Gurus on the Altar

Painting Presented as Miraculous Photograph and Other Changes to the Gurus on the Altar

SRF may claim copyrights to some photos referred to in this text, and for that reason we have not included them. We have provided you with references so you can compare them yourself.

The altar as Yogananda made it

Devotees are very fortunate to have actual photographs of three of our gurus—Lahiri Mahasaya, Sri Yukteswar, and Paramhansa Yogananda. For the picture of Babaji, Yogananda said, “I helped an artist to draw a true likeness of the great Yogi-Christ of modern India” (Autobiography of a Yogi, first edition). The picture of Jesus is a painting by Heinrich Hofman. Yogananda said it was the one he preferred, because it resembled the Galilean master better than most.

Here are the pictures Yogananda placed on the altar, and the order in which he placed them. He made two versions, one horizontal, the other in a cross.


The miraculous photo of Lahiri Mahasaya

In Autobiography of a Yogi, Yogananda tells the story of the one and only photograph of Lahiri Mahasaya, quoted here from the first edition.

“One of my most precious possessions is that same photograph [of Lahiri Mahasaya]. Given to Father by Lahiri Mahasaya himself, it carries a holy vibration. The picture had a miraculous origin. I heard the story from Father’s brother disciple, Kali Kumar Roy.

“It appears that the master had an aversion to being photographed. Over his protest, a group picture was once taken of him and a cluster of devotees, including Kali Kumar Roy. It was an amazed photographer who discovered that the plate which had clear images of all the disciples, revealed nothing more than a blank space in the center where he had reasonably expected to find the outlines of Lahiri Mahasaya. The phenomenon was widely discussed.

“A certain student and expert photographer, Ganga Dhar Babu, boasted that the fugitive figure would not escape him. The next morning, as the guru sat in lotus posture on a wooden bench with a screen behind him, Ganga Dhar Babu arrived with his equipment. Taking every precaution for success, he greedily exposed twelve plates. On each one he soon found the imprint of the wooden bench and screen, but once again the master’s form was missing.

“With tears and shattered pride, Ganga Dhar Babu sought out his guru. It was many hours before Lahiri Mahasaya broke his silence with a pregnant comment:

“‘I am Spirit. Can your camera reflect the omnipresent Invisible?'”

“‘I see it cannot! But, Holy Sir, I lovingly desire a picture of the bodily temple where alone, to my narrow vision, that Spirit appears fully to dwell.’

“‘Come, then, tomorrow morning. I will pose for you.’

“Again the photographer focused his camera. This time the sacred figure, not cloaked with mysterious imperceptibility, was sharp on the plate. The master never posed for another picture; at least, I have seen none.

“The photograph is reproduced in this book. Lahiri Mahasaya’s fair features, of a universal cast, hardly suggest to what race he belonged. His intense joy of God-communion is slightly revealed in a somewhat enigmatic smile. His eyes, half open to denote a nominal direction on the outer world, are half closed also. Completely oblivious to the poor lures of the earth, he was fully awake at all times to the spiritual problems of seekers who approached for his bounty.”

“The photograph is reproduced in this book.”

Every edition of the Autobiography includes the same phrase: “The photograph is reproduced in this book.” Here it is as it appeared in the first edition.

In the seventh edition, copyright 1956, SRF changed the photograph of Lahiri. A footnote was added which explained that it was the same picture, but a cloth had been painted over the upper part of Lahiri’s body. SRF said you could buy this photo from them, with a cloth, or without it. The meaning is clear: This is the same photo, except now Lahiri is wearing a cloth.

Compare the pictures

Open any copy of Autobiography published after 1956 and compare the picture of Lahiri to the one above. Or obtain the thirteenth edition, which now has both. Look at the face, the tilt of the head, the hair, the hands, the portion of cloth beneath his body, the robustness of his torso.

In the eighth edition, copyright 1959, there is an additional footnote describing Daya’s conversation with Lahiri’s grandson confirming that there is only one photograph of Lahiri. By the twelfth edition, copyright 1987, all explanatory footnotes are gone. All that remains is a page number telling you where to find the photo.

Here is the explanation

In the thirteenth edition, copyright 1998, on page eleven of the paperback, there is a new footnote. First, it says, to see the photograph of Lahiri, turn to page 343. There, for the first time since the 1956 edition, there is the photo of Lahiri as it appeared in the first edition. It’s printed smaller, but it’s the same photograph.

Then the new footnote goes on to say, if you want to see a painting of Lahiri Mahasaya, go to page 375. There, on the same page as the twelfth edition, is the picture of Lahiri with the cloth across his shoulder, that, since 1956, has been presented in the Autobiography as the miraculous photograph. Now the footnote explains, it is not the miraculous photograph. It is not a photograph at all, it is a painting.

According to the footnote, when Yogananda went to India in 1935-36, he arranged for this painting to be made and then “designated it as the formal portrait for use in SRF publications.” If this is so, why didn’t Yogananda use it in 1946? And in 1956, when the painting was substituted for the photo, why didn’t SRF explain it at that time? A whole generation of devotees has been looking at this painting thinking it was the one and only miraculous photograph of Lahiri Mahasaya, when in fact, it was not.

Furthermore, the original painting did not include a cloth over Lahiri’s chest; he was bare-chested as he is in the actual photograph. It makes more sense that Yogananda would guide the artist to match the photograph. SRF’s footnote in 1956 about a cloth being painted over the original was true—the painting was painted over. That’s why SRF could offer it with and without a cloth. By that time there were two versions of the painting.

The masters do not conform to Western customs

Photography was in its infancy when Lahiri’s picture was taken. The painting is crisper and clearer than the photo. The drape is more modest than Lahiri’s bare chest.

On the altar at the SRF Lake Shrine Temple, Babaji, too, now has a drape across his shoulder. External appearances are important to most Westerners, less important in India, and to God-realized masters, they mean nothing at all. It is common in India for renunciate yogis to walk around bare-chested, although, obviously it is not the custom in the West. Sometimes yogis don’t wear any clothes at all, like Trailanga Swami, described in the Autobiography.

Lahiri worked  in an office under a British superintendent. He was familiar with Western sensibilities, yet he knew that he was having a photograph taken that would serve devotees in all future ages, and that it would be seen by many Western eyes. And so he presented himself as he was, his upper body reflecting a lifetime of yogic practice—a robust torso from Kriya, and noticeable development of the breasts, not uncommon in men of deep devotion. Everything the masters do is a teaching for the devotees.

Further changes to the altar

Here is the original photograph of Sri Yukteswar, from page 108 of the first edition of the Autobiography, or page 98 of the paperback thirteenth edition, from which the altar photo is taken.

In the original, Yukteswar is looking to his left. On the SRF altar, Sri Yukteswar looks to the right. “It may be more esthetically pleasing to show him facing Jesus Christ and Krishna on the altar,” Swami Kriyananda writes,” but the vibration, in doing so, is changed. This point is easily understood nowadays, for much research has been done on the differences between the right and left brain activity. Yogis have long known of the magnetic asymmetry between the two sides of the body.”

At SRF’s new Lake Shrine Temple, the pictures of the masters are paintings or colorized versions of the original photographs. They may be attractive in themselves, and many people may be very fond of them. But the vibration is different from the actual photographs. Something of the artist is added, something of the master is lost. Added to everything else, the question has to be asked, is SRF becoming more concerned about esthetics than about the power of the altar as Yogananda made it?


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