Paramahamsa Yogananda was born in Gorakkhpur in northeastern India in 1890.He was the second son and the fourth of eight children. His parents were Bengalis of the kshatriya caste, the second-highest caste in Indian society, traditionally warriors but now often administrators. When Yogananda became very ill with cholera at the age of eight, he was healed by gazing at a photograph of a holy man named Lahiri Mahasaya.Yogananda reported seeing a blinding light that enveloped his body and the entire room during this experience. Yogananda is best known in the West as the author of Autobiography of a Yogi, first published in 1946. Yogananda’s father and a teacher named Sri Yukteswar (1855–1936) encouraged him to attend college in Calcutta because his teacher believed that a college degree would bolster his credibility in the West. He attended the Scottish Church College and eventually graduated from Serampore, although, by his own admission, he was not an outstanding student because he concentrated more on his spiritual life than on his studies. In his autobiography, he relates tales about powers that he acquired on his spiritual path.He says, for example, that he took a dare to defeat and chain a tiger and accomplished this feat with his bare hands. He also reports receiving a telepathic message from Sri Yukteswar. The autobiography describes various healings that he performed as well.
Yogananda viewed himself in a long line of teachers that included Lahiri Mahasaya (1828–1895), Sri Yukteswar’s teacher. It was this spiritual heritage that Yogananda brought with him to the United States when he arrived in Boston on October 6, 1920. During the next decade, he taught yoga classes to many Americans. The type of yoga that he taught, Kriya yoga, was based on practical efforts. He eventually founded the Self-Realization Fellowship in California in 1925. Yogananda was one of the first Indian religious teachers to export Hinduism to the West. His efforts proved enduring.
Yogananda’s name is suggestive because it implies that he finds his bliss (ananda) through yoga, whereas other Indian holy men find their bliss through, for instance, discriminatory knowledge (Vivekananda) or through mildness (Dayananda). Yogananda’s emphasis on self-realization stands in contrast to other Indian spiritual leaders who stress other concepts, such as god-realization or the attainment of a state of absorption with the one real principle of the universe. With its foundation in yogic practice, Yogananda’s message made an appeal for personal experience. This message found a positive reception from Americans. Although Yogananda died in 1952, his followers continued to teach his ideas and practices, and they remained popular especially through the 1970s.
One part of Yogananda’s message did not resonate positively in America—the idea of becoming a worldrenouncer. This emphasis is implied in his first name, Paramahamsa, which in the ancient Indian epic called the Mahabharata (13.141.89) was identified as the highest state of spiritual attainment. The term paramahamsa itself was instructive because it literally meant “highest goose” or “highest swan.” This bird led a wandering life that served as a symbol of the world-renouncer. Its ability to fly high suggested transcendence of the world. By traveling to America to spread his teaching, Yogananda kept alive the ancient symbol of the wandering bird and its many symbolic connotations.
(Carl Olson in “Holy People of the World”)