Vrindavan, 2012.02.13 (VT): As the grand opening of the Kripalu Temple of Love (Prem Mandir) in Vrindavan nears, many in the local community are receiving the majestic project with mixed feelings.
Indeed the opulence of the temple, made entirely from pure white marble imported piece by piece from Italy, stands in stark contrast to the muddy reputation Kripalu Maharaja and his disciples have managed to gain around the world.
Now 90 years old, Jagadguru Kripalu Maharaj has gained the adulation of countless followers who follow him with almost fanatically blind devotion. His disciples claim that he is an avatar greater than Krishna or Chaitanya Mahaprabhu — while denying a growing body of documentation from ex-disciples who tell the same stories of sexual contact with females followers, often minors, sometimes consensual, but just as often not.
What is more, the traditions that Kripalu set into motion by his own example appear to be carried on by many of his disciples, not the least of whom is Prakashananda Saraswati, the founder of Barsana Dham, a huge temple project in Austin, Texas, and the main mover behind the Vrindavan Prem Mandir, until his name was sullied by a guilty verdict last year in an American court, which found him guilty of 20 counts of molesting minor girls.
Karen Johnson, an American follower for over 15 years, after becoming aware of the “dirty little secrets” of the Kripalu organization, has spent the last few years researching and writing about her experiences with the goal of exposing the cult for what it is. The full title of her book is “Sex, Lies, and Two Hindu Gurus: How I Was Conned by a Dangerous Cult—And Why I Will Not Keep Their Secrets.”
We had the pleasure of speaking to Ms. Johnson an getting an idea of what this book is about and why she wrote it.
VT: Tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to write this memoir.
LJ: I was a member of the Jagadguru Kripalu Parishat (JKP) cult. I lived in the JKP ashram formerly named Barsana Dham in Austin for 15 years. When I realized that I was a member of dangerous cult with dark secrets, I decided that it was necessary to expose them. I founded a Facebook page called The Truth Project for Barsana Dham and JKP, where I collect and disseminate information about the JKP cult. I started as an innocent spiritual seeker, but now I see myself as warrior seeking justice for children harmed by these gurus.
VT: Why did you choose to release the book at the same time as the opening of the Prema Mandir?
LJ: I specifically chose this publication date because I want to contrast Kripalu’s public image with the truth. The sole purpose of the new giant temple is to glorify Kripalu Maharaj—who uses the self-designated title “jagadguru.” Kripalu has been arrested for rape twice during his 60-year reign as a Hindu “spiritual leader.” Yet, he has never been held accountable for these or any other crimes, and the true story has not been fully told until now in my book.
What’s more, this date is close to the one-year anniversary of Prakashanand Saraswati’s criminal trial in Texas and his escape into hiding in Mexico. Prakashananda Saraswati was one of the driving forces in spreading Kripalu’s message in America as well as in building the Prem Mandir and collecting money for it.
VT: What exactly has Kripalu Maharaj done that is so heinous?
LJ: Well, the main thing that most people find reprehensible is Kripalu’s bedroom rituals. Because he is considered to be an avatar of Krishna, his sexual touch and so on are supposed to be a gift of divine love, or prema dan. He gives private audiences to women he can manipulate and blesses them by sexual touch. He invites women to give him “charan seva”, a kind of massaging ritual which usually incorporates sexual touching.
What is worse is that many of the higher placed disciples act as pimps and procuresses finding and bringing young girls to Kripalu. I was in Austin when the daughter of one Indian American devotee, a virgin, refused to go. What is incredible is that the father of the girl himself reacted bizarrely and actually blamed her for not serving her guru. I have given a detailed account of this in the book.
VT: In your book you say that you did not find out about any of this until 2007. You had already been in the organization for 15 years. Why do you think it takes people so long to “wake up”?
KJ: The main reason that I stayed for so long is that I believed what these men said, which is basically that they (alone) could guide and grace me so that I could achieve God realization. That was my primary goal when I met them. I had no idea the entire time that I lived in the ashram what exactly was going on in their bedrooms with adult women and underage girls, because they were very, very good at making those who knew keep their secrets. In the beginning, I naively accepted that they were “saints.” Once I believed that, then I was pretty much doomed, because all of their teachings begin with that core deceit. For example, because they are “saints,” their actions cannot be judged by mere mortals, and, in fact, to judge them is to create an irredeemable “transgression” (sin, aparadh), and you’ll never reach God if you commit such a sin. In hindsight, my problem was believing the initial deceit – that they are saints. Which, of course, I now know they are most definitely not.
As for other people, I believe that they do not want to accept that these men are not saints. Many people have “invested” a lot in this belief, including their time and money. Some people have abandoned family members for the gurus, while others are forced by their family to stay in JKP. Some people’s egos are huge, because they think they have found the highest form of God on Earth (they brag about how Kripalu is THE Jagadguru of our age). And in the case of some of the women, they’ve had humiliating bedroom experiences with the gurus, and they do not want to face the fact that they have committed these acts with some slimy con man. They prefer the deceit to the truth.
VT: Do you work together with other “anti-cult” groups?
KJ: No, I am not. I have been too busy since I left the JKP cult. I have had to heal from the traumatic experience. I spent a great deal of time supporting victims of this cult. I have researched to learn more of these gurus’ secrets. And I have written my memoir, Sex, Lies, and Two Hindu Gurus, which was a major undertaking.
I do not want to be a voice speaking out only against cults, because that would be a victim mentality. What I want is to be a voice speaking out for our eternal relationship with God, which people like fake gurus and other spiritual con men and women only further blind us to.
VT: You seem to be saying that the religion itself is bogus. Is that what you think? What is the relationship between the 15 years you spent following the JKP people and your current thinking on spirituality?
KJ: If you mean that I am saying Hinduism is wrong, the truth is that I have never said that. What I have said is that what Kripalu Maharaj and Prakashananand Saraswati taught was a huge distortion of what I’ve since learned about this religion (or what some people call a “dharma”). I knew nothing about Hinduism when I joined JKP at the age of 33. So whatever I learned while I was in JKP, I learned from them.
I have since spoken with many Hindu people, and they have explained some of the basic tenets of Hinduism to me. There is no other conclusion to draw, except that these two men took a few elements from Hinduism and massaged them to manufacture their own person religion that suited their needs, and they called it “Hinduism.”
For example, Kripalu claims to be both Radha and Krishna. He is Radha, because they say that Radha is THE highest form of God. He is the loving form of Krishna, because that gives his inner circle a way to prepare women and young girls for what he does in the bedroom. They literally tell females that in his bedroom they will have an experience like the gopis have with Krishna in divine Vrindavan.
My current feeling on spirituality is the opposite of what the fake gurus in JKP taught. One Hindu man explained it to me best. It’s the simple idea that we are already God, so we don’t have to “realize” him and we don’t have to go anywhere. We just have to remove the ignorance that makes us think we are separate from God. I know now that those two men just got in the way of my relationship with God. I remember in 2007, right before I learned the truth, I had a moment of frustration at hearing Kripalu say for the millionth time: “Love me more than God.” I thought to myself in: I don’t want to love you; I only want to love God. One month later, I learned the truth about him.
VT: As a person living in Vrindavan, I find it difficult to swallow that from now 50-100 years, Kripalu’s big monuments will be here and there and that will be his legacy. Who he was and what he did will be forgotten. What do you think about that?
KJ: That is a horrible thought, isn’t it? What it will take for that to not happen is for more people to speak out and tell their stories of abuse at the hands of Kripalu and his people. I can tell you that in the USA, Kripalu’s mission is floundering, because people have learned the truth. His “monument” here in Austin, Texas, is struggling. Fewer people are going there, and the ashram’s donations are drying up.
If a group of people in India would stand up to this demon, tell their true experiences, instead of just going away quietly, then perhaps they can help change the course of history there as well. Many people have written to me to support what I am doing. However, they have said things like: “You are brave to stand up to such a large organization.” Well, I don’t think I’m brave, I just think it’s the right thing to do – to help others avoid trap. When I learned the truth, I was appalled to realize how many had left JKP and never spoken out, even former preachers. I decided very early on that I would not go away and stay silent, because that only allows the con men to continue hurting people. A few sincere voices can make a huge difference.
VT: I have a difficulty with the complicity of the women who “massage” Kripalu or Prakashananda. It seems that they were in the know. The disciples who engaged them certainly were. Did you ever talk to the women, especially the Indian women, to get their take on the situation? Was the general mood one of “it is a blessing and we are fortunate to have this charan seva or prema dan. My feeling is that until this point is clarified, the whole accusation of abuse becomes moot. What do you think?
KJ: Generally speaking, the women and girls who were part of the highly secretive pressing ritual and “private time” sex experiences in the gurus’ bedrooms, believed that it was a blessing from God. They thought they were special, the “chose ones,” above all the other devotees who were not invited into the gurus’ bedroom. There is a very hush-hush aspect to the whole thing, even among the women who have participated.
However, to really understand the inside world of JKP is not easy — the answers are not black and white. It’s complicated. And, unfortunately, it’s this very complexity that keeps people in doubt. And the doubt keeps the JKP machine running.
Here is basically how it works: Kripalu has helpers, female preachers, and female devotees who have had sex with him and who bring him new recruits — women devotees and underage girls. Some women jump at the chance to have the sexual experiences, believing that it’s grace and they get an ego boost in the process. Some women and girls are “prepared” for the experience by other women, but are shocked when it happens. Afterwards, they either forget about it and avoid it in the future, or leave the organization without speaking out.
It needs to be understood that the preparation part is very vague. They don’t tell women exactly what will happen: What they say is anything can happen. When I pushed the woman who prepped me for specifics, I asked: “What do you mean anything? Do you mean sex?”
And she answered, “I cannot say. Whatever happens is between you and Kripalu.” So they are very dishonest from the beginning. Then after the women and girls interact with him sexually, he tells them, “Don’t tell anyone.” His supporters further tell the women and girls that if they tell anyone they will lose the “grace.”
Lastly, there are the young girls who are literally raped by him. I have read that he tells rape victims if they speak out they will be punished and receive a great curse. Some young women, especially the Indian girls, do not speak out because of the shame. One young girl, who was raped at 16, did not want to tell because she was afraid no one would want to marry her. Another young girl, raped at 13, didn’t tell, because she was threatened by a preacher and also because she assumed her parents already knew.
One woman who was digitally raped by Kripalu went to tell the woman who organized the “charan seva.” The woman yelled at her and said, “Don’t tell me about your private experiences with Kripalu.”
These are just a few examples. There are so many stories and so many situations contributing to sexual abuse in JKP.
VT: Was there a clearly spelled-out philosophical justification for the charan seva, etc.? It seems that there was definitely an admission to a level of trustworthiness before you were allowed into that inner club. Was it accompanied by any new teachings?
DJ: No, there was no clearly spelled-out justification. As I explained above, it was all secretive. The only public dialogue about it was in coded language. For example, when Prakashanand mention Kripalu’s appearance on this Earth (as the modern-day form of Lord Chaitanya) he said that unlike Chaitanya, “Kripalu is bestowing his grace in so many ways, such as singing, speaking, and touching devotees.” While saying this, Prakashanand is patting himself on the head, as if to say that’s the way that Kripalu touches people.
As for trustworthiness, they did attempt to filter out females whom they felt would not be complicit in their crimes; which explains why I was excluded until 2007, when, as I say in my book, there was a shortage of women. While Kripalu was in the USA that year, they brought in many more women who had never participated. However, before that they tended to invite in Indian women, whom I guess they assumed who never tell, and Western women who were very subservient to the gurus and preachers.
VT: From the Facebook page and elsewhere, it seems that Kripalu’s disciples are continuing this tradition of abuse that he set in motion. Certainly Prakashananda was following it. Do you have close contacts with others following the preachers of the JKP and documenting their activities? If they are doing the same kinds of things, it would seem that they are following a clear philosophical direction, or is it that they are just sexual predators and taking advantage?
LJ: I do not have contact with JKP’s preachers. I only know what Prakashanand did. I had also heard something about another JKP preacher, Siddeshwari, when I saw a letter that some people in Oklahoma sent to her mailing list in the 1990s. In the letter they were warning parents with daughters about taking them to India to meet Kripalu. They said that they believe that Kripalu was raping young girls. They further said that this preacher was caught having sex with some of her male devotees. When they confronted her, she admitted to it and also to having sex with Kripalu. She claimed to be a sex addict. She disappeared for a while after that, then reappeared with a new organization with a new name, Radha Madhav Society.
I only know that the preachers bring Kripalu what he wants – money and female bodies. I have heard him yelling at the preachers for not bringing him enough devotees. I can only assume they are so warped by their experience with him that they become like him.
I had heard rumors that people also bring women to his three grandsons, who are young and virile men, who could very likely take over where Kripalu leaves off when he dies. So if people think it will all end when he dies, they should think again.
On thing I’d like to stress regarding Prem Mandir is that this was Prakashanand’s project since the beginning. He was the captain of the ship. I find it interesting now that he is a convicted felon and fugitive from justice that there is no mention of him. Kripalu told the ashram in the USA to remove photos of Prakashanand from the prayer hall.
I was wondering if they had also removed him from any images on Prem Mandir. At one time there was a statue of him there and image of his face in a crowd of faces. Many scenes from Kripalu’s life are depicted on the Prem Mandir’s wall. One such scene shows him with a group of his disciples. Of course, one of the main disciples in the scene was Prakashanand Saraswati. Now, however, his face has suspiciously gone missing and someone else’s head put in its place! I was told by a friend who lives in Vrindavan that there is a place where all these abandoned “heads” of people who lost favor with Kripalu have been dumped. They lost their chance for immortality! It sure looks like every one is dispensable around there. Prakashanand is very much still being sought by U.S. Marshals.