Here is the second installment in my series of excerpts prior to the publication of my new book: Sex, Lies, and Two Hindu Gurus. This is Chapter 32. It appears in Part Two.
Barsana Dham in the News — Rolling with the Punches
When I arrived at the ashram in early 1993 there was an undercurrent of hush-hush scuttlebutt about an article that had appeared a few months earlier in the local daily paper.
It was only by chance that I even learned about the existence of the newspaper article, since Swamiji had strictly instructed the devotees not to talk about it.
“What’s it about?” I asked one of my ashram friends.
“We were told not to talk about it. But it was pretty negative,” she said, conspiratorially. “Some former devotees from Philly turned on Swamiji. One of them had some mental problems.”
Naturally, I was curious so I asked some of the other devotees. But no one would share any details. They just said: “You don’t want to know,” or “They can’t hurt Swamiji; they are only hurting themselves,” or “It’s a transgression to talk about it.”
As luck would have it, my public relations service projects for the ashram provided me with access to the computer room, where all of the media files were stored. One day, while looking for something else in the large four-drawer filing cabinet, I found the article in the Austin American-Statesman.
Titled “Swami’s planned Hindu temple is center of speculation,” the article cited three former followers who claimed to have had bad experiences in the organization back when it was headquartered in Philadelphia in the 1980s.
There were comments from former devotee Joe Kelly, who started an anti-cult organization after leaving Swamiji: “My involvement, in some ways, was one of the most devastating experiences of my life. I’m very suspicious of this organization as a benign religious group. I was frightened by what I saw around me, which was people giving up their total will to the system. I consider it very much a cultic group.”
Former devotee Diane H. likened her year with the society to spiritual rape. “He told me that if I ever left him, I would spend the next 500 lifetimes as an insect,” she said. “It’s funny now, but it wasn’t then. I actually had nightmares about that for a while. He had a hold on me.”
The reporter of this story mentioned a woman quoted in a Miami Herald article from July 6, 1989. Cassandra T. says that during her two-year experience with the organization “it controlled her mind and almost ruined her marriage to a nonmember.”
Swamiji was defended in the article by three of his followers, including his main preacher at the time, Sureshwari Devi (formerly Meera Devi): “He’s so inspiring. To us, his whole life is dedicated to God. He’s very much a fatherly figure in a spiritual sense. He guides us to God. We’ve never been perceived as a cult by any people I know. We’re teaching a very traditional path. Any group has disgruntled former members.”
Swamiji devotee, Raj Goel, said that the ex-devotees “misunderstood the guru-disciple relationship, mistaking advice for commands.” He added, “To run any organization you need money, and this is all pure charity. But Swamiji would never force how much you give and what you give. I give whatever I can afford and what I think needs to be given at the right time.”
In the article, Swamiji’s responses seemed evasive. On why he chose to build his ashram in Austin, he said simply: “Austin chose us.”
When asked about his detractors he was quoted as saying: “Ridiculous. All ridiculous statements.”
He also commented that his detractors “are very prejudiced people.”
Despite the revelations, the only negative impact the article seemed to have on Barsana Dham was lower attendance at the organization’s first public event, the temple’s groundbreaking ceremony, which was held in 1992, just before I arrived. However, after that the number of people who attended events and satsang steadily increased over the years.
After that article, Barsana Dham worked proactively on its media image. The work paid off when Austin’s alternative weekly paper, The Austin Chronicle, ran an article on December 9, 1994. A photo of the temple even made it on the cover. The article, written by Bill Crawford, was positive. The only negative comment was when the reporter stated that the people living in the ashram looked like “dorks,” no doubt referring to the men and women’s drab attire, including the women’s modest wardrobe of mid-calf-length skirts and boxy blouses.
We reveled in the good publicity and rolled with the one negative comment. After all, one devotee pointed out that “dork” simply stood for: Devotees of Radha Krishna.
It was easy for us to re-cast every seemingly negative comment or event into a devotional context. After all, we believed that people out in the world could never understand the divine work that was going on inside the ashram gates. Our party line was that other people just didn’t “get it.” Meanwhile, we staunchly believed that Swamiji possessed the power to override the negative effects of a few worldly-minded people.
Swamiji successfully convinced his followers that negative perspectives from people in the outside world were all part of the package of following a true God-realized saint—because, as he often said, “There would always be negative forces at work against the divine forces.”