Friday, January 7, 2011

Om Sweet Om

I’ve noticed that a lot of unenrolled Baha’is end up drifting towards more liberal religious communities for fellowship -- they start attending worship services with the Unitarians, or liberal Quakers, or Buddhists, or one of the more tolerant Christian churches. I’m not really much of a social person, so I wasn’t looking real hard -- for one thing, I had just come out of a bad experience with religious membership and wasn’t anxious to repeat it. In fact, unless God strikes me with a lightening bolt or something, I don’t plan on ever signing up, or swearing fealty, or undergoing an initiatory ritual with any organized faith.

I have, however, expanded my study of yoga. I was into yoga before I became a Baha’i; I first read the Bhagavad Gita when I was fourteen. For various reasons, with immaturity topping the list, I never really developed a spiritual practice -- it was all in my head, the way I thought the cosmos worked. It was a kind of homecoming, my conversion to the Baha’i Faith -- a return to Abrahamic religion. One debt I owe it is the habit of regular spiritual practice (what yogis call sadhana). Three times a day, I go back into my room for prayers and scripture reading. I had abandoned all things yogic when I became a Baha’i, but it seemed natural to go back to them once I got through the grieving process of leaving. And since I’m in my room praying three times a day anyway, adding a bit of mantra chanting and meditation is pretty easy to do.

Eventually, I went looking for meditation classes. I know how to meditate, but there are things of value to be learned from a teacher. What I found was the Ananda center in Chico, which to my delight and surprise, has worship services every Sunday.

Of course, I checked into the history of what is properly known as “ Ananda Sangha Worldwide” It was established in 1968 by Swami Kriyananda (aka J. Donald Walters), who was tossed out of the Self-Realization Fellowship, and founded his own group. Both of them claim to be true heirs of Yogananda’s teachings, and I was treated to the drearily familiar spectacle of mutual recriminations, lawsuits, scandals, and just plain pettiness that seems to go along with religious infighting. *sigh* People are the same everywhere. There are several other SRF offshoots, but I have the impression that Ananda is the largest -- or maybe it’s just the one that’s in northern California, or the one that irritates SRF the most.

Deciding who is right in these controversies doesn’t matter to me, because I have no intention of becoming a member. Membership appears to be a fairly complex matter anyway, requiring a series of meditation classes, and a final initiation that not everyone passes. I go to Ananda because it‘s available to me, within easy driving distance and has regular Sunday Services with nice and welcoming people. The beginner’s meditation class falls on an evening inconvenient for me, so the question of membership hasn’t even arisen.

There are some similarities to the Baha’i community -- one being that it’s small, which is o.k. because I’m used to that and would feel totally out of place in a large congregation. Maybe a dozen people show up on Sunday, although there are people I’ve never met who show up to the meditation classes and other workshops. The other is the quiet, meditative atmosphere. But otherwise, the differences are huge -- and to be fair, not all the drawbacks are on the Baha’i side of the equation.

The first thing I was exposed to when I encountered the Baha’is was the basic teachings and history of the Faith. For Ananda, virtually everything I know has come from my own research. Without it, I’d still be unclear about whose pictures are up on the altar. The service consists of prayers, repeated after the leader (I’m still unsure what her proper title is), chanting hymns with a repetitive line in English (you only get Sanskrit on special occasions), silent meditation, short readings out of Kriyananda’s books -- one an affirmation and prayer, the other a short exposition which includes a quote from a gospel and one from the Gita, and a little sermon. Unlike the Baha’is, who say they don’t proselytize even while they are doing it, the Anandans really don’t. I’ve read that those in the Yogananda tradition feel that if you are meant to follow the Master, then you will -- otherwise you’re free to hang around while still following your own spiritual path. Nobody has tried to convert or convince me of anything.

Ananda is also far more accessible, at least locally, than the Baha’i Faith is. There are, or there were when I was a member, thirty Baha’is in Chico. If they’ve gone with the current Plan and established open devotional meetings, the only way to find that out would be to call -- either a stranger, or someone I might have met briefly years ago. Even setting aside my online reputation among Baha’is, that would be intimidating. They have no website; they have no center -- even in a place as large as Sacramento, if you want to worship with Baha’is, you’re going to someone’s house and you’ll have to call to get the schedule and directions. All I did to get to Ananda was find their website, follow Google maps’ driving directions, and simply show up one Sunday morning in late September.

Now, the downside: Like most Hindu-inspired Meditation Movements (HIMMs), Ananda is basically run by renunciates -- a kind of monasticism that is forbidden to Baha’is. They essentially make up a clerical class. Now, mostly this wouldn’t bother me -- I only see these folks when they come up from Ananda Village for the weekend. (The local community has a lay minister.) But it led to a very uncomfortable moment during the Purification Ceremony, which occurs before the Sunday service proper. On a normal Sunday, you write out a problem or issue on a slip of paper, then when it’s your turn, you come up at burn it in a candle flame, essentially handing it over to God. I really liked that little ritual, and I sometimes whisper a Baha’i prayer while I’m up there -- “Remover of Difficulties” or the healing prayer or some such. But when a swami is there, things get much more formalized, and I was shocked to see people coming up to this guy in blue robes, kneeling and asking for purification. It sort of freaked me out. In my mind, I was rushing back to Baha’u’llah asking “What do I do? What do I do?” In retrospect, I could have just quietly sat the whole thing out, and nobody would have said anything -- but I was unprepared for this, and that made me very anxious. What I ended up doing was sitting on a chair that was set aside for older people who have trouble kneeling, but I was dreadfully nervous and it all felt wrong. I didn’t realize I had such a anti-clerical bias -- never really thought about it until then. Now, this gentleman, when he took off the robes and was just wearing his civvies, was an affable fellow and nice to talk to -- it was nothing personal; it’s just that priestly role I found intimidating.

Another tiny issue is that the services, so deliberately patterned after Protestant worship, seem oddly old-fashioned in an era where mantra CDs are selling like hot cakes. In following Yogananda’s tradition, they are also adhering to a presentation that was quite understandable in the middle of the 20th century, but seems unnecessarily cautious now. But, obviously, it can’t be too off-putting, because, I do keep going. Here's one of their favorite chants, just to give a feel for the kind of thing they sing at these services:

The final downside is that, at least so far, I’m not hugely impressed by their books. It’s not like when I read Baha’u’llah, who just grabbed ahold of my heart and tossed it into heaven. Of course, I can’t claim that I have studied it any detail, but if I’m going to study Hinduism, I’d rather go to old sources like the Bhagavad-Gita or Upanishads. For such a famous book, I found “Autobiography of a Yogi” to be a disappointment, chock-full of improbable miracle stories -- which is too bad, I guess. To be fair, I might get a clearer picture of the teachings from other books, which I’ll probably read as I go along. These are nice people; I like the community, but I don’t think I share their beliefs -- at least not their distinctive ones. But then, nobody has really asked me to. And I can overlook a lot when people are kind enough to “Om” over me before I had surgery, and call to check on my recovery after.

Anyway, who am I to be too critical? As early as 1937, Yogananda had initiated 150,000 people in this country -- a membership number the American Baha’i community has yet to achieve; and these groups are still growing, with full initiates being a minority among those who being served. Even though his movement broke apart, it has had a lot more influence on a lot more people’s lives than the Baha’i Faith could even dream of, and it certainly has rendered a service to me.