A Prayer and a Fall

[Listen to Asha read this story]

The crisis descended on the Ananda community in Assisi, Italy, just a few weeks after Swamiji had left that country to start a work in India.

Some months earlier, a disgruntled ex-member had filed a lawsuit against the community. This was only one of many lawsuits this man had filed over the years against former employers, landlords, and even members of his own family.

The man alleged that Ananda was a dangerous cult that had brainwashed him, then forced him to work hard for low wages. Under Italian law, “enslaving” someone of “weak will” for “financial gain” is considered “criminal activity.” These are serious charges. It put Ananda in the same category as the Mafia.

As “evidence” that his claim was true, the man included allegations from an equally scurrilous lawsuit that had been filed against Ananda in America. Without conducting further investigation, the local prosecutor concluded that a world wide criminal organization was operating right in her neighborhood.

The Ananda leaders in Italy thought of the lawsuit as more of a nuisance than a threat. Ananda had already been through it in America. There was no basis for the allegations in either lawsuit and they knew it would eventually be straightened out (as in fact, for the most part, it has been).

Only in the middle of January 2004, when eighty armed policemen descended on the community at 5am to search for evidence, did the Ananda community understand how serious the situation had become.

When Swamiji left Italy, he had no inkling of what was about to happen. It looked, however, as if he had “fled the scene before the roof collapsed.” As the “Capo” of Ananda, Swamiji was first on the list of the “accused.”

A few weeks later, in early March, seven people from Ananda, the “ringleaders” according to the lawsuit, were arrested and taken to jail. In Italy, if the charges are serious, the “accused” can be imprisoned to keep them from fleeing the country or interfering with the investigation. The judge released them after five days, but at the time the “accused” were arrested no one knew how long they would be imprisoned.

The arrests were national news. In response, thousands of people all over Europe rose to Ananda's defense. Swamiji wanted to return to Italy immediately.

“I am the leader of Ananda,” he said. “It is me they really want. If they can question me, they’ll see that the charges are false.”

Ananda’s Italian lawyers said it would be folly for Swamiji to return. “You Americans don’t understand how much power the police have here,” one lawyer said. “Swamiji could be picked up at the airport and taken straight to prison. At the very least, he would be put under house arrest for who knows how long.”

“I am not a coward,” Swamiji replied.

If he were imprisoned, however, Swamiji knew he wouldn’t be able to help with Ananda’s defense, his main reason for going. Furthermore, the consternation it would cause to have him in jail would take energy away from the defense effort. Reluctantly, Swamiji agreed that it was better for him to stay in India.

In fact, he wasn’t physically strong enough to make the trip back to Europe. Ever since coming to India his health had been poor, and he had recently been released from the hospital after a near fatal episode of double pneumonia.

To dispel any thought, however, that he was “hiding” in India, Swamiji went to the Italian consulate in New Delhi where he presented medical evidence of his inability to travel. He then authorized the lawyers in Italy to speak on his behalf and offered to have his deposition taken at the consulate where it could be videotaped and sent to Italy.

Swamiji prayed to Divine Mother, “If there is anything more I can do, I offer myself willingly.”

In his bathroom in India, a marble sill, four inches wide and four inches high, with a curtain above it, was all that divided the shower area from the rest of the room. Soon after the arrests, while the “accused” were still in jail, and not long after his prayer to Divine Mother, Swamiji lost his balance and fell backwards so hard across that sill that his back arched over it.

The resulting pain was excruciating. At first the doctors thought it was only a bad bruise. Only weeks later, when the pain had not abated, did a more careful examination reveal that a rib had broken and was now detached from the spine. It took months to heal.

To a few of his closest friends, Swamiji said, “I prayed. Then later I fell. I hope the pain helps matters in Italy.”

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