Yogananda (1893-1952) was an Indian yogi who came to the United States in 1920 to spend over 30 years working with Americans interested in the practice of yoga or God-realization.
Yogananda was born Mukunda Lal Ghose in 1893 in Gorakhpur, India. Both of his parents were disciples of Lahiri Mahasaya, and his father was an executive of the Bengal-Nagpur Railway. Mukunda's name was changed to Yogananda in 1914 when he entered the Swami Order (an ancient monastic order founded by the Indian philosopher Sankara), and his guru Sri Yukteswar bestowed the further religious title Paramahansa in 1935. Yogananda means bliss through yoga or union with God, while Paramahansa means highest swan. The sacred swan was thought to have the power to extract milk from a mixture of milk and water and is therefore a symbol of spiritual discrimination.
The Spiritual Quest
Even as a child Yogananda was endowed with psychic powers and with a deep fascination for Indian holy men. His Autobiography of a Yogi depicts his search for God-realization and for a spiritual teacher who could guide him to that goal. It describes his encounter with numerous Indian holy men, most of whom possessed supranormal powers. He lived in a world in which he encountered healings through photographs and physical contact with yogis, a vision which predicted the death of his mother, the materialization of an amulet, the ability to materialize an extra body, the miraculous restoration of a severed arm, clairvoyent knowledge of the future, and the ability to levitate.
None of these occurrences was considered strange and none was seen to contradict natural law. Such happenings were perceived as the result of subtle laws that govern hidden spiritual planes and are discernable through the science of yoga. Human ills are the result of a violation of some law of nature. But the bad karma effected by such violations can be minimized through prayer, yoga, astrology, and consultation with holy men. The specific method for God-realization was kriya yoga. The method was never described in books, since it had to be learned from an authorized practitioner.
Yogananda was also interested in education, founding his first school for boys in Bengal at the age of 24. A year later, the Maharajah of Kasimbazar donated his palace and 25 acres of land in Bihar for this school, which was named Yogoda Satsanga Vidyalaya. The curriculum included not only standard subjects but also yoga concentration, meditation, and a special set of energization exercises for health. Yogananda founded the Yogoda Satsanga Society of India. Its counterpart in the United States is the Self-Realization Fellowship. The Yogoda Satsanga Society of India also supports a college, a girl's school, a kindergarten, a music school, an arts and crafts school, a medical dispensary, and a college of homeopathic medicine. Yogananda saw yoga, physical exercise, and scientific study as interrelated.
The American Missionary
As numerous other Indian gurus who came to the United States in the 20th century, Yogananda came as a result of an order from his guru Sri Yukteswar, who told him to "spread to all peoples the knowledge of the self-liberating yoga techniques." He began that mission in 1920 when he addressed the International Congress of Religious Liberals in Boston on the topic "The Science of Religion." He was well-received and travelled extensively throughout the United States giving lectures and classes in most major American cities. Self-Realization Fellowship centers were also established in major cities. The headquarters and buildings for resident monastics were built on a beautiful 12-acre estate on Mount Washington in Los Angeles. Yogananda also founded an ashram on a 23-acre estate in Encinitas, California, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Temples were built in Hollywood (1942), San Diego (1943), and Long Beach (1947). Both the international and the Indian headquarters have printing facilities which produce magazines, study guides, and the works of Yogananda. In 1950, two years before his death, an impressive Lake Shrine was established at Pacific Palisades, California.
Yogananda was convinced that the yoga that he taught could be found in all scriptures and was the essence of all religions. The Ten Commandments were seen as the first step of Patanjali's yoga. Yogananda also used his understanding of yoga to interpret the sayings of Jesus and Paul, being convinced that both Jesus and Paul were yoga masters. He was certain that a Western Christian would find nothing contradictory in adopting his kriya yoga once both Christianity and yoga were properly understood. He found it equally comfortable to quote from the Old and New Testaments as from Indian religious texts.
A yogi consciously exits from the body at the appropriate time. Yogananda's "exit" was on March 7, 1952. It was reported that 20 days after his death his body showed no signs of deterioration. The Self-Realization Fellowship quoted from a notarized letter from the mortuary director of Forest Lawn Memorial Park in support of this remarkable phenomenon. The report received considerable publicity in newspapers and magazines.
Further Reading on Yogananda
The most important source for the life of Yogananda is his Autobiography of a Yogi, a 572-page account of his life published by the Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) in 1946. After that one can proceed to some of the works of Yogananda also published by the SRF. Those works are The Science of Religion (1953), Scientific Healing Affirmations (1958), Cosmic Chants (1938, 1943), Metaphysical Meditations (n.d.), Whispers from Eternity (1959), and Songs of the Soul (1983).
Additional Biography Sources
Ghosh, Sananda Lal, Mejda: the family and early life of Paramahansa Yogananda, Los Angeles, Calif.: Self-Realization Fellowship, 1980.
Yogananda, Paramhansa, Autobiography of a Yogi, Los Angeles, Calif.: Self-Realization Fellowship, 1981.