YOGANANDA (1893–1952) was one of the earliest and most influential of the Hindu gurus to come to the West. Growing up in Calcutta in Bengal, India, he was a product of the Bengali Neo-Vedāntic Renaissance and was influenced by the saint Sri Ramakrishna (1836–1886).
The Neo-Vedāntic Renaissance originated in Bengal, one of the areas of India with the most exposure to Western culture as a result of British colonialism. The movement sought to reassert the vigor and worth of Hindu spirituality and philosophy while being open to influences from other religions and Western science and values. Yogananda was affiliated with a lineage of gurus that sought to integrate Hindu spirituality with a modern, Western-influenced lifestyle. Yogananda felt that he had a special destiny: to introduce Hindu concepts and spiritual techniques to westerners. He did this by disseminating a practice called kriyā yoga through his organization, the Self-Realization Fellowship, and by the publication of his books. His most famous published work is his Autobiography of a Yogi, first published in 1946, which has been translated into eighteen languages.
Youth in India
Yogananda was born Mukunda Lal Ghosh, the son of a railway executive in Bengal. His parents were disciples of Lahiri Mahasaya (1828–1895), a householder guru (he continued his married family life while being a guru) who taught a spiritual technique called kriyā yoga.
As a boy, Mukunda's first mentor in spirituality was "M." or Mahendra Nath Gupta, a disciple of Sri Ramakrishna and author of Śrīśrīrāmākṛṣṇakathamṛta, which was shaped by Swami Nikhilananda into The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. M. took Mukunda to worship at the Kālī temple at Dakshineswar, which had been Ramakrishna's residence, and stimulated Mukunda's first mystical experience. One day after M. and his young protégé were exiting a bioscope (an early motion picture), M. tapped Mukunda on his chest. Suddenly all noise on the busy street stopped for Mukunda. He saw the pedestrians and vehicles, but all was silent, and he observed a luminous glow emanating from all phenomena. This experience was the basis of Yogananda's later teaching that the physical world has the reality of a motion picture or a dream.
In 1910 Mukunda became the disciple of Swami Sri Yukteswar (1955–1936), who was a direct disciple of Lahiri Mahasaya. Mukunda completed his A.B. degree at Serampore College. He then took vows of sannyasa (renunciation) and became Swami Yogananda. In 1917 Yogananda demonstrated his considerable administrative ability by founding a boys' school, which he ran under the auspices of an organization he named the Yogoda Satsanga Society.
Mission in the United States
After Swami Yogananda came to the United States from India in 1920, he attracted numerous disciples by means of his public lectures and writings. Yogananda built up an organization called the Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) to disseminate his presentation of the wisdom and spiritual techniques of Hinduism. Yogananda first came to the United States to deliver an invited lecture to the International Congress of Religious Liberals, sponsored by the American Unitarian Association. He subsequently spoke to large audiences across the United States from 1924 to 1927. In 1925 an estate was acquired at Mount Washington in Los Angeles, California, to be the headquarters of his organization, which was incorporated in 1935 as the Self-Realization Fellowship. In that same year his guru gave him the title Paramahansa ("supreme swan") indicating that he had achieved the highest enlightenment and, while in India on a visit, he initiated Mohandas Gandhi into kriyā yoga. In 1946 Yogananda published his most famous book, Autobiography of a Yogi, in which he describes his meetings with Eastern and Western saints and discusses visions and miracles that demonstrate the availability of supernormal powers and enlightenment to adepts of all religious traditions. In the ensuing years the SRF established a hermitage at Encinitas, California, a temple in San Diego, the Church of All Religions in Hollywood, and the Lake Shrine at Pacific Palisades, California, where a portion of Gandhi's ashes are kept. By 2004 the SRF additionally had forty-four centers and meditation groups in the United States as well as centers and groups in seventeen other countries.
Yogananda is regarded by his disciples as a premavatār, an incarnation of divine love. Yogananda stressed the deep emotional love for God that is associated with Hindu bhakti yoga. Members of the SRF rever Krishna and Christ as the two great gurus from whose works the teachings of Yogananda's lineage of gurus are derived. The SRF offers instruction in kriyā yoga and related philosophy and practices conveyed in a correspondence course called the SRF Lessons. Students pledge to keep the kriyā yoga technique secret from non-initiates. The SRF also has a monastic order for women and men headquartered at Mount Washington.
Yogananda passed away on March 7, 1952, after speaking at a banquet of the India Association of America at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles. His devotees believe that the lack of corruption displayed by his body for twenty days after his death was the physical manifestation of his yogic mastery. Rajarsi Janakananda (formerly James J. Lynn) took over the leadership of the SRF until his death in 1955. An American woman, Sri Daya Mata, has served as SRF president since 1955. The Self-Realization Fellowship continues to disseminate Yogananda's books and to offer instruction in kriyā yoga and other spiritual techniques. Although Yogananda has passed from the material world, he is regarded as a still-living master who continues to guide his disciples.
Self-Realization Fellowship. Pictorial History of Self-Realization Fellowship (Yogoda Satsanga Society of America). Los Angeles, 1975. Helpful history of Yogananda and the SRF.
Wendell, Thomas. Hinduism Invades America. New York, 1930. Yogananda approved the chapter appearing on pages 177 to 245, which discusses his work.
Wessinger, Catherine. "Hinduism Arrives in America: The Vedanta Movement and the Self-Realization Fellowship." In America's Alternative Religions, edited by Timothy Miller. Albany, N.Y., 1995, pp. 173–190. Essay on Yogananda and Swami Vivekananda and the other swamis who first brought Hinduism to the United States.
Yogananda, Paramahansa. The Divine Romance. Los Angeles, 1986. Describes Yogananda's basic approach to loving God.
Yogananda, Paramahansa. Autobiography of a Yogi, 12th ed. Los Angeles, 1990. Yogananda's most famous and widely influential book.
Yogananda, Paramahansa. The Science of Religion. Los Angeles, 1990. Text of Yogananda's first lecture in America.
Catherine Wessinger (2005)
Yogananda (1893-1952) was an Indian yogi who came to the United States in 1920 to spend over 30 years working with Americans interested in the practice of yoga or God-realization.
Yogananda was born Mukunda Lal Ghose in 1893 in Gorakhpur, India. Both of his parents were disciples of Lahiri Mahasaya, and his father was an executive of the Bengal-Nagpur Railway. Mukunda's name was changed to Yogananda in 1914 when he entered the Swami Order (an ancient monastic order founded by the Indian philosopher Sankara), and his guru Sri Yukteswar bestowed the further religious title Paramahansa in 1935. Yogananda means bliss through yoga or union with God, while Paramahansa means highest swan. The sacred swan was thought to have the power to extract milk from a mixture of milk and water and is therefore a symbol of spiritual discrimination.
The Spiritual Quest
Even as a child Yogananda was endowed with psychic powers and with a deep fascination for Indian holy men. His Autobiography of a Yogi depicts his search for God-realization and for a spiritual teacher who could guide him to that goal. It describes his encounter with numerous Indian holy men, most of whom possessed supranormal powers. He lived in a world in which he encountered healings through photographs and physical contact with yogis, a vision which predicted the death of his mother, the materialization of an amulet, the ability to materialize an extra body, the miraculous restoration of a severed arm, clairvoyent knowledge of the future, and the ability to levitate.
None of these occurrences was considered strange and none was seen to contradict natural law. Such happenings were perceived as the result of subtle laws that govern hidden spiritual planes and are discernable through the science of yoga. Human ills are the result of a violation of some law of nature. But the bad karma effected by such violations can be minimized through prayer, yoga, astrology, and consultation with holy men. The specific method for God-realization was kriya yoga. The method was never described in books, since it had to be learned from an authorized practitioner.
Yogananda was also interested in education, founding his first school for boys in Bengal at the age of 24. A year later, the Maharajah of Kasimbazar donated his palace and 25 acres of land in Bihar for this school, which was named Yogoda Satsanga Vidyalaya. The curriculum included not only standard subjects but also yoga concentration, meditation, and a special set of energization exercises for health. Yogananda founded the Yogoda Satsanga Society of India. Its counterpart in the United States is the Self-Realization Fellowship. The Yogoda Satsanga Society of India also supports a college, a girl's school, a kindergarten, a music school, an arts and crafts school, a medical dispensary, and a college of homeopathic medicine. Yogananda saw yoga, physical exercise, and scientific study as interrelated.
The American Missionary
As numerous other Indian gurus who came to the United States in the 20th century, Yogananda came as a result of an order from his guru Sri Yukteswar, who told him to "spread to all peoples the knowledge of the self-liberating yoga techniques." He began that mission in 1920 when he addressed the International Congress of Religious Liberals in Boston on the topic "The Science of Religion." He was well-received and travelled extensively throughout the United States giving lectures and classes in most major American cities. Self-Realization Fellowship centers were also established in major cities. The headquarters and buildings for resident monastics were built on a beautiful 12-acre estate on Mount Washington in Los Angeles. Yogananda also founded an ashram on a 23-acre estate in Encinitas, California, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Temples were built in Hollywood (1942), San Diego (1943), and Long Beach (1947). Both the international and the Indian headquarters have printing facilities which produce magazines, study guides, and the works of Yogananda. In 1950, two years before his death, an impressive Lake Shrine was established at Pacific Palisades, California.
Yogananda was convinced that the yoga that he taught could be found in all scriptures and was the essence of all religions. The Ten Commandments were seen as the first step of Patanjali's yoga. Yogananda also used his understanding of yoga to interpret the sayings of Jesus and Paul, being convinced that both Jesus and Paul were yoga masters. He was certain that a Western Christian would find nothing contradictory in adopting his kriya yoga once both Christianity and yoga were properly understood. He found it equally comfortable to quote from the Old and New Testaments as from Indian religious texts.
A yogi consciously exits from the body at the appropriate time. Yogananda's "exit" was on March 7, 1952. It was reported that 20 days after his death his body showed no signs of deterioration. The Self-Realization Fellowship quoted from a notarized letter from the mortuary director of Forest Lawn Memorial Park in support of this remarkable phenomenon. The report received considerable publicity in newspapers and magazines.
The most important source for the life of Yogananda is his Autobiography of a Yogi, a 572-page account of his life published by the Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) in 1946. After that one can proceed to some of the works of Yogananda also published by the SRF. Those works are The Science of Religion (1953), Scientific Healing Affirmations (1958), Cosmic Chants (1938, 1943), Metaphysical Meditations (n.d.), Whispers from Eternity (1959), and Songs of the Soul (1983).
Yogananda, Paramhansa, Autobiography of a Yogi, Los Angeles, Calif.: Self-Realization Fellowship, 1981. □