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Autobiography of a YogiAutobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Although the name of the book suggests that it is the autobiography of a Yogi, it is more the biography of his master, and a little of his master’s master and a little bit of his master’s master’s master.

On the whole a very good introduction to spirituality in India. The main person is Yogananda. He was a disciple of Sri Yukteswar who lived in Serampore which is just outside Kolkatta. His master was Lahiri Mahasaya who lived in Banares. And his master was a Babaji who roamed the Himalayas.

The book describes the ardent wish of Yogananda from his childhood to follow a spiritual path. He keeps trying to run away to the Himalayas against the wishes of his family. He searches high and low for a Guru. Finally he finds his Guru close to his home in Kolkatta in the form of Sri Yukteswar who takes him into his fold and initiates him into Kriya Yoga.

Yogananda blossoms under the tutelage of Sri Yukteswar. With great reluctance, on the insistence of Sri Yukteswar, he embarks to the US to spread the knowledge of Kriya Yoga amongst the westerners. He establishes an ashram with a large following with the blessings of Sri Yukteswar.

He comes back to Kolkatta for one final meeting with Sri Yukteswar. He is in India when Sri Yukteswar frees himself from the mortal confines. Yogananda is depressed, but Sri Yukteswar comes to him in person in a Mumbai hotel and assures him that he is around and has not really gone away. An reassured Yogananda returns to America and further expands the ashram.

Yogananda also is very well read and he quotes anecdotes and excerpts from various other spiritual persons. Some of them are as under.

Illustrated an anecdote from the life of Abu Said the Persian mystic Yogananda says:
Abu Said once laughed at certain fakirs who were proud of their miraculous powers over water, air and space.
“A frog is also at home in water!” Abu Said pointed out in gentle scorn. “The crow and vulture easily fly in the air; the Devil is simultaneously present in the East and the West! A true man is he who dwells in righteousness among his fellow men, who buys and sells, yet is never for a single instant forgetful of God!”

On another occasion the Persian teacher gave his views on religious life thus: “To lay aside what you have in your head [selfish desires and ambitions]: to free bestow what you have in your hand; and never to flinch from the blows of adversity!”.

One of the spiritual persons that Yogananda meets in his youth is Bhaduri Mahasaya who lived indoors for more than twenty years. He was known to levitate. This yogi generally discouraged devotees from coming to him and hand instructed his disciples to not let anybody disturb him. So on one occasion when, young Yogananda then called Mukunda, visited this Yogi, his disciples tried to stop him, but the Yogi himself came out and said “Let Mukunda come when he will.” His eyes twinkled as he said “My rule of seclusion is not for my own comfort, but for that of others. Worldly people do not like the candor which shatters their delusions. Saints are not only rare but disconcerting. Even in scriptures they are often found embarrassing!”.

It was well known that Bhaduri Mahasaya had forsaken great family wealth in his early childhood, when single-mindedly he entered the yogic path. Devotees used to offer Bhaduri Mahasaya money as offering. A student once said “Master, you are wonderful! You have renounced riches and comforts to seek God and teach us wisdom!” Pointing to the money bestowed upon him by his devotees he remarked “You are reversing the case!. I have left a few paltry rupees, a few paltry pleasures, for a cosmic empire of endless bliss. How then have I denied myself anything? I know the joy of sharing the treasure. Is that a sacrifice? The shortsighted worldly folk are verily the real renunciates!They relinquish an unparalled divine possession for a poor handful of earthly toys”.

The author quotes Sri Yukteswar’s advice on illness and body “The body is a treacherous friend. Give it its due; no more. Pain and pleasure are transitory; endure all dualities with calmness, while trying at the same time to remove their hold. Imagination is the door through which disease as well as healing enters. Disbelieve in the reality of sickness even when you are ill; an unrecognized visitor will flee!”.

On another occasion Sri Yukteswar who was a perfectionist told misbehaving disciples “Good manners without sincerity are like beautiful dead lady. Straightforwardness without civility is like a surgeon’s knife, effective but unpleasant. Candor with courtesy is helpful and admirable”.

Speaking on misunderstanding between people Sri Yukteswar says “What a person imagines he hears, and what the speaker has really implied, may be poles apart. Try to feel the thoughts behind the confusion of man’s verbiage”.

About the students who left his ashram due to a rebuke, Sri Yukteswar said “Tender inner weaknesses, revolting at mild touches of censure, are like diseased parts of the body, recoiling before even delicate handling”.

Once a learned magistrate came to discuss metaphysics with Sri Yukteswar and when he found himself wanting in the discussion with Sri Yukteswar, he started throwing about the degrees he had. He shouted “Do you know that I stood first in the M. A. examination?”. Sri Yukteswar calmly replied “From your childish remarks I would have surmised that your college career was unremarkable. A university degree, in any case, is not remotely related to Vedic realization. Saints are not produced in batches every semester like accountants.” He also discouraged any tendency a student might have to construe a book-knowledge as necessary step to spiritual realization.

About Sri Yukteswar the author says that he fitted the definition of man of God “Softer than the flower, where kindness is concerned; stronger than the thunder, where principles are at stake.”
He also quotes “He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that ruleth his spirit than he he that taketh a city”.

On one occasion Sri Yukteswar asks Yogananda to wear an astrological armlet to which Yogananda replies that he does not believe in astrology. To this Sri Yukteswar replies “It is never a question of belief; the only scientific attitude one can take on any subject is whether it is true. The law of gravitation worked as efficiently before Newton as after him. The cosmos would be fairly chaotic if its law could not operate without the sanction of human belief.” He goes on to say that charlatan’s have brought disrepute to astrology. He says that the current happenings in man’s life is all due to his past actions and he can, if he wants, to overcome any limitation, because he created it by his own actions in the first place, and because he has spiritual resources which are not subject to any planetary pressure. He says “Man is a soul, and has a body. When he properly places his sense of identity, he leaves behind all compulsive patterns. So long as he remains confused in his ordinary state of spiritual amnesia, he will know the subtle fetters of environmental law. God is harmony; the devotee who attunes himself will never perform any action amiss. His activities will be correctly and naturally timed to accord with astrological law. After deep prayer and meditation he is in touch with his divine consciousness; there is no greater protection than that inward protection”
Yogananada then asks him “Then, dear Master, why do you want to me to wear an astrological armlet?” and Sri Yukteswar replies “It is only when a traveler has reached his goal that he is justified in discarding his maps. During the journey, he takes advantage of any convenient shortcut. The ancient rishis discovered many ways to curtail the period of man’s exile in delusion. There are certain mechanical features in the law of Karma which can be skillfully adjusted by the fingers of wisdom. All human ills arise from some transgression of universal law. The scriptures point out that man must satisfy the laws of nature, while not discrediting the divine omnipotence. He should say ‘Lord, I trust in Thee and know Thou canst help me, but I too will do my best to undo any wrong that I have done’. By a number of means – by prayer, by will power, by yoga meditation, by consultation with saints, by use of astrological armlets – the adverse effects of past wrongs can be minimized or nullified” He goes on to explain how a metal rod can be used to absorb lightning strikes to houses in a similar way pure metals can negate the negative pulls of the planets and hence the armlet.

Sri Yukteswar has a different explanation of the Genesis. Once when Yogananda expressed that the Adam and Eve story was incomprehensible to him because “Why did God punish not only the guilty pair, but also the innocent unborn generations?”. Sri Yukteswar replied with a certain amusement at Yogananda’s naivete “Genesis is deeply symbolic, and cannot be grasped by by a literal interpretation. Its ‘tree of life’ is human body. The spinal cord is like an upturned tree, with man’s hair as its roots, and afferent and efferent nerves as branches. The tree of the nervous system bears many enjoyable fruits, or sensations of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. In these, man may rightfully indulge; but he was forbidden the experience of sex, the ‘apple’ at the center of the bodily garden. The ‘serpent’ represents the coiled-up spinal energy which stimulates the sex nerves. ‘Adam’ is reason, and ‘Eve’ is feeling. When the emotion or Eve-consciousness in any human being is overpowered by the sex impusle, his reason or Adam also succumbs.

In one place the author gives an excerpt of the dialogue that Alexander had with the learned Brahmins of Taxila. Some of the questions and answers are as follows:
Q. Which be the more numerous, the living or the dead?
A. The living, for the dead are not
Q. Which breeds the larger animals, the sea or the land?
A. The land, for sea is only part of land.
Q. Which is the cleverest of beasts?
A. That one which man has not yet acquainted. (Man fears the unknown)
Q. Which existed first, the day or the night?
A. The day was first by one day. This reply caused Alexander to betray surprise; the Brahmin added: “Impossible questions require impossible answers.”
And the question or rather that I liked the most
Q. How best may man make himself beloved?
A. A man will be beloved if, possessed with great power, he still does not make himself feared.

The author quotes the various visitors that India had early in history. Some of these were Greeks and this is what they had to say about India. Hindu law, Arrian tells us, protects the people and “ordains that no one among them shall, under any circumstances, be a slave but that, enjoying freedom themselves, they shall respect the equal right to which all possess. For those, they thought, who have learned neither to domineer over nor cringe to others will attain the life best adapted for all vicissitudes of lot. The Indians neither put out money at usury, nor know how to borrow. It is contrary to established usage for an Indian either to do or suffer a wrong, and therefore they neither make contracts nor require securities.” Healing we are told, was by simple and natural means. “Cures are effected rather by regulating diet rather than by use of medicines. The remedies most esteemed are ointments and plasters. All others are considered to be in great measure pernicious.” Engagement in war was restricted to the Kshatriyas or warrior caste. “Nor would an enemy coming upon husbandsman at his work on his land, do him harm, for men of this class being regarded as public benefactors, are protected from all injury. The land thus remaining unravaged and producing heavy crops, supplies the inhabitants with the requisites to make life enjoyable.”
The author has the following to quote from the Manu Smirti which is much maligned today for the caste system. “Neither birth nor sacraments nor study nor ancestry can decide whether a person is twice-born (i.e. a Brahmin)”. So does the Mahabharatha which declares “character and conduct only can decide.”. Manu instructed society to show respect to its members insofar as they possessed wisdom, virtue, age, kinship, or lastly wealth. Riches in Vedic India were always despised if they were hoarded or unavailable for charitable purposes. Ungenerous men of great wealth were assigned a low rank in society.

On his return to India, Yogananda goes to meet a woman saint of the name Giri Bala. Giri Bala had lived for years without having even a drop of water. She had no hunger or thirst. In the course of discussion with her Yogananada asks her as to why she does not teach her art of living without food to others. To this Giri Bala replies “I was strictly commanded by my Guru not to divulge the secret. It is not his wish to tamper with God’s drama of creation. The farmers would not thank me if I taught many people to live without eating! The luscious fruits would be uselessly on the ground. It appears that misery, starvations, and disease are whips of our Karma which ultimately drive use to seek the true meaning of life”.

A good read for people who wish to understand one another facet of Indian Spirituality.

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