Sep 16, 2013

At An Austin Ashram, A First-Person Account

The author of Sex, Lies and Two Hindu Gurus shares her experiences by Karen Jonson

September 16, 2013

In 1991, American writer Karen Jonson wasn’t in love and was in a dead-end job when she joined an ashram, the Jagad­guru Kripalu Parishat (JKP) in Austin, Texas, attrac­ted by local guru Prakashanand Sara­swati’s talks “about god and loving god”. 

The JKP proclaims the divi­nity of Kripaluji Maharaj. In the beginning, she was happy to be among a group of people who had the same feeling and purpose, picking green beans by the moonlight, cooking meals, acting in skits. After living in the ashram for 15 years, she quit in 2008, three years before Prakashanand was found guilty on 20 counts of child sex abuse. Jonson published a tell-all book, Sex, Lies and Two Hindu Gurus, which JKP followers dismiss as a ‘Christian conspiracy’. Here Jonson tells Debarshi Dasgupta how her spiritual quest went awry:

In hindsight, I always had some small doubts about both Kripalu and Prakash. But I had no proof of anything. I was also very religious and wanted to believe what they were telling us, about achieving God realisation and becoming a gopi in divine Vrindavan. All we had to do was ‘surrender’ to them, they said. So I tried really hard to do that, and whenever I stumbled, I believed it was because of my own lack of devotional qualities. So whenever I had doubts, I would push them back into the corners of my mind.

But the major onset of scepticism occurred when Kripalu was arrested in Trinidad for raping a young woman in May 2007. It was while he was on a ‘world tour’ that year for a few months. He had just spent about four weeks in the JKP ashram in Austin where I had lived full-time since April 1993. His plan was to go to Trinidad, then Canada, then come back to Austin.

Some uncomfortable events took place when he was in the Austin ashram, called Barsana Dham at the time (the name was changed to Radha Madhav Dham later, after Prakashanand fled to Mexico on his own cases becoming public). For the first time ever, I was invited to Kripalu’s bedroom to perform a secret ritual they called ‘charan seva’. I had never heard of it before. But I later learned that many of the women in JKP’s ashrams participated in this ritual, which took place several times every day at specific times.

During this ritual, 5-6 women are brought into the guru’s bedroom. He is lying on his back in the middle of his bed on several pillows with his arms and legs spread out. The women each climb up on his bed and kneel near one part of his body, the thigh, calf and feet. (At that time, one foot was not available for massaging due to an injury, which I later learned was tuberculosis that had gone into his bone.) We had been instructed to “press him very hard.” So we just pressed hard on whatever body part we had.

My first time was his left thigh. The room is very dark so it was hard to see what else was going on. Also, my attention was very focused on massaging him correctly, as instructed. While pressing him as hard as I could, his hand reached down to mine and tried to nudge my hand up to his groin. At the time, I naively thought he wanted me to massage him higher on his thigh, so I tried, but there was really nowhere else to go. He nudged me again. And again I went a tiny bit higher, but that was it. Then it was over and we were told to leave. “Jao!”

I had four more pressing sessions. In two, nothing that I know of happened. But then I wasn’t really expecting anything. But one time, when I was on the left thigh again, I saw movement on his groin from the opposite side. While focusing on my pressing, I also kept glancing over. It looked like another woman, who I knew, was massaging his penis. I really could not believe my eyes. I kept glancing, but was in shock. But I now knew that is exactly what was happening.

That’s when I started putting together pieces of the puzzle—including my past doubts and experiences in ‘charan seva’.
Another time I was on his left calf, and out of the corner of my eye I saw some movement. When I glanced up, I saw that Kripalu’s hand was up the woman’s blouse. I knew this woman too. Again I was in shock. Each of these three times, I tried not to think about the incidents. I still tried to believe that Kripalu was God and that I could not understand God’s actions. Plus, with him in residence there is way too much work to do and no one gets enough sleep, so we are sleep-deprived every day. I was constantly exhausted trying to keep up with the brutal satsang schedule from 4 am to 10 pm. Plus the work we had to do. My job was baking “birthday cakes”. They offered a thing called a “birthday seva”, where an interested person paid US $2,500 for the privilege of having Kripalu acknowledge their birthday—even if it wasn’t the person’s birthday. I baked over 50 cakes in four weeks for this!

About a week after his arrest in Trinidad, one of the preachers gathered us together one night to inform us. After spinning the story in Kripalu’s favour (she didn’t use the word rape), she told us: “Do not go on the internet and read about this.” I think that was the exact moment I got my mind back under my own control and snapped out of my cult delusion. Because I decided that is exactly what I was going to do: I went online, typed in ‘Kripalu’ and ‘Trinidad’, and started reading. I was in complete shock.

That’s when I learned the truth. So many people from around the world were commenting on the real JKP and Kripalu. I just knew they were telling the truth. Everything. The sex, the money collection, the abuse. That’s when I started putting together pieces of the puzzle—including my past doubts and recent experiences during “charan seva”.

It took me a little more time to accept that Prakash was as bad as Kripalu, because I knew Prakash first and had hardly known anything about Kripalu until the fall of 1999. Prakash had stopped talking about him after Kripalu’s first arrest for raping two underage girls in India in the early 1990s (I joined in 1991). That case has never been resolved. He ‘reintroduced’ us to him in late 1999, saying he was the fifth jagadguru, an incarnation of Radha-Krishna and Chaitanya, and a lot of other fairy tales.

One day, I realised that Prakash had to be as bad as Kripalu, because he served him and brought us to him. Within a couple of months, I heard from the young women who had been molested by Prakash as children while living in the ashram.

I’m not sure why certain people calling themselves “gurus” in India are so popular among Indians. I don’t fully understand the beliefs, culture and history surrounding this relationship. I’ve been told by some of my Indian friends living in the US that to worship so blindly is an aberration of the traditional guru-disciple relationship. In fact, an Indian man living in Austin wrote a chapter in my book on that subject. He stressed that there should always be an element of verification on the student’s part. In other words, be sure the person is a true guru. But it seems that some people have completely abandoned this step.

I believe that conmen gurus don’t leave any room for verification. In my case, Kripalu and his preachers went out of their way to teach that it’s a sin to doubt the guru, question him or second-guess him. The only option is 100% unquestioning belief. I now know that this is a red flag. Only a cult would not want a person to use their reasoning mind to make an informed decision.

If a person stays in such a situation, well then they are just sitting ducks. This unquestioning attitude gives the conmen complete control and allows them to shape the followers’ minds anyway they choose. The conman has effectively stolen the individual’s personal power and used it for their own purposes, much like a vampire sucks a person’s blood to stay alive.

At the same time, they claim a kind of shield. Just before his arrest in Trinidad, one day at the Austin JKP temple, Kripalu said: “The actions of a saint may seem more worldly than the most worldly person’s actions. But you cannot judge them, because you are worldly and a saint is divine.” That’s the kind of thinking that gives a person a licence to kill. Very scary.