What’s going on at the Denver House? Students in spiritual group push back against cult rumors

The Student Life, Claremont College/April 18, 2019

By Laney Pope and Siena Swift

In the backyard of an unassuming house on Denver Avenue, several streets north of Harvey Mudd College, a man sits cross-legged, meditating in silence. Another resident proudly shows off the tarp under which he used to sleep.

Inside, the Denver House is peaceful. The walls are adorned with tapestries and statues of a Hindu god. A makeshift bedroom in the middle of the living room is cordoned off by sheets.

Pictures of the occupants’ spiritual teacher are framed on the wall and in front of an elephant-headed statue of the Hindu god Ganesh that serves as a shrine. One resident’s mother is in the kitchen, cooking vegan buffalo cauliflower for the house members.

Last fall, a group of Pomona College and Pitzer College students began living in the off-campus residence they call the Goddess House. The six students, plus one student’s brother, formed a tight-knit community based on their shared interests in meditation and spirituality, and their following of the practices of Satguruyogiprabhu Jnandamokshabrahmananda — their teacher, more commonly known as Jnanda.

Since they moved in, rumors have been flying around the 5Cs about their unconventional living arrangement, which has often been characterized as a cult. The members and their teacher deny the accusations.

TSL visited the house and interviewed several residents about their lifestyle, then spoke to Jnanda over the phone about his teachings, accusations of homophobia and spiritual “gifts.”

Who is Jnanda?

Jnanda, 60, teaches “soul evolution” through what he calls the four main yogas of life, which he describes as “the cornerstones to all the world’s religious systems.

“I’m from the heart and mind of the divine, [and] that’s where everybody is from, whether they realize it or not. It’s the truth. What I do is I aid people in understanding that truth,” he told TSL. “Concerning where my physical form was born, in this embodiment I was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.”

Jnanda graduated from Mid Florida Tech, a vocational school in Orlando in 1976, according to his Facebook profile. His website says he started teaching about spiritual growth in 1992.

He now lives in low-income housing in Ukiah, a city in Northern California, with one of his first students and her daughter, according to Isabel Kelly PO ’20, one of the house’s residents.

His students, each of whom has taken a Sanskrit name, all found his teachings differently.

William Latta PO ’19 and Benjamin Schmidt PZ ’19 approached Jnanda when they saw him at a pumpkin festival in Ukiah, Jnanda said. They now go by Devaaya Avirodha Ananda and Saucha Atma Ananda, respectively.

Kelly, who now goes by Sundara Shakta Vinyasa Ananda, explained that she learned about Jnanda through students in her religious studies class. Samuel Sjoberg PZ ’20, who goes by Sama Atma-Shakti Ananda, and Sumner Skelding PZ ’21, who goes by Bhati Vimokhana Ananda, also live in the house.

Ale de Rada PZ ’21 lived there last semester, but has since moved out.

Members of the spiritual group said they are extremely committed to their studies.

“Someone could literally put a gun to my face and tell me ‘stop this,’ and I would not even consider stopping. They could pull the trigger. That’s fine, it’s literally fine,” Latta said. “That’s how I live my life. I would rather do anything besides be a coward to my own heart.”

Kelly said there’s no specific religion associated with Jnanda’s teachings.

“One thing he said is that Christians become better Christians. Taoists become better Taoists. Buddhists better Buddhists,” she said. “If you just love the divine, he’s going to help you do that in whatever way helps you.”

Accusations of homophobia

Jnanda’s website includes countless pages of quotes and lessons on “soul evolution” and “love energy.” His Facebook profile proclaims that he is here “to bring about the first planetary Golden Age.”

Many of his teachings, like “essential aspects of good communication” and “dealing with disappointment,” appear innocuous.

Others seem decidedly less so.

The page on his website about homosexuality says “The Divine One explained to me that the two main causes [of homosexuality are] being exposed/subjected to molestation at an early age … or having a spirit of rebellion that manifests itself in homosexuality and keeping that through several embodiments until it is resolved.”

Jnanda wrote that “The Divine One” told him homosexuality is an unnatural state for humans.

The article states that dogs, rats and other animals engage in homosexuality because they are “not at the top rung of soul growth” and when “exposed to stress, overcrowding and a few other circumstances fall prey to homosexuality; however their normal nature is not.”

He told TSL that homosexuality is a product of humans’ baser instincts.

“Most people have a tendency to use lower mammalian and reptilian parts of the brain for survival modes and they start acting animalistic,” he said. “I’m here to aid people in transcending animalistic, reptilian, lower mammalian modes and it’s running amok on this planet. … They’re in these survival modes that are causing pain and suffering.”

Jnanda vehemently defended his views on homosexuality.

“If people don’t like it, that’s on them,” he said.

He also said he’s officiated LGBTQIA+ weddings and accepts LGBTQIA+ students.

Kelly and Sjoberg both identify as bisexual, and said they don’t agree with Jnanda’s teachings regarding homsexuality, but continue to follow his other teachings.

“Reading [the article] does not feel good. But there’s a disclaimer at the beginning of the article that this is a teaching that he goes through with his upper-level students who have been working on a path of growth for multiple years, and that’s not a category that I fall into,” Sjoberg said. “So while I don’t agree with it, at this point, I recognize that it is something that I don’t fully understand.”

Pitzer Student Senate president-elect Clint Isom PZ ’20 has heard about the Denver House and read Jnanda’s website. Isom is a member of the Rainbow People Collaborative — a Pitzer club for LGBTQIA+ people — and said he’s concerned about the effect of Jnanda’s teachings on homosexuality.

“I worry that he is trying to convince people that they are something that they’re not, or that part of them is wrong,” he said. “The mental health implications of that are worrisome.”

Meeting at the Mounds

Many of the housemates first met at a meditation circle at the Pitzer Mounds that gathers several times each week, led by Schmidt.

“Last spring … I was in a very dark place emotionally, filled with a lot of anxiety, and I wasn’t doing very well, and I was starting to get kind of desperate to find something that would help me feel better,” Sjoberg said. “I started going to the meditation circles at Pitzer. … That was the only time during the week where I didn’t feel overwhelmed by anxiety.”

Sjoberg said everyone in the house has different interests and backgrounds, “but we all have similar intentions to work a path of spiritual growth and soul evolution.”

Jnanda takes all students regardless of financial ability, he said. However, if students are able to, they’re asked to pay $60 a month for his teachings. All Denver House residents pay those monthly dues.

The students in the house have weekly one-on-one video chats with Jnanda to discuss spiritual practices and emotional wellbeing, according to Kelly, and they meet him in person about once a year.

Some of the students have also paid for additional classes with Jnanda, including Skelding, who paid $550 for two “energy healing” classes.

Kelly said she sees Jnanda as a positive influence and feels lucky she didn’t fall prey to other spirituality schemes that charge hundreds of dollars and don’t fully support their students.

“For me, being from Los Angeles and dabbling in certain spiritual climates … before I actually chose this path, I know that there’s a lot of distraction,” Kelly said. “People getting taken advantage of, physically, as well as financially, as well as spiritually.”

Kelly said she does not view Jnanda as a god.

“He’s a human just like all of us,” she said.

Not a cult, Pitzer says

The Denver House and its residents have faced accusations that they are part of a cult. Jnanda disputed such characterizations.

“I forgive them for their ignorance,” Jnanda said. “If you look up the word ‘cult,’ there’s many definitions and it’s been morphed over the years because of misqualified cults. Cults take on a bad name. I understand their fears.”

Sjoberg and Kelly felt hurt by the rumors spreading around campus about their group, but said they know the truth of their experiences.

“On one level, it sucks that this is happening, but on another level, it doesn’t matter,” Sjoberg said.

Pitzer vice president of student affairs Mike Segawa said that at the end of the fall semester, some Pitzer students brought concerns about the students living at the Denver House to Pitzer’s administration.

Pitzer looked into the students’ living arrangements and had conversations with the residents, Segawa said. The school also spoke with McAlister Center chaplains for guidance about healthy spiritual practices.

As a private college, Pitzer has a “broader ability [than public schools] to go over off-campus behavior, especially when students invite us into the conversation, which is what happened in this situation,” he said.

Pitzer could become involved in student’s living situations “anytime … students health and safety [are] in question,” he said.

But Segawa doesn’t think what’s happening at the Denver House is a cult.

“Based upon what we know at this point in time and the conversations we’ve had with people who live there, that’s not a word we would use to describe them,” he said. “A cult for us [means] people are there not necessarily [with] free will, there’s an element of control that really limits a person’s free will … there are health and safety concerns for the well being of that person, whether it is physical, or especially mental or spiritual … [or] engaging in practices that we ourselves would not allow.”

As Pitzer Senate’s incoming president, Isom said he is concerned about the students in the house.

“My first concern would just be the safety and wellbeing of the Pitzer students,” he said. “If they are genuinely enjoying it, and happy, and well taken care of, I don’t see the harm in it.”

Isom doesn’t consider the house a cult “at this stage, but I could see it easily becoming one,” he said.

Susan Sjoberg, the mother of Samuel Sjoberg, who was visiting Denver House when TSL interviewed residents there, said she was happy with her son’s living arrangement.

“[Samuel] seems more grounded and happier than I’ve seen him probably since the early days of high school,” she said. “He seems really more joy filled.”

Susan Sjoberg spoke with Jnanda to get to know him and understand Samuel’s interest in his teachings.

“I was expecting something super eccentric and that wasn’t the case,” she said. “He’s unique for sure, but not in a negative way.”

Kelly said Jnanda isn’t trying to convert anyone.

“We’re not [on campus] with a poster of Jnanda’s face asking people to come work with him,” she said. “We’re very contained in this house and we’re all working a path to fundamentally be the best person we can be in this life.”

Some say spiritual ‘gifts,’ others say cultural appropriation
The Denver House residents and Jnanda himself said he possesses spiritual “gifts.”

House members claim he has divine sight, and can see what’s happening around the world in his mind.

Kelly recounted an experience where Jnanda was able to describe de Rada’s childhood home in Bolivia. She said he could also sense when she wasn’t practicing her spirituality. 

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