Exhuming the Truth

Ben Erskine says he's the swami's love child and he wants a chance to prove it.

New Times L.A./November 29, 2001

By Ron Russell

For years the Self-Realization Fellowship wanted to disinter the body of its founder, Eastern holy man Paramahansa Yogananda, from a crypt at Forest Lawn Glendale and place it in a shrine to be built at the religion's headquarters atop Mount Washington.

No more.

Having pulled the plug on its four-year effort to build a visitor center, mausoleum and museum at its so-called Mother Center in the face of relentless opposition from Mount Washington residents, the SRF no longer talks publicly about exhuming the swami's remains.

But, to its chagrin, someone else is.

A lawyer for a man who believes he is the love child of the supposedly celibate Yogananda tells New Times that he will soon ask an L.A. superior court judge to order that the body -- which has reposed in a Forest Lawn mausoleum since 1952 -- be exhumed for DNA tests. "The time has come to settle the question once and for all," says Shane Reed, an attorney for Ben Erskine, 68, a gold miner who lives near Medford, Oregon. Erskine's mother, the late Adelaide Erskine, was a young devotee of the swami during Yogananda's early years at Mount Washington.

The consequences of Erskine's being able to prove that he is Yogananda's son -- if indeed he is -- are potentially huge. Even the specter of opening the long-sealed crypt poses potential problems. An alleged eyewitness account from a cemetery official (who died long ago) posits that the body was in "immutable" condition, without having decomposed, as late as three weeks after Yogananda's death, when the crypt was permanently sealed. At least some of the faithful who believe that the body still has not decomposed might be shocked should reopening the crypt demonstrate otherwise.

Beyond that, the financial stakes are also potentially enormous. If successful, Erskine might claim ownership rights to Yogananda's image and likeness, which the SRF has claimed as it own for decades. Although the copyrights have expired on some of Yogananda's better-known works, the SRF continues to spend huge sums of money protecting other copyrights. The organization possesses considerable wealth. Besides the 12.5-acre Mother Center, the SRF -- which claims a presence in 54 countries -- owns a spectacular retreat overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Encinitas, and its Lake Shrine in Pacific Palisades is worth many millions of dollars.

Ostracized by relatives and mistreated by his stepfather for having been conceived from an adulterous liaison, Erskine was banished along with his mother to the Nevada desert as a child. He says he grew up being ridiculed as the guru's "bastard" child and that although his stepfather often reviled Yogananda in front of his mother and siblings, neither he nor other family members were allowed to utter the guru's name.

Yet, Erskine has never claimed to know for certain who his father is. He says his mother gave birth to him at home in the City Terrace section of Los Angeles in January 1933, and that no birth certificate was issued on his behalf. Adelaide Erskine suffered a breakdown several years after Yogananda died, and was unable to communicate effectively for the rest of her life. She died in 1996 a few months short of what would have been her 100th birthday.

Not surprisingly, Ben Erskine's years-long effort to solicit help from the SRF for more information -- something he now acknowledges was naive -- led nowhere. Erskine's tale, detailed in a New Times cover story last July, scandalized the swami's followers both within and outside the SRF. For devotees who regard him as an avatar, or godlike being, the mere suggestion that Yogananda could have fathered a child is considered sacrilege. Espousing a blend of Hindu and Christian beliefs, the SRF jealously protects Yogananda's legacy.

But, as New Times reported, the SRF's handling of the controversy, including its efforts to suppress allegations -- some of them more than a half-century old -- of alleged womanizing by the swami has done little to diminish Erskine's credibility. And that includes the SRF's actions since Erskine began to speak publicly about his mother and Yogananda.

Michael J. Flynn, a lawyer for the SRF, last June quickly dismissed the suggestion that Erskine might be Yogananda's son, insisting in a brief telephone interview that Erskine's father was Sri Nerode, an early associate of Yogananda's whose real name was Nirad Ranjan Chowdhury. Flynn had gone to Oregon several years ago to meet Erskine and persuaded him to provide blood and hair samples under the guise of helping him find out the truth about his parentage, according to Erskine. Flynn later asserted that DNA tests involving several of Yogananda's relatives in India conducted last March and matched against Erskine's DNA proved conclusively that Yogananda could not have fathered Erskine.

But Flynn declined repeated requests by New Times to provide documentation of his claims, and threatened to sue the newspaper should it print anything in the article that he perceived to be libelous about Yogananda or the SRF. The documentation, provided to New Times by Reed, Erskine's lawyer (and copies of which Flynn also provided after the July article appeared) suggests that the SRF closely supervised the chain of custody of the DNA samples taken in India.

Reed dismisses the SRF test results as meaningless, asserting that there was no independent, verifiable way of knowing that the blood samples tested by a genetics firm in St. Louis were actually those of the people from whom they were purportedly drawn. The person who took custody of the samples in India and who was responsible for having them delivered to the U.S. lab was Ronald L. Eisely, a.k.a. Brother Vishwananda, a senior monk who sits on the SRF board. According to Eisely's affidavit, he went to Calcutta to accompany the Indian doctor who took the samples from Yogananda's elderly nephew and two of the late swami's nieces at their homes.

In July, Flynn announced that the nephew, Biswanath Ghosh, would come to L.A. on September 10 and that additional DNA tests would demonstrate beyond a doubt that Erskine could not be Yogananda's son. However, September 10 passed with no word about the promised testing. Concerned that the SRF might bring Ghosh to Los Angeles for the purpose of having the body exhumed, cremated and returned to India to have his ashes scattered in the river Ganges, Reed urged Forest Lawn officials to notify his client should there be any attempt to remove the body.

Paula Graber, Forest Lawn's vice president for communications, acknowledged that the cemetery had received Reed's request. She confirmed that Yogananda's remains are indeed still at Forest Lawn, adding that "no one need be concerned that they will be removed unless or until there is a court order to do so."

In a recent phone interview, Flynn said that scheduling problems had prevented Ghosh from coming to L.A. in September. Flynn said that Ghosh was currently in the United States and that arrangements were under way to conduct DNA tests.

Meanwhile, a new development appears to have tossed the DNA controversy back into the SRF's lap.

Angered that Flynn should suggest that Sri Nerode was Erskine's father, Nerode's son, Cornell University mathematics professor Anil Nerode, paid to have his own DNA testing conducted during the summer and fall. The tests compared samples provided by Erskine with Anil Nerode's DNA, that of his 94-year-old mother, Agnes Nerode, and a brother, Kiron Nerode. Conducted by Genetica DNA Labs of Cincinnati, Ohio, the tests (copies of which were obtained by New Times) determined that there is a "zero" percent chance that the late Sri Nerode was Erskine's father.

"[The Flynn allegation] deeply offended me and offended my mother, when we knew that it could not possibly be true," Anil Nerode says. Nerode says the allegation was particularly upsetting because his father parted company with Yogananda in 1939 after accusing the swami of running a harem at Mount Washington. It followed a similar allegation from another of Yogananda's closest early associates, Basu Kumar Bagchi, a.k.a. Swami Dhirananda, who renounced the life of a swami and, after splitting with Yogananda, became a leading academic in brain-wave research at the University of Michigan.

Attorney Reed says his client is "energized" by the Nerode DNA results. "As far as we're concerned it moves things forward. It helps us to know who Ben Erskine's father was not. It tells us that the guy that the SRF apparently would love to say fathered Ben Erskine in fact did not. I wonder what Mr. Flynn has to say about that?"

So did New Times. But before Flynn could be asked, he hung up.

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