The Tree of knowledge
Paramahansa Yogananda: The Supreme Swan
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 of India’s ancient wisdom to the West. 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. Both his parents were disciples of Lahiri Mahasaya, the renowned master who was instrumental in reintroducing Kriya Yoga in modern India. When Yogananda was an infant in his mother’s arms, Lahiri Mahasaya blessed him and foretold: “Little mother, thy son will be a yogi. As a spiritual engine, he will carry many souls to God’s kingdom.” In his youth Mukunda 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 17, 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.
At their very first meeting, and on many occasions thereafter, Sri Yukteswar told the young disciple that he had been chosen as the one to disseminate the ancient science of Kriya Yoga in America and worldwide. After graduating from Calcutta University in 1915, Mukunda 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.
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. The Maharajah of Kasimbazar made available his summer palace at Ranchi (about 250 miles from Calcutta) as the site for the school. Visiting the school a few years later, Mahatma Gandhi wrote: “This institution has deeply impressed my mind.”
One day in 1920, while meditating at the Ranchi school, Yogananda had a divine vision showing him that now was the time to begin his work in the West. He immediately departed for Calcutta, where the next day he was invited to serve as India’s delegate to an international congress of religious leaders convening later that year in Boston. Sri Yukteswar confirmed that the time was right, saying: “All doors are open for you. It is now or never.” Shortly before his departure, Yogananda was visited by Mahavatar Babaji, the deathless master who revived in this age the ancient science of Kriya Yoga. “You are the one I have chosen to spread the message of Kriya Yoga in the West,” Babaji said to Yogananda. “Long ago I met your guru Yukteswar at a Kumbha Mela; I told him then I would send you to him for training. Kriya Yoga, the scientific technique of God-realization, will ultimately spread in all lands, and aid in harmonizing the nations through man’s personal, transcendental perception of the Infinite Father.”
The young swami arrived in Boston in September 1920. His first speech, made to the International Congress of Religious Liberals, was on ‘The Science of Religion’, and 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. The first SRF meditation center was started in Boston. For the next several years, he lectured and taught on the East Coast; and in 1924 embarked on a cross-continental speaking tour. Reaching Los Angeles in early 1925, he established an international headquarters for Self-Realization Fellowship atop Mt. Washington, which became the spiritual and administrative heart of his growing work.
A Pioneer of Yoga in the West: From 1924-35, Yogananda travelled and lectured widely, speaking to capacity audiences in many of the largest auditoriums in America — from New York’s Carnegie Hall to the Los Angeles Philharmonic Auditorium. 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 taught the soul-awakening techniques of Kriya Yoga, initiating more than 100,000 men and women during his 30 years in the West.
Return to India: In 1935, Yogananda returned to India for a last visit with his great guru (Sri Yukteswar passed away on 9 March 1936.) Traveling by ship and automobile through Europe, Palestine, and Egypt, he arrived in Bombay in the summer of 1935. During Yogananda’s year-long sojourn in his native land, he gave classes and Kriya Yoga initiation in cities throughout the subcontinent. He also enjoyed his meetings with Mahatma Gandhi, who requested initiation in Kriya Yoga, Nobel‑prize‑winning physicist Sir CV Raman, and some of India’s most renowned spiritual figures, including Ramana Maharshi and Anandamoyi Ma. It was during that year that Sri Yukteswar bestowed on him India’s highest spiritual title, paramahansa. Literally “supreme swan” (a symbol of spiritual discrimination), the title signifies one who is established in the ultimate state of union with God.
While in India, Yogananda secured the permanent foundation for his work there, Yogoda Satsanga Society of India. From its headquarters in Dakshineswar (on the Ganges near Kolkata) and the original ashram in Ranchi, the society continues to thrive to this day — with schools, ashrams, meditation centers, and charitable works established throughout the subcontinent. In late 1936 he returned to America, where he remained for the rest of his life.
A Spiritual Foundation: After creating self-realization Fellowship lessons, temples, retreats during the 1930s, Paramahansa Yogananda began to withdraw somewhat from his nationwide public lecturing so as to devote himself to the writings that would carry his message to future generations. Under his direction, the personal guidance and instruction that he had given to his students was arranged into a comprehensive series of Self-Realization Fellowship Lessons for home study. A beautiful hermitage overlooking the Pacific Ocean at Encinitas, California, had been built for the Guru during his absence in India by his beloved disciple Rajarsi Janakananda. Here the Guru spent many years working on his autobiography and other writings, and began the SRF Retreat program which continues to this day. He also founded several Self-Realization Fellowship temples (Encinitas, Hollywood, and San Diego), speaking regularly there to devoted audiences of SRF members and friends on a vast array of spiritual subjects. Many of these talks, which were recorded stenographically by Sri Daya Mata, have since been published in the three volumes of Yogananda’s Collected Talks and Essays and in Self-Realization magazine.
Yogananda’s lifestory, Autobiography of a Yogi, was published in 1946 (and significantly expanded by him in subsequent editions). A perennial bestseller, the book has been in continuous publication since it first appeared and has been translated into many languages. It is widely regarded as a modern spiritual classic. In 1950, Paramahansaji held the first Self-Realization Fellowship World Convocation at the international headquarters in Los Angeles — a weeklong event that today attracts thousands each year from all over the world.
Final Years and Mahasamadhi: Paramahansa Yogananda’s final years were spent largely in seclusion, as he laboured intensely to complete his writings — including his voluminous commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita and the teachings of Jesus Christ in the four Gospels, and revisions of earlier works such as Whispers from Eternity and the Self-Realization Fellowship Lessons. He also worked extensively with Sri Daya Mata, Mrinalini Mata, and a few of his closest disciples, imparting the spiritual and organizational guidance that would enable them to carry on his worldwide work after he would be gone.
On 7 March 1952, the great guru entered mahasamadhi, a God‑illumined master’s conscious exit from the body at the time of physical death. He had just finished giving a short speech at a banquet honouring India’s ambassador to the United States, Dr Binay R. Sen, at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles. His passing away 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.”
In years past, Paramahansa Yogananda’s guru, Swami Sri Yukteswar, had referred to him as an incarnation of divine love. Later, his disciple and first spiritual successor, Rajarsi Janakananda, fittingly bestowed on him the title of Premavatar or “Incarnation of Divine Love.”
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