Who Is Swami Kriyananda?

Who Is Swami Kriyananda?

Unaffected by outward joys and sorrows, or by praise and blame; secure in his divine nature; regarding with equal gaze a clod of mud, a stone, and a bar of gold; impartial toward all experiences, whether pleasant or unpleasant; firm-minded; untouched by either praise or blame; treating everyone alike whether friend or foe; free from the delusion that, in anything he does, he is the doer: Such a one has transcended Nature’s triune qualities.

― The Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 14

Who is Swami Kriyananda? What is he like as a person? Public figures often attract innumerable, usually conflicting, but self-declaredly “authoritative” opinions as to who and what they really are. No one is safe from it. As Swamiji himself has remarked, “The only way to have no one against you is to do nothing!” Kriyananda has done a great deal in his life, and has been outstandingly successful in the doing. His strong personality invites respect—not because he asks for it, but because respect is what people automatically feel for him. Such being the case, it is not surprising that he has also attracted critics, and even enemies. People who have never met him, and who have no actual, first-hand knowledge of him—of his personality, his behavior, his way of interacting with others—have unhesitatingly denounced his supposedly “dictatorial ways,” his greed, his arrogance, and his over-weaning ambition. Whatever people are in themselves, they tend to project onto others, and, if they’ve thought of him at all, have projected onto Swamiji. Some have done so with their own pet peeves and weaknesses. Swami Kriyananda is, to them, an “authority figure,” and (as they may tell you with a wink), “We all know what that means!”

This very book is being written for people who would like to know the real story of this remarkable person. Those of us who have known him for many years and have been close to him, who have seen him “offstage,” so to speak, in those relaxed and intimate moments when a person is most likely to reveal himself as he really is, feel that we can speak with greater authority on this subject than can anyone else in the world—with the possible exception of true spiritual masters who can read a person’s nature to its very depths. (In that context, it may be added that the people who have spoken of him with the highest praise have, in fact, been those very spiritual masters.)

I can, from a humbler perspective, speak for myself. In doing so, I know I speak also for many hundreds—perhaps thousands—of others. From the first time I heard Swamiji lecture in 1969, I could feel such integrity in his nature that I knew he personally lived everything he was teaching. That first impression has been proved true after all these years.

Even Swamiji’s physical appearance radiates integrity and inner strength, products of a lifetime of spiritual discipline and dedication. Many people are first impressed by his distinctive bearing—his erect head, straight spine, and expanded chest, yet for all that completely relaxed—reflections of the deep practice of meditation and Kriya Yoga. His gestures and movements express also a natural grace and poise which radiate outward from his center.

Kriyananda’s gaze is invariably calm, direct, kindly, and without guile. Whether delivering a lecture to thousands, blessing one individual, or listening to a question from a child, the look in Swamiji’s sparkling blue eyes is one of wisdom, compassion, and peace. A man who met him while attending one of his first yoga classes in San Francisco said, “When I originally met Swamiji and saw the kindness in his eyes I knew that he was my best friend. Though I haven’t had the chance to speak with him a lot over the years, whenever I’m needing help, I visualize his eyes and can feel his love and guidance in my heart.”

Swamiji’s youthful-looking countenance and vibrant energy belie his age, and people are often surprised to learn how old he really is. Once when he was giving a television interview in Rome, Italy, the interviewer asked him, “Would you mind telling us your age?”

“I’m fifty years old,” was the unhesitating reply.

“Why, that’s indecent!” the Italian exclaimed, half humorously. “There aren’t even any wrinkles on your forehead. No one your age has a right to look so youthful!”

Though born of American parents, Kriyananda’s features have such a universal cast that he has often been mistaken for a native of whatever country he’s visiting—whether it be Italy, England, France, Kashmir, or Mexico. This is doubly true when people hear him speaking fluently in their own language. In Florence, Italy, Swamiji and a group of his American friends entered a small shop one day to purchase a few items. The shopkeeper took him aside and asked him in Italian, “I know you’re Italian, but where are these others from?” Another shopkeeper, who knew Swamiji in Bastia, Italy, heard him speaking with a few American friends, and exclaimed, “Say, you speak good English!”

Sometimes this impression of being a native has been amusing. When he was visiting Canada on one occasion, a man came up to him and inquired, ”Aren’t you… (he paused a moment, trying to remember where he’d seen him before)… the director of the Winnipeg Ballet?” Swamiji later commented somewhat wryly that perhaps he’d given this impression because he was wearing a beret at the time.

The truth is, Kriyananda is at home in himself wherever he is. He seems perfectly comfortable, therefore, everywhere. One of the earliest songs he wrote, which has been performed countless times by Ananda singing groups, is called “Brothers.” It contains the line: “Who knows himself knows all men as brothers.” In this spirit Swamiji has been able to bring people of many nations together in World Brotherhood Colonies.

His demeanor reflects an “Old World” refinement, coupled with unaffected dignity. A family friend from his high school days in Scarsdale, New York, remembers him this way: “He always seemed different from his brothers and from other boys. He was like a young prince: quiet, thoughtful, and, yes, noble.” Swami Kriyananda’s manner of speech is gracious and cultivated, indicating a keen intellect and a ready wit. When dressed in Western attire, his clothes express simple good taste and a love of beautiful colors and harmony. Once, after listening to a piece of classical music by Mozart, Kriyananda commented to a little group of us, “He was such a consummate artist. He never sacrificed integrity for showmanship.”

After a life in the public eye, many people would be tempted to some extent to feel their own importance. Swamiji’s manner, however, has remained true to his nature—humble, with a child-like simplicity. On one occasion, after a large spiritual gathering, a guest with whom he was conversing asked him his name. When he told her, she exclaimed: “Swami Kriyananda! But—you’re famous!”

“Well, maybe,” he replied, “but why that word, ‘but’?”

“Well, all the famous people I’ve ever met seem important. You seem so—I don’t know—normal.”

Swamiji has often quoted that exchange with a twinkle in his eye. Reflecting his lack of any sense of self-importance, he once said, “Increasingly I feel that ‘Kriyananda’ is just an event for which I am responsible.”

Over the years of building Ananda he has worn his innate air of authority and leadership lightly and naturally, never “lording it” over anyone. A few years ago he remarked to a few friends, “I recently received a letter from an Ananda member saying how impressed he was by my ability to accomplish things and to lead others. He needs to understand that I’m no different from anyone else—I’ve just been doing it a little longer.”

Another one of Kriyananda’s physical qualities that people invariably comment on is his voice, both when speaking and singing. It reverberates with a spiritual power mingled with expansiveness, joy, and peace, seeming to resonate from a higher level of consciousness. Hearing him chant often awakens in others a devotion for God that can be life changing. Someone once commented, “When I heard Swamiji leading Master’s chant, ‘Door of My Heart,’ for the first time, I felt a love for God welling up in my heart that I’d been trying to find for a long time.” Yogananda said to him one day after hearing him sing, “You have a beautiful voice.” During his early years in India, whenever he visited the saint, Ananda Moyi Ma, she would ask him to chant for her. “Your bhav (spiritual feeling) is beautiful,” she once said to him.

Because he is able to lecture in different languages, it sometimes happens that people hear him deliver a speech in a tongue they don’t understand. Nevertheless, his voice carries the vibrations of his thoughts and consciousness, and thus inspires even those who don’t get the literal meaning of his words.

His voice has also been known to have healing power. When he was in the hospital in 1992 following hip-replacement surgery, it was necessary for him to be in a wheelchair for several days. During this time, he asked some of us to take him around the hospital corridors for a change of scene. One of the wards on his floor was for elderly, chronically ill patients. In this ward, lined up along the hallway, Swamiji found people passing their days slumped in wheelchairs in an almost subconscious state, staring vacantly into space. He approached many of these patients, and said to each of them in a voice resonant with strength and kindness the simple phrase, “Good morning!” Within a short time they began to awaken from their subconscious slumber, clear away the mental confusion from their eyes, and then replied in voices unaccustomed to speech, “Good morning.” Their transformation seemed miraculous.

Some of my fondest memories from the community’s early days are the times when a group of us would travel with Swamiji on a lecture tour. We usually stayed in the homes of friends along the way. Swamiji would be given the guest room, and the rest of us would unroll our sleeping bags on the living room floor. In the morning, Swamiji would be standing in the living room saying in his clear, loving voice: “Good morning, great souls!” At first, we’d look around to see whom he was addressing, and then we realized that we were the only ones in the room. Eventually, we even came to believe him—not that we were great as individuals, but that in our souls we were children of God. It was in that spirit that he addressed us, and always thought of us.

Kriyananda’s life has been continually filled with setbacks and challenges. Often it is at such times that a person’s true character is revealed. Jyotish shared a story from the time in 1967 when he was helping Swamiji to put up the first dome at the Meditation Retreat: “After working all weekend to assemble the dome, we were just putting the last section into place when the whole thing collapsed around us. There was nothing left to do but have dinner and crawl into our sleeping bags for the night. I was feeling very sad for Swamiji, knowing how hard he’d worked on that dome. We were camping out on the ground, and my sleeping bag was about fifteen feet away from his. In the morning, I heard him repeating a few words quietly to himself. Not wanting to intrude on what I thought must be words of disappointment, I started to meditate. Then I heard him whisper to himself: ‘Joy, joy, joy!’ That experience had a deep impact on me.”

Paramhansa Yogananda encouraged his disciples to be “even-minded and cheerful” at all times. Kriyananda’s natural response during adversity shows a consciousness well accustomed to this practice. In 1970 the first temple dome at the Meditation Retreat burned to the ground. Swamiji happened to enter a nearby shop later in the day. He entered joyfully singing one of his own songs, “There’s Joy in the Heavens.” The shop owner, astonished to see him in good spirits, exclaimed: “You’re singing!” With a twinkle of humor in his eyes, Kriyananda replied “Well, I’ve lost a temple; I haven’t lost my voice!”

“My goodness, when my house burned down, I cried for six months!”

Another story about his ability to laugh during misfortune occurred when Swamiji and a few of us were driving up into the mountains near Lake Tahoe, California to go skiing. He was driving his own car, an old model bought at a government surplus outlet. As we reached the snowline, we had to stop and put chains on the tires. Swamiji applied the brakes a little too quickly, not realizing that the tires had been worn smooth. The car went into a tailspin across the icy pavement, finally coming to rest head on against the side of a large bus parked along the road.

After determining that no one had been hurt, we all jumped out to assess the damages. The car had been totaled! Without missing a beat, Swamiji looked up at the bus, which was unscathed, and saw that it was headed for our skiing destination. Enthusiastically he said, “Let’s unload our bags and board the bus!” After making arrangements for the car to be towed away, we all happily climbed on board. A passenger in the front row commiserated with him, “What a pity! You’ve totaled your car!” Swamiji replied cheerfully, “In a week I’d feel just fine about this. Why waste a whole week?” We all had a lovely weekend.

We’ve often been amazed at his ability to maintain his equanimity—even in places like a dentist’s chair. Swamiji never takes anesthetics during dental work, and sometimes the dentist himself is hesitant to proceed, knowing how much pain is involved. Kriyananda told us, “Of course I feel the pain, but I hold my mind at the spiritual eye and experience pain only as a neutral sensation. Anyway,” he concluded mischievously, “a little pain never hurt anyone.”

Recently in Italy Swamiji broke one of his front teeth while eating a particularly hard piece of bread. The dentist told him it would take several visits to repair the tooth. First, he said, he must extract and kill the nerve, then implant a post in what remained of the tooth, and then finally cement the broken part firmly in place. Swamiji said to him, “Doctor, I don’t want to make several visits. Please, just do it all in one session.”

“Without anesthetic,” the dentist replied, “the procedure will be very painful.” Swamiji simply told him to go ahead.

At the end of the one-hour procedure, Kriyananda said, “During the operation I thought, ‘I’ve led a long life. This is just one hour of pain, compared to the many more happy hours I’ve lived. Why, I thought, concentrate on this short span of time?’ Experiencing it in this spirit, it didn’t really bother me at all.”

Another aspect of Swamiji’s character which is well worth mentioning is his deep sense of integrity and honesty. We’ve observed that he will honor his word even in small details. He’s told us, “If I’ve said that I’m going to do a thing, even something insignificant like buying a newspaper, and it later becomes inconvenient to do so, I still make it a point to do it. I try always to align my actions to my words.” How many times he’s gone out of his way to honor this principle for truly important commitments, no matter what the obstacles or the personal sacrifice!

Once Swamiji was scheduled to give a lecture in Paris as part of a European tour. He’d been ill with the flu before flying over from Ananda Village, and when he arrived in Paris he was still feeling weak. Unfortunately, the person responsible for setting up the talk in Paris had done nothing to promote it. When Swamiji arrived at the hall that evening, he found only one person present to hear him speak. We, knowing how tired he was, encouraged him to cancel the lecture and go rest. Swamiji replied firmly, “No. I said that I would give a talk on Master tonight. This man has come to hear me. I must speak.” He sat down next to the man, and the two of them talked informally and joyfully for over an hour about Swamiji’s years with his guru.

What is Swamiji like personally—with friends, strangers, and even with his self-styled enemies? Expressing an all-inclusive friendship, Kriyananda mentally embraces everybody in his aura of sincere warmth and joy. His delightful sense of humor—always laughing with others, never at them—puts everyone quickly at ease. He has often quoted a Christian saint who said, “A sad saint is a sad saint indeed.”

While a schoolboy in England, Swamiji was introduced to the comical stories of the British humorist, P.G. Wodehouse, whose fan he has been ever since. At community parties, Swamiji has many times read these stories to us, depicting the different characters with appropriate accents. People laugh until the tears run down their cheeks. For many of us, Swamiji’s deep, heart-felt laughter while reading is the most delightful part of all.

He has written a number of songs for the children in Ananda’s schools, of which one is called, “All the World is My Friend.” Of the thousands of people that Swamiji has known, many feel they have a unique personal friendship with him, yet one that is all the more precious for being impersonal in God. He said once to an old friend, “You know, even though I feel close to everyone, I’m not especially close to anyone.” Then he added, “I’m not even especially close to myself.”

Considerate and tactful, Swamiji tries to correct and guide others in their spiritual growth without hurting or discouraging them. Once someone wrote to my husband and me a letter critical of us and of our way of directing a certain aspect of Ananda. We were hurt by his words, which seemed to us unfair, but since we were about to attend a community Christmas celebration, we decided to say nothing about it to Swamiji until later.

As soon as he saw us at the gathering, however, he immediately asked, “What’s wrong?” After we’d explained about the letter, we asked him in humility, “Swamiji, we want to do the right thing. Please tell us, are the things he wrote about us true?” After reflecting a moment he said, “You’re doing the best you can for who you are.” Trying to pin him down, I pressed further, “Well, was he wrong in writing the letter?” With wisdom inclusive of everybody’s reality, he answered, “He’s doing the best he can for who he is.” Then with a twinkle of warmth and understanding in his eyes, he concluded, “And I’m doing the best I can for who I am.” We were healed and blessed by that guidance, and have often quoted this story to others over the years.

Swamiji’s sensitivity and concern for others often reaches out to them, unasked for, when they are in need. An Ananda member told me a beautiful story in this regard. I’d mentioned to her that Kriyananda had phoned us to discuss a project we were working on. She said thoughtfully, “He’s never called us. No, that’s not true. He did once. One evening, my husband and I had a big argument. We were really mad at each other, and we went to bed without speaking. In the morning, we wanted to make up, but neither one of us knew how to take the first step. Then the phone rang. It was Swamiji. All he said to us was, ‘I want to thank you both for your beautiful spirit.’ His love dissolved the block between us, and we smiled at each other with love and forgiveness.”

Swamiji’s friendship for all includes also a deep sense of generosity. He has personally hired and paid the salary to people who were not able to hold a job, in order to help them get back on their feet. For a woman who dressed in drab, unbecoming clothes, he bought a lovely dress to encourage in her a sense of self-worth. When an old acquaintance repeatedly asked him for money, Swamiji readily gave it him, though the man never expressed gratitude or appreciation for the help.

Even if he’s been unwell, he often insists on going out to buy a birthday or wedding present for others. Carefully making his selection, he takes time to pick out something that the person will enjoy. Once he commented to us, “When I’m selecting a gift, I always consider two things: will the person enjoy receiving it, and will I enjoy giving it.” Often while visiting Ananda members throughout the world, when I’ve commented on a particularly lovely item in their home, the reply I receive has been, “Swamiji gave it to me.”

Kriyananda’s warmth and kindliness awakens friendship even in strangers and casual acquaintances. Jyotish recounts a story that happened when Swamiji was in New York to speak at a spiritual conference: “We were staying in a big hotel that had a lot of shops on the ground floor. During our free time, Swamiji and I would go into some of these stores and browse. We made several visits to one shop that sold electronic equipment; Swamiji was thinking of buying a small tape recorder to play music at Ananda’s booth during the conference. Whenever we visited that shop, Swamiji would chat pleasantly with the owner. Their conversations were limited to the topic of recording equipment. On the last day of the conference, we went in to this shop to exchange something, and Swamiji told the owner that we would be leaving the next day. Though the man knew nothing about Swamiji, and had only spoken to him three times, there were tears in his eyes. ‘I feel like I’m losing my best friend,’ he said. ‘Could I please have your picture to put up in my shop?’”

Swamiji’s patience and forgiveness towards others who err reflects a deep desire to help them no matter how long it takes. In training us to work with others, he has told us, “It’s very important to let people make their own mistakes. That’s how they learn. In building Ananda, I’ve often let others do things that I knew wouldn’t work, because I knew that they would grow in the process.”

Once a small boy at Ananda had misbehaved, causing his parents to reprimand him. Tearfully the lad came to Kriyananda and asked, “Swamiji, do you like bad people?”

“I like bad people,” he replied with eyes filled with tenderness, “but I don’t always like the bad things they do.”

Even with people who have consciously tried to thwart or hurt him, Swamiji responds with kindness, and has never attempted to strike back. Once a tough-looking man who was an ex-member of a motorcycle gang came to Ananda. Swamiji, feeling that he was sincere spiritually, befriended him and encouraged him to stay. He gave him the name, Ram Lila, meaning “God’s play.” After a time, Ram Lila became restless, left the community, and began to spread malicious lies and gossip about Swamiji. A year later during a public gathering, where Swamiji was speaking before several hundred people, Ram Lila returned and stood in the back, looking repentant. “Ram Lila, come here,” Swamiji called out to this burly, barrel-chested man. The man came forward, hanging his head in remorse, and stood before Swamiji, who sweetly said to him, “Ram Lila, you’ve been a bad boy.”

“I know, Swamiji, I’ll never do it again.” Kriyananda lovingly blessed him. The man didn’t remain at Ananda, but he has been a loyal friend ever since.

SRF and its leaders have tried repeatedly, over the past forty years, to destroy him, yet Swamiji has never responded with the intention of harm toward them. Rather he has presented them to others in the best possible light. Even when he was under legal attack by SRF, he defended himself honorably, and never went on the offensive, nor turned his energy against them even mentally. “No matter how they treat me,” he said, “I’m simply happier if I love them.”

With his ability to inspire and uplift others, many have approached Swamiji and asked to be his disciple. He’s never accepted the role of guru, but always directs people’s devotion to Yogananda. Once an Ananda member asked him: “How should we relate to you, Swamiji? You’re certainly a friend, but to many of us, you’re so much more than that. How can we draw from you on a level not based in personality?”

His reply was profound: “What I aspire to be is a channel for the only true Friend any of us will ever have: God alone. I see each of you, too, as channels for my Infinite Friend. Whatever I can give you comes through me by Master’s grace. Only to the extent that I can attune myself with him do I receive the grace to help you truly on the path. The more your own faith and attunement goes to our true source in him, and beyond him to God, the more greatly you will be able to receive.”

Swamiji recently said, “Since my first meeting with my Guru, I’ve tried to guide all my actions by the question, ‘What would Master do? What would Master say?’ Now, I find that even this isn’t enough. My one desire is to have every thought, every feeling reflect only his consciousness.”

So, who is Swami Kriyananda? Like a bubble, his personality is diaphanous, a transparent veil that covers his true identity: a soul joyfully united with the infinite love of his Guru.

--Excerpted from Faith Is My Armor by Nayaswami Devi

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