Southern California as a spiritual frontier

Yogananda’s arrival in Los Angeles in 1925 coincided with a dramatic economic boom, as a “metropolis in the making” grew from a village of 11,000 in 1880 to a city of 1.2 million by 1930 (Sitton and Deverell 2001). A vibrant and diversified economy stimulated this growth, foreshortening patterns of urbanization into a half-century: geographic spread through both growth and annexation, investment in infrastructure, real estate speculation, and thriving industries in oil, airplanes and automobiles, film, and tourism (Tygiel 2001, 2-3, Starr 1990, 90-104). No other region embraced and celebrated automobile culture - and mobility - as did Southern California (Bottles 1987). Los Angeles was a city on the move, a restlessness that translated into the spiritual realm.

At the turn of the century, Los Angeles had been one of the “most homogeneous cities West of the Mississippi.” White Midwestern transplants had introduced a pious, abstemious culture and Protestants dominated the local press, city government, school boards, and community organizations.4 The city’s real estate, film production, and leisure industries increased its white-collar pool.’ Weberian Protestant striving seemed well matched to the ambitions of this class of workers. Some overtly embraced the link between business and Christianity, illustrated most famously by advertising executive Bruce Barton, the son of a Congregational minister. Barton’s bestseller, The Man Nobody Knows, revealed Jesus as the “founder of modern business,” who “picked up twelve men from the bottom ranks of business and forged them into an organization that conquered the world.”6

But while temperate Protestantism characterized the city’s hegemonic religious tradition, it was only one part of the story. Southern California also became a magnet for a self-selecting group of spiritual eccentrics. The area’s alternative spiritual identity was as obvious to contemporary' observers as to later scholars.7 From at least the beginning of the century, Los Angeles-area residents observed the bewildering spiritual diversity with a mixture of anxiety, bemusement, and a strange sort of local pride. Early twentieth-century Southern California had become the nation’s “spiritual frontier,” epitomizing the spiritual options available in the modern world?

Some “spiritual frontier” traditions fell within the Protestant fold, including the Azusa Street Revival in 1906, one early' manifestation of Pentecostalism, and Aimee Semple McPherson’s Angelus Temple in Echo Park, the headquarters of her nascent Foursquare Church.9 But Southern California also drew spiritual seekers from metaphysical movements outside the Christian mainstream, disproportionate to their size in most of the rest of the country'. Christian Science enjoyed a healthy' presence in Los Angeles in the early' 1920s, receiving frequent and generally positive coverage in the press. Speakers routinely filled public spaces like the Philharmonic Auditorium. Theosophy also did well in Southern California. Unlike Christian Science, Theosophy was overtly hostile to Christianity. An esoteric movement with doctrines unfamiliar to most Americans, Theosophy' had begun as an elite reform of popular spiritualism.1" A split in the movement left Katherine Tingley head of the American branch of one organization. She relocated the national headquarters to “Lomaland” in San Diego.11 Her proximity' to Los Angeles allowed her to provide regular talks there. While the absolute numbers of Christian Scientists and Theosophists remained small, their presence helped to foster a sense of tolerance, while ultimately' providing a gateway for Yogananda’s brand of y'oga and Hinduism. Yogananda viewed both groups as competitors, however, and took great pains to highlight the differences between his own movement and theirs.12

Yogananda also benefitted from the pioneering efforts of Hindu leaders. While Swami Vivekananda’s original visit to Los Angeles in 1900 had made a splash, enthusiasm soon waned.13 Two Vivekananda disciples, Swami Abhedananda, who eventually broke with the organization and toured the country on his own, and Swami Paramananda, a younger, more charismatic Vedanta leader, attempted to revive Vivekananda’s teachings in early twentieth-century Los Angeles. College-educated Baba Bharati, an independent Hindu evangelist sponsored by Indian elites, spent a few years in Boston and New York before settling in Los Angeles. In his view, “of all spots of Columbia, the most blessed is Southern California: more warm-hearted than any' other part of the Union; in her center here in Los Angeles, I have met the warmest American hearts.”14 He enjoyed some popularity' and gained the respect of Los Angeles’ Protestant civic leadership.

These Indian teachers prepared the way' for Yogananda’s own evangelistic efforts. They couched their message in modern terms, emphasizing self-realization,

the integration of science and religion, and the optimistic potential of reincarnation. They routinely quoted New Testament scripture and lauded Jesus while declaring the superiority of their spiritual tradition, attempting to balance assertiveness with the equanimity of a pluralistic ethos. While preparing the ground for Yogananda, these Hindu leaders did not achieve lasting success of their own. Vedanta remained small, as the leaders preferred a close group of devoted disciples to large public presentations and refused to employ modern advertising techniques. Bharati’s plans to build a large temple in the city with “the Greatest number of Brahmin Hindoos in America” never materialized, and with no institutional infrastructure, his movement faded away.15

Seeking to succeed where these predecessors had failed, Yogananda reached out to the city’s striving professional middle class. He viewed these profit seekers as spiritual seekers who would hear his self-improvement message as a path toward advancement. Yogananda’s favorable 1926 review of Barton’s book provides one indication of this appeal to business professionals.16 The Man Nobody Knows is “original, gripping, alive! It succeeds in actually conveying the personality ofjesus. It takes a great historical figure, somewhat vague from the mist of centuries, and sharpens His outline ... until the reader can see, feel and understand His compelling charm and power. Jesus as an executive, and the founder of modern business! His methods and advertising! These chapter headings hint at the contents. Every Yogoda student should read it!”17

With busy office workers in mind. Yogananda routinely employed the trope of the body as an engine to claim that his meditation exercises were ideal for restoring energy. Human will was the “dynamo” that drove the individual to direct “energy” to the part of the body that needed it. The body, he explained, required “recharging” in the same way as a car battery.18 He guided practitioners through a series of physical and breathing exercises designed to provide healing and wholeness through control of the life force. Beginning with proper posture, Yogananda instructed them to concentrate on muscles, and then systematically tense and relax them.

While promoting yoga meditation as a means of career success, he routinely challenged businessmen and other professionals not to make their life’s ambition striving after earthly reward. Instead, they should move toward a deeper communion with God. One provocative essay asked “Who is a Yogi?” While anyone could follow yoga, the article especially drew the nation’s “business man, literary man, artist, musician,” who understood “the scientific psycho-physical technique of uniting the matter-bound body and soul with their source of origin, the Blessed Spirit.” In making the claim that real “yogis” hailed from respectable middle-class backgrounds, he directly confronted stereotypes about yogis as tricksters and fakers, denying that “a sword-swallower, crystal gazer or snake charmer” was a real yogi.1 ’ This reappropriation was part of a larger effort to confront pernicious Indian stereotypes - and capitalize on more positive Orientalist tropes - to advance his stature and mission.

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