Paramahansa Yogananda, the founder of the Self-Realization Fellowship, was born and raised in India but his most profound impact was in the United States. When Yogananda was seventeen, he found his guru Sri Yukteswar in the streets of Banaras. In 1915, Sri Yukteswar initiated Yogananda into Kriya Yoga, spiritual practice that seeks to attain a knowledge of a single god through the practice of physical and mental meditations. In a few years, Yogananda founded a boys’ school that taught both academic topics and Kriya Yoga. This single school eventually expanded to twenty-one schools. After years of learning from his guru in India and dreaming of temples on sunny hills overlooking a vast ocean, Yogananda left for the United States. Before he left, Yogananda established the Yogoda Satsanga Society of India (YSS). The YSS spreads Kriya Yoga throughout India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal.
In 1920 Yogananda came to Boston, Massachusetts, to lecture at the International Congress of Religious Liberals in America. In this same year, Yogananda established the Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF), dedicated to teaching people outside of India the secrets of Kriya Yoga. Remaining in the United States, he moved to California and established the temple sites of which he had been dreaming. Although he would to return to India upon his guru’s death, California became Yogananda’s home. In California, he established seven temples and one monastery. Currently, there are SRF centers on six continents. The central office for the SRF is in Los Angeles and it is there that the current president of the SRF, Sri Daya Mata, works.
While Yogananda was alive and living in the United States, he toured the country giving lectures. These lectures were compiled by his followers and are now available through mail order so that anybody with access to a mailbox can be trained in Kriya Yoga. In order to receive Kriya Yoga lessons by mail, a student must fill out an application that includes the signing of a pledge that states that he will keep what he learns secret and use the teachings only for his own private use. There is an enrollment fee of eight dollars and depending on the amount of lessons subscribed to, the cost just for the lessons can range from fourteen dollars for twenty lessons to forty-two dollars for sixty. Students who have completed a year of these lessons and have passed a review administered by the SRF confirming their knowledge and dedication can then apply to learn the actual Kriya Yoga technique. If a student has studied the SRF lessons for at least a year and has no family obligations, he can apply to enter the monastery.
The goal of SRF members is to achieve knowledge that they are one with God. In order to do this, one must direct his energy towards introspection instead of towards things that can be heard, seen, smelled, tasted, or touched. To divert one’s energy to introspection, SRF members practice Kriya Yoga. Because they believe that science and religion are essentially the same, they refer to Kriya Yoga as the science of Kriya Yoga and with that in mind that they describe Kriya Yoga as "an advanced Raja Yoga technique that reinforces and revitalizes subtle currents of life energy in the body, enabling the normal activities of heart an lungs to slow down naturally." This natural depression of the normal functions of heart and lungs results in greater perception and eventually a knowledge of oneness with God.
There are three main techniques of Kriya Yoga: energization, concentration, and meditation. The technique of energization "enables one to draw energy consciously into the body from the Cosmic Source." The technique of concentration is, as the name suggests, a technique that teaches the student to concentrate on the energy that has been directed towards introspection. The third technique is the last step towards final knowledge and it teaches a specific way to concentrate. These three techniques are taught before the main teaching of Kriya Yoga is revealed to the student.
The Self-Realization Fellowship stresses the fact that they teach methods and not beliefs so people with any kind of beliefs can benefit from their teachings.
In the spring of 2001, I went to a meditation exercise held at the Self Realization Fellowship (SRF) Lake Shrine Temple in Pacific Palisades, California, located just off of the Pacific Coast Highway. It was difficult to find the entrance into the actual temple, but well worth the difficulty. The temple was a fairly good-sized white building built in an Indian style with white domes, stylized arches, and gold trimming. As I entered the temple, there were men standing around, dressed in suits and ties, conversing quietly with each other. I made my way to one of the men who looked to be about 40 to 45 years old. As it happened, I had come on the night that they were going to perform a memorial service to their founder’s guru, Sri Yukteswar. Although it was a sad evening, the man who greeted me was very nice and very willing to take time to explain the temple and the foundation to me. He explained that the temple was founded by Sri Paramahansa Yogananda who had been prophesized to come to the United States by his guru’s guru, Lahiri Mahasaya. Although Yogananda traveled all over the United States, he spent most of his time in California and oversaw the building of many temples in the Southern California area; the Lake Shrine in Pacific Palisades, the Encinitas hermitage, and the Church of All Religions in Hollywood are just a few.
After this little introduction to the temple, I was invited to join the half-hour meditation preceding the memorial service. I accepted this invitation and entered a dark room to my right that seemed uninviting, although there were greeters at both doors into the room. Music was being quietly played by a group to the right of the front altar that was a shrine that consisted of six pictures. From left to right, the pictures were of Babaji (Lahiri Mahasaya’s guru), Lahiri Mahasaya, Jesus, Krishna, Yogananda, and Sri Yukteswar. To the left of this row of pictures was a rocking chair with a picture placed on it depicting Yogananda at the Lake Shrine in the very same rocking chair. Two pictures portraying Sri Yukteswar were symmetrically placed in front of the main altar; these pictures were garlanded with white flowers. The rest of the room was filled with chairs. In these chairs sat a smattering of people, all middle aged and silently meditating. There were both men and women, although the greeters were all male and the musicians were predominately male too. The temple seemed to be purely functional and I could not imagine it being very receptive to tourists.
The next afternoon, I found out that the Lake Shrine Temple’s grounds are simply gorgeous and very accommodating to tourists. The temple is built around a natural basin created by the hills that are characteristic of Pacific Palisades. On the northeastern ridge of the basin lies the main temple. On the southwestern ridge is an apartment building that seems to function as an ashram for devotees. At the bottom of the basin is a natural lake of about the size of a football field. In this pond there is a plethora of wildlife ranging from common ducks to turtles and large koi fish. Around this lake, extending up the hillsides, are many plants native to California and statues of various saints recognized by many religions. At the southern entrance to the lake part of the temple, the first statue I saw was a statue of St. Francis of Assisi. As I went further on the little path that surrounded the lake, I noticed a statue of Krishna and many wooden signs that quote the Bhagavad Gita and Paramahansa Yogananda. About a quarter of the way around the lake from where I started, an elaborately carved concrete shrine that holds some of Mahatma Gandhi’s ashes lies nestled in palms, ivy and oak trees. Immediately across the lake from the shrine, lies a windmill that, in typical LA tradition, was built to be a set for some movie. It now houses meditation from 1-4:30 PM Tuesdays through Sundays. Next to this windmill is a tourist information center, which was unfortunately closed for lunch when I was there to see the grounds. Surrounding the tourist information center is a little courtyard with five pillars arranged in a semicircle; there is one pillar for every "major" religion: Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. At the foot of the hill that houses the temple on the ridge, a houseboat in which Yogananda stayed during the dedication of the temple lies docked. On the opposite side of the lake from this houseboat, stands a waterfall. Ripples of water cascade from a pile of rocks overgrown with lush California greenery and at the very top of this small mountain, stands Jesus Christ in white stone with arms outstretched.
Finally back at the southern entrance, I came upon a souvenir shop – another nod to the needs of tourists. The shop is split into two sections. One is a little museum with stuff from Sri Yogananda’s life, including his rock collection. Some of the rocks were interesting, but hardly museum quality. The rocks were there, supposedly, to point out Yogananda’s view that god is in everything, even rocks. The second part of the shop held trinkets to buy, some of which included pictures of Yogananda and the gurus in his lineage, jewelry, incense, SRF literature, and pictures of gods. Always ready to spend, I found a really wonderful depiction of Prakriti with the three main gods: Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. After this little soiree into the land of tourism, it was time to go home and contemplate what I saw.
This temple, both the meditation the first night and the grounds the next day, was mostly what I had expected all along. The devotees are middle-aged. The grounds are open to tourists most days, and probably much of their income comes from tourists through the money spent in the souvenir shop and donations collected at the various collection boxes that line the pathway around the lake. The meditation on Friday night did, however, frustrate my expectations a bit when I walked into the room and the people who were meditating were sitting in chairs, rather than on the floor as I had experienced when meditating with Zen Buddhists. I had not anticipated a difference in meditation styles. I was also disappointed with the musicians. While I didn’t really expect any music to be played during meditation (Zen meditation is silent), I certainly didn’t expect the musicians to be chattering away about the next piece to be played while people were meditating. The fact that the musicians were talking merely showed the difference in styles of worship to which Hindus and I are accustomed. Although the temple was less tourist-oriented than the lower grounds, the entire Lake Shrine was what I expected to find, a place which a few find spiritually enlightening but which I felt was too touristy to be spiritually enlightening for me.
1) Yogananda, Paramahansa. Autobiography of a Yogi. Self-Realization Fellowship, 1998.
2) "Application to Study Self-Realization Fellowship Lessons". Self-Realization Fellowship, 1993.
3) "Undreamed – of Possibilities: An introduction to Self-Realization Fellowship". Self-Realization Fellowship, 1997.