Autobiography of a Yogi is, in the least, extraordinary. Little wonder that this book has been a consistent international bestseller for a number of years. The book, primarily written for Western readers, discloses the fascinating life of a yogi. But it will astound a modern Indian reader as much as it will his Western counterpart – equally far removed as we are from the ancient spiritual lifestyle of India. Page after page, I have been surprised, awed, and even faced moments of disbelief, as the yogi shared his life’s journey with me. And although I’ve read a fair bit about Hinduism, never before have I come across such details about the life of a Hindu spiritual seeker. Swami Yogananda also says in the book that most yogis live highly secret lives and are loathe to publicity, because their exalted ways may appear at best unbelievable or ridiculous or both to a common man.
Swami Yogananda goes to the West (primarily America) and writes this book in compliance with the order of his guru, Swami Yukteshwar, and indirectly, the order of his param gurus, Lahiri Mahasaya and Babaji. All these gurus’ life sketches have been given in the book – each more fantastic than the other. Babaji, the author tells us, is the undying Mahavtar, who is perhaps centuries old, but looks like a young man. He travels the Himalayas with a small band of followers, and materializes at will before his disciples whenever he wants to give them a message. Lahiri Mahasaya, the yogavatar, following Babaji’s command spreads the art of Kriya Yoga – a scientific yogic method that accelerates spiritual growth - among the masses. Swami Yukteshwar, the jnanavatar and Lahiri Mahasaya’s disciple, is the stern guru, who guides the author through the mystical bylanes of realization. Swami Yogananda speaks freely of the miracles these saints performed, and gives glorious accounts of their amazing spiritual attainments and powers. The reader will discover many such amazing details within the pages of the book.
Swami Yogananda also recounts the life of various other saints and great men and women he has met in his lifetime, elucidating their respective spiritual achievements. These other illustrious personas include Rabindranath Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi, the great horticulturist, Louis Burbank, and various saints who don’t eat, sleep, kill tigers with their bare hands, and perform such everyday miracles.
But before his travels lead him to these exalted souls, the author writes about his origins in Calcutta, the finding of his guru, Sri Yukteshwar, days spent in rigorous spiritual training with his guru at his ashram, his academic course in severe strife with his spiritual one, and his own gradual growth from a spiritual sapling into a big soul-tree, replete with his own daily insights and sometimes, miracles.
The author then sets sail, with much trepidation, to the West to fulfill his guru’s command of spreading the message of Yoga in the spiritually-parched West. Despite his limited command of English, Swami Yogananda sets forth on the arduous path. But with his guru’s blessings, he not only delivers a series of very successful lectures across countries over the years, but also sets up various schools of spiritual learning.
One wonders how Swami Yogananda could ever have been deficient in English, considering the book has been written in a fairly lofty language. His childlike wonder, however, stays intact as he unravels various treasures of the spirit and this planet. While his accounts of the West are informative, it is the narration of the various Yogic phenomena that is the high point of this book. The chapter on ‘The resurrection of Sri Yukteshwar’, for example, has some jaw-dropping spiritual secrets in it, and the reader is left with hair-raising recollections for several days.
This spiritual masterpiece has been more than a book for me. It has sowed a tiny seed of restlessness in my soul, and my eyes are now ever on the lookout for a guru, if one be assigned for me by Providence.