Yogananda for the World: The Battle for Freedom
Brave were the people who lived in these hills.
Brave the great warriors who confronted the foe.
To defend what is holy, to defend what is true:
Our Lord on mankind did this duty bestow.
—Lyrics to a song by Swami Kriyananda
By 1990 Ananda had expanded and become an international work, spreading Yogananda’s teachings from communities and centers across Europe and North and South America, in Australia, in Russia, Croatia, and Africa, in Japan, Taiwan, Korea, and China, and in the south-east countries of Asia. A vast body of books, lessons, and music had been created, as well as new models for marriage, education, leadership, and business. Through Swami Kriyananda’s unceasing efforts, Paramhansa Yogananda’s divine light had encircled the globe.
This world, however, is a play of shadows and light. Ever since Swamiji’s ouster from SRF in 1962, his gurubhais (fellow disciples) in that organization had closely scrutinized his activities and, with trepidation, watched Ananda grow. The community’s very existence was perceived by them as a threat to their self-declared monopoly, their “sovereign” right to absolute control over Yogananda’s work and teachings. People who asked SRF about Ananda were discouraged from going there or from having anything to do with this “maverick” outfit. The stock answer to every inquiry about Swamiji or Ananda was, “If you only knew!”
Swamiji, for his part, spoke of SRF with respect, both publicly and in private. He expressed his changeless hope that someday a reconciliation might be effected between the two organizations. He encouraged Ananda residents to study the SRF lessons, to visit their churches, and to attend their annual convocations in Los Angeles. For several years Ananda members did attend, and did try to maintain contact. In the end, much to their regret, but finding themselves exposed again and again to denunciations against Kriyananda by certain SRF monks, most of them decided to stop going.
In 1987 Swamiji wrote his important Guidelines of Conduct for Ananda Members. In that basic Ananda manual he made the statement:
“Self-Realization Fellowship is the organization founded in America by Paramhansa Yogananda. Out of respect and love for him, therefore, there must always be respect and love shown [by Ananda Members] to that organization, and — should the occasion arise — a willingness to cooperate with it constructively, in a spirit of brotherly sharing.”
Nearly thirty years had passed since 1962, when SRF had tried to stop Swamiji from serving his Guru, and had cruelly driven him out. Now, nearly three decades later, they were appalled to see Kriyananda’s work, and Kriyananda himself, more than thriving. They’d predicted confidently that he’d “be able to accomplish nothing on his own.” And here he was, spreading Yogananda’s teachings in ever creative and fresh ways — not in competition with SRF, but in ways that never overlapped or competed with anything SRF was doing — in ways, moreover, which they could not control.
SRF’s president, Daya, decided they had only one recourse, if they were to preserve what she firmly believed was SRF’s monopoly: SRF must take legal action against Kriyananda and Ananda.
Thus, it was that in 1990, SRF initiated a lawsuit to obtain the U.S. Government’s sanction for several extreme claims, which reason itself should have declared to be medieval. SRF claimed to have exclusive rights to Yogananda’s teachings, name, likeness, voice, and even to the term, Self-realization. Although the lawsuit dealt mainly with trademark and copyright issues, what it represented in essence was an attempt to destroy Kriyananda. As Daya had told Swamiji several years earlier, “It isn’t the good people of Ananda I’m against. It’s Kriyananda.”
Their plan to effect these ends was two-pronged: First, to defeat the community in court, or at least severely to limit its ability to spread Yogananda’s teachings; and second, to bankrupt Ananda with the huge costs of a prolonged legal battle.
Early in the process, the federal court judge presiding over the case commented that if SRF prevailed in its claims they would clearly be putting Ananda out of business.
SRF hired one of the largest law firms in the world to represent them. Ananda, severely limited financially, hired a sole practitioner, Jon Parsons, who at the beginning of the case didn’t even have a secretary. The thing above all that induced Swamiji to want Jon Parsons to represent Ananda was that his reputation was one of conscientious integrity.
It was truly a David vs. Goliath confrontation. Swamiji and Ananda members had nothing but their sincere commitment and their energy, which they poured into the case. Always and above all, they sought strategies that were honorable.
The “Ananda Legal Team,” a group of ten members, devoted themselves for twelve years to this project. They worked tirelessly, often late into the night, providing Mr. Parsons with the background information and documents he needed for critical court hearings. Swamiji spent many months writing explanatory papers about SRF’s actions over the years. (“But you never told us any of this!” the other team members exclaimed.) Many other community residents assisted faithfully from the sidelines, gathering materials, running errands, and doing everything they could. The process involved, in the end, almost all the community.
Ananda members realized early in the process that they were fighting not only for their community’s survival and for its continued ability to represent their Guru: They were establishing legal precedents that would give all of Yogananda’s disciples access to his teachings. Ananda called the legal battle Yogananda for the World. They saw their efforts as necessary for the sake of countless others in the future, who would want to serve the Master and to help spread his mission.
There were other legal implications, moreover, in the case. The lawsuit was about religious freedom, which is one of the basic guarantees of the United States Bill of Rights. From America’s inception, the Founding Fathers sought to safeguard the right of individuals to practice their religion as they saw fit, without persecution or control by any group. SRF was so blinded by its determination to control Yogananda’s teachings and to muzzle Swami Kriyananda that they were unable to see the subtler implications of their position. They boxed themselves into a narrow vision of reality.
Jon Parsons, Ananda’s lawyer, worked on the case throughout its twelve-year history, and became in the process a close friend of the community. He said after the lawsuit was over, “I realize that for the rest of my career I’ll never have a case of this importance, or be able to represent a more righteous cause.”
During the course of litigation, SRF lost on point after point. So great, however, was their obsession with winning that they played every possible card, however weak their suit, and played it unscrupulously. They tried to overturn court rulings. They made appeals repeatedly. And they resorted to a ceaseless barrage of clever but underhanded “ploys.” With all that they were forced to see one attempt after another evaporate in smoke.
Daya actually went so far as to support, under oath, a claim SRF submitted to the courts that Paramhansa Yogananda had only written his Autobiography of a Yogi, and his other books as a paid employee of the organization, and under its direct control and supervision. Later, in order to add more weight to this scurrilous tactic, SRF claimed further — again, with Daya’s support, which she gave under oath — that Yogananda’s books were committee efforts, and were not authored solely by him. When these attempts failed in the California court of appeal, SRF appealed, finally, to the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court “was not amused,” and simply refused to consider SRF’s application.
By 1994 Ananda had already won most of its important points in the case. Even so, there seemed to be no end in sight. SRF’s lawyers, financed from a seemingly bottomless coffer, filed one legal action after another.
Soon, another drama emerged, secondary to the first.
In 1993, a single woman who had moved recently to Ananda Village had a consensual relationship with a married man in the community. The two of them sought counseling from Swami Kriyananda, who urged them to end their relationship and tried to persuade the man to return to his wife and child. The man, after an inner struggle, finally took this advice to heart and resolved to break off the relationship. The woman grew enraged, and blamed both the man and Kriyananda, swearing she would “get even.” Kriyananda firmly told her at this point that she must move to another Ananda community. As she left the interview with him, she glared at him in such fury that he knew intuitively she would create serious consequences for him. What else could he do, however? He could only offer up the results of his action to the Divine Mother.
This woman moved to Ananda’s Palo Alto community. Not long afterward she received a letter, which had been sent to Ananda residents, written by a local SRF member who was rabidly against Ananda. His missive defended SRF’s position in their lawsuit, and urged all Ananda members to withdraw their support from Swami Kriyananda and follow the “true, spiritual” leadership of Daya. The above-mentioned, disaffected woman, on receipt of this letter, contacted its author and soon afterward moved away from the Ananda community.
In 1994 she flew to the SRF Mother Center in Los Angeles accompanied by the letter’s author. There, the two of them were received by the SRF Board of Directors including its president, Daya, who invited the disaffected woman to lunch afterward. Later on, in November 1994, a few weeks after this woman’s visit to Mt. Washington, she filed a lawsuit against Ananda and Swami Kriyananda, as well as (almost incidentally) against the man who had “betrayed” her.
Her original claims were more or less simple: “wrongful termination of employment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and negligent supervision.” Now, Ananda was forced to face legal attacks on two fronts, with the additional costs involved in hiring more attorneys.
The leading lawyer for the opposition in this second suit was a long-time member of SRF. Early in the process, he disclosed his own motives in prosecuting the case: After a seven-hour deposition of one of Ananda’s ministers, he shouted at her angrily as she was leaving the room, “You can tell your Swami I’m going to destroy him!”
And try to destroy him he did, sparing no effort to disgrace and humiliate him and Ananda in every way possible. More than a year into the case, the woman now changed her accusations, adding a claim that on one occasion Swami Kriyananda had made sexual advances towards her. Swamiji totally denied the charge.
The lawyers also introduced testimony by several other women — all of them associated with SRF — who described Swamiji’s “coercive” treatment of them. Swamiji acknowledged with open honesty having had consensual relationships with two of them nearly twenty years earlier. Though these women brought no charges, their statements were used to support the new claim against Kriyananda — a claim that would have collapsed without this additional information — that he was a man without moral scruples.
Anti-Ananda supporters of SRF also contacted newspapers in the area where the trial was being held, and where Ananda communities were located. A negative publicity campaign was launched in which Ananda was depicted as a “power-hungry, brainwashing cult,” and Kriyananda as a ruthless despot.
These efforts had the desired effect on the jury. The verdict was:
Ananda and Swami Kriyananda were liable for “fraud,” meaning that by using the title “Swami,” Kriyananda had misled people into thinking he was a monastic. The irony was that Swamiji had been struggling all his life to overcome a nagging desire, which almost all human beings share, for a small energy-vortex of emotional intimacy — a haven in this world which could create a bulwark against repeated hurt and betrayal. He had worked against this very normal human need, and had overcome it to the extent of feeling that he might be able to set an example of inner freedom in marriage. Thus, he was at this time married and living with his wife when these charges were concocted.
Ananda, Swamiji, and the man who had been involved with this woman were liable for “intentional infliction of emotional distress.”
Ananda was liable for “negligent supervision.”
Ananda was required to pay damages of nearly one million dollars.
Community members were shocked at this travesty of justice. Many hundreds of letters in support of Swamiji poured in, testifying to his integrity as a man and as a spiritual teacher. Sheila Rush, one of the key members of the Ananda legal team and a former civil rights lawyer said, “This is a battle for the hearts and minds of the people of Ananda.” Those hearts and minds were not swayed, however. Ananda stood firmly behind Swamiji, whom they knew well from years of close association with him.
At this time Kriyananda was seventy-one years old. He had had two major hip replacement surgeries in 1992 and 1993. In December 1994, only two weeks after the legal summons were presented to him for this second lawsuit, he underwent open-heart surgery for a leaky coronary valve. Even at his advanced age, his strength and courage never flagged, and were an inspiration for everyone at Ananda.
After the surgery, the doctors ordered him “absolutely” to take a year of rest. Obedience to that order proved impossible. The opposition was determined to make good the lawyer’s threat to “destroy” him. Their efforts included some eighty hours of hostile deposition of him by the opposing lawyer. During the trial he had to endure barrage after barrage of sneers, sarcasm, and hostility. After the trial he told some of us, “I felt inwardly free all through this process. My constant prayer was, ‘Divine Mother, they can take everything away from me, but they can never take away my only treasure: my love for You.”
Gradually, he found welling up within him a deep sense of gratitude. As he has put it since then,
“I realized that a lifelong delusion was being lifted from me. Somehow I had never been able to shake the thought that there was something sweet, tender, and supportive in feminine nature that differentiated women from men. Through the trial, as I became aware of the depths of viciousness and vindictiveness that can exist in women’s hearts, I realized that all human beings are only expressions of currents flowing through the skies of infinite consciousness.
“Thoughts, as our Master put it in his autobiography, ‘are universally and not individually rooted.’ They blow through us like winds; we cannot create them; we can only manifest them. Men and women manifest various mental traits, but they themselves cannot define any of them. Women are not to be blamed. Neither, on the other hand, are they to be seen as special manifestations of divine sweetness. All human beings manifest the same basic human weakness: ego-centeredness. Thus, since those grim days, I have not felt the faintest stirring of attraction toward human love.”
When Swamiji saw that one of Ananda’s legal team was struggling over the injustice of it all, he said to her,
“It may seem enough, sometimes, to make one lose faith. Faith, however, in what? in human nature? That’s nothing but a bubble! What choice have we, moreover? Do we want to become like our opponents? I can’t imagine a worse fate! We must simply continue to love God and Guru. In that love alone lies our happiness. To spurn that love would be to spurn everything! We know that Master’s path works. It has worked for countless people. It has worked also for us! Those who are trying to destroy us are simply sacrificing their own attunement to Master. Until God is achieved, no one is safe from delusion. Understanding will come to us, in the end. Meanwhile, we must cling to God and Guru. In that way, we can find joy in ourselves no matter what happens.”
Indeed, it was clear to us all that Swamiji had in no way lost his inner joy.
The financial damages demanded of Ananda could have destroyed the community. The opposing lawyers actually tried to seize Swamiji’s copyrights on his books and his music, and all the property of Ananda Village and the Meditation Retreat — all this in payment for damages. The community was forced to file for protection through reorganizational bankruptcy. With great determination, and through the extraordinary generosity of thousands of Ananda members and supporters throughout the world, Ananda came out of this crisis. Since then, steadily, its legal debts are being paid off, and Ananda is flourishing even more than before.
Meanwhile, Ananda continued to defend itself against SRF in the copyright lawsuit. In 2002, when SRF had no other legal means of dragging the case on any further, it finally went to trial. After twelve years of litigation, at a cost of nearly $10 million for Ananda and of many times that for SRF, the final decision was handed down.
Ananda had prevailed, winning more than 95% of the claims in the lawsuit. The most significant of the court’s rulings were:
SRF’s trademark in the phrase “Self-realization” was ruled invalid.
SRF’s servicemark in the name, “Paramhansa Yogananda,” was ruled invalid.
SRF did not own Yogananda’s “publicity rights,” which meant they had no control over his name, likeness, voice, and signature.
All books by Yogananda published before his passing in 1952 were in the public domain.
The original edition of Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi was in the public domain.
SRF’s copyrights in numerous photos of Yogananda were declared invalid.
Ananda’s reproduction of certain of Yogananda’s writings for religious and educational purposes was adjudged “fair use,” meaning it was not a copyright violation.
Ananda was required to pay $29,000 to compensate SRF for its “loss of sales” on several audiotapes of Yogananda’s voice. Compared to the $30 million in damages that SRF had asked the jury to award, this must have seemed to them a hollow victory indeed. Even so, they announced proudly to their Indian affiliate: “We WON!” It was unquestionably better from Ananda’s viewpoint for SRF to be able to make this one face-saving claim. Otherwise, who knows what other methods they might have found to carry on their vendetta?
The lawsuits were finally over. The verdict was a tremendous vindication for Swamiji and Ananda. Without Yogananda’s grace, Ananda could never have survived the threats against their personal and spiritual freedom.
For Swamiji and the community there remained, it is true, a sense of shock at the lengths their own gurubhais (fellow disciples) had been willing to go in their effort to destroy them. Ananda’s faith had been tested — to the point, indeed, where a few members had, over the years, left the community. But what emerged was a community stronger, more dedicated to serving their Guru, and more determined than ever to stand up for what they knew in their hearts to be right and true.
In July 2003 Ananda hosted a special weekend at The Expanding Light to thank the lawyers who had defended them so heroically. Jon Parsons attended, with his family. His eyes filled with tears as he said to the community: “After such a battle, there’s no reason why Ananda should still be standing. This beautiful community — this land, these buildings, these homes built so lovingly — all should have been sold off and rolled under long ago. But through some power that I can’t explain, but stand in awe of, you have not only survived but have grown during the process.”
Miraculously, Ananda had continued to grow throughout these challenging years. Even after the forest fire in 1976, Swamiji had shown that the way to face setbacks is to put out more energy in expanded service. “The greater the will,” his Guru had taught, “the greater the flow of energy.” Once again, during its era of legal battles, Ananda had tested and proved this principle.
From 1990-2002 Kriyananda wrote some of his most profound books: The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam Explained (Yogananda’s commentaries, which he had asked Swamiji to edit in 1950); Superconsciousness — A Guide to Meditation (out of print in 2008); Meditation for Starters; The Hindu Way of Awakening; The Promise of Immortality (expanded commentaries on Yogananda’s interpretations of the Bible and the Bhagavad Gita); Hope for a Better World; and God is for Everyone (a new version of Yogananda’s Science of Religion, his first book, which had been ghost-written for the Master by a disciple in 1920).
There also occurred a personal change in Swamiji’s life, as well as within himself, during this time. Since their marriage in 1985, his wife had been having an increasingly difficult time dealing with the constant public nature of Swamiji’s life, and with the continuous demands made on Kriyananda’s time by SRF’s lawsuit. She could not mentally accept his unswerving commitment to serving God and his Guru. Nor could she comprehend the impersonal nature of his love. Indeed, as the people at Ananda have always observed, Swamiji seems to see God equally in all, and to want nothing for himself. It was beyond his wife’s ability to understand a love that was impersonal without being cold: a love that seemed to embrace all (even enemies) equally in God, but that was simply not capable of giving love to one human being especially. The lawsuits had only deepened in him his changeless commitment to the work his Guru had given him.
Thus it happened, in 1994, that he and his wife decided to separate formally, though amicably. Their marriage had accomplished for others what he had hoped. As he himself has stated wryly, “The fault was mine. I am simply not husband material.”
The communities have continued to develop and expand. In 1996, Ananda Assisi completed a new temple dome, a beautiful example of visionary architecture. Swami Kriyananda moved there that year to help develop the work in Europe. In addition to writing books, he gave regular classes and services in Italian and in English, often speaking to the guests also in other languages. Ananda Assisi is a source of inspiration for thousands of devotees, who come yearly to receive Yogananda’s teachings.
Yogananda for the World was more than a battle cry for Ananda. For Ananda members, it became a sacred duty to spread their Guru’s teachings.
As soon as it became clear that the original version of Autobiography of a Yogi was in the public domain, Ananda published it and offered it free of charge to everyone on its website. For many years previously, the only version available had been SRF’s elaborately labored-over editions, which contain hundreds of changes from the original — some of them egregious. Many photos of the Master, released from SRF’s copyright claim, were made available also at no charge to people through the Internet.
A dynamic Ananda Kriya Ministry was developed during this period, offering training and initiation to people even in distant places: South America, Africa, and the Orient. Many Ananda Yoga teachers and meditation teachers have received training, and are spreading Yogananda’s path actively in their own areas.
One member of the legal team said, when the trials were over, “The more we fought to free Master’s teachings, the more we felt his blessings on our lives and on Ananda. In the end we knew it had been an honor and a joy to stand up for the truth, and to defend Swamiji so that he would finally be free to complete the great mission Master had given him to do.”
In 1948, slightly over a month before Swami Kriyananda came to him, Paramhansa Yogananda had been blessed with a great samadhi during which the Divine Mother spoke to him, and also through him. During this remarkable experience She addressed the following words to the Master:
“In the beginning, I sent you a few bad ones to test your love for Me. But now I am sending you angels, and whoever smites them, I will smite!”
What greater retribution could Divine Mother bring to devotees than for them to be unable to feel divine love and compassion — the essence of Yogananda’s consciousness — towards their own fellow disciples?