Hinduism Paramahansa Yogananda
by
Anya Foxen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0261

Introduction

Paramahansa Yogananda (b. 1893–d. 1952), born Mukunda Lal Ghosh, was a teacher and popularizer of yoga and Hindu spirituality. Known today chiefly for his classic Autobiography of a Yogi, Yogananda has become a global emissary of India’s ancient wisdom. The text has sold over four million copies, has been translated into thirty-three languages, and has been lauded as a source of inspiration by such cultural idols as George Harrison and Steve Jobs. In reality, Yogananda’s identity as a guru is rather more complex, syncretic, and modern. He arrived in the United States in 1920 at the age of twenty-seven, as a presenter at the International Conference of Religious Liberals in Boston. Excepting a brief return to India in 1935–1936, he remained in the United States for the subsequent thirty-two years of his life. At the heart of Yogananda’s teachings is Kriya Yoga, a method of physical techniques and visionary meditation that closely follows the tantric forms of haṭha yoga that emerged in South Asia beginning around the twelfth century. Yogananda was initiated into this practice by his guru Swami Sri Yukteswar, who in turn received it from the householder guru Lahiri Mahasaya, who attributed the teachings to his contact with the immortal mountain-dwelling sage known only as Babaji. During Yogananda’s sojourn in North America, Kriya practice remained foundational to his work, but was transmitted (usually in an adapted form) only to committed disciples. Yogananda’s public-facing teachings, meanwhile, combined basic elements of tantric meditative techniques with Western calisthenics to yield a series of “Energization Exercises,” an alternative form of modern postural yoga. These exercises were disseminated via pamphlets, and eventually a mail-order course, alongside a wealth of other literary and spiritual material. Yogananda had a love of poetry and thus a number of his earliest publications adopt this format to communicate his personal fusion of bhakti-style devotionalism, Neo-Vedanta, Christianity, and other Western metaphysical ideas in line with the contemporary New Thought movement. Yogananda’s legacy is carried on chiefly by the Los Angeles–based Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF), which he initially founded under the name of Yogoda Satsanga in 1925. In India, this legacy is represented by the sister organization, still called the Yogoda Satsanga Society (YSS), which dates its founding to 1917, preceding Yogananda’s departure to the United States. However, Yogananda’s teachings are also represented by the Ananda Church of Self-Realization, as well as a number of smaller communities founded by his disciples. Though Yogananda spent most of his life in the United States, his vision had a global reach, as evidenced by his utopian goal of establishing a series of World Brotherhood Colonies. Today, the SRF boasts over five hundred locations worldwide, spanning every inhabited continent, and the YSS oversees an additional two hundred centers.

General Overview

Yogananda remains relatively understudied despite his undeniable impact as one of the first 20th-century global gurus. A small number of long-format secondary sources, both scholarly and popular, have emerged only recently. Neumann 2019 provides a historical treatment, while Foxen 2017 takes a more thematic approach to Yogananda’s life and work. Goldberg 2018 is journalistic rather than scholarly in form, but provides a well-researched and thorough biographical account. Di Florio and Leeman 2016 provides a similarly journalistic but more devotionally grounded account.

  • Di Florio, Paola, and Lisa Leeman. Awake: The Life of Yogananda. Paris: Jupiter Films, 2016.

    A documentary, endorsed by the Self-Realization Fellowship, covering Yogananda’s life, work, and impact. Provides a good overview of Yogananda’s biography and his importance as a global guru, but is notably deferential in tone.

  • Foxen, Anya P. Biography of a Yogi: Paramahansa Yogananda and the Origins of Modern Yoga. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

    A scholarly treatment of Yogananda’s life and work that positions him in a theoretical framework of the Yogi as a model for the superhuman, ranging from premodern Indian to contemporary North American contexts. Contains a brief overview of Yogananda’s biography, an examination of his Kriya Yoga and Yogoda systems, and a literary analysis of Autobiography of a Yogi.

  • Goldberg, Philip. The Real Yogananda: The True Story of the Yogi Who Became the First Modern Guru. Carlsbad, CA: Hay House, 2018.

    A comprehensive popular biography of Yogananda. Well-researched but careful of Yogananda’s image as a spiritual guru.

  • Neumann, David J. Finding God through Yoga: Paramahansa Yogananda and Modern American Religion in a Global Age. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019.

    DOI: 10.5149/northcarolina/9781469648637.001.0001

    A historical study of Yogananda focusing on Yogananda’s rise as a global guru amid the social and religious landscape of pre–World War II America, and especially Southern California. Examines the ways Yogananda was influenced by and responded to the cultural, political, and religious climate of the United States, including the heavy syncretism with Christianity that can be found in his work.

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