Autobiography of a Yogi
When Paramahansa Yogananda wrote the last sentence of his Autobiography, he is meant to have said, "This book will change the lives of millions. It will be my messenger when I am gone."
Indeed on its publication in 1946 the book was widely acclaimed and became an enduring bestseller. But the origins of the book are somewhat mysterious, having been prophesied by the nineteenth century Indian saint, Lahiri Mahasaya. He foretold that fifty years after his death a book would be written about him that would help to spread the message of yoga around the world. It was made clear to Yogananda by his guru Swami Sri Yukteswar (himself a disciple of Lahiri Mahasaya) that the task was his to fulfill. Duly, an exact half century after the saint's death, the book appeared, and despite its title, also incorporates the life stories of Mahasaya and Sri Yukteswar's.
The Autobiography is justifiably celebrated as one of the most entertaining and enlightening spiritual books ever written. It has that old-fashioned turn of phrase so characteristic of Indian English, and the many amusing scenes give the book a warmth rarely found in spiritual writings. The book gives a marvelous picture of India itself, which although comparatively poor for the last two centuries, Yogananda noted, had produced 'living skyscrapers of the human soul' in the form of the great swamis and yogis.
Early life of Yogananda
Born Mukunda Lal Ghosh 1893 in Gorakhpur, north-eastern India near the Himalayas, the author was the fourth of eight children, but for most of his youth lived in Calcutta. His father held a senior position in a large railway company, and with his mother became disciples of Lahiri Mahasaya in Benares. Mukunda was only 11 when his mother died.
An average student, his father found him a Sanskrit tutor who happened to be a disciple of the legendary Lahiri Mahasaya. This saint was the first teacher in Mukunda's sadhana or path to God, and heightened his sense that the spiritual life was waiting for him.
His family tried to talk him out of becoming a sannyasi , or renunciate, but he acquired a second guru in Sri Yukteswar, of the Swami order. Sri Yukteswar respected the ways of the West as much as the East, had women as well as men disciples, and exhibited a great knowledge of science even though he never seemed to read. Frighteningly for the young monks, he possessed the specific yogic power of being able to attune himself to the mind of anyone he chose, not just reading their thoughts but placing thoughts into others minds. Yogananda describes him as fitting the definition found in the sacred Vedas of a man of God: 'Softer than the flower, where kindness is concerned; stronger than the thunder, where principles are at stake.'
Against his inclinations, Yogananda was made to do a university degree at Calcutta (obtained 1915), on the grounds that it would make him more respected when his life 'took him to the West'. Thus under Sri Yusteswar's guidance, Yogananda's destiny began to take shape. He had taken the name of Yogananda, which means 'bliss (ananda) through divine union (yoga).'
Bringing the East to the West
Words such as 'guru' and 'yoga' are now part of universal English, but when Yogananda went to America in the 1930s, the world of Eastern spirituality and philosophy was still very exotic. How did it actually come about that he traveled to the West?
Yogananda had founded a school in Ranchi which combined conventional learning with yoga and vedic philosophy. While meditating at the school one day, he had a vision of Americans, and took this as the long-heralded sign to go to the United States. Though his English was poor and he had little money (his father gave him a sum to get there and live on) he left in 1920. Leaving behind everything he knew and loved, he was not to return to India for 15 years.
The voyage took two months, and when he arrived spoke at an international religious congress in Boston. This was the first of hundreds of speeches that slowly increased awareness of Hinduism and introduced yoga to hundreds of thousands of people. By 1925 the author had established a base at Mount Washington in Los Angeles, and became a mini-celebrity, even being called to meet President Calvin Coolidge.
Feted when he did finally return to India, Yogananda saw his guru and his father for the last time, sorted out the affairs of his school, and enlarged the Self-Realization organization.
Meetings with kindred spirits
The book's chapters flow with Yogananda's stories of meeting famous people in India and abroad, in often remote places. These explorations were assisted by the use of a Ford (the author describes it as the 'Pride of Detroit) which a devotee had donated. Sages encountered include the 'Perfume Saint', who could materialize scents at will, the 'Tiger Swami', who had wrestled and defeated tigers, and the 'Levitating Saint', Bhaduri Mahasaya, who had apparently given up great family riches to become a yogi. The latter notes that it is worldly people who are the real renunciants, having given up the bliss of communion with God for illusory things.
The author also met Shankari Mai Jiew, the yogini (woman yogi) of great age, and Nirmala Devi the beautiful 'Joy-Permeated Mother', who spent much of her time in a state of samadhi (blissful trance). Yogananda notes that this childlike woman had solved the essential problem of life - establishing a unity with God - when the rest of us remained 'befogged by a million issues'.
Yogananda journeyed into the heart of Bengal to find Giri Bala, a non-eating saint who had used a certain yoga technique that had allowed her to exist without food for decades, with no ill effects and proven by close observation. Strangely, the woman enjoyed cooking for others, but when asked the purpose of her non-eating, Giri Bala replied that it is to show us that man is essentially spirit and will gradually learn how to live from the energies of astral light, as she does.
Yogananda paints fascinating portraits of his meetings or friendship with: scientist Jagadis Chandra Bose; Rabindranath Tagore, the great Indian poet; Luther Burbank, the pioneering plant cultivator; Sri Ramana Maharshi, the sage of Arunachala. Fans of Mahatma Gandhi will enjoy the author's description of his time at Wardha, Gandhi's ashram in central India.
Yogic powers and the law of miracles
The Autobiography is full of tales of miraculous healings, people being raised from the dead, strange intercessions. Yet the descriptions of these events ring true. Yogananda goes to great lengths to discuss how the seemingly impossible is of daily occurrence for yogis. He notes that Einstein's theory of relativity boiled the universe down to pure energy, or light. Matter was simply concentrated energy, and the solidity of things is to some extent illusory. Einstein showed that matter could never equal the velocity of light, which is why we class matter as solid and light as ephemeral.
What has this to do with the miraculous powers of yogis and sages? Yogananda explains that they are able to put themselves into a state in which they cease to be identified with their body, or with matter at all. From their awareness that the material world is essentially maya , or illusion, they can literally transform their molecular structure from matter to light energy, allowing them to be, for instance, in two places at once. A yogi sees himself as omnipresent, becoming 'one with the universe' and as a result can materialize or dematerialize objects free from the principle of gravity.
A yogi's ability to 'become light' - to concentrate light energy - is why divine manifestations in every religion are described as often blinding flashes of light. Spiritual masters see the universe as God did when it was created: as an 'undifferentiated mass of light'. Becoming one with that light, the Hindu sage and Christian saint alike is freed from the restrictions of matter, allowing 'miracles' to occur. In fact, such occurrences are actually fully in line with the laws of the universe, it is just that most humans are not able to work with them. As he notes, miracle-making is possible for anyone 'who has realized that the essence of creation is light'.
While a yogi is capable of strange powers, they are not used for the entertainment of others. The adage, "He is a fool that cannot conceal his wisdom" Yogananda felt applied to his Master Sri Yukteswar. He was plainly spoken, but quietly bent the laws of the universe around himself, so attracting little attention but having maximum effect.
Yogananda's broader message is that self-realization through yogic control of the mind and body is a science (the 'science of self-realization'). He writes, "The goal of yoga science is to calm the mind, that without distortion it may hear the infallible counsel of the Inner Voice." Intuition, which he described as 'soul guidance', was only possible when the mind was stilled.
When you pick up this book you think you are about to read an enjoyable life story of an Eastern wise man; what you get is an entree to some of the mysteries of the universe. At the beginning is the quote: "Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe." (John 4:46-54) Yogananda included it because he knew people are so set in their ways that sometimes only 'miracles' can jolt them into pondering divine matters. Gurus usually do not like to discuss 'powers' as they distract the learner from the real path, but Yogananda knew that miraculous occurrences were the honey that attracted the bees to the spiritual pot.
While the Autobiography provides a fascinating introduction to the Hindu spiritual literature - the Vedas , Upanishads , Mahabarata - a great surprise of the book is that it can give you new eyes for the Bible. Yogananda was a keen scholar of the Bible, and the Autobiography is rich with footnotes comparing concepts and sayings from the Hindu scriptures with those found in the Old and New Testaments. He refers to Jesus as the 'Galilean Master', who had similar powers over matter as that of the great yogis.
It is possible to read the whole of the Autobiogaphy without believing any of it, but see if your skepticism can withstand the last page, which contains excerpts from a letter written by the director of the Forest Lawn mortuary in Los Angeles where Yogananda's body was placed after his death in 1952. Unlike every other corpus that had come his way, Yogananda's failed to show any signs of decay even three weeks after it had come in. The actual circumstances of his death, too, are remarkable, but for this and a thousand other details you should read the book.
Source: 50 Spiritual Classics: 50 Great Books of Inner Discovery, Enlightenment and Purpose, Tom Butler-Bowdon (London & Boston: Nicholas Brealey)
"A 'miracle' is commonly considered to be an effect or event without law, or beyond law. But all events in our precisely adjusted universe are lawfully wrought and lawfully explicable. The so-called miraculous powers of a great master are a natural accompaniment to his exact understanding of subtle laws that operate in the inner cosmos of consciousness."
© COPYRIGHT TOM BUTLER-BOWDON, 2022
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