Levitation has long been listed as one of the siddhis – supernormal powers – enjoyed by the advanced yogi and the topic has always excited fascination, scepticism and derision in about equal measure. Though the feat has only very rarely been witnessed, news has arrived of a real life case.
The story begins back in April 1912, when papers around the US were buzzing with the news that ‘a full-blooded East Indian’ named Mohan Singh had enrolled at the Glenn Curtiss flying school in San Diego. With students from as far away as Poland and Japan, the campus was described as ‘the most cosmopolitan gathering of flyers and pupils ever assembled’ at a time when the glamour and danger of man’s latest conquest of nature was holding the world in thrall.
The tall and gaunt Singh, smartly dressed in a turban, certainly had the required air of foreign mystery about him. He seldom talked or smiled and was known to avoid meat and drink only water. To reporters, he claimed to be studying aviation while on secondment from the British Indian Army who wanted him to serve in its air corps in the East; they described him variously as ‘a captain’ ‘a major’ or ‘an Indian prince’ some saying he came from Delhi, others from Bombay.
In fact, he was originally from a small village in the middle of Punjab, and arrived in the States in 1906. He worked as a domestic servant in Chicago for several years before falling in love with flying and somehow managing to enrol in the Glenn Curtiss Flying School, an outfit originally set up in competition to the famous Wright Brothers Academy. Singh was a natural and within two years became the first licensed pilot from the sub-continent. He was soon performing for the Curtiss-Wright Aviators aerial circus - a three hour display -billed as the ‘Only Hindu Flyer in the World’ alongside such turns as Julia Clark ‘the Daring Bird-Girl’, Lansing Callan ‘The French Aerial Trickster’ and Kearney ‘Peck’s Bad Boy of the Air’. Singh then graduated to Curtiss’s latest invention, the hydroplane and in 1913, was one of the very few people not part of the Curtiss family to join the inventor on his sales promotion tour across Europe in the lead-up to World War I.
Surprisingly, despite his skills as a pilot and glowing reputation, Singh never settled on the career of aviator. Instead he moved to Los Angeles in 1914 to take up more domestic work, this time as butler and chauffeur for an affluent family. At this time the self-styled ‘Land of the Free’ operated a stringent Whites-only immigration policy and it took Singh years of well-publicized legal battles to gain American citizenship. However, he fell foul of the 1923 Supreme Court ruling that not only would South Asians no longer qualify for citizenship, but as they were now ‘aliens’ they could be retroactively stripped of it. In a foretaste of the xenophobic Trump era, the animosity against ‘The Turban Tide’ or ‘The Hindoo Invasion’ was widespread and bitter, adding to the existing paranoia about the ‘The Yellow Peril’. (Amazingly, no legal case ever managed to overturn the 1923 classification, which was only finally annulled in 1965).
Singh’s statelessness gave him the impetus to assume a new identity. Donning bright orange robes he became Yogi Hari Rama and began travelling around the US teaching a combination of exercises and philosophy he marketed as the secret techniques of ‘The Super Yoga Science.’ They went down a treat and he became one of the most popular and wealthiest yoga teachers in the country. His last tour was in 1928, after which he vanished from sight, perhaps demonstrating his mastery of another classic yogic siddhi, invisibility. But he did leave behind thirteen teachers of his method and a national organization called The Benares League of America, the largest yoga organization in the country at that time.
Simultaneously to support three personalities – trail-blazing pilot, immigration campaigner and esoteric yogi – might be considered something of a siddhi itself, especially as until recently no one knew that the figure behind these three lives was one and the same. Singh also persuaded his many students that he possessed another supernormal power - levitation. Given his many hours suspended up in the air as The Flying Hindu, in a way it cannot be denied that he did.