Prakashanand Saraswati, the 82-year-old Austin-based guru who fled the country once he was found guilty of more than 20 counts of sexual indecency with his female followers, is still on the run. U.S. Marshals think he's hiding out in Mexico, trying to find a way to smuggle himself into India. Meanwhile, back in Austin, the ashram he ditched is trying to distance itself from the groping guru by getting a new name and a new spiritual head: one accused of kidnapping and rape.
The new leader in charge of the ashram's rebranding is Kripalu Maharaj. He's been involved in Barsana Dham since it was founded in 1990, but until now has never been the sole swami. According to the Times of India, Kripalu, who is even older than Prakashanand, has been accused of two counts of kidnapping and three counts of rape. One 12-year-old girl even testified that Kripalu had sex with her every time she visited the swami. Kripalu was acquitted in 2005.
Two years later, Kripalu went to Trinidad and was accused of raping a 22-year-old Guyanese woman, reported the Trinidad and Tobago News Blog. He got off for that, too.
So to be clear, he's never been convicted of any such charges.
Now he's taking over Austin -- remotely, at least. According to an e-mail blast forwarded to Hair Balls by an anonymous source, Raj Goel, the new president of Barsana Dham, announced the name change and new spiritual leader:
As we are now under his direct guidance, Shree Maharajji has graciously initiated some important changes here at Barsana Dham in order to secure our future and the wellbeing of all of Shree Swamiji's satsangis. So I am very happy to announce that one of the first changes made was to Barsana Dham's name: it is now 'Radha Madhav Dham' (the process for the official name change has begun).
Hair Balls spoke with Karen Jonson, a once-devotee of Barsana Dham who now calls it a "corrupt cult." Jonson moved from Seattle to Austin in 1993 in order to live at the ashram and find spirituality when she was in her early thirties, and she used to consider Prakashanand a saint. To be summoned by the guru to speak with him alone was considered a great honor.
But whenever Jonson was asked to share a private audience with Prakashanand, she said, he made her uncomfortable. "If I were ever alone with him, he'd always pinch my nipples," she said. "When I went to say goodbye to him, he'd French kiss me." Jonson said that in hindsight, she is shocked that she didn't see his highly inappropriate behavior as a red flag. "They taught that he was basically equivalent to God," she said. "Once I believed that, it was just a question of denial and everything to make sense of it."
Jonson lived at Barsana Dham for 14 years before she learned of Kripalu's rape charges in India and Trinidad. "That's when I really started opening my eyes," she said.
Jonson moved out shortly after in 2008. Now, she runs the Truth Project for Barsana Dham and JKP Facebook group, where she writes under the pseudonym "Rishika XCult," a combination of the name she
was given in Barsana Dham gave herself to stay anonymous and her self-described status as an ex-cult member.
"My hope is that people will see the truth and stop going and stop supporting them, and that they run out of funds and they have to close down," she said. But she knows firsthand the blinding power of the group.
"I also have a fear, though, in the back of my mind that very many people will ignore reality," she said.