One of the most urgent needs in the world today is for the major religions to be presented from a perspective of the truths they have in common, and not of the teachings which, their proponents insist, make them unique. Much energy has been directed through books and sermons toward demonstrating the superiority of one religion over all others: of Christianity, because it holds that Jesus Christ is the world’s Savior; of Islam, because it offers Mohammed to the faithful as the prophet of Allah; of Buddhism, because only those who follow the way of the Buddha can win release from the cycle of death and rebirth. These claims are mutually exclusive, and have discouraged many conscientious people from considering religion as even central to the needs of humanity. Indeed, so many people scoff at religion nowadays that civilization is beginning to resemble a ship that, on the point of crashing against the rocks (in civilization’s case, of global disaster), has lost its rudder.
There is, however, another aspect to religion: not divisive, but unitive. Indeed, there are numerous points on which all religions are agreed: the issue, for example, of what constitutes right action. No religion considers it a virtue to lie, or steal, or harm others. All religions, moreover, preach some variant of the Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Virtue is recommended in other areas besides religion, of course, if only as being socially desirable. In none of these areas, however, is guidance given for developing virtue, and in none of them is primary attention given to uplifting human consciousness.
For these reasons, religion deserves recognition as the very cornerstone of civilization. Without it, society would sink into a morass of cynicism, selfishness, matter-worship, and violence. Far from being "the opiate of the people," as Karl Marx claimed, religion gives mankind the ultimate cure for its age-old addiction to "opiates" of all kinds: alcohol, drugs, money, sense-pleasure.
How sad it is, then, that religion has become one of the most neglected, not to say belittled, of human concerns! Such disdain would not exist had religion not undergone virtual mummification by the skilled application of unprovable dogmas, and been enclosed in the coffin of wooden sectarianism. Dogmas are not to blame for this evil, for they are simply definitions of beliefs. Dogmatism, however, is another matter altogether. Its narrow emphasis stifles intelligence. Sectarianism moreover, which quickly follows, alienates people from one another, stifles their sympathies, and encourages meanness of spirit with the presumed sanction of scripture.
Yet religion has the potential to unite all humanity in the highest ideals. When religion is lived rightly, it expands people’s sympathies and encourages them to embrace all, however different their customs and beliefs.
Nowadays, as the peoples of different cultures come into increasing contact with one another, those who identify truth with principles rather than with limited forms and definitions find it less than edifying to be told that one religion alone is true, and all others false. Blindly dogmatic statements have caused many to back off from religion altogether and to seek substitutes for religion in the sciences, or in politics, or in ecology.
For human nature needs some ideal toward which it can aspire. The search for perfection on earth proves, however, in the end, illusory. "Votaries" at those shrines find themselves left at last merely with arid hearts.
The chief purpose of religion is the upliftment of human consciousness. This inner transformation manifests spontaneously as virtue, for it makes people naturally kind, humble, and compassionate. Without inner upliftment, however, virtue itself becomes little but a pose practiced at convenience—or else ignored, equally at convenience.
It is urgently necessary in our time to promote understanding among the world’s religions. Religious leaders need to treat one another as colleagues, not as rival vendors in an outdoor market where people hawk their wares while shouting accusations of unfair competition at one another. Only by mutual appreciation for each other’s spiritual sincerity can people be inspired to pull themselves out of the morass of irreligion. Whether Jesus be the only Savior, or Mohammed, or Buddha, one may safely assume that those great teachers will be better pleased with even the so-called "heathen" if he is kind and considerate of others, and if he loves truth and God, than they will with their own followers who, though shouting dogmatic slogans, are cruel and demonstrate a willingness to deceive others in dealing with them.
Jesus Christ said, "Why say ye Lord, Lord, and do not the things that I say?" And when his disciples reprimanded a certain man for casting out devils in his name, Jesus reprimanded them, in turn, saying, "Forbid him not … for he that is not against us is with us." (Mark 9:39,40)
Unity in spiritual matters is, for all these reasons, urgently needed today.
It was in furtherance of this ideal that a historic event occurred near the end of the Nineteenth Century, in the Indian Himalaya. A great spiritual master, Mahavatar Babaji, requested a spiritual "grandson" of his named Swami Sri Yukteswar—a disciple of his own foremost disciple—to write a book with the aim of explaining certain passages in the Bible and the Bhagavad Gita, to demonstrate the essential unanimity of teaching in those scriptures. The purpose of this commission was to further people’s understanding of the universality of truth.
Swami Sri Yukteswar wrote his book in 1894, calling it Kaivalya Darsanam, or, in English, The Holy Science. The English edition is subtitled, "An Exposition of Final Truth" (which is the literal translation of its Bengali title). The Holy Science is still in print; it is published by Self-Realization Fellowship in Los Angeles, California. The book contains fewer than a hundred pages: a small volume, considering its extraordinary depth. Indeed, much of what it contains is not easy to grasp by the average reader, who has to have new ideas spelled out for him so as to bridge the gap between them and his own usual understanding of things. It should be added, however, that The Holy Science was not such a bridge. It did, however, play a seminal role in the development of Babaji’s plan, which was to bring East and West together in a spirit of understanding and cooperation.
Sri Yukteswar passed on that ideal to his foremost disciple, Paramhansa Yogananda, who is widely known today through his spiritual classic, Autobiography of a Yogi . The training this young disciple received was aimed at the dissemination of ancient insights in Western countries, and from the West on throughout the modern world.
Yogananda’s mission was not to Indianize the West, as a number of teachers from India have tried to do, but to uplift it spiritually within the context of its own culture. He reminded Jews and Christians alike of their deep roots in ancient meditative practices.
Meditation, Paramhansa Yogananda explained, exerts a positive influence on every aspect of one’s life. By inner calmness and concentration, one can be successful in anything he attempts. Modern men and women, adopting his teachings, soon found themselves more deeply aware of God’s guidance in their lives. They found also that they became better businessmen, musicians, carpenters, home-makers, scientists. Above all, they became happier, more fulfilled human beings. In the higher teachings of yoga they discovered a science that was rooted in provable truths, and not the vague mysticism that so often passes among Westerners for "Eastern wisdom."
Yogananda sought practical ways of instilling the truth of his teachings in society at all levels. To fulfill this aim it would, he realized, be necessary for the entire social structure to be transformed. His vision therefore expanded beyond present horizons to include schools, spiritual communities, a "Yoga Institute," an annual congress of religions to which he planned to invite "delegates from all lands." He suggested guidelines for businessmen based on a spirit of service rather than on a desire for personal gain. He created businesses to support his projected communities, and saw them also as models to demonstrate the validity of the guidelines he proposed for businesses everywhere. He wrote music; sponsored concerts; proposed architecture as a means of giving outward definition to spiritual concepts. He even expressed creativity in several inventions, to show that creative expression is a valid aspect of the spiritual life and is not inimical to it.
It was not possible, of course, for all of his projects to bear fruit during his lifetime, extraordinarily productive though his life was. His vision went far into the future. The ideas he expressed, and the numerous ventures he proposed (some of which he actually attempted), were seeds of energy that he planted for future germination. As he himself put it, "I am sowing these ideas in the ether, in the spirit of God."
One of his early ventures in America was to found a school for children based on the principles he’d already developed in a school for boys in Ranchi, India. America, however, was not ripe for this project, and he was obliged to abandon it for the time being. Nevertheless, he often spoke of the importance of education to the spread of his ideals. Indeed, as the child grows, so does the adult proclaim himself. First, however, as Yogananda confided to me personally, the parents would need to be converted to the truths he taught. Only then would they send their children to his schools.
Another of his efforts was the creation of small, non-monastic communities where spiritually minded men and women would share harmoniously in the quest for God, inspire one another, and offer examples to others of how people can guide their lives by high ideals. This concept harked back to the early communitarian experiments in America.
He was successful in founding several monasteries of the more traditional kind. Americans, however, were not yet ready to embrace his communitarian project. On countless occasions, nevertheless, having seen the great strain people endure under the stresses of modern life, Yogananda urged all who could do so to live dedicated lives together, when the time proved right, in simple, rustic surroundings.
Always, his central teaching was spiritual upliftment. For he emphasized that no earthly Eden can ever satisfy the soul’s hunger for divine fulfillment. He therefore emphasized the importance above all of meditation and inner communion. To this end he taught meditation techniques, especially those central to the ancient science of yoga.
In furtherance of his spiritual mission, Yogananda continued the task given by Babaji to Sri Yukteswar, to show the underlying oneness of the Holy Bible and the Bhagavad Gita. "I was sent to the West," Yogananda explained, "to emphasize original Christianity as taught by Jesus Christ, and original yoga as taught by Krishna." A visitor once said in my presence, "You’ve called yours a â€˜Church of All Religions.’ Why, then, do you confine yourself to explaining only Christianity and the teachings of Hinduism? Why not other religions as well?" The Master replied simply, "Because that was the wish of Babaji."
Pondering his reply, I’ve come to realize that a detailed study of the world’s religions would provoke only intellectual interest, but would not inspire people to develop spiritual love and intuitive understanding. It may be also that Hinduism and Christianity are the two religions best suited by tradition to the practice of inner communion with God. Yogananda tried, at the same time, to show that the quest for divine truth is the essence of all religions.
In pursuance of this purpose, he wrote separate commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita and the Holy Bible. In his Bible commentaries he concentrated primarily on the teachings of Jesus Christ, though quoting extensively also from the Old Testament. He wrote commentaries in addition on the Books of Genesis and Revelation. The reason for treating the Bible and the Bhagavad Gita separately was that the first need was for an in-depth explanation of each scripture. Side-by-side comparisons of the two scriptures would have to come later.
The present book is an attempt to address that further need, though far from exhaustively. Originally this book was intended for week-by-week study over the course of one year. The more deeply I delved into the subject, however, the more evident it became to me that these scriptures, even taking them one passage at a time, are so deep that a whole lifetime would not suffice to plumb their depths. Thus, my hope is that this relatively little book (long of course, however, by modern standards) will provide not only food for the intellect, but inspiration for the soul.
Paramhansa Yogananda told me when I was twenty-three, "Your job will be writing and lecturing." Other tasks have evolved indirectly out of that commission, for anything I wrote needed the validation of first-hand experience. In 1968 I founded a community, which I named Ananda Village, in fulfillment of his communitarian ideal. Shortly thereafter I also founded a school, where the children of community members, and others also, might be instructed in the principles developed by Yogananda in India. Later, with this experience for a basis, I wrote a book, Education for Life, to elaborate on his educational ideas and on our application of them.
When my guru told me that my job was writing, I expressed surprise. "Sir," I exclaimed, "haven’t you already written all that needs to be said?"
The narrowness of my vision astonished him, in turn. "Don’t say that!" he replied. "Much more is needed."
This book is one of many endeavors to carry out that commission. (I’ve written over seventy books so far, and composed over 400 works of music.) An earlier version of the present book was written for Sunday morning services at Ananda. The present work represents a considerable expansion of that earlier one.
I have done my best in these pages to refrain from offering any opinion of my own. Instead, it has been my aim to present in depth the teachings I received from my guru—through his written works, his public lectures, his informal talks with a few of us disciples, and his lengthy discussions with me personally. This book does, however, contain insights of my own—not, be it noted, my opinions—gained over a lifetime as his disciple. For it is the duty of the disciple to do more than repeat his guru’s words. Yogananda himself said that disciples cannot but filter their gurus’ teachings according to their own spiritual understanding.
In Autobiography of a Yogi Paramhansa Yogananda wrote concerning the life of Lahiri Mahasaya (the guru of Sri Yukteswar) that the great guru often said to his disciples: "I will guide your thoughts, that the right interpretation be uttered." The account continued, "In this way, many of Lahiri Mahasaya’s perceptions came to be recorded, with voluminous commentaries, by various students." For many years now, I have prayed sincerely to my own guru, "May everything I say express only your insight."
In all my books I have done my best to attune myself to his consciousness. The present book was, in the above sense, written through me, rather than by me. Many of the insights it contains had never occurred to me before. Often, indeed, thrilled by their clarity and simplicity, I have found myself exclaiming, "How true! And how beautiful!"
Everything in this book is consistent, moreover, with Paramhansa Yogananda’s actual words and writings. It is, I therefore repeat, not really my book. My own contribution has been to marshal thoughts that he expressed from time to time on these subjects, and to bring selected passages from the two scriptures together in such a way as to show that they parallel one another. My goal has been, in my own small way, to continue the commission originally given by Babaji to Swami Sri Yukteswar, which Sri Yukteswar then passed on to Paramhansa Yogananda, and which it will be others’ responsibility in future generations to continue sharing with the world.
I have not limited myself to my guru’s specific writings on these subjects (the reader may go to his books for that), but have drawn from and assembled countless memories of things he said, wrote elsewhere, and did that might give a fuller dimension to his published writings.
Such, indeed, is the duty of the sincere disciple: to present his guru’s teachings in such a way as to show them, as much as possible, in all their subtlety and variety. Thus, may they reach an ever-wider and more enlightened audience.