Paramahansa Yogananda’s Excellent Adventure

When I related my daughter’s Koran shopping episode I noted that Barnes and Noble carries exactly zero books about Hinduism in its religion section. Being married to my husband, I know that not a single book at B&N is accidentally placed: exhaustive research is executed on buying habits of customers, and the potential profitability of each and every book. In fact, even how the books are laid out is thoroughly researched and deliberate. You know those tables scattered throughout the store? Publishers pay a premium to have their volumes displayed on them, as opposed to the shelves.

There are tons of new age, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist books– but nary a volume on Hinduism. Which is strange, because immigrant Hindus in the U.S. tend to be well educated and of the book buying capacity.

However, I do occasionally see one or two volumes published by the Self Realization Fellowship, which as far as I can tell is a quasi-Hindu organization devoted to bringing the “spirit” of Hinduism to a western audience. So it’s not exactly Hindu per se, but probably the closest you’re going to find at B&N.

One day earlier this year I bought one of those volumes: Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda, pictured below:

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ommmm…

I got the book home and my husband immediately asked: why did I bring Steve Job’s book home?

Huh? I had no clue what he was talking about.

As it turns out Autobiography of a Yogi was handed out at Mr. Job’s funeral per his request. The Self Realization Fellowship had to scramble to supply oodles of copies, and those who watched the scion interred walked away with a parting gift. Which I now happened to own as well.

The book is not what you think– or at least it wasn’t what I anticipated. I imagined a few hundred pages of Hindu apologetics, and while the volume does include that betimes, Mr. Yogananda’s chirpy, almost silly voice delivers a spellbinding tale that, like most truth, is stranger than fiction.

Way back in the 1930s Mr. Yogananda received a call from God to preach Hinduism, or quasi-Hinduism to the west. So he peregrinates to the States and not only was he well received here, but eventually, with a couple western disciples, embarked (in a model T Ford!) on an around-the-world journey to interview a variety of saints and gurus, including Mahatma Gandhi and stigmatic Therese Neumann.

While in audience of Ms. Neumann Mr. Yogananda uses his vulcan mind-meld powers (yes, he can read minds, but typically only does so with permission) to see if she’s a fake: she isn’t, and by entering her mind Mr. Yogananda witnessed the passion of Jesus Christ in excruciating detail, just as Ms. Neumann did during her stigmatic episodes. He concludes that Ms. Neumann was granted the gift of the stigmata so that Christians could have the veracity and suffering of Jesus Christ validated. (Even if you don’t feel like reading the whole book, reading that chapter alone is worth the effort and $12.50… not to mention the volume is available free online in pdf form.)

The book is not entirely autobiographical and does delve into Mr. Yogananda’s theological “unifying theories–” namely that there are no vital differences between Hinduism and Christianity. Of course, this will make your average believing Christian’s head explode, but he does offer salient points, or at the very least food for fodder. For instance there is evidence that early Christians held a tenet of reincarnation- as does mystical Judaism, from whence Christianity arose.  When Jesus heals the man born blind, he asks: did this man sin, or did his parents sin? Well a baby cannot sin, so where did this sin originate? Plausibly this is a reference to a previous incarnation, hearkening to the concept of karma. Furthermore the gospels imply that John the Baptist is the “recycled” (to use the hebrew term, gilgul) version of Elijah. In Matthew 11 Jesus says of John the Baptist, And if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

Mr. Yogananda’s theories on Christian-Hindu unity are complex and I can’t pretend to understand them fully. However, one his stranger postulations is that the Hindu concept of maya– illusion- is synonymous with the Christian notion of Satan. This will be a foreign concept to believing Christians, who view Satan as a personified fallen angel who tempts mankind toward evil deeds.

The book is an easy read and would be of interest to anyone with a yen for religion or history, as the era in which Mr. Yoganada travels prefaces World War II. Heck, it would be an interesting read even for people with an interest in Steve Jobs! So if you are looking for a book to page through by the pool, this one comes highly recommended.

Pretzels From God

I’ve been making homemade pretzels for the kids recently. No, not the kind you heat up from the freezer. The kind you make from strange items like flour and yeast.

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My fourteen year old said they taste like they were made by God. Well, if ever a cook has received a compliment, that is it! I used Alton Brown’s recipe but tweaked it a little. I used vegetable oil instead of butter, paid more attention to the dough texture than his ratio of ingredients (the texture is incredibly important since you have to shape and boil these) and eventually shaped them differently– the above picture shows Alton’s method. Good but not great.

My picky eaters devoured them like locusts and my oldest daughter has begged me to make them every day.

The irony is that I can’t eat them, as I have type 2 diabetes! I did try one bite to verify their verdict, and yes they are delicious. So go ahead and give these a try, you’ll never buy regular soft pretzels again!

Believers Behaving Badly

My earliest memories of religion are the Anglican church my mother hauled us to, and later the elementary school attached to it. Every so often an uninspiring priest would visit us students with a rousing… or not… lecture. I remember once, he instructed us to reach our arms into the air (a strange thing for stodgy Anglicans to do, I’m sure you all know the joke about the Anglicans in hell for using the wrong fork). “Everything around you is God,” said the priest, and he encouraged us to wave our arms, reaching for God.

Well, all I felt was air. No God. What was this dork talking about? So at the age of six I was a resolute atheist. This didn’t change even in high school, when I enraged a muslim guy by informing him his mosque wasn’t a house of God– it was a house of air. He got a look in his eyes like he could kill me on the spot. Good grief, what was all this God fuss about?

The parade of religious people I encountered over my life did little to soften my heart. The Anglican priest at the church we attended after our move to New England was discovered to be stealing funds from the coffers. His replacement, a charming, extremely tall man from the faraway and seemingly mythical land of Manhattan, eventually confessed before the Sunday crowd that he was a raging alcoholic in need of help. In middle school I befriended a girl whose father was a pastor of an evangelical church. She expressed great concern for my unsaved soul (but I was technically a Christian, wasn’t I?). Meanwhile she was having sex with every male on her block under the age of 25… all at the tender age of 14.

In college I encountered a guy who identified himself as a born again christian. He always made a big to-do about holding the door open for women, or insisting they enter the elevator first. He didn’t do this out of chivalry: it was a trap. Because god forbid a woman declined his gesture with a “No thanks,” or, “That’s not necessary.” In which case he would unleash a tirade against women and feminism the likes of which would make Rush Limbaugh blush.

Also in college I encountered a few guys who expressed amorous interest in me, only to discover they didn’t actually want a relationship, because they could only be in a relationship with someone of the right religion (then why express interest in the first place? Ugh!). One was Jewish, one was Mennonite (I didn’t realize, at the time, how remarkable it was that he was in college at all), and the other Mormon. The Mormon guy was eventually commanded by his “elder” to leave me alone.

I am no longer an atheist, but I’m still rankled by reports of religious people– particularly those in positions of authority– behaving badly. Ted Haggard, all those Catholic priests and the church-wide cover up of their actions, baby-snatching nuns, the occasional molesting rabbi. These stories all dishearten me. In the video I recently posted of Fr. Lazarus, he describes how, as a child, he could not reconcile people’s bad behavior with their avowed religious beliefs. Quite frankly I’d rather people come out and say they worship the devil, instead of pretending to worship good while practicing evil.

I’m being thoroughly hypocritical here, because I’m also annoyed when atheists denigrate religion based on the unsavory behavior of believers. I once read a scathing online comment in a local news publication against Catholicism. This guy’s ex-wife– a Catholic– had cheated on him twice and had an abortion. This, in his view, delegitimized the entire institution of Catholicism. Ok, I get it. The hypocrisy outraged him not unlike it bewilders me. Yet I also understand that human beings are thoroughly imperfect and that religious belief is not always straightforward, is deeply personal, and quite possibly means something different to each individual adherent. And without knowing the private lives of every religious person on earth, the extent of religious hypocrisy will have to remain untabulated in our mortal view.

The World Before Her

“The World Before Her” is an outstanding documentary detailing the crossroads of modernity and traditionalism in India. Canadian documentarian Nisha Pahuja follows two groups of women– one preparing for the Miss India beauty pageant, and the other being trained at a quasi-military Hindu nationalist camp for girls.

The beauty pageant contestants are subjected to 30 days of botox, skin lightening treatments, body-toning aerobics and “hot leg contests.” The girls at the Hindu camp are taught to commando crawl, shoot guns, and are drilled on the importance of being married by age 18 “because by age 25, women are unmanageable.”

I had not known this, but the existence of beauty pageants in India has long been a contentious issue, with traditionalists convinced that the trojan horse of such past times will usher in the decay of Hindu culture and human dignity. As Prachi Trivedi, the hard nosed daughter of a camp leader eloquently states: “Egyptians, Romans, they are history now. It’s going to happen with us. So we are trying to save ourselves. That is the only thing I want, nothing else.”

I was gobsmacked by how much “work” the pageant contestants– who are all stunningly and naturally beautiful– have done in preparation to capture the crown. The skin lightening chemicals are painful to endure (one girl is seen writhing on the table), and the net result is a greenish, unnaturally pale complexion that makes the girls look seasick. And what 19 year old, especially an unbelievably beautiful 19 year old, needs botox? So I felt the girls actually looked less attractive after they washed out their complexions and plumped up their lips. But my understanding is that skin whitening is all the rage in India.  Indeed, in “Enlighten Up,” the laughing guru had that same unnatural, corpse-like paleness to him.

The film opens on an upbeat note, and the comparison between the nationalist camp and the pampered beauty queens makes the documentary temporarily lean toward fluff piece, until 2009 Miss India and her mother describe how she narrowly escaped infanticide at birth. Miss India’s mother was given two choices by her husband: surrender the newborn daughter to an orphanage, or kill her.

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Pooja Chopra, Miss India 2009

What is startling about this is that the contestants draw from middle class, urban and suburban families. I had no idea abandoning and murdering baby girls was still practiced in urban, educated settings. I always assumed this sort of thing took place in backwoods villages by families with no education or means. I have seen pictures from Pakistani morgues showing rows of sheet-bundled infant corpses neatly lined up on metal tables, all of them baby girls killed at birth, their bodies discarded like trash.

At this point in the film, the images of beautiful women poised on display suddenly take on a chilling and haunting tenor. As the mother of six daughters, I found myself, while watching this film, very grateful to live in a society that does not routinely pressure women to abort, abandon, or kill baby girls. This is not to say that we don’t have our own gender hopes and disappointments; I know for a fact my own parents were bitterly disappointed when I came into the world a girl, as they had desperately wanted a son. But it would be virtually unheard of, in mainstream American society, for a child to be abandoned solely for her gender. Yet I doubt even the most tolerant and urbane Indian husband would endure six consecutive daughters (there were actually seven, if you count the one I lost).

If you’re a documentary hound like me, you know that the topic of a well done documentary is of little importance; it’s how the subject matter is handled that makes or breaks a documentary film. “The World Before Her” is beautifully filmed, expertly handled, and its fascinating characters shine unfiltered from the screen.  So even if you have no interest in Hindu nationalism or beauty pageants, Nisha Pahuja’s offering comes highly recommended.

Hell

I sometimes wonder, if I end up in Hell, what will it be like?  Will it be a barren, fire-spotted wasteland like Searing Gorge in Warcraft, or will it be a relatively normal place of chatty intellectuals, like the Algonquin table?  There is a Jewish saying that heaven and hell are the same place– a Torah academy– and it’s either heaven or hell depending on who you are.  I usually imagine hell looking something like Manhattan– beauty and misery cemented together, megalith architecture staring down on condemned souls like faceless moai.  And with Manhattan being hell, the outer boroughs are its purgatories– gentler, if uglier, architecture; easier parking, and more affordable grocery prices.  We know Woody Allen will be in hell, since he screwed his stepdaughter, and more than a few Catholic priests (given the current state of affairs).  In fact there will probably be sufficient high ranking officials in Hell to establish a highly stable infrastructure, especially with Tesla and John Nash counted among the ranks.  Oscar Wilde too.

Or perhaps Hell will be as expected: a lonely place where souls are picked over by vultures and gnats, no one to talk to, no one to listen to, no water to drink even with our thirsting bodies decaying earthside.

Wake Up

“Wake Up” is an odd documentary about Jonas Elrod, a cinematographer who one day starts seeing visions of angels, demons, spirits, and “energy.” The film follows him over three years as he grapples with his newfound abilities. He is greatly distressed by these visions, clearly does not like talking about them, and after a battery of psychological and physical exams rule out schizophrenia or brain anomalies, he seeks the counsel of gurus, mystics, and paranormal researchers.

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Elrod getting his chakras massaged.

In one particularly spooky scene, he consults “ghost photographer” Umberto Di Grazia in Italy, who places him in a chamber where images of a woman and a wide-eyed alien are picked up while Elrod meditates. Elrod is visibly shaken when shown these photographs and refuses to discuss them further. Di Grazia, who’s had similar visions, postulates the extremely creepy theory that aliens, or “interdimensional beings” are using us remotely as “viewing pieces,” or for vicarious experiences or emotions, and when glitches in wiring occur (as happened to Elrod) we get a glimpse into what is truly going on, much like Neo with his deja vu of the cat in “The Matrix.”

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Glitchy kitty.

I began to wonder at this point in the film, if the whole thing was a hoax. However, if a hoax, it’s a poorly done one. There’s no real narrative to the documentary, neither Elrod nor his whiny girlfriend– both aging, chain smoking hipsters– are very likable or watchable. Elrod comes across as spoiled, temperamental, irreligious and lost. In fact, the prospect of another side to terrestrial existence clearly disconcerts the quasi-atheistic couple.

Another reason I don’t believe this docu is a hoax, is because I’ve had similar, though less dramatic, experiences myself. In 2004, after a ragingly high fever, and after nearly a year of suffering from recurring infections (causing the fevers), I started having visions much like Elrod describes. I saw spirits, streaks of “energy,” and what I think might have been angels or divine beings (I never did see big-eyed aliens though). These experiences gradually faded over the course of a month and lingered, sporadically, for months after that. During the “visions” I felt no fear whatsoever, and remained skeptical even while they were happening, assuming my brain had been fried from stress, pain, and fever. Even today I’m not entirely sure what exactly I was seeing.

Elrod visits Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment, a sort of summer camp for would-be mystics, which provides one of the few humorous points in the film. He also speaks to Roger Nelson, the coordinator of the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research laboratory. In one experiment, they place small random 1/0 number generators (“electronic coin flippers”) at 65 locations around the globe, and notice that during emotionally fraught events, the devices stopped emitting equal numbers of 1s and 0s as they do under normal circumstances. This phenomena was seen not only on 9/11, but beginning four hours before the first tower was hit. Their theory is that humanity emits a collective “resonance” that impacts the number output.

Overall this was a somewhat sad, rambling documentary but the subject matter was so interesting that it kept me watching. Elrod’s struggle with his spiritual “abilities” versus the dearth of sustenance offered by organized religion– even the religions of the fringe variety– is poignant and at times difficult to watch, and is probably something we can all relate to on a lesser scale.

Wealth

In “Adrift,” Callahan muses about how “unnecessarily complicated” his life had been before his shipwreck.  Despite having all his needs met, he would feel dissatisfied.  He realizes that his fearful predicament has granted him a strange kind of wealth– the ability to cherish every moment where he is not “in pain, desperation, hunger, thirst, or loneliness–” and in those moments where he is fed, not thirsty, and not in imminent danger, he feels like a wealthy man, despite having lost every penny to his name when his uninsured ship was destroyed.

While he was alone during his ordeal, the school of dorados (mahi-mahi) that followed him the entire 1,800 nautical miles became his “friends” (and his dinner).  Toward the end of the voyage they had essentially turned tame, even letting him pet them from time to time.  He also– despite not being a religious person– had a profound sense of God and God’s hand in the universe.  He sees God’s face in the waves, in the beauty of the dorados, and senses God’s presence in the sea air.

While it may sound trite there is a lesson to be learned from this.  Every time we feel sorry for ourselves, every time we consider our lives lacking, we should recheck our perspective to discern what we might be taking for granted.  Chances are there are any number of luxuries and good features to our lives that we have lost to the hedonic treadmill.  If we have food, water, shelter and companionship, we should consider ourselves blessed.

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A dorado, or mahi-mahi.

Adrift

I recently read the book Adrift, a true account of a man adrift at sea for 76 days. Steven Callahan, an experienced sailor, was sailing from the Canary Islands to Antigua when his self-constructed vessel was badly damaged. In the book he theorizes that he hit a whale; if he’d hit a large piece of debris (he describes sailors seeing whole trees adrift at sea, and shipping containers that fell off of freighters) he would have seen it, once he escaped to his lifeboat.

He survives two and a half months in an inflatable life raft with only a few supplies, most of which he salvaged from his sailboat during a daring re-entry, swimming underwater, shortly after the initial impact. Among these supplies is a fishing spear that he had packed in his emergency bag on a whim– he kept hitting his head on it in the cabin, so finally dissembled it and stuck it in his bag. He uses this spear to kill mahi-mahi (which, he says, taste like leather when uncooked), other fish, and some birds captured with his bare hands. Despite this food supply, he loses a third of his weight.

The stills on the life raft don’t work properly in the choppy waters, so he jury-rigs stills that produce 2 cups of water a day. He strictly rations this water until his discovery by three fishermen off the coast of Marie-Galante, where, after an afternoon in the hospital, he is up and running, enjoying life with the locals and eminently grateful to be alive. Other than suffering some months of edema in his legs, light scarring from salt water sores, and an early onset of gray hair, he emerges from the harrowing experience physically unscathed.

Callahan was consulted during the filming of “Life of Pi–” which seems more than a little based on his book, down to the weeping scene over the first killed fish– and as in “Life of Pi,” Callahan constantly affirms God’s greatness (though he is not a religious man) and the beauty of life for life’s sake. The book is very uplifting and I would especially recommend it to anyone feeling down or gloomy.

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Callahan and the fishermen who discovered him, posing with the inflatable life raft that carried him 1,800 nautical miles.

The Way of the Pilgrim

“The Way of the Pilgrim” is an anonymously written 19th century Russian book that probably would have been relegated to obscurity were it not for the fact that J.D. Salinger mentions it in “Franny and Zooey.” “The Way of the Pilgrim” has far reaching influences in Salinger’s writing. In fact, if I were an academic type (which I’m not) I would write a thesis about how “Catcher in the Rye” is written as a dystopic “Way of the Pilgrim.”

It is not known if the book is autobiographical, or if it is fiction written as autobiography. My impression is that “Pilgrim” is indeed autobiographical; there are clumsy narrative tropes that a fiction writer would not use, even if trying to make something sound autobiographical. As the books proceeds it sometimes sounds more like notes to self, than prose. The overall tone of the narrative is inconsistent, almost as though the writer grew tired of writing at certain points (in that respect, it almost reads like a proto blog). And the many snippets and vignettes of life in rural 19th century Russia are either too bland or too bizarre to be fabricated. The earliest known manuscript was present at Mt. Athos in the 19th century, and in the course of the narrative, the pilgrim encounters a monk from Mt. Athos. It is very possible that when the pilgrim finished his writings, he put them in the hands of this monk (who in the book, is fluent in Russian and Greek).

So what is the book about? It is about interior prayer, which, as you discover in reading this book, is no simple or small achievement. Just like yogis have to study endlessly and tediously to gain their wisdom, so does a pilgrim have study and pray endlessly and tediously to achieve enlightenment. “Enlightenment” here means prayer without ceasing– prayer that continues even in sleep– a sort of Christian nirvana state. At one point the pilgrim recites the Jesus Prayer 6,000 times a day until he achieves a state of “prayer consciousness.” But this is not good enough, and he wanders years (and six more chapters) beyond this point to achieve greater understanding, humility, and perfection in prayer.

The book can get repetitive and abstract but somehow manages to remain interesting. However, the book is so complex and philosophical that I would have to share my meager thoughts and observations on a chapter by chapter basis, which I hope to do in the near future.

A Haphazard God

This is one I often listened to in high school:

Death is in the air tonight.  Two people I know, indirectly, are in their final days.

Death is a path we all take.  I often think of the line from “Wasteland,” A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many/ I had not thought death had undone so many.  Eliot closes the poem with a snippet from the UpanishadsDatta, Dayadhvam, Damyata/ Shantih shantih shantih.

I often hope to die under a tree like they supposedly do in Africa (at least, that’s what I’ve seen in movies).  Or alone at home.  I have a great fear of dying slowly in a hospital; but we know what we are, not what we might become.

There is a great, beautiful mystery to life.  I can’t tell you what it is but I know it’s there.  Maybe it’s what we call god, or magic, but I know life has great meaning, purpose and future, even if we are in the hands of a haphazard god.