It is a tribute to all that he did and achieved, so painstakingly and with such great devotion, that New Delhi has for a third time honoured an Indian who did perhaps more than anyone else to lay the foundation for yoga in the West. The tragedy is that despite his stellar contribution to the spread of yoga in the United States and beyond, Paramhansa Yogananda remains a much lesser-known persona.
Yoga may have become universally popular and even fashionable today but none outside of India had any inkling as to what it was all about when a young Yogananda sailed to the United States in 1920 at the urging of his guru. Barring a single visit he made to India in between, Yogananda lived there until his death in 1952, preaching kriya yoga, meditation, karma, reincarnation, mantras and chakras to tens of thousands of Americans, black and white. What he achieved as India’s first spiritual NRI was as spectacular as the way he died.
The Gorakhpur-born Yogananda, originally Mukunda Lal Ghosh, was India’s maiden yoga guru in the West. Yet, whatever popularity he has is mainly because of his iconic and mesmerising book, Autobiography of a Yogi, and not due to the way he slogged in the United States.
The Indian government first released a postage stamp to honour him in 1977. This was followed by another stamp in 2017, marking 100 years of the ashram he set up in Ranchi. And in October 2019, the government announced it would release a commemorative coin of Rs 125 denomination to mark his 125th birth anniversary. “Here was a yogi who took the (yoga) message which was universal – not based on one school of thought or religion and made it so acceptable for the whole world,” declared Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. “India feels strongly about this great son of the universe who brought in harmony to all our hearts and minds.”
Yogananda was born to a saintly couple, Bhagabati Charan Ghosh and Gyana Prabha Ghosh, on January 5, 1893, the year Vivekananda stole the thunder at the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago. He was the fourth of eight children. School and college education didn’t attract him much; he was desperate to embrace spirituality and escape to the Himalayas. While still young, he met his guru, Swami Yukteshwar, who moulded the spiritual prodigy into becoming a spiritual giant. Yukteshwar, who had an ashram at Serampore near Kolkata and also in Puri, was convinced early on that the young man was destined to take India’s wisdom to the West. That did happen.
Philip Goldberg, who chronicles the impact of India’s spiritual teachings on the West, says in his seminal biography on Yogananda that he was an exceptional human being who recognised his innate powers and his life’s purpose at an early phase.
Going to the Unites States was one thing, staying put and spreading the virtues of yoga required immense dedication. His skin colour, long hair and turban invited ridicule and even abuse on the streets. According to Goldberg, “he endured sneers, glares, stone throwing and name-calling (snake charmer was one)” but he maintained his dignity.
Like Adi Shankara in a bygone era, Yogananda toured the length and breadth of the United States, wooing spiritually hungry audiences whose size kept growing, surprising newspapers and causing envy among those who did not approve of the way Yogananda merged Jesus in Hindu teachings.
Yogananda toured State after State and city after city on the American map: New York, New Jersey, Colorado, Seattle, Oregon, San Diego, San Francisco, Portland, Oakland, Berkeley, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Cleveland, Ohio… Halls and auditoriums where he gave lectures were packed with thousands, at times with many forced to stand because there was no place to sit. The hallmarks of his teachings were scientific rationality as well as respect for the Judeo-Christian tradition. Within years, the Los Angeles Times dubbed him “the 20th century’s first superstar guru”.
Yogananda’s single aim was to spread spirituality, at times making his yoga teachings simpler for Westerners to understand. The fact that he had “yoga” in his name helped eventually – to popularise yoga! According to Goldberg, “he stalked God like Sherlock Holmes stalked criminals”. The American media variously dubbed him a “Hindu savant”, “seer”, “educator” and “psychologist”. Organising a multi-city lecture tour is a challenging task even today. Goldberg rightly asks: “Imagine what it must have entailed in an era of coin-operated phone booths, long-distance operators, telegrams and letter writing.”
Yogananda was sincerely approving of the United States. “The longer I stay in America and study her closely, the more I appreciate her true principles and love her people as my own people that are in India,” he once said, describing America as the most spiritual country after India. Of course, he had his share of critics both in the United States and India. But once the Autobiography of a Yogi came out in 1946, Yogananda became a household name in spiritual circles across the world. The book – which makes a fascinating read, unlike many spiritual works – continues to sell in huge numbers in over 20 languages and has helped thousands to embrace spirituality. It came to be known as one of the 10 best spiritual books of the 20th century.
On March 7, 1952, at a banquet at the Biltmore Hotel, Los Angeles, held in honour of the Indian Ambassador to the United States, Yogananda gave a speech, his final act, eulogising spirituality and India and ending with the words: “I am proud that I was born in India… where Ganges, woods, Himalayan caves, and men dream God.”
With those words, Yogananda slid to the floor with a beatific smile on his face. The yoga guru had attained ‘samadhi’.