Bertolucci Lawsuit: The Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) Connection

Was SRF involved in the attempt to destroy Swami Kriyananda’s reputation through the Bertolucci lawsuit?


In 1990, SRF filed a lawsuit against Ananda in an attempt to gain exclusive control over Yogananda’s teachings and world mission.

The lawsuit failed. By 1994, SRF had lost at least 95 percent of the judge’s rulings in the case. Instead of enforcing SRF’s trademarks on “Self-Realization” and “Paramhansa Yogananda,” for example, the court canceled them.

SRF’s lawyers saw one last way that SRF might be able to have the benefit of trademarks without actually owning them.

If the public were confused as to the relationship between SRF and Ananda, and if such confusion “tarnished” SRF’s reputation, the court could order Ananda to cease doing anything that might add to the confusion. At the top of the list would be for Ananda to stop using the term “Self-Realization” and the name “Paramhansa Yogananda.”

Ananda knew that “tarnishment” was the only option SRF had left. We assumed that, sooner or later, they would try to prove it.

A consensual love affair with a married man

While living at Ananda Village in 1993, Anne-Marie Bertolucci, a single woman, had a consensual affair with Danny L., a married man who had an autistic daughter.

Bertolucci and Danny sought counseling with Swami Kriyananda about their relationship. He strongly encouraged them to break it off, but did not insist until Danny decided he definitely wanted to remain with his wife and child.

When Bertolucci refused to agree to give Danny up, Kriyananda told her she must move to another Ananda community.

Bertolucci left the meeting in a fury. Later, she apologized, and appeared cooperative. But her resentment grew. She moved to the Ananda Community in Palo Alto, where she lived for a few months, and then left Ananda altogether.

By then, she had connected with a couple who had lived at Ananda Village a decade earlier, and were now SRF members. For this couple, criticizing Swami Kriyananda and Ananda had always been a crusade. Eric Estep had lived at Ananda Village for 12 years, during which he refused to pay the normal member fees toward the community’s upkeep, while criticizing anything that Ananda and Swami Kriyananda did. Swami Kriyananda tolerated this behavior for years, defending Eric when the members suggested he be asked to leave. Finally, the community’s manager offered Estep an alternative: he could start participating in the life of the community, or move elsewhere. Eric chose to leave.

The Esteps took Bertolucci to SRF headquarters in Lose Angeles, where she was given the red-carpet treatment — lunch with SRF president Daya Mata, a meditation in Yogananda’s private rooms, and meetings with SRF board members and senior monastics, including Uma Mata, Mukti Mata, Brother Anandamoy, and Sister Savitri. These were extremely rare privileges, seldom granted even to long-term SRF members.

Now she says it’s sexual harassment

Several weeks later, again with the Esteps’ help, Bertolucci filed a lawsuit against Danny L., Ananda, and Swami Kriyananda. Her consensual love affair had now become “sexual harassment,’ made possible, she claimed, by the cult-like brainwashing she had been subjected to since she got involved with Ananda. She named devotional chanting and Yogananda’s meditation techniques as key elements in the alleged brainwashing process.

SRF’s role in the Bertolucci lawsuit

SRF’s fingerprints were all over the Bertolucci lawsuit. SRF members acted as process servers and legal assistants. While Bertolucci started with a self-declared “cult-busting’ attorney the couple found for her, another firm joined her legal team. Michael Flynn became her lead attorney. An SRF board member declared that Flynn had enjoyed a long association with SRF, beginning years before the Bertolucci lawsuit started.

It quickly became clear that Flynn’s goal was to destroy Swami Kriyananda’s reputation on SRF’s behalf. Bertolucci’s accusations, which had previously been focused on Danny L., shifted increasingly to Swami Kriyananda and Ananda as a whole.

Meanwhile, back at the SRF lawsuit

Once the Bertolucci suit got rolling, SRF asked the judge to consider if SRF was being “tarnished” by association with Ananda. SRF claimed that people were confused between the two organizations, since they both followed the same teacher, and that Kriyananda’s association with the sexual-harassment lawsuit was tarnishing SRF’s reputation. SRF cited the lurid reporting of the lawsuit by the media.

Ananda responded by accusing SRF of “unclean hands” — SRF could not benefit from tarnishment which it had helped to create. Ananda demanded to take Daya Mata’s deposition in order to explore SRF’s involvement in the Bertolucci case. Ananda based its argument on the following evidence:

(1) Just weeks before she filed her lawsuit, Bertolucci was escorted to SRF headquarters by long-time SRF members, where met with Daya Mata and other SRF board members.

(2) SRF members helped instigate the lawsuit by supporting and encouraging Bertolucci and helping her find an attorney to take her case.

(3) Additional accusations against Swami Kriyananda were brought by SRF members or followers.

(4) Bertolucci’s attorney, Michael Flynn, brought Paul Friedman, a major SRF donor with close ties to Daya Mata, to Kriyananda’s sealed deposition, under the false pretense that Friedman was a paralegal with Flynn’s firm.

(5) Shortly after that deposition, SRF transferred to Paul Friedman a valuable piece of land near its Encinitas hermitage, for $1 and “other considerations.”

(6) Friedman boasted to an Ananda member that he had attended Kriyananda’s deposition, and that although most SRF members did not know anything about the Bertolucci lawsuit, Friedman did because he was well-connected with people at the higher levels of SRF, and knew Daya Mata well.

(7) Nearly every person involved in the Bertolucci lawsuit was an active member of SRF, including most of the women who accused Kriyananda, several process servers, and the authors of letters to the Ananda community members in which they tried to persuade them of the wrongness of their cause. Most of the audience during the trial were members of SRF.

Judge orders Daya Mata to answer questions

Even though SRF put up a vigorous fight, Magistrate Judge Nowinski ruled in Ananda’s favor, ordering Daya Mata to appear for a deposition.

The judge said, “By asserting its imaginary ‘litigation privilege’ [as a reason why the deposition of Daya Mata should not be taken] plaintiff [SRF] has effectively admitted it has some connection with the Bertolucci litigation worth hiding and that is enough basis to allow [Ananda] to proceed.”

Ananda tried to schedule Daya Mata’s deposition, but SRF refused to cooperate, although the court had ordered her to appear for the deposition. After six months of failed efforts to serve the deposition papers to Daya Mata, who consistently avoided the servers, Ananda filed a motion asking Judge Nowinsky to enforce the order.

Daya Mata avoids answering questions

At that point, Daya Mata accepted Kriyananda’s suggestion that both sides sit down together and try to settle the case.

A meeting was set for June 12,1997 at the Doubletree Hotel in Pasadena. The entire SRF board of directors met with Swami Kriyananda and the Ananda leaders.

Daya Mata seemed to have had a change of heart. “No more lawsuits!” she exclaimed. The SRF leaders treated Swami Kriyananda and the Ananda leaders with unprecedented kindness and respect. All over the world, Ananda members cheered when they heard the news — A new era of harmony and cooperation appeared to have begun. But the cheering soon faded.

Among the first concessions Daya Mata asked as a condition for settlement was that Ananda not take her deposition. As a gesture of goodwill, Ananda agreed.

Months later, the settlement talks broke down when it became clear that SRF and Ananda had radically different ideas of what “settlement” meant. For SRF, clearly, it meant that Ananda must return all of the rights it had won during the foregoing years of litigation.

SRF resumed its former hostile attitude toward Ananda, and the window of opportunity to take Daya Mata’s deposition had passed and could not be opened again.

Meanwhile, back at the Bertolucci lawsuit

The Bertolucci trial began in November 1997. It was a mockery of justice. (See The Bertolucci Lawsuit, A Complete Summary of the Case.)

The jury ruled 6 to 3 against Ananda and Swami Kriyananda. When Ananda consulted legal experts about the possibility of a reversal of the verdict on appeal, they were stunned by the courtroom proceedings. One expert declared, “This verdict has the shelf life of an apple!” But after years of litigation with SRF and Bertolucci, Ananda had run out of financial resources to continue the fight.

To put further pressure on Ananda, when the Bertolucci trial ended Flynn filed two new lawsuits against Swami Kriyananda, a number of Ananda members, several Ananda communities, and the Ananda-owned bookstores. Even Ananda’s attorneys were named as defendants.

Meanwhile, the SRF lawsuit was inactive, waiting for the Appeals Court to make a decision. But with Flynn’s new lawsuits, there was no break in the legal pressure.

Ananda Village, the largest and oldest of the Ananda communities, was forced to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection to get a financial respite from the litigation. Bertolucci was a major creditor, so Flynn was actively engaged in the bankruptcy proceedings.

Kriyananda’s life’s work is threatened

In bankruptcy court, Flynn adopted the strategy of trying to force the sale of the copyrights to Swami Kriyananda’s books.

At the time, Kriyananda had written some 70 books, which have been translated into 22 languages. Kriyananda’s special gift as a writer lay in showing how Yogananda’s teachings could be applied to all areas of life: work, marriage, money management, creativity, education, leadership, etc. His writing, in fact, had become important in defining the future directions of Yogananda’s work. Nevertheless, Yogananda’s work was still in its infancy, and the Ananda publishing business operated on a shoestring, losing money on most of its books.

Flynn announced to the bankruptcy judge that he had an anonymous buyer for all of Kriyananda’s copyrights, stating that the buyer was willing to pay several times their market value. It was self-evident to Ananda that the buyer was SRF, or someone acting on their behalf. Certainly SRF wasn’t planning to publish the books. The obvious intent was to bury them.

The bankruptcy judge had the power to force Ananda to sell the copyrights to raise money to pay its debts, no matter what might happen to the books.

Ananda had to agree

Bertolucci’s lawyers then offered a global settlement — Ananda could pay a huge sum to resolve all of the issues. It would take years to pay, but then the whole thing would be over.

It was odious to accept what amounted to legalized extortion. But Swami Kriyananda’s life work was at stake, and neither Ananda or Kriyananda himself had the resources to protect it. Ananda had to accept the settlement terms. Shortly after, Ananda Village emerged from Chapter 11.

A blessing for Ananda

At the time, these events seemed quite grim for Ananda, and in fact, on one level, they were. But in the longer term they may have been the best thing that ever happened to Ananda. The more SRF and its minions tried to deprive Ananda’s members of their right to serve their guru, the more dynamic and steadfast they became in that service.

Swami Kriyananda told Daya Mata, “The more you assert untruth about Ananda, the more truth has to come out somewhere.”

Perhaps this reversal of karma explains why, despite the enormous financial burden of the lawsuits, the ensuing years were among most expansive and successful in Ananda’s history. All six of Ananda’s branch communities and churches were established since SRF the start of SRF’s lawsuit.

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