Not only is Shaykh Ahmed Abdur Rashid a khalif, (authorized teacher) of five Sufi Orders, he once was known as Vasudevadas while he was following the path of Yoga. His spiritual seeking led him to India and to finding his Sufi teacher. In this interview he shares the story of his journey from Yoga to Sufism, the common boundaries between the traditions, his decades-long relationship with Swami Satchidananda and their mutual interest in the underlying unity of all religions.
Integral Yoga Magazine (IYM): Did you study Yoga before you became a Sufi?
Shaykh Rashid (SR): Yes. I had come in contact with Paramahansa Yogananda through his book and, when I read it, I said to myself, “This is it. This is what I want.” So, I began to study Kriya Yoga and followed that path for a number of years. I spent 14 years in and out of India. In the beginning, I was at Sivananda Ashram and stayed there for many months with Swami Chidanandaji and Swami Krishnanandaji. I spent a lot of time along the Ganges. I lived for awhile near Vasishta Guha.
Eventually, I found my teacher, Shaykh Hazrat Azad Rasool. I had had a dream about him, and he had had a dream about me. What was important to my Shaykh was that I had many years of training in meditation. It was an interesting and nice fit. What I had learned through Kriya Yoga was intensified in the Sufi meditation.
IYM: What attracted you to the Shaykh and to Sufism?
SR: It’s more of a mystical thing than a logical thing. Often, people lose sight of the essence of the spiritual process, which is, in Yoga, through the Guru. Your personal relationship with the Guru is a personal relationship with God, truth, compassion, mercy or whatever you want to say.
And, in Sufism, it is the same. My relationship with my Shaykh was a relationship for which I had been looking, for many years. I brought with me whatever little knowledge, capability and expertise I had from my years of Yoga practice. When I first went to India, at heart I was really an Advaita Vedanti, a non-dualist. I couldn’t even really say the word, “God.” It made no sense to me. Then, I went through a stage of being a bhakti yogi—almost in rebellion against the Vedanta. I was in my 20s and so it was allowable.
But, even with the bhakti, I still was never satisfied with this concept of a God sitting on a throne somewhere or an incarnation of God. The stories of God, of Hindu deities, were always stories to me symbolic of what was going on internally in a human being.
When I came to Sufism, it made more sense to me. Perhaps because it was somehow an extension of my Jewish background, perhaps because my Guru (Yogananda) wasn’t in the body and I couldn’t go to him to ask questions. I’m sure part of it was my own ego, with which I had to deal. My Shaykh knew how to handle me and in eight years, he made me his khalif, which would normally take fifteen to twenty years.
Perhaps that appealed to my ego, but the one thought I had at the time that he did that was that I had never questioned his knowledge, his authority or his insight until the moment he made me his khalif [laughs]. It’s true. I really did feel that way. He told me one day I would understand, and I did come to realize that it wasn’t based on what I had achieved up to that point but, rather what I could achieve, if I continued on my own journey, heavily dependent on the mercy of Allah. Mercy comes when our cup is empty enough to receive it. If you are submitted enough, there’s no resistance to it. It’s a message I also heard from Swami Satchidananda.
IYM: What are the similarities between Sufism and Yoga?
SR: There’s a tremendous parallel between the goals of Sufism and the goals of Yoga. Why? Because the goal of Yoga, by definition, is union—the dissolving of one’s separateness from the Creator. We Sufis call it “fana,” annihilation of self, which is followed by “baqa,” a return to consciousness of this world in order to serve Allah and his creatures. There’s only Allah, there’s nothing but Allah.
Life is a journey from separation to union, from exclusivity to inclusivity, and, although this process, may be somewhat different from Yoga, the goal is similar. For a Sufi, the goal isn’t enlightenment or Self-realization—it’s submission and trusting in the divine imperative. The goal of the yogi is much more articulated as Self-realization. We Sufis don’t talk about enlightenment or even about perfection, other than to know that it’s the seventh step in our journey.
We talk about becoming absorbed in the reality—totally aware of the fact—that wherever you turn is the face of Allah, east or west. Allah is the Creator of all of this. Allah is not a being but a dynamic process that reflects both our physical systems and our external, universal systems. We’re hardwired for compassion, for love, for mercy. Those are reflections of the divine qualities, which we call in Islam, the seefat, or attributes of Allah, the 99 names of Allah. These attributes are implanted in our souls and are carried into this physical existence and reflect the fact, as Allah says in the Quran, “I’m nearer to you than your jugular vein.” When we feel compassion for someone, that feeling we have is the presence of the divine. In Sanskrit it is called daya, and Sufis call it rahma.
So, to me, although there are differences between Yoga and Sufism—in how they are practiced and understood—ultimately, we are talking about unity, union, oneness and awakening. How many times did we hear Swami Satchidananda talk about waking up? In the Quran it says, “You have eyes but you don’t see. You have ears but you don’t hear.” It talks about having to wake from a deep sleep. These are terms that are shared by all people who have knowledge, who have seen.
There’s a saying we have that is attributed to Omar Khyam: “He who knows not, and knows not that he knows not, is a fool. Shun him. He who knows not, and knows that he knows not, is a child. Teach him. He who knows, and knows not that he knows, is asleep. Wake him. He who knows, and knows that he knows, is wise. Follow him.”
IYM: What’s the relationship between personal responsibility and relying on divine mercy?
SR: I’ll tell you a story: Swami Kripalvananda was observing mouna (silence) for an extended period. He spoke only once a year, on the occasion of his birthday. I wanted to ask him this very question and I was able to. He broke his silence and sang a song to me in Gujarati. Then he said, “If you are drowning in the ocean do you swim or do you lie there and wait to be saved?” To me it was a no brainer. I said, “You lie there and you wait to be saved; you submit.” He said, “No, you swim.”
That brought a lot of images to my mind like, “Trust in Allah but tether your camel,” and so on. We do have a responsibility. I remember Yogananda used a metaphor, which was, “Dive, dive, dive into the ocean until you find the pearl.” I heard Swami Satchidananda speak many times about the ocean—the ocean of mercy and love, and about diving into the ocean so that the drop becomes the ocean.
When a foreign element comes into an oyster, the oyster has within itself the ability not only to protect itself from that foreign irritation but to create something that is more valuable than its own life: a pearl. The oyster winds up giving its life (or having it taken) for the pearl—a pearl that started as an irritant. For me, this has always been a metaphor for the spiritual journey.
I guess I’d extend the metaphor a little: If you put a lot of grease on your body in order to swim the English Channel, you don’t feel the ocean. But, you have to be able to feel the ocean; you have to be able to get wet. And a lot of people don’t want to get wet. It’s an endless journey in an ever-expanding universe. That means we have to accept the fact that the beginning was something we don’t remember and the ending is not the end of our lives. It’s very difficult for people in this day and age to commit to such a journey. It’s a great contribution to be able to dedicate and devote your life to the wellbeing of others, however you are called to do it—whether by teaching them, training them, leading them or leaving a legacy that keeps people committed, involved, serving others and sacrificing, with deep faith. That’s what Swami Satchidananda has done.
IYM: How did you meet Swami Satchidananda?
SR: I met him quite early in his sojourn in America in the mid-1960s in New York. I had already dabbled a little in high school with Buddhism, with D. T. Suzuki, and I had read other Buddhists extensively. There were a lot of things drawing me to spirituality. At one point, I was living in Virginia Beach and I knew Sudharman Fenton, who was instrumental in Swamiji finding the Buckingham property that is now Yogaville. I was even part of some of the discussions about the property. I would teach every once in awhile at the Yoga center in Virginia Beach until I moved to Bedford, Virginia.
It’s a strange thing because Swamiji and I were friends from the very first time we met but I never became a student of his—formally a student, I mean because I certainly was a student of his. I think everyone who was with Swamiji in any way, was a student of his because he had that universal character. He and I shared a vision. His vision was of the LOTUS and the Yogaville community, I also had a vision of a spiritual community and I had a design for a temple of all religions. Swamiji and I talked about it in the early 1970s, at the Indian Embassy in Washington with our mutual friend, T. N. Kaul, who was the ambassador at that time. Every time I had the opportunity to meet Swamiji, I would try and go and, after he moved the ashram to Virginia, he visited my center in Bedford, Virginia. We had a very friendly, very loving relationship for many years.
IYM: What inspired you the most about this vision of the unity of all religions?
SR: When a person like Swami Satchidananda, whom we would call a wali auliya, a saintly being—speaks about the unity of religion, it’s because he’s realized that there’s only one truth: Ekam sat viprah bahuda vadanti. It was just as easy for him to sing, OM Namah Sivaya, or Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna or La Ilaha Illa Allah.
It made perfect sense to Swamiji that all religions were centered around one truth and that one truth was an open lotus, which symbolizes realization. And that truth has many names: Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Hindusim. Those names are identifiers. Judaism is an identifier derived from the tribes of Judah; Christianity was derived from the name of a person, as was Buddhism; Hinduism was named for a river. Islam derives its name from the root of the Arabic word, taslim, which means submission or surrender. Swamiji was a wise man, and you could follow him because his wisdom wasn’t limited by name or by form.
The LOTUS offers a foundation for people of different faiths to come together with the understanding that there is only one truth, one reality. The manifestation of that, in my humble opinion, is that we should all work in very real ways to serve other human beings. This is where Karma Yoga, or khidmah, comes in.
We have a responsibility to make this world a better place. We have to serve God’s creation. Otherwise, we become so self-absorbed and all the greed we see, all the unkindness we see, all the bad judgment we see, will become our future. I believe there can be a paradigm shift. Even though we might be ants carrying one grain of sugar from one place to another, at some point, the mercy of Allah comes, the paradigm shifts and peace comes.
IYM: Tell us about your charitable works.
SR: I believe that people should be doing real things together and that’s why we founded Legacy International. For 30 years, we have worked on international projects, bringing universal values and team-building tools to address local, regional and global needs. Legacy’s programs have focused on developing the leadership, skills and relationships needed to resolve and prevent conflicts. Individuals and groups from different cultures have joined to work together to pursue common goals.
It’s fine to have interfaith dialogue but, afterward, let’s all go and build a Habitat for Humanity house together. We can undertake all kinds of service initiatives and work together for the common good and for those in need, without regard for what religion we are or they are. We should put our practice into practice. If we don’t, we are being extremely selfish. The yogis didn’t call the goal, “selfish-realization.” [Laughs]
If what we want is peace there has to be inner peace at least alongside the outer peace. There’s a wave of change. Just the fact that you have built Yogaville. And I know from the early days, a lot of what you went through to build it and what it has done for people, the lives that have been improved and then those lives have touched other lives. It is an amazing accomplishment.
Shaykh Ahmed Abdur Rashid is the khalif of the late Hazrat Azad Rasool of New Delhi and an authorized teacher of the Naqshbandiyya, Mujaddadiyya, Qadriyya, Chishtiyya, and Shadiliyya Sufi Orders. He has applied the essence of Islam to contemporary issues for more than thirty years offering programs in education, leadership training, sustainable development, peace building and cross-cultural relations. Founder of the World Community, a spiritual center in southwestern Virginia, he sits on the boards of advisors of the Islamic Studies and Research Association (ISRA) and the International Association of Sufism. He has also published several books including, Islam and Democracy: A Foundation for Ending Extremism and Preventing Conflict and Applied Sufism: Classical Teachings for the Contemporary Seeker. For more information, please visit: www.circlegroup.org and