Fifteen Years Later: A Critique Of Gurukula




by Gabriel Deadwyler (Yudhisthira Dasa):

A personal reflection on the legacy of a gurukula education by a gurukula alumnus. Yudhisthira Dasa gives a first-hand account of how ISKCON gurukulas prepared their students for life in the wider society and offers advice on how gurukulas can be improved. What duty does a gurukula owe to its students who may choose not to be fulltime ISKCON members upon reaching adulthood? And how can a better understanding be reached between those who enter ISKCON by birth and those who enter by choice?

Some of what I write here may be old news. My last year in gurukula (ISKCON’s school system) – and really my last intimate involvement with ISKCON – was in 1986, when I was fifteen years old. Devotee children born then would themselves be fifteen years old now. I know they have experienced a very different upbringing than my peers and I. Most have not attended boarding school gurukulas. I also know that the entire movement has changed in many ways since then, and I think (and hope) that the few gurukulas that exist, but more importantly the attitudes of ISKCON leaders, parents, and educators, have changed. Still, at the risk of repeating realisations that devotees may have had years ago, and with the benefit of hindsight, I wish to make several things very clear that were obviously not clear to the leadership, educators, parents, and members of ISKCON fifteen years ago.

The first of these I will call the antinomian heresy, which, while a term from Christian theology and not perfectly accurate in this case, is a good shorthand for the basic idea that spiritual perfection places one above the law. In my youth, many devotees operated as if they and ISKCON were above the law, and by this I mean not just the law in a strictly legal sense but also in the sense of the basic moral laws that govern civilised behaviour, especially among those who claim to be religious. Many devotees seemed to have taken the passages in scripture that say that anyone engaged in Krsna’s service is without faults and beyond reproach1 as a license to engage in, or at least look the other way from, all kinds of criminal and immoral behaviour, and that this was justified in the name of Krsna’s service. Anyone who’s been around ISKCON over its lifetime will know what I’m talking about, and I need only use the slang term ‘scam-kirtana’2 to give you one example.

Among the young children of ISKCON, this resulted in gurukula teachers and administrators not even thinking to treat sexual abuse and physical abuse as crimes. Instead, when incidents of sexual abuse came to light, they were usually hidden and hushed. Gurukula administrators seemed less concerned with the welfare of the children than with the reputation of gurukulas, which they saw as their service to Prabhupada and thus something to be protected at all costs. Instead of treating sexual abuse as a crime that must be reported to civil authorities, and for which the perpetrator must be prosecuted, they treated the incidents as ‘falldowns’ that could be rectified by better spiritual practice. In almost every case, perpetra-tors were simply counselled to practice better sadhana in order to reduce their sexual desires; in some cases, the perpetrators were not even removed from their positions as teachers but quietly transferred to another school. In my own case, and that of many others, incidents that occurred in Dallas, when I was barely five years old, had consequences that will affect us for all our lives. Thus, from the very beginning, gurukulis’ lives were ‘spoiled’ – to use Prabhupada’s term3 – by personal exposure and the exposure of their classmates to criminal sexual activity. I remember no lawful response by gurukula or ISKCON leaders to any of this.

As I mentioned, there have been many instances of what I’ve called antinomian thinking in ISKCON’s culture, and child abuse is only the most egregious. As recently as last year, I was at a conference in New Vrindaban in which Professor Rochford urged ISKCON to take concrete institutional steps to avoid abuses of authority.4 One of the devotees in attendance insisted that the proper understanding is that ultimately these things happen because of spiritual defects and that, therefore, better spiritual practice is the only real cure for ISKCON’s problems. However, even if the root causes of all our problems are spiritual in nature, I strongly disagree that leaders of ISKCON should respond to crimes and immoral behaviour, especially sexual and physical abuse in gurukulas, with only a so-called spiritual prescription.

When a devotee gets on an airplane, is he more concerned that the pilot and crew have the proper training or that they are devotees in good standing? Does a devotee ask the surgeon if he’s chanted his daily rounds and is strictly following the regulative principles before he allows the operation? Yet, at one point in gurukula’s history, it was felt that train-ing and qualifications for teachers, such as an education degree, were actually to be avoided because they would only contaminate the devotee teachers with karmi ideas. While faith cannot be discarded, it often seemed that gurukula teachers had faith and only faith, not real plans based on practical principles. They seemed convinced that everything would work out, and not only work out, but that this was the best possible educational experience for us, simply because they had good intentions and saw themselves as working sincerely to please Prabhupada and Krsna. I hope by now that ISKCON leaders, and especially parents and educators, have realised that while spiritual practices like faith in guru and Krsna are the important foundations of ISKCON, they cannot substitute for practical intelligence and expertise. Similarly, whatever perfection may result from being a devotee of the Lord, no one is above the law or too good for civilised behaviour. I think even within the philosophy of Krsna consciousness, a proper understanding of the twenty-six qualities of a Vaisnava and the imperatives of action in the mode of goodness would make that clear.

I would think by now that the abuses we suffered in gurukula are common knowledge. Some gurukulas and some teachers were much better than others, so not everyone lived a horror story, but what has been heard is not exaggeration. The tremendous difficulties many former gurukulis have gone through, both in the gurukulas and then later in life as they tried to come to terms with their childhoods, are almost too much to bear. I personally don’t want to dwell on these at this time, except to say the obvious: that they must never happen again. In terms of sexual abuse, there is absolutely nothing in Krsna conscious philosophy that condones it. I think that now that ISKCON is aware that sexual abuse does happen even in a religious society, and if it diligently keeps to the standards that the Child Protection Office has put in place, nothing like what happened before will happen again.

In terms of physical abuse, there may be some complications. ISKCON educational philosophy places a great emphasis on strict discipline and absolute obedience to authority. Furthermore, it involves separation of children and parents, isolating the children from mainstream society, requiring attendance at mangala-arati and the full morning programme, and other practices of devotional life conducted in the name of austerity (tapasya), such as having few possessions and sleeping on simple bedding. Some of my peers have argued that all these principles are inherently abusive. I disagree, but I do know that these principles can and often did become abusive in the hands of fanatical teachers. Thus, while physical abuse of children can happen in any circumstance, ISKCON educators and parents should specifically recognise that certain aspects of Krsna conscious educational philosophy can easily be misapplied in an abusive manner, and they must avoid repeating this at all costs. Children may wake up early and attend mangala-arati, but they must get enough sleep; some gurukulas were good about this, but many were not. A simple lifestyle is not abusive, but lack of basic facilities and affectionate, loving care, as occurred in many gurukulas in the past, is certainly abusive. Discipline is not abusive, but beatings, threats of beating, and an atmosphere of complete intimidation are definitely abusive. Teachers and parents must be careful to apply practical intelligence so as not to blindly follow philosophical ideas to the point of fanaticism. The principle, as Prabhupada himself said several times, is not to force.5 Tragically, this aspect of his instructions was largely ignored by teachers and parents alike.

I’ve heard stories that give me the impression that some devotees think that gurukula was a great thing and everything would have worked out just fine for us, but somehow ‘demons’ got involved and abused some of the kids, and that’s the reason why we’re not all full-time devotees and why some of us have even become antagonistic toward ISKCON. I think blaming so-called ‘demons’ or even placing all the blame on gurukula administrators and teachers (who certainly deserve some blame) is a way to ignore institutional failings and avoid self-examination.6 I suggest such devotees read Professor Rochford’s 1998 article ‘Child Abuse in the Hare Krsna Movement: 1971-1986’ (Rochford 1998) for an excellent sociological analysis of what happened. Like those leftists who claim that the history of the Soviet Union doesn’t accurately reflect communism because the Soviet Union was never really communist, I have some sympathy with those who see the history of gurukula as so marred by sexual and physical abuse that it tells us little about a real Krsna conscious education. At least for ISKCON’s sake, I hope this is the case. Nevertheless, I think the leaders, parents, and educators of ISKCON must also realise that graduates of even the most perfect gurukula, who have never suffered from any form of abuse, will still have to contend with a host of problems as they grow older. Nothing in gurukulas of the past prepared us for those difficulties, and in fact, the abuses of gurukula only made these difficulties much worse.

The crux of the problem is that Krsna consciousness and modern culture, especially in America, are about as far apart culturally as you can get. In many ways they are in direct opposition. Most devotees recognise this. In fact, in becoming devotees, they specifically seek an escape from modern culture, which they view as an increasingly abhorrent product of Kali-yuga. Thus they enthusiastically transform not only their beliefs, but every aspect of their lives – from what they read, what they do, and with whom they associate to their clothing, hairstyle, diet, and even their very names.

I remember over the years many devotees joyfully telling me how happy I must feel and how lucky I must consider myself to be a gurukula boy. I always found that a strange comment. First of all, I didn’t always think it was that cool to be a gurukuli kid subject to authoritarian rules like standing in line to go to the temple, being made to wear an ugly yellow dhoti, being forbidden to ride bikes around the farm, or not being allowed even to talk to girls. But mostly I found it strange because for me this was the only life I knew. I had nothing to compare it with, and in no way had I chosen it. Those who joined the movement imagined gurukula as an amazing gift, because while they had made a choice to change their lives, renounce the material world and become devotees of Krsna, they found so many ingrained impurities and attachments within themselves. To have grown up without those impurities was the stuff of their dreams, and when I look back to how really innocent we all were, I guess I can understand that enthusiasm.

I tell this, though, to illustrate what I believe is the most important thing the educators of ISKCON should understand. They joined the Hare Krsna movement by choice. They saw it all and did it all and finally found their home at the feet of Prabhupada and Krsna. No matter what pressures they may have experienced to ‘shave up’ or ‘move in’ and not to ‘bloop’ (drop out of ISKCON), as adults, they are ultimately involved with ISKCON by choice. In fact, the whole basis of surrender and devotional service in loving relationship with Krsna (bhakti) is one of choice. Children born into ISKCON, however, do not and cannot really make that choice until they are independent, that is, until they reach adolescence.

Before reaching adolescence, gurukulis are more or less parrots. We dance, we sing, we chant japa, we recite Bhagavad-gita verses to impress visiting life members, we even distribute books and preach the philosophy, but it is all we know. We’ll even get initiated, like many of my friends did, but the vows are often meaningless, as time has shown. Our complete absorption in the devotee lifestyle is not necessarily an expression of deep spiritual realisation but simply the natural capacity of children to be inculcated in their culture, be it the American one or the ISKCON one. When we began to be independent, when we went from being obedient gurukula kids to becoming free-thinking adults, the two completely dissimilar cultures of ISKCON and America clashed. We had the most difficult time, because no one had ever prepared us to face this. As long as there is this difference between American culture and ISKCON culture, each gurukuli (or at least American gurukuli) will face this culture clash and the choices it brings. I hope that in the future, children of ISKCON will have more help and are better prepared than we were.

When I graduated from the gurukula in Vrndavana, I had a Bhakti-sastri degree, which means I knew Bhagavad-gita and other scriptures rather well. I also had some skills at reading and writing, mostly developed through the study of scriptures, and a smattering of Sanskrit, but I had received only the most basic rudiments of the social sciences and mathematics. I had absolutely no science education. I would make an outstanding temple devotee, but I had no training with which to do anything else, like enter college and pursue a career. It seems I was never expected to even want to do that. From quotations I have read from Prabhupada, this seems to me more or less what he wanted academically. Interested overwhelmingly in a religious education, he specifically instructed that the goal of gurukula was to create preachers and devotees of high character and sense control, and that advanced academics and higher education like university were neither desired nor required.7 So perhaps the fact that I found myself at age fifteen with basically only a religious education is not a failure of gurukula but something to be expected from gurukula.

What does seem a clear failure is that no one seemed to know what to do with us when we were done with gurukula. In my case, when it became obvious that there was nothing more for me to learn in the gurukula system, it was arranged that I would serve as the typist for Satsvarupa Maharaja. This didn’t last long, and now that I understand just how difficult fifteen-year-olds can be, I’m surprised that it lasted as long as it did. At the Gita-nagari farm they tried to have the teenagers work as devotees (i.e. for no pay), and after much strife, that too failed. No one knew what to do with all these gurukulis; not only that, once we started experimenting with the outside world, there was often outright hostility toward us. It seemed no one had even considered that teenagers may not want to live the life of devotee monks. I suppose they assumed that since we had experienced the higher taste of love of Krsna we would never want sense gratification. It was a shock that we wanted to eat ice cream or watch movies and that we were fascinated with American culture, what to speak of the near heart attacks we caused when we engaged in those activities that potentially involved breaking the regulative principles, like associating with girls.

I’ve read one of my father’s (Ravindra Svarupa Dasa) articles in which he describes how early devotees had no idea how to relate to ‘fringies’, those on the fringe of ISKCON society. Well, adolescent gurukulis were (and I think always will be) fringies with a vengeance. Even to this day – for example, at our reunions – we cause problems because of our fringe behaviour. One day we’ll be running around and swimming in our shorts and bikinis, boys and girls freely mixing, listening to rock and roll or hip-hop, and the next day we’ll be at the Sunday programme in dhotis and saris singing and dancing in the kirtana. No one had any idea that something like this would happen, no one had any idea how to respond when it did, and it seems some still don’t know how to respond. Everyone was scrambling – children had not grown up with their parents and so parent and child didn’t know each other very well, temple authorities didn’t know how to deal with troublemakers they couldn’t just kick out of the temple – and we kids were especially scrambling, for we not only had to face the normal troubles of any adolescent but added to that was this unbelievable clash between the ISKCON culture we grew up in and the larger world that we were now more or less free to enter.

I believe that an upbringing that does not prepare gurukula kids to face this dichotomy, and more than that, does not provide at some point the basic academic and social build-ing blocks for success in the secular world, should they choose to enter it, is a disservice to ISKCON’s children. Considering that Prabhupada envisioned gurukula as ending at fifteen years of age and that the American system of education continues until at least age eighteen, I think there should be flexibility in the gurukula system, so that students could maintain the strict spiritual principles of gurukula but still not be impaired with regard to their secular future. This may be a moot point since so many devotee children are now being educated in secular schools and are straddling both worlds from the beginning, but for my peers and me, we had to figure out all this stuff more or less on our own.

It was very frustrating for me that I had spent months in minute study of the Nectar of Devotion and years memorising Sanskrit grammar sutras, the meaning and application of which we weren’t taught, yet when I wanted to take the SATs for college admission, I didn’t know what a sine or cosine was. I feel even more for the girls, so many of whom were not even given the scriptural education the boys received, for at least that education taught me to read and write well. Instead, they were taught that their only worth was as an obedi-ent wife, that academics and philosophy were over their heads, and they would be better off learning to cook, sew, and clean. The simple fact, which may now seem obvious but was evidently not even imagined in the past, is that, given the renunciation required, relatively few gurukulis are going to end up being full-time temple devotees. Therefore, at some point they will need to receive the education and social tools to allow them to live and work in the secular world if they choose to do so.

As far as this choice is concerned, I think it is important to note that this will most likely be an issue between the adolescent and the parents. In the past, one of the problems was that parent/child relationships were neglected, and this made things all the more difficult when we reached adolescence. There was an absolute insistence by gurukula authorities that all ISKCON children had to be separated from their parents while in gurukula, even when some children and parents clearly should not have been apart. In some cases, gurukula authorities even actively kept children and their parents from communicating, because they thought the parents were too much maya. I also wish the parents had not been so quick to go along with the authorities’ demands when their children were clearly unhappy in gurukula. Even if we accept that a boarding school (asrama) education under the daily care of a guru is the best for a spiritual education, it seems obvious that a child’s relationship with his or her parents cannot be neglected or given second-class status. A child cannot be more or less abandoned to be raised by an asrama teacher. In my own case, even though I spent more time between five and fifteen years of age in the asrama than I did with my parents, and as much as those experiences and teachers have shaped me, my connection to my parents is more visceral and enduring and means much more to me, both then and now, than my connection with gurukula. If my parents had been less involved with my life while I was in gurukula, or if they had reacted to my choices as I grew older with hostility or resentment – if they had not been forgiving, open-minded, and supportive as I made my choices and ultimately became my own person – I would have had an incredibly more difficult time. When an adolescent leaves gurukula, especially if he or she chooses to leave the community of ISKCON, that person’s only real connection in life, and to Krsna consciousness as well, will be with the parents. Thus, whatever the philosophical principle of rising above bodily attachment, I believe a child’s relationship with his or her parents cannot be neglected or diminished, even if, or perhaps especially if, the child goes to a boarding school.

Another issue of choice that every adolescent gurukuli will face is sexuality and relationships between the sexes. I remember my last year in gurukula, when I was fifteen – and I hope you remember what it is like to be that age – one of my teachers discovered I had a crush on a certain girl. He gave me a little lecture, telling me, ‘Don’t get involved with

girls. They’ll only bring you trouble’. Whether he was right or wrong, that particular instruction was out the other ear in record time. I wanted nothing more than exactly that kind of trouble. Now, I don’t want to argue that ISKCON has to change its principles and condone illicit sex. Prabhupada clearly wanted strict brahmacarya, and celibacy is of course a very important spiritual practice. However, I think that it is a problem that my teacher’s only option seemed to be to tell me, ‘No, you can’t’. I suppose he could have arranged my marriage, but considering that, if I am not mistaken, one hundred percent of the marriages of young gurukulis have already ended, I don’t think that marriage at that time would necessarily have been a better choice. I might add that those early marriages between young gurukulis occurred because the girls ‘had’ to get married immediately; I suppose the boys were expected to remain celibate until they were twenty-four or twenty-five. Celibacy or marriage seems to be the only options and, even when attempting marriage, I know many gurukulis who couldn’t stand the nosy fishbowl of a small ISKCON community. I must admit I have no solution to this problem, but I also understand that ISKCON is not the only religious com-munity to face it. However, because American culture practically celebrates dating and premarital relations, I want to emphasise that this is a major part of that vastly complex choice that devotee adolescents will face. Perhaps a little more tolerance and understanding than we were shown will go a long way toward not alienating future gurukulis.

The fact that we were allowed no contact with girls whatsoever made our adolescence, and especially our first forays into the wider world, that much more awkward and difficult. American boys and girls relate with each other throughout their lives, and in the secular world of work and school, men and women relate with each other all the time, and it is not always with sex on the brain. The fact that boys and girls coming out of gurukula have absolutely no idea how to relate with members of the opposite sex is an added burden. America is not a village society in which only a limited number of boys and girls will ever be potential mates for each other, in which all the families know each other, in which the roles of the sexes are exclusively defined, and in which common societal obligations outweigh personal desires. America is a much more complicated social scene, and if ISKCON children enter that world, how are they going to be prepared for it? As it was, we often became sneaky and hypocritical, because most of us did find ways to at least talk to girls, and we went through all kinds of other tribulations and embarrassments, boys and girls alike, when we were finally exposed to the wider world. Again, I don’t have an easy answer. I would just like you to understand that this is a difficulty that all ISKCON teenagers will face, and it would be helpful if ISKCON parents and educators understood that and planned for it in some way.

I have been criticising my gurukula upbringing, but now I would like to share what I think was valuable about it. Of course, from a Krsna conscious perspective, there’s no question of the priceless value of even the most minor association with Krsna, His holy name, and His devotees, what to speak of being given the fortunate opportunity to begin this rare human life as a devotee. However, I would like to address this from the perspective of someone who has made the choice to enter the secular world, to become sometimes more American than devotee, and to reject some of the spiritual values I was taught, at least for a time. In other words, what do I feel I gained from gurukula, which is essentially a religious education, even though I have left the religious movement?

The most obvious thing is that gurukula made us tough. Especially those of us who had gone to gurukula in India felt that since we’d survived that, we could take anything – sleep anywhere, make do with whatever – and not let it get to us. I remember when I decided to become a pilot and joined the Civil Air Patrol, which is a US Air Force auxiliary search and rescue organisation that teenagers can join. (They will even teach you to fly if you stay around long enough.) The Pennsylvania Civil Air Patrol has a ten-day programme called Summer Hawk, which is a kind of eased-down basic training and wilderness survival camp in the Pocono Mountains. Many kids couldn’t take being yelled at, or they missed their parents, but none of that even fazed me. Even the real military training I later received never really fazed me. I knew how to obey orders; I knew how to make do with few comforts; I had been yelled at by people who I had seen hit kids with impunity. I knew the drill instructor couldn’t do that, what to speak of the older kids in the Civil Air Patrol trying to imitate drill instructors. A lot of us gurukulis felt and feel this pride, and in a way it is a direct result of the austerities we faced. Many of our austerities were just experiencing the standard of living that is fairly normal for countries like India. In many ways we had received an education in how much of the world lives, and I personally consider that something valuable to know as I now live in the relative luxury of the United States. Don’t get me wrong. It was often scary, like when I was seriously ill in a hospital in Mathura, and I was often homesick, and one certainly can’t forget the overwhelming context of abuses. But I survived it, and I believe I’m stronger for it.

Another thing I treasure from my upbringing is music, especially drumming. Without really realising it at the time, I had an excellent foundation for becoming a musician. Every day I played mrdanga and sang in the kirtanas. It seems that skills like that become second nature the more they are practiced in the crucial years of cognitive development before age twelve, and while artistic development is a life-long quest, I have been blessed with a head start in certain skills. It is one of my greatest pleasures to play music with people, and I can thank my upbringing for opening that door for me. Many of my peers, too, find pleasure and fulfilment in similar artistic endeavours.

Earlier, I mentioned the vast difference, almost complete opposition, between ISKCON culture and American culture. As an adolescent living in America after leaving gurukula, I found this difference very embarrassing. I had no knowledge or any idea about how to relate to American culture. I had none of the ‘culture specific’ skills (to use a term from sociology), and I basically went on a crash course in American culture. I watched hours of television, rented hundreds of movies, started listening to top-forty radio, slowly made some non-devotee friends in the Civil Air Patrol, got a job, and eventually started attending the local community college. I felt very lonely and really just wanted to be a normal American teenager, just like most adolescents who want to fit in somehow.8 In many ways I was resentful that my parents had joined the movement and raised me so differently, and I remember thinking that if I wasn’t able to get into college and become a Naval officer so I could fly jet planes, if my upbringing had ruined my chances at this dream of mine, I would hold a lifelong grudge against my parents and ISKCON.

Fifteen years later I don’t hold that grudge at all; what is more, in many ways I have come to treasure the differences that I once despised. Even if I don’t apply them or have complete faith in them, the beliefs and ideas that were my first philosophy give me ways to analyse the world and to try to understand life that most Americans cannot really conceive. The understanding of the soul and how it transmigrates, the interactions of the modes of nature, the philosophy of simultaneous oneness with and difference from God, the intricacies of developing a loving relationship with God, what to speak of the wealth of stories that are certainly among the world’s greatest literature, are all gifts of my upbringing. Now that I’m not so frightened to be different and am as comfortable living in American culture as I used to be in ISKCON culture, these differences are almost what define me. This tension between American culture and ISKCON culture and this almost dance I do on the edges of both are in many ways who I am. I don’t really want to become all American, but neither do I want be a full-time devotee.

You may have noticed that what I consider the valuable things from my gurukula education are all related to my familiarity with a culture different from America’s. Only a few months ago, when I had first heard of plans for this conference, Citralekha Dasi, one of my classmate’s mothers and a staff member of ISKCON Communications, recommended a book called The Third Culture Kid Experience: Growing Up Among Worlds, by David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken. Reading that book was a great comfort, not so much because it gave me a lot of new information – it was more like reading a great presentation of many of my own disorganised and scattered thoughts – but because it was very comforting to realise that many people around the world straddle cultures the way gurukulis do, and it seems we all have similar issues. In a way, I already knew this. My best friends in life have almost always been third culture kids, from my former classmates in gurukula, with whom I feel the strongest bonds, even when I don’t see them for years, to my college roommate, who had attended high school in Quito, Ecuador, to my girlfriend, who grew up in East Berlin until she was fifteen years old. I think this idea of a third culture will be incredibly useful for parents, educators, and children of ISKCON to understand. I think that even if gurukulis later reject the religious and spiritual aspects of their upbringing, they may still find value in it if (to use the language of the book) they manage to meet the challenges and embrace the benefits of being third culture kids.

I initially wanted to write this without quoting Prabhupada, and just give my opinions about what academics and social life should be like for gurukulis, based on the lessons from my own upbringing. However, an essential aspect of gurukula is the instructions of the guru. In that respect, the instructions of Prabhupada will remain a guiding principle of gurukula education, and I think it is as fundamental an American right as any other that ISKCON can pursue this religious vision, as long as it doesn’t break the law. However, as I argued in the beginning, this spiritual pursuit must be done with practical intelligence, wisdom, kindness, and love. In the same presentation in New Vrindaban that I mentioned earlier, Dr. Rochford made the suggestion that while ISKCON devotees have been good at studying and repeating the instructions of Prabhupada, they have not really learned to apply his wisdom.9 To make that same point – and just for a change of pace, to argue the way devotees argue – I wish to relate a story that appears in a book written by one of my former teachers:

Once, on the Hyderabad farm during a morning walk, Srila Prabhupada was asked whether a particular mantra could be chanted within the temple. Srila Prabhupada’s reply was that there was nothing wrong with the mantra, but our principle should be not to change anything. Yet, on another occasion, while he was taking his massage in Melbourne during 1975, I heard Srila Prabhupada explain the reason for his success in preaching in the West as allowing women to live within the temples of the Krsna consciousness movement. He then laughed and said that his Godbrothers criticised him for the change, but that they were unsuccessful. ‘And the only time they have some attendance is during parikramas on Gaura-purnima in Mayapura. And who attends? Women. Old widows in white.’ He laughed. ‘And because I made this adjustment,’ Srila Prabhupada continued, ‘I was successful’.

Srila Prabhupada’s servant then asked an intelligent question. ‘Prabhupada’, he inquired, ‘how do know the difference between making an adjustment and changing the principles?’ On hearing this, Prabhupada closed his eyes in concentration for several moments. When his eyes opened, Prabhupada gravely answered, ‘That requires a little intelligence’. (Bhurijana Dasa, p. 50)

I would like to close with one last reference, and that is to a paper by Raghunatha Anudasa, one of the older gurukulis, entitled ‘Prabhupada’s Magic: Cure for ISKCON Child Abuse’.10 He wrote this as a response to Dr. Rochford’s 1998 paper on child abuse in the Hare Krsna movement, and also as a defense of Prabhupada himself. In this paper, Raghunatha recounts his personal experiences with Prabhupada, and he concludes that Prabhupada had a magic, namely, that he treated each person as an individual and somehow made them feel special.

From what I remember of the philosophy of Krsna consciousness, the great enemy of devotees of Krsna in the tradition of Lord Caitanya is impersonalism. The very goal of all devo-tional spiritual practices is to develop an individual loving relationship with Krsna. A similar loving relationship is supposed to develop with one’s guru, with other devotees, and, in fact, with every living entity. Somehow or another, in the history of gurukula, and even ISKCON at large, loving relationships have been sorely lacking. Too often, instead of having loving personal relationships, with all the give and take, compassion and understanding they involve, those in authority have had destructive and even abusive personal relationships, or have been impersonal in their dealings by expecting every devotee to fit in the same box. I hope that with intelligence, and by developing loving personal relationships, the devotees of ISKCON, especially the leaders and parents, can avoid the terrible blunders of the past and realise the glorious potential one hopes Krsna consciousness can bring.


1 For example Bhagavad-gita 9.30-1.

2 Corruption of sankirtana, a term used for street collections.

3 ‘When the boys and girls are ten years old, they should be separated. At that time, special care should be taken, because once they become victims of sexual misbehavior, their lives are spoiled.’ (Srila Prabhupada letter to Satsvarupa Dasa Goswami, 4 October 1973.)

4 ‘ISKCON’s leaders must be careful about how they interpret organisational problems. [They should not] blame individuals for what amounts to organisational troubles.’ (Rochford 2000, p. 36)

5 For example, ‘Keep them always happy in Krsna consciousness, and do not force or punish, or they will get the wrong idea’. (Srila Prabhupada letter to Satsvarupa Dasa, 16 February 1972.)

6 See footnote 3.

7 For example, ‘They should have knowledge of Sanskrit, English, a little mathematics, history, geography, that’s all’. (Srila Prabhupada letter to Aniruddha Dasa, 16 February 1972.) Or, ‘Their aca-demic education should consist of learning a little mathematics and being able to read and write well. No universities. Higher education they get from our books’. (Srila Prabhupada letter to Chaya Devi Dasi, 16 February 1972.)

8 See E. Burke Rochford Jr., ‘Education and Collective Identity: Public Schooling of Hare Krsna Youths’ published in Children in New Religions, Rutgers University Press, 1999, for more details of the difficulties devotee children faced when entering the wider world.

9 ‘While ISKCON leaders hold dearly to the theological knowledge and insight found in Prabhupada’s books and spoken words, they have overlooked, or been hesitant to act on, what I believe was Prabhupada’s greatest insight sociologically: ‘time, place and circumstance’. (Rochford 2000, p. 35).

10 See Vaisnava Network News ( archives, January 1999.


Bhurijana Dasa. The Art of Teaching: Raising our Children in Krsna Consciousness. VIHE: Vrndavana, 1995.

Pollock, David C., and Van Reken, Ruth E. The Third Culture Kid Experience: Growing Up Among Worlds. Intercultural Press: Yarmouth, 1999.

Ravindra Svarupa Dasa, ‘Cleaning House and Cleaning Hearts: Reform and Renewal in ISKCON’, in (two parts) ISKCON Communications Journal, No. 3, January 1994, and No. 4, July 1994.

Rochford, E. Burke, Jr. ‘Analysing ISKCON for Twenty-Five Years: A Personal Reflection’, in ISKCON Communications Journal, Vol. 8, No. 1, June 2000.

Rochford, E. Burke, Jr. and Heinlein, Jennifer. ‘Child Abuse in the Hare Krishna Movement: 1971-1986’, in ISKCON Communications Journal, Vol. 6, No. 1, June 1998.


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