“To those who think me near, I will be near.”
How often since Paramhansa Yogananda’s lips were sealed in death have we, his disciples, experienced the fulfillment of that deathless promise. Truly, his was not death at all, but mahasamadhi, “the great samadhi”: a perfected yogi’s final, conscious exit from the body as he merges with the Infinite.
One of the first proofs we received of our Guru’s victory over death came from Forest Lawn Memorial-Park, in Glendale, California, where the casket containing his body had been kept unsealed for twenty days pending the arrival of two disciples from India. On May 15 of that year Mr. Harry T. Rowe, Mortuary Director of Forest Lawn, sent Self-Realization Fellowship a notarized letter:
“The absence of any visual signs of decay in the dead body of Paramhansa Yogananda offers the most extraordinary case in our experience. … No physical disintegration was visible.… This state of perfect preservation of a body is, so far as we know from mortuary annals, an unparalleled one.… The appearance of Yogananda on March 27, just before the bronze cover of the casket was put into position, was the same as it had been on March 7. He looked on March 27 as fresh and as unravaged by decay as he had looked on the night of his death.”
The casket was closed and sealed after twenty days, when word came that the two Indian disciples would not be able to make the journey. Later, one of them reported that Master, after his mahasamadhi, had appeared to him in his physical form and embraced him lovingly. Others in America, too, received this grace of his physical resurrection.
Most of us were grief-stricken for a time at Master’s passing. But Mrs. Royston told me of going one day with a few of the nuns to his crypt at Forest Lawn. “The others were standing in front of the crypt,” she said, “weeping. But I didn’t at all feel we’d lost him. I called to him silently, and suddenly felt him standing beside me. I heard him say quite distinctly, ‘I’m not in there!’ He seemed surprised that disciples schooled in his teachings should be paying so much attention to his mere physical form!”
What about our own lives after his passing? If this book were primarily an autobiography, I’d feel it necessary to recount details of the many years I have lived since then. After all, Master left his body when I was still only twenty-five years old. Now I am eighty-two. My purpose in writing this book, however, has been primarily to tell what it was like to live with him. I prefaced that account with my own search for truth because my search led inevitably to the quest for God, and to its necessary next step: that of seeking guidance from a guru.
As I said before, my longing even as I crossed the country to meet him was twofold: to find God, and to share with others whatever truths I learned from my Guru.
It was towards the fulfillment of this deep-seated desire that Master directed all his training of me. “No more moods, now,” he said, “otherwise, how will you be able to help people?” Another time he scolded me for speaking rather too lightly to a church member (though not in Master’s or anyone else’s hearing), showing me thereby that he kept close tabs on me spiritually, as well as encouraging me to be more inward when dealing with the public. And when I balked at public teaching, he replied lightly, “You’d better learn to like it. That is what you will have to do.”
The “great work” he had told me I must do was something he never, to the best of my knowledge, spoke of to anyone else. He may have spoken of it to Rajarshi, who once said to me, “Master has a great work to do through you, Walter, and he will give you the strength to do it.” But Rajarshi might just as easily have been “channeling” Master. As for myself, I never took Master’s words lightly, nor as a compliment. They were, to me, a sacred commission.
I always assumed, however, that my “great work” would be within the secure confines of his organization. Indeed, my complete loyalty to him precluded my even thinking of serving him apart from Self-Realization Fellowship.
The fact, however, that he spoke to me only in private about my future service to him created problems for me in the years to come. When once I mentioned to Daya Mata Master’s statement that I had a “great work” to do, she replied (quite naturally), “Yes, we all have a great work to do.”
Though he had told me my work was writing, she tried once to get me to accept a job as pressman in the print shop. (I managed to avoid that one by warning her, truthfully, that past experience had shown me that any machinery I touched would almost certainly break down. The very fact, however, that she tried to push me in that direction shows that she didn’t really believe Master had ever given me any commission at all.) Writing books would have seemed to her an unthinkable deviation from the actual needs of the work, as she defined them. And even had I written books, they would never have been published by the editorial department, who themselves, as it turned out, took forty years to edit and publish their own version of Master’s Bhagavad Gita commentaries.
I was, in fact, deeply disappointed in that version, for I had worked with Master on the manuscript, which I considered the greatest spiritual work I had ever read. To me, their editing style was stilted, lacking the freshness and spiritual power of the original. Their version, moreover, contained more than one outright philosophical error.
In 2006 I published, from memory, my own version of Master’s commentaries. Some years earlier, in a dream, I had asked him what I could do to edit those writings as he had told me to do. “I don’t have access to the archives containing your manuscript,” I lamented. Still in my dream, he answered me, “Don’t overlook the possibility of a skylight.”
When it came time for me to do what work I could on it, I was amazed to find that I remembered every stanza — not word for word, but concept for concept. Only today, as I write these words, an unsolicited message has come to me from someone in India stating, “This is really the best Gita I have ever read.”
After Master’s mahasamadhi, I expanded my work with the monks to reorganizing the letter-writing and related departments in the main office; organizing the centers; organizing the lay-disciple order; and helping in various other aspects of the work. My work with the monks had pleased Master, but he’d hinted that this was not what he had in mind for me.
My sister disciples — unfortunately for me — didn’t see service to Master at all in the light I did. Feminine nature tends, as I’ve indicated already, to be less outwardly expansive than the masculine. The nuns kept asking one another, with increasing exasperation, “Why doesn’t he just wait to be told what to do?” For me, this would have been impossible, especially considering the fervor with which Master had spoken to me about the things he wanted me to do!
Tensions built up gradually over the years. In SRF, the women ran the show — understandably so, no doubt, since the core of them had come much earlier than most of the men. (As a humorous aside, I remember Rev. Michael saying once, “This must be the only place on earth where the women have all the desires, and the men have to fulfill them!”) Yet I mentioned earlier an obstacle on the spiritual path, one of the “meannesses of the heart” that Sri Yukteswar listed as “pride of pedigree.” In the monastic life, as I said, this obstacle frequently translates as, “pride of seniority.” Often Daya Mata countered my ideas with the statement, “You weren’t with Master as long as I was.” Perhaps this, partly, was the reason behind Master’s statement, quoting Jesus, “The last shall be first.”
I first went to India in 1958. There I found myself lecturing, for virtually the first time, to audiences consisting mostly of people who were not familiar with either Master’s name or his teachings. It was a priceless opportunity to learn how to apply his message creatively to general audiences.
In the autumn of 1959 I was invited to address, at the end of their school day, the student body of a men’s college in Simla, a hill station in the Himalayas. I set out by foot from the house where I was staying. Misjudging the distance, I arrived twenty minutes late. The student-body president, on whose recommendation I’d been invited to speak, met me on the street below the hilltop campus, literally trembling with apprehension.
“I don’t know how they’ll receive you, Swamiji. The problem isn’t only that you’ve arrived late. It’s that we have just concluded a protest rally against China’s latest incursions onto Indian soil. The students ended by signing a petition to the Government in blood!” He paused, cocking an ear up the hill. “Just listen to them!”
From the hilltop, sounds of tumult were clearly audible: hundreds of voices shouting in protest; the thunder of feet stamping on the floor impatiently.
“Swamiji,” my host pleaded, “please allow me to cancel the talk.”
“But I can’t do that,” I remonstrated. “It would mean breaking my word to them.”
“I’m only afraid that they may treat you badly for keeping your word!”
Willing to face anything, I climbed the hill, hoping for the best. During the principal’s hurried and somewhat nervous introduction of me, a number of students glanced meaningly at the exit. Obviously, the circumstances were far from ideal for a lecture on the benefits of yoga and meditation!
Instead, therefore, I launched into a vigorous speech on the subject uppermost in their minds: China’s incursions. One secret of success in lecturing is to get the audience saying, “Yes!” from the beginning. I restated their case for them, perhaps better than they’d heard it stated that day. Right off, I sensed a flicker of interest mounting toward approval. Once I had their support, I gradually introduced a suggestion that warfare, hatred, and other kinds of social disharmony are due primarily to disharmony in man himself. We ourselves, I suggested, though we perhaps hate no one, might yet feel that we hadn’t as much inner peace as we’d like. The first thing, then, if we would attract peaceful treatment from others, was to change, not them, but ourselves.
By this time the students were eager for more. I went on to speak about yoga and meditation. At the end of my talk they plied me with questions. Many wanted to know how they could study yoga. At last the principal had to plead with them repeatedly to cease asking further questions, as the last buses would shortly be leaving for their villages.
In India, by psychically “listening” to my audiences as I spoke to them, and reflecting back to them the truth as they were able, in their own higher natures, to understand it, I learned how to reach people on their own levels of spiritual development, and get them to take up meditation. After a lecture at Mahindra College, Patiala, in 1959, the professors told me that never in the history of their college had so much interest been awakened by a speaker. Response to my talks and classes in the auditorium of the public library of Patiala was, people said, “unprecedented” for that city. A few weeks later, in New Delhi, thousands enrolled in my yoga classes. I became known in northern India as the “American yogi.”
I had entered the ministry reluctantly, years earlier. Now, the more I tried to serve God through others, the more clearly I experienced His blessings in everything I did.
Before the first of my class series in New Delhi, I invited our local YSS members1 to my hotel room to discuss plans. There weren’t many members. They came cautiously, sat cautiously, and cautiously suggested that we rent a small schoolroom where I might address them and perhaps a few friends. I felt, however, that Master wanted me to make his message known to thousands.
“Let us rent a large tent,”2 I said.
“A large… what!?” They gulped apprehensively. “For how many people?”
“About eighteen hundred,” I replied. Their look intimated that they thought I’d taken complete leave of my senses. At last, however, they gave in. The tent was set up on a large, empty lot in what was then Main Vinay Nagar (now its name has, I think, been changed to Sarojini Nagar), an outlying district of New Delhi.
The day of my introductory lecture I was meditating in a nearby home. At four o’clock — the announced time of the talk — one of the members came over to fetch me.
“It’s a good crowd, Swamiji,” he announced lugubriously. “About a hundred people.”
A hundred people — in a tent large enough for eighteen hundred! Later I was told that one member, of particularly timorous disposition, had already begun pacing up and down outside the tent, moaning, “Our reputation will be ruined!”
“Master,” I prayed, laughing inwardly, “I had the feeling we’d get at least eighteen hundred people. That wasn’t my desire. If no one had come, it would have been the same to me.” But then, recalling people’s tendency to be late, I told this man, “Let us wait a little.”
Seven minutes later he returned. “There are two hundred there now, Swamiji. Hadn’t we better start?”
“Not yet,” I replied. He left, wringing his hands.
At four-fifteen, smiling with relief, he returned. “About six hundred people are there now. Shall we begin?”
Fifteen minutes was a long enough wait. I rose to my feet. During the brief time it took us to reach the tent, crowds more arrived. By the time I’d reached the dais, the tent was full to overflowing. Two thousand people heard me that day. Most of them later enrolled for my classes.
At the end of my lecture I announced, “During this week of classes it would be easier, for those who might want private interviews with me, if I were housed nearby. Would anyone here like to invite me to stay in his home?” Afterwards fifty or more people approached me to extend invitations. Dismayed, I realized I’d have to refuse all of them but one. “Master,” I prayed, “whose invitation should I accept?” Then all at once, seeing one man, I was attracted by the look in his eyes. (I can still see that look in my mind.) “I’ll stay with you,” I said.
Later Sri Romesh Dutt, my host for that week, confided to me, “I read Paramhansaji’s Autobiography of a Yogi years ago, and wanted very much to receive Kriya Yoga initiation. But I didn’t know where to get it. At last I read in the newspaper about your recent lectures in Patiala, a hundred miles away. I decided to request time off from my office and go there to seek initiation from you. But my wife said to me, ‘Why go all that distance? If you have faith, Swamiji will come to New Delhi and give initiation here. Not only that, he will stay in our home!’ Truly, Swamiji, your visit to our humble dwelling is an extraordinary proof of God’s grace!”
Lecturing and speaking to people around India, I gradually came to understand how also to carry out Master’s charge to me to write books. For years I had puzzled over what I might say in writing that would convey freshly to people his depth of philosophical and spiritual insight. My usefulness, whether as a teacher or a writer, was to acquaint people with his message. He was the master. I was only a disciple doing my best to serve him as a lucid instrument.
Yet he had said to me, “Much yet remains to be written.” To what, I wondered, had he been referring? After two or three years in India, I began to understand how I might “reach out” through writing, as I had been doing through lectures, by “listening” psychically, as it were, to people’s needs. I decided to show them how even the worldly fulfillments they sought could be achieved best if they included in their lives a quest for spiritual values.
Master himself, I reflected, had written on numerous subjects of general, and not only overtly spiritual, interest. Perhaps I could expand on points at which he, often, had only hinted. Taking his teachings as the hub, so to speak, of a wheel, I decided I would try to show that many spokes led out in all directions from that center.
One of the principal goads to my own spiritual search had been the spreading evil, in modern times, of nihilism. Many people, influenced by the materialistic sciences, found it difficult to accept moral and spiritual values. Idealism they discarded as “sentimental.” Of the college-trained intellectuals I’d encountered, even in India, many insisted that truth is only relative, that no higher natural law exists, and that an act can be justified only in terms of how honestly it expresses the nature with which one was born. A number of people, unable to surrender their moral sense altogether, embraced communism with its materialistic ethic, simply because communism at least makes a show of believing in something.
All too often, especially in the West, the educated people I encountered who accepted spiritual values were unable to counter the materialistic challenges of science, and therefore swept those challenges under the carpet rather than acknowledge that they existed. Those people’s beliefs, albeit positive, lacked intellectual integrity.
Trained as I was in Master’s teachings, and familiar with the clear insights they offered as correctives to the confused thinking of our age, I determined to give people an honest basis for spiritual faith.
I ended up devoting sixteen years of my life (though not exclusively) to writing a book named, Crises in Modern Thought (since then renamed, Out of the Labyrinth). Another book I wrote years later on a related theme was, Hope for a Better World!
My new way of thinking was directed toward attuning myself to people’s needs, rather than to the institution’s demands or expectations of me. This approach, unfortunately, set me at odds with the senior nuns in Master’s work, whose concern centered entirely on the needs of the organization itself. Tara insisted that, in every situation, the first question we ask ourselves be, “What is best for the work?” To me, the work itself meant addressing the needs of those who came to us for help. I suppose it was natural that tensions built up between our two very different ways of looking at Master’s mission.
In 1960 I was elected to the board of directors and appointed SRF’s first vice president. These promotions were, I suppose, justified in light of the positions I had held in the work already. There was also, however, another way of looking at these promotions. Was I being “bumped upstairs,” in a last ditch effort to make me “shape up” and embrace those senior nuns’ priorities? If such was by any chance the case, it was a failure. I continued to follow my own understanding of the meaning and purpose of Master’s work. Considering my sheer inability to view the work as they did, they felt themselves left with no other option, I suppose, than to denounce me as a traitor.
In 1953 I had written a manual of guidance for our centers. Nine years later, when the differences between our points of view finally came to a head, the board of directors (of which I was now the male member) had not yet even taken the time to discuss that manual. Our centers worldwide still lacked the necessary guidance. The needs of our dedicated centers were not considered important compared to the board members’ own priorities: essential matters such as — well, what?
Daya Mata justified to me what I viewed as her obsession with micromanagement by saying, “Master told me to keep the reins in my hands.” I might have answered, “Yes, but he didn’t tell you also to be the horse!” Micromanagement, especially as she practiced it, meant delegating no authority, and complete indifference, amounting to disdain for, anything that lay outside her own immediate sphere of interest.
For years, I was on a committee of which the purpose was to make all basic decisions. It was a sort of junior board of directors. The talk was endless; the accomplishments, minimal. One year we were supposed to plan that summer’s convocation of the SRF members. When it came to a discussion of the public event, or “open house,” at the SRF Lake Shrine, I thought to show the committee what could be accomplished by delegating authority. “I have a group of congregation members at Hollywood Church,” I said. “They would be happy to take on this responsibility. Why don’t I just plan this event with them?”
Well, the others — all women — were happy to be relieved of this onerous burden. At the end of the next church service, I announced, “If anyone here would like to help put on the convocation open house at the Lake Shrine, please stay after service.” About twenty people remained.
To them I said, “Here are the aspects of the event that we’ll need to cover: chairs; food; hosts and hostesses.” I listed a few others. I then asked for volunteers to supervise each aspect. Later, during the week, I phoned the person in charge of each function to make sure everything was well in hand.
The event itself went like clockwork. I walked around to make sure everyone was at his post. When it came time to move chairs, I spoke to the person in charge of that operation; hundreds of chairs were put into place.
Later, Shraddha Mata, a member of the board of directors, exclaimed to me, “It all went beautifully!”
“Yes,” I replied. “And you know, it took almost no effort.”
“No effort for you, maybe,” she answered, “but plenty of work for the people who did all the planning.”
“Do you know what?” I countered. “I did it all myself!”
I had hoped to show our committee how much more can be accomplished by delegating authority — not by abdicating one’s responsibility, but by sharing it with others, as they show an ability to shoulder a load. Delegation indicates respect for others. Refusal to delegate shows a want of such respect. And doesn’t lack of respect equate with pride?
In 1958 I reminded Daya Mata of Master’s frequent public exhortations to people to buy land and band together in intentional communities.
“When do you think we’ll be ready to start them?” I asked her.
To my surprise, she replied, “Frankly, I’m not interested.”
Her rejection of that idea, and the support she had in that rejection from the other senior nuns, actually led to their editing out an important part of Master’s “Aims and Ideals.” He had listed one of those aims as, “To spread a spirit of world brotherhood among all peoples and to aid in the establishment, in many countries, of self-sustaining world brotherhood colonies for plain living and high thinking.” What they did was omit the entire italicized part of that aim, so that it read only, “to spread a spirit of brotherhood among all nations.” Laurie Pratt (Tara Mata) once actually spoke to me laughingly about Master’s “impracticality” in harboring this fantastic notion. She also, in a phone conversation with me, scoffed at his repeated statement, “We are not a sect,” and in summation commented, “I know he said we are not a sect. Well, we are a sect!” Master loved Tara deeply, but I suspect she began to think of her ability to edit his writings as giving her the right also to “edit” his ideas and intentions.
When Master had acquired Mt. Washington, which to him was the point from which he would be able really to launch his mission, he himself related to us humorously Laurie’s only comment: “Now your troubles begin.” And she once told me, “My idea in those days [the mid-1920s] was that Master would gather up a few disciples, then withdraw with us to the Himalayas.”
Master loved Daya dearly also, and was deeply grateful for her many years of devoted service to him. He didn’t list her, however, among his most advanced disciples. One day, when he named those disciples to us monks (Saint Lynn, Mr. Black, and Sister Gyanamata, in that order), he responded to a thought that arose in several of our minds, saying, “And Faye? Well, she still has her life to live.”
Near the end of his life, I asked him, “Sir, after you leave us, should I go to Faye for guidance?” His reply was both hesitant and equivocal. I wondered afterward why he had so spoken. Many years later, when destiny forced the two of us apart in our service to him, I understood.
The women and I simply saw Master’s mission differently. Despite his frequent statement, “Self-Realization has come to change the world!” they clung determinedly to a narrowly circumscribed concept of what he’d brought. Fairly recently, indeed, I heard that it was being put about that Master had come to the West to start a monastery. My own conviction, however, backed by his frequent, and fervent, declarations, has always been that he came to effect a fundamental change in the whole of society: in the way people live, think, work, and worship. His women disciples saw his mission in terms of their control over it. I myself saw it in terms of the inspiration we could share.
I would never have gone my own way, though I confess that often, in my enthusiasm, my frustration became agonizing to me. Things finally came to a head when I tried to develop an ashram in New Delhi, where I’d encountered such a gratifying public response. My hopes were high for getting Master’s work in India “off the ground” after it had been virtually asleep for forty years. What I intended to do — and Daya Mata gave those intentions her blessings — was to re-launch it in New Delhi. The encouraging response I’d had here resulted finally in my getting an appointment with Jawaharlal Nehru himself, the Prime Minister of India. At that appointment I asked for permission to build on what had been set aside as government land. Seventeen hundred other societies had tried to get land there; all had been rejected. My own application was, to my intense gratification, accepted. Getting Nehru’s blessing amounted to a veritable miracle.
By this time, however, the senior nuns at Mt. Washington had come to view me as not only a maverick, but a troublemaker. To make a long story short, we ended up parting ways — not by my will, but (I am sure) by God’s. To put it briefly, I was thrown out on my ear.
The difference between them and me was due partly to the fact that those senior nuns, entrenched as they were in an authoritarian position and attitude, saw no need for equality between men and women. Daya once said to me, “Let’s face it, women are more spiritual than men.” The senior nuns became “matas” (mothers), but the men, even today, have never been advanced beyond the status of “brothers.” Any difference between the masculine and the feminine point of view had to be, according to the senior nuns, to the detriment of the masculine; the monks were — I imagine they still are — second-class citizens. As for the instructions Master had given me personally, the “matas” could never believe that our Guru had said anything to me that he hadn’t shared with them in much greater depth. Over the years, it has become clear to me why he gave me only in private his instructions concerning my future role in his work.
Daya Mata visited India in 1961, and came also to Delhi and Patiala. Crowds came to hear her, owing to the groundbreaking work I had done there months earlier, and to my group’s promotion of her visit. In her view, however, and in that of her party, the interest that was shown in her arrival bore no relationship to my and our prior efforts.
To balance the picture of my dismissal, bleak as it seemed to me at the time, I can say truthfully that it was the best thing that ever happened to me. From my obligatory separation has come all the work I have done to spread my Guru’s work: the books, the 15,000 photographs, the year-round television and radio programs, the schools, the ceremonies, the music, the seven communities I have started (of which the total resident membership is approximately one thousand), where there is complete equality between the sexes in all management positions. I write of the things I have done, but I am keenly aware not only that I have done them for my Guru, but that it is he who has accomplished them through me. I have felt his guidance in every decision, both large and small, of my life. Even the music and the song lyrics have all come by his blessing.
Let me include here the lyrics of one of those songs.3 Its name is, “Love Is a Magician”:
Love is all I know:
Sunrays on the snow
Of a winter long
In darkness, without song.
Oh, my heart’s afire,
Burning all desire.
Only You remain,
And life again.
Too long I did stray,
Flung lifetimes away,
Imagined You did not care.
I know now Your smile
Was mine all the while;
I listened, and love was there.
I can’t breathe for love!
All the stars above
Call to me, “Come home!
Life’s waves all end in foam.”
Only love can heal
All the pain I feel.
What a fool was I
To turn away!
And so, before explaining a little more the subject of communities, and trying to interest you, my readers, in this activity, I would like to make the following humble suggestions:
If you seek true fulfillment, shun delusion as you would a disease. Maya will never give you what you want. If you are seeking truth, shun everything that is even remotely suggestive of falsehood. If you seek to experience truth, seek God, not abstractions. If you want that experience, seek the guidance of one who knows Him. And if you seek that guidance, consider the beauty of a teaching that offers, not mere dogma, but practical common sense, based on modern man’s understanding of the universe and on the deep experience of God’s love, instead of mere definitions of that love. This is what Paramhansa Yogananda brought to the world.
And though I always say that what I want most deeply is to convert you to your own highest Self, I don’t hesitate to add that, if you are still seeking your own path to truth, it may well be worth your while to explore the possibilities offered by this new dispensation, which is, truly, a new path to God.
- Members of SRF through their Indian branch, Yogoda Satsanga Society (YSS).
- Shamiana is the Indian word, and was in fact the word I used.
- I sang this song on the New Path audiobook that I recorded, and also on several of my albums: Windows on the World, An Evening in Italy, and I’ve Passed My Life as a Stranger, Lord.