8. As Seen Through My Eyes: The Bertolucci Trial, by Swami Kriyananda

September 297 Dwapara [1997]

Ananda could have settled this case without a trial. Anne Marie Bertolucci’s lawyers asked several times for a money settlement. Their practice has been, in other lawsuits, to heap so much abuse on their opponents, through the press especially, that their opponents have preferred the alternative of paying them rather than continuing to be the objects of their slander. Indeed, realizing that Bertolucci’s lawyers intend to increase their campaign of vilification during the actual trial — They’ve gloated out loud, “We have the media in place”—monetary settlement cannot but offer a tempting way of “getting them off our backs.” To settle would, however, be a sacrifice of principle, and this lawsuit rests on principle. It rests on two principled decisions, in fact.

What occurred was that Danny L., a married man, an Ananda minister, and the father of a little girl (Elisa), met and fell in love with another woman, Anne Marie Bertolucci. Obviously, the fact of his falling in love with her (and she with him) was a moral mistake for them both. Danny feels it was Anne Marie who initiated the relationship, and I believe him, but whether she did so is not really germane to the issue except as an added irony, in view of her later charges that he sexually harassed and abused her.

It was to me that Anne Marie came for counseling in this matter. My recollection was that she came first, but Danny remembers that she came afterward and I think he must be right, for otherwise I doubt that Anne Marie would have had a reason to come.

So, then, accepting that scenario, Danny came first. I recall his telling me of the attraction he felt toward Anne Marie. I felt it would not be suitable for me to tell him what to do, and that is not my way of counseling anyway. Danny needed to see for himself what the right course of action must be. To push him too hard would, I feared, make him simply withdraw into himself and conceal his behavior. So I asked him to face honestly what was taking place, to consider its ramifications, and to consider whether he thought he could ever be happy knowing that he’d hurt Elisa’s chances, above all, to grow up normally. He of course saw the devastating potentials in leaving his family, but replied somewhat despairingly, “I can only do my best.”

He asked Anne Marie to see me. When she came, she made not the slightest complaint against Danny. Quite the opposite, she asked for my help in handling the attraction she felt toward him. I tried to get her to see the relationship as a mistake, throwing in the fact that Elisa was developmentally retarded, a situation which posed an additional burden on Danny’s moral obligations. I then urged her to do her best to separate herself from her feelings for him, and to live by what her conscience must tell her was the right course. Her words to me at that point were not encouraging. She said simply, “He’s very magnetic.”

My next move was to try to get Anne Marie (as a relatively new employee) moved out of her work at Crystal Clarity, Publisher. Padma McGilloway, the head of Crystal Clarity at the time, unaware of the problem between the two of them, pleaded the urgent need in the office for Anne Marie’s skill with computer programming (they were then changing over to a new system). I felt it was premature to explain to Padma the reasons for my sense of urgency in this matter, so therefore limited my efforts to trying to separate Danny and Anne Marie in the workplace. My role in this matter was as an adviser; I was not running Crystal Clarity. In the end, of course, it became necessary for me to be more frank with Padma regarding my reasons for separating them.
It is not my purpose here to detail the further progress of this story. Suffice it to say that we did manage eventually to find other work in the community for Anne Marie. This new job came with a higher salary, a noteworthy fact in view of her subsequent charge that she was treated unfairly. Anne Marie joined a group who were going on pilgrimage to India that Fall. Later someone told me that Anne Marie had said to her that her every prayer in the temples in India had been that she be allowed to marry Danny.

It was not for me to order Danny how to comport his life. My feeling is that people must come to their own understanding of these matters, otherwise they’ll never grow. Thus, all I felt I could do was reason with him and urge him to take the righteous course if he truly understood it to be righteous. Great, then, was my relief when, after Anne Marie’s return from India, he told me of his firm decision to remain true to his wife and child. He confessed that Anne Marie had come to him after her return to Ananda, and had entered his bed. (His wife Karin was away at the time.) He swore to me, however, that he wanted to dissolve this relationship and to preserve his marriage. At this point I asked Anne Marie to come see me.

She was extremely upset to find me still “meddling” in this matter. When I appealed once more to her conscience, she replied, “I would make a good mother to Elisa!” I told her I wouldn’t let her proceed in this matter any further. At this point she tried to enlist my sympathy by lamenting, “I’ve always been rejected in my life.” I grew impatient with her. Satisfied by Danny’s declaration of his determination to dissolve their relationship, I said to her, “I am not going to allow you to stay here and break up their marriage. I insist that you move to one of our other communities.” And then, suddenly, I realized that a crucial moment had been reached. She had opposed her will strongly to mine. I knew now intuitively that in thwarting her I would be called on in some way to defend myself against her. And I thought, “Whatever it takes, this is where the truth lies. I will abide by it.”

No other instance comes to mind when I have had so firmly to tell anyone, “You must do as I say.” Always, with a view to helping people to grow in themselves, I have tried to get them to see the rightness of a course of action and to accept it of their own free will.

This lawsuit was initiated by two righteous acts. The first was Danny’s decision to resist temptation, and to remain with his family. The second was my refusal to let Anne Marie remain at Ananda Village and break up their family. Anne Marie’s lawsuit is motivated entirely by her desire for revenge. She once said to Danny, in fact, “I always get my way.”

In the course of events since her departure for the Ananda Community in Palo Alto, she contacted certain disgruntled ex-members of Ananda, who encouraged her to take Ananda to court. One of them accompanied Anne Marie by plane to Los Angeles to meet representatives of Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF). SRF had for several years been engaged in a lawsuit against Ananda, over issues of name and other perceived abuses. (After well over seven years of defensive litigation in that lawsuit, Ananda has finally emerged victorious on all counts.) From everything we have ascertained, SRF’s leaders extended their support to Anne Marie on that occasion.

Anne Marie’s lawyers, as usual for them in such matters, have adopted a campaign of vicious and untruthful slander against us in the press and in their numerous briefs to the court. They have accused Ananda, Danny L., and myself of unfair employment practices, of sexual harassment and abuse, of being a “cult” whose “leader” (me) rules everyone’s life with absolute control in the minutest details, of running a “sex-slave camp” where the women are treated by the male members as mere playthings of pleasure, where women were treated as second-class human beings and were never allowed into positions of authority. Ananda members, according to Bertolucci and her lawyers, are “brainwashed,” hypnotized by practicing meditation, and left helpless and bereft of any will power of their own. Danny L. and I—again, according to Anne Marie—were intending to pass her back and forth between us as a sex object.

In other words, the strategy of her legal team has been to ring every alarm bell of bias and prejudice that the media have already conditioned people to expect, in an attempt to persuade the world that this small, non-traditional religious group, Ananda, is a dangerous “cult” and a menace to the political and religious freedoms which are the right of every American citizen.
During the course of jury selection this past week, well over a hundred potential jurors were disqualified before the requisite twelve, with the further three alternate jurors, could be found. The process took almost the whole week. My impression of the excused jurors was that a large majority of them admitted to being biased against “small religious groups”—cults, in other words; two of them actually used this word. Ananda was clearly a “cult” in their minds, and must therefore be guilty of all charges. All the excused jurors, to do them justice, said they would “try to remain open-minded,” but it was evident that they would not be able to view us as normal human beings, like themselves.

The longer I observed this proceeding, the more strongly the thought came to me that it is a great honor for me to be placed in a position where I can speak out on behalf of all the so-called, but falsely considered, “cults” in America: little groups of people who sincerely long to find deeper meaning in life at a time when modern education suggests no deep meaning or purpose for human existence.

Every time these past years that some newly discovered “cult” has burst onto the front pages, it has been with the announcement of some lurid event: a mass suicide, an armed stand-off with legitimate authority, or some other kind of bizarre behavior. These groups have been depicted—and often quite rightly so—as paranoid, unbalanced, obsessed, and under the complete dominance of some “charismatic” but mad leader who behaved toward them like a fascist dictator driven by delusions of grandeur.

The recent “Heaven’s Gate” incident fanned the national disgust with such groups to the extent that there is little likelihood, at present, of any small spiritual group receiving a fair trial in either the media or the courts. Charges of similar potentials are leveled indiscriminately against all and sundry. Bertolucci’s lawyers had anticipated a loaded reaction even before the “Heaven’s Gate” incident. The prejudices voiced by so many disqualified potential jurors has emboldened the lawyers to make their charges even more lurid in the hope of stimulating an emotional response of outrage and fury against us.

And most small spiritual groups, of which there must be thousands across the country, have preferred to take a low profile, hoping to see the storm of prejudice gradually subsiding and leaving America once again calm. We at Ananda, too, would naturally prefer not to enter this arena, but we are not being given that option. Therefore we must view our present circumstances as a blessing, albeit well disguised.

Several years ago, charges were beginning to be leveled against the leaders of various yoga groups in America, also. As these charges increased in number and ferocity, and as the concerned leaders either fled the country or were publicly disgraced, I began to feel that someone must speak up both for those groups and for their teachers. I wrote a letter accordingly, to a prominent magazine in the field, “Yoga International.” In that letter, which became a leading article, I pleaded with people to take a more humane and down-to-earth view. The leaders are, I said, normal human beings. Anyone who has struggled against sex temptation in himself knows that this urge cannot be easily dismissed, especially not in such a permissive society as prevails today in the West. But if, I wrote, those teachers were trying their best to do a good thing, why demand of them a level of perfection that not one of their critics demanded of himself?

I wasn’t able to speak for all of those leaders, some of whom may indeed have announced themselves as perfect masters. But if they were only trying their best to help others, why denounce them for the imperfection of that service? Since the hippie days of the 1960s, there had been too much a sort of “airy fairy” attitude prevalent in the yoga scene where many people lived in a sort of spiritual fantasy world. I had tried to discourage this attitude from the start.

I also, in that letter, proposed something I have always taught others, and written about in my books: that we view moral and spiritual perfection as a directional development, and not demand absolute perfection of anyone. (I myself have never served on a jury for the simple reason, as I’ve explained, that I couldn’t bring myself to sit in judgment on others.) In other words, as long as a person is doing his sincere best to go in the right direction, why condemn him for not having yet reached his goal? Give him time. By judging him, we merely encourage hypocrisy both in him and in ourselves. As Paramhansa Yogananda used to put it, “A saint is a sinner who never gave up.”

I feared that, given this atmosphere of callous and ungrateful condemnation, the present generation of yoga teachers—most of whom come from India—would be replaced by wordy and intellectual students of psychology to whom yoga is only a science for overcoming physical problems or emotional disturbances, and by whom also traditional attitudes of devotion and reverence for spiritual ideals are scoffed at, or simply avoided. I felt that if something were not done to correct this trend, yoga in America would become separated from its roots. The result would be the infliction of severe if not permanent damage to its development as a pure teaching. I told friends of mine at that time, “Since everyone else seems to have chosen to hide out, I at least want to stand up and be counted.”

I’ve come gradually to see that what is at stake is not only the yoga movement in America, but the entire trend in this country to seek a personal relationship with God, as opposed to joining some large, recognized church. (One wonders how any large church ever got started in the first place, if size and public acceptance had always been the criterion!)

Some of the potential jurors last week voiced the thought, “Nowadays, anybody can form a church. They do it to avoid paying income tax.” If every little church were to be viewed in this light rather than in terms of selfless humanitarian services, the criterion of judgment would be, merely, envy.

But it isn’t only the little spiritual groups that have come under criticism in today’s mass consciousness. The large churches, too, are increasingly portrayed as avaricious, ruthless, and unprincipled. Is this to say that none of them are guilty? Not at all. Human nature includes every human quality: noble qualities, too, such as high motives, a sincere desire to help others, a capacity for selfless love and devotion to God. Human nature cannot but rule wherever human activities are concerned. Its countless manifestations are to be found in every field. There is no cause, then, for wonder. But the truth is that if anyone does want to develop higher potentials in himself, and if he defines those potentials in spiritual terms, he will probably find himself attracted toward some kind of spiritual activity. This will usually include joining some recognized church—at least to start with—since he may not know of any other outlet for fulfilling his spiritual needs.

The present social trend is to resent any such aspiration. The churches are routinely depicted in Hollywood movies as money-grubbing (“slimy dogs” was the way one dismissed juror in our case put it), power hungry, indifferent to human benefit except as it serves one’s own ambitions. I myself have been amused by some of the movie depictions of ministers who cried out emotionally, “Dig down deep inta yer pockets, brethren—an’ Ah mean deep! Ya gotta help ahr cause.” But I’ve also grieved at the subtler implication in these depictions that a person is normal only if he spends his whole life thinking only of himself—or, worse still, if he is “normally” generous he can only be so by supporting social causes.

The great shame of America has always been its persecution of minorities: the American Indians, the blacks, the Jews, the Mormons. The Salem witch hunts were confined neither to Salem nor, literally, to witch hunts. There has been a strong tendency in this country to affirm personal liberty, and then to insist that everyone agree with any new position that has finally won approval. Americans are great joiners. If they praise people for their independence, it is only after every effort has been expended to force them to conform. And even after accepting the mavericks, that very acceptance has only prepared the field for adopting new standards of coercion.

I encountered this tendency even as a young boy. Newly arrived in America, I was teased by many of my peers and bullied by a few for my inability to think along popularly accepted lines. I resolved, even then, that I had simply no choice but to be true to myself.

Ananda cannot possibly lose this lawsuit. For even if the jury were to vote against us, victory would come to us in some other way. Perhaps it would come even in the form of a change in the public’s way of viewing people who choose to seek God according to their own lights. Perhaps, the greater the notoriety and opprobrium we attract, the greater also will be the public’s reversion toward sanity. Whatever the outcome, I cannot visualize anything but good coming of it in the end. For our cause is just. It was founded in justice, and has been adhered to unflinchingly in a spirit of truth.

Think of the good that came of Christ’s crucifixion. Then consider how any adherence to truth, no matter how trivial relative to that supreme sacrifice, can only be blessed in the end. Yogananda himself many times repeated the words of Jesus, “Whoever leaves all for my sake shall receive an hundredfold, and persecution.” “There has to be persecution,” Yogananda added, “for that is how one becomes a saint.”

There is, for me personally, an extraordinary irony in reflecting that, thirty-six years ago, my own life was virtually ruined by my summary dismissal from SRF. I lost everything then. I had made the mistake of deliberately developing an attachment to Mt. Washington, the headquarters of SRF, as insurance against any temptation ever to leave that way of life as so many others had done. This one attachment in my life was forcibly violated, with such total denunciation of my life and my motives that I could only ask myself whether I was utterly mad. For I was unable to see anything in the light my accusers did. They had given me no chance to speak in my own defense. They never even warned me in advance that, if I pursued a certain course of action, I might be dismissed. My position was rendered completely hopeless. It left me with no reasonable alternative but to return to a way of life in which I could not believe, for it meant reassuming worldly desires and involvements.

Yet, the outcome of what was, for me, the greatest of all possible tragedies was not terrible, but wonderful. My dismissal freed me to do the work I have been able to do since then: the founding of Ananda, the writing of some 70 books and 400 pieces of music, the reaching out to people around the world who were seeking a more personal, non-institutional approach to God. I could never have done all these things in my position as the vice president of SRF. Today I bless what happened to me at that time, painful though it was for me at the time.

Now again, thirty-six years later, I find myself wondering, “Is God repeating the old story?” If so, I am ready for it. Even were I to lose everything, as I did on that other occasion, I would accept the loss gladly. For it would be no loss at all—not my loss, anyway. Everything I am and own I surrendered long ago to God. There is nothing that can be taken away, because, in my heart, I am free. The other evening somebody asked me, “Aren’t you worried?” “Not a bit!” I replied. “I love God as my Divine Mother. What else could possibly matter? The fact is, I feel blissful!”

The jury we face represents society and society’s laws. The real judge, however, is no human being, but God Himself. Whatever errors I have committed in my life, God knows that I love Him, and I know that He loves me. What else could possibly matter?

At the time of my dismissal from SRF, I was debarred from any further contact with SRF monastics or lay members. Thus, in the course of a single morning, I found myself suddenly without friends, alone in the world except for my loving but spiritually unaccepting relatives. I was thirty-six at the time. It was late in life to begin to reconstruct it as though from the beginning. Many of my former friends in SRF, anxious to protect themselves from similar treatment, turned against me. Such, I recognize, is human nature; I don’t blame them for it.

But it is natural, now, that I should be aware of the potential for similar rejection by the Ananda members, for whom once more I have done my best. This is what Bertolucci’s lawyers have been campaigning for them to do.

Only two weeks ago they flew a plane over Ananda and dropped leaflets, each of them several pages long, urging the “good” people of Ananda to demand my resignation. Circumstances are different now, however. Ananda members are distressed that I should even be willing to resign. Bertolucci’s lawyers have crowed, “Soon it won’t be Ananda Village any longer: It will be Bertolucci Village.” Well, it’s Yogananda’s Village, not mine, and not Ananda’s. Anything that Yogananda and God want is fine by me. I’m smiling as I write these words, because I really want nothing but God’s will. Not once during the course of this lawsuit have I prayed, “Lord, please save Ananda!” or, “please help me!” I can cheerfully face any outcome. Ananda’s present members share my dedication. Many of them have told me, “Even if we lose everything, we’ll simply start again from the beginning. We believe with all our hearts in what we are doing together. Meanwhile, we’ll remain true to the path to which God has called us, and will not allow Bertolucci’s lawyers to bully us with lies and with empty threats. We know what we believe!”

In divine friendship,

Swami Kriyananda (J. Donald Walters)