One of my supplemental readings for my F.I.C.A.M. courses was Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi, which from a quick Goggle search I learned that the book is listed as one of the top 100 most important books in religious literature and was re-read annually by Steve Jobs. Of all the lives that one could read about, be it famous artists with rich and illustrious personal lives, great leaders who play decisive roles in world-historical affairs, etc. the one of a guru is perhaps not the most immediately interesting due to the strict personal discipline required of such a life. Rather than a boring tale, however, Yogananda writes compellingly on his spiritual journey and the wealth of insight and beauty that lay underneath the surface of his life.
Overall I was impressed with the book for the insight that it provides into religious attitudes in India and ashram life, the latter of which I have experienced only as an outsider in India for a short time, but it is clear that the reason for the books popularity is it’s constant engagement with Vedantic thought. As befitting someone that has devoted their life’s work to the propagation of such knowledge, the book is littered with aphorisms and reflections that would cause a good reader to question the assumptions upon which they live and to at least get a glimpse of the profound peace that is possible by becoming master of oneself. Because of this it is impossible to separate these two aspects, something that monists like Yogananda would deny is impossible anyway, though I think it is fitting to say that taken solely as a narrative it is uninteresting though as an expository work of yogic thought it is brilliant. Almost every page is adorned with golden phrases giving insight into the human condition and though at times Yogananda seems overly pre-occupied with justifying his thought by quoting or alluding to other thinkers it is never so much that it becomes overwhelming. His meetings with various spiritual thinkers known (Gandhi, Tagore) and unknown (Yukteswar, Lahiri) allow him to put wise and concise descriptions of the Vedic viewpoint in their mouths that, framed as it is as steps in his spiritual development, don’t come off as didactic.
All of these compliments aside, one of the issues with I have with Hinduism in general and this book in particular is the preservation of beliefs and traditions which have been discredited as lacking in any material basis. This criticism applies to most if not all religious dogmas, and in the context of the book it is prominent in several sections where other yogis are described. In a several of the meetings with the “divine personages” Yogananda describes them as having siddhis, or “special powers”. While there are several siddhis that I would categorize within the realm of scientific possibility, there are also those that defy possibility and which for me ends up detracting from the narrative. For instance in Yogananda’s travels in India he claims to meet people that, haven’t eaten food in years, have been able to turn a wild lion into a vegetarian pet, and are able to transport their image over hundreds of miles to relay messages to someone else. Then there is Babaji, not a person but an immortal incarnation of the divine that works in humble obscurity in order to keep the knowledge of yoga alive. I recognize that to focus on this and neglect the other, positive and powerful aspects of the book I described above is to do it a disservice, however an objection to these kinds of miracles must be raised most specifically as their supposed “powers” take away from the significance of the core tenants they are voicing.