Andrew Sapp's Reviews > Autobiography of a Yogi

Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda
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Aug 07, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: spirituality
Read from June 10 to August 07, 2011 — I own a copy , read count: 1

It must be part of crossing the mid-life threshold that has led me to spend more time reading books concerned with spirituality, faith, and the great wisdom traditions. I've always had this interest, but until recent years have seldom taken the time to read very deeply. Autobiography of a Yogi caught my attention while browsing the shelves at Barnes & Noble, and in reading it I found my thinking about spirituality pulled in new and exciting directions.

[Full disclosure: I also downloaded an audiobook version, which, though not identical, was wonderfully narrated by Ben Kingsley. Reading along to his beautiful voice was sheer joy!]

Paramahansa Yogananda was born Mukunda Lal Ghosh on January 5, 1893, in Gorakhpur, India. From his early years, he was drawn to the spiritual life, eventually becoming a disciple of Sri Yukteswar Giri, himself a follower (with Mukunda's parents) of Swami Lahiri Mahasaya, who in turn was an disciple of Mahavatar ("Great Avatar) Babaji. The lineage is important as Mahavatar Babji, through Lahiri Mahashaya, revived the ancient practice of kriya yoga, a system of "techniques that are intended to rapidly accelerate spiritual development[1] and engender a profound state of tranquility and God-communion" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kriya_yoga). Sri Yukteswar's teaching of Kriya Yoga to the young Mukunda eventually leads not only to his eventually becoming a yogi and taking the name Yogananda (literally, bliss of yoga) and the founding of schools in India based upon the principles of kriya yoga, but also in his eventually becoming a missionary to the West, specifically the United States. (On a subsequent return visit to India in 1935, Sri Yukteswar gave him the title "Paramahansa", meaning "supreme swan," indicating his having reached a state of spiritual enlightenment.) Roughly 2/3 of the book recounts his early years, his education as a disciple of Sri Yukteswar, and his early adult years in India. The latter 1/3 concerns his arrival in America, the founding of The Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF), and his return visit to India in 1935. This edition, published by the printing arm of SRF, Crystal Clarity Publishers, also includes a final chapter Yogananda wrote in 1951, shortly before his death in 1952.

The details of Yogananda's life are rich in meaning, as he no doubt meant them to be. Like many spiritual people, he routinely speaks of his failings and foibles, so much so that one wonders if the actual events were somewhat less incriminating. The many anecdotes relating to his spiritual awakening are, in themselves, inspirational, along the order of what many saints have written or have written about them: "If someone as inept and bumbling as I can achieve this, so can you." But what sets this book apart for me is the way in which Yoganada not only illustrates his learning and experiences in ways that a Westerner can understand, but that he goes further and speaks of his belief that Hinduism (at least as practiced in kriya yoga) and Christianity (along with the other great faith traditions) are part of a unified whole.

Yogananda understood that he was living in and writing for a American/Western and largely Christian or Christian-influenced audience. Throughout his writing, passages from the Upanishads & Bhagavad Gita, which form the basis of Hinduism, are mixed with those of the Judeo-Christian Bible. Actually, I think the latter outnumber the former. His use of scripture, though, does not seem at all manipulative or self-serving. His guru, Sri Yukteswar, was a scholar of not only the Bhagavad Gita but the Bible as well. His belief that both of these scriptures speak to the same reality, which is a monistic belief in a single God, is passed through his disciple Yogananda, who in his turn articulates this belief for his audience. As one might expect, he does not bludgeon his reader with philosophy or theology but gradually infuses his messages through storytelling. In doing so, he is convincing.

Autobiography of a Yogi is a marvelous introduction, from my admittedly limited point of view, to this remarkable man's life and the even more remarkable ideas that he taught. It is easy to understanding how he inspired a large following in his own lifetime, and a larger one after. [Interestingly enough, according to the SRF website (http://www.yogananda-srf.org/Default....), Yogananda stated before his death that there would be no more gurus in his line, that the teachings of kriya yoga would be the guru for followers to come.]

I am a Christian of the Catholic persuasion and always will be. That said, one does not have to abandon one's faith to explore and learn from other traditions; in fact, Christianity has over the past 2000 years been enriched by its contact and dialogue with those who seek the Divine along different paths. Paramahansa Yoganada, in advocating his belief that there is nothing contradictory between the path of kriya yoga and Christianity, offers just such an invitation.
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