Saturday, January 28, 2012

Fourth Book Excerpt from “Sex, Lies, and Two Hindu Gurus” — Which Exposes Prakashanand Saraswati and Kripalu Maharaj

Here is the fourth installment in my series of excerpts prior to the publication of my new book: Sex, Lies, and Two Hindu Gurus. This is Chapter 65. It appears in Part Four.

Confronting the Guru – An Invitation to “Private Time”

After Maharaji’s return to Barsana Dham, I stayed far away from him.
I didn’t go anywhere near the temple, not even to satsang. I refused to do any seva, including baking birthday cakes for the $2,500 “birthday seva.” I told everyone that I had to get back to work and had no more free time or money. That did not go over well. However, this time I wasn’t the only one staying away from him.
Many devotees were either too tired or had to return to their jobs. As a result, the prayer hall was almost empty during Maharaji’s daytime satsang times. I heard that Swamiji asked Prabhakari for a list of the names of ashram devotees not going to Maharaji’s satsang.
One day, I was in kitchen of The Girls House making a snack. Terry called out to me: “Swamiji was just here looking for you,” she said.
“What?” I answered incredulously. My heart started pounding. By this point, I still hadn’t figured out Swamiji’s role in Maharaji’s secret world.
“I told him you were in your office. He just went there.”
I ran back to my office. Swamiji was sitting outside of my building on his golf cart and Vishi was up knocking on my door. I called out: “I’m right here.”
As I approached them, Swamiji said, “We came to see your office.” He had never once come to my office the entire time I lived in the ashram, so I knew that he was there for some other reason.
“Okay Swamiji,” I said.
I unlocked the door and let them in. Swamiji made a beeline for my tan love seat. I walked behind him, then knelt down on the floor next to him. Vishi sat off to the side, learning on a bookcase.
Despite my obsequies behavior, I was not happy to see him. My mind was rac-ing. What could he possibly want?
He looked around my office, and commented on my framed prints of trees. “I like that picture,” he said.
“It’s one of my favorites,” I replied. I knew this was just small talk, because he was not here just to view my office decorations. I braced for whatever it was that he was here for.
He sat quietly for a minute. As the seconds slowly ticked by, I sat rigidly in an-ticipation, scared to death over what this was all about.
Finally, he spoke matter-of-factly: “You’re not going to Maharaji’s satsang.”
I stuck to my story. “Swamiji, I can’t take anymore time off of work. I already took more than I could afford during Maharaji’s first six weeks here.”
“You have to go to see him. This is a rare opportunity.” He was talking in a normal tone. But I knew from experience, he could change his mood at any moment.
“Is there something wrong?’ he asked.
I was not prepared for this question. I was still in shock about everything I’d learned in the past few weeks. I had not yet figured out Swamiji’s role in the whole scam, and still believed in his divinity to some extent. I realized that I should use this opportunity to try to understand what the hell was going on.
“Well … I … I’m not sure …” I struggled to find the words to voice my convo-luted thoughts, and to figure out how to answer without getting blasted by Swamiji.
“What?” he said, with only a hint of impatience.
“I was wondering …” I could not say the words.
Vishi piped up. “You can tell Swamiji anything. Just tell him,” she insisted.
I finally squeaked out one sentence. “I don’t understand who Maharaji is?”
“What?” Now he was irritated. “What don’t you understand? I told you his whole life history.”
“I know Swamiji, but I don’t understand about private time.”
“What do you mean?” he said, his voice a controlled growl.
Vishi spoke to him in Hindu, obviously explaining to him what I had just said.
He looked at me with a mixture of puzzlement and disgust. He said, “What does Maharaji need from a woman’s body?”
“I don’t know,” I answered in a tone that said: You tell me.
He snapped back: “He doesn’t need anything. He doesn’t do it for his benefit. He does it for their benefit.”
I was stunned. He had not denied it. In fact, he had just admitted to me that Maharaji did spend private time with women—and there was no mistaking that the euphemism meant sex.
He sat silently fuming for a few seconds. Then he said, “Do you want to have private time with Maharaji?”
I realized this was a trap. If I said no, Swamiji would immediately know I wasn’t a true believer. So I gave the only answer I could under the circumstances: “Yes, Swamiji.”
“Then you have to be in satsang, sit up close to him, and long for him in your heart. At least go once a day in the morning. That is very important.”
“Okay, Swamiji, I will.”
Apparently satisfied with my answer, he got up and walked out of my office.
Vishi trailed after him and looked up at me. “Come talk to me sometime,” she whispered conspiratorially.
“Okay,” I nodded, realizing I’d just been invited to be prepped by her for private time with Maharaji.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Third Book Excerpt from “Sex, Lies, and Two Hindu Gurus” — Which Exposes Prakashanand Saraswati and Kripalu Maharaj

Here is the third installment in my series of excerpts prior to the publication of my new book: Sex, Lies, and Two Hindu Gurus. This is Chapter 54. It appears in Part Three.

Charan Seva – My Initiation into a Secret Ritual

There was a shortage of women when Maharaji arrived five weeks early to Barsana Dham in 2007.
That’s how I ended up in his bedroom one afternoon doing the secretive “charan seva” for the first time. The euphemism means, “worshipping the guru’s lotus feet.” But in Maharaji’s case, the activity had very little to do with his feet.
I was leaving the prayer hall early in the morning the day after Maharaji arrived in Barsana Dham when Carla stopped me. It was 5:30 a.m. Most of the devotees were still in the prayer hall chanting. I was going back to bed to get some more sleep.
She approached me purposefully and asked, “Would you like to press Maharaji today?”
Of all the questions Carla could have asked me, this is the last one I would have imagined. I’d never been asked to press him before. I didn’t even know it was an option.
I was astonished. After all, spending time in Maharaji’s room was considered a great honor among the devotees. Up until then, I’d only spent time in his bedroom when I was spending money on seva. I felt a rush of happiness. I thought that maybe this time it would be my chance to actually feel his divinity.
“Yes, I would. I would love to. Thank you so much for asking me.”
I was gushing, partly because I could not believe my luck to be in the right place as the right time, and partly out of concern that she would take back the offer if I didn’t show the proper level of interest and appreciation.
Carla studied a small notebook she was carrying, using a pen as a pointer. “You can either press him at six this morning after his walk or at five this afternoon right after arti.”
Since I had planned to go back to sleep that morning, I told her I’d take the 5:00 p.m. slot. Then I instantly thought better of not taking the first opportunity available.
“Well, maybe this morning instead.” I was overly excited by the enormity of the event and probably couldn’t sleep anyway.
“I’ve got four women already, and have a couple more women to ask.” While she was looking down at her notebook, I could see the page she was studying. It contained lists with times and women’s names. There were five or six separate lists of names and times.
The last thing I wanted to do was create a problem for Carla, and possibly lose my chance. “Five this afternoon is fine then,” I said. She seemed satisfied with my decision.
“Meet me in the hallway outside of his bedroom 15 minutes early,” she stated. “Take a shower, cut your nails really short, don’t wear any jewelry, and don’t tell anyone.”
“Okay,” I said without hesitation.
She looked up to see if I comprehended her directions. Then her eyes squinted slightly. She seemed to suddenly second-guess her decision to invite me to do the precious charan seva. “Do you have a firm grip?”
“Yes,” I blurted out, nodding my head, not sure if I actually did and fearing that I didn’t.
She put her arm out. “Here. Press my arm.”
I gripped the muscle of her forearm and pressed as hard as I could.
“That’s good,” she declared. “Press him really hard. The harder the better. That’s how he likes it.” Then she pivoted and walked away.
In the bhakti tradition, pressing (or massaging) a guru is a sacred honor for a devotee. Typically, the part of the guru’s body that devotees press is the guru’s feet, called charan, which means “lotus feet” in Hindi. However, in reality, few devotees of gurus actually get to press their gurus’ feet, usually because the guru has such a large following that it’s impossible for the majority of his followers to get physically close to him or her. Often it’s because the guru is no longer living. As a result, the idea of pressing the lotus feet of the guru is more a concept than a reality for the average Hindu devotee.
My guru was very much alive and had a relatively modest congregation compared to other gurus. However, some devotees had much more access to Maharaji than others. I was not one of them. So after 15 years on this spiritual path, to be asked to “press my guru” felt to me like I’d reached the pinnacle of my spiritual journey. I thought that I must have finally reached a significantly high stage of devotion to be included in such an intimate activity. I thought that finally I was receiving a reward for years of dedicated service. In that moment, I felt that every hardship I had endured along the way was now paying off. I believed that this was to be one of the most devotional experiences of my life. I couldn’t wait until 5:00 p.m. to experience such an exquisite blessing.
All five of the women appointed to the 5:00 p.m. pressing session showed up fifteen minutes early. The other women in my group were Indian, ranging in age from late 20s to mid-50s. Carla directed us into a small hallway with two doors, one of which led into Maharaji’s bedroom via his bathroom. The space was about three feet wide by six feet long.
“Wait here for his assistant to open that door,” Carla instructed authoritatively. “Maharaji is still walking, but he’ll be in his room soon. Keep quiet. We don’t want anyone to know you are here, especially the men.” Then she disappeared.
As we waited silently for several minutes, I tried to savor the moment, but as the seconds ticked by I grew increasingly nervous about what was about to happen. The small hallway was stuffy, and with five bodies crowded together the space grew warmer and more uncomfortable by the minute. I started to sweat. Finally, I broke the silence to distract my mind from my nerves and physical discomfort.
“Have you ever done this before?” I asked one of the women in a low tone.
“No,” she said softly shaking her head.
I looked at the other women.
“No,” said two others.
“I’ve done it many times,” said the fifth and the oldest. “I press him all the time. I travel with him a lot.”
I was relieved to have at least one experienced person among us. All four of us looked to her.
“What do we do?” I asked.
“We each need to take a position on his leg or foot, but only his right foot, because his left foot hurts from an old injury. You have to be very careful while massaging his other foot. It is very delicate. And use the palms of your hands, not your fingertips, so you don’t hurt him.”
“I don’t want his foot,” I said, fearful of causing him pain.
“I’ll do his foot,” she offered. “Who wants to do his thighs?” None of us answered. Then I said, “I will.”
Another woman said, “I will too.”
“Okay, you two take a thigh and you two take a calf. If you have on any jewelry, take it off.” Clearly, this woman knew the routine. Two women took off rings and put them in small bags they were carrying over their shoulders.
The door finally opened and Neelu, Maharaji’s main assistant, waved us in briskly, “Come on, come on. Maharaji is waiting.”
We hurried through his bathroom and into his bedroom. The air-conditioned coolness was a relief after the stifling hallway, but was laced with a strong smell of foreign perfume.
Maharaji was lying on his bed in his orange short-sleeve shirt and dhoti against a neatly positioned pile of pillows. His legs were spread open in a diamond shape. His arms were spread open also, resting on pillows positioned on both sides of his body.
Each of us hurried to our pre-determined spot, climbed onto his bed, and kneeled on the mattress. I placed my hands on his thigh and started to grab the muscle. It was difficult, because he was so thin and there was very little meat on his bones. Within a minute, Maharaji said something in Hindi, and Neelu barked at us, “Maharaji said to press harder.” Then she flipped the light switch dimming the lights, and left the room through another door. Maharaji continued to lie on his bed in the same position, saying nothing.
I was shaking, but concentrating mightily on massaging him as firmly as possible, without digging my nails or fingertips into his flesh. I moved my hands up and down his thigh, gripping whatever muscle I could find. The fabric of his thin dhoti kept bunching up under my fingers, threatening to spread open at his groin. I paused a few times to quickly straighten the fabric to preserve his modesty.
After I’d been massaging him for about five minutes, he touched my hand with his long, bony fingers and nudged it toward his groin. I assumed he was indicating for me to massage higher on his thigh. But I was already massaging as high as I possibly could. I moved my hands a few millimeters higher, taking great pains not to come into contact with his private parts. Then he touched my hand again, pushing it still closer to his crotch, but with a little more force. I couldn’t imagine what he was actually suggesting, and I kept my hands within millimeters of the top of his thigh. He didn’t try again, and, lost in the thrill of being so up close and personal with my guru, I immediately forgot about the strange incident.
We all massaged him in silence. After about ten minutes, my legs were shaking from squatting in a kneeling position. I was starting to sweat despite the room’s frigid temperature. Fearing that a drop of sweat would fall on him, I quickly wiped my face with the edge of my sari.
Finally, after almost fifteen minutes of massage, he abruptly indicated that the charan seva session was over with a curt, “Jao!,” which means “leave now” in Hindi. As we scrambled off his bed, he repositioned himself and reached for a buzzer on his night table. As we scurried out through the bathroom door, Neelu entered from another.
I walked around the ashram for the rest of the day in a daze, which I assumed was devotional euphoria. It was intoxicating to be in on this secret seva experience. Now, I understood why female devotees kept such things hush-hush. It was like some kind of initiation into a super-secret group—the kind where people say, “I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.”
That’s how secretive charan seva was.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Second Book Excerpt from "Sex, Lies, and Two Hindu Gurus" — Which Exposes Prakashanand Saraswati and Kripalu Maharaj

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.”

Friday, January 13, 2012

Book Excerpt from Part One of "Sex, Lies, and Two Hindu Gurus" — Which Exposes Prakashanand Saraswati and Kripalu Maharaj

For the next few weeks, I'll publish excerpts from my soon to be released book — Sex, Lies, and Two Hindu Gurus, about my life in the cult of the conmen Prakashanand Saraswati and Kripalu Maharaj. I would love to know what you think. Please feel free to comment.

This first excerpt is Chapter 15. It appears in Part One.

See No Evil – The Guru Plays Favorites

After becoming part of Swamiji’s group of followers, I realized that they were not like the people I’d met in Christian churches.
Instead, there was a constant air of competition among his followers for the title of holier-than-thou. This rivalry was pervasive as we prepared for his visit. The “top-dog” climate went into overdrive once Swamiji arrived. Everything was fair game, from a person’s proximity to him in the prayer hall to being chosen to personally serve him in his bedroom.
Every evening there was a race to secure the space closest to his couch on the floor of the prayer room. The most coveted seats were directly in front of the loveseat. Serving him personally was not as egalitarian. Karen L. dominated on that front for three reasons. She had gained the upper hand due to her senior status among us new devotees, the fact that Carla was busy dealing with everything else, and, probably most importantly, because her daughter, Christi, was Swamiji’s undisputable favorite.
Christi had recently started studying to become one of his preachers, joining the ranks of the other women who wore orange and proselytized his message of divine-love-consciousness. Swamiji fawned over her constantly. Whenever he was driven anywhere in Michael’s BMW, he always singled her out to ride with him.
He also called Christi into his bedroom on a regular basis, especially in the evenings after the rest of us left for home. Karen L. would often join them, watching movies, eating snacks, and generally having a grand old time with Swamiji. One morning I noticed Karen L. and Christi bustling around the kitchen, smug and secure in their roles as teacher’s pets.
Swamiji’s personal assistant, Vishi, also spent a lot of time alone with him. One day as I passed by his open bedroom door, I saw Vishi standing next to his bed. He had one hand on her body in what looked like an intimate touch of some sort. Her back was to me, however, so I could not see clearly what was going on without stopping to stare.
The fleeting image startled me. Later that night when I was alone in bed, I felt a niggling suspicion: “Is this really the spiritual path I think it is, or is it something else?” I felt a bit sick to my stomach. But I tamped down my negative thoughts and reassured myself that whatever I had seen was innocent.
After all, Swamiji was a saint, right?