Assessing spiritual guide after 50 years

Followers Praise Life of Mystical 'Salesman'

San Jose Mercury News/August 10, 2002

By Richard Scheinin

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Paramahansa Yogananda, the author, guru and Indian saint who helped bring yoga to the West. This week, more than 4,000 of his acolytes are meeting in Los Angeles to celebrate his life and teachings.

One of Gandhi's teachers, Yogananda quickly became a spiritual superstar after his arrival in the United States in 1920. His charismatic personality and encouraging message -- that all religions affirm humanity's oneness with God -- filled auditoriums and attracted such celebrity students as Kodak camera inventor George Eastman and conductor Leopold Stokowski. President Coolidge had him to the White House.

Best known for his ``Autobiography of a Yogi,'' a classic of spiritual writing, Yogananda set up headquarters for Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) in Los Angeles in 1925. The movement now has more than 500 centers around the world, including 16 in the Bay Area and Northern California.

We spoke with Brother Satyananda, an SRF monk and well-known lecturer on Yogananda. Born Dennis White, Satyananda, 52, was a student at San Diego State University -- a lost soul, he says, until Yogananda's writings ``connected the dots'' for him three decades ago. He spoke to us by phone from Los Angeles.

Q Why is Yogananda described as a bridge between East and West?

A He demonstrated that underlying truths really do connect East and West. For instance, the teachings of Jesus Christ have a certain unity and harmony with the teachings of Krishna. Of course, there are more religious leaders and prophets in the world than just two. But Yogananda chose those two as being representative.

And so, he turned to the Scriptures. And the key scripture in India relating to Krishna is the Bhagavad Gita, which has specific teachings about life, about truth, about experiencing God and about the way to bring God into your life. We could take portions of the Gita and we could look at them next to the Sermon on the Mount: Jesus said, ``Consider the lilies.'' The idea is that God provides for us and we should have no fear; that was the basic teaching. And Krishna says the same thing: ``If you place your heart and mind on me, then I will take care of you.''

Q Yogananda also spoke about ``Christ Consciousness.'' Can you define it?

A That would be an expanded state of awareness. If I had Christ Consciousness -- which I don't, but Christ, Krishna and Yogananda did -- I could describe what was on your desk right now as we speak by phone. I could even describe what you're feeling. It sounds scary. But the idea is that when we expand our awareness, we experience great love and understanding and have an intimate identification with everything that is.

Yogananda used the illustration of Jesus walking among the throngs of people. There was a woman nearby who prayed, ``If I can just touch the hem of his robe, I know I shall be healed,'' so she reached out and touched it. And Jesus said, ``Who has touched me? Virtue has just gone out.'' He could feel her intention in touching his robe. This greater awareness would be a quality of Christ consciousness.

Yogananda outlines this expanding consciousness. We don't just practice virtue because we want to go to heaven, but because our consciousness goes out beyond our own needs and becomes aware of others. And this again would be a teaching of Jesus and a teaching of Krishna.

Q How do Yogananda's teachings enter your life?

A I find that by practicing and applying the teachings of Yogananda, the quality of my existence increases exponentially. And by this I mean being free of stress, having a greater awareness of life, a greater understanding of what's going on within me and around me, a growing feeling of love -- even though I'm living a monastic life without a human family, as most people understand it. I can sit quietly in my room in meditation and feel a wonderful sense of love and gratitude and fulfillment.

Yogananda teaches that as our consciousness gradually begins to grow or feel elevated, we have this sense of well-being that arises within us. And it's not dependent on conditions of outer happiness. So we begin to discover an esoteric source of happiness that, as Krishna says, is immutable. It cannot change.

Q Yogananda wrote about scientific principles of meditation. What are they?

A He said there are certain universal principles that can be proven. For example, we have two physical eyes through which we look out and see the world. Yogananda taught that there's a third eye, or spiritual eye, that's located at a point in the forehead between the eyebrows -- and that when we close our eyes and calm our body and lift the gaze there and project our whole intention there, that we can begin to see a light there.

And as we concentrate deeply, that light becomes a golden ring, and there is a blue center to that golden ring and then a white star. And that golden ring with a blue field and a white star is the spiritual eye and it can be seen by anyone. It takes a little bit of practice, but I talk with people all the time who get glimpses of it or behold it in meditation. I've seen it myself.

Q Yogananda described the Christian Trinity as pre-existing in Hindu philosophy. Will you explain?

A He says there is a metaphysical meaning to the Trinity: There is God the Father who is a cosmic intelligence beyond creation; the Son is the soul, the intelligence in creation, of which we are all a part; and then the Holy Ghost is what he describes from the Hindu scriptures as being the om vibration, the symphony, the music of the spheres. It is the vibration throughout creation.

I took a retreat up in the Sierra, and it was phenomenal because the evenings in the forest were so quiet and I could just listen to the wonderful vibrations that were there, making this soothing sound -- almost as St. John describes it in the Bible, this rush of soothing waters. It has a kind of atomic nature to it; you can just sort of feel it vibrating in the ether.

Q Was Yogananda a Hindu?

A He was born in India. But he said that in founding Self-Realization Fellowship, he was starting a new dispensation and it was neither Hindu nor Christian in that sense. He said that he was renewing the ancient Indian scriptures called the Sanatan Dharma, the universal religion, the religion of experiencing God. And Yogananda said his mission was to re-establish or renew that eternal religion, that eternal truth that directs you toward that direct experience of God. He could see something transcending all religions.

Q Is it hard for Yogananda's message to get through the noise of today's culture?

A People are feeling bombarded, overwhelmed. They are feeling the need for a useful formula for living. And when they start educating themselves on these universal principles, they begin to see that life has a great purpose far beyond what they imagined.

Yogananda was very much a salesman -- practical -- and he would say, ``Just try this for one year and see what happens. Just try it.'' And from my own experience, when we do try it, we find a universal template on which we can superimpose any life that we are living. You can be a monastic, a journalist, a house painter.

Q He was a salesman?

A Well, a promoter. He realized that he had a very powerful product that could change people's lives. And so he really wanted people to experience just a little bit. It's like if you have a new yogurt and you just love that yogurt, the first thing you want is for people to taste it.

Yogananda knew that he had a spiritual product. And he said again and again in his lectures, ``If you could only taste the joy that I experienced last night in meditation, then you would want this same joy, too.''

Q Some of his disciples say that, in fact, he is still alive. What exactly do they mean?

A The idea is that we are on an evolving evolutionary development scale through many life experiences -- this is reincarnation -- until we permanently liberate our consciousness from any confines of a body. And when this happens -- and it can be experienced temporarily in meditation -- we become identified with Christ consciousness, with cosmic consciousness. So there is that ultimate potential that is outlined in this path -- to take our identification with our present life and body and expand it to eternity. And when we do this, we become ever-living, we become consciously eternal.

And so, in this sense, when a yogi dies, he doesn't die. He has that eternal consciousness, and we can experience that eternal presence with us.

Q You've experienced Yogananda's presence?

A Not touching the flesh. But in a very tangible vibration, so real that you know it is Paramahansa Yogananda. Something that you can see; something more that you can feel. It's an uncommon experience for me, but it happens. You can be in meditation and then you are suddenly aware of this presence, like someone just walked into the room.

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