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How free should anything be?

In India there is a prevalent belief that spiritual teaching ought always to be given freely. This, however, is an incorrect understanding.

india Updated: Mar 11, 2004 11:42 IST

Swami Kriyananda is a direct disciple since 1948 of Paramhansa Yogananda, author of Autobiography of a Yogi.He is the founder of Ananda Sangha, and of seven Ananda communities in America and Europe. Now 78, he has moved to India to make his Guru’s teachings known in the land of his birth: to teach the liberating meditation technique of Kriya Yoga, and to establish communities where householders and renunciates alike can seek God in the company of fellow devotees.

Swami Sri Yukteswar Giri, my Paramguru, was quoted by Paramhansa Yogananda in Autobiography of a Yogi as stating, "So long as you breathe the free air of earth, you are under obligation to render grateful service."

Who is to serve whom? The "air of earth" is simply there; it comes with being born on this planet. Where, one might ask, is there the need for gratitude? Yet nothing in the universe is given us as merely a mechanism, automatically. The virtue of gratitude is, above all, for ourselves: It is self-ennobling.

Success in life depends on how well we obey the dictates of karmic law. This law concerns what we do, not what is done to us, as its passive recipients. Even what we receive in life is an energy we ourselves have already generated, and have therefore attracted to ourselves.

America's material success excellently exemplifies this law in action. Many think of that success as produced only by material efficiency. Efficiency is, no doubt, important; it is in its way a divine principle. America's real success, however-more than most Americans themselves realize-has always been due to a dual attitude of faith and generosity.

A South American friend pointed something out to me years ago that I found interesting. "Your country," he said, "was founded on spiritual principles. The Pilgrim Fathers came to these shores in search of religious freedom. Spain's development of South America, by contrast, was motivated by a desire for gold. North America has prospered from the beginning. The countries in Latin America, by contrast, have known chaos and poverty for centuries."

During the nineteen-sixties, when America and Russia were competing to become the first to put a man on the moon, an amusing solution was proposed: "All America needs to do is spend enough money to put a dog on the moon, and keep it there alive for a while. Americans would be so concerned for that poor animal, they would get together spontaneously and raise the funds necessary for bringing it back to Earth again."

By contrast, karma may be seen at work on another level also, this one in England destiny. Marco Polo, the Venetian, travelled in the thirteenth century from Italy to China. On his return voyage he came through India. In his book, The Travels of Marco Polo, he noted that India then was "the richest country in the world." Isn't it curious to contemplate England, rising to power not long afterward in India, became a great and wealthy nation, and that India during the same period sank to the position of what people euphemistically call, "Third World countries"? Over the centuries since then, England's growing practice of absorbing wealth from others without returning to them a tithe of the benefits it reaped, has been its ultimate undoing karmically.

In 1950 I inquired of my Guru concerning England's future. With surprising firmness he replied, "England is finished." He was referring, of course, to the good karma that had ensured England's erstwhile success.

What, meanwhile, of India? Has India's poverty of recent centuries been karmic also? Obviously, yes; it had to be. It should be added, however, that India's is the only ancient civilization to have survived the disintegrating influence of time, which reduces even tall mountains eventually to the flatness of plains. There is another side to this story, however. India's devotion to spiritual truth has been her karmic strength. India today is rising once again among the world's nations. She is destined someday, so my Guru said, to join hands with America. Together, both countries will lead the world toward material and spiritual prosperity.

The karmic law demands that one return gratefully in service whatever benefit he receives. Thus, the good introduced into the world becomes expanded. This law works infallibly at every level-spiritual, as well as material.

I received dramatic corroboration of this infallible truth many years ago. Certain people had tried to destroy me in great anger, with false accusations. I reflected on Sri Yukteswar's counsel and decided that the way I responded was more important than how others had treated me. I made up my mind, therefore, to respond with love to the energy they put out. Over the years since then, I have noted only an increase, unfortunately, in their anger with me. For myself, however, by adhering to this spiritual teaching, I found an instant gain of inner peace. In the end, moreover, I was able to achieve success in all the things I had hoped to accomplish.

Since that time, I have done many things including the writing of eighty books. Almost all the profit from these books has gone toward creating spiritual communities, where some one thousand people now live useful and harmonious lives.

In recent years, the same group made an all-out effort to destroy me and my work. We were in desperate need of funds to counter their determined lawsuit. During that time I wrote and published a book called Do It NOW!, which offers daily for a year one thought to ponder and act upon. Despite our urgent need at the time for money to pay our lawyers, I was so eager to get this book out and into as many hands as possible, I invested my own money to print 5,000 copies, which I gave away freely. The practical wisdom of generosity at a time when our own needs might be described as desperate I leave to wiser heads than mine. All I can say is: Something worked. Ananda Sangha emerged from the struggle stronger than ever.

In these ways, I have sought always to put my paramguru's counsel into practice.

Sometimes I find myself reflecting on the karma involved in seeking something for nothing. It is possible to be a beggar not only literally, but also by holding an attitude that concentrates only on receiving, rather than on grateful sharing. It is of course a misfortune to be poor. One should always be compassionate toward those who are so afflicted. At the same time, an interesting question arises: What of the karma one generates by begging? Alternatively, what of the karma one creates by holding a beggarly attitude? Begging itself, even in attitude, doesn't generate good karma. The very attempt to receive without in some way giving in return goes against karmic law.

In India there is a prevalent belief that spiritual teaching is an exception to this rule. People say such teaching ought always to be given freely. This is an incorrect understanding. To try to receive on any level without giving due recompense is karmically weakening. What should be free is the act of giving. When one receives, there should always be some conscious expression of appreciation. The "quid pro quo" attitude commonly attributed to merchants demeans, in a sense, both him who gives and him who receives. To give freely is the spirit of nishkam karma: "action without desire for the fruits of action," which was the teaching of Sri Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita. To expect to receive spiritual teachings free of charge, however, is a karmic error. Nothing ever, in this sense, should be considered free. Nor is it wrong to charge for spiritual lessons, if the fees paid are reasonable and go toward a good cause.

When, at the age of eighteen, I studied singing, my teacher told me firmly in advance, "The lessons will be five dollars. It isn't that I need the money. I don't. You, however, need to pay it." Thus Babaji, too, had Lahiri Mahasaya charge people Rupees five for Kriya initiation. It was for the student's sake, not for his own. The money itself went to the poor. In my case, instead of asking my father to pay for my singing lessons, I waited on tables one night a week in a local restaurant and thereby raised that money.

In the ancient Gurukul system of India, students paid for the teaching they'd received in accordance with their ability. The more one gives generously of himself-to God, or to life, or to the universe even more than to any individual-the more he finds the karmic law working for him.

Years ago I was asked on a television program, "What have you done in 'practical' terms to ensure the success of your communities?" I replied with conviction, born of my own experience, "I never ignore the importance of practicality. The very purpose of the yoga science itself is to make our religion practical. To be materially practical only means to apply divine principles to the material plane. To answer your question, however, I have learned from experience that faith, when it is applied for the good of others and not only of one's self, is the most practical thing of all!"

Swami Kriyananda's programme appears at 2200 hours IST on the Sadhna Channel. (For more, visitwww.anandaindia.org)

First Published: Mar 04, 2004 14:02 IST