Sunday, September 23, 2012

Autobiography Of A Yogi - Paramahamsa Yogananda

I had this book for a very long time but put off reading it thinking it would be a formidable read, difficult, requiring serious concentration and effort to assimilate, belong as it did to the genre of philosophy/spirituality.
But when I picked up the book after much resolve and started reading it, it turned out to be unputdownable as if it were a mystery novel.
Each page was filled with a miracle.
Intriguing, interesting, curious, thrilling and incredible.

This book has been and will remain an important milestone in the history of my book reading journey. For it removed the last iota of scepticism, the last shadow of doubt that nags almost every believer and remains wedged between him and complete faith & surrender like a mango hair between molars.

The language of the book makes the reading a pure pleasure; rich, of a high standard and solemn.
The writing is also sprinkled with humour here and there.

The main purpose of Yogananda’s life was to take spirituality to the West, which he did.
The book accordingly, taking an approach of speaking to a person in the language he understands, makes frequent references to the Bible, to Christ and attempts to draw parallels between Hinduism and Christianity and even calls many Hindu saints ‘Christlike’, refers to the Bhagavadgeeta as the Hindu Bible and so on, perhaps, in order to help western audiences and readers to be able to relate to the book and accept it.

When Yogananda first went to the west and stood before the audience, not speaking anything, for he could not speak English, the audiences laughed at him. After some time had passed, he began speaking fluently in English through the workings of his Guru.

Every page is filled with a scientific impossibility. Reading the book caused me to - not really disbelieve or dismiss modern science, but to understand that modern science is really nascent and it will be a long time before it will reconcile with the infinite possibilities in the domain of religion and spirituality and with the many seemingly incomprehensible ‘miracles’ through which religion and God often manifest.

As we know, Einstein’s celebrated equation of E=mc2 has unbelievable implications for space, time, and all kinds of other quarters you would least expect.
And as you read about the many miracles that fill the experiences of sages, you see that one such quarter is mysticism and you begin to see how interconvertibility between matter and energy implied by Einstein’s equation E=mc2 easily and seamlessly reconciles modern science to mysticism and miracles. For a miracle primarily involves converting matter into energy or energy into matter.

I have always believed in Karma: all the good and bad that we suffer here in this life are a result of past karma – of this life and previous lives, and what we do in this life is carried forward to future lives as karma. But this book entrenched that belief in me.
I believed in reincarnation and thought karma to be the cause of it: we come into this world again and again until we have expended or burnt all our karma.
But this book taught me something new about reincarnation, that wish fulfilment is also a purpose of it!
The saying, ‘the universe conspires to fulfil your wishes’ became credible.

The guru of Yogananda’s guru, Lahiri Mahasaya, had been living like a common man until the ‘time was ripe’. One day he was led away by Babaji, his guru from a past life, to be shown his destiny and to be initiated to the spiritual path.
But before the initiation, Babaji materializes a golden palace studded with jewels amidst landscaped gardens right in the Himalayas, in which place there was no palace nothing before. He guides Lahiri to the palace. When the puzzled Lahiri expresses his bafflement, the guide explains, ‘In the dim past, you once expressed a desire to enjoy the beauties of a palace. Our master is now satisfying your wish, thus freeing you from the bonds of karma’!
The karmic law requires that every human wish find ultimate fulfillment.
Desire is thus the chain which binds man to the wheel of reincarnation.
How amazing! To think that every one of our wishes is fulfilled!
And therefore, what a responsibility on the individual the law places, of sustaining the right desires!

During the old days of my spiritual immaturity, I would ask why anyone wanted salvation, never to come back to this beautiful world full of delightful things to eat, lovely sights to see, companionship of friends, places to go etc.

I have come a long way though in a short time – the time it takes to read a few great works of spirituality – to the understanding that salvation is every one’s ultimate purpose. And the only right purpose to have in life.
And knowing that all of our desires are fulfilled, at least those that are alive and awake during our last days in the world (I assume), and that we will have to keep coming into this world in endless cycles until all our desires are fulfilled, we must watch our desires, choose our desires (since it is not humanly possible to completely conquer all desires), we must strive to keep alive only those higher desires that will be worthy of the struggle of life, while suppressing the rest of the lowly ones, issued forth by the senses.
In fact our entire life, all our thinking, reading, understanding, knowing, reflecting must therefore eventually lead us to finding and understanding what it is that we should desire.

Often people take a defeatist attitude towards karma. ‘Nothing can be done about it’, ‘it has to be endured’ etc.
This book gives much respite by presenting the possibility of burning/expending karma by means of kriya yoga, a technique of pranayama and meditation that seems to be the centrepiece of Yogananda’s school/order of spirituality.
According to the book, Kriya Yoga is the same ancient science that Krishna gave millenniums ago to Arjuna, later known to Patanjali and others.
Krishna in a former incarnation had communicated the Yoga to Vivasvat, who gave it to Manu, who in turn instructed Ikshwaku, the father of the Indian solar warrior dynasty, known as Ikshwaku Vamsha, also as Raghuvamsha or Surya Vamsha in which Rama was born.

The simple technique, embodies the art of quickening man's spiritual evolution. Hindu scriptures teach that the incarnating ego requires a million years to obtain liberation from MAYA. This natural period is greatly shortened through KRIYA YOGA.
KRIYA YOGA is a simple, psychophysiological method by which the human blood is decarbonized and recharged with oxygen. The atoms of this extra oxygen are transmuted into life current to rejuvenate the brain and spinal centers. By stopping the accumulation of venous blood, the yogi is able to lessen or prevent the decay of tissues; the advanced yogi transmutes his cells into pure energy.

Half-minute of KRIYA Yoga equals one year of natural spiritual unfoldment. The scriptures aver that man requires a million years of normal, diseaseless evolution to perfect his human brain sufficiently to express cosmic consciousness. One thousand KRIYA practiced in eight hours gives the yogi, in one day, the equivalent of one thousand years of natural evolution: 365,000 years of evolution in one year. In three years, a KRIYA YOGI can thus accomplish by intelligent self-effort the same result which nature brings to pass in a million years.
The KRIYA short cut, of course, can be taken only by deeply developed yogis.

The KRIYA beginner employs his yogic exercise only fourteen to twenty-eight times, twice daily. A number of yogis achieve emancipation in six or twelve or twenty-four or forty-eight years. A yogi who dies before achieving full realization carries with him the good karma of his past KRIYA effort; in his new life he is harmoniously propelled toward his Infinite Goal.

In contrast to the slow, uncertain "bullock cart" theological path to God, KRIYA may justly be called the "airplane" route.

Another interesting fact about Karma that I learnt from this book and some other is that Karma is transferable.
When guru Yukteshwar falls sick, Yogananda asks him why enlightened yogis, who are in complete control, who can bring the impossible to pass, who have brought the dead to life, fall sick themselves? Why should they allow themselves to become ill when they can command their bodies to be in perfect health all the time?
The answer: when Gurus bestow grace upon some of the chosen ones who have faith in them, heal them and work miracles for their sake, they are in effect, taking away the bad karma from them. This karma cannot be simply made to disappear into thin air. It has to be accounted for. And this karma, the guru often works on his own body, allowing the body to become ill and hence taking on the bad karma of their disciples and devotees on themselves and burning it.
Just like energy, Karma can neither be created nor destroyed. But it can be transferred or transformed by an enlightened yogi.
One should be lucky to meet a genuine Guru, master in one’s lifetime and luckier still to be able to overcome scepticism and have complete faith in the Guru, whereupon, he may have the Guru by his side helping him to expend his Karma.

Yogananda’s stand on caste is noteworthy.

"To a certain extent, all races and nations observe in practice, if not in theory, the features of caste. Where there is great license or so-called liberty, particularly in intermarriage between extremes in the natural castes, the race dwindles away and becomes extinct. The PURANA SAMHITA compares the offspring of such unions to barren hybrids, like the mule which is incapable of propagation of its own species. Artificial species are eventually exterminated. History offers abundant proof of numerous great races which no longer have any living representatives. The caste system of India is credited by her most profound thinkers with being the check or preventive against license which has preserved the purity of the race and brought it safely through millenniums of vicissitudes, while other races have vanished in oblivion."

One must note that when Yogananda refers to caste, he refers not to caste by Janma (birth) but caste by inclinations, natural capacities, gunas or qualities of nature – the combination of sattva, rajas and tamas in varying proportions.

"Inclusion in one of these four castes originally depended not on a man's birth but on his natural capacities as demonstrated by the goal in life he elected to achieve. This goal could be (1) KAMA, desire, activity of the life of the senses (SUDRA stage), (2) ARTHA, gain, fulfilling but controlling the desires (VAISYA stage), (3) DHARMA, self-discipline, the life of responsibility and right action (KSHATRIYA stage), (4) MOKSHA, liberation, the life of spirituality and religious teaching (BRAHMIN stage). These four castes render service to humanity by (1) body, (2) mind, (3) will power, (4) Spirit.

"These four stages have their correspondence in the eternal GUNAS or qualities of nature, TAMAS, RAJAS, and SATTVA: obstruction, activity, and expansion; or, mass, energy, and intelligence. The four natural castes are marked by the GUNAS as (1) TAMAS (ignorance), (2) TAMAS-RAJAS (mixture of ignorance and activity), (3) RAJAS-SATTVA (mixture of right activity and enlightenment), (4) SATTVA
Thus has nature marked every man with his caste, by the predominance in himself of one, or the mixture of two, of the GUNAS. Of course every human being has all three GUNAS in varying proportions. The guru will be able rightly to determine a man's caste or evolutionary
(just like the sorting hat in Harry Potter story which knows the house in which every new comer should be placed!)

If you would observe, what Yogananda says about the intermarriage is the same that the Hindu society means when it insists on marriage within caste - that one must marry a person who is compatible to oneself – having similar inclinations, natural capacities or qualities of nature.

I would further add that the hardening of the caste system – people assuming caste by janma, by their birth, as opposed to caste by karma or their nature (regardless of birth) – eventually, though not initially, must have vindicated itself.
When over a period of thousands of years, generations of the distinct castes followed distinct occupations, food habits, lived distinct lifestyles, cultivated distinct cultures, interests, they must have developed distinct faculties or powers that developed and specialised with reinforcement, with the passing of time, with the result that children born to a distinct caste possessed qualities of nature unique to that caste.
If you would notice, the process is in close conformity with Darwin’s theory of natural selection.

Unfortunately all discussions about Caste today are extremely polarized and dismiss it as a social evil. What a monumental error this should prove in the understanding of India as caste is central to Indian social organization!

I can’t think of anything in the book that I disagree with; only one thing remains doubtful.
It is respecting the discussion on Yugas and the cycle of Yugas. According to Yogananda’s guru Yukteshwar, the present time is part of the Dwapara Yuga, whereas it is believed by the Hindus universally that we live in the Kali Yuga. Read on...

‘Sri Yukteswar discovered the mathematical application of a 24,000-year equinoctial cycle to our present age. The cycle is divided into an Ascending Arc and a Descending Arc, each of 12,000 years. Within each Arc fall four YUGAS or Ages, called KALI, DWAPARA, TRETA, and SATYA, corresponding to the Greek ideas of Iron, Bronze, Silver, and Golden Ages. My guru determined by various calculations that the last KALI YUGA or Iron Age, of the Ascending Arc, started about A.D. 500. The Iron Age, 1200 years in duration, is a span of materialism; it ended about A.D. 1700.’

‘That year ushered in DWAPARA YUGA, a 2400-year period of electrical and atomic-energy developments, the age of telegraph, radio, airplanes, and other space-annihilators. The 3600-year period of TRETA YUGA will start in A.D. 4100; its age will be marked by common knowledge of telepathic communications and other time-annihilators. During the 4800 years of SATYA YUGA, final age in an ascending arc, the intelligence of a man will be completely developed; he will work in harmony with the divine plan.’

‘A descending arc of 12,000 years, starting with a descending Golden Age of 4800 years, then begins for the world; man gradually sinks into ignorance. These cycles are the eternal rounds of MAYA, the contrasts and relativities of the phenomenal universe. Man, one by one, escapes from creation's prison of duality as he awakens to consciousness of his inseverable divine unity with the Creator.’

SAMADHI – the two kinds mentioned here were new to me.

In the initial states of God-contact (SAVIKALPA SAMADHI) the devotee's consciousness merges with the Cosmic Spirit; his life force is withdrawn from the body, which appears "dead," or motionless and rigid. The yogi is fully aware of his bodily condition of suspended animation.
As he progresses to higher spiritual states (NIRVIKALPA SAMADHI), however, he communes with God without bodily fixation, and in his ordinary waking consciousness, even in the midst of exacting worldly duties.

A must read for every one under this Sun.
All of us, especially those who wear the fashionable cloak of religious scepticism must ask this: If all this happened just 50-100 years ago, what might not have happened thousands of years ago?
What might not have happened during the period of our great epics, the Ramayana, Mahabharata, that people today call ‘Mythology’ instead of “history’ for want of proof?

A very well written autobiography. Riveting, unputdownable, every page is a revelation.

And lastly, with reinforced conviction, I feel lucky to be born in this land.


Radhika Nair said...


Ranj said...

"History offers abundant proof of numerous great races which no longer have any living representatives"
What is your definition of a great race?
P.S I too think its one of the best autobiographies written

Sowmya said...

I merely quoted Yogananda's words in that para...

Only India and China have a continuous and unbroken lineage through 5 or 6 thousand years. All other races perished - The ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans and so on...

The Romans of today aren't descendants of ancient Romans, the Greeks of today aren't the descendants of ancient Greeks and that's true of all other races I have mentioned above.

After the ancient Greeks perished, other people occupied Greece and began to call themselves Greeks, ans so also is this true of other races...

Only India and China have an unbroken lineage and have survived through thousands of years...

Hope that helps...

Kuldeep Nayak said...
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Kuldeep Nayak said...
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