Mt. Washington, in the Highland Park district of Los Angeles, rises above that vast city like a guardian angel. Located not far from downtown, the mountain yet stands remote behind its succession of foothills. At the mountaintop the sound of traffic in the busy streets below is hushed to a quiet hum. In this tranquil spot, the problems of mankind appear more susceptible of harmonious solution. Though in the world, the very place seems to be not wholly of the world.
It is atop Mt. Washington, at 3880 San Rafael Avenue, that the determined visitor, after braving the steep, winding access road, arrives at the international headquarters of Self-Realization Fellowship.
At the turn of the twentieth century, Mt. Washington Estates, as this property is also known, was a fashionable hotel. Wealthy people desirous of escaping the strain and bustle of city life went there to relax, or to attend gala social events. Tournaments were held on the tennis courts; banquets and colorful balls in the spacious lobby. Guests were brought up the steep mountainside to the hotel by cable car from Marmion Way, a thousand feet below, where connection was made with a railroad from downtown Los Angeles.
The “city of angels” was much smaller then: some 100,000 inhabitants. In time, the increasing popularity of the automobile, and the city’s inexorable engulfment of its surrounding orchards and farmlands, induced Mt. Washington’s fashionable clientele to seek their recreation farther afield. Mt. Washington Estates fell on hard times. The hotel closed its doors at last. Weeds began to grow out of widening cracks on the once famous tennis courts. The hotel, like an indigent but still-proud aristocrat, continued to survey the world with smug condescension from its twelve-acre domain. Its lofty mood, however, became increasingly difficult for it to sustain as, with the passing years, paint began peeling off the walls of the main building, the grounds lost their carefully tailored elegance, and on every side there appeared unmistakable signs of neglect. Alas, to such universal indifference are all brought who too pridefully oppose Time’s all-leveling scythe. The busy world paid court to Mt. Washington no longer.
Unlike most once-fashionable resorts, however, pathetic in their memories of a heyday forever vanished, Mt. Washington’s erstwhile glory was but the prelude to a far more glorious role.
Around the turn of the century, at the time when Mt. Washington Estates had attained the height of their popularity as a resort, there was a young boy in India who, during periods of ecstatic meditation, caught glimpses of a mysterious mountaintop monastery in a distant land. The message conveyed by his enigmatic visions concerned the mission that, he knew, he was meant someday to fulfill.
Mukunda Lal Ghosh, later known to the world as Paramhansa Yogananda, was the son of a senior executive in the Bengal-Nagpur Railway; as such, he faced the prospect of wealth and high worldly position upon growing up. But it was not this world that attracted him. From earliest childhood he had longed for God as intensely as others long for human love or for worldly recognition. Mukunda’s favorite pastime was visiting saints.
“Chhoto Mahasaya” they often called him—“Little Sir,” or, literally, “Little Great-Minded One.” Treating him not as a child, but as their spiritual equal, many (as he was to tell me, with an amused smile, during his last years) posed him deep questions, or sought his advice on spiritual matters.
Clearly this was no ordinary child, though in his autobiography Yogananda presents himself so unassumingly that the reader, unfamiliar with the intense preparation required for high yogic attainments, might draw the conclusion that anyone similarly placed might have reached the young yogi’s spiritual attainments.
Soon after graduation from high school, Mukunda met his guru,(1) the great Swami Sri Yukteswar of Serampore, Bengal. At the feet of this great master he attained, in the amazingly short period of six months, the high state of samadhi,(2) or unconditioned oneness with God. His guru kept him in the ashram(3) another nine and a half years while training him for his mission: the dissemination of yoga in the West. “The West,” Sri Yukteswar explained, “is high in material attainments, but lacking in spiritual understanding. It is God’s will that you play a role in teaching mankind the value of balancing the material with an inner, spiritual life.”
In 1917, Mukunda, now a monk with the name Swami Yogananda,(4) took the first outward step toward the fulfillment of his mission by founding a small school for boys in the village of Dihika, Bengal. In 1918 the Maharaja of Kasimbazar graciously gave him permission to transfer this fast-growing school to the Kasimbazar palace in Ranchi, Bihar, where the school flourished. An institution offering education in the divine art of living, along with the standard curriculum, made an instant appeal to parents and children alike. In the first year, enrollment applications reached two thousand — far more than the existing facilities could absorb. By the end of two years, the young yogi-headmaster’s educational theories were already beginning to have a marked impact on other educators.
Dear as Yogananda’s Ranchi school was to him, however, there was another, broader mission for which the Lord was even now preparing him. In 1920 the youthful yogi was meditating one day when he had a vision: Thousands of Americans passed before him, gazing at him intently. It was, he knew, a divine message. The time had come for him to begin his life work in the West.
The very next day he received an invitation to speak as India’s delegate to an International Congress of Religious Liberals, being held that year in Boston, Massachusetts, under the auspices of the American Unitarian Association. “All doors are open for you,” Sri Yukteswar told him, when he applied to his guru for instruction. “Your words on yoga shall be heard in the West.” Thus commanded, Yogananda accepted the invitation.
In America he found many people hungry for India’s spiritual teachings, and for the liberating techniques of yoga. Accordingly, he stayed on in Boston, where for three years he taught and lectured. Gradually he accustomed himself to the American culture, and studied how he might reach past his listeners’ preconceptions to their very hearts.
In 1923 he began a series of lectures and classes in major American cities. His success everywhere was extraordinary. Crowds flocked to him in unprecedented numbers, sometimes queuing up for blocks to get in. Unlike most other teachers from India, he never tried to impose his own country’s cultural modes on Americans, but sought rather to show Americans how to spiritualize their own culture. Dynamically, and with contagious joy, he set out to persuade minds that were steeped in the virtues of “down-to-earth practicality” that the most practical course of all is to seek God.
His magnetism was irresistible. On January 25, 1927, in Washington, D.C., after a lecture attended by 5,000 people, the Washington Post reported, “The Swami has broken all records for sustained interest.” For some time a famous photographer kept a life-size photograph of the Master on the street outside his shop. President Calvin Coolidge received the swami at the White House. In New York’s famous Carnegie Hall, on April 18, 1926, the Master held a crowd of three thousand spellbound for an hour and a half, repeating with him the simple chant “O God Beautiful!” which he had translated from the original Hindi of Guru Nanak. That night many in his audience found themselves transported to a state of divine ecstasy.
In 1924 Swami Yogananda toured westward across the continent. As he taught and lectured, countless thousands found their lives transformed — not by his words alone, but by his magnetic love and the sheer radiance of his inner joy.
Louise Royston, an elderly disciple who first met him during those early years, described him to me as a man so alive with divine joy that he sometimes actually came running out onto the lecture platform, his long hair streaming out behind him, his orange robe flapping about his body as if with kindred enthusiasm.
“How is everybody?” he would cry.
“Awake and ready!” came the eager response, in which he led them.
“How feels everybody?”
Again the shout: “Awake and ready!”
Only in such a charged atmosphere was he willing to talk about God, whom he described as the most dynamic, joy-inspiring reality in the universe. Dry, theoretical lectures were not for him. He had not come to America to philosophize, but to awaken in people an ardent love for God, an urgent longing to know Him. The forceful, inspiring personality of this teacher from India utterly captivated his audiences.
Louise Royston told me a charming little story from Yogananda’s 1927 visit to Washington, D.C. There Mme. Amelita Galli-Curci, the world-renowned opera singer, became his disciple. At this time Galli-Curci had reached the pinnacle of her own extraordinary fame. One evening, while singing before a packed concert hall, she spotted her guru seated in the balcony. Interrupting the performance, she pulled out a handkerchief and waved it eagerly in his direction. The Swami in his turn rose and waved back at her. The audience, finally, seeing whose presence it was that had interrupted the proceedings, broke into enthusiastic cheers and applause, sustaining the acclamation for several minutes.
One reason for the almost overwhelming response the Master received everywhere was that, unlike most public speakers, he never looked upon his audiences as nameless crowds, even when they numbered many thousands. He was amazingly sensitive to each listener as an individual. Often he would address himself to the specific needs of a single member of his audience. I myself sometimes had the experience of hearing him, during the course of a public lecture, address briefly some private difficulty of my own. When I thanked him mentally, he glanced smilingly at me before continuing his discourse.
Mr. Oliver Rogers (later, Brother Devananda), an older man who entered Mt. Washington as a monk a year or two after me, once told the Master in my presence:
“I heard you lecture twenty-five years ago at Symphony Hall, in Boston. Through the years since then I often wondered where you were. I suppose it was my karma that I had to seek God first in other ways, but the compelling inspiration behind my search was always that evening with you in Symphony Hall.
“It was strange, too,” Mr. Rogers continued reflectively. “That huge hall was completely packed, yet through your entire lecture you kept your eyes fixed on me!”
“I remember,” replied the Master with a quiet smile.
Above all, during every public lecture, Swami Yogananda sought souls who were spiritually ready to devote their lives to God. As he often put it, “I prefer a soul to a crowd, though I love crowds of souls.”
During his transcontinental tour in 1924, many would have been thrilled for Swami Yogananda to make his home in their cities. To every such invitation, however, he replied, “My soul calls me to Los Angeles.” Years later, a guest at Mt. Washington asked him, “Which do you consider the most spiritual place in America?” “I have always considered Los Angeles the Benares(5) of America,” the Master replied.
To Los Angeles he came. People flocked to his lectures in unprecedented numbers even for that city, noted as it is for its interest in matters spiritual. Weeks passed in unceasing public service. And then he informed his delighted students that he planned to establish his headquarters in their city.
Numerous properties were shown him. None corresponded to the visions he had received in India, however. He continued his search.
In January 1925, he was out driving one day with two or three students, including Arthur Cometer, a young man who, with Ralph, another student, had chauffeured the Master across America. They drove up winding Mt. Washington Drive. As they passed Mt. Washington Estates the Master cried out, “Stop the car!”
“You can’t go in there,” his companions protested. “That’s private property!”
But Yogananda was not to be dissuaded. He entered the spacious grounds, and strolled about in silence. At last, holding onto the railing above the tennis courts, he exclaimed quietly, “This place feels like home!”
As it turned out, the property had recently been put up for sale; there were other people already who wanted to buy it. But Yogananda knew it was destined to be his. So certain was he, in fact, that he invited all his students in southern California to a dedication ceremony on the still-unpurchased land. During a speech that day he informed them, “This place is yours.”
The price of the property was $65,000. The Master was on the very point of signing the purchase agreement when his hand froze into immobility. “God held my hand from signing,” he told me years later, “because He wanted me to have the property for less money.” A few days afterwards another real estate agent was found who agreed to negotiate terms. The seller consented to come down to $45,000, provided that the sum was paid in full at the time of purchase, and that the date be set no later than three months from the day Yogananda signed the agreement. The price, though excellent, represented a lot of money, particularly in those days when the dollar had a much higher value than it has today.
When Yogananda’s students learned that he had only three months to raise the entire sum, their interest waned noticeably. One lady exclaimed in dismay, “Why, it would take you twenty years to raise that much money!”
“Twenty years,” replied the Master, “for those who think twenty years. Twenty months for those who think twenty months. And three months for those who think three months!”
He did, in fact, acquire the money in three months. The story of how he did it illustrates wonderfully the power of faith.
There was a student of the Swami’s, a Mrs. Ross Clark, whose husband some months previously had contracted double pneumonia. The man’s doctors had said he couldn’t live. “Oh yes he will live,” declared the Master when Mrs. Clark turned to him for help. Going to her husband’s bedside, he had sat there and prayed deeply. The man was cured. Thus it was that when Mrs. Clark learned of the Master’s dilemma, she told him, “You saved my husband’s life. I want to help you. Would you accept a loan of $25,000 without interest for three years?” Would he!
“Other money,” he told me, “began pouring in from our centers around the country. Soon we had another $15,000, making $40,000 in all. But the final purchase date was approaching, and we still lacked $5,000 of the total price. I wrote Mrs. Clark again to see if she could help us with this amount. Regretfully she answered, ‘I’ve done all I can.’ I thanked her once again for the enormous help she had given already. But where was that help going to come from?
“At last just one day remained! The situation was desperate. If we didn’t get those five thousand dollars by noon the next day, we would forfeit our option.”
Master chuckled, “I think Divine Mother likes to keep my life interesting!
“I happened to be staying in the home of someone who was rich, but insincere. He could easily have helped us had he been so inclined, but he made no move to do so. I was battling with God, ‘How do You plan to give me that money before noon tomorrow?’
“‘Everything will be all right,’ my host said, soothingly.
“‘Why do you say that?’ I demanded. I knew the money would come, but God needs human instruments, and this man had shown no interest in serving the work in this capacity. The man left the room.
“Just then a gust of wind(6) turned my face toward the telephone. There I saw the face of Miss Trask, a lady who had come to me twice for interviews. A voice said, ‘Call her.’ I did so at once, and explained my predicament to her.
“After a pause she said, ‘Somebody just the other day returned a loan I made him years ago. I never expected to get it back. It was for $5,000! Yes, you may have it.’
“Silently I offered a prayer of thanks. ‘Please,’ I urged her, ‘be at Mt. Washington Estates tomorrow before noon.’
“She promised to come. But by noon the next day she hadn’t yet arrived! Several prospective buyers were waiting like wolves! One of them was telling everyone that he planned to turn the place into a movie school. But the seller announced, ‘We will wait the rest of the day.’
“Minutes later Miss Trask arrived. The drama was over. We paid the full purchase price, and Mt. Washington was ours!”
Thus was founded the international headquarters of Self-Realization Fellowship, the institution through which Paramhansa Yogananda disseminated his yoga teachings throughout the world.
When I came to the Master in 1948, Mt. Washington Estates was a monastery. At first, however, he had planned to make it a “how-to-live” school similar to his well-known institution in India, because his hopes for spiritualizing the West included an all-round education for the young. He soon realized, however, that his educational dreams for this country would have to wait until enough grown-ups were converted to his ideals; only then could there be properly trained teachers, and enough parents willing to send their children to his schools. Soon, therefore, Mt. Washington became a residential center for adults desirous of devoting their lives to God.
In 1925, though many Americans derived inspiration from Yogananda’s message, relatively few were ready to give their entire lives to the spiritual search. Even in India, so Lord Krishna stated in the Bhagavad Gita, “Out of a thousand, one seeks Me; and out of a thousand who seek, one fully knows Me.”(7) Swami Shankaracharya (also known simply as Swami Shankara; acharya means “teacher”) once remarked, “Childhood is busy with playthings; youth is busy with romance and family; old age is busy with sickness and worries: Where is the man who is busy with God?” Here, in the materialistic West, few indeed were willing to spare the time for deep meditation. By ones they came. Many left; few remained.
Yogananda might have compromised his high standards and made it easier for many more to stay, but he never would do so. And by ones they did come, among whom were a growing number of deeply seeking souls. Slowly, a monastic order developed, in time to achieve such a high spiritual caliber as I have seen nowhere else, not even in India.
For some years Swami Yogananda continued to tour the country, lecturing, teaching, and attracting to his work a gradually growing band of dedicated disciples. At last he felt guided by God to end his spiritual “campaigns,” as he called them, and return to Mt. Washington to devote his time to training the souls he had sent there.
There now began for him and his little band a period of severe testing. During his previous years of public teaching, all the money he had sent home had, as things turned out, been spent, often not wisely. No doubt those in charge had imagined the supply would never run out. To replenish the depleted bank account the Master might have gone out campaigning again, but he felt that God now wanted him at Mt. Washington, and he obeyed the divine summons unflinchingly. He and his little group planted tomatoes on the hillside. For months their diet consisted of raw tomatoes, stewed tomatoes, fried tomatoes, baked tomatoes, tomato soup. They found that with a little culinary imagination, even this drastically limited fare could be pleasantly varied.
With the passing years, more and more students around the country realized that what the Master had brought them was far more than an adjunct to the church teachings with which they had grown up: It was a complete spiritual path in itself. He always encouraged his students to remain loyal to their own churches, if they so desired. Increasing numbers of them, however, as they practiced his teachings, began to feel that his work was all the church they needed. Thus his work developed, not by missionary tactics of conversion, but by his students’ own, personal experience of the efficacy of his teachings. More and more, those whose worldly responsibilities prevented them from entering his monastery began to unite together in their own towns to form Self-Realization Fellowship centers. Lessons were compiled at Mt. Washington from his teachings and writings,(8) and sent to devoted students around the country, eventually reaching students throughout the world. By 1935 the work was firmly established and flourishing.
This was the year that Yogananda’s guru, Swami Sri Yukteswar, summoned him back to India. The now-famous disciple spent a year there traveling about the country, addressing large audiences.
A visitor to Sri Yukteswar’s Serampore ashram compared Swami Yogananda one day to a certain other well-known swami, famous in both India and America. The great guru, though rarely one to bestow even the mildest praise, replied now with quiet pride, “Don’t mention them in the same breath. Yogananda is much greater.”
Swami Yogananda, during his “campaign” days, had sometimes asked his audiences to clasp their hands together. Then he’d tell them, “Those who are in tune with me will not be able to separate their hands until I tell them they are free.” When he returned to India he performed this demonstration sometimes, just to show the power of the mind. When I went to India in 1958, someone who had been there told me that, one evening, Motilal Thakur, an advanced disciple of Sri Yukteswar, had gone around the hall, blowing on the tips of his fingers, then flicking them toward people in an attempt to release them from Yogananda’s power. He failed to break the swami’s spiritual influence.
During that year Sri Yukteswar bestowed on his beloved disciple the highest of India’s spiritual titles, Paramhansa.(9) It was hoped by many Indians that Yogananda would remain in India now. But God was already inwardly calling him back to America. His guru’s death was a further, outward sign that God was releasing him to go back. Accordingly, in 1936, he returned to Mt. Washington. And now a new phase of his mission began.
In conjunction with his early visions of Mt. Washington, Yogananda had always seen two other buildings. The first was the main hall of his Ranchi school. The other had yet to be brought into outward manifestation. It was a beautiful hermitage somewhere by the sea.
Several times, while driving down the California coast to San Diego, he had felt attracted to a certain spot in the little town of Encinitas. Each time that the attraction had awakened in him, he had received the inner message: “Wait. Not yet.” Obedient to his inner guidance, he had never pursued the matter further. After his return from India, however, a surprise awaited him. On the very spot that had interested him on those drives, James J. Lynn, a wealthy disciple and highly advanced spiritually, had purchased and built for him the hermitage of his visions! Here it was that Paramhansaji,(10) as many people now began calling him, over the next several years spent most of his time writing books, among them his spiritual classic, Autobiography of a Yogi.
His days now were an idyll of divine tranquillity. After years of traveling, spiritual “campaigning,” and courageously meeting a never-ending series of challenges to his mission, he was able to enjoy for a time some of the fruits of his labors. The challenges he met now were in the more congenial realm of spiritual ideas.
In order to share this idyll with devoted students, he constructed a small, beautiful place of worship in 1938 on the grounds in Encinitas. “The Golden Lotus Temple,” he named this new building. Situated in the garden, fairly close to the main hermitage, it overlooked the Pacific Ocean. Here the Master led group meditations, with the ocean “backdrop” as a visible reminder of the vastness of Spirit. He shared with devotees some of the deep inspirations that were pouring daily through his pen. The Golden Lotus Temple attracted widespread public interest. Visitors sometimes compared it to the Taj Mahal. One person said of it, “It is like seeing paradise without dying!”
But the Master’s idyll didn’t last long. In 1939 World War II started in Europe. Its disruptive vibrations could not but affect the tranquillity of a work as attuned as Yogananda’s was to serving the needs of mankind everywhere. In 1942, not long after America’s entry into the war, The Golden Lotus Temple slipped into the sea. Its foundations had been undermined by soil erosion caused by water seepage from the road outside the hermitage property. The loss of this famous structure received front-page Associated Press coverage in hundreds of newspapers across the nation. To Paramhansaji, however, the loss was not a tragedy, but a sign of God’s will. The time had come for the next stage in his mission.
God’s true lovers seem to attract more than their share of trials. Perhaps the reason is to give the rest of us a lesson from their example, that adversity, if met with divine faith, proves invariably a blessing in the end. Hardship is but a shortcut — tunneled, so to speak, through mountains so as the more quickly to reach the fertile meadows beyond them. Paramhansaji declared that from the destruction of his Golden Lotus Temple many other places of worship would arise. To him, then, its loss meant that the time had come to expand his work, reaching out more actively to the world through the medium of his organization, which by this time was firmly established.
Within a year and two months of the loss of the Encinitas temple, two new places of worship were established. The first was in Hollywood, at 4860 Sunset Boulevard, dedicated in August 1942. The second was in San Diego, at 3072 First Avenue, dedicated in September 1943. The Master now began lecturing in these churches on alternate Sundays.
This increase in his public activities attracted an ever-larger number of lay disciples to the churches, in addition to those coming to live as renunciates at his Mt. Washington and Encinitas ashrams. It was now that an old dream, one that he had often described in lectures and in magazine articles, began to take definite shape.
One of the primary aims of his work had been, from the beginning, “to spread a spirit of brotherhood,” as he put it, “among all people, and to aid in establishing, in many countries, self-sustaining colonies for plain living and high thinking.” It was to the establishment of such a “world brotherhood colony”—his designation for this new style of living — that he now turned most of his energies.
The problem to which he addressed himself was similar to the one that had first inspired his interest in child education. “Environment,” he used to say, “is stronger than will power.” The environment in which a child lives determines to a great extent his attitudes and behavior after he grows up. The environment in which an adult lives can make all the difference, similarly, between success and failure in his or her efforts to transform old, unwanted habits.
Paramhansaji urged people if possible to live in harmonious environments. For single persons with a deep desire for God, he often suggested the monastic life. But although for students with worldly commitments he recommended regular attendance at Self-Realization Fellowship church or center services, he was sadly aware of the obstacles these people faced. Most modern environments, alas, even when they are outwardly harmonious, are not spiritually uplifting.
The solution he arrived at was to provide places in which all devotees, whether married or single, could live among divine influences: places where family, friends, job, and general environment would all conduce to spiritual development — in short, a spiritual village, or “world brotherhood colony.” In the early 1940s he set himself to found the first such community.
Encinitas was the site he chose for this project. Here he began to accept families. In lecture after lecture in the churches he urged people to combine their meditative efforts with the simpler, freer life-style of a spiritual community.
A number of the projects that he undertook during his lifetime must be considered guidelines for the future, inasmuch as their fulfillment depended on the preparedness of society as a whole, and not only on his own far-seeing vision and vigorous power of will. Society was not yet ready for them. Thus, although he had dreamed of founding “how-to-live” schools in America, and actually tried to start one in 1925 at Mt. Washington, America simply wasn’t yet spiritually developed enough to permit the fulfillment of this dream.
Everything he did, however, was done for a good reason. Indeed, what better way to indicate his wishes for the work in years or even generations to come than by making a serious effort to carry those wishes out during his own lifetime?
Great men cannot hope to materialize all the inspirations of their genius during the short time allotted to them on earth. How much clearer a demonstration of their intentions, then, for those who come afterward, if they can start something tangible, however inchoately, instead of merely talking about it. Such was Yogananda’s “how-to-live” school at Mt. Washington. Such also was a Yoga University that he founded there in 1941 with a California State charter, which had to be abandoned later owing to public indifference. Such, too, was his “world brotherhood colony” in Encinitas.
It was not possible, alas, for him to complete this project during his lifetime. America simply wasn’t ready for it. Perhaps also certain of the renunciate disciples weren’t ready, either. The fact that he dropped it, however, cannot be viewed as a change of heart, considering the lifelong importance he attached to this concept. Rather, this practical demonstration of his interest in it can only have been intended to inspire others, or even some one other. I say this because I myself seem to have been selected for that one, taking up the plan in later years, when the timing for its fulfillment was right.
In 1946, his best-known book, Autobiography of a Yogi, was published. Its appearance marked the beginning of the last chapter of his life: the completion of his major literary works, and the arrival of a veritable flood of new disciples.
In the summer of 1948 he experienced a supreme state of ecstasy, or samadhi. God, in the form of the Divine Mother of the Universe, showed him the secrets of cosmic creation. It was as though, in lifting these last veils, She wanted to prepare him for his own departure from this outward stage of manifestation.
“I sent you a few bad ones in the beginning,” She told him during that ecstasy, “to test your love for Me. But now I am sending you angels. Whoever smites them, I shall smite.”
Indeed, it was within this period — from approximately 1946 onwards — that the majority of his destined disciples came. We may suppose that God had wanted his life, during his earlier years, to stand out more brilliantly than it might have done, had all his energies been spent in the personal training of hordes of followers.
In the life of the great Sri Ramakrishna, too, most of his disciples came during the last years of his life. Thus, now, in the closing chapters of Paramhansa Yogananda’s life, a swelling throng of dedicated souls began arriving. They helped to ensure the continuance of his work after he had departed from this earth.
Within this period of time, too, he acquired several new properties: a retreat in the desert at Twenty-Nine Palms, California, where he went for periods of seclusion to work on completing his writings; a new church in Long Beach, California; another one in Phoenix, Arizona; and a lake and temple in Pacific Palisades, California. He also developed the already-existing church property in Hollywood, adding an auditorium and an excellent vegetarian restaurant.
The lake and temple in Pacific Palisades were dedicated by him in 1950. This was his last and most beautiful property. SRF Lake Shrine, he called it. The Lake Shrine is formed by a natural bowl in a steep hillside that almost surrounds a charming jewel of a lake. The property contains a church, an outdoor temple, tiny shrines to each of the major world religions, and beautiful flower gardens. The place is enjoyed by thousands of visitors every year.
Increasingly, during these last years of his life, he spent his time working on his writings. One of the major assignments that his guru had given him was to demonstrate the intrinsic compatibility of the Indian scriptures, particularly the Bhagavad Gita, with the Old and New Testaments. At Twenty-Nine Palms he wrote commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita, Genesis, and Revelation. (The teachings of Revelation, he said, are “pure yoga.”) He had already completed detailed commentaries on the four Gospels of the Bible.
On March 7, 1952, he left his body. It had been an incredibly fruitful life. By the time it ended, SRF centers flourished in many countries. Yogananda’s disciples around the world numbered many tens of thousands. He had opened the West to India’s teachings in a way that no other teacher has ever been able to do. This was the first time that a great master from India spent the greater part of his life in the West. It is largely as a result of his teaching and radiant personal example that there has been, in recent decades, such a widespread and growing interest in India’s spiritual teachings.
The headquarters for this vast movement was Mt. Washington Estates. Here it was that my own life of discipleship began.
- Spiritual teacher. The word guru is often applied, broadly, to any venerated teacher. On the spiritual path, however, it refers to the sadguru or true teacher — that enlightened sage who has been commissioned by God to lead the spiritually fit seeker out of darkness, and into the experience of Supreme Truth. While the seeker may have many lesser teachers, he can have only one such divinely appointed guru.
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- Samadhi (cosmic consciousness) is the state of infinite awareness that comes to the yogi once the hypnosis of ego has been broken. Christian saints have sometimes described this state as “mystical marriage,” for in it the soul merges into God, becoming one with Him.
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- A place of retirement from worldly life for the purpose of pursuing spiritual practices.
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- Swami: literally, lord — that is to say, one who has achieved mastery of himself. Swami is the title commonly given to sannyasis (renunciates), in affirmation of the truth that he alone is a true ruler in this world who rules himself. Renunciates, for the same reason, are often called Maharaj (Great King).
Ananda (divine bliss) usually forms part of the sannyasi’s monastic name. Thus the name Yogananda means “Divine bliss through union (yoga) with God,” or, also, “Divine bliss through the practice of yoga techniques for achieving union.”
The custom of adding ananda to a sannyasi’s name derives from the time of Swami Shankara, known also as Swami Shankaracharya, ancient reorganizer of the renunciate order in India. Shankaracharya rescued India from the atheistic misconstruction that the Buddha’s followers had come to place upon the sublime teachings of their founder. Shankaracharya explained that, while Truth (as taught by Lord Buddha, who consistently refused to speak of God) is indeed beyond human conception, it nevertheless exists and can be experienced.
The highest state of divine ecstasy is revealed as ineffable bliss—“beyond imagination of expectancy,” as Yogananda described it. Swami Shankara’s definition of God was Satchidananda—“existence, consciousness, bliss.” Paramhansa Yogananda translated this definition as “ever-existing, ever-conscious, ever-new Bliss.”
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- Benares, or Varanasi as it is now named officially, is the holiest city of the Hindus. Thousands of years old — indeed, quite possibly the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world — Varanasi possesses an aura of timelessness and world detachment. Numerous ashrams and temples exist here. Devout pilgrims from all over India come to bathe in the sacred river Ganges, which at that point flows northward toward its source in the Himalayas, a direction of flow which bestows on the city its spiritual appellation, Kashi.
The aged and the infirm flock here, convinced that to die in Benares is a guarantee of salvation. Indeed their faith is founded, albeit symbolically, on a divine truth. For Hindus who take their mythology literally, Benares is considered the earthly abode of God in the form of Sri Viswanath, “Lord of the Universe.” And truly, one who lives and dies in the inner abode of God, which is to say in His consciousness, is assured of salvation.
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- As I understood this story from Master, this was a spiritual, not a physical, manifestation. Wind is one of the manifestations of Aum, the Holy Ghost. We find a reference to it in Acts of the Apostles: “And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting.… And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost.” (Acts 2:1,2,4) The visions that St. Bernadette Soubirous received of the Virgin Mary at Lourdes were also preceded by a gust of wind. Others couldn’t feel it.
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- The Bhagavad Gita, VII:3.
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- Louise Royston, the disciple mentioned earlier in this chapter, was chiefly responsible for this labor of love.
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- Literally, “Supreme Swan.” The swan has been since ancient times a symbol of divine enlightenment. The reason is threefold. First, like the swan, which is equally at home on land and on water, the enlightened yogi is at home both in this world and in the ocean of Spirit. Second, the swan is believed to have the ability, when it sips a mixture of milk and water, to swallow only the milk; presumably what it does is curdle it. Similarly, the hansa, or enlightened yogi, can discriminate clearly between the “milk” of divine truth and the “water” of delusion. Third, hansa (swan) in Sanskrit means also han sa (“I am He”): words expressive of the blissful realization of a true master. Supreme among such “hansas” is the parama (supreme) hansa. Already liberated, the paramahansa no longer needs to combat earthly delusions with the sword of discrimination, for he sees the Divine at all times effortlessly, everywhere.
Yogananda wrote his title Paramhansa, without the additional a in the middle. This is how the word is pronounced in India. According to Sanskrit scholars, “paramhansa” is more properly written paramahansa, with an extra a in the middle. Scholarly precision, however, doesn’t always coincide with unscholarly comprehension.
In English, that middle a increases the problem of pronunciation to the point where people pause there, thus giving emphasis to a letter that, in India, is not even pronounced. The average American or Englishman, in other words, and very likely the average non-Indian, pronounces the word thus: “paramaahansa.” The correct pronunciation, however, is paramhansa.
For Westerners who want simply to know, with some degree of accuracy, how to pronounce this (to us) difficult word, Sanskrit scholars accept the spelling paramhansa.
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- Ji is a suffix commonly added to names in India as a mark of respect.
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