‘Awake’: Bliss for believers

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Are you familiar with Paramahansa Yogananda? Unless you have you are steeped in yoga and meditation, the Indian guru may be unknown to you. Drawing from his 1946 book, the film, “Awake: The Life of Yogananda,” seeks to change that.

If we are to believe this film, Yogananda almost single-handedly introduced yoga and meditation to the United States.  This film is fraught with hyperbolic exaggeration. More accurately, Yogananda popularized kriya yoga, which stresses achieving oneness with God. For many, yoga evokes images of practitioners, dressed in lycra outfits, assuming a series of difficult poses. However, Yogananda stressed yoga as a spiritual discipline.

Yogananda was born to devout Hindu parents in Uttar Pradesh, India in 1893. The film suggests that he demonstrated special spiritual gifts as a young child, but fails to clarify how these qualities manifested. Merging traditional yoga training with more modern didactic techniques, Yogananda founded a school for boys in West Bengal.

However, Yogananda’s own guru directed him to venture to the United States. In 1920, Yogananda served as India’s delegate to the International Congress of Religious Liberals, which convened in Boston. Later that year, he founded the Self-Realization Fellowship there. The organization was devoted to the dissemination of traditional Indian yoga and meditation. Yogananda later lived in Los Angeles, where he attracted numerous disciples.

“Awake” is replete with testimonials from numerous celebrities. This includes the late, one-time Beatle, George Harrison; sitar virtuoso, the late Ravi Shankar; and prominent proponent of holistic medicine, Deepak Chopra. They all spoke glowingly of Yogananda’s putative spiritual wisdom. These testimonials are augmented by the observations of an array of scientists. One credulous Harvard physicist insists that Yogananda’s spiritual teachings are based in science.  Another praises Yogananda for supposedly recognizing the notion of neuroplasticity, long before it was identified by the scientific community.

The film repeatedly asserts that Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, had a single book on his iPad, Yogananda’s classic tome. Is the hard-charging Jobs really someone, who epitomizes the principles of relaxation, espoused by Yogananda?

“Awake” includes footage of Yogananda meeting with Mahatma Gandhi.  The film does not specify what their relationship is. Later, a photograph of civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, is flashed on the screen. Is this disingenuous? King cited Gandhi as someone, who inspired his own belief in peaceful civil disobedience. However, it is unclear that King was similarly influenced by Yogananda.

A screen capture from the trailer to the movie “Awake: The Life of Yogananda”  at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GyLkg3uDe1c

A screen capture from the trailer to the movie “Awake: The Life of Yogananda” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GyLkg3uDe1c

Co-directors, Paola di Florio and Lisa Leeman, have mounted a technically polished documentary. They have cobbled together an extensive array of archival footage to dramatic advantage. The well-edited visual text is augmented with an actor mellifluously reading sections of Yogananda’s book and a soothing sitar score. This results in a highly atmospheric work.

“Awake” is plagued by some intermittent methodological flaws. George Harrison, is readily recognizable. Nevertheless, he is identified by an onscreen caption.  By contrast, analogous captioning for hip hop entrepreneur, Russell Simmons, is curiously omitted, even though he is far from universally recognizable.

“Awake” is awash in vague generalizations, which are poorly explicated. The film asserts that Yogananda brought 5,000 year old Indian spiritual traditions to the west. In reality, Yogananda drew not only from traditional Buddhism, but also incorporated the less exotic teachings of Jesus and the early Christians. This salient fact is disingenuously omitted from the film. The film acknowledges that Yogananda had a falling out with his long-time friend, Dhirananda. Disconcertingly, the precipitous for the dissolution of their once-close relationship remains unexplained.

“Awake” is reverential in its tone. The hagiographic film is funded by the Self-Realization Fellowship, a foundation, which was created by Yogananda. It is now dedicated to perpetuating his legacy. However, this salient fact is conspicuously missing from the text of the film. This undermines the documentary’s credibility. It is difficult to ignore the suspicion that “Awake” is little more than a slick recruiting tool for the organization that funded it.

“Awake” has a well-defined target demographic. People, who are spiritual by nature, will likely be deeply moved by this film. They may be plunged into a state of bliss. However, those, who lack such an antecedent spiritual inclination, may cynically dismiss this film as little more than unconvincing gobbledy-goop.

“Awake: The Life of Yogananda” **1/2 PG (for thematic elements, some violent images and brief smoking) 87 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at    lernerprose@gmail.com.


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