Lawsuit Claims Ananda Is a Cult: What Do You Think?

Is Ananda truly a cult, as the lawyers in the Bertolucci case endlessly claimed? In his book, Cities of Light: What Communities Can Accomplish in the New Age, Swami Kriyananda writes:

One of the saddest developments in our age of materialistic cynicism is the revulsion that has been generated in the popular fancy against religious “cults” of all kinds. Suitable examples have been selected to create this wave of revulsion – groups that were wildly fanatical, or self-serving, or utterly lacking in charity to others, and even to their own.

That people have come, as a result of such publicized examples, to reject the efforts of sincere people to live Godly lives is worse than deplorable: It bodes disaster for the future of our civilization. For only by the uplifting force of a spiritual revival can society be saved from its present headlong plunge into spiritual confusion and total disbelief in any lasting verities. Without such a revival, the present direction of mankind must necessarily be toward the destruction of everything that mankind equates with progress.

What is a “cult”? It is a group of people whose system of beliefs prevents them from accepting any reality other than their own. It is a self-enclosed body of worshipers, separated from society at large by their beliefs, a group of people who either lose or renounce the ability to communicate with others, and who pit their own interests against those of others.

Such a body of people deservedly finds itself excluded by society, since it excluded society from its sympathies in the first place.

The charge of “cultishness,” however, should not be limited to religious groups. Any social group for whom beliefs are more important than people, or than tested reality, commits the error of cultishness. Even individuals, if they reject others on the strength of ideational differences, are showing cultish attitudes by their rejection.

Mature people, even when they disagree, at least “agree to disagree.” A person’s ideas ought not to freeze out others from his sympathies. He should develop ideas, rather, as bridges to cross the chasm that forever separates man from man.

Yogananda was not a “cult leader.” He was in every imaginable way the exact opposite. Where the people he met were often closed-minded, he himself kept his mind constantly open, and tried always to inspire them to do likewise. If people disagreed with him, he never tried to bend them to his point of view, but showed respect for their views, and even showed himself perfectly willing to change his own, should theirs prove right.

He was the perfect man of God for modern times. He displayed the Crystal Clarity of divine understanding as it relates to the problems and attitudes of our age. Yet he never descended from his own lofty vision, which was always rapt in God.

The following letter was written by Asha Praver, co-director of the Ananda Community in Palo Alto, California.

June 17, 1996

Dear Friends:

Last February, an article about Ananda appeared in the Palo Alto Weekly. The focus was a lawsuit filed against Ananda by a woman named Bertolucci. The charge: sexual harassment and other cult-like abuses.

The article was long on sensationalism and very short on truth. It created quite a dust storm when it first came out, but like most newspaper articles, it soon faded away. But the lawsuit itself is far from over and it would be naive to expect that there won’t be another attempt through the media or otherwise to undermine Ananda with these charges. Even though we are pressing for a speedy trial it will be at least next year before that trial takes place.

Two Lawsuits Are Really One Lawsuit

This is not the first legal assault we’ve had to face. In 1990, Self-Realization Fellowship filed a suit against Ananda in an attempt to gain legally what they have long claimed spiritually: exclusive rights to Paramhansa Yogananda’s teachings, his name, his image, and the words “Self-realization.”

Fortunately, the law of the land does not favor religious monopoly, and SRF has lost every key decision, even losing rights they did not know were in jeopardy when they filed their suit, such as copyrights to Yogananda’s books. Because of their lawsuit we were able to publish the first edition of Autobiography of a Yogi. Only a few issues remain to be settled in that lawsuit. Given the course of the judge’s decisions so far, they will likely be decided in Ananda’s favor. But despite SRF’s losses, even at the appeal level, and the extraordinary expense—they have already spent over five million dollars—SRF shows no sign of giving up.

In fact, this Bertolucci lawsuit, although on the surface completely separate, is in fact merely a continuation of SRF’s efforts to discredit and destroy Ananda. Having lost on every other front, there is only one legal option left for SRF: a concept called “tarnishment.”

The Latest Attempt by SRF to Gain A Religious Monopoly

If SRF can prove that Ananda and Swami Kriyananda are somehow morally reprehensible, they can then say that any association in the minds of the public between SRF and Ananda would “tarnish” SRF’s reputation. Already this argument has begun to appear in their legal papers merely on the basis of the Bertolucci suit being filed. Eventually we expect SRF will ask the court to legally prohibit Ananda from doing anything that is in any way reminiscent of what SRF also does, i.e., disseminate Paramhansa Yogananda’s teachings, publicly display his picture, use Self-realization in our name, and so on—to protect SRF from being “tarnished” by association.

The Bertolucci suit is actually against a minister at Ananda Village with whom Bertolucci had a brief consensual affair. The target of the article, however, and the real target of the lawsuit, is Swami Kriyananda. Bertolucci’s lawyers have filed declarations signed by a few women accusing Swamiji of sexual misconduct. These  incidents are alleged to have taken place from thirteen to twenty-eight years ago.

Swamiji has emphatically denied the charges of sexual harassment and abuse, stating that “The declarations are almost entirely false. Where there is truth in them, the facts are so greatly distorted as to be almost unrecognizable.”

The lawsuit describes Ananda itself as being an abusive cult, established only as a front for the systematic exploitation of women. You may think we are exaggerating, but this is precisely how their papers read. The charges are preposterous. We know Bertolucci and the main people supporting her suit —there aren’t many of them—and are aware that each one of them has personal motives for attacking Ananda and Swami Kriyananda – motives that are unrelated to the truth. All of these accusers, and two of Bertolucci’s three lawyers, have strong connections with SRF.

We Want You To Know the Full Story

Immediately after the article came out, we held a meeting at the church to give our congregation the full story, including highly persuasive evidence of the SRF connection, and to answer your questions.  We compiled two notebooks of information. One consists of legal papers from both sides, as well as background material—lots of it!—on all the people involved.

The second is a collection of “Open Letters” written by residents of Ananda Village to each other in March and April, spontaneous communications that offer a unique insight into how devotees deal with this kind of challenge to their faith. Many of you have told us how helpful is was to read the notebooks, especially the letters.

“What If I Don’t Want to Know?”

At this point, you may be asking the question, “Why are you writing this letter to me? I came to Ananda seeking a haven of peace. The last thing I want is to get engaged in this kind of controversy!”

We are in complete sympathy with you! This controversy is very unsettling to many of us. But Divine Mother has thrust it upon us, and it is a test we must face, regardless how unwelcome it may be.

Paramhansa Yogananda said that tests such as this one come sooner or later to every devotee. At some point on the path, negative energy takes form and tries to persuade us to give up our path. Negativity says, “Your faith is a delusion. What you believe in is not worthy of your loyalty, and now you must repudiate that which heretofore has given you inspiration.”

This is exactly what the Bertolucci lawsuit, and the newspaper article, trying to do. SRF, also, is trying to shake our faith by saying that it alone has the true teachings of Master.

Both lawsuits say, “No matter how wonderful Ananda may seem to you, it is false and rotten at the core.”

“By Their Fruits Ye Shall Know Them.” What Do You Think?

If you had experienced Ananda as rotten, you would never have come back, and certainly you would not be receiving this letter! Obviously, you have found benefit from Ananda because you have chosen to return again and again. Many of you are church members who have told us how much inspiration you feel in the Ananda services, meditations, classes, and other events and offerings.

Still, you may say, you hardly know Swamiji and are therefore in no position to judge his true character. We strongly suggest, therefore, that you consider Jesus’ advice for discerning false prophets from true ones: “By their fruits ye shall know them.”

What Ananda “fruits” have you tasted: classes? books? music? Sunday service? the Festival of Light? Kriya? discipleship? ministers?

The “testing” then becomes a question of examining our own experience and asking, “Do I trust my own experience?”

Sometimes deep-seated fears and memories of past disillusionments must  be faced and resolved before we can answer the question with confidence. It is not always easy. God sends these tests, not to break our faith, or persuade to believe unquestioningly – but to challenge us to go deep in our own experience and find the unshakable bedrock truth. Above all, these tests are intended to make us turn within, to God, where alone we can find true solace and wisdom.

Ours is a path of Self-realization. We don’t have the safety net of a powerful organization or a dogmatic theology to protect us from hard questions. We who have more experience of Ananda and Swami Kriyananda will gladly share with you the confidence we have in our own direct experience, but ultimately each of you must decide for yourself what is true.

With a Little Help From Your Friends

Don’t think, however, that you must decide in a vacuum, or that it is a sign of strength to go it completely alone. Don’t hesitate to ask questions or express your doubts. There is a tendency, however, when we have doubts, to talk mainly to other doubters. But you may find it helpful also to seek the counsel of ministers and others who can offer the clarity of greater experience and a broader perspective. The benefit of a spiritual family is that we can help each other—spiritually.

How large or small the test that these events will pose for us is not a question of spiritual advancement. Some of the newest members have been untouched; some long-time devotees have struggled, as you will see from the above-mentioned letters. (The letters are published on this website; see the last three tabs on the home page, starting with number 13: Ananda Members Talk About Their Experiences with Swami Kriyananda.)

Divine Mother’s Blessings Come in Many Forms

God doesn’t send us challenges as a punishment. They are a gift to make us strong. When these lawsuits are finally over, Divine Mother will find other ways to help us grow. For as Paramhansa Yogananda says, we must learn “To stand unshaken amidst the crash of breaking worlds.”

There is a well-known story of St. Theresa of Avila. It was the middle of winter. Theresa was crossing a swollen river when her carriage was swept away by the raging water andshe found herself pulled under the icy current. Just as she thought her life was over, she found herself standing safe and dry on the far bank, with Jesus standing before her.

Jesus smiled at her with divine love and said, “Don’t feel bad, Theresa, this is how I treat all my friends.”

With ready wit, Theresa replied, “Ah, my Lord, no wonder you have so few!”

Let us embrace with enthusiasm what Divine Mother gives us.

Fighting these legal battles since 1990 has already cost us more than a million dollars. Much of the money has come from the small, steady donations of individual Ananda members who have taken it upon themselves to support this cause.

By the Grace of God and Gurus, Ananda Thrives

Unlike SRF, Ananda is not a wealthy organization. You would think, then, that everywhere within Ananda you would see signs of conservation, neglect, and a general hunkering down in order to survive until this is over.

The opposite is true. From the time SRF filed their lawsuit against us, and continuing unabated to the present moment, this has been the most expansive, prosperous, outwardly successful period of Ananda’s history! During these years we have founded new communities, purchased churches, built a beautiful new temple in Assisi, published some of Swamiji’s most important books, and brought forth a whole new kind of music. The flowering of Ananda that you see here in Palo Alto is a reflection of what is happening with Ananda world-wide.

Swamiji says that a simple karmic law is operating with the lawsuits: the more grievously SRF and people like Bertolucci try to harm Ananda by telling lies about us, the more the truth of Ananda will have to come out. SRF has challenged our right to represent Master, and forced us to discover within ourselves a firm determination to serve him even more.

At times, we’ve thought of sending SRF bouquets of flowers in gratitude as we celebrate the founding of a new colony, the publication of a book, or the development of a new church. Undoubtedly the day will come when we will also feel grateful to Bertolucci and her supporters, not because what they have done is in any way admirable, but because they have given us the opportunity to overcome negativity and become strong in the light.

Many blessings, joy, and much love to all of you,

David & Asha