Vrindavana Gurukula: 40 Years of Child Abuse,
BY: SANAKA RSI DAS
Dec 22, 2011 ITALY (SUN) This is the fourth and final part; the preceding articles are (One, Two and Three). I sub-divided this article under these headings:
Is ISKCON Following Srila Prabhupada's Wishes on Child Protection?
Who is Responsible for the Current State of Affairs?
Gopal Krishna Maharaj (Vrindavana GBC)
Champakalata (CPO Director)
Conflicts of Interest and Consequences
Some friends and acquaintances have kindly offered their views on my writing. They pointed out many of my inadequacies and presented suggestions to improve. I am grateful for the feedback.
I feel that despite my many inadequacies, it would a disservice for me to remain silent (I hope I am right). Hence, I continue despite my limitations, praying for the forgiveness and the blessings of the Vaisnavas and Krsna, so that I may improve.
A devotee suggested that with my writing I undermine the concept of "Authority"; and that this could cause confusion amongst new devotees. Many have also suggested that these issues ought to be addressed privately and with the relevant authorities who can do something about them.
I understand "Authority" to be Krsna and His bona fide representatives; without their blessings, spiritual progress is impossible. Undermining this concept was never my intention.
For the most part child protection authorities have terminated my numerous attempts to establish a dialogue, when I have pressed them for real answers. Since the GBC/CPO have shown that they are not able or willing to police themselves, I see no other recourse but to inform the public so they can make informed decisions regarding the education and protection of their children.
I have made my best effort to implement the feedback I found relevant, and improve the quality of my writing, but I expect I have not succeeded entirely. I pray the readers to please forgive me; and disregarding my shortcomings, take anything they may find of use or of value.
Is ISKCON Following Srila Prabhupada's Wishes on Child Protection?
What follows is an excerpt from a famous letter Prabhupada wrote to Bhanutanya prabhu in 1972:
"Now the thing is, children should not be beaten at all, that I have told. They should simply be shown the stick strongly. So if one cannot manage in that way then he is not fit as teacher. If a child is trained properly in Krishna Consciousness, he will never go away. That means he must have two things, love and education. So if there is beating of child, that will be difficult for him to accept in loving spirit, and when he is old enough he may want to go away—that is the danger. So why these things are going on - marching and chanting japa, insufficient milk, too strict enforcement of time schedules, hitting the small children? Why these things are being imposed? Why they are inventing these such new things like marching and japa like military? What can I do from such a distant place? They should run and play when they are small children, not forced to chant japa, that is not the way."
About 40 years ago Srila Prabhupada began opening Gurukulas, for the purpose of raising Krsna conscious children. As is clear from this letter, child abuse is hardly a new issue. It is also clear that child abuse and a forceful method of imposing Krsna consciousness go against Prabhupada's wishes.
When a teacher or other relevant educational authority is not able or willing to respect and implement Prabhupada's wishes, it becomes necessary to reconsider their eligibility to serve in his schools.
An objective analysis of the history of ISKCON's Gurukulas in general, but especially in India, will show that for the most part the spiritual and material welfare of the children have not been at the forefront of priorities for the relevant GBCs, school administrators or staffs.
Somewhere along the line, education in ISKCON suffered a major derailment.
Who is Responsible for the Current State of Affairs?
The following are some important questions I will attempt to explore in this article:
- How is it possible that a society as resourceful as ISKCON, that in its relatively brief history has accomplished so many near impossible tasks and amassed fabulous fortunes; has failed to set up appropriate and effective child protection measures, and policies in its Gurukulas?
- Exactly what went wrong...And who is responsible, why are these Gurukulas still open, what purpose, if any, are they serving?
- Considerable evidence shows that over the years the actions of ISKCON's educational authorities, often in the name of protecting the confidentiality of the victims, have lacked in transparency, accountability and civility. On numerous occasions they have gone to great lengths to deny or downplay child abuse and keep it away from public scrutiny and/or legal authorities; in so doing, they compromised the children, themselves and Prabhupada's mission. What could have motivated this?
If we agree that these children, that Krsna has somehow or other placed in our care, represent the best possible chance for the survival and promulgation of Srila Prabhupada's teachings and mission. It follows that; offering them our service, protection, education and love, so as to inspire them to reawaken the dormant Krsna Consciousness in their hearts, ought to be one of the foremost priorities of Srila Prabhupada's movement.
ISKCON's authorities have often viewed child protection as a nuisance or an interruption to their service plans, instead.
What is the point of preaching to outsiders when these are the seeds we are planting in our own gardens? If this is how we are treating our children, what do we have to offer to the world?
Schools and educational projects can only hope to succeed when they are led by qualified, selfless and dedicated individuals; they are true labours of love. This is what makes them respected and prestigious ventures. When appropriately run they rightfully bring admiration and recognition on those responsible.
Indian Gurukulas have had a different twist; they have often been looked upon as effective "preaching tools"; for they make an easy job of convincing donors to part with their money.
These outwardly glamorous looking Gurukulas, where the children are supposedly taught Sanatana Dharma, in accordance with the ancient Vedic tradition bring a prestige otherwise rarely obtainable on whoever can claim credit for them. If on top of that you engage graduates of IIT in Kanpur (One of the most prestigious universities in India) to teach, it will appear as a truly remarkable achievement.
If individuals in authority seek prestige alone, but are not interested to make the investments necessary to offer adequate service to the children and thus deserve this recognition; running a school becomes a significantly easier task. All the schools need to do to for this purpose is to LOOK GOOD, from an external, cursory inspection. In this case, whether the school serves the best interest of the children becomes irrelevant and superfluous. When external appearances are given precedence over the welfare of the children; it makes sense to sacrifice children to safeguard the school's reputation.
I am afraid the quest for prestige of some leaders, is likely to be one of the main reasons that kept the Mayapur and Vrindavana Gurukulas open. This is supported by Gopal Krishna Maharaj's order of priorities and by Bhaktividyapurna Swami's continued involvement with children. Vrajabhumi informs that Gopal Krsna Maharaj mentioned his financial investment in the school, but specified that the reasons that caused a whistle blower to be dismissed were not a primary concern for him.
I see two problems; the first is that the majority of GBC members don't seem to appreciate the vital importance of educating and protecting these children; at least not enough for them to do the necessary to bring educational standards, to even acceptable requirements.
The second is that a significant minority of leaders are themselves directly and/or indirectly responsible for a sizable portion of the child mistreatment that has occurred in ISKCON.
If basic common sense was applied, a comprehensive list of individuals currently holding positions of authority or regard in ISKCON; who would be found, either personally responsible for child abuse, or to have vocally or otherwise proactively encouraged child abuse, or knowingly protected and/or covered for offenders, would leave many in disbelief. If we were then to look at a list of those who, for the sake of convenience, or to avoid "rocking the boat", turned a blind eye, knowing that children were being abused, we will find that the list is considerably larger...We would then no longer be dealing with a "significant minority".
It is worthy of mention that some of these individuals have also made considerable efforts to help abuse survivors. While this goes to their credit, it does not cancel their past transgressions.
Conversely, I cannot name even one ISKCON leader who over the years has consistently protected and championed the cause of child abuse victims.
With their actions these leaders have set a precedent that the mistreatment of children is acceptable, or at least not a big deal. And that to cover-up child abuse to protect friends and the image or interests of the establishment is tolerated if not recommended.
Considering that the transgressions of these leaders are for the most part public knowledge. As hard as it will be, until they find the humility and the courage to leave aside personal considerations, and set a new precedent by publicly apologizing and explicitly denouncing their actions as unacceptable mistakes, it will be extremely difficult to change the society's collective consciousness towards child abuse. I see no shortcuts.
In the USA, failing to report child abuse is punishable with imprisonment. As far as I know, the CPO has never prosecuted anyone exclusively for this crime; not for want of transgressions.
The reluctance I often encounter amongst the general devotee public to acknowledge and come to terms with this unpleasant reality compounds the problem. The individuals who are able to objectively entertain the possibility that their guru, or someone they look upon for spiritual guidance and inspiration may have knowingly contributed to child abuse, are the exception.
The GBC controlled CPO has been unsuccessful on many fronts. Generally, left to its own devices the CPO has been effective, only when it did not, interfere with other projects, objectives and priorities, cost the reputation and/or the position to prominent individuals or inconvenience them too much.
As long as these crimes are dealt with denial, child abuse will continue to afflict ISKCON. The passing of time will cause some to forget, but it does not make a wrong-right or adequately addressed.
Gopal Krishna Maharaj (Vrindavana GBC)
Maharaja was involved in the selection and appointment of the current managers and teachers in the Gurukula. The choice of an absentee principal has meant that the management of the school and the lives of some 250 children fell on the shoulders of Radha Kanta prabhu, the vice principal.
Radha Kanta is a brahmachari; at the time he was 25 years of age, he had only been a devotee for a short while, did not have prior experience running a school and this was his first ever full-time occupation. The GBC and the CPO did not give him the training or support necessary for such a demanding task and left him unmonitored. Considering the above, it is surprising, that the situation is not a whole lot worse.
Sachiputra prabhu is a disciple of Gopal Krishna Maharaj, who has been involved with the Vrindavana Gurukula.
According to Vrajabhumi mataji, in a recent conversation, he rebuked her for bringing the abuse out in the public. He shared his concern that news of the incident might reach a Mr. Teneja (Spelling?); a wealthy donor. Teneja has pledged to cover a substantial portion of the costs for a new school Gopal Krishna Maharaj plans to build in Vrindavana.
Sachiputra also shared that he had warned against employing "old teachers", because they tend to be un-submissive and cause problems; and that he had objected to the selection of Radha Kantha as vice principal, because he regarded him unqualified as a manager. He also remarked that Deena Bandhu prabhu has a tendency to cause trouble.
While the lack of experience, guidance, training and knowledge of ISKCON's educational mistakes are mitigating factors in favour of Tejasvini and Radha Kantha; the same cannot be said of Gopal Krsna Maharaj. He has been the Vrindavana GBC for over 20 years; I estimate the number of children who have been abused under his tenure to be easily close to 100. Between the late 80s and early 90s he was involved with a little known Gurukula in Chandigarh, where the children also came to suffer a great deal for very much the same reasons; the appointment of untrained and unfit bramhacaris as managers and teachers.
As Champakalata, the CPO director, does not have the authority to adequately address Maharaj's responsibility, there is nothing to deter him from replicating the same in the future.
These events speak of an institutional unawareness and/or a tolerance towards child abuse that starts at the top of our hierarchical structure and seeps down the managerial pyramid to the school teachers. It will be difficult to bring substantial change without the leaders' wholehearted commitment.
I am left wondering what assurances Maharaj can offer for the protection of the children and the quality of the services he intends to provide, if he succeeds in opening a new and bigger school.
I find it relevant to include an excerpt of a letter written by Maharaj, published in the 2010-2011 annual magazine of the Vrindavana Gurukula:
Champakalata (CPO Director)
"The world today is bereft of men of character and competence, both spiritually and materially. This training is required from the very beginning of student age when the child is most receptive. However as Srila Prabhupada wanted, the children need to be dealt with love, for them to grow naturally. So imparting the knowledge, training, spiritual culture, making then imbibe the moral and ethical values based on scriptures, while at the same time giving them love so that they would look forward to the education and training should be the main goal of our Gurukula. Then we can fulfil the dream of Srila Prabhupada of creating model citizens."
In recent years the GBC drastically reduced the annual funding they allocate to the CPO.
I pray that Champakalata prabhu, can accept my criticism of the shortcomings I perceive in her service and in current CPO policies, without taking them as personal attacks; and forgive my lack of qualifications to do this in a more suitable manner.
She has taken on an extremely difficult task without having the necessary resources: i.e. time, political support, authority, qualified manpower and finances. It is also my understanding that she is not very well acquainted with CPO history.
The CPO can only hope to function optimally when it is the main focus of its director; Champakalata is a single mother and works two jobs. It was to be expected that she would come to face difficulties. I imagine she must often feel overwhelmed.
In August 2010, I informed Champakalata, that Pawan Pandey, one of the teachers in the Vrindavana Gurukula, had been beating the children. Though aware of the situation, the school management had failed to inform the CPO.
Pawan Pandey was cautioned, but allowed to continue teaching. The case was assessed on the basis of a cursory examination and a report from the school; Champakalata did not submit the case to a panel of CPO judges for deliberation. I believe this was a breach of CPO regulations.
Had the CPO given due consideration to the matter, and dismissed Pawan Pandey, it is likely that the school management would have taken child protection more seriously and Tejasvini would have been more respectful with the children. This tolerant approach to child abuse, adopted by Champakalata, is at least a contributing factor to the recent incident in the same school.
I observed that, as long as Champakalata seemed to be under the impression that this recent incident only concerned some young devotees, who had perhaps "randomly" ended up managing the Vrindavana Gurukula, she was prompt and vocal in stating her resolute intentions to protect the children. But, after I pointed out that Gopal Krsna Maharaj and other senior devotees may have been involved, and pressed for a thorough and transparent investigation; she simply ignored my requests.
In a past article, I shared another instance where Champakalata fell short in her duties to favour another GBC, Bhir Krsna Maharaj.
As far as I know, this latest incident in Vrindavana is being handled as if it was the sole responsibility of one inexperienced teacher, Tejasvini prabhu.
While it may be tempting to try and opt for this "compartmentalized" approach to problem solving in child protection, it is ineffective and ultimately counterproductive. If the CPO decides to scapegoat Tejasvini mataji, it is unlikely that this will have a significant impact on Vrindavana's or ISKCON's child protection problems. It would be comparable to when Lord Rama was directing His arrows at Ravana's head.
Champakalata opened an investigation to ascertain the responsibility of Tejasvini in connection to the recent allegations, but has not done the same for Gopal Krsna Maharaj; or the Gurukula managers, despite the fact that, on two occasions, the school failed to report instances of abuse to the CPO. These dynamics highlight the heart of the CPO and ISKCON's child abuse problems.
As this recent incident confirms, child abuse is seldom the sole responsibility of just one individual; until all the individuals and factors that have permitted the abuse to occur are thoroughly scrutinized and made accountable, these crimes will be repeated again and again.
It is essential to establish how much of the responsibility ought to be placed with the teacher, how much on the school management, and how much is to be rightfully shouldered by the GBC, the CPO, and other ISKCON educational authorities.
Champakalata left the Vrindavana Gurukula unmonitored for two whole years after a report of abuse, knowing that the school authorities had failed to report the same. As this makes her, at least to some degree involved, and therefore responsible for this recent incident, it may be appropriate for her to temporarily excuse herself from her duties as CPO director; at least in regards to monitoring this case.
This recent episode is the second instance, I know of, when the current Vrindavana Grukula management failed to report incidents of abuse to the CPO. Both times the abuse came to light due to a fluke. This raises the concern that there may be more incidents that have not been reported; this is supported by Deena Bandhu prabhu's letter.
Champakalata may feel that her hands are tied, and is unwilling to take the courageous, but necessary stance; or she may be unable to see that in complying with the GBC's current child protection policies, she is harming the children she is supposed to protect.
The bottom line is that when the interests of the children come in conflict with the interests of some leaders or the institution, as the director of the Child Protection Office, it is her duty to protect the children, irrespective of the costs and challenges entailed.
This is what her service requires; if she can't or won't, then it becomes necessary to re-assess whether she is suited for the job.
To ensure accountability and transparency, it is advised that investigations are conducted by a team of at least three individuals, independent of the establishment under investigation; they ought to be, qualified and have a reputation above reproach.
As far as I know the investigation of this recent incident was hastily concluded by Braja Bihari das (Indian bodied, not the devotee from New York).
Braja Bihari, works for the temple in Vrindavana, has no children, no prior child protection training or experience, and is paid a salary by ISKCON Bureau.
I was informed by Champakalata that she had three phone conversations with Braja Bihari. I got the impression that she regarded these three calls as an acceptable substitute for the lengthy and in-depth training, required to turn a layman into a qualified investigator.
A police child abuse investigator, after undergoing extensive and rigorous training, goes through an internship period where his work is closely monitored by experienced officers...and they still get things wrong.
Braja Bihari called Vrajabhumi and asked her if she wanted to add or subtract anything from her statement, without informing her that he had been appointed to investigate the case by the CPO. As the CPO had also failed to inform her, Vrajabhumi refused to entertain his request. That was the extent of his "interview" with Vrajabhumi.
If history has taught us anything, it is precisely that these matters must be conducted and monitored with the up-most care and diligence. They require an investment of valuable resources such as time, qualified and concerned individuals and money. Considering the indications showing that the GBC, the school management and the temple authorities have a vested interest in getting rid of this "problem". The choice of an inexperienced temple devotee as the investigator, and the unprecedented speed at which the investigation was concluded, suggest that more emphasis has been placed on "Getting the job over and done with ASAP" rather than on "How to achieve the best job possible".
When the welfare of the children is not the foremost priority, a make-believe investigation to cover-up the "problem" requires far less investment, personal responsibility and commitment than the painstaking work necessary to do the best job possible; and it may thus be more tempting.
It is my contention that Braja Bihari's financial ties to the temple and lack of child protection training or necessary experience undermine the reliability, thoroughness and accuracy of his findings; for he cannot offer the assurance of professionalism required.
Conflicts of Interest and Consequences
Presently, the GBC retain ultimate control over the CPO; this control has repeatedly interfered with the CPO's objectives, its ability to function effectively and to hold much credibility.
Accountability, financial and administrative independence, and transparency, are essential factors for an impartial and dependable CPO. In the absence of the above, the safety of the children and the credibility of both the CPO and the GBC body are jeopardized.
Only in exceptional cases have I seen the CPO be effective, in instances, such as this more recent one, where there is a clear conflict of interests, and a thorough and objective investigation can lead to findings that are deleterious for the GBC or the establishment. Usually these exceptions have involved considerable public pressure.
Vrajabhumi mataji was one of the few teachers in the Gurukula that did not depend on school wages for her livelihood. Naturally this made it easier for her to do what she felt was right and necessary, despite the pressures from the school's authorities to the contrary.
Recently a friend confided that some years back, s/he approached the authorities of the Vrindavana Gurukula to report allegations of sexual abuse to the children. The authorities clearly explained that such things do not happen in the Vrindavana Gurukula, they asked this person to mind their business and sent her/him on their way.
Today, several years later s/he is still unwilling to file an official report of the incident.
I am sharing this to highlight the intimidating and oppressive atmosphere that exists around child abuse in ISKCON. If over the last 40 years the Vrindavana Gurukula had had just 10 teachers who, like Vrajabhumi, had been willing to heroically denounce the abuse, hundreds of children would have been spared.
Instead of congratulating and supporting the whistle blower the school authorities and the GBC have shown hostility to her. The school management have expressed their intention to reinstate Tejasvini, but they haven't invited Vrajabhumi to resume her services! This will undoubtedly discourage other teachers from reporting future incidents and it contributes to the perpetuation of child abuse; it is symptomatic of the greater problem at hand.
At least one of the individuals who share some responsibility in this case (Champakalata) is also supposed to ensure accountability...This undermines the CPO's authority and its ability to mete out objective justice. Most institutions get around conflicts of interests by establishing bodies that are independent, transparent and accountable to the public.
Over the years ISKCON's child protection policies have harmed generations of young Vaisnavas in the name of serving the so-called "higher purposes" of preaching and safeguarding the establishment. This has wrecked havoc in the lives of victims, for the movement and for society at large; there may well be far reaching repercussions yet to come.
If we allow our desire for material prestige or to safeguard the perceived repute of our organization, to become greater that our loyalty to our spiritual life and to civility, sooner or later, we will compromise our spiritual life, the purity of our organization and the material and spiritual life of those involved.
The U.S. government works with the president, the congress and the judicial system; in ISKCON everything rests on the GBC. A system of checks and balances needs to be implemented, that is entirely independent and separate of the organization; one that has no interests other than child safety.
I see two possible solutions:
a) Set up an independently funded and run CPO, consisting of professional devotees, that report findings to the GBC and the public.
b) Fund an independent, external organization to handle our CPO needs; also reporting to the GBC and the public.
If we truly regard Child Safety to be paramount, above and beyond any monetary or public relations-control preferences, there should be no objection to either suggestion.
Bhaktarupa prabhu (GBC) has assured that we need not worry about the possibility of a cover-up for he is monitoring this case to prevent just that. Given that he has not been in Vrindavana at any time since the incident or during the investigation, it is difficult for him to substantiate his assurance. However, I wonder if, to further pacify the devotee public, he would be willing to kindly provide some valid answers to the following nine questions:
1) What are the measures in place to ensure the transparency and objectivity of the investigation and review process?
2) Have the parents of the children been informed?
3) Given that Braja Bihari has neither previous experience nor the necessary training in child protection, why and by whom was it decided that it was acceptable or appropriate to hand him such a delicate and complex case. Taking into account Vrindavana's history and the current circumstances, how does assigning the investigation to an individual employed by the same temple where the abuse occurred, guarantee the integrity of the process?
4) I had suggested that Kurmarupa prabhu or other devotees of similar repute and character were needed to guarantee the transparency and credibility of the investigation. What are the reasons that made Braja Bihari a more suitable candidate?
5) Did Braja Bihari prabhu look into the Gurukula's current disciplinary policies?
6) How many of the 17 children in Tejasvini's ashram were interviewed; How many children in the school; How many faculty members; How many former students and teachers were interviewed (more likely to expose possible irregularities)?
7) Have the children been reassured that teachers are forbidden to hit them; and has a functional system been set-up for the children to freely report any possible incident to competent individuals independent of the school?
8) Why is it that the CPO hasn't opened an inquiry to establish the responsibility of Gopal Krishna Maharaj and the school's management in this recent child abuse case?
9) Looking at the overall picture of this case; what does it say about the integrity of the case itself and the GBC's and CPO's concern for the children?
In closing I want to share a recent incident. Ruparaghunath prabhu, from Food for Life Vrindavana, witnessed a teacher slap one of the children in the Sandipani Muni School; he took the teacher aside and told him, "As you know, in this school we have a zero tolerance policy for corporal punishment. I am not interested to find out what happened or why you felt justified to slap this child; for it is irrelevant. You can no longer teach here; I must ask you to leave".
Ruparaghunath is a hands-on-manager; he speaks with the children regularly and takes an active interest in their wellbeing. The children know that the teachers are not allowed to hit them and are reassured because they know they can go to him anytime they need. This proactive approach on his part (the management) naturally encourages the teachers to respect the rights of the children.
When child protection takes precedence over political and personal considerations, all of a sudden there is no need for the abuse of power, the nepotism, rationales, the farce and the gimmicks. Child protection becomes easy; and consequently, the reputation of the institution and its leaders prospers.
I look forward to the day when Gopal Krsna Maharaj and/or other GBC members and CPO representatives will be ready to make a statement to the effect of: "We are mortified for having repeatedly placed the responsibility of our Gurukulas, and therefore the spiritual and material lives of so many young Vaisnavas, in the hands of unmonitored and unqualified individuals; these were acts of reckless carelessness on our part. We promise that from today, we will take child protection seriously".
Some may regard this hope of mine as utopian, and perhaps it is. The point is that until the individuals who created the current system consent to replace it with a healthy one and acknowledge responsibility, in their failure to take adequate action, child abuse will most likely continue to plague our schools.
At present, the Vrindavana Gurukula is a boarding school that caters for middle class, non-devotee Indian families, where the children are imposed a forceful experience of so called "Krsna Consciousness", they are mistreated and their material and/or emotional needs are neglected. It is difficult to argue that it offers any service to the children, to ISKCON, or society at large.
It is my contention that in their current state, the Indian Gurukulas pose a threat to the spiritual, psychological and material wellbeing of the children; they also represent potential liabilities to both ISKCON and society at large.
It is time ISKCON starts to afford these children the respect due to them and to put an end to the ill-fated tradition of appointing individuals to work in our Gurukulas just because they are willing to sit for the job, regardless of their actual qualifications.
A substantial investment of diverse resources is needed to bring education in the Indian Gurukulas even just up to a passable standard. At present ISKCON's educational authorities are clearly uninterested. If this does not change very soon, we need to seriously consider the necessity to close these schools down. Having faith that if and when we will be ready to offer an outstanding service to these young Vaisnavas, Krsna will have no trouble to provide all the material facilities that will be required; we owe these children at least this much.
Failure on our part to do so will perpetuate the existing unhealthy dynamics of management; this will cause more children to suffer, continue to bring disrepute on ISKCON and Srila Prabhupada and cause disturbance to society.