AT THE HEART OF ELVIS PRESLEY’S LIFE WAS HIS SPIRITUAL QUEST
Elvis and Yogananda
Elvis felt a strong attraction to the teachings of Paramahansa Yogananda. Reading and discussing the books I brought him was no longer enough; Elvis wanted more. And so one day, during a lunch break in filming of the movie “Harum Scarum” in the back lot of MGM, Elvis approached me with the formality he often affected when he was particularly serious.
“Lawrence, I think I’m ready to be initiated into Kriya Yoga; will you initiate me?”
I explained that he would have to go through successive stages of meditation for a prescribed period of time and study a series of lessons from the Self-Realization Fellowship headquarters. I told him this was not something to be entered into lightly, and those of us who had been initiated had promised not to encourage anyone to shortcut the requirements.
“You wouldn’t want me to break my sacred vows, would you?”
A devilish gleam came into Elvis’ eyes.
“The hell I wouldn’t.”
Seeing the concerned look on my face, he laughed reassuringly. “I’m only kidding. Well, half-kidding. I really want to know what Kriya Yoga is all about. How ‘bout that lady at Self-Realization you’ve been telling me about; think she’d help me?”
The Self-Realization Fellowship had grown under the direction of Yogananda’s disciple and personal secretary, Sri Daya Mata, after his death. I telephoned Sri Daya Mata and explained Elvis’ deep interest in Yogananda and his teachings, and his desire meet her and to be initiated into Kriya Yoga.
One night around nine o’clock, a week after I called, we drove to the monastic center, the ashram atop Mount Washington in Los Angeles, accompanied by some of Elvis’ entourage.
“Hey Lawrence, it’s time the guys know something besides Hollywood and Memphis,” Elvis said. “I’d like to see something rub off on them.”
Elvis immediately felt a special affinity for Daya Mata, who was beautiful both spiritually and physically, with graying hair and a very sweet, almost childlike voice. She loved him in return. Like others in the spiritual world, she sensed a serious purpose behind Elvis’ quest.
Sri Daya Mata invited Elvis and me into her sitting room on the third floor. After a moment of silence, she turned to me with a warm glow in her eyes. She smiled affectionately. “Larry, I would like to spend some time alone with Elvis if you don’t mind.”
I went back downstairs and joined the others. When Sri Daya Mata and Elvis came downstairs an hour later, Elvis was beaming. He was holding in his hand two bound volumes containing lessons, his instructions for the forthcoming year to prepare for his initiation into Kriya Yoga.
As he left, with an invitation to return any time he liked, several monks lined up at the door to wish us all well. One of the sisters of the order presented him with a basket of organic peaches grown on the property. He was visibly moved.
“It is so heartwarming,” Daya Mata said softly, “to see someone so famous take the time and interest to visit with us.”
Elvis squeezed her hand. “This is my first visit, sister, but not my last.”
And it wasn’t. Elvis came there often, and like others who know Daya Mata called her Ma—short for Daya Mata and for mother. He spent many evenings with her and, like anyone who got to know him, she grew to love him for his essential goodness. Elvis thought of her as his “spiritual mother.” She saw in him an essence that was more deeply spiritual than he knew.
Once we were in the limousine, Elvis said, “These are her personal books of the lessons. She wants me to read one lesson a week until I go through the whole thing once. Man, I swear to God, Larry, I haven’t felt this good in I don’t know how long. You were right; Daya Mata’s something else—she’s like a saint.”
Then he acknowledged he had asked her for a “short cut” to be initiated into Kriya Yoga. “I love her! You know what she said to me? She said, ‘I don’t care if you are Elvis Presley. It doesn’t matter who you are, how much money you have. You’ve got to be ready; otherwise, it’s not going to work. Not only is it not going to work, but I can’t go against what is right.’”
Priscilla Presley recounts a revealing incident in her book Elvis by the Presleys. One evening Elvis and Priscilla visited Sri Daya Mata at her request.
“Beyond talking of joining a monastery, he wanted to form a commune. He wanted to devote his life to helping others fulfill themselves through devotional discipline. In fact, he wanted to be a leader of the Self-Realization Fellowship. In this regard, Daya Mata was especially wise.
Elvis listened. He had enormous respect for this woman. Part of him understood what she was saying. But part of him—the impatient part—wanted another answer. He wanted instant evolution. Accustomed to having everything he wanted when he wanted it, it was emotionally difficult for him to see why this would be any different. At the same time, he was able to be completely honest with Daya Mata. She was perhaps the only one who understood the enormity of Elvis’ fears. She understood because he told her. The pressure of staying in the limelight, retaining his popularity and pleasing his fans—not to mention placating the manager who helped establish his fame—was gut wrenching.
Throughout the rest of his life Elvis maintained his connection with Daya Mata, frequently calling her for advice and guidance. When his marriage to Priscilla ended in 1972, he asked if he could see her privately.
“There’s no hiding from her, Lawrence, that’s for sure,” he told me later. “The minute I walked into her room she knew exactly where I was at. We just sat together for a while, first not talking at all, and then meditating. She knew I was hurting without my saying a word, and she didn’t judge me or ask me questions; just held my hands. It was so beautiful, like she was giving me love and strength with her eyes and her touch. ‘Course she didn’t let me off scot-free. She said my mind and my spirit would be fine, as I meditate and grow calmer, but she was concerned that I was neglecting my body. I promised her I would work on it but, let’s face it, that’s one area where I need some serious help. I’d like to see her again, but I know she’d come down heavy on me for not doing what she wanted me to.”