6 Mar 2011

Texas jury finds Hindu guru guilty of molesting girls, victims testified to prevent continued abuse at commune

American-Statesman - Texas March 4, 2011

Hindu guru found guilty on 20 counts of molesting young girls


A Hays County jury on Friday found the spiritual guru of Barsana Dham guilty of molesting two young girls who grew up at the Hindu ashram south of Austin in the mid-1990s.

Prakashanand Saraswati, known to his devotees as Shree Swamiji, was convicted of all 20 counts of indecency with a child by sexual contact.

The charges were based on allegations of two women, Shyama Rose and Vesla Tonnessen Kazimer, now 30 and 27 years old, respectively, whose families lived at the 200-acre ashram off RM 1826 in Driftwood. They said the guru kissed and fondled them on numerous occasions over the course of several years, beginning when they were as young as 12.

A third woman, Kate Tonnessen, now 31, also claimed the holy man had kissed and groped her during the same period. Although her account was heard during the two-week trial, the accusations were not part of the official charges because the statute of limitations had expired.

In accordance with Statesman policy on victims of sex crimes, their names have not previously appeared in the newspaper's accounts of the case. On Friday, they gave permission for their names to be used.

The jury of eight men and four women returned its guilty verdict after deliberating for less than two hours. The announcement by District Court Judge Charles Ramsay was met with muffled sobs by the women, who exchanged hugs. Beyond saying they were pleased with the verdict, they declined to comment.

Prakashanand, who'd sat through the trial in a special chair to ease pressure on his bad back, showed no emotion. His supporters had packed the small Hays County courthouse during the trial.

"We're disappointed in the jury's verdict and steadfast in Swamiji's innocence," said Aman Agrawal, a Barsana Dham spokesman.

Jurors will reconvene on Monday to decide on a sentence. Each of the 20 charges carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.

In an indictment filed in April 2008, the women claimed they'd been abused while they grew up as friends on the ashram, their families longtime devotees of Prakashanand and Hinduism.

Several members of the Tonnessen family still live there, and the trial highlighted how, against the backdrop of religion and sex, the case centered on one broken family. Kate and Vesla's brother and sister are preachers at Barsana Dham; their parents reside on the property.

The two sides have not had any contact since Prakashanand was charged. "Besides my sister, I'm an orphan now," Kate Tonnessen testified, weeping. "I lost my history."

Over the course of the trial, prosecutors depicted Prakashanand, now 82, as a religious leader who used his stature and position of trust to prey on young devotees.

When he began fondling her when she was 12, Rose said: "It just felt so wrong. He was my first kiss by a man ever. The first time anyone touched my breasts, it was Prakashanand."

In the few instances in which they told an adult of the incidents, the women said, they were instructed that the touching had a higher purpose. "I was told it was a test and if I failed it I would go to hell," Rose said. The other women said they were told the guru was gracing them.

Defense attorneys stressed that Prakashanand was a holy man who had devoted his life to teaching devotees and performing works of charity. The women accusing him, his lawyers said, were manipulative and angry, colluding to deliberately damage a religious organization from which they'd been ostracized.

The lawyers elicited testimony from more than a half-dozen current or former Barsana Dham residents or regular visitors who insisted they had never seen the guru alone with a young girl.

Several also disputed the girls' recollections of furniture placement and other details, such as the existence of a diary, and described the women's reputations growing up as dishonest.

Prosecutors said the witnesses were protecting their guru. "You know the fox in the henhouse?" Assistant District Attorney Cathy Compton said. "You just got to hear from some of the hens."

During the trial, each side stressed that the case was not about the brand of religion practiced at the ashram. But as a result of that insistence, Barsana Dham's Hinduism, with its occasionally unfamiliar rituals, necessarily became part of the proceedings.

"From the very first witness, they started bringing up religion," said Jeff Kearney, Prakashanand's Fort Worth-based lead attorney. "They told you this is a cultlike place."

"Who did you ever hear use the word 'cult'?" responded Compton. "He's trying to make it seem as though we are attacking the religion. That's like saying we're attacking the car of somebody who ran someone over."

Tonnessen, Kazimer and Rose said they came forward after so many years because they were motivated by a fear that the guru was continuing to abuse young girls at the ashram.

"By not speaking out, it allowed possibly more children to be abused," Tonnessen testified.

The dramatically differing testimony left jurors with the task of establishing whether the women were lying to hurt the guru or whether his devotees were lying to protect him. Each side struggled with proving or disproving a case based on incidents alleged to have occurred 15 years earlier.

But in the end, Compton said: "This case is real simple. Either you believe these girls or you don't."

This article was found at:

American-Statesman  -  Texas    February 24, 2011

Guru's accuser details alleged abuse

Woman said groping at Driftwood ashram started when she was 12, continued until she left for college at 18


SAN MARCOS — Instructed almost from birth to view Prakashanand Saraswati as a god, she was stunned and confused when the Hindu spiritual leader first fondled her breasts when she was 12 years old, a woman testified Thursday in a Hays County courtroom.

"Even though I was 100 percent devoted at the time, it just felt so wrong," she said. Then, using a hand-drawn poster-size diagram of the Driftwood ashram's buildings, she pointed out the locations where the alleged abuse continued, ending only when she turned 18 and left for college.

The woman, now 30 years old, is one of two women who have accused the guru, known to his followers as Shree Swamiji, of groping them numerous times in the mid-1990s when they were children living on the Barsana Dham ashram.

Prakashanand is charged with 20 separate counts of indecency with a child by sexual contact; each charge carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.

Defense attorneys have not yet had an opportunity to question the woman on her story.

"Today's testimony was simply a snapshot in this process," said Jeff Kearney, Prakashanand's lead attorney. "We're confident once the jury hears all of the evidence, they will know the accusers are not credible and their testimony is not to be believed."

Petite and pale with dark hair, the woman took the witness stand Thursday afternoon. It marked the first time she has publicly told her story of growing up as a devotee to Prakashanand.

While her testimony described the spiritual leader fondling and kissing her, it also provided an uncommon glimpse into the inner workings of the 200-acre spiritual center visible from RM 1826 south and west of Austin.

"I was born into this society," the woman said, noting that she was an infant when her mother joined Prakashanand's organization. "As far back as I can recall, he was a part of my life." She added that Prakashanand even named her, changing her birth name when she was still very young.

She described growing up 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."

Answering questions quickly and matter-of-factly, the woman glanced occasionally in the direction of the 82-year-old guru, who showed no emotion as he sat in a reclining chair designed to cushion his bad back. She detailed nearly a dozen instances in different locations on the ashram when she said Prakashanand arranged to be alone with her and kissed her and fondled her breasts.

"It happened more than this," she said. "Way more."

She said she waited a decade to report the alleged crimes because she'd been told that to do so would call into question her devotion to her religion.

"I was told it was a test, and if I failed it, I would go to hell," she said. "It meant that I had to submit myself to that and not object and not even think anything to the contrary."

This article was found at:


Texas prosecutors challenge Hindu guru's claim that he is too ill to face trial for molesting girls, judge orders medical exam

Memoirist's Debut Relocated; She Blames Cult in Queens

Leaving a Cult

Cults reflect darker side of '60s rebellion for many children of the flower children


  1. what did the second abused girl say?

  2. 1) why was swami allowed to roam around when charged with such crimes?
    2)why was he not allowed to live in his Ashram since 2008?
    3)what is the responsibilities of the parents?
    4)have the other Ashramites been mentally evaluated post conviction and are the other inmates capable of being similar threat to children?

  3. Yoga and Sex Scandals: No Surprise Here

    By WILLIAM J. BROAD New York Times February 27, 2012

    The wholesome image of yoga took a hit in the past few weeks as a rising star of the discipline came tumbling back to earth. After accusations of sexual impropriety with female students, John Friend, the founder of Anusara, one of the world’s fastest-growing styles, told followers that he was stepping down for an indefinite period of “self-reflection, therapy and personal retreat.”

    Mr. Friend preached a gospel of gentle poses mixed with openness aimed at fostering love and happiness. But Elena Brower, a former confidante, has said that insiders knew of his “penchant for women” and his love of “partying and fun.”

    Few had any idea about his sexual indiscretions, she added. The apparent hypocrisy has upset many followers.

    “Those folks are devastated,” Ms. Brower wrote in The Huffington Post. “They’re understandably disappointed to hear that he cheated on his girlfriends repeatedly” and “lied to so many.”

    But this is hardly the first time that yoga’s enlightened facade has been cracked by sexual scandal. Why does yoga produce so many philanderers? And why do the resulting uproars leave so many people shocked and distraught?

    One factor is ignorance. Yoga teachers and how-to books seldom mention that the discipline began as a sex cult — an omission that leaves many practitioners open to libidinal surprise.

    Hatha yoga — the parent of the styles now practiced around the globe — began as a branch of Tantra. In medieval India, Tantra devotees sought to fuse the male and female aspects of the cosmos into a blissful state of consciousness.

    The rites of Tantric cults, while often steeped in symbolism, could also include group and individual sex. One text advised devotees to revere the female sex organ and enjoy vigorous intercourse. Candidates for worship included actresses and prostitutes, as well as the sisters of practitioners.

    Hatha originated as a way to speed the Tantric agenda. It used poses, deep breathing and stimulating acts — including intercourse — to hasten rapturous bliss. In time, Tantra and Hatha developed bad reputations. The main charge was that practitioners indulged in sexual debauchery under the pretext of spirituality.

    Early in the 20th century, the founders of modern yoga worked hard to remove the Tantric stain. They devised a sanitized discipline that played down the old eroticism for a new emphasis on health and fitness.

    B. K. S. Iyengar, the author of “Light on Yoga,” published in 1965, exemplified the change. His book made no mention of Hatha’s Tantric roots and praised the discipline as a panacea that could cure nearly 100 ailments and diseases. And so modern practitioners have embraced a whitewashed simulacrum of Hatha.

    But over the decades, many have discovered from personal experience that the practice can fan the sexual flames. Pelvic regions can feel more sensitive and orgasms more intense.

    Science has begun to clarify the inner mechanisms. In Russia and India, scientists have measured sharp rises in testosterone — a main hormone of sexual arousal in both men and women. Czech scientists working with electroencephalographs have shown how poses can result in bursts of brainwaves indistinguishable from those of lovers. More recently, scientists at the University of British Columbia have documented how fast breathing — done in many yoga classes — can increase blood flow through the genitals. The effect was found to be strong enough to promote sexual arousal not only in healthy individuals but among those with diminished libidos.

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    In India, recent clinical studies have shown that men and women who take up yoga report wide improvements in their sex lives, including enhanced feelings of pleasure and satisfaction as well as emotional closeness with partners.

    At Rutgers University, scientists are investigating how yoga and related practices can foster autoerotic bliss. It turns out that some individuals can think themselves into states of sexual ecstasy — a phenomenon known clinically as spontaneous orgasm and popularly as “thinking off.”

    The Rutgers scientists use brain scanners to measure the levels of excitement in women and compare their responses with readings from manual stimulation of the genitals. The results demonstrate that both practices light up the brain in characteristic ways and produce significant rises in blood pressure, heart rate and tolerance for pain — what turns out to be a signature of orgasm.

    Since the baby boomers discovered yoga, the arousal, sweating, heavy breathing and states of undress that characterize yoga classes have led to predictable results. In 1995, sex between students and teachers became so prevalent that the California Yoga Teachers Association deplored it as immoral and called for high standards.

    “We wrote the code,” Judith Lasater, the group’s president, told a reporter, “because there were so many violations going on.”

    If yoga can arouse everyday practitioners, it apparently has similar, if not greater, effects on gurus — often charming extroverts in excellent physical condition, some enthusiastic for veneration.

    The misanthropes among them offer a bittersweet tribute to yoga’s revitalizing powers. A surprising number, it turns out, were in their 60s and 70s.

    Swami Muktananda (1908-82) was an Indian man of great charisma who favored dark glasses and gaudy robes.

    At the height of his fame, around 1980, he attracted many thousands of devotees — including movie stars and political celebrities — and succeeded in setting up a network of hundreds of ashrams and meditation centers around the globe. He kept his main shrines in California and New York.

    In late 1981, when a senior aide charged that the venerated yogi was in fact a serial philanderer and sexual hypocrite who used threats of violence to hide his duplicity, Mr. Muktananda defended himself as a persecuted saint, and soon died of heart failure.

    Joan Bridges was one of his lovers. At the time, she was 26 and he was 73. Like many other devotees, Ms. Bridges had a difficult time finding fault with a man she regarded as a virtual god beyond law and morality.

    “I was both thrilled and confused,” she said of their first intimacy in a Web posting. “He told us to be celibate, so how could this be sexual? I had no answers.”

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    To denounce the philanderers would be to admit years of empty study and devotion. So many women ended up blaming themselves. Sorting out the realities took years and sometimes decades of pain and reflection, counseling and psychotherapy. In time, the victims began to fight back.

    Swami Satchidananda (1914-2002) was a superstar of yoga who gave the invocation at Woodstock. In 1991, protesters waving placards (“Stop the Abuse,” “End the Cover Up”) marched outside a Virginia hotel where he was addressing a symposium.

    “How can you call yourself a spiritual instructor,” a former devotee shouted from the audience, “when you have molested me and other women?”

    Another case involved Swami Rama (1925-96), a tall man with a strikingly handsome face. In 1994, one of his victims filed a lawsuit charging that he had initiated abuse at his Pennsylvania ashram when she was 19. In 1997, shortly after his death, a jury awarded the woman nearly $2 million in compensatory and punitive damages.

    So, too, former devotees at Kripalu, a Berkshires ashram, won more than $2.5 million after its longtime guru — a man who gave impassioned talks on the spiritual value of chastity — confessed to multiple affairs.

    The drama with Mr. Friend is still unfolding. So far, at least 50 Anusara teachers have resigned, and the fate of his enterprise remains unclear. In his letter to followers, he promised to make “a full public statement that will transparently address the entirety of this situation.”

    The angst of former Anusara teachers is palpable. “I can no longer support a teacher whose actions have caused irreparable damage to our beloved community,” Sarah Faircloth, a North Carolina instructor, wrote on her Web site.

    But perhaps — if students and teachers knew more about what Hatha can do, and what it was designed to do — they would find themselves less prone to surprise and unyogalike distress.

    William J. Broad is the author of “The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards,” published this month by Simon & Schuster.

    A version of this article appeared in print on February 28, 2012, on page D1 of the New York edition with the headline: Yoga and Sex Scandals: No Surprise Here.


  6. Swami wanted in US over molestation charge flees to India

    Times of India Sep 26, 2012

    HOUSTON: An 83-year-old wheel-chair bound Indian spiritual guru, a fugitive after being convicted of groping two young girls, may have sneaked clandestinely into India, a US court has been told.

    US Marshals, still looking for him, suspect that Prakashanand Saraswati, known to his devotees as Swamiji, may have fled America in connivance with his close associates.

    Just days after a Hays County jury in Texas convicted him in March 2011 on 20 counts of indecency for molesting two teenagers, the self-styled guru has been missing.

    A judge sentenced him in absentia to 14 years in prison on each count and the guru also forfeited USD 1.2 million in bond and promissory notes.

    Newly filed court documents reveal that Prakashanand, who moves around in wheelchair apparently crossed over into Mexico two days after his conviction while being at large on bail and may have used a network of devotees to make his way to India.

    Eighteen months later, federal officials are still unraveling the mystery of how he got out of the country and who helped him.

    Deputy US Marshal Robert Marcum, who is leading the investigation to track the guru down, called his flight with the help of his religious adherents in Texas, Pennsylvania, California and Florida as "the most sophisticated scheme I've seen as far as fugitive investigations go. They were very smart about what they did."

    Marcum added it is likely some of the guru's devotees will be charged with harboring a fugitive, aiding and abetting escape or making false statements to a government agent.

    The information, as well as detailed accounts of how guru's followers moved him around the country while evading law enforcement, is part of the documents filed recently in court.

    One of the girls, who was kissed and groped by the guru, said his escape to India effectively ends the case against him. "I feel the door is closed on it," she said.

    "There's nothing more to be done." She added: "I'm sure we'd all sleep better if he were locked up. But he's in his own little prison."

    Karen Jonson, who this year published "Sex, Lies, and Two Hindu Gurus," a book about her life at the ashram, said: "While a measure of justice was served by his conviction, it would still be the right thing for Prakashanand to have to endure the result of his crimes against children, to serve his punishment as determined by the courts of this country."

    Still, she added, "as long as he is alive, there will always be hope for his capture and return to Texas.


  7. Wanted Hindu guru escaped to India, officials say

    By Eric Dexheimer, Fort Worth Star Telegram (blog) September 24, 2012

    Two days after a Hays County jury convicted Prakashanand Saraswati of 20 counts of indecency with a child for groping two teenagers who lived at the Hindu ashram he'd founded, newly filed court documents say his followers met in a devotee's home a mile up the road in Driftwood to plan how to spirit him out of the country before his sentencing.

    Later that night of March 6, 2011, or early the next morning, at least one of them accompanied the guru, who uses a wheelchair, over the Mexican border to Nuevo Laredo, according to the documents. After secretly moving just south of Tijuana in mid-2011, Prakashanand — who'd shaved his long white beard and cut his shoulder-length hair — then used a fake passport to escape to India in November.

    The information, as well as other details of how Prakashanand's followers in Texas and across the country clandestinely moved the spiritual leader while evading law enforcement, is included in court documents filed in Hays County. An affidavit in support of a search warrant signed last week by a Hays County judge seeks access to Yahoo email accounts of a preacher and close associate of the guru's who lives in India.

    Although many of the assertions in the document came from law enforcement interviews with devotees, much also was obtained from cellphone records and private emails written between Prakashanand's followers.

    Deputy U.S. Marshal Robert Marcum, who has been leading the effort to track down the 83-year-old guru known to his followers as Shree Swamiji, confirmed details of the agency's efforts to monitor and track Prakashanand during the past year and a half.

    The operation planned and carried out by Prakashanand's followers to keep him hidden from police and move him among the three countries involved his spiritual devotees from Pennsylvania, California, Florida, Texas and Mexico, according to the court filing. Individual tasks were divided among the devotees so that each could minimize his or her culpability, Marcum said.

    "It is the most sophisticated scheme I've seen as far as fugitive investigations go," he said. "They were very smart about what they did."

    Still, he added, the U.S. Attorney's Office is investigating several of the guru's supporters, and it is likely some will be charged with harboring a fugitive, aiding and abetting an escape or making false statements to a government agent.

    Daryl Fields, a spokesman for the Western District of Texas's United States Attorney's Office, which would bring any such charges, declined to comment.

    The news that Prakashanand was able to sneak into India almost certainly decreases the likelihood he will be captured and returned to San Marcos, where a state district judge on March 7, 2011, sentenced him to 14 years in prison on each of the 20 counts. He also forfeited $1.2 million in bonds and promissory notes when he went on the lam.

    Although both countries have extradition treaties with the United States, the U.S. Marshals doesn't have an active office in India, as it does in Mexico. That means Prakashanand would have to be apprehended and adjudicated by Indian authorities.

    Meanwhile, Marcum said, all indications are the spiritual leader is being protected and cared for in India by Jagadguru Kripalu Parishat — JKP — the large and wealthy umbrella organization of which Barsana Dham, the ashram he founded in 1990, was a part. The ashram, located on 200 acres in South Austin, was renamed Radha Madhav Dham a month after the trial.

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    Shyama Rose, one of the girls who was kissed and groped by the guru, said his escape to India effectively ends the case against him. "I feel the door is closed on it," she said. "There's nothing more to be done."

    She added: "I'm sure we'd all sleep better if he were locked up. But he's in his own little prison."

    Karen Jonson, who this year published "Sex, Lies, and Two Hindu Gurus," a book about her life at the ashram, said: "While a measure of justice was served by his conviction, it would still be the right thing for Prakashanand to have to endure the result of his crimes against children, to serve his punishment as determined by the courts of this country." Still, she added, "As long as he is alive, there will always be hope for his capture and return to Texas."

    According to the affidavit, three days after Prakashanand disappeared, marshals interviewed a Florida devotee, who said that he had been contacted by a temple employee in Nuevo Laredo "pleading for him to come to Mexico to assist her in helping Saraswati evade law enforcement."

    The man, Ethan DeMitchell, said he also had been instructed to "purchase a fake passport so that Saraswati could flee Mexico to India," and to start contacting private charter jet companies to explore how to hire a plane to fly the guru out of Mexico. DeMitchell, who according to the affidavit also told marshals he spoke with Prakashanand on the phone from Mexico, didn't immediately return phone calls.

    According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection records, various ashram employees crossed the Texas-Mexico border numerous times throughout 2011, the affidavit said. When contacted by marshals investigators, most either declined to be interviewed in detail, or "stated that they did not believe Saraswati was guilty of the convicted offenses, and they hoped he would evade capture and never go to prison."

    One of the devotees named in the affidavit, Jenifer Deutsch, also called Vrinda Devi, has been a spokeswoman for Radha Madhav Dham. She traveled from Austin to Nuevo Laredo and Tijuana a half-dozen times between March and November 2011, according to the court filing.

    Deutsch didn't return a phone message left at the ashram. But Chirag Patel, the ashram's managing member, said, "We have no knowledge of anyone at the ashram supporting (Prakashanand's) escape."

    Late last year, federal investigators began to receive hints that Prakashanand was no longer in Mexico, the court filing shows. In December 2011, for example, marshals learned that his personal aide, Vishwambhari Devi, who seldom left his side, "had recently activated a life insurance policy in India," the affidavit said.

    Six months later, Marcum said he heard from two confidential sources that Prakashanand had made it safely to India. Over the following months, the affidavit said, two other sources confirmed that the spiritual leader had successfully fled Mexico sometime in November.

    "We were about a week behind him" when he escaped, Marcum said. "We were pretty close."


  9. European Yoga Porn Cult Establishes a U.S. Beachhead: Where Is the Outrage?

    Huffington Post October 30, 2012

    Stewart J. Lawrence - Founder and managing director, Puentes & Associates, Inc.; journalist and public policy analyst

    It calls itself the "Movement for Spiritual Integration in Absolute" -- or MISA -- and is reputedly the largest "yoga" movement in Europe, claiming some 40,000 members in more than a dozen countries. But it's actually a dangerous personality cult whose "supreme spiritual leader," Gregorian Bivolaru, has been accused of coercing or seducing hundreds of vulnerable women into producing hard-core porn videos, abandoning their spouses, and in some cases, becoming strippers and prostitutes -- all in the name of "liberating" the female body and bringing MISA members into intimate communion with the "Divine Goddess."

    On its face, the group might sound like an obvious fraud, even a criminal one. But it has escaped prosecution to date, in part because Bivolaru, who first founded MISA in his native Romania in 1990, was persecuted under communist rule. For years many of his countrymen, including influential members of the Romanian elite, as well as human rights groups like Amnesty International, have treated Bivolaru as a "victim" worth defending. Thousands of Romanians have marched and protested on MISA's behalf, and after the communist regime fell, and the new authorities still decided to arrested him -- this time, on sex crime charges -- Bivolaru somehow escaped from prison and wound up in Sweden. There, after what most independent observers consider a sham investigation, the Swedish government granted him political asylum.

    The full extent of MISA's alleged criminal activities may never be known. However, based on testimony from group defectors -- first presented on the website, exmisa.org -- MISA's development parallels that of other, more notorious yoga cults. One obvious forerunner is the movement surrounding the Indian mystic Bhagwan Rajneesh (aka "Osho") that flourished in the late 1980s, just as MISA was getting started. Bivolaru, like Rajneesh, has claimed a special channel to the Divine Source that endows him with God-like powers, including the ability to channel spiritual energy and telepathic insights to his followers via mass gatherings and virtual "hook ups" that appear intended to induce MISA followers to surrender their will and identity -- and in some cases, their life savings -- to their beloved "guru."

    But Bivolaru is no mere Osho copycat. While his forerunner often created an environment of sexual licentiousness, Bivolaru is unique, perhaps, in placing a self-styled "Tantric" eroticism at the center of his group's theology, suggesting that all human, especially female, sexual inhibitions must be removed to allow the Divine spirit to flourish.

    Defectors who have shared their testimonies, which form the basis of the criminal case that is still pending in Romania, say that MISA typically recruits young women, often still in their teens, with the promise of a better spiritual life. The initial pitch suggests that the women will learn "esoteric yoga" and begin to live in a larger "movement" setting that will nurture them in ways that their families alone cannot. Once separated from their loved ones, however, members become more susceptible to peer pressure from older MISA members and are slowly drawn into a series of deepening and more compromising personal commitments, frequently backed up by written contracts that the members are led to believe have the force of law. Sometimes the pressure -- and the threats -- are far more overt, but despite their growing doubts and discontent, many feel too vulnerable to "escape," defectors say.

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  10. In the early days of MISA, according to charges filed with Romanian prosecutors, Bivolaru and his chief lieutenants were known to engage in sex with underage girls, some in their early teens. (In fact, Bivolaru himself took one of those teenage girls as a lover and ersatz spouse, and she still accompanies him). However, as the group expanded to Scandanavia and the UK, and became better known -- and more notorious -- it appears to have grown more cautious about respecting traditional age limits. Still, MISA's goal and modus operandi apparently continues to be the recruitment and active sexualization of its female members, both for the personal pleasure of Bivolaru and his inner circle, and even more important, as a means of generating additional large-scale financing for the group, defectors say.

    For example, one prominent MISA activity -- which the group describes euphemistically as "karma yoga," or service -- involves young female MISA members being sent to Japan and other countries to work as pole dancers and strippers. The women are usually housed in confined, overcrowded quarters and their movements strictly controlled, defectors say. MISA leaders are said to generally confiscate their passports, leaving them without any practical means of escape. Under the terms of their contracts, all of the funds garnered from these activities must be surrendered to MISA. The women dance, and receive tips, but according to a 2004 Romanian indictment, are also expected to perform sexual favors for clients that request them. According to public testimonies, some women have performed as strippers again and again, often returning to Japan for repeat stays lasting months, or even years.

    Another, even more prominent and public MISA activity, consists of the two annual spring and summer retreats held on the Romanian coast, on the edge of the Black Sea. These activities are open to regular MISA members, but are also one way the group recruits new members. Newcomers to the gatherings must provide photos of themselves in bikinis as well as proof that they are free of sexual diseases before being allowed to attend. According to testimonies, MISA leaders use these "applications" to size up potential sexual conquests, and also to make decisions about who to approach to get more involved in MISA's less publicly known activities, including a nude "Miss Shakti" beauty contest that in past years has featured live sex on stage, as well as the shooting of hard-core porn videos, for sale in selected European markets, often without the knowledge of the participants, and in most cases, without compensation.

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  11. One of MISA's better-known porn videos, "Water Ecstasy," showcases Bivolaru's rather bizarre view that women -- and their male lovers -- can achieve heightened states of spiritual consciousness through what amounts to pornographic "watersports" or what MISA calls "urinary orgasm." The videos typically feature voluptuous and heavily made-up naked women dressed up in the likeness of the Hindu goddess Shakti, surrounded by one or more men, playfully engaged in various form of sexual foreplay. In some of the videos, a male lover gently induces the "goddess" to urinate into his mouth. In others, pairs of lovers engage in ritualistic sex overseen by a spiritual guardian -- Bivolaru himself, it seems -- who prophesies about the Divine "purpose" and meaning of their acts.

    Thanks to past exposés, including the work of high profile defectors like Cecilia Tiz, as well as a 2005 Finnish documentary, The Dark Side of a Tantric Cult, activities like these have increased the pressure on Romanian authorities to move more aggressively against Bivolaru and his top lieutenants, many of whom are women. However, MISA, with support from high-level friends in Europe, has shown remarkable staying power. In 2008, the European Yoga Alliance and the International Yoga Federation expelled MISA, calling it an illicit "business front." MISA's response? It set up a separate and competing European yoga federation comprised of its member organizations in countries like Denmark and the UK, and began sponsoring its own international conferences to refurbish its image. And earlier this year, Bivolaru managed to get part of its original indictment by Romanian authorities dropped, even as MISA members, including a group of well-known European porn stars, led by Mihai Stoian, a top Bivolaru aide, were being expelled from South India for illicitly filming graphic sex videos.

    In fact, even as public criticism has grown elsewhere, long-time MISA members have managed to set up shop in several cities in the United States in the hopes of taking advantage of America's sprawling and unregulated yoga industry. Just as Osho did in Oregon in the 1980s, with disastrous results, MISA's operatives have deliberately chosen small- and mid-sized cities (Glendale, Arizona and Des Moines, Iowa) and regional metropolises (Las Vegas, Nevada and Atlanta, Georgia) away from crowded yoga industry centers like Los Angeles and New York, presumably where they can slowly, and without much scrutiny, recreate the kind of cultish "Tantric" communities they first fashioned in Romania, and in a host of other European countries where MISA operates under a variety of names (for example, NATHA in Denmark, and TARA in the UK, to name just two).

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  12. According to my own field investigations, conducted just three months ago, MISA has already begun recruiting American women to participate in the same kinds of shady activities that have led to criminal charges against Bivolaru and his top lieutenants in Romania. And the have done so without the knowledge of U.S. federal authorities and with the tacit blessing of the Virginia-based Yoga Alliance, which has granted several top MISA "teachers" a formal "certification" to teach "yoga." According to Tiz and her sources, two of the better-known MISA teachers, Ileana Stefanescu and Ofelia Mohr, who founded the U.S.-based MISA groups just three years ago, are both well-known participants in MISA's summer sex extravaganzas in Romania. And yet they appear to come and go as they please, and to operate on U.S. soil without scrutiny -- and indeed, like MISA elsewhere, with relative impunity.

    Are any of MISA's "yogis" actually guilty of a crime? That remains to be proven legally, of course. But MISA's existence -- and the tolerance and even favor it continues to enjoy -- is suggestive of how, in today's yoga world, the boundary line between authentic spiritual and sexual exploration, on the one hand, and pornographic sexual exhibitionism and crass sexual exploitation has broken down. MISA continues to engage in unsavory and illicit sexual activities, some of which clearly resemble global sex trafficking. But with Bivolaru safely ensconced in Sweden, and Romanian authorities clearly divided, it's unclear who if anyone is authorized to stop or constrain it from spreading.

    And what of the United States? Right now, there's no discernible yoga constituency, or set of constituencies, that might serve as a front of advocacy on these issues. American yogis, including the women who overwhelmingly dominate its teacher corps, have steadfastly resisted attempts by public authorities to intervene in yoga teacher training or to impose guidelines on how yoga might be regulated or taxed. The unregulated anarchy of the yoga movement may be guaranteeing it freedom from excessive state control. But as the MISA case demonstrates, it may also be providing the kind of loose "cover" that weakens public accountability and oversight of the yoga industry and that could end up allowing hundreds and perhaps thousands of vulnerable women to be placed at greater risk for abuse and exploitation. Surely there's more to yoga sisterhood than this.

    Next Week: Cecilia Tiz and Her Campaign to Expose MISA


  13. Kashi Ashram: Claims of Rape, Child Abuse, and Kidnapping
    by Terrence McCoy, Miami New Times News, May 16, 2013
    The night the dark-haired guru declared herself greater than God, the chanting started at dusk.

    Scores of sweaty followers squeezed around a platform and closed their eyes. Their features slackened, and they rocked to a rhythmic mantra echoing inside the cramped hall. Before them, sinking into an ocean of pillows, was Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati: the guru. In the candlelight, her gold-wrapped wrists and white teeth glowed like fire. She was the one who could swallow their pain and make it vanish.

    A hush settled over the room. "When the Christ first came to me," she called out in a Brooklyn accent as thick as her long, equine hair, "when I anxiously waited for him to appear, afraid that he would and more afraid he wouldn't, I turned on every light in my house. When he appeared then, my house looked dark — to his brightness, the house looked dark."

    The guru paused, and a chubby blond girl wearing white-rimmed glasses began plucking a one-stringed instrument. The guru smiled, and her grins infected the audience like a contagion. Her black eyes were big. Her smile widened. The moment was near.

    "But," the guru began, quelling the mantra with one word, "the guru is greater than God. Flesh man knows. The guru you can see and touch and feel. God, unless you're perfect, you cannot."

    She closed her eyes. "The guru," she intoned as the supplicants melted into a trance, "is greater than God."

    The phrase would reverberate across the decades. From this 1977 retreat in California until her death last year, Ma Jaya's infallibility was nearly unquestioned by her followers. At an isolated Florida ranch near Sebastian, 20 miles north of Vero Beach, she cocooned herself with hundreds who'd abandoned home and family to worship her like a deity.
    Together, they formed what would become the Kashi Ashram. "I am the breath," she told them. "I am inside you."

    For many, to exist near Ma Jaya — a beguiling New Yorker with a tenth-grade education — was rapture. To them, her dogma was beyond the mortal ken. There was incredible benevolence and service to the sick and dying, which eventually afforded her audiences with Pope John Paul II and the Dalai Lama and lured high-profile fans like actress Julia Roberts and folksinger Arlo Guthrie.

    But there were also stories of profound cruelty and despotism. Eight former followers interviewed byNew Times say Kashi members were beaten for disobedience or spiritual cleansing. A man said he dunked his head into a vat of red paint because Ma Jaya had asked him to. Masked teenagers reportedly battered a 13-year-old boy with rocks inside socks because he'd angered their leader.

    In the church's 35 years of existence, adherents claim abuses including beatings, pedophilia, forgery of official documents, and extortion occurred by order of Ma Jaya, according to a New Timesanalysis of never-before-disclosed court filings, psychological studies, police records, and dozens of interviews with former members. "Kashi Ashram fits every criteria of a destructive cult," says Rick Ross, a nationally recognized authority based in New Jersey. "And the most defining element of a cult is a charismatic leader."

    Now, months after Ma Jaya's death, her adult daughter has sued the Kashi Church Foundation in Miami court. She claims much more happened on the ranch than anyone knew and has pushed the church, which still has hundreds of members in New York, Atlanta, and Los Angeles, into quite possibly its most contested episode to date. In 1981, when she was 14 years old, Ma Jaya's daughter says she was raped repeatedly by a 25-year-old church member.

    And her mother had ordered it.

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  14. Once — before the name changes and the jewelry and the acolytes — the guru didn't exist. Five decades ago, there was only an impoverished and garrulous Jewish teenager named Joyce Green tending a quiver of umbrellas along the boardwalk on Coney Island. Every night, as the sun set, the 16-year-old returned to her family's basement apartment of peeling paint and mold in Brooklyn.

    One day at the beach, a confident olive-skinned kid named Sal DiFiore sauntered up to the girl.

    To him, Joyce Green was beautiful, her black hair tangled and teeth gleaming. She loved to gab and was drop-dead funny, recalls DiFiore, today age 75 and still in Brooklyn. "None of her family was like that," he says. "They were very poor. You could tell by the clothes she wore.
    Her father was a loser."

    After they married a year later, the young couple fashioned a traditional Brooklyn life of three children, lasagna dinners at 6 p.m. sharp, and Sundays with relatives. But even then, the young wife showed sweeping vanity and a combustible temperament, says DiFiore, who later divorced her. She gained weight easily, spurring several bouts of depression, says the ex-husband, who drove a Coca-Cola route. One day, while Green was devouring a meal, he looked upon her with disgust and said sarcastically, "You should eat a little."

    The future guru never forgot that comment. She swore to drop the pounds and subscribed to a new counterculture lifestyle. Jostling yoga mats, incense, and books on meditation, she ditched the neighborhood gals and locked herself inside the downstairs bathroom. Then, in the middle of the night, strange smoke and sounds began escaping the doorway cracks. Within weeks, Joyce Green DiFiore vanished. And Sal DiFiore had lost his wife to — of all things — yoga.

    Hippies deluged their Brooklyn home, babbling about meditation and spirituality. "I couldn't believe it," DiFiore says. They fawned over his wife, wept in her presence, and did anything she asked. DiFiore discerned something dark in his spouse. "She controlled those people," he says. "They were all superrich kids who were dysfunctional, and they would go to her for guidance. Her norm was high upbeat, like: bom bom bom bom. Then she'd be mellow."

    Even today, after decades of analyzing these chaotic months in 1973, he can't comprehend his wife's sudden transformation. Or what happened next.

    One night, DiFiore heard a loud crash. He rushed downstairs and saw the future guru frantically careening about the house. She'd had a vision of Christ, she whispered. Wounds, she said, had appeared on her hands. "What are you talking about?" DiFiore remembers exclaiming.

    She showed him her pajamas. Red splotches blotted the fabric. "So I took the pajamas to a friend who owned a dry cleaner, and he said it was theatrical blood."

    Word nonetheless rippled across the boroughs: There'd been a stigmata. Joyce Green DiFiore soon materialized in basements and parks across the city, delivering nightlong sermons. "I thought, 'Get skinny with Christ or fat without him,'" she later told the Palm Beach Post. "I lost 65 pounds on the Christ diet."

    But Christ wouldn't be the only apparition. In the same year, she claimed she had visions of a deceased and bald Indian guru named Neem Ka'roli Baba, who endowed her with the name Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati. Her following ballooned to include hundreds of inquisitive college-aged kids mostly convinced Christ had plucked this Jewish housewife from poverty to teach "all ways to God."

    In 1975, Ma Jaya left her two oldest children, Jimmy and Denise, and her husband, who filed for divorce a year afterward. Jimmy was especially wrought up over the abandonment, his family said. Those feelings would be with him the rest of his life.

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  15. The guru, however, held onto her youngest, Molly. (At the daughter's request, New Times has changed her name.) In 1976, Ma Jaya and her flock fled New York for a sprawling plot of grass and creek in Indian River County, in Central Florida. In one of the most Christian areas in the state — where steeples dominate most horizons — the nascent community built Buddhist and Hindu temples and followed an ascetic existence of celibacy and vegetarianism.

    Hidden behind thick foliage, they locked out the world. "This was about finding a way to God," remembers one longtime resident who'd traveled from California. Hundreds of others arrived, bedraggled from the road, and there was Ma — grinning and bejeweled. She hugged them. She called them child. Together, they promised to serve humanity. And in the name of spirituality, Ma Jaya bestowed them with Hindi names and forbade recreational sex, according to interviews with eight former residents.

    Without warning, she ordered marriages between devotees who barely knew each other. "Ma married Chandra and Madhava on the spur of the moment last Sunday," one follower named Lyn Deadmore scribbled in her journal on June 5, 1981. "They seem really happy about it." Weeks afterward, on June 22, Deadmore wrote in her diary: "She doesn't care how happy she makes us or how miserable she makes us." In an interview, Deadmore said members abetted her whims because they considered Ma Jaya to be divine.

    (Anjani Cirillo, spokesperson for Kashi Ashram, denies that Ma Jaya arranged marriages or that Kashi members worshiped her. "I never heard anything like that," she said. "People married when people wanted. No forced marriages ever happened.")

    Whether she was deified or not, every person interviewed for this article agreed that Ma Jaya's charisma was almost preternatural. "When you were around her, it felt like being stoned," Deadmore recalled. "The energy that surrounded her made you feel that way." This, however, is where consensus regarding the guru stops.

    Indeed, an examination of court records and in-depth interviews reveals just one theme: obsession. Along the serpentine Sebastian River, Ma Jaya spurred powerful emotion at both extremes. Followers either loved her with such abandon that they couldn't discern a fault. Or they came to hate her so much that it consumed them.

    Those who condemn Ma Jaya emerged in a vicious 2001 divorce between former Kashi resident Richard Rosenkranz and his wife, Gina, who remains in the ashram. In court filings, several ex-church members remembered scenarios they say constitute mind control. One afternoon in the early 1980s, Richard Rosenkranz dipped his entire head into a vat of red paint. "When asked what had happened, he answered that he'd gotten the message from Ma," onetime resident Helene Rousseau recalled in a sworn statement.

    Or they recalled Ma Jaya's sudden fixation on children after she had several miscarriages with her new husband, Soo Se Cho. Rosanne Henry is a former Ashram resident who's now a psychologist in Littleton, Colorado. "My husband and I wanted to have a child in 1981," she remembered in a deposition logged in the Rosenkranz divorce case. "But we had to ask permission."

    Before she entered labor on October 21, 1981, Henry says she dyed her blond hair raven to impersonate Ma Jaya. She even signed the guru's name on her daughter's birth certificate. Then, after she was wheeled out of Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami carrying her newborn, she spotted a van full of Kashi followers. Without hesitation, she handed over her daughter, who was secreted back to the ranch. (Henry testified to all this in court, adding she did this because she believed Ma Jaya to be the "Divine Mother.")

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  16. In all, four mothers from 1978 to 1982 signed Ma Jaya or her new husband as biological parents on birth certificates, the Palm Beach Post reported in 1992. Ma Jaya told the newspaper she took the children to save them from abortion, though Henry denies that.

    Another disputed tale emerged weeks after Henry's child was born, on the night of December 10. Ma Jaya's followers were called into the main house at Kashi Ashram in Sebastian for their nightly prayer session. The guru, in Palmetto Bay at the time, was on speakerphone, recalls Deadmore, who left the church in 1990.

    Dozens packed into a room cluttered with urns and statues. Over the phone, the guru launched into a perfunctory monologue. But then, according to three witnesses, she dropped a bomb. Like it was nothing. "I've married my [14-year-old] daughter [Molly]," she said, "to Datta Das."

    Puzzled looks crisscrossed the room, the witnesses say. Datta Das was a 25-year-old man.
    "I remember thinking, 'She can't possibly be old enough to be married,'" says Deadmore. "I thought she was 12. But I knew Ma wouldn't hurt her own child. There was no child abuse in Kashi at that time."

    The masked men came for 13-year-old Wang Chun Rosenkranz on a spring day in 1996, says New York jeweler Sal Conti. At a small garden temple beside Ma Jaya's two-story house, near a pond where residents sprinkled the ashes of their dead, the wiry, dark-haired boy waited. Ma Jaya had requested to see him, but, according to Conti's 2001 deposition and a police complaint, she didn't arrive. Instead, the two masked men grabbed the boy. They plastered duct tape over his mouth and restrained him. Then they whipped him over and over again with rock-laden socks.

    Ma Jaya and Conti, who was then her confidant and treasurer, were allegedly outside her house at the time. "She was just ecstatic," Conti claimed. Wang Chun, he recalled, "came out completely bloodied."

    Weeks later, the men donned their "ninja outfits" and again savaged the child, Conti testified. But this time, it was in clear sight of Ma Jaya's house. The guru watched the violence with Conti and several others. Wang Chun allegedly crumpled into a fetal position and wept. His face was awash in blood. Ma Jaya, Conti said, had a strange look on her face. "Hit him harder," she allegedly said. "Hit him harder."

    The beatings were Wang Chun's punishment, Conti stated. The boy had declined to have sex with a young girl at the ranch. And Ma Jaya "didn't want to hear that," Conti explained. "She started calling him a pervert and cursing at him. The kid was whimpering and shaking, and she enjoyed that. You could see it in her face that she was enjoying it."

    Wang Chun didn't respond to four messages left by New Times. Spokespeople with Kashi Ashram, then and now, deny this story, and no criminal charges were ever filed. "The story's made up," said ranch spokesperson Cirillo.

    Wang Chun initially told his father, Richard Rosenkranz, he'd been bloodied at the ranch but later withdrew the claim. While his parents' divorce case raged through 2002 and under the supervision of two Kashi members, the then-19-year-old told Florida Today: "I stupidly said I was beaten by people here, which was a lie." Ma Jaya denied any involvement, calling Conti "very sad and very lonely."

    But Conti wasn't the only one to bring significant allegations against Ma Jaya and the church, and soon it wasn't clear anymore whether this encampment, which had begun as a quest to find God through service and tolerance, hadn't fallen under the yoke of a megalomaniac and morphed into something much darker.

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  17. During the 1990s and early 2000s, two dozen former Kashi residents alleged profound abuses ranging from psychological control to extortion to physical violence against both adults and children. Interviews, court filings, and a Rosenkranz-commissioned study of 21 former residents by now-deceased cult psychologist Paul Martin reveal the following claims:

    • Ma Jaya either personally struck residents or ordered them beaten, according to nine respondents in Martin's study and eight former members interviewed by New Times.

    • Police were twice called to extract children living with Ma Jaya.

    • Ma Jaya demanded money from followers, 13 former residents alleged. "Ma conspired to defraud me of my inheritance," Richard Rosenkranz said in a March 2002 affidavit.

    • Ma Jaya severely burned a man with a votive candle in 1981 to punish him for sexually molesting a child, said three witnesses interviewed by New Times and two additional respondents in Martin's study.

    • The molested boy was "beaten at length by Ma" and "made to walk naked around the central pond with about 50 people watching," recalled one respondent in Martin's study. "His penis [was] painted black with a magic marker."

    • Ma Jaya personally beat at least two children, Sal Conti claimed. "Ma slapped [a boy] across the face," he said in his deposition. "I had never seen someone hit that hard." A respondent in Martin's survey said she saw Ma "slug" a 2-year-old in the arm.

    Kashi spokesperson Cirillo denies accusations of abuse and calls these former members "a few disgruntled people. Those allegations were very troubling for us," she said. "And all I can say is it's really difficult when you're in a spiritual teaching. And when it's not a place for you anymore, people have blamed us when they wanted to move on.

    "When I hear people saying we're a cult, I say, 'What is this crap?'" Cirillo added. "I don't get it. The allegations are a bunch of baloney."
    They wouldn't disappear, however. In the early 1990s, reporters deluged the Kashi ranch like locusts. The Palm Beach Post published an article headlined "Guru Ma: Saintly or Sinister?"andPeople magazine described how Rosanne Henry had retrieved her 7-year-old daughter with an Indian River County court order and a five-member SWAT team in 1989.

    After the child was returned to Henry's home, the girl believed Ma Jaya was God and prayed to her at the dinner table, according to a state health and rehabilitative services' psychological evaluation. (Retired detective Mary Shelly, who'd ordered the raid to remove the girl, declined to comment about Kashi beyond saying "These are some very vindictive individuals" when New Times visited her Vero Beach home.)

    After Henry took back her daughter, Ma Jaya descended into apoplexy, Conti said. "She was completely outraged that the kid was taken from her," Conti testified in 2001. "She was trying to scheme all ways to try and steal her back."

    In the following months, Henry said Kashi delivered stuffed animals and bicycles to her front stoop in Littleton, Colorado. Agents of Kashi Ashram stalked her child. "At one point," Rosanne Henry said in her 2001 deposition, "I had to decide if I was going to hire a bodyguard for my child."

    But Cirillo instead claims that Rosanne Henry had planned on an abortion and that the guru had saved the child's life. "Henry didn't want to take responsibility; she gave up her child. When she wanted her back, all she had to do was make a phone call. But instead, what did she do? It couldn't have been so simple. How do they justify their lying?"

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  18. The constant discrepancies between stories illustrate a broader issue that's bedeviled reporters, police, and psychologists who have investigated the Sebastian ranch. Ma Jaya has never been accused or convicted of a crime, except for battery in 1982 for attacking an Albertson's clerk in Stuart. (She was put on probation for one year.) And as Cirillo points out, only disaffected followers have entered any complaints.

    Indeed, Ma Jaya was also a person of indefatigable service. At the height of the AIDS scare, she championed gay rights. She pushed graphic pictures of AIDS victims at Pope John Paul II in 1993. Three years later, she delivered an impassioned plea for equality at the Washington Memorial. She cared for the sick and dying at local hospitals, and hundreds looked to her for support. "Ma really walked the walk," said Los Angeles documentarian Janice Engel, whom Ma Jaya taught for decades. "No matter if you were gay, straight, it didn't matter. She would love you no matter who you were."

    But her own children wouldn't agree.

    On May 31, 2004, Jimmy DiFiore decided to die. Ma Jaya's 43-year-old son stepped into the bathroom at his Staten Island apartment, put on an Elvis record, and unfurled a blanket. He analyzed his handsome and tanned face in the mirror, swallowed a powerful painkiller cocktail, and lay down. Unsheathing a blade, he cut into his left forearm from elbow to wrist and bled to death on the floor.

    When the landlord discovered the body, black-and-white photographs of Jimmy and his mother were strewn throughout the house, even in the bathroom next to Jimmy. According to the state coroner's report, five drugs were found in his blood.

    Of all the stories swirling around Ma Jaya and her Kashi ranch, perhaps the most tragic are those of her children. Jimmy was 14 when his mother left for Florida. He grew up street-tough, charismatic, and dirt-bike-obsessed, but there was a deep sadness behind his toothy smile. "He had so much going for him, but he was stuck," says his younger sister, Molly. "He couldn't get out of that time. He couldn't stop being 12."

    When he was a teenager, his father, Sal, plunged Jimmy into boxing, where he took out his insecurities on lesser foes. Reared in a blue-collar home, he landed on a Coca-Cola delivery route after high school with his father, whose voice thickens when he remembers his son. The two were inseparable, and in August 1993, they even opened a father-son company called Alpine Vending.

    But Jimmy kept Sal and his sister, Molly, who left the Kashi Ashram when she was 20, at a distance. Days would pass when he wouldn't leave his father's house, and depression swallowed him. He turned to painkillers, say those close to him. "Jimmy was always troubled," said his ex-wife, Rhonda. "He always had problems."

    The most painful involved his relationship with his mother. Occasionally, Jimmy would be in the throes of conversation with family members when he'd fall quiet and look away. He'd glance up, brown eyes shiny, voice guttural. "Why did she leave us?" he'd say. "How could she just abandon us like that?"

    "He talked about her all the time," his ex-wife said. "Every day."

    His pain escalated as he disappeared into middle age, bounced among failed romances, and discerned disappointments both petty and profound. Sometimes he'd call his mom.

    "Jimmy," Ma Jaya told him when they spoke, Molly remembers, "you're my eyes. You're my life and soul."

    But the whispers inside his head only grew louder.

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  19. "I can't imagine being a family member of Ma," says 20-year-old Ganga Devi Braun, who was born into the church and raised by Ma Jaya, whom she loved fiercely. "It would be such a terrible thing. You want your mom to be there. Ma had so much love and energy, but it wasn't focused on her children... It was hard for her family to understand the love she was giving to other people."

    The week before Jimmy slit his wrists, he was checked into a hospital in Staten Island, wracked with drug addiction and melancholy.

    Every night that week, he called Molly, who says she phoned their mother. "Jimmy needs help," Molly told her.

    "You selfish bitch," she recalls Ma Jaya saying. "I have people dying of AIDS and a student dying of cancer on Kashi and have much more important things to worry about."

    That weekend, Jimmy left the hospital and called Molly. "He only talked about our mom and how could she ignore us," his sister said.

    After the suicide, Ma Jaya was shattered by grief. The morning of June 9, the guru wrote an email to her followers. "So many of you know how close Jimmy was to us, especially His Mommy. He proudly sat by His Mom watching Her take care of so many. All he had to say over and over is, 'I AM PROUD OF YOU MOMMY.' His last words to his Mom were THAT 'I LOVE YOU MORE THAN ANYONE MY MOMMY. I just want to sleep, Mom. I just want to sleep.'"

    Jimmy's 13-year-old daughter, Alexa, discovered the note and was sickened with anger. The evening of June 12, she responded with an email. Her father, she wrote to the congregation, never said those last words. "I just want to show people what a terrible 'thing' Joyce is," Alexa typed. "What a bitch. This may be hard to hear or believe, but as long as you have lived on the ranch, you have been LIED to. My grandmother didn't care about my dad when he was alive, and she definitely doesn't now... My dad had a lot of mental problems, and Joyce just added to them. She helped to kill him."

    Then the girl signed the note: "I have heard of many people Joyce brainwashed. One day, she will get caught, and I can't wait."

    Weeks ago, the night of Ma Jaya's commemoration, the chanting spread like hayseed in wind. A mass of white-clad Kashi followers encircled a fire and a portrait of Ma Jaya beside an open-air Hindu temple. Chimes and drums pulsed. The blaze burned higher and higher. The droning built to crescendo. Individual consciousness evaporated.

    From across the nation, more than 100 followers came to this recent anniversary of Ma Jaya's death. A billboard bearing the guru's countenance clung to the side of the ranch's main house. Her black eyes, crinkled with mischief, looked upon her monks below. They lay before her and, one by one, kissed the ground.

    Then there came a Brooklyn twang. "And this dance between night and day goes on," Ma Jaya's recorded voice echoed across the pond and grass. "And this night I dedicate to all of humanity. Let the calmness come over you. The sweetness.
    Let joy of life embrace you. For this is Kashi."

    Attendants wept with the memory: On a Friday night in April 2012, Ma Jaya died in her bed at age 71 of pancreatic cancer. She'd wanted to "leave her body" on the ranch and had forbidden any attempt at resuscitation.

    After she died, scores of people streamed down the streets of tiny Sebastian. Folksinger Arlo Guthrie, who followed Ma Jaya's teachings for decades, mourned her without reservation. "I've met a lot of people that were very important," he told reporters. "But I can honestly say no one I ever met in my entire life was as funny and as sincere and as courageous and as unapologetic as she was."

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  20. Actress Julia Roberts was next. She had discovered Ma Jaya while preparing for her role in the 2010 movie Eat, Pray, Love. "There are few people in one's life that create only the warmest and most powerfully positive impact imaginable," she emailed the memorial service.

    "She was one of those people to me and my family."

    Meanwhile, hundreds of miles north, in a bedroom nestled inside a brick house in Bradford, Pennsylvania, Molly's iPhone chirped with a fresh message. "Yes, Molly, it's true," the message said. "At 9:49 p.m. last night."

    Molly, then 44, with hair dyed blond, put down the phone and felt relief flecked with sadness.

    "I pushed the emotion way down inside," Molly says now. "And then my husband came home, and I lost it. I cried. A weight was lifted off of me... It was the happiest day of my life."

    Later, she wept in bed beside her husband, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh-Bradford. "I had memories of a man groping me," she recalled. "I said to my husband, 'I think something happened to me as a kid.' It was a picture show."

    Molly claims in that moment — only after her mother had died and couldn't defend herself — did she recall what had happened 30 years before. When she was age 14 in 1981, she says, her mother married her to a 25-year-old church member named Kevin Brannon so he could impregnate her.

    Earlier this year in state court in Miami, Molly sued Kashi, Brannon, and Carolyn Hutner, who represents Ma Jaya's estate. "Beginning in 1979, she was 'groomed' by Ma Jaya into believing she must engage in sexual intercourse with an adult member to give another child to Ma Jaya," the lawsuit says. "Such 'grooming' included... drugs and alcohol in an effort to normalize [Molly to the idea] that girls her age were supposed to have sex with adults of the Kashi cult, get pregnant, and give their babies to Ma Jaya."

    This preparation, the civil suit charges, also involved Brannon repeatedly raping her with Ma Jaya's encouragement. "I remember zoning out [during sex] and going somewhere else," Molly said in an interview. "It was what was expected of me."

    On December 10, 1981, Molly says she squeezed into a white wedding dress at a 5,000-square-foot house on Old Cutler Road in Palmetto Bay.

    That afternoon, she claims her mother married her to Brannon — then called Datta Das ­— at a small ceremony inside the house. "I remember my mother's hair," Molly said. "Her hair was always long and normally jet-black, but then it was gray. I remember it was in the living room, and there were mirrors behind us, from floor to ceiling. To the right, there was a bar. I remember sitting around the bar afterward and eating cake."

    The lawsuit is more specific: "During the 'marriage' ceremony, [Brannon] was instructed by Ma Jaya and did grope, fondle, and sexually stimulate [Molly.]" Two people who say they stayed at the Palmetto Bay house and spoke to New Times on the condition of anonymity, said they witnessed Ma Jaya announce Molly's marriage to Brannon later that night. (In a motion to dismiss filed in March, Brannon denies he married or had sex with Molly, calling the allegations "reckless" and "inherently false."

    Both he and his attorney, Elizabeth Boan, declined further comment.)

    A week later, the lawsuit alleges, Ma Jaya ordered a church member to administer a pregnancy test to Molly. It was negative.

    Kashi Ashram also denies the story, labeling it another manifestation of familial drama. "Ma and [Molly] were estranged for many years," spokeswoman Cirillo says.

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  21. Then, after Ma Jaya died, Molly was excluded from the inheritance, Cirillo says. "This is a bunch of baloney. She's not in the will; then, all of a sudden, she remembers this? Baloney."

    (Molly's lawyer, John Leighton, says his client discovered she wasn't in her mother's will only after she'd filed litigation. Says Molly: "I don't care about money; I just want people to know the truth.")

    Carol Lourie, who was associated with the ranch for years and once criticized it, says she's dubious of Molly and her story. "I find her motives very suspicious. She could have brought the lawsuit when her mother was alive."

    Despite the looming legal battle, Ma Jaya's recent commemoration glowed with mirth and smiles. Children ran and played among parents drinking tea. In the shadows of new houses rising in the woods, attendants traded favorite Ma Jaya stories — that time she named a student "God" because he was so handsome. Or how she always gave a lollipop to every child. The next day, as rain pounded the ashram, some of her followers disrobed and swam in the opaque pond where Ma's ashes had been scattered — and were again one with the guru.


  22. After Asarams arrest, girl's family ends fast

    IANS | The Times of India September 1, 2013

    LUCKNOW: The family of the girl who lodged a sexual assault complaint against Asaram Bapu on Sunday broke their hunger strike after the spiritual godman's arrest.

    The 72-year-old godman was arrested in Indore Saturday night after charges of sexual assault were levelled against him by the 16-year-old girl. Asaram was Sunday flown to Jodhpur under arrest.

    The girl lodged a complaint at a police station in Delhi August 20, accusing Asaram of sexually assaulting her at his ashram in Jodhpur. Asaram has denied the charge, and his son has claimed the girl was "mentally unstable".

    The girl's father and a few relatives, based in Shahjahanpur in Uttar Pradesh, began their hunger strike Saturday morning, pressing for legal action against Asaram.

    After ending the fast, the father Sunday thanked the media for focussing on the case, and said this put pressure on the Rajasthan government and police to arrest Asaram.

    He requested police to file charges against Asaram so that he is tried early.

    Asaram should be treated as a common criminal, and he should not be given bail, the father told reporters.

    Meanwhile, police said they would provide protection to the girl's family after it received threats from Asaram's supporters.


  23. The Hold: The psychology of how godmen come to contol the minds of millions of devotees

    by DEBARSHI DASGUPTA, OUTLOOK INDIA September 16, 2013

    How Devotees Are Brainwashed Into Fandom

    --Systematically create a sense of powerlessness in the person

    --Control the physical and social environment; control the devotee’s time

    --Keep the person unaware of what’s going on & how he is being changed step by step

    --Manipulate rewards, punishments and experiences to check the expression of the person’s former identity

    --Manipulate rewards, punishments and experiences to promote conformity

    --Set a closed system of logic, a hierarchy permitting no feedback, with top-down orders

    If you for some reason decide to surrender in devotion to Swami Nithyananda, the following anecdote is likely to be part of your initial lessons. It’s one he keeps recounting to the multitudes at his ashram in Bidadi, near Bangalore, curious and eager to have his wisdom rub off on them: A professor happens to visit a Zen master. While the master quietly serves tea, the professor blabbers on about Zen. The master keeps filling the visitor’s cup till it started overflowing. The professor blurts out, “It’s full! No more will go in!” “This is you,” the master says. “How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

    Become empty first. This is one of Nit­hya­nanda’s first commandments. It’s also probably one of the most essential. As devotees drop their critical defences, he fills them with his worldview, his aura to transform them into loyal followers. This model of indoctrination is not unique to Nithyananda. Across India, for that matter elsewhere, one of the first sermons that godmen will drill into devotees is, outsource the thinking to the guru while devotees free their minds in pursuit of the blissful feeling of spirituality. As Bhargavi Hemmige, a research scholar at Mysore University who spent some time at Nithyananda’s ashram out of academic curiosity, recollects, “He kept telling us not to use our minds. It’s a monkey that misleads, he told us.”

    What else but complete control over the mind can explain the ineluctable hold India’s godmen have over their devotees? So much so, grievous accusations of colossal financial transgressions, rape and child abuse, even murder do not seem to diminish their faith. On the contrary, in the case of Asaram Bapu, a godman mired in controversy and recently arrested by Rajasthan police on charges of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old girl, they seem to shore up their belief in defiance.

    As Asaram evaded imminent arrest, throngs of his followers gathered at Jantar Mantar in Delhi to push for his release and sounded the battle-cry from a makeshift stage. “Our fight will go on until the conspiracists give up trying to tarnish Bapu’s image. We should send a clear message by amassing at the next satsang in such large numbers that there should be no place left for us to sit,” said one, to loud roars of approval from the crowd. “Our victory is certain. Only then will we leave,” exclaimed another devotee. “I have not eaten a thing in 48 hours, but gurudev is giving me the strength to go on and I can for another five days.” At Jantar Mantar, they spend most of their time chanting ‘Hari Om’; in other places, Asaram’s devotees have blocked roads and railway tracks and even assaulted media personnel.

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  24. Godmen and controversies have been bedfellows for long in India but this poses no threat to their cult appeal (see box for some of our flourishing gurus and the controversies associated with them). At the Jantar Mantar demonstration, an Asaram devotee from Himachal Pradesh began to tell Outlook of his indebtedness. “Even if Lord Shiva himself appears and tells me not to believe in Bapu, I will tell him I cannot give up. I know what I have gained from him. He has saved me from committing suicide. So, even if he kills off the entire world, Bapu will still be god for me.

    It’s another matter that he will not do something like this,” he says, before he’s whisked away by other followers angry with the media. Asked what was so special about Asaram, Akanksha Bhatnagar, a 20-year-old mca student from Delhi, gushes with a twinkle in her eyes, “You will realise when you come to one of his sermons. I have no words to express.” For his devotees, Bapu is akin a body of water—you can thrash him as much as you want, there will be a few splashes, but nothing that will affect him. “I am sure he will come out shining even brighter after this episode,” Bhatnagar adds.

    Ask devotees of other godmen, like Sai Baba, Ramdev, Jayendra Saraswati or Nirankari Baba, and you are likely to get the same mix of uncritical reverence that borders on irrationality.

    How is it that godmen manage to win such unquestioning submission? Interviews with devotees, some of whom have fallen out with their gurus, detail an elaborate spiel that gurus have in place to control a devotee’s free thinking capabilities. The initial assault on independent thinking often comes with sleep deprivation: devotees are often allowed no more than four hours of sleep. What is thought of as a part of the frugal character of ashram life actually undercuts a devotee’s critical thinking. This is combined with a heavy work schedule and unreasonable deadlines that overwhelm a person’s routine. “This just doesn’t leave any time for you to sit and reflect. And the moment you do, you fall asleep,” says Anushka Gopal (name changed on request), a Bangalore-based woman who spent five years at the ashram of a popular south Indian guru but chose to walk out after his sexual misconduct was caught on tape.

    Another cog in the brainwashing machinery is a pseudonym that goes on to become the ‘real’ identity of the person. The change is subtle but its long-term impact is drastic when it comes to erasing a devotee’s past. This is demonstrated effectively in the case of 35-year-old hotel management guru Santosh, now known as Shantimayananda after “great healing and transformation”. His parents unsuccessfully petitioned the Karnataka High Court to have him come back from Nithyananda’s ashram in Bidadi, where he has been living for six years now. “He has no concern for his mother and father, he simply thinks Nithyananda is god,” says Munnur Krishnamurthy, his distraught father.

    The next stage is to have older devotees perpetuate the guru’s aura and suppress an acolyte’s individuality. What the group believes is what you should believe, they are told.

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  25. Meanwhile, the guru does his bit by instilling the ideal of gurubhakti and the fear of gurudroha. “He kept brainwashing devotees by saying all sins can be forgiven—but not guru­droha,” says Hemmige. To add more enigma to their aura, several of them even take to dressing as gods—Nithyananda often pretends to be Shiva-like and Asaram and Kripaluji takes on a Krishna-like get-up. Prabir Ghosh, a noted rationalist from Calcutta who claims to have taken on several hundreds of godmen, says all of them inevitably make claims of possessing some supernatural power—another important component in their marketing strategy. Rationalists argue that what is merely a placebo effect is often touted as a miraculous cure. One devotee at Jantar Mantar said Asaram cured her mother of breast cancer. Devotees also seek to protect their belief (and thus self-interest) by perpetuating the guru’s cult and refusing to buy into accusations of wrongdoings. “For them it’s not an issue of right or wrong,” says Indira Sharma, president of the Indian Psychiatric Society. “It’s as basic as protecting the one who protects you. It’s all what matters to them.”

    Many followers come from a religious background, exposed to a reverential following of gurus. Then there are some hapless souls who submit to faith afresh. But the well-oiled machinery at ashrams is powerful enough to work on the minds of those with advanced degrees in science (who often possess a fine streak of credulity) or even without any of the circumstantial or emotional baggage that makes some people prone to unquestioning submission to a strong guru figure. “To the more sceptical devotees, the guru would say don’t believe what he says. When we realised he was not trying to sell us his ideas, we became more receptive,” says Gopal, who studied at top engineering institutions in India and the US. “All this while, I had no idea I was being subjected to psychological slavery.

    It’s a kind of mind trickery,” she adds. It took her six months to realise her guru could be wrong. The revelation of the sex tapes was what finally led her to walk out of the ashram.

    There is also the obvious influence that money power can bring for these gurus. Lenin Karuppan, who is now acknowledged as the whistleblower who leaked the sex tapes that allegedly feature Nithyananda and a Tamil film actress, recounts how he himself once helped snuff out dissent as the publications-in-charge for the guru. When Nakkeeran published an article that the guru deemed unfit for the public, he rushed to Tamil Nadu, and along with Nithyananda’s followers, he bought about a lakh copies and burnt them. But even he has words of praise for Nithyananda’s “mesmerising oratorical skills and knowledge of Hindu religious texts”.

    Katharina Poggendorf-Kakar, a Goa-based scholar who has studied godmen in India, says devotees often attribute exaggerated positive qualities to their guru—unlike adults in a mature love relationship, who are in touch with their partner’s realistic qualities and failings­.

    “They deny unwanted characteristics that cause a ‘split’ in the mind. The disciple longs to merge into a good and powerful, wise and perfect self-object­—which is the guru. In other words, the guru is great, and thus, participating in his power, I am great too,” she elaborates. “The violent outbreaks by stern believers in support of their guru, as we have seen in Asaram’s case, are linked to this: accepting that the idealised self-object has failed means also accepting one’s own failure, which might lead to a disintegration of the self, which needs to be fought off by denying any (countering) facts and better knowledge.”

    It’s not difficult to imagine that perhaps it is this systematic domination of the mind of the devotee that lay behind a poster at a Jantar Mantar that read, “Nigorey bhi kah rahey yeh baat, bapuji hai paak saaf (Even the most stubborn proclaim that Bapu (Asaram) is squeaky clean).”


  26. Famous Indian guru’s arrest on sex charges divides nation amid rise in ‘godman’ scandals

    By Rama Lakshmi, Washington Post September 24, 2013

    MOTERA, India — Men lay prostrate on the floor in front of the elevated seat of their guru — the man they who they call Asaram Bapu. Pictures of his avuncular face, with its flowing white beard, hang everywhere in this sprawling 30-acre ashram in Western India.

    But these days the guru’s enclosed wood-carved altar, where millions once worshiped him, is empty. All that’s left behind is a large photograph, an air purifier, blingy lights and fake red roses.

    The guru, whose real name is Asumal Harpalani, is languishing in a Jodhpur jail, arrested last month on charges of sexually assaulting the 16-year-old daughter of two followers.

    In recent weeks, the allegations against the mega-guru — who runs a massive network of 20 million devotees in hundreds of ashrams worth an estimated $760 million — have stunned and split India.

    The scandal has raised questions about the unprecedented boom in spiritual gurus in the world’s largest democracy — and the enormous power and wealth they wield. Harpalani is not alone among them in amassing riches or getting in scrapes with the law. One holy man, Sathya Sai Baba, died in 2011 leaving behind a treasure trove of nearly $8 million in gold, silver and cash. In recent years, other gurus have faced charges of murder, sexual abuse, running prostitution rackets and illegal land acquisition.

    Yet the guru phenomenon has continued to grow — buoyed by the 24-hour religious programming on television and an increasingly stressed-out middle-class seeking easy, prepackaged bliss.

    “He has blessed my family all these years. Now it is my turn to pray for him,” said Anjali Chand, 42, who brought marigolds to the ashram with her children. “He is like a beautiful lotus and the allegations are like muck and dirty water.”

    The faithful react

    The ashram, once a place of peace, is now under siege. Devotees look at every newcomer with suspicion. News television crews are chased away by the guards. And there is talk of a grand conspiracy to defame their guru.

    “Devotees are calling all day, asking, ‘What do we do, what do we do?’ We tell them to have faith and chant to get rid of the false allegations,” said Venkat Aravala, an Indian-born software engineer now based in Nashville, who was giving a rare tour of the grounds recently. Aravala, 34, a follower of Harpalani’s since his teens, comes from the United States to volunteer at the ashram once a year.

    Allegations of sexual abuse of female followers, shady land acquisition and even murder have dogged Harpalani for over a decade, but even he could not escape the most recent allegation, when two of his followers turned up at a police station on Aug. 18, saying he had sexually assaulted their daughter.

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  27. The teen, a student in one of the ashram schools, told the police that the “godman” called her into his room late one night to exorcize evil spirits. He gave her a glass of milk, switched off the lights and started molesting her, according to charging documents.

    “I kept crying for about one and a half hours,” the girl told police, according to the documents. “He told me not to tell anybody or he would get my father killed.”

    Police charged Harpalani with sexual assault of a juvenile, but bringing him in was not easy.

    In a telling sign of his immense clout, Harpalani avoided arrest for days. He made the police trying to serve him with summons wait while he meditated and gave sermons and media interviews. He skipped out on interrogations by hop Finally it took about 300 policemen in riot gear to arrest him at one of his ashrams in the central city of Indore. Angry devotees blocked rail and road traffic in protest and beat up journalists.

    Harpalani has continued to proclaim his innocence.

    “Bigger allegations have been made against me in the past; they didn’t stick,” Harpalani said in an interview to the ABP TV channel. “But this is a dirty allegation, and a baseless one. I am so old, the girl is like my granddaughter.”

    A new kind of guru

    In the last two decades, spiritual life in the country has undergone a transformation as Indians embrace hectic urban lifestyles and move away from their cultural roots of village-based worship.

    The result is that many have sought solace by flocking to the ashrams of gurus who offer self-evident spiritual truisms, chanting routines, yoga lessons and herbal cures — or by watching them on TV, where they appear on shows like the ones televangelists have in the United States.

    These modern-day mega-gurus are nothing like the wandering saints of ancient Hindu religious texts, who meditated and lived on alms, renouncing all worldly possessions.

    They’ve built hundreds of ashrams across the globe and run flourishing businesses in everything from herbal medicine to meditation and yoga workshops. They travel in luxury cars, glide past airport security and are guarded by gun-toting policemen and bouncers. Some have criminal pasts.

    “There is a mushrooming of these gurus who offer black-and-white spirituality without much depth to people who want short cuts in their fast-paced, urban lives,” said Katharina Poggendorf-Kakar, an anthropologist in Goa, India, who studies comparative religion and has studied controversial gurus.

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  28. Harpalani, 72, is no different, she suggested. He was born in a village that is now part of Pakistan and spent time working in a tea stall and as a bootlegger before and founding his own ashram in 1971, according to local reports.

    His empire eventually grew to millions of followers, including high-profile businessmen and politicians. But for some who grew disenchanted, allegations of sexual dalliances are not a surprise, even though the best-selling item in his ashram’s bookstore is his booklet on celibacy, “The Secret of Eternal Youth.”

    “I saw him with my own eyes in a sexual position with a female disciple. Otherwise, I would not have believed it, either,” said Amritbhai Prajapati, who was Harpalani’s personal physician for 12 years. “The women are told that they are lucky to be touched by him, that he is an avatar of Lord Krishna and the women were his consorts from a previous birth.”

    Other, darker charges dog him.

    In 2008, the bodies of two young students of the ashram — cousins, aged 9 and 10 — were discovered lying disemboweled on the banks of a river not far from the ashram. The boys’ relatives accused the guru of practicing black magic ritual; he suggested the boys had drowned. A judicial report on the tragedy has not yet been made public.

    ‘Truth is fearless’

    In the days since the arrest, worshippers are still flocking to the ashram here, and faith remains high.

    Inside the sprawling 30-acre complex, devotees sit, turning their string of prayer beads and chanting, pray to a holy fire with fragrant camphor and flowers, or walk barefoot around the wish-granting tree.

    Conversations with these followers are sprinkled with tales of how his teachings and herbal medicines have cured them of ailments ranging from indigestion to cancer.

    On the recent morning tour, Aravala, the Nashville-based software engineer, said this was a moment of immense pain for the followers.

    “I am not stupid,” he said when asked about the charge of sexual assault. “Would I leave everything, give up business contracts worth $200,000 in the United States, for a guru who indulges in all this?”

    But for now, text messages from the ashram are about as much communication as his followers can hope to receive on him, except for a note released Friday that was written from jail.

    He cautioned his followers not to do anything illegal and tasked them to keep chanting, stay peaceful and to have faith in Indian legal system.

    “The truth is fearless,” Harpalani wrote, somewhat inscrutably. “Lies are without legs. May God bless you all.”


  29. I survived a Krishna cult

    by BEVAN HURLEY, STUFF New Zealand May 17 2015

    A Kiwi says he was brainwashed from birth after he was born into a secretive religious sect.

    Rama das Ranson, 35, was brought up in the Science of Identity faith, and says he was instructed by his parents Robin and Allan Ranson to worship its reclusive leader Chris Butler 'like a God'.

    Ranson, who has spoken for the first time, said he rejected the group's teachings, which he labels as a cult.

    He was later ex-communicated by his family after posting critical comments about the Science of Identity on an online forum run by the Cult Education Institute. He was told he would not be welcome to attend his father's funeral.

    "Every kid is raised in this group, fully indoctrinated into every belief and made to worship Chris Butler.

    "I prayed to him as I was taught by my parents until I was 15 or so, when I began to "deprogrammed" myself."

    Ranson claims that Patrick Bowler, a drug smuggler who made tens of millions of dollars from trafficking hundreds of tonnes of marijuana, was also an adherent of the Science of Identity.

    Ranson met Bowler, known within the group as Paramahansa Das, when he was growing up in the United States.

    Last month Stuff.co.nz revealed how Bowler had run one of the world's biggest dope-smuggling rings. But he was arrested and gave evidence against his former criminal associates in return for a reduced prison sentence.

    Bowler declined to speak about his involvement with the group.

    In a statement, Jeannie Bishop, President, Science of Identity Foundation, said: "Rama das Ranson has never been a member of the Foundation and we have respected his right not to follow the path of Vaishnava Hinduism.

    "Patrick Bowler is not a member of the Foundation, but to our knowledge, is now sincerely trying to practice Vaishnava Hinduism, which includes using his life to help others.

    "We are aware of certain allegations but do not wish to dignify them with a response other than to say you should be very critical of the motivation of people making many of these allegations.

    "Chris Butler and the Foundation have worked to help many people get their lives back on track, including Patrick Bowler and will continue to do so."

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  30. However, Rama das Ranson said: "They can deny anyone is a member, they could deny my mother, brother and father are were members, but that would be untrue.

    "They have total deniability, it is very very rare you will ever find a member who will tell you they are a member of a group who follows Chris Butler." Ranson believes members of the group often try to conceal its existence or at least obscure it by denying they have anything to do with it.

    Science of Identity is believed to have hundreds of members in New Zealand, and has maintained a presence in New Zealand since its leader, American Chris Butler aka Jagad Guru, moved here in the 1990s to make a martial arts film The Lost Prince.

    The company behind the film, Ti Leaf Productions, gained national prominence after former National MP Alec Neill alleged in Parliament the company was a front for a religious cult.

    The company later sued Neill for defamation, and he was forced to apologise and settle during a High Court trial.

    Meanwhile, a senior member of another sect that follows the same Vaishnava Hinduism path as the Science of Identity is planning a major development on the banks of the Lake Pukaki, in the MacKenzie District.

    New Zealander Allan Tibby, secretary general of the World Vaishnava Association, is a director and shareholder of two New Zealand companies that want to transform a large swathe of land on the western banks of Lake Pukaki in the South Island.

    Tibby is seeking investors to build 40 homes as well as a 'wellness and eco retreat' on the site.

    Chris Butler and other members of the Science of Identity lived in the same location as the proposed Lake Pukaki development in the mid 1990s while filming the martial arts film.



    A Major Witness in the Rape Case Against an Indian Guru Has Been Shot Dead

    by Rishi Iyengar, TIME July 14, 2015

    Another witness in the case was murdered in January, and seven others have been attacked in recent months

    A key witness in an ongoing rape case involving a self-proclaimed Indian religious leader was killed on Friday, the second death and latest in a long string of attacks on those planning to testify against the guru.

    The prospective witness, Kripal Singh, was shot by two assailants in the district of Shahjahanpur in the country’s northern state of Uttar Pradesh, Indian broadcaster NDTV reported.

    The duo were on a motorcycle and warned Singh not to depose against the “godman,” Asaram Bapu, before shooting him and fleeing. The 35-year-old Singh was then rushed to a nearby hospital where he died of his injuries, police said.

    Singh was an employee at a transport firm owned by a man whose daughter was allegedly raped by Bapu at his ashram in 2013.

    The 74-year-old self-styled guru is currently in prison in the western city of Jodhpur, where that ashram was located, and has been there since September 2013. He was also accused of a second rape by two sisters — which he reportedly perpetrated along with his son — at another of his ashrams in the state of Gujarat two months after initially being jailed.

    Akhil Gupta, Bapu’s former cook and a primary witness in the Gujarat rape case, was shot dead in another north Indian town in January, and the Indian Express newspaper reports that police have begun a joint investigation to determine whether he was a victim of the same killers.

    Seven other witnesses in the case against Bapu (who is infamous for his 2012 statements blaming the victim of India’s most notorious rape case in New Delhi) have been attacked.

    Recent developments in Bapu’s case coincide with multiple deaths connected to another high-profile investigation in India. Two people connected to what is being called the “Vyapam” scandal — a scheme to rig entrance examinations for medical schools and government jobs across the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh — died last week. Those deaths, that of a journalist reporting on the conspiracy and the dean of a medical college who was compiling evidence against those involved, took place under mysterious circumstances and are the latest in a string of close to 40 fatalities since the Vyapam scandal broke in 2013.


  32. A famous Indian guru is awaiting trial on multiple charges of rape and key witnesses keep turning up dead.

    by Nina Strochlic, The Daily Beast July 16, 2015

    Being close to godliness is a deadly business in India.

    Asaram Bapu is one of India’s most prolific self-styled Hindu gurus. His following is so devout that he’s referred to widely as the “godman.” But the 74-year-old hasn’t been able to preach at his 425 ashrams as of late. Since 2013, he’s been sitting in jail awaiting trial on multiple charges of rape.

    Recently, key witnesses in his trial have been dropping like flies. So far, nine have been brutally attacked and three killed—the latest died on Saturday night. Is it coincidence? Or has the powerful godman’s omnipresence taken a sinister turn?

    Bapu, with a bushy white beard and flowing white tunic, commands an enormous following in India. But his legacy is rife with scandals, starting long before he was a world-famous religious leader. In a police investigation reported by India Today, locals in his hometown allege that in the late 1950s, Bapu was a tea seller accused of murder, but was released for lack of evidence. After this, he allegedly fled the area and became a successful liquor bootlegger.

    In 1972 Bapu began his guru practice and over the past 43 years his religious teachings expanded across the world. According to the Hindustan Times, he claims more than 20 million followers in 12 countries. “A Divine Soul who has illumined the whole world with the esoteric spiritual knowledge of the holy scriptures,” his Facebook page swoons, “making it lucid and interesting; has satiated not only India but the whole world with his ambrosial speech.”

    But critics allege his teachings have a dark side. Tragedy hit Bapu’s ashram in 2008, when the bodies of two young male students were found murdered and mutilated by a river bank near one of his centers. Soon rumors were seeping out that his followers frequently used black magic in rituals. One staff member who spoke out about the rituals says he was almost wounded by a gunshot after relaying his testimony to police. Not long after, two more children were found dead in the bathroom of a different Bapu-run institution.

    A year after the deaths, a former employee of the ashram where the two boys were killed gave a statement that, he said, “revealed all wrongdoings within the ashram.” Soon, he says he began receiving threatening phone calls; two months later, he was shot, but survived.

    Then came the sexual assault allegations against Bapu. In 2013, an unnamed 16-year-old girl came forward to claim that she had been raped while a student at Bapu’s ashram, where she lived at the girl’s hostel. She said he assaulted her while doing an exorcism.

    “He had threatened my daughter to keep quiet else her parents would be in trouble. He gave her the example of one of the principals of his ashram who went missing, never to return again,” her mother said at the time of the arrest.

    After his arrest, the prosecution described Bapu’s charge sheet as “foolproof” and worthy of life imprisonment. But he claimed it was impossible that he’d committed the crime because he was impotent—even though a medical test done by doctors proved otherwise, according to the Indian press.

    Two months after the initial claim, two sisters came forward to say that the religious leader and his son had repeatedly sexually assaulted them during their stays at the ashram between 2001 and 2006.

    The principal of the girls’ school, where the 16-year-old claimed her assault took place, says he was in possession of a certificate that proved her date of birth and showed that she was underage at the time.

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  33. He says he started receiving threats from Bapu’s followers telling him to tweak the dates. One morning, a bullet was delivered to him rolled in his newspaper. “It cannot be denied that our lives are in danger now,” he told the Times of India.

    The deputy police commissioner of the state also says she began getting death threats from Bapu’s supporters after the police arrested men allegedly trying to destroy case records. Then, in February 2014, the husband of one of the sisters who filed the case against Bapu’s son was brutally stabbed in the back and face. Since then, the attacks on those cooperating with police have carried on with regularity, according to the Indian press.

    In March, a former associate of Bapu’s had thrown acid on him, and in May, a witness who worked with Bapu for 12 years was shot by two gunmen and died of his injuries two weeks later.

    On January 11, 2015, Akhil Gupta, who served as Bapu’s cook for nine years, and was apparently going to provide important testimony in the sisters’ case, was shot dead. Another witness to the minor’s alleged rape was stabbed outside the court in Jodhpur a month later.

    This May, a former assistant to Bapu’s son and a key witness in the first rape case was shot twice in the back at his home while his bodyguard was on a short break. (He survived the attack.)

    A Hindustan Times poll found 95 percent of respondents judged the attacks to be a conspiracy. It’s something Bapu himself seems to take lightly. In May, while being transported into court, he was asked about his role in the string of attacks against his witnesses. “I am responsible for all the attacks in this world,” Bapujoked.

    So far, at least 10 people have been questioned by police in connection with the violence, including a lawyer arrested for the May attack. Authorities say they have also recovered a haul of knives, acid, a laser gun and a bottle of gasoline.

    But the killings haven’t stopped. On Friday, 38-year-old Kripal Singh was shot by two gunmen on a motorcycle as he went to the grocery store. He was taken to the hospital, paralyzed from the waist down and underwent emergency surgery. But he died the next evening. In a final statement, Singh told a magistrate that three of Bapu’s associates had regularly threatened him with death for his involvement in the case. Singh had been working for the man whose daughter accused Bapu of rape. His wife threatened to commit suicide and kill her five-year-old son unless the government gave them work and a security detail.

    Police are already guarding the family of the girl who accused Bapu, and they’ve since added more security details. Even so, she has said that the guru’s supporters come into her shop and threaten to destroy her family.

    In the eye of the storm, she has remained steadfast. “Even though the fight for justice will be long and arduous and often risky, I have decided to do it,” she toldreporters on Tuesday. “First Asaram and his son raped many innocent girls and now they are trying to kill the witnesses to weaken the case. But all these attacks have made me stronger and I will keep fighting the battle till justice is delivered to me.”

    She added feeling anger at “those who do all this in the name of being godmen.”

    On a video posted Tuesday on his website, Bapu is being transported to court, as a crowd of white-clad practitioners race after the police vehicle. He waves benevolently out of the window bars, and once he gets outside he repeatedly raises his hands to the sky and clasps them in prayer. Then he navigates swiftly around his police guards to give the devotees who’ve come to see him a better view.


  34. Search continues for Indian 'guru' who abused children in Texas ashram

    By Jayalakshmi K, International Business Times UK August 7, 2015

    Authorities may be no closer to hunting down a "rogue" Indian guru who abused children at an ashram in Texas, but two of the girls who suffered at his hands still hope that Prakashanand Saraswati will be brought to justice.

    After enduring much torment, and amid a lack of support from their parents, three American girls managed to get a court to sentence Saraswati to 14 years of imprisonment.

    But the man escaped, probably to India from where he had come to the US.

    The hunt has continued for four years now and the Tonnessen sisters hope justice will prevail.

    "He's still out there and he's still abusing people," Vesla Tonnessen told CNN's The Hunt. "I don't think that will stop until he's imprisoned."

    CNN traces the story back to the 90s when the girls and their parents lived on the 200-acre wild land at Barsana Dham, the ashram of the International Society for Divine Love in Austin.

    In pursuit of enlightenment under the guidance of Saraswati, the girls' parents asked them to see him as "the god on earth".

    But Saraswati was more of an Indian version of Santa Claus for the girls. Affectionate and cuddly with hugs and kisses he was like a grandpa.

    However, once the girls turned of age things changed. Hugs turned "inappropriate". A call to bed, a hand slid under and other requests, short of an intercourse, petrified the girls.

    The girls were even more terrified when their mother refused to accept their version and preferred to keep faith in the spiritual leader.

    The girls put up with the visitations until they grew up and could leave at 18.

    In 2000, when they heard that Saraswati's guru, Kripalu, had been accused of rape in India and Trinidad the girls decided to act.

    In 2008, they took their allegations to the Hays County, Texas, authorities and an indictment was handed against Saraswati.

    Surprisingly, the man's devotees including the girls' parents rallied around him.

    Vesla's sister, Kate Tonnessen, told CNN: "It feels like potentially what it feels like [when] a parent dies. But it wasn't death that took them away. It was their own attachment to their guru that allowed them to override their love for me and my sister."

    Saraswati was released pending trial on a $1m (£645,000) bond paid for by a member of the ashram.

    After delaying proceedings for three years, the case finally went to trial in 2011 and on March 4, Saraswati was convicted of 20 counts of indecent behaviour with a minor.

    The judge permitted Saraswati to return to Barsana Dham for the weekend then, with punishment to be decided the following Monday.

    However, Saraswati did not show up on that Monday. He had fled the country and in his absence, the judge sentenced him to 14 years in prison for each of the 20 counts.

    The US Marshals Service now believe that Saraswati is living in India between New Delhi and the northern town of Mussoorie.

    If you've seen Prakashanand Saraswati, please call 1-866-THE-HUNT or go online at CNN.com/TheHunt and report him to the authorities.