Swami Dearest

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

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