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DNA Clears Yoga Guru in Seven-Year Paternity Dispute

Results: Separate tests show the yogi didn't father a disciple's son, but the man bringing the charges sticks to his claim.

July 11, 2002|TERESA WATANABE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A renowned guru has been cleared by DNA testing of charges that he broke his celibate vows and fathered a child, his Los Angeles headquarters announced Wednesday.

The announcement marked the latest development in a seven-year paternity dispute involving Paramahansa Yogananda, who was one of the first Indian masters to introduce yoga philosophy to the West 80 years ago. The guru, who died at age 59 in 1952, was accused of having an illicit affair with a married disciple and fathering Ben Erskine, now a 69-year-old Oregon gold miner.

To conclusively settle the claims, Yogananda's worldwide organization, the Self-Realization Fellowship, hired a former San Diego criminal prosecutor to establish an independent testing process to compare Erskine's DNA to samples taken from Yogananda's three male relatives in India. The results from two separate labs both showed no relationship between Erskine and Yogananda.

"For members who revere Paramahansa Yogananda as their profound spiritual guide and guru, the claims were very hurtful and very sad," fellowship spokeswoman Lauren Landress said. "But these results conclusively show there is no truth to them."

Erskine, informed of the results Wednesday, said he still believed that "Yogananda is my father." His attorney, Shane Reed, said they would review the DNA results to decide whether to proceed with a court request to disinter Yogananda's corpse, buried in Glendale, for further testing.

At stake was more than the guru's integrity: Any successful paternity action could have led to claims on the assets of Yogananda's spiritual organization, which owns several pieces of prime property, including the flagship Lake Shrine in Pacific Palisades and a hermitage in Encinitas.

The organization operates more than 500 temples and meditation centers in 178 countries; its members have ranged from the late George Harrison to the famous botanist Luther Burbank. Yogananda initiated such figures as Mahatma Gandhi into kriya yoga and authored such spiritual classics as "Autobiography of a Yogi," which has been translated into 18 languages.

G. Michael Still, the former San Diego prosecutor who relied extensively on DNA testing in his rape and homicide cases, said the results would prevent Erskine from claiming standing in court to seek any inheritance, copyright assets or the disinterment of the guru's body.

"In my opinion, this is airtight," said Still, who added that he was not a fellowship member and knew "little to nothing" about the organization before being hired last year to oversee the testing process.

The dispute first surfaced in 1995 when Erskine's daughter, Peggy, approached the fellowship with the paternity claims and financial demands. Erskine said his mother, Adelaide, had been a disciple and photographer of Yogananda in the late 1920s.

The miner acknowledged that his mother never told him he was Yogananda's son or that she had been physically intimate with the famed guru. But he said his mother hinted at the "wonderful blood" in his veins and fought constantly with her husband--Erskine's stepfather--over her son's paternity. His stepfather berated her with accusations of an affair with the guru, Erskine said, and called him "the little black bastard" because his complexion was darker than that of his four siblings.

"It was talked about constantly," Erskine said. "I would have been an imbecile not to know" of the charges.

The visit by Erskine's daughter prompted a fellowship attorney, Michael Flynn, to initiate the first round of DNA testing on hair samples, which was found inconclusive. A second round of testing on blood samples last July showed no relationship. But Reed and Erskine rejected the results as biased because the blood specimens were collected and sent to the labs by a fellowship monk they claimed could have doctored the samples.

By this time, the dispute went public with a splashy cover story in a Los Angeles alternative newspaper, fueling efforts by the organization to try to settle the matter once and for all by hiring Still.

Still said he hired a forensic nurse to collect blood samples from Yogananda's three male relatives living in Calcutta, India. One of them, Biswanath Ghosh, traveled to Los Angeles last year and declared himself "embarrassed and insulted" by the charges. He accused Erskine of fabricating charges in order to cash in on his uncle's assets and fame. "How is this possible?" Ghosh said of the charges. "My uncle was a famous holy man."

The forensic nurse videotaped and photographed the entire collection process, confirmed the identity of each of the relatives and oversaw the shipment of samples to two laboratories that worked blindly from each other. The two labs compared six Y chromosome markers, which Still said pass unchanged from one male generation to the next. Both concluded that the three Yogananda relatives were related genetically, but that Erskine was not.

On Wednesday, the organization quietly released the results to its members, beginning with morning meetings for about 60 nuns and 40 monks. Notices were scheduled to be posted at the organization's eight California temples in the evening.

Members expressed satisfaction that the DNA results appear to have put the matter to rest--but were not surprised that their beloved guru's name would be cleared.

"As far as I'm concerned, this whole thing was kind of a non-event," said Mike Baake, marketing manager for the group's publication center. "Anyone with any awareness of who Paramahansa Yogananda was knew that story wasn't true. When someone in the world tries to do something good, someone else always wants to pull them down."

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