By Saurabh Bhattacharya
After the passing away of Paramahansa Yogananda, author of the perennial bestseller Autobiography of a Yogi and teacher of kriya yoga, his disciples seek self-realization, meditating in complete privacy, under the supervision of Yogoda Satsanga Society of India (YSS)
How deeply is the Self Realization Fellowship (SRF) connected to the Yogoda Satsanga Society of India (YSS)?
Paramahansa Yogananda founded the SRF/YSS to help people of all races discover that they can know God by the scientific, devotional methods of kriya yoga meditation. During the early years of his mission, Paramahansaji used the name Yogoda Satsanga Society in America as well as in India. Later, for the West, he translated the name to Self-Realization Fellowship. People who visit our centers often tell me: ‘Whether I go to Guruji’s ashrams in the East or West, I feel at home.’This spirit is characteristic of Gurudev‘s society. His followers in India and surrounding territories are served from YSS and those in the rest of the world from SRF. Ashrams and retreats are maintained in India, USA and Europe and meditation centers are active in nearly 500 locales worldwide.
What was Paramahansa Yogananda’s vision?
Paramahansaji was absorbed in an unending romance with the Divine. He envisioned the highest way of life as meditation combined with right activity. In the more than 20 years that I spent at the feet of Paramahansaji, never did I see his gaze turn away from the sacred task he had been given. He lived for God, and for God in all.
There is a feeling that the Yogoda movement in India has reached a state of stasis. Is it a result of your increasing involvement in SRF?
Paramahansaji’s work in India is flourishing and expanding, as it is throughout the world. In the years since I have been in India, we have seen the membership there increase several times over. There are now close to 100 centers and meditation groups under YSS in addition to its several ashrams and schools.
Do you visit the India chapter often enough?
My heart always yearns to return to Guruji’s beloved India and the devotees there. And when it is Divine Mother’s will, I shall do so. My active participation and interest in YSS remains undiminished.
Has the one-to-one guru-shishya tradition of kriya yoga stopped after Paramahansa Yogananda?
It is important to clarify the real meaning of ‘guru‘. A true guru is one who has attained union with god. Before his passing on, Paramahansaji stated that it was god’s wish that he be the last in the YSS/SRF line of gurus. The one-to-one guru-shishya tradition, however, did not stop with the passing of Gurudev‘s physical form. Not only I, but thousands of disciples all over the world can testify that his presence and spiritual guidance are as vibrantly real today as ever.
Some people claiming their ancestry to Sri Yukteswar and Lahiri Mahasaya are teaching kriya yoga in the West. Comment.
Receiving kriya is more than obtaining a set of instructions; it means forming a sacred bond between your soul and the guru sent by god. We tell people that if they seek guru-disciple relationship with Paramahansa Yogananda, then the YSS/SRF teaching is the way to do so.
Has the Yogananda tradition been diluted to suit the situation in the West?
Yoga is a science. The effectiveness of science does not vary from East to West, nor does it need to be ‘diluted’. Paramahansaji taught this holy science without dilution. And one of the greatest responsibilities he gave to me and his other disciples was this: ‘As I have brought this teaching to you and kept it pure as it was given to me by God and my guru, so I give you this responsibility: keep it pure, undiluted by anything.’
Has the immortal saint Mahavatar Babaji been sighted recently?
Gurudev told us that the Mahavatar dwells with a group of advanced disciples and that his work is to assist exalted prophets in carrying out their work. His blessings can be received by any devotee who inwardly attunes himself through meditation and devotion.
How do you, in your capacity as the head of the YSS/SRF movement, see the future of Paramahansa Yogananda’s teachings?
The teachings are ideal for the changing times. This is why they are attracting so many devotees. Trends come and go. But principles remain. The meditation techniques and path of balanced living that Gurudev taught were true when given by rishis millennia ago. They will be equally potent 10,000 years from now.
The dusty, crowded bus stand of Ranchi in the eastern Indian state of Bihar is no place for saints. And yet, in the cacophonous milieu of hooting horns and screaming vendors, an ochre robe disappears around a particularly dirty corner. The contrast is intriguing. You follow the trail-to reach Yogoda Satsanga Ashram of the Yogoda Satsanga Society of India (YSS), a green haven of tranquility.
Yogoda? The name does not ring a bell immediately, till the childhood memory of a paperback cover on your parents’ bookshelf rushes in-from which a long-haired yogi observed all with piercing clarity. Youth witnessed a study of the book—Autobiography of a Yogi—and that same yogi, whom you now knew as Paramahansa Yogananda, thrilled you with his spiritual adventures on the road to self-realization. Yogoda-ah, yes! The name definitely rings a bell. Was it not the name of the ashraminstituted by Yogananda way back in the ’20s?
‘Well, yes and no,’ states Swami Krishnananda Giri, a senior sanyasi at the YSS, ‘Yogoda Satsanga Societywas started by ParamahansaYogananda in 1917 with an ashram and the BrahmacharyaVidyalaya, a residential school. A year later, it was shifted to the king of Kasimbazar’s summer palace in Ranchi, donated by him. The YSS was registered much later, in 1935-36. By then, Paramahansaji had popularized his teachings in the West and had established his work there.’
Teachings in the West—relevant pages from the Autobiography flutter in the mind. You recall the meeting of Sri Yukteswar Giri, Yogananda’s guru, with MahavatarBabaji, the immortal saint. The words of Babaji to Sri Yukteswar, as retold by Yogananda, echo: ‘Some years hence, I shall send you a disciple whom you can train for yoga dissemination in the West. The vibrations there of many spiritually seeking souls come floodlike to me. I perceive potential saints in America and Europe, waiting to be awakened.’
‘His mission,’ says Swami Krishnananda, ‘was focused primarily in the West. The job of cultivating the seeds of yoga and vedanta sown by Swami Vivekananda fell onParamahansaji.’ He left for Boston in 1920 and remained abroad all his life, except for one year, 1935-36, when he visited India.
‘Paramahansaji didn’t propagate his teachings much before he left for America,’ explains Swami Shraddhananda Giri, who left a career in nuclear science to venture on the spiritual path. ‘That actually started after he went to the USA.’
The YSS-SRF is now headed by Daya Mata, one of the earliest and closest western disciples of Yogananda. Based in California, the octogenarian Daya Mata has visited India five times since she took over the administration of the twin societies in 1955. But has that been enough?
‘Before Paramahansaji’s passing on in 1952,’ clarifies Swami Krishnananda, ‘he told Daya Mata that she should take the same interest in India as he had taken in the USA. In her first visit here, in 1958, she found that the only major activity going on was the school. So she established the system of meditation lessons. Slowly, under her leadership, the work in India has taken off.’
‘In an attempt to use the methodical perfection of the West, Paramahansaji wrote a series of 182 lessons that were popularized as a correspondence course in yogic meditation. The aim of these lessons was to guide people on their path of self-realization and to hone them for the more advanced techniques of kriya yoga.’
Strolling through the lush greenery of YSS, passages from the Autobiography rush through the mind till you reach kriya yoga—that sophisticated form of yoga which was taught by Babaji and was passed on to Paramahansa Yogananda. Memory rifles through the chapter on kriya yoga but is stopped short by a statement: ‘Because of certain yogic injunctions, I may not give a full explanation of kriya yoga in a book intended for the general public.’ The secrecy, once so attractive, now returns as a flustered question—why?
‘That way, even the lessons are secret since they are for the eyes of only those who have enrolled,’ says Swami Krishnananda. ‘This is to ensure that the teachings don’t get diluted by people who think they can teach but are not so equipped. There is, however, no exclusivity: people from all faiths are free to study them.’
But what is kriya yoga?
‘Kriya is a form of pranayama in which you can get fast and effective control over your mind and the prana,’ is Swami Krishnananda’s explanation. ‘When a baby is born, a current flows in the spine that causes the physical breath. These are the currents you want to get hold of during meditation.’
In the open portico of the main building, initiates go about their chores with the silent dignity of sanyasis. In a flash, you recall a long-forgotten adolescent plan, ‘inspired’ by the Autobiography, of running away from home, going to the mountains and becoming a sadhu.
When you mention this to Swami Krishnananda, he laughs heartily and says: ‘In most cases, people are attracted towards Paramahansaji’s teachings after reading the Autobiography. But getting into the Yogoda sanyas tradition is not an easy task. You have to be unmarried with no financial or social responsibilities. You have to apply formally for joining the order, giving all reasons: we don’t accept escapists in the ashram. If you are okayed, then you are asked to stay in the ashram for a month or so, giving yourself and us the opportunity to know each other better. It’s a lengthy process.’
New entrants are called pravesharthis. After a long period of six to eight years, during which they settle down to the order of the ashram, the pravesharthis take the brahmacharya vow, although sexual abstinence is observed from day one. As a brahmachari, the monk dons the yellow robe and remains so for a considerable period of time that may range to even 10 or 15 years. After this, once he has imbued within him the order of Yogananda, he takes the final sanyas vow.
The strictness of selection is reflected in the number of monks in the establishment—a meager 25. And all initiates keep a strict schedule of meditation and work, with absolute abstinence. But nobody’s complaining.
‘Sexual drive is a biological necessity that can be sublimated,’ asserts Brahmachari Ishwarananda, an MD from the Patel Chest Institute of Delhi. He left a potentially thriving doctor’s career for kriya yoga. He is young, energetic and much like any collegiate discussing Marx at the coffee table. Only that he wears yellow and is a celibate monk.
It is evening. Time for you to trudge back to the hotel. The afternoon has seen a sudden shower and the air is heavy with the smell of sodden earth. You turn towards the gate of YSS—the gate that remains open all day-and then, on an impulse, turn back. The marble lotus-shaped samadhi of Paramahansa Yogananda has been lit up. Inside, some devotees sit in deep meditation before his portrait. The long-haired captivating yogi of your childhood returns your gaze and the last lines of the Autobiography wander into your mind: ‘Lord, Thou hast given this monk a large family!’
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