Autobiography of a Book Club

autobiography_yogi_bookA Muslim, a Zoroastrian, a (half) Catholic and a Rabbi walk into a bar. To discuss the work of a Hindu holy man. Summer fun doesn’t get much better than this. The first meeting of a new book club, organized by my friend K. I chose the inaugural book, Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramhansa Yogananda, published in 1946. (The book’s title may mislead some; the connection between Kriya Yoga as practiced by Yogananda and what they do at Lululemon is still unclear to me.)

I came across this title in a list of must-read (mostly) Eastern spiritual classics (“Books to Hang Out With”) in the back of the Ram Dass’ Be Here Now. But earlier this summer when I read (actually listened to) Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs I was struck by Jobs’ attachment to Yogananda’s autobiography. Jobs first read the book as a teen, apparently reread it every year after that, and at the end of his life it was the only book to be found on his iPad. Jobs even arranged for the 500 or so attendees at his memorial service to be given copies of the book as a sort of party favor.

A spiritual autobiography that inspired and sustained one of the world’s greatest businessmen is surely worthy of our modest book club, comprised (for now) of a handful of corporate- and spiritual-types. So, what’s special about Yogananda’s autobiography?

To the Western reader, Yogananda opens up a world that is anything from foreign to fantastical. Much of the book describes his upbringing in a traditional Hindu family, his religious training, and his rise to the status of Yogi. Most fascinating are perhaps the descriptions of encounters with India’s holiest: gurus, miracle workers, saints, etc. Much of it is difficult for a rational Westerner to believe. There are hermits who don’t sleep, meditators who don’t need food to eat–surviving exclusively on air and sunlight–spiritual healers, and even a guru who uses love and compassion to tame Bengal tigers.

Yogananda was trained as a Yogi in India but did much of his teaching in the US starting in the 1920s. Throughout the autobiography, whenever possible, he connects the miraculous to the scientific, addressing the Western audience in the language that we tend to speak. Einstein, Quantum Mechanics, Unified Field Theory are just some of the names/subjects he drops when explaining the plausibility of the miraculous acts he witnessed while growing up and training in India.

Much of our discussion of the book revolved around what we, college-educated men with biases toward the logical and the scientific, are to make of Yogananda’s improbable tales. But the deeper parts of the book for me were the stories of of gurus who were able to manifest unlimited love and compassion toward all.

Yogananda addresses the evolution of this personality type early in the book: “India, materially poor for the last two centuries, yet has an inexhaustible fund of divine wealth; spiritual ‘skyscrapers’ may occasionally be encountered by the wayside, even by worldly men….” We in America are taught to revere intellectual and professional giants, men like Steve Jobs, but Yogananda gently guides his readers toward a greater appreciation for the spiritual and emotional greats of the world.

Yogananda sees this appreciation of holiness in humanity as flowing from the Hebrew Bible. He writes that “[the] Biblical story of Abraham’s plea to the Lord that the city of Sodom be spared if ten righteous men could be found therein, and the divine reply: ‘I will not destroy it for ten’s sake,’ gains new meaning in the light of India’s escape from the oblivion of Babylon, Egypt and other mighty nations who were once her contemporaries. The Lord’s answer clearly shows that a land lives, not by its material achievements, but in its masterpieces of man.” Yogananda is able to appreciate and even thrive in a Western environment while also pushing us, his readers, to challenge the assumptions of our own cultures. Material, professional achievements, great as they may be, shouldn’t overshadow the achievements of the kind, the holy, the pure.

With the High Holidays only a few weeks away, I was particularly drawn to the Hindu teachings Yogananda shares on forgiveness. Debates on the Jewish value–and limits–of forgiveness arise annually  as we prepare as a nation and as individuals to apologize and forgive for everything that has transpired over the past year. A famous quote from the Jerusalem Talmud (Nedarim 9:4) on not forgiving offers a powerful metaphor: “He who takes vengeance or bears a grudge acts like someone who, having cut one hand while handling a knife, avenges himself by stabbing the other.”

Yogananda teaches from the ancient Indian epic poem, the Mahabharata: “One should forgive, under any injury…. It hath been said that the continuation of species is due to man’s being forgiving. Forgiveness is holiness; by forgiveness the universe is held together. Forgiveness is the might of the mighty; forgiveness is sacrifice; forgiveness is quiet of mind. Forgiveness and gentleness are the qualities of the self-possessed. They represent eternal virtue.” This take on forgiveness, like all of the material in Autobiography of a Yogi, challenges and inspires me to deepen my own love of God and humanity. Getting together with friends of diverse religious backgrounds to discuss a work of such beauty and truth was a perfect end to the summer and spiritual sustenance for the upcoming season.