News: a beloved friend who touched millions of hearts passed away peacefully on Sunday, April 21, 2013 in Assisi, Italy.
Swami Kriyananda — In Memoriam (1926-2013)
He was a young man of considerable intellect and a burning desire for truth that isolated him from most of his peers at the time. It was 1948, and life in post-WWII America was a desperate scramble for normalcy. Millions of young people were seeking home, family, and career—anything that could sooth the horrors of war and the insecurity of the Depression.
But James Donald Walters knew that kind of life would not bring him what he was looking for. He was hungry to know what life was really about. Why we lived, what we were here to understand. Was there a Truth that could be known? He hadn’t found it in philosophy, churches, nature, or simple living, though he had tried them all.
The first wave of what would later become many spiritual teachers from the East began in America in the 1890s with a lecture tour by Vivekananda. Paramhansa Yogananda (1893–1952) followed soon after, and became the first Indian yogi to make his home in America. Though he met two Presidents and lectured to many thousands around the country for years, it wasn’t until his Autobiography of a Yogi was published in 1946 that Yogananda became known to a much wider audience. Eastern spirituality was just beginning to awaken Western minds in the 20th century with the possibility of direct, personal experience of transcendent spiritual realities. Ideas like meditation and yoga were introduced to Americans by these two early yoga masters.
Walters read the Autobiography virtually without stop, and was overcome with the certainty that the author knew how to find what he was seeking. He boarded a bus and traveled cross-country for three days and nights to arrive at a Self-Realization Fellowship church where Yogananda had just lectured. Yogananda agreed to meet him because “Divine Mother told me to see you.” In that first meeting, he accepted the young man as a disciple. From Kriyananda’s description of that meeting in The New Path:
Gazing at me now with deep love, Yogananda said, “I give you my unconditional love.”
Immortal promise! I couldn’t begin to fathom the depth of meaning in those words.
“Will you give me your unconditional love?”
“And will you also give me your unconditional obedience?”
Desperately though I desired acceptance, I had to be utterly honest. “Suppose, sometime,” I asked, “I think you’re wrong?”
“I will never ask anything of you,” he solemnly replied, “that God does not tell me to ask.”
He continued, “When I met my master, Sri Yukteswar, he said to me, ‘Allow me to discipline you.’ ‘Why, Sir?’ I inquired. ‘Because,’ he replied, ‘in the beginning of the spiritual path one’s will is guided by whims and fancies. Mine was, too,’ Sri Yukteswar continued, ‘until I met my guru, Lahiri Mahasaya. It was only by attuning my haphazard will to his wisdom-guided will that I found true freedom.’ In the same way, if you attune your will to mine, you too will find freedom. To act only on the inspiration of whims and fancies is not freedom, but bondage. Only by doing God’s will can you find what you are seeking.”
“I see,” I replied thoughtfully. Then from my heart I said, “I give you my unconditional obedience!”
My Guru continued: “When I met my master, he gave me his unconditional love, as I have given you mine. He then asked me to love him the same way, unconditionally. But I replied, ‘Sir, what if I should ever find you less than a Christlike master? Could I still love you the same way?’ My master looked at me sternly. ‘I don’t want your love,’ he said. ‘It stinks!’”
“I understand, Sir,” I assured him. He’d struck at the heart of my greatest weakness: intellectual doubt. With deep feeling I said to him, “I give you my unconditional love!”
He placed the forefinger of his right hand on my chest over the heart. For at least two minutes his arm vibrated almost violently. Incredibly, from that moment on, my consciousness in some all-penetrating manner was transformed.
I left his interview room in a daze. Norman, on hearing that I’d been accepted, embraced me lovingly. It was unusual, to say the least, for anyone to be accepted so quickly. A few moments later, Master came out from behind the open curtain on the lecture platform. Smiling at us quietly, he said:
“We have a new brother.”
Unlike the 1960s when many young people were drawn to Eastern teachers, few came to live in Yogananda’s monastery. And relatively few stayed. It was a life of long, daily meditation and service to others. But Walters blossomed. He had a natural capacity for long meditation, a deep mind, and an openness to learning. Yogananda knew one of his own had come. He soon made 22-year-old Walters head of the male monastics, brought him to his desert retreat to help with editing his writings, and told him on several occasions, “You have a great work to do.” He spent many hours talking about the teachings of Yoga to his young disciple, and said that he would become a writer and a teacher. When Walters protested that he didn’t feel adequate to the task of teaching, Yogananda replied sternly, “Living for God is martyrdom!” And then more gently he added, “You’d better learn to like it, for that is what you will have to do.”
And thus began a life of service to his guru that can scarcely be imagined, except that hundreds of people personally witnessed it, some for as long as 40 years themselves on the path, working shoulder to shoulder with him. For a span of nearly 65 ceaselessly busy years, Walters (Swami Kriyananda) expended every ounce of energy in fulfilling his guru’s work. That included writing some 150 books, teaching nearly continuously in America, Europe, and recently also throughout India to audiences in the thousands, founding ten spiritual communities around the world (a long-cherished dream of Yogananda’s), composing hundreds of pieces of music, establishing a new model for children’s education (Education for Life schools), keeping up with endless correspondence, praying for those in need, offering training and mentoring to countless students on the spiritual path in ways that were unique to the needs of each individual. Despite increasingly frail health, he continued a breakneck pace of teaching and writing even in his eighties until just weeks before his passing that left companions in their twenties racing to keep up.
Swami Kriyananda lived by two principles: “People are more important than things” and “Where there is adherence to dharma, there is victory.” These ideals guided the development of the Ananda communities begun by him in the 1960s. He clung to them against all “common sense”—such as when the first community burned to the ground and all that was left was one home. The cause was found to be a county vehicle. Neighbors sued and won, but Kriyananda wrote to the county saying he had no intention of suing. “We didn’t come here to take, but to give,” he said. What little money the community raised it gave first to families who wanted to leave. Those who remained built again over time, and soon the community was flourishing beyond anything before the fire.
“The only way I want people to remember me,” said Swami Kriyananda, “is that, ‘He was a good disciple.’” Those who worked with him closely could verify that his only desire was to serve his guru’s work. Whether it was will power or love, or a peculiar grace, it was the fruit of what yogis say are lifetimes of effort. In his last years, he could hardly speak without tears. He often spoke of indescribable states of bliss, and when you looked into his eyes, you felt it too. He found the Truth he’d been seeking. And he told us we would find it, too. That Truth has long been the promise of the sacred texts of East and West. But not many make the effort. “The harvest is plenteous,” said Jesus. “But the laborers are few.” Farewell to one who labored well. And who showed the way, so others might do the same.
Swami Kriyananda passed away peacefully in Assisi, Italy at 8 am on Sunday, April 21, 2013. He was 86.
More About Swami Kriyananda
Swami Kriyananda (J. Donald Walters) has been a tireless proponent of Yoga principles for 60 years. In 1948 at the age of twenty-two, he became a disciple of the Indian yoga master, Paramhansa Yogananda.
At Yogananda’s request, Swami Kriyananda devoted his life to lecturing and writing, helping others to experience the joy and living presence of God within. He taught on four continents in seven languages over the course of more than 60 years. His television program, audio and video recordings of his talks and music, and his many books in 28 languages have touched the lives of millions of people.
Swami Kriyananda has taken the ancient teachings of Raja Yoga and made them accessible to people in every walk of life. His books and teachings cover nearly every field of human endeavor, including spiritualizing business life, leadership, education, the arts, community life, and science. He has written extensive commentaries on the Bible and the Bhagavad Gita.
Swami Kriyananda is also known as the “father of the intentional communities movement” which began in the United States in the late 1960s. Inspired by his guru’s dream of establishing spiritual communities, in 1968 he founded the first of what are now nine Ananda communities worldwide. They provide a supportive environment of “simple living and high thinking” where 1,000 full-time residents live, work, and worship together.
“The time has come for people to live lives of even higher dedication than that which inspired monks and nuns of the past…The time has come for people to direct their spiritual awareness also downward into matter…to everything they do: their work, to education, to family life, to friendship, to their communications with strangers, to the way they build their homes—to all the most mundane, practical aspects of daily, human life. Men need now to become God-centered from within, and from that center to see God everywhere, in everything.”
—Swami Kriyananda, Cities of Light
A monastic nearly all of his adult life, Swami Kriyananda is a Swami of the Giri (Mountain) branch of the Swami Order, as was his guru and his guru’s guru, Swami Sri Yukteswar. He has been the Dharmacharya (leading according to Dharma) and spiritual guide for Ananda communities and activities worldwide. His successor is Nayaswami Jyotish.
Honors and awards
- 2012 International Book Award for Best New Spirituality Book for Paramhansa Yogananda: A Biography With Personal Reflections & Reminiscences
- 2012 Letter from the Mayor of the City of Los Angeles (Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa): “For over 50 years, Swami Kriyananda has shed a spiritual and reflective light into the world, across continents and into the lives of individuals. We thank him for his many accomplishments and for sharing the life and teachings of yogi Paramhansa Yogananda.”
- Appointed to the Board of Vedanta Today (2009)
- Recipient of the Eric Hoffer Award (self-help/spiritual books) and the USA Book News Award (spiritual category) for The New Path (2009)
- Recipient of the Yoga nel mondo Award by the Milan and Rome Yoga Festival with this tribute: “To the Master Swami Kriyananda, enlightened representative of the yoga science and philosophy, and indefatigable supporter and major spokesman of the bridge between East and West” (May 2008)
- Appointed Honorary Member of the International Yoga Confederation of New Delhi, and Honorary Member of the World Movement for Yoga ( May 2008)
- Recipient of the 1st Conacreis Award (National Coordination of the Ethical, Interior and Spiritual Centers) to honor Swami Kriyananda’s dedication to the building of spiritual communities worldwide (May 2008)
- Honorary Member of The Club of Budapest International (May 2008)
- Beacon of Light Lifetime Achievement Award, presented by the National Interfaith Council (2007)
- Pioneer in Yoga Award, presented by the Los Angeles Yoga Fellowship in (2007)
- Recipient of the Julius Caesar Medal in Rome in 2007. It represents the keys to the City, and is conferred as one of the greatest honors to heads of state.
- Recipient of the Premio Ponte 2007 del Consorzio Per i Libri (Bridge Award of the Consortium for Books) for “affirming the principles of union between East and west, spreading throughout the world the ancient principles of Yoga and the spiritual teachings of the highest Indian tradition of Self-realization, making them practical and at the same available to people of every social level, and applicable in every area of daily life.” (2007)
- Member of The Club of Budapest International. Other members include Mikhail Gorbachev, the Dalai Lama, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. (2005)
- Recipient of International Award for Goodness by Tara Gandhi, granddaughter of Mahatma Gandhi. Previous recipients include the Dalai Lama. Milan, Italy (2004)
- Lifetime Achievement Award, Unity in Yoga Conference, Snowmass, CO (1995)
Swami speaking at Smithwick Theatre in 2012 in the San Francisco Bay Area
“Swami Kriyananda is a man of wisdom and compassion in action, truly one of the leading lights in the spiritual world today. His work and life of selfless service are an inspiration to us all.”
—Lama Surya Das, author Awakening The Buddha Within
“…a wise teacher whose words convey love and compassion.”
—Dr. Larry Dossey, author of Healing Words
Founder of Ananda
Fulfillment of Yogananda’s dream of spiritual communities
Since his youth, Kriyananda had dreamed of utopian communities. But few others shared his enthusiasm, and he gradually put his dreams aside. He was surprised, then, to discover Yogananda speaking often about the need for "world-brotherhood colonies" as environments that would foster spiritual attitudes: humility, trust, devotion, respect for others, and friendly cooperation.
It was at a garden party on July 31, 1949 that Yogananda gave a talk that changed the course of Swami Kriyananda’s life. With tremendous energy, Yogananda declared to the audience:
“This day marks the birth of a new era. My spoken words are registered in the ether, in the Spirit of God, and they shall move the West...We must go on—not only those who are here, but thousands of youths must go North, South, East, and West to cover the earth with little colonies, demonstrating that simplicity of living plus high thinking lead to the greatest happiness!”
Swami Kriyananda wrote afterwards, “I was moved to my core. It would not have surprised me had the heavens opened up and host of angels come streaming out, eyes ablaze, to do his bidding. Deeply, I vowed that day to do my utmost to make his words a reality.”
In 1967, the opportunity came, with the help of many miracles, large and small. Kriyananda was able to purchase a small piece of land in the Sierra Nevada foothills near Nevada City, California, and started to begin what is now known as Ananda Village. Though thousands of “utopian” communities were started during the late 1960s, only a handful remain today—among them Ananda. More than 300 people live in this first Ananda community. A variety of Ananda-owned and private businesses form the economic backbone of the community. The Expanding Light meditation retreat, a publishing company, schools for children, and a grocery store are among the activities on the rolling 1,000 acres in the rural Sierra foothills. Homes and gardens are well-cared for, and there is a palpable feeling of harmony. Visitors are welcome year-round: (800) 346-5350.
Other Ananda communities have developed over the years to include Ananda Palo Alto, Ananda Sacramento, Ananda Portland, Ananda Seattle, Ananda Los Angeles, Ananda East, Ananda Assisi in Italy, and Ananda India near New Delhi. Each community has a spiritual focus (a teaching center and temple) and a community (apartments or homes where members may live). The community in Mountain View, for example, is a large apartment complex with 100 residents, landscaped grounds, pool, shared community room, and temple for group meditations: (650) 941-9507.
Swami Kriyananda’s leadership style is at the heart of Ananda’s success. He endeavored to uplift people however possible, through writing, lecturing, music, and acts of kindness. He trained a large number of his students to teach and to assume leadership responsibility in the same way, as free as possible from personal concern, placing the spiritual needs of others primary in any decision.
He was a patient and sensitive teacher, allowing people to learn by experience, and putting the needs of individuals above the organization. “People are more important than things” is one of the guiding principles of Ananda life; leaving things undone is preferable when there is spiritual benefit to someone in the middle of learning a hard life lesson. “Where there is adherence to dharma [right action], there is victory” is another of Ananda’s guiding principles. Learn more about his life and guiding principles in Swami Kriyananda As We Have Known Him by Asha Praver (Download PDF). Kriyananda has encouraged his students to live in harmony with others, but also to speak out with courage when true principles are at stake.
More about Swami Kriyananda’s service and activities:
“There is a peace and quietness surrounding him that give a hint of his spiritual stature. Many times have I listened to him speak, and always have come away feeling refreshed and energized. It is not only the lectures, the teachings, and the books of J. Donald Walters that shed light on areas of darkness or confusion in people’s lives. Above all, perhaps, it is the example of the man himself, the peace and calm that surround him, the spiritual power that emanates from him, that point the way to each person’s own inner enlightenment.”
—John Harricharan, Body, Mind, & Spirit magazine
Curriculum Vitae (PDF)