Founder: Paramahansa Yogananda (born Mukunda Lal Ghosh)
Date of Birth: January 5, 1893; died March 7, 1952
Birth Place: Gorakhpur, India
Year Founded: 1920
Sacred or Revered Texts: No one text is considered to be sacred. However, several popular religious texts are of great significance. The Fellowship fuses together Eastern and Western schools of religious teaching. Services include readings from both the New Testament, and the Bhagavad Gita to demonstrate the parallels between the two texts. Also, readings are given from Yogananda’s autobiography, which is a description of his life, and how he gained his wisdom as a Yogi.
Size of Group: The Self-Realization Fellowship has a significant membership. As of 1992, their headquarters were located in California and were joined by another 6 temples and ashram centers in the same state. One more was founded in Phoenix, Arizona, and another in Front Royal, Virginia. An additional 151 centers were established within the United States, along with 181 in other countries. Since that time, many more have opened totaling nearly 500 meditation centers worldwide. (Melton 1996, 857)
In 1920, Yogananda’s mission of spreading the teachings of yoga began. He traveled around the United States lecturing on his ideas and founded the Self-Realization Fellowship. His reasons were simple: to make the teachings of Kriya Yoga accessible and universal, that is to spread his teachings on yoga and meditation worldwide. Three years later, his ideas and teachings were published in a pamphlet titled Yogoda. This was followed by the founding of the international headquarters of the Self-Realization Fellowship in Los Angeles in 1920. Other centers soon followed. In 1938, the Dakshineswar Math was dedicated and became the headquarters in India of the Yogoda Satsanga Society, the equivalent of the Self-Realization Fellowship. It became responsible for the schools, centers and hermitages throughout India. (Yogananda 383)
About the Founder
The founder of the Self-Realization Fellowship, Swami Paramahansa Yogananda (Paramahansa meaning supreme swan, and Yoga meaning the path to bliss), is today of great importance. He was born Mukunda Lal Ghosh on January 5, 1893 in Gorakhpur, India. As a child, he would stare at a photograph of Lahiri Mahasaya, who was responsible for reviving the practice of Kriya Yoga in India. He would see this figure animate; it was an early sign of Mahasaya’s blessing. Before his mother’s death, Mahasaya told her of her son’s great gift. “Little mother, thy son will be a yogi. As a spiritual engine, he will carry many souls to God’s kingdom.” (Yogananda 19) This meeting proved that Yogananda had a gift and was destined to follow the path of a great disciple.
After high school, Yogananda decided to leave home and join the Banaras hermitage in order to attain a direct perception of God. While there, however, he became more and more disenchanted. One day, while running several errands in the market place, he saw a man dressed in the robes of a swami, standing at the end of a street. This man seemed familiar, and drew him in. Yogananda was unable to turn away, for the man had caught his attention. During his early morning meditation, a divine voice had announced “Thy Master cometh today!”(Yogananda 92) This was the master which had been foretold. And so became his first meeting with his guru (teacher) Sri Yukteswar Giri, a renowned master of yoga and the pupil of Lahiri Mahasaya. He spent the next ten years training Yogananda under strict discipline, expecting complete obedience and surrender. Sri Yukteswar had envisioned Yogananda traveling to the West to spread his teachings and by earning a college degree he would be more respected and the people more receptive. Following his advice, Yogananda enrolled in the Scottish Church College in Calcutta, but soon transferred to Serampore College. Being close allowed Yogananda to visit his master daily.
When he graduated in June 1914, his father wanted for him to accept a position with the Bengal-Nagpur Railway. Adamantly, he continued to deny his father’s wishes. At this point, Sri Yukteswar decided it was time for him to become a monk of the swami order. In the past, Yogananda’s requests to be initiated had been denied in order to test his strength and determination. However, Sri Yukteswar determined that the time had come. The following day, the ceremony began. Being that he detested elaborate traditions, the initiation was simple. Sri Yukteswar took a piece of white silk, dyed it in the traditional monastic color of ocher, allowed it to dry and then wrapped it around Yogananda. Rarely is silk used for the wrap since monks hold an ideal of poverty, but Sri Yukteswar planned for Yogananda to travel to the West, where silk was preferred at the time. Furthermore, silk is also credited with holding bodily currents better than the traditional cotton. Following his being clothed, Sri Yukteswar asked Yogananda to pick his name, forgoing all traditional rites, in exchange for simplistic rituals. He consequently received his title as Swami Yogananda to signify “bliss though divine union.” (Yogananda 229) As a monk, he accepted the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience to the spiritual authority.
Yogananda spent the next few years discovering what he terms “Yogoda” techniques. He bases his ideals on the comparison of man’s body and an electric battery. Using human willpower, the body can be recharged with energy and his strength renewed. Therefore, by using these Yogoda techniques, “one may consciously and instantly recharge his life force from the unlimited supply of cosmic energy.” (Yogananda 255)
Yogananda was greatly dedicated to the education of youths throughout his life. He believed that the traditional schools of thought were not sufficient for they concentrated solely on the mind and the intellect. This was not enough. He believed in order to achieve true happiness, one must also focus on moral and spiritual values. With this educational quest in mind, Yogananda began with seven children in Dihika, a rural area of Bengal. One year later, in 1918, Yogananda moved his growing group to Ranchi, a town of Bihar, and founded the Yogoda Satsanga Brahmacharya Vidyalaya. Here he taught the fundamentals of grammar and mathematics, but his curriculum also included Yogoda techniques to ensure that boys became complete men. His school soared with praise and applications flooded in. It grew from a small school to a notable institution, branching out to other towns including Midnapore and Lakshmanpur. (Yogananda 253-261)
In 1920, Yogananda began his travels around the United States in hopes of spreading his teachings. His first invitation for a speaking engagement was for the Boston Congress as an Indian delegate. While on the passenger boat from India, he was commissioned to speak by a fellow passenger. After giving this speech, he was warmly received, and invited to speak at several future engagements before numerous assemblies. Consequently, his popularity soared, as he made more and more speeches. He lectured on many occasions, filling all the seats of the auditoriums with an open minded crowd. This crowd soon united to found the Self-Realization Fellowship with strong beliefs in meditation and yoga practices which leads to the direct perception of God. The following became so strong, that an international headquarters was founded in Mt. Washington Estates in Los Angeles.
In 1935, Yogananda made his final visit to his native country. He revisited his guru, Sri Yukteswar, who recognized Yogananda’s religious state of nirbikalpa samadhi, “irrevocable God-union.” Thus he was given his official title of Paramahansa to signify his high status. With this, Yogananda was given the duties of the care of Sri Yukteswar’s estate. “My task on earth is now finished; you must carry on.” (Yogananda 401) A few days later, while Yogananda was away, Sri Yukteswar passed on.
Yogananda soon returned to the United States and began to write books. His most famous, Autobiography of a Yogi, was published in 1946. This book is of great importance to the followers of the Self-Realization Fellowship for it describes his life journey and his extraordinary experiences as a student and then as a teacher.
At death, Yogananda’s attainment of the final goal was exemplified. His practice of Kriya Yoga to free him from the cycle of karma resulted in everlasting remains. He had reached mahasamadhi, the exit of the conscious from the body at death. It is said that after his death on March 7, 1952, his body refused to decay. As he remained in his chamber for 20 days awaiting burial, his body showed no sign of decomposing nor did it emanate any odor. His corpse rested in the same condition as it was at his time of death.
About the Fellowship
For the members of the Self-Realization Fellowship, Paramahansa Yogananda’s life serves as the supreme illustration. The Fellowship is dedicated to carrying on his work as an educator and a spiritual guide. Their main belief is that fulfillment can be achieved from within. Most seek satisfaction from an outer world, however this provides no relief and the longing continues. By focusing on the internal, rather than the external, one can finally attain and relieve the desire. This is done through the practice of Kriya Yoga, to calm the turbulence within, to realize oneself, and therefore realize God and the love for God. The Fellowship’s ultimate goal is to help all in our diverse world to recognize the beauty within them, and the magnificence of their spirit.
In the final pages of Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi, he sets forth Aims and Ideals for the fellowship.
To disseminate among the nations a knowledge of definite scientific techniques for attaining direct personal experience of God.
To teach that the purpose of life is the evolution, through self-effort of man’s limited mortal consciousness into God Consciousness; and to this end to establish Self-Realization Fellowship temples for God-communion throughout the world, and to encourage the establishment of individual temples of God in the homes and in the hearts of men.
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 point out the one divine highway to which all paths of true religious beliefs eventually lead: the highway of daily, scientific, devotional meditation on God.
To liberate man from his threefold suffering: physical disease, mental disharmonies,
and spiritual ignorance.
To encourage “plain living and high thinking”; and to spread a spirit of brotherhood among all peoples by teaching the eternal basis of their unity: kinship with God.
To demonstrate the superiority of mind over body, of soul over mind.
To overcome evil by good, sorrow by joy, cruelty by kindness, ignorance by wisdom.
To unite science and religion through realization of the unity of their underlying principles.
To advocate cultural and spiritual understanding between East and West, and the exchange of their finest distinctive features.
To serve mankind as one’s larger Self. (Yogananda 499)
Paramahansa Yogananda’s work revolved around the use of Kriya Yoga as the method for attaining God. However, many other methods of Yoga exist and are practiced worldwide. Yoga is a 3000 year old tradition originally from India. It was developed as a method to heighten awareness and promote healing, for healing comes from the maintenance of life force, the energy (prana) that lies within all.
This prana, when flowing smoothly, is responsible for well being. The body’s organs are in a state of tranquility. However, when the prana is obstructed, an imbalance occurs, possibly causing illness. Yoga seeks to keep prana from becoming clogged and maintaining a free flow. The balance is kept in harmony and health is retained. (Colino 44)
Yogananda’s main teaching was the use of Kriya Yoga. Kriya Yoga, meaning “union (yoga) with the Infinite through a certain action or rite (Kriya)” (Yogananda 242), is a technique of relaxation, meditation and concentration which leads to a personal experience with God. When the inner peace arrives, one can then feel God’s overwhelming presence and reach greater clarity. Kriya Yoga is the method by which carbon is pulled from the blood and exchanged with fresh oxygen to rejuvenate the tissues and prevent decay. Furthermore, the extra oxygen is transformed into energy, “life current,” to reinvigorate the brain and the spinal centers. Thus, Kriya Yoga quiets the body and the mind to clear it from troubling daily thoughts to reach the final goal, bliss or self-realization. This is the freedom from karma, the laws of cause and effect. One who practices these methods will halt the decay and growth of the body by acquiring additional life force and eliminating current. The body and mind will then be trained and the soul will eventually be liberated and truly freed.
In the first stages of God realization, the follower’s consciousness is merged in the Cosmic Spirit, drawing out his life force. The body appears dead, in a lifeless state, yet he fully realizes the current status of his body. With further practice and devotion, the follower learns to commune with God through an ordinary worldly state, one without meditation. He can then communicate in his usual state, rather than an altered one. (Yogananda 245)
According to Yogananda’s autobiography, he describes Yoga as a method of calming inner disturbances. The system of Yoga which he employs is the Yoga system of Patanjali-The Eightfold Path.
Yama (moral conduct): fulfilled by noninjury to others, truthfulness, nonstealing, continence, and noncovetousness.
Niyama (religious observances): prescripts are purity of body and mind, contentment in all circumstances, self-discipline, self-study (contemplation), and devotion to God and guru.
Asana (right posture): the spinal column must be held straight, and the body firm in a comfortable position for meditation.
Pranayama (control of prana): the subtle life currents.
Pratyahara (withdrawal) of the senses from external objects.
Dharana (concentration): holding the mind to one thought.
Samdhi (superconscious experience).
This Eightfold Path of Yoga leads to the final goal of Kaivalya (Absoluteness), in which the yogi realizes the Truth beyond all intellectual apprehension. (Yogananda 231, 232)
The use of Kriya Yoga channels energy around the six spinal centers: medullary, cervical, dorsal, lumber, sacral, and coccygeal plexuses. Each thirty second period of energetic revolution is equivalent to one year of “natural spiritual unfoldment.” (Yogananda 245) These six spinal centers coincide with the twelve astrological signs of the zodiac, which in turn, represent the Cosmic Man. The human body is comparable to the solar system in that it contains six inner constellations, twelve by polarity, which revolve around the omniscient spiritual eye as the twelve signs of the zodiac orbit around the sun. The scriptures of India declare that in order for man to become perfect, that is to attain cosmic consciousness, he must undergo a million years of disease-free evolution. Thus practicing one thousand Kriya in eight and a half hours in a day equates to one thousand years of natural evolution. Repeating this for three years would result in the perfect man for it is comparable to one million natural years. (Yogananda 246)
As a beginner, one is taught to practice fourteen to twenty-four yogic exercises, twice daily. God realization occurs in six, twelve, twenty-four, or forty-eight years. These exercises bring about feelings of tranquility as the energy flows calmly around the spine. Meditation attains a similar effect as does sleep. When man sleeps, his body rejuvenates and his brain reenergizes. Kriya Yoga accomplishes the same result, only man is awake, and consciously controlling his energies to feed and rebuild his cells. (Yogananda 246-247)
A true devotee of the practice of Kriya Yoga withholds all his thoughts and will, allowing him to unite with the forces in the spinal shrines. This is the final goal: to live as God had planned, to reach self-realization, and therefore God realization. (Yogananda 250, 251)
Other techniques of meditation were also taught by Yogananda. In 1916, he developed Energization Exercises. Through relaxation, these exercises sought to strengthen the mind and body for meditation, resulting in the building of will power. This empowers one to draw in energy, purify it, and thus guide the energy inward to reach higher states of consciousness. The Hong-Sau technique sought to improve concentration by teaching the method to ignore all outside distractions and direct focus towards God-realization. The final method is the Aum technique. This process seeks to sharpen the awareness of things beyond the body to recognize the existence of a Divine force. ( Fellowship Homepage)
The followers of the Self-Realization Fellowship are taught the yoga methods and are asked to practice daily; however, they are not coerced to change their ideals or ways of thought. The Fellowship’s members if Christian remain Christian, if Jewish, remain Jewish, for they are not educated in new religious teachings. Rather the Fellowship expects their followers to keep their old system of beliefs. All they ask is the daily practice of Kriya Yoga. They pride themselves upon religious unity and invite those of all faiths to join. Therefore the Fellowship is rather attractive to many.
In addition, Babaji, the teacher of Lahiri Mahasaya and the founder of the practice of Kriya Yoga, is seen as a parallel of Christ. “The work of these two fully illumined masters… is to inspire the nations to forsake wars, race hatreds, religious sectarianism, and the boomerang evils of materialism.” (Yogananda 307) They believed in the same ideals and aims for the world.
Furthermore, Paramahansa Yogananda’s other teachings show the similarities between the Bible and his yoga methods, drawn from Babaji, and the Bhagavad Gita. Many can easily relate with his ideals. The Fellowship states that the key to Self-realization lies within the words of the bible. “Be still, and know that I am God.” This statement explains their principles. By using Kriya Yoga, one can attain tranquility, and therefore, attain God. This is the basic fundamental of the Fellowship. Also, the book of Genesis contains the passage, “The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” For the Fellowship, life and death are interwoven with breath. “Breathlessness is Deathlessness.”(Yogananda 491) In its normal state, the body is of breath, in sleep, the body is temporarily separated from breath, and in a higher state, breath escapes and is permanently freed. God is freed from breath and therefore to be with God, and to realize God, is to achieve this breathlessness. Only through the practice of Yoga can this be accomplished. (Yogananda 492)
Succeeding Yogananda’s death was Swami Rajansi Janakananda (James J. Lynn). He died in 1955 and was succeeded by Sri Daya Mata . Mata first encountered Yogananda when he was speaking in Salt Lake City. From that moment on, she has dedicated herself to the Fellowship as their leader and guide. Today, she continues to teach Yogananda’s ideas and techniques around the country.
Annually, the headquarters of the fellowship in Los Angeles holds an international convocation attracting nearly 6,000 participants from around the world. Program activities include classes, meditations, and presentations of Yogananda’s teachings.
Colino, Stacey. 1996. Harness the Energy. Women’s Sports and Fitness. 18:8 (Nov-Dec)(p 44-5).
Melton, J. Gordon. 1986. Biographical Dictionary of American Cult and Sect Leaders. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc. (p 313-14)
Melton, J. Gordon. 1996. Encyclopedia of American Religions. Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research Co. Fifth Edition. (p 871)
Miller, Elliot 1999. “Swami Yogananda and the Self-Realization Fellowship: A Successful Hindu Countermission to the West”, Christian Research Journal. 22/2: 33-41.
Yogananda, Paramhansa. 1972. Autobiography of a Yogi. Los Angeles: Self-Realization Fellowship. First published 1946. “Online Edition
Yogananda, Paramahansa. 1986. The Divine Romance. Los Angeles: Self-Realization Fellowship.
Yogananda, Paramahansa. 1975. Man’s Eternal Quest. Los Angeles: Self-Realization Fellowship.
Yogananda, Paramahansa. 1958. Whispers from Eternity. Los Angeles: Self-Realization Fellowship.
Created by Parichart Thepvongs
For Soc 257: New Religious Movements
Spring Term, 1998
University of Virginia
Last modified: 12/04/01