“Which is greater, a swami or a yogi?”
Paramhansa Yogananda asks this rhetorical question in his Autobiography of a Yogi. I’ve also received various forms of that question over the years, usually from people who live in the world raising a family, or perhaps struggling with marriage or with the demands of a career.
Yogananda’s answer, like other understated passages tucked away in that amazing book, essentially explains the path that we must all take to God:
To fulfill one’s earthly responsibilities is indeed the higher path, provided the yogi, maintaining a mental uninvolvement with egotistical desires, plays his part as a willing instrument of God. (note: later editors of Autobiography of a Yogi changed Yogananda’s words and the very meaning of that sentence.)
Even though it first sounds as though Yogananda is putting the path of Yoga foremost, he is also describing the path of true inner renunciation, or “mental uninvolvement with egotistical desires,” as opposed to formal outward renunciation. (note: A Swami is a member of an ancient religious order who has taken formal vows of renunciation, vows that are often seen only in an outward sense).
Entire books have been written about how to achieve that “mental uninvolvement with egotistical desires.” I mention a couple of them at the end of this article.
Yogananda’s answer also hints at the new renunciate order begun by Swami Kriyananda, the Nayaswami Order. “Naya” means “new,” and describes a new, but really age-old, form of inner renunciation that is not bound by rules and dogmas of what renunciates do not or should not do. Instead it describes a positive form of renunciation, one that entails positively giving one’s entire life and being to God.
A Nayaswami practices exactly what Yogananda describes so clearly and simply: serving in the world “as a willing instrument of God” and practicing a “mental uninvolvement,” or detachment, from egotistical desires.
Unlike the traditional Swami order, a Nayaswami can be married. It’s interesting that Yogananda himself formally ordained only two of his disciples into the Swami order. Those two were his most advanced disciple, Rajarshi Janakananda, and his most advanced woman disciple, Sister Gyanamata. Both were also married at the time they took their Swami vows, having taken partners before they began following Yogananda. But like the yogis described by Yogananda, they had renounced egoic involvement and had given their lives completely to God.
It’s also interesting to note that Yogananda’s own Guru, Swami Sri Yukteswar, was declared a Swami by the great yogi, Mahavatar Babaji—also at a time when Sri Yukteswar was still married. Ananda’s line of Kriya Gurus seems to have a knack for breaking with old rule-bound traditions!
Thus, a new form of renunciation was launched informally even before the Nayaswami Order was begun a few years ago.
I’ve personally met people who were living outwardly as monastics who were self-involved and prideful, compared to selfless parents who were raising children. The householder path has its own pitfalls of restlessness, over-attachment to family, and over-involvement in the world. Both “paths” have their own potential webs of bondage and trickery.
For example, a follower of Yogananda who was also a Swami quite confidently (and proudly!) informed me that Yogananda came to this world to start a monastery, forgetting that Yogananda himself declared on more than one occasion that, “I came to bring Kriya Yoga, and the interpretation of the scriptures” (referring to his commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita and the Christian Bible).
So how do the householder and the monastic free themselves from pride and bondage? The teachings of yoga meditation were given as tools, much like a form of technology in its traditional meaning,(1) to help humanity learn to live an inner life free from attachment. As Yogananda explains in Autobiography of a Yogi:
The Bhagavad Gita, however, points out that the methods of yoga are all-embracive. Its techniques are not meant only for certain types and temperaments, such as those few who incline toward the monastic life; yoga requires no formal allegiance. Because the yogic science satisfies a universal need, it has a natural universal applicability.
More specifically, the path of Kriya Yoga was given to humankind as the greatest ego-freeing technology of this age.
Finally, I’ll give Krishna’s reply to the question posed as the title of this blog, when he declared to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita:
The yogi is greater than those ascetics who (strive for spiritual perfection through) discipline of the body, greater even than those who follow the path of wisdom (Gyana Yoga) or of action (Karma Yoga). Become, O Arjuna, a yogi!” (chapter 6, stanza 46)
- A Renunciate Order for the New Age: A Breakthrough in the Evolution of Consciousness, by Swami Kriyananda, describes the new Nayaswami Order and the hallmarks of a true renunciate
Read online version
- Sadhu, Beware!, by Swami Kriyananda, offers practical tools on how to overcome bondage to the ego, for example by becoming an “ego detective”; how to overcome or avoid spiritual pride; how to develop right attitude.
- The Path of Kriya Yoga A modern tool for helping people to become true inner renunciates.