If you, thinking of God, take one step towards Him, in response, He, who is more kind than a mother, thinking of you, takes nine steps—such a long distance—and accepts you. So great is His grace.
Yogananda’s encounter with Ramana Maharishi, whom he named “the enlightened Rishi of South India,” highlights the universal power hidden behind Jesus’s parable of the Prodigal Son.
Devotee Sanjaya uses his deep knowledge of the Greek language to give his fascinating interpretation of the famous story, based upon the teachings of Paramhansa Yogananda.
One of the profoundest and most universally relevant of Jesus’ parables is the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11-32). As Paramhansa Yogananda points out, it is much more than an allegory of sin, repentance and forgiveness, and has deeper spiritual teachings pertaining to the spiritual path of every human being. As a story of the descent of the soul into the world of the senses and its eventual reawakening and journey home, it seems to have existed in several versions at the time of Jesus. One of the most well-known of these is the Gnostic “Hymn of the Pearl” found in the apocryphal acts of Thomas. What follows is an exploration of some of the truths the parable contains; truths that may be of help to each one of us in our spiritual transition from prodigal to pilgrim.
Leaving home for a far country
The opening verses of the parable (with the addition of certain key words from the Greek original) are as follows (KJV): “And he said, A certain man had two sons: And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods (ουσία) that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living (βίον). And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted (διεσκόρπισε) his substance (ουσία) with riotous living (ζων ασώτως).” (Luke 15: 11-13)
In the “Hymn of the Pearl”, the son is actually sent out by his father and mother on a mission to retrieve the pearl guarded by a serpent, but in Jesus’ parable no reason is given why the younger son wanted to leave his father’s home for a far country. Yogananda explains that the soul is lured out of its divine home by the glamour of material pleasures. The father’s kingdom is our true home, whereas the world of matter, in which the soul wanders seeking material pleasures, is a far and foreign country to it. And there, as the parable says, it “wastes its substance with riotous living”. It is not so important in the end why the younger son in Jesus’ parable wanted to leave his true home. What is important is that we are now (to varying degrees) in the situation of the prodigal son, living in the world of matter (regardless of why and how we got here) and our concern is how we can get back home to the father. And herein lies the universal relevance of the parable.
Wasting one’s substance
The word “goods” and the word “substance” in these opening verses is actually the same word in the original Greek. The Greek word is “ουσία” (ousía), which can mean “substance”, though a better translation would be “essence” and, perhaps in this case, “vital essence”. When the son asks for the portion of “ousia” that falleth to him, the father divides his “living” between the two sons. The word translated as “living” is the Greek word “βίον” (víon), which might be better translated as “life”. It’s the father’s very life force that he divides between the two sons and it is this life force or vital essence that the younger son “wasted with riotous living” or, as the Greek original literally says, “scattered by living prodigally”. The word “prodigal” (from the Latin prōdigus, meaning “extravagant, lavish”) has come to mean someone who squanders money, a spendthrift. The word in the original Greek of the New Testament is άσωτος (ásōtos), which similarly has come to mean wasteful or profligate, and applies to someone who squanders rather than conserves what he has.
Yogananda explains the son’s demise as the demise of the soul, which (forgetting its divine nature and identifying with the body in the world of matter) wastes or fails to conserve the vital energy or life force given to it by the father by scattering it; by letting it go down and out through the senses to satisfy its material desires. He expresses this state of the soul and the state in which we all find ourselves to varying degrees in one of his metaphysical meditations: “The king of the universe is my Father. I am the prince-successor to all His kingdom of power, wealth, and wisdom. Falling into a forgetful state of mortal beggary, I have failed to claim my divine birthright…”
Remembering through suffering
But what is it that makes the prodigal son decide to go back home to the father’s house? The parable continues: “And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want. And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him.” (Luke 15: 14-16)
Suffering is what usually stimulates our memory of our true nature and so awakens the soul from its identification with the body and the material world. It is suffering (in this case from hunger) that leads the prodigal son to remember the blessings of his father’s house or, put another way, that leads the soul to remember its divine provenance. Returning home to the father means remembering or awakening to our true spiritual nature, to our birthright. Patanjali, the so-called father of yoga, describes spiritual awakening as smriti, which is the Sanskrit word for “memory”. And it is when the prodigal son begins to suffer that he awakens and remembers his true nature.
Human experience suggests there is no escaping suffering as a means for personal (and collective) growth. There are, of course, other stimuli to spiritual growth. For example, in the “Hymn of the Pearl”, the son is made to remember by a letter sent from his parents. But why, in most cases, should suffering be a prerequisite for growth? Is there no other way? Yogananda asked this question of the great Indian master, Ramana Maharshi, who replied: “Suffering is the way for the realization of God”. It goes against all our ingrained and inculcated beliefs to view suffering not as a calamity but as a God-given opportunity for spiritual growth, and yet… it is the way. There is always a lesson to be learned from suffering and we ourselves are responsible for how many times we have to suffer in the same way before learning the lesson and transitioning to a higher understanding or consciousness.
Coming to oneself
The parable continues: “And when he came to himself (εις εαυτόν δε ελθών), he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants.” (Luke 15: 17-19)
The parable tells us that, through his suffering, the prodigal son “came to himself”. The words in the original Greek text are εις εαυτόν δε ελθών (eis eautón de elthón), which mean “and he came to his self”, not in the sense of coming round or recovering, but in the sense of going into his self, of again becoming aware of his true self and his true nature as his father’s son. Suffering helped him, by making him turn within, to raise his consciousness from the level of material sensations to the level of God-consciousness. As Jesus put it: “The Kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21) and the journey home to the father is not an outer one but an inner one. It is effected by reversing that process that led the prodigal son to his suffering; in other words, by conserving (not wasting) the life force and directing it inwards and upwards, instead of downwards and outwards.
Compassion and restoration
The parable continues: “And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.” (Luke 15: 20)
When we stray from our true home, we think that it will require an enormous effort to return. But once we have taken the decision to return and begin our steps homeward (inward), the father comes to meet us. Yogananda says that even our desire to return and our steps in that direction call his Grace upon us. Similarly, Ramana Maharsi explains: “If you, thinking of God, take one step towards Him, in response, He, who is more kind than a mother, thinking of you, takes nine steps—such a long distance—and accepts you. So great is His grace!” This verse offers assurance to the spiritual devotee earnestly endeavoring to return to the heavenly kingdom that the Divine will consciously respond to his efforts.
Part of that response is to restore to the devotee the life force that he has wasted. The verse tells us that father fell on the son’s neck and kissed him. At first sight, this seems unusual. It’s more normal in such circumstances to kiss on the cheeks, the forehead, or the lips. Perhaps what we have here is a reference to the medulla oblongata or “mouth of God” according to Yogananda, through which life force enters the body. So the father falling on the son’s neck and kissing him may be interpreted as a possible reference to his restoring the life-force or lost inheritance to his son.
Repentance and celebration
And so the prodigal son is reunited with his father to their great delight as described in the next verses: “And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son. But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry: For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry.” (Luke 15: 21-24)
These verses reassure us that the father will never judge us harshly for having left him. It is reminiscent of the passage in the Autobiography of a Yogi, where Yogananda returns, like the prodigal son, to Sri Yukteswar’s ashram after having left for the Himalayas and is immediately welcomed without judgment and with food. According to Yogananda: “…the Heavenly Father and liberated souls in heaven are filled with gladness when an error-stricken soul repents of past evil ways and tries to go back to the heavenly kingdom. The Heavenly Father rejoices over all virtuous souls, but it evokes a special joy in Him when He finds a lost soul returning to His kingdom.”
And if any more reassurance of this fact is required, it is to be found in the story of the good shepherd who rejoices in finding his lost sheep and which acts as a prelude to the parable of the prodigal son. Jesus says: “…What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it? And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost. I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.” (Luke 15: 3-7) The last words of this story also explain the otherwise puzzling episode with the jealous elder brother with which the parable of the prodigal son ends.
The parable of the prodigal son assures us, as Yogananda explains, that no matter how far man’s life is pulled away from its divine source by the outgoing force of evil (by maya or delusion), if the prodigal makes a conscious effort to return to his source, he will be drawn back to God by the stronger magnetism of God’s love. The parable also reassures us that even a prodigal may become a saint by the decision to return home (usually after suffering) and by continuing his path no matter how many times he falls (A saint is a sinner who never gave up, says Yogananda). And, of course, the path is an inner one. The prodigal reclaims his divine heritage through turning inwards to his true self and by overcoming the lure of his sense desires. In this way he awakens or remembers his true divine nature.
It seems fitting to conclude by affirming together with Yogananda: “Father, I have been like the prodigal son. I have wondered away from Thy home of all power, but now I am back in Thy home of Self-realization, I want the good things that Thou hast, for they all belong to me. I am Thy child.” (Metaphysical Meditations, 1952 edition)