Famed yogi visits Malibu

Swami Kriyananda (birth name Donald Walters), a disciple of Paramahansa Yogananda, known for introducing yoga to America, visits Malibu Thursday. A history of lawsuits shadows his past.

Although a history of lawsuits shadows Swami Kriyananda’s past, his popularity remains high worldwide.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

On Thursday, Malibu will have the opportunity to see a performance of “The Jewel in the Lotus,” a play by Swami Kriyananda, a world renown and controversial Hindu spiritual guide who has been absent from the Los Angeles area for 40 years.

Kriyananda (named J. Donald Walters at birth) is a direct disciple of Paramahansa Yogananda, the Indian yogi arguably responsible for bringing the practice of yoga to America with the 1946 publication of his seminal work, “The Autobiography of a Yogi.”

After his appearance in Malibu this week, Kriyananda will be at the Wadsworth Theatre in Brentwood on Saturday. His return to the L.A. area marks the launch of his 87th book, “Revelations of Christ: Proclaimed by Paramhansa (sic) Yogananda.”

“The search for God is the most important thing in life and Swami is one of the great spiritual lights of our time to show you that path,” said Casey Hughes, a Malibu resident and founder of a Fortune 100 computer ware company and advocate for the Swami. “This is a rare chance of a lifetime to spend time with a great soul such as this.”

Followers of Kriyananda tend to echo such joyful expressions of his leadership and his prolific life has yielded a history rich with publication, music (more than 400 published musical scores), the founding of cooperative spiritual living communities around the world and international recognition as spokesman for world unity (he recently received the Julius Caesar Medal in Rome and a national publishers award for bridging cultures and religions to bringing harmony and understanding).

But past lawsuits have shadowed Kriyananda at a time of life when most enjoy a peaceful retirement. In 1990, the Self Realization Fellowship sued Kriyananda and his church, Ananda, for copyright infringement, and four years later he was facing a civil lawsuit for sexual harassment of a female church member, and lost.

The Los Angeles-based Self Realization Fellowship, with one gold-domed center towering over Sunset Boulevard in Pacific Palisades, was originally founded by yogi Paramahansa Yogananda in 1920 to promote meditation and yoga and to disseminate Yogananda’s teachings. Kriyananda, as a close disciple of Yogananda, directed the SRF monastic order and served as vice president of the organization until disagreements caused his departure in 1962. He then went on to found spiritual communities nationwide with the Ananda “Self Realization Church” and was promptly sued by the SRF for several copyright and trademark infringements.

The litigation that followed ate up 12 years and more than $60 million, by Ananda’s estimate. The suit was settled in 2002, with a final judgment allocating certain copyrights and damages to SRF, but with the bulk of SRF’s $6 million claim being dismissed.

During this time, a bigger problem was brewing. In 1994, a former member of the Ananda community, Anne-Marie Bertolucci, accused Kriyananda and another pastor of sexual harassment, and the church of allowing brainwashing and sexual abuse of female followers. The trial judge found Kriyananda and the Ananda church culpable on all claims and awarded more than one million dollars to Bertolucci (subsequently reduced substantially), forcing Ananda to file Chapter 11 in bankruptcy court.

The trials took a heavy toll on the Kriyananda. “For months, I prayed to be allowed to die,” he told The Malibu Times in a phone interview this week.

His publications since then reflect a profound belief in the divine and the ephemeral nature of human bigotry.

Kriyananda said he believes the truth lies in the continuing search for God. “The experience of God is universal, beyond dogma,” he said. “Forgiveness and charity lead us to Him. As you will see in my book, Christ said the same thing.”

And, Kriyananda still has his believers. At the Wadsworth Theater Saturday he will be presented with two awards: the 2007 Pioneer in Yoga Award from the Los Angeles Yoga Fellowship, and a national award from the National Interfaith Council, the Beacon of Light Lifetime Achievement Award.