Paramhansa Yogananda — Ambassador of Yoga to the West
If there should rise
Suddenly within the skies
Sunburst of a thousand suns
Flooding earth with beams undeemed-of,
Then might be that Holy One’s
Majesty and radiance dreamed of!
—The Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 11
Paramhansa Yogananda was born Mukunda Lal Ghosh on January 5, 1893 in Gorakhpur, northeastern India. His parents were Bengali; his father was a senior executive of the Bengal-Nagpur Railway. From earliest childhood a deep yearning for God marked Mukunda’s life. Soon after graduating from high school, Mukunda met his guru, Swami Sri Yukteswar of Serampore, Bengal. Within six months of their meeting, he was blessed by his Guru with the experience of samadhi, or cosmic consciousness. Mukunda remained with his Guru for ten years in all, during which time he was trained for a great mission to the West.
In 1917 Sri Yukteswar initiated Mukunda into monkhood in the Swami order. The disciple took the monastic name Swami Yogananda. Soon thereafter, obedient to his guru’s wish that he serve humanity, he started a school for young boys in Dihika, Bengal. In 1918 the school was moved to Ranchi, Bihar, where it is still in existence.
The school Yogananda founded, Brahmacharya Vidyalaya, soon grew to number thousands of students, with a waiting list of many more who were eager to join. The young boys were given an all-round education, which Yogananda called “the divine art of living.” It included the normal academics as well as yoga and meditation practices.
One day in 1920, meditating alone in a cluttered storeroom at the school, Yogananda had an experience that changed the course of his life. He was given a panoramic vision of thousands of American faces looking to him for spiritual help and guidance. The young guru knew it was time to launch a mission to bring India’s spiritual wealth — her ancient teachings — to the West.
This mission had long been foreseen by the great yogic masters who form a line of gurus of which Yogananda is the last: Jesus Christ, Mahavatar Babaji, Lahiri Mahasaya, and Swami Sri Yukteswar. All of them played a part in preparing the stage for Yogananda’s world mission.
Babaji, as recounted in Autobiography of a Yogi, is a deathless master who still lives in the Badrinarayan section of the Himalayas with a small band of highly advanced disciples. Yogananda writes of him: “The Mahavatar is in constant communion with Christ; together they send out vibrations of redemption, and have planned the spiritual technique of salvation for this age.”
The mission of Jesus Christ is to direct the spiritual evolution of the West, and Babaji, an incarnation of Krishna, that of the East. Christ appeared to Babaji and asked him to send a teacher to the West to show the underlying unity of their teachings. Yogananda later said, “In the cosmic plan the time has come to combine these two lines into one. East and West must unite.”
Babaji in 1861, in preparation for this mission, called his disciple, Shyama Charan Lahiri, to reintroduce to the world through him the highest, but long hidden, science of yoga. Lahiri Mahasaya (as his disciples called him) named this exalted science Kriya Yoga, which means simply, “divine union through a certain technique, or spiritual act.” Other techniques bear the same name, but according to this line of gurus the Kriya Yoga of Lahiri Mahasaya is the basic and most ancient in the yoga science.
Babaji told Lahiri, “You have been chosen to bring spiritual solace through Kriya Yoga to numerous earnest seekers. The millions who are encumbered by family ties and heavy worldly duties will take new heart from you, a householder like themselves.” Babaji then instructed his disciple to return to his home, family, and job, but to spread the message of Self-realization through Kriya Yoga to all sincere seekers.
Lahiri Mahasaya’s chief disciple was Swami Sri Yukteswar, who also met Babaji at a Kumbha Mela, or large religious gathering, in Allahabad in 1894. Babaji told Sri Yukteswar, “East and West must establish a golden middle path of activity and spirituality combined. You have a part to play in the coming harmonious exchange between Orient and Occident. Some years hence I shall send you a disciple whom you can train for yoga dissemination in the West.” Nearly twenty-five years later, Sri Yukteswar told Yogananda, “My son, you are the disciple that, years ago, Babaji promised to send me.” The next day after Yogananda’s vision at the Ranchi school, he received an invitation to serve as the Indian delegate to the International Congress of Religious Liberals in Boston under the auspices of the American Unitarian Association.
On the eve of his departure for America in 1920, Yogananda knelt at his Guru’s feet for his blessings. Sri Yukteswar told him, “All those who come to you with faith, seeking God, will be helped. As you look at them, the spiritual current emanating from your eyes will enter into their brains and change their material habits, making them more God-conscious.”
After an initial triumph at the Congress of Religious Liberals, Yogananda remained in Boston for three years, teaching and tuning in to American culture. In 1923 he began a series of lectures in major American cities across the country, drawing huge crowds wherever he went.
His magnetism was irresistible. In 1926 he drew three thousand people to Carnegie Hall in New York, and in 1927 five thousand gathered to hear him in Washington, D.C. He was in the United States to awaken in people an ardent love for God, and a longing to know Him. His aim was also not to “Indianize” people, but to show Americans how to spiritualize their own culture.
He said to them, “I wasn’t sent to the West by Christ and the great masters of India to dogmatize you with a new theology. Jesus himself asked Babaji to send someone to the West to teach the science of Kriya Yoga, that people might learn how to commune with God directly. The time for knowing God has come!” Audiences found him alive with divine joy. People from every strata of society, from presidents of nations, to humble laborers, came to him.
In 1924 Swami Yogananda began touring westward in the United States. Inwardly he felt called to Los Angeles, California, which he said is “the Benares (Varanasi) of America.” In 1925 he purchased Mt. Washington Estates, a gracious former hotel on a mountain overlooking Los Angeles, to establish his headquarters and monastic order.
Yogananda, though not attracted to institutionalism, recognized and accepted that an organization was needed for widespread service to humanity. He founded such a work in 1925 on Mt. Washington, calling it “Self-Realization Fellowship” (“SRF”). After founding it he continued for several years to tour the United States, until at last he felt the time had come to end his spiritual “campaigns.” From then on he devoted most of his time to training those who came to live at Mt. Washington.
This juncture produced, or coincided with, a period of testing. The money he had sent back to Mt. Washington for the work had been wasted by the person in charge, who later also betrayed him by leaving the work and even trying to destroy it. Such are the tests that even great masters have to endure in their loving efforts to serve humanity. Moreover, though thousands had attended Yogananda’s lectures and classes, only a small trickle of people were ready to devote themselves to living for God under the guru’s training. This difficult period in Yogananda’s life coincided with the beginning of the Great Depression in America. He struggled to support the fledging organization he had founded. With a small band of faithful followers, they lived on tomatoes that they planted on the hillside at Mt. Washington. Gradually the number of students and disciples grew. By 1935 his work was firmly established and, indeed, flourishing. At this time his Guru, Swami Sri Yukteswar, called him back to India.
After fifteen years of separation, during which time a great mission had been launched in the West, the reunion of guru and disciple held profound meaning to them both. Yogananda, with two American disciples, spent a year in India traveling, visiting friends and family, and speaking to thousands.
During this time Sri Yukteswar bestowed on his beloved disciple the highest of India’s spiritual titles, “Paramhansa,” the literal meaning of which is “great swan.” (This title hints at the swan’s legendary ability to drink only the milk out of a mixture of milk and water, presumably by curdling the milk. It symbolizes the supremely free soul, which can draw truth from its mixture with delusion in this world.)
Sri Yukteswar’s time on earth was now coming to an end. On March 9, 1936, he entered mahasamadhi (a great yogi’s final departure in ecstasy from the body) at his ashram in Puri. His spiritual son and heir, Paramhansa Yogananda, performed the sacred rites honoring his life and passing. Saying a heartfelt good-bye to disciples and family, Yogananda sailed back to America in 1936 to begin a new phase of his mission.
Upon his return, a wealthy disciple presented Yogananda with a beautiful seaside hermitage in Encinitas, California overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The donor was his foremost disciple, James J. Lynn, a wealthy businessman, to whom Yogananda later gave the name Rajarsi Janakananda. It was at the Encinitas Hermitage that Yogananda was to spend most of his time for the next several years. Here also he wrote his spiritual classic, Autobiography of a Yogi.
A small, beautiful temple, the Golden Lotus Temple, was constructed here in 1938 for group meditations and worship services. In 1939, World War II started in Europe, sending waves of negative energy throughout the world. In 1942, perhaps to some extent in reflection of that energy, the beautiful temple slipped from its foundation on the bluffs into the ocean. Disappointed, but ever courageously expansive, Yogananda saw it as a sign to begin the next phase in his work.
Within a year he had established two new churches — one in Hollywood, in 1942, and another in San Diego, in 1943. He called them “Churches of All Religions,” for it was part of his mission to show the underlying oneness of all faiths.
Yogananda lectured in these churches on alternate Sundays. Once again, large numbers of students and disciples began flocking to hear the divine wisdom expressed by the great guru. A frequent theme of his was his vision of “world brotherhood colonies,” which he saw as a means for remedying human greed and self-interest, which had culminated, he said, in the outbreak of World War II.
He attempted to found the first such colony at Encinitas. Those who joined it, however, were not yet ready to embrace his vision; they still clung to what he called “Us Four and No More” consciousness. The fledgling community never got off the ground.
Yogananda had attempted another project also, which, too, was never completed: a “How to Live” school for children at Mt. Washington. Both these projects, though visionary, had an obviously important purpose. Someday, he knew, they would become realities. Meanwhile, he showed them to be integral to his vision for the future.
The task of manifesting both of these visions would later fall to his devoted disciple, Swami Kriyananda, who shared his expansive view of a work which embraced every aspect of human life.
In 1946, Autobiography of a Yogi was published, marking the beginning of the last chapter of Paramhansa Yogananda’s life. This spiritual classic was destined to become the best-selling autobiography of all time. Enthusiastic readers began coming from all parts of the world. Soon, most of his destined disciples had arrived.
During this time, Yogananda also acquired a small property in the desert near Twenty-Nine Palms, California, which he used as a retreat for the purpose of completing his writings. It was here that he wrote his profound commentaries on India’s great scripture, the Bhagavad Gita.
During this period he also founded a church at Long Beach, California, and at Phoenix, Arizona. Near the end of his life, he acquired a veritable showpiece for his mission: the beautiful Lake Shrine at Pacific Palisades.
March 7, 1952 was the date on which his great earthly mission came to an end. At a banquet in honor of Binay R. Sen, India’s Ambassador to America, and his wife, Paramhansa Yogananda spoke to a crowded room. His message emphasized the importance of world unity, and urged that the spiritual values of East and West be combined. He closed his remarks by reciting his poem, “My India.” As he uttered the last words of the poem, “I am hallowed. My body touched that sod!” his body slipped gently to the floor. God reached down to receive his spirit, which, soaring in freedom, embraced eternity.
Paramhansa Yogananda left this world as he had predicted, speaking of his “beloved America and India.” He had said also, “I will die with my boots on.” The great master had opened the West to India’s teachings in a way never done before. The spiritual legacy he left to the world is inestimable. Kriyananda has called his great Guru the “avatar for this age.”
Let us return now to September 12, 1948. The young man who later became known as Swami Kriyananda was about to enter his Guru’s ashram and begin the training that would enable him to contribute to his Guru’s work as no one else, perhaps, has ever done.