The Making of a Spiritual Classic

The Extraordinary History Behind Autobiography of a Yogi

The writing of the work had been prophesied long ago. One of the seminal figures in the renaissance of yoga in modern times, the revered nineteenth-century master Sri Sri Lahiri Mahasaya, had foretold: “About fifty years after my passing, an account of my life will be written because of a deep interest in yoga that will arise in the West. The message of yoga will encircle the globe. It will aid in establishing the brotherhood of man: a unity based on humanity’s direct perception of the One Father.”

Many years later, Lahiri Mahasaya’s exalted disciple Swami Sri Sri Yukteswar related this prophecy to Sri Sri Yogananda. “You must do your part in spreading that message,” he declared, “and in writing that sacred life.” It was in 1945, exactly fifty years after Lahiri Mahasaya’s passing, that Paramahansa Yogananda completed his Autobiography of a Yogi, which amply fulfilled both of his guru’s injunctions: providing the first detailed presentation in English of Lahiri Mahasaya’s remarkable life, and introducing to a world audience India’s age-old science of the soul.

An account of my life will be written because of a deep interest in yoga that will arise in the West. The message of yoga will encircle the globe.

— Lahiri Mahasaya

The creation of Autobiography of a Yogi was a project that Paramahansa Yogananda worked on over a period of many years. Sri Sri Daya Mata, one of his earliest and closest disciples, recalls:

“When I came to Mount Washington in 1931, Paramahansaji had already begun to work on the Autobiography. Once when I was in his study attending to some secretarial duties, I was privileged to see one of the first chapters he wrote—it was on ‘The Tiger Swami.’ He asked me to save it, and explained that it would be going into a book he was writing. Most of the book was composed later, between 1937 and 1945.”

From June 1935 through October 1936, Sri Yogananda had made a return trip to India (via Europe and Palestine) for a last visit with his guru, Swami Sri Yukteswar. While there, he had compiled much factual data for the Autobiography, as well as stories about some of the saints and sages whom he had known and whose lives he was to describe so memorably in the book. “I had never forgotten Sri Yukteswar’s request that I write the life of Lahiri Mahasaya,” he later wrote. “During my stay in India I was taking every opportunity to contact direct disciples and relatives of the Yogavatar. Recording their conversations in voluminous notes, I verified facts and dates, and collected photographs, old letters, and documents.”

Upon his return to the United States at the end of 1936, he began to spend much of his time at the hermitage that had been built for him in his absence, in Encinitas on the southern California coast. It proved to be an ideal place to concentrate on completing the book he had begun years before.

“Still vivid in my memory are the days spent in that peaceful seaside hermitage,” recounts Sri Daya Mata. “He had so many other responsibilities and commitments that he was not able to work on the Autobiography every day; but in general he devoted the evenings to it, and whatever free time he could spare. Beginning around 1939 or ’40, he was able to concentrate full time on the book. And full time it was—from early morning until early morning! A small group of us disciples—Tara Mata; my sister, Ananda Mata; Shraddha Mata; and myself—were present to assist him. After each part was typed, he would give it to Tara Mata, who served as his editor.

“What treasured memories! As he wrote he relived inwardly the sacred experiences he was recording. His divine intent was to share the joy and revelations encountered in the company of saints and great masters and in one’s own personal realization of the Divine. Often he would pause for a time, his gaze uplifted and his body motionless, rapt in the samadhi state of deep communion with God. The whole room would be filled with a tremendously powerful aura of divine love. For us disciples, merely to be present at such times was to be lifted into a higher state of consciousness.

“Finally, in 1945, came the jubilant day of the book’s completion. Paramahansaji wrote the last words, ‘Lord, Thou hast given this monk a large family’; then laid down his pen and joyously exclaimed:

“‘All done; it is finished. This book will change the lives of millions. It will be my messenger when I am gone.’”

Tara Mata's Role in the Book Publication

Tara Mata, Sanyasini of SRF

It then became Sri Tara Mata’s responsibility to find a publisher. Paramahansa Yogananda had met Tara Mata while conducting a series of lectures and classes in San Francisco in 1924. Possessed of rare spiritual insight, she became one of the small circle of his most advanced disciples. He held her editorial abilities in highest esteem, and used to say that she had one of the most brilliant minds of anyone he had ever met. He appreciated her vast knowledge and understanding of India’s scriptural wisdom, and remarked on one occasion: “Excepting my great guru, Sri Yukteswarji, there is no one with whom I have more enjoyed talking of Indian philosophy.”

Tara Mata took the manuscript to New York City. But finding a publisher was not an easy task. As can often be observed, the true stature of a great work may not at first be recognised by those of a more conventional cast of mind. Despite the newly born atomic age having enlarged the collective consciousness of humanity with a growing understanding of the subtle unity of matter, energy, and thought, the publishers of the day were hardly ready for such chapters as “Materialising a Palace in the Himalayas” and “The Saint With Two Bodies”!

For a year, Tara Mata lived in a sparsely furnished, unheated cold-water flat while making the rounds of publishing houses. At last she was able to send a cable with news of success. The Philosophical Library, a respected New York publisher, had accepted the Autobiography for publication. “What [she] has done for this book I cannot begin to describe…,” Sri Yogananda said. “But for her, the book would never have gone through.”

Outpouring of Critical Acclaim

The book was greeted by readers and by the world press with an outpouring of appreciative praise. “There has been nothing before, written in English or in any other Euro language, like this presentation of Yoga,” wrote Columbia University Press in its Review of Religions. The New York Times proclaimed it “a rare account.” Newsweek reported, “Yogananda’s book is rather an autobiography of the soul than of the body….It is a fascinating and clearly annotated study of a religious way of life, ingenuously described in the lush style of the Orient.”

A second edition was quickly prepared, and in 1951 a third. In addition to revising and updating portions of the text, and deleting some passages describing organizational activities and plans that were no longer current, Paramahansa Yogananda added a final chapter — one of the longest in the book — covering the years 1940–1951. In a footnote to the new chapter, he wrote, “Much new material in Chapter 49 has been added to the third edition of this book (1951). In response to requests made by a number of readers of the first two editions, I have answered, in this chapter, various questions about India, yoga, and Vedic philosophy.”

Additional revisions made by Paramahansa Yogananda were included in the seventh edition (1956), as described in a Publisher’s Note to this edition. All of Self-Realization Fellowship’s current editions incorporate Yogananda’s wishes for the final text of the book.

Evolution After the 1946 First Edition

Yogoda Satsanga Society of India/Self-Realization Fellowship’s editions are the only editions that incorporate all of the author’s wishes for the final text of Autobiography of a Yogi — personally conveyed by him to the editor he worked with from 1924 until his passing in 1952, and to whom he entrusted all matters pertaining to the publication of his works.

Readers of Autobiography of a Yogi sometimes inquire about the differences between the current edition and the first edition published in 1946.

Three editions of Paramahansaji’s autobiography appeared during his lifetime. In the third edition, published in 1951, he made significant changes — revising the text thoroughly, deleting material, amplifying various points, and adding a new final chapter, “The Years 1940–1951” (one of the longest in the book). Some further revisions made by him after the third edition could not be incorporated until the publication of the seventh edition, which was released in 1956.

The following Publisher’s Note was printed in the seventh edition of Autobiography of a Yogi, giving the history of the author’s wishes for the book:

This 1956 American edition contains revisions made by Paramahansa Yogananda in 1949 for the London, England, edition; and additional revisions made by the author in 1951. In a ‘Note to the London Edition,’ dated October 25, 1949, Paramahansa Yogananda wrote: ‘The arrangement for a London edition of this book has given me an opportunity to revise, and slightly to enlarge, the text. Besides new material in the last chapter, I have added a number of footnotes in which I have answered questions sent me by readers of the American edition.’

Later revisions, made by the author in 1951, were intended to appear in the fourth (1952) American edition. At that time the rights in Autobiography of a Yogi were vested in a New York publishing house. In 1946 in New York each page of the book had been made into an electrotype plate. Consequently, to add even a comma requires that the metal plate of an entire page be cut apart and resoldered with a new line containing the desired comma. Because of the expense involved in resoldering many plates, the New York publisher did not include in the fourth edition the author’s 1951 revisions.

In late 1953 Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) bought from the New York publisher all rights in Autobiography of a Yogi. SRF reprinted the book in 1954 and 1955 (fifth and sixth editions); but during those two years other duties prevented the SRF editorial department from undertaking the formidable task of incorporating the author’s revisions on the electrotype plates. The work, however, has been accomplished in time for the seventh edition.

All of the changes, deletions, and additions between 1946 and 1956 were made at Paramahansaji’s request. Other editorial revisions — which were in all cases quite minor — were made later, according to guidance given by him before his passing to his longtime editor, Tara Mata, who had worked closely with him for over 25 years and in whom he placed his full trust for the posthumous publication of his writings in accord with his instructions.

Because Paramahansaji clearly foresaw that this book would continue to reach wider and wider audiences as the years went by, he instructed his editors to add — in the way of incidental footnotes, pictures, captions, etc. — whatever might be necessary in order to keep the book up to date.

Changes made since 1956 have consisted of what any publisher would normally do in the way of editorial adjustments in subsequent editions of a book that has remained continually in print for many decades (e.g., updating the list of other books by the author; addition of footnotes deemed of use to current readers — clearly marked as being added by the publisher, not the author; additional photos of the author and his activities; necessary changes to front and back matter, etc.).

Early editions of Autobiography of a Yogi gave the author’s title as “Paramhansa,” reflecting the common Bengali practice of omitting silent or near-silent a’s in spelling. To ensure that the sacred significance of this Veda-based title would be conveyed, in later editions the standard Sanskrit transliteration has been used: “Paramahansa,” from parama, “highest or supreme” and hansa, “swan” — signifying one who has attained highest realization of his true divine Self, and of the unity of that Self with Spirit.

Compared to the 1946 First Edition, Self-Realization Fellowship’s current editions of the Autobiography include an additional 20 pages of photos of Paramahansa Yogananda and other subjects discussed in the book, drawn from the organization’s archives to provide a fuller glimpse of the author and his activities for interested readers.

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