In February 1927, newspapers around the United States published reports of a Hindu yogi who had taken up residence in Chicago. Soon after his arrival, Yogi Hari Rama – tall, wispy-thin and with a faint sing-song voice – had quickly amassed hundreds of followers with teachings on how to cure all diseases, and “awaken the great forces within”.
Reporters mocked Yogi Hari Rama and painted him as a conman taking advantage of a gullible public. The yogi’s students insisted he possessed superhuman powers, which included levitation. In a sense, both sides had claims to the truth. Fifteen years earlier, Yogi Hari Rama was known as Mohan Singh, and he flew above Chicago as a daredevil airplane pilot.
Singh was one of the most remarkable and singular early South Asian immigrants to the US, and his is a story filled with an extraordinary series of ups and downs in less than a quarter of a century.
Singh was born in the village of Himmatpura in Punjab around 1885, and was just out of his teenage years when he went to the United States. He settled in Chicago and worked as a butler for about six years before moving to San Diego to study aviation at the school of Glenn Curtiss in early 1912.
Curtiss was one of the most important and influential figures in aviation history, a pioneer who developed aircraft, built engines and promoted flight, in addition to being an accomplished pilot. The Curtiss camp was an international hub for aviation, and his magazine Aero and Hydro described it as “the most cosmopolitan gathering of flyers and pupils ever assembled in this or any other country”.
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Singh was among students from nine countries, including Russia, Greece and Japan, but even in this motley crowd, he stood out. He avoided meat and liquids other than water, and he rarely smiled or spoke. He was so much taller than the shortest student at the camp that there were issues with setting the controls for the practice machine to fit everyone.
Foreshadowing his future career as a yogi, Singh took liberties with his past on the rare occasions when he did speak to the press. He described himself alternately as a Hindu prince, both a captain and a major in the Indian army, and as hailing from Bombay and Delhi.
After seven weeks of training, Singh took his flying trials in a Curtiss biplane on an early dewy Wednesday morning on May 1, 1912, and became the first person from India to become a licensed pilot in the world.
Singh then left for Curtiss’ other camp in upstate New York, where he quickly became proficient on the Curtiss hydroplane, which could take off and land on water. Not only was Singh one of the few pilots of his day who could operate several kinds of aircrafts, but he was also a stunt pilot, who performed death-defying feats at flying demonstrations known as aerial circuses.
Curtiss held Singh in high regard. After the daredevil pilot Lincoln Beachy came out of his self-imposed retirement and wanted to try out the new hydroplane, Curtiss insisted that he take Singh along as his passenger. When Curtiss travelled to Europe in the beginning of 1914 to demonstrate his flying boat for commercial and military uses, Singh was the only one within his small circle who was not a close relative.
Although Singh continued to fly and perform in demonstrations, there seemed to be a ceiling on his future in aviation, and he moved out west. On July 4, 1916, Singh arrived in Los Angeles and began working once again as a butler and chauffeur for the family of a wealthy manufacturer. After a year in the city, Singh declared his intention to naturalise, and formally began the process of becoming an American citizen.
Citizenship at this time was dependent on being classified as a “free white person”, but there was little agreement on whether immigrants from India qualified. Citing everything from theories of early Aryan migration and skin tone, to geography and their own prejudices, Indians were alternately considered Caucasian, Black, Asian or simply non-White. In legal cases of racial eligibility for citizenship, Indians were compared to Syrians, Jews and even hypothetical aliens from Mars.
In less than two weeks, Singh’s initial petition to naturalise was rejected on the grounds that he was “not a white man”. Singh appealed and was assisted by Sakharam Ganesh Pandit, a Bombay-born lawyer who arrived in America under the auspices of the Theosophical Society in 1906.
When Singh’s appeal was heard in federal court two years later, it was seen as an important case and was covered by several newspapers. The judge was convinced that Singh qualified as Caucasian and granted his application for citizenship. Not long after, Singh attempted to change his name to Harry Mohan to formally adopt the Americanised name his friends used to address him.
Although it was a hard-won victory, Singh’s status as an American did not last long. While Singh struggled for citizenship in the courts of California, another Punjabi immigrant named Bhagat Singh Thind fought similar battles in Oregon and Washington State. Thind took his appeals to the United States Supreme Court in the beginning of 1923 and lost.
The judges unanimously denied citizenship to Thind, and ruled that immigrants from Asia were ineligible for citizenship. Soon after, the Immigration and Naturalisation Service moved to revoke the citizenship of dozens of South Asian Americans, including Singh. Four years after he became an American, Singh was effectively left without any citizenship at all.
In a set of cruel ironies, the decree that took away Mohan Singh’s citizenship was signed by the same judge who had ruled on his behalf five years earlier (who declared that denying Singh citizenship would be “a travesty”), and that decree was pasted directly on top of Singh’s earlier oath of allegiance to the US. Compounding his misfortune, he lost a considerable amount of money in a fraudulent investment scheme based on buying plots in a Los Angeles cemetery.
Stripped of citizenship, swindled out of his money, and unable to either build a future for himself in America or fall back on what he had earned, Singh launched himself into a daring third act. He became a godman.
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Becoming a guru was a surprisingly common career change at the time. Dozens of South Asians in the US remade themselves into swamis and yogis during the interwar decades of the 1920s and 1930s. They made their living by travelling from one city to another and teaching eager American spiritual seekers who saw India as the source of mystic wisdom. With little agreement at the time on what yoga actually was – diet reform, visualisation, breathing exercises or philosophy – nerve, rather than skill or pedigree, was often the biggest obstacle to becoming a godman.
To remake himself into a guru, Singh liberally borrowed from his peers and predecessors. From Swami Ram Tirtha, a Punjabi expounder of Advaita Vedanta who had toured the US two decades earlier, he claimed a lineage (without any connection), and attached his own name to a reprinted collection of Ram Tirtha’s quotes. From his contemporary Yogi Wassan, Singh took visual materials like diagrams and logos, literally tracing them in some cases.
Most brazenly, Singh took a series of lessons in Kriya Yoga from Paramahansa Yogananda and then promptly used them as the core of his own lessons, “word for word, without permission”, as one of Yogananda’s infuriated students recalled. To this combination, he added affirmations from the proto-positive thinking New Thought movement, stagecraft from spiritualism, and numerous cues from the health reformers of the time.
After a few months in different cities, where he added and subtracted various titles – doctor, “psychologist and metaphysician”, “seer of India” – Singh settled on a name for himself and his teachings. He became Yogi Hari Rama and took his newly-minted Super Yoga Science on the road to American audiences in earnest.
Like his contemporaries, at each stop on his tour, Yogi Hari Rama would offer a series of free lectures to draw in interested and curious members of the public in the hope that many of them would then sign up for a series of private classes for a fee. In smaller cities, he would stay for a few weeks and spend just enough time for a single set of public lectures and private classes, while in larger cities like Chicago and Detroit, he would run longer campaigns, which could last for several months.
Howsoever haphazard Singh was in creating his yogic persona, he was extraordinarily savvy in selling it to the public. Advertising campaigns would start before his arrival in a given city, and one medical journal noted that Yogi Hari Rama had “assistants galore who drum up business for him”. Once in a city, students of Super Yoga Science would appear on stage and give testimonials as to why they called Yoga Hari Rama “miracle man”. One woman gave a sworn affidavit, and testified that she had been cured from cancer and “been made new” by his teachings.
In bright orange robes and a matching turban, Yogi Hari Rama cut an impressive figure, and according to reporters, he was given an amazing amount of adoration from his audiences. He gave dietary advice, counselled on love and marriage, offered instructions on business and prosperity, claimed to hold the secret techniques of acquiring occult power, and offered remedies for a host of ailments, including bad breath, kidney troubles, poor eyesight and rheumatism.
Unlike his peers, who would return to the same cities in a regular pattern, Yogi Hari Rama made a single sweep through the country and visited over 30 cities in one extended three-and-a-half-year tour. After travelling up the West Coast in 1925, he spent 18 months in the Midwest, before going to the Northeast for the better part of a year, and then hopped across the country to make a final appearance in Los Angeles.
From the outset, Yogi Hari Rama consistently told the public that once he taught in a city, he would never return. This could have been astute marketing to enhance his mysterious persona, or as a more cynical observer noted, a way to avoid running into dissatisfied former students and the police.
Perhaps the most important reason Yogi Hari Rama never retraced his steps was that there was no reason to. Like many South Asians in America who returned to India in the wake of the Thind decision and denaturalisation, Singh may have felt that he had no future in the US and his best option was to make whatever money he could and go home.
Set for life
Selling the techniques of God-consciousness and unlimited occult power was an incredibly lucrative venture. A student could acquire five keys or lessons in Yogi Hari Rama’s Super Yogic Science over a week of evening classes for the equivalent of $350 today. For what would be another $150, they could receive an additional four keys in a series of afternoon courses, complete with secret mantras given directly by Yogi Hari Rama.
One reporter in New York tallied the audience at a Super Yoga Science lecture there and calculated that Yogi Hari Rama earned the contemporary equivalent of about a quarter of a million dollars after only a few months in the city. With an estimated total of 10,000 students during his three-year tour, Yogi Hari Rama left the US in August 1928 with enough money for the rest of his life.
Yogi Hari Rama established local chapters of what he called The Benares League of America in cities he visited on his tour. These chapters would meet regularly and continue to practise Super Yoga Science after he left. On the final stop of his tour in Los Angeles, just before he left the country, Yogi Hari Rama claimed to enter into a deep state of samadhi and then appointed six men and seven women to serve as authorised teachers known as Disciples of the Absolute to “carry on the Master’s work” and run the Benares League in his absence.
While at first glance, this might seem to have been a matter of serious institution-building, it might be more evidence for the theory that Singh was looking to maximise the money he made on his tour. Yogi Hari Rama sold lifetime memberships in the Benares League for $25 (or about $350 today) that allowed a card holder to attend any Super Yoga Science classes for the rest of their life, effectively doubling his yogic largesse from each student who also became a member.
A headquarters in Los Angeles kept the Benares League organised. Several of the teachers in the Benares League adopted a kind of clerical uniform, consisting of a white Nehru jacket, trousers and a large red sash across the chest emblazoned with the title “Disciple of the Absolute”. Their biggest help was the network of cities that Yogi Hari Rama had previously visited, and the local chapters of the Benares League from which these teachers could find a ready and waiting pool of students.
For a few years after the departure of Yogi Hari Rama, the Benares League of America was the most widespread organisation of its kind in the United States, larger than the organisations of Swami Vivekananda’s heirs in the Vedanta Society and Yogananda’s Self-Realisation Fellowship put together. It was common for multiple classes in Super Yoga Science to take place simultaneously across the country: Boston and Dallas, Seattle and Cleveland, New York and Los Angeles.
But the Benares League declined as quickly as it emerged. The original territorial structure dissolved and soon most of the appointed teachers were overlapping with each other in the same cities. The most crucial weakness was the absence of Yogi Hari Rama himself. He was no longer there to act as an authority, generate new lessons, or serve as a living representative of an imagined mystic East for American audiences.
This charismatic void played into the hands of rival yogis and swamis who tried to win over the former students of Yogi Hari Rama. Fittingly, many of these yogis were the ones that he had stolen from earlier. One tried to appeal to chapters of the Benares League in Ohio, a stronghold of Super Yoga Science, by offering himself in advertisements as “Guru Brother of the Hari Rama, your former teacher”. Another started referring to his lessons as keys and offered a special discounted rate to any members of the Benares League who took his classes.
After the Second World War, only one of the original 13 teachers, a chiropractor named JH Clark, still taught Super Yoga Science. He believed that he had briefly levitated like Yogi Hari Rama, became obsessed with recreating the experience, and moved into a mobile home in the California desert to focus on the task. Scattered local chapters of the Benares League survived for about another decade in Ohio, and by the 1960s hardly any trace of Yogi Hari Rama remained.
Singh’s ability to obscure his past and disappear from the public stage worked all too well. Despite his pioneering accomplishments and skill as a pilot, he was, when not forgotten, confused with and overshadowed by the similarly named pilot Manmohan Singh, who competed for a prize offered by Aga Khan to fly solo between England and India in 1930. Today, JRD Tata, the founder of Tata Motors, is most often remembered as the first Indian to receive a pilot’s licence, although Singh did so 18 years earlier in the US.
Similarly, while Singh and his attorney Pandit were willing to take their case for citizenship to the Supreme Court, it was Thind who ended up at the highest court in America, and the efforts of Singh were relegated to minor footnotes, known only to legal scholars and historians.
And although the Benares League of America was the largest organisation of its kind for several years, without a lasting institution or followers to prop up his memory, it also faded into obscurity along with its founder, leaving figures like Swami Vivekananda and Yogananda to be the few reference points in yoga’s early history in America.
It is difficult to encapsulate a person who went by so many names – Mohan Singh, Harry Mohan, Yogi Hari Rama, and lived so many lives – butler and domestic servant, aviator, chauffeur, aspiring American citizen, failed investor and dubious guru.
Perhaps an appropriate legacy is not in any one of these aspects, but rather all of them taken together, as an individual who was both heroic and conniving. Singh was bold and audacious enough to repeatedly reinvent himself despite the limitations of his time.