Today we welcome a guest post from David J. Neumann, author of Finding God through Yoga: Paramahansa Yogananda and Modern American Religion in a Global Age, just published by UNC Press.
Paramahansa Yogananda (1893–1952), a Hindu missionary to the United States, wrote one of the world’s most highly acclaimed spiritual classics, Autobiography of a Yogi, which was first published in 1946 and continues to be one of the best-selling spiritual philosophy titles of all time. In this critical biography, David Neumann tells the story of Yogananda’s fascinating life while interpreting his position in religious history, transnational modernity, and American culture. Beginning with Yogananda’s spiritual investigations in his native India, Neumann tells how this early “global guru” emigrated to the United States in 1920 and established his headquarters, the Self-Realization Fellowship, in Los Angeles, where it continues today.
Finding God through Yoga is available now in both print and ebook editions.
Among the many concepts from sacred Indian tradition that have made their way into American popular culture, perhaps none is as pervasive as karma. Not surprisingly, common understanding of karma as a rigid cosmic law of cause and effect reflects a lack of nuance.
For one example of such popular misunderstanding, consider Alicia Keys’ song “Karma,” which moved to the top of the charts after its 2003 release. The song is addressed to a former lover who broke up with her. She had begged him to stay, but he said “the love was gone.” But the tables have turned; he has changed his mind and now he is the one “cryin’, desirin’ to come back.” In Keys’ view, the suffering her ex-lover experiences after having inflicted so much pain on her is perfect, unrelenting karmic justice: “What goes around, comes around/What goes up, must come down,” the refrain proclaims four times during the song.
This idea of an inexorable, impersonal force of judgment is not a complete misunderstanding of Hindu thought. Swami Vivekananda, one of the most important figures in popularizing Hinduism in the United States around the turn of the twentieth-century, emphatically stated, “Our Karma determines what we deserve and what we can assimilate. We are responsible for what we are; and whatever we wish ourselves to be, we have the power to make ourselves.”