Americanised Paramahansa Yogananda (1893–1952) once dictated a commentary on the Rubaiyat. His commentary on The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam was first serialized in his own magazine (named Inner Culture at the time), 1937-1944. The commentary was later edited by Mrinalini Mata (born Merna Brown, 1931–2017) of Self Realization Fellowship and serialised in the same magazine from 1971 to the early 1990's. At that time the magazine was named Self Realization Fellowship Magazine.
In 1994, two different book versions of his dictated commentary appeared.
Both book versions - they have appeared in later editions also - are rooted in the serialised Inner Culture commentary (1937–44). If you want to get to the source of each, that is it. Otherwise, the two books are marked by extensive amplifications and paraphrase and altered meanings. Better be warned about that.
If Yogananda had been skilled in writing a commentary himself, he should probably have done so, and kept to the scholar who first helped him translate the poem from Persian. But Yogananda chose not to.
With the help of a Persian scholar, I translated the original Rubaiyat into English. But I found that, though literally translated, they lacked the fiery spirit of Khayyam's original. . . . I realized that FitzGerald had been divinely inspired to catch exactly in gloriously musical English words the soul of Omar's writings." [Thus, FitzGerald was more "divinely inspired" in certain matters than Yogananda, the guru indirectly states. How odd is that?]
FitzGerald was further inspired to edit his free-standing work several times, as his knowledge of Persian improved. However, Yogananda used the first FitzGerald edition, ignoring the others. The first and the fifth are the most used ones otherwise.
It is generally wise not to ignore translations for the sake of the first work by Edward FitzGerald - for it is not a translation, it is a free "trans-creation" in five editions.
Yogananda next tried to read into FitzGerald's lines his own figured interpretation of Omar, calling his freewheeling phrases intuitively based.
If you want to interpret Omar, go to Omar, either in the original or a reliable translation, but not to vagaries: Large parts of the imagery that FitzGerald employs and Yogananda "interprets" as ideas of Omar, are FitzGerald-invented. If you go to FitzGerald for Omar, you are at best on unsafe ground, for a good part of FitzGerald's work is made up by himself. In addition comes the problem of ascribing old verses to the right poet with at least some degree of certainty.
Yogananda tells what Omar Khayyam (really: medieval Persian verses) meant by FitzGerald-formed phrases and images. He resorts to FitzGerald inventions as symbols of what Omar had in mind when Omar expressed himself differently. A sensible "reality check" might have helped Yogananda steer far better, but it has been ignored for almost three generations so far. Many Yogananda "realizations" - as put into his commentary as interpretations of Omar through FitzGerald, could be flights of fancy. A well done work is so different.
As an intuitive: Hardly
The end results speak for themselves, according to "The work crowns it all." FitzGerald imagery that Yogananda uses and expands on, is missing in "Omar" translations, and so on. It may also be pointed out that Yogananda approaches the FitzGerald verse by fixing Hindu meanings to some phrases and terms to promote some pivoting ideas that are easily found in other Yogananda works too.
As a communicator: Hardly
Judged from what two editors tell: He did not state clearly what he meant. He left it to stenographers to figure it out. Decades after his death that material was paraphrased and amplified differently in two works.
There is more to this.
The proof of the pudding . . . once again.
Academically, giving Yogananda the benefit of doubt: Maybe not
For books to be good and not just look good, real competence is called for. There is formal competence, shown by grades - and there is real competence, shown by achievements. For both of these, getting able matters. A good education helps it.
A good education can mean many things, but let us study Yogananda as a student or AB (now: BA) scholar in the light of the forgetting curve (figure). In chapter 23 of his autobiography he tells how he shirked school, shirked all formal education even as enrolled. "My presence rather than my absence . . . brought forth ejaculations of amazement from my classmates!". He wrote it would be a farce if he appeared for the AB (BA) finals, but he was not given much of a choice. He describes how tears coursed down his face when his guru said he had to appear there anyway, and take advice from Romesh Chandra Dutt. Dutt dictated to Yogananda many questions he would get on the exams. In this way Yogananda passed - barely: it was through cramming based on Dutt hunches. He says he got his BA degree as if by a series of miracles. He was helped by cramming.
However, the learning he got from his last-resort cramming might have been forgotten in a matter of weeks, since quite average cramming tends to work that way, suggests the curve of forgetting (figure). Cramming for a degree leads to massive forgetting after only a few weeks. Then it gets even worse. There are exceptions from those averaging figures, though. Some remember better than the average, and some worse.
Once again, Yogananda did not like it in school, and lack of delight easily hampers solid learning, while being in the flow can sustain it, as shown by Ronald Gross in Peak Learning: A Master Course in Learning How to Learn (1999) Considering how little Yogananda worked for his AB degree, how it was done, and how forgetting sets in during the days and few weeks after cramming and exams, was Yogananda really educated? Formally yes, on the AB (BA) level. But he had not been through an academic process where material is known to remain for many weeks and become fruitful for a life.
Yogananda was told "long ago in India", that the poetry of Persia could have two meanings, one inner and one outer. Then, one day he concentrated on the pages of Omar Khayyam's Rubaiyat, he says, he saw "the vast inner fortress of golden spiritual treasures" in it, that "previously invisible castle of inner wisdom," "this dream-castle of truth." (Wine of the Mystic, p. ix)
It is good to get reality checks - at least sound, guarded probability estimates - of intuitive inspirations. Maybe some useful information can be gleaned from relevant background knowledge and fit translations from the Persian too.
What we are faced with: A guru wanted to present the "deep philosophy" of Omar against misinterpretations of many translators, but basing his work on Fitzgerald's first edition, which is not even a translation.
Yogananda took the stand that some of the verses reflect a passionate praise of wine and love as a metaphoric device or two: (1) the wine is the joy of the spirit, and (2) the love is the rapturous devotion to God. (Wine of the Mystic, p. x)
When it comes to what "collective Omar" probably meant by what is ascribed to him of old - among all the verses that are ascribed to him -, certainty is missing. Yogananda anyhow takes off and spins much stereotyped yarn from another work: that of Edward Fitzgerald.
Medieval Persian poetry ascribed to Omar Khayyam may be difficult to translate. And there is not much factual support of Yogananda claims of getting to the real Omar Khayyam's ideas through FitzGerald's work. But translations of real and quite verified Omar verses may capture "Omar's soul" better than verses by others, including FitzGerald verses.
Yogananda's stand was at bottom twofold: (1) He said FitzGerald knew better how to "express Omar" than Omar (some verses attributed to Omar may in fact be by him). (2) Yogananda also worked from the assumption that he knew better than the later FitzGerald, after FitzGerald had worked on the verses up to the fifth edition.
Yogananda took to FitzGerald's first edition and make strong claims on behalf of his own intuition, and is supported by followers. But Yogananda's interpretations of Omar lack foundations. Many of the phrases and key terms in Fitzgerald's work are wanting in the original Persian, as may be ascertained by comparing some translations with one another.
The publisher SRF adds a note, informing that Yogananda chose FitzGerald's first edition, saying that the poet's "first inspiration – being spontaneous, natural, and sincere – is most often the deepest and purest expression." This seems like a quasi-argument for all who are faced with the SRF editing work: SRF has continued to edit and reedit "first-inspirations" of Yogananda for decades after he died. His Rubaiyat commentary is likewise heavily edited [Much more about that]. Compare also how Yogananda's Whispers from Eternity has been handled by SRF after his death.
Yogananda chose the first edition of FitzGerald's Rubaiyat, while FitzGerald spent time and effort to make his work better through what amounted to five editions. The poet FitzGerald would rather likely have preferred that his last achievements were used. When an author or translator finds it fit to make changes, the experienced commentator hardly ignores it and the basis for it. That might be standard procedure.
In consequence, as a result of SRF-and-Yogananda bungling, when we consult the fifth Fitzgerald edition and a few translations of the Rubaiyat, we do not find all the imagery that Yogananda uses from FitzGerald's first edition. In some verses, almost all the flowing phrases and imagery that Yogananda resorts to from FitzGerald's work, are missing. This is documented later on here.
At the same time Yogananda purports to have tuned in to the secret meanings of the verses and the poet without much backup. "Baloney" is a term that comes to mind, but do compare versions. What Yogananda claims is sometimes substantiated - sometimes hardly, and many times not.
Yogananda's claims can be assessed in the light of this:
A close reading reveals that Yogananda was making up a commentary on Khayyam by FitzGerald, wholesale. But in school, failing to meet acceptable standards is discredited.
Although Yogananda has some good points of his own, the chances are he imposed his own meanings onto poems or poets in medieval Persia, the "collective poetry writers one may call Omar".
Yogananda's great-looking claim of finding Omar's real meanings in FitzGerald's work had better not go completely unchecked and uncommented. This may need to be established:
Edward FitzGerald's (1809-83) "translation was so free in its rendition as to be virtually an original work," writes Encyclopaedia Britannica. And he was not very well versed in Persian.
Best known for his Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, which, though it is a free adaptation and selection from the 12th-century Persian poet's verses, stands on its own as a classic of English literature. It is one of the most frequently quoted of lyric poems. [Encyclopedia Britannica, sv. "Rubaiyat"]
Some scholars have doubted that Omar wrote poetry. His contemporaries took no notice of his verse, and not until two centuries after his death did a few quatrains appear under his name. Even then, the verses were mostly used as quotations against particular views ostensibly held by Omar, leading some scholars to suspect that they may have been invented and attributed to Omar because of his scholarly reputation. [Encyclopedia Britannica, sv, "Omar hayyam"].
The encyclopedia also tells of "FitzGerald's ingenious and felicitous paraphrasing" and "His translations . . . are, however, extremely free translations, and more recently several more faithful renderings of the quatrains have been published [Ibid. Emphasis added]."
Building on a Poor Khayyam Source and Inventing Meanings
Yogananda used the subjective and in part free renditions of FitzGerald to tell what the Medieval Persian Omar Khayyam allegedly means, to the effect that Yogananda's output seems awfully foot-loose, perhaps bringing to mind a proverb or three: "Muckle cry an' little woo', as the deil said when he clippit the soo." (Scots). "Much cry and little wool, as the devil said when he clipped the sow."
Much cry (squealing): Yogananda's commentary. Little wool: Little by Omar is found in FitzGerald's work (the sow).
Yogananda reads many life lessons into it the Rubaiyat. Not all of them seem out of the blue, but he discarded a translated Omar for FitzGerald. He could have made do with commenting on FitzGerald by his Rubaiyat. That could have been OK. Instead he made a wild leap, called "invented by Fitz is fit as Omar", alas.
What could be at stake for readers is growth into (more) maturity, which is not helped by any "spiritualised misinterpretations". Maturity, judiciousness and much skilled teaching methods can assist thinking.
Encyclopaedia Britannica: See Britannica Online.
Gross, Ronald. Peak Learning: A Master Course in Learning How to Learn. Rev. ed. New York: J. Tarcher/Putnam, 1999. ⍽▢⍽ Ronald Gross stands for lifelong learning. I recommend his book.
Khayyam, Omar. Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Rendered into English Verse by Edward Fitzgerald. Online Etext: Urbana, IL: The Gutenberg Project, 2008. ⍽▢⍽ The first and fifth editions, with notes. Some notes explain figures or imagery differently from Yogananda.
Self-Realization Magazine. Los Angeles: Self-Realization Fellowship. ⍽▢⍽ The Yogananda magazine was first called East-West, next Inner Culture, and finally Self-Realization (Magazine). The first, edited version of Yogananda's Rubaiyat commentary, seemingly closest to Yogananda's own words, was published in Inner Culture as a series of instalments from 1937 and into 1944.
Wikipedia, s.v. "Omar Khayyam"; "Edward FitzGerald (poet)"; "Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam"
Yogananda, Paramahansa. Autobiography of a Yogi. 13th ed. Los Angeles: Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF), 1998.
⸻. Wine of the Mystic: The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Paperback ed. Los Angeles: Self-Realization Fellowship, 1996 (1994).
Yogananda, Paramhansa. The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. 2nd ed. Nevada City, CA: Crystal Clarity Publishers, 2008.
User's Guide ᴥ Disclaimer
© 1997–2019, Tormod Kinnes, MPhil [Email]