Paradise lost: Ashram's 4am yoga, hard labour, beatings and sexual assault

The Daily Telegraph, Australia/December 6, 2014

By Janet Fife-Yeomans

There was no crime, “wild and affectionate” children ran around safely and often naked, swimming in the river, playing in the caves.

There was the warmth of a ready-made family of like-minded people. There was no sex, that was banned. But that they were all surrounded by peace and love was taken for granted.

The parents and couples who sold their houses to build a new life at the Satyananda Yoga Ashram nestled in the lush bush around Mangrove Mountain north of Sydney were all looking for something.

An escape from the consumerism of the rest of the world, a sense of belonging, a trust they could not find anywhere else.

They gave away all their belongings to build mud huts, take cold showers, shave their heads and wear orange robes with no underwear. Their days started at 4am with yoga and continued with hard physical labour and vegetarian food.

But what began as paradise was to become a paradise lost, as the royal commission into institutional responses to child sex abuse heard last week.

The commission, sitting in Sydney, is investigating the response of the Satyananda Yoga Ashram to complaints of sexual abuse made against its spiritual leader, the late Swami Akhandananda Saraswati, in the mid to late 1980s.

It is the commission’s 21st public hearing, the first involving a faith-based organisation outside the church structure. Different robes or “uniforms”, different settings but same sad and destructive story of power-hungry paedophiles.

The ashram was established in 1974 as Indian mysticism and religion was becoming trendy.

The Beatles had kicked it into public consciousness in the late 1960s, making the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi their “guru” before denouncing their association with him less than a year later as a “public mistake”.

Then there were the so-called “Orange People”, the followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, whose disciples spread around the world in the years before he was exposed as a fraud with a collection of more than 90 Rolls-Royces.

“Gurus” had a bit of a tarnished name but there was nothing to suggest the 22-year-old spiritual leader at Mangrove Mountain, Swami Akhandananda Saraswati, was not the gentle, kind religious leader his followers were seeking. At first anyway.

Born into a poor Indian family, he was sent to Australia in 1974 by Guru Swami Satyandanda Saraswati to oversee the development of the ashram and spread the message of abstinence, chastity and austerity. Disciples, most of them well-educated middle and upper-middle class, would not clutter their minds with such worldly pleasures as sex or alcohol.

Among them were Elizabeth Buchanan, a drug and alcohol counsellor at Gosford Hospital, and two of her colleagues Keith Taylor and Dr Sandra Smith. Interested in yoga as a therapy, they began to visit the ashram in the late 1970s.

“My mother was especially taken with the idyllic nature of the place and saw it as a wonderful place where children roamed free,” Elizabeth’s daughter, Alecia Buchanan, told the royal commission last week.

The swami’s right-hand person was a tall, charismatic woman with penetrating eyes known as Sishy. Her real name has been suppressed by the royal commission but she was 16 when she moved there with Akhandananda from Bondi. Her mother, father and brother also joined her, all initiated as a poorna, or full swami.

Akhandananda hit offending couples with a stick. To punish the children, he used a wooden staff with a serpent creeping around it, called a Kundalini stick.

Shishy, described in the commission as a motherly figure who could be brutal as well as kind, slapping the children across the face in what she has described as a “blessing” to awaken the spirit.

There was only one telephone. Mail was vetted by Shishy and the outside world was shunned, all just more ways to isolate those within the ashram. What seemed normal to them was anything but.

As the girls reached puberty, they discovered that the sex ban did not include Akhandananda, Shishy — or them.

All those years while they had cold showers and slept on hard yoga mats, their spiritual leader and Shishy had been having sex in a comfy bed with warm bedding in a hut with hot showers, a hot tub, electricity, a TV and Akhandananda drank champagne and whiskey.

Alecia Buchanan said she was forced to have sex with Akhandananda from the age of 16. She was one of the former “ashram kids” who gave emotional evidence at the commission last week about their sexual and physical abuse.

One woman, 47, known as APL, became involved with the ashram aged just six with her parents. She was 15 when she was first raped by Akhandananda.

“(He) would make me massage him all over until really late. He demanded really hard massages. Then he would force me to have sex, he would do really degrading things,” she said.

“At first Shishy would be in the same room but in her own separate bed but I was too embarrassed. She asked me would I prefer if she wasn’t in the room while he was having sex and I said yes.”

Sometimes the girls would be summonsed over the PA system to go to Akhandananda and they said they believed the other women knew what was happening but considered it some sort of spiritual awakening to have sex with the leader.

It all began to unravel after Shishy fled in the middle of the night in 1985, taking the contents of the safe with her. She has told the commission in a statement that she was beaten by Akhandananda.

Two years later, one of the former kids told her father what had been going on. He was a police officer. About the same time, Alecia Buchanan told her mother, who told Dr Sandra Smith and the police were called in.

In 1987, Akhandananda was charged with child sex abuse charges against four of the “ashram kids”. He was convicted of some offences but the convictions were overturned by the High Court because the charges had not been laid within the 12 months required by law. That law has not been changed.

He died in Cairns 1997, a chronic alcoholic.

Under new management, the ashram remains the largest residential ashram in the southern hemisphere.

Its 40th anniversary this year prompted some of the young victims to post their experiences on the ashram’s Facebook page. Instead of an understanding ear, they were threatened with legal action, the commission was told.

They have since offered compensation and an apology. As one of the victims said last week, they can’t light a fire, say a few “oms” and hope it will all go away.

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