|STRIPPING THE GURUS||
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... TO A NUNNERY
Nearly everyone is familiar with those three little monkey-figures that depict the maxim, “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.” I emphasize the positive approach: “See that which is good, hear that which is good, speak that which is good.” And smell, taste, and feel that which is good; think that which is good; love that which is good. Be enthroned in the castle of goodness, and your memories will be like beautiful flowers in a garden of noble dreams (Yogananda, 1986).
For all future time, Paramahansa Yogananda ... will be regarded as one of the very greatest of India’s ambassadors of the Higher Culture to the New World (W. Y. Evans-Wentz, in [SRF, 1976]).
PARAMAHANSA YOGANANDA WAS the first yoga master from India to spend the greater part of his life in North America.
Born in northeast India near the Himalayan border in 1893, Yogananda began practicing kriya yoga in his early years, and met his guru, Sri Yukteswar, at age seventeen.
Following a prophetic vision, and at the direction of Yukteswar, Yogananda accepted an invitation to speak at the Congress of Religious Liberals in Boston, in the autumn of 1920. He remained in America following that successful debut, establishing Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) and its headquarters, now named the “Mother Center,” in an abandoned former hotel atop Mount Washington in Los Angeles, in 1925. As a “Church of all Religions,” SRF attempts to embrace the “underlying truth of all religions,” with particular emphasis on yoga/Hinduism and Christianity. Membership numbers are classified, but reasonable guesses range from 25,000 to 100,000 currently active members.
The enterprising young yogi spent the years from 1925 to 1936 lecturing to capacity crowds in halls throughout America, spreading knowledge of the “holy science” of kriya yoga.
As far as the channels through which one may receive his variant of that particular set of techniques of meditation, Yogananda explained in his (1998) Autobiography:
The actual technique should be learned from an authorized Kriyaban (kriya yogi) of Self-Realization Fellowship (Yogoda Satsanga Society of India).
Earlier versions of the same book, however, within the three editions published while Yogananda was still alive, placed far less restrictions on who may give that initiation:
The actual technique [of kriya yoga] must be learned from a Kriyaban or kriya yogi (Yogananda, 1946).
More recently, SRF (in Rawlinson, 1997) stated their position regarding the importance of their particular line of gurus in effecting the spiritual progress of the disciple:
Some take kriya yoga and become fully satisfied and forget about the link of mastersthey will never reach God.
The reader may then ponder for him- or herself as to what possible reasons any organization could have for thus restricting, to itself, the dissemination of the techniques of its founder, after the latter’s death, when no such restriction was put in place during his life. SRF’s position, of course, is that every change to Yogananda’s writings since his passing has been made on the basis of instructions given by him while he was still alive, and done simply to “clarify and rephrase” the text. For my own part, I do not find that claim at all convincing. Indeed, the posthumously ham-handed evisceration of his Whispers From Eternity poetry alone (see Dakota, 1998)being subjected to brutal and unnecessary editing which no poetic soul could ever countenancewould cast it in doubt.
Regardless, the kriya yoga technique itself is actually not nearly as “top secret” as SRF presents it as being. Rather, both of the preliminary techniques leading up to kriya proper are widely known in India. Of those, the “Om” technique is essentially just an internally chanted mantra, while the “Hong-Sau” technique/mantra is given in Chapter 7 of Radha’s (1978) Kundalini Yoga for the West. (Radha herself was a disciple of Satchidananda’s guru, Swami Sivananda, and operated an ashram in that lineage in British Columbia, Canada.) Much of the first stage of the kriya technique itself further exists in Chapter 9 of the same book. Yogananda’s preliminary “Energization Exercises,” too, are very similar to ones given later by Brennan (1987).
Ironically, in spite of their evidently opposite attitudes toward the “secrecy” of those techniques, Sivananda’s ashram and SRF have long been friendly with each other.
Swami Sivananda himself (1887 1963), in addition to founding the Divine Life Society, wrote over three hundred books. That is hardly surprising, given his exalted spiritual state:
I have seen God myself. I have negated name and form, and what remains is Existence-Knowledge-Bliss and nothing else. I behold God everywhere. There is no veil. I am one. There is no duality. I rest in my own self. My bliss is beyond description. The World of dream is gone. I alone exist (Sivananda, 1958).
People consider [Sivananda] to be a Shiva avatar, incarnation (Gyan, 1980).
Swamiji was a phenomenon. He was described as a “symbol of holiness,” a “walking, talking God on Earth” (Ananthanarayanan, 1970).
Of course, no “walking, talking God” would grace this planet without promulgating his own skewed set of unsubstantiated beliefs:
Swami Sivananda has said that every woman whom a man lures into his bed must in some lifetime become his lawful wife (Radha, 1992).
The late Swami Sivananda of [Rishikesh], to my mind the most grotesque product of the Hindu Renaissance, advised people to write their “spiritual diaries”; and in oral instructions, he told Indian and Western disciples to write down how often they masturbated.... [O]r, as one male disciple told me, “make a list of number of times when you use hand for pleasure, and check it like double book keeping against number of times when you renounced use of hand” (Bharati, 1976).
And they say accountants don’t know how to have fun!
Elsewhere in the same book, Swami Bharatithe highly opinionated monk of the Ramakrishna Order whom we have met earlier in some of his kinder momentscategorized Sivananda as a “pseudo-mystic ... fat and smiling.” (Of the Maharishi, by contrast, Bharati stated: “I have no reason to doubt that he is a genuine mystic.... Were it not for the additional claims that Mahesh Yogi and his disciples make for their brand of mini-yoga [regarding ‘world peace,’ etc.], their product would be just as good as any other yoga discipline well done.” So, you see, no one really knows what [if any] is valid and what isn’t, even though they all pretend to know.)
Further venting his own instructive anger and anguish solely for the compassionate benefit of others, Bharati (1976) offered a comparable opinion of Vivekananda:
The “four kinds of yoga” notion goes back, entirely, and without any mitigating circumstances, to Swami Vivekananda’s four dangerous little booklets entitled Raja-yoga, Karma-yoga, Jnana-yoga, and Bhakti-yoga. [Those titles and terms refer to “royal,” “service,” “wisdom” and “devotional” yoga, respectively.] These are incredibly naïve, incredibly short excerpts from Indian literature in translations, rehashed in his talks in America and elsewhere....
I am certain that Vivekananda has done more harm than good to the seekers of mystical knowledge.... Vivekananda’s concept of raja yoga ... is dysfunctional.
Bharati’s own contributions to the understanding of mysticism, however, themselves tended toward the insignificant side. Whatever mysticism may befrom psychosis to the valid perception of higher levels of reality than the physicalthere is, in my opinion, no measurable chance of it fitting into Bharati’s view of things. Even his insistence that the mystical “zero-experience,” of the “oneness” of the individual and cosmic soul, must be only temporary and incapacitating, is relatively belied by Wilber’s claim to have experienced the One Taste state continuously for half a decade.
Interestingly, Bharati (1974) regarded Yogananda as a “phony,” lumping him in with T. Lobsang Rampa and the sorcerer Carlos Castaneda. He simultaneously, though, took Chögyam Trungpa as having taught “authentic Tibetan Buddhism,” presumably even in the midst of that guru’s penchant for “stripping the disciples.” I do not claim to know how to find sense in that position. But then, unlike Bharati and his admired, soporific friend, Herbert V. Guenther, I am not a scholar. And indeed, to devote one’s life to becoming an expert in the details of a pile of sanctioned baloney, then trashing anyone who doesn’t buy into the same brand of foolishness, strikes me as being one of the most absurd ways in which to waste a life.
At any rate, Paramahansa Yoganandawhether phony or notslowly accumulated a core of close disciples as the years passed, and thus began a monastic order in his own Swami lineage. One such early “direct disciple,” Faye Wright, began following the yogi in the early 1930s, entering the ashrams in her late teens. Now known as Daya Mata, she figures significantly in contemporary SRF culture, as the current lifetime president of Self-Realization Fellowship.
Retiring from his cross-country lecture tours, Yogananda spent much of the 1940s in seclusion in his Encinitas hermitageadjacent to the famed “Swami’s Point” surfing beach there. In that environment, he wrote his Autobiography of a Yogi, a perennial “sleeper” best-seller among books on spirituality, generally considered to be among the “Top 100” spiritual books of the twentieth century.
[The Autobiography is] widely regarded as a classic introduction to yoga and Eastern thought (Ram Dass, 1990).
Few books in spiritual literature compare to Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi. It is one of those rare works that in a single reading can transform the reader’s entire outlook on life. Since its initial printing in 1946, Yogananda’s Autobiography has continued to enthrall seekers with its fascinating tales of miracles, saints and astral heavens (Lane, 1995).
Autobiography of a Yogi is regarded as an Upanishad of the new age.... We in India have watched with wonder and fascination the phenomenal spread of the popularity of this book about India’s saints and philosophy. We have felt great satisfaction and pride that the immortal nectar of India’s Sanatan Dharma, the eternal laws of truth, has been stored in the golden chalice of Autobiography of a Yogi (in Ghosh, 1980).
No book so polarized the West about India and its culture as this one. For those who liked it, their passion went beyond words. For those who found it an incredible mishmash, the high opinions they had been harboring about Indian thought suddenly seemed to have become wobbly (Arya, 2004).
Interestingly, although Yogananda’s writings merit only a single quotation in Wilber’s (1983) life’s work, both Adi Da (1995) and Andrew Cohen were much influenced by the Autobiography early in their spiritual careers. Indeed, Cohen obviously derived the title of his (1992) Autobiography of an Awakening from Yogananda’s earlier life story. For what it’s worth.
The Autobiography contains numerous claims of miraculous healings, levitation, bilocation and raising of the dead by various members in the SRF line of gurus, and others of Yogananda’s acquaintance.
With less of an eye toward the probability of such miracles occurring, however, the Swiss psychologist Carl Jungwho himself spent time in Indiahad praised the study of yoga in general (as distinct from its practical application, which he explicitly discouraged):
Quite apart from the charm of the new and the fascination of the half-understood, there is good cause for yoga to have many adherents. It offers the possibility of controllable experience and thus satisfies the scientific need for “facts”; and, besides this, by reason of its breadth and depth, its venerable age, its doctrine and method, which include every phase of life, it promises undreamed-of possibilities (in Yogananda, 1946).
The phrase “undreamed-of possibilities” has since been adopted by SRF as the title of an introductory booklet distributed in their churches and elsewhere. Jung’s attitude toward Yogananda’s writings in particular, however, was far less of a marketing department’s dream:
Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi ... provoked Jung’s sarcasm because its cream puff idealism contained not a single practical “antidote to disastrous population explosion and traffic jams and the threat of starvation, [a book] so rich in vitamins that albumen, carbohydrates, and such like banalities become superogatory.... Happy India!” (Paine, 1998).
Jung, though, is an interesting study himself:
The brilliant thinker Carl Jung’s opportunistic support of the Nazis ... is amply documented. In 1933 he became president of the New German Society of Psychotherapy. Soon thereafter, he wrote the following vicious nonsense (seldom mentioned by his admirers nowadays):The Jews have this similarity common with women: as the physically weaker one they must aim at the gaps in the opponent’s defenses ... the Arian [sic] unconscious has a higher potential than the Jewish (Askenasy, 1978).
In any case, the Autobiography itself is dedicated to the “American saint” and prodigious horticulturalist Luther Burbank (1849 1926). Yogananda began visiting Burbank in 1924, and the latter in return endorsed Paramahansa’s ideas on education. (The Burbank potato is named after Luther; Burbank, California, however, is not.) Interestingly, Burbank’s mother had gone to school with the girl (Mary Sawyer) upon whose experiences the “Mary Had a Little Lamb” poem is based.
Yogananda (1946; italics added) expressed his positive feelings toward Luther as follows:
[Burbank’s] heart was fathomlessly deep, long acquainted with humility, patience, sacrifice.... The modesty with which he wore his scientific fame repeatedly reminded me of the trees that bend low with the burden of ripening fruits; it is the barren tree that lifts its head high in an empty boast.
Given that glowing evaluation, however, descriptions of Burbank’s character which go contrary to what one might expect from a “humble, modest saint” become very relevant. Thus:
Conflicting with the independence conferred by his self-esteem was his love of approval by others. Though he would do nothing dishonest to earn such approval (for that would have brought self-condemnation), he eagerly accepted it as no more than his due. “There are striking instances,” says [fellow horticulturalist and writer George] Shull, “in which the combination of these two dominant traits produces one instant the most profound modesty and the next instant almost blatant self-praise” (Dreyer, 1975).
Indeed, by 1908, Burbank had come to the immodest conclusion that, having surpassed Darwin in the number of plants he had raised, he was “therefore”
“the greatest authority on plant life that had ever lived.” This being the case, he felt that he was better qualified than anyone else to pronounce on the subject of evolution (Dreyer, 1975).
On that same subject, however: Burbank believed in the inheritance of only acquired traits, and was himself actually regarded by the Soviet quack geneticist Lysenko as being one of “the best biologists.” Notwithstanding that unfortunate association with such an unscientific protégé of Stalin, Shull (in Dreyer, 1975) offered this opinion of Luther’s claims in general:
[Burbank] had an “exaggeration coefficient” of about ten ... all his figures should be divided by this number to get an approximation of the truth.
Of course, were anyone to display such characteristics as the above without having been titled as a “modest, humble saint” by a great yoga master or the like, the same behaviors would be seen as the height of ego. Indeed, a South African customerH. E. V. Pickstonewho visited Burbank in 1904 and spent the day with him, had this to say:
I was disappointed with his personality ... I found him too much of an egoist ... I do not think he can be considered a great man from any angle (in Dreyer, 1975).
Regardless, Burbank not only suggested that he had aided the development of his plants by sending them “thoughts of love,” but believed himself to be psychic. Indeed, he “insisted that he possessed the ability to heal by a laying-on of hands, citing several cases in which he had employed it” (Dreyer, 1975). Those “healings” were given both to humans and to ailing plants.
Burbank was again famed for introducing between eight hundred and a thousand new plant varieties, over fifty years of effort, including a “spineless” cactus. Yogananda (1946) gives one account of Luther’s development of that plant:
“The secret of improved plant breeding, apart from scientific knowledge, is love.” Luther Burbank uttered this wisdom as I walked beside him in his Santa Rosa garden. We halted near a bed of edible cacti.
“While I was conducting experiments to make ‘spineless’ cacti,” he continued, “I often talked to the plants to create a vibration of love. ‘You have nothing to fear,’ I would tell them. ‘You don't need your defensive thorns. I will protect you.’ Gradually the useful plant of the desert emerged in a thornless variety.”
I was charmed at this miracle.
However, from Dreyer (1975) we learn:
[Burbank] had assiduously collected varieties of cactus from Mexico, South Africa and other countries until one finally turned up that was without the usual spines on the stalks, and another that lacked spicules on the leaves. These characteristics were combined in a single plant by hybridization after an extensive series of crossings, and a spineless cactus ... was produced. Now and then a spine still occurred on the stems.... Burbank demonstrated the harmlessness of his cactus by softly rubbing his cheek against the pads. It was a remarkable achievement. But it was no miracle.
Regarding the discipline given by Yogananda to his disciples: Durga Mata (1992) relates that at one point in 1948, when Yogananda was in a very high state of samadhi, he talked aloud to what he took to be a vision of the Divine Mother. The latter would then answer back in Yogananda’s own voice ... laying out the flaws of the disciples present and absent, against Yogananda’s entreaties not to punish them.
Of course, if Yogananda really was conversing with the cosmic Feminine force underlying all creation, one could hardly find fault with any of that criticism. One cannot, after all, “second guess” God.
God Herself spending time criticizing others who weren’t even present, and threatening punishment on the ones who were there, for utterly minor exhibitions of selfishness, though, does seem more than a bit odd. It is, indeed, more consistent with Yogananda’s own personality than with what one might expect from “God”:
[Shelly Trimmer] spent about a year with [Yogananda] at the SRF headquarters in Los Angeles but then left.... Although he has retained great affection and respect for Yogananda, he also acknowledges his weaknesses. “He loved to order women aboutafter all he was a Hindu.... He had a violent temper and was a little bit arrogant” (Rawlinson, 1997).
It is well known that Yogananda took great delight in the technological innovations of his day, including the garbage disposal. Less celebrated are his own alleged contributions to the progress of science and technology, as per Walters (2002):
I would say that Paramhansa [sic] Yogananda was a prophet for the New Age. Monasteries? yes, but far more than that....
In pursuit of universal upliftment [he] spoke, in private conversation with me, of certain inventions he had inspired, or in one case discovered among practices in India and elsewhere.... He even said he’d introduced the concept of covers on toilet seats.
It is not easy to know how to react to such a claim. Nor is it easy to know where to rank it in comparison with the scatological inspirations of Bhagawan Nityananda, for example.
Perhaps it is enough to simply say, “Jai, guru. Jai.”
Of course, no guru could have worked for years in Los Angeles without accumulating a few “star” disciples. Famous followers and acquaintances of Yogananda, then, have included Greta Garbo (who also frequented the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Vedanta Center in Hollywood) and the actor Dennis Weaver (Gunsmoke). The latter used to give monthly sermons at the SRF Lake Shrine temple, located where L.A.’s Sunset Boulevard meets the Pacific Ocean, near Malibu.
A stone sarcophagus in that same park-like setting contains the only portion of Mahatma Gandhi’s ashes to exist outside of India. (Yogananda claims in the Autobiography to have initiated Gandhi into kriya yoga in 1935. There is much reason, however, to question whether the Mahatma actually practiced that technique on any regular basis afterward.) Of course, it is actually against Hindu religious practice to keep the ashes of a departed soul for display, as opposed to scattering them into bodies of water: “When the ashes are kept on the land, the belief is that the soul remains caught on Earth and is never released into the ‘afterlife.’” Or, alternatively, to remove any of the ashes of the deceased is regarded as similar to taking a limb from a live individual (Strelley, 1987).
Be that as it may, Supertramp’s Roger Hodgson once wrote a song“Babaji,” from 1977’s Even in the Quietest Moments albuminspired by Yogananda’s teachings. In that case, the lyrics were motivated by the Himalayan guru upon whose behest kriya yoga was given to the world, through Yogananda for one. Hodgson further spent time at the northern California “Ananda” ashram of one of Yogananda’s direct disciplesJ. Donald Walters, a.k.a. Kriyananda. His sister Caroline has resided in the same community. Indeed, Roger met his future wife, Karuna, when the latter was living in a teepee in that very ashram.
George Harrison, although not himself a disciple of Yogananda, was interviewed for SRF’s “Lake Shrine” video, quoting there from Sri Yukteswar’s (1977) book, The Holy Science. (Ravi Shankar was featured in the same film. Shankar introduced George to Yogananda’s writings in 1966.) At Harrison’s prompting, images of four of the SRF line of gurusBabaji, Lahiri Mahasaya, Sri Yukteswar and Yoganandawere included on the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s album cover collage. (Jesus was omitted so as to not further aggravate public religious feelings still raw from Lennon’s “the Beatles are more popular than Jesus Christ” observation.) References to Yogananda in Harrison’s solo work include the songs “Dear One,” “Life Itself” and “Fish on the Sand.” Harrison’s family further donated the U.S. proceeds from the re-release, in early 2002, of his “My Sweet Lord” single, to SRF.
Madonnayes, that Madonna, againhas likewise spoken positively of Yogananda’s Autobiography. Pamela Anderson (2005) herself has swooned top-heavily over Paramahansa’s (1986) Divine Romance. And the brilliant comedian/actor Robin Williamsa friend of both George Harrison and Christopher Reeve, having roomed at Juilliard with the latteractually subscribed to at least part of the SRF Lessons series. That, at least, according to a former-Deadhead monk whom I met during my own otherwise-unpleasant stay in the SRF ashrams, which will be detailed later on.
Gary “Dream Weaver” Wrightanother friend of Harrison’shas also been rumored to be an SRF member.
The King of Rock and Roll, too, found inspiration in the kriya yoga path:
Elvis loved material by guru Paramahansa Yogananda, the Hindu founder of the Self-Realization Fellowship (Cloud, 2000).
Following Yogananda’s passing, Presleywhom we may dub a hillolayavatar, or “incarnation of rock and roll”actually made numerous phone calls and trips, over a twelve-year period, to see SRF’s Daya Mata. (Apparently she reminded him of his deceased mother, as did the Theosophical Society’s famously unkempt and grotesquely obese Madame Blavatsky.) Indeed, the Meditation Garden at Gracelandwhere Elvis came to be buriedis said to have been inspired by SRF’s Lake Shrine (Mason, 2003). Elvis actually “took this spiritual inquiry so seriously that he considered devoting the rest of his life to it by becoming a monk” (Hajdu, 2003).
Ironically, as we have seen, had Presley taken such a step, it needn’t have negatively impacted his sex life at all.
Elvis was famed for, among other things, his ownership of a pink 1955 Cadillac. And amazingly, it has been reportedthough also later disputed, in terms of its (possibly re-painted?) colorthat Daya Mata’s normal means of transportation to the SRF Mother Center atop Mount Washington in Los Angeles is via a fifteen-minute commute in a “vintage pink Cadillac.” (That drive is from a nearby million-dollar “palace in the suburban Himalayas,” at 200 South Canon Avenue in Sierra Madre. The house itself is said to have been a 1966 gift from the late billionaire tobacco heiress, Doris Duke [Russell, 2001].)
The present author, however, has no information to suggest that those two are actually the same car. Indeed, it would perhaps be just as well if it wasn’t the same vehicle. For, the potential irony of a bunch of nuns driving around in a car full of “good vibrations” from a back seat on which The King must have had his way with how many nubile girlsliterally a different one every night, in his younger daysis just too delicious to consider.
No small amount of any sage’s “proof” of his divinity invariably comes from his working of purported miracles, even if he may simultaneously downplay their importance as mere “signs and wonders.” Thus:
[Yogananda] said that he knew how to walk on fire, and to go without eating indefinitely, but that God did not want him to perform such feats, for his mission was to teach and bring souls back to God through kriya yoga and love (Mata, 1992).
“Walking on fire,” however, is wholly explicable in terms of the known laws of physics. Indeed, according to scientists, it neither requires nor benefits from any advanced “mind over matter” mental preparation or the like. In fact, as early as the 1930swell within Yogananda’s lifetimethe Council for Psychical Research “issued reports stating that religious faith and supernatural powers were unrelated to firewalking.” Instead, they ascribed the success in that endeavor to the “low thermal conductivity of the burning wood, and the relatively small amount of time that contact occurs between the hot coals and a participant’s feet” (Nisbet, 2000).
In Fiji, Hawaii, and Japan, a variation of the stunt is performed on lava stone, which also [like hot coals] has very poor conductivity and low specific heat, and is similar to the “heat shield” ceramic used on the outer skin of the space shuttle (Randi, 1995).
One scientific investigation carried out by Chas R. Darling and reported in Nature, Sept. 28, 1935, consisted of pressing a thermal junction on to the fire intermittently so as to imitate the period of contact of each foot and the interval between each step. [A] number of separated [sic] trials showed a rise of 15 20 °C in the junctionconclusive proof that the feet of the performer would not be hot enough for blistering to occur (Edwards, 1994).
Still, “don’t try it at home.”
Regarding the inedia which the portly Yogananda claimed for himself, it is interesting to note that he vouched for a similar talent for the famed Catholic stigmatist Therese Neumann. Indeed, he even credited her a comparable supposed basis to his own, in the purported chakric ingestion of subtle energies.
In support of the yogi’s ostensible first-hand knowledge of Neumann’s genuineness and metaphysical means of living “by God’s light,” we learn that Therese’s local German bishop
instigated a surveillance in 1927 that purportedly produced definitive evidence in favor of her claims, but the observations were only for fifteen days. Therese’s urine was monitored during this time and for the following fortnight. A study of the results ... is as expected for the period of observation (Nickell, 1998).
the post-observation data [see Wilson, 1988] were indicative of “a return to normal, suggesting that once Therese was no longer subject to round-the-clock observation, she went back to normal food and drink intake.” Magnifying the suspicion was Therese’s subsequent refusal to undergo further surveillance (Nickell, 1998).
Neumann’s claimed stigmata fares only marginally better, in spite of Yogananda’s (1946) equal certainty as to its validity:
Therese showed me a little, square, freshly healed wound on each of her palms. On the back of each hand, she pointed out a smaller, crescent-shaped wound, freshly healed. Each wound went straight through the hand. [That must be a mere assumption on Yogananda’s part, as he would not have physically verified that the wound was continuous from front to back, by passing anything through it.] The sight brought to my mind distinct recollection of the large square iron nails with crescent-tipped ends, still used in the Orient.
Others less credulous, however, have given additional, uncomplimentary information:
[A] Professor Martini conducted a surveillance of Therese Neumann and observed that blood would flow from her wounds only on those occasions when he was persuaded to leave the room, as if something “needed to be hidden from observation” [i.e., in manually inflicting superficial wounds on herself]. He added: “It was for the same reason that I disliked her frequent manipulations behind the raised [bed] coverings”....
[The stigmata shifted] from round to rectangular over time, presumably as she learned the true shape of Roman nails (Nickell, 2001).
In another equally impressive attempt at parapsychology, Yogananda (1946) related his encounter with a “Perfume Saint” in India, the latter being credited with the power of manifesting scents on demand:
I was a few feet away from Gandha Baba; no one else was near enough to contact my body. I extended my hand, which the yogi did not touch.
“What perfume do you want?”
“Be it so.”
To my great surprise, the charming fragrance of rose was wafted strongly from the center of my palm.
The late magician Milbourne Christopher (1975), however, offered a very simple explanation for Paramahansa’s reported “miraculous” experience:
Yogananda, who did not know how the feat was accomplished, erred in saying the yogi did not touch his hand before the rose fragrance came from it. In this presentation the performer secretly breaks the proper pellet [of the requested perfume enclosed in wax, hidden under a fingernail] as soon as a scent is named; the perfume wets the ball of his thumb. Instructing the spectator to extend his hand, the performer reaches across to grasp it with his thumb on the palm and his fingers on the back. As he does this, the performer says, “I want you to turn your hand palm down. I will not touch it.” The spectator remembers the words, not the action, of the performer. The performer moves several feet away. While standing at a distance, he tells the spectator to turn his hand palm upward. The scent is not perceptible until the spectator’s hand turns and the fragrance rises upward to his nostrils....
With a dozen tiny pellets, an adept showman can convince a skeptical investigator that “any” perfume can be materialized.
Yogananda himself, though, may not have been an innocent stranger to the means behind such “parlor tricks.” For, consider the following demonstration of “yogic powers” on his part:
[Yogananda] interrupted his talk to ask if there were a doctor in the audience. A man stood up and Swamiji asked him to come on the stage. He requested the doctor, “Take my pulse and tell me what you feel.” The doctor felt his wrist, looking perplexed at first and then amazed. “There is no pulse,” he answered. Swamiji then told him to take the pulse on the other wrist. The doctor’s facial expression turned from amazement to incredulity. He said, “Swami Yogananda, this is impossible. Your pulse is pounding at an incredible speed.” He quickly tried the other side again and said, “This side is normal.” He came down from the stage into the audience shaking his head and mumbling, “Impossible, impossible” (Charlton, 1990).
And yet, as the East Indian rationalist Basava Premanand (2005) has noted:
[The cessation of the pulse at the wrists] is done by stopping the flow of blood to the hands by keeping a lemon, or a small ball or a rolled handkerchief in the armpits and pressing. Doctors do not in the confusion check the heartbeat but check the pulse and confirm that the pulse is stopped.
In the SRF Lessons (Yogananda, 1984), we are further informed of the following metaphysical claim:
In rare instances ... a person who has lived a very animalistic existence is drawn into the body of an animal, to learn some lesson. This explains the “thinking dogs” and “thinking horses” which have puzzled scientists who have tested them.
The Lessons were compiled and edited by Yogananda’s direct disciples, under his oversight. Thus, one cannot know whether Paramahansa himself was solely responsible for the above insight, or whether it should rather be credited to members of the current Board of Directors, for example (or to Kriyananda, who also worked on that editing). Either way, though, the “explanation” offered above to scientistswhether puzzled or otherwiseis radically mistaken.
The most famous of the “thinking horses” of the twentieth century were Lady Wonder and Clever Hans.
Learned professors were convinced that Hans could work out his own solution to mathematical problems and had a better knowledge of world affairs than most fourteen-year-old children (Christopher, 1970).
Lady Wonder was equally feted by the New York World in 1927, as allegedly being able to “read minds, predict the future and converse in Chinese.” Yet, that did not stop her from being conclusively debunked by Milbourne Christopher in 1956:
As a test, Christopher gave Lady’s trainer, Mrs. Claudia Fonda, a false name, “John Banks”.... When Christopher subsequently inquired of Lady, “What is my name?,” the mare obligingly nudged the levers [of the horse’s large “typewriter”] to spell out B-A-N-K-S....
Mrs. Fonda gave a “slight movement” of her training rod whenever Lady’s head was at the correct letter (Nickell, 2002).
Further experimentation by Christopher disclosed that Fonda had herself been deceptively utilizing the mentalists’ trick of “pencil reading”in visually following the movements of the free end of a pencil, to discern what number had been written down by a questioner. She was then cueing Lady Wonder with that information, thus allowing the horse to fake “telepathy” well enough to fool the credulous parapsychologist J. B. Rhine.
Earlier in the twentieth century, Clever Hans had fared no better when tested by Oskar Pfungst:
Pfungst’s study revealed that the horse could give a correct answer only if the questioner knew it. When Pfungst shielded the eyes of the animal, the hoof remained still. It was reasonable to suppose at this point that [Hans’ owner] was cueing Hans subconsciously. Further study ruled out signals by touch or sound. Pfungst now centered his observations on the questioner. He discovered that Hans started stamping when the questioner leaned forward ever so slightly to see the hoof in action. Hans stopped when the man relaxed even a fraction....
Then Pfungst played horse himself. He rapped with his right hand as friends posed queries. Twenty-three out of twenty-five questioners gave the starting and stopping cue without realizing it. Pfungst’s answers were as baffling to them as the horse’s had been (Christopher, 1970).
“Not so clever now, eh, Hans?” Nor such a Clever Paramahansa. For, while “thinking” dogs, pigs, goats and geese have all been exhibited over the course of the past few centuries, ordinary training and conscious or subconscious cueing can account for all of their celebrated behaviors. Thus, independent of whether or not reincarnation exists, there is no rational reason to believe that it has anything to do with such “thinking.”
Note, further, how similar cues to those given unconsciously by the questioners of Clever Hans would have to be present and relevant in the search for tulkus. For, the latter are again children who are asked to identify the possessions of their “previous incarnation,” from among a set of objects ... where others in the room with the child know what the right answer is. A suitably sensitive or crafty child, even if only a few years old, might well be able to pick up on such inadvertent cues, just as a relatively dumb horse can. Voilà! an “incarnation,” who will very quickly have additional “miraculous” events incorporated into the myth of his “recognition.” And thereby do utterly normal rainbows, coincidental dreams, and otherwise-irrelevant pails full of forgotten milk become “signs.”
Of course, such searches are typically initially motivated by a lama’s dream of a particular house, or of a family with specific characteristics, living in a certain direction, etc. But even there, “seek andstatisticallyye shall find.” That is so, even without later “revisionist histories” as to the details of the original events, to emphasize particular attributes of the dream. For, it is unavoidable that elements of the dream which, at the time of dreaming, were no more important than any others, will assume purported significance when a promising family is found, which matches some of the selectively chosen “facts” revealed in the dream, but misses completely on othersas it invariably will. With equal certainty, those “misses” will not be mentioned in later recountings of the “recognition” myth.
Seen in that light, the reported poor behaviors, in sex and violence, of contemporary and past tulkus and Dalai Lamas become very understandable. For, those “reincarnated sages” are, after all, very ordinary people, who were simply placed into extraordinary circumstances from childhood onward. And even an otherwise-average person could “play holy,” as they do publicly, if that was all he had ever been taught how to do. (Cf. Krishnamurti. Yogananda, too, was trained from earliest childhood to be a “spiritual engine,” destined to bring others to God.)
Yogananda (in Kriyananda, 1974) offered numerous predictions for the future, prior to his passing in the early 1950s. Included among those were an anticipated “revolution” in America against governmental interference; the end of England as a world power; and the prophecy that China would “end up absorbing Japan.” The yogi further foresaw a Third World War, around the 1970s, to spread communism throughout “much of the free world.” Following that would be a fourth such war, “toward the last decade” of the twentieth century. That conflict was fated to devastate Europe, annihilate (communist) Russia, and leave America victorious, ushering in a new age of peace for hundreds of years.
A terrible [economic] depression is coming, far worse than the last one!....
In the next century Boston will have a tropical climate, and the people there will be brown skinned (in Kriyananda, 1974).
We shall have to see, of course, what becomes of the Bostonian climate in the future, what with global warming and all.
In any case, the booklet in which all of the above wildly wrong predictions were preserved by Yogananda’s schismatic direct disciple Kriyananda is by now, understandably, long out of print. (The above are not merely the most-wrong of Paramahansa’s predictions in that book, but are rather a concise summary of his prognostications. Were there any non-obvious and correct prophecies therein, I would happily have included them here. There are not.)
Yogananda himself claimed to have lived at Stonehenge around 1500 BC in a previous incarnation, and asserted that Winston Churchill was the reincarnation of Napoleon. (Churchill’s [1874 1965] life, however, overlapped with Aurobindo’s, with the latter, too, again claiming to be the reincarnation of Monsieur Bonaparte.) Also according to Yogananda, Hitler was Alexander the Great. In the same vein, Kriyananda (1977) relates Paramahansa’s declaration that Benito Mussolini was Marc Anthony; Kaiser Wilhelm was Julius Caesar; Stalin was Genghis Khan; Charles Lindbergh was Abraham Lincoln; and Therese Neumann was Mary Magdalene. (Neumann died in 1962; Rajneesh’s Vivek, claiming the same reincarnation, was born before then; etc.)
Among the SRF gurus, Lahiri Mahasaya was, according to the same source, both King Janaka and the poet Kabir. Likewise, Babaji (as with Aurobindo) was believed to be the reincarnation of Krishnawith Yogananda himself being the Bhagavad Gita’s Arjuna, Krishna’s most beloved disciple. As he himself explained parts of that:
[Rajasi JanakanandaJames J. Lynn, Yogananda’s most advanced male disciplewas] one of the [Bhagavad Gita’s] twins, the positive one, Nakula. He was my favorite brother and I loved him more than anyone else. I was also his Guru then too. Krishna was my guru and Babaji, being Krishna, is still my guru, Sri Yukteswarji was my guru by proxy for Babaji (in Mata, 1992).
Yogananda further said that he himself would reincarnate in a few hundred years, “just to sit in back and meditate.”
All of the gurus in the SRF lineage (i.e., Krishna, Jesus, Babaji, Lahiri Mahasaya and Sri Yukteswar) are additionally believed to be avatars. Yukteswar is also held to have been the reincarnation of the stigmatist Saint Francis of Assisi.
“Sir,” I asked Master [i.e., Yogananda] one day at his desert retreat, “are you an avatar?”
With quiet simplicity he replied, “A work of this importance would have to be started by such a one” (Kriyananda, 1979).
Indeed, Yogananda often said of SRF and kriya yoga, “This work is a special dispensation of God” (Kriyananda, 1979). He further prophesied that it would sweep the world “like wildfire” over the coming millennia, to the point where “millions would come.”
As expected, there is an asserted connection with Jesus as well:
“Babaji, Lahiri Mahasaya, and Sri Yukteswar,” [Yogananda] announced, “were the three wise men who came to visit the Christ child in the manger” (Kriyananda, 1979).
Others (e.g., Burke, 1994) have suggested that Yogananda was also previously John the Beloved (i.e., Jesus’ apostle, John).
Yogananda himself claimed, on other occasions, to be the reincarnation of William the Conqueror. The latter king, being the illegitimate son of Robert I, Duke of Normandy, and a tanner’s daughter, was also known as William the Bastard. He was actually reputed to be able to heal scrofula (a kind of tuberculosis) with a mere “king’s touch.”
In later years Yogananda revealed to me why he called me his “giant returned.” Yogananda in a past existence had been William the Conqueror.
I experienced in a vision the Battle of Hastings as King William conquered England. I was beside him in this battle, and was of such stature I could look him straight in the eyes while standing beside him as he sat astride his horse. I carried a gigantic battle axe which in effect allowed no harm to come to his person (Paulsen, 1984).
However: Even a very small war horse of, say, fourteen hands at the shoulder, with the nearly six-foot tall William ensconced in its saddle, would dictate a standing “giant” around an unbelievable eight and a half feet tall, for their eyes to be at the same level.
Yogananda (1986) continues:
Quite a few people have heard me mention a previous life in which I lived for many years in England. Experiences of that life come clearly to my mind. There were certain details about the Tower of London [a historic fortress, originally a royal palace built by William the Conqueror after the Battle of Hastings, and today displaying the Crown Jewels] that I remembered very well, and when I went there in 1935 I saw that those places were exactly as I had seen them within.
Or, as Kriyananda/Walters (2002) relates it:
Master had told Daya that she was one of his daughters when he was William the Conqueror. One couldn’t help feeling that there was a certain regal quality about Daya Mata, as also about Virginia, her sister, who now bears the name Ananda Mata, and who also was closely related to Master during that lifetime. I came to believe, though Master had never told me so, that I was Daya’s youngest brother, Master’s son, in that incarnation.
Yogananda further said of one of Durga Mata’s brothers:
[H]e was with me in a previous life. If you will recall, when William the Conqueror fell upon landing in England, one of his men [i.e., the current brother] told William, “This fall is a bad omen, let us turn back” (Mata, 1992).
William himself, however, seems to have exhibited somewhat less than the “omnipresent divine love” with which Yogananda has since been credited:
When William was in his early twenties he asked Count Baldwin V of Flanders for his daughter Matilda’s hand in marriage. [Matilda was a diminutive 4' 2", or half the height of Paulsen’s alleged gigantic incarnation.] But Matilda was already in love with an Englishman named Brihtric. She supposedly proclaimed that she would rather become a nun than the wife of a bastard, which made William so angry that he attacked her in the street as she left church one day. He slapped her, tore her clothes, threw her to the ground, and rode off (Royalty, 2003).
William and Matilda were actually distant cousins, causing the pope to object to their eventual marriage on grounds of incest. Indeed, His Holiness went so far as to excommunicate the “happy couple”and everyone else in Normandyfor several years; relenting only at William’s promised building of two new abbeys.
In later years, in search of greater conquests,
William gathered together a great army in Normandy, and had many men, and sufficient transport-shipping. The day that he rode out of the castle to his ships, and had mounted his horse, his wife came to him, and wanted to speak with him; but when he saw her he struck at her with his heel, and set his spurs so deep into her breast that she fell down dead; and the earl rode on to his ships, and went with his ships over to England (Sturlson, 1997).
[H]e was merciless in the suppression of political opposition. In fact, so merciless was he that he introduced the act of beheading to England in 1076 (Silverman, 2003).
To be fair, however, William B. was said to have been “obsessed by guilt over his treatment of Waltheof [the first Saxon to lose his head, while all around were keeping theirs] until his own death a decade later” (BBC, 2003). And that, from a man who had a lot to feel guilty about:
William loved gold too much ... he had a passion for hunting and protected his game by savage laws which made beasts more valuable than men (Walker, 1968).
And at other times, when on the warpath:
Twenty-six unfortunate citizens [from the town of Alençon] were lined up and their hands and feet were cut off, partly for vengeance, partly to terrify the garrison. The savagery was successful. William was rarely driven to that point of anger again (Walker, 1968).
“Rarely”? How often is “rarely”?
The chronically obese bastard himself sadly met with a somewhat unsavory end. For, while on horseback fighting the French at the Battle of Mantes, William’s intestines were ruptured in his being thrown violently against the iron pommel of his saddle. From the internal pollution of that injury peritonitis quickly set in, resulting in his slow death, over a five-week period, in 1087 at age sixty.
During the ensuing funeral procession, mourners were forced to leave his coffin in the hot sun while fighting a nearby fire. From that heat, William’s pus- and waste-filled intestinal abscess swelled. Further, the prepared sarcophagus into which dear William was to be placed for all eternity had, alas, been built too short to accommodate the full height of the ex-king.
Attempting to squeeze him into that planned stone resting place, the overly enthusiastic undertakers finally pushed on William’s swelled abdomen to the point where the body burst. That error drenched his burial garb with pus, filling the St. Stephen’s abbey with that stench and sending the nauseous, overheated mourners racing for the church doors.
He was thenceforth quickly buried, and allowed to rest in peace ... until 1522, when the body was exhumed, examined, and re-interred. From that point, it was left alone “until 1562 when the [Calvinist] Huguenots dug him up and threw his bones all over the courtyard” (Silverman, 2003). In the process, they trashed the gold, silver and precious-jewel monument marking the tomb.
Only a single thigh bone survived, which was preserved and reburied under a new monument in 1642. But even this was destroyed during the French Revolution (Grout, 2003).
Perhaps not fully aware of the relevant karmic history, SRF in the late 1990s set plans in motion to have Yogananda’s body moved. That is, they intended to relocate it from the Forest Lawn (Glendale, California) cemeteries wherein it had rested since his passingdown the hall from the tomb of Hopalong Cassidyto a planned shrine atop Mount Washington in Los Angeles (Russell, 1999).
Arguably best for everyone concerned, the plan was later dropped in the face of intense public opposition.
In addition to his life as William the Conqueror, Yogananda also claimed to be the reincarnation of William Shakespeare. There is, indeed, a vague facial resemblance between the two of them, as between Paramahansa and professed likenesses of William the Conqueror. And Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi is inarguably the work of a masterful author(s)whether one regards its stories as factual or fictional. Further, Yogananda (1982) explicitly encouraged his followers to study the Bard in particular:
Read Shakespeare and other classics, and suitable portions from practical books on such subjects as chemistry, physics, physiology, history of Oriental and Western philosophy, comparative religion, ethics and psychology.
Of course, having thus himself allegedly written all of William Shakespeare’s plays in that previous life, none of the following, well-known bawdy aspects embedded in those same works of art could have surprised Yogananda:
We find additional puns on four-letter “focative” and “genitive” cases; carets/carrots as “good roots”/penises; and “two stones” as probable testicles. Also, numerous references, both humorous and serious, to syphilis, the “malady of France” ... which, ironically, brings us full circle to the Norman Conquest under King William, the bastard.
All of that would, of course, make Yogananda’s strong emphasis, a few hundred years later, on celibacy and purity of thought for his own followers, a tad incongruous. (“But Sir, we were just discussing your writings!”)
Shakespeare himself passed away on his 52nd birthday in 1616, and remains buried in the Church of the Holy Trinity in Stratford-on-Avon. Having perhaps learned a lesson from previously disruptive post-mortem experiences, the (modernized) inscription on a sculpture of him there reads:
Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbear
Yogananda “shuffled off the mortal coil” for the final timei.e., entered mahasamadhiin 1952. Immediately thereafter, SRF has since widely claimed, his untenanted body began manifesting a “divine incorruptibility.”
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 Yogananda, 1998).
The editors at Self-Realization Fellowship (in SRF, 1976) then waxed eloquent:
This is as it should be. Paramahansa, flawlessly perfect soul that he was, could not possibly have chosen for tenement a body that was not in pre-established harmony with the purest conceivable soul.
And yet, as Robert Carroll (2004b) has noted:
The statement [quoted by SRF] of the director of Forest Lawn, Harry T. Rowe, is accurate, but incomplete. Mr. Rowe also mentioned that he observed a brown spot on Yogananda’s nose after twenty days, a sign that the body was not “perfectly” preserved. In any case, the SRF’s claim that lack of physical disintegration is “an extraordinary phenomenon” is misleading.... The state of the yogi’s body is not unparalleled, but common. A typical embalmed body will show no notable desiccation for one to five months after burial without the use of refrigeration or creams to mask odors.... Some bodies are well-preserved for years after burial.
And indeed, with regard to embalming, in the full text of Mr. Rowe’s letter, reprinted in the SRF-published (1976) Paramahansa Yogananda, In Memoriam, we find:
Paramahansa Yogananda’s body was embalmed on the night of March 8th, with that quantity of fluid which is customarily used in any body of similar size.
And the “miracle” then was ... what, exactly? Apparently, only that the body was relatively well preserved even with the funeral home having used no creams to prevent mold, in addition to the embalming. Yet even there, Harry Edwards’ (1995) research in soliciting the opinions of a pair of independent, licensed embalmers, disclosed the following experience on their parts:
“I’m sure we’ve had bodies for two or three months with good preservation. This is not unusual. Creams are not necessary” ... “preservation for twenty days through embalming is not unusual. We can keep a body a month or two without interral ... an embalming fluid with a lanolin base will have humecant which prevents dehydration, which is the major concern.”
As Edwards’ embalmers further noted, the circulation of air around Yogananda’s body would have been largely prevented by the casket’s heavy glass lid, with that too impeding the desiccation of the body.
So the “miracle” then was ... what, exactly? Perhaps only that SRF has gotten away, for over fifty years, with presenting a phenomenon which is perfectly ordinary, as if it was some kind of “sign” to prove the divinity of their eminently human founder.
Master had told some of us: “You need never concern yourselves about the leadership of our Society. Babaji has already selected those who are destined to lead this work” (Mata, 1971).
Following Yogananda’s passing, the presidency of SRF was assumed by his foremost disciple, James J. Lynn (Rajarsi/Rajasi Janakananda), a wealthy Kansas City businessman. At Yogananda’s prompting, Lynn had reportedly endowed SRF with up to six million dollars worth of cash, land and bonds.
Mr. Lynn himself was possessed of the following interesting characteristics:
Little Jimmy wore dresses and long hair up to the age of six....
Rajasi did not like ugliness in any form. For instance, if he dropped something on the floor and spilled its contents, he disgustingly [sic] walked out of the room as fast as he could so he would not have to see it (Mata, 1992).
Since Lynn’s passing in 1955, Self-Realization Fellowship has carried on with Daya Mata at the helm, after Durga Mata had declined the leadership offer owing to her own poor health and age (Mata, 1992).
A long-time friend of Durga’s later offered her opinion of Daya’s character, in Russell (1999), as being “weak and idealistic” in her younger days, but then getting “a taste of power” in India.
One interesting change made by SRF, soon after Rajasi’s passing and Daya Mata’s corresponding ascension into power, was in the very spelling of their founder’s name.
Yogananda wrote his title, Paramhansa, without the additional a in the middle. This is, in fact, how the word is commonly pronounced in India. The addition of that letter was made years later, on the advice of scholars in India, according to whom Paramahansa without the a, though phonetically true, was grammatically incorrect (Kriyananda, 1979).
That change was apparently made in 1958, coinciding with the SRF-sponsored visit of His Holiness Jagadguru (“World Teacher”) Sri Shankaracharya Bharati Krishna Tirtha to America. Tirtha himself was the “ecclesiastical head of most of Hindu India and the apostolic successor of the first Shankaracharya.”
Personally, I would never have followed Yogananda in the first place if I thought that he didn’t know how to spell his own name. (Similar issues to the above surround the past “Rajasi” versus current “Rajarsi” spellings of Lynn’s monastic name [Dakota, 1998].)
In any case, under Daya Mata’s governance SRF has weathered several recent scandals, including one involving the alleged sexual activities of a highly placed male monastic minister who was reportedly ultimately forced to leave the order. The handling of that difficulty allegedly included nearly one-third of a million dollars in compensation paid to the unfortunate woman involved. In that same context, however:
[Persons familiar with the details] contend that several top SRF leadersincluding Daya Matanot only turned a deaf ear to [the woman in question] after she sought help while still involved with the monk, but that those leaders attempted to ruin her reputation within the church even as they sought to preserve [the monk’s] monastic career.... “They [the church leadership] pretty much destroyed [the involved woman’s] faith and ruined her life” [a friend said] (Russell, 1999).
That is all the more disappointing, given the alleged “perfected being” nature of SRF’s leadership and its Board of Directors:
The people running [SRF] are supposedly enlightened siddhas, which makes it even more confusing, because how dare lay devotees question, or worse, challenge, what they have done? But then how can we swallow what’s being done (radical editing, photo alteration, and the rest of it [see Dakota, 1998])? (Kriya Yoga Discussion Board, 2001).
In a letter to me, SRF defined a siddha as one who is “unconditionally one with God, partaking of all God’s attributes, including those of omniscience, omnipresence and omnipotence” (Rawlinson, 1997).
Such beings would ostensibly never make mistakes. Yogananda himself essentially confirmed as much:
The actions of true masters, though not easily understood by worldly people, are always wisdom-guided, never whimsical (in Kriyananda, 1979).
A master’s word cannot be falsified; it is not lightly given (Yogananda, 1946).
Regarding “mistakes” and the like in Yogananda’s own life, however: It has been asserted that, in the February 1934 issue of the SRF-published East-West magazine, he had praised the Italian fascist leader Mussolini as being a “master brain,” who had been sent to Earth by God to serve as a role model for humanity. (I have not been able to obtain a copy of that issue myself, and so cannot corroborate that claim. Significantly, though, an earlier issue of East-West had approvingly included a short piece by Mussolini  himself, on “Science and Religion.”) A mere year later, however, the same dictator invaded Abyssinia (Ethiopia), in what has been viewed as the opening round of WWII.
Of course, that a guru would sympathize with a totalitarian dictator should really not be so surprising: There is, after all, very little actual difference between the two positions. (Interestingly, Pope Pius XI, too, “spoke of Mussolini as ‘a man sent by Providence’” [Cornwell, 1999].) That is so, even down to both sets of societies beginning, in the most generous reading, with the best of intentions for all, prior to their leaders becoming utterly corrupted in their exercise of power.
Nor, given the history of violence and suppression in our world’s secular totalitarian states, should we be surprised to find exactly the same intolerance for discontent being reportedly exhibited regularly on behalf of our gurus and other “infallible” beings. Excommunications and threats of eternal damnation for disloyalty, after all, serve to quell dissenting or independent viewpoints, and preserve the welfare of those in absolute power, just as well as politically motivated murders and bloody purges do.
A number of other kriya yogis have contributed colorful storylines to the history of yoga and Yogananda, while working both inside and outside of SRF itself.
One of those, Swami Kriyananda (J. Donald Walters), was unanimously elected by the SRF Board of Directors as vice president of Self-Realization Fellowship in 1960. (That board is of course the same “omniscient” group that had earlier elected Daya Mata as president.) Prior to that, he had worked, organized and lectured within SRF since 1948, upon entering the SRF monasteries at age twenty-two. On returning from India on SRF business in 1962, however, he was forced to leave the organization, despite his own entreaties to be allowed to stay and do anything except wash dishes there.
In relating his own side of that story, Walters (2002) regards the reasons for that that split as being “essentially political” in their nature.
That position, however, differs somewhat from what the Ananda Awareness Network website (www.anandainfo.com) has to say. For there, a number of “sexual indiscretion” reasons are alleged for that forced departure.
Whatever the specific grounds may have been for his expulsion, Walters had recovered enough by 1967 to purchase the first of the lands for his own “world brotherhood colony” or spiritual community, the Ananda Cooperative Village, near Nevada City in northern California. That 900-acre village currently hosts a population of around three hundred disciples of Yogananda, their devotion being filtered through Walters’ specific emphasis on “service,” in his casting of himself as a “channel” for Yogananda’s blessings. Worldwide, the Ananda group numbers around 2500 members; I myself was once officially among them.
The original landnow utilized only as a remote retreatfor that colony was acquired in a six-investor deal involving Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder. Also participating in that land deal was Richard Baker of the San Francisco Zen Center, a friend of Walters since 1967.
Walters’ motivations for founding the Ananda colony, and various subsequent satellites to it, included Yogananda’s (1946) explicit mission statement in the “Aims and Ideals of Self-Realization Fellowship”:
To spread a spirit of brotherhood among all peoples; and to aid in establishing, in many countries, self-sustaining world-brotherhood colonies for plain living and high thinking.
That goal has since been removed from the “Aims and Ideals” printed at the back of every copy of the Autobiography of a Yogi. The reader can easily confirm, however, via any reasonably comprehensive public library, that it was present in earlier editions. (Any version with a copyright in the 1940s or early ’50s should have it.) Yogananda voiced the wish for the establishing of those colonies in public lectures as well, encouraging
thousands of youths ... to cover the Earth with little colonies, demonstrating that simplicity of living plus high thinking lead to the greatest happiness (Kriyananda, 1979).
Or, as one of Yogananda’s other direct disciples, Kamala (1964), put it:
Master spoke to me about the value of SRF Colonies. He referred to the forming of groups within a city or a rural area in the manner of hermitage life, among members who do not desire to become renunciates, or cannot do so because of certain obligations. Such a life would enable each one to be in daily association with those who share the same spiritual goal. He described such Colonies as made up of married couples and their families, as well as single people, who have the will to serve, and to live in harmony with one another. Master envisioned the idea as one in which all may work together in a self-supporting group wherein each one is dedicated to God.
With his colony in place and growing, thence followed several marriages of Kriyananda in the 1980s to female devotees at Ananda. (Walters apparently still goes by the monastic “Swami Kriyananda” title when interacting with his students, for example.) More recently, allegations of sexual improprieties with other female followers have surfaced. Indeed, expert witness Pamela Cooper White reportedly told a California court in 1998 that, in her opinion,
Walters clearly fell within the profile of a clergy sex offender. She added that he was on the “most destructive, predatory end of that spectrum, that of the multiple repeat offender who deliberately seeks vulnerable women to exploit for his own sexual gratification” (Sullivan, 2003).
The same article lists no less than eight women accusing Walters of sex-related infractions, ranging from indecent exposure to sexual slavery.
Walters himself, however, has a different perspective on those alleged sexual encounters. Thus, in a court deposition (Walters, 1995; italics added), in response to the accusations of one of the women whom he reportedly admitted had massaged and masturbated him on eight separate occasions in early 1982, he apparently stated:
Let me repeat that it was not a romantic or passionate feeling, but it was a friendly feeling. I was not using [woman #2]. I did not feel that I was using her.
Her statements many years after the fact are not corroborated by my memory of her action then, which was in fact to thrust herself upon me, against my pleas to the contrary....
I was trying to be in seclusion. She and (woman #1) came down repeatedly to my house. And I said, please, leave me be. I want to be quiet, and I want to meditate and understand this confusion that I’m going through with (woman #7)’s departure. I was in a state of emotional shock, confusion and trauma, but I did not in any way notice at the time that she was being upset, hostile, resistant. Rather, quite the contrary, she was thrusting herself on me.
The woman (#2) in question was a twenty-something ex-student, just out of university, at the time; Walters was in his late fifties, balding and overweight.
Judging from Walters’ other (e.g., 2002) writings, unwanted attempts at seduction seem to be a recurring problem:
Many women, not unnaturally, saw in me their natural “prey”.... I remember one attractive lady emerging into the living room of her home from its inner apartment during my visit there. Completely naked, she chased me about the room until I finally managed to make good my escape!
Whew! That was a close one!
The hunter and the hunted“the hungry, attractive lioness stalks her unsuspecting, innocent prey,” etc.
“There but for the grace of God....”
Some monks have all the luck. But then, some monks apparently have all the “realization,” too:
At one point, Swami [Kriyananda] told me that he was greater than Gandhi and Sai Baba, that no one had the spiritual power he had (Woman #2, 1995).
The choice of Sai Baba for comparison was, of course, a singularly unfortunate one: the average housecat has more spiritual power than Sai Baba.
Norman Paulsen, founder of Santa Barbara’s Brotherhood of the Sun community, is another direct disciple of Yogananda. He resided in the SRF ashrams for four and a half years, from May of 1947 to November, 1951.
Norman had a heart almost as big as his body.... Not at all interested in the theoretical aspects of the path, he understood everything in terms of devotion....
“I don’t know any of those things!” he would exclaim with a gentle smile whenever I raised some philosophical conundrum. “I just know that I love God.” How I envied him his child-like devotion! (Kriyananda, 1979).
Obvious problems, however, can easily arise from such a simple perspective. Thus, in a plot worthy of George Lucas or Steven Spielberg, Paulsen regards human beings as having been created in the “lost lands of Mu” by “The Builders.” That is, created by peace-loving space refugees “from other worlds that had been destroyed by [their] evil conquerors [or ‘Fallen Angels’]” in a distant part of the galaxy. Such Builders were believed to have outrun their pursuers, half a million years ago, at speeds exceeding that of light. In that view, human beings are a genetic cross between The Builders’ own species and homo erectus.
The aforementioned “lost lands” were now-sunken island continents near to (and including) Australia, allegedly destroyed twelve thousand years ago by huge meteorites sent by the Fallen Angels, thus being “literally blasted out of the Earth’s crust” by those collisions. Fiji and many of the other islands between Australia and Hawaii, Paulsen claims, are simply the peaks of mountains from those submerged continents.
The “prequel” as to how those Fallen Angels came into being boils down to a group of unduly intrepid early Builders venturing into a forbidden area of the galaxy. There, they became trapped within a violent magnetic storm, and were predictably adversely affected by the negative energies of that region. Marooned on a (logically) “Forbidden Planet” in the same zone, “dark and sinister” forces so moved the physical bodies and minds of these unfortunate souls that
[s]uddenly the fallen Builders felt the urge emanating from within them to conquer and enslave the entire galaxy (Paulsen, 1984).
Theirand ourstory continues following the refugee Builders’ creation of the human species, with their (Builders) having been discovered here 350,000 years ago by their pursuers.
The Builders finally lost the war to defend the Earth against their fallen brethren, the Dark Angels, twelve thousand years ago. However, after their defeat, they vowed to return and take the Earth from the evil darkness of the Fallen Angels who now possess it. That vow is beginning to manifest itself today [via UFO encounters] (Paulsen, 1984).
Those insights are based on Paulsen’s own numerous meditative experiences/revelations. Indeed, in his view Jesus was “a Builder returned” to Earth. So too was the late shabd yogi Kirpal Singh. Further, the man himself claims to have been abducted by a UFO piloted by Builders from Jupiter. (Another “believer” with him, however, could not see that craft, when it later reappeared to Paulsen’s vision.) Also, to have constructed a “free energy” (i.e., perpetual motion) machine based on one-half of that abducting ship’s drive systems. And to have destroyed Lucifer himself in an astral battle.
Ah well, even the wise Yoda was never more than one letter removed from “yoga” anyway; just as the “Force,” or subtle means by which Aurobindo allegedly influenced world events, appears equally well in George Lucas’ world. (Lama Serkong Rinpoche’s “furrowed face and large, pointy ears had supposedly been the model for Yoda in the film Star Wars” [Mackenzie, 1995].)
Of course, one would not attempt to hold Yogananda or SRF responsible for every idea purveyed by disciples who have since left the organization. Nevertheless, when it comes to UFOs one cannot help but draw a connecting link. For, according to one of the respected and loyal direct disciples of Yogananda whom the present author personally met at the SRF Hidden Valley ashram, Paramahansa himself predicted that “if America were ever at war and losing, space aliens from UFOs would intervene.”
Well, let us pray it never comes to that.
On top of all that, we further have Roy Eugene Davis (2000; italics added), another direct disciple of Yogananda, who rushes in where the mere “channel,” Kriyananda, fears to tread:
[A]lmost all of Paramahansaji’s disciples have passed from this world. Of the few who remain, I am his only guru-successor. A few of his disciples teach the philosophical principles and practices of kriya yoga; I speak for, serve, and represent the tradition. It is my mission, which my guru confirmed.
One might be more inclined to take that seriously, had Yogananda not explicitly stated elsewhere that he was to be the last in the SRF line of gurus. Even Rajasi, like Daya Mata, was only the administrative president of SRF, not Yogananda’s “spiritual successor.” Were that not the case, one can hardly imagine other direct disciples presenting themselves as mere “channels” of Yogananda, as opposed to claiming explicit guru status for themselves. Even as it stands, that boundary is regularly pushed as far as it can go:
“It is generally understood, now, that the wisdom in Master’s teachings resides primarily in those who have been disciples for many years,” [J. Donald Walters] wrote in a recent open letter to the Ananda community. “It is also vitally important at Ananda that other energies not be allowed to intrude themselves, as if to bypass Kriyananda and go straight to our gurus for guidance and inspiration” (Goa, 1999).
Or, as the self-published Ananda Cooperative Village Membership Guidelines of 1976 (in Nordquist, 1978) put it:
Each prospective member should understand that joining Ananda ... means, too, following the leadership and personal guidance of Ananda’s founder, Swami Kriyananda, as the instrument for Yoganandaji’s direction.
In early versions of his Autobiography (1946), Yogananda had given the following information regarding one of his disciples:
The Washington leader is Swami Premananda, educated at the Ranchi school and Calcutta University. I had summoned him in 1928 to assume leadership of the Washington Self-Realization Fellowship center.
“Premananda,” I told him during a visit to his new temple, “this Eastern headquarters is a memorial in stone to your tireless devotion. Here in the nation’s capital you have held aloft the light of Lahiri Mahasaya’s ideals.”
The same Premananda soon became Paul Twitchell’s first spiritual teacherinitiating him into kriya yogaaround 1950, before the latter’s leaving to follow Kirpal Singh. Twitchell went on to found the Eckankar movement, with “tens of thousands of followers through the Western world” (Rawlinson, 1997). His authorized biography was later penned by the prolific New Age author Brad Steiger.
For the startling, near word-for-word similarities between numerous paragraphs in Twitchell’s writings and earlier-published texts, see David Lane’s www.neuralsurfer.com website, and his (1983) The Making of a Spiritual Movement. The inconsistencies between the various biographies of Twitchell are laid bare in the same latter book.
Twitchell passed away of a heart attack in 1971, “only months after predicting that he would live at least another five years.”
Premananda’s name and image have since been excised from SRF materials, including the Autobiography of a Yogi, apparently at Yogananda’s behest, following disloyal actions on the part of the former.
Nor is that the only relevant piece of information to be judiciously omitted from the Autobiography. As Williamson (2010; italics added) explained:
Yukteswar shunned supernatural stories of yogis performing miracles, while Yogananda’s autobiography is filled with miraculous tales of yogis wrestling tigers and Christian saints living without food. Satyananda’s biography of Sri Yukteswar states, “He [Yukteswar] believed that most of those supernatural stories were nonsense ... [and] that the extreme emotionalism of devotees spreading ridiculous stories about them brought their gurus down to a lower level instead of glorifying them”....
Yogananda indicated that his first meeting with his guru, Sri Yukteswar, was an answer to his own deep desire to know the truth. Yogananda (then known as Mukunda) was residing at an ashram in Banares when he heard “a divine womanly voice” tell him, “Thy Master cometh today!” Later that day while on an errand with a friend to purchase food for the ashram, he saw a face in the crowd that seemed familiar to him. He continued to walk on, telling himself that it was only his imagination. However, after walking a bit, he found that he could no longer move. He believed that the saint was “magnetically drawing him.” He walked over to the man and immediately recognized him as “the one I had seen in a thousand visions.” He knew spontaneously that this was not their first meeting, but that they had been together in previous lifetimes. He then followed his guru to a house overlooking the Ganges. There he vowed to love him eternally. As they talked, Sri Yukteswar spoke of occurrences in Yogananda’s life, and Yogananda realized that his guru knew everything about him....
Sri Yukteswar then told Yogananda that he must earn a university degree. This must have been difficult for Yogananda to accept since he was never interested in book learning, but this time he obeyed without question....
Swami Satyananda, Yogananda’s friend from boyhood, offers a different account of Yogananda’s first encounter with his guru. In his biography Yogananda Satsanga, Satyananda relates that when Yogananda left home in 1909 to live in an ashram, his parents became upset. His uncle suggested that they write to Sri Yukteswar, whom they considered a rational man, to convince Mukunda (Yogananda) to return home to continue his studies. So they wrote a letter to both Yukteswar and to Mukunda arranging a meeting. According to Satyananda, the two met on a street and Yukteswar asked Mukunda, “Are you the nephew of Sarada Babu?” Mukunda felt this man’s eyes penetrate his soul, and he knew that he would be his guru. Satyananda relates the feeling of love and surrender that Yogananda felt immediately upon meeting his guru, yet the magical elements found in Yogananda’s account are missing. Nowhere does Yogananda mention that he or his guru received a letter. In fact, disclosing information about the letter from Yogananda’s family to Sri Yukteswar would help the reader of the autobiography understand how Yukteswar knew some of the details of his new disciple’s life, knowledge that Yogananda attributed to clairvoyance.
Of course, not every aspect of Babaji’s kriya yoga mission is executed through SRF. There are, indeed, numerous independent groups tracing their lineage to the same great guru.
A highly placed member of one of those ancillary parties has described his own ashram life, under a guru (Yogi Ramaiah, a.k.a. Yogiyar) who was himself a disciple of the immortal Babaji:
In late January 1971, Yogiyar met with both Cher [no, not that Cherdifferent one; although the real Cher’s son is a non-celibate Hare Krishna] and the author together and informed them that despite all of the efforts they as a couple had made, the relationship should end, because the genuine love which the author had for Cher was no longer reciprocated by her. If the relationship were to continue, Cher would soon feel forced not only to leave the author, but kriya yoga as well. It was painful for the author because of the expectations he had for a long-term relationship with Cher. But he wanted Cher to be happy. Yogiyar also held out another route for her as an “ashramite,” wherein she would live in close proximity to him, and receive a higher level of training (Govindan, 1997).
Such “high-level, close-proximity training” of the woman appears to have worked wonders for her spiritual development:
Cher dedicated herself to kriya yoga and soon conceived a son, “Annamalai,” with Yogiyar (Govindan, 1997).
“I got you, babe.”
If one cares to step just a little further off this already infirm ledge into the truly wild unknown, one can easily find additional tales involving the Himalayan Babaji. Stories such as the following:
Babaji has had many bodies throughout human history. He can appear to you in any of them, or all of them at the same time. I have friends to whom Babaji appeared in many bodies as a parade. This appearance enlightened them. Since meeting Babaji in Herakhan in 1977, Babaji has appeared to me in many formsas a woman on a bicycle in Poland, as a bum in Washington DC, as a bird, as a snake....
Babaji is the Father of Jesus Christ (Leonard Orr, in [Churchill, 1996]; italics added).
Orr was a pioneer in the development of Rebirthing therapya deep-breathing means of releasing psychological blockages and ostensible past-life traumas (Garden, 1988).
Louise Valpied (in Churchill, 1996) likewise relates:
One experience was when my dog friend, Rafike, was seriously ill after being poisoned by a paralysis tick. I left the vet surgery not knowing whether I’d see her alive again. As I walked out the door, there was a little bird of a type I’ve never seen before, dancing from foot to foot. Without thinking, I knew it was Babaji saying, “Don’t worry, I am here, she’s fine.”
This is one of the times recently Babaji has communicated with me through a bird. This is happening more frequently.
Regarding the more humanoid appearances of the avatar, Dasgupta (2006) reported:
As to the picture of Babaji Maharaj, no one currently in circulation is authentic. One was drawn by Sananda Lal on outlines given by his illustrious brother Paramhamsa Yogananda. Yogananda claimed to have seen Babaji in a vision. But this picture does not conform to the descriptions given by Swami Sri Yukteswar.
Not to be outdone, Yogananda’s younger brother Bishnu claims a disciple, Bikram Choudhury. The latter has (literally) trademarked many aspects and asanas of his own “heat yoga,” so popular in Hollywood these halcyon days. Of that disciple-turned-teacherwho had George Harrison as a student back in ’69it is said:
Bikram brags about his mansion with servants in Beverly Hills and his thirty classic cars, from Rolls-Royces to Bentleys. He also claims to have cured every disease known to humankind and compares himself to Jesus Christ and Buddha. Requiring neither food nor sleep, he says, “I’m beyond Superman” (Keegan, 2002).
The Über-“Man of Steel” himself then apparently asserts that he has been the subject of blackmail threats on the part of his female students:
“What happens when they say they will commit suicide unless you sleep with them?” he asks. “What am I supposed to do? Sometimes having an affair is the only way to save someone’s life” (Carlson, 2002a).
Again, “there but for the grace of God....”
My own wholly non-humorous experiences with Self-Realization Fellowship included nine months spent as a resident volunteer at the men-only Hidden Valley ashram/hermitage outside Escondido, California. That occurred from October of 1998 to July of 1999, after I had been a loyal member of SRF for over a decade. While the emphasis there was never on “crazy wisdom”indeed, the environment was fairly bereft of any kind of wisdomthat still left plenty to be concerned about.
Although I regularly skipped the “mandatory” group meditations at Hidden Valley, the head monk there explicitly invited me, before I left, to come back whenever I wanted toI did not leave on bad terms with the organization. Indeed, during my stay, several of the office monks there offered, unsolicited, to write letters of recommendation for me, if I ever wanted to apply for a paid position, working at the Mother Center.
It was only after decompressing for several months from the oppressive weight of that experience, and comparing in detail the nonsense I observed there with the relatively benign “evil ways of the real world,” that I came to the conclusion that I had never met a complete fool in my life, outside of that setting. (I have since met and worked for half a dozen others, but at least none of them had “God on their side.”) Beyond that, it was only in discovering the SRF Walrus (2004) website in late 2001 that I began to understand that I was neither the only nor the first person to regard getting involved with that organization as the worst mistake of my life (up to that point).
On the bright side, I did meet a decent, direct descendant of Captain Morgan, the rum-runner, during that same stay. That association has indeed, in recent years, endeared me to some of the Captain’s finer pain-numbing products which, ironically, I had never felt any need to consume prior to spending too much time at Hidden Valley.
In the best of all possible readings, then, naïvely taking Yogananda to be everything that he and his disciples claim him to be, SRF shows how badly a mere two generations of followers, in a short half century, can mess things up. (The gospels were not written down until a comparable amount of time after Jesus’ crucifixion. For the Buddha and Ramakrishna, too, the extant stories were not recollected until well after their deaths. No one should then imagine that comparable degrees of distortion as are demonstrably found in SRF do not exist across all of those sanitized scriptures and hagiographies. Conversely, if Ramakrishna and Yogananda were as mixed-up as we have seen, what of the Buddha? Or what of the mischievous, amorous Krishna and his “gopis,” assuming that there is actually some factual basis to his mythological life? And what of Lao Tzu and Confucius? Are any of them more worthy of admiration than are the likes of Sai Baba and Adi Da?)
In Yogananda’s legacy, we have ashram leaders who, after fifty years of meditation, cannot distinguish between the subconscious and the superconscious mindteaching that pruning a tree or driving a car (like Zen’s view of practiced archery) are acts of intuition, rather than learned skills. And the next generation of lemmings, if they disagree with that or with anything else of what they are being taught, are simply exhibiting “ego.”
We also have “perfected” Board of Directors members who work in such “mysterious ways” that they require eighty hours of preparation to give an informal talk, or three years to approve the purchase of a fax machine. (Those, of course, are the same “sages” who will have been “pharaohs in Egypt,” etc.) Plus, we have ashrams, run according to “business principles,” which can hardly break even financially, even with receiving huge amounts of free labor.
If you “ran Egypt” in a previous life, you would surely be able to make good, common-sense business decisions in operating a simple, nonprofit ashram with free labor, no?
Of course, ashram-run businesses elsewhere are typically equally unsuccessful, for exactly the same reasons. Indeed, failed financial ventures under the far-seeing Jetsunma’s leadership reportedly included a typesetting business, much vaunted by her as being a “sure thing,” “partly because of the auspicious year of its inception.” Also, a microwaveable female hair care device with built-in gel packs, set to retail for $14.95 and fated to sell “millions” of unitsaccording to a dream which Jetsunma had. (When the internal, ashram company producing that product shut down, it was reportedly over half a million dollars in debt.) Finally, a New Age rock group, with the forty-something Jetsunma as its off-key lead singer (Sherrill, 2000).
Hidden Valley, more conservatively, limited itself to growing herbs, vegetables and hibiscus, processing third-party soil analysis numbers, writing software, and manufacturing meditation armrests and portable altars. Of those, the hibiscus, soil analysis and software were all supposed to be “cash cows.” (That was the specific phrase which the external project manager used in referring to the anticipated, web-based soil analysis income.) In practice, however, each simply gave support to the classic wag’s observation that “we’re losing money on every sale, but we’ll make it up in volume.”
The San Francisco Zen Center’s Alaya Stitchery likewise received essentially free labor (in return for room and board, etc.), yet often “lost money month to month, though its deficits went unnoticed for several years ... ‘no one seemed to notice that we were essentially paying to sell those clothes’” (Downing, 2001).
In Rajneesh’s communities, further:
Few ashramites worked at the jobs they’d been trained to do, Ph.D.’s collecting garbage, architects working as handymen, filmmakers as shoemakers, and ex-junkies as department heads (Franklin, 1992).
Hidden Valley skillfully incorporated the same principle. That is, they were training accountants who possessed no ability to take creative leaps in thought, to be computer programmers, while they simultaneously had established programmers doing office or garden work.
Plaster buddhas or greenhouse hibiscus; hair care or soil analysis; clothing or subsidized restaurants; East coast Poolesville or West coast Escondido, or up north to San Francisco or anything in betweenall are equally “divinely guided”; all are equally following “schmueprints in the ether.” The frequent failures of those schemes, then, simply get written off under the idea that “99% of what happens in the ashram is just for the [ego-killing] learning experiences of its residents anyway.” Or, those flops get blamed on the residents’ working off of bad karma, or their “lack of merit.” Why worry, then, about turning a profit, even if you’re simultaneously bragging that the organization is being run “according to business principles,” and that your religion will be the one to save the world from the clutches of Satan and other black cats?
And, to top it all off, there is always unsolicited pressure (at Hidden Valley and elsewhere) to the effect that “the more you meditate, the less you’ll feel the need to be creative.” In the limit of that, of course, one would be a God-realized vegetable, exhibiting neither independence nor creativity, and fit only to contribute money or free labor to “the Guru’s work.” (Is it any wonder that these places get called “cults” by people looking in from the outside?)
Further, to resist or question any of that nonsense gets one branded as having a “big head,” by persons who themselves have not a creative atom in their bodies.
In such a context, probably the best that one can say, with all possible sarcasm, is: Think of how much worse it might all be if Divine Mother and a lineage of avatar gurus weren’t guiding their actions!
Of course, the same best-case (reincarnational) scenario would raise additional questions with regard to karma and the overall behavior which one might expect from avatars and their ilke.g., in terms of beheading Saxons and Shakespearian bawdy. For, if Yogananda was freed many lifetimes ago, yet was incarnated relatively recently as both William the Conqueror and William Shakespeare, then both of thoseas reincarnations of Arjuna, if nothing elsemust have been either avatars or very close to such “perfection.”
One might yet feebly try to excuse William the Bastard’s non-saintly behaviors by suggesting that they were a product of his political position and period of history. That is, if one is willing to neglect his violently ill-tempered behavior toward his wife, which can be given no such absolution.
Fine. And Shakespeare’s equally non-saintly bawdiness was then comparably “someone else’s fault” ... how? For, the better selections from amongst those “cunt’ry matters” would hardly have been out of place in Dan Savage’s syndicated “Savage Love” sex-fetish advice column in the New Times L.A. (and elsewhere), which to SRFers was explicitly merely a “smut paper.” Yet, “conquering” karma does not transmute to sexual karma except via double entendres. And besides, avatars are not supposed to carry karma from one lifetime to another, much less create new karma in each succeeding “compassionate incarnation,” as Daya Mata (1971) herself explained:
When any soul, even a Christ, descends into the world of duality and takes on a human form, he thereby accepts certain limitations. But taking on the compulsions of the law of karma is not one of them. He still remains above and beyond all karma.
At any rate, getting thee “to a nunnery,” whether run by SRF or otherwise is, as we have seen too clearly and too often, sadly more likely to increase one’s problems than to offer balm for them. Doth Ophelia’s river, then, beckon?
Of course, in Shakespeare’s day “nunnery” meant both “brothel” and “monastery.” Since Hamlet could not have been telling Ophelia to avoid sex by going to a brothel, however, the monastic meaning was evidently the intended one.
Again, though, with ironydamned ironyprobably no one has ever been driven to the madhouse via the whorehouse. (That is, aside from untreated syphilis which, again, is not absent from the holy Shakespeare’s plays.) The same claim, however, clearly cannot be made with regard to our world’s monasteries and their guru-figures. For they, indeed, have surely contributed to more than one sincere seeker’s literal and clinical depression and madness, via psychological binds, alleged spiritually incestuous sexual abuse, crippling negativity and more. All “in the name of God,” and for the purported “benefit of all sentient beings.”
What, thoughno widespread, hot ‘n’ heavy sex in the SRF ashrams? Do the monks not sneak out over the Mother Center walls down to Sunset Boulevard on sultry summer nights, their monthly allowance in hand? Do voluptuous young nuns not pair off with each other’s holy genitals for much-needed, slap-happy release? Is it really all service, meditation, and sleeping with one’s dry monastic hands outside the pure white sheets?
Well, the allegation has actually been made (in Russell, 2001) that Yogananda may have been “screwing everything in sight” when alive. My own reaction to that is probably the reflex of the majority of already disillusioned ex-disciples of their respective “perfect masters.” That is, half of me cannot take the allegation seriously, given the many testimonials to his integrity from his disciples. Testimony, that is, such as from one of SRF’s most respected monastic brothers, who “speaks joyfully of his guru’s overwhelming love, humility and gentleness, his deep respect for others and his boundless desire to serve” (in Watanabe, 1998).
Of course, the brother in question, having entered the ashrams nearly a quarter century after Yogananda’s passing, never actually met the “avatar.” That is, he is simply parroting the party line, speaking what he would imagine to be true. But that is par for the course in spirituality.
Regardless, the other half of me would actually like for every alleged indiscretion on the part of “the Bastard and the Bard” to be true, for the whole mess to have been pure baloney from the beginning.
As a bottom line, then, SRF in its current state can take a (former) disciple such as myself, who would never have dreamed of being disloyal to the guru or his organization, and turn him into someone who would like for the worst accusations against them to be true. That is, if they could change me in this way, they could change anyoneor, at least, change anyone who was willing to see.
Yogananda’s claim to be able to walk on fire might only make him a fool, for genuinely believing that his purported spiritual advancement, rather than the laws of physics, were the source of that “yogic power.” Likewise for his many wildly wrong prophecies and his endorsements of Therese Neumann and of his “Perfume Saint.” His comparable “ability” to stop his pulse in one wrist, however, unless one takes that as a real parapsychological phenomenonwhich I do notmakes him something much worse.
Personally, even with that, I still consider Yogananda to have been among the less harmful of the spiritual leaders covered herein, comparable to the Dalai Lama, Aurobindo or Ramana Maharshi if the allegations about his “harem” are false, or somewhere below them if those claims are true. Being the “sanest man in the asylum,” however, is hardly something to crow about.
And even in that grouping, one would keep in mind that the claims made by both Aurobindo and Maharshi leave one with very little confidence in their respective abilities to distinguish fantasy from realityplus, there is the significant problem of Maharshi’s documented caste bigotry. Further, the Dalai Lama these days is functioning more as a mere moral guide than as a guru or “savior of humankind.” That, however, is a good thing, as his reported behavior in the Karmapa Lama controversy has been consistently less than inspiring. Likewise with his reported attitude when faced with allegations of sexual exploitation against Sogyal Rinpoche, best-selling author of the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying:
“The Dalai Lama has known about this for years and done nothing. There is a real code of secrecy and silence,” said [Victoria] Barlow (Lattin, 1994).
Interestingly, contemporary disaffected disciples of Yogananda, in spite of their own disillusion, have yet proposed that no one should be informed about the behind-the-scenes issues with SRF until they have been involved with the organization for at least a decade. By that point, it is believed, they may have begun to lose some of their initial idealism on their own, being then more willing to listen to the possibility that the guru and his organization are less than perfect. For my own part, however, I disagree completely with that approach. After all, many of the most committed students of any spiritual path will undertake a long-term, residential stay within their first ten years or so. And it is exactly in that context where the real damage is done. I speak from experience on all of those points.
Further, ten years might as well be a hundred if one is only having contact with such a community from “outside,” via books, printed lessons, or mere casual and occasional contact. For, all of those have been carefully edited to ensure that nothing uncomplimentary about the organization is ever revealed through them. (Compare simply attending Mass as a lay Catholic, versus being imprisoned in the organization as a sodomized altar boy or a monastic. Indeed, if we have learned one thing from Bette Midler, it is that “from a distance there is harmony” ... even if, up close, the situation is very different.)
One may well not be willing to consider the possibility that any of the reported “dirt” on one’s favorite organization could be true during one’s initial honeymoon period with it. To suggest, however, that having that dirt swept under the rug is preferable to at least being made aware of it, and thus being in a position to make relatively informed decisions about one’s future there, strikes me as ridiculous. When dealing with our world’s religious/spiritual organizations in the long term, such ignorance is not bliss, nor is it a path to anything but pain.
As Bailey and Bailey (2003) put it, when discussing the concerns increasingly surrounding Sai Baba:
This is an opportunity to become aware of [the reported problems], thus moving into a position enabling informed choice, rather than one coming from ignorance.
Lacking the information on which to base such an informed decision leads to a very predictable end, which another former disciple of Sai Baba suitably noted:
The intense desire I have to expose him now is directly proportionate to the amount of devotion I gave him (in Brown, 2000).
Of course, one would not expect to publicize even such relatively lukewarm negative information as all this without causing offense among the “believers.” At the very least, as others who have spoken out against the ungodly aspects of their respective paths have discovered, one would have one’s motives (in profit, fame, bias, sensationalism, etc.) in doing so questioned. (Even established newspapers which dared to speak out against Catholic clergy abuse in the mid-’80s were accused of “yellow journalism” by less-courageous competitors who could not believe that the stories were true [Berry, 1992]. But as we all know by now, the horrific tales there are, too often, indeed sadly true.) Not surprisingly, then, reactions to elements of the above mild exposé of Hidden Valley have included my being called a “whinner” (sic)by someone who evidently confuses thorough attention to detail (e.g., in spelling) with whiningand a “cowered” (sic).
Speaking out against what one has found to be wrong with our world’s spiritual environments may be a lot of things, but it is not the product of cowardice, as anyone who has ever been driven by conscience and anguish to do it knows well. That is so particularly when the objections to the “teaching” are raised with one’s name being attached to them, as opposed to being posted anonymously for (justified) fear of retribution. The real cowardice in those situations rather comes from the remaining loyal members of the organization who attempt, anonymously, to intimidate disaffected followers into remaining silent.
And, one need not have suffered every possible mistreatment at the hands of one or another divinely inspired fool or “vehicle of God” to have suffered enough that one is more than justified in speaking out against it, both for one’s own healing and to warn others.
So “kill the messenger” for all of this, if you must. For, we all have profound, if merely implicit, emotional involvements in having our professional ideas be correct, in maintaining our own self-images, and in preserving our dearest human relationships. None of those cherished investments, however, can compare with the value placed on one’s religion and salvation/enlightenment, for anyone deeply committed to those. Conversely, the discomfort felt in the potential loss of any secular perk would surely be minor compared to the panic induced when one’s salvation is threatened. The one who would deign to thus “threaten” should then clearly be prepared, with no few deep breaths, to be more hated than loved for his efforts.
In applying that principle to the present author, though, realize that (i) every alleged abuse and ludicrous “divine” claim covered herein, with the sole exception of my own experiences at Hidden Valley, had already been put into print elsewhere; and (ii) I myself have lost my religion through doing this thorough research. That is, when I began this writing, in late 2003, I still believed that Yogananda was all that he claimed to be, and that it was just his followers who had subsequently messed up his organization. Indeed, I still accepted, at that point, that the “enlightenment” attained to by himself and by the likes of Ken Wilber and Ramakrishna, etc., was a goal worth pursuing.
Sadly, I now know much better.
To state another obvious point: When we have, by the monks’ own admission, many individuals arriving at Hidden Valley (and elsewhere) believing that every monk there is a “perfected being,” then every imperfection in those “holy” individuals immediately becomes relevant and worth documenting. To be categorized as a “whinner” or a “cowered” for that is a small price to pay for showing that these people are not what they seem (and happily role-play) to be.
Reactions to my documentation of the shortcomings within Self-Realization Fellowship have also included the unsolicited suggestion that if I was “uncomfortable” answering questions about my sexual orientation, then I should just not have entered the ashram in the first place. The clear implication there, of course, coming from an openly backward SRF member who was explicitly opposed even to having gays in the military, was again that only a person with “something to hide” would consider the organization’s “do ask, do tell” policy to be worth mentioning.
That still, however, pales in comparison with what an SRF monk, giving tours of the Mother Center, said to me in the late ’80s, when I was in Los Angeles to receive kriya initiation. For some reason the topic of AIDS came up. The voiced opinion on the part of that monk, then, was to the effect that perhaps that scourge was God’s and Nature’s way of cutting down on sexual promiscuity, and thereby of creating a “holier” world. Yikes. Yet, that attitude is not unique in the spiritual world. For, while at Hidden Valley and glancing through a respected yogic magazine, I saw comparably “compassionate” rationalizations expressed there regarding the same illness.
More recently, I received several hundred copies of the following abusive rant, in an attempted “mailbombing” sent first from HiddenValleyLover@FirstReaction.com, and then from fabricated/spoofed web-based email addresses, by one particularly defective, relatively illiterate, obvious member in good standing of SRF:
I’ve been seriously itched by your gossipy statements about Hidden Valley I’ve spend [sic] more than 3 years there and it’s been the best time of my life so far!You’re [sic] an ungrateful piece of shit, highly unethical and disturbed.And [sic] for your info I’ve been in SRF 2 times as long as you.
If you want to be able to keep using your email adress,remove [sic] the worthless crap about SRF and Hidden Valley(all of it) [sic] from your excuse for a website.
Can’t ya just “feel the guru’s love”?
Or, “What Would Yogananda Do”?
Of course, the above threats could have come from any of the spiritual communities in this world, to anyone who had left the society and then spoken too accurately of the people or the beloved “God-realized guru” there. Such responses are, indeed, “a dime a dozen,” coming from devoted members of organizations which have every reason to fear the details of their alleged behaviors getting out. And so, for them, reality becomes something “from the devil.”
Being on the receiving end of the above name-calling does, however, at least bring to mind a comment from the late Canadian prime minister, Pierre Trudeau: “I’ve been called worse things by better people.” On the brighter side, persons who have themselves lived for extended periods on the inside at Hidden Valley, and become as disillusioned as I have with that environment, have corroborated my depiction of life there as being fully accurate.
Further, as far as “gossip” goes: These disclosures regarding Hidden Valley are not trivial, idle talk; and they are given first-hand, not via rumor. By contrast, the respected monk who quietly informed me of the alleged Tara/da Vinci reincarnation put his own position this way: “Don’t tell anyone ... or at least don’t say that it was me who told you.”
“Here’s a secret everyone would like to knowbut don’t tell anyone. But if you do tell anyone, don’t tell them I told you.”
And I’m the gossip?!
Finally, the present author was a lot less “ungrateful,” and certainly a lot less “disturbed,” before those nine months of being hurled on peristaltic waves of chronic negativity, real, trivial gossip, and independence-robbing, ignorant pseudo-teachings in the bowels of yogic hell. If I could do it over again, I would, in all deadly seriousness, rather live on the street. Conversely, that experience has at least rid me of a great deal of fear: whatever else may come in life, I’ve already been through worse. (A less positive way of stating that, however, is simply: “There is no one freer than someone who has nothing left to lose.”)
But you need not even believe me in any of this. For, other persons who have had comparably disillusioning experiences with SRF have posted their stories, with much additional “dirt” and allegations of disturbing meanness, homophobia and highly questionable actions on the part of the leaders there, on the SRF Walrus (2004) website. Many of those stories are much more damning than my own first-hand experiences, even if giving less complete portraits of what daily life within the Hidden Valley ashram is like for anyone who hasn’t checked his brain and independence at the door.
The SRFBlacklist forum is an even better source of information, as unlike the SRF Walrus, it allows criticisms of Yogananda himself.
So: Yogananda was the “Smut Merchant of Venice.” And he introduced the act of beheading to England and he cut off people’s hands and feet for vengeance and he beat and killed his wife in his “conquering” incarnation. And Tara Mata was the gay da Vinci, and Dr. Lewis was the equally ass-happy Francis Bacon.
Happy now, SRF? Because those problems are simply what happens when the long-documented, inarguable facts, which anyone could have researched, meet head-on with what a bunch of aged fools, closing their eyes to reality, just pleasantly imagine to be true.
Prior to my Hidden Valley sojourn, I had worked for a year for a nonprofit, community-owned, politically correct organic food store. There, the Board of Directors effectively had a position reserved for a “competent idealist with business sense,” who would invariably resign in disgust within a year, in response to resistance from other power-enjoying board members to doing things intelligently.
Following the “bad trip” at HV in California, I toiled menially for a month at the headquarters of the Canadian branch of UNICEF. There, one former, disenchanted donor sent in a newspaper clipping reporting the inadequate auditing of a large amount of “missing and poorly spent money” which the UNICEF executives had allegedly touched. (Compare the U.S. Red Cross earmarking monies collected immediately after 9/11 for “other projects.” That behavior followed the delays of their Canadian branch in implementing proper AIDS/hepatitis testing in blood donations, in the mid-’80s. The latter shortcomings, in turn, led to their own role in the ensuing front-page “tainted blood scandal.”)
In that same (UNICEF) charity, as numerous donors discovered the hard way, requesting to have one’s name taken off their periodic mailing list had about as much effect as idly wishing for an end to world hunger on a balmy summer’s afternoon, lemonade in hand. Indeed, some of those former donors expressed their disgust with that repeated waste of paper and postage by sending UNICEF their junk mail, or other irrelevant materials, in the donation envelopes!
When I left that temp job, the organization was on the verge of moving into a new headquarters in the most expensive rental area of the most expensive city in the country. In response to questions from employees at that time, the move was justified by the management there as being appropriate so as to more appeal to their large donorsas opposed to the trusting “little old lady” contributors, who would in turn express their heart-rending regrets that they couldn’t send any/more money because of their own failing health and/or poverty.
I have it on good authority (unrelated to Hidden Valley) that the Peace Corps is no better than any of those, in terms of efficiency.
The nonprofit Habitat for Humanity? Their founder and president was fired in early 2005 amid allegations of sexual harassment. That dismissal further reportedly occurred against the efforts of Jimmy Carter himself to broker a deal to keep the scandal quiet (Cooperman, 2005).
The Boy Scouts? They are currently being investigated by the FBI for having allegedly inflated their membership numbers, to boost their funding from the United Way (Reeves, 2005).
And the respected United Way itself? Well, in the early 1990s, that charitable organization “became embroiled in a highly publicized exposé of its own financial misdeeds” (Sennott, 1992).
After all that, I can honestly say that I have far less ideals intact by now than I used to. Yet amazingly, no matter how bad one allows or expects for things to be in the spiritual and secular world, they invariably turn out, upon proper research, to be much worse.
One does not ask for perfection in any organizationspiritual, humanitarian or otherwiseknowing that it is run by imperfect human beings. One simply asks for minimal competence, basic integrity/ethical behavior, accountability, and the ability to admit when they are wrong, to be able to correct their course.
One might as well ask for the moon.
Well, you live and learn.
Or, as the late Douglas Adams would say, “At least you live.”
For a detailed skeptical analysis of the various claims made by Yogananda in his Autobiography, see David Lanes (2019) The Skeptical Yogi: Yoganandas Autobiography Under a Microscope:
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