A New Way of Life
Lord Krishna is depicted in legend as a boy playing his flute by the banks of the River Jamuna, calling his playmates away from worldly pursuits to the divine search within. All men hear in their souls, whether consciously or unconsciously, this call to divine awareness. Every time a bird’s song charms them with the reflection of how sweet life might be, were it tuned to simpler melodies, it is this higher call they hear. They hear it when a sunset reminds them of Nature’s beauties overlooked in the frenzied struggle for success; when a starlit night speaks to them of Vastness and Silence, routed — alas!—by noisy self-preoccupation. How well they are able to heed the call depends on how ensnared they are by desires. The less they think of serving themselves, the more they will expand their consciousness to infinity.
Modern society, alas, is committed to an almost diametrically opposite principle. It firmly believes that the more one owns, and the more experiences one has of outward diversity, entertainment, and excitement, the happier he will be. Consumerism is propounded as a moral value: “Spend more, so that there will be more jobs, and more things produced, which will enable you to spend even more.”
It is not wrong per se, of course, to possess the conveniences modern civilization makes available to us, with its highly developed methods of mass production and distribution. What is wrong is the amount of energy that gets directed toward these outward goals at the expense of inner peace and higher awareness. What is wrong is that the quest for possessions tends to dupe people into thinking that getting is more important than giving, and self-aggrandizement more important than service; that one’s commitments need be honored only as long as they continue to serve one’s own ends; that the most valid opinions and ideas are those which have gained the widest circulation; and that wisdom, fulfillment, and happiness can be mass-produced, like the parts of a car. What is wrong, finally, is that people are losing touch with themselves, thereby losing their happiness, not gaining more of it.
Probably there has never been an age in which so many people felt alienated from their fellow men, and from life itself; so unsure of themselves and of their neighbors; so nervous, fearful, and unhappy.
Consumerism, elevated as it has been in modern times to the status of a moral law, sets aside as old-fashioned some of the fundamental teachings of the ages — as if the ability to build airplanes and TV sets qualified us to say that we know better how to live life than Jesus, Krishna, Buddha, or Lao-tzu. Were a prophet of modern consumerism to give us his Sermon on the Mount, he might start with, “Blessed are they who dig in and get theirs, for they shall get more than the other fellow.” At least, however, we have had time to observe the results of this sort of philosophy, and they are not pleasing.
Human nature has not changed. Those who ignore its guiding principles pay all the usual penalties, whether as restless and unhappy camel drivers or as restless and unhappy jet airplane pilots, or corporate executives.
It is not that what we have nowadays is wrong. The solution lies not in reverting to primitivism, or to any other culture that imagination may enhalo for us in a romantic glow. Those cultures had their problems, too. We are living today. What is needed is a change in our priorities. We need, as every age has needed, to subordinate material to human and spiritual ends. The principles taught by Paramhansa Yogananda will, if adopted, correct the spiritual imbalances of our times.
One of the pressing needs nowadays is for what Yogananda called “world brotherhood colonies”—places that can facilitate the development of an integrated, well-balanced life, setting an example to all mankind of the advantages of such a life. Cooperative communities ought not to be isolationist, like medieval villages, nor in any sense a step backwards in time, but an integral part of the age in which we live.
Cooperative spiritual communities are needed especially as a means of fostering deeper spiritual awareness. Paramhansa Yogananda used the simile of a young sapling, which requires protective hedging against herbivorous animals until it grows large and strong enough to stand exposed to them. The devotee, too, he said, requires the protection of a spiritual environment until he develops the strength in himself to be able to move through the world unaffected by its swirling currents of worldly desire.
People today who recognize the need in society, and in themselves, for a more spiritual way of life need hardly have pointed out to them the difficulties involved in such development. For every affirmation of spiritual values, the world cries out a thousand times from all sides that opulence is the answer to all human needs. The result is spiritual confusion. In a recent survey, children in America were asked who their heroes were. The largest number named actors in their favorite television programs. The next largest chose prominent athletes. Then came well-known politicians. Only two percent chose famous writers or scientists. None chose people for their spiritual qualities.
When Dr. Radhakrishnan was vice president of India, he said to me, “A nation is known by the men and women its people look up to as great.” By this standard alone it must be clear that America’s spirituality, though potentially indeed enormous, requires careful cultivation.
Cooperative spiritual communities, or “world brotherhood colonies,” provide a vital solution to one of the most pressing needs of our times — an opportunity for those who want to develop spiritually to satisfy that desire in a supportive environment, and thereby to set for the rest of the world a dynamic example that spiritual principles really work, that they are practical.
One of the fundamental needs of our age is for putting down roots again. We have extended ourselves too far outward from the Self within, and from the natural rhythms of the planet on which we live. Even in our outward, human associations we have lost touch with reality.
The average person in America today moves over fourteen times in his life — not to new homes in the same community, but to different communities altogether. Loneliness has become chronic. Friendships tend to be of the cocktail party and patio barbecue variety, and not the deep bonds that people form as a result of trials and victories shared. We know people to smile with, but not to weep with, not to confide in, not to go to for help in times of physical, emotional, or spiritual distress.
Small, spiritual communities offer a viable alternative to the depersonalizing influences of our times. People living and working together, sharing together on many levels of their lives — suffering, growing, learning, rejoicing, winning victories together — develop a depth in their outward relationships as well that helps them, inwardly, to acquire spiritual insight.
Small, cooperative communities offer more than a simple opportunity to demonstrate to the world the value of already-fixed teachings and techniques. Throughout history, the greatest advances have always come from the cross-pollination that occurs when relatively small groups of people with similar ideals have interrelated with one another. We see it in the golden era of Greek philosophy in Athens; among the small bands of early Christians; among the artists and writers of the Italian Renaissance in Florence; in the golden age of music in Germany; and in the days of England’s great colonial power.
Again and again, cultural advances have been defined by small groups of people who had the opportunity to relate to one another meaningfully; people whose relationship was one of friendship, of give and take; people with an opportunity to know to whom they were talking, and not only to know what they were talking about. On a mass level, such interrelationship is impossible: Nobody can know well more than a handful of people. But elitist cliques like that of England’s aristocracy during her colonial days are no longer feasible. Ours is an egalitarian society. The solution now is for small groups of people to set themselves in a position, not of superiority to the rest of society, but somewhat apart from it in meaningful relationships to one another.
It is already happening. During the late 1960s and early 1970s many people went out into the country, bought land, and formed small cooperative communities. To be sure, thousands failed, but a few were remarkably successful. And the lessons those few learned in the process are making it increasingly easy for other, similar communities to get started.
Among the successful communities, there is developing a consciousness of community with one another, of sharing in an experiment of national, even of international, dimensions. New definitions are slowly emerging, and are being shared among them — definitions of more fulfilling marriage; of education in how to live, and not only in how to earn a living; of friendship in mutual sharing; of cooperation for mutual well-being; of business as a service; of life’s true goals; of success in countless departments of life: definitions that are meaningful for people who live in cities as well as in the country. It is a movement of potentially tremendous importance to modern civilization as a whole.
The communitarian ideal was given its modern impetus, more than most people realize, by Paramhansa Yogananda through his lectures and writings, and by the sheer power of his thought, which, he said, he was “sowing in the ether.”
To further his ideals, I myself founded in 1969 what has become one of the handful of successful new communities in America, Europe, and now (I hope), India. Its name is Ananda. Ananda, a Sanskrit word, means “Divine Joy.” Ananda communities are places for spiritual seekers, whether married, single, or monastic, who feel a need to integrate their work with a life of meditation and of service to God. The members of Ananda are all disciples of Paramhansa Yogananda. Taking his teachings as our basis, we study how to relate them to every aspect of our lives.
Our first community, called Ananda Village, is situated on nearly 1,000 acres of land in the Sierra Nevada foothills of Northern California. The community presently comprises several hundred full-time residents; a meditation retreat open to the public; three “how-to-live” schools (from preschool through high school — and, more lately, a college-level institute); a farm; various supporting businesses; private homes for families: in short, the essentials of a complete spiritual village.
Ananda’s most obvious inspiration was Yogananda’s “world brotherhood colonies” ideal.
In 1967, by a series of extraordinary events, I discovered and purchased sixty-seven acres of beautiful, wooded land in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. There, with the aid of a few friends, I began to construct what finally became Ananda World Brotherhood Village.
Then, in the spring of 1968, finding a growing interest among my friends in forming a spiritual community, I wrote and published a small book, Cooperative Communities — How to Start Them, and Why, to explain the sort of community I had in mind.
The difficulties I faced at the beginning were twofold: financial of course, and perhaps primarily; secondly, the fact that, because my ideas were still “in the air,” many people with substantially different ideas tried to deflect my energies toward helping them to fulfill their ideas.
One person offered me $70,000 — enough money to get the community off to a good start — on the condition that I build the kind of community he wanted. But I saw that our ways were not compatible. He wanted a maximum of rules; I wanted a minimum. Even if I failed, I decided, I must go on as I felt Master wanted me to. Indeed, success or failure alike mattered little to me. I only wanted to serve my Guru.
The financial crises, especially, that we faced were considerable. They included two attempts to foreclose on us and seize our property; a forest fire that destroyed most of our homes and property; and lawsuits that were intended, as the presiding judge commented, to put us “out of business.” God, however, always gave us the money and the help we needed to pull through. One reason He did so, I firmly believe, was because I refused to subordinate the welfare of any individual to the needs, however desperate, of our work.
A man came to me one day in 1970 with $200,000, a sum we certainly could have used — it would have put us well on the road to success — and asked whether I thought he ought to join Ananda and give this money to the community, or to go to India. If, however, he had really wanted to live with us, he wouldn’t have proposed this alternative.
“Your place,” I told him, “is India.”
By placing primary emphasis on spiritual values and on God-contact in meditation, Ananda developed, gradually, as a place of selfless dedication to God, and to God in our fellow man. St. Paul, in his letter to the Galatians (5:22), wrote, “The harvest of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, fidelity, gentleness, and self-control.” These attitudes are difficult, if not impossible, to develop to any significant degree on one’s own, but they evolve naturally in the hearts of those who attune themselves to God.
Often have I felt Master’s smile in my heart on seeing his “world brotherhood colony” dream become a material reality. His blessings on the land — an almost tangible aura of peace — are felt by everyone who comes here.
The spiritual energy that is developing here extends far beyond Ananda’s boundaries. Thousands in America and abroad find in Ananda’s example the inspiration, and also the practical direction, for spiritualizing their own lives. This, indeed, is the broader purpose of cooperative spiritual communities. For although relatively few people may ever live in such places, people everywhere can be helped by examples — augmented by the large numbers involved in a flourishing community — that spiritual principles are both inwardly regenerative and outwardly practical. Every devotee, moreover, can be helped by the realization that he is not alone in his spiritual search.
Thus, Ananda — now in its fortieth year of existence — already provides people in many parts of the world with a sense of spiritual family, a sense which serves them as a bulwark in times of trial, and gives them encouragement and shared inspiration in times of joy.
Often, as I stand and gaze out over the green fields, woods, and rolling hills at Ananda, I am reminded of a poem I wrote in Charleston, South Carolina, not long before I came to Master. Since then I have set it in the legendary golden era of Lord Rama, whose kingdom of Ayodhya, in ancient India, was a place of universal harmony, peace, and brotherhood.
Thus may all men learn to live in peace, brotherhood, and harmony, wherever their paths lead outwardly. For now, as then, true, divine peace is possible only when people place God and spiritual values first in their lives.
June in Ayodhya
Listen! Fair June is humming in the air,
And Ram’s Ayodhya sings of lasting peace.
The growing grass nods heavy to the wind,
Patient till cutting time. The hay is stored;
The fields spring up with adolescent plants,
Laughing flowers, berries, and graceful corn.
In the orchards, every hand is quickly busy
To catch the ripest fruits before they fall.
Men’s hearts are strong with that perfected strength
That smiles at fences, lays aside old hates,
Nurtures true love, and finds such earnest pleasure
In seeking truth that every private mind
Seems drawn to virtue, like a public saint.
The women’s words are soft with kindliness;
The children answer with humility;
Even the men are like so many fawns,
Modest and still, sweet with complete respect.
June in Ayodhya is so roused with joy
The earth can scarcely keep its boundaries,
Swelling with energy and waking strength
Till not a mountain, not a valley sleeps,
Straining to burst, and flood the world with laughter.
Such harmony flows everywhere when men,
With grateful hearts, offer their works to God.
Then brotherhood needs no enforcing laws,
No parliaments, no treaties sealed in fear:
True peace is theirs to whom the Lord is near.