Eric Estep was one of the earliest residents of Ananda. He lived at what is now the Seclusion Retreat for twelve years. He was a talented painter and also had the ability to meditate for long hours. He defined the spiritual path entirely in terms of meditation and looked down on people who focused more on selfless service or devotion. Since service and devotion—in addition to meditation—are fundamental to life at Ananda, Eric was often critical of what was going on in the community. Swami Kriyananda was very patient with him, however, hoping that, in time, Eric would learn to see things from a more expansive point of view.
Swami gave Eric the Sanskrit name of “Sundaram,” which means “seeing divine beauty everywhere.” It is an obvious name for an artist, and Swami also hoped with this name to inspire Eric to look more kindly on the world around him.
Unfortunately, it didn’t work. As the years passed, instead of becoming more expansive, Eric became more intensely critical, especially of Swami. A woman who knew him said that in his later years at Ananda, he developed an “obsessive desire to destroy Swami.” He also became obsessive, she said, “about proving that Daya Mata was Self-realized and Swami, to the contrary, wasn’t.” (This seems like a silly thing to obsess about, since Swami has never claimed to be Self-realized!)
Finally it became obvious to Swami and other Ananda leaders that it was not helping Eric to allow him to continue to live at Ananda. Eric had reached a point where he even refused to pay the modest monthly resident fees that everyone else paid to support and maintain the community. His reasoning was that he’d already paid enough to cover the cost of the little piece of land on which his house sat. As for maintaining the facilities that were of broad benefit to the community, Eric wasn’t interested.
He was asked to leave. Never before had it been necessary to ask a resident member to leave the community.
By that time, Eric was involved with Naomi—his third wife—and when he was asked to leave Ananda, she left with him. They have worked as a team ever since in their attitudes and efforts against Ananda.
After leaving Ananda, they became involved with SRF. Eric describes himself as the founder of the Grass Valley SRF group. Later Eric began to brag that he has a “direct line” to Daya Mata, the president of SRF, and can talk to her whenever he wants to. This was quite a statement, since Daya Mata is inaccessible to most SRF members. SRF—and Daya herself—however, tend to look with favor on anyone who speaks negatively about Ananda and Swami. In this sense, Eric—a twelve year resident of Ananda now turned negative—is quite a prize.
For a number of years, Eric and Naomi remained in the Nevada City area and would show up occasionally at Ananda Village activities. If Eric found a receptive listener, he would expound at length on his favorite theme: the spiritual superiority of Daya Mata and the spiritual inferiority of Kriyananda. Naomi usually stood with him, nodding her head in approval of what Eric was saying, and chiming in herself from time to time.
Sometimes Eric would seek out specific friends from his Ananda years and try earnestly to convince them to accept his point of view. He especially tried to persuade people to repudiate Swami Kriyananda as a spiritual teacher.
Eric and his wife Naomi actually came—uninvited—to the wedding of Swami Kriyananda and Rosanna in 1985. It was an elegant affair and everyone was dressed accordingly. Eric, however, wore cut-off jeans and a tank top, and his wife was dressed in black! Nonetheless, Swami extended his hand in greeting to Eric, but Eric refused to shake it. The mystery is, why did they come?
Over the years, Eric occasionally wrote long letters which he sent to people he knew at Ananda or as mass mailings to residents of our various communities. Often these letters would have a pseudo-objective, almost scholarly tone. He’d use lots of quotes from the writings of Yogananda, Kriyananda, and Daya Mata to “prove” that SRF is “right” and Ananda is “wrong.” When SRF started suing Ananda in 1990, Eric seemed energized by the escalating conflict and did what he could to fan the flames.
In 1994, Anne Marie Bertolucci received one of Eric’s letters, and contacted him. At that time, she was living in the Ananda community in Palo Alto, and Eric and Naomi had also moved to the Bay Area. Anne Marie was angry at Swami Kriyananda for making her leave Ananda Village so Danny would have a chance to save his marriage. Most people at Ananda encouraged Anne Marie to take responsibility for her own actions, and see the whole situation from a broader perspective. Because of this, she was also becoming increasingly disenchanted with Ananda.
In Eric she found a kindred spirit. He was eager to fan the flames of her anger against Swami.
Eric and Naomi took Anne Marie to SRF headquarters at Mt. Washington in Southern California and introduced her to the leaders of SRF. Eric proved that, indeed, he did have a “direct line” to Daya Mata. They had lunch with Daya Mata and Anne Marie was allowed to meditate in Yogananda’s bedroom. Later she met with other senior monastics and members of the SRF board.
SRF’s own lawsuit against Ananda was proving to be a disaster for them. Instead of gaining a legal monopoly on Yogananda’s teachings as they had hoped, the court was stripping them of all control. Anne Marie must have seemed like a godsend to SRF, a way to attack Kriyananda from another angle and finally, they hoped, bring him down. Anne Marie’s personal vendetta—the wrath of a woman scorned—had now become part of a holy crusade.
Eric and Naomi began to help Anne Marie organize herself to file a lawsuit. They found a lawyer who would take the case: Ford Greene, a dedicated “cult buster.” Other SRF members, who were also ex-Ananda members, were drawn in to be her support team and to give substance to her case.
Soon Eric began telling people at Ananda: “Something big is coming.”
Once the lawsuit was filed, Eric and Naomi began a concerted campaign to persuade Ananda members that, for our own salvation, for the future of Ananda, and for Swami’s own good, we had to turn on him and throw him out. They wrote letters, they made phone calls, they distributed to Ananda members, and also to the media, the most lurid documents filed in the case.
Within Ananda, Eric’s prominent role further discredited the Bertolucci cause. Eric’s close ties with SRF alone made it clear he did not have our best interests at heart. And he had long since disqualified himself as a source of objective truth. If Eric said the charges were true, that was enough to persuade many people that the charges had to be false.
Still, it was painful to be subjected to their campaign against Swami. We could hardly believe people could be so mean-spirited and dishonest, especially people who call themselves devotees and disciples of Yogananda.
What a stark contrast it was to the sweetness, goodness, and nobility of Swami Kriyananda.
For further insight into Eric, you may be interested in the following three letters. The first is written by Nalini, Eric’s first wife, written in the middle of the Bertolucci lawsuit. Since Eric was playing such a prominent role in the attack on Ananda, Nalini felt people should know more about his character. The second letter was written by Eric’s second wife about their marriage and Eric’s character. The third is letter from Swami Kriyananda wrote to Eric at the time of Eric’s departure from the community. Eric was becoming quite outspoken in his criticisms, and Swami felt the community needed to know more about him so they could put his criticisms into perspective.