Swami Kriyananda Turns 86, Launching Long-Awaited Biography of Paramhansa Yogananda on June 24 in Los Angeles
Swami Kriyananda has been a leading spiritual luminary in the West for more than 60 years. He is one of the last living direct disciples of Paramhansa Yogananda, who brought yoga to the West in the 1920s. Swamiji recently celebrated his 86th birthday at a celebration at Ananda Village in northern California. His new book, Paramhansa Yogananda: A Biography With Personal Reflections & Reminiscences, has recently won the 2012 International Book Award for Best New Spirituality Book. We extend our congratulations to him on that success and thank him for this exclusive interview—and Happy Birthday! – SH
TLC: When and where did you first meet Yogananda?
SK: I met him in September 1948, in Los Angeles.
TLC: How did that come about? What were the circumstances?
SK: This is a long story. I had been intensely seeking Truth, which I finally came to identify as God. I wanted to go to some jungle, perhaps in South America, and live there in seclusion as a hermit.
God made my decision easier by having my father’s company send him to Egypt, there to explore for oil. My mother went there several months later, to join him.
The very day I put her on the ship, I went uptown in New York, to a bookstore on Fifth Avenue, and there I found Autobiography of a Yogi, by Paramhansa Yogananda. It changed my life.
After reading it, I took virtually the first bus to California. My first words, on meeting him, were, “I want to be your disciple.” He accepted me, and I’ve been following him ever since.
Did you have a background in spiritual studies, or was he the first doorway for you?
No, no background at all. My search had been mental.
What attracted you? What were you looking for?
I had come to realize that I needed help. But I’d never met anyone whose help I wanted. When I read his book, I knew, “This is the man!”
What was your personal background? Where were you born and educated?
My father was a geologist for Esso. My parents were both American, but I was born in Romania. My first thirteen years were spent in Europe. I went to school in Switzerland and England, but my home was still Romania.
What was your first time with the master like?
You are asking questions that would require a whole book, each, to answer! I will only say that they were fantastic. Incidentally, I have written a book that answers all these questions. It is called, The New Path. It has won two prestigious awards.
Was there an ashram in Los Angeles where you all lived? Who was there living together?
Yes, it was on Mt. Washington. It still is.
What was a typical day like at the ashram?
We got up early, meditated on our own, exercised, ate, worked. In the evening we exercised, meditated, then ate. What more can I say, faced with what can only be a skeletal history.
Were you working in the world at the time?
No, I had no job. I was only 22. I was studying to become a playwright.
Did you have a specific role or job at the ashram?
At first, my jobs were non-specific: gardening, plastering, and the like. Soon, Yogananda put me into doing office work: answering letters, writing articles.
Within a year, he put me in charge of the monks. He told me my life work would be lecturing, editing, and writing. His instructions to me were mostly geared to what I was to do in future, after he left the body.
What was Yogananda’s public profile like at this time?
He was extremely charismatic, loving, blissful, dynamic.
In your estimation, what was Yogananda’s influence on the world?
It has only begun. He offered an entirely new approach to life, compatible with this new age of energy. He showed the basic oneness of all religions, with particular emphasis on Christ’s teachings and the teaching of Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita.
Tell us a bit about the yogic practice you were all engaging at that time, the Master’s yogic practice.
The whole thrust of yoga practice is to cooperate with divine grace. For example, superconsciousness comes when the mind is completely centered in the forehead. Yoga teaches, therefore, to direct one’s energy consciously there.
The main thing in spiritual practice is devotion—to awaken the heart’s natural love. Yoga teaches also, therefore, the importance of focusing the energy in the heart, which is the center of feeling in the body.
How long were you there with Yogananda?
I was with him for the last three and a half years of his life.
Was he writing his autobiography at the time? Were you involved? What do you recall about that?
No, that book came out in 1946. It was reading it that brought me to him.
Your biography of Yogananda has just been published. What will we read in your book that isn’t in his autobiography?
He couldn’t write about his own greatness. I could.
What was the process of writing this book like for you? Had you kept diaries all these years, with stories about Yogananda?
I have a very clear memory. I wrote the book in three weeks. It just flowed out.
What do you reveal in your book about Yogananda’s predictions for our future?
You need to read the book to really understand that. But his predictions are not rosy. A great depression; world war; great suffering and deprivation, before a shining future in the New Age. One time in Hollywood Church he paused while talking of the need to get out into the country and create communities (which I have succeeded in doing), and shouted, “You don’t know what a terrible cataclysm is coming!”
What most impressed you about Yogananda?
His love, his complete absence of ego, his deep wisdom, and his bliss.
What do you think would most surprise people about Yogananda, something they wouldn’t know from his autobiography?
The sheer power with which he spoke.
Did he task you with anything specifically before he left this world?
Yes, he told me I have a great work to do. He made it very clear to me that he relied heavily on me to get his mission on the road.
Tell us about Ananda Sangha? When was it founded?
July 4, 1969.
How many locations are there around the world?
At present, nine live-in communities, and many meditation groups around the globe.
How many people involved?
Those living in the communities, about a thousand. Those affiliated, many thousands. We don’t bother with such statistics.
What does the organization do, offer?
Peace of mind; happiness; brotherhood; a spirit of cooperation. We teach people how to meditate, and how to live.
Do you find that people entering the Sangha now are different from the way they were 50 years go? And how?
Yes, they are more earnest in their search for meaning in life.
As one who’s been present at the center of Western spiritual life for many decades, how would you characterize the times we live in?
What message would you like to leave with our readers?
There is only one purpose in life: to love God. Toward this end, we should love Him in all, serve Him in all, and cooperate always with His will.