The Fourth of July is a day when millions of Americans enjoy picnics, fireworks, and the general excitement over the birth of our nation. But in 2009, this national holiday was also celebrated on a much smaller scale for a different reason. Ananda World Brotherhood Village, an intentional community in Northern California, was founded on July 4, 1969, and was celebrating its fortieth anniversary on that day.
The event was reported in a local newspaper, The Grass Valley Union:
“Forty years ago, a small band of people looking for meaning in their lives settled in a community on the San Juan Ridge where they could meditate, practice yoga and embark on a spiritual journey. The now-sprawling Ananda Village was the first of seven Ananda communities around the world founded on the principles of world peace among all people.”
Sounds idyllic. But Ananda’s forty-year history has been filled with challenges from the beginning—in fact, it has repeatedly been a struggle for survival, sometimes against overwhelming odds. Ananda was founded by Swami Kriyananda to carry out his guru, Paramhansa Yogananda’s, mission to establish “World Brotherhood Colonies.” In the first years the obstacles we faced, though challenging, were straightforward: creating an infrastructure, buildings, and homes on hundreds of acres of undeveloped land; working as best we could with conservative local forces who were trying to block us; and earning the funds to keep things going.
Paramhansa Yogananda’s statement, “There are no obstacles, only opportunities,” stood us in good stead in the early years. The community grew, and after seven years, we felt pretty confident that a solid foundation had been built.
Then disaster struck. On June 28, 1976, a small fire was ignited by sparks from an old county vehicle. The flames were fanned by strong winds and quickly spread in the dry grass and underbrush until it raged out of control. The fire consumed thousands of acres in the Northern California foothills, including most of Ananda’s forests and structures.
With intense efforts over the next year, Ananda emerged phoenix-like from the ashes. In the period that followed, we not only rebuilt the community, but expanded it—establishing four new colonies along the West Coast, and later international ones in Italy and India. Once again our members, who by this time had dedicated over twenty years of their lives to Ananda, were confident that we were well on our way to fulfilling Yogananda’s dream of spiritual communities.
Then in 1990 disaster struck again—this time not as a forest fire, but as a legal conflagration which threatened Ananda’s existence more profoundly than any natural calamity. Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF), the organization founded by Paramhansa Yogananda in 1925, launched a complex and far-reaching legal attack against Ananda that ultimately lasted twelve years. The heart of their lawsuit, as the presiding judge, Edward Garcia, later observed was “to put Ananda out of business.”
This book is the story of that battle, which was fought in the courts, in the press, on the Internet, in flyers dropped from airplanes, and ultimately on the steps of the United States Supreme Court.
Why are we writing this story of what, at first glance, might seem like just another sectarian squabble? The idea for the book emerged in this way:
By July 2001 many of us at Ananda were veterans of eleven years of intense legal battles: some had spent years doing legal research, others had been repeatedly questioned by hostile lawyers, or testified before a judge and jury. One evening for relaxation, Swami Kriyananda and a small group decided to see the documentary film, Liberty! The American Revolution. As we watched, we were struck by the similarities between the struggles of the early Americans with England and our own legal battles with SRF. At the end of the movie, we discussed the many common threads, and began to talk about what a great book the story of our lawsuit would make.
The similarities are truly striking:
a) The American Colonies and England shared a common cultural history, coming from the same “root stock” so to speak. Ananda, too, shared roots with SRF. Both groups followed the same guru, devoted themselves to the same spiritual practices, and were dedicated to sharing Yogananda’s teachings with the world. Ananda’s founder, Swami Kriyananda, had in fact once been on SRF’s board of directors and had served as its vice-president.
But that was years in the past, and now stormy seas separated the two groups. In 1990 SRF declared it had exclusive rights to the “territory” of Paramhansa Yogananda—his name, his image, his words, and his teachings. And, like England, they were ready to wage war to maintain their control.
Ananda recognized behind the mask of SRF’s legal proceedings and papers, the face of suppression and control. And, like the early Americans, the people of Ananda were ready to defend the principle of freedom, even to the point of putting their property and the life of Ananda at risk.
b) In the early days of the American Revolution, the war had gone poorly for the colonists as they faced the amassed power and wealth of England. Boasting the strongest army in the world, England quickly overwhelmed the colonists’ untested military leaders and its ragamuffin band of volunteers.
SRF, too, had very deep pockets and employed the third-largest law firm in America. A blitz of legal motions soon overwhelmed Ananda’s lawyer (a sole practitioner without even a full-time secretary) and the inexperienced group of Ananda volunteers helping him.
We lost our first battle in court. The judge’s initial ruling went against us—an important one that we feared would set the tone for the whole case. Overcoming a sense of being crushed before we had even begun, we managed to hang on, claw our way forward, and eventually to fight back. Ultimately, like General Washington, we achieved a near-miraculous victory.
c) At stake in the American Revolution was not just the outcome of a territorial dispute, but the issue of whether a new form of government—democracy, which was “of the people, by the people, and for the people”—could be created.
Kings and their cronies had decided the fate of nations for centuries. Similarly, SRF, as a monastic order, was under the absolute control of its president, Daya Mata, and her handpicked board of directors. No one else had “the right even to think,” to quote a member of the board.
Ananda represented a new kind of spiritual organization. It, too, was a monastic order, but one in which all of the members’ points of view were heard and respected. In a whimsical wordplay, Ananda termed its form of government a “dharmocracy,” where decisions were based on dharma, or righteous action.
d) By far, the most important similarity was the shared fight for religious freedom. This legal and moral issue should have been resolved by the brilliant Constitution created by our Founding Fathers. But old ways of thinking die slowly, and religious freedom cannot simply be declared, any more than equality for women, freedom from slavery, or the right of all citizens to vote can be decreed by politicians.
New freedoms have to be won through determination and sacrifice. In our case, the fundamental question at the center of the legal battle was one of control: “Does an established church have the right to dictate how followers of a new expression of its teachings may or may not worship?”
Because we realized that this battle had broader implications than just our own lawsuit, we fought hard to defend and protect religious freedom and individual human rights. As our lead lawyer and the author of this book, Jon Parsons, told us, “I fully realize that this will be the most important case of my career.”
Here then, is a David and Goliath tale: the dramatic story of how a small group of people fought and won a victory against a seemingly unbeatable opponent. Our victory was not for ourselves alone, but one that may well protect the religious rights of future generations of Americans. Even now as we read the story, and relive in our minds the incidents that took place during that twelve-year ordeal, we are moved by feelings of deep gratitude that we were part of such a noble struggle—one proving that might does not make right, and that honor and integrity can, in the end, prevail.
Jyotish and Devi Novak
Oct. 2, 2010