Magic and Miracles in the Himalayas: What to Read after Autobiography of a Yogi? (Part 1)

Riz Virk
Riz Virk
Jul 6, 2019 · 5 min read

Like many in the West, the international bestseller, Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda, was one of my very first introductions to Indian spirituality and gurus.

Yogananda, known today as the founder of the Self Realization Fellowship, is one of the most respected spiritual leaders to bring Eastern traditions to the West. He arrived in Boston in 1920, to give a talk at a conference on the world’s religions (see Figure 1). He went on teach classes about Yoga and meditation all across the USA before writing his famous autobiography (which he did mostly while sitting in his hermitage above Swami’s beach in Encinitas, CA) completing it in December, 1946.

Figure 1: Yogananad at the international congress of religions in Boston(1920)

While Yogananda’s biography is pretty compelling, one of the aspects of his book I was originally fascinated with the descriptions of holy men, yogis, fakirs and sadhus, wandering around “old” India. These holy men were often able to perform miracles of a sort, or siddhis, as they were called in the Yogic tradition. The picture painted by Yogananda of “old India”, of wandering sadhus with spiritual powers, is one that I was sure has disappeared to a large extent in modern “India”, even though in some ways it’s the same land which served as the birthplace of the Eastern traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and many related traditions. Yogananda himself, spent very little time in India after his trip to the West 1920s, so I, like many others, assumed that it had pretty much “disappeared”.

I wasn’t the only one to be enamored with this book. Steve Jobs read it first as a teenager, and re-read it every year after a trip to India. When he passed away, there was only one book on his iPad: It was Autobiography of a Yogi, and supposedly he had left instructions to hand out copies at his memorial service. George Harrison, of Beatles fame, was famous for giving copies away of the book to everyone he met.

Figure 2: The classic version of Autobiography

With the flight of Westerners to India and the rise of the 60s counterculture, the book took on a whole new importance and became truly known as a classic. It was one of the few “genuine” spiritual biographies told by the man who’d lived it. The book didn’t go too much into the many challenges he faced here in America (there is a great documentary, Awake, which goes into his life here, which think about it a Hindu teacher in the 1920s, pre civil rights America, could be a nightmare!).

But like many western readers, the stories of the sadhus and the teachers left me wondering how much of it was fiction and how much was actually true. This included stories of Yogananda’s guru, Sri Yukteswar, who was a disciple of the Lahiri Mahasaya, the nineteenth century saint who was a householder in Varanisi who inspired multiple lineages of Kriya Yoga. Lahiri was a postal worker near the Himalayas when he met the seemingly immortal (and always young) mahavatar Babaji, who wandered around the Himalayas and materialized and dematerialized at will. Speaking of the Beatles, a picture of this Babaji was included on the cover of Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Were the tales of these (and many other) holy men and women just fables and mythology, or did they really happen?

One of my favorite stories in the autobiography (one of many favorites, I might add, since the book is chock full of these kinds of stories), had its own lesson about greed and miracles. Since Yogananda did not witness it himself, it’s possible it was just a made up story to prove a point that was passed down in the oral tradition. But given the number of these types of stories that Yogananda (and others in the books mentioned below) actually did witness, we can’t be so sure, nor do I believe we can dismiss these stories out of hand.

In this particular story, there was a Muslim fakir, who was given control by as Yogi of a spirit (or jinn), Hazrat, and he could make objects disappear and then re-appear by asking Hazrat to “take the object”. He abused the power by getting greedy to steal objects from people, a fact that was found out by the old Yogi who had taught him. the Old Yogi was disappointed and decided to take away the power completely, and Hazrat no longer obeyed his commands.

Like Steve Jobs, I found myself re-reading The Autobiography every few years, paying attention more and more to its spiritual message, and less and less to the miraculous stories of healing and siddhis and gurus that had originally attracted me to the book.

Still, I couldn’t help wanting more of these types of stories. I suppose it’s a Western failing that we are trained to look for the author’s next book when we find one we like — like the latest Stephen King or Harry Potter book! While the SRF (the Self Realization Fellowship) and some of Yogananda’s direct disciples, like Swami Kriyananda in the US ( who founded the splinter group, Ananda) have additional books about his teachings, none of these books captured the magic and mystery of the original Autobiography, in my humble opinion.

Even Yogananda himself spent very little time in the Himalayas; In one particularly memorable story, he and his teenage friends ran away from home to go to the Himalayas to find Yogi masters, but were captured by his industrious older brother, and Yogananda (whose birth name was Mukunda), was forced to commit to his father (and then later to his eventual guru, Sri Yukteswar), that he would complete his education near Calcutta and not go off into the mountains as a renunciate.

The preface to Autobiography, was written by Walter Evans-Wentz, from Oxford University and pioneer in the study of Tibetan Buddhism and an author of The Tibetan Book of the Dead and Tibet’s Great Yogi Milarepa. While the Tibetan traditions have preserved much lore about esoteric Buddhism (and similar Yogis and miracles, including many legends surrounding Milarepa), the stories generally take place so long ago and are translated from a tradition whose terminology is so foreign to most westerners, that they are hard to relate to. In fact, they are often missing the “color” that makes these books so much fun to read!

So what’s an aspiring spiritual seeker who likes reading incredible tales of Himalayan Yogis to do?

This year, I had a lot of time on my hands because of some health issues, and decided to delve into some other books that I think are worthy successors to Autobiography of a Yogi, and have managed to caputre some of the same magic. In fact some of these seem to share not just narrative elements, but lineage with Yogananda’s gurus.

Here’s my initial list, to be expanded in the future, with a link to my overview of each book:

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