Friday, May 07, 2010

Reflections: Autobiography of a Yogi

This classic spiritual book unfolds the autobiography of the renowned spiritualist, Paramahansa Yogananda. Born into a pious Bengali family, he realized quite early in life that his true purpose was to tread the spiritual path of self-realization and renunciation. Amidst the understandable disapproval of his family members, Yogananda rebelled to seek his true purpose. Education from schools and universities seemed futile to him in his ultimate quest to seek a Guru who would help him comprehend the fundamental existential questions on the Universe and humanity, which continue to elude scholars and scientists. His adolescent years were filled with angst,frustration, impatience and the beginnings of meta-physical experiences with numerous saints. In his early teenage, as his destiny had ordained, he met his guru - Sri Yukteshwar Giri, and started his formal training in spirituality. At the behest of his Guru he forced himself to get a bachelors degree, for his guru was pragmatic to instate the truth that education, a worldly degree, was important if he wished to be taken seriously. His Guru held him grounded to his worldly duties, while ensuring that his true purpose was unwaveringly held in mind. After his education, Yogananda was advised to travel to the West to spread the philosophy of Kriya Yoga, a specialized technique of meditation, to help people attain self-realization and understand the true purpose of their lives. Through remarkable prose, Yoganda expounds the importance of meditation and the scientific truths underlying the metaphysics of spirituality.

It takes a while to truly get into the book... the chapters grow on you. The first half of the book is weaved with implicit, unquestioned assumptions on God and existence. To a skeptic, the questions of how, why, and why not, need to be proved by addressing each individual hypothesis. If the mind cannot comprehend them all at once, everything is trashed altogether. I'm such a skeptic too. But before I started reading the book, I convinced myself that I will keep my mind open, read through every word, reflect on every thought, while realizing that I may not understand them all, and that I, as a human being, have serious limitations on my rationality and the extent of my consciousness. If I were a 14th century woman who was given a glimpse of what the 21st century would look like, I would have likely ridiculed all of them. Humans flying? People talking across continents through some device? Ridiculous! And if someone tried to explain to me that everything was scientific, and went onto write equations of Bernoulli's principle and talked about theories on vibrations and electrons, I still wouldn't be capable of following any of it. To me, my senses, and my limited state of intellect, it would never make sense that sound travels as waves and can be tuned, packaged and sent through air, without pigeons. But after a few hundred years, like children slowly discovering the world around them, we have evolved, studied and stumbled on many scientific laws. We still have a long way to go to unearth the meaning of everything.

From time immemorial, human society has always ridiculed that which cannot be understood by the collective rationality of society. We have this pride that being on top of the food chain as the most evolved creature on the planet, our intelligence is boundless. Cognitive psychologists and researchers in Human Decision Making have churned out innumerable empirical evidences on our serious cognitive limitations of memory and rational thought. Scientists will also affirm that the brain and intelligence evolve, and have been evolving. I'm not asserting that everyone should therefore choose to believe everything in the metaphysics realm with a broken humility that we have limitations, and that we may understand them some day into the future. All I'm emphasizing is the need for an open, analytical mind.

Evolution of the consciousness

The idea of  evolution of human intelligence has always resonated with my comprehension of the world around me. I'm quite open to the possibility that there are dimensions around us which we haven't yet conceived or understood, and will do so as our intelligence and consciousness evolve. They escape the perception of our 5 senses, but our intellect keeps bumping against an invisible wall that seems to lock out the answers to many mysteries. Books such as this, embraces the notion that science will get us past that wall and will help us understand more about the nature of the tiniest particles that created us, that constitute us, the other dimensions around us, and eventually the laws of metaphysics. This is where Science and Spirituality will eventually intersect, or so is my understanding. For this to happen, with each successive generation, humanity's mind evolves until it is fit enough to make sense of the Universe. In a metaphorical sense, this is what the principle of re-birth is... at least to me. We start ignorant, and after multiple births we eventually get to a state of realization, after which we escape the urge of evolution, birth and death.

At its core, the book claims that we can accelerate the rate of evolution of our intelligence/consciousness through meditation techniques, such as Kriya Yoga. According to the principle of meditation, the body and mind are closely tied together, their harmony swelling us with wellness, health, clarity and intuition. The body is seen to contain different pockets of energy, each responsible for a unique function. The aim of meditation is to align all the energy centres in our body such that they harmonize one another and eventually the entire body and mind. Aligning the energy centers across the body's mid-line can be perceived as trying to harmonize ourselves with the philosophy of the Golden Mean - learning to be balanced and living with equanimity. When spiritualists claim that God and answers are within us, they imply that when the body and mind are recharged, consciousness and intelligence grow (or evolve) and the energized clarity yields us wisdom and understanding. According to Yogananda, recharging our mind for a few hours by sparking the energy centers along our spine is equivalent to going through a few hundred years of evolution - in terms of our intelligence and wisdom.

The "Science" of Energies
Hmmm... energy centers, harmony, recharge, clarity... huh? Fret not, there are explanations offered in a much more coherent and intelligent manner in the book than my attempts. I am not sure of the math of few hours of true meditation = x years of evolution, but the theory makes sense. The underlying philosophy that the book tries to communicate is that our bodies and minds have immense potential by virtue of their stored up energy. Yogananda explains this through Einstein's theories. If all matter is compacted with energy that even a teeny tiny atom has the power to explode with intense power, what about the human brain abounding with rich thoughts? How much energy must lay packed in us? If we have so much energy coiled up inside us, our true purpose seems to be to release that energy for the betterment of ourselves, humanity and the universe.

Each thought and brain activity sends out energies and vibrations that can be caught and translated into quantitative forms through EEG techniques. The EEG signals translated from thoughts and brain activity can now be interpreted to execute the action/s they are issuing, through machines and devices. Games and accessible tools for the physically challenged are being developed now with this technology. Advances in neuroscience have now made it possible for us to wear a device that will sense our thoughts and execute actions on the screen without us moving a finger. The ability to move things just by thinking about moving them was previously termed as clairvoyance. Science has now made it possible. Telepathy doesn't seem so far-fetched now, does it?

When this book was written in the 1940s, Yogananda confidently talks of brain waves and thought signals being tuned in like radio frequencies. Aren't we close to such a phase now? Slowly, the meaning of prayers now makes sense. What are prayers, but concentrated thoughts on something we wish for. If there is a device that can now push keyboard controls by sensing our thoughts, it doesn't seem totally impossible for the vibrations of our prayer signals from our thoughts to act on the universe to create at least a ripple somewhere, resulting in a cause-effect chain. Science has defined the butterfly effect and chaos theory, hasn't it? The power of positive thinking can now be scientifically presented. This theory has many parallels with String Theory - and it may very well be the key to understanding the nature and creation of this Universe. Unfortunately, I don't know enough about String Theory to critically analyze this theory, which just goes to show that I have so much more to learn even in the realm of Science, before I can pass any judgment in the metaphysical arena.

"Let there be light"
Scientists have all been stumped with the question of how to reconcile the infinite regression that accompanies the question of which is the simplest, basic element of matter. Even the tiniest particle must be made of something, which will be made of something, which will be made of something...and so on. Where does it end? What are we eventually made of then? At one point, everything must have been created out of nothing. What is nothing? Isn't it also something? Physicists have been struggling to discern how light/energy was created out of nothing. Yogananda therefore expounds that Light is the only absolute in our creation (part of the "Let there be Light", theory). And that everything in this universe is ultimately made of particles of light. A person with an evolved consciousness understands this; to them, the knowledge and awareness of such aspects are as intuitive as most of the simple scientific laws are to us. The craving for materialism disappears with this awareness, for we realize that we are all made of the same basic elements. This is what the Bhagavad Gita also tries to explain - the eventual blending of our consciousness and awareness with the cosmos due to our realization that God (light) is within all of us and that we (light) are also part of everything else. Other complex aspects of metaphysics, such as materializing the physical body in two different places etc., are supposed to stem from this basic theory.

The Illusion of Materialism
The more we try to delineate materials around us, the more we are said to be trapped in the cycle of Maya or illusion. The more we realize the transience and similarity of every material around us, we (hopefully) stop attaching any significance to materialistic possessions. The principles of duality slowly dissolve. There are accounts of real saints who have lived hale and hearty without eating a single morsel of food for more than 50 years. They recharge themselves through the energy of the Universe - the Light. If the body is viewed as an amalgamation of chemicals, running chemical processes that help us function, it seems plausible that there exist techniques of meditation that try to alter the breathing pattern such that the body is supplied with more oxygen (more energy), while depleting the concentration of carbon (retarding the rate of decay of the body). The meaning that surfaces is that man can sustain without depending on anything material around him.

So the answers eventually have been simplified to - 1) first ardently practice meditation, 2) expand your consciousness, 3) realize about yourself and your integration within the whole. But meditation is hard. True meditation takes more than closing one's eyes and trying to think about nothing. The technique of Kriya Yoga is methodical and takes years of practice to reach that one true state of harmony. The path towards self-realization is long and hard, but no doubt seems worthy of the effort.

As always, I was impressed and heartened that religion was not a topic of concentration in the book, despite drawing on the messages from the Bible and the Bhagavad Gita. The discussions are holistic, tightly integrating the unity between all religions and scriptures. Bhakti is definitely one aspect, one path toward self-realization, but without us fervently asking the fundamental questions on the Universe and about who we are, Bhakti is fruitless - so confirms Yogananda, all his Gurus, and the Gurus' Guru.

To me, the book was a major stepping stone to bolstering faith in my thoughts and prayers. To my immense surprise, the book doesn't take on a fatalistic approach to explain our existence and lives. Yes, there are many deterministic factors that we are born with, but the great saints weigh the power of human-will above our Karmic patterns and the constellations of stars and planets. I can now at least consider the possibility of miracles, if not truly believe in them yet. As much as it has assuaged some of my nagging questions, there are still many that lie raw and stinging - Is our purpose self-realization, renunciation of everything that is worldly and material? Then what am I doing here? How do we define duties? How can "worldly duties" balanced with such a quest? Why is it important to renounce the ego in this whole experience? Shouldn't ego be a part of self-realization? Or is it because we cannot truly understand the uniformity of things around us  if we continued to focus on the ego, "I", as being separate from everything else around? How exactly do our Karmic influence and free-will interact with each other? Where do the two draw lines, confining one from influencing the other?

It is unrealistic for one book, a little dabble in the pool of metaphysics and spirituality to unravel every single mystery to me. So I will persist, but perhaps now with a little more confidence that the universe isn't as elusive and ambiguous as it looked a couple of weeks back.


sfauthor said...

Nice review. Do you know about these yoga books?

Neeraja said...

Thanks for the link, I haven't read those books.

SecondSight said...

In daydreaming moments, I like to think that science is heading towards a more open-minded view of spirituality, and spirituality towards a less garbled, more solid scientific foundation for 'miracles'. It is unfortunate that the two fields tend to remain so distinct professionally, even though some of the best scientists and doctors will attest to the fact that our current research falls short of explaining so many phenomena. As Carl Sagan says- "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" :)

Neeraja said...

Completely agree. I wait for such a day when both fields converge successfully, but I may not live to see it :)