569 pages. Self-Realization Fellowship. 2007.
The autobiography makes clear why Yogananda was a saint — a great, good man, a holy man — who has influenced and still influences millions throughout the world.
It is also a primer on yoga, the science of mind and body control, a fusion of mind and body. But its aim is much higher.
“The goal of the science of yoga is to obtain that necessary inner stillness by which one may truly know God,” Yogananda writes.
The book, first published in 1946, is one of those perpetual best sellers now in its 13th edition.
It is well written with fine phrases: “drunk with God,” “like a sudden sun over a sodden landscape,” “diving deep into the ocean of thought” and “hurled into some violent hell.”
It’s a travelogue of Indian sites: the glorious Taj Mahal in Agra, “a perfect setting” with a “tranquil lagoon” and an interior full of “carvings inlaid with semiprecious stones.”
Kashmir is often called the world’s most scenic spot with its many lakes like “beautiful maidens guarded by the stern surveillance of the Himalayas.”
“The most breathtaking display of architecture, sculpture and painting in all India is found at Hyderabad in the ancient rock-sculpture caves.”
The book details the lure and lore of India: the holy waters of the Ganges, the riverside ghats, the anchorite (hermit) and the pundit (scholar) and the “scared city of Banaras,” as travel broadcaster Lowell Thomas used to intone when I was a boy.
Yogananda was a wise man of the East who brought his wisdom to the West, coming to America in 1920. Millions in the West are grateful.
Yogananda was God-centered, God-obsessed and God-intoxicated. A few readers will be put off by that. But they shouldn’t be. His very purpose in writing this book was to spread to others the bliss he found in God.
As he says in the autobiography: “A guru’s work in the world is to alleviate the sorrows of mankind.” In the Yogananda booklet “God First” he says his “duty is to love God first.”
The Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) Yogananda founded in Los Angeles in 1925 is now the international headquarters. About 500 SRF meditation centers, including the ashram at Encinitas, Calif., can be found in 54 countries.
The aim of SRF is to “liberate man from his threefold suffering: physical disease, mental inharmonies and spiritual ignorance.” For millions of worldwide followers the formula works.
Yet for me the book is too mystical, the metaphysics beyond me. It is impossible for an atheist to believe in reincarnation, levitating saints and saints fighting tigers with bare hands.
But there is no question that Yogananda was a magnificent guru, a spiritual teacher.
His idealism about worldwide brotherhood, however commendable, is the hopeless voice of the East echoing the hopeless voice of the West found in Paine and Schiller and the music of Beethoven’s Ninth.
“The Yoga of Jesus,” a selection of Yogananda’s writings, says of Jesus: “he was a man of perfect self-realization.”
This reader of the autobiography is struck by Yogananda’s frequent references to the Bible, not as “holy writ,” but guides to Christ-like living, “to the deathless essence of the Bible.”
He recounts the wonderful Tolstoy story of “The Three Hermits” who lived on an island in Russia. The hermits gave a simple prayer: “We are three. Thou art three. Have mercy on us!”
The local bishop called the prayer undignified so he taught them the “proper” way to pray. But the best intentions of bishops sometimes misfire — as you will find out if you read the story.
It’s a tale that reminds you of Anatole France’s “The Juggler of Notre Dame.” The juggler’s gift to the Virgin Mary was considered blasphemous.
The most moving page in the autobiography describes an exchange between Yogananda and his guru, Sri (holy) Yukteswar.
“Guruji (ji is a respectful suffix), I came to you as a high school youth,” Yogananda says. “Now I am a grown man with a gray hair or two. Though you have showered me with silent affection from the first hour to this, do you realize that once only, on the day of our first meeting, have you ever said ‘I love you’? ”
“Yogananda, must I bring out into the cold realms of speech the warm sentiments best guarded by the wordless heart?”
“Gurji, I know you love me but my mortal ears ache to hear you say so.”
Finally, Yukteswar, declaring that he had found his son in Yogananda, said: “Yogananda, I love you always.”
Even God-inspired men, saintly men, need to hear those wondrous words “I love you.”
Jake Highton teaches journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno. Contact him at email@example.com.