By Ranjini Banerjee
Communities where householder seekers can lead a dedicated spiritual life is the ideal behind ananda sangha, the organisation founded by swami kriyananda, which is starting a community in pune
When a new sapling is planted, during the initial phase it needs loving care in the form of water, sunlight and nutritious soil. The gardener needs to pay special attention to protect it from adverse circumstances like a storm, heavy downpour or even the scorching heat. Thanks to this initial protection, soon the sapling grows into a tall, strong and healthy plant, bearing flowers and fruits for all, standing proudly on its network of roots. An individual, who has started out on the path of spiritual evolution and personal growth, is also like this tiny sapling. He needs a loving and conducive environment to grow, which helps him make an effortless change from the materialistic to the spiritual path. Ananda villages, or the world brotherhood communities of Ananda Sangha, offer such an environment for the seekers, whether married or single, where they can live together for God — a place where work, friendship, and worship co-exist in harmony.
Modern times are filled with turbulence in all forms, be it global financial meltdown, stock market crashes, a degenerating environment, terrorism and so on. At times like this, even a dedicated seeker finds comfort and support when living in the company of like-minded souls, practising the core mantra of “simple living and high thinking”. Paramhansa Yogananda said, “Environment is stronger than will power.” Living in a spiritually supportive community encourages a spiritual focus, and helps one maintain and express high ideals. Yogananda had a dream of establishing world brotherhood colonies, which would provide the ideal spiritual and positive environment for seekers and his disciple, Swami Kriyananda, has materialised this dream in the form of Ananda villages.
The very first Ananda village came into existence in 1968 in California, and now that has thriving sister communities in America and in Europe. Swami Kriyananda, has now concentrated on India, the birth place of Paramhansa Yogananda, and the work has started to establish an Ananda village in Pune.
Like all other Ananda communities, the Ananda village in Pune will also be a place to learn and exist on the three fundamental values, integral to these communities:
• find peace inwardly first, in meditation, and only secondarily from one another
• the secret of successful work is joyous service
• see God in one another, and in all people.
The community members are encouraged to place other people’s needs, spiritual or otherwise, ahead of anything one might want of them. Secondly, they inculcate the doctrine, where there is dharma (adherence to truth and right action), there is victory, as a way of life. However, the remarkable quality of an Ananda village is that it understands that no community can flourish if it cuts itself off from the greater society, and thus its members continue to “live in the world, though not of it.” Perhaps this is the reason that Ananda has succeeded, where many others have failed to establish such new models of living.
All Ananda villages are self-sustaining, where the residents are financially responsible for their own welfare, and the community helps its members find appropriate employment within the community or in a private business. Entrepreneurship is encouraged, and many members have created private businesses to help employ fellow members. Community businesses such as guest retreats, publication businesses, schools and general administration/maintenance also employ many.
The communities are suitable for all age groups, and although the average age of Ananda village residents is probably between 30 and 50 years, they have residents of all ages from newborn to those in their 80s and 90s. Around one thousand residents live in the Ananda communities around the world, and there are thousands of non-resident members as well. Anyone who subscribes to the principles of Sanatana Dharma as expressed through the teachings of the Ananda line of gurus (Bhagavan Krishna, Jesus Christ, Mahavatar Babaji, Lahiri Mahasaya, Swami Sri Yukteswar and Paramhansa Yogananda) can chose to become a member of Ananda Sangha. A Sangha member who wishes to become a resident of one of the Ananda communities can apply to the Membership Council of the particular community he/she wishes to join. Each community determines its own criteria for membership, and chooses its own regulations. Typically, consumption of alcohol and use of non-prescription or illegal drugs is prohibited. Smoking is discouraged and vegetarianism is encouraged but not required. However, rules are generally kept to a minimum though, in adherence to Yogananda’s teaching that “Too many rules kill the spirit.”
Generally, all Ananda communities expect its residents to be kriyaban (those who practice Kriya Yoga) and disciples of the Ananda line of gurus or aspiring to become such a disciple, although exceptions are made for family relations. Residents are expected to maintain a daily sadhana, abide by community policies, be financially responsible, and participate in the day-to-day and spiritual life of the community. Ananda’s teachings emphasise the three-fold importance of meditation, devotion and service. In the communities in America and Europe, some community members own their own homes on private property in the vicinity of the community, and participate in the same way as residents who live on the Ananda property.
The facilities provided in all the Ananda communities include some combination of schools, business parks, clinics, commercial/market activities, meditation retreats, residential and guest facilities, dining halls, temples, bookstores/publications, and agricultural land. The plans for the community being established in Pune (India) include a yoga and meditation retreat, a teacher training institute, school for children, hospice, monastery, large temple of all religions, clinics, solar and wind power installation, resident/staff housing and more.
For families residing in an Ananda village, the youngsters have the support of a full-fledged educational system. The prospects for a child who has done schooling in these communities are excellent. The Ananda village students are typically said to have a score in the high 90s in nationalised test scores. Some of them have gone on to achieve distinction and leadership roles in future education away from Ananda, and hold good positions in jobs and the society. The Ananda school was founded more than 35 years ago, and is revolutionary while promoting traditional values and universal spiritual principles.
Ananda communities are composed of individuals with a wide range of schedules. However, a typical day in an Ananda village would consist of group sadhana and meditation and all communities have meditation temples where group meditation is practised for one to two hours prior to breakfast. Many residents choose to eat their meals in their own homes, although most communities also provide group dining as an option. After breakfast, community members engage in daily employment with breaks for lunch and periods of meditation during the day. Music is an integral part of the Ananda experience. Starting from choral music to private chanting and listening, music can be used as a way to approach life that is uplifting, inspiring and spiritually beneficial. Swami Kriyananda has composed over 400 musical pieces and is author of more than 90 books. The books and music he has written carry on Yogananda’s tradition of offering practical ways to bring spirituality into everyday life. Evening activities vary, and include group sadhana in the evening, study groups, recreation, and private time.
Almost all members of these communities have amazing stories to tell about their personal and spiritual growth and the changes that have come to their life through living at Ananda. “The community is a high vibration environment – and the satsang keeps me from falling back into unconscious habits and old patterns, helps me to move toward higher ways of being,” says Daya Taylor, who has lived in Ananda for the past 11 years. As a community, they offer support and unconditional love affirming that all things unfold in perfection. As the members join in fellowship with others of like mind, and practise the creative applications of the central vision of Paramhansa Yogananda, they lift the consciousness of the community, and ultimately, the world.
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Swami Kriyananda, the 80-plus founder of the Ananda Sangha, responds to an email interview:
Why is there a need for world-brotherhood communities across the globe?
I have felt a need for cooperative intentional communities since I was 15. When I found that this was also one of the primary objectives of Paramhansa Yogananda, I vowed to fulfil this ideal of his. In the past, the spiritually dedicated life has been confined, basically, to ashrams and caves. The ideal of Lahiri Mahasaya, that the time has come for householders also to dedicate themselves to the spiritual life, makes spiritual communities for everyone a more obviously needed alternative. At Ananda everyone, including householders and their families, has a greater opportunity to live for God and serve Him.
When one becomes a member of such a spiritual community, does he not sever his bond with the outside world, alienating his family and friends?
It might do so if the family and friends opposed his choice of a way of life. It does not do so in most cases, because in fact all our members live in the world, though not of it, serving humanity and not cutting themselves off from it.
Given the fact that India is the birthplace of Paramhansa Yogananda, why did you concentrate on India only in 2003, more than three decades after you had established the first colony outside Nevada City, in California?
It was much easier for me to found a community in America than in India. It was very difficult to start communities in any case, but now I believe India is ready for them. And we have five communities in California and one in Italy, making it possible now to begin such a work in India with the help also of Americans and Europeans. I hope, however, to have many more Indians, now that we are moving to Pune, and the work is already well established in Gurgaon.
Kindly share your vision and plans for the Ananda village which you plan to establish in Pune, India.
I expect it to consist mostly of Indians. I would like to found a village in which householders as well as monastics can live for God, as they are doing in America and Italy. I hope to make it self-supporting, with businesses, schools, and other projects that we have already established elsewhere.
Given the different kinds of crisis situations occurring across the globe, do you anticipate a sudden surge of individuals opting for the sheltered refuge that an Ananda village offers?
I would not use the expression ‘sheltered refuge.’ The ‘sheltering’ is done by the members themselves, with supportive businesses and service to humanity. I believe that specifically now, in the hard economic times we are facing, people will come to understand the need for banding together with others for their own security as well as spiritual progress.Such communities seem to be the need of the hour.
What were the catalysts for their popularity?
Who can account clearly for the shifts that occur in global consciousness? The fact is that there has been such a shift. When I began Ananda, people in America were already eager to join communities in the thousands. Now that need is spreading.Please tell us about your dream of building a universal temple of Self-realisation, dedicated to Paramhansa Yogananda.
First I should say that although the teachings I share are those of ParamhansaYogananda, the temple itself is dedicated, as all his churches were, to the oneness of all religions under the banner of Sanatan Dharma – the religion necessarily, in truth, of the entire universe. The temples I build in India will serve this ideal, as I’ve expressed it also in my books.What has been your plan of action to ensure economic independence for Ananda Sangha?
We hope to start schools incorporating Yogananda’s ideals of educating children for the challenge of life itself, and not only to help them get paying jobs. One project I am very much dedicated to is offering cheap alternative energy (solar and wind especially): in India first of all, and, as it becomes possible, in the rest of the world, including of course (first) America and Italy. We have two solar inventions that we think will be hugely successful, and that we hope will make it possible to bring cheap electricity to the 800,000 villages in India, most of which at present have no electricity. Our plan primarily is to serve India, though, of course, we hope to make enough also for the creation and sustenance of our own villages. We do not have the slightest desire, however, to make billions of dollars or rupees. Our main purpose is to help uplift India.At the close of your sixtieth year of discipleship, how would you describe your journey so far?
First, I would say that my journey has been one, as Yogananda predicted, of ‘intense activity and meditation.’ It has been a testing, but a joyous one. Second, my achievements have been 91 books, 400 pieces of music, 15,000 colour slides (that have helped to spread our work), and the formation of several communities wherein about a thousand people, in toto, at present live. Other than that, ‘iffy’ health has troubled me all my life. I have also had many obstacles, which I suppose are normal to starting any large work, but have been exacerbated in my own case by my worldly inexperience. Having lived in a monastery all my adult life, I didn’t know about such things as threats of foreclosure, all of which, however, I succeeded in surmounting. Basically, people everywhere have been very grateful for my books and other attempts to serve my guru. I have been able to edit his books, as he also told me to do, with clarity and simplicity.
My specific message to your readers is that I believe India is ready now for a renewed spiritual direction in its growth. Two years ago, President Abdul Kalam asked me what I thought of the directions India has taken since I lived here in the early 1960s. I told him that, certainly, India has become more worldly, but that it was also necessary for India to claim its rightful place among the great nations of the world. I said that the soil of India is impregnated with the blessings of countless rishis over many thousands of years, and that Indians will not be able to turn their backs forever on God and on their own spiritual teachings. I believe that Yogananda’s message greatly clarifies the directions for mankind as a whole in what our line of gurus proclaimed to be a return of Dwapara Yuga, an age of energy. Sri Ramakrishna was part of this new wave of insight that God is giving to the world, though it was not his mission to correct the traditional belief that we are still in Kali Yuga. So also was Lahiri Mahasaya in Varanasi, who lived at the same time; in fact, our gurus have proclaimed this great shift of energy to be part of the mission of my line of gurus.