Giving Back

[Listen to Asha read this story]

“Where is the bill for filling my propane tank?” Swamiji asked Seva. “It should have come by now.”

 “I already paid it,” Seva said with a small triumphant smile.

“You shouldn’t have done that,” Swamiji said sternly. “I’m not here to take from Ananda, I’m here to give.”

“Most of the propane goes to run the generator to power the typewriter so that you can write books that support Ananda,” Seva replied emphatically. “Since you won’t accept royalties, at least we can pay for the fuel!” It was obvious she was not going to give in.

“Okay, I’ll accept it this time,” Swamiji said reluctantly. “However, you must promise next time to bring the bill to me.”

In the early years of Ananda, when Seva managed most of Ananda’s finances, I witnessed many such friendly tussles between her and Swamiji. She was determined to give him at least a modicum of financial support; he was equally determined not to accept it.

When Swamiji needed money for personal expenses, or more often, for Ananda projects that couldn’t be financed in any other way, he would go out and earn it, usually by setting up a lecture tour or a series of classes.

After Swamiji became a disciple at the age of 22, he never again worked for any cause other than to spread Master’s teachings. Even right after he was expelled from SRF at the age of 36 and found himself penniless and alone, everything he did to earn money also helped to spread Master’s teachings.

The principle, “Where there is dharma, there is victory,” governs all aspects of Swamiji’s life, including his personal finances. If he feels it is right for him to spend money in a certain way, he’ll commit to it, even if he doesn’t have the money and has no idea where it will come from.

            In 1979, he went on a lecture tour of Europe with barely enough money for expenses and nothing for his return fare. “I wasn’t concerned about how I would get home,” Swamiji said later. “I concentrated on serving God and left the matter to Him.” He didn’t even charge for his lectures. Still, all the money he needed easily came to him.    

Once for a community fundraising effort, Swamiji pledged $3000 to repair a section of Ananda road. “I didn’t have the money, but I knew no one else did either,” Swamiji said later. “The work had to be done. ‘You’ll have to provide it,’ I said to Divine Mother when I made the pledge.”

A few days later, a man Swamiji hadn’t seen for years slipped an envelope under his door. Inside was a note: “My mother died recently and I wanted to give you something from her estate.” He included a check for $3000.

When he was a young monk, living on an allowance of $15 a month, Swamiji felt intuitively that he should have a nine-gem bangle. “Even now, I’m not quite sure how it happened, but somehow I got that bangle.” Later he sold it to help pay for the land to start Ananda. A few years later, a woman insisted on buying him another bangle.

“At first I was reluctant to accept it,” Swamiji said. “I thought there were better uses for the money. Then I realized it was Divine Mother giving it back to me, since I had given up the first one in service to Her.”

A wealthy and generous friend phoned Seva one day and told her he was going to give Swamiji $40,000 to use in any way he chose. It was enough to buy a new car, bring in electricity and a phone line to Swamiji’s house, and build a much-needed recording studio there. The total cost for all of this was $41,000.

Two weeks later, the car had been purchased and the work was underway but the check still hadn’t arrived. No one was concerned. The donor was a man of his word and had given generously before – although never such a large amount.

Finally the check came. When Seva took it out of the envelope, at first she thought there was something wrong with her eyes.

“I made a small mistake,” she said to Swamiji. “Just a matter of one zero.” The check was for four thousand dollars, not forty thousand. Somehow Seva had misunderstood.

Swamiji laughed when he heard the news. “We are committed to a line of action,” he said. “We can’t stop now. I guess Divine Mother wants me to go out and earn the money.” And he did.

Even before he was on the path, Swamiji had this same curious mixture of confidence and detachment from money. “When I was 16 years old,” Swamiji said, “my father wanted to buy me a tuxedo to wear to the opera and to dinner parties when I grew older. I knew that would never be my lifestyle. ‘Don’t waste your money,’ I told him. ‘I’ll never earn enough money even to pay income tax.’”

When he was in college, Swamiji said, “I had an allowance of $3 a month, which wasn’t much even then. Somehow, though, on that little bit, I was able to treat all my friends to milkshakes. There always seemed to be enough.”

Over the years, Swamiji has earned or raised millions of dollars. He has kept nothing for himself; all of it has gone to build Ananda. His father was never able to understand Swamiji’s attitude toward money. Once in exasperation he exclaimed to Swamiji, “You simply must stop giving all your money away!”

Although Swamiji doesn’t like to be in debt, he will borrow money when needed, especially to launch a project or finish one when costs exceed the estimate.

In the summer of 1976, shortly after a forest fire had devastated much of Ananda Village, Swamiji found out that the foundation to his own house was dangerously weak. At any moment, the whole dome might go careening down the hill.

In order not to take energy away from rebuilding the community, Swamiji arranged for an outside contractor to work on his house. The original estimate proved ridiculously low and $30,000 more was needed. The work had to be done, so Swamiji borrowed the money from a friend and paid it back in a matter of months, just as he had promised.

He is so conscientious in financial matters, he jokingly suggested that the epithet on his tombstone could be, “He paid his debts.”

In 1981, Swamiji was visiting friends in Hawaii. The conversation turned to Ananda and Swamiji’s relationship to the community. His friends were astonished to hear how much money Swamiji had earned and given to Ananda and how little was given to him in return.

“You are the founder and spiritual director, and you don’t even take a salary?” his friend said. “You are treating the members of Ananda like children. They will never mature as devotees unless they also give back to you. It is not fair to them.”

Swamiji had always been adamant about not taking a salary, and his friend was prepared to argue the point at length. That proved unnecessary, however, for Swamiji saw the wisdom of what he was saying.

“You are right,” Swamiji said simply.

When the community leaders heard that Swamiji was willing now to accept a salary, they began to pay him $2500 a month.

Later, Swamiji said, “When I was in college, I took singing lessons. My teacher charged me $5 a week. ‘It is not that I need the money,’ she said to me, ‘but you need to pay it.’ It is the same in this case. It is not that I need the money, but the community has reached the point now where it needs to pay it.”

Still, whenever larger sums were needed to help Ananda, Swamiji would earn it by teaching outside of the community. For the many classes and services he gave within Ananda, he never accepted payment. Finally, when Swamiji started making plans for yet another lecture tour, David, the Retreat manager, said to him, “Why don’t you teach here and let me pay you whatever you would earn by going out?”

“How could you afford it?” Swamiji said, “The Retreat budget is so tight.”

            At that time, the Retreat was paying well-known teachers from outside Ananda to come and give weekend retreats. “Don’t you think it is ridiculous to pay others when we’d much rather have you than anyone else? The only reason we didn’t schedule you, is that you were busy writing. If you are available to teach now, teach here.” David said. “The money doesn’t all have to come out of the Retreat budget. I think community members would be happy to donate for the classes you give, if it means you’ll stay here and teach more for them.”

“I founded Ananda to give to others, not to take for myself,” Swamiji said, the same answer he’d given Seva years before.

“It is only right that we give back to you,” David said.

“That is true,” Swamiji replied thoughtfully. “For that reason I accept.” Then he added, “It mustn’t, however, be a requirement that people pay. I don’t want anyone to be turned away for lack of money.”

Once it was settled, Swamiji admitted that he hadn’t really felt inwardly that it was right for him to go away from Ananda, even for a lecture tour, but he was willing because it seemed like the only alternative. He was grateful to Divine Mother for arranging it in a different way.

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras—the ancient ‘handbook’ for yoga practice—describes the yama, or spiritual practice, called “non-avarice.” (The yamas are all written in the negative—non-violence being the best-known example.)

Non-avarice is more than just non-attachment to money. “What the spiritual seeker must renounce,” Swamiji explains, “is the desire for anything that he does not acquire by merit. The implication is that if he does merit it, he needn’t fear that he won’t attract it. Even if he must work hard to attract it, he should remain relaxed as to the outcome, leaving the results wholly in God’s hands. This is a prescription for peace of mind even during intense activity.”

For thirteen years, Swamiji accepted this income from Ananda.  Then, in 1994, the Bertolucci lawsuit was filed against him. Among other things, it accused Swamiji of using Ananda for his own financial gain.

When his parents died in 1983, Ananda’s work in Europe was just getting underway. Swamiji wanted to be able to spend time there without being a burden on the devotees. Most of the inheritance he received from his parents, Swamiji used to build Crystal Hermitage as a spiritual center for the community. Ten thousand dollars, however, he put into a Swiss bank account – not a numbered account, but one with his name on it. He never made another deposit. Swamiji used the money for his personal expenses in Europe, including buying a pair of Swiss-made hearing aids. A few years later, long before the Bertolucci lawsuit was filed, the account was down to $3,000 and Swamiji closed it.

Bertolucci’s attorney, however, claimed that this long-defunct “Swiss bank account” proved that Swamiji was skimming money from Ananda and hiding it in Switzerland.

“Most people assume I must be getting rich off of Ananda,” Swamiji said. “It is how they themselves would act in my position. In fact, many people would think I was a fool not to take money from the community.”

The court ruled in Swamiji’s favor. Still, he felt tainted by the whole process.

“It was right for the community to give me a salary,” he said in 1998, after the lawsuit was over, “but I’ve never felt right about taking it. From now on, I won’t accept anything from Ananda. Divine Mother can support me or not support me, by whatever means and to whatever extent She chooses.”    

His salary was largely symbolic anyway, more for our sake than for his. Swamiji’s life and his service to Master have always been sustained by Divine Mother through spontaneous giving from friends and devotees around the world. It is not surprising that those to whom Swamiji has given so much would be inspired to give back to him.

“The quality of non-avarice, developed to perfection,” Swamiji explains, “generates a subtle magnetism that enables a person to attract things to himself effortlessly. He is never anxious then, that his needs, whatever they may be, won’t be supplied. They will be, infallibly.”


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