Swami Karunananda (senior Integral Yoga monk and master teacher) writes about the Guru-disciple relationship and shares some of the inspiring experiences she had with her Guru, Sri Swami Satchidananda. This talk was recently given on the 18th anniversary of the Mahasamadhi (In Hindu and yogic traditions, this “great samadhi” means that a realized master has consciously left their body; often while in a deep, conscious meditative state) of Sri Swamiji. Watch the video here.
Faith: the Foundation
Sri Gurudev, Swami Satchidananda, was a man of faith. He had faith in God, faith in Yoga, and faith in all of us. Speaking of himself, he once made the following comparison: “Just like an expert swordsman can pick up a blade of grass and use it to vanquish his foes, God picked me up, an ordinary fellow, and accomplished wonderful things.” In like manner, Sri Gurudev picked us up, a young and inexperienced group of people, and created a global organization, a Yoga village and a unique interfaith shrine. Everything we see here and throughout the world in the name of Integral Yoga is the result of faith: faith in God, faith in Guru, and faith in one another.(
For thirty-two years, I was blessed with the physical presence of Sri Gurudev in my life and bore witness to and heard tell of his unshakable faith under all conditions. Whether it be the purchase of the building for the New York Integral Yoga Institute or the construction of LOTUS, he would simply say: “If God wants it to happen, everything that is needed will come.” And it did, often in what seemed like miraculous ways.
On the evening of September 11th, 2001, after the biggest attack the US had ever experienced, the Yogaville community gathered. We were all shaken and agitated. I clearly remember the first words out of Sri Gurudev’s mouth: “Not even an atom moves without the will of God.” His affirmation of faith in the face of great tragedy steadied us all and provided a greater context for us to try to understand what had occurred.
Gurudev’s faith was the central pillar around which the Integral Yoga organization was built. Over the years, there were happy times and sad times, countless comings and goings, many ups and downs—and through it all, he remained the same: peaceful, balanced, patient, and loving—always ready to forgive and forget, ever there to comfort and guide.
He had walked the path and knew how to guide us on the journey. Established in the highest consciousness, he was like a step-down transformer. He understood our aspirations and our limitations and presented the Yoga teachings in a way that made them accessible, graspable, usable. A new way of thinking, feeling, living and being opened before us.
A reporter once asked me to describe Sri Gurudev’s legacy, clearly expecting me to say something about LOTUS, or Yogaville, or bringing Yoga to the West — things one could readily see. But my immediate reply was: “He transformed lives and saved souls. That was his legacy.” He not only imparted the highest teachings, but he awakened, quickened, the Spirit within us. We not only learned about spiritual life, the miracle was that we practiced it. Such was his grace.
On August 19, 2002, Sri Gurudev entered Mahasamadhi, the final conscious exit from the body by an enlightened master. In a way, he had been preparing us for this from the very beginning, never encouraging dependence on him, always guiding us to follow the teachings and experience the divine Spirit within our own hearts. Repeatedly, he would “retire” from Ashram involvement leaving the organization in our hands. His continual travels gave us the opportunity to develop a deeper and more subtle connection to Him, to one another, and to unfolding our own inner potential.
In the year before his passing, he repeatedly said: “I have given you everything. I haven’t held anything back; there is nothing more for me to give you. You have everything you need.” And he gave this assurance: “Remember, you will never be without me; never, never, never! The body may go, but I am always with you. Always!
“When I leave my body, I will continue to guide you from a higher level. Spiritual help need not depend on the physical body. Most of the teachers became well-known and were able to help most of the disciples after their physical death.”
The Teacher, Teachings, and Sangha
Here we are eighteen years later. So much has changed and, at the same time, so much of what is essential remains the same: We have our faith, the teachings, the sangha, and Sri Gurudev’s spiritual presence.
As many of you know, for the past six years, the ashram was involved in an organized effort to stop the construction of a natural gas pipeline with a huge compressor station about five miles away, set right in the midst of a neighboring African-American community. It was like a “David and Goliath” struggle as we were up against formidable financial, economic and political forces. Shortly before Guru Poornima, the Supreme Court even passed a ruling in favor of the energy companies behind the project. Then, as our Guru Poornima activities were drawing to a close on Sunday eve, a phone call went out throughout our community sharing the good news: The companies had suddenly decided to drop the project; the pipeline was not going to happen.
For me, the exquisite and impeccable timing seemed like an infallible sign of divine intervention. The Tao Te Ching states: “In action, watch the timing.” This seemed like a clear instance of divine timing. I felt like Sri Gurudev was saying: “I’m still here. I can see all of you; I know what is happening. I’ve got your back. Remember, I will be with you always.” The energy companies may have had support from a higher level on this earthly plane, but we had support from an even higher level on the spiritual plane. Rather than say Sri Gurudev is no longer in the physical body, I think it is more accurate to say that he is no longer in his limited body. His consciousness is everywhere and he is functioning in his expanded body.
The Buddhists speak of the Triple Treasure: the Buddha (or spiritual master), the Dharma (the teachings), and the Sangha (the community of seekers who follow the teachings). The teacher comes to light the way and is an embodiment of the teachings. We cannot be in his or her physical presence always, but the teachings are eternal. Through our study and practice, we stay attuned to the teacher.
Sometimes, however, our lives may get so busy or our minds so cluttered, that we may forget the teachings. Then, the sangha is there to help us remember. The sangha is an expression of the expanded body of the teacher. By ourselves, we may not be able to stay the course and surmount all the obstacles that may arise, but, together, we can make it to the spiritual goal. We can draw inspiration, strength, and guidance from one another.
Sri Gurudev used to compare the sangha to a group of people trying to cross a turbulent river. By ourselves, we may not have the strength to get across; we may stumble and fall. But united, with our combined strength, we can all make it safely to the other shore.
In the 1970s, I lived at our centers in California. Every year, Sri Gurudev would come for our annual retreat. It was the centerpiece of our spiritual life, something we had come to depend on to keep our batteries charged. We would immerse ourselves in the teachings and practice, and would emerge refreshed, inspired and filled with divine energy. I had been on several such retreats and was absolutely convinced that Sri Gurudev’s physical presence was essential for that to occur. I thought he had something we totally lacked and he gave some of it to us on the retreat.
Then, one year, he called at the last minute and said something important had come up and he wouldn’t be able to attend. We were crestfallen, shaken. We didn’t know what to do. Many people had signed up, so we decided to hold the retreat anyway.
We observed silence and followed the same schedule. We came together for meditation, Hatha Yoga classes, and lectures. And much to our surprise, we got “it,” even though Sri Gurudev was not physically present. We got “it” in all its fullness, not diminished in any way. We experienced firsthand the power of the teachings and the purpose of sangha.
At one point, we purchased a winter home for Sri Gurudev in Santa Barbara. I was living at the San Francisco IYI at the time. Saturday mornings, we would make the six-hour drive to Santa Barbara to attend his weekly satsang. That evening or early the next day, we would get back in the van for the return trip to SF. So, our time in Sri Gurudev’s presence was very limited.
At the San Francisco Integral Yoga Institute during this period, we had a very strong practice. We awoke at 4 am and meditated from 4:30 – 6:00 am. This was followed by Hatha Yoga and a light breakfast. We began our service at 8:30 am, meditated before lunch, and continued conducting classes till 9 pm, when we came together for our evening meditation.
Several years later, I was transferred to the Santa Barbara ashram. It was situated on seventy acres that had been an avocado ranch. The one dwelling on the property was a small 100-year old former pony-express stop. Life was rugged and our practice was not nearly as strong or disciplined. We saw Sri Gurudev more frequently.
I felt Sri Gurudev’s presence and guidance more strongly, and on a daily basis, when I lived in San Francisco than when he was nearby in Santa Barbara. In SF, he was physically invisible, but spiritually more tangible and accessible. It was another good lesson about the nature of the spiritual path and how to go deeper.
When Sri Gurudev passed, I had been living at the ashram in Virginia for seventeen years, seeing Sri Gurudev on a more regular basis. But it was not until I visited the SF IYI again the following winter — the place where my relationship with Him had been forged and the subtle connection established — that I personally processed the transition that had occurred.
Transition: Global Dark Night of the Soul
It feels to me like we are passing through another transition now, what could be called a global dark night of the soul. There is a saying that “the darkest hour is before the dawn.” On the spiritual level, the dark night refers to a period of crisis before a great spiritual awakening occurs. Mystics throughout the ages have experienced that. St. John of the Cross wrote a spiritual classic about the dark night of the soul. The night before Buddha’s illumination, we are told that all the forces of darkness rose up to try to shake him from his resolve.
Humanity, along with the Earth itself and all its creatures, have been catapulted into a crucible of transformation. We are all being called upon to examine ourselves and our societies on every level. It is a time to learn lessons from past mistakes, to find creative solutions to old and new challenges, to release age-old grievances and enmities between people and nations, and to let the spirit of forgiveness spread over the land and redeem us all.
It is a time of unknowing— of shifting sands and misty skies. The one sure Light that can serve as a beacon in times such as these is faith: faith in God, in Guru, in one another, in ourselves and the ultimate goodness of the Universe. The great benefit of faith according to Sri Gurudev is: “Faith and fear don’t go together.” If you have faith, there is nothing to fear. Faith is a light in the storm, a walking stick over unstable terrain, a shield against inner and outer assailants.
The Sanskrit term for faith is sraddha. It is a mixture of humility, faith and reverence. It is active belief, faith backed by effort. You believe in something and then apply your will toward it. In a similar spirit, Mother Teresa said: “Love is a verb, not a noun.” It is not a matter of passive sentiment or emotion, but of inner conviction expressed through action. Sri Gurudev used to express this approach when he said: “Do your best and leave the rest.” An Islamic saying echoes the same advice: “Trust in God and tie up your camel.”
Faith can be a great support during difficult times. If it isn’t your default setting, if it isn’t the lens through which you typically view events, you can choose faith as this chapter in our planetary history unfolds. You can use your will to activate your faith to help sustain you. You can employ the simple and effective practice of Pratipaksha Bhavana combined with alternate nostril breathing. When you inhale, along with the breath, visualize that you are drawing faith and courage into yourself from a vast unlimited source. Feel like it is permeating every atom of your being. When you exhale, feel like any worry, anxiety or fear is leaving with the breath. Practice this twice a day, for five to ten minutes in a sitting, and you will experience the benefit. You can also repeat a positive affirmation, such as: “I am an embodiment of faith and courage,” before repeating your mantra. Do this several times and the power of the mantra will go toward fulfilling the intention of the affirmation. You can also repeat the affirmation several times upon arising and before retiring to make a deep imprint on the mind. You can consciously cultivate in these ways the qualities you wish to have.
There are great forces in motion now. Currents from the near and distant past are converging and flooding into every area of our lives. Every day brings its sobering statistics, along with extraordinary examples of courage, sacrifice and heroism. What we need to remember is that we are not alone: visible and invisible forces are supporting us. If we feel alone, the difficult can become unbearable. But if we feel supported, even the impossible becomes doable. We have the teachings, the sangha, and the spiritual presence of Sri Gurudev, as well as that of all the great sages and saints who are responsive to our prayers, to support our good efforts.
Yoga teaches us that the human mind, when focused, is the most powerful instrument in the world. Working together, our collective mind can and will solve the challenges before us. The human heart is a sanctuary of peace, healing and grace. Our collective heart has the capacity to heal the planet, heal the past and heal ourselves.
We are all guardians of this planet, entrusted with a small, but essential, role to play. Let’s each one of us do our part and have faith in a positive outcome. Just like the caterpillar who thinks all is lost and then emerges from the cocoon as a beautiful butterfly, we can emerge from this crucible of transformation with greater love, compassion, insight and skill to forge a better future for millennia to come. May God and Gurudev and all the holy saints and sages bless our humble efforts and may peace, healing, harmony and goodwill prevail on earth.
About the Author:
Swami Karunananda is a senior disciple of Sri Swami Satchidananda. In 1975, she was ordained as a monk into the Holy Order of Sannyas. She has had almost 50 years experience teaching all aspects of Yoga and specializes now in workshops, retreats, and teacher training programs that focus on the science of meditation, the philosophy of Yoga, personal transformation, and Yoga breathing techniques for better health and well-being. She developed, and for 30 years has taught, the Integral Yoga Teacher Training programs in Raja Yoga and in Meditation.
Swami Karunananda served as president of Satchidananda Ashram–Yogaville in Virginia and in California, as well as director of the Integral Yoga Institutes in San Francisco and in Santa Barbara. She currently serves on the Board of Trustees, and as the chairperson of the Spiritual Life Board at Satchidananda Ashram–Yogaville, Virginia.
Interested in fostering interfaith understanding and harmony, she is featured in the interfaith documentary entitled, “With One Voice.” She also compiled and edited the Lotus Prayer Book, a collection of prayers from various faith traditions, and Enlightening Tales as told by Sri Swami Satchidananda. She served as contributing editor for The Breath of Life: Integral Yoga Pranayama, as well as a senior writer for the Integral Yoga Magazine. In her book, Awakening: Aspiration to Realization Through Integral Yoga, she describes the spiritual path and provides guidance for the journey.