It was 1920. A young yogi with flowing hair landed on America’s shores, as a delegate to the International Congress of Liberals in Boston. A century ago, India was very much the land of mystical hocus-pocus and half-naked fakirs for Americans. But the yogi, born Mukunda Lal Ghosh in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, would go on to change that perception to a large extent.
We know him better as Paramahansa Yogananda (1893-1952) and are familiar with his seminal spiritual work, Autobiography of a Yogi. A contemporary of Swami Vivekananda, he told America: “Everything else can wait but your search for God...” He spent over 30 years in America, spreading the science of Kriya Yoga and its tradition of meditation.
The story of this remarkable man is now the subject of a Hollywood film, Awake: The Life of Yogananda. Directed by Oscar-nominated filmmakers, Paola di Florio and Lisa Leeman, the docu-feature was released on Friday in India, ahead of International Yoga Day on June 21.
Filmed over three years with the participation of 30 countries, it has been described as an “unconventional biography.” Awake examines the world of yoga, modern and ancient, in the East and the West. It features interviews with Beatle George Harrison, the late Ravi Shankar, holistic health pioneer Deepak Chopra and many others who were inspired by Paramahansa.
Indeed, Yogananda has often been called “the Father of Yoga in the West,” and the “First Superstar Guru”.
He counted several prominent personalities as his followers, like botanist Luther Burbank, Kodak camera inventor George Eastman and actor Dick Haymes.
In India, Mahatma Gandhi requested him to initiate him and some of his followers into Kriya Yoga.
His teachings and his work, both have withstood the test of time. Through his spiritual institutions Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) and Yogoda Satsanga Society of India (YSS), Yogananda’s work continues to grow. The society has more than 500 centres around the world and disciples spread over six continents.
In fact, according to the Walter Isaacson biography, when Steve Jobs died in 2011, he had only one book on his iPad: Autobiography of a Yogi. The book was also given to the people attending Jobs’s funeral.
For Jobs or for the man on the street, Yogananda’s teachings are the medium that helps them realise that elusive “something else”. As Yogananda put the essence of his teachings: “Man remains engaged in an unceasing quest for that ‘something else’ he hopes will bring him complete and unending happiness. For those individual souls who have sought and found God, the search is over: He is that something Else.”
In an interview to IANS, di Florio said of the film’s release, “It feels like Paramahansaji’s teachings of India’s ancient wisdom have come full circle... India holds a very special place in my heart. The opening of Awake in India marks a seminal moment.”
Actor Anupam Kher, who has lent his voice to the film, described the experience as “cathartic” in earlier interviews. He said the film was especially important as it gave him a chance to “understand the theory of the guru”.
The New York Times said it was “not surprising to see interviews with Ravi Shankar, Deepak Chopra and George Harrison (who died in 2001). It’s a bit more so to hear contemporary scientists marvel at Yogananda’s understanding of neuroplasticity decades before Western science considered it.”
The film is the story of one man and his purpose to free mankind of ego and suffering, to make East meet West and offer both a lasting happiness. Who knows, maybe self-realisation can be found in a cinema hall?