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Sex Gods

Jerry Haslam
Losing His Religion: Jerry Haslam, a 19-year veteran of Mountain View commune, left Ananda last year when, he says, the church's hierarchy became more formal and the "world brotherhood village" changed into a "cult of personality."

Photo by Christopher Gardner



What is it with these charismatic spiritual leaders, anyway? Can't there ever be a religious commune of high-minded people that doesn't go the way of the sex scandal?

By Richard Sine

QUICK: WHAT HAPPENS to a commune, founded by a guru in the name of "simple living and high thinking," that preaches meditation and massage to a following of hip, New-Agey people? Well, as the spiritual director of the Ananda Church of Self-Realization puts it, it falls apart amid infighting and scandals, leaving the majority of Baby Boomers to abandon hope and retreat into fractured families, detached homes and corporate campuses..

Though the story is a familiar one, it's hard not to hold out hope that somewhere in the nation, a religious commune is working. It was with almost tangible excitement that in 1989 the San Jose Mercury News reported that the religious group Ananda had bought an apartment complex in Mountain View to establish "the only large religious commune in the Bay Area." Some of the more than 100 members had sold their homes to raise the cash. They ate in a communal dining room. A story in the Mercury News quoted a cult expert who reported no complaints about Ananda.

In 1994, however, the bubble had burst. A former member filed suit against Ananda, claiming sexual harassment by a minister. Since then, other women have come forward to claim sexual and emotional harassment by Ananda's spiritual guide, the 69-year-old J. Donald Walters, also known as Swami Kriyananda. And the cult experts' opinions are changing. Janja Lalich of the Cult Recovery and Information Center in Alameda, who has counseled former Ananda members, says Ananda "uses the classic techniques [of social and psychological control] identified with cults."

I FOUND THE details of the Ananda lawsuit at the courthouse in Redwood City, which fill four filing boxes in the archive room. Just down the Peninsula, at the East West Bookshop, the big New Age bookstore in Mountain View owned by Ananda, I skimmed a few of Walters' 60-some books. Most of the writing, unsurprisingly, was standard New Age blather. ("Remain centered in your inner reality.") So when I showed up at an "Attunement Service" one evening last month, it wasn't with a great deal of anticipation.

What I found, however, was a remarkably simple and somewhat inspiring ceremony. A small group sat in the pews of the cathedral, "chanting," which involved clapping and singing a very simple 16-line song that declared, "I need nothing, I am free." They sang it over and over for at least 20 minutes, maybe 40 or 50 times.

Finally, minister Asha Praver, a thin, middle-aged woman with a gentle manner, told her flock to meditate, and the church turned utterly still. I had never seriously meditated before, but I had nothing to do but join in. I closed my eyes, and within a few minutes my entire body began to tingle and I felt as if I had dissolved into a mist. I felt a vague anxiety as my floating body seemed to tilt on its axis, until I realized that I was leaning just a few degrees to the right. I straightened myself, but the feeling persisted even as Praver broke the silence.

In her seemingly extemporaneous sermon, Praver told us humor is spiritual because laughing shows the ability to detach from life, to realize that life is just like "froth on a wave." She realized in a recent visit with her Jewish family that they couldn't accept that she was a minister, not a rabbi. "We put so much pride in what we do; it's so important. But it really doesn't matter. Life is a dream." Praver sits in the chancel of a mission-style church in Palo Alto that Ananda bought from the Catholic Church in 1994. To sit in a place like that, and be told from the pulpit that life is a dream, is a bracing experience in itself.

PERHAPS IT WAS this gentle side of Ananda that appealed to Palo Alto resident Anne-Marie Bertolucci, who in 1991 signed up for Ananda meditation classes, which are often advertised in bookstores and coffee shops. Bertolucci soon was attending Sunday services for the New Age blend of Hindu and Christian teachings and, within months, had left her job and moved to Ananda Village in Nevada City, Calif., Ananda's rural center. Bertolucci claims Asha Praver encouraged her to leave her husband behind because he was uninterested in Ananda.

Several thousand people a year study meditation and yoga at Ananda Village or in Palo Alto, Dallas, Seattle and other Ananda outposts. Exact attendance numbers are not available because Ananda ministers declined to be interviewed for any article that discussed the lawsuit. They said they didn't want the case tried in the press.

In her suit filed in late 1994, Bertolucci claims she was seduced and abandoned at Ananda Village by married senior minister Danny Levin, her boss at Crystal Clarity Publishing, which publishes many of Walters' books. Bertolucci claims that Levin used his authority as a minister to seduce her. When she complained about Levin to his superior, Walters, she claims she was kicked out of the commune.

A month after Bertolucci filed suit, Walters countersued for defamation. Bertolucci's lawyer, Ford Greene, responded with five declarations by women claiming to have had sexual encounters with Walters himself. The claims are especially damaging because as a member of the Hindu monastic Swami order, Walters took vows of celibacy as well as asceticism.

If they are true, the claims show a pattern. Walters rarely had intercourse with the women. Instead, he would ask for a massage, which would lead to a request for sexual services. According to one deposition, he rubbed himself against one young San Jose State student until he ejaculated. When she asked for an explanation, he told her, "It's just energy going from one part of the universe to another."

If both Bertolucci and the declaring women are telling the truth, then Walters and his protégé Levin showed strangely similar patterns of seduction. Both claimed to have known their sexual partners in past lives. Both talked about sex as a "transfer of energy." And both were as interested in erotically rubbing themselves against women as though having sex with them.

Though his deposition has been sealed at the request of Ananda's lawyer, Walters has repeatedly denied the charges in court papers and in letters to his followers. Walters attributes the suit to a conspiracy against Ananda by a religious rival and former employer, the Self-Realization Fellowship, based in Los Angeles.

Self-Realization Fellowship was founded by Indian mystic Paramhansa Yogananda, author of Autobiography of a Yogi, who died in 1953. Walters was a disciple of Yogananda and a vice president of the Fellowship until 1962, when the Fellowship fired him. Walters founded the Ananda Church of Self-Realization six years later in Nevada City.

The Fellowship recently sued Ananda unsuccessfully over the term "Self-Realization" and the right to distribute Yogananda's teachings. Ananda claims the sex suits are just another attempt by the Fellowship to destroy it. The conspiracy charge is denied by the Self-Realization Fellowship, Bertolucci, her lawyers, and the other former Ananda members who filed court declarations in Bertolucci's support. Lalich of the Cult Recovery and Information Center says she has not received complaints about the Fellowship. "You go to the church, you pray, and you leave," she says of the Fellowship.

TRYING TO EXPLAIN the sexual practices of Walters as described in the women's court declarations, Jerry Haslam of Los Altos Hills recalls a story in Yogananda's autobiography. "Yogananda is trying to fast, but it's putting him through a lot of anguish, so he goes to his teacher. Instead of responding with sympathy, the teacher said, 'Give the dog a bone.' Meaning, don't focus on the body, the solution is inside yourself. If you twist that lesson a little bit, you think, well, nothing is important, I'm not really hurting people by this. I'm just getting off, just giving the dog a bone."

Haslam left the Mountain View commune last year after 19 years at Ananda. He was a founder of the commune in Mountain View and communes in other locations. But he says he became disillusioned with Ananda when the self-proclaimed "world brotherhood village" became essentially a cult of personality. He said the church hierarchy got more formal, members began taking formal pledges of "cooperative obedience and loyalty" to Walters, and the reverence of Walters became more unconditional. As he lost enthusiasm but remained in the commune, he said he was shunned by longtime friends.

Haslam believes that Walters' alleged abuse of spiritual authority is no worse than that displayed by many Catholic priests or evangelical ministers. But he said the atmosphere at Ananda precluded serious discussion of it. "The exposure threatens their entire lifestyle. Unfortunately, they've built the foundation of their society on Kriyananda [Walters]. They look upon this guy as being flawless, even though they won't say that to outsiders."

Bertolucci's lawyer, Greene, has filed many cases claiming abusive actions by religions such as Scientology and the Unification Church of Sun Myung Moon. Greene admits that even if he can convince the court that Walters had sexual liaisons with these women, he may have a hard time getting Walters to pay damages.

"There is no statute forbidding religious counselors from having sex with their counselees," Greene says. Catholic priests have been prosecuted for molesting parishioners, but only when they are children. "We'd like to set the precedent that no matter what the age of the person receiving counseling, sex is forbidden, given the disparity of power between the counselor and the counselee and the betrayal of trust ... when the goal of the counseling is seduction and sex."

The case is scheduled to go to trial in March.

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From the November 27-December 4, 1996 issue of Metro

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