By ITTAI SOPHER PZ ’19
Senior Political Correspondent
When Sundara Shakta Vinyasa Ananda PO ’20 asked Pitzer professor Phil Zuckerman to visit her house with his class, his immediate response was enthusiastic.
Zuckerman, who is a Sociology and Secular Studies professor, told Ananda that he would love to visit. Zuckerman warned Ananda however that he would not stifle critical student comments about the house.
Visiting what is known as The Denver House or The Goddess House would be normal for Zuckerman’s “Sociology of Religion” course. In this class, students regularly visit different places of worship, typically followed by a debrief at a local doughnut shop.
After visiting The Denver House, students were eager to dive into a class discussion about the what they had witnessed.
Among the criticisms from Zuckerman’s class at that debrief was that The Denver House’s predominately white congregants adopting Eastern spiritual practices, symbols, and Sanskrit names was a form of cultural appropriation.
“Some of my students felt that was problematic,” Zuckerman said. “That it was cultural appropriation. That it was giving spiritual credibility to these white students.”
In the single-story home, a few blocks north of Harvey Mudd, with a large well-kept garden, religious symbols like a large handmade paper-mache Hindu god stand out.
There are five people, some from Pitzer and Pomona, and another who was visiting temporarily from Dartmouth College, who live in the house, according to Ananda. It’s not unusual for people in the house to casually quote the teachings of Christian theologian St. Thomas Aquinas, after arguing about Rihanna lyrics.
“Aquinas is a cool guy.” One member of the house said, after discussing one of the medieval thinker’s sayings.
The five students from Pitzer and Pomona who live in the house draw spirituality from many different religions, spiritualities and theologians. Their spiritual guide and is a man named Jnanda Brahmananda, who Zuckerman described as an “itinerant guru,” who occasionally will visit the house to learn and meditate with students who live there.
Zuckerman said that his students voiced concerns Brahmananda’s stance on homosexuality.
Brahmananda, who also plays the role of a personal mentor for many of the students, details this topic further on his website, The Four Main Yogas of Life.
“The Divine One explained to me that the two main causes [of homosexuality] were being exposed / subjected to molestation at an early age.” Brahmananda’s website reads. “The Divine One indicated that it is an unnatural state for humans.”
Ananda emphasized that this teaching of her mentor was taken out of context and is one with which she disagrees and that she understands why these comments offend LGBTQIA+ students. Brahmanda is willing to work with students who are not heterosexual, Ananda said.
Other religious or spiritual groups that the class visited, such as an evangelical church in Pomona, also claimed that while they believed non-heterosexuality was sinful or unnatural. They too still claimed to accept LGBTQIA+ members into their church, Zuckerman said.
Ananda said that she disagrees with Brahmananda’s teachings on homosexuality and that followers of Brahmananda are welcome to question any of the spiritual guru’s teachings.
While the class discussed some elements of The Denver House they found unsavory, Zuckerman himself pushed back against derogatory comments that have been made against the group, specifically those who refer to the house as “a cult,” or those who claim members of the group are being “brainwashed.”
Zuckerman noted that those terms are almost always pejorative and that college-aged students in The Denver House have more agency to question spiritual teachings than a three-year-old in a Christian Sunday school.
“A cult, is a term that everybody applies to others but nobody applies to themselves,” Zuckerman said.
Ananda was aware of the rumors that had been circulating about the group of Pitzer and Pomona students who live and worship at The Denver House, including rumors that students had to stop speaking to family members who are unaffiliated with the house, or that the FBI was investigating the house. Members of the Denver House even contacted Pitzer administrators and asked if they knew anything about an ongoing FBI investigation.
There was never any action to suggest law enforcement authorities were involved in the house.
“I had literally one person that I knew reach out to me and ask me what was going on.” Ananda said. “Everyone else, they don’t care. They’ll just listen to the rumors.”
Ananda, who grew up atheist and who only recently started to go by a Sanskrit name, now wears earring in the shape of a cross and a bracelet that features Saraswati, a Hindu goddess. Ananda says the cross symbolizes the intersection of spirituality with the physical world, and Saraswati symbolizes continuously playing music, even if you have to stop and tune the instrument.
Her bedroom in The Denver House also features iconography of the Hindu god, Krishna, as well as pictures of Jesus. Ananda assimilates these religious symbols in her life with what she calls a deep appreciation and understanding of where the spirituality in each symbol comes from, which in her eyes, steers her clear from appropriation.
“If I use the word “Om,” is that going to be considered cultural appropriation?” Ananda said. “I wasn’t raised with these tools. Of course I’m going to go out and find what’s working for me.”
A Pitzer student who is South Asian and identifies as culturally Hindu and who wishes to remain anonymous, agreed with some of Zuckerman’s students who criticized the Hindu and Buddhist iconography as appropriation.
This student, who will be identified as “Meghna” for the sake of this article said that the practices of members of The Denver House are offensive to, what she called a generation of South Asian Americans who struggle with assimilation.
Meghna, who is not in Zuckerman’s class, said that in her time living nearby The Denver House and having taken classes with congregants of the house, she saw that students were disrespecting articles and names usually reserved for clergy and venerated officials.
“I noticed someone from my class now has the last name, ‘Ananda,’ on Facebook.” Meghna said. “That’s the name of one of Buddha’s disciples, which connotes extreme religiosity and usually only priests can have that name.”
Meghna declined to visit the house, as Ananda indicated outsiders ought to do to learn more, citing her discomfort at seeing pictures on Facebook of Hindu icons depicted on a tapestry, which Meghna said should only be displayed in a “sacred format.”
“I know that it’s going to make me very uncomfortable,” Meghna said about visiting the house. “What I have already seen has been enough.”
Meghna also questioned the motives and meaning of The Denver House’s practices that draw heavily from South Asian traditions, saying that she felt that it was a type of aesthetic that non South Asian students can not and would not dare to achieve.
“I see people who live there walking around in Hindu priest’s clothing and holding a staff,” Meghna said. “If I were to do that, everyone would ignore me.”
Spiritual guru Brahmananda’s teachings only arrived in Claremont after two students, one from Pitzer and one from Pomona, stopped at a farmer’s market in October 2017, according to a Pomona student who lives at The Denver House,. According this member, another resident of the house, who is a senior at Pitzer, came across Brahmananda at the farmer’s market and recalled seeing the guru in a dream a month before. After this encounter, both students who had been actively seeking out spirituality, brought the traveling guru to Claremont.
Some of the people at the house, three of whom described their religious upbringing as Christian, said they arrived at Brahmananda’s teachings after serious soul-searching. The Pomona student, who did not agree to be identified, said that before meeting Brahmananda, he had paid money and spent time with another guru who gave him little face-to-face time.
Brahamanda’s courses cost $60 per month, or however much you are able to give, according to students at The Denver House. Unlike some other gurus, Brahmananda is in regular contact with students in the house and many of those who live and worship in the house said that Brahmananda is open to giving advice on topics outside of spiritual growth, such as school and life after college.
Photo Courtesy of Matilda Msall ’19