CHANCES ARE PRETTY GOOD that you never heard of Purohit Swami. I never heard of him either until last week when I ran across his amazing little book The Autobiography of an Indian Monk. Now I’m on a crusade to tell everybody about him.
This book was the first autobiography of a yogi ever written, and, as often happens with the first instance of a new kind of thing, it’s remarkably good.
Purohit was an Indian monk, a swami, who boarded a ship to Europe in 1930, making him the third great yogi who came to the West. (Vivekananda and Paramahansa Yogananda arrived in 1893 and 1920 respectively.)
In London he used his letters of introduction from the heads of the Indian maths to wrangle a visit with the British poet laureate. One thing led to another, and pretty soon he found himself sitting on a couch in somebody’s living room with W.B. Yeats, the famous Irish poet. A friendship immediately began that would last for years, and Yeats made a shocking suggestion. I’ll let him continue the tale in this quotation from the book’s introduction:
We sat on for a couple of hours after lunch while the monk, in answer to some of my questions, told of his childhood, his life at the University, of spiritual forms that he had seen, of seven years’ meditation in his house, of nine years’ wandering with his begging bowl. Presently I said: “The ideas of India have been expounded again and again, nor do we lack ideas of our own; discussion has been exhausted, but we lack experience. Write what you have just told us; keep out all philosophy, unless it interprets something seen or done.”
I found out afterwards that I had startled and shocked him, for an Indian monk who speaks of himself contradicts all tradition… (p. xiii).
I was shocked by Yeats’s suggestion too, but for a different reason. It shocked me because it’s exactly the same advice the editors of this website have been giving our writers since we began. We tell them, “Describe your experience, but don’t philosophize.”
Perhaps Yeats believed, as we do, that this is the only way to educate Westerners about certain things which Indians take for granted, but Westerners often overlook or misunderstand.
One of these things is the fact that for most people, realization takes effort. Many Westerners don’t understand this. I’ll go further: many Westerners don’t want to understand this. They hear the Vedantic ideas that everybody is already realized and that the efforts of ego are an illusion, and they jump to the comforting, lazy conclusion that they don’t need to work at realization.
Some Westerners overlook the most fundamental point of all, that the enlightenment traditions are spiritual. Realization has to do with the awe-inspiring, hair-raising, infinitely peaceful, love-filled intimations for which our ancestors invented the name God. This stuff is all about love.
THESE OVERSIGHTS ARISE partly for the same reason that it’s hard to transplant a tree: no matter how carefully you dig around the roots, some vital part of the plant’s huge anatomy gets left behind in its native soil.
Yoga is the tree; Indian culture is the native soil; and this book is a magic wand that helps Westerners recover the recalcitrant bits that balked at the ocean crossing. It does so by letting you watch the life of an exemplary man, an adept yogi, through his own eyes. The missing cultural matrix becomes visible in a natural way, through his peripheral vision.
Here, for example, is Purohit on his grandmother, whom he loved greatly:
She led a consecrated life, ate only once a day and then but little, and like a typical Hindu widow, was always cheerful and happy (p. 4).
What Westerner would illustrate an old lady’s saintly character by advertising her reluctance to eat? None, because we lack the idea of renunciation. But it is everywhere in the background of this book.
Or consider what happened when Purohit’s father picked out a bride for him:
But now my mind had changed [regarding celibacy], and [my father’s] choice fell on Godu Bai, a girl of sixteen, of well-to-do family. Her father was so surprised, having understood that I was a convinced celibate, that he came to make sure that there was no mistake; and I was able to satisfy him both of my good faith and of the constancy of my desire for a spiritual life (p. 73).
Can you imagine this conversation between the young man and his future father-in-law? It’s worth a few minutes of reflection.
Or take this, describing his family’s daily routine after he had begun to adjust to his activated kundalini:
Months flowed into months. I never noted when sun rose [sic] or when it set. Taking half a pound of milk and a few nimb leaves a day, I sat absorbed in meditation as my wife did in the next room, her diet the same as mine. We got up punctually at 3 a.m. and, after our bath, began to meditate at 4 a.m. At 10:30 we breakfasted on four ounces of milk, took a second bath at noon, and meditated till 4:30 p.m. Then came a second meal of four ounces of milk, and a third bath in the evening at six o’clock, with meditation till 10 p.m. Dinner followed of the remaining eight ounces of milk. Comfortably we each lay down on separate beds in neighboring rooms on Persian carpets, over which were spread tigers’ skins, and these in turn were covered with pure white bedsheets. We had two soft pillows apiece. At times I read the yoga-aphorisms of Patanjali till 11 p.m., which was the time when I usually went to sleep. We used to lock the front door of the house so that nobody should disturb us. And what on earth could they disturb us for? (p. 82.)
That’s twelve and a half hours of meditation every day on a diet of a pint of milk and a salad. Talk about discipline! Talk about austerity! And yet he continues seamlessly into a sublime description of physical luxury:
Comfortably we each lay down on separate beds in neighboring rooms on Persian carpets, over which were spread tigers’ skins, and these in turn...
Is his point that there is a contrast or that there is no contrast? This kind of weird ambiguity is a hallmark of great literature.
I LIED A MOMENT AGO. I wrote that this book shows Purohit’s life through his own eyes. But of course that’s impossible. Books speak with words, not pictures. When they make us see things, it is an illusion, a conjuring, an authorial sleight of hand.
The techniques for this magic are well known. Build your narrative from descriptions of actions, the more concrete the better, and choose your words with the finicky discrimination of a child at dinnertime. Purohit does both; he’s a very fine writer of the story-telling school.
The book benefits not only from the author’s gifts, but also those of W.B Yeats, the Nobel-winning poet, and Thomas Sturge Moore, an eminent writer of the day, who assisted Purohit with the manuscript.
Credit is also due to Professor Vinod Sena of the University of Delhi, who is responsible for getting this book back into print after many decades of obscurity. He has written for this new edition (published by Munshiram Manoharlal in 1992) a fine introduction, notes, and index.
Text copyright © 2000 Laura Olshansky.
Laura Olshansky was the editor of this website during its first few months.
By Shri Purohit Swami
This book was originally published in 1932 as An Indian Monk: His Life and Adventures. This new edition, published in 1992, includes the original contents plus a 16-page biography by Vinod Sena.
This wonderful book is the first autobiography of a yogi ever written. After a university education and years of wandering as a renunciant in his native India, Purohit Swami came to England in 1930 where he became friends with the great Irish poet W.B. Yeats, who encouraged him to write this book. (The two men also collaborated on a translation of the principal Upanishads.) With artful prose and intriguing stories, Purohit does a remarkable job of communicating the experience of becoming a yogi. He also provides vivid glimpses of aspects of Indian culture (such as renunciation) that are particularly valuable for Western students of yoga.
We recommend this book highly.
Translated by Shree Purohit Swami and W.B. Yeats
There are translations for the heart and for the head; those that recreate the poetic, literary greatness of the original, and those that aim at academic fidelity. This may be the best English translation of the first type that has ever been made of the Upanishads. Shri Purohit Swami was an enormously talented yogi who came to London in 1930, and W.B. Yeats was one of the greatest English poets of the twentieth century.
This page was published on September 10, 2000 and last revised on June 19, 2017.