Chakra Discussions

A Little Bit of History of Gurukula, Child Abuse, etc.

by Urmila d.d.

Posted February 6, 2005

Please accept my obeisances. All glories to Srila Prabhupada!

It was painful and surprising to read the two texts posted here about Sri Rama Prabhu. I never visited the school in Lake Huntington, New York, and do not have any first-hand (and very little second-hand) knowledge of that school, nor of Sri Rama Prabhu's role there in terms of what is being posted. To get to the truth of his dealings there, one would need to interview a number of people, check documents, and so forth.

For your edification, here is some history, not only from my own memory, but from documents we have saved of headmasters' meetings and correspondence. My husband and I started ISKCON's first day school in Detroit in 1982. I became involved as a teacher about a year after that, and later as principal.

The 1982 gurukula headmasters' meeting was in Vrindavana, India. Jagadisha (then a sannyasi) was the minister of education and chairman of the meeting. Dharudhara Swami was the regional minister of education for India. Sri Rama Prabhu was the regional minister for eastern North America. (Sri Rama had become in charge of the school in Philadelphia, which later moved to Lake Huntington, in 1979 or 1980. He took over from Yogesvara Prabhu.) Other attendees at the meeting were Dwarkanatha dasa, Bhurijana dasa, Bala Krsna dasa, Rupa Vilasa dasa, Naimisaranya dasa, Babru dasa, Bhava dasa, Manihara dasa, Vicaru dasa, Pariksit dasa, Anir Desha Vapu dasa, Ananta Rupa dasa, Raghunatha dasa, Karnamrta dasa, Sukavak dasa, and Bhaktarupa dasa. Among the many resolutions, there was no mention of child abuse, which was virtually not a topic of awareness at that time at all.

In 1983, the gurukula headmasters' meeting was in Lake Huntington. Attendees were Jadadisa, Dhanurdhara Swami, Paramananda dasa, Dwarakanatha dasa, Sri Rama dasa, Bhurijana dasa, Rupa Vilasa dasa, Bala Krsna dasa, Pratyatosa dasa, Astika dasa, Manihara dasa, Vicaru dasa, Drsta dasa, Mahejya dasa, Muralivadaka dasa, Pariksit dasa, and Bhaktarupa dasa. That year most of the agenda focused on curriculum. Drsta Prabhu, for example, told about an American History textbook he was writing (in 1984, I wrote the assignments, tests, and teachers' guide for that book, which we still use, along with supplements). There was also a discussion of teacher training. Child abuse was not mentioned. Again, there was no awareness.

There was a meeting in 1984 in Dallas, Texas. Not all of the attendees are listed. The listing of officers is Jagadish, Dhardhara Swami, Bhurijana dasa, Rupa Vilasa dasa, Sri Rama dasa (listed as Ministry Chairman, with Jagadish as Minister of Education), Dvarakanatha dasa, Bala Krsna dasa Bhaktarupa dasa, Murlivadaka dasa Drsta dasa, and Ananta Rupa dasa. There was, again, an extensive report of curriculum planned or being developed. Other items included discouragement of day schools, teacher training, and acknowledgement that computers could have a place in our schools. Child abuse was not mentioned.

The 1985 meeting was at Villa Vrindavana, Italy. It should be emphasized that Jagadish was very much in charge at this time. Attendees were Jagadish, Sundararupa (then a sannyasi), Dhanurdhara Swami, Bhurijana dasa, Adwaita Mahasayi dasa, Ayodhyapati dasa, Bala Krsna dasa, Drsta dasa, Dwarkakanatha dasa, Mohan dasa, Murlivadaka dasa, Paramananda dasa, Sri Rama dasa, Bhaktarupa dasa, Alarka devi dasi, Jyotirmayi devi dasi, Lalita Govinda devi dasi, Sita devi dasi, and Mohana devi dasi. Discussions were about teaching writing, counseling, and preaching. Child abuse was still unknown and not mentioned. It is stated that "the goal of the asrama program is to keep the children physically, mentally, and spiritually healthy." It should be noted that correspondence from 1985 shows Murlivadaka dasa, not Sri Rama dasa, as the headmaster and contact person for the Lake Huntington school.

In 1986 the headmasters' meeting was in Bhaktivedanta Village, California. Attending were Jagadish, Paramananda dasa, Bhurijana dasa, Dwarakanatha dasa, Shukavak dasa, Jaya Madhava dasa, Tapan Misra dasa, Yogindra-vandana dasa, Atmananda dasa, Rohininandana dasa, Dharmasetu dasa, Murlivadaka dasa, Sri Rama dasa, Tamohara dasa, Anila dasa, Naimisaranya dasa, Bhaktarupa dasa, Krpa Mayi devi dasi, Satyabhama devi dasi, Urmila devi dasi, Mohana devi dasi, Devayani devi dasi, Jayanti devi dasi, Tulasi devi dasi, Madanmohanmohini devi dasi, Sri Rupa devi dasi, Vrinda devi dasi, and other un-named teachers from the local school. Topics focused on what students would do after graduation, problems with family breakdown in ISKCON, but nothing about child abuse, which was still virtually unknown.

Bhaktarupa dasa wrote the invitation letter for the 1987 meeting in Gita nagari, Pennsylvania. There is no list of attendees. Jagadish was presiding. It was at that meeting that I presented a syllabus for 7th and 8th grade (approximately ages 12 and 13). That work eventually became the book Vaikuntha Children. At this meeting is the first mention of child abuse in headmaster meeting minutes. The mention is as follows: "Thurs., June 4th session 2: rebuilding faith in the ashrama system, tackling the problems of child abuse, qualified teachers, etc." At this time, child abuse appeared to be an isolated and contained problem. However, there was an extensive discussion and many decisions were made about how the educators felt this problem could be prevented and dealt with. Nevertheless, until the next meeting those programs were often not put into effect, or were not put into effect systematically and totally.

In March, 1988, there was a meeting in Vrindavana, India, of Tosan Krsna dasa, Ravindra Svarupa dasa, Jagadish (then Swami), Kirtiraja dasa, Bhurijana dasa, Sri Rama dasa, and Siva Rama Swami. Among the decisions were: 1)a pamphlet on remedies of child abuse, and a cover letter requesting headmasters to file a report to the Board on what their school is doing about child abuse, should be put together and mailed out; 2) the legalities involved between those suspected of child abuse and institutions utilizing their services should be conclusively studied with the aid of a lawyer; 3)a complete list of all child abuse suspects in ISKCON history should be compiled, regularly updated and made available.

By July,1988, Jagadish had resigned as chairman, though he attended the meeting in Villa Vrindavana, Italy. Tosan Krsna dasa was the chairman of what was now called the Board of Education, rather than the Ministry of Education. Attendees were, in addition to Jagadish and Tosan Krsna, Siva Rama Maharaja, Bhakti Svarupa Damodara Maharaja, Sri Rama dasa, Bhurijana dasa, Kirtiraja dasa, and Urmila devi dasi. There were also some meetings where the local school staff attended. It was at this meeting that the problem of child abuse became a focal issue. There were some rather heated moments, and Tosan Krsna Prabhu had the courage to take a very strong stand in the face of ignorance. At that meeting the idea for a handbook (which became Vaikuntha Children) was solidified. There was also much talk of how to engage the older students.

In regards to child abuse, at the 1988 meeting, we virtually repeated the discussions and resolutions of the year before. I remember asking why we needed to discuss the same things when obviously nothing concrete was being done. I asked why we couldn't focus on how to implement what we had already decided rather than just re-hashing the same thing. The strongest push to deal with child abuse came from two people: Tosan Krsna and Sri Rama Prabhus. Decisions about abuse included: "1)Sri Rama would bring all resolutions from previous meetings to the next meeting,; 2) that the Board of Education recommends that Dhanurdhara Swami compile a list of all boys who were or might have been abused in Vrindavana. He should then communicate with their parents about it, explaining the problems connected to it, and urging them to get their children the help they need. He should offer to speak to the children to help them overcome their trauma; 3)Ananta Rupa is not to have any direct or indirect dealing with any ISKCON or ISKCON-related educational program. We strongly recommend to the GBC body that he be forbidden to live in any ISKCON community and hold no official position connecting him with ISKCON; 5) the Board of Education should require that all schools have a program to prevent child abuse and enforce violations. Each school must prove that such a program has been implemented. The articles on dealing with abuse in the "Gurukula Newsletter," with some modifications, can be published as a book, representing the board's standards; 6) Communities need investigating teams connected to a hotline of devotee experts. The team must decide when to involve local governmental authorities in a given situation; 7)known abusers must be strongly dealt with. A database will be set up to give schools information about definite and suspected abusers."

That was the last international meeting of school heads. Tosan Krsna Prabhu served for one year, and then Sri Rama Prabhu became the chairman in 1989. Jagadish was no longer involved in any capacity. Sri Rama set up continental boards of education in 1991. He also worked with Sita, in 1989, to draft extensive programs both for preventing child abuse and dealing with abusers, as well as counseling abused children. Her work, in a later draft, became an appendix to Vaikuntha Children. Sri Rama saw that the resolutions we passed to deal with child abuse in 1987 and 1988 were not being enforced in ISKCON. He therefore pushed to have strong GBC resolutions passed on these issues, with language similar to that above. I'm fairly sure that these resolutions were passed by the International GBC body in 1990, or perhaps 1991. It was Sri Rama who drafted the resolutions (with help from others, including me, so I have first hand knowledge of this), pushed and pushed until the GBC understood the problem, and worked to get the resolutions enforced. It should be emphasized that the full scope of the problem was not yet understood at all.

The next relevant documents I have are from 1991, where Sri Rama sought to deal with corporal punishment. Most of the concerns about child abuse up to this time had been about molestation. Sri Rama drafted resolutions to abolish physical punishment of children, which had been an accepted policy up until that time. There were schools, however, mostly in third-world countries, which strongly opposed a ban on corporal punishment. Therefore the resolution according to the documents I have (I remember working on this with a group, though I cannot recall exactly who was involved) was that corporal punishment should not be used, but, if in some country it was the norm, then there had to be very strict guidelines regulating its use (the guidelines were then spelled out.). Sri Rama was not interested only in making policy; he wanted to see that it was implemented. He factored into the policies who would be responsible, and processes for oversight and evaluation. Unfortunately, international and continental boards of education had no money, were staffed by devotees who had other demanding, full-time service, and there was not necessarily concrete backing from other leaders for board of education policies.

By November of 1991, at a North American meeting in Atlanta, the fruits of pushing for reform in our schools were evident. Running the meeting were Murlivadaka dasa, Urmila devi dasi, Bhakti devi dasi, and Badrinarayana dasa. Other devotees listed (it's not clear if all of them were there, and I'm sure of some but not others) are Bala Krsna dasa, Drsta dasa, Hridayananda Goswami, Janaka Rsi dasa, Kardama Muni dasa, Burke Rocheford, Purnamasi devii dasi, Raghunatha dasa, Sukhada devi dasi, Sukhavaka dasa, and Yasoda devi dasi. The first business of the newly formed North American Board of Education was to deal with child abuse prevention. The focus was on evaluating and enforcing the rules already mentioned, as well as having background checks for teachers. We also discussed curriculum, having first-class academic programs, and awarding recognized diplomas. There was an extensive discussion about helping our adolescents.

Gradually, due to ill health and financial concerns, Sri Rama relinquished his involvement with education. During the his time as international chairman he was the main force behind my finishing and publishing Vaikuntha Children, publicizing and advocating for home schooling as an alternative to gurukula or non-devotee schools, advocating for high academic standards, and continued pushing on ISKCON's leaders to become aware of, prevent, and deal with child abuse. I was personally aware of what he was doing. In fact, he would often take the role of advocating for things I had promoted "such as homeschooling and high academic standards" because most leaders would only be open to such ideas from a man, rather than a woman. I was very grateful for his assistance in this way.

Full awareness and understanding of child abuse in ISKCON in general came many years after the leaders in education first knew of the problem and promoted change. Of course, the story goes further than the early 1990s, and much more needed to be done. Even now, we can still improve our system for educating and protecting our most valuable and vulnerable members.

Your servant,
Urmila devi dasi