News of Events at Ananda Assisi, Italy
April 21, 2004
On January 14, a startling event took place at Ananda’s Assisi community, the heart of our work in Europe. Community members were awakened in their homes by the arrival of 80 Italian police who had been ordered to conduct a surprise raid and look for evidence of illegal activity. They seized all of the computers and froze the community’s modest bank account. The charges (prompted by the complaints of a disgruntled ex-worker) were that Ananda’s Karma Yoga and Ashram programs were criminal activities that took adantage of weak-minded people, forced them into slave labor, and took money from the against their will. Because of the seriousness of the charges, Italian authorities were forced to investigate.
Ananda responded to these charges with willing cooperation with government investigators. “We do not condone any of the activities we have been accused of; they go against everything we believe and practice,” said Martina Lauer, a long-time member and instructor.
Thousands of Ananda members and friends throughout Europe, including many prominent and well-respected Italians, wrote letters in support of Ananda, testifying that the charges were not true based on their personal experience of Ananda over many years. Meanwhile, Ananda residents have been providing everything the government may need in order to speed the investigation and prove the community’s innocence.
Nine people were specifically named by the accuser, and are the particular focus of the investigation. In March, they were placed under temporary arrest for the purposes of investigation, and were questioned by a judge. They were released 4 days later into house arrest, which was lifted two weeks later. Ananda’ attorneys are hopeful that the speed of the release is a sign that the investigation will soon be over, and Ananda’s name cleared. Also, in April, Ananda’s bank account was unfrozen. All of the computers have been returned as well. According to legal experts, these returns have taken place unusually quickly, and are considered a good sign.
Ananda’s lawyers are now working to have all of the charges dropped. The message below from Jyotish and Devi, who were visiting Italy for much of the excitement, describes events in greater detail.
Message from Ananda’s Spiritual Directors – April 21, 2004
During our trip to Ananda Assisi last February and March, Jyotish said, “I believe this is the first time in the history of our path that a Kriya Minister was imprisoned for practicing their beliefs.” This was in response to an amazing series of events that surely must rank among the most dramatic in the annals of Ananda.
For those of you who don’t know the story, we were in Italy at the end of February to participate in Ananda Assisi’s Kriyaban Retreat and Yogananda’s Mahasamadhi Celebration. These are two major events attended by hundreds of devotees from all over Europe, Russia, Croatia, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, England, Ireland and Italy, as well as America. They enjoy having ministers from America come to help with the initiations, classes, and satsang.
Swamiji, who had been planning to come from India to lead these events, came down with a severe case of pneumonia. He was in the hospital for a week, and had to remain in New Delhi to recuperate. We were disappointed that he couldn’t be with us, but, of course, everyone understood the situation.
Unusual Developments in Assisi
We knew that the situation in Assisi would be unusual because of events that had transpired earlier in January, but we couldn’t imagine the scope of what actually happened. To set the stage, Ananda Assisi has two major ways of serving people and of earning income: 1) Meditation Retreat, and 2) Inner Life Cooperativa, a business that sells Ananda books, music, meditation products, and imported items from India and China. Both are quite successful and employ virtually all of our members in Assisi.
Several years ago a man from Rome was hired to work as a salesman for the Coop. His job was to service accounts, and he was paid on a commission basis. Customers began to complain that he had an abrasive manner, and they didn’t want to do business with him. We finally had to fire him, after he tried to manipulate us into paying him more money than he was actually owed. Two years ago he filed a suit against Ananda Assisi claiming unjustly that we owed him a great deal of money. Being dissatisfied with the outcome of the decision, he began sending us faxes saying that he was going to destroy us.
Unbeknownst to us, he went to the authorities and claimed that our Karma Yoga and Ashram programs were criminal activities that took advantage of weak-minded people and forced them into slave labor. These are extremely serious charges under Italian law, and the authorities were forced to investigate. In mid-January eighty policemen descended on Ananda Assisi and raided the Retreat, the Coop, and several private homes. They seized forty computers, froze business and individual bank accounts, and posted signs on many of our buildings saying that we were under criminal investigation. Needless to say, we were shocked.
Eleven people were named in this “criminal conspiracy,” all of them either spiritual leaders or managers of Ananda’s work in Assisi. All of them also had had run-ins with our accuser from Rome. As founder of the association, Swamiji was also named although he had never met the man.
By the time we arrived at the end of February, the assets were still frozen (putting tremendous strain on the Retreat, Coop, and people with families who worked there). We were unsure if we had any legal right to use the public facilities. The Ananda World Brotherhood concert in Rome had been cancel, and those named in the suit were under threat of arrest. With hundreds of people arriving from all over Europe, there was nothing to do but proceed as planned and hope for the best.
Saintly Souls Taken to Prison for Questioning
The Kriyaban Retreat began on Sunday evening, Feb. 29, after three days of heavy snow. Everything went smoothly until early Tuesday morning, when the police once again descended upon Ananda Assisi to arrest those named in the alleged conspiracy.
At 5:30 am we heard loud knocks on the door. At first we thought there had been an accident, but as the knocking continued and the shouts grew louder, we began to realize it was something else. When Jyotish opened the door, ten policemen were standing there in the freezing weather, demanding to know the whereabouts of Kirtani and Anand Stickney, Spiritual Directors of Ananda Assisi.
After an hour of questioning by the police, Kirtani quietly said, “They’re taking all those named in the case to jail.” There was nothing we could do but watch as these dear, saintly souls were taken away to the prison in Perugia. They were told to pack a bag for several days, but we had no idea how long they would actually be gone. This same scene was being repeated simultaneously at the homes of all those accused.
Immediately, we were in communication with the spouses of those arrested. We decided to let the guests know what had happened, and told them about the arrests that morning. We said we didn’t know if there might not be more raids during the rest of the week, but we were determined to continue as best we could.
Support From Friends, Blessings From Our Masters
The support and determination of our spiritual family to stand by us was very heartening. Sergey, a friend from Moscow, built a life-size snow statue of a crouching lion at the entrance to the temple. It looked like some guardian spirit put there to protect us, and lasted for several weeks.
On Wednesday night Jyotish led the scheduled Kriya Initiation with nearly two hundred people present. Though Kirtani, Anand, Shivani, and the others were still in a prison in Perugia, we felt their presence with us very strongly.
During the ceremony, we watched as Kriyabans from all over the world came forward for the blessing of the Masters. We prayed deeply to Babaji and inwardly asked, “Do you want Ananda’s work in Assisi to be stopped, and all this devotion and dedication lost?” The answer we felt in our hearts was a resounding affirmation that the blessings and protection of Babaji, Yogananda, and all our gurus was with us and that Ananda would survive and grow stronger through this experience.
On Thursday morning we concluded the Kriyaban Retreat, and joined hundreds of others including our friends from America at the Grand Hotel in Assisi for Yogananda’s Mahasamadhi Celebration. Hour by hour we received reports from our lawyers that our friends in jail were going to be questioned by the judge and released. But one delay after another postponed their release, and the strain was very hard on everyone, especially the family members of those in prison.
We were also actively working with the press to present the facts of the case. Many TV and newspaper reporters came to both events to interview members and hear our side of the story.
We received letters from Shivani, Kirtani, and Deborah who wrote from prison and read them to the gathering. Such courage, faith, and joy shone in their words. It is one thing to talk about right attitude from the security of daily life, but when your freedom is being threatened, it is quite another. When you are cut off from all that is familiar and dear, and you can still feel inner freedom and joy, then you know that you have irrevocably linked your life to God.
Many Hands Make a Miracle!
Finally on Sunday morning, March 7th, the actual day of Yogananda’s Mahasamadhi, we received the news we were waiting for. As we listened to the choir sing “Many Hands Make a Miracle,” one of our members, who was the liaison with our lawyers, came up to us and quietly said, “They’re going to be released.” We immediately ran up on the stage and told everyone what had happened. Tears of joy flowed freely and gratitude to God and Guru filled every heart.
Though still under house arrest, our friends drove by in front of the Grand Hotel as we all waited for them. We filled the street and sang “Gioia, Gioia, Gioia.” It was a moment never to be forgotten.
The next two weeks were spent mainly in meetings with our lawyers and a small team of Ananda members. Our first objective was to get everyone freed from house arrest. Next, we needed to free Swamiji from any legal jeopardy so that he could return to Assisi as his health permitted. We also had to free up our computers and bank accounts and get legal permission to use all the buildings that had been “sequestered.” Thankfully all this has now been accomplished. The last piece of the puzzle is to prove that all the charges against us are totally groundless. This task is now underway. We expect to be completely exonerated.
Finding God’s Joy and Strength in the Face of a Great Test
A test of this magnitude is challenging on many different levels. Would we be able to find God’s joy and strength within ourselves in the face of great outer uncertainty? Would we be able to clearly defend our God-centered way of life to those challenging us? Would we be able to say, “Yogananda’s work in Assisi will not die no matter what challenges we are faced with?” We found the answer to all these questions, and it was an unequivocal “YES!”
On behalf of all of our family in Assisi and throughout Europe, we want to thank all of you for your love and the support and prayers you have offered during this time. We also want to thank those of you from America who came on the pilgrimage and stayed for the concert even though you knew what challenges were facing us. (Ananda’s World Brotherhood Choir concert did happen not in Rome but in Perugia two days before the court hearing to free everyone from house
We have never felt more inspired and grateful to be a part of such an incredible family in God. May Master bless you with deepening awareness of the joy and freedom of your own Self.
In divine friendship,
Jyotish and Devi Novak