Lorna Erskine says she knew from the day she met her husband that there was something special about him. Ben Erskine didn't have a formal education and yet seemed to know everything. "He's quiet, contemplative, not the least bit egotistical, yet self-assured and straightforward," she says. And so it did not surprise her that -- before asking her to marry him in 1958 -- Erskine confided that there was something she should know. "I said rather nervously, "What? Tell me,'" she recalls. "And his answer was, "I'm a bastard.'" It was an odd prelude to an astounding story, one that she says "seemed to just tumble out of him after having been bottled up for a long time." Mistreated by his stepfather and rejected by his siblings as the product of his mother's adulterous affair in the early 1930s, Erskine felt stigmatized as a young boy growing up in Los Angeles and Nevada. But it is who he has long presumed his father to have been -- the late Swami Paramahansa Yogananda, the supposedly celibate founder of the L.A.-based Self-Realization Fellowship -- that has caused him the most pain. His mother, Adelaide Erskine, who died in 1996 just shy of her 100th birthday, was a professional photographer and a devotee of the swami. Some former SRF members, including at least one former nun, say she may have been the photographer responsible for some of the best-known images of the charismatic guru. A longtime resident of rural southern Oregon, Erskine, 68, the father of five children, is the focus of a little-known and bizarre paternity drama that threatens to shake the foundations of the religion the swami founded in Los Angeles 66 years ago.
An independent gold miner and former lumberjack, he may have unwittingly become a player in a dispute between the SRF and the rival Ananda Church of Self-Realization, based in Nevada City in Northern California -- and whose members also revere the swami -- over Yogananda's body. For years, the SRF, which claims hundreds of thousands of adherents worldwide, has wanted to disinter the body from Forest Lawn Glendale, where it has reposed in a mausoleum since the swami's death in 1952, and move it to the organization's headquarters atop Mount Washington. It was there, just 10 minutes from downtown Los Angeles, that the revered Eastern holy man bought a crumbling, once-elegant hotel in 1925 and transformed it into a sylvan retreat for his newly created religion, a blend of Hindu and Christian beliefs.
For the last four years, the publicity-averse SRF, under the direction of its octogenarian president and spiritual leader Daya Mata, a.k.a. Faye Wright -- a direct disciple of Yogananda's --has promoted a massive expansion of the 12.5-acre Mother Center, as the headquarters is known. Among other things, it wants to build a mausoleum, museum, visitor center and gift shop to accommodate pilgrims who could be expected to flock there to pay homage to the swami. Fearful that a Yogananda shrine and huge construction campaign would turn Mount Washington, with its narrow residential streets, into a tourist mecca, residents who've long coexisted peacefully with the SRF are adamantly opposed to the plan. So is Ananda, but for a different reason. Its officials, led by J. Donald Walters, a.k.a. Swami Kriyananda, fear that if the body is moved to the mountain, the SRF will restrict access to all but its own members. Kriyananda is also a direct disciple of Yogananda's, and was an important figure in the SRF before he was kicked out by Daya Mata in 1962.
State law dictates that in the absence of a close relative (defined as someone no more distant than a niece or nephew), a Superior Court judge must approve the removal of a corpse from a cemetery to be reburied elsewhere. With the Ananda faction having dug in its heels in May, declaring at a Los Angeles Planning Department hearing that it would oppose such a move, speculation has centered on several little-known relatives of Yogananda's in India. Forest Lawn vice president Scott Drolet confirmed that the SRF has spoken with cemetery officials recently about its desire to move the body, but would provide no details. And New Times has learned that a senior monk who is a member of the SRF board of directors visited in the homes of one of Yogananda's nephews and two of his nieces in Calcutta in March. The developments are bound to add to speculation that the organization, which hopes to win approval of its development plans later this year, may be gearing up for an attempt to disinter the swami. SRF officials, including Daya Mata, decline to discuss the matter publicly.
Enter Ben Erskine.
Although he has never sought to publicize his purported relationship to Yogananda, strangers occasionally have showed up unannounced at his home near Medford, Oregon, for years. "We've even had a swami or two," says his wife. "They come just to get a glimpse of Ben, and after taking a look at him and talking with him, most of them leave amazed." But it was a visit six years ago from attorney Michael J. Flynn, who has long represented the SRF, that may have been the first indication that the organization was concerned about reports of the swami's possibly having a son. Indeed, Flynn and the church's handling of the Erskine matter has, if anything, added to the mystery surrounding his story. Erskine says Flynn and a colleague visited him in 1995, took samples of his hair and persuaded him to submit blood samples to a genetics-testing lab designated by Flynn, while expressing interest in helping him settle once and for all who his father was. But Flynn didn't help, Erskine says. In fact, the lawyer ignored him and his repeated requests for information for more than five years.
Fed up with waiting and upset over his treatment, Erskine hired attorney Shane Reed last year. Reed renewed the pressure to have further DNA testing done after Flynn said an earlier test, using a sample of Yogananda's hair kept at the Mother Center, was "inconclusive." After the request last October, Reed says, he was ignored, too. But in February that changed after Reed wrote Flynn on Erskine's behalf, threatening to go public unless the church's lawyer made good on his commitment. That resulted in the taking of blood samples from three of Yogananda's relatives in India in March; Flynn subsequently notified Reed that analysis done by a Missouri genetics-testing and consulting firm showed that Erskine was not Yogananda's son.
Flynn, in a brief telephone interview with New Times, confirmed as much. "The tests show he's not Yogananda's son," says Flynn, who declined repeated requests by New Times to examine documentation that he says substantiates his claim. But the matter seems far from closed. "The testing was done exclusively under the control of Mr. Flynn and the SRF as far as we can tell, with no verifiable independent third-party authentication," says Reed, who adds that he will seek further testing to determine his client's paternity.
The stakes are potentially high.
If Erskine can prove he is the son of Yogananda, it would be devastating to the late swami's followers, who regard him as an avatar, or godlike being, and thus saintly and pure. But beyond that, such a development could enable Erskine to challenge ownership rights to Yogananda's image and likeness. The SRF has long claimed these while engaging in a 10-year court battle with Ananda in an attempt, its rival says, to drive it into bankruptcy.
As the self-professed organizational heir to Yogananda's legacy, the SRF claims a presence in 54 countries and possesses considerable financial assets. Besides the Mother Center, in California alone the church owns a spectacular retreat overlooking the ocean in Encinitas and the Lake Shrine in Pacific Palisades, worth many millions of dollars for the real estate alone. Its reclusive leader, Daya Mata, 87, has long attracted an extraordinary collection of the rich and famous, including former Beatle George Harrison, Indian musician Ravi Shankar and best-selling author and guru Deepak Chopra. The list of disciples even includes the late Elvis Presley, who, according to Presley biographer Peter Guralnick, made numerous trips to see Daya Mata, who reminded him of his deceased mother. "Imagine it, if [Erskine] did turn out to be the son," says one copyright attorney familiar with the case, "it could blow the SRF right out of the water with respect to its long-held copyright claims. And as far as the effort to move the body -- the final decision just might be up to [him]."
Adelaide Erskine and her husband, Robert, already had four children (two girls and two boys) when Adelaide gave birth to Benjamin Herbert Erskine on January 16, 1933. Robert, a machinist, and his wife had moved to Los Angeles in 1927 from Arizona and settled in the City Terrace district north of Boyle Heights. She went to work with her mother at a photography studio in Hollywood. Ben Erskine says he believes his mother may have come in contact with the swami as the result of a photo assignment at Mount Washington, although he cannot say when.
What is certain, he says, is that his mother's life was transformed upon meeting the charismatic guru and reading his literature. As he later learned from her, she had become a regular visitor to the Mount Washington Educational Center, as SRF headquarters was known before his birth, often going every day during the week and at least once on weekends. His mother may have had little choice but to disclose her infidelity while pregnant with Ben, he says, because Robert Erskine had had a vasectomy four years earlier after the birth of the couple's fourth child, Alberta. This may explain why Adelaide chose to give birth to Ben at home, and why no birth certificate was issued for him, Ben Erskine says. Regardless, at his birth it was obvious that he was not Robert's son. Like their parents, his siblings were lily white. Ben's dark skin and distinct features made it clear that his father was of East Indian descent.
Not that his father's identity was ever considered to be a mystery within the family. His stepfather made sure of that, Erskine says. Some of his earliest memories are of Robert Erskine cursing Yogananda's name. "From the day I was born, in [Robert's] eyes, I was that blankety-blank black bastard son of the swami on the hill," he recalls. "And he never let me or my mother forget it. He had a rule that neither my mother nor any of the kids were ever to utter Yogananda's name, yet he yelled and screamed about Yogananda all the time. He never quit ranting about him." Erskine says his stepfather "beat my mother mercilessly and whenever he was around me, he beat me, too." For her part, Adelaide never came out in so many words and said, ""Yogananda was your father,' because there was never a need to," Erskine says. "It was understood by everyone. She would tell me, "Son, you have wonderful blood in your veins. I expect great things from you.' We both knew what that meant."
Robert Erskine didn't divorce his wife. Instead, when Ben was barely three years old, he took her and the children to the Nevada desert and abandoned them -- in a desolate rural community just across the California border from Death Valley. Once there, Ben's two brothers, who were 12 and 13, ran away almost immediately, he says. Robert Erskine came out from Los Angeles occasionally, sometimes bringing "sacks of potatoes or a crate of cabbage. Otherwise we were on our own. How my mother survived with three small kids out there I will never know."
Their "banishment," as he calls it, lasted 10 years. His mother accepted it as a consequence of her adultery. Erskine says he learned to shoot a gun by age six, "and there were plenty of times that all we had to eat was what I could shoot." There was a school several miles away at the hamlet of Good Springs, but there was no way he and his half sisters could attend. He recalls that his first taste of "real food" was in a Las Vegas hospital after he accidentally blew away two of his fingers while playing with dynamite at age nine. He doesn't recall wearing shoes until he was a teenager. But there's something else he remembers vividly, if for no other reason than that he did it often. As soon as he was old enough, his mother had him walk to the rural post office several miles from their house to retrieve letters from Yogananda, which he insists she received regularly for years. "She treasured those letters, and kept them locked away in a trunk for many years," he says. As far as he knows, none of the letters have survived. One of his sisters, who is now deceased, told him years ago that the trunk containing the letters, along with some of his mother's old camera equipment, was stolen, he says.
The desert ordeal ended along with World War II, when his brother, Daniel, was discharged from the military and showed up unexpectedly one day to take Adelaide and the children back to Los Angeles. Not long afterward, he says, they were reunited with Robert Erskine in Lynwood. Ben, who by then was 13, enrolled in school but, hopelessly behind, soon dropped out. He says he "grew up in the streets" in a blue-collar neighborhood where he stood out for his color and ethnicity. "Most everyone was white, except me. They were mostly people from Arkansas [his mother's home state] and Oklahoma whose fathers worked in the factories. My mother had taught me to respect my father, but I couldn't talk about him, not at home and not with the kids in the street. Some of the Mexicans thought I was Mexican. They'd ask [who my father was] and I'd just keep my mouth shut." The newspapers, when they mentioned Yogananda at all, tended to treat him disparagingly, and, says Erskine, "I wasn't about to tell the kids from the neighborhood that my dad was that longhaired Indian guru up on Mount Washington."
Despite (or perhaps because of) the strained union that Robert and Adelaide's marriage had become, she resumed regular visits to Mount Washington, making almost daily trips by streetcar, Erskine says. The sojourns continued until 1952, when a newspaper headline forever altered his mother's life. After delivering a speech at the Biltmore Hotel downtown, the revered swami dropped dead of a heart attack. "My mother was devastated," Erskine recalls. "Not just because Yogananda had died but because everyone in the family, my stepfather and my sisters -- who had grown to hate [Yogananda] as the cause for their having been left out in the desert all those years -- ridiculed her. They mocked her, and they mocked Yogananda. It was the most horrible thing you could imagine."
Not long after the swami's death, Erskine says, his mother blew up in anger at one of his half sisters. Although married, the sister had moved back home, and his mother threw her things out of the house. "When my stepfather got home, he was livid. He said, "Well, I know what to do about that.' And he took her to Norwalk to a mental hospital and had her committed." Erskine calls it "a pure act of spite. She was a brilliant woman. There was nothing wrong with her. But a few days after she was taken there we got a phone call saying that they had given her electroshock treatments. And it was the end of her." Upon coming home soon afterward, he says, his mother "was ruined emotionally" and scarcely uttered a word. In fact, after she was admitted to a nursing home in the mid 1950s she hardly spoke during the last four decades of her life, relatives say. When his mother's mind started to go, Ben Erskine went to Texas to work as a roughneck in the oil fields. After getting married, he moved to Utah, where he was a millwright at a salt mine before settling in the Pacific Northwest. In the 1970s, he became a Mormon, like his mother had been before she met the swami. All of his children have grown up in the understanding and belief that Yogananda was their grandfather. "It's something we've always been taught to be proud of," says Melissa Simpson, 38. Never wishing to do anything to damage his "father's" reputation as a celibate and a saint, Erskine says he deliberately chose not to speak of Yogananda outside a circle of family and friends.
But that hasn't kept the occasional Yogananda devotee from turning up unannounced at the family's modest home. "My husband's never publicized himself, and we've never sought attention. And yet, somehow, these people know about him," Lorna Erskine says.
One visit, six years ago, stands out. It was preceded by a telephone call received by Lorna Erskine. The caller, Michael Flynn, was someone she didn't know and whose name meant nothing to her. "He said, "Is your husband Ben Erskine?' and I said yes. And then he said, "This may be the most important phone call you will ever receive.'"
Flynn, the SRF's lawyer, wanted to come to Oregon and meet the man purported to be the swami's son. His interest may not have been as out of the blue as it appeared. A short time earlier, one of the Erskines' daughters, concerned about her parents' health and the fact that they were experiencing financial difficulty while unable to work, contacted the SRF. The daughter hoped -- "naively, in hindsight," Lorna Erskine says -- that the organization might be willing to provide financial help to her father. A few weeks after Flynn's phone call, he and another lawyer, whose name neither she nor her husband recall, arrived at their home.
According to the couple's account of the visit, Flynn expressed amazement at the physical similarity between Erskine and Yogananda. "You should have seen his face when he saw Ben," she remembers. "I thought his jaw was going to drop off." Ben Erskine says that he explained to Flynn and his colleague that he considered himself to be Yogananda's son and shared with them experiences from a life that he says has been largely shaped by that belief. Erskine says he acknowledged then, as he does now, that he did not possess material proof that Yogananda was his father, and expressed interest in knowing for sure. Neither Ben nor Lorna Erskine recall who brought up the idea of DNA testing, but by the time Flynn and his colleague departed, they say, it was agreed that Flynn would facilitate such a test. "[Flynn's] attitude was that he was here to help us and that he, too, wanted to know if I was who I thought I was," Ben Erskine says.
Flynn left the Erskine home that day with several borrowed pictures of Erskine from various stages of his life, as well as a lock of his hair, which one of his children snipped with scissors in Flynn's presence, the couple says. At Flynn's request, Erskine went to his doctor a few days later and had a blood sample drawn and mailed to a laboratory the attorney had designated. Then the couple settled back to wait for word. But none was forthcoming. In fact, Ben Erskine says, he never personally heard from Flynn again. "It really hurt Ben," his wife says. Over time, they say, one or another of their grown children have tried to intervene. Lorna Erskine says one child contacted Flynn and came away with the understanding that the DNA test was inconclusive because it had been tested against a lock of Yogananda's hair in the SRF's possession that was unsuitable to provide a reliable result. The Erskines say they were then told that Ben's DNA would be matched against that of a relative or relatives of Yogananda's in India and that they would be notified of the results. But they heard nothing.
In the fall of 1996, while Simpson, the Erskines' daughter, was in Los Angeles for a visit, she went to Mount Washington unannounced to seek information from SRF officials. It was the first time she had ever seen the place that she had often imagined when thinking of the man she considers to have been her grandfather. "It wasn't at all the wonderful spiritual place I thought it would be," she says. "It was kind of creepy."
After telling a receptionist at SRF headquarters who she was, she says she was led upstairs to see Mukti Mata, an elderly nun and direct disciple of Yogananda's and a member of the SRF board of directors, and another nun whose name she doesn't recall. "[Mukti Mata] seemed nervous. They both did. They kept going back and forth talking to Mike Flynn on the phone, or so I was led to believe." The meeting lasted "30 to 45 minutes" and accomplished nothing, she says. "They finally let me know that I should go. I wouldn't call them rude, just cold. It was clear to me that I was making them uncomfortable." For Simpson, the most noteworthy part of the visit was something she says Mukti Mata told her shortly before she was ushered out. It seemed to her an odd thing for the elderly nun to say. "She said, "You know, your grandmother was slightly crazy.'"
Although he was disappointed at being ignored after surrendering samples of his hair and blood, Ben Erskine says he knew little about the SRF -- and nothing of its desire to disinter Yogananda's body -- until reading an article in New Times two years ago. One of the occasional pilgrims to his home who has long believed Erskine's story mailed him a copy, he says. Among other things, the article detailed allegations of underhanded tactics by the church in an ongoing bid to gain approval for its Mother Center expansion.
The article also revealed something else that, while perhaps trivial to outsiders, created a firestorm within SRF circles. Although church officials had insisted that Daya Mata lived in seclusion at the Mother Center in keeping with her vows of poverty like any other monastic, it turned out not to be true. She and her sister, Virginia Wright (Ananda Mata) -- the SRF's second in command -- have lived in the city of Sierra Madre in the San Gabriel Valley foothills since 1968. Their million-dollar home, and a similar one next door occupied by nuns who care for the women, is said to have been a gift of the late billionaire tobacco heiress Doris Duke, a longtime Daya Mata confidant. As New Times reported, to the extent that Daya Mata and her sister have been present at Mount Washington during the last three decades, they've commuted there in a vintage pink Cadillac.
Ben and Lorna Erskine say they read the article in the summer of 1999 and chuckled. "We sat around the kitchen table and said, "Boy, I bet this [reporter] would love to talk to us if he only knew we existed,'" she recalls. Even so, the couple says, they had no intention of ever revealing Erskine's story. (In fact, when New Times approached Erskine for this article, his response was, "How did you find me?" It took much persuasion before he and his wife would agree to be interviewed.) Their efforts to get information from Flynn picked up steam last year after they asked attorney Reed, whom they've known since he was a child, to intercede on their behalf.
Reed first wrote to Flynn last October acknowledging that his client had informed him that the DNA test conducted using Yogananda's hair had been inconclusive. Nonetheless, Reed asked for the results. "[Flynn] totally ignored me," he says. In February of this year, Reed says, he wrote to Flynn again, suggesting that Flynn move forward with DNA testing of one or more of Yogananda's relatives in India. In the letter, Reed said that it wasn't his client's intention to harm Yogananda's reputation but that Erskine merely wanted to know who his father was and that unless Flynn followed through, his client might pursue a paternity lawsuit. "That got his attention," Reed says. Within two weeks, Reed says, Flynn called him to discuss arranging to draw blood samples from the relatives in India. At the SRF attorney's request, Erskine submitted a new blood sample and a saliva specimen to a lab that Flynn designated, Reed says.
According to documents Reed says were provided to him by Flynn in April, blood samples were drawn from a nephew and two nieces of Yogananda's in Calcutta during the first week of March and transported to Genetics Technologies Inc., a testing and forensics consulting firm in St. Louis, for analysis. The relatives who provided samples were Biswanath Ghosh, the son of the youngest of the late swami's brothers, and Surama Mitra and Rekha Paul, daughters of Yogananda's youngest sister. They all signed affidavits, copies of which were obtained by New Times, declaring that they gave blood samples on March 6 at their respective homes. Also present, according to other affidavits, were a physician, Dr. Rabindranath Ghosh, and a licensed pathologist, Sudip Kumar Chandra, who assisted in drawing the samples. (Yogananda's name at birth was Mukunda Lal Ghosh. Reed says Flynn assured him that Ghosh, the doctor, is not a relative of the swami.)
But Reed says he and his client have little confidence in the results. Although not accusing anyone of wrongdoing, Reed says, "the entire process in India was carried out" without independent observation. He says that Flynn and the SRF controlled the process, "and they are hardly impartial players when it comes to establishing my client's paternity." Assuming that the blood samples were taken from the relatives, he says, "we really have no independent way of knowing that the samples they submitted are the same samples that the lab in Missouri analyzed." Erskine, his client, puts it even more succinctly. "[Flynn's] giving us the news [about the test results] was like saying, "Well, we did it and guess what? You're not Yogananda's son.' I'm not buying that. Based on the way I was jacked around for five and a half years, I don't have confidence in Flynn or the SRF."
For his part, Flynn contended in the brief telephone interview that the DNA samples collected in India prove that Erskine is not Yogananda's son. But he became testy when asked if there was independent confirmation. He deflected questions about the matter by saying he had represented celebrities such as Barbra Streisand and Madonna, and suggested that he would consider suing New Times should it libel him or his client. When asked a third time to substantiate his claims about Erskine, Flynn replied, "Have your lawyer call me," and hung up. Three days later, he wrote to New Times suggesting that he would make materials available only if the newspaper's "publisher" and its lawyers were also present. His office in Del Mar in north San Diego County was then informed, in writing, of the deadline for this article and again was invited to share any materials substantiating his claim. He did not respond.
SRF leaders were even less inclined to be interviewed for this article. Daya Mata refused to speak with a reporter who went to her home. Neither did she respond to requests for a telephone interview. Brother Vishwananda, a member of the church's eight-member board of directors, who spoke to New Times on behalf of the church two years ago, similarly did not return phone calls. Neither did another longtime board member, Sister Savitri, who has long played a key role as Daya Mata's personal secretary. SRF sources say that Savitri resigned from the board in recent weeks after taking a "leave of absence" from the Mother Center. However, her resignation could not be independently confirmed. Regardless, Savitri, using her presumed real name, Heidi Hall, has gone to work at Flynn's law office. Messages left for her there went unreturned. Miles Hyde, the monk who has served as the SRF's spokesman for the expansion project, did not return messages left on his voice mail at the organization's headquarters. However, in what would be another surprising development, if confirmed, SRF sources say Hyde has also departed the Mother Center in recent weeks.
As for the manner in which blood samples were obtained in India, there is ample reason to suggest that the SRF played a significant role. According to one of the affidavits supplied to Reed by Flynn, a copy of which is in New Times' possession, the person who supervised the collection of the samples in Calcutta and who was in charge of transporting them to the United States for testing was Ronald L. Eisely -- who is none other than Brother Vishwananda, the senior monk who sits on the SRF board. It was Vishwananda who two years ago insisted repeatedly to New Times that Daya Mata resided, as he said she had for many years, at the Mother Center exclusively. The next day a reporter rang her doorbell in Sierra Madre and learned otherwise.
Whether or not Erskine is the swami's son, he is not the first person about whom unflattering accusations concerning Yogananda have swirled. Nor is it the first time that the SRF, under Daya Mata, has pressed Flynn into action to protect the dead guru's reputation. Among monastics and others associated with the SRF and the breakaway Ananda church, there have long been rumors -- however repulsive to many devotees -- concerning alleged sexual escapades involving the swami and others at Mount Washington.
One such person whose paternity has long been a source of speculation was Mona Pratt, whose mother, Laurie Pratt, or Tara Mata, became a devotee of Yogananda's in 1924 and who remained a larger-than-life presence in the organization until her death in 1971. Laurie Pratt was one of Yogananda's most trusted disciples, heading the organization's publishing operation and serving for many years on the SRF's board of directors. Like Faye and Virginia Wright, who joined up with Yogananda a few years later, she was from a prominent Mormon family. (Daya Mata's and her sister's ancestors are said to have been among the original Mormon pilgrims to the Great Salt Lake Valley. Their father, Abraham Reister Wright, was an architect of the temple in Salt Lake City, Daya Mata told a Utah newspaper years ago in what may have been the only interview she ever granted to the secular press.) Laurie Pratt's grandfather, Orson Pratt, was among the founders of the Mormon Church, a contemporary of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, and one of the most prolific Mormon theologians of the 19th century.
Laurie ran the guru's New York operation in 1929, when she became pregnant with her daughter. Government records as well as Mormon genealogical records indicate that Mona Pratt was born in Pennsylvania on October 2, 1929. When Laurie, or Tara Mata, was brought to Los Angeles a few years later to run the publishing department, the swami arranged for her and the child to live in a bungalow near the top of a hill in Lincoln Heights, not far from Mount Washington.
"It was a rather odd thing," recalls a former SRF nun, who asked that she not be identified. "Everyone knew about Mona, but she was seldom seen at Mount Washington, and there were certainly no repercussions to Tara Mata (who, like the other nuns, had taken a vow of celibacy) for having given birth to her." According to several sources who knew Laurie, including Swami Kriyananda, the spiritual leader of the Ananda church, now living in Italy, she was assumed by some to be the daughter of Swami Dhirananda, an early close associate of Yogananda's. "I just assumed that [she was his daughter], but after all these years I couldn't tell you why," Kriyananda says.
However, Anil Nerode, a Cornell University math professor whose parents were early associates of Yogananda's, says his mother and father told him that "within the inner circle it was privately assumed that Mona was Yogananda's child." It's a question that may never be answered. According to government records, Mona died near Philadelphia in 1996. Mormon genealogical records show that she was born in Pennsylvania in October 1929, but, unlike entries for others in the distinguished Pratt family, no father is listed for her. Her birth certificate, assuming that one was issued in Pennsylvania, is inaccessible except to immediate family members under that state's strict privacy laws.
As for such salacious speculation about Yogananda's private life, two of his closest early associates may have contributed the most to the rumors. One of them, Basu Kumar Bagchi (the aforementioned Swami Dhirananda) was a close friend of Yogananda's in India as a young man who joined him in this country in 1922 and was placed in charge of the Mount Washington property the first three years after Yogananda acquired it. He is also said by some to have written several early works, in whole or in part, that were later attributed to Yogananda, although the latter's devotees hotly dispute this. But in the spring of 1929 he split with Yogananda and forced him to sign a promissory note for $8,000 that he contended was due him as part of a partnership the men had entered to promote Yogananda's enterprises. Dhirananda (or Bagchi) operated his own meditation center in downtown Los Angeles until 1933, when he renounced his title of swami and went off to the University of Iowa to pursue doctoral studies. He married a Nebraska woman in 1934 and later had two children. Bagchi, who died years ago, enjoyed a long and distinguished career as a professor of encephlamology at the University of Michigan, where he pioneered research that helped identify cerebral tumors and detect epilepsy.
But the man who was once arguably Yogananda's closest companion has long been vilified among the master's followers both in the SRF and Ananda as a traitor who ignored his vows of celibacy by taking advantage of young female devotees. Ironically, court records show that it was Bagchi who complained of just such conduct about Yogananda at the time of their split, and who raised the issue again in 1935 when he sued the swami to collect the money he claimed he was owed. In awarding a judgment in Bagchi's favor, a Superior Court judge dismissed Yogananda's counterclaims as baseless, including the contention that Bagchi had tried to smear him for the purpose of extracting the money.
"Although a brilliant success in his public life, privately my father was an unhappy man and I'm sorry to say rather abusive to me and my sister," says Vanu Bagchi, 59, a former professional fund-raiser and aide to the late mayor of Detroit, Coleman Young. The son believes that "deep down, part of [his father] always longed for the monastic life he left behind." But while talking freely about his troubled relationship with his dad, Vanu Bagchi says he has "never thought for a minute" that his father was capable of immoral behavior. "It was antithetical to who he was. He had plenty of flaws, but that wasn't one of them. In fact, that's what repulsed him about his dear friend Yogananda. The impression he left with us was that Yogananda was screwing everything in sight."
Another early associate, Nirad Ranjan Chowdhury, or Sri Nerode, was a yoga master who grew up in a privileged family in India, attended the University of Calcutta and became attracted to Yogananda's teachings after meeting him in Berkeley in the early '20s. Friends with both Yogananda and Dhirananda, Nerode (the father of Anil Nerode) was brought in to run the Mount Washington operation in 1929 when Dhirananda left. He and his wife lived at the hotel in 1931, when she became pregnant with their son. Shortly after, Nerode was sent on the road to promote Yogananda's books and lessons around the country. He fulfilled that role until 1937, when the couple, now with a five-year-old son, moved back into the Mount Washington headquarters.
In 1939, Nerode also broke with Yogananda, suing the swami for $500,000 while contending that he had breached a 1931 oral agreement establishing a partnership between the men. Yogananda prevailed in court. He denied making such an agreement, and at trial his lawyer produced a piece of paper, signed by Nerode in 1929, in which he had agreed to work for Yogananda for nothing. But it was Nerode's claims about Yogananda's personal life, which the judge struck from the lawsuit as irrelevant, that briefly scandalized the swami's followers. Nerode essentially accused Yogananda of running a harem, describing how the swami had young girls housed next to his room on the third floor of the former hotel, and how they went in and out of the swami's room at all hours, while older women were housed on a separate floor entirely.
Nerode's attorneys had a difficult time tracking down Yogananda to depose him, and it finally required the L.A. County sheriff himself to go to Mount Washington and serve him with a subpoena. A deposition would have almost certainly included delicate questions put to the swami about his personal conduct. Yet there is no deposition included in the remaining case file. Whether there ever was one, or whether it may have disappeared, is impossible to say. What's certain is that long after the trial the SRF exhibited a pronounced interest in the file. Court records show that in 1955 Faye Wright (Daya Mata) filed an affidavit with the court seeking possession of the exhibits in the then 15-year-old case, asserting the organization's "need" for them.
Even today, the SRF remains vigilant in attempting to squelch allegations about the swami's alleged sex life. Last year, Anil Nerode posted some childhood remembrances from his days at Mount Washington on a personal Web site that incurred the SRF's wrath. The material included eyewitness recollections of alleged events involving Yogananda behind the walls of the Mother Center that the SRF evidently deemed offensive. Although only five and six years old while living there, Anil Nerode was no ordinary child. A prodigy who claims to have been reading on a 12th-grade level at age five, he obtained his bachelor's degree from the University of Chicago at age 16. Besides his childhood recollections of life with the swami close up, his late father and his mother, who is 94, shared their own intimate memories of who may have been sleeping with whom during that era.
Nerode took down the offending information from his Web site, not because of pressure from attorney Michael Flynn, he says, but because many people were copying it without printing the disclaimers it contained, and he didn't want the material to detract from an academic treatise he plans to publish. But in February, he was deposed by one of Flynn's legal associates, Ed Stillman, as part of the Ananda copyright lawsuit. A second and final session of his deposition was concluded at the end of June. Just what the alleged hanky-panky involving a long-dead swami may have to do with the Ananda copyright matter, Anil Nerode says he has yet to figure out.
But then neither is he at liberty to discuss the contents of his own deposition. And that may be clue enough. As part of a broad gag order that a federal magistrate issued in the Ananda case years ago, participants are barred from publicly disclosing evidentiary matters developed as part of the 11-year-old case as long as it is under litigation. Says one attorney who asked not to be identified, "In effect the SRF appears to be using the money it's spending to drag out the Ananda litigation as a way to protect Yogananda's reputation."
Not surprisingly, when Mike Flynn told New Times that the DNA analysis cleared Yogananda as Erskine's father, he quickly offered the opinion that Erskine's father was Sri Nerode -- not Dhirananda, as has often been rumored. Yet, if Nerode's own affidavit in the 1939 business dispute can be believed, that may be a stretch. Erskine was born in January 1933, which means he would have been conceived in the spring of 1932. But in the lawsuit, Sri Nerode testified, with no way of knowing that his testimony might some day have any bearing on whether or not he fathered Erskine, that he was traveling on Yogananda's behalf and was not in Los Angeles County between Christmas Eve of 1931 and March 1937, except for a "few days" in 1935.
Anil Nerode, the Cornell professor, says he is confident that his father, who became married to his mother in 1931, was never unfaithful to her. So confident, he says, that he would be "most happy" to undergo DNA testing to prove that Erskine is not his half brother. In Michigan, Vanu Bagchi says he is tired "of the same old crap" that some of Yogananda's defenders have dispensed about his father, Dhirananda, adding that he, too, would be willing to match DNA samples with Erskine's. Informed of each man's offer, Erskine (who has never met or talked with Bagchi or Nerode) replied, "I'm game. I've got nothing to hide."
Meanwhile, Reed, Erskine's lawyer, says he will push for "verifiable" testing of the Yogananda relatives, and is considering whether to ask a California judge to authorize exhuming the late swami's body for the purpose of obtaining a "clear and irrefutable" finale to the Ben Erskine story.
Or would it only be the beginning?
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