A review of A Fight for Religious Freedom: A Lawyer’s Personal Account of Copyright, Karma, and Dharmic Litigation, by Jon R. Parsons
Again and again in the history of religion, true teachers and true teachings are subjected to persecution. The persecutor may claim to represent established authority, and may attempt to block the efforts of sincere aspirants who seek to practice the deepest aspects of their religion. At the same time, as if in divine response, we also see “soldiers of the light” stepping forward not only to fight the battle for religious freedom but also to speak the truth, to correct misunderstandings, to set the record straight.
Such a battle was Ananda’s 12-year lawsuit, a story to bring hope to every devotee. Ananda, in 1990, found itself on the receiving end of the first of a series of lawsuits whose purpose, in the words of the presiding judge, was “to put Ananda out of business.” Ananda’s attorney during that 12-year battle was Jon R. Parsons, a “soldier of light” who not only stepped forward to fight the battle on Ananda’s behalf, but whose superb memoir, A Fight for Religious Freedom: A Lawyer’s Personal Account of Copyright, Karma, and Dharmic Litigation, brings clarity and truth to a much misunderstood situation.
Much like a John Grisham legal thriller
The narrative itself is a thrillingly dramatic account of Ananda’s long battle for the right to serve the world mission of Paramhansa Yogananda, and to do so in the way Kriyananda and Ananda members have felt guided by the Master to do. With the sure hand of a born storyteller, Jon Parsons guides the reader through the legal complexities of the case.
We come to understand the grueling work involved in preparing for deposition or trial, the research, the deadlines only met through all-night sessions by Ananda’s legal team, and the actual experience of the trial. In its charged and colorful recounting of the legal maneuvering, shady dealings of some of the lawyers representing the plaintiff, the characters and foibles of judges and attorneys, of witnesses, the emotional rollercoaster threatening to uncenter everyone involved, Jon Parsons’ book could be favorably compared to a John Grisham legal thriller.
It is an exciting read for anyone, particularly anyone interested in the American system of justice. Jon’s presentation is fair and unbiased. There is no attempt to minimize the mistakes made and lessons learned on Ananda’s side any more than that of the SRF plaintiffs.
The deeper layers of the story
A Fight for Religious Freedom is all the more gripping for being a true story—the story of a small group of dedicated souls fighting for the right to serve their Guru and his mission, against seemingly impossible odds. The final resolution is nuanced, as real life always is. But the central concluding energy is one of spiritual victory —the victory of each soul to seek freedom according to his own lights, and of a community of souls to share a path to the same ultimate goal.
Also deeply inspiring and paralleling the story of the lawsuit is Jon Parsons’ own coming-of-age story, his personal odyssey of self-awakening through the testing landscape of the long court case. Jon’s point of view is at once that of a legal professional and of a spiritual innocent. He portrays himself as someone who, as a college student, had studied Indian religion, who was open-minded about India’s ancient teachings, but who had no previous contact with anyone living their teachings, such as Swami Kriyananda and other members of the Ananda community.
With wry humor Jon recounts his introduction to SRF’s leadership at the Fresno meeting whose ostensible purpose was a negotiated settlement. He describes his inner feeling of pleasurable anticipation at being in the presence of the SRF delegation, all advanced disciples with years of deep meditation. The meeting itself shocked him to his core. He found in these “advanced disciples” no wish for a harmonious settlement, but a greatly expanded list of demands, presented decorously and politely, but barely cloaking an iron will to absolute victory. “When Fresno failed, [SRF] let slip the dogs of war.”
The devastating first court hearing
The “dogs of war,” it turned out, had been held in readiness for some time. SRF armies were massed to strike. The first hearing was devastating. Instead of a participant in a discussion between fellow disciples of a great Master, Ananda suddenly found itself portrayed as a fraudulent business competitor to SRF. The judge granted SRF’s requested preliminary injunction against Ananda’s use of Yogananda’s name and of the term “Self-realization.”
Jon’s ensuing “tortured introspection”—“I had been entrusted with an almost sacred task, and had stumbled badly”—led him to offer Kriyananda his resignation. Humbly and candidly he admitted that he was seriously “outgunned”—a sole practitioner pitted against two giant firms. Kriyananda’s response? Unhesitatingly he asked Jon to continue as Ananda’s counsel. Jon he saw as “dharmic”—“a man of integrity.” The struggle itself Kriyananda saw not in legal or practical terms, but in terms of what God and Guru were doing through the struggle. To Jon Parsons, the righteous warrior, Kriyananda sent a team of Ananda stalwarts, whom Jon referred to as “brothers and sisters in arms.”
Parallels with the Mahabharata
Readers familiar with India’s great spiritual epic the Mahabharta will find in the lawsuit a compelling modern parallel. Jon himself describes the Mahabharata, which he studied as background research, as a “karmic soap opera of betrayal and skullduggery.” The Pandavas seek to regain their throne, wrongly denied them by their cousins, the Kauravas. The Pandavas, forced into battle, choose to fight under the guidance of Krishna, God Himself; the Kauravas choose as their means to victory worldly wealth and military might. Seen on the level of the individual soul, the epic portrays the true devotee rejecting the lures of wealth and power and putting his trust wholly in the Lord.
In this same way, we see the battle lines drawn in this modern-day epic struggle—on one side, power, wealth, established authority; on the other, trust in God and Guru, and trust in the power of dharma (spiritual righteousness) to win through against any odds.
A campaign of defamation
The course of the lawsuit took everyone involved into some dark and sordid places. The battle against Ananda’s right to exist and to share Yogananda’s teachings, at times degenerated into a campaign of defamation against Kriyananda and the Ananda community. Paralleling the unfolding action of the lawsuit in Jon’s account are historical sidebars from the lives of Yogananda and those around him. Wherever we see a virulent attack on Kriyananda we find a historical parallel in Yogananda’s life. Kriyananda’s biography of Yogananda shows the Master as a great modern spiritual warrior fighting to manifest his God-given mission amidst lawsuits, betrayal, persecution—a story far from the manicured, sanitized image of Yogananda presented by SRF.
The lawsuit, it becomes increasingly clear, is an exercise in discipleship—the battles fought by the Master come again for the disciples to fight, that they, too, may pass through the testing fires that will hasten their way to awakening. The very sordidness of parts of the lawsuit becomes its greatest value—even its inherent blessing—as a path to freedom for the disciple who stays in tune to the end.
Purified and closer to the light
When we come to the Bertolucci lawsuit, the attack on Kriyananda’s character and right to serve Yogananda’s mission enters its lowest, most degraded level. Ananda, prevented from defending itself by a gag order, can only endure in silence and cling inwardly to truth and dharma. Kriyananda himself stoically responded to bitter and sarcastic questioning with calm truthfulness, and this at a time when his body was recovering from open heart surgery. The attacks were allowed free rein. Acting for SRF are characters that, in this reader’s opinion, Charles Dickens would have been proud to include in his roster of great villains. These men epitomized adharma, an array of qualities immortalized by the Kauravas in Mahabharata: the battle of light and dark on a sinister and sordid level.
In a historical sidebar, we read of Yogananda’s persecution in the popular press: “Swami Yogananda, East Indian love cult leader” had “his life threatened by a delegation of angry citizens” who burst into a class. The Master was subsequently ordered out of town by Miami sheriff, Leslie Quigg, a man arrested two months later for murdering black prisoners in his custody.
What at first seem unjust and vicious attacks aimed at Kriyananda by a possessive organization jealous of its authority, show themselves to be on examination in the light of Jon’s carefully selected historical parallels in the life of Yogananda, not essentially different from the challenges faced by every committed devotee on his way to freedom. The greatest masters, Jesus Christ and Paramhansa Yogananda among them, allowed into their lives persecution, infamy, betrayal, to show those who come after how to find spiritual joy, love, and liberation even in the midst of the darkest times. Those who maintained their loyalty and integrity through the fire of the SRF lawsuit emerged purified and closer to the light.
Through dharmic action comes victory
Jon’s own personal challenges he comes to see in the perspective of the Bhagavad Gita, the spiritual heart of Mahabharata: “The Gita speaks a lawyer’s creed: duty in the face of adversity, effort without attachment to the consequences. And propriety in all things….Through dharmic action comes victory.” The reader sees Jon, the dharmic warrior, himself entering the realm of those he is championing: Kriyananda and the Ananda community; Yogananda and his mission to the world.
Jon chose the image of “The Last Smile,” the photograph taken of Yogananda just before his mahasamadhi, and one of the photographs Ananda’s legal efforts made available to the world, as the final image he wished to leave in his reader’s mind—the beatific smile of blessing from the Master in whose name this great struggle was fought and won.