Ashaway Ananda members defend group’s founder

The Charibo Times, Jan. 23, 2003
By:Kelly Sullivan

The Ananda Church of Self-Realization, located at 312 Tomoquag Road in Ashaway, is described in its brochure as a place to share “the search for higher consciesnous and service to others”.

Ananda, which means “joy” in Sanskrit, is a religion based on the teachings of Paramhansa Yogananda, the first Indian Master to live in the west. Yogananda predicted that the social pattern of the future would be based on “plain thinking and high living” brought about by small communities all over the world which would be called World Brotherhood Colonies. “Thousands of youths must go to the north, south, east and west to cover the earth with little colonies,” the writings of Yogananda state.

In 1968, the first Ananda Church in America was founded by James Donald Walters, a Rumanian who had become a disciple of Yogananda 20 years earlier. Prior to beginning this organization, Walters had been initiated into a monastic order and taken the name Swami Kriyananda. At this time, he was vice president of the Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) in India. In 1962, he was expelled from the SRF monastic order on the grounds of “unethical and immoral behavior,” after he was accused of improper advances toward several women.

In a court deposition, Walters called the accusations untrue and said that those speaking out against him were “deadbeats” who were “afraid of my energy”.

He was deported from India and summoned back to America where he began to organize Ananda Village in Nevada City, California.

For the next several decades, that organization faced charges of fraud and exploitation.

In November of 1994, a lawsuit was brought against Walters and the Ananda Church. Michael Flynn and self-described “cult buster” Ford Greene represented the plaintiff, Anne-Marie Bertolucci in the Superior Court of the State of California for the County of San Mateo. Flynn and Greene set out to show that Walters had used the “position of spiritual authority to sexually exploit women.”

Bertolucci and seven other former female members of Ananda gave depositions, which described the abuse and violation of trust they had allegedly endured at the hands of Walters and other male Ananda members.

Former member Marilyn Stuart claimed that Walters exposed himself to her and asked her to engage in a sexual act with him.

Sunny Plant’s deposition claimed that Walters had asked her to message him in an erotic way.

Denise Peterson stated that Walters encouraged her to perform the same type of massages on him, a statement that Walters admitted was true, adding, “I wouldn’t blame her for our relationship. I take that blame on myself”.

Kamala Wiley was also encouraged to massage Walters, who admitted to eight such liaisons with Wiley. “It was Kamala who pushed it but the fact that I couldn’t resist was certainly my weakness,” Walters testified.

Former member Thora McDonnel said in her deposition that she had gone swimming in the nude with Walters.

Chandra Slavonic claimed that she had physical encounters with Walters and that he told her not to tell anyone. “On two occasions I recall having intercourse with her,” Walters admitted.

Deborah Donie-Seligson was married when she was a follower of the Ananda religion. Yet Walters claimed that he was “spiritually married” to her and did desire intimacy.

Bertolucci herself testified that Walters and Danny Levin, a married minister of the Ananda church, passed her back and forth like a sex slave.

Concerning the women speaking out against him, Walters said in his deposition that he believed they were being “ruled by a satanic force.”

Karen Rider, who runs the Ashaway-based Ananda church with her husband, Larry, spoke out in Walters’ defense during a recent interview. “He was always respectful toward both men and women,” she said. “The testimony in court didn’t describe the person I had known. When I moved to Ananda in 1988, it was the only place in my life I’d ever felt safe. I feel heartsick over the accusations.”

After the court heard testimony about the pattern of behavior allegedly taking place within California’s Ananda Church for a period of over 30 years, the jury found Walters guilty of “despicable conduct, of fraudulently representing himself as a Swami, of intentional infliction of emotional distress and of representing himself as a celibate monk in order to gain women’s trust so that he might use them sexually.” The plaintiffs were awarded $1.6 million in damages. Other members of the church were found guilty of “allowing the behavior to continue” as well as “orchestrating elaborate cover-ups”.

“It’s the legacy of his expulsion from the SRF that flows to this very day,” Karen said. “There was a conflict of personalities between him and the other leaders of SRF. At that time, he was really the only male teacher and only men were allowed to do outreach work. Other members felt he was getting all the attention and this ultimately lead to his dismissal.”

Following the court’s ruling, the Ananda Church filed for bankruptcy but finally agreed to pay the damages, as well as a settlement of $200,000 in two related lawsuits against them. The court ordered that the amount of $1.8 million be paid in full, with interest, by the year 2003. Walters left for the Ananda establishment in Italy in 1999.

Legal transcripts show that Walters staunchly defended his actions, claiming that any sexual acts between him and the women who testified against him were consensual.

“Because of the Swami’s position, he’s kind of barred from human relationships,” said one of Ananda Nevada’s founding members, John Helin. “It’s a very isolated existence.”

Walters, who claims to be a “channel” for Yogananda and a spiritual force in God’s plan for salvation of the world, stated that he believed his initial expulsion from the Self-Realization Fellowship was divinely ordained so that he might go on to found the Ananda Church. While administering the church, Walters allegedly claimed to be celibate and maintained the title of Swami although he was no longer of the order. Ananda minister Larry Rider said Walters was not stripped of his title, but requested the release from it. “In 1986, he got married,” Larry said. “Prior to his marriage, he asked to be released from his monastic vows,”

The title of Swami, according to John, remained as merely a term of respect used by members. “After he gave up his vows, everyone still called him Swami. It was like his name. It seemed strange to call him anything else. But he never used the word Swami on anything he signed.”

The Ananda Church, which includes hundreds of members worldwide, maintains guidelines for members such as the “Rules of Conduct” which include members going before a specially appointed committee before making the decision to marry, have children or change places of employment. Members are also expected to take “Membership Vows” in which they promise “cooperative obedience”.

Larry, however, claims that the Ananda religion is one of extreme flexibility. “We have really soft boundaries,” he said. “It’s often hard to tell who’s in and who’s out.”

Karen explained that members have a choice about going before the committee prior to making life choices. “Marriages and children are not arranged,” she said. “But it’s always smart to ask for advice from someone wiser. Yogananda said we need to form groups based on harmony with other people of like mind.”

During the trial, expert witness Janja Lalich, a cult information specialist, testified on behalf of the plaintiff. “I am of the opinion that the Ananda Church uses classic thought reform techniques to recruit, control and retain followers,” she told the court.

“We are aghast at accusations that Ananda is a cult,” said Karen. “Members of the jury commented that because we meditate, we must be brainwashed and because we were such nice people in the face of such horrible accusations, we must be brainwashed.”

John added, “Many members have jobs outside the community. Others have their own houses. Members can leave the organization any time they want.”

While court proceedings were taking place, several members of the Ananda Church were charged with scaling a six-foot wall and trespassing onto the property of Bertolucci’s lawyer to retrieve confidential documents from a trashcan. In light of this, the judge would not allow the defense’s attorney to question the women whom the documents concerned.

Just recently, Ananda faced more legal problems when they were accused and found guilty of copyright infringement for copying and making a profit off writings legally owned by the Self-Realization Fellowship. The Ananda Church was ordered to pay $29,000 in damages.

“The SRF brought that copyright charge against us because they felt we were not authorized to represent Yogananda,” John said. “We use the term ‘self-realization’ and the SRF felt that term belonged to them. They saw it as a word while we saw it as a religion.”

Ananda currently includes seven “Residential Communities” throughout the world; Ananda Nevada, Europa, Palo Alto, Portland, Sacramento, Seattle and Ananda Rhode Island. At each retreat center, accommodations, workshops, meals and yoga instruction are offered. “It’s a remarkable experiment going on here,” Karen said. “It’s an ideal living environment. We are instruments for things like non-violence and ecological living because it’s not enough to just talk about or believe in these things.”

Larry, her husband, called the judgment in the 1994 trial “a travesty of justice” and said that he believes all of the legal accusations against Ananda root back to a disgruntled Self-Realization Fellowship.

“The SRF did everything they could to keep Swami Kriyananda from spreading his teachings,” he said “The allegations against him have been malicious and improper and he was never allowed to defend himself.” Larry said that he believes SRF had the intent to bankrupt Ananda through legal disputes. “But they have failed,” he said. “The settlement is paid off. My wife and I and thousands of others have contributed heavily. We maintain absolute innocence of the Swami and Ananda.”

Larry said he believes that Bertolucci brought false claims against the church because a minister turned down her romantic advances. “She fell in love with a married minister and would not let go of the relationship. The minister went to the Swami for advice and the Swami told him to break it off. She would not accept that. So she went to the SRF and they helped her go forward with a trial and turn against the Swami.”

John also believes this version of the story to be correct. “Around 1992, Minister Danny Levin entered into a relationship with Ann-Marie,” he said. “She worked for Ananda’s publishing company and he was her supervisor. She wanted him to leave his wife and daughter but he would never leave his daughter because she was developmentally disabled. So he went to the Swami for advice. Swami told him to break it off. He tried, but he couldn’t so Swami realized the only thing to do was to physically separate them.

“He stepped in and asked Ann-Marie to move to one of the other Ananda Centers. She went to the Palo Alto retreat and somehow came into a friendship with members of the SRF. They convinced her that it was unfair for the Swami to ask her to leave Ananda Nevada and allow Levin to stay.”

Larry said that very rarely are people asked to leave Ananda but two or three have been, on the grounds of outrageous behavior. “And those were the people who testified on Bertolucci’s behalf,” he said, adding that the entire trial was “a farce and a sham”.

John stated that a few years ago, Walters retook his monastic vows and the 76-year-old rededicated himself to a life of celibacy.

“He never claimed to be perfect,” Karen said. “But he is our ideal. When you’re in his presence, you can feel his energy.”

“Many people like myself have been highly affected by Swami,” Larry said, “by the examples he’s set and his enormous dedication. I have never known anyone more inspiring in my life. We love Kriyananda and he is so completely innocent. We have all been deeply wounded.”

He added that “the trial bares no relation to what Ananda really is.”

Karen agreed. “We are just people trying to spread hope and light in the world,” she said.

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