But a federal civil jury heard a lawyer for one of Rama's ex-followers argue that the Swami wasn't so saintly after all.
The jury responded on Thursday by awarding nearly $1.9 million to a 23-year-old woman after concluding that Rama had forced her to have sex with him up to 30 times while she lived at the Himalayan Institute in 1993.
``He would fixate on a woman and make her a sort of valet, and then he would tell her it was necessary to perform these acts to further her spiritual development,'' said Cliff Rieders of Williamsport, one of the woman's lawyers.
Another plaintiff in the lawsuit had settled with the institute in July for $125,000, according to the Scranton Tribune. More than 10 women accused the swami of sexual abuse since 1979 but were ignored by the institute, another of the woman's lawyers, John Humphrey, told jurors.
The Himalayan Institute's lawyer, Irwin Schneider, did not return phone messages yesterday. A receptionist who answered the phone at the institute said that its spokesman was unreachable and that no one else could comment.
In his closing statements Thursday after a three-week trial, Schneider acknowledged that the sex took place, but argued that it was consensual.
``We all make mistakes,'' he told the jury. ``I'm offended by the Swami Rama having sex with [the woman]. I am morally offended. You have to decide if there was a legal wrong.''
Jurors answered with a verdict against the institute that included $1.6 million in punitive damages.
Schneider told the Scranton Tribune he may seek a new trial.
The swami was 69 when the plaintiff, then 19, arrived at the institute, Rieders said. Her parents, Indian immigrants, sent her there to get therapy for a knee injury.
``She was a virgin, and she was screaming and crying when he first forced her to have sex,'' Rieders said. ``She didn't want to do it. But he told her she had to.''
Nishit Patel, who heads the institute's two Manhattan chapters, said yesterday that he spent two years in Honesdale under Rama's tutelage, and that he doesn't believe a word of the sex-abuse allegations.
``I'm very sorry that things are coming out like that,'' he said.
Patel said Rama was an ``enormously fascinating person,'' with a magnetic and captivating personality.
``He was saintly,'' Patel said. ``You felt like sometimes you were walking with Christ.''
Humphrey offered a different view to the jury. The sexual exploitation of his client, he told jurors, was ``spiritual incest - worse than rape because she and other devotees viewed the swami as ``a person approaching divinity.''
``It is just an absolutely gross, gross abuse of that trust,'' he said.
This report contains information from the Associated Press.