The Self-Realization Fellowship Hollywood was founded by Indian guru Paramahansa Yogananda, who recognised Hollywood’s spiritual ‘vibrations’
A man stands on a precipice above the clouds, looking pensively out towards a distant horizon where the rising sun promises “Undreamed-of Possibilities”. This is the image and title on the front of a pamphlet sitting on a table in the peaceful library and reception area of the Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) Temple Hollywood. A block up from Los Burritos Mexican Restaurant, and around the corner from the Church of Scientology, the white and gilt gates of guru Paramahansa Yogananda’s spiritual organisation beckon.
The building is one of many locations on six continents devoted to the teachings of the aforementioned ‘saint’ from India, who made his way to American soil in 1920. He established the Self-Realization Fellowship there, then stayed till his death in 1952. Incorporating the ancient system of yoga and meditation with the original teachings of Jesus Christ, Yogananda’s Christian-Hindu hybrid religion makes a claim to helping his followers achieve “All-Blissful Consciousness” through spiritual awareness.
“I began to think I did believe in God all along, it was just my definition was more eastern not western,” says Lauren Landress, the atheist-come-Yogananda devotee and SRF assistant director of public affairs, who promptly responds to Dazed’s interview request. “The west has a very locked-in, fixed definition (of God), and to see it more as this state of ever-new bliss, love, and joy… We’re all part of that, like the waves of the ocean.”
“(Yogananda) likened Los Angeles to Benares, or Varanasi, which is the holiest city in India and is the site of important pilgrimage for all Hindus” – Lauren Landress
Like many before her, Landress found her spiritual path through Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi, with its promise of “happiness now.” Published in 1946, the classic metaphysical text was being written when the United States detonated its first atomic bomb. Advocating for world peace through the mind, body, and spirit practice of Kriya Yoga, the book went on to inspire George Harrison, Ravi Shankar, and Mariel Hemingway. Other affiliates include Elvis Presley and Mad Men star Alison Brie’s dad. The trailer for the movie Awake: The Life of Yogananda speculates that Steve Jobs had nothing but the autobiography on his iPad. “It went global,” says Landress about the impact on the growing awareness of the Self-Realization Fellowship offered by the 2015 movie, now available on DVD and Netflix rental.
Kriya Yoga – with its three techniques of ‘energisation’, ‘concentration’, and ‘meditation’ – was first developed by the 19th century guru Lahiri Mahasaya, a disciple of the millennia-old immortal Mahavatar Babaji, who passed the resurrected practice down to Swami Sri Yukteswar, then Yogananda after that. You can see their portraits flanking those of Jesus Christ and Krishna in the chapel of Mount Washington Self-Realization Center Gardens – a straight line east of Hollywood. A steep drive up a winding road in the San Rafael Hills neighbourhood, it’s a tranquil city escape inhabited by ochre-robed nuns and monks of the Swami monastic order (and joggers passing through). Surrounded by foliage and a scenic view of the city from the green asphalt of a converted tennis court, there’s only the distant, omnipresent hum of tangled urban highways to remind you where you are.
“He likened Los Angeles to Benares, or Varanasi, which is the holiest city in India and is the site of important pilgrimage for all Hindus,” says Landress about what drew Yogananda to California. “He was very attuned to the spiritual vibration of the west coast, specifically Los Angeles. There was an open-mindedness that perhaps he hadn't experienced to the same degree elsewhere.” According to his autobiography, Yogananda recognised the abandoned Mount Washington Hotel – built at the turn of the century during a period of rapid growth and laissez faire property development – from a vision he’d had in Kashmir. “He knew as soon as he walked on the ground that this was it,” Landress adds about the spot with the spectacular views that the Yogi and his disciples settled on following a successful speaking tour. “He was able to purchase it with a loan at a very reasonable price.”
Los Angeles also happens to have an income inequality that’s higher than the national average. As a state that makes up 12 per cent of the country’s entire population, California also counts for 22 per cent of the US’s homeless inhabitants. It’s an unavoidable (and very visible) indication of the wealth disparity between some of the world’s richest in the Hollywood entertainment, insurance, real estate industries, and those who are poor. In India’s religious capital of Varanasi, over 40 per cent of its total population is also living below the poverty line.
“I never looked at it that way but the closer you get to light the more, what is known as maya, or delusion, is going to try and cover that light,” says Landress, who has also spent time in the sacred city. “Just as India has this amazing light and lightness and spirituality to it — probably more than anywhere else on the planet — there is the opposite of that. Obviously, with maya, you have that duality and you could look at Los Angeles and see the same thing. For all the darkness that there is here, there is this profound lightness and spiritual energy that permeates the city.”
Beginning at SRF Temple Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard runs west straight through Sunset Strip, then weaves along Beverly Hills and Bel Air to end on the coast in the affluent Pacific Palisades. It’s here that the Self-Realization Center Lake Shrine can be found. Easily mistaken for a golf course or a resort from outside, it presents a postmodern masterpiece of intercultural markers in its clumsy east-meets-west representation of the “Church of All Religions.” There’s a small lake with a houseboat on it, a looming Golden Lotus Archway, and an “authentic reproduction” of a 16th century Dutch windmill that’s been converted into a chapel. A portion of Mahatma Ghandi’s ashes are enshrined in an ancient Chinese sarcophagus, and the Court of Religions features symbolic monuments to Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism. The gift shop is stocked with books, DVDs, a touch screen, and more brochures, including one that shouts, “There Is No Death!”
At the exit is a display case of Lake Shrine Quote Cards of Yogananda wisdom. Twenty-five cents apiece, before tax. One of them, titled “Infinite Potential,” is just the right size to slide into a wallet. “The real you is the prolific source of all power,” it reads, “but the everyday you is only a fragment of that which can be brought out and manifested.”