The Yogic View of Jesus Christ
by Quincy Howe
Yoga went global in the 20th century. Now it seems likely that the divisive chasm between Christian teaching and India’s ancient spiritual science will finally be bridged here in the 21st. Paramahansa Yogananda’s new book, The Second Coming of Christ, holds out this promise, arguing that the division has always been superficial. The implications for yoga practitioners in the West—and for society at large—are enormous.
The Underground River
The traditional Christian teachings hold that Jesus Christ came to the world in order to reconcile the fallen children of the Lord to their creator. The means of redemption was for Christians to believe from the depths of their soul that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was full payment for the arrogance and disobedience of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
This is the mainstream of Christian belief. Less visible but no less ancient is an underground river—a body of esoteric belief—that depicts Jesus as a mystic, as a yogi teaching in the manner of Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita. The essence of these esoteric teachings is that if we explore our own soul in the depths of meditation, we will find that we are partners with Christ in our access to cosmic consciousness.
Yogananda also shows that Jesus, like a guru in the yoga tradition, is acquainted with the realms—the lokas—to which the soul may travel.
With the publication of The Second Coming of Christ, that underground river has burst through the bedrock of the ages. The argument for mystical Christianity no longer needs to be assembled from isolated fragments spanning the past 2,000 years—the Gospel of Thomas, the musings of the desert fathers, the neo-Platonism of Plotinus, the strangely yogic insights of Meister Eckhart. Now we have a 1,700-page commentary on the Gospel story that finds, in the words of Jesus, a fully developed vision of the path of meditation and the science of God-realization. To read Yogananda’s commentary is to discover that Jesus was preaching the same doctrine of spiritual self-discovery that Krishna, the apostle of yoga, preached to his disciple Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita.
This is true not only of the passages that point explicitly to inner spirituality, but also of passages that are oblique or puzzling. To start with a passage that is an obvious summons to meditation, let us consider Luke 17:20–21. “And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, ‘The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.’”
For Yogananda this statement is clearly in the tradition of Raja Yoga (meditation as the “royal” or highest path to God-union). He writes in The Second Coming of Christ:
Jesus addresses man as the perennial seeker of permanent happiness and freedom from all suffering: “The Kingdom of God—of eternal, immutable, ever-newly blissful cosmic consciousness—is within you. Behold your soul as a reflection of the immortal Spirit, and you will find your Self encompassing the infinite empire of God-love, God-wisdom, God-bliss existing in every particle of vibratory creation and in the vibrationless Transcendental Absolute.”
The teachings of Jesus about God’s kingdom—sometimes in direct language, sometimes in parables pregnant with metaphysical meaning—may be said to be the core of the entirety of his message. (pp. 1177–78)
Many people think of heaven as a physical location, a point of space far above the atmosphere and beyond the stars….In fact, the kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven consist, respectively, of the transcendental infinitudes of Cosmic Consciousness and the heavenly causal and astral realms of vibratory creation that are considerably finer and more harmonized with God’s will than those physical vibrations clustered together as planets, air, and earthly surroundings. (p. 1179)
The above passages bear no resemblance to conventional biblical exegesis. There is no scholarly examination of the wording. There is no attempt to recreate the intellectual climate of Judaea 2,000 years ago. Here Yogananda is speaking with the voice of the spiritual visionary, the voice of Patanjali, Shankara, and the Old Testament prophets. These are the sages who stand, not on the authority of their learning and intellect, but on their anubhava, their unmediated knowledge of spiritual truth.
Yogananda finds yogic truth in the words, “The kingdom of God is within you,” as he does in all of Jesus’ sayings. Take, for example, John 14:1–2, a passage whose meaning is anything but clear. Jesus says, “Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you.” Yogananda comments as follows:
When Jesus said, “Let not your heart be troubled,” he voiced an exact parallel to a profound spiritual aphorism in the Yoga Sutras, the preeminent ancient treatise on Raja Yoga. There the illumined sage Patanjali says that yoga, union with God, is possible only by stilling the restlessness of the heart (chitta, the feeling faculty of consciousness).
Thus when Jesus says, “In my Father’s house are many mansions,” he warns his disciples that unless they attain Cosmic Consciousness, after death they would have to dwell on one of the variously graded planes of existence where unredeemed souls go according to their merits and demerits. His promise, “I go to prepare a place for you,” refers to the fact that the blessings of a true guru can help his disciples to gain a better place in the many-mansioned vibratory spheres in the after-death state. (pp. 1371–72)
Here, Yogananda leaps headlong into the metaphysics, psychology, and space-time concepts of yoga philosophy and claims that throughout the entire Gospel narrative Jesus speaks to his disciples exactly as a guru speaks to his chelas(disciples). His immediate task is to clear their spiritual path of the delusional debris that stand in the way of deep meditation.
Yogananda also shows that Jesus, like a guru in the yoga tradition, is acquainted with the realms—the lokas—to which the soul may travel. The traditional geography of hell, purgatory, limbo, and heaven is bypassed. (Traditional Christianity envisions each soul as a pilgrim traveler in this dark and troubled world, headed toward some indeterminate rapture where time and space shall cease to be.) Yogananda aligns Jesus with the great mystics of India, finding in his words a full vision of the yogi’s emancipation in spirit. In this view, the soul of man moves from life to life through many layers of spiritual space until the dross of the ages, cleansed by meditation, gives way to the unitive immersion of the individual self in universal spirit.
Yogananda finds a blueprint of the yogic journey in the precise physiology of yoga practice as well as in Jesus’ words. One of the more obscure sayings of Jesus can be found in John 3:14–15. “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” Anyone acquainted with the subtle energies in yoga practice will recognize an old friend at the mention of the serpent. Yogananda once again seizes upon the yogic essence of these words when he writes:
The word “serpent” here refers metaphorically to man’s consciousness and life force in the subtle coiled passageway at the base of the spine, the matterward flow of which is to be reversed for man to reascend from body attachment to superconscious freedom…. Throughout the Gospels, he [Jesus] spoke of his own physical body as “the Son of man,” as distinguished from his Christ Consciousness, “the Son of God.” (p. 259)
Jesus said that each son of man, each bodily consciousness, must be lifted from the plane of the senses to the astral kingdom by reversing the matter-bent outflowing of the life force to ascension through the serpent-like coiled passage at the base of the spine—the Son of man is lifted up when this serpentine force is uplifted, “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness.” (p. 263)
Such is the “serpent force” (kundalini) in the microcosm of the human body: the coiled current at the base of the spine, a tremendous dynamo of life that when directed outward sustains the physical body and its sensory consciousness; and when consciously directed upward, opens the wonders of the astral cerebrospinal centers. (pp. 264–65)
Once there is talk of the kundalini current and the astral cerebrospinal centers, Yogananda’s discussion has gone beyond the mystical Christianity of the desert fathers and Meister Eckhart. We are now deeply immersed in the esoteric language of yoga meditation. Here Jesus is not just a mystic in the sense that he seeks God in the temple of inner silence. He is a yogi in the sense that he is fully cognizant of the flow of energy and the ascent of consciousness as one attains elevated states of consciousness.
For the conventional Christian, steeped in a 2,000-year tradition of Jesus as the savior of all humanity—past, present, and future—by freely giving himself over to crucifixion, this is a reorientation of seismic proportions.
But as Yogananda delves into the life and background of Jesus, it becomes clear that the Gospels contain a universal esoteric message that has been awaiting full and systematic explication since the apostolic age. In Yogananda’s commentary, what had been veiled, obscure, and oblique is fully disclosed.
Coming unto the Father
The Second Coming of Christ tells the story of Christ’s life in chronological order. His birth, his travels, his ministry, his parables, his death, and his resurrection are narrated following the King James Version of the New Testament. This narrative is supported by Yogananda’s extensive commentary. The result is a massively annotated presentation of what might be called mystical Christianity or esoteric Christianity. Inherent in Yogananda’s view is the demonstrable fact that Jesus himself is a yoga master.
We must know Jesus as an Oriental [Eastern] Christ, a supreme yogi who manifested full mastery of the universal science of God-union, and thus could speak and act as a savior with the voice and authority of God. He has been Westernized too much.
Jesus was an Oriental, by birth and blood and training. To separate a teacher from the background of his nationality is to blur the understanding through which he is perceived. No matter what Jesus the Christ was himself, as regards his own soul, being born and maturing in the Orient [East], he had to use the medium of Oriental civilization, customs, mannerisms, language, parables, in spreading his message….
Though, esoterically understood, the teachings of Jesus are universal, they are saturated with the essence of Oriental culture—rooted in Oriental influences which have been made adaptable to the Western environment. (pp. 90–91)
For the mystic, salvation consists not in a redemptive gesture from on high, but rather in grasping the reality that the individual self is now and always has been perfect, one with the Universal Self.
When Jesus is seen as an Easterner, mystical Christianity breaks away from many deeply embedded traditions and beliefs. First, mystical Christianity becomes a path of spiritual union rather than a path of salvation. The impediment against which the mystic works is a clouded and obscure vision of the immediacy of God. For the mystic, salvation consists not in a redemptive gesture from on high, but rather in grasping the reality that the individual self is now and always has been perfect, one with the Universal Self.
Second, mystical Christianity rends the heavy mantle of time that encumbers the believer’s journey toward redemption. In the temple of inner silence, God himself is immediately available to the accomplished aspirant. The mystical Christian is not constrained to look ahead to some kind of revelation or last judgment at the end of time. The end of time is literally a heartbeat away, and God’s full self-disclosure can happen at any moment.
Third, the physical body is not an impediment to coming face-to-face with God. No longer is the mystical Christian required to walk the path of faith where the best we can expect is to perceive as “through a glass darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12). We have direct access to the fullness of cosmic consciousness in our present frail and mortal condition. The ancient and proven science of yoga can subdue and penetrate the natural turbulence of the body.
Thus, The Second Coming of Christ continues the legacy of the Sanatana Dharma—the perennial philosophy that proclaims the bliss of God as the overarching goal of all religious practice. This consummation is available to one and all, and the apparent exclusivity of Christ’s claim, “No man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14:6), becomes a promise to all humanity, irrespective of creed. Yogananda quotes his own guru, Swami Sri Yukteswar, in these words:
Jesus meant, never that he was the sole Son of God, but that no man can attain the unqualified Absolute, the transcendent Father beyond creation, until he has first manifested the “Son” or activating Christ Consciousness within creation. Jesus, who had achieved entire oneness with that Christ Consciousness, identified himself with it inasmuch as his own ego had long since been dissolved. (p. 1373)
Yogananda elaborates further in his own words: The Christ Consciousness present in Jesus, and in all vibratory creation and phenomena, is the noumenon, “truth,” the primary substance and essence of life of everything in creation. No human being who is a part of vibratory creation can take his consciousness to Cosmic Consciousness, “the Father”—which lies beyond vibratory creation and the immanent Christ Consciousness—without first experiencing the Christ-imbued Cosmic Vibration, or Holy Ghost, that manifests vibratory creation, then passing through the God-reflection of Christ Consciousness. In other words, to “come unto the Father” every human consciousness has to expand and attain realization of the Cosmic Vibration first, and then know Christ Consciousness, in order to reach Cosmic Consciousness. (pp. 1373–74)
Here we have an exalted vision of what it means to “come unto the Father.” Far from being a guarded privilege available only to those who are Christians, it is the universal embrace of God extended to all his creatures irrespective of culture, ethnicity, or religion. Christ and the Holy Ghost are seen as way stations on the ascent to cosmic consciousness. And cosmic consciousness, or the “Father,” is the underlying fundament of every human soul.
For those who may have felt that traditional Christianity is devoid of the face-to-face experience of God, there is great assurance to be gained from The Second Coming of Christ. While commenting on passages built entirely on the conventional vocabulary of Christianity, Yogananda is able to pull to the surface the promise of truly ravishing experiences. Consider Yogananda’s words on the ascent of consciousness that is available through the Holy Ghost:
Desire limits the consciousness to the object of desire. Love for all good things as expressions of God expands man’s consciousness.
Desire limits the consciousness to the object of desire. Love for all good things as expressions of God expands man’s consciousness. One who bathes his consciousness in the Holy Ghost becomes unattached to personal desires and objects while enjoying everything with the joyousness of God within.
In deepest meditation, as practiced by those who are advanced in the technique of Kriya Yoga, the devotee experiences not only expansion in the Aum vibration “Voice from Heaven,” but finds himself able also to follow the microcosmic light of Spirit in the “straight way” of the spine into the light of the spiritual eye “dove descending from heaven.” (p. 125)
What did Yogananda have to say about the vast body of his writings? Here are his own words:
In these pages I offer to the world an intuitionally perceived spiritual interpretation of the words spoken by Jesus, truths received through actual communion with Christ Consciousness. They will be found to be universally true if they are studied conscientiously and meditated upon with soul-awakened intuitive perception. They reveal the perfect unity that exists among the revelations of the Christian Bible, the Bhagavad Gita of India, and all other time-tested true scriptures. (p. xxiii)
This is a bold and extraordinary assertion. The measure of its veracity must be taken individually as each new reader reflects on the possibility that Krishna and Jesus, the towering avatars of East and West, were proclaiming the same message of eternal, liberating truth.
From Beyond the Grave
How did this book come into being more than a half-century after Yogananda’s passing? The story is told in full in the preface by Sri Daya Mata, one of Yogananda’s earliest and closest disciples and the current spiritual head of the organization he founded, Self-Realization Fellowship.
To recap briefly, in Autobiography of a Yogi, Yogananda writes about the many times in his youth when his attention was drawn toward Europe and America as if by a magnet. Eventually he was directed by his line of gurus to bring the ancient science of Kriya Yoga to the West and to demonstrate that the goals of yoga meditation are in fact embedded in the Christian scriptures.
Yogananda left India for the United States in 1920, and except for a brief return visit in the 1930s, he stayed here until his death in 1952. During this time he gave countless public lectures and wrote articles, many about the Christian Gospels. Then, during his last four years, he withdrew into seclusion to work on his writings. When he died, he left an extensive body of work—public lectures and classes that had been recorded stenographically by Sri Daya Mata, along with three decades of his original writing. The editors, to whom he had conveyed his wishes for this vast volume of material, compiled and integrated it into The Second Coming of Christ. The result is a masterpiece of spiritual revelation.
Quincy Howe, Ph.D., former professor of classics, comparative religion, and Sanskrit at Scripps College, Claremont, California, is the author of Reincarnation for the Christian (Quest Books).