One Devotee’s Story
by Nayaswami Rambhakta
I joined Self-Realization Fellowship nearly thirty-four years ago, in August, 1967. I took Kriya Yoga initiation in 1969 at the SRF headquarters in Los Angeles, and until 1970, I attended services and meditations at the SRF churches in Fullerton, Redondo Beach, and Hollywood. I was a member of the Lay Disciples group during the latter part of that period, and I served briefly as a part-time volunteer gardener and second service leader at the SRF church in Redondo Beach.
I moved to northern California in 1970. I had attended Stanford from 1959 to 1966, and I loved the Bay Area for its natural surroundings and relaxed atmosphere. I settled into an apartment in Mill Valley and kept up my association with SRF, tithing regularly and performing small service projects, such as translating letters from SRF’s members in Germany. I also occasionally attended services at the Richmond and Los Gatos SRF centers.
The SRF headquarters were not yet called “Mother Center” at the time. When disciples wrote to Mt. Washington, they were answered by a men’s or women’s correspondent. I treasured the many letters I received from Brother Bhaktananda, but when the letters began to be signed “Mother Center,” my interest waned. It was not only the form of the letter that had changed, but the contents, which seemed to be cut from a mold, whereas Brother Bhaktananda’s letters had been rich with inspiration and individual advice. “Learn to relax and enjoy the spiritual path,” he wrote, responding to my overly desperate style of prayer. And, in response to my question about how to develop more devotion, he wrote inspiringly, “Fathomless depths of love for God lie hidden in the human heart, waiting to be uncovered by the Guru’s liberating discipline.”
Lacking regular contact with SRF friends and ministers, I had already begun to feel distanced from SRF, and the increasingly impersonal nature of my contacts with the organization left me cold. As I gradually lost interest in SRF, no one in the organization thought to inquire about my spiritual welfare. Was I doing all right? Was I in good health? Did I need help getting to the nearest center to attend services? A flurry of increasingly urgent letters from the “Mother Center” only exhorted me to keep up my tithes.
Meanwhile, my inner life was anything but dormant. I meditated twice daily with unwavering consistency, and I increasingly felt Paramhansa Yogananda’s guidance and inspiration in my life. Not for a moment did I feel that by leaving the organization he had founded, I had offended him, or that I had been expelled from his spiritual family. On the weekends, I regularly spent the entire day walking in nature and praying to Yogananda while I pursued my hobby of photography. Some of the pictures I took during those walks remain among my most treasured.
With Brother Bhaktananda’s encouragement, I had taken up running for exercise. (“Master considered running an ideal exercise,” Brother Bhaktananda wrote in a letter. “The monks are encouraged to run daily.”) Learning of the famed Bay to Breakers race in San Francisco, I entered and had a wonderful time. After the race, I picked up a copy of Runner’s World magazine. To make a long story short, I began doing volunteer work for Runner’s World, translating magazine articles and taking pictures. One evening, at a party at the home of a famous woman ultramarathoner, the publisher offered me a job. I immediately moved to Mountain View, on the San Francisco peninsula, and began working at Runner’s World as an assistant editor and staff photographer.
At the time, there was a small new-age bookstore in Palo Alto that was run by a Sufi group. Browsing there on a Saturday evening in 1974, I picked up a copy of Swami Kriyananda’s book, Cooperative Communities—How to Start Them, and Why. I had noticed Kriyananda’s picture in old copies of Self-Realization magazine. Nearly always, the pictures showed him in far-flung lands, usually India or Southeast Asia. I was intensely curious to know what this former SRF traveling teacher was doing, founding a community. I found the book deeply, unexpectedly inspiring. After practicing Paramhansa Yogananda’s path in relative isolation for years, the idea of a community of fellow disciples was very attractive.
While reading the book, I had absolutely no doubt that Swami Kriyananda was no longer connected with SRF. Nor, when I visited the community for the first time in September 1974, or at any time thereafter, did anyone at Ananda ever make the slightest attempt to trick me into thinking that Ananda was connected with SRF. I say this in indignant refutation of SRF’s claims to the contrary. Far from advertising itself as connected with SRF, Ananda’s residents made it clear to me that, even if they had wanted to pass themselves off as connected with SRF, they could not possibly have done so, since SRF made a special point of publicly and aggressively attacking Ananda and Kriyananda.
Paramhansa Yogananda’s dream of Spiritual Communities
Swami Kriyananda had founded Ananda as the fulfillment of one of the fourteen points that Paramhansa Yogananda listed in the first edition of Autobiography of a Yogi as main elements of his world mission: “To spread a spirit of brotherhood among all peoples, and to aid in establishing, in many countries, self-sustaining world brotherhood colonies for plain living and high thinking.” All references to the “world brotherhood colony” idea were removed by SRF from editions of Autobiography of a Yogi published after the Master’s death. While still a monk in SRF, Swami Kriyananda asked Daya Mata about this idea, and she replied, “Frankly, I’m not interested.” SRF’s official position is that the time is not yet ripe for this colony idea. Yet when Paramhansa Yogananda spoke about the idea, it was with great urgency, as Swami Kriyananda reports in his book, Cooperative Communities—How to Start Them, and Why:
In his last years on earth, the great teacher Paramhansa Yogananda repeatedly and urgently spoke of a plan that he said was destined to become a basic social pattern for the new age: the formation of “world brotherhood colonies,” as he called them. In almost every public lecture, no matter what his announced subject, he would digress to urge people to act upon his proposal.
“The day will come,” he predicted, “when this idea will spread through the world like wildfire. Gather together, those of you who share high ideals. Pool your resources. Buy land in the country. A simple life will bring you inner freedom. Harmony with nature will give you a happiness known to few city dwellers. In the company of other truth seekers it will be easier for you to meditate and to think of God.”
“What is the need for all the luxury with which people surround themselves? Most of what they have they are paying for on the installment plan. Their debts are a source of unending worry to them. Even people whose luxuries have been paid for are not free. Attachment makes them slaves. They consider themselves freer for their possessions, and don’t see how their possessions in turn have possessed them!”
Yogananda stressed the joys of simple, natural living and God thinking a way of life that, he said, would bring people “happiness and freedom.” But his message went beyond simply presenting people with an attractive idea. There was also urgency in his plea.
“The time is short,” he repeatedly told his audiences. “You have no idea of the sufferings that await mankind. In addition to wars there will be a depression the like of which has not been known in a very long time. Money will not be worth the paper it is printed on. Millions will die.”
On one occasion he cried: “You don’t know what a terrible cataclysm is coming!”
To place reliance upon prophetic utterances may strike some people as superstitious. Even these people, however, may be interested to note that, of persons reputed to have prophetic vision, every single one has predicted terrible sufferings for humanity in the years to come.
During my initial visits, and later, during my years of residence at Ananda Village, it was natural for us to talk about SRF, if only because SRF behaved so intolerantly towards us. The stories of SRF’s behavior were legion. Far from being covered up by the community’s leaders, they were circulated openly: how SRF refused to sell us books for sale at Ananda’s guest retreat. How an SRF monastic had criticized Kriyananda scathingly to a group of visiting Ananda members at SRF’s guest retreat in Encinitas. How another monk had called Swami Kriyananda “the Anti-Christ.” How SRF accused Swami Kriyananda of pretending to be a “guru” and distorting Yogananda’s teachings. These stories evoked howls of laughter, because we all knew them to be patently untrue. “Why don’t they even bother to visit us?” we wondered, amazed by SRF’s lack of concern for the truth of their claims.
Kriyananda never remotely claimed to be a guru, nor did he ever expect us to treat him like one. He was, quite simply, a spiritual friend and, if we requested it, a willing mentor. I recall, during my first days as a resident at Ananda, once telling Swami Kriyananda, “I believe you’re my spiritual teacher.” He was pulling on his boots in the vestibule of the publications building. Standing, he said dismissively, “Well, I’m not a perfected being.”
Regardless of SRF’s official attitudes, I was deeply conscious of the priceless benefits I had gained from its teachers, and I was determined to correct any misunderstandings about the organization, as I knew it, that I might encounter among my new friends at Ananda. On deciding to move to the Ananda community, I therefore wrote a letter to Daya Mata in which I promised always to work for harmony between the two organizations. I received a reply from Daya Mata’s secretary, in which she said that Daya Mata wished me well in my new life.
I have never broken that pledge. Nor have I found it necessary to remonstrate with Ananda members for portraying SRF inaccurately. While Ananda has been forced to defend itself against SRF’s lawsuit, I have sensed an underlying respect at Ananda for SRF’s leaders as fellow disciples of our Guru. When Brother Anandamoy violently criticized Swami Kriyananda to a group of Ananda members, for example, Swami Kriyananda wrote him a letter in which he said (I am paraphrasing): “I thank you for your criticisms, because they impel me to bless you even more than ever.” As for mocking the SRF organization, the truth is, SRF’s own statements and behavior made invention superfluous, even if we had been so inclined.
Respect for SRF
I had joined SRF in 1967. Like countless others in the 1960s, I had sought meaning through drugs and had been sadly disappointed—though the fire of my search for understanding burned as brightly as ever. I was consumed with zeal to experience God, and in my search, SRF served me admirably. I found its ministers never less than inspiring. Week after week, I attended services at the SRF churches in a mood of ferocious longing for God, and my pressing questions would invariably be answered in the sermon. My longing was fed by the ministers’ transparent spirituality.
This was true of each SRF gathering I ever attended. I can’t think of a single exception. I recall, for example, sitting transfixed in the audience at a talk by Brother Anandamoy, during an SRF annual convocation. Each movement of his hands, each phrase, each look suggested divinity. I knew with intuitive certainty that he was inspired by God.
The same was true of my rare encounters with Daya Mata. I never spoke privately with her, nor did I ever receive her verbal guidance, yet she always conveyed the Master’s inspiration.
To put it in a nutshell, I looked to the SRF senior ministers quite literally as channels for divine help, and they never let me down. But, as I was to discover later, the capacity to serve as a channel for the Guru does not preclude fallibility.
Far from leaving me bereft, the realization that even saints can make mistakes, eventually inspired me. I was at first disappointed to find that SRF’s leaders, with Daya Mata and Brother Anandamoy in their forefront, could lie about Swami Kriyananda and Ananda and, for no good reason that I could ever fathom, try relentlessly to destroy them. But when I began to realize the deeper implications of the fallibility of the saints, I was, as I say, deeply inspired. An angry God, a vengeful God, would surely have cast them down in damnation. The saints—lie? Defame? Manifest contractive, cold-hearted attitudes based on ruthless organizational pettiness and jealousy? Trying to reconcile the two sides of SRF that I had experienced—the profound spiritual blessings, and the incredible narrowness among its highest leaders—I could only wonder in awe at the superhuman measure of God’s patient love.
This world is a mixed bag, poorly accommodating to the tidy, black-or-white divisive tendencies of the human mind. I remember once praying to the Divine Mother and asking for Her forgiveness, after I had committed some small error. “I guess you’ll just have to accept me as I am,” I prayed. The answer came instantly, as an intuitive voice, accompanied by a sense of bustling motherliness: “I am not concerned about your faults. I am concerned only with your continual improvement!”
I’m 59 years old now. I’ve been on the path for 35 years. If there’s one thing I’ve realized about God in all these years, it’s that He is fathomlessly tolerant and forgiving. “I don’t think Divine Mother even notices our faults,” is how Seva Wiberg, a senior Ananda member, once put it to me. The one thing God cannot abide is intolerance. Over the years, I noticed that those who fell into unrepentant criticism of others tended to leave Ananda—possibly because they found it difficult to bear the company of positive, cheerful people, or possibly because the Divine Mother simply removed them.
I had once considered Daya Mata, Anandamoy, and the other orange-robed SRF monastics more or less infallible instruments for the Guru’s guidance and blessings. I certainly had devoted no energy at all to rooting out their faults, or testing their attunement. I had simply prayed with total zeal, and I had frequently found God answering my prayers through these inspiring people. My relationship with them was neither personal, intellectual, or organizational. It existed one hundred percent on the plane of spiritual aspiration.
I would come to understand that saints who haven’t yet fully realized God are like spiritual elder brothers and sisters, holding a light to guide our way. I realized that it would be madness to reject their help, because of any personal peccadilloes that stood between them and final liberation.
“Kriyananda is a good monk”
Before moving to Ananda, I had an interview with Brother Dharmananda, to discuss whether I should apply to enter the SRF monastic order, or if I should move to Ananda Village. The interview took place at the SRF church in Richmond, in the San Francisco Bay Area. Brother Dharmananda began the interview by asking me some questions that were clearly intended to test my spiritual mettle. (“How long have you been meditating?” “About eight years.” “Well, that’s nothing!” “I know…”)
I said, “I’ve been thinking of moving to Ananda Village, and I’d like to know your thoughts on the matter.” Dharmananda fell silent. Then, brightening visibly, he said, “I don’t know why Kriyananda left SRF—and I don’t care! Kriyananda is a good monk. If you do what he tells you, you’ll make progress.”
Once again, a senior SRF monastic had proved capable of acting as the Guru’s channel. His words were more than advice; they were prophetic. For twenty-five years, I’ve discovered that whenever I follow Swami Kriyananda’s suggestions, I thrive spiritually, but when I resist them, my spiritual light wanes and I feel distanced from God.
I loved the SRF senior monastics as older, more experienced brothers and sisters in God, and I felt profoundly inspired in their presence. I recall a conversation with Brother Turiyananda, following a Sunday service at the SRF Lake Shrine. He told me the story of his meeting with the great Indian saint, Swami Ramdas. He described how he had entered the room and, instantly perceiving Swami Ramdas’s advanced, God-realized stature, how he had fallen at the saint’s feet in a torrent of tears. “Tears were streaming down my face, out of my nose and mouth,” he said. Swami Ramdas told him that he would find his guru later; and so it proved. In fact, it was Swami Kriyananda who persuaded the SRF leadership to accept Turiyananda, even though he was past the accepted age of 30. Brother Turiyananda never turned his back on Kriyananda, regardless of SRF’s anti-Ananda policies. “When Kriyananda was here [in SRF],” Brother Turiyananda once remarked sadly to Daya Mata, “laughter rang in the halls. Now, it’s like a tomb.”
I recall my first formal meeting with Swami Kriyananda. I had just moved to Ananda Village and had begun working at “Pubble,” the community’s publishing house. Swami Kriyananda asked several members of the staff to meet with him to discuss the marketing of one of his books. As we hiked the trail over the hill to his house, I felt increasingly tense, wondering if I would measure up to the great man’s standards. I needn’t have worried When we arrived, we found Swamiji playing “The Vatican Rag,” a recording by MIT professor Tom Lehrer, and laughing heartily:
First you get down on your knees
Fiddle with your rosaries
Bow your head with great respect, and
Genuflect, genuflect, genuflect.
You can do the steps you want if
You have cleared them with the pontiff,
Everybody say his own kyrie eleison,
Doin’ the Vatican Rag!
Later, I realized that Swamiji had simply been trying to set my mind at ease, and to let me know that genuflection wasn’t a feature of life at Ananda. I’m not sure he succeeded, since where my brain had initially been bowed with the weight of awe, it was now splattered all over the ceiling. Certainly, in the twenty-seven years I’ve known him, I’ve never known Swami Kriyananda to strike a pose. Since he was kicked out of SRF, he has led hundreds, perhaps thousands of public gatherings. Outside of Kriya Yoga initiations and funerals, I can’t recall an occasion where at some point he didn’t have the audience rolling in the aisles. “When I was first learning to lecture,” he writes in his autobiography, The Path, “Master gave me the following words of advice: ‘Before lecturing, meditate deeply. Then, holding that meditative calmness, think about what you intend to say. Write down your ideas. Include one or two funny stories; people are more receptive when they can enjoy a good laugh.’“
(The Path contains over 300 stories of Paramhansa Yogananda. Readers can view the book online at: http://crystalclarity.com/kriyananda/.)
The spirit of Paramhansa Yogananda permeated SRF. How could I not feel inspiration there. And I believe it is so even today. I ask the reader, therefore, to hold this image of SRF steadfastly in mind as I describe how my understanding of the organization and its leaders gradually evolved. I still hold them in the highest regard. I am by no stretch of the imagination trying to persuade anyone to leave or turn against that organization.
I See SRF from Ananada’s Perspective
I moved to Ananda Village in February, 1976. Two-and-a-half months later, at the end of June, a forest fire destroyed 21 of the village’s 23 homes. I worked in the community’s publishing house, where I helped to publish a magazine that went out to our members worldwide. Living at Ananda, I often reflected on SRF’s animosity towards us. At the time, I chalked it up to institutional jealousy. “If only they would send one of their directors here for a week,” I thought, “they would see what Ananda is really like.” Surely, if they would exert the simple integrity to study us before they judged us, then all might be well. I couldn’t imagine that their views on Ananda were based on anything deeper than misunderstanding.
I was wrong. When SRF sued Ananda in 1990, we would discover that Ananda’s destruction had become a guiding obsession with SRF—a virulent fixation that had been ingrained in the institution by some of its leading lights, most notably Tara Mata. The story of Tara Mata’s influence, and of SRF’s relentless persecution of Ananda, is told in Swami Kriyananda’s book, A Place Called Ananda: The Trial by Fire That Forged One of the Most Successful Communities in the World Today. (The full text of this book may be found online at http://www.ananda.org/aplacecalledananda/.)
Suffice it to say that I was amazed by the actions and attitudes to which the leaders of SRF and their supporters showed themselves willing to stoop. This behavior is documented in A Place Called Ananda.
Those of us who lived at Ananda found it incredible that SRF would stick to the same old, patently absurd claims—that Swami Kriyananda touted himself as a guru, that Ananda was trying to pass itself off as part of SRF, etc.—when we all knew them to be untrue.
In its ten-year legal barrage against Ananda, SRF’s behavior is hardly reflective of the courageous dedication to truth that Yogananda espoused. Readers interested in comparing SRF’s legal attacks with Ananda’s restrained and dharmic replies are referred to the case files: U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California, Case Number: Civ. No. S-90-0846 EJG PAN.
Meanwhile, SRF’s success in wooing Ananda’s members was notable for its absence. A few members left over the years, as would be expected of any organization with over 700 resident members worldwide. But almost none left because they were persuaded by SRF’s claims; nor did they turn against Ananda upon leaving. A few—again, as expected—became the community’s most vocal critics. In nearly every case, these were individuals who had failed at Ananda—who had either rebelled against Swami Kriyananda’s guidance (which was always offered, never imposed), or who had chosen to distance themselves from the community long before they left.
One of their most outspoken leaders was a man who had lived at Ananda for twelve years, during which he steadfastly refused to pay rent or participate in community activities, including performing any serviceful work. Amazingly, the community tolerated this behavior, primarily because of the gentle urging of Swami Kriyananda.
SRF lawsuit against Ananda
Twenty years after moving to Ananda, I was asked by the community’s manager, Vidura Smallen, in January 1996 if I would be willing to move to the branch community in Mountain View, on the San Francisco peninsula, to help with Ananda’s legal defense against the SRF lawsuit. Ananda had a small legal office in the community, which was staffed by Sheila Rush, an Ananda member who was an attorney, and Keshava Taylor, who had been at Ananda almost since the beginning.
I spent the next two years working on “the court case,” as it was known at Ananda. I had no doubt whatever that SRF’s ministers were continuing to serve Paramhansa Yogananda’s work as vibrant examples of inner transformation, and as instruments for God’s guidance and inspiration to others. But I was deeply committed to helping defend Ananda against SRF’s institutional bullying, which now threatened to destroy not only our community, but our access to our Guru’s teachings. For, what SRF wanted was nothing less than to gain sole and exclusive legal ownership of all of Yogananda’s writings, as well as his transcribed lectures, photographs, and recordings. SRF even sought to gain exclusive rights to the term “Self-realization.”
Judge Edward Garcia, the federal district judge in charge of SRF’s lawsuit against Ananda, observed during a hearing, “It sounds like you [SRF] want to put them [Ananda] out of business.” In one of his rulings, Judge Garcia expressed concern for the First Amendment issues that were involved in the case, namely, the freedom of small groups to practice their religion without fear of legal and financial harassment by larger organizations.
My work in Ananda’s legal office consisted mainly of mundane chores: copying thousands of pages of legal papers, doing research at the library, formatting legal briefs on the computer, and delivering papers. Reading some of the unsealed papers in the case, I was amazed by the underhanded tricks to which SRF supporters had resorted. As one minor example among many, a massive, covert campaign of “disinformation,” was launched to elicit statements from Ananda’s members that could be used against Ananda in court. Workers in Ananda’s churches, book stores, and restaurants became used to receiving phone calls from individuals who claimed to be interested in the teachings of our path, and who would ask after a brief initial discussion, “Aren’t you part of Self-Realization Fellowship?” Or, “I’ve heard that Yogananda started an organization in Los Angeles. Are you affiliated with them?”
Despite twenty years of clear evidence to the contrary, SRF was still trying to “prove” the old myth that Ananda was trading on its good name. For my money, SRF’s thinking reflected an amazing degree of organizational pride: “How could Ananda not be pretending to be SRF?” they seemed to be saying. “After all, we are the standard bearers for Yogananda’s work!”
These calls got to be quite a joke. In fact, SRF’s legal arguments sometimes approached the ludicrous. In a defining moment, someone in the SRF organization was inspired to produce, as evidence of Ananda’s “passing-off,” an exhibit in which the Ananda symbol, which portrays a bird soaring heavenward over a mountain top, then descending in a graceful arc to bring blessings to mankind, was claimed to resemble the SRF lotus symbol, when turned upside down. When I saw the exhibit, I nearly expired with laughter. I visualized some exasperated monastic, thoroughly fed up after years of scraping the barrel for nonexistent evidence, exclaiming under his breath, “To heck with it—if they want evidence, I’ll manufacture it!”
Ananda was required to deliver every scrap of printed matter that it had ever produced, so that SRF could sift it for proof that we had passed ourselves off as them, or that we had somehow misrepresented our Guru’s teachings. We delivered tens of thousands of pages—every book, pamphlet, brochure, poster, and letter that Ananda had ever printed. And what did SRF discover? Nothing, beyond a few petty exhibits which, if viewed from the skewed perspective of organizational bias, might remotely be construed as persuasive. But nothing, certainly, that convinced the courts.
SRF lost motion after motion, yet it continued to pour millions of its member’s money into its fruitless legal campaign to destroy Ananda. Daya Mata had said that she would never be able to die “until this Ananda matter is resolved.” In other words, until Kriyananda and Ananda were once and for all put out of business. Even today, SRF continues to prove by its actions that it will not rest until it has accomplished this end.
Reflecting on the case, I can imagine that Paramhansa Yogananda intended it to be so. Forced by SRF’s ruthless legal harassment to defend ourselves, Ananda was now standing up for the right of devotees everywhere, and in all future ages, to read Yogananda’s books, use his photographs, listen to his spoken words, and spread his teachings through their own organizations, free of SRF’s sectarian tyranny.
Two views of Yogananda’s mission
Asha Praver, one of Ananda’s main teachers, attended a public legal hearing in Los Angeles, where she was confronted by Brother Brahmananda, one of SRF’s most virulent anti-Ananda monastics. “What is the matter with you people?!” she exclaimed. “Do you truly believe that an avatar would come on earth to found an organization?”
Always interested in the broader issues at stake in the lawsuit, I read an excellent book, The Gnostic Gospels, in which the author, Elaine Pagels, describes the early history of the Christian church. The early Christians were forced to practice their religion secretly, in fear for their lives. Amazingly, they were divided into factions that were so opposed in their beliefs that they were incapable of uniting in mutual aid against the terrible threat that confronted them from the Roman government. One faction, which bore a striking resemblance to the Christian fundamentalists of today, believed that the Bible was literally true, and that salvation could be attained only after death. The other side—the Gnostics—believed that God could be known as a living presence in this life, through inner communion. Many of the fundamentalists declared their beliefs openly, in hopes of achieving liberation through martyrdom. The Gnostics, meanwhile, practiced their methods of inward communion quietly and in secret.
The two sides seemed to resemble SRF and Ananda: SRF, focused on the needs of the all-important organization, to the increasing neglect of the concerns of the individual—and Ananda, with its emphasis on individual growth and inner communion. Daya Mata is known to have referred to newcomers on the spiritual path as “pipsqueaks”—a foreshadowing, perhaps, of SRF’s growing tendency to view its members as statistics. One of SRF’s own European center leaders, Renata Arlini, once scolded a visiting SRF monk: “You people are trying to create another Catholic church, with Daya Mata as its pope.” The monastic, not at all aware of the irony in her voice, replied excitedly, “Oh, yes! That’s exactly what it is!”
Reading another book, Stealing Jesus—How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity, I discovered that there have been two main currents in the history of religion—a “religion of law” and a “religion of love.” Author Bruce Bawer documents the history of these two streams of thought, going back to the gnostics of ancient Rome and their fundamentalist brethren. Writing about more recent times, he entertainingly describes the fundamentalist leader Pat Robertson’s penchant for quoting Old Testament passages that threaten, blame, and augur terrible vengeance—the “religion of law”—while never quoting the passages proclaiming God’s forgiveness and love, passages that form the core of Christ’s teachings.
Ananda’s concern is that SRF has placed the organization above the teachings—even, at times, as Swami Kriyananda persuasively argues in A Place Called Ananda, above the Guru. We are disturbed that Master’s spirit is being betrayed by SRF leaders who espouse the religion of law, which as Bawer eloquently argues, cannot coexist with the religion of love. One or the other trend will eventually define the organization. If the “blueprint” for Master’s work has been sewn in the ether, as he said, we can only assume that the essence of that blueprint, as of his teachings, is love. One can only speculate about the consequences for SRF, if it persists in its present direction.
Paramhansa Yogananda told Swami Kriyananda, “You have a great work to do.” After Master’s passing, Rajarsi Janakananda also told him, “You have a great work to do, Walter—and Master will give you the strength to do it.” I believe the great work has begun, and that it is the work of preventing Master’s teachings from being degraded into the kind of institution-centered “religion of law” that has characterized organized Christianity for two millennia. I think I speak for others when I say that I entered this path full of joyful expectation—that God can be known as the joyful Spirit residing in each one of us. But I find little joy in the thought of going backward in time, toward authoritarian religious institutionalism.
Yogananda’s teachings filtered
Ironically, what had once inspired me about SRF was what now inspired me about Ananda: the devotion that I saw in its members, and the way they gave their lives cheerfully to serving God. The organization, meanwhile, left me indifferent. Before leaving SRF, I had assumed that matters of church policy were none of my concern. But where the church impinged upon my devotional life, I was increasingly uncomfortable.
This was particularly true of Yogananda’s writings and printed talks, which to my writer’s ear and eye, appeared to have been subjected to an editorial hand that was overly concerned with propriety, as if it were more important to portray the Master as a good grammarian than to convey his vibrations. I was deeply aware that great masters do share their teachings as much through their vibrations as in the literal meaning of their words. While reading books written by other Indian saints, I would wonder at the relatively pale expression of Yogananda’s thoughts, as edited by SRF. I decided that they must have been kept too long on the editorial fire. When I eventually had a chance to read some of Yogananda’s writings and talks in earlier, unedited texts, I experienced the same raw power of spiritual inspiration and authority that I had sensed in the works of Swami Ramdas, Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Aurobindo, Swami Ram Tirtha, Sri Ramana Maharshi, and others.
The SRF lessons, too, seemed like over-boiled potatoes, offering basic nourishment but stripped of certain essential vitamins, compared with the fiery spiritual sustenance of Yogananda’s unedited words. What a shame, I felt, that generations of disciples would be deprived of knowing Yogananda’s teachings in all their original power and earthiness, simply because the organization over-valued its image. SRF was building up the institution ostensibly as a means of serving millions, but in doing so, it seemed to be sacrificing some of its power to inspire, which is to say, to serve the disciples as the Master would have done.
Part of the problem with the lessons was their arrangement. Why, I wondered with mild exasperation, did the first lesson discuss friendship? I was afire with eagerness to learn meditation—surely a desire I shared with most other students. Why, then, was I required to wait for months to learn the most basic technique, Hong-Sau? Surely the theory of meditation could be learned just as efficiently, if not more so, while practicing it. Later, I learned that the lessons hadn’t been compiled by Yogananda. I also learned that less than 10% of SRF’s members ever actually finish the lessons series. While he was still in SRF, Swami Kriyananda had rearranged the lessons, placing meditation instruction closer to the start, but the revised version had been rejected for reasons of organizational convenience. Swami Kriyananda discusses this in his book, A Place Called Ananda:
“Master had informed me that he hadn’t organized the lessons himself. Nor was it the actual teachings that needed revising: It was their presentation. They had been arranged in their present format by a devoted disciple of Master’s who, though a wonderful soul, had had no experience with the public or, for that matter, with teaching others. Louise Royston couldn’t realize what presentation would be the most effective in terms of reaching people’s actual understanding, satisfying their immediate needs, holding their interest, and answering their latent doubts before those doubts even arose.
“Lacking experience, her approach was based on another theory altogether. It was designed to keep the student associated with SRF for as many years as possible. Her reasoning, sound enough in itself, was that in this way the student would gain the most, spiritually, not from the lessons, only, but from the added benefits of pilgrimage to Master’s colonies, advice by correspondence, and, above all, by inner attunement with the line of gurus. Her reasoning was, as I say, sound. The problem was only that by the end of the second year we had almost no students left.”
In his autobiography, The Path, Swami Kriyananda tells many stories that reveal how the Master placed the spiritual needs of the disciples ahead of organizational priorities.
The organization vaunted itself on keeping things “SRF clean.” For my money, it was a bit too clean. I laugh, when I compare my memories of the eternally tidy SRF monastics with the specter of Ananta McSweeney, the outsized and formidably good-humored former head gardener at Ananda Village, consuming a lunch of baked spaghetti squash seasoned with butter and molasses, in soil-dusted overalls, his long red hair braided and graced with protruding straws. A spiritual dynamo, Ananta was eventually ordained as a minister and authorized by Swami Kriyananda to give initiation in Kriya Yoga. (He now serves with his wife, Maria, as the spiritual director of the Ananda community in Sacramento, California.) I am not for a moment suggesting that the SRF monks never roll up their sleeves—only that SRF seems fussily concerned with its image. “That SRF—they’re too churchy!” as Yogacharya Oliver Black laughingly observed. (Paramhansa Yogananda said that Mr. Black was second in spiritual stature among his male disciples, after Rajarsi Janakananda.)
A battle to liberate Yogananda’s work
With its lawsuit against Ananda, SRF is fighting for much higher stakes than the destruction of a single rival organization; it is attempting to send a warning to all future devotees: “Don’t cross us, or try to receive the Master’s teachings without our approval, or you will feel our wrath.” In my view, Ananda is a vitally important test case for the future of Master’s work. It is a fore-mirroring of the millions who, as Paramhansa Yogananda himself predicted, will be drawn to this path. Should SRF be allowed to remain legally in a position sue them all?
SRF’s thinking is: “We run the organization that Paramhansa Yogananda founded. Therefore, it stands to reason that we speak for the Master.” But can anyone honestly believe that Paramhansa Yogananda would countenance the destruction of an entire community of deeply sincere devotees, or the forced subjection of thousands to SRF’s doctrinal control? The spirit of his great book, Autobiography of a Yogi, argues resoundingly against it. Far more likely, he would endorse Jesus’ statement: “He that is not against us, is for us.” (Luke 9:50)
Imagine a Christian devotee, living in the former communist USSR and unable to communicate with church leaders. He would have to study the Bible in secret, and meet clandestinely with like-minded friends. In fact, this is what thousands of Christians living in the formerly communist countries did. A towering figure among them was Reverend Richard Wurmbrand, a Rumanian Baptist preacher who achieved a high degree of Self-realization through his unrelenting dedication to Christ, even under imprisonment and torture. In his talks, Rev. Wurmbrand would often read from the writings of simple Rumanian devotees who, lacking formal instruction from the church, had molded their understanding of Christ’s teachings directly, from their reading of the Bible and their own devotions. These writings were deeply inspiring—far more so than most of the pallid, church-sanctioned tracts that are common in the West, where “official” religious instruction is freely available.
SRF’s policies, if carried to their logical and ridiculous extreme, would dictate that disciples of Paramhansa Yogananda who were forced to live under similar circumstances could never be recognized as disciples, since they would be unable to receive his teachings from SRF. Is this what the Master wanted? Even if SRF bent its rules and gave tacit support, wouldn’t the organization, given its present mind-set, tend to feel a bit nervous about such groups, lest they, when their countries became free, might decide to create their own, separate churches, based on the strong local focus of spiritual energy and magnetism that had been generated during the times of persecution?
Decentralization, not strong central control, is the spirit of this age. One sees it everywhere today. Standing in line at the local Wal-Mart recently, I overheard a conversation between the check-out clerk and a young woman who was also waiting in line. They were talking about their activities as Christian devotees. The young man surprised and delighted me when he said, “I no longer attend formal church meetings. Instead, I meet with a small group of friends for worship. That works better for me.”
Presumably, then, the organization exists solely for the propagation of the methods of inner communion, Yet the instances of Daya Mata’s service to disciples as a direct channel for her Guru’s blessings are too well known among SRF’s own members even to require mentioning. Elsewhere, I have told two stories of my own inspiring encounters with her. Moreover, countless SRF disciples have experienced the Master’s guidance and grace from other SRF monastics. I treasure the blessings I received from Brothers Bhaktananda, Dharmananda, and Turiyananda, as well as from Daya Mata. On each of these occasions, the giving of help was done as naturally as breathing. It was simply an advanced disciple’s rendering of the Guru’s aid to a disciple who desperately needed it. I find it inconceivable that Yogananda would fail to respond to any sincere devotee’s call, simply because the channel hadn’t signed an SRF membership pledge. The Guru zealously helps his children, using whatever instruments are at hand. I would go so far as to say that every disciple has a duty to serve as a channel for his guru’s grace to others, to the extent that he or she is able.
Paramhansa Yogananda professed the oneness of all religions. He freely invited people of all paths to employ the practices of Kriya Yoga to deepen the experience of their chosen faith. In Autobiography of a Yogi, he writes:
A significant feature of Lahiri Mahasaya’s life was his gift of Kriya initiation to those of every faith. Not Hindus only, but Moslems and Christians were among his foremost disciples. Monists and dualists, those of all faiths or of no established faith, were impartially received and instructed by the universal guru. One of his highly advanced chelas was Abdul Gufoor Khan, a Mohammedan. It shows great courage on the part of Lahiri Mahasaya that, although a high-caste Brahmin, he tried his utmost to dissolve the rigid caste bigotry of his time. Those from every walk of life found shelter under the master’s omnipresent wings. Like all God-inspired prophets, Lahiri Mahasaya gave new hope to the outcastes and down-trodden of society.
How could the Master possibly make such statements, but then reject Ananda and Swami Kriyananda, whose practices and beliefs are precisely his own? The Master’s openness, his tolerance, his compassion, and his tireless service stand in marked contrast to the obsessively sectarian attitudes that mark the present behavior of SRF’s leaders. “No more lawsuits!” Daya Mata exclaimed at a meeting between the leaders of SRF and Ananda, after Ananda had won virtually every issue in the lawsuit. Yet, when Ananda showed itself unwilling to meekly turn over everything it had won, SRF’s loving advances abruptly ceased, as it resumed its ruthless legal campaign, intent as ever on destroying Ananda and regaining sole ownership of Yogananda’s work.
Blessings of life in a spiritual community
What have I gained personally from Ananda? Ananda has given me many blessings. I now live in the Ananda community in Mountain View, California, which is located in a complex of seventy-two apartments. In the community, all of my neighbors are friends who share the same spiritual path. This is an incalculable blessing. Not only can we meditate and pray together, but we also share the same unspoken understandings about many things. Forgiveness, for example. If I stumble and fall, I know that my gurubais will consult their consciences before they judge me. And if they fall, they can be assured that, far from judging them, I will hold them up to God’s light, and pray that He help and bless them.
I live in a community where it is never considered “off limits” to talk about God, or where it is unrealistic, when asking for advice, to expect to receive answers from the perspective of our Guru’s wisdom, whether it concerns work, relationships, health, worship, or education and child-raising.
In the Ananda communities, children are never more than five minutes from an Ananda member who is well acquainted with the child and knows its parents as fellow devotees. Children here are safe from the negative outside influences of drugs, gangs, and violence. Members of the Ananda community operate the Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto, where children are taught values from an early age, in harmony with the guidelines that Paramhansa Yogananda recommended. (See http://www.livingwisdomschool.org.)
In the apartment complex where I live, no one ever complains when someone organizes a rousing kirtan in the beautiful central courtyard on a balmy summer evening. If I should have problems in health or finances, I can ask seventy fellow disciples to pray for or advise me. I live in a community where, every day, I learn from the example of others more advanced on the path than I am—if not in every respect, then most assuredly in some aspect, such as kindness, compassion, or insight.
These benefits are priceless, especially when I compare them with the circumstances in which most devotees of our path must live, isolated from others who share their beliefs, and forced to work among people who are at best indifferent to their spiritual aspirations.
I have enjoyed these benefits for more than twenty-five years, not only in my living situation but also during the many years that I’ve spent working in Ananda’s businesses. Working to serve God and Guru, I never felt the frustrating sense of meaninglessness that can accompany work in companies that are run strictly for profit. Countless times, I have felt Paramhansa Yogananda’s blessings on these businesses. Whenever I’ve managed to summon an expansive, self-offering spirit in my service, I’ve felt his grateful blessings for my labors on his behalf. I discovered from my own, direct experience how absurd it is to claim, as certain SRF members have, that the Guru “doesn’t need instruments.” One of our Ananda members, Shivani Lucki, put it well: “Lord, you don’t have arms and legs, and I don’t have a brain. Together, let us serve.”
For twenty-five years, I have observed hundreds of devoted disciples at Ananda, toiling happily to spread his message of inner communion to a world in desperate need. I have seen many of them grow profoundly in their attunement with the Guru, to the point where to be in their presence is a blessing. I have seen families who lead exemplary lives as householder devotees, following in the footsteps of Lahiri Mahasaya. I have seen hundreds of children being educated in living wisdom, discovering that life has a deep meaning and a joyful purpose, and that positive values are the surest path to happiness. I have, in short, seen communities built up from noble ideals, proving their beliefs with noble behavior. These people I am proud beyond measure to call my friends.
This is what SRF would destroy, in the name of sectarian jealousy and doctrinal “purity.” So far, their efforts have been profoundly unsuccessful—thanks, unquestionably, to the protection of our Guru, but thanks also to the immense hard work of Ananda’s disciples on his behalf. We at Ananda have never attacked SRF. For twenty years, we responded to SRF’s unprincipled lies with dignified restraint. Beyond a certain point, however, restraint became improper—I am referring to the point at which SRF removed its kid gloves and began trying to bankrupt Ananda with its crippling lawsuit. Even then, in answering SRF’s ludicrous charges, we have strictly observed dharma. Readers who desire proof can read Ananda’s legal documents.
Ananda has never been exclusively concerned with its own self-preservation, for even if SRF succeeded in destroying us, we would rise again like the green grass in spring. Ananda needs no special place for its existence; it could thrive in the middle of New York City. No, we are defending the right of devotees everywhere to enjoy the Master’s guidance and blessings as we have. We are, in fact, fighting to save SRF from itself—from the grip of sectarianism and self-serving institutionalism that betray Paramhansa Yogananda’s spirit—his compassion, kindness, tolerance, and his unflagging zeal to spread the message of Self-realization freely to all.