4. Yogananda’s idea of ‘Christianity’ as opposed to ‘Churchianity’ (this expression was first used by Vivekananda). Offshoots of Yogananda’s mission, whether institutional or charismatic: Self-Realization Fellowship, Kriyananda and his Ananda Community, Roy Eugene Davis.
The opposition between Christianity and Churchianity was something I took for granted as a child. Both my parents had been born into strongly religious households, but they chose to raise me in the liberal understanding of moral and spiritual values that they had acquired as young adults. So I was encouraged to seek spiritual realities, without naming them in dogmatic terms. This twofold dichotomy — spiritual v. religious, Christian v. churched — is connatural to American culture and is not something that has arisen in recent decades. While it is a statistical fact that Americans attend religious services more frequently than Europeans, an individual American’s identification of religious practice with church membership is often more tenuous and fluid than it is even in Britain or Germany, whose religious pluralism is somewhat similar to that in the United States.
Today, large numbers of Americans raised in a specific denomination migrate to others, experiment with practices and teachings rooted in Asian traditions (Yoga, Zen, Sufism), and sometimes reconnect with their original heritage. At least one fourth of those raised Catholic in the U.S. are now practicing members of other churches (Episcopal, Evangelical, Mormon; some have membership in a Jewish congregation) or have received initiation into a lineage brought to America by a teacher from India or Japan. A significant number of these persons accept a condition of dual or plural membership, sometimes invoking the examples and writings of Henri Le Saux, O.S.B. (Catholic-Vedantic), and Hugo Enomiya-Lasalle, S.J. (Catholic-Zen), among others.
Yogananda’s model of religious fellowship was a guru surrounded by a small number of disciples, ideally under a tree or in a similar natural environment. The paradox — perhaps one should say, inconsistency — of Yogananda’s insistence on both the inner freedom of the individual soul and the loyal devotion to one’s guru has been characteristic of the history of Self-Realization Fellowship and its offshoots. S.R.F. constantly reiterates its claim as the one and only vehicle for transmitting Yogananda’s writings and effecting initiation into discipleship (a prerequisite for being instructed in Y’s meditation technique of Kriya Yoga). Kriyananda (J. Donald Walters) has been subjected to a number of law suits brought against him by S.R.F., with claims that he has illegally published Yogananda’s works without consent of the copyright owner. Most of the suits were adjudicated in S.R.F.’s favor, with the notable exception of the copyright of the 1946 Autobiography of a Yogi, now in the public domain.
Significant in the history of S.R.F. has been the influential presence of the Wright family of Utah, especially Faye Wright, Daya Mata, president of S.R.F. from 1955 to 2010. She and her siblings seem to have favored, in S.R.F., an understanding of hierarchical authority and doctrinal secrecy that are characteristic of the L.D.S. church. An objective, historical reading of Yogananda’s statements and actions during his first two decades in America might show a more liberal understanding of the kind of community he wanted to establish, and of the ways he intended his yoga to be transmitted.