The Self-Realization Fellowship's campaign to reentomb legendary guru Paramahansa Yogananda atop Mount Washington has placed the secretive, L.A.-based sect in the spotlight. And the glare's not flattering.
Half a century after his death, spiritual guru Paramahansa Yogananda is coming home. Or is he? His followers want to reentomb the founder of the Self-Realization Fellowship in an elaborate shrine the group hopes to build atop Mount Washington. It was there on a bucolic hilltop 10 minutes from downtown Los Angeles that the revered Eastern holy man bought a crumbling, once elegant hotel in 1925 and transformed it into a sylvan headquarters and retreat for his newly created religion, a hybrid of Hindu and Christian beliefs. And now, after lying in repose inside a mausoleum at Forest Lawn Glendale since 1952, the Master may finally be laid to rest in the inner sanctum of his empire if the vast majority of his followers have their way.
Who could have guessed that trying to move a corpse from Glendale to L.A. would result in all hell breaking loose?
Fearful that a Yogananda shrine and huge construction campaign at the sect's 12-and-a-half-acre compound will turn the tranquil hilltop into a tourist mecca, residents who have coexisted with the Self-Realization Fellowship's ubiquitous monks and nuns are now on the warpath. Opponents say the highly reclusive organization misled the community about its intent to bring the guru's remains to the mountain, with its famously narrow and circuitous streets, even as church leaders formulated plans to do just that (a claim the fellowship denies). Moreover, critics say the church has used strong-arm tactics to advance the proposed fourfold expansion of the headquarters' facilities. Church members are accused of infiltrating the Mount Washington Association, rendering the venerable neighborhood group a tool of the church after some of the association's former leaders expressed misgivings about the shrine. The brouhaha has pitted neighbor against neighbor on the mountain, where a sizable colony of fellowship lay members--eager to take up residence near the Mother Center, as the headquarters is known--live among architects, lawyers, and other professionals who have long called Mount Washington home. At stormy public gatherings and in angry letters to city officials, fellowship supporters have compared church opponents to Nazis and lashed out at CANDER--a group that is leading the opposition--as hatemongers. A decision on whether to allow the reentombment and new construction isn't likely until late this year. But already it figures to be among the more unusual and explosive zoning debates in L.A. history.
In some ways it is as unlikely a squabble as can be imagined, involving a religious retreat known for its solitude, whose 100 or so monks and nuns, ever the quiet neighbors, devote many of their waking hours to prayer and meditation. Yet in attempting to get what it wants, the SRF has acted more like a heavy-handed real estate developer than the monastery next door. Besides trying to silence opponents by getting its slate of candidates elected to the neighborhood association, the church has turned to some of the most powerful influence peddlers in L.A. to spread its message at City Hall. With lobbying as well as with letter-writing and phone-call campaigns, the SRF tried to avoid producing an environmental impact report while naively seeking a quick rubber stamp of its preliminary plans. The tactic incensed many residents and galvanized the opposition. After long pretending not to have decided whether to even try to move the guru's body into the shrine the church hopes to build, SRF officials--to no one's surprise--announced last January their intent to do so. The public relations gaffe was soon compounded, however, when church representatives acknowledged that transferring the body had long been a part of its plans, as the organization's literature for the last 40 years has implied. Since then, the SRF has struggled to convince critics that placing the body of a holy man, whose acolytes around the world conservatively number in the hundreds of thousands, atop crowded Mount Washington will have only a minimal effect on traffic. This, even though thousands of pilgrims flock to Forest Lawn to visit his crypt each year, with little promotion by the church and nothing comparable to the visitor center and 20,000-square-foot museum the SRF plans as part of its expansion. "I think their intentions are well-motivated, but they haven't been the most adept at public relations," says retired businessman Charles Polgrean, who lives next door to the retreat and supports the church's plans. He calls the monastics "terrific neighbors."
But others see things differently. "It's too bad that [the SRF] wants to present this as a religious issue," says Clare Marter Kenyon, a longtime community activist who is among the opponents. "It's all about development."
For the publicity-averse Self-Realization Fellowship, the imbroglio could have scarcely come at a more unfortunate time, and for reasons that have little to do with the neighbors. For years, the church has been locked in a bitter legal dispute with the rival Ananda Church of Self-Realization, based at a rural enclave near Nevada City in Northern California. Its founder, 74-year-old Donald J. Walters, was a direct disciple of Yogananda and played a prominent role within the SRF until he was kicked out in 1962. To the dismay of the mother church, the Ananda group has continued to publish the original 1946 edition of Yogananda's seminal work, Autobiography of a Yogi (after the SRF slipped up by failing to renew the copyright). In doing so, the Ananda Church, with its estimated 5,000 members, has positioned itself as a prime competitor in drawing new adherents to Yogananda's teachings. By some accounts, the SRF has spent more than $4 million in legal fees while pursuing--with little success--trademark restrictions aimed at elbowing Ananda out of the picture.
Regardless of whether it is able to fend off opposition from the neighbors, the SRF may need Ananda's cooperation--or, at the very least, its noninterference--to bring the holy man's remains to the mountaintop. That's because state law dictates that in the absence of a close relative (defined as someone no more distant than a niece or nephew), a Superior Court judge must approve whenever a corpse can be removed from a cemetery and reburied elsewhere. Having been dead for nearly half a century, the never-married Yogananda has no known surviving close relatives. And the SRF can hardly claim a proprietary interest in the corpse: The guru is a revered figure to untold thousands of disciples, including those within Ananda, with no connection to the SRF. Any of them could presumably object to enshrinement of the body behind the Mother Center's gates.
Not only are the SRF and Ananda far from settling their differences, relations between them are at an all-time low. A sex scandal involving Walters and another senior Ananda official contributed to the rift. The scandal became public two years ago as the result of a lawsuit against Walters and his church brought by 31-year-old Ann Marie Bertalucci of Palo Alto. Ananda officials are convinced that the SRF secretly encouraged and may have even helped to finance the lawsuit in an effort to discredit Walters and bring ruin to the rival church. At the trial, Bertalucci and six other young female devotees offered lurid details of how they had been persuaded to regularly perform sex acts upon the supposedly celibate guru as part of their spiritual advancement. Last year, a Redwood City jury handed down a million-dollar-plus judgment against Walters and the church. The case resulted in him officially stepping down as Ananda's spiritual director, although he continues to be viewed as the group's foremost swami while living in self-exile at a church-owned estate in Assisi, Italy. Ananda had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy to keep from paying the judgment. Last month, however, the foundation agreed to shell out an undisclosed sum to settle the Bertalucci claims. Whether the SRF helped to coax Bertalucci may never be determined. (Her lawyers adamantly deny it. Bertalucci, who avoids the press, has returned to her native New Zealand.) But enough is known about her contacts with top SRF officials after she quit Ananda and before the lawsuit was filed to fuel suspicion. Perhaps most noteworthy was a two-day visit with top church leaders at Mount Washington and at the SRF's ocean-view retreat in Encinitas. There was also a corroborated phone conversation--barely a week after that visit--between Bertalucci and the senior nun who serves as personal secretary to 85-year-old matriarch Sri Daya Mata, the SRF's reclusive spiritual leader.
For its part, the SRF has vigorously denied having anything to do with the lawsuit, saying that the contacts with Bertalucci were solely to provide spiritual counsel. "That is something Daya Mata made clear from the beginning that we would absolutely stay away from," says an SRF board member whose monastic name is Brother Vishwananda. "I can tell you we had nothing whatsoever to do with any of that." In a letter to a Yogananda devotee critical of the church, Sister Sivitri, Daya Mata's secretary, who is also on the church's eight-member governing board, issued a similar denial: "The alleged events [pertaining to Walters] either occurred or they didn't, and that will be determined by the courts," she wrote in December of 1994, less than a month after Bertalucci's visit to the Mother Center. "If someone feels they have been wronged, the laws of this country provide a means of recourse."
Yet the SRF appears to have ignored its own advice. As New Times has learned, even as Ananda's woes were playing out publicly last year, the SRF quietly paid $333,000 in hush money to a female church member and her lawyer to keep the lid on a scandal involving one of its senior monks. The monk, Jim Rapp, 45, whose monastic name was Brother Arjunananda, had been a rising star within the church. "If this were Catholicism, you could say he was a cardinal who someday might even become pope," says one disgruntled SRF member personally acquainted with Rapp. A dynamic speaker, Rapp presided over monthly services at the SRF's Richmond temple near San Francisco and oversaw the church's sprawling printing facilities in an industrial district near the base of Mount Washington. Sources say he broke his vow of celibacy in 1997 by becoming sexually involved with a woman named Patricia Lyons after arranging a job for her in a part of the printing plant that was supposed to be off-limits to all but monks. During the three-month-long relationship, these sources say, he accepted cash and gifts from her totaling more than $50,000. Lyons, who has since left the organization and says she views it as a cult, declines to discuss the Rapp matter, citing a confidentiality agreement. But others familiar with the details have expressed dismay at the church's handling of it. They contend that several top SRF leaders--including Daya Mata--not only turned a deaf ear to Lyons after she sought help while still involved with the monk, but that those leaders attempted to ruin her reputation within the church even as they sought to preserve Rapp's monastic career. "It finally became obvious that [Rapp] had to go or else Patricia was not going to remain silent," says Nita Gage, a Marin County insurance executive whose teenaged son had been under Rapp's tutelage until shortly before Daya Mata forced the monk from the Mount Washington ashram. Rapp, who is now living with relatives in Pennsylvania, declined numerous requests to be interviewed about whether the sources' statements are true. Brother Vishwananda, the board member, confirmed that Rapp was forced to leave the ashram as a result of breaking his celibacy vow and that the SRF paid Lyons to prevent her from suing the church. But he declined to comment about whether the church was fearful that negative publicity--coming at a time when speculation was rife about the fellowship's possible involvement in Ananda's troubles--might complicate its plans for the shrine. He cited the confidentiality agreement (which the church had insisted upon as part of its settlement with Lyons). "They [the church leadership] pretty much destroyed Patricia's faith and ruined her life," says Gage, who blasts the SRF's handling of the affair as "outrageously hypocritical and inexcusable."
Among the leafy gardens of the Mother Center, there is scarcely a place one can turn without being reminded of Yogananda. "Master's presence is everywhere here," says Brother Bholananda, a soft-spoken monk in his 60s who has spent 30 years at the retreat and knows it like the back of his hand. Near the tree-lined main entrance is the mango tree that Yogananda planted and which is reputed to have produced ripe fruit only once, on the eve of his sojourn to India in the 1930s. Beneath a canopy of foliage known as the Temple of Leaves, monastics sit on simple benches in quiet reflection. Yogananda stares back at them from an engraved photograph permanently displayed at the spot where the guru posed for it. Nearby, there's a spineless cactus that he is said to have stuck in the ground in the 1940s after receiving it as a gift from horticulturist Luther Burbank. Monks trim it only as necessary, Bholananda explains, and with the utmost care.
By all accounts, the SRF's charismatic founder was a man of lightning intensity whose presence filled a room. But he was also barely 5-feet-6-inches, as a mounted photo of him standing next to a wishing well on the grounds attests. Imprints of his hands and feet in cement could pass for a child's. Covered by a pavilion, the well is now a shrine, as is almost everything that the holy man is known to have touched. Inside the former hotel that is the SRF's main administration building, the upholstered low-back chair from which Yogananda taught in the chapel is enclosed in Plexiglas, as are other artifacts. The SRF apparently takes no chances, especially after a crazed gunman walked in the chapel several years ago and shot up a picture of the guru that had been hanging above the podium. Upstairs, his two-room living quarters on the third floor--off-limits to outsiders--is frozen in time, the spartan furnishings preserved as they were on the last day he was there. Even the remains of some fruit he had been eating are wrapped in plastic. Although there are now few aging disciples who knew Yogananda personally, the ardor of those who have taken up the teachings since the guru's passing hardly seems to have cooled. "I still have SRF people who are in awe when I mention that I actually met Yogananda," says Jim DeLong, an architect who has lived on the hill for many years. He recalls the guru as "very personable and, of course, very dynamic. What I remember most were his penetrating eyes. It was as if he could look straight through you."
Among the devout, rarely is Yogananda mentioned in the past tense. And for good reason. In accord with religious belief, he is considered not to have died, but to have passed into a state of mahasamadhi, a Sanskrit term that refers to a yogi's final conscious exit from the body. Of course, the newspapers reported it differently. On March 7, 1952, after giving a speech at the Biltmore Hotel downtown to welcome India's visiting ambassador, the 59-year-old Yogananda dropped dead of a heart attack.
But what is alleged to have occurred after his death has done much to reinforce Yogananda's standing among his followers as an avatar, or godlike being, and to add to his mystique as a mystic even among nonbelievers. In accord with the guru's instructions, his body was to remain visible under glass for 20 days before the coffin was sealed. Throughout that time, until they finally put the bronze cover of the casket into position, cemetery personnel are alleged to have observed something most unusual. In a notarized letter, Forest Lawn's mortuary director at the time wrote that the body displayed no mold, no visible signs of decay, no drying up, and no odor. "This state of perfect preservation of a body is, so far as we know from mortuary annals, an unparalleled one," wrote Harry T. Rowe. "Our astonishment increased as day followed day without bringing any visible change in the body. [It] was apparently in a phenomenal state of immutability." Not surprisingly, the church has reprinted the account in various publications during the years, suggesting it as proof of Yogananda's divine status. Rowe died years ago, and the curator of Forest Lawn's museum, Margaret Burton, says she is unaware if anyone else reputed to have observed the phenomenon is still alive. "We wish we knew [if there was anyone else]," says Dick Fisher, Forest Lawn's publicity director for 25 years. "Not a year goes by that we don't get inquiries about [the letter], but there's little that we can say about it other than it exists."
Yogananda was born Mukunda Lal Ghosh in northwestern India in 1893, one of eight children of affluent parents. His father was an executive with the Bengal-Nagpur Railway, one of India's largest companies of the day, and the family enjoyed the perquisites of belonging to the kshatriya caste, traditionally India's class of rulers and warriors. But the boy's interests lay in spiritual matters. He left home as a young man, and by the time he graduated from college in 1914, he had taken vows as a member of an ancient swami order. His guru, Sri Yukteswaar, gave him the name Yogananda, which means "bliss of spiritual discipline." He soon organized an academy that served as the nucleus of what would become the Self-Realization Fellowship, known today in the East as the Yogoda Satsanga Society of India. But after reputedly receiving a vision of Western faces passing before him, which he interpreted as his foreordained mission to take his teachings to America, he was soon on a train to Calcutta. There, he was invited to serve as the Indian delegate to an international conclave in Boston sponsored by the American Unitarian Association. The year was 1920.
Yogananda was an overnight smash in the United States. After spending three years writing and lecturing in Boston, he embarked on the first of several cross-country lecture tours, which drew overflow crowds. President Calvin Coolidge received him at the White House. In 1925, he arrived in L.A. to stay, determined to lay down roots for a new religion, the practical application of which required the mastery of kriya yoga. He referred to the kriya methodology as an ancient science that had been lost for centuries in India and was rescued from obscurity by the legendary guru Babaji. Yogananda claimed to have had contact with the obscure Babaji, who, adherents believe, has been alive for thousands of years and today lives in the Himalayas of northern India. The old Mount Washington Hotel must have seemed made to order for Yogananda's mission. Built in 1909, the 50-room edifice had once been a gathering spot for silent-film stars--Charlie Chaplin made a film there--until the first filmmakers abandoned nearby Highland Park for Hollywood. To get to the hotel, guests had to use a funicular, dubbed the Los Angeles & Mount Washington Incline Railway. But, by 1916, the showbiz crowd had moved on, and three years later, the funicular closed. The hotel became a hospital, then a military school. By the time Yogananda bought it, the building was a mess. But it was where he proclaimed the vision had led him. Except for three years in India in the 1930s, during which time he initiated Mahatma Ghandi in kriya yoga, the Mother Center was his principal home.
The eternal home the church envisions is a round dome similar to a shrine erected in India in Yogananda's honor several years ago. It would occupy what is currently a grassy area near the crest of a ridge, surrounded by trees, reputedly one of his favorite meditation areas. At Forest Lawn, the guru's body lies at waist-level behind a mausoleum wall in what is known as the Sanctuary of Golden Slumber. Not far down a hallway, in opposite directions, are the tombs of cowboy star Hopalong Cassidy and actress Hermione Gingold. The daily stream of visitors to Yogananda's crypt makes it perhaps the most visited at Forest Lawn--no small distinction in a cemetery that serves as the final resting place for countless movie stars. Disciples frequently leave more fresh flowers than the space can accommodate, spreading them around in front of dozens of other crypts that share the same wall. Atop Mount Washington, the accoutrements would be more generous, with plans calling for the guru to repose within a marble sarcophagus at the center of a grand rotunda. "It would be something truly beautiful," says Bholananda, the monk.
From the start, the Self-Realization Fellowship's maneuvers regarding the shrine have seemed suspicious to its neighbors on Mount Washington. Rather than deal with residents directly, the church turned to Consensus Planning Group Inc., a big downtown consulting firm whose politically well-connected staffers have helped pitch some of L.A.'s largest real estate developments. Recently, for example, the city's Airport Commission turned to the firm in a bid to whip up community support for the proposed megaexpansion of Los Angeles International Airport. The firm's point person for the SRF is Silvia Novoa, a former aide to L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina, who lives on Mount Washington. (Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa and State Senator Richard Polanco also live there.) Novoa registered as a paid lobbyist in February of 1998, shortly after the SRF filed its application for a conditional-use permit seeking changes to a 1966 master plan for the church property. Another Consensus Planning staffer, Tyler Zabriskie, turned up as the church's spokesman in November of 1997, when the plan was unveiled at a meeting of the Mount Washington Association.
During February and early March of last year, the L.A. Planning Department and City Council members Mike Hernandez and Jackie Goldberg (each of whom represents part of Mount Washington) were inundated with pro-SRF letters and phone calls seeking support for the project's approval without requiring a costly and time-consuming environmental impact report. Meanwhile, board members of the Mount Washington Association launched a counteroffensive, demanding full disclosure of the church's plans. By early March of 1998, both Hernandez and Goldberg made it clear that they favored an EIR. Then, on the eve of when the city planning department was expected to formally announce that an EIR would be required, the SRF switched tactics. Church officials announced that they would "voluntarily" prepare the report for the project. "We prefer to go through the expensive EIR process--estimated to cost $100,000--so that our neighbors will feel secure in the knowledge that each and every community concern...will be fairly addressed," SRF spokesman Luke Parker said at the time. The announcement was all the more surprising because, according to city records, the church had spent $45,000 on lobbying in the first quarter of 1998 alone, while seeking to avoid the very thing it was now volunteering to do.
If the gesture was meant as a peace offering, the cease-fire didn't last. At a meeting of the Mount Washington Association two weeks after the church threw in the towel on the environmental report, the SRF took aim at the association itself. Instead of the usual 30 to 50 people who ordinarily attended the neighborhood group's gatherings, more than 100 people showed up, most of whose faces were unfamiliar to the stunned neighborhood group's regulars. Among them was Silvia Novoa, who monitored the meeting for Consensus Planning as someone offered a resolution, which was quickly seconded, that forbade the association's board of directors and its committees from taking any position on the SRF expansion without a vote from the association's members. "From that day forward, the church effectively took out the Mount Washington Association," says Daniel Wright, a longtime association member who is now the president of CANDER (Conditional-Use Permit of 3880 San Rafael Avenue, Analysis, Negotiation, Dissemination, and Enforcement Roundtable). At another meeting two months later, the coup was completed, he and others say, when another overflow crowd of pro-SRF supporters succeeded in installing its own slate at the helm of the neighborhood group.
To the extent that it has neutralized the association, the SRF has rid itself of a longtime irritant. Past leaders of the neighborhood group have long complained about the church's "incremental creep" into the area near the Mother Center by buying up single-family homes to accommodate monastics. The complaints reached a crescendo in 1989 after the SRF attempted to convert a house across the street from the retreat into a 23-bedroom home, complete with 23 bathrooms. The area is zoned R-1, meaning that only single-family residences are allowed. But the church was prepared to argue that for zoning purposes, the 23 monastics it intended to place in the house would constitute a single family. After the neighborhood group cried foul, the church backed off the plan. But the SRF gained a pledge of noninterference from the group for its accommodating as many as 90 monks and nuns in up to 15 church-owned houses in the neighborhood. Meanwhile, critics still fume about the last round of Mother Center construction in the 1980s, accusing the church of playing fast and loose with restrictions placed on it. "In one building alone, where they claimed to be adding 17,000 square feet, they actually added twice that," says Wright. "It's these sorts of things that don't instill confidence in the community as to what the SRF is up to."
Indeed, besides its conquest of the neighborhood group, the SRF has taken flak for its shrine agenda in other ways. Last November, for example, a letter signed by nine members of the community who expressed support for the project and who professed no affiliation with the SRF went out to Mount Washington residents. Recipients of the letter were asked to indicate their own support by returning an enclosed postage-paid card. It appeared to be a letter from neighbors to neighbors. The preprinted name and address on the front of the reply card was that of Donald Polgrean, the businessman whose home is next to the retreat. He was also one of the letter's signers. But close observation reveals that the first-class mail permit number on the reply card is identical to the permit number on another reply card that members of the community had been mailed earlier--by the SRF. The return address on the earlier card was marked to the attention of Miles Hyde, a monk. In an apparent response to antagonism at the church's having initially used high-priced lobbyists to deal with the neighbors, Hyde has played an increasingly visible role on behalf of the Mother Center. Polgrean acknowledges that Hyde asked him to lend his name to the reply card and that the SRF had indeed paid for the postage, but says he saw nothing misleading about it. "They asked if I could help them out in that way, and I was glad to do it," he says.
For their part, church officials tend to publicly talk about past objections to their plans as if none exist. "I think it's just a question of getting all the facts on the table," says Hyde, when asked to account for the community opposition. He continues to speak of the SRF's voluntarily offering to produce the EIR as if the church never attempted to circumvent it. And he dismisses the suggestion that the church commandeered the neighborhood association. "There are maybe 800 members of the Mount Washington Association, so even if 100 [SRF members] showed up, they would still be outnumbered eight to one," he says. Clare Mentor Kenyon, a community activist and three-time past president of the association, scoffs at such reasoning. "What they conveniently fail to mention is that nowhere near the total membership has ever attended the meetings, which is true of any neighborhood group," she says. In fact, she says, attendance was so low that not long before the SRF coup, the group's bylaws were changed to recognize 5 percent attendance as a quorum. Says Marter Kenyon: "That should tell you something."
If its tactics in promoting the shrine have seemed elusive to outsiders, other matters involving the SRF are even harder to penetrate. Although the SRF professes to have followers in 54 countries, it avoids publicizing membership figures, even though insiders say the church keeps a detailed database on such things, including the number of people who complete a yearlong series of instruction in kriya yoga and who are issued a membership card called a kriyaban. Even more obscure is the issue of the organization's leadership. Of more than a dozen current and former SRF members interviewed for this article, including several associated with the SRF for many years, no one--not even the church's public relations spokeswoman, Lauren Landress--could identify the SRF's board of directors or say how many members it has. More than merely a legal entity, the board is the church's governing authority on religious matters. At New Times' request, Landress later produced a list of the eight members who sit on the board, including Brother Vishwananda, 54, who was appointed three years ago as its newest member.
The SRF's octogenarian spiritual leader, Daya Mata, whose real name is Faye Wright, is all but invisible to the outside world. Even monks at the Mother Center profess to know little about her routine. The woman who was among the first females to head an international religious organization has seldom, if ever, discussed her personal life in the secular press, with the exception of a telephone interview several years ago with the Salt Lake City Tribune. But what is known is fascinating. Her grandparents, a prominent Mormon family, supposedly crossed the plains pulling a handcart. She told the Utah newspaper that her grandfather, Abraham Reister Wright, was an architect of the Salt Lake City Tabernacle. As a teenager in 1931, she met Yogananda at a lecture in Salt Lake City, where he reputedly touched her between the eyes and healed a severe blood disorder that had left her face swollen and disfigured. At age 17, she left Utah to join the then-small band of followers living with the guru at Mount Washington. She was joined not only by her mother, but by a sister, Virginia Wright, who uses the name Ananda Mata, and a brother, C. Richard Wright, who served as Yogananda's traveling secretary in the 1930s before leaving the Mother Center to marry.
But despite her seclusion, she has managed to attract an extraordinary collection of the rich and famous, including former Beatle George Harrison, Indian musician Ravi Shankar, and best-selling author and guru Deepak Chopra, all of whom have made pilgrimages to Mount Washington for an audiences with her. During the 1960s, the list of disciples came to include Elvis Presley, who was recommended by a monk at the SRF's restive Lake Shrine in Pacific Palisades, where the singer had gone for solitude while filming a movie. According to Presley biographer Peter Guralnick, Elvis made numerous trips to see Daya Mata over the years, once even bringing his wife, Priscilla, toward the end of their marriage. He is said to have told friends that Daya Mata reminded him of his deceased mother. But perhaps the most unusual of Daya Mata's circle was the late tobacco heiress Doris Duke, who, when she died under mysterious circumstances in 1993, was reputed to be worth $1.2 billion, making her the world's richest woman. Daya Mata was Duke's spiritual adviser and yoga instructor for many years. As part of the legal wrangle over Duke's wealth after her death, Daya Mata provided a rare glimpse into her friendship with Duke in a deposition for a New York civil trial. Identifying herself as Faye Wright, she told of being at Duke's bedside in her Benedict Canyon home the night before the heiress died. "I spoke to Doris and prayed over her," Wright wrote. "Because of her sweet smile, I knew she was understanding my ministrations."
But Daya Mata is not without her critics, including former SRF members who say that she has carefully built a myth of self-aggrandizement while consolidating her power over the fellowship. Indeed, while church literature describes her as Yogananda's appointed successor and his "foremost living disciple," others, including an ex-nun who wrote an unauthorized book about the church's inner workings, point out that she didn't become president of the SRF until the death of Yogananda's appointed successor, James Lynn. Even then, these critics say, she was the second choice of the board of directors, after a much older female disciple known as Durga Ma turned down the position. "[Daya Mata] was a weak and idealistic young girl who was controlled by her mother and who was put in a position that she perhaps didn't really want to be in," says Joan Wight, the ex-nun, who, as a close associate to Durga Ma even after ceasing to be a nun, enjoyed access to the Mother Center until the latter's death in 1993. "[Daya Mata] got a taste of power," adds Wight. "She went to India. They sat at her feet and put garlands around her neck, and she became a figure she never realized she could be."
On the surface, the levers of authority at the SRF appear to be closely held. Records filed with the California Secretary of State's office list Daya Mata as the SRF's president, and Ananda Mata, her sister, as the secretary and chief financial officer. Requests by New Times to interview the women went unfulfilled. Landress, the church spokeswoman, said that Daya Mata routinely declines press interviews because her schedule is filled with "attending to spiritual matters." Both Landress and Brother Vishwananda, the board member, said that Daya Mata continues to live at the Mother Center, although in recent years, she has divided her time between Mount Washington and a church-owned meditation retreat in the desert near Twentynine Palms.
However, neither appears to be true. New Times has learned that for years Daya Mata and her sister have occupied a church-owned home in a neighborhood of near-million-dollar houses in the San Gabriel Valley foothill community of Sierra Madre. They commute to the Mother Center, 15 miles away, in a Cadillac registered to the church. Sources say that, unknown to many SRF members, the women have lived in the sprawling ranch-style home near the end of a quiet cul-de-sac since the 1960s. These same sources say that within church circles it has long been rumored that Doris Duke provided the money to buy the house. Property records show that the SRF purchased it in 1966. Records also show that the church spent $739,000 in 1997 to buy the house next door, which is believed to be occupied by nuns who attend to the two women. "Their living there has been so secretive that not even some of the monks and nuns at the Mother Center know about it," says an SRF dissident who insists on anonymity. "To outsiders, it's like, 'Who cares?' But within SRF, this being known would really be a big deal, since Daya Mata and Ananda Mata took the same vow of simplicity as the other nuns." Despite the official church obfuscations about the matter, the veracity of the claim doesn't depend simply on the word of critics. When a reporter visited the house recently, Ananda Mata, who is 82, answered the door. She said that Daya Mata was ill and unavailable. "This isn't a good time," she said, while referring inquiries to the same church officials who had failed to arrange access previously. Before excusing herself, however, Ananda Mata acknowledged that she and her sister have lived there for many years, adding, "We like it here very much."
Meanwhile, church officials say that as one of her lasting accomplishments, Daya Mata has expressed the desire to see Yogananda's body returned to the mountain, which she views as its rightful resting place.
The community opposition is well-known. A wild card is the Ananda Church, which could presumably go to court to try to prevent the reentombment, even if the SRF clears its other hurdles. Ananda, which is still being harangued by the SRF in the courts over several remaining trademark issues, is sending mixed signals about its intentions. In an interview, its new spiritual director, Jyotish Novak, expressed misgivings about the body being moved, saying that his organization would have "serious concerns about access" if the guru were at Mount Washington.
But after conferring by phone with Walters in Italy, he took a different tack. "For now," he says, "we plan no opposition to what the SRF is attempting to do." And that may be the best news yet for the Mother Center's chances of bringing the swami home.
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