by Peter Sanjaya
It has been interesting to ponder exactly what Paramhansa Yogananda meant when he said “Los Angeles is the Benares of the West, even as Benares (Varanasi) in India is the holy city of the Hindus.” On the surface they couldn’t appear more different. Even in Yogananda’s time there was little outwardly that justified his statement. In Varanasi one finds narrow lanes weaving through age-old stone buildings finally opening up on to the different ghats lining the Ganges River. For countless years puja ceremonies have been done there on the banks of that sacred river. Many ashrams and temples are tucked away in those ghats and alleyways. It is said that Varanasi is the oldest continuously-inhabited city in the world. At least some 4000 years people have been there worshipping the divine.
Los Angeles by contrast is a young city that has grown rapidly in the last hundred years. In 1920 it had just over a half a million people. Today the city has over 4 million residents and the county of LA has over 10 million. Typically when people think of LA what comes to mind is Hollywood or Beverly Hills. Interesting in themselves perhaps, but hardly comparable to Varanasi! Instead of ancient lanes leading to the homes of enlightened saints, in LA we find massive freeways clogged with traffic, expensive cars and Hollywood celebrities! Clearly Yogananda must have been looking deeper when he was calling Los Angeles the holy city of the West.
Swami Kriyananda said “every time I go Los Angeles I feel, beneath all the traffic and the hubbub, exceptionally high vibrations.” He also mentioned a tradition that there was an ancient high civilization here in Los Angeles. There are even some that claim that the ancient land of Lemuria was just off the coast of Malibu.
Swamiji also shared that there is a tradition in India that Arjuna lived in Patal Desh, which means the lower, or opposite, side of the Earth. Yogananda said that he was Arjuna in a former life. Perhaps when Yogananda said “My heart draws me to Los Angeles” it was inspired by a memory from that former life?
At any rate, Yogananda chose to make his home and headquarters in Los Angeles and eventually had several temples in different parts of the city and Southern California. As I’ve travelled around LA I’ve begun to notice that seemingly every religious group has a branch in Los Angeles. And they all seem to be well represented. There’s large Mormon churches, and a large Hare Krishna temple. There’s the Vedanta Society in the hills and a church for just about every Christian denomination you can think of, including the old Spanish Catholic mission and churches downtown. The other day near Hollywood I saw a small church that said something like “The First Hungarian Church of Christ”. I had no idea that such a denomination even existed, yet there it was with a church in LA.
It’s a fascinating thing that people are searching spiritually all over the LA area. Sometimes it gets a little “far out” or “woo woo”, but it is there none-the-less. At a public talk here in LA Swamiji talked about how we show our “goofiness” in what we’re interested in. He said he didn’t show his “goofiness” in architecture, because he wasn’t particularly interested in architecture. He wasn’t trying to be an architect, so he didn’t have to make those first fumbling steps we make when learning anything new. In Los Angeles people are interested in the spiritual search, so they tend to reveal their spiritual “goofiness” in the process. In other words, people often stumble and misunderstand, but that’s only because they’re actually interested in the inner search.
Recently I took a seemingly random drive through the San Fernando Valley here near LA. I wasn’t quite sure where I was going, but it was a hot afternoon and I was starting to get a little tired as I drove. I decided to exit and find a Starbucks and get an iced coffee. It was my day off and I didn’t have a real plan. The beaches were crowded because it was a holiday weekend. I didn’t really feel like hiking in the midday heat, so I followed some inward nudge to make my way north to the San Fernando Valley. As I sat there in Starbucks, I noticed someone seated nearby that was reading a book by Krishnamurti. Our eyes met and we nodded in greeting. Before I left, I decided to go say hello. He got up and greeted me as an old friend. We began talking about the spiritual search. He had been through a long rough stretch in his life and was desperately wanting to dive deeper again and find true answers. He showed me a few spiritual books he had brought. Then he shared “You know there’s one more book I didn’t bring because it’s so engrossing that for many hours I wouldn’t be able to stop reading it, even after the Starbucks closed. It’s called Man’s Eternal Quest, have you heard of it?” Yes, I’d heard of it! It is a book of Paramhansa Yogananda’s talks. We talked for several hours that afternoon about the meaning of life and death, and the search for Truth. He thanked me for being there that day. He felt inspired to move forward on his search. Inwardly I thanked Master for making me useful that day as His instrument.
In spite of the outward hubbub, it does seem that there are spiritual undercurrents here in LA. I think Master’s vibrations are a big part of that. It’s interesting to note that the Lake Shrine that Yogananda created towards the end of his life may in fact be the most popular spiritual destination in this Benares of the West. It has over 100,000 visitors each year.
Would you also like to come visit? We have a pilgrimage to all of Yogananda’s shrines here planned around his Mahasamadhi day next year. 2020 will be the 100th anniversary of his arrival in America. I hope you’ll join us!
There will be options for locals to join in on each day of the pilgrimage as well.