My Interview with Philip Goldberg on His Book, “The Life of Yogananda”



Philip Goldberg

Welcome Phil, thank you for joining us today.
Hey, it’s good to be with you, Phil. Double Phil.

Allow me to introduce you. Philip Goldberg is the author of American Veda, which explores how the spirituality of India seeped into the cultural bloodstream of America. He co-hosts a spiritually themed podcast, leads American Veda Tours through India, and blogs regularly for popular media sites. His latest book, and the subject of our conversation today, is The Life of Yogananda, which is a biography of Paramahansa Yogananda, author of the spiritual classic, Autobiography of a Yogi.

(Click here to order your copy of The Life of Yogananda.)

Phil, why did you choose to write a biography of Yogananda, whose iconic autobiography has been read by millions of people?
I’m sure you will appreciate that that is the most commonly asked question I’ve had in the last few years as I worked on the book, and the answer is there’s an awful lot about Yogananda’s life that is not in his iconic memoir. Especially his life after he left India and came to America, where he would spend just about the rest of his life.

I did a page count of Autobiography of a Yogi, and it turns out that less than 10 percent of the book is about his years in America, and there are portions of those years that he summarizes in a sentence or two that in fact lasted four or five years. So there’s an awful lot that people don’t know about Yogananda if all they’ve ever read is Autobiography of a Yogi, and I wanted to fill the gaps.

What do you see as Yogananda’s place in the overall spiritual history of the western world?
It’s immense, actually. You know, when I first read Autobiography of a Yogi, at the risk of giving away my age, it was 1970, and it had a big impact on me and a big impact on my whole cohort of young spiritual seekers that were just then discovering Indian philosophy and the practices that come from the yogic repertoire, like meditation. The Beatles had just gone to India, and not long before that, the whole interest exploded.

Autobiography of a Yogi was probably the most borrowed and most often ripped-off book among that cohort of youngsters doing all that spiritual exploring. Falling in love with India, falling in love with practices like meditation, and with gurus like Yogananda. He was of course long gone by then, but the autobiography was a big deal, and launched millions of spiritual paths. In cases like mine, mine had already been launched, but it was then deeply informed and accelerated by reading Autobiography of a Yogi.

Swami Vivekananda

He was called by the LA Times; “The 20th century’s first superstar guru,” and that’s an apt description. The spiritual giant we know as Swami Vivekananda had preceded Yogananda by some 25 or 30 years, and he had a big impact. But then came Yogananda in 1920 to the west, and he stayed. He made Los Angeles his home and headquarters, and spent virtually all of the next 32 years of his life here, and had hundreds of thousands of students… even more readers once Autobiography of a Yogi took off, and probably had as big, if not a bigger, impact than any of the gurus who came here from India, including the ones who came in the 60s and 70s when the numbers of people drawn to those teachers was much, much greater than it was in Yogananda’s day.

I think, as I wrote in American Veda, that this transmission of ancient spiritual teachings that we call yoga or we call the philosophy of Vedanta, or some people just think of as Hinduism… That transmission of Vedic knowledge and yogic practices to the west, I think has been one of the most significant developments in our history, culturally and especially spiritually, I think history will vindicate that. Given that importance, Yogananda is a giant just in that context alone, but the impact that the entire sweep of that transmission, which is ongoing, has had on American life and European life, it should not be underestimated, and therefore he sort of looms as a major figure in certainly the 20th century.

Yogananda came to America, as you said, in 1920 at the age of 27, and over the next three decades produced a prodigious body of work written in a language not his own, with an almost preternatural eloquence, and a depth of insight that’s breathtaking in its scope. Do you expect his teachings to withstand the test of time and influence many generations yet to come?
Well, they already have. Yogananda’s been gone for 66 years, and he’s probably still the best known Indian guru in the west, despite the fact that dozens have come after him, and many are still living. And I think much of that can be attributed, certainly probably the main factor, is the popularity and… it’s even beyond popularity. Autobiography of a Yogi is not just popular, it’s beloved, and it endures. It still sells thousands of copies a year, and his face on the cover, as you can see behind me, is still present. You can go to yoga school, you go to bookstores, you go to health food stores, wherever, you see that face and that book.

And so just the presence of that book alone would facilitate his influence continuing. In addition, he had established a spiritual organization, Self-Realization Fellowship as it came to be called… and with sufficient safeguards for its future, financially, organizationally, administratively, so that it continues, and it continues to grow. There are hundreds of centers in the world teaching in Yogananda’s name — far, far more than existed in his lifetime, partly because of the book and the outreach of his emissaries.

There are of course smaller lineages as well as SRF that sort of broke away and do their own thing. So the complete total amount of efforts on behalf of people teaching in his name, people who count themselves disciples and devotees, that assures me that it will continue.

But the main thing, I think, there are several factors that go into whether a guru-founded organization continues to thrive after the death of the founding guru. One of them is the solidity of the organization that’s left behind, because they always have to take new forms if there’s not a succeeding guru. So the quality of the teachers and representatives that follow, but also the ethicacy of the methods that are taught, and the reasonableness of the knowledge base that they leave behind.

In Yogananda’s case, it’s not just Autobiography of a Yogi, there are hundreds of thousands of pages of his written work. There are CDs of his spoken word… toward the end of his life recording equipment had entered, the technology of the era, and so his voice was recorded, and they have been digitally mastered and those exist. So the legacy can continue in the large numbers of books, the ongoing magazines, and online presence that continue in his name through the different lineages.

But the techniques have value, and it seems to me very important that the teachers whose work continues after their death, it’s no longer just their charisma and it’s no longer just how much they know, but the methods, the meditation practices, the yogic disciplines that continue to be taught in their name. If they work, if they transform people’s lives, if they have value in people’s lives, then the teachings have legs, as they say, they will endure. I think that’s certainly the case with Yogananda.

You mentioned SRF, Self-Realization Fellowship, which has countless members, including me, in dozens of countries around the world. When most gurus leave this world, as you mentioned, their popularity soon fades, but for the reasons you just stated, SRF continues to grow exponentially. How important do you view Yogananda’s legacy in terms of his effect on the spiritual advancement of people, not only in the U.S. but throughout the world?
I can only go by what people who study his teachings, people who acquire the practices he taught, Kriya yoga practices, in their lives, have told me. I should clarify as the writer of a biography of Yogananda that I am not a disciple, I never became a formal student of Yogananda’s. There are many, many people of course who signed up for the programs that are offered as a sort of introductory level, and then many go on to take initiation and become formal disciples. I never did any of that. I’m very familiar with the methods and the teachings because I did my homework as a researcher, but I never became a student, never became a disciple. I had my own path even when I discovered Yogananda.

But what I’ve learned in my research and my interviews and my casual conversations with people, his teachings change people’s lives for the better. They did in the 20s, they did in the 30s when he was here and gathering his early students, and they continue to this day. They’re traditional methods of raising consciousness, of moving people more quickly into the deeper spaces within themselves, to have the experience of the Divine and the yogic oneness within themselves — and the validity of those teachings and their power to change lives for the better seems to me irrefutable. There’s just so many people who vouch for that.

And so he’s obviously not the only guru who left behind wonderful methods and transformative practices, and that’s why I think the transmission of these methods and teachings as a whole have had such a huge impact, because if you multiply the numbers of people Yogananda has reached, by the people who are students and practitioners of other gurus and other methods, that’s a huge number of people whose lives have been changed. He was a leading figure in that.

Not only because of the disciples who knew him and the ones who came after his death and became disciples, and not only because of the many, many thousands of people who were not disciples but just casual students or formal students but not disciples, not just because of them, but because he was such an important catalyst in many other people finding their way to other gurus, other teachings. I’ve met many, many of those. They read Autobiography of a Yogi, they started to search, and for whatever reason or another they were drawn to guru so-and-so or to this spiritual organization, or that lineage, and Yogananda was the catalyst for getting them on the path, even if they did not become a formal student of his.

So when you factor in all those things, I have to consider his legacy to be immensely important in the evolution of consciousness in the last 50 to 60 years especially.

Paramahansa Yogananda (Courtesy of Self-Realization Fellowship, Los Angeles, CA)

But what specific lessons can we learn from Yogananda’s life that will advance our own personal and spiritual development?
Well, starting with the sort of core teachings of what we think of as the spirituality of India, the philosophy of Vedanta, the tantric teachings, the yoga philosophy of classical yoga, those are all in his works and the practices taught in his lineage of Kriya yoga. So partaking of those would be the primary lesson one can learn from Yogananda, that’s what he would want everybody to come away with in thinking about his life, reading about his life, it’s: you must apply these teachings.

That said, one of the things I realized after writing about his life, and I should say that I made the deliberate choice in writing the book to tell the human story of Yogananda, from birth to death as they say. I wanted to focus on Yogananda the person, the events in his life, the decisions he made, the family he came from, the background he had, the events of his life when he came to the west, to fill in those details, the choices that he had to make, the challenges he had to endure.

And it wasn’t all easy or pretty, and I found that to be a very important thing. I wanted to emphasize the human life as opposed to what might be called an intellectual or philosophical biography that would focus on his teaching. Because I felt like there’s thousands and thousands and thousands of pages of Yogananda’s own writings. Why should I spend too much time conveying what people are better off reading directly from him instead of with me being an interpreter?

Now of course, you can’t tell a story of a great spiritual teacher without going into what his teachings were, but I tried to keep that to a minimum and focus on the human story. And what I realized after I told that story, and as best and objectively and as fairly and honestly as I could, was that I had learned a lot myself. I’d been on a spiritual path for 50 years, and I think I know a lot, or I thought I did, but then when you dig deeply into the life, not just the teachings but the life of a spiritual giant like Yogananda, you come away learning certain lessons.

I think that people who read the biography I wrote, if they read attentively and read between the lines, will come away not just inspired but with takeaways they can apply to their own life. What you find in Yogananda’s life is somebody who wanted from the earliest age, he knew what his life was about. He knew he was destined to be a renunciate, to renounce the world of marriage and family and career, and all those things, and be a monk. Of course his family fought that every step of the way until it was clear there was no fighting it.

That insight into who he was at an extremely early age is inspiring for anybody who, regardless of how old they are at the time, has a deep insight into what their… to use the Sanskrit term, what their dharma, their Svadharma, their personal sort of path in life that’s the right way for them to live. I found it very inspiring the way he was unyielding about that, because he just knew so deeply.

And his was an unconventional path. And that’s true, I’m sure, of many, many people who read his autobiography or will read my book. Their path is perhaps unusual too and unconventional. His persistence, his strength with which he fathomed his own destiny and stuck to his guns and assisted on following it, it’s very inspirational, and I think it’s something that is an important takeaway.

Related to that, there was a part of Yogananda that just wanted to be a sadhu, a wandering monk living in a cave in the Himalayas or in an ashram along the Ganges, and having the secluded life of a classic Indian aesthetic or renunciate. And there were times when things got really difficult in America that he just wanted to do that. You could see it in his letters and things he’s on record as having said. He was tempted to just cash it all in and go to India and give up his mission of bringing his teachings, his lineage teachings, to the west.

Paramahansa Yogananda with his guru, Swami Sri Yukteswar, during Yogananda’s 1935-36 trip to India (Courtesy of Self-Realization Fellowship, Los Angeles, CA)

But when he was a young disciple of his guru, Sri Yukteswar, and he said, “I want to be a sannyasi, and I want to have that life.” Sri Yukteswar said, “No, no, no, no, no, you have a mission, you have a destiny. You’re going to be a monk but you’re going to be a monk in the world with a big task in front of you, and that’s what you’re going to do.” And he always came back to that, even at times when he was tempted to give up the mission and just go back to India.

And that push and pull of I want a quiet, secluded life, I want to devote myself to meditation, I just want to know God, I want to become enlightened, I’m going to go off to an ashram, I’m going to move to a cabin in the woods… Many of us have such thoughts and that sort of pull. At the same time, we have duties and responsibilities, and it may not be our dharma to be isolated and reclusive.

And so we’re pulled to the world because of its attractions or because of a sense of responsibility or because a sense of having to accomplish certain things and contribute certain things to the world, and at the same time if you have a deep spiritual inclination, you’re drawn to sort of escaping all that stuff and getting out of there. I found it very comforting to see that in the life of a great master like Yogananda, that tension can still exist and has to be navigated by the individual, and sacrifices have to be made, compromises have to be made. I found that terribly important.

There are many other lessons too, and one that I think is a terribly important takeaway is while Yogananda had this great mission, and he really, really worked hard and long hours at bringing his teachings to more and more people and running an organization, dealing with imperfect human beings and difficult challenges, financial troubles all the time, paying the bills. Don’t forget, he taught in America through the great depression, through World War Two. There were tough times, and he had to deal with all that.

Through it all, despite his hard work, he was very faithful to his sadhana, and he emphasized over and over again to people around him, “You must do your duty, you must work hard, but you do it in the spirit of non-attachment, and never forget why you’re really here, which is to become realized, to become a realized soul, to realize the true nature of the self as spirit. And while you’re doing your worldly duties, never forget that you take that seriously, you do it well, but you know at the same time it’s kind of a dream, it’s kind of the images on a movie screen, and your main job is to find your way to the light that projects those images on the screen. And so you do your sadhana, you do your daily meditation practices, and you do that faithfully. And then do your work.” That’s a lesson that those of us who are spiritual
practitioners and seekers need to learn over and over again.

As you mentioned, Yogananda was devoted to his guru, and of course he himself was a guru to many disciples. What did you learn in your research about the history and nature of guru-disciple relationships?
Oh man, Phil, you’re bringing up a huge topic there. And I have to say that it’s one that I researched long before taking on the life of Yogananda as a project. I had to write about this, I had to struggle with it in my own life, and I had to come to understandings of the nature of guru-disciple relationships. I’m old enough and have been on the path long enough to have seen a whole bunch of scandals involving gurus, and to have known a great many people who had gurus who disappointed them or they had to figure out what their proper relationship is with them.

I had to write about it in one of my books, Roadsigns on the Spiritual Path, I certainly had to write about it in America Veda, especially because in the generation of… the sort of baby boomer generation that found their way to a dozen or more gurus of the 60s and 70s, this was a bit of a struggle — What do I do with this relationship? How do I navigate being a disciple? Should I be a disciple, or should I just be a student of a teacher, not a disciple of a guru?

These are eternal issues that people have to face. There’s a Tibetan saying, “The guru is like fire. If you stay too far away, well, then you’re not going to get warm, you’re not close enough to the fire. But if you get too close you can burn.” And where to stand in relation to the heat emanating from a guru is a purely individual manner. There’s no formula. Everybody has his or her own relationship to the guru. From no relationship to a guru to a committed, close, intimate, personal relationship with a guru, whether living or dead. That’s a choice.

Many people I’ve seen over the years, that choice will be made, and then at another point questioned because they have changed, and then maybe they readjust their relationship to a guru. But when the match is a good one, as it was certainly with Yogananda and Sri Yukteswar, then the devotion and the surrender that a disciple makes to the guru is something really precious. I know there’s a lot of people who are very anti-guru-disciple relationship because so many people have been burned by imperfect gurus or charlatans, and so forth, but that’s why I say when it’s right.

Not everybody… in my experience, a very small percentage of people who are serious about their spiritual lives find it appropriate to have a close devoted guru-disciple relationship. Most people have a different kind of relationship with a guru figure or a teacher. And some have many teachers, and that’s also part of the tradition. You can have a main guru, a sadhguru, and you can have many, many upa-gurus, other teachers you learn from. But the one-on-one close relationship is really rarefied, and it’s not for everybody. It’s very demanding. The rewards are great, but only if it’s a good match. It’s like a marriage — there’s nothing more wonderful than a good match between two human beings in an intimate marriage. But a bad one is certainly not going to advance your spirituality.

And so, the choice of guru, the choice of whether to have a guru, and the choice of when one meets a guru, exactly what kind of relationship to have. Is it a student-teacher? Is it a mentor-mentee? Is it guru-disciple? Those are things that have to be discovered on one’s own.

To what extent are the teachings Yogananda and others brought from India relevant to people who follow a western religious tradition? Or even to people who identify, as you write in The Huffington Post, spiritual but not religious?
That’s a great question, and one of the things I am firmly convinced of, when I concluded after researching and writing American Veda, that this transmission of teachings from India to the west is of great historic importance. And one of the reasons I came to that conclusion is there’s a great number of people who have been influenced by the ideas and practices that we think of as Indian, that came from ancient India, who aren’t even aware that they’ve been influenced by it.

I sometimes give talks titled “A Nation of Yogis,” and I point out that if you look at the trends in American religion or spirituality over the last 50 years or so, you see, in terms of people’s attitudes, people’s beliefs, the way people define themselves spiritually, various parameters that social scientists assign to, results of questionnaires and polls, you will see a discernible trend away from conventional religious ideas and beliefs, toward ideas and beliefs and the way people engage their spiritual impulse that is much more Hindu or Buddhist, or eastern, or yogic over time than what we think of as conventional western religion.

There are people who I consider yogis who will never set foot on a yoga mat; they will never study with a guru; they may not know the Bhagavad Gita from Vogue magazine, but they are yogis because somehow the zeitgeist, somehow the trends of the last several decades have found their way into their lives. Maybe through friends, maybe through their doctor who tells them to take up meditation to reduce their stress or their anxiety, maybe through a psychologist who inculcates in them a way of looking at themselves that’s different and more sort of yogic than the way they used to look at themselves. Maybe it’s from reading western writers who have been influenced, whether it’s Emerson, or Thoreau, or Joseph Campbell, or anybody who had been deeply influenced by yogic teachings, but express those ideas and thoughts in their own disciplines, in their own language.

People have been influenced by this 200-year-long transmission in which Yogananda is such a leading figure. So people who identify as Christians, or Jews, or I think increasingly Muslims, as more and more Islamic Americans assimilate and become a part of the larger culture, and especially the people who call themselves spiritual but not religious, the ones in the polls that show that those who don’t check any of the boxes so they call them “the nones” — they check “none of the above” when it comes to religious affiliation. Those are growing in numbers with every poll that comes out, especially among young people.

Well, among those people — Christians, Jews, spiritual but not religious, nones — if they have any spiritual inclination as opposed to just being purely secular or purely atheistic, or whatever, their spirituality is more likely to look like a yogic one, maybe a Buddhist one, than a conventional religious life.

There are people who are dedicated Christians who identify now with the contemplative streak of Christianity that was buried for the longest time, and now there’s contemplative Christianity going on all over the country — centering prayer, Christian meditation. Similarly among Jews, the esoteric teachings, the mystical teachings, have come out again after not being accessible. And there’s Jewish meditation and there’s Jewish yoga classes in synagogues, yoga in churches.

Yogananda played a big role in that because like all the other gurus, he never said these teachings are here for you if you become a Hindu. That sounds ludicrous. Gurus didn’t do that. They said, “Here are these universal methods, these universal ideas and practices, that can be understood as sort of scientific theorems. And you can reason about them, you can examine them, you can put them to the test, and we have these methods of yoga, meditation, breathing practices, et cetera, et cetera, and if you do those your life will be better, and they will tend to validate the ideas of the philosophical premises.”

So people put that to the test. If they were atheist they did it from that perspective, and if they were Christian they did it from that perspective, and so forth. They applied them to their lives. Yogananda as we know was such a huge fan of Jesus that Jesus is on the altar of all the places that teach in his name, along with his guru lineage and Krishna. And so there was never an antagonism toward the western religions, and never any antagonism or sense of condescension toward people who are not religious or not spiritual, at least at the start.

So therefore, these practices have seeped their way into western life, not just in the people who go to yoga classes or partake in forms of meditation and so forth that come from those lineages. It has permeated the culture much beyond that, and that’s one of the reasons I think it’s so important.

So the long answer to your question, the bottom line, is yes, they have had a big impact on western religion and western tradition.

Yogananda’s autobiography is filled with miracles and metaphysical wonders.
Sure are.

He later wrote, “The path to God is not a circus.” Why did he take that position?
Well, the whole issue of miracles, miracles and wonders… as I talk to people who love Autobiography of a Yogi, there are sort of two types of people. One are the people who love the miracles and the stories of these yogis doing miraculous things, and others who love the autobiography despite those things. They don’t care about that stuff, they don’t even believe that stuff is real, but they love the autobiography anyway because of everything else in it. The human story, the portrait of India, the teachings, philosophical teachings, and so forth. And some people can’t get enough of the miracles.

But Yogananda was squarely in the tradition of the eastern sages, including Buddha, who would acknowledge that what we think of as supernormal powers… siddhis, to use the Sanskrit term… the miraculous feats, what seem to be miraculous feats, are within the power of an advanced yogi’s consciousness to perform the way you and I do routine tasks. They just become masters of being able to work their consciousness, work the mind, to have an effect on the material world.

The great sages, the great yogis, they just take that for granted, that’s just part of the tradition, and those stories are not seen as fables or legends to them, they’re just seen as, This is what great yogis can do. Yogananda was in that category. And virtually all of them, including Buddha as I said, Vyasa, all the great sages, would say yes, these things are real, and this is how we can explain them, and this is why they develop, and this is some of the uses those powers might have, but don’t get too caught up in this stuff. Spectacular experiences, powers, miracle making, it’s a sideshow. Or as Yogananda said, “It’s a circus.”

One of their uses is to dramatize what is possible. They get your attention. And when people contemplate: why did Yogananda spend so many pages talking about that stuff only to then tell people, “Well, it’s not that important. What matters is your own inner experience of the Divine, your own inner awakening. And you don’t need miracles for that, you don’t need any of that stuff. That’s what’s important.” So then you say, “Well, why did he spend so much time on that? Was he just being cynical just to sell books?”

My sense is because there’s many other examples of gurus and sages who do that, they get your attention, they keep you reading. You say, “Oh, my God. You can do that? People are able to do that stuff? How is that possible?” So it’s more than just stating a philosophical principle or a set of ideas. We love stories, and those are great stories of dramatic moments. Who doesn’t like a superhero? Who doesn’t like that?

So they get your attention, and then you’re able to say, yes, but those have very little value ultimately. What matters is your own inner experience, the experience of bliss, the cultivation of bliss consciousness, the cultivation of intimacy of the Divine. That’s what matters. And don’t go seeking powers, it will just be a distraction, it’ll just take you away from the really important things. But I showed you that so you know that the mind has that kind of power, that consciousness is not separate from the material world, and therefore when one has control and power over consciousness, one can do great things. And by great things, maybe in your case it just means having a successful career or being a great parent, or serving humanity. You don’t have to do miracles, but you cultivate your consciousness to be able to do great things. That make sense? Did I answer the question?

Very much so, thank you. That’s very clear. Now, Yogananda was a renunciate monk, but that way of life is rare, even though SRF does have an order of monastics. You already touched on this a bit, but can you elaborate about Yogananda’s views on the relationship between spirituality and worldly desires and responsibilities?
Yes. As I said, he would rather have been one of the monks who lives quietly in an ashram or cave as you’ll see throughout India, but his calling, his mission, was to be an active monk in the world, and we all have benefited from the fact that he stuck it out and didn’t turn his back on the mission that was given to him by his lineage of masters.

He would say, and did say, that the monastic way is, as you said it, Phil, for only a few. Now, over the course of my own spiritual life, I have seen many people decide they’re going to be monks or nuns, and very few of them last. I’ve seen people do it for a couple weeks or for a few years, or whatever, and then the impulse to mate and reproduce and to enjoy the pleasures of the world becomes overwhelming and they leave. But those who stick it out, if it’s right for them, then that’s their path and it has its advantages.

But the overwhelming majority of human beings are going to be householders, they’re going to be in the world. And Yogananda, using a biblical term, would have always advocated to be in the world but not of it, to be not attached to it, to be not dependent on the pleasures of the material world and the satisfactions of life in the world for your happiness, because those are always transient and impermanent and temporary, and so one cultivates the inner life, whether you’re a householder or a monastic.

The important thing is that inner development, and then, when you’re not doing your meditation practices, when you’re not practicing your yoga, to be active in the world in a way that suits your personality, your background, your upbringing, your tendencies, and so forth.
And if your tendency is to be a monk, you still have duties to perform. And so the monastics who hold Yogananda to be their guru, their master, they tend to be active. They’re teaching, they’re running an organization, they’re doing all the things they have to do, and devote themselves fully to that while also doing what is expected of them as monastics that’s different from what is expected for householders.

And it’s very tempting sometimes for people, especially when they’re new on the path, to look at the monastics who seem so pure, who seem to be so advanced, to say, “I want that. I’m going to renounce.” Well, every lineage that has monks and nuns, they don’t take that lightly, and they make sure people are really, really dedicated, and have really thought it through, and have passed every test before they will allow them to take vows to become a monastic. Because you can be drawn to that and then find it’s really not for you, and that happens quite often.

As you mentioned, you had read Autobiography of a Yogi as a young man, and you were featured repeatedly in the documentary Awake: The Life of Yogananda, which came out a few years ago. Given your familiarity with Yogananda, what surprised you the most while you were researching his life?
Yeah, that’s great. Let me start by saying one of the reasons I decided to take on the task of an actual biography, which to my surprise had never been done… some of Yogananda’s direct disciples had written memoirs about their life with Yogananda and their time with him… they were mostly personal memoirs and tributes to their guru, but no one had done a full-scale biography. One of the reasons I decided to do it was when I wrote American Veda, I had to search every influential guru who ever came to the west. Only three of them got a complete chapter; the others got parts of chapters — a few pages, a profile, or whatever.

I not only discovered, when I was researching Yogananda for American Veda, how incredibly important he was in the whole story, but I got fascinated by his life story, just the circumstances of his life that I spell out in the narrative of my book. It was kind of frustrating to only have one chapter to summarize it. So subsequently I thought, well, what if I were to do a full-scale biography as an objective outside observer? Then I could really explore his life.

And of course I knew a lot going in, but then I discovered how much more there was as I gathered material and got access to certain documents and certain materials. I also loved being able to put his life in historical perspective and to explore what was going on in India at the time of his youth, and the city of Calcutta during his teenage years, and the Freedom Movement, and then later, when he was in America, what was going on culturally. I just loved that context. But the details of his life came forth, and there was so much more than I anticipated.

You asked what was most surprising… one I already mentioned, that he exhibited at certain occasions as the leader of a spiritual organization in America, which is very different from India, especially back in the 20s and 30s, when the challenges of being in that position became overwhelming and he wanted to leave, I never realized there were times when he just said, “I’m going to just give this up.” But he didn’t. As he put it, he would pray to the Divine Mother to free him of this obligation, and I want to go back to India, and she would just say, “No, no, no, no, no, go back, you’re staying, you’ve got a job to do.” That surprised me.

The other thing that surprised me was just how challenging it was, just how difficult it was. And to his credit, one of the things I found very endearing was he acknowledged all that, he acknowledged how difficult it was. He acknowledged the pain of it and the anguish that he went through with certain experiences. Lawsuits, allegations that found their way into newspapers, disappointments, struggles with money, and all kinds of things. And of course, missing his family, missing his beloved India. Those kinds of things were not only endearing that he, as a guru, chose to acknowledge rather than to pretend to be unaffected by those things, but it was also surprising how difficult things were, how challenging they were, and how much he had to overcome.

There were other surprises too, but I think those are the things that sort of stood out for me. I knew some of it, but I didn’t know the complete… And there were a lot of little surprises that I found, like the fact that the British government was keeping an eye on him, and there’s documentation of things like that. And the backlash he got as a popular guru with dark skin in the 20s and 30s — and especially in Miami at a time of tremendous racism, he had to deal with that. There was also fear among a lot of conservative Americans that he and some of the other dark-skinned yogis and swamis were hypnotizing American women to take advantage of them and so forth. I mean, there were a lot of things going on in the culture that he had to endure, and all of that was a great fascination to me.

Overall, was writing this book easier or more difficult than you thought it would be, and why?
Phil, every book I’ve ever written was easier and more difficult than I thought it would be. If that sounds contradictory, I invite the listener to try writing a book. Some of it was very easy, some of it I just found almost automatic and a joy. There were aspects of it that were very difficult. It was a big research project, and you want to get things right, and so you find something and that leads you to something else that leads you to something else.

And then the challenges of sort of… Some of the hardest things about this book, and by hard I don’t mean they were a great struggle, just the difficult aspects of putting together a book and telling the story of a life as interesting and consequential as Yogananda’s, and still keep it moving along and readable and under 300 pages, that was a challenge. I could have written a 500-page book, but it just wouldn’t have worked at that length.

So making certain choices. The hardest things were what to leave out, how much space to give to certain aspects of his life, how much detail to go into, would the reader be bored? If I go too far in exploring certain aspects of his life, would that be out of balance with what’s really important? Those are the choices you make, and I’m sure there will be people who read the book who say, “You should have said more about x,” or, “You left out this, you left out y.” And they’ll be right, but one makes one’s choices, and you want to satisfy the desire to write a nice readable narrative, and at the same time try to be comprehensive. So those choices are not always easy. I had to eliminate several thousand words from my first draft because it was just too long. That was a bit painful at times.

Well, thanks for turning the lights on Phil, it was getting kind of dark on your end.
Yeah, the sun went down.

The last question I have for you is, what do you hope readers will come away with after finishing the book?
Well, first I hope they will have had an enjoyable and fun-filled romp through 59 years of a very interesting and consequential life. I want them to have enjoyed the read. That’s very important to me as a professional writer, that people take a certain delight in the narrative I tell. And I want them to have, well, let’s put it this way. For those people who didn’t know much about Yogananda, maybe never read Autobiography of a Yogi, I want them to come away with a kind of respect and admiration for him that so many other people have, like me. And I want them to appreciate his contribution, which, as we said, is immense.

I want them to also understand this transmission we talked about so much, the whole of Vedic and yogic teachings to the west, I want them to appreciate that that has had greater impact, and continues to, then they may have realized. And you can see it through Yogananda’s life, but it was not limited by any means to Yogananda’s life.

For those who are students of Yogananda, who have maybe read Autobiography of a Yogi several times, who consider themselves devotees, who consider him their guru, I want them to come away, or I hope they come away, knowing more about him, about Yogananda the human being, than they did before. And I’m confident that they will, simply because there’s material and information in the book that’s not anywhere else.

I hope they will also feel that I treated his life with the respect it deserves, and I hope that people appreciate that I tried to be honest and I tried to be fair and I tried to be objective, and at the same time not conceal my respect and appreciation for Yogananda. And as I said earlier, I think there are a lot of takeaways from his life that can help people, regardless of where they are in their own spiritual path, even if they don’t take spirituality very seriously but were just reading this book because they thought it would be an interesting biography to read.

I would hope they come away with lessons they can apply to better their own lives, whether they see it in spiritual terms or purely secular terms. We’re all trying to be happier, we’re all trying to be more fulfilled, and I think there are lessons to be learned from the life of any exceptional person.

People reread biographies, whether it’s a biography of Leonardo de Vinci, or Einstein, or a president, or a king, or a great historical figure, whoever it is, we read those things to be informed and inspired, and presumably to derive lessons that can help us in our own lives. Yogananda of course, having lived an exceptional life and having dedicated himself to spiritually uplifting the rest of us, there are particular lessons to be learned. I talked about some of those before.

And I would say I’m confident, and I say this at the end of my introduction, that if Yogananda were alive now and someone said, “Hey, meet Phil Goldberg, he’s writing your life story,” that Yogananda of course would want me to be accurate, but I think more than anything he would hope that the reader comes away from the book… It wouldn’t matter so much to him that they knew about his life, I don’t think. What would matter, I think to him, would be that they find in the book ways to advance their own spiritual lives and make their own lives, and make the world a better place.

And I’m going to add something here that I should have said earlier when you asked what surprised me. One of the things I came to discover and really respect was Yogananda was not detached from worldly affairs in the way we think maybe a monastic guru would be. He was very much aware of current events and spoke to them. He was a great defender of Gandhi’s Freedom Movement, even though that might have gotten him into trouble with the American and British authorities in the 30s and 40s. He spoke out in favor of American efforts in World War Two. He spoke out against, when he was very concerned during the depression, the causes of this economic upheaval, of people being greedy and taking advantage of others.

So he spoke out a lot, and he was an engaged yogi. I hope people learn from that lesson as well. There’s a sense that people on a spiritual path should be detached from those things. Well, you can be detached inwardly, but you can also be a good citizen and take a stand when it’s necessary, and he did, and that’s one of the many lessons I hope people learn from it.

Well, thank you so much for sharing your insights and your wisdom with us today, Phil. I really enjoyed our talk, and I suspect that your biography of Yogananda will be hugely popular.
Your lips to God’s ears, Phil. I hope you are correct, and I thank you for having me on. I really appreciated the invitation, I had great fun talking with you, and I wish you and all the good people at The Shift Network continued success in the good work you’re doing.




Philip Goldberg is the author or co-author of numerous books; a public speaker and workshop leader; a spiritual counselor, meditation teacher, and ordained Interfaith Minister. He lives in Los Angeles, cohosts the Spirit Matters podcast, leads American Veda tours and blogs regularly for Elephant Journal and Spirituality & Health.

Click here to order your copy of Philip’s biography of Paramahansa Yogananda, The Life of Yogananda: The Story of the Yogi Who Became the First Modern Guru.

His book, American Veda, explores how India’s spiritual wisdom seeped into America’s cultural bloodstream. Click here to read brief excerpts from American Veda regarding the distinction between traditional philosophy and spirituality.

Philip is working with award-winning filmmaker Lisa Leeman, the co-producer and co-director of AWAKE: The Life of Yogananda, to create a documentary series based on American Veda. They have received three grants and hope to raise the additional funds needed to film key interviews.

Click here to visit Philip’s website.

Click here to view all my posts about Paramahansa Yogananda and Self-Realization Fellowship.

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