Note: this was written long before the discoveries at Nag Hammadi
… TO A NUNNERY
Nearly everyone is familiar with those three little monkey-figures that depict the maxim, “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.” I emphasize the positive approach: “See that which is good, hear that which is good, speak that which is good.” And smell, taste, and feel that which is good; think that which is good; love that which is good. Be enthroned in the castle of goodness, and your memories will be like beautiful flowers in a garden of noble dreams (Yogananda, 1986)
For all future time, Paramahansa Yogananda … will be regarded as one of the very greatest of India’s ambassadors of the Higher Culture to the New World (W. Y. Evans-Wentz, in [SRF, 1976]).
PARAMAHANSA YOGANANDA WAS the first yoga master from India to spend the greater part of his life in North America.
Born in northeast India near the Himalayan border in 1893, Yogananda began practicing kriya yoga in his early years, and met his guru, Sri Yukteswar, at age seventeen.
Following a prophetic vision, and at the direction of Yukteswar, Yogananda accepted an invitation to speak at the Congress of Religious Liberals in Boston, in the autumn of 1920. He remained in America following that successful debut, establishing Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) and its headquarters, now named the “Mother Center,” in an abandoned former hotel atop Mount Washington in Los Angeles, in 1925. As a “Church of all Religions,” SRF attempts to embrace the “underlying truth of all religions,” with particular emphasis on yoga/Hinduism and Christianity. Membership numbers are classified, but reasonable guesses range from 25,000 to 100,000 currently active members.
The enterprising young yogi spent the years from 1925 to 1936 lecturing to capacity crowds in halls throughout America, spreading knowledge of the “holy science” of kriya yoga.
As far as the channels through which one may receive his variant of that particular set of techniques of meditation, Yogananda explained in his (1998) Autobiography:
The actual technique should be learned from an authorized Kriyaban (kriya yogi) of Self-Realization Fellowship (Yogoda Satsanga Society of India).
Earlier versions of the same book, however, within the three editions published while Yogananda was still alive, placed far less restrictions on who may give that initiation:
The actual technique [of kriya yoga] must be learned from a Kriyaban or kriya yogi (Yogananda, 1946).
More recently, SRF (in Rawlinson, 1997) stated their position regarding the importance of their particular line of gurus in effecting the spiritual progress of the disciple:
Some take kriya yoga and become fully satisfied and forget about the link of masters—they will never reach God.
The reader may then ponder for him- or herself as to what possible reasons any organization could have for thus restricting, to itself, the dissemination of the techniques of its founder, after the latter’s death, when no such restriction was put in place during his life. SRF’s position, of course, is that every change to Yogananda’s writings since his passing has been made on the basis of instructions given by him while he was still alive, and done simply to “clarify and rephrase” the text. For my own part, I do not find that claim at all convincing. Indeed, the posthumously ham-handed evisceration of his Whispers From Eternity poetry alone (see Dakota, 1998)—being subjected to brutal and unnecessary editing which no poetic soul could ever countenance—would cast it in doubt.
Regardless, the kriya yoga technique itself is actually not nearly as “top secret” as SRF presents it as being. Rather, both of the preliminary techniques leading up to kriya proper are widely known in India. Of those, the “Om” technique is essentially just an internally chanted mantra, while the “Hong-Sau” technique/mantra is given in Chapter 7 of Radha’s (1978) Kundalini Yoga for the West. (Radha herself was a disciple of Satchidananda’s guru, Swami Sivananda, and operated an ashram in that lineage in British Columbia, Canada.) Much of the first stage of the kriya technique itself further exists in Chapter 9 of the same book. Yogananda’s preliminary “Energization Exercises,” too, are very similar to ones given later by Brennan (1987).
Ironically, in spite of their evidently opposite attitudes toward the “secrecy” of those techniques, Sivananda’s ashram and SRF have long been friendly with each other.
Swami Sivananda himself (1887 – 1963), in addition to founding the Divine Life Society, wrote over three hundred books. That is hardly surprising, given his exalted spiritual state:
I have seen God myself. I have negated name and form, and what remains is Existence-Knowledge-Bliss and nothing else. I behold God everywhere. There is no veil. I am one. There is no duality. I rest in my own self. My bliss is beyond description. The World of dream is gone. I alone exist (Sivananda, 1958).
People consider [Sivananda] to be a Shiva avatar, incarnation (Gyan, 1980).
Swamiji was a phenomenon. He was described as a “symbol of holiness,” a “walking, talking God on Earth” (Ananthanarayanan, 1970).
Of course, no “walking, talking God” would grace this planet without promulgating his own skewed set of unsubstantiated beliefs:
Swami Sivananda has said that every woman whom a man lures into his bed must in some lifetime become his lawful wife (Radha, 1992).
The late Swami Sivananda of [Rishikesh], to my mind the most grotesque product of the Hindu Renaissance, advised people to write their “spiritual diaries”; and in oral instructions, he told Indian and Western disciples to write down how often they masturbated…. [O]r, as one male disciple told me, “make a list of number of times when you use hand for pleasure, and check it like double book keeping against number of times when you renounced use of hand” (Bharati, 1976).
And they say accountants don’t know how to have fun!
Elsewhere in the same book, Swami Bharati—the highly opinionated monk of the Ramakrishna Order whom we have met earlier in some of his kinder moments—categorized Sivananda as a “pseudo-mystic … fat and smiling.” (Of the Maharishi, by contrast, Bharati stated: “I have no reason to doubt that he is a genuine mystic…. Were it not for the additional claims that Mahesh Yogi and his disciples make for their brand of mini-yoga [regarding ‘world peace,’ etc.], their product would be just as good as any other yoga discipline well done.” So, you see, no one really knows what [if any] is valid and what isn’t, even though they all pretend to know.)
Further venting his own instructive anger and anguish solely for the compassionate benefit of others, Bharati (1976) offered a comparable opinion of Vivekananda:
The “four kinds of yoga” notion goes back, entirely, and without any mitigating circumstances, to Swami Vivekananda’s four dangerous little booklets entitled Raja-yoga, Karma-yoga, Jnana-yoga, and Bhakti-yoga. [Those titles and terms refer to “royal,” “service,” “wisdom” and “devotional” yoga, respectively.] These are incredibly naïve, incredibly short excerpts from Indian literature in translations, rehashed in his talks in America and elsewhere….
I am certain that Vivekananda has done more harm than good to the seekers of mystical knowledge…. Vivekananda’s concept of raja yoga … is dysfunctional.
Bharati’s own contributions to the understanding of mysticism, however, themselves tended toward the insignificant side. Whatever mysticism may be—from psychosis to the valid perception of higher levels of reality than the physical—there is, in my opinion, no measurable chance of it fitting into Bharati’s view of things. Even his insistence that the mystical “zero-experience,” of the “oneness” of the individual and cosmic soul, must be only temporary and incapacitating, is relatively belied by Wilber’s claim to have experienced the One Taste state continuously for half a decade.
Interestingly, Bharati (1974) regarded Yogananda as a “phony,” lumping him in with T. Lobsang Rampa and the sorcerer Carlos Castaneda. He simultaneously, though, took Chögyam Trungpa as having taught “authentic Tibetan Buddhism,” presumably even in the midst of that guru’s penchant for “stripping the disciples.” I do not claim to know how to find sense in that position. But then, unlike Bharati and his admired, soporific friend, Herbert V. Guenther, I am not a scholar. And indeed, to devote one’s life to becoming an expert in the details of a pile of sanctioned baloney, then trashing anyone who doesn’t buy into the same brand of foolishness, strikes me as being one of the most absurd ways in which to waste a life.
At any rate, Paramahansa Yogananda—whether phony or not—slowly accumulated a core of close disciples as the years passed, and thus began a monastic order in his own Swami lineage. One such early “direct disciple,” Faye Wright, began following the yogi in the early 1930s, entering the ashrams in her late teens. Now known as Daya Mata, she figures significantly in contemporary SRF culture, as the current lifetime president of Self-Realization Fellowship.
Retiring from his cross-country lecture tours, Yogananda spent much of the 1940s in seclusion in his Encinitas hermitage—adjacent to the famed “Swami’s Point” surfing beach there. In that environment, he wrote his Autobiography of a Yogi, a perennial “sleeper” best-seller among books on spirituality, generally considered to be among the “Top 100” spiritual books of the twentieth century.
[The Autobiography is] widely regarded as a classic introduction to yoga and Eastern thought (Ram Dass, 1990).
Few books in spiritual literature compare to Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi. It is one of those rare works that in a single reading can transform the reader’s entire outlook on life. Since its initial printing in 1946, Yogananda’s Autobiography has continued to enthrall seekers with its fascinating tales of miracles, saints and astral heavens (Lane, 1995).
Autobiography of a Yogi is regarded as an Upanishad of the new age…. We in India have watched with wonder and fascination the phenomenal spread of the popularity of this book about India’s saints and philosophy. We have felt great satisfaction and pride that the immortal nectar of India’s Sanatan Dharma, the eternal laws of truth, has been stored in the golden chalice of Autobiography of a Yogi (in Ghosh, 1980).
No book so polarized the West about India and its culture as this one. For those who liked it, their passion went beyond words. For those who found it an incredible mishmash, the high opinions they had been harboring about Indian thought suddenly seemed to have become wobbly (Arya, 2004).
Interestingly, although Yogananda’s writings merit only a single quotation in Wilber’s (1983) life’s work, both Adi Da (1995) and Andrew Cohen were much influenced by the Autobiography early in their spiritual careers. Indeed, Cohen obviously derived the title of his (1992) Autobiography of an Awakening from Yogananda’s earlier life story. For what it’s worth.
The Autobiography contains numerous claims of miraculous healings, levitation, bilocation and raising of the dead by various members in the SRF line of gurus, and others of Yogananda’s acquaintance.
With less of an eye toward the probability of such miracles occurring, however, the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung—who himself spent time in India—had praised the study of yoga in general (as distinct from its practical application, which he explicitly discouraged):
Quite apart from the charm of the new and the fascination of the half-understood, there is good cause for yoga to have many adherents. It offers the possibility of controllable experience and thus satisfies the scientific need for “facts”; and, besides this, by reason of its breadth and depth, its venerable age, its doctrine and method, which include every phase of life, it promises undreamed-of possibilities (in Yogananda, 1946).
The phrase “undreamed-of possibilities” has since been adopted by SRF as the title of an introductory booklet distributed in their churches and elsewhere. Jung’s attitude toward Yogananda’s writings in particular, however, was far less of a marketing department’s dream:
Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi … provoked Jung’s sarcasm because its cream puff idealism contained not a single practical “antidote to disastrous population explosion and traffic jams and the threat of starvation, [a book] so rich in vitamins that albumen, carbohydrates, and such like banalities become superogatory…. Happy India!” (Paine, 1998).
Jung, though, is an interesting study himself:
The brilliant thinker Carl Jung’s opportunistic support of the Nazis … is amply documented. In 1933 he became president of the New German Society of Psychotherapy. Soon thereafter, he wrote the following vicious nonsense (seldom mentioned by his admirers nowadays):
The Jews have this similarity common with women: as the physically weaker one they must aim at the gaps in the opponent’s defenses … the Arian [sic] unconscious has a higher potential than the Jewish (Askenasy, 1978).