Did you hear the one about the guru, the young yogi monk and the sizzling…? Well, wait – before I give it away, let me tell you the whole story as it was told to me.
In my early twenties, I worked for an older gentleman named Herb Reed (not the bass singer from the Platters) who in his younger years had been a yogi monk, close follower and assistant to Paramahansa Yogananda, the famous yogi who came from India to the United States in 1920 to bring Kriya Yoga to the West. Yogananda wrote about his incredible life in the wonderful book, Autobiography of a Yogi, which has been read by generations of seekers and has inspired many over the years to pursue the path of yoga. Herb had worked very closely with the famous teacher and guru, helping take care of Yoganandaji’s personal affairs. When I met Herb many years later, I was a wide-eyed idealistic yoga-practitioner, spiritual seeker and strict vegetarian. Herb related a story to me once that has impressed me deeply and reminds me about avoiding the trap of attempting to be overly-ideal and pure in our lifestyle and practices while living in this world, especially at the expense of being here for the service of others.
The story, as it was told to me, revolved around a special request from Yogananda to the young monk, Herb (I’m sure he must have have had a more exotic sounding Sanskrit name given to him by his guru, but I never knew what it was.) The master explained that he needed the monk to visit a devotee – a woman whom Yogananda often visited and who owned a very large ranch way out in the country. The guru was unable to make the visit himself because of other obligations. The young monk agreed to go in the guru’s stead and set off to visit the woman.
Herb traveled to the woman’s ranch and spent the day with her, touring the ranch, chatting and answering her questions regarding the master’s teachings. After a lengthy visit, the woman asked the monk if he was hungry and if she could serve him some food. The young monk agreed and waited patiently as the woman went off to prepare and bring the food. After some time passed the woman returned and, much to the shock of the monk, was carrying a hot, sizzling platter which bore a big, thick beef steak with juices running out of it, which she proudly sat down in front of the monk. The fresh meat was from her own cattle herd. The strong aroma of grilled meat filled the young yogi’s nostrils as he recoiled in horror at the very sight of it. He was aghast with revulsion and immediately told the woman, “I can’t eat that. I am a yogi and a vegetarian.” The woman’s proud, bright countenance suddenly turned to an angry glare as she looked the young monk directly in the eye and snapped back in a stern tone, “What!? Why your master was here just last week, sat right there and ate a steak just like that, relishing every single bite!” Now the monk was in even deeper shock as he tried to comprehend what she was saying to him. What – Yogananda ate meat? Was this true? His head reeled with confusion, but in his shock and reaction to the woman’s stern words, he began to eat the steak one bite at a time, until he had consumed the whole thing.
Upon returning to the ashram, Herb went to meet with Yogananda and report on the visit. He told the guru about all that had happened and asked if the woman’s story was true – had Yogananda really eaten the steak that the woman offered? The guru lovingly looked into the young monk’s eyes and said, “ Yes, it is true. You see, the steak was an offering of love by this dear devotee and in love I accepted her gift.” The young monk could still not understand how the master could do something so out of character with the yogic way of life. Yogananda answered with these words – “Remember that it is not what you do once in a while that hurts you, but what you do most often. There is never any harm to the soul when what we do is done in the spirit of loving kindness, even if it is something that is not in keeping with the ideals of our spiritual practice.”
It has been many years since I was told this story and I am sure that I have paraphrased much of what was actually told to me, but the spirit of the story as I understood it and how its message affected me is there in the retelling. I also know that there must be many followers of Yogananda or the foundation that today represents his teachings that would refute this story and say that no such thing ever happened, but I believed Herb when he told me this story. After all – what did he have to gain by making it up. His love for Yogananda was very strong and the years he had spent with the guru were a deep part of who he was, even after so many years. In actuality, he may have been the only person, other than Yogananda and the woman, who knew what had taken place. I only hope that the words of this enlightened and loving teacher, Paramahansa Yogananda, will also help others on the path of spiritual seeking avoid the trap of over-attachment to purity that tempts many of us in our pursuit of personal spiritual practice. This truth of loving acceptance even has application in many other areas of our daily lives, from a child who brings us a gift of their colorful crayon scribble or a close person who takes the time to do something for us, even small, in the spirit of kindness. What others offer in love and kindness is always worthy of acceptance in the same loving spirit in which it is offered. Even if we were Herb and had chosen not to eat the steak for whatever good reason we had, it was important to acknowledge the woman’s act of love and giving first before possibly apologetically refraining from eating the meat.
Post Note from Rik Vig: I rewrote the ending of this post (the portion in bold italics) after receiving a comment from my friend, Devin Morgan. The point of the story was never whether or not a lifelong vegetarian should eat meat, but whether we act from our selfish attachment to ideals and self-purity or from a place of selfless and loving service to others. I agree with Devin – the third option would have been to lovingly acknowledge the woman’s gift and still refrain from eating the steak (read her words in Comments.) I’m not sure that this possibility even occurred to the young monk in his youthful zealousness.