Saturday, December 10, 2005

Autobiography of a Yogi (Paramahansa Yogananda)

This book is a rare account of the life of a certain type of individual--the yogi. It is rare that we get a clear first-hand account into the life of such a person, as the responsibilities attendant to spiritual vocation often do not permit for such indulgences. However, Paramahansa Yogananada had an important message to convey. And he endeavored to convey that message through the telling of the story of his extraordinary life experience.

Yogananda takes us through the formative experiences of his life, with remarkable candour, elegance, and charm. His life is laid out as on a canvas for all to see, the texture of his experience bordering on the fantastic and unbelievable. And yet there is a deep sense of honesty and truthfulness in his words. His friendships with diverse peoples from all strata of society, from common folk to scientists, statesmen, Nobel Laureates, or other spiritual giants of his day, leaves one to reconsider the initial impression of inauthenticity in the face of such grandiose phenomena, and whether there is a great deal more to human existence than we are generally led to believe.

The book is replete with fascinating insights into human nature, and the relationship between the material and immaterial realms. Yogananda displays his awareness of Western thought with a liberal sprinkling of quotes and aphorisms suitable to the occasion, by many illustrious figures of Western culture, including Socrates, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Dostoevsky, and Emerson to name a few. The book is extremely well-written and extraordinarily scholarly without detracting from its readability. There are generous footnotes expanding on ideas or providing references to other works. The index alone is worth its weight in platinum; it provides a thorough listing of people, places, ideas, and events, complete with contextual entries, the likes of which I have rarely seen. Such attention to detail clearly reveals this work as a labour of love.

Perhaps the single most prominent feature of this work is it's remarkable description of what Eastern spiritual traditions call samadhi. Yogananda's experience was brought on by an act of compassion on the part of his Christ-like guru, Sri Yukteswar. Seeing the young yogi struggling with meditation, desperately attempting to still his mind, Sri Yukteswar gently and compassionately strikes Yogananda on his chest above the heart. What follows is an incredible experience in Cosmic Consciousness. Yogananda's body becomes rooted, breath is drawn out of his lungs, "as if by some huge magnet." Consciousness disidentifies with his body and streams out, "like a fluid piercing light from my every pore." Yogananda describes a sense of aliveness never before experienced; an expanded perception of people on distant streets, discernment of root structures and the inward flow of sap in plants and trees. His ordinary frontal vision transformed to, "a vast spherical sight, simultaneously all-perceptive." All objects within his panoramic gaze,

[...] trembled and vibrated like quick motion pictures. My body, Master's, and the pillared courtyard, the furniture and floor, the trees and sunshine, became violently agitated, until all melted into a luminescent sea; [...]

As an oceanic joy pervaded his being,

A swelling glory within me began to envelop towns, continents, the earth, solar and stellar systems, tenuous nebulae, and floating universes. The entire cosmos, gently luminous, like a city seen afar at night, glimmered within the infinitude of my being.

And then, suddenly, "the breath returned to my lungs. With a disappointment almost unbearable, I realised that my infinite immensity was lost." The words of Yogananda's guru cap the experience with a revealing wisdom, "You must not get overdrunk with ecstasy. Much work yet remains for you in the world. Come, let us sweep the balcony floor; then we shall walk by the Ganges." And much later, Yogananda's deeply insightful and practical realisation that through stilling of the dual storms of thought and breath, release from delusive convictions and direct perception of the Infinite as One Light could be had.

The reader's interest is continuously piqued until the tension becomes almost unbearable--enter the science of Kriya Yoga. This is the centrepiece of the book and Yogananada's life purpose: an explanation of the how and why.

Kriya Yoga is a simple psychophysiological method by which human blood is decarbonized and recharged with oxygen. The atoms of this extra oxygen are transmuted into life current to rejuvenate the brain and spinal centres. By stopping the accumulation of venous blood, the yogi is able to lessen or prevent the decay of tissues. The advanced yogi transmutes his cells into energy.

Yogananda refers frequently to the Bhagavad-Gita, and quotes from it liberally. He states that Kriya Yoga is the same science Krishna gave millennia ago to Arjuna, and that it was also later known by such notable figures as Patanjali, Christ, St. John, and St. Paul among others. The basic tenet (interpreted from the Bhagavad-Gita) is:

The yogi arrests decay in the body by securing an additional supply of prana (life force) through quieting the action of the lungs and heart; he also arrests mutations of growth in the body by control of apana (eliminating current). Thus neutralizing decay and growth, the yogi learns life-force control.

Yogananda quotes from the Gita again,

The meditation expert (muni) becomes eternally free who, seeking the Supreme Goal, is able to withdraw from external phenomena by fixing his gaze within the mid-spot of the eyebrows and by neutralizing the even currents of prana and apana [that flow] within the nostrils and lungs; and to control his sensory mind and intellect; and to banish desire, fear, and anger.

Patanjali, the renown Indian sage, is also quoted in reference to the Kriya technique or life-force control:

Liberation can be attained by that pranayama which is accomplished by disjoining the course of inspiration and expiration.

Most revealing is the further explanation of the Kriya technique that follows, and shall be quoted at length:

St. Paul knew Kriya Yoga, or a similar technnique, by which he could switch life currents to and from the senses. He was therefore able to say: 'I protest by our rejoicing which I have in Christ, I die daily.' By a method of centering inwardly all bodily life force (which ordinarily is directed only outwardly, to the sensory world, thus lending it a seeming validity). St. Paul experienced daily a true yoga union with the 'rejoicing' (bliss) of the Christ Consciousness. In that felicitous state he was conscious of being 'dead' to or freed from sensory delusions, the world of maya.

In the initial states of God-contact (sabikalpa samadhi) the devotee's consciousness merges with the Cosmic Spirit; his life force is withdrawn from the body, which appears 'dead,' or motionless and rigid. The yogi is fully aware of his bodily condition of suspended animation. As he progresses to higher spiritual states (nirbikalpa samadhi), however, he communes with God without bodily fixation; and his ordinary waking consciousness, even in the midst of exacting worldy duties.

'Kriya Yoga is an instrument through which human evolution can be quickened,' Sri Yukteswar explained to his students. 'The ancient yogis discovered that the secret of cosmic consciousness is intimately linked with breath mastery. This is India's unique and deathless contribution to the world's treasury of knowledge. The life force, which is ordinarily absorbed in maintaing the heart action, must be freed for higher activities by a method of calming and stilling the ceaseless demands of the breath.'

The Kriya Yogi mentally directs his life energy to revolve, upward and downward, around the six spinal centres (medullary, cervical, dorsal, lumbar, sacral, and coccygeal plexuses), which correspond to the twelve astral signs of the zodiac, the symbolic Cosmic Man. One-half minute of revolution of energy around the sensitive spinal cord of man effects subtle progress in his evolution; [...]

The body of the average man is like a fifty-watt lamp, which cannot accommodate the billion watts of power roused by an excessive practice of Kriya. Through gradual and regular increase of the simple and 'foolproof' methods of Kriya, man's body becomes astrally transformed day by day, and is finally fitted to express the infinite potentials of cosmic energy--the first materially active expression of Spirit.

The details of the Kriya technique are, unfortunately, not described in detail, due to certain injunctions in communicating such information in a format intended for the general public. However, not all is lost, as Yogananda indicates that the technique can be learned from an authorized Kriyaban (Kriya Yogi) of Yogoda Satsanga Society / Self-Realization Fellowship--for those so inclined.

Yogananda also gives a brief summary of the Yoga system as outlined by Patanjali (different from the Buddhist Noble 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 Yoga 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."

A fascinating account of an extraordinary man and his life experience. The essence of Autobiography will likely not be understood by those who seek to understand solely through conceptual analysis. At the core of the book is something ultimately ungraspable by the mind. It appears to be pointing to something beyond mind, something that requires a direct personal experience in order to fully appreciate. And whether that experience is sought through the science of Kriya Yoga or some other path is a decision best left for the reader.

1 comment:

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