Yoga may be the in thing today not just in India but around the world. But way back in 1920, when a young Paramahansa Yogananda landed in the United States to propagate Kriya Yoga and more, many Americans jeered and laughed at him. Within India, too, yoga was considered fit for the yogis, not the common man.
While it is true that Swami Vivekananda, one of the most important religious and spiritual stars of India, took the Hindu religion to the US in 1893 and spent many years both in the US and England, Yogananda can be safely described as India’s first yoga ambassador to the West.
And unlike Vivekananda who subsequently returned to India and travelled all around the country preaching the values of Hinduism and karma yoga, Yogananda spent all his adult life in the US, from 1920, at the age of 27, when he landed there until 1952 when he suffered a most unusual death. The sole exception was a visit to India he made in 1932 when he taught Kriya Yoga to Mahatma Gandhi.
This is one of the reasons, unfortunately though, that Yogananda is relatively lesser known to the man on the street in India than Vivekananda. School textbooks refer to Vivekananda, and not Yogananda.
June 21, International Yoga Day, is a perfect occasion to pay our tribute to a man who faced and overcame the greatest of odds as he went about preaching to tens of thousands in the US – both blacks and whites — Kriya Yoga, meditation, chakras and love for God. It was a time when the word ‘yoga’ could not be understood, at least outside India.
Four years before he passed away, Yogananda, born as Mukunda Lal Ghosh to a spiritually inclined couple in Gorakhpur, wrote his iconic Autobiography of a Yogi, which soon attained the status as one of the best spiritual books of the 20th century. It has sold millions of copies in several languages and catapulted innumerable men and women around the world to the world of spirituality.
Journey to US
Incidentally, Yogananda was born in 1893, the very year Vivekananda stole the thunder at the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago. The fourth of eight children, he was an academically poor student in school and college. By then, he had met his guru, Swami Yukteshwar Giri, who carefully moulded the spiritual prodigy into a spiritual giant. It was he who sent Yogananda to the US to preach India’s ancient spiritual wisdom.
Going to the US was relatively easy. However, spreading the virtues of yoga required immense devotion and hard work. Yogananda’s skin colour, long hair and turban invited ridicule and even abuse on the streets. Christian missionaries were particularly opposed to him. Yet, in his autobiography, Yogananda makes no mention of how he had to toil to make yoga popular in the US.
American author Philip Goldberg says that Yogananda was an exceptional human being who recognised his innate powers and his life’s purpose at an early phase. This is probably why “he endured sneers, glares, stone throwing and name-calling (snake charmer was one)” but stoically maintained his dignity. He may have read comic strips Blondie and Bringing Up Father when stressed, but in essence he was a serious man with a singular mission, a determined, disciplined and demanding dynamo, who at times slept only three or four hours a night.
Yogananda’s sole aim was to spread spirituality. He made his yoga teachings easier for Westerners to grasp. It helped that he had “yoga” in his name! According to Goldberg, “he stalked God like Sherlock Holmes stalked criminals”. The American media called him a “Hindu savant”, “seer” and “psychologist”. Organising a multi-city lecture tour is not easy 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.”
Wooing Spiritually Hungry
Yet, akin to what Adi Shankara did in a bygone era, Yogananda went around the sprawling US, wooing spiritually hungry audiences, freely merging Jesus in Hindu teachings. The response was stupendous. The cities he toured were not a few: New York, San Francisco, New Jersey, Los Angeles, Cleveland, Seattle, Oregon, San Diego, Portland, Oakland, Berkeley, Pittsburgh, Detroit… Halls where he lectured were packed; at times, many stood as there was no place to sit.
His teachings were rational and he respected the Judeo-Christian tradition. He initiated some 1,00,000 Americans into yoga. He pointed out the essential unity of all great scriptures, and strove to bring together the West and East on a spiritual foundation. He urged everyone to seek God, whatever their religion. The Los Angeles Times soon dubbed him “the 20th century’s first superstar guru”.
Yogananda’s end came in a most dramatic manner on March 7, 1952, in Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles during a banquet in honour of the Indian Ambassador to the US, Binay Ranjan Sen. Yogananda ended his speech, which turned out to be his last, saying: “I am proud I was born in India… where Ganges, woods, Himalayan caves, and men dream God.” A moment later, he lifted his eyes and slid to the floor with a beatific smile on his face. The yoga guru had attained ‘mahasamadhi’. Medically, the end was attributed to heart failure.
The Indian government has thrice honoured Yogananda. It released a postage stamp in 1977. It was followed by a 2017 stamp marking 100 years of the ashram he set up in Ranchi. In 2019, a commemorative coin of Rs 125 denomination was issued to mark his 125th birth anniversary.
(The author is a senior journalist based in New Delhi)
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