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Four Transformations: The Liberating Power of Yoga

Transformation: Power of Yoga

I would like to tell you about four people whom I saw transformed from humanity to divinity by the persistent practice of meditation, living proof of the liberating power of yoga. I will give the actual name of only one, Swami Jnanananda Saraswati, because his peculiarities were well known to the residents of Sivanandashram for many years, and those who knew him will not be shocked at my candor. Rather I expect they will laugh in fond memory of him.

To the others I will give titles rather than names, for I am going to have to describe their negative traits so you will understand what a great change yoga sadhana made in their life.

Number 1: Swami Jnanananda Saraswati of Sivanandashram

I met Swami Jnanananda at Sivanandashram where he was living. He was a very great Sanskrit scholar, but more than that he was a totally devoted disciple of Swami Sivananda, in praise of whom he had written many Sanskrit verses.

Swami Sivananda and some monastic disciples

Swami Pranavananda, another disciple of Sivananda, told me that Jnananandaji would tell people: “I am the king of my mind. It is an infinite kingdom. I studied Sanskrit for more than twenty-five years, and became proficient in it. For even longer than that I studied all the scriptures. Now I am a king reigning in the kingdom of my intellect.” Now that may sound very boastful, but he was a truly humble person just telling the truth. At the “just plain boiled rice” lunch that I have told about in the section on Sivananda, he engaged in a contest of spontaneously composing Sanskrit verses with a visiting scholar, and he won effortlessly. Whenever his turn came he would have a gleeful expression on his face and rock from side to side as he pulverized his opponent’s attempts.

Now I cannot deny that his ways were really crazy. He spoke in a very nasal, rather high-pitched voice in an exaggerated manner. And the things he said were even weirder. There is no may I can convey his strange intonation and manner of speech in writing.

One day he walked up to Steven and I and began loudly: “Oh, my goodness! I completely forgot that this was ekadasi [a day of fasting], so when I found the kitchen door closed and locked I RAN to Madras Hotel and demanded they make something for me right away. Oh, yes. Otherwise I would have starved! I would have starved.” Then he turned around and wandered away.

One satsang revealed something of the inner nature of Jnanananda. It was in the evening, and though usually the punchboard format was just in the mornings, Sivananda told Swami Jnanananda to stand up and recite some of his Sanskrit verses. So of course the Swami chose to recite what he had written in praise of Sivananda. Standing up right where he had been sitting, and facing Sivananda, he lifted his hands above his head in pranam to Sivananda and began almost shouting: “Vande Sivananda….” Sivananda interrupted him in equal volume by shouting out: “Oh, boodle boodle boodle boo!” (I can’t really convey what he did in writing, but this gives some idea.) Jnanananda stopped, looking really surprised. Sivananda indicated that he should start over, and so he did with Sivananda immediately responding: “Oh, boodle boodle boodle boo!” This happened one or two more times. Then Sivananda let him recite without interruption.

Now here is my point. Swami Jnanananda never got miffed or hurt. Whatever Sivananda did was all right with him because he knew the master’s greatness and wisdom. To him obviously this all had a purpose. And it did: it showed the fundamental sincerity and genuineness of his devotion to Sivananda, to whom he had but one response: love. And the master had the same for him.

Whenever I would visit Sivanandashram on subsequent trips, I would tell whoever was with me, “Now we are going to find Swami Jnanananda and have some fun.” As soon as he saw me he would begin exclaiming: “Oh! Here you are after so long a time!” Then he would turn to my companion and continue, “Oh, ho! You should have seen him the first time he was here! He was only this wide [using his fingers to show about two inches] and so tall, just like a string. Oh. Oh. Oh.” And these last three syllables would roll out accompanied by all kinds of odd head movements. It was always memorable.

Then, though I did not know it, there came the last time I would meet my dear friend. When another monk and I inquired after Jnanananda we were told he was up on the hill outside the print shop. So there we proceeded, anticipating the usual comic display. But it was not to be.

Jnananandaji was sitting under a tree. When we bowed down and then sat up before him, he at there in silence, looking at us, radiant and still. As the opening verse of the Isha Upanishad says must be, he was seeing God first and us second. He was looking at us through God. You may know the hymn “Lead Kindly Light.” That Light came out of Swami Jnanananda’s eyes as he looked at us. Then a brief conversation followed, Swamiji speaking in a very soft voice. For a while all three of us closed our eyes and sat in meditation. Then we bowed in silence and left his blessed presence. He will never be forgotten by me. With Sivananda he is immortal in my memory.

Number 2: Swami One

I first met Swami One during my second visit to India. After some months I had met a marvelous devotee of God, C- R-, who loved sadhus. He had built for himself a very large mansion in a major city of India. But he and his family lived in two rooms and a kitchen, all the rest of the house being given over to the sadhus he invited to stay there. None were permanent residents, but came and went. Usually there were twenty or so sadhus of various types staying there. So I became one, and had the good fortune to be given the family’s worship room for my stay.

Right away S-1 introduced himself and told me that he was a disciple of a very famous yogi whom I had met during my first India trip. Then he described to me his recent visit to Nepal to hold the office of the leading mahant who needed to travel into India on business concerning the Order of Shankara. For some reason the rules in Nepal required that the mahant could not leave the country without leaving a substitute in his place. Later cynical reflection convinced me that S-1 had been summoned rather than the mahant appointing one of the Shankara swamis already in Nepal, because in his absence the appointee might manage to usurp his office, but there was no hope that the “foreign” S-1 could manage such a coup.

S-1 was a very intelligent and affable person, but utterly devoid of any spiritual quality that I could see. He was more like a trustworthy business man than a devotee or yogi, much less a sannyasi. But my positive-neutral opinion of him was shattered the very next morning as I was sitting watching the women of C- R-’s household preparing for the morning worship. S-1 entered by the door next to the shrine. To my and their astonishment he demanded the sandal paste they had just made to be offered in the worship. They protested that he could only have some sandal paste after it had first been put on the deity’s image. Nothing doing. S-1 wanted that special orange-hued sandal paste to make a nice big dot (tilak) on his forehead to complete his morning toilet. (His very wet hair indicated that he had just taken his morning bath.)

Despite the women’s pleading, he reached over and took the sandal paste and a mirror lying on the altar. After finishing adorning the deity, it is the custom to hold up a mirror for the deity to see the result. But S-1 had a more immediate purpose: he used the mirror to make sure his orange dot was perfectly round and exactly in the middle of his eyebrows. Obviously he was his own deity. Then he walked out, leaving the women to discard the sandal paste and make a new batch. A cousin of mine, when very little, had announced to his mother regarding a schoolmate: “Mother, I have my opinion about him.” Now I had an opinion about S-1.

Some years went by and I never forgot S-1 and his orange dot. Then during one trip I was in Western India. I had been there once before and had discovered a very wonderful Vamanadev temple whose mahant was a spiritually outstanding person. So one evening I set off in happy anticipation. I was very disappointed to find that the Mahant had gone to Bombay, but the arati was especially powerful and I was glad I had come.

The village of Chandod in Gujarat, on the banks of the Narmada river.
The village of Chandod in Gujarat, on the banks of the Narmada river, where the Vamana Dev temple is located.

No one who attended the arati could speak English, but they would not let me leave when the arati was over, indicating by signs that I should sit and wait. I did, and two or three of them started toward a side door calling out very loudly: “Guru Maharaj! Guru Maharaj!” In a few moments the atmosphere changed and through door there walked an incredible sight: a yogi if ever I saw one, with long hair and beard whose entire manner and “feel” told me that this was a Guru Maharaj indeed.

First I stood and then I bowed down to him. With great affection he asked me to sit. After he had inquired about me and my purpose there, he told me what ashram he was from and his guru. They were the same ashram and guru of S-1! As he continued speaking to me, I really scrutinized him and said to myself: “He certainly looks like that dud swami I met at C- R-’s in Delhi.” Finally I had to ask: “Swamiji, do you know Sri C- R- of Delhi?” “Yes. He is a dear friend of mine.” “Were you staying at his house in February of 1969?” “Yes.” “Do you remember a very skinny American sadhu who stayed there a few days?” (I had gotten chubby over the years.) “Yes.… was that you?” “It was, Swamiji.”

“Oh, my brother!” he exclaimed and hugged me, then explained in Gujarati to those watching us about our previous meeting. And all the while I sat there in awe. Never, never could I had dreamed that the Tilak Thief could become this wonderful being. Yogananda often said: “A saint is a sinner who never gave up.” I would not accuse S-1 of having been a “sinner” though a lot of Hindu devotees would have if they knew the tilak incident. Certainly he had not given up, but followed the sadhana his guru had given and now here he was, ablaze with realization.

It was with regret that I left, knowing that this, too would be a last meeting with a divine soul. And I certainly never forgot him.

Number 3: Swami Two

Now Swami Two was very different from Swami One. He was outright obnoxious, arrogant, rude and a pleasure to not meet again. There is an old popular song, Did You Ever See a Dream Walking? Well, when you saw S-2 you saw an ego walking.

I first met S-2 in Hardwar my first trip. Ma Anandamayi was staying at Bhagat House and he had come to bestow himself upon her for only a couple of hours. A few months before a close friend of mine had made her first trip to India and had met him. She spoke very enthusiastically about him and how generous he was with his time talking with her about spiritual subjects. So when I saw him and learned who he was I introduced myself. My impression was not that of my friend, and I was shocked at his ill manners. Then I got the idea. I was not a cute American girl.

Anandamayi Ma with devotees
Anandamayi Ma and devotees

But after a dozen years I was in a situation where I had to meet him. Was I ever dreading it. My memory of him was very fresh indeed. Another American friend had become acquainted with S-2, and he took me to S-2’s small house in an isolated area. When we got out of the car, the door opened and S-2 came out of the house to meet us. This was an even greater stunner than my second meeting with S-1.

I recognized S-2 immediately and saw not just a transformation, but a transmutation. He had become so purified and refined that he was barely there physically. This may sound odd, but I tell you that I could see into him and clearly perceived his awakened chakras and the inner luminosity that was his consciousness. When we were seated inside, I just sat and reveled in the sight of him and the subtle radiance that surrounded him. It was heaven on earth.

I was able to be with Swamiji that day and the next. During my first trip I had met Swamiji’s guru only a week or so before his mahasamadhi. His grace and wisdom had certainly acted as divine leaven in his disciple. The lesson I learned from my second encounter with him was a valued one, but the memory of Swamiji has remained with me ever since as a treasure beyond expressing or evaluating. Over the intervening years Swamiji has been a beacon light to many souls. I bow to him, to his guru and to his God.

Number 4: Ashram Official

I had visited a few monasteries in America, and it was apparent that visitors were interlopers, tolerated but not desired. In India it was totally different. Ashrams were places meant to be visited by everyone, sources of spiritual wisdom and upliftment. Devout people felt that an ashram was a kind of second home, and many (even entire families) would sometimes stay in an ashram for a week or more. This was especially true of Sivanandashram. But there are always exceptions to the rule, and I encountered some myself during my India trips.

During my second trip I spent some time near an ashram that was renowned for its lack of common hospitality. In fact a frequent visitor to that ashram was very embarrassed that the ashram would not even provide food for visitors, something virtually all ashrams do as a matter of course. Even before I got there I had received an abrupt letter from the ashram announcing that I would have to find my own place to stay and my own food to eat. But there was someone staying there that I wanted to be with for a few days so I went and trusted to luck. (It wasn’t very good; accommodations in that town were quite poor.)

One evening as I was leaving the ashram to return to the room I was renting at an exorbitant rate (and whose owners shamelessly tried to make me pay for their entire electric bill for the month), I was accosted by the ashram secretary. (He was a layman, not a monastic, who lived nearby.) Stopping me right in the middle of the main road, he began complaining to me about the financial troubles of the ashram (which I knew was very rich) and ended up asking me for money, when the ashram had given me nothing but a cold shoulder. (They were not discriminating against me; they treated everyone that way unless they were very rich and very corrupt. Them they considered close friends. Birds of a feather….) If you suppose that I did not give him (or them) a penny (a pice), you suppose right. Was I ever disgusted.

Again, some magical years went by and I was in Kankhal at the Anandamayi Ashram, sitting at the side of the Shiva temple on the “old” ashram property. People were streaming in and out to have the darshan of Anandamayi Ma, who was on the roof of a building which was reached by a stairway behind the temple. Anyhow, there I sat, happy as a duck in water–as always when I was in India.

Siva temple at the Anandamayi Ashram in Kankhal, India

As I sat there silently doing japa, the entire area became electric, and I could feel Someone coming down the stairs behind the temple. It was not Ma, I knew, because her aura was completely different. Who it could be I had no idea, but I stood up in anticipation despite the inquiring looks of those around me. And then it happened.

Around the corner of the temple there appeared a man dressed in traditional Indian clothing (dhoti and kurta). At first I thought his hair was brilliantly white and shining, but then I realized that I was seeing him through a cloud of blazing light. Everything about him was shining. To my surprise he came straight up to me and took my hands, saying: “I am so happy we are meeting again after so long. You are looking so well.” Then I realized. This was the man who had hit me up for undeserved money those years ago! I could not help myself. I hugged him and did not want to let go. Talk about friends in high places: he was himself a “high place.” What a blessing.

We sat down and had a marvelous talk together. I cannot remember a word of it, but I remember the inner message. This, too, was a last meeting, but it lives in my heart.

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