Autobiography of a Yogi Critique
"Autobiography is awfully seductive." - Maya Angelou
"Complete honesty is the stuff of post-mortem, not autobiography." - Andrew Solomon.
Authorship: The swami Yogananda and four Western followers together worked up the Autobiography of a Yogi. The Hindu swami was born Mukunda Lal Ghosh in 1893. Against his father's will he stubbornly refused to marry. When Mukunda became a monk he took the monk's name Yogananda - and later added the title Paramhansa to it. Some years after his death the leader of his fellowship - which by then owned the publishing rights to the book - changed his title to Paramahansa and forged his signature too, as if he did not know how to write it.
Yogananda worked on the book for years. Three phases may be discerned:
(a) Between 1921-35 he gathered stories that he planned to use in the book. Three miraculous tales in the book had appeared in his Praecepta Lessons.
(b) In 1935, Yogananda left the States for India and thereby escaped a court case where he in time was found guilty of false and untrue money charges (!). It is in court documents. During parts of 1935 and 1936 he was celebrated in India and tried to gather stories and works related to Shyama Lahiri, his "grandguru", so to speak. However, other Lahiri disciples did not entrust him with books and commentaries their guru had written. These yogis did not trust Yogananda - but today Shyama Lahiri's works are published in English at Sanskrit Classics in San Diego. There are many such works.
(c) Between 1937 and into 1946, Yogananda worked on his Autobiography, for most part in Encinitas (Spanish for "little oaks"), where a millionaire had offered him a house with a swimming-pool and temple on a bluff. A part of the pool and the whole temple some years later slid into the sea, but with no one in them at the time. [More]
At the end of the 1938 version of his Cosmic Chants, he announced:
YOGI-CHRISTS OF INDIA. The product of twenty years of metaphysical research. Stranger than fiction, and yet a record of authentic happenings, and personal experiences of the author. Many amazing stories of the miraculous lives of the great masters and saints of India. True, illuminating and entertaining from beginning to end. Contains an extraordinary description of the Astral World, the true Hereafter to which all mortals repair between incarnations. Will be published in Feb. 1944. (Yogananda Harmony Association. "Autobiography of a Yogi: History and Development", p. 9 [PDF download])
In Yogananda's magazine, at that time named Inner Culture (March, 1937 Vol. 9–5) Yogananda maintained he wanted to use the money obtained from the book to get a Golden World City where Encinitas lies today, and that he was going to make a "supreme effort" to get it built and make everybody an athlete - which was one ideal he had for his ideal city. [Yogananda plans]
From the making of the book - later phases: Yogananda: "I used to write without ever reading over the manuscript - a task I always avoided. But I had to go over and over every bit of my autobiography. The Lord disciplined me." (Yogananda 1982:185). The guru of many had to go "over and over" every bit of his Autobiography and benefitted from discipline, he said. (Ibid).
During New Year's week in 1945, Yogananda was still making revisions. In the last chapter he writes: "New Year's week of 1945 found me at work in my Encinitas study, revising the manuscript of this book." The book was published by the Philosophical Library in New York, in December 1946. (Yogananda Harmony Association. "Autobiography of a Yogi: History and Development" PDF, p. 10)
Yogananda's disciple Durga Mata (Florina Darling) writes that most of the time Yogananda had written longhand. At other times he had dictated to Sister Daya's shorthand. Or Daya and her sister Ananda had alternated in taking dictation on the typewriter. "Yogananda liked it when they read the text back to him. The typed text, as Daya Mata recalls, was then given, piece after piece, to Tara Mata for editing." (Durga 1992/93, 151). Tara edited way too much, holds Kriyananda, and offers many examples in ◦Yogananda for the World (2012. PDF), see especally chap. 15 and 16.
The women disciples who helped Yogananda with the book were SRF's editor-in-chief Laurie Pratt (Tara Mata), Rachel Faye Wright (Daya Mata), her sister Virginia (Ananda Mata); and Merna Loy Brown (Mrinalini Mata). The three last of them were Hindu nuns in Yogananda's order. Rachel later became the SRF leader from 1955 to 2010, and Mrinalini served in that position after her until 2017, when she died. These four helped with the writing. It went so far that Daya Mata after several decades,
signed a declaration, under oath, that Autobiography of a Yogi had not been written by Yogananda himself, but by a committee! [and, further, that] he had written Autobiography of a Yogi as a "work for hire."
The SRF publishers bought back the copyright for the book in late 1953, and took to signature forgery, changing direct quotations, and making other changes in the book too - inserting self-promoting texts in it also (Cf. WP, "Autobiography of a Yogi").
SRF has never stopped editing this book. They have made changes to the text, as well as adding, deleting, and editing photographs, captions, end pages, footnotes, and publisher's notes. These include . . . changes altering the history of events in Yogananda's life as he told them, changes to direct quotations as he gave them, and insertions of statements of institutional authority which directly contradict Yogananda's own statement of his vision for the spread of his teachings . . . and his name was given a new spelling seven years after his death."
A claimed autobiography that is substantially edited by others a long time after the real author's death, isn't that a flawed autobiography, an "autobiography"? Book on Yogis, edited stepwise for decades after Yogananda's death is a more accurate title.
Wider concerns: The book was meant tell of "yogi-christs of India", and a large part was written under that working-title. The title was later changed to Autobiography of a Yogi. It is not much of an autobiography after being edited by SRF to self-serving ends for decades after Yogananda died. Yogananda meant the book to attract people to his kriya yoga path "no matter what the means." In the book are scores of miraculous tales. However, Yogananda's biographer, Sailendra Dasgupta tells: "Behind every effort by Yogananda was the root purpose of attracting men and women to Kriya Yoga, no matter what the means. (2006, 101)." Other writers of such happenings have not seen the miraculous in them, he also suggests:
Filled with stories of the miraculous, this book is actually a reflection of Swamiji's own . . . state of being . . . [W]hen examined with an investigative eye, many of the accounts could have been caused by ordinary means, nevertheless, in Swamiji's perception, all happened supernaturally. (Ibid.)
Thus, the book contains a wealth of outré stories about happenings that that to others have seemed not out of the ordinary - tells miraculous stories in an idealising, romantic vein. Marshall Govindam tells of a drawback of it: becoming unrealistic:
After five years of effort in America, beginning in 1925 . . . Yogananda began to modify and adapt his teachings to the West . . . to overcome the . . . resistance of Christians who were suspicious of the foreign teachings of a Hindu swami. As a result, Yogananda began to enjoy remarkable popularity. . . . However, . . . most readers of his "Autobiography" . . . are left with many unrealistic expectations. - Marshall Govindam. [◦Link]
Through most of its editions the Autobiography is a work of propaganda for kriya yoga and getting SRF members. Who or what does it speak endearingly of and praise highly? Why does it fail to bring fit evidence of many of its stupendous claims? We may fear it is because such evidence is lacking, and also that the book was made to impress above informing well and accurately where it matters the most, as for claims around kriya yoga. Questions abound.
It may be held that the autobiography is a propaganda work for kriya yoga though all its editions. Who or what does it speak well of? Word counts may offer initial help in sorting out such things. [Autobiography word counts]
A further long-range problem is that ideals the book talks for, have been silently removed by Self-Realization Fellowship. Such disharmonies have disappointed many, including a former SRF vice president, Kriyananda (2010; 2012).
Readers: The book has influenced the "yoga and meditation market" for long by now. Millions have read it. The book has been in print since 1946 and translated into fifty languages, and has introduced a sort of meditation to many readers and fascinanted some, like the late Steve Jobs of Apple and the Beatle George Harrison. (WP, "Autobiography of a Yogi")
Some readers do not appreciate the book. Srinivas Aravamudan (1962–2016), who was a professor at Duke University, describes it as "miracle-infested territory" with "a repetitive insistence on collocating the miraculous and the quotidian [mundane] . . . The autobiography . . . might be dubbed a hitchhiker's guide to the paranormal galaxy". Aravamudan also notes the "aggressive marketing" of the Yogoda Satsang and Self-Realization Fellowship, that Yogananda himself "worked the mass media" and used a technique described as "Guru English". He notes that Yogananda was the collator of the testimonials that purport to validate the miracles described, which appear at a rate of around one per page." (Ibid).
James Dudley: "Yogananda's masterly storytelling epitomizes the Indian oral tradition." (Ibid.) One may say the book is aimed at people who love fantastic stories that are purported to be true for most part, but they may not be top reliable anyway. There lies a problem.
Background: Story-telling is a top effective way of influencing others and pass on a tradition, tells Jerome Bruner (1915–2016). Yogananda tells stories about some who do kriya yoga, miraculous tales also. It is easy to get influenced, and without skills in literary criticism one risks being taken in.
The main persons in the book - apart from Yogananda - are yogis of his line. The line is said to stem from a "mysterious stranger" who gave a system of yoga methods to Shyama Lahiri in 1861. Shyama Lahiri was said to simplify the system further, and gave parts of it to different disciples. One of the disciples was a man who later was called Yukteswar. He is presented as Yogananda's guru. Yogananda tells stories of these and many other disciples of Shyama Lahiri, and includes tales of others as fits his "universe."
Yogananda uses a kind of infiltrative demagogy to make his gurus and other kriya yogis palatable to Christians. He takes to terms from Christian theology and gives them a spin or content that is not part of the Christian tradition. The Father, the Holy Spirit and the soul have changed there. Jesus is allied with Yogananda and his line too, we are told, all against rather many Bible sayings of such a possibility. The "one proof" given of the link is Yogananda visions and tales.
Yogananda's promotional jargon includes "science" and "scientific" too. The book tells it works like mathematics in bringing "cosmic consciousness" by a million kriya yoga rounds. That may not be true. Not at all. One may wonder if the author and his guru Yukteswar know what they are talking of. [Discrepancies stand out]
The demagogue Yogananda also talks of "ancient scriptures that speak for kriya yoga, as does St. Paul", and so on. The scriptural "references" are just "references" had by back-dating a term that was coined or made known in the 1860s. By backdating the system by use of an old Sanskrit term in it, seems out of place. Such a backdating scheme would not have been possible if the system that Shyama Lahiri got had been termed for example Doobidoo in the 1860s. Then there would have been no Sanskrit terms in texts of old to claim as referring to the kriya yoga system. Much evidence is gathered here: [Kriya and scriptures investigation]
Sanskrit scripture references appear to give a fake standing only. The book was formed with a view to impress Christian Americans mightily around the middle of the past century.
Which kriya system? There are many kriya systems around. Yogananda's kriya is simplified: Parts that otherwise are held to be necessary, are removed from the kriya of Yogananda and SRF (Dasgupta 2006, 109-10). Dasgupta writes that Yogananda dispensed with yogic tongue-lifting, also known as khechari mudra, to accommodate to Westerners, even though "one is only fit to practice the higher Kriyas after one accomplishes [t]his absolutely essential technique." (Dasgupta 2006, 109).
Further details: [More, Dasgupta's summary of lacking elements in SRF's kriya]
As for how kriya yoga is spread in the steps of Yogananda, kriya yogis of India object to it. Dasgupta tells "there is reason to doubt whether Kriya can be given or taught properly by letters and circulars. (2006, 54). [◦Yogananda changes at Sanskrit Classics]
SRF publishes later editions of the Autobiograpy, and is described as a cult by several former SRF monastics: they might know better where the shoe pinches than outsiders. About one third of all the SRF monastics left the premises between 2000 and 2005, writes Jon Parsons. (2012, 170)
The language is largely loquacious. It has a long way to go to reach up to Plain English.
The miracle stories included in the Autobiography are Yogananda's selections. Some have been found to be biased, although they reveal much of the man who told he and his gurus were avatars (divine descents). At least he said it. [◦A source].
Autobiographies written and changed by others than "Auto" himself or herself are not all uncommon. Ghost writers exist. What is unusual is that the publisher, SRF, has continued to make changes to the book for decades after the guru was gone. Through several editions the original text has been changed. Kriyananda is one who voices many misgivings. (Yogananda for the World, chap. 15 and 16).
The book was at least co-written by someone who got a large following. In 1935 Yogananda said he had given kriya yoga to 150,000 persons by letter courses, mass initiations, and that this was "very successful in America." Dasgupta thinks such a way of spreading kriya yoga is very difficult, and "has seen proof of this fact innumerable times." (2006, 90) Satyeswarananda of the Sanskrit Classics details how Yogananda has deviated. [◦Much more]
Yogananda used mass initiations and initiations by a letter course as his means to spread the teachings of Kriya Yoga. He said that his American students and disciples of Kriya Yoga numbered more than 150,000 in 1935. (Ibid.) However, somewhere between 1948 and 1952 he also told: "Apart from [James J.] Lynn . . . every man has disappointed me." (Novak 2005, Chap. 6).
When over 150,000 persons have disappointed you, you might have benefitted by being realistic for a long time. But Yogananda was a disappointed man, one who also had written that starting SRF, his organization, had been a great blunder [◦A Yogananda letter].
For most part of Yogananda's last four years he lived in a hut on the border of a desert, roughly 50 miles east of Los Angeles, at Twenty-Nine Palms. I have been there. Dasgupta: "A solitary and secret cottage was set up where Swamiji sat . . . for much of the last part of his life." Kriyananda tells that they had to hold him up as they walked him. Yogananda was saying, "Where am I? . . . Where am I going?" This happened regularly." (Dasgupta 2006, 102-3).
But Yogananda's book does not reflect even a bit of these sides to him or his life, and hardly compares with autobiographies of other disappointed men - or so-called disappointed men.
Stretch the bow too much and it may disappoint you. It also stands out that success is to measured by fit yardsticks.
Was Yogananda crazy or not? He said repeatedly, "We are all crazy (1982:425; cf. 2002:270)." He could be right and he could be wrong: he said in fact, "We don't really know what is right or real . . . we are often incorrect in our judgements." (1982 414).
The Yogananda theme, "We are all crazy," was repeated by his long-time follower Daya Mata (Faye R. Wright).
All of us . . . are a little bit crazy, and we do not know it." (1976: "Qualities of a Devotee")
There are other stories of Yogananda that are less flattering, but rather flattening. They have as a rule not been included. They show someone keen on hypnosis, spiritism, necromancy, advocating dictatorship, praising Benito Mussolini, and claiming he had used Black Arts to influence Hitler's mind to escalate World War II.
Wonder how crazy persons may know they are crazy and say they are crazy. Who can tell? Yogananda's biographer writes:
Yoganandaji was a man who lived in the world of imagination and spiritual feelings. He saw some things directly and some things with the eyes of his feelings. Towards the end, he often did not perceive a difference between the two. (Dasgupta 2006, 99)
"Towards the end" was when he worked up his Autobiography and revised it. There is a guru biography to compare it with, Paramhansa Swami Yogananda: Life-portrait and Reminiscences (2006). It is by someone who knew Yogananda personally and also worked as his secretary in India for some time. This biography throws sidelights on Yogananda's writings. It shows that Yogananda and his secretaries hid tense quarrels between Yognanda and his guru (2006, 85).
The biographer also questions that Yogananda's guru bestowed on him the title of Paramhansa - it is a Hindu monk title. (2006, 84)
With reference to an alleged meeting of Yogananda and the secretive yogi who gave kriya yoga to Shyama Lahiri, the biographer doubts that it happened at all. (2006, 99)
A tale of Yogananda cursing another is also in the biography. Overcome with anger, he once said to a boy, "Your face will become twisted!" At once the boy's face, head and neck turned to a crippled and twisted position. "Neck and face twisted to one side, a handkerchief stuffed in his mouth to stop the uncontrollable drooling, [the Yogananda-cursed fellow] could barely walk without swaying and his speech was slurred, having difficulty forming words correctly with a crooked mouth." When Yogananda later met the fellow he had cursed, he did not have the power to take back the curse either. (2006, 56).
Several other sides to Yogananda are not included in the Autobiography either. He resorted to spiritism and necromancy (Williams 2010, 71), and his foretold World War III and IV did not come as told of. He hailed dictatorship and Benito Mussolini in writing in 1934 - and these sides to the guru are not told of in the book either. Nor was Yogananda's hush-hush claim to devotees that he had resorted to the Black Art to put into Adolf Hitler's mind to expand World War II eastwards. This move cost tens of millions of human lives. (Kriyananda 2011:131)
Yogananda was also occupied with ghosts. His biographer, Dasgupta, informs that the adult Yogananda had been afraid of ghosts for years. (Dasgupta 2006, 112) [Yogananda ghosts]
To compare with: As for "speaking well of Yogananda" on the market, a spiritist may speak well of Yogananda's spiritist activities; others hardly, if ever. Who we are may determine what we praise and endorse. Yogananda adapted to American minds or ways, without getting fully conformised.
There is another angle to that: The curve of distribution (Bell curve, Gauss curve), tells that for large numbers, what most people praise is rather average. What a few persons praise, on the other hand, may be very bad or very good. A word to the wise . . . Abraham Maslow has gone into such matters, looking for fit yardsticks for humans - and finds that the plus deviants - those who deviate from the average in good ways - are good standards for health and the human good somehow - each in somewhat differing ways. From this: "If it is widely popular, try for something or someone better." (Maslow 1989, chap. 11 etc.)
Tao Te Ching's gives vent to a similar view in lines such as:
With the highest, those below simply know they exist.
". . . Love and praise"- or "one step down". There are many books about Yogananda by his devoted follower Kriyananda (1926-2013). He was in considerable contact with Yogananda during the three and one half last years of Yogananda's life. Kriyananda took extensive notes of his many conversations with the guru. Parts of this material has later been published in some books, and in 2011 came Paramahansa Yogananda: With Personal Reflections and Reminiscences: A Biography. It may not be so much of a biography as collected stories, with repetitions in them too. Moreover, a certain bias may be suspected, if not expected. "Speak well of Yogananda," sums up that.
There are also other books about Yogananda today. Some are written by people who knew him before he went to America in 1920. One such writer was Sananda, one of his brothers. A story by one more writer on the early spiritist Yogananda - by Devi Mukherjee - is here: [Ghosts of Yogananda]
In later years, others have tried to shed light on a love-symbol and glamorous Yogananda. Philip Goldberg is one.
Interestingly, a devoted SRF-swami, Anandamoy, said during a talk to the 1971 SRF convocation at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles that a neighbour of Yogananda's in Encinitas said to him: "He's a bit off, isn't he?"
And if we should happen to trust the words of Yogananda (quoted above), a suspicion could linger. But it depends on how we understand him, as Yogananda said to another direct follower:
Don't take my word for anything. . . . There will be as many interpretations of my lectures as there are listeners. . . . please remember. - Paramahansa Yogananda, in Dietz 1998, "Master's Teachings"
Fallen or not, many points that Yogananda made could have been true anyway, or a few of them. However, the fact is the Book of a yogi and several disciples, made to impress a lot contains tall but unsupported claims, and is responded to by faith in some readers, evoking unrealistic expectations in some.
Cult marks of old: A book of fantastic stories calls for wiser handling than most credulous, good folks are capable of without some training. It may be pointed out that devotional submission to a leader is a cardinal mark of a cult. It stands to reason to suspect that a cult publishes cult-serving literature.
The reading is not all pitch-black. Yogananda introduced central yoga concepts to many in the West, and also ideas of retributions ("fate"), being born again and again, other beings in heaven than angels - such as mermaids and gnomes in special quarters there. Heaven
is peopled with . . . myriads of fairies, mermaids, fishes . . . goblins, gnomes, demigods and spirits. - Yukteswar after his death, in chap. 43.
Yogananda writes he got this information from a resurrected Yukteswar (his guru) that Yogananda held in an octupus grip in a hotel room in Bombay at the time (Chap. 43). "Seeing is believing" comes to mind. Or maybe something else.
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