In 1966, when Swami Satchidananda’s new American students asked him to stay in America, he may have been aware that a precedent for such a move had been set more than four decades earlier by his illustrious predecessor, Paramahansa Yogananda. In 1920, Yogananda came to the U.S. to speak in Boston—much as Satchidananda came to teach in New York—and ended up settling in Los Angeles for all but 18 months of his remaining years. He passed in 1952, leaving behind trained representatives, an organization with a solid administrative structure, several properties, and an immense written legacy featuring his iconic memoir Autobiography of a Yogi. It would not surprise me to learn that Satchidananda had read the book, or at least known a good deal about it from his students in the late 1960s. Pretty much everyone interested in Yoga and Indian philosophy at the time knew about the AY, as it is called; it may have been the most borrowed—and most ripped-off—book in counterculture circles.
I first read Autobiography of a Yogi in 1969 or 70. For me, the seminal text that launched millions of spiritual paths accelerated one that began a bit earlier when (thanks in large part to the Beatles’ historic visit to India) I discovered Eastern philosophy and the yogic repertoire of practices such as meditation. Yogananda’s thick text, with its self-portrait of a bona fide yogi, its intimate depictions of holy India, its snapshots of saints, sages, and miracle workers, was intriguing, illuminating, and inspiring. I still have the hardcover I read back then. The price on the cover is $5. As I would not have had five bucks to spend on a book back then, I probably borrowed it and never returned it. I like to think I worked off that karmic debt by writing The Life of Yogananda: The Story of the Yogi Who Became the First Modern Guru.
I never became a disciple or a formal student of Yogananda’s, but I continued to learn from his writings, and when I researched his life for my 2010 book, American Veda, I came to admire him as a giant of modern spirituality. I also realized that the narrative of his life was more moving, complex, and compelling than most people, even his ardent followers, realize. Out of that experience, the idea to write a bona fide biography was born. People asked, understandably, why it was necessary when Yogananda’s autobiography still sold thousands of copies a year. The answer was easy: the AY is as much about ideas and other people as it is about Yogananda; it contains enormous gaps; and less than 10 percent of the book is about Yogananda’s years in the West, where he did his major work. In addition, the few memoirs written by direct disciples were more like tributes than biographies. My goal was to paint a more complete picture of Yogananda the human being than was available anywhere else.
After establishing roots in Boston and learning how to reach Americans with the eternal wisdom of India, Yogananda toured virtually non-stop while also establishing his headquarters in a converted resort hotel on a Los Angeles hilltop. He spoke everywhere from living rooms to private clubs to public auditoriums, often filling cavernous spaces like Carnegie Hall, Boston’s Symphony Hall, and L.A.’s Philharmonic Auditorium. Disciples, students, and local centers increased in number. He remained largely a road warrior for many years before hunkering down in Southern California for his final few years, during which he wrote at a frenzied pace. Apart from the AY, his written legacy fills one of my bookshelves with tens of thousands of pages.
The man whom the Los Angeles Times called “the 20th century’s first superstar guru” is considered a saint or an avatar by many disciples. I am agnostic about such matters. Whatever else he may have been, he was a human being, with all the complexity of other humans. He was both a traditionalist and a nonconformist, a respecter of authority and a rebel. He had quirks, idiosyncrasies, and peculiarities, and personality shaped by a specific family in a specific culture at a specific time. Throughout his years of teaching and organizing, he shouldered huge responsibilities and felt acutely the burden of interpersonal, managerial, and financial strain. He endured it all while constantly feeling the pull of total renunciation; he often expressed a longing for the austere life of a Himalayan sannyasi. He struggled with tough decisions, experienced joys and sorrows, celebrated victories and suffered defeats. He dealt with controversial lawsuits played out in lurid headlines, the veracity of which a small cohort of people debate online to this day. He learned, he grew, he evolved. And he performed his human duties with his eyes were on the prize of Self-Realization.
In my book, I focused on that human story, partly because we tend to romanticize, idealize, and glorify gurus, sometimes deifying them as perfect incarnations who do not experience disappointment, anger, conflicts with other people, and other nuisances the rest of us deal with. But the yogic tenet that enlightened beings are beyond painful emotion applies to the realized Self that is one with the Infinite. The small self that inhabits a body that moves through time and space is subject to the laws of karma; he or she experiences life’s ups and downs, and eventually gets sick and dies. The tale of Yogananda’s human personality made for a compelling narrative.
It is also a source of inspiration and vital life lessons. While Yogananda was a renunciate, he was deeply committed to his mission of bringing yogic wisdom to the West, and his discipline and perseverance would make any entrepreneur or CEO envious. At the same time, he never lost sight of his number one priority: achieving and maintaining union with the Divine. He urged his devotees to likewise balance the spiritual and the material, but to always put the former first—sadhana without fail—as spiritual progress is foundational. Like Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, he extolled yogic union as both an end in itself and the foundation for effective action. For this and other reasons, while I have learned a tremendous amount from Yogananda’s written words, it was in digging deeply into his personal life that I learned the most. A spiritual role model for the ages, he walked his talk with dignity, courage, devotion, and love.
Philip Goldberg is an acclaimed author and public speaker whose numerous books include the award-winning American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation, How Indian Spirituality Changed the West; Roadsigns on the Spiritual Path: Living at the Heart of Paradox; and the new biography, The Life of Yogananda: The Story of the Yogi Who Became the First Modern Guru. A meditation teacher and ordained Interfaith Minister, he is also the cohost of the popular Spirit Matters podcast and leads American Veda Tours to India. See www.PhilipGoldberg.com. Pre-order the book today and claim your exclusive audio download immediately!