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06.20.11

The Fugitive Guru

Prakashanand Saraswati led one of the top Hindu temples in the United States until a jury convicted him of molesting children and he took off for Mexico.

Before the guru, Prakashanand Saraswati, vanished in March—before a jury convicted him of sexual abuse; before he slipped across the border into Mexico overnight—he led the premier Hindu temple in Texas and, perhaps, the whole United States. Barsana Dham sat like the Taj Mahal in the hillsides south of Austin, a familiar sight to customers of the famous Salt Lick Bar-B-Que down the road. The Hindus there kept strictly vegetarian, but there was never any tension with the carnivores next door. “They were very gentle and nice people,” says Salt Lick employee Tana Kent.

Religious compounds in rural Texas had a bad name after the Waco siege in 1993, but Barsana Dham opened itself to the outside world. The ashram offered yoga classes, concerts, and public tours; participated in interfaith circles; sheltered refugees after Hurricane Katrina; and hosted the mayor of Austin on special occasions. When PBS made its 2004 Many Voices documentary project about American congregations, producers chose Barsana Dham as their exemplar of the Hindu faith.

Barsana Dham was “very much an ecumenical mainstream Hindu organization,” says Robert King, a former professor of Asian studies and dean at the University of Texas. And yet there was Saraswati, ordered to trade in the saffron robes for an orange jumpsuit. The charges were serious—20 counts of indecency with a child—but “Swami Ji,” as Saraswati was known to his followers, seemed untroubled in the courtroom. Large and elderly, he parked himself in a recliner and kicked off his shoes, as though watching the afternoon soaps. (The judge had permitted him the chair due to his bad back.) Occasionally, he took a nap or picked his nose.

“He didn’t really seem to be that concerned about the trial,” says Hays County prosecutor Cathy Compton. It may have been because Saraswati was not used to answering to a higher authority. At Barsana Dham, Saraswati was the highest authority, a “Divine personality” by his own description. “On your own, you are helpless,” Saraswati told his followers. “You need a Divine help, and only a Divine personality can give you a Divine help.” He certainly looked the part, his long gray hair and beard like clouds around a mountaintop. As one follower explained the relationship to PBS: "He takes care of you when you surrender to him."

It is not difficult to imagine how such reverence might invite abuse. Still, Saraswati had been preaching in the U.S. for nearly 30 years when, in 2008, three women accused him of molesting them as children. Each alleged that Saraswati had kissed, groped, and locked them in his room. The statute of limitations had expired for one of the women, Kate Tonnessen, but her younger sister, Vesla, and a third woman named Shyama Rose pushed ahead with the charges. (All three women came forward publicly with their identities after the trial.)

Saraswati’s lawyers successfully delayed the trial for three years, arguing that he was infirm and unfit to show up in court. In the meantime, however, several adult female devotees reflected on their own experiences and arrived at the conclusion Barsana Dham had worked so hard to avoid. Says Karen Jonson, a former devotee of 17 years: “I came to the conclusion that I was in a cult.”

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Saraswati called his central teaching “divine love-consciousness,” a constant awareness of God maintained through chanting and meditation. Born in 1929, he had learned it in India after meeting his own spiritual guru, Jagadguru Shree Kripaluji Maharaj—a man whose own allegedly checkered past would set in motion a process that ended in Saraswati’s conviction.

Sometime on the night of March 6, after a high-level meeting at Barsana Dham, Saraswati slipped across the border near Nuevo Laredo.

“This divine-love-consciousness grows in the heart of the disciple on the basis of his dedication and service to his Spiritual Master,” Saraswati preached. There was nothing inherently suspect about the “dedication” Saraswati demanded. Hinduism directs its followers to spiritual teachers, who, according to traditional belief, are a necessary connection to God. “Guru are worshiped in a manner barely distinguishable from divine worship,” Arthur Koestler observed in The Lotus and the Robot. “It is therefore unimaginable to question the [guru’s] character or to disobey his whims. … He represents the will of God and God himself.”

Hinduism is, however, an enormous religion without any central authority to say who or what exactly a guru is. Consequently, the saffron robes—meant to signify, among other things, the guru’s chastity—have sometimes made a fine disguise for scoundrels. “By holding gurus as perfect and thus beyond ordinary explanations, their presumed specialness can be used to justify anything,” Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad write in The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power.

After traveling the world to spread his message, Saraswati established the International Society of Divine Love in the U.S. in 1981. “We believed that he descended from the divine abodes onto this earth,” explains Joe Kelly, a cult-exit counselor who was an ISDL devotee from 1983 until 1988. Saraswati found an audience, in particular, with disgruntled Western practitioners of Transcendental Meditation, the '60s movement of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. They converted an old mansion into an ashram in a rundown part of Philadelphia. When Swami Ji was in residence (he continued to travel for much of the year), his devotees would gather each morning and night for satsang, two hours of chanting and meditation. They would bow to the floor when he entered and then sit in silence to watch him eat his meals. After he finished, they scrambled to eat his table scraps—a privilege, they believed, since Saraswati had touched the food.

Saraswati taught his devotees to resist worldly temptations, including “illicit lust.” Already, however, his own behavior with his female devotees was apparently less than holy. “One day he called me into his room,” remembers Diane Hendel, a former ISDL devotee in California. “He was sitting on the bed and he asked me to come closer and he tried to French kiss me. He grabbed me and he put his hands all over my breasts and he stuck his tongue in my mouth.” After Hendel says she pushed away, Saraswati told her it was a blessing to be so close with the guru. When she quit ISDL soon thereafter, he was not pleased. “He told me I would have many lifetimes as an insect, if I left him,” she remembers.

If Saraswati was a god in the eyes of his followers, then the threat of karmic retribution was his thunderbolt. As Hindus, Saraswati’s devotees believed in reincarnation. After thousands of lifetimes, they were blessed to have encountered a living saint. To ignore him was to ignore God and risk a knock back down to the bottom of the karmic ladder. When Hendel told other devotees of Saraswati’s threat, they urged her to reconsider her departure because they worried for her soul. “It was clearly the beginning of a cult when I was there, even as small as it was,” Hendel says.

Saraswati, however, wanted broader acceptance. Other Hindu groups in Philadelphia, like the Hare Krishnas, lacked local gurus but proved much more popular with the Indian community. Their main draw, Saraswati figured, was their temples.

“Any time an Indian community reaches a critical mass, there’s one thing they want and that is a temple,” King explains. Austin’s Indian community was swelling thanks to a local tech boom when, in 1990, ISDL purchased a 211-acre former boys' camp 20 miles south of the city. The price was $800,000, according to Texas Monthly. It would be five years and an additional $2.5 million to build the main temple—money Barsana Dham has said it raised from devotees, some of whom were extremely wealthy executives in the infomercial industry.

“Barsana Dham came into being as a good-looking temple when we had no temple whatsoever,” says Vijay Mehta, a doctor in Austin who is now one of Barsana Dham’s most active critics. This was no mere house of worship: The five-story, 35,000-square-foot temple was ringed in marble columns. A white and gold tower rose like a space shuttle at its center. Images of Saraswati were posted throughout the temple, but visitors were not required to pay him any special devotion. Holiday celebrations were open to everyone, and thousands of people from across the country would attend.

This was the public face of Barsana Dham, the “ecumenical mainstream Hindu organization” to which King refers. There was always, however, a core group of devotees for whom Saraswati was the be-all-end-all, the man whose very presence was a simple answer to life’s nagging existential questions. They were largely Westerners, like the Tonnessens, who had come to Saraswati through Transcendental Meditation.

Rick Ross, the executive director of the cult watchdog organization The Ross Institute, lists three criteria for identifying a cult: an authoritarian leader with no accountability; a thought-reform process that hampers members’ ability to make independent decisions; and harm done to the group’s members. “In my opinion, it appears that Barsana Dham would meet all those criteria,” Ross says.

In 1991, some 60 devotees began moving to Barsana Dham to live in dormitories and single-family homes. Says one former devotee, who drove from California to live at Barsana Dham, “I was so devoted I had a great big framed photograph [of Saraswati] on the passenger seat in a seat belt.” (This former devotee asked to remain anonymous out of consideration for her family.)

Devotees came from all over the world. Jonson first heard Saraswati lecture in Seattle and, at Saraswati’s urging, left her fiancé to move to Barsana Dham. Shyama Rose’s mother, Tui, had heard Saraswati speak in New Zealand; after her husband committed suicide, she moved to California and then to Barsana Dham. “Many of us were just people that were leftover people, that didn’t have any other place to go,” says the former devotee. “You find a little group like this and suddenly you have that warm fuzzy feeling of having people around who like you and accept you.”

After arriving at Barsana Dham, many devotees found Saraswati, who had encouraged them to come, to be mercurial and distant. He kept an inner circle, which included the infomercial executives and his entourage of female preachers, bright as cheddar crackers in their orange robes. Those who fell outside this circle interacted with Saraswati mostly at satsang. While for some devotees there was no matter too trivial on which to consult him—“Swami Ji, should I cut my hair?”; “Swami Ji, should I gain weight?”—others found him impatient with their questions. At times, he could be outright nasty.

“He was ruthless,” says a former male devotee, who remembers Saraswati once smashing a digital camera in a fit of rage. (This former devotee asked to remain anonymous out of professional concern.) He would frequently blow up at devotees who asked questions he did not want to answer. “He had a habit of really blasting people, yelling and screaming and deriding you,” remembers Jonson, who, under the penname “Rishika,” now runs a Facebook page for ex-devotees and is working on a book about her experiences at Barsana Dham.

Why, if Saraswati was unkind, didn’t they leave Barsana Dham? Former devotees, including Jonson, describe a mental conditioning. “He taught us the world is a place of pain and torment,” Jonson explains. “I thought, what am I going to leave here for?” As long as they believed Saraswati was infallible, any dissatisfaction they experienced was a personal shortcoming. “I never felt like I was advancing and, the way the teachings worked, the blame was always put on us,” Jonson says. “I thought I was blowing it. I thought it was my fault.”

For some women, it therefore came almost as a privilege when Saraswati began making advances on them. “I was very very open to receiving the grace of God,” says the former devotee. “I figured I really hit the jackpot here so I’m just going to open myself up any way I can.” In her first few months at Barsana Dham, she visited Saraswati in his bedroom several times. During this time, she recalls, he would touch her breasts, kiss her, and, on one occasion, penetrated her with his finger.

After the sexual-abuse charges against Saraswati were announced, the Austin American-Statesman found four women, including this former devotee and Jonson, who claim sexual contact with him at Barsana Dham. The temple has denied the allegations. The women say, however, that “special time” with Saraswati was an open secret. Some of the women even say they suspected Saraswati of sexually abusing girls at Barsana Dham, but none ever saw fit to report their suspicions to the authorities.

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“He’s God,” Shyama Rose told herself when Prakashanand Saraswati abused her for the first time. “If he’s God, it must be correct.” It was 1991, and Shyama was 12 years old. She and the Tonnessen sisters were among the most popular children at Barsana Dham. “I think it’s because we were more willing to submit to Saraswati’s will—what they call ‘surrender themselves’—that we were more likely to be targeted,” Rose says now.

As girls, Kate and Vesla Tonnessen believed that they, like their older siblings Prabhakari Devi and Swami Akhilinand, would eventually become preachers for Saraswati. Kate was 14 when she says Saraswati hugged her and reached beneath her shirt. Afterward, she holed up in her bedroom for several days. “Somewhere around the third day, my mother burst into my room holding my diary, screaming at me,” Kate says. “She just yelled at me and told me I had to go work things out with Swami Ji.” (Kate’s mother, Sondra, refused to comment.)

Kate remembers Saraswati telling her that the abuse had been a “test” and sending her back to her room having vowed to never repeat it. She had little contact with Saraswati over the next two years until one day he saw her wearing shorts—an immodest piece of clothing, by the standards of the ashram. “He had this speech that I was going to do drugs and become addicted to drugs and have a baby and ruin my mother’s life,” Tonnessen says. “After that, I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere. I was pretty tightly reined in. My activities were Barsana Dham-related. So sometime around then I kind of just gave up.”

“I wanted to get in and be back in the inner circle with everybody and get attention again and have friends there. Even though that guy creeped me out, you’re surrounded by enough people that sincerely believe that guy is God. You think, ‘Maybe, I’m wrong.’”

When Kate says the abuse resumed, she told herself it was OK, sticking to her vow to be a better devotee. At the same time, Saraswati began abusing Vesla, four years Kate’s junior. Vesla was just 12. “My brain didn’t really know what to think,” Vesla says. “[I told myself] ‘Well it must be something religious.’ Mostly I just didn’t think about it because if I did think about it, it probably would have been harder to handle.”

Vesla, like Kate and Shyama, says the abuse consisted of kissing and touching. It continued for two years until Vesla put an end to it by avoiding Saraswati. “The tipping point for me was at one point toward the end of his touching he would ask me to lay in his bed with him and that was getting kind of scary,” she says. “That was when I was like. ‘This is fucked up. This is scary. What else is going to happen?’”

When Vesla turned 18, she planned to spring the ashram for Idaho State University. Before enrolling, her parents made her ask Saraswati for permission. “Fortunately for me, he said yes, so I didn’t have to fight it,” Vesla says. “I would have left anyway.”

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Saraswati may have gotten away with the abuse, had it not been for his guru from India, Kripalu. Saraswati had introduced the Barsana Dham devotees to Kripalu rather suddenly in 2000. Here, he said, was a guru even holier than himself. “He kind of dropped out of nowhere,” remembers Vesla, who was still living at Barsana Dham at the time.

In 2002, ISDL was officially renamed “JKP-Barsana Dham” after Kripalu’s India-based organization, Jagadguru Kripalu Parishat. Saraswati began playing taped video recordings of Kripalu’s teachings and organizing trips to India, so that devotees could experience Kripalu’s holiness firsthand.

“I don’t know how to word it,” says a current Barsana Dham devotee who visited Kripalu in India several times. “I don’t know how the Western culture can understand what a divine connection [between guru and devotee] is.”

That divine connection came at a price. Devotees paid hundreds or thousands of dollars for even the slightest contact with Kripalu. To touch his feet or wear a ribbon he tied around your wrist might cost $100; coffee or photograph, another $200. At least two former devotees say they spent several thousand dollars for “birthday” celebrations with Kripalu—even though their actual birthdays were months away. Several former devotees claim to have returned from India tens of thousands of dollars poorer than when they left.

Temple officials refused comment but said previously money raised through donations is used to build hospitals in India. The current devotee says the transactions were essentially a way Kripalu encouraged his devotees to let go of material attachments. “Nobody wants to part with money, so Maharaji [as Kripalu was known to his followers] started this rule,” she explains.

Kripalu has also faced several accusations of rape and sexual misconduct with female devotees. Articles from the Indian press accuse him of posing as a god and ordering women to sleep with him. Indian court documents corroborate these accusations: In 1991, an elderly man in India accused Kripalu of kidnapping and raping his daughters while posing as Lord Krishna. The case made its way to the Indian Supreme Court, which referred it back to a lower court. In 2005, Kripalu was acquitted.

Several former adult devotees of Barsana Dham report sexual contact with Kripalu. One former devotee says she paid over $2,000 to participate in “bath seva,” in which she says she sponged him down and performed oral sex. (This former devotee asked to remain anonymous out of consideration for her family.) Other women describe a ritual called “charan seva,” which was essentially group massage. During the ritual, according to women who participated, he would sometimes reach out and touch their breasts or guide their hands beneath his dhoti.

Barsana Dham officials refused to comment for this article, but previously denied similar allegations from the Austin American-Statesman. The current devotee says charan seva is the “greatest service you can get to serve your guru … Those who see it sexually have the pollutant in their mind.”

Nearly all the women who claim sexual contact with Kripalu and Saraswati as adults thought little of it until 2007, when a 22-year-old woman in Trinidad accused Kripalu of rape. The charges were eventually dropped, but they nevertheless set off a period of intense reflection among some women at Barsana Dham. “In a flash, everything came crashing down on me at once,” Jonson says. Her guru was not a god, but possibly a predator.

News of the accusation reached Kate Tonnessen, who had married and moved to Washington state. Shyama Rose was living in Washington too, and although she and Kate had not spoken in two years after a falling out, Kate emailed her an article about the alleged rape. “I had come to terms with my own abuse,” Shyama says. “When I read that, I felt like it wasn’t just me.”

Vesla, after graduating college, had returned to live temporarily at her parents’ home at Barsana Dham. When she learned about the rape charges against Kripalu, she brought them up with her father. “I had told him about what had happened to me [with Saraswati]. He had kind of known about it a little bit and basically kind of spent the whole afternoon defending Swami Ji, like ‘You don’t understand. You just can’t know what it means. By the end of the conversation, I felt so frustrated, like I’m not going to get anywhere. I told my parents ‘Well, we’re going to the police.’”

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The trial kicked off on February 21, 2011. Saraswati entered the courthouse in a wheelchair, passing through the metal detector that authorities had installed. It was one of several additional security measures in place, including unmarked cops and bomb checks. His supporters packed the gallery. “There was an orchestrated effort, in my opinion, to absolutely monopolize the courtroom,” says prosecutor Cathy Compton, who says she received so many threats during the trial that she moved her children out of her home.

Barsana Dham devotees claim the additional security was part of the DA’s campaign to paint them as extremists who could then be more easily maligned in court. They maintain that they were the victims of a witch hunt, a persecuted religious minority deep in Christian America. On Facebook, Saraswati’s supporters created a support page that included pictures of Anne Frank; on Internet message boards, they refer to his trial as a “good old-fashioned Southern lynching.”

In their version of events, Kate Tonnessen was furious after Barsana Dham refused to let her return with her boyfriend. She tried to convince her family to leave and, when they refused, she set out to destroy the group, manipulating Vesla and Shyama to aid in her plan. “He would treat them like grandchildren, and now they’re creating a ruckus?” says a current devotee. “I have no other word than to say they are bitches.”

Saraswati’s lawyers attacked Vesla, Kate, and Shyama’s credibility. “The only evidence that you have, the only thing that you can use in your decision to see if the State has met that burden is the words out of these girls' mouths,” his lawyer argued in closing arguments. Indeed, there was no physical evidence to corroborate the accusations—not surprising, because the crimes were alleged to have take place many years before. Vesla and Shyama were the main witnesses at their own trial, with Kate, whose statute of limitations had expired, offering corroborating testimony. Saraswati’s lawyers pointed to the absence of any other witnesses as evidence of Saraswati’s innocence.

Vesla’s high-school boyfriend, Ryan Reid, did not testify at the trial. But reached by email, he confirms that he and Vesla did, in fact, discuss the abuse at the time. “Reporting him would have forced her parents to choose between their daughter or the temple, so the safest decision seemed to be to just stay quiet about it,” he explains.

Throughout their daughters’ trial, Adolph and Sondra Tonnessen stood by Saraswati, sitting in the front row of the courthouse to express their support. After the verdict on March 4—the jury needed just 50 minutes to find Saraswati guilty—Adolph Tonnessen called his daughters for the first time in three-and-a-half years. He begged them to ask for leniency in sentencing. It was set for March 7, but Saraswati never showed up. In his absence, the judge sentenced him to 14 years in prison and a $10,000 fine for each of the 20 felony counts. When Shyama and Vesla stood to read their victim-impact statements, Saraswati’s lawyers and the Barsana Dham devotees walked out in protest.

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Mexico has long tantalized fugitives with prospective freedom. But as Saraswati’s trial began, Nuevo Laredo, on the Texas border, saw a particularly gruesome wave of killings. First, the city’s police chief was murdered in an ambush by Los Zetas drug cartel. A few weeks later, four beheaded bodies showed up in a roundabout on one of the city’s main roads.

Saraswati took his chances. Sometime on the night of March 6, after meeting a high-level meeting at Barsana Dham, Saraswati slipped across the border into Mexico. At first, authorities believe he camped out near Nuevo Laredo as some devotees in Texas tried to hire charter a plane to fly him to India or Nepal. When that didn’t work out, he fled south. Saraswati is now believed to have made his way south to Central or South America.

“We’ve never had a case quite like this in my 25 years here,” says U.S. Marshal Hector Gomez, who is charged with bringing Saraswati to justice. “We haven’t had one like this that has the other elements of wealth and devotion and the cult-like mentality of revering this guy.”

The Hays County District Attorney's Office says it intends to prosecute any devotees who aided in the flight of a fugitive. “If there is anyone that did assist him in leaving the country, if we can prove that, then I will be prosecuting those cases,” Compton says. At least one devotee—Saraswati’s longtime personal assistant—is believed to be with him.

Despite the aid that Saraswati seems to have received from his devotees, Barsana Dham is distancing itself from his legacy. The temple was recently rechristened Radha Madhav Dham, and the board was also overhauled.

In April, I met in Manhattan with Swami Nikhilanand Ji, a JKP preacher who studied at Barsana Dham. He was born in Canada and attended Catholic school before discovering Hinduism. When he first attended Barsana Dham, he said, “I just felt like Hinduism was explained.” He had believed, for example, in reincarnation but wondered how many lives had he lived. At Barsana Dham, he learned that the soul is eternal, and he had lived unlimited lives. “A very simple answer,” he says, “but I didn’t find it anywhere else.”

Nikhilinand wore saffron scrubs. His beard was long, and his forehead dabbed with an exclamation mark of red paint. Throughout his time at Barsana Dham, Nikhilinand said he had never had any inkling of sexual abuse, though he did not accuse Saraswati’s victims of lying. “The court has made its decision,” he said.

When I brought up Saraswati, Nikhilinand quickly mentioned that Kripalu was, in fact, the head of the organization. Asked about the allegations of rape against Kripalu, he noted that the Trinidad charges had been dropped. He claimed to know nothing about the charges from India, and did not seem much troubled by them. He insisted that his faith was rooted in the scriptures and “independent” of any individual personality. “The main role of the guru,” he said, is “just like a college professor.”

On the new Radha Madhav Dham website, images of Kripalu have replaced those of Saraswati. He seems to have replaced Saraswati fully as the temple’s figurehead. Despite the accusations against him in India and Trinidad, Kripalu has never been convicted of a crime. Nevertheless, the authorities in Hays County don’t expect him to visit Radha Madhav Dham any time soon. “I don’t think we’ll ever see him here,” Compton says.

Should Saraswati continue to evade the law and succeed at his goal of reaching India, he might find Kripalu less than happy to see him: His crimes, after all, have brought a heap of bad publicity on JKP and brought media attention to Kripalu’s own troubled past.

“It’s a little satisfying knowing that he’s in a lot of trouble with Maharaji, I imagine,” says Vesla. “I don’t really care much about losing that place and I don’t care about Prakashanand at all. The hardest part about coming forward and going to trial and doing all this stuff was knowing that basically I was going to lose most of my family.”

When the subject came up at trial, Kate Tonnessen wept on the stand. "Besides my sister, I'm an orphan now," she said. "I lost my history."