Yogananda's Love Child
Friday, November 30, 2001
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for Spiritual Seekers"
NHNE: Special Articles: Yogananda's Love Child
Friday, November 30, 2001
Current Members: 1569
For current updates on this controversy, please see:
Clears Yogananda In Seven-Year Paternity Dispute (7/13/2002)
On The Yogananda Controversy (8/10/2002)
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A few months ago, I sent out an article to the NHNE News List itemizing
the bad blood between the Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF), an organization
that was founded by Paramahansa Yogananda, and Ananda, which was started
by one of Yogananda's disciples, Swami Kriyananda (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/nhnenews/message/1998).
I began that post by describing Yogananda as "one of the first,
most influential and highly-regarded gurus to move to the United States
from India. Unlike many Indian gurus that ended of mired in controversy
and scandal, Yogananda, as far as I know, lived the kind of holy life
Now, however, another controversy has erupted which threatens to strip
Yogananda of his saintly reputation. A 68 year old man named Ben Erskine
has appeared claiming to be the illegitimate child of Yogananda. And
Yogananda's alleged relationship with Erskine's mother may be only one
of many young female devotees that Yogananda had intimate relationships
The following two articles, written by New Times L.A. reporter Ron
Russell and published in July and November of this year, detail the
sordid affair. In addition to calling Yogananda's reputation into question,
Russell's articles also discuss how the current controversy could dramatically
affect the ongoing battle between SRF and Ananda -- especially if Yogananda's
body, which his followers claim showed signs of incorruptibility when
it was entombed, is exhumed for DNA tests...
--- David Sunfellow
THE DEVOTEE'S SON
By Ron Russell
New Times L.A.
July 5, 2001
Ben Erskine believes he's the love child of Swami Paramahansa Yogananda.
If he's right, the L.A.-based Self-Realization Fellowship should be
Lorna Erskine says she knew from the day she met her husband that there
was something special about him. Ben Erskine didn't have a formal education
and yet seemed to know everything. "He's quiet, contemplative,
not the least bit egotistical, yet self-assured and straightforward,"
she says. And so it did not surprise her that -- before asking her to
marry him in 1958 -- Erskine confided that there was something she should
know. "I said rather nervously, 'What? Tell me,'" she recalls.
"And his answer was, 'I'm a bastard.'"
It was an odd prelude to an astounding story, one that she says "seemed
to just tumble out of him after having been bottled up for a long time."
Mistreated by his stepfather and rejected by his siblings as the product
of his mother's adulterous affair in the early 1930s, Erskine felt stigmatized
as a young boy growing up in Los Angeles and Nevada. But it is who he
has long presumed his father to have been -- the late Swami Paramahansa
Yogananda, the supposedly celibate founder of the L.A.-based Self-Realization
Fellowship -- that has caused him the most pain. His mother, Adelaide
Erskine, who died in 1996 just shy of her 100th birthday, was a professional
photographer and a devotee of the swami. Some former SRF members, including
at least one former nun, say she may have been the photographer responsible
for some of the best-known images of the charismatic guru. A longtime
resident of rural southern Oregon, Erskine, 68, the father of five children,
is the focus of a little-known and bizarre paternity drama that threatens
to shake the foundations of the religion the swami founded in Los Angeles
66 years ago.
An independent gold miner and former lumberjack, he may have unwittingly
become a player in a dispute between the SRF and the rival Ananda Church
of Self-Realization, based in Nevada City in Northern California --
and whose members also revere the swami -- over Yogananda's body. For
years, the SRF, which claims hundreds of thousands of adherents worldwide,
has wanted to disinter the body from Forest Lawn Glendale, where it
has reposed in a mausoleum since the swami's death in 1952, and move
it to the organization's headquarters atop Mount Washington. It was
there, just 10 minutes from downtown Los Angeles, that the revered Eastern
holy man bought a crumbling, once-elegant hotel in 1925 and transformed
it into a sylvan retreat for his newly created religion, a blend of
Hindu and Christian beliefs.
For the last four years, the publicity-averse SRF, under the direction
of its octogenarian president and spiritual leader Daya Mata, a.k.a.
Faye Wright -- a direct disciple of Yogananda's --has promoted a massive
expansion of the 12.5-acre Mother Center, as the headquarters is known.
Among other things, it wants to build a mausoleum, museum, visitor center
and gift shop to accommodate pilgrims who could be expected to flock
there to pay homage to the swami. Fearful that a Yogananda shrine and
huge construction campaign would turn Mount Washington, with its narrow
residential streets, into a tourist mecca, residents who've long coexisted
peacefully with the SRF are adamantly opposed to the plan. So is Ananda,
but for a different reason. Its officials, led by J. Donald Walters,
a.k.a. Swami Kriyananda, fear that if the body is moved to the mountain,
the SRF will restrict access to all but its own members. Kriyananda
is also a direct disciple of Yogananda's, and was an important figure
in the SRF before he was kicked out by Daya Mata in 1962.
State law dictates that in the absence of a close relative (defined
as someone no more distant than a niece or nephew), a Superior Court
judge must approve the removal of a corpse from a cemetery to be reburied
elsewhere. With the Ananda faction having dug in its heels in May, declaring
at a Los Angeles Planning Department hearing that it would oppose such
a move, speculation has centered on several little-known relatives of
Yogananda's in India. Forest Lawn vice president Scott Drolet confirmed
that the SRF has spoken with cemetery officials recently about its desire
to move the body, but would provide no details. And New Times has learned
that a senior monk who is a member of the SRF board of directors visited
in the homes of one of Yogananda's nephews and two of his nieces in
Calcutta in March. The developments are bound to add to speculation
that the organization, which hopes to win approval of its development
plans later this year, may be gearing up for an attempt to disinter
the swami. SRF officials, including Daya Mata, decline to discuss the
Enter Ben Erskine.
Although he has never sought to publicize his purported relationship
to Yogananda, strangers occasionally have showed up unannounced at his
home near Medford, Oregon, for years. "We've even had a swami or
two," says his wife. "They come just to get a glimpse of Ben,
and after taking a look at him and talking with him, most of them leave
amazed." But it was a visit six years ago from attorney Michael
J. Flynn, who has long represented the SRF, that may have been the first
indication that the organization was concerned about reports of the
swami's possibly having a son. Indeed, Flynn and the church's handling
of the Erskine matter has, if anything, added to the mystery surrounding
his story. Erskine says Flynn and a colleague visited him in 1995, took
samples of his hair and persuaded him to submit blood samples to a genetics-testing
lab designated by Flynn, while expressing interest in helping him settle
once and for all who his father was. But Flynn didn't help, Erskine
says. In fact, the lawyer ignored him and his repeated requests for
information for more than five years.
Fed up with waiting and upset over his treatment, Erskine hired attorney
Shane Reed last year. Reed renewed the pressure to have further DNA
testing done after Flynn said an earlier test, using a sample of Yogananda's
hair kept at the Mother Center, was "inconclusive." After
the request last October, Reed says, he was ignored, too. But in February
that changed after Reed wrote Flynn on Erskine's behalf, threatening
to go public unless the church's lawyer made good on his commitment.
That resulted in the taking of blood samples from three of Yogananda's
relatives in India in March; Flynn subsequently notified Reed that analysis
done by a Missouri genetics-testing and consulting firm showed that
Erskine was not Yogananda's son.
Flynn, in a brief telephone interview with New Times, confirmed as
much. "The tests show he's not Yogananda's son," says Flynn,
who declined repeated requests by New Times to examine documentation
that he says substantiates his claim. But the matter seems far from
closed. "The testing was done exclusively under the control of
Mr. Flynn and the SRF as far as we can tell, with no verifiable independent
third-party authentication," says Reed, who adds that he will seek
further testing to determine his client's paternity.
The stakes are potentially high.
If Erskine can prove he is the son of Yogananda, it would be devastating
to the late swami's followers, who regard him as an avatar, or godlike
being, and thus saintly and pure. But beyond that, such a development
could enable Erskine to challenge ownership rights to Yogananda's image
and likeness. The SRF has long claimed these while engaging in a 10-year
court battle with Ananda in an attempt, its rival says, to drive it
As the self-professed organizational heir to Yogananda's legacy, the
SRF claims a presence in 54 countries and possesses considerable financial
assets. Besides the Mother Center, in California alone the church owns
a spectacular retreat overlooking the ocean in Encinitas and the Lake
Shrine in Pacific Palisades, worth many millions of dollars for the
real estate alone. Its reclusive leader, Daya Mata, 87, has long attracted
an extraordinary collection of the rich and famous, including former
Beatle George Harrison, Indian musician Ravi Shankar and best-selling
author and guru Deepak Chopra. The list of disciples even includes the
late Elvis Presley, who, according to Presley biographer Peter Guralnick,
made numerous trips to see Daya Mata, who reminded him of his deceased
mother. "Imagine it, if [Erskine] did turn out to be the son,"
says one copyright attorney familiar with the case, "it could blow
the SRF right out of the water with respect to its long-held copyright
claims. And as far as the effort to move the body -- the final decision
just might be up to [him]."
Adelaide Erskine and her husband, Robert, already had four children
(two girls and two boys) when Adelaide gave birth to Benjamin Herbert
Erskine on January 16, 1933. Robert, a machinist, and his wife had moved
to Los Angeles in 1927 from Arizona and settled in the City Terrace
district north of Boyle Heights. She went to work with her mother at
a photography studio in Hollywood. Ben Erskine says he believes his
mother may have come in contact with the swami as the result of a photo
assignment at Mount Washington, although he cannot say when.
What is certain, he says, is that his mother's life was transformed
upon meeting the charismatic guru and reading his literature. As he
later learned from her, she had become a regular visitor to the Mount
Washington Educational Center, as SRF headquarters was known before
his birth, often going every day during the week and at least once on
weekends. His mother may have had little choice but to disclose her
infidelity while pregnant with Ben, he says, because Robert Erskine
had had a vasectomy four years earlier after the birth of the couple's
fourth child, Alberta. This may explain why Adelaide chose to give birth
to Ben at home, and why no birth certificate was issued for him, Ben
Erskine says. Regardless, at his birth it was obvious that he was not
Robert's son. Like their parents, his siblings were lily white. Ben's
dark skin and distinct features made it clear that his father was of
East Indian descent.
Not that his father's identity was ever considered to be a mystery
within the family. His stepfather made sure of that, Erskine says. Some
of his earliest memories are of Robert Erskine cursing Yogananda's name.
"From the day I was born, in [Robert's] eyes, I was that blankety-blank
black bastard son of the swami on the hill," he recalls. "And
he never let me or my mother forget it. He had a rule that neither my
mother nor any of the kids were ever to utter Yogananda's name, yet
he yelled and screamed about Yogananda all the time. He never quit ranting
about him." Erskine says his stepfather "beat my mother mercilessly
and whenever he was around me, he beat me, too." For her part,
Adelaide never came out in so many words and said, ""Yogananda
was your father,' because there was never a need to," Erskine says.
"It was understood by everyone. She would tell me, 'Son, you have
wonderful blood in your veins. I expect great things from you.' We both
knew what that meant."
Robert Erskine didn't divorce his wife. Instead, when Ben was barely
three years old, he took her and the children to the Nevada desert and
abandoned them -- in a desolate rural community just across the California
border from Death Valley. Once there, Ben's two brothers, who were 12
and 13, ran away almost immediately, he says. Robert Erskine came out
from Los Angeles occasionally, sometimes bringing "sacks of potatoes
or a crate of cabbage. Otherwise we were on our own. How my mother survived
with three small kids out there I will never know."
Their "banishment," as he calls it, lasted 10 years. His
mother accepted it as a consequence of her adultery. Erskine says he
learned to shoot a gun by age six, "and there were plenty of times
that all we had to eat was what I could shoot." There was a school
several miles away at the hamlet of Good Springs, but there was no way
he and his half sisters could attend. He recalls that his first taste
of "real food" was in a Las Vegas hospital after he accidentally
blew away two of his fingers while playing with dynamite at age nine.
He doesn't recall wearing shoes until he was a teenager. But there's
something else he remembers vividly, if for no other reason than that
he did it often. As soon as he was old enough, his mother had him walk
to the rural post office several miles from their house to retrieve
letters from Yogananda, which he insists she received regularly for
years. "She treasured those letters, and kept them locked away
in a trunk for many years," he says. As far as he knows, none of
the letters have survived. One of his sisters, who is now deceased,
told him years ago that the trunk containing the letters, along with
some of his mother's old camera equipment, was stolen, he says.
The desert ordeal ended along with World War II, when his brother,
Daniel, was discharged from the military and showed up unexpectedly
one day to take Adelaide and the children back to Los Angeles. Not long
afterward, he says, they were reunited with Robert Erskine in Lynwood.
Ben, who by then was 13, enrolled in school but, hopelessly behind,
soon dropped out. He says he "grew up in the streets" in a
blue-collar neighborhood where he stood out for his color and ethnicity.
"Most everyone was white, except me. They were mostly people from
Arkansas [his mother's home state] and Oklahoma whose fathers worked
in the factories. My mother had taught me to respect my father, but
I couldn't talk about him, not at home and not with the kids in the
street. Some of the Mexicans thought I was Mexican. They'd ask [who
my father was] and I'd just keep my mouth shut." The newspapers,
when they mentioned Yogananda at all, tended to treat him disparagingly,
and, says Erskine, "I wasn't about to tell the kids from the neighborhood
that my dad was that longhaired Indian guru up on Mount Washington."
Despite (or perhaps because of) the strained union that Robert and
Adelaide's marriage had become, she resumed regular visits to Mount
Washington, making almost daily trips by streetcar, Erskine says. The
sojourns continued until 1952, when a newspaper headline forever altered
his mother's life. After delivering a speech at the Biltmore Hotel downtown,
the revered swami dropped dead of a heart attack. "My mother was
devastated," Erskine recalls. "Not just because Yogananda
had died but because everyone in the family, my stepfather and my sisters
-- who had grown to hate [Yogananda] as the cause for their having been
left out in the desert all those years -- ridiculed her. They mocked
her, and they mocked Yogananda. It was the most horrible thing you could
Not long after the swami's death, Erskine says, his mother blew up
in anger at one of his half sisters. Although married, the sister had
moved back home, and his mother threw her things out of the house. "When
my stepfather got home, he was livid. He said, 'Well, I know what to
do about that.' And he took her to Norwalk to a mental hospital and
had her committed." Erskine calls it "a pure act of spite.
She was a brilliant woman. There was nothing wrong with her. But a few
days after she was taken there we got a phone call saying that they
had given her electroshock treatments. And it was the end of her."
Upon coming home soon afterward, he says, his mother "was ruined
emotionally" and scarcely uttered a word. In fact, after she was
admitted to a nursing home in the mid 1950s she hardly spoke during
the last four decades of her life, relatives say. When his mother's
mind started to go, Ben Erskine went to Texas to work as a roughneck
in the oil fields. After getting married, he moved to Utah, where he
was a millwright at a salt mine before settling in the Pacific Northwest.
In the 1970s, he became a Mormon, like his mother had been before she
met the swami. All of his children have grown up in the understanding
and belief that Yogananda was their grandfather. "It's something
we've always been taught to be proud of," says Melissa Simpson,
38. Never wishing to do anything to damage his "father's"
reputation as a celibate and a saint, Erskine says he deliberately chose
not to speak of Yogananda outside a circle of family and friends.
But that hasn't kept the occasional Yogananda devotee from turning
up unannounced at the family's modest home. "My husband's never
publicized himself, and we've never sought attention. And yet, somehow,
these people know about him," Lorna Erskine says.
One visit, six years ago, stands out. It was preceded by a telephone
call received by Lorna Erskine. The caller, Michael Flynn, was someone
she didn't know and whose name meant nothing to her. "He said,
'Is your husband Ben Erskine?' and I said yes. And then he said, 'This
may be the most important phone call you will ever receive.'"
Flynn, the SRF's lawyer, wanted to come to Oregon and meet the man
purported to be the swami's son. His interest may not have been as out
of the blue as it appeared. A short time earlier, one of the Erskines'
daughters, concerned about her parents' health and the fact that they
were experiencing financial difficulty while unable to work, contacted
the SRF. The daughter hoped -- "naively, in hindsight," Lorna
Erskine says -- that the organization might be willing to provide financial
help to her father. A few weeks after Flynn's phone call, he and another
lawyer, whose name neither she nor her husband recall, arrived at their
According to the couple's account of the visit, Flynn expressed amazement
at the physical similarity between Erskine and Yogananda. "You
should have seen his face when he saw Ben," she remembers. "I
thought his jaw was going to drop off." Ben Erskine says that he
explained to Flynn and his colleague that he considered himself to be
Yogananda's son and shared with them experiences from a life that he
says has been largely shaped by that belief. Erskine says he acknowledged
then, as he does now, that he did not possess material proof that Yogananda
was his father, and expressed interest in knowing for sure. Neither
Ben nor Lorna Erskine recall who brought up the idea of DNA testing,
but by the time Flynn and his colleague departed, they say, it was agreed
that Flynn would facilitate such a test. "[Flynn's] attitude was
that he was here to help us and that he, too, wanted to know if I was
who I thought I was," Ben Erskine says.
Flynn left the Erskine home that day with several borrowed pictures
of Erskine from various stages of his life, as well as a lock of his
hair, which one of his children snipped with scissors in Flynn's presence,
the couple says. At Flynn's request, Erskine went to his doctor a few
days later and had a blood sample drawn and mailed to a laboratory the
attorney had designated. Then the couple settled back to wait for word.
But none was forthcoming. In fact, Ben Erskine says, he never personally
heard from Flynn again. "It really hurt Ben," his wife says.
Over time, they say, one or another of their grown children have tried
to intervene. Lorna Erskine says one child contacted Flynn and came
away with the understanding that the DNA test was inconclusive because
it had been tested against a lock of Yogananda's hair in the SRF's possession
that was unsuitable to provide a reliable result. The Erskines say they
were then told that Ben's DNA would be matched against that of a relative
or relatives of Yogananda's in India and that they would be notified
of the results. But they heard nothing.
In the fall of 1996, while Simpson, the Erskines' daughter, was in
Los Angeles for a visit, she went to Mount Washington unannounced to
seek information from SRF officials. It was the first time she had ever
seen the place that she had often imagined when thinking of the man
she considers to have been her grandfather. "It wasn't at all the
wonderful spiritual place I thought it would be," she says. "It
was kind of creepy."
After telling a receptionist at SRF headquarters who she was, she says
she was led upstairs to see Mukti Mata, an elderly nun and direct disciple
of Yogananda's and a member of the SRF board of directors, and another
nun whose name she doesn't recall. "[Mukti Mata] seemed nervous.
They both did. They kept going back and forth talking to Mike Flynn
on the phone, or so I was led to believe." The meeting lasted "30
to 45 minutes" and accomplished nothing, she says. "They finally
let me know that I should go. I wouldn't call them rude, just cold.
It was clear to me that I was making them uncomfortable." For Simpson,
the most noteworthy part of the visit was something she says Mukti Mata
told her shortly before she was ushered out. It seemed to her an odd
thing for the elderly nun to say. "She said, 'You know, your grandmother
was slightly crazy.'"
Although he was disappointed at being ignored after surrendering samples
of his hair and blood, Ben Erskine says he knew little about the SRF
-- and nothing of its desire to disinter Yogananda's body -- until reading
an article in New Times two years ago. One of the occasional pilgrims
to his home who has long believed Erskine's story mailed him a copy,
he says. Among other things, the article detailed allegations of underhanded
tactics by the church in an ongoing bid to gain approval for its Mother
The article also revealed something else that, while perhaps trivial
to outsiders, created a firestorm within SRF circles. Although church
officials had insisted that Daya Mata lived in seclusion at the Mother
Center in keeping with her vows of poverty like any other monastic,
it turned out not to be true. She and her sister, Virginia Wright (Ananda
Mata) -- the SRF's second in command -- have lived in the city of Sierra
Madre in the San Gabriel Valley foothills since 1968. Their million-dollar
home, and a similar one next door occupied by nuns who care for the
women, is said to have been a gift of the late billionaire tobacco heiress
Doris Duke, a longtime Daya Mata confidant. As New Times reported, to
the extent that Daya Mata and her sister have been present at Mount
Washington during the last three decades, they've commuted there in
a vintage pink Cadillac.
Ben and Lorna Erskine say they read the article in the summer of 1999
and chuckled. "We sat around the kitchen table and said, 'Boy,
I bet this [reporter] would love to talk to us if he only knew we existed,'"
she recalls. Even so, the couple says, they had no intention of ever
revealing Erskine's story. (In fact, when New Times approached Erskine
for this article, his response was, "How did you find me?"
It took much persuasion before he and his wife would agree to be interviewed.)
Their efforts to get information from Flynn picked up steam last year
after they asked attorney Reed, whom they've known since he was a child,
to intercede on their behalf.
Reed first wrote to Flynn last October acknowledging that his client
had informed him that the DNA test conducted using Yogananda's hair
had been inconclusive. Nonetheless, Reed asked for the results. "[Flynn]
totally ignored me," he says. In February of this year, Reed says,
he wrote to Flynn again, suggesting that Flynn move forward with DNA
testing of one or more of Yogananda's relatives in India. In the letter,
Reed said that it wasn't his client's intention to harm Yogananda's
reputation but that Erskine merely wanted to know who his father was
and that unless Flynn followed through, his client might pursue a paternity
lawsuit. "That got his attention," Reed says. Within two weeks,
Reed says, Flynn called him to discuss arranging to draw blood samples
from the relatives in India. At the SRF attorney's request, Erskine
submitted a new blood sample and a saliva specimen to a lab that Flynn
designated, Reed says.
According to documents Reed says were provided to him by Flynn in April,
blood samples were drawn from a nephew and two nieces of Yogananda's
in Calcutta during the first week of March and transported to Genetics
Technologies Inc., a testing and forensics consulting firm in St. Louis,
for analysis. The relatives who provided samples were Biswanath Ghosh,
the son of the youngest of the late swami's brothers, and Surama Mitra
and Rekha Paul, daughters of Yogananda's youngest sister. They all signed
affidavits, copies of which were obtained by New Times, declaring that
they gave blood samples on March 6 at their respective homes. Also present,
according to other affidavits, were a physician, Dr. Rabindranath Ghosh,
and a licensed pathologist, Sudip Kumar Chandra, who assisted in drawing
the samples. (Yogananda's name at birth was Mukunda Lal Ghosh. Reed
says Flynn assured him that Ghosh, the doctor, is not a relative of
But Reed says he and his client have little confidence in the results.
Although not accusing anyone of wrongdoing, Reed says, "the entire
process in India was carried out" without independent observation.
He says that Flynn and the SRF controlled the process, "and they
are hardly impartial players when it comes to establishing my client's
paternity." Assuming that the blood samples were taken from the
relatives, he says, "we really have no independent way of knowing
that the samples they submitted are the same samples that the lab in
Missouri analyzed." Erskine, his client, puts it even more succinctly.
"[Flynn's] giving us the news [about the test results] was like
saying, 'Well, we did it and guess what? You're not Yogananda's son.'
I'm not buying that. Based on the way I was jacked around for five and
a half years, I don't have confidence in Flynn or the SRF."
For his part, Flynn contended in the brief telephone interview that
the DNA samples collected in India prove that Erskine is not Yogananda's
son. But he became testy when asked if there was independent confirmation.
He deflected questions about the matter by saying he had represented
celebrities such as Barbra Streisand and Madonna, and suggested that
he would consider suing New Times should it libel him or his client.
When asked a third time to substantiate his claims about Erskine, Flynn
replied, "Have your lawyer call me," and hung up. Three days
later, he wrote to New Times suggesting that he would make materials
available only if the newspaper's "publisher" and its lawyers
were also present. His office in Del Mar in north San Diego County was
then informed, in writing, of the deadline for this article and again
was invited to share any materials substantiating his claim. He did
SRF leaders were even less inclined to be interviewed for this article.
Daya Mata refused to speak with a reporter who went to her home. Neither
did she respond to requests for a telephone interview. Brother Vishwananda,
a member of the church's eight-member board of directors, who spoke
to New Times on behalf of the church two years ago, similarly did not
return phone calls. Neither did another longtime board member, Sister
Savitri, who has long played a key role as Daya Mata's personal secretary.
SRF sources say that Savitri resigned from the board in recent weeks
after taking a "leave of absence" from the Mother Center.
However, her resignation could not be independently confirmed. Regardless,
Savitri, using her presumed real name, Heidi Hall, has gone to work
at Flynn's law office. Messages left for her there went unreturned.
Miles Hyde, the monk who has served as the SRF's spokesman for the expansion
project, did not return messages left on his voice mail at the organization's
headquarters. However, in what would be another surprising development,
if confirmed, SRF sources say Hyde has also departed the Mother Center
in recent weeks.
As for the manner in which blood samples were obtained in India, there
is ample reason to suggest that the SRF played a significant role. According
to one of the affidavits supplied to Reed by Flynn, a copy of which
is in New Times' possession, the person who supervised the collection
of the samples in Calcutta and who was in charge of transporting them
to the United States for testing was Ronald L. Eisely -- who is none
other than Brother Vishwananda, the senior monk who sits on the SRF
board. It was Vishwananda who two years ago insisted repeatedly to New
Times that Daya Mata resided, as he said she had for many years, at
the Mother Center exclusively. The next day a reporter rang her doorbell
in Sierra Madre and learned otherwise.
Whether or not Erskine is the swami's son, he is not the first person
about whom unflattering accusations concerning Yogananda have swirled.
Nor is it the first time that the SRF, under Daya Mata, has pressed
Flynn into action to protect the dead guru's reputation. Among monastics
and others associated with the SRF and the breakaway Ananda church,
there have long been rumors -- however repulsive to many devotees --
concerning alleged sexual escapades involving the swami and others at
One such person whose paternity has long been a source of speculation
was Mona Pratt, whose mother, Laurie Pratt, or Tara Mata, became a devotee
of Yogananda's in 1924 and who remained a larger-than-life presence
in the organization until her death in 1971. Laurie Pratt was one of
Yogananda's most trusted disciples, heading the organization's publishing
operation and serving for many years on the SRF's board of directors.
Like Faye and Virginia Wright, who joined up with Yogananda a few years
later, she was from a prominent Mormon family. (Daya Mata's and her
sister's ancestors are said to have been among the original Mormon pilgrims
to the Great Salt Lake Valley. Their father, Abraham Reister Wright,
was an architect of the temple in Salt Lake City, Daya Mata told a Utah
newspaper years ago in what may have been the only interview she ever
granted to the secular press.) Laurie Pratt's grandfather, Orson Pratt,
was among the founders of the Mormon Church, a contemporary of Joseph
Smith and Brigham Young, and one of the most prolific Mormon theologians
of the 19th century.
Laurie ran the guru's New York operation in 1929, when she became pregnant
with her daughter. Government records as well as Mormon genealogical
records indicate that Mona Pratt was born in Pennsylvania on October
2, 1929. When Laurie, or Tara Mata, was brought to Los Angeles a few
years later to run the publishing department, the swami arranged for
her and the child to live in a bungalow near the top of a hill in Lincoln
Heights, not far from Mount Washington.
"It was a rather odd thing," recalls a former SRF nun, who
asked that she not be identified. "Everyone knew about Mona, but
she was seldom seen at Mount Washington, and there were certainly no
repercussions to Tara Mata (who, like the other nuns, had taken a vow
of celibacy) for having given birth to her." According to several
sources who knew Laurie, including Swami Kriyananda, the spiritual leader
of the Ananda church, now living in Italy, she was assumed by some to
be the daughter of Swami Dhirananda, an early close associate of Yogananda's.
"I just assumed that [she was his daughter], but after all these
years I couldn't tell you why," Kriyananda says.
However, Anil Nerode, a Cornell University math professor whose parents
were early associates of Yogananda's, says his mother and father told
him that "within the inner circle it was privately assumed that
Mona was Yogananda's child." It's a question that may never be
answered. According to government records, Mona died near Philadelphia
in 1996. Mormon genealogical records show that she was born in Pennsylvania
in October 1929, but, unlike entries for others in the distinguished
Pratt family, no father is listed for her. Her birth certificate, assuming
that one was issued in Pennsylvania, is inaccessible except to immediate
family members under that state's strict privacy laws.
As for such salacious speculation about Yogananda's private life, two
of his closest early associates may have contributed the most to the
rumors. One of them, Basu Kumar Bagchi (the aforementioned Swami Dhirananda)
was a close friend of Yogananda's in India as a young man who joined
him in this country in 1922 and was placed in charge of the Mount Washington
property the first three years after Yogananda acquired it. He is also
said by some to have written several early works, in whole or in part,
that were later attributed to Yogananda, although the latter's devotees
hotly dispute this. But in the spring of 1929 he split with Yogananda
and forced him to sign a promissory note for $8,000 that he contended
was due him as part of a partnership the men had entered to promote
Yogananda's enterprises. Dhirananda (or Bagchi) operated his own meditation
center in downtown Los Angeles until 1933, when he renounced his title
of swami and went off to the University of Iowa to pursue doctoral studies.
He married a Nebraska woman in 1934 and later had two children. Bagchi,
who died years ago, enjoyed a long and distinguished career as a professor
of encephlamology at the University of Michigan, where he pioneered
research that helped identify cerebral tumors and detect epilepsy.
But the man who was once arguably Yogananda's closest companion has
long been vilified among the master's followers both in the SRF and
Ananda as a traitor who ignored his vows of celibacy by taking advantage
of young female devotees. Ironically, court records show that it was
Bagchi who complained of just such conduct about Yogananda at the time
of their split, and who raised the issue again in 1935 when he sued
the swami to collect the money he claimed he was owed. In awarding a
judgment in Bagchi's favor, a Superior Court judge dismissed Yogananda's
counterclaims as baseless, including the contention that Bagchi had
tried to smear him for the purpose of extracting the money.
"Although a brilliant success in his public life, privately my
father was an unhappy man and I'm sorry to say rather abusive to me
and my sister," says Vanu Bagchi, 59, a former professional fund-raiser
and aide to the late mayor of Detroit, Coleman Young. The son believes
that "deep down, part of [his father] always longed for the monastic
life he left behind." But while talking freely about his troubled
relationship with his dad, Vanu Bagchi says he has "never thought
for a minute" that his father was capable of immoral behavior.
"It was antithetical to who he was. He had plenty of flaws, but
that wasn't one of them. In fact, that's what repulsed him about his
dear friend Yogananda. The impression he left with us was that Yogananda
was screwing everything in sight."
Another early associate, Nirad Ranjan Chowdhury, or Sri Nerode, was
a yoga master who grew up in a privileged family in India, attended
the University of Calcutta and became attracted to Yogananda's teachings
after meeting him in Berkeley in the early '20s. Friends with both Yogananda
and Dhirananda, Nerode (the father of Anil Nerode) was brought in to
run the Mount Washington operation in 1929 when Dhirananda left. He
and his wife lived at the hotel in 1931, when she became pregnant with
their son. Shortly after, Nerode was sent on the road to promote Yogananda's
books and lessons around the country. He fulfilled that role until 1937,
when the couple, now with a five-year-old son, moved back into the Mount
In 1939, Nerode also broke with Yogananda, suing the swami for $500,000
while contending that he had breached a 1931 oral agreement establishing
a partnership between the men. Yogananda prevailed in court. He denied
making such an agreement, and at trial his lawyer produced a piece of
paper, signed by Nerode in 1929, in which he had agreed to work for
Yogananda for nothing. But it was Nerode's claims about Yogananda's
personal life, which the judge struck from the lawsuit as irrelevant,
that briefly scandalized the swami's followers. Nerode essentially accused
Yogananda of running a harem, describing how the swami had young girls
housed next to his room on the third floor of the former hotel, and
how they went in and out of the swami's room at all hours, while older
women were housed on a separate floor entirely.
Nerode's attorneys had a difficult time tracking down Yogananda to
depose him, and it finally required the L.A. County sheriff himself
to go to Mount Washington and serve him with a subpoena. A deposition
would have almost certainly included delicate questions put to the swami
about his personal conduct. Yet there is no deposition included in the
remaining case file. Whether there ever was one, or whether it may have
disappeared, is impossible to say. What's certain is that long after
the trial the SRF exhibited a pronounced interest in the file. Court
records show that in 1955 Faye Wright (Daya Mata) filed an affidavit
with the court seeking possession of the exhibits in the then 15-year-old
case, asserting the organization's "need" for them.
Even today, the SRF remains vigilant in attempting to squelch allegations
about the swami's alleged sex life. Last year, Anil Nerode posted some
childhood remembrances from his days at Mount Washington on a personal
Web site that incurred the SRF's wrath. The material included eyewitness
recollections of alleged events involving Yogananda behind the walls
of the Mother Center that the SRF evidently deemed offensive. Although
only five and six years old while living there, Anil Nerode was no ordinary
child. A prodigy who claims to have been reading on a 12th-grade level
at age five, he obtained his bachelor's degree from the University of
Chicago at age 16. Besides his childhood recollections of life with
the swami close up, his late father and his mother, who is 94, shared
their own intimate memories of who may have been sleeping with whom
during that era.
Nerode took down the offending information from his Web site, not because
of pressure from attorney Michael Flynn, he says, but because many people
were copying it without printing the disclaimers it contained, and he
didn't want the material to detract from an academic treatise he plans
to publish. But in February, he was deposed by one of Flynn's legal
associates, Ed Stillman, as part of the Ananda copyright lawsuit. A
second and final session of his deposition was concluded at the end
of June. Just what the alleged hanky-panky involving a long-dead swami
may have to do with the Ananda copyright matter, Anil Nerode says he
has yet to figure out.
But then neither is he at liberty to discuss the contents of his own
deposition. And that may be clue enough. As part of a broad gag order
that a federal magistrate issued in the Ananda case years ago, participants
are barred from publicly disclosing evidentiary matters developed as
part of the 11-year-old case as long as it is under litigation. Says
one attorney who asked not to be identified, "In effect the SRF
appears to be using the money it's spending to drag out the Ananda litigation
as a way to protect Yogananda's reputation."
Not surprisingly, when Mike Flynn told New Times that the DNA analysis
cleared Yogananda as Erskine's father, he quickly offered the opinion
that Erskine's father was Sri Nerode -- not Dhirananda, as has often
been rumored. Yet, if Nerode's own affidavit in the 1939 business dispute
can be believed, that may be a stretch. Erskine was born in January
1933, which means he would have been conceived in the spring of 1932.
But in the lawsuit, Sri Nerode testified, with no way of knowing that
his testimony might some day have any bearing on whether or not he fathered
Erskine, that he was traveling on Yogananda's behalf and was not in
Los Angeles County between Christmas Eve of 1931 and March 1937, except
for a "few days" in 1935.
Anil Nerode, the Cornell professor, says he is confident that his father,
who became married to his mother in 1931, was never unfaithful to her.
So confident, he says, that he would be "most happy" to undergo
DNA testing to prove that Erskine is not his half brother. In Michigan,
Vanu Bagchi says he is tired "of the same old crap" that some
of Yogananda's defenders have dispensed about his father, Dhirananda,
adding that he, too, would be willing to match DNA samples with Erskine's.
Informed of each man's offer, Erskine (who has never met or talked with
Bagchi or Nerode) replied, "I'm game. I've got nothing to hide."
Meanwhile, Reed, Erskine's lawyer, says he will push for "verifiable"
testing of the Yogananda relatives, and is considering whether to ask
a California judge to authorize exhuming the late swami's body for the
purpose of obtaining a "clear and irrefutable" finale to the
Ben Erskine story.
Or would it only be the beginning?
EXHUMING THE TRUTH
By Ron Russell
New Times L.A.
November 29, 2001
For years the Self-Realization Fellowship wanted to disinter the body
of its founder, Eastern holy man Paramahansa Yogananda, from a crypt
at Forest Lawn Glendale and place it in a shrine to be built at the
religion's headquarters atop Mount Washington.
Having pulled the plug on its four-year effort to build a visitor center,
mausoleum and museum at its so-called Mother Center in the face of relentless
opposition from Mount Washington residents, the SRF no longer talks
publicly about exhuming the swami's remains.
But, to its chagrin, someone else is.
A lawyer for a man who believes he is the love child of the supposedly
celibate Yogananda tells New Times that he will soon ask an L.A. superior
court judge to order that the body -- which has reposed in a Forest
Lawn mausoleum since 1952 -- be exhumed for DNA tests. "The time
has come to settle the question once and for all," says Shane Reed,
an attorney for Ben Erskine, 68, a gold miner who lives near Medford,
Oregon. Erskine's mother, the late Adelaide Erskine, was a young devotee
of the swami during Yogananda's early years at Mount Washington.
The consequences of Erskine's being able to prove that he is Yogananda's
son -- if indeed he is -- are potentially huge. Even the specter of
opening the long-sealed crypt poses potential problems. An alleged eyewitness
account from a cemetery official (who died long ago) posits that the
body was in "immutable" condition, without having decomposed,
as late as three weeks after Yogananda's death, when the crypt was permanently
sealed. At least some of the faithful who believe that the body still
has not decomposed might be shocked should reopening the crypt demonstrate
Beyond that, the financial stakes are also potentially enormous. If
successful, Erskine might claim ownership rights to Yogananda's image
and likeness, which the SRF has claimed as it own for decades. Although
the copyrights have expired on some of Yogananda's better-known works,
the SRF continues to spend huge sums of money protecting other copyrights.
The organization possesses considerable wealth. Besides the 12.5-acre
Mother Center, the SRF -- which claims a presence in 54 countries --
owns a spectacular retreat overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Encinitas,
and its Lake Shrine in Pacific Palisades is worth many millions of dollars.
Ostracized by relatives and mistreated by his stepfather for having
been conceived from an adulterous liaison, Erskine was banished along
with his mother to the Nevada desert as a child. He says he grew up
being ridiculed as the guru's "bastard" child and that although
his stepfather often reviled Yogananda in front of his mother and siblings,
neither he nor other family members were allowed to utter the guru's
Yet, Erskine has never claimed to know for certain who his father is.
He says his mother gave birth to him at home in the City Terrace section
of Los Angeles in January 1933, and that no birth certificate was issued
on his behalf. Adelaide Erskine suffered a breakdown several years after
Yogananda died, and was unable to communicate effectively for the rest
of her life. She died in 1996 a few months short of what would have
been her 100th birthday.
Not surprisingly, Ben Erskine's years-long effort to solicit help from
the SRF for more information -- something he now acknowledges was naive
-- led nowhere. Erskine's tale, detailed in a New Times cover story
last July, scandalized the swami's followers both within and outside
the SRF. For devotees who regard him as an avatar, or godlike being,
the mere suggestion that Yogananda could have fathered a child is considered
sacrilege. Espousing a blend of Hindu and Christian beliefs, the SRF
jealously protects Yogananda's legacy.
But, as New Times reported, the SRF's handling of the controversy,
including its efforts to suppress allegations -- some of them more than
a half-century old -- of alleged womanizing by the swami has done little
to diminish Erskine's credibility. And that includes the SRF's actions
since Erskine began to speak publicly about his mother and Yogananda.
Michael J. Flynn, a lawyer for the SRF, last June quickly dismissed
the suggestion that Erskine might be Yogananda's son, insisting in a
brief telephone interview that Erskine's father was Sri Nerode, an early
associate of Yogananda's whose real name was Nirad Ranjan Chowdhury.
Flynn had gone to Oregon several years ago to meet Erskine and persuaded
him to provide blood and hair samples under the guise of helping him
find out the truth about his parentage, according to Erskine. Flynn
later asserted that DNA tests involving several of Yogananda's relatives
in India conducted last March and matched against Erskine's DNA proved
conclusively that Yogananda could not have fathered Erskine.
But Flynn declined repeated requests by New Times to provide documentation
of his claims, and threatened to sue the newspaper should it print anything
in the article that he perceived to be libelous about Yogananda or the
SRF. The documentation, provided to New Times by Reed, Erskine's lawyer
(and copies of which Flynn also provided after the July article appeared)
suggests that the SRF closely supervised the chain of custody of the
DNA samples taken in India.
Reed dismisses the SRF test results as meaningless, asserting that
there was no independent, verifiable way of knowing that the blood samples
tested by a genetics firm in St. Louis were actually those of the people
from whom they were purportedly drawn. The person who took custody of
the samples in India and who was responsible for having them delivered
to the U.S. lab was Ronald L. Eisely, a.k.a. Brother Vishwananda, a
senior monk who sits on the SRF board. According to Eisely's affidavit,
he went to Calcutta to accompany the Indian doctor who took the samples
from Yogananda's elderly nephew and two of the late swami's nieces at
In July, Flynn announced that the nephew, Biswanath Ghosh, would come
to L.A. on September 10 and that additional DNA tests would demonstrate
beyond a doubt that Erskine could not be Yogananda's son. However, September
10 passed with no word about the promised testing. Concerned that the
SRF might bring Ghosh to Los Angeles for the purpose of having the body
exhumed, cremated and returned to India to have his ashes scattered
in the river Ganges, Reed urged Forest Lawn officials to notify his
client should there be any attempt to remove the body.
Paula Graber, Forest Lawn's vice president for communications, acknowledged
that the cemetery had received Reed's request. She confirmed that Yogananda's
remains are indeed still at Forest Lawn, adding that "no one need
be concerned that they will be removed unless or until there is a court
order to do so."
In a recent phone interview, Flynn said that scheduling problems had
prevented Ghosh from coming to L.A. in September. Flynn said that Ghosh
was currently in the United States and that arrangements were under
way to conduct DNA tests.
Meanwhile, a new development appears to have tossed the DNA controversy
back into the SRF's lap.
Angered that Flynn should suggest that Sri Nerode was Erskine's father,
Nerode's son, Cornell University mathematics professor Anil Nerode,
paid to have his own DNA testing conducted during the summer and fall.
The tests compared samples provided by Erskine with Anil Nerode's DNA,
that of his 94-year-old mother, Agnes Nerode, and a brother, Kiron Nerode.
Conducted by Genetica DNA Labs of Cincinnati, Ohio, the tests (copies
of which were obtained by New Times) determined that there is a "zero"
percent chance that the late Sri Nerode was Erskine's father.
"[The Flynn allegation] deeply offended me and offended my mother,
when we knew that it could not possibly be true," Anil Nerode says.
Nerode says the allegation was particularly upsetting because his father
parted company with Yogananda in 1939 after accusing the swami of running
a harem at Mount Washington. It followed a similar allegation from another
of Yogananda's closest early associates, Basu Kumar Bagchi, a.k.a. Swami
Dhirananda, who renounced the life of a swami and, after splitting with
Yogananda, became a leading academic in brain-wave research at the University
Attorney Reed says his client is "energized" by the Nerode
DNA results. "As far as we're concerned it moves things forward.
It helps us to know who Ben Erskine's father was not. It tells us that
the guy that the SRF apparently would love to say fathered Ben Erskine
in fact did not. I wonder what Mr. Flynn has to say about that?"
So did New Times. But before Flynn could be asked, he hung up.
FROM NHNE'S NEWS LIST:
YOGANANDA'S LEGACY IN CRISIS (9/27/2001)
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