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Written by Felicia M. Tomasko, RN   

Autobiography of a Yogi is a book with a profound impact over the decades since it was written by the great master Yogananda. Among many who have been touched by the words, physical presence or energy of this teacher is Swami Kriyananda, who was only in his early twenties when he met Yogananda and from that moment, he become an ardent student. Swami Kriyananda is not without controversy, including a public schism with the Self-Realization Fellowship and other lawsuits. Yet at the same time, the Ananda communities he founded in 1967 based on Yogananda’s urging for people to create intentional living, are thriving householder ashrams. Now in his 80s, Swami Kriyananda is still teaching and writing and will give a free talk in Los Angeles on September 25. LA YOGA spoke to Swami Kriyananda about the teachings in the Bhagavad Gita, since he is currently filming commentary on the Gita for YouTube clips and for Indian television.

Felicia Marie Tomasko: At the present moment you are filming, both on YouTube and for Indian television, segments on the Bhagavad Gita. This is a text people return to again and again. What do you think is the most important message that the Gita has to share with us today?

Swami Kriyananda: The Gita is, in my opinion, the greatest scripture in the world -- not because it is truer than any other, but because it is so complete, concise and profound in its teachings. Truth is one: men perceive it in different frames according to their individual ability and conditioning. The Bhagavad Gita is eminently practical, avoiding the vague abstractions that have always been popular with theologians. Even at that, however, it has been understood differently by different "authorities," depending perhaps primarily on whether their bias is toward the intellect, or toward activity, or toward physical and mental well-being or toward devotion. In fact, the Gita emphasizes all these paths, although it gives supreme importance, at the end, to all-surrendering devotion to the divine -- from which was manifested the entire universe, and into which all things must eventually merge back. But it also emphasizes as very important the benefit of approaching God by scientific means, which can open our consciousness to the inflow of divine grace.

Nishkam karma -- action without desire for the fruits of action -- is the supreme and ever-practical teaching of the Bhagavad Gita. The way out of karmic bondage is to act (to perform one's karmic duty), but with the purpose of gradually untying the knots of karma (past action and its results) by not doing anything for egoic gain. The ego is the source of all our suffering. The Gita's teaching shows us how to release our hold on the ego.

FMT: What does the Gita teach us about dealing with the sense of despair that can often overcome us?

SK: The Gita teaches that in our souls -- which, it says, is our supreme Self -- we cannot be affected.

Weapons cannot cut the soul; fire cannot burn it; water cannot drown it; wind cannot wither it away. – Gita. 2:23

I think that the supreme challenge man faces is not pain, violence, or disappointment, but his fear of these things. Hence, I have found it a very great aid in facing life's challenges to imagine the very worst thing that I might have to face, and then condition myself to accept it. Death itself -- even violent death -- is not painful in itself; it is a release. We suffer mentally only, not physically, owing to our attachments and unfulfilled desires.

FMT: What inspired you to study the Gita and how did your teacher Yogananda serve as an inspiration in your relationship with the text?

SK: In 1947, I had reached the point of desperately seeking meaning in life. One day, someone in Charleston, S.C., where I lived at the time, told me I needed to read the Bhagavad Gita. I knew nothing of Indian philosophy, and had never even heard of this scripture. For some reason, however -- familiarity with it in past lives? -- the very name resonated with something deep inside me. When, later (in September, 1948), I found a copy of it in a New York bookstore, I bought it and fairly devoured it! This, and selections from it in a book called The Short World Bible, was my introduction to these teachings. Two or three days later I bought Autobiography of a Yogi, then -- less than a week later -- took the next bus across the country to Los Angeles with the sole purpose of meeting Yogananda, to whom the first words I addressed were, "I want to be your disciple!" He accepted me then and there. Later, in 1950, he had me come out to his retreat at Twenty-Nine Palms to "help" him -- as he put it -- with editing. I was only twenty-three at the time -- hardly an age to be depended on for serious editing of a great master's teachings; I knew he'd taken me out there primarily for my own spiritual good. As I read his commentaries, I said to him, "Sir, this is the greatest book I have ever read!" I was able, more than fifty years later, to present those commentaries, still fresh in my mind, in my book, The Essence of the Bhagavad Gita. The crystal clarity of that memory is something I can only class as a miracle, performed by him.

FMT: On video, you describe the Gita as being allegorical or symbolic. Can we also see this as a shamanic journey of having to face the darkness, both within the self and on the battlefield, and what does this mean for us as we go through our lives?

SK: Shamanic journeys are for a select few human beings. Whereas it is true that people select themselves, by their own karma -- my guru said, "It takes very, very, VERY good karma even to want to know God!" -- what the Gita offers is for everybody, and can be taken by everyone on his own level of understanding. Ultimately, it is true; it is about facing the darkness of attachment, desire, and other manifestations of ignorance in oneself, in one who struggles inwardly to transcend delusion and to realize the Ultimate Truth. Nevertheless, the Gita also addresses the outer battlefield of life, and tells everyone how to fight bravely, but dispassionately, to transcend injustice in whatever way one can. Gandhi sought transcendence in non-violence, but he, too, combatted injustice; he didn't submit to it supinely.

FMT: Tell me more about this. What advice can you give about combating injustice today and how we can combine our yogic values and wisdom with our actions in the world, particularly when it comes to injustice?

SK: The thing is, my Guru considered Gandhi a great man, but one-sided on the subject of nonviolence. Yogananda said that the reason nonviolence had won against the British was that, basically, they were "gentlemen." At least, they themselves wanted to believe they were doing the right thing. Gandhi's movement confronted them with their own adharma until finally they had no choice but to leave India. Yogananda added, however, that had India been ruled by Russians, its rulers would have been willing simply to slaughter them all. "If you practice nonviolence on confronting a tiger, you are likely -- unless your power of love is very powerful -- to end up completing your practice your nonviolence in the tiger's stomach! The teaching of ahimsa (nonviolence), then, must be primarily in one's attitude; it cannot always be in one's actions.

If someone comes to your neighborhood and starts shooting everyone, what should you do? Gandhi's answer would have been, "I'd let him shoot me first." Fine, but what if he were then to go on and shoot everyone else? What you'd have done, essentially, in that case would be to allow evil to flourish. Much better, if necessary, to shoot that one person than treat him passively. There may be other ways of restraining him, but the fact remains that good and evil are forever in conflict with one another, and our duty is to offer ourselves as instruments for the good. This is the story of the Bhagavad Gita. Ahimsa is one way of combatting evil, and a very good way, but on a practical level there are other scripturally endorsed ways. The important thing, in any case, is to work with realities as they are, not as they ought to be, ideally. Yogananda did once conquer a tiger with love, but he would not recommend that attempt to everyone.

FMT: Is there a particular passage or quote that you find yourself coming back to for inspiration, or giving to others?

SK: There are, of course, many. The whole book has inspired me again and again. But the one sentence I return to constantly is Krishna's statement: "Get away from My ocean of suffering and misery!" My own greatest incentive, as a young man, for seeking God as the solution to all human problems was the ever-increasingly anguishing question: "Why is there so much suffering in the world, and what can I do, personally, to help alleviate it?"

FMT: What answers to this question did you find in the Gita?

SK: It increases my own sense of urgency to find God as the only answer to everything. As Jesus Christ said, "Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added." In other words, all other desires will find their supreme fulfillment.

FMT: When one of your own students comes to you now with this question, how do you respond?

SK: In my book, The New Path, I tell a story about a young intellectual who came to Yogananda with a long list of ... well, let me quote from the book itself:

"A certain visitor once requested a private interview with Master. On the appointed day he arrived armed with a long list of what he considered 'profound' questions.

"'Love God," Master said in answer to the first of them.

"The man paused a moment uncomprehendingly, then shrugged and posed his second question."  

'Love God!' Master persisted.

"Nonplussed, the visitor proceeded to the third 'deep' question on his list. "

'Love God!' came the Master's reply once more, this time sternly. Without another word he rose, concluding the interview, and left the room."

In other words, it is pointless to discuss spiritual truths with people who don't hunger, personally, to know them. Otherwise, the Master explained countless subtle aspects of truth, sometimes at length, to those who really wanted to understand. He would never make sacred realities the subjects of "drawing room conversation."

FMT: How can we cultivate action and practice not only on the path toward enlightenment, but also to support health and well-being?

SK: Since the time of Einstein, many writers have proclaimed that there are no absolutes, and that moral values are relative and purely subjective. (I suppose this means, "If I steal from you, you lose, but I gain: Everything, you see, is relative!") In fact, however, Einstein related all movement to what he called the absolute speed of light. In moral values the same is true: Everything must be seen in relation to the one eternal absolute: Satchidananda, as Swami Shankaracharya called it: ever-existing, ever-conscious, ever-new (my Guru's addition) bliss. Right, moral action varies, yes, but it must always be seen in relation to the true goal of life, and the question: will it promote one's own, and others', lasting bliss? This same principle applies to any question regarding health and well-being. One should ask always: Will this practice promote my long-term happiness? Answering this question will lead toward what Krishna recommends also in the Gita: moderation in everything.

FMT: At your upcoming talk in LA, you will be speaking about your time with Yogananda. What made you choose this topic for this particular speaking engagement?

SK: The purpose of my visit is to launch my latest book, The New Path, in which I describe my early search for the truth, my coming to Paramhansa Yogananda ("Paramhansa," incidentally, is the way he himself spelled it), and my life with him. I've written this book in such a way as to make the reader feel that he, too, might have shared my experience with the Master.

FMT: Do you have a particularly poignant story to share about your relationship with him?

SK: I have, of course, many such stories. But the two that spring instantly to mind at this moment were, first, of the day I met him, when he said to me, "I give you my unconditional love." The other is of one day at his desert retreat, when he was going over my editorial suggestions for his commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita. I was sitting at his feet, thinking with love of what a great blessing it was to have him for my guru. When he finished his work, he asked me to help him to his feet. Standing there for a moment, he gazed deeply into my eyes and said, with the sweetest, most loving smile, "Just a bulge of the ocean!" He wanted me to keep in mind that whatever I saw in him of greatness came from God alone.

Swami Kriyananda will be speaking on September 25 at the Wiltern Theater to launch his latest book, The New Path. For more information or to check out the YouTube and other videos, visit: swamikriyanada.org


 

 
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