Part 7 in our continuing series, Swami Kriyananda on Art & the Artist.
“When I was eighteen,” Swamiji said, “I had a revelation about meaning in art. As a consequence, I destroyed everything I had written to that point, then wrote two stories, The Singer and the Nightingale and For What Was Man Made? [later retitled, Land of Golden Sunshine].”
In an essay for his college English professor, Swamiji explained his criteria for greatness in art as “the quality of light that emanated from it.” The professor was not impressed, and gave him a flunking grade, but Swamiji knew he was right.
“For the past thirty years I’ve been trying to express in words what I understood in a flash of insight at that time.” Now he was trying again. “It has been tremendously difficult. I spent a whole afternoon working on one paragraph. I understand it intuitively, but bridging my ideas in a way others can follow—that is the challenge.”
When he finally finished writing Meaning in the Arts, he said, “I feel like a warrior after a battle.” Then hastened to add, “A victorious warrior.” He edited the two stories and put them, with Meaning in the Arts and his play, Jewel in the Lotus, into a book called Tales for the Journey.
Some spiritual traditions condemn all creativity as egoic. “This is a misunderstanding,” Swamiji said. “You can’t transcend the ego merely by suppressing it. Creativity is fundamental to the spiritual path. To grow spiritually, you must give of yourself—first to God, and then, as He inspires you, to God in others. The devotee’s constant prayer must be, ‘Lord, help me to serve You better.’ When you ask God to work through you, all work—whether artistic or mundane—becomes creative, because Spirit is ever-new. It never repeats itself, even in tiny things. Master said, ‘Every atom is dowered with individuality.’”
Master wrote poetry, music, and an autobiography that is one of the best-selling spiritual books of all time. He interpreted ancient scriptures in new ways. His Whispers from Eternity is a masterpiece of devotional literature.
To share India’s teachings in a country where they were virtually unknown required great creativity. Master crisscrossed the country, filling the largest halls in major cities with topics like Highest Science of Super-Concentration and All-round Success; Yogoda Muscle-Will System of Physical Perfection; Mastering the Subconscious Mind by Superconsciousness; Divine Healing Prayer Vibrations Administered by Yogananda to the Entire Audience (Bring Your Sick Friends); and Where Is Jesus Now and What Is He Doing?
In India, the guru is supported by his disciples. In the United States, Master had to support both himself and his disciples. He started a goat milk dairy, a carrot juice factory, a flower farm, and bought a papaya grove. At a time when vegetarianism was virtually unknown, he opened two vegetarian cafes, featuring recipes of his own invention. Mushroom burgers were a particular favorite.
During World War II, when meat was rationed, Master was concerned for all the meat-eaters who would now feel deprived. His constant prayer was, “How can I serve?” He had the idea to extract gluten from wheat and use it as a meat substitute. This became one more cottage industry for Mount Washington. Later, he gave his recipes to the Seventh-day Adventists; their Loma Linda brand is popular to this day.
“The secret of prosperity is creativity,” Swamiji said. “The opposite, ‘poverty consciousness,’ is to be locked in a limited view of reality itself. If you think there is only one way to do something, and that fails, then you fail. ‘Prosperity consciousness’ is to see an infinity of possibilities. If your first idea doesn’t work, you try another one. If that fails, you keep on generating ideas until you find the one that does succeed.
“That is how Master worked. He tried many things just to get the energy going in the right way. It is a mistake to take what he did too literally.
“Like Master, much of the time I’m just getting energy going, rather than dictating how a thing should be done. If I propose nine ideas and someone comes up with a tenth that is better, let’s go with the best idea. Too often people follow what I say dogmatically instead of creatively—then hold me responsible when it doesn’t work out!
“Positive thinking is part of it. When I say we’ll sell thousands of copies of a book, or have two hundred guests for Spiritual Renewal Week, it is part of keeping the right affirmation. But when it doesn’t happen that way, some people think I’m just a dreamer. That isn’t the case. One reason we don’t sell thousands of books or have two hundred guests is because most of you think it is impossible. I’m the only one who believes we can! If I didn’t affirm that two hundred people would come, we wouldn’t have even the thirty who do come. If all of you thought as I do—and worked as hard as I do!—we could attract millions.”
On another occasion, I was startled to hear Swamiji say, “Prosperity will be Ananda’s greatest test.”
“How could that be?” I asked in astonishment.
“When things come easily, people often stop putting out creative energy,” he said. “Instead of thinking, ‘What can I give?’ they begin to ask, ‘What can I get?’ It doesn’t happen overnight, but gradually a selfish attitude sets in, and the original spirit is lost.” Then he added, “I’m not saying it will happen, I’m only saying it could happen. What will save Ananda is the constant prayer, ‘How can I serve?’
“To be original is not to do something that’s never been done before. It is to come from your own point of origin, from the heart of your own life experience. True creativity is an outward expression of the inspiration you feel inside. Otherwise, it is just an echo of what has been done before.
“Most people think of creativity as ‘I want to create something.’ Or ‘I need to express myself.’ I have never felt the need to express myself. My only thought is, ‘How can I serve?’
“My way of creating is different. I ask God to help me express certain states of consciousness that I think would be of benefit to others. I think only of that consciousness, and it comes to me as words, music, photography, architecture—whatever it is I’m trying to do. I tune in to what is already there, then express it. Inspiration comes to those who seek it with humility toward their own achievements, and reverence toward the achievements of God.
“It is a new understanding of creativity I hope to inspire others to try.”
After he finished writing Meaning in the Arts, Swamiji went into seclusion. “I feel the most important thing for me now is to prepare myself inwardly to face the hard times ahead. Meditation is my priority.” (Swami Kriyananda: Lightbearer, 1974, pp. 69-72)