I’m Prem Das Sills, a devotee and disciple of yoga master Paramahansa Yogananda. I have been a longtime member of Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF), founded by Sri Yogananda in 1920. Currently, I am living in Northern California, just outside Nevada City. To be exact, I am living at Ananda Village.
Ananda is a cooperative and intentional spiritual community based on the ideals and precepts of Paramhansa Yogananda. It was founded over 40 years ago by Swami Kriyananda (J. Donald Walters), a direct disciple of Yogananda and former monk in the Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) monastic order.
In this blog, I will share my story of how I was led to Ananda, and my experiences and perceptions after my arrival. I will leave the subject of the collective history of Ananda, SRF and Swami Kriyanada to other publications already available and well written, and possibly to my own future blog posts.
Before now, I have not openly shared much about where I have been living for the last nine months. I was not ready or interested in dealing with some SRF folks’ negativity and criticism that tend to arise upon mention of Ananda. I now feel drawn to share my story and be open about my new home, as it seems to me that there are many who are interested in the underlying harmony that exists between devotees of Yogananda who belong to SRF and those in Ananda.
Until about a week before I arrived at Ananda Village, I never dreamed that I would even consider living here. I know now, without a shadow of a doubt, that my Guru, Paramahasa Yogananda, guided me here. After arriving, I immediately felt that at last, I’d finally come to a place on this planet where I feel at home. Yes, I am aware that on a deeper level this planet is not our ultimate home, however, we all must establish ourselves someplace while we live here.
I have been a practicing Kriyaban disciple of Paramahansa Yogananda, and loyal member and sometimes-employee of SRF since 1971. I have lived near and served at several SRF temples. In spring 2013, I lost my job in the art business and was looking for what to do next. During this time, I met a Yogananda devotee named Casey who lived just down the street from me in Encinitas, CA. Although Casey started out in SRF at Lake Shrine in the 1980s, he became involved with Ananda later and has a very beautiful little temple on his property in Encinitas called The Temple of Joy, which is the center for Ananda in Encinitas. Casey is also found occasionally attending services and meditations at the SRF Temple in Encinitas. I have often seen Casey and Bro. Bhumananda, the minister in charge of the Encinitas Temple, greeting each other warmly.
Casey and I met when I was out for a run and stopped to comment on how beautiful the little sculpture of Master (Yogananda) was in his front yard. We had a great conversation and he showed me the temple, and we quickly became good friends. He even provided me with some temporary work helping him with a project. As I was in transition at the time, he mentioned that Ananda Village has a Karma Yoga program where people can serve and stay there for a few months at their Expanding Light retreat facility. I did not consider it as an option; instead, the thought came to me that it would be great if I could move to the SRF Hidden Valley ashram. I knew they had a program for men that afforded one the opportunity to live and work at the ashram for up to two years as a resident lay disciple. I had to do something as my income was running out, work was not manifesting and rent was due!
I spoke with the head monk and administrator at Hidden Valley, Brother Ishtananda, whom I knew for many years. He was very enthusiastic for me to start the application process for the two-year resident program. In my mind, I was thinking that maybe Master would work it out that I could just stay there for the rest of my life!
Hidden Valley has a one-month karma yoga (service/work) program, which Brother suggested I participate in while waiting for my resident program application to go through. So in August 2013, I moved to Hidden Valley after selling or giving away many of my possessions. I was very happy to be there; it was so wonderful! All the monks and residents were happy I was there — especially Brother Devananda, the monk’s kirtan leader, as he now had a tabla player (me)!
Because of certain circumstances, my application was delayed and the monk at Mt. Washington (SRF’s International headquarters) who was in charge of the approvals was going on a speaking tour for several weeks. He said he would not be able to finalize my application before he left, so I couldn’t stay more than the initial four weeks. Bro. Ishtananda was not happy about that, so he arranged for me to stay in a room with other devotees, just off the property, who worked at Hidden Valley. I could continue to work, eat and meditate at the ashram. As the weeks went by, Bro. Ishtananda suggested I move back to the ashram until the Brother got back and we received what we assumed would be my application’s approval.
Once the Brother eventually returned, my application was denied because of an arcane rule that really did not apply to me in spirit but did on the face of certain facts (another story for another blog). This was still the decision even after Bros. Ishtananda, Devananda, Keshavananda (senior monks at Hidden Valley) and Bro. Bhumananda, minister in charge at Encinitas Temple, signed a memo stating that they enthusiastically supported me in staying at the ashram, that I was an asset to the ashram and fit there perfectly. Bro. Ishtananda told me that the Personnel Dept. said that if they make an exception for one person, they might have to make it for others and they were not willing to do that. This is unfortunately, one of the problems with how the organization works.
I had to leave after living there and successfully integrating into ashram life for three months. I could not find work in the San Diego or Los Angeles areas, but I did find there were opportunities in Maui, HI, as I had previously lived there. I sold my car and used the rest of my savings to move to Hawaii. Interestingly, my friend Casey strongly advised against this and said I really should consider going up to Ananda for a while. He was right, but I was not yet ready.
I went to Maui and although I had a job, a place to live and a car, the whole thing turned out to be a disaster. The job and people I worked for were not what they seemed in the interview process, my living situation turned into a horrible tamasic (dark and degrading) environment, and my used car that I bought there broke down completely. I had to walk and bus to work, I couldn’t get to the meditation group, and it rained for three weeks straight!
I became a bit shaken by all this (an understatement!). A friend of a friend talked with me and observed that Hawaii was not working out, and asked if I had the resources to leave. I did. She asked me where I had been happy. I had told her the story of Hidden Valley and said I was really happy living in a spiritual community. She asked if there were other communities that followed my spiritual path that I could go to. Like a huge light going off, I said, “Yes there is! A place called Ananda!” (This turns out is the title of a great book about the history of Ananda).
I called Casey who said he would contact people he knew at Ananda and tell them about me. The woman who was essentially coaching me through this process (an angel!) suggested we call ourselves. I called and spoke with the Director of the Karma Yoga program for a long time and he finally said, “Prem Das, we would love to have you here.” There were financial considerations, which I mentioned to him at this point. He said that interestingly, they have not had any scholarship funds for the program available for years but a little had recently become available. He needed to check to see if a room and funds were available and would call me back. It turned out both were! Although a bit nervous about going to Ananda, I flew back to Encinitas in February of this year to get my winter clothes that were stored at my brother’s house and took a Greyhound bus to Ananda Village in Northern California.
As soon as I stepped foot on this beautiful land, I felt that I had come home.
Subsequently, what I found here was wonderfully surprising and inspiring. This is an entire village of dedicated, sincere, enthusiastic Kriyaban disciples of Paramhansa Yogananda. It is a cooperative, intentional community totally based on Master’s teachings.
The subject of Swami Kriyananda came up occasionally during all the years I spent deeply involved in various capacities and locations with SRF — especially during the 12 years of SRF’s lawsuit against Ananda. My reaction during those occasions was always to withdraw from the conversation or energy. It was invariably very negative to such a degree that it did not feel like my Guru’s vibration. I was not interested in participating in that. So, upon my arrival at Ananda, I did not know much about Swami Kriyananda, the history of his time with Master or the circumstances of his removal from SRF. I was aware that if I was going to stay here I needed to know the facts.
During my time here I have intensively read, researched, interviewed people and looked at Swami Kriyananda’s life and the controversies surrounding him, and find that most of what has been said about him and Ananda in SRF circles and the press is not true or is very distorted. Please understand that I am looking at this from the point of view of one who was and is a loyal SRF member and disciple of our Guru for 44 years.
Whatever one thinks of Swami Kriyananda, who passed on in the spring of 2013, the legacy he left behind and the fruits of his work are undeniably good. The quote from the Bible, “To judge a tree by its fruit,” is very apt here. All one has to do is spend a little time with the people who have lived here for a long period of time and you get it. You will feel Master’s vibration in their sincere devotion. You will feel it in the music that is sung and played here frequently. You will feel it in the energy people put out to serve others and share the blessings they have received. You get that Yogananda could not be anything less than very pleased that His ideal of a World Brotherhood colony — a thriving, growing spiritual community — has manifested in a beautiful way.
I invite and encourage anyone reading this who might doubt the veracity of my words to come and see Ananda Village for yourself. Spend some time meditating, chanting and sharing time with the devotees here who, if you are in SRF, are truly your Gurubhais.
Swami Kriyananda always stated in his writings, talks and even in his last will and testament, that he wished for there to be harmony and cooperation between SRF and Ananda. The way that will happen is for us to share satsanga: Fellowship with Truth. The truth is that we are all in the same spiritual family; we are disciples of our line of Gurus and devotees of the Heavenly Father and Divine Mother.
Currently, I work at a small business called Ananda Woodworking, Inc., building meditation benches and altars for MeditationBench.com. I also work one day a week at Yogoata Dairy, the Village’s small goat dairy, with another devotee who was at the SRF San Diego temple for 17 years.
I play with our evolving kirtan groups at Ananda Village and everyone seems to really appreciate the tabla-playing.
I have found a place that feels more like home than any other place I have ever been.
Come visit sometime. There is a wonderful retreat facility here called The Expanding Light with beautiful accommodations for you to stay at, while enjoying vegetarian food and experiencing the joy that is manifest here at Ananda. I’d love to show you my new home.