Paramahansa Yogananda is said to be one of the most influential spiritual figures reaching people in both eastern and western societies (Goldberg 4). Yogananda wrote many books, but arguably the most powerful and well-known was his personal memoir: Autobiography of a Yogi, written in 1946. Although many have written about Yogananda as a yoga guru, less has been said about his unique approach to spiritual guidance or the influential life events that directed him on his path of enlightenment. I plan to focus on these two distinct aspects of Yogananda throughout the following literature review. In addition, I will provide an overview of his life and spiritual journey that took him from his coastal hometown of Gorakhpur, in the north-eastern area of Uttar-Pradesh (India), to America, and back again to visit a few prominent spiritual leaders including his Hindu guru, Yukteswar Giri. Of particular interest is the degree of influence Hinduism itself had in shaping Yogananda’s life and consequently the lives of his supporters.
Paramahansa Yogananda was born on January 5th, 1893 in Gorakhpur, India to a well-off Hindu Bengali family. The book begins with a recitation of Yogananda’s childhood and specific spiritual events which sparked his interest in spirituality. He describes his memories of being a fetus in the womb of his mother, Gyana Prabha Ghosh, where he knew all the languages of the world but selected the one in which he heard spoken to be his mother tongue. From the beginning, Yogananda described having an acute awareness of the spiritual world far beyond the average child. The many mystical phenomena that he experienced in his youth set Yogananda on an early path of spiritual devotion in search of self-realization. In his younger years, he sought out many Indian yogis in hopes of finding a virtuous guru that could guide him on his religious pursuit of enlightenment. Finally, at age 17, he found his guru: the esteemed, Swami Sri Yukteswar Giri in the city of Varanasi. Not long after, Yogananda became his disciple and went on to spend the next decade living in his Serampore ashram alongside other devotees under the guidance of his master. Yukteswar was a strict guru who showed great spiritual discipline, something he expected from all of his disciples as well. Despite Yogananda’s opposition, Yukteswar insisted it was necessary for him to finish school to prepare him for his foreseen future journey to America to be a spiritual leader for thousands of people. Following his graduation in 1915 from Calcutta University, he took his formal vows to become an official monk of India’s monastic Swami Order.
In 1917, Yogananda founded Yogoda Satsanga, a school for boys which merged modern education with spiritual teachings and yoga training. Three years later, Yogananda left India to fulfil his master’s envisioned prophesy: to travel to America and teach west society the sacred Kriya Yoga practice. As predicted by Yukteswar, Yogananda went on to lecture to thousands of people on the Hindu lifestyle and further established the Self-Realization Fellowship—a spiritual organization for the conservation and dissemination of his knowledge and philosophies. During his time in America, Yogananda became fast friends with a renowned botanist named Luther Burbank. Yogananda admired Burbank’s humble, generous, and loving character so much that he actually dedicated Autobiography of a Yogi to him.
In 1935, Yogananda returned to India for a year-long quest, giving Kriya Yoga classes all around the country. Along the way, he met many well-known individuals including the internationally famous social reformer, Mahatma Gandhi; the Nobel Laureate physicist, Sir C. V. Raman; the Indian guru who encouraged the practice of atma-vicara, Ramana Maharshi; the great female Hindu saint, Ananda moyi Ma; and Giri Bala, a yogi woman who was known not to eat anything, , among other notable figures (Yogananda 1946: 737). This visit was also the last time Yogananda saw his beloved guru, Yukteswar. After saying his final goodbyes, Yogananda departed back to America where he continued to practice, teach, and share his spiritual wisdom with all. In 1946, he wrote the famous book, Autobiography of a Yogi which acknowledged the influential people and events that fuelled and shaped his relationship with spirituality.
Yogananda was known for being completely devoted to his God and his guru, Yukteswar. Indeed, throughout the book, he attempts to share with the reader just how genuinely faithful and God-loving all the Hindu saints that he encountered were. The many ways in which individuals showed their love for God were tremendously diverse. Devotion was demonstrated throughout the book through prayer, meditation, and the dedication of one’s life to helping others (Yogananda 1946). Among all these methods the underlying feature was the loving of God above all else, including themselves. Yogananda’s aim with his training and literary work was to illustrate to those who desired enlightenment (regardless of their faith) that anyone could grow their love for God.
Unlike Christianity, Hinduism has been described to be a religion that is all-encompassing, woven throughout the everyday life of every Hindus (Lipner 3). In this general regard, Yogananda’s legacy is a powerful example of the pervading Hindu spirituality incorporated into his existence. To appeal to the West, Yogananda explained the unification of Hinduism, and he advocated for a spiritual synchronicity between the East and the West. The rhetorical methodology used by Yogananda included the emphasis of harmony between the teachings of Jesus Christ and Yoga taught by Bhagavan Krishna (Yogananda 2004: 1566). Indeed, Yogananda believed the core values of Hinduism were, in fact, true for all religions. Every religious belief system has the foundational element of devotion. He emphasised that there was a single unifying trait amongst all religious groups: the worship of the same almighty God. Yogananda also wanted to appeal to the science-minded individuals by emphasizing the similarities between science and religion in their fundamental principles.
Correlating with the sacred Vedas and Upanishads, Yogananda stressed the importance of disconnecting one’s self from their physical body, ego, material possessions, in exchange for self-realization. Echoing traditional Hindu scripture, he explained the cosmos as God’s project, where humans are simply actors who have the ability to change their role via reincarnation (Yogananda 1946: 453). This is akin to Rta in Vedic scripture, which is the cosmic order of things that must be preserved and maintained through having compassion for all creation, simple living, and higher thinking. Also, in accordance with sacred Vedic scripture is the principle of Ahimsa. In the book, Yogananda recounted a time when he was about to slap a mosquito that had landed on his leg when Yukteswar reminded him that all life forms have an equal right to the air of Maya, which, prevented him from killing the mosquito (Yogananda 1946: 190-191).
Ultimately, Yogananda’s teachings accurately reflected many traditional Hindu beliefs using methods that would particularly appeal to western society. For example, he evaded mention of the controversially sexist Hindu traditions associated with the caste system and Vedic culture as a whole, which would likely deter many westerners. One prominent example of a positive method for disseminating Hindu beliefs that Yogananda utilized was through Kriya Yoga—a meditative technique that inspires spiritual growth (Miller 178). Kriya Yoga was passed down through Yogananda’s guru line—Mahavatar Babaji taught Kriya Yoga to Lahiri Mahasaya who taught it to his disciple, Yukteswar Giri, Yogananda’s guru (Yogananda 1946: 232). Kriya Yoga, as Yogananda described it, is unification with the infinite through action or rite (Yogananda 1946: 393-394). Yoga is very popular in western society now, with Yogananda’s teachings being a founding influence of the initial appeal of Hinduism to the west. Autobiography of a Yogi taught people all over the world the core Hindu values, while the reader fell in love with Yogananda’s humbly devoted character.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
Goldberg, Philip (2018) The Life of Yogananda: The Story of the Yogi Who Became the First Modern Guru. Carlsbad: Hay House.
Lipner, Julius (1994) Hindus: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices. New York: Routledge.
Miller, Timothy (1995) America’s Alternative Religions. Albany: SUNY Press.
Yogananda, Paramhansa (1946) Autobiography of a Yogi. New York: Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd.
Yogananda, Paramhansa (2004) The Second Coming of Christ: The Resurrection of the Christ Within You. Los Angeles: Self-Realization Fellowship.
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This article was written by: Hilary Williams (Fall 2018), who is entirely responsible for its content.