Thursday, September 17, 2009

Divine Exploitation

Taken from my article in Nazar, a South Asian online magazine:

My name is Leila*. I used to live in Seattle when a female preacher from Barsana Dham came there to speak. I had an affinity for Eastern religions, but this was the first time I thought I was hearing something that would take me to God. When I moved to Barsana Dham in 1993, I thought everyone else living there wanted God as well. We came with pure intentions. However, our expectations were perverted by gurus who claimed to be saints, but did not act like it. There, I came to learn that there are two sides to Barsana Dham: the public fa├žade and then there’s the bedroom – it’s a different world in there. Charan Seva1 is one example of this. A female preacher asked me if I wanted to do a Charan Seva to Kripalu. It sounded like the opportunity of a lifetime. I learned that there are about five Charan Seva sessions a day, where about five devotees, mostly female, press different parts of Kripalu’s body in his dimly lit bedroom. Two of the five times I went, I saw things I could not comprehend. At the time I knew what I was seeing, but I wasn’t willing to think it in my mind. All I can remember thinking is, “Thank God it’s not me.” We were all instructed many times not to talk about our experiences to anyone.**


Leila’s experiences were with a saint who preaches love for Radha-Krishna, but charges $100 to endow his “grace” on devotees by hitting them on their head with his chappal2. He asks one to give up material pleasures, yet is chauffeured in a Mercedes. He spreads the message of abstinence before marriage, but demands sexual favors from female devotees. I speak of Kripalu Maharaj3, the spiritual leader of Jagadguru Kripalu Parishat (JKP). You may not know who he is. Instead, you are more likely to have heard of Barsana Dham, a Hindu temple located in the outskirts of West Austin. It is the U.S. headquarters of JKP. Like countless mandirs or temples in North America, it is breathtakingly beautiful. Its grounds are often used as a place where the Hindu community socializes. Temples like Barsana Dham imbue a sense of cultural pride in NRIs4.

We were told, don’t share your personal experiences with Kripalu with anyone. We thought we were gaining something divine and if we talked about it, it would be lost. I was very uncomfortable with his advances, but women who allowed it were asked to come back for private time. That was a more involved thing. A woman in Dallas told me, “My husband knows I get special attention from Kripalu.” I said, “I am sure your husband has no clue what that means. If this path is pure why not tell your husband?” “Oh no, you cannot tell,” she replied. I don’t understand. People just don’t see the fallacy of this organization.

In my mid-teens I started attending Barsana Dham, a place far away from the bustle of urbanization. Peacocks roam the temple grounds. The marble exterior only hints at the opulent prayer hall inside. A life-size shrine of Radha-Krishna is unveiled at specific times and a dining hall serves free lunch prasad5 to temple-goers on Sundays. My participation at the mandir6 was simple – for many years I served as a youth class leader, a Sunday School of sorts for the children. Okay, so I babysat the kids while their parents attended the sermons. I also took part in temple dances and helped my family prepare the lunch prasad on our designated Sundays. My memories of Barsana Dham are pleasant.

My name is Mandy. When I first heard Swamiji [Prakashanand] speak in Malibu, I trusted him. Hindiusm appealed to me – I loved the philosophy and the chanting. When I decided to move to Austin, Prakashanand asked me right away if I could move into the ashram, but I said no. I lived near the temple grounds for many years. One day I was getting ready for a dance performance at the temple. Prakashanand pulled me into his room and touched me. I didn’t know what to think. Even as an adult woman you don’t deal with it somehow.

A scene that was repeated dozens of times was when Swamiji arrived at the ashram from his trips. Also known as Prakashanand Saraswati, Swamiji is a disciple of Kripalu and the founder of Barsana Dham. His stay in Austin was always a big deal, and I never understood why. After Sunday sermons, we would all go sit on the floor of his sitting room and wait for his arrival. He would come slowly, flanked by two female preachers robed in saffron saris. After taking his place on a fur-draped sofa above us, he would sit silently as everyone else gazed…no, gawked, at him. I felt awkward. Here was a man I did not know, yet was supposed to stare at. He looked at everyone, but made eye contact with no one. Every once in a while, someone would walk down the middle of the room and a female preacher would announce, “Swamiji, this is [insert name here] from [insert Houston/Dallas/other Texas city here].” Sometimes, he threw a Hershey’s Kiss at a child in the audience and everyone would laugh. I’d force a smile. It was eerie how they treated him as if he was God. He seemed harmless enough - a bearded man whom so many people idolized.

In 1999, we learned about Kripalu. Not knowing anything about him before and being told he was Swamiji’s guru, it was very suspicious that we were just hearing of his existence. However, we knew that you could get yelled at if you asked questions. Before I went to India in 2000, they told us he [Kripalu] was a descension [sic] of God, having appeared on earth without being born, that he could walk on water and heal the sick. We listened to Swamiji talk about him for weeks in a lecture series called “The Life History of Kripalu Maharaj.” I told myself he is what I had been waiting for my whole life. On my fourth trip to India, a female preacher told me that I had an opportunity to be with Kripalu. I asked her, ”What does that mean? What’s going to happen?” She was vague. “I can’t really tell you,” she said. “But be prepared for anything. You’ll have to wait and see what happens. It will be like being with your husband.” I was overwhelmed.

In May 2007, shocking news made the headlines from the U.S. to India – Kripalu had been charged with raping a 22-year-old girl in Trinidad and Tobago. It seemed unbelievable. What came next was an even bigger surprise – Prakashanand was arrested on April 24th 2008, charged with twenty counts of sexually molesting two female minors who grew up in Barsana Dham. One of the girls whom he allegedly molested sounded familiar. I realized that I had danced with her at temple festivals many times. She was my age. That was the end of my visits to Barsana Dham and the beginning of another perspective about this so-called religious organization.

My name is Ruth, and I learned about Bryanna through my husband who used to go to Barsana Dham. When Kripalu was visiting Austin, women would stand outside his door, screaming out his name as if he was some rock star. They would go into his room one by one, and leave with their hair disheveled and their saris untucked. Bryanna was young then, barely a teenager the first time. One day, my husband came home really upset. He told me he had watched Bryanna being escorted into the bedroom. Twenty minutes later, she ran out of the bedroom in tears, hysterically running out to the front of the temple. We heard later that she ran up to her grandmother, who told Bryanna that Maharajji had blessed her. To this day, her parents don’t know what happened. Her grandmother told her to lie to the cops. A number of women have rallied around Bryanna and made her feel special, as if what she experienced was a divine gift.

There are families that have stopped going to Barsana Dham after the arrests of the gurus. However, there are many more families that have started going to the temple since then. Hundreds come to the Sunday sermons, and the festivals continue to attract throngs of thousands. Some might be aware of the temple’s inner workings, but most are not. The majority of individuals go for the family-friendly events and cultural collective that the temple imparts. It is a symbol of their religion, of the mini-India they have created in their home away from home.

Sure, there were many signs, but no one would ask questions. No one dared to. Another girl whose family we were close to was raped repeatedly by Kripalu. When the family approached Prakashanand and asked him about it he said, “What’s the big deal? Was there any blood?” It’s a business. No, it’s an empire. So many people have devoted decades of their lives to the mission of Barsana Dham. They are unwilling to accept the truth.

Come Diwali or time for Sunday prayers, ask yourself – What if I had been one of the victims? What if it was my sister, my daughter, or my mother? By attending an institution such as Barsana Dham, what message am I sending to the temple, and my family members? That it’s acceptable to support a temple that harbors accused pedophiles?

I ask these questions, not because I know the whole truth, but because I asked them of myself when I read about Kripalu’s and Prakashanand’s arrests. I urge you to take a stand on this issue. If you have ever visited Barsana Dham or know someone that has, you cannot distance yourself from it. Ignorance is no longer an option.

* All names have been changed to respect privacy, except for the names of the temple and the spiritual leaders.

**My reflections are the result of a personal association with Barsana Dham that lasted for seven years and interviews with three women who were closely involved with the temple for multiple years.

Footnotes:

1 directly translates to “foot service.” Literally, it comprises of pressing the feet of someone who is elderly. It is a service that increases blood circulation and relaxes the muscles.

2 a Hindi term, which means “flip-flops.”

3 Kripalu Maharaj’s official website: http://www.jkp.org/

4 Non Resident Indian; refers to Indians that live abroad.

5 a Hindu practice of offering food to God. Once God has blessed the food, devotees are permitted to eat it. Prasad is usually given after a sermon or prayer service.

6 Mandir is a Hindi word for Hindu temple

Cover Photo Courtesy: Andreanna

Photo courtesy: Dey

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