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Chapter Four
Institutions and the Individual

“God,” Sri Yogananda stated, “is center everywhere, circumference nowhere.” Other great men of God through the ages, including both Hindus and Christians, have made the same or similar statements. Paramhansa Yogananda gave the institution he founded the name, “Self-Realization Fellowship.” The name referred to individual enlightenment. His purpose in conferring this name was not to create a tightly structured organization, with its every directive delivered downward to a submissive and even mindless army of spiritual soldiers.

In training his disciples, Yogananda was careful never to “break” their will. I remember once when I, as a disciple of only a few days, decided to undergo a special fast to purify my body. My Guru, when he learned what I was doing, told me, “It is better to purify the heart.” He then told me to continue my fast for one or two days longer — in order, as he put it, not to “break” my will.

How different, this training, from the norm in Western monasteries, where the stated intention is actually to break the neophyte’s will, and make him subservient to the Rule and to his “superiors.”

It is partly that very word, “superiors,” that I challenge in this chapter. Does a person’s mere age or seniority in an institution entitle him or her to be considered superior to others? Does high position? Do even years of training? Yes, certainly, if the training qualifies one to become an example of progress in a particular discipline. But when it comes to spirituality, much more is involved than specific discipline, or even than specific intellectual knowledge.

The search for God takes many incarnations, and not only a few years, or even one lifetime. A person may be born with a level of understanding that is far above that of most people. Shall he submit himself completely to the authority of one who is, himself, still deficient in wisdom? Surely not! Wisdom must reveal itself not by a person’s outer raiment or position, but gradually, from within. It cannot be learned as teachings are learned in school, where students graduate and receive their diplomas in batches. Enlightenment is a very personal matter, between each seeker and God.

There is a need for organizations in this world. The human body is itself, in a sense, an organization. Its management is directed downward from the head, and its parts work in harmony under the guidance of that authority. Nations, too, would be fairly chaotic had they no governments to rule them. In this world there is no place for anarchy.

Nevertheless, individual insight is important also; so too is individual conscience, and individual incentive (provided one always respects the rights of others). Unfortunately, in hierarchical institutions, insight, conscience, and incentive are often repressed. (An advocate of such institutions — indeed the woman who threw me out of my Guru’s organization — once said to me, “In a corporation, no one has a right even to think except the members of the Board of Directors!” She was, of course, herself on the institution’s board of directors. And, later, when I was myself made a director, I found I still had no right to think differently from her.)

Any order of swamis deserving of the name will honor freedom of conscience as a basic ideal. If the swamis belong to an organization — as most of them probably will — the organization itself must honor this ideal. The thought I quoted in the last paragraph, that no one who isn’t a board member has any right even to think, belongs to the age of Kali Yuga: centuries of deep intellectual darkness.

The organization I myself have founded, Ananda, holds two tenets particularly sacred: first, People are more important than things, or than concepts, projects, or even rules; and the second, Where there is dharma (right action), there is victory (the Sanskrit words are, Yata dharma, sthata jaya). What we ask of members at Ananda is not mindless obedience, but voluntary, intelligent cooperation.

“Center everywhere, circumference nowhere,” though a concept sometimes voiced in Kali Yuga, is far beyond the average kali yugi’s comprehension. During that intellectually dark age, people considered that the earth was positioned at the center of whatever universe there was; one’s own country was the center of the known world; and one’s own self was the center of everything that mattered. During the present Dwapara Yuga, by contrast, people are beginning to reach out toward a greater understanding of the universe.

As far as this process regards renunciation, it is becoming more natural today for people to include the needs of others along with their own; to listen to them more openly, instead of dogmatically declaring their own beliefs. The emphasis, today, is already more on mutual respect. I don’t mean the change is radical, but it is at least in the direction of recognizing reality as being less firmly centered in one’s own self. Again, the change is directional.

In any age, the essence of spiritual progress is ego-transcendence toward union with Divine Consciousness. In the present age it is easier for people to focus on that purpose directly, instead of approaching it by indirection through non-attachment and strict non-involvement with the material world.

It is easier also, nowadays, to approach that ideal with a positive rather than a negative attitude: by self-expansion, rather than by self-abasement.

Spiritual organizations, then, though excellent in principle, are really worthwhile only if they respect the rights of the individual to his own understanding and individual conscience.


Chapter 5: Samsara vs. Renunciation

Autobiography of a Yogi

A Renunciate Order for the New Age

Nayaswami Kriyananda

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