Paramahansa’s new torchbearer
Swami Chidananda Giri, the new spiritual head of Yogoda Satsanga Society of India, tells Rishi Rathod that meditation and right action are the roads to the Divine
Swami Chidananda Giriji was visiting India after becoming the president of Yogoda Satsanga Society of India/Self-Realization Fellowship (YSS/SRF), and I didn’t want to miss this chance of interacting with him. But the rain god wanted to check my resolve to meet him; it poured the whole night. I was sure I would not be able to meet him since the meeting was in South Mumbai and the trains started working only intermittently in the morning. The meeting was at Cumballa Hill, a posh South Mumbai area, where I somehow managed to reach but late. I was warmly welcomed by Simran Thakkar who was coordinating with me. After reaching, I briefly interacted with the swamis (spiritual teachers) who were assisting Chidanand Giriji. The interview was planned in the spacious hall of (I guess) a devotee’s residence. In spite of heavy rains, the entire place felt warm and pleasant, reverberating with exceptional freshness. In no time, Swamiji appeared from the adjacent room with a smile. Actually, I felt that his whole body was smiling. It evokes a kind of pleasantly sweet feeling to see a person who has given his entire life to seva (selfless service) and devotion to the guru’s work. Such beings emanate inspiration from their very presence to hundreds of sadhaks (devotees) who come in touch with them. Somewhere, deeply, I felt blessed.
What motivated you to get into spirituality?
As always, I am amused with this question because, truthfully speaking, every human being is on a spiritual quest from the moment we come into a human body, the reason being that we are all looking for a way to overcome suffering and attain happiness or bliss; that is what spirituality is. When I was studying at The University of California, I happened to come across the book Autobiography Of A Yogi in the home where I was staying briefly. I began reading it and was just absorbed, mesmerized. By the time I got to the end of the book, I was completely moved.
What is the spiritual practice or teaching that you suggest for our readers?
Well, the entire message and the entire mission of Paramahansa Yoganandaji and what really appealed to me while reading Autobiography Of A Yogi was that it wasn’t just a philosophy or metaphysics. It was a prescribed set of practices, a science of yoga called Kriya Yoga, and the entire appeal of the book was that by practising these very specific techniques of Kriya Yoga meditation, one could unfold the divine potential and finally awaken the soul, awaken the real Self.
How can the Kriya Yoga practice and meditation you advocate, help a modern man with family responsibilities of managing kids, work, life, advance on his spiritual journey? How does one develop a balance here?
Balance is the keyword because, actually, balance is just another word for spirituality. A balanced human being is one whose mind, body, and soul are in harmony with each other and not at odds: not competing with each other. For thousands of years, India preserved and nurtured this ancient spirituality, and it wasn’t just for renunciates; it was for all human beings because we all have the same problem: How do I transcend suffering? How do I achieve permanent bliss? So, a balanced life is spirituality. It means finding time, not a huge amount of it but some time for meditation practice or techniques such as Kriya Yoga, creating and nurturing the relationship with the Divine through that experiential dimension that Kriya Yoga opens up, and then living one’s life. Whether it is family responsibility, career, or whatever field you are engaged in, living one’s life in harmony, in accord with the eternal spiritual principles, will bring peace of mind.
So, when you ask how a person with a career and family responsibilities can benefit, it is relevant because Kriya Yoga gives the tools and methods, by which a meditation practice can be incorporated into one’s daily life and can gradually unfold the divine potential.
The current scenario is very challenging: everyone is glued to their mobile phones, and attention spans are shortening fast. We have created immense worldly comforts, but the heart is empty; loneliness and depression have become commonplace. What do you suggest for this?
That’s a very interesting question. Why do people feel this emptiness? Why is it so difficult to find fulfilment or love or support from other people? And the answer may surprise you—they have forgotten themselves. They don’t know themselves; they have alienated themselves from their consciousness, their real Self. That is the reason they can never feel inner peace, and when one doesn’t know one’s own Self, which is the divine spark—this spark is real love, real assurance, and real fulfilment within one—then what happens? Then one is driven to try to get it from other people, saying, “Oh, you must fill me. I need you.” This, then, paradoxically, drives people away, and so we end up with a vicious cycle of alienation from the soul, from one’s true Self, producing this inner craving for validation, craving for something, or somebody to love us. But if it is not there from within, it will never be found without.
So, that’s why, the Kriya Yoga teachings of Paramahansa Yogananda place utmost emphasis on the practice of meditation. Meditation means to get to know yourself as the soul. You begin to be peaceful. You begin to be quiet within. In meditation, the constant distraction of material stimuli, material noise, all of the electronic gadgets, and ceaseless barrage of information can first be reduced, then quietened, and then utterly stilled. Then, in that instant, you can feel there is something within you that you never knew before. You feel so peaceful, so secure, and then, as you go deeper, you begin to feel love. You want to give love, and, consequently, your whole life turns 180 degrees because you no longer chase after somebody else to get their love. You have that love in yourself, and you become a giver rather than a taker. You see, without finding that love within, the emptiness, the vacuum, will always persist.
The spiritual tradition of the Indian subcontinent has always emphasised seva to grow spiritually. How does seva help raise human consciousness? Also, what is the best form of seva according to you?
Yes, excellent question. First of all, the reason why seva or service to others is always part of any authentic spiritual tradition, whether it is in India or any other place in the world, is simply because it takes our attention away from ourselves. Our whole problem can be summarised in three letters—E-G-O. It is all about me and what I want and like. That’s what compels us to grasp some fulfilment or satisfaction from the outer material world, but we are never fully satisfied.
So, all spiritual traditions have a two-fold foundation: meditation on spirit or God, and service to others through right activity. That’s the whole message of the Bhagavad Gita—meditation and pursuing right activity. Service is just another word for right activity. Now, when you ask how that elevates our consciousness, it does so for people—especially those who read a lot of spiritual books or follow different teachers—who tend to make things a little complicated. I think, really, the simplest formula for spirituality is to simply transcend the ego, to get yourself out of the way, and become a ‘giver’ rather than a ‘taker.’ That’s how service actually elevates one’s own consciousness. Moreover, most people can’t be meditating their entire waking life. They don’t have the necessary mental discipline or the time; they don’t have the development to do that. So, when not meditating, service or any form of right activity becomes a way of maintaining that spiritual continuity as a spiritual practice.
Regarding your second question, when people talk of service, they think that they have to do something dramatic to save the world, feed the starving millions, and so on. Well, these are wonderful ideals, but service, spiritually speaking, can be anything that you do for another person out of love and out of a desire to help that person. Our Gurudev, Paramahansa Yogananda, had a wonderful way of putting all this in perspective. He said that to give food to the hungry was good. To teach them how to get food for themselves is better. To help them to awaken the mental power, the mental abilities in them by which they can achieve all-round success for themselves, that’s even better. But to give them the means to Self-realisation or God-realisation is to give the highest form of service. So, you see, he puts it all in perspective.
There are social organisations, NGOs of the world, which are doing great work. Many of them believe that they are doing great service to save humanity. Whereas we have spiritual sanghas, where gurus and masters assign various kinds of seva to their shishyas or disciples. What is the difference between the two?
Some individuals have what is called the ‘Messiah complex.’ The real guru, the real rishi or saint, would say to them “Better save yourself before you try to save anybody.” Paramahansaji had a wonderful formula for this. He said that when you change yourself, you have done your part in changing the world. No doubt, we have to applaud anything that anybody does to reduce human suffering. We have to commend that service regardless of whether the person is an egotist or a saint or anywhere in between. Anybody who is reducing human suffering, they deserves our respect. But when we talk from the spiritual point of view, when we talk about seva as an element of spiritual path or sadhana, or spiritual growth, then we have to keep in perspective that it has to be done with the right attitude. The attitude of ‘I am not doing this to build up my own reputation (or my own resume or whatever). Whether anybody even knows about it or not, it doesn’t matter because I am doing it for my God, who I revere and respect in these multiple forms of all human beings.’
But when you talk about Guru Seva, it’s a little different. The guru gives a request or an assignment to his disciple for service which is a part of any bona fide spiritual path. It could be meditation and/or right activity. The guru may ask a disciple to help with his work or to help the guru’s other disciples. This is a good form of spiritual discipline, but until one achieves liberation, the highest samadhi consciousness and oneness with God, then those teachers, let’s call them spiritual leaders, have to take good care that they don’t become recipients of the adulation, attention, and worship of their disciples. That is the surest way to fall from spiritual consciousness—spiritual pride.
Swamiji, you have been given the seva of writing and editing. What is your personal experience — physically, mentally, and emotionally — while doing this seva over the years?
When you do something for God directly or through the guru, you immediately feel a sense of satisfaction, a sense of connection, and if I understand your question correctly, what you’re asking is the result of service.
What I’d like to understand is whether there is a kind of shift in feeling or perceiving the world, which may be subtle to understand and difficult to communicate clearly, and which happens when a disciple undergoes seva on a regular basis.
How about one word? Humility! And nothing but humility. It means that you understand that the ego means nothing and that the soul is the spark of God—the spark of the Divine within you and that He is the doer. You don’t feel any sense of personal attachment or personal achievement. So, if you do true seva, the more you do it and the longer you do it, you come to realise that you are becoming more selfless, a more humble individual. If not, very likely, you are not practising true seva.
If I understand this correctly, humility does not remain a concept in your head. You feel it every moment of your day while living it.
Well, that’s a very tricky question because if you are feeling it, then you probably don’t have it. In other words, if you start feeling ‘Oh, how humble I am!’ it means you remain in the posture of Self-forgetfulness.
I was reading your discourse on your website where you mentioned ‘self-surrender.’ Would you please explain this term for our readers?
First of all, we have to understand, here, which self we are talking about because there is this false self, the ego-self, and also the true Self, the Atman, the soul. We could use the lowercase ‘s’ for the former and capital ‘S’ for the latter. We have been talking about self-surrender all this while. It is practising those disciplines of meditations, those disciplines of guiding one’s life and attitude correctly so that one becomes a more selfless person. Do you know what quality we most admire in a person? Somebody who is unselfish; somebody who is doing things for us that we didn’t even ask for and we don’t even have to ask that kind of a person cause they are operating from a sense of love within. The more one is in touch with the real Self, the real soul, the more you feel that love, that joy. The natural result of that is you become a giver; you want to give love to others. By doing this, you automatically put your little selfish ego with its selfish interests—‘What do I want?’ What do I like?’ and ‘What do I don’t like’—aside. All of this just naturally begins to dissipate. At the same time, through meditation, one begins to know who they are and their relationship with God. And then one’s outer actions flow from that. So, that’s self-surrender in the context of everyday action.
In a much deeper spiritual sense, self-surrender means samadhi. It means giving up the sense of separation, the delusion of separation of an individual ego that separates one from the infinite spirit. So, in that final ultimate state of divine consciousness where there is just a self-abandonment, the meditator says, “All is Brahman! All is God. There is nothing else.” That too is self-surrender.
So, to grow on the spiritual path, is it necessary to take sanyasa (renunciation)? There are people who feel that they are on the path but they have family responsibilities too.
Of course not. There is no necessity for renouncing worldly responsibility and duties. In fact, the opposite is true. For most people, those worldly duties and responsibilities become aids or stepping stones in their spiritual practice. The conscious fulfilment of duties—serving one’s family and serving society through whatever work you are doing—should not be divorced from spirituality. But, what is necessary is to reserve some time each day for a disciplined practice of meditation. Now, interestingly, you ask whether everyone has to become a sanyasi? ‘Sanyasi’ means ‘a renunciate,’ isn’t it? It means to renounce the attachments and the things of the world. Now, in the yogic or metaphysical sense, the answer is ‘Yes.’ Everybody just has to become a renunciate, but do you know how to do that? Not by putting on an orange cloth, or by building an ashram, or running away to the Ashley cave. It is done through meditation, by the practice of Kriya Yoga and pranayama (yogic breathing). Then one detaches the consciousness, the mind, the senses, and the intuition from its enslavement to the material world. That’s real renunciation. It is inner renunciation when I close my eyes and go within. I get control of the currents of life energy that are keeping me enmeshed in the world and materiality. And when I shut the outer world off, to go within, I am performing real renunciation. So, in one sense, when you say do I have to become a sanyasi— yes, you do; inwardly though, not outwardly.
We belong to the land of worshippers where we worship everything from deity to guru to God, to stones, trees, rivers, stars, etc. How do you see this? What according to you is true worship?
True worship means total absorption of mind, feeling, intention, and an intuition of the Divine, so much so that one merges in that object of meditation, in that object of worship. True worship, in the sense just described, usually, is not possible for most ordinary human beings. It is only possible through the practice of some form of yoga meditation.
Lord Krishna, instructing Arjuna, says, “On Me fix thy mind, be thou my devotee, and ceaseless worship thou reverently do before me. Having thus united thyself to Me as thy highest goal.” That’s the yoga of the Bhagavad Gita. Now what many people are just now discovering is that in the esoteric traditions of Christianity, Jesus Christ talks about the same thing. When someone asked him, “What is real worship?” He said, “Love God with all of your heart, all of your mind, all of your soul, and all of your strength.” ‘All your heart’ means all your feeling pouring out and becoming absorbed in that object of worship, the object of your contemplation. ‘All your mind’ means you first have to get control of your mind by practising a discipline of concentration to own the mind, to recapture the mind, so that it’s under your control, so that you can offer it to the Divine. ‘All your soul’ means with intuition. Most people don’t even know what their soul is. But when you begin to contact the soul, the first thing that happens is that you begin to awaken intuition. That intuition is such a complete, authentic, and much more powerful and reliable form of knowledge than the information that we get through our five senses. So, when I love God with all my soul, it means going into that soul, awakening that intuition, and then intuitively having that contact with God. And then finally, ‘all your strength;’ this is where nobody understands except yogis. What is strength? Strength is the life force in the body, the prana. What that verse in the Gospel is really saying is to practice pranayama and take control of your strength. In other words, get control of the forces that animate the body instead of letting them enslave you to the material world. You can use that prana to lead your consciousness within, into the spine and brain where the Divine resides, and then you perform your real worship of absorption of consciousness.
Swamiji, in Autobiography of a Yogi, somewhere it is mentioned that Paramahansa Yoganandaji initiated Gandhiji into Kriya Yoga.
There was a very profound connection between Paramahansa Yoganandaji and Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhiji’s work was mainly in India and Yoganandji’s work mainly, during that period, was in the USA. They had great respect for each other. They had a meeting for a few days when Yoganandji came back to India in 1925 and spent a few days at Gandhiji’s ashram. They have had many deep discussions about the state of India, the process of India getting its freedom, and also about spirituality. As a result of that, Gandhiji asked for himself and some of his close followers to be initiated into Kriya Yoga. Now, in this short interview, I cannot go into all the details, but just a few weeks ago on the occasion of Gandhiji’s 150th birth anniversary, on the 2nd of October, we have put up an in-depth presentation about the relationship between Yoganandaji and Mahatma Gandhi on our website.
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