“It’s significant that Yogananda’s first speech in America was called ‘The Science of Religion,’” says author Philip Goldberg, who we interviewed for Awake: The Life of Yogananda. Goldberg’s book, American Veda, documents how Indian spirituality changed the West, and he dedicates an entire chapter to Yogananda who arrived on American shores in 1920 – the quintessential fish-out-of-water. Yogananda was only 27 years old, barely spoke the language and looked like he had emerged from the pages of a mysterious storybook recalling tales from the East. “Many Americans were still getting used to having Jews here,” explains Goldberg in the documentary. “And along comes an exotic Swami in orange robes and a turban.”
Yogananda had been invited to address the Congress of Religious Liberals in Boston, and the timing was perfect for his message. The Roaring 20s was a period of upheaval, a precursor, perhaps, to the 60s. The Great War had left its wake of devastation and the new generation (flappers/hippies) wanted nothing to do with establishment values. Everything we had believed in so vehemently was up for grabs. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity had paved the way for Quantum Physics, which was telling us that solid matter was elusive – creation, mostly empty – and that our awareness could actually influence sub-atomic particles.
But these ideas would hardly have seemed radical to a Hindu Swami. They were akin to the notion of “Maya” from the ancient Vedic teachings of India, which Yogananda introduced to Western audiences in lecture tours across the country. Indeed, it felt like modern science was finally catching up with the ancient yogis, who considered one’s spiritual quest to be empirical. The yogis used their own bodies as living laboratories, experimenting with certain techniques of meditation, pranayama (breath-control) and asana (posture), and then measuring the results by evaluating how their consciousness had been affected.
“Don’t take my word for it,” Yogananda would say: “Try these techniques and see for yourself.” In fact, he welcomed atheists to his lectures. While pundits of the day like Sigmund Freud were extolling the death of God, Yogananda declared that the Western conception of Divinity was too narrow. Far from the image of a bearded old man throwing down lightning bolts, Yogananda, like many Indians, worshiped God in her feminine aspect – as Divine Mother. In the Hindu tradition, Divinity could manifest itself as Love or Joy or simply as Consciousness. It was up to the individual yogi to find his own point of entry – to discover, by trial and error, the aspect of Divinity that most readily cultivated feelings of devotion. And then to experiment with how that devotion could deepen the meditative practice and affect one’s consciousness.
Thus, there is indeed a place where science and spirituality intersect, according to Yogananda. It’s called Yoga.
AWAKE: The Life of Yogananda producer Peter Rader is also an author and screenwriter. He wrote Mike Wallace: A Life for St. Martin’s press, and is currently working on a historical biography for Simon & Schuster.