Paramahansa Yogananda was not the first Indian-born avatar to travel from the venerable nation to the West for the purpose of imparting Eastern wisdom to spiritually hungry masses in the New World. He was preceded by a few, among them the lauded Swami Vivekananda, but followed by many more, some of whom courted controversy on American or other shores as they surrounded themselves with pie-eyed devotees only nominally interested at best in matters spiritual.
Self-Realisation Fellowship, the group Yogananda established in the United States, have overseen the production of Awake (2014) with CounterPoint Film’s Paolo Di Florio and Lisa Leeman. Some years before this SRF released Glimpses of a Life Divine, a homage to the guru on a considerably smaller scale never intended for widespread diffusion.
In tracing Yogananda’s life journey Awake is tantamount to the moving picture accompaniment to his classic Autobiography of a Yogi (1946). We learn of the boy Medja’s intense spiritual leaning, his search for and discovery of his guru, his struggle to attune his will to that of his master and his eventual acceptance of his role in his incarnation as Yogananda.
The last entailed embracing the special dispensation provided him to travel to the West to demonstrate the underlying unity of the teachings of original Hinduism and original Christianity. Many will relate to Yogananda’s battle to accept his lot. For a long time he wished only to spend his life roaming the Himalayas, meditating in the exalted company of saints.
His arrival in Boston in 1920, to speak at a conference of religious liberals (the talk he gave was titled ‘The Science of Religion’), signalled the beginning of his life in the West. The world was ripe for new ideas in the immediate post-First World War period and booming America stood at the forefront. The young swami’s insistence that one could make direct contact with God, or Spirit, through the harnessing of techniques or a methodology akin to that practised for thousands of years by ancient Rishis – an appeal to the new through the agency of the old – struck a cord far and wide.
But not all who flocked to the master did so with his interests at heart. Besides enemies within there appeared many without. Yogananda attracted vast audiences to his talks across the USA but in certain parts of the nation the pivotal idea that the same God beats in the breasts of all was regarded as preposterous and unacceptable. A visit to Miami in the 1920s was summarily cut short when he was ordered to leave the city. The chastened guru departed the United States for Mexico. A time of deep and painful soul searching began. Little by little the clouds lifted and the guru opted to begin anew.
The legacy of that resolve shines bright today, more than sixty years after Yogananda’s mahasamadhi (a yogi’s final conscious exit from his mortal frame) in 1952. The subject of Awake, which was filmed over a period of three years in more than thirty countries, is that legacy. Through the use of archival footage (including some never before released), interviews with direct disciples dating from years ago, interviews with current disciples, both lay and monastic, re-enactments of key events in Yogananda’s life, his bequest is artfully depicted. The incisive commentary of specialists in the fields of science and spirituality, including notable yoga practitioners in their own right, help put Yogananda’s towering achievement in perspective.
The music on the soundtrack enhances the dream-like quality of the visuals. Classical Indian sounds fuse with Western symphonic melodies, including excerpts from Philip Glass. There is original work from Michael Molliva and Vivek Maddala as well as songs by Krishna Das, Jai Vittal, Anoushka Shankar, Benjy Wertheimer and Alanis Morisette. The soundtrack is no less notable for snippets of rare recordings of the voice of Yogananda.
In the words of Ms Di Florio, ‘Yogananda was a radical, a revolutionary – a total game-changer.’ The dispensation that brought him to the West comprised and goes on comprising an invitation and a challenge for people from all walks of life. Caste, class, religious background, whether one springs from any particular religious background or not, is beside the point. In his writings and his talks Yogananda insists that people try the techniques for themselves rather than take his word as to their efficacy.
In its assured way Awake is as radical and revolutionary as its subject. Followers of Yogananda may liken it to an inspiring pep talk from a coach to his charges at a crucial moment in a life-or-death contest. The film is bound to draw countless uninitiated seekers too. One of its apposite lessons is that the first step toward anything may be the hardest. Paradoxically, there may be nothing quite so simple as setting out to try.