Yogananda’s Autobiography, 1946, and Thomas Merton’s, two years later

3.    Autobiography of a Yogi, 1946: Yogananda’s song of himself in India and America; compare with Thomas Merton’s autobiography, The Seven-Storey Mountain, 1948, and with Merton’s subsequent, wide-ranging dialogue with the East.

The opening lines of AY: “The characteristic features of Indian culture have long been a search for ultimate verities and the concomitant disciple-guru[1] relationship. My own path led me to a Christlike sage whose beautiful life was chiseled for the ages. He was one of the great masters who are India’s sole remaining wealth. Emerging in every generation, they have bulwarked their land against the fate of Babylon and Egypt.

“I find my earliest memories covering the anachronistic features of a previous incarnation. Clear recollections came to me of a distant life, a yogi[2] amidst the Himalayan snows. These glimpses of the past, by some dimensionless link, also afforded me a glimpse of the future.” (Read the whole book, in epub format, in my Dropbox folder.)

Analyze the literary style: Do you hear the voice of a non-native speaker of English? Note some unusual words: ‘verities,’ ‘concomitant,’ ‘chiseled,’ ‘bulwarked.’ Y footnoted the few Sanskrit terms he used, and otherwise he tended to avoid Sanskrit as much as possible, to the point of inventing English neologisms, like ‘lifetrons’ for prana. He was in America on a mission both to propagate yoga and to rethink yoga — inculturate it — in Western terms. His disciples of the first generation generally went along with him in his Americanizing, but after his passing, they went back to some Hindu externals and sought accreditation of their monastic initiation from the head swami of Kanchipuram (‘Conjeeveram,’ Y’s transliteration) in Tamil Nadu.

“The disciple-guru relationship”: note who comes first, the disciple. India has the saying, “When the disciple is ready, the guru will appear.” In other words, the status of guru is conferred by the disciple; the latter’s recognition is what ‘ordains’ the former. So being a guru is not like having an academic degree or being elected to some office. No one hangs out a sign with “The Guru is in” on the front door. Y believed this and for the most part practiced it.

Why has India outlived Egypt and Babylon? I suggest an answer: Because India had no hierarchical structures of cultural transmission. Think about it: the West is all about hierarchy: I’m the instructor, and you are the students, and we’re here in the GTU, which transmits theological culture from those who have it to those who want to have it (and then transmit it to others). In India, when you wanted to learn something, you went on pilgrimage and searched for someone who had practiced and experienced what you were looking for. The teaching was not in the guru’s talking about it or making the disciple do it, but just in the guru’s doing and being. The disciple learned by seeing more than by hearing. Thus has India survived without Academia.

“Yogi”; “previous incarnation”: constant themes in Vedic America. Today about a fourth to a third of Americans say they believe in reincarnation, but is this a new number? I think the percentage has risen and fallen along with the waves of Indian cultural presence here. The way Americans imagine this transmigration of the soul has not much in common with India’s mythical imagination of the process. How do you imagine it?

The opening lines of The Seven Storey Mountain: “On the last day of January 1915, under the sign of the Water Bearer, in a year of a great war, and down in the shadow of some French mountains on the borders of Spain, I came into the world. Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born. That world was the picture of Hell…”

About ashramdiary

Thomas Matus, who blogs this Ashram Diary, was born 1940 in Hollywood, California. Academics: A.B. in music from Occidental College (Los Angeles); S.T.L. in ecumenical theology from Athenaeum Anselmianum (Rome, Italy); Ph.D. in comparative mysticism from Fordham University (New York). Initiated into Kriya Yoga (by direct disciples of Paramahansa Yogananda) in 1958. Became a Catholic in 1960 and entered New Camaldoli Hermitage (Big Sur, California) as a novice monk in 1962. Lived for more than 30 years at the Monastery of Camaldoli in Italy. Traveled to India some 20 times; made frequent retreats at Saccidananda Ashram (Shantivanam) in southern India. Was in Brazil, off and on, from 1999 to 2006. Now back in California, he lives at the Hermitage in Big Sur and Incarnation Monastery in Berkeley, California. See:
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