Big Trouble at the Ashram

     LOS ANGELES (CN) – American devotees of Hindu mystic Sri Nithyananda claim in court that an Indian TV company doctored a sting video depicting their spiritual leader in a compromising position with an Indian actress, to extort money from his followers.
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     California nonprofits Life Bliss Foundation, and Nithyananda Dhyanapeetam Temple & Cultural Center filed a $290 million RICO complaint against Sun TV Network, Nakkheeran Publications and 13 people, in Federal Court.
     Calling the defendants an “enterprise,” Life Bliss make some alarming allegations, claiming the enterprise made death threats, incited riots, and filed false sexual harassment complaints against Nithyananda and his followers.
     Defendants include several employees of Sun TV, including chairman and founder Kalanithi Maran.
     Sri Nithyananda, 35, is not a party to the lawsuit.
     Nithyananda has been the subject of several controversies in recent years, after the 2010 release of a video claiming to show him engaged intimately with actress Ranjitha Menon. He faced sexual harassment charges but was not convicted, according to The Times of India.
     In the new federal complaint, Nithyananda’s California-based entities claim that several people, with Sun TV’s help, used the sting video to “intimidate, harass, influence and extort funds” from Nithyananda and his followers.
     Defendant M. Sridhar told a Nithyananda assistant in 2010 that he had video from a hidden camera in the mystic’s ashram depicting the leader “in indecent poses with a woman that appeared to be” Menon, the complaint states.
     Life Bliss claims the video, allegedly taken by a camera planted by defendants Aarthi Rao and Lenin Karuppan, was “morphed” so that it appeared that “Menon was the woman in the video and that she and Nithyananda had engaged in inappropriate acts.”
     Sridhar offered to act as “broker,” and promised the video would not be released if Nithyananda acceded to his demands, according to the complaints.
     On Feb. 24, 2010 Sridhar met at the Star City hotel in Chennai, India with three of Nithyananda’s devotees, Sri Nithya Pranananda, Sri Nithya Bhaktananda, and Sri Nithya Sadhananda, according to the complaint.
     Sridhar demanded 6 million rupees, and Rao also talked to the three devotees by telephone from the United States, according to the complaint.
     “During this conversation, Rao asserted that in addition to releasing the videos and photos to the media and the Internet, if they did not meet the demands for payment that she would file a false criminal complaint for rape against Nithyananda, which would further degrade his reputation to the point of destruction. Rao further asserted that her criminal report would additionally allege false crimes against Pranananda, Bhaktananda, and Sadhananda,” the complaint states.
     Pranananda, Bhaktananda, and Sadhananda-who are not parties to the complaint-say they met again the next day with Sridhar and Lenin at the Star Hotel.
     This time, four unidentified men “proceeded to attack and beat” the three devotees, and stole 500,000 rupees from their hotel room, Life Bliss says in the complaint.
     Pranananda, Bhaktananda, and Sadhananda later handed over another 2.5 million rupees to Sridhar, the complaint states.
     “On or about March 2, 2010, the enterprise caused an obscene and highly defamatory film of Nithyanada to be telecast on Sun TV’s round the clock broadcast along with a commentary that asserted the film showed obscene and illicit activity,” the complaint states. “This malicious broadcast, subsequent incessant coverage, and the efforts of the enterprise incited groups and hired mobs to riot and attack the ashrams of Nithyanada’s followers in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka and cause physical harm to many followers. Multiple followers were burned in resultant fires and beaten by hired mobs. Many properties were damaged and all programs and social services to the community ceased.”
     An unidentified Sun TV employee tried to wring more money out of Menon in return for halting the video, Life Bliss claims.
     It claims Menon was asked to “provide false testimony against Nithyananda,” was threatened with trumped-up drug offenses, and told that she and her family would be “harmed or killed” if she didn’t pay up.
     “The Sun TV employee confirmed to Menon that [Sun TV chairman and founder] Maran authorized and ordered the release of the morphed video. The Sun TV employee confirmed that other Sun TV decision makers, including [chief technical officer] Kannan and Ramesh [editor of Sun TV’s Dinakaran publication], were also threatening to use the reach of Sun TV and its resources (including television networks under Maran’s control and printed publications such as Dinakaran Daily News magazine under Ramesh’s control) to reach people worldwide and ruin Menon and Nithyanada. He urged her to cooperate with Sun TV’s demands, telling her that she didn’t ‘stand a chance’ and soon the whole world would see the video and she would have nowhere to hide. Fearing for the safety of her family and herself, Menon fled India the following day,” according to the complaint.
     Life Bliss claims that Sridhar introduced Nithyananda devotee Atmaprabhananda to another member of the “enterprise,” Sun TV employee Ayyappan R., who claimed he could stop the attacks on Nithyanada for another 600 million rupees.
     Ayyappan forced Atmaprabhananda to stay in his office overnight and threatened to kill the devotee if he did not return with the money, the complaint states.
     It adds: “On March 5, 2010, while Atmaprabhananda was travelling by car with a devotee and their vehicle was stopped and blocked by an SUV carrying Ayyappan, Ayyappan and unknown men from his car forcibly removed Atmaprabhananda from the car he was travelling in, hitting his head against the door and causing him to lose consciousness.”
     When Atmaprabhananda came round, he spoke to defendant Sun TV executive Hansraj Saxena on Ayyappan’s cell phone, the complaint states.
     “Saxena threatened to kill Atmaprabhananda if he did not pay the demanded money. Ayyappan then threatened to make false allegations of drug smuggling against Atmaprabhananda to a nearby police officer if Atmaprabhananda did not pay money immediately,” the complaint states.
     Life Bliss claims that Atmaprabhananda paid 1 million rupees and was released on the condition that he pay another 3 million within one week.
     “Rao and Lenin subsequently filed false criminal charges against Nithyananda and many of his closest devotees, including Atmaprabhananda, Pranananda, Bhaktananda, and Sadhananda, alleging crimes including assault, and multiple instances of sexual misconduct across India and the U.S.,” the complaint states.
     In televised interviews last year, Saxen admitted using the video to exhort Nithyananda’s devotees, Life Bliss claims.
     “Saxena further confirmed that Maran, Kannan and [Sun TV editor] Raja had ‘joined hands’ to act in concert to release the altered video and to extort money from Nithyananda’s followers. Saxena further admitted that Raja told him that ‘We will tear them apart’ by putting the video on the TV. Saxena also confirmed that Sun TV had a practice of manipulating videos and threatening people to fabricate news stories,” the lawsuit states.
     Life Bliss claims the extortion scheme damaged its reputation, leading to reduced charitable donations. It also “severely restricted” Nithyananda from touring in America, wiping out a big source of income for the foundation, states the complaint.
     The foundation is represented by Erik Syverson with Miller Barondess.
     Sun TV could not immediately be reached for comment.

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