Born Mukunda Lai Ghosh, Yogananda was one of the first Indian swamis to disseminate Hindu teachings in the West, and is the founder of the Self-Realization Fellowship. Yogananda came from a lineage of Indian gurus, having been taught by Sri Yukteswar (1855-1936), whose teacher Lahiri Mahasaya (1827-95) is said to have received instruction from Mahavatar Babaji—allegedly born in 203 CE and said to be still alive— who is credited with the revival of kriya yoga.
Yogananda joined Yukteswar’s order of swamis in 1914, and was sent to the United States as a delegate to the International Congress of Religious Liberals, held in Boston in 1920. Yogananda commenced a lecturing tour in the USA, and is particularly renowned for his address ‘The Science of Religion’, delivered on 6 October 1920. In 1922 he established an ashram near Boston, and in 1924 embarked on a major world tour, attracting large crowds. The Yogoda Satsanga Society, founded by Yogananda in 1920, was incorporated as the Self-Realization Fellowship in 1935.
Yogananda’s best-known published writing is his Autobiography of a Yogi, which first appeared in 1946. It is still in print, having been translated into eighteen different languages, and is widely regarded as a spiritual classic. This autobiography describes some of the ideas underlying the practice of kriya yoga, although much of the practices cannot be revealed to outsiders, being confidential. Yogananda explains that the universe is governed by spiritual laws as well as physical ones, and that those who can learn them can experience special yogic powers such as seeing visions, working miracles and the ability to bi-locate by acquiring a second physical body. The Autobiography of a Yogi draws almost as much on Christianity as on Hinduism, with considerable reference to Christian scripture. Yogananda taught the harmony of all religions, and particularly the oneness of Christianity and Hinduism, of Christ and Krishna. Although Yogananda belonged to the advaita vedanta (non-dualist) schools, he sought to reconcile the advaita and dvaita (dualist) traditions, teaching the possibility that the Absolute could be conceived either as impersonal and one with the universe, or as a separate personal being to whom bhakti (devotion) could be addressed.
As well as having his own followers, Yogananda’s teachings have influenced other religious groups. One example is the Breatharians, led by Jasmuheen, who teaches the possibility of living solely on prajnic (wisdom) energy, without physical food or drink.