The iconic self-realisation book
Its timeless appeal lies in the universality of the stories Yogananda shares
It could only be a coincidence, but what a coincidence it was! The world was still struggling to make sense of an audacious American writer by the name of Ayn Rand, who unapologetically pushed for the libertarian concept of individual freedom and the right to private property and happiness, through her brilliant novel, The Fountainhead. This was 1943. Three years later came another startling work from a writer of a different continent. It was the Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda. While Rand dealt with the material world in a way that none before had dared to, even in the capitalist system, Yogananda sketched his life by drawing upon his encounters with spiritual leaders from both the West and the East. Both books became iconic and trend-setters.
But even as Rand went on to cement her credentials with the other novel, Atlas Shrugged, and moved on to non-fiction such as The Virtue of Selfishness, thereby becoming the grand dame of materialism, Yogananda had to do nothing beyond his autobiography to draw the world’s attention to spiritual living — without the spiritual-minded having to necessarily recede into a cave or a mountain for enlightenment.
And today, when there is a renewed interest among readers of this country in India’s ancient cultural history, including what we loosely call mythology, Autobiography of a Yogi becomes a must-read — some would even say it is the base on which any superstructure of Indian spiritualism understanding can be securely rested upon. On a recent visit to an Army officer’s residence in Bhuj (Gujarat), this writer found Paramahansa Yogananda’s photograph alongside images of various deities on a shelf covered by ash from burnt incense sticks. for that family, he was the best medium to realise god in its many manifestations.
There is of course no need to deify him; he would surely have been appalled by the prospect. But the book did him into a cult figure, both here and abroad, particularly in the US — the same nation where Rand had cocked a snook at political correctness by saying that self-interest is a prerequisite to society’s interest (this is admittedly a simplistic, though fairly accurate assessment).
Yogananda gained repute also because the preface of his book was written by a well-respected Oxford scholar of anthropology, Walter Evans-Wentz, who had made a name for himself with his The Tibetan Book of the Dead. In 1999, nearly 47 years after Yogananda left this world, his autobiography was named by a panel of theologians and other luminaries as among the ‘100 Most Important Spiritual Books of the 20th Century’. By any reckoning, it is among the 100 most important books in the 21st century as well — and perhaps will be for all time to come. Readers of this generation, who have turned (and thankfully so) to the likes of Amish and Devdutt Pattanaik Ashwin Sanghi, and modern versions of the Ramayan and Mahabharat, must not lose an opportunity to visit Yogananda’s timeless classic.
There are stories that the autobiographical account has over the decades inspired a generation or two of achievers in the Western world, besides setting a new standard of spiritualism in India. Apple’s Steve Jobs first read it when he was a teenager. At his memorial service, attendees were handed a small box which contained a copy of the book. The legendary George Harrison of The Beatles was introduced to the book and was bowled over by its content. According to some versions, a new window of knowledge opened up for Harrison and triggered a life-long in him for Indian-ness and Vedic culture.
It’s true that Yogananda’s book had its share of critics, with one of them terming it as “miracle-infested territory”. There is never a dearth of sceptics, but ironically they too are contributors through their criticism to the popularity and acceptance of the enlightenment-seekers. Therefore, criticism has done little to lessen the book’s charm and stature.
‘Self-realisation’ has become a fashionable word today, and many gurus have sprouted across the country and the world who promise instant gratification. Reading Yogananda’s book is in itself a realisation - that understanding the self is not instant noodle. Had it been one, the book would have lost its hold by now, as everything ‘instant’ does.
But Autobiography of a Yogi remains in print 70 years after the first edition was published, and has been translated into 45 languages. In India, despite adverse situations over the decades that made speaking or writing about the glory of Indian culture and its Hindu-ness (that other non-Hindu strands too have existed is not disputed) a decidedly communal exercise, the spiritual leader and his book have not only retained their influence but also added to it.
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