Saints: In the World but Not of the World


I heard that most enlightened beings live secluded lives. I heard that some enlightened beings (such as yourselves) are somewhat active in the world. Very few enlightened beings (such as Swami Yogananda) are fully active in the world. Why do enlightened beings have varying degrees of being active in the world? I have a feeling that the reluctance to be active has to do with the fact that most human beings are ignorant about what true spirituality is about, but i’m not sure. Thank you!

—Alex, Canada


Dear Alex,

There are many levels of wisdom. That one special stage called “enlightenment” is hard to define and even harder to recognize in another soul. The yoga teachings of India have itemized a number of different levels though this is not important to your question. I mention only to point out that a response must necessarily be nuanced.

Most souls who are considered saints are still working their way up the “stairway to heaven.” As such and with karma still to work out, they must seclude themselves and spend varying degrees of time away from people. Others have karma that necessitates they serve more actively in the world.

And yet even among the avatars — those “saviors” of humanity who come without any vestige of personal karma to work out — they too participate in the world in varying degrees.

It is all very individual. In 1936, Paramhansa Yogananda met a disciple of Ramana Maharshi called Sri Rama Yogi who Yogananda said was fully enlightened — so much so Yogananda said that one additional half-hour in his presence and he, Yogananda, would have been unable to return to America. Swami Kriyananda, direct disciple of Yogananda and founder of Ananda (and a personal friend and teacher to many of us) also met Yogi Ramiah (his other name) and was deeply inspired by him. When Swami asked Yogi Ramiah why he didn’t teach or serve or have disciples (he may have had a few), the yogi’s response was “God has done what He wants with this body.”

Essentially, therefore, there’s no reliable way to attribute any particular meaning to a saint’s role in, or out of, the world. A story is told that Swami Vivekananda, the most famous disciple of the avatar Ramakrishna Paramhansa, was informed by his guru (Ramakrishna) that higher states of awareness were being withheld from Vivekananda because Ramakrishna needed Vivekananda to do so much work in the world. (Vivekananda famously toured the United States twice and accomplished many things in his very short life of 39 years.)

“Thy will, not my will” is the mantra of the devotee. Jesus, in the garden of Gethsemane, prayed briefly that the cup of his forthcoming crucifixion be taken away but then quickly surrendered to what he knew was the will of the Father. Swami Kriyananda, too, sacrificed his own desire for seclusion to spend his life of discipleship in unceasing service. Yogananda told Kriyananda that he, Kriyananda, would find God in this lifetime but that death would be his final sacrifice.

So, you see? The path to freedom is uniquely individual, as is every snowflake.

Blessings and thank you for contacting us,
Nayaswami Hriman