From Apologies to Action:
In New York, GBC and Gurukulis dialogue on mistakes of a painful past and
hopes for an uncertain future
Posted July 7, 2005
According to Confucius, the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. On Sunday June 12th, the day after New York Ratha Yatra, ten senior ISKCON leaders and more than thirty gurukula alumni - popularly known as gurukulis - met at the Brooklyn Hare Krishna temple to attempt that first step together. The meeting, organized by ISKCON Communications, was designed to be a forum for leaders to express their remorse for the abuse suffered by hundreds of young adults who once attended the society's gurukula schools, and for the gurukulis to voice their concerns.
The gathering began with a gurukuli-led kirtan, followed by some words of welcome and brief presentations on legal updates, the on-going work of the Child Protection Office, and the current operation of the Bhaktivedanta Gurukula in Vrindavana. ISKCON leaders Bhaktimarga Swami and Anuttama Dasa then offered apologies, on behalf of the collective leadership of ISKCON, for the society's failure to adequately protect its children from mistreatment and emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. Almost unanimously, responses from the alumni present stressed that the apologies, while sincere, must not be seen as a substitute for concrete measures to heal the wounds of those whose lives continue to be impacted by the abuse they suffered.
"We appreciate the apologies," responded one gurukuli, now in his mid-thirties and raising his own family, "But we've been doing apologies for ten years- now, let's see an action item list."
And so, in the spirit of moving from apologies to action, the group, facilitated by Braja Bihari dasa of ISKCONResolve, spent the next four hours wrestling with the question, "Where do we go from here?" Many gurukulis voiced concern over the lack of education, training, or mentorship opportunities for alumni. "Why are there still so few ISKCON leaders from the second-generation?" queried one gurukuli, while one of his former classmates put it even more bluntly: "What is ISKCON's retirement plan?" Across the board, the gurukulis present expressed a desire to see infrastructure in place that would help empower the second-generation to lead spiritually and materially successful lives within ISKCON.
Is ISKCON a family-friendly organization? Some gurukulis, while appreciating the strides that have been made, felt that the society has farther to go. "ISKCON still seems to value bringing in new people more than it does taking care of its own kids," objected one alumni, carrying her own infant in tow, "Why doesn't every temple have playrooms, or changing tables, or child-safe facilities?" Many gurukulis felt that ISKCON's seriousness about redressing the wrongs of the past is best judged by how it cares for its children today. "What's the point of ISKCON going through all of this," echoed another gurukuli, "if ISKCON will just have to go through it again?"
Several gurukulis pointed out that the victims of the most egregious abuse were not present at the meeting; most of these young adults will not attend a Ratha Yatra or temple function, and want nothing more to do to with ISKCON or Krishna consciousness. If the society's leaders truly want to take proactive steps towards healing, many stated, they will have to reach out to this group, as well.
Some gurukulis present were unaware of the positive work that ISKCON has done to protect its children. It was a pleasant surprise, for example, for many to learn that the Vrindavana school now provides students an accredited education through high school, and that the school-while maintaining its spiritual emphasis-lays claim to award-winning teams in debate, swimming and volleyball. Others present did not know that Children of Krishna had granted more than $250,000 to Krishna youth, or that the Child Protection Office, under the direction of Tamohara Prabhu, is there to investigate any allegations of abuse that may arise.
Significantly, when it came to making a plan of action, it was the gurukulis themselves who - armed with markers and flip chart - took the initiative. Their goal: to come up with a list of five practical actions steps that can be taken, and followed up on, quickly. After much discussion, they voted to focus on:
- Developing a communications strategy so that gurukulis and ISKCON leadership can work conjointly and can reach out to other gurukulis, especially those who were not present at the meeting;
- Solidifying ISKCON's internal system of justice (especially regarding abusers);
- Developing a succession plan and mentoring infrastructure within ISKCON;
- Helping to ensure that temples are welcoming and safe environments for families and youth; and
- Supporting and funding existing efforts, such as Children of Krishna and the Child Protection Office
The gurkulis and ISKCON leaders present committed to follow through on these items, and discussed time frames and deadlines for taking action. In addition, everyone present agreed that similar meetings in different locations should be organized to continue the dialogue and bring in other voices.
At the conclusion of the meeting, the participants - excited but visibly exhausted - formed a circle and attempted to put into a single word, their impression of the gathering. And suddenly, in that sacred space born of the bridging of two worlds, words began to fill the air: "Hopeful." "Inspiring." "Apprehensive." "Educational." Each contribution, an attempt to express the ineffable; each word hanging in a no-man's land somewhere between disillusionment and faith. Perhaps one gurukuli's response captured it best. Looking out at the circle of faces, the young man answered in a voice worthy of Confucius himself: "Start."
Vyenkata Bhatta dasa (Vineet Chander, Esq.)
Associate Director of North American Communications,
International Society for Krishna Consciousness