How Spiritual Communities Can Save the World: A Conversation with Swami Kriyananda

The following conversation with Swami Kriyananda took place in 1988, five years after the founding of Ananda Europa, a new community and teaching center near Assisi, Italy, and twenty years after the creation of the original Ananda community, Ananda Village, near Nevada City, California.

Q: How is the spiritual life different in America, from other countries where Ananda has started communities, particularly in Italy and India?

A: The internal life is something very difficult to develop in America. America, like Ananda, was built of necessity on a pioneering spirit. We had to build cities, farms, and homes from nothing, and we’ve had to do it in a very short time, whereas Europe had many centuries to develop.

The members of the original Ananda community — all of them! — in 1969. Click to enlarge.

American energy, therefore, is very high and dynamic, very vital, but it lacks the contemplative spirit. People tend to want to do things, more than figure out what it all means.

Yet the spiritual life requires both, actually; not excluding the material life but including the inner life. If we can bring about that balance first in Assisi, and later in India, I think it will help round out our spirit at Ananda in America. People will feel drawn to meditate more and will rely less on outward fellowship.

Q: Would you like to see the families at Ananda able to spend more time in seclusion and spiritual practice – a more inward life?

A: That’s what the spiritual path is about. It’s not about having more time for seclusion, necessarily. But the path is about being with God. And being in seclusion occasionally can be very helpful to that. Certainly, I would like to see more of that.

However, it doesn’t mean that we have to forsake our responsibilities. It’s not one or the other. It’s learning to keep a balance between the two. As Americans, I think our tendency is to go more toward the outer. It will be helpful if we can be influenced by those who are more involved in the inner life. People at Ananda have that consciousness. And it’s especially true in India. Assisi, actually, has much more of a devotional feeling, a feeling that life is short, and we are here for God.

Q: You’ve said that people in future will feel that Ananda was one of the most significant events of the twentieth century. Can you elaborate?

Q: I think what we need is to get back to human values – but in a higher octave.

The village life of past centuries was a meaningful life, but it was self-enclosed, where the villagers tended to think of the people in the next village as foreigners, and so on.

Italy, in fact, is a very good example of this sort of insularity, even today. It has something like 230 dialects. I’ve read that in the city of Palermo alone, there are seven dialects, some of which are incomprehensible to the others.

So much for the past. In the twentieth century, we saw two currents developing. The first was an explosive increase in transportation and communication, both of which have dissolved barriers between nations and diverse cultures. We hear nowadays the term “global village.”

The second is that we’ve developed a more impersonal view of man – man in relation to machines, man in relation to cosmic realities, man in relation to scientific discoveries that reduce him almost to a statistic. And there has been a tendency to lose sight of man as individual. Yet if you don’t understand man as an individual, you’ll never understand people en masse.

The greatest need now is to reaffirm human values, to reaffirm human contacts, and to do so on an idealistic level rather than with the gossipy, bigoted, insular kind of attitude that was so common in the past. That was the unfortunate side of village life. And we don’t find that aspect of village life at Ananda.

News spreads quickly at Ananda – but it is never in a gossipy spirit. It’s more in a spirit of sharing. We find, indeed, in this community that there is a feeling that the whole world is our community.

Ananda is not isolated spiritually. We share consciously and joyfully with others. Small communities with that kind of sharing spirit are what the world needs today – to clarify and affirm a spirit of cooperation among all nations, and to reaffirm human values again. For lack of human values, scientific progress has been becoming increasingly sterile.

There is another, even more important reason why communities like Ananda are needed. Devotees who want to know God need the company of others of like mind. In the past, single people could at least enter monasteries. But this is a time for a broader definition of religious community – one that will include couples and families.

Perhaps this is due to a change in mass consciousness. Perhaps it is only due to the fact that modern progress has freed householders to pursue a higher calling. At any rate, many people now, whether married or single, want to live for God. The inspiration of people living together, all dedicated to high spiritual ideals, and strengthening one another in their calling, is a great need of our age.

Q: Do you see groups and communities like Ananda working together? Or will they tend to maintain a separation and keep their own integrity?

A: I think all of the communities I have encountered would like to have more communication, cooperation, and friendship. It’s an ideal. But I haven’t seen it happening. Nor have I seen us initiating the process. We’ve talked about it for years, and we’ve done what we could. When a forest fire in 1976 burned most of our original community, quite a few people came from other communities and to help. And when others have had difficult times, we’ve helped them.

The truth is, we’re busy doing what we’re doing. We simply haven’t the time to do as much “networking” as we’d like, and as we believe in.

People ask me from time to time what I think of a certain teaching, of this movement or that teacher. And I like to respond supportively, and when I can, I do. But unfortunately, I haven’t the time to read about everything that is going on. I’m too busy, and we‘re too busy, doing what we’re doing.

And I think it’s better that way. A sharing spirit is what’s needed, not a meddling one. People who busy themselves with looking into what everybody else is doing tend not to be creative themselves.

What I think should probably evolve is a spirit of fellowship, more than actually doing things together, except as special occasions arise.

In principle, we at Ananda give our love to all. We hold ourselves open to all. We welcome and honor those who come to us from other groups.

From an economic standpoint – leaving aside for a moment the spiritual – if we should enter a serious depression, I think it would be wonderful for communities to specialize in things they could sell to one another. One community could make shoes for the other communities, for example..

Mahatma Gandhi, who had a lot of experience with the village life of India, estimated that a community needs at least a thousand people to be economically viable. With that many people, for example, one shoemaker would have enough customers to make a living. But how many intentional communities are that large? We’re one of the largest, and we’re less than one quarter that size.

We could have that minimal number, however, if we broadened our base. In coordination with other communities, it would be possible to work out some sort of system where each community specialized in supplying certain needs for the others. This seems an idea worth trying. Whether it would be practical would remain to be seen.

From a spiritual standpoint, coordination of activities might prove more difficult. Most intentional communities probably believe in the oneness of all religions. Ananda does, certainly. But even when friendly groups try to communicate on a level of oneness, they may be obliged to reduce communication to basics. In particular ways, every group is different. They have different teachers, different techniques, sometimes even different fundamentals.

Let’s say we want to communicate with a Christian group that loves everything we do, except our belief in reincarnation. In order to communicate with them and have fellowship with them, we wouldn’t want to talk about reincarnation. And they, possibly, would want to downplay their traditional emphasis on the crucifixion. Before we knew it, we might each find ourselves diluting certain teachings that we are, in fact, dedicated to spreading. Even if we recognized many of our differences as superficial, still, where ideas are involved, where does one draw the line?

I remember in the early years at Ananda, the staff were cooking in the retreat kitchen, and someone came in and cried, “No! No! Krishna doesn’t like onions!”

“Well,” replied the cook, “Yogananda didn’t mind onions.” (laughs)

Q: Yogananda predicted, “World brotherhood colonies will spread like wildfire.” Yet the wildfire of interest in this ideal seems, so far, to be well contained – to put it mildly! People everywhere respect us for what we do, but we don’t see them in large numbers saying, “It makes sense to live like that! How can I join the nearest community and move in?” Will we have to experience a real economic cataclysm, or a breakdown of our current system, to get to a point where people become more inclined to think in terms of creating communities where they can have a better way of life?

A: I’m sure its true – that a depression will turn people’s minds more toward this way of life. But let’s also see this question from another angle.

Look at Jesus’ life. He died, we’re told, in the year 33 A.D. We don’t hear all that much about Christianity in the remainder of that century. Whatever happened comprises a very tiny portion, in any case, of the long history of Christianity. And we don’t really see it emerging as a religion for another 300 or 400 years, or even longer. The formal confession of the Christian faith wasn’t formulated until the First Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325. It was officially reaffirmed at the First Council of Constantinople in A.D. 381.

Q: So it’s a matter of looking at a longer rhythm?

A: It’s a much longer rhythm, when what’s involved is a mission for a whole age, as Paramhansa Yogananda’s work is. In this case, you don’t think in terms of decades, but of centuries. What we’ll see happen may not happen in my lifetime. It may not happen in your lifetime. But it will happen, however gradually.

“Wildfire” can also be an expression to cover a century, rather than the fad of a single year. When you look at the life of St. Francis and the movement he started, you see a development that embraced decades. The effect lasted, but it took maybe a century to be felt everywhere.

Q: Part of the uniqueness of Ananda, as you have said, is the integration of householders and families into a new kind of spiritual community for this age. In Autobiography of a Yogi, Paramhansa Yogananda quotes Babaji: “Give Kriya to all who humbly ask you for help, including householders encumbered by family ties and heavy worldly duties.” He said that it would be for them “a sweet new breath of divine hope.” In light of this, how do you believe the householders are doing at Ananda, in terms of integrating their family and spiritual life?

A: I think they’re doing beautifully. Back in the 1940s, Yogananda tried to start a spiritual community, but he found that the timing wasn’t right. People simply weren’t ready. America was coming out of a depression, and people were reacting by clinging almost fiercely to material and personal values.

I don’t think that, if another depression comes, the reaction will be the same. I believe it will be more spiritual. At that time, after the Second World War, however, there was a strong sense of “My home is my castle.” There was even a feeling of shame in not being well-off, as though riches were themselves a fundamental life value.

I don’t see this happening now. People are more interested in sharing. If another depression comes, I think there will be a sense, rather, of “How we can do things together?”

People in the 1940s weren’t ready to live in intentional communities. Householders, especially, who came to live in Yogananda’s “colonies” couldn’t conceive of giving up their own desires, their own comfort, their own security, in order to serve a larger mission. They weren’t ready to be disciplined. They weren’t ready to compromise with the needs of a larger group. Even Yogananda, who was a great Master, couldn’t discipline them the way he could with the monastics. Whatever he said to one spouse would awaken a defensive attitude in the other, instead of the sage understanding: “Why not listen to him? After all, he’s your guru.”

That kind of attitude has changed radically. I find that the people here don’t tend to pull up the drawbridge to prevent access by others. There’s a great deal of sharing here at Ananda. In fact, some of the people who give the most are householders.

So then, what do we still need at Ananda? What we need more of now is the inspiration of people who are living a more impersonal life. Monastics could perform this function better than householders. All the sharing and joyful cooperation we find here is beautiful, but from the standpoint of our spiritual goals, it may be said that there has developed perhaps too much a sense of outward community, at the expense of our real fellowship in God. I think all of us feel we would like to develop a more impersonal life now.

It’s more difficult for householders, particularly with children, to set that kind of example, no matter how dedicated they are. Maybe someday it will be possible for them, too, to develop that attitude. It’s an attitude, however, that comes more naturally to monastics. If we had a group of single monastics at Ananda, they could uphold this ideal. Their example would also influence the householders to live more in this consciousness. As devotees, we must always remember that God is inside.

[In 2009, Swami Kriyananda created a new branch of the ancient monastic Swami order that is open to householders. The Nayaswami Order now has approximately 600 members worldwide.]

We have much cause to be grateful for this wonderful community that God has given us. Let us never forget, though, that life itself, and everything we do in life, is still only a dream. Community is not our reality. Our reality is God. Ananda should be viewed as a means to an end, not as an end in itself. The end should be our relationship to God.

Living with others who are on the path, living with others who love God, rather than with people whose interests are worldly – this is a great blessing. It’s a blessing to live with others who can strengthen us in our spiritual search. But we shouldn’t feel, therefore, that we have a new reality. The reality is always God within. If there’s any direction we need at Ananda right now, it is that.


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