The northern Himalayan crags near Badrinarayan are still blessed by the living presence of Babaji, guru of Lahiri Mahasaya. The secluded master has retained his physical form for centuries, perhaps for millenniums. The deathless Babaji is an avatara. This Sanskrit word means "descent"; its roots are ava, "down," and tri, "to pass." In the Hindu scriptures, avatara signifies the descent of Divinity into flesh.
"Babaji's spiritual state is beyond human comprehension," Sri Yukteswar explained to me. "The dwarfed vision of men cannot pierce to his transcendental star. One attempts in vain even to picture the avatar's attainment. It is inconceivable."
The Upanishads have minutely classified every stage of spiritual advancement. A siddha ("perfected being") has progressed from the state of a jivanmukta ("freed while living") to that of a paramukta ("supremely free", full power over death); the latter has completely escaped from the mayic thralldom and its reincarnational round. The paramukta therefore seldom returns to a physical body; if he does, he is an avatar, a divinely appointed medium of supernal blessings on the world.
An avatar is unsubject to the universal economy; his pure body, visible as a light image, is free from any debt to nature. The casual gaze may see nothing extraordinary in an avatar's form but it casts no shadow nor makes any footprint on the ground. These are outward symbolic proofs of an inward lack of darkness and material bondage. Such a God-man alone knows the Truth behind the relativities of life and death. Omar Khayyam, so grossly misunderstood, sang of this liberated man in his immortal scripture, the Rubaiyat:
"Ah, Moon of my Delight who know'st no wane,
The Moon of Heav'n is rising once again;
How oft hereafter rising shall she look
Through this same Garden after me in vain!"
The "Moon of Delight" is God, eternal Polaris, anachronous never. The "Moon of Heav'n" is the outward cosmos, fettered to the law of periodic recurrence. Its chains had been dissolved forever by the Persian seer through his self-realization. "How oft hereafter rising shall she look . . . after me in vain!" What frustration of search by a frantic universe for an absolute omission!
Christ expressed his freedom in another way: "And a certain scribe came, and said unto him, Master, I will follow thee whithersoever thou goest. And Jesus saith unto him, The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head." 1
Spacious with omnipresence, could Christ indeed be followed except in the overarching Spirit?
Krishna, Rama, Buddha, and Patanjali were among the ancient Indian avatars. A considerable poetic literature in Tamil has grown up around Agastya, a South Indian avatar. He worked many miracles during the centuries preceding and following the Christian era, and is credited with retaining his physical form even to this day.
Babaji's mission in India has been to assist prophets in carrying out their special dispensations. He thus qualifies for the scriptural classification of Mahavatar (Great Avatar). He has stated that he gave yoga initiation to Shankara, ancient founder of the Swami Order, and to Kabir, famous medieval saint. His chief nineteenth-century disciple was, as we know, Lahiri Mahasaya, revivalist of the lost Kriya art.
The Mahavatar is in constant communion with Christ; together they send out vibrations of redemption, and have planned the spiritual technique of salvation for this age. The work of these two fully-illumined masters, one with the body, and one without it, is to inspire the nations to forsake suicidal wars, race hatreds, religious sectarianism, and the boomerang-evils of materialism. Babaji is well aware of the trend of modern times, especially of the influence and complexities of Western civilization, and realizes the necessity of spreading the self-liberations of yoga equally in the West and in the East.
That there is no historical reference to Babaji need not surprise us. The great guru has never openly appeared in any century; the misinterpreting glare of publicity has no place in his millennial plans. Like the Creator, the sole but silent Power, Babaji works in a humble obscurity.
Great prophets like Christ and Krishna come to earth for a specific and spectacular purpose; they depart as soon as it is accomplished. Other avatars, like Babaji, undertake work which is concerned more with the slow evolutionary progress of man during the centuries than with any one outstanding event of history. Such masters always veil themselves from the gross public gaze, and have the power to become invisible at will. For these reasons, and because they generally instruct their disciples to maintain silence about them, a number of towering spiritual figures remain world-unknown. I give in these pages on Babaji merely a hint of his life, only a few facts which he deems it fit and helpful to be publicly imparted.
No limiting facts about Babaji's family or birthplace, dear to the annalist's heart, have ever been discovered. His speech is generally in Hindi, but he converses easily in any language. He has adopted the simple name of Babaji (revered father); other titles of respect given him by Lahiri Mahasaya's disciples are Mahamuni Babaji Maharaj (supreme ecstatic saint), Maha Yogi (greatest of yogis), Trambak Baba and Shiva Baba (titles of avatars of Shiva). Does it matter that we know not the patronymic of an earth-released master?
"Whenever anyone utters with reverence the name of Babaji," Lahiri Mahasaya said, "that devotee attracts an instant spiritual blessing."
The deathless guru bears no marks of age on his body; he appears to be no more than a youth of twenty-five. Fair-skinned, of medium build and height, Babaji's beautiful, strong body radiates a perceptible glow. His eyes are dark, calm, and tender; his long, lustrous hair is copper-colored. A very strange fact is that Babaji bears an extraordinarily exact resemblance to his disciple Lahiri Mahasaya. The similarity is so striking that, in his later years, Lahiri Mahasaya might have passed as the father of the youthful-looking Babaji.
Swami Kebalananda, my saintly Sanskrit tutor, spent some time with Babaji in the Himalayas.
"The peerless master moves with his group from place to place in the mountains," Kebalananda told me. "His small band contains two highly advanced American disciples. After Babaji has been in one locality for some time, he says: 'Dera danda uthao.' ('Let us lift our camp and staff.') He carries a symbolic danda (bamboo staff). His words are the signal for moving with his group instantaneously to another place. He does not always employ this method of astral travel; sometimes he goes on foot from peak to peak.
"Babaji can be seen or recognized by others only when he so desires. He is known to have appeared in many slightly different forms to various devotees sometimes without beard and moustache, and sometimes with them. As his undecaying body requires no food, the master seldom eats. As a social courtesy to visiting disciples, he occasionally accepts fruits, or rice cooked in milk and clarified butter.
"Two amazing incidents of Babaji's life are known to me," Kebalananda went on. "His disciples were sitting one night around a huge fire which was blazing for a sacred Vedic ceremony. The master suddenly seized a burning log and lightly struck the bare shoulder of a chela who was close to the fire.
"'Sir, how cruel!' Lahiri Mahasaya, who was present, made this remonstrance.
"'Would you rather have seen him burned to ashes before your eyes, according to the decree of his past karma?'
"With these words Babaji placed his healing hand on the chela's disfigured shoulder. 'I have freed you tonight from painful death. The karmic law has been satisfied through your slight suffering by fire.'
"On another occasion Babaji's sacred circle was disturbed by the arrival of a stranger. He had climbed with astonishing skill to the nearly inaccessible ledge near the camp of the master.
"'Sir, you must be the great Babaji.' The man's face was lit with inexpressible reverence. 'For months I have pursued a ceaseless search for you among these forbidding crags. I implore you to accept me as a disciple.'
"When the great guru made no response, the man pointed to the rocky chasm at his feet.
"'If you refuse me, I will jump from this mountain. Life has no further value if I cannot win your guidance to the Divine.'
"'Jump then,' Babaji said unemotionally. 'I cannot accept you in your present state of development.'
"The man immediately hurled himself over the cliff. Babaji instructed the shocked disciples to fetch the stranger's body. When they returned with the mangled form, the master placed his divine hand on the dead man. Lo! He opened his eyes and prostrated himself humbly before the omnipotent one.
"'You are now ready for discipleship.' Babaji beamed lovingly on his resurrected chela. 'You have courageously passed a difficult test. Death shall not touch you again; now you are one of our immortal flock.' Then he spoke his usual words of departure, 'Dera danda uthao'; the whole group vanished from the mountain."
An avatar lives in the omnipresent Spirit; for him there is no distance inverse to the square. Only one reason, therefore, can motivate Babaji in maintaining his physical form from century to century: the desire to furnish humanity with a concrete example of its own possibilities. Were man never vouchsafed a glimpse of Divinity in the flesh, he would remain oppressed by the heavy mayic delusion that he cannot transcend his mortality.
Jesus knew from the beginning the sequence of his life; he passed through each event not for himself, not from any karmic compulsion, but solely for the upliftment of reflective human beings. His four reporter-disciples Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John recorded the ineffable drama for the benefit of later generations.
It became known for the inspiration of other seeking hearts. The great ones speak their words and participate in the seemingly natural course of events, solely for the good of man, even as Christ said: "Father . . . I knew that thou hearest me always: but because of the people which stand by I said it, that they may believe that thou hast sent me." 2
During my visit at Ranbajpur with Ram Gopal, "the sleepless saint," 3 he related the wondrous story of his first meeting with Babaji.
"I sometimes left my isolated cave to sit at Lahiri Mahasaya's feet in Benares," Ram Gopal told me. "One midnight as I was silently meditating with a group of his disciples, the master made a surprising request.
"'Ram Gopal,' he said, 'go at once to the Dasasamedh bathing ghat.'
"I soon reached the secluded spot. The night was bright with moonlight and the glittering stars. After I had sat in patient silence for awhile, my attention was drawn to a huge stone slab near my feet. It rose gradually, revealing an underground cave. As the stone remained balanced in some unknown manner, the draped form of a young and surpassingly lovely woman was levitated from the cave high into the air. Surrounded by a soft halo, she slowly descended in front of me and stood motionless, steeped in an inner state of ecstasy. She finally stirred, and spoke gently.
"'I am Mataji, 4 the sister of Babaji. I have asked him and also Lahiri Mahasaya to come to my cave tonight to discuss a matter of great importance.'
"A nebulous light was rapidly floating over the Ganges; the strange luminescence was reflected in the opaque waters. It approached nearer and nearer until, with a blinding flash, it appeared by the side of Mataji and condensed itself instantly into the human form of Lahiri Mahasaya. He bowed humbly at the feet of the woman saint.
"Before I had recovered from my bewilderment, I was further wonder-struck to behold a circling mass of mystical light traveling in the sky. Descending swiftly, the flaming whirlpool neared our group and materialized itself into the body of a beautiful youth who, I understood at once, was Babaji. He looked like Lahiri Mahasaya, the only difference being that Babaji appeared much younger, and had long, bright hair.
"Lahiri Mahasaya, Mataji, and myself knelt at the guru's feet. An ethereal sensation of beatific glory thrilled every fiber of my being as I touched his divine flesh.
"'Blessed sister,' Babaji said, 'I am intending to shed my form and plunge into the Infinite Current.'
"'What is the difference if I wear a visible or invisible wave on the ocean of my Spirit?' 5
"'Be it so,' Babaji said solemnly.’I will never leave my physical body. It will always remain visible to at least a small number of people on this earth. The Lord has spoken His own wish through your lips.'
"As I listened in awe to the conversation between these exalted beings, the great guru turned to me with a benign gesture.
"'Fear not, Ram Gopal,' he said, 'you are blessed to be a witness at the scene of this immortal promise.'
"As the sweet melody of Babaji's voice faded away, his form and that of Lahiri Mahasaya slowly levitated and moved backward over the Ganges. An aureole of dazzling light templed their bodies as they vanished into the night sky. Mataji's form floated to the cave and descended; the stone slab closed of itself, as if working on an invisible leverage.
"Infinitely inspired, I winded my way back to Lahiri Mahasaya's place. As I bowed before him in the early dawn, my guru smiled at me understandingly.
"'I am happy for you, Ram Gopal,' he said. 'The desire of meeting Babaji and Mataji, which you have often expressed to me, has found at last a sacred fulfillment.'
"My fellow disciples informed me that Lahiri Mahasaya had not moved from his dais since early the preceding evening.
"'He gave a wonderful discourse on immortality after you left for the Dasasamedh ghat,' one of the chelas told me. For the first time I fully realized the truth in the scriptural verses which state that a man of self-realization can appear at different places in two or more bodies at the same time.
"Lahiri Mahasaya later explained to me many metaphysical points concerning the hidden divine plan for this earth," Ram Gopal concluded. "Babaji has been chosen by God to remain in his body for the duration of this particular world cycle. Ages shall come and go still the deathless master,6 beholding the drama of the centuries, shall be present on this stage terrestrial."
Author: Paramahansa Yogananda, Autobiography of a Yogi
5 This incident reminds one of Thales. The great Greek philosopher taught that there was no difference between life and death. "Why, then," inquired a critic, "do you not die?" "Because," answered Thales, "it makes no difference."