Abuses at the Mangrove Mountain Ashram are the subject of Case Study 21 at the Australian Royal Commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse. This page provides links to Royal Commission proceedings and news reports, and a summary of testimony at the public hearing. UPDATE: The public hearing concluded on December 10, and this page has been updated with a summary of the second week of testimony. The Commission is still reportedly receiving evidence and public submissions which will be examined before a report of the findings is released some time next year.
The Child Abuse Royal Commission website
The page for case study 21 provided live streaming of the public hearings daily. Transcripts for each day of the hearings can also be downloaded from that page.
Hearings were held from December 5 to 12, 2014.
Satyananda abuse survivors also have a Facebook page.
The Royal Commission has a support services page with details of counselling services throughout Australia for sexual abuse survivors.
Public Hearing: Week One Summary
The public hearings commenced on December 2nd with sworn testimony from nine victims of the child abuse. The Commission heard accounts of children and youths subjected to sexual abuse, psychological abuse, violence, threats of violence, neglect, torture, separation from family and society, and slave labour. Some abusers were given legal guardianship of the juveniles they were abusing. Children and ashram residents were expected to unquestionably obey members of the hierarchy and to maintain a culture of secrecy. Chief swamis of the ashram were heard to have led a hypocritical lifestyle, indulging in activities forbidden to underlings, such as sex, alcohol and drug use. Indian based leaders from the Satyananda organization were also implicated in abuses, including its current head, Niranjan, and its founder, the late Guru Satyananda Saraswati. Victims told of their frustration with the current day ashram’s response to revelations of their victimisation, including legal threats against a survivor for publicly stating facts. The victims were subject to cross examination by lawyers for other witnesses and representatives of the ashram.
Testimony from abuse survivors was completed by December 5th, when the Inquiry began hearing testimony from a confessed abuser and other witnesses associated with the ashram.
On December 5, confessed abuser, Shishy, who was second in charge to Ashram head Swami Akhandananda Saraswati gave her account of being procured as a young woman and becoming the sexual partner to Swami Akhandananda. She was given special status as a Swami and appointed to a hierarchical role. The inquiry heard of her transition to groomer and abuser as she was given responsibility for child residents of the ashram who often lived there separated from their parents. Shishy spoke about her belief at the time that violent abuse of children was for the purpose of their ‘spiritual enlightenment’.
Shishy broke down during the hearing professing remorse, however the inquiry heard questions from victims and counsel on why she hadn’t reported abuses to the police, and nor had other representatives of the ashram.
Week Two Summary
The week began with continued cross examination of ‘Shishy’, who gave accounts being subjected to violent sexual assaults, including with a loaded shotgun. She alleged the Indian heads of the Satyananda organisation tried to arrange to have her killed when she spoke with police about abuser, Akhandananda. Shishy claimed she was under the complete control of Akhandananda and played down her decision making capacity and authority at the ashram. She admitted to being aware that the head Swami was having sex with underaged ashram residents and that she did not report it. She was asked about her career in the yoga industry following her exit from the Mangrove Mountain Ashram and her use of the Satyananda brand name and reputation in promoting her work.
Dr Henry Sztulman was yogi and ashram doctor at the time the abuses took place and reports he saw no evidence that children were being beaten and raped, and did not believe it at first. He was unable to remember a number of events, but had a very clear memory when it came to denying over prescribing morphine to juveniles at the ashram. The Commission heard that the NSW Medical Tribunal disciplined him twice in the past two decades for inappropriate prescribing of narcotics, once in 1995 and again in 2002. Fellow yogi, psychiatrist Dr Sandra Smith also told of initially disbelieving victims who reported abuse to her, and of being ostracized later when she became involved in reporting the abuse to police. Both doctors had significant memory lapses rendering them incapable of answering a number of questions. Dr Sztulman said he had not read any of the victims’ statements, but had scanned them to see where his name was mentioned only.
Administration assistant Muktimurti Saraswati who was assistant to Shishy at the time of the abuses also professed to being unaware of the abuses and not believing they took place. Victims claim she fetched them, sometimes at night, to take them to ‘massage’ their abuser. She said she never suspected Akhandananda and Shishy were involved in a sexual relationship, even though they lived together, or that the head was using drugs and alchohol. She described the ashram children as a ‘pack’ that the adults were frightened of. She admitted she had not read or followed any of the victims’ statements and attended a reconciliation ceremony at the ashram this year unaware of the allegations and the identities of the victims. In spite of testimony from eleven victims she says she still doubts the allegations and it has nothing to do with her. She believes they’re not entitled to compensation and that the publicity has tarnished her spiritual purity.
Director of Satyananda Yoga Academy Pty Ltd Atmamuktananda Saraswati told the commission that Akhandananda continued to run the ashram even after being charged over sexual abuse allegations in 1987. She claimed underaged female victims were flirtatious, but also admitted she was aware supposedly celibate and abstinent Swami Akhandananda was an alcoholic who made a sexual advance toward her. She did not report either.
Current CEO, Sarah Tetlow, acknowledged the Ashram’s response to victims earlier this year was inappropriate and inadequate, including the legal threats to victims. She said measures are being taken by the current ashram to protect child visitors, and the victims would be offered compensation. She was questioned over correspondence from the head of the Satyananda organization in India, on behalf of its head Swami Niranjan, making legal threats about the use of the company brand names and distancing itself from the Australian arm. Niranjan has been implicated in the abuses and other hypocritical behaviour within the organization. As was the movement’s founder, Satyananda.
A selection in chronological order:
Australian News Outlets
- Paradise lost: Satyananda Yoga Ashram is the subject of royal commission hearing, Sydney Morning Herald, Nov 29, 2014
- Gurus ‘gods’ to abused children at NSW ashram, The Australian, Dec 2
- Yoga guru plotted to murder child sex victim, abuse commission hears, The Australian, Dec 2
- Ashram apologises to child sexual abuse victims it threatened to sue, Guardian, Dec 2
- Guru accused of sexual, physical assault of children at ashram, Daily Telegraph, Dec 2, 2014
- Abuse victims reject NSW ashram’s apology, Seven News, Dec 2
- Ashram children starved, drugged, tortured, royal commission hears, Sydney Morning Herald, Dec 3
- Yoga master subjected children to sex abuse at ashram, commission hears, Guardian, Dec 3
- Haunting images hide Mangrove Mountain Ashram child abuse shame, Daily Telegraph, Dec 3
- Yoga guru may have raped seven year old, royal commission told, The Australian, Dec 3
- Child abuse royal commission: Yoga movement did not view child abuse as crime, victim says, ABC News, Dec 4
- Child abuse royal commission: victim recounts being raped during ritual at Satyananda Yoga Ashram, ABC News, Dec 4
- Sexual abuse rife at yoga group, royal commission hears, Sydney Morning Herald, Dec 4
- Yoga guru’s ‘handmaiden’ had sex with 14-year-old-boy, commission hears, Guardian, Dec 4
- Wild sex and abortions at ashram, abuse royal commission told, The Australian, Dec 5
- Yoga ashram abuse: guru’s handmaiden ‘desperately sorry’ for beating children, Guardian, Dec 5
- Royal Commission: Threat to kill Satyananda ashram whistleblower Shishy, Sydney Morning Herald, Dec 8
- Yoga ‘handmaiden’ raped with loaded shotgun, The Australian, Dec 8
- Child abuse royal commission: Woman assaulted with double-barrelled shotgun at Satyananda Yoga Ashram, inquiry hears, ABC News, Dec 8
- Doctor saw nothing wrong at ashram where children were raped and beaten, Daily Telegraph, Dec 9
- Doctor denies over prescribing morphine to children at yoga ashram, Guardian, Dec 9
- Employee tells royal commission yoga ashram should not be ‘held to ransom’ by compensation demands, ABC News, Dec 9
- Ashram devotee ‘not sure’ child sex abuse happened, The Australian, Dec 9
- Royal Commission: Witness casts doubts over abuse, Sydney Morning Herald, Dec 9
- Royal Commission, Mangrove Yoga Ashram children raped, beaten and drugged, News Ltd, Dec 10
- Indian bosses give Mangrove Mountain Ashram a slap in the face, Daily Telegraph, Dec 10
- Satyananda Ashram sex abuse victims want 1 million in compensation, Sydney Morning Herald, Dec 10
- Satyananda Yoga Ashram apologises to abuse victims at Royal Commission, ABC News, Dec 10
- TV Report ABC 7:30, Dec 10
- Radio Report with audio testimony, ABC Radio, Dec 10
- Children drugged, tortured and raped at Indian yoga guru’s ashram in Australia, Hindustan Times, Dec 3
- Hearing of Indian ashram sex abuse cases in Australia, Times of India, Dec 4
- Children drugged, tortured and raped by yoga guru, Hindi News, Dec 8 (Hindi)
- Australia’s underage yoga sex cult: the survivors speak out, The Daily Beast, Dec 9
- Yoga – can it be tainted by faulty leaders, Guardian Liberty Voice, Dec 9