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Sri Daya Mata dies at 96; led L.A.-based Self-Realization Fellowship

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Sri Daya Mata, a Mormon from Utah who became enchanted by a Hindu mystic as a teenager and went on to lead the Los Angeles-based Self-Realization Fellowship for 55 years, has died. She was 96.

The religious leader died Tuesday of natural causes at one of the fellowship's nuns' retreats in Los Angeles, where she had been living in seclusion, said spokeswoman Lauren Landress.

Daya Mata, whose name in Sanskrit means Mother of Compassion, was the third president of the Self-Realization Fellowship, a worldwide organization founded in 1920 by Indian yoga master Paramahansa Yogananda.

Dedicated to the harmony of all religions, the fellowship has more than 600 temples and meditation centers around the world, including its Lake Shrine in Pacific Palisades and sprawling headquarters northeast of downtown L.A. in Mount Washington.

Daya Mata was known as a faithful interpreter of Yogananda's teachings. "She was trying to promote the image of her teacher and she did a rather good job," said J. Gordon Melton, author of the Encyclopedia of American Religions. "She chose to spend her time projecting her teacher rather than herself."

Melton, who met Daya Mata years ago, said she was one of the first female Hindu leaders and enjoyed unusual longevity in her position as spiritual and administrative head of the sect, which emphasizes yoga and meditation as paths to God. Yogananda preached the unity of Christianity and the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, an ancient school of philosophy that emphasizes nonviolence, self-discipline, physical exercise and meditation.

His teachings attracted a number of celebrity followers over the years. One of Daya Mata's most famous students was Elvis Presley, who met her in the 1960s. Presley read her book "Only Love" and kept it in his library, according to Fred L. Worth and Steve D. Tamerius in their book "Elvis: His Life from A to Z."

Born Faye Wright in Salt Lake City on Jan. 31, 1914, she was descended from a prominent Mormon family; her grandfather, Abraham Reister Wright Jr., helped design the historic Mormon Tabernacle in Utah.

But she apparently had spiritual yearnings that were not fulfilled by the teachings of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. She became fascinated with India after studying it in grammar school and resolved that she would visit it one day.

"I had a deep hunger for something more satisfying. I wanted something more than just going to church," she recalled in a 1995 interview with the Salt Lake Tribune.

In 1931, when she was 17, she attended a lecture on yoga in Salt Lake City given by Yogananda. She stood out among the 4,000 attendees because of bandages on her face, which was swollen and scarred from a blood disorder. Although Yogananda was not known as a healer, he placed his hands on her forehead and proclaimed her well. As Daya Mata often recounted later, her scars disappeared and she was able to remove the bandages a week later.

Impelled by her experience, she moved to Los Angeles later that year and became one of the fellowship's first nuns. Eventually she was joined in the fellowship by her mother, sister and two brothers.

A 1932 graduate of Franklin High School in Highland Park, she leaves no immediate survivors.

Over the next two decades she worked closely with Yogananda as his assistant. She compiled recordings of his lectures and helped turn them into mail-order lessons disseminated around the world. She also helped prepare the manuscript of his "Autobiography of a Yogi," which has been translated into more than two dozen languages since its original 1946 publication.

Yogananda died in 1952 and was succeeded by James J. Lynn, a wealthy Kansas insurance executive. When Lynn died in 1955, Daya Mata became president.

She oversaw tremendous growth in the organization, which now operates in more than 60 countries. But she resisted the trend in other religions to modernize services with rock music and other innovations, continuing a format of meditation, a sermon and chants sung to a harmonium that was little changed from Yogananda's days.

Funeral arrangements will be announced at the fellowship's website at http://www.yogananda-srf.org.

elaine.woo@latimes.com

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