The Soul Enters the Stage: Birth, Childhood, and Early Education
The effort of the yogi who misses the perfect goal is not lost. His past true deeds will cause him to take birth in some pure, noble-minded family, happy in virtue and prosperity. Returning here, his good deeds of the past awaken in his heart the urge to seek his former path with ever greater zeal, determined more than ever, now, to reach the one true goal of life: Eternal Bliss
—The Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 6
The birth and early life of Swami Kriyananda are well described in the above inspiring words from the Bhagavad Gita. He was born into a family that was easily suited to allow his innate spiritual nature to emerge, grow strong, and ultimately to determine the course of his life. His parents, Ray and Gertrude Walters, were noble-minded people who lived their lives with integrity and dignity. Through their deep mutual love and respect, they created a family life for their three sons that was filled with refinement, security, and love.
Mr. Walters was a scientist, an oil geologist, who was part of a new wave of international expansion and cooperation following World War I. He joined a large international company, Standard Oil of New Jersey, or Esso, which sent out exploratory teams throughout the world to seek new oil fields.
Gertrude Walters was a violinist who went to Paris after graduating from college to continue her musical training. Though both his parents were born in America, it was in Paris that they met. Shortly after their marriage, Ray Walters was assigned by Esso to explore for oil in Rumania. The young couple settled in the small community of Teleajen near the town of Ploesti.
Gertrude Walters was deeply religious. It was during her pregnancy with Donald, her first son — who has become widely known in the world as Swami Kriyananda, she told him once years later, “I identified mentally with the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus. Thinking of how filled with joy she must have been, I, too, felt deep joy throughout my pregnancy. Repeatedly I prayed, ‘This, Lord, my first child, I give to Thee.’” Kriyananda commented to us many years later, “Mother’s faith could not but have had an influence on me. Though I struggled in my seeking, and though I took many wrong turns, I always felt driven from within to live for truth.”
And so it was, on May 19, 1926, that James Donald Walters was welcomed into the world by his parents. His mother’s prayers bore fruit in due time, for her first-born son did later dedicate his life to finding God and to serving Him in others.
Because there were several boys and men in the Teleajen community named “James,” young Kriyananda was always called by his middle name, “Donald.” It was some thirty years later, in 1955, that he received the monastic name, “Kriyananda,” when he was initiated into the Swami Order.
The Rumania that formed the backdrop for little Donald’s early years was a country of fascinating beauty: rich, fertile plains and soaring mountains. It was still a simple country, decidedly un-modern in many of its practices and customs — a place Swami Kriyananda remembers as one where peoples’ hearts were filled with song.
In the evenings he could hear the sad, haunting music of roaming bands of gypsies, outcasts from India, as they wandered through the countryside. Hearing the yearning melancholy in the strains of their song, young Donald had his first exposure to the subtle moods of India, expressive as they are of deep longing for eternal truth and joy.
Swami Kriyananda has written that his earliest childhood memories all relate to “a special kind of happiness that had little to do with the things around me, but only reflected them.” He intuitively felt that there must be some higher reality — another world more radiant, lovely, and harmonious than this one. Beautiful colors and sounds thrilled him.
A governess for the Walters children said of Kriyananda as a child, “He was certainly different — in the family, but not of it. I was always conscious that he had a mystical quality that set him apart, and others were aware of it, too. He was, one felt, seeking the truth behind everything.”
Even though as a young boy Kriyananda had a sense of being somehow different, his inner joy spilled over into an intense enthusiasm for life. This fact, coupled with a keen sympathy for the sufferings of others, formed in him a natural sense of leadership. His childhood friends enjoyed his creative fantasies, and the adventures those fantasies spun. They followed his lead in games and at play. “Where do you get all your ideas?” his young friend, Jimmy Towart, asked him marveling one day.
The beautiful countryside of Rumania, virtually untouched by modernity, was an idyllic environment for Donald and his young friends to grow up in. It was a childhood of happy innocence. His inner awareness of being alone was therefore held in abeyance by harmony in the home — his parents loved each other and their children; in all his life, Donald never knew them to quarrel or to have disagreements — and by a group of friends who entered cheerfully into his spirit of fun and fantasy.
Swami Kriyananda’s early religious leanings showed a blend of both his parents’ temperaments: the pious nature of his mother — with whose Anglican faith, however, he never really identified — and his father’s scientific, practical bent. Although Donald felt no attraction to the formal church rituals, he felt an inner longing for spiritual freedom, love, and joy. He found it difficult, however, to believe that God really loves every one of us personally. It was easier for him to accept the thought of a Divinity that was “scientifically” impersonal, that encompassed the vastness of infinity.
Years later, in the teachings of India, Kriyananda found reconciliation between these seemingly incompatible concepts in an understanding that God, being truly infinite, could be both infinite and infinitesimal, impersonal and personal. For, as his guru, Paramhansa Yogananda, was to explain, “God, though impersonal in his vastness, has become personal in creating each of us.”
Donald’s natural childhood interests included reading books, enjoying music, singing, and playing with the fascinating intricacies of words. He grew up speaking three languages — English, Rumanian, and German — and traveled much more extensively than most children (or adults, for that matter) ever do. These activities have remained a part of his life. As a boy, the books he loved to read included the legends of King Arthur, of Robin Hood, of the ancient Greeks, and stories where goodness, courage, and honor triumphed in the end. Playing the piano became also for him, in time, a source of joy as he practiced happily at the keyboard — in later years, hours at a time.
Growing up in an international environment, Donald was forced to be tri-lingual. Without any sense that it was unusual, he spoke English with his family and with most of their friends, German with others including his nurses and governesses, and Rumanian, generally, outside the home and beyond the little Teleajen compound. He would also learn French at a school in Switzerland, and became relatively fluent in Spanish when he spent a summer in Mexico at the age of nineteen. Years later he learned Hindi and Bengali, and became fluent in Italian, when he founded a spiritual work in Italy.
Worldwide travel has been a normal feature of his life. As early as 1926, at the age of six months, his travels began with a long journey, accompanying his parents. The journey included an ocean voyage from Europe to America. Every three or four years, his family returned from Rumania to the United States for an extended vacation. Thus, at the ages of six months, and of three, seven, nine, and thirteen years Donald crossed the Atlantic on ocean liners, nine voyages in all.
His natural childhood interests and experiences molded the ways in which, later, he would serve his Guru: as Yogananda himself told him to do, through writing, lecturing (which he has done in five languages), and frequent traveling. Singing and music composition were to become important ways also in which he helped to spread his guru’s teachings.
Donald’s health as a child was precarious, and kept him more-than-usually thin and subject to a variety of what he has since described as “obscure” illnesses. In 1935, at the age of nine, he suffered a severe onslaught of colitis. After the first crisis receded, a pediatrician in Bucharest recommended for Donald’s health that he go to a salubrious mountain climate. His parents ended up sending him to a boarding school in the Swiss Alps that had been recommended to them. The name of the school was L’Avenir, “The Future.” It was situated in the little village of Chesières, in French Switzerland, in the Canton de Vaux.
Here Donald learned to speak French. He enjoyed the beautiful scenery, taking long walks with the other students, and skiing in winter. His colitis slowly improved — later, however, to be replaced by a severe kidney infection, which required fasts of three days at a time on Zwieback (dried bread) and Vichy water. Certainly the climate was salubrious, but this proved to be a difficult time for the young boy, who described himself many years later as “reserved, rather shy, pensive, and forever questioning.” Donald was frequently lonely, and — in far-away Switzerland — grew desperately homesick for his family.
Meanwhile, the looming clouds of World War II had begun gathering over Europe, with Nazi aggressiveness spreading like an infectious disease. The mounting tension among the European nations affected the young child deeply, adding to his sense of personal loneliness. Mr. John Hampshire, the kindly headmaster of L’Avenir, grew concerned over young Donald’s growing unhappiness, and recommended to his family that they bring their child home. The family lived by now in Bucharest, the capital of Rumania.
A change had occurred in the young boy, however, during his long absence. He’d been lonely in Switzerland, but he had also come to rely more on his inner self. Now, he felt less dependent emotionally on his parents and siblings, and was beginning to realize that his true home was not outward, in a human family.
After a respite of six months in Bucharest, where he was taught by a governess, his parents deemed it was time for him to resume his formal studies. Since his birth language was English, but America was too far away, his parents decided he should study in England. They chose a Quaker boys’ school in the village of Colwall near Malvern, called The Downs. Unlike his year and a half in Switzerland, the eleven-year old child, now more mature, enjoyed himself greatly. Years later, he described The Downs as “the best school I ever attended.”
The teachers at The Downs focused on drawing the best out of their students. The school philosophy itself, moreover, emphasized the importance of character building, honor, and fair play. Young Donald found the psychological atmosphere congenial, and flourished in it. He spent two happy years here studying hard, singing in the choir, playing sports, and enjoying life with good friends. He was a fast runner, and became good at playing rugby. In the autumn of 1939 he was expected to return for his third year, at which time, the headmaster indicated, he would be given a leadership position and might become the head boy.
It is a truism, however, that everyone’s life is like a stage play set against a backdrop of larger happenings. In the spring of 1939, Donald’s father, who had been stationed in Rumania for fifteen years, was transferred by Esso to Zagreb, Yugoslavia, where he was to serve as exploration manager. The family’s belongings were packed and stored in Bucharest, ready for shipping to their new home.
Meanwhile, that summer was the time for the family’s extended vacation in America. Their vacation was preceded, during the school’s spring vacation, by a month together in The Hague, Holland. When they got to America, Donald and his two younger brothers, Bob and Dick, enjoyed visiting their grandparents and other relatives. As their holiday drew to an end, they entrained for New York, to sail from there back to Europe. As they stepped onto the train platform in Chicago, the shocking headlines hit them: Germany had invaded Poland! Suddenly, THE WORLD WAS AT WAR!
The family had no choice but to remain in America. Esso found a place for Mr. Walters at their head offices in Rockefeller Center, New York City. The family’s belongings, already packed for shipment to Zagreb, were simply routed to America instead. The Walters family settled in Scarsdale, a suburb north of New York City. Donald was thirteen years old now. For the next nine years, Scarsdale was his home — or, as he was to put it, “his point of perennial departure.”
In Rumania, then at school in Switzerland, and once more in England, young Donald had had to face the stigma of being a foreigner. Strange to relate, settled in his own country at last, he found himself more of a “foreigner” than ever. It was difficult for him to relate to the consciousness of his fellow Americans, who seemed to him to exude self-importance and an excessive emphasis on group conformity. Even here, he realized with a deep pang, he was still a foreigner. And once again, perhaps more poignantly than ever, he realized that he was alone.
He could not — or perhaps it was that he simply would not — conform to standards that seemed to him shallow and meaningless. Later he was to write, “Certainly my lifelong inability to accept, or even to relate to, a conventional outlook caused me unhappiness.” He sought refuge while at Hackley, his first school in America, in music and in thinking about life. He tried to lose himself in books and in playing the piano. For his first year, and for his succeeding years of early adolescence, loneliness was his norm.
Often it happens that times of suffering are like rain, nuturing the seeds of future fulfillment. Young Donald’s loneliness began to stir in him a longing for deeper understanding of the meaning of life. The Episcopalian faith, at least as he found it practiced, seemed to him lacking in both inspiration and joy. His inner longing for truth sought its fulfillment in a world of ideas.
Personal unhappiness made him more conscious also of the sufferings of mankind everywhere. Young Donald began to write as a means of probing for solutions to the problems that beset mankind: hatred, racial and religious intolerance, egoic competition, and warfare. At the age of fifteen he wrote a one-act play called The Peace Treaty, the theme of which was man’s need for international harmony and cooperation. The play was set in the days of the cave man. The main character in the play was noble and idealistic, even though a savage. The action took place following a war. The hero wanted to create a peace treaty that would ensure brotherhood on earth for all futurity. Unfortunately, the other “clan” leaders demolished his attempt; though praising it at first, they then insisted, inspired by natural selfishness, that exceptions to the treaty be made in order to satisfy their own selfish ambitions. The play ended in a projection into the future: ever-increasing violence, then a final bomb and universal destruction. Not a cheerful prognosis!
Increasingly, young Donald began questioning whether happiness is possible in this world. He became deeply interested in the concept of small communities of like-minded people, creating a life of harmony, progress, and happiness. Such communities, he thought, might be able to inspire people everywhere to work for international brotherhood and harmony. He imagined a network of such communities spreading throughout the world.
Thus it was that personal unhappiness, fanned by the flames of World War II, inspired young Donald to seek happiness more generally than for himself alone. From adolescent alienation and loneliness, his life work was to emerge: writing books that probed deeply into these issues. He was, in time, to found the communities he dreamed of — places where people could live who wanted to guide their lives by high ideals. His early kaleidoscope of joys and sorrows forged a life dedicated to helping people everywhere to find happiness, peace of mind, and deeper meaning in their lives.
His ideals gradually crystallized in a search for truth, which he came, increasingly, to identify with inspiration and joy.