation and, indeed, belief in an after-life itself, was hotly debated
among the Jews and probably of no interest in the Roman and Greek cultures of
that time. This lack of awareness extended throughout the two thousand years of
Christian history until recent contact with Eastern teachings. Teaching it
would have only invited an incentive to postpone one’s redemption! Now with our
vastly broadened view of the material universe (macro and micro), the prospect
of endless future lives is already showing itself to be an incentive to seek
God now and not later!
As to Jesus
being the only savior of humankind, it was enough of a shock for Jesus to
announce “I and my Father are One” and that “Before Abraham was, I AM.”
In retrospect, Jesus was bringing to the Jews (and by extension, the West) the
teaching that God incarnates in human form. This was already blasphemy and
unheard of in the religions of his time. It was the immediate cause of his
crucifixion! What good would it have done for Jesus to announce that there could
be others like him? It would only have generated a frenzied search over the
succeeding two thousand years! Confusion, heresy, and anti-Christs left and
right would have been the result. It is only now, with the world becoming
“one,” that this truth can be revealed. For, indeed, it is sorely needed “for
the healing of the nations.”
Jesus as the son of God has been the right teaching for the disciples of Christ
during these last two thousand years. Until recent times, the definition of
Jesus as the only son of God mattered very little. Only in the beginning (as previously
cited) during the Arian heresy, did the question arise. Now, however, faced
with the reality day-to-day of coexisting with other religions, each of which claims its founder
or rishis, as co-redemptors must we confront the deeper meaning of “Who do men
say I am?”
Blessings to all for a (happier?) New Year!
Swami Hrimananda aka Hriman