Born in Sweden in 1882, SISTER KARUNA became a disciple of Paramahansa Yogananda in 1931 when she attended his classes in Salt Lake City, Utah. Soon after, Ellen Merck, as she was then known, and her husband, Bror, moved to Los Angeles to be near the headquarters of the Guru’s work. Entering the Self-Realization Fellowship Monastic Order after her husband’s passing in 1941, she took the vow of sannyas in 1953 and adopted the name “Karuna,” which means “divine compassion.” Sister Karuna passed away in 1975 at the age of 93.
article from, “Immersed in Ineffable Joy” by Sister Karuna, Self-Realization magazine, Spring 1994
Sister Karuna’s spiritual biography
From early childhood, I was spiritually inclined. Often, after having played with other children for a while, I withdrew to some secluded spot to ponder on matters obscure to my young mind. I wondered much about God and what little I had heard about Him.
In my home I had no religious encouragement. My father was bitterly opposed to any kind of religion. He asserted that religion was utterly detrimental to intellectual progress. My mother was religiously inclined but was, because of illness, unable to wield much influence in the matter. During my early years, I looked up to my father as the greatest being in the world: with him I shared my small daily experiences.
When I was six years old, I started school. The Biblical stories that were narrated there during our hour of religion I found entrancing. Eagerly, I wanted to share this new interest with Father, but to my dismay, he did not share my enthusiasm at all. “Such nonsense should never be taught to children,” he retorted, and dismissed me. A short time later, some playmates took me with them to a Sunday school. Here I heard about Jesus and about his restoring the sight to a blind man. Again, much moved, I couldn’t refrain from telling Father of the wonderful things I heard. He became very angry and strictly forbade me ever to attend a Sunday school again. To divert my interest from religion he taught me to play games of different kinds, and at times he let me accompany him to the theater. I became intensely interested in the theatrical dramas, and Father was pleased to discuss those with me.
Time went along thus until I was twelve.
It was a practice of the schools to award books to the most diligent students at the end of every school year. As a rule the books were those that were to be studied the next year; but in my thirteenth year, I was given an interesting religious storybook. The simple story penetrated my innermost being. My spiritual yearning was stirred anew, never to be subdued.
When Father was not at home, I stole away to some religious service. When he found out about my adventures, he became enraged. Thereafter, if he had returned home before me, I often had to stay outside during most of the night—even during winter, in severe cold. (Poor Father! As I comprehend now, he was heartbroken because of his disappointment in me. I did well at school and he had his own ambition regarding me and my future.)
Nevertheless, through all the verbal storms and discomforts I had to weather, I clung to God with faith. Inwardly I prayed constantly. Then, when I was in my seventeenth year, I had a remarkable spiritual experience. How it came about, I don’t know. It just came — a transcending into an exalted state of consciousness. My body became so light that at times I felt as though my feet would lift from the ground; I lived in a state of indescribable joy. I performed my daily duties the same as usual, but inwardly I lived in that incomprehensible Joy. This state of being continued for about one week, then it vanished as mysteriously as it had appeared. Again I found myself in my former state of consciousness. I felt as though I had entered heaven and then been cast out. Ever afterward I yearned intensely to regain that which I had so mysteriously experienced for such a brief period and then just as mysteriously lost.
A short time later I joined the Mormon Church, and the estrangement between my father and me became serious. There were occasions when he threatened to take his own life. The disgrace I had heaped upon him by joining a religion he despised was more than he could bear, he lamented.
Strange complexities of life! One part of me wanted very much to obey my father and follow the course he had planned for me, but “he that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.” These words of Jesus were constantly in my mind; and to me, at that time, the compelling command from within was to follow the way God was leading me.
A Most Blessed Married Life
Though for years I lived under threats and fears, I was abundantly rewarded for all that I had suffered because of my spiritual steadfastness. At church I met my very spiritual husband, Bror Merck, and we shared forty years of a most blessed married life. And although I learned much from the Mormons, the greatest blessing that came to my husband and me through this church was that it opened the way for us to come to America, where we found our guru, Paramahansa Yogananda.
Before meeting the Master, we had had some preliminary preparation. A few years earlier, a friend had handed me a book with the words, “You may find this interesting.” I had opened the book thinking I would only glance through it. It was the first metaphysical book I had ever seen or read. I sat spellbound until I had read the book to a finish. I became aware that somewhere there were beings who had real spiritual knowledge. The search was on again.
I pondered much about reincarnation and prayed for more enlightenment concerning it. Then one early morning as I opened the front door, I found a book placed on the doorstep. The book was on reincarnation. Later, other metaphysical books came to us through astonishing sources. I read the books and persuaded my husband to read them. We learned much from them but yearned for something more definite. In October 1931 Swami Yogananda came to Salt Lake City where my husband and I then lived.
Announcements were made about lectures to be given by this “metaphysician and psychologist from India.” A friend persuaded us to go and hear him. From the first moment I heard Swami Yogananda, I was in awe. I became aware that he was different from and much above all other preachers and lecturers I had ever heard. Bror and I went home in silence. He, too, had been much impressed.
At home, he said, “That man is not a psychologist. He is a religious teacher. I am not going to hear him anymore.”
“Are you afraid?” I asked.
“Perhaps,” he said.
“I should much like to hear him again,” I said ponderingly.
“Well, you’re free to do as you like. You know that,” answered my kind husband.
Yet, when the next evening came, Bror went with me to hear the Swami. “We have always done things together,” he said. “I know that this means much to you, so I’ll come with you.”
Immersed in Ineffable Joy
At this the second lecture, I became still more aware of the speaker’s greatness. For then, as I sat listening, again spellbound, all of a sudden I felt myself immersed in ineffable joy, a joy like unto that which I had experienced in my youth. I perceived that the ecstatic joy emanated from the speaker and that he had the power to transmit it. From that day my course was set. I knew nothing about what a guru is, but I knew that I had found someone who had That which I had for so long been seeking. How exceedingly blessed I was that my husband was congruent and was willing to tread the path of Self-Realization with me.
At the conclusion of the Master’s lectures and classes in Salt Lake City, he told me: “The joy you have felt is not yet your own. It is borrowed. Now you must work to make it your own.”
I made a decision that I would try to do so. Yet, for about six months after I had been in the Master’s presence and had been initiated into Kriya Yoga, I retained the heavenly joy of his vibration. Often, as I walked down the street, I felt as though I would float off the ground. Later, it diminished gradually, but never left me entirely. I kept in mind the Master’s words: “You must work to make it your own.” I also recalled a promise he had given: “Anyone who will faithfully practice the teaching I have given will be sure to attain to Self-realization of the truth thereof. It is not maybe,” he had averred.
So I made it my rule never to neglect my meditation nor my practice of Kriya. Master has said about Kriya, “I have given you the key to heaven. Use it.”
“Swamiji Is Here”
In Salt Lake City we became friends with another disciple of Paramahansaji’s: Mrs. Jean Chamberlin, who had also attended his classes in 1931. We were three who walked the path in close companionship, meditating together and enjoying very much our spiritual friendship.
Mrs. Chamberlin’s late husband had been a professor of psychology at Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah. A short time after the Master’s appearance in Salt Lake City, circumstances developed that compelled Mrs. Chamberlin, and soon after, my husband and me, to move to Los Angeles. Again we had the privilege to be in the Master’s presence and under his holy influence.
Mrs. Chamberlin, or SEVA DEVI as Paramahansaji called her, was a spiritually advanced disciple, highly regarded by Guruji. When he left this country in 1935 to visit India, he appointed Seva Devi to be the speaker at the Thursday and Sunday SRF meetings in Los Angeles.
She died in Los Angeles in November 1938. My husband and I took care of her in her final illness. She was suffering intensely during her last night on earth, and had lost her power of speech. About four o’clock in the morning I left her to go to my nearby home. When I departed there was no one with her except Bror. He told me, a few hours later, about a beautiful incident that took place after my departure.
Seva Devi, he said, became calm and free from suffering at five o’clock. Suddenly she said:
“Yes, Swamiji; yes, Swamiji!”
She repeated these words several times in a cheerful way. Thus Bror saw that she had regained her power of speech and was apparently replying to something that had been said to her by her guru, Paramahansaji, who was invisible to Bror’s eyes.
My husband asked, “Is Swamiji here?”
“Yes,” she answered in a happy voice. “Swamiji is here.”
Bror wondered if her mind were clear. He said: “Seva, do you know who I am?”
“Yes, Bror,” she replied quickly, as though she understood why he had asked the question.
Her youngest son came into the room. My husband, who wanted to assure himself still further concerning her mental clarity, asked: “Do you know who it is that stands by your bed?”
“Oh, yes! Lew, my boy,” she replied tenderly. In a short while she peacefully left her body.
Master referred to this incident several times in his lectures, stating that he had visited Seva Devi in his astral body during the very hour when she told my husband: “Yes, Swamiji is here.”
“I wanted to guide her in the transition to her new home,” the Master said.*
*”Many times when some disciple living far away has been ill or dying, he has drawn my astral body there through his devotion,” Paramahansaji said. “Seva Devi was a very devoted student. She became extremely ill, but she never complained about it to anyone. She knew her time had come to leave this earth. One day when I visited her in Los Angeles she said to me, ‘Please don’t hold me here.’ Later on, I was staying in the Self-Realization Fellowship Hermitage in Encinitas for a time. I had been given a radio and was waking up early in the mornings to listen to broadcasts from India. One morning I suddenly felt intuitively the subtle astral vibration of Seva Devi; she drew my astral body to her through her devotion. My physical body was as dead. I was told later that Seva Devi exclaimed, just before her passing, `Swamiji is here!’ She was aware of being consciously ushered by me into the other world.”
“Do Not Ask Anything”
In 1941, during my husband’s last illness, the blessed Master visited him several times. The last time he came, Bror was in excruciating pain. He repeatedly pleaded with God to take him out of the body. When the Master arrived, I asked my husband whether he was able to see him. “Oh, yes,” he eagerly nodded, “let him come in.”
Then as the Master stood at his bedside, Bror forcefully entreated him, “Swamiji, take me away from here! Take me away from here!” The Master did not answer, but sat down in silence. After a while the terrible pain abated, then the Master turned to my husband and said, “Remember Christ on the cross. Do not ask anything.” Bror met the Master’s gaze understandingly and bowed his head in submission.
Before the Master left our dwelling place that day, he addressed my husband in a loud voice, “Millions are walking in healthy bodies, but they are not blessed. But YOU are blessed.” Three times he repeated: “YOU ARE BLESSED.”
Then he added, “Now I shall not see you anymore in the body, but I shall be with you until the end. When all the suffering is over, you’ll see a great Light; you’ll enter into it and into ineffable joy.”
Could I tell anyone what joy and comfort—even though during the time of deepest sorrow—those words from the Master brought to me?
Bror’s mind was clear to the end, clearer than anyone else’s of those around him. He went consciously through the transition.
Ever since the day it had been made known to me—through intuition—that my deeply beloved husband was to be taken away from me, I had dreaded one day to come—the day of his funeral. I could not face the thought of that moment when I should stand by the open grave.
Master spoke briefly at the service.
Coming out from the church at Forest Lawn, I looked out over the cemetery to find Master. I did not. Then came that moment which I so long had dreaded. I stood by the open grave. Again I turned and let my eyes glide out over the cemetery—seeking the One. Then someone took my hand, and there he was, sitting on the bench by the grave. At his touch a joy, like an electric current, went through me. It was overwhelming. After a few moments I turned to him and said, “No one but God and you and I could ever know what you have done for me today.” The heavenly joy stayed with me all that day.
Before we left the cemetery, the Master told me he had communicated with my husband. He said, “Mr. Merck told me he had been tired of the body for some time; he had clung to life only for your sake. But now,” said the Master, “you must not grieve, for he is very, very happy.”
I have often thought and felt that if it were but for what he did for me that one day, I would still owe my great Master all the humble service I am able to give.
Shortly before my husband left the body, he said to me: “Ellen, I can’t help it. I must go. But I have asked God to tell Swamiji to let you come to Mount Washington after I am gone. You’ll be happy there.”
After my husband’s passing I visited Salt Lake City for four months. The first time I met the Master after my return to Los Angeles, he asked me to come and live at Mount Washington. “It is your husband’s greatest wish that you come,” he said.
“Yes, Swamiji, I know that,” I replied.
He said, “You might, but I have that from where he is now.”
Now, as I finish this memoir, I have lived at Mount Washington for twenty-three years. And, yes, “I have been happy here.”