Paramhansa Yogananda (Photo: Courtesy of Archives of Self-Realization Fellowship, Los Angeles
For someone like me leading a middling, mediocre life, edification comes from writing about those who don’t. It is just a coincidence that on second consecutive day, I am writing about a yogi, Yesterday, it was about B K S Iyengar who died at age 96. Today, it is about Paramhansa Yogananda.
A compelling new documentary ‘Awake:The Life of Yogananda” has set off this post. As always, I reflexively look for tangential connections between people and events. There is one between Iyengar and Yogananda. Iyengar first arrived in America (New York to be precise) in 1956, four years after Yogananda had died in 1952 in Los Angeles. But that was not before Yogananda had primed the American mind for yoga, Indian spirituality and deeper metaphysical pursuits. He had already been described by the Los Angeles Times as the first superstar guru of the 20th century. In short, way before there was Iyengar, there was Yogananda.
In keeping with the tradition of brilliant branding among spiritual gurus, Mukunda, his given name, went on to be renamed Yogananda. His name was, of course, a clever fusion of Yog and Anand, which together mean someone who draws bliss (Anand) from Yog. Yog comes from the Sanskrit root “yuj” meaning “to join”. That is enough free explanation for now.
The documentary has been directed by Paola di Florio, Lisa Leeman and narrated by the actor Anupam Kher. The trailer helpfully points out that the only book on Steve Jobs’ iPad was “The Autobiography of a Yogi”, Yogananda’s eternal best-seller. The documentary is getting a limited release in New York and Los Angeles in October.
I often say half in jest and half seriously—well, 40 percent in jest and 60 percent in seriousness—that I was born fully aware. The world as we live in has stood thoroughly explained to me for as long as I remember. I say this notwithstanding how utterly conceited, arrogant and pompous it sounds. That makes my interest in others who say they were born fully aware mildly academic. I suppose we all carry our own very personal interpretation of the world that is handed to us without our consent and taken away without our approval.
Yogananda arrived in America in 1920. “God is taking me away to America,” is what he is believed to have said. In my case, money brought me to America. That is what I mean by a middling, mediocre life. Not seeing a grander purpose than one’s bare survival is one of the features of that mediocre life. As the documentary points out, 6,000 people showed up to hear this “renowned lecturer, educater and psychologist from India”. (Educater is the spelling from an announcement of the time). It takes considerable gumption to land in a land 10,000 miles away from home and presume to lecture, educate and psycho analyze. It is extraordinary how any successful or even not so successful guru has limitless self-assurance. I say this as a compliment. Given his obvious charisma and the unusual content of his message, he was promptly put on a government watch list. Suspicion of those who look different and talk different and wear different has been part of the U.S. establishment for a long time.
I look forward to watching this documentary even though its first release has skipped Chicago, which incidentally received Swami Vivekananda with as much effusion and suspicion in 1893, the year when Yogananda was born. I told you about my weakness for tangential connections. So before there was Yogananda, there was Vivekananda.