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If a guru clad in orange robes told you to leave your family and study yoga, would you do it? In Autobiography of a Yogi (1946), Indian monk Paramahansa Yogananda describes his spiritual journey. He left India for the United States to spread the practice of kriya yoga. Kriya yoga focuses on meditation with the goal of using one’s breath to achieve unity between mind, body, and spirit.
Yogananda knew from a young age that he wanted to follow a spiritual path. He believed he was destined to spread the teachings of Hinduism in Western countries, where Eastern philosophy had not yet been embraced. His autobiography gives us an idea of how his beliefs were shaped early on and provides first-hand accounts of the miracles he saw or performed throughout his quest for becoming a swami (Hindu religious leader).
Born in 1893, Yogananda was originally known as Mukunda Lal Ghosh. From an early age, he showed a profound proclivity for spiritual pursuits and claimed to remember a previous life as a yogi living in the Himalayas. He also gravitated instantly to a picture of his guru that his devout Hindu parents kept after he died shortly before Yogananda was born. When Yogananda turned eight years old, he unexpectedly came down with Asiatic cholera; however, when his mother implored him to mentally bow towards the picture of Mahasaya that they owned because he was too weak to do so physically, it caused him to be surrounded by blinding light and healed from his sickness.
Three years later, Yogananda’s mother appeared to him and his father in their bedroom. She was supposed to be at a wedding, but she told them that she was dying. Then the Divine Mother (a Hindu goddess) appeared and assured Yogananda that he would be provided for.
Yogananda was drawn to the Himalayas and he tried to run away. His brother found him and gave him a letter from his mother. The letter explained that Yogananda’s mother had been given an amulet by a divine being, who instructed her to give it only when Yogananda was ready for God.
As Yogananda continued to grow in his faith, he started seeking out more and more spiritual gurus who could provide him with wisdom and insight. He also started seeing visions of a particular yogi’s face; he knew this yogi would one day turn out to be his guru. At 17, he finally met this guru, Yukteswar Giri, and found out that Giri lived in a town not far from his own hometown. Giri told Yogananda that he should return home to his family, and that he would see his new protégé in 28 days. While Yogananda did not want to return home at first, eventually, after fulfilling the prophecy of meeting with Giri again 28 days later, went back home.
Despite his lack of consistent studying, Yogananda managed to graduate from Serampore College. He credited this largely to divine intervention and also convinced his guru to name him a swami. Once he gained the title, he stopped using his birth name and called himself Yogananda, which means bliss through divine union. A few years later, Yogananda started yoga schools for boys in Ranchi, India. In addition to teaching yoga at those schools, students were taught outdoors so that they could be more connected with nature
Finally, Yogananda was able to share his ideas on the benefits of yoga in America. He was invited to serve as a representative from India for an International Congress of Religious Liberals in America. The event gave him the opportunity to come to the United States and stay there for decades. While there, he started several monastic communities dedicated to kriya yoga. His efforts eventually netted him the title Paramahansa, indicating that he had achieved full spiritual enlightenment by spreading yoga around the world and helping countless people find better harmony between their physical needs and mental/spiritual ones.