Yogi's movement still growing 50 years after death

Many disciples say his autobiography changed their lives

The Dallas Morning News/March 9, 2002

By Kristen Holland

Does God exist? What is the meaning of life? What's the path to perfect happiness?

Some people spend years asking those questions.

Followers of Paramahansa Yogananda believe that he provided the answers.

Through his life and teachings, followers say, the yogi showed that fulfillment can be attained with self-discipline. One of his main principles was that people need only look inward to find all the knowledge, creativity, love, joy and peace that they need.

He believed that silent, nonphysical meditation was the way to reach God.

Yogananda, considered the father of Western yoga and one of the most acclaimed spiritual figures of the 20th century, is best known for his best-selling Autobiography of a Yogi.

"This is sort of the silent sleeper of religious books," said Phyllis Tickle, a contributing religion editor for Publishers Weekly. She said his teachings have been accepted by mainstream society, including those who don't recognize the source.

While the yogi's work focused on Kriya Yoga - a nonphysical style that focuses on quieting the mind through sitting meditation - many other methods of yoga are practiced worldwide. The 3,000-year-old practice of yoga was developed in India to heighten awareness and promote healing.

Yogananda died 50 years ago this week, but his teachings are still spreading. Learning those teachings takes three and a half years of disciplined study.

Born as Mukunda Lal Ghosh in 1893 in India, Yogananda came to the United States in his late 20s as a delegate to an international congress of religious leaders. In 1920, he founded Self-Realization Fellowship in Los Angeles to carry on his spiritual and humanitarian work. There are now more than 500 temples, retreats and meditation centers worldwide, including one in Irving.

"There's probably been a 25-percent growth over the past 10 years," said Lauren Landress, a Fellowship spokeswoman. She attributed the surge to society's increased interest in Eastern religious traditions.

Dr. Gerald J. Larson, director of India Studies in the Religious Studies department at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind., said that Yogananda's teachings flourished more than other yogis because he spent so much time in the United States.

"He was one of the first yogis to come to the U.S.," he said, "and he never returned to India."

Sai Gunturi, a native of India, coordinates the Irving group. He, like many followers, discovered Yogananda's teachings by reading the Autobiography.

A home-based computer consultant, Mr. Gunturi came to the United States in 1987 and helped found the D/FW Hindu Temple.

Though he never doubted his Hindu faith, he said he struggled to find a systematic way of realizing God.

"We have so much information ... I was not able to figure it out with the information I had," he said. "When I read Autobiography , I saw a clear path.

"He [Yogananda] wants us to find God through him."

Fellowship members are quick to say that the yogi's teachings are interfaith and not meant to replace any religion. And the yogi isn't considered a god.

During every service, members pray to the "saints and sages of all religions" and read passages from both the Bible and the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu holy book attributed to Lord Krishna, an incarnation of the deity Vishnu.

"Yogananda's teachings encompass all aspects of your life," said Linda Hale, a member of the Irving group.

Mrs. Hale meditates daily but acknowledged that it hasn't always been easy. She picked up yoga nearly 27 years ago because she wanted more serenity in her life.

Reared in a strict Protestant household, Mrs. Hale said she originally didn't want to know anything about the philosophy behind meditation or yoga because she feared that her feelings toward her faith would change.

"After a few months, I started noticing that, after practicing my Hatha Yoga, I'd just start praying," she said. "It was just so natural."

About that time, Mrs. Hale said she started seeing pictures of Yogananda in the back of Psychology Today magazines and purchased a copy of his autobiography.

Like Mr. Gunturi, she said the book opened her eyes to a new realm of spiritual and religious possibilities.

"I saw that my fears [were] foundless," she said. "His teachings exemplify the teachings of Jesus of the original Christianity, as it was when Jesus was here. He talks about all the basic religions."

David Hale, who became interested in Yogananda's teachings about five years after his wife, said Yogananda is "like every man. He's the embodiment of every religion of every culture."

The simplicity of Yogananda's teachings is another reason some followers say they're attracted to Self-Realization Fellowship.

"These teachings are all inclusive," said Richard Mechling, a member of the Irving group. "It helps the body, it helps us spiritually and it also strengthens our willpower."

Mr. Mechling said he had already started practicing meditation when he came across the autobiography.

"I could see that meditation was worthwhile. But when I read Autobiography of a Yogi in 1993, I knew this was what I'm looking for," he said. The book, he said, answered fundamental questions such as what is God and is there a hell?

"It gives you great peace of mind to live a life that's balanced and more simple and not to have any desire to chase after endless desires," Mr. Mechling said.

Simplicity is a common theme in Yogananda's writings. In one passage he wrote: "It is not your passing thoughts or brilliant ideas so much as your plain, everyday habits that control your life. ... Live simply."

He also wrote, "In seemingly empty space, there is one Link, one Life eternal, which unites everything in the universe - animate and inanimate - one wave of Life flowing through everything."

Pertti Karkkainen, a native of Finland and a member of the Irving group, considered himself a spiritual gypsy until a Finnish Lutheran pastor introduced him to Yogananda's teachings.

"The thing which struck me most was the fact that you don't have to believe certain things ... you can actually search for yourself," he said.

"These teachings make God seem real appealing," said John Salih, a longtime member of the Irving group. "They teach God as love and joy."

Yogi's Life

Paramahansa Yogananda was born as Mukunda Lal Ghosh on Jan. 5, 1893, in Gorakhpur, in northeastern India near the Himalayas.
He was the second son and fourth of eight children for his parents, who were members of the Kshatriya caste - originally the caste of rulers and warriors.

Yogananda began his lifework at age 17 with the spiritual training and guidance that he learned from his guru. He was initiated into an ancient monastic order in 1915 and founded a school shortly afterward.

Five years later, he left India for America as a delegate to an international congress of religious leaders. Soon after arriving, he founded Self-Realization Fellowship in Los Angeles to carry on the ancient teachings of Kriya Yoga in the West.

Over the next 30 years, he traveled extensively worldwide, lecturing and initiating thousands into the science of Kriya Yoga. The lectures were later compiled to form the Self-Realization Fellowship lessons.

Yogananda entered mahasamadhi - a yogi's final conscious exit from the body - on March 7, 1952, in Los Angeles after speaking at a banquet for the ambassador of India. The Indian government issued a commemorative stamp 25 years later.

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