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Date Posted: 11:11
Author: Mike - 1 Jun 2001
Subject: Yogananda, Error, and the "Absolute Truth"

First, I should note that clearly documenting error in matters mystical is fraught with. . .well, error. For one thing, mystics are notoriously vague in framing their pronouncements, which even when clear are often devoid of empirical (read: verifiable) content.* Second, legend has a way of papering over fact. This is particularly true with vaunted historical figures, religious or secular; as most readers of this forum are aware, institutions (e.g., SRF) often play a part in this papering over.

That being said, I think I can show two clear cases where Yogananda made serious factual errors (although strong arguments can be made for other errors as well).**

Before I list these errors, though, just a note. The adherent of the mystical "method" will want to know what stick in the mud would bother pointing out factual errors of this sort; after all, what difference does it make to the practice itself, or to the perception of "absolute truth" (or the like)? My answer: If a person fails to get the mundane, easily testable factual matters correct - facts that he takes as important bases of his metaphysical system - then there seems little basis to suppose he gets the diffuse, elusive, cosmic facts correct: "absolute truth" subsumes "mundane, factual truth", and a showing of error in the subset proves error in the total set. Now the errors. . .


In his autobiography, Yogananda quotes the botanist Luther Burbank (some twenty or so years after Burbank's death) as saying the following during a private talk: "My friend Henry Ford and I both believe in the ancient theory of reincarnation."

But Burbank told the San Francisco Examiner in 1926: "[R]eincarnation of the individual is untenable. . . . Once here and gone, the human life has likewise served its purpose. There is no need for another."***

Yogananda calls Burbank a saint, so Burbank wouldn't have misinformed Yogananda. It seems much more likely, then, that Yogananda misremembers the conversation. (But then query how trustworthy Yogananda's other autobiographical recollections are.)


The idea of cosmic cycles is central to Yogananda's system (as it is to Hindu systems in general). I asked several astrophysicists (including about 30 Indian astrophysics) specifically about the "24,000 year" hypothesis. All who have responded say the claim is implausible. The following exerpts give a flavor of the problems involved:

2.1 "No, the claim is not at all plausible. A stellar companion with 24000yr period would be at a distance of about 1000 AU****. At this distance even the faintest star would be about 10 times brighter than
Venus in our skies."

2.2 "There is no possibility that the Sun is in orbit 'about' a companion. The companion would have to be more massive than the sun. Even assuming the companion body is a black hole, it would still have obvious observational effects that even a good amateur astronomer today wouldn't likely miss."

2.3 "No, it is not feasable. There was a lot of interest some years ago in trying to identify an extended binary companion of the sun's in an effort to explain an apparent periodocity of something like 80 million years, but nothing turned up. Any companion with a period as short as 24,000 years would have been seen trivially as part of that search.
"There is no distinction between a dwarf orbiting the sun and the sun orbiting
a dwarf. Binary stars each orbit their common center of mass."

2.4 "I think its not possible. Here's why: From Kepler's laws, the orbital period P (in yrs) is given by
P = sqrt ( m /a^3); thats read as square root of m over a cubed, where a is the semi-major axis (or radius if it is a circle) of the orbit in units of the earth-sun distance (called astronomical unit, AU), and m is
the reduced mass in units of mass of the sun. Stated another way, a = P^(2/3) m^(1/3).
"Now plug in the numbers, the value of m is atmost 1, P=24000 yrs which implies a is atmost 832 AU. Given that the radius of pluto's orbit is only 40 AU, the gravity of this binary system would have caused observable perturbations to its orbit or other planets in the solar system. Furthermore, any star that close would have been extremely bright (only about a million times less brighter than the sun and brighter than the
brightest star on the night sky) even white dwarfs/black holes/neutron stars are ruled out as they would be detectable as well."

2.5 "No, this is not a plausible suggestion. First, we would see perturbations in the Sun's
motion relative to other stars, and we do not find
that. Second, any star that close to us, even if it were a
star of very faint absolute magnitude, would have been either a) very
bright in the sky, and hence obvious to us or
b) would have such a large proper motion that we would
have found it already, anyway."

2.6 "No. Given that period, even the faintest star would have been detected."

2.7 "[T]hat period works out to a semi major axis of about 850 AU's.
At that distance any companion would have to be of very low
mass - Jupiter or less. [Too small a mass to support the orbit of our solar system.] Otherwise it would have been picked up on various proper motion surveys."

2.8 "There was some recurring speculation that there might be a binary companion with a period on the order of tens of millions of years, although there really isn't any evidence that such a companion exists, and would most probably have been detected by now. But a companion with the period you specify really is not possible, since it would have to reside something like 800 AU or so away; even a black hole would be obvious at that distance."

2.9 "There is no evidence to hand that would agree with that idea."

2.10 "The suggestion is not plausible. Even the faintest star at that distance would be almost as bright as the moon. We would also have picked it up in proper motion surveys, or observed perturbations in the orbits of the outer planets."

Yogananda appeals to Burbank's personal attitudes as a tool of persuasion. However, his characterisation of those attitudes was false. He also appeals to an astronomical hypothesis as a basis for a large portion of his metaphysical system. This hypothesis too is false.

If Yogananda made no other testable historical or empirical claims than the two above (and I have found no other such claims peculiar to his own writings), it follows that every such claim he has made is false. This is an unimpressive epistemic batting average for someone ostensibly in touch with "absolute truth."

* Adherents to various yogic disciplines praise the "clarity of mind" yogic practice gives them; but if they count clarity as a virtue, it isn't reflected in their writings. Perhaps vagueness is built into the world (or at least our grasp of it). Perhaps. However, it does not follow that an accurate model of the world will of necessity track that vagueness by itself being vague in its contours.

** For instance, I seem to remember that Yogananda claims in the Autobiography that "oriental" astronomers were the first to posit heliocentrism. This claim probably refers to Ayurbhata, a brilliant Indian polymath, postulated model of heliocentrism in the 6th (I think) century AD. However, the Greek philosopher Aristarchus postulated heliocentrism almost a thousand years before Ayurbhata. Of course, this does not mean that Aristarchus' accomplishment was greater than Ayurbhata's; while we know Ayurbhata provided a very detailed model of heliocentrism, we don't know the contents of Aristarchus' model at all. It just means that Yogananda's claim is erroneous.

*** A testimonial letter signed by Burbank, generally praising certain unspecified teachings of Yogoda, does not speak to this contradiction.

**** AU = 'astronomical unit' = the distance from Earth to the sun. I made ad hoc use of the symbol '^' to mean "to the power of" (e.g., 2^2 = 2 squared.)

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