Dueling views of accused guru open trial

Was Prakashanand Saraswati, the spiritual leader of Barsana Dham, a lecherous old man who in the mid-1990s groped several teenage girls who lived on the ashram south of Austin? Or was he a devout holy man who has been made the target of a malicious smear campaign?

The American-Statesman says:

The two dramatically opposing views were aired in opening statements by prosecutors and defense attorneys Wednesday in the trial of the Hindu guru devotees call Shree Swamiji.

The 82-year-old Prakashanand has pleaded not guilty to 20 counts of indecency with a minor by sexual contact for allegedly groping two teenage girls more than 15 years ago. Each charge carries a potential sentence of up to 20 years in prison.

Saraswati is the founder and spiritual leader of Barsana Dham, an ashram outside of Austin, Texas devoted to the Hindu god Krishna. Ashram is the Hindu name for a settlement of disciples living with or around a guru. Barsana Dham bears the name of the place in India where Radha, Lord Krishna’s devotee, is believed to have lived.

Blogger Mary Oaklander writes:

If the allegations are true, there are some interesting parallels between Saraswati and the god he extols. In case you haven’t read your Bhagavad Gita lately, here’s a quick and dirty biography of Krishna. Charming, jacked and a lustrous shade of electric blue, Krishna is basically irresistible to any woman he encounters. He’s beloved for his stellar flute-playing, honey wine-drinking and, most of all, his passionate seduction of gopis — young ladies from the village. Legend has it that Krishna stole hundreds of gopis’ clothes when they bathed naked in the river.

An Indian god, Krishna was immune to any sort of sexual decency laws, which probably didn’t even exist at the time. But a mortal — one living in America 5,000 years later — is not.

The American-Statesman reports:

In opening statesments, prosecutors characterized the girls as members of dysfunctional families that lived at Barsana Dham and placed the interests of their guru above their children’s well-being. Even though their daughters told them they were being groped, “their parents did not protect them,” said Assistant District Attorney Amy Lockhart.

The two girls “were raised to believe in this religion, and they believed in Swamiji,” she added. “He was like a grandfather to these girls.”

But, Lockhart added, when the girls entered their early teens, “their belief that Swamiji was an innocent and divine man who was celibate and devoted to God began to change” when he kissed them and touched their breasts. The girls, now in their 20s, were reluctant to come forward for fear of angering and estranging their families who lived on the ashram, she said.

“If they spoke out, they could be punished,” Lockhart said. “They and their families could be exiled. Besides, no one was going to stop it.”

Prakashanand’s large defense team — four attorneys of record plus a half-dozen consultants — said there was no evidence that the groping incidents ever occurred.

“These are stories that cannot be verified by any other facts,” said Fort Worth attorney Jeff Kearney. He described Prakashanand as a learned and spiritual man who has devoted his life to his religion.

One of the women described life on the ashram

as a happy but isolated experience, with little contact with nondevotees outside of attending classes in Dripping Springs public schools.

“I was not allowed to mix with other students,” several of whom would refer to ashram children as “devil worshippers,” the woman recalled. “No one slept over; I never slept over at anyone’s house, either.”

Life at Barsana Dham revolved completely around its spiritual leader, she said: “Daily life was serving Prakashanand, doing whatever he bidded. He’s the driving force, the controller of everyone.”

It was for that reason that her mother permitted the abuse to continue even after she learned about it, the woman said: “She did nothing. I fell back on the principles of the religion — to serve and to do what I could to make him happy. So that’s what I did.”

April 2008 CBS news item regarding Prakashanand’s arrest:

Arrested Hindu guru allowed to leave country

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.

Apr. 28, 2008 FOX News report

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.


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