Spiritual Memoir Review: Autobiography of a Yogi

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Paramhansa Yogananda, Autobiography of a Yogi (1946)

When I embarked on my Spiritual Memoir Challenge this year, I did not expect the first book I chose to read for it to be so … challenging. It raised a lot of questions for me, and I’m not sure how to express them. I don’t want to be disrespectful to the legacy of a spiritual teacher whose words have meant a great deal to many people, and who may have done much good in the world. Who am I to argue with that? On the other hand, there were elements in the text that frankly disturbed me. I’ll just try to describe my reservations with honesty, and invite others who may have come away from the book with a different impression to share what they found there.

It was certainly interesting to read about the path of an Indian Yogi, who became one of the first to carry the Yoga path of self-development to the West. Yogananda (the name this individual chose upon his attaining the rank of Swami) comes across as passionately devoted to the task of opening human hearts to our spiritual kinship, and advancing our inner powers, in service of the goal of peace and universal brotherhood. I can’t quarrel with these noble ideals, nor with his conviction of the basic unity of all religions, which I also share.

What made me uncomfortable, first of all, was the way people in his narrative most often became convinced of spirit reality, and were inspired to become disciples of the Kriya Yoga path. It seemed contradictory to assert that sense-perception was maya, illusion, and then have such conversions invariably take place following a sense-perceptible miracle — sudden healings, fortuitious giftings of food or train tickets in response to prayer, yogis levitating or materializing in distant places. Yogananda himself is deeply impressed by such miracles, and sees them as confirmation of the validity of his spiritual convictions.

But, laying aside the question of whether such phenomena are even possible, doesn’t this represent a very materialistic approach to spiritual reality? Why are such materially visible “magic tricks” required to convince people? The constant harping on such events gave an impression of a flashy and crude kind of faith, lacking in inner substance. One also has be to aware that spiritual beings are not always benign, malicious forces could perform such “miracles” just as well as good ones. I could not get any sense of the inner journey required on Yogananda’s path, nor of how one might learn to discern between truth and deception on the way. I’m not saying these elements don’t exist, just that I could not derive an understanding of them from the book.

Yogananda in front of the Mount Washington Hotel in Los Angeles, which he purchased and turned into his yoga center in 1925. From a Los Angeles Times article describing the Yogi’s legacy.

Another aspect that disturbed me was the assertion that a guru or spiritually advanced person can take on a student’s or less developed person’s karma, even suffering physical illness on his or her behalf. This was presented as a positive thing, and compared with the deed of Christ, with his bearing of the sin of humankind.

I don’t believe it is commendable to take on someone else’s karma; our karma is ours to work through and to wrest from it the treasures of self-knowledge and moral strength that we alone can gain thereby. It may be necessary to support someone who needs to work through a difficult destiny, and to take on some of the objective effects that a long history of error and wrong choices have produced; that, in my understanding, is what it means that Christ takes on the sin of the world. But he does not take on our individual portion of sin or remove personal responsibility from us; rather he commands us to take up our cross, if we would follow him. It is in relationship with Christ, not as an almighty guru but as a model and guide, that we finally become able to truly work through our destiny.

There are important gifts to be won out of wrestling with sensory existence, yes, even with its sinfulness. The goal of life on earth is not to escape the earth as fast as possible and return to a pure spiritual existence, as Yogananda suggests, but to bring spirit into the earth through our moral awareness, exercised in freedom. We can’t get out of the troubles of life in the material world by fast-fowarding our evolution through strenuous yogic exercises, or if we do, the results will be unfortunate in the end. Such haste and escapism was also quite dismaying to me.

A characteristic incident was when Yogananda was on the eve of departing for the West and determined to pray, even to die praying, until he heard the voice of God to confirm him in his decision. He prayed and prayed, without result, until he felt his brain would split. At last he heard a knock at the door. Surprise! The deathless guru Babaji, in yet another one of those miraculous appearances, had transported himself to give Yogananda the message of God: go to America. This gave Yogananda the conviction he needed to make the great journey and all that followed.

What are we to make of this story? You could see it as an admirable example of persistence in prayer — or a troubling instance of spiritual pushiness and impatience, bringing forth results that may have been merely self-delusion. It’s impossible to tell, from Yogananda’s own account, what is real and what is not, and I was unable to set aside my own skepticism.

I did learn a lot from this book, which has been important and even life-changing for many, and am very glad I read it. I’d love to talk to students who have taken up the Kriya Yoga path and learn more about what they’ve experienced through it. If you have done so, or if you’ve also read the Autobiography, I hope you’ll share your thoughts in the comments.

Spiritual Memoir Challenge: A book that engages with Hindu tradition

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23 thoughts on “Spiritual Memoir Review: Autobiography of a Yogi

  1. You are too nice. I am not going to be politically correct. This memoir sounds ridiculous, and a bunch of baloney. I am glad you have learned from the book. From your review I have learned what book not to read 🙂
    I wish you better luck on your next title.

    1. It did often seem ridiculous, but Yogananda was tremendously influential, and had many noble and beautiful ideals along with the things that sound bizarre and unbelievable. Spirituality is often a mixed bag, as no doubt I will keep finding out.

        1. I did, but also (as I said) a lot that was problematic … it definitely did not convert me to his path, but it made me very curious what others found in it. However, I am glad to move on to other things now!

  2. You offer a great synopsis of my conflicting feelings about this book, too, Lory. I’m not sure what to make of it, honestly. Like you, I’m very glad to have finally read it. (Unfortunately I found myself skimming it at times so if I ever want to understand it more fully, I’ll need to do a re-read with more attentiveness.)

    I was unaware of the heavy role that mystical aspects played in Hinduism. I wonder if that’s common for all. I find it interesting that the question you posed also can be applied throughout the ages to Christianity: “Why are such materially visible “magic tricks” required to convince people?”

    Thanks for sharing these thoughts. It helps me grapple with the book a little easier.

    1. My personal belief is that it’s the inner realities, the inner miracles that take place in the human heart, that are really important, and any outer manifestation can only be a sign or symbol of such transformations. To emphasize the latter, at the expense of the former, simply seems empty and meaningless to me, within Christianity as elsewhere. Insofar as it’s made to be all about Jesus the amazing miracle worker, that’s barking up the wrong tree in my opinion. So I trust I’m at least consistent in my reaction.

      1. I agree. Sometimes I feel we long to see the outer symbols that others can also see to make it seem more real. But it’s the inner changes that make the difference in our personal lives. They may be invisible to the naked eye, but they are just as real.

  3. My first reaction from reading your comments on this book is the comparison of Christianity to Hinduism, which is always going to be problematic. Even though Yogananda admires Christ and quotes quite frequently from the Gospels and other parts of the Christian Bible and from Church Fathers, I found he interpreted it through a strictly Hindu lens, to bolster his point and therefore, not necessarily comparable to that of a Christian.

    The “magic tricks” of Yogananda’s gurus and spiritual teachers are part of a Hindu seekers spiritual development and quest for oneness with God and the Universe. Did they really happen? Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t, but they are phenomena that this tradition as well as so many others holds up as part of the advancing growth a human soul throughout this lifetime.

    Christianity says Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to his disciples after death. Christian tradition says saints of the church throughout the centuries often had visions and experiences of Jesus or heard him or felt his presence at the most dire or miraculous times. Even in modern times, believers say they see and talk to Jesus or a saint of the Church. What do we make of that if we criticize the same in other religions? And let’s face it, Jesus performed some pretty flashy tricks himself amazing the disciples as well as the crowds that came to hear him! Did they really happen? Maybe they did and maybe they didn’t, but there is a purpose for putting these “miracles” in the Christian sacred text, which may be comparable to why they are in Hinduism’s sacred texts, too. Hm, I don’t know. Food for thought….

    I do agree very much with your assessment against another person taking on the karma of another, even if that person is an exalted master or guru; heck even if it’s God! And I understand the difference between Jesus’s asking us to take up our OWN cross to follow him, but did not say he would take up ours. I believe it is terribly important for our personal evolution in this life that we heal and work through our traumas. And frankly, this aspect of Yogananda’s story surprised me and bothered me greatly when I read it.

    As usual, Lory, you have provided a good framework for discussion. I, too, am curious about the Kriya yoga experience and wish to know more from a personal account.

    Thank you for starting us off!

    1. I would need to read more about Hinduism to understand how it might be the ground of Yogananda’s presentation of the miracles he wrote about. I read the Bhagavad Gita in high school, but that was too long ago and I must reread it! I did start reading Rabindranath Tagore’s autobiography, but put it aside for the time being – hopefully I will get back to it.

      The nature of miracles is a large and controversial topic. I have to put that aside too, for now; suffice it to say that Yogananda’s description of them didn’t impress me, rather turned me off. I think modern consciousness is in need of a different way, while acknowledging the validity of the ancient wisdom texts in their own sphere. It will be interesting to see how other memoirs deal with this realm of spiritual experience.

      1. “I think modern consciousness is in need of a different way, while acknowledging the validity of the ancient wisdom texts in their own sphere. It will be interesting to see how other memoirs deal with this realm of spiritual experience.”
        I agree with this very much. Just within myself I feel very different on the spiritual path now than I was when I was younger. Then, I think the ‘flashy tricks’ of any religion would have gotten my attention. Now, although a miracle or two would be welcome 😉 the inner journey is much more interesting to me.

        No pressure or anything, but I have been wanting to read the Bhagavad Gita and read (snippets) in high school. If sometime down the line you’d want to do a buddy read or open it up to any one (actually either this or another book) I’d be interested!

        1. Yes!Definitely interested. Let me know if at some point you are particularly inspired or some time opens up for that, and I’ll do the same.

  4. I read Autobiography of a yogi some 20 yrs ago so I don’t really remember it but just wanted to share some perspectives as someone who was born and grew up in India.

    One perspective on miracles: if everything is maya then it isn’t that hard to change and ‘manipulate’ reality. The juxtaposition would then drive home the message even more.

    The taking on of karma: there’s a robust lineage and history (in India) of people believing in their gurus and believing that simply being in the presence of their guru helps them overcome the karmic cycle which by the way you have to view in terms of reincarnation and not just this life.

    Kundalini yoga (I haven’t ever done it) is the specific yoga branch where one can work out their karma through its practise (again as far as I know but I could be wrong). But as far as I know, that too should always be done in the presence of a master practitioner.

    I also want to say one more… faith is very much a fabric of life. I’ve always thought Hinduism (I’m very much a spiritual person as opposed to a religious one btw) is a way of life. I’ve also never brought into the whole guru aspect which is prevalent across religions and faiths in India even though I know a whole host of people who have found genuine peace and solace through that practise (art of living comes to mind in this context).

    1. Yes, thank you for these comments, very much appreciate your perspective.

      I’d just like to clarify that the most troubling aspect for me was the impatience and pushiness that often seemed on display. For example, if someone is resisting the spiritual path, break down his doubts with miraculous events. If you are getting silence from your spirit guide, protest until you get what you want. (I’m putting it crassly, but that’s the impression it made on me.)

      In my personal and painful experience, such pushiness leads to nothing but disaster on the spiritual path; along with faithful practice and honest prayer there MUST be patience and openness to results other than what you expect or demand. To say “Okay God, if you want someone to believe in you, send me train tickets to the place I want to go!” just is not in the picture. And I’d be actually suspicious of the moral quality of any being who answered such demands.

      I would not assume this is necessarily representative of HInduism or Yoga in general, but to me it was certainly a strong current in the book. Again, very interested in learning more — if you have any reading suggestions I’d love to know of them.

      1. I hear you. In my own path, patience and spaciousness is very much a key to shifting the energy. And once the energy shifts, often the answer does show up (if nowhere else then in my own head).

        I was never much of a Hindu so I don’t have any specific recommendations. I can tell you though that even in my own family there’s a rich lineage of what is called ‘puja’ in Hindi… which would be offering prayers I think.

        And pretty much everyone, even amongst my own generation—I’m in my late 30s—who do not particularly believe in or practise Hinduism have some form of a small puja-ghar (home where you offer prayers) in their homes, including me!

        It is very hard to not be influenced by this ethos and fabric of faith which permeates everything… and yes, I agree with you, you have to use your own discernment to separate the gold from the chafe but the point is… such stuff wouldn’t be AS eye-rolling (or troubling) to an average Indian perhaps.

        Anyway, sorry, I don’t have specific texts to recommend. If you don’t know about Sri Sri Ravishankar and the Art of Living course, you could look into that perhaps as a more modern day version of Paramhansa Yogananda.

  5. This was interesting to learn about. Thanks!

    I feel guilty, sometimes, for having a daily yoga practice that is so far removed from its roots. Worse, the way I experience it is very much informed by what Western women of the 21st century seem to need from yoga, right now.

    My few exposures, like this review, help me realize that I just don’t have a good way of connecting to the roots. Too much of it is off-putting and, even, a polar opposite to what yoga does for me in the present.

    1. There has never been a time in history like this, when all spiritual streams are open to us — that can give rise to amazing new potential, but also to superficiality, confusion, and disconnection from the “roots,” as you mention. I think that as long as one stays honest and transparent about it, it’s not harmful even to change received practices, if they bring true benefits and make you healthier and fit for life. That’s the point of everything, not sticking to definitions and categories.

      From the book I was not attracted to take up this particular path myself, but it might be right for others. It all comes out in how it affects your life and relationships.

  6. I don’t think you said what made you choose this book! I admire this sort of literary quest but I think I would be tempted to read some more mainstream titles, at least at first.

    1. I actually had a hard time finding spiritual memoirs related to the Hindu tradition. And this is a famous book—Steve Jobs supposedly wanted it handed out at his funeral. So I was curious.

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