In Search of Babaji


WIE Tracks Down the Elusive
Yogi-Christ of the Himalayas
by Carter Phipps
 

Babaji

"Babaji has been chosen by God to remain in his body for the duration of this particular world cycle. Ages will come and go—still the deathless master, beholding the drama of the centuries, shall be present on this stage terrestrial." So began the legend of the immortal sage Babaji. These words were published in 1946, in the classic spiritual tale Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda—a book that was destined to have a major impact on the then just emerging East-West spiritual dialogue. It was a book that introduced thousands, if not millions, of aspiring seekers in the Western world to a man who, legend tells us, is perhaps the greatest of ancient saints, an immortal deathless yogi of India watching over this earthly plane like a benevolent omniscient spiritual parent—Babaji.

To read Autobiography of a Yogi and absorb Yogananda's lucid, almost otherworldly descriptions of the spiritual life is to embark upon a journey to a place that exists far beyond the borders of our materialistic Western worldview—a realm where miracles are commonplace and where physical laws, in the hands of the great yogis, seem as malleable and as changeable as clay in the hands of great artists. By any standard, the book is a work of genius, a masterpiece that combines an inspiring introduction to the ancient yogic path with a philosophical inquiry into the underlying unity of Eastern and Western religions, weaving it all together with the remarkable story of Yogananda's own pioneering life and teachings. Upon publication it captured the hearts of thousands and introduced Americans to the esoteric world of the Himalayan sages, inviting hungry spirits to believe in undreamed-of possibilities in the evolution of consciousness—possibilities, the yogic masters say, that lie dormant in each of us. But perhaps even more importantly, the book revealed the existence of a heretofore unknown Master residing in the Himalayas, an immortal sage offering darshan [audience with a Master] to a select few, a major player in human evolution hiding in obscurity amid the high peaks of Asia and guiding the unfolding drama of spiritual history—Babaji.

So who exactly is Babaji? My own inquiry into that question was sparked last year by a couple of books we received in the mail from individuals who claimed to have been personally initiated by the great Master himself. Although I was only marginally familiar with the history of this legendary yogi, as recounted by Yogananda, I knew enough to appreciate the magnitude of such a claim, and the books led to several fascinating discussions among our editorial team. Were we suddenly witnessing a surge of interest in this legendary saint, we wondered? The popularity of Autobiography of a Yogi has long made Babaji's name and image pop icons of the spiritual counterculture—one only needs to see his serene countenance floating above the crowd on the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's album cover to appreciate that. But it did seem, almost half a century after Yogananda's death, that Babaji's presence in the spiritual world was on the rise. And the more we looked the more we found. From Himalayan caves to California communes, we began to see that Babaji's influence, in some form or another, was surprisingly pervasive. Books were being written about him, workshops were representing his teachings, people were channeling him, communities were dedicated to him, individuals were claiming to be his personal disciples, individuals were even claiming to be Babaji himself. This obscure, secluded, behind-the-scenes immortal sage seemed to be, in his multitudinous modern incarnations, rapidly losing his obscurity.

As we began to explore the subject of spiritual evolution for this issue of WIE, the phenomenon of Babaji became even more compelling. Some were saying that his enlightenment was a step beyond even that of the Buddha, a total transformation of consciousness, the powerful effects of which produce radical changes all the way down to the very cells of the physical body. And Yogananda's declaration of Babaji's physical immortality had not fallen on deaf ears either. Indeed, the subject of immortality, bolstered perhaps by this impressive endorsement, seemed to have moved out beyond the New Age fringe and was being embraced by a growing number of seekers as our true collective evolutionary destiny. So what really was going on? Yogananda's story had lit the fuse over fifty years ago, and the reverberations from the explosion of interest in this legendary sage and his spiritual attainment had definitely taken on a life of their own. But did any of it have anything to do with the real Babaji? For that matter, did a real Babaji even exist? For this issue of WIE we decided to take up the challenge and go in search of this immortal sage, whose very existence, it seemed, would say a lot about enlightenment, evolution, and the future of God.

For those few seekers who have never cracked the covers of Yogananda's classic tale, the story goes something like this: In the middle of the nineteenth century, Babaji, the immortal "Yogi-Christ" of India as Yogananda called him, appeared in person to a postal worker by the name of Lahiri Mahasaya who was stationed in the high Himalayas. In a series of extraordinary and fantastical encounters with this Himalayan sage, Lahiri was initiated into the practice of Kriya yoga, an ancient yogic method, we are told, that was taught by Krishna to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita and is referred to by the great yogic pioneer Patanjali in his classic Yoga Sutras. The technique had been lost for centuries before being "rediscovered and clarified" in modern times by Babaji. Kriya yoga is described by Yogananda as an "instrument through which human evolution can be quickened." And he writes that through applying this powerful method of breath mastery, we quickly deepen our connection with the Divine, and our brain, spinal cord, and cells become rejuvenated. Ultimately, in the highest levels of Kriya practice, Yogananda says, our entire body can be transmuted into energy. Appealing perhaps to a Western consciousness unwilling to wait lifetimes for the promise of spiritual awakening, Yogananda introduces Kriya yoga as an evolutionary leap forward—an airplane, as he puts it, in a world of bullock carts—and, in one of the more stunning sentences of the book, goes as far as to claim that one thousand Kriya breaths practiced in eight and a half hours can give the sincere yogi, in one day, "the equivalent of one thousand years of natural evolution."

It was this technique of Kriya yoga, streamlined and updated for the modern age, that Babaji asked Lahiri Mahasaya to bring to Indian seekers of truth. And, in contrast to past restrictions, he allowed Lahiri to initiate not only ascetics, world-renouncers, but all interested householders, regardless of station or religion. Teaching in Benares, India, at the end of the nineteenth century, Lahiri helped establish a spiritual lineage that was destined to become one of the most significant in the modern age. The next teacher in this celebrated lineage would be Sri Yukteswar, a serious young student of Lahiri's who would, in his years with his master, also have several miraculous encounters with Babaji. In one of those meetings Yukteswar was informed by the great yogi that a young man would eventually be sent to him for instruction, an Indian seeker who was to be trained for a great destiny—to disseminate the Kriya yoga teachings in the Western world.

Babaji's words proved prescient. A student named Mukunda eventually arrived and requested Yukteswar's spiritual guidance, a passionate young man whom Yukteswar took as a disciple and began to prepare for the prophesied mission. Taking to the yogic path like a fish to water, Mukunda advanced rapidly under Yukteswar's strict tutelage and, after a number of years of living in his Master's hermitage, was ready to take up the Kriya yoga banner and head to the West. The arrival in America of this gifted young Indian man, educated in a Calcutta university and trained in Kriya yoga by Sri Yukteswar, was a watershed event in the development of Western spirituality. People turned out in droves to see this extraordinary yogi who had walked among the great God-realized sages of India and who was sharing his wisdom in the New World. Swami Yogananda, as he was now known, became a legend in his own time, the teaching of Kriya yoga spread fast among Western seekers, and the stories of the immortal sage Babaji, who seemed to have reached the pinnacle of human evolution, enthralled generations of Westerners, who soon placed Autobiography of a Yogi near the top of the modern spiritual canon.

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WIE Issue 21:
Our Evolution Issue

Spring–Summer 2002

Fifteen billion years after the Big Bang and 150 years after Darwin, What Is Enlightenment? magazine steps back to look at the big picture and asks: Is enlightenment itself evolving? What is "the future of God?"

 
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