CITY OF THE DEAD
When Yogananda(Author of Autobiography of a Yogi) first visited Los Angeles he declared it, “The Benares of the West.” In India, Benares(or Varnasi)is considered the religious capital of Hinduism. It is called, “The City of the Dead,” because it is believed that if you die there, you are given the gift of salvation(moksha) and are released from the wheel of reincarnation. Hindus come from all over India to bathe in the Ganges and be washed of their sins. For the wealthy dead, their bodies are dressed in elegant robes and anointed with oil, before having them set afire and afloat on the Ganges, where they burn bright all day long. The less fortunate are wrapped in rags, and left to the vultures on their downstream journey. The souls of the wealthy and the dead, presumably end up in the same place. The Dong Community(the local residents) can often be seen sifting through the ashes of the cremated, looking for gold or silver.
But what does this have to do with Los Angeles? What did Yogananda see upon his arrival that made him declare the relationship between Los Angeles and Hinduism’s holiest city, and what are the parallels that exist even beyond his acknowledgement? Benares besides being India’s holiest city as well as its most religiously diverse and tolerant. Benares is Indias most spiritually diverse city. Besides it’s 3,300 Hindu Shrines and temples, it also has a dozen Christian Churches, several Muslim Mosques, and numerous Jainist shrines. It is a place where religious pilgrims of all stripes seek atonement with their eternal source, without being hassled by others whose beliefs differ from their own.
Los Angeles has an incredible history of religious diversity. Before the Spanish and the Mexican settlers arrived in the mid 1700’s to build pueblos and Catholic Missions, the native population(which once numbered in the tens of thousands) had inhabited the paradisiacal Los Angeles Basin for nearly twenty thousand years. Little is known of their religious lives, but they most likely shared the mythology of the hunter gather Uto Aztecs who were spread throughout the southwest United States and Northern Mexico. No doubt their mythology would have taken on the colors of the local topography, which is unimaginable to us today. Los Angeles was an pre-westernized eden that has since been paved over by the ambitions of millions. Twenty six tribes lived along the Los Angeles River without needing to cultivate crops, so plentiful was the life springing up around it. The river meandered through a dense forest of sycamore and willows, elderberrys and wild grapes. Small animals and waterfowl, gathered around the river. Steelhead trout spawned in its waters, and supported a significant population of Grizzly Bears. Beverly Hills was mostly marshlands, and the location of the Beverly Hills Hotel was a place where water flowed together from Benedict and Coldwater Canyons and was known as “El Rodeo de los Aguas,” by the Spanish. Animals gathered to drink there, and were easily hunted by the Spanish landowners. All that remains, in memoriam, to this natural wonder is Rodeo Drive.
The religious wonderland that is Los Angeles has it's genesis at the closing of the nineteenth century in Chicago in 1893. That is where Swami Vivekenanda, a disciple of the Hindu mystic Ramakrishna, appeared at the Parliament of World Religions. Vivekenanda began his speech with the statement, "As the different streams having their sources in different places all mingle their water in the sea, so, O Lord, the different paths which men take, through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee!" His statement ushered in a New Age of thought in the West, where the religious ideas of other cultures were taken seriously and influenced the thinking of progressive thinkers in this one. Word of his presentation spread like Wildfire and was reported coast to coast and in Europe. He tailored his teachings to Western Minds and said, "As the Buddha has a message for the East, i have a message for the West," He became a celebrity in the United States and Europe and had a phalange of followers that included Nikolas Tesla. He was gifted land for Vedanta(his religion of Non Duality) in New York, and in Central and Northern California by students. But most importantly, he established the Vedanta Society of Hollywood just below the 101 freeway. This is where the English writers Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood journeyed from their nearby homes to study the notion of Eastern Non Duality, and a movement was born. Huxley more than anybody embraced the philosophy of Non Duality and allowed it to affect both his essay and novel writing. In his last work, "Island," he wrote of a drink that provided enlightenment and removed the conditioned mind, he called it "Moksha," what the Hindus referred to as "salvation".
In Basel, Switzerland in 1943(same year Mick Jagger and Jim Morrison were born), a Chemist, Albert Hoffman became interested in a chemical that he had first synthesized in 1938. LSD-25 had been created from the erogot fungus that grew on rye and other cereal grains. It is theorized that much of the revelatory stanzas of the Old Testament, as well as the goings on in Salem, Massachusettes during the Witch Trials, were resultant of grains infected with Ergot. Hoffman had synthesized the drug to induce labor in pregnant women. On the day he began to experiment with it, he accidentally touched it, and then either touched his eye or mouth. He fell into a restless and dreamlike state of intoxication that he found so fascinating that three days later, he purposely ingested 250 micrograms(what he thought was a tiny amount to see if the state could be recreated. Those 250 micrograms turned out to be of the most minimally psychoactive material ever discovered. He felt ill, nauseous began to hallucinate, and rode his bike home through a swerving Kaleidoscope of colors, witches and demons. By the time he got home, he was quite sure he had lost his mind, and rode out the rest of the trip after receiving the aid of both his family and his family's doctor. The next morning he woke up feeling great, seeing a new world, imbued with the character and profundity that he'd experienced the day before. He immediately began to speak to his superiors about the value that this newly discovered drug held for Psychiatry in understanding the human mind. It's use spread like wildfire in Psychiatric circles in Europe and it was found to have a profound curative affect on psychological difficulties from alcoholism, to depression, anxiety and schizophrenia. As the use of LSD spread through Europe, in the United States, the first Atom Bomb was exploded ringing in an age of anxiety and fear of Armageddon. As he observed the first atom bomb being exploded over the desert in Los Alamos, physicist Robert Oppenheimer, who had struggled with the morality of creating a weapon whose only utility was mass genocide, uttered the famous line, "Now I have become death, destroyer of worlds." This was a quote from the Hindu Bhaghavad Gita which is a poem that sees the world as a battlefield that ultimately ends in death, and how one conducts themselves during this battle determines the quality of their incarnation.
In the 1950's the Soviets had also acquired the capacity to create an Atomic Bomb and the cold war was in full fight. In Los Angeles LSD had found it's way across the Atlantic and across the continent to be used by Military Psychiatrists at the Los Angeles VA in treating "battle fatigue"(what we now call PTSD) from soldiers in World War Two. A couple miles west of the V.A. in Beverly Hills on Lasky Drive(across the street from my childhood pediatrician and around the corner from the present day Peninsula hotel, Dr. Mortimer Hartiman was running a five day a week LSD therapy center(LSD was at the time legal) whose clients included Cary Grant and Henry Luce, the publisher of Time Magazine, who in the following years would publish several glowing stories about the utility of LSD in stimulating the unconscious to give up it's gold. Other Los Angeles luminaries such as Aldous Huxley and Anais Nin were using LSD in off label explorations and advocating for it's creative utility to their friends, half a decade before Timothy Leary would ingest his first mushroom, and a dozen years before the Summer of Love.
But it would be Huxley whose "The Doors of Perception" would explode like a Psychedelic Mushroom cloud onto the consciousness of culture. In May of 1953, Huxley invited Humphrey Ormond, a Canadian Psychiatrist to attend the American Psychiatry Association Convention in Los Angeles. Huxley's invitation wasn't completely selfless. He'd read about Ormond's psychiatric use( and access) to Mescaline, and wanted to try some. So, on a warm spring day, Huxley dissolved some mescaline crystals into a glass of water, and drank it down.
The Doors of Perception got its title from a William Blake poem. "If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite." As Huxley looked around his study, flowers sitting in vases radiated eternal beauty, color, life and light. Sunlight shined through his window and it's rays danced like a star shower, and he experienced the conditioned nature of his consciousness blossoming into something broader, brighter, and more eternally oriented. He published the blueprint for psychedelic experience in the middle of the Mad Men America fifties, and it’s influence was felt by every member of a generation that was about to explode into awareness of the culture in the decade to follow. One of the oldest members of the baby boomer generation(who'd actually been born during the war, the year Hoffman discovered LSD) a teenage Jim Morrison read the tome and was so excited by it, he decided to leave Florida and a militarily influenced existence and explore Psychedelic Los Angeles of the mid 1960’s. When he finally discovered that his fate lay with music and not film after a summer of tripping on LSD on Venice Beach, he knew exactly what he wanted his band to be called. “The Doors” was inspired by the Blake quote that he most likely would never have been aware of, if it hadn’t been brought to his attention by the Huxley Tome. The other three members of the seminal Los Angeles band The Doors, Ray Manzarek, Robbie Krieger, and John Densmore met at a talk given by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi three years before before he would turn the Beatles onto Transcendental Meditation at his Ashram at Rishikesh.
But it was Yoga that brought Hindu thought rushing into the daily life of the Los Angeles population. The first yoga studio in Los Angeles was created in 1947 in West Hollywood by an actress named Indra Devi who learned Asanas while being a diplomat's wife in Bombay. Nobody had ever heard of Yoga and her extolling its health and beauty virtues soon attracted Gloria Swanson and other stars including Marilyn Monroe to embrace the practice. In the sixties, yoga exploded due to a change in the immigration laws. In 1917, a law was passed that was designed to limit the influx of low income Asian immigrants. In 1965, Lyndon Johnson repealed this law, and it allowed yoga teachers like Swami Rama, Swami Satchinanda, Yogi Bhajan and the soon to be famous(and Rich) Bikram Choudhoury, inventor of Bikram Yoga, and the eponymous Krishnamutri, the great indian philosopher, who settled just north in the Ojai valley and lived there from the 1920's till his death in the 1980's.
In the open field of Los Angeles Spirituality there couldn't help be new religions created. Scientology built it's first Church in Los Angeles in 1954(the same year that Huxley published The Doors of Perception). In the swinging 60's, James Edward Baker, a former Hollywood stuntman, student of Yogi Bhajan, and Vedantic Monk, founded the Source Restaurant, Los Angeles's(and the nations) first Health Food Restaurant. Stars like Marlon Brando, Steve McQueen, John Lennon, and Julie Christie flocked to the restaurant, as did young men and women who often worked there for free to live on Baker's large property in the Hollywood Hills. Baker opened two other successful restaurants in Hollywood, and they bankrolled the Source Cult, which was structured around Kundalini Yoga practices, Western Esotericism, lots of sex, and Marijuana smoking from dawn till dusk. It was a uniquely Los Angeles religion based on all the streams that flowed into its' collective consciousness, and thrived for years until it crashed and burned in the mid 1970's. But no acknowledgement about Los Angeles cults would be complete with out mention of Charles Manson's family. Manson, a lifelong prison incarcerate, popped out of prison in San Francisco during the Summer of Love. He quickly became fluent in the vernacular of the day. recognized the vulnerability of teenage runaways, and used his knowledge of human nature gleaned in prison, mixed it with some Scientology, and Dale Carnegie's, "How to Win Friends and Influence People," and made himself into a hippie avatar. His dark apocalyptic vision which combined the rage of an abandoned child with fantasies of the repatriation of fame, and the group mind created by orgies and LSD, was unleashed on Los Angeles in way that brought it's naive fascination with Gurus to a close at the end of the sixties.
Aldous Huxley died in Los Angeles. On November 22, 1963, the same day John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. He had been losing the battle with esophageal cancer for awhile and he had planned for how he wanted to encounter death. As his final hours approached, his wife Laura did as he had asked her to do, and injected him with LSD. He passed his final hours in his bedroom in Beechwood Canyon, which had been formed by plentiful water flowing from the mountains to the sea, a couple miles from the Vedanta Temple. Laura reported that his death was peaceful one, with his breaths growing quieter and quieter until they just stopped.
And finally we end where we started. With Yoganananda. He wrote Autobiography of a Yogi at the Self Realization Fellowship in Encinatas in Northern San Diego County. And after the worldwide success of the book, he spent most of his final years writing books at his retreat center in Twenty Nine Palms, near Palm Springs. While there in 1952 he began to imply to his followers, that it was coming close to his time to leave the world. But seemingly possessing the information that his death was near, he remained close to Los Angeles. On March 2, 1952, Yogananda attended a dinner at the Biltmore Hotel in honor of the Indian Ambassador to The United States. Giving a speech calling for the efficiency of the United States to be combined with the spiritual culture of India. He finished with a poem of his with the line, "Where Ganges, woods, Himalayan caves, and men dream of God, I am hallowed, my body touched that sod." He then slumped to the floor, satisfied to have died in Los Angeles and interred at Forest Lawn Cemetery.
For those of you living in Los Angeles, the question must be asked. "Why am I here?" Of all the places my life could be occurring, why does it occur here? Why do I dream my dreams here, and engage the challenges of my life in this place as opposed to all others on Earth. There is a conceptual and historical and conditioned response to this question. But there is a deeper answer as well. Why this place between the mountains and the sea, with its multiplicities of cultures and belief systems. This place that at its Primordial Core was once an eden where a river once bestowed bountiful life on all who surrounded it. A river that preceded the march of progress and desire. A river that preceded Hollywood and the values it exports worldwide. A river that displaced by the aspirations for mansions andluxury cars. We must ask why our life springs from these same grounds, and wonder when it ends if we all end up in the same place.