Swami Kriyananda: Gurus, Spiritual Authority, and Renunciation

by Swami Kriyananda

December 2, 294 Dwapara (1994)

I would like to discuss several important points that are becoming, I think, of fundamental concern to the yoga community in America, as well as to religious and spiritual organizations in general.

Most readers of this letter are no doubt Westerners, as I am. There are certain cultural assumptions that we Westerners accept more or less unquestioningly, unaware, perhaps, how different they are from some of the assumptions, equally unquestioned, of other cultures.

Religious institutionalism

Religious institutionalism is one such assumption. Westerners generally believe that religion, because it represents absolute truth, must be clothed in absolute authority, usually in the shape of some formal institution, and almost always in the form of dogmas derived from some authoritative interpretation of the Bible, or of the Talmud.

Church-appointed authority, whether institutional or theological, gives only secondary consideration, if any, to the needs of individuals. Dogmatic authority leaves no room for inward, intuitive perception.

That there is a need for some sort of higher authority is obvious; without it, understanding cannot rise above the level of mere opinion. That authority, however, must be rooted in wisdom, not in mere intellectual learning.

The need for a spiritual teacher

Paramhansa Yogananda, one of the great yogis and spiritual voices of our times, put it this way: “If you misunderstand a scripture, the scripture won’t correct you. But if you express your misunderstanding to a wise person, he will show you your error.”
A person of true wisdom—in other words, a true guru as opposed to someone merely labeled “Guru”—derives his authority not from any external source, but from his own direct, inner experience of truth. He or she does more than explain truth to others. He (or she) conveys not ideas, merely, but intuitive insight, and direct experience. In the presence of anyone of deeper-than-usual spiritual insight, what the sincere seeker ought to endeavor to absorb is not ideas, merely, but the higher consciousness emanating from that person’s spiritual magnetism.

A true spiritual teacher—what to speak of a true guru—never says, “You must accept and obey me, because .†.†.” proceeding then to support his statement with rational arguments based on his outward title and credentials. Instead, the only influence he or she exerts is an influence of divine inspiration and love.

A true teacher never says, “I’ve been on the spiritual path longer than you; don’t you think I ought to know what I’m talking about?” or, “Don’t you think I ought to know more than you?” Such a teacher never flaunts his worth. If we feel inspiration from him, that inspiration alone is the context within which we should seek to learn and absorb truth.

There is a vast and substantial difference between inviting the disciple’s willing and active cooperation in the training he receives, and attempting, as less advanced teachers often do, and as religious institutions usually do, to impose obedience forcefully through total subjugation of the will.

I had the good fortune to live with a true guru, Paramhansa Yogananda. In my three-and-a-half years with him, I never observed in him the slightest inclination to impose on the God-given free will of another human being. Although he spoke with great authority, his conviction emanated from deep within him, and depended on no one else’s acceptance of it. He spoke out of the fullness of realized wisdom, not out of the uncertainties of intellectual or emotional opinion. “Truth,” as he once put it, “is not afraid of questions.” Though sure in himself, he never demanded of others that they heed his counsel or his insights. Though he spoke with authority, in other words, never was he authoritarian.

I might add, however, that it was not easy to live with him. This fact is well attested to by the great numbers of students who were unable to “stay the course.” The image many people hold today of Yogananda is of his sweetness and gentleness: valid perceptions, certainly. They are often shocked, however, on listening to recordings of his voice, to note the sheer power of his personality. He never ordered people to do anything, least of all those who resisted his guidance. That he won the eager cooperation of those of us who remained loyal to him was due not to his outer authority, as a swami, a scholar, or an institutional leader, but to the deep inspiration we could not help feeling in his presence. It must be admitted, on the other hand, that it was this very inspiration that also alienated certain people. For those who, spiritually tepid themselves, could not bear exposure to the blazing rays of his divine wisdom, it proved daunting to be around him. Even his unconditional love and unfathomable joy were, for such people, overwhelming. It was their lukewarmness that made them unequal to the task of living as dynamically for God as his example challenged them, unspokenly, to do.

People nowadays, hearing that the seeker needs a living guru, say (as children do), “I want one, too!” It is God, however, not man, who decides these things. At the same time, I wonder how many such people would be able to handle the challenge of living in the presence of utter spiritual greatness. It is not from motives of exclusiveness that great masters like the Babaji described in Autobiography of a Yogi remain aloof from the masses. What most people really want, I suspect, is a sort of comfortable guru-doll: one who will do all the real work for them with a minimum, or even with no, serious spiritual effort on their own part.

A living example of perfection is something for which most people are by no means ready. It is not, therefore, what they presently need. What will help them most, rather, is contact with others who are more advanced than themselves, but who, like themselves, are still reaching up toward the Eternal Light.

Truth transmitted through living channels

Better still, for most seekers, is contact with living instruments of great masters. For it is important to receive into oneself the ray of divine grace. The Bible, in a passage Yogananda often quoted, states, “As many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God.” (John 1:12) Seekers cannot lift themselves by human power alone above human consciousness into the spiritual realms. This grace comes to us from above, transmitted through contact with living human beings who have previously received it and nurtured it in themselves. Such blessings come not from books, printed lessons, or membership in a religious institution.

In my own contact with the followers of Paramhansa Yogananda, I have observed consistently that those whose contact with him has been only through his printed lessons have not nearly the spiritual magnetism that those have whose contact has been direct and personal, with living disciples—especially in the form of initiation.

Yogananda declared that many would find God through his work. If, however, only books and lessons were available, and no possibility of contact with any living disciples, people would not find God through his work. Affirmation alone wouldn’t do it for them. Self-effort alone wouldn’t do it. For people wouldn’t receive into themselves that living germ of divine power which makes all the difference. This living contact is the true “eternal flame,” symbolized in various religions, but actually kept alive and transmitted only by devout disciples.

Such is the way of truth as the saints of India have declared it since ancient times. The disciples of great masters are given the power to transmit those blessings as instruments of, and in the name of, their gurus: never by their own power. Indeed, no true master ever acts in his own name. Yogananda used to say, “I have no disciples: They are God’s disciples”; and again, “I am not your guru: God is the Guru.” Because of his humility, students left him, occasionally, for more self-assertive teachers. He never sought to prevent them from doing so, even as he never sought to hold anyone except by the magnetic power of impersonal, divine love.

Religious institutions: a necessary evil

In the West, the tradition of formal structure is so deeply entrenched that religious institutions are almost automatically accepted as substitutes for true spiritual authority. The plain truth is, however, that spirituality simply cannot be formally structured. Authority is claimed in the West according to a person’s outward title or position. Many Westerners actually believe that the higher a person’s standing in some church hierarchy, the more spiritual he or she must be. In India, no such tradition exists. On the contrary, religious institutions there tend to be looked upon with a certain disfavor. I have always loved Swami Vivekananda’s statement: “It is good, no doubt, to be born into a religion, but it is a misfortune to die in one.”

Paramhansa Yogananda’s attitude toward religious institutions seems to have been that they are a necessary evil: evil, because they force people to think in terms of outer forms when the real divine search is within; and necessary, because the Spirit requires forms in order to function in this world at all. For our very bodies are institutions, in a sense. Their marvelous organization enables us to play our parts in the earthly drama, and thereby to work out our individual karmas. The ultimate goal of life, however, is not involvement in the world, but the realization of the truth behind this material world.

Experience, the hard taskmaster

I have had to affirm these truths against many odds in my own life. Sometimes it has seemed to me that I was hacking my way through dense underbrush with a machete.

Nor have I been alone in this struggle. Everyone, surely, who commits himself to the spiritual journey finds himself pressured many times to “knuckle under” to the demand for institutional conformity. To one such zealous proselytizer I felt myself compelled at last to remark, “Your way may or may not be better than mine, but even were we to grant that mine is second best, it is the only way I can follow sincerely. Do you want me to be an insincere follower of your supposedly better way?” At that point there wasn’t much he could say!

Over thirty years ago I became dis-affiliated from my own guru’s organization, which I still regard highly. Since then I have been the unceasing recipient of discouraging advice, based on tactics of fear, regarding my activities: “If you do so-and-so, you will suffer for many incarnations,” and so on. I hope I will always remain open to anyone who wants to point out my errors. I will not, however, accept cowardice as my motivation.

Perhaps the best test of the rightness of an act is to look at its consequences. If the act is right, there will be not only the corroboration of one’s conscience, but beneficial outer results also. If, on the contrary, the act is wrong, the consequences will be damaging both to oneself and to others.

I think it is time people gave one another more freedom to be sincerely themselves; to make their own mistakes; to learn their own lessons; to grow in their own way rather than in accordance with other people’s demands and expectations of them.

Seeing things as they are, not as we wish them to be

One of the greatest problems people face in life has to do with their expectations of reality, not with reality itself. They choose a teacher, and want him or her to be perfect. Have they any notion what it means to be perfect? Lacking clear understanding on this point, they usually cast their definitions in some inflexible mold that squeezes out the most important spiritual qualities of all: sincerity, devotion, compassion. The best attitude would be for them to leave to God the question of others’, and even of their own, perfection. It is sufficient if the direction of development be upward, not downward.

I am reminded of Yogananda’s meeting with his guru, Sri Yukteswar. Sri Yukteswar said to him, “I give you my unconditional love. Will you also give me yours?”

“How can I love you unconditionally?” the young man asked. “What if you were ever to slip from your spiritual ideals?”

“I don’t want your love,” his guru stated. “It stinks!”

With this alarming answer, Yogananda understood, and gave Sri Yukteswar his unconditional love.

A sincere teacher will never say, “I am perfect.” If in God’s eyes he really is perfect, he will be the last to announce the fact. If he knows himself to be less than perfect, he will point to the ideals towards which all true aspirants are struggling. He will never say, “I am your ideal.”

In India, many years ago, I was invited to address the students at a women’s college. The principal, during her introduction, said, “When I was a young girl I was taught, whenever I saw a swami, to place my hands together and bow to him reverently. In that spirit all of us here greet you.”

I began my lecture with this reply: “If you bow to me as an individual, you bow to something imperfect and worthy of no special reverence. If, on the other hand, you bow to the ideal I represent, then I must reply that I also bow to that ideal, and strive ever to be worthy of my dedication to it. In the same spirit, moreover, each of you represents, to me, the Divine Mother. With even greater reverence, therefore, I prostrate myself before all of you.”

I have never thought of myself as teaching anyone. And certainly I make no claims for myself. All I see myself doing is sharing humbly with others the insights I have received from my guru, and gained in my own life. I share these insights not only because I believe in them, but because I love them. They thrill me. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that these are the truths people need in this present time of darkness. I share in this way because my guru told me to do so, over—I must confess—initial resistance on my part. He put it to me that this was my duty, brought over from previous lives. In that context, why pay any attention to institutional approval or disapproval? He himself told someone I know to give Kriya Yoga initiation to those whom she felt to be ready for it. The disciple asked, “What will the organization say?” Yogananda replied, “Are you following the organization? Or are you following me?”

Forcing spiritual teachers into a mold of our own making

How often I have seen audiences trying to force us “teachers” into an artificial mold: “heads of organizations,” “gurus,” “perfected masters,” “spiritually superior.” Sometimes, I regret to say, I have seen a few of the “teachers” themselves accepting the roles into which their public cast them. Most of the teachers, I imagine, “go along with the gag” because they think people would be disappointed if they behaved too naturally. I was told of one such teacher who, caught reading a newspaper by someone as that person entered the room, hastily sat up straight and closed his eyes, as if in meditation. This was of course hypocrisy, and I have no use for it. But I have seen many other teachers who sincerely wanted to serve, and who didn’t themselves know what image of themselves to hold up to this culture, alien as it is to most of the things a swami represents. I myself am perhaps unusual in that I’m an American, and am, besides, happy to let people think of me whatever they want as long as God is pleased with me. But I do want to say to people, “Please, treat spiritual teachers as human beings. That’s what we are. We do know something worthwhile, and are eager and happy to share it with you. But for God’s sake don’t treat us as gods. You haven’t the cultural background even to understand what that means.”

Renunciation and celibacy: what do these spiritual vows mean?

The essence of renunciation is not negative, but positive. Celibacy, for example, is an important aspect of renunciation, but so also are other aspects, such as simplicity, non-attachment, harmlessness, truthfulness, and a refusal to view the ego, and egoic desire, as causative factors in life. Nor do these other aspects define the whole of what it means to be a true renunciate. Celibacy itself should be viewed as a positive dedication of the heart’s energy to the highest aspect of love: divine love. The essence of renunciation is to reach the realization that man, himself, is nothing; that God is everything. Renunciation is no “new year’s” resolution, merely: It is a direction of development that requires a lifetime, even many lifetimes, for perfection. In this spirit, residents of Ananda Village at a certain point take life vows of renunciation, even though many of them are married. Our concept of a monastery including married people has been officially endorsed by the IRS, and is based on the total dedication to a life lived for God alone that is the essence of life at Ananda.

A swami is a man or woman vowed to renunciation. In this sense he is like a Catholic monastic or priest. Has a person failed in his renunciation if he is ever tempted, or, worse still, if he or she succumbs to the temptation? To carry this thought further, has a person failed as a renunciate if he or she slips in any of the aspects of renunciation? Is he, for example, a failed renunciate if he accepts a compliment to his ego? We may speak of error, but why define error as failure? Indeed, why define it as sin? A slip is not a fall. Swami Sri Yukteswar, Paramhansa Yogananda’s guru, said, “Forget the past. The vanished lives of all men are dark with many shames. Human nature is ever unreliable until anchored in the Divine. Everything in future will improve if you are making a spiritual effort now.”

If a person is doing his best, that is all God Himself could possibly ask of him. And it is not being hypocritical. It is struggling, with the strength and ability at his command, to rise toward the Truth, and to leave error behind forever.

Hypocrisy must be considered also from an opposite standpoint: in the attitude of the condemners. For is it not hypocrisy to demand of others a perfection that one has no expectation of achieving in oneself?

Self-transformation is a process

I think it is time people involved in the spiritual scene in the West, particularly those who practice yoga, became more real in their assessments. For there are many teachers who have much to give, if we don’t ask the impossible of them. If they are sincere, they are not merchants trying to get people to buy their wares. They are fellow human beings who understand that the less importance they give to themselves, the more good happens through them. That good isn’t their doing. It couldn’t be, or it wouldn’t really be good. For myself, I may say that, with diminishing interest in myself and in what others think of me, an awareness comes of another Presence, and, with it, a desire to awaken in other people a sense of the Divine Reality in themselves.

Self-transformation is a process. It is not the sudden consequence of a mere resolution to change. Values at every level of society should be taken out of the rusty enclosure of absolute definitions, and viewed in terms of directional development. We are all working to become better. That “better” may someday become our own personal “best.” But it certainly won’t become so in a day, a year, or perhaps even in one incarnation.