Book Review: Paramhansa Yogananda: A Biography
with Personal Reflections and Reminiscences, by Swami Kriyananda
Paramhansa Yogananda: A Biography with Personal Reflections and Reminiscences,* an illuminating, compelling and charming portrait of the Master, was written by Swami Kriyananda, one of the Master’s closest, direct disciples. Through wisdom, humor, and finally, deep love and attunement, Kriyananda does honor to the major events of Yogananda’s life, and offers keen insights into the many dimensions of his character.
In his introduction, Kriyananda offers this rhetorical exchange:
Why a biography of Paramhansa Yogananda, when he himself wrote a world-famous account of his own life in the book, Autobiography of a Yogi? The answer is, quite simply, that he wrote his book in a spirit of such humility that the reader could only intuit the author’s spiritual greatness from his perfect attitude toward every life situation.
Yogananda does indeed portray in Autobiography of a Yogi the divine grandeur and wonderment of his life’s experiences, yet never fully reveals his true nature as an enlightened soul. When Yogananda speaks of the humility that exists within God Himself – so busy being great that he doesn’t stop to examine His own greatness – the devotee reader can begin to grasp that same divine humility in Yogananda himself. It is Kriyananda’s intent to complement the picture Yogananda gives of himself in Autobiography of a Yogi, with special attention to his life’s mission, not only to the west, but for the world.
Kriyananda has a writer’s gift of weaving together storytelling and philosophy. In his narration and personal reminiscences, he dives freely into the depth and breadth of his Guru’s teachings. The reader may even approach this book as a scripture, just as one might Yogananda’s own Autobiography of a Yogi.
Paramhansa Yogananda’s character
Describing his first experience reading Autobiography of a Yogi, Kriyananda spoke of the perfect attitude he perceived in Yogananda. In the years that he lived as a close disciple, he never found reason to change this initial perception. He found Yogananda remarkable also in that he was perfectly human, not aloof or otherworldly, as is often assumed of a saint. How can human nature be perfect and at the same time be perfectly natural? The answer lies in reincarnation.
In each lifetime one has a specific role to play, and thus must don certain human qualities each time one’s outer role is recast. This reincarnation process is no less true for saints. Because each soul is unique, certain unique character traits persist in that soul’s journey through lifetimes. Hence the humanity of a saint.
Yogananda described himself as manifesting, in particular, the divine qualities of joy, love and wisdom. A quality less frequently recognized as divine is power, especially the power to manifest the will of God. A Biography is perhaps among accounts of Yogananda’s life unique as a testament to his divine power.
Kriyananda’s book begins with a story of the Master’s extraordinary will power when he was only a toddler (born with the name Mukunda Lal Ghosh):
Late one evening he woke his mother to say, “Mother, I want some sandesh (a Bengali sweetmeat).”
“The shops are closed, Dear,” was her reply.
“But I want sandesh! And I want it now!”
“What are we to do?” she asked her husband.
“I don’t think it is good to thwart this little one’s will,” was his reply.
“I don’t think we can thwart it!” she said.
The two of them went out into the night. Reaching the candymaker’s shop, they called out to him in his quarters above. Grumbling, he at last came down, opened the shop, and sold them a few cuts of sandesh. Mukunda was satisfied, and so also were his parents— to be able to go back to sleep! (It is, I might add, a practice in India to allow little children up to the age of two to have their own way whenever possible. Discipline usually begins at the age of three.)
Kriyananda sheds light also on Yogananda’s courage. The reader can follow this aspect of his character from the influence he had on his peers in boyhood, through the courage it took for him to travel to America to start a spiritual work, and subsequently, in his tenacity in facing betrayal, litigation and prejudice during the fulfillment of his mission. Looking back to Yogananda’s previous incarnations, Kriyananda writes of Arjuna, called on by Lord Krishna to become a divine warrior, and of William the Conqueror, again a divine warrior in God’s service.
Though born with tremendous will, Yogananda’s power most truly flourished through divine love. Recognizing himself as one with all creation, he saw the Divine in everyone, in every soul. Although he naturally loved his disciples dearly, he had the same love, in God, for all equally, even hardened criminals, and so had the power to convert them.
Kriyananda describes several occasions when Yogananda found himself approached by men threatening his life. He projected unto them an experience of divine love so profound that, faced with their own long-hidden divinity, they abandoned their fallen way of life. Some even fled the scene, terrified! Although not every tale in A Biography is so dramatic, whatever the subject — from Yogananda’s betrayal by a disciple, to his simple acts of kindness towards shopkeepers and passersby — the reader encounters this same perfect love, whether only hinted at or shining as bright as day.
Yogananda’s divine mission
Yogananda’s love and power must be seen in the context of his far-reaching mission to bring people closer to God. Yogananda dedicated his earlier years to writing, teaching and extensive, cross-country lecture campaigns, their purpose to reach as many people as possible with universal messages of spiritual self-improvement. In the last years of his life, Yogananda continued reaching out to a vast audience, only now through writing and training advanced direct disciples: Of his interpretation of The Bhagavad Gita he declared, “Millions will find God through this book! Not just thousands–millions. I have seen it. I know.”
In this last period of his life, Yogananda retreated from the public spotlight. Instead, he welcomed closer disciples to his hermitages, and guided them with intense focus on their ever-deepening pursuit of God. Kriyananda himself is a testament to this final phase of Yogananda’s life. Becoming a disciple only three-and-a-half years before Yogananda left the body, he went on to dedicate the remaining six decades of his life to serving the legacy of his Guru. As Yogananda assured him often, “You have a great work to do.”
Yogananda’s legacy: a united spirit of God-consciousness
Kriyananda devotes the final two chapters of A Biography to Yogananda’s legacy. It seems no coincidence that Autobiography of a Yogi was published in 1946, only a year after the close of World War II and the dropping of the first atomic bombs. Although the defeat of tyrannical nations had brought a spirit of optimism, Yogananda was careful to caution, “Wars cannot end war.” At the same time, he promised great hope for America, because of her spirit of optimism, enthusiasm and progressiveness. At a turning point in history, against a cultural backdrop of materialism and ego-gratification, Yogananda came to give techniques of meditation, especially that of Kriya Yoga, as the sacred means for people to realize their union with Spirit.
The Master also came to show how, on both practical and spiritual levels, to bring God into all areas of life – marriage, education, new ways of living. He was immensely creative. One of his greatest experiments, though in his lifetime only a blueprint, was the founding of spiritually-focused, cooperative communities, built upon principles of simple living and high thinking. He called them “World Brotherhood Colonies.” For vibrant, successful examples, one need look no further than the communities of Ananda, fruits of Kriyananda’s discipleship.
Published in 2011, Paramhansa Yogananda: A Biography comes at a time when the proliferation of mass communication is converging with an increasing awareness of the need for spiritual renewal. Surely, Yogananda’s legacy is to help create a united spirit of God consciousness across the ever-changing fabric of human interrelations in the midst of a busy, busy world.
Divine attunement through Yogananda
In his own autobiography, The New Path, Kriyananda shares the story of his initial meeting with Yogananda. Here is an excerpt:
At one point in our discussion he asked me how I had liked his book.
“Oh, it was wonderful!”
“That,” he replied simply, “is because it has my vibrations in it.”
The spiritual seeker’s charge is constantly to deepen his attunement with the Divine. Kriyananda discovered that attunement immediately upon reading Autobiography of a Yogi. The writings of an avatar are surely a channel for his consciousness. In choosing to attune his consciousness to that of a God-realized Guru, the seeker early on realizes that he does not lose himself in the process. Instead, he finds himself on ever deeper levels: the Guru guides him in realizing his own divine potential.
I approached Paramhansa Yogananda: A Biography with the thought of becoming absorbed in the life of Yogananda; it soon became quite clear, however, that I was benefiting as well from the unique, Guru-guided vibrations of Kriyananda. Kriyananda is a masterful writer; his words awaken delight and understanding. Here is reason enough to read his biography of Yogananda. The reader may also find himself seeing beyond the words, absorbing the spiritual vibrations of Kriyananda and Yogananda, often feeling reflected there his own hidden divinity.
*For the sake of brevity, in referencing the title of the book being reviewed, we will use “A Biography,” which is both capitalized and italicized.
Brahmachari Prashad is a disciple of Paramhansa Yogananda and lives in the monastery at Ananda Village. He is a computer programmer for the websites Ananda.org and Online with Ananda.
Nayaswami Prakash is a long-time member of Ananda. He currently serves at Ananda Village doing forestry and landscaping work. Before moving to Ananda Village in 1974, he taught English and Literature at North Carolina Central University in Durham, North Carolina.