Searching for Truth in a Forest of Misinformation: A Comment on the Recent Discussions between Satyaraja Prabhu and Badrinarayana Prabhu
By Jai Nitai Dasa
The controversy surrounding Dhanurdhara Swami rages, like a firestorm threatening to burn down the very forest that Badrinarayana Prabhu urges us to keep in sight. This is not just any forest, however, and we are not mere observers. The forest before us is Srila Prabhupadaâs ISKCON, and we are all its trees. Unfortunately, Badrinarayana Prabhu and others continue to feed the fire with the fuel of misinformation, stoking the flames of emotion with half-truths and dubious assertions. It is my hope that if we stop the flow of fuel and replace misinformation and propaganda with history and fact, this forest fire can be extinguished.
I respect Badrinarayana Prabhu as a dedicated and sincere Vaishnava and hope he will forgive any offense in this presentation. But I also see the need to identify and refute several points that are clearly incorrect. I will try to utilize my background and training as both a lawyer and facilitator of conflict transformation, and urge you, the reader, to consider my comments with an open mind and apply your own powers of discrimination, that most important element of the intellect.
Let us get right to the heart of the issue and examine Badrinarayana Prabhuâs claims:
1. As for whether or not Dhanurdhara Maharaja did in fact perform the deeds he is accused of, there is no question about it. There is an overwhelming body of firsthand accounts. These abuses (and they are horrendous and heartbreaking) have been confirmed by numerous adult witnesses and admitted to by Dhanurdhara Maharaja himself.
This assertion implies that all the accusations that have been leveled at Dhanurdhara Swami are correct, whether they appear on the Internet, in case files, or in Turley case allegations. Fortunately, we have the results of an objective investigation into Dhanurdhara SwamiMaharajaâs behavior at the gurukula (which, we should remember, was over twenty years ago). In fact, it is now seven years since ISKCONâs Child Protection Office (CPO) impaneled six senior, mature devotees as neutral and unbiased judges to review the case. This group spent many months analyzing the facts of the matter in an unbiased and neutral way. I urge devotees to read their conclusions, which are freely available at http://www.dhanurdharaswami.info/official-icocp-decision/. On the subject of physical abuse of children, in their official CPO decision, the following passages constitute the entirety of the panelâs findings:
Occasionally Dhanurdhara Maharaja lost his temper and was physically abusive to children. Such incidents were not frequent, and Dhanurdhara Maharaja has expressed remorse for them.
With reference to the definitions of child physical abuse in the Task Force Report, Dhanurdhara Maharaja did physically abuse children on some occasions. Dhanurdhara Swami admits that he sometimes punished with hostility and sometimes with excess, and he accepts personal culpability for these mistakes.
2. A case can be made for a questionable pattern of behavior that continues up to the present day, a pattern of one who may not yet be fully purified by the transformative power of bhakti.
1995, over a decade ago, is hardly present day. If Badrinarayana Prabhu has evidence of actual misconduct since that time, he should present it. Addressing the period between the past abuses and the panelâs current findings, the CPO judges, again in their official decision, reached a clear conclusion:
This panel respects the fact that Dhanurdhara Maharaja has progressed beyond the stage of immaturity that characterized his first tenure as Vrndavana gurukula principal.
3. 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 sticksâŠThese events are not in doubt.
As Satyaraja Prabhu correctly points out, âin April 1995 Maharaja was no longer in Vrindaban and actively running the school.â What Badrinarayana Prabhu does not explain in either of his recent postings is that he raised this allegation at the time Dhanurdhara Swamiâs case was before the CPO. The CPO panel had the opportunity to investigate Badrinarayanaâs claim and comment on it in their final decision. Indeed, the whole point of having a six-person panel of neutral people was to investigate the evidence (with the help of extensive interviews), review that evidence, and come to a decision. The allegation Badrinarayana is making now is the same one he made to the CPO seven years ago, which after months of investigation was heard and given absolutely no mention in their final conclusion.
This allegation, being such a serious claim, was also investigated separately by the GBC. They found that, although there was indiscretion on the part of the offending devotee involved, the boyâs punishment was not considered abusive. The GBC also found that the students in Vrindavan Gurukula at that time were being treated properly.
4. Satyaraja Prabhu complains that the GBC has not shared with the devotees in general all the information it has on this case. The fact is that when we offered to circulate the details of the case so that devotees could weigh the information and make up their own minds, Dhanurdhara Maharaja raised a hue and cry. He did not want all the information released because he felt it would bias opinion against him. Complying with the request of Dhanurdhara Maharaja and his supporters, we did not circulate the information freely.
In his most recent posting, Satyaraja Prabhu handles this point by presenting the sequence of events, which was related to him by several ârespected, senior devotees who were directly involvedâ and which Badrinarayana Prabhu offers nothing to refute:
In 2005 a group of leading devotees met in Mayapur for the last time to finalize Maharajaâs situation. This was after he had served the sanctions as outlined in the CPOâs Official Decision. You were one of those members.
Several of the others communicated to Maharaja, and it is in writing, that the conclusion was unanimous â âenough is enough,â they said, and that the GBC should now work with Maharaja, not against him. Shortly after, Niranjana Swami and Dhanurdhar Swami were on their way to a scheduled meeting with Anuttama Prabhu. Together they were going to forge a plan to meet Gurukula alumni and to take steps to heal the past. On their way to the meeting, they received an unexpected call from Anuttama. He told them that the NA GBC decided that instead they would send a delegation of their devotees to meet the GBC men who appeared to favor Maharaja; at that time, they would present all the accusations against him.
Maharaja objected to this. He knew that they had already been forwarded the Official Decision on his case, which reflected a thorough analysis of all the evidence and not just newly found accusations. Furthermore, it was improper to ask others to again pass judgment on him when a judgment had already been made. That judgment had been given by six respected devotees who reviewed the case for six months, carefully weighing the evidence. This was among the main points of my initial paper.
Although Badrinarayana Prabhu has backed off of his earlier claims, he now accuses Dhanurdhara Swami of not being forthcoming with information pertaining to his case. Unfortunately, the âinformationâ that Badrinarayana would like to broadcast is in actuality just a series of allegations. This type of accusatory attack serves no useful service but only opens old wounds and protracts the pain. And their consequence is that Dhanurdhara Swami has been demonized, vilified, and even physically threatened. Meanwhile, there is other actual information that could help heal these wounds and show that Dhanurdhara Swami should not shoulder the blame alone. While he admits and regrets his past failings, others have not been so forthcoming. Perhaps as more information is revealed, others will be more willing to accept the kind of responsibility that Dhanurdhara Swami, contrary to the current allegations, has taken.
In 1995 Dhanurdhara Swami wrote individual apology letters to students who had expressed grievances toward him. Badrinarayana Prabhu saw those letters and approved that they were appropriate. The letters were given to Manu Prabhu, who was working closely with and was to forward those letters to former gurukula students.
Unfortunately, those letters were never sent. Badrinarayana Prabhu withheld them. After Dhanurdhara Swami gave his apology letters to Manu Prabhu, Badrinarayana showed them to an ISKCON attorney who felt they represented a legal liability for ISKCON. As a result, Badrinarayana instructed Manu not to send them.
Later, although he had previously read and approved them, Badrinarayana Prabhu criticized Dhanurdhara Swami for writing irresponsible letters that could legally implicate ISKCON.
5. Now the matter has proceeded to the point where the GBC executive committee has issued an interim instruction to Dhanurdhara Maharaja that he should not initiate. They have also petitioned the full GBC to discuss and then vote on whether or not that interim restriction should be extended for the rest of Dhanurdhara Maharajaâs life.
To inform that discussion and vote, each GBC member has received:
a) A copy of the original Child Protection Office (CPO) decision from October of 1999
b) Dhanurdhara Maharajaâs reply /defense in that original case
c) A summary of the evidence from that case
d) A cover letter by Tamohara Prabhu, the director of the Child Protection Office.
The above was done in consultation with Dhanurdhara Maharaja and it was agreed that this was a fair and balanced body of information. If Satyaraja Prabhu would like to see this information circulated further, I suggest that he seek the permission of Dhanurdhara Maharaja for its release.
This is simply untrue. This action was not done in consultation with Maharaja, and he certainly did not agree that the material represented a âfair and balanced body of information.â I was present at the meeting between Maharaja and the North American GBC Executive Committee and also on the follow-up conference call. Badrinarayana was a participant in neither. Until a few days ago, Maharaja had never even seen either of those documents written by Tamohara Prabhu. Tamoharaâs so-called cover letter was written on June 13. Our meeting was on June 11. If someone had sent his letter to Maharaja there would be a record of that. And if Maharaja had indeed been consulted on this he would have needed to see the letter. I urge Badrinarayana to show any record of the letter being sent to Maharaja. In his recent response, he sidesteps Satyaraja Prabhuâs correction in this matter, neither admitting that Maharaja had not been consulted nor providing evidence that he had. In fact, Dhanurdhara Swami did not know of the existence of the documents until Badrinarayanaâs posting.
I would also like to briefly discuss the summary written by Tamohara Prabhu, listed as item (c) by Badrinarayana. It lists many of the allegations leveled against Dhanurdhara Swami from his 1999 CPO case. In that paper, Tamohara himself acknowledges that âit is not possible to speculate on whether the judges considered every testimony accurate.â But if we cannot divine the accuracy (truth) of such testimony, then he is presenting testimony that may or may not be true. What is the rationale behind presenting such statements? Clearly, Tamohara wants to make certain points, and the allegations he presents substantiate those points. But to offer testimony that was not found by the CPO to be accurate is to paint a picture with strokes of allegation and assertion, not those of facts.
Whether Tamohara Prabhu in his position as the Director of the CPO or Badrinarayana Prabhu, a senior devotee and GBC, is making the presentation, my point remains the same: To make an end-run around the findings of the CPO panel by presenting unconfirmed testimony is just a convenient way to distort their official judgment with the lens of accusation. An important purpose for having a fair judicial procedure is so that the judges can weigh the evidence and reach conclusive findings. Once they have done so, to again return to unsupported allegations without reference to those conclusions smacks of inequity and impropriety. If Badrinarayana or Tamohara is dissatisfied with the official CPO case decision, that is the case he should make. If they accept the validity of that decision, however, they should include it in their opinions and present arguments that are consistent with the CPO judgesâ findings.
6. [T]he original CPO decision of 1999 states that while Dhanurdhara Maharaja would immediately be restricted from initiating in ISKCON for five years, his future, permanent status as an initiating guru in ISKCON should be decided by the GBC.
Not exactly. The CPO decision states, âWith the above injunctions this panel is in no way commenting on Dhanurdhara Maharaja’s qualification to serve as a diksa guru.â This is the only sentence in the entire decision to address this point directly–quite different from Badrinarayanaâs statement. I am not just splitting hairs here. The difference shows how Badrinarayanaâs article repeatedly misrepresents the truth. This is, after all, a judicial decision written by an attorney (Sesa Prabhu, a judge on the panel) who chose his words carefully and realized that each word would affect the meaning of what was written.
The word the CPO panel uses is status. Oneâs status as an initiating guru is different from oneâs qualification. There is a substantial difference between Dhanurdhara Swami being allowed to initiate and his qualification to do so, and the CPO decision refers only to the latter. Further, the CPO did not say that the GBC should address this issue. Should indicates at minimum a recommendation, at most an obligation. The CPO panel expressed neither.
7. In private conversations, many senior devotees have appealed to Dhanurdhara Maharaja to voluntarily vow to not initiate anymore, thus avoiding much grief for himself, his disciples, and the other members of ISKCON.
This is also untrue. I would invite Badrinarayana to provide a list of senior devotees who, âin private conversations . . . have appealed to Maharajaâ in this way.
8. Up until today, despite the firestorm his position of continuing as an initiating guru has created, Dhanurdhara Maharaja appears to maintain a deep attachment to initiating disciples. . . .
[Vowing to no longer initiate] would earn him appreciation from around the world. Yet he has refused to do so. This adamancy, added to all the other history above, serves as another indication that his continuing to initiate may not be best for him or for ISKCON in general.
Simply, this is Badrinarayana Prabhuâs impression. To state that Dhanurdhara Swami has defiantly âmaintained a deep attachment to initiat[ing] disciplesâ and adamantly refused to take a vow not to initiate is directly contradicted by the CPO panelâs decision:
On July 3, 1996, a committee of the GBC that met with Dhanurdhara Maharaja decided that he could not initiate new disciplesâŠDhanurdhara Maharaja complied with this directive. [Emphasis added.]
Further, Dhanurdhara Maharaja wrote to his local GBC that same year:
I am personally committed to do my part to restore, or strengthen, their faith [the gurukula alumni] in Krishna-consciousness and ISKCON. In that regard it seems to me now that I should also cease to continue to accept disciples for initiation, and I am offering to do that. [Emphasis added.]
These are not the words of someone who is adamantly opposed to giving up initiation.
The history of the matter is that when Dhanurdhara Swami offered to stop initiating, the GBC asked him instead to undergo a judicial process guided by the CPO. Consistent with his acceptance of the GBCâs other requests, he complied with this one as well. The CPO judges were to settle the matter once and for all, a point that they clearly recognized and confirmed explicitly in their decision:
This panel is authorized by ISKCON, by dint of the GBC’s ratification of the ISKCON Child Protection Task Force Report, to finally resolve all issues concerning Dhanurdhara Maharaja and his conduct as a gurukula principal and teacher.
As Satyaraja Prabhu points out:
That Maharaja has served his sentence satisfactorily was confirmed by Dhira Govinda [then Director of the CPO] in an email to Dhanurdhar Swami in September 2003, âYou have sufficiently complied with the official decision for the restrictions to be lifted at the end of the five-year period, as far as Iâm concerned.â This reflects the general feeling at the time. Praghosa Prabhu, who then sat on the Executive Committee of the GBC and is a trained child protection panel member, was copied on this email. He did not object.
9. There is no double jeopardy here (being tried for the same crime twice). The GBC is simply responding to a question remaining from the initial case decision.
Iâll assume that Badrinarayana Prabhu is right, that Dhanurdhara Swami is not being tried again. Since we have yet to see anything about the committee headed by Tamohara Prabhu, thatâs all I can do. But if that is the case, then what is happening is that the GBC is re-sentencing him. In other words, the already-reached guilty verdict is acceptable. The sentence that the CPO gave, howeverâwhether for political reasons or otherwiseâno longer is and therefore a committee has been formed to amend it.
We should note, however, that to repeatedly haul out previously reviewed allegations and to cite Internet accusations, instead of accepting the conclusions of the CPO panel, is indeed to try Dhanurdhara Swami again. And to try him online in the court of public opinion (and only apparent opinion at that), even using oneâs role as a GBC member to do so, is especially irresponsible.
I wholeheartedly agree with Badrinarayana Prabhu that devotees like Satyaraja should use their God-given intelligence to help find a solution to this problem. I would humbly request that Badrinarayana do the same. I would suggest further that by continuing over time to highlight Dhanurdhara Swamiâs past shortcomings, we only waste valuable time and energy that could be used in a positive way, toward healing.
Maharaja has acknowledged his mistakes. He has begged for forgiveness. He continues to work with his former students to right his wrongs. He continues to invite those who feel offended by him to let him know so that the healing can be increased. He has even left ISKCON in a sincere attempt to take responsibility for his actions. Instead of continued criticism, why not offer him help and support to go forward in his efforts?
Instead of crafting GBC resolutions that continue target Dhanurdhara Swami even after he has already left ISKCON, let us now address the actual concerns of the âgrowing chorus from across the range of ISKCON.â Letâs implement a consistent policy that applies across the board. The GBC should finally make their position clear and address, along with child abuse, spousal abuse and the physical and psychological abuse of adult devotees. They could even pass a zero tolerance resolution. As the CPO panel wrote in their official decision of Dhanurdhara Swamiâs case:
In the course of reviewing the case file several allegations of child neglect and physical, emotional, and sexual child abuse against many persons other than Dhanurdhara Maharaja surfaced, as did accusations of coverâup and negligence in addressing reports of child abuse. The Child Protection Office will investigate and process all of these cases. Further, ISKCON leadership was responsible for gross neglect in the failure to provide minimally acceptable resources for the children of Srila Prabhupada’s movement.
ISKCON leaders responsible for setting priorities in Srila Prabhupada’s movement grossly neglected the proper care of ISKCON’s children. This neglect did much to bring about the sufferings reported in this case, and therefore all of ISKCON leadership must accept its share of the burden for what happened in the Vrndavana gurukula.
The time is ripe for accepting responsibility by taking action. Dhanurdhara Swami is trying. In fact, he is showing us how. Letâs support him in his efforts to redress his past behavior, and by taking responsible action ourselves.