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Swami Akhandananda Saraswati sexually abused and raped children at Australia's oldest yoga ashram, Royal Commission finds

Royal Commission’s damning report on yoga guru Swami Akhandananda Saraswati's sexual abuse of children was released on Wednesday.

The Royal Commission’s Report into allegations of child sexual abuse by Swami Akhandananda Sarawati of Satyanand Yoga Ashram, located at Mangrove Mountain in NSW, was released on Wednesday.

This report was prepared following a public hearing in December 2014 and oral submissions in April 2015 in Sydney.

The Commission recorded experiences of 11 survivors of child sexual abuse at or connected with the ashram, and the response of the ashram to child sexual abuse.

Satyananda Yoga Ashram was established in the early 1970s, and from about 1974 was overseen by Swami Akhandananda Saraswati.

In 1989, Akhandananda was arrested on charges of child sexual abuse and was sentenced in 1989 to two years and four months imprisonment.

Residents, who included between 12 and 22 children at any one time, followed the key philosophies and practices of Satyananda Yoga, which were based on the principles of the guru-disciple relationship and development of mind, body and spirit.

Shortly after his arrival, Akhandananda began a sexual relationship with 17-year-old “Shishy”, who through this relationship became second-in-charge at the ashram.

Akhandananda and Shishy remained together in a sexual relationship, albeit an increasingly violent one, until the end of 1985.

SWAMI AKHANDANANDA SARASWATI SEXUALLY ABUSED CHILDREN ON OVERNIGHT TRIPS AND AT ASHRAM

The Royal Commission received evidence from 11 adults (ten of whom were female) who reported that they were sexually abused as children living at the ashram.

The Royal Commission heard that a number of the survivors of abuse were sexually abused by Akhandananda on overnight trips to other ashrams and/or were summoned to his private room at the ashram to massage him and then to perform oral sex on or have sexual intercourse with him.

THERE WAS A CULTURE OF PHYSICAL ABUSE AND HUMULIATION AT ASHRAM

The report notes that there was no evidence of any child protection policy or procedure in place at the ashram between 1975 and 1989.

The Royal Commission heard from several former residents of the ashram who gave evidence of the culture of physical abuse and public humiliation at the ashram, including severe beatings and threats of harm meted out by both Akhandananda and Shishy.

Commissioners were satisfied that “the Satyananda yoga doctrine in Australia at the time, and as interpreted by Akhandananda together with the particular belief system and culture at the Mangrove ashram, created significant barriers to the capacity of child victims of Akhandananda’s sexual abuse to disclose to adults or peers...”

These barriers included isolation from mainstream community services, separation from parents, and a cult-like dependence of a number of children on Shishy.

Additional barriers included fear of reprimand and the devotion to the guru-disciple relationship, which culminated in a complete and unquestioning trust in the erratic and irrational actions and directions of Akhandananda as the guru.

The report concluded that Shishy was aware that Akhandananda’s conduct was criminal and she did not report this conduct to the authorities in a timely way to protect children from further abuse.

Commissioners concluded that it is unlikely that any of the child sexual abuse survivors were consulted in the formulation of a Survivor Support Pack offered to them in 2014, and that the Survivor Support Pack was ill-conceived and of little or no apparent assistance.

HEADQUARTERS IN INDIA MORE CONCERNED ABOUT REPUTATION THAN VICTIMS

In addition, Commissioners are satisfied that when the Bihar School of Yoga in India, the spiritual headquarters of the Satyananda Yoga movement, first heard about the Royal Commission’s investigation of the sexual abuse of children by Akhandananda, their primary concern was to minimise the risk of damaging the reputation of Satyananda yoga.

“The Bihar School of Yoga’s response did not properly prioritise the welfare of survivors over the interests of the ‘brand’ of Satyananda yoga,” the report states.  

Commissioners also considered that during the public hearing, the Mangrove Mountain ashram adopted an approach that was at times insensitive, defensive and legalistic. 

YOGA ASHRAM APOLOGISES

The directors of Australia's oldest yoga ashram have welcomed the findings of the report and apologised for child sexual abuse that occurred there in the 1970s and 1980s.

"While the Royal Commission process has been an extremely confronting period for our organisation we acknowledge it has played a vital role in exposing the abhorrent acts of sexual and physical abuse that occurred in the history of our organisation," the statement said.

"While these events happened more than 30 years ago, the pain and suffering of the survivors is a present day reality. For this we also unreservedly apologise."