Friday, December 8

“Wisdom of a Yogi”: This book brings out the lessons from Paramahansa Yogananda’s classic and reinterprets them for the modern age

  • The book “Wisdom of a Yogi: Lessons for Modern Seekers from Autobiography of a Yogi” by Rizwan Virk interweaves stories from the “Autobiography of a Yogi” with tales of college professors, students, entrepreneurs and modern seekers, and brings the ancient lessons of karma, yoga, meditation and siddhas into the modern age of YouTube, video games, mobile phones and social media.

  • Paramahansa Yogananda’s “Autobiography of a Yogi” was one of the most impactful spiritual books of the twentieth century and has travelled around the world, inspiring millions to walk the spiritual path. But what are twenty-first-century spiritual aspirants, steeped in technology and science, to think of these classic tales of gurus, swamis and miracles in the Himalayas? Do these tales have relevance today?

  • This book will help enhance your spiritual practice in today’s increasingly complex, cluttered and connected world.

  • Read an excerpt from the book below.

One of the aspects of Yogananda’s life that has always stood out for me was his propensity to go out of his way to visit a person or place that he thought would be intriguing or helpful to him on his spiritual path. He displayed this kind of wanderlust even when he was young. He would often travel to the outskirts of the great city of Calcutta to find a particular swami or visit a particular temple dedicated to a goddess. The Autobiography and his various biographers confirm the vast number of miles that he covered during his life on trains, boats and, of course, on his feet, in both his homeland and the United States.

We have already talked in other chapters about his having visited specific saints, so in this lesson we will focus on the importance of visiting spiritual places. I like to call these ‘places of power’, places that have a sacred energy and can help us in our spiritual quest, as they helped Yogananda a century ago.

There are generally two kinds of places of power that we can visit on a little or a big pilgrimage: natural power spots and man-made power spots. Some spots are considered divine because of the presence of a god or gods (like Mt Kailash, where Lord Shiva resides and), so they might form a third category. However, our recognition of the Divine at a particular spot is usually brought about by its interaction with humans who were there or by its descent into corporeal form at that location.

Natural power spots are usually places of beauty that inspire certain feelings and put us in certain states of mind. The Himalayan range as a whole is considered a hub of natural power spots because it is, for the most part, uninhabited (though some portions of it have more people than others). The rule of thumb generally seems to be: the less the people around, the easier it is to meditate.

Yogananda and many other teachers compared thoughts to radio frequencies (he also explained the telepathy of advanced yogis using this metaphor). What this means is: the more the people around and the more the thought-radio-waves being broadcast, the harder it will be to pick up the natural energy of a place. The real reason for this goes back to the vrittis that all of us are creating all the time. The more the people around, the more likely are we to create vrittis or to pick up on the individual thought dramas of others. And the more likely it is that we will get caught up in the ‘warp and woof’ of samsara.

Going to a pristine place that has a scarcity of thought radio-waves puts you in a serene state of mind. It is easier to forget about the cares of the world. If you sit down to meditate in a place like this, you are already halfway there!

Man-made power spots are usually built on natural power spots, but have acquired a kind of specialness because of certain events that occurred or activities that happened there. In a sense, it is the reverse of being distracted by the vrittis of current people—it is the use of the thought-radio-waves not only of current residents but also past residents who we were engaged in a certain kind of activity. The level and clarity of the event or activity leaves a residue, and it is possible to tap into this residue.

One way this happens is through the collective thought waves that seem to imbue the place with an energy—positive or negative—that makes certain activities easier to perform. I remember once visiting MIT, years after I had graduated and become an entrepreneur, and running into one of my business mentors there. I asked him why he was working at MIT when he clearly wasn’t a student or an alumnus. He said he found it very easy to sit down and write computer programs there. The collective energy of the thoughts of scientists and engineers, students and teachers who dwell on a campus just makes certain things easier. This is why ashrams can be powerful and it is easier to meditate in an ashram than it might be at home or in a supermarket for example.

Perhaps the more interesting method (to Yogananda at least) of imbuing a place with a certain sacredness is for a saint or advanced adept to spend a lot of time there. I have come to believe that their spirit ends up being connected with that place—the energy of that adept becomes linked with that place. For example, the cave where Lahiri Mahasaya first met Babaji near Ranikhet is now considered a place of power, not just because it is a cave in a (relatively) secluded spot in the mountains but also because it is possible there to tune into the energies of Lahiri Mahasaya and his teacher, Babaji.

It’s as if the cave can give you multiple doses of spiritual power or energy—natural, man-made and (depending on your view of Babaji) possibly divine. This cave has been preserved and is now a tourist attraction/pilgrimage site. You can even see videos of it online now.

Throughout the Indian subcontinent, there are places like this; caves that a particular yogi or followers of a particular tradition frequented or places where a saint dwelled or a supernatural event occurred. Many of the caves in the Himalayas, though not nearly as well-known as Babaji’s cave, have names. Temples and mosques are often set up at spots where saints meditated or prayed or where a miracle occurred.

When I visited Pakistan in 2008, we went to a place called Kallar Kahar in the Great Salt Range of Punjab. This town was near the ancient site of Katas, which was once home to temples and universities associated with three of the world’s great religions (Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam), though today it is mostly a religious pilgrimage site and tourist attraction. The ruins of the Hindu temple surround a small pond, which, it is said in the Puranas, was created from the teardrops of Lord Shiva. The temple also appears in the Mahabharata. Just next door are the ruins of several Buddhist stupas that once served as a monastery. The difference in architecture is striking—the Buddhist structures are quite plain compared to the more ancient Hindu temples. This site also once hosted an important centre of learning during the Islamic period: the university at Katas was responsible for a number of important astronomical observations.

In downtown Kallar Kahar, we noticed a small mosque built around the tomb of a particular saint. I also noticed peacocks all around it and was told that these peacocks visited the tomb of the saint, who was called the Peacock Saint. He had undertaken solitary meditation for forty days and forty nights in that spot (known as a ‘chilla’ in the Sufi tradition). There is now a mosque next to the tomb.

I found this site, which is still important to locals, as intriguing a modern pilgrimage site as the ancient neighbouring site of Katas. As is the case with all religions and spiritual traditions when they travel across cultures, Islam has been adopted into various local desi forms, which incorporate the subcontinental penchant for paying attention to saints and giving them importance. This process is ongoing and it is the result of the Divine mixing with the human. It happened to Christianity, for example, as it travelled across Europe and Buddhism as it travelled across Asia—and to yoga in its journey from India to the West (and back to the Indian subcontinent).

Yogananda almost always took time out during a trip to visit sites of natural beauty, i.e., natural power spots or places and temples where saints dwelled or were still dwelling. When Yogananda visited Europe on his trip back to India in 1935, he took plenty of time to roam around the continent and visit sites of natural beauty. He even visited a Catholic saint, Therese Neumann, who had exhibited the stigmata while in Germany.

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