What is Ananda?
What is Ananda? Ananda is many different things at the same time. It is an idyllic spiritual community filled with smiling, loving devotees; it is a thorn in the side of its neighbors on the San Juan Ridge; it is a business that markets the spiritual experience; it is a long-term employer of long-term leadership figures; it is a place of dishonesty, deception, and denial, a village patterned after the consciousness of its founder and another layer of defense in Kriyananda’s formidable psychological armor; it is a graduate school for developing discrimination and destroying one’s delusions; and it is a political entity like any other town in the country, but this is a very authoritarian political entity.
The present US Ananda consists of a seclusion retreat of approximately 70 acres and a village of more than 400 acres in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains of northern California. Ananda Assisi is a much smaller group of persons, gathered around a building named "Il Rifugio". This group includes Walters faithful and most of these have come from the America. Other nationalities, mostly Italians, comprise the rest of the community. Some leave the community after a few days, others after a few years, but yet the nucleus in Assisi remain the original American imports.
Ananda had its beginning in 1968, when Kriyananda joined a few other men to buy and divide up a large parcel of land outside of Nevada City. Several years later he bought a farm a few miles away from the seclusion retreat, and this land, which includes more than 400 acres, is now Ananda Village. The land is quite beautiful, with forests of pine, cedar, oak, and madrone. A couple of years ago Ananda turned the trees into money by having it logged.
Over the years many people have moved to Ananda, and a small core of original residents is still there, most of whom serve as the Ananda leadership. Most of the others who moved to Ananda have left, and many of them still live nearby. Though it may seem strange, the majority of them want nothing to do with Ananda. Having seen through the surface layer of spiritual identity to the reality underneath--the process of discrimination--and having learned the lesson, they graduate.
Ananda advertises itself as following the teachings of Paramahansa Yogananda, helping people learn meditation, yoga postures, and how to live life according to the classic yogic teachings. Kriyananda was a Self Realization Monk for 14 years, about 3 1/2 of these while Yogananda was still alive. He therefore is considered a direct link with the Guru, and this is Ananda’s foremost claim to being a part of Yogananda’s work.
When one first comes to Ananda, everything is beautiful. The setting is peaceful, and there are many scheduled spiritual events--kirtans, meditations, services, ceremonies, kriya initiations, plays, concerts, and other things. But newcomers are expected to let go of all their own ideas of what is right and accept the new ways of doing things without question. After becoming members, they find somehow their previous personal life goals and ambitions have been put “on hold”. But, after all, with such a great Master as Yogananda guiding the place, how could they go wrong? The newcomer soon learns how he is to regard Self Realization Fellowship--as an outdated rigid, entity that hates and wants to destroy Kriyananda and Ananda.
It can take quite a long time to realize that Ananda is not primarily Master’s or God’s place, though their names are mentioned often. Ananda is Kriyananda’s place, and he comes first there. The Ananda leaders are unconditionally loyal to Kriyananda, with God and Master coming lower on the list. This loyalty requires them to adopt, as their own, his view of the world and especially his own history.
Almost as soon as Kriyananda established Ananda on the San Juan Ridge, he began making sexual advances on the local women. Consequently he got a bad name with his neighbors, who knew from the beginning what he was like. Ananda people, therefore, are not encouraged to be friendly with their neighbors. Ridge people are against them, they are told, and are too worldly and unspiritual. They also know too much about Kriyananda.
The Ananda leadership knows about Kriyananda, too, but their duty is to keep this information quiet so that Ananda can maintain its public relations image as a model spiritual community in which only love, peace, and seeking God happen. They also have given decades of their lives to this company, and it may be impossible for them to admit they were wrong. And where else could they find employment now?
Some of the real story came out during a recent lawsuit, in which Kriyananda, the Ananda Church, and one of the ministers were found guilty of sexual harrassment. (Kriyananda left it to Ananda people to pay his $1,000,000 plus fine.)
In the aftermath of this lawsuit, Kriyananda decided to make Italy his full time home. A new fold of devotees needed his spiritual guidance and presence in Europe, he said. Many residents, as well, departed the community at this time. Some were in considerable shock because they had lived there for nearly 20 years without knowing of Kriyananda’s sexual activities. They had thought that such dishonesty and deception could not exist at Ananda.
Their places were soon taken by new residents from the Ananda centers in Palo Alto (California), Portland (Oregon), and Seattle (Washington). Now Ananda is carrying on as usual, as though nothing happened and everything is the same as before.
The ordinary citizens of Ananda are, with few exceptions, the spiritual core of the community. They try to know and follow Yogananda’s teachings. They are the ones who give Ananda its spiritual identity, and they are the ones who do the most to maintain it. They are kept under tight control by vows of obedience to Kriyananda and all community leaders. Some are stuck because their only assets are in Ananda housing, making it difficult for them to leave even if they want to.
Kriyananda has had ongoing plans for Ananda, such as the constant expansion of the population, and ongoing acquisition of adjoining land for this purpose. Because Ananda is in a rural area, the neighbors do not welcome these goals, and it creates a lot of tension at times. Kriyananda does not care how the neighbors feel. Anyone who does not support whatever he wants is his enemy. He wants what he wants without consideration of other people, and what he wants has little or nothing to do with the spiritual development of Ananda citizens.
Ananda is many things to many people. For visitors it is a miracle of serenity and love. For new residents it is the challenge of living the spiritual life and handing their lives over to what they believe is a high cause. For longer-term residents it is the place where they made many dear friends, and perhaps the place where they began to question what Ananda really is. For many graduates, leaving there is the beginning of their real lives--Ananda was the extreme that blew their delusions sky high. For psychologists, Ananda is a fascinating study in what happens when a charismatic but mentally twisted man attracts a following of people who accept his twisted worldview.
Inside Ananda Assisi:
The core community, settled by members that have fully accepted the pledge to Walters (including the obedience pledge), is comprised of less than thirty persons. The rest, as Ananda Assisi’s marketing confirms, is about fifty persons, including those who have NOT signed any pledge to Ananda or to Walters and who live in their own homes in the neighbouring community. These people tend to see Ananda more in the light of a community rather than a spiritual path to which they can devote their energy. In fact, many are people who have left the city to gain a different perspective on life, desiring to experience peace living in the hills. So while they live alone they still need the contact of neighbours, and Ananda gives them the opportunity to socialize. While this is not a sharing of a spiritual pursuits, but more a convenience, Ananda is pleased to call them “members”.
Since the beginning, Ananda Assisi has had limited growth, not many new members, not much money. The historic estate is “Il Rifugio,” an old flat three-story building bought with American donations and a large loan, not yet paid back. The loan was made by several Italian disciples that supported the birth of Ananda Assisi. Years later, in the tradition of Ananda America, they are still waiting for their money to be paid back.
Ananda’s pattern is to create a debt with a person and, as is the case, for some of the first contributors this acts as a magnetic force to keep them in Ananda’s orbit as they wait to recover their loan monies. The banks and the homeowners of many homes and buildings, which Ananda uses to accomodate vistors, are knocking at the door trying to collect their debts and threatening to cease their financial largess to the community.
The community’s activities are based on the Guru’s name, history, and are creatively exploited. Ananda has a commercial section called Inner Life to sell various objects everywhere: articles, pictures, books based on a spiritual subjects. A second activity is the guests’ accomodation, bed & breakfast, restaurant, tour guidance to Assisi, lessons and techniques on yoga, counseling and psychological support are all the services included in the package. Naturally the bulk of Ananda’s income is generated by donations, that people give when asked, thinking that it will be used for the spreading of the Guru’s teachings. The main focus of attraction for this channel of funding is Swami Kriyananda, presented as a living guide, in perfect attunement with Guru’s will.
Ananda Assisi grounds, nearby the old structure, ìIl Rifugioî, was built
the Temple of Light, an example of how it is possible to “make a miracle”
with devotee’s donations. This new building was built in a very short
time, arising on the ground surrounding the old shelter. The manpower was
recruited from devotees, using the karma yoga time they must give during
their stay. As the “Rule” prescribes, “Work is service”.
Even the designer, a Swiss named Ramatou Wintsch, was not payed for his work, since he felt blessed (by Yogananda) when he first envisioned the project in meditation. Much of the materials for the base, filling and the tools were recycled from discard or payed for at very low prices from different manufacturers. The temple is proof of effectiveness of marketing strategies, using the name of Yogananda. For a long time in the Ananda Assisi’s mailed fund raising appeals, the need for a Temple to spread Master’s teachings was emphasized.
The rest of the community’s activities are supported by rent from homes. Villa Gioia, Villa Pace and the old temple (where the member’s rooms are) are owned by local townspeople. It is sometimes necessary to remove the altar and other furnishings because the owners hold banquets and meetings for the Hunter’s Association of Perugia-what should be a sacred place becomes, effectively, a pub.
The other cabins (about 320/430 square feet each) are built nearby the “Il Rifugio”, and serve as the American members’ homes. They have been built illegally, so have been placed out of sight. The community arose on a natural (preserved) area, so the areas in which new housing can be built is very limited.
Looking from the outside, members appear to be happy. They give their hearts to everyone and are always smiling. This kind of behavior is felt as a very welcomed message, which impresses town people strained from hard living and needing to recover in that heavenly site. Unfortunately this is clearly a forced attitude. In private, members are not so disposed and open. Some confess discomfort in the way things are managed and organized.
The reader should try to venture out of the standard routes made for guests, to understand the behind scenes’ realities- When one is “parked” in the boutique, in the temple, or in the lunch room all the members may target him with their “love bombing”. But just go out and try to enter into the inner activity and you may discover iron rules which are hard to accept.
The recent lawsuits filed in America have left a scar, and the residents’ old disagreements about the leadership have resurfaced. In fact, in Italy, the leadership makes up 4/5ths of the Assisi residents. They are faithfully confident of Walters and, until a few years ago, were spending a fortune in trans-oceanic phone calls to receive guidance and instructions from “Swami”. For those who remain, an enormous amount of daily work is rewarded only by their personal love for Master and, while they will occasionally will call a meeting to “ask residents their opinions” on certain matters, the final decision has almost always made with regard only to Kriyanda’s wishes.
There ís no democracy in all this, only an implicit agreement that goes like this: If you stay here is because we permit, work to gain the right to remain and do not discuss what we are doing, because it is being done in the best interest of the community.
This doesn’t mix well, however, with Italian tradition. In Italy there is less enthusiasm than in America about social experiments like Ananda’s, “world brotherhood colonies”. Here in this country, tradition is strongly tied to family, to home, to wife and children, and it isn’t as easy to choose a new style of life such as community living.
Individuals who have had contacts with Ananda Assisi has been repeatedly called to join the community, especially those having property and money, but for Ananda the results has been disappointing. The few who have joined are young, relatively free from commitments and with a little or no money in the bank. They are the spine of the community, their hard work continuosly feeds the furnace of Ananda’s existence. Without this huge commitment in exchange for token pay, a bed, and something to eat Ananda Assisi will be just a remnant of 70’s ideology.
The real value of Ananda Assisi is stated in their promotional advertisements-a nice place to recharge the batteries and recover from the chaotic life of the city. This is the same offer that any holiday agency can arrange (and we find the prices are quite comparable!). But the spiritual promises of closeness to Guru and other disciples of Ananda are false. Those who wish to go further in the Kriya path of Babaji can grant themselves a “spiritual holiday” to any one of Assisi’s many other monasteries or ashrams for reflective contemplation. The spiritual aspirant should never feel the need to live in a Walters’ “world brotherhood colony” to obtain enlightment of the Guru’s guidance.”
Remember Master’s saying:
“Solitude is the price of greatness.”
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