Autobiography of a Yogi
by Paramahansa Yogananda
Original 1946 Edition
I Become a Monk of the Swami Order
"Master, my father has been anxious for me to accept an executive position with the Bengal-Nagpur Railway. But I have definitely refused it." I added hopefully, "Sir, will you not make me a monk of the Swami Order?" I looked pleadingly at my guru. During preceding years, in order to test the depth of my determination, he had refused this same request. Today, however, he smiled graciously.
"Very well; tomorrow I will initiate you into swamiship." He went on quietly, "I am happy that you have persisted in your desire to be a monk. Lahiri Mahasaya often said: 'If you don't invite God to be your summer Guest, He won't come in the winter of your life.'"
"Dear master, I could never falter in my goal to belong to the Swami Order like your revered self." I smiled at him with measureless affection.
"He that is unmarried careth for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord: but he that is married careth for the things of the world, how he may please his wife."1 I had analyzed the lives of many of my friends who, after undergoing certain spiritual discipline, had then married. Launched on the sea of worldly responsibilities, they had forgotten their resolutions to meditate deeply.
To allot God a secondary place in life was, to me, inconceivable. Though He is the sole Owner of the cosmos, silently showering us with gifts from life to life, one thing yet remains which He does not own, and which each human heart is empowered to withhold or bestow—man's love. The Creator, in taking infinite pains to shroud with mystery His presence in every atom of creation, could have had but one motive—a sensitive desire that men seek Him only through free will. With what velvet glove of every humility has He not covered the iron hand of omnipotence!
The following day was one of the most memorable in my life. It was a sunny Thursday, I remember, in July, 1914, a few weeks after my graduation from college. On the inner balcony of his Serampore hermitage, Master dipped a new piece of white silk into a dye of ocher, the traditional color of the Swami Order. After the cloth had dried, my guru draped it around me as a renunciate's robe.
"Someday you will go to the West, where silk is preferred," he said. "As a symbol, I have chosen for you this silk material instead of the customary cotton."
In India, where monks embrace the ideal of poverty, a silk-clad swami is an unusual sight. Many yogis, however, wear garments of silk, which preserves certain subtle bodily currents better than cotton.
"I am averse to ceremonies," Sri Yukteswar remarked. "I will make you a swami in the bidwat (non-ceremonious) manner."
The bibidisa or elaborate initiation into swamiship includes a fire ceremony, during which symbolical funeral rites are performed. The physical body of the disciple is represented as dead, cremated in the flame of wisdom. The newly-made swami is then given a chant, such as: "This atma is Brahma"2 or "Thou art That" or "I am He." Sri Yukteswar, however, with his love of simplicity, dispensed with all formal rites and merely asked me to select a new name.
"I will give you the privilege of choosing it yourself," he said, smiling.
"Yogananda," I replied, after a moment's thought. The name literally means "Bliss (ananda) through divine union (yoga)."
"Be it so. Forsaking your family name of Mukunda Lal Ghosh, henceforth you shall be called Yogananda of the Giri branch of the Swami Order."
As I knelt before Sri Yukteswar, and for the first time heard him pronounce my new name, my heart overflowed with gratitude. How lovingly and tirelessly had he labored, that the boy Mukunda be someday transformed into the monk Yogananda! I joyfully sang a few verses from the long Sanskrit chant of Lord Shankara:
"Mind, nor intellect, nor ego, feeling;
Sky nor earth nor metals am I.
I am He, I am He, Blessed Spirit, I am He!
No birth, no death, no caste have I;
Father, mother, have I none.
I am He, I am He, Blessed Spirit, I am He!
Beyond the flights of fancy, formless am I,
Permeating the limbs of all life;
Bondage I do not fear; I am free, ever free,
I am He, I am He, Blessed Spirit, I am He!"
Every swami belongs to the ancient monastic order which was organized in its present form by Shankara.3 Because it is a formal order, with an unbroken line of saintly representatives serving as active leaders, no man can give himself the title of swami. He rightfully receives it only from another swami; all monks thus trace their spiritual lineage to one common guru, Lord Shankara. By vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience to the spiritual teacher, many Catholic Christian monastic orders resemble the Order of Swamis.
In addition to his new name, usually ending in ananda, the swami takes a title which indicates his formal connection with one of the ten subdivisions of the Swami Order. These dasanamis or ten agnomens include the Giri (mountain), to which Sri Yukteswar, and hence myself, belong. Among the other branches are the Sagar (sea), Bharati (land), Aranya (forest), Puri (tract), Tirtha (place of pilgrimage), and Saraswati (wisdom of nature).
The new name received by a swami thus has a twofold significance, and represents the attainment of supreme bliss ( ananda) through some divine quality or state—love, wisdom, devotion, service, yoga—and through a harmony with nature, as expressed in her infinite vastness of oceans, mountains, skies.
The ideal of selfless service to all mankind, and of renunciation of personal ties and ambitions, leads the majority of swamis to engage actively in humanitarian and educational work in India, or occasionally in foreign lands. Ignoring all prejudices of caste, creed, class, color, sex, or race, a swami follows the precepts of human brotherhood. His goal is absolute unity with Spirit. Imbuing his waking and sleeping consciousness with the thought, "I am He," he roams contentedly, in the world but not of it. Thus only may he justify his title of swami—one who seeks to achieve union with the Swa or Self. It is needless to add that not all formally titled swamis are equally successful in reaching their high goal.
Sri Yukteswar was both a swami and a yogi. A swami, formally a monk by virtue of his connection with the ancient order, is not always a yogi. Anyone who practices a scientific technique of God-contact is a yogi; he may be either married or unmarried, either a worldly man or one of formal religious ties. A swami may conceivably follow only the path of dry reasoning, of cold renunciation; but a yogi engages himself in a definite, step-by-step procedure by which the body and mind are disciplined, and the soul liberated. Taking nothing for granted on emotional grounds, or by faith, a yogi practices a thoroughly tested series of exercises which were first mapped out by the early rishis. Yoga has produced, in every age of India, men who became truly free, truly Yogi-Christs.
Like any other science, yoga is applicable to people of every clime and time. The theory advanced by certain ignorant writers that yoga is "unsuitable for Westerners" is wholly false, and has lamentably prevented many sincere students from seeking its manifold blessings. Yoga is a method for restraining the natural turbulence of thoughts, which otherwise impartially prevent all men, of all lands, from glimpsing their true nature of Spirit. Yoga cannot know a barrier of East and West any more than does the healing and equitable light of the sun. So long as man possesses a mind with its restless thoughts, so long will there be a universal need for yoga or control.
The ancient rishi Patanjali defines "yoga" as "control of the fluctuations of the mind-stuff." 4 His very short and masterly expositions, the Yoga Sutras, form one of the six systems of Hindu philosophy.5 In contradistinction to Western philosophies, all six Hindu systems embody not only theoretical but practical teachings. In addition to every conceivable ontological inquiry, the six systems formulate six definite disciplines aimed at the permanent removal of suffering and the attainment of timeless bliss.
The common thread linking all six systems is the declaration that no true freedom for man is possible without knowledge of the ultimate Reality. The later Upanishads uphold the Yoga Sutras, among the six systems, as containing the most efficacious methods for achieving direct perception of truth. Through the practical techniques of yoga, man leaves behind forever the barren realms of speculation and cognizes in experience the veritable Essence.
The Yoga system as outlined by Patanjali is known as the Eightfold Path. The first steps, (1) yama and (2) niyama, require observance of ten negative and positive moralities—avoidance of injury to others, of untruthfulness, of stealing, of incontinence, of gift-receiving (which brings obligations); and purity of body and mind, contentment, self-discipline, study, and devotion to God.
The next steps are (3) asana (right posture); the spinal column must be held straight, and the body firm in a comfortable position for meditation; (4) pranayama (control of prana, subtle life currents); and (5) pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses from external objects).
The last steps are forms of yoga proper: (6) dharana (concentration); holding the mind to one thought; (7) dhyana (meditation), and (8) samadhi (superconscious perception). This is the Eightfold Path of Yoga6 which leads one to the final goal of Kaivalya (Absoluteness), a term which might be more comprehensibly put as "realization of the Truth beyond all intellectual apprehension."
"Which is greater," one may ask, "a swami or a yogi?" If and when final oneness with God is achieved, the distinctions of the various paths disappear. The Bhagavad Gita, however, points out that the methods of yoga are all-embracive. Its techniques are not meant only for certain types and temperaments, such as those few who incline toward the monastic life; yoga requires no formal allegiance. Because the yogic science satisfies a universal need, it has a natural universal applicability.
A true yogi may remain dutifully in the world; there he is like butter on water, and not like the easily-diluted milk of unchurned and undisciplined humanity. To fulfill one's earthly responsibilities is indeed the higher path, provided the yogi, maintaining a mental uninvolvement with egotistical desires, plays his part as a willing instrument of God.
There are a number of great souls, living in American or European or other non-Hindu bodies today who, though they may never have heard the words yogi and swami, are yet true exemplars of those terms. Through their disinterested service to mankind, or through their mastery over passions and thoughts, or through their single hearted love of God, or through their great powers of concentration, they are, in a sense, yogis; they have set themselves the goal of yoga—self-control. These men could rise to even greater heights if they were taught the definite science of yoga, which makes possible a more conscious direction of one's mind and life.
Yoga has been superficially misunderstood by certain Western writers, but its critics have never been its practitioners. Among many thoughtful tributes to yoga may be mentioned one by Dr. C. G. Jung, the famous Swiss psychologist.
"When a religious method recommends itself as 'scientific,' it can be certain of its public in the West. Yoga fulfills this expectation," Dr. Jung writes.7 "Quite apart from the charm of the new, and the fascination of the half-understood, there is good cause for Yoga to have many adherents. It offers the possibility of controllable experience, and thus satisfies the scientific need of 'facts,' and besides this, by reason of its breadth and depth, its venerable age, its doctrine and method, which include every phase of life, it promises undreamed-of possibilities.
"Every religious or philosophical practice means a psychological discipline, that is, a method of mental hygiene. The manifold, purely bodily procedures of Yoga8 also mean a physiological hygiene which is superior to ordinary gymnastics and breathing exercises, inasmuch as it is not merely mechanistic and scientific, but also philosophical; in its training of the parts of the body, it unites them with the whole of the spirit, as is quite clear, for instance, in the Pranayama exercises where Prana is both the breath and the universal dynamics of the cosmos.
"When the thing which the individual is doing is also a cosmic event, the effect experienced in the body (the innervation), unites with the emotion of the spirit (the universal idea), and out of this there develops a lively unity which no technique, however scientific, can produce. Yoga practice is unthinkable, and would also be ineffectual, without the concepts on which Yoga is based. It combines the bodily and the spiritual with each other in an extraordinarily complete way.
"In the East, where these ideas and practices have developed, and where for several thousand years an unbroken tradition has created the necessary spiritual foundations, Yoga is, as I can readily believe, the perfect and appropriate method of fusing body and mind together so that they form a unity which is scarcely to be questioned. This unity creates a psychological disposition which makes possible intuitions that transcend consciousness."
The Western day is indeed nearing when the inner science of self-control will be found as necessary as the outer conquest of nature. This new Atomic Age will see men's minds sobered and broadened by the now scientifically indisputable truth that matter is in reality a concentrate of energy. Finer forces of the human mind can and must liberate energies greater than those within stones and metals, lest the material atomic giant, newly unleashed, turn on the world in mindless destruction.9
1 I Corinthians 7:32-33.
2 Literally, "This soul is Spirit." The Supreme Spirit, the Uncreated, is wholly unconditioned (neti, neti, not this, not that) but is often referred to in Vedanta as Sat-Chit-Ananda, that is, Being-Intelligence-Bliss.
3 Sometimes called Shankaracharya. Acharya means "religious teacher." Shankara's date is a center of the usual scholastic dispute. A few records indicate that the peerless monist lived from 510 to 478 B.C.; Western historians assign him to the late eighth century A.D. Readers who are interested in Shankara's famous exposition of the Brahma Sutras will find a careful English translation in Dr. Paul Deussen's System of the Vedanta (Chicago: Open Court Publishing Company, 1912). Short extracts from his writings will be found in Selected Works of Sri Shankaracharya (Natesan & Co., Madras).
4 "Chitta vritti nirodha"-Yoga Sutra I:2. Patanjali's date is unknown, though a number of scholars place him in the second century B.C. The rishis gave forth treatises on all subjects with such insight that ages have been powerless to outmode them; yet, to the subsequent consternation of historians, the sages made no effort to attach their own dates and personalities to their literary works. They knew their lives were only temporarily important as flashes of the great infinite Life; and that truth is timeless, impossible to trademark, and no private possession of their own.
5 The six orthodox systems (saddarsana) are Sankhya, Yoga, Vedanta, Mimamsa, Nyaya, and Vaisesika. Readers of a scholarly bent will delight in the subtleties and broad scope of these ancient formulations as summarized, in English, in History of Indian Philosophy, Vol. I, by Prof. Surendranath DasGupta (Cambridge University Press, 1922).
6 Not to be confused with the "Noble Eightfold Path" of Buddhism, a guide to man's conduct of life, as follows (1) Right Ideals, (2) Right Motive, (3) Right Speech, (4) Right Action, (5) Right Means of Livelihood, (6) Right Effort, (7) Right Remembrance (of the Self), (8) Right Realization (samadhi).
7 Dr. Jung attended the Indian Science Congress in 1937 and received an honorary degree from the University of Calcutta.
8 Dr. Jung is here referring to Hatha Yoga, a specialized branch of bodily postures and techniques for health and longevity. Hatha is useful, and produces spectacular physical results, but this branch of yoga is little used by yogis bent on spiritual liberation.
9 In Plato's Timaeus story of Atlantis, he tells of the inhabitants' advanced state of scientific knowledge. The lost continent is believed to have vanished about 9500 B.C. through a cataclysm of nature; certain metaphysical writers, however, state that the Atlanteans were destroyed as a result of their misuse of atomic power. Two French writers have recently compiled a Bibliography of Atlantis, listing over 1700 historical and other references.
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Preface | Introduction