Defending Yoga in America — The Sacrifice of Ananda

From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on August 2, 2015

I had the opportunity to observe Swami Kriyananda during an extremely interesting period of his life, throughout the years when Ananda was being sued by Self Realization Fellowship.

After three years of intense litigation, SRF found itself in the position of having lost all of the rights to Paramhansa Yogananda’s teachings that it had claimed in its lawsuit to own exclusively.

The final decision was rendered in 1994, but the case dragged on for another eight years, with SRF filing endless appeals and futile motions, as it explored every possible legal avenue. But by 1994 the case was essentially decided: the court had cancelled most of SRF’s copyrights and trademarks in Yogananda’s works, and released the rights to the Master’s teachings and his “name, image, and likeness” into the public domain, as his spiritual legacy to the world.

SRF then realized that it had one remaining option.

Nayaswami Naidhruva (Sheila Rush) and Jon Parsons, the attorneys who defended Ananda against SRF’s lawsuit.
Nayaswami Naidhruva (Sheila Rush) and Jon Parsons, the attorneys who defended Ananda against SRF’s lawsuit.

If it could be established that Ananda was a morally corrupt organization, and that any association in the public’s mind between SRF and Ananda would tarnish SRF’s reputation, there might be a chance that the court would return its “ownership” of Yogananda and, equally important to SRF, suppress Ananda’s right to represent the Master’s teachings.

Ananda’s lawyers had warned us that this was likely to happen. And Swami Kriyananda, knowing that SRF would seize any means to regain what it had lost, had told us, “Get ready.”

Sure enough, by the end of 1994 we were engaged in a second lawsuit, the sole purpose of which was to destroy Swami Kriyananda’s and Ananda’s reputation by character assassination.

The legal papers in the case were a boilerplate anti-cult lawsuit that the lawyers had filed many times before. The names were simply replaced with ours – in a few places the old names were even erroneously left in place.

Imagine a long list of clichéd anti-cult accusations, and you’ll have an idea of the charges against us: sexual abuse, financial abuse, power abuse, gender abuse, employment abuse, and cult brainwashing and exploitation.

While we were preparing our defense, Swamiji was traveling in Europe, and in his absence we hired an attorney.

The moment he returned, Swamiji recognized that the attorney didn’t believe in our cause, and that he didn’t have the slightest inkling of what Ananda was about.

Swamiji saw that the lawyer had no doubt that he, Swamiji, was lying, that he didn’t like him, and that he considered him to be guilty like virtually all his criminal clients. As a criminal defense attorney, he saw his role as simply to ensure that his guilty clients received a fair trial. Swami knew that he would not be an advocate for our cause.

Swamiji said, “This is not going to work. This is the wrong man for us.”

But those of us who had hired the lawyer refused to listen. I well remember how we mounted a barrage of counter-arguments.

“But we’ve already spent so much money on this attorney!”

“The trial will start soon. We don’t have time to hire another lawyer and bring him up to speed!”

At that point, seeing that we wouldn’t listen, Swamiji simply put up his hands and stopped speaking.

It was something that I had observed in him many times. It was a spiritual principle that Swamiji was faithful to even now, when his entire reputation was at stake. You can struggle against events for only so long, and if you see that there’s no possibility of changing them, you must recognize that they are coming from God’s hands.

As Swamiji predicted, our attorney basically just went through the motions of presenting a defense, without passion or conviction. And as a result, the trial was a bloodbath. Swami knew that it would happen, yet rather than push against us and deprive us of a spiritual lesson, he accepted it.

Yogananda’s chief disciple, Rajarshi Janakananda, said, “I have come to understand that one-hundred percent of the spiritual path is receptivity.” In resisting Swamiji’s counsel, we showed ourselves needful of a hard lesson: to be more open to divine guidance.

It was ironic in the extreme that, even as the accusers were portraying Swamiji as a ruthless dictator, in this situation, with his entire reputation at stake, his only wish was to let us learn our lesson, even at great cost to himself.

There are times when the forces of evil are arrayed against you, and you need to ask if it’s realistic to go on fighting, or if it’s time to concede: “This is where the river of my life is taking me.”

It was highly instructive to observe Swamiji, especially during the second, much more horrible phase of the lawsuit. Relentless waves of karma seemed to be breaking on Ananda’s shores, and it seemed as if it would never end. And through it all, Swami was at the epicenter.

Cover of book by attorney Jon Parsons, A Fight for Religious FreedomYou can read the story of the SRF lawsuit in an inspiring book by Ananda’s attorney, Jon Parsons, A Fight for Religious Freedom.

Swamiji knew that the outcome would be a disaster. But he told us calmly, “The law of averages says that at least some things are going to go your way. But when everything goes against you, you know that Divine Mother is doing it.”

The higher spiritual meaning of the lawsuit was that God was asking us to perform a sacrifice. As we gradually began to understand the broader meaning of this phase of the lawsuit, it transpired that God was asking us to undertake a difficult spiritual discipline – a tapasya, as it’s called in Sanskrit – for a higher divine cause that had absolutely nothing to do with the charges against us.

During the second phase of the lawsuit, Swamiji remarked many times that he had undertaken this tapasya for the yoga movement in America.

It seems a puzzling statement, unless we’re aware of the underlying spiritual meaning of the cultural currents that led up to the case.

In the 1980s, a certain chaos had begun to enter the yoga movement in this country. Accusations were flying back and forth in literally every ashram in America, with the leaders being accused of a variety of crimes. Most of the organizations folded under the pressure, or else they reinvented themselves in new ways, losing much of their original power and vibrancy in the process.

Long before the carnage began, Swami said, “A dilution is beginning to set in. People are saying, ‘What do we need with gurus?’ ‘Why should we concentrate on doing just one thing?’ ‘Why do we need Self-realization?’”

He said that it was due to the insidious influence of psychology, which was weaving its way into yoga and diluting it in very harmful ways.

Not that psychology itself is insidious, but when it began to intrude itself into spirituality, it had a very dangerous effect.

People were suddenly adopting the language of psychology to re-interpret what were essentially spiritual issues. Instead of taking full responsibility for their own actions, they were conveniently adopting the psychological language of victimhood to rationalize their behavior. And it was all ultimately about defending the ego.

People were joining ashrams without the slightest awareness of the central and indispensable role of the guru-disciple relationship. Instead of accepting it as a sacred bond that takes many incarnations to form, they were demanding, “What about my rights? What about my boundaries?” And, “You should be punished for what you said and did to me, because my ego feels hurt and offended.”

It was a way of displacing, in their minds, any need to understand that God is in charge of our lives, and that His purpose is to free us from the limiting confines of the ego – and to understand, even more radically, that our karma is always fair.

The spiritual attitude, which the saints have always taught, is: “I alone am responsible for my actions and their consequences.”

It doesn’t mean that people can never harm us, or that they shouldn’t be held accountable for their actions. But the fundamental premise of the spiritual path is that the purpose of our lives is to expand our consciousness by facing the truth with courage, rather than succumb to the sweet allure of the ego’s desire to be pampered and justified.

It was this trend, of people entering ashrams without the slightest desire for liberation from ego, and seizing upon the psychological language of ego-rationalization, that led to the ever-increasing wave of anti-cult accusations against perfectly innocent and sincere yoga ashrams and their teachers.

The legal claims against Ananda were patently ridiculous. They were built on a foundation of false outrage, generated by psychologists who encouraged the “victims” to ignore their responsibility for their own behavior.

In Ananda’s case, a perfectly capable adult woman who lived at Ananda Village felt empowered to do whatever she liked, whenever she wanted, without regard for anyone, including entering an affair with a married man. When she didn’t get what she wanted (the man decided to remain with his wife), she became enraged and redefined herself, with the willing help of psychologists and lawyers, as a terribly weak and vulnerable victim who – she actually claimed – had been brainwashed during her first fifteen-minute meditation class, and had remained brainwashed for the next seven years.

It was utterly ridiculous, except that, with the aid of the psychologists and a lead attorney who was a wealthy SRF supporter and a close legal advisor to Daya Mata, it was happening to us, just as it was happening in ashrams across America.

Swami told us that the entire yoga movement in America would come to nothing if it were to continue in this direction, with waves of people asserting their egoic rights.

He said that in trying to “modernize” yoga and bring it up to the extremely limited spiritual standards of psychology, they were in fact eviscerating yoga. And he said that someone needed to take a stand against it, and that he would be the one.

In the final analysis, Ananda lost the battle of the second phase of the lawsuit, but we won the war. In his book about the lawsuit, A Fight for Religious Freedom, Jon Parsons, Ananda’s attorney, describes the outrageous legal machinations of the opposition. The least of these included slandering Ananda in the media, and the worst included enlisting the aid of a judge who ruled that Ananda could not even question its accusers, thus depriving us of the fundamental legal right to due process.

After the trial, we sought the help of an expert on legal appeals, to find out if we might have a chance to overturn the verdict. After thoroughly reviewing the documents in the case, he said, “This verdict has the shelf life of an apple!”

In the end, we chose not to appeal. Even if we were to win, we would only gain the right to a new trial, which would mean additional tremendous expense, at a time when our funds were depleted from defending the first phase of the court case – and having our reputation dragged once again through the mud.

We came out of the battle bloodied but unbowed. By refusing to bend to the forces of ego, Ananda found itself immeasurably strengthened, and empowered to serve as a beacon for those in the yoga movement who value Self-realization above ego-affirmation

How was it possible for Ananda, which followed a great master with faith and honest aspiration, to be subjected to such a humiliating test?

During the court case, Swamiji remarked that we can sometimes do battle for righteousness and come away with a victory, but that at other times God requires a sacrifice.

Sometimes a great tapasya is needed – a period of self-sacrifice for the purpose of demonstrating a higher truth.

Think of the Christians who were thrown to the lions. Why did God not save them? Why didn’t God rescue them at the last moment? Why did so many of them have to render the ultimate sacrifice of death?

Swamiji remarked that it was the courage of the martyrs, and their spiritual power in the face of death, that created Christianity.

Christianity was a cosmic force that was trying to establish itself in this world, in opposition to the forces of paganism and worldliness. And it needed martyrs to impress the new truth upon the world’s consciousness. It needed people of great inner conviction to stand firm and say, “I know this to be true in my heart, to the extent that I am willing to walk into the lions’ den.”

It was their courage that enabled God’s power to spread throughout the West like a great hallelujah, compared to which the loss of a single life meant nothing at all.

The end of an incarnation means nothing. As a Buddhist teacher said, we think of each lifetime as a separate event, but these are not separate events.

Suppose you spy a child wandering into the path of an oncoming automobile. Without a second thought, you dive into the path of the onrushing car and sweep the child out of harm’s way. And if you break your leg in the process, you’ll count it as a worthwhile sacrifice.

The world is a very different place than it appears. And it behooves us in every situation to lift our consciousness to the highest level we are able – not weakly lamenting, “Why is this happening to me?” but saying, “Why is this happening? What divine purpose is declaring itself? Lord, help me to understand Your will!”

Very often in our lives, the best prayer is, “Lord, I don’t have the slightest idea what’s happening. I don’t have a clue. But I will put one foot in front of the other, and in every small decision, I will do the best I can. But You must guide me!”

Swamiji said that if you have the opportunity and the strength to do something constructive that will take you in the direction of greater happiness, by all means you should do it. But if there is no possibility that you’ll be able to change your circumstances, it’s better to leave the matter in God’s hands.

When Swamiji saw that we were about to make a catastrophic decision, and that the only way he could avert it would be to impose his will on us, and declare what we would do against our own best judgment, he said, “I don’t have a position in this. If there was something I could do, I would try.” He essentially said that in his heart he had tried, and that he would leave the matter in God’s hands.

Life is a continual balance between concentrating all of our energy and attention on doing the best we can to improve our circumstances, and on the other hand, not giving our situation a second thought, because we realize that God is in charge of this moment, and that if He wants something else, then that is what we will do without resistance or hesitation.

We live in the palm of His hand. We do our best in His hands. But it is He who is always carrying us.