A Mountain of Discontent

The Self-Realization Fellowship reveals details of its controversial plans for a guru's shrine on bucolic Mount Washington, generating even more opposition.

New Times Los Angeles/June 1, 2000

By Ron Russell

These are frustrating times for the Los Angeles-based Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF), the religious organization founded by the late Paramahansa Yogananda, the Eastern holy man widely credited with bringing the art of meditation to the West.

Ever since 1952, when he dropped dead of a heart attack -- or, as adherents say, passed on -- after giving a speech at the Biltmore Hotel, his followers have longed to see the revered swami's earthly remains removed from a mausoleum at Forest Lawn Glendale and brought home to the church's 12.5-acre headquarters atop Mount Washington.

The problem is that the park-like grounds surrounding the once-elegant Mount Washington Hotel, which he bought in 1925 and transformed, was never zoned as a burial site. For many of the 8,000 residents of the bucolic northeast Los Angeles community, the notion of erecting a shrine to an international religious figure on their hilltop, with its famously narrow streets, is anathema. In fact, church leaders for years didn't dare to broach the possibility publicly, even though SRF literature has long heralded the guru's transfer to the mountain as a high priority.

Not surprisingly, when SRF leaders last year reluctantly acknowledged their intent to entomb the body inside an elaborate shrine it wants to build as part of a planned $40 million headquarters expansion, there was hell to pay. Although some of the church's neighbors -- including no small number of SRF members who dwell in the neighborhood surrounding the so-called Mother Center -- applaud the church's plans, plenty of others do not. Opponents feel betrayed, especially since SRF officials had long pretended not to have decided whether to try to move Yogananda's remains to the Mother Center, even though the shrine's blueprints showed it to essentially be his private mausoleum. Church leaders compounded their public relations woes by trying to avoid producing an Environmental Impact Report while naïvely seeking quick approval for the project -- which is also to include offices, new dormitories, a museum, and a visitor center. Critics claim the proposed expansion is the development equivalent of four-and-a-half Home Depot stores.

Now, after nearly a year of anticipation, the draft of that environmental report -- some 516 pages long, and a whopping 1,700 pages including appendices -- has been made public. And, to no one's surprise, opponents are more restless than ever. "The biggest message coming out of the EIR is that now that they've done a document, that enables them to go for everything that they want," says Daniel Wright, who heads a group opposed to the church's plans. "What it tells us is that they're positioning themselves to try and ram this project through over all concerns in the community." Neither Miles Hyde, the monk who has been the church's point person on the development plan, nor SRF public affairs spokeswoman Lauren Landress returned phone calls to New Times.

The report marks a milestone in one of the more contentious and unusual L.A. zoning battles in recent memory. Having chastised its neighbors for forcing it to produce the expensive environmental assessment in the first place, the church was rebuffed in its bid to shorten the review period before hearings may occur. In letters sent to the community, SRF had signaled it favored the minimum 45 days required by law. When that idea wasn't well received, the church angled for a 90-day review. But the city Planning Department granted opponents' request for a 120-day review.

The planning department also ordered the church to wait at least 30 days for the community to absorb the report before scheduling any open house at which its experts would pitch its plan to the public. As it turns out, an opposition group known by the acronym CANDER posted the entire report on the Internet -- at savemtwashington.org -- within days of its April 27 release.

Wright, one of CANDER's leaders, says that with the issuance of the environmental report, the long-standing battle between the church and its neighbors has entered a new phase. "Sadly, I think the time has probably passed for there to be some kind of meaningful compromise," he says. "If they had really wanted to work with the community they would have stopped preparing [the report], sat down with the neighbors, and started talking about trying to do something smaller that maybe people could have accepted."

Indeed, SRF's initial attempts to make nice with its neighbors have long since given way to hardball tactics. In the months leading up to the initial unveiling of its plans last year, SRF members infiltrated and essentially neutralized the venerable Mount Washington Association, many of whose members were opposed to its plans. The association, which for more than four decades had served as a kind of quasi-governmental voice in the community, has remained strikingly silent on this, the biggest single development issue ever to arise on the mountain.

To further show that it means business, SRF has hired some of the most influential and politically connected lobbyists in town. They include Consensus Planning Inc., which has been a force behind the push for expansion of LAX, and Steve Afriat, former campaign consultant to City Councilman Mike Hernandez. Hernandez's council district covers half the mountain -- including the part encompassing church headquarters. Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg represents the other half. Thus far, the church has spent more than $200,000 on lobbyists, including $26,000 during the first three months of this year, the most recent period for which records that it is required to file with the city are available.

Part of SRF's troubles with its neighbors stems from the reclusive nature of its leaders and the often clumsy way the church deals with outsiders. The SRF, which teaches a blend of Hindu and Christian beliefs articulated by Yogananda, its founder, keeps even the number of its adherents shrouded in mystery, claiming only "hundreds of thousands." Through wealthy benefactors including the late billionaire Doris Duke, the church is real estate­rich, with an enormously valuable 23-acre oceanfront retreat in Encinitas, a spectacular shrine and gardens in Pacific Palisades, and agricultural land in northern San Diego County.

Its octogenarian spiritual leader, Daya Mata, whose real name is Faye Wright, is all but invisible to the outside world. Her sister, Virginia Wright, who uses the Sanskrit name Ananda Mata, has long been the organization's treasurer. Like the hundreds of monks and nuns who call the Mother Center home, the women are longtime devotees of the Yogananda's teachings, having taken vows of celibacy and poverty. Except for an interview several years ago in a Salt Lake City newspaper, Daya Mata -- who grew up as a Mormon in Utah -- has avoided the secular press.

Church officials provide little information about her, except -- as they did last year -- to say that she was living as a monastic inside the Mount Washington compound and that she was too preoccupied with spiritual matters to be interviewed. However, as New Times reported, contrary to the acknowledged belief of even some monks living there -- not to mention a wider body of church members -- Daya Mata and her sister weren't living at the Mother Center at all. As Ananda Mata confirmed to a reporter who visited her, the sisters have shared an SRF-owned house in a neighborhood of million-dollar homes in the San Gabriel Valley foothill community of Sierra Madre since the late 1960s. For years, they've commuted to Mount Washington in a vintage pink Cadillac.

Aside from such gaffes, the church has also stumbled in the courts. Earlier this year, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals gave SRF only a partial victory in its decade-long copyright infringement battle with the breakaway Ananda Church of Self-Realization, based in Northern California, over Ananda's publishing of Yogananda's writings. The decision allowed SRF to protect the copyrights of certain writings, but did not prevent Ananda from publishing many of his more important works. Since that ruling in February, SRF's attorneys (from powerhouse L.A. firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher) have in essence appealed the appeal. Jyotish Novak, Ananda's spiritual director, says that he wishes SRF "would stop suing us," but, referring to the ruling, adds, "Actually, we're pretty happy."

That's something neither side in the prolonged shrine debate is apt to declare anytime soon.

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