I stood atop Mount Washington at the International Headquarters of the Self Realization Fellowship. On the winding drive up the wooded mountain I had passed deceptively rustic homes which reminded me of the ones in my hometown of Chapel Hill -- the family dwellings of Ph.D hippies, with rusted cars and kitchen gardens on rocky, crabby lawns. I felt far away from downtown L.A. and even further from Pasadena, even though both were less than 10 minutes each way on the nearby 110. As I drove up the hill to the summit, I seemed to be passing the earthen works battlements of an old fort. And there at the top of the mountain, on a residential street of uncommon flowering beauty, were the gates to a whole other world.
Women in ochre saris walked down paths shaded by tall trees, and meditated by bubbling brooks. A group of men sat in quiet conversation on a converted tennis court with fabulous views of the teeming city, while an elderly nun led a group of friends on a tour of the property. A docent directed me to a sacred well and then to the lovely three-story mother center, a white stucco structure that seemed like something out of Colonial India. Inside this gold and white, plushy carpeted building was a reception hall and an elegantly ornate library where a few folks sat reading literature, and countless portraits of a smiling, long haired man covered every available space. A meditation chapel was opposite the library, and from an altar six male faces representing the world's major religions smiled at me as I entered. I sat down and meditated, reveling in every creak of rich wood and rustle of green from outside the open row of windows.
I got in my car to leave this secluded, slightly aloof sanctuary, but something held me back. I wanted to feel the peace of the meditation chapel again. I went back inside and sat back down, ready to share the magic air with the few other meditating women, who had all been there much longer than I. But just as I was reaching some kind of mindfulness, I heard voices raised in the reception room next door. The docent and the elderly nun were having an argument about her visitors and while one's voice was raised, the other was simply a hissing whisper.
I began to laugh softly, although no one else in the chapel even batted an eye.
Hotel on the Hill
Where in Los Angeles can one obtain a veranda view of 100 miles of ocean frontage, 100 miles of rugged mountains, three emerald valleys and several cities? On Mount Washington, where you can live and be immune from dust, mud, smoke, noise, fog and frost! -- The Mount Washington Eagle (an advertising insert in Los Angeles Times), April 18, 1909
In 1908, the ecstatic fever for manifest destiny and cold hard cash, which had led turn-of-the-century real estate men to develop every inch of Los Angeles County, spread to the unspoiled, craggy peak of Mount Washington. The surrounding neighborhood of Highland Park, by the early 1900s, had grown into a thriving suburb with the advent of the streetcar system bringing passengers from downtown on the "yellow car" to the corner of York and North Figueroa. Yet, Mount Washington remained isolated and undeveloped; at its base were a few fine homes, but above it was the domain of wildlife, hunters and the occasional hike-ready picnicker.
Flashy developer, map maker and Athletic Club board member, Robert Marsh, had long had his eye on Mount Washington, and dreamed of developing it. He partnered with electrical works manufacturer, Arthur St. Claire Perry, to buy 565 acres of property on the mountain. Marsh & Co. quickly subdivided the property into lots and began construction of the winding Mt. Washington Road. Inspired by Angels Flight and a similar funicular railway at Mount Lowe, they built a short incline railway that stretched 940 feet, starting at a mission style station at the corner of Avenue 43 and Marmion Way. The two red cars were named Virginia and Florence for the owners' respective daughters.
At a cost of five cents, in less than five minutes you were on the summit of the hill right at the front entrance of the jewel in Marsh's crown, the three story Mission Revival Mount Washington Hotel. Opened in 1909, this elegant, small hotel with its observation deck, tennis count and Japanese garden spread across 14 acres, soon became a favorite of movie pioneers who toiled at the primitive studios in Highland Park and Edendale. Legend has it Charlie Chaplin shot a film at the hotel on the cheap. Day-trippers from nearby Los Angeles also frequented the pretty perch, stopping in for dinner after playing a game of tennis, or other more adult games in one of the hotel's 18 rooms, each of which featured their own private bath.
For all its magnificence, the Mount Washington Hotel, and the railway itself, were in many respects simply part of a huge advertising push aimed at potential Mount Washington home owners. Marsh saw the mountain as its own best advertisement, and believed that once folks experienced its beauty they would snap up one of his perfectly parceled two to three acre lots. But he didn't stop there -- for two years Marsh & Co. printed an elaborate insert in the Sunday Los Angeles Times: a faux-newspaper called "The Mount Washington Eagle." The definition of a hard sell, the Eagle promised the purest water, prominent neighbors, a doubling of land value within one calendar year, and sunsets that couldn't be beat. In a faux article from September 5, 1909, it was claimed:
Mount Washington appeals intensely to those of artistic tendencies, to the dreamer, to people of imagination, it also appeals to hard-headed, wide awake, "everyday people," because it has been transformed from a somewhat isolated (because of its unusual height) miniature mountain, into a practical city residence subdivision.
The push worked, and lots were snapped up by both the artistic and the "wide awake." School children began riding the railway down from their Craftsman and Mission style homes to their school house below, and the hotel on the hill enjoyed its brief spurt of success. A tennis tournament drew all the local high school and colleges and became overcrowded with applicants. In 1912, for a rate of $20, one could get a hotel stay that promised "a delightful ride on incline cars, splendid tennis court, music and frequent dancing parties."1
The neighborhood, with its country charm and 30 minute streetcar commute to downtown L.A., flourished. But the hotel's fortunes declined. The studios moved to Hollywood, the incline railway lost its luster, and the little hotel on the hill faced increasing competition from various new establishments. It closed in 1916, and an auction of its contents two years later makes for pitiful reading: Forty brass beds, 40 box springs, 40 rockers, 40 walnut and solid mahogany dressers, 15 oriental rugs, a pool table, a massive Stickly leather library, office and reception room furnishings, a Chikering grand piano, kitchen appliances, high grade bedding, 700 plates, 150 imported Vienna chairs, and a large hall money safe were just some of the items available for sale.
The incline railway was closed in 1919 amid claims of safety issues and a battle over ownership. The hotel was briefly occupied by a boys' school called the Mount Washington Military School, and was then converted to the Goodrich-Mount Washington Emphysema hospital. In 1925, it sat empty and unloved. It seemed this building and its surrounding land were destined to be subdivided into small structures or allowed to fall into disrepair, another brief success lost to the onward progress of red-blooded American capitalism.
But a mystic man from another world had other plans.
The Benaras of the West
I have just one prejudice, and that is a prejudice against prejudice. -- Paramahansa Yogananda
Live quietly in the moment and see the beauty of all before you. The future will take care of itself. -- Paramahansa Yogananda
"The father of yoga in the West," Paramahansa Yogananda (birth name: Mukunda Lal Ghosh), was born in 1893 in Gerakpur, India to a gentile Bengali family. He was an inquisitive young man with a precocious spiritual thirst, which led him to the Hindu guru, Swami Yukterwar Giri, in 1910. After graduating from a traditional College in Calcutta, Yogananda took monastic vows into the Swami order. Sri Yukterwar believed that Yogananda's true purpose would be fulfilled by spreading the benefits of kriya yoga and meditation to the West. He was "to lead people to god by expounding the truth of original yoga and original Christianity, and to show the underlying unity of all religions."2 So in 1920 Yogananda boarded the ocean liner, City of Sparta, to speak as a delegate at the International Congress of Religious Liberals in Boston.
The long haired, jovial monk with the upper crust British accent had arrived in America at just the right time. Jazz age Americans were opening up to new ways of thinking and Yogananda, who formed the Self-Realization Fellowship of all Religions (SRF) in 1920, quickly became the "it" boy of many from the East Coast's wealthy intellectual elite who were frustrated by the intolerance and stagnation of western Christianity. In 1925, a massively successful transcontinental speaking tour led him to the West Coast and to Los Angeles, whose religious tolerance and diversity reminded him of the Indian spiritual capital of Benaras (also called Varanasi).
He saw in Los Angeles a bustling, pioneer city filled with searching souls where he could settle down and teach on a more intimate level. He had long had a vision of a cloistered monastery high on a hill, and when he saw the old Mount Washington Hotel he knew it was the chosen place for him and his disciples to live and work. The SRF bought the building and surrounding grounds and moved in. The hotel's rooms were converted into offices and sparse monastic bedrooms. Yogananda would often teach in the outdoor "temple of leaves," and the tennis court was used for yogic exercises.
Over the next two decades Yogananda continued attracting followers on periodic speaking tours. A seventeen year old girl from an old Mormon family named Faye Wright attended a lecture he gave in 1931 in Salt Lake City. She was suffering from a blood disorder and her face was horribly swollen. Yogananda singled her out in the crowd of 4,000 and laid hands on her, proclaiming "Within a week, if you have faith. You will be cured." He then softly joked, "You'd better be cured or I'll probably be run out of town." A week later Faye found herself healed, and soon she was atop Mount Washington, taking monastic orders and donning the traditional brightly colored sari of the swami.
The SRF grew both in India and stateside, with over 100 centers around the world by 1952, although they stayed remarkably under the mainstream radar. On Easter Sunday in 1939, while Yogananda was giving a talk on "the ancient significance of Easter" at a small 5 a.m. service, the Hollywood Bowl and Forest Lawn Cemetery attracted thousands of people with traditional Christian services.3
A neighbor of the SRF's beautiful Encinitas compound (a gift to Yogananda in 1935 from a wealthy Kansas City insurance executive named J.J. Lynn) recalled Yogananda as a plump, pleasant man who commuted in a bus that had been lavishly kitted out like a modern day motor home, his western students treading behind their master in expensive cars. He would often be seen walking the grounds, with followers trailing in attendance, laughing and talking as they fed him grapes. When at home at Mount Washington, Yogananda wrote in seclusion, with Faye Wright often at his side typing on a memoir, which eventually became the perennial bestseller, "Autobiography of a Yogi."
Many of SRF's members were educated, middle class Anglo-Americans who lived as ordinary citizens and found their lives enhanced by the SRF's belief in "plain living and high thinking," and by their discoveries in yoga and meditation. Some chose to join the celibate monastic order, like the SRF's public relations director Louise Butler, who was a successful editor at a ladies magazine before she took vows.
What were days atop Mount Washington like for the everyday monks and nuns of the SRF? A profile written in the '50s documented a typical day for the 60 monks and nuns who resided there:
They arise at 6:30 and meditate quietly in their cell-like rooms. They gather on the stone-floored veranda for "energizing exercises," a specialty of yoga. In the heavily incensed, Spartan chapel the students and enunciates meditate again for 15 minutes after exercises, and their morning work begins at 8:30. There is no coffee break. The 80-year old cook, whose talents were highly respected by the master, keeps the kitchen locked tight until the noon lunch period. Afternoon work is broken for meditation at 2:30 and is capped by exercises at 5. A short meditation period precedes dinner and on Thursdays a long mediation from 8 to 10 p.m. is conducted in the chapel. Every night each individual meditates for an hour in his room.4
The publication of "Autobiography of a Yogi" in 1946 dramatically increased the SRF's profile, as did the mail-order lectures, pamphlets, and speaking tours undertaken by both Yogananda and his favored students. The SRF also reached Southern Californians with their lovely properties. The blue and white Hollywood Temple on Sunset Boulevard. opened in 1942 and the gorgeous Lake Shrine opened in 1950 in the Pacific Palisades. Both these sites were (and are) open to the public as quiet, all-embracing spots of contemplation and meditation. The SRF was also at the forefront of the California vegetarian movement, and for many years ran two Mushroom Burger Restaurants in Hollywood and Encinitas.
On March 7, 1952 at the grand Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, Yogananda addressed 250 followers, including Faye Wright, at a dinner being held in honor of Binay Ranjan Sen, India's ambassador to the U.S. Yogananda had just finished expressing his hope for a united world when he slumped to the floor -- the victim of a massive heart attack. His body lay in state at Mount Washington and hundreds of followers, including more than 100 monks and nuns wearing gold and white, came to pay tribute at his funeral. With the help of three nuns, the new leader of the SRF, Rajasi Janakananda (aka J.J. Lynn) performed a sacred ritual releasing the master's body to God.
By touch of this fire, this body is purified. By the touch of this water the body is returned to its immortal nature. By the touch of this sandalwood paste this body is given to God in devotion. 5
Seven white roses were laid on Yogananda's chest and his body interred at Forest Lawn Cemetery. In the master's Mount Washington bedroom everything was preserved as if waiting for his return -- even his last meal of fruit and tea was forever sealed in plastic.
Two Dreams Collide
God gave us human relationships in various forms for one reason: we are to learn from one another. Everyone is in a sense our 'guru', our teacher. -- Daya Mata
Man, you made the right choice. -- Elvis Presley to a Mount Washington monk
In 1970, Sri Daya Mata sat in a tiny third story receiving room at Mount Washington. She had come a long way -- the sickly teenager named Faye Wright from Salt Lake City was now the revered leader of a worldwide religious organization. After Rajasi Janakananda's early death in 1955, the cheerful, highly efficient Daya Mata became a minor sensation when she was elected president. Reporters were fascinated by the pretty lady in charge, who oversaw the enormous growth and popularity of the SRF following Yogananda's death. This growth included several new facilities at headquarters, much of the construction done by the residents' own hands.
As Daya Mata met with a reporter from the Los Angeles Times she looked out of a picture window, which framed the Los Angeles skyline and craggy terrain of Griffith Park, and spoke of the first 50 years of the SFR, always giving all the glory to her master, Yogananda. The views from Mount Washington were still as magnificent as Robert Marsh had hoped.
It was these views and relatively cheap prices that had drawn around 8,000 Angelinos to the quirky mountain and the area around it. The development thrived and the secular families who called Mount Washington home co-existed at a peaceful distance from their religious neighbors. The SRF was not completely isolated -- they threw an annual Halloween party for neighborhood children and the sounds of the SRF's annual Christmas caroling wafted from loudspeakers into surrounding streets. In the 1960s, L.A. Times columnist Jack Smith, a long time neighbor of the SRF, mused:
On Monday evenings or early Tuesday mornings, a triad of young women residents in flowing pastel saris come down the long green slope from the fellowship to its back gate just across the street from our house. Despite the humble nature of their mission on these occasions, which is to bring their dormitory trash barrels down to the gate on a cart, they are lovely figures in the dusk or the early morning mists, and the graceful way they handle the bulky barrels reminds me of three muses on a Grecian urn.6
By the late 60s, America was catching up with the SRF. Hinduism, yoga, and communal living were all the rage. A new breed of eastern spiritualism was developing -- one that often involved sex, drugs and rock and roll. Elvis Presley visited the mother center in Mount Washington, where monks advised him to continue his singing career.7 George Harrison was a follower (his funeral was held at the Lake Shrine). This had little to do with the disciplined, quiet world of the SRF, where a drink of yogurt, honey, lime and ice water was considered a treat. In 1967, a barefoot and bearded self-proclaimed "Buddhist priest" named French McCleleen Moore -- who had a history of throwing all-night, drug fueled psychedelic parties -- attempted to establish his own "monastery" at his house on Mount Washington, citing SRF's continued presence in the residential neighborhood as precedence.
His request was denied.
The latter decades of the century would produce new challenges for the fellowship. In 1990, the SRF sued splinter group Ananda, a sect founded by the controversial Swami Sri Kriyananda, trying to secure exclusive rights to Yogandana's name, likeness, voice, and the phrase "self-realization." This litigation lasted until 2002, with a mixed verdict for both sides. A paternity dispute involving an Oregon gold miner claiming to be the celibate master's son lasted for seven years until DNA test proved the claims false.
But perhaps most upsetting of all was the SRF's battle with its own neighbors on Mount Washington. In 1998, the SFR was bursting at the seams, with over 500 centers in 54 countries. A proposal for a $40-million expansion on its 12.5-acres was to include the construction of many new buildings and a new shrine for Yogananda's body, which the fellowship had long wanted to move back "home." Supporters of the expansion flooded the Mount Washington's governing board, causing splinter homeowners associations to form and "Stop SFR Construction" signs to appear in front lawns. A contentious, six hour public meeting in 2001 did little to resolve the issue and many on Mount Washington said the congestion and dust produced by the proposed decades of construction and tourism traffic caused by the shrine would irreparably harm the easy Mount Washington way of life. Later that year the SRF scrapped all plans for expansion, a spokesman stating, "We hope that this is a catalyst to promote greater harmony within the community."8
Daya Mata died in 2010 and another of Yogananda's direct disciples, the nun Mrinalini Mata, was elected in her place. The ongoing success of "Autobiography of a Yogi" and other books by the master continues to draw new seekers. And so the quiet work of the SFR goes on, on a quiet hill that can't quite escape human dissent.