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:

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Religion News Blog posted this on Friday February 25, 2011.
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