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.

Boondock Saints and Angels of Death

Over the years I’d had The Boondock Saints recommended to me, but since vigilante movies aren’t my cup of tea, I avoided it. Yet last night, wanting to kill some time, I decided to watch it because none other than Norman Reedus– who later would be anointed with Walking Dead fame as the much-loved Daryl Dixon– stars in it as vigilante Murphy McManus.

It didn’t take long before I realized Boondock Saints is much more than a vigilante film. It’s an “angel film” in the vein of The Bishop’s Wife or Wings of Desire. The dead giveaway is that– despite being uneducated and working in a meat packing plant– they are fluent in any language they hear. When wanting to converse in secret, they speak in Gaelic which is probably a subtle reference to the “angel language” mentioned in the Bible. The movie drops many other hints that the brothers are in fact otherworldly beings, but if you haven’t seen the film I’ll leave it up to you to pick them out.

The Bible, or Torah, actually describes “avenging angels, “destroying angels,” or “angels of death” in several passages, including the famous “destroyer” who kills the Egyptian firstborn on Passover night.

boondock

Of course, Boondock is a heavily Christian film, with the brothers depicted as strangely devout and single minded about good vs. evil, but the notion of “destroying angels” has been carried over into Christian tradition.

I typically enjoy Willem Defoe as an actor but his performance in Boondocks is horrible and nearly ruins the film. He looks absolutely ridiculous waltzing around crime scenes with eyes closed, and his over-the-top rendition of a gay, morally conflicted FBI agent was embarrassing to watch. I don’t know if he was directed to perform this way, or if, as the biggest star in the cast, he decided to be egregiously flamboyant.

The film raised a lot of questions for me: if the brothers are angels, what was the role of Rocco? Were the angels sent to protect him? Was Il Duce meant to be representative of Satan– who was a “fallen angel–” given how he is released from prison (as is described in Revelations)? Since we eventually end up with three vigilantes, are they meant to represent the trinity, or the three primary monotheistic religions? I’m sure the writer had some of these ideas in mind, but how precise they were meant to be, or exactly what type of film he wished to create (religious vs. action, etc.) is open for debate.