Part 1 - A New Age?
In the introduction to his 1894 book, "The Holy Science," Swami Sri Yukteswar (of Serampore, Bengal) proposed a shocking correction to the Hindu calendar by declaring that humanity was soon to enter ascending Dwapara Yuga! Most Hindus, including scholars and pundits, aver that the earth and humankind are in the midst of a long decline in morals, virtue and awareness. This decline, they insist, is the lowest cycle of the four and is known as Kali Yuga (the Dark era). I've read that when Sri Yukteswar held a parade in India declaring the beginning of Dwapara Yuga (around 1900 A.D.) he was ridiculed. Some onlookers even threw stones.
As best as I can tell, this dim view of humanity's future is shared by fundamentalists in other religions as well. From their perspective, who can argue with them? Rising nationalism, racism, cynicism and selfishness DO NOT suggest an increase in awareness or compassion!
And yet, by contrast, and in the matter of science and technology, no one could dispute that human knowledge is increasing: indeed, quite rapidly!
So how can morals decline and yet intelligence rise? Isn't there a contradiction here? Is there any hope of reconciling these two? Yes! I believe it is possible.
Paramhansa Yogananda and one of his most prolific disciples, author, Swami Kriyananda, reconcile this seeming paradox by saying that the decline in moral standards represents a temporary dissolution of fixed values and stereotypes in favor of what will gradually become a greater sense of personal integrity and awareness. Behavior based on rules, taboos, customs and dogma must give way to behavior based on self-integrity. First comes the freedom to break the rules; then gradually comes the personal awareness to re-affirm basic truths and human values for one's own greater good, health and happiness.
An example in point is the story of the abdication of his throne by King Edward VIII of England in 1936. Documentaries I have watched claim that the king was forced out of office by high-ranking government and church officials, and people in London's aristocratic society. The controversy focused on the king's desire to marry Wallace Simpson, an American divorcee. But it went deeper than that because the king, young and popular with the common people, was breaking away from the formality of the royal office and the elitism of high society. His errant ways, viewed as "modern," were deemed a threat to the establishment and to tradition. His sympathy for the plight of commoners constituted an unforgivable offense to the high and mighty.
Part 2 - Self-realization: A Frontal Assault on Orthodoxy?
But another question remains that I wish to explore is whether Sri Yukteswar's re-calibration of the Yuga Cycles is important to the Self-realization teachings he sent his disciple, Paramhansa Yogananda, to share with the world? Wouldn't it have been safer and easier to set this aside? Why did Yogananda explain this version of India's Yuga Cycles in his own life story, "Autobiography of a Yogi?" I ask "why" because by doing so Yogananda contradicted the religious authorities in India both then and to this very day! Why go "to bat" for something so esoteric and arcane? In most other important respects Yogananda's teachings are in alignment with the ancient and accepted teachings by such illuminatos as the Adi Shankacharya, Sage Byasa (Bhagavad Gita), and Patanjali (Yoga Sutras), to name just a few. So why make the Yuga calendar an exception?
I have puzzled over this for many years. Swami Kriyananda wrote a text that has become a classic in our time: "Art and Science of Raja Yoga." It is a text to share the core philosophy and practices of Raja Yoga as Paramhansa Yogananda taught them. Raja Yoga is an ancient tradition and while Yogananda was not its source, he explained it in terms we in the West could understand: free from orthodoxy, dogma and traditional cultural trappings. The text is both practical and deep in its understanding of the human mind, and illuminates for us the ancient wisdom of Vedanta, Shankya and Yoga (of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali).
So why does Chapter 1 of that book begin with an explanation of Sri Yukteswar's Yuga Cycles treatise? Surely a beginning yoga student in America would find it irrelevant!
I myself made an interesting discovery that suggests an answer to this question. I have found over the many years of teaching that whenever I attempt to give a broad overview of Self-realization teachings even in America which has no understanding of Yuga cycles, I find myself referring to the assertion that humanity has entered the first stages of the ascending Dwapara (Second) Yuga Cycle. The characteristic features of Dwapara so aptly fit our society's consciousness and so clearly provide an explanation for the changes in consciousness that we see unfolding before us. Sri Yukteswar predicted an increase in individual self-interest and personal self-respect, for example. And, sure enough, what else does America stand for if not personal freedom? Moreover, the voice of freedom rings loud and clear increasingly throughout the world. He said, further, that during Dwapara Yuga (1900 A.D. to 3900 A.D.) humankind would demolish the dimension of space (via travel, communication, etc.)
While this "coincidence" is interesting it doesn't answer the real question: why is his explanation of the Yuga Cycles of any particular importance in understanding Yogananda's teachings of Self-realization?
Here are some of my reflections on the importance of Sri Yukteswar's explanation in the context of teaching Raja Yoga (including Kriya Yoga, the Bhagavad Gita, Yoga Sutras, and the Bible).
Yogananda's teachings are nothing less than a frontal assault on both Christian and Hindu orthodoxy. If humanity is really and truly in the throes of a four-hundred thousand-year decline in morals and wisdom there would be little point in upturning long-standing religious traditions. I suppose humanity, in this case, might need something simpler and easier to practice and understand (as we become dumber), but Yogananda teaches a very subtle and nuanced blend of yoga practices distilled from the yoga traditions of India. He draws wisdom and practicality from the Vedas, Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, Yoga Sutras and the Christian Bible. While the blend is recognizable for those who research it, it is also creative and new.
Indeed, Yogananda called his teachings A New Dispensation. In a separate blog posting, I compared this New Dispensation to a New Covenant such as Christians claim Jesus Christ brought (displacing the Mosaic Law).
Why do I describe his teachings as a "frontal assault"?
In respect to Christian dogma, Yogananda is claiming that Jesus Christ was not the only world savior in human history. John the Baptist, he claimed, was the guru Elias from a past life and he, Jesus, was Elias' disciple Elisha! He even called his mission in America the "Second Coming." I don't know how these could be more radical! (He stopped short of claiming he, himself, was Jesus Christ having returned, but he came very close to that. His only response to the direct question was "What difference would it make?") He claimed, further, that the three Wise Men who came to honor the birth of Christ were none other than his own guru-lineage (Babaji, Lahiri Mahasaya, and Swami Sri Yukteswar).
In respect to Hinduism, Yogananda stripped from its attributes as much, if not more material, as the early Christians did in respect to Judaism. The apostles removed the requirement of circumcision, for example, and repeated Jesus' claim that he was the son of God. Yogananda carried forward none of the rituals and only a very few mantras, from India. He challenged the orthodox Hindu view that such saviors as Krishna or Rama were direct incarnations of Vishnu (God). Rather than their being so-called "Purna" avatars, he said these great souls were souls like you and me who had achieved Self-realization in a prior life.
So, in both cases, his was a frontal assault. Only the dawn of a New Age of Consciousness could be the external, or objective reason for what Yogananda taught. This is what I have concluded over the years. It may be perfectly fine for disciples of Yogananda to say that what he taught is "good enough for me because he was an avatar." But as the teachings continue to spread, they are helped by having an objective context to frame the necessity and relevance of those teachings.