Last Task

[Listen to Asha read this story]

In the fall of 2005, editing Master’s commentary on the Bhagavad Gita was one of the few unfinished tasks in Swamiji’s life as a disciple. It was an assignment given to him by Master more than 50 years before.

Even when Master was still dictating the commentary at his desert retreat in 1950, he had Swamiji editing the portion that had already appeared as articles in the SRF magazine. When the dictation was done, Master had Swamiji work side-by-side with him, every day for two months, helping to edit the newly completed manuscript.

“A new scripture has been born,” Master declared ecstatically the day Swamiji arrived to help him. “Millions will find God through this work. Not just thousands – millions! I have seen it. I know.”

Master wanted the book to be published immediately—before the end of the year. The senior disciple in charge of editing didn’t feel the work could be done that quickly. Even two years later, in 1952, when Master passed away, the book still hadn’t come out. All sense of urgency died with Master and more than four decades passed before SRF finally published it.

The book was a deep disappointment to Swamiji. “What Master wrote was beautiful, fluent, and easy to understand. SRF has edited it into a scholarly work, difficult to read and hard to understand. Master said, ‘Millions will find God through this book.’ I don’t see how that could happen if this is the only version.”

Swamiji prayed to Master for a solution. The Rubiayat commentary had been published in the SRF magazine before Master died, and was true to his original manuscript. Most of the Gita commentary, however, had come out in the magazine after Master’s passing, and had been highly edited before it saw the light of day.

“If only I had a copy of the original manuscript,” Swamiji said. But years passed, and nothing came of that prayer. All the copies were in the hands of SRF, locked in a vault where only a few people had access to them.

Finally Swamiji said, “It could easily take me ten years to write this book. I can’t wait any longer.”

SRF’s version was comprehensive—over 1000 pages of small print in two volumes. Swamiji decided to write a shorter version, The Essence of the Bhagavad Gita he would call it, based on the manuscript he had read 50 years earlier, and still vividly remembered.

But for two weeks, Swamiji was hardly able to write a word. “Mostly I just sat and stared at my computer,” he said. Finally, on Friday, October 7, 2005, suddenly, “It came.” In just a few minutes, he wrote six pages. “I saw it would not be the short book I had imagined, it would be a full commentary.”

Swamiji lives in India, just outside New Delhi in a town called Gurgaon, in a house he shares with six others—the leaders of our work in India, plus a secretary, housekeeper, and a nurse, Miriam, who looks after his sometimes-precarious health. Swamiji’s office is the only room on the top story of the house, two flights up from ground level.

“As soon as he was done with those first pages,” Miriam said, “he brought them downstairs, looking for someone to read them. It was a joy that needed to be shared. Fortunately, several of us were around. It was a thrilling moment.”

For the next eight weeks, Swamiji wrote steadily, ten pages a day. Except for some pre-existing engagements, and a daily walk around the block, Swamiji scarcely left the house.

“After being with Krishna in the Infinite,” he said. “Why would I want to go gallivanting around on this mud-ball of a planet?”

* * *

But he was hardly in seclusion: in those eight weeks he had to play host to more than thirty visitors. Most were key leaders or members of Ananda from America and Europe. In the midst of the writing, he also had to give energy to them.

“Thirty years ago, when I wrote The Path,” Swamiji said, “I had to stay in strict seclusion in order to hold onto the thread of inspiration. Now I found I could switch back and forth between the different realities. In fact, it was a help to have friends there to read what I had written. It helped keep me grounded in the realities of those who would benefit from what I was writing.”

Miriam describes what it was like during those weeks. “Often we would go to bed late, and by early the next morning, there would be ten more pages in the living room for us to read. Swamiji had been up most of the night writing.”

“I have to write whenever it comes,” Swamiji explained. “This isn’t thinking in the ordinary way, it is inspiration. If I don’t respond to the inspiration, why would Master talk to me again?”

Even though the book was coming quickly, at first Swamiji was anxious about it. He stated frankly, “I am scared to death of the responsibility.” But as the days passed, and the words kept flowing, the anxiety evaporated.

“Inspiration comes to those who are humble about their own achievements and reverential toward the achievements of God,” Swamiji said on another occasion.

“The book is being given to me,” he said. “Nothing I have ever written has flowed so easily. I pray, and the words are there.”

* * *

In addition to the commentary, Swamiji also rewrote Master’s literal translation of the Gita itself, to make it more poetic. Chapter 11 includes a long poem, Arjuna’s divine vision of Krishna.

“Usually you can’t just sit at a typewriter and write poetry. But I did,” Swamiji said. “Master gave it to me.”

When he finished Chapter 13, “I went to bed knowing something more was needed,” Swamiji said, “but I didn’t know what it should be. That night I dreamt the perfect story about a saint and a man called Naresh. When I finished writing it out the next day, I could see that the ‘punch line’ was missing. Just then, it was given to me. I typed it out as it came to me. The whole Gita was like writing music. This is not my book. It is Master’s.”

Miriam said later, “The night of the day Swamiji started writing, he was so blissful. I was alone with him, attending to various medical duties. He started talking about leaving his body. This isn’t the first time he’s mentioned it. His body suffers a great deal, and he is ‘tired of being tired,’ as he puts it. But this was different. It wasn’t prompted by how he feels physically.

“He was moved by the thought of finishing his work here and being drawn upward into Master. When he gets into a certain blissful state, his face glows with a beautiful peachy color, a paler version of the orange of his robe. Now that peachy light was everywhere.

“He was talking to me but he kept looking toward the ceiling and to a certain spot by the door. I wondered if he was seeing a vision that wasn’t there for my eyes.

“He spoke with such sweet yearning of the day when this life would be done. Until now, he said, he really hadn’t been able to think of leaving, because there remained this last, great, unfinished task. Now that the Gita was underway, he could think about the time when it would be done. He seemed to be eagerly anticipating a kind of ‘divine vacation’ with Master.

“But he was also quick to say how happy he is to let his body be used in whatever way God wants to use it, especially to burn up karma for others.

“There is such a feeling of love in his presence. I don’t know if love can be seen, but it seems to emanate from Swamiji, in the glow of his skin, and in something so tangible, I can almost touch it. Master’s bliss flows through him.

“But it is even more than that. I said to Swamiji, ‘It feels like Master is living in the house with us. That he is so overjoyed about this book, he is eagerly running up and down the stairs with you, carrying the pages through your hands for us to read.”

“Quietly, Swamiji said, ‘Yes, he is.’”

* * *

Long before he started writing the Gita, Swamiji was aware that Master had blessed him with a remarkable capacity to remember whatever his guru had said to him.

In The Path, Swamiji describes how Master once taught him a few Bengali words. A decade later, when Swamiji went to India for the first time, he remembered them easily. In fact, as Swamiji described it, “I had a clear memory not only of the words, but of the sound of Master’s voice saying them.”

In 1990, when he wrote The Essence of Self-Realization: The Wisdom of Paramhansa Yogananda, Swamiji said, “I wrote that book not only from the notes I had taken during the years I was with Master, but I also from my memory of many other occasions when he spoke on the subjects I was writing about.

“While I was working on the book, there was a big snowstorm and for several days, the power was out. I couldn’t use my computer; I had to write by hand. In my mind, I could hear Master speaking. Sometimes I had to ask him to slow down. Writing by hand, I couldn’t keep up.”

Swamiji’s remarkable memory encompasses more than just the words of his Guru.

“We met with Swamiji to discuss a piece of property we were thinking of buying near Ananda Village,” Padma explains. “I had a sheaf of papers in my hand that the Realtor had given me with her business card clipped on top. At one point in the meeting, Swamiji leaned over and glanced briefly at the papers.

“Hours later, we needed to call the Realtor. I was rummaging around in my purse looking for her business card when Swamiji recited her phone number from memory.

“’How do you know her number?’ I exclaimed in astonishment. ‘You’ve never called her. You’ve never even met her!’

“’I saw it on her card this morning,’ Swamiji said.

“’But you just glanced at it. You didn’t even hold it in your hand,’ I exclaimed.

“I didn’t glance at those papers,’ Swamiji replied, ‘I concentrated on them. It was brief, but it was enough. Awareness doesn’t take time, it takes energy.’”

About writing the Gita, Swamiji said, “This must be what Master had in mind from the start. He knew I would end up on my own. That’s why he had me there to listen to him dictate the commentary and then gave me the entire manuscript to read. I have a clear memory, and because he asked me to edit, I read with particular care. I can remember what Master said stanza-by-stanza— not every word, but every idea. He must have known that later I would have to write without having seen the manuscript since that time.

“Master can write through me as he wants it now. Then I was just a young man without any experience; now I have been a disciple, teaching and writing, for nearly sixty years.”

* * *

When Swamiji was commenting on that portion of the Gita that describes how far the soul can go into delusion, and the suffering that ensues, Pranaba was one of Swamiji’s many visitors from America. “When he came downstairs with those pages,” Pranaba said, “Swamiji was more subdued than he had been when he was writing other sections of the book. The thought of how much people suffered filled him with compassion. He knew what this book could mean to people, how much it could help them get away from this ‘ocean of suffering’ as Master called life without God.”

Another visitor, said, “After the suffering, comes the part in the Gita where Krishna says, ‘Give me your heart.’ When he got there, Swamiji became all love and sweetness. It was like Krishna was living through him.”

At the end of the Gita, after almost 700 stanzas of profound teaching, Krishna says in essence, “Now that I’ve given this to you, do with it what you will.” In other words, Krishna had total respect for the free will of his disciple.

“When I read that part,” Pranaba said, “I told Swamiji, ‘This is just the way you have worked with us. This book isn’t only the essence of the Bhagavad Gita, it is also the essence of Swami Kriyananda.’

“Quietly, Swamiji replied, ‘Yes, it is.’ I think what he meant was that writing this book has been for him the culmination of a lifetime of discipleship.”

It didn’t take Swamiji ten years to do the Gita commentary. It took eleven weeks – eight weeks of writing and three weeks of editing for a book of more than six hundred pages.

“It was a miracle,” Swamiji said simply. “I believe this is the book Master had in mind when he said ‘Millions would find God.’”

When the last chapter was done, Swamiji sent out a simple e-mail announcement to his friends.

“I’ve finished it all! What a historic moment! I am weeping with joy.”

with the Gita manuscript

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