Paramahansa Yogananda's "The Tattered Dress"
Introduction and Excerpt from "The Tattered Dress"
Many times in his writings the great yogi/poet Paramahansa Yogananda has likened death to the act of changing clothing. The soul's leaving the body is like the body shedding a ragged old coat or dress and putting on a brand new one.
In Paramahansa Yogananda's nine-line poem, "The Tattered Dress," the speaker refers metaphorically to the physical body as a garment of clothing, a "dress." The old worn body is like a dress that is ragged and torn; thus it is a "tattered dress."
But the main thrust of this brief poem is the act that removes the ragged clothing and replaces it with a fine new radiant gown that reflects the beauty of the Divine's highest elements. That act is the act of dying.
Instead of mundanely saying something like when you die, your soul simply exchanges its physical body for a new astral body of light, the speaker has created a little drama in which he watches as Spirit with magic hands quickly pulls the soul from its tattered dress and places it into a "soul-sheen habiliment" or a "newly given robe"—a new dress that reflects the light of heaven.
Excerpt from "The Tattered Dress"
I see Thy magic Hands of death
Snatch away in stealth
And change the tattered dress — . . .
(Please note: The poem in its entirety may be found in Paramahansa Yogananda's Songs of the Soul, published by Self-Realization Fellowship, Los Angeles, CA, 1983 and 2014 printings.)
The metaphor of a dress works to describe the relationship of the physical body to the soul. Thus dying is simply changing one old tattered dress for a fresh new one.
First Movement: Personifying Death
The speaker begins his little but profound drama by reporting what he has seen: he personifies death, giving death "magic hands" and those hands act to pull the tattered garment off of the individual.
Death does this "in stealth" as only the most advanced yogi would be able to see that a soul is withdrawing from the physical body. Ordinary human consciousness remains incapable of detecting this momentous occurrence.
Second Movement: The Over-Importance of the Physical Encasement
The speaker refers to the body as the "tattered dress," which the unenlightened individual, that is, the soul-unrealized individual, is wont to desire to retain. People are so fond of the body that they hug to it, giving it more importance than it deserves.
Those blinded by the physical world become so attached to only what they see that they see only the unreal, and remain blind to the spiritual reality.
The blind cannot experience the "soul-sheen" garment of the astral world. Ordinary consciousness functions blindly in the realm of the reality of the higher consciousness. Ordinary consciousness requires retraining to be able to sense higher states of being.
Third Movement: A Boost for the Next Karmic Journey
But despite that blind attachment to the physical encasement, all souls are given a new robe, a new body in which to play out their karma. Each soul is eternal and never ending. The physical body "dies" but the soul does not.
On the astral level, the soul inhabits a glowing body of light, "That shines with th' empyrean beauties" of God's creation. The astral level of being allows the soul a respite, a chance to leave old worries behind before continuing the journey to the Divine Goal.
Thus, at death, the soul simply leaves the worn-out physical body behind, inhabits an astral body for a time, then returns to Earth in a new fresh body, a new dress, to continue its journey back to the Divine Reality.
Of course, the karma of the soul remains to be worked out the next life, but possessing a fresh body, a brand new dress to wear, and a refreshed mind serves as a boost for the continuing trek to heaven.
Life Sketch of Paramahansa Yogananda
The great guru/poet Paramahansa Yogananda was born on January 5, 1893, in Gorakhpur, India. His name at birth was Mukunda Lal Ghosh. Always a spiritually advanced child, at age 17, he met his guru, Swami Sri Yukteswar, under whose guidance he flourished and became the spiritual giant and sacred engine that leads souls back to their eternal abode in the arms of the Divine Creator.
Paramahansa Yogananda came to the United States in 1920 to speak in Boston at the International Congress of Religious Liberals. His speech was so well received that he quickly gathered a following. By 1925, his organization, Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF), was well established with the purpose of disseminating and maintaining the purity of his teachings of yoga. He has come to be known as the “Father of Yoga in the West.”
The following is an excerpt from the introduction to Paramahansa Yogananda’s biography on the Self-Realization Fellowship Web site:
In the hundred years since the birth of Paramahansa Yogananda, this beloved world teacher has come to be recognized as one of the greatest emissaries to the West of India’s ancient wisdom. His life and teachings continue to be a source of light and inspiration to people of all races, cultures and creeds.
Paramahansa Yogananda's in-depth work, Autobiography of a Yogi, has become a spiritual classic worldwide. Many devotees have been drawn to the teachings of this yogi through that autobiography, and many of their stories about how they came to find that work include some of the most inspiring "miracles" of modern American culture.
Such world-renowned figures as Dennis Weaver, Steve Jobs, George Harrison, and Elvis Presley were influenced by the Autobiography of a Yogi and the teachings of the great guru. Weaver even became a lay minister and spoke often at many of the SRF temples in California.
In addition to the autobiography, the great guru has published many collections of his talks, in both written and oral forms. His audio collector's series of ten of his informal talks includes the following titles:
1. Beholding the One in All
2. Awake in the Cosmic Dream
3. Be a Smile Millionaire
4. The Great Light of God
5. To Make Heaven on Earth
6. One Life Versus Reincarnation
7. Removing All Sorrow and Suffering
8. In the Glory of the Spirit
9. Follow the Path of Christ, Krishna, and the Masters
10. Self-Realization: The Inner and the Outer Path
These inspirational talks reveal much information about the great guru that appeals to his devoted followers. Just listening to a God-realized voice offers an uplifting spiritual experience.
For my commentaries on the poems of the great guru, I rely on his marvelous collection titled, Songs of the Soul, the version published in 1983 with its most current printing 2014. Two additional collections of his poems are extant, Whispers From Eternity and Metaphysical Meditations.
Because the "poems" of this great guru function on levels that ordinary poems do not, they are often used in devotional services held by groups of devotees of the SRF teachings throughout the world in the Readings Services as well as their Special Commemorative Services.
Paramahansa Yogananda's poems are more akin to prayers than to the poetry of ordinary poets, whose subject matter often dramatizes only human emotion in its relationship with creation and other human beings, instead of with the Creator; the great guru's poems always invoke the Creator's presence whether directly or indirectly.
The great guru's organization, SRF, also continues to publish collections of his works. Many of his talks have appeared in the series of essays that include Man's Eternal Quest, The Divine Romance, and Journey to Self-realization.
The guru has also bestowed on the literary world three important translations of extant perennial works that have been grossly misunderstood in some cases for centuries. His new translations along with his explanatory commentaries are correcting that misunderstanding.
In Wine of the Mystic: The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam — A Spiritual Interpretation, he shows how that poet's God-realized effusions put on display a man in love with his Creator and not the wine sopped Epicurean that has been misapplied to the work.
In the guru's in-depth translation and commentaries on the ancient Bhagavad Gita, titled God Talks With Arjuna: The Bhagavad Gita — A New Translation and Commentary, the great spiritual leader offers not only the poetic translation of the work but also the relevance for humankind of the psychological and spiritual instruction offered in the ancient poem.
Most importantly for Western culture, Paramahansa Yogananda has offered a full explanation of the phenomenon known as the "Second Coming." Titled The Second Coming of Christ: The Resurrection of the Christ Within You — A revelatory commentary on the original teachings of Jesus, the work explains the true meaning of many of Jesus' words long misunderstood and mischaracterized, such as "The Kingdom of God is within you" and "I and my Father are one."
Of all the publications offered by SRF and the great guru, it is the Lessons that remain most vital. One could dispense with all of the other books, audio tapes, poetry, and other commentaries if one possesses those lessons.
The Lessons begin by offering physical exercises that prepare the physical encasement to sit quietly and still while performing the more advanced exercises that lead to Kriya Yoga practice.
The Lessons contains six steps that can be completed in three years, but each student is free to progress at his/her own pace. The Lessons include instruction in the following techniques: 1. Energization Exercises. 2. Hong-Sau Technique of Concentration, and 3. Aum Technique of Meditation.
After completing the first two steps, the devotee may apply for the Kriya Yoga technique.
Kriya Yoga Initiations
The Kriya Yoga technique features four initiations for a total of twenty lessons. The First Initiation, featuring lessons K1-9, includes the technique of Kriya proper, on which all of the other initiations are based. The Second Initiation contains four lessons, K10-14, and the Third and Fourth include the remaining lessons K15-20.
All of the Lessons, including the Kriya Yoga Initiations, include many explanations based of science, as well as on the life experience of Paramahansa Yogananda. These marvelous works are presented in such way to hold the student-devotees' interest with little stories, poems, affirmations, and prayers that enhance the purpose of each lesson.
In addition to all of the works mentioned above, Paramahansa Yogananda has published many others, including his Cosmic Chants, which offers musical notations as well as the lyric for each chant.
An annotated list of the works of the great guru is offered on the Self-Realization Fellowship Web site under the title, "The Complete Works of Paramahansa Yogananda."
Brief Publishing History of Songs of the Soul
The first published version of Paramahansa Yogananda's Songs of the Soul appeared in 1923. During the 1920s and 1930s, the great spiritual leader revised many of the poems. The final revisions of the poems authorized by the great guru appear in the 1983 printing of the text, which along with the revisions restored many lines that had been omitted from the original version.
I use the 1983 printing for my commentaries. The current printing year is 2014. No further revisions or additions have been made since the 1983 printing. The 1923 versions of the many of the poems may be read at Full Text of Songs of the Soul.
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© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes