When it comes to miracle-working, the wisdom traditions of the East never seem to be able to make up their minds.
Take the last century. On one side, there was Paramahansa Yogananda. Bursting onto the scene in 1946, his now classic Autobiography of a Yogi captured the imaginations of a generation of Western seekers with thrilling tales of living spiritual supermen whose miraculous powers suddenly made our comic-book heroes look a bit less fantastical. Mysterious sages who could control the weather at will. Great masters who could fly through the air and walk through walls or appear in multiple places at once. Austere yogis with the power to read and control men's minds, muster herculean strength, and tolerate insufferable pain without flinching. Along with a few other landmark books like Baird Spaulding's Life and Teachings of the Masters of the Far East and Lama Govinda's Way of the White Clouds, Yogananda cast in our minds a vision of spiritual enlightenment in which the attainment of a kind of supernatural omnipotence was not only possible but the destiny of anyone who would take up the path of meditation in earnest.
On the other side was Sri Ramana Maharshi. Hailing from the Advaita Vedanta, or nondualist, school of Hinduism, he insisted that any interest in the attainment of siddhis [supernatural powers] was not only misguided but a distraction on the path to the Ultimate Realization. “Occult powers will not bring happiness to anyone,” he claimed. “They are not natural to the Self . . . and . . . not worth striving for.” Supported in this view by such luminaries as Nisargadatta Maharaj and Sri Ramakrishna, who declared that the siddhis are “heaps of rubbish,” he carried forward the legacy of a long tradition of mystics including even the Buddha, who warned against any attempt to work miracles.
If the wisdom coming to us from the East was split on this topic, here in the West, at least initially, the picture wasn't much different. On one hand, many psychologically and rationally inclined Westerners naturally seemed to ignore the supernatural dimensions of Indian spirituality, giving more attention to the psychological and emotional benefits of meditative practice. But on the other hand, owing mostly to the power marketing of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's Transcendental Meditation (TM) Siddhi program and Yogananda's Self-Realization Fellowship, as well as to the uncanny popularity of the miracle-working Indian God-man Sai Baba, the promise of attaining miraculous powers did find many converts. Not least among them was a growing cadre of scientifically minded seekers for whom the siddhis represented a thrilling research potential-an opportunity to prove to the scientific establishment the existence of God.
A brief survey of the East-meets-West spiritual landscape today, however, suggests that of late, the Western interest in superordinary powers has been losing some ground. Perhaps the mystics' warnings have simply had their intended effect. Perhaps the fact that Sai Baba was caught several times on film faking some of his “miracles” made former believers cynical. Or perhaps we've all just waited too long for our TM-practicing friends to actually demonstrate something that remotely passes for “yogic flying.” But whatever the cause, here in the modern West, the promise of the miraculous seems to be losing its allure.
Interestingly enough, on the far shores of India, some similar trends are under way. With an increasing secularism sweeping the nation, and the Indian Rationalist Association's “Guru Busters” actively working to debunk every miracle-touting charlatan they can, anyone claiming to be able to defy the laws of nature is in for a fight. Fortunately for the faithful, at least one Indian yogi is not the least bit daunted. He calls himself “Pilot Baba,” and for the past three decades he has been working to uphold the dignity and integrity of the yogic siddhi tradition by demonstrating in some very public places his miraculous powers over the world of matter.
A decorated Indian Air Force fighter pilot who saw combat in two wars and also served as personal pilot for Indira Gandhi, this military-man-turned-mahayogi regularly attracts tens of thousands of devout Hindus to witness his performances of what is traditionally known as bhugarbha samadhi or jal samadhi or Asht Lakshmi Maha Yagna samadhi. In English, what this means is that he buries himself underground, encases himself in an airtight glass box, or submerges himself under water-for days or even weeks at a time. Employing an ancient yogic technique that could best be described as a sort of human hibernation-plus, Pilot Baba is purported to be able to voluntarily shut down all bodily functions to the point that he is clinically dead, only to return to life at a pre-specified date and time-a feat that has withstood the scrutiny of at least some Western scientists. And if all this sounds like something you saw on “That's Incredible!” back in the eighties, remember that the great Yogi Kudu only spent one hour at the bottom of the pool before being fished out to much applause by John Davidson and Cathy Lee Crosby. Pilot Baba's record under water is four days, a figure which itself pales in comparison to the thirty-three days he's spent underground.
How did a celebrated air force pilot end up deciding to carry this ancient yogic tradition into the third millennium? During his visit to New York last September, I asked Pilot Baba to share his story.
As he tells it, although he never planned to be a yogi, there was a yogi who apparently had plans for him. Guiding him throughout his childhood, and miraculously saving his life more than once during his time in the air force, this mysterious holy man eventually provoked him to renounce the world and, in 1973, with the help of a group of four other sages, initiated him into the mysteries of yoga. But it wasn't until three years (and a several-thousand-mile Himalayan trek) later that those mysteries would begin to unfold in his own experience. During a period of intensive spiritual practice in and around his cave in the Himalayan wilderness, Pilot Baba made a sudden breakthrough that would change the course of his life forever. “I had been sitting on a large, exposed stone in the center of the river for several days, when I had the thought, 'Why doesn't the water flow over me without touching me?' And then it started happening. It started flowing over me and all around me without touching me.” As he continued to “play with the water” over the days that followed, people from the nearby village started to gather on the shore, in awe at the spectacle they were beholding. Before long, news began to spread of this mysterious yogi who could control the flow of the river.
Some of us, upon discovering that we had the power to control the forces of nature, might be tempted to use it to improve our lot in life (or at least to rig up some supernatural plumbing for our cave). But for Pilot Baba, the effect was quite the opposite. Realizing that the human will can work wonders “if it is clear, positive, and free from desire,” he began to use his newfound powers to heal the suffering people in the villages throughout his region. And as tends to happen around anyone who gains a reputation for healing, in a matter of weeks, people were lining up in droves to receive his blessing. But the miracles didn't stop there.