SELF-REALIZATION FELLOWSHIP TIMELINE
1828: Lahiri Mahasaya was born in Ghurni, India.
1861: Lahiri Mahasaya received initiation into Kriya Yoga from Mahavatar Babaji.
1865: Swami Sri Yukteswav was born in Serampore, India.
1883: Sri Yukteswar received initiation into Kriya Yoga from Lahiri Mahasaya.
1893 (January 5): Mukunda Lal Ghosh (hereafter, Yogananda) was born in Gorakhpur, India.
1906: Yogananda was initiated into the first kriya by his father, Bhagavati Charan Ghosh.
1909: Yogananda met his guru, Sri Yukteswar.
1915: Yogananda graduated from the College of Calcutta and entered the monastic order.
1916: Yogananda founded the Yogoda Satsanga Brahmacharya Vidyalaya and relocated it to Ranchi.
1920: Yogananda arrived in Boston to speak at the International Conference of Religious Liberals.
1923-1924: Yogananda gradually expanded his lecture circuit and began to attract large audiences.
1924: Yogananda embarked on a cross-country lecture tour.
1925: Yogananda established the headquarters of the Yogoda Satsaga at Mt. Washington in Los Angeles.
1928: Yogananda met with legal trouble in Miami, FL.
1929: Dhirananda left the organization.
1935: Dhirananda sued Yogananda over an unpaid promissory note.
1935: Yogananda incorporated the Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) and left for India.
1936: Sri Yukteswar died and Yogananda returned to the United States to remain indefinitely.
1936: Rajarshi Janakananda presented the Encinitas hermitage as a gift to Yogananda.
1938: The Golden Lotus Temple at Encinitas was completed.
1939: Sri Nerode left the organization and sued for damages.
1942: The SRF Hollywood Temple was opened.
1942: The Golden Lotus Temple crumbled down the cliff at Swami’s Point.
1946: Autobiography of a Yogi was published.
1950: The Lake Shrine at Pacific Palisades was dedicated.
1951: The third edition of the Autobiography with a new chapter was published by the SRF.
1952 (March 7): Yogananda died while giving an address at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles. Rajarshi Janakananda became head of the SRF.
1955: Rajarshi Janakananda died and Dayamata became head of the SRF.\
1990-2012: Ongoing litigation between SRF and Ananda occurred over copyright.
2010: Daya Mata died and Mrinalini Mata became head of the SRF.
2017: Mrinalini Mata died and Brother (Swami) Chidananda became head of SRF.
The Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) was founded by Paramahansa Yogananda in 1935. Yogananda was born Mukunda Lal Ghosh [Image on right] on January 5, 1893, in Gorakhpur in the state of Uttar Pradesh, India. Yogananda’s mother died when he was roughly eleven years old, which reportedly intensified his spiritual fervor. His father, Bhagavati Charan Ghosh, a direct disciple of Lahiri Mahasaya, initiated him into the first kriya of the Kriya Yoga practice in 1906.
Yogananda’s spiritual exploration ranged broadly through his teenage years. He was influenced by earlier spiritual teachers such as Swami Vivekananda and Swami Rama Tirtha (especially in his desire to spread the message of yoga to the West) and had some loose affiliations with the Neo-Hindu movement of turn-of-the-century Calcutta, primarily through the Brahmo Samaj. Yogananda briefly attended Sabour Agricultural College, the Scottish Church College of Calcutta, and finally transferred to the Serampore branch of the College of Calcutta to be closer to his guru’s ashram. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1915 and entered the monastic order immediately thereafter.
Yogananda met his guru, Swami Sri Yukteswar while staying at the Bharat Dharma Mahamandal ashram in Benares in 1909. Having recognized his true guru, Yogananda received initiation into the higher stages of Kriya Yoga from Sri Yukteswar that same year. Yogananda traveled to Japan in 1916, likely hoping to use it as a springboard for his Westward ambitions. Though trip proved unsuccessful and he returned within a month, it served as the impetus for his first book, The Science of Religion. Having arrived back in Calcutta, Yogananda founded the Yogoda Satsanga Brahmacharya Vidyalaya, which persists as the Indian sister-organization of the SRF. The establishment was soon moved to Dihika when patronage was obtained from Maharaja Chandra Nandy of the Kasimbazar Estate and finally to Ranchi. It was there that Yogananda first systematized the material that would form the basic framework of his teachings in the United States (Foxen 2017b).
Yogananda arrived in Boston in October of 1920 in order to deliver a lecture at the International Conference of Religious Liberals. He remained in the area for approximately two years, giving lectures and gathering a small circle of disciples, eventually establishing a small center overlooking Mystic Lake. Yogananda began to expand his lecture campaign in late 1923 and early 1924, traveling to give multiple lectures in New York. His lectures were, by now, attracting sizeable audiences [Image at right] and he had summoned an old friend and associate from Calcutta, Swami Dhirananda, to join him. In 1924, Yogananda set out on a cross-continental lecture tour. Having travelled across the country, he sailed to Alaska before returning to lecture in Seattle and Portland, and proceeding down the California coast to Los Angeles.
Yogananda quickly grew fond of Los Angeles and established the headquarters of his Yogoda Satsanga at the Mt. Washington estate, which was officially inaugurated on October 25, 1925. East-West magazine, later renamed the Self-Realization Fellowship Magazine was launched this same year. After a brief sojourn at the newly established center, Yogananda departed on another promotional lecture tour. Dhirananda, who had by this time comfortably established himself in the intellectual circles of Boston, was called upon to take up management of the establishment.
Dhirananda broke ties with Yogananda under ambiguous circumstances in 1929. After teaching under his own name for three years, he abandoned his monastic title in 1932 and entered the University of Iowa to pursue a doctorate in electroencephalography. However, Dhirananda, now Basu Kumar Bagchi, resurfaced in 1935 to file a lawsuit against Yogananda regarding a promissory note that Yogananda had signed as a form of remuneration and severance in 1929. The lawsuit brought to the surface a number of allegations regarding improper conduct on Yogananda’s part and, no doubt in part to escape the strain of the proceedings, Yogananda spent the duration of the lawsuit in India and later in Mexico. Directly prior to leaving the country in 1935, Yogananda incorporated the Self-Realization Fellowship as a nonprofit organization and reassigned all of his property, including Mt. Washington, to the corporation, thereby protecting his assets (Foxen 2017b).
Yogananda’s return to India was characterized by tension with his guru over institutional matters. However, it was during this trip that Sri Yukteswar bestowed upon him the title of Paramahansa. Sri Yukteswar died on March 9, 1936 and Yogananda left India shortly thereafter, never to return. By this time the American branch of Yogannda’s organization was prospering.
By 1937, the SRF owned seventeen acres of land and was gearing up to begin a $400,000 building and improvement project, which included the building of a grand Golden Lotus Temple near Encinitas. [Image at right] The Encinitas Hermitage was gifted to Yogananda by his disciple and successor, Rajarshi Janakananda, upon his return from India. The temple was erected on a hilltop overlooking the ocean, easily seen by motorists traveling on the Pacific Coast Highway. Unfortunately, the temple’s picturesque location resulted in a majority of the construction sliding into the ocean in 1942. Other major projects included the Hollywood temple, which opened its doors in 1942, just as the Golden Lotus Temple was meeting its demise, and the Lake Shrine at the Pacific Palisades, which was dedicated in 1950. By this time, there were over twenty branches of the SRF across the United States.
The final decade of Yogananda’s life took on a slower pace. The Autobiography was released in 1946, marking the only significantly publicized event of time period. Yogananda died on March 7, 1952 of an apparent heart attack while speaking at a dinner honoring Indian Ambassador Binay R. Sen at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles. The condition of Yogananda’s body has long served as a final testament to his superhuman status, especially among devotees. Excerpts from Yogananda’s official mortuary report, issued by Forest Lawn Memorial Park, are included at the end of all SRF editions of Yogananda’s Autobiography, attesting that “[t]he absence of any visual signs of decay in the dead body of Paramhansa Yogananda offers the most extraordinary case in our experience.” Skeptics point out that Yogananda’s body was embalmed twenty hours after death and that, as such, it is not unusual that decay would be slow to set in (Angel 1994).
After Yogananda’s death, leadership passed to his disciple Rajarshi Janakananda (born James J. Lynn) until his death soon thereafter in 1955. The organization’s presidency then passed to Sri Daya Mata. Daya Mata was born Rachel Faye Wright in 1914 in Salt Lake City, Utah. [Image at right] She met Yogananda there when he delivered a series of lectures in 1931 and became his disciple at the age of seventeen. Daya Mata held the position for over half a century, until her passing in 2010. Her role was then taken up by Sri Mrinalini Mata (born Merna Brown in Wichita, Kansas in 1931), who entered the SRF monastic community in 1946, at the age of fifteen and had served as Vice President of the society since 1966.
Yogananda’s own belief system appears to have been a blend of Advaita Vedanta metaphysics, focusing on an impersonal conception of the divine, a bhakti-style emphasis on devotion to a personal deity, and hatha yogic ritual practice. His metaphysics modify standard Vedantic models, subdividing reality into the gross material universe, the subtle astral universe, and the causal universe composed of the most subtle, differentiated particles of God-thought. In doing so, he replicates earlier Theosophical systems that blended Vedanta with neo-Platonic Western esotericism. The metaphysical schema that Yogananda most fully lays out in his Autobiography continually affirms that everything in the physical, astral, and even causal worlds is ultimately composed of light. On the astral level, this light congeals into the somewhat grosser particles of “lifetrons,” or prana (Yogananda 1951).
According to Yogananda’s system, spiritually advanced humans, having shed their material bodies, inhabit the astral universe along with various lower deities and elementals. Such individuals may manifest their bodies as light-based images. Meanwhile, fully self-realized beings (such as Mahavatar Babaji) who have ascended beyond even the ideal realm, may also manifest their forms in a manner akin to the traditional Indian concept of avatara. According to Yogananda, Babaji, who chooses to remain embodied despite having achieved complete liberation, demonstrates the possibility of true bodily immortality (Yogananda 1951).
Yogananda’s system thus blends Hinduism with Christianity, maintaining that Jesus was also such a realized master and placing him along-side Hinduism’s Krishna. The SRF continues to display these two figures alongside Yogananda’s lineage of Kriya Yoga masters. From a devotional standpoint, Yogananda frequently vacillates between the Heavenly Mother Kali, the object of his devotion since childhood, and references to the Heavenly Father, whom he presumably means to associate with the Biblical God (Yogananda 1951).
Yogananda, emphasizing the role of the worldly householder disciple or Kriya Yoga (represented by Lahiri Mahasaya, who never took monastic vows) strove to make his system accessible to ordinary Westerners. In addition to the modifications to the ritual practice itself, as outlined below, Yogananda represented his Yogoda method as addressing everyday concerns, including not only self-realization but also mental wellness, physical health, and social harmony and success (Yogananda and Dhirananda 1928).
The position of the SRF, following Yogananda, is that Kriya Yoga constitutes an eternal scientific method to accelerate and achieve the spiritual evolutionary destiny of all human beings to ascent to the highest levels of consciousness. The SRF further lists their “Aims and Ideals” as follows:
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 inharmonies, 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.
The core practice of the SRF is grounded in the Kriya Yoga method of Yogananda’s lineage. Yogananda maintained that Kriya Yoga is an ancient method of yogis practice that is cited in such canonical texts as the Bhagavad Gita and Yoga Sutras. The practice is said to have been lost, but was re-revealed in 1861 to Lahiri Mahasaya by the immortal Mahavatar Babaji (Yogananda 1951).
Though kriyas (here best translated as “exercises”) may incorporate yogic asanas (postures), they are generally composed of several different elements, and may therefore be quite complex. The number of individual kriyas enumerated in various branches of Yogananda’s lineage ranges anywhere from 108 to seven to four. Yogananda simplified the system when presenting it to his disciples in the United States, subdividing it into four kriyas and eliminating or modifying much of the Sanskrit terminology associated with the various steps (Foxen 2017a).
Overall, Kriya Yoga comprises a fairly standard form of tantric hatha yoga, incorporating pranayama (breathing exercises), mantra recitation, a number of mudras (seals), and visualization. Through the course of the practice, the kundalini energy is consecutively raised and lowered along the column of the spine, breaking through the knots (granthis) and ultimately releasing the energy to achieve oneness with the absolute. Yogananda eliminated some practices, for instance the requirement to successfully perform khecari mudra (reversing the tongue to reach into the nasal cavity) before being permitted to move beyond the first kriya, and modified others, such as placing the practitioner in a chair rather than the traditional padmasana (lotus posture).
In addition to the excisions and modifications, Yogananda also made some additions to his version of the Kriya Yoga practice. Most notable are the thirty-seven Energization Exercises that form the backbone of his Yogoda method, as well as the Hong-Saw and Om meditation techniques. The latter two are actually not so much Yogananda’s own additions as they are simplified transpositions of techniques appearing elsewhere in the practice. Hong-Sau is an anglicization of the “ham-sa” mantra reportedly taught by Sri Yukteswar. Both techniques are geared towards introducing the practitioner to basic concentration and breath control.
Postural practice appears to have been included in Yogananda’s lineage as an ancillary practice to prepare the body for the energetic rigors of full Kriya practice. [Image at right] Yogananda made significant innovations with regards to how asana practice might be interpreted in light of both the physical culture revolution of the early twentieth century as well as traditional hatha yogic metaphysics. His Yogoda method, originally implemented at the Ranchi school, utilized asanas as a means to channel energy throughout the body via willful tension and relaxation of the muscles. When translating the method for his American audience, Yogananda substituted asanas with the more familiar format of European calisthenics, while retaining the energetic properties of the practice. These became the Energization Exercises. Though Yogananda was himself both versed in and a proponent of physical culture, the SRF largely does not carry on this aspect of the practice he developed. The postural lineage associated with Yogananda’s Kriya Yoga tradition was carried on by his younger brother, Bishnu Ghosh and has been propagated world-wide by his student, Bikram Choudhury, under the brand of Bikram Yoga (Foxen 2017b).
The current SRF method of initiation requires the practitioner to receive Yogananda’s mail order course, which includes the Energization Exercises as well as other lessons covering everything from philosophy to dietary guidelines. Having completed the mail order course, the practitioner may receive initiation into Kriya Yoga.
Yogananda officially incorporated the SRF in 1935. He remained its official head and spiritual leader throughout his lifetime. During his tenure in America, Yogananda had a number of associates, some of whom had already independently made a name for themselves, as with a Polish performer-cum-mystic named Roman Ostoja, or would otherwise their own spiritual organizations, as with Egyptian mystic Hamid Bey who would found the Coptic Fellowship in 1937. Such figures were often made officers in the SRF, lecturing alongside Yogananda and managing branches of the organization (Foxen 2017b).
The SRF currently has over 500 various institutional establishments around the world, including temples, retreats, ashrams, centers, and meditation circles. The Yogoda Satsanga Society, first founded by Yogananda in 1917, remains the SRF’s sister organization though relations have between the two have been historically somewhat fraught.
During his time in India in 1935, Yogananda had expressed interest in founding an international organization under the name “Yogoda Satsanga.” This caused some tension with Sri Yukteswar, who had been using the name “Yogad Satsanga” to advertise an aspect of his own establishment, as well as others within the lineage who were skeptical of institutionalization. An agreement was ultimately reached and Sri Yukteswar’s Yogad Sat Sanga Sova became the Yogoda Satsanga Society of India in 1936, which persists as the Indian branch of the SRF to this day. This latter point evidently created some bad blood between the Indian members of the Kriya lineage and the Western SRF management, and accounts of the institution’s history abound with detailed cataloguing of changes in leadership and legal wrangles (Satyeswarananda 1983, 1991, 1994).
After Yogananda’s death, leadership of SRF passed to a series of disciples, including (in order) Rajarshi Janakananda (1952-1955), Daya Mata (1955-2010), Mrinalini Mata (2010-2017), and Brother (Swami) Chidananda (2017-present). The organization is also overseen by a Board of Directors. Though these subsequent leaders have been recognized as self-realized in their own right, they are not considered gurus by disciples of the SRF. Yogananda’s written teachings are held as having taken his place (Williamson 2010).
Yogananda faced a number of challenges during his time in the United States due to the rising fear of Asian immigrants, and especially foreign religious teachers, during the first half of the twentieth century. He faced accusations over having obtained the money to finance his organizations through nefarious means and, most famously, had his lectures in Miami, Florida cancelled due to fears of rioting and was then accused of attempting to hypnotize the sheriff. Panic over “love cults” swirled around the Mt. Washington center, fueled by sensationalist media.
While much of this suspicion was likely ungrounded and fueled by racism and xenophobia, Yogananda was also implicated in at least two legal wrangles with close associated within his own fold. The first was a lawsuit filed in 1935 by his former associate, Dhirananda. The suit dealt with a promissory note that Dhirananda had “coerced” Yogananda to sign as a form of remuneration and severance when Dhirananda unexpectedly appeared at Yogananda’s New York apartment in 1929 before returning to Los Angeles and officially leaving the organization. Though publicly the suit was grounded in Dhirananda’s apparent dissatisfaction over having been treated as a subordinate by Yogananda, rather than a full partner, speculation continues to guess at possible improprieties committed by Yogananda.
Such rumors would resurface when Nirad Ranjan Chowdhury, Yogananda’s new associate, left in a strikingly similar manner ten years later. Chowdhury was brought in to take over Dhirananda’s role in directing the center only months after the latter’s departure. Under the name Sri Nerode, he taught at and maintained the Mt. Washington center and also toured the lecture-circuit with Yogananda for the next decade. In October of 1939 the press exploded with stories of a half-million dollar lawsuit filed by Chowdhury against Yogananda. Newspapers alleged that Chowdhury accused Yogananda of hypocritically living in luxury as well as cavorting with young female disciples. The accusations have never been formally substantiated (Foxen 2017b).
As mentioned above, Yogananda and subsequently the SRF have been met with some tension on behalf of the Indian branches of the Kriya Yoga lineage. Yogananda fervor for institutionalization was not shared by many of his fellow monastics, who questioned whether the establishment of organizations had ever been the intent of Lahiri Mahasaya (Satyeswarananda 1983).
Finally, the SRF has been critiqued for its handling of Yogananda’s legacy. Not all of Yogananda’s disciples joined or chose to remain in the SRF’s monastic order. As a result, Yogananda’s teachings are carried on through a number of channels beyond the formal structure of the SRF itself. Often, such organizations function as intentional communities which see themselves as carrying out Yogananda’s vision of World Brotherhood Colonies, as described in the original editions of his Autobiography. Examples include Roy Eugene Davis’s Center for Spiritual Awareness, J. Oliver Black Song of the Morning and ClearLight communities, Michael and Ann Gornik’s Polestar, and Norman Paulsen’s Sunburst (Miller forthcoming 2019).
The most major or these splinter groups is the Ananda Church of Self Realization, now operating as Ananda Sangha Worldwide, founded by Swami Kriyananda. Kriyananda, born James Donald Walters in 1926, joined the SRF in 1948 and was a direct disciple of Yogananda. He was elected as Vice President of the SRF’s Board of Directors and served in that position until the Board voted to request his resignation in 1962. Kriyananda established Ananda Village near Nevada City, California in 1968.
The SRF and Ananda engaged in a lengthy legal battle over copyright between 1990 and 2002. While the SRF was able to establish ownership of several of Yogananda’s writings as well as other items such as voice recordings, other items were determined to have passed into the public domain over the course of the litigation (“Can Eternal Truth Be Private Property?” 2017).
During the course of this litigation, Ananda began publishing the original 1946 edition of the Yogananda’s Autobiography, which was determined to be in the public domain. As part of a wider critique of the SRF’s control over Yogananda’s teachings, Ananda alleged that the SRF has edited the text far beyond the extent authorized by Yogananda during his lifetime. The organization represents itself as the liberal alternative to the SRF’s more closed institutionalization of Yogananda’s legacy.
Image #1: Photograph of Yogananda meditating, ca. 1924-1928.
Image #2: Photograph of Yogananda lecturing in New York City, 1925.
Image #3: Photograph of the Hollywood Temple, 1942.
Image #4: Photograph of Yogananda with Daya Mata in Los Angeles, 1939.
Image #5: Photograph of Yogananda teaching asana to male disciples at the Encinitas Hermitage, ca. 1940.
Image #6: The original cover of Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi, 1946.
Angel, Leonard. 1994. Enlightenment East and West. Albany: State University of New York Press.
“Can Eternal Truth Be Private Property?” 2017. Yogananda for the World. Accessed from http://www.yoganandafortheworld.com/part-ii-can-eternal-truth-be-private-property on 26 June 2017.
Foxen, Anya P. 2017a. “Yogi Calisthenics: What the ‘non-Yoga’ Yogic Practice of Paramahansa Yogananda Can Tell Us About Religion.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 85:494-526.
Foxen, Anya P. 2017b. Biography of a Yogi: Paramahansa Yogananda and the Origins of Modern Yoga. New York: Oxford University Press.
McCord, Gyandev. 2010. “Yogananda’s Views on Hatha Yoga.” The Expanding Light, September 10. Accessed from http://www.expandinglight.org/free/yoga-teacher/articles/gyandev/Yoganandas-Views-on-Hatha-Yoga.php on 26 June 2017.
Miller, Christopher. Forthcoming 2019. “Paramhansa Yogananda’s World Brotherhood Colonies: Models for Environmentally Sustainable and Socially Responsible Living.” In Beacons of Dharmaj, edited by Jeffery Long, Michael Reading, and Christopher Miller. Lanham, MA: Lexington Books.
Satyeswarananda Giri, Swami. 1983. Lahiri Mahasay: The Father of Kriya Yoga. San Diego: Swami Satyeswarananda Giri.
Satyeswarananda Giri, Swami. 1994. Sriyukteswar: A Biography. San Diego: Sanskrit Classics.
Satyeswarananda Giri, Swami. 1991. Kriya: Finding the True Path. San Diego: Sanskrit Classics.
Williamson, Lola. 2010. Transcendent in America: Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements as New Religion. New York: New York University Press.
Yogananda, Paramhansa. 1951. Autobiography of a Yogi. New York: Philosophical Library.
Yogananda, Swami. 1925. Yogoda or Tissue-Will System of Physical Perfection. Fifth Edition. Boston: Sat-Sanga.
Yogananda, Swami, and Swami Dhirananda. 1928. Yogoda or Tissue-Will System of Physical Perfection. 9th ed. Los Angeles: Yogoda Sat-Sanga Society.
4 August 2017