The Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) is a modern, Hindu-based tradition that has adapted to Western culture and attracted an international membership. It is closely linked to traditional Hinduism through its emphasis on certain practices, yet it transcends cultural boundaries through a philosophy that incorporates scientific vocabulary and pluralistic ideals. These emphases have made the Self-Realization Fellowship a foundational contributor to the Western appreciation of Indian religions while also providing a model for other transplanted traditions seeking an American audience.
The Self-Realization Fellowship was founded by an Indian swami named Paramahansa Yogananda (1893–1952). Yogananda's background and ideas are recorded in his most famous work, Autobiography of a Yogi (1946). As a youth he met his guru, Sri Yukteswar (1855–1936), who was part of a teaching lineage that strove to integrate Hindu spirituality with Western modernism. Yukteswar even wrote a book on the harmony of Hindu and Christian scriptures. These ideals formed a basis for Yogananda's own teachings, and in 1917 he formed the Yogoda Satsang Society, which continues to provide charitable services in India. In 1920 Yogananda was invited to participate in the International Congress of Religious Liberals in Boston. There he delivered a talk titled "The Science of Religion." He continued to find a receptive audience in the United States, especially among members of groups such as the Unitarians and the Theosophical Society.
Yogananda remained in the United States, first spending three years in the Boston area, where he established an ashram (spiritual center) as an extension of the Yogoda Satsang Society. When Yogananda went on a lecture tour beginning in 1924, halls were filled to capacity. In 1925 a center was established in Los Angeles to serve as Yogananda's headquarters, and in 1935 his organization was incorporated as the Self-Realization Fellowship. Subsequently, numerous centers have been constructed, not only in the United States but also throughout Latin America, continental Europe, and the United Kingdom.
Yogananda's success came from his ability to describe a path that incorporated spirituality into a modern lifestyle. His teachings combined classical Indian Yoga with a meditation technique called kriya Yoga. Classical Yoga is a system of physical and mental disciplines designed to lead the practitioner to a higher state of awareness. This aims to make it possible to understand the nature of the individual Self. In Indian Vedanta philosophy, the true nature of the Self is its identity with the all-pervasive Brahman, the Absolute (sometimes described as a personal God) that is the source and underlying essence of the entire cosmos. To attain this knowledge, Yogananda taught kriya Yoga, a style of meditation designed to withdraw the life energy from outer concerns and channel it inward.
Yogananda believed that Yoga philosophy and methods underlay all the world's religions; all traditions were trying to lead people to a direct understanding of the true nature of the Self and God. Therefore he advocated respect for the teachings of saints and scriptures from other religions. He also believed that Yoga was compatible with Western scientific methods. People should not accept a religion based on blind faith, he taught, but should subject its practices to their own empirical tests and choose a path based on personal experience.
The SRF emphasizes that Yoga is not only a means to achieve higher knowledge but also can have practical benefits for life in this world. Yogananda created a series of written lessons to offer, in his words, "inspiration and practical guidance for living every day in greater harmony with oneself and others, and for coping with the multitude of problems and pressures" in the modern world. These lessons, in the form of a correspondence course, include topics such as "How to Bring Spiritual Perspectives to Daily Life," "Finding Your True Vocation," "Creating Harmony in Marriage and Family Life," "Living Without Stress and Fear," and "Building World Unity."
The topic of world unity reflects the SRF's concern for improving life on global as well as personal levels. Yogananda told his followers "to serve mankind as one's larger Self," thereby extending the benefits of Yoga practices from the individual to the entire world. Classical Yoga practices begin with individual morality. In the Hindu system, actions (karman) produce results that affect the doer either in this lifetime or in a future rebirth. Thus behavior that harms another being will also have negative consequences for the evildoer, regardless of whether he or she is caught and punished. To avoid negative behavior, one practices appropriate actions and cultivates mental attitudes such as compassion. The SRF tries to promote good actions throughout the world by funding charitable organizations in the United States and India and has organized the Worldwide Prayer Circle to pray for those in need as well as for world peace.
The fellowship includes laity and a monastic order. The monks and nuns publish the writings of Yogananda and his direct disciples, provide spiritual counsel, conduct temple services, go on lecture tours, and serve as the fellowship's administration. Those who wish to take up the monastic life must be single, in good health, between eighteen and forty, free of family obligations, and students of the SRF lessons for at least one year. They take vows of simplicity, celibacy, obedience, and loyalty. The current head of the fellowship, Sri Daya Mata, is a nun ordained by Yogananda himself in the 1930s.
SRF membership is primarily middle-class, but it spans ethnic and age groups. The middle-class dominance reflects the literary nature of the tradition. Much of the popularization of SRF teachings comes through publications that are sold at cost. The actual impact of the group on American religion cannot, however, be measured by membership. SRF publications are widely read by nonmembers and have contributed to America's absorption of Hindu ideas. This is largely due to Yogananda's gift for expressing himself through scientific and even Christian vocabularies appropriate to his Western audience. It also reflects the timeliness of his teachings about incorporating spirituality into modern life and having respect for all religions as different versions of one human endeavor. These ideas have became themes in modern, pluralistic American society.
Wessinger, Catherine. "The Vedanta Movement and the Self-Realization Fellowship." In America's Alternative Religions, edited by Timothy Miller. 1995.
Yogananda, Paramahansa. Autobiography of a Yogi. 1946.