Sunday, February 21, 2010
US Hindu Leader charged with groping underage girls
The founder of the Barsana Dham Hindu temple in Hays County has been arrested in Washington, D.C., after being accused of groping two underage girls on several occasions in the 1990s.
Prakashanand Saraswati, 79, was taken into custody by U.S. marshals Thursday afternoon. Saraswati is in custody in Alexandria, Va., according to the Hays County sheriff’s office.
“He’s waived extradition, and arrangements are being made to bring him back to Hays County,” where he has been charged with 20 counts of indecency with children, sheriff’s office spokesman Leroy Opiela said.
The charges stem from an investigation that began in August, sheriff’s officials said.
Saraswati had just returned from receiving medical care in Europe when he was arrested at Dulles Airport in Washington, temple Vice President Prabhakari Devi said.
According to his indictment, Saraswati, known as Shree Swamiji to his followers, is accused of groping one girl on 10 occasions between 1993 and 1994 and groping another girl on 10 occasions between 1995 and 1996. Both were younger than 17 at the time, according to the indictment.
“We are shocked and saddened that anyone would make such outrageous claims and are confident that these charges will be proven to be false, if this case ever gets to a court of law,” Devi said. “Shree Swamiji has dedicated his life to helping people.”
Saraswati’s attorney, Don Flanary, declined to comment on the case.
Barsana Dham bears the name of a holy spot in northern India that closely resembles the Texas Hill Country.
One of the largest Hindu temples in the United States, the 35,000-square-foot complex sits on 200 acres off RM 1826 in Hays County near the Salt Lick barbecue restaurant in Driftwood.
Members have been living at the ashram — or spiritual retreat center — since 1990, practicing Saraswati’s philosophy of “divine love consciousness” based on ancient Hindu texts. The temple opened in 1995 and features ornate carvings, a blue ceiling painted with white clouds and life-size figures of Radha, a feminine representation of God.
Hundreds attend worship every Sunday at Barsana Dham, Devi said.
Fifty people, none of whom are minors, live at the temple, Devi said.
The Web site describes Saraswati as the foremost disciple of Jagadguru Kripaluji Maharaj, a prominent Hindu religious leader. Kripaluji has faced rape charges in India and Trinidad, although the charges against him were later dropped.
“We have no idea as to why someone would make allegations like this against two such esteemed and spiritual men,” Devi said.
According to the Barsana Dham Web site, Saraswati was born in India in 1929. He has overseen the development of several charitable hospitals in India and has led the creation of Hindu centers and temples around the world.
Saraswati is a world-renowned Hindu scholar and is the author of several books on Hinduism, Devi said.
“He is the founder and guiding light and preceptor for thousands and thousands of people,” Devi said. “He is a very important figure in Texas and in America.”
The temple reaches out to teach others about Hinduism and India. Its leaders are regularly invited to speak at churches, civic groups, schools and universities, as well as lead tours of the temple and its facilities.
In spite of the allegations, Devi said the temple’s Barsana Dham Mela Indian Fair, which features Indian food and live music, will go on as scheduled today.
No one there has done anything wrong, she said, “so nothing will change here.”
A Russian Orthodox monastery in Blanco County also came under fire in recent years for allegations that monks abused young boys there.
Founder Samuel Greene committed suicide on the monastery grounds in September. One monk has been convicted and sentenced to 80 years in prison for sexual abuse; three others await trial.
Swami Prakashanand Saraswati
Born Jan. 15, 1929, in Ayodhya, India, and became a monk at the age of 20. He spent the next 20 years engaged in an inner spiritual journey that demanded complete isolation. He lived in caves with no possessions until 1972, when he began teaching. He now has centers and ashrams all over the world, and though he still travels frequently, the Barsana Dham retreat, founded in 1990, is his home when he is in the United States.