1972: Early Days of the “Great Work”

The Ananda Meditation Retreat, in the Sierra foothills, 20 miles outside of Nevada City, California. (Now known as the Seclusion Retreat. L-R: Kitchen, Dining Room, Temple)

When Master came to the United States in the 1920s, correspondence courses were just coming into vogue. He wrote several, including Advanced Course in Practical Metaphysics, New Super Cosmic Science Course, and The Praecepta Lessons. Eventually those courses were replaced by the Self-Realization Fellowship Lessons—four years of weekly mailings compiled by one of the SRF nuns from his articles and talks.

When Swamiji faced the challenge of earning money to build Ananda, a correspondence course was one solution. Two things Master taught that weren’t included in the SRF lessons were yoga postures and Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. With these as the starting point, Swamiji wrote Fourteen Steps to Higher Awareness.

He was living in San Francisco, teaching classes in a different city every night, going to Ananda on the weekends to lead retreats, then driving back to San Francisco on Sunday in time to start the whole cycle again. Often the only time he could write that week’s lesson was late on Friday night at Ananda, dictating it to a secretary.

He had been teaching for twenty years, and it wasn’t difficult, he said, to dash off reasonably adequate explanations. The course received lavish praise from the students, but “I wasn’t able to share their satisfaction,” Swamiji said. Master told him, “Be practical in your idealism.” This sometimes meant, “Do a good thing now, and a better thing later.”

In March, Swamiji decided to rewrite the course. The first version was done, he said, entirely on the basis of past experience. “A conscientious teacher should gain something personally every time he teaches. In this respect, I was not conscientious, for it was not a growing experience for me.”

Now he approached even long-familiar teachings with the question, “Can I somehow live this more deeply?” Often he had to stop in mid-paragraph and devote “a day, a week, or even longer to meditation on some subtle point that I wanted to carry deeper, or explain more simply, than I had done before.” Twice he abandoned the writing for a full month before he felt ready to resume.

The technique of Kriya Yoga is the heart of Master’s teachings. SRF has a proprietary attitude toward it, but Kriya has existed since ancient times. In Autobiography of a Yogi, Master writes, “Elijah, Jesus, Kabir, and other prophets were past masters in the use of Kriya or a similar technique.” Krishna taught it to his disciples; Saint Paul was an adept.

The Kriya technique was re-introduced in modern times by our line of Gurus. Through them, in India there are many Kriya lineages. In the early seventies in the United States, though, virtually the only Kriya lineage was Master’s, and the only way to receive initiation was from SRF. Circumstances gave SRF a monopoly, which they came to feel was theirs by right. They erroneously claimed as unique to Master, and thus exclusive to SRF, teachings that Master himself declared to be universal.

Kriya is subtle. It is not an appropriate starting point for people with no experience of meditation. It is also more than a technique; it is discipleship to this line of Gurus. Master experimented with different ways of getting people ready for Kriya, and gradually evolved the system that is mostly still followed at SRF and Ananda. The aspiring Kriya yogi first learns three, preliminary techniques, and practices them regularly for six to twelve months, which is usually sufficient to prepare him for initiation.

In SRF, the techniques are taught primarily through the correspondence lessons. At Ananda, in the early seventies, you could only learn them in person. Others besides Swamiji taught them, but only he initiated people into Kriya. In expelling Swamiji from the organization, SRF thought that they had also deprived him of the right to give Kriya. But that right had come to him from Master, and only Master could take it away.

Of the three preliminary techniques, two are widely known in India: Hong-Sau—concentration on the breath, and AUM—listening to the inner sounds. The third, the Energization Exercises, was Master’s unique contribution to the science of yoga, part of his new expression.

In the first edition of the Fourteen Steps, Swamiji referred to the techniques, but didn’t teach them. If you want to learn the techniques, he said, take the SRF lessons. Swamiji now decided it was a disservice to his students not to give them something more serious to work with. So he put Hong-Sau into the Fourteen Steps. “I knew Daya Mata would object, but since half of the subcontinent of India knows this technique, I felt I was not wrong to include it.”

She did object, expressing strong disapproval when she met Swamiji in Los Angeles later that year. In an effort to create harmony in the moment, he agreed to take Hong-Sau out of the lessons. But when he presented the idea to the community, we strongly objected. And in the end, he decided to leave it in.


Every year in April, the University of California at Davis put on a Whole Earth Fair. This year, when they offered Ananda a time slot, Swamiji decided to perform Jewel in the Lotus, a one-act play he had written.

The play is based on Master’s prediction that he would reincarnate in two hundred years. As a balance to his very public life as Yogananda, in that future incarnation he would live mostly in the Himalayas with a few disciples, hidden from view, like Babaji.

The play is set at the time of Yogananda’s reincarnation. The lead character is the Storyteller, who wanders from village to village in India, telling stories about saints, especially Paramhansa Yogananda. Gradually it is revealed that in a previous incarnation, the Storyteller had been Master’s disciple, but he had betrayed his Guru. By the time he realized his folly, it was too late to make amends—Master had left this world. In every lifetime since, the Storyteller had compensated for his betrayal by inspiring people to love Master. Now that Master was reincarnated, the Storyteller was searching for him.

The opposite character, and the comic relief, is Romesh Babu, a wealthy, rather pompous merchant. He is a good-hearted buffoon, who seems to enjoy his own character as much as the audience does. He makes fun of everything spiritual, until his heart is changed by the Storyteller.

Swamiji played the Storyteller. He asked a man in the community named Jim to play Romesh. Jim had a big presence; he was tall, husky, and outgoing. He had been elected president of his high school, and worked now as a salesman. He was also proud, ambitious, and inclined to take himself too seriously. Swamiji hoped that playing the comic Romesh would give Jim a lighter attitude toward himself.

Jim behaved respectfully toward Swamiji, but underneath, there was jealousy, and a competitive desire for power and influence. Romesh was transformed by the Storyteller; the hope was that Jim would be, too.

Swamiji directed the play. Rehearsals for Jim were all about getting him to lighten up. It was easier to demonstrate than explain, so sometimes Swamiji would read Romesh’s part. As the playwright, he knew what the real Romesh was like. Swamiji as the Storyteller was essentially playing himself; as Romesh, Kriyananda disappeared into the comical merchant. One of the other actors said, “His performance was nuanced and spot-on in terms of the character. He made Romesh so ludicrous, and at the same time so endearing, sometimes we literally fell on the floor laughing.”

In July, Ananda was the feature story in the Sunday magazine of the Los Angeles Times. Swamiji decided to follow-up this free publicity with a week of classes in Southern California and a performance of Jewel in the Lotus. So in August, the play went on the road, starting at a neighboring ashram in Grass Valley.

There it was performed outside, on a warm summer evening, without a trace of wind. The only set was a large picture of Master hanging on a tree just to the right of the stage. There is a moment in the play, when everyone realizes that the sound of distant chanting, coming from the top of Lotus Mountain, is from the disciples gathered around the re-incarnated Master. The line is, “Master is up there!”

At that exact moment, the picture slid down the tree trunk. Still facing outward, it landed on the roots with such a resounding thunk, that everyone in the audience turned to look at Master.

The next performance was at the Church of Religious Science in Reno, Nevada. The minister, Warren Chester, was a friend. Swamiji had an open invitation to come speak there whenever he wanted.

Warren had met Swamiji in 1963, at a small motel in Arizona. The couple who owned it used the income to help the local Indians. Both men stopped there to support that good cause. Swamiji was on his way back to California after several months of seclusion in the desert. Warren, a life-long Pentecostal, was on his way to Texas, to enroll in Bible college to become a minister. They met in the dining room.

“He started talking to me about spiritual things,” Warren said. “Everyone else went on eating their dinner as if nothing was happening, but to me, his voice thundered. Every word he said, I knew it was true. He spoke to me for only a short time, ate a little bit, then went to his room.

“I was a good Christian. According to the Pentecostals, yogis like him were going to Hell. But he started me on a search. I knew I was not going to Bible college. Instead I studied Religious Science, and for twenty-five years had a church in Reno.”


In Los Angeles, Swamiji spoke at several spiritual centers and a metaphysical bookstore. There were interviews on radio and television. By the end of the week he had probably reached five hundred thousand people, plus all those who had seen the magazine article.

Los Angeles would always be for Swamiji his spiritual home, for it was there he met Master and became his disciple. In India, Benares (Varanasi) is considered to be the holiest city. Master called Los Angeles the “Benares of the West.” In ancient times, he said, many saints and sages lived there. Los Angeles was an important city for Master; therefore it would always be important also to Swamiji.


One month before Swamiji was expelled from SRF, he read a magazine article by a philosophy professor who explained how the discoveries of science lead inevitably to the conclusion that life has no meaning.

“I studied his reasoning,” Swamiji wrote later, “and saw that the teachings of Master and of ancient India utterly refuted it. What a service it would be to combat those delusions thoughtfully, not by dismissing them as ridiculous, but by using the same facts and their own line of reasoning to show that entirely different conclusions were equally valid.”

Then he thought, even if he wrote such a book, SRF would never publish it. They weren’t even getting Master’s books out. “When Master told me that my work would include writing, I protested, ‘But haven’t you already written everything that needs to be said?’ Master was shocked at my obtuseness. Then he replied emphatically, ‘Much more is needed!’

“Being expelled so flattened me, that only gradually did I realize I was free now to do the work Master had given me. The inspiration for the book was Master showing me how I could serve in my own way.

“I felt a deep, inner need to justify spiritual truths and the teachings of yoga to worldly minds, and to persuade worldly people of their need for meditation. I didn’t relish the effort it would take to get that far into their way of thinking, but it was a duty I felt I had to discharge.”

When he was still in college, Swamiji’s cousin had told him she wanted to be a doctor. Thoughtfully he had replied, “A doctor helps sick people get well. I would like to help well people become super-well.” Master told Swamiji, “In past lives you were eaten up with doubts.” Perhaps it was his sympathy for those who want to believe but can’t, that made Swamiji so eager to write this book.

In order to fulfill in as short a time as possible, “an obligation that otherwise could have taken a lifetime,” Swamiji drove himself relentlessly. Still, Crises in Modern Thought (now titled Out of the Labyrinth—For Those Who Want to Believe, But Can’t) took ten years to write, the same years during which he started Ananda.

That April, Swamiji wrote, “It is time for me to change gears spiritually.” With Crises, he had done what he could to satisfy the worldly mind. “Now God wants me to reach out to souls who are already seeking, and have the germ of devotion growing within them.”


For a decade, Swamiji had been exiled from India. Finally permission was granted for him to come and plead his case in person. Friends eagerly contributed to make the trip possible.

When Swamiji was expelled from SRF, he disappeared from India and no one knew where he had gone or why. Now, as a herald of his return, one of his devoted Indian students contacted him.

Sri N. Keshava was visiting the United States for the first time, to see his sister in Oakland, California. She happened to mention an ashram she’d heard about, a few hours north, which had been founded by an American swami named Kriyananda. A little investigation proved it was the same swami he had known in India. In great excitement, Sri Keshava contacted Ananda and arranged to visit. Swamiji asked me to be his host.

Sri Keshava was now a dignified older man. In his youth, he had been part of Gandhi’s movement to free India. After independence, he had been elected the first mayor of Bangalore. He was so well known and well respected, that a letter addressed to “Sri N. Keshava, ex-mayor of Bangalore, India” would reach him.

The day after he arrived, I took him to see Swamiji. When we reached the front door, I said, “I’ll wait outside. I brought a book.” Sri Keshava was baffled, “Why don’t you come in with me?”

“You haven’t seen Swamiji in ten years. I don’t want to intrude.”

“What secrets can there be between gurubhais?” he said. “If you don’t come with me, I won’t go inside.”

I knocked on the door, and when I heard Swamiji call, we slipped off our sandals and went in. Swamiji, wearing an orange dhoti, was just coming around the partition that separated the living room from the office.

Sri N. Keshava was not particularly agile, but no time passed before he was doing a full prostration in front of Swamiji, clutching his feet, crying softly. Tears streamed from Swamiji’s eyes, too. It was the first time he had met anyone from those years in India. Reverently, he raised his right hand to his forehead, fingers pointing upward, offering to God the devotion Sri Keshava was pouring out to him.

We spent several hours together. They talked about their many mutual friends and the experiences they had shared. Swamiji gave him some advanced meditation instruction, including initiation into the higher Kriyas. I hadn’t learned those techniques, so during the initiation I had to leave the room—with Sri Keshava’s permission.

When he asked Swamiji, “Why did you leave us?” Swamiji gave only the bare facts of what happened between him and SRF. When Sri Keshava became indignant about the way SRF had treated him, Swamiji was silent, then gently guided the conversation toward other topics.


Swamiji made plans to be away for two months, leaving in November. Brighu had prophesied that someday Swamiji would go to India and disappear in samadhi (oneness with God). Would this be the time? “There is so much work to be done,” Swamiji said, “I expect to return on schedule.” Then he added with a smile, “But if God comes in a flash of light, I would not refuse to go with Him!”

It was not reassuring that he wrote his Will before leaving. Everything he owned had already been given to Ananda. Personal effects should be offered to those who would appreciate having them. The little money he had in the bank, he wanted returned to his father, who had made him a loan he hadn’t yet repaid.

We said goodbye to Swamiji in three stages. The first evening, three hours of silent meditation; the next day, a satsang; the last night, a blessing ceremony. For the blessing, the community arrived early. We made two lines, facing each other, from the doorway of the temple to the altar. When Swamiji came in, we began to chant as he walked between us, gazing deeply into the eyes of each one of us, his hands folded in pronam, a gesture of respect meaning, The God in me bows to the God in you.

We were used to having Swamiji’s constant presence and personal guidance whenever needed. This would be his first extended absence since the community started. “I have faith in you,” he said, “that’s why I feel free to leave. My absence will make you stronger—individually, and as a community.”

We had made a small wooden medallion with Master’s picture embedded in resin, which we passed from hand to hand before presenting it to Swamiji. He promised to carry it all through India, especially when he was with Anandamayi Ma, the saint in India most dear to him and also to us. In Autobiography of a Yogi, a whole chapter is devoted to her, The Joy Permeated Mother. When Swamiji lived in India, he spent many days with Ma.

“The satisfaction I feel in building Ananda,” he told us, “is not the beauty of the place or its success as a community. It is the joy of seeing Master’s love awakened in so many hearts.”

The same day he left for India, Swamiji received the first copy of Crises in Modern Thought, just delivered from the printer.

About thirty people went to San Francisco to see him off. A few of us stayed with Swamiji at his parents’ house; the rest stayed with devotees we knew in the area. The night before the flight, his parents, Ray and Gertrude Walters, invited everyone over for ice cream sundaes.

Swamiji kept the conversation light, sticking to subjects that would interest his parents. We didn’t meditate; that would have made his father uncomfortable. The kindness of his parents, the warmth of their welcome, and seeing the sweet, respectful way Swamiji related to them, especially to his mother, more than compensated.

Ray observed everything carefully like the scientist he was. We were not Swamiji’s biological children, but clearly we were his family. For his other two sons, Ray had included a provision in his Will, that if either predeceased him, that son’s share of the inheritance would go to his children. Ray now added the same provision for Swamiji, the inheritance going to whomever he designated.

In those days, airports were less strictly controlled, and we followed Swamiji right to the gate. It was a long good-bye. We stood in a circle around him as he individually blessed, and then hugged each one, sometimes giving a little personal advice. Then he walked through the gate, turning for one final wave before disappearing down the jetway. My concern proved groundless, but at the time I wondered, “Would it be months or years before we saw him again?”

Swamiji went to India via Europe, stopping first in London to see friends from the SRF days, and to give a satsang for them. Then he went to Rome to meet Renata Arlini, a dear friend who was also the SRF leader there. Renata was so inspired by seeing Swamiji, she insisted he stop in Rome on the way back from India as well and paid for the cost of changing his ticket.

 Up until now, Swamiji had honored Tara’s demand that he not contact any SRF members. But recently she had died, so he felt less bound by those restrictions. In India, too, he would be meeting SRF friends.

From Rome, he took a day trip to Assisi, the town of Saint Francis, meditating in many of the places associated with that saint’s life. “Master used to refer to Saint Francis as his patron saint,” Swamiji wrote. “He loved him for his joy and childlike simplicity. I, too, have found enormous inspiration from this beautiful saint. Reading about him, though, is very different from visiting the places where he lived and where his vibrations are a powerful, living force.

“I understood anew the value of pilgrimage: going to places not only to see, but to inwardly commune. Feeling the divine sweetness of Saint Francis, I wondered: how is it possible for anyone to be so utterly sweet? Then the answer came: by never judging anyone; by being from one’s heart a brother or a sister to all; by complete humility—but above all, by never judging.”

When Swamiji arrived in India, the visa situation dragged on for weeks. Finally some highly placed friends persuaded the government that the charges against Swami were groundless, and a visa was issued.

Swamiji wrote many letters to the community, which he later published as a book, Visits to Saints of India. “Anticipation usually exceeds fulfillment,” he wrote, “but in this case, the journey has been better than I had dreamed possible. It has deepened my perceptions of life, of myself, of God. More clearly than ever I see that the only thing that matters is to live always in the consciousness of God.”

We were especially eager to hear about his reunion with Anandamayi Ma. Starting with their first meeting in February 1959, she always showed a special affection for him. She told him, “Many thousands have come to this body”—Ma often referred to herself in an impersonal way. “None have attracted me as you have.” On another occasion she said, “There are people who have been with me for twenty-five years and more, but they haven’t taken from me what you have.” To others, she said, “Here is a lotus in a pond. Many frogs sit under the lotus, croaking. Then a bee flies in, takes the honey, and flies away. Kriyananda is that bee.”

Writing about their meeting, Swamiji said, “You may find this account disappointing, for little has happened outwardly, even though, in some ways, it was the best time I’ve ever spent with Ma. At first, I couldn’t speak. My heart filled with bliss, and I found myself crying.” Ma told him how happy she was to see him again, after so many years. Then she offered these words of advice: “Always try to do your Guru’s bidding. Don’t accept suggestions from anyone that are in conflict with his bidding.”

The reunion with his many friends was joy laced with pain. In obedience to SRF’s demand, Swamiji had never written to any of them, never explained what had happened. SRF was silent on the issue, so for ten years his Indian friends had had no idea where he had gone, or why. He had simply disappeared. Now he had to face their reproaches.

His silence, he said, was because he hadn’t wanted to draw them into “my personal hardships.” He had hoped that they would remain loyal to the work to which he had introduced them. “With what tears they answered me! Every day for all these years they had been remembering me, and praying for my return. ‘Nothing has been the same since you left. Why did it have to happen?’” Swamiji tried to explain it as God’s will and his personal karma. “But what pain it caused me to see how many people had been hurt, and so deeply, on my account. If ever I felt tempted to anger over the seeming injustices of cosmic law, it was there, in Delhi.”

As it happened, Daya Mata was also in India, traveling with two sister-disciples. Swamiji attended her satsang in Mumbai. She was courteous, but reserved. “What matter our differences?” he thought. “They love God and Gurus and want to serve them to the best of their ability. In this world of relativity, nothing is ever perfect. Only God can bring the bitter-sweet drama of life to a happy ending: endlessness in Him.”