Paramahansa Yogananda’s “Shadows”

According to the great spiritual leader Paramahansa Yogananda, the power of delusion is very strong. A human being is a soul who has a body and a mind, but the power of delusion makes humans think that they are just minds and bodies, and many people tend to think that perhaps the soul is a religious fiction, concocted for the clergy to gain control over the behavior of their minions.

The deluded mind coupled with the solid body convinces humankind that its main reality exists in them. Humanity is deluded by maya, the principle of relativity, inversion, contrast, duality, or oppositional states. Maya is labeled “Satan” in the Old Testament and referred to as the “Devil” in Christianity. Jesus Christ colorfully described the mayic devil: “He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own, for he is a liar and the father of it” (King James Version, John 8:44).

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Paramahansa Yogananda, great spiritual leader and father of yoga in the West, explains that maya is a Sanskrit word meaning “the measurer,” a magical power in creation which divides and manipulates the Unity of God into limitations and divisions. The great guru says, “Maya is Nature herself—the phenomenal worlds, ever in transitional flux as antithesis to Divine Immutability.” The great yogi/poet further defines the mayic force by explaining that the purpose of maya is to attempt to divert humankind from Spirit to matter, from Reality to unreality. The great guru further explains,

Maya is the veil of transitoriness of Nature, the ceaseless becoming of creation; the veil that each man must lift in order to see behind it the Creator, the changeless Immutable, eternal Reality.

Paramahansa Yogananda has instructed his devotee-students regarding the workings of the mayic concept of delusion. He often employs useful metaphoric comparisons filled with colorful images. The following is an excerpt from the poem, “Shadows,” followed by a commentary about the poem:

Excerpt from “Shadows”

Beds of flowers, or vales of tears;

Dewdrops on buds of roses,

Or miser souls, as dry as desert sands;

The little running joys of childhood,

Or the stampede of wild passions;

The ebbing and rising of laughter,

O the haunting melancholy of sorrow . . .

These, all these, but shadows are . . .

(Please note: The poem in its entirety may be found in Paramahansa Yogananda’s Songs of the Soul, published by Self-Realization Fellowship, Los Angeles, CA, 1983 and 2014 printings.)

Jesus Christ described the devil as a murderer and a liar because there is no truth in him. The character/force, called “Satan” in the Old Testament and the “devil” in Christianity, is labeled Maya in Hinduism and yogic philosophy.

First Movement: Maya Similar to Shadows

A beautiful and revealing example of the yogi’s dramas featuring maya can be found in his poem simply titled, “Shadows,” from Songs of the Soul. The poem’s first fifteen lines offer a catalogue of pairs of opposites: “bed of flowers,” the first image encountered, is a positive one that readers can visualize as colorful beauty and possibly fragrant smells wafting from the flowers, while “vale of tears” denotes a negative tone, of sadness and sorrow.

Then the two images, “Dewdrops on buds of roses, / Or miser souls, as dry as desert sands,” offer again two oppositional pairs, the beauty and life of rosebuds with dew on them contrasts with the aridity of selfishness. Two further images, “little running joys of childhood, / Or the stampede of wild passions,” contrast innocence with violent emotions. Additionally, the “ebbing and rising of laughter, / Or the haunting melancholy of sorrow” contrast happiness and sadness.

Second Movement: Desire is Will-o-the Wisp

There is an important, interesting break in this pattern with the following lines:

The will-o-the wisp of our desire,

Leading only from mire to mire;

The octopus grip of self-complacency

And the time-beaten habits

While human desire sometimes leads humankind astray from “mire to mire,” human beings may also suffer from their self-inflicted inertia that prevents them from changing their error strewn path as their self-complacency and habits hold them in an octopus-like grip. Both of these pairs are negative. One could speculate about why the poet let these negatives remain without countering them with positives as he did in the other catalogued pairs. Do they cause the poem to be imbalanced? Or do they perhaps hint at the extremely strong power of maya that causes us to feel that there is more evil and negative in the world than good and positive?

Third Movement: Shadows Only for Entertainment and Education

The next two pairs, however, return to the positive/negative pattern: a newborn infant’s first cry vs the death rattle and excellent health of the body vs degenerating diseases. Then the final six lines aver that all of these experiences of the senses, mind, and emotion are nothing more than “Shadows.” They are merely the forces of maya—seen by humanity on the cosmic mental screen.

But instead of allowing human hearts and minds to take from all this that the unreality of maya amounts to airy nothingness, the great spiritual leader enlightens all, who encounter his marvelous teachings, to the fact that those shadows contain many shades from dark to light, and those “shadows” are not meant to hurt and discourage the children of the Divine Creator but to serve as a prompt, in order to entertain, educate, and enlighten them.

The great guru/poet Paramahansa Yogananda was born on January 5, 1893, in Gorakhpur, India. His name at birth was Mukunda Lal Ghosh. Always a spiritually advanced child, at age 17, he met his guru, Swami Sri Yukteswar, under whose guidance he flourished and became the spiritual giant and sacred engine that leads souls back to their eternal abode in the arms of the Divine Creator.

Paramahansa Yogananda came to the United States in 1920 to speak in Boston at the International Congress of Religious Liberals. His speech was so well received that he quickly gathered a following. By 1925, his organization, Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF), was well established with the purpose of disseminating and maintaining the purity of his teachings of yoga. He has come to be known as the “Father of Yoga in the West.”

The following is an excerpt from the introduction to Paramahansa Yogananda’s biography on the Self-Realization Fellowship Web site:

In the hundred years since the birth of Paramahansa Yogananda, this beloved world teacher has come to be recognized as one of the greatest emissaries to the West of India’s ancient wisdom. His life and teachings continue to be a source of light and inspiration to people of all races, cultures and creeds.


Paramahansa Yogananda’s in-depth work, Autobiography of a Yogi, has become a spiritual classic worldwide. Many devotees have been drawn to the teachings of this yogi through that autobiography, and many of their stories about how they came to find that work include some of the most inspiring “miracles” of modern American culture.

Such world-renowned figures as Dennis Weaver, Steve Jobs, George Harrison, and Elvis Presley were influenced by the Autobiography of a Yogi and the teachings of the great guru. Weaver even became a lay minister and spoke often at many of the SRF temples in California.

In addition to the autobiography, the great guru has published many collections of his talks, in both written and oral forms. His audio collector’s series of ten of his informal talks includes the following titles:

1. Beholding the One in All

2. Awake in the Cosmic Dream

3. Be a Smile Millionaire

4. The Great Light of God

5. To Make Heaven on Earth

6. One Life Versus Reincarnation

7. Removing All Sorrow and Suffering

8. In the Glory of the Spirit

9. Follow the Path of Christ, Krishna, and the Masters

10. Self-Realization: The Inner and the Outer Path

These inspirational talks reveal much information about the great guru that appeals to his devoted followers. Just listening to a God-realized voice offers an uplifting spiritual experience.

The Poetry

For my commentaries on the poems of the great guru, I rely on his marvelous collection titled, Songs of the Soul, the version published in 1983 with its most current printing 2014. Two additional collections of his poems are extant, Whispers From Eternity and Metaphysical Meditations.

Because the “poems” of this great guru function on levels that ordinary poems do not, they are often used in devotional services held by groups of devotees of the SRF teachings throughout the world in the Readings Services as well as their Special Commemorative Services.

Paramahansa Yogananda’s poems are more akin to prayers than to the poetry of ordinary poets, whose subject matter often dramatizes only human emotion in its relationship with creation and other human beings, instead of with the Creator; the great guru’s poems always invoke the Creator’s presence whether directly or indirectly.

Other Publications

The great guru’s organization, SRF, also continues to publish collections of his works. Many of his talks have appeared in the series of essays that include Man’s Eternal Quest, The Divine Romance, and Journey to Self-realization.

Corrective Translations

The guru has also bestowed on the literary world three important translations of extant perennial works that have been grossly misunderstood in some cases for centuries. His new translations along with his explanatory commentaries are correcting that misunderstanding.

In Wine of the Mystic: The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam — A Spiritual Interpretation, he shows how that poet’s God-realized effusions put on display a man in love with his Creator and not the wine sopped Epicurean that has been misapplied to the work.

In the guru’s in-depth translation and commentaries on the ancient Bhagavad Gita, titled God Talks With Arjuna: The Bhagavad Gita — A New Translation and Commentary, the great spiritual leader offers not only the poetic translation of the work but also the relevance for humankind of the psychological and spiritual instruction offered in the ancient poem.

Most importantly for Western culture, Paramahansa Yogananda has offered a full explanation of the phenomenon known as the “Second Coming.” Titled The Second Coming of Christ: The Resurrection of the Christ Within You — A revelatory commentary on the original teachings of Jesus, the work explains the true meaning of many of Jesus’ words long misunderstood and mischaracterized, such as “The Kingdom of God is within you” and “I and my Father are one.”

The Lessons

Of all the publications offered by SRF and the great guru, it is the Lessonsthat remain most vital. One could dispense with all of the other books, audio tapes, poetry, and other commentaries if one possesses those lessons.

The Lessons begin by offering physical exercises that prepare the physical encasement to sit quietly and still while performing the more advanced exercises that lead to Kriya Yoga practice.

The Lessons contains six steps that can be completed in three years, but each student is free to progress at his/her own pace. The Lessons include instruction in the following techniques: 1. Energization Exercises. 2. Hong-Sau Technique of Concentration, and 3. Aum Technique of Meditation.

After completing the first two steps, the devotee may apply for the Kriya Yoga technique.

Kriya Yoga Initiations

The Kriya Yoga technique features four initiations for a total of twenty lessons. The First Initiation, featuring lessons K1-9, includes the technique of Kriya proper, on which all of the other initiations are based. The Second Initiation contains four lessons, K10-14, and the Third and Fourth include the remaining lessons K15-20.

All of the Lessons, including the Kriya Yoga Initiations, include many explanations based of science, as well as on the life experience of Paramahansa Yogananda. These marvelous works are presented in such way to hold the student-devotees’ interest with little stories, poems, affirmations, and prayers that enhance the purpose of each lesson.

Complete Works

In addition to all of the works mentioned above, Paramahansa Yogananda has published many others, including his Cosmic Chants, which offers musical notations as well as the lyric for each chant.

An annotated list of the works of the great guru is offered on the Self-Realization Fellowship Web site under the title, “The Complete Works of Paramahansa Yogananda.”

Brief Publishing History of Songs of the Soul

The first published version of Paramahansa Yogananda’s Songs of the Soulappeared in 1923. During the 1920s and 1930s, the great spiritual leader revised many of the poems. The final revisions of the poems authorized by the great guru appear in the 1983 printing of the text, which along with the revisions restored many lines that had been omitted from the original version.

I use the 1983 printing for my commentaries. The current printing year is 2014. No further revisions or additions have been made since the 1983 printing. The 1923 versions of the many of the poems may be read at Full Text of Songs of the Soul.