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has Ananda lost its way?


Swami Vivekananda came to America in 1893, representing Hinduism and the Vedantic teachings of his guru, Sri Ramakrishna, at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago. He was the first great yogi to bring India's sublime science of God-realization to the West. He also delivered a stern warning to those seeking instruction in Eastern esoteric disciplines: "Of one hundred persons who take up the spiritual life, eighty turn out to be charlatans, fifteen insane, and only five, maybe, get a glimpse of the real truth. Therefore beware."

During the last thirty years, there has been a growing interest in meditation as many yogis, swamis, roshis, and lamas have followed Vivekananda to the West. These teachers, as well as the many American instructors who have joined their ranks, have often ignored Vivekananda's warning. Although they promise techniques of enlightenment, some of these teachers exhibit unenlightened behavior in their own lives, such as having sex with their students. While preaching inner freedom, they themselves remain enslaved to the senses.

Clearly, one needs to be very careful when choosing a teacher. Sexual misconduct with students can serve as an early warning sign that a teacher is one of the many charlatans and madmen seeking to attract followers. Sexual relationship between teacher and student is almost always exploitive since it involves some level of coercion due to the dynamics of vastly unequal power, the misuse of spiritual authority, and a betrayal of trust. Because the teacher knows this behavior is wrong, he and the followers who learn of his misdeeds must spin a web of cover-up, deception, and hypocrisy that is the antithesis of true spirituality. This climate of secret moral degeneration virtually guarantees that all students, both men and women, will be manipulated and exploited in protecting the leader's secret lifestyle. Such is the breeding ground for destructive cults.

Over the past few years, Swami Kriyananda (Donald Walters), the founder of the Ananda communities, has weathered several minor scandals with his reputation relatively intact. In November of 1994, however, he became embroiled in a sexual harassment lawsuit which forced him to admit that he has had sex with many of his students.

Seven women have filed declarations in support of the lawsuit, stating, under penalty of perjury, that they too were sexually exploited and abused by Kriyananda. ( There have been other stories of women too frightened to come forward). Since the statute of limitations for sexual harassment is only one year in California, Ms. ---- is the only plaintiff in this case, but her decision to come forward has finally allowed the stories of these other women to be heard. I was Kriyananda's student for fourteen years  left the Ananda community in 1982, and I know many of these women personally. I have witnessed their pain and suffering and have seen how their relationships with Kriyananda deeply traumatized them. They trusted Kriyananda to act only for their spiritual welfare, but instead, he used them to satisfy his own needs. Some of these women have spent years in psychotherapy trying to come to terms with the manipulation and betrayal they experienced with Kriyananda.
Rather than facing this aspect of his life honestly and openly, Kriyananda has chosen to continue the deception and cover-up.

Kriyananda denies that he ever harassed or abused anyone, and he claims these declarations are mostly lies and distortions. Not only was the sex consensual, he says, but in many cases, the women seduced him and he was simply too weak to resist. He has written a great deal about the relative unimportance of this issue, suggesting that spiritual teachers should not be criticized for failing to live up to their ideals. In a letter to his community, which came out four days after the lawsuit was filed, Kriyananda wrote: "That [swamis] have held to their ideals as well as they have is, I think, cause for praise rather than blame. If some of them have slipped, and if the slip is recognized as such and personally repudiated, I would say only this: A slip is not a fall.
Rarely do we find anyone who is perfect. What we must do, usually, is look at the direction a person is moving, and not define him or her in terms of a few deeds."

While shocking in its lack of empathy for the victims of his sexual abuse, this statement raises the question: In what direction is Swami himself moving? He has called for a "holy war," contending that these women were persuaded to write their "vicious lies" as tools of a conspiracy by ex-Ananda dissidents he fantasizes are out to destroy him. By attacking these deeply wounded individuals who are simply speaking the truth for the sake of their own healing and to help protect others, it appears Swami is following the time dishonored path of countless wayward teachers before him: engaging in a strategy of blaming and vilifying his victims in order to deflect blame from himself.

Clearly Swami is afraid of these women and he has good reason to be. They are exposing a consistent pattern of sexual abuse over a long period of time, that no one can reasonably label a mere "slip." They are also exposing the cult-like complicity of senior Ananda ministers ; some of who m have not only hidden but made possible Kriyananda's reprehensible activities.

I first met Swami Kriyananda in 1967 when I was nineteen. He had just purchased land for a yoga retreat in the foothills of the Sierras outside Nevada City, California. Wanting to devote my life completely to the spiritual path, I joined with him and a few others in this venture and we discussed how best to organize an intentional community that would provide an ideal environment for the practice of yoga. In 1969 I moved to Ananda to help Swamiji fulfill this dream that we all shared. We worked to build what has become Ananda Cooperative Village, one of the most successful communities from that era. There are now over 300 people living on the original properties and hundreds more located in urban "colonies." The largest of these is a 72- unit apartment complex Ananda owns in the San Francisco Bay Area. Ananda also purchased a church in Palo Alto that seats 350 members. There are also many affiliated meditation groups throughout the world, with a large center in Assisi, Italy.

I felt an immediate closeness with Kriyananda when I first met him and admired him very much. He seemed to exemplify in his life the qualities I wanted to develop in myself: kindness and compassion, humility, a spirit of selfless service, deep wisdom, and above all, a profound inner joy that he was able to transmit to others. This was a tangible experience that we all felt to some degree. Often, when I was with him, I would feel my consciousness being uplifted. At times, waves of bliss would flow over me, dissolving my body in a weightless euphoria. Kriyananda seemed to be able to control this shakti energy at will and was able to respond our unspoken thoughts and inner feelings. He also shared with me past lives he said we had spent together when discussing his present mission in which he told me he would play a similar role. These experiences created a deep bond between us.

Swami Kriyananda always played down his yogi powers and represented himself in a humble way. He told me: "I am just a brother disciple on the path, with perhaps a little more experience, and I'm happy to share with you what I have learned." He even indicated he did not see himself as our "teacher" at all, and certainly not as our guru. He told us many times, "I am not perfect, I am no one special" (although he readily accepted, and in time came to expect, special treatment from us). Many of his students naturally chose to believe Kriyananda was enlightened, however, not only because of his charisma and seemingly ability to transmit to them what they believed were true spiritual experiences, but because he taught that "only saints are the true custodians of religion." He often referred often to his own mission as "a great work" and "a new expression of religion" that God had entrusted to him. He also spoke of Ananda's mission as an important social movement that would transform the world. On the back cover of his book, Cities of Light, Kriyananda compared his community to Florence during the Renaissance, Vienna during the heyday of its music, and Athens in its glory: "Wonderful new concepts of living, similarly, have flowed out from the little place called Ananda." He is heralded in Ananda's promotional literature as a great writer, poet, composer, artist, architect, and scientist. Over time, Kriyananda was viewed as the saintly progenitor of a 20th century spiritual Renaissance.

Over the years, I have met many advanced yogis whose unusual or supernormal abilities were not accompanied by an exceptionally pure character. Frequently, so-called spiritual powers inflate the egos of those that acquire them, proving to be far more hindrance than help on the path to true spiritual attainment. Kriyananda certainly had human flaws like the rest of us.
Though his grandiosity was camouflaged by a pretense of a properly humble demeanor, he could not always hide his petulance, his moods and restlessness, and his extreme defensiveness when criticized even in insignificant matters. He courted our appreciation and sympathy, never missing an opportunity to remind us how exhausted he was from his prodigious labors on our behalf. And he had sex.

Kriyananda should not have been having sex, of course. He wore the orange robes of a swami, a monk of the ancient Hindu monastic order. He had taken lifetime vows of celibacy, as well as simplicity and obedience. I too aspired to the transmutation of sense attachments and looked to Swamiji as an example. I was, therefore, quite disturbed when rumors began to circulate in 1970 that Kriyananda was having sex with a female student, a friend of mine named C** (now one of the declarants in this case). I confronted Swami about his behavior and he confessed that it was true. He impressed me with his candor and repentance, indicating it was an isolated incident. "We all slip from our ideals. But the key is not to worship our mistakes; just get up and go on," he told me. This attitude made sense at the time. I was not expecting perfection from him, only a sincere and honest heart. OK ; I dismissed the incident from my mind.

But there were other rumors: of harassment and lewd behavior, of assault on a woman in the bath house, of an hysterical female retreating student suddenly leaving in the middle of the night. This time Swami came to me. Looking very hurt and sad, he denied everything and appeared utterly mystified that someone would spread such terrible lies. Of course I believed him, for these stories seemed completely out of character with the man I thought I knew. He was my dear friend and I had an idyllic life at Ananda, enjoying the beauties of nature, meditating, and working with a loving spiritual family to make the world a better place. I was very happy and I was not going to look for a reason to be disillusioned.

In retrospect, I see how I should have been more attentive to the many subtle contradictions in Swami's teachings and personal life. Had I analyzed the situation more closely and questioned C**more carefully, I would have learned that Swami was not being forthright, that C**'s experience was not an isolated event at all, and that she was not OK . Indeed, C** eventually left the spiritual path as a result of this sexual relationship with her spiritual teacher. But I wanted to believe Swamiji, and because he was so believable in many ways, it took me years to understand that I was participating in Swami's messianic vision in order to validate my own self-image . It was my dishonesty that blinded me to his. It was my own impure motives that drew me to those same qualities in him. Swami allowed us to set him up on a pedestal (his halfhearted protestations not withstanding) and we all basked in his spiritual glow.

I gradually broke out of this self-deception, overcame my tendency to be a true believer. It was a painful and difficult transition, frustrated by the constant community pressures of friends trying to convince me that I was falling into delusion. As one friend told me: "I have learned that to doubt Swamiji is not to love him." Kriyananda, always kind and sympathetic, tried to help me understand that my growing self-confidence in my own inner guidance was merely strengthening my self-will and egotism.
"Become a devotee," he advised. "You always analyze me, but you will never understand me until you learn to love. Develop the heart, not the mind." Because he was not overtly controlling and authoritarian , it was difficult to recognize the subtle mechanisms of coercive persuasion and manipulation that he, and those who were "in tune, "exerted over all of us. Although many of us were no doubt growing spiritually, what seemed like inner freedom was mainly the comfort and security of belonging to what we believed was an especially privileged group.

We were bound to Swami, not only in love, but through guilt and fear. When I left Ananda he wrote me a letter and posted copies throughout the community, pointing out my tragic fall into negativity and darkness due to spiritual pride. I was warned I would lose all my friends.

I don't regret my time at Ananda. I learned many subtleties of the spiritual path while living at Ananda. I learned to develop a strong will and trust in my own powers of discrimination, observing in Kriyananda many pitfalls on the path to be avoided. For this, I will always be grateful . The early 1980s was a turning point in Ananda's history when I and a number of others left the community. Three events during this period galvanized our awareness of the community's cult mentality, making it impossible to maintain our codependent relationship with Kriyananda.

The first event, or rather nonevent, was the failure of Swami's warnings of imminent global catastrophe to materialize. He had written The Road Ahead in 1973 to help us prepare for disaster: " . . . are we in a tailspin toward hunger, poverty, political slavery, global destruction and chaos? If ever there was a time when the future of the human race was in doubt, it is now." The early 1970s was a period of gas shortages, soaring inflation, proliferation of nuclear weapons, and the back to the land survivalist movement. Anxiety was in the air and Swami capitalized on it with doom and gloom seminars, telling people they better get out of the cities and join communities like Ananda, where they would be safe. He advised the stockpiling of gold and silver, food, tools, and other necessities to survive the collapse of our country's infrastructure. We all did as he advised, and waited.

A decade later Ananda was economically depressed, for sure, but the rest of the country was doing fine. Kriyananda revised his dire predictions for the '80s but it was now clear to some of us, anyway ;that this was a fear tactic intended to promote communal solidarity by creating the specter of a disintegrating world "out there.". For those still at Ananda in the '90s, Kriyananda produced a new and improved apocalyptic vision for the millennium that has inspired another round of massive food storage and anxiety.

The second event was a protracted and costly effort to misrepresent Ananda as a democratic institution before the County Board of Supervisors in a bid to incorporate as a township. We all knew that Ananda was a theocracy where Kriyananda, directly or indirectly, made all the real decisions. But we participated in regular meetings, at his request, to affirm, "Where there is dharma (righteousness), there is victory!" The Supervisors saw through our charade and ruled against Ananda's request as a clear violation of the separation of church and state.

The third event was Kriyananda's marriage. In the spring of 1981 Swami returned from Hawaii with K** a very pretty young woman who he claimed was his soul mate and heir to his spiritual mantle. He renamed her Parameshwari, an aspect of the Divine Mother). After a concerted effort by Swami and his inner circle to convince an incredulous community of the purely spiritual nature of his new relationship, Swami announced they were married in a private ceremony he himself had conducted on a beach. Within weeks K** left Swami, running away from him. Having made his case that it was God's will they be together, he now had to explain why God had evidently changed His mind. Swami's skillful rationalizations met the needs of most members but were transparently self-serving to others some of us. The following excerpts from K**s declaration tells a very different story from Kriyananda's explanation to the community.

Woman #2 Declaration Excerpt

"In late fall [of 1981] Kriyananda took me and a group of members to Half Moon Bay. Kriyananda had written a poem and so had I. . . We recited our poems to each other. Later he claimed that we recited holy vows of marriage. . . at a community meeting. I was shocked! I never agreed to marry him! I wasn't legally divorced from my husband . . . This man was 30 years older than me. He was old enough to be my father . . .

"I was asked to speak at that same community meeting. I was terrified of speaking in front of people, and really didn't say much.. . People in the community congratulated us on our marriage after the [meeting] was over.

"When we got back to the house, I was very upset and very angry. I asked him to retract his statement. He said he could not and that I was asking him to humiliate himself. . . "One night after I had meditated and gone to bed, Kriyananda came up to my room, switched on the light and sat on the side of my bed. He said he was lonesome and hadn't felt the arms of a women around him in so long. I imagined 30 years of celibacy as a monk. . . I felt sorry for him. So I held him. (Little did I know that he had been with many women before me while calling himself a Swami monk!) Then he wanted to kiss me. I resisted and kept turning my face away from him. Soon my blankets were thrown aside and my undies pulled off and he's holding me down while having intercourse with me. I was totally disgusted and in shock. I felt totally violated and sickened. . ."

It was after this incident that K**, left Kriyananda and the Ananda community. She describes how being with Kriyananda effected her: "I didn't know who I was anymore. . .I felt so betrayed. . .I was agoraphobic and had panic attacks. . . For six years a friend of mine, who left Ananda shortly after I did, stuck by me until I started to reconcile my involvement with Kriyananda."

It is only in 1994, more that twelve years after the rape and after years of counseling, that K** recovered enough to be able to share publicly many of the details of her harrowing experience with Kriyananda. During the time when Kriyananda was "married" to K**, three other young women (nuns in Kriyananda's monastic order) say they were also having sex with him.

In his book, Sex in the Forbidden Zone, Jungian psychoanalyst Peter Rutter, MD, explains why sexual encounters between spiritual teachers and their devotees are so damaging, not only for the woman, but for the man as well. Women usually succumb to these seductions because they are unable to maintain their personal boundaries due to past psychological wounds, often the result of childhood abuse, and they are taken advantage of when they are most vulnerable and trusting, when they are seeking emotional and spiritual healing. It is widely recognized that a woman in this dependent position, under the influence of a teacher's spiritual authority, is incapable of free and full consent. In her desire for the healing of past wounds, she depends on the integrity of her teacher to keep her welfare inviolate and not to reenact the sexual abuse that she may unconsciously elicit from him.
Psychologists are trained to recognize and deal with this phenomenon of transference, and many laws defining professional malpractice recognize the life-and-death power that transference grants the therapist. Abuse of this responsibility therefore carries severe penalties.

There are only a few states with laws against clergy abuse, however, even though a minister can hold far more power over the woman because of his religious authority, and he is more likely to abuse it because he usually lacks sufficient training to understand the transference. Rutter says that the violation of this sacred trust causes the same emotional damage as incest relationships; there is the same imbalance of power, admiration of the symbolic father, and the inability to displease him or
believe he would hurt her. And this is compounded by the devastating spiritual betrayal that can permanently undermine her faith.

For the teacher, this unethical and immoral violation of a woman's trust is often seen by him as a loving act that promises mutual fulfillment, and he is in denial of the suffering he causes. Because the relationship is inherently dishonest and manipulative, even if the woman has initiated it and wants it to continue, the love, intimacy and healing he is seeking usually remains illusively unattainable, often compelling him into a succession of equally empty and unfulfilling liaisons. This compulsive, self-destructive behavior only increases his disconnection from himself and others.

Ananda is like a dysfunctional family that protects and enables the incest abusing parent. According to J**, a long time personal friend and confidant of Swami's , some leadership have either participated in sexual relationships with Swami or have counseled distraught and confused victims to accept this behavior and remain silent about it. They all protect Swami for they completely identify with him: his dreams are their dreams, and his humiliation would be theirs as well. In their devotion and attunement with him they have internalized not only what is good and noble, but also his negative qualities. For some of the men, Swami's behavior gives them permission to act out their own sexual fantasies. And for the women leaders who have slept with him, no doubt feeling privileged at the time but ultimately replaced by someone new, they are now callous and insensitive to the suffering of those women who lack "the proper attitude of surrender and gratitude." One woman I recently talked to seemed truly puzzled: "What are they complaining about?" she asked. "It was their decision. Swami didn't force them to do anything." Those at Ananda who know the truth have learned to live in a world of deception and denial as they promote a false image of their teacher and continually suppress whatever conscience they still have left.

Even when Swami was married to his second wife R (legally this time, in a public ceremony in 1985), he was having female devotees give him full naked body massages. This marriage, which was to be, in Swami's own words, "an example of spiritual marriage for the new age," soon dissolved into a long term separation, ending in divorce. Swami came to J** utterly perplexed.
Even though he had admitted to her on several occasions that he was a "sexual alcoholic," he still didn't understand why his marriage failed. "What went wrong, why did R** leave me?"

When J** pulled away from Swami, she, like everyone before her, became the target of vilification. In a community letter J**(Swami's spiritual heir) warns: "Finally, by this summer [1995], she began an active campaign against Ananda, telling treacherous and hurtful lies about Swamiji . She twisted and distorted conversations that were shared in what we considered heartfelt friendship. In retrospect, [we] have seen a pattern. Through her seeming sweetness, she tried to draw people to herself and subtly undermine their friendships with each other, with Swamiji, and with Ananda. In fact, she urged a number of people to leave the community. It is very sad to see that a few people were taken in by her pernicious influence."

This kind of behavior between spiritual teachers and their followers is not uncommon. In a 1985 Yoga Journal article, "Sex Lives of the Gurus", Jack Kornfield, a psychologist and Vipassana meditation teacher, reported his survey of 53 Buddhist and Hindu teachers and their students in the United States. He found that 34 of these teachers admitted to having had sex with their students. We don't know how many of the other 15 who claimed to be celibate, and the rest faithful to their wives; were telling the truth. Of the students interviewed, half told Kornfield that their sexual encounters "undermined their practice, their relationship with their teacher, and their feelings of self-worth."

It is a rare spiritual group that demands their leader stand accountable for his immoral behavior. Cover-ups and denial are the norm. But Kornfield has been instrumental in formalizing a code of ethics in the Buddhist community that is helping to raise awareness of the devastating effects of clergy abuse. He acknowledges that teachers have sometimes developed successful long term relationships with former students, but that there are strict guidelines that should be followed: A sexual relationship is never appropriate between teachers and students; and only if the teaching or counseling role has been terminated for at least three months is it appropriate for a teacher and former student to enter into a romantic relationship.

At Ananda there are no such guidelines. When I talk to present members, the common response is, "What's the big deal?" One member said, " I don't care how many women Swami slept with. It wouldn't matter, I would still support him." Many members agree that Swami would be incapable of hurting anyone. Their experience of him is that he has always been a true friend: kind, considerate, seeing only the highest in them. How could they, then, return Swami's love by doubting his sincerity and failing to relate to the highest in him? For them it would not only be ungrateful, it would be disloyal. Since he has admitted that he made mistakes, they believe he deserves only their uncritical love and compassion.

But is this compassion, or codependency? Supporting Swami in his denial only pushes him, and the community, deeper into delusion. The greatest love would be to seek to learn the truth. If the truth is that Swami has hurt these women, the greatest loyalty is to help him to face this reality and thus begin the healing process for all concerned.

Swami teaches that one's highest loyalty must be to truth itself, for the goal of yoga is realization of the ultimate truth of one's Existence. This requires the deepest awareness of who we really are, discernible only through the most rigorous introspection. To indulge even in the slightest untruth is to compromise one's ability to discriminate between the real and the unreal. Habitual equivocation is death to the discriminative faculty.

One would therefore expect Ananda to encourage a genuine spirit of open and honest inquiry, providing an environment conducive to fearless self-analysis. Indeed, Swami claims this ideal lies at the heart of what Ananda is. But this is not the present reality, according to members who have dared to express their doubts about Swami. There is an undercurrent of fear in the community perpetuated by subtle controls and veiled threats. Once a person is labeled out of tune and negative, he runs the risk of being slandered, shunned, losing his community job, or being asked to leave. But this lawsuit has only intensified contradictions that have existed at Ananda from the beginning. Many went there seeking truth, but we were willing to live a lie.
Aspiring to Self-realization, they fell into self-deception. Swami was not perfect, but we wanted him to be. For almost thirty years he has been surrounded and isolated by adoring, worshipful devotees. Is it any wonder he has come to believe he can do no wrong beyond a momentary slip? In this tragic drama, Swami is not only the villain, he is also a victim. Everyone played a part in creating this cult-like caricature of a genuine spiritual community.

The pitfalls of the path are treacherous indeed, especially for teachers caught in the projections of their devotees, and for the devotees who give away their power to someone unable to handle his own. How easy it is to slip from one's ideals, and then slip again, and again. How many slips does it take to make a fall?