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International guru as local swami: Paramhansa Yogananda and the religious culture of Southern California

David /. Neumann

As yoga’s popularity has blossomed worldwide, the 2015 advent of International Yoga Day was perhaps inevitable." At once a global and an Indian phenomenon, International Yoga Day has inspired a number of nationalistic efforts to identify important Indian progenitors of yoga. Despite the significant differences between Yogananda’s brand of meditative spirituality and much of contemporary yoga, a Tinies of India columnist claimed that “much of the credit” for the United Nations’ acceptance of International Yoga “must go to Paramhansa Yogananda, India’s first guru in the United States,” who “played a huge role in laying the foundation for yoga in the United States a century ago” (Paramhansa Yogananda: India’s First Yoga Guru 2015). One writer argued that Yogananda’s influence extended beyond the United States to encompass the globe: “On this first International Yoga Day, the time has come to tip our hats to the teacher who first introduced the modem world to the transformative power of yoga as a timeless inner discipline” (Wadhwa 2015).

While it is appropriate to view Yogananda as both an Indian teacher and a “global guru” (Punzo Waghome 2013), Southern California holds an equally compelling claim to Yogananda as one of its own spiritual leaders. True, as an Indian he remained a British subject throughout most of his life, because American law denied him the right to naturalize until a loophole opened near the end of his life.5 And he established centers all over the United States and, later, around the world. But his global ministry only began to thrive after he made Southern California his home - a home he retained for over 25 years, from young adulthood until death. The national and international headquarters of his Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) have remained at Mount Washington, in Highland Park, for nearly a century. He died at the Los Angeles Biltmore Hotel, a downtown landmark, and is buried at Forest Lawn, the iconic regional cemetery that is the resting place for dozens of famed entertainers, from Theda Bara and Mary Pickford, to Nat King Cole and Michael Jackson, to Walt Disney.

Yogananda’s successful ministry depended on a number of distinctive features of the early twentieth-century Southern California spiritual landscape. First, Los Angeles was a not only an economic frontier at the time, a dramatically expanding region with a booming economy, but it was also a dynamic spiritual frontier that welcomed nonmainstream religions, which thrived there as they extended spiritual answers to unconventional seekers. Second, the presence of Hollywood made the area the nation’s image capital at the dawn of the celebrity age. Celebrities in religion, no less than in entertainment, could command great attention - all the more if a religious figure embodied exotic spiritual wisdom, as Yogananda did, through his appearance, speech, and charismatic presence. Finally, for several decades, the region had been identified as a landscape of health, a perspective that often included a longing to connect physical reality with spiritual experience. Capitalizing on Protestant Christianity’s relative disinterest in the physical, Yogananda highlighted the materiality of spirituality - the importance of the physical body, through yoga, and the importance of physical environment, through the creation of sacred sites for meditation - for those who longed to unit body, soul, and spirit. Yogananda’s ministry is only conceivable in the context of early twentieth-century Southern California.

The making of Swami Yogananda

Swami Yogananda was bom Mukunda Lal Ghosh in 1893. After many years of spiritual seeking, Ghosh found a mentor in Swami Sri Yukteswar. Ghosh took his vows in 1915, becoming a member of the Swami Order, a monastic organization reputedly founded by Shankara in the eighth century. For his swami name he chose “Yogananda,” or “yoga ofbliss.” Henceforth, he would be known as Swami Yogananda. In addition to Yukteswar’s instruction, Yogananda was shaped by the modern intellectual movement known as the “Bengal Renaissance,” which reconsidered traditional Indian beliefs in light of Western evangelical and utilitarian critiques. Bengali intellectuals articulated a vision of Indian religion as an eternal moral and devotional body of practice that was both fundamentally Indian and universal (Halbfass 1988).

Shortly after taking his vows, Yogananda envisioned an evangelistic mission to the West. Indians had traditionally neither sought nor accepted converts, viewing their traditions as inherent to their land and people. Embracing the modernized form of Hinduism that he had learned in Bengal, Yogananda extracted religious truth from both the specific customs - including caste, life stage, and gender - and from the particular landscape of India. Universalizing Hinduism as eternal truth for all people made it transportable to new lands. This dramatic overhauling of Indian traditions, pioneered by forbears like Swami Vivekananda, was the sine qua non of Yogananda’s evangelistic efforts (Brekke 1999, 203-204).

Yogananda’s opportunity to launch his evangelistic mission came when he secured an invitation to travel to the United States as a delegate to the 1920 International Congress of Religious Liberals in Boston. Yogananda saw this meeting as an opportunity to emulate Swami Vivekananda’s visit to the World’s Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893 and from there to become an evangelist to the West. Yogananda viewed the gathering and his own presentation on “Science of Religion” as auspicious. In reality, the Congress was a modest affair that failed to made national news, and Yogananda did not immediately become the next Vivekananda (International Congress 1921, 7). The next few years proved challenging despite his efforts to place the best possible cast on events. Yogananda’s efforts to introduce “Yogoda,” a neologism he coined to refer to his ostensibly unique yoga practices, finally experienced some success when he began a multi-city tour in New York and other eastern cities backed by aggressive promotional efforts and financial backing from Boston supporters. Prompted by “an inner call to further extend the work,” he decided to take a cross-country automobile tour. He “saw in his mind’s eye the West of America and especially Los Angeles, swept by his teachings” (“History of Swami Yogananda’s Work” 1925, 7-9). This prophecy, whether prospective of ex eventu, accurately reflects the lure the City of Angels held for the swami. Almost immediately after arriving in Los Angeles, he made it his new home and his national headquarters. Los Angeles would offer a more conducive environment for his message than any place he had experienced throughout the nation.

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