The Rev. Achariya Peter, a mystic who founded a universalist yogic spiritual community, died of cancer Nov. 24 at his North Baltimore home. He was 79.
The founding preceptor and spiritual leader of the Divine Life Church in the Lake Falls area, he was known as Swami or Swami Shankarananda.
He was born Peter Donner in Berlin, Germany. He later changed his name to Achariya, meaning "spiritual teacher." According to a biography supplied by June Ellis, a Loyola University Maryland professor, he was raised in a family who were not supporters of Adolf Hitler. At the age of 5, he was sent to a boarding school in southern Germany. He never saw his parents again.
Through a Red Cross program, he was adopted by a German-speaking couple in Charleston, S.C., when he was 11.
He earned a bachelor's degree at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vt. He also earned a master's degree from Middlebury in association with the University of Mainz. Attracted to spiritual writings as a young man, he decided to follow the precepts as a Brahmachari, or spiritual follower, as a college student.
While completing his master's thesis in German, he was awarded a teaching fellowship from George Washington University in Washington. There he joined the Swami Order and was ordained at the Golden Lotus Temple, a Bethesda landmark. Ordained as the Rev. Achariya Peter in 1968 and later consecrated as Swami Shankarananda, he wore the traditional saffron orange robes.
He served as the temple's assistant minister until 1974.
"Some people from Baltimore were driving to Washington to go to the temple. Before long he was driving his Volkswagen bug to Baltimore to be with people here one night a week. Soon the group bought a dilapidated house on Falls Road, and he moved here," said Dr. Ellis, who teaches literature at Loyola. "He radiated joy. His smile would light up a room. He made a connection with every person."
She said he led a campaign to enlarge and renovate the house into a church. He also cultivated an attractive rose garden where wedding ceremonies are held. He created a 2-acre meditation garden that abuts the Jones Falls.
He was a teacher of yoga philosophy and meditation. "As a Vedantist, he brought out the universality and mysticism behind all religious traditions," said Dr. Ellis, who lives in Baltimore. "His focus was on promoting the cultivation of self-realization and unconditional love in action through all expressions of life and service. Through the years, he initiated many into Kriya Yoga."
He was also active in the Masonic Order and was admitted to the Scottish Rite. He was a 32nd Degree Mason.
In 1994, he founded a Universal Swami Order. Dr. Ellis said the order includes women as well as men, and married as well as unmarried devotees.
"He loved the yogic teachings that guide us to see the divine everywhere, in everyone and in everything," said Dr. Ellis. "And he lived that ideal. ... Always he guided us to put the truth into practice, to love with our entire beings, to share of ourselves, to be of service."
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He was the author of many books and CDs, including "The Lord's Prayer in the Light of Yoga," "Spiritual Perfection" and "Divine Love."
"From the very first time I heard him — about nine years ago — I recognized he was the embodiment of joy and wisdom and was blessed with common sense and an uncommon sense of humor," said Anne M. Brown, who lives in Lutherville. "He exuded pure love and inspired and uplifted me every time I saw him."