Frank Visser, CLIMBING THE STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN: Reflections on Ken Wilber's “The Religion of Tomorrow”
INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
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David Christopher Lane, Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).
THE ENCHANTED LAND
The Yogi: Yogananda
The spirit of God, I realized, is exhaustless Bliss; His body is countless tissues of light... The entire cosmos, gently luminous, like a city seen afar at night, glimmered within the infinitude of my being. The dazzling light beyond the sharply etched global outlines faded slightly at the farthest edges; there I saw a mellow radiance, ever undiminished. It was indescribably subtle; the planetary pictures were formed of grosser light. I cognized in the center of the empyrean as a point of my intuitive perception in my heart. Irradiating splendor issued from my nucleus to every part of the universal structure....
Few books in spiritual literature compare to Paramahansa Yogananda's Autobiography of a Yogi. It is one of those rare works that in a single reading can transform the reader's entire outlook on life. Since its initial printing in 1946, Yogananda's Autobiography has continued to enthrall seekers with its fascinating tales of miracles, saints and astral heavens.
I first happened upon the book at our local library when I was barely 12 years old. I don't know exactly why I picked it out that particular day, but I do know that after studying it closely I was a changed person. No longer could I relegate "God" to the provinces of my own Catholic religion, for Yogananda demonstrated that even "Hindus" could personally experience the Lord in all of His (Her?) majesty. Indeed, such was the power of Autobiography of a Yogi that I embarked on a comparative study of the world's religions at the end of my seventh grade in grammar school.
Yogananda's life was simply not normal in the usual sense of the word. True, he was brought up in a fairly wealthy Indian family (his father held a high position in the Bengal-Nagpur Railway) and attended school with other children his age. But Yogananda, unlike most boys in India or America, had a singular vision since infancy about the purpose and meaning of his life: he wanted to realize God. Yogananda, to quote a popular phrase in mysticism, was "God-mad." And this "madness" took him on journeys throughout India to meet saints, yogis and mystics.
Moreover, Yogananda possessed special gifts of the spirit which indicated (both to him and others) that he was divinely marked as a highly advanced yogi. First, in his earliest memories of infancy, he writes, "Clear recollections came to me of a distant life in which I had been a yogi amid the Himalayan snows."
Second, suffering from Asiatic cholera at the age of eight, Yogananda was miraculously healed by looking at a picture of the revered Kriya Yoga master Lahiri Mahasaya. Yogananda writes: "I gazed at his photograph and saw there a blinding light enveloping my body and the entire room. My nausea and other uncontrollable symptoms disappeared; I was well. At once I felt strong enough to bend over and touch Mother's feet in appreciation of her immeasurable faith in her guru. Mother pressed her head repeatedly against the little picture."
And third, Yogananda displayed an incredible strength of will when by sheer thought he made a boil appear on his arm. Yogananda recounts the incident:
"Uma [his sister] complained of a boil on her leg and fetched a jar of ointment. I smeared a bit of the salve on my forearm. 'Why do you use medicine on a healthy arm?' 'Well, Sis, I feel I am going to have a boil tomorrow. I am testing your ointment on the spot where the boil will appear.' 'You little liar.' 'Sis, don't call me a liar until you see what happens in the morning.' Indignation filled me... Morning found me with a stalwart boil on the indicated spot; the dimensions of Uma's boil had doubled [which Yogananda had predicted]. With a shriek, my sister rushed to Mother... Gravely, mother instructed me never to use the power of words for doing harm. I have always remembered her counsel and followed it."
In Yogananda's quest for God he met several remarkable holy men including the saint with two bodies, Swami Pranabananda, who reputedly had the ability to bilocate physically; Gandha Baba, the renowned "Perfume Saint," a master at manifesting at will a variety of scents or even flowers; Nagendra Nath Bhaduri, the "Levitating Saint," whom both Yogananda and his brother Sananda Lal Ghosh saw floating in the air while engaged in his meditations; and Master Mahasaya, the "Blissful Devotee" of the famous Sri Ramakrishna.
None of these saints, however, served as Yogananda's spiritual guru. That was reserved for Sri Yukteswar whom Yogananda first met in Benares but whose ashram (spiritual center) was in Serampore and Puri. Under the tutelage of Sri Yukteswar, chief successor to Lahiri Mahasaya, Yogananda became a master of Kriya Yoga (literally, "union with the Infinite through a certain action or rite") which is a psychophysiological method to revitalize the life current within man and to quicken his inner progress. Yogananda writes: "'Kriya Yoga is an instrument through which human evolution can be quickened,' Sri Yukteswar explained to his students. 'The ancient yogis discovered that the secret of cosmic consciousness is intimately linked with breath mastery. This is India's unique and deathless contribution to the world's treasury of knowledge. The life force, which is ordinarily absorbed in maintaining heart action, must be freed for higher activities by a method of calming and stilling the ceaseless demands of the breath.'"
By mastering the breath through Kriya Yoga, Yogananda was able to open the ajna chakra (third eye--the inner vision) and leave his physical body at will. When a yogi is absorbed in sabikalpa samadhi he appears lifeless, seemingly dead, with no signs of bodily movement. This occurs because the life current--soul--is drawn from the body to be active on a different and higher plane of existence. In nirbikalpa samadhi, though, the yogi can commune with God without this appearance of lifelessness. Yogananda, it appears, was adept in both types of samadhis (divine absorption).
Perhaps the most interesting, if controversial, story surrounding Yogananda's life concerns the alleged existence of the Avatar Babaji, who supposedly has retained his physical form for centuries. This "deathless" Avatar, as Yogananda refers to him, is responsible for initiating Lahiri Mahasaya (1828-1895) into Kriya Yoga and keeping alive the pristine teachings for millennia. According to Autobiography of a Yogi, Babaji is on the same spiritual level as Christ, Buddha and Krishna. There's one catch, however: Babaji can be seen only when he ordains it. That is, Babaji may have a physical form but it can be seen only when the Avatar desires it to be. Hence, any encounter with Babaji is taken as highly auspicious. Yogananda himself writes of his meeting with Babaji as "the most sacred of my human experiences."
What are we to make of Babaji? Are the accounts of his perennial existence true? We may never know, ofcourse, unless we personally enter into the higher astral and causal worlds. Yogananda, however, is absolutely convinced of Babaji's existence and goes to some length in his Autobiography to convince skeptically-minded readers. Yogananda writes of his meeting with Babaji: "[After much time in prayer] at that moment there came a knock on the door of my Gurpar Road home. Answering the summons, I beheld a young man in the scanty garb of a renunciant. He entered my house. 'He must be Babaji,' I thought, dazed, because the man before me had the features of a young Lahiri Mahasaya. He answered my thought, 'Yes, I am Babaji.' He spoke melodiously in Hindi. 'Our Heavenly Father has heard your prayer. He commands me to tell you: Follow the behests of your guru and go to America. Fear not; you shall be protected.'"
After receiving Babaji's and Sri Yukteswar's blessings, Yogananda departed for America in 1920 to spread the teachings of Kriya Yoga. He was well received and soon became something of a religious celebrity, attracting substantial crowds to his public lectures. In 1935 Yogananda codified his system as the "Self-Realization Fellowship" which was chartered under the laws of California as a nonsectarian and nonprofit corporation.
During his 30 years in America, Yogananda drew several devoted followers, among them James J. Lynn, a wealthy businessman who helped finance the purchase of much of SRF's property holdings; Daya Mata, now president of SRF; and Richard Wright, his traveling secretary (and brother of Daya Mata). Yogananda also founded two remarkable church centers in California: the SRF Lake Shrine in Pacific Palisades and the Encinitas Colony overlooking the Pacific Ocean near San Diego. Both places still exist today, wonderful reminders of Yogananda's love for natural beauty.
Paramahansa Yogananda died on March 7, 1952, minutes after giving a speech at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles. Apparently Yogananda knew in advance of his forthcoming death, having given several hints to his disciples. To one devotee he said, "My lifework is done." And to another, after the death of Sister Gyanmata, his most advanced woman initiate, he remarked, "Now that Sister is gone, there is nothing that holds me here." Nevertheless, it came as a surprise to his large following when news spread that their beloved Premavatar had finally breathed his last. He was 59 years old.
Yet Yogananda demonstrated the truth of Kriya Yoga even after his departure. His physical body did not show the normal signs of decay. It remained "in phenomenal state of immutability," according to Harry T. Rowe, Mortuary Director of Forest Lawn Memorial Park. In a certified letter, he stated, "The absence of any visual signs of decay in the dead body of Paramhansa [sic] Yogananda offers the most extraordinary case in our experience."
The Great Yogi of America expected to defy death by transcending it. To his many disciples Paramahansa Yogananda awoke in a new world, one which his guru Sri Yukteswar had predicted would find them together: "You and I shall smile together... Finally we shall merge as one in the Cosmic Beloved; our smiles shall be His smile...."
1. Paramahansa Yogananda, Autobiography of a Yogi (Los Angeles: Self-Realization Fellowship, 1979).
2. Ibid., page 10.
3. Ibid., page 13
4. Ibid., pages 278-279.
5. Ibid., page 402.
6. The colony overlooking the waves at Encinitas has become a popular surfing spot. Appropriately enough, it is known among surfers around the world as "Swami's Point." The waves here in the winter are among the best in San Diego.
7. Sananda Lal Ghosh, Mejda: The Family and Early Life of Paramahansa Yogananda (Los Angeles: Self-Realization Fellowship, 1980), page 329.