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Chapter One
My Intention

My intention in these pages is to propose a new model of renunciation for this age of energy. Swami Sri Yukteswar Giri, my paramguru (guru’s guru), described it as such, giving it its ancient Sanskrit name, Dwapara. Having explained this matter already in several of my other writings (notably in Religion in the New Age), I’d rather proceed here at once to my main subject: renunciation in this age of energy.

The monastic order of swamis in India was founded, or rather reorganized, many centuries ago by the first, or adi, Swami Shankara. The age in which he lived was known as Kali, or dark (literally, “black”) Yuga (age). It was far more materialistic than the age in which we live today. Shankara wrote rules and ideals for his renunciate order that were appropriate for those times, when society faced a different set of realities.

People weren’t nearly so mobile then as they are today. Travel, by present-day standards, was very slow. There were no motorized vehicles, no airplanes, no steamships. People’s mental horizons, too, were narrowly circumscribed. To accomplish anything, one’s self-definition, too, had to be narrow.

To find God, or to realize the Divine Presence in one’s life, was almost impossible for those whose lives were not specifically devoted to spiritual progress. Those who lived in the world, who engaged in profit, and particularly who were married and had families, simply could not expand their horizons to include the divine search.

In the Christian world, renunciates sometimes went so far as to have themselves walled up in cells, with only little openings through which food was passed. To find God, renunciation of all distractions had, in fact, to be complete, for every attachment to the world needed to be shattered. In India, renunciates were told not to find enjoyment in anything, even in a beautiful sunset. They were expected to go by foot from place to place; never to stay in one place more than three days; and be careful not to regard anyone or any place as their own. “Neti, neti” — literally, “Not this; not that” — was the common practice for the spiritual seeker. It was a way of rejecting everything in the manifested universe as false.

In both East and West it was common — indeed, the practice was honored — for monks to beg their food from house to house; to accept only enough food for one meal; and to carry no money in their purse.

Jesus Christ was a renunciate in this sense. So also was St. Francis of Assisi. And so also have been many Christian saints, who have dedicated themselves to “the imitation of Christ.” St. Francis used to say that he was wedded to “Lady Poverty.” Paramhansa Yogananda, who spoke of St. Francis as his “patron saint,” said, “I prefer the term, ‘Lady Simplicity.’” Sri Yogananda’s view of renunciation was much more moderate than what was practiced in Kali Yuga. The old way had been right for those days, when mankind’s awareness was much narrower. Kali Yuga was a time of rigid dogmas amounting to dogmatism, rigid social codes, and a rigid concept of matter itself, which was considered fixed, solid, and essentially immutable.

In modern times, matter has been found to consist of subtle energy vibrations. People’s thinking is more fluid, more intuitive, more centered in principle than in outer forms.

The swami order (unlike Catholic monasticism) did not include women. Indeed, it would not have been appropriate for women in those days to roam the roads freely, as swamis were supposed to do.

Nowadays, although lip service is still given to the ancient practices, most swamis do in fact own a little money and even property. They are not criticized for doing so, provided they use their possessions for the benefit of others. Swamis no longer live in stark poverty. In keeping with our times, their renunciation is, outwardly speaking, more moderate. Inwardly, it is more focused on right attitudes. In this age, mental discipline is understood to be more important than outer, physical austerities.

At the same time, the need of the hour is to deepen this attitude. Freedom from anger, hate, pride, and desire is more important than renunciation of outer, material involvements.

Most of the ancient restrictions are viewed today in the light rather of sacred tradition than of actual reality. Many swamis, if they own property, emphasize the importance of inward non-attachment to it. Few renunciates today wander the highways, where they’d anyway face the risk of being run over by a motor vehicle, or asphyxiated by motor fumes. Most modern-day renunciates dwell in ashrams like their Western counterparts, who live in monasteries. When they travel, they usually go by car, train, ship, or airplane. Were they to beg their food from door to door, they’d very probably be treated as mere panhandlers.

It must be understood that the main purpose of those ancient rules was to help the renunciate to develop non-attachment. Today, people also realize that desires, when utterly denied, may easily become stronger and take deeper root in the heart than if they are moderately satisfied. In fact, the Bhagavad Gita counsels moderation in all things. And whereas non-attachment to things is easier if the things themselves are entirely out of reach anyway — such as, let us say, a ride in a UFO — the desire for things that are available may actually be fanned by total denial.

To put it more concretely, I have noted that, despite the widespread notion (in India especially) that poor people are more likely to become saints than those who are well to do, in fact, those who go to the saints, and indeed the saints themselves, seem almost always to come from middle-class or upper-middle-class homes. The poor are forced by circumstances to devote all their time and energy to basic survival, leaving almost no time or strength to address their spiritual needs.

It must be understood, further, that non-attachment itself is not the goal of renunciation, the supreme purpose of which is to give one the freedom to devote himself primarily to his spiritual search. The real delusion to be overcome is the bondage of ego-identity. The true goal of renunciation is to help one to rid himself of that self-limiting identity.

The word “swami” means, literally, “he who is one with himself.” The title is usually, of course, only an affirmation of that ideal. Few swamis have actually attained the goal. Still, by firm dedication to God alone they should be well on the way to divine attainment before they take their swami vows.

In this regard especially, I am bound to say that I have met many swamis in India who seemed to me even, perhaps, unnaturally arrogant, as well as being by no means free from anger and personal ambition. The fact that they have outwardly renounced worldly associations seems to have placed them, in their own eyes, on a higher plateau than mere samsaris, or worldly people. I have often wondered: What use, to them, a renunciation that inflates the very ego it is supposed to annihilate? Again, what use, to them, their orange robes — if they can still get angry?

The renunciate should indeed eschew worldly involvements, but he should not despise the countless ignorant, struggling egos who are still involved in samsara. Maya (delusion) is very subtle. Often it ensnares people through their very rationale for escaping it.

There is a story in Indian tradition of a hermit who was disturbed during meditation one day by the cawing of a crow. He glanced up at it in anger, and it fell immediately to the ground, dead. “What power I’ve acquired!” thought the hermit proudly. A devata (angel) just then appeared to him and said, “You think yourself so highly advanced, but there is one who is more advanced than you, living in the town near here. You could learn much from her.”

“A woman! Is that possible?”

“Go and see,” said the angel, and instructed him where to find her. The hermit entered the town and, after some time, arrived at a very ordinary home; he considered it beneath him even to enter there. He therefore called out, and a woman answered from within, “I will come to you shortly. I am busy just now, serving my husband.”

“She’s married!” thought the hermit indignantly. “How could a married person possibly be on a higher spiritual plane than I?” Just then she called out, “Be patient, Sir. I am not your crow!”

So she knew about that episode! He decided to wait. When at last she emerged, she spoke from a level of wisdom that did indeed prove enlightening for him.

Humbled, he returned to his place of seclusion. The angel hadn’t yet finished with him, however. Appearing to him a second time, he said, “You’ve learned something, but not yet everything that you need to know. There is another person in town from whom you still have much to learn.” The angel instructed him where to go.

The hermit returned to town. This time, he found himself entering the lowest section, where the butchers and leather workers worked and lived.

“How could any saint possibly live here?” he marveled. When he reached the house of the person he was to see, he found it belonged to a young man who, again, hadn’t time for him at the moment; he was busy serving his parents.

When finally the youth appeared, the hermit learned from him that to do one’s God-allotted duty is the highest calling, and should never be despised. The important thing is not to become attached to one’s duty.

This was, for him, a vitally important lesson. Many renunciates, in forsaking worldly involvement, overlook their duty to serve their broader family of mankind. The renunciate should offer back gratefully to this world the energy and blessings he receives from God. His renunciation should be a means of expanding his sense of selfhood.

To achieve this end, he must develop an attitude of selfless service, rendered to others according to his own ability. If he can sit all day in effective meditation, that may in fact be the highest service he can offer. His meditation, however, should be practiced with an attitude of self-offering to God, and a desire for the upliftment of all mankind, not with a desire only for personal (even though spiritual) gain.

The supreme task all men are given who would become worthy of the kingdom of God is to expand their ego-consciousness from its pristine finitude to the vast Self of which the ego is but a little part — a mere grain of sand on a vast beach surrounding the ocean of cosmic consciousness. Man must seek infinite self-expansion.

In India, tradition has inculcated in people the idea that service to those who are more highly spiritual than oneself is a way of evolving personally. It is a good tradition. Merely to have embraced formal renunciation, however, in no way guarantees high attainment. Many swamis and other renunciates, on finding people eager to serve them, develop an expectation of being served, and in time come to assume that such service is their natural due. In this attitude they strengthen, but don’t expand, their ego-identity.

Thus, in creating a new renunciate order, I want to address above all the fundamental purpose behind the monastic life itself: transcendence, and the attainment of oneness with the greater Self of all: God. As Paramhansa Yogananda wrote in his great poem, “Samadhi”: “Myself, in everything, enters the Great Myself.”

When my Guru, in 1950, placed me in charge of the other monks in his order, our renunciate way of life had not yet been developed. He himself had given us only two rules: no speaking at the table during mealtimes, and no intermingling of the sexes. The time had come, I saw, to give the order more specific form. To me fell the job of organizing our way of life.

As I did so, my Guru told me, “Don’t make too many rules: It destroys the spirit.”

Monasticism in the West has been based, by contrast, almost entirely on “the Rule.” In my new position, I tried to avoid this negative emphasis. Traditionally, the monastic is told, “Don’t do this; don’t do that; don’t go here; don’t go there; sit properly; direct your gaze humbly to the ground.” All these, and similarly restrictive injunctions cause the monastic to lose that cheerful confidence in God which alone enables one’s spirit to soar.

When I met my Guru, he gave me his unconditional love, and asked me to give him mine in return. I did so with all my heart. Next, he asked me to give him my unconditional obedience. Desperate though I was to be accepted by him, I had to be truthful. Therefore I asked him, “What if, occasionally, I think you are wrong?” He replied, “I will never ask anything of you that God Himself does not tell me to ask.” With that understanding, I gave him my unconditional obedience also.

Obedience is traditionally demanded of monks, especially in the West. However, though my Guru had placed me in charge of the monks, I did not feel competent to make such a request of them. After all, wasn’t I myself still struggling to come out of the pit of delusion? I feared the development of attitudes in myself of superiority and condescension. Rather, therefore, I chose to be in a position where I could learn from anyone with something worthwhile to teach me. Therefore I told my fellow monks, “I won’t ask your obedience. All I ask is your intelligent cooperation. And I promise in return to cooperate with you in anything you ask of me, provided it doesn’t go against either my principles or our monastic calling.”

Ten years after our Guru’s passing, I was dismissed from the order. My superiors had wanted me to accept blindly, in a passive spirit of submissiveness, their every wish for me. My difficulty was that our Guru had instructed me personally as to what my mission would be. Those instructions conflicted in many ways with what they asked of me. After some years of doing my best to obey them, while at the same time trying to fulfill what he himself had asked of me, I finally had no choice but to accept that he, not they, was my Guru. I remembered him, moreover, having once written, “Strict obedience to a person of God-realization leads to inner freedom, but unquestioning obedience to someone who is not enlightened may lead to further bondage.”

My road through life, based not only on my Guru’s stated wishes for me, but also on what he perceived to be my own nature, has been to apply his teachings creatively, as I’ve understood them, to the needs of others. Without such creative application, no one can progress very far on the path.

The form of renunciation I propose here, then, encourages creativity of the right sort.

As the reader may know, I have composed a fair amount of music in my life. Years ago, an Ananda member decided to write music of his own. (In fact, his “compositions” were derivative in style, and by no means inspired.) He said to me, “You know what it’s like to express yourself creatively; it’s something you just have to do.” I replied, “No, I know no such thing. I’ve never written even a note of music to express myself. To me, music composition has been a service to others. I’ve never done anything out of personal compulsion. If I’d never composed a melody, or written a single book, in my life, I’d feel just as inwardly fulfilled as I do now.”

In fact, when I was young I aspired to be a playwright. My purpose was to share the truth with others. When I realized that I myself didn’t know the truth, I decided, “Why flood the world with my ignorance?” I gave up writing altogether. Years later, as a disciple of my Guru, I felt I had reached the point where I was now ready — with a measure of fear and trembling — to begin to carry out his instructions to me to write. Since then, though I’ve had no access to the world of the theater, I have been able to write two or three pieces for the stage.

My goal in everything I’ve done has been to achieve inner freedom, and to inspire others in the same direction. Never have I tried to “express myself.” This little self of mine, this ego, is something I’ve tried my best to escape — not in a spirit of self-negation, but of reaching out to embrace the divine universe, in God, as my own.

The form of renunciation I propose in these pages encourages creativity primarily with a view to developing in people their own, innate sense of right and wrong, and not as an encouragement to egoic self-expression. What I encourage also is the submission of their will to what is right in everything, without relying excessively on the opinions of others — that is to say, to listen respectfully to their opinions, but to accept only those which their own intuition endorses.

My superior, during the years when I lived at Mt. Washington, tried once to get me to work in the printshop. (I wonder if she didn’t try this ploy partly to get me out of her hair, with all my suggestions for how to expand the work!) Her plan was diametrically opposed, however, to what Master himself had told me to do.(1) She wanted to suppress me, whereas he kept encouraging me in my creativity. Had I not received his personal counsel, I might have allowed my creativity to be stifled, to the lasting detriment of my spiritual progress. Indeed, in looking back I realize now that my superior would never have allowed me the time even to write serious books. And the editor-in-chief would never have published any book I did write.(2) The editor once said to me regarding her neglect toward editing Master’s own books, “What more do people need? They have all the books they need for their spiritual advancement anyway.” When she threw me out, she tried to discourage me altogether from writing anything, and insisted, “Everything you could possibly write has been done before!”

In Western monasteries, it is usual to suppress creativity. I have read of novice nuns being told to plant flowers in the ground upside down, solely to educate them in mindless obedience. Adherence to such instructions, offensive as it is to all reason, not only suppresses the ego, but suffocates one’s spiritual aspiration. Blind obedience deprives one of common sense, which, St. Teresa of Avila said, is even more important than devotion. (Devotion, she said, can be developed, but common sense is something one either has or doesn’t have.) A monastery that tries to reduce everyone to a single expression of spirituality is an offense against Nature itself, which never repeats anything exactly, not even a snowflake!

There is much in traditional monasticism, both East and West, that actually serves to impede true spiritual progress. In India, the worst aspect of monasticism is, in my view, that it encourages pride. In the West, the worst aspect of monasticism is that it tries to get people to overcome the ego by suppressing it, instead of encouraging self-transcendence. As India’s best-loved scripture, the Bhagavad Gita, puts it, “How is suppression (even) possible?” (3:33)

It is true that one who would find God must renounce everything — including, above all, his sense of having a separate individuality. Such renunciation, however, can be accomplished only by one’s own free will. Moreover, what renunciation of the ego makes possible is the free expression of God’s unique manifestation, as one’s own self.

In the Mahabharata, the ego is represented by “Grandfather” Bhishma, who received the boon of not dying until he relinquished his own body. Indeed, the ego is the last delusion to disappear. It can only be transcended by self-offering into the Infinite. With the final surrender of the last shreds of ego-consciousness comes an oceanic bliss, spreading out to embrace the universe. The classical Christian belief in negative submissiveness to God suggests someone on his knees, bowed to the ground and casting dust repeatedly onto his own head. I suggest that one accomplishes nothing by this attitude — except, perhaps, a focus on dust (sin, in other words) and on one’s own head! True humility is complete self-forgetfulness. Indeed, it reminds me of something my Guru once said, “How can there be humility, when there is no consciousness of self?”

The Buddhist concept of nirvana, which has been thought to mean “nothingness,” is another attempt at explaining the ego’s essential non-reality. What most Buddhists don’t understand is that in “no-thingness” the soul finds absolute bliss. One wonders, in fact, whether anyone would willingly seek complete self-annihilation, unless he believed also in a higher Self into which his soul would be absorbed. The negative goal, as it is commonly understood, sounds suspiciously like the “cop-out” of suicide.

The nirvana Buddha experienced, as Paramhansa Yogananda explained, is that state of inner freedom in which no attachment or desire remains rippling over the surface of the sea of one’s consciousness. The ego has vanished altogether. Into this initial emptiness there rushes, filling the void, the oceanic bliss of Satchidananda: ever-existing, ever-conscious, ever-new Bliss, which was Swami Shankara’s definition of God.

Many years ago, in Thailand, I read an official Buddhist tract which compared what it considered the Buddhist ideal of nirvana with the Hindu belief in absolute bliss (Satchidananda). The essay stated (I paraphrase): “While it is true that nirvana is preceded by a fleeting moment of bliss, this experience is followed by another, of complete nothingness.” This teaching was, of course, quite the opposite of Paramhansa Yogananda’s experience, and of every other great master’s, anywhere! What the tract described, however, was modern Buddhism. It was not the teaching of Gautama, the Buddha. This was the counterpart of Western “Churchianity.”

Contemplating this supposed difference, however, one wonders: Whence did the Buddha derive his universally admired compassion? One can imagine compassion being rooted in absolute bliss. One cannot imagine its being rooted in total unawareness! How, indeed, would anyone, ever, sincerely devote his life to attaining nothingness? Small wonder that modern Buddhists uphold so fervently the ideal of Bodhisattva(3) (which, to yogis, is the state of jivan mukta)!

Modern Christianity, too, circumscribes drastically the teachings of Jesus Christ. Churchianity, as my Guru called it, describes the highest heaven as being a place where the free soul continues to live through eternity in a separate body, forever locked in its own individual ego. A certain theologian once wrote words to the effect that, “To the Christian, an impersonal state in which all forms ceased to exist would be abhorrent.” What that man should have said, of course, was, “To the ego, such a state is abhorrent.” Indeed, to the ego, anything that threatens its existence is abhorrent.

Swami Sri Yukteswar compared the ego to a caged bird: After years of confinement, the bird may imagine it belongs in that cage; it can’t imagine itself soaring high up in the sky.

The true saints in Christianity, however, have realized Bliss as the only reality in existence. They have said so in many ways, in person and in their writings.(4) Love might be described as the first manifestation of bliss. St. Jean Vianney, a great saint in France, once stated, “If you knew how much God loves you, you would die for joy!”

The goal of renunciation is to help one to achieve complete absorption in that Bliss. Therefore swamis in India have commonly assumed names that end in the word, “ananda” (bliss). In India, the main criterion of renunciation has been non-attachment to money, place, and possessions. Had Swami Shankara taught the need to dissolve the ego, how many people would have even understood him? Only in the present age, with science’s discovery that matter itself has no permanent reality,(5) is it possible to understand intellectually, at least, that the individual ego, too, may not really exist. Swami Shankara did describe all creation as being only a dream of God’s, but still it was not possible in his time for even profound thinkers to see the human ego itself as being real only as a dream of God’s.

Generally speaking, in India — judging by my own observation — the goal of spiritual striving does not seem to have been transcendence of the ego. Many renunciates, no doubt sincere in their disclaimers of attachment to money, place, possession, and position, still place great emphasis on their own authority, especially in spiritual matters.

I see no reason to think that modern swamis have compromised their ideals by owning possessions, or by having fixed places to live. The times have simply changed. The spiritual need of our age, and a goal to which everyone can now aspire, is the further understanding that outward forms and distinctions have no reality at all except as manifestations of something formless and insubstantial.

As for Western monasticism, imagine anyone these days going from house to house with a begging bowl! There simply has to be a suitable cultural setting for such practices. And to try to create such a setting would require more energy, and produce fewer gains, than would be worthwhile.

My fellow disciples in our Guru’s organization have interpreted his mission as being above all to establish a monastery, one conducted along the old lines. I see his actual mission, instead, as having been to address the needs of an entire society — indeed, a whole civilization. He was sent to effect fundamental changes at every level of human life.

For spiritual seekers, monasteries of the traditional sort — especially because of their emphasis on strict obedience to rule and central authority — have become passé. In Italy, which was at one time the seat of Christian monasticism, huge monasteries today contain only a handful of monks, most of them — dare I say it, at my own age of eighty-three? — doddering old men in their eighties. Paramhansa Yogananda introduced countless innovations in this age. His own organization, however, has clung to Kali Yuga forms and traditions. It claims that he came for no grand, world-changing purpose — though he himself often, with great fervor, stated, “You have no idea what a great work this is! It is destined to change the whole world!” Fortunately for the future of his mission, my senior fellow-disciples dismissed me as a traitor! They were right: I was not loyal to their antiquated interpretation of the scope of his vision. Since then I have been able to pursue the path he himself indicated to me personally: a path leading straight into Dwapara Yuga, and to incalculably greater freedom at all levels.

My fellow disciples have gone back with a vengeance to the concept of complete monastic obedience. No one is allowed to question any directive from above, lest he be labeled disloyal and a troublemaker. Virtually every decision gets made by the Board of Directors.

Years ago, a door between the guest kitchen and the dining room at the SRF retreat in Encinitas got broken. Six months later, when my informant left there and came to live at Ananda, the door had yet to be repaired because permission to fix it had not yet come down from the Board of Directors in Los Angeles. How can any spiritual work flourish in such a suffocating atmosphere?

Swami Sri Yukteswar listed “pride of pedigree” among what he described as “meannesses of the heart.” This aspect of pride has been anathema to organized religion everywhere. The thought that one person is better than others simply because he holds a higher position than they in the organization, or because he has been years longer on the path, is simply one of the pitfalls into which the ego can all too easily fall. Renunciates would do well to remind themselves constantly that he is most worthy in God’s eyes who considers himself least among men.

In truth, most of the Master’s highly advanced disciples were either married or had at one time been married. To treat the married state as something “beyond the pale” for the sincere seeker is a sign of pride, not of wisdom.

What I propose to do here is open the path of renunciation to all those, whether married or single, who deeply yearn to know God.

What, then, are the marks of those whom I’d consider worthy of being accepted as true renunciates? They would be those who have achieved noteworthy progress toward the attainment of the following virtues:

  1. They have no, or very few, attachments or desires.

  2. They are without anger. (Anger appears in the heart when one’s desires are thwarted.)

  3. They accept without prejudice whatever life gives them, and live by the principle, “What comes of itself, let it come.”

  4. They never seek to justify or defend themselves, but accept all judgment by others dispassionately, as experiences given them by God for their higher good.

  5. They keep in their hearts primarily the company of God.

  6. They are indifferent to others’ opinions of them.

  7. They work without personal motive, to please God alone.

  8. They are impersonal in the sense of wanting nothing for themselves, but never in the sense of being indifferent to the needs of others.

  9. They see all beings as striving toward the attainment of Satchidananda: ever-existing, ever-conscious, ever-new Bliss, no matter how presently misguided the efforts of some people may be. Thus, they feel kinship with everyone, and with all life.

  10. They accept nothing as their own, but only as being “on loan” to them, for the benefit of others.

  11. They view pleasure and pain equally, as opposite (or dual) expressions of eternal, divine bliss.

  12. They have meditated daily for years.

  13. Because they are always happy in themselves, they are impervious to insults, outer suffering, failure, defeat, or disaster. They strive to live the ideal that Paramhansa Yogananda voiced when he said, “You should be able to stand unshaken amidst the crash of breaking worlds!”

  14. They strive to love God unceasingly, and ever more deeply, in a spirit of utter openness to be guided by His will.


Chapter 2: The Dilemma


  1. He’d said to me, “Your work in this life is lecturing, writing, and editing.” He didn’t add, “forming communities,” but had he done so, my own determination to work in that direction would have formed prematurely. As it was, I began creating communities as a natural consequence of the other work I was doing. In answer to his statement that my work would be writing, I asked him, “Sir, haven’t you, yourself, already written everything that needs to be written?” In answer, he looked a little shocked and said, “Don’t say that! Much more is needed!”
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  2. Though she did publish a little book I wrote about our Guru’s childhood: Stories of Mukunda.
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  3. One who defers entering into nirvana in order to continue serving humanity.
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  4. I have listed a number of their statements in this regard in my book, The New Path.
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  5. For although matter cannot be destroyed, it can be dissolved back into its essential reality, which is energy.
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Autobiography of a Yogi

A Renunciate Order for the New Age

Nayaswami Kriyananda

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