On January 5, the disciples gathered at Mt. Washington to celebrate Paramhansa Yogananda’s birthday. As the function began, we went up to him individually and knelt for his blessing. After a banquet, later, he spoke of his longing to see an awakening of divine love throughout the world. In a more personal vein he continued:
“I never dreamt, during my first years of teaching in this country, that such a fellow-feeling in God’s love would be possible here. It exists only because you have lived up to the ideals that I have cherished, and for which I lived in the company of my great guru.”
Friendship in God, surely, was the key to our relationship with him. It implied no easy-going relationship such as worldly people enjoy with one another, but demanded of us, rather, the utmost that we had to give. The friendship our Guru extended to us was to our souls. To reciprocate in kind meant to strive unceasingly to meet him on that divine level. Those who clung to the desire for ego-gratification could not coax from him a compromise in the pure quality of his friendship. If a disciple flattered him, Master would gaze at him quietly as if to say, “I will not desecrate the love I bear you by accepting this level of communication.” Always he held out to us the highest ideal to which each of us might aspire. Such perfect love imposes the most demanding of all disciplines, for ultimately it asks nothing less of the disciple than the total gift to God of himself.
I used to pray to Master, “Teach me to love you as you love me.” Chatting with a group of us one day after hours in the main office, he looked at me penetratingly and said, “How can the little cup expect to hold the whole ocean of love? First it has to expand and become as big as the ocean!”
The Indian scriptures state that when the soul has released its hold on egoic individuality, it merges into the ocean of Spirit, becoming one with it. While most of us loved Master from varying degrees of ego-identification, his love for us was without limit — indeed, cosmic. To ordinary human beings, such love is inconceivable. “I killed Yogananda long ago,” he used to say. “No one dwells in this temple now but God.” His love for us was God’s love, manifested through his human form.
“Whenever I look at you,” Norman once wrote Master in a note, “I see only the Divine Mother.”
“Then behave accordingly,” Master replied with impersonal calmness when next they met. This was no modest disclaimer, but only an objective acceptance of things as they were. Yogananda was the humblest man I ever knew, yet it was humility only in the sense that there was no ego there at all, not in the sense that his manner was self-deprecating. Indeed, when someone once praised him for his humility, I recall the simple answer he gave: “How can there be humility, when there is no consciousness of ego?”
In essence, our relationship with him was not only a friendship in God, but with God, whose love alone he expressed to us. Always, with firm resolution, he turned toward the Divine all the love we gave him. Whenever we touched his feet in the manner customary among Indian disciples to their guru, he held his right hand reverently at his forehead, extending the fingers upward, to indicate that he directed our devotion to God. And if anyone’s affection for him displayed the slightest attachment, he often became distant and reserved until that person had understood it was God’s love alone that he extended to us.
Daya Mata tells a story dating back to when she was a teenager and new on the path. At first, in her association with him, he had treated her lovingly, like a daughter (which indeed she had been to him in a former incarnation). Once her feet were planted firmly on the path, however, he began to teach her the superior merits of impersonal love. To her now, feeling for him as she did the affection of a devoted daughter, he seemed all at once aloof, even stern.
One evening in Encinitas he addressed her that way. She went out onto the bluff above the ocean behind the hermitage, and prayed deeply for understanding. At last she reached a firm resolution. “Divine Mother,” she vowed, “from now on I will love only Thee. In beholding him, I will see Thee alone in him.”
Suddenly she felt as though a great weight had been lifted from her. Later she went indoors and knelt before Master for his blessing, as she always did before retiring for the night. This time he greeted her gently, saying, “Very good!”
From then on he showed himself once more affectionate toward her. Now, however, their relationship was on a deeper level, for the disciple saw him at last in that impersonal light in which he beheld himself.
For us who came to him years later, it was an inspiration to see between Faye and Master a friendship truly divine. Such, too, was the friendship he extended to each of us, although few — alas — ever came to appreciate so fully the extraordinary sensitivity of his gift. Each of us struggled in his own way to reconcile the apparent contradiction between this kindest, most considerate of friends, as he so often showed himself to be, and on the other hand one who was willing to subject us to painful lessons. For though we knew the lessons were for our good, often it was a good that awaited us beyond our present ability to understand. Yet the contradiction lay, in fact, in ourselves: between the petty demands of our egos for comfort and reassurance, and the uncompromising call to inner perfection of our souls.
Master himself was completely self-integrated. Living in the impersonal Spirit made him in no way indifferent to human pain. Both levels, the human and the divine, were to him parts of a single reality — the human part being merely its limited, outward manifestation.
He didn’t want us to ignore the human aspect, for it was this which drew us toward the divine. I remember one occasion, when he was standing with a small group of us, about two yards away from me. The thought came, “He isn’t really standing here with us: He is inside me. In essence, he is infinite.”
Just then Master walked over to me with a quiet smile, and gave me an apple! He was implying, “Don’t be so sternly philosophical that you reject the human aspect of our relationship.”
He once said to me, “I prefer to work with love. I just wilt when I have to work in other ways.” I myself noted, whenever he scolded me, a deep regret in his eyes at the lack of understanding on my part that had made his reprimand necessary. He reassured us, however, “I scold only those who listen. I won’t scold those who don’t.” It wasn’t that he couldn’t relate to us on a human level. Rather it was that, for those who wanted the most precious gift that he had to bestow — the knowledge of God — he knew he had to destroy our every egoic attachment.
With other people — and with us, too, when he chose to relax his discipline — he was, I think, as charming, warm-hearted, and utterly delightful a human being as ever lived. In the truest and best sense of the word he was a noble man. Because his self-integration was flawless, divine perfection expressed itself even in his casual behavior. To some of the disciples, also, he showed complete approval and acceptance: to those who were able to relate to him truly in God.
To hear him talk informally with such disciples was deeply inspiring. I think what struck me most about his relationship with them was its quiet dignity, its foundation in the fullest mutual respect. When they laughed together, it was as though they shared some deep, inner joy of which laughter was merely an outward expression, and by no means a necessary one. Manifestly, their deepest communion together was in silence.
The more I attuned myself to Master, the more deeply I came to appreciate the transcendent beauty of his inner friendship. It was a communion that needed no outward proximity for confirmation. Blessed with it, one even rejoiced when others endeavored to set themselves higher than oneself in the Guru’s esteem. For one knew that egoic approval had nothing to do with that inner attunement.
In some ways I think it was his utter respect for others that impressed me the most deeply about Master. It always amazed me that someone whose wisdom and power inspired so much awe in others could be at the same time so humbly respectful to all. I had always considered respect something one gave only where it was due. And in a sense, of course, Master gave it in that spirit, too, but what it meant in his case was a demonstration of deep respect because he saw God in everyone. As Master said once to Dr. Lewis, his first disciple in America, “Remember, God loves you just as much as He loves me. He is our common Father.”
Sometime during my second year at Mt. Washington a man came from India with a letter of introduction to Master. He asked permission to stay two or three days in the ashram. To everyone’s inconvenience, those “two or three days” extended to many weeks. He had already extended his expected visit by more than a week when, one day, he sent Master a complaining letter. The food, it seemed, was too Western for his tastes; would Paramhansaji kindly rectify the matter? Master quietly arranged for Indian-style food to be sent to him from his own kitchen.
I once saw Master chat with a group of Indians after a public performance in Pasadena. One man in the group was, as the saying goes, “feeling no pain.” Affecting great familiarity in his drunkenness, he threw an arm around Master’s shoulders and shouted playfully, as though considering the two of them old drinking buddies. Debi, who was standing nearby, made some deprecating remark in Bengali.
“Don’t,” Master replied in English, shaking his head a little sternly. In his eyes this man, regardless of his temporary condition, deserved the respect due him as a child of God.
A certain religious teacher in Los Angeles, a woman of considerable worldly means, once helped the Master’s work financially, and behaved in consequence as if she owned him. Master, as unbuyable a person as ever lived, continued to act only as God guided him from within. Gradually the woman developed toward him a sense of possessive jealousy, and on several occasions spoke to him venomously, hurling such insults as would have made any ordinary person her enemy. Master, however, remained unalterably calm and respectful toward her. Never sharp in his replies, always kind, he was like a fruit tree in full bloom which, when an axe is laid to its roots, showers its malefactor with sweet-smelling blossoms. The lady gradually developed high regard for him, praised him to others, and often took her friends and students to visit his centers. All her anger and jealousy became converted into ungrudging esteem.
In Ranchi, India, I was told a touching story dating back to Master’s return there in 1935. It seems that an anniversary banquet was planned at his school. Someone was needed to preside over the function and give it official standing. The name of Gurudas Bannerji, a prominent judge, was recommended. Widely esteemed, this man was, everyone agreed, the best possible choice. Master went to invite him.
What was Master’s surprise, then, when the judge coldly refused to come. He knew all about India’s so-called “holy men,” he said; he was looking at a typical example of them right before him. They were insincere, after people’s money, a drain on the community. He had no patience with them, nor time to speak for their worthless causes.
Master, though astonished by this reception, was unruffled by it. As he often told us, “Praise cannot make me any better, nor blame any worse. I am what I am before my conscience and God.” After hearing the judge out, he replied in a friendly tone, “Well, perhaps you’ll reconsider. We should be greatly honored if you would come.”
The principal of a local school, meanwhile, agreed to preside in the judge’s stead. When everyone had assembled for the banquet that evening, and the affair was about to begin, a car drove up. Out stepped the caustic judge. Since Gurudas Bannerji was such a prominent figure in those parts, the school principal readily offered his own place to him.
After the banquet there were several preliminary reports. One dealt with the school’s growth, and with the number of students who had gone on after graduation to become monks and religious teachers. “If the present trend continues,” the report read, “soon all of India will be covered with our graduates spreading the ancient wisdom of our land.”
Then came the judge’s turn to speak. Rising, he said: “Today is one of the happiest days of my life. This morning your Swami Yogananda came to visit me. I felt great joy on beholding him, but I decided to test him and see whether he was really as good a man as he looked. I spoke to him as rudely as I knew how. Yet he remained so calm, and answered me so kindly, that I tell you in all sincerity he passed my test better than I would have imagined possible. And I will tell you something more: Never mind the numbers of your graduates who are becoming monks. India has many monks. But if you can produce even one such man as this, not your school only, nor only our city, but our whole country will be glorified!”
One of my brother disciples, acting under the spell of a violent delusion, once wrote Master a long letter filled with scathing criticism for what he imagined to be Master’s faults. The letter announced his intention of leaving the ashram immediately. He must subsequently have seen his error, for he remained. One day, shortly after writing that letter, he was standing with a group of us when Master came downstairs. Seeing him, Master remarked, “You should take up writing. That was the best letter Satan ever wrote me.” Master’s voice, free of any resentment, held a note of genuine admiration.
His humility didn’t prevent him, however, from giving a strong reply sometimes, if he felt that one might prove helpful. An orthodox minister once, incensed at the presence of an orange-robed “heathen” in this, our most Christian land, and perturbed especially because the Master wouldn’t endorse certain of his more narrow dogmas, shouted at him one day on a train, “You will go to hell!”
Master, seeing the anger etched on the man’s face, replied affably, “Well I may get there by and by, but my friend, you are there already!” The passengers in the carriage had been following this dialogue with interest. At this answer, there came a general wave of laughter.
Wonderful as was Master’s quality of universal respect, it might be supposed that it entailed at least one disadvantage: an inability to see the funny side of what is often called the human comedy. The supposition would not be valid. In truth, I have never known anyone with a keener sense of the ridiculous. Master’s capacity for amusement, as we see from the foregoing story, was lively enough to remain undaunted even when faced with what might be termed the “ultimate denunciation.” Under similar circumstances, most people would have been reduced to humorless anger, or at least to indignation.
In the case of that fanatical minister, Master had a lesson to impart to him. He never made fun of others, however, if he thought that doing so might inflict unnecessary pain on them. Herein, indeed, lay a fundamental difference between his sense of humor and that of most people.
For that performance at Pasadena, which I touched on a few paragraphs back, his presumptuous guest from India had somehow managed to grab star billing as a Hindu dancer. As far as I know, the only actual “dancing” he’d ever done was in the boxing ring, where he’d achieved some success. His large physique, however, was impressive. When he announced that he intended to dance, it was understood by everyone that he meant business.
His performance that evening was planned to portray a deer being stalked by a hunter. Assuming both roles to himself, he alternately lumbered through his representation of the deer gamboling playfully in forest glades, and stalked ferociously through tall grasses as the hunter. Presently it became clear that he wasn’t keeping in time with the music. This realization finally dawned on him, too, and of course only one explanation would do: It had to be the orchestra; it wasn’t following him. Indignantly he instructed the players to suspend their playing, then strode down to the footlights and apologized for the musicians’ lack of musicianship.
“They aren’t professionals,” he explained gravely. Thereafter, every time his playful gamboling took him past where they sat ranged against the back of the stage, he waved his arms and hands, urging them in a fierce undertone to keep the time.
Master and I, seated together, were in paroxysms of mirth. Tears streamed down our cheeks, though we managed fairly well to keep from laughing out loud. “Don’t!” squeaked Master unsteadily when I let slip a muffled guffaw.
Well, the hunter finally shot his deer. Was this — finally — the end? By no means! The poor creature had now to be portrayed writhing about the stage in agony. After many minutes the deer gasped its last, and sprawled full length on the “forest floor.” There followed a little scattered applause — less, I think, from a desire to congratulate the dancer than out of relief. The relief was premature, however. The hunter still lived!
Leaping up now in his alternate role, our boxer flung the deer over his shoulders and began a sort of victory cakewalk. Already we knew he had no sense of timing. Now it appeared that he also had no sense of time, for his performance gave evidence of reaching out to embrace eternity. Through tears of laughter we finally saw one of the musicians glance offstage and make a lowering motion with his hand. The curtain began to fall. The hunter, poised in yet another victory stance, saw it coming and shot a furious glance offstage. Immediately he began to move in that direction. The last we saw of him was his legs from the knees downward, striding offstage with grim purpose to give the hapless stagehand a piece of his mind.
Master had laughed as heartily this evening as I ever saw him laugh. Yet he showed no inclination, afterward, to discomfit his guest. Such indeed is the nature of pure joy; though good-humored, it is always kindly. When the man complained later at his mistreatment, Master’s mood was gently consoling. “I understand,” he said. And he did, too. He understood all aspects of the matter. He could feel the man’s indignation and sympathize with it on its own level, though he knew it was founded on a delusion. Master described divine consciousness as, “center everywhere, circumference nowhere.” His sympathy for the “performer” was completely sincere.
But then, it was his sympathy for all of us, in our multifarious delusions, that inspired his lifelong labor of teaching, counseling, and self-sacrifice on our behalf. He once said, “Divine Mother has a good sense of humor.”
One day, in Chicago, a drunken stranger staggered up and embraced him affectionately.
“Hello there, Jeshush Chrisht!”
Master smiled. Then, to give the man a taste of the infinitely better “spirits” he himself enjoyed, he looked deeply into the man’s eyes and gave him a taste of divine joy.
“Shay,” the fellow cried thickly, “whad’re you drink’n’?”
Master replied, his eyes twinkling, “Let’s just say, it has a lot of kick in it!” The man was sobered by this glance. “I left him,” Master told us later, “wondering what had happened!”
Is it not particularly interesting that this man should have addressed Master as Jesus Christ? The Master’s olive-colored skin, black hair, and brown eyes didn’t at all correspond to the popular Nordic image of a blue-eyed, blond Jesus. Master, moreover, kept no beard.
A woman whom I once met at an SRF center meeting in New York described a reaction similar to that man’s. “I bought a painting,” she told me, “in a dusty old second-hand store. It was a portrait, but I didn’t know who the subject was; I just knew his eyes inspired me. I used to think of him as Jesus Christ. Placing the painting on my mantelpiece, I prayed daily in front of it. Years later I came upon Autobiography of a Yogi. The moment I saw Master’s photograph on the cover, I recognized him as the very man in that painting!”
Another woman, a member of our Hollywood congregation, told me, “I used to pray deeply to God to draw me closer to Him. One day I had a vision of someone I’d never seen before. A voice said, ‘Christ is coming!’ Shortly thereafter, a friend brought me to this church for the first time. Master was conducting the service. The moment I saw him, I said to my friend, ‘Why, that’s the very face I saw in my vision!’”
Another member of our Hollywood church told me, “Years before I knew anything about Master, my husband and I happened to catch a glimpse of him through a restaurant window. ‘Look at that man!’ I exclaimed. ‘He must be the most spiritual human being I’ve ever seen!’ Years later I met Master, and knew him immediately for that very man.”
Even as a boy, the Master’s magnetism was extraordinary. Dr. Nagendra Nath Das, a Calcutta physician and lifelong friend, visited Mt. Washington in July 1950. He told us, “Wherever Paramhansaji went, even as a boy, he attracted people. His father, a high railway official, often gave us travel passes. No matter where we traveled, within minutes after we’d descended from the train a group of boys would gather around us.”
Part of the basis for Master’s amazing charisma was the fact that, seeing his infinite Beloved in everyone, he awakened them to an inchoate belief in their own goodness. With the impersonality of true greatness, he never accepted the thought others projected onto him that he was essentially different from them.
Bernard, upon whom Master had been urging some difficult undertaking, remonstrated one day, “Well, Sir, you can do it. You’re a master.”
“And what do you think made me a master?” the Guru demanded. “It was by doing! Don’t cling to the thought of weakness, if your desire is to become strong.”
“There was a devotee,” Master once told us, “who was sitting before the image of his guru, chanting and casting flowers onto it as an expression of his devotion. His concentration became so deep that suddenly he beheld the whole universe contained within his own consciousness. ‘Oh!’ he cried, ‘I have been placing flowers on another’s image, and now I see that I, untouched by this body, am the Sustainer of the universe. I bow to myself!’ And he began to throw the flowers onto his own head.
“Oh! when Master [Sri Yukteswar] told me that story I was so thrilled I went into samadhi.1 That devotee wasn’t speaking from ego. Rather, he was rejoicing in the death of his ego.”
This was the relationship Master sought ever to establish with us: a relationship wherein we realized with our entire being that we, too, were That.
Leo Cocks, one of the younger monks, used to take photographs of Master whenever he could. The walls of his room became papered over with them.
“Why do you keep on taking photographs of this physical form?” Master demanded of him one day. “What is it but flesh and bones? Get to know me in meditation if you want to know who I really am!”
And once, when we were serving him, he remarked, “You all are so kind to me with your many attentions.” Karle Frost, one of the disciples present, exclaimed, “Oh, no, Master. It is you who are kind to us!”
“God is helping God,” Master replied with a sweet smile. “That is the nature of His cosmic drama.”
The closer we drew to him spiritually, the less he sought to teach us by words. “I prefer to speak with the eyes,” he once told me. He never wanted to impose his instructions on us from without. His method of teaching was, rather, to help us dig wells of intuitive insight within ourselves. The closer we felt to him, the closer we came to knowing our own true Self: the God within us.