A great read on a great saint

By M.R. Narayan Swamy, IANS,

Book: “Paramhansa Yogananda: A Biography”; Author: Swami Kriyananda; Ananda Sangha Publications, pp 275, Rs.195

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India-born Paramhansa Yogananda became a household name in the spiritual world when he published his still best-selling “Autobiography of a Yogi” in 1946. That was six years before he passed away, most dramatically after finishing a speech in the US, which he had made his home in 1920 at his guru’s request. The autobiography – a rare gem of its kind – detailed how and in what circumstances a boy from a devout middle class family became a spiritual master.

America-born Swami Kriyananda was one of the many who was magnetised by the autobiography; after reading it, he took a bus to travel all the way from New York to Los Angeles to be a disciple of Yogananda. That was in 1948 when Kriyananda, born J. Donald Walters, was just 22.

Kriyananda remained close to Yogananda till the latter’s ‘samadhi’ in 1952. He set up the Ananda Sangha to spread Yogananda’s teachings on yoga and meditation for those seeking god. The biography, even while profiling a fascinating spiritual guru, really takes off where the autobiography ended. The book is fascinating and gripping, given the strength of the intimate details that Kriyananda, now in his 80s, had of his guru. These include some almost unbelievable miracles Yogananda performed, including bringing back to life a woman who had been declared dead.

But unlike many others then and now, Yogananda never claimed any credit for anything spectacular; he attributed them all to the Divine Mother, which for him was goddess Kali.

Although thousands flocked to him in the US, at times overflowing the venues where he delivered mesmerising speeches, life wasn’t a bed of roses abroad. White supremacists and a section of the Church were unhappy with him, the latter for the Indian guru’s straightforward preaching of how to attain god with deep devotion and inner qualities. Some sued him; a few betrayed him.

There were even attempts to kill him. On one occasion, a man who came to attack Yogananda felt he was on fire when the guru looked at him intently. The would-be assailant ran to the garden and rolled on the ground screaming in agony. It was only when Yogananda touched his forehead that the by now terrorised man came to his senses.

The biography is replete with never before known details of Yogananda. He was a wrestler, a rapid runner and an ace tennis player! He was generosity personified. He loved humour. But he could be stern too.

Yogananda told his devotees who Hitler and Stalin were in their previous incarnations. He himself claimed to have been William the Conqueror – a claim even Kriyananda found it difficult to swallow. In 1948, Yogananda had a 48-hour ‘samadhi’. It marked the start of the final phase of his life. His next incarnation, he said, would be spent mostly in seclusion.

(M.R. Narayan Swamy can be contacted at [email protected])