If anyone ever writes a Guidebook to Supernatural San Diego, one chapter will have to be set on the bluff in Encinitas where the coastline takes a bend eastward. The Self-Realization Fellowship owns about 13 acres there, property which overlooks a breathtaking expanse of the ocean and stretches, on its eastern perimeter, for a full city block along Highway 101. Three gigantic lotus towers painted gold and protected with a shiny coat of epoxy demand the attention of passing motorists. It is near the northernmost structure that one eerie episode occurred.
To learn more about it, I was told by a local religious scholar that I should talk to an Encinitas businesswoman whom I’ll call To’chula. Over the phone, she sounded cautious. The incident in question had been quite personal, and she disliked the thought of public attention. With the promise of anonymity, however, she described what had happened.
Now 47, To’chula is a Native American who has immersed herself in religious and philosophical study since she was in her late 20s. But she says she knew nothing about Paramahansa Yogananda a dozen or so years ago, when she and a friend went to lunch one day at the old Shepherd restaurant, a vegetarian cafe fronting the highway just a few doors north of the Fellowship property. To’chula states, “I never had seen Yogananda’s likeness in any way, and I never had studied the teachings of the Fellowship” (which Yogananda founded in 1920).
Nevertheless, as she ate her lunch that day, she began to sense the presence of someone standing in back of her. She thought at first that a waiter was hovering near the door that led into the restaurant kitchen. “But it persisted for 30 to 45 seconds,” To’chula recalls. At last she turned around to look. She saw something floating in the air that she describes as looking like a bull’s eye. “It was all the colors of the rainbow, and it was pulsating. And in the middle of it was a man.”
To’chula says the apparition was dressed in robes. His skin was dark; his hair long and softened by a loose natural wave. The image seemed holographic, she elaborates, “like the Flaunted Mansion in Disneyland where they have the people dancing.” At the sight, she drew in her breath in a gasp so loud that it was almost a scream. The other restaurant patrons turned to stare at her. And the man, she says, vanished. “Then I experienced the most extraordinary series of physical reactions. First I started laughing hysterically. Then I cried. Then I started shaking, all within a two-minute period.” To’chula’s friend pointed out a painting of Yogananda on the wall of the restaurant that To’chula had not noticed before. It was the very image of the being who had materialized before the distraught woman.
And why not? Anyone who has read the life story of this Indian mystic might ask why he hasn’t put in more appearances at the Encinitas site that meant so much to him. It was on these grounds, in rooms preserved today just as he left them, that Yogananda dictated his Autobiography of a Yogi, the spiritual chronicle studded with miraculous occurrences (most of them in India), which has since been translated into 18 languages.
Yogananda didn’t die in Encinitas, but at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles in 1952, at the age of 59. “Some of his disciples made fools of themselves. They said he was not dead, but just in samadhi [a higher state of consciousness in which the person more or less withdraws from the senses]. He was dead,” snaps Omar Garrison, a British-educated journalist who met Yogananda around 1937 and became a close friend, though not a formal disciple, of the guru.
Garrison now lives in retirement in Utah, but at the time of Yogananda’s death he was writing for the Los Angeles Mirror. He reacted like a journalist when he learned from one of the employees at Forest Lawn Cemetery that Yogananda’s body seemed to be resisting the normal postmortem deterioration. Garrison broke the story, which he says was viewed as “somewhat of a scandal.” (He says the cemetery workers weren’t supposed to be gossiping about their deceased clientele.)
The episode still lives on in an appendix to Yogananda’s Autobiography in which extracts from a notarized letter are printed. Written by one Harry T. Rowe, Forest Lawn’s mortuary director in 1952, the letter states that “At the time of receiving Yogananda’s body, the mortuary personnel expected to observe, through the glass lid of the casket, the usual progressive signs of bodily decay.”
Instead, Rowe wrote, day after day passed with no sign of any mold upon the dead man’s skin, “no visible desiccation took place in the bodily tissues.... No odor of decay emanated from his body at any time.... The physical appearance of Yogananda on March 27th, just before the bronze cover of the casket was put into position, was the same as it had been on March 7th.” Concluded the mortician, “The case of Paramahansa Yogananda is unique in our experience.”
Many aspects of Yogananda’s life were unique, including the saga of how he came to take up residence on the Encinitas bluff. That story too has a supernatural element; it began with a transcontinental vision.
According to the Autobiography, “enigmatic glimpses of three buildings” had come since early youth to Mukunda Lai Ghosh, the second son and fourth child of a prosperous middle-class family who lived near the Himalaya Mountains in northeastern India. One of those buildings was “a sylvan retreat on a plain.” Another sat on a hilltop, while the third overlooked the sea. None figured in the life of young Mukunda, whose father was an executive of the Bengal-Nagpur Railway and whose mother bore eight children. But vivid otherworldly images were a fixture of the boy’s earliest existence. “Clear recollections came to me of a distant life in which I had been a yogi amid the Himalayan snows,” he would later write. By the age of eight, he had already experienced a miraculous healing. “While at our family estate in Ichapur, Bengal, I was stricken with Asiatic cholera,” the Autobiography recounts. “My life was despaired of; the doctors could do nothing.” At his bedside, Mukunda’s frantic mother ordered him to “bow mentally” to a photograph of her guru, a man named Lahiri Mahasaya. “I gazed at his photograph and saw there a blinding light, enveloping my body and the entire room. My nausea and other uncontrollable symptoms disappeared,” Yogananda wrote. “I had instantly recovered from a usually fatal disease.”
He had many other religious experiences, and the boy resolved to devote all his attention to God. That goal clashed with his father’s educational plans for him, and there followed many years during which Mukunda flirted again and again with academic catastrophe, as he directed his attention and energy to spiritual rather than intellectual inquiries. It was soon after his near-miraculous graduation from high school that he found a spiritual master in the form of a swami known as Sri Yukteswar. Much to Mukunda’s dismay, this guru also urged the youth to go on to college. (“Someday you will go to the West," he was said to have told Mukunda, adding, “Its people will be more receptive to India’s ancient wisdom if the strange Hindu teacher has a university degree.”)
Mukunda received an A.B. degree from Calcutta University in 1915, and a few weeks later, Sri Yukteswar initiated him into the Swami Order, an ancient form of Indian monkhood, which, among other things, requires the selection of a new name. (Yogananda’s choice means bliss [ananda] through divine union [yoga]). “The ideal of selfless service to all mankind and of renunciation of personal ties and ambitions leads most swamis to engage actively in humanitarian and educational work,” explains the Autobiography. It didn’t take the new monk long to find such a project. Yogananda started schools, beginning with a small one in the Bengal countryside but soon winning the patronage of a local maharaja. With the rich man’s aid, Yogananda was able to move to a palace set on a 25-acre estate in the town of Ranchi, about 200 miles from Calcutta. In this, the “building on a sylvan plain,” he could accommodate 100 youthful boarders, but at the end of his first year, “applications for admission had reached 2000.”
Yogananda records that this success was interrupted one day while he was meditating behind some dusty boxes in the storeroom of the Ranchi school. (“A private spot was difficult to find during those busy years with the youngsters!”) At once his “inward view” was filled with “a panorama of Western faces,” which caused him to exclaim, “Surely these people are Americans!” The vision continued, Yogananda writes. “A vast multitude, gazing at me intently, swept actor-like across the stage of consciousness.” Seconds later, when one of the schoolboys discovered his hiding place, Yogananda told the child that the Lord was calling him to America. Within hours, according to the Autobiography, he was on a train bound for Calcutta, where he says the next day he got an invitation to serve as India’s delegate to the International Congress of Religious Liberals about to be held in Boston.
Yogananda’s beneficent father interceded with a check, and the young swami scrambled to get a passport. In August 1920, he pulled away from the shore of India aboard The City of Sparta, the first passenger ship bound for America after World War I. Two months later, he disembarked at Boston Harbor and on October 6 gave his speech to the assembly of religious leaders.
In many ways, Yogananda's audience was well-primed to hear his message. The Vedas and Upanishads had been translated into English by the beginning of the 1800s, and those sacred Hindu scriptures had influenced many American religious leaders (including Ralph Waldo Emerson) long before any Hindu arrived in the New World with an eye to starting some formal organization here. Yogananda wasn’t the first such East Indian to do that. He was preceded by a charismatic young swami named Vivekenanda, who attended the 1893 Parliament of Religions in Chicago. Vivekenanda later drew crowds on a lecture tour that took him throughout the country, and within a year or so the Vedanta Society sprang into existence and grew quickly. According to J. Gordon Melton’s Encyclopedia of American Religions, others also helped popularize Hinduism in the first years of this century, including an American named Peter Coon, who became well-known as “Oom the Omnipotent.” (By 1910, Coon opened a New York Sanskrit College, where he combined the teaching of yoga, Hindu philosophy, and the giving of advice on sex to a following that included some wealthy socialites.)
As strange as the turban-bedecked Yogananda must have looked in Boston in 1920, his ideas thus weren’t altogether alien. Moreover, his particular message—that both Eastern and Western teachings contain the same essential truth — went over just fine with the Unitarians who had sponsored the Boston conclave. Yogananda also soon discovered that ordinary New Englanders were interested in his thoughts. “Because of Father’s generous check, I was able to remain in America after the congress was over,” he later recorded in the Autobiography. “Three happy years were spent in humble circumstances in Boston. I gave public lectures, taught classes, and wrote a book of poems. The president of the College of the City of New York contributed the preface for the latter.
It’s curious that out of the almost 600 pages that constitute Yogananda’s autobiography (published in 1946), the swami devotes only about eight pages to the 15 years that followed his arrival in America. Those are the years in which he stepped into the limelight and founded his own religion, years in which he acquired a number of rich and powerful patrons and thousands of ordinary followers, many of whom regarded him as almost a living god. Yogananda paid a visit to the White House (in 1927), yet he forewent recording any of his impressions of Coolidge. (He instead devotes five of the eight pages covering 1920-1935 to discussing his great admirer, the plant breeder Luther Burbank, whom Yogananda regarded in turn as a “saint.”)
Whatever the reason underlying his reticence, Yogananda seems to have communicated it to his followers, who today number in the hundreds of thousands worldwide (according to a spokeswoman at the Fellowship headquarters in Los Angeles). No book has ever been written about Yogananda other than his own account, and despite the fact that he lived in Encinitas for at least ten years. Fellowship leaders there say they have no documents recording his years on the premises. When I asked for access to any records in Los Angeles, officials turned me down, polite but immovable. I was shown a 30-minute version of a two-hour video about Yogananda produced by the Fellowship. Yet once again, facts about the religious leader’s life in America were scarce. The production instead focuses on Yogananda’s disciples—everyone from Fellowship monks and nuns to the actor Dennis Weaver — all describing their emotional reactions to the leader.
Many mention his striking physical appearance, in particular his eyes. Large, dark, and heavy-lidded, they look (in photos) filled with a languid bliss. Set in a face that remained smooth and glowing well into the swami’s later years, it’s hard to imagine being pinned by them in a stare that was sharp or searching.
Instead his gaze is misty, humorous, benevolent. Striking too is the cataract of blue-black hair that flowed in waves down to his shoulder blades. Although Yogananda sometimes donned a business suit, he more often wore orange silk robes, which concealed a figure that was always chubby, at the least. He loved to eat, according to people who knew him, and later pictures reveal a wide girth and a double chin.
Yet he had a physical strength that could be astonishing, according to Brother Mitrananda, a Fellowship monk for 25 years and one of the leaders of the Encinitas ashram. Mitrananda never knew Yogananda in person, but he says he’s heard stories about Yogananda’s lecture tours. The swami would often line up a group of men on stage, then urge them to try to push him over. “And they couldn’t,” says Mitrananda. However, “with his stomach he would just knock them all back. He did this kind of thing in the beginning, but then he saw that it was really sensationalistic...just a P.T. Barnum kind of thing. And so he stopped it.”
Mitrananda says other factors helped insure Yogananda’s success when he left Boston in 1924 and set off across the nation.
He always advertised in local newspapers, and Mitrananda says Yogananda also had gained entry into a network of influential New Yorkers. He somehow met John Barron, the founder of the Wall Street Journal. Amelita Galli-Curci, the most famous opera singer of the day, was enthralled by him and introduced the swami to other glittering cultural and political figures. “He met Woodrow Wilson’s daughter,” says Mitrananda. “He met the daughter of Leo Tolstoy. There were lots of people who knew lots of people, so when he traveled, he would be introduced to the mayor. We see pictures of him with car dealers who’d give him a car for the week. Everybody wanted on this bandwagon because he was so personable.”
By the end of 1924 he’d reached California, where he visited Luther Burbank at Burbank’s home in Santa Rosa. In January of 1925, Yogananda sailed onto the pages of the Los Angeles Daily Times in a story announcing that he’d been the guest of honor at a private banquet held at the Biltmore. The story also informed readers that Yogananda was about to give a series of talks dealing with “such subjects as mastering the subconscious by the superconscious, scientific spiritual healing, highest technique of concentration, and other talks of like character.”
On the day before Yogananda’s first lecture, a prominent ad in the paper’s “Theaters, Amusements, and Entertainments” section stated that “MILLIONS HAVE MARVELLED AT THE WONDER MESSAGE of this saint of the Far East sent by a reigning prince of India the Maharajah of Kasimbazar — SWAMI YOGANANDA — Admission Free.” “Come Early! Thousands turned away," the next day’s ad warned. When the newspaper dispatched a reporter to the proceedings, she reported that Yogananda “drew an immense crowd” to the Music-Arts Hall. “Sponsored as he is by so many local lights, including Capt. and Mrs. Richmond Pearson Hobson, Mrs. Rufus von KleinSmid, Mrs. Isadore Dockweiler, Mrs. Willoughby Rodman, Harry Haldeman and others too numerous to list, my own curiosity was duly whetted with the rest,” the reporter gushed.
What they got was the swami, “clad in a peach-colored silk robe, wearing his black curly hair long and hanging about his shoulders, and a wristwatch upon his left hand. Swami Yogananda is not tall, and neither is he thin and emaciated as some Indian teachers who have visited us have been. On the contrary, an air of prosperous well-being pervades him." Besides a lengthy discussion of Yogananda’s thoughts on “Raja Yogo” (as the writer misheard it), she also noted some clues to the speaker’s apparent affluence. Although admission was free, a “freewill offering” was solicited and audience members were urged to buy the speaker’s portrait for $2 apiece (the equivalent of about $16 today) along with books and pamphlets. The reporter also noted that “the Swami gives this precious knowledge of his methods in 12 lessons for $25 (more than $200 in 1994 dollars] — and his courses are already so crowded that it is difficult to secure a hall large enough.”
Whether it was the effusive reception, the congenial weather, or some other factor that swayed him, Yogananda decided to stay in Los Angeles, and sometime in 1925 he brought to life the second architectural element from his early visions — the building on a hilltop — by buying a large piece of property on Mt. Washington, overlooking Pasadena, Glendale, and Dodger Stadium. The Mt. Washington site contained a building that had been a famous old resort hotel. “They used to have a cog railway up to it, and famous tennis matches were played there,” says Brother Mitrananda, the monk in Encinitas. He says that soon after Yogananda acquired the property, he invited a group of city officials to visit him there — even though he hadn’t yet had time to furnish the place with such basics as a table and silverware. But Yogananda’s self-confidence was unshakable. “He said, ‘Come on, we’re going to do just like we do in India!’ And they sat on the ground and he served them on banana leaves, and they thought it all was just ever so charming.”
That every official in L.A. was not dazzled by the swami seems apparent from a series of articles that appeared in the Times in 1928. “Cult To Be Subject of New Inquiry,” announced one. It stated that although the district attorney’s office some months before had looked into the practices at the Mt. Washington center and had found “nothing criminal,” another investigation was being launched “to establish if any juvenile laws are being violated at the Hindu cuh headquarters.” A few days later, a longer article alluded to “accusations that a love-cult is being conducted under the cloak of the Vedantic religion of India” and elaborated, “The interest of the District Attorney’s office in the asserted love-cult activity is said to be centered on whether young girls were included in the various classes in which love and sex theories are declared to be unfolded.”
If the D.A. ever discovered any wrongdoing, no record of it survives in the indices to the old Times articles. And it seems unlikely that any loose behavior was occurring; Yogananda’s writings suggest he himself was a lifelong celibate whose attitude toward sex fell somewhere between mild dislike and repulsion.
But Los Angeles wasn’t the only place where racy rumors swirled around the guru. At the very same time that the L.A. district attorney’s minions were poking their noses into the classrooms at Mt. Washington, Yogananda was in Miami — caught up in a scandal whose repercussions reached as far as the New York Times. One of its front-page stories on January 4, 1928, told how Miami officials and police were ordering Yogananda not to speak publicly in the Florida city because they thought if he did, “violence might result,” instigated by husbands enraged over their wives paying the guru up to $35 for lessons. One irate gentleman reportedly told the police chief “that if he found his wife at the lecture he would kill Yogananda. He said he had asked his wife not to attend...but she had said she would do so if the Swami appeared,” the article stated. “The son of another woman reported that he had found his mother trying to walk on the Miami River because 'Yogananda told her she could do it.’ ” Despite testimony from a former California congressman that Yogananda was “one of the most godly men he ever knew,” along with other legal efforts, Yogananda finally left Miami, in compliance with police orders.
Yogananda’s Los Angeles organization nonetheless continued to grow, as did interest in India among Southland residents. By the end of 1932, the religion editor of the Los Angeles Times was declaring, “Today there are more swamis to the square mile in Southern California than in any other section of the country.” Of them, “the most spectacular” was Yogananda, the editor wrote.
Yogananda made some trips down to San Diego County during this period. For example, he gave eight “soul-stirring free lectures” on the subject of “everlasting youth” in April of 1932 in the ballroom of the Hotel San Diego. And it must have been around then that he discovered the undeveloped Encinitas acreage, which he proclaimed to be the ocean-view setting from his childhood vision. “He thought it was an enchanted spot,” says Omar Garrison, Yogananda’s journalist friend, who recalls that the guru had a mobile home custom-built for him by the Pullman Company, which he would park up on top of the cliffs. “He meditated there,” says Garrison. But although the property was for sale, Yogananda didn’t have enough money to buy it, say Fellowship spokespersons today. He did have a rich disciple named James J. Lynn, an oil and insurance executive who paid for the swami to make a 16-month return visit to India, which began in June of 1935. During Yogananda’s absence, Lynn also secretly purchased the land in Encinitas, then oversaw the construction of a luxurious retreat there.
Lynn managed to astonish the guru with his homecoming gift, despite Yogananda’s claims of being able to see into the deepest corners of his disciples’ souls. The monks and nuns who live on the property today tell the story of how Lynn drove the religious leader down to Encinitas; of how distressed Yogananda was to note the disappearance of the “For Sale” sign; how indignant to see that someone had built there; how speechless when he realized that the building was his. Today this Hermitage, as it is called, lies at the end of the long driveway that enters the grounds from K Street; most of the time, a sign announces it is off-limits to visitors (unlike the magnificent Meditation Gardens, open daily). But from 2:00 to 5:00 p.m. most Sundays, the forbidding sign is removed and the Hermitage doors open.
From the outside, the building where Yogananda lived and worked seems a simple, very Southern Californian construction: two stories frosted with white stucco and topped with red clay roof tiles; encircled by a thick border of pink and white begonias, mature palms, and twisting junipers. But just inside the double-doored front entrance, visitors face a carpeted stairway so wide that it feels ceremonial. Only at the top of the 14 steps does the logic of the building become apparent: the upper rooms command the clifftop, letting in enormities of sea and sky through tall, wood-framed windows. There’s a huge, formal dining room and an even larger salon. A short corridor leads to Yogananda’s small study and bedroom. Braided silken ropes guard the doorways and lie over most of the furniture.
Closer inspection brings into focus sumptuous details: teakwood tables and ebony chairs carved with fantastic Oriental friezes; a gorgeous brass filigree floor lamp; a Tibetan brazier made of brass, silver, and gold. The artworks, the touches of exotica — rare seashells, for example, arranged on a bearskin rug in the study — all seem the trappings of some wealthy, well-traveled collector. (Most were gifts, Yogananda’s followers say.) Against such splendor, the few personal items like the polished brown leather bedroom slippers tucked next to Yogananda’s bed somehow look staged.
Yet Yogananda’s followers say Lynn conceived of the Hermitage as a very personal refuge indeed, a place where Yogananda could escape in solitude. They say Yogananda did in fact spend a few weeks alone here after Lynn unveiled his surprise but that the swami soon wanted to share the delights of the place with friends and disciples. And so the Golden World Colony, as it became known, developed into the central base for Yogananda’s activities. Plans were announced for retreat facilities that would be open to all the Fellowship’s members (then estimated at 150,000) and throughout 1937 the swami directed the construction of a temple adjoining the gardens being planted just north of the colony’s living quarters. This temple was to sit on the highest knoll on the estate, right out on the cliff edge. By October of 1937, it was complete enough for the San Diego Union to judge it “one of the most unusual and beautiful [temples] in the world.”
Christened the Golden Lotus Temple of All Religions, the building was massive. Huge lotus buds encrusted with gold leaf sprouted from a roof that was open to meditating devotees. A four-story glass tower also rose like a lighthouse next to the central structure, inside which “hundreds” could “enjoy the ocean view thru the panoramic windows,” so declares a flyer written not long after the dedication. The flyer adds that a “blue tile altar” beneath one of the windows supported the statues of Christ, Krishna, St. Francis, Buddha, Zoroaster, Mohammed, Rama, and several other Indian religious figures. Altar A large pool situated on the side of the temple mirrored the whole complex “like a lovely dream.”
Looking back, I have to wonder how Yogananda, with his vaunted psychic powers, failed to recognize just how short a time the dream was to last. Almost at once, auguries appeared that were visible to Clarence Darrough. Darrough, now 81, lives near the top of Mt. Palomar, but back in 1938, his home was Encinitas, just a mile and a half away from the new place of worship. A construction supervisor, he had watched as first the Hermitage and then the temple took shape, and he’d even donated a number of Torrey pines to be planted on the grounds. But he noted with concern that “a regular lake” would appear on the property after every heavy rain. Darrough says the county had built K Street in such a way that rainwater could not drain from it but seeped into the ground and flowed west toward the cliffs on whose edge Yogananda’s temple perched.
Darrough says he’d met Yogananda a number of times at the truck stop across Highway 101 from the Fellowship property. “He used to go over and visit with the people in the restaurant. Oh, he was very personable!” recalls the retired construction supervisor. But Darrough says what really brought him and Yogananda together were the swami’s mounting concerns during the winter of 1941 -’42. Storms that season were fierce.
“It rained for seven days and nights at one point,” the old man recalls. Around 10:30 on the night of July 21, 1942, Darrough got a call from someone at the Hermitage expressing concern about the temple’s prospects for survival. Darrough says when he dressed and hastened to the property, he found the bluff collapsed and the temple clinging to the edge of it, canted at a 45-degree angle toward the sea, and inching downward. When the war had broken out the previous December, naval authorities had forced the Fellowship members to cover the golden domes with white cloth, to foil any Japanese bombers looking for a landmark. Now Darrough and a small band of other rescue workers worked through the night to remove these great sheathed baubles, along with the stained glass windows, oak pews, Oriental rugs, and other valuable interior furnishings.
The building itself couldn’t be saved, crashing within hours down the cliff. After the disaster, Darrough says he urged Yogananda to'sue the county. The swami did so, asking $50,000 for damages, but the complaint was dismissed by both the local and appellate courts.
Darrough today believes Yogananda lost due to prejudice. He says he saw the same attitudes among some of his neighbors in Encinitas. “In a small town, someone will criticize the sun coming up. In this case, they didn’t want yogis coming in. And oh! The insulting remarks that were made!” Such remarks continued right up to when Darrough was serving on the San Dieguito High School school board and took it upon himself to invite the swami to give the invocation and benediction at the school’s graduation ceremonies. “The community had not yet fully accepted the Self-Realization group, and it certainly wasn’t because the members weren’t doing their part,” Darrough asserts. But Yogananda wound up delivering “just the most beautiful invocation that I think anybody ever heard. I would say that the next day the sun came up on a whole new community, to the point where you didn’t hear the slurs anymore. It was a turning point.”
And counterbalancing the loss of the temple were other triumphs. In September of 1943, Yogananda opened a new house of prayer in a graceful building just north of downtown San Diego, and for the rest of the decade, he conducted services there on alternate Sundays. (He also presided over a Hollywood temple that had opened in 1942. Journalist Omar Garrison says the swami made the four- to five-hour commute in one of a number of the Fellowship’s cars, driven by a Mexican chauffeur.) Occasional lecture tours continued to take him farther afield, but famous admirers also made their way to the succulent Indian banquets served in the Hermitage dining room. Among them, says Brother Mitrananda, were movie stars Greta Garbo and Ramon Navarro, conductor Leopold Stokowski, dancer Ruth St. Denis, religious scholar Walter Evans-Wentz, and opera singer Amelita Galli-Curci, who moved to San Diego County to be closer to her guru/idol.
By the middle of the 1940s, Yogananda was also immersed in the creation of his epic autobiography. “He would dictate this thing for hours on end,” sometimes straight throughout the night, recalls Garrison. “It was a continuous operation. The man had incredible stamina. He wore out secretaries.”
Garrison says he discovered that one of those amanuenses, one Miss L.V. Fratt (later known as Tara Mata), was editing the guru’s discourses with a rather heavy hand. Garrison says he exploded, “Don’t let her change anything! She thinks she knows more than you. And she doesn’t.” He says Yogananda came to agree with him, and Garrison offers the opinion, “It’s the sincerity of the book that makes it.”
The Autobiography does resound with simple declarations that convey an artless sense of innocence. The tone contributes to carrying the reader through Yogananda’s recollections of one supernatural feat after another, performed by such characters as the Perfume Saint (who made scents appear and extracted objects out of thin air), the Tiger Swami (who fought the big cats with his bare hands), and the levitating Saint (who not only defied gravity but also once performed a series of breathing exercises in front of Yogananda “with such amazing force that it seemed that an actual storm had arisen in the room!”). Upon the book’s 1946 publication, both Time and Newsweek took notice, though Time's review (“Here Comes the Yogiman”) couldn’t quite keep the smirk out of its tone. (While acknowledging that the dearth of swami autobiographies made Yogananda’s contribution “something of a document,” it “is not likely to give the uninitiated much insight into India’s ancient teachings,” Time sniffed, adding that such literary followers of Indian philosophy as Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood, and Gerald Heard viewed Yogananda with contempt.)
Public demand for the book far exceeded the snickers; a Los Angeles spokesperson for the Fellowship, which publishes the Autobiography, says “countless millions of copies” of it have been sold worldwide. As the ’40s drew to a close, Yogananda’s life more and more resembled that of a besieged titan of industry, according to profiles that appeared around that time. He was overseeing 82 centers and churches stretching all the way to the Gold Coast of Africa, San Diego Magazine reported in 1951. “He directs such diverse activities as a goat farm in Arizona, a desert retreat for monks and nuns of the Order overlooking Palm Springs, papaya groves and a restaurant in Encinitas....” (This “cleansitarian” eating place was located out on Highway 101, next to the central lotus tower. Raw vegetable juices and “mushroomburgers” were the specialties.) Continued the San Diego Magazine writer, “On [Yogananda’sj busy days he puts in 16 to 18 hours at his desk, takes a three- or four-hour rest and comes back for more. An avalanche of mail greets The Master every morning. These consist mostly of requests for his photo (now available in three poses — the long-time favorite, seated with folded hands, and his latest photograph, seated). Others want ‘The Voice’ singing his Hindu Chant on non-breakable, vinylite record. Still others write him for his correspondence course and writings.” Besides having produced the Autobiography, Yogananda also composed poetry, songs, and chants. “Weekly, he turns radio writer and produces the script for The Voice of Self-Realization. And each morning between 7:00 and 11:00 a.m., as he claims to be a human sending station, he emits, to the students and those seeking help, his personal healing vibrations.”
In the midst of this frenzied schedule, Yogananda had a revelation that his life was drawing to a close, says Mitrananda, and after 1948 the religious leader began spending more and more time in the Mojave Desert, writing. One of the most detailed accounts of his final days appeared in Time magazine, a few months after his death. “For the last two years the guru suffered from a 'metaphysically induced illness,’ as his disciples put it — the result of ‘working out’ on his own body some of the physical and spiritual burdens of his friends.” Time continued that as 1952 had arrived, the swami had grown silent. “He finished dictating his spiritual books. His last 'little desire’ was fulfilled, he said, when a disciple from Florida sent him some green coconut juice in March.”
Omar Garrison says Yogananda called him one day at the beginning of March 1952, to disclose that the ambassador of India was coming for a luncheon. “I said, ‘Well, Paramahansaji, I have an assignment. I can’t come at that time.’ He said, ‘Cancel it. Do anything, but you must come.’ And there was something about the way he said it; I immediately caught it in his voice.... So I went. And the moment I saw him, he told me, ‘I wanted to say good-bye to you.’ I was confused; was he returning to India? I didn’t realize what he meant until a few days later [March 7] — the night of the banquet for the ambassador at the Biltmore Hotel.”
According to Time, Yogananda ate vegetables and strawberry parfait at the banquet, then rose to make a speech about “spiritual India,” ending the presentation by quoting from one of his own poems. “As he finished, Paramhansa [sic] lifted his eyes, turned slightly to the right, and slid to the floor, dead.” The subsequent medical verdict blamed a heart attack.
He was 59—young for a profession in which (by Yogananda’s own account) some yogis manage to avoid death for centuries. “He’d finished his mission,” declared Brother Mitrananda when I questioned Yogananda’s demise. “He did what he was supposed to do.”
When I had asked to talk to someone about the current residents of the Encinitas ashram, I was referred to Mitrananda. Although he was only a few years old at the time of Yogananda’s death, and although he probably wasn’t many miles away, he started out in a very different world from that of the Indian mystic. “I was born in Glendale but raised in La Crescenta. I have really great folks; came from Kentucky. They were childhood sweethearts,” said the monk, who resembles the actor John Malkovich. The family was Methodist. “I was into my church,” says Mitrananda. “I stood in tableaus on the lawn at Christmas, and I sang in the choir and all that.”
One element in his life did distinguish him from the typical suburban schoolboy. Around the age of 12, he got a professional acting job, and he says throughout his teens he worked in “hundreds of movies and television programs and commercials.” He adds, “Working in the film studios was kind of a revelation. I was never starstruck. In fact, I saw how neurotic, how insecure, most of the artists and actors were.” After high school, he nonetheless enrolled in the University of Southern California to study journalism and film production. As he neared graduation, “I was sort of aimless.” he recalls. “I’d been through a lot of confusion and didn’t really know what I wanted.” He says at times he would make the trip to Forest Lawn Cemetery, near his family’s home in Glendale, and attend the funerals of complete strangers. “I used to go with college friends. We would just walk up and see this strange guy lying in a box. And it was like, ‘Hey, you too, my friend.’ You know, when most people are young they think they’re never going to die. But I would drive along and see a wreck on the freeway, and I just couldn’t dismiss it from my mind. I’d think, ‘No, it is going to happen to me. It’s just a matter of time. It’s either going to be that or cancer or having a child who’s crippled, or something.’ This was haunting me...this duality of life.”
Mitrananda continues, "I wanted a goal-oriented life— And I was scared because I saw that all my peers, the young college students, they all seemed sort of like cattle getting on this train to some unknown destination, getting into these careers. These executives from these big companies came around to interview the top third of the senior class, and when I was being interviewed, I thought, ‘If I do this, I’m going to wind up just like you.’ And I somehow’ wanted something different.”
At the end of his senior year, a college friend gave him a copy of The Autobiography of a Yogi. After reading it, “I went up to the Hollywood church to see what was going on. I had the sense that this was what I’d always wanted.” The Fellowship at the time had a restaurant on Sunset Boulevard, and Mitrananda got a job there. “I thought, ‘Well, I’ll work here for the summer just to get the exposure [to the Fellowship). Then I’ll get a real job in the fall.’ ” Many of his fellow workers were aspiring monks, and Mitrananda says, “I couldn’t understand what they wanted to be monks for. It seemed like sort of a bizarre thing in my mind.” He says his thinking changed in a single memorable moment.
“We had one day off a week, and frequently we [lay restaurant workers] would join the monks for three-hour meditations.” He was deep in concentration on one such occasion when a voice filled the young man’s consciousness. “It wasn’t a physical voice, but it was so clear that it was as if the words were chiseled in the base of a Roman statue. They were: ‘Just this once, don’t do what you want to do, do what you know you should do.’ And I thought, ‘Well, that’s it. I don’t want to do this, but it will be good for me. It’s like going in the military.’ ” Only forever. Although he “didn’t really know what it meant to be a monk,” he says at the time he viewed the decision as a lifetime commitment.
What had he turned his back on? “I would have been an executive with IBM and made videos for them,” he shoots back the answer. “I would have had a green Jaguar and lived in Brentwood and everything.” It is easy to imagine this. Shadows of some other, corporate identity cling to the lean, balding clergyman. Although nuns in the Self-Realization Fellowship dress in saris, the monks forgo robes and instead wear trousers and short tunics reminiscent of the old Nehru jackets. Mitrananda’s are ochre, the rusty orange shade donned by those who’ve taken final monastic vows. His words are crisp and businesslike; his demeanor cordial and very polished. “We’re very busy people,” he said of the religious community. “For us meditation isn’t a luxury, but a necessity. Because if we don’t meditate regularly, we really feel the pressures — just the phone ringing and we deal with computers. We have to feed the cats and the dogs. We have to process the monthly bills. We do everything a householder does, pretty much. Also I go on international lecture tours.... I was in Rome last November, and there were a thousand people who’d come for a weekend class.”
About 45 men and women now live full-time at the Encinitas ashram. “We have hundreds of thousands of members, but only about 250 monks and nuns,” Mitrananda says. “It’s a very small percentage.” The seaside group includes a dozen nuns and 20 or so monks, who live and eat in separate quarters. “Yogananda believed in the strict segregation of the sexes. So we keep talk to a minimum, strictly about business. There’s no social or personal exchanges.”
Postulants make up the third group within the community. While women seeking nunhood go to Los Angeles, all young men aspiring to be Fellowship monks come here. “Right now we have one from England, one from Australia, one from Italy, one from Spain, three from Brazil, and the rest are Americans,” Mitrananda enumerated. All take vows of loyalty, obedience, chastity, and simplicity (rather than poverty, “Yogananda said of poverty, ‘No, that’s a little negative,’ ” one nun explained). During their one-to two-year probation, the postulants are cloistered.
All three groups within the community follow the same fixed schedule, starting each day at 5:30 and fitting in three separate meditation sessions (two hours total). Group recreational and “energization” exercises consume other time slots, and the remaining daytime hours are devoted to various tasks: postulants, for example, study and do gardening work (besides the Meditation Garden, the Fellowship also raises fruits and vegetables on some land located just across the railroad tracks). The full-fledged monastics work on various tasks, such as running the ongoing retreat programs, which each year bring thousands of people from all over the world to the Encinitas compound.
Retreatants — most, though not all of whom are Fellowship members — stay for anywhere from 1 to 14 days. All “do certain physical exercises twice a day, to control the energy,” says Mitrananda. “We teach them techniques of concentration and meditation.” They attend some lectures, and they also are asked to keep silence, an experience that itself is “a tremendous education,” the monk avers. “Many people have never not spoken for two days. But a lot of things come to you from within just with the slowing-down process. That’s what we believe — the definition of self-realization is that we already have the knowledge. It’s inside. But we can’t access it...because of our restlessness and because of all the energy that’s going out. Every night when we sleep, the life force withdraws, but it’s not conscious. Whereas meditation is really a sort of a conscious sleep. You get a chance to shut things down, the heartbeat slows down, the breath slows down, thoughts slow down, and then up underneath that comes this first manifestation of God — peace. The Bible says, 'Be still and know that I am God.’ Well, that stillness is a science...and to be able to create it consciously, at will, is what we teach.”
“Yogananda was not here to teach Hinduism as such,” Mitrananda told me on another occasion. “I mean, he wasn’t preaching incense and sitting cross-legged and that.” Indeed, the theme of religious universality pervades the Fellowship. At temple services, for Instance, worshipers pray to Jesus, Krishna, various Indian yogis, and “saints and sages of all religions,” and they make their requests in spare, Anglicized buildings in which the walls are white, the pews simple and wooden. These churches bear about as much resemblance to the perfumed and glittering and oh-so-Indian Hare Krishna temples as the average fundamentalist chapel bears to St. Peter’s in Rome. The notions at the heart of Yogananda’s teachings are Hindu ones: Godhead within, yogic practice as a means of getting in touch with it throughout innumerable reincarnations. But even here the Fellowship members can advance to something that, though it supposedly wasn’t invented in the West, seems as if it should have been. Once initiated into the practice of “Kriya yoga,” Yogananda taught that Fellowship members can dramatically compress the spiritual evolutionary process. “One half-minute...of Kriya equals one year of natural spiritual unfoldment,” he explained in the Autobiography. According to this peculiar equation, the Kriya-practicing yogi in just one day could dispense with “the equivalent of one thousand years of natural evolution.... In three years, a Kriya Yogi can thus accomplish by intelligent self-effort the same result that Nature brings to pass in a million years.”
I asked Mitrananda if the complex Kriya calculus made sense to him the first time he read the Autobiography.
“I didn’t have a clue,” he replied. “How could you know? What could you have read that would have given you a perspective on something like that? No, it’s totally fresh. And I didn’t know what to make of the miracles in the Autobiography. I was very skeptical. And yet there was something.... I thought, ‘This man’s not lying. It’s not a fantasy. There’s some truth here.’ ”
The monk says since then he’s given a lot of thought to the panoply of marvels presented by Yogananda in his bestseller and he’s come up with this explanation. “It says on the title page of the Autobiography, ‘Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe. — John 4:48.’ And in our lessons we learn that Jesus said that with wry humor. Which means to me: ‘I don’t like to have to tell you all these miracles. Because it’s not the key point. But I have to tell you them to get you excited; to motivate you initially. You won’t believe otherwise.’ But as you get into this science and test it for yourself, you will at last believe the ultimate so-called miracle — that you are God. That’s self-realization. God-realization. This is the goal.”
Mitrananda says he’s now certain that all the astounding events did occur as Yogananda, pacing back and forth in his chambers on the bluff, described them. But Mitrananda echoes the words of the guru himself in declaring that such events aren’t really “supernatural.” “They’re natural things that you or I could do if we had the same control of our minds. And slowly, as we evolve, science will come to comprehend these laws and the miracles will get crossed off the list, and we’ll all realize this incredible, even infinite, power of the mind of man.”
What about within the ashram — where some of the monastics have been practicing Yogananda’s potent “science” for decades. Do the veteran monks and nuns experience things that the rest of us would call miraculous?
“I couldn’t generalize,” the monk replied, after a long pause. “I couldn’t talk about other people, but I would say that these kind of so-called miracles — or let’s call them phenomenal experiences — are not a part of our daily experience.”
So maybe the Encinitas compound doesn’t merit a whole chapter in that supernatural guidebook after all. Maybe To’chula’s strange lunchtime vision only deserves a footnote. Then again, the Encinitas property does encompass the Meditation Garden, where it’s not very difficult to catch glimpses of something transcendental and where ghosts of the miraculous still linger.
You enter the garden not far from the street. A stone stairway leads upward off the central driveway, and within steps you’re in a bosky wonderland. Many of the trees here were planted 50 years ago, and all their hidden layers give them the thickness and dignity and character of elders, brought together in some multinational convocation. Hollywood junipers lean over the stone pathways like dark giants, their many arms frozen into dozens of gestures as they gossip with magnolias, sago palms, rubber trees, Aleppo pines. At their feet rise tree ferns from Australia and Hawaii that have grown to the height of men. The walkways lead to ponds where papyrus knifes up through crystalline water and where gaudy Japanese carp glide beneath lilies such as those Monet painted. Despite the profusion of the plant life, there’s an underlying order discernible; this is no vegetative riot, but a creation wrought with patience and discipline and discrimination. The droplets of glowing sunlight that penetrate the foliage may splatter at random, but they shower flowers positioned with subtlety and restraint. Hot red kalanchoe grows next to a tender green groundcover, the spiky alien blooms of pink bromeliads jut up near the normality of philodendrons. Coleus has been hung in planters suspended at eye level, the better to show off the astounding leafy palette: white and fuchsia and orange and dried blood, all bordered with the most delicate lime green.
Throughout the garden wafts the smell of the sea, but only glimpses of it are visible until you emerge into an area paved with irregular flesh-colored slabs. This space feels like a plaza with one side open to the oceanic infinity. Three low gray steps rise to the cliff edge and then break off in a jagged edge that runs into a bed of blooming red and gold lantana. Once, however, Yogananda’s temple floated just beyond the stairs. For those who entered it and climbed to the roof, it must have seemed as if the dreary, tugging forces of gravity had ceased to exist.