By Ritu Khanna
An unusual ‘interview’ with the great master — Paramahansa Yogananda
American journalist Horace Greeley, editor of the New-York Tribune, interviewed Brigham Young, the leader of the Mormon Church, in Salt Lake City in 1859. History shows that Young was not entirely honest in this encounter—he downsized the number of his wives and the extent of his wealth. Yet there is no doubt that this was the first full-fledged interview with a celebrity.
And, with it, the New Journalism of the 19th century was born. Over the years, the format developed:the Q&A style lent itself to many combinations and permutations, acquiring the status of an art form in the hands of an adept interviewer. Writing from memory or hastily scribbled notes, or with the aid of a recorder, the interviewer gave the reader an insight into the thoughts, character and lifestyle of the interviewed.
This form has been used and abused, but the interview as we know it today has certainly evolved since, say, the days of Greeley and Young or, even earlier, when Socrates used it on the streets of Athens.
My task here, however, was somewhat different. For conducting a face-to-face with someone who has left his body is a feat never attempted before. But then, Paramahansa Yogananda is no ordinary teacher; indeed it would not be hyperbolic to say that he was one of the most significant spiritual gurus of this century.
Secure in the belief that gurus never die, I prepared my questionnaire, covering Yogananda’s early years and influences, his beliefs and values, teachings and thoughts. Theft I went seeking answers in his books.
The most well-known of the written offerings of this master who went to the West to teach the practice of yoga and its benefits, seen and intangible, is, of course, Autobiography of a Yogi, a book that has been perceived as a spiritual classic. The golden years of the guru live on in the pages of this book which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.
No one who has read Autobiography has remained unmoved by this simple, heartfelt testimony of a yogi, with its coverage of miracles and godmen, of Indian wisdom and practices. Translated into 19 languages, it was the number one bestseller in the non-fiction category in Italy in 1990.
In 1948, American Donald WaIters (now known as Swami Kriyananda) read the book, became a disciple of Yogananda, and went on to write The Path: Autobiography of a Western Yogi in 1977: ‘The author’s photograph on the cover affected me strangely. Never had I met anyone whose face radiated so much goodness, humility, and love… Autobiography of a Yogi is the greatest book I have ever read. One perusal of it was enough to change my entire life…Never before had I encountered a spirit so clearly truthful, so filled with goodness and joy.
Every page seemed radiant with light…For, more than anything else, what this book gave me was the conviction that in Yogananda I had found my guru, my spiritual teacher for all time to come. Yogananda’s lessons, laws, poems, affirmations and sayings have been immortalized on paper. And the more I read them, the more alive he became. Here was some one very human, generous in spirit, sincere, endearing and endowed with the ability to laugh at himself. He could give meaning to miracles, yet not hesitate to tell the reader that his nickname in college was Mad Monk.”
Yogananda seemed equally at ease writing about spirituality and success; about strawberries and cream and the tenets of kriya yoga ; or of finding the cosmic link between getting rid of mosquitoes and sitting in samadhi, all in one breath, literally.
This ‘interview’ slowly appeared more real than if it had actually taken place in time and space. But in a sense it has occurred, for Yogananda’s words have given it flesh and blood.
Looking back in time, possibly on many a lifetime, from where, in your opinion, did it all begin?
I find my earliest memories covering the anachronistic features of a previous incarnation. Clear recollections come to me of a distant life in which I had been a yogi amid the Himalayan snows. These glimpses of the past, by some dimensionless link, also afforded me a glimpse of the future…
I was born on January 5, 1893, in Gorakhpur in northeastern India near the Himalaya Mountains. There my first eight years were passed. We were eight children: four boys and four girls. I, Mukunda Lal Ghosh, was the second son and the fourth child. My name was changed to Yogananda in 1915 when I entered the ancient monastic Swami Order.
In 1935, my guru [Sri Yukteswar Giri] bestowed on me the further religious title of Paramahansa. [Sri Yukteswar Giri, 1855-1936, was a disciple of Sri Lahiri Mahasaya, 1828-1895, whose guru is the ageless Babaji who lives in the Himalayas. Babaji is known as the greatest of all avatars, a mahavatar; Sri Lahiri Mahasaya was a yogavatar; or incarnation of yoga; and Sri Yukteswar, a jnanavatar or incarnation of wisdom. [Yogananda is known as a premavatar, or incarnation of love.]
Though you graduated from the Calcutta University, it is said that you were a reluctant student and were always more keen to apply yourself to the acquisition of knowledge with an undertone of divinity. You met with seers and swamis, revealing an interest in mastery over the self: What convinced you, then, to complete your studies.
[It was Guruji’s prophetic words:] ‘Someday you will go to the West. Its people will be more receptive to India’s ancient wisdom if the strange Hindu teacher has a university degree.’
Sri Yukteswar had foretold that in your mind, you had created three institutions adding that your architectural dreams would materialize later; but now where’s the time for study.
…incidentally, in his simple way, my guru revealed his knowledge of the coming of three important events in my life. Since early youth I had enigmatic glimpses of three buildings, each in a different setting. In the exact sequence Sri Yukteswar had indicated, these visions took ultimate form. First came my founding of a boys’ yoga school on a plain in Ranchi, then an American headquarters on a Los Angeles hilltop, and then a hermitage in Encinitas, California, overlooking the vast Pacific.
Sri Yukteswar is also said to have given you kriya yoga initiation.
The technique I had already received from two disciples of Lahiri Mahasaya—Father and my tutor, Swami Kebalananda. But Master possessed a transforming power; at his touch a great light broke upon my being, like the glory of countless suns blazing together. A flood of ineffable bliss overwhelmed my heart to an innermost core.
What is the science of kriya yoga?
The Sanskrit root of kriya is kri, to do, to act and react: the same root is found in the word karma, the natural principle of cause and effect. Kriya yoga is thus union (yoga) with the Infinite through a certain action or rite (kriya). A yogi who faithfully practices the techniques gradually freed from karma or the lawful chain of cause-effect equilibrium.
Kriya yoga is a simple, psychophysiological method by which human blood is decarbonized and recharged with oxygen. The atoms of this extra oxygen are transmuted into life current to rejuvenate the brain and spinal centers. By stopping the accumulation of venous blood, the yogi is able to lessen or prevent the decay of tissues. The advanced yogi transmutes his cells into energy.
The kriya yogi mentally directs his life energy to revolve, upwards and downwards, around the six spinal centers (medulary, cervical, dorsal, lumbar, sacral and coccygeal plexuses), which correspond to the 12 astral signs of the zodiac, the symbolic Cosmic Man.
Elijah, Jesus, Kabir, and other prophets were past masters in the use of kriya or a similar technique, by which they caused their bodies to materialize and dematerialize at will.
Kriya is an ancient science. Lahiri Mahasaya received it from his great guru, Babaji, who rediscovered and clarified the technique after it had been lost in the Dark Ages. Babaji renamed it, simply, kriya yoga. Because of certain ancient yogic injunctions, I may not give a full explanation of kriya yoga...The actual technique should be learned from an authorized kriyaban (kriya yogi) of Yogoda Satsanga Society Self-Realization Fellowship.
You constantly write about miracles…but do they really happen?
A ‘miracle’ is commonly considered to be an effect or event without law, or beyond law. But all events in our precisely adjusted universe are lawfully wrought and lawfully explicable. The so-called miraculous powers of a great master are a natural accompaniment to his exact understanding of subtle laws that operate in the inner cosmos of consciousness.
The law of miracles is operable by any, man who has realized that the essence of creation is light.
Nothing may be truly said to be a ‘miracle’ except in the profound sense that everything is a miracle. That each of us is encased in an intricately organized body, and is set upon on earth whirling through space among the stars—is anything more commonplace? Or more miraculous?
But then why do saints perform miracles?
Great prophets like Christ and Lahiri Mahasaya usually perform many miracles. Such masters have a large and difficult spiritual mission to execute for mankind; miraculously helping those in distress appears to be a part of that mission. Divine feats are required against incurable diseases and insoluble human problems.
When Christ was asked by the nobleman to heal his dying son at Capernaum, Jesus replied with wry humor: ‘Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe.’ But he added: ‘Go thy way; thy son liveth.’
What is the way to God?
The easiest and best way to god is not to be limited only to jnana (knowledge) yoga, bhakti (devotion) yoga or karma (work) yoga, but to combine them. Work for god, love god alone, and be wise with god. When an ordinary man puts the necessary rime and enthusiasm into meditation and prayer, he becomes a divine man. My Master used to say: ‘The little cat that goes into the jungle becomes a wild cat. ‘ The little man with small thoughts who goes into the jungle of books becomes absorbed in intellectualizing about god; he doesn’t find the nectar of god-realization. But the little man who meditates, who constantly thinks of the joy of god, who constantly prays to him, becomes one with the Infinite.
Start tonight to meditate earnestly. Do not wander aimlessly. Go straight to god.
Who made god?
Many ask that question. Because they live in the realm of causation, they imagine that nothing can exist without a cause. God, however, the Supreme Cause, is beyond causation. It is not necessary that he, in turn, have a creator; how could the absolute depend for Its existence on another absolute?
What is the best religion?
Self-realization is, in fact, the only religion. For it is the true purpose of religion, no matter how people define their beliefs. A person may be Christian or Jewish, Buddhist or Hindu, Moslem or Zoroastrian; he may proclaim that Jesus Christ is the only way, or Buddha, or Mohammed—as indeed, millions of believers do. He may insist that this ritual, or that place of worship, bestows salvation. But it all comes down to what he is, in himself.
Self-realization means realizing your true Self as the great ocean of Spirit, by breaking the delusion that you are this little ego, this little human body and personality.
What would you say was your mission in life?
To awaken people to their need for self-realization, through meditation, and through keeping good company, or fellowship, with other truth-seeking souls. Hence the name of this organization; Self- Realization Fellowship. SRF was sent to bring back to the world the original teachings and science of yoga as taught by Lord Krishna, and the original Christianity of Jesus Christ.
You have written that… while meditating… you had a vision: a vast multitude of Americans appeared before you. And the next day… you received an invite.
‘He must be Babaji!’ I thought, dazed, because the man before me had the features of a younger Lahiri Mahasaya. He answered my thought: ‘Yes, I am Babaji.’ He spoke melodiously in Hindi. ‘Our heavenly father has heard your prayer. He commands me to tell you: Follow the behests of your guru and go to America. Fear not; you shall be protected.’
After a vibrant pause, Babaji addressed me again: ‘You are the one I have chosen to spread the message of kriya yoga in the West. Long ago I met your guru Yukteswar at a Kumbha Mela: I told him then I would send you to him for training,’
‘Kriya yoga, the scientific technique of God-realization,’ he finally said with solemnity, ‘will ultimately spread in all lands, and aid in harmonizing the nations through man’s personal, transcendental perception of the Infinite Father. ‘
You then made your home in what you referred to as ‘the vast alien hospitable land of America’.
The founding in the West of a Self-Realization Fellowship organization, a ‘hive for the spiritual honey’, was a duty enjoined to me by my guru Sri Yukteswar and my param-paramguru Babaji. The fulfillment of the sacred trust has not been devoid of difficulties.
A leader of the temple in San Diego once asked you whether your stay in the USA has been worth it…
‘Blessed is the man whom the Lord doth test!’ I answered. ‘He has remembered, now and then, to put a burden on me.’ I thought, then, of all the faithful ones, of the love and devotion and understanding that illumines the heart of America. With slow emphasis I went on: ‘But my answer is yes, a thousand times yes! It has been worthwhile, more than ever I dreamed, to see East and West brought closer in the only lasting bond, the spiritual.’
On March 7, 1952, Yogananda entered mahasamadhi (a yogi’s final conscious exit from the body) in Los Angeles after delivering a speech at a banquet held in honor of the Indian ambassador. An extract from a letter to SRF from the mortuary director:
‘The physical appearance of Yogananda on March 27th, just before the bronze cover of the casket was put into position, was the same as it had been on March 7th. He looked on March 27th as fresh and as unravaged by decay as he had looked on the night of his death. On March 27th there was no reason to say that his body had suffered any visible physical disintegration at all. For these reasons we state again that the case of Paramahansa Yogananda is unique in our experience.’
A few months earlier, a disciple had asked him: ‘Sir, when we can no longer see you physically, will you still be as near to us as you are now?’ After much deliberation, he had replied with deep seriousness: ‘To those who think me near, I will be near.’
And Paramahansa Yogananda remains near us, for his words resound in the hearts of his disciples, in SRF centers the world over, in his teachings, in his writings, in this interview.
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