Chapter 37: I Go to America
“America! Surely these people are Americans!” This was my thought as a panoramic vision of Western faces passed before my inward view.
Immersed in meditation, I was sitting behind some dusty boxes in the storeroom of the Ranchi school. A private spot was difficult to find during those busy years with the youngsters!
The vision continued; a vast multitude,1 gazing at me intently, swept actor-like across the stage of consciousness.
The storeroom door opened; as usual, one of the young lads had discovered my hiding place.
“Come here, Bimal,” I cried gaily. “I have news for you: the Lord is calling me to America!”
“To America?” The boy echoed my words in a tone that implied I had said “to the moon.”
“Yes! I am going forth to discover America, like Columbus. He thought he had found India; surely there is a karmic link between those two lands!”
Bimal scampered away; soon the whole school was informed by the two-legged newspaper.2 I summoned the bewildered faculty and gave the school into its charge.
“I know you will keep Lahiri Mahasaya’s yoga ideals of education ever to the fore,” I said. “I shall write you frequently; God willing, someday I shall be back.”
Tears stood in my eyes as I cast a last look at the little boys and the sunny acres of Ranchi. A definite epoch in my life had now closed, I knew; henceforth I would dwell in far lands. I entrained for Calcutta a few hours after my vision. The following day I received an invitation to serve as the delegate from India to an International Congress of Religious Liberals in America. It was to convene that year in Boston, under the auspices of the American Unitarian Association.
My head in a whirl, I sought out Sri Yukteswar in Serampore.
“Guruji, I have just been invited to address a religious congress in America. Shall I go?”
“All doors are open for you,” Master replied simply. “It is now or never.”
“But, sir,” I said in dismay, “what do I know about public speaking? Seldom have I given a lecture, and never in English.”
“English or no English, your words on yoga shall be heard in the West.”
I laughed. “Well, dear guruji, I hardly think the Americans will learn Bengali! Please bless me with a push over the hurdles of the English language.”3
When I broke the news of my plans to Father, he was utterly taken aback. To him America seemed incredibly remote; he feared he might never see me again.
“How can you go?” he asked sternly. “Who will finance you?” As he had affectionately borne the expenses of my education and whole life, he doubtless hoped that his question would bring my project to an embarrassing halt.
“The Lord will surely finance me.” As I made this reply, I thought of the similar one I had given long ago to my brother Ananta in Agra. Without very much guile, I added, “Father, perhaps God will put it into your mind to help me.”
“No, never!” He glanced at me piteously.
I was astounded, therefore, when Father handed me, the following day, a check made out for a large amount.
“I give you this money,” he said, “not in my capacity as a father, but as a faithful disciple of Lahiri Mahasaya. Go then to that far Western land; spread there the creedless teachings of Kriya Yoga.“
I was immensely touched at the selfless spirit in which Father had been able to quickly put aside his personal desires. The just realization had come to him during the preceding night that no ordinary desire for foreign travel was motivating my voyage.
“Perhaps we shall not meet again in this life.” Father, who was sixty-seven at this time, spoke sadly.
An intuitive conviction prompted me to reply, “Surely the Lord will bring us together once more.”
As I went about my preparations to leave Master and my native land for the unknown shores of America, I experienced not a little trepidation. I had heard many stories about the materialistic Western atmosphere, one very different from the spiritual background of India, pervaded with the centuried aura of saints. “An Oriental teacher who will dare the Western airs,” I thought, “must be hardy beyond the trials of any Himalayan cold!”
One early morning I began to pray, with an adamant determination to continue, to even die praying, until I heard the voice of God. I wanted His blessing and assurance that I would not lose myself in the fogs of modern utilitarianism. My heart was set to go to America, but even more strongly was it resolved to hear the solace of divine permission.
I prayed and prayed, muffling my sobs. No answer came. My silent petition increased in excruciating crescendo until, at noon, I had reached a zenith; my brain could no longer withstand the pressure of my agonies. If I cried once more with an increased depth of my inner passion, I felt as though my brain would split. At that moment there came a knock outside the vestibule adjoining the Gurpar Road room in which I was sitting. Opening the door, I saw a young man in the scanty garb of a renunciate. He came in, closed the door behind him and, refusing my request to sit down, indicated with a gesture that he wished to talk to me while standing.
“He must be Babaji!” I thought, dazed, because the man before me had the features of a younger Lahiri Mahasaya.
He answered my thought. “Yes, I am Babaji.” He spoke melodiously in Hindi. “Our Heavenly Father has heard your prayer. He commands me to tell you: Follow the behests of your guru and go to America. Fear not; you will be protected.”
After a vibrant pause, Babaji addressed me again. “You are the one I have chosen to spread the message of Kriya Yoga in the West. Long ago I met your guru Yukteswar at a Kumbha Mela; I told him then I would send you to him for training.”
I was speechless, choked with devotional awe at his presence, and deeply touched to hear from his own lips that he had guided me to Sri Yukteswar. I lay prostrate before the deathless guru. He graciously lifted me from the floor. Telling me many things about my life, he then gave me some personal instruction, and uttered a few secret prophecies.
“Kriya Yoga, the scientific technique of God-realization,” he finally said with solemnity, “will ultimately spread in all lands, and aid in harmonizing the nations through man’s personal, transcendental perception of the Infinite Father.”
With a gaze of majestic power, the master electrified me by a glimpse of his cosmic consciousness. In a short while he started toward the door.
“Do not try to follow me,” he said. “You will not be able to do so.”
“Please, Babaji, don’t go away!” I cried repeatedly. “Take me with you!”
Looking back, he replied, “Not now. Some other time.”
Overcome by emotion, I disregarded his warning. As I tried to pursue him, I discovered that my feet were firmly rooted to the floor. From the door, Babaji gave me a last affectionate glance. He raised his hand by way of benediction and walked away, my eyes fixed on him longingly.
After a few minutes my feet were free. I sat down and went into a deep meditation, unceasingly thanking God not only for answering my prayer but for blessing me by a meeting with Babaji. My whole body seemed sanctified through the touch of the ancient, ever-youthful master. Long had it been my burning desire to behold him.
Until now, I have never recounted to anyone this story of my meeting with Babaji. Holding it as the most sacred of my human experiences, I have hidden it in my heart. But the thought occurred to me that readers of this autobiography may be more inclined to believe in the reality of the secluded Babaji and his world interests if I relate that I saw him with my own eyes. I have helped an artist to draw a true picture of the great Yogi-Christ of modern India; it appears in this book.
The eve of my departure for the United States found me in Sri Yukteswar’s holy presence.
“Forget you were born a Hindu, and don’t be an American. Take the best of them both,” Master said in his calm way of wisdom. “Be your true self, a child of God. Seek and incorporate into your being the best qualities of all your brothers, scattered over the earth in various races.”
Then he blessed me: “All those who come to you with faith, seeking God, will be helped. As you look at them, the spiritual current emanating from your eyes will enter into their brains and change their material habits, making them more God-conscious.”
He went on, “Your lot to attract sincere souls is very good. Everywhere you go, even in a wilderness, you will find friends.”
Both of his blessings have been amply demonstrated. I came alone to America, into a wilderness without a single friend, but there I found thousands ready to receive the time-tested soul-teachings.
I left India in August, 1920, on The City of Sparta, the first passenger boat sailing for America after the close of World War I. I had been able to book passage only after the removal, in ways fairly miraculous, of many “red-tape” difficulties concerned with the granting of my passport.
During the two-months’ voyage a fellow passenger found out that I was the Indian delegate to the Boston congress.
“Swami Yogananda,” he said, with the first of many quaint pronunciations by which I was later to hear my name spoken by the Americans, “please favor the passengers with a lecture next Thursday night. I think we would all benefit by a talk on ‘The Battle of Life and How to Fight It.'”
Alas! I had to fight the battle of my own life, I discovered on Wednesday. Desperately trying to organize my ideas into a lecture in English, I finally abandoned all preparations; my thoughts, like a wild colt eyeing a saddle, refused any cooperation with the laws of English grammar. Fully trusting in Master’s past assurances, however, I appeared before my Thursday audience in the saloon of the steamer. No eloquence rose to my lips; speechlessly I stood before the assemblage. After an endurance contest lasting ten minutes, the audience realized my predicament and began to laugh.
The situation was not funny to me at the moment; indignantly I sent a silent prayer to Master.
“You can! Speak!” His voice sounded instantly within my consciousness.
My thoughts fell at once into a friendly relation with the English language. Forty-five minutes later the audience was still attentive. The talk won me a number of invitations to lecture later before various groups in America.
I never could remember, afterward, a word that I had spoken. By discreet inquiry I learned from a number of passengers: “You gave an inspiring lecture in stirring and correct English.” At this delightful news I humbly thanked my guru for his timely help, realizing anew that he was ever with me, setting at naught all barriers of time and space.
Once in awhile, during the remainder of the ocean trip, I experienced a few apprehensive twinges about the coming English-lecture ordeal at the Boston congress.
“Lord,” I prayed, “please let my inspiration be Thyself, and not again the laughter-bombs of the audience!”
The City of Sparta docked near Boston in late September. On the sixth of October I addressed the congress with my maiden speech in America. It was well received; I sighed in relief. The magnanimous secretary of the American Unitarian Association wrote the following comment in a published account 4
of the congress proceedings:
“Swami Yogananda, delegate from the Brahmacharya Ashram of Ranchi, India, brought the greetings of his Association to the Congress. In fluent English and a forcible delivery he gave an address of a philosophical character on ‘The Science of Religion,’ which has been printed in pamphlet form for a wider distribution. Religion, he maintained, is universal and it is one. We cannot possibly universalize particular customs and convictions, but the common element in religion can be universalized, and we can ask all alike to follow and obey it.”
Due to Father’s generous check, I was able to remain in America after the congress was over. Four happy years were spent in humble circumstances in Boston. I gave public lectures, taught classes, and wrote a book of poems, Songs of the Soul, with a preface by Dr. Frederick B. Robinson, president of the College of the City of New York. 5
Starting a transcontinental tour in the summer of 1924, I spoke before thousands in the principal cities, ending my western trip with a vacation in the beautiful Alaskan north.
With the help of large-hearted students, by the end of 1925 I had established an American headquarters on the Mount Washington Estates in Los Angeles. The building is the one I had seen years before in my vision at Kashmir. I hastened to send Sri Yukteswar pictures of these distant American activities. He replied with a postcard in Bengali, which I here translate:
11th August, 1926
Child of my heart, O Yogananda!
Seeing the photos of your school and students, what joy comes in my life I cannot express in words. I am melting in joy to see your yoga students of different cities.
Beholding your methods in chant affirmations, healing vibrations, and divine healing prayers, I cannot refrain from thanking you from my heart.
Seeing the gate, the winding hilly way upward, and the beautiful scenery spread out beneath the Mount Washington Estates, I yearn to behold it all with my own eyes.
Everything here is going on well. Through the grace of God, may you ever be in bliss.
SRI YUKTESWAR GIRI
Years sped by. I lectured in every part of my new land, and addressed hundreds of clubs, colleges, churches, and groups of every denomination. Tens of thousands of Americans received yoga initiation. To them all I dedicated a new book of prayer thoughts in 1929Whispers From Eternity, with a preface by Amelita Galli-Curci.6 I give here, from the book, a poem entitled “God! God! God!”, composed one night as I stood on a lecture platform:
From the depths of slumber,
As I ascend the spiral stairway of wakefulness,
God! God! God!
Thou art the food, and when I break my fast
Of nightly separation from Thee,
I taste Thee, and mentally say:
God! God! God!
No matter where I go, the spotlight of my mind
Ever keeps turning on Thee;
And in the battle din of activity
My silent war cry is ever: God! God! God!
When boisterous storms of trials shriek,
And when worries howl at me,
I drown their clamor, loudly chanting:
God! God! God!
When my mind weaves dreams
With threads of memories,
Then on that magic cloth I find embossed:
God! God! God!
Every night, in time of deepest sleep,
My peace dreams and calls, Joy! Joy! Joy!
And my joy comes singing evermore:
God! God! God!
In waking, eating, working, dreaming, sleeping,
Serving, meditating, chanting, divinely loving,
My soul constantly hums, unheard by any:
God! God! God!
Sometimes (usually on the first of the month when the bills rolled in for upkeep of the Mount Washington and other Self-Realization Fellowship centers!) I thought longingly of the simple peace of India. But daily I saw a widening understanding between West and East; my soul rejoiced.
I have found the great heart of America expressed in the wondrous lines by Emma Lazarus, carved at the base of the Statue of Liberty, the “Mother of Exiles”:
From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
1 Many of those faces I have since seen in the West, and instantly recognized.
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2 Swami Premananda, now the leader of the Self-Realization Church of All Religions in Washington, D.C., was one of the students at the Ranchi school at the time I left there for America. (He was then Brahmachari Jotin.)
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3 Sri Yukteswar and I ordinarily conversed in Bengali.
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4 New Pilgrimages of the Spirit (Boston: Beacon Press, 1921).
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5 Dr. and Mrs. Robinson visited India in 1939, and were honored guests at the Ranchi school.
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6 Mme. Galli-Curci and her husband, Homer Samuels, the pianist, have been Kriya Yoga students for twenty years. The inspiring story of the famous prima donna’s years of music has been recently published (Galli-Curci’s Life of Song, by C. E. LeMassena, Paebar Co., New York, 1945).
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