Autobiography of a Yogi: a review

, 3,240 words

As a practitioner of hatha yoga (conventionally just "yoga") and kriya yoga (meditation), I found myself curious as to the roots of yoga's practice in the west. More often than not, Paramhansa Yogananda's 1946 "Autobiography of a Yogi" is credited with describing how this happened.

Having heard about the book in glowing terms (it was apparently Steve Jobs' favourite book), I gave it a read. It's not what I expected.

I've done my best to write up the themes and message below, and I've tried to do so without colour or opinion. Hopefully, this is an accurate precis of the book and its message.

First, a bit of context is needed. The first two-thirds of the book is a series of anecdotes about yoga. The last third is very different.

Acceptance of Kriya Yoga in the West was Yoganandra’s life goal, ordained for him before his birth. His own master was given the life goal of preparing him for this, so it wasn’t a casual undertaking. Thus it might be understandable that Yoganandra adapted Kriya Yoga — or at least his description of it — to make it easier for the West to accept and adopt.

Some discussion of science runs through the book, in part because of its theme that Kriya Yoga is a provable science by which one can talk to God. (Kriya Yoga originated — or was rediscovered — around the time that “Christian Science” was formed as a movement, which shares similar principles.) Foremost around the author’s interests are the discovery that light is both a particle and a wave, and the suggestion that our understanding of physical reality was moving away from the mechanical and toward the mystic.

He quotes a book titled “The Mystical Universe”, written by an astronomer:

“The stream of knowledge is heading toward a non-mechanical reality; the universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine.”

He also writes:

"How did Lahiri Mahasaya and Sri Yukteswar perform their miracles? Modern science has, as yet, no answer; though with the advent of the Atomic Age the scope of the world-mind has been abruptly enlarged. The word “impossible” is becoming less prominent in man’s vocabulary.”

Ground rules / the playing field

  • Kriya Yoga was discovered by Lahiri in the 19th Century.
    • He taught it to Yukteswar who taught it to Yoganandra
    • This was a rediscovery, as the Bible, Bhagavad Gita, etc. make it clear that Kriya Yoga was what Krishna, Christ, etc. practised, and it was handed to them by God and is timeless.
  • There is an objective universal truth and justice reflected in all things — but because God has created it that way, not because of any other intrinsic reason
  • God is a cosmic whole and we are all part of him but...
  • ...the goal of life is to match up to this universal truth and justice by working out your karma, which broadly means doing good, and in particular embracing non-attachment and lack of ego around status and self
    • Not because it is objectively right but because it is like an obstacle course that God set up

Progression towards enlightenment

  • It is really hard and will take multiple lives (if Christianity is a half-marathon, Kriya Yoga is a tough mudder)
    • It takes several lives on the material plane to do right by your karma, and that will involve a lot of meditation — consequently you can identify people in the later parts of this stage as they’d be meditating almost their lives
    • After that, you will transcend to the cosmic plane, where you will do the same, but it’s a bit easier
    • After that you’ll reach the third stage — the astral plane — where you will live on a small planet named Hiranyaloka along with a small number of other enlightened people, and will have astral superpowers such as being able to instantly materialise one’s desires and ultimately become part of God
    • Our bodies are made of different things through these stages: “That body is a matrix of the thirty-five ideas required by God as the basic or causal thought forces from which He later formed the subtle astral body of nineteen elements and the gross physical body of sixteen elements."
    • This special exclusive planet sounds a lot like the Mormons’ belief — and they are “latter-day saints”, which is a phrase Yoganandra uses repeatedly
    • (Yoganandra was told this later in his life by his resurrected master who visits him in the flesh after his death, and afterwards a voice from the clouds spoke to him and assured him it was real)
  • Thus the "long-game" of non-attachment and low status is being rewarded with astral superpowers to be able to materialise anything instantly — and God-hood
    • If this seems capricious, it's actually love — and see above “God is a cosmic whole and we are all part of him” — it’s not God’s plan, it’s ours!
    • Some yogic masters materialise massive palaces full of jewels and gold
  • The rule of universal truth and justice cannot be broken, although it can be bent for a while
    • Material wealth and abundance is a sign of karmic righteousness (although not in the case of yogis who shun material possessions; however, they do not have to think about food and shelter as it is always provided when needed through miracles of God)
    • Inequality and poverty in the world is the fault of the Everyman, not the leaders of the world or those who currently control power — only by the Everyman sorting things can things be changed in the world, and they if they are to do so they must not directly confront authority
    • Poverty in India a karmic phase that it is working out (all people and nations are equal but India is the “eldest brother amongst the nations”)

On secrets and God’s plan

  • A lot of God's plan and the whys are unknowable by man — although yogis know most of this but aren't telling
  • Many enlightened yogis made predictions about the future to other yogis, and in particular, Yoganandra heard these from his master and his master’s master
    • These predictions all came to pass but cannot be revealed
  • Yogis can access superpowers (flying, living forever, etc.) through what are invariably described as “secret yogic techniques"
    • It is OK for yogis to talk about living on the astral planet but not to reveal information about predictions or secret yogic techniques which are granted by God (who is all of us)
    • On this, Yoganandra quotes Lao-tzu "He who knows, tells it not; he who tells, knows it not”, and summarises the Bible: "The decipherment of His secret code is an art that man cannot communicate to man; here the Lord alone is the Teacher. “Be still, and know that I am God.”"
  • One secret is revealed: yogis can travel at the speed of light because they have infinite mass
    • "Light velocity is a mathematical standard or constant not because there is an absolute value in 186,300 miles a second, but because no material body, whose mass increases with its velocity, can ever attain the velocity of light. Stated another way: only a material body whose mass is infinite could equal the velocity of light. This conception brings us to the law of miracles. Masters who are able to materialize and dematerialize their bodies and other objects, and to move with the velocity of light, and to utilize the creative light rays in bringing into instant visibility any physical manifestation, have fulfilled the lawful condition: their mass is infinite."
    • However, in some cases yogis move between planets instantaneously, so there must be a further secret for FTL travel capabilities; Yoganandra travels at light speed occasionally but does not describe FTL travel; he may not have known this secret
    • It is implied in the book that some yogis know secrets that others don’t, as they have a variety of different powers — ie. some fight tigers, some don’t eat, some don’t age, some can’t be locked up
  • Yogis can naturally live forever and many lived 600 years plus
    • If they die it is usually from working out other people’s bad karma as an act of sacrifice — if a yogi works out your karma for you it saves you a lot of time on the path to the special planet
    • Yogis never get unwell directly — if they appear to be sick it is caused by them working out other people’s karma and taking it on themselves
    • Yogis can help you avoid death if you do what they say, or cause it if you don't. It isn’t OK for them to do this lightly, but it is OK for them to do this if they are teaching you a lesson, even if it kills you or involves killing one of your relatives -- as you may remember in the next life, and thus be helped by it in working out your karma
  • Originally it was ordained that the knowledge to perform Kriya Yoga was a secret that only the worthy could access, and they must be taught in person, but on going to the West, Yoganandra felt the rules could be relaxed — you can now learn at home with the “Self-Realisation Fellowship Lesson Plan” home-study course.
  • God works in mysterious ways:

"When I broke the news of my plans to Father, he was utterly taken aback. To him America seemed incredibly remote; he feared he might never see me again.

“How can you go?” he asked sternly. “Who will finance you?” As he had affectionately borne the expenses of my education and whole life, he doubtless hoped that his question would bring my project to an embarrassing halt.

“The Lord will surely finance me.” As I made this reply, I thought of the similar one I had given long ago to my brother Ananta in Agra. Without very much guile, I added, “Father, perhaps God will put it into your mind to help me.”

On religion / how Kriya works

  • Religion is a science, all of them are correct and universal and can be integrated, the prophets talked to each other
  • All yogis are prophets, including Yoganandra, and there are many other living prophets (“Yogi-Christs”)
  • Kriya Yoga is the scientific approach to achieving a breathless state which signifies communion with God.
    • The Bible also makes it clear that God speaks this way
    • Thus you can tell if someone is speaking with God because they don’t breathe and their hearts stop
  • Other mystics can talk with God through God’s intervention, though it is easier and better with Kriya as it is scientific
    • Although, if you’re really good (like a yogi) you're always in communion with God, whether or not you’re in a breathless state

On knowledge and learning

  • You cannot learn anything worthwhile from external study — all inquiry and learning, scientific or otherwise can only come from the introspection of self and meditation, and thus from God
    • Einstein, Da Vinci etc. benefited from this but whether they explicitly meditated is irrelevant, as they either did or had that hardwired state of God-communion described above
    • A day of meditation is equivalent to a thousand years of ordinary learning, which explains why yogis are so wise
    • "One thousand Kriyas practised in 8½ 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 that Nature brings to pass in a million years. The Kriya shortcut, of course, can be taken only by deeply developed yogis. With the guidance of a guru, such yogis have carefully prepared their body and brain to withstand the power generated by intensive practice."
  • Most of the yogis in the book (and Yoganandra) were poorly educated or refused attendance school (typically they were from wealthier families in the Brahmin class, the start of the book details Yoganandra’s hijinks running away repeatedly from his parents’ attempts to school him)
  • Nevertheless they had very strong views about the importance of education and felt it wasn’t done properly
    • Many yogis including Yoganandra set up schools, with strong views on pastoral education: in particular, children are noble savages and should be educated outdoors, with animals, in silence, etc.

On equality and relationships

  • The caste system is bad but a good Hindu wife should die before her husband
  • It is a good thing that the wives of yogis and great men worship them as unquestioning servants and devotees rather than as wives (there are several stories of yogis like this, and one of Gandhi)

Yoganandra’s adventures, the highlights

  • Jesus personally gave him the holy grail and he drank from it — and later died
  • He toured around India visited other yogis to see their non-attachment and humility — in a grand tour with an imported Ford that was shipped to India especially, chauffeured by an American in 1935, and they stayed at the Regent Hotel in Bombay
  • He visited a number of “living saints” in Europe, like Therese Neumann — he used his yogic powers to secretly observe her and prove that she was not faking the blood that regularly flowed from her eyes and hands, or her claim not to have eaten for 20 years — her ability to do this is western proof of yoga, because she did it using the same God communion powers, although her approach was naive
    • Yoganandra explains to her she is living by God’s light:

"Again she showed joy at my explanation. “It is indeed so. One of the reasons I am here on earth today is to prove that man can live by God’s invisible light, and not by food only.

“Can you teach others how to live without food?” She appeared a trifle shocked.

“I cannot do that; God does not wish it.” As my gaze fell on her strong, graceful hands, Therese showed me a square, freshly healed wound on the back of each hand. On the palm of each hand, she pointed out a smaller, crescent-shaped wound, freshly healed. Each wound went straight through the hand."

  • Yoganandra carefully evaluates the many claims in the book and explains that they are empirically proven by others, of another woman he wrote: "Finally we had recorded for posterity many photographs of the only woman in the world who is known to have lived without food or drink for over fifty years.”
  • The ultimate attainment of a disciple in his relationship with their master is to share their bed; this happened once for Yoganandra and is referred to throughout the book:

"From ten o’clock until midnight, ashram residents washed pots and pans and cleared the courtyard. My guru called me to his side. “*I am pleased over your cheerful labours today and during the past week of preparations. I want you with me; you may sleep in my bed tonight.” This was a privilege I had never thought would fall to my lot. We sat a while in a state of intense divine tranquillity.

About ten minutes after we had lain down to sleep, Master rose and began to dress. “What is the matter, sir?” The joy of sleeping beside my guru was suddenly tinged with unreality."

  • As a boy, many of his relatives recounted stories to him whereby they visited holy men or yogis and upon doing so some unspecified chronic or fatal illness was immediately cured and Yoganandra himself had many of these experiences (without yoga he would have died very young). In all cases the cure is instantaneous, and there are at least a dozen of these:
    • I sat in the temple there for a week,” my eldest aunt once told me. “Observing a complete fast, I prayed for the recovery of your Uncle Sarada from a chronic malady. On the seventh day, I found a herb materialized in my hand! I made a brew from the leaves and gave it to your uncle. His disease vanished at once and has never reappeared.
    • "He managed to edge his way close to Trailanga and humbly to touch the yogi’s feet. Uncle was astonished to find himself instantly freed from a painful chronic disease."
    • "Day by day I waxed in health and strength. Through Sri Yukteswar’s hidden blessing […] my stomach ailments vanished permanently."
    • I instantly felt an increase not only of strength but of weight. […] “I weighed myself and found that in one day I had gained fifty pounds; they have remained permanently. Friends and acquaintances who had seen my thin figure were overcome with amazement. A number of them changed their mode of life and became disciples of Lahiri Mahasaya as a result of this miracle."
    • "On later occasions, I was privileged to witness my guru’s divine healings of persons suffering from diabetes, epilepsy, tuberculosis, or paralysis.
    • "I realized that she too had witnessed the luminous blaze through which I had instantly recovered from a usually fatal disease.”
  • On a number of occasions his health or that of his friends was saved by buying jewellery, as yogis can intervene in this way:
    • The stars are about to take an ‘unfriendly’ interest in you, Mukunda. Fear not; you shall be protected. In about a month your liver will cause you much trouble. The illness is scheduled to last for six months, but your use of an astrological armlet will shorten the period to twenty-four days.”
    • In the example above, “the stars” means God, and — as above — God is all of us
    • In some cases diamonds are necessary, although it depends upon the problem
  • Many un-named onlookers who witness these events immediately renounced their material possessions and become monks
  • Death is simply swapping bodies for the next life, and yogis can detect the form a soul takes in its next life
    • Despite this, Yoganandra is always upset by death and seeks reassurance that this is true
    • Yoganandra twice successfully seeks out a dead disciple’s next body and is warmly received by the new boy’s parents, here’s an example with one of the secret yogic techniques mentioned above:
    • "Using a secret yoga technique, I broadcasted my love to Kashi’s soul through the “microphone” of the spiritual eye, the inner point between the eyebrows. I intuitively felt that Kashi would soon return to the earth, and that if I kept unceasingly broadcasting my call to him, his soul would reply. I knew that the slightest impulse sent to me by Kashi would be felt in the nerves of my fingers, arms, and spine. Using my upraised hands as antennae, I often turned myself round and round, trying to discover the direction of the place in which, I believed, he had already been reborn as an embryo."

There you go. You can get Autobiography of a Yogi on Amazon.