An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Publication dates of essays (month/year) can be found under "Essays".
David Christopher Lane, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).
Part Three: Flying Yogis, Sacred Healing,
and Divine Perfume
4. THE SEVERED ARM AND HEALING
Yogananda had a deep desire since childhood for running away to the Himalayan mountains in order to meet enlightened yogis and mystics. Although he was eventually thwarted in his efforts, he met a police officer in Hardwar who told him about a sadhu who got his arm nearly cut off, only to have it miraculously healed within three days.
“Deeming it advisable to leave Hardwar at once, we bought tickets to proceed north to Rishikesh, a soil long hallowed by feet of many masters. I had already boarded the train, while Amar lagged on the platform. He was brought to an abrupt halt by a shout from a policeman. Our unwelcome guardian escorted us to a station bungalow and took charge of our money. He explained courteously that it was his duty to hold us until my elder brother arrived.
Learning that the truants' destination had been the Himalayas, the officer related a strange story.
'I see you are crazy about saints! You will never meet a greater man of God than the one I saw only yesterday. My brother officer and I first encountered him five days ago. We were patrolling by the Ganges, on a sharp lookout for a certain murderer. Our instructions were to capture him, alive or dead. He was known to be masquerading as a sadhu in order to rob pilgrims. A short way before us, we spied a figure which resembled the description of the criminal. He ignored our command to stop; we ran to overpower him. Approaching his back, I wielded my ax with tremendous force; the man's right arm was severed almost completely from his body.'
'Without outcry or any glance at the ghastly wound, the stranger astonishingly continued his swift pace. As we jumped in front of him,' he spoke quietly.
'I am not the murderer you are seeking.'
'I was deeply mortified to see I had injured the person of a divine- looking sage. Prostrating myself at his feet, I implored his pardon, and offered my turban-cloth to staunch the heavy spurts of blood.'
'Son, that was just an understandable mistake on your part.' The saint regarded me kindly. 'Run along, and don't reproach yourself. The Beloved Mother is taking care of me.' He pushed his dangling arm into its stump and lo! it adhered; the blood inexplicably ceased to flow.
'Come to me under yonder tree in three days and you will find me fully healed. Thus you will feel no remorse.'
'Yesterday my brother officer and I went eagerly to the designated spot. The sadhu was there and allowed us to examine his arm. It bore no scar or trace of hurt! I am going via Rishikesh to the Himalayan solitudes.' He blessed us as he departed quickly. 'I feel that my life has been uplifted through his sanctity.'
The officer concluded with a pious ejaculation; his experience had obviously moved him beyond his usual depths. With an impressive gesture, he handed me a printed clipping about the miracle. In the usual garbled manner of the sensational type of newspaper (not missing, alas! even in India), the reporter's version was slightly exaggerated: it indicated that the sadhu had been almost decapitated!
Amar and I lamented that we had missed the great yogi who could forgive his persecutor in such a Christlike way. India, materially poor for the last two centuries, yet has an inexhaustible fund of divine wealth; spiritual 'skyscrapers' may occasionally be encountered by the wayside, even by worldly men like this policeman.
We thanked the officer for relieving our tedium with his marvelous story. He was probably intimating that he was more fortunate than we: he had met an illumined saint without effort; our earnest search had ended, not at the feet of a master, but in a coarse police station!”
A Skeptical Analysis
Perhaps a bit unconsciously, Yogananda tips his hatin favor of skepticism, ironicallywhen he admits that the newspaper account of the sadhu's cut off arm is morphed into his head being “almost decapitated.”
The police officer in quest of a murderer came upon a sadhu who he mistakenly believed was the suspect. Because “he ignored our command to stop; we ran to overpower him. Approaching his back, I wielded my ax with tremendous force; the man's right arm was severed almost completely from his body.”
First question that comes to mind after reading this harrowing account is why is the policeman carrying an ax? Second, why if the sadhu has the amazing ability to reattach his arm and be instantly healed didn't he just stop when requested and avoid the whole ordeal? Third, is it reasonable to believe that a “severed right arm” can be pushed back together and in days leave “no scar or trace of hurt”? Or is it much more likely that the whole story is either concocted or grossly exaggerated in its retelling?
It may be true that the policeman accidently hurt the wrong person and that he suffered injuries in the process. Perhaps the sadhu even healed quicker and better than expected. But given how the newspaper amplified the story to a near beheading, it is not unreasonable to suspect that the entire story is overbaked.
In reading Yogananda's adventures, which are primed to get the reader's attention, one becomes all too aware that each installment is magnified beyond one's credulity and where Occam's Razor is never wielded.
4.1 AND THE BLIND SHALL SEE THE SUN
Sometimes Yogananda's stories are fuzzy and obscure, implying conclusions that may not be warranted. In this end section of chapter four, we learn that Lahiri Mahasaya, the modern exponent of Kriya Yoga, was a conduit for healing a blind man from birth and giving him eyesight. Or, so it would seem on a cursory reading, though a closer reading of what follows may offer alternative interpretations of what actually transpired.
“A Christlike miracle by Lahiri Mahasaya took place in Kebalananda's presence. My saintly tutor recounted the story one day, his eyes remote from the Sanskrit texts before us.
A blind disciple, Ramu, aroused my active pity. Should he have no light in his eyes, when he faithfully served our master, in whom the Divine was fully blazing? One morning I sought to speak to Ramu, but he sat for patient hours fanning the guru with a hand-made palm-leaf punkha. When the devotee finally left the room, I followed him.
'Ramu, how long have you been blind?'
'From my birth, sir! Never have my eyes been blessed with a glimpse of the sun.'
'Our omnipotent guru can help you. Please make a supplication.'
'The following day Ramu diffidently approached Lahiri Mahasaya. The disciple felt almost ashamed to ask that physical wealth be added to his spiritual superabundance.'
'Master, the Illuminator of the cosmos is in you. I pray you to bring His light into my eyes, that I perceive the sun's lesser glow.'
'Ramu, someone has connived to put me in a difficult position. I have no healing power.'
'Sir, the Infinite One within you can certainly heal.'
'That is indeed different, Ramu. God's limit is nowhere! He who ignites the stars and the cells of flesh with mysterious life- effulgence can surely bring luster of vision into your eyes.'
The master touched Ramu's forehead at the point between the eyebrows. 'Keep your mind concentrated there, and frequently chant the name of the prophet Rama 4-8 for seven days. The splendor of the sun shall have a special dawn for you.'
'Lo! in one week it was so. For the first time, Ramu beheld the fair face of nature. The Omniscient One had unerringly directed his disciple to repeat the name of Rama, adored by him above all other saints. Ramu's faith was the devotionally ploughed soil in which the guru's powerful seed of permanent healing sprouted.' Kebalananda was silent for a moment, then paid a further tribute to his guru.
'It was evident in all miracles performed by Lahiri Mahasaya that he never allowed the ego-principle to consider itself a causative force. By perfection of resistless surrender, the master enabled the Prime Healing Power to flow freely through him.'
'The numerous bodies which were spectacularly healed through Lahiri Mahasaya eventually had to feed the flames of cremation. But the silent spiritual awakenings he effected, the Christlike disciples he fashioned, are his imperishable miracles.'
I never became a Sanskrit scholar; Kebalananda taught me a diviner syntax.”
A Skeptical Analysis
Re-reading this excerpt over many times, it is not altogether crystal clear that Ramu regained his eyesight. Kebalananda's wording leaves much room for speculation, particularly when he tersely writes, “For the first time, Ramu beheld the fair face of nature,” and adds no further specifics. The reader is left wanting more and yet nothing else is forthcoming.
What exactly does such a statement mean? Did he see the sun? flowers? a human face? We are left with no details but a generalized phrase, “fair face of nature.”
Because Mahayasa instructed Ramu to focus his attention at the proverbial “third eye” and repeat the name Rama repeatedly, it may mean that the disciple saw an “inner” light within and didn't really have his eyesight permanently restored. Simply put, Ramu's vision is a meditational experience which later gets conflated with outer sunlight, or so it would seem given the paucity of Yogananda's report.
Of course, even if this is the case (and, again, we cannot be sure here), this doesn't detract from Ramu's elevated state of consciousness, but only that it shouldn't be confused with some amazing curing of blindness. Or, is Yogananda making more out of this story so as to elevate the greatness of Lahiri Mahayasa to impress his mostly Christian educated audience?
In the Gospel of John, for instance, there is a famous section of how Jesus' cures a man who was born blind. The miracle causes much controversy and the Gospel goes to some length to verify that it really happened, though even the man's parents seem initially diffident about acknowledging Jesus' ability.
“As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, 'Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?'
'Neither this man nor his parents sinned,' said Jesus, 'but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.'
After saying this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man's eyes. 'Go,' he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam” (this word means 'Sent'). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.”
The medical literature on this subject is incomplete, but even those who are blind from birth do not immediately see the way that is often depicted in Hollywood movies. What they can see is often jumbled and mixed-up. As Patrick House, writer for the New Yorker, elaborates concerning philosopher William Molyneux famous thought experiment about what exactly a person cured from blindness would be able to see and distinguish,
“In 2011, Dr. Pawan Sinha, a professor of vision and computational neuroscience at M.I.T., published his answer to an almost-four-hundred-year-old philosophical problem_._ The philosopher William Molyneux, whose wife was blind, had proposed a thought experiment in the seventeenth century about a person, blind from birth, who could tell apart a cube and a sphere by touch: If his vision were restored and he was presented with the same cube and sphere, would he be able to tell which was which by sight alone? The philosophical camps on Molyneux's question divided roughly through the centuries into those who believe that certain qualities, such as the roundness of spheres, are innate and shared among the senses (the Yeses), and those who insist that, to understand roundness, the eyes must have already seen roundness (the Nos). The longevity of many other philosophical thought experimentsSchrödinger's cats, twin Earths, what it's like to be a batrelies on their impermeability, but, after the discovery in the early eighteenth century that a simple cataract surgery could lift the curtain of blindness for some, Molyneux's thought experiment became, simply, an experiment.
Since 2003, Sinha, through a non-profit that he founded called Project Prakash, has organized and supervised sight-restoration surgeries for more than two hundred blind children from some of the poorest regions in India. The surgeries were given to any child who medically qualified, a subset of whom had been blind since birth with cataracts. After sight had been restored, Sinha posed Molyneux's question.
The results might have disappointed those in Molyneux's Yes camp. Sinha showed me a video in which a teen-age boy, blind since birth because of opaque cataracts, sees for the first time. The boy sits still and blinks silently, the room around him reflecting in his eyes as a kind of proof of their new transparency. Sinha believes these first moments for the newly sighted are blurry, incoherent, and saturated by brightnesslike walking into daylight with dilated pupilsand swirls of colors that do not make sense as shapes or faces or any kind of object. 'The moments immediately following bandage removal are not quite as 'magical' as Hollywood movies would have us believe,' Sinha told me. To answer Molyneux, then: No. A cube and a sphere are both lost in this confusion.”
In light of modern science, and given the sketchy run-down provided in chapter four, it seems extremely improbable that Ramu was completely cured from blindness. In this context, hagiography and the admixture of inner and outer light seems much more likely.
5. THE PERFUME SAINT AS TRICKESTER
After pages of breathless wonder and hype, in Chapter 5 Yogananda starts to show the first signs of skepticism when he meets the fragrantly infused Gandha Baba, who declares that he can produce perfumes out of thin air, apparently by his yogic prowess and mastery of certain secret siddhas. Yogananda scoffs at why anyone would waste their yogic skills on producing jasmine and rose scents when it is just as easily purchased at the local floral shop. But Yogananda's doubts are short-lived as he attempts to give a supernatural explanation for why the “Perfume Saint” is able to produce alluring smells at will.
“'I forgot to tell you of Gandha Baba (Perfume Saint), who is gracing yonder house.' He pointed to a dwelling a few yards distant. 'Do meet him; he is interesting. You may have an unusual experience. Good-by,' and he actually left me.
The similarly worded prediction of the sadhu at Kalighat Temple flashed to my mind. Definitely intrigued, I entered the house and was ushered into a commodious parlor. A crowd of people were sitting, Orient-wise, here and there on a thick orange-colored carpet. An awed whisper reached my ear:
'Behold Gandha Baba on the leopard skin. He can give the natural perfume of any flower to a scentless one, or revive a wilted blossom, or make a person's skin exude delightful fragrance.'
I looked directly at the saint; his quick gaze rested on mine. He was plump and bearded, with dark skin and large, gleaming eyes.
'Son, I am glad to see you. Say what you want. Would you like some perfume?'
'What for?' I thought his remark rather childish.
'To experience the miraculous way of enjoying perfumes.'
'Harnessing God to make odors?'
'What of it? God makes perfume anyway.'
'Yes, but He fashions frail bottles of petals for fresh use and discard. Can you materialize flowers'
'I materialize perfumes, little friend.'
'Then scent factories will go out of business.'
'I will permit them to keep their trade! My own purpose is to demonstrate the power of God.'
'Sir, is it necessary to prove God? Isn't He performing miracles in everything, everywhere?'
'Yes, but we too should manifest some of His infinite creative variety.'
"How long did it take to master your art?"
'For manufacturing scents by astral means! It seems, my honored saint, you have been wasting a dozen years for fragrances which you can obtain with a few rupees from a florist's shop.'
'Perfumes fade with flowers.'
'Perfumes fade with death. Why should I desire that which pleases the body only?'
'Mr. Philosopher, you please my mind. Now, stretch forth your right hand.' He made a gesture of blessing.
I was a few feet away from Gandha Baba; no one else was near enough to contact my body. I extended my hand, which the yogi did not touch.
'What perfume do you want?'
'Be it so.'
To my great surprise, the charming fragrance of rose was wafted strongly from the center of my palm. I smilingly took a large white scentless flower from a near-by vase.
'Can this odorless blossom be permeated with jasmine?'
'Be it so.'
A jasmine fragrance instantly shot from the petals. I thanked the wonder-worker and seated myself by one of his students. He informed me that Gandha Baba, whose proper name was Vishudhananda, had learned many astonishing yoga secrets from a master in Tibet. The Tibetan yogi, I was assured, had attained the age of over a thousand years.
'His disciple Gandha Baba does not always perform his perfume-feats in the simple verbal manner you have just witnessed.' The student spoke with obvious pride in his master. 'His procedure differs widely, to accord with diversity in temperaments. He is marvelous! Many members of the Calcutta intelligentsia are among his followers.'
I inwardly resolved not to add myself to their number. A guru too literally 'marvelous' was not to my liking. With polite thanks to Gandha Baba, I departed. Sauntering home, I reflected on the three varied encounters the day had brought forth.
My sister Uma met me as I entered our Gurpar Road door.
'You are getting quite stylish, using perfumes!'
Without a word, I motioned her to smell my hand.
'What an attractive rose fragrance! It is unusually strong!'
Thinking it was 'strongly unusual,' I silently placed the astrally scented blossom under her nostrils.
'Oh, I love jasmine!' She seized the flower. A ludicrous bafflement passed over her face as she repeatedly sniffed the odor of jasmine from a type of flower she well knew to be scentless. Her reactions disarmed my suspicion that Gandha Baba had induced an auto-suggestive state whereby I alone could detect the fragrances.
Later I heard from a friend, Alakananda, that the 'Perfume Saint' had a power which I wish were possessed by the starving millions of Asia and, today, of Europe as well.
'I was present with a hundred other guests at Gandha Baba's home in Burdwan,' Alakananda told me. 'It was a gala occasion. Because the yogi was reputed to have the power of extracting objects out of thin air, I laughingly requested him to materialize some out-of-season tangerines. Immediately the luchis which were present on all the banana-leaf plates became puffed up. Each of the bread-envelopes proved to contain a peeled tangerine. I bit into my own with some trepidation, but found it delicious.'
Years later I understood by inner realization how Gandha Baba accomplished his materializations. The method, alas! is beyond the reach of the world's hungry hordes.
The different sensory stimuli to which man reacts--tactual, visual, gustatory, auditory, and olfactory--are produced by vibratory variations in electrons and protons. The vibrations in turn are regulated by 'lifetrons,' subtle life forces or finer-than-atomic energies intelligently charged with the five distinctive sensory idea-substances.
Gandha Baba, tuning himself with the cosmic force by certain yogic practices, was able to guide the lifetrons to rearrange their vibratory structure and objectivize the desired result. His perfume, fruit and other miracles were actual materializations of mundane vibrations, and not inner sensations hypnotically produced.”
A Skeptical Analysis
Even when I was just a teenager I was surprised by how gullible Yogananda could be when getting conned into confusing a sleight of hand magician's trick with a yogi having supernatural gifts.
To an untrained eye, it is quite easy to be duped by a magician, even one who has amateurish skills. Imagine if the young Yogananda had met Sathya Sai Baba and saw him produce vibhutti, religious trinkets, and other items out of thin air? Sai Baba could even regurgitate a Shiva Lingam out of his mouth to the shock and amazement of his many followers worldwide. Sai Baba disciples believed for decades that their beloved “Avatar” possessed divine gifts beyond the reach of any human being. But as later events would conclusively show, Sai Baba was a fraud who wasn't even a good magician. His so-called miracles were anything but. As one former devotee explained,
“My first witness account of sleight of hand was in Vrindavan. I saw Baba come out of the personal interview room and sit down. As he was sitting there I noticed a large gold watch under his small hand, which he was unsuccessfully trying to hide. A moment later he made the familiar circular motion with his hand as if he were materializing the object, and then gave a student the watch. On another occasion I saw Sai Baba reach between the cushions of his chair for something, and then moments later he made the circular motion and showed everyone a small container filled with vibhuti, the gray ash. I then noticed that behind the cushion in his chair there was something shiny, and he paid careful attention to correct the position of the cushion to hide the object. Another time I saw him take a worn bracelet from a man, then with his hand cupped blew on it three times at the same time moving his hand up and down. On the final movement, he tossed the chain into the side of his chair so it slid down between the inside of the chairs large arm and his leg. He then discreetly took took something from his other hand and made the circular motion and gave the man a new bracelet. What is really funny about that situation is that Sai Baba forgot to take the old bracelet from his chair when he left, so when he got up, there it lay in plain view for everyone in the room. A student I was with, and who was very devoted to Baba, picked it up and looked at it, confirming that it was the old bracelet. When Baba returned and noticed his mistake, he scolded this student, who was sitting right at the foot of Baba's chair and could not miss the bracelet. Then Baba sat and in a flash picked up the bracelet and very discreetly tossed it into the outside upper corner of the arm of the chair. There were no visible pockets there, but there is a very large seem, and the arms of the chair are huge enough to store lots of things.”
Back in the Fall of 2013, my entire family got to witness Steve Cohen's famous magic act at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. He could do wonders that would make Gandha Baba's perfume antics look abecedarian. As Cohen elucidates, “One of my all-time favorites is Think-a-Drink. The proper title of this routine is Any Drink Called For, and has also been known as The Bar Act. I've been performing this routine in my shows for the past fifteen years, but it has existed in various forms for over a century. The trick is so old, it's new again.”
Essentially as the Wikipedia entry on the subject describes it, “The magician produces a bottle or kettle and asks the audience to name any sort of drink: water, beer, tea, or any other liquid. The magician tips the bottle and pours out a glass of that drink. He then asks for another example, and another, with the bottle producing the drinks on demand, seemingly forever.”
How does it work? Again, the Inexhaustible Bottle entry explains,
“The original method from Hocus Pocus Junior was a single large barrel that is modified with internal baffles to create three sections. A single spigot on one of the flat ends of the barrel is extended with three pipes, one leading into each of the different partitions. The flow is controlled through a bunghole on the top that is likewise modified to run to three hoses, one into each partition. By turning the stopper in the bunghole to uncover one of the pipes, air can flow into the selected partition. When the spigot is opened, only the liquid from the selected partition can flow out, the partial vacuum in the other chambers prevents the flow. . .
The seemingly inexhaustible amount of liquid is even simpler; it relies on special 'essence glasses' which appear about the size of an aperitif glass, but are mostly glass with little open space for the liquid. This not only helped the illusion (until lifted to the lips) but also reduced the cost of performing the act if the glasses were handed out. For very large audiences, sleight of hand can be used to switch bottles during the act; Modern Magic suggests doing this while calling for more glasses to be brought onstage.”
So, instead of believing that Gandha Baba (or Sathya Sai Baba or any other Siddha-empowered guru) can perform miracles it is wise to see if a magician can do it first. Invariably, magicians can perform the same feats and even do it much better.
In chapter seventeen, “Jaganath: Lord of the World,” of F. Yeats-Brown's famous The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, he provides a fascinating vignette concerning a naked Mahatma who could produce various perfumes by using a magnifying glass and the sun.
“'I heard of the Mahatma's fame many years ago,' I said, 'and I have ventured to bring my friends here so that they may meet a great Yogi before they return to the United States.'
'What is it,' a disciple asked me, in English, 'that you want the Mahatma to do?'
'Anything he pleases,' I answered. 'We want to learn something of his supernatural powers, if that is at all possible; and at any rate to enjoy the privilege of talking to him.'
A few words of Bengali passed between the pupil and his master, then the former answered:
'The Mahatma is in the middle of a lecture about the aspects and appearances of our Lord the Sun, whose energies he can control. If you like, he can summon any scent to appear before us out of the circumambient ether.'
I glanced quickly at the nude babu to see if he were joking. His eyes were exceptionally large: they blinked rapidly in my direction, as if I were some new but not unpleasant kind of creature.
'We should be honoured if the Mahatma would do this,' I said solemnly.
'May we take his picture first,' my friend suggested, 'now that the light is good?'
The Mahatma had no objection. He posed readily, and with a dignity that few of us clothes-cramped people possess.
'He lives on a banana a day,' the English-speaking pupil told us, with a kind of paternal pride, 'and such is his power over etheric vibrations that he can quicken his molecular activity until he floats in the air. We have seen this, both here and in Benares. No one knows his age. He says he is fifty, but we think he is nearer three hundred years old. During my lifetime he has been thirty years in Tibet, studying the radiations from the sun and moon. Before that he was travelling for seven years in the jungles of Central India, where wild beasts followed him like dogs.'
'A banana a day!' repeated my friend, looking at the Mahatma's solid form.
'And a little water,' our informant added, 'that is all. He makes these concessions to mortality in order to remain on the earth plane. He never sleeps. His power over Nature is simply a question of using the rays from our Lord the Sun.'
Meanwhile the Mahatma had curled himself up again in his chair. He called for cotton-wool and a magnifying-glass, which were brought to him by a disciple. I watched this man carefully without being able to detect the slightest sign of collusion. Indeed, on making enquiries about him afterwards, I learned that he was a respectable small banker: this fact would not indeed preclude his being a conjuror's accomplice, but makes it less probable.
The Mahatma took the cotton-wool in his left hand and the glass in his right, focusing a spot of light upon the wool. Immediately the room was impregnated with the perfume of attar of roses.
He waved the scent away with his hand, and I certainly had the impression that it vanished at his gesture.
'What other scent would you like to come?' he asked me in Hindustani, with a smile that showed two rows of perfect white teeth.
I suggested violets, and instantly the room was full of the scent of violets. Then I suggested eau-de-Cologne, and there was a hitch, for he did not understand.
'Name any Indian scents, and he will bring them at once,' said the pupil.
My friend suggested carnations, but I could not remember the Urdu for them, and the pupil could not visualise them from my description.
'Can he make the scent I am thinking of appear?' I asked, 'even though I cannot give it a name?'
The Mahatma smiled and shook his head.
So I named musk, and sandalwood, and opium, and heliotrope, and flowering bamboo, and nicotine plants at evening. Each came instantly. There was nothing near him that could have served as a receptacle. He had no sleeve, no table, nothing but a magnifying-glass and a piece of cotton-wool.”
The fact that this naked babu used a magnifying glass and a wool cloth is clearly the give away in this conjurer's trick. One simple way to do it is to embed small droplets of musk, sandalwood, opium scents, etc., and have each of them covered in wax. Use the glass to focus the sunlight on a specific area on the wool and as the wax melts away it will unleash the perfume encased there. Nothing mystical about it, just plain chicanery.
Because Yogananda only supplies us with the scantiest details concerning Gandha Baba's performance, we are not precisely sure how he does his trick. But it is obviously a trick, and if Yogananda was trained in magic he would have easily spotted it.
Yogananda's introduction of “lifetrons” to explain Baba's cosmic power is unnecessary, though I must confess that I like the idea and the term despite it being a neologism without scientific support.
7. A LEVITATING OR FROG-JUMPING SAINT?
Mystical literature from both East and West contains accounts of certain saints and yogis who claim to have had bodily levitated while in deep prayer or meditation. In this section, Yogananda describes how Bhaduri Mahasaya, who lived quite close to his home, had the ability to float in the air.
“'I saw a yogi remain in the air, several feet above the ground, last night at a group meeting,' My friend, Upendra Mohun Chowdhury, spoke impressively.
I gave him an enthusiastic smile. 'Perhaps I can guess his name. Was it Bhaduri Mahasaya, of Upper Circular Road?'
Upendra nodded, a little crestfallen not to be a news-bearer. My inquisitiveness about saints was well-known among my friends; they delighted in setting me on a fresh track.
'The yogi lives so close to my home that I often visit him.' My words brought keen interest to Upendra's face, and I made a further confidence.
'I have seen him in remarkable feats. He has expertly mastered the various pranayamas of the ancient eightfold yoga outlined by Patanjali. Once Bhaduri Mahasaya performed the Bhastrika Pranayama before me with such amazing force that it seemed an actual storm had arisen in the room! Then he extinguished the thundering breath and remained motionless in a high state of superconsciousness. The aura of peace after the storm was vivid beyond forgetting.'
'I heard that the saint never leaves his home.' Upendra's tone was a trifle incredulous.
'Indeed it is true! He has lived indoors for the past twenty years. He slightly relaxes his self-imposed rule at the times of our holy festivals, when he goes as far as his front sidewalk! The beggars gather there, because Saint Bhaduri is known for his tender heart.'
'How does he remain in the air, defying the law of gravitation?'
'A yogi's body loses its grossness after use of certain pranayamas. Then it will levitate or hop about like a leaping frog. Even saints who do not practice a formal yoga have been known to levitate during a state of intense devotion to God.'
A Skeptical Analysis
St. Joseph of Cupertino of the 17th century is one
of the most famous cases of a “levitating” saint.
His biography is an unusual one, since he was viewed with deep suspicion by the Church authorities, who feared that he was dabbling in witchcraft. Prone to extreme austerities, and hounded by the Inquisition, St. Joseph was finally forced to be moved to Fossombrone in Italy and supervised by members of the Capuchin order. Apparently, he would temporarily float in the air during Mass or the saying of Liturgy. Michael Grosso has even written a popular book on his life appropriately titled, The Man Who Could Fly: St. Joseph of Copertino [sic] and the Mystery of Levitation. In a resource document, Grosso writes,
“Joseph was often observed levitating while hearing or serving Mass. During the elevation of the Host he would stop, freeze, and hover in space, his toes lightly touching the ground or lifting up gently, perhaps a palm's length. In other sightings, he would move up and down inches or feet above ground fairly rapidly; these anomalous movements almost invariably were preceded by a shrill, explosive scream. He would fly forward toward a platform and freeze, and then fly backwards, which he later explained signified feelings of humiliation or self-reproach. Other times witnesses observed movements through the air that performed actions: for example, he helped install a large heavy cross in the ground that several men were struggling to move; flew over the heads
of a Spanish ambassador, his wife and her retinue, in order to avoid talking to the ambassador's wife; soared thirty meters in the air to contemplate Cimabue's painting of the Madonna; carried another man up into the air and healed him of a long-standing mental disorder; and so on and so forth.”
Grosso and others (including Jeffrey Kripal of Rice University) lean in the direction that the saint really did have paranormal powers, even if they are careful to provide a checklist of alternative explanations. Doubts abound, however, about whether he could actually levitate, since all we have are historical reports after the fact.
Joe Nickell writing for the Skeptical Inquirer severely questions Joseph's flying habits (and in turn Grosso's defense of it) and others who can mistake great leaping ability with an actual defiance of the laws of gravity,
“Not only do the accounts indicate Joseph's most dramatic aerial traverses were launched by a leapnot by a simple slow rising while merely standing or kneeling (Smith 1965, 49)but, moreover, I find that they appear to have continued as just the sudden arcing trajectories that would be expected from bounding. They were never circuitous or spiraling flights like a bird's. Invariably, Joseph's propulsions began with a shout or scream, suggesting that he was not caused to leap by some force but chose to. Analogous to martial artists who yell when executing some technique (like breaking a board with their hand), his cry may have been to help him focus and commit to the act and so dispel fear. It might also have served to turn all eyes on him. He might have found that if he yelled not when he first started moving but only the instant before he left the ground people would be more likely to think they saw him simply rise up.
Grosso (2016, 80) gushes that the duration of Joseph's levitationsfrom only seconds to fifteen or thirty minutes or more of “sustained floating”“seem to point to the reality of an unrecognized force of nature.” Certainly, he insists, they were “enough to render implausible the claim that they were tricks of perception.” Yet our analysis revealed that Joseph did not hover in the air but, after rapidly ascending, he then rested on some support such as a tree limb or held onto some fixed object such as a statue. In other accounts, such details may have been left out because the narrator was simply relying on his impressions.
Eyewitnesses are fallible, as we know all too well. People insisted they actually saw what they thought they sawor they remembered much later what they believed they had seen, minus, for example, in some instances, the friar's initial rushing forward before actual lift-off. Moreover, the canonization (saint-making) process itself, requiring evidence of miracles, could well have fostered some pious exaggeration on the part of a late beloved friar's brethren and flock. There is also the “gross exaggeration” of biographies that were published more than half a century after Joseph's death.2 Also, as a practical matter, the original records that led to his canonization are no longer available for study (Smith 1965, 48–49).
Today, I think few would be deceived by witnessing such featsthough we might well be impressed by the acrobatics. Certainly most of us, understanding gravity, will not expect to see actual levitations or flyingalthough there are the tricks of magicians and fakirs (Nickell 1993, 183, 211–216; 1995, 29).3 Even now, however, we can marvel at the flights of basketball players like “Doctah” Julius Erving, who “added razzle-dazzle acrobatics to the game, and was the first to spend seemingly endless moments in the air, levitating toward the basket.” Although Michael Jordan would become the master of this feat, being dubbed “Air Jordan,” in fact “the Doctah supplied the original formula” (Musiker 2008, 24–25). If we can be so impressed in the twenty-first century, imagine such effects in the superstition-ridden seventeenth, and I think we can begin to understand the 'levitations' of 'The Flying Saint.'”
In the case of Bhaduri Mahasaya, his floating feats are much less documented. It is also of importance to note that Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the famed guru of the Beatles, tried to implement “yogic flying” for advanced practitioners of Transcendental Meditation. On their official TM website, they describe the procedure, “The TM-Sidhi program and Yogic Flying culture the ability to think and act from this level, where thoughts are most powerfully and easily fulfilled. During the first stage of Yogic Flying, the body lifts up in the air and moves forward in blissful hops.”
The problem is that one is under the mistaken impression that accomplished meditators can literally hover in the air. Such is not the case, however. Rather, the meditators are sitting on a very thick and padded cushion. What they learn to do is “bounce” up in the air by creating pressure in their crossed limbs and arms, and by doing such they can accelerate upwards for brief seconds. This is not dissimilar to when doing a layup in basketball when we jump and hang up in the air a couple of feet, only to land a few seconds later. TM's “yogic flying” is a case of false advertising and because of this it has received an overwhelming amount of pointed criticism. A close look at the assortment of pictures that are shown on the “Sidhi program” site don't show yogis flying, but rather meditators bouncing up and having their pictures taken just at the right moment, two feet or so above the cushy mats, just before they come back to terra firma.
Yogananda's own narrative on Bhaduri Mahasaya is revealing in this context since he readily admits that the saint “hop[s] about like a leaping frog.”
I am reminded of an old television show which we used to watch in the late 1960s called The Flying Nun, starring a young Sally Field, who had the ability to fly due to her light weight and her aerodynamically shaped convent head attire. It is not hard to imagine that those who saw her float in the airbut who didn't know the mechanics behind whymay have felt that she possessed occult powers. The lesson here, therefore, is that before we succumb to believing in yogis that can fly, and which defy all that we know about Newtonian and Einsteinian physics, we look instead for more grounded and less astral explanations.
There is, also an important facet about yogic levitation that needs to be addressed. In deep meditation, one can have the distinct feeling of leaving the body and moving through vast expanses of space, often accompanied by sparkling lights and beautifully subtle sounds. It is a completely internal voyage, but can on occasion be mistaken as if it is happening outwardly. I would presume that this conflation (where one is never sure what is wholly subjective versus purely objective) could lead the practitioner into believing that one was truly flyingor, if in deep samadhi, having the unusual sensation of floating above one's meditation mat.
I have labeled this the transfusive fallacy where one intertwines an inner event with an outer one, thereby confusing two distinct realms and being ontologically deceived in the process.