My circle of friends is as large and varied as the interests, hobbies and passions of each person in that circle. There’s no one, absolutely no one there who hasn’t heard of or read the classic Autobiography of a Yogi.
Reviewing the book is almost like insulting it because…well, it is subjective because Autobiography… remains one of the treasures of my growing-up years, so that’s just a private thought uttered aloud.
Autobiography of a Yogi is a travelogue of Paramahamsa Yogananda‘s concentrated quest for self-realization and all the interesting things interspersed along the journey. Born Mukunda Lal Ghosh, Yogananda was a spiritual child prodigy, inclined more towards in the Other than the Here. He accepted Sanyasa (roughly, monastic vows) under Sri Yukteshwar when he was 22 years. Yogananda’s greatest contribution remains the revival and worldwide propagation of the ancient practice of Kriya Yoga. In his own words the:
The Kriya Yogi mentally directs his life energy to revolve, upward and downward, around the six spinal centers (medullary, cervical, dorsal, lumbar, sacral, and coccygeal plexuses) which correspond to the twelve astral signs of the zodiac, the symbolic Cosmic Man. One-half minute of revolution of energy around the sensitive spinal cord of man effects subtle progress in his evolution; that half-minute of Kriya equals one year of natural spiritual unfoldment.
The dedicated chapter on Kriya Yoga appears rather late in a book comprising 49 chapters. While it is interesting and informative, it suffers the same fate as all treatises written to explain something that should be done: borders on being boring. Kriya Yoga should be learnt not read about.
Autobiography of a Yogi is actually several mini-biographies of saints, mystics, scientists, freedom fighters, thinkers, philosophers, and other eminent men and women Yogananda met and knew. You have a glimpse into a leviating saint, a “tiger” Swamiji, a Yogini (female Yogi) “who never eats,” and extended sketches of J.C. Bose, Rabindranath Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi, Sir C.V. Raman, and Luther Burbank.
Yogananda’s style is almost childlike, engaging, and gentle like his smile on the cover of the book. He draws from an array of sources like the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, Indian mythology, the Bible, Paradise Lost and his own experiences. He recounts his stay in a hermitage under a certain Swami Dayananda who rebukes Yogananda’s inability to control hunger.
Die [of hunger] if you must Mukunda! Never admit that you live by the power of food and not by the power of God! He who has created every form of nourishment, He who has bestowed appetite, will certainly see that His devotee is sustained! Do not imagine that rice maintains you, or that money or men support you! Could they aid if the Lord withdraws your life-breath? They are His indirect instruments merely. Is it by any skill of yours that food digests in your stomach? Use the sword of your discrimination, Mukunda! Cut through the chains of agency and perceive the Single Cause!”
The portions describing his tutelage under Sri Yukteshwar are the most interesting. Yogananda takes us through his own educaton, rewarding us handsomely in the process. Something that has stayed with me indelibly is an episode where a fly on Yogananda’s thigh irritates him. Instinctively, he raises his hand to swat it dead but stops realizing his vow of non-violence. Sri Yukteshwar tells him to proceed because, he says, Yogananda had already killed it in his mind.
A lot of experiences Yogananda describes might sound farfetched, and almost unbelievable in a world where God is almost a swearword and nothing that the senses can’t perceive doesn’t exist. But those are Yogananda’s own experiences and reading the book makes them our own at varying degrees.
Ultimately, Autobiography of a Yogi is not merely a book but an experience written by perhaps the last of the renowned mystics of the previous century. If book sales is an indicator of popularity, it is one of the top-selling books of all time and has been translated into 18 languages around the world. If you want to read it as just another autobiography, it might show you more just a glimpse into another world that still exists.
Postscript: You might want to read the whole book online for free.
Crossposted on Desicritics.