Every few decades a spiritual educator emerges who makes an impact on an entire generation. Religious movements to this day continue to value the teachings of Krishna, Buddha, Jesus Christ, Moses and Mohammed. More recently, the nonviolent teachings of Henry David Thoreau influenced Mahatma Gandhi, who in turn inspired Martin Luther King Jr. The Indian spiritualist Paramahansa Yogananda can be included in this elite grouping as well. Yogananda has been called one of the most prominent spiritual figures of the 20th century. Hailed as the father of introducing Eastern spiritual yoga practices to the West, Paramahansaji (“ji” is a respectful suffix added to names in India) attributes his experiences and training with modern-day saints and illuminated masters of India. In his writings and lectures he beautifully wove his personal accounts of the yogi masters with scientific clarity and subtle but definite laws by which Indian yogis performed miracles and attained self-mastery.
After decades of spiritual study under the tutelage of yogi masters throughout India, Yogananda embarked on his first journey to North America in 1920. His lectures struck a cord almost immediately and many Americans assisted in the establishment of the Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF). Several SRF hermitages and shrines were founded in the United States, especially in southern California where Paramahansaji spent the final decades of his life. The Lake Shrine was dedicated on August 20, 1950 by Paramahansaji, a date that corresponded with the 30th anniversary of the SRF being established in North America. While supervising the planting and construction work in 1949, the year the Lake Shrine was donated, Yogananda stayed at times in the houseboat, still docked on the lakeshore. He desired the Lake Shrine to be used by spiritual seekers of all religious persuasions: “This SRF shrine is given to you for your use, for your meditation, that you may be able in kind to self-realization teachings and yoga, be able to resurrect the dead body into an immortal body, and keep it ever intoned in the heart of God.”
In prehistory, the Chumash Indians of southern California utilized the spring-fed lake as a source of fresh water and food. A movie studio executive owned the property in the 1940s, constructed the Dutch windmill replica, and donated the property to the SRF. When construction began on the Lake Shrine, Yogananda envisioned the placement of two artificial waterfalls to cascade down on opposite shores. The nonsectarian gardens surrounding the lake are filled with flora from six continents. There are tropical palms and ferns, Mexican weeping bamboo and Japanese black pines, cypress and ginkgo trees. There are coastal redwoods, desert cactuses, impatiens, pampas grass, wisteria, passion flowers, and water lilies.
Within this beautiful setting, Paramahansaji also envisioned the Lake Shrine to be representative of all religions. Upon arrival, the visitor enters the “Court of Religions” where each of the five principal religions of the world is represented by a monument that bears its symbol: the Sanskrit symbol of Om for Hinduism, a Wheel of the Law for Buddhism, a Star and Crescent for Islam, a Star of David for Judaism, and a Cross for Christianity. “We must recognize the unity of mankind,” he said, “remembering that we are all made in the image of God. There must be world brotherhood if we are to practice the true art of living. This shrine is dedicated to all religions that all may feel the unity of a common faith.” Further around the lake, behind the Golden Lotus Archway, is a “wall-less temple” open to the sky, called the Mahatma Gandhi World Peace Memorial. A brass coffer containing a portion of Gandhi’s ashes, sent from India, was enshrined in a 1000-year-old sarcophagus when the Lake Shrine was dedicated. While on his travels in India, Yogananda was befriended by Mahatma Gandhi, and eventually received the only portion of Gandhi’s ashes shipped outside of India. The carved sarcophagus that enshrines a portion of Gandhi’s ashes is directly across the lake from the Windmill Chapel where Paramahansaji delivered some of his final lectures. The verdant gardens surrounding the Lake Shrine offer the visitor a refuge of serenity and harmony. Paramahansaji designed it to represent a universal experience of all religious faiths under the divine kinship that unites all people as God’s children.
Paramahansa Yogananda hailed the Lake Shrine as “one of the most beautiful estates in the world, a floral wonderland.” The 10-acre (4-ha) site is a natural amphitheatre, surrounded by verdant hills. A large natural lake, a blue jewel in a mountain setting, has given the estate its name the Lake Shrine. Two marble statues from China adorn the site—a statue of Lord Buddha and Kwan Yin, the Chinese personification of the Divine Mother. A life-size statue of Jesus Christ stands on a hill above one of the waterfalls. Another statue of Krishna playing the flute is located near the other waterfall, within a little garden.
In one of his last sermons, less than a year before his passing, Paramahansaji recognized the potency of the Lake Shrine. He praised the location as being surrounded by ocean, mountain, and lake. He eulogized it as a place where Jesus Christ and the yogi masters are reflected in every blossom, in every fish in the pond, in every little flower, in every true soul who visits. He suggested to the listeners at his 1951 Easter Sunday sermon: “May you all make it a Mecca and a place of pilgrimage. … All those who come to this wonderful shrine will feel it. I have left my spirit here, in the ether, and all those who have true devotion will feel it.”
Paramahansa Yogananda entered mahasamadhi, a yogi’s final conscious exit from the body, on March 7, 1952 in Los Angeles. Weeks after leaving his body Yogananda’s unchanged face shone with a divine luster of incorruptibility. The mortuary director of Forest Lawn in Glendale where he was laid to rest has commented that: “the absence of any visual signs of decay in the dead body of Paramahansa Yogananda offers the most extraordinary case in our experience … no physical disintegration was visible in his body even 20 days after his death ... this state of perfect preservation of a body is, so far as we know from mortuary annals, an unparalleled one.” There are people who say Paramahansaji is constantly sending his love to the Lake Shrine. According to the monks on site “he always said that after he passed away he would be watching over this place and sending his blessings.”
Getting to the Lake Shrine
The Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine and Gandhi World Peace Memorial are located in the Pacific Palisades community of Los Angeles, near the western terminus of Sunset Boulevard. The SRF Lake Shrine Retreat is at 17190 Sunset Boulevard, about a quarter mile from the Pacific Coast Highway 1. Self-Realization Fellowship services, meditations, and classes are held weekly at the Lake Shrine, which is open free to the public every day of the week except Monday, but the grounds are rarely crowded. Several SRF monks live full time at the Lake Shrine and the Temple complex located at the top of the hill. For those who believe surfing is their religion, one of the most popular surf breaks in southern California is called “Swamis,” named after Paramahansa Yogananda. The Swamis break is located in southern Encinitas, just below the SRF hermitage where Paramahansaji completed his epic book Autobiography of a Yogi.
Excerpted with permission from Sacred Places North America: 108 Destinations by Brad Olsen.