Image: Paramahansa Yogananda, 1921
29. “Tattered Garment”
In Paramahansa Yogananda’s “Tattered Garment,” the speaker creates a little drama that compares the human body’s relationship to clothing to the soul’s relationship to the body (physical encasement.)
Introduction and Excerpt from “Tattered Garment”
In Paramahansa Yogananda’s poem, “Tattered Garment,” the speaker likens the physical human body to clothing that the soul simply sheds at death, but this poem also reveals that the soul is like gold, a precious metal, which has been hidden by dust. The physical body is also referred to as dust in the Judeo-Christian scripture: “. . . for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (KJV Genesis 3:19).
The speaker tells his listeners not to be overly concerned about their own physical encasement after their soul has left it. He wants his ashes to be scattered to the wind, “Oh, blow my tattered garment’s dust away!” The speaker is demonstrating the relative importance of the physical level existence to the spiritual level. The soul is the ever-existing entity and therefore of much greater importance than the temporary physical body or physical level of existence.
Excerpt from “Tattered Garment”
Sing thou no plaintive lay
When my earthly raiment dies,
Nor let ashes tell thy tears where it lies;
Oh, blow my tattered garment’s dust away! . . .
By likening the physical body to a piece of clothing that becomes useless with tatters and is then discarded, the speaker is demonstrating the importance of the soul that simply wears that physical body for a time before removing it. Knowledge of that important relationship between physical body and soul serves to encourage spiritual aspirants in their effort to pursue soul-awareness.
First Stanza: The Body Dies — the Soul Does Not
The speaker is both comforting and instructing his devotees about the important reality: even though the body changes and dies, the soul does not change or die but goes on in splendor, and those who practice diligently the yoga techniques will be able to experience that splendor just as their guru has done.
The speaker, therefore, admonishes his listeners about the futility of mourning the death of the body. He asks them not to sing sorrowful songs after his physical body has been abandoned by his soul. The speaker asks that his ashes not be memorialized, because they simply constituted that “raiment” that is no more important than a “tattered garment” covering the physical frame.
Second Stanza: Gold Beneath the Dust
The second stanza refers to the soul as “Gold” which is seen only after it has been “clean-washed” of the dust or physical body. The speaker thus reminds his devotees that they do not become soul-aware just because their souls have left their physical encasements. The devotee must have been preparing for the ability to become soul-aware.
After the devotee has united his consciousness with his soul, he will become aware of the brightness and soul-wisdom that the soul contains. Because the soul is the spark of God in the physical encasement, it retains the same omniscient, omnipresent characteristics that are always ascribed to the Divine Creator.
The devotee washes clean the dust of the body through use of the yoga techniques given by the God-realized guru. Again, like a tattered garment covering the body, the dust of the physical body covers the soul until it can be washed clean.
Regardless of the level of soul awareness experienced by the devotee, the soul will not die when the body dies. The soul which is all wisdom will glow wherever its karmic path takes it. No earthly dross can diminish the soul’s energy, light, and being.
Nevertheless, many devotees mistakenly believe that after death, they will become soul aware. The guru reminds them often that they must become soul-aware while the soul remains in the physical encasement, otherwise they will simply continue to reincarnate until they do attain that ultimate liberation.
Paramahansa Yogananda explains the concepts of reincarnation and karma:
Reincarnation: The doctrine that human beings, compelled by the law of evolution, incarnate repeatedly in progressively higher lives — retarded by wrong actions and desires, and advanced by spiritual endeavors — until Self-realization and God-union are attained. Having thus transcended the limitations and imperfections of mortal consciousness, the soul is forever freed from compulsory reincarnation. “Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out” (Revelation 3:12).
Karma: Effects of past actions, from this or previous lifetimes; from the Sanskrit kri, to do. The equilibrating law of karma, as expounded in the Hindu scriptures, is that of action and reaction, cause and effect, sowing and reaping. In the course of natural righteousness, each man by his thoughts and actions becomes the molder of his destiny. Whatever energies he himself, wisely or unwisely, has set in motion must return to him as their starting point, like a circle inexorably completing itself. An understanding of karma as the law of justice serves to free the human mind from resentment against God and man. A man’s karma follows him from incarnation to incarnation until fulfilled or spiritually transcended.
Third Stanza: A Luminous Being
In the final stanza, the speaker continues the description of the soul as a luminous being: “it waits with luring luster.” The golden soul of light will guide the striving devotee to his/her heavenly “Goal” or God. Death is not the termination of human consciousness, because each human being is chiefly a soul that possesses a physical body. And though the body withers away and dies, the soul does not. The soul simply leaves the physical encasement at physical death and will then be directed according to its karma.
The speaker has explained the soul’s leaving the body in terms of the physical body changing its clothing. As the body ages and wears out, it resembles a “tattered garment,” and at death as the soul leaves that “tattered garment” behind, the highly evolved consciousness is shown that luminous “path, with lightning glimmer” that leads it from the darkness of the physical world to its Goal in God, the Divine Belovèd.