Calls and letters — 1987-1990

These events started long before I ever heard of Ananda. Perhaps it began back in 1948 when Kriyananda first met Yogananda. Perhaps in 1955, when Daya Mata took over SRF’s reins as its third president, or maybe in 1962, when she booted Kriyananda from the organization. Perhaps, as the parties all seemed to believe, it began lifetimes ago.

My involvement came much later, and by chance. By 1987 my law practice had grown to include a substantial amount of fair housing advocacy. That same year the Ananda Church leased a 72-unit apartment complex in neighboring Mountain View, then filled with tenants having no connection with the Church. The Church wanted to convert the entire complex into a religious community where Ananda members could live in harmony, chant, pray, meditate in small groups, and share vegetarian meals. The Church hoped to make this transition happen with as little disruption to the current tenants as possible.

Sheila Rush, now known as Naidhruva, was then the Executive Director for the East Palo Alto Community Law Project, a non-profit legal clinic begun by students and faculty of nearby Stanford University. I helped out when I could with landlord-tenant matters, meeting with Law Project lawyers and clients at the old three-story home that the Project had converted into ramshackle offices. Sheila, a Harvard Law School graduate, ran an efficient operation on limited funds, and over the years we developed a cordial working relationship.

A Call from Sheila | Fall 1987

Until Sheila called me in 1987 to discuss representing the Church, I didn’t know she was an Ananda member. In fact, I had never heard of Ananda. While not reli­giously inclined, I have always considered myself “spiritual” in that fuzzy way peo­ple use the term to avoid the issue. As fate would have it my college years were spent studying Asian religions and philosophy. I had already read the Bhagavad Gita in different translations, some of the Upanishads, and even portions of the Vedas. The pantheon of Hindu deities were not strangers to me, and I had even dabbled in a little Ramakrishna, learning something about the Vedanta movement in America. Just enough knowledge to be dangerous. During that first call Sheila started filling me in on what I needed to know about Ananda. It was a religious or­ganization and a spiritual community founded in the 1960s by a Swami Kriyanan­da, also known as J. Donald Walters. Ananda was based, and most of its members resided, in an “intentional community” called Ananda Village, located in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, several miles north of Nevada City. In the 1980s Ananda began founding similar communities throughout the West, including the one now being formed in Mountain View. The residential community experience reflected Yogananda’s belief that you should surround yourself with like-minded people seeking to know God through “simple living and high thinking.” The resi­dents and members tried to live lives that reflected, each day, the blend of Chris­tian and Hindu-Yoga principles that Yogananda had brought to America in 1920. These practices included meditation, a vegetarian lifestyle, chanting, praying, and the complete avoidance of alcohol and recreational drugs. Sheila explained that the residential community in Mountain View was another little step in making the world a better place.

It sounded good to me. A church was legally permitted to establish housing for its members’ use and benefit, and then rent to those members without violating fair housing laws. As a community of sincere believers, Ananda could exercise those re­ligious freedoms permitted under both federal and state law. We thought that if we were legally careful and politically savvy, we could convert the apartment complex into a religious community without it blowing up in our face.

A church taking over a large apartment complex can trigger local opposition, and more so when the church is not one of the mainstream denominations. We talked about possible political pressure from the current residents, flak in the press, and the bias against newer religions in a religious America. It was important to Ananda that the transition be done in a “dharmic” manner. Sheila explained that by “dharmic” she meant actions that were morally correct, ethically proper. We were dealing with people’s lives, and in achieving our goal of a better world, we should do as little harm as possible to a tenant’s current existence. It might take a little longer, or cost a little more, but we were to minimize disruption to the existing tenants. Correct action regardless of cost, proper conduct despite the consequences. You could not be blind to the cost and effect of what you did, but you kept your eye on doing the right thing. I was OK with that.

We arranged that current tenants had all the time they wanted to move out. But when they did vacate, their units would then be rented to Ananda members. The Church also immediately made improvements to the property that accentuated its religious character such as devotional statues, shrines, and a chapel. These improved the ambiance for resident members, and reminded the non-members that they were now living in a more refined and spiritual environment. As Ananda members moved in, the spirit of the community changed, and the natural dynamic from that like-minded energy sped up the transition without Ananda having to evict anyone.

The law is not always intuitive, however, and this “dharmic” solution actually ex­posed the church to some risk of litigation. The Fair Housing Act permits a church to discriminate in favor of its members only for housing which it “owns or operates for other than a commercial purpose.” When the Church allowed non-members to continue to reside in their units as long as they wanted, and pay rent, that kindness raised a question whether the complex was then being operated for a “commercial purpose.” The safer route would have been for the church to immediately evict all non-members, and I appreciated that Ananda was willing to stand by its beliefs in the face of this risk. Despite the old saw, it seems that some good deeds do go unpunished, and the transition proceeded smoothly. Everyone ended up as happy as could be hoped for, with a harmonious resolution to a problematic situation. I closed my file, and figured that was the last I would hear from these good people.

Sheila Calls Again | February 1990

A few years later Sheila called again. Kriyananda had received a threatening let­ter from SRF’s lawyers in Los Angeles, and wondered if he could discuss it with me. Of course, I would be pleased to talk with him about it, without the slightest idea yet of what might be involved. “It” turned out to be the first step of an amazing adventure that would change many lives, including my own. But at first it was just about a name.

Sheila again provided background. In December 1968 Kriyananda incorporated the entity we now know as Ananda under the name The Yoga Fellowship. By the mid-1980s, the name had been changed to the Fellowship of Inner Communion. Recently, Kriyananda and the community had been searching for a name that bet­ter described what he saw to be Ananda’s mission, a mission developing over time. Following a community meeting in early January 1990, the membership voted to change the Church’s name to the Church of Self-Realization.

SRF, atop Mt. Washington in Los Angeles, was not pleased. Yogananda had founded SRF in 1935, and the organization assumed Yogananda’s mantel when he passed away in 1952. SRF thought Ananda’s new name sounded too similar to its own, and told its lawyers to make Ananda stop using “Self-Realization” as part of its name. Their letter had triggered Sheila’s call.

Sheila gave me the back-story to Ananda’s name change and SRF’s reaction. It seems that Kriyananda had joined SRF in 1948 and become particularly close to Yogananda during the last four years of his life. They spent time together at Yo­gananda’s desert retreat at Twentynine Palms, where they and Laurie Pratt, later called Tara Mata, worked on Yogananda’s final editing of several key works. For ten years after Yogananda’s passing in 1952, Kriyananda continued serving Yoga­nanda within the SRF organization. He rose to the position of vice-president, was a member of the Board of Directors, and headed up the monks on a day-to-day basis. He spoke several languages, and by the early sixties was serving overseas as SRF’s principal representative in India. In 1962 he was unexpectedly summoned to New York City. After he checked into the designated hotel and retired for the night, someone slipped a note under his door. That note informed him that he was fired from the Board, expelled from SRF, and instructed to leave. Just like that. Without warning or explanation. After 14 years as a monk. He had grown penniless in SRF’s service, and he didn’t even get a face-to-face “Sorry, but it’s not working out.” No “Thank you for years of loyal and unpaid service.” During a devastating session the next day with SRF’s president, Daya Mata, and Tara Mata, Kriyananda learned that he must sever all connection with SRF, and could have nothing further to do with Yogananda. He could not use Yogananda’s teachings or SRF’s materials, and he was not to hold himself out as being one of Yogananda’s disciples. They slipped him a check for $500.00 and showed him the door. Over the years, whenever SRF leadership would be asked about Kriyananda’s ouster, the stock response was “If you only knew!” It was always rhetorical. If anyone really knew anything they were not telling. During the litigation it became clear that the ladies who then ran the organization had issues with Kriyananda’s charismatic and eloquent leadership. He was manly, fit, and handsome with his neatly trimmed beard. A man’s man among the women in control. Their differences on the Board, however, found expression in ways that went to the essence of Yogananda’s mission. The women on the Board wanted to protect the legacy of their days with Yogananda by sanitizing and pre­serving his memory, while Kriyananda advocated a more dynamic application of Yogananda’s teachings to a changing world. Kriyananda had to go.

After mourning and reflecting on this unexpected turn, and with no other means to express his devotion, Kriyananda decided to begin teaching yoga and medita­tion in the San Francisco Bay Area. It was the mid-1960s and the San Francisco area provided fertile grounds for New Age religions. Through lectures and classes Kriyananda attracted both students and funding, and before long he had obtained some acreage up country in Nevada County. There he would found the community we now know as Ananda Village. The first World Brotherhood Colony embodying Yogananda’s teachings.

Through the 1980s Kriyananda tried to avoid upsetting SRF, and steered Ananda in directions that would not conflict with what SRF was doing. When he founded his own organization in the 1960s he named it The Yoga Fellowship, later changing the name to the Fellowship of Inner Communion, to avoid any similarity with SRF’s or Yogananda’s names. In his futile attempts to establish a harmonious relationship with SRF, Kriyananda offered to give the entire Ananda Village to SRF. Three times. The SRF Board would have nothing to do with any community that Kriyananda had founded.

Over the years Kriyananda and the Ananda community came to realize that re­gardless what they did, or did not do, there would be no rapprochement with SRF. At a lengthy and lively meeting in January 1990, the community decided it was time to act. That action included adding “Self-Realization” to the Church’s name, as an expression of Ananda’s ultimate spiritual goal. Yogananda had called his religion “Self-realization.” Ananda had matured as a vehicle of Yogananda’s teaching, and it appeared proper that Ananda now embrace a name that truly expressed its religious path. Within days the Fellowship of Inner Communion had become The Church of Self-Realization. SRF heard immediately about Ananda’s declaration of spiritual independence, and now, weeks later, SRF was threatening to file suit.

Sheila told me more about Kriyananda, who she called “Swami.” He authored numerous books and songs, lectured in several languages, and provided the channel through which the community received the teachings and blessing of Yogananda, who was their Guru. In Kriyananda, she explained, beat the strong heart of Anan­da, and most Ananda members looked to him as spiritual guide and a living inspira­tion. During our conversation she repeated that Yogananda, not Kriyananda, was the “Guru,” but it would be a while before I fully understood the significance of her comment. There were questions about the legal direction the mission should take, and Ananda needed to see if its legal standing was as strong as its moral commit­ment. I would be happy to review the letter and share my thoughts. Sheila would send over a copy and set up the call.

First impressions are important, and Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher’s letterhead comprised august-sounding names crawling down a full quarter of the first page, engraved in a dark serif font. The February 9, 1990 letter came right to the point. Ananda must change its name, back to what it was, or to something else, but noth­ing close to anything sounding like “Self-realization.” The letter raised this single point—that the Ananda Church was not to use “Self-realization” as part of its name.

Nasty-grams from lawyers follow a standard formula: a situation is stated in language as favorable to the client’s interests as possible, and then some action is demanded on the recipient’s part, who is warned that failure to act will have dire consequences. The author vouches the inevitability of his client’s victory, and often expresses personal disdain for the recipient’s knowing and intentional misconduct. This February 9th letter was no different, and finished with a big bold signature, showing its author meant business and should be taken seriously. Although Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher was one of the largest law firms in the world, employing count­less minions, I thought I could handle a dispute over a church’s name. How compli­cated could that be? I made a few notes on points to discuss, and was eager to talk.

Swami Kriyananda | February 1990

One does not run into many swamis on the South Side of Chicago, where I grew up, and I was uncertain about the etiquette. I asked Sheila what I should call him, how to act, and whether there was any protocol to be followed when talking with a swami. She said not to worry about it. And, as it turned out, Kriyananda didn’t care about those things either. Before the case ended there would be much made about the use and meaning of the term “Swami.” But like many who respect the man, his wit and wisdom, without being Ananda members, I too quickly came to call him Swami.

Naturally, I had done some research on Kriyananda before our call. J. Donald Walters was born in Romania in 1926 of American parents, and educated at the best schools. Living in New York in 1948, he came across a copy of Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi that had been published two years earlier. Reading it through in one sitting, he got on a bus and rode cross-country to Los Angeles. Once there, Kriyananda immediately tracked Yogananda down at one of SRF’s temples, was accepted as a disciple by Yogananda on the spot, and pledged his lifelong loyalty and support. Soon after, Kriyananda became a trusted assistant to Yogananda, who placed him in charge of the monks. These independent sources confirmed what Sheila had told me about Kriyananda’s background, his editing Yogananda’s works under Yogananda’s personal guidance, and Kriyananda’s role at SRF after 1952. The public record went silent about what happened in the early 1960s and picked up again only years later with articles about the Village. Having read what I could find, Kriyananda seemed the real deal, but I still didn’t know what to make of it all. I expected anything from a commanding captain of industry to a shell-shocked foot soldier of God.

When we talked it became clear that Kriyananda was “none of the above.” There was a gentleness and innocence in the way he spoke. An almost childlike simplicity in his explanations, shared in a slow and deliberate way that might have sounded pedantic were he not so warm and engaging. He told me more about his involve­ment with SRF and his separation. He talked about Yogananda’s mission to Amer­ica, SRF and its current leadership, and his vision of Ananda’s role in Yogananda’s legacy. After catching me up on the last forty years, he turned to the lawsuit. We discussed the uncertainty of litigation, the misfit between law and religion, and how lawsuits should be avoided if at all possible.

Kriyananda acknowledged the legal brambles, and that a judge might be put in charge of the future of both churches. It was important that I understood, however, that the real fight was not about a change of name. It was about the struggle for re­ligious freedom, and specifically Ananda’s freedom from SRF’s religious control, if not tyranny. Although this karmic adventure would take place inside a courtroom, it was not really about the law. It was all about spiritual growth, like tendrils that clamber toward the light. There was talk of will, duty and destiny. I thought that all well and good, and looked forward to an insight or two. But this was litigation in federal court, and serious business. We finished up talking about the brutal and costly reality of litigation. Even a relatively simple dispute about a name change could last for two, or even three, years in federal court and easily end up costing six figures. “Six figures” was my sanitized way of saying it would cost a lot of money. I had no idea then that the lawsuit would acquire a life of its own, but SRF had hired “Gibson Dunn,” and I knew it would not be cheap. Kriyananda ended the conversa­tion by observing that sometimes you must pay for your principles, at which point I agreed to prepare a response to the letter, and to be available as needed.

The Ranks Array | March–June 1990

We replied to SRF’s letter a few days later, pointing out that within the Hindu-Yoga tradition the phrase “Self-realization” describes the ultimate goal of union with God, and is therefore generic when used in the name of a church. We ex­plained our position that, like with “salvation” or “redemption” in the Christian context, any church may use a generic term that accurately describes its mission or its teachings. As a church whose spiritual goal was “Self-realization” resulting in union with God, Ananda had the right to use the term “Self-realization” in its name. Kriyananda and the Church might have held off exercising their rights out of unrequited respect, but they had not given up those rights, and could exercise them now.

We attempted to show both the reasonableness of Ananda’s position and the larger issues at stake. It was a matter of religious freedom and constitutional rights. Ananda even proposed a compromise, and offered to use the name “Ananda Church of Self-Realization.” We thought our response fair and rather conciliatory, based on principles that SRF should also recognize.

SRF’s lawyers replied later that month, rejecting out of hand that “Self-real­ization” was in any way generic, calling Kriyananda an “interloper,” and reiterating their demand that Ananda never use any language in its church name that looked or sounded like “Self-realization.” If Ananda did not concede this point and immedi­ately change its name from Church of Self-Realization, then a lawsuit would surely follow. It was just a name, but a name apparently important to SRF.

Ananda also felt strongly on the issue. As legitimate disciples of Yogananda, the Ananda community should also be able to use the name that Yogananda had chosen to describe his vision of the ultimate goal of Yoga. Given the narrow scope of the issue, and now confident their use of “Self-realization” was legal, Ananda decided to stand on principle. Beginning with Ananda’s founding in the late 1960s, SRF had always publicly ignored Ananda, while keeping close tabs on its activi­ties, privately criticizing its plans, and interfering with those plans when it could. Kriyananda had repeatedly given in to SRF’s wishes, but feckless deference did not seem to be working. The time had come to take a stand.

It was also far from clear that SRF would actually sue, as SRF had already backed down after making legal threats. Years earlier SRF had threatened a lawsuit against Amrita Publications in Texas for reprinting some early Yogananda texts. SRF backtracked when it discovered that many of those early interpretations of Biblical passages published by Amrita had already slipped into the public domain. Another dust-up had swirled around Crystal Clarity’s publication of Stories of Mu­kunda in 1976. Crystal Clarity was Ananda’s publishing arm, and at that time Kri­yananda wrote most of its publications.

Brother Kriyananda, as he was known at SRF, had written Stories of Mukunda while still a monk there. He printed it privately in December 1953, and distrib­uted copies to his brother monks as Christmas presents that year. SRF published a copy of the work, and advertised it for a while in Self-Realization Magazine, but by the 1970s the work had long gone out of print. When Crystal Clarity republished a copy of the book in 1976, SRF sent Kriyananda and Crystal Clarity a “cease and desist” letter. Kriyananda responded that he would not stop publishing his own writings, and a second printing followed in 1977. SRF did nothing.

With this past history, maybe SRF’s most recent threat was just more talk. Maybe SRF would grumble and go away. It seemed likely. How upset could SRF really be about Ananda calling itself “Church of Self-Realization?” What was the harm? What were the damages?

In February and March 1990, while we were dealing with SRF’s first letter to Kriyananda, SRF had begun secretly preparing for a much larger lawsuit. SRF qui­etly applied to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to register the terms “Self-Realization Fellowship,” “Self-Realization Fellowship Church,” and “Paramahansa Yogananda” as trademarks and service marks. Parallel applications were filed with the California Secretary of State in Sacramento. While still corresponding with Ananda about the Church’s name, SRF was already appropriating Yogananda’s name and title as a registered brand name to use for the sale of SRF’s goods and ser­vices. SRF also registered the term “Self-realization” as a unique form of religious expression that could only be used by SRF. The monks and nuns had begun assem­bling hundreds of pages of exhibits to show that Ananda quoted extensively from Yogananda’s talks and writings. Each quote would result in a claim of infringement. In those halcyon months from March to July 1990, Ananda basked in the dusty heat of the high Sierras, and the last calm days of the millennium, unaware of the game already afoot.