In this wonderful article Bro. Ananadamoy is interviewed about Paramahansa Yogananda’s Gita in “Yoga Journal” in 1996 (later published in SRF magazine)
[INTRODUCTION] The Bhagavad Gita—India’s most beloved scripture—tells the story of a critical moment of decision on the eve of the battle of Kurukshetra between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, descendants of the noble King Bharata. To the ardent seeker, its 700 verses harbor a deeper narrative—one that proclaims the path to victory in the inner battle that rages between the material and spiritual tendencies in man. Written as a dialogue between Lord Krishna, an earthly and divine king, and the Pandava Prince Arjuna, Krishna’s chief disciple, the Gita is rich in allegory, metaphor, historical significance, and the spiritual truths that are the essence of all great spiritual traditions.
The Bhagavad Gita was written by the illumined sage Vyasa, a contemporary of Krishna. Scholars through the ages have pondered its wisdom in numerous interpretations in an attempt to unlock its sacred message. GOD TALKS WITH ARJUNA: THE BHAGAVAD GITA—ROYAL SCIENCE OF GOD-REALIZATION, a major new translation and commentary by Paramahansa Yogananda, was published last year by Self-Realization Fellowship, the international society he founded in 1920 to disseminate his teachings and carry out his spiritual and humanitarian work. It is an interpretation that is both uniquely practical and deeply profound. This edition of the Bhagavad Gita has something for everyone. It provides comprehensive explanations of the material, psychological, ethical, and spiritual meaning of each verse; annotated charts; exquisite illustrations; and—perhaps most importantly—a profound message of hope for those who are sincerely striving to live the spiritual life.
BROTHER ANANDAMOY, a direct disciple of Paramahansa Yogananda and a monk of the Self-Realization Order for close to 50 years, lectures extensively around the world on the science and philosophy of yoga. He presently serves as a member of Self-Realization Fellowship’s Board of Directors and as senior minister at its temple in Pasadena, California. In the following interview, he offers insight into the timeless wisdom of one of the world’s great sacred writings.
YOU WERE WITH PARAMAHANSA YOGANANDA AT HIS RETREAT IN THE DESERT WHEN HE WAS WRITING HIS COMMENTARY ON THE BHAGAVAD GITA. CAN YOU TELL US WHAT THAT WAS LIKE?
It’s very hard to convey. It was for me a spiritual experience—and you cannot describe a spiritual experience with language, because language is based on sense perception. I can only say that when I went into the room where he was working, the presence of God was so tangible that it was to me like stepping into God Himself. That divine vibration filled the whole room, and clearly flowed through the Master. Whereas a scholar might pause to consider how he wanted to interpret an idea, Paramahansaji didn’t need to stop and think about what to say. He just went on hour after hour—without interruption, without pause, sometimes far into the night. It was obvious that he was in a deep state of God-communion, and that he was receiving his inspiration directly from God.
I remember on one occasion, his secretary stopped typing and said, “Sir, the word you just used does not exist in the English language.” The Master turned to her and said, “Yes it does. Look it up in the dictionary.” “Sir, it’s not here.” “Then that dictionary is no good,” he replied. “Look in another one.” She searched for the word in a second dictionary, but it was not there either. So he again told her to look in another dictionary. She left the room and came back with two more dictionaries—bigger ones—and set them down on the floor. The third one did not have it, but the fourth one, the biggest one, did. “You see,” he said, “if the word didn’t exist, God would not have given it to me.” Then he asked not to be interrupted anymore. “We have important work to do,” he said. So you see, this was not an intellectual interpretation, “man-made” so to speak, based on one man’s thought about what life was all about. This was truth, straight from God.
WERE YOGANANDA’S COMMENTARIES ON THE GITA WRITTEN AT THE BEHEST OF HIS GURU, SWAMI SRI YUKTESWAR?
Yes, he told us that. Part of his mission was to interpret the scriptures of East and West—specifically, the Gita, which is the essence of the Vedas and the Upanishads, and certain parts of the Christian Bible, namely the Gospels and some passages of Revelation and Genesis—and show that their teachings are fundamentally the same. He said, “In their underlying unity, all true scriptures reveal the same truths. . . . The seeming differences of revelations are on the surface merely, caused by the racial and environmental influences surrounding the prophets. Each one is singing his own hymn of the same one Infinite.”
VYASA USED THE HISTORICAL BATTLE OF KURUKSHETRA AS AN ALLEGORY TO ILLUSTRATE THE CONFLICT GOING ON WITHIN EVERY HUMAN BEING. CAN YOU ELABORATE ON THIS?
The inner battle is between our lower self, or pseudo-self—the body-identified ego—and our true, higher self—the soul. Sister Gyanamata, a great disciple of Paramahansa Yogananda, used to say, “The ego has the soul by the throat.” It’s a life-and-death struggle. Yet most people are not even aware that this battle is going on. The Master spells it out very clearly in his interpretation; he gives a detailed description of the “enemy” we face and all the obstacles we have to overcome to win the “war.” There are “warriors” that represent ego traits—attachment to pleasure and repulsion from unpleasant sensations (the likes and dislikes by which we become identified with the duality of creation), material desires, latent desires brought over from past lives, pride, greed, lust, envy, and so on. These are what draw our attention away from God and keep the life energy flowing outward to material consciousness. Opposing them are the “warriors” that represent the higher spiritual qualities—such as calmness, discrimination, self-control, detachment, and desire for God.
YOGANANDA SAID, “WHERE THE ENERGY IS, THERE IS THE CONSCIOUSNESS.” IS THIS WHY PRANAYAMA, ENERGY CONTROL, IS SO IMPORTANT?
Yes. Pranayama is the scientific key to reversing the outward flow of life energy that keeps our consciousness engrossed in the world and identified with the mortal body and mind. Many people, even in India, think that pranayama refers to breathing exercises. It is much deeper than that. It means control, mastery (yama), over the energy (prana). Paramahansaji explains in his Gita commentary that kriya yoga, the spiritual science reintroduced in modern times by his lineage of gurus, is actually a revival of ancient techniques of pranayama that had been lost and forgotten during the Dark Ages. The Master said, “When the yogi is able to withdraw his life force from the senses, he can disconnect his mind from the outer world.” He also said, “No realization is possible until this energy is brought under control and turned toward Spirit. As the meditating devotee becomes adept in the proper pranayama techniques, the inwardly turned life force leads that victorious yogi to divine consciousness.” Science has only now progressed to the point where it is beginning to substantiate many of the deeper truths—about energy, consciousness, the nature of creation—that were known to India’s rishis.
DOES THE BIBLE TEACH ENERGY CONTROL?
Yes, but not clearly. Remember that the Bible was written during the Dark Ages when people had no knowledge or understanding of the concept of energy. The greatest commandment in the Bible is: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy mind, and with all thy strength.” “Strength” actually refers to energy control. And Psalm 46—“Be still and know that I am God”—is yoga, stilling the body and mind, and then going inside, having the experience of God within.
LOVE FOR GOD, DEVOTION, PLAYS AN IMPORTANT ROLE, DOESN’T IT?
Yes, it does. Paramahansaji gave a very simple formula. He said that meditation—specifically, advanced techniques of raja yoga meditation such as kriya yoga—is the vehicle, the airplane, that takes you to God; the guru is the pilot; and devotion is the fuel that keeps the plane flying. Why devotion? Because we have to purify our feelings. Otherwise they get dissipated in likes and dislikes, in reactions to outer experiences of pleasure and pain; we get caught up in the machinery of the world, tied to the body and mortal consciousness. When I see people of strong emotion, strong feeling, I always tell them, “You don’t know what a gold mine you have. All you have to do is channel that feeling in a constructive way and direct it toward God.” And God will respond, because He is not just infinite bliss-consciousness or the impersonal Absolute. The Master said, “God is very human and He responds to our human affection.”
In the beginning of Yogananda’s Gita interpretation, we really come face to face with our ego, with all the issues we’re working on—even things we’re not conscious of yet. It can be quite shocking, quite disheartening to discover such things about ourselves! The Gita begins with introspection so that we can clearly see what we have to work on in ourselves. Introspection is a very important part of our sadhana, our spiritual discipline, one that is greatly underrated by most people. The Gita is a perfect scripture because it is a “how-to” book. It tells us exactly what we’re up against and exactly what we have to do to win the war.
It also paints a very touching portrait of the guru-disciple relationship. Krishna guides Arjuna with such tenderness and patience. It takes a long time to really understand what it means to be a disciple; even longer to understand what the guru is, and how much he does for you. You cannot make it on your own—even with the whole science of yoga before you. Delusion is just too powerful. You need the help of a guru. Not just any teacher, but one who has reached the divine goal and has been appointed by God to lead other souls back to Him. And a true guru doesn’t need a physical body to help his disciples. I know, because I was there when Paramahansa Yogananda was physically present, and there is no difference now that he is no longer in the body. The greater your attunement, the greater your receptivity to the guru’s help.
IT STRUCK ME THAT EVEN THOUGH HE HAD KRISHNA BY HIS SIDE, ARJUNA WAS STILL OVERWHELMED BY DOUBT. YET, TRADITIONALLY, ISN’T ARJUNA VIEWED AS THE IDEAL DISCIPLE?
Arjuna was the ideal disciple, yes. But he was also a great master who had reincarnated to play the role of the disciple. It says several times in the Mahabharata, the epic poem that contains the Gita, that Krishna and Arjuna were reincarnations of Nara and Narayana, both of whom were enlightened sages of ancient India.
The whole conversation that comprises the Gita is the vehicle these two great masters used to teach us how to live the spiritual life. Arjuna’s questions are for our benefit, to illustrate what happens when we feel overwhelmed by our mistakes, our wrong thoughts and actions. We think, “I cannot make it. I’m too weak. I’m not spiritual enough. My bad habits are too strong. It’s hopeless.” That kind of thinking comes from our human nature, our ego. It’s one of the most vicious weapons of maya; it paralyzes us. We need to be aware of what we have to change in ourselves, but we must always emphasize the positive. This is what Krishna and Arjuna are telling us to do. The Master used to remind us, “You don’t get rid of the darkness in a room by beating it with a stick; you get rid of darkness by bringing in the light.” Even if it has been there for a hundred years, it doesn’t take a hundred years to get it out. Just bring in the light.
THE GITA EMPHASIZES RENUNCIATION. HOW DOES THIS APPLY TO THOSE OF US WHO ARE LIVING IN THE WORLD?
The Gita does stress renunciation. But this doesn’t mean that you have to be a monastic. Krishna was a householder—he was married and had children—and he taught renunciation to Arjuna, who was also a householder. We are speaking here about inner renunciation. First of all, you have to renounce the thought that your ultimate fulfillment lies in the things of this world. That’s a hard one because the habit of seeking satisfaction in money, sense pleasures, power, position, fame—all that sort of thing—is so deeply rooted in our consciousness. None of it will satisfy us. Only the experience of God can give us lasting happiness.
BY RENUNCIATION, THE GITA MEANS NONATTACHMENT?
Yes, but the Gita does not advise that we live an ambitionless existence. We must play our role in life to the best of our ability—but for God, not for ego satisfaction. By inwardly offering everything to God, our outer actions are spiritualized.
WHAT IS THE ESSENTIAL MESSAGE OF THE GITA—ITS HEART AND SOUL?
Paramahansaji states it very simply in his introduction: “We came from God and our ultimate destiny is to return to Him. The end and the means to the end is yoga, the timeless science of God-union.” The Gita tells us that our body and mind are a battlefield where wars of passion and the unpredictable invasions of different moods and thoughts are constantly being fought. The goal of the yogi is to dissolve his complexities into simplicity by arousing the memory of his true nature, the changeless soul. When we first come to the spiritual path, we feel that finally we have a purpose in life; we begin to understand why we are here. Old habits seem to drop away, and we think, “I’m free of all that.” But after a while our initial enthusiasm wears off, and that’s when the real battle begins. We discover that the old habit patterns we thought were gone were just on the back burner. They come back, because the deeper spiritual habits haven’t been firmly established yet. That’s when we want to give up. Like Arjuna, we grow despondent in the face of all we have to battle.
Krishna’s message to Arjuna, and to us, is “You’ve got to fight! There’s no other way. You are a kshatriya, a warrior.” Paramahansaji tells us, “Each person has to fight his own battle of Kurukshetra. It is a war not only worth winning, but in the divine order of the universe and of the eternal relationship between the soul and God, a war that sooner or later must be won.” He’s not just saying that we can make it, he’s assuring us that we will make it! The Master told us again and again, “If you fall flat, get up and walk on. If you fall again and think you cannot get up, get up and walk on.” At the end of the Gita, Arjuna expresses so beautifully the attitude of a true disciple when he says, “I will act according to Thy word.” That is the attitude of the spiritual warrior: “Even though I feel it is hard—sometimes impossible—still I will make the effort.” Gradually, the spiritual life becomes a natural thing, and the whole picture changes. You see that it’s not just a battle. God is there. Even when the path ahead seems dark, you know that within the darkness is God’s light. And more and more that becomes your reality. In the end, you realize that you never were the ego, you never were the mistakes you made. YOU WERE ALWAYS THE PERFECT SOUL.