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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 Seven: Karma, Conversion, and
the Science of Yoga

David Lane


Perhaps the most misunderstood concept in Indian religions (from Jainism to Buddhism to Hinduism to Sikhism) is the idea of karma, where one's actions determine future consequences. It has been popularized in an American slogan with “what goes around, comes around.” The problem is that karma and its conjoined concept, reincarnation, are often referred to as metaphysical axioms, inviolate laws which are universally applicable. Here Yogananda tells of how bad actions can be eradicated by an enlightened guru, but without convincing evidence.

“'Master dangerously ill.' This telegram from Auddy reached me shortly after my return to Serampore. 'Sir,' I wired my guru frantically, 'I asked for your promise not to leave me. Please keep your body; otherwise, I also shall die.'

'Be it as you wish.' This was Sri Yukteswar's reply from Kashmir.

A letter from Auddy arrived in a few days, informing me that Master had recovered. On his return to Serampore during the next fortnight, I was grieved to find my guru's body reduced to half its usual weight.

Fortunately for his disciples, Sri Yukteswar burned many of their sins in the fire of his severe fever in Kashmir. The metaphysical method of physical transfer of disease is known to highly advanced yogis. A strong man can assist a weaker one by helping to carry his heavy load; a spiritual superman is able to minimize his disciples' physical or mental burdens by sharing the karma of their past actions. Just as a rich man loses some money when he pays off a large debt for his prodigal son, who is thus saved from dire consequences of his own folly, so a master willingly sacrifices a portion of his bodily wealth to lighten the misery of disciples.

By a secret method, the yogi unites his mind and astral vehicle with those of a suffering individual; the disease is conveyed, wholly or in part, to the saint's body. Having harvested God on the physical field, a master no longer cares what happens to that material form. Though he may allow it to register a certain disease in order to relieve others, his mind is never affected; he considers himself fortunate in being able to render such aid.”

A Skeptical Analysis

Many disciples of gurus in India I have met believe that their spiritual teachers can actually “burn off” karma. In this account we are informed that “Sri Yukteswar burned many of their sins in the fire of his severe fever in Kashmir.” Yogananda posits that his guru did this by a literal “physical transfer of disease” from his student's own body on to his.

This explains, in part, why such exalted saints get sick and have other ailments. It is not due to their own sins (or negative karma), but because they are so merciful that they are willing to sacrifice their health for others.

I have long suspected that this type of reasoning was common among devotees since it helped explain that which on the surface looks inexplicable, especially if the master is viewed as “perfect.” I recall seeing my own guru, Charan Singh, being somewhat ill after conducting massive initiations at the Dera in the Punjab, India. My more orthodox friends would invariably tell me that Charan was suffering from a bad cold at this time because he was taking on the karmas of his new initiates.

However, I had a much simpler explanation which put me in a heretical camp. Charan got sick because he was in such close proximity to thousands of people and this was why he may have caught a cold or a flu. It wasn't that he consciously took on their karmas, but that he unconsciously took on their infections!

The idea of vicarious atonement, which has been articulated to a high degree in Christianity, is an ancient concept where our chosen deities or gods or heroes go through trials and tribulations and suffer accordingly because they take the burden of our sins onto their own bodies. Essentially, we suffer less as they suffer more.

As Yogananda goes on to clarify, “The devotee who has achieved final salvation in the Lord finds that his body has completely fulfilled its purpose; he can then use it in any way he deems fit. His work in the world is to alleviate the sorrows of mankind, whether through spiritual means or by intellectual counsel or through will power or by the physical transfer of disease. Escaping to the superconsciousness whenever he so desires, a master can remain oblivious of physical suffering; sometimes he chooses to bear bodily pain stoically, as an example to disciples. By putting on the ailments of others, a yogi can satisfy, for them, the karmic law of cause and effect. This law is mechanically or mathematically operative; its workings can be scientifically manipulated by men of divine wisdom.”

While this type of metaphysical logic appeals to devotees of differing religions, it isn't persuasive or evidential to those who are not so affiliated or invested in the specific tradition. To the skeptic, it looks to be a classic case of projection and justification.


A common theme running throughout Autobiography of a Yogi is the tension between religious believers and those who have a more secular or agnostic outlook. In this chapter, Yogananda tries to help convert his sister's husband away from materialism to a more spiritual outlook.

“'As a loyal Hindu wife, I do not wish to complain of my husband. But I yearn to see him turn from his materialistic views. He delights in ridiculing the pictures of saints in my meditation room. Dear brother, I have deep faith that you can help him. Will you?'

My eldest sister Roma gazed beseechingly at me. I was paying a short visit at her Calcutta home on Girish Vidyaratna Lane. Her plea touched me, for she had exercised a profound spiritual influence over my early life, and had lovingly tried to fill the void left in the family circle by Mother's death.

'Beloved sister, of course I will do anything I can.' I smiled, eager to lift the gloom plainly visible on her face, in contrast to her usual calm and cheerful expression.

Roma and I sat awhile in silent prayer for guidance. A year earlier, my sister had asked me to initiate her into Kriya Yoga, in which she was making notable progress.

An inspiration seized me. 'Tomorrow,' I said, 'I am going to the Dakshineswar temple. Please come with me, and persuade your husband to accompany us. I feel that in the vibrations of that holy place, Divine Mother will touch his heart. But don't disclose our object in wanting him to go.'

Sister agreed hopefully. Very early the next morning I was pleased to find that Roma and her husband were in readiness for the trip. As our hackney carriage rattled along Upper Circular Road toward Dakshineswar, my brother-in-law, Satish Chandra Bose, amused himself by deriding spiritual gurus of the past, present, and future. I noticed that Roma was quietly weeping.

'Sister, cheer up!' I whispered. "Don't give your husband the satisfaction of believing that we take his mockery seriously."

'Mukunda, how can you admire worthless humbugs?' Satish was saying. "A SADHU'S very appearance is repulsive. He is either as thin as a skeleton, or as unholily fat as an elephant!"

I shouted with laughter. My good-natured reaction was annoying to Satish; he retired into sullen silence. As our cab entered the Dakshineswar grounds, he grinned sarcastically.

'This excursion, I suppose, is a scheme to reform me?'

As I turned away without reply, he caught my arm. 'Young Mr. Monk,' he said, "don't forget to make proper arrangements with the temple authorities to provide for our noon meal."

'I am going to meditate now. Do not worry about your lunch,' I replied sharply. 'Divine Mother will look after it.'

'I don't trust Divine Mother to do a single thing for me. But I do hold you responsible for my food.' Satish's tones were threatening.

I proceeded alone to the colonnaded hall which fronts the large temple of Kali, or Mother Nature. Selecting a shady spot near one of the pillars, I arranged my body in the lotus posture. Although it was only about seven o'clock, the morning sun would soon be oppressive.

The world receded as I became devotionally entranced. My mind was concentrated on Goddess Kali, whose image at Dakshineswar had been the special object of adoration by the great master, Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa. In answer to his anguished demands, the stone image of this very temple had often taken a living form and conversed with him.

'Silent Mother with stony heart,' I prayed, 'Thou becamest filled with life at the request of Thy beloved devotee Ramakrishna; why dost Thou not also heed the wails of this yearning son of Thine?'

My aspiring zeal increased boundlessly, accompanied by a divine peace. Yet, when five hours had passed, and the Goddess whom I was inwardly visualizing had made no response, I felt slightly disheartened. Sometimes it is a test by God to delay the fulfillment of prayers. But He eventually appears to the persistent devotee in whatever form he holds dear. A devout Christian sees Jesus; a Hindu beholds Krishna, or the Goddess Kali, or an expanding Light if his worship takes an impersonal turn.

Reluctantly I opened my eyes, and saw that the temple doors were being locked by a priest, in conformance with a noon-hour custom. I rose from my secluded seat under the open, roofed hall, and stepped into the courtyard. Its stone floor was scorching under the midday sun; my bare feet were painfully burned.

'Divine Mother,' I silently remonstrated, 'Thou didst not come to me in vision, and now Thou art hidden in the temple behind closed doors. I wanted to offer a special prayer to Thee today on behalf of my brother-in-law.'

My inward petition was instantly acknowledged. First, a delightful cold wave descended over my back and under my feet, banishing all discomfort. Then, to my amazement, the temple became greatly magnified. Its large door slowly opened, revealing the stone figure of Goddess Kali. Gradually it changed into a living form, smilingly nodding in greeting, thrilling me with joy indescribable. As if by a mystic syringe, the breath was withdrawn from my lungs; my body became very still, though not inert.

An ecstatic enlargement of consciousness followed. I could see clearly for several miles over the Ganges River to my left, and beyond the temple into the entire Dakshineswar precincts. The walls of all buildings glimmered transparently; through them I observed people walking to and fro over distant acres. Though I was breathless and my body in a strangely quiet state, yet I was able to move my hands and feet freely. For several minutes I experimented in closing and opening my eyes; in either state I saw distinctly the whole Dakshineswar panorama.

Spiritual sight, x-raylike, penetrates into all matter; the divine eye is center everywhere, circumference nowhere. I realized anew, standing there in the sunny courtyard, that when man ceases to be a prodigal child of God, engrossed in a physical world indeed dream, baseless as a bubble, he reinherits his eternal realms. If 'escapism' be a need of man, cramped in his narrow personality, can any escape compare with the majesty of omnipresence?

In my sacred experience at Dakshineswar, the only extraordinarily- enlarged objects were the temple and the form of the Goddess. Everything else appeared in its normal dimensions, although each was enclosed in a halo of mellow light-white, blue, and pastel rainbow hues. My body seemed to be of ethereal substance, ready to levitate. Fully conscious of my material surroundings, I was looking about me and taking a few steps without disturbing the continuity of the blissful vision.

Behind the temple walls I suddenly glimpsed my brother-in-law as he sat under the thorny branches of a sacred bel tree. I could effortlessly discern the course of his thoughts. Somewhat uplifted under the holy influence of Dakshineswar, his mind yet held unkind reflections about me. I turned directly to the gracious form of the Goddess.

'Divine Mother,' I prayed, 'wilt Thou not spiritually change my sister's husband?'

The beautiful figure, hitherto silent, spoke at last: 'Thy wish is granted!'

I looked happily at Satish. As though instinctively aware that some spiritual power was at work, he rose resentfully from his seat on the ground. I saw him running behind the temple; he approached me, shaking his fist.

The all-embracing vision disappeared. No longer could I see the glorious Goddess; the towering temple was reduced to its ordinary size, minus its transparency. Again my body sweltered under the fierce rays of the sun. I jumped to the shelter of the pillared hall, where Satish pursued me angrily. I looked at my watch. It was one o'clock; the divine vision had lasted an hour.

'You little fool,' my brother-in-law blurted out, 'you have been sitting there cross-legged and cross-eyed for six hours. I have gone back and forth watching you. Where is my food? Now the temple is closed; you failed to notify the authorities; we are left without lunch!'

The exaltation I had felt at the Goddess' presence was still vibrant within my heart. I was emboldened to exclaim, 'Divine Mother will feed us!'

Satish was beside himself with rage. 'Once and for all,' he shouted, 'I would like to see your Divine Mother giving us food here without prior arrangements!' His words were hardly uttered when a temple priest crossed the courtyard and joined us.

'Son,' he addressed me, 'I have been observing your face serenely glowing during hours of meditation. I saw the arrival of your party this morning, and felt a desire to put aside ample food for your lunch. It is against the temple rules to feed those who do not make a request beforehand, but I have made an exception for you.'

I thanked him, and gazed straight into Satish's eyes. He flushed with emotion, lowering his gaze in silent repentance. When we were served a lavish meal, including out-of-season mangoes, I noticed that my brother-in-law's appetite was meager. He was bewildered, diving deep into the ocean of thought. On the return journey to Calcutta, Satish, with softened expression, occasionally glanced at me pleadingly. But he did not speak a single word after the moment the priest had appeared to invite us to lunch, as though in direct answer to Satish's challenge.

The following afternoon I visited my sister at her home. She greeted me affectionately.

'Dear brother,' she cried, 'what a miracle! Last evening my husband wept openly before me.'

'Beloved devi,' he said, 'I am happy beyond expression that this reforming scheme of your brother's has wrought a transformation. I am going to undo every wrong I have done you. From tonight we will use our large bedroom only as a place of worship; your small meditation room shall be changed into our sleeping quarters. I am sincerely sorry that I have ridiculed your brother. For the shameful way I have been acting, I will punish myself by not talking to Mukunda until I have progressed in the spiritual path. Deeply I will seek the Divine Mother from now on; someday I must surely find Her!'

Years later, I visited my brother-in-law in Delhi. I was overjoyed to perceive that he had developed highly in self-realization, and had been blessed by the vision of Divine Mother. During my stay with him, I noticed that Satish secretly spent the greater part of every night in divine meditation, though he was suffering from a serious ailment, and was engaged during the day at his office.”

A Skeptical Analysis

What a difference a good meal makes? Yogananda liked to convert agnostics into believers and this story concerning his brother-in-law, Satish, is just one of a series where a doubter turns into a believer because of some divine intervention, or so we are told.

Yet, what seems strange is how easily Satish converts because of an unexpected lunch at a temple. Instead of making adequate preparations, Yogananda (as his habit) relies on the Divine Mother to do his bidding when in desperate need. Thus, when Satish gets angry at Yogananda for not arranging a meal, he taunts him and basically asks for a minor miracle. Yogananda, not skipping a beat, exclaims “Divine Mother will feed us!”

And just on cue, a temple mahant shows up saying how impressed he was with Yogananda's serene meditational posturing and thus laid aside food for the young pilgrims.

Apparently, Satish sees this as a divine intervention (as does Yogananda) and thus he has a change of heart and becomes “developed highly in self-realization, and had been blessed by the vision of Divine Mother.”

Two things are operational in the narrative: first and foremost, Yogananda's has God's ear and she inevitably responds when called; and second, tiny miracles can change a cold and cynical heart into a loving devotee. It is a tale of conversion, which is prevalent throughout the world's religions.

Yet, if we look at it more equitably, it is not at all surprising that a temple priest would offer lunch to two young Hindus, even if it was outside the normal feeding time. Thus, the story is one of coincidence. That Yogananda and Satish take it to be more is, not surprising, since it is a very common reaction in many religious communities. Those not so invested don't see a sacred invisible hand at work.


For me the lasting value of the Autobiography is its emphasis on meditation, yoga, and ethical living. These three jewels stand out as wonderful reminders of what is humanly possible, even if the miracles and other extraordinary claims attributed to them do not ultimately pass the muster.

“The ancient rishi Patanjali defines 'yoga' as 'control of the fluctuations of the mind-stuff.' His very short and masterly expositions, the Yoga Sutras, form one of the six systems of Hindu philosophy. In contradistinction to Western philosophies, all six Hindu systems embody not only theoretical but practical teachings. In addition to every conceivable ontological inquiry, the six systems formulate six definite disciplines aimed at the permanent removal of suffering and the attainment of timeless bliss.

The common thread linking all six systems is the declaration that no true freedom for man is possible without knowledge of the ultimate Reality. The later Upanishads uphold the Yoga Sutras, among the six systems, as containing the most efficacious methods for achieving direct perception of truth. Through the practical techniques of yoga, man leaves behind forever the barren realms of speculation and cognizes in experience the veritable Essence.

The Yoga system as outlined by Patanjali is known as the Eightfold Path. The first steps, (1) yama and (2) niyama , require observance of ten negative and positive moralities-avoidance of injury to others, of untruthfulness, of stealing, of incontinence, of gift-receiving (which brings obligations); and purity of body and mind, contentment, self- discipline, study, and devotion to God.

The next steps are (3) asana (right posture); the spinal column must be held straight, and the body firm in a comfortable position for meditation; (4) pranayama (control of prana, subtle life currents); and (5) pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses from external objects).

The last steps are forms of yoga proper: (6) dharana (concentration); holding the mind to one thought; (7) dhyana (meditation), and (8) samadhi (superconscious perception). This is the Eightfold Path of Yoga which leads one to the final goal of Kaivalya (Absoluteness), a term which might be more comprehensibly put as 'realization of the Truth beyond all intellectual apprehension.'

'Which is greater,' one may ask, 'a swami or a yogi?' If and when final oneness with God is achieved, the distinctions of the various paths disappear. The Bhagavad Gita, however, points out that the methods of yoga are all-embracive. Its techniques are not meant only for certain types and temperaments, such as those few who incline toward the monastic life; yoga requires no formal allegiance. Because the yogic science satisfies a universal need, it has a natural universal applicability.

A true yogi may remain dutifully in the world; there he is like butter on water, and not like the easily-diluted milk of unchurned and undisciplined humanity. To fulfill one's earthly responsibilities is indeed the higher path, provided the yogi, maintaining a mental uninvolvement with egotistical desires, plays his part as a willing instrument of God.

There are a number of great souls, living in American or European or other non-Hindu bodies today who, though they may never have heard the words yogi and swami, are yet true exemplars of those terms. Through their disinterested service to mankind, or through their mastery over passions and thoughts, or through their single hearted love of God, or through their great powers of concentration, they are, in a sense, yogis; they have set themselves the goal of yoga-self-control. These men could rise to even greater heights if they were taught the definite science of yoga, which makes possible a more conscious direction of one's mind and life.

Yoga has been superficially misunderstood by certain Western writers, but its critics have never been its practitioners. Among many thoughtful tributes to yoga may be mentioned one by Dr. C. G. Jung, the famous Swiss psychologist.

'When a religious method recommends itself as 'scientific,' it can be certain of its public in the West. Yoga fulfills this expectation,' Dr. Jung writes. 24-7 'Quite apart from the charm of the new, and the fascination of the half-understood, there is good cause for Yoga to have many adherents. It offers the possibility of controllable experience, and thus satisfies the scientific need of 'facts,' and besides this, by reason of its breadth and depth, its venerable age, its doctrine and method, which include every phase of life, it promises undreamed-of possibilities.

Every religious or philosophical practice means a psychological discipline, that is, a method of mental hygiene. The manifold, purely bodily procedures of Yoga also mean a physiological hygiene which is superior to ordinary gymnastics and breathing exercises, inasmuch as it is not merely mechanistic and scientific, but also philosophical; in its training of the parts of the body, it unites them with the whole of the spirit, as is quite clear, for instance, in the Pranayama exercises where Prana is both the breath and the universal dynamics of the cosmos.

When the thing which the individual is doing is also a cosmic event, the effect experienced in the body (the innervation), unites with the emotion of the spirit (the universal idea), and out of this there develops a lively unity which no technique, however scientific, can produce. Yoga practice is unthinkable, and would also be ineffectual, without the concepts on which Yoga is based. It combines the bodily and the spiritual with each other in an extraordinarily complete way.

In the East, where these ideas and practices have developed, and where for several thousand years an unbroken tradition has created the necessary spiritual foundations, Yoga is, as I can readily believe, the perfect and appropriate method of fusing body and mind together so that they form a unity which is scarcely to be questioned. This unity creates a psychological disposition which makes possible intuitions that transcend consciousness.

The Western day is indeed nearing when the inner science of self-control will be found as necessary as the outer conquest of nature. This new Atomic Age will see men's minds sobered and broadened by the now scientifically indisputable truth that matter is in reality a concentrate of energy. Finer forces of the human mind can and must liberate energies greater than those within stones and metals, lest the material atomic giant, newly unleashed, turn on the world in mindless destruction.”

A Skeptical Analysis

When Yogananda wrote the preceding, yoga was only known and practiced among a certain limited percentage of Americans. Today, hatha yoga, in particular, has become a worldwide phenomenon with adherents from almost all corners of the globe. It is now generally recognized as a healthy, stress reducing exercise, even shorn of its Hindu iconography. Meditation as well has become widely adopted, even by individuals and businesses that are not religiously minded. In addition, vegetarian and vegan diets have become a viable alternative for millions who are concerned with improving their health, the environment, and lessening the suffering of animals.

In this regard, Yogananda's writings have been exceptionally influential and have inspired thousands, if not millions, to change their lifestyle. The problem for skeptics (and it is a danger whenever diamonds are mixed with rubble) is to avoid the temptation of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. If one does a cynical reading of Yogananda's book, it may be tempting (given his predisposition for miracle mongering) to dismiss everything he says as so much pseudoscientific bunkum. But that would be a serious mistake, since Yogananda has much to say that has merit and is worthy of deep consideration.

Let us underline why. First, mastering various body postures (known as asanas) is extremely helpful in making one much more limber, allowing for greater agility in difficult situations. As a surfer, I have long noticed how doing specific yogic poses has improved my ability to ride waves in heavy conditions. Many athletes around the globe—from footballers to basketballers to golfers—have included doing asanas in their daily routine. In each of these sports, increasing one's flexibility is elemental.

Second, mastering breath control (known as pranayama) has been medically proven to improve not only one's health, but increases stamina and can significantly reduce anxiety. Yogis realized early on that how we breathe alters how we think and behave. Learning how to alter our oxygen intake can dramatically improve our ability to remain calm in dangerous situations. As Sat Bir S. Khalsa, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, explains:

“One study showed that pranayama significantly reduces the risk of arrhythmia, an abnormal heart rhythm that may prevent the heart from pumping enough blood to the body, by changing underlying electrophysiological characteristics of heart activity in in patients with arrhythmia.
The work of pranayama researcher Luciano Bernardi in Italy has identified a strong capability for slow breathing practices to have profound effects on the autonomic nervous system, including the capability of reducing blood pressure, even in patients with hypertension (high blood pressure), over the short term. In a subsequent study lending credence to the possibility of the efficacy of yoga for this condition, the effect of pranayama on hypertension blood pressure was documented. Patients who practiced three months of slow breathing showed significant reductions in blood pressure. . . .
In one intriguing study, breath control exercises were posited as an inexpensive, accessible method for reducing cigarette cravings. Participants visited the laboratory twice and were asked to abstain from smoking 12 hours prior to the first visit until the end of the second visit. They were randomly allocated into two groups; one was assigned a 10-minute yogic breathing exercise to practice each time they experienced cravings, while another was shown a breathing exercise video and asked simply to concentrate on their breathing. Results showed that craving measures were reduced in the yogic breathing group, as compared with the video group.”

Third, although the practice of meditation (dhyan) includes many varied methods, the ability to focus one's attention for prolonged periods of time has remarkable benefits. One such concentrative iteration, known generally as mindfulness, has become increasingly popular. As the well-known neuroscientist and author, Sam Harris, elucidates,

“I generally recommend a method called vipassana in which one cultivates a form of attention widely known as “mindfulness.” There is nothing spooky or irrational about mindfulness, and the literature on its psychological benefits is now substantial. Mindfulness is simply a state of clear, nonjudgmental, and nondiscursive attention to the contents of consciousness, whether pleasant or unpleasant. Developing this quality of mind has been shown to reduce pain, anxiety, and depression; improve cognitive function; and even produce changes in gray matter density in regions of the brain related to learning and memory, emotional regulation, and self-awareness.”

Yogananda championed his own particular brand of yoga that he learned from his guru, Sri Yukestwar, who, in turn, learned it from his master, Lahiri Mahasaya. It is called kriya yoga and incorporates elements of several differing yogic systems, including hatha, raja, and shabd yoga, etc. The problem, of course, is that the more scientifically verifiable aspects of kriya yoga are too often intertwined with inflated theological dogmas.

The critical practitioner of these Hindu and Buddhist arts must have a finely tuned sense of discrimination, since though there is much to admire and appreciate in the differing yoga systems, it is often encrusted with mythological superstructures that are antiquated and inaccurate.

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