Ananda: Building the Foundations
We must go on — not only those who are here, but thousands of youths must go North, South, East and West to cover the earth with little colonies, demonstrating that simplicity of living plus high thinking lead to the greatest happiness!
—From a speech by Paramhansa Yogananda on July 31, 1949
These words, which Swami Kriyananda had heard Yogananda declaim with overwhelming power twenty years earlier, were like living flames, blazing constantly in his consciousness. They continued to inspire him and guide him forward toward the fulfillment of his Guru’s vision. For the next several years Swamiji worked tirelessly to prepare the way for the first of these communities, teaching people and accumulating the resources that would be needed for the birth of Ananda. It would, he knew, take great courage and determination to face the many obstacles ahead. Was he, Swamiji wondered, ready for them?
From 1965 to 1969 Kriyananda continued to live in San Francisco, working with hundreds of students who attended the classes he taught three or four times a week. The venues were spread out over a large area, requiring him to drive long distances from San Francisco — north to Marin, south to Palo Alto, east to Berkeley and even Sacramento.
A small but dedicated core of students began regularly to attend his classes. Inspired by Yogananda’s teachings and by Swamiji’s dedication, they joined him in serious, regular meditation, embracing the spiritual path ever more deeply. Over the years, many came, ultimately to remain with Kriyananda, and dedicated their lives with him to God. These were the core people who created Ananda Village.
One of these students was Jyotish (John) Novak, a young man fresh out of college who had read Autobiography of a Yogi. Jyotish came unannounced to Swamiji’s apartment one day in 1966. Swamiji, on seeing this bright young man, asked him if he would like to help with a mailing he was just sending out to announce a new class series. Jyotish willingly agreed. Soon he, too, was studying yoga and meditation with Swamiji.
Several months later, seeing Jyotish’s deep interest in and understanding of the teachings, Kriyananda asked him to assist in teaching his classes. By 1968, Jyotish was able to teach some of them himself. In September of that year, Kriyananda asked him if he would like to give up his job as a social worker and become his full-time assistant. Jyotish accepted the offer, and has been Kriyananda’s right hand man ever since.
Of Jyotish, Swamiji has said: “For well over thirty years, he has been among my most loyal and dearest friends, sharing with me the struggles and growing pains of Ananda, and my perception of it as one of the most exciting and important undertakings of modern times.”
By now, a small group of people had begun working with Swamiji. With savings from his classes, he felt ready at last to begin the community. First, he had to find land. After a few false starts, the way opened up. In January 1967, a friend who knew about Kriyananda’s need for land suggested that he contact Richard Baker, at that time the president of the Zen Center of San Francisco, which was building a retreat center in the mountains near Carmel, California. It was possible, this friend felt, that Richard might know of other available sites. Swamiji made a mental note to contact him.
A few weeks passed. One day, Kriyananda happened to enter a small shop in San Francisco in order to get some of his pictures framed. Another customer was already present. As he waited, Swamiji overheard this man talking to the owner about a parcel of land in the country. “I’m thinking of buying it for a retreat,” he said. “I’d like to find several others to buy into the property with me, provided their ideals are in harmony with my own.”
At this point Swamiji, growing interested, entered the conversation. “Excuse me,” he said, “what is your name?”
“Richard Baker,” was the reply.
As he’d begun to suspect, this was the very man his friend had suggested he contact! Swamiji asked Richard if he’d care to tell him more about the project. Richard then spread a map of the property out on a table. It showed 172 acres in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains near Nevada City, California. Richard (Dick) Baker said he was planning to divide the land into twenty-four-acre parcels, hoping to find others who would buy in with him.
“I’ll be visiting the property later this spring,” he said. “Would you care to come along? Several of us will be going.”
So it happened that in April, 1967, Swamiji drove up to the Sierra Nevada Mountains with Dick Baker and a few of his friends to see the proposed site. Kriyananda’s immediate reaction to the land was completely positive: “The altitude at the top,” he wrote later, “was 3000 feet. The air was fresh. The property was wooded, gently rolling, and serene, giving onto views of distant, snow-capped Sierra mountains. I went off by myself to ‘feel’ the land. The impression came to me strongly that the particular portion I was walking had been blessed already by our line of gurus.”
Feeling these blessings in his heart, Swamiji ended up investing in three parcels in all — about 72 acres. He was able to pay them off by the end of April from savings he had earned from his classes. His next step was to begin construction.
In the early 1960s, when Swamiji had been in India working on the Delhi project, he’d meditated on the ideal shape for a temple. A dome, it seemed to him, was the best form with its rounded, uplifting yet unimposing lines. An architect had once said to Yogananda, “Immortalize your teachings in architecture.” The Master had agreed, and often, thereafter, had quoted this man. The dome shape, Kriyananda had concluded, expresses qualities of aspiration, self-expansion, and universality that form the heart of Yogananda’s teachings.
Swamiji had a little money left after purchasing the land. He began to look for an inexpensive way to construct a dome-shaped home for himself. A friend of his — Charles Taft, a now-famous professor at U.C. Davis — showed him a “sun dome” he was constructing in his back yard. He’d found the concept, he told Swamiji, in an article in Popular Mechanics magazine. This article contained simple instructions for how to build the “Sun Dome” from narrow wooden struts joined together to form triangles, which then were covered with thin, clear sheets of plastic.
The project seemed simple enough in theory. In practice, however, it took many hours and months of labor, which Swamiji devoted to it during the summer and fall of 1967. Finally, with the help of Jyotish and a few other friends, they began to assemble the triangles on a platform they’d already built. Enthusiastically they watched this fairy-tale structure rising and taking shape. Their sense of satisfaction was short-lived, however. The final triangle was on the point of being put in place when, suddenly, the force of gravity brought the entire fragile structure collapsing around them.
Swamiji refused to give up. Replacing the broken pieces with stronger ones, he reassembled them. On completion, the structure was a dream of beauty: graceful, airy, filled with light. His lovely dome-home was, however, destined to collapse like the first one: destroyed, this time, by the first autumn wind.
Summoning up the courage for a third effort, Kriyananda tried once again, securing the wooden triangles together with metal plates. This time, surely, they couldn’t rip apart. Alas, they didn’t have to! Swamiji knew nothing of the power of air to lift a domed structure. While he was away, teaching for a few days in the city, a powerful gust of wind swept up from the valley. It lifted the entire structure off the platform, carried it intact for a few feet, then dropped it unceremoniously on the ground, smashing it to bits. Several days later, when Kriyananda returned to the property for a short rest in his new home, he found pieces of it draped artistically over the surrounding bushes.
What could he do? He accepted defeat calmly and cheerfully. What else? Sitting down on the bare platform, he had — to his own surprise — a joyful meditation.
He took this failure as a sign that he must wait before building a home for himself. First, he must concentrate on building a temple for others.
An interesting sidelight occurred at this time. In May of 1967 Swamiji was invited to dinner at the home of some students of his in Rancho Cordova, outside Sacramento. Present that evening was a highly regarded psychic, Ann Armstrong. This lady, during dinner, asked Kriyananda, “Would you like me to do a reading for you?” She was offering the “reading” free of charge. This was their first meeting, and Ann knew nothing of Kriyananda’s plans for creating a community. Viewing the offer as a pleasant-seeming diversion, Swamiji accepted.
Later, at Jim and Ann Armstrong’s house, Ann invited Swami into her study. Here, grasping both his wrists, she began to concentrate. Instantly, both of them went into a superconscious state. Ann began to speak into a tape recorder: “As I took your wrists, I suddenly felt your soul. It’s a deep soul, a wonderful soul. God has blessed you in many ways: your voice, that you may inspire people; your hands, that you may play beautiful music. The time has come, now, for you to take the next step in your life. There is much that you have accomplished, but it is time for you to establish a center where you can bring to a focus what you’ve accomplished so far. In this way you’ll be able to move on to your next phase. All doors are open before you. The ground has been prepared. It’s as though this next phase is just waiting to receive you.”
By the end of 1967, Swami Kriyananda was probably the best-known yoga and meditation teacher in the greater San Francisco area. Though he loved bringing people to Yogananda’s path, the goal shining always before him was the fulfillment of Yogananda’s vision for world brotherhood colonies. With his concentration directed one-pointedly toward this aim, Swamiji was teaching classes Monday through Friday evenings. During the days, he worked on writing books and on answering letters. On weekends, he alternated between giving worship services at the Cultural Integration Fellowship in San Francisco, and going up to the new land to help with its development.
Despite SRF’s condemnation, Swamiji felt that the building of Ananda was something he must do to serve his Guru. Because of SRF expressed disinterest in this aspect of Yogananda’s mission, Kriyananda felt free now to pursue his Guru’s goal of communities without fear that doing so would create sense of competition. Unceasingly and selflessly he poured his energy, his resources, and his life into creating the community.
By the beginning of 1968, it was time to find people who might want to move onto the property. When Swamiji told his city students about Ananda, however, most of them backed away apprehensively. Seeing their unwillingness to take such a big step in their lives, he realized that moving to the community might seem a bit drastic to the average city dweller. Yet he knew that he had to draw people, if Ananda was to become a reality.
In the early spring Kriyananda held a meeting at his apartment. He’d invited a few friends who he thought might be interested. Others, unfortunately, came too — uninvited. Some of them were people Kriyananda hardly knew. These “outsiders” expressed objections often, diverting the direction of the meeting away from any meaningful discussion, and forcing it finally to a standstill.
One man stood up and announced in a voice shaking with fear, “I know a teacher from India who got so involved in building such a place that he lost all his inner peace. Today — he’s a MONSTER!” Others chimed in with more concerns, all of them perfectly groundless. In the end, as Kriyananda was to put it later, “There was nothing to do but serve tea and cookies.”
Afterward he pondered: Was this a sign that he must give up? To do so, even in the face of seemingly impossible odds, was simply not in his nature. What saved that meeting from being a total loss was the fact that it convinced Swamiji to put his ideas down in writing. Only thus, he realized, might people come to understand Yogananda’s communitarian vision. With that aim in mind, he left for the new property and, for a whole week, camped on the platform in a tent.
There, he went over the notes and reflections on communities that he’d gathered over many years. Assembling them into some semblance of order, he began giving them literary shape. During long walks he hammered out his thoughts, clarifying them. At the end of the week, he wrote Cooperative Communities — How to Start Them, and Why (out of print in 2008). The first publication of this book was in the spring of 1968. It marked in many ways the birth of Ananda. By giving his abstract thoughts a concrete form, Swamiji drew down the idea of spiritual communities from the “ether” into the realm of practical possibility.
This little volume began to circulate among Kriyananda’s students in California. It was placed in bookstores in mimeographed form, where it was bought by a few people, who then expressed interest in the idea. Gradually, the “book” found its way across the country. The concept of world brotherhood colonies was a new one; it reached out and touched many who later came and helped to build Ananda. Over time, Cooperative Communities — How to Start Them, and Why became a manual for this new way of life, and was seen as a guide for all who wanted to build ideal communities.
In the summer of 1968, Swamiji decided the best way to attract people to life at Ananda was to create a spiritual vortex of energy. He would build a Meditation Retreat. Interested people could come and visit there to “test the waters,” and to get an initial feeling for what life in a community would be like.
He had raised enough money through classes and donations to begin work on the first structures. He still held to his ideal of constructing domes. By this time he had learned of the existence of pre-fabricated dome kits, and purchased a few of them. From his earlier failures at building a dome, he realized that what he needed now was professional help: a carpenter as foreman of the project, and competent helpers. Some of Kriyananda’s students, along with a crew of high school students, camped out at the Meditation Retreat that summer and helped with the construction.
The plan was to put up five buildings — four domes and a bathhouse. The domes were situated together in a central area of the property. They were to include a temple, a common dome (with combined kitchen and dining room), an office/reception center, and, slightly removed from the others, a home for Swamiji.
The foreman assured Kriyananda that the domes would be completed in two weeks. Two weeks passed, however, and not even the foundations had been completed. Two more months at least would be needed to finish the project. With wages at $1,000 a week, and with the high cost of materials, Swamiji’s meager savings vanished quickly. By the end of summer, the situation had become desperate. Kriyananda applied to a local bank for a loan, but was denied. At this point the foreman and most of his assistants walked off the job, leaving Kriyananda high and dry. The final blow came a month later, when a local lumber company put a lien on the property as collateral for the money Swamiji still owed them. Kriyananda had previously got them to agree to a reasonable payment plan, and had been honoring his agreement. Now, however, this company saw a chance to seize a valuable piece of property. Their lawyer threatened foreclosure in two weeks if Swamiji didn’t come up with the full amount.
Years of living in a monastery had not prepared him for such a self-serving mentality. In fact, so naïve was he about financial matters that, years earlier, when he’d first applied for a credit card and was asked for references, he had innocently offered character — not financial — references! That initial credit card application was refused.
With Ananda’s very survival threatened before it was even born, Swamiji prayed deeply for his Guru’s guidance and help. In his heart he felt the encouragement to carry on; all would be well. Armed with this inner reassurance, he began determinedly to teach more classes than ever. More students enrolled than ever before. When he told them about Ananda’s financial needs, some of them came forward with unexpectedly large donations.
One student at this time was Seva (Sonia) Wiberg, a young woman who had been attending his classes in San Francisco. Seva, who had considerable office experience, typeset Cooperative Communities in the evenings after work. She was able also to help out financially at this critical time. Seva has remained a staunch part of Ananda ever since, and has been extremely instrumental in the community’s subsequent success.
By the end of two weeks, Swamiji was miraculously able to raise the money still needed to pay off the lumber company and to meet other pressing debts. Thereby, he removed the threat of foreclosure. During this time, to raise money, he even sold his prized astrological gem bangle, which had been on his arm all through the years he’d spent in India.
Of this period he wrote: “By the end of 1968, by God’s grace, the Retreat was built and was very nearly paid off. People were beginning to ‘rally round the flag.’ I’d already dedicated Ananda in August 1968. The Retreat domes weren’t completely finished, but people came nevertheless, especially on weekends. They slept in tents or in sleeping bags under the stars. We had strolling kirtans at dawn, classes in the open air, and group meditations. Three or four hardy souls remained there through the winter. The crisis had passed, with God’s grace, and with my Guru’s help.”
By spring of 1969 more people began arriving. Soon, fifteen or twenty of them were living full time at the Retreat. A few families came also, some of them blessed (or burdened!) with exceptionally exuberant children. It soon grew clear that children’s active, outward energy was far from compatible with the quiet calm needed for a Meditation Retreat. Another piece of land was urgently needed if the community was to become a reality. Where, however? And how?
A friend of Kriyananda’s in Sacramento, Dr. Gordon Runnels, knowing that Kriyananda was in need of more land, mentioned a piece of property to him that he’d heard about. “It’s in your general area,” he said—“I think.” Again, Swamiji made a mental note to follow up on this lead. Meanwhile, the Retreat residents needed to be housed if they were to remain there through the next winter.
To complicate matters further, in the first week of June Swamiji received a letter from Dick Baker, who was at that time in Japan. Dick had somehow heard a rumor that a huge influx of people were arriving at Ananda, and were building a town! He reminded Swamiji that the property they’d bought together was for seclusion. “Please,” he pleaded desperately, “do no more construction until I return in the fall.”
Dick’s letter arrived on a Friday morning. The buildings needed for winter couldn’t wait until autumn: That would be too late to get people housed by winter. “Divine Mother,” Swamiji prayed, “help me to find a solution!” The answer came quickly, and in a much more dramatic way than he’d expected.
On his way to Ananda from San Francisco that same day, Kriyananda stopped in Sacramento to visit his friend, Dr. Runnels, the man who had told him about land “in your general area — I think.” In the doctor’s office was the real estate agent who was handling the property Dr. Runnels had mentioned. Swamiji asked — more out of politeness than expectation — if he could see a map of the area. The land proved to be only six miles from the Retreat!
“Would you care to show it to me?” he asked.
They drove up that very afternoon. In fading sunlight Swamiji walked some of the most beautiful land he’d ever seen. Inwardly he asked his Guru if this was the right place for the community. In his heart, he felt the Master’s blessings. This was, however, a huge financial commitment to make. The land (260 acres) had been divided into 40-acre parcels. Feeling that it would all somehow work out, Swamiji asked the agent, “Could you hold these parcels for me over the weekend?” He named most of the 40-acre pieces.
“I can certainly try,” the agent replied. He went back that night, and, late as it was, removed those listings from the board.
Less than a year had passed since Swamiji had found that he had two only weeks to raise $12,000 for the Retreat. Now he needed to raise an additional $13,500 — in a single weekend!—for the down payment on the new land. “If God wants us to have it,” he said, “He’ll be able to work everything out.”
Kriyananda began to make urgent telephone calls. Though no large promises were made, he received many small donations. By the next day, less than twenty-four hours after receipt of Dick Baker’s letter, he had received all the promises he needed.
Thus, on July 4, 1969, Kriyananda, Jyotish, and a few others signed the papers for the property that was to become known world-wide as Ananda World Brotherhood Village. What incredible faith and effort had been required to manifest this dream!
After Ananda had taken possession of the land, word got out that a new community was starting. People began arriving — most of them products of San Francisco’s “hippie” culture; very few of them, unfortunately, students of Swamiji’s classes. The pressing questions that faced Kriyananda and the community the first summer were: 1) How to draw the income to meet the monthly land payments? 2) How to build housing for the winter? 3) Would Ananda members be required to follow only Yogananda’s path? and 4) What kind of leadership role would Kriyananda play at Ananda? These questions were roughly hammered out during the first year of the community’s existence, and helped to determine Ananda’s development in the years to come.
The answer to that first question was that Swamiji continued to provide the bulk of the income from his classes. Other sources did open up also. During the first summer, many guests attended programs at the Meditation Retreat. A small print shop was set up to print Swamiji’s books, and thereby created a small publishing business. Jyotish developed an incense and essential oil business, which employed several members. A jewelry business, a suitcase factory, and a garden producing organic vegetables — all of these projects were started. Though some of the new members worked industriously to help meet the expenses, others — the “hippie” types — spent their days lounging happily at the nearby Yuba River, convinced that “God would provide,” somehow.
The next question to be faced was housing for the winter. Swamiji called a meeting of those who hoped to stay on. A solution was reached: canvas-covered tipis! Jaya and Sadhana Devi Helin, two of Ananda’s earliest members, recall, “We organized a huge tipi pole expedition with 20-30 people going off to the forest to cut and strip trees by hand for tipi poles. We brought back 280 poles — enough for 14 tipis. Sadhana Devi then proceeded to sew 12 tipi covers out of canvas.” These tipis, and a few small trailers in addition, provided housing for most of the members during the first years until small, livable homes could be constructed.
The question of attunement with Yogananda’s path, and that of Kriyananda’s leadership, were more challenging. Because Swamiji never presented himself as anything but a humble disciple of his great Master, new people often questioned his authority. They ignored the obvious fact that it had always been his energy that had driven the project. He wanted to draw new members toward discipleship to his Guru without coercing anybody. Some of them, however, by nature eclectic and outspokenly anti-authoritarian, asked of one another, “Who is this Kriyananda that we should listen to him?”
By November of 1969 matters came to a head. A small group of residents—“free-loaders,” mostly — decided they didn’t want anyone telling them what to do. Nor did they even want to discipline themselves. Swamiji was forced to issue an ultimatum: If people didn’t agree to wholehearted dedication to God and to Yogananda’s path, he himself would leave the community. Fortunately for Ananda’s survival, those who left were only those desirous of “doing their own thing.”
Over the years Swamiji had to work out a new style of leadership. In the beginning he made only two rules: no hallucinogenic drugs, and no alcohol. He wanted the community to be guided not by rules, but by the creative exercise of common sense.
He also wanted people to have the freedom to grow in their own understanding and ability, and not to be forced to accept decisions mindlessly, simply because the decision had been made. At first, many of those coming weren’t even devotees, what to speak of disciples. In time, because Swamiji never forced anyone to act against his will, but offered his Guru’s teachings magnetically to all, many were inspired to accept Yogananda as the spiritual focus for Ananda’s way of life.
Thus, Kriyananda’s leadership style emerged slowly as one based on wisdom, compassion, and enduring patience. In community decisions, he guided people to ask, “What is right?” and, “What does God want?” rather than (for each person), “What do I want?” Swamiji has described Ananda’s government as a “dharmocracy, a community dedicated to actions leading to soul-freedom, and not to furthering one’s ego-involvement.”
From his experience over the years — with SRF, with the work in India, and, since then, working on his own — Swamiji understood the importance of working with positive, solution-oriented people. His primary goal in leadership was to develop leadership in others. He never gave too much energy to those who resisted his efforts. Always, he upheld a principle, the value of which he had learned by its absence at SRF: “People are more important than things.” This firm belief has been, perhaps, the most important feature of Ananda’s development, and the key to its ultimate success. When asked, in later years, what his role is at Ananda, Swamiji has replied simply, “My job is to look out for the needs of the individual.”
After the Exodus of the Uncommitted Ones during the fall of 1969, the winter months were quiet. The seeds for future growth, however, were germinating beneath the soil. By the spring of 1970 these seeds burst into flower with fresh, vibrant energy. Swamiji moved up full time from the city to his dome at the Meditation Retreat. Many of the more committed members now started to live on the new property, and Jyotish began serving as the community’s general manager.
In the scant amount of free time available to him, Kriyananda wrote a yoga correspondence course, 14 Steps to Perfect Joy (later renamed The Art and Science of Raja Yoga). He based this course on his new approach to the yoga postures, and on Yogananda’s interpretations of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. His anxiety was not to create anything that might be in competition with SRF’s written correspondence course.
In the years 1971-1974, Swamiji wrote several other books, including Your Sun Sign As a Spiritual Guide and Letters to Truth-Seekers. Most notably, he published, in 1972, the book he’d been researching for ten years, Crises in Modern Thought (since then re-named, Out of the Labyrinth). In 1974 he began working on The Path, his autobiography, which tells the story of the years he spent with his Guru.
Meanwhile, from 1970-1975, nearly one hundred committed new members joined the community. Those who were now coming were deeply devoted to Swamiji’s vision for Ananda, and to their own spiritual search as disciples of Paramhansa Yogananda. They were hardy souls, blessed with a pioneering spirit.
Nalini Graeber, who arrived in 1970, said, “Although it was incredibly primitive physically, there was a wonderful spiritual bhav (atmosphere). Swamiji gave talks once or twice a week, and we meditated with him frequently, so the vibrations of satsang were thrilling. That’s what drew so many of us here: the extremely magnetic atmosphere of divine love. Nothing else would have impelled me to move to Ananda in January and live in a cold tipi with three feet of snow on the ground!”
These years were not without their share of challenges. The temple at the Meditation Retreat burned down in 1970 and had to be rebuilt. Meeting the expenses at the end of each month were regular tests of faith; passing them always seemed a miracle. By God’s grace, however, everything came together.
The construction of homes continued until, by 1976 — eight years since Ananda’s birth twenty-two simple homes for members were located on forested sites. Other houses existed elsewhere, but these twenty-two homes constituted the main development. God was now to give Ananda another test, one that would try the strength and courage of everyone more than ever before.
On June 28, 1976 a forest fire devastated the community, destroying most of its trees and twenty-one of its twenty-two homes in that area. A few days later neighbors, who also had homes and property destroyed by the fire, called and announced excitedly that the cause of the fire had been discovered: it was faulty road equipment belonging to the local government. “We can sue the county,” they exulted, “and get back all our money!”
Swami Kriyananda wrote a letter to the county supervisors and told them, “I’m sure you’re aware that Ananda was the biggest loser in the fire. Perhaps you’ve been worrying what we’ll do. I want you to know that we won’t be suing. We don’t want to take our bad luck out on our fellow citizens by increasing the county’s insurance rates. Anything that harms the county will, in the long run, harm Ananda also.”
The neighbors gained out-of-court settlements for large sums of money. Ananda, on the other hand, willingly faced the very real possibility of bankruptcy. They pulled through on the strength of a second motto of Ananda’s: “Jato dharma, tato jaya: Where there is adherence to truth, there lies victory.” Swamiji and the Ananda members stood firmly by this belief, and in the end, not only survived but flourished.
With undaunted zeal and dedication, Swamiji led Ananda members in rebuilding the community. In time, with hard work and better planning, learned from experience, Ananda became more beautiful than ever. Even more importantly, the community had come of age. As one member put it, “We’re not here to build buildings. We’re here to build character, by living for God.”
Kriyananda wrote: “Ananda’s true leaders have always been those who tried to tune in to God’s will, seeking guidance primarily from within themselves. It was, I had seen, the way Master trained those of us who listened to him inwardly. Ultimately, we all want only to project God’s will for this time in history, and to respond to humanity’s needs, as God has responded to ours.”