A raid by law enforcement authorities earlier this month on the Ananda Church of Self-Realization in Italy has Ananda's members in Nevada County crying foul and detractors saying, "I told you so."
On March 2, dozens of Italian police raided Ananda's campus in Assisi, Italy. The raid was part of an investigation of several charges against the church, including fraud, usury and violations of labor laws. Nine people - four Americans, three Germans and two Italians - reportedly were arrested and later released.
Also charged was Ananda's founder and spiritual leader, J. Donald Walters, known as Swami Kriyananda. Kriyananda, 78, was not immediately arrested because he was in India recovering from an illness, said Jon Smallen, the general manager of Ananda Village on Nevada County's San Juan Ridge.
"He'll go back to Italy in a few weeks and deal with it," Smallen told The Union. "We're not going to duck anything."
Ananda is a spiritual group that follows the teachings of Paramhansa Yogananda, the author of "Autobiography of a Yogi," who died in 1952. About 250 people live at the organization's main residential community on the San Juan Ridge.
According to Smallen and Ananda's Italian attorneys, the charges that spurred the raid in Italy were the result of a disgruntled former member who worked at one of the spiritual group's various business enterprises.
"Some people decide it's for them; some decide it's not. He became dissatisfied for whatever reason," Smallen said. "They basically don't have anything on us."
Over the past decade, Kriyananda and the Ananda Church of Self-Realization have been embroiled in civil lawsuits over the teachings of the movement's guru, Paramhansa Yogananda, and sexual misconduct involving church leaders and a female member.
Marin County attorney Ford Greene was on the legal team that represented the plaintiff in the sexual harassment suit. The woman eventually prevailed and was awarded damages in excess of $1 million in 1998. While Greene said he doesn't have any direct involvement with what is happening in Italy, he said the news accounts he has read haven't surprised him.
Greene said Ananda has all the makings of a cult, particularly when members are obedient to a leader who has claimed a connection with a higher authority.
"There is no question it is a cult," Greene said, "and no question Walters is a cult leader."
At the end of the sexual harassment case in 1998, Greene said, Kriyananda "fled to Assisi."
"Now his plate got a little too hot in the wrong way and he's fled to India."
Local Ananda organizers strongly dispute Greene's depiction.
"That's an absolute lie," Smallen said, adding that Kriyananda has checked in with officials at the Italian embassy in India. "He's not run away to India. He hopes to go back to Italy right away. Pneumonia kept him from going back."
Smallen dismissed the cult accusations, saying that "when people don't like it, they can walk away. The door is always open."
Smallen admits that Ananda leaders made mistakes in the past, such as not preventing the sexual misconduct incident. But he said the lawsuits and friction with the Self-Realization Fellowship (see sidebar story) have now made Ananda an easy target. He said that's what is playing out in Italy at the moment.
"I believe it gives a vehicle for someone like Ford Greene ... something to work with," Smallen said. "We don't like it, but it's a long way from what we were accused of."