Guru accused of sexual, physical assault of children at ashram

The Daily Telegraph, Australia/December 2, 2014

By Janet Fife-Yeomans

Her mother thought the ashram was an idyllic place where children could roam free but Alecia Buchanan has told how the reality was something else.

Ms Buchanan, 48, has told the child sex abuse royal commission today how her mother allowed her to live at the at Mangrove Mountain north of Sydney from the age of 13.

She spoke of her excitement when her hair was shaved off and she was given orange robes and became an “ashram kid.”

Even the 4.30am wake-up, early morning yoga, physical labour and bland vegetarian food did not put her off.

Ms Buchanan said she fell under the spell of “Shishy”, the ashram’s mother figure who lived with the guru, Swami Akhandananda Saraswati.

A tall striking woman with penetrating eyes, Shishy is expected to give evidence to the royal commission which has heard how she procured teenage girls to have sex with the guru and had a “fierce temper” which led to her slapping the children over the face with the “full force of her hand.”

Akhandananda died in 1997, aged 69, from alcoholism after convictions for child sexual assault were overturned because they were outside the 12-month statute of limitation.

Ms Buchanan said she worked hard to emulate everything about Shishy.

“I truly believed she was perfection itself and she herself encouraged all of us to mirror her image and would criticise us if we expressed different views or opinions to hers,” Ms Buchanan said.

“I believed in her divinity which she convinced us of herself by magically manifesting desirable things like sweets.

“I never for a second doubted her or saw through her trickery.”

Ms Buchanan said that when she was 16, the swami asked her to leave school and work for him in the office where he began to have sex with her.

She changed her name by deed poll to Swami Shantibodhananda Saraswati.

But a couple of years later, Sishy suddenly packed up and fled the ashram overnight, leaving them with Akhandananda who became increasingly strange with a gun in his room and who continued to sexually assault the teenage girls.

Ms Buchanan, who gave evidence against Akhandananda in court, said she had felt betrayed and abandoned by Shishy as well as “a sense of enormous burden and guilt that I had brought this bizarre and shameful story into” her family’s lives.

Earlier, the Royal commission heard that while their gurus preached chastity and abstinence but behind the scenes at their isolated Mangrove Mountain ashram, children as young as three were sexually assaulted and beaten.

Swami Akhandananda Saraswati is alleged to have beaten children with a wooden staff known as a Kundalini stick while his partner Shishy lined them up in a group from oldest to youngest and slapped them across the face one by one.

Some of the children were moved to the ashram with their parents and while they had to renounce their previous lifestyle, they also had to renounce their family ties and look upon Akhandananda and Shishy as their father and mother, counsel assisting the commission, Peggy Dwyer, said.

While Akhandananda, who died aged 69 in Cairns in 1997, was having sex with his teenage followers, he encouraged children to spy on their parents and report back to him if they had sex when he would strike the parents with a stick as punishment because sex, even between married adults, was discouraged.

Spiritual powers

All this happened at what was Australia’s first ashram north of Sydney where some followers believed that Akhandananda had spiritual powers “and could look into a person’s soul and know exactly what was right for that person”, the commission was told.

At the same time, the ashram was given tax-exempt status as a charity and the parents of some of the children signed over their pension cheques as well as legal guardianship of their children to Akhandananda and Shishy.

Between 1981 and 1988, the couple was receiving family benefits in respect of seven children, Ms Dwyer said.

“Within the space of a decade, the ashram grew from humble beginnings to a wealthy organisation with centres all over Australia,” Ms Dwyer said.


The commission, sitting in Sydney, is investigating the response of the Satyananda Yoga Ashram to complaints of sexual abuse made against its former spiritual leader in the mid to late 1980s.

In 1987, Akhandananda was charged with the sexual abuse of four children after one of them left the movement and told her father, who was a police officer.

He was convicted of some of the offences and jailed for a minimum of 12 months but they were overturned by the High Court because there was at the time a 12-month limitation for laying child sex charges.

The ashram was set up in 1974 on the land owned by Brian and Mary Thompson. Mr Thompson is expected to give evidence to the commission along with Shishy and nine former child victims of sex abuse.

The ashram’s mission was to spread the message of yoga espoused by Guru Swami Satyandanda Saraswati, the spiritual head of the movement in India, who taught that those who followed him and became Sanyasins “should practice abstinence, chastity and austerity and would not clutter their minds with such worldly pleasures as sexual intercourse and alcohol,” Ms Dwyer said.

Earlier this year as the ashram celebrated 40 years, a number of former residents posted details of the sexual abuse on the Facebook page but were sent legal letters warning of “considerable legal consequences” if they did not stop.

The ashram is now under new management and Ms Dwyer said the commission will “explore whether the philosophy, teaching and management of the ashram is sufficiently changed from what it was in Akhandananda’s time, to ensure that children attending there are safe from the risk of abuse”.

The hearing, which is expected to last for two weeks, continues in Sydney.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.

Educational DVDs and Videos