On September 19, 1920, Paramahansa Yogananda arrived in Boston, bringing with him spiritual teachings that would inspire millions in years to come, He conveyed those teachings through his presence, his organization Self-Realization Fellowship, and his bestselling 1946 book, Autobiography of a Yogi. Here is an excerpt from that book. Photos courtesy of Self-Realization Fellowship, Los Angeles, CA.
I Go to America
On September 19, 1920, world-renowned yoga pioneer Paramahansa Yogananda arrived in the West to disseminate India’s sacred science of Kriya Yoga, fulfilling the mission of his spiritual lineage. A glimpse of the auspicious series of events leading to Yogananda’s arrival in the West can be found in the following excerpt from “I Go To America,” taken from his book Autobiography of a Yogi.
“America! Surely these people are Americans!” This was my thought as a panorama of Western faces passed before my inward view.
Immersed in meditation, I was sitting 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!
The vision continued; a vast multitude, gazing at me intently, swept actorlike across the stage of consciousness.
The storeroom door opened; as usual, one of the young lads had discovered my hiding place.
“Come here, Bimal,” I cried gaily. “I have news for you: the Lord is calling me to America!”
“To America?” The boy echoed my words in a tone that implied I had said “to the moon.”
“Yes! I am going forth to discover America, like Columbus. He thought he had found India; surely there is a karmic link between those two lands!”
Bimal scampered away; soon the whole school was informed by the two-legged newspaper.
I summoned the bewildered faculty and gave the school into its charge.
“I know you will keep Lahiri Mahasaya’s yoga ideals of education ever to the fore,” I said. “I shall write you frequently; God willing, someday I shall be back.”
Tears stood in my eyes as I cast a last look at the little boys and the sunny acres of Ranchi. A definite epoch in my life had now closed, I knew; henceforth I would dwell in far lands. I entrained for Calcutta a few hours after my vision. The following day I received an invitation to serve as the delegate from India to an International Congress of Religious Liberals in America. It was to convene that year in Boston, under the auspices of the American Unitarian Association.
My head in a whirl, I sought out Sri Yukteswar in Serampore.
“Guruji, I have just been invited to address a religious congress in America. Shall I go?”
“All doors are open for you,” Master replied simply. “It is now or never.”
“But sir,” I said in dismay, “what do I know about public speaking? Seldom have I given a lecture, and never in English.”
“English or no English, your words on yoga shall be heard in the West.”
I laughed. “Well, dear Guruji, I hardly think the Americans will learn Bengali! Please bless me with a push over the hurdles of the English language.”
When I broke the news of my plans to Father, he was utterly taken aback. To him America seemed incredibly remote; he feared he might never see me again.
“How can you go?” he asked sternly. “Who will finance you?” As he had affectionately borne the expenses of my education and whole life, he doubtless hoped that his question would bring my project to an embarrassing halt.
“The Lord will surely finance me.” As I made this reply, I thought of the similar one I had given long ago to my brother Ananta in Agra. Without very much guile, I added, “Father, perhaps God will put it into your mind to help me.”
“No, never!” He glanced at me piteously.
I was astounded, therefore, when Father handed me, the following day, a check made out for a large amount.
“I give you this money,” he said, “not in my role as a father but as a faithful disciple of Lahiri Mahasaya. Go then to that far Western land; spread there the creedless teachings of Kriya Yoga.”
I was immensely touched at the selfless spirit in which Father had been able quickly to put aside his personal desires. The just realization had come to him during the preceding night that no ordinary desire for foreign travel was motivating my plans.
“Perhaps we shall not meet again in this life.” Father, who was sixty-seven at this time, spoke sadly.
An intuitive conviction prompted me to reply, “Surely the Lord will bring us together once more.”
As I went about my preparations to leave Master and my native land for the unknown shores of America, I experienced not a little trepidation. I had heard many stories about the “materialistic West”—a land very different from India, steeped in the centuried aura of saints.
“To dare the Western airs,” I thought, “an Oriental teacher should be hardy beyond the trials of any Himalayan cold!”
One early morning I began to pray, with an adamant determination to continue, even to die praying, until I heard the voice of God. I wanted His blessing and assurance that I would not lose myself in the fogs of modern utilitarianism. My heart was set to go to America, but even more strongly was it resolved to hear the solace of divine permission.
I prayed and prayed, muffling my sobs. No answer came. At noon I reached a zenith; my head was reeling under the pressure of my agonies. I felt that if I cried once more, increasing the depth of my inner passion, my brain would split.
At that moment there came a knock on the door of my Garpar Road home. Answering the summons, I beheld a young man in the scanty garb of a renunciant. He entered the house.
“He must be Babaji!” I thought, dazed, because the man before me had the features of a young Lahiri Mahasaya. He answered my thought. “Yes, I am Babaji.” He spoke melodiously in Hindi. “Our Heavenly Father has heard your prayer. He commands me to tell you: Follow the behests of your guru and go to America. Fear not; you shall be protected.”
After a vibrant pause, Babaji addressed me again. “You are the one I have chosen to spread the message of Kriya Yoga in the West. Long ago I met your guru Yukteswar at a Kumbha Mela; I told him then I would send you to him for training.”
I was speechless, choked with devotional awe at his presence, and deeply touched to hear from his own lips that he had guided me to Sri Yukteswar. I lay prostrate before the deathless guru. He graciously lifted me up. After telling me many things about my life, he gave me some personal instruction and uttered a few secret prophecies.
“Kriya Yoga, the scientific technique of God-realization,” he finally said with solemnity, “will ultimately spread in all lands, and aid in harmonizing the nations through man’s personal, transcendental perception of the Infinite Father.”
With a gaze of majestic power, the master electrified me with a glimpse of his cosmic consciousness.
“If there should rise
Suddenly within the skies
Sunburst of a thousand suns
Flooding earth with beams undeemed-of,
Then might be that Holy One’s
Majesty and radiance dreamed of!”Bhagavad Gita XI:12, Sir Edwin Arnold’s translation
In a short while Babaji started toward the door, remarking, “Do not try to follow me. You will not be able to do so.”
“Please, Babaji, don’t go away,” I cried repeatedly. “Take me with you!” He replied, “Not now. Some other time.”
Overcome by emotion, I disregarded his warning. As I tried to pursue him, I discovered that my feet were firmly rooted to the floor. From the door, Babaji gave me a last affectionate glance. My eyes were fixed on him longingly as he raised his hand by way of benediction and walked away.
After a few minutes my feet were free. I sat down and went into a deep meditation, unceasingly thanking God not only for answering my prayer but for blessing me by a meeting with Babaji. My whole body seemed sanctified through the touch of the ancient, ever-youthful master. Long had it been my burning desire to behold him.
Until now, I have never recounted to anyone this story of my meeting with Babaji. Holding it as the most sacred of my human experiences, I have hidden it in my heart. But the thought occurred to me that readers of this autobiography would be more inclined to believe in the reality of the secluded Babaji with his world interests if I relate that I have seen him with my own eyes. I have helped an artist to draw, for this book, a true picture of the Yogi-Christ of modern India.
The eve of my departure for the United States found me in Sri Yukteswar’s holy presence. “Forget you were born among Hindus, and don’t adopt all the ways of the Americans. Take the best of both peoples,” he said in his calm way of wisdom. “Be your true self, a child of God. Seek and incorporate into your being the best qualities of all your brothers, scattered over the earth in various races.”
Then he blessed me: “All those who come to you with faith, seeking God, will be helped. As you look at them, the spiritual current emanating from your eyes will enter their brains and change their material habits, making them more God-conscious.” Smilingly, he added, “Your lot to attract sincere souls is very good. Everywhere you go, even in a wilderness, you will find friends.”
Both of Sri Yukteswar’s blessings have been amply demonstrated. I came alone to America, in which I had not a single friend; but there I found thousands ready to receive the timeless soul teachings.
I left India in August, 1920, on The City of Sparta, the first passenger boat sailing for America after the close of the World War. I had been able to book passage only after the removal, in ways fairly miraculous, of many “red-tape” difficulties concerned with the granting of my passport.
During the two-month voyage a fellow passenger found out that I was the Indian delegate to the Boston congress.
“Swami Yogananda,” he said, with the first of many quaint pronunciations by which I was later to hear my name spoken by the Americans, “please favor the passengers with a lecture next Thursday night. I think we would all benefit by a talk on ‘The Battle of Life and How to Fight It.’”
Alas! I had to fight the battle of my own life, I discovered on Wednesday. Desperately trying to organize my ideas into a lecture in English, I finally abandoned all preparations; my thoughts, like a wild colt eyeing a saddle, refused any cooperation with the rules of English grammar. Fully trusting in Master’s past assurances, however, I appeared before my Thursday audience in the saloon of the steamer. No eloquence rose to my lips; speechlessly I stood before the assemblage. After an endurance contest lasting ten minutes, the audience realized my predicament and began to laugh.
The situation was not funny to me at the moment; indignantly I sent a silent prayer to Master.
“You can! Speak!” His voice sounded instantly within my consciousness.
My thoughts fell at once into a friendly relation with the English language. Forty-five minutes later the audience was still attentive. The talk won me a number of invitations to lecture later before various groups in America.
I never could remember, afterward, a word that I had spoken. By discreet inquiry I learned from a number of passengers: “You gave an inspiring lecture in stirring and correct English.” At this delightful news I humbly thanked my guru for his timely help, realizing anew that he was ever with me, setting at naught all barriers of time and space.
Once in a while, during the remainder of the ocean trip, I experienced a few apprehensive twinges about the coming English-lecture ordeal at the Boston congress.
“Lord,” I prayed deeply, “please let my sole inspiration be Thyself.”
The City of Sparta docked near Boston in late September. On October 6, 1920, I addressed the congress with my maiden speech in America. It was well received; I sighed in relief. The magnanimous secretary of the American Unitarian Association wrote the following comment in a published account of the congress proceedings:
“Swami Yogananda, delegate from the Brahmacharya Ashram of Ranchi, brought the greetings of his Association to the Congress. In fluent English and with a forceful delivery he gave an address of a philosophical character on ‘The Science of Religion,’ which has been printed in pamphlet form for a wider distribution. Religion, he maintained, is universal and it is one. We cannot possibly universalize particular customs and conventions; but the common element in religion can be universalized, and we may ask all alike to follow and obey it.”
Because of Father’s generous check, I was able to remain in America after the congress was over. Three happy years were spent in humble circumstances in Boston. I gave public lectures, taught classes, and wrote a book of poems, Songs of the Soul, with a preface by Dr. Frederick B. Robinson, president of the College of the City of New York.
Starting a transcontinental tour in 1924, I spoke before thousands in many of the principal cities. In Seattle I embarked for a vacation in beautiful Alaska.
With the help of largehearted students, by the end of 1925 I had established an American headquarters on Mount Washington Estates in Los Angeles. The building is the one I had seen years before in my vision at Kashmir. I hastened to send Sri Yukteswar pictures of these distant American activities. He replied with a postcard in Bengali, which I here translate:
11th August, 1926
Child of my heart, O Yogananda!
Seeing the photos of your school and students, what joy comes in my life I cannot express in words. I am melting in joy to see your yoga students of different cities.
Hearing about your methods of chant affirmations, healing vibrations, and divine healing prayers, I cannot refrain from thanking you from my heart.
Seeing the gate, the winding hilly way upward, and the beautiful scenery spread out beneath Mount Washington Estates, I yearn to behold it all with my own eyes.
Everything here is going on well. Through the grace of God, may you ever be in bliss.
Sri Yukteswar Giri
Years sped by. I lectured in every part of my new land, and addressed hundreds of clubs, colleges, churches, and groups of every denomination. During the decade of 1920– 1930 my yoga classes were attended by tens of thousands of Americans. To them all I dedicated a new book of prayers and soul thoughts, Whispers from Eternity, with a preface by Mme. Amelita Galli-Curci.
Sometimes (usually on the first of the month, when bills rolled in for the upkeep of Mount Washington Center, headquarters of Self-Realization Fellowship) I thought longingly of the simple peace of India. But daily I saw a widening understanding between West and East; my soul rejoiced.
George Washington, the “father of his country,” who felt on many occasions that he was being divinely guided, uttered (in his “Farewell Address”) the following words of spiritual inspiration for America:
“It will be worthy of a free, an enlightened, and at no distant period a great, nation to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence. Who can doubt that, in the course of time and things, the fruits of such a plan would richly repay any temporary advantages which might be lost by a steady adherence to it? Can it be that Providence has not connected the permanent felicity of a nation with its virtue?”
Reprinted with permission from Self-Realization Fellowship, Los Angeles, Calif., www.yogananda.org. All rights reserved.