Hindu Guru Can't Go Back to Temple, Hays Judge Says
Man Accused of Groping Girls Must Continue to Stay Away from Barsana Dham

By Eric Dexheimer
August 21, 2008

A judge on Wednesday denied the request of a Hindu guru accused of groping two minor girls in the mid-1990s that he be permitted back at the ashram, or spiritual retreat center, that he founded nearly two decades ago.

Prakashanand Saraswati, known to his devotees as Shree Swamiji, was arrested this spring after a Hays County grand jury indicted him on 20 counts of indecency with a minor. He was released on $1 million bail.

In May, he requested permission to travel abroad, which state District Court Judge Charles Ramsay granted after one of the guru's devotees posted a $10 million personal bond guaranteeing Prakashanand's return to Hays County.

Prakashanand Saraswati

A remaining condition of his release, however, was that Prakashanand stay away from Barsana Dham, the 200-acre site 15 miles south of Austin that is home to the organization's 90-foot-tall temple, several residences, offices and orchards. Prosecutors asked for the prohibition because that is where they allege that crimes occurred and because children often are on the ashram's grounds to celebrate Hindu festivals.

Wednesday's motion sought permission for the guru to be allowed to live on the ashram, where he keeps an apartment, and to be permitted to participate in a major religious festival this weekend. Adherents described Janmashtmi as equivalent in importance as Christmas to Christians.

Promotions for the event posted on an ashram Web site this week had already announced Prakashanand's attendance. Supporters said the guru has been living in a devotee's private residence a few minutes away from the temple grounds near Driftwood.

Ramsay denied the request without comment. Hays County District Attorney Sherri Tibbe also declined to discuss the hearing, other than to say she was gratified by the judge's decision.

Stanley Schneider, one of the guru's Houston attorneys, said, "We're very disappointed." The decision means Prakashanand "can attend services anywhere in the world except his temple."

The 40-minute hearing was attended by nearly three dozen of Prakashanand's supporters, several of whom were dressed in traditional saffron robes, as well as his two attorneys and a public relations consultant. The 79-year-old guru arrived in a robe and dark sunglasses, his long white hair and beard spilling over his orange robe and white necklace.

In support of his case, Prakashanand submitted a petition signed by 53 of the ashram's 57 permanent residents and a note from his physician stating that it would be better for the guru's health if he could stay on the temple property.

Two women also spoke in support of allowing Prakashanand on the ashram. Allison Conn-Caffaro, who said she produces the ashram's videos, many of which are posted on YouTube, said the guru's presence was necessary to conduct the business of Barsana Dham.

"He is extremely hands on," she said. "He's involved in virtually every detail and aspect of the ashram."

Conn-Caffaro said that no children live on the ashram and that it would be easy to make sure that Prakashanand was never alone with anyone younger than 18.

A second woman, Chandrika Amin, testified that Prakashanand was needed to infuse Barsana Dham with spirituality.

"When he's not there, there's a kind of void," she said. "Just his presence and vibrations help the community."

Prosecutors said Prakashanand should still be able to conduct much of the temple's work remotely, via e-mail if necessary, and that other temple preachers could preside over religious observations in his absence.

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