Words, Music & Screen
Discussions and Reviews by Thomas Itty
It is reported that Steve Jobs' final parting gift to all the attendees at his funeral was a copy of "Autobiography of a Yogi" (published in 1946) by Paramahansa Yogananda. It was apparently the only book he always had on his iPad and he is quoted as saying that he read it at least once every year. George Harrison was also deeply influenced by the book and it was the gateway to his lifelong passion and devotion to Hinduism and Eastern philosophy. I first read "Autobiography of a Yogi" about 20 years ago. I'd heard of the book before that but I always felt a bit intimidated about reading it. It is quite thick with small print (the paperback version) and not the kind of book I usually read... self-help... self-realization... spirituality... or autobiography. However, I remember liking the book a lot after my first reading of it, purely as an autobiography. It took a few chapters to get into the book but after that it was quite engrossing. Full of mystical characters, fantastic situations, unbelievable miracles, and self-deprecating humor, the book makes enjoyable reading — even if you don't take away anything deeper than that. But of course, there's more to it than that! However, this review is not written from the perspective of a disciple but rather that of a reader who enjoys all genres and topics... and a skeptic who is also open to the idea of spiritual and divine possibility.
I think Yogananda wrote the book with some specific goals in mind:
Paramahansa Yogananda's given name was Mukunda Lal Ghosh. He was born to Bangali parents (of the Kshatriya caste) in the town of Gorakhpur (at the foot of Himalayan mountains) in Northern India. His father held a high position at the Bengal-Nagpur Railway. The family was well-off, compared to most Indians of the time. His father, despite his high position, lived frugally and spent his free time reading the Bhagavad Gita. Yogananda's parents were also ardent disciples of Lahari Mahasaya — one of the early practitioners of Kriya Yoga.
Yogananda says he can remember everything in his life, including the time he spent in his mother's womb. His childhood memories are full of small and large miracles. He is healed of Asiatic cholera by praying to the photograph of Lahari Mahasaya (who had died some years earlier). In another incident, Mukunda (Yogananda) and his sister are on the roof of their house when he sees two kites in the sky. He prays to the Divine Mother (Goddess Kali) asking for them and she grants him his wish. This, and other incidents like it, convince Mukunda that he has a divine calling.
When Mukunda is about eleven years old, his mother who is away in Calcutta arranging his brother's marriage, appears to him in a vision and tells him that she is dying and there is nothing anyone can do for her. She passes away that night but leaves behind a letter for him. In it, she writes that she had taken him as an infant to Lahari Mahasaya who prophesied that Mukunda would become a yogi someday and "carry many souls to God's kingdom" through Kriya Yoga. The saint had also given her a magic amulet (through another swami) for Mukunda that would disappear on the day the boy met his chosen guru and Master.
For the next few years, Mukunda searches high and low for his guru. He doesn't know who that is — but he is certain he will recognize him when they meet. At first, his father and elder brother discourage him but they soon realize that they can't stop him. So they support his quest. The family is living in Calcutta at this point which makes it easier for him travel to various places and even to the Himalaya where several yogis meditate. His father job at the Railway also allows him to get free first-class passes for his son on any train... which allows Mukunda to travel "freely!" (My joke!)
Mukunda's travels lead him to several yogis and swamis — Swami Kebalananda, who teaches him Sanskrit... Swami Pranabananda, who can be at two places at the same time... Gandha Baba, who can make marvelous perfume on demand... Tiger Swami, who can fight and subdue tigers with his bare hands... and Nagendra Nath Bhaduri, who can levitate several feet above the ground. He also meets Jagdish Chandra Bose, a noted Indian physicist and plant researcher (who is said to have discovered short-wave radio before Marconi) and Rabindranath Tagore, India's poet laureate (who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913).
For some reason, Mukunda becomes convinced that he needs to go to Banares (called Varanasi today), the spiritual capital of India, if he wants to meet his guru. He is about seventeen years old now. As they are wandering through the narrow lanes of Banares, he sees his guru, Swami Sri Yukteswar Giri...
My quick glance revealed the quiet figure, steadily gazing in my direction. A few eager steps and I was at his feet. “Gurudeva!” The divine face was the one I had seen in a thousand visions. These halcyon eyes, in a leonine head with pointed beard and flowing locks, had oft peered through the gloom of my nocturnal reveries, holding a promise I had not fully understood.
“O my own, you have come to me!” My guru uttered the words again and again in Bengali, his voice tremulous with joy. “How many years I have waited for you!”
We entered a oneness of silence; words seemed the rankest superfluities. Eloquence flowed in soundless chant from the heart of master to disciple. With an antenna of irrefragable insight I sensed that my guru knew God and would lead me to Him. The obscuration of this life disappeared in a fragile dawn of prenatal memories. Dramatic time! Past, present, and future are its cycling scenes. This was not the first sun to find me at these holy feet!
The day he meets Sri Yukteswar, the magic amulet he was given by his mother disappears as it was prophesied. He learns that Lahiri Mahasaya (who predicted his spiritual path) is also Sri Yukteswar's divine guru. For the next twelve years, Mukinda becomes a disciple of Sri Yukteswar. He spends most of his time with the guru who guides him with a firm hand in both spiritual and practical matters. Sri Yukteswar sets a condition for teaching him — that he should attend college and get a degree.
“Someday you will go to the West. Its people will be more receptive to India’s ancient wisdom if the strange Hindu teacher has a university degree.”
While he is not attending college Mukinda undergoes training in Kriya Yoga as well as meditation and a cultivation of a spiritual life from Sri Yukteswar. He begins to understand his destiny — that he has to someday take the ancient and complicated science of Kriya Yoga and make it contemporary and accessible to people in the West. While Mukunda is quick to absorb knowledge about religion and spirituality, he is a slow learner when it comes to his college courses. With a bit of luck and divine help (which he describes with self-deprecating humor in the book) he is able to scrape through his final exams. Shortly after receiving his college degree in 1915, Yogananda takes his formal monastic vows into Sri Yukteswar's order and becomes known as Swami Yogananda (meaning bliss through divine yoga).
Yogananda devotes an entire chapter of the book to the science of Kriya Yoga. Following are some of the highlights:
Yogananda realizes that he needs to go out into the world and spread the knowledge and wisdom he has acquired. He opens a boys school in Ranchi (about 200 miles from Calcutta). The property for the school is a gift from the Maharaja of Kasimbazar who donates one of his palaces for it. The curriculum includes courses for both mind and body.
I organized a program for both grammar and high-school grades. It includes agricultural, industrial, commercial, and academic subjects. Following the educational ideals of the rishis (whose forest ashrams had been the ancient seats of learning, both secular and divine, for the youth of India), I arranged that most class instruction be given outdoors. The Ranchi students are taught yoga meditation, and a unique system of health and physical development, Yogoda, whose principles I discovered in 1916. Realizing that man’s body is like an electric battery, I reasoned that it could be recharged with energy through the direct agency of the human will. As no action of any kind is possible without willing, man may avail himself of the prime mover, will, to renew his strength without burdensome apparatus or mechanical exercises. By the simple Yogoda techniques, one may consciously and instantly recharge his life force (centered in the medulla oblongata) from the unlimited supply of cosmic energy.
For the next few years, Yogananda runs his school and also instructs selected people in the science of Kriya Yoga. He receives and invitation from Rabindranath Tagore to visit him at the poet's own school, Santiniketan, to discuss education. Both schools have an unorthodox curriculum with many things in common including outdoor instruction, simplicity, and courses that are geared towards a child's creative spirit.
One of the most interesting and complex characters in "Autobiography of a Yogi" is Babaji, a yogi who has retained his physical form for centuries, perhaps even for millenniums. He is an avatar (in the Hindu scriptures an avatar signifies the descent of Divinity into flesh).
Yogananda devotes four chapters of his book to Babaji, recounting the face-to-face meetings of other yogis and swamis with him, including Lahiri Mahasaya and Sri Yukteswar. He uses their accounts to describe the immortal yogi — before introducing him in his own story.
In 1920 Yogananda is considering going to America. He has received an invitation to address the International Congress of Religious Liberals in Boston. He does not have the money for his ticket or for his expenses in the US. He is also filled with doubt and insecurity about his ability to speak in public in English. Unexpectedly, his father gives him the money to finance the trip... and Babaji appears to him in person as he is praying for guidance... This is his first real meeting with Babaji.
“He must be Babaji!” I thought, dazed. He answered my thought. “Yes, I am Babaji.” He spoke melodiously in Hindi. “Our Heavenly Father has heard your prayer. He commands me to tell you: Follow the behests of your guru and go to America. Fear not; you shall be protected.”
After a vibrant pause, Babaji addressed me again. “You are the one I have chosen to spread the message of Kriya Yoga in the West. Long ago I met your guru Yukteswar at a Kumbha Mela; I told him then I would send you to him for training.”
I was speechless, choked with devotional awe at his presence, and deeply touched to hear from his own lips that he had guided me to Sri Yukteswar. I lay prostrate before the deathless guru. He graciously lifted me up. After telling me many things about my life, he gave me some personal instruction and uttered a few secret prophecies.
“Kriya Yoga, the scientific technique of God-realization,” he finally said with solemnity, “will ultimately spread in all lands, and aid in harmonizing the nations through man’s personal, transcendental perception...
With the blessings of Babaji, Yogananda leaves for America. On the journey there, he is asked to speak before an audience in the saloon of the streamer. He stands speechless and nervous for ten minutes. People start to laugh watching his discomfort. He prays to his Master who tells him to just start speaking. So he does... He doesn't remember what he said but people later tell him that his forty-five minute speech was very inspiring and spoken in perfect English.
Yogananda is able to stay on in America even after his event because of his father's generous check. He gives public lectures, writes books, teaches yoga classes and is able to slowly establish himself in Los Angeles. He soon finds he has a several benefactors and students who want him to establish a center in the U.S. With their help, Yogananda is able to purchase Mt. Washington Estates in 1925. He becomes somewhat of a celebrity in the following years and is even invited to visit President Calvin Coolidge in the White House. He also becomes good friends with Luther Burbank, the noted botanist and horticulturist.
In 1935, after living for 15 years in the U.S., one day Yogananda receives a telepathic message from his guru, Sri. Yukuteswar, while he is meditating. His Master wants him to return to India. So he decides to go home. On the way, he spends a few days in Europe where he gives lectures and meets with several important people including Therese Neumann, the German Catholic mystic and stigmatic. He is offered a chance to see her in a trance. As she goes into a trance, Yogananda also puts himself into a yogic trance and is able to see the scenes of her vision for himself.
She was watching Jesus as he carried the timbers of the Cross amid the jeering multitude. Suddenly she lifted her head in consternation: the Lord had fallen under the cruel weight. The vision disappeared. In the exhaustion of fervid pity, Therese sank heavily against her pillow.
When Yogananda arrives back in Calcutta he is surprised to see an immense crowd assembled to greet him. When he finally meets his guru, he is moved to tears. Here's how Richard Wright, Yogananda's secretary records the meeting and his first impressions of Sri Yukuteswar...
Yoganandaji dropped to his knees, and with bowed head offered his soul’s gratitude and greeting; touching with his hand the guru’s feet, and then, in humble obeisance, his own forehead. He rose then and was embraced on both sides on the bosom by Sri Yukteswarji.
No words passed in the beginning, but intense feeling was expressed in the mute phrases of the soul. How their eyes sparkled with the warmth of reunion! A tender vibration surged through the quiet patio, and the sun suddenly eluded the clouds to add a blaze of glory...
He is of large, athletic stature; his body hardened by the trials and sacrifices of a renunciant’s life. His poise is majestic. He moves with dignified tread and erect posture. A jovial and rollicking laugh comes from the depths of his chest, causing his whole body to shake and quiver. “His austere face strikingly conveys an impression of divine power. His hair, parted in the middle, is white around the forehead, streaked elsewhere with silvery gold and silvery black, and ends in ringlets at his shoulders. His beard and moustache are scant or thinned out, and seem to enhance his features. His forehead slopes, as though seeking the heavens. His dark eyes are haloed by an ethereal blue ring. He has a rather large and homely nose, with which he amuses himself in idle moments; flipping and wiggling it with his fingers, like a child. In repose his mouth is stern, yet subtly touched with tenderness...
I observed that the somewhat dilapidated room suggests the owner’s non-attachment to material comforts. The weather-stained white walls of the long chamber are streaked with fading blue plaster. At one end of the room hangs the unique picture of Lahiri Mahasaya, devotionally adorned with a simple garland. There is also an old photograph showing Yoganandaji at the time of his arrival in Boston, standing with other delegates to the Congress of Religions.
Yogananda spends several months in India and even travels all around South India for the first time. But his trip is bittersweet because his guru, Sri Yukuteswar dies when he is in India. A few weeks later, however, he appears in the flesh at Yogananda's hotel room in Bombay. When he hugs the avatar of Sri Yukuteswar he can "detect the same faint fragrant, natural odor that had been characteristic of his body before. He tells Yogananda that he is now immortal like Babaji. He has been directed by God to serve on an astral planet as a savior and describes in detail what beings who are liberated from earth can expect... Yogananda uses this chapter, titled "The Resurrection of Sri Yukteswar," and speaks through his guru to expound on his principles of self-realization — which can only be achieved after a lifetime of practicing Kriya Yoga...
The ideas in the chapter are quite complicated and very philosophical. He explains that God has encased the human soul into three bodies — the physical body on earth... an astral body, which is the next stage and inhabits one of many astral planets... and finally, an idea or causal body where everything is an idea and all being in its co-mingle with the creator. Even on earth, every human is conscious of his three vehicles that correspond to the three worlds. When he is enjoying his senses — intent on tasting, smelling, touching, listening, or seeing, he is working principally through his physical body. When he is visualizing or willing, he is working mainly through his astral body. His causal being finds expression when he is thinking or diving deep in introspection or meditation. The cosmical thoughts of genius come to the man who habitually contacts his causal body. An individual may be classified broadly as "a material man," "an energetic man," or "an intellectual man." (Read this chapter carefully if you are interested in Yogananda's philosophy of self-realization. The concepts here are very deep and can rival those of any of the great philosophers like Plato, Nietzsche, Kant or Hegel, etc.)
Yogananda compares the resurrected Sri Yukteswar to Jesus being resurrected. Like Jesus appeared to his disciples, Sri Yukteswar also appears before Yogananda and one of his other disciples, an old woman with whom he often stopped to chat on his morning walks. After meeting him as usual and talking to him, she is astounded when she later learns that he had died a week earlier. Here Yogananda is the doubting Thomas who wonders if he really met a resurrected Sri Yukteswar in his hotel room in Bombay — but the account by the other disciple convinces him that it is true.
During his last weeks in India, Yogananda meets with Mahatma Gandhi, the "father" of India... Ananda Moyi Ma, a saint credited with healing the sick and fighting for social reform in her community... and Giri Bala, a woman yogi who never eats...
Yogananda returns to the U.S. in in October of 1936. He is pleasantly surprised to find that one of his followers James J. Lynn, a wealthy businessman, has purchased a large estate in Encinitas, California and gifted it to the Self-Realization Fellowship. In the next decade, other centers are established in Boston and elsewhere, including a "Church of All Religions" in Hollywood, California.
Yogananda reiterates the connection between yogis and Jesus several times in his autobiography. He recounts a time when he is personally visited by Jesus (just as he was visited by Babaji) and even drinks from the Holy Grail!
One night while I was engaged in silent prayer, my sitting room in the Encinitas hermitage became filled with an opal-blue light. I beheld the radiant form of the blessed Lord Jesus. A young man, he seemed, of about twenty-five, with a sparse beard and mustache; his long black hair, parted in the middle, was haloed by a shimmering gold. His eyes were eternally wondrous; as I gazed, they were infinitely changing. With each divine transition in their expression, I intuitively understood the wisdom conveyed. In his glorious gaze I felt the power that upholds the myriad worlds. A Holy Grail appeared at his mouth; it came down to my lips and then returned to Jesus. After a few moments he uttered beautiful words, so personal in their nature that I keep them in my heart.
Yogananda concludes that India can be considered the elder brother among the nations, and that the wisdom garnered there is a heritage for all mankind. The Vedic truth received by the ancient rishis are meant to be passed on to the entire world for the good of mankind. He concludes by saying that even "if India had no other gift for the world, Kriya Yoga would suffice as a kingly offering." He hopes that this scientific teaching of self-realization will help overcome all human misery someday.
Yogananda died of a heart attack on March 7, 1952, just a few years after this book was published. He was 59 years old. His disciples claim there was no visible signs of decay even twenty days after his death. His remains are interred at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in the Great Mausoleum in Glendale, California. His followers believe he has also joined the ranks of the great divine gurus.
"Autobiography of a Yogi" is an important book, especially if you are interested in Indian philosophy, religion, spirituality and yoga. Yogananda was one of the first people to bring yoga and Indian spirituality to the West. The book conveys the passion he felt for his spiritual path, his inherent goodness and the joy he had in sharing his spiritual knowledge with others. It is obvious that he was also very receptive to the teachings of other religions. He goes out of his way to meet saints and leaders of other faiths so he can understand their path to God. Now, almost 70-years after his death, Yogananda may be disappointed to know that the general acceptance of oneness of all faiths that he advocated is far from being realized...
This autobiography only scratches the surface of Yogananda's teachings. He has written over twenty other books, including two that are specifically about Jesus Christ. There is also a movie on his life called "Awake" that documents his life quite well. It is available for rent or purchase online. Here's the trailer.
Let Your Light Shine On Me (Thomas Itty)
AUGUST 31, 2020
SPIRITUALITY, RELIGION & SELF-REALIZATION
AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A YOGI
by Paramahansa Yogananda
Book Review and Discussion by Thomas Itty
God You Break Me Down (Thomas Itty)
Oh God you break me down
Is it true that you are all around
When I'm here just a fool on the ground
Oh God you break me down
But if you're God up in heaven
That's looking out for me 24/7
Let your light shine on me
Let your light shine on me
Because I'm lost... lost as can be
Let your light shine on me
And let the music set me free...
As a lifelong skeptic, I have never been able to blindly accept religion and follow it unquestioningly just because I was born into it or because I was afraid to go against familial and cultural norms. However, there has also been a side of me, I think, that yearns for spirituality and is interested in religion as an abstract discipline and one of the prime forces that has shaped mankind for thousands of years. Here are excerpts from a couple of my songs that express some of my feelings about God and religion...
Religion & Spirituality
Visit thomasitty.com to hear my songs.
Swami Sri Yukteswar Giri — Yogananda's guru
By Thomas Itty
An artist's rendering of Mahavatar Babaji as described to him by Yogananda
Therese Neumann (1898-1962) became the center of worldwide attention in 1926 when, at age 28, she received the stigmata, the manifestation of Christ’s wounds on her body. She stopped intake of food or drink, except for a Holy Eucharist wafer every day.
Yogananda reading on the ship on his way to America to address the International Congress of Religious Liberals in Boston, MA.
A young Yogananda
Yogananda with Ananda Moyi Ma
A bearded Yogananda with students and teachers at his school in Ranchi.
Rabindranath Tagore, India's poet laureate.
Yogananda at the International Congress of Religious Liberals in Boston
The great Masters mentioned in the book: Jesus Christ, Lord Krishna, Mahavatar Babaji, Lahiri Mahasaya, and Sri Yukteswar
A collage of pictures of Richard Wright, Yogananda's trusted secretary, with him on his travels around the world.
One of the aims of the Self-Realization Fellowship is to reveal the complete harmony and basic oneness of original Christianity as taught by Jesus Christ and original Yoga as taught by Bhagavan Krishna; and to show that these principles of truth are the common scientific foundation of all true religions.
Yogananda sharing a meal with Mahatma Gandhi at his ashram in Wardha (which is close to the geographic center of India)
The last living photo of Paramahansa Yogananda, taken an hour before his death, March 7, 1952.
I have been interested in religion, theology and spirituality for most of my life. I must have read the Bible at least a couple of times as a back-bencher at the beautiful St. Mark's Cathedral in Bangalore during my teenage years. Over the years, I have also read the scriptures and passages from most of the major religions and studied parts that have interested me in more detail. I moved my residence eight times in the past three decades and each time I did, I usually throw away all my old books. However, there are four books that I've always taken along with me: (1) the "Bible" that I kept for my dad to read whenever he stayed with me (he always read the Bible ever morning for half and hour or so); (2) a "Gideon's New Testament" (given to me by my dad in 1970 with his handwritten message inside); (3) a pocket-sized "Bhagavad Gita" presented to me by my friend Babu many years ago (that I read randomly every now and then); and (4) the copy of "Autobiography of a Yogi" that I bought at the Strand Bookstore in New York City over 20 years ago (that I re-read every few years for some reason). I also have a translation the "Quran" (which haven't read fully yet) and "The Confessions of St. Augustine" (that I first read for a philosophy class and re-read now and then) on my iPad. Of course, I also read Dawkins and Hitchens — I'm interested in all perspectives!
-- Thomas Itty