Women say temple guru made sexual advances

Religious group denies accounts of intimate contact with two spiritual leaders

American-Statesman, Texas/March 20, 2009

Sexual advances from the two spiritual gurus of the Barsana Dham temple were a part of life for some women who lived on, or frequently visited, the ashram south of Austin, according to the recollections of five women who spent a collective 60 years living, working and worshipping at the Hindu temple.

The intimate contact between the gurus - Prakashanand Saraswati, known as Shree Swamiji, and his spiritual master, Maharajji Kripalu, also called Kripalu - and some women on the ashram was known and accepted among other devotees, added the women, who all said they experienced the advances firsthand. Many of the incidents they recounted occurred years before: The latest with Prakashanand was a decade ago; with Kripalu, in 2003. All of the women have since quit the organization.

The organization did not make the gurus available for comment. But temple representatives vigorously denied the accusations, suggesting they were part of an orchestrated plan to disparage the organization by disgruntled ex-devotees. Ashram director Kathleen Williams called the women's recollections "preposterous" and insisted that the incidents did not happen.

The women's claims come five months after Prakashanand was indicted in Hays County on 20 counts of indecency with a child, and a little over a year after Kripalu was charged with rape in the West Indies country of Trinidad and Tobago. The charges against Kripalu were later dropped for lack of evidence.

The charges against Prakashanand, filed in April, stem from incidents in 1993 and 1995, according to a Hays County grand jury indictment, in which two women accused the guru of repeatedly groping them when they were teenagers living at the Austin ashram. He has pleaded not guilty.

Peter Spiegel, another ashram director, said the allegations by the five women were ignited by the recent headlines and were from a small group of people attempting to "disrupt" Barsana Dham. "I've never seen Swamiji do anything remotely related to these false allegations," he said. "Maharajji Kripalu is always surrounded by multiple people. I've never heard anybody make any claim of sexual impropriety. I believe these allegations are complete fabrications."

In recent years, Prakashanand, who travels widely, has visited the Austin ashram four or five times a year, staying for two weeks to a month at a time. He was last in Austin a month ago. Kripalu keeps a home in a temple in Mangarh, in central India. He was last at the Austin ashram in spring 2007.

The women who spoke to the American-Statesman requested anonymity because they feared reprisal from the Hindu organization. The paper typically does not publish the names of people alleging sexual exploitation.

Some of the behavior described by the women would not be considered criminal because it occurred between consenting adults. A few of the incidents might have been considered assaults, although the statute of limitations has since passed in most of the cases. Texas law also includes a provision in which a "clergyman" can be charged for having sex with someone by "exploiting the other person's emotional dependency on the clergyman in the clergyman's professional character as spiritual adviser," although it is unclear if that would apply in these instances.

One woman, today a California resident, said she tried to interest lawyers in her story. But because the incident she recalled occurred in India and there was no physical evidence, she said she couldn't find an attorney to represent her.

Barsana Dham is part of a larger Hindu organization called Jagadguru Kripalu Parishat, or JKP, that was founded around Kripalu, who is considered God-realized, or a living, saint by his followers. It claims tens of thousands of followers and has a half-dozen large temples, all, except for Barsana Dham, in India.

Barsana Dham is one of the largest Hindu worship centers in the United States. Hundreds of worshippers, many drawn from Central Texas' South Asian community, attend weekly services. Major Hindu festivals can attract thousands of people to the site.

The women who spoke to the Statesman represent a small subset of that membership. Part of an inner circle that typically lived at the ashram and spent many hours on-site praying and performing volunteer service for the organization, they had regular contact with the gurus when the men were there. At Barsana Dham, the vast majority of people in this group are not Indian.

Barsana Dham is mounting an aggressive legal defense of Prakashanand and the ashram's reputation, hiring several lawyers and a public relations firm. Supporters note that the accusations of improper conduct were brought many years after the reported offenses. They describe the 79-year-old Prakashanand and Kripalu, now 85, as pious and grandfatherly men incapable of the acts alleged. Some supporters have suggested that the women accusing them of inappropriate behavior are after the organization's money.

But the women, who range in age from their late 20s to mid-50s, said they have struggled with their experiences and are telling their stories in light of the charge that Prakashanand groped children. One said she is in therapy to try to understand what happened. All said they have experienced emotional upheaval, shame and embarrassment. Several have formed an informal support group to help one another work through the recollections.

All the women say the incidents they recall are troubling because of the gurus' influential positions as teachers, spiritual guides and ashram leaders. The women compare the power imbalance in their relationships with that found in teacher/student or counselor/client liaisons.

Prakashanand "was supposed to be my guru," said one of the women. "Not my boyfriend."

Such intimate relationships also appear to violate the religion's own dogma. Prakashanand stressed abstinence for single adults and modest relations for married couples, former devotees recalled. His writings warn that sex can cause a worshipper to "fall from his devotions." Several of the women who questioned the advances, however, said they were told that the gurus were "gracing" them, or preparing them to realize God, by agreeing to be intimate with them.

Self-published histories of the temple explain that Prakashanand began preaching outside of India in the early 1970s. In 1981, he established the International Society of Divine Love, which purchased the 200-acre site off RM 1826 in northern Hays County in 1990 after a national search, settling on it because it resembled a holy place in India.

Early devotees describe the days creating the ashram as idyllic, a time of working together to plant gardens, build new structures and tend the land. The organization's name was changed to JKP-Barsana Dham in 2002. About 60 people live there now, a temple spokesman said.

Barsana Dham's religious practice revolves around twice-daily meditations on Radha-Krishna, a Hindu deity described as a combination of Lord Krishna and the love of his life, Radha. But the religion also stresses service and devotion to the spiritual masters, who are considered essential conduits to "gracing" devotees to enter God's divine presence, said Sannyasin Arumugaswami, managing editor of Hinduism Today.

Some former followers said that devotion was tested in May 2007, when Kripalu, who had finished a six-week stay at the Austin temple, was arrested and charged with raping a 22-year-old Guyanan woman in Trinidad and Tobago. Prosecutors later dropped the charges for what they said was lack of evidence.

It wasn't the first time Kripalu had been charged with a sex crime. Court documents from Nagpur, a city in central India, show that several women and girls accused the guru of assaulting them sexually between 1987 and 1991. Several said Kripalu had told them he was the incarnation of Krishna and was blessing them with the intimacy. The case has bounced around courts and appears to be still pending.

Woman No. 1 who spoke to the Statesman said she started following Prakashanand in the late 1980s after hearing him speak at a meeting in California. "It was mesmerizing," the woman, who at the time was married, recalled. "I was enamored of him."

She relocated to Austin after the land for the new ashram was purchased, and, she said, soon began a physical relationship with Prakashanand - a development she did not discourage and, until hearing of the Hays County charges filed against him based on the experience of the two girls, did not regret.

"It was just his nature to charm women," said the woman, who has since left the ashram and lives on the East Coast. She said their activities never progressed past kissing and fondling, and occurred about 15 times.

Other women who spoke to the Statesman described their interactions differently. Like many other JKP devotees, Woman No. 2 came to Barsana Dham from Transcendental Meditation, the spirituality-infused meditation technique made famous by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's connection to the Beatles, among other celebrities.

After 20 years, she said, she'd grown disillusioned with TM, and when a friend who had seen Prakashanand speak told her, "This is the real deal," she began following the guru. She moved to Texas from the Midwest soon after the International Society of Divine Love bought the Hays County property.

In the early 1990s, as the temple was still being built, No. 2 recalled, "I was dressed in a costume for a dance." Before the performance, she entered an old stone building on the property and walked upstairs to go to the bathroom.

The bathroom was next to Prakashanand's bedroom, she remembered. "As I came out, I saw him," she said. "I told him I was excited for that afternoon's program. He grabbed my hand and pulled me into the bedroom." The woman said Prakashanand pushed her back against the door and groped her breasts and buttocks before quickly leaving.

"I realized then that stuff like that might happen, and so tried to never be alone with him again," she said. She remained affiliated with the ashram for another 15 years.

Woman No. 3 said she experienced a similar event. She moved to Austin from the Pacific Northwest to follow Prakashanand. Leaving the ashram one day in the early 1990s, she entered the guru's bedroom to say goodbye. He grabbed her and pulled her down, kissing her and fondling her breasts, she said, adding that she broke away. She lived on the ashram for more than 15 years and said no similar event happened again.

Another woman, No. 4, lived on the ashram for more than a dozen years. She said she was called to Prakashanand's room many times as a young adult, where, she said, the guru would tell her to lock the door behind her, and then kiss and fondle her. She spent the night in his room, next to his bed, on several occasions, she said. In the middle of the night, she said, he would wake her up and fondle her.

The incidents occurred several dozen times over the course of two years, said the woman, who has since left and moved to the West Coast. She said she later drifted away from the ashram and vowed to keep the experiences to herself.

"You kind of assume it's over," she said. "But then we found out about the (rape) charges against Maharajji Kripalu in Trinidad.

"We thought we had been protecting people," she added. In August 2007, a group of women who'd lived on the ashram contacted Hays County authorities. The investigation into Prakashanand's relations with underage girls began soon after that, according to prosecutors.

Three of the five women also said they were groped by or watched Kripalu grope women during a ritual called pressing, considered an honor for devotees. In it, several women were invited into a darkened room to massage the guru's legs. One of the three said she performed oral sex on him.

The women said the pressing typically took place in a private room, where they stationed themselves alongside the holy man's legs, from thigh to foot. A helper dimmed the lights, and the women massaged the part of the leg in front of them.

A session lasted about 10 minutes, the women said, adding that Kripalu often was massaged several times a day during his Austin visits.

Woman No. 3 said that in a pressing session in the spring of 2007 she was stationed at Kripalu's thigh. "He started to nudge my hand closer, to his private area," she said. When she resisted, he did it again, she recalled.

Later during the holy man's visit, the same woman said, she observed another woman rubbing his genitals. Another time, she saw his hand inside a woman's blouse, fondling her. The women involved, she added, appeared to consent.

The former TM follower, No. 2, said she was willingly intimate with Kripalu in India, where all devotees are encouraged to visit. In the evenings, she recalled, the guru would retire to his bedroom and put on his sleeping clothes. Devotees - mostly women, she said - waited outside. After some time, Kripalu would open the door for several minutes while everyone yelled and cheered.

Once, after he closed his door, the woman recalled, a preacher approached her and said Kripalu wanted to see her in his room. When the woman asked what would happen, the preacher told her only to "be open to this; it will be like being with your husband," the woman remembered. She was told to cut her fingernails, not wear jewelry and bathe well.

Once inside his room, Kripalu quickly pulled her onto his bed, she said, and began tugging at her clothing to get under her shirt and, eventually, rub her privates. Later, she said, she performed oral sex on him.

When it was over, she said, the guru told her he loved her. "I felt it was the opportunity of a lifetime," she said.

Today, however, she said she feels betrayed. "We thought he was doing it all for us," she said. "That we were gross, and that he was coming down to our level, but that he wanted to share his divine love."

A fifth woman, a West Coast resident who never lived at Barsana Dham, said she was invited to massage Kripalu during a summer 2001 visit to the JKP temple in Mangarh. "I was told if I go there, he might do some personal things," she recalled. "Hugging and kissing."

Not certain she heard right, she said she decided not to go to him. But in December 2003, during another pilgrimage to the temple, she accepted an invitation to accompany a group of women into Kripalu's room. "They turned off the lights and closed the shutters, and I was told to stand next to him," she recalled. "He started groping me, feeling my privates." She pulled his hand away and quickly left the room.

When the woman returned to the United States, she said she confronted Prakashanand about the experience with Kripalu during one of his trips to California. "He told us that we'd received something special and profound from Maharajji, and that we couldn't understand," she recalled.

The woman said she contacted lawyers, who told her that because there was no physical evidence and because the incidents occurred in India, she had no case. She began writing letters and phoning other families within the organization to warn them.

Several families who had been closely involved with Barsana Dham for years confirmed that they left the organization in early 2004 after hearing the woman's story. Ray Sharma, a California real estate agent who had been heavily involved in Barsana Dham since 1997, helping arrange and sponsor Barsana Dham's temple programs in the San Francisco and Sacramento area, said he reversed course when he heard, and began calling local Hindu temples to warn them not to host guest programs for the ashram.

N. Kumar, a California devotee since 1992, had hosted prayer sessions at his home. "We were shocked," he said. "This is absolutely not acceptable in the religion, in India, in the culture."

This story originally published September 27, 2008

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