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David Christopher LaneDavid 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 Six: Overcoming Death, A Blue Sapphire,
and Muslim Wonder Worker

David Lane


Once again Yogananda's guru appears to be a master of thaumaturgy. This time he apparently has the power to prevent death if asked in the correct manner.

On the believable to unbelievable scale (from 1 to 10 that Sri Yukestwar could ward off death and extend a man's life) this hovers at a 9 plus.

"Because you and my son think so highly of Swami Sri Yukteswar, I will take a look at him." The tone of voice used by Dr. Narayan Chunder Roy implied that he was humoring the whim of half-wits. I concealed my indignation, in the best traditions of the proselyter.

My companion, a veterinary surgeon, was a confirmed agnostic. His young son Santosh had implored me to take an interest in his father. So far my invaluable aid had been a bit on the invisible side.

Dr. Roy accompanied me the following day to the Serampore hermitage. After Master had granted him a brief interview, marked for the most part by stoic silence on both sides, the visitor brusquely departed.

"Why bring a dead man to the ashram?" Sri Yukteswar looked at me inquiringly as soon as the door had closed on the Calcutta skeptic.

"Sir! The doctor is very much alive!"

"But in a short time he will be dead."

I was shocked. "Sir, this will be a terrible blow to his son. Santosh yet hopes for time to change his father's materialistic views. I beseech you, Master, to help the man."

"Very well; for your sake." My guru's face was impassive. "The proud horse doctor is far gone in diabetes, although he does not know it. In fifteen days he will take to his bed. The physicians will give him up for lost; his natural time to leave this earth is six weeks from today. Due to your intercession, however, on that date he will recover. But there is one condition. You must get him to wear an astrological bangle; he will doubtless object as violently as one of his horses before an operation!" Master chuckled.

After a silence, during which I wondered how Santosh and I could best employ the arts of cajolery on the recalcitrant doctor, Sri Yukteswar made further disclosures.

"As soon as the man gets well, advise him not to eat meat. He will not heed this counsel, however, and in six months, just as he is feeling at his best, he will drop dead. Even that six-month extension of life is granted him only because of your plea."

The following day I suggested to Santosh that he order an armlet at the jeweler's. It was ready in a week, but Dr. Roy refused to put it on.

"I am in the best of health. You will never impress me with these astrological superstitions." The doctor glanced at me belligerently.

I recalled with amusement that Master had justifiably compared the man to a balky horse. Another seven days passed; the doctor, suddenly ill, meekly consented to wear the bangle. Two weeks later the physician in attendance told me that his patient's case was hopeless. He supplied harrowing details of the ravages inflicted by diabetes.

I shook my head. "My guru has said that, after a sickness lasting one month, Dr. Roy will be well."

The physician stared at me incredulously. But he sought me out a fortnight later, with an apologetic air.

"Dr. Roy has made a complete recovery!" he exclaimed. "It is the most amazing case in my experience. Never before have I seen a dying man show such an inexplicable comeback. Your guru must indeed be a healing prophet!"

After one interview with Dr. Roy, during which I repeated Sri Yukteswar's advice about a meatless diet, I did not see the man again for six months. He stopped for a chat one evening as I sat on the piazza of my family home on Gurpar Road.

"Tell your teacher that by eating meat frequently, I have wholly regained my strength. His unscientific ideas on diet have not influenced me." It was true that Dr. Roy looked a picture of health.

But the next day Santosh came running to me from his home on the next block. "This morning Father dropped dead!" This case was one of my strangest experiences with Master. He healed the rebellious veterinary surgeon in spite of his disbelief, and extended the man's natural term on earth by six months, just because of my earnest supplication. Sri Yukteswar was boundless in his kindness when confronted by the urgent prayer of a devotee.

A Skeptical Analysis

On the believable to unbelievable scale (from 1 to 10 that Sri Yukestwar could ward off death and extend a man's life for six extra months) this hovers at a 9 plus. We don't want to go too far, since very shortly we will transcend that scale when we read about Babaji, the supposed “deathless” avatar.

There is something both cruel and reprehensible in this story that does not reflect well on either Yogananda or Sri Yukestwar. The story revolves around an agnostic doctor who we are told doesn't have long to live—or, at least, that's what we are led to believe by Sri Yukestwar who essentially calls him a dead man walking. But Yogananda pleads with his guru to help Dr. Roy to live longer, primarily because his son, Santosh, wants his father to change his non-religious and materialist views.

Apparently, Yukestwar accedes Yogananda's plaintive request but with certain key stipulations: Dr. Roy must wear an astrological armlet and turn vegetarian. He apparently does such after his illness gets worse, but later reverts to his old ways. Then, unexpectedly, dies. Yogananda believes that Sri Yukestwar extended the doctor's life because of his earnest supplication, but the underlying moral has a scorpion sting at the end. If only the Dr. had stayed vegetarian, worked with astrology, believed in God, accepted Yogananda's and his guru's admonitions, then he might have lived longer.

A divergent interpretation of what really happened is easily forthcoming: Dr. Roy, who suffered from diabetes, lived longer than was at first expected primarily due to the variances in how a disease progresses and the contingent nature of life spans, not because of Sri Yukestwar's intervention even though Yogananda will later attribute it as such.

This isn't so much a story of compassion, but of judgement, a not so subtle warning that bad things happen to those who denounce spiritual advice.


Yogananda then proceeds in the same chapter to inform his readers of yet another healing story; only this time it concerns a young boy named Sasi who was also somewhat rebellious and who in time suffered for not obeying his guru's instructions.

It was my proudest privilege to bring college friends to meet my guru. Many of them would lay aside-at least in the ashram!-their fashionable academic cloak of religious skepticism.

One of my friends, Sasi, spent a number of happy week ends in Serampore. Master became immensely fond of the boy, and lamented that his private life was wild and disorderly.

“Sasi, unless you reform, one year hence you will be dangerously ill.” Sri Yukteswar gazed at my friend with affectionate exasperation. “Mukunda is the witness: don't say later that I didn't warn you.”

Sasi laughed. “Master, I will leave it to you to interest a sweet charity of cosmos in my own sad case! My spirit is willing but my will is weak. You are my only savior on earth; I believe in nothing else.”

“At least you should wear a two-carat blue sapphire. It will help you.”

“I can't afford one. Anyhow, dear guruji, if trouble comes, I fully believe you will protect me.”

“In a year you will bring three sapphires,” Sri Yukteswar replied cryptically. “They will be of no use then.”

Variations on this conversation took place regularly. “I can't reform!” Sasi would say in comical despair. “And my trust in you, Master, is more precious to me than any stone!”

A year later I was visiting my guru at the Calcutta home of his disciple, Naren Babu. About ten o'clock in the morning, as Sri Yukteswar and I were sitting quietly in the second-floor parlor, I heard the front door open. Master straightened stiffly.

“It is that Sasi,” he remarked gravely. “The year is now up; both his lungs are gone. He has ignored my counsel; tell him I don't want to see him.”

Half stunned by Sri Yukteswar's sternness, I raced down the stairway. Sasi was ascending.

“O Mukunda! I do hope Master is here; I had a hunch he might be.”

“Yes, but he doesn't wish to be disturbed.”

Sasi burst into tears and brushed past me. He threw himself at Sri Yukteswar's feet, placing there three beautiful sapphires.

“Omniscient guru, the doctors say I have galloping tuberculosis! They give me no longer than three more months! I humbly implore your aid; I know you can heal me!”

“Isn't it a bit late now to be worrying over your life? Depart with your jewels; their time of usefulness is past.” Master then sat sphinxlike in an unrelenting silence, punctuated by the boy's sobs for mercy.

An intuitive conviction came to me that Sri Yukteswar was merely testing the depth of Sasi's faith in the divine healing power. I was not surprised a tense hour later when Master turned a sympathetic gaze on my prostrate friend.

“Get up, Sasi; what a commotion you make in other people's houses! Return your sapphires to the jeweler's; they are an unnecessary expense now. But get an astrological bangle and wear it. Fear not; in a few weeks you shall be well.”

Sasi's smile illumined his tear-marred face like sudden sun over a sodden landscape. “Beloved guru, shall I take the medicines prescribed by the doctors?”

Sri Yukteswar's glance was longanimous. “Just as you wish—drink them or discard them; it does not matter. It is more possible for the sun and moon to interchange their positions than for you to die of tuberculosis.” He added abruptly, “Go now, before I change my mind!”

With an agitated bow, my friend hastily departed. I visited him several times during the next few weeks, and was aghast to find his condition increasingly worse. “Sasi cannot last through the night.” These words from his physician, and the spectacle of my friend, now reduced almost to a skeleton, sent me posthaste to Serampore. My guru listened coldly to my tearful report.

“Why do you come here to bother me? You have already heard me assure Sasi of his recovery.”

I bowed before him in great awe, and retreated to the door. Sri Yukteswar said no parting word, but sank into silence, his unwinking eyes half-open, their vision fled to another world.

I returned at once to Sasi's home in Calcutta. With astonishment I found my friend sitting up, drinking milk.

“O Mukunda! What a miracle! Four hours ago I felt Master's presence in the room; my terrible symptoms immediately disappeared. I feel that through his grace I am entirely well.”

In a few weeks Sasi was stouter and in better health than ever before. But his singular reaction to his healing had an ungrateful tinge: he seldom visited Sri Yukteswar again! My friend told me one day that he so deeply regretted his previous mode of life that he was ashamed to face Master.

I could only conclude that Sasi's illness had had the contrasting effect of stiffening his will and impairing his manners.

A Skeptical Analysis

From astrological armlets to a precious sapphire. It sure seems like Sri Yukestwar is fond of phylacteries, which raises the question of whether it is the object's own hidden energy (unseen by normal eyes) or the subject's own faith in such that is operative. Apparently, it is combinatorial and both are necessary, at least that is how Yogananda's Autobiography paints it. The boy Sasi receives a healing, allegedly because his guru intervened, but instead of becoming more devoted to sadhana, spiritual practice, he “seldom visited Sri Yukestwar again.”

Once more Autobiography of Yogi undergirds a remarkable cure with a barbed reprimand, since “Sasi's illness had had the contrasting effect of stiffening his will and impairing his manners.

Sri Yukestwar displays an impervious, almost disdainful, demeanor towards the young boy who asks whether he should take his prescribed medicine or not. Telling Sasi that it doesn't matter since he is going to heal him regardless, but with the haughty words, “Go now, before I change my mind!”

The way Yogananda has constructed this anecdote (or parable?) it would appear that the healing was secondary to showing Sasi's ungratefulness and why he rarely visited the ashram again.

Does Sri Yukestwar really have the power to cure tuberculous? Or, it is more likely that Sasi was on the road to recovery anyways and that the guru was taking undue credit for it?


The following story seems to have been plucked whole out of One Thousand and One Nights. But, according to Yogananda, what transpired actually happened to his guru who exclaimed “Years ago, right in this very room you now occupy, a Mohammedan wonder-worker performed four miracles before me!”

“Afzal faithfully followed his yoga exercise for twenty years. His miraculous feats began to attract widespread attention. It seems that he was always accompanied by a disembodied spirit whom he called 'Hazrat.' This invisible entity was able to fulfill the FAKIR'S slightest wish.

Ignoring his master's warning, Afzal began to misuse his powers. Whatever object he touched and then replaced would soon disappear without a trace. This disconcerting eventuality usually made the Mohammedan an objectionable guest!

He visited large jewelry stores in Calcutta from time to time, representing himself as a possible purchaser. Any jewel he handled would vanish shortly after he had left the shop.

Afzal was often surrounded by several hundred students, attracted by the hope of learning his secrets. The fakir occasionally invited them to travel with him. At the railway station he would manage to touch a roll of tickets. These he would return to the clerk, remarking: 'I have changed my mind, and won't buy them now.' But when he boarded the train with his retinue, Afzal would be in possession of the required tickets.

These exploits created an indignant uproar; Bengali jewelers and ticket-sellers were succumbing to nervous breakdowns! The police who sought to arrest Afzal found themselves helpless; the fakir could remove incriminating evidence merely by saying: 'Hazrat, take this away.'

Sri Yukteswar rose from his seat and walked to the balcony of my room which overlooked the Ganges. I followed him, eager to hear more of the baffling Mohammedan Raffles.

This Panthi house formerly belonged to a friend of mine. He became acquainted with Afzal and asked him here. My friend also invited about twenty neighbors, including myself. I was only a youth then, and felt a lively curiosity about the notorious fakir. Master laughed. I took the precaution of not wearing anything valuable! Afzal looked me over inquisitively, then remarked:

'You have powerful hands. Go downstairs to the garden; get a smooth stone and write your name on it with chalk; then throw the stone as far as possible into the Ganges.'

I obeyed. As soon as the stone had vanished under distant waves, the Mohammedan addressed me again:

''Fill a pot with Ganges water near the front of this house.'

After I had returned with a vessel of water, the fakir cried, 'Hazrat, put the stone in the pot!' The stone appeared at once. I pulled it from the vessel and found my signature as legible as when I had written it.

Babu, one of my friends in the room, was wearing a heavy antique gold watch and chain. The fakir examined them with ominous admiration. Soon they were missing!

'Afzal, please return my prized heirloom!' Babu was nearly in tears.

The Mohammedan was stoically silent for awhile, then said, 'You have five hundred rupees in an iron safe. Bring them to me, and I will tell you where to locate your timepiece.'

The distraught Babu left immediately for his home. He came back shortly and handed Afzal the required sum.

'Go to the little bridge near your house,' the fakir instructed Babu. 'Call on Hazrat to give you the watch and chain.'

Babu rushed away. On his return, he was wearing a smile of relief and no jewelry whatever.

When I commanded Hazrat as directed, he announced, 'my watch came tumbling down from the air into my right hand! You may be sure I locked the heirloom in my safe before rejoining the group here!'

Babu's friends, witnesses of the comicotragedy of the ransom for a watch, were staring with resentment at Afzal. He now spoke placatingly.

'Please name any drink you want; Hazrat will produce it.'

A number asked for milk, others for fruit juices. I was not too much shocked when the unnerved Babu requested whisky! The Mohammedan gave an order; the obliging Hazrat sent sealed containers sailing down the air and thudding to the floor. Each man found his desired beverage.

The promise of the fourth spectacular feat of the day was doubtless gratifying to our host: Afzal offered to supply an instantaneous lunch!

'Let us order the most expensive dishes,' Babu suggested gloomily. 'I want an elaborate meal for my five hundred rupees! Everything should be served on gold plates!'

As soon as each man had expressed his preferences, the fakir addressed himself to the inexhaustible Hazrat. A great rattle ensued; gold platters filled with intricately-prepared curries, hot luchis, and many out-of-season fruits, landed from nowhere at our feet. All the food was delicious. After feasting for an hour, we started to leave the room. A tremendous noise, as though dishes were being piled up, caused us to turn around. Lo! there was no sign of the glittering plates or the remnants of the meal.

'Guruji,' I interrupted, 'if Afzal could easily secure such things as gold dishes, why did he covet the property of others?'

'The fakir was not highly developed spiritually,' Sri Yukteswar explained. 'His mastery of a certain yoga technique gave him access to an astral plane where any desire is immediately materialized. Through the agency of an astral being, Hazrat, the Mohammedan could summon the atoms of any object from etheric energy by an act of powerful will. But such astrally-produced objects are structurally evanescent; they cannot be long retained. Afzal still yearned for worldly wealth which, though more hardly earned, has a more dependable durability.'

I laughed. 'It too sometimes vanishes most unaccountably!'

'Afzal was not a man of God-realization,' Master went on. 'Miracles of a permanent and beneficial nature are performed by true saints because they have attuned themselves to the omnipotent Creator. Afzal was merely an ordinary man with an extraordinary power of penetrating a subtle realm not usually entered by mortals until death.'

A Skeptical Analysis

The more carefully one reads Autobiography the more incredulous it becomes. Here we are told that a Mohammedan by the name of Afzal Khan, because of his chance encounter with a Hindu yogi and due to his previous good karma, is taught a series of secret yogic practices which provides him “command over one of the invisible realms.” Apparently, a disembodied spirit named Hazrat accompanies him and “This invisible entity was able to fulfill the FAKIR'S slightest wish.”

What is so peculiar about this fanciful tale is that it seems pinched from Arabian Nights, since Hazrat has all the earmarks of a “genie” (“also jinn, djinn, from Arabic جني jinni”) who can grant wishes on command. Indeed, there are over ten distinct tales in One Thousand and One Nights which have a genie as a pivotal character. The contouring drive of Sri Yukestwar's remembrance seems to have been shaped by Yogananda in order to once again provide us with a moral arc.

Moreover, the four wonders that Afzal Khan's does perform in one day are only remarkable because they are so banal. If one really does command a genie, would producing whisky and a free lunch be top on the wish list?

Even Yogananda is curiously skeptical about why this Afzal Khan would have to resort to “stealing” his objects if he could have just as easily manifested the same out of thin air? To this, Sri Yukestwar gives a deeply unsatisfactory response, arguing that Khan lacked God realization and because of this his “astrally-produced objects” could only temporarily manifest, disappearing after a set duration. This explanation and Yukestwar's theological spin about why it happened thusly seem contrived at best. Yet, at its heart is a moral fable, since it is a reminder never to use occult powers selfishly. The last part of the chapter explains why.

“Master agreed. 'I never saw Afzal after that day, but a few years later Babu came to my home to show me a newspaper account of the Mohammedan's public confession. From it I learned the facts I have just told you about Afzal's early initiation from a Hindu guru.'

The gist of the latter part of the published document, as recalled by Sri Yukteswar, was as follows: 'I, Afzal Khan, am writing these words as an act of penance and as a warning to those who seek the possession of miraculous powers. For years I have been misusing the wondrous abilities imparted to me through the grace of God and my master. I became drunk with egotism, feeling that I was beyond the ordinary laws of morality. My day of reckoning finally arrived.

Recently I met an old man on a road outside Calcutta. He limped along painfully, carrying a shining object which looked like gold. I addressed him with greed in my heart.

'I am Afzal Khan, the great fakir . What have you there?'

'This ball of gold is my sole material wealth; it can be of no interest to a fakir . I implore you, sir, to heal my limp.'

I touched the ball and walked away without reply. The old man hobbled after me. He soon raised an outcry: 'My gold is gone!'

As I paid no attention, he suddenly spoke in a stentorian voice that issued oddly from his frail body:

'Do you not recognize me?'

I stood speechless, aghast at the belated discovery that this unimpressive old cripple was none other than the great saint who, long, long ago, had initiated me into yoga. He straightened himself; his body instantly became strong and youthful.

''So!' My guru's glance was fiery. 'I see with my own eyes that you use your powers, not to help suffering humanity, but to prey on it like a common thief! I withdraw your occult gifts; Hazrat is now freed from you. No longer shall you be a terror in Bengal!'

I called on Hazrat in anguished tones; for the first time, he did not appear to my inner sight. But some dark veil suddenly lifted within me; I saw clearly the blasphemy of my life.

"'My guru, I thank you for coming to banish my long delusion.' I was sobbing at his feet. 'I promise to forsake my worldly ambitions. I will retire to the mountains for lonely meditation on God, hoping to atone for my evil past.'

My master regarded me with silent compassion. 'I feel your sincerity,' he said finally. 'Because of your earlier years of strict obedience, and because of your present repentance, I will grant you one boon. Your other powers are now gone, but whenever food and clothing are needed, you may still call successfully on Hazrat to supply them. Devote yourself wholeheartedly to divine understanding in the mountain solitudes.'

'My guru then vanished; I was left to my tears and reflections. Farewell, world! I go to seek the forgiveness of the Cosmic Beloved.'

From a more jaundiced perspective, it seems that instead of possessing miraculous powers, the “Mohammedan Wonder-Worker” was a thief who was adept at sleight of hand magic and used his “yogi taught me secrets” as a cover. But from Yogananda's purview, perhaps the real lesson is never to use occult (or any?) powers for corrupt reasons.

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