This year we have been celebrating the 70th anniversary of the publication of Autobiography of a Yogi, and celebrating more generally the teachings of Paramhansa Yogananda, which have touched so many around the world.
Paramhansa Yogananda was an avatar, a divine incarnation, sent by God to help usher in the new age of Dwapara Yuga, the age of energy. Yogananda’s message, although universal and eternal, was focused particularly on the needs of a world undergoing a period of rapid and wide-ranging change. Many of his teachings on the spiritual quest were radical departures from the religious traditions of the preceding centuries, especially in the West. Among the many differences, we may highlight six important ones.
Paramhansa Yogananda’s innovative teachings
1. Paramhansa Yogananda taught a conception of God as Satchidananda, which he translated as “ever-conscious, ever-existing, ever-new Bliss.” In contrast to the separate, judgmental, punitive God of Judeo-Christian teachings, God, Yogananda proclaimed, is a living, loving, joyful presence; all creation, and all of us, are part of Him.
2. Furthermore, this living joyful presence can be known and experienced. Yogananda introduced spiritual techniques which, when practiced with sincerity and devotion, can lead the seeker to direct experience of God as ever-new Bliss.
3. Yogananda taught that progress on the spiritual path brings increasing joy in the here and now. The spiritual life is not a thankless struggle that has its rewards only in the afterlife. God’s bliss is already within us, waiting to be uncovered. As it says in Ananda’s Festival of Light, “Whereas suffering and sorrow, in the past, were the coin of man’s redemption, for us now the payment has been exchanged for calm acceptance and joy.”
4. Truth seekers during the dark age of Kali Yuga were often sequestered behind monastery walls, removed from everyday life. Yogananda taught that in this new age, God can be found in daily life. He showed how all aspects of life—job, education, relationships, music, etc.—can be approached in ways that help one advance spiritually. Yogananda’s param-guru (guru’s guru), Lahiri Mahasaya, lived as a householder. Even after receiving initiation from Babaji in a golden palace in the Himalayas, he returned to his family and job as an accountant, while also spreading Yogananda’s teachings. Similarly, Yogananda’s guru, Swami Sri Yukteswar, had been married, had a family, and, while a swami, managed his ancestral lands. Today, the Ananda communities founded by Swami Kriyananda offer living examples of ways to spiritualize daily life.
5. Yogananda taught that although realizing the bliss of God within us is the true purpose of life, there is another force at work that pulls us away from the realization of our true Self: the pull of maya, or delusion. “I add my testimony,” he declared, “to that of countless others before me, that Satan is a reality. He is a universal, conscious force whose sole aim is to keep all beings bound to the wheel of delusion,” calling to us through our senses to seek fulfillment in the material world.
Implicit in this new understanding of Satan is a new way to fight and defeat him. “You cannot drive sin out of the mind any more than you can beat darkness out of a room with a stick,” Yogananda explained. “By concentration on delusion, indeed, you may only increase its hold on your mind. Bring in the light of God, however, through deep meditation and devotion, and the darkness will vanish as though it had never been.”
6. Yogananda and his predecessors in the Ananda line of gurus came to show us how to fight this battle of joy against delusion. They were all great warriors in this and previous incarnations. As descending Dwapara Yuga moved into Kali Yuga, the soul known as Babaji incarnated as Krishna, a great king and commander of armies who fought against evil. In that incarnation Yogananda was Arjuna, the great archer and warrior, as chronicled in the great battle of Kurukshetra in the Indian epic, the Mahabharata.
Although Arjuna was initially reluctant to fight this battle against his own family (that is, the delusion-affirming tendencies within his own nature), Krishna tells him he must fight, that he cannot escape this struggle of joy against delusion. Through Krishna’s guidance, Arjuna ultimately prevails.
The United States: the bastion of materialism
During his years in the United States, Paramhansa Yogananda showed the qualities of a great warrior. His mission this time, however, was not military or political, but to bring new focus to the battle for divine joy against materialistic delusion. His mission was not an easy one. He was sent behind enemy lines, so to speak, into the bastion of materialism: the United States of the Roaring Twenties. He answered the call with no hesitation and, after receiving the blessings of his guru and of Babaji himself, embarked for America in August of 1920.
His first talk to a Western audience, delivered on board ship while travelling to America was “The Battle of Life and How to Fight It.” He soon learned of the challenges facing him: As he later wrote in Autobiography of a Yogi, “An Oriental teacher who will dare the Western airs must be hardy beyond the trials of any Himalayan cold!”
Yogananda arrived in America not knowing anyone. The concepts he taught—of experiencing God as Bliss—were almost completely unknown there. He faced numerous challenges including race prejudice, betrayal by trusted friends and associates, lawsuits, and organizational and financial struggles.
Undaunted, he set out with indomitable energy and single-minded focus to teach people how to fight the battle of joy against delusion. During his early years in America Yogananda crisscrossed the country, lecturing to thousands, transmitting an infectious spirit of energy and joy to his eager audiences. Whatever challenges came to him he confronted from an unmovable center of God-communion and inner joy. He was unswervingly loving, accepting, forgiving, and encouraging to all.
An inner battle fought by each individual
Paramhansa Yogananda taught by his example that the struggle for joy cannot be won with the weapons of Satan. Condemnation, guilt, fear, anger, and hatred can never bring about the self-improvement people need to move closer to God. The battle is an inner one to be fought by each individual within his own consciousness. Yogananda knew that changing outward circumstances such as political institutions or economic systems, or legislating against the manifestations of delusive behavior, are ineffective in helping people achieve the happiness they are seeking. Rather, he taught them how they could experience God’s bliss for themselves, secure in the knowledge that the more anchored they were in that bliss, the more impervious they would be to the lures of material existence.
Interestingly, Yogananda confided to a few close disciples that he did, at times, participate in world affairs, often in subtle but far-reaching ways. He said he had planted the thought in Adolf Hitler’s mind to divide his forces and invade Russia, a strategy that led to Germany’s eventual downfall and defeat during World War II. Similarly, he planted the thought in President Harry Truman’s mind to defend South Korea and thereby halt the spread of communism throughout the world during the 1950s.
Remaining anchored in inner joy
With the founding of the Ananda communities in 1968, Swami Kriyananda took up the mission of his guru, Paramhansa Yogananda, to help people in the battle of joy against delusion. In his many writings, he elaborated on how Yogananda’s teachings can help people manifest divine joy in the workplace, schools, family life, and cooperative spiritual communities. By his own example, he demonstrated how one could live a life of intense spiritual service while always remaining anchored in inner joy.
Once, a couple from Ananda, who were struggling to start a new meditation center, found themselves pushed to their limits. They asked Swami Kriyananda’s advice on how they should reconcile the need they felt for more balance in their lives with the example of his own unceasing activity and service. He explained that the critical factor was that he served only as long as he felt his connection to inner joy. “If you lose that joy,” he counseled, “then it is time to pull back and regain that connection before continuing to serve. It may look like you are doing a good thing, but if you are not coming from a center of joy, your actions will ultimately be unproductive.”
“May I fight to win the battle . . .”
Paramhansa Yogananda’s teachings embodied in Autobiography of a Yogi and his other works show us the way to overcome delusion and win the battle of life. Through unflagging devotion to God and Guru and the practice of meditation, especially Kriya Yoga, we can live connected to the joy that is our own deepest nature. Yogananda encapsulated the struggle inherent in the spiritual quest in an affirmation he published in East-West Magazine in the early 1930s: “Life is a struggle for joy all along the way. May I fight to win the battle on the very spot where I now am.”
May we all take to heart Yogananda’s declaration in his poem “God! God! God!”:
No matter where I go, the spotlight of my mind
Will ever keep turning on Thee;
And in the battle din of activity, my silent war-cry will be:
God! God! God!
When boisterous storms of trials shriek,
And when worries howl at me,
I will drown their noises, loudly chanting:
God! God! God!
May we all live in God’s joy!
Peter Atman Goering and his wife, Bhaktimarg, have lived at Ananda Village since 1992. Atman currently serves as Ananda Village Manager and is in charge of both planning and the day-to-day operations of the community.