The Book that Invented Modern Spirituality Celebrates its 75th Anniversary

Guest post by David J. Neumann, author of Finding God through Yoga:
Paramahansa Yogananda and Modern American Religion in a Global Age

Autobiography of a Yogi turns seventy-five this year. Paramahansa Yogananda’s famous life story was hailed by HarperSanFrancisco as one of the “100 Best Spiritual Books of the Twentieth Century” more than two decades ago. Published in 1946, Autobiography has never been out of print and remains beloved by readers around the world.

Yogananda (1893-1952), a pioneering global guru called by his followers today “the Father of Yoga in the West,” first arrived on American shores a century ago to attend a Boston conference of religious liberals. During a nearly thirty-year career in the US, he founded Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) and spread his teachings around the world through travel and radio addresses.

He also wrote ceaselessly. He edited a magazine filled with articles—many of which he wrote—offering philosophical instruction, views on global current events, and vegetarian recipes. He produced an innovative yoga correspondence that transformed the intimate mentor-disciple relationship into a massive exercise in distance learning. And he wrote books on chants, prayers, and healing affirmations. But this global guru, who died in Los Angeles in 1952, has lived on primarily through his best-known and best-loved work, Autobiography of a Yogi.

The book is available in more than fifty translations around the globe and millions of copies are currently in print, along with electronic versions and an audio version narrated by Ben Kingsley. Autobiography of a Yogi came into the public domain years ago, so many editions of the text are available, including cheap print versions by at least a half-dozen publishers besides SRF.

Countless people have been inspired by the book over the years. Even while Yogananda was still alive, Donald Walters (who became Swami Kriyananda and later founded Ananda) and others promptly left everything behind to become disciples after reading his book. Artists have been especially drawn to Yogananda’s autobiography, including novelist JD Salinger, musicians Elvis Presley and George Harrison, and actor Woody Harrelson. Harrison’s devotion led to Yogananda’s inclusion on the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club album cover. Steve Jobs, who meticulously planned his own funeral, arranged for all attendees to receive a copy of Autobiography of a Yogi.

So what makes the book so popular? It lacks many familiar conventions of autobiography, glossing quickly over much of Yogananda’s childhood and dispensing with the first fifteen years of his American ministry in a few sentences. The book is instead primarily an inspirational spiritual autobiography whose narrative concentrates on his young adulthood and his quest to become a yogi. During a journey both physical and metaphorical, Yogananda shares countless examples of transcendent encounters—clairvoyance, levitation, and divine healing.

Early in the book, Yogananda relates an incident of a swami who miraculously appears in two places at once, prompting his companion to exclaim, “Are we living in this material age, or are we dreaming? I never expected to witness such a miracle in my life! I thought this swami was just an ordinary man, and now I find he can materialize an extra body and work through it!” As I explore in my book, Finding God through Yoga, Yogananda’s brilliant narrative envisions a world where miracles are possible in a skeptical “material age” for those whose eyes have been opened through disciplined yoga practice. Through this vision, Autobiography of a Yogi invented a spirituality that has come to characterize the modern world.

David J. Neumann is associate professor of history education at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.