Who was Sri Yukteswar Giri? What was his relationship with Paramahansa Yogananda?
Sri Yukteswar Giri was a spiritual teacher and mentor to Paramahansa Yogananda, one of the most influential yogis of the 20th century. In Autobiography of a Yogi, Yogananda details the teachings that he received from Yukteswar and how they contributed to his spiritual development.
Read on to learn about Sri Yukteswar Giri and how his teachings influenced Paramahansa Yogananda.
Yogananda’s Education With Sri Yukteswar Giri
To fulfill his destiny, Paramahansa Yogananda explains in his memoir, Autobiography of a Yogi, that he needed to learn a great deal about both the spiritual and the physical world. In the book, he describes his studies of kriya yoga with Sri Yukteswar Giri, as well as the education he received at Calcutta University. In this article, we’ll summarize the education Yogananda received from Yukteswar and how it influenced his studies later in America.
Sri Yukteswar Giri: The Prophesied Teacher
Yogananda—still called Mukunda at the time—says that he and Sri Yukteswar Giri felt a spiritual connection before they even spoke to each other. Both of them knew immediately that they were destined to become student and teacher.
Yogananda says he lived and studied at Yukteswar’s ashram (religious community) from 1910 to 1920. Despite being his teacher, Yukteswar rarely told Yogananda what to do or directly answered his questions—instead, he offered gentle guidance and helped Yogananda find the answers himself.
(Shortform note: By guiding his pupils rather than simply telling them the answers, Sri Yukteswar Giri was engaging them in active learning. As the name suggests, active learning involves students taking active roles in their education—for example, by practicing skills, discussing complex topics, and looking for answers to questions themselves. Active learning is generally believed to produce better results than rote memorization in terms of student engagement, information retention, and true understanding of the subject matter (as opposed to simply parroting answers without knowing what they mean).)
In addition to offering spiritual training, Yukteswar taught the value of living and participating in daily life. Yukteswar had great respect for people with practical skills, from handymen to artisans.
Yogananda explains that this appreciation for the mundane was unusual for a spiritual leader like Yukteswar. However, it provided his students with a more well-rounded education and a better understanding of the world. This is important because understanding the physical world is a key step toward understanding that the physical isn’t real—a core tenet of Hinduism—and thereby reaching enlightenment.
(Shortform note: The Bhagavad Gita can provide some insight into Yogananda’s writing; in this case, how earthly pursuits like work or art help you to connect with God and reach enlightenment. Recall our earlier discussion about destiny (dharma)—fulfilling your dharma is synonymous with doing God’s will, and therefore it’s crucial to spiritual growth. For example, Arjuna is a warrior, so his dharma is to fight. For artisans, fulfilling their dharma would mean working diligently to create the best products they can.)
Joining the Swami Order
After Yogananda completed his training, Sri Yukteswar Giri initiated him into the Swami Order. Ordinarily, the initiate’s guru chooses a new name for him to reflect his spiritual journey or some exceptional quality he displays. However, with his characteristic emphasis on gentle guidance, Yukteswar simply told Yogananda to choose his own name. This was when he took the name Yogananda, meaning “bliss through union with God.”
(Shortform note: Yogananda doesn’t give many details about the Swami Order in this book. It’s an ancient monastic organization whose members take vows renouncing physical and selfish attachments. These vows are poverty (renunciation of possessions), chastity (renunciation of sex), and obedience (renunciation of ego). Taking a new name is part of becoming a swami, and it’s also a common practice across many religions and spiritual traditions, ranging from Buddhism and Hinduism to Christianity and Judaism.)
Yogananda’s Worldly Education
In addition to receiving training in kriya yoga, Yogananda earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Calcutta University in 1915. Sri Yukteswar Giri had encouraged him to go to university; he’d foreseen that Yogananda would teach yoga in America and said that Westerners would listen more readily to somebody with a degree.
(Shortform note: Calcutta University is consistently rated as one of the best public universities in India, and it often ranks #1 in the country. Holding a degree from such a prestigious university likely gave Yogananda much greater credibility in the Western world, as Sri Yukteswar Giri predicted.)
However, though he did get his degree, Yogananda says that he was always too focused on his spiritual training to study. In fact, he only passed his final exams by a series of seemingly impossible coincidences.
For example, Yogananda had a friend make up questions about the exam material to quiz him, and then those same questions appeared—nearly word for word—on the finals. On another exam, he failed to answer so many questions that it should’ve been impossible for him to pass, but the passing grade for that subject was unexpectedly lower that same year.
Yogananda says that these strokes of luck weren’t actually luck at all, but were due to the spiritual power of yoga. In other words, he believes that God helped him shape events to his benefit so that he would graduate.
(Shortform note: What Yogananda describes here is a form of manifesting—shaping the world around you through focused intentions and the belief that those intentions will become reality. Rhonda Byrne’s book The Secret provides a more modernized explanation of manifesting, which she calls the Law of Attraction. However, Byrne’s version requires you to focus on what you want, which is incompatible with Hinduism’s drive for selflessness; that’s why Yogananda credits God and yoga for his success on his final exams, rather than his own spiritual abilities.)
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Here's what you'll find in our full Autobiography of a Yogi summary:
- The memoir of Paramahansa Yogananda, a famous yoga practitioner and teacher
- Practical lessons about yoga, spirituality, and how to live a good life
- An explanation of the Eightfold Path of Yoga