Marketing yoga religion in the nation's image capital
White Angelenos’ fears of a Hindu invasion fused racial, cultural, and religious elements in a region with a robust nativist tradition. Assuming a link between racial and civic identities, these nativists doubted that Indians could make good citizens.20 The 1923 Supreme Court case United States i>. Bhagat Singh Thind ratified this suspicion, ruling that Indians were not White and thus not eligible for naturalization. More perniciously, Whites insinuated that Hindus displayed a general disposition toward crime, violence, and immorality. And they feared that unfamiliar religious practices like meditation were related to hypnotism, superstition, astrology, and palm reading - questionable practices often popularly linked to crimes of passion and sexual degeneracy.21
But despite this consistent negative discourse about Indians, American Orientalist tropes provided an alternative view of Indian beliefs and practices, particularly in Hollywood. Though undeniably patronizing, Orientalist discourse did project positive associations with India and Indians. Americans tended to collapse high-caste Indian people, ancient culture, and rich fashions into a collage of the exotic East.” Women’s fashion and the arts both expressed fascination with an undifferentiated “Orient” that included India - an exotic locale that represented escapism, lush scenery, and erotic titillation.23 Los Angeles residents encountered depictions of Indians through drama, dance, poetry, and - above all -film. Especially in the era before sound, film relied on spectacle, making India an ideal subject.24
A savvy marketer who loved spectacle and entertainment, Yogananda appreciated the importance of Hollywood early on. He cultivated friendships with key industry figures. Attending movies with his monastic community became one of his favorite pastimes. He was particularly fond of westerns, horror films, and war films. He often described life as a “Paramount picture, shown in serials and by installments, infinitely interesting, ever-fresh, ever-stirring, ever-complex.” Everyone could play his part, but need not fear that the movie is a tragedy, since the “great Director of the Motion Picture Company of Life is made of Joy.”23 The notion of life as a motion picture - vivid, but evanescent compared with the soul’s immortality, and ultimately controlled by a powerful unseen presence - was a theme he returned to time and time again, a popular explanation of his understanding of maya, the delusion that the world of the senses represents absolute reality. After World War II, Yogananda was able to secure property in Hollywood for a church. The palm tree-lined church on Sunset Boulevard’s prominent thoroughfare conveyed his aspiration to establish his presence at the symbolic center of Southern Californian culture and economy.
Yogananda also saw the commercial potential of Orientalism, displaying intuitively a knack for the theatrical. Apart from playing up his hair, turban, and robes, he controlled his voice in tone, volume, and pitch, undulating dramatically as part of his calculated performance. Audiences noted how his resonant “God power-driven voice” complemented his eyes, face, and gestures.26 He presented himself as if constantly aware that he was before the camera. In short, Yogananda profoundly understood how inseparable marketing his message was from marketing himself.
Yogananda found himself in a crowded field of religious “stars” promoting their own personality-driven brands in the 1920s. Evangelical preachers, heirs to a long tradition of theatrical performance, were often effective promoters.27 Yogananda shared much in common with evangelist performers like Billy Sunday, “Fighting Bob” Shuler, and Aimee Semple McPherson, who instructed and entertained large audiences through public addresses as well as print and radio ministries. He was their match as an entertainer, using intonation, humor, self-deprecation, and physicality to gain a hearing for his message. He believed in the importance of a tangible, energetic encounter with the divine. Most importantly, like these evangelists, he recognized that his persona was his most important asset.
But he touted a very different religious product, delivered through an unusual medium. Taking his cue from the recent growth in popular religious instruction provided through the mail, he introduced the radical innovation of yoga by correspondence course.28 This was an extremely novel approach within the Hindu tradition, a dramatic departure from the face-to-face model of transmission from guru to disciple that swamis considered indispensible. Yogananda’s willingness to modify traditional practice allowed him to enroll a much larger number of followers than he could ever have trained personally, and thus also provided a steady source of ongoing income. At the same time, the call to reserve the lessons for members’ exclusive use followed the established stricture that disciples not reveal their guru’s training to anyone except their own future disciples.29 While Yogananda’s mentorship was at best virtual, he attempted to assert his own personal authority as the gateway to the lessons’ efficacy.
From his base in the nation’s image capital, Yogananda sought to market his message by marketing himself. In adopting this strategy, he identified one of the modern era’s key transformations in the understanding of the individual: what cultural historian Warren Susman has called the development of personality. By the early twentieth century, “the development of consciousness of self’ emerged in conjunction with a consumer economy, mass culture, and the expansion of leisure time. The nineteenth-century vision of an individual committed to duty, work, honor, and reputation began to give way to an ideology that stressed the attractive, magnetic, forceful, and creative elements of each individual, in short, to “self-realization.”30 For Susman, the new technologies of radio and film gave birth to celebrity culture, in which audiences paid attention to the lives of athletes, performers, and film actors at all times, not just when they performed.
Given the centrality' of his personality to the authenticity ofYogoda, there was no better way' to promote his ministry than to give audiences the chance to experience him in person. Yogananda took to the road - and the rails - becoming an indefatigable traveler. For ten years, he kept up a grueling pace, wracking up thousands of miles, and hundreds of speaking presentations in major cities and small towns across the United States. His fame spread. In 1927, Yogananda was a guest of President Calvin Coolidge at the White House. He also received extensive and generally favorable coverage in Wendell Thomas’s 1930 book The Hindu Invasion, an analysis of Hinduism’s growing American presence.31 In seeking to find an audience, Yogananda highlighted several features of his brand of yoga, including an integration of the physical and spiritual that had particular resonance in Southern California.