Veda MeLA Comes to Benares West

In 1925, when Paramahansa Yogananda made Los Angeles his home and international headquarters, he compared the town to Benares (now Varanasi). Since nothing like the Ganges flows through LA, we presume he compared it to India's holiest city because he sensed the City of Angels was an ideal relay station for the transmission of Indian spiritual teachings.

That certainly turned out to be the case. Virtually all the principle purveyors of Yoga and Indian philosophy over the years had a presence in LA. As far back as the 1890s, the illustrious Swami Vivekananda spent time in the area, and half a century later the Vedanta Society he founded was the spiritual home to leading thinkers and writers, chief among them Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood, who were tutored by -- and coauthored influential books with -- the erudite Swami Prabhavananda.

In the late 60s and early 70s, when words like mantra, guru and karma first entered the American vocabulary and meditation began moving from the counterculture to the mainstream, LA was the principle nexus of distribution. The iconoclastic Jiddu Krishnamurti; the charismatic Swami Muktananda; the controversial Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (aka Osho); the "Woodstock guru" Swami Satchidananda; the pioneering Swami Vishnudevananda; the progenitors of today's postural yoga boom, with its emphasis on physical practices (Indra Devi, Bikram Choudhury, B.K.S. Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois and others)--all set down roots in LA or at least spent significant time here. Of course, the Hollywood spotlight didn't hurt, with icons from Marilyn Monroe to Mary Tyler Moore to Madonna hopping on the Yoga/meditation bandwagon at various points in time.

The watershed moment in America's embrace of Hindu-derived teachings, of course, was the Beatles' 1968 sojourn on the Ganges with Transcendental Meditation founder Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. That too had LA roots. Maharishi's initial supporters were LA members of the Ozzie and Harriet generation, and the earliest baby boomer adopters were UCLA students, one of whom, Robert Keith Wallace, would publish the first scientific study on meditation, thereby launching the research juggernaut that legitimized the practice in healthcare and psychology. That youthful enthusiasm spread to London, where, in 1967, the Fab Four sought out the man who would forever be called "the Beatles' guru."

That landmark encounter had even deeper LA antecedents. Here's the quick version: An L.A. record producer named Richard Bock started recording sitar master Ravi Shankar in the late 50s; George Harrison stumbled upon the sitar in 1965 and was intrigued by the sound; at a Benedict Canyon party, one of Bock's other artists, David Crosby, told George about Ravi Shankar; George became Shankar's close friend and student; Shankar gave him Yogananda's iconic Autobiography of a Yogi and other books; George's spiritual passion was ignited, and he led his mates to meditation.

The rest is spiritual (and musical) history, and L.A. continued to be the principal conduit for the historic East-to-West transmission. In 1970, for example, the Bodhi Tree on Melrose became the prototype for spiritual bookstores everywhere. LA has probably produced more Yoga teachers per capita than anywhere else in the country, if not the world, and some of them have a national and international reach. Larry Payne, for instance, has been a driving force behind the growth of Yoga Therapy as a discipline. And where else but LA could a college professor create a bona fide masters degree program in Yoga Studies, as Christopher Chapple did at Loyola Marymount?

It all makes sense, when you think about it. LA has always been a cauldron of creativity and global communication. If the city can beam movies, music and TV shows around the world, why not the wisdom of the Vedic seers?

Now comes Veda MeLA, a "celebration of the Vedic Arts," in downtown LA on November 7th and 8th. A collaboration between MD and Ayurvedic practitioner Dr. Siva Mohan and the company Curated Events, the two-day mela (a Sanskrit word meaning festival, assembly, or spiritual gathering) will feature classes, workshops, speakers, music and an exhibit hall billed as "a feast for all the senses in every way." Says Dr. Mohan, "Our aim is to not only provide information, but to give a real life window into incorporating this wisdom in our modern urban lives."

It promises to be a feast for the body, mind and spirit, so mark your calendar and join the friendly crowd at The REEF (formerly The LA Mart) at 1933 South Broadway. I personally can't wait. I'll be on a panel with the producers and directors of Awake, a stunning documentary about the life of Yogananda, and also give a multimedia presentation on the spiritual and yogic history of LA, as briefly outlined above. But it's the rest of the weekend I'm really looking forward to.