Identities Revealed: Letter From Eric Estep’s First Wife

Eric Estep is referred to throughout this letter as Sundaram, the spiritual name he used at Ananda and was known by for many years.

March 27, 1996

To my dear spiritual family,

My name, Nalini, means “lotus flower.” When Swamiji gave me this name in 1971, he said it symbolized the growth of my soul, out of the mud of matter-attachment into the sunlight of spirit. Perhaps this image of self-transformation is a helpful perspective on my early days at Ananda with Sundaram.

I meet Sundaram at Ananda

Sundaram was one of the first people I met when I visited Ananda in 1970. It was love at first sight; our romance started immediately. There was no doubt in our minds that we were soul mates, and that our marriage was made in heaven. To his credit, he did help me move to Ananda, and for this I’ve always been grateful.

Nowadays at Ananda unmarried newcomers are encouraged to spend at least a year alone. No such rules existed in the old days. Instead of bonding solidly with Master, I bonded with Sundaram, and trusted his advice in all areas of my life. I saw my life, my path, my sadhana—everything—through Sundaram’s eyes. He was my husband, my best friend, my “guru,” my all in all.

Sundaram meditates while I work and support him

After our house was built, it was his role, as the “more evolved soul,” to stay home and meditate and to do some painting when he felt inspired, while I worked in the community. At the time, I saw myself as the ideal Hindu wife, selflessly serving my husband. Our marriage worked for a time because he was completely in control, and I went along with it.

It took many years after we separated before I could even begin to see that his perception of the spiritual path was not only incomplete, but even dangerously unbalanced. For Sundaram, meditation was the ONLY spiritual activity. This meant that everything else—work or service to God, innocent pleasures, human feelings and needs for friendship and affection—all were “unspiritual,” and thus a source of guilt.

It was hard to thrive as a human being, let alone as a woman, in such an environment. I remember a short period, not long after we were married, when we discussed the possibility of having children. We joked about Sundaram’s “box theory” of childraising. He said that if our child were to cry or make any demands on us whatsoever, we would just put ‘em in a box and shut the lid. Wisely, Divine Mother decided not to give us children.

Sundaram unilaterally announces celibacy

In reality, Divine Mother had very few opportunities. For as soon as the romantic phase was over, my guru-husband decided unilaterally that celibacy was the surest path to God. All affection was off limits, too. The inevitable “slips” were enveloped in guilt and remorse. Already invalidated for my womanly feelings, now I was regarded as an “evil temptress” by my own husband. Celibacy also played into the strategy of control: starved for any sign of love, I humbly awaited any scrap of affection that he might dole out. I can remember going for days sometimes with barely even a conversation. Ironically, living in a convent with other nuns would have been much easier and far less lonely!

Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately), meditation was something Sundaram was “good at”, and I know he took great pride in helping me and others with spiritual practices. Frankly, he felt superior to most people at Ananda: their selfless devotion and long hours of service were as nothing in his eyes—only meditation mattered. “Seclusion is the price of greatness,” was a phrase I heard often.

Kriyananda’s patience with Sundaram

Considering Sundaram’s brittle stubbornness, Swamiji handled him with extraordinary patience and love. He was given all sorts of slack and special privileges; basically the community left him alone to grow at his own pace. (And now he claims Ananda is a cult?) In the early days he was occasionally asked to do paintings and book covers for which he was paid a modest fee. Kriyananda was trying ever so gently to coax him out of his cave of self-preoccupation into a more expansive view of service.

Even now, I feel a deep sense of sorrow that Sundaram was not able to open his heart and receive the love Kriyananda tried to give him. It upset him that Swamiji wasn’t perfect (he needed a “perfect authority” to feel secure). He couldn’t understand that the solution lay in expanding his heart to accept his own humanity, as well as Kriyananda’s, and then to let Master guide him, through his heart, not his mind, out of his delusions.

Creativity

Both men could be described as “sitting on a volcano of creative energy.” Swamiji has learned to channel that energy into service to Master; he could have been a helpful role model. Instead, Sundaram rejected Swamiji’s example, along with his own creativity.

I remember Sundaram relating one time that after meditating several hours, he had felt creative energy trying to bubble up and be expressed. His mind was filled with ideas for a project. With great pride, he told me that he had managed to suppress the energy and continue meditating. At other times he referred with disdain to Swamiji’s “need to create.” I was shocked at this distortion of our teachings. “What’s wrong,” I thought to myself, “with a devotional poem or a beautiful painting of Master?” In retrospect, it was inevitable that Kriyananda’s expansive, “Say Yes to Life” attitude would collide in countless ways with Sundaram’s contractive view of spirituality culminating in his decision to leave Ananda.

The supreme irony is that, having left, Sundaram’s creative energies are now pouring nonstop into a lurid court case battle. (Being a true warrior, fighting has always been one of the few human activities that he could engage in without a sense of guilt. I observed that he “came alive” in the face of any confrontation.) Yet, had he stayed at Ananda he might have been able to fulfill his destiny by serving Yogananda in a more positive way. What a tragic waste of his artistic talents!

Emotional abuse

The question remains: Was I abused? Not physically, but emotionally and spiritually, yes. As Kriyananda says in his discussion of “ahimsa”, there are subtle forms of murder; physical killing is only the most obvious. To kill a person’s faith in himself is the more insidious. So great was the damage to my self-respect, that it was several years after our divorce before I had enough confidence to feel even the slightest trace of anger at how I had been treated.

Unilaterally, again, Sundaram announces a divorce

In June of 1976, a few days before the Ananda fire, Sundaram announced that he wanted a divorce—being married was an obstacle to him spiritually. He yearned to be a monk and hermit, he claimed, without the distraction of a woman in his life. In keeping with our teacher-student relationship, it was, again, a unilateral decision. There was no discussion of how we might work to improve our relationship. I had no choice but to humbly accept his “wisdom.”

Soon thereafter, two love affairs

Imagine my shock, then, a month or two later when he initiated a passionate, sexual affair with another woman. And within a short time, he had two love affairs going. Obviously I felt betrayed and rejected as a woman, but that wasn’t all. Since Sundaram had at all costs to be “right,” there was no question of apology or at least frank admission about his needs as a man for feminine energy. Instead he turned this guilt back on me: It was MY fault, because I was inadequate spiritually. Since he was such a “high soul,” he needed to be with these two women who were much more spiritual than I was. In fact, my grief and attachment to him were further proof of how “unspiritual” I was.

I was devastated—not just emotionally, but spiritually. The last little bit of ground I had to stand on, my self-respect, my very soul, had been ripped away from me. It was many years before I was to recover.

At least I did recover, slowly. My life now is truly happy and fulfilling. Had it not been for my own inner work and self- honesty, and the unconditional love of Swamiji and other dear souls, I don’t know where I would be, Unlike Sundaram, Swamiji constantly held before me the Image of my higher self, the light of my own divine potential—“lotus flower”.

As devotees we know that “there are no victims.” We are all responsible for what happens to us. Yet it is worth noting that out of all the losses I have suffered, from death, divorce, and separation, this divorce initiated by Sundaram was infinitely the most far-reaching in its damage to my psyche. In no other relationship have I ever felt rejected on such a deep level. Yet I can see that it came out of his unrealistic assessment of himself and an insatiable need to be “right,” whatever the cost.

Obsession with being “right”

The same need to be “right,” has characterized his relationships with other women, his decision to leave Ananda, and subsequent events leading up to the second lawsuit. So many people have left Ananda over the years, going their way with harmony and inner peace. Yet Sundaram has continued to be obsessed over who is “right.” He could never just let the issue go. Now, with both lawsuits, the opportunity to align himself with SRF and with Anne Marie has suited his purposes perfectly.

An unhealthy desire to control others

I would much prefer to leave these painful memories buried in the past, but the parallel to the current situation forces me to speak up. Out of discomfort with his own sexuality and imperfections, Sundaram is lashing out and trying to destroy Kriyananda’s confidence, as he once sought to undermine my faith in myself. His own unhealthy desire for control over others is, I feel, being projected onto Kriyananda. Clinging to a sense of “spiritual superiority,” the possibility that he might be even partly in the wrong is inconceivable. Even now he professes to “love” Kriyananda and Ananda—after all, hatred isn’t spiritual, is it? Yet his actions (and those of his lawyers) are NOT loving; they are clearly intended to” destroy us. The apparent SRF sanction for what he is doing only obscures the deeper motives of guilt and revenge.

What is the truth?

How can we ever truly know or understand another person? If there is any truth in my words, it springs from a deep love for Sundaram and a soul connection of many lives. I shudder at what this soul is creating for himself. Yet all of us have blind spots.

The bottom line is this: Yogananda wants Ananda to exist! And it would not exist without Kriyananda. I believe this with all my heart and soul. Communities of devotees, like Ananda, are desperately needed at this time in history. Paramhansa Yogananda said that World Brotherhood Colonies would “spread like wildfire.” How will that happen unless places like Ananda are allowed to flourish? Imperfect though we may be, Yogananda is using us as instruments to spread the Ideal of spiritual communities.

If Ananda and its supporters are silenced, the very stones will cry out. If Ananda is destroyed, Yogananda will work through other instruments. The wave is coming—World Brotherhood Colonies are happening. Ananda is happening. This Is Master’s will. This is Babaji’s plan for this age.

In Master’s light, with all sincerity,

Nalini