Elvis Presley Very Nearly Became A Leader Of A Spiritual Organization

If someone mentioned "the cult of Elvis," you'd be forgiven for imagining Elvis Presley's frothing, screeching fanbase, à la 1956's legendary Ed Sullivan performance (clip on YouTube). After all, Presley is one of those celebrities who reached a deity-level status in popular culture. He bridged blues with rock 'n' roll and inaugurated a cultural shift in American pop culture that continues to the present. But would you be surprised to learn that, like other celebrities, Presley was snared not only by the allure of drugs and fame but by the siren of what some have vaguely dubbed "eastern mysticism"?

Whether it's a legitimate interest, the influence of peers, the exotification of non-Western religious traditions, or something else entirely, plenty of well-known, wealthy folks have looked to the East to find their way. Steve Jobs, Julia Roberts, Russell Brand, Angelina Jolie, Robert Downey, Jr., and more have all taken to various types of Buddhism, Hinduism, Hare Krishna movements, adherence to the teachings of gurus, you name it (via My Nation).

In Presley's case, he didn't just take an interest in differing spiritual traditions, he apparently nearly took over as leader. As the Los Angeles Times reports, Elvis was a devoted student of Sri Daya Mata, a Mormon-turned-mystic who'd become leader of the Los Angeles-based Self-Realization Fellowship following the death of its founder, yoga master Paramahansa Yogananda.

A yogi who made the journey westward

Before we dive into the ins and outs of Elvis Presley's involvement with the Self-Realization Fellowship, let's take a look at the fellowship itself. In short, it's an organization created to spread the teachings of Paramahansa Yogananda, aka Swami Yogananda. Yogananda was born Mukunda Lal Ghosh in Gorakhpur, India, in January 1883. As Ananda says, he was the first Indian yogi to travel to the West and take up "permanent residence." Yogananda's own teacher, Sri Yukteswar, groomed Yogananda for this specific experience, as Ananda goes on to say, before the younger man landed in Boston in 1920. That same year Yogananda founded the Self-Realization Fellowship in Los Angeles, according to the fellowship's website.

Yogananda toured the U.S. — with varying degrees of success in different regions — spreading a teaching called "Kriya Yoga," the "scientific technique of God-realization." His teachings explain "who we truly are and show how to bring lasting peace, joy, and love into our lives and into the world," and describe a "universal message of the three-fold healing of body, mind, and soul, and of meditation." While giving talks to thousands, Yogananda was often the target of discrimination and had the FBI put him on their watch list. He eventually traveled back to India from 1935 to 1936, and went back to the U.S. before passing away in 1952. In 1946 he published "Autobiography of a Yogi," which was translated into 50 languages.

The king meets the guru

So how in the world does Elvis Presley fit into this story? Sources are anecdotal, and the information they contain fantastical, but we do know that Presley was a student of Sri Daya Mata, a "faithful interpreter of [Paramahansa] Yogananda's teachings," according to the Los Angeles Times. Daya Mata moved to Los Angeles in 1932 to be one of the Self-Realization Fellowship's first "nuns," after Yogananda apparently healed her of scars caused by a blood disorder. She took over as president of the Self-Realization Fellowship in 1955. 

Elvis' wife Priscilla Presley picks up the tale in a 2005 article in Ladies' Home Journal. She said that Presley had always been philosophical and religiously minded, read books like Sri Yogananda's "Autobiography of a Yogi," and was worried about being merely a vehicle of commercialism. She then describes how she and Presley were riding their motorcycles through Bel Air and the surrounding areas, and pulled over at Lake Shrine, one of the Self-Realization Fellowship's grounds. Elvis was captivated by the place, particularly the "meditation garden," and said to her, "It's what we all need. A break from the craziness."

Sometime later, as Priscilla Presley continues, Elvis was "summoned" to a retreat where he met Daya Mata. The two began a mentor-mentee relationship, and Elvis was so enthusiastic about the whole thing that he wanted to form a commune and "devote his life to helping others fulfill themselves through devotional discipline."

Freedom from being worshipped

Granted, much of the story about Elvis Presley and the Self-Realization Fellowship comes across as embellished, and should probably be taken with a grain of salt. It's true that by the time 1966 rolled around, Elvis released "Yoga Is as Yoga Does." The track contains lyrics that describe what sounds like the physical experience of practicing yoga. At most, they could be interpreted as describing an inner spiritual struggle. Lines include, "Yoga is as yoga does there's no in-between / Your either with it on the ball or you've blown the scene," "Come on come on, untwist my legs / Pull my arms a lot / How did I get so tied up / In this yoga knot," and, "Yoga's sure to catch you if you come falling down" (via AZ Lyrics). 

Looking back to Priscilla Presley's story in Ladies' Home Journal, she stated that Sri Data Maya discouraged Elvis from taking over leadership duties at the Self-Realization Fellowship. Elvis, speaking of his fame, reportedly asked, "Why me?" Daya Mata simply said that he was born to entertain, continuing, "The work of the entertainer is different than the work of the spiritual leader. It's neither worse nor better. Simply different. The inner peace you seek can be yours no matter what your work." 

Priscilla Presley finishes her story by saying that, in the end, she believes that Elvis simply wanted freedom from a world that "worshipped him like a god."