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.
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