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Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
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).
The Skeptical Yogi
Yogananda's Autobiography Under a Critical Microscope
The following is an excerpt of chapter one of the forthcoming book entitled The Skeptical Yogi, which takes a critical look at Paramahansa Yogananda's world famous book, Autobiography of a Yogiy.
I first read Yogananda's, justly famous, Autobiography of a Yogi, when I was just eleven years old. In those days (circa 1967) I was a great fan of baseball, particularly the Dodgers, and when I first spotted the book at my local North Hollywood Public library I thought it must be about Yogi Berra, the famous catcher for the New York Yankees, so I naturally picked it up for a closer reading. However, after I got home I soon realized my mistake. It was rather about an Indian mystic who had come to America in 1920 to share his views on spirituality and what he had learned from his associations with various saints and sages, particularly his own guru Sri Yukestwar of Serampore.
I devoured the book in slow chunks and loved every chapter of it since it opened up a hitherto unknown world to me. Since I was raised Roman Catholic and attended St. Charles elementary school, we were not taught about other religions. Learning about Hinduism and its various practices was like opening a window on a windy Santa Ana day in December. It was both refreshing and invigorating. Yogananda's tome transported me to another time and place and forever changed my philosophical outlook on all things religious.
I guesstimate that I have reread Autobiography of a Yogi over fifty or so times, such was my fondness for its enchanting and beguiling stories of meeting the perfume yogi, the saint with two bodies, and the tiger tamer, etc.
The book has gone through many editions since its first printing in 1946 and today is widely available worldwide and has been translated into over fifty languages.
Steve Jobs was so taken by Yogananda's book that he made sure that everyone attending his funeral in 2011 received a copy of it in a special brown box. Job's biographer, Walter Isaacson, recounts that the founder of Apple had the digital version of the book downloaded on his iPad and read it at least once a year.
However, as much I dearly loved reading Autobiography of a Yogi, when I got older I realized that much of what Yogananda believed was miraculous and supernatural could instead be explained rationally and empirically.
If we are to be polite (and give the benefit of the doubt), Yogananda's narrative comes off as quite gullible and far too naive to be wholly believable. Or, if we take a more jaundiced and cynical perspective, it would appear that the author of Autobiography of a Yogi was a great embellisher who was not always forthcoming about key details that would upend his fantastic yarns.
Perhaps Yogananda can be compared to the early writers of the Gospels in the New Testament who were more concerned with providing convincing reasons for why they believed in Jesus than in offering impartial and objective histories.
I realize that applying a skeptical gauze over the Autobiography of a Yogi, which is so beloved and treasured by many, may seem unnecessary or even viewed as an unwanted buzz kill. But I think we gain a huge benefit when we take off our “believe at all costs” blinders and open our eyes to alternative explanations for erstwhile paranormal phenomena.
Since Yogananda's Autobiography is now in the public domain and freely available on the Internet for download, I thought it might be very helpful to skeptically analyze a number of the more extraordinary stories within the text.
In order to accomplish this in a fair and reasonable manner (as well as to invite counter interpretations), I thought it might be best to include Yogananda's own words first and give them a wide berth. Thus, after reading the pertinent excerpt and the context in which it was placed, the reader can better understand why I (and others) may find the quoted passages questionable or why there may be a more mundane explanation for what transpired.
I want to clarify that I still deeply enjoy Yogananda's memoir, regardless of how I may interpret it differently than when I was young. I also realize that applying Occam's Razor to a spiritual treatise can be a bit disconcerting when a book's very intention is to stretch our visions of what is possible. I readily concede that this particular effort of mine may be perceived as putting a wet blanket on a narrative that is not calling for one. To clarify, it is not my intention to completely dismiss Autobiography of a Yogi and its wondrous tales, but rather to show how a skeptical reading can provide contradistinctive interpretations which are scientifically grounded.
1.1. THE HEALING PHOTOGRAPH
In the very first chapter of his life story, Yogananda alleges that he was cured from Asiatic cholera at the age of eight years old because of a unique and blessed photograph of his parents' guru, Lahiri Mahasaya.
Excerpts from Chapter 1: My Parents and Early Life
“Lahiri Mahasaya left this world shortly after I had entered it. His picture, in an ornate frame, always graced our family altar in the various cities to which Father was transferred by his office. Many a morning and evening found Mother and me meditating before an improvised shrine, offering flowers dipped in fragrant sandalwood paste. With frankincense and myrrh as well as our united devotions, we honored the divinity which had found full expression in Lahiri Mahasaya.
His picture had a surpassing influence over my life. As I grew, the thought of the master grew with me. In meditation I would often see his photographic image emerge from its small frame and, taking a living form, sit before me. When I attempted to touch the feet of his luminous body, it would change and again become the picture. As childhood slipped into boyhood, I found Lahiri Mahasaya transformed in my mind from a little image, cribbed in a frame, to a living, enlightening presence. I frequently prayed to him in moments of trial or confusion, finding within me his solacing direction. At first I grieved because he was no longer physically living. As I began to discover his secret omnipresence, I lamented no more. He had often written to those of his disciples who were over-anxious to see him: 'Why come to view my bones and flesh, when I am ever within range of your kutastha (spiritual sight)?'
I was blessed about the age of eight with a wonderful healing through the photograph of Lahiri Mahasaya. This experience gave intensification to my love. While at our family estate in Ichapur, Bengal, I was stricken with Asiatic cholera. My life was despaired of; the doctors could do nothing. At my bedside, Mother frantically motioned me to look at Lahiri Mahasaya's picture on the wall above my head.
''Bow to him mentally!" She knew I was too feeble even to lift my hands in salutation. "If you really show your devotion and inwardly kneel before him, your life will be spared!"
I gazed at his photograph and saw there a blinding light, enveloping my body and the entire room. My nausea and other uncontrollable symptoms disappeared; I was well. At once I felt strong enough to bend over and touch Mother's feet in appreciation of her immeasurable faith in her guru. Mother pressed her head repeatedly against the little picture.
'O Omnipresent Master, I thank thee that thy light hath healed my son!'
I realized that she too had witnessed the luminous blaze through which I had instantly recovered from a usually fatal disease. One of my most precious possessions is that same photograph. Given to Father by Lahiri Mahasaya himself, it carries a holy vibration.”
A Skeptical Analysis
First, it should be noted that cholera is a very dangerous bacterial infection and can, if untreated, lead to premature death. However, in Yogananda's retelling many pertinent details are left out. Yes, he admits that doctors were called and they attended to him, but we are not told about what treatments were administered and for how long. The World Health Organization estimates that “Up to 80% of [cholera] cases can be successfully treated with oral rehydration solution.” Thus, if Yogananda was indeed being treated by competent doctors and was receiving enough fluid, statistically he had nearly a 4 out of 5 chance of surviving.
Yet, Yogananda doesn't attribute his healing to any medical intervention since he writes, “My life was despaired of; the doctors could do nothing.” However, this incident happened when he was only eight years old and one wonders how long it really took him to recover, since his wording suggests it was immediate, “My nausea and other uncontrollable symptoms disappeared; I was well. At once I felt strong enough to bend over and touch Mother's feet in appreciation of her immeasurable faith in her guru.”
Yogananda is very clear in arguing that the holy picture of Lahiri Mahayasa was the catalyst for his instant healing. “'Bow to him mentally!' She knew I was too feeble even to lift my hands in salutation. 'If you really show your devotion and inwardly kneel before him, your life will be spared!' I gazed at his photograph and saw there a blinding light, enveloping my body and the entire room.” He even goes so far as to claim that the photograph “carries a holy vibration.” Clearly, and this is not even disputed by Self Realization Fellowship followers, what is elemental in this particular episode is the love and devotion that both Yogananda and his mother Gyana Prabha Ghosh had for Lahiri Mahayasa.
What is more likely? That a picture of a holy guru has the power to heal cholera or that medical treatment combined with deep faith and belief was instrumental in relieving Yogananda's infection? This comes into even sharper relief when we stop to consider how powerful the placebo effect is in medicine, since it has shown to be efficacious in patients suffering from depression, pain, and even severe bowel discomfort. The Harvard Medical School goes so far as to suggest that, “Your mind can be a powerful healing tool when given the chance. The idea that your brain can convince your body a fake treatment is the real thing—the so-called placebo effect—and thus stimulate healing has been around for millennia. Now science has found that under the right circumstances, a placebo can be just as effective as traditional treatments. 'The placebo effect is more than positive thinking—believing a treatment or procedure will work. It's about creating a stronger connection between the brain and body and how they work together'" says Professor Ted Kaptchuk of Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, whose research focuses on the placebo effect.”
Remember that Gyana Prabha Ghosh instructs her son to bow to the picture of her beloved guru, since apparently her faith alone was insufficient to generate a healing. Thus, it is up to Yogananda to firmly believe that something miraculous can occur, which naturally brings us back to how his own mental state can help augment medical treatment.
As Kendra Cherry elucidates in the article How the Placebo Effect Works in Psychology,
“Other possible explanations include conditioning, motivation, and expectation. In some cases, a placebo can be paired with an actual treatment until it comes to evoke the desired effect, an example of classical conditioning. People who are highly motivated to believe that a treatment will work, or who had a treatment work previously, may be more likely to experience a placebo effect. A prescribing physician's enthusiasm for treatment can even impact how a patient response. If a doctor seems very positive that a treatment will have a desirable effect, a patient may be more likely to see benefits from taking the drug. This demonstrates that the placebo effect can even take place when a patient is taking real medications to treat an illness.”
Moreover, the very notion of a holy picture eliciting a miraculous outcome is not unique to Yogananda. Most recently the Roman Catholic Church has accepted that a photograph of Mother Teresa and a medallion she touched were instrumental in removing a tumor from a woman in West Bengal, India. Sara Kettler elaborates, “In 1998, Monica Besra went to a Missionaries of Charity home in West Bengal, India, as she had a fever, headaches, vomiting, and swollen stomach. She had begun treatment for tuberculous meningitis the year before. However, the medications she'd taken—intermittently, depending on what her family could afford—hadn't kept a lump from growing in her abdomen (though some reports have described Besra as suffering from cancerous tumors, the growth could have been caused by tuberculosis). Surgery was deemed necessary, but Besra was too weak and unwell to undergo an operation. On September 5, Besra was praying in the Missionaries of Charity chapel when she saw a light emanating from a photo of Mother Teresa. Later, a medallion that had touched Mother Teresa's body was placed on Besra's abdomen, and a sister said a prayer while asking Mother Teresa for help. Besra awoke early the next day to find her tumor had disappeared. Medical exams showed the abdominal mass was no longer there, and the doctors she'd seen agreed Besra no longer required surgery.”
Therefore, it is not unreasonable to suggest that Yogananda's and Monica Besra's remarkable recoveries are not supernatural, but were due to their devotional faith, medical intervention, and the power of the placebo effect. Simply put, photographs of holy personages don't have magical talisman power, whereas the human mind, under the right conditions, does.
1.2 THE POWER OF WORDS
After recounting his recovery from cholera and receiving a new spiritual vision of Iswara as Light while meditating, Yogananda details how concentrated speech can directly impact the human body.
“Another early recollection is outstanding; and literally so, for I bear the scar to this day. My elder sister Uma and I were seated in the early morning under a neem tree in our Gorakhpur compound. She was helping me with a Bengali primer, what time I could spare my gaze from the near-by parrots eating ripe margosa fruit. Uma complained of a boil on her leg, and fetched a jar of ointment. I smeared a bit of the salve on my forearm.
'Why do you use medicine on a healthy arm?'
'Well, Sis, I feel I am going to have a boil tomorrow. I am testing your ointment on the spot where the boil will appear.'
'You little liar!'
'Sis, don't call me a liar until you see what happens in the morning.' Indignation filled me.
Uma was unimpressed, and thrice repeated her taunt. An adamant resolution sounded in my voice as I made slow reply.
'By the power of will in me, I say that tomorrow I shall have a fairly large boil in this exact place on my arm; and your boil shall swell to twice its present size!'
Morning found me with a stalwart boil on the indicated spot; the dimensions of Uma's boil had doubled. With a shriek, my sister rushed to Mother. 'Mukunda has become a necromancer!' Gravely, Mother instructed me never to use the power of words for doing harm. I have always remembered her counsel, and followed it.
My boil was surgically treated. A noticeable scar, left by the doctor's incision, is present today. On my right forearm is a constant reminder of the power in man's sheer word.
Those simple and apparently harmless phrases to Uma, spoken with deep concentration, had possessed sufficient hidden force to explode like bombs and produce definite, though injurious, effects. I understood, later, that the explosive vibratory power in speech could be wisely directed to free one's life from difficulties, and thus operate without scar or rebuke.”
A Skeptical Analysis
Here Yogananda argues that the power of words can have a direct impact on the physical body, so much so that his very will power spoken aloud, he believes, caused a boil to appear on his arm while his sister's doubled in size. Because of this Uma accused her brother of necromancy. But I don't think we need to venture in occult waters to better explain what may have transpired, keeping in mind that the story itself is (hopefully) not grossly exaggerated.
Dr. Nickie Harris-Ray in an article entitled, Dealing With Stress Related Boils, points out that “When stress raises its unappealing head, both emotional and physical changes can occur. Of those uncomfortable changes, boils (skin abscesses), can appear and be very annoying.” She even gives advice about how to prevent such stress boils in the future, “Reducing daily stressors, keeping clean healthy skin, and overall maintaining an immune system that is healthy as possible will reduce the chances of reoccurrence of this nuisance condition.”
It should also be noted that boils, unlike acne, can be spread from one person to another. While it is certainly true that our emotions can wreak havoc on our bodies, it doesn't follow that there is anything superhuman about why such occurs. To Yogananda's credit, he doesn't make too much about this episode, except to realize “the explosive vibratory power in speech could be wisely directed to free one's life from difficulties, and thus operate without scar or rebuke.”
1.3 THE GIFT OF THE FLYING KITE
Many of Yogananda's extraordinary occurrences revolve around unusual coincidences which he takes to be due, in part, to divine intervention. The following story concerning a flying kit exemplifies Yogananda's predilection in this regard.
“Our family moved to Lahore in the Punjab. There I acquired a picture of the Divine Mother in the form of the Goddess Kali. 1-13 It sanctified a small informal shrine on the balcony of our home. An unequivocal conviction came over me that fulfillment would crown any of my prayers uttered in that sacred spot. Standing there with Uma one day, I watched two kites flying over the roofs of the buildings on the opposite side of the very narrow lane.
'Why are you so quiet?' Uma pushed me playfully.
'I am just thinking how wonderful it is that Divine Mother gives me whatever I ask.'
'I suppose She would give you those two kites!' My sister laughed derisively. ''Why not?" I began silent prayers for their possession.
Matches are played in India with kites whose strings are covered with glue and ground glass. Each player attempts to sever the string of his opponent. A freed kite sails over the roofs; there is great fun in catching it. Inasmuch as Uma and I were on the balcony, it seemed impossible that any loosed kite could come into our hands; its string would naturally dangle over the roofs.
The players across the lane began their match. One string was cut; immediately the kite floated in my direction. It was stationary for a moment, through sudden abatement of breeze, which sufficed to firmly entangle the string with a cactus plant on top of the opposite house. A perfect loop was formed for my seizure. I handed the prize to Uma.
'It was just an extraordinary accident, and not an answer to your prayer. If the other kite comes to you, then I shall believe.' Sister's dark eyes conveyed more amazement than her words.
I continued my prayers with a crescendo intensity. A forcible tug by the other player resulted in the abrupt loss of his kite. It headed toward me, dancing in the wind. My helpful assistant, the cactus plant, again secured the kite string in the necessary loop by which I could grasp it. I presented my second trophy to Uma.
'Indeed, Divine Mother listens to you! This is all too uncanny for me!' Sister bolted away like a frightened fawn.
A Skeptical Analysis
Yogananda and his sister Uma seem to have had a typical competitive relationship, since they both seem to be at crosshairs over what he can and cannot achieve. In this case, Yogananda goes so far as to ask the Divine Mother for a second kite, which makes one wonder why such a trivial item is considered so important that it would necessitate offering prayers for it.
Are we really going to believe that a transcendent being is going to manipulate the law of physics to make sure a cactus plant captures a kite so that a young boy can one up his sister?
If such a thing did indeed occur, it would appear that chance and wind (and not the Divine mother and plaintive pleas) were operative. Furthermore, these two incidents concerning Uma tell us more about Yogananda's ambitions and emulous nature than anything transmundane.
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