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Shyama Rose’s interest in computers is what saved her from the cult she grew up in

Rose turned to the internet for comfort and, ultimately, her freedom.


Katey Psencik


Shyama Rose accidentally discovered the internet when she was 14 and living in a religious compound just outside of Austin, Texas. But by the time she received her first computer, she had already spent years being sexually assaulted by the leader of the ashram.

According to Glamour, Rose’s mother began following spiritual leader Swami Prakashanand Saraswati when Rose was a toddler. Several years later, Rose and her mother moved to the Barsana Dham ashram, the oldest Hindu temple in Texas and one of the largest in the western hemisphere. What Rose didn’t realize when she moved there was that she was being “brainwashed” from an early age.

“It had been drilled into my head that I was this special snowflake and I’d been put on this earth to find God,” she told Glamour.

When she was 12, Saraswati fondled her breasts while he adjusted her sari, Rose said. She told her mother, who interpreted the incident as a “blessing” from God, and the sexual abuse continued on an almost weekly basis. Over the next two years, she discovered that her friend at the ashram, Kate Tonnessen, was also being abused by Saraswati, as well as Kate’s younger sister Vesla.

“We were told if we said or thought anything negative against the society or against him, we could literally go to hell,” Rose told CNN’s The Hunt.

To cope, she began playing with the Macintosh she received for her 14th birthday. She began deleting what she viewed as critical files just to see what would happen to the computer when she did. According to Glamour, she taught herself binary code and began logging into chat rooms, finding safety in the camaraderie of the internet.

“I didn’t even know I was hacking,” she told Glamour.

She found solace in the internet and its curiosities, and eventually she applied to the computer science program at Sul Ross University. She got in, and although her mother was sad to see her go, she supported her decision. Thus, Rose was free from Barsana Dham, and from Saraswati.

“I knew tech was my out, the one thing that was going to save my life,” she said.

After college, Rose moved to Seattle and joined the hacker group Uninformed, where she started finding security flaws in systems from Microsoft, IBM, and more. She went on to work for Microsoft, Live Nation, and NASDAQ. She didn’t think about the ashram or Saraswati until Tonnessen sent her an article about Saraswati’s guru being accused of rape. Then, she took action.

In 2007, Rose traveled to Texas and went to the Hays County Sheriff’s Office to report the abuse, and eventually faced her attacker in court. The statute of limitations had expired on Kate Tonnessen’s assault, but her younger sister Vesla could still press charges. So could Rose.

In 2011, Saraswati was convicted on 20 counts of child sexual assault. He failed to show up for sentencing and has been on the run ever since. Recent reports from CNN’s The Hunt allege that he may be hiding in India.

Rose struggled with suicidal thoughts after receiving the news that Saraswati had not reported to serve his 280 years in prison. Her journey in healing took her to mental health professionals. It was an unlikely source that helped her, however. Rose says base jumping became a means of escape but also of reckoning with her own mortality.

Today she’s the head of internet security for a large financial firm, using her abilities to help those in need of protection.

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