Throughout history there have been great heroes who, seeing the injustices of their times, fought against them and changed the lives of thousands. One such heroine was Harriet Tubman.
Born a slave in 1822 in Maryland, she suffered great cruelty throughout her childhood and was ruthlessly beaten and whipped by her various “masters.” Yet rather than accepting or succumbing to the injustices of slavery, she found the strength, courage, and faith to escape and fight back. Over time she became one of the leading abolitionists and political activists of her time.
Harriet undertook thirteen missions to rescue slaves from their bondage in the South to freedom in the North, using a network of abolitionists and safe houses which became known as the “Underground Railroad.” A devout Christian, she often had visions and dreams which she believed were premonitions from God to guide and protect her in helping the slaves to escape. It was to these visions that she attributed her success in freeing others. “I never lost a single passenger,” she declared.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Harriet worked for the Union Army, first as a scout and guide, and then as a spy. She was the first woman in that war to lead an armed expedition, commanding the raid on Combahee Ferry which freed over seven hundred slaves.
During her lifetime and even today, Harriet Tubman has become a symbol of courage and determination in the fight for freedom. Not all the slaves, however, were ready to receive what she had to offer. Many of them were resigned to their bondage, or were afraid to leave the familiar life of a slave for the unknown life of a free person.
“If I could have convinced more slaves that they were slaves, I could have freed thousands more,” she said.
Great souls like Harriet Tubman are born to meet the challenges of their times. Abraham Lincoln, the president of the United States during the Civil War, was another such high soul. Paramhansa Yoganandaji said that Lincoln had been a Himalayan yogi in a former incarnation who died with the desire to bring about racial equality. His birth as Lincoln was for the purpose of fulfilling that desire.
Thanks to the courage and sacrifice of many brave souls, the institution of slavery no longer exists in America. There is another kind of enslavement, however. This is maya, or delusion, which traps us in the belief that the world as perceived by the senses is the only reality, and that we are nothing more than our physical body.
Great liberators such as Buddha, Krishna, Jesus Christ, and Paramhansa Yogananda come to free us and awaken us to the truth of our existence: that this world is a dream; that we are immortal children of the light; and that our souls are eternally united with God’s joy and love.
In Autobiography of a Yogi Yoganandaji writes, “An adamant resolution arose in my breast: I would share with my fellows, so far as lay in my power, the unshackling truths I had learned at my guru’s feet.”
We must have the courage and faith to follow our liberators when they come. The slaves, if they were to follow Harriet Tubman along the Underground Railroad, needed first to recognize their bondage, and then be willing to leave behind everything they knew or had. So we, too, must recognize the chains of delusion that bind us, and be willing to make great sacrifices in order to break them.
We live in times of escalating social and political conflict throughout the world. In the midst of it all, let us never forget that the most important battle is for soul freedom.
Master loved to sing in a great booming voice a verse from a famous hymn which was popular with the Union soldiers during the Civil War, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” He made a few changes to the words, however, including this one: from “As He [Christ] died to make men holy, let us die to make men free!” to “. . . let us live to make men free!”*
Following this great liberator, let us fight to find true freedom for ourselves and others.
Your fellow soldier,
* Years later Swami Kriyananda rewrote the words to another line of the original verse. Here is a recording (1:37) incorporating both Master’s and Swamiji’s changes.