“New Age” Movements
It now became necessary for me to relate to the world more realistically. No longer did I have a monastery as a home base, nor brother monks to give me spiritual support. Virtually every influence to which I was exposed, monks would consider worldly because motivated by a desire for ego-affirmation.
I’d already dived into the uncongenial waters of scientific materialism for my research on Crises in Modern Thought. Now I found myself exposed to another aspect of materialism, less concerned with justification, whether scientific or philosophical, and more instinctive. Its first, unexamined impulse was to think first of oneself. “The stalwart kinship of selfish motive,” a sage describes it in Autobiography of a Yogi. This definition of the basis for human unity, however, is not wholly satisfying for me, for though most human beings are indeed selfish, it is exactly their self-involvement that separates them from one another. The basis for human unity, as Paramhansa Yogananda shows repeatedly in his book, is our common, deeper-than-conscious need to know God, our higher, not our egoic, Self. In relating to others, then, I must do so with the “ulterior motive” of awakening them to a recognition of their basic need for divine love and bliss.
Obviously, I couldn’t achieve that end in any overt manner-for instance, by staring soulfully into their eyes! What I had to do first was learn to see them as they saw themselves. Only then-and only maybe-would it be possible to encourage them to higher levels of Self-recognition. I needed first to comprehend their values, if I was to inspire them to higher values.
Strange as it may seem, I found this adjustment difficult. Not only was I not worldly in that monastically defined sense: I was unworldly. Even to pretend attitudes I didn’t feel would be, however, a sure way of becoming worldly. I’d seen this happen too often, to people who, with the excuse of relating meaningfully to others, took on those attitudes and made them their own. Daya Mata used to rib me good-humoredly sometimes for my “other-worldliness.” One reason for this perhaps exaggerated aspect of my personality may have been the fact that I was born and raised in a more or less medieval country: Romania. True, I’d been sent abroad to school from the age of nine, in Switzerland and in England, but my home was in Romania for the first thirteen years of my life. At any rate, I naturally shunned sophisticated attitudes, which to me suggested “bigness” and self-importance. My inclination was to ask of life, “What does it all mean?” and, “How can I contribute to that greater meaning?”
I was attracted, at first, to various forms of “New Age” thinking, which emphasized humanity’s limitless potentials. In time, however, I realized that the basis for most such thinking was essentially no different from “old-age” thinking: Both were founded on self-interest. Both, therefore, were contractive, not expansive. Even people with generous natures usually thought of themselves as the source, not as merely the agents, of any good they did. Few desired to lose themselves in divine self-expansion. For this reason I found little to uplift me in those movements. The people who joined them prided themselves on a new freedom. I never joined, for it seemed to me what they really reveled in was a new conformity.
Having rejected one set of values, they now accepted what others said their new outlook should be. They felt a need to belong, and were more comfortable with vague precepts than with clear thinking, which they associated with logical rigidity rather than with the crystal waters of intuitive perception. Vaguely, they knew that deep insights are attained by feeling, not by the intellectual convolutions of reason, but they confused those insights with fuzzy thinking. The vaguer a statement, it seemed to them, the greater the chances that it might hint at a deep truth.
I remember a stern letter I received from someone to the effect that, if I wanted to relate to today’s youth, I must learn to appreciate their music. In fact, I felt no attunement with their music. Its heavy beat conveyed to me only this message: “Ah wanna get mine, an’ ah’m sure gonna get it!” I did make an effort to relate to others on another level, but I couldn’t accept their way of perceiving what they considered truth: “Wow, man, that blows my mind!” “Clarity” was my motto: “clarity above all.” At first I wondered if maybe they knew something I didn’t know. In time I realized that their “knowing” was only affirmation, buttressed by cloudy principles and wrapped in an aura of infallibility. They prefaced every statement with, “I feel…,” as though any “feeling” at all merited the respect due to true intuition.
This was a new society to me. I’d spent fourteen years in a monastery, where contact with the “outside world” was minimal. I remember once, during a Sunday sermon at the SRF church in Hollywood, making some comment about “boogie woogie” music, which was popular during the ‘forties. (I’d never had much attunement with that music, either.) A member of the congregation came up afterward and said teasingly, “Don’t you know it isn’t ‘boogie woogie’ any more?”
“Are you serious?” I asked in surprise. “What is it now?”
“Rock ‘n’ roll!” she replied.
“Well, well!” I marveled at my own ignorance. “How long has this been going on?
”Why, rock ‘n’ roll has been famous for five years!“ she, too, marveled at my ignorance. And in such matters she was knowledgeable. Her husband had played the trumpet for Charlie Barnett, one of the ”big bands.“
Years later, I related this story to my cousin Bet. ”Really, Don!“ she expostulated. ”You wouldn’t want people to think you quaint!“
Well, I spoke good English. And I could drive a car. Of course, what I’m really saying light-heartedly is that in fact I’ve always been rather an outsider-by inclination, not because of social ineptitude. Trends and fads have always been meaningless to me. In my opinion, to go out of one’s way to be ”stylish“ is a sign of lacking one’s own standards of taste. Of course, it wasn’t I who was on the outside, for I was centered in the search for an inner truth. It is worldly people that live outside their magic inner circle. They, not those who seek God, are the true ”outsiders.“
Divine vision, my Guru wrote, ”is center everywhere, circumference nowhere.“ Most people dance, puppet-like, at their periphery and view all things in terms of a multiplicity of non-existent circumferences.
The research I had been doing for Crises had acquainted me with one of the worst aspects of worldly consciousness: the denial of consciousness altogether. That aspect of materialism which I now encountered was an affirmation of consciousness, at least, and even of higher consciousness. ”New Agers,“ hippies, and most others who affirmed this higher consciousness (often after taking psychedelic drugs) declared that love is the only truth. I completely concurred. They believed, as I did, in human perfectibility. This was the generation of ”flower children.“ Yet in their very belief I detected, in time, the seeds of delusion. Without the fine thread of guidance from a wise guru, I realized, no one can escape the labyrinth of ego-consciousness. Nowadays, many people scoff at the need for a guru. They project onto those who are truly wise their own desire for power and importance. Their presumption betrays them. This pride was present also, though less stridently, in the softer hippie generation. The fault wasn’t theirs. Without the inner guidance of a true guru, no one can escape the endlessly tricky mind.
What the ”flower children“ emanated was a sort of woolly sentimentality. While declaring they loved everybody, they seemed unable to share this feeling except with those who, like them, were ”stoned“ on LSD or some other hallucinatory drug. As I got to know them better, I wondered whether some of them wouldn’t feel as much love for the beautiful color, red, from a cut on a person’s arm without considering the more abstract issue of his pain. It was an esthetic ”feeling“: passive, subjective, and drawing to itself while giving nothing in return. Especially what it didn’t do was offer itself to God, and to the Divine in others. To please God wasn’t, with them, an issue. Being coddled by God, or by something, was all they seemed really interested in. Like every ”New Age“ movement I’ve ever encountered, they sought enlightenment without opening themselves to the light of God’s grace. Their openness showed no devotion.
I was present on two or three occasions when everyone in the room, except me, was smoking ”grass,“ or marijuana. While I felt kindly toward them (they’d invited me as a friend), I couldn’t help being aware that there was a negative force in the room.
At first I was attracted by all the talk of love. Many of the words used seemed right. What I came in time to see and feel around them, however, was wrong. Fortunately, many of those who had been attracted, as I had, to the good side in this movement ended up leaving it, and joining Ananda, where the blessings and guidance of a true guru, Paramhansa Yogananda, are actively sought and experienced.
I was attracted also by the hippie attitude toward non-attachment. What they emphasized was freedom. Yet in time I realized that freedom, to them, meant independence from the way others saw and did things. If they grew beards or let their hair grow long or wore scruffy trousers or long dresses and almost-as-long bead necklaces, it was in conformity to what their own set were doing. Had they done otherwise, they would have been frowned upon by their peers even as society in general frowned upon them-and for no better reason.
I was also, for a time, on the fringes of the Hare Krishna movement. This movement began in the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco, the heart of ”hippiedom.“ Swami Bhaktivedanta had been invited there from India, and I, nostalgic for the devotional Indian scene, used to attend his gatherings. We enjoyed speaking Bengali together, and he gave me, in consequence, special attention. I found inspiration in chanting the Maha Mantra with him: ”Hare [pronounced ha-ré] Krishna, hare Krishna, Krishna, Krishna, hare hare! Hare Rama, hare Rama, Rama, Rama, hare hare!“ I confess the manner in which the young people around him chanted, bouncing their bodies about and stamping their feet like tribal warriors in a ritual dance, was too boisterous for my taste. It expressed none of the sweetness of devotion, but appeared rather to be a way of letting off emotional steam. Maha Mantra itself, however, had inspired me ever since I’d heard it sung every morning, years earlier, by a strolling band of devotees outside our ashram in Baranagor, near Calcutta.
Swami Bhaktivedanta (or Prabhupad, as he became known to his followers) was a Hindu fundamentalist: emotional in his faith rather than philosophically deep. He asked Dr. Chaudhuri and me to join his movement, but of course we didn’t. As we commented smiling to one another later on, one doesn’t expect philosophic depth from the beliefs Swami Bhaktivedanta held. He worshiped Krishna as God, and visualized Him literally as he is depicted in poetic allegory: blue-skinned, and playing the flute. Dr. Chaudhuri and I were nonetheless grateful that Swami Bhaktivedanta was bringing Indian devotional chanting to America. This was a wonderful gift.
One evening, the swami said something surprising to me:
”Ramakrishna was a fool!“
”How can you say that?“ I asked.
”He was an impersonalist!“ Bhaktivedanta used this term to designate someone who believes in God’s Infinite Consciousness.
”But,“ I replied, ”he was also personal in his worship. He prayed to the Divine Mother, especially.“
”There you have it!“ the swami scoffed. ”Krishna, not the Divine Mother, is the Supreme Godhead.“
”But Sri Ramakrishna also worshiped Krishna,“ I persisted. Sri Ramakrishna had demonstrated that all spiritual paths lead in the end to God. I was growing worried lest Bhaktivedanta give Hinduism a bad name in America.
”Is that so?“ he replied. This too, evidently, was news to him. He paused a moment, then continued his assault: ”Anandamoyi Ma is a fool!“
”Swamiji, what are you saying?“ I demanded.
”She, too, worships the Divine Mother.“
”Many times I’ve chanted Maha Mantra with her!“ I exclaimed.
Looking back now, I wonder whether someone hadn’t spoken to him about the chapter on cosmic consciousness in Autobiography of a Yogi. Perhaps he’d have liked to denounce Yogananda, also, as an ”impersonalist,“ but didn’t want to risk offending me too blatantly.
I couldn’t argue with an old man. In fact, I don’t believe in arguing at all. I recalled my Guru’s saying, ”Fools argue; wise men discuss.“ Bowing silently, in respect for the higher teachings he, unfortunately, misrepresented, I left the room, never to return.
Years later, Alan Ginsburg, the ”beat“ poet, told me, ”Swami Bhaktivedanta spoke to me shortly before he died. ‘Where have I gone wrong?’ he cried.“ Bhaktivedanta had accepted uncritically the fundamentalist belief that anyone who chants Maha Mantra will be purged of all sin. He’d accepted as disciples all types, confident that the chant alone would purify them and make them saints. Chaitanya himself, the great founder of Vaishnavism (the movement Bhaktivedanta represented), declared, ”Harer nam, Harer nam, Harer name Kaivalyam“ God’s name, God’s name, God’s name alone [brings salvation].”
Chaitanya, however, taught philosophically unsophisticated people at a time when their need was for personal devotion to God, and not theological clarity (as had been the case earlier, in the times of Swami Shankaracharya). He knew that, in any case, God’s grace would lift them out of ignorance if they loved Him. God’s “name,” however, cannot be uttered by human lips. It is, as my Guru explained, the cosmic vibration of AUM-or, in Christian terminology, the Amen, or Holy Ghost.
Bhaktivedanta also made a big thing of the concept of “disciplic succession.” It is true that a guru sometimes passes on his “mantle” to his chief disciple, as I often heard Paramhansa Yogananda declare he had done to Rajarsi Janakananda, and as the Bible says Elijah did to Elisha. These transferrals of grace, however, diminish in power over successive generations after the death of a great master, unless personal communion with God is maintained as the highest priority. Bhaktivedanta, whatever the merits of his claim to represent a direct line of succession, was born centuries after Chaitanya, though Chaitanya himself was a great master.
Alas, the “Hare Krishna,” or ISKON, movement soon became affected by bigotry, intolerance of others, and a belief that if anything benefited their organization, whatever it might do to others, it was right and good in the eyes of God. This attitude is, unfortunately, a feature of many religious institutions. Bhaktivedanta disciples developed institutional arrogance, viewing their lives for God in terms of profit, prominence, and self-importance. They forgot that their guru’s teaching encouraged the virtues of humility and service. Poor Prabhupad! He was a good man, and well-intentioned. So also were many of his followers-though not, unfortunately, those who determined the basic spirit of the movement. His fault was only that his wisdom was lacking in depth. In this deluded world, who can really fault anyone for that? Some of his followers acquired, or came to him with, negative and even anti-social tendencies. Bhaktivedanta himself, however, was a sincere man.
It is a common delusion in religion to believe that rituals and chanting will do all the work, purifying the soul without comparable emphasis on attitude and on inner communion with God. Paramhansa Yogananda used to say that meditation is to religion what experimentation is to science. Without it, results are haphazard and unsatisfactory at best.
I was a part of the “New Age scene” of those days, though I remained on the outskirts of it. Perhaps some people identified me with one setting or another. I sought in all these expressions of God’s play the role He wanted me, specifically, to play.
I remember one evening sitting on the stage of a large auditorium with Swami Bhaktivedanta, Alan Ginsburg, and other “leading lights” in the New Age movement. We chanted for, and with, hundreds of young people, while lights played erratically on the walls, floor, and ceiling as well as on the audience, which swayed to a heavy beat of its own that rocked the very walls. This, too, was an expression of God’s play-but how many saw it as such? The noise and chaos created a wall around those hundreds of egos.
I remember another evening also, when I and two well-known teachers from India were on a dais before a room full of devotees. The scene was a kind of re-enactment of the devotional play between guru and earnest disciples, the latter teasingly asking questions to which the teachers replied, again teasingly, out of their “wisdom.” A pleasant spirit of camaraderie pervaded the room. It wasn’t the game of “one-upmanship” one so often encounters when different teachers are in a room. Too much of the banter, however, came from an attitude of, “O wise ones, grant us enlightenment!” I was uncomfortable in this role. “This isn’t for me!” I thought. “I’m interested in sharing with others, not in being looked up to by them!” I was often exposed to this sort of situation, but did all I could to emphasize that the spiritual teacher’s role is to serve others, not to be served by them. My great Guru set this example, and was great especially in his self-effacement before the greatness of God.
At one such event I found myself seated on a stage with teachers from various traditions-Hindu, Christian, Jewish, Sufi, Sikh-all of us seated in a row like “crows on a fence” (as I later commented to friends) before a full auditorium. Most of those up there with me displayed only one aim: to be heard. For myself, unless I was asked to speak I remained silent. I felt as much out of it as-to borrow a phrase from the British humorist P.G. Wodehouse-“a cat at a dog show.” Finally, seizing a moment when everyone’s eyes were closed, I sneaked out to a nearby restaurant, where a good friend, Jay Levin (whom I later gave the name, Prahlad) and I had a good meal. (This was, I learned, his birthday.)
And so went all my attempts at finding a niche: toward failure and alienation, not toward discovering new peers and new ways to serve God.
A song of mine expressed my feelings at the time:
Roamed far in foreign lands:
Far, Lord-far too far!
Only he who knows he’s far from home,
Only he, Lord, understands.
Only he who knows he’s far from home
Feels the earth, and understands.
Sometimes a stranger did take me in:
Then love I thought was near:
Love, Lord-only a dream!
As the winds upon the desert sand
Whisper hope, then disappear:
As soft winds breathe on the desert sand,
So love sighs, then disappears.
Sometimes a child laughed, and I did pause,
And dreamed of joys at home:
Joys, Lord- only a dream!
For what joy is there without Your smile?
Empty, like the ocean foam!
For what joy is there without Your smile?
You’re the sea; all else is foam.
How long must I be a wanderer, Lord?
You know where I belong:
You know, Lord, yes, You know!
Home is where my Lord’s sweet presence is:
I’ve grown tired of strangers’ songs.
Home is where my Lord’s sweet presence is:
Bless me, that I hear Your songs!
Those were not easy years for me. I had no “spiritual bodyguard,” as Master described the company of fellow monks, for protection. “Environment,” he used to say, “is stronger than will power.” I was stubborn in my discipleship to him, and in my daily meditation, but most of the people I met considered me an unknown quantity. I wanted to reach and help everyone, whether “of” or not “of” the world. I was trying to attune myself to their needs and attitudes, in order to awaken them to their spiritual nature. Outwardly, I appeared more or less like others, dressing as a swami only for special events. Many women, not unnaturally, saw in me their natural “prey.” (I remember one attractive lady emerging into the living room of her home from its inner apartment during my visit there. Completely naked, she chased me about the room until I finally managed to make good my escape!)
Women were, however-again, not unnaturally-a temptation for me. Or perhaps I should say that what attracted me in them was their feminine energy. Basically, that energy-kind, compassionate, embracing-is a manifestation of the Divine Mother principle, which is untainted by ego-motive. I was as yet unable, however, to rise above a longing for human love. And I had nowhere to run for protection. The only solution, it seemed to me, was to keep loading the other side of the scales with devotion and with service to God in others.
Master had once told one of my brother monks, “I don’t ask you to overcome delusion. All I ask is that you resist it.”
Inner resistance was, I eventually discovered, a matter of-even mentally-withholding water from the plant. After years of sometimes-despairing effort, I saw the fulfillment of my Guru’s promise. By his grace, that energy ceased to hold any appeal for me. Divine love, I realized, is all-sufficient to the heart’s needs, and is free, moreover, from egoic limitation. In its human expression, on the other hand, sweetness and compassion can turn just as easily to vicious rage and vindictiveness-like the moods of Mother Nature herself.
The good side during those days, for me, was that yoga was “in,” and there were many who wanted to learn it. The competitive aspect hadn’t yet entered the picture; there was a spirit of sharing, less of appealing to people’s egos, from the ego. The hard edge of so much of what passes for yoga nowadays was less in evidence. People seemed relatively open to the deeper and more devotional aspects of this spiritual science.
I remember a lady in Sacramento who enrolled the second time around in my meditation course. “When I took these classes the first time,” she confided to me, “I was interested only in the yoga postures. I thought they’d make a good conversation piece for my weekly bridge club! But you know, this stuff’s serious! I want to learn more about it.”
And so, people came for a variety of reasons. More and more, however, they sought guidance in their inner life. Even that exuberant “Lady Godiva,” having finally found herself a husband, became a devotee, and sometimes visited Ananda after it was built.