Paramahansa Yogananda, Jesus Christ and the Self-Realization Fellowship
Updated: Sep 27
The first passenger boat sailing from India to America after the end of World War I carried a passionate and devoutly spiritual Indian monk. Three years after founding a yoga school for boys in Bengal in 1917, Paramahansa Yogananda had a vision that it was time to bring the spiritual wisdom of India to the West. Not only would he become world famous for introducing millions to the teachings of meditation and Kriya Yoga through his global organization, but his legacy includes his mission to “reveal the complete harmony and basic oneness of original Christianity as taught by Jesus Christ and original Yoga as taught by Bhagavan Krishna; and to show that these principles of truth are the common scientific foundation of all true religions.”
Yogananda arrived in the United States and “was incredibly successful due to his appealing personality and his willingness to adapt his teachings of Yogoda to Western Audiences.” “The yogi persona appealed to American audiences because it combined the magical allure of the exotic Orient with the universal authority of modern science. The thing is those early twentieth-century Americans pictured the yogi as an ‘Oriental’ man in a turban.” In the year Yogananda landed in Boston, provincial roots of Indian nationalism could be traced to Bengal. Yogananda told his father he’d go to America for four months, although he wouldn’t return to India for fifteen years.
When Yogananda left India in 1920 the deep seeds of change were imbedded in the culture. Historically, realizing that a united India was a strong India, the British decided to separate Hindus and Muslims. This policy left a deep impact on the Indians which eventually led to their strive for independence. Although Yogananda was not overtly political while living in India, his deep love for his country (and for honoring the spiritual teachings of India) would never be far from his mind. Although he spent most of his life living in the United States, his teachings would impact the world. He did return to India though, triumphantly, as the founder of what was to become a worldwide organization of his making called the Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF).
At the time Yogananda arrived in the United States, the country was in a decade of change. America was untethered from war, and celebrating, but still haunted by its weight. Peacetime expansion and prosperity raised the standard of living for millions. America had become a world power and was no longer considered just another former British colony. The decade was one of learning and exploration, exciting progress, and cultural conflicts. The swelling of cities, the rise of a consumer culture, and the “revolution in morals and manners” represented liberation from the restrictions of the country’s Victorian past. There were clashes, though, over such issues as foreign immigration, prohibition, evolution, race, and women’s roles. It was a time of profound social changes with a “culture ripe for a Vedic tidal wave”  which Yogananda would eventually tap into. Even Carl Jung stated that “the West will produce its own yoga, and it will be on the basis laid down by Christianity.”
Although a highly influential guru named Vivekananda (who came to America before Yogananda) is recognized as the person who introduced Hinduism at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago in 1893 (and established Vedanta centers in the West) it is Yogananda who’s mission and work continues to be remembered and praised for “demonstrating to the world the tremendous value of India’s spirituality.”
According to Williamson, “Vivekananda and Yogananda were successful in transplanting their own versions of Hinduism to America. It was Vivekananda who ‘preached the good news of an impersonal God based on Vedanta’ and Yogananda who stressed heartfelt devotion to a personal God.”  Foxen writes that “despite his extraordinarily long shadow, Vivekananda was actually a rather minor presence in the landscape of American Yogis.” Although his autobiography, or auto-hagiography, “as Robin Rinehart coined,” is undoubtedly his most famous work, Yogananda would become a prolific author and poet, and “entrepreneur who sold yoga lessons by correspondence, and as a magazine editor.”
America (at the time) was ready for a new way to spiritually gather and ready for Yogananda’s unique integration of “traditional Indian thought, modern science, and prevailing Western metaphysical notions of will, mind, and consciousness” and in the “esoteric practice of Kriya Yoga, the goal of which is nothing short of total enlightenment.”What is clear is that Yogananda was among the first to “establish the bridge between the esoteric techniques of premodern hatha yoga and the postural practice of today.” His “leadership in the global interfaith movement and the deep and abiding interest in Jesus and Christianity that was a central feature of his identity” rivals his efforts to remain “relevant and pragmatic simultaneously weaving in a distinct spiritual agenda” that “would come to bear fruit as his popularity soared.”
Early on in his career he moved from city to city and offered the public “a series of free lectures that led into private lessons and dyadic services for a fee.” Yogananda, and others on this circuit, would freely “borrow and modify ideas and practices” and present it to US audiences as ancient yogic wisdom from India. Deslippe wrote about this “dissemination of yoga, taught by the ‘Swami Circuit’ that lectured wherever there was a sizeable number of people”While traveling, Yogananda even visited the infamous Great Oom, aka Pierre Bernard, and ended his talk with “a song, accompanied with an Indian instrument that he played.” Yogananda’s tireless efforts to spread his teachings paid off. At the time, to study with a teacher was “costly, and those that did so were either affluent or dedicated enough to enroll at a significant financial sacrifice.”
He appealed most strongly to women and to the “restless souls in the liberal Christian tradition” who “longed for mystical experience or religious feeling” who valued “meditation” and “prized immanence in humans and nature.” They “expressed a cosmopolitan appreciation” for “religious diversity, and they emphasized self-expression.” He also attracted Christians primarily from liberal Protestant traditions and “those interested in spirituality outside American religious mainstream.” They were drawn to “the authority of an Indian swami” and to his “focus on the experience of the divine, his integration of body, mind, and spirit” in an era when there was deep interest in learning and exploration and in health and the body. More importantly, audiences found his instruction attractive precisely because he “integrated scientific, positivistic, and pragmatic concerns with a robust affirmation of transcendence that allowed space for the miraculous.” 
Yogananda, devotional to the core, had a personality that audiences adored. Not only was his message distinctive, patterns of immigration between the Civil War and the Great Depression highly favored the growth of Western European Protestants and Catholics in the United States at the time. Also, the passage of strict immigration quotas at the time severely limited Asian entrance in the U.S. This ensured that Yogananda would become something of an isolated carrier of instruction in yoga and Eastern philosophy to the West. Foxen nominates him as “the best exemplum of an early Western Yogi that history can give us.” He wasn’t the first as that title seems to go to Vivekananda. Yogananda, though, certainly has stood the test of time. His living legacy includes five hundred centers and meditation groups worldwide. His big claim to fame appears to be his celebrated Autobiography of a Yogi [published in 1946 and at last count has sold over 4 million copies and been translated into thirty-three languages]. Despite this literary accomplishment, the respondents to my ethnographic research project are unsure if his legacy will endure the test of time but given his imprint on the American spiritual landscape, Neumann says that “it is appropriate to call him the Father of Yoga in the West”. as his followers of SRF do.
Yogananda’s “affection for Jesus and the New Testament makes him an awkward fit for many yoga scholars, though this need not be the case, since his interest in Jesus and Christianity puts him in good company with many other contemporary yoga teachers and Hindu intellectuals” and as Yogananda “did think that the yoga practices that deserved most attention were those that led to God-realization” the “teleological interest within most yoga scholarship on the emergence of contemporary secular yoga, which focuses on postures, health, and mental well-being, has led to the neglect of individuals who do not fit that pattern.” One of my personal goals is to help change that.
As a part of my Master's of Yoga Studies class in Modern Yoga through Loyola Marymount University I decided to apply for and carry out an ethnographic research project on Yogananda’s legacy. My Institutional Review Board (IRB) approved study was carried out via an online survey tool with adherence to all IRB protocols. The survey entailed recruitment of participants who had been or were currently members of SRF. This was done through online channels and included two participants I knew personally. To protect the privacy and confidentiality of the participants no personal identifiable information was collected.
For the survey, participants were asked a series of questions about what brought them to the SRF, their thoughts as to how Jesus Christ fits within the lineage, Jesus’ role within Kriya yoga (to the extent they were able to share due to strict parameters around the community’s adherence to a respect of keeping secret the sacredness of the teachings), and thoughts about the legacy of Yogananda as it relates to his teachings of Christ.
After reviewing the thoughtful and generous comments, overwhelmingly the participants shared that when they mediate, they feel closer to God and at peace. One respondent shared that they felt Yogananda’s compassion and inspiration is his legacy and at the “rawest form of the teachings, Christianity is not at the center.” Interesting considering Yogananda wanted to “revive” the essential unity of “Original Christianity” as taught by Christ and “Original Yoga” as taught by Krishna. Most of the respondents mentioned the non-judgmental, open, and accepting community had fulfilled their expectations: SRF has been “a place ideologically to belong” and that the enlightened wisdom and embrace of Paramahansa Yogananda and SRF’s spiritual lineage had taught them to “attain direct personal contact with God through divine meditation.”
But before we go on, let’s establish just what this spiritual lineage is. The teachings of the SRF have been passed from guru to disciple through a linage of teachers that stretches back thousands of years. According to Yogananda, a “deathless” guru who lived in the Himalayas, Babaji-Krishna, directed his disciple, Lahiri Mahasaya, to reintroduce the meditation science of Kryia Yoga to the world. Jesus had appeared to the yoga master Babaji and asked him to send someone to the West to spread the teachings of original Christianity and learn how to receive him through deep meditation. Lahiri Mahasaya passed the teachings onto his disciple, Sri Yukteswar, who eventually would become the guru of Yogananda. Yukteswar would become famous for completing two commissions: writing a book on the underlying unity between the Christian and Hindu scriptures and to train Yogananda for his mission to spread the teachings of yoga to the West.
Yogananda’s mission, as the world would come to learn more about in Yogananda’s famous book Autobiography of a Yogi, was foretold to his mother while he was still a baby. Lahiri Mahasaya, his mother and father’s guru, declared to his mother that her tiny son would be a yogi. Not just a yogi, but a “spiritual engine” who would “carry many souls to God’s kingdom.”
Gyana Prabha Ghosh, Yogananda’s mother, passed away while he was still young. Her death had a profound impact on his life and teachings but his guru, Sri Yukteswar, forever remains one of the most important influences in Yogananda’s life. Yukteswar’s mission for Yogananda, “to teach yoga and the harmony between Krishna and Christ”became much more than that. Yogananda tried to show the underlying unity of all religions. Although Yukteswar wrote a treatise on the Vedas and the teachings of Jesus Christ, it’s Yogananda who expounded on this by pointing out the parallels of the Bhagavada Gita and the Gospels while explaining the terminology and the teachings of the yogi, Jesus Christ. Yogananda saw Christ as a yogi. Yogananda also eventually established Christ within his own lineage within the “dominant currencies of spiritual and cultural capital in the romanticized Asian marketplaces of the West” which is clear when you visit a Sunday SRF Inspirational Service, as I did.
At the front of each of the over 500 worldwide SRF centers there are images of Jesus Christ, Krishna, Babaji-Krishna, (L to R top row in image), Lahiri Mahasaya, Sri Yukteswar, and Yogananda (L to R bottom row in image). During my SRF visit it was the first time that I had experienced a service where Hindu and Christian teachings were delivered in a lecture about karma. Yogananda’s “embrace of Christ” at the time enabled him to “reconfigure for millions the way they understood and related to Jesus. His work “gave many disaffected Christians a path to forming a more comfortable relationship with the tradition of their birth” which had an eerie resonance with me as a former Catholic. It is also important to note that because Kriya Yoga requires initiation and calls for “committed and sustained practice” I was unable to meet the time requirements to study the “technique via the series of lessons that Yogananda composed and left behind.” Despite this fact, as an ethnographer and scholar, I believe that objectivity remains present in this paper.
Although details about the specific Kriya Yoga techniques taught in the lessons were not discussed in the Inspirational service, we used a guided “conscious muscular contraction and relaxation” and breathing (with eyes closed) while internally gazing above and between our eyebrows (the third eye) to become “intuitionally in tune with the Cosmic Vibration” from the “infinite reservoir of the cosmos.” Learning to bridge the gap between yoga, which Yogananda associated with Hindu traditions, and Christianity was instrumental to his mass appeal. I was able to witness the teachings of “great masters and yogic saints” to “tap into the true nature of omnipotence” just as Yogananda’s living teacher had done.  Because Yogananda “decreed himself to be the last in the line of Kriya Yoga gurus (in the West) the lessons have become guru in his stead.”
The scientific Kriya Yoga of his lineage, Yogananda said, “consists of magnetizing the spinal column and the brain, which contain the seven main centers, with the result that the distributed life electricity is drawn back to the original centers of discharge and is experienced in the form of light,” thus freeing up the “spiritual Self” from physical and mental distractions.  So popular, even now, is Yogananda “that therapists, Yoga teachers, and gurus have attempted to establish their credibility by claiming a connection to him.” The best-known Americans “with links to Yogananda are a pair of direct disciples” who “both have been teaching on their own for more than forty years and say they offer the same practices their guru authorized but in a different format from SRF’s.” 
Yogananda was not the first missionary of universal Hinduism, but he was more successful than his predecessors, including Vivekananda. Was Yogananda driven to outshine Vivekananda or felt inspired by his success? Did he consciously emulate Vivekananda? “Vivekananda’s emphasis on meditation and self-realization appealed to many countercultural Americans who rejected mainstream institutional forms of Protestant Christianity for new metaphysical movements, such as Christian Science and New Thought. Vivekananda and these Americans were all interested in wedding metaphysics with modern ideas and values as well as the aim of self-realization. but none of the prior Indian spiritual teachers (including Vivekananda) “established a movement of comparable size or duration.” Vivekananda “rehabilitated yoga to align with neo-Hindu reform movements and to appeal to a bourgeois western audience.”Vivekananda even wrote in his famous book, Raja Yoga, that it was the “highest of all yoga’s,” Yogananda, though, embodied “charisma in both the technical and popular senses.” This “creative entrepreneurial religious figure seemed made for the modern American age of consumption.” His ministry revealed how “missionary Hinduism’s success hinged on a deep understanding of Christian belief and practice. The scope of his ambitions far exceeded the small target audience of Theosophists and New Thought practices he effortlessly drew. Seeking to win over large numbers of Americans, he routinely appealed to the Christian mainstream.” Using “theological discourse familiar especially to American Protestants, he presented yoga as the essential practical tool” that led to “intimate communion with God.” His teaching was “less an integration of the two religions than a reinterpretation of Christianity in light of Hinduism.” “This construction of yoga further positioned India as a place ready and willing to save alienated westerners from the failures of industrial capitalist modernity.” 
The SRF compiled Yogananda’s writings and published a book that “aims to recover what Yogananda believed were major teachings lost to institutional Christianity. Among them was the idea that every seeker can know God not through mere belief but by direct experience via yoga meditation.” Quoting the Bible throughout the book, Yogananda focuses on an essential message: ‘Be still and know that I am God.’ which he felt was the key to the science of yoga.” The Yoga of Jesus is Yogananda’s reflections of Christ’s teachings as they align themselves with an East Indian point of reference going as far to say that yoga is “scientific union with God.”
Yogananda regularly explained how the New Testament, properly understood, spoke “about yoga and revealed Jesus as the consummate yogi.” He often expounded on the Bible as the “partial revelation of a universal Indian dharma” that “elucidated and fulfilled all other religions.” Yogananda’s guru, Swami Sri Yukteswar, “planted the seeds for what would later become Yogananda’s teachings of ‘original Christianity’ in America.” And since “Jesus Christ was merely a later avatara of the head of Yukteswar’s Kriya-yoga tradition, Babaji-Krishna, Yukteswar, and Yogananda were in a lineage of spiritual practice bearing a more ancient spiritual practice than Christianity.” And, in several ways, Yogananda “implicitly portrayed himself as a Christ figure” although his reticence to claim divine status directly reflected “his understanding of the humility a teacher was expected to display.” Late in life, Yogananda shares [in his autobiography, in the Encinitas hermitage] he “beheld the radiant form of the blessed Lord Jesus” and gazing into his eyes he “intuitively understood the wisdom conveyed.” This entrepreneurial godman “consciously constructed and successfully marketed” his teachings by “associating them with their own personae as well as spiritual wares that were attractive to large target audiences of… spiritual seekers.”
Continuing to explore the results of my ethnographic research into Yogananda’s legacy, I concluded that how the members of the SRF understand Jesus Christ to fit within their yoga lineage varies from person to person, but most indicated that Jesus Christ was one of many prophetic master’s at the time. One respondent felt that the “power brokers at the time used Jesus to control the masses; meaning he had a better public relations group to get the word out.” Some respondents felt that God is a connector of sorts; a central character brining Christianity and Hinduism together (not unlike Yogananda) and that God’s role with yoga is to “help humans deal with each other – or simply said, to help humanity.”
One person shared that ‘Christ was a man just like I am, and just as all of the great prophets and wisemen that have walked our planet have been. Jesus ultimately embodied what Yogananda teaches.’ Yet another shared that they had not considered Jesus ‘fitting into’ the lineage but considered the connection rather as a broader, less direct, reflection of an emergence of ‘God incarnate’ with essential teachings, particularly necessary to the time, to uplift the world. The harmony of it is clear – Krishna embodies Vishnu as a force of preservation, sustenance, nourishment, and healing. Christ is that – more than love, Christ came at a time when humanity threatened to destroy itself. While Jesus Christ’s message can be manipulated to manipulate and cause harm, sometimes I think it is the only thing keeping communities and societies in the west from self-destruction and collapse. His [Yogananda’s] teachings of love, of the possibility of a personal relationship with God, of the approachable presence of embodied divinity, of forgiveness of sin and an invitation to experience enlightened being, to sing with Love and dance with God – There is a high and holy, haunting resonance.” Yogananda “proclaimed that it was Babaji and Christ together who had, through him, sent the teachings of Self-Realization to teach men to attain direct personal contact with God through divine meditation. According to Yogananda, Jesus Christ himself taught his disciples a technique like Kriya Yoga to help them remember the ‘inward communion with God.’”
Personally, I now understand the appeal of Yogananda’s unique contribution. I wonder now if I had been living during his life if I would have been drawn to seek out his message of the “importance of ‘Self’ and ‘Self-realization’ although I also appreciate Vivekananda’s “reinterpreted, simplified and modernized Vedanta” presented as the exemplary form of ‘Universal religion’ capable of catering for all religious needs through different types of yoga.” Yogananda’s universal laws of transformation, tools for transcendence, and messages of compassion, peace, and visions for living in spiritual communities fit nicely within my Buddhist sensibilities. As a lifelong seeker and practitioner of yoga, I have been a “bricolage builder” of snippets of Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism (what has been referred to as an assembled religious identity). This ability to reconfigure, for myself, a higher power of my understanding that is full of light, love, compassion, and wisdom does not fit into any specific organized religion but is my yoga. It fills me with peace, well-being, and harmony. That same experience seems to reflect the members of SRF that participated in this project. Yogananda assumed the identity of a modern yogi, rooted in ancient Sanskrit texts but also deeply conversant with Christianity, the modern world’s most widespread religion. His message centered on yoga meditation as a practical tool for communing with God, situated within a larger body of Indian religious and philosophical teachings.”
“Yogananda came to view his own teachings themselves as ‘the guru’, a somewhat ‘novel idea at the time,’ but one that anticipated a recent trend in yoga.” “As Modern Yoga became progressively more attuned to the secular, pragmatic and rationalistic temper of the West, it was accommodated in a twofold manner: at the margins of ‘health and fitness’ concerns on one hand, and within the conceptual and institutional sphere of alternative medicine on the other.” Modern Yoga became a live link between East and West: a bridge through which personal, cultural, institutional, and other exchanges could take place. The members of SRF show “tremendous dedication to their daily practices” and a pledge to God and the six gurus of the Self-Realization Fellowship lineage of ‘unconditional love, reverence, and loyalty forever.’” “Unlocking the mystery of Yogananda himself” and how Christ fits within the lineage of SRF has been truly a privilege and honor. What will his enduring legacy be? As Yogananda himself wrote in Yogoda in 1925, I think it will continue to “bring you in touch with the Superconscious (the soul and the Great Spirit), giving you wonderful peace, harmony and poise of mind so essential to the higher living of life.” The “scaffolding of his work” is “fundamentally Indian” and answers questions about “the nature of the body, the soul, and the mind.”
IRB protocol number: LMU IRB 2021 FA 27-R
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