The guru who brought kriya yoga to the West is the subject of a documentary exploring his lasting influence
Awake: The Life of Yogananda Official Trailer
Below are excerpts of three movie critic reviews and a probe: is the film Awake about the man, Yogananda, or religious propaganda?
Published in 1946, Autobiography of a Yogi is still in print in dozens of languages, and has been a gateway to Eastern philosophy for countless readers. The Indian author, Paramahansa Yogananda, is generally considered the man who brought kriya yoga to the West, arriving in Boston in 1920 and soon establishing a foothold in Southern California. The documentary Awake: The Life of Yogananda, designed for the uninitiated but sure to please followers, draws upon a rich archival cache to bring that East-meets-West period to life. Even so, it doesn’t delve deep beyond the surface of a New Age hero.
Directors Paola di Florio (Home of the Brave) and Lisa Leeman (One Lucky Elephant) combine historical and new footage, dramatic reenactments and impressionistic imagery that embraces the meditative aspect of kriya. They don’t always find the right balance. The doc, which was commissioned by the Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF), the international organization that Yogananda founded and which carries on his teachings, offers discerning commentary yet too often has the ring of a promotional presentation.
Beyond his exceptional spiritual aptitude, there’s little sense of the man, even as he inspired Roaring Twenties industrialists and other wealthy disciples to bankroll his mission.
The Bottom Line:
Intriguing archival material can’t quite compensate for a tendency toward proselytizing
While celebrity devotees turn up throughout (George Harrison, Russell Simmons), what’s most fascinating here are the physicists and neuroscientists discussing how the yogi’s insights on the workings of the world and the brain were decades ahead of science. They suggest that science still hasn’t caught up to him.
The film’s storytelling is straightforward, almost standard-issue, but the story itself is compelling, as is the testimony of devotees. It’s not surprising to see interviews with Ravi Shankar, Deepak Chopra and George Harrison (who died in 2001).
Much is made of a report that the only book on Steve Jobs’s iPad was Yogananda’s “Autobiography of a Yogi.” That’s enough to make a modern soul look inward.
Awake: Yogananda or Propaganda?
Yogananda, much-loved spiritual leader, and his followers were sincerely committed to finding the ‘right’ answers to their questions, and to shaping their lives in the light of the highest ethical principles. They were also swept, as we all are, by the waves of myopic interpretations of history. Unacceptable reasons for poor journalism. Awake: The Life of Yogananda lacks credibility, because:
1. The film was funded and produced by SRF, the religious institution. PEW Research Principles of Journalism demand: “While editorialists and commentators are not neutral, the source of their credibility is still their accuracy, intellectual fairness and ability to inform–not their devotion to a certain group or outcome”.
2. The man, Yogananda, is missing from the film. Instead, Awake presents superficial images of a New Age hero.
3. The film is SRF’s competitive reaction to arch-rival Ananda Worldwide’s 2013 release of Yogananda: The Movie (trailer below). The bitter rivalry between SRF and Ananda is told in a 2010 LA Times article.
Competitor, Ananda Worldwide’s Yogananda: The Movie trailer
Awake: The Life of Yogananda presents a fascinating story of a new age mystic, but the film lacks credibility.
Question for readers: What are your thoughts of films like Awake? Do films like this convert viewers?