Remain awake and become a yogi

Biopic on Yogananda a masterpiece

Anand Pillai Tuesday 12th January 2016 08:44 EST

Writing this piece was a challenge. I had no idea how to begin. There were hundreds of thoughts distracting my mind. I could not concentrate. Though wide awake, I was losing sleep over it. Finally, decided to let it go. With no thoughts, I became more relaxed. I meditated on what I saw yesterday and my train of thoughts became clear.

So let me try to recollect what I saw yesterday. I realise, ironically, it was all about meditation, yoga and being awake.

Lord and Lady Popat in association with the London Centre of Self-Realisation Fellowship had organised a private screening of “Awake” – The Life of Yogananda, at the House of Lords on Monday (January 11).

“Awake” is a beautiful film depicting the life and times of Paramahansa Yogananda, how he made his journey from a remote village in India to the Paradise on Earth called America.

Directed by Paola di Floria and Lisa Leeman, the film transitions smoothly from one stage to the next as it traces the key phases of the spiritual master’s life. They bring the story and the teachings of Yogananda by skilfully interweaving anecdotal interviews of celebrated spiritual seekers.

One that remains etched in my mind is Beatle George Harrison giving credit to sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar for gifting him Yogananda’s book called Autobiography of a Yogi”, which according to Harrison changed his life for the better. “If I hadn’t read his autobiography, I would have been some horrible person,” says Harrison in that rare footage. Harrison says when Ravi Shankar handed him a copy of the autobiography with a photo of the swami on the cover, Yogananda “zapped” him with those eyes.

Modern-day spiritual guru Deepak Chopra describes Yogananda as a spiritual genius. Apple man Steve Jobs had only one book on his iPad – “Autobiography of a Yogi”.

The film begins with Yogananda's recollections of life in the womb. “I was conscious in my mother’s womb. On one side I wanted to express myself as a human being, yet on the other side I didn’t because I felt I was spirit.”

The film offers the chance to hear the mystic himself, through audio recordings as well as excerpts from his writings, delivered in the voice of actor Anupam Kher.

Yogananda, who brought his teachings to the West in the 1920s, says there’s a secret link between the body and the spirit – the technique of meditation, recharging the body battery with cosmic energy. It is not a dogma but the science of soul and spirit.

As a boy Yogananda had visions and felt that the Divine Mother was watching over him and had great plans for him. Yogananda was teaching happily in Ranchi when he received what he interpreted as a divine call telling him to pursue his work in America. He arrived in Boston in 1920 and immediately caught the imagination of the nation with his talk of reaching a state of higher consciousness. In 1925 Yogananda moved to Los Angeles and began by giving a series of lectures in the Philharmonic auditorium. On the first night over 6,000 people attended his talk. He was the cynosure of all eyes, drawing attention with his unconventional androgynous looks, long, wavy hair and dark, piercing eyes. His faith in Jesus also helped his appeal in the US.

The biopic is commissioned by the Self-Realization Fellowship, the international organisation that Yogananda founded and which carries on his teachings. SRF International Headquarters is in Los Angeles, while its London centre is at 82a Chiltern Street, W1U 5AQ.

The charismatic spiritual figure travelled around the US teaching the benefits of meditation and urging Americans to strive for self-actualisation.

Such was the popularity of the man that he was invited by US President Calvin Coolidge to White House. The Washington Herald front page picture caption read “Sage Sees Coolidge”.

In between, Yogananda brought his childhood friend from India, Dhirananda, to work with him. They later parted ways acrimoniously.

Then a yellow-journalism campaign painted yoga as a “love cult,” and although no evidence was found, damage was done. He was put on Government watch list and kept under surveillance. Yogananda described it as the severest trial of his life. Miami Daily News front page headline read “Swami Told To Leave”.

But Yogananda staged a comeback and died in 1952 in Los Angeles, in the middle of making a speech. Yogananda wasn’t the first guru in the US, but he was the first with a far-reaching impact.

The documentary is enlightening, with ample wisdom to offer. A must watch to remain in an ocean of consciousness. “Awake" is available on Netflix.

Earlier Brother Vishwananda, a sannyasi monk of Self-Realisation Fellowship, in his introductory remarks, touched upon the contribution of English people in the evolution of mankind and in the progress of society and culture. He said mankind has moved on. Today the watchword is globalisation. “For me the greatest contribution that the English people have made in this combined effort to make a better life and culture is English language – the lingua franca. Today we have communications, medicine, science, religion, all brought together through the use of this common language. The great unifying power of this language is England’s greatest gift to mankind.”

He said without English language, Paramahansa Yogananda – a simple and humble monk from India – could not have made it to the West in the early 1900s and taught them the ancient spiritual science called yoga.

Special guest in the evening was the Deputy High Commissioner of India, Dr Virander Paul.

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