By Yogi Ramacharaka
Published by Yogi Publication Society, Chicago - 1904
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WHO WAS YOGI RAMACHARAKA?:
William Walker Atkinson (1862-1932)
And in the home of the novelist
There is a satin-like bow on an harp.
You enter and pass hall after hall,
Conservatory follows conservatory,
Lilies lift their white symbolical cups,
Whence their symbolical pollen has been excerpted,
Near them I noticed an harp
And the blue satin ribbon,
And the copy of “Hatha Yoga.”
–Ezra Pound, from “Moeurs Contemporaines V” (1919)
Hatha Yoga is an actual book, not a product of the poet’s imagination. I can say this with confidence because I have a copy, bought at a used book store for $15. Sub-titled The Yogi Philosophy of Physical Well-Being, it was first published, remarkably enough, in 1904, one of the first–if not the first–books written about Hatha Yoga in English for a popular audience.
The title page attributes the work to a Yogi Ramacharaka who, from 1903 and 1909, churned out 14 books, all of which are still available either in print or on line–on subjects ranging from Hindu philosophy and yoga to Oriental occultism, mystic Christianity, life after death and reincarnation, and the “science of psychic healing.”
Who was Yogi Ramacharaka? His publisher, the Yogi Publication Society (YPS), which in the early 1900s was headquartered in Chicago, tells the following story about him. Born in India around 1799, YR like several of the seekers in this book ventured out early in life to hunt for the Truth.
He spent many years trudging back and forth across “the East,” fasting, meditating, and digging through the libraries of countless lamaseries and monasteries. Around 1865, after having passed what must have been a good 40 years on his quest, YR finally discovered the unnamed “basis for his philosophy.” At about the same time, he acquired a student, the eight-year-old son of a Brahmin family, who we know as Baba Bharata. YR then resumed his peripatetic ways, retracing the steps of his life’s journey, this time with little Baba in tow.
We next hear about the wanderers almost 30 years later, in 1893. Now 94, and sensing that he would soon shuffle off his mortal coil, YR deputized Baba to spread his teaching near and far. You may recall that in that year, the WPR convened in Chicago as part of the World’s Fair.
Baba realized that such a gathering would make the perfect bully pulpit, so off he went to the US. His appearance at the Parliament was, according to the YPS, an “instant success.” He lectured before enthusiastic audiences from all parts of the world who were visiting the Fair, attracting a considerable following in the process. Many wished him to start a new religion–but he felt only the urge to write about YR and his teaching.
While he might have been an effective, even charismatic speaker, Baba wasn’t much of a writer. Fortunately he met one William Walker Atkinson, described as an “English author,” and despite their divergent backgrounds, they apparently recognized in each other a fellow traveler. They agreed to pool their talents and write books, Baba contributing his guru’s hard-earned wisdom, Atkinson his talent with words. It seemed only proper that they signed their joint efforts “YR.”
It’s a touching tale but with a big hole that’s hard to plug: there’s absolutely no record that a Baba Bharata addressed the Parliament, though as we know Baba Premananda Bharati with-a-final-“i” arrived in New York City around 1902.
Some people have jumped to the conclusion that, just because the story doesn’t exactly add up, Baba was only a figment of someone’s vivid imagination. Though we can’t say for sure this is the case, it does seem likely, and this in turn leads us to surmise that, lacking any concrete evidence to the contrary, YR was a made-up character too. So if these two gentlemen were fictitious, who wrote those 14 books?
The only name left standing from the YPS story is the ghost writer, “English author” William Walker Atkinson, who was both a real person and an author. But why the YPS called him English is a mystery–maybe what they meant is that he wrote in English–because Atkinson was born and raised in Baltimore.
Around 1890 he’d become a successful businessman and lawyer, but success as it still often does today took a toll. In his late 20s or early 30s (it’s not clear exactly when), he experienced some kind of debilitating breakdown (what exactly happened isn’t spelled out, but it seems he suffered what we would call “professional burnout”) and financial ruination.
In those far-off days before the ready availability of sympathetic though pricey therapists and mood-altering drugs, Atkinson decided to take the proverbial bull by the horns.
He pulled himself out of his funk with the help of techniques he learned from a popular self-help movement known variously as New Thought, Mental Science, Mind Cure, the Boston Craze, and Practical Christianity. Eager to join and help promote the vehicle of his miraculously restored physical, psychic, and financial health, Atkinson moved to the ground zero of NT activity, Chicago, sometime in the late 1890s.
It didn’t take long for him to hop aboard the bandwagon. By 1900 he was an associate editor of a NT magazine, Suggestion, and had published his first book, Thought-Force in Business and Everyday Life. Technically Atkinson was responsible for nearly 40 books (he also co-wrote another 20), which nowadays would be shelved in the self-help, New Age or occult, or business sections of the bigger national chain stores, probably with a packaged CD or video.
His interests were eclectic, to say the least, and most of us would agree somewhat out of the ordinary, unless your usual reading fare includes books about personal magnetism and the “magnetic gaze,” telepathy, “practical” mental influence and mind reading, “practical” psychic training–an umbrella term that covers psychometry (the technique of divining information about people or events related to an object solely by touching or being close to it), intuition, clairvoyance, psychomancy (divination with the help of spirits), and crystal gazing–the “science of observing, remembering and recalling,” self-healing by “thought force,” the “art” of logical thinking and the psychology of salesmanship, and the ever popular reincarnation and the “law of karma.”
Incidentally, Atkinson’s 1906 book, Thought Vibration or The Law of Attraction in the Thought World, was a major inspiration for the 2006 movie, The Secret.
I used the word “technically” above because Atkinson also wrote another 40 or so books disguised, in some cases effectively, in others poorly, with one of a half-dozen pseudonyms (that we know about). He wrote about a dozen books, for example, as the renowned master of the art and science of Personal Magnetism, Parisian Theron Q. Dumont.
The story here is that Theron wrote in “stilted guidebook English,” which he humbly admits in the opening chapter to The Art and Science of Personal Magnetism (1913), and gratefully acknowledges an American student, identified only as Mr. L. N. D., for transforming his work into idiomatic, American “man on the street” English.
But Theron was no one-trick pony: he also wrote about developing concentration and mental power and efficiency, memory training, mental therapeutics, or “Just How to Heal Oneself and Others,” the theory and practice of “character reading,” successful salesmanship, and most interesting for yogis, The Solar Plexus or Abdominal Brain, one of four brains–and you thought we only have one–in the human body.
By now you’ve probably guessed that Atkinson was our mysterious Yogi Ramacharaka. We then might wonder: Why go through all the trouble to pretend to be writing for a non-existent person?
One possible reason is that Atkinson felt books ostensibly about Indian philosophy and yoga would gain credence with his readers if they thought they were written by a yogi. The strange thing is that several of his later books had almost nothing to do with yoga.
The Science of Psychic Healing (1909), for example, an odd “sequel” to the earlier Hatha Yoga, is a “plain, simple, practical presenation of the various forms of Psychic Healing,”  including Pranic Healing, Thought-Force Healing, and Spiritual Healing.
Then there’s Mystic Christianity or The Inner Teachings of the Master (1908), a re-telling of the Jesus legend and an account of the occult teachings of the early Christian church. , it’s only connection to yoga being its advocacy of the Jesus-goes-to-India hypothesis to account for the so-called “lost years.”
This latter book and several others started out as monthly instalments or lessons of a correspondence course which, after a year, were collected and issued in a single volume. So we find titles like Fourteen Lessons in Yogi Philosophy and Oriental Occultism (1903), its Advanced Course (1904) companion, and A Series of Lessons in Raja Yoga (1906), the same in Gnani Yoga (1906).
It appears that Atkinson acquired a taste for Indian philosophy around the time he moved to Chicago, undoubtedly through his association with New Thought, which was heavily influenced by what today is called Neo-Vedanta.
Some YR aficionados believe Atkinson was tutored in the finer points of Indian philosophy by Baba Bharati, or that he traveled to India and studied with YR, neither of which seems likely. Others believe that Atkinson’s “Baba” was Swami Vivekananda, and while the two might have been in the same general vicinity in Chicago or Baltimore, there’s no concrete evidence that the two ever met or corresponded.
One other possible teacher who I’ve never seen mentioned before is an Indian scholar by the name of Manilal Dvivedi who, like Vivekananda was a delegate to the 1893 World Parliament.
In the Preface to The Spirit of the Upanishads (1907) YR “acknowledges his appreciation of the work of Dr. Manil N. Dvivedi ... the original translator”  of many of the approximately 420 aphorisms.
I wasn’t able to find out anything more about this relationship, if that’s the right word, and we probably will never know if Atkinson had a live tutor.
Read more: https://bit.ly/2VIV59x
A Hindu Yogi - mid 19th century
Credit: Wellcome Collection, London
Rare Book Society