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Path: One Man's Quest On the Only Path There Is
by J. Donald Walters (Swami Kriyananda)
A Map Discovered
soon as possible after my return to White Plains I went to Bowling Green
in New York City, and applied for a merchant mariner's card. This I received
on August 24th with the classification "Ordinary seaman, messman, wiper."
Thereafter I was told it was only a question of waiting for a ship that
would give me a berth. My hope was to ship out as soon as possible.
Meanwhile I helped Mother pack. When her sailing date came, I accompanied her to the dock in New York and saw her off safely. Next I went down to Bowling Green to see if any ships had come in. No luck: "Come back in a few days." With most of the afternoon still before me, I went uptown to browse at Brentano's, the famous Fifth Avenue bookstore.
At Brentano's I got into a discussion on spiritual matters with a sales clerk, who showed me a few books by Thomas Merton, the young Protestant Christian who converted to Roman Catholicism, then went on to become a Trappist monk. I was intrigued, though I didn't feel personally attracted. It was the catholicitywhich is to say, the universalityof India's teachings that had won my devotion.
From Brentano's I went up Fifth Avenue to another book store: Doubleday-Doran, as it was named then. Here I found an entire section of books on Indian philosophythe first I had ever seen. Hungrily I feasted my gaze on the wide variety of titles: The Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, books on yoga. I finished scanning these shelves, then turned back to go over them once again. This time, to my surprise, the first book I saw, standing face outward on the shelf, was one I hadn't even noticed the first time. The author's photograph on the cover affected me strangely. Never had I met anyone whose face radiated so much goodness, humility, and love. Eagerly I picked up the book and glanced again at its title: Autobiography of a Yogi, by Paramhansa Yogananda. The author lived in Americain California! Was this someone at last who could help me in my search? As I started to leaf through the book, these words caught my attention: "Dedicated to the memory of Luther Burbank, an American saint."
An American saint? But, how preposterous! How could anyone become a saint in this land of the "almighty dollar"? this materialistic desert? this. . . . I closed the book in dismay, returning it to its place on the shelf.
That day I bought my first book of Indian philosophynot Autobiography of a Yogi, but Sir Edwin Arnold's beautiful translation of the Bhagavad Gita. Eagerly I took this treasure home with me to Scarsdale, where I had temporarily rented a private room. For the next couple of days I fairly devoured it, feeling as though I were soaring in vast skies of pure wisdom.
By this sign is [the
What wonderful words! Thrilled, I read on:
Yea, knowing Me the
source of all, by Me all creatures wrought,
My own doubts, too, were being dispelled by these marvelous teachings. I knew now with complete certainty that this path was right for me.
The day after I finished my first reading of the Bhagavad Gita, I returned to New York, intending to visit Bowling Green and see if any ship had come in. I was walking down Seventh Avenue toward the subway, the entrance to which was on the far side of the next cross street, when I recalled the book I'd rejected so summarily on my last visit to the city: Autobiography of a Yogi. As I remembered that beautiful face on the cover, a strong urge from within prompted me to go buy it. I thrust the thought firmly out of my mind.
"That isn't what I'm looking for," I told myself. Chuckling, I added, "An American saint, indeed!" Resolutely I continued walking toward the subway.
"How can you know what the book's really like, if you won't even read it?" came the urge again, not with words, but with unmistakable meaning.
"No!" I repeated. I then offered reasons: "I've got to stop reading books; I'm too intellectual as it is. Besides, if I'm ever to become a hermit, I'm going to have to save money, not continually spend it!"
At that moment I reached the corner. I was proceeding toward the curb ahead of me when I felt as though an actual force were turning me left around the corner, and propelling me toward Fifth Avenue. I'd never experienced anything like it before. Amazed, I asked myself, "Is there something in this book that I'm meant to read?" Resisting no longer, I hastened eagerly in the direction of Doubleday-Doran's.
Entering the store, I made straight for the book and bought it. As I was turning to leave, I bumped into Doug Burch, that friend from my Scarsdale High School days who had introduced me to Nick's and Dixieland jazz. We exchanged news briefly. Doug began describing to me in glowing terms his plans for making a career in radio and advertising. The longer he talked, the more closely I hugged my increasingly precious new book to my heart. Imperceptibly, my doubts about it had already vanished. I felt as though Yogananda were sharing my dismay at the shining prospects Doug was describing, a way of life that, to me, spelled desolation. Holding the book, I felt suddenly as though this oriental yogi and I were old friends. The world and I were strangers, but here was one who knew me, and understood.
I waited until I reached my room in Scarsdale before opening the book. And then began the most thrilling literary adventure of my life.
Autobiography of a Yogi is the story of a young Indian's intense search for God. It describes a number of living saints that he met on his journey, including his great guru, Swami Sri Yukteswar. It also describes, more clearly than any other mystical work I have ever read, the author's own experiences with God, including the highest one possible, samadhi, or mystical union. In chapter after chapter I found moving testimony to God's living reality, not only in the abstraction of infinity, but in the hearts and lives of actual human beings. I read of how Yogananda's prayers even for little things had been answered, and of how, by placing himself unreservedly in God's hands, his unanticipated needs had always been met. I read of intense love for God such as I myself yearned to possess; of a relationship with the Lord more intimate, more dear than I had dared to imagine possible.
Until now I had supposed that a life of devotion might give one, at best, a little peace of mind. But here, suddenly, I discovered that the fruit of spiritual living is a joy beyond human imagination!
Until recently I had doubted the value of prayer, except perhaps as a means of uplifting oneself. But now I learned, and could not for a moment doubt, that God relates individually, lovingly, to every seeker.
Miracles abound in this book. Many of these, I confess, were quite beyond my powers of acceptance at the time. But instead of dismissing them, as I would certainly have done if I'd read of them in most other books, I suspended my incredulity. For the spirit of this story was so deeply honest, so transparently innocent of pride or impure motive that it was impossible for me to doubt that its author believed implicitly every word he had written. Never before had I encountered a spirit so clearly truthful, so filled with goodness and joy. Every page seemed radiant with light. Reading Autobiography of a Yogi, I alternated between tears and laughter: tears of pure joy; laughter of even greater joy! For three days I scarcely ate or slept. When I walked it was almost on tiptoe, as though in an ecstatic dream.
What this book described, finally, was the highest of sciences, Kriya Yoga, a technique that enables the seeker to advance rapidly on the path of meditation. I, who wanted so desperately to learn how to meditate, felt all the excitement of one who has found a treasure map, the treasure in this case being a divine one buried deep within my own self!
Autobiography of a Yogi is the greatest book I have ever read. One perusal of it was enough to change my entire life. From that time on my break with the past was complete. I resolved in the smallest detail of my life to follow Paramhansa Yogananda's teaching.
Finding that he recommended a vegetarian diet, I immediately renounced meat, fish, and fowl. He could have recommended a diet of bread and water and I'd have obeyed him without a qualm.
For, more than anything else, what this book gave me was the conviction that in Yogananda I had found my guru, my spiritual teacher for all time to come. A few days earlier I hadn't even known this strange word, guru. I hadn't known anything about yoga, or reincarnation, or karma, or almost any of the basic precepts of Indian philosophy. Now incredibly, I felt such deep, utter trust in another human being that, ignorant though I was of his philosophy, I was willing to follow him to the end of life. And while I had yet to meet him, I felt that he was the truest friend I had ever known.
The day after I became a vegetarian I was invited by friends of my family, Mr. and Mrs. Lloyd Gibson, to lunch at their home. To my combined amusement and dismay, the main dish consisted of chicken à la king. Not wanting to hurt my friends' feelings, I compromised by pushing the chicken bits to one side, and eating the vegetables in their chicken sauce.
George Calvert, on whose father's farm Bob and I had worked after my graduation from high school, had invited me for the following day to lunch at his parents' home, and to a polo game afterwards. This time I had no choice but to refuse the thick, juicy hamburger sandwich that his mother offered me. To make matters more awkward still, George had considerately provided me with a date! I must have seemed strange company indeed, eating hardly anything, and paying as little attention to the girl as politely possible, from the opposite end of the room. (Yogananda was a monk: I, too, would be a monk.) The polo game gave me an opportunity for a little surreptitious meditation, so I didn't view it as a total loss.
Later that day I met my brother Bob and Dean Bassett, a friend of ours, at Nielson's, an ice cream parlor in Scarsdale village. Dean had been voted "biggest wolf" in my senior high school class. He and Bob were discussing Dean's favorite subject: girls.
I listened in silence for a time. At last I protested, "Don't you see? Desire only enslaves one to the very things one desires!"
Bob and Dean gazed at each other quizzically. "What's wrong with him?" Dean asked.
It was years before I realized that comprehension, like a flower, must unfold at its own speed. Until a person is ready for a truth, not even the clearest logic will make it acceptable to him.
As soon as I finished reading Autobiography of a Yogi, my impulse was to jump onto the next bus bound for California. Not wanting to act impulsively, however, I waited a whole day! I even debated for several hours whether it might not be wiser for me to go to sea as I'd planned, and there to meditate a few months before making this important decision. But of course I knew already that it was the right decision. The following day I packed my bag and took an early train into New York City.
My godfather, Dr. Winthrop Haynes, had been sympathetically concerned for my future. He and his wife were like second parents to me; I didn't feel I could leave New York without bidding him farewell. On my way to the bus station, therefore, I stopped by his office at Rockefeller Center. Finding him not in, I left a note on his desk with the message, "I'm going to California to join a group of people who, I believe, can teach me what I want to know about God and about religion." This was the first intimation I had given anyone that God was my true goal in life.
I took the next westward-bound bus available. Thereafter, for four days and four nights, my home was a succession of buses.
My break with the past was so sudden, so complete that I sometimes ask myself whether some very special grace had not been needed to make it possible. I wonder what I'd have done, for instance, if Mother had still been in America. Would I have had the courage to take this drastic step? I'm not so sure. Very possibly she'd have detained me. And if so, would she have succeeded in deflecting me from my purpose? By this time, of course, the question has become academic, but wasn't it remarkable that I found the book that changed my life less than half a day after I'd put Mother on her ship to Cairo?
Strange indeed are God's ways! I was to see much of them in the years that followed, and never have they ceased to make me marvel.