Today, we have a rare treat for you: a Conversation With an international voice for the Self-Realization Fellowship — perhaps not a household name across America, but a group with roots that run deep in the rich soil of interfaith relations around the world.
The Fellowship was founded in the 1920s by a young Hindu sage, Paramahansa Yogananda (in the photo above on stage). His name also may seem exotic to many American eyes and ears, but here is why his contribution to American culture (and the worldwide interfaith community) was crucial:
Yogananda was among the pioneers in a rich period of interfaith exchanges from the 1890s until the oppressive era in the 1930s of growing Fascism and then war in the 1940s that left the globe scarred into the 1960s, when interfaith voices literally burst onto stages around the world once again.
Before him was Swami Vivekananda (at right), perhaps not the first Hindu teacher ever to set foot on American shores — but the man now credited with introducing Hindu traditions to Americans in a hugely successful way.
Vivekananda with his jaunty turban carefully folded atop his head took the stage at the first World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago during the 1893 World’s Fair and his first five words were so stunning that the crowd gave him a two-minute ovation. What he did sounds so simple today, but in the Victorian Era at such a formal occasion the only way to greet a crowd was to begin with a long-winded recognition of Ladies, Gentlemen, Esteemed Guests and then a lengthy list of each category of dignitary in attendance.
Vivekananda began with: “Sisters and Brothers of America.” The crowd erupted. In just a few words, people understood that they were witnessing a powerful new connection point between the world’s great religious traditions.
By the time Yogananda began his lectures in Boston in 1920 at another major gathering of cultural and religious leaders, many Americans already had a taste for these traditions from the East. (At left is Yogananda with American horticultural pioneer Luther Burbank.)
Just how influential were these early movements? Well, one powerful example is in the creative works of L. Frank Baum, the author of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” in 1900. Baum joined a national society dedicated to exploring these new religious voices. For later volumes in the Oz series especially, Baum created fanciful characters that embodied principles from Eastern religious traditions. So, the Beatles weren’t the first entertainers in American life to introduce Eastern spirituality in a popular way.
For the most part, Yogananda found American arms wide open to his message that emphasized a convergence between traditions of Yoga and the teachings of Jesus. The Self-Realization Fellowship continues to publish his writings and the new edition of “The Yoga of Jesus” is a fascinating exploration of parallels Yogananda found between Jesus’ teachings and his own religious tradition in India.
Yogananda’s early years in America were a remarkable period in American culture, when faith and science were concerned. Most of us recall the 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial” and think of science and religion in heated conflict. But that wasn’t the full picture in this era. Scientists were conducting a whole range of innovative research, sometimes uncovering principles that surprised them — and the message from the East of unity between mind, body and spirit was fascinating to keen-eyed men and women of science. These decades before the Great Depression, for example, are the era when Dr. John Harvey Kellogg was adapting his own religious principles, drawn from Christianity, to revolutionize American nutritional habits.
Burbank devoted his life to scientific research, and declared that he immediately understood Yogananda’s teachings as “plain commonsense.” There’s a whole section about Burbank in Yogananda’s autobiogaphy, but I particularly like the comment Burbank made in a talk he gave to Protestants a couple of years later, reflecting this blend of science and mysticism:
“I love humanity, which has been a constant delight to me during all my 77 years of life; and I love flowers, trees, animals, and
all the works of Nature as they pass before us in time and space. What
a joy life is when you have made a close working partnership with
Nature, helping her to produce for the benefit of mankind new forms,
colors, and perfumes in flowers which were never known before.”
Yogananda lived long enough to return to India, where he met Gandhi and other sages in India (that’s Yogananda, at right, this time without his turban enjoying a meal and conversation with Gandhi in 1935). He lived through the war years in the United States and died in 1952, while actively promoting the idea that wisdom from India might help to rebuild a more peaceful global community.
If you think that’s the end of the story, you’re wrong. In 2009, the success of cross-cultural spiritual writers like Deepak Chopra would not have been possible without pioneers like Yogananda. (CLICK HERE if you’d like to read our Conversation With Deepak Chopra on closely related themes.)
(AND, CLICK HERE or on any of the book covers below to jump to our reviews — and you can order copies, if you wish, via our Amazon bookstore. Purchasing through ReadTheSpirit gives you Amazon’s regular discounts, plus it helps us to support our ongoing work.)
And with that introduction, here are highlights of my Conversation With a current voice within Yogananda’s continuing movement.
DAVID: Let’s start with your name, Brother Chidananda. In American religious life, your name sounds a bit exotic. So, help us understand the origin of your name and your involvement with the Fellowship.
CHIDANANDA: This is my name in our monastic order. I was born in this country and went to college at the University of California, San Diego. I was studying sociology with an emphasis in the study of religion and I read “The Autobiography of a Yogi,” the life story of Yogananda. I was entranced. This spoke so personally to the kinds of questions that were central to my life. One of the main centers was just about 10 miles up the coast from my school, so I visited and I enrolled in the home-study course. That eventually led to my devoting my life to this. I graduated from the university in 1975 and in 1977, I applied to enter the monastic life.
When I became a monk and took final vows of renunciation, my name became Chidananda and my title in India would be the equivalent of Swami. All of the monks of the Self-Realization Fellowship are part of this ancient swami order of India. We use the title “Brother” in the West because it is more accessible to people here. But the title “Brother” just indicates I am a monk under monastic vows.
Then, in the yoga and swami tradition, our names very often will have the suffix “ananda,” which refers to the infinite bliss of the divine. The first part of my name “Chid” is a Sanskrit word that means divine consciousness. Putting the two halves of my name together, this signifies that my goal is to experience and manifest the divine bliss of the infinite divine consciousness.
DAVID: So, we’re Baby Boomers of about the same age, you and I -– both of us in our mid 50s?
CHIDANANDA: I’m 55.
DAVID: There are a number of Eastern movements that grew in the 1960s and 1970s. Tell us a little bit about the size of your movement. How many monks? And tell us a little about the number of centers and members.
CHIDANANDA: In the Self-Realization Fellowship there are about 180 monks at the moment. The two main concentrations are in our ashrams, which is another word for monasteries, here in California and also in India. We also have a comparable number of nuns.
Our international headquarters are in Los Angeles. We have about 500 to 600 meditation centers around the world and those are in most of the major cities in six continents. The largest have about 1,000 regular attendees. The smallest have four or five. But we teach a very individualized practice, so there isn’t a requirement that people regularly attend.
DAVID: So, what goes on at your centers? If people have visited Hindu temples or perhaps some of the Krishna centers in the U.S., they will be wondering: Are your centers organized for daily Hindu rituals and do your centers have the same kind of altar areas people might have seen in Hindu temples?
CHIDANANDA: We call our larger places temples and they generally have an Indian feel to them. They are quiet and meditative spaces. In the front of our temples or chapels you would find an altar-type area where there are photographs of our lineage of gurus plus pictures of Jesus and Krishna in a simple horizontal row. The teachings that are found in the New Testament for Jesus and the Bhagavad-Gita for Krishna -– these are the two foundational traditions that Yogananda built his work upon. But our centers do very little with the ceremonial worship in traditional Hinduism.
DAVID: So, explain a bit about your position in the Fellowship. Why are we talking to you today as a global representative of the movement?
CHIDANANDA: Why me? Well, there are a couple dozen of us who could do just as good a job as I’m doing today. My particular area of service is in preparing and editing the books that carry on the message of our founder, Yogananda.
DAVID: Yes, I’ve read two of the books that I think really are quite intriguing, his “Autobiography of a Yogi” and “The Yoga of Jesus,” which is a fairly new book — a sort of short overview of material that comes out of a much larger book he wrote, right?
CHIDANANDA: Right. “The Yoga of Jesus” is an example of our effort to take key introductory teachings and put them into smaller books that are more accessible. “The Yoga of Jesus” highlights the main principles that Yogananda wanted to bring out from the teachings of the gospels. In the larger “Second Coming of Christ,” which is 1,700 pages, he actually goes into all the four gospels verse by verse. There’s a lot more in the entire “Second Coming of Christ.”
DAVID: Would you call Yogananda a missionary from India to the U.S.?
CHIDANANDA: The words emissary or missionary are accurate, but India doesn’t have the best connotations with the word “missionary” because of Christian missionaries. The Christian missionaries did a lot of good things, but they also were trying to substitute the Christian religion for Hindu traditions. In a literal sense, though, he was a missionary of this ancient tradition of yoga meditation.
Or, you could say he was a revivalist, to borrow another Christian term. He taught that his lineage of gurus were bringing out again, after they had been lost for many years, the highest techniques of yoga meditation from India’s golden age. He wasn’t saying that he concocted something new. In fact, that would be doing a great disservice to the authenticity and venerability to this time-honored tradition he represents. He was an emissary of what we feel is the highest and best of the ancient traditions of India’s spiritual heritage.
DAVID: He also was among the religious teachers who talked about religious principles as a kind of science. We see this kind of phrasing today in Chinese spiritual movements, for example, where people don’t want to tangle with the Chinese government over religious claims -– so they’ll talk about the scientific principles in their practices. It shows up in the founding principles outlined by Yogananda himself.
You know these by heart, but let me read just three of them to give our readers a feel for his teachings. So, here are just three of the principles that he taught -– and that you still list among your founding principles:
To disseminate among the nations a knowledge of definite scientific techniques for attaining direct personal experience of God.
To reveal the complete harmony and basic oneness of original Christianity as taught by Jesus Christ and original Yoga as taught by Bhagavan Krishna; and to show that these principles of truth are the common scientific foundation of all true religions.
To unite science and religion through realization of the unity of their underlying principles.
CHIDANANDA: One way to think about what Yogananda taught is that religion in its essence, in its purest form, is a science. He said that with an open mind and a proper understanding, there is no conflict between science and religion, which is remarkable when you look at a lot of the dialogue that has gone on between science and religion over the past century. Yogananda taught that you don’t have to just believe these things because he said so. He said that the science of yoga or meditation is a set of proven, step-by-step protocols that are independent of belief or culture. If you follow these protocols step by step then the results are predictable. What he was describing were these ancient yoga practices working with your mind and life energy and consciousness and the body to create results.
DAVID: He was not alone in talking about linkages between science and religious principles. But his approach to these issues, in that era, was clearly a part of the strong friendship he formed with Burbank. At one point, Burbank described Yogananda’s message as “physical, mental and spiritual unfoldment by simple and scientific methods of concentration and meditation.” He called Yogananda’s approach “right education.”
CHIDANANDA: His friendship with Burbank is such a fascinating story. Burbank already was well known in the U.S. from his discoveries and the new forms of potatoes and tomatoes and other crops he was introducing. Yogananda came to the United States in 1920 to Boston and stayed for the first three years in the Boston area. Then, in late 1923, he began what was to become almost ceaseless cross-continental travel where he was giving lectures for a couple of months at a time in different places in the U.S.
In 1924, he must have heard of Burbank and it’s hard to put your finger on exactly how this friendship happened. But he paid a visit to Burbank and they instantly hit it off. They had long talks. Yogananda went back several times not only that year but in the next couple of years. Burbank was extremely taken with the Indian spiritual teachings Yogananda was bringing. He asked Yogananda to instruct him –- and from Yogananda’s side of the friendship, Yogananda deeply loved Burbank. He thought of Burbank as a highly spiritual person and he very much admired Burbank’s horticultural research.
DAVID: And, finally, let’s talk a little more about Yogananda’s lifelong interest in Jesus.
CHIDANANDA: Jesus is so important to understanding Yogananda’s work. One of the central assignments that he was given by his lineage of teachers was to come to the West and show that original teachings of Jesus, the original Christianity, was in essence completely unified and harmonious with the original teachings of yoga that have been preserved in India for thousands of years. Jesus is viewed in Yogananda’s writings and teachings as an enlightened, divine incarnation.
Yogananda talked about Jesus as being a perfected exemplar of what the teachings of yoga were all about, which means one thing –- union with God. Nowadays, people think of yoga as just physical exercises and postures. But, yoga –- the very word means union and it refers to the set of practices that bring about the union of each of us as an individual with the divine god or spirit -– and that’s exactly what Jesus was teaching.
DAVID: Its interesting that we’re seeing a lot of renewed interest in the mystical side of Christianity. We’ve had a number of Christian voices here in the pages of ReadTheSpirit, talking about this rebirth of mysticism in Christianity. Later this month, we’ll have Phyllis Tickle back with us, who has a new book out about the convergence of a number of Christian movements toward ancient mysticism.
CHIDANANDA: We would say that, over the 2,000 years that have come between Jesus’ lifetime and the present time, gradually the real essence of what he taught was lost sight of as Christianity became more institutionalized and more of a political and social force. Jesus’ mystical practices and his teachings of meditation were all but lost sight of in organized Christianity –- but not entirely. Because if you read about St. Francis or Teresa of Avila or Meister Eckhart, you’ll find things that literally are exactly what you’ll find in the yoga teachings of meditation in India just with slightly different metaphors and language.
What Yogananda really wanted to do was to restore the original teachings of Jesus and to show that Jesus brought a beautiful and complete and powerful embodiment of the universal principles of religion that are at the heart of every great world religion.
DAVID: Well, thank you for devoting so much time to our conversation today. We will run highlights of this. Thanks for giving us so much of your time.
CHIDANANDA: Thank you. I don’t think there’s anything more important in the world today than to address these issues we’re talking about today –- digging deeply into religious traditions to find the pathway to peace.
HERE ENDS our Conversation.
CARE TO READ MORE?
Visit our bookstore to read more about three of the books mentioned in today’s story — and others on similar themes.
How about a little Blake? Another popular article we’ve published on the mystical side of spirituality involves the poet William Blake.
Visit Yogananda’s movement today. The Self Realization Fellowship has a large and informative Web site. You’ll also find information here about regional centers, if you wish to pay a personal visit.
AND PLEASE, Tell Us What You Think.
There’s still time to sign up for the next cycle of our Monday morning ReadTheSpirit Planner by Email — it’s free and you can cancel it any time you’d like to do so.
Not only do we welcome your notes, ideas, suggestions and personal
reflections — but our readers enjoy them as well. You can do this
anytime by clicking on the “Comment” links at the end of each story.
You also can Email ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm. We’re also reachable on Facebook, Digg, Amazon, GoodReads and some of
the other social-networking sites as well, if you’re part of those