Prakashanand Saraswati, the Hindu guru arrested and charged three weeks ago with groping two underage girls, is being permitted to leave the country after an Austin follower agreed to put up $10 million as a guarantee that the swami would return. Legal experts called the arrangement — and the size of it — unusual.
The money was promised by Peter Spiegel, an entrepreneur who made his fortune primarily in direct marketing, according to published media reports posted on his Web site. Spiegel also is listed as a managing member, director and treasurer of JKP, Barsana Dham, the corporate name of the temple founded by Saraswati, according to records filed with the secretary of state’s office. Spiegel’s companion, Katie Williams, is also a director and managing member of the temple, the records show.
The amount of money, and the seeming ease with which the swami’s followers were able to arrange it, speak to the apparent wealth of the organization. Barsana Dham owns more than 200 acres on FM 1826, on the way from Austin to Driftwood. Its dramatic, 35,000-square-foot temple, opened in 1995, rises above the surrounding trees and attracts hundreds of worshippers every Sunday.
The organization was able to quickly raise $1 million for Saraswati’s initial bond. In the wake of his arrest, the temple has hired at least two public relations firms, in addition to legal assistance, to counter the reports.
The 79-year-old Saraswati, known by his followers as Swami Ji, retrieved his passport late last week, according to Hays County court records. A spokesman for Barsana Dham said the guru intends to visit India soon to oversee several hospital-building projects sponsored by his organization.
District Attorney Sherri Tibbe said her office argued against permitting the guru to leave the country. “We oppose anybody leaving the country who’s out on a felony bond,” she said.
Saraswati was indicted on 20 counts of indecency with two children between 1993 and 1996. He was arrested April 24 at Washington Dulles International Airport after he arrived on a flight from Europe, where he had been receiving medical treatment.
He was extradited to Hays County two days later and released on $1 million bond. According to other provisions of release, Saraswati was prohibited from entering Barsana Dham property at any time because, Tibbe said, that is where the offenses allegedly occurred.
In recent weeks, Saraswati has traveled several places within the country. But he needed to attend to religious matters in India and so petitioned the court to leave the country, a spokesman said.
State District Court Judge Charles Ramsay, who approved the deal, was out of town and unavailable for comment, according to an assistant.
But Judge Jon Wisser, a semi-retired state District Court judge from Travis County, said, “I’ve never in my 35 years heard of anyone putting up that kind of money. It’s unprecedented.”
Spiegel was traveling Monday and unavailable for an interview. But through a spokesman, he said, “I have known Shree Swamiji for 24 years, and the accusations against him are false. Anyone who knows Swamiji well would have done the same thing.”
Spiegel declined to describe his businesses. The Web site for one of his companies refers to him as a “highly successful serial entrepreneur.” Several companies with addresses at Barsana Dham, including CX Technologies, Tetra Investments and the Microcrisp Co., show Spiegel as an officer or director, according to state records.
State records show that he has held official positions within Barsana Dham since at least 2002.
According to a self-written biography posted on the Web site of one of his companies, Spiegel attended high school in Long Island, N.Y., went to college in Florida and studied acupuncture and meditation in Europe in the mid-1970s. One of his first businesses was selling “natural foods candy.”
Acquaintances said that Spiegel splits his time between Barsana Dham and Los Angeles.
Much of Spiegel’s fortune appears to have come from products sold through infomercials produced by a company called Kent and Spiegel Direct Inc., based in Culver City, Calif. Partner Marsha Kent has a listed address at Barsana Dham.
One of the Kent and Spiegel products was called the Sobakawa pillow, a posture-correct pillow filled with buckwheat husks and aimed at soothing the aches and pains of aging baby boomers.
Another product was the Abflex, which promised to help users lose 5 inches and 10 pounds in only three minutes a day.
That claim was challenged in 1997 by the Federal Trade Commission, which charged Spiegel and his company with deceptive advertising. The company ultimately agreed to stop making the claims.
Spiegel’s most active current company appears to be the Sylmark Group, a 10-year-old concern that sells products including Miracle Blade knives and Walkfit shoes through direct marketing and infomercials. It claims several hundred million dollars in sales.
Austin American-Statesman religion news in Faith & Beliefs
May 20, 2008