A Lesson in Maintaining Integrity in the Midst of Legal Conflict
At stake: whether or not an established church has the right to dictate how followers of a new expression of its teachings may or may not worship. Caught in the middle are some of the most liberating teachings to be brought to America, in the 1930s and ‘40s, and the freedom to use the writings, likeness, and even the name of the great spiritual leader from India, Paramhansa Yogananda.
With a clear hand and good humor, author Jon Parsons translates complex legal issues into easy-to-understand language, from the early setbacks for Ananda’s defense, to its monumental turnaround and shining victory.
Parallels with Yogananda’s Own Struggles
One of the most fascinating aspects of this compelling story are the numerous vignettes from the life of Yogananda that draw striking parallels between his own struggles and those of his devoted disciple Swami Kriyananda.
A Spirited Defense of Religious Freedom
In 1990 Self-realization Fellowship (SRF) sued Ananda (another spiritual organization following the same teachings), to prevent them from using “Self-realization” as part of their name: SRF claimed they “owned” that ancient spiritual term.
Soon SRF insisted that they also owned all rights to the name, image, writings, and voice of Paramhansa Yogananda – revered Guru to both groups, and the author of the spiritual classic Autobiography of a Yogi.
Ananda faced a stark choice – to fold its tents and slink off into the night, or risk their very existence by fighting for the cause of dharma (righteousness). They boldly declared, “Yogananda is for the world!”
By the end of a grueling 12-year struggle they had won 95 percent of the case, in the worlds of the federal judge in the case, set landmark legal precedents, and preserved fundamental religious rights for everyone.
In A Fight for Religious Freedom, Jon Parsons, the Palo Alto, California-based lawyer who spearheaded Ananda’s “David and Goliath” defense in court, tells the tale of Ananda’s struggle – one that went all the way to the steps of the United States Supreme Court., and resulted in legal precedents that now serve to help protect religious groups everywhere. He retired from active practice in 2015.
A Fight for Religious Freedom. Download a PDF copy of the complete book.
Photos. A brief gallery showing the main players in the drama.
Preface. Nayaswamis Jyotish and Devi point out the clear parallels between America’s fight for independence, and Ananda’s defense of the SRF lawsuit. As in America’s struggle, the outcome of the SRF lawsuit set important precedents by establishing the right of small religious groups to worship freely, without fear of suppression by larger entities claiming religious monopoly.
Foreword. By attorney and author Jon Parsons. “Because a story about the heroic struggle for religious freedom is usually worth telling, let me share with you some of what I remember from those exciting days.”
- Calls and Letters – 1989-1990. A prequel to the events. Swami Kriyananda’s separation from SRF, SRF’s growing resentment against this separate branch of Paramhansa Yogananda’s work, and its massive first salvo in a lawsuit designed to put Ananda out of business. “Nasty-grams from lawyers follow a standard formula: a situation is stated in language as favorable to the client’s interests as possible, and then some action is demanded on the recipient’s part, who is warned that failure to act will have dire consequences.”
- The Herald of War – July 1990. A fruitless meeting between the leaders of Ananda and SRF. Federal judge Edward J. Garcia enters the picture. “The complaint Sheila forwarded to me bore little resemblance to the letters that preceded it. No longer a dispute about a name, this lawsuit sought nothing less than to eliminate Ananda as a religious competitor.”
- Stumbling Off the Block – October 1990. A perilous time for Ananda, as SRF initially appears to gain the upper hand. Yogananda Story: In 1935, on the eve of his departure for India, a close friend embroils Yogananda in a troublesome lawsuit.
- Ananda Responds – November 1990. With indefatigable energy, Ananda assembles a legal team. A brief history of Ananda. The initial discovery process and a first deposition. Paramhansa Yogananda’s wills. SRF’s secret “K File.” Peeling the onion of Yogananda’s relationship with his various organizations, and how SRF spun the truth. Yogananda Stories: Yogananda heads West on a speaking tour and acquires the property for his Mt. Washington headquarters. Yogananda’s mahasamadhi — his conscious exit from the body in 1952. Yogananda’s early lectures, his tremendous magnetism, energy, and showmanship. Yogananda’s early publications; his work habits (working “easily” 23 hours a day).
- Deconstructing SRF’s Case – 1991-1992. The term “Self-realization” – is it generic or did SRF own it, as it claimed? SRF’s phantom copyrights. Ananda wins a major motion, as Judge Garcia dissolves his preliminary injunction in favor of SRF. Yogananda stories: No sooner does Yogananda acquire Mt. Washington than the betrayals and lawsuits start. How the name of Yogananda’s work evolved.
- The Autobiography – June-August 1992. SRF’s case begins to crumble, as Judge Garcia rules that Autobiography of a Yogi is in the public domain. Yogananda story: More lawsuits against Yogananda; his will, and his wish that SRF take care of the work in India.
- SRF Wants Another Bite of the Apple – July 1993. SRF’s appeal turns out to be heaven-sent. “SRF hoped that the Ninth Circuit would rein in Garcia, and that the disasters of the 1992-93 campaign season could yet be reversed, before any real damage was done.”
- Ananda Keeps Coming – January-June 1994. “As Ananda’s copyright arguments cut deep, SRF turns to new and more desperate arguments.” SRF claims that Yogananda was merely an SRF employee, and that he could not therefore have owned the copyrights in his own writings and other works. Yogananda stories: Brahmachari Nerode, another close associate and friend, betrays Yogananda, embroiling him in yet another lawsuit. Yogananda meets the Wright family in Salt Lake City. Faye Wright (Daya Mata), Richard Wright, and their mother become his disciples.
- A Happy Ending to the First Appeal – July 1995. Three federal appellate judges rule on the validity of SRF’s “Paramhansa Yogananda” federal mark and other important issues.
- Ananda Wins the SRF Lawsuit – October 1997. Representatives of SRF and Ananda meet in Pasadena, with Ananda hoping for a settlement. Meanwhile, Ananda rolls from victory to victory in the lawsuit.
- The Second Front. Ananda faces a second lawsuit – is SRF trying to shore-up its “tarnishment” claim? Yogananda story: In 1929, Yogananda winds down his lecture campaigns and turns his attention to his writing, in order to reach a much wider audience. He departs for Mexico, “with a heavy heart,” following the betrayal by Dhirananda.
- Things Turn Ugly. The plaintiff’s first attorney in the Bertolucci case isn’t getting the job done, so Mike Flynn, a well-known celebrity attorney and major SRF donor, steps in. Who are the plaintiff’s witnesses? Are their claims true? Yogananda story: Durga Mata turns down the SRF presidency; Daya Mata becomes president by default. Yogananda laments to Rajarsi about Daya’s lack of leadership skills, and the threat it poses to the work.
- The Bertolucci Case Goes from Trash to Trial. A trash-collecting incident marks the turning point in the Bertolucci trial. Yogananda story: Yogananda feels the sting of the gutter press, just as Kriyananda would many years later. A Florida sheriff runs Yogananda out of town, amid lurid accusations.
- A Last Appeal. Copyright issues take center stage, as SRF fights to the last. Will the U.S. Supreme Court ride to SRF’s rescue? Yogananda story: The SRF Golden Lotus Temple at Encinitas crumbles into the sea, signaling a change in Yogananda’s work.
- The Final Fray. A trial over minor copyrights. Judge Garcia kicks SRF’s attorney, Mike Flynn, out of court. Yogananda story: The famous Myers party in Beverly Hills, where Yogananda sows the seeds “in the ether, in the spirit of God,” for the cooperative communities movement, the foremost expression of which will be Ananda Village and the Ananda communities worldwide.
Afterword. Final thoughts. How Ananda’s defense of the SRF lawsuit set Paramhansa Yogananda’s teachings free for devotees everywhere, for all time.
Where Are They Now? What happened to the main actors in the SRF lawsuit?