Nevada County spiritual community celebrates 44 years of growth, challenges |

Nevada County spiritual community celebrates 44 years of growth, challenges

Photo for The Union by John Hart
John Hart | The Union

While many of Nevada County’s residents celebrated the nation’s Independence Day Thursday, hundreds of estimated residents and guests of Ananda Village marked that intentional community’s 44th anniversary.

Those four decades have seen the spiritual hamlet sprout from little more than a couple dozen pilgrims in teepees and other temporary structures on undeveloped Nevada County land and blossom into a full-fledged spiritual community, complete with roadways, dozens of businesses and a village center, on more than 700 acres in the Sierra Nevada foothills, 20 miles outside Nevada City.

“In our vision of intentional communities, they don’t have to be Ananda communities,” said Nayaswami Jyotish, Ananda’s spiritual leader.

Every year’s July Fourth anniversary is an opportunity for Ananda to reflect on its own humble beginnings and how far the organization has come. It has seeded dozens of communities all over the country and worldwide and now boasts more than 55,000 estimated followers.

“It’s not belief that is important, it is inner experience. Instead of rule, we have customs and guidance. Instead of mandating and enforcing, people strive to inspire others and aspire to be like those they admire.”
— Joseph Barrat Cornell, an early resident

By that measurement, Ananda’s mission to spread the teachings of Paramhansa Yogananda and his urge to foster “world brotherhood colonies” has gone well.

Today, Ananda’s impact can be felt throughout Nevada County. Its nearly 200 residents patronize businesses of neighboring communities, including North San Juan, Nevada City and Grass Valley.

In addition to the Ananda Church of Self-Realization, a nonprofit religious organization that is the employer of about 60 percent of village residents, there are about 18 privately held businesses of village residents and another dozen businesses owned by Ananda members who don’t reside within the village but reside in Nevada County.

The Ananda Church of Self-Realization itself employs 84 full-time, 36 part-time and 10 seasonal workers, according to figures filed with the (San Juan) Ridge Association of Manufacturers and Business Owners business database.

While the Ananda entity is exempt from taxes, as a religious entity it is not required to publicly disclose its finances in the same way that other nonreligious nonprofits do, according to IRS spokesman Richard Panic. Ananda officials declined to disclose the organization’s taxes.

However, confidential payroll and various tax figures included in the Ridge Association’s data indicate that Ananda Church of Self-Realization is among the top 10 revenue-generating nonprofits in Nevada County, according to their 2011 and 2012 tax returns.

Those top disclosing entities range from the Truckee Donner Land Trust and its $21,705,897 in gross revenue to the $3,613,622 in gross revenues of Charis Youth Center, according the National Center for Charitable Statistics 2011 tax records.

Another way of gauging Ananda’s size is to look at its college, Ananda College of Living Wisdom, which as a separate nonprofit entity is required to disclose its taxes. In 2010, it listed $318,940 in total revenue and more than $77,000 in salaries.

Planting the seeds

The last year has been particularly pivotal for the community as it included the death of Ananda’s founder, Swami Kriyananda, and the appointment of his spiritual successor, Jyotish, who will lead Ananda Worldwide from Nevada County.

“On the outside, it might look like any other July Fourth celebration, but it means so much more,” said Lalaan Hickey, an Ananda Village spokeswoman.

Part of this year’s anniversary festivities include a panel discussion entitled “Ananda Before There Were Houses” — the first of what is envisioned as a way to preserve the community’s history, Jyotish said.

“We’re going to start having more members pass, and if we don’t capture these stories and oral histories from the people that lived them, we will only get secondhand accounts,” Jyotish said. “Not only do we need to do it, it will make an interesting program.”

While the roots of Ananda’s beliefs go all the way back to Jesus Christ, its formal founding stemmed from Kriyananda’s discipleship years under Yogananda.

Born J. Donald Walters in Romania, Kriyananda’s life changed when he read Yogananda’s book, “Autobiography of a Yogi,” which was first published in 1946 and helped launch a spiritual revolution, according to Ananda’s website, where it can be read in its entirety.

The book has since been published in three dozen languages and was listed among Harper Collins 100 best spiritual books of the 20th century.

At that time in 1948, when Walters lived in New York, he reportedly read the book in one sitting and left the very next day to find its author in Los Angeles.

In the years that followed, Yogananda took Walters as a disciple at Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF), which the mentor had founded in 1935, and he became close to the yogi until his 1952 death.

In the decade after Yogananda’s death, Kriyananda rose to the position of SRF’s vice president, served on its board of directors, led its monks and by the 1960s, was serving as the organization’s representative in India.

But after 14 years of service, Kriyananda was suddenly banished from SRF for reasons that have never been divulged, and the excommunication ended up being a precursor of things to come.

Decades later, in the early 1990s, SRF would file suit against Ananda and Kriyananda, claiming copyright infringement of Yogananda’s teachings and likeness, among a litany of other things.

In the 12 years that followed, the litigation included four lawsuits, two appeals, petitions to the California Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court and, according to Ananda lawyer Jon Parsons, a couple of much-publicized character-attacking employment and harassment suits, including sexual allegations, he said in his memoir on prolonged legal battles, “A Fight for Religious Freedom.”

In the end, Ananda won most of the SRF suits and freed up a large body of Yogananda’s original writings and teachings, things the organization now shares with the world.

After his departure from SRF, Kriyananda spent some time teaching yoga and meditation in San Francisco. In the late 1960s, Kriyananda bought 72 acres of undeveloped land on the Gold Country’s San Juan Ridge alongside beatnik poets Richard Baker, Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder in a joint purchase, where he would plant the first Ananda seeds with a couple dozen followers.

As more people came and the inhabitants swelled near 100 that first summer, people slept in teepees, tents, trailers and other less-than-permanent structures.

But as winter came to those Sierra Nevada foothills’ Ridge tops, the colder weather scared off some and spurred the more committed dwellers to realize they needed to get organized, said Jaya Helin, one of Ananda’s early members who returned from overseeing the development of the movement’s development in Pune, India.

“Those first years were figuring out how to survive on the land,” Jyotish said.

“Without Swami (Kriyananda)’s leadership, we would have drifted. We all accepted him as our spiritual core.”

Most of those who left that first winter never came back, Helin noted.

“We could see that the property was inadequate to meet our needs,” Helin said. “In order to do something, we had to get organized.”

In 1969, an additional 236 acres were purchased not far from the meditation retreat. While the yoga retreats were popular, they also represented essentially the only source of the youthful Ananda’s income, Helin said.

Kriyananda took it upon himself to embark on a yoga and lecture circuit to take responsibility of payments on the land itself.

Back on the Ridge, the remaining inhabitants pursued other revenue routes, including selling incense, jewelry and foot lockers, all handmade by Ananda residents, Helin said. Monthly dues were also instituted to cover basic costs.

“That was significant because individuals took responsibility, and when you raise money, discussions start happening on how to spend it,” Helin said. “Translating philosophy into reality on a raw piece of land is interesting.”

Ananda’s beliefs are a mix of Christian and Hindu-Yoga principles that Yogananda brought to America in 1920. They combine meditation, yoga, a good diet and the idea that right action, or dharma, is the path to happiness and fulfillment, based on the teachings of a line of spiritual gurus that started with Jesus Christ and continued on with gurus Mahavatar Babaji, Lahiri Mahasaya, Swami Sri Yukteswar and, lastly, Yogananda.

“In our minds, we follow Christ and his spiritual teachings. He’s one of our five great masters,” said Joseph Barrat Cornell, an early resident and author of “Sharing Nature with Children,” which has sold more than 500,000 copies in more than 20 languages and is a leading publication in nature education.

Yogananda was the first yoga master of India to take up permanent residence in the West. His mission included showing the essential oneness of original Christianity as taught by Jesus and original yoga as taught by Yukteswar, Mahasaya and Babaji, and he appeared on the Beatles’ iconic album cover for “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

But there aren’t a lot of rules at Ananda, its residents say, besides no drinking and no drugs. While organic and vegetarian diets are encouraged, Hickey said they aren’t enforced. The same goes for the recommended number of hours of meditation and other practices.

“Swami (Kriyananda) didn’t want to put too many rules,” Cornell said.

“It’s not belief that is important, it is inner experience. Instead of rules, we have customs and guidance. Instead of mandating and enforcing, people strive to inspire others and aspire to be like those they admire.”

Noting that people become stressed when they don’t choose their good deeds, as if they don’t have a say in things, Cornell quoted Yogananda: “Too many rules kill the spirit.”

“We’re not trying to convince, convert or draw anyone to a spiritual path,” Jyotish said. “If they don’t connect (with Ananda’s message), we would prefer to help them find what works for them.”

When it’s boiled down, Ananda has few simple tenets: People are more important than things, do what is right and drive for union of the soul with god.

Purposeful planning

Having learned from the first winter, Ananda residents spent the summer preparing for the second wet and cold season. At first, pipes were run from streams to water gardens and sewage facilities were brought in, along with a limited access to electrical power.

“We had one shower house that everyone walked to,” said Cornell.

In 1974, Ananda acquired another 326 acres adjacent to the original purchase.

As more permanent structures took shape, Nevada County’s government took notice and its agents aimed to bring Ananda into compliance with zoning and other development regulations, Helin said.

“We figured out about county government — or you could say they found out about us,” Helin joked, noting most of Ananda’s members were in their 20s at that point.

“At that time, (what the county demanded) was an outrage, but now, of course, I can see their point of view.”

Nevada County’s planners pressed Ananda to craft a development master plan, which took four years to hammer out, Helin said.

As Ananda was working on that plan, a small fire was ignited on June 28, 1976, by sparks from an old county vehicle that were fanned by strong winds that pushed the blaze to consume thousands of acres, including most of Ananda’s forests and structures.

“Everything was gone, but we realized everything we had together was still here,” Cornell said.

As the fire destroyed the community, it also purged its ranks of less committed members who promptly retreated in the face of Ananda’s struggle, Jai said.

It also provided a chance to start from scratch amid crafting a master plan, and, when Ananda decided not to sue the county for the fire, tensions eased the previously adversarial relations with the government planning agency.

The need to rebuild also prompted Ananda’s committed members to get jobs. Many went into trades such as carpentry, plumbing, electrical work and construction at a time when Nevada County was growing.

Ananda members literally helped build the Alta Sierra, Lake of the Pines and Lake Wildwood communities, in the process learning skills that helped them craft a more sophisticated community of their own with the Ananda Builders’ Guild, Helin said.

“Everything that is built here was built by us,” said Lalaan Hickey, Ananda Village spokeswoman.

Other endeavors were pursued, such as Earth Song Cafe, an organic food store and market where Ananda workers sold the fruits of their labor in the location where Nevada City’s California Organics currently resides.

“Swami (Kriyananda) said that people shouldn’t come to live at Ananda, they should come to give to Ananda,” Cornell said.

Soon Ananda was putting in its own phone lines and dedicating its own phone operator. In the 1980s, it opened its own values-based school as members began having children.

The master plan was finished in 1978 and called for segregated zoning where residential units, a commercial zone, the retreat, the school and a light industrial zone were all clustered individually with community gathering areas and open spaces in between.

“What we proposed was so radical, we had to be conservative,” Helin said. “This is a multi-generational experiment.”

Today, this kind of planning in urban areas is called sustainable development and is pushed by state and federal agencies for its efficient implications on municipalities to provide services, as well as its reduced impact on the environment.

“They were progressive and innovative in that regard,” said Brian Foss, Nevada County’s planning director.

“It is unique. I don’t think we have any development in the county that approaches that dynamic level, with self-contained residential and privately run commercial and industrial areas,” Foss said. “They really are a private, self-sustained village.”

In the early 1990s, as the county was updating it General Plan, Ananda successfully petitioned to increase its density from one residence per 5 acres down to one per 3 acres, Foss said. Currently, with 87 residences, Ananda plans to submit an update to further increase its density, perhaps as early as this fall, said Peter Goering, the Ananda Village manager. 

Such a density increase, Foss noted, is potentially consistent with the county’s General Plan.

“At some point, that density will build up,” Foss said.

Unlike conventional developers who buy land, roll out a development, sell lots and walk away, Ananda members own their development collectively, plan it and actually live there, Goering pointed out.

“There is no profit incentive to develop and Ananda only builds what is needed to support its slow organic growth,” Goering said.

Today, Ananda’s village has become a draw to locals and far-flung visitors alike, with places like its sprawling Crystal Hermitage Gardens and its annual spring bloom of tens of thousands of tulips.

Its organic permaculture garden not only provides food for its residents, but it is also a model for environmental stewardship.

What started at Ananda Village has sprouted eight satellite communities in places such as Seattle, Portland, Sacramento, Palo Alto, Los Angeles, Italy and India, as well as 75 varying meditation groups all over the country and world.

“Even though Ananda is a worldwide movement, it has that following because of it has such a local connection and that’s certainly true in Nevada County,” Jyotish said.

Visit for more information about Ananda.

To contact Staff Writer Christopher Rosacker, email or call 530-477-4236.

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