The modern world can get very difficult to navigate through. The financial, emotional and physical turmoil a person needs to deal with every day produces an insurmountable amount of stress. Such is the current world that one needs to go through a bulk of the problems on their own.

For an adult who hasn’t been equipped to deal with the vast amount of stress and responsibilities, life can become overwhelming thanks to the problems. For many, 9-5 jobs cannot quench their thirst for the knowledge of the vast world. Be it an atheist or a religious person, they all have unanswered questions and a deep thirst for knowledge and undergo various crises within themselves. While many turn to narcotics, alcohol, and cigarette for a quick fix, many succumb to suicide. The picture is very bleak but the solution not as much.

While many looks for the quick fix, there are people who turn to gurus or teachers for guidance for better living. Religion often provides for a solution in terms of a yogic guru one can follow. Guru- meaning one who brings from dark to light, from ignorance to knowledge. Amongst the many, we here list the most influential yogis and gurus who have helped shape the lives of millions of lives worldwide.

1. Swami Vivekananda

“Be an atheist if you want, but do not believe in anything unquestioningly.”- Swami Vivekananda.

Swami Vivekananda can be credited for reviving Hinduism in the east and introducing it to the west. Popularly known as the “Intellectual Monk of India”, Vivekananda was born in Calcutta on Monday, 12th January 1863, in a rich, respectable and renowned family. After graduating from Calcutta University, he developed a great interest in spiritual affairs. In 1881, he came in contact with Ramakrishna Paramahansa.

Swami VivekanandaThe meeting was of significance as for the master Ramakrishna, he got the disciple of his choice to carry out his spiritual desires. For the ward Swami Vivekananda, the meeting entirely changed the course of his life. Vivekananda surrendered himself to the master and the master with his spiritual guidance and support implanted the message of universalism and catholicity within him.

He represented Hinduism in the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago on 11th September 1893. His short but emphatic speech struck the keynote of the Parliament of Religions, namely the note of universal tolerance based on the Hindu belief that all religions are pathways to the same God. His preaching’s attracted the Westerners. Many became his disciples. On his return to India, he opened the Ramakrishna Mission on 1st May 1897. The rest of his life he spent in preaching the messages of the Vedas in India and abroad.

Swami Vivekananda at the World Parliament of Religions

Teachings of Swami Vivekananda

Exposition of Vedanta: Vivekananda was a great exponent of Vedanta. His teachings centered around the themes of Vedas and Upanishads. He thought them to be the great sources of energy, wisdom, and strength.

Emphasis on Potentiality of Man: For him, each soul is potentially divine. The aim is to manifest this divinity within by controlling nature, both external and internal. This emphasis on individual potentiality still inspires youngsters to play an active role in social as well as the cultural life of India.

Service to Mankind: A humanist to the backbone, he regarded “Jiva as Siva“. It is through the service of ‘Jiva’ or human being, ‘Siva’ or God can be attained. His call to the people was “Go all of you, where there is an outbreak of plague or famine or wherever the people are in distress; mitigate their sufferings.

Ramakrishna Mission: Ramakrishna Mission is a philanthropic organization. It was founded by Swami Vivekananda in memory of his teacher Ramakrishna Paramahansa in 1897. It propounds the Vedantic ideals along with socio-religious reforms.

2. Paramahansa Yogananda

The true basis of religion is not belief, but intuitive experience. Intuition is the soul’s power of knowing God. To know what religion is really all about, one must know God“—Paramhansa Yogananda from The Essence of Self-Realization

Paramahansa Yogananda, born in 1893, was the first yoga master of India to take up permanent residence in the West. He has profoundly impacted the lives of millions with his comprehensive teachings on:

  1. The science of Kriya Yoga meditation,
  2. The underlying unity of all true religions,
  3. The art of balanced health and well-being in body, mind, and soul.

Paramhansa Yogananda

After finishing high school, Yogananda formally left home and joined a Mahamandal Hermitage in Varanasi; however, he soon became dissatisfied with its insistence on organizational work instead of meditation and God-perception. He began praying for guidance; in 1910, his seeking after various teachers mostly ended when, at the age of 17, he met his guru, Swami Sri Yukteswar Giri.

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In 1915, he took formal vows into the monastic Swami order and became Swami Yogananda Giri. In 1917, Yogananda founded a school for boys in Dihika, West Bengal that combined modern educational techniques with yoga training and spiritual ideals. A chief disciple of the Bengali Yoga Guru Swami Sri Yukteswar Giri, he was sent by his lineage to spread the teachings of yoga to the West, to prove the unity between Eastern and Western religions and to preach a balance between Western material growth and Indian spirituality.

In 1920, Yogananda went to the United States aboard the ship City of Sparta, as India’s delegate to an International Congress of Religious Liberals convening in Boston. That same year he founded the Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) to disseminate worldwide his teachings on India’s ancient practices and philosophy of Yoga and its tradition of meditation.

His long-standing influence in the American yoga movement, and especially the yoga culture of Los Angeles, led him to be considered by yoga experts as the “Father of Yoga in the West.” While in a brief visit to India, Sri Yukteswar gave Yogananda the monastic title of Paramahansa, meaning “supreme swan” and indicating the highest spiritual attainment, which formally superseded his previous title of “swami.”

Autobiography of a Yogi

The book is an introduction to the methods of attaining God-realization and to the spiritual wisdom of the East, which had only been available to a few in 1946. The author claims that the writing of the book was prophesied long ago by the nineteenth-century master Lahiri Mahasaya.

Autobiography of a YogiThe Autobiography of a Yogi takes the reader on a journey into the spiritual adventures of Paramahansa Yogananda. The book begins by describing Yogananda’s childhood family life to his search for his guru, Yukteswar Giri, to the establishment of his first school, Yogoda Satsanga Brahmacharya Vidyalaya to his journey to America where he lectured to thousands, established Self-Realization Fellowship.

In 1999, Autobiography of a Yogi was designated as one of the “100 Most Important Spiritual Books of the 20th Century” by a panel of theologians and luminaries convened by HarperCollins publishers.

The Book that Changed the Lives of Millions.” “Philip Goldberg.

Autobiography of a Yogi is the most popular of Yogananda’s books and SRF has published the book into over fifty languages. It has inspired people, such as Steve Jobs, co-founder, chairman, and CEO of Apple Inc. George Harrison, lead guitarist of the Beatles, received his first copy of Autobiography of a Yogi from Ravi Shankar in 1966 and, according to Ravi Shankar, “that was where his interest in Vedic culture and Indian-ness began.

Yogananda died on 7th March 1952, while giving a lecture in California just as he recited the poem “My India”. His body is said to have shown no signs of decomposition even 20 days after his death. The official cause of death was heart failure.

His funeral service, with hundreds attending, was held at the SRF headquarters atop Mt. Washington in Los Angeles. Yogananda’s remains are interred at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in the Great Mausoleum (normally closed off to visitors but Yogananda’s tomb is accessible) in Glendale, California.

3. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi

Being happy is of the utmost importance. Success in anything is through happiness. Under all circumstances be happy. Just think of any negativity that comes at you as a raindrop falling into the ocean of your bliss” 1967 Maharishi Mahesh Yogi

The guru who was credited as the Indian guru who introduced The Beatles to transcendental meditation in the west, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, was born 12th of January 1917 in India. He studied Physics at Allahabad University and received his Master’s degree in 1940. After finishing his academic studies, however, he decided to look for deeper meaning in life — he started rigorous yoga and meditation practice as a disciple of a highly revered yogi, Guru Dev. His devotees referred to him as His Holiness, and because he often laughed in TV interviews he was sometimes referred to as the “giggling guru”.

Maharishi Mahesh YogiWhen he emerged in 1955, he devoted himself to popularising his master’s form of meditation, which was derived from the Hindu teaching of Advaita Vedanta. He adopted the name Maharishi, which means “great soul”, and he rebranded the philosophy as “transcendental meditation”. Transcendental Meditation calmed the spirit and the Maharishi hoped that it would bring peace to the world.

On 24 August, the four Beatles heard the Maharishi speak at the Hilton Hotel in Park Lane. After the lecture, they requested a private audience and he told them, “The kingdom of heaven is like electricity. You don’t see it. It is within you.” The Maharishi invited the Beatles to a course on TM that weekend at University College, Bangor. The Maharishi told the group, “You have created a magic air through your names. You have now got to use that magic influence on the generation who look up to you.” The Beatles’ song “Across the Universe” pays thanks to Guru Dev.

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Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Beatles

Transcendental meditation

It’s a type of meditation, practiced twice a day, in which the subject mentally recites a special mantra (sacred sound or phrase). Concentration on the repeated utterances decreases mental activity, and as a result, the subject is expected to reach a higher state of consciousness. The principles of transcendental meditation are discussed in the Maharishi’s books The Science of Being and Art of Living (1963) and Meditations of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (1968).

He followed a pattern established earlier by Vivekananda and Paramahamsa Yogananda (1893–1952), who emphasized to Western audiences the nonsectarian and philosophical teachings of Hinduism and taught that meditation, yoga, and parts of the Vedantic texts were compatible with any religious tradition.

Mahesh Yogi presented Transcendental Meditation as a technique for improving health and reducing stress. These benefits were also connected with the practice of Yoga. Many physiologists and psychologists have claimed, and many scientific studies have suggested, that Transcendental Meditation relaxes and vitalizes both the body and the mind, including reducing stress and anxiety, lowering blood pressure (hypertension), enhancing creativity and other intellectual abilities, and relieving depression.

However, other researchers have questioned the validity of such studies, asserting that they were poorly designed.

Core Philosophy

The Maharishi had come out to teach with the “avowed intention” to change “the course of human history”.

When he first began teaching he had three main aims,

  1. To revive the spiritual tradition in India,
  2. To show that meditation was for everyone and not just for recluses,
  3. And to show that Vedanta is compatible with science

In 2007, the Maharishi prepared for death by retiring to concentrate on silence and study the texts which had first inspired his teaching. The Maharishi died peacefully in his sleep of natural causes on 5 February 2008 at his residence in Vlodrop, Netherlands.

4. Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev

Sadhguru, the mystic has much younger following thanks to his socially conscious movement along with spiritual enlightenment. At the age of 12, Jaggi Vasudev came in contact with Malladihalli Sri Raghavendra Swamiji who taught him a set of simple yoga asanas, the practice of which he regularly maintained. He states that “without a single day’s break, this simple yoga that was taught to me kept happening and led to a much deeper experience later.”

Sadhguru on Bike with Baba Ramdev
Image source – Isha Foundation

An avid motorcyclist, he graduated from the University of Mysore with a bachelor’s degree in English literature. Sadhguru was disinterested in the conventional forms of knowledge seeking. He unknowingly discovered meditation due to his intense fascination with the swaying action of the trees and was intrigued by questions pertaining to God and existence.

A spiritual experience at the age of 25 atop Chamundi hills made him rethink his life’s purpose and eventually, he realized that his calling was to become a yoga teacher. He went on to open the Isha Foundation to teach yoga and the foundation also became involved in various social and community development activities with time.

Isha Foundation and Inner engineering

Sadhguru started conducting yoga classes in Mysore in 1983; there were just seven participants in his first class. Over the course of time, he began conducting yoga classes across Karnataka and Hyderabad.

SadhguruIn 1992, he founded Isha Foundation, a non-profit, spiritual organization for offering yoga programs under the name Isha Yoga. Founded near Coimbatore, the organization became very popular over the years and today offers yoga programs not only in India but also in countries like United States, England, Lebanon, Singapore, Canada, Malaysia, Uganda, China, Nepal, and Australia.

The programs are offered under the umbrella of Isha Yoga. The word Isha means “the formless divine”. Isha yoga’s flagship program is ‘Inner Engineering’, which introduces people to some simple Yoga practices and the Shambhavi Mahamudra.

Sadhguru gives talks, teaches meditation, and holds question and answer sessions with the audience. These Mahasathsangs are also used as platforms to encourage tree-planting activities as well. He also takes spiritual aspirants on annual yatras to Mount Kailash and the Himalayas. The Kailash Yatra led by him is among the largest groups to make the trip to Kailash, with 514 pilgrims attending the journey in 2010.

Dhyanalinga

The Dhyanalinga is a Yogic temple and a space for meditation, the sanctification of which, Jaggi Vasudev stated was his life’s mission entrusted to him by his guru. It offers a meditative space that does not ascribe to any particular faith or belief system. It is defined as a Meditation Machine, “Just sitting in the sphere of Dhyanalinga with your eyes closed for some time can make a person meditative”.

Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev spoke at the United Nations Millennium World Peace Summit in 2000, the World Economic Forum in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009. In 2012, he was voted among the hundred most powerful Indians for his contribution in the field of environmental protection and for encouraging public participation in ecological issues. Many youths all over the world look up to him as a spiritual leader and are enchanted by his ideologies regarding the environment and yoga. He joined the yoga and meditation together and introduced a whole new generation to mystics of spirituality.

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5. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar

Born in 1956 in Southern India, Ravi Shankar was able to recite the Bhagavad Gita, an ancient Sanskrit scripture, by the age of 4, and was often found in meditation. His first teacher was Sudhakar Chaturvedi, a scholar. He holds degrees in, both, Vedic literature and physics. After graduation, Shankar traveled with his second teacher, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, giving talks and arranging conferences on Vedic science, and setting up Transcendental Meditation and Ayurveda centers.

Sri Sri Ravi ShankarRavi Shankar initiated a series of practical and experiential courses in spirituality around the globe. He says that his rhythmic breathing practice, Sudarshan Kriya, came to him in 1982, “like a poem, an inspiration,” after a ten-day period of silence on the banks of the Bhadra River in Shimoga, in the state of Karnataka, adding, “I learned it and started teaching it”. The Sudarshan Kriya, a powerful breathing technique, was born, out of this silence. With time, the Sudarshan Kriya became the center-piece of the Art of Living program.

Art Of Living

The Art of Living Foundation was established as an international, non-profit, educational, humanitarian organization. It’s educational and self-development programs offer powerful tools to eliminate stress and foster a sense of well-being. In 1997, he also founded the International Association for Human Values (IAHV) to coordinate sustainable development projects, nurture human values and coordinate conflict resolution in association with The Art of Living. In India, Africa, and South America, the two sister organizations’ volunteers are spearheading sustainable growth in rural communities, and have already reached out to 40,212 villages.

As a spiritual teacher, Sri Sri has rekindled the traditions of yoga and meditation and offered them in a form that is relevant to the 21st century. Apart from reviving ancient wisdom, he has created new techniques for personal and social transformation. These include the Sudarshan Kriya which has helped millions of people find relief from stress and discover inner reservoirs of energy and peace in daily life. In a mere 34 years, his programs and initiatives have touched the lives of over 370 million people in 154 countries.
As an ambassador of peace, Gurudev plays a key role in conflict resolution and spreads his vision of non-violence at public forums and gatherings worldwide. He has received particular credit for bringing opposing parties to the negotiating table in Iraq, the Ivory Coast, Kashmir, and Bihar.


Honorable Mention:

Swami Dayananda Saraswati

Swami Dayananda Saraswati, the founder of the Arya Samaj, was one of the makers of modern India. With an indigenous orientation, he wanted to bring a new social, religious, economic and political order in India. He was born in 1824 in a small town of Tankara belonging to Kathiawar of Gujarat in a conservative Brahmin family.

After completing his education, he went on with the mission of spreading true Hindu religion and culture all over India. With this purpose, he established the Arya Samaj at Bombay on 10th April 1875. A number of twenty-eight rules were framed which were approved by the members present in the meeting.

Principles of Arya Samaj

  • Acceptance of the Vedas as the only source of truth
  • Opposition to idol worship
  • Opposition to the theory of God-incarnation and religious pilgrimages
  • Recitation of the mantras of the Vedas and performance of ‘Havan’ and ‘Yajna
  • Faith in female education
  • Opposition to child-marriage and polygamy
  • Propagation of Hindi and Sanskrit languages

Dayananda claimed that only Vedas were the repositories of true knowledge and the only religion was the religion of the Vedas. The principles of economics, politics, social sciences, humanities can be found in the Vedas. His clarion call “Go Back to the Vedas” created consciousness among the people.

He opposed the caste system and the superiority of the Brahmins in the society. He also challenged the monopoly of the Brahmins to read the Vedas and supported the right of every individual irrespective of caste, creed, and colour to study the Vedas. Dayananda also opposed the practice of untouchability.

He protested against injustice to women and worked for the education of the females. He vehemently opposed child-marriages, polygamy, “Purdah” and the practice of “Sati” etc. Citing the teachings of the Vedas, he proved that women should have equal rights with men. Inter-caste marriages and interdining were practiced by the members of the Arya Samaj.

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