I read that Paramhansa Yogananda had said he was William the Conqueror in a previous incarnation. I also read, however, that William the Conqueror skinned people alive and hung them from their windows. I wonder if you could help me resolve this contradiction?
This was a mind-boggling revelation for me, too! Over the years here at Ananda Village, I’ve heard Swami Kriyananda confirm the fact that Yogananda said he was William the Conqueror. Having been educated for some years in England’s schools, he had been trained to view the Conqueror as "nearly the devil himself," as Swamiji’s has expressed it.
I myself became intrigued by the fact that the Master was the Conqueror and that he chose to reveal this fact. (He hinted at a couple of other incarnations between the Conqueror and his lifetime as Paramhansa Yogananda, but did not name the individuals who he had been.) For a spiritual teacher, such a revelation was certainly not a "plus" in magnetizing students, I reasoned. There must be a connection between his lifetime as Yogananda and the mission of the Conqueror.
I became so interested that I decided to write a book on the subject. In fact I’ve just completed what Crystal Clarity Publishers is bringing out this month in an Advanced Reader’s Copy edition. The final book, complete with illustrations, index, etc. will be published in February 2010.
To answer you as briefly as possible: There are two considerations. The first is that I’ve become convinced that Napoleon Bonaparte’s statement that "History is a lie agreed upon" is true. On one occasion when a disciple shared with Yogananda something he’d read concerning William (having to do, I believe, with his courtship of Matilda of Flanders including dragging her about by the hair to show her "who was boss"), the Master simply shook his head and murmured: "How they distort the past!"
I’ve read extensively — nearly everything that I could get my hands on in the English language — on William the Conqueror and King Henry I, his youngest son. (I believe, and take up the "case" in my book, that Swami Kriyananda was King Henry I.) I have never encountered the specific charge you mention: that William skinned people alive and hung them from their windows.
However, I do think that your central point stands: William carried out actions that to us seem absolutely cruel and inhuman. The answer for me has come in closely studying the age in which he lived and what those times required of a man whose mission — divine, indeed, as I have come to understand — was to establish himself as king of England. His was not a quest for personal power.
The Norman Conquest of England had the effect of pulling England out of the orbit of influence of Scandinavia — far less civilized, far less Christian, and less "evolved" in terms of its institutions at that time — and bringing her into the stream of Roman Christianity and the revival of classical learning that was being channeled then through the Church.
William and his son Henry centralized England’s government to a degree that was unmatched by any other "nation" on the continent for centuries. In fact he set the stage for the British Empire, which, though reprehensible in many respects, had an enormously positive effect on unifying the globe. The British presence in India was directly responsible for bringing the ancient teachings of raja yoga to the West — at first through a few special souls, and now, as an avalanche of spirituality. In this way the Conquest set the stage for Paramhansa Yogananda’s mission in this lifetime.
Those occasions when William gave orders for actions that we today consider unspeakably harsh were often the reason that the warfare then "in hand" was curtailed, and, in the end, less bloodshed was involved. For example, several times William’s "harsh" treatment of the mocking, intransigent rebels of one town caused the citizenry of the neighboring town to surrender before he even reached its gates. His "harrying of the North [of England]" was absolutely necessary, I’m convinced, if he was to hold England against increasing Scandinavian military pressure.
We must sympathetically put ourselves in the shoes of a general and king of the 11th century — a wholly brutal age — and ask ourselves, "What kind of actions were required to accomplish what God had given this soul to do?" It’s in this way that I’ve sought to understand William’s actions for the seven yearsthat it’s taken me to write this book, and in every case I realize that William did what was appropriate, what was necessary. No more, no less. A careful reading of his life, in fact, shows that occasionally he was more lenient than, practically speaking, he should have been.
In an age of licentiousness, he was faithful to his wife, didn’t drink, and attended Mass every day of his life, we are told. In the midst of thugs, murderers, thieves, desperados, in a lawless time, he did what he had to in order to bring law and authority — without which, no people can thrive or evolve.
I hope this helps a little bit, James. It also helped me to remember that a master lives in the awareness that the soul is imperishable, is one with God’s Consciousness, and sees at all times that this world is all God’s dream. What, then, comprises brutality?
Please let me know if this is not helpful or if it raises more questions for you. It is not an easy subject, certainly. The title of the book that will come out shortly is: Two Souls, Four Lives: The Lives and Former Lives of Paramhansa Yogananda and His Disciple Swami Kriyananda.
In God’s joy,
Catherine (Van Houten)