Swami Kripalu: Pilgrim of Love

These are my notes from Live Call 8: Swami Kripalu: Pilgrim of Love. The video is shared in my Facebook group – request to join to view it.

Tonight’s teaching is about Swami Kripalu. He called himself a Pilgrim of Love. His message was simple: we should all love each other as brothers and sisters. Though his message was simple, it was also powerful, because his practice was deep.

I begin with 4 quotes from the book Pilgrim of Love, which combines his own autobiography and philosophy with memories and thoughts from his devotees. These quotes are from his own writings. They are from a section called The Sadhana of Love. He uses the word sadhana quite a bit in his writing. He uses it to mean spiritual practice.

  1. If there is any power considered the highest, it is love. We can get rid of most of our possessions and still survive. However, take away the experience of love and we’re dead.
  2. One who loves God is imbued with love. Everything he does and everything he is – his movements, his speech – every cell of his boy emanates love.
  3. Thoughts and actions filled with love create love in others.
  4. No sadhana in this world compares to the sadhana of love. (pp. 97- 98)

Now let’s talk about his life.

He was born in 1913 and his name at birth was Haridas Majmundar. He had many nicknames over the course of his life. There are two names you hear for him most often. The first is Swami Kripalu, a shortened form of his swami name which was Swami Kripalvanandaji. That means, the “bliss of god’s grace”. The other you hear a lot is Bapuji, which is a kind of generic term for a guru. It means dear father. I am going to use Swami Kripalu throughout to keep things clear.

His father died when he was young, leaving behind many debts. However, on his deathbed he left young Swami Kripalu with something far more valuable to him than any money. He gave him a blessing of his god’s protection. His father was very devoted in his spiritual practice and his is the legacy that Swami Kripalu chose to take for himself.

Swami Kripalu’s family was very loving though they had little money. He wrote that his teachings arose from the love that he had in his own family. So when he taught that we should all love each other like brothers and sisters, he was drawing on his own family’s experience of care and kindness toward each other.

Like all the yogis that brought yoga to the west, he was Brahmin caste. This is the priestly caste. He was also Hindu and it is impossible to untangle his yoga practices from his religious practices.

He dropped out of school at age 7, but Swami Kripalu was an avid reader. He ultimately became a great scholar. He also had some western education.  He was devoted to reading the sacred Hindu texts and yogic texts.  

Also, though we will not go into that subject here, he was a great musician and teacher of music. So, like Krishnamacharya, he was kind of a polymath who excelled at many things.

He writes that when he was young he was a gluttonous person who loved to eat, and wished to have the material things he felt he was lacking growing up so impoverished.

Due to his misery over his poverty, when Swami Kripalu was in his late teens, he attempted suicide several times. The last time he tried was when he was 19. He went to a temple to pray and had a vision of jumping off a nearby bridge. He resolved to end his life that way. As he was leaving the service, a man came into the temple wearing a towel around his waist and carrying a waterpot. He told Swami Kripalu to come with him and his words were so loving that Swami Kripalu followed him.

The mysterious man knew that Swami Kripalu intended to commit suicide, but when he confronted, Swami Kripalu lied and said that he did not. The man saw right through him and chastised him for lying. He then told Swami Kripalu to meet him for darshan, or worship, the next evening. There, a large group of his guru’s followers immediately treated him as his guru’s chief disciple. His guru had been foretelling to his group that his disciple was coming.

No one knows the real name of Swami Kripalu’s guru. He is simply called by Swami Kripalu Guruji, meaning dear guru, which is a generic affectionate name for one’s guru. Later, Kripalu came to believe that his guru was a reincarnation of Lord Lakulish, a 6th century yogi in the Shaiva Tantra tradition. Lord Lakulish popularized devotion to Lord Shiva.

Lakulish taught that the individual soul enslaved by desires is like an animal and that Lord Shiva could deliver people from this enslavement, making them masters of their animal natures.

For 18 months Swami Kripalu studied with his guru. He was always treated from the very beginning of his time with his guru as a special disciple who would spread his teachings. His guru’s main practice of teaching was various mantras he assigned to Swami Kripalu. He was told to continuous change these mantras.

His guru pushed Swami Kripalu to intense practices to help him recognize the power of love. Under his tutelage, Swami Kripalu fasted for 40 days. He was encouraged to adopt extreme diets with very limited food – just one meal a  day or just milk.

At the end of the 18 months, his guru took him on a spontaneous journey. With little food and no preparation, the began a pilgrimage of 90 miles. Tired and hungry, but proud, he walked with his aged but remarkably strong guru for 30 miles the first day. His sandals broke and he walked barefoot thereafter. On the second day, they walked another 30 miles until he was completely exhausted. On the third day, he tried to keep up but finally he sat and cried with frustration. I’m going to read what he wrote next about that trip because it is very beautiful.

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He then became initiated as a Swami or yogi with another teacher, Swami Shantanandji Maharaj. For the rest of his life he was like a monk, adhering to strict vows.

At this time, Swami Kripalu also began a lifelong vow of silence which he broke only on rare occasions. He eventually became a well recognized yogi. When he broke his silence and spoke, thousands of followers came to hear him speak. He wrote, “Silence has been the means to devote myself wholeheartedly to yoga sadhana, so that now there’s no more attraction for money, fame, or fortune.”

He took a vow of celibacy and later he encouraged his followers in America to follow celibacy if they were single or moderation in sexuality if married. In Stephen Cope’s book Yoga and the Quest for the True Self you can read about how that worked out for people in America. Many of these traditional practices did not travel well overseas.

As was traditional for a yogi, Swami Kripalu begged for his food. Although he feared he would not be provided for, he found that he was always treated with great love by people from whom he begged, and in this way he learned that God will always provide. As you can see, through these vows renouncing material things, he learned intense discipline and he learned to rely upon the love of others and not money.

He writes of many lavish gifts and expensive projects that he was involved with, yet as a renunciate he was careful not to be swayed by these, seeing them only as signs of his followers love for his teachings.

Swami Maharaj gave Swami Kripalu mantras to recite and only two physical teachings: lotus posture and alternate nostril breathing. After practicing alternate nostril breathing and lotus posture, Swami Kripalu began spontaneously moving into yoga postures. He had an extremely advanced asana or posture practice. He began doing flowing meditative movements out of his divine intelligence. (show postures)

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It seems odd that he ended up coming to America, given his lifestyle which seems thoroughly Indian. One of his devotees, Amrit Desai, was a merchant involved in textiles. He had grown up in India where he taught himself some yoga postures from a poster. He also had a short but moving private session with a very advanced yogi when he was 15. He continued to practice yoga on his own. He then moved to America to study art in Philadelphia. In the early 60’s, he began to teach yoga. A big community formed around him in Pennsylvania.

In the 1970s he, too, began to channel yoga postures spontaneously. Interested in learning more about what was happening and what to do, a small group of people went over to India to learn more about yoga. This small group studied Swami Kripalu’s very intense practices that he gave to them as a book, but no one was able to do these extreme things. These people were not renunciates who could practice for hours on end with no food. They were householders. They needed to learn how to ground themselves. Swami Kripalu pushed the edge intensely; these followers modified his practices to adapt to our lifestyle here in America.

From 1977 to 1981 Swami Kriplau came to America, where he stayed at the Kripalu Yoga Center in Massachusetts. It was created by Amrit Desai’s followers in his honor. He maintained his vow of silence and intense, devoted practice during his time in America. He returned to India at the end of his life when his health failed and died there in 1981.

The Kripalu Yoga Center is still there in Massachusetts and I have studied there many times. Following a sexual scandal with Amrit Desai, they changed from a more traditional Indian model and thoughtfully modified the teachings and their structure to one more appropriate for Americans., They teach many classes in social silence in order to give people an opportunity to explore silence for themselves. They teach people to use prana, or energy, to sustain postures and to move out of their own divine intuitive guidance. But mostly, they teach that the most important thing is love. You can feel it in everything they do. It is a beautiful, powerful, and healing experience to be at Kripalu.

Swami Kripalu was a man of a very particular time and place, and yet he gave us a beautiful message and a challenge to us to find our own path of devotion.

Tonight I close with the traditional closing of Kripalu yoga. It means, the same thing as Namaste.

Jai Baghwan!

Resources:

Pilgrim of Love Swami Kripalu’s autobiography and philosophy, with additional commentary by his nephew and disciples. Available as a free download, too.

Lord Lakulish (Word document) written by Swami Kripalu

Asanas and Mudras by Swami Kripalu – the book that shows his physical practice. More free downloads of his writing are available on that website.

Yoga and the Quest for the True Self by Stephen Cope. In this book he shares the dissolution of the Kripalu guru model after Amrit Desai was deposed as head of Kripalu Yoga Center. This is a nice book in many ways and I recommend it.

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