Ashram chooses new name

When the guru jumped his bond and apparently headed to Mexico, I was a bit concerned that our Om Shanti Yoga Retreat might be canceled. Not a problem, though–Jogi Bhagat was just renting space (and they could certainly use a little income!)

Today’s news is that Barsana Dham is changing its name to Radha Madhav Dham. Some of its affiliations will be the same, but leadership is changing (no surprise). It’s still a very beautiful place where individuals or groups can arrange a pleasant retreat.

Here’s the Statesman article:
By Eric Dexheimer
AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Updated: 8:02 p.m. Wednesday, April 13, 2011
Published: 7:52 p.m. Wednesday, April 13, 2011
With guru on the lam, ashram makes changes

As its founder and former spiritual leader continues to elude U.S. marshals searching for him in Mexico, the Barsana Dham ashram southwest of Austin has quietly begun rebranding itself.

The changes, which include adopting a new name and reshuffling leadership positions, appear to be an effort to separate the organization from Prakashanand Saraswati, the guru who last month changed from a respected Hindu religious leader to a wanted felon.

According to an email sent to devotees April 4, the new name of the ashram will be Radha Madhav Dham.

“I would like to take this time to extend my heartfelt concern to all the loving devotees of Shree Swamiji and Shree Maharajji,” wrote Raj Goel, the organization’s newly identified president. “We have endured difficult times over the past days, both during and after the trial. Even through this, we continue to feel Shree Maharajji’s grace in our devotional lives.”

Shree Swamiji is the name devotees use for Prakashanand. Maharajji refers to Kripalu Maharaji, the India-based spiritual leader of Jagadguru Kripalu Parishat, or JKP, the international organization of which Barsana Dham is a part. The reference suggests that the ashram will remain affiliated with JKP.

The trial refers to Prakashanand’s conviction last month by a Hays County jury on 20 counts of indecency with a child by sexual contact. The charges stemmed from the accusations of two women who asserted that the guru molested them when they were young girls growing up on the ashram.

The verdict was rendered on March 4. On March 7, Prakashanand was to appear for his sentencing, but the night before, he disappeared from a devotee’s Driftwood house, where he’d been staying. The jury sentenced him in absentia to 14 years in prison.

Deputy U.S. Marshal Hector Gomez said Wednesday that his agents were still focusing the search for Prakashanand on the Nuevo Laredo area, where they believe the guru fled and has been living while trying to arrange transportation out of the country, presumably to India.

Going on the lam could cost the ashram and the guru’s supporters $11 million. The ashram put up a $1 million cash bond when Prakashanand was released after his arrest. Later, Peter Spiegel, a wealthy supporter and ashram trustee, signed a note promising $10 million if the guru were given his passport back and permitted to travel internationally.

Prakashanand’s passport was returned in May 2008, but state District Judge Charles Ramsay ordered it revoked in October 2010 when Hays County prosecutors claimed the guru was deceiving the court by asking for trial delays due to poor health while he traveled widely.

The Hays County district attorney’s office has filed civil actions seeking forfeiture of both amounts. Those cases are pending.

Meanwhile, Spiegel’s name has disappeared from the ashram’s list of top officers, according to the recent email announcing the changes at Barsana Dham. A California-based businessman who made his fortune in the direct marketing and infomercial business, he has been closely involved with the affairs of Barsana Dham for three decades.

Also gone from the new masthead is the name of Prabhakari Devi, the former vice president and longtime public face of Barsana Dham. She is a sister of one of the women who accused Prakashanand of groping her in the mid-1990s.

Reached by phone, Raj Goel declined to comment on the email. A spokeswoman for the ashram, Vrinda Deutsch, confirmed the veracity of the letter but declined to answer any other questions about it.

This is the second time the ashram has changed identities since moving to the Austin area. In 1991, when it purchased the 211 acres on which Barsana Dham/Radha Madhav Dham now sits, the organization was known as the International Society of Divine Love.

edexheimer@statesman.com; 445-1774

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