by SEAN KIMMONS
Almost three years following his indictment, Hindu guru Prakashanand Saraswati is now in court facing 20 counts of indecency with a child by sexual contact that allegedly took place at a Hays County ashram in the mid-1990s.
Prakashanand, 82, was arrested in April 2008 and charged with touching the breasts of two then-minor girls between 1993 and 1996. Each indecency count, a second-degree felony, carries a punishment between two and 20 years in prison.
Known as Shree Swamiji by his devotees, Prakashanand runs a Driftwood area ashram as the spiritual head of the JKP-Barsana Dham temple. His trial, presided over by 22nd District Judge Charles Ramsay, began last week and is expected to continue through this week.
On Friday, the first accuser testified that the guru touched her breasts multiple times, most of the acts occurring before she turned 16. The woman, now 30, lived at the ashram with her mother and brother and described the site as suppressive, with girls forced to wear modest clothing, and 12-foot fences and guards.
She and her brother were also segregated while at the ashram.
“We were told not to associate with each other,” she said.
In cross examination, defense attorney Angelyn Gates, one of a handful of lawyers on the guru’s muscular defense team, revealed photos of the accuser and other children at the ashram in shorts, t-shirts and even swimsuits.
The alleged victim said that the dress code became stricter as the girls grew up.
Gates then argued that the accuser returned to the ashram after she left in 1998 to work and even perform in ceremonies, drawing proof from other evidence photos.
She also showed the jury an enlarged photo of a birthday card given to Prakashanand after the alleged incidents took place, in which the accuser signed, “Happy Birthday my dearest Swamiji.”
The defense hinted that the accuser’s claims were a ploy to get monetary gain from the holy organization, which she quickly denied.
“I have no intention of suing anybody over this,” she said on the stand. “It’s not my goal. It’s been a long three years and I want to move on.”
In court, an elderly Prakashanand listened to testimony in a reclining brown chair to rest his bad back. He recently had back surgery, which stalled the trial last year until a doctor could medically clear him for court.
Civilian-clothed security from the Hays County Sheriff’s Office also sat behind the prosecutor’s desk as security was heightened for the high-profile trial.
The second accuser, aged 27, later testified that Prakashanand touched her breasts and kissed her several times when she was a minor. Many of the acts happened when they were alone in his bedroom.
A third woman also claimed that the guru groped her. However, she is not one of the named accusers since the statute of limitations ended before she could press charges.
All three women, who were living in Washington state at the time, decided to file their complaints to Hays County authorities in 2007.
The first accuser said she was hesitant to give an outcry statement because she worried about her family at the ashram.
“I was concerned that they would be hurt,” she said. “My mother was living there and she had no job.”
The third woman, 31, who seemed nervous and occasionally fought back tears, told the court Tuesday of her motivation to come forward.
“I don’t want little girls to be raped and molested,” she testified. “I didn’t want to be the one to stand up to stop this but no one has.”
Destroying the ashram
Earlier this week, the defense argued that there are no witnesses to corroborate the accusers’ allegations.
The sister of the second accuser and third collaborating witness testified that her sisters are habitual liars. Now the vice president of the ashram, Prabhakari Devi said that her 31-year-old sister threatened to bring down the ashram.
“She said that she would destroy it,” Devi, 43, testified. “[Instead] she destroyed our family.”
Testimony showed that Devi and her parents tried to dissuade the women from filing charges against the guru. The defense argued that the guru was rarely alone and disputed the second accuser’s recollection of the furniture placement in his bedroom.
Defense character witnesses also testified that life at the ashram was in line with Hinduism practices and not out of the ordinary. Ashram residents are free to go as they please and the fence detracts deer from the property’s fruit trees, Devi testified, who added that the public is welcome to visit the grounds.
In 1990, Prakashanand established the Barsana Dham Center on FM 1826, a replica of an Indian holy district and the spiritual movement’s North American seat.
Following his arrest by U.S. marshals at a Washington, D.C. airport nearly three years ago, Prakashanand was originally barred from leaving the country. But when infomercial magnate Peter Spiegel, a wealthy Saraswati adherent, put up a $10 million bond in security, Ramsay allowed Prakashanand to visit India for religious duties.
In June 2009, the Third Court of Criminal Appeals denied an appeal of Ramsay’s ruling keeping the guru from the Barsana Dham Center, saying the defendant had agreed to the terms when his passport was returned to him in May 2008.
SEAN KIMMONS reports for the Hays Free Press where this story was originally published. It is reprinted here through a news partnership between the Free Press and the San Marcos Mercury.Email | Print