Bicentennial Liberty Committee

[Listen to Asha read this story]

In the early years, when the Ananda community was just getting started, the only dwellings many of the residents could afford were teepees they sewed themselves out of heavy canvas. When the local newspaper heard a rumor about what was going on out on the “Ridge” where we lived, it printed an article about the problem of “tent cities” springing up “all over the county” without proper supervision by the local authorities.

Swamiji knew that Ananda was the only thing in the county that fit that description. The day after the article appeared, he went to the county offices.

“I’m here to answer your ad,” he said.

In fact, Ananda was already under county jurisdiction as a “church camp” supervised by the Health Department. Once a year, the Fire Inspector came to make sure our extinguishers were working and that our brush clearing was adequate. Two or three times a year, the Health Officer came. He had worked for years in impoverished countries overseas, however, and had no problem with the rather primitive conditions in those years at Ananda – no electricity or indoor plumbing. As long as we were safe and sanitary, he didn’t object.

Being a “church camp” allowed us to live permanently in all kinds of “temporary structures”: trailers, teepees, and the equivalent of tarpaper shacks, which was all we could afford at the time. The handful of proper buildings we did have we had been allowed to construct without permits or inspections. It was a godsend. If we had had from the beginning to meet the stringent planning and building requirements imposed upon us later, Ananda literally would never have gotten off the ground.

In 1974, when we acquired an additional 365 acres of land on which we planned to build a new Retreat (now The Expanding Light), we went as usual to the Health Department to talk about our plans. To our surprise, the Health Inspector told us that he no longer had jurisdiction. From now on, he said, Ananda would have to answer to the Planning Department.

A group of us, including Swamiji, had a meeting with the Planning Director. We had never met her and she had never been to Ananda, so we explained in some detail the ideals behind Ananda, how the community functioned, what we had accomplished so far, and our vision for the future.

When we were done, she reached over to a nearby bookshelf, pulled out a thick volume of regulations, and thumbed through it until she found what she wanted. Pointing to the proper paragraph, she announced decisively, “So, you are a condominium.” A condominium is an ownership arrangement for an urban apartment complex. It bore no resemblance to what we were doing at Ananda.

The Planning Director had started as a secretary and risen through the ranks to the top job in the department without ever receiving the specialized education and training needed to do the job in a fair and professional manner. There was no real system of checks and balances in place, so she was able to wield her power according to her own perception of things with very little outside interference.

A planning problem as complex and unusual as Ananda was simply beyond her capacity to solve. As a cover for her own incompetence, she decided that Ananda itself was the problem. Her solution was to make things as difficult as possible for us until, she hoped, we would give up and go away.

She started by imposing a moratorium on all new building at Ananda pending the submission and approval of a proper Master Plan for the development of the whole community. By late 1975, we were on our third version of the Master Plan. The two previous versions had been rejected, because, after we submitted them, the Planning Director issued a new set of guidelines that made what we had done unacceptable.

Now the Planning Director tried to force us to remove all “non-conforming” structures before she would even consider the next version of the Plan. Just about everything on our land fit her definition of “non-conforming.” This demand would have put us out of business. Only after we hired an attorney did she back down.

The rest of us were too inexperienced to see the handwriting on the wall. Swamiji, however, knew we were in big trouble and the only solution was to get the Planning Director replaced. We weren’t the only ones being hurt by her capricious ways. She had caused great hardship for many citizens in the county. Some had even lost their property because of the unreasonable standards she imposed. Swamiji knew that Ananda, as one of the few organized groups in the county, had the capacity to create change in a way no individual would be able to do.

* * *

The coming year, 1976, was the bicentennial celebration of the founding of America. Swamiji saw it as the ideal rallying point for the campaign he had in mind—a county-wide movement reaffirming the principles of freedom and personal responsibility upon which this country was founded. He called it The Bicentennial Liberty Committee. He started with a petition describing the principles and intentions of the BLC, as it came to be called.

“Two hundred years ago,” the petition said, “our forefathers fought for the right to be represented in government by people who were responsive to their needs, rather than to rules and restrictions insensitively imposed from afar. In this Twentieth Century, increasing centralization of power has raised again the threat of insensitive legislation, originating similarly from afar, where the needs of the individual are ignored in favor of mass uniformity.

“We, citizens of Nevada County, feel that with the approaching celebration of our country’s bicentennial it is time to affirm with some of the revolutionary zeal of our forefathers the need for personal liberty and self-direction. We call upon our governments in Washington, Sacramento, and especially in Nevada County to pay heed not only to the rules that are imposed on us from above, but also to us, the individuals who must live by those rules.

“Particularly we demand the right to live our own lives as we choose to live them, so long as we do not infringe on the freedom and rights of others; and to develop our own properties and build homes thereon according to our own tastes and inclinations, provided only that we show sensitive regard for the land we live on, and that we not endanger the health and safety of others.”

Swamiji’s plan was first to get a hundred local businesses to endorse the petition. Then we would reprint it with all those names on it. Teams of people would then take those petitions out to the local shopping areas and gather individual signatures. He knew individuals would be more willing to sign if they saw that the businesses were already behind it.

* * *

Within the Ananda community, however, the idea of the petition, and the whole Bicentennial Liberty Committee, went over like a lead balloon. “The great majority of responsible people at Ananda opposed it,” Swamiji wrote later.

Most thought it was foolhardy to risk antagonizing the local government. “Don’t you realize the Planning Department could shut us down completely?” was the gist of their argument.

“We won’t even have a community if we don’t do something,” Swamiji responded. He alone understood that our survival was already in jeopardy.

Others protested that the whole idea was “goofy” and not at all in tune with Ananda’s apolitical nature. Some even said it was spiritually wrong for us to get involved in a project like this.

“What I propose to do isn’t immoral,” Swamiji responded. “Indeed, it’s super moral. The officials we are dealing with have been appointed to their positions and have a duty to listen to public opinion.”

Few at Ananda were persuaded.

“Rather than spending all your energy trying to win over those who oppose you,” Swamiji has said, speaking of how to be an effective leader, “give your energy to those who are with you. Generally speaking, negativity has little cohesive power compared to the magnetism generated by those who put out positive energy, and who set good examples.”

Swamiji knew if he could create even a small nucleus of support for the BLC within Ananda, he could build from there. That nucleus turned out to be me. As Swamiji himself described it years later, he got my support by appealing to my lively sense of humor! It was a serious situation, but, at the same time, it was so far out of the ordinary flow of Ananda life that it had a certain quality of madcap adventure about it, which he knew would appeal to me.

I knew Swamiji well enough to know that he wouldn’t launch such a bold and public campaign without a strong sense of inner guidance. He was confident, and that was enough for me. Besides, the way he presented it, it seemed like a lot of fun. And it was.

My enthusiasm was the spark that soon convinced others from Ananda to help. We took the petitions into town and in just a few days had the endorsement of almost a hundred local businesses. After two weekends at the shopping centers, we had thousands of individual signatures, plus a bulging file of stories of how citizens had been mistreated by the local government.

* * *

Swamiji was chairman of the BLC; I was the secretary. We didn’t hide the Ananda connection, but nor did we advertise it. He used his American name, J. Donald Walters. (Later, in order to reach a wider public in America, he published many books under that name, but at the time it was relatively unknown.)

Editorials and articles appeared in the local paper speculating about this “Committee” which seemed to have sprung out of nowhere. When curiosity was at its height, Swamiji called a public meeting at a large hall in Nevada City, the county seat.

Ananda people came “incognito,” about a hundred in all. They arrived by ones and twos and pretended not to know each other, to swell the numbers without tipping our hand. Many from Ananda were still skeptical, some even predicted disaster, but all were as curious as anyone else in the county to see what would happen next! In all, the crowd numbered several hundred, an impressive turnout, duly reported the next day in the local paper.

Swamiji presided over the meeting as “J. Donald Walters, Chairman of the Bicentennial Liberty Committee.” For the occasion, he had written a pamphlet he called Your Freedoms Are Like Old Friends: Don’t Take Them For Granted.

Of the four hundred pieces of music Swamiji has written, one is a political song—Salute the Nice Paper Flag. Obviously, this was the time to sing it. The song satirizes the passivity that comes when people rely too much on the government to take care of them and the ruin that descends on any country that encourages that dependency. The crowd loved it. Nevada County was founded by gold miners, and that independent, rough-and-tumble spirit is still very much alive there.

Swamiji spoke of the widespread discontent with local government, as evidenced by the thousands of people who signed the petition in just a few days. He urged county officials to be more compassionate and responsive to local needs. Other speakers shared personal stories of mistreatment at the hands of local officials. The whole meeting was designed to fan the flames of controversy and it succeeded beautifully.

* * *

A few days later, an editorial in the local paper attempted to defend the county against the charges raised by the BLC. At Swamiji’s instruction, I responded with a series of letters to the editor. The intent was to make the officials feel that the whole county was under siege. I systematically targeted, not only the Planning Department, but also the Building Department, the County Counsel’s office, and others as well. I included specific examples from the bulging file of stories we had collected. My letters prompted a host of other letters from county residents, almost all in sympathy with the BLC.

I appeared on local radio talk shows and became a “regular” at meetings of the Board of Supervisors. I was fair minded and stuck to the issues and gradually I won the respect of most of the Supervisors, even those who didn’t agree with what I had to say. At the right moment, I presented to them our impressive stack of signed petitions.

“They wouldn’t have listened to us alone,” Swamiji said. “County officials hold their jobs by public appointment. I had to make them see that there was widespread public opposition to their behavior. I wrote that petition very much in earnest. And the large number of people who signed it constituted a significant force.”

When Swamiji finally declared his connection to Ananda publicly, he did it as a peacemaker, seeking to smooth the troubled waters with the voice of reason. It was amazing to see him calming a controversy he himself had stirred up!

In what he called A Special Plea to our Supporters, Swamiji wrote, “It is common, these days especially, to conduct civic protests in anger. But anger assumes bad faith on the part of those one opposes. Such assumptions are not always fair. Surely most of us in Nevada County would prefer to believe in the good faith of our public servants. In fairness, then, to those who have devoted themselves to serving us truly and well, let us assume the best of intentions in them all. Let us go even further: Let us offer friendship to those, even, whom we may be forced eventually to oppose. Let our struggle be not against them, as individuals, but against the uncivic attitudes for which they have chosen to stand. If they change those attitudes, there is no reason why we should not continue to give them our fullest support.”

The Grand Jury investigated the Planning Department and recommended that the Planning Director be fired. Her replacement was a competent, trained professional who soon got Ananda’s planning process back on track.

A side effect of the whole thing was that when it came time to elect a new supervisor from our district, I had gained a certain amount of notoriety and there was a movement to draft me to run for the position. It was nothing I wanted to do, but for Ananda’s sake I was willing to consider it.

I was greatly relieved when Swamiji said, “We have accomplished our objective. There is no point in ‘flexing our muscles’ any further. It wasn’t power we were after; it was simple survival, so that we might continue in the way of life to which we are dedicated.”

After it was all over, I asked Swamiji, “Did you know when you started how it would turn out?”

“Not exactly,” Swamiji said, “although I am not surprised. I knew intuitively it would work and just took it a step at a time.”

* * *

Master says that by the time a soul reaches the advanced state of spiritual realization that Swamiji has achieved, he has drunk the cup of worldly power to its dregs. Master himself was a king and a warrior many times before. Swamiji has made references to several such incarnations of his own.

He has a unique way of discussing current events. To him, the decision makers on the world stage are not names one reads about in the newspaper. He regards them as colleagues, and discusses their decisions not in the gossipy way most people do, but as if he were at the table of power with them, and had as much right as they to direct the course of history.

“Everyone is just a child of God,” Swamiji says simply. “I feel no trepidation or exaltation at meeting even the heads of nations.”

* * *

When he was in India working on behalf of SRF in 1961, Swamiji felt that the way to get Master’s work established in that country was to build a temple in the capital city of New Delhi. The only available land where Swamiji wanted to build, however, was part of the “Green Belt.” By government decree, virtually no building was allowed in that sector. More than two thousand charitable and religious societies had tried to get land there; all had been denied.

“The only way you will be able to build in that area,” Swamiji was assured by those in the know, “is to get permission from Prime Minister Nehru himself.”

“Then I will do so,” Swamiji resolved.

“It never occurred to me,” Swamiji said later, “that Nehru was out of reach merely because of his position. It had to be done, so I would do it.”

From a chance meeting on a train, Swamiji had made the acquaintance of a highly placed government official. This man had been well impressed with Swamiji and was willing to recommend him to another highly placed person. One led to others, and soon a handful of officials were willing to back his proposal, if he could get Nehru to agree.

Encouraged by Swamiji’s success so far, a friend was able to get him an appointment with Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi. It turned out they had attended separate schools in the same small village in Switzerland. In French, a language Swamiji learned as a child, they discussed their attendance there. At the end of their meeting, she agreed to recommend Swamiji to her father.

Prime Minister Nehru spent forty minutes with Swamiji. Some heads of state got only five minutes from him. Nehru agreed to walk the land Swamiji had requested, and, in the end, gave him permission to build the temple.

It was a triumph for Master’s work in India. Incomprehensible though it may seem, the SRF Board of Directors, ten thousand miles away in Los Angeles, California, saw the whole thing in a very different light.

On the nine-person Board of Directors, there were eight women and Swamiji, the only man. For years the women had viewed his expansive spirit and never-ending flow of creative ideas as a threat, rather than a benefit, to the future of Master’s work. Now this “presumption,” as they saw it, of daring to confer with the Prime Minister of India, was the last straw.

Swamiji had acted with the approval of Daya Mata. When she saw, however, how the other members of the Board felt about what Swamiji had done, Daya made it seem as if Swamiji had acted entirely on his own. To them, his bold move was nothing but an attempt to gain power for himself by taking away from Daya Mata the control of SRF’s work in India.

Nothing Swamiji said could change their minds. They absolutely refused to have anything to do with the land Swamiji had worked so hard to obtain for them. Even though he complied with their request to drop the project completely, from that point on it was a downhill slide. A year later, in July 1962, Daya Mata summoned Swamiji to New York City and expelled him from SRF.

* * *

Considering his background in this life, and in incarnations before, Swamiji was unimpressed when I expressed admiration for how skillfully he had orchestrated the whole campaign with the Bicentennial Liberty Committee.

“A tempest in a teapot,” Swamiji called it.

“It may have been,” I said. “But it is the teapot where we live. Thank God you had the foresight to save the day.”

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