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Yogi and the USA

Thousands of Americans became Yogananda’s devoted followers at a time when the United States was extremely xenophobic and bigoted, especially towards non-Christian spiritual teachers who were often perceived as heathens and a threat to American culture.

Abhik Roy |

The Los Angeles Times regarded Paramahansa Yogananda as the “20th Century’s first super star guru.” Even today, almost a century after Yogananda’s arrival in the United States, “he’s still the best known and most beloved of all the Indian spiritual teachers who have come to the West,” according to Philip Goldberg, author of American Veda and the Life of Yogananda. Although Yogananda left this world 66 years ago, his legacy still continues with million of devotees following his teachings on spirituality and Kriya Yoga all over the world.

Yogananda was born as Mukunda Lal Ghosh on January 5, 1893 in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh. Both his parents were followers of Lahiri Mahasaya, whose pre-eminent disciple, Sri Yukteswar, later became Mukunda’s guru. Although Mukunda wanted to join his guru’s ashram right after graduating from high school, Sri Yukteswar persuaded Mukunda to go to college and complete his studies. Sri Yukteswar believed Mukunda’s college degree was going to serve him well when he went to the West, as he was destined to do.

Mukunda heeded his guru’s advice and graduated from Calcutta University in 1915. After his graduation, Mukunda was initiated into the monastic life and was ordained by Sri Yukteswar as Yogananda. In 1920, Yogananda left for the United States in order to speak at the International Congress of Religious Liberals in Boston on October 6, 1920.

According to the records that are available documenting his speech entitled The Science of Religion, Yogananda’s talk was very well received. His speech was described as being fluent, forceful, deeply philosophical, and thought-provoking. Very much like Swami Vivekananda before him, Yogananda asserted that he had not brought a creed or a dogma, but rather a set of universal principles. He shared his vision of religion by stating that “religion is universal and it is one. We cannot possibly universalize particular customs and conventions; but the common element in religion can be universalized, and we can ask all alike to follow and obey it.”

After arriving in Boston, Yogananda fell in love with the city, making it his home. In order to raise funds to establish his center in Boston, he gave talks for a fee at prestigious venues such as Boston’s Jordan Hall, Harvard University, and the iconic Park Street Church. He also gave talks in New York at the Town Hall, the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, and other major venues.

By this time Yogananda had already earned quite a name for himself as an eminent spiritual leader. Several famous people became his devotees, including George Eastman, founder of Eastman Kodak; Leopold Stokowsky, conductor of the Philadelphia Philharmonic Orchestra; Margaret Woodrow Wilson, the daughter of the former US President, and Clara Clemens, the daughter of Mark Twain, to name a few.

On January 13, 1925, Yogananda gave his first talk in Los Angeles at the prestigious Los Angeles Philharmonic Auditorium. The topic of the talk was “Mastering the Subconscious by Superconsciousness.” The Los Angeles Times reported that it was a sold-out event, filling all 3000 seats in the auditorium. Yogananda fell in love with Los Angeles with its close proximity to the spectacular mountains and the majestic Pacific Ocean, and decided to relocate there.

With donations from affluent disciples, Yogananda purchased a twelve-acre property on a hilltop near downtown Los Angeles, which became the International Center for Self-Realisation Fellowship. His wealthy disciples also helped him to purchase other magnificent properties in different parts of Southern California in order to build monasteries, temples, and administrative offices.

Among all these properties, the crown jewel is definitely the 10-acre property located in Pacific Palisades, which is known as the Lake Shrine Temple. Its picturesque setting and serene ambience has made the Temple a favorite destination for tourists from all over the world.

In 1946, Yogananda published Autobiography of a Yogi (hereafter AY), which has changed the lives of millions. AY has been recognized as one of the 10 best spiritual classics of the 20th century. It has been translated into 50 languages and has sold more than four million copies and counting. Many celebrities, including former Beatle, George Harrison; founder and former CEO of Apple, Steve Jobs; legendary American singer and songwriter, Judy Collins, and Queen of Pop, Madonna, among others, were profoundly influenced by AY.

Commenting on AY, George Harrison said: “if I hadn’t read [the book], I probably wouldn’t have a life.” Even after more than seven decades since its publication, AY still has a wide appeal to Americans, as evidenced by its presence in bookstores, school and college libraries, and even in some health food stores, and yoga studios.

Yogananda left this world on March 7, 1952 in the prestigious Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles, where he was attending a banquet to honour the Indian ambassador, Binay Ranjan Sen. According to several disciples, Yogananda had announced on March 6 that it was “Just a matter of hours and [he] will be gone from this earth” (quoted in Life of Yogananda). Right before Yogananda passed away, he had looked tenderly at his disciples in a way that suggested it was his last darshan.

Yogananda had prophesied that he was not going to die in bed. Instead he would be speaking of God and India before he made his final departure. As Yogananda had predicted, just before his demise, he prayed to God and recited a few lines from one of his own poems on India. With great emotion and a stirring delivery style, demonstrating yet once again his great oratorical prowess, he uttered the following lines:

Mortal fires may raze all her homes and golden paddy fields;
Yet to sleep on her ashes and dream immortality,
O India, I will be there!
God made the earth, and man made confining countries
And their fancy-frozen boundaries. Where Ganges, woods, Himalayan
Caves, and men dream God ~ I am hallowed; my body touched that sod. (quoted in Life of Yogananda).

These were his last words. In the Life of Yogananda, Goldberg describes Yogananda’s passing: “His gaze went up to the kutastha chakra ~ the point between the eyebrows where attention was directed in his meditation techniques ~ and he collapsed on the floor.” Based on the notarised statement of the mortuary director, Harry T. Rowe, it’s a mystery as to how Yogananda’s body did not show any “visual signs of decay, any physical disintegration, or any odor of decay” for several days after his demise.

The Government of India issued a commemorative stamp on the 25th anniversary of Yogananda’s death. The announcement read in part: “Though the major part of his life was spent outside India, still he takes his place among our great saints. His work continues to grow and shine ever more brightly, drawing people everywhere on the path of pilgrimage of the sprit.”

It is indeed remarkable that thousands of Americans became Yogananda’s devoted followers at a time when the United States was extremely xenophobic and bigoted, especially towards non-Christian spiritual teachers who were often perceived as heathens and a threat to American culture. It was Yogananda’s brilliant communication skills and marketing acumen that helped him to reach out to the American people despite the prevailing climate of prejudice and xenophobia.

He realized very early on that his white, predominantly Christian audience would reject a message that was all about Indian spirituality. So, he made his rhetoric simple and relatable. He frequently referenced the Bible and quoted Jesus Christ in his teachings to show the commonalities between the two religious traditions.

Since his congregation consisted mostly of educated white Americans who appreciated scientific and rational thinking, Yogananda approached Kriya Yoga from a scientific perspective, persuading his congregation that the scientific Kriya Yoga of his lineage was the answer to freeing up the spiritual self from physical and mental distractions. Yogananda used advertising to promote his message to the American audience. He even broadcast radio talks when the radio was still a new medium in this country.

In his endeavours to persuade Americans to take up Kriya Yoga, he published his lessons in a catalogue form. Yogananda was a gifted speaker who came across as being warm, intimate, compassionate, and, most importantly, genuine. Clearly, it was his enthusiastic embrace of Jesus Christ and the Judeo Christian tradition that was a major reason for his acceptance in America.

In the highly acclaimed book, Life of Yogananda, Goldberg writes: “Yogananda was a strong man from the East who crossed the earth to stand face to face with the mighty West, saying Namaste with hands joined at his chest. But he was neither East nor West. He represented the universal Spirit that knows no border, breed, or birth. Through the strength of his character and his skillful transmission of perennial wisdom, he showed the way for millions
to transcend those and other barriers to the liberation of the soul.”

The writer is Professor of Communication Studies at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles.