How 2,000 Devotees Paid Off $6 Million in Legal Fees (and Still Counting) and How We Think About Money at Ananda
Catherine Van Houten
Predictably, Ananda’s critics have charged Swami Kriyananda and others in our leadership with everything from financial mismanagement, down to absurd allegations that Kriyananda siphons money from Ananda’s various departments for his own personal use. For those of us who have worked closely with financial aspects of Ananda, these charges are so far from the truth that it’s been hard to feel motivated to answer them. But remaining loftily above the fray is a position that is ultimately hypocritical, so I would like to answer these charges.
Since the facts of Ananda’s finances are a matter of public record, both because Ananda is a non-profit, and because of the scrutiny we came under when we were forced to file for Chapter 11 Reorganization in September, 1998, my desire here is to share the spirit and attitudes which, thanks to Swami Kriyananda’s leadership, have brought Ananda through this test.
Since 1984 I’ve had the great privilege of fundraising for Ananda. Just so you have an idea of “scale,” I’ll share that I was the first person to focus full-time on drawing donations to Ananda. Now there are three of us who coordinate donations to our outreach ministry, Crystal Clarity Publishers and The Expanding Light guest retreat, the quarterly support Ananda gives to Yogananda’s living family members and shrines in India, help for new Ananda groups in war torn or economically challenged nations, a dynamic Kriya ministry, Healing Prayer Ministry and much more.
I hope that one day the world or at least the interested portion of it—will know of the tremendous faith, and, yes, sacrifice, which have been freely offered by Ananda devotees to ensure that Paramhansa Yogananda was not reduced to the trade-marked property of SRF. It has been, truly, the epitome of a David and Goliath struggle. SRF has many millions of dollars, with more coming to them each year from donors who would be appalled to know what panzer-like tactics their gifts are supporting. Ananda, on the other hand, has had only what from month to month its members and friends give to its work. I have come to see this as our great blessing.
When SRF’s lawsuit first broadsided Ananda in 1990, we naively supposed it would be over within a couple of years. Ananda had never been in litigation before. It took most of us months to understand what this suit was really all about: Our very discipleship to Paramhansa Yogananda was at stake, for how can one be a true disciple with no possibility of serving his work in this world?
By 1993 we knew that without donations we could not continue. Resident members at Ananda Village and in the branch communities were asked to consider a monthly pledge of $50. The vast majority responded with a resounding, “Yes,” even though a single person’s monthly net salary was about $700, if he or she was employed by an Ananda department.
This pledging goal for resident members was increased, of necessity, several times over the next few years. It continues today, now at $97/month for members and friends who’ve offered to help. Some give more because they are able to financially, while some households give far less. Nearly everyone gives something monthly, and for most, this monthly pledge represents a “stretch,” because we all know that is what is needed. This sacrificial giving has gone on now for 8 years and we see no sign that we’ll be relieved of it any time soon.
Swami Kriyananda gave regularly to the legal fund, along with every one of us, even as he bore nearly all of the psychic burden, and spearheaded the creative aspects of our defense. In my mind’s eye I see him as a lightning rod, the highest point on the field, while the rest of us, no matter how deep our commitment, remain protected from SRF’s venomous “bolts” because of his stature.
By 1996 we knew we had to ask a wider circle of Ananda friends to help as well. Frankly, we delayed this decision as long as we could for two reasons. First, we knew that newer devotees of this path would not understand why one part of Yogananda’s family would be suing another. We didn’t want anyone’s faith in Master shaken. Secondly, we were concerned that friends would have to choose to support either outreach ministry or the legal fund.
When I review the history of Ananda’s legal fund, I find that there are only about 2000 individuals and a handful of Ananda departments who’ve contributed the nearly $6,000,000 we’ve raised for legal costs.
When I remember the spirit in the various committee meetings where some of us would sweat over the mounting the costs and wonder how we were going to pay the bills, I remember the joy, the faith, the sense of peace and freedom that comes from giving the whole outcome to God.
There were always moments when we laughingly wished Ananda’s very own “Rockefeller” would walk in the door and take care of everything, but we knew at the same time that it would be our loss spiritually. Every month, every Ananda devotee who is giving has the opportunity, as he writes his pledge check, to reaffirm his personal commitment to defending these principles. There is no faceless “they” at Ananda.
Best of all, because of Swami Kriyananda’s example, Ananda has kept its spirit of kindness, compassion, and expansiveness. Of course, one temptation when one is so embattled is to take care of one’s own concerns and see what, if anything, is left over for others. Swami gently, yet insistently, helped each of us avoid this spiritual pitfall.
I remember in 1995, with the pressure of the Bertolucci suit building, Swami Kriyananda wrote the wonderful little book Do It Now! It is a book bursting with positive energy and practical suggestions for living each day superconsciously. Swami had the inspiration to print thousands of these and send them as gifts to whomever we thought would appreciate the book. We gathered for a giant mailing party several nights running, reviewing the mailing list, finding the names of friends we knew would welcome Do It Now! and putting together thousands of packets. People are still writing 6 years later to say how much that book meant to them.
After the terrible earthquakes in Italy in 1998, Swami Kriyananda decided to give a series of musical concerts called “Homes for Italy” to benefit the hardest hit areas. Again, in a time when many would feel justified to at least “tuck in their wings,” Swami raised about $10,000 for earthquake relief.
A good number of the “Treasures Along the Path” tape club membership are not able to send the small cost of each month’s tape selection. Swami has encouraged us in this instance and in countless circumstances like it over the years, to simply give, whenever the desire is sincere.
When Ananda devotees on pilgrimage in India met the saintly, now very elderly woman whom Yogananda had chosen in 1937 to be the bride of his nephew and found her living in terrible poverty and squalor, several pooled their resources over the next two years to purchase a clean, airy home for her family.
I know that Ananda is still thriving in spite of SRF’s unending assault because Swami Kriyananda has never allowed Ananda to think about itself first. Thanks to Swami, we never crawled away to “lick our wounds,” even when we were being scourged in the press and the courtroom. Seeing the response to this, I’m tempted to conclude that to continue to try to do good, to help others, even as one is being castigated for past mistakes is something the small-minded cannot forgive—let alone, understand.
Far from draining money from Ananda departments, as has been charged, Swami has given tirelessly of his energy, creativity, and even personal resources to keep each area strong.
At one of the first Village Council meetings I attended back in 1979 or 1980, a couple of members who knew Swami’s financial situation suggested that if the community offered Swami a modest monthly stipend, he would be able to spend more time teaching at the guest retreat and writing the books which would help people find Yogananda’s teachings, and the invaluable treasure of cooperative spiritual living. That was fully 12 years after Swami had purchased the first land with his own money!. Since then, he had been touring and pouring energy into generating income to meet the fledgling community’s bills.
I think the princely sum agreed upon at that meeting was $1200/month. He drove a second hand car that had been bought at a government auction for $150, he had no debts, and even minimal utility costs, since he had a wood stove. Electricity, as I remember, had just been introduced into his small home.
In the 1980’s Swami’s parents died within a couple of months of one another. With his relatively modest inheritance, Swamiji expanded his home at Ananda Village to accommodate a growing number of residents for meditations, community meetings and festive gatherings. He had used nearly all of his inheritance creating this “public” part of The Crystal Hermitage, as he named it, before he gave any thought to a quiet, downstairs apartment for his own living quarters. In the fitness of things, this apartment became the gift of many of us to him. Even the construction of the lovely first floor area and the gardens at Crystal Hermitage was a vital service to Ananda: we needed to shed the misconception that renunciation had to do with poverty. We had confused beauty with luxury; refinement with indulging in the senses. Ananda entered a new phase of building that strove to reflect the beauty, simplicity, and harmony of Spirit.
At that same time we were beginning a new center in northern Italy in response to the urgings of many devotees there. Swami, with his incredible language skill, rapidly learned Italian and was soon lecturing to help get the seedling center established. With a few thousand remaining of his inheritance, he opened a standard bank account just over the Italian border in Lugano, Switzerland, so there would be a little money available to him and the needs of the new center close at hand. This is the infamous Swiss bank account he has been accused of having! After a few years, that account had been used up and was closed.
Swami Kriyananda has not for several years now received any type of regular stipend or salary from any aspect of Ananda, at his own request. He does not receive any royalties from the sales of the many books and music albums he’s created. He lives on whatever Divine Mother gives him through Her human instruments. Apart from loosely organized group gifts to him around his birthday or Christmas, there is no “fundraising” for him.
Perhaps some people suspect Ananda and Swami Kriyananda of having secret resources, unnumbered bank accounts, etc., because they themselves cannot imagine an individual—much less an organization–existing happily and fearlessly on whatever resources come, nearly moment to moment. But that is the simple truth of the matter.
I often think of Yogananda’s response to the financier who demanded to know, “What are the resources of this organization?” Master replied, “None! Only God!”
I do know that SRF is trying to bankrupt Ananda. SRF’s attempts to shut down Ananda through court decisions has failed. Even Judge Garcia remarked on this rather obvious ploy very early on in the proceedings: “If I grant what you are asking it would put this religion out of business.” Given today’s legal system, which favors those with the money to endlessly spin out appeals and satellite suits, I suppose it is theoretically possible SRF could succeed. But I know in my heart that they won’t, even as I reflect that it’s ultimately Divine Mother’s business. She has supported Ananda unfailingly, miraculously for the eleven years of this legal battle. Ananda for our part will continue to put one foot, with faith in front of the other, trying to do what we feel is right, and trusting that the ground will rise up out of the mists to meet our footfall.
Far from undermining Ananda’s faith in our place within Master’s mission in this world, SRF has unintentionally brought us to a place of great inner resilience, creativity and dynamic will. Perhaps it’s the “interesting times” we are living in, but watersheds in history come inescapably to mind. When Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor did not, as they had hoped, cripple the United States militarily, their own General Yamamoto, who had opposed the plan from the beginning, observed, “I fear that we have only awakened a sleeping giant.”
Catherine is the author of Two Souls: Four Lives, an inspiring book about the present and past lives of Paramhansa Yogananda and Swami Kriyananda, authored under her spiritual name, Catherine Kairavi.