Book Review – Autobiography of a Yogi

Autobiography of a Yogi
By Paramahansa Yogananda (copyright 1946, 1974, 1998, Self Realization Fellowship)

In the fall of 1945, Paramahansa Yogananda put down his pen after many months of writing and said, “All done; it is finished. This book will change the lives of millions. It will be my messenger when I am gone.”

When “Autobiography of a Yogi” was published in 1946, no one but Yogananda himself seemed confident that anyone in the west would appreciate it, let alone bother to read it. Yet as with so many other aspects of Yogananda’s life, uncertainty was nothing but an opportunity for the strength of his faith to be tested and proved. His faith in the success of the book has been borne out long after his passing in 1952. The book has sold millions worldwide, has remained on best-seller lists for over 50 years, and has been translated into 18 languages. It is considered by many to be one of the most influential books ever written.

Since Yogananda’s birth in 1893, he has become known as one of the preeminent spiritual figures of our time. And for many spiritual seekers, Yogananda’s “Autobiography” has become not merely a classic piece of literature, but also a kind of sacred scripture in its own right.

“Autobiography” is a landmark book. It stands as one of the first major exposures of Indian life and spirituality to the west. It demystified many of the aspects of Indian life and spiritual philosophy. Many critics today credit the book for igniting the current interest in Yoga in the west. And Yogananda himself, more than any one person, has embodied the virtues of the Yogic path for this and future generations.

While the ideas and concepts of Yoga are still somewhat foreign to many westerners, Yoganada seems imbued with a gift of communicating these ideas in a way that speaks directly to the heart. Even readers who are skeptical or uncomfortable with ideas like Yogis, “levitating saints,” and other aspects of spirituality outside the Judeo-Christian tradition will find that Yoganandas message engages the reader regardless of their respective spiritual heritage. One need not see Yogananda as a proselytizer of any specific set of beliefs, but rather as a voice for change.

Many readers may not be aware that Yogananda actually wrote over a dozen books. But it is “Autobiography” that has distinguished him as a true emissary of spiritual wisdom. As he predicted in 1945, “Autobiography” has been his messenger, as well as his legacy.

The book itself is essentially a chronicle of his life, from his boyhood in Northeastern India, through the adventures of his youth in Calcutta and as student and apprentice to his beloved teacher Sri Yukteswar, and eventually to America as Yoga’s greatest ambassador to the west. “Autobiography” reflects not only the specifics of Indian beliefs, but also manages to explain the underlying connections between these and western beliefs. To some degree, Yogananda achieves a kind of marriage between east and west, and shows that beneath the cultural differences run currents of common universal truths.

Through the early stages of the book the reader is treated to numerous enchanting and amusing stories of the young Mukunda (before being given the name Paramahansa Yogananda), many of which are suggestive of his future emergence as a spiritual adept. His visits to several of the fascinating gurus and sages in India are captivating to say the least. He frequently witnesses the effects of the advanced ascetic life practiced by spiritual masters in several delightful and amazing stories.

Mukunda is in most respects a normal Indian youth. He has a distant but caring father, kind-hearted mother, an over-bearing older brother, and a sister who he enjoys bantering with. But beyond the normalcy of his home life, Mukunda’s deepest desires are to serve God. Throughout the book, his faith in God is challenged through both outer events and inner struggles. And while at times almost recklessly faithful, his faith is upheld and answered time and again by the powers of the spiritual laws he explains throughout the book. The concepts of devotion, faith, hope, and diligence are clearly threaded through the book, and take on very tangible forms as Yogananda tells of his life.

Although initially his family is not entirely supportive of his insistent drive toward the ascetic life, young Mukunda is unwavering in his faith. He eventually wins the approval of his family through various miraculous events which compel them to acknowledge his obvious destiny.

When Mukunda meets his guru, Sri Yukteswar, in Banares, his life is changed forever, and the next major phase of his life begins. Through his study and devotion to Sri Yukteswar, Mukunda becomes Paramahansa Yogananda, and learns countless lessons regarding Yogic philosophy, and life (and death). Yogananda’s relationship with his guru, and specifically the depth of his devotion to Yukteswar, may be the only aspect of the book to challenge the understanding of some westerners. But through the account in “Autobiography” we learn a great deal about the intensity and uniqueness of the guru/student dynamic.

Yogananda’s arrival in America as an emissary of Yoga, Sri Yukteswar and perhaps more importantly, of love and compassion, is a fascinating account of mixing cultures and beliefs. His establishment of the Self Realization Fellowship in 1920 and his work in America constitute the final stages of his life and the completion of his earthly mission.

The book itself is much more than the history of one man. Through its pages, the reader finds a well-presented explanation of Yoga as well as considerable insight into the spiritual truths of Indian philosophy. This information is often presented within the context of various anecdotal stories from Yogananda’s life and thus take on a highly enjoyable “down-to-earth” flavor few other such books manage. Yogananda’s humor keep him within reach of a broad reading audience, while his concise and penetrating intellect reveal him to be a sophisticated thinker capable of challenging advanced spiritual explorers.

For me personally, the most striking aspect of “Autobiography of a Yogi” is the engaging genuineness of the presentation. This book is so absorbing, it’s a little like stepping into quicksand; once you start into it there’s no going back. Page by page the reader is drawn into an incredible, and yet surprisingly comfortable style of expression. Yogananda makes himself not only known but felt through the pages of the book. And the feeling is that of being in the presence of a true master; one intimately in-touch with both human needs and frailties, as well as with magnificent knowledge and dazzling spiritual understanding. As his life unfolded through my reading of the book, I had the distinct impression of somehow finding myself merging into the story of this amazing person.

Indeed, many readers of “Autobiography” have commented on how they feel much more of a kind of participant in the story than an objective reader of the words; as though through the mere reading of the book, the life of the reader blends with the truths expressed by Yogananda over 50 years ago. I have the sense that Yogananda wrote the book with that specific intention.

It’s extremely rare that such depth of insight into both the human condition and human potential is presented with wit, warmth, and clarity. I can only echo one of the many kudos heaped upon this book:

“fragments of wisdom so deep that one feels spellbound, permanently moved.” –
Haagsche Post, Holland

And as one reviewer from the India Journal rightly noted of “Autobiography of a Yogi’:

“it is a book that opens the windows of the mind and spirit.”

“Autobiography of a Yogi” is a beautiful, life-changing work. If you have not read this book, make a point of picking up a copy soon. If you have read it, read it again. I finished my third reading of it only recently, and have found each time to be as fresh and newly inspirational as the first time.

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