As soon as possible after my return to White Plains I went to Bowling Green, in New York City, to apply for a merchant mariner’s card. I received the card on August 24 with the classification, “Ordinary seaman, messman, wiper.” I was told it was now only a question of waiting for a ship that would give me a berth. I hoped to ship out as soon as possible.
Meanwhile I helped Mother to pack. On her sailing date, I accompanied her to the dock in New York and saw her safely off on her journey. Next I went down to Bowling Green to see if any ship had come in. No luck: “Come back in a few days.” With most of the afternoon still before me, I went uptown to browse at Brentano’s, a famous bookstore on Fifth Avenue.
At Brentano’s I got into a discussion on spiritual matters with a sales clerk, who showed me a few books by Thomas Merton, the young Protestant Christian who had converted to Roman Catholicism and had then become a Trappist monk. I was intrigued, though I didn’t feel personally attracted. It was the catholicity — which is to say, the universality — of India’s teachings that had won my devotion.
From Brentano’s I went further up Fifth Avenue to another bookstore: Doubleday-Doran (as it was named then). Here, I found an entire section of books on Indian philosophy — the first I had ever encountered. Hungrily I feasted my gaze on the wide variety of titles: The Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, books on yoga. I finished scanning these shelves, then stood up to go over them again. This time, to my surprise, the first book I saw, standing face outward on the shelf, was one I hadn’t noticed at first. The author’s photograph on the cover affected me strangely. Never had I seen any face radiate back to me so much goodness, humility, and love.
Eagerly I picked up the book and glanced again at its title: Autobiography of a Yogi, by Paramhansa Yogananda. The author, I saw, lived in America — in California! Was this someone at last who could help me in my search? As I leafed through the first pages of the book, the first words to catch my attention were: “Dedicated to the memory of Luther Burbank, an American saint.”
An American saint? But, how preposterous! How could anyone become a saint in this land of the “almighty dollar”? this materialistic desert? this. … I closed the book in dismay, and returned it to its place on the shelf.
That day I bought my first book of Indian philosophy — not Autobiography of a Yogi, but Sir Edwin Arnold’s beautiful translation of the Bhagavad Gita. Eagerly I took this treasure home with me to Scarsdale, where I had temporarily rented a private room. For the next couple of days I fairly devoured what I read, feeling myself to be soaring through vast skies of wisdom.
By this sign is [the sage] known
Being of equal grace to comrades, friends,
Chance-comers, strangers, lovers, enemies,
Aliens and kinsmen; loving all alike,
Evil or good.
What wonderful words! Thrilled, I read on:
Yea, knowing Me the source of all, by Me all creatures wrought,
The wise in spirit cleave to Me, into My being brought.…
And unto these — thus serving well, thus loving ceaselessly—
I give a mind of perfect mood, whereby they draw to Me;
And, all for love of them, within their darkened souls I dwell,
And, with bright rays of wisdom’s lamp, their ignorance dispell.
These marvelous teachings were dispelling all my doubts. I knew now, with complete certainty, that this was the right path for me.
The day after I finished my first reading of the Bhagavad Gita, I returned to New York, intending to visit Bowling Green and see if any ship had come in. I was walking down Seventh Avenue toward the subway, the entrance to which was on the far side of the next cross street, when I recalled the book I’d rejected so summarily on my last visit to the city: Autobiography of a Yogi. As I remembered that beautiful face on the cover, I felt a strong inner prompting to go buy it. I thrust the thought firmly out of my mind.
“That isn’t what I’m looking for,” I told myself. Chuckling, I added, “An American saint, indeed!” Resolutely I continued to walk toward the subway.
The thought returned: “How can you know what the book is really like, if you won’t even read it?”
“No!” I repeated. I then offered reasons: “I’ve got to stop reading books; I’m too intellectual as it is. Besides, if I’m ever to become a hermit, I’m going to have to save money, not continue to spend it!”
I reached the corner, and was proceeding toward the curb ahead of me, when I felt that an actual force was turning me left, toward Fifth Avenue. I’d never experienced anything like this before. Amazed, I asked myself, “Is there something in this book that I’m meant to read?” Unresisting now, I hastened forward, eager to reach Doubleday-Doran.
On entering the store, I made straight for the shelves of Indian books and bought Autobiography of a Yogi. As I turned to leave, I bumped into Doug Burch, that friend from Scarsdale High School who had introduced me to Nick’s and to Dixieland jazz. We exchanged news briefly. Doug began to describe in glowing terms his plans for a career in radio and advertising. The more he talked, the more closely I hugged to my heart this increasingly precious acquisition.
Imperceptibly, my doubts about it had vanished. I felt as though Yogananda shared my dismay at the shining prospects Doug was describing — a way of life that, to me, spelled desolation. My new book in hand, I felt suddenly as though this Indian yogi and I were old friends. The world and I were strangers, but here was one human being — the very first!—who knew and understood me. And I hadn’t yet even met him, physically!
I waited until I’d reached my room in Scarsdale before opening the book. And then began the most thrilling literary adventure of my life.
Autobiography of a Yogi is the story of a young Bengali Indian’s intense search for God. It describes a number of living saints he met on his journey, especially his own great guru, Swami Sri Yukteswar. It also describes, more clearly than any other mystical work I have ever read since, the author’s experiences with God, including the highest one possible, samadhi: mystical union. In chapter after chapter I found moving testimony to God’s living reality, not only in infinity, but in the hearts and lives of living human beings. I read of how Yogananda’s prayers, even for little things, had been answered, and of how, by placing himself unreservedly in God’s hands, his unanticipated needs had been met unfailingly. I read of intense love for God such as I myself yearned to possess; of a relationship with Him more intimate, more dear than I had dared to imagine possible.
Until now, I had supposed that a life of meditation might give me, at best, a little peace of mind. But here I discovered, all at once, that the fruit of the spiritual life is a love and bliss “beyond imagination of expectancy”!
Until recently I had doubted the value of prayer, except perhaps as a means of uplifting oneself. But now I learned, and could not for a moment doubt, that God relates individually, lovingly, to each and every seeker.
Miracles abound in this book. Many of them, I confess, were quite beyond my powers of acceptance at the time. Instead of dismissing them, however, as I would certainly have done had I read about them in almost any other book, I suspended my incredulity. For the spirit of this story was so deeply honest, so transparently innocent of pride or impure motive that it was impossible for me to doubt that its author believed implicitly every word he wrote. Never before had I encountered a spirit so clearly truthful, so filled with goodness and joy. Every page seemed radiant with light. As I read Autobiography of a Yogi, I alternated between tears and laughter: tears of pure joy; laughter of even greater joy! For three days I scarcely ate or slept. When I walked it was almost atiptoe, as if in an ecstatic dream.
What this book described, finally, was the highest of sciences, Kriya Yoga, a technique that enables the seeker to advance rapidly on the path of meditation. I, who wanted so desperately to learn how to meditate, felt all the excitement of one who has found a treasure map, the treasure in this case being a divine one, buried deep within my own being!
Autobiography of a Yogi remains the greatest book I have ever read. One perusal of it was enough to change my whole life. From that time on, my break with the past was complete. I resolved in the smallest detail to follow Paramhansa Yogananda’s teaching.
Finding that he recommended a vegetarian diet, I immediately renounced meat, fish, and fowl. He could have recommended a diet of bread and water, and I’d have adopted that diet without a qualm.
For, more than anything else, what this book gave me was the conviction that in Yogananda I had found my Guru, my spiritual teacher for all time to come. Only a few days earlier I hadn’t even known this strange word, guru. I hadn’t known anything about yoga, or reincarnation, or karma, or almost any of the basic precepts and terminology of Indian philosophy. Now, incredibly, I felt such deep and utter trust in another human being that, ignorant of his philosophy though I was, I was willing to follow him to the end of life. And while I had yet to meet him, I felt, as I had on seeing his face on the cover of the book, that he was the truest friend I had ever known.
The day after becoming a vegetarian I was invited by friends of my family, Mr. and Mrs. Lloyd Gibson, to lunch at their home. To my combined amusement and dismay, the main dish consisted of chicken à la king. Not wanting to hurt my friends’ feelings, I compromised by pushing the chicken bits to one side and eating the vegetables in their chicken sauce.
George Calvert, on whose father’s farm Bob and I had worked after my graduation from high school, had invited me the following day to lunch at his parents’ home, and to a polo game afterwards. This time I had no choice but to refuse the thick, juicy hamburger sandwich that his mother offered me. To make matters still more awkward, George had considerately provided me with a date! I must have seemed strange company indeed, eating hardly anything, and paying as little attention to the girl as politely possible, from the opposite end of the room. (Yogananda was a monk: I, too, would be a monk.) The polo game gave me an opportunity for a little surreptitious meditation, so I didn’t view the game as a total loss.
Later that day I met my brother Bob and Dean Bassett, a friend of ours, at Nielson’s, an ice cream parlor in Scarsdale village. Dean had been voted the “biggest wolf” in my senior high school class. He and Bob were discussing Dean’s favorite subject: girls.
I listened in silence for a time. At last I protested, “Don’t you see? Desire only enslaves one to the very things he desires!”
Bob and Dean gazed at each other quizzically. “What’s wrong with him?” Dean asked.
It was years before I realized that comprehension, like a flower, must unfold at its own pace. Until a person is ready to embrace a truth, even the clearest logic will not make it acceptable to him.
As soon as I finished reading Autobiography of a Yogi, my impulse was to jump onto the next California-bound bus. But I didn’t want to be impulsive, so I waited a whole day! I even debated for several hours whether it might not be wiser for me to go to sea, as I’d first planned, and there meditate a few months before making such an important decision. But of course I knew already that it was the right decision. The following day I packed my bag and took an early train into New York City.
My godfather, Dr. Winthrop Haynes, had been sympathetically concerned for my future. He and his wife were like second parents to me; I didn’t feel I could leave New York without bidding him farewell. On my way to the bus station, therefore, I stopped by his office at Rockefeller Center. Finding him out of his office, I left a note on his desk with the message, “I’m going to California to join a group of people who, I believe, can teach me what I want to know about God and about religion.” This was the first intimation I had given anyone that God was my true goal in life.
I took the next available westbound bus. Thereafter, for four days and four nights, my home was a succession of long-distance buses.
My break with the past was so sudden, so complete that I sometimes ask myself whether some very special grace had not been needed to make it possible. I wonder what I’d have done, for example, if Mother had still been in America. Would I have had the courage to take such a drastic step? Who knows? She would almost surely have opposed my directions, unprecedented as they were. After all, what did I know of the Indian teachings? Nothing! And here I was, planning to devote my entire life to them.
Had Mother been there, would she have succeeded in deflecting me from my purpose? The question has become academic, but even so, wasn’t it remarkable that it was the very day I put Mother on her ship to Cairo that I discovered the book that was to change my life?
Strange indeed are God’s ways! I was to see much of them in the years that followed. Never have they ceased to make me marvel.