The Self-Realization Fellowship, a Los Angeles-based organization that follows a spiritual path rooted in both Hinduism and Christianity, has elected a new leader, the fourth since it was established in 1920.
The fellowship announced Tuesday that Sri Mrinalini Mata, who became a Self-Realization nun at the age of 15, was elected president last week by its eight-member board of directors. She succeeds Sri Daya Mata, the group's longtime leader, who died in November.
The selection of Mrinalini Mata, 79, means that the fellowship will continue to be led by a woman, and by a direct disciple of its founder, Paramahansa Yogananda, an Indian yogi who is credited with helping to popularize yoga and meditation in the West. Mrinalini Mata has been vice president of the organization since 1966.
"It shows that they're very traditional — that they're holding on to a tradition," said Lola Williamson, a professor of religion at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss., and the author of "Transcendent in America: Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements as New Religion," which examines the Self-Realization Fellowship and two other movements.
The fellowship is perhaps best known in Los Angeles for the tranquility of its temple gardens at sites that include Hollywood and Pacific Palisades. They are among more than 600 temples, meditation centers and retreat sites operated by the organization around the world.
Born Merna Brown in Wichita, Kan., Mrinalini Mata moved to Southern California as a child. In 1945, when she was a teenager, her mother took her to see Yogananda. The girl, who was clutching a Bible, according to Williamson, was initially reluctant to meet the religious leader but found herself electrified by his presence and almost immediately dedicated her life to his cause.
"I think that the transformation of feeling, the love from master, and the special relationship with master, I think that took place that instant that I walked into the temple the first time," she was later quoted as saying of Yogananda.
Mrinalini Mata was allowed to enter the fellowship's ashram as a nun, a practice generally discouraged for someone so young, said the movement's spokeswoman, Lauren Landress. Mrinalini Mata later was chosen by Yogananda to oversee his publications after his death. He died in 1952.