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The pews are steadily filling up, and the Sunday service is about to start. The parishioners, mostly middle-aged, ordinary-looking couples, sit quietly, their graying, balding, and silver heads rocking to and fro, humming along with the soothing chanting of the choir. The church is warm, tranquil, and faintly fragrant with burning incense. The altar table has been elegantly laid out with a voluminous blooming bouquet of colorful carnations, flanked by two thick white candles on golden holders.
Above the table are five gold-framed portraits arranged in the shape of a cross. Jesus is at the center of the display; the other four images portray Indian gurus, or spiritual guides.
The topmost portrait is an eerie rendering of Babaji, an ostensibly androgynous being with long hair and pursed feminine lips. According to the church, Babaji is an immortal spiritual master who has lived in the Himalayas for thousands of years. The bottom portrait is of Paramhansa Yogananda, author of the '50s spiritual classic Autobiography of a Yogi; he's shown with his signature long, dark, wavy hair and ocher robe. On either side of Jesus are Sri Yukteswar, an imposing silver-bearded, silver-haired man, and Lahiri Mahasaya, another old man with a deeply furrowed forehead and eyes shut in two thin lines. Both are spiritual masters who preceded Yogananda, according to this church's teachings, which say that the five pictured beings are a divinely ordained line of "perfected souls" who assumed human form to guide and inspire mankind to realize God.
At 10 o'clock, the chanting trails off. Church bells are rung. A solemn procession of five white-robed ministers, reminiscent of a Greek chorus, emerges from behind the altar. The congregation rises to its feet instantly to greet them.
"How is everyone?" asks the leading minister.
"A-wake and rea-dy!!" the 100-strong congregation responds enthusiastically in a chorus.
For the next hour-and-a-half, the ministers -- who, robes aside, are nondescript, baby-boomer, mom-and-pop types -- take turns leading meditation, reading from the Hindu spiritual classic Baghavad Gita, and delivering a sermon. From time to time, the choir rouses the congregation with guitars and harmoniums, and the church members plunge into fervent devotional chanting. The service is lively, punctuated at turns with humor, solemnity, and palpable rapture.
At the end, everyone rises. After earnestly rubbing their hands together, parishioners hold their palms outward. Invoking their gurus on the altar, they ask to be made "pure channels of God's love," so they can bless the world with their energy.
For a decade now, the Ananda Church of Self-Realization has been holding such Sunday services in a former Roman Catholic church in downtown Palo Alto. Steeped in Indian mystic traditions, the church holds that human beings are expressions of the divine spirit, and that the purpose of human life is to become more aware of that divine spirit within ourselves. The first portion of the church's name -- Ananda -- means "divine bliss" in Sanskrit. The Ananda approach to the other portion of the name -- self-realization -- involves steadfast meditation and yoga, performed several times a day.
From its beginnings in tents and geodesic domes 30 years ago in the Sierra Nevada foothills, Ananda has grown to include a vast, far-flung empire of churches, meditation centers, businesses, and "world brotherhood colonies" in places as far away as Italy and Australia.
In New Age circles, Ananda has been the poster child of cooperative spiritual communities for years. In the late '80s, the New York Times went to Ananda's headquarters and flagship colony near Nevada City and reported excitedly that the church was a successful exception to the hippie communes that were founded in the 1960s and "have long since faded."
Recently, though, Ananda has revealed itself to be less an exception than an example of the rule of wayward '60s communalism.
Last year, a Redwood City jury handed down a million-plus-dollar judgment against Ananda's longtime spiritual director, Donald J. Walters (known generally as Swami Kriyananda), another senior official of the church, and the church itself, for the sexual exploitation of a former church member. In that case, six women testified under oath that the swami had taken sexual advantage of them when they were impressionable twentysomethings in search of spiritual advancement.
And now Ananda's leaders have embarked on an unusual method of fighting the judgment: filing for protection under Chapter 11 of the bankruptcy code. To date, the filing has allowed the church to avoid paying the judgment, but it is being challenged as a fraud upon the bankruptcy court.
Ananda's form of self-realization seems to include a fair amount of self-delusion.
Deep in the heavily wooded San Juan Ridge, a few thousand feet up in the Sierra Nevada foothills, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder pours tea and relates his experience as a longtime neighbor to the Ananda community headquarters.
Some 30 years ago, Snyder, a lifelong Buddhist, met Donald Walters through a mutual friend who was then president of the San Francisco Zen Center. The trio, along with Snyder's good friend (and fellow beat poet) Allen Ginsberg, purchased 160 acres of pristine land in the foothills. At the time, they shared an interest in setting up cabins in this secluded area.