The Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) is a religious group that will appear very strange to Western observers. Yet one might also find a certain sense of familiarity in that their lecturing and literature often cite the Bible, even if their interpretations are peculiar. A key component of the SRF’s beliefs is the underlying unity between Eastern and Western thought. The final result is hard to explain. This article is an attempt to reach a starting point.
I begin with a very short summary of the history and beliefs of the group. I have not attempted to demythologize their history or practices. My sources for their history come from material published by the group; we should not necessarily take it as history “as it really was.” Likewise, I am not analyzing their meditation techniques to explain their effects through physiological causes. Finally, I am not going examine whether their attempt to harmonize science and religion or Eastern and Western thought is viable. If we are going to try to understand them, then we need to take their beliefs at face value.
With these basics laid down, I will briefly introduce the thoughts and theories of Mircea Eliade and Clifford Geertz. Both are prominent scholars who have engaged the study of religion. Their distinctive theories offer some fruitful paths in trying to understand the Fellowship.
My next step will be to describe one of the group’s Lecture Services. Again, some precautions are in order, especially regarding numbers. This portion of my article is based on the combined impressions of my ex-wife and I. We did not count the exact number of people. Though we only attended one service, for the sake of this article, I will assume the service was typical for the group. I cannot say they practice these rituals at every service locally, let alone how they conduct services in other locations. Therefore, no general conclusions about this group and their rituals should be drawn from our experience.Basic History and Belief System
The Self-Realization Fellowship is an offshoot of Hinduism. Its founder, Paramahansa Yogananda, was a member of the monastic Order of Swamis who came to the United States to spread the teachings of Kriya Yoga. A monastic organization called the Self-Realization Order is associated with the Fellowship. The group’s headquarters is in Los Angeles. A sister organization called the Yogoda Satsanga Society, also founded by Yogananda, is based in India (SRF 19-23).
Yogananda was born 5 January 1893 to a middle class Hindu family. Both his parents were disciples of the guru Lahiri Mahasaya of Banaras. From an early age, his life was full of mystical experiences, encounters with gurus and ascetics, and a desire to become closer to God (Yogananda 3-13). He tried to run away to the Himalayas at the age of twelve. His brother quickly caught Yogananda. Instead of scolding him, Yogananda’s brother related a story that only enhanced the boy’s desire to become a monk (Yogananda 16-17).
According to this story, Yogananda’s mother, Gurru Ghosh, carried Yogananda to her guru in Banaras. She hoped Mahasaya would take notice of the infant and give him a blessing. Ghosh’s prayer was more than simply answered. Mahasaya took Yogananda, placed him on his lap, and spiritually baptized the infant by placing his hand on his forehead. “Little mother, thy son will be a yogi. As a spiritual engine, he will carry many souls to God’s kingdom,” the guru prophesied.
Several years later, a mysterious holy man visited the Ghosh family, who insisted on seeing Yogananda’s mother. The holy man told Ghosh that she would die soon. However, she had the task keeping safe a talisman ultimately meant for Yogananda. On her deathbed, she was to pass the talisman to Yogananda’s brother, Ananta. Ananta would hold the talisman for a year, giving it to Yogananda when he was ready to foreswear worldly ways and search for God.
The next day, while Ghosh was meditating, a silver amulet appeared in her hands. The talisman was cold and smooth. It was round, covered with Sanskrit characters, and appeared ancient. When Yogananda received the amulet, “many dormant memories awakened.” Yogananda became aware that teachers of past lives were helping him on his path. After the amulet served its purpose, it disappeared (Yogananda 17-19).
Eventually, Yogananda was initiated into the science of Kriya Yoga by a guru, Sri Yukteswar (Yogananda 105). With Sri Yukteswar’s blessing, Yogananda departed for the United States in August 1920 (Yogananda 345). Yogananda spent the next fifteen years in America, spreading his teachings through lectures and founding the Self-Realization Fellowship in 1935 (Yogananda 355). Today, the group has centers and meditation groups throughout the world (SRF 21).
Kriya Yoga is a meditation technique that leads to union with God. Practicing the technique will eventually free a person from the law of consequences known as karma (Yogananda 235). Over time, the person may achieve a full realization of the Divine, but if he dies before achieving that state, he will have stored good karma for his next life. Practitioners say that Kriya Yoga is universal; alongside Indian gurus, early Christians such as Paul knew and used the technique (Yogananda 234-235). The Self-Realization Fellowship teaches that no particular religious beliefs are necessary for the practice, and Eastern and Western religions are in complete harmony (SRF 13, 30). Yogananda references both the Bible and the Bhagavad Gita throughout his autobiography, though they interpret the Bible through an Eastern lens.
The Self-Realizations other “Aims and Ideals” include:
A Pair of Interpretive Lenses
- teaching the goal of life is to advance into a state of “God Consciousness”
- freeing man from disease, mental illness, and spiritual ignorance
- advancing a spirit of kinship based on family relationship with God through “plain living and high thinking”
- proving the supremacy of mind over body
- overpowering evil with good
- unifying science and religion through the recognition that their underlying principles are the same
- urging cultural and spiritual understanding between East and West (SRF 30).
Mircea Eliade favored a comparative approach to studying religion. He would sift through many different religious myths and stories finding themes held in common over a variety of cultures. For religious people, the most common theme is the division between the sacred and the profane. The profane is the world of everyday life. The sacred deals with the supernatural, which, though extraordinary, shapes almost every aspect of the religious person’s life. In this supernatural world, certain patterns can be found time and again. These patterns became archetypes that the culture attempts to emulate (Pals 162-166).
Clifford Geertz favors another approach to studying religion. Instead of sifting through different religious stories for similarities, he advocates studying particular cultures in depth. Geertz would be hesitant about approaching a single story, ritual, or symbol in isolation. He would want to know the cultural context in which they developed and the context in which the group receives them. Merely reading about the group and visiting their religious services would hardly fulfill his advocacy of “thick description.” However, we can use two of his ideas if we bear in mind that such applications are preliminary at best. Geertz believes that the heart of religion is its world view and ethos. According to Geertz, a world view is the conceptual ideas that inform the way a person confronts life and makes sense of it. World view inspires an ethos, roughly the feelings one has about life and the desire to behave in a certain way. In turn, these moods and motivations strengthen the world view of the person (Pals 244-245).
Both lenses have their advantages and drawbacks. The phenomenological approach Eliade advocated allow us to learn a great deal by showing what patterns exist in the religions, and how they are different. However, the method is subject to the danger that we will rip a given symbol, ritual, or myth out of its context. That is, using his method, we might find something in common in two religious systems, but closer inspection will reveal they are not so closely related. Geertz’s advocacy of “thick description” may help avoid this problem, but risks finding so many differences that one would conclude everyone else is an alien. In other words, we probably could not make any comparisons at all. Overall, I believe both these approaches are complimentary. Eliade allows us to make comparisons, while Geertz reminds us to be very cautious about them.
Their theories also seem to complement each other. We may see Eliade’s archetypes as providing overarching pattern that forms a culture’s world view. The sacred seems to motivate people in a similar way that world view functions for Geertz. Both provide the motivation to behave in a certain way, and promote a sense of well-being when their behavior validates their picture of the world. Together, their views allow us to make some fruitful observations about the Self-Realization Fellowship.
We will look briefly at the story, related above, of Mahasaya’s prophecy and the amulet. Eliade might remind us that religious mythology abounds with stories describing a child’s destiny for greatness. This motif is nearly universal; it can be found in the Bible several times, in Greek mythology, Hindu texts, and elsewhere. Sometimes, the prophecy is given before the child is born, as in Samson and the Buddha. In other cases, the prophecy is given when the infant is placed on the lap of a prophet or guru, as with Jesus and Yogananda. The importance of this motif is the idea that the child’s destiny is not fully under his own control. A god has chosen the child to fulfill an appointed task, and fighting against it is useless. Followers learn from such stories that their destiny is not fully under their control, either. They must learn the will of the god for them, accept it, and follow their calling. By including this story in his autobiography, Paramahansa Yogananda is consciously offering himself as an archetype for his followers. As Yogananda follows his destiny, his followers should do the same.
Religious literature also abounds with objects created for a character. Sometimes, the gods intend the object to help guide the character’s path, as happens with Yogananda. The path may be spiritual, physical, or both. In the Book of Mormon, God gives the prophet Lehi an object that resembles a compass to guide his party in the journey to the promised land. It only works when the party is faithful to God (1 Nephi 16:10ff). In this story, Yogananda’s amulet awakens memories and gives him knowledge from those guiding his path. Like Joseph Smith’s golden plates, once Yogananda’s talisman has accomplished its task, it returns to the source from whence it came. Since the talisman came from the gods, it further bolsters the claim that the gods favored the person, something that no doubt makes an impression on Yogananda’s followers. Eventually, Yogananda must start relying solely on faith, and the sacred object disappears. His followers must also do the same.
Geertz would point out that the story serves the formation of a world view. Here, the idea works both for Yogananda himself and for his followers. Yogananda’s sense that he should renounce worldly ways was motivated in part because of his personal inclinations and because of his family’s religious practices. Supernatural phenomena were almost an everyday occurrence for Yogananda. When he learned his mother’s stories and received the silver amulet, they reinforced his behaviors and inclinations. Yogananda would go on not only to become a monk, but fulfill the destiny foretold of him when he was an infant.
For his followers, this story serves a different function. It informs his followers that Yogananda was divinely chosen to lead them to enlightenment. This information leads his followers to follow the practices he prescribes. As the adherent practices Yogananda’s techniques and abide by his rules, he or she starts feeling as though they were closer to enlightenment. These feelings, in turn, reinforce their view Kriya Yoga truly enlightened Yogananda himself, and motivates them to continue their practices and delve deeper into them.Attending a Lecture ServiceIntroductory remarks
My ex-wife Carrie and I attended a Lecture Service at the Self-Realization Fellowship Temple and Ashram center in Phoenix on 18 November 2003. Previously, I had visited the Temple’s website. I also called the Temple beforehand to get information on proper conduct and dress for visitors. We participated in the service as much as practicable; however, ignorance kept us from following the rituals fully.
I avoided making preconceptions about the community as much as possible. Having attended the religious services of others on occasion, I automatically try to enter an objective frame of mind. I brought Carrie along to draw on the perspective of someone entering blind from mainstream society. I might not see a particular practice as strange, given my experiences with other religions. However, Carrie might, and her perspective has proven helpful in the past. This portion of the paper draws on both our observations.
The only thing I expected before attending the service was that I would see more people of Asian descent. This was based on my impression that the Self-Realization Fellowship was an Eastern religion. As such, it seemed logical that Asian expatriates and their descendants would predominate this group. I quickly learned I was wrong. Building layout and population description
Facing the front of the building, one enters the temple from the west. The building is mostly white, with some decorative designs near the roof and two archways leading to a patio. We could enter the building from either a front door or some side doors found on the north and south of the patio. Entering the building from the front door, one enters a very small foyer. A table with some pamphlets is set up near the door. The foyer leads to the chapel area.
At the front of the chapel is a raised stage area. Facing west, I saw a lectern on the left side of the stage. I saw a chair to the right of the lectern. At the middle of the stage I saw what might be an altar. The top was decorated with a Fall or Thanksgiving motif. Situated above the altar, I saw six paintings. The center two paintings were of Jesus Christ and Bhagavan Krishna. The SRF believes both Christ and Krishna are incarnations of God; Eliade used the term theophany to describe appearances of a god in the profane world (Pals 177). Pictures of four respected gurus, including Paramahansa Yogananda, flanked the pictures of Christ and Krishna. The SRF says these men achieved enlightenment, and serve as archetypes for the members to follow. A couple of feet below the ceiling, I saw I saw a lotus symbol. In the center of the symbol, I saw a star surrounded by a circular navy blue field. I was unable to see any further details from my position.
Seating consisted of rows of straight backed, yellow padded chairs. The chairs were arranged semicircularly in front of a raised stage area. I would estimate there was enough seating for approximately two hundred people. When the services began, people took about two-thirds of the seats. Accounting for stragglers, I would say about one hundred eighty people were attending.
Most of the people were Caucasian. I saw very few people from any other minority group. Judging by their appearance, their vehicles, and the prices at the adjacent gift shop, I would judge this group to be mainly middle class. Their clothing ranged from casual to semiformal. The average age of the congregation was about forty, but ranged from the late teens to the sixties. We saw no children in the service; they hold children’s services in another part of the building, according to the Temple’s website.The service
Before sitting, a member of the Fellowship would place their palms together at chin level. They stood like this for a second or two, then bowed their head onto their hands. Then they sat. The group was very quiet before the services began. No one exchanged greetings, gossip, or other social pleasantries. This fact particularly struck Carrie. Eliade would point out that these people were recognizing they were entering a different realm, the sacred. Their actions therefore reflect the respect for the divine space and time they had entered.
The services began with a prayer. The congregation stood and repeated the prayer recited by a leader. A short meditation period followed this accompanied by organ music played over the speakers. A song by the congregation followed, accompanied by an instrument I could not identify. No hymnals were available, but the song was simple enough for me to join the singing after the first verse. The leader again encouraged us to meditate or pray silently while seated. After a few minutes, the leader pronounced an affirmation, repeated by the group. Someone then brightened the lights.
Another person, possibly the equivalent of a deacon, took the floor to announce various items of business. Among other things, he talked about how to donate food and clothing for a drive the Fellowship was sponsoring, announced a pilgrimage to the Mother Center, mentioned youth and ladies’ activities, and reminded the congregation they would not hold normal services on Thanksgiving.
The guru was dressed in saffron robes with some white undergarment underneath. I presume he is a monk from the related Self-Realization Order. He had a French accent. Presumably for the benefit of visitors, he said a few words about the purpose and beliefs of the Self-Realization Fellowship. He quoted the biblical book of John and the Bhagavad Gita to underscore the unity between Christ and Krishna. He encouraged the congregation to meditate on the words of the scriptures and his commentary while the lights were lowered.
His lecture/sermon was about the purpose of life. The guru said the purpose of life seemed elusive, but it was not really a mystery to solve. Instead, life was about becoming more attuned to the divinity within us. Once attuned to God, life makes sense, but otherwise it has no meaning. For the liberated soul, life is a dance. The minister drew upon the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, and various philosophical, religious, and scientific authorities to illustrate his points. The lecture seemed to run in circles, always moving back to the same point of realizing our divine nature. It lasted for about thirty minutes.
After the lecture, and they had an offering prayer, again with the assembly repeating the words after the leader. They passed baskets around while organ music played in the background. The congregation recited a final chant. Everybody then raised their hands chanting “aum” for the healing of body, mind, and soul. They brought their hands together for a final prayer, again repeating the leader. Then the guru dismissed the congregation.
Overall, I thought this could have been any “low” church Protestant service, if one ignored the content. Services began with opening prayers and hymns. Someone announced business matters. A preacher gave a sermon. They passed a basket around for donations. Then final hymns and prayers before dismissal. I cannot say whether this is an adaptation to the American context, or whether the order of services itself is an archetype in the Eliadian sense. Conclusion
This article can only serve as the beginning for further exploration of the Self-Realization Fellowship. I thought their attempt to fuse Eastern and Western thinking was inadequate, but still deserving of further exploration. Further exploration in their beliefs and practices might include a closer study of the Fellowship in the manner of Geertz’s “thick description.” This would surely help us to understand their world view and ethos fully, and why the practices of Kriya Yoga have captured the imagination of a predominantly American group. Other religious groups, like the Sikhs and the Unification Church, also attempt a synthesis between two or more religions. We could explore the Fellowship’s fusion of different modes of thinking in an Eliadian comparison with these groups. We might find in this process that the Self-Realization Fellowship is not so strange after all.
Pals, Daniel L. Seven Theories of Religion
. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Self-Realization Fellowship. Undreamed-of Possibilities: An Introduction to Self-Realization Fellowship
. [Los Angeles?]: Self-Realization Fellowship, 1997.
Yogananda, Paramahansa. Autobiography of a Yogi
. Los Angeles: Self-Realization Fellowship, 1998.