The release of the movie “Awake: The Life of Yogananda” recently sparked my interest in the history of this yogi who brought Hindu spirituality to the West. I’m embarrassed to admit, I had his “Autobiography” on my book shelf for several years. After seeing the movie, I decided it was time to dust the book off and read it.
What an enchanting read this is! Yogananda’s birth name was Mukunda Lal Ghosh and he was born in Gorakhpur, Indian in 1893. The first section of the “Autobiography” tells of his upbringing in a loving and well-to-do family. He gives a moving recounting of the vision he has of his mother just before she succumbs to Asian cholera. He delights in telling us of his numerous adventures in attempting to escape to the Himalayas to find holy men much to the consternation of his father. While he is in school, he willingly tells us he wasn’t a serious scholar but he has many fellow students and teachers who help him through his classes.
He finally convinces his father he wants to study with a guru and joins an ashram. One day, he makes an unexpected errand to purchase items for the ashram and has a fateful encounter with his lifelong guru, Sri Yukteswar. They both know they were destined to be guru and student. The middle section of the book describes their relationship. Sri Yukteswar convinces Yogananda that he is to earn a degree from college as he is destined to bring Hindu teachings to America and he needs the degree to be accepted more readily. As Yogananda applies himself to his studies (not very seriously), he sits at the feet of his guru who initiates him in the mysteries of the Kriya yoga practice and changes his name. The “Autobiogaphy” passes on to us much of the wisdom of this compassionate and gentle teacher.
The rest of the book divulges more adventures with Yogananda traveling to various cities to visit fascinating characters such as yogis and yoginis who never eat, never sleep and fight with tigers. Eventually, Sri Yukteswar reveals to Yogananda he is ready for his journey to America. He sails with trepidation. He barely speaks English and while on the ship he is asked to address an audience. He begins speaking and afterwards, the people tell him he spoke very effectively in perfect, fluid English! He lands in Boston and starts a community there. He then makes his way to California where he begins the Self Realization Fellowship in Encinitas, California.
After many years in the United States, his guru asks him to return to India. He travels through Europe, visiting other spiritual beings and does quite a bit of sightseeing. He finally is reunited with Sri Yukteswar. After their meeting, he journeys to another city and while he is there, his guru dies. He is devastated but finds a way to move on, returning to America to do more work.
In growing up, I remember hearing about mystical men in the caves of the Himalayas and people who climb mountains to find them to learn the meaning of life. I’ve also heard stories of people who can appear in two places at once. Yogananda has written about all this in his “Autobiography” and fully explains these phenomena. Whether you believe it or not, all this makes for wonderful and glorious adventure in reading. Even if you are not a yogi, this is an enjoyable read.
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