In the hundred years since the birth of Paramahansa Yogananda, this beloved world teacher has come to be recognized as one of the greatest emissaries to the West of India’s ancient wisdom. His life and teachings continue to be a source of light and inspiration to people of all races, cultures and creeds.
Early Life and Spiritual Search
Paramahansa Yogananda was born Mukunda Lal Ghosh on January 5, 1893, in Gorakhpur, India, into a devout and well-to-do Bengali family. From his earliest years, it was evident to those around him that the depth of his awareness and experience of the spiritual was far beyond the ordinary. In his youth he sought out many of India’s sages and saints, hoping to find an illumined teacher to guide him in his spiritual quest.
It was in 1910, at the age of seventeen, that he met and became a disciple of the revered Swami Sri Yukteswar Giri. In the hermitage of this great master of Yoga he spent the better part of the next ten years, receiving Sri Yukteswar’s strict but loving spiritual discipline. After he graduated from Calcutta University in 1915, he took formal vows as a monk of India’s venerable monastic Swami Order, at which time he received the name Yogananda (signifying bliss, ananda, through divine union, yoga). His ardent desire to consecrate his life to the love and service of God thus found fulfillment.
The Beginning of a World Mission
Yogananda began his life’s work with the founding, in 1917, of a “how-to-live” school for boys, where modern educational methods were combined with yoga training and instruction in spiritual ideals. Visiting the school a few years later, Mahatma Gandhi wrote: “This institution has deeply impressed my mind.”
In 1920, Yogananda was invited to serve as India’s delegate to an international congress of religious leaders convening in Boston. His address to the congress, on “The Science of Religion,” was enthusiastically received. That same year he founded Self-Realization Fellowship to disseminate worldwide his teachings on India’s ancient science and philosophy of Yoga and its time-honored tradition of meditation.
For the next several years, he lectured and taught on the East coast and in 1924 embarked on a cross-continental speaking tour. The following year, he established in Los Angeles an international headquarters for Self-Realization Fellowship, which became the spiritual and administrative heart of his growing work.
A Pioneer of Yoga in the West
Over the next decade, Yogananda traveled and lectured widely, speaking to capacity audiences in many of the largest auditoriums in the country — from New York’s Carnegie Hall to the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The Los Angeles Times reported: “The Philharmonic Auditorium presents the extraordinary spectacle of thousands....being turned away an hour before the advertised opening of a lecture with the 3000-seat hall filled to its utmost capacity.”
Yogananda emphasized the underlying unity of the world’s great religions, and taught universally applicable methods for attaining direct personal experience of God. To serious students of his teachings he introduced the soul-awakening techniques of Kriya Yoga, a sacred spiritual science originating millenniums ago in India, which had been lost in the Dark Ages and revived in modern times by his lineage of enlightened masters.
Among those who became his students were many prominent figures in science, business, and the arts, including horticulturist Luther Burbank, operatic soprano Amelita Galli-Curci, George Eastman (inventor of the Kodak camera), poet Edwin Markham, and symphony conductor Leopold Stokowski. In 1927, he was officially received at the White House by President Calvin Coolidge, who had become interested in the newspaper reports of his activities.
Return to India (1935-1936)
In 1935, Yogananda began an 18-month tour of Europe and India. During his yearlong sojourn in his native land, he spoke in cities throughout the subcontinent and enjoyed meetings with Mahatma Gandhi (who requested initiation in Kriya Yoga), Nobel-prize-winning physicist Sir C. V. Raman, and some of India’s renowned spiritual figures, including Sri Ramana Maharshi and Anandamoyi Ma. It was during this year also that his guru, Swami Sri Yukteswar, bestowed on him India’s highest spiritual title, paramahansa, literally supreme swan (a symbol of spiritual discrimination). The title signifies one who manifests the supreme state of unbroken communion with God.
1893 – 1952 Final Years and Mahasamadhi
During the 1930s, Paramahansa Yogananda began to withdraw somewhat from his nationwide public lecturing to devote himself to the writings that would carry his message to future generations, and to building an enduring foundation for the spiritual and humanitarian work of Self-Realization Fellowship (known in India as Yogoda Satsanga Society of India).
Under his direction, the personal guidance and instruction that he had given to students of his classes was arranged into a comprehensive series of Self-Realization Fellowship Lessons for home study.
Yogananda’s life story, Autobiography of a Yogi, was published in 1946 and expanded by him in subsequent editions. A perennial best seller, the book has been in continuous publication since it first appeared and has been translated into 26 languages. It is widely regarded as a modern spiritual classic.
On March 7, 1952, Paramahansa Yogananda entered mahasamadhi, a God-illumined master’s conscious exit from the body at the time of physical death. His passing was marked by an extraordinary phenomenon. A notarized statement signed by the Director of Forest Lawn Memorial-Park testified: “No physical disintegration was visible in his body even twenty days after death....This state of perfect preservation of a body is, so far as we know from mortuary annals, an unparalleled one....Yogananda’s body was apparently in a phenomenal state of immutability.”
On the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of Paramahansa Yogananda’s passing, his far-reaching contributions to the spiritual upliftment of humanity were given formal recognition by the Government of India. A special commemorative stamp was issued in his honor, together with a tribute that read, in part: “The ideal of love for God and service to humanity found full expression in the life of Paramahansa Yogananda....Though the major part of his life was spent outside India, still he takes his place among our great saints. His work continues to grow and shine ever more brightly, drawing people everywhere on the path of the pilgrimage of the Spirit.”