In the spring of 1993, I was in Canterbury, England, strolling through the great spaces and precincts of the world-famous Canterbury Cathedral and remembering something that Paramhansa Yogananda had said. He revealed that his great guru, Swami Sri Yukteswar, had incarnated in the eleventh century as Lanfranc, who was archbishop of Canterbury from 1070–1089.
Searching for some hint of Lanfranc
Yogananda himself had been William the Conqueror, and Sri Yukteswar had joined William as his counselor and priest, to aid him in accomplishing his great mission. And now I was searching Canterbury Cathedral for some hint of Lanfranc. There was no known place of burial for Lanfranc — no tomb to commemorate this great soul.
The cathedral is still a house of worship, but it has also been a great tourist attraction for hundreds of years. Although I had already considered that the spiritual energy contained in this edifice might be buried beneath centuries of worldly vibrations, I was nonetheless disappointed. I had hoped to feel something of Sri Yukteswar’s spirit in this place, but I wasn’t sensing much at all.
As I left the cathedral I sought to maintain my inward focus and a positive attitude. Catching a taxi in the area, I directed it to take me to another nearby site, located in a suburb a few minutes outside of Canterbury—a site that was also connected with Lanfranc: Harbledown.
A leper hospital at Harbledown
In 1084, Archbishop Lanfranc, with the help of King William, built a leper hospital in Harbledown, dedicated to St. Nicholas—a charitable institution where the afflicted might find shelter, food, and medical care. (This was one of the many philanthropic projects Lanfranc had launched in his lifetime.) Originally, wooden huts stood on two sides, segregated by gender. The St. Nicholas Chapel was run by a priest and his helpers, who attended to the lepers’ various needs. It is written that there was great harmony in this place that Lanfranc had founded.
Since that time the purpose of the site has changed. It is now a retirement home for the poor. However, there is a small church on the property.
Introducing myself to the caretaker, I inquired about Harbledown’s history with Lanfranc, and asked if I could enter the chapel and practice my afternoon devotions there. The man handed me the key to the building, and encouraged me to take my time and pray there as long as I liked.
There wasn’t much to see or to draw my interest inside the chapel, which has experienced a number of renovations since Lanfranc’s time. It is a simple, modest-sized, single-story building with a decorative window or two, and a warm and welcoming energy. It wasn’t long before I drew up a seat and began my meditation.
“This was Lanfranc?”
I hadn’t gone very deep in my practice of the techniques when I was suddenly overcome by a spiritual energy. I was utterly caught off guard by an achingly sweet and enthralling presence in that chapel.
What a surprise. I was dumbstruck. My mind revolved in circles. This was Lanfranc? This was Sri Yukteswar in a past life? Nothing in my previous studies and meditations had prepared me for this beautiful experience. I had been prepared to feel great spiritual power and wisdom. Perhaps a profound joy. But this unutterable sweetness?
I’d recalled so many stories from Autobiography of a Yogi about this master’s sternness and strictness. Certainly those stories were true. But the spirit I felt in Harbledown completely transcended all those stories. I could hardly believe it. I felt that I had been let in on a great secret.
This was my first experience of Sri Yukteswar’s vibration through his past life as Lanfranc, and it was so tender and beautiful that I have remembered my meditation in that place ever since. I have had other reminders of Sri Yukteswar’s vibration since then—in Normandy, France: at Bec Abbey, where Sri Yukteswar had been prior; and in St. Stephen’s church in Caen. Always the blessing was unexpected. Always has it enthralled me and others who have felt it.
A new perspective on Sri Yukteswar
These experiences inspired me to write a book titled Blessed Lanfranc: The Past Life of Swami Sri Yukteswar, Guru of Paramhansa Yogananda. In this book I share a new perspective on Sri Yukteswarji.
A number of people I have spoken to about this great master have expressed what amounts to almost a fear of him. Of course, this isn’t surprising.
While in Paramhansa Yogananda’s hermitage at Mt. Washington, Swami Kriyananda, feeling a deep soul connection with Sri Yukteswar, told Yogananda that he felt great love while looking at a photo of that avatar of wisdom. Yogananda’s response was: “There was no love in those eyes.” Devotees have quoted these words to me, after I’ve shared with them my Lanfranc/Sri Yukteswar experiences.
But was Yogananda’s statement to Swami Kriyananda really meant as an all-encompassing definition of Sri Yukteswar—a warning, in other words, to steer clear of him? Why was Sri Yukteswar sometimes so stern? Swami Kriyananda offered an insight into this question. In The New Path, he wrote:
“One day we discussed the strictness of Sri Yukteswar’s discipline in training his disciples. ‘He didn’t want disciples,’ [Yogananda] remarked. ‘Few could take his penetrating insight into their weaknesses—an insight which he never hesitated to reveal! But because I remained loyal to him, I found God. By converting me, he converted thousands.’
“‘Master,’ I inquired, ‘might Sri Yukteswar’s strictness have been due to his foreknowledge that he wouldn’t be returning to this material plane of existence, since his work now is on a high astral plane? Was it not that most of his real disciples were free already, and he was simply being careful not to assume responsibility for any new ones?’
“‘That’s right,’ Master replied. ‘He had a few stragglers this time, that’s all.’”
What was behind Sri Yukteswar’s severe image?
Sri Yukteswar’s strictness, therefore, should not be perceived as his customary attitude or as his abiding nature— not, that is, if there is evidence to the contrary. Yogananda made this telling statement in Autobiography of a Yogi: “Sri Yukteswar would have been the most sought-after guru in India had his words not been so candid and so censorious.”
Why would Sri Yukteswar have been so sought-after, if his nature was nothing but “cold spiritual mathematics”? Is it possible that sternness and strictness were simply “the lions at the gate,” preventing entry to all but “a few stragglers?” What was behind that severe image?
Blessed Lanfranc was written to explore this question—and to share wonderful stories about this important incarnation—including the excerpt below, relating to the touching relationship between Lanfranc and William (Sri Yukteswar and Yogananda) in those lifetimes.
Once, during a meeting, King William noticed that Lanfranc was looking unwell. He stopped what he was doing and gave a royal order that his archbishop take a medical leave of absence.
Something that was considered extraordinary by contemporary witnesses was the deep friendship that existed between Lanfranc and William. It was a connection that went far beyond a mere harmonious working relationship. Lanfranc was much more than William’s advisor and colleague. He was his friend.
Because of the times—the dark days of ascending Kali Yuga (the “age of matter”)—William had to be stern with many. The pull of worldly thinking and the physical senses was stronger in those days than it is now. Even those who were spiritually aware and in tune with William had to fight the impulse to fall asleep spiritually, ignore the work they were doing, and indulge their lower desires. And so, according to contemporary chroniclers, William often frowned upon and spoke sharply to those with whom he was dealing.
However, invariably, when Lanfranc entered the room, William’s features softened. He smiled and spoke lovingly to Lanfranc. There was a genuine and profound affection between the two men. It was as if, with Lanfranc, William could relax and be himself. He did not have to worry, as he did with nearly everyone else, that Lanfranc would misunderstand him, or betray him or his work. No, Lanfranc was safe. William could always depend on him. And history shows that Lanfranc always validated William’s trust. The work he did in William’s name was always superbly accomplished and undeviating in attunement to their mutual mission. They were truly one light in two bodies.
The loving and beautiful spirit between these men was reflected, in the twentieth century, in the sweet connection between Paramhansa Yogananda and his disciple, Rajarshi Janakananda. To Rajarshi, the master showed his affection openly, just as William had done with Lanfranc.* Later in life, William often entrusted his kingdom in England to Lanfranc when William had to be absent; and Yogananda similarly handed over the reins of his organization to Rajarshi, to be president after the master’s passing. Both confidants were faithful stewards. There was never a reason for concern with either of them in charge.
An extraordinary collaboration
* Swami Kriyananda said that Yogananda would have shared openly a similar affection for each of his disciples, if there had been no danger of them receiving it with an egoic consciousness, and therefore misunderstanding him.
When Yogananda met the fully liberated master Sri Rama Yogi in India, they walked together hand in hand for a long time in perfect bliss. Yogananda said that if he had spent another half hour in that great saint’s company, he would never have been able to leave India again.
This was the sort of relationship that existed between Lanfranc and William. And this was why they worked so well together, and understood each other so profoundly. And this is why historians cannot help commenting on their singular and extraordinary collaboration—a collaboration that had such far-reaching results: the founding of a kingdom that, in time, would change the world.