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The Path: One Man's Quest On the Only Path There Is

by Swami Kriyananda
(J. Donald Walters)

Direct Disciple of Paramhansa Yogananda

Purchase a copy of 'The Path'

Chapter 28

A boatload of fishermen in Encinitas had had a bad day. After hours of work, and very little to show for it, they were ready to go home. Paramhansa Yogananda happened to be out strolling on the beach when they brought their boat in.

"You are giving up?" he inquired.

"Yeah," they replied, sadly. "No fish."

"Why don't you try just once more?" the Master suggested.

Something in his manner made them heed his advice. Going out once more, they got a large haul.

And thus was added another puzzling item to a growing legend in the local community of Encinitas about the strange, kindly Swami around whom things seemed somehow always to happen for the best.

To me this story, which I heard indirectly from some of the townsfolk there, illustrates a basic truth of human life, one that Master often emphasized: No matter how many times a person fails, he should never accept failure as the final judgment of Destiny. As children of the Infinite, we have a right to God's infinite bounty. Failure is never His will for us. It is merely a temporary condition that we impose on ourselves through some flaw in our attunement with cosmic law. By repeated efforts to succeed, we gradually refine that attunement. "Try just once more," Master said. If our basic intentions are lawful, failure simply means we haven't yet succeeded. Life, in other words, gives us our failures as stepping stones to success.

In the case of the fishermen, Master's blessings proved a necessary additive, but only in the sense that they helped attune those men's efforts more quickly to what they were already on the way to accomplishing. Had the men themselves not been ready for his blessing, he would not have given it, which is another way of saying they would not have attracted it. The sensitivity with which one "tries just once more," rather than the mere act of repetition, is the real key to success. There are some people who succeed quickly, where others struggle unsuccessfully for years. Attunement is the secret. Genius depends far more on attunement than on hard work or intellectual brilliance. And of all existing sorts of attunement, the highest is to be aware that it is God's power that acts through us.

In that episode which I related in the last chapter, of the famous artist whose portrait of Lahiri Mahasaya failed to win Yogananda's approval, Paramhansaji asked him, "How long did it take you to master your art?"

"Twenty years," the man replied.

"Twenty years," Master exclaimed, "to convince yourself you could paint?"

This wasn't at all the comment the artist was expecting. Taken aback, he spluttered furiously, "I'd like to see you do as well in twice that length of time!"

"Give me one week," the Master replied calmly. Taking paintbrush in hand, he made several false starts, attuning himself more sensitively each time to the Source of all true inspiration. By the end of a week he had completed a portrait which, the artist himself was forced to concede, was better than his own.

The story of the fishermen is also a symbol of God's everlasting willingness to give men the "one more" chance they need to catch all they desire from the ocean of His abundance. By extension, this story suggests that God's forgivenesscall it, rather, His loving expectation of usis eternal. The teachings of India claim that the soul, too, has an eternity of opportunities before it to achieve perfection. A man ought never to abandon hope, even if failure dog him all his life. Through repeated incarnations he canindeed, he mustsucceed, eventually.

On the subject of reincarnation, Indian philosophy seems at odds with Christian teachings. But in fact this doctrine is denied only in the prevailing interpretations of the Bible, and not in the Bible itself. Reincarnation is not an un-Christian teaching. Nor, for that matter, is it an un-Jewish one. It was taught by some of the great early Christian Fathers, including Origen (A.D. 185254),(52) who claimed to have received it in an unbroken tradition "from apostolic times." Indeed, it was not until five centuries after Christ, in 553 A.D., at the Second Council of Constantinople, that this doctrine was finally removed from Christian dogma. The anathema that was pronounced against it was a consequence of political maneuverings, not of theological purism. Scholars have recently discovered that Pope Vigilius, although present in Constantinople at that time, took no part in pronouncing the anathema, and in fact boycotted the Council altogether.

Numerous Biblical passages (53) support belief in reincarnation. This doctrine may be found, subsequent to Biblical times, in Jewish as well as in Christian traditions. Rabbi Manasseh ben Israel (16041657 A.D.), Jewish theologian and statesman, wrote, "The belief or the doctrine of the transmigration of souls is a firm and infallible dogma accepted by the whole assemblage of our church [sic] with one accord, so that there is none to be found who dare to deny it. . . . The truth of it has been incontestably demonstrated by the Zohar, and all the books of the Kabalists." And while modern Jews generally reject this doctrine, rabbis familiar with the spiritual traditions of Judaism do not endorse their rejection. Reincarnation is endorsed in the Shulhan Oruch, which is the major book of laws in the Torah. A student for the rabbinate in Israel has sent me several supportive quotations from this book, including these words from the Sha'ar Hatsiyune, letter 6vav: "That soul will be sent time and time again to this world until he does what God wants him to do." The student said that his rabbi, after reading this letter, could no longer deny the doctrine of reincarnation.

Rabbi Abraham Yehoshua, a Hasidic master who died in 1825, spoke of ten lives that he had lived previously, concluding, "And so I was sent forth again and again in order to perfect my love. If I succeed this time, I shall never return again." (54)

Among famous Westerners who have subscribed to this doctrine, the German philosopher Schopenhauer wrote: "Were an Asiatic to ask me for a definition of Europe, I should be forced to answer him: It is that part of the world which is haunted by the incredible delusion that man was created out of nothing, and that his present birth is his first entrance into life."(55) Voltaire wrote, "It is not more surprising to be born twice than once." And the British philosopher Hume stated that reincarnation is "the only system to which Philosophy can hearken."

According to the doctrine of reincarnation, life on earth is a school containing many grades. The ultimate goal of human experience is graduation from limited, egoic awareness into cosmic consciousness. Stepping stones to this unconditioned awareness are the removal of all confining attachments and desires, the expansion of love, and a growing realization that God is the one underlying Reality of the universe.

The "plot" of the cosmic drama of creation embraces not only biological evolution, but individual, egoic evolution as well. For the ego to achieve ultimate perfection, many lifetimes are needed.

Egoic development begins, just as the outward life forms it assumes do, at the lowest levels of conscious identity. It moves upwards automatically at first, through plant, insect, and animal forms, until at last it reaches the human level.(56) Thereafter evolution ceases to be automatic, for in man's more highly developed brain and nervous system the ego experiences for the first time the ability to exercise discrimination, and thus develops a certain amount of free will. Spiritual evolution from this time onward becomes speeded up, or delayed, or temporarily reversed, according to the caliber of the individual's own efforts.

The results of self-effort are regulated by the law of karma. (Newton's law of action and reaction is a material manifestation of this spiritual law.) According to karmic law, every action, even of thought, engenders its own balancing reaction. For creation, being nothing but a dream of the Creator, can maintain its appearance of separateness from Him only by the illusion of duality. That is to say, the Spirit, One and Indivisible, in creating sets a part of its consciousness into motionlike waves on the surface of the sea,(57) or like the tines of a tuning fork that, to produce sound, move in opposite directions from a state of rest. Because the natural position of the tines is in the middle, no movement in either direction from that point is complete in itself; it must be balanced by an equal and opposite movement.

Karma means, simply, action. Any action implies movement from a point of rest in the Spirit. And such movement inevitably results, sooner or later, in an equal and opposite movement: a reaction in kind. Hatred given, that is to say, results in hatred received. Love given attracts love. Gradually, as the ego develops in wisdom, it learns to allow actions to flow through it without feeling in any sense personally involved with them. The fruits of its actions too, then, cease to affect it. The sage, who represents the pinnacle of spiritual evolution, rests unshaken in the calm center of his being, blissful in the realization that he and the unmoving, Infinite Spirit are One.

Spiritually speaking, karma has different levels of manifestation depending on how clearly it expresses the divine consciousness. Love, for example, is a more spiritual karma than hatred, since it reinforces the awareness of life's essential oneness. Hatred increases the delusion of separateness from God, and from other people. To tell the truth is a more spiritual karma than to tell lies, because truthfulness helps to develop a refined awareness of what really isof the Divine Reality behind all appearances.

Karma, then, may be described as the system of rewards and punishments by which the ego learns ultimately to manifest its innate divine nature. Suffering is the karmic result of action that is, in some way, out of tune with that true nature. Fulfillment is the reward for living, to some degree at least, in harmony with that nature. To learn these lessons thoroughly requires many more opportunities for error and self-correction than can be gained in only one lifetime. Often, indeed, more than one incarnation is needed to learn even one important lesson.

Reincarnation explains wonderfully the enormous inequities of health, intelligence, talent, and opportunity in human life. It is, as Hume stated, "the only system to which Philosophy can hearken."

People often object, "If everyone reincarnates why is it that no one remembers having lived before?" The simple answer is that many do remember! In the West, of course, children claiming such memories soon learn, from the scoldings of their elders, to keep their thoughts to themselves. But even so, a number of well-documented cases have received considerable publicity.(58) Because of my own relatively well-known interest in such things, a number of people through the years have related to me their own experiences with past-life recall.

One such lady told me that she had once played a piece on the piano for a four-year-old boy, a student of hers. Matter-of-factly the child announced, "I know that piece. I used to play it on my violin." Knowing that he had studied only the piano, she questioned him. The boy demonstrated correctly the difficult finger positions and arm movements for playing the violin. "He's never seen a violin before," insisted his mother later. "He's never even heard violin music!"

One of the most interesting accounts of this nature ever to come to my attention was sent to me years ago by a friend in Cuba, where it had been reprinted in the newspapers from an article that appeared first in France. According to the account, a young French girl, the child of devout Catholic parents, had been using recognizably Indian words, such as "rupee," as soon as she was old enough to speak. Two words that she used repeatedly were, "Wardha," and "Bapu." Her parents, intrigued, began reading books on India. Wardha, they learned, was the village where Mahatma Gandhi had established his ashram. And "Bapu" was the familiar nickname by which he was known to his intimate friends and disciples. The child claimed that in her last life she had lived in Wardha with Bapu.

One day someone presented her parents with a copy of Autobiography of a Yogi, in the latter part of which Yogananda describes his visit, in 1936, to Mahatma Gandhi in Wardha. The moment the child saw Yogananda's photograph on the jacket, she cried gleefully, "Oh, that's Yogananda! He came to Wardha. He was very beautiful!"

People who believe they live only once are compelled to compromise their hopes of perfection. Orthodox believers may try to conduct their lives in such a way as to avoid hellfire after death, but most I think, even so, are inclined to ask themselves pragmatically, "How bad can I be and get away with it?"

Belief in the principle of rebirth helps one to view progress joyously, without fear and self-doubt.

"Is there any end to evolution?" a visitor once asked Paramhansa Yogananda.

"No end," the Master replied. "Progress goes on until you achieve endlessness."

At Mt. Washington, reincarnation was a normal part of our way of thinking. We took it quite in stride if ever Master told us, as he sometimes did, about our own or someone else's past lives.

Looking at Jan Savage, aged nine, one day he exclaimed laughingly, "Little Jan is no child. He's still an old man!"

I once told him I had always wanted to live alone. His reply was, "That is because you have done it before. Most of those who are with me have lived alone many times in the past." He made such remarks so casually that it rarely occurred to me to ask him for more information. A few others expressed deeper interest, however, and sometimes Master responded to them quite explicitly.

A few years after Dr. Lewis lost his mother, Master, knowing Doctor's devotion to her, informed him, "She has been reborn. If you go to . . ." he mentioned some address in New England, "you will find her there." Dr. Lewis made the journey.

"It was uncanny," he told me later. "The child was only three years old, but in many of her mannerisms she seemed exactly like my mother. I observed, too, that she took an instantaneous liking to me. It was almost as though she recognized me."

Mrs. Vera Brown visited a theater one evening with Master and a few of the disciples. A little girl in the row ahead of them captured her interest. "I couldn't take my eyes off her," she later told me. "There was something about that child that just fascinated me. I guess it was because she looked so old and wise for her age, and at the same time so sad. Afterwards Master said to me, 'You were interested in that little girl, weren't you?' 'Yes, Sir,' I answered. 'I don't know why, but I found myself watching her the whole time we were there.'

"'In her last life,' Master said, 'she died in a German concentration camp. That is why she looks so sad. But her tragic experiences there, and the compassion she developed as a result of them, have made her a saint. That was the wisdom you saw in her that attracted you so.'"

One day Master was given a newborn baby to hold. "I almost dropped it," he told friends later. "Suddenly I saw in that little, seemingly innocent form, the brought-over consciousness of a murderer."

Discussions on reincarnation sometimes became intensely interesting. One day I asked Master, "Did Judas have any spiritual realization?"

"He had some bad karma, of course," Master replied, "but all the same, he was a prophet."

"He was?" This variation on the common theme of Judas's villainy astonished me.

"Oh, yes," Master asserted emphatically. "He had to be, to be one of the twelve. But he had to go through two thousand years of suffering for his treachery. He was liberated finally in this century, in India. Jesus appeared to a certain master there and asked him to free him. I knew Judas in this life," Master added.

"You did!" Eagerly I pursued the matter. "What was he like?"

"Always very quiet and by himself. He still had a little attachment to money. One day another disciple began poking fun at him for this tendency. But the Master shook his head. 'Don't,' he said quietly. 'Leave him alone.'"

In 1936 Master visited Stonehenge in England. To his secretary, Richard Wright (Daya Mata's brother), he remarked quietly, "I lived here myself thirty-five hundred years ago."

Sometimes he intrigued us with references, always casual, to the past lives of certain well-known public figures. "Winston Churchill," he told us, "was Napoleon. Napoleon wanted to conquer England. Churchill, as England's Prime Minister, has fulfilled that ambition. Napoleon wanted to destroy England. As Churchill he has had to preside over the disintegration of the British Empire. Napoleon was sent into exile, then returned again to power. Churchill, similarly, was sent out of politics, then after some time came back to power again."

It is an interesting fact that Churchill, as a young man, found inspiration in the military exploits of Napoleon.

"Hitler," Master continued, "was Alexander the Great." An interesting point of comparison here is that, in warfare, both Hitler and Alexander employed the strategy of lightning attackblitzkrieg, as Hitler called it. In the Orient, of course, where Alexander's conquests were responsible for the destruction of great civilizations, his appellation, "the Great," is quoted sarcastically.

Master had hoped to reawaken in Hitler Alexander's well-known interest in the teachings of India, and thereby to steer the dictator's ambitions toward more spiritual goals. He actually attempted to see Hitler in 1935, but his request for an interview was denied.

Mussolini, Master said, was Mark Antony. Kaiser Wilhelm was Julius Caesar. Stalin was Genghis Khan.

"Who was Franklin Roosevelt?" I inquired.

"I've never told anybody," Master replied with a wry smile. "I was afraid I'd get into trouble!"

Abraham Lincoln, he informed us, had been a yogi in the Himalayas who died with a desire to help bring about racial equality. His birth as Lincoln was for the purpose of fulfilling that desire. "He has come back again in this century," Master said, "as Charles Lindbergh."

It is interesting to note that the public acclaim that was denied Lincoln, though so richly deserved, came almost effortlessly to Lindbergh. Interestingly, too, after Lindbergh's death a Hawaiian friend of his, Joseph Kahaleuahi, exclaimed, "This is not a small man. This man is like a President." (59) Charles Lindbergh was noted for his interest in Indian philosophy. Perhaps (one wonders), having fulfilled his desire, as a yogi, to work for racial equality, and having rejected, as Lindbergh, the acclaim that was his karmic reward for Lincoln's success, he will once again in his next life become a yogi.

Of more saintly people, Master said that Therese Neumann, the Catholic stigmatist of Konnersreuth, Germany, was Mary Magdalene. "That," he explained to us, "is why she was granted those visions of Christ's crucifixion."

"Lahiri Mahasaya," he once told me at Twenty-Nine Palms, "was the greatest saint of his time. In a previous life he was King Janaka.(60) Babaji initiated him in that golden palace because he had lived in a palace before."

According to another disciple, Master told someone that Lahiri Mahasaya was also the great medieval mystic, Kabir.

"Babaji," Master told us, "is an incarnation of India's greatest prophet, Krishna."

Master then revealed to us that he himself had been Krishna's closest friend and disciple, Arjuna. ("Prince of devotees," the Bhagavad Gita calls him.) We found it easy to believe that he was that mighty warrior. Master's incredible will power, his innate gift of leadership and his enormous physical strength, when he chose to exert it, all pointed to one with the tendencies of an all-conquering hero. Speaking of that incarnation, Master told me, "That is why, in this life, I am so close to Babaji."

Master knew the value of offsetting abstract teachings with these interesting sidelights on reality. The barriers to memory raised between lifetimes to the average person melt away before the man of wisdom. But of course Master's real interest, and ours, lay in our attainment of divine enlightenment. We found that familiarity with the law of reincarnation helped us to deepen our determination to escape the monotonous round of death and rebirth.

It also provided us with occasional insight into our present spiritual difficulties.

Henry Schaufelberger and Ed Harding (another, older, disciple), were distressed for a time at the discovery of a deep-seated, apparently irrational animosity between them.

"That is because you were enemies in a former life," Master explained to Henry, who approached him one day for guidance in the matter. This knowledge helped both the men to understand their problem, and overcome it.

The doctrine of reincarnation is, as I have said, closely related to the law of karma. Sometimes people object, "But what can I learn from suffering, if I don't remember what I did in the past that brought on this suffering?" The answer is that both the act and the karmic consequence thereof reflect overtly a mental tendency that one still carries with him. It is primarily with this tendency that the karmic law deals.

If, for example, out of mercenary greed, I once cheated someone out of his inheritance, and in this life suffer the consequence of that act by losing an inheritance of my own, both my own act and my getting cheated will reflect the underlying fact of my greed. I may have forgotten what it was that I did, but if now I decide that cheating is something that shouldn't happen to anybody, and resolve never, on my part, to cheat anybody, I will have untied one knot, at least, in my own tendency toward greed. There may still be other knots of greed for me to untie. A whole series of other acts, in fact, may have sprung out of that single tendency, each in its own way reinforcing it. If I am wise, therefore, the loss of that inheritance will not only make me reflect on the fact that cheating is wrong; it will inspire me also to trace this question of dishonesty back to its root cause, in greed. I'll conclude that greed itself is a fault, and try to discover and uproot the seeds of this fault in myself. If I am successful in this effort, a nullifying force-field of non-attachment will be set up that will minimize the karmic consequences of any other greedy acts in the past.

The power of karma depends in great measure on the intensity of thought associated with it.

Suppose I have overcome greed, and acquired non-attachment, before I lose that inheritance. In this case, the money I lose may be returned to me unexpectedly. In any case I won't suffer as much.

Patanjali, the ancient exponent of yoga, states in his Yoga Sutras that when avarice is fully overcome, one attracts to himself everything in life that he needs. As Patanjali quaintly put it, "Jewels will come to one in abundance."(61)

It should be understood that the karmic law is quite impersonal. We can learn from our karma if we've a will to. But it is quite possible not to will to. An unwise reaction, for example, to a stolen inheritance would be to try to "get even" with the world by cheating others. One who takes this course will only reinforce the tendency which attracted his misfortune in the first place. Thus he will sow the seeds of still greater suffering in the future.

Dr. Lewis once asked Master why a certain acquaintance had been born with a club foot. "That," Master replied, "is because in his last life he kicked his mother."

Having a club foot in this life probably didn't stir that man to any noble resolution not to kick his present mother. But it must have acted on that tendency indirectly. His mother, after all, as the source of his physical existence, represented to him in a very special way the sacredness of life. When he kicked her, he expressed contempt, in effect, for life itself. His club foot in this incarnation may well have made him, at least in his own eyes, an object of contempt. An unwise reaction to such a self-image would be to hate life more than evera tendency that might be continued for many lives, until in sheer desperation he decided to reform. But if he reacted wisely to this self-image, he might tell himself what a blessing it would be to have a perfect body. Automatically, from such a reaction, would come a respect for life that would make it unlikely that he would treat any future mother so contemptuously.

One benefit of the doctrine of reincarnation is that it helps one to remain humble, concerned rather with attuning himself to God's all-ruling will than with imposing his own petty desires on the universe. A belief in reincarnation helps one to accept more easily that least popular, but most important of ancient injunctions, "Change thyself."

I once had an interesting dream; indeed, it has always seemed to me more than a dream. I saw myself in another life, deeply devoted to a particular friend. He took advantage of my devotion, and treated me with an unkindness that fluctuated between condescension and outright contempt. In time I developed deep feelings of bitterness toward him. As I approached the end of that incarnation, I realized that if I died with this attitude, my bitterness would act as a magnet that would draw us both back into similar, but reversed, circumstances, giving me the opportunity to treat him as unkindly as he had me. And if I treated him so, ensuing bitterness on his part might very possibly reverse our positions once more. Perhaps only a succession of such "return engagements," of gradually diminishing intensity, would enable us at last to work out our love-hate relationshiprather in the way that echoes gradually die out in a valley.

"Why take so long?" I asked myself. "Isn't it possible to escape this web right now? Whatever the lessons my friend needs to learn, surely I, at least, can free myself." Then, from the depths of my heart, I cried, "I forgive him!" At that moment, with an expansion of ineffable relief, I awoke. In that simple act of forgiveness I felt that I had freed myself of some actual karmic burden.

All human life, so the Scriptures of India tell us, is a dream. Its ultimate goal is to help us to learn well our lessons, to overcome our attachments to material limitations, and to realize that all things, seemingly separate and real in themselves, are but manifestations of the one light of God. The highest lesson of all is to learn to love God. The best karma of all is the ability to love Him.

"Sir," Norman once said, rather morosely, to Master, "I don't believe I have very good karma."

"Remember this," Master replied with deep earnestness, "it takes very, very, VERY good karma even to want to know God!"

Through love of God, and only through that love, may one win final release from physical rebirth, and the right to advance to higher spheres of existence. Victory comes not by hating this world, but by beholding God's presence in it everywhere, by paying reverence to the veriest fool as though to a holy shrine.

"You must be very joyous and happy," Master said, "because this is God's dream, and the little man and the big man are all nothing but the Dreamer's consciousness."

(52) The Encyclopedia Britannica calls Origen "The most prominent of all the Church Fathers with the possible exception of Augustine." Origen wrote, of reincarnation, "Is it not reasonable that souls should be introduced into bodies in accordance with their merits and previous deeds?"
Back in context.

(53) "Then Job arose and rent his mantle, and shaved his head, and fell down upon the ground, and worshipped. And said, Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return thither" (i.e., into another womb). (Job 1:20,21)
"But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from old, from everlasting." (Micah 5:2)
"For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if ye will receive it, this is Elias, which was for to come. He that hath ears to hear, let him hear." (Matthew 11:1315)
"And as they came down from the mountain, Jesus charged them, saying, Tell the vision [of his transfiguration, in which he had revealed himself as the Messiah] to no man, until the Son of Man be risen again from the dead. And his disciples asked him, saying, Why then say the scribes that Elias must first come? And Jesus answered and said unto them, Elias truly shall first come, and restore all things. But I say unto you, That Elias is come already, and they knew him not but have done unto him whatsoever they listed. Likewise shall also the Son of Man suffer of them. Then the disciples understood that he spake unto them of John the Baptist." (Matthew 17:913)
"Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out." (Revelation 3:12)
The above passages present a small selection, merely, out of many in the Bible that demonstrate support for the doctrine of reincarnation. Christian traditionalists would be wise to question some of the sources for their own traditions. Do those sources derive from great saints, who knew God? Or are they merely the deductions of rationalists, whose theological conclusions were founded on reason, not on actual spiritual experience?
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(54) Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim, New York, Schocken Books, 1948, p. 118.
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(52) The Encyclopedia Britannica calls Origen "The most prominent of all the Church Fathers with the possible exception of Augustine." Origen wrote, of reincarnation, "Is it not reasonable that souls should be introduced into bodies in accordance with their merits and previous deeds?"
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(55) Parerga and Paralipomena.
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(56) The Hindu Scriptures state that to reach the human level requires from five to eight million incarnations in lower life forms.
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(57) "And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light." (Genesis 1:2,3)
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(58) Books on the subject include, Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation, by Dr. Ian Stevenson; Many Mansions, by Dr. Gina Cerminara; Here and Hereafter, by Ruth Montgomery; and Reincarnation in The Twentieth Century, edited by Martin Ebon. There are many others.
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(59) Readers Digest, December, 1974, p. 258.
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(60) Janaka, though a king, was also one of the great masters of ancient India.
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(61) Yoga Sutras II:37.
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Chapter 29

Copyright 1996 J. Donald Walters (Swami Kriyananda), Trustee

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