Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Autobiography of a Yogi

I've been reading Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda. I read his account of his exceptional life as a mystic yogi many decades ago, when i was also dreaming about a spiritual trek to the Himalayas. I never made it there (neither did Yogananda it turned out), but the Swami's book made an impression on me then, and it still does after all these years and variegated experiences in Krishna Consciousness.

What impresses me is not the philosophy of Kriya Yoga. His line, to the best of my understanding, is an eclectic mix of Pantanjali, Kundalini, Shankaracarya's monism and bhakti! Yogananda never gives a clear and concise definition of his philosophy, and i think in his line, practice and realization of mystic yoga siddhis takes precedence over both oneness and service. But in terms of philosophy, the undercurrent of monism that moves thru their line, puts salt in the sweet rice, at least for any aspiring bhakta.

He also spends some time in his book trying his best to reconcile Christian thought from the Bible and modern scientific theories with yoga. For someone preaching yoga and vegetarianism to Americans in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, Yogananda was remarkably ahead of his time. You might even say he personally introduced yoga and 'new age' thinking to the West.

But what really impresses me in his book (and almost makes me jealous), is the wonderful, intimate and loving personal exchanges he was able to have with yoga masters during his early training years in India. Yogananda was born in 1893 in Bengal, just three years prior to the birth of His Divine Grace Srila Prabhupada. Basically, they were contemporaries, growing up in a culturally opulent period, when Calcutta was the capital of India, when Bengalis were highly cultured and when genuine vaisnavas and yogis could be found simply for the seeking.

Yogananda was inclined to be a yogi, and he met many amazing personalities. These yogis had perfected yogic meditation and possessed some supra-human qualities along with humility. Similarly, there also were pure vaisnavas, even so-called ordinary men, such as Srila Prabhupada's humble father, Sri Gour Mohan Dey, who had divine qualities. Where today, can such men and women be found?

We live in a time of mass culture. Just by a few keystrokes i can discover libraries worth of information and knowledge about a vast range of mundane and spiritual subjects. But where are the personalities who have imbibed this knowledge? Where are the saints and yogis who have assimilated the teachings of their gurus and can animate yoga and bhakti with joy and illumination? Who is there to pour cooling water over our dry minds and soothe our scorched hearts?

In this mood, i enjoyed reading Yogananda's journey from his childhood to becoming a swami and yogi, while at the same time, i lamented how such a journey at least on the outward plane, is no longer possible in our world today. With all our technology, we have lost the wealth of masters and highly evolved devotees. We have also lost the sensitivity for seeking such personalities. We live in a much poorer world because of it.

But thanks to the mercy of Srila Prabhupada, at least, we do have a clear map of how to get from Point A (material consciousnss) to Point B (Krishna Consciousness). That map is accessible to anyone and everyone who wishes to follow his guidance with their own intelligence. (And not blindly follow anyone who claims to represent him.) Some of us also have precious memories of Srila Prabhupada who bestowed love on us with every word and glance and thought. We can only pray that our prayers and chanting bring us closer to his lotus feet. That is possible by his mercy. We also can have hope -- not to change external circumstances in any group or organization-- but to one day find a time and space where, with intimacy and an open heart, and without any hidden motive, we will associate with a pure devotee of Krishna.

No more will we feel in want, in need or envious of anyone or anything in this world when that day finally comes. Our most cherished desires will be fulfilled. Even the perfections and charms of the mystic yogis will have no attraction for us. We will see the Supersoul in everyone. With God realization, our inner poverty, ambition and grief will be conquered. With love, a yogi can give up his meditation, a king can renounce the world and even a dog can be better than a brahmin. That's the perfection of yoga.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

It's a Mad, Mad, Madoff World

The latest in a series of earthquakes in the financial world is the news that one of Wall Street's most successful private investment firms was nothing more than a $50 billion Ponzi scheme. A Ponzi scheme is a fraud: someone claims to offer you an excellent return on your money and actually pockets the money, paying off previous clients with your cash. It was named after Charles Ponzi, an Italian immigrant who set up a scheme in Boston almost a century ago that made millions. (Mr. Ponzi landed up in both Federal and State prisons.)

Now there are three extra zeros added to the 21st century sequel: billions of dollars were invested with Bernard Madoff, a Jewish New York investor whom everyone thought was brilliant and a pillar of his community. There seems to be nothing left of the money. "We think it went to money heaven," an investigator said.

"It's all basically a lie," Mr. Madoff confessed to his sons just before being arrested.

Mr. Madoff is allegedly a first-class fraud, but how is his hoax much different from the so-called honest brokers and bankers of Wall Street who have lost trillions of investor money? I'm no economist or lawyer, but when trillions of dollars are gambled and lost by clever people, is there no penalty? The problem is, the entire global economy has been built on greed and cheating. So where do you draw the line?

And it's not just about money. The imbalance of wealth achieved by those who manage (and lose) other people's money corrupts the society as a whole. Greed becomes an ideal rather than the powerful human fault that it really is.

Communism failed, in part, because it did not engage people's greed. The totalitarian state works by fear, not greed. But fear does not make people work hard. Greed does. Unfortunately, greed creates its own imbalances, which ultimately corrupt the whole system in a different way. Its like pigging out. Eventually a person pays the price for stuffing himself by becoming ill. Society also pays for pigging out.

In my own life experience, i have witnessed the effects of greed. It's unhealthy, malignant and damaging. Multiply that by millions and you get a society that is totally out of balance and discordant with nature.

On Wall Street, earning a million dollars is nothing special, and many money managers make incomes of $20 million or more. While the incomes of doctors, lawyers and Wall St. executives have inflated, ordinary workers wages are flat. And while doctors try to "do no harm," (although they often do no good and sometimes unintentionally do a lot of harm), the same can't be said for high-powered Wall St. bankers. They cleverly exploit a bubble, create an illusion of high profits, and when the bubble bursts, ordinary people lose their pensions and life savings, while the bankers keep their million dollar salaries and bonuses.

Most of all, the vast riches and quick money being made by a few promotes an unsustainable and corrupt myth: that you can get something for nothing. We idolize men who can make a lot of money, regardless of how they do it, or whether they are actually contributing anything useful or not to society. That's what Srimad Bhagavatam tells us is standard in Kali Yuga. If you can show money, you are a gentleman to be respected. If you can't, you're an unfit beggar, perhaps a criminal. But who are the real criminals? You never know in a mad, mad, madoff world.