Dear Vrindavan Today readers, out of the principle of full transparency and accountability, it is our duty to inform you of the disheartening findings regarding our former Vrindavan Today editor Jagadananda Das. Below you will find a confession written by Jagadananda Das regarding his exploitation and abuse of children entrusted to his care. We apologize ahead of time for being part of the pervading problem of child abuse in devotional communities, and inadvertently supporting perpetrators who have violated the most helpless and innocent.
The following is a letter we received from Jan Brzezinski on 5 Janunary, 1997. He was a gurukula teacher in Dallas (Texas, USA), New Vrindavan (West Virginia, USA) and the head master of the Mayapura (India) gurukula.
Dear anonymous writers and organizers of VOICE,
My ISKCON name was Hiranyagarbha Das and I was formerly a Gurukula teacher (on and off from 1972-75) at Dallas and later the headmaster of the short-lived New Vrindavan Varnashram College in 1974 and the Mayapur Gurukula from 1975- 1979. I think I had a rather unique position in that I was involved in the early stages of these Gurukulas. I left in disgust when I realized that I was not spiritually or materially qualified to run such a school and when I realized that the ISKCON institution itself did not seek to improve the situation.
Reading your articles brings back many memories about painful experiences that I had. Painful from bad conscience because I myself perpetrated acts for which I am eternally sorry. I wish to take this opportunity to beg forgiveness for all those acts of violence towards innocent children in which I was involved.
First of all, I would like to confirm both the stories about Smaranam and the institutionalized use of physical punishment in the Indian gurukulas. Smaranam the paddle was the invention of a certain Dvarakanath Das. It seems to have gotten used to circumvent bursts of sudden violence by frustrated teachers against misbehaving or recalcitrant students. There were very few qualified or experienced teachers in the early Gurukula at Dallas, the only exceptions being Rupa Vilas and Chandrika. At that time in ISKCON in general there was a hubris about individual qualifications. It was thought that a devotee who was chanting his rounds was empowered to do anything and that he did not need any special training. The task of dealing with a hundred children or so from morning to night on a tough schedule through mangal arati to bedtime was too much for most of them. I can remember in 1975 sneaking out of my classes after lunch to go and take a nap in the rooms above the stage in the main prasadam hall where Sunday feasts were held. The schedule was far too demanding for the teachers and far too demanding for the children. There was little or no playtime. There was insufficient time for sleeping. There was little real concern for education in that the primary goal of the school was to get the children to do things like chant sixteen rounds and follow the morning program.
All these things were doubly true at the Varnashram College and again at the Mayapur Gurukula. I personally always placed a lot of importance on academic education, but ISKCON in general alway downplayed it, saying that all we needed to know was in Prabhupada’s books so why bother with too much education? Even Sanskrit, which I started teaching with only a smattering of knowledge, was considered rather unimportant if not a bother. It was only a superficial understanding which was sought. Too much knowledge of Sanskrit and Bengali was indeed blamed as the major cause of my blooping in 1979 as well as in that of other Sanskrit scholars such as Nitai Das, etc.
There is little that I can say to exonerate myself from personal acts of violence against some of the children in my care, especially at New Vrindavan. I was there in 1974 when, as all you readers of Monkey on a Stick will know, there was a very strong militant spirit being instituted by Kirtanananda. My own discriminatory powers were still weak and I participated in giving Kirtanananda an exaggerated amount of respect. I also thought that a strong discipline was needed to help bring the children up, to produce in them the necessary qualities to become a little foot soldier for Krishna and Prabhupad. I enlisted the help of a certain Madhupati Das who was an ex-marine and he turned our Varnashram College into a boot camp. We used to march on the main road from our site (known as Prabhupad’s House, I believe) to Madhuban, keeping time with the maha-mantra instead of ‘left-right’. Once again, though, the basic lack of understanding of child psychology and inexperience, coupled with fatigue and overwork were the principal causesof sudden fits of temper on my part which on occasion led to spankings of a particularly unpleasant nature. For this I wish to especially beg forgiveness of Tausteya and Jagadananda Pandit as well as Ekendra and Dwarkadish. You may have a hard time believing this, but I really did love you all. In my ignorance, I thought that I was doing the best that I could for you. It took me far too long to realize that I was wrong.
At Mayapur, the situation became in many ways worse. As some people may already have pointed out on these pages, Bhavananda Maharaja, Nitai Chand, Tapomaya and other members of the Mayapura leadership were actively involved in sexual abuse of some of the children. Nitai Das and Subhadaloy were particular targets of their affections. I was a true ignorant and it took me a long time to become aware of these activities. Some of the children started to accuse the teachers in 1978 and a number of them were reprimanded for sexually molesting the children. We had a worse problem with brahmacharies living in the temple who had fairly easy access to the children. Some of them were true predators and took advantage of them. For the Western kids, the worst case was that of Bhakti Caitanya Maharaj, a Punjabi who later became a sannyasi and president of Chandigarh temple. In 1975 he attempted to sexually abuse several of the American children in the Gurukula. Naturally, these boys were vulnerable and starved for affection as well as material comforts and goodies and were easy prey. The same was true of the Bengali boys who were easily bribed with small gifts of a Western nature, watches, etc., which they, mostly being poor, could never hope to otherwise get. When some of my most trusted teachers started to get involved in such activity, I became so frustrated that I did not know what to do. In a way, I could understand the problem. Living so closely to the children, brahmacaris who had no outlet for sexual activity found themselves tempted by children who were often genuinely affectionate and with whom a certain form of loving relationship was formed. There is, of course, no excuse for such a breach of confidence. But people like Venkat were not pedophiles by nature. The situation in which they found themselves in good faith was compromised by the emotional and sexual fulfilment of which they were themselves deprived when combined with the innocence and affection of the young children with whom they were in contact from early morning to late at night. I find it easier to forgive someone like Venkat than those who like Nitai Chand or Bhavananda were more directly exploiters and pedophiles by nature and predilection.
Although I was the head of the Mayapur Gurukula, I had little real control over policy. Indeed I kept my distance from the Mayapura leadership, feeling more affinity with the less-empowered Western and Bengali devotees. Bhavananda ran things by bullying and his minions, of whom I was one, all adopted his style to some extent. Education had little place in the Mayapura scheme of things. Bhavananda, Tapomay and Nitai Chand saw the Gurukula children as useful free labour. The Bengali children were considered insufficiently intelligent for academic work, as sudras, and better off doing field work or cleaning toilets. Though this assessment was not entirely without foundation, even those children who had intellectual potential were given little or no time to study on their own, to pursue their intellectual curiosity or to take any academic initiative. Even had they wished to, the facilities were nil and besides there were perks for doing other tasks. According to Prabhupada’s instructions, the most important thing was that the children follow the morning programme. This led to the ridiculous situation of teachers monitoring young children of five or six years old in lines in the temple room at mangal arati, forcing them to dance! Walking up and down lines of dozing children chanting japa. I don’t think I ever became more frustrated at a useless waste of time. How much better off these children would have been getting a decent night’s sleep and then coming to evening arati with genuine enthusiasm!
Before I left, I had come to the point of thinking that our entire Gurukula policy in Mayapura needed to be changed. First of all, I felt that we needed to hire professional teachers from Nabadwip and elsewhere to offer a complete course of education. (This incidentally is the policy at the Bhaktivinode Institute at the Caitanya Janma Sthan in Mayapur, run by the Caitanya Math.) I felt that if ISKCON wanted to get the most mileage out of its educational system in India, it should make it attractive to life members, etc., who would send their children in order to get a real, professional quality education. This would mean minimizing devotional activities to a few classes in religious instruction and perhaps a few formal ritual activities. The school would be segregated from the non-teaching devotional staff and teachers would be divided into ashram teachers and class teachers whose competences would be carefully monitored. These policies were based greatly on the success that the Ramkrishna Mission has had in using their schools to train people for public life who later support the society. This in turn was based on the example of Christian schools in India which continue to furnish the best education there. I believe that some of these proposals were accepted after I left the movement in 1979, and hopefully the entire movement has become more mature in its approach to education. I can only apologize to those who suffered through those first years, and all those who have continued to suffer abuse at the hands of incompetent educators who though that chanting Hare Krishna was a substitute for real training as a teacher.
Speaking in accordance with certain psychological profiles that were done in the 1980’s by scholars studying the Krishna consciousness movement (‘The Hare Krishna Character Type), a dominant personality type found amongst Krishna conscious devotees is based on a fear of sensuality, of losing control of one’s self. Many of the early devotees, like myself, were ex-hippies who were attracted by the structure of temple life, who were excited by the prospect of becoming self- disciplined and purified of material desire. In our vision of school life we thought to instill the spirit of discipline which we ourselves had not attained but were only aiming at. Thus we found ourselves in the silly and tragic situation of expecting things from the children which we ourselves were unable to achieve for the most part. Our frustration with our own failures found its natural outlet on the innocents who surrounded us.
I learned my lesson in 1977 when the Mayapur Muslims attacked the temple after Nitai Chand beat up on one of theirs. I was badly beaten up in the affair, receiving a broken arm which was improperly set and to this day is crooked. I took it as a sign that Krishna was giving me back something of what I had given to the kids and from that day on stopped hitting the children. There was only one exception: when I tried to slap a boy who refused to immediately obey a command, I broke one of my knuckles on a concrete pillar. It remains a cavity on my right hand which like my crooked left arm, bears permanent testimony to my past sins.
To conclude, I would like to say one last thing. I am happy to say that in some cases, children who were brought up in Krishna consciousness do look back on their experience in a positive light. I am pleased to say that my own daughter, with whose upbringing, I as a sannyasi had absolutely nothing to do, grew up to be well- educated and good-mannered due to the constant intervention of her mother, who did not allow her to suffer abuse in closed environments, who let her go to public schools when she desired it and who despite personal difficulties managed to provide love and a personal example of dedication to principle. For this I would like to publicly thank her in this space.
By abandoning my own child, I fit the ISKCON model of an uncaring parent about which I would like to say aword or two, which fits in with what I said above about character type. I notice similar regrets in recent statements which I have seen on the internet about Jagadish Das’s abandonment of sannyas and guruship in order to live with a female disciple, citing emotional needs as his reason. In his letters of demission, Jagadish laments his failures as a husband and a father. These are no doubt common sentiments amongst those who like Jagadish and myself, were involved in arranged marriages in the early 70’s under pressure from Prabhupada, who seemed to think (and probably with some justification) that any mature male and mature female in Krishna consciousness should be able to live together and raise a family if they had this common objective. Of course, we have seen how many mature individuals there were in Krishna consciousness. Misogyny is a fact in ISKCON and many intelligent ISKCON bloopers have cited it. In particularly, I advise you to get a hold of a statement made by Subhananda when he left ISKCON, in which he details how misogyny has been institutionalized in the movement. This attitude is particularly destructive in the marital situation where it leads to abuse of both physical and sexual kinds. These attitudes have been amply documented in feminist writings and there is no need for me to go into it here. Of interest might be Manisha Ray’s ‘Bengali Women’ in which she details masculine sexual attitudes in Bengal which has some similarities to the ISKCON situation. The ISKCON male personality type, seeking perfect control over his senses, is perpetually frustrated. Sannyas is the only real ideal. Whatever praises of the grihastha ashram might be found in Prabhupad’s books, everyone knows that sannyas is really where it’s at. This attitude, funnily enough, was started only after Prabhupada returned to India in the early 70’s and started making sannyasis. When these sannyasis (and I mention Bali Mardan in particular, but Subala, Gurukripa, Yasodanandana and others also) returned to America, they made it obvious that they were the real devotees and that everyone else had to strive for the same goals. As St. Paul says about householder life in his epistles, ‘It is better to marry than to burn [in the fire of hell]’ but that is about it. Prabhupada contributed to this with his famous ‘licking a leaking vagina’ remark which he made to Acyutananda, Bhavananda, Sudama and other homosexual misogynists in Mayapur in 1976. His comments about women’s smaller brain size did not help.
ISKCON reformers who criticize the guru institution should also seriously consider eliminating sannyas as undesirable and even prohibited in the age of Kali. There is a statement to that effect in the Puranas which is quoted in the Caitanya Caritamrita. Hinduism in general never worships a god without his Sakti. This must be telling us something. There are many who will tell you that sannyas is something that only really came into Hinduism as a result of the Buddhist influence. Even in Gaudiya Vaisnavism, though Caitanya took sannyas, the movement was really a householder movement. The six goswamis did not marry, or left their wives, but they were never formally initiated as sannyasis. The real leaders of Caitanya’s movement were householders such as Nityananda, Advaita, Srinivas Acharya, etc. Even Narottama, who never married, made householder disciples who carried on the tradition. As an essentially protestant movement, ISKCON reformers should think about Luther and his criticisms of the abuses in which celibate priests and monks were engaged during the high middle ages. This is what the sannyas institution is accomplishing in ISKCON. Sannyas should be a natural development of an individual who has gone through the grihastha life and learned how to live with people of the opposite sex and appreciate their qualities. Celibacy is not a prerequisite for spiritual realization. The body is (acintya-bhedabheda) simultaneously one and different from the supreme truth, so why do we only see the different? It is evident that the truth has been entirely misunderstood. Sannyas is an innovation in Gaudiya Vaisnavism created by Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati who was looking for committed monks like those in the Ramkrishna Mission. Vairagya in babaji circles has taken on the character of a formal initiation also, so it too has lost to some extent the true spontaneous spirit of renunciation that was characteristic of Rupa and Raghunath. The Advaita line in Bengal is the only one that truly maintains this tradition, and those interested may consult with Advaita Das in Holland.
In summary, then, I would like to say that ISKCON has promoted a negative attitude towards women and children and family life in general. There is absolutely no reason why this should be the case. The Absolute Truth for Gaudiya Vaisnavas is Radha Krishna, the divine syzygy. Look at Radha and Krishna and don’t deny what they symbolize. ISKCON people are so eager to say Radha and Krishna are not symbols of mundane sex. This is serious denial, folks. They represent the ideal love and we should think of that when we love, just as we should think of Yasoda and Krishna when we see our child. Your wife and child are Krishna for you. Krishna is everywhere, he is even in the temple, but his presence is most important in the objects of love around us. You want to learn to love Krishna? Love the people who are around you. Love those whom you are supposed to love. Remember Jesus who said, ‘As you do to even the least of these, you do to me.’ That, my friends, is Krishna consciousness.
These are a few of the realizations that have come out of my experiences. To my daughter and students whom I failed I sincerely pray daily that they will be able to overcome the sadness and anger that these failings have caused them, that they may find their own path in spiritual life and all satisfactions, material and spiritual.
Your humble servant,
aka. Jagadananda Das, Hiranyagarbha Das.