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Dhanurdhara Swami & the Gurukula’s Faustadian Bargin

If Dhanurdhara has stepped outside ISKCON, then perhaps this whole issue is done with. The problem has always been that ISKCON wants to rectify the past, yet each time we try a major complaint is why Dhanurdhara is authorized by ISKCON to receive respect and worship as a good-as-God guru. No one really has a satisfactory answer. But if he’s decided that it’s more important to be a guru than to be in ISKCON, well then maybe that’s, if not the best, an adequate solution.

Meanwhile, I do feel bad for Dhanurdhara’s disciples because they obviously must know a very different person than we knew. The way I see it, there’s the spirit soul in the body named Dhanurdhara, and no one except Paramatma really knows the qualities of that spirit soul. We who were his students know him as a brutal authoritarian, and perhaps its fair to say we project onto that spirit soul in that body the hurt that he and the experience of the school he was in charge of caused us. His disciples and other supporters with other experiences project onto that spirit soul all these good qualities. So who’s the real Dhanurdhar? I guess that’s the Rashomon question raised by Satyaraja. But from our experiences, when we see someone accepting Dhanurdhar as guru or otherwise considering him worthy of high respect we can only think they either don’t know what he did or don’t care. It’s painful, physically painful to see, and so we address it the only way we know how which is to tell you what he did and try to make you care. And then I suppose from the other side, since you know some other Dhanurdhara we can’t imagine, well I guess we’re just exaggerating, being vindictive, a lynch mob. So maybe we’re just talking past each other, it will never be resolved, and perhaps it’s over anyway since he’s decided not to be a member of ISKCON. But there’s a few things in the preceeding posts and comments that I would like to address.

(1)

There is some confusion about what Dhanurdhara actually did. There is also some doubts about the credibility of the CPO case, with claims of biased judges and the like.
Mayesvara makes much of the so-called Gurukula Manual, which was a selective collection of quotes from Srila Prabhupada on gurukula. (It’s been awhile since I’ve seen it, but I don’t think it included the letter or conversation where Srila Prabhupada told the teachers not to use force, and it certainly didn’t include the letter where he told a parent they didn’t have to send their children to gurukula.) That manual was compiled in the mid-80’s when there was a conscious attempt to improve the quality of the education in Vrindavana. Most incidents of personal abuse by Dhanurdhara are from earlier periods and involve the “older” boys. So if someone was in Vrindavana in 1987 they had a different experience of him than in 1981, probably for the better. What I’ve heard is that one summer (1982?) Jagadish got such an earful from parents due to all the complaints from their sons while home for the summer that there was a conscious effort to reduce the violence in the gurukula. Morning assembly, for example, was no longer the daily punishment-free-for-all that older gurukulis will tell you about. This didn’t stop the violence completely, but it did reduce it. Teachers still often lost their tempers and vented their frustrations quite liberally. To some credit for him, I think Dhanurdhara did learn better how to control his temper, and the instances of personal abuse at his hands lessened.

Beyond his personal actions (what he did to whom on what date, the kind of thing the CPO focused on), just as important is that Dhanurdhara was the principal, so beyond his personal actions, gurukulis also hold him responsible for what went on in the gurukula under him. For example, although he didn’t personally commit sexual abuse, he was part of the regime that censored students’ mail (one reason such abuse was secret) and maintained an atmosphere of domination and intimidation that would squelch any impetus to accuse a teacher of anything. Comparisons to military school or corporal punishment by parents are not appropriate. Vrindavana gurukula was different. You have to start with kids who were far from home, in India, with few comforts (no hot water, straw mat bedding), often sleep-deprived (the whole 3:30 wake up thing), many times not fed very well (quality prasadam was always a fight even when the school tried hard and had money) and at least once or twice a year for every kid, in poor to terrible health. OK, so maybe those are just the austerities of India and traditional gurukula that we had to live with. But then on top of that, in dealing with that difficult situation, there was no overall atmosphere of care and affection. Instead, there was a strict discipline system, enforced by routine slaps and ear-pulling on a daily basis for any perceived rebellious act, even if just a slow response to an order. Then, on top of that, at any moment any teacher could lose his temper and not just slap, but start beating and even punching. You only need to see this done once to another kid for it to be hanging over your own head at all times, and it happened often though not necessarily daily. So we’re not talking corporal punishment as in a calm system of justice that imposes a physical punishment for certain offenses as not the norm but an exception but that, basically, if the teacher decided he didn’t like you or what you did, he had complete freedom to impose his will physically. Most naturally responded by being obedient or appearing obedient, but you can’t call it willing or happy obedience, but more like terrified obedience. And woe unto him who stepped out of line or got a reputation as a troublemaker. Meanwhile, any complaints, tiredness, bad mood, or resentment, including complaints to parents, was taken as evidence that you weren’t being a good devotee. You were given a good lecture on being a brahmacari, accepting the authority of guru and teachers, why this austerity was good for you, karma, renunciation, maintaining the reputation of the gurukula, and whatever else was available to philosophically scold and cajole you. So when we talk about physical and emotional abuse in Vrindavana gurukula for which we hold Dhanurdhara (and others) responsible, we are talking not only about what he did to certain kids, but his role in implementing and overseeing that entire environment. (And I haven’t even mentioned the background of sexual abuse because Dhanurdhara didn’t engage in it and did expel some teachers who did, keeping it rather quiet from parents and other funders though.)

Even if you want to poke holes at the CPO case file, Dhanurdhara himself has admitted to this kind of culpability. The question is, even given only what he has admitted, should ISKCON put him forward as a guru?

(2)

There is a claim that this controversy was settled by the CPO judgment and the penalties it imposed, for example that Dhanurdhara not initiate for a certain amount of time. However, my memory of the judgment is that it specifically did not address whether Dhanurdhara’s history of physical abuse of children and his failure of leadership as principal of the Vrindavana gurukula disqualified him from being a guru. It passed that particular question back to the GBC because the judges felt that the issue of being a guru was something only the GBC, in its position as the body that authorizes certain members of ISKCON to be initiating gurus, could address. So the desire on the part of his former students, the larger gurukuli community, and many devotees that the GBC finally address this issue is not rehashing something that was settled by the CPO judgment, rather is an attempt to get the GBC to finally address the question for the first time. Basically we’d like them to consider the evidence and reverse the mistake they made when the appointed him in the first place. That’s a new thing, not double jeopardy or the like.

It is also not entirely clear that Dhanurdhara ever fully followed the judgment of the CPO. For example, he was supposed to conduct one last initiation before refraining from accepting new disciple, and this was to be conducted in his “special area” or by mail. Instead, he held the initiation in New York, requiring the intervention of the GBC to “authorize” it, to much ensuing controversy. Similarly, I don’t believe he ever followed the direction to do penance by preaching in a “special area”, nor do I believe he followed the direction to donate 50% of money received to gurukuli causes such as Children of Krishna. At least I’ve seen no evidence of this. My impression is that he followed some of the criteria, but was not scrupulous in carrying out the judgment.

(3)

Claims of institutional failure regarding gurukula, across ISKCON and including members of the GBC, are valid. Claims that others who exhibited similar failures of leadership should also face a judgment whether they deserve positions of leadership and respect in ISKCON, implicit for example in Jayadvaita Swami’s discussion of someone who knowingly harbored a sexual abuser, are valid. By all means address institutional failures and the culpability of other leaders. But such arguments offered in support of Dhanurdhara are just changing the subject and do not actually answer the central question, namely should ISKCON endorse Dhanurdhara as someone worthy of the position of guru.

Similarly, discussions of the prevalence of corporal punishment at one time as an accepted practice, the emerging recognition of child sexual abuse as a problem in society, are useful in understanding what happened, and maybe as background for an informed answer, but they too don’t answer the question of whether ISKCON should recognize Dhanurdhara as a guru.

(4)

I would like to know of any reasonable organization that would keep someone in a position of authority and respect within that organization who had failed in his responsibilities and brought discredit to the organization. Dhanurdhara was given the sannyasa position and guru position in large part because of his perceived success as a gurukula teacher and administrator. I say perceived, because prior to the late 80’s and early 90’s, the truth of the situation in Vrindavana was not widely known and only became known when gurukulis left the confines of the gurukula and began to speak freely. Someone mentioned that he was authorized to initiate in 1992. If it was that late, the GBC was not paying attention, and I doubt the record will show they talked to any of his former students. (Or maybe because it wasn’t sex, it was just physical and emotional abuse it was not a “falldown”?)

Yet, now that it is widely known that not only did Dhanurdhara personally physicaly and emotionally abuse children, but that the institution of which he was the titular head was mismanaged, infiltrated by pedophiles, and run on fanatical principles by untrained teachers prone to lose their tempers (who even if they tried their best within the accepted norms of the institution and were not the only cause of the failure did objectively fail), should he still retain a recognized position of authority and respect? In any other organization, such a person would have been fired long ago, if for no other reason than for having created a perception that brought discredit to the organization. In a membership organization, like ISKCON, perhaps he would be able to retain his membership, but surely would not be allowed to hold a position of high status. So my question is, is ISKCON to be held to the reasonable standards of a normal organization that would not promote or maintain in high-status positions those who failed in their duties and brought discredit to the organization, or is this another case (like the scams of the “sankirtana” parties) where what is “special” about ISKCON (the bhakti-yoga process) will be taken to mean that it can operate at a lower standard than normal organizations (because bhakti-yoga means he’s now purified and must be forgiven)?

Let me emphasize that Dhanurdhara would not be an issue if he was willing to accept service in a temple and carry out day-to-day devotional service (like pujari work, temple cleaning, book distribution and the like). Instead he and his supporters have insisted that it is wrong for the GBC to ask him to do anything else except maintain a position of high status. For all the philosophy-based arguments about the purification process, the role of forgiveness, and the karma of hurting Prabhupada’s movement, what about the philosophical principle that desire for status and clinging to position is probably an indication of qualities that disqualify one from being a guru? I find it hard to imagine an associate of Caitanya Mahaprabhu — those exemplary Vaisnavas who ate found rice from discarded prasadam, or thought it a blessing that they could re-enter the association of Mahaprabhu in 10,000 lives — I find it hard to imagine one of them saying, or to allow to have said on their behalf, “Well, yes, I made some mistakes and really screwed up, personally and by association, a big part of Prabhupada’s plan, and I hurt a lot of people who were under my care, but that was 20 years ago, and now these other devotees, who didn’t know me back then, they really like and respect me for things I’ve done since, so I think I’m good to go, thank you.” Wouldn’t the proof that Dhanurdhara is actually an advanced devotee worthy of the respect accorded a guru be that he’d accept any position, as long as it allowed him to practice his sadhana in the association of devotees and to engage in some service, especially if by doing so he could rectify wrongs of the past (whether all his fault or not) and improve the reputation of ISKCON? I mean, that’s what I’d expect a pure or even purified devotee, one deserving the title of Swami — renunciate — or Maharaja — great leader — to do.

(5)

One commentator in an earlier post wrote:

Perhaps this is the reason it has taken the GBC so long to address the question of whether Dhanurdhara is qualified to initiate within ISKCON, because it does raise that problem, at the heart of so many of our disputes — the zonal acharyas, Gaudiya Math gurus, Narayana Maharaja, Tripurari Swami, the rtviks — of the relationship of the GBC and the gurus. I am in no position to answer these philosophical questions. But I think if ISKCON wants to truly be an organization that has made mistakes, learned from them, and is rectifying them, then it must address whether the leaders who committed those mistakes should still be leaders today. And perhaps it must face the possibility that some of those leaders are, when push comes to shove, more interested in maintaining positions of respect than in doing what’s right.

Comment Posted By Koi Kuli Chuha On 31.08.2006 @ 03:27

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