The dedication in Paramhansa Yogananda’s spiritual classic, Autobiography of a Yogi, says, “…to the memory of Luther Burbank, an American saint.” This statement has astonished more than a few people, including Swami Kriyananda, who upon first seeing it, considered it “preposterous” that materialistic America could produce a saint.
Who was this man, Luther Burbank? Why did Yogananda revere him so?
Most people today know little of Luther Burbank. Yet during his time his name was a household word. For not only did he show that plants could permanently assume new forms, and over dramatically shortened periods of time, he did it on a scale that no one has been able to match, before or since.
One wonder after another
Before Luther Burbank came on the scene, it was common for plant propagators to create new hybrid plants by crossing one plant with another. Invariably, however, when they planted the seed from this new flower, it would revert to one of its “parents.”
Luther Burbank, however, not only created plant variations that held true in succeeding generations, he did so in numbers that dumbfounded the scientific community. By the end of his life, it was estimated that Burbank had created some 800 new fruits, nuts, vegetables, grasses and ornamental flowers! From the Burbank potato, which revolutionized the potato industry worldwide, to the spineless cactus, Burbank created one wonder after another.
Plant selection “at a trot”
What was his secret? Many tried to learn it, and Burbank certainly did his best to convey it to his students. On any given workday, one might find him striding rapidly down rows of berries, in a state of intense concentration, his eyes mere slits, signaling to his workmen to “save this one” or “pull out this row.” Once S.F. Lieb, a San Jose judge and good friend of Burbank’s, became distressed while watching Burbank discard what looked like perfectly good plum trees.
Luther made a deal. The judge could select any of the discarded plum trees and plant them at his Santa Clara Valley ranch. Burbank also gave the judge six seedling plum trees that he had selected as the best of the lot. The judge also planted these.
As it turned out, the Judge was forced to destroy the plum trees discarded by Burbank, but the ones grown from the seedlings turned nearly perfect in every way. “Burbank,” he said, “if anyone had told me five years ago that selection could be done by a man moving almost at a trot, I would have said that he was crazy!”
Despite Burbank’s successes, the scientific community found his claims difficult to swallow—primarily because he was unable to document how he accomplished what he did, and because there was still the possibility that, in time, many of his plant creations might revert to old parent stock. But time did prove Burbank’s methods and accomplishments to be true and lasting.
A personal relationship with the Infinite
Burbank’s grandmother and father were Baptists, and he was raised in that tradition. In 1916 he was married in the Unitarian Church of San Francisco, but throughout his lifetime no religious institution claimed his loyalty.
Burbank saw religion merely as a step toward a personal relationship with the Infinite. In the last days of his life he said, “The God within us is the only available God we know, and the clear light of science teaches us that we must be our own saviors if we are to be found worth saving.” In other words, we must depend upon the “kingdom within.”
Though many saw Burbank’s work as “magical” (he was known as the “plant wizard”), he himself saw it simply as the result of hard work and loving concentration. He was humble, but in the true sense that saintly people are humble: matter-of-factly acknowledging the greatness of his accomplishments, but seeing himself as no better or worse than anyone else.
A friend to all
He loved people (children especially), and was a friend to all those of a genuine nature, being quite abrupt with any who played up to him in insincere ways. He had a reputation as a healer. Mothers would bring their young children to him for a “laying on of hands,” and he would oblige them happily. Like most geniuses, he had great energy (a quality, Yogananda tells us, that is indispensable for sainthood), and was known to hop over picket fences at the age of seventy-five!
Burbank was also unusually sensitive, stating in his autobiography, “…some notes and vibrations in music hurt me physically, and I have once or twice been forced to leave a room or a hall where music was being played or sung—and beautifully too!—because the strains hurt me. I have always been sensitive to odors, so that I could detect them, pleasant or disagreeable, when they were so slight that no one about me was conscious of them. My sense of touch is almost as acute as that of Helen Keller, who visited me just a short time ago, and with whom I could converse easily—more easily than most—because we were so nearly equally sensitive.”
This sensitivity extended into the realm of Spirit as well. On one of Yogananda’s visits Burbank shared with him that, “many times, after my mother’s death, I have been blessed by her appearance in visions; she has spoken to me.” And on another occasion he related that, “sometimes I feel very close to the Infinite Power.”
Burbank’s secret: love
Like Yogananda, Burbank had great love for Divine Mother, (or, as he referred to her, Mother Nature). He was very much the scientist in describing her, but his love and respect were transparent. As he said to Yogananda, “The secret of improved plant breeding, apart from scientific knowledge, is love.”
Burbank drew the rich and the famous from all over the world to his doorstep. His friends ran the gamut—from the King and Queen of Belgium to Jack London; from Grover Cleveland to John Muir. Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, when attending the San Francisco Exposition of 1915, visited Burbank amidst much pomp and ceremony.
Friendship with Yogananda
But it wasn’t until the last year and a half of his life that Burbank met Yogananda, and the bonding was instantaneous. Yogananda made at least four visits to Burbank’s home, marveling at the genius of his plant creations and sharing with him their mutual love of children and dream of educational reform. Yogananda initiated him into Kriya Yoga, which Burbank said he practiced “devoutly.”
The impression left by Burbank was so deep that Yogananda, 20 years later, and despite having known many great souls in his lifetime, dedicated his autobiography to him. And in 1952, when Yogananda left his body, it was on Luther Burbank’s birthday: March 7th. A coincidence? Knowing Yogananda’s life, it’s hard to imagine that anything he did was coincidental!
And so, perhaps, the facts speak for themselves. America did have at least one homegrown saint; but, as Yogananda tells us, one of many still to come.
Ken Atwell worked for 20 years as a landscaper in Santa Rosa, CA, where he developed an appreciation for Luther Burbank’s life and work. In 2001 he led an Ananda pilgrimage to Burbank’s home and gardens. Ken now lives at Ananda Village with his wife, Hridaya, and oversees the Village water system.