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Devotees of Paramahansa Yogananda hope film will help close a divide

The producers of a proposed $12-million film about the Indian mystic — who introduced America to yoga in the 1920s — belong to two California-based religious organizations that have long been at odds.

December 18, 2010|By Louis Sahagun, Los Angeles Times
  • Swami Sri Kriyananda was pushed out of the Los Angeles-based Self-Realization Fellowship in 1962. He founded Ananda Worldwide in the Sierra Foothills town of Nevada City, Calif., in 1968.
Swami Sri Kriyananda was pushed out of the Los Angeles-based Self-Realization… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)

Los Angeles Auto Show co-owner Lisa Kaz and filmmaker Jonathan Yudis have their work cut out for them as producers of a proposed $12-million movie about the life of Indian mystic Paramahansa Yogananda, who introduced America to yoga in the 1920s.

Kaz attends Ananda Worldwide and Yudis the Self-Realization Fellowship, California-based religious organizations that have long been at odds, although they share the same meditation techniques and spiritual master: Yogananda.

"Since our master was all about harmony and compassion, it's a shame that there is still so much bitterness between Ananda and the fellowship," Kaz said. "I'm hoping that my work with Jonathan will help get Yogananda's message out to as many people as possible, that's the bottom line.

"But I also hope that, by example, we can help bridge the gap between our organizations in a way that could lead to reconciliation," she said.

The rift began in 1962 when Swami Sri Kriyananda, a Yogananda disciple whose birth name was J. Donald Walters, was pushed out of the Los Angeles-based fellowship. In 1968, he established Ananda in the Sierra Nevada foothills town of Nevada City, Calif.

In 1990, the fellowship filed a lawsuit against Ananda to secure exclusive rights to Yogananda's teachings, name, likeness, voice and use of the term "self-realization." The case was resolved in 2002 with a jury verdict determining that Ananda had infringed on certain copyrights. But it also said the terms "Paramahansa Yogananda" and "self-realization" could not be trademarked.

Different interpretations of Yogananda's teachings, as well as lingering rivalries and suspicions, are at the heart of the ongoing divide.

Kaz, 47, and Yudis, 38, teamed up in February to create a cinematic portrait of Yogananda based on a script by Kriyananda called "The Wayshower." They expect the project, which is scheduled to start filming next year, to be funded by investors including members of both Ananda and the fellowship willing to overlook their leaders' political warfare.

The two crossed paths when Yudis answered a call on Facebook for professional assistance with the project.

"We're a terrific team: I'm a businesswoman and Jonathan is a trained filmmaker," said Kaz, who has formed a production company to spearhead the film.

As a New York University student in 1995, Yudis produced the 20-minute film "Eclipse," which tells the tale of a Holocaust survivor. It won an award at the Telluride Film Festival.

Yudis said he consulted with his spiritual teacher at the fellowship before raising money for the film, which includes Kriyananda as a secondary character who reminisces about Yogananda. His teacher responded with a quiet blessing, Yudis said.

"So we're moving ahead with this project," the filmmaker said. "At the end of the day, if we make a beautiful film, people will stop me and say, 'Hey, Jonathan, you and Lisa managed to transcend all the ugly politics and create something Yogananda would be proud of.'"

Still, the rivalry runs deep between Ananda, which means "divine joy" in Sanskrit, and the fellowship, headquartered in Los Angeles' Mount Washington neighborhood.

Kriyananda, 84, has composed numerous spiritual songs and chants and written dozens of books, including one honored at this year's USA Book News Awards. Although the unifying themes of his work are compassion and humility, he remains a contradictory, controversial figure.

In 1998, a jury found Kriyananda liable for "constructive fraud" and "intentional infliction of emotional distress" in a civil case brought by a former Ananda member who said that Kriyananda, while claiming to be a celibate swami, had engaged in sexual misconduct. The jury also found Ananda liable for failing to control its leader's behavior. During the trial, seven other women also testified that Kriyananda had abused them.

Kriyananda admitted to having had sex with some of the women but said the relationships were consensual. In 2001, Ananda settled the case, along with a second lawsuit, by agreeing to pay $1.8 million to the plaintiff and her attorneys.

In the years sinceS, Kriyananda has continued to teach, lecture and write.

On a recent weekend, as he sat barefoot in a Hancock Park guest house owned by a follower, Kriyananda said he hoped Ananda and the Self-Realization Fellowship would eventually reunite. If they did, he said, he would be "willing to be drafted" to serve as the group's president, but had no desire to do so.

He criticized the fellowship, saying it had become "overly defensive" and continues to misinterpret Yogananda's teachings. He also chided the group for being led by women. "There should be some men at the highest levels," he said.

Some of Kriyananda's comments, which came a few days after the death of the fellowship's longtime president, Sri Daya Mata, angered Lauren Landress, a spokeswoman for the group.

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