CPO Credibility Requires Ouster of Bhakti Vidya Purna Swami
Posted June 15, 2011
A recent posting on Dandavats.com attracted my attention; it is a class given by Bhakti Vidya Purna Swami on March 6 in Sridham Mayapur. More specifically, it is the speaker that attracted my attention. For a number of years I have been following with keen interest Maharaj's adventures in Mayapur. I have been meaning to write my thoughts on the matter for a while; now I have finally gotten around to it.
After long and careful deliberation where I tried to assess the weight of what is at stake and ponder the possible repercussions of my actions and/or inaction, I decided to express my views. Some will no doubt disagree with my understandings and conclusions; however, I feel compelled to share my thoughts by the importance of the topic.
Maharaj is an eloquent speaker. In the class he gave an articulate presentation of transcendental and noble truths. It is not my intention to misquote Maharaj. Rather, I marvel at how time and again I witness the gross incongruence between some of our leaders' impressive ability during class to deliver lengthy presentations on intricate and exalted philosophical concepts, versus their seeming inability or unwillingness to set the example with their actions — especially when faced with challenging situations in their personal lives that call them to act with basic integrity or to make humbling and courageous choices to make amends for their past wrongdoings.
Ramadevi dasi is a senior and esteemed Prabhupada disciple; I regard her with respect and appreciation. She has served with the Child Protection Office (CPO) in Mayapur for a long time. Over the last couple of years when concerned individuals have brought the questionable actions of Bhakti Vidya Purna Maharaj to the attention of the public, invariably she has come to his defence. Her ongoing support for Bhakti Vidya Purna Swami over the years leaves me puzzled and deeply concerned. I do not understand the stance she has taken.
This article mainly comprises my observations on a number of public articles. For this reason and for the benefit of the devotee community, I deem it appropriate to write in a public forum. I pray that Ramadevi prabhu and my friends who support Maharaj will understand my intentions and that they will forgive me; I feel that these words are necessary and long overdue.
The followings are some excerpts from an article Ramadevi prabhu wrote a while back in defence of Maharaj: "While Bhakti Vidya Purna Swami has no part to play in the SMIS or Bhaktivedanta National School, he is naturally influential in the two schools he is guiding — Bhaktivedanta Academy and Sri Anasuya Vidya Mandala."
And: "I would like to know what these indications/indicators are which you have not mentioned. I was part of the CPT here for several years, and act with Hari Sauri prabhu in an advisory capacity. If there is anything we have missed, I would like to know what it is."
And: "You are making a grave accusation against Bhakti Vidya Purna Swami without any solid foundation. By doing this you offend a senior Vaisnava and disturb his disciples and students."
The following is a paragraph from the official CPO report on Bhakti Vidya Purna Swami: "Bhakti Vidya Purna Maharaja won't serve in any capacity that is directly connected with children until January 1, 2002. After that time he may serve in a non-managerial and non-administrative capacity connected with children if the ISKCON Education Ministry agrees that he may do so. Bhakti Vidya Purna Maharaja may not at any time assume a managerial or administrative role in ISKCON, and especially not in connection with children...." (Emphasis added)
A few things come to mind in reading the above. The first is that in "guiding" two schools in Mayapur which, combined, include about 60 children, Maharaj is in breach of the sanctions the CPO imposed on him.
I also wonder whether the ISKCON Education Ministry has indeed sanctioned his current involvement in the Mayapur Gurukulas. If the answer is affirmative, I am, then, curious to know who are the individuals that endorsed this, and to learn their reasoning in support of this decision. Finally, I would like to address the differentiation between the wording of the CPO sanction and the intent of the verdict. As is the case with too many CPO verdicts, the wording can be described as "unclear" at best. I don't doubt that, with some fancy word jugglery, some may be able to argue that strictly or literally speaking, Maharaj's current involvement with children is not in breach of the adjudication. However, I do not believe that anybody can successfully argue that his current involvement is respectful to Maharaj's victims or is just, appropriate or compliant with the spirit and intent of the CPO ruling.
An article written by Dhira Govinda prabhu (former CPO Director) states that the child abuse that took place in the Mayapur Gurukula is "the most severe in the history of ISKCON." I regard Bhakti Vidya Purna Maharaj, who for several years served in the capacity of headmaster, as the individual who, more than anyone else, is both directly and indirectly responsible for a significant amount of the deplorable abuse that has been inflicted on children in the Mayapur Gurukula.
In the history of education, both in ISKCON and outside, corporal punishment has been an unfortunate but relatively common reality. There are two elements in the actions of Bhakti Vidya Purna Swami, however, that place him unequivocally in the league of the more severe offenders. The first is his deliberate negligence of the ongoing sexual abuse that was perpetrated against the children placed under his care in the Mayapur Gurukula. The second is the uncommon and exceptional brutality of the corporal punishments which he personally inflicted on his victims.
Statistically, a significant number (about 30 percent) of sexually abused children in turn go on to abuse younger children. This is exactly what took place in the Mayapur Gurukula. Many young children were raped by teachers and students alike, under the supervision and knowledge of Bhakti Vidya Purna Swami. The boys that had been sexually abused went on to violate the children of the younger age group in turn. In this manner newcomers were initiated into this diabolical cycle.
I do not know what Maharaj's current opinion of these dark events is, but in the past he has made statements to the effect of "It was not a very serious thing; after all, it's human nature, and it comes and goes like the seasons."
The fact that Maharaj did not do what was necessary to protect these boys, even after knowing that they were being sexually abused, is inexcusable. Although I am not in a position to evaluate the far-reaching repercussions of the legacy which Maharaj's deliberate negligence leaves to ISKCON and to the world, it is safe to assume that it is one of untold pain and ongoing abuse.
The trauma these men experienced as boys, when they were subjected to Maharaj's unforgiving beatings, is unspeakable. The inhumane canings Maharaj inflicted on his victims, often leaving them in a state of shock from the sheer force of his strikes, is still fresh in their memory. Mature men have confided to me that still to this day their hearts are troubled by the ridicule and public humiliation that Bhakti Vidya Purna Maharaj decades ago subjected them to.
I recently met a Gurukuli friend of mine who related the following account: "On a festival day a group of Gurukula boys had managed to steal the entire Mahaprasad offering. After eating to their fill, the boys, probably hyperactive on the sugar overdose, began to play with the left-over Mahaprasad, throwing it around in a disrespectful manner.
"When Maharaj came to know about the incident, he became enraged and ordered them to line up outside his hut; there were about 30 boys. He began caning them one at the time. Some of the boys, knowing what was coming, in apprehension urinated in their clothes while standing in line waiting their turn. Fortunately for some, by the time Maharaj had beaten about half of the boys, being fatigued he stopped the caning and dismissed the group."
Maharaj had a collection of sticks. Before inflicting his punishments, he would take his time. With a frightening smile he would pick one and ask his soon-to-be victims if that was the stick of his choice; he would then pass on to the next stick in his collection to repeat his cruel performance.
The following is an account of one former Mayapur gurukuli: "He [Bhakti Vidya Purna Swami] is notorious for his expertise in lacerating the skin off the back of the children with one single hit of his special, bendy, bamboo cane. He would get the boys to kneel forward and hold their ankles with their hands, so as to form an arch of some sort with their body. He would then hit the boys on the back, causing the tip of the stick to whip around, striking their chest.
"Many boys recall that he preceded his beatings with a sadistic ritual intended to increase the fear of his victims. He would smile and wiggle his eyebrows gleefully, while bending the cane full circle and making whipping sounds with his mouth. Several boys suffered shock after those canings."
"The father of a prospective student questioned Bhakti Vidya Purna Swami about the sexual abuse that was said to be taking place in the Mayapur Gurukula at the time. Bhakti Vidya Purna Swami gave him what I call the 'Kirtanananda stance on sex.' He said something to the effect of, 'Sex, whether it is between you and your wife, not intended for procreating, or between a teacher and a boy, is illicit. It is all sex' — as if morally and karmically they are on the same level. This is from a man whose job is to protect and guide the children.
"Why has he not acknowledged his mistakes and offered an apology? If he does not feel he has done anything wrong, I am compelled to question his motives and qualifications. Today Bhakti Vidya Purna Maharaj is an authorized initiating Guru, a Sannyasi, and still runs his own Gurukula in Mayapur specialized in 'training brahmanas'."
Eventually Jayapataka Maharaj himself disposed of Maharaj's collection of torture instruments.
The nature of some blunders is so severe to come to be beyond redemption. I regard Maharaj's actions to be just that — not in the Christian sense of eternal damnation, but certainly in the sense that his current involvement with children is indefensible — as well as reason for serious concern, especially when we take into account that Bhakti Vidya Purna Swami has yet to make reasonably adequate public acknowledgments or apologies, not to mention appropriate amends to his victims.
In ISKCON we are often warned of the danger of committing offences towards senior vaisnavas such as Maharaj. This is something that as aspiring devotees we naturally ought to pay special attention to, and while I am aware that I am far from having found an adequate balance, I feel it is also appropriate to point out that the enormity and nature of the offences Maharaj committed to young and defenceless Vaisnavas are considerably more disturbing, of greater concern and consequence; and they are yet to be addressed.
While I can imagine that this article may offend the sensitivities of some, I am of the opinion that if as a society we had the willingness, maturity and the integrity to adequately address the improprieties of our members, especially our leadership, there would be no need to resort to addressing these unpleasant topics in public. The sad truth is that there are not many individuals that can honestly say that they have found amongst authorities in ISKCON the firm willingness to coherently and transparently address misconduct, and to offer the necessary shelter to victims. Unfortunately, this comes to be especially true when the perpetrator enjoys the friendship and protection of the leadership.
To the best of my knowledge, Bhakti Vidya Purna Swami's crimes are at least as severe as Dhanurdhara Swami's. Yet for reasons that defy logic, justice and common sense, Dhanurdhara Swami has come to be branded as the personification of the worst child abuse that has taken place in the history of ISKCON, and he is not allowed to initiate disciples or hold positions of authority in our movement — ever. In stark contrast, we have Bhakti Vidya Purna Swami, who is running two schools and initiating disciples.
Not many know that over the years when he was the principal, Dhanurdhara Swami made considerable efforts to remove pedophiles from the Vrindavana Gurukula. In at least one occasion he went to great lengths to remove one particular individual that had been re-employed in another Gurukula. In comparison, whatever attempts Bhakti Vidya Purna Swami made in this regard were woefully inadequate and significantly less effective than Dhanurdhara Swami's. In addition to this, Dhanurdhara Swami's later endeavours towards amends, rectification, apologies and genuine remorse have been far more tangible and have, therefore, shown more sincerity than those of Bhakti Vidya Purna Swami. If we also take into account that the abuse that occurred in Mayapur is more severe than what took place in Vrindavana, we must conclude that Bhakti Vidya Purna Swami's transgressions are more severe.
The remarkable difference in the way the CPO handled these two landmark cases in the history of ISKCON is not so much due to the nature of the crimes committed — for, while in some regards they are actually quite similar, in other ways Bhakti Vidya Purna's wrongdoings are far more serious. In my opinion this is not due to an excessive punishment meted out to Dhanurdhara Swami either, but rather in the efforts made by their respective groups of victims to campaign for justice. It so happens that amongst Dhanurdhara Swami's victims there is a much higher count of vocal western students, who tirelessly fought a campaign, which lasted over a decade, to obtain some justice, whereas most of Bhakti Vidya Purna Swami's victims were more-introverted Indian boys, who have long since disappeared, in the oblivion of time, from the attention of ISKCON.
The grossly disproportionate inequality in the treatment that has been reserved for these two men hints of a lack of integrity and suggests that CPO policies are not operated in respect of ethics, impartiality and objective justice itself;. Rather, it would seem that the CPO takes too much account of political pressures, recommendations, conveniences, status and acquaintances. It indicates that if the CPO is to survive, it is in desperate need of radical reforms.
It is important to emphasize that, in the CPO files for Bhakti Vidya Purna Swami, Maharaj's own admissions and the testimonies of his victims offer detailed accounts of his negligence and misconduct. Nothing that I mention here is news.
In a public letter to Dhira Govinda prabhu, Ramadevi prabhu wrote: "By writing this article in this way you have seriously undermined the local CPT and the CPO Director without knowing anything about them. You have basically dismissed the whole world of child protection. Reading this could well put somebody off from coming forward to report abuse."
In 2006 an article was published about a CPO inquiry concerning allegations of Bhakti Vidya Purna Maharaj's misconduct involving some of the girls in the Mayapur girls school. The allegations that initiated the inquiry had accused Bhakti Vidya Purna Swami of encouraging young girls to give each other full-body oil massages, under his supervision; and he is alleged to have bathed a young pre-teen girl with his hands, on at least one occasion.
It was public knowledge that the inquiry had taken place, and in December 2006 Ramadevi dasi had stated in a public letter that, upon completing the investigation, the Mayapur CPT would publish its findings. Today, four and a half years later, we are still waiting for the official outcome of the investigation to be disclosed.
Is there some truth to these allegations? Was Maharaj found guilty or innocent? If the inquiry uncovered some degree of guilt, what sanctions were enforced? What measures were put in place to ensure the protection of the children? The lack of answers to these basic questions is what destroys the credibility of the CPO more than Dhira Govinda's words ever could, for action always speaks louder than words.
Ramadevi dasi offers that Dhira Govinda's allegations may undermine the authority of the CPO and could unduly discourage victims from seeking help. From my perspective, none of Dhira Govinda's statements, whether accurate or inaccurate, can possibly discourage victims from reporting abuse to the CPO or destroy its reputation more effectively than the articles, mentioned above, by Ramadevi prabhu herself, where as a CPO representative — who, I assume, is acquainted with Maharaj's dossier at least as well as I am but probably better — she takes such a strong public stance in defence of a known offender of the calibre of Bhakti Vidya Purna Maharaj.
I see the stance she has taken as truly undermining the credibility of the CPO. It is uncalled for, morally questionable and regrettable. I wonder how Mataji can possibly justify this to herself, to the community and to the children she has made a commitment to protect.
There are not many things that will damage the reputation of the CPO more efficiently than the astonishing incongruence in the way the cases of Dhanurdhara and Bhakti Vidya Purna Swamis have been handled. Nothing will ever destabilize the credibility and authority of the CPO as effectively as having a man personally responsible for such severe child abuse as Bhakti Vidya Purna Swami now looking after 60 children and 17 acres of Srila Prabhupada's land while offering "guidance" for two schools, in defiance of the CPO sanctions that clearly forbid him from working with children; and worst of all, with the approval of ISKCON's elite, in Mayapur itself, the very same backdrop of his past misdeeds.
Neither Dhira Govinda's nor anybody else's words can undermine the credibility of ISKCON and the CPO more than the influence and authority which known sexual offenders — the likes of Bhavananda and Satadhanya — have been steadily regaining in Mayapur.
The circumstances at hand beggar belief. This is most damaging, and brings ridicule on the authority, judgment and uprightness of the CPO and Srila Prabhupada's movement at large. If the CPO's credibility and its support from the Vaisnava community fall short, its very existence will come under great peril, and with it so will the future of our society.
Some will argue that today Bhakti Vidya Purna Swami is fully reformed, much different from the man he had been in the years gone. Whether he is reformed or not is a topic for debate that would doubtlessly find scores of supporters on either side of the argument. However, even if he is reformed, this cannot and does not justify his current involvement with children; for it is disrespectful to his victims, and it is not aligned with the values of the Vaisnava society we are striving to create.
While I would very much like to hope that Maharaj is indeed reformed, his lack of efforts to acknowledge responsibility for his wrongdoings and to make amends, coupled with his continued involvement with children as well as the more recent allegations, suggest otherwise. I am left with reservations in this regard. It is my opinion that a truly reformed man, as a genuine sign of regret, would have the courage, humility and decorum to apologize, to endeavour to make amends, to resign and to find service opportunities in a different capacity.
To be entrusted into the care of qualified and screened individuals who do not have a history of child abuse is the indisputable, God-given right of all children; as members of a spiritual society, it is our duty to ensure that this right of our children is honoured.
We are no longer in the '70s or the '80s; we are now in the year 2011. Why is it that still today within the leadership of the Hare Krsna movement there are individuals who object and resist giving to child protection the importance and value it deserves? Is it really too much to ask of ISKCON to spare us the unnecessary threat, pain and embarrassment of having our schools run by men responsible for such severe abuse to Srila Prabhupada's children? Surely we have a sufficient number of qualified devotees in ISKCON with a clean track record, and we need not have such individuals involved with our children.
The truth is that no self-respecting, materialistic, contemporary society, let alone a Vedic or Vaisnava one, would ever entertain the possibility of allowing a man responsible for half of Maharaj's crimes, to come anywhere near children. I wonder why it is that so many in ISKCON seem to find this perfectly acceptable. I suggest that the mentality that has allowed this could very well be behind many of the challenges which our society continues to face today.
The problem is not so much in Bhakti Vidya Purna Swami's or Ramadevi prabhu's actions. These are simply symptoms. I see the real problem in the way our society has been addressing (or fails to address) problems. Attempts to deny, hide and downplay problems are common practice. These are in and of themselves problems. In some ways they are even greater problems; they are attempts to take shelter in deceit. By acting in this manner, purity is lost. This is what allows child abuse and all sorts of other atrocities to perpetuate and flourish.
The current affairs beg the question: "What does having Bhakti Vidya Purna Swami serving as the 'guide' of two schools, at the international headquarters of our society, say about the moral, ethical and human values that ISKCON advocates and stands for, and what does it say about ISKCON's position on child protection?"
I strongly urge ISKCON and the CPO to reconsider the case of Bhakti Vidya Purna Swami and his involvement in the schools in Mayapur. It is my recommendation that he no longer be allowed any further involvement whatsoever with children — for life. I regard this as the minimum appropriate course of actions; it will be an important and necessary step for child protection in ISKCON; it will honor his victims and reinforce the credibility of the CPO and our society at large.
The following are some words from Maharaj's class, reported on Dandavats, which I mention at the beginning of the article: "So when we see something that is not ideal, that is simply the modes of nature. The modes of nature will do what they will do. The soul is not actually involved.... So material needs are an illusion...otherwise lip service is really cheap. It is one of the cheapest things.... What is the mentality behind it? That is what defines it."
For the benefit of those amongst us that have not yet achieved such transcendental vision, I humbly request Maharaj to take responsibility for his past blunders and have the decorum to resign from any further involvement with children; for the benefit of his victims and himself, I recommend that he offer a long-overdue, unreserved apology and to do everything in his power to make amends and to obtain his victims' forgiveness. For the benefit of ISKCON at large I plead for Maharaj to demonstrate with courage and with the integrity of his future actions how an authentic Vaisnava leader handles a challenging situation.
A good friend of mine recently pointed out that our society is neglectful about issues affecting whether or not the second generation feels protected and takes to Krsna consciousness; this indicates that we have our priorities out of order — unless, of course, this is intentional.
The wager at hand is infinitely greater than the specifics of this case that may be considered at a first glance. What is at stake here is the future of our society; it is about the importance that ISKCON wishes to place on the protection of its children. It is about the value that we are going to give, not only to the reputation and credibility of ISKCON inside and outside the movement, but to our own reputation and credibility as well. It is about the kind of legacy we intend to leave to posterity. This is about taking an unequivocal stance, and setting a precedent, not only for the protection of our children, but also for the protection of the children of our grandchildren.
Choices such as this are the ones that shape the future of individuals and societies. How do we envision our future?