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Missing the Forest for the Trees-A reply to Satyaraja Prabhu’s “Truth Is Many-sided”

Thursday, 20 July 2006 / Published in Badrinarayan dasa, Discussion, Ongoing debates / 5,635 views

By Badrinarayan dasa

Satyaraja Prabhu’s reply follows a pattern appearing in the writings of others adamant that no further action should be taken regarding Dhanurdhara Maharaja’s status as an initiating guru. The attempt is like a magician’s sleight-of-hand: the strategy is to divert attention from the essential by focusing on the detail.

The logic runs something like this. I say to Satyaraja Prabhu, “Can’t you see this forest?”

He replies, “Where?”

I say, “There, in front of you, all those trees.”

He replies, “What trees?”

I say, “The ones with all those brown leaves.”

He responds with “Those leaves are red, not brown.”

I say, “Red, brown, whatever. I am talking about the trees right there in front of you.”

He replies, “First you say the leaves are brown. Now you’re saying they’re red. These conflicting claims prove that obviously there is no forest.”

The magician’s trick is to distract you from the object at hand. Then, lo and behold, he can make it “disappear.” Lest we lose sight of the forest for the trees, let me re-cap:

There is no question that there was horrendous child abuse in the Vrindaban gurukula during Dhanurdhara Maharaja’s first tour of service there (from 1979 to 1986). This happened not only before his eyes but sadly, in some cases, by his own hand. If any doubt remains on this point, with Dhanurdhara Maharaja’s permission, I can release the summary of this abuse recently sent to the GBC. I would rather not do this, as I do respect Dhanurdhara Maharaja as a sincere Vaisnava and I also do not want to cause his disciples any more distress. On the other hand, if this attempt to whitewash or explain away the abuse in Vrindaban continues, it will be hard to maintain this restraint.

As for the pattern continuing up until 1995, the history is that for a number of years before 1995 Sri Rama Prabhu and I (he as the ISKCON Minister of Education and myself as a member of the board of education) had repeated discussions with Dhanurdhara Maharaja, practically every year in Mayapur during the GBC meetings, about introducing child protection training and dropping corporal punishment. We were rebuffed again and again, being told by Dhanurdhara Maharaja that the child protection training was “introducing Western maya into the school” and that corporal punishment was an essential element for maintaining discipline.

Finally, in early 1995, Dhanurdhara Maharaja personally promised Sri Rama Prabhu and myself that he would rein in the practice of punishing students by beating them with a stick. Yet later that year I was sent photos of students still being beaten black and blue as punishment. When the situation was investigated, it was discovered that Dhanurdhara Maharaja had never said a word to the teachers about restricting the practice. As confirmation, Maharaja’s failure to communicate this agreement was the reason that no abuse case was logged against the teacher who administered the blows. So whether it was by commission or omission, the results were the same. Dhanurdhara Maharaja could have and should have stopped this suffering of students but he didn’t.

Satyaraja Prabhu refers to a letter I wrote to Dhanurdhara Maharaja in late 1995 and asks, “What has happened to change your opinion?” Let me list a few key events:


  • A multimillion-dollar child-abuse lawsuit, the biggest legal and financial threat ISKCON has ever faced. Most tellingly, of the 595 gurukula alumni claimants, by far the largest group, 115, list the Vrindaban gurukula as the location of their abuse.

  • A series of open forums with members of the North American GBC, gurukula alumni, and their parents (held in New Vrindaban, New York, Alachua, and Los Angeles). Their narrations of anguish, anger, shattered lives, and diminished or lost faith were devastating.

  • Ananda Prabhu’s suicide and the high potential for more among our gurukula alumni.

  • A growing chorus from across the range of ISKCON, not just gurukula alumni and their parents, but also temple presidents, sannyasis, and dedicated householders, demanding that the GBC finally address the issue of Dhanurdhara Maharaja’s permanent status as an initiating guru in ISKCON.

    I would offer that in light of the above, the question here should not be “Why has Badrinarayan Dasa’s view changed?” Rather the question should be “Why hasn’t Satyaraja Prabhu’s?”

    Satyaraja Prabhu argues that truth is many-sided and thus Dhanurdhara Maharaja is more than the sum total of the above events. I agree. Therefore, I wrote, “There is no doubt that Dhanurdhara Maharaja has another side to him, one where many good qualities are found.” The question now is when will Satyaraja Prabhu admit that there is also the side to him that is a prime cause of the events listed above? It is this element of the truth that he denies, the side that ISKCON as a community is obliged to now face up to and deal with.

    No one wins by Satyaraja Prabhu and me jousting online. Rather, the wounds on both sides are only deepened and the inevitable offenses increased. My fervent prayer is that Satyaraja Prabhu will turn his keen intelligence toward working with us to find a solution to this situation, one that addresses both sides of the truth, not just the side he likes.

    I would offer that the closing of Satyaraja Prabhu’s letter, with its appeal to compassion, sheds light on a possible shared path to resolution. Many senior, saintly Vaisnavas have suggested to Dhanurdhara Maharaja that a compassionate way out of this conflict would be if he would voluntary vow to never initiate again. It would be compassionate toward the gurukula alumni, their parents, his disciples, the devotees in general, and ISKCON’s reputation. It does not stifle his ability to preach. Rather, ending the firestorm he is currently in the center of would win him the gratitude of devotees around the world. Thus, taking such a vow would make it a compassionate act even toward Dhanurdhara Maharaja himself.

    Your servant,
    Badrinarayan dasa

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    6 Responses to “Missing the Forest for the Trees-A reply to Satyaraja Prabhu’s “Truth Is Many-sided””

    1. satyaraja says :

      Dearest Badriji — Obeisance. Jai Prabhupada!

      Your answer to me was fair and presented like a true gentleman. I understand your position and I have even argued from your side on occasion — in the sense that I know Maharaja made mistakes and that compassion for his victims is certainly in order. In fact, Maharaja himself accepts that this is so.

      However, there is more to this case than meets the eye, and Maharaja, while guilty of much, is clearly serving as a scapegoat here. For example, I am aware of your “summary of the abuse recently sent to the GBC,” as are many others who will soon write in. But this is not really a summary of the abuse — it is, rather, unconfirmed allegations, at least if you are referring to what I think you’re referring to.

      In any case, I am planning to wash my hands of this back and forth, as I said in my previous posting. I have made my point, and I think that others will now take up where I left off. I anxiously await our meeting at Ratha-yatra (LA). I hope we can talk and enjoy each other’s company without recourse to this recent exchange. Best. –Satyaraja Dasa

    2. madhava gosh says :

      >Maharaja, while guilty of much, is clearly serving as a scapegoat here.

      No argument with that. A student of any justice system will quickly realize that not all guilty persons are punished. The concept of setting an example is usually at play. It serves as a deterent for future abuses and/or whatever.

      An acarya should show by example. If a guru is being an artful dodger…

      The Ultimate Court awaits us all, but it is not of this material world. If someone steps up and becomes a scapegoat here, the reaction due others, whether actively involved or merely aiding and abetting after the fact, is not mitigated in that Ultimate Court. It behooves them to follow in the footsteps.

      Besides that, what a lot of gurukulis are asking, if someone listens instead of reacts, is less abour some tit for tat justice, and more about closure and help in moving on. That is a major difference.

    3. Jan Ardan says :

      This conversation between Prabhus Badrinarayan das and Satyaraja das is confusing. Allegations from Badrinarayan without much detail. Vague explanations of the hinted at allegations from Satyaraj. It’s a microcosm of this whole case.

      Malati Prabhu recently made a simple request. She was criticized in some posts, but her request really brings home the point. What really happened?

      Dhanurdhara Swami, as far as I’ve read, has never come out and said “yes, I violently beat the children.” Some of the victims say “yes, he beat us violently.” Will this question ever resolve? The only “case file” devotees can read is on Dhanurdhara Swami’s website (it’s really a dateline of events and his thoughts, not the official case file) doesn’t give any detail on that particular matter other then his admitting to many mistakes. Is he guilty of physical abuse to the extent of which he is accused? After reading “Dhanurdhara Swami’s Response to the ISKCON Child Protection Office’s Case.” The answer, as far as he is concerned, seems to be no. As long as this disagreement continues, there will never be closure.

      It would be helpful for us that respect and have faith in Dhanurdhara Swami to hear him (in a public forum) defend himself against the specific claims of violent abuse. To me, it goes beyond admitting mistakes and administering corporal punishment.

      Personally, I have only known Maharaja for 10 years. In that time, I have never witnessed the personality that has been described by the victims or Badrinarayan Prabhu. However, I cannot discount the accusations based on the fact that so many have made the claim (and my own cynical nature). It’s still rather confusing.

      Regardless of how he was treated by the GBC, or the CPO decision, or the rumor mill. The discrepancies between what Dhanurdhara Swami admits, and what some students of Vrndavana Gurukula accuse, needs to be resolved.

    4. Dhirasanta das says :

      The issue with DDS is perfectly simple. In the light of the 21st century, to say that it was acceptable to beat children with rods as recently as 1995 is a nonsense.

      To say that beating children is somehow “Vedic” is an apology for child abuse, and a reflection that the beater – DDS and his associates have no compassion, no understanding of child psychology and have completely overlooked Srila Prabhupada’s heart of love for children.

      To admit that it was a mistake to have allowed DDS to have even a loose role in education after this came to light is laudable. Satyajara’s arguments, veiled in academic language fail to grasp the point that it is never right to beat a child for any reason – no matter how wilful, disobedient or awful that child may be. 152 gurukulis who went through sheer hell are not wrong.

      Physical, sexual, psychological and spiritual abuse is the legacy of an inability or unwillingness to impose stringent child protection standards in Vrindabin Broken lives, shattered faith in many ex students and their parents will take a lifetime – or lifetimes to undo.

    5. Lalita Madhava d.d. says :

      Dear Badrinaryana Prabhu – Thank you very much for this clear and articulate response to Satyaraja Prabhu’s “Truth is Many-Sided” article, which I found quite disturbing and submitted a comment to that effect.

    6. Hari-kirtana dasa says :

      If his dialogue with Satyaraja Prabhu is any indication, Badrinarayan Prabhu has convinced me that the leaders of our Society are not going to consider Dhanurdhara Swami’s case either dispassionately or objectively. I will cite one excerpt from Badrinarayan Prabhu’s first post as an example of why I have come to this conclusion:

      “.As late as April of 1995, against ISKCON policy and despite his personal public promises, Dhanurdhara Maharaja continued to covertly instruct teachers at the Vrindaban gurukula to beat students with sticks. Again, there are firsthand adult witnesses, photos of students covered with black-and-blue welts, and Dhanurdhara Maharaja’s admission of guilt. These events are not in doubt.”

      This is a collection of truths strung together to create an impression that is untrue: that Dhanurdhara Swami has admitted to covertly instructing teachers in April of 1995 to beat students with sticks. What’s true is that there is evidence and witness testimony to support the conclusion that in the Spring of 1995 a student was hit with a stick by a teacher at the Vrndavana Gurukula. However, though he has admitted to many things worthy of his atonement, Dhanurdhara Swami has categorically denied having given this instruction, covertly or otherwise, to the teacher who administered the punishment in question. So a “fact” being characterized as “not in doubt” is actually an allegation very much in dispute.

      Also, please note that I am referring to the incident in the singular – one teacher, one student – which is consistent with the conclusion of the CPO investigation of the incident being referred to. Badrinarayan Prabhu’s use of the plural implies a very different situation than the one described by the CPO report.

      Based on this example I’m obliged to suspect that, when subjected to closer scrutiny, many of the “facts” Badrinarayan Prabhu has offered as the foundation for his opinion may similarly turn out to actually be allegations in dispute embedded within established facts. At the core of his arguments one will certainly find kernels of truth. My concern is that, with all due respect to his sincere efforts over many years to resolve this case fairly and to the satisfaction of all parties concerned, in this instance Badrinarayan Prabhu appears to have taken a few kernels of truth and heated them up to make a bowl of popcorn. And as we know, popcorn, though appearing to be voluminous, is actually not very substantive when subjected to closer scrutiny.

      As Badrinarayan Prabhu points out in his second reply to Satyaraja Prabhu, we should not “divert attention from the essential by focusing on the detail”, or, “lose sight of the forest for the trees”.

      I agree. And I am compelled to point out that, while comparing Satyaraja’s attention to detail to a magicians use of misdirection, Badrinarayan Prabhu employs his own sleight-of-hand by describing a forest while asking us to forget what a forest is made of: trees! And our perception of a forest is determined by the varieties and placement of those trees: Move the trees around and the forest looks one way, move them again and it looks another. Change a few species of trees and – wait a minute: is this a Tropical forest or an Alpine forest? The “essential” forest is composed of and supported by the details – the trees. And the details to be found in a thorough reading and analysis of the case material does not, as I see it, add up to the kind of forest Badrinarayan Prabhu would have Dhanurdhara Swami cop to.

      By casting allegations in dispute as indisputable facts Badrinarayan Prabhu has engaged the rhetoric of politics in the service of making exculpatory details disappear. I doubt that such rhetorical contrivances will turn the albatross that flew out of the GBCs sleeve into the rabbit they need to pull out of their hat. If the GBC intends to consider this case by construing indisputable truths from disputed allegations then the logic of applying a sastric basis for a final decision is lost. Rather than balancing the scales in service to the essence of Dharma, I must respectfully propose that Badrinarayan Prabhu has rendered them further askew in the service of political expediency.

      Humbly submitted for your consideration by your servant,

      Hari-kirtana dasa