Southern California's spiritual landscapes

Yogananda insisted on the integration of physical and spiritual - on the body’s centrality in meditation and the environment’s importance for proper communion with the divine. This proved attractive to many spiritual seekers. Several movements that pursued physical well-being or connection with the land flourished in Southern California in this period and helped make the region hospitable to Yogananda, as their views often contained at least an element of spirituality. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, good climate drew “health seekers” to Southern California from across the country.32 The quest for physical health often produced unorthodox medical approaches, which gave Los Angeles a reputation “throughout the medical world as one of the richest stomping grounds in the country for medical quackery and ‘cultism,’” according to the 1930 editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association.33

Interest in health and non-traditional medicine sometimes fostered respect for Indian traditions. Los Angeles doctor Philip Lovell became a sort of 1920s public intellectual for health with his regular Los Angeles Times column, “Care of the Body.” A naturopath deeply interested in all dimensions of health - environment, diet, mind, and exercise - and a cosmopolitan with at least a passing knowledge of many foreign traditions, he frequently noted beliefs held by “Hindoos,” including the importance of breathing and Ayurvedic diet. His tone could be condescending at times, but his intellectual openness to Indian traditions contributed a sense of tolerance to public discourse about Indians.34

Yogananda consistently incorporated the body into his vision of spiritual flourishing. He touted his “energization” exercises as promoting longevity. He also advocated vegetarianism - routinely offering recipes in his magazine - for health and well-being. He described the goal of his yoga meditation exercises in explicitly theological terms, making the body central to the experience of God. Self-realization, he explained, is “the knowing - in body, mind, and soul - that we are one with the omnipresence of God; that we do not have to pray that it come to us, that we are not merely near it at all times, but that God’s omnipresence is our omnipresence; that we are just as much a part of Him now as we ever will be. All we have to do is improve our knowing.”35 Part of his meditation routine included the systematic study and recitation of mantras. Yogananda assumed a strong connection between attentiveness, words, and physical health, specifying in great detail the mechanisms by which the mind healed the body.36 The notion that reciting spiritual truths had inherent power is deeply rooted in the Upanishads, sacred Sanskrit texts written in the last centuries before the Common Era. At the same time, the idea that a person could essentially will positive change harmonized with the upbeat ethos of 1920s America.37

As in other religious traditions, pilgrimage to sacred places plays a key role in traditional Hinduism. Such sites together constitute the “distinct identity and significance” of India as a particular place.38 Modem Hinduism, however, in abstracting and universalizing Hindu beliefs diminished the significance of sacred Indian landscapes. Yogananda reasserted the importance of sacred sites, but refused to limit them to India. Though he traveled throughout the United States, however, he never attributed sacredness to other parts of the nation, reserving that honor for the Los Angeles area, the American locale he considered most like India. He once proclaimed, “I have always considered Los Angles to be the Benares of America,” thus conveying his belief in the sacredness of the Southern California landscape.39

Again, forerunners paved the way for his notion of Southern California as a sacred region, though their claims were rarely as strong or overt as Yogananda’s. Health seekers sought the healing properties of the environment and climate, which strengthened the association between land and sacredness for some. The availability of open spaces in a mild climate also nurtured Utopianism, which flourished in late nineteenth-century California as in few other places. While not all communities were religious, “perfectionism lay at the heart of California utopianism,” as Robert Hine puts it, a spiritual ethos encouraging members to agree that humans “can achieve in this life not only freedom from sin, but the highest of the virtues, truth, beauty, goodness. And society itself, like man, can be perfectly remolded.”4" Even the area’s thriving tourism industry evoked sacred longing. One popular tourist destination became the decaying Spanish missions, the American equivalent to ancient Mediterranean ruins that suggested an ancient and noble spiritual legacy.41

Yogananda cultivated the sacredness of key SRF sites throughout the Southland. His earliest California property was the property on Mount Washington, which remains the organization’s headquarters. Almost immediately after he acquired it, Yogananda began touting the former resort hotel’s vistas. Mount Washington “commands an unsurpassed view of the city below ... The Pacific Ocean sparkles in the distance, and at night the million twinkling lights of Los Angeles and distant cities may be seen below, a veritable fairyland.” More important than the site’s tourist potential, however, was the sense of sacred space Yogananda wanted to create for his spiritual movement’s headquarters. A prophecy he recounted in his Autobiography of a Yogi linked the Himalayas to Mount Washington:

As I gazed upon the mountain-peak hermitage, bold against the sky, I fell into an ecstatic trance. A vision appeared of a hilltop mansion in a distant land; the loft}' Shankara temple in Srinagar became transformed into the edifice where, years later, I established Self-Realization Fellowship headquarters in America. When I first visited Los Angeles, and saw the large building on the crest of Mount Washington, I recognized it at once from my long-past visions in Kashmir and elsewhere.42

The Lake Shrine, a Pacific Palisades meditation site, rests in a bowl bordered by a long curve made by Sunset Boulevard just before it terminates at Pacific Coast Highway. The idyllic property has a Hollywood pedigree. A film location in the silent film era, it was later purchased by a 20th Century Fox employee. The Lake Shrine’s official SRF dedication ceremony in August 1950, which brought Lt. Governor Goodwin Knight and his wife, commemorated the thirtieth anniversary of Yogananda’s ministry in the United States.43 Yogananda had earlier conducted memorial services for Gandhi, including a fire ceremony that symbolically consigned his body to the flames while his liberated soul “commingles with the soul of God.” In his memorial address, Yogananda argued that “[w]e must establish a monument to Gandhi within us if we are to have a world peace. Enemies and friends are all our brothers under the fatherhood of God.”44 Yogananda acquired a portion of Gandhi’s ashes in February 1949.4:> The Lake Shrine’s World Peace Memorial honoring Gandhi became the repositor}’ for the ashes. Frequent assertions of Gandhi’s saintliness lend sites with a verifiable connection to him a sacred aura. Thus, Yogananda managed to link India, global peace, Hollywood, and himself together on one sacred site.

But perhaps the most notable and iconic property is the ashram at Encinitas. As an SRF article described it shortly after it opened, “The Yogoda Dream Hermitage, nestled on a hill, mirrored in the sea, unsurpassed in splendor, [is| one of the garden spots of the world ... a combination of the highest devices of utility offered by modern science and the finest beauty of sky, mountain, ocean, trees and caves offered by Nature.”46 The ocean was a crucial metaphor for the relationship between the individual soul and God in Yogananda’s view, and an important symbol of the bridge between East and West.4' Today, this quintessentially California locale remains suffused with Yogananda’s presence: Swami’s Café, near the site of the former vegetarian restaurant he ran for years, decorated inside with a mural of a surfing Yogananda; Swami’s Beach; and a “Swami’s Ped X-ing” pedestrian crosswalk.

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