Since the '60s, the Ananda Church of Self-Realization has grown from a Northern California commune into a worldwide New Age empire. Its leader has grown fond of sex with young believers.
The pews are steadily filling up, and the Sunday service is about to start. The parishioners, mostly middle-aged, ordinary-looking couples, sit quietly, their graying, balding, and silver heads rocking to and fro, humming along with the soothing chanting of the choir. The church is warm, tranquil, and faintly fragrant with burning incense. The altar table has been elegantly laid out with a voluminous blooming bouquet of colorful carnations, flanked by two thick white candles on golden holders. Above the table are five gold-framed portraits arranged in the shape of a cross. Jesus is at the center of the display; the other four images portray Indian gurus, or spiritual guides.
The topmost portrait is an eerie rendering of Babaji, an ostensibly androgynous being with long hair and pursed feminine lips. According to the church, Babaji is an immortal spiritual master who has lived in the Himalayas for thousands of years. The bottom portrait is of Paramhansa Yogananda, author of the ’50s spiritual classic Autobiography of a Yogi; he’s shown with his signature long, dark, wavy hair and ocher robe. On either side of Jesus are Sri Yukteswar, an imposing silver-bearded, silver-haired man, and Lahiri Mahasaya, another old man with a deeply furrowed forehead and eyes shut in two thin lines. Both are spiritual masters who preceded Yogananda, according to this church’s teachings, which say that the five pictured beings are a divinely ordained line of “perfected souls” who assumed human form to guide and inspire mankind to realize God.
At 10 o’clock, the chanting trails off. Church bells are rung. A solemn procession of five white-robed ministers, reminiscent of a Greek chorus, emerges from behind the altar. The congregation rises to its feet instantly to greet them.
“How is everyone?” asks the leading minister. "A-wake and rea-dy!!” the 100-strong congregation responds enthusiastically in a chorus.
For the next hour-and-a-half, the ministers -- who, robes aside, are nondescript, baby-boomer, mom-and-pop types -- take turns leading meditation, reading from the Hindu spiritual classic Baghavad Gita, and delivering a sermon. From time to time, the choir rouses the congregation with guitars and harmoniums, and the church members plunge into fervent devotional chanting. The service is lively, punctuated at turns with humor, solemnity, and palpable rapture.
At the end, everyone rises. After earnestly rubbing their hands together, parishioners hold their palms outward. Invoking their gurus on the altar, they ask to be made “pure channels of God’s love,” so they can bless the world with their energy.
For a decade now, the Ananda Church of Self-Realization has been holding such Sunday services in a former Roman Catholic church in downtown Palo Alto. Steeped in Indian mystic traditions, the church holds that human beings are expressions of the divine spirit, and that the purpose of human life is to become more aware of that divine spirit within ourselves. The first portion of the church’s name -- Ananda -- means “divine bliss” in Sanskrit. The Ananda approach to the other portion of the name -- self-realization -- involves steadfast meditation and yoga, performed several times a day.
From its beginnings in tents and geodesic domes 30 years ago in the Sierra Nevada foothills, Ananda has grown to include a vast, far-flung empire of churches, meditation centers, businesses, and “world brotherhood colonies” in places as far away as Italy and Australia.
In New Age circles, Ananda has been the poster child of cooperative spiritual communities for years. In the late ’80s, the New York Times went to Ananda’s headquarters and flagship colony near Nevada City and reported excitedly that the church was a successful exception to the hippie communes that were founded in the 1960s and “have long since faded.”
Recently, though, Ananda has revealed itself to be less an exception than an example of the rule of wayward ’60s communalism.
Last year, a Redwood City jury handed down a million-plus-dollar judgment against Ananda’s longtime spiritual director, Donald J. Walters (known generally as Swami Kriyananda), another senior official of the church, and the church itself, for the sexual exploitation of a former church member. In that case, six women testified under oath that the swami had taken sexual advantage of them when they were impressionable twentysomethings in search of spiritual advancement.
And now Ananda’s leaders have embarked on an unusual method of fighting the judgment: filing for protection under Chapter 11 of the bankruptcy code. To date, the filing has allowed the church to avoid paying the judgment, but it is being challenged as a fraud upon the bankruptcy court.
Ananda’s form of self-realization seems to include a fair amount of self- delusion.
Deep in the heavily wooded San Juan Ridge, a few thousand feet up in the Sierra Nevada foothills, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder pours tea and relates his experience as a longtime neighbor to the Ananda community headquarters.
Some 30 years ago, Snyder, a lifelong Buddhist, met Donald Walters through a mutual friend who was then president of the San Francisco Zen Center. The trio, along with Snyder’s good friend (and fellow beat poet) Allen Ginsberg, purchased 160 acres of pristine land in the foothills. At the time, they shared an interest in setting up cabins in this secluded area.
A couple of years after acquiring the land, Snyder says, he built a house and permanently settled in it. He contented himself with the simple home, but over the years witnessed his partner Walters build a spiritual community with a worldwide following. “It had been our understanding that all he wanted was a cabin for himself,” Snyder says.
In the anything-goes environment of the Bay Area, Walters had already attracted a small following. Young and idealistic spiritual seekers, enamored with his status as a “direct disciple of Yogananda,” literally followed Walters into the woods.
At first, the conditions were harsh. Tents, yurts, trailers, and geodesic domes served as homes. There was no running water, or electricity. A 1976 fire burned almost the entire fledgling Ananda community to a crisp. But Walters and his followers persevered. They expanded steadily, purchasing several hundred more acres of the foothills and bringing in ever more seekers of self-realization.
Ananda became more and more famous as Walters tirelessly promoted it around the country. People learned about his spiritual vision through the endless stream of books, articles, and audiocassettes he churned out. “One can say through the years, the Ananda community has been steady in its pressure trying to expand,” Snyder says.
Tension between Ananda and its neighbors reached an all time high when Ananda attempted to incorporate as a town in the early ’80s. Snyder and his neighbors shot down the plan, but the failure did not faze the church, which turned its energy to building a self-sufficient village on the 900 acres of land it came to acquire.
Now, the Ananda community near Nevada City is home to about 300 people, and has its own elementary and middle schools, dairy farm, bakery, market, publishing house (two of them, in fact), medical clinic, construction guild, and even a telephone system called Ananda Bell. In Nevada City, Ananda also runs a highly successful health food store/vegetarian restaurant.
Ananda has stretched its wings in the outside world as well, becoming a conglomerate of businesses, meditation centers, and world brotherhood colonies that stretch from the Bay Area to Portland to Assisi, Italy. Recognizing the group’s global reach, Warner Books struck a deal with Ananda in 1994 to publish a line of Walters’ books.
Today in the Bay Area, Ananda owns the highly profitable and well-known metaphysical bookstore East West in downtown Mountain View and another used bookstore directly across the street. And just blocks from its Palo Alto church, Ananda has a thriving spiritual community of more than a hundred, living in a cluster of apartment buildings partially owned by church members.
From outward appearances, Ananda might seem justified in referring to itself as “one of the country’s most successful intentional communities.”
Ford Greene is a man with a mission: hunting gurus and busting cults. He doesn't look his 46 years; he doesn'tt look much like a lawyer either. Trim, tall, and athletic, his dress tends toward jeans, sandals, and flannel shirts.
For the past 16 years, Greene has run a one-man cult-prosecuting operation from his San Anselmo office. He has butted heads with the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church, the Church of Scientology, and the San Rafael-based Johanine Daist Communion, led by Bubba Free John (aka Franklin Jones), who was exposed in the ’80s as having sexually enslaved some of his female devotees.
In 1994, Greene filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against the Ananda Church of Self-Realization on behalf of 31-year-old Anne-Marie Bertolucci of Palo Alto, a former Ananda member. The lawsuit alleged Bertolucci had been sexually exploited by church founder and spiritual director Swami Kriyananda, and a married senior church minister, Danny Levin. It also accused the church of fraud.
Bertolucci’s association with Ananda began innocuously. At Ananda’s East West bookstore in 1991 she saw a flier for a meditation class, and decided to attend. The flier promised that the class would help her “be stronger, healthier, more youthful and energetic.” A computer programmer making good money, Bertolucci was looking for stress management techniques. The flier seemed opportune.
After taking that first meditation class, Bertolucci went to many more, eventually becoming hooked on learning ever more advanced meditation techniques and yoga postures.
Six months later, Bertolucci joined the church, where she stopped eating meat and using makeup. Within a year, she had separated from her husband, who opposed her increasing involvement with Ananda, and gone to the Ananda community in the Sierras, telling friends she was leaving to find “spiritual redemption.”
At Ananda, Bertolucci held various low-paying jobs at church-related businesses. Danny Levin, vice president of the church-owned publishing house where she worked and a married senior minister, befriended Bertolucci immediately. The befriending soon crossed into sexual contact that included touching her breasts during church ceremonies held in the office, rubbing himself against her until he ejaculated, and having her perform oral sex on him.
Levin stated that he had recognized [Bertolucci] as a lover and wife from past lives,” the lawsuit alleged. “[He] treated [her] like a whore, yet told [her] that he was very much in love with her.”
At the same time, Swami Kriyananda was also taking advantage of her sexually, Bertolucci claimed.
A year after joining, Bertolucci left the Ananda Church, a broken woman who, her lawsuit claimed, was severely depressed, suicidal, and without a job.
After Bertolucci filed suit, a dozen ex-Ananda members stepped up to support her case. Six women gave sworn testimony detailing various forms of what they considered sexual exploitation by the swami.
In the past five years, Greene and Michael Flynn, a Rancho Santa Fe lawyer who also has a cult-busting history, have put up hundreds of thousands of their own money to finance the case against Ananda.
Several months ago, their effort paid off. A Redwood City jury handed down a verdict in favor of Bertolucci.
In the verdict, Ananda was found to have misrepresented itself as a “safe” religious organization and to have failed to stop Walters’ and Levin’s sexual transgressions. The church was ordered to pay more than $300,000.
Walters was judged to have misrepresented himself as a monk, and to have caused Bertolucci emotional trauma, and was ordered to pay $285,000 in compensatory damages, and another $1 million in punitive damages. (On appeal, the punitive damages were reduced to $400,000.) A sexual harassment claim was dismissed before the case went to the jury.
Levin was ordered to pay $30,000 for causing Bertolucci emotional anguish.
Ford Greene is convinced that the Ananda Church is a cult. Jon Parsons has been a lawyer for Ananda for almost a decade now and couldn’t disagree more. A good head shorter than Greene, pasty-faced, slightly paunchy, and sparse- haired, Parsons is an eloquent man blessed with a dramatic flair and an enchanting, resonant voice.
"I have found them [Ananda people] to be universally -- without exception -- sincere, devoted, good people," he said at the outset of an interview in his Palo Alto office.
Parsons sees Bertolucci as a vengeful, jilted lover who struck out against Ananda in anger and pain, because she failed to lure Levin, a married man, away from his wife and child. And Bertolucci’s lawsuit, he contends, is the result of a conspiracy between her and the Self-Realization Fellowship, a longtime religious rival of Ananda. In 1991, the SRF sued Ananda over the latter’s use of the term “self-realization” and other intellectual property issues. Parsons won the case for Ananda, but, he says, the SRF has not given up appealing the decision.
A long-running, almost farcical feud does exist between Ananda and the SRF. But there is abundant and persuasive evidence to support the accusations of sexual exploitation leveled against Ananda leaders.
First, there are the declarations by seven women who claim to have had sexual encounters with Swami Kriyananda. They indicate Walters has a history of asking for massages from his impressionable young female devotees, and turning the massages into sexual events.
Jane (not her real name) first met Walters in the late ’70s at a talk he gave at a San Francisco church. She was 21 and had found Autobiography of a Yogi inspiring. She was immediately taken with Walters -- who advertised himself as a “direct disciple of Yogananda” -- and soon moved to the Ananda village and joined the monastic order there.
“Being 21 years old, compared to his 55 plus years, I loved him dearly as a father figure,” she recalled in a court declaration. “In my journals I referred to him as my beloved father. I felt secure and happy in my new found home, working hard, for little wages, living simply, thinking high.”
Jane’s happiness was short-lived. In 1981, Walters invited her to clean his house while he was away -- an invitation that she initially felt was an honor.
One day, Walters asked her to give him a massage. “He asked me to straddle his back in order to access his shoulders properly. In a few moments he asked me to take off my clothes, as they were irritating his skin.”
Jane did so, because, she contended, “[Walters] said some things which assured me, making me feel that he was a pure channel of God, and that I had no cause foruneasiness.”
Subsequently, she said, Walters rolled himself over and rubbed himself against her “until he ejaculated all over himself.”
Jane was confounded at first but accepted Walters’ continual requests for massages that invariably led to blow jobs or hand jobs. Ananda leaders assured her she was “extremely blessed to provide energy to him”; Walters explained to her that sex was no more than “energy going from one part of the universe to another.”
Jane’s story is one of many. Six other women filed similar court declarations about sexually servicing Walters or being asked to do so by him.
Perhaps nothing in the legal files is as damning as evidence from one of Ananda’s true believers. Greene found and filed with the court a personal letter to Walters that seems to indicate church leaders had long had knowledge of Walters’ sexual misconduct.
Anandi Cornell, a church minister and member since 1971, wrote the letter several months after Bertolucci filed the lawsuit. The letter gingerly pleads with Walters to face up to his sexual problem.
“This is something I’ve always thought had happened. ... If this sex thing is a hidden fault (which as I said, I don’t judge you for at all -- it has been your business), then spiritually, something must happen to release or repay the energy around it for your liberation.
“I think this lawsuit is the vehicle to help you get free of this karma,” Cornell wrote, apparently trying to put forth her best spiritual reasoning.
Walters never took Cornell’s advice. Instead, Ananda’s legal team committed a seemingly fatal mistake.
Almost a year into the lawsuit, Ananda’s lawyers had yet to find hard evidence to back up their theory that Bertolucci and the church’s religious rivals were conspiring with one another. Apparently desperate to find such a link, the attorneys hired private investigators to rummage through the legal trash of Greene’s co-counsel, Michael Flynn.
Flynn caught one of the investigators red-handed, on his property, as the PI was fleeing in a van.
When the judge presiding over the trial learned of the trash-pilfering attempt, he handed down a sweeping legal sanction that forbade Ananda’s legal team from questioning the women who had testified against Walters. When the four-month trial ended last year, the jury came down hard on Ananda. The judge was equally unforgiving.
“Walters’ conduct was unmistakably reprehensible,” the presiding judge wrote in court documents. “This court was struck by the arrogant and uncaring attitude demonstrated by this defendant throughout the trial proceedings, undoubtedly a circumstance not unnoticed by the jury.”
Although Walters admitted in a court deposition that he’d had sexual contacts with most of the women who’d testified against him, he denied the contact constituted sexual abuse. That denial is duly repeated by faithful Ananda members, who continue to hold him in high regard.
“I was deeply moved by [Walters’] sincerity, truthfulness, and his ability to express a deep impersonal sense of love and forgiveness to them,” says Steve Manus, an Ananda member who manages the church-owned vegetarian restaurant in Nevada City. “I know him to be a thoroughly honest individual, a very kind and loving man.”
Attempts to contact Walters for this article were unsuccessful. But his charisma is clear, even in the unforgiving form of a videotaped deposition. Answering humiliating questions about his sex life, Walters carried himself like a refined gentleman of Old World grace. At 73, after heart ailments and hip surgeries, he still looked youthful, almost boyish.
It can truly be said that Walters is multitalented: He’s a prolific writer, composer, playwright, photographer, and singer. His lifetime of work includes more than 70 books and 400 musical pieces. His books -- mostly of the self-help variety with such titles as How to Use Money for Your Own Good and How to Spiritualize Your Marriage -- offer advice on every aspect of life.
In the training to become an Ananda member, Walters’ autobiography, The Path: One Man’s Quest on the Only Path There Is, is required reading. A trainee also must read his edited versions of books on Hindu philosophy and complete a course on yoga and meditation that he designed.
At Ananda churches, members breathe and live Walters’ works. Not only do they read his books; they perform his plays, and in rituals he created.
The source of Walters’ charisma, however, is his connection to Yogananda. At age 22, Walters read Yogananda’s autobiography, and, the legend goes, it changed his life instantly. The day after he read the book, Walters got on a bus headed for Los Angeles, where Yogananda’s organization, the Self- Realization Fellowship, is to this day headquartered. He was accepted as a disciple and was subsequently initiated into an ancient Indian monastic order that requires one to take vows for life of poverty, chastity, obedience, and loyalty.
From then on, Donald J. Walters was Swami Kriyananda (a name that means “divine bliss through Kriya Yoga”).
Because Yogananda is considered the last in the Ananda line of gurus, Walters, being his disciple, is accorded high respect. And Walters makes constant references in his writings, speeches, and conversations to Yogananda, whom he and his followers refer to as “Master.”
“It is generally understood, now, that the wisdom in Master’s teachings resides primarily in those who have been disciples for many years,” he wrote in a recent open letter to the Ananda community. “It is also vitally important at Ananda that other energies not be allowed to intrude themselves, as if to bypass Kriyananda and go straight to our gurus for guidance and inspiration.”
Ananda’s official college internship Web page has an Ansel Adams-like photo at its center: the silhouette of a man sitting in the lotus position, meditating on a mountain peak against blue skies. Pictures of Ananda in its monthly publications are beautiful: bucolic images of green open spaces with tall pines and manzanitas, freshly painted cabins in the woods, shimmering water with the sun reflecting off it, and the happy faces of men, women, and children.
Ananda’s pamphlet about membership says, “When you join Ananda, you become part of a great spiritual movement bringing peace and harmony to the planet.”
In real life, however, membership in Ananda involves the progressive commitment of one’s autonomy and financial resources to the church. One of the first steps of becoming a member is taking a vow that says: “As a means of obtaining self-realization, I offer my cooperative obedience and loyalty to Ananda, to those members who are responsible for building the community in its various aspects, and, above all, to the living representative of the Ananda line of gurus, the Spiritual Director of Ananda World Brotherhood Village.”
After becoming a member, one is required to live by the “Rules of Conduct for Members,” written by Walters. This handbook spells out the often patently paternalistic rules that govern almost every aspect of life in the community, from marriage to work to money.
For example, if an Anandan wants to get married, he or she needs to get approval from the church’s marriage committee -- or suffer the ire of the church hierarchy.
“If any couple, influenced by personal desire, decide to marry in opposition to the community’s decision and advice, they may not be married by an Ananda minister,” the handbook warns. “Let them, instead, be married outside the community, and not burden their spiritual family, who have their highest welfare sincerely at heart, with the request that it go against its own conscience in the matter.”
Similarly, should a member want to start a business, change jobs, or build a home, he or she must ask for church permission.
In addition to conforming their lifestyles to the church’s dictates, members are strongly encouraged to also offer themselves for church service -- and to give up significant amounts of their financial resources.
About half of Ananda’s members in Nevada County work in church-related businesses, which often pay minimum wage. All members tithe at least 10 percent of their income every month. They are also constantly asked to donate for various church projects and funds.
“As soon as I [got] my check, I’d give it all back to the church,” says Victoria Kelly, who left Ananda in 1995, after living there for 17 years. “My ex- husband and I came out of the church $30,000 in debt.”
As a condition of lifetime membership, church members sign an agreement to give the house they built on Ananda land to the church. (Since 1995, the agreement has become optional.)
Those who join Ananda with substantial savings are solicited by church fund-raisers who seek to obtain large unsecured loans to the church -- backed only by the members’ faith in the organization.
Before Steve Scott and his wife joined Ananda in the early ’80s, they had three houses and drove a Mercedes-Benz. They left in an old pickup truck with $35 in their bank account.
“It’s built off the backs of people who come on board,” Scott says.
Within days of the judgment in the Bertolucci case, Ananda filed for protection under Chapter 11 of the federal bankruptcy code, effectively preventing Bertolucci from collecting the judgment against the church.
In the local paper, the Grass Valley Union, an Ananda longtimer wrote publicly about the church’s bankruptcy filing.
“For nearly everyone of us living at Ananda, mostly small families, the houses people live in are our only asset, and the land itself is owned by Ananda,” he wrote, relating his fear of losing his home because of the judgment against the church. “We wonder what we will do if our homes are taken.”
Actually, the church lists nearly $10 million in assets in its bankruptcy filing, which would appear to be more than enough to pay the court awards without selling people’s homes. In fact, Bertolucci’s attorneys have filed a motion with the bankruptcy court that seeks to dismiss Ananda’s bankruptcy filing, alleging it was filed in bad faith, as a way of avoiding payment of court judgments against the church.
The motion contends, among other things, that the church fabricated $5 million in debts it “owes” to its own members, in an apparent attempt to make Ananda seem to be in severe financial trouble, and unable to pay Bertolucci and her lawyers. The motion quotes a letter sent by Ananda’s own lawyer that appears to admit the Chapter 11 filing is, primarily, an attempt to frustrate -- or, at least, greatly delay -- Bertolucci and her lawyers from collecting their court awards.
Ananda is currently in settlement discussions with Bertolucci’s lawyers. The bankruptcy court was scheduled to hear arguments on whether to dismiss the church’s bankruptcy filing shortly after this article went to press.
Members of the Ananda Awareness Network, an informal group of disgruntled ex-Ananda members centered in Nevada City, and their allies have vigorously supported the Bertolucci case, monitoring it almost daily. They have even set up a Web site to warn people about what they say is the dark side of the church.
In recent interviews, the anti-Ananda camp expressed amazement at the lack of change at Ananda in the wake of the Bertolucci case. “The same people who have been in power at Ananda for the last few decades are still in power,” said David Reed, a longtime Ridge resident who supports the Network.
In the middle of the Bertolucci trial, Walters did retire as spiritual director of Ananda. But since then, he has lived comfortably in an Ananda community in Assisi, Italy, in a brand-new home Ananda members bought and furnished for him. He keeps in touch with Ananda communities in the U.S. via monthly videotapes. Senior Ananda members fly to Italy to see him.
“Their whole key is their addiction to Swami Kriyananda, and the illusion of who he is,” a former Ananda member says. “They are still dangerous for people, as long as they deny the whole thing.”