Letters from Ananda members, Part 49

What happened on March 7, 1952?
Nitai Deranja

At various times SRF has claimed that Swami Kriyananda is a) disloyal to Master, b) egotistical, and c) intent on putting himself forward as the guru. These accusations are formidable, especially where issues of spiritual growth and discipleship are concerned. In this letter I would like to share a few of my experiences that relate to these charges. While of great importance to me personally, it only recently occurred to me that these events might have a broader significance.

The Autobiography of a Yogi first came into my hands in the fall of 1969 in a bookstore in downtown New Delhi. I had traveled far from my home in California in search of something that could fill the inner emptiness I’d been experiencing. In the day and a half it took me to read the book, my life was completely transformed. The book offered me everything I had been looking for, a perfect balance of limitless vistas of spiritual potential along with the practical tools of meditation to make the journey my own. Especially, I was inspired by the vigor and expansiveness of Yogananda’s words. Here there was no hint of the confining dogmas and self-righteous attitudes that had frustrated my previous attempts at religious exploration.

Since I was already in India, my first thought was to visit whatever ashram he might have established there. A closer check of the book, however, pointed me right back to California. Slightly amused by this unexpected twist of destiny, I made the necessary preparations to settle in the Los Angeles area where I would have access to the many SRF centers. Over the next six months I made several efforts at connecting with SRF. To my surprise and consternation, I was not attracted. In reading the Autobiography I had been inspired by Yogananda’s vibrant sense of spiritual pioneering, his courageous pursuit of truth. In SRF everything seemed so formal, so orderly, as if the whole spiritual path had somehow been encapsulated in a rulebook that allowed no hope for new insights or applications. I pulled back, confused. Had I misunderstood Yogananda? Had my reactions to his book been unfounded?

A few months later I saw a newspaper article about a community called Ananda that was forming in Northern California. Since the article mentioned a connection with Yogananda, I decided to visit, hoping I could gain some clarity about my relationship to him. From my first contacts with the retreat staff there, I sensed the expansive spirit I was looking for. When I had the opportunity to listen to Swami Kriyananda, Ananda’s founder, I knew I’d found the source of this spirit. Here was a disciple of Yogananda who manifested the qualities I had been so drawn to in the Autobiography. I was sure now that my reactions to Master were valid and that he was my guru. I had found my spiritual home.

When I arrived at Ananda, the fact that I had a teaching credential made me the likely candidate for starting the school there. Knowing that Yogananda had taken a personal interest in education during his years at Ranchi, I was somewhat awed at the responsibility and went to Kriyananda for advice. “What exactly was spiritual education? Should I go study the Montessori approach or maybe visit Ranchi”? Swami looked at me and said, “No, there is nothing to learn at Ranchi [a fact I was to verify during a later visit]. You’re going to have to look inside for your answers.” Here was exactly the challenge I needed. Instead of being presented with a detailed “blueprint,” I was being asked to make personal spiritual growth in order to meet the children’s needs. Of course Swami didn’t leave me completely on my own. Rather, I found he would offer just the right comment when I’d come to a part of the school’s development that stumped me. His style though was never to impose a direction and only to give as much insight as I could make use of at the time.

About five years ago, we extended our program to include the high school years. There were certain key insights for working with adolescents that Swami had been hinting at since the mid-80’s. Rather than telling me what I should do, he waited patiently (for several years in this case) until my own experience brought me to the point where I could truly grasp the validity of these ideas. To push them on me earlier would have resulted in a rigid, insensitive application. Allowing me to come to them at my own pace, made it possible for me to apply these ideas creatively and with much greater understanding. This approach to sharing knowledge has proven not only an effective way of working with me personally, but also an admirable way of modeling how a good teacher relates to his students.

Having consistently experienced this kind of relationship with Kriyananda for over 30 years, it has been puzzling, to say the least, to hear SRF people criticize him. I have often wondered what it is about Swami’s style that is so threatening to them. My conclusion is that their accusations stem from a fundamental disagreement about the nature of Yogananda’s work and particularly what happened on March 7, 1951. One perspective is that Master died that day, ending his spiritual mission. All that remains to be done is to keep everything just as it was, and to worship his life and teachings as a sacred, if immutable trust. An alternative perspective is that Master’s work only shifted focus on that day, from his physical body to a broader, subtler communion of attuned souls. The work, from this vantage point requires an ongoing series of new insights and applications to meet the ever-changing demands of life. Could this analysis be flawed? Perhaps, but until it is disproved, it gives me a way of accounting for how sincere devotees could get enmeshed in such vicious, unrelenting negativity. From SRF’s perspective any new application or creative refinement of Yogananda’s work is patently impossible. Such efforts then could only stem from disloyalty, egotism or other nefarious motive.

For myself, I much prefer Kriyananda’s approach to serving Master. Yes it puts much more responsibility on the shoulders of the individual devotee, but this sense of dynamic spiritual adventure is what attracted me to Yogananda in the first place.

Nitai lives at Ananda Village where he runs the Living Wisdom High School for Boys, based on Yogananda’s principles of education, which we now call Education for Life.