“Awake: The Life of Yogananda” - Paola di Florio and Lisa Leeman (2014)

Awake: The Life of Yogananda (2014) is a biographical film about the most famous and important propagator/proselytizer of Indian yoga culture in America, Paramahansa Yogananda (1893-1952) [1,2,3].  The form of yoga that Yogananda introduced and taught in the U.S.A. was not the popular physical exercise practice known as Hatha Yoga, but was instead a traditional Indian philosophy and meditation practice known as Kriya Yoga.  Yogananda came to the U.S. as a young man in 1920 and resided there for much of the rest of his life, becoming a local symbol of Indian spirituality.  His Autobiography of a Yogi (1946) [4,5], which I highly recommend to you, remains one of the most famous spiritual books ever written and has sold over four million copies.

The film Awake: The Life of Yogananda, which was directed by Paola di Florio and Lisa Leeman, traces over much of the material covered in the autobiography, but it also includes a large collection of comments from a range of famous contemporary advocates of Yogananda’s teaching.  These include musicians Ravi Shankar and George Harrison, spiritual vocalist Krishna Das, alternative medicine advocate Deepak Chopra, and controversial rap music producer Russell Simmons.  However, I thought there were too many “talking heads” in this film offering their disparate opinions on Yogananda’s teaching.   Much of it was thematically repetitive, and after awhile this becomes distracting.  The most effective material is that which comes from the authentic source: Yogananda, himself.

The film starts with a brief introduction of Kriya Yoga and then begins tracing key elements in Yogananda’s life.  One important event was when he was seventeen and while walking along a back street in Banaras (Varanasi), he momentarily exchanged glances with a stranger whom he unaccountably seemed to recognize.  He quickly realized that this stranger, Swami Sri Yukteswar, was his long dreamed-of holy master, who would become his spiritual guide.  He thereupon spent ten years in his master’s hermitage, and he setup his own secondary school in Ranchi to teach boys both academic subjects and Kriya Yoga.

In 1920 Yogananda responded to an inner spiritual call and left India to go to Boston in the United States in order to offer public lectures.  There he was received as an exotic Eastern mystic in a country that was much less cosmopolitan than it is today.  Although another famous Indian yogi, Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), had earlier visited the U.S. and made an impression on the public, Yogananda remained in Boston for a longer period, three years, and he made a more lasting mark. 

After some further travels and lectures about the country, Yogananda arrived in Los Angeles in 1925 and established on nearby Mount Washington his headquarters for the Self Realization Fellowship (SRF).  There his fame and that of his teaching continued to grow.  The film does refer, however, to some negative things that happened during the subsequent years that I don’t remember reading about in the autobiography. 

One negative thing was the falling-out that took place between Yogananda and his SRF assistant, Swami Dhirananda (Basu Kumar Bagchi).  Dhirananda had been Yogananda’s boyhood friend, but their breakup led finally to an ugly lawsuit and a complete parting of ways.  Another adverse circumstance of this period was the raucous and malicious mudslinging against Yogananda that was undertaken by conservative Christian groups.  In addition, Yogananda was even placed under surveillance by the FBI during 1926–1937 in connection with concerns about the Indian independence movement of those days.

In response to another inner “call”, Yogananda returned to India in 1935 to visit his master, Sri Yukteswar, who seemed to be well on his arrival.  But not long afterwards, Sri Yukteswar unexpectedly passed away, suggesting that the “call” Yogananda had received was to give him the opportunity to see his master one last time.  Afterwards, Yogananda returned to America and devoted himself to writing prolifically on spiritual subjects during his remaining years.

Much of what is revealed about Yogananda in this film is interesting but not startling.  However, there were two aspects of his teaching that I thought were particularly intriguing.  One is concerned with his professed affinity for the teaching of Jesus Christ.  In fact Yogananda frequently quotes or cites the teachings of Jesus from the Gospels, and he seems to regard Jesus Christ’s teachings as perfectly in line with his own Yogic tradition.  Yogananda even wrote a posthumously published two-volume work that offered his detailed commentary on Christ’s teachings [6,7].  And I would say that Yogananda’s warm embrace of Jesus’s words has very likely greatly enhanced his reception from Americans over the years.

A second noteworthy aspect of Yogananda’s teaching is his insistence that Kriya Yoga is not a religious offering at all but is instead a set of scientific truths.  In other words, he says Kriya Yoga is a practical science.  I am willing to go along with the general idea of this assertion, but I have found it disturbing to read in his autobiography that both he and his master, Swami Sri Yukteswar, believed in astrology.  Astrology is a provably falsified pseudoscience, and it has nothing to do with spirituality, or even with mindful existence.  Like black magic, astrology belongs to the realm of charlatanry.  
Nevertheless, I am willing to believe that Kriya Yoga (and other meditation-advocating practices) may have sound underpinnings to its methods.  This is emphasized by one of the film’s talking heads whom I did find worth listening to, Dr. Anita Goel.  Dr. Goel is a young double-doctorate scientist, with both a Ph.D. in physics and a M.D. from Harvard, and she suggests that Yogananda’s insights will ultimately help usher in a new revolution in our scientific understanding.  In this connection she asserts that whereas Einstein’s revolutionary discoveries in the 20th century helped establish the notion that the world is made up of just two fundamental and irreducible elements –  matter and energy – now in the 21st century we will have to move to an understanding that there are three fundamental and irreducible elements of reality –  matter,  energy, and consciousness.  In support of her high regard for Yogananda’s perspicacity in this area, Dr. Goel points out in this film that Yogananda’s teachings explicitly articulated the notion of neuroplasticity [8] well before that phenomenon was confirmed by scientific measurement.  

Overall, thanks largely to Anita Goel’s commentary and the considerable and fascinating archival footage showing Yogananda at various stages of his life’s journey, I recommend this film to you, even if you have already read Yogananda’s autobiography.

  1. Anita Gates,"When Being a Yogi Had an Exotic Air - 'Awake,' About the Life of Paramahansa Yogananda", The New York Times, (9 October 2014).   
  2. Stephanie Merry, "'Awake: The Life of Yogananda' Movie Review", The Washington Post, (30 October 2014).   
  3. Sandra Hall, "Awake: the life of a Yoga pioneer", The Sydney Morning Herald, (27 June 2015).    
  4. Paramahansa Yogananda, Autobiography of a Yogi, The Philosophical Library, (1946).
  5. “Autobiography of a Yogi”, Wikipedia, (25 January 2020).   
  6. Paramahansa Yogananda, The Second Coming of Christ: The Resurrection of the Christ Within You, Self-Realization Fellowship, (2004).
  7. “The Second Coming of Christ (book)”, Wikipedia, (23 January 2020).   
  8. Matthieu Ricard, Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World, Little, Brown and Company, (2013; English translation by Charlotte and Sam Gordon, 2015), pp. 239-246.

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