A Hindu and a Christian Walk Into a Bar

In high school I had a history teacher who spent time in India teaching at a private school for children of diplomats. More than once he related funny stories of Christian missionaries enthusiastically received by would-be converts. Of course they believed in Jesus’ message! They would be thrilled to worship him! Then they set the statue of Jesus on the shelf next to Ganesha and Krishna.

When I read Autobiography of a Yogi I noted with interest mention of a book that supposedly illustrates absolute synchronicity between Christianity and Hinduism. Huh? This I had to read. It was written by Yogananda’s guru Yukteswar Giri.

I ordered The Holy Science from amazon and it promptly arrived on my doorstep. I cracked open the slim volume- read it cover to cover- read it cover to cover again- and it made absolutely no sense. It’s not that I disagreed with anything it claimed, because I couldn’t tell what it was claiming! No joke: this book might as well be written in Klingon. There is one semi-coherent passage about how humans, based on the length of their intestines, are meant to be fruitarians. But didn’t Jesus eat fish?

As it turns out Yogananda also wrote on the supposed synchronicity between Hinduism and Christianity. I ordered The Yoga of Jesus: Understanding the Hidden Teachings of the Gospels, read *it* cover to cover, and unlike The Holy Science it was coherently written. Paramhansa’s writing style is eminently accessible and adroit.

I thought I might give you the cliff notes of Yogananda’s theories, in case you’re curious, but don’t want to bother buying or reading the book.

The notion of “god incarnate” is a familiar one to Hinduism. In fact, according to Hinduism, there are any number of living saints walking the earth who essentially “channel” god and can act, teach, and be worshiped as divine entities. Mata Amritanandamayi (“Amma”) is a good example of this. So right off the bat we have a deep commonality between the two faiths. Of course Christians believe Jesus was the ONLY living incarnation of god, but this is a moot point for Yogananda.

The purpose of religion, according to Yogananda, is not to dictate morality, make a person righteous, nor to grant association with a particular group. Rather the point of religion is to expand one’s consciousness. He calls this “Christ consciousness-” what Jesus alludes to when he says “the kingdom of heaven is within you.” As to how one achieves expanded consciousness, Yogananda recommends meditation and yoga (the spiritual kind, not the exercise kind). While this may sound kooky, in the gospels Jesus does engage in a brand of meditation when he “withdraws” to the desert; the Hebrew term for this is hitbodedut and has its roots in Jewish mysticism.

Yogananda’s next assertion will sound even more far fetched to mainstream Christians. He is adamant Jesus’ “lost years” were spent studying with Hindu rishis (holy men) in the Himalayas.

A small detail in the gospels lends credence to the assertion: remember those “wise men from the east” who are “led by stars” to Jesus’ birthplace? Well east of Palestine is the Indian subcontinent. It is entirely plausible these men were in fact Hindu.

Yogananda further interprets “being born again” as a literal reference to reincarnation. One must be “born again” (and again, and again) to better calibrate one’s soul. In fact the end goal of Hinduism is to escape further incarnations by achieving “god consciousness” and merging back with the divine- remember how Jesus says “I and the father are one?” This is exactly what Yogananda is talking about. His term for it is “self-realization.”

As I have stated in previous posts, mystical Judaism holds a tenet of reincarnation, gilgul– literally “recycling” or “wheel.” When Jesus asks if a man is born blind because he sinned, or if his parents sinned, this implies a belief in reincarnation. Since a baby can’t sin, the sin could only have transpired in a previous life. According to Hinduism negative karma caused by sin can be “burned off” in subsequent incarnations, eventually refining the human soul to the point of perfection, i.e. god consciousness.

One of the more fascinating assertions in this book is that the seven seals of revelation are in fact the seven chakras. Chakras are the “seals” in the physical body wherein the soul can enter and exit. I have experienced this firsthand with my projections, and have otherwise felt chakras “light up” with a sort of burning energy. Sounds crazy, but I can (subjectively) attest to the reality of these portals on the human body.

I’ve only touched the surface here but if your interest is piqued I highly recommend the book- it is well written and sheds a compelling if bizarre light on christianity. There are other topics covered, for instance the concept of Satan is linked to maya– the illusion of the physical world- which doesn’t entirely make sense to me but perhaps I’m missing something.

In closing, has Yogananda revealed hidden truths here or is this the result of a wild culture clash between east and west? I suppose the answer depends on your beliefs. Hinduism describes existence as a game of hide and seek god plays against himself; he “hides” himself in creation and then must be discovered, kind of like easter eggs in a video game. The Sanskrit term for this is lila- “divine play.” If we as humans are emanations of god’s consciousness, then our “job” in life is to play the seeker in the game.


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:


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.