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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
Part Two: Mystic Amulets and Bilocations
2. THE MYSTIC AMULET
In appraising the so-called miracles that seemed to manifest monthly to Yogananda, it is important to remember that we are relying on his retelling years after they occurred. Memory is a faulty instrument and often when we write down our narratives for publication we cut corners (even if unconsciously) to make them more engaging and dramatic. We also tend to cut out pertinent details that shed a different light on what transpired and which may upturn our own chosen interpretation.
When I was young I bought this tale hook, line, and sinker. Today, after my many research trips to India, I have become much more doubtful of such stories.
“'Little mother, thy son will be a yogi. As a spiritual engine, he will carry many souls to God's kingdom.'
'My heart leaped with joy to find my secret prayer granted by the omniscient guru. Shortly before your birth, he had told me you would follow his path. Later, my son, your vision of the Great Light was known to me and your sister Roma, as from the next room we observed you motionless on the bed. Your little face was illuminated; your voice rang with iron resolve as you spoke of going to the Himalayas in quest of the Divine. In these ways, dear son, I came to know that your road lies far from worldly ambitions. The most singular event in my life brought further confirmation--an event which now impels my deathbed message. It was an interview with a sage in the Punjab. While our family was living in Lahore, one morning the servant came precipitantly into my room.
'Mistress, a strange sadhu is here. He insists that he "see the mother of Mukunda.'
'These simple words struck a profound chord within me; I went at once to greet the visitor. Bowing at his feet, I sensed that before me was a true man of God.'
'Mother,' he said, 'the great masters wish you to know that your stay on earth will not be long. Your next illness shall prove to be your last. There was a silence, during which I felt no alarm but only a vibration of great peace. Finally he addressed me again:
'You are to be the custodian of a certain silver amulet. I will not give it to you today; to demonstrate the truth in my words, the talisman shall materialize in your hands tomorrow as you meditate. On your deathbed, you must instruct your eldest son Ananta to keep the amulet for one year and then to hand it over to your second son. Mukunda will understand the meaning of the talisman from the great ones. He should receive it about the time he is ready to renounce all worldly hopes and start his vital search for God. When he has retained the amulet for some years, and when it has served its purpose, it shall vanish. Even if kept in the most secret spot, it shall return whence it came.'
'I proffered alms to the saint, and bowed before him in great reverence. Not taking the offering, he departed with a blessing. The next evening, as I sat with folded hands in meditation, a silver amulet materialized between my palms, even as the sadhu had promised. It made itself known by a cold, smooth touch. I have jealously guarded it for more than two years, and now leave it in Ananta's keeping. Do not grieve for me, as I shall have been ushered by my great guru into the arms of the Infinite. Farewell, my child; the Cosmic Mother will protect you.'
A blaze of illumination came over me with possession of the amulet; many dormant memories awakened. The talisman, round and anciently quaint, was covered with Sanskrit characters. I understood that it came from teachers of past lives, who were invisibly guiding my steps. A further significance there was, indeed; but one does not reveal fully the heart of an amulet.
How the talisman finally vanished amidst deeply unhappy circumstances of my life; and how its loss was a herald of my gain of a guru, cannot be told in this chapter.”
A Skeptical Analysis
There are several points to unpack in this most fascinating episode in Yogananda's life. First, we learn of “great masters” who apparently convey messages from beyond when needed. This, of course, sounds very reminiscent of Madame Blavatsky who wrote at length about great mahatmas around India and elsewhere who guided the affairs of humankind. Her religious-philosophical organization, Theosophy, was founded in 1875 and had an outsized impact within India and abroad, particularly England and the United States.
Second, these “masters” want to convey through an unnamed sadhu that they wish to tell Yogananda' mother, Gyan Prabha Ghosh, that she will die shortly after an illness. Third, Gyan Prabha Ghosh is told by the sadhu that she will be given a silver amulet that will materialize a day after he leaves while she is meditating. But the real punchline of the story is that Gyan Pabha Ghosh must hand over the amulet to her “eldest son Ananta to keep . . for one year and then to hand it over to [Yogananda].”
It is a convoluted tale and an odd one since the sadhu could have just easily handed the amulet over to Yogananda's mother, but instead claims it will miraculously materialize the next day, perhaps to emphasize how sacred and important the object is.
If Yogananda's narrative is taken at face value (and is not the product of excessive hagiography), it implies that the known laws of physics are wrong and magical talismans can appear out of thin air. But is this conclusion really warranted? Are there other more plausible explanations? I definitely think so, particularly since a number of Indian gurus who have claimed to produce religious trinkets out of thin air have been exposed as sleight of hand magicians. One doesn't have to look any further than the nefarious exploits of Sathya Sai Baba to know that bad parlor tricks can be passed off as divine manifestations. Perhaps the sadhu slipped the amulet to Gyan Pabha Ghosh without her knowledge and later when meditating she found it and believed it was a miraculous occurrence. Or, maybe after repeated retellings about this amulet the more mundane aspects surrounding it became divinized in the process. Memories are fallible, but more elemental are the details that get left out whenever we tell a truncated anecdote.
The structure of Yogananda's report is strategically designed since he sets the reader up in chapter 2 for what will happen in chapters 4 and 10. He is consciously creating drama and a mystery so as to entice the reader to want to know more. It is a clever piece of writing, but that doesn't mean that the amulet's appearance (and later disappearance—see chapter 10) accords with Yogananda's recounting, since we can often be too easily duped by magician tricks believing that they defy logic. Sadly, India has no dearth of sham sadhus who deceive naïve believers. Naturally, there may be other alternative explanations concerning the amulet, but hearsay is not evidence of a miracle, regardless of what we may personally believe or want to be the case.
3. THE SAINT WITH TWO BODIES
This is one of the most remarkable chapters in The Autobiography of a Yogi, since if what follows is true then everything we believe about the laws of physics, chemistry, and psychology are woefully incomplete, if not wholly mistaken. However, the idea of bilocation has a checkered history, so what at first reading appears utterly transcendent may on closer inspection have an earthlier explanations.
“'Father, if I promise to return home without coercion, may I take a sight-seeing trip to Benares?'
My keen love of travel was seldom hindered by Father. He permitted me, even as a mere boy, to visit many cities and pilgrimage spots. Usually one or more of my friends accompanied me; we would travel comfortably on first-class passes provided by Father. His position as a railroad official was fully satisfactory to the nomads in the family.
Father promised to give my request due consideration. The next day he summoned me and held out a round-trip pass from Bareilly to Benares, a number of rupee notes, and two letters.
'I have a business matter to propose to a Benares friend, Kedar Nath Babu. Unfortunately I have lost his address. But I believe you will be able to get this letter to him through our common friend, Swami Pranabananda. The swami, my brother disciple, has attained an exalted spiritual stature. You will benefit by his company; this second note will serve as your introduction.'
Father's eyes twinkled as he added, "Mind, no more flights from home!"
I set forth with the zest of my twelve years (though time has never dimmed my delight in new scenes and strange faces). Reaching Benares, I proceeded immediately to the swami's residence. The front door was open; I made my way to a long, hall-like room on the second floor. A rather stout man, wearing only a loincloth, was seated in lotus posture on a slightly raised platform. His head and unwrinkled face were clean-shaven; a beatific smile played about his lips. To dispel my thought that I had intruded, he greeted me as an old friend.
'Baba anand (bliss to my dear one).' His welcome was given heartily in a childlike voice. I knelt and touched his feet.
'Are you Swami Pranabananda?'
He nodded. "Are you Bhagabati's son?" His words were out before I had had time to get Father's letter from my pocket. In astonishment, I handed him the note of introduction, which now seemed superfluous.
'Of course I will locate Kedar Nath Babu for you.' The saint again surprised me by his clairvoyance. He glanced at the letter, and made a few affectionate references to my parent.
'You know, I am enjoying two pensions. One is by the recommendation of your father, for whom I once worked in the railroad office. The other is by the recommendation of my Heavenly Father, for whom I have conscientiously finished my earthly duties in life.'
I found this remark very obscure. 'What kind of pension, sir, do you receive from the Heavenly Father? Does He drop money in your lap?'
He laughed. 'I mean a pension of fathomless peace-a reward for many years of deep meditation. I never crave money now. My few material needs are amply provided for. Later you will understand the significance of a second pension.'
Abruptly terminating our conversation, the saint became gravely motionless. A sphinxlike air enveloped him. At first his eyes sparkled, as if observing something of interest, then grew dull. I felt abashed at his pauciloquy; he had not yet told me how I could meet Father's friend. A trifle restlessly, I looked about me in the bare room, empty except for us two. My idle gaze took in his wooden sandals, lying under the platform seat.
'Little sir, don't get worried. The man you wish to see will be with you in half an hour." The yogi was reading my mind-a feat not too difficult at the moment!
Again, he fell into inscrutable silence. My watch informed me that thirty minutes had elapsed.
The swami aroused himself. 'I think Kedar Nath Babu is nearing the door.'
I heard somebody coming up the stairs. An amazed incomprehension arose suddenly; my thoughts raced in confusion: "How is it possible that Father's friend has been summoned to this place without the help of a messenger? The swami has spoken to no one but myself since my arrival!"
Abruptly I quitted the room and descended the steps. Halfway down I met a thin, fair-skinned man of medium height. He appeared to be in a hurry.
'Are you Kedar Nath Babu?' Excitement colored my voice.
'Yes. Are you not Bhagabati's son who has been waiting here to meet me?' He smiled in friendly fashion.
'Sir, how do you happen to come here?' I felt baffled resentment over his inexplicable presence.
'Everything is mysterious today! Less than an hour ago I had just finished my bath in the Ganges when Swami Pranabananda approached me. I have no idea how he knew I was there at that time.
'Bhagabati's son is waiting for you in my apartment,' he said. 'Will you come with me?' I gladly agreed. As we proceeded hand in hand, the swami in his wooden sandals was strangely able to outpace me, though I wore these stout walking shoes.
'How long will it take you to reach my place?' Pranabanandaji suddenly halted to ask me this question.
'About half an hour.'
'I have something else to do at present.' He gave me an enigmatical glance. 'I must leave you behind. You can join me in my house, where Bhagabati's son and I will be awaiting you.'
"Before I could remonstrate, he dashed swiftly past me and disappeared in the crowd. I walked here as fast as possible."
This explanation only increased my bewilderment. I inquired how long he had known the swami.
'We met a few times last year, but not recently. I was very glad to see him again today at the bathing ghat.'
'I cannot believe my ears! Am I losing my mind? Did you meet him in a vision, or did you actually see him, touch his hand, and hear the sound of his feet?'
'I don't know what you're driving at!' He flushed angrily. 'I am not lying to you. Can't you understand that only through the swami could I have known you were waiting at this place for me?'
'Why, that man, Swami Pranabananda, has not left my sight a moment since I first came about an hour ago.' I blurted out the whole story.
His eyes opened widely. 'Are we living in this material age, or are we dreaming? I never expected to witness such a miracle in my life! I thought this swami was just an ordinary man, and now I find he can materialize an extra body and work through it!' Together we entered the saint's room.
'Look, those are the very sandals he was wearing at the ghat," Kedar Nath Babu whispered. "He was clad only in a loincloth, just as I see him now.'
As the visitor bowed before him, the saint turned to me with a quizzical smile.
'Why are you stupefied at all this? The subtle unity of the phenomenal world is not hidden from true yogis. I instantly see and converse with my disciples in distant Calcutta. They can similarly transcend at will every obstacle of gross matter.'
It was probably in an effort to stir spiritual ardor in my young breast that the swami had condescended to tell me of his powers of astral radio and television. But instead of enthusiasm, I experienced only an awe-stricken fear. Inasmuch as I was destined to undertake my divine search through one particular guru-Sri Yukteswar, whom I had not yet met--I felt no inclination to accept Pranabananda as my teacher. I glanced at him doubtfully, wondering if it were he or his counterpart before me.
A Skeptical Analysis
This is an intriguing incident since it focuses on whether a human being can consciously bilocate, being in two places at the same time. There is an extensive literature on this subject and Yogananda's report concerning Swami Pranabananda is far from unique. Yet, even here one wonders why dual transporting would be necessary just to make sure that Kedar Nath Babu would visit Bhagabati's son. Couldn't a messenger be sent to do the same?
In any case, Yogananda wants to visit the holy city of Benares and his father accedes to the request since he needs to get in contact with Kedar Nath Baba who lives in the city but he has lost his address. He advises his son to visit the esteemed Swami Pranabananda, who was once an employee in the railways, since he would know the whereabouts of Kedar Nath. During the course of Yogananda's visit, the Swami goes into a trance, and moments later explains that the person he seeks will be there within minutes. And lo and behold, he does so to Yogananda's amazement. When the Swami is asked how it could happen, he replies, “I instantly see and converse with my disciples in distant Calcutta. They can similarly transcend at will every obstacle of gross matter.”
When I was young I bought this tale hook, line, and sinker. Today, after my many research trips to India, I have become much more doubtful of such stories, particularly when key specifics surrounding them are either lacking or have not been properly vetted.
Malcolm Tillis in his eminently readable, and too often neglected, book of interviews, Turning East, alleges to have an experience quite similar to Yogananda's. Recalls Tillis,
“The Taj Express is on time, and I jump into the first-class section. As we are pulling out of the station, the conductor rushes up to me saying all seats are full.
I explain that I have a confirmed reservation, and take out the lovely sheets of beautifully printed proof.
Yes—he is saying, checking—but for 12th January, today is the 11th!
I am so stunned, dazed, that he lets me sit on his wooden seat in the passage-way. It appears one can still be hopelessly untravel-worthy even with the most professionally prepared itinerary. An extra day in Vrindavan would have allowed me to finish all my work, but—oh, horror!—I am beginning to realize I shall be arriving one day too soon in Agra and I will not be able to contact my friend, Pritam Singh Nagpal, for 24 hours!
I am saying to myself: there must be a purpose behind all this - there must be - I am not to be confused or anxious, I am to flow with all currents, under all circumstances, through whatever is awaiting me. And yes, yes, I know there's a benevolent hand over my head guiding me, so to be in the wrong place, at the wrong time, must have some meaning.
We are pulling into Agra. The tourists are being directed to the waiting deluxe coaches off to see the Taj Mahal. The porters are barging through the rush of passenger activity. They kick the stray dogs out of the way. They walk round the noble cows. I stand still on the platform surrounded by my sad luggage; we are waiting for the excitement to simmer down.
But who is this running towards me, laughing, shouting? Pritam Singh Nagpal—my friend—here? He embraces me with rib-crushing zeal while I am asking: Is it the 11th or the 12th?
Yes, yes, yes—he laughs—your paper is telling 12th and you are coming too soon! As we pour out of the station he starts telling me how he comes to be here although I am totally, irrevocably, ridiculously in the wrong place at the wrong time. When we get to his house, I ask him to write the whole incident down. I am reproducing it here as it came out in his own words:
Pritam Singh Nagpal Belaganj, Agra-4 13th Jan. 81
From this moment, how can I ever feel confusion, doubt, anxiety? Everything I am trying to do on this sadhana/journey is controlled. Everything is as it should be. Everything that has to be accomplished will surely be accomplished.”
Interestingly, I heard this story from Malcolm Tillis' own lips when he was living in Mussoorie, North India, and I was studying Hindi just down the road at the Landour Language School (circa summer 1983). I also got the chance to read his account in manuscript form, years before it was published. Moreover, I also got to know Pritam Singh Nagpal personally. He even served as my special guide and interpreter when I interviewed Agam Prasad Mathur, the current guru at Peepal Mandi, Agra, in the late 1980s. Both men are exceptionally honest and not prone to gross exaggerations when sharing their life stories.
Doesn't Tillis' story then substantiate to some measure Yogananda's fantastic memoir concerning the “saint with two bodies”?
Undoubtedly, it is suggestive and warrants further investigation. But we shouldn't rush our judgments too quickly since once again we are dealing with written recitals put down on paper after the event. What is odd about Tillis' account is how truly mundane it is. Okay, so Malcolm shows up a day earlier than he originally planned in Agra. He exclaims that “I will not be able to contact my friend, Pritam Singh Nagpal, for 24 hours!” Does Tillis not know Nagpal's home address? Is Nagpal without phone service? These and other questions naturally percolate since one is curious why a divine manifestation has to intervene so that Tillis doesn't have to depart the train station in Agra alone. Is it really the case that the holy image of the late Kirpal Singh shows up to a fellow devotee because a disciple cannot get a taxi?
My own hunch (and I realize that it is merely that) is the following: religious visions arise within an informational context which is elemental in understanding why, when, where, and how they arise. I don't doubt that Nagpal had a vision that Tillis might indeed be arriving a day earlier. But I suspect it was because Nagpal was anxious about his friend's arrival and may have intuited (consciously or otherwise) that Malcolm was confused about the exact date, since Sundays are less crowded than Mondays when everyone has to work. Perhaps Tillis had said he would arrive on Sunday but confused the exact date. Or perhaps, Tillis had mentioned coming on Satsang day, etc. All sorts of forgotten comments are possible, thus providing catalytic fuel for why Nagpal had such a vision.
Also, let's imagine the opposite: Nagpal has a vision of Tillis' earlier arrival and yet he doesn't show up until the next day. Would such a missed opportunity get written up in a book? I think not. We tend to remember our psychic hits, not our misses.
More importantly, I don't think a disembodied Kirpal Singh, long dead, is showing up unexpectedly to devoted disciples just to make sure that they meet friends at a train station on time. Rather, such visions are projections of our own mind and to the degree that they coordinate and confirm certain outward events, we deem them miraculous. But the uninspected caveat underpinning these numinous encounters is that many such visions turn out wrong.
More specifically, both Kedar Nath Babu's and Pritam Nagpal's visions were quasi prophetic in nature, since they involved being told to be at a certain place within a certain time. In their cases, about 30 minutes in the future. In religion, there is a long history of prophetic visions going back thousands of years, ranging from the shamanic seers to ancient Jewish sages. The statistical question that needs to be asked, but cannot be adequately answered, is how many turned out to be accurate and how many inaccurate, with a sliding scale between each? Only then, will we have been able to adjudicate their supposed “trans” rational character. Given that we live in a probability matrix where all sorts of improbable events will occur just by chance, it is not unreasonable to argue that some visions will turn out true, whereas the vast majority will turn out wrong or mistaken or incomplete.
Yet, there is another aspect of Swami Pranabananda's bilocation that warrants a closer look. According to Autobiography of a Yogi, the saint with two bodies boldly proclaims that “Why are you stupefied at all this? The subtle unity of the phenomenal world is not hidden from true yogis. I instantly see and converse with my disciples in distant Calcutta. They can similarly transcend at will every obstacle of gross matter.”
Quite a remarkable assertion, but is it true? I personally doubt Swami's unequivocal proclamation because we have yet to unearth an airtight case of such powers, despite some spiritualists and parapsychologists arguing otherwise. Yes, we have a large body of intriguing studies, which are redolent of a psychic realm, but nothing so conclusive that would give the vast majority of scientists pause.
In my forty plus years studying Indian mysticism and interviewing a score of yogis and mystics, who are considered masters in their respective meditational disciplines, none have demonstrated powers that could not be explained by present-day science. On this score, I have long championed the work of Baba Faqir Chand, the famous “unknowing” sage of Hoshiarpur, because he—unlike most of his counterpart gurus—tried his utmost to rationally and systematically explain the visions and supernatural events attributed directly to him. He went so far as to say that “These gurus have fooled us and looted us. They did not tell the truth.”
In Faqir experiences, various so-called masters used parlor tricks to convince devotees that they possessed celestial capabilities when they didn't. Do yogis really “transcend at will every obstacle of gross matter?” The ultimate jury is still out, but early findings suggest not.
But let me not end this chapter on a cynical note since if Swami Pranabananda and others of his ilk are telling the truth, then it should be very easy for us to verify their extraordinary claims. It would be completely refreshing for us skeptics to be shown how truly wrong we are to be so suspicious.
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