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:

paramahansa-yogananda
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.

No es lo que piensas

As I mentioned previously, my parents did not want a girl when I was born. This was before ultrasounds, so the news of my gender after 9 long months of anticipation must have been a guillotine through my parents’ hearts. I know my father well, and I can see his 1973 face in the hospital waiting room– devastation, anger, his serious face all the more serious behind his black-framed nerd glasses. He probably swore colorfully in German, lit a cigarette (he quit when I was 4), went for a long drive, then hit some adult beverages. Not necessarily in that order.

So there was exactly one person in the household happy to see me when I was carried through the doorway in a pink blanket bundle: my paternal grandmother, who lived with us. She was 63 years old at the time, gray hair still black at the nape of her neck, her complexion perpetually suntanned to bronze, fiendishly smart and impeccably neat. Whether she took pity on my circumstances, or whether it was just kismet, I don’t know, but we took to each other like a fish to water. We were inseparable through my childhood. If I had a nightmare I stole down to her room. For a period it was unclear to me that my parents were my parents; I thought she was my parent, and that my parents just happened to live there. She took care of me day to night, kept me company, told me she loved me, nicknamed me Tesora (“treasure”), and held my always cold feet when we watched TV together. We talked about everything from politics, to TV shows, to her life in Buenos Aires before she came to the states at the behest of my father.

She had a friend in Buenos Aires who was some years older. They made a pact, the two of them, that whoever died first would make every effort to return– in some form– to advise what awaited on the other side. Not unexpectedly her older friend died first; not long after she appeared to my grandmother in a dream and said simply: No es lo que piensas– It’s not what you think.”

So of course my grandmother and I made that same pact with each other. Whoever died first, and it would probably be, and it was, her, would make every effort to return to the other to illumine the afterlife.

My grandmother died a few weeks after my 23rd birthday. I was newly pregnant at the time and remember enduring the nausea through the preparation for her funeral; at the wake I touched her cold face and felt the earth swallow me up on the spot. When I stood by her grave I wanted to throw myself in alongside her. If I hadn’t been pregnant, I would have just curled up in a ball somewhere and slowly wasted away.

In the back of my mind I remembered our pact, and while she did occasionally appear in my dreams it was nothing spectacular or informative. In fact when I dreamed about her she seemed simply alive, as though she’d never died, and it wasn’t until I woke that I’d remember she was gone. But seven years after her death, not long after my fourth daughter was born, I had a vivid dream that left me shaken.

In the dream I stood outside our old house. My grandmother lay on the ground gravely ill, and she died before my eyes. Not only did she die but I watched her body decay. It all happened quickly, as though in time lapsed photography, and then seamlessly her bones transformed into a lovely pink baby which was, to my surprise, suddenly in my arms. I walked into the house holding the baby.

I woke from this dream wondering if it was finally the message from beyond I’d been promised. And what did it mean? Was it a message of reincarnation? If so, why couldn’t she just come out and tell me? Or send a hindu mystic to lecture me?

I try not to think about her much. On the one had I feel she’s still alive inside of me. On the other hand the acknowledgement of the loss, that I’ve gone 17 years without her, years stacked on years, is unfathomable. So I don’t fathom it. I don’t even talk about her to my children, though I tend to keep my entire life before them a closely guarded secret. It took 16 years for the story of Pi Guy to come out.

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.