Yogananda: a spiritual role model for the ages.
Ever since I began work on my biography of Paramahansa Yogananda, and even more since its publication in April, I’ve been asked repeatedly, “Why write a biography of a man who wrote an iconic autobiography?”
Here are the reasons:
Yogananda’s justly celebrated memoir, Autobiography of a Yogi, has delighted and inspired millions since its publication in 1946. It’s an invaluable book that has launched, deepened, and accelerated countless spiritual paths. But, as the life story of a highly important spiritual teacher, it’s incomplete. It leaves out a tremendous amount of information, especially about Yogananda’s life after he moved to America at age 27. Periods of a few years are dismissed in a sentence or two, and many pivotal events go unmentioned.
Also, large sections of the book are about people other than Yogananda. And it lacks historical context that only the passage of time and some diligent research can provide.
The thought of filling those gaps became even more compelling when I wrote my previous book, American Veda, and did not have room for all the information I’d gathered about Yogananda’s unique life. I had become fascinated by how Paramahansa Yogananda (born Mukunda Lal Ghosh in India in 1893) became what the Los Angeles Times called “The 20th Century’s first superstar guru,” and how he managed to accomplish remarkable things through the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, World War II, and the early Cold War before passing in 1952—a span of years when racism, xenophobia, religious bigotry, and anti-immigrant feeling were even worse than they are in our Trumpian age.
But it was only once I started to construct the narrative that I realized there was another reason to write the book: the story of Yogananda the human being was more inspiring and more instructive than I thought. Readers who pay attention will find there are useful lessons to be learned by exploring Yogananda’s 59 years on the planet—lessons that can deepen and expand anyone’s life.
Yogananda was an extraordinary person, different in many ways from virtually everyone who will read my book. At the same time, in one critical way, he was exactly like the rest of us—a spiritual being living a human life, with a unique personality, quirks, background, and idiosyncrasies.
Like all seekers, he sought to realize his true nature and achieve the spiritual union defined by the yogic tradition and other mystical pathways. Unlike most of us, however, he was acutely aware of that purpose and dedicated himself to its pursuit at an incredibly early age. He declared as a child that he would renounce the world and become a monk—and he eventually did exactly that, despite his family’s resistance.
But he was not destined to be a secluded hermit. Rather, he was to be engaged in the world, tasked by his guru lineage with a huge global mission. As a monk, he had no spouse or children, but as a leader, he faced challenges similar to those of ordinary entrepreneurs and CEOs. For that reason, he can serve as a role model for anyone who aspires to both spiritual fulfillment and a satisfying life in the “real world.”
One lesson to take from his story is: Stuff happens to everyone, even great yogis.
It’s common to think that all the hassles and annoyances of ordinary existence will go away with regular yoga, meditation, chanting, and other transformational practices. While it’s true that an effective spiritual repertoire will move the practitioner in the direction of that ideal, we nevertheless remain human, and karma is karma, and pain, loss, disappointment, defeat, and other unwanted experiences inevitably arise as we interact with other humans and our bodies grow old.
Yogananda’s life is a reality check in that regard. He was a spiritual teacher, not a businessman or a family breadwinner. He was not motivated by the same drives that fuel most high-achievers. But he had to deal with similar hassles: money problems, interpersonal conflicts, the death of loved ones—plus some that beset only certain people, like lawsuits, public vilification, and bigotry-based harassment. At times, he openly voiced the desire to return to India and the simple life of a Himalayan monk. But he persevered, never denying the difficulties or brushing them aside with spiritual platitudes.
Through it all, he never lost sight of the highest priority: the attainment of yogic self-realization. He was uncompromising about his own spiritual practices, and he made sure his disciples were too, no matter how busy they were. He warned against getting so caught up in worldly responsibilities that we neglect the inner life. But he also warned against forsaking our duties in the name of spiritual nonattachment. The balance on display in his life is an object lesson in karma yoga: action performed selflessly, without attachment to results.
And, although he was a monk who taught about the world’s illusions, he was an engaged citizen. I was surprised by how aware he was of the social and political issues of his times, and how much he cared.
He may have been detached inwardly, but he used his platform to speak out against the injustices and evils he witnessed. He denounced Britain’s colonial oppression of India, he publicly deplored greed, materialism, militarism, racial segregation, and the ignorance and racism that he, as a man with dark skin, long hair, and funny clothes, encountered personally.
Addressing current issues was actually a brave thing for him to do because the Brits were keeping an eye on supporters of Gandhi’s freedom movement, and they could have had him deported.
I found this to be especially inspiring—a valuable example for all of us in these disturbing times, when engaged spirituality is more important than ever.
The lessons inherent in Yogananda’s narrative arc gave me extra motivation for writing The Life of Yogananda. He was an exceptional human being, but he learned and he grew like the rest of us humans, and we stand to learn even more and grow even faster by studying his extraordinary life.