"Behind the Scenes"

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam Explained

Revised & Expanded Edition
by Paramhansa Yogananda, edited by Swami Kriyananda

In 1950, when Paramhansa Yogananda withdrew to his desert retreat at Twenty-Nine Palms, California, he asked me to come with him and help with editing his writings. A group of several of us monks were standing with the Master beforehand. He said to us, "I asked Divine Mother whom I should take with me to help with editing, and your face, Walter, appeared. Just to be sure, I asked Her twice more, and both times your face appeared. That's why I am taking you."

I've often thought he told us that in order that everyone might know he wanted me to do editing work. This was not the first time, moreover, that he quoted Divine Mother when giving directions concerning me. When I first met him he told me also, "I'm seeing you because Divine Mother told me to; I want you to know that. It isn't because you've come from so far. [I'd traveled by bus all the way from New York.] Two weeks ago, a lady flew here all the way from Sweden, but I didn't see her. I do only what Divine Mother tells me."

Editing this book was the first job he gave me that year in the desert. It has been published in recent years by Self-Realization Fellowship under the title, Wine of the Mystic. I confess I am not wholly pleased with their edition. To my mind it loses some of the poetry, and also some of the clarity of the original. Still, in fairness I think one should read both versions and draw his own conclusions.

The question remains, however: Why, since I knew that SRF would someday publish Yogananda's commentaries on the Rubaiyat, did I publish my own edition? On this question there is, more than in most cases, a "story behind the story."

First of all, I felt I owed it to him to do this work. When he had me working with this manuscript in 1950, I was bewildered to find that his commentaries didn't seem always to correspond with the words in Omar Khayyam's quatrain. This doubt became a serious inner test for me, in fact. For I asked myself, "Is Master simply writing his own book, and not really giving the reader Omar Khayyam's inner meanings?" I struggled over what appeared to me to be several serious discrepancies.

I had a further problem with the fact that Master would often have written one interpretation, and then said, "On the other hand, it also means (so and so)." Doubts arose in my mind. "Can't he make up his mind?" I wondered. With my Aristotelian education, I thought that a truth was either one thing or another. How, I asked myself, could they be both?

I came through that test, completely won over by his love, and by my love for him. Years passed, however, before I was able fully to reconcile this intellectual dilemma. Only after years did I come to realize that truth is like a diamond, many faceted; that it shows greater subtlety of insight, in fact, to see a truth from several points of view, all of which, in their own context, are correct.

While editing the book, I gradually discovered that certain commentaries that hadn't seemed at first to correspond clearly to the quatrain were actually addressed to deeper meanings implicit in the quatrain. I realized more clearly than ever how very subtle, and true, had been my Guru's insight into every Rubaiyat, or quatrain.

The "clincher" to this story came in the spring of 1994, after a lecture I'd given on this book at the Theosophical Society in Sydney, Australia. A gentleman raised his hand and said, "In this particular passage [I forget which one it was, specifically] I don't see a clear correspondence between the words of Omar Khayyam and what Yogananda says in his commentary."

"I had that trouble initially," I replied, "with several of the stanzas. As I meditated on what Master had written, however, I always found the connection, and found it to be always perfect."

At this point a lady in the audience raised her hand. "I am from Iran," she stated, "and am conversant with ancient Persian. I am also familiar with the stanza to which this gentleman refers. I do see his difficulty; what Yogananda wrote seems at first, in fact, to diverge in meaning from the original. The same stanza in the original, however, coincides perfectly with what Yogananda wrote."

Thus, I came to understand something that I had, in fact, come increasingly to feel as I was editing the book: Yogananda, who himself knew no Persian, was in perfect attunement with Omar Khayyam's consciousness. It was as though the two of them, widely separated as they were in time, had been working consciously together! Master didn't really work at all from Edward FitzGerald's translation.

A corroboration of this way of working may be seen in what he told me of the way he'd written his commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita. After finishing that great work, he exclaimed rapturously, "A new scripture has been born!" Several times he repeated these words. Then he added, "Now I understand why my Master never wanted me to read other people's commentaries on the Gita. He didn't want my perception to be affected by them. While writing this book, I tuned my mind to Beda Byasa (Veda Vyasa, to some people), the author of the Bhagavad Gita, and asked him to write it through me. The words in this book are his words, not my own."

Interestingly, with regard to the editing I've done of Master's books, I recorded my edition of the Rubaiyat, later on, in Menlo Park, California. I was so deeply moved by the wonderful poetry of it (I myself had only polished Master's words; it was rather like varnishing a beautiful table in order to bring out the grain of the wood) that I broke down weeping while I read the last stanza. It took me several attempts before I was able to finish it.

Interestingly also, many years later I awoke from sleep with a melody for Edward Fitzgerald's translation of Omar Khayyam's poem. It fit all the stanzas, and I've often sung it when reciting a few of them. Though I am unfamilar with the music of Persia, I knew it was right. Some years later I was able to sing two stanzas of the poem to someone from Iran ( Persia). His first comment was to exclaim in surprise, "Why, that's Persian!"

See Also: Contents  Intro  Sample Chapter  

Return to The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam Explained