In the Hill Country, what was once the hallowed ranch of Walter Prescott Webb is now the sacred site of a mammoth new Hindu temple—and the home of a controversial ashram called Barsana Dham.
HE WAS AGITATED. His fingers twitched. His deep brown eyes seemed to grow even more impenetrable. Fifteen minutes into our interview on a bright morning last November. Swami Prakashanand Saraswati made it clear he did not like the questions I was asking about his writings and the spiritual philosophy that governs Barsana Dham, his ashram west of Austin. The 66-year-old leader of the International Society of Divine Love (ISDL) reached toward my tape recorder to turn it off. “These questions are useless. I cannot explain. These are intellectual questions,” he said, shaking his head. His words came out in a breathy mumble, accented by the lilting accent of his native India. “It takes years and years of study to understand these things.”
Signaling an abrupt end to our interview, Swami Prakashanand, called Swamiji by his two thousand or more followers worldwide, slowly lifted his body—clothed in saffron robes, a saffron sweater, and saffron tube socks—from a chair shaped like a satellite dish. Then he walked toward the door of the room, past beatific photos of himself and paintings of the Hindu god Krishna. After telling me he did not want an article written about him, the small man with a hump of a stomach, flowing white hair, and a full beard paused and suddenly smacked the palm of his hand to his forehead, as if he had forgotten something important. He swooned slightly and collapsed in a controlled fall to the carpet, landing with his head near my feet. “Krishn, Krishn,” he called out as he lay on the floor. Two female “preachers,” Western devotees, who also wore saffron robes, rushed to his side. As they frantically administered to him, I was asked to wait downstairs.
When I was called back upstairs a few minutes later, I found a groggy Prakashanand sitting in a rocking chair and was directed to join the two preachers kneeling at his feet. He told me with a sight that his “divine mood” had been “upset unnecessarily.” Later, he explained what had happened in a written statement: “I felt the situation was very negative so I turned my mind away from that side, and it, thus, went into total ecstasy. Because I was standing at that time, so, I think, my body fell on the ground.”
Even before this short, bizarre talk with Prakashanand, officials of Barsana Dham had been reluctant to cooperate with a story about the ashram and its leader. And, clearly, even after Prakashanand had seen me, more questions were raised than answered. Of course, for the ISDL this is nothing new. The organization has been a subject of curiosity ever since 1990, when it put down roots on 210 acres of prime Hill Country land. That curiosity heightened during the past three years, when the ISDL began building one of the largest Hindu temples in the United States; after a well-orchestrated public relations campaign, the ornate temple will be dedicated early this month, in a weekend-long ceremony that will attract holy dignitaries and more than a thousand Hindus from around the world.
Officials of the ISDL describe their organization as “non-profit, religious, educational, and charitable.” They insist that any speculation about its mission is of a different-equals-dangerous variety, that it demonstrates the kind of prejudice that plagues any religion whose precepts depart from the norm—particularly non-Western religions, which are easily misunderstood and therefore easily suspect. But the questions about the ISDL seem to be rooted in more than bigotry or ignorance. In interviews over the past year, some ex-members told me they felt pressured into giving money to the group and that the group is overly controlling; ISDL officials vigorously deny these charges. There are also the longtime Hill Country residents who are disturbed by what they see as ISDL’s lack of respect for the historical significance of its property, which was originally the site of one of Central Texas first secondary schools, then a retreat for three of Texas most famous writers, then a beloved boys camp. Last year an Austin developer sued the ISDL over modifications it had made to the graves of his ancestors, who were the land’s original settlers.
No one challenges the scholars and experts who say that the ISDL is legitimate and well-respected and that it is guided by basic Hindu teachings. No one faults Austin’s Indian community for embracing it. But for followers of a religion devoted to inner contentment and serenity, the ISDL has left some people feeling plenty of neither.
FROM THE TOP of what’s known as Friday Mountain, I could see most of Barsana Dham. Like some other first-time visitors, I had been given a tour of the ashram in an electric golf cart driven by Meera Devi, a preacher with tinsel-straight brown hair who travels the world as one of five robed women who spread the ISDL’s doctrine. Across an expanse of lush fields full of wildflowers and live oak groves, I saw the cluster of small wood homes that are occupied by the ashram’s resident families; seventy devotees, including eleven children, live on the grounds rent-free. A little farther out is a warehouse that operates as a mail-order fulfillment center, one of several businesses run by members but independent of the ashram. Just beyond that is a tall game fence that encircles the property to keep deer out of the gardens and the peach and persimmon orchards, where the devotees—who are all vegetarians—grow most of their own food.
Barsana Dham sits on Camp Ben McCulloch Road three miles east of the area’s famed barbecue pit, the Salt Lick. Its granite roadside entryway opens up to a majestic paved drive that is lined on both sides with Victorian-style street lamps and well-tended crape myrtles. The drive, in turn, leads to the ashram’s centerpiece: the $ 2.5 million, 35,000-square-foot temple that faces Friday Mountain and has a dome topped with a spire that rises ninety feet and will eventually be painted bronze and leafed in gold. The impressively detailed temple was constructed according to descriptions in ancient Hindu scripture. Since last summer, nine Indian artisans have been carving intricate patterns for the temple’s doorways and columns, with some of the designs inspired by Hill Country wildflowers. The Shree Raseshwari Radha Rani Temple will feature a lobby made of pink Chinese marble, a vast prayer hall that can seat 1,500 people under a ceiling painted to look like the open sky, reflecting pools made of Japanese tile, office space, and a religious book store.
Many of the area’s Indian residents donated generously to help pay for the construction of the complex, which was inaugurated in October 1994. Until Barsana Dham was established, Indians in Austin had to travel to another major city to practice their native religion. “When there was a festival, we’d go to the Hare Krishnas in Houston, or we’d drive to San Antonio when there was a temple there,” says Chandrika Amin, a hotelier from San Marcos. “Then we found out that Barsana Dham is right here in our back yard.”
Until the temple is complete, the ISDL has been running most of its activities out of a remodeled two-story limestone house built beginning in the mid-1850’s. Just inside the front door are shelves for depositing shoes; indoors, everyone must go shoeless—even office workers at computers, even cooks in the large stainless-steel and wood kitchen. The house is filled with surreal paintings of the divine couple, Radha and Krishna, and with photos of Prakashanand: a young, dark-haired Prakashanand meditating before a painting of a forest, an older Prakashanand with his face turned toward the heavens, a small likeness of him on cards that read “Silent Dining” and sit on the dining hall’s tables.
Some of the single devotees live in the stone house. Before he moved into an apartment inside the temple, Prakashanand lived there too, except for the time when he was lecturing at one of his ashrams in Vrindaban and Barsana, India; in New Zealand; and in Philadelphia and Austin. Since the ISDL bought the property, the house has been adapted for more of a residential use. In addition to administrative offices, there is a dining area and a room filled with washers and dryers. The upstairs women’s restroom has toilet stalls, showers, and plenty of sinks and mirrors, which are the center of activity when guests are preparing for a prayer meeting.
The first time I attended a prayer meeting, also known as a satsang service, I was invited to dinner beforehand. I arrived at the appointed hour with a friend only to find that the devotees had already eaten, but the food—pinto bean soup, salad, vegetables, and rice—was still in large bowls on a bar to one side of the dining hall. After we ate, Meera Devi and, later, Prakashanand joined us, and before long many devotees had gathered to hear Prakashanand hold forth on his past troubles with reporters. They listened raptly, patiently waiting during his many pauses and laughing loudly when he giggled at his own jokes, though at times I found his English so hard to understand that Meera Devi had to interpret for me.
Each of the prayer meetings I attended took place in an upstairs room of the main stone house. They began with melodic chanting led by one of the preachers, who sang into a microphone while she played a small Indian harmonium and another preacher kept time on a small drum. The call-and-response chants led to faster, more emotional singing, and several devotees played small cymbals and bells. Most of the fifty to sixty devotees who chanted along as they sat on the floor were Westerners, and most were women; many seemed to be in their mid-thirties and forties and wore brightly colored saris.
After a few prayers, the group would turn to a large monitor set to watch one in a series of taped lectures by Prakashanand (the same ones that air on Austin’s public-access channel). It appeared that many of the lectures had been taped in this room, which contained sophisticated video equipment and studio lights. His theme—at least in the lectures I heard—was that our souls are constantly searching for satisfaction, but that the only way to find it is through devotion to God and not in worldly concerns. “People think they’re happy, but they’re not really content,” he said on one tape, his speech clearer than it was at any time that I spoke to him. “Contentment is beyond material ambitions, material needs.”
When the tape would end, and after another chant, moments of quiet expectation would follow. Then the door would swing open and Prakashanand would step in. The devotees would immediately bow at the waist, some nearly touching their faces to the blue carpet, staying that way until he climbed upon a maroon cushioned platform at the front of the room, across from a flower-filled altar bearing the likenesses of Radha and Krishna. A preacher who had entered with him would place a garland around his neck. Speaking into a microphone that was partially hidden by a bouquet of flowers, he would then elaborate on his taped lecture.
Prakashanand’s teachings follow traditional Hindu scriptures and philosophy, which center on the idea that true seekers learn in stages that pleasure and success do not fully satisfy, that what they most long for—the experience of God in their lives—resides inside if they know how to find it. Hinduism is complex, but one of its few clear convictions, other than a belief in reincarnation and karma and in many different personifications of God, is the idea that believers need a guru to show them how to find oneness with God.
In India thousands of people call themselves gurus, most of them teaching their own twists on fundamental Hindu beliefs. “Each guru has his own following and can teach almost anything he wants,” says Robert King, a former dean of liberal arts at the University of Texas at Austin who is now a professor of linguistics and Asian studies there. “Hinduism is very elastic, so these guys can damn near do anything they want and no one’s going to say he’s a bad Hindu. There’s no pope of Hinduism, so there’s a vacuum. Anyone can stand up and say, ‘I’m the true prophet of Hinduism.’“ Most Indians, however, are cautious about selecting a guru. “Hindus [realize] that many gurus are not real gurus at all,” says Acharya Palaniswami, the editor of Hinduism Today, who notes that a Hindu can usually tell a real guru from a fake one by instinct.
There is no doubt that ISDL devotees believe Prakashanand is a real guru. However, while several Indians I spoke to expressed admiration for him, not all gushed over him the way some Western followers did. “When we go [to Barsana Dham] we don’t look for authority. We go there for spirituality,” reports Chandrika Amin, who recently became a life member of the ISDL. “If Swami Prakashanand asks anything logically, all right,” says Ashok Bhandari, who is secretary of Austin’s Indian Community Center. “If he said something and my heart said, No, don’t do it, I would never do it.”
SWAMI PRAKASHANAND SARASWATI began his guru days at mid-life. His official biography states that he was born in 1929 into a Brahman family in Ayodhya, India. At age twenty he renounced conventional life and went into isolation, traveling to the Himalayas, to the forests of India, and to Vrindaban and Barsana, which are considered holy places. For many years he lived in deserted temples and small caves. After taking his religious orders, he studied with his own guru, who taught him the philosophy he preaches today. In 1972 he began lecturing around the world, and nine years later he established the ISDL in the U.S. Soon after, he started his first American ashram in Philadelphia.
Prakashanand is one is a long line of Indian mystics who have come to the U.S. and found devotees with spiritual hungers that could not be satiated in an age of materialism. J. Cordon Melton, the author of The Encyclopedia of American Religions, says the ISDL is a mainstream Hindu group that fits into one of the main denominational categories of Hinduism: those who worship Krishna. In strictly devotional terms, Melton says, “the difference between [the ISDL] and the Hare Krishnas is like the difference between Southern Baptists and Bible Baptists.” According to Hinduism Today editor Palaniswami, the fact that Meera Devi was one of fourteen Hindus chosen by the council of the World Parliament of Religions to attend its centennial celebration in 1993 is a sign of how highly the ISDL is regarded.
Prakashanand instructs ISDL devotees to follow a path to Krishna called bhakti, which requires meditating on Krishna, usually for two thirty-minute sessions per day. A feeling of peace and contentment is what most devotees say they find through Prakashanand’s teachings. “I feel fullness of love in my heart,” says Marsha Kent, the co-president of an infomercial production company in Los Angeles and a devotee of Prakashanand’s for twelve years. “I feel protected by Krishna in my life.”
Just as vital as daily homage to Krishna, however, is service to the spiritual master and his mission. “If a devotee begins to think that devotion is more important than service, he is mistaken,” Prakashanand writes in his book, The Philosophy of Divine Love, adding that the spiritual master is “the personified form of God’s Grace.”
Ashram officials compare service to a master to the service a son might perform for his father. Usually, that means helping the ashram any way possible. “[Devoting your life to God-realization] becomes easier when you understand that God-realization is the prime aim in your life and you believe that your Master is caring for your Spiritual needs,” Prakashanand writes. “Now you have to do your Master’s bidding. You need not analyze his advice because it involves hundreds of sanskar situations [consequences of past lives] that directly or indirectly affect your Spiritual progress.”
The book also encourages devotees to be ready to give to their master. “The love and care which a Master gives to his disciple is invaluable,” Prakashanand writes. “Take an example. Suppose a king grants an opportunity to a beggar saying, ‘If you offer me a part or whole of your income, I will, accordingly, give you a part or whole of my income’ … If the beggar is foolish he will lose the opportunity and if he is wise he will make use of such a rare opportunity. Something like this happens between a Divine Personality and a soul.” Later, Prakashanand adds, “Imagine, in return for the material things used in service to his Master, a devotee receives Divine-love feelings which are invaluable …”
Asked about these passages, officials of the ISDL told me that Prakashanand’s book isn’t for critics—even though it is the basic book recommended for anyone interested in the society. “You cannot pick one sentence from here and there according to your choice and ask why it is so,” I was told, “because they are all interrelated with previous and forthcoming chapters.” Devotee Marsha Kent explained that only a believer can read such a book in the right spirit. “If you already have the feeling, then you can hear it correctly,” she said. “We don’t have critical minds. We’re not judging and evaluating.”
In fact, scholars generally agree that Prakashanand’s writings are not out of line with traditional Hindu philosophy. “It would be very easy to draw the conclusion that this is nothing but a con game,” says Robert King. “That would probably be the way most people unfamiliar with Hindu traditions would see it. But there is also an interpretation based on the Bhagavad Gita, which says you have no right to question your duty. What it teaches is submission to fate and to your master.”
DESPITE THE TONE OF AUTHORITARIAN-ism in Prakashanand’s book, ISDL officials say that Barsana Dham is a place where followers can live as they wish while they pursue their spiritual path. They state that Prakashanand gives advice only on spiritual issues, never on personal affairs, though the ashram does have a few specific rules, such as no alcohol or drugs and no smoking, “illicit lust,” or gambling. “One simple fact: A devotee always has free will to choose whatever lifestyle he wants or wherever he wants to follow,” Meera Devi told me.
This freedom extends to the donations made by members, ashram officials say, and J. Gordon Melton agrees; there is no more pressure to give, he says, than at a neighborhood church. The only funding the ISDL says it can count on is a one-time fee of $ 1,000 that devotees pay when they become lifetime members. There is also a smaller fee paid by lifetime members who attend intensives—extended sessions of mediation and devotion—and some income from the sale of the ISDL’s books and tapes.
Still, considering that the ISDL claims to have only a few thousand followers worldwide, that doesn’t add up to very much—so how can the organization afford its prime piece of real estate in the Hill Country, its ashrams around the world, and its multimillion-dollar temple? One possible explanation is that some of Prakashanand’s most devoted devotees run extremely successful businesses. Ron Jaggie, the president of Northstar Equipment Corporation in New York, admits that he freely gives to the ISDL. One way, he says, is to allow one of the preachers to use one of his corporate American Express cards. He gave it to her “in case she needed money while she was traveling, if she’s alone and she doesn’t have enough money to buy tickets or anything,” he notes. “I don’t see anything wrong with that, I pay for it personally.”
Two other wealthy devotees are Marsha Kent, whose company, Kent and Spiegel Direct, had sales of $ 39 million in 1994, making it the seventh-largest woman-owned business in Los Angeles County; and Katy Williams, whose Williams Television Time—a direct-response advertising agency—logged $ 64 million in sales, making it the fifth-largest woman-owned business in L.A. County. “I look upon it as a privilege that I can donate,” says Williams. “It’s so wonderful what he’s given me. He’s a saint. He’s given up everything and given us love. Anything I can give in return is inconsequential.”
Some ex-members, however, contend that there is great pressure to donate money and that lives are tightly controlled by Prakashanand and ashram leaders. Joe Kelly, who belonged to the ISDL in Philadelphia from 1983 until 1988, believes Prakashanand created an atmosphere there in which “giving without really thinking was encouraged.” One devotee in Philadelphia gave the ISDL an eleven-room house to serve as an ashram, Kelly reports. Kelly, who like many ISDL members had previously practiced another Eastern philosophy, Transcendental Meditation, estimates that he gave the society some $ 25,000 worth of goods, mostly charged on his credit cards. He paid for auto insurance and made partial payments on autos, rugs, and paint for the ashram.
“You got this feeling of expectation. You’d hear whispers about people who were stingy: ‘They’re not truly devoted,’“ says Kelly, who now makes his living counseling ex-cult members. “It was always very subtle, except for one time where [Prakashanand] blatantly called me into his room and said he needed two thousand dollars.” That request was particularly disturbing, Kelly says, because a few days earlier he had confided in Prakashanand that his import business was on the verge of bankruptcy. “It made me think, ‘Has he heard me?’ It led me to be extremely confused about who he was and what he really was. The swami represents himself as this benign yet strict authoritarian holy man, but in reality he is a schemer.”
Diane Hendel, also a former TM practitioner who joined the ISDL in L.A. in the late eighties, says she thinks she was courted by Prakashanand because he thought she was wealthy. At the time, Hendel was part owner of a commodity brokerage firm with a New Age client base. “We raised several million dollars very quickly and did real well until the stock market crash,” says Hendel, who followed Prakashanand from lecture to lecture “like a Deadhead” for two and a half months. “So Prakashanand started talking to me about money real soon—about what kinds of things I could do for the movement, about what kind of businesses I could set up, asking me all kinds of questions about taxes and investments.” Hendel, who is now a volunteer counselor for former TM practioners, believes Prakashanand recruits TM followers because they’re already suggestible.
ISDL officials deny these accusations. In a written statement they alleged that Kelly and Hendel were under the influence of Kelly’s roommate, Pat Ryan, who is also an exit counselor for people leaving cults, and that all three are anti-Hindu. The officials also implied that Kelly’s involvement with a group called the Cult Awareness Network is evidence of his prejudice.
“I am not anti-Hindu,” Kelly counters. “I would never detract from a religion that has helped so many people around the world.” Kelly says he regrets that his allegation may hurt his friends in the ISDL. “There are some very fine people at the ashram. It was fun at times. I don’t want to say it was all hell; that would be inaccurate. There was always a lot of excitement when [Prakashanand] was there.”
Another ex-member finds it easier to look back on the positive aspects of the ISDL. Julian Watson was on a trip to Ireland in 1985 when he met Prakashanand; he was living in his native England at the time following an eleven-year stint with TM. Though he says being based in England isolated him from other devotees, he saw enough to conclude the group was above board. “That situation, having a figurehead at the top, if that figurehead is not responsible—all manner of psychological abuse is possible, but at no point did anyone anywhere near step over the line,” says Watson, who is 42 and lives in Belfast. “Maybe some who had psychological problems felt they were abused. Anyone who’s been in a group and has found that it’s not for them is illogically angry, as if they’ve been caught with their trousers down. They’re angry that the dream has disappeared.”
Still, Watson ended up leaving the ISDL after two and a half years—not because he had problems with Prakashanand personally, but because he couldn’t abide an Eastern religion that demands deference to an authoritarian figure. He cited in particular the directive that a devotee must do as his guru asks. “It made me very uneasy. Like bowing to the floor—I don’t really know why they insisted on that,” Watson says. “That’s where all sorts of things get confused.”
NEARLY EVERY RELIGION—NEARLY every organization, for that matter, from the Elks to the Junior League—has ex-members who are more than happy to recite a litany of disgruntlements. And if greed and authoritarianism were the only accusations leveled at the ISDL they might be explained away as so much griping. But there is another complaint that can’t be dismissed as quickly—namely, that the ashram messed with Texas history.
Soon after moving to the outskirts of Austin—which, as the choose-your-enlightenment capital of the state, is known to be tolerant of most religions—the ISDL remodeled the main stone building on its property. Though the exterior is now covered mostly in wood siding and the inside is filled with plasterboard, vinyl-tiled floors, and commercial carpeting, there is still evidence—a wall here, a window there—of what the house used to be: the original Johnson Institute, which was founded by educator Thomas Jefferson Johnson and operated from 1852 until 1872.
Seventy years later, after changing hands several times, the property began another, equally illustrious life as the retreat of UT historian Walter Prescott Webb, whose stated goal was “to preserve the building and restore it as nearly as possible to its original state.” Friday Mountain Ranch, as Webb called it, was a haven for him and his two celebrated cronies, writer J. Frank Dobie and naturalist Roy Bedichek. Together, the three men are considered the last of Texas’ frontier intellectuals.
Webb, Dobie, and Bedichek spent many days on this land, their preferred hour being “after the heat of the day but in time for the clear blue of the sky to redden with sunset,” writes William A. Owens in his book about the men called Three Friends. Bedicheck lived a year at the ranch, writing his classic Adventures of a Texas Naturalist, in which he says that “the sights, sounds, odors and, especially, the feel of the place stimulate in me memories so warm and intimate that taking up residence here seems more like a homecoming than an escape.”
Starting in 1947, Webb allowed a friend, educator Rodney Kidd, to operate a summer boys camp on his ranch. Thousands of Texas boys filled their summer days riding horses, diving from limestone cliffs into a swimming hole, and searching for Indian artifacts. “This place to me was heaven on earth, a place of sanctuary,” says William Osborn, an Austin attorney who is writing a book about Friday Mountain Ranch. When Webb died in 1963, Kidd bought the land, and he kept the camp going until 1984. By the time the real estate crash of the next few years had come and gone, Kidd too had died, and his sons put the property up for sale.
Initially, developer Walter Reifslager III hatched plans to turn it into a retirement community. In the early eighties, Reifslager had been instrumental in bringing followers of TM to the same area as a developer of two subdivisions. But Reifslager had not secured the funding for construction of his retirement community and finally pulled out of the deal. “It would seem there’s some spiritual significance to the land,” he says, referring to the proximity of the TM developments and Barsana Dham. “But there’s not a connection [between the groups].”
Or is there? In early 1990, soon after the Reifslager talks broke off, the Kidd sons got a call from Dennis Wagner, a former TM follower who had lived in one of the TM subdivisions—and was now a member of the ISDL. After a period of negotiation, Wagner and the Kidds struck a deal. Deed records show that the purchase was made on May 25; according to the Austin American-Statesman, the price was $ 800,000 (ISDL officials won’t comment on this figure). Records also show that on the same day, in a separate transaction, Wagner optioned the land to the ISDL.
Asked why he flipped the land so quickly, Wagner responds, “I really can’t remember that far back how the transaction all happened,” but he maintains that the ISDL’s involvement was never covered up. Opinion within the Kidd family is split, however, on whether the ISDL’s status as the ultimate buyer was concealed. “With a name like the International Society of Divine Love,” insists Deborah Bynum, the family’s attorney in the deal, “that’s something people would have commented on.” Says Clay Kidd, Rodney Kidd’s grandson: “We thought [Wagner] was buying it as a ranch for his family.” But at least one Kidd brother, Desmond, says the family would have sold to the ISDL even if it had known. “It was nothing more than a flip deal. [Wagner] was the front man,” says Desmond. After the ISDL’s involvement was made public—another Kidd brother, Walter, sold 27 more acres directly to the group.
For his part, Prakashanand says he did not know about the property’s historic significance when he purchased it. The land simply reminded him of a holy region in India called Braj, and while preservationists saw in the main stone house a stunning example of early Texas architecture, he saw a building unfit for living. “When it rained we had to have buckets in our rooms to catch the rain,” Meera Devi recalls. “We had to enclose the veranda.” But there were other wholesale changes to the exterior of the building, which was designated a historic landmark in 1964; for instance, all of the chimneys were removed. “There was no condition that the face of the old building could not be changed,” officials of the ashram told me. “After renovation the historical society people happily took the [historic] marker away with our permission.”
Well, not so happily. “They knew that it was a registered historic landmark and they knew what their obligations were, but they purposefully ignored them,” says Lila Knight of the Hays County Historical Commission. Under state law, Knight points out, a person may not damage the historical or architectural integrity of a designated historical structure without notifying the Texas Historical Commission (THC) at least sixty days in advance. The ISDL did not notify the commission, but civil penalties of up to $ 1,000 a day were not applied because the building was beyond restoration when the changes were discovered, says Cynthia Beeman of the THC. Instead, the market was simply removed in 1992. “It was obvious that they had dramatically altered the structure,” says William Osborn, who visited Barsana Dham during the renovation. “It was very traumatic. I decided never to go out there again.”
This past year, alterations to another relic of the Johnson days have prompted more exasperation—as well as a lawsuit filed by 90-year-old Emmett Shelton, the founder of the Austin suburb West Lake Hills and a great-grandson of Thomas Johnson. Johnson, his wife, and a few relatives and slaves are buried on the former Friday Mountain Ranch close to the site of the new temple on a half-acre plot that the deed specifically reserved as a cemetery site in the 1990 sale. Yet the gravestones belonging to Johnson and his wife have been taken out of the ground, and the tops and bottoms, where the Christian mottoes were located, have been cut off. “We have found that they moved the stones and took them somewhere to be cut,” says Shelton’s attorney, Louis Bratton. “This was not just something done on a Saturday afternoon.” The truncated stones, it turns out, were embedded in a slab of concrete that was poured over the two graves.
In the suit, Shelton is asking for the graveyard to be restored to its original condition. “That’s the minimum they get to do, if this was an innocent, non-malicious act,” says Bratton. “But if we find it was malicious, [Shelton] may want to pursue punitive damages. He would be very upset.” Because both the mottoes were clearly Christian, Bratton is trying to find out if there were religious motives for removing them.
In response to questions about the lawsuit, the ISDL issued this written statement: “It was a totally neglected and scary looking grave in the middle of our family residential area. To our knowledge no one ever cared for the graves. So the person in charge of maintaining the grounds cleaned it up and made it look neat in good faith and with respect to the graves. The lawsuit appears to be a prejudicial harassment and hindering the God’s work which we are doing to create a spiritual base for endorsing religious harmony and peace in the world.”
Of course what ISDL officials fail to realize is that Texas law prohibits people from tampering with graveyards—even if they own the land. “I think what they have done is terribly insensitive,” says Lila Knight. “It makes me suspect they’re not concerned about what people think. I think it blows their goodwill in the community.”
THE GOODWILL KNIGHT REFERS TO IS important to the members of the ISDL and they hope it, in the end, will win out over any controversy that might be brewing. Already, the image-polishing seems to be working. “They’ve always been friendly and gracious to me,” says Mitchell Brown, who runs a nursery in Driftwood and has done work for Barsana Dham. “I’ve got kids who play baseball with [their] kids,” he adds. “I only have positive things to say about how they’ve interacted with the community.”
Likewise, ashram devotees occasionally attend neighborhood meetings, and they invite locals to their festivals. Soon, the ISDL will offer public classes in Indian language and culture. “They’re good neighbors,” says Joe Thielepape, pastor of Friendship Baptist Church, which is the ISDL’s next-door neighbor. “Swamiji was in my office a couple of years ago. He was very jovial and courteous. I’m glad to be in America because in America they have as much right to exist as we do.”
And exist they will keep on doing—for quite some time, apparently. The new temple is being built to last one thousand years, a devotee told a local paper, and Prakashanand shows no sign of slowing down his guru work. During one of the first ceremonies held on the site of the new temple last year, he sat on a lavender-and-bluesatin-covered platform near the new large altar, watching a skit about Krishna’s boyhood performed by members of the ashram. Bare plasterboard and the steel framing of the temple walls were visible. The windows had not been installed yet, so the cool Hill Country air blew through the cavernous temple. Outside, the light was slipping from the sky. It was the same time of day that Webb, Dobie, and Bedichek had preferred. Of course, Friday Mountain Ranch has a new master now, and as he watched his devotees that night, he leaned back on a bank of pillows and smiled.