The Masters of Enlightenment: Paramahansa Yogananda

1001In the last article in this series on Spirituality, I turned my attention to discussing people who were Masters of Enlightenment. The first article on this subject profiled J. Krishnamurti.

Today I will continue with the profiles by discussing another Master of Enlightenment, Paramahansa Yogananada.

Yogananda was born Mukunda Lal Ghosh on Jan. 5, 1893 in India, and died on March 7, 1952. He introduced many Westerners to the teachings of meditation and Kriya Yoga through his book, Autobiography of a Yogi.

Since the publication of the book in 1946, it has since been translated into twenty-five languages. In 1999, it was designated one of the “100 Most Important Spiritual Books of the 20th Century” by a panel of spiritual authors.

Autobiography of a Yogi describes Yogananda’s spiritual search for enlightenment, in addition to encounters with notable spiritual figures such as Therese Neumann, Anandamoyi Ma, Mohandas Gandhi, Nobel laureate in literature Rabindranath Tagore, noted plant scientist Luther Burbank (the book is “Dedicated to the Memory of Luther Burbank, An American Saint”), famous Indian scientist Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose and Nobel Prize-winning physicist Sir C. V. Raman.

One notable chapter of this book is “The Law of Miracles,” where he gives scientific explanations for seemingly miraculous feats. He writes “the word ‘impossible’ is becoming less prominent in man’s vocabulary.”

Yogananda's teacher, Sri Yukteswar

Yogananda's teacher, Sri Yukteswar

Kriya Yoga, which was Yogananda’s core teachings, is a set of yoga techniques that were the main discipline of Yogananda’s meditation teachings. Kriya Yoga was passed down through Yogananda’s guru lineage — Mahavatar Babaji taught Kriya Yoga to Lahiri Mahasaya, who taught it to his disciple Yukteswar, Yogananda’s Guru.

Because of ancient yogic injunctions, “the actual technique must be learned from a Kriyaban or Kriya Yogi”, according to Yogananda. He gave a general description of Kriya Yoga in his Autobiography:

“The Kriya Yogi mentally directs his life energy to revolve, upward and downward, around the six spinal centers (medullary, cervical, dorsal, lumbar, sacral, and coccygeal plexuses) which correspond to the twelve astral signs of the zodiac, the symbolic Cosmic Man. One-half minute of revolution of energy around the sensitive spinal cord of man effects subtle progress in his evolution; that half-minute of Kriya equals one year of natural spiritual unfoldment.”

Yogananda taught his students the need for direct experience of truth, as opposed to blind belief. He said that “The true basis of religion is not belief, but intuitive experience. Intuition is the soul’s power of knowing God. To know what religion is really all about, one must know God.”

Echoing traditional Hindu teachings, he taught that the entire universe is God’s cosmic motion picture, and that individuals are merely actors in the divine play who change roles through reincarnation. He taught that mankind’s deep suffering is rooted in identifying too closely with one’s current role, rather than with the movie’s director, or God.

He taught Kriya Yoga and other meditation practices to help people achieve that understanding, which he called Self-realization:

“Self-realization is the knowing in all parts of body, mind, and soul that you are now in possession of the kingdom of God; that you do not have to pray that it come to you; that God’s omnipresence is your omnipresence; and that all that you need to do is improve your knowing.”

Yogananda as a young man

Yogananda as a young man

To that end, he founded an organization, The Self-Realization Fellowship, or SRF, to further the cause of self-realization and enlightenment. The Self-Realization Fellowship continues to this day, with branches all over the world; its international headquarters are in Los Angeles, California.

Yogananda’s international reputation had its beginnings one day in 1920, while meditating at a school he had founded. Yogananda had a divine vision showing him that now was the time to begin his work in the West. He immediately departed for Calcutta, where the next day he was invited to serve as India’s delegate to an international congress of religious leaders convening later that year in Boston. His teacher, Sri Yukteswar, confirmed that the time was right, saying: “All doors are open for you. It is now or never.”

Shortly before his departure, Yogananda was visited by Mahavatar Babaji, the deathless master who revived in this age the ancient science of Kriya Yoga. “You are the one I have chosen to spread the message of Kriya Yoga in the West,” Babaji said to Yogananda. “Long ago I met your guru Yukteswar at a Kumbha Mela; I told him then I would send you to him for training. Kriya Yoga, the scientific technique of God-realization, will ultimately spread in all lands, and aid in harmonizing the nations through man’s personal, transcendental perception of the Infinite Father.”

The young swami arrived in Boston in September 1920. His first speech, made to the International Congress of Religious Liberals, was on “The Science of Religion,” and was enthusiastically received.

That same year he founded Self-Realization Fellowship to disseminate worldwide his teachings on India’s ancient science and philosophy of Yoga and its time-honored tradition of meditation. The first SRF meditation center was started in Boston with the help of Dr. and Mrs. M. W. Lewis and Mrs. Alice Hasey (Sister Yogmata), who were to become lifelong disciples.

For the next several years, he lectured and taught on the East Coast; and in 1924 embarked on a cross-continental speaking tour. Reaching Los Angeles in early 1925, he established there the international headquarters for Self-Realization Fellowship atop Mt. Washington, which became the spiritual and administrative heart of his growing work.

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Yogananda speaking to a packed house at the L.A. Philharmonic Auditorium, 1925

From 1924–1935, Yogananda traveled and lectured widely, speaking to capacity audiences in many of the largest auditoriums in America — from New York’s Carnegie Hall to the Los Angeles Philharmonic Auditorium. The Los Angeles Times reported: “The Philharmonic Auditorium presents the extraordinary spectacle of thousands….being turned away an hour before the advertised opening of a lecture with the 3000-seat hall filled to its utmost capacity.”

Yogananda emphasized the underlying unity of the world’s great religions, and taught universally applicable methods for attaining direct personal experience of God. To serious students of his teachings he taught the soul-awakening techniques of Kriya Yoga, initiating more than 100,000 men and women during his thirty years in the West.

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Yogananda with Luther Burbank

Among those who became his students were many prominent figures in science, business, and the arts, including horticulturist Luther Burbank, operatic soprano Amelita Galli-Curci, George Eastman (inventor of the Kodak camera), poet Edwin Markham, and symphony conductor Leopold Stokowski.

In 1927, he was officially received at the White House by President Calvin Coolidge, who had become interested in the newspaper reports of his activities.

In 1929, during a two-month trip to Mexico, he planted the seeds for future growth of his work in Latin America. He was welcomed by the president of Mexico, Dr. Emilio Portes Gil, who became a lifelong admirer of Yogananda’s teachings.

By the mid-1930s, Paramahansaji had also met quite a few of the early disciples who would help him build the Self-Realization Fellowship work and carry the Kriya Yoga mission forward after his own lifetime was over — including two whom he appointed to be his spiritual successors as president of Self-Realization Fellowship: Rajarsi Janakananda (James J. Lynn), who met the Guru in Kansas City in 1932; and Sri Daya Mata, who had attended his classes in Salt Lake City the previous year.

Yogananda with Mahatma Gandhi

Yogananda with Mahatma Gandhi

Other disciples who attended his lecture programs during the 1920s and ‘30s and stepped forward to dedicate their lives to the SRF work were Dr. and Mrs. M. W. Lewis, who met him in Boston in 1920; Gyanamata (Seattle, 1924); Tara Mata (San Francisco, 1924); Durga Mata (Detroit, 1929); Ananda Mata (Salt Lake City, 1931); Sraddha Mata (Tacoma, 1933); and Sailasuta Mata (Santa Barbara, 1933).

Thus, for many years after Yogananda’s passing, and continuing to this day, Self-Realization Fellowship has been guided by disciples who received Paramahansa Yogananda’s personal spiritual training.

On March 7, 1952, Yogananda entered mahasamadhi, a God‑illumined master’s conscious exit from the body at the time of physical death. He had just finished giving a short speech at a banquet honoring India’s ambassador to the United States, Dr. Binay R. Sen, at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles.

His passing was marked by an extraordinary phenomenon. A notarized statement signed by the Director of Forest Lawn Memorial‑Park testified: “No physical disintegration was visible in his body even twenty days after death….This state of perfect preservation of a body is, so far as we know from mortuary annals, an unparalleled one….Yogananda’s body was apparently in a phenomenal state of immutability.”

In years past, Paramahansa Yogananda’s guru, Swami Sri Yukteswar, had referred to him as an incarnation of divine love. Later, his disciple and first spiritual successor, Rajarsi Janakananda, fittingly bestowed on him the title of Premavatar or “Incarnation of Divine Love.”

The commemorative stamp issued by India in honor of Yogananda

The commemorative stamp issued by India in honor of Yogananda

On the occasion of the twenty‑fifth anniversary of Paramahansa Yogananda’s passing, his far‑reaching contributions to the spiritual upliftment of humanity were given formal recognition by the Government of India. A special commemorative stamp was issued in his honor, together with a tribute that read, in part:

“The ideal of love for God and service to humanity found full expression in the life of Paramahansa Yogananda….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 the pilgrimage of the Spirit.”