Tag Archives: Hinduism

The review of Autobiography of a Yogi

Portrait of Steve Jobs holding Autobiography of a Yogi

Autobiography of a Yogi, as the name suggests, is an autobiography of an Indian yogi named Paramhansa Yogananda. Prior to becoming a yogi, his name was Mukunda Lal Ghosh and was the fourth child of a financially comfortable Bengali family.

From his childhood itself he was drawn towards spiritualism, search for God and finding the true meaning of life. Once he scared his little sister by drawing three paper kites (being flown by other kids on other roofs of the adjacent houses) to him successively by simply wishing for them to come to him. His father, Bhagabati Charan Ghosh, was employed on a high post in the Indian Railway in British India.

There are many books in my Kindle collection that have just been randomly added for many years. A few times it has so happened that I have come across a book while reading something else and thought of purchasing it. While purchasing I’ve discovered or realized that I already have that book with me. Autobiography of a Yogi is one such book. I had purchased it many years ago and then forgotten about it. Forgotten in the sense that normally when I was browsing through my index, I often used to come across this face of a yogi with a flowing mane staring at me (the cover of the book), I would look at the title and then move onto another book.

Now I don’t remember why recently I started reading Autobiography of a Yogi but I do remember someone telling in a YouTube video that Steve Jobs used to read this book once every year and he would often gift the book to family, friends and colleagues, as a source of self-realization. Perhaps that was also one of the reason why I started reading the book (you see, we Indians have this tendency of finding things more fascinating when they have been accepted and endorsed by Westerners).

But that was not the only reason (Steve jobs reading and recommending Autobiography of a Yogi) why I kept reading the book once I started reading it (I mention this because these days I don’t waste my time if I don’t find a book worth reading, just because I have purchased it).

In the beginning of 2015 I chanced upon a great book called Law of Attraction (another book in my collection that has been there for years, unread) and once I started reading it, I found myself agreeing to almost the entire content of the book and ever since then, have applied many suggestions given in the book to my own life. Not that my life has miraculously changed or anything, but everything described and documented in the book is so logical that even believing in miracles doesn’t seem illogical.

The events described in Autobiography of a Yogi are just a continuation of the central theme of Laws of Attraction, that you are the one responsible for whatever is happening in your life. If you want to remain healthy, you just need to will to remain healthy, if you want things to happen the way you want them to happen, you just need to will them to happen just the way you want them to happen. It may seem absurd, but if you read Laws of Attraction and then Autobiography of a Yogi, you will find a great similarity. What has been described in Laws of Attraction in theory, has been demonstrated as real-life examples in Autobiography of a Yogi. The fundamental philosophy of life remains unchanged, whether it’s the West or the Orient.

The only difference between both the books is that Autobiography of a Yogi doesn’t mince the words when describing miracles. For example, when Paramhansa Yogananda (Mukunda) was a teenager he fell so sick that he would have died any minute. His mother fervently prayed to the family’s spiritual guru Shri Lahiri Mahasaya and even urged Mukunda to pray to the great Yogi, which the child did with great concentration. There was a flash of light in the room and Mukunda was instantly cured, reaffirming his faith in the supreme power of sadhana.

Throughout the book he gives ample examples of yogis appearing and disappearing from and into thin air, of them travelling through length and breadth of the country while sitting in meditation, and controlling the matter and the laws of physics and drawing solid things out of nothingness.

Everything is explained scientifically so there is no miracle. There are many things that are very difficult for us to understand simply because we don’t have that sort of insight and intelligence. You need to read the book with an open mind if you really want to complete it and even if you don’t believe in the miracles described in the book, the philosophy explained in the book will give you an insight into how one should live his or her life.

The lives of many saints have been chronicled in the book, especially of the yogis and gurus that directly influenced Paramhansa Yogananda. There are a couple of chapters on Lahiri Mahasaya who was one of the greatest yogis despite remaining married and having kids.

Then there is the mention of Babaji who is described as an avatar, or rather, Mahavatar. It is believed that Babaji never dies. He lives like a true yogi, mostly in Himalayan caves, and he is also believed to have given yoga initiation to Adi Shankara and then later on, after many centuries, to Kabir. Babaji tutored Lahiri Mahasaya and initiated him, then Lahiri Mahasaya tutored and initiated Sri Yukteswar and then Sri Yukteswar tutored and initiated Yogananda Paramhansa. Once Babaji decided to leave this world but his divine sister urged him not to and then he declared that he would never leave this world, so he is still supposed to be alive.

There are many instances of yogis achieving higher realms of living and being a yogi doesn’t mean that you have to be from India. Paramhansa Yogananda, after having moved to the United States on the instruction of his master (the entire line of masters including Babaji, Lahiri Mahasaya and Sri Yukteswara it seems have been preparing Paramhansa Yogananda to spread the knowledge of yoga in the Western world), was returning to India once and on his way he visited a Bavarian stigmatist Therese Neumann who would manifest the wounds of Christ (called stigmata) every Friday. She never ate food. Every morning at 6 AM she would just eat one consecrated wafer. There are a few other yogis who don’t need to eat food because they can survive on the cosmic energy.

The most fantastic aspect of the book is the chapter where Paramhansa Yogananda writes about the coming back of his own guru, Sri Yukteswar, after death. Sri Yukteswar tells Yogananda that after leaving Earth, he went to another planet called Hiranyaloka as saviour of more advanced beings (compared to the beings on Earth). At the time of the writing of the book, Sri Yukteswar was aiding the superior beings of Hiranyaloka to liberate them from astral karma. The inhabitants of that planet have already gone through the cycle of life and death on Earth and have attained a higher form of consciousness before they can rise further. On that planet or in that realm of consciousness, they are still trapped in some form of karmic cycles which they need to get rid of before getting nearer to the God being and Sri Yukteswar, being an enlightened being himself, was helping the inhabitants of the planet.

The world as we know, according to the revelations made by Sri Yukteswar after his resurrection, exists as different layers of consciousness. In the consciousness where he was living at that time, there was no sadness and pain and everything was beautiful. He describes in detail in how much bliss the inhabitants of Hiranyaloka live and through what spiritual and physical processes and births the people of Earth have to go through before landing on such a planet. Sri Yukteswar verifies the infinite universes and parallel existences described in the Hindu Upanishads, written thousands of years ago.

Personally the only nagging point in the book is that although the book has been written in and around 1945 and it describes a period between somewhere around 1915-1940, not even once he talks about India’s freedom struggle. He goes meets great scientists Bose, he also interacts in detail with Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi, but he never talks about the various events unfolding at that time in British India.

Understandably the book has been written more for Western readers rather than Indian readers and you can make this out from ample examples from Bible and other Christian saints. He constantly calls various Indian saints and yogis “Christlike”.

Would I recommend the book? Yes. Would you trust or believe the events, phenomenon and personalities described in the book? It depends on your personal belief. In order to believe what’s written in the book you don’t need to believe in the supernatural or the miraculous. I’m not a superstitious person but I do believe beyond an iota of doubt that there are many aspects of this world that we don’t understand. Modern-day science was once considered witchcraft. Scientists were put to death for saying that the earth goes around the sun instead of the sun going around the earth. So maybe the miracles that seem miracles may no longer remain miracles once someone can properly explain them and prove the science behind them.

The withdrawal of Wendy Doniger’s book and the text of the petition against it

The Hindus by Wendy Doniger
Update: An interesting point that is being raised is that instead of raising a hue and cry against Penguin, the left-libs are going after Dinanath Batra who was simply exercising his right. It is Penguin who has decided to withdraw all the copies of the book and pulp them instead of fighting it out in the court. These people don’t want to piss off Penguin for obvious reasons.

The problem is with the 1st Amendment. In India, freedom of speech is not absolute, it is subject to conditions and it can be challenged by anybody (and hence, Wendy Doniger’s book was challenged). If your freedom of speech offends my religion or hurts my sentiments, I can easily sui you.

Instead of baying for the blood of the person who is merely exercising his right, people should strive for change of the Constitution.

Update ends

At the time of writing this I haven’t read Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus – An Alternative History but I have downloaded a digital copy from the various links being posted on the Internet with a missionary zeal to protect “freedom of speech”.

Before downloading a free copy (PDF and EPUB versions) I tried to purchase it from Amazon through my Kindle, but somehow it is not possible to purchase it may be because as Penguin has decided to withdraw all the existing copies, maybe the digital copies – the ones that are sold through proper channels – aren’t available too.

You can be judged by the company you keep and this was my first reaction when I saw what sort of people were defending Wendy’s book. I’m not saying I’m in favor of banning books and not allowing people to read something that they want to read, but when certain people say that Wendy Doniger is an authority on Hinduism, I’m made to wonder exactly what sort of authority has she manifested to earn praise from these worthies?

Penguin has withdrawn all the published copies of the book because the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti had filed a lawsuit for the withdrawal of the book. The lawsuit claims that the book has been written with a Christian missionary’s zeal.

Now you may find the expression “the Christian missionary’s zeal” a bit puzzling and unless you have been sensitized about this whole parallel universe going on you won’t understand the depth of it. In my review of Breaking India – Western Interventions in Dravidian and Dalit Faultlines I had written:

Christian organisations play a prominent part in raking up cultural, religious and social divides to propagate their own ideologies. Their basic methodology is, weaken cultural roots in the name of secularism and then gradually expose people to Christianity. Billions of dollars of funds are channelised to support these missionary organisations. You will be amazed to find renowned and prestigious institutions and organisations pumping money into India to instigate one religion against another.

If you think it is conspiracy theory, maybe it’s time you brushed up your reading.

Anyway, should books be banned or banished the way Penguin has been made to do? Legal recourse is not as bad as it seems, as pointed by my wife with whom I was discussing the issue in the morning while having tea. “At least people are not being beheaded or stabbed, or at least there are no bomb explosions as it happened in the case of The Satanic Verses,” she said, and I agree with her. It is silly to compare the reaction to the Wendy Doniger’s book to the reaction to the Salman Rushdie book. If Hindus didn’t like the book, they filed a lawsuit instead of issuing death threats.

That settled, one must think why a big publisher like Penguin chose to withdraw the case instead of slugging it out in the court? What was there in the book that was indefensible? Wouldn’t it be preferable to fight the case, lose it and let the book be banned with your disagreement fully expressed, rather than meekly giving in to your opponent and withdrawing your book? After all, even if reluctantly, Penguin stood by Salman Rushdie even in the face of international Islamic terrorism.

The full text of the notice sent to Wendy Doniger, Penguin Group (USA) Inc. and Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd by Dina Nath Batra

Why the controversy? I haven’t read the book yet, but according to the various sources available on the Internet, the book not only contains lots of factual inaccuracies, it also distorts many Hindu beliefs and philosophies. How it distorts, I have no idea because one, I haven’t read the book yet, and two, I’m not an authority to decide what is correct and what is not factually and historically correct. Presented below are a few extracts of the petition that was filed and it may give you an idea of what might had been the problem.

Throughout the book, Doniger analyzes revered Hindu Gods and Goddess using her widely discredited psychosexual Freudian theories that modern, humanistic psychology has deemed limiting. These interpretations are presented as hard facts and not as speculations. Doniger makes various faulty assumptions about the tradition in order to arrive at her particular spin. In the process, the beliefs, traditions and interpretations of practicing Hindus are simply ignored or bypassed without the unsuspecting reader knowing this to be the case. This kind of Western scholarship has been criticized as Orientalism and Eurocentrism. The non Judeo-Christian faith gets used to dish out voyeurism and the tradition gets eroticized.

Here is a list of factual errors presented in the petition:

Maps in front pages: Maps titled Indias Geographical Features and India from 600 CE to 1600 CE

COMMENT: In the first map, the Waziristan Hills area is marked erroneously as Kirthar Range. The Kirthar Range is at least 200 miles further south. In the third map, Janakpur, Nagarkot, Mandu and Haldighati are marked several hundred miles from their correct geographical location.

Pg. 67 – It is claimed that the entire Harappan culture had a population of 40,000!

COMMENT: This is estimated as the population of Mohenjo-Daro alone. The population of the entire culture is estimated around 500,000.

Pg 112 – Wheat is mentioned as a food item in the Rigvedic period.

COMMENT: Wheat is not mentioned in the Rigveda at all. It first occurs in the Maitrayani Samhita of the Yajurveda.

Pg 130 – The author claims that there are no Gods in the Vedas who are Shudras.

COMMENT: It is anachronistic to assign castes to Rigvedic deities, but nevertheless, Pushan, Vesmapati and others have been considered Shudra deities in later times.

Pg 194 fn.- Gandhi’s commentary on the Gita (a sacred Hindu scripture) was titled ‘Asakti Yoga’ (translated as the science of deep attachment).

COMMENT: The title of Gandhis work is ‘Anasakti Yoga’ (trans. Science of non-Attachment).

Pg 206 – The book wrongly states that the Hindus had only a triad of passions.

COMMENT: Hindu scriptures list six main evils and the concept of shadripus (six internal enemies) is very well known.

Pg 441 – The book claims that Firoz Shah redeemed a number of Hindu slaves

COMMENT: A misrepresentation of the fact that he employed (not redeemed) 12,000 of his 180,000 slaves forcibly in royal factories for producing articles of consumption by Muslim elites. No manumission was involved.

Pg 445 – Dates of Saint Kabir are given as 1450 1498.

COMMENT: His demise is believed to have occurred in 1518, and the traditional date of birth is 1398.

Pg 448 – In 713 Muhammad ibn Qasim invaded Sind.

COMMENT: Muhammad bin Qasim invaded Sind in 711.

Pg 450- It is claimed that Emperor Ala-ud-Din Khalji did not sack temples in Devagiri.

COMMENT: His contemporary Amir Khusro clearly mentions that the Emperor sacked numerous temples and raised mosques instead.

Pg 459 – King Ala-ud-din Husain of Bengal patronized Saint Chaitanya.

COMMENT: Saint Chaitanya never met the king, and left his kingdom to avoid persecution, as did his disciples. The king had destroyed Hindu temples in Orissa.

Pg 532 – Emperor Akbar moved his capital from Fatehpur Sikri to Delhi in 1586.

COMMENT: Emperor Akbar moved his capital to Lahore in 1587, and thereafter to Agra.

Pg 537-8 – The Sikh teacher Guru Govind Singh was assassinated in 1708, while ‘attending Emperor Aurangzeb’. Emperor Aurangzeb died in 1707.

COMMENT: Guru Gobind Singh was assassinated in 1708 during the reign of Aurangzebs successor, Emperor Bahadur Shah I. It is insulting to say that the Guru was attending on the Emperor.

Pg 550 – The book claims that Mirabai lived from 1498-1597, and then on p. 568, the author claims that Mirabai lived from 1450-1525!

COMMENT: Both dates are wrong and the commonly accepted dates are 1498-1547.

Pg 552 – The book claims that the Ramcharitmanas was written at Varanasi.

COMMENT: Both modern scholarship as well as tradition accept that the work (or at least most of it) was written in Ayodhya.

Section on Bibliography: Shekhawat, V. Origin and Structure of purushartha Theory: An attempt at Critical Appraisal. Journal of Indian Council of Philosophical Research 7:1 (1900), 63-67.

COMMENT:The correct issue and year of this Journal issue are actually 8:2 and 1991. The bibliography has dozens of errors. Some references cited by Doniger simply do not exist.

Listed below are some offensive statements presented in the petition:

Clumsily written, each chapter is a shocking and appalling series of anecdotes which denigrate, distort and misrepresent Hinduism and the history of India and Hindus. Doniger uses selective quotations from obscure and non-original, peripheral and ignorant references with a bizarre emphasis on sexuality and eroticism. Cited below are only a handful of quotes along with our understanding and interpretation, with references from Hindu scripture.

Pg 40 If the motto of Watergate was Follow the money, the motto of the history of Hinduism could well be Follow the monkey or, more often Follow the horse.

COMMENT: Very derogatory and offensive. The motto of Hinduism is to follow the truth and unite with God.

Pg 112 – The author alleges that in Rigveda 10.62, it is implied that a woman may find her own brother in her bed!

COMMENT: The hymn has no such suggestion. It is offensive to suggest that the sacred text of Hindus has kinky sex in it.

Pg 128 – The book likens the Vedic devotee worshipping different Vedic deities to a lying and a philandering boyfriend cheating on his girlfriend(s).

COMMENT: This is offensive and ignores that fact that in the Rigveda, the gods are said to be all united, born of one another, and from the same source.

Pg 225 -Dasharathas son is certainly lustful… Rama knows all too well what people said about Dasharatha; when Lakshmana learns that Rama has been exiled, he says, The king is perverse, old, and addicted to sex, driven by lust (2.18.3)

COMMENT: Sri Rama is revered and worshipped as a deity. The highly acclaimed and critical edition of Valmikis Ramayana records no such statement attributed to Lakshmana. An imagined phrase, ‘kama-sakta’ is mistranslated as ‘addicted to sex’ by the author whereas it normally means filled with desires. Valmiki uses a phrase ‘samani-madhah’ (trans. Possessed of passion).

Pg 467 – Harihara and Bukka (the founders of the Vijayanagara Empire that saved Hindu culture in S India) double-crossed the Delhi Sultan when they reconverted to Hinduism.

COMMENT: The brothers committed apostasy as they had been imprisoned and forcibly converted to Islam, and immediately reverted to Hinduism when they were 1000 miles from the Sultan, under the influence of a Hindu ascetic.

Pg 468-469 -The mosque, whose serene calligraphic and geometric contrasts with the perpetual motion of the figures depicted on the temple, makes a stand against the chaos of India, creating enforced vacuums that India cannot rush into with all its monkeys and peoples and colors and the smells of the bazaar

COMMENT: It is simply unacceptable that a scholar can flippantly, pejoratively and derogatorily essentialize the Hindus as monkeys and peoples, colors and smells.., and chaos in most insulting manner with the aspersion thrown at the entire Hindu culture and community all over the world. Such generalization has no place in serious scholarly work.

Pg 509 – Shankara and the philosopher’s wife This tale contrasts sex and renunciation in such a way that the renunciant philosopher is able to have his cake and eat it, to triumph not only in the world of the mind (in which, before this episode begins, he wins a series of debates against the nonrenouncing male Mimamsa philosopher) but in the world of the body, represented by the philosophers wife (not to mention the harem women who clearly prefer Shankara to the king in bed). The author attributes the tale to Shankaradigvijaya of Madhava and to Ravichandra’s commentary on Amarushataka.

COMMENT: The author concocts the story as a sexual orgy in which the Saint Adi Shankara and King Amruka take turns making love to the latter’s wives after he is tired. Both her sources however state that the King was already dead and the Saint transferred his soul into the dead Kings body through his yogic powers. There is no suggestion in the texts that the queens prefer Shankara to the king in bed.

Pg 571- It is alleged that in a hymn from Saint Kshetrayyas poetry, God rapes the women devotees.

COMMENT: The hymn merely presents devotion using spiritual metaphors and the hymns of the Saint seen collectively depict it as a passionate love affair between the God and the devotees. No rape is implied in this hymn at all.

Again, the above is simply a sampling of the scandalous and offensive statements in the book. By her own admission in the book, Doniger has no credentials as a historian and the title of the book is misleading as the book is not on the History nor an Alternative History of India. This shows that the author is not an authority on the subject as she is not able to understand the deep meaning of Sanskrit verses or Indian Concepts. These cast serious doubts about the authors integrity as a researcher and ability to interpret accurately. Additional examples of the authors shoddy
scholarship will be made available upon request.

If you go through the contents of the petition one is made to wonder what indiscretions are available to you in the name of interpretation. What recourse people have who don’t agree to you? What makes Doniger a greater authority than the petitioner who has countered the portions in the book with his own knowledge?

As of now, I believe that the petition was filed in the right spirit.

Related links on Wendy Doniger and The Hindus

  • Wendy’s Child Syndrome — “The Bhagavad Gita is not as nice a book as some Americans think…Throughout the Mahabharata … Krishna goads human beings into all sorts of murderous and self-destructive behaviors such as war…. The Gita is a dishonest book …” — Wendy Doniger, Professor of History of Religions, University of Chicago. Quoted in Philadelphia Inquirer, 19 November, 2000.
  • Wendy Doniger’s book: ‘You must tell us what terrified you’, Arundhati Roy writes to Penguin India — What are we to make of this? Must we now write only pro-Hindutva books? Or risk being pulled off the bookshelves in ‘Bharat’ (as your ‘settlement’ puts it) and pulped? Will there be some editorial guide-lines perhaps, for writers who publish with Penguin? Is there a policy statement?
  • BBC – Why did Penguin recall a book on Hindus? — Doniger, who teaches at the University of Chicago and has written nearly half a dozen books on Hinduism, including a translation of the Kama Sutra, was writing about how her 2009 book The Hindus: An Alternative History quickly became a lightning rod for Hindu anger.
  • Invading the Sacred Hinduism has become a targeted frontier because of its unique status. It is the last of the truly indigenous religions, one that has sprung forth from the land and not been supplanted by alien faiths. (Most of the other indigenous religions of the world have either been decimated or driven to the brink of extinction by colonising forces.) Among the major world religions, Hinduism is perhaps the most incompatible with Western religious frameworks. By far the oldest living religion in the world, Hinduism has been the source of the Dharmic traditions, as Judaism has been the source of the Abrahamic religions; however, it has developed along a tract distinct from that of the Semitic faiths. The core concepts of Sanatana Dharma do not translate into Abrahamic terms–dharma, karma, moksha, and yoga have no English equivalents. Yet, it continues to flourish with almost a billion adherents; it has not abandoned its rich pantheon of an infinite variety of forms and manifestations of Ishwara; from time immemorial, it has worshipped and revered Shakti, the female divine; it has not yielded to Islamic conquest or Christian conversion; and it has not obligingly morphed itself to adapt to Western paradigms. Thus, Hinduism stands apart, and in this light, may pose the most serious challenge to Western intellectual and philosophical hegemony today.
  • Why the Wendy Doniger episode is not a free speech issue The outrage over Penguin withdrawing Doniger’s book has emanated mostly from the section that calls itself secular and liberal, among other things. And this outrage cleverly sidesteps the valid and vast critiques of Wendy Doniger’s scholarship and frames the issue as one of a book ban and Hindu fundamentalism. The kind of arson and violence that erupted across the world in the wake of the Danish cartoons fits the definition of religious fundamentalism. It is clear that the petitioners simply took to legal recourse in this case. Besides, it was Penguin’s decision to voluntarily withdraw the book in an out-of-court settlement for reasons best known to it. Therefore, raising the din that freedom of expression is under threat by Hindutva forces is off the mark.
  • Oh, But You Do Get It Wrong! Doniger’s prominence and clout as a “definitive” authority in the discourse on Indian traditions and history give her views considerable significance. For, it is Doniger’s (and her colleagues’) versions of Hinduism and Hindu history (which are often at serious variance with traditional Hinduism as practised and understood by Hindus themselves) that form the curriculum of university courses, line the bookshelves of the “Hinduism” sections of bookstores (physical and virtual), and are given play in the Western and Indian mainstream press.
  • Pulping Doniger: Don’t just blame the Right; the Left paved this illiberal road — As has been said before, the best way to combat a wrong idea or distorted book is to write another view and another book to contest it with facts. This is how Arun Shourie debunked the distorted Left view of Indian history, and this is how Rajiv Malhotra is combatting – against the odds of western media biases, which is nowhere as liberal as we assume it to be – western-centric views of Hinduism and Dharmic religions. Withdrawing Doniger’s book is thus a defeat for liberal values and open debate in a democratic society.