A more intimate look at the President’s spirituality

Yesterday I asked for help from SM readers (also known affectionately as the “Great Brown Horde”) to ascertain the identity of the man on Obama’s “lucky charm.” Thanks to an eagle-eyed reader we now have a definitive answer. It is Paramahamsa Prajnanananda, the current spiritual leader of Kriya Yoga International.

Paramahamsa Prajnananandaji is the president of Kriya organizations started by Baba Hariharanandaji Maharaj and the current head of a great lineage of Kriya Yoga Guru Parampara.

Paramahamsa Prajnanananda is based in Puri, India, and travels up to 300 days per year, holding seminars and retreats all over the world. He runs the main Kriya Yoga ashrams in Balighai, Cuttack, Vienna, Holland , Miami, and the centers world-wide. He is also the founder of Prajnana Mission, which provides free medical assistance units and centers, residential schools for unserved areas, and many other charitable and educational activities.

Paramahamsa Prajnanananda is known as a powerful and loving teacher, author and speaker on world religion. On August 10, 1998, the highest title, Paramahamsa, a designation reserved for monks and saints who have attained the summit of realization was conferred upon him by his Master Paramahamsa Hariharananda. [Link]

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p>Here is a brief background on the history of Kriya Yoga (from Wikipedia):

Kriya Yoga is described by its practitioners as the ancient Yoga system revived in modern times by Mahavatar Babaji through his disciple Lahiri Mahasaya, c 1861, and brought into popular awareness through Paramhansa Yogananda’s book Autobiography of a Yogi. The system consists of a number of levels of Pranayama based on techniques that are intended to rapidly accelerate spiritual development and engender a profound state of tranquility and God-communion. [Link]

My post yesterday was meant to be light an humorous. Today’s is not. In posting this picture I am exposing an intimate detail that was probably (almost assuredly) never meant to be revealed. I feel like I am violating the President’s privacy. There is nothing more private than one’s spirituality. I have little doubt that some extremists that believe he is a Muslim, a socialist, a Nazi, etc. may just latch on to this as more evidence of his “otherness.” So what? In my view you cannot combat ignorance by hiding truth. I have made the conscious decision to shed light upon and pursue this and so now feel compelled to explain why…

Most American’s rarely get a window into the true spiritual beliefs of their Presidents until they are dead and we have their correspondence to sift through. In life we ask them what they think of taxes and health care and homosexuality. We ask them what God they worship and if they go to Church. We never ask them about their spirituality. You can’t really, because what good would it do? Such information is nearly impossible to extract, always dressed up pretty for an audience. But pictures always seem to capture what words can’t. Particularly pictures like the one above. It features the hands. A President’s spirituality (not his religion) is the true hand and the wheel of a nation’s ship and is therefore important to examine.

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p>We have two distinct things we can believe (because isn’t this all about belief anyways?) upon seeing the picture above:

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p>1) That this is just a random good luck charm that Obama picked up on the campaign trail and that he is holding it during the final critical health care negotiations because he needed something to fiddle with and burn off nervous energy; or

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p>2) That Obama, Christian though he is, belives himself to be on a spiritual path, much like a devotee. He is holding a picture of a man that represents that path, as a means to stay centered and focused and keep his mind clear about the greater purpose of all his efforts.

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p>I’ll let you guys choose for yourselves.

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p>Also from Wikipedia:

The story of Lahiri Mahasaya receiving initiation into Kriya Yoga by the yogi Mahavatar Babaji in 1861 is recounted in Autobiography of a Yogi. Yogananda wrote that at that meeting, Mahavatar Babaji told Lahiri Mahasaya, “The Kriya Yoga that I am giving to the world through you in this nineteenth century, is a revival of the same science that Krishna gave millenniums ago to Arjuna; and was later known to Patanjali, and to Christ, St. John, St. Paul, and other disciples.” Yogananda also wrote that Babaji and Christ were in continual communion and together, “have planned the spiritual technique of salvation for this age.” [Link]

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p>Last year I listed to the audio book version of Obama’s memoir, “Dreams From My Father.” I was awestruck by it. It is an amazing thing to hear about a person’s life and their formative years in their own voice. It is all the more impactful when the author seems to focus ever inward and reveal the most intimate of thoughts, not just his life’s events. Obama continually seemed to question himself, his motives and his beliefs as he searched both his origins and for a future path. He is not afraid to change directions or abandon dead ends. Reverend Jerimiah Wright and his church was one such dead end. From a NYTimes article in 2007:

His embrace of faith was a sharp change for a man whose family offered him something of a crash course in comparative religion but no belief to call his own. “He comes from a very secular, skeptical family,” said Jim Wallis, a Christian antipoverty activist and longtime friend of Mr. Obama. “His faith is really a personal and an adult choice. His is a conversion story.”

The grandparents who helped raise Mr. Obama were nonpracticing Baptists and Methodists. His mother was an anthropologist who collected religious texts the way others picked up tribal masks, teaching her children the inspirational power of the common narratives and heroes.

His mother’s tutelage took place mostly in Indonesia, in the household of Mr. Obama’s stepfather, Lolo Soetoro, a nominal Muslim who hung prayer beads over his bed but enjoyed bacon, which Islam forbids.

This polyglot background made Mr. Obama tolerant of others’ faiths yet reluctant to join one, said Mr. Wright, the pastor. In an interview in March in his office, filled with mementos from his 35 years at Trinity, Mr. Wright recalled his first encounters with Mr. Obama in the late 1980s, when the future senator was organizing Chicago neighborhoods. Though minister after minister told Mr. Obama he would be more credible if he joined a church, he was not a believer.

“I remained a reluctant skeptic, doubtful of my own motives, wary of expedient conversion, having too many quarrels with God to accept a salvation too easily won,” he wrote in his first book, “Dreams From My Father.” [Link]

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p>Abrahamic religions tend to emphasize the dichotomy between light and dark, between good and evil. Yogic philosophy is more neutral and nuanced. It emphasizes logic and questioning, often between a student and master.

… he developed a tone very different from his pastor’s. In contrast with Mr. Wright — the kind of speaker who could make a grocery list sound like a jeremiad — Mr. Obama speaks with cool intellect and on-the-one-hand reasoning. He tends to emphasize the reasonableness of all people; Mr. Wright rallies his parishioners against oppressors. [Link]

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p>Obama has often been described by the media as overly logical, as “cold,” or like Star Trek’s “Spock.” These are also all the qualities that people following a yogic tradition aspire to.

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p>So I for one feel better knowing that our President seems to be guided by a core set of beliefs that have him a) continually questioning his own ego to hold it in check; b) searching for wisdom in whatever form it presents itself; c) staying true to his path even if it is winding.

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p>I will leave you with a quote from Paramahamsa Prajnanananda book, “Yoga: Pathway to the Divine.” I have no idea if President Obama has read it:

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27 thoughts on “A more intimate look at the President’s spirituality

  1. good catch. fwiw, many unbelievers have long assumed he’s an agnostic in regards to the supernatural. he’s said things like he believes in evolution more than angels (i think that’s from the 2006 book). also, his grandparents attended unitarian churches after they left their original denominations. and his sister has admitted that she’s a buddhist if she’s anything (i think her husband is buddhist).

    oh, and this:

    Abrahamic religions tend to emphasize the dichotomy between light and dark

    generally true i guess, but ironic in that many religious historians assume this is derived from the exilic interaction of judaism with zoroastrianism in persia. so the dichotomy itself is not of abrahamic origin, as in the god of abraham, the god of isaac and the god of jacob.

  2. and yes, i do think ppl will use this against him. they think he’s the anti-christ, and will presume this more evidence of his deviltry. but probably those people are already lost, so who cares.

  3. Glenn Beck tomorrow.

    The President of the United States could be making decisions on our life based on the advice of some pagan yogi from that country with the river that sounds like a disease. Our Kenyan Muslim President is a puppet of a Hindu Indian pagan. Dont you guys see it? Our President is often described as ‘hip’ and what does ‘hip’ stand for? Hindu Indian Pagan!
  4. I loved Obama from the moment I first heard of him when he won the Iowa primary and I read up on him. I had the gut feeling he was just what America needed. He has already become a transformative president in just over a year of his presidency,

    If the wingnuts on the racist xenophobic right try to make a big deal out of this, the left should try to make a big deal out of the mormonism of the right’s two biggest heroes today: Glenn Beck and Mitt Romney.

    Isn’t it interesting how southern evangelicals who had the Republican Party by the balls for so long have now been marginalized? Jerry Falwell has died and gone to hell and who gives a rats ass about the insane Pat Robertson anymore? The mormons, who no christian denomination accepts as christians, have replaced them it seems.

    America is going through some major changes. I expect some of these wildly angry anti-government teabaggers to turn into domestic terrorists ala Timothy McVeigh. Some are already threatening another Civil War.

  5. his sister has admitted that she’s a buddhist if she’s anything (i think her husband is buddhist).

    Good for her. Tiger Woods has also openly announced that he is a buddhist like his mother. He says his infidelities are a result of him straying from the buddhist path.

    So many of the most prominent and successful americans are buddhists: Steve Jobs of Apple and Larry Ellison of Oracle come to mind. So many others are into hindu spirituallity: the director of the most successful movie of all time: “Avatar” Cameron is I think one. Al Gore was reported to be “more or less” a devotee of Sathya Sai Baba (as reported by his boyhood friend Isaac Tigrett the founder of the Hard Rock Cafe and The House of Blues).

  6. the right’s two biggest heroes today: Glenn Beck and Mitt Romney.

    romney is not really a hero of the right. “romneycare” ?

  7. Romney is currently the leading Republican choice for presidential candidate in 2012.

  8. yes. he’s not the darling of the right.

    http://publicpolicypolling.blogspot.com/2010/03/romney-leads-tight-republican-race.html Romney’s lead speaks to the fact that moderates could actually pick the GOP nominee in 2012. That’s because there’s gridlock among conservatives about who their preferred candidate is. Huckabee leads with 28% to 27% for Palin and 25% for Romney. But the former Massachusetts Governor has a large advantage with moderates, getting 35% to 17% for Palin and 16% for Huckabee. That significant edge with them gives him the overall lead.

    sorry for OT, but the observation was trivially wrong.

  9. ShallowThinker – I think Hindus are classified Heathens, and not Pagans. As far as I understand a Pagan is someone ignorant of the ‘word of Christ,’ while a Heathen is someone who is aware of the ‘word of Christ’ but has chosen to reject it. Though I doubt whether Glenn Beck would bother with nuances of that kind.

  10. Where’s Meera Nanda when you need her? It’s getting to be too warm and fuzzy. Need a few bucketfuls of ice!

    Paramahamsa Yogananda is the first “Eastern Guru” to have been received by a US President – Calvin Coolidge. Silence meets Silence!

    Kriya Yoga took a backseat after the advent of Swami Satchitananda (who delivered the opening invocation at Woodstock) and both of them were kind of elbowed out Mahesh Yogi. Traditions are lived out in many, many ways, and India writes the book on it everyday. Possibly the only Christian minority country where Christmas and Good Friday are public holidays, where the 80s Sunday teleserial Ramayan became so popular that some churches rescheduled their Sunday services, where Hindus in Chennai perform a New Year archanai, where on janmashtami you can see burqa clad mothers dressing up their children to look like Krishna, flute, peacock feathers and all, Guru Granth Sahib in a Hindu puja room, and Vajpayee, Sonia and Kalam joining the Paranjoti Choir at the Rastrapathi Bhavan for Christmas carols in Hindi. Not to forget Indonesia where the Nyoman Nuarta’s magnificent Ardjuna Vidjaya adorns Merdeka Square.

  11. Our President is often described as ‘hip’ and what does ‘hip’ stand for? Hindu Indian Pagan!

    Was I right or what?

    Also, Romney’s a mormon. As much as most Americans generally like to hear what mormons (Beck, et al) have to say, they could not abide such a person in the presidency. That’s even more iffy than a Catholic as far as they’re concerned.

  12. This is awkward and somewhat disappointing, but Obama’s spirituality is Obama’s business.

    Since we are commenting on this, I hope that the only reason Obama has this locket with this dude’s mug is this – first one:

    1) That this is just a random good luck charm that Obama picked up on the campaign trail and that he is holding it during the final critical health care negotiations because he needed something to fiddle with and burn off nervous energy;

    I find it strange when otherwise successful people get their admiration and affection for another human spillover into devotion. It is particularly idiotic when the this another human is some kind of spiritual adviser.

    Such lockets, pendants and photographs are just promotional items for Guruji’s organization nothing more. Hopefully we will find out later that someone was using this locket as tie for the telephone chords or some other kind of functional item.

  13. All of you above are jumping to conclusions. As I presume Prajnanda would say, it is not about belief as abhi says below, but about deep enquiry. Y’all seem to have ruled out possibility number one from the writeup.

    We have two distinct things we can believe (because isn’t this all about belief anyways?) upon seeing the picture above: 1) That this is just a random good luck charm that Obama picked up on the campaign trail and that he is holding it during the final critical health care negotiations because he needed something to fiddle with and burn off nervous energy;

    As I mentioned in the previous writeup he seems to be an exemplar of what this article says is happening to spirituality in the US, where people mix and match from a grand buffet of spiritual offerings as has been the case in India since times immemorial. And even if he follows some kind of Kriya Yoga, that does not mean he is going to think of Hindu or Indian-Americans as part of his side. In other words, he does not think like a partisan fanatic of a group identity of whatever form or persuasion. As for India we definitely know that he is more inimical to it’s interests and the polar opposite of the very christian dubya who is very well regarded in India.

  14. “. As far as I understand a Pagan is someone ignorant of the ‘word of Christ,’ while a Heathen is someone who is aware of the ‘word of Christ’ but has chosen to reject it. “

    I always thought pagan was someone who believed in polytheism.

  15. Heathen and Pagan mean almost the same thing, a rustic from the boondocks, who by implication is pantheistic, superstitious etc. Being congregational and doctrinal the Abrahamic traditions were urban, in contrast. Yaar, dost, bandhu, guys…This is abut Sikhs in the US Army. We are way, way, away from topic!!

  16. Dhoni on March 25, 2010 2:29 AM If the wingnuts on the racist xenophobic right try to make a big deal out of this, the left should try to make a big deal out of the mormonism of the right’s two biggest heroes today: Glenn Beck and Mitt Romney. Isn’t it interesting how southern evangelicals who had the Republican Party by the balls for so long have now been marginalized? Jerry Falwell has died and gone to hell and who gives a rats ass about the insane Pat Robertson anymore? The mormons, who no christian denomination accepts as christians, have replaced them it seems. America is going through some major changes. I expect some of these wildly angry anti-government teabaggers to turn into domestic terrorists ala Timothy McVeigh. Some are already threatening another Civil War.

    My, How reasonable of you.

  17. This is abut Sikhs in the US Army. We are way, way, away from topic!!

    NOT! You are in the wrong thread:)

  18. I am disappointed. Even though towards the end of his ‘Dream from my father’, he talks about crying in the Church on hearing a sermon etc., I always felt that he was an agnostic (more on the atheist end of agnosticism)

  19. SM readers (also known affectionately as the “Great Brown Horde”)

    This has all the affection of a Britisher clubbing a clumsy coolie with a cricket bat. Why not tack on “unwashed” or “barefooted”? That might be less condescending.

  20. Abhi – congrats. good investigative journalism. I hope this helps you score some more ;)

    In my view you cannot combat ignorance by hiding truth.

    very true and once again congrats for bringing this to light.

  21. Considering this photo was posted by the White House on its Flickr site, I don’t think you’re violating his privacy or that it wasn’t meant to be revealed.

  22. I always knew yoga had health benefits. Never guessed it would prove effective in helping pass health care reform!

    What else can it help with?