In Honor of My Son, Nrsimha dasa (Elijah B. Long)
Posted April 19, 2005
It has been 16 days now since the passing away of my oldest son, Nrsimha dasa who was 30 years old. I feel that I can now sit down and write this memorial message in his honor. The process of grieving is especially intense for mothers who have so many emotional ties to the children they have carried in their wombs and then nurtured and cared for. My son was 30 years old, but I still saw him as my child who needed my loving words and support. He sought me out to reveal his inner sufferings and I anguished with him as he fought to make sense of his human experience.
My family and I joined the movement in 1976 when we moved to the Boston temple from northern Maine. I moved there with my son who was one and a half years old at the time, and then a few months later my husband moved in. When my small son and I moved to the temple, he did not yet have a devotee name and it took a few days of thinking about what name to give him. The temple president at that time was Aja dasa and his first wife was Vijaya devi and they had a 3 year old daughter Cintamani. In any regards, my little rambunctious boy had a big voice and so Vijayadevi said "why not call him Nrsimha dasa" since he could be heard loud and clear and was as bold and fearless as Lord Nrsimhadeva. I loved the name and so my baby boy began his spiritual life at the tender age of 1 1/2 with the name Nrsimha dasa.
Nrsimha was at the age where children learn to speak and he quickly began singing and chanting. The temple room was set up so that the men were up front near the altar and the women were in the back, near the Vyasasana. Nrsimha as a 1 1/2 year old baby who had been walking since he was 10 months old, would run up front during arati and I would hold my breath, not knowing if he was going to do something he shouldn't like step on the altar. In fact I think he did once, and the brahmacaris up front quickly realized that they would have to take him under their wings and teach him to chant and dance with them, since he didn't want to stay in the back with the women. He learned very quickly to jump up and down, dance, pass the flower around for everyone to smell and to pay humble obeisances when it was needed. It was a joy to watch him evolve into a little Vaisnava, who brightened up the atmosphere with his happy, vibrance.
Our family lived at the Boston temple for 2 years and when Nrsimha was 3 years old, we decided to move to a farm community where a Gurukula was already running. We were preparing for him to enter school when he was a little older. New Vrindavan produced some Brijabasi Spirit newsletters, and we found stacks of them in a closet at the Boston temple. We read them and thought that NV sounded like an idyllic community- the perfect place to move and be a part of. We made our move and it was shocking at first, because the community was very rundown, the prasadam was of poor quality, and cleanliness for home and body was difficult because facilities were primative and third-world like. But the spirit, strength, commitment, vision, and resolve of the Brijabasis was endearing. It is what kept me there even though I often would think that maybe we had made a mistake by moving there, giving up any personal monies we had in our possession, and committing ourselves to help in the growth of this community. In the Brijabasi Spirit newsletters, the community had been touted as a dynamic thriving farm community with holistic simple living arrangements, but what we encountered was a community that was striving for that ideal goal, but had not yet actualized it. I resolved myself to jumping into the mindset of the idea behind NV as a spiritual pilgrimage site, and before I knew it the months and years went by and I played my part in the community. I took care of children, cleaned, cooked and then eventually was teaching academics for the second graders at our day-school. We all thrived on the wonderful experience of helping with Prabhupada's Palace as it was being built and there were many intensely beautiful, enlivening times during the growth of NV into the dynamic spiritual epicenter it evolved into.
When Nrsimha was 4 years old, it was suggested that he was ready to join the other boys in the ashram, at the old Nandagram Boys' School. Aycutananda (Chutie) had also turned 4, so the two of them went into the ashrama at the same time. Both Meghamala and I had qualms and doubts about relinquishing our sons over to the brahmacari ashrama, but the philosophy of not being on the bodily platform and not being emotionally attached to our children, was engrained in our minds, and we did what every other parent did at that time, and that was to harden ourselves to the mothering instincts in our hearts, and bear the discomfort of sending them off, to live from that day onward, away from us. We bolstered our mixed emotional state of mind by thinking that they were in good hands (brahminical teachers), that they were making great spiritual advancement, and that this was what Prabhupada wanted. We saw our children infrequently, maybe once a week for a few hours on Sunday, and sometimes not even once a week. It was really painful to go through this and I know that years later, my son told me that it was very scary for them- somewhat like being abandoned. (When he was in 8th grade, he had to read a book for English class called "They Cage the Animals at Night" about a family of little boys who were put into the foster care orphanages by their parents when they were small, and he told me, "mom, this is just like what it was like for us". ) The boys learned that if they couldn't have loving nurturance from the parents or teachers, then they would reach out to each other. When they were afraid or hurt or saw that something wasn't fair (hypocritical ashrama teachers who preached hardened boot-camp philosophy and resorted to severe, abusive measures to try and train the boys to be enthusiastically submissive, and then smiled and patted the boys on the head when in the presence of the mothers and fathers)- the boys emotionally bonded together and put their little arms around each other to comfort the other when one had been severely chastised, beaten, twitched, punched or humiliated. The boys became survivors in the sense that they figured out how to navigate the system set up in the gurukula, so that they could avoid getting the punishments. They knew their parents weren't going to come and save them, they knew the ashrama teachers presented a more holistic version of what went on at the ashrama to the parents than what was really going on, but it took years for them to finally have had enough and break free. Two of the boys ran away from the ashrama and went to their parents and told them what types of things had been going on behind closed doors. The boys had all gone to Vrindavan India for one year when Nrsimha was 10 years old, and apparently the punishments and abuses were more severe there than what they had experienced in NV. The parents on the other hand, thought that their sons were going to have the most elevated spiritual experience at the most holiest of dhamas. What went wrong? All of this gurukula atrocity has created an embarrassing horrific blemish, which has made all the world look at the movement and think what type of strange cult is this? How could these people have sent their kids to these schools where all this abuse took place? These are the type of questions that are posed to me from people in the larger community around me, and from the world of academics while I work on my master's degree in social work. I look inside myself and I know that Srila Prabhupada had a beautiful heart and a wonderful vision of infusing the western world with the ancient, authentic Vaisnava tradition, and therefore I know that whatever happened was not meant to hurt anyone, but rather to create a sanctified wholistic approach to the Bhakti-yoga pathway. What I have concluded in my mind is that the men in the movement (and some of the women) became tainted with their inflated egos and they were intoxicated with a sense of status and power. This became their undoing as they abused the common devotees who worked so hard to attain some spiritual salvation and enlightment. The children were not seen as beautiful Vaikuntha souls, but rather as not pure enough, and tainted with personal deficits that needed to be rooted out of them. The parents of the children saw their children as special gifts from heaven for them to love and care for, but when they turned their children over to the brahmacaris and sannyasis who headed up the schools, their status as devotees was put on a low rung of the hierarchal ladder.
My son came back to live with us when he was 12 years old and the schools were folding and closing down. The abuses the children suffered was circulating and surfacing. We moved away from NV in 1987 and a large part of that decision was because of a sense of living a false hypocritical life, and now the real truth of the matter was emerging, and it was ugly. Kirtanananda was becoming more crazy with power and denial and it was a nightmare. I think, how could I have been so much under the illusion that he was a trustworthy advanced soul, carrying out Prabhupada's vision? Instead I saw a mad man, a man who had fooled so many of us into dictatorial, unthinking adherance to his decisions and ways. That included the way the boys ashramas were run and the lack of good facility and status they placed on the the value of the children of the movement.
Nrsimha finished grade school, high school and even went on to do 3 years of college at the Univ. of Maine at Fort Kent, majoring in Environmental Science. He constantly struggled with the past abuses he had suffered from in the ashrama for the 8 years he lived there from 4-12 years old. I never sought counseling for him of which I now totally regret because there may have been a chance he could have recovered and been able to move forward with his life, making sense of all he had lived through. Instead I thought that our religious faith would give us the strength to work things out on our own, within our family setting. Nrsimha rebelled against any adult authority at that point and he displayed behaviors that are consistent with adolescents who have been abused- juvenile infractions, alcohol and drug use, risk taking, etc. But when he reached his college years he began to understand and appreciate why people would follow a yoga path or undertake the spiritual journey inward to understanding the nature of the Supreme Lord and the nature of spirit-soul. He seemed happier and when we took a trip to NV for our first reunion after being away from the community for 9 years, he told me that he wanted to take a break from college, and spend some time figuring things out about his life, but most especially to be back with his god-brothers, his gurukuli buddies, those guys that he was emotionally bonded to because they had formed their own family when they had lived in the ashrama together. Alot of the gurukulis were raging about the abuses they had suffered and how nothing had ever been done to resolve the situation. A big part of their rage was the fact that they believed the abuse was still going on with any of the younger children who might have been in any of the surviving gurakulas. They wanted to make sure no other children would ever have to go through what they had suffered from, and they wanted to make sure the older devotees in managment positions wouldn't just sweep away the mess and try to hide it away as though it could easily be dismissed. All of this added fuel to the fire raging inside Nrsimha and created a more intense disgruntled, sense of identity. Most of the gurukulis who experienced abuse, turned to substance use of some sort. Especially the boys, because men tend to abuse substances to cover up their pain and discomfort, while many women learn to dull their pain with eating disorders. By putting something in the mouth, the primal connection of some type of nurturance through oral gratification takes place and dulls the primal needs. It is totally disfunctional and becomes first a disorder and later a compulsive disease. My son began using hard drugs when he was working in the big cities during his time away from us, and back with his old school mates. It was his choice to seek out drugs and to take the chance of getting addicted, and being a risk taker, he plunged into the darkness of that world. He tried to recover and withdraw away from the drugs, but he relapsed many times. This was a very scary time for me, his dad and his siblings. During one brief time of rehab clarity he met a young woman who worked at a devotee candle making shop in NV. They connected emotionally and she became pregnant almost right away early in their relationship.
Nrsimha was extremely happy to be part of the miracle of the birth of his beautiful daughter, Mia Vraja Rupa Conn, who was born on Feb.2, 1999. He doted on her like he was the mother, carrying her around for the first 6 months without hardly ever putting her down. Whenever she even so much as made a little whimper he would rush upstairs to see if she was okay. He felt so much love for her because he saw that she was a special gift from the Supreme Lord for him to love and care for. Mia's birth was probably the highest moment in Nrsimha's life, and watching her grow gave him immense joy.
His drug use cycled again and again, and the mother of Mia also participated in drug use. Their family was doomed to fail, as the parents were two dysfunctional addicts unable or unwilling to stay away from the drugs they were addicted to. Both of them entered rehab, the baby was cared for by the maternal grandmother, and the chaos of lives in turmoil affected all of the family members on all sides.
Nrsimha was living in NYC for the last 3 years and part of his reasoning was to have access to the methadone clinics there. He suffered from PTSD, anxiety disorders, and mood swings which were diagnosed as Bi -polar. Was his state of mind due to drug use, hormonal imbalances, past abuses while living at the ashram, or because of a combination of all those elements together? All I know is that when I look at the life of my oldest son and try to put myself in his shoes so that I can get a sense of what he experienced, I become enraged at myself for not protecting him when he was small, and not seeking counseling for him when he began living with us again.
His greatest wish and what he was always working towards was to set himself up so that he would be able to have his daughter come stay with him for visits. He had plans to go back to school and finish college, purchase a house somewhere close to NV so that his daughter who lives in PA, could come stay with him for vacations etc. and he wanted to provide for Mia so that she would never be without and she could have the chance to explore her connection and roots with the devotee community. These things have not manifested yet and my son died tragically in NYC on April 2, 2005 from a suspicious fall down a series of outdoor, concrete steps. Detectives and forensics are still investigating the cause and scenario of what happened but they state that it looks as though Nrsimha was assaulted, robbed and then either fell or was pushed down the stairs. He then subcombed to hypothermic conditions. He left his body while alone in NYC, a man suffering from the hellish conditions of this material existence. But he never gave up trying and I told him repeatedly, that I believed in him, and that if he wanted to do something and he stayed focused on what that was, that he could certainly do it.
Nrsimha was a loving person and I think that everyone who got to know him saw that sparkle in him. He was compassionate and kind. He cared for others deeply. There are many pictures I have of him laughing and having a good time with his gurukula buddies. Not all of his life was miserable because there were many beautiful, sincere moments when he knew that his upbringing in KC, was a special unique experience. He had not resolved how the abuses and neglect fit into the larger picture yet, and he compensated for the inner pain and anger by drugging himself until he was numb, but when he was lucid, he told me that I had given him something that he knew was for his spiritual advancement. He just could not figure out though, if the movement was authentic and good, or if it was damaging to the growth of the individual spirit soul. I think alot of gurukulis and their parents who suffer from past digressions, abuses, and failure of trust within the ISKCON structure, also are probably struggling with this dichotomy. And so if anything can be learned from the tragic death of my son, I think he would want what is not right to be corrected, and for all abusers and power-mongers who are covered by the false illusory energy, to be removed, so as to let what is right and good, develop and flourish.
Parents, love and cherish your children and honor their unique spiritual personalities. Don't hand then over to anyone else while they are young- they need you and all the love, hugs, smiles and encouragement you can give them. Children thrive on such loving exchanges and I saw this happen with my son. The first 4 years of his life, where I took care of him, loved him and encouraged him, he flourished and was a happy, vibrant child. He had a sense of confidence and he felt safe. This is what children need as they grow up. Then when they get to the age where they can make inquiries as to the nature of the soul and one's connection with the Supreme Lord, they will pursue this on their own, driven by their own spiritual desires. We have to be careful that no further harm takes place, and somehow the movement will either falter or survive from the ill after-effects of the ugly hidden secrets, that emerged and revealed to the entire world, that something wasn't right with the thinkiing and strategies of the movements gurukulas and management.
Part of my nature is to be very blunt when things need to be stated. I usually am fairly tolerant but when my sense of justice gets riled, I will speak up. Part of my work now as mother to Nrsimha is to do whatever I can to correct past injustices to our children. As a social worker, part of my work is to protect children from abuse and neglect and I think part of that drive to do this work is based on the experience my son had while in the ashrama. I had a memorial service for him on April 7th in the town I live in and where I and my children have gone to school. We had Nrsimha's picture with his daughter put up in the front of the small church, and his brother Prahlad had brought a Deity garland all the way from WV, which I draped around his picture. It was a very moving service with the minister stating that God has many names and even though he may not understand all of them, ultimately they all point to one Supreme Lord, and I totally agree with him. The eulogy consisted of a letter I wrote entitled, "An Open Letter from a Mother to her Oldest Son" and then was followed by several prayers Nrsimha had favored and shared with me. One was a prayer by Black Elk (Nrsimha's great-great-great paternal grandmother is native american) and the other was a Sanskrit proverb he found one time at a NA meeting. This was followed by a reading of a Bhagavad-gita verse..."For the soul there is never birth nor death, nor having once been...." and purport by Srila Prabhapada. The final part of the memorial was the playing of George Harrison's song "My Sweet Lord" because George was such an effective musician for introducing the western world to the love he had for chanting Hare Krsna.
There will also be a Gurukuli reunion and wedding (Bhimasena dasa) taking place in NV this July 9 and 10. On the 11th a Memorial service for Nrsimha dasa will take place, with some of his ashes being distributed in NV, followed by a feast in his honor. All gurukulis, good teachers (they weren't all corrupt) and parents who knew Nrsimha are welcome to come. The NV devotees have welcomed me and my family to come to NV and they will host the memorial. Some of Nrsimha's ashes are being distributed here in Maine where I live. There is a beautiful white-water fall nearby where people like to hike to, to feel the power and beauty of nature. It is here that I will release the urn of ashes I have here with me. In addition, I would want some of his ashes distributed in one of the holy rivers in India. I don't think I will be taking that journey, but I would like to ask Radhanatha Swami if he could do it for me when he makes his return to India in the falltime.
If any of you would like to read my letter to my son that was read at his memorial here in Fort Kent, I can either post it or send it via email. I find that writing some of my inner thoughts is helping me to recover from the sense of loss I am experiencing by the death of my son. Thank you for listening to me and what I know and need to say.
AGTSP, Daksi dd