Paramahansa Yogananda, and the legacy of India’s mission to enlighten America
When Steve Jobs departed the world, he had One Last Thing for those who attended his memorial service — a copy of Autobiography of Yogi by the Hindu guru Paramhansa Yogananda, the man who introduced America to yoga and meditation. It wasn’t as paradoxical of a gift as it might have seemed. By Jason Louv
Before becoming a business giant, Jobs was a spiritual seeker, experimenting with LSD and Zen Buddhism. He even travelled to India to find a guru. Jobs deeply immersed himself in spirituality, but it was his choice to apply himself to invention and business—rather than monastic meditation—that would change the planet.
“That was the message: Actualize yourself,” Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, who was at the memorial service, said of Jobs and his chosen gift. "If you look back at the history of Steve and that early trip to India. ... he had this incredible realization that his intuition was his greatest gift. He needed to look at [the] world from [the] inside out... his message was to look inside yourself and realize yourself."
Autobiography of Yogi would be Jobs’ way of passing on that message. The book recounts the spiritual training of Yogananda, a Bengali boy who became a self-realized meditator, and then came to America in the 1920s to introduce the West to Hindu meditation techniques. It’s now considered a spiritual classic, having sold over 4 million copies. Among those deeply influenced by Yogananda and his book were Elvis Presley, George Harrison, Mariel Hemingway, Russell Simmons, the botanist Luther Burbank, and Mahatma Ghandi—in many ways, it helped lay the groundwork for the explosion of interest in Eastern spirituality that was to come in the 1960s. Yogananda stood at the transition point between the millennia-old Vedic spirituality of India and the New Age fusion that would emerge from the collision of Hindu, English and American religious ideas. And while much of the New Age backwash that was to come is easy to dismiss, Yogananda’s influence is not so easy to brush off—the hem of his robe touched a few of the biggest cultural movers and shakers of the 20th century.
But who was Yogananda—and what was it about one simple meditator that created such a global impact?
The Blissful Devotee and His Cosmic Romance
Mukunda Lal Ghosh, the boy who would become Yogananda, was born into the kshatriya or military caste in Gorakhpur, northeast India. His father was a vice president in the Bengal-Nagpur Railway; both of his parents were disciples of the guru Lahiri Mahasaya.
Mahasaya initiated Ghosh and his parents into kriya yoga, a meditative practice that involves intense concentration on various points along the spinal column, which turns the mind inward on itself and finally empties it. This is the practice that the adult Yogananda would bring to America. It was at the age of 17, however, that Ghosh met the man who would complete his spiritual training: Swami Sri Yukteswar, a ferocious, lion-like kriya master who would spend the next five years transforming Ghosh the child into Yogananda the man. Spiritual discipleship in this context involves not just meditation but the ruthless and unflinching rooting out and destruction of the student’s ego and delusions by the master, an utterly terrifying process.
But Yogananda won through. He recounts his enlightenment thusly:
“An oceanic joy broke upon calm endless shores of my soul. The Spirit of God, I realized, is exhaustless Bliss; His body is countless tissues of light. A swelling glory within me began to envelop towns, continents, the earth, solar and stellar systems, tenuous nebulae, and floating universes. The entire cosmos, gently luminous, like a city seen afar at night, glimmered within the infinitude of my being… The creative voice of God I heard resounding as Aum, the vibration of the Cosmic Motor.
“Suddenly the breath returned to my lungs. With a disappointment almost unbearable, I realized that my infinite immensity was lost. Once more I was limited to the humiliating cage of a body, not easily accommodative to the Spirit. Like a prodigal child, I had run away from my macrocosmic home and imprisoned myself in a narrow microcosm. My guru was standing motionless before me; I started to drop at his holy feet in gratitude for the experience in cosmic consciousness which I had long passionately sought. He held me upright, and spoke calmly, unpretentiously.
“’You must not get overdrunk with ecstasy. Much work yet remains for you in the world. Come; let us sweep the balcony floor; then we shall walk by the Ganges.’”
Yogananda was next tasked with running a school for boys in Ranchi, where he combined traditional education with instruction in kriya yoga. But after a few years of practice, his guru sent him on the most frightening errand he could imagine: Bring the teachings to America.
A Mission From God
Leaving behind everything, Yogananda arrived in the US in 1920—the first Hindu guru to openly teach Westerners. While Swami Vivekananda had come before him, bringing an intellectual outline of yogic mysticism to the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago in 1893, he had taught no techniques. Yogananda would change that, quickly booking speaking engagements across the country, offering instruction in kriya yoga and founding his Self-Realization Fellowship, a series of centers that he would wisely model on the Church, complete with pews and images of Jesus on the central altars, rather than the traditional Indian ashram setup, to decrease the cognitive dissonance he was facing in importing foreign teachings.
After middling reception on the East Coast, he relocated to Los Angeles—which he would describe in his Autobiography as the spiritual nexus of America. LA not only has a perfect climate for practicing yoga year-round, the entertainment industry creates an environment full of people seeking for something better than reality.
Though Yogananda’s teachings and centers quickly became entrenched in Southern California, winning the adoration of the public, the backlash was soon to follow. The tabloid media began to label Yogananda’s headquarters (on top of Mt. Washington) a “love cult” and allege that improper sexual relations were occurring; in tandem with the press assault, Yogananda’s trusted friend and colleague Dhirananda departed the group. Though the allegations that Yogananda had (consensual) sexual relations with some of his disciples led to lawsuits, nothing was substantiated.
Weathering the storm, Yogananda travelled abroad in South America and India, where he once again met with his guru Sri Yukteswar, and with Mahatma Ghandi. But it was when Yogananda returned to America that he would devote himself to securing his legacy—his writings at the time reveal a very real fear that civilization would simply cease to exist, and a pressing need to create some kind of vessel to preserve the essence of right living. This meant crystallizing his message in written works and by further establishing his network of Self-Realization Fellowship centers. Writing became, for him, a way to reach more people than he could in person—the success of Autobiography of a Yogi would prove him right. His talks from the time stress the need for creating intentional communities, and for people to begin planting their own vegetable gardens—a prescient notion, and one which deeply took hold both in the 1960s commune wave and following the 2008 recession.
Yogananda may have been rushing particularly fast to preserve his message because his days were numbered. At a March 7, 1952 dinner for a visiting Indian ambassador in Los Angeles, he mounted the stage to urge co-operation between India and America—before collapsing from heart failure. He is now interred at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale; Time reported that the cemetery’s mortuary director wrote in a notarized letter that Yogananda’s body remained in a perfectly preserved state, without decay, for twenty days after his death… take that for what you will.
The Legacy of the Guru Institution in America
What exactly was Yogananda doing?
Yoga and meditation are seen by the public as methods to exercise and relax, respectively. However, these are side-benefits of their actual purpose, which is to (over the course of many, many years) destroy an individual’s attachment to their own limited body and mind, and allow a more infinite and cosmic view of reality to take its place—“enlightenment.” For those who seek to take it all the way, this process is beautiful, profound, and triumphantly awakening, but it is not light and fluffy, as it involves the stripping away of the individual ego and its attachments. There comes a time in the human maturation process, for some, where you start to figure out that your small-s self is blocking the view. Meditation, yoga, is a way of demolishing it. It’s not self-help—it’s self-annihilation.
None of this is considered to be possible to do DIY. All Hindu and Tibetan yogic texts stress that yoga is impossible without direct instruction from a guru. A guru, however, is much more than just a yoga-teacher-slash-therapist—and it’s important to put the guru/disciple relationship in context here, as it has vastly different connotations in India than it does in the West, where the phrase has come to mean, simply, “somebody who’s good at something and is also pretentious about it,” a la “social media guru.”
As opposed to a pandit, who is simply a teacher or expounder of spiritual doctrine, a guru is a kind of super-parent, whose job it is to carry the karma and responsibility for whole social groups. The guru teaches some form of meditation and Vedic philosophy, and acts as a guide for both solitary, renunciate seekers and whole families that seek to practice meditation more slowly and sustainably while maintaining their worldly duties. It’s by-and-large the job of the guru (who may teach huge crowds or just a few people) to guide their disciples on the spiritual path, make sure they don’t kill each other as they work out their group karma, and keep their egos and shadows from sabotaging their lives by continually whacking them with the proverbial zen stick. And it’s by and large the job of the disciples to support the guru so that she or he can keep teaching.
This arrangement deeply troubles the Western mind, which is founded on the idea of self-reliance and independence—especially after decades of abusive guru scandals, from many spiritual backgrounds. The pattern is, however, hard-wired into Hindu culture—the guru-disciple relationship can in many cases be an extension of the family unit—and because that pattern largely relies on the context of Indian culture to work, it’s been nearly impossible to export to the West. Instead, Hindu (and Buddhist) teachers in the West have largely had to make do with people who have already dropped out of their own culture—i.e. hippies and New Agers—who bring their own baggage, cultural expectations and projections with them. That culture clash, especially around sex, as gurus end up with huge power over large numbers of lost people with little to no sense of personal boundaries or anchors to the real world, hasn’t always worked out well. (See the stories of Swami Muktananda, Chögyam Trungpa, and the American guru Adi Da.)
Having been in the trenches with many different gurus in my 20s, I’m not as much troubled by the power that some gurus hold over their flock as I am by the willingness of some individuals to completely surrender power over their lives to somebody (anybody!) else, and the general institutional insanity that arises from the inner circles clustered around the big-name gurus. (As Robert Anton Wilson once said, “a disciple is an asshole looking for a human being to attach itself to.”) Unless you’ve seen it first-hand, it’s impossible to describe how bizarre social dynamics can be in a group where grown adults are projecting not only their own unresolved family issues but also their need for life, the universe and everything to be both explained and perfectly fixed, all onto one person—who might well be enlightened, but is still, after all, a human being, with a human shadow.
With all that said, however, it’s too easy to dwell on the failures of the importation of Eastern spirituality to the West, and miss the successes, and the incredible depth and transformative power of the teachings themselves. And what makes Yogananda particularly remarkable is not only that he was the first guru to come to the West, but that he set such an incredibly high bar of success.
As the West becomes increasingly technocratic, and increasingly loses its sense of self in the face of corporatization and globalization, its need for deep spiritual connection will only grow—and Yogananda laid the groundwork for Western people to access the spiritual teachings of India in a way that nobody had before or has since.
After all, he was, it seems, the greatest inspiration in the life of the man who made the device you are now reading this on possible… and I think we might just want to take a serious look at Steve Jobs’ final One Last Thing.
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