Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
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 Ten: Conclusion

David Lane

When I was young and very naïve I believed almost every miracle story told in Paramahansa Yogananda's Autobiography of a Yogi.

When I was young and very naïve I believed almost every miracle story told in Paramahansa Yogananda's Autobiography of a Yogi. Now fifty-two years later I have a hard time accepting any of the wondrous tales as true. Yet, even though I doubt that saints can levitate, or produce perfume at will, or raise the dead, I am convinced that the practice of yoga and meditation shorn of its encrusted mythic elements is of exceptional value for human flourishing. And, in this regard, I think Yogananda has performed a valuable service by introducing his system of pranayama, asanas, mudras, and dhyan to the West, despite that it has been overly hyped and romanticized for too long.

It is obvious that Yogananda's book was intended to be a thrilling page turner and in order to accomplish this literary goal he edited out much that would cast doubt on his incredible adventures. Although the Autobiography is hagiographical in many parts, it still provides a valuable glimpse into Yogananda's personal relationships and the development of his spiritual outlook from childhood to six years before his untimely death at the age of 59 years old.

Paramahansa Yogananda
Paramahansa Yogananda

Much has been made in Self-Realization Fellowship literature about the supposed incorporeality of Yogananda's body after death. In subsequent editions of Autobiography of a Yogi, SRF publishers have included a one-page statement claiming, “Weeks after his departure his unchanged face shone with the divine luster of incorruptibility.” To further support this remarkable occurrence, an edited statement from Mr. Harry T. Rowe, Mortuary Director, Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale, California, is included which goes on to state that “At the time of receiving Yogananda's body, the Mortuary personnel expected to observe, through the glass lid of the casket, the usual progressive signs of bodily decay. Our astonishment increased as day followed day without bringing any visible change in the body under observation. Yogananda's body was apparently in a phenomenal state of immutability . . . No odor of decay emanated from his body at any time.”

Was this yet another miracle? Sadly, no, since a deeper investigation into the matter by Harry Edwards uncovered significant details that were left out in the SRF publicity circular.

“Professor Angel was impressed, but not convinced. He obtained a copy of Yogananda's death certificate from the Los Angeles Department of Vital Statistics which confirmed that Yogananda had died on March 7th, the certificate of death being received by the registrar on March 11 1952. However, the certificate also bore the signature 'Kenneth I. Johnson', and the number 2641. It was contained in box #21, above which were the words "Signature of embalmer."

Confirmation that Yogananda had in fact been embalmed was found in the full text of Harry Rowe's letter in a little booklet entitled Paramahansa Yogananda, In Memoriam, put out by the Self-Realization Fellowship. It reads,

'Paramahansa Yogananda's body was embalmed an the night of March 8th, with that quantity of fluid which is customarily used in any body of similar size.'

So what was the miracle?

According to the full text of Harry Rowe's letter the astonishment was only due to the fact that the funeral home staff had not used any creams in addition to the embalming fluid—a creamy pore-sealing emulsion that temporarily prevents the outward appearance of mould.

A check with two independent licensed embalmers elicited the following comments,

'I'm sure we've had bodies for two or three months with good preservation. This is not unusual. Creams are not necessary', and '...that preservation for 20 days through embalming is not unusual. We can keep a body a month or two without interral… an embalming fluid with a lanolin base will have humecant which prevents dehydration, which is the major concern...a heavy glass lid as is described by Mr Rowe as being present on the casket, would prevent a great amount of air circulation, and that in itself would prevent most desiccation, so that would account for it.'

Far from being 'a demonstration of yogic powers', 'a phenomenal state of immutability' or 'a miracle through the grace of the Heavenly Father', it seems that any perception that a miracle had occurred was simply the result of misleading selections taken from a misleading letter.” ["Incorruptibility: Miracle or Myth?", Harry Edwards, November 1995]
Paramahansa Yogananda, In Memoriam

It is a truism in the field of parapsychology that in investigating psychic phenomena and the like, the more information one has about the specific event the less psychic it appears. In the case of Yogananda's Autobiography of a Yogi, the closer one looks at each singular event the less miraculous they seem.

Manamohan Mazumder, later known as Satyananda Giri, was also a direct disciple of Sri Yukteswar and knew Yogananda as a young boy. He has a completely different understanding of what their joint guru taught which casts a shadow on the Autobiography of a Yogi, “He [Yukteswar] believed that most of those supernatural stories were nonsense . . . [and] that the extreme emotionalism of devotees spreading ridiculous stories about them brought their gurus down to a lower level instead of glorifying them.”

The skeptical thermostat on outrageous yogic claims has only gotten hotter these past three decades as scandal after scandal has exposed the underbelly of Indian gurus and their nefarious activities (from Swami Muktananda to Swami Rama to Sathya Sai Baba to Rajneesh/Osho). Yogananda had to weather his fair share of criticism early in his career, especially when his close associate Swami Dhirananda broke off from him and his organization. A lawsuit ensued and a “A Decree of Judgment was made on October 22nd, 1935 “in favor of the Compliant, Swami Giri-Dhirananda for the collection of the Promissory Note of $8,000.00.” Later “Swami Yogananda did give Notice of Intention to Move for a New Trial, but the Court denied the Motion on the 26th of November 1935.”

Prior to his breakup with Swami Dhirananda (who later got married and secured his doctorate at the University of Iowa in Electroencephalography), Yogananda faced an onslaught of bad publicity as his fame grew in the late 1920s. As Jeannette Dewyze chronicled in her cover story article, “Those who knew Yogananda—Encinitas' Swami” for the San Diego Reader on October 20, 1994:

That every official in L.A. was not dazzled by the swami seems apparent from a series of articles that appeared in the Times in 1928. 'Cult To Be Subject of New Inquiry,' announced one. It stated that although the district attorney's office some months before had looked into the practices at the Mt. Washington center and had found 'nothing criminal,' another investigation was being launched 'to establish if any juvenile laws are being violated at the Hindu cuh headquarters.' A few days later, a longer article alluded to 'accusations that a love-cult is being conducted under the cloak of the Vedantic religion of India' and elaborated, 'The interest of the District Attorney's office in the asserted love-cult activity is said to be centered on whether young girls were included in the various classes in which love and sex theories are declared to be unfolded.'

If the D.A. ever discovered any wrongdoing, no record of it survives in the indices to the old Times articles. And it seems unlikely that any loose behavior was occurring; Yogananda's writings suggest he himself was a lifelong celibate whose attitude toward sex fell somewhere between mild dislike and repulsion.

But Los Angeles wasn't the only place where racy rumors swirled around the guru. At the very same time that the L.A. district attorney's minions were poking their noses into the classrooms at Mt. Washington, Yogananda was in Miami — caught up in a scandal whose repercussions reached as far as the New York Times. One of its front-page stories on January 4, 1928, told how Miami officials and police were ordering Yogananda not to speak publicly in the Florida city because they thought if he did, “violence might result,” instigated by husbands enraged over their wives paying the guru up to $35 for lessons. One irate gentleman reportedly told the police chief “that if he found his wife at the lecture he would kill Yogananda. He said he had asked his wife not to attend...but she had said she would do so if the Swami appeared,” the article stated. 'The son of another woman reported that he had found his mother trying to walk on the Miami River because 'Yogananda told her she could do it.' Despite testimony from a former California congressman that Yogananda was 'one of the most godly men he ever knew,' along with other legal efforts, Yogananda finally left Miami, in compliance with police orders.”[1]

Yogananda's reputation, though not without question marks, has continued to shine brighter decades after his death. Although he wrote several books, his most famous text remains the Autobiography of a Yogi, which still sells thousands of copies yearly around the world in many different languages and has become a touchstone for introducing new audiences to yoga and Eastern philosophy.

Even if none of the miracles happened as described by Yogananda, it doesn't then mean that meditation and yoga are without merit. What is important to remember is that we have to retain our critical and discriminating minds when studying any subject, but particularly when analyzing paranormal claims. Meditation and yoga don't need to be hyped with unverifiable supernatural stories. They work just fine without the unnecessary glossing sheen that is too often layered upon them.


[1] Jeannette DeWyze, "Those who knew Yogananda – Encinitas' swami", Oct. 20, 1994.

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