Gurukula Tolerates Child Mistreatment But Fires Whistleblower
Posted November 28, 2011
part 1 of 2
I have served as teacher in ISKCON gurukulas for almost 20 years. From 1991 to 2001, I taught at the Bhaktivedanta Manor School in England with Moksha-lakshmi dasi and Jagaddhatri dasi.
Between 2001 and 2008, I served as a residential ashram teacher at the Vrindavana Gurukula. In the spring of 2011, on recommendation of Ananda Vrindavana dasi, the former Vrindavana Gurukula principal, I resumed my teaching service in Vrindavana. I served in the capacity of ashram manager for the smaller children. As part of my duties, I regularly checked the ashram to ensure that the children were clean and safe and that the teachers were taking proper care of them. I also served as a substitute ashram teacher three days a week.
Before starting, I will give a brief introduction of the key individuals involved in the management of the Vrindavana Gurukula and in the incident I wish to report herewith.
- Lila Purushottama das is the school principal. He is from Orissa but lives and works in the city of Kanpur (which is about 300 kilometres from Vrindavana). He visits Vrindavana about once a month. His involvement in the day-to-day management of the Gurukula is non-existent.
- Radha Kantha das is also from Orissa. Officially, he is the vice-principal, but practically speaking, he runs the Gurukula. He takes care of the day-to-day management and makes some of the major executive decisions. He has been a devotee only a few years.
- Suranand das is the ashram director, and he also serves as the ashram teacher for the children of the 11th and 12th grade.
- Tejasvini dasi, also from Orissa, was the ashram teacher for the children between five and eight years of age. (She has been temporarily suspended after this incident, but is due to be re-employed in the near future).
- Nirguna dasi had served as the ISKCON Child Protection Office representative when Ananda Vrindavana prabhu had been the principal of the school. Practically speaking, since the change of management there has been no CPO representative in Vrindavana.
In my observation, the Gurukula is run very much like a bhakta program. The school promotes a forceful approach of attempting to impose Krishna consciousness on the children. When the children do not wake up for mangala arati, they are made to write the Mahamantra 200 times and to wash 100 plates. The school is of the opinion that this will be for the benefit of the children because in this way they will make spiritual advancement.
On the 18th of October 2011, Tejasvini dasi took a one-week leave from her service to spend time with her visiting mother; I was asked to fill in for her. Soon after I took over, I noticed a significant change in the behaviour of the boys in her ashram, which gave me reason for concern. When I had observed the boys with Tejasvini, they had been very quiet, obedient and subdued, whereas with me they were behaving as I would expect children their age to do: they were naughty, exuberant and playful.
I spoke to the boys and inquired about their life in the ashram. I asked them if they were happy and if everything was going well. They told me that they did not want Tejasvini dasi to come back, because she was hurting them.
I asked the boys to tell me what she had done to hurt them; the accounts they shared left me disturbed. She had slapped the boys. Using three fingers, she would also pinch the flesh of their bellies and then do a 180-degree twist with her hand while still pinching their tummies, often causing them to cry. When the boys would cry, to get them to stop she would pinch them again on their chest. Sometimes she would squeeze a child's neck with her hand, causing great pain to the child she was choking.
Two of the younger boys in the ashram suffered the worst abuse; on more than one occasion, she had grabbed them by their sikhas and hit their heads against the wall. I know of two occasions when, as punishment, she made them skip their meal. I once found a boy crying alone in the corridor and asked him what was wrong; he told me that Tejasvini dasi would not let him have prasadam. I then took him to the prasadam hall and fed him.
A day before Tejasvini took her leave, one of the boys came to me crying. He lifted his kurta, showed me a big red welt on his tummy and told me that Tejasvini had pinch-twisted his stomach very hard. I went to see Tejasvini and asked her why she had hurt him. She replied that the boy had been hitting other children, so she had decided that by hurting him she would show him what he was doing to the boys and thus, somehow, teach him not to do it again.
There are 17 boys in her ashram; out of them, 14 had received some form of physical abuse. Of the three boys that had been spared, two have extremely protective parents, and the other has an older brother in the school. It appears to me that on some level she had consciously chosen to only harm the children she thought she would get away with hurting, staying well clear of the boys that were more protected and more likely to get her in trouble.
After having listened to the boys, I told them that — now they had told me about this — I had to report it to Radha Kantha prabhu. They agreed, because they wanted to make sure that Tejasvini dasi did not come back to their ashram.
On October 19th, as I was getting the boys ready to go to the temple, I saw Radha Kantha and told him that we wanted to speak to him. We sat down with all the boys. When the boys were finished giving him a detailed account of the abusive behaviour of Tejasvini dasi, he told them: "Oh, well, surely you must have been very naughty." I was very disappointed. I explained to Radha Kantha that it had taken a lot of courage for the boys to speak up and that it was our duty to protect and encourage them. I also told him that blaming the children for the abuse they had endured for months was unacceptable.
I spoke to Radha Kantha das later the same evening and he revealed to me that he had in fact wondered why the children were so obedient and restrained with Tejasvini. I told him that I felt Tejasvini dasi should not be allowed to teach the children again. I also told him that it was his duty to report the incident to the CPO immediately, to which he replied that we should wait until the principal got back to Vrindavana. He requested me to keep the incident confidential and instructed me not to approach the CPO.
The following morning, the 20th of October, I met with Radha Kantha and Suranand prabhus. I told them that the children were concerned that if Tejasvini were allowed back to be their teacher, she might hurt them in retaliation for having denounced her to the school authorities. Both were complacent about the whole matter; Radha Kantha das again told me to wait for the arrival of the principal and not to report the incident to the CPO.
That day another child told me of how one morning he had not danced during mangala arati because he was not feeling well. As a punishment, Tejasvini had actually made him jump 200 times. On October 21st, just before the school break, I took him to see the ashram director, Suranand das. The boy was uncomfortable to speak up, but I reassured him that everything would be fine. Then he related the incident to Suranand. After hearing the account, Suranand demanded: “Why have you waited so long? Why didn’t you speak before?”
I was frustrated. Instead of taking a proactive approach to adequately address the incident, he decided to tell the boy what he had done wrong. I felt that he took the matter very lightly; he was not concerned with the misconduct of the teacher, but rather decided to lay the blame on the boy.
I did not feel reassured that they would handle the situation correctly; I was concerned they would not report the incident or have it properly investigated. So on the 25th of October, I decided it was my responsibility to inform the CPO. Not knowing whom to turn to, I spoke to Nirguna prabhu. Although she had not been active as a CPO representative in the last two years, she was the only person I knew to turn to.
Before the boys went home for their holiday, Radha Kantha assured me that when the principal arrived in Vrindavana, he would arrange a meeting between me, him and the principal to address the matter. I was never called.
The boys were due back on the 30th of October. On the 29th at 9:30 pm, the evening before the school reopened, Radha Kantha prabhu informed me that they had decided to suspend Tejasvini dasi from the school pending an investigation. Further, he declared that I was no longer welcome to resume my service in the Gurukula. Startled, I inquired as to the reasons that had made them decide to sack me. His reply was short and blunt: "It is our decision; end of discussion." Then he hung up the phone.
Feeling unsatisfied with his reply, I called him again and pressed him for the reason that had prompted them to sack me. He then told me that I had been fired because I had disregarded his request to not report Tejasvini's misconduct to the CPO.
Radha Kantha das then submitted his report of the incident to Nirguna prabhu. She informed him, however, that she could not accept his report alone; she would need a report from me as well. On the 3rd of November Radha Kantha called me to ask if I could compile a report of the incident.
In my whole career as an ashram teacher, this is the first time I have come across a situation where a faculty member has been discharged for reporting incidents of abuse to the CPO. I had approached the CPO out of concern for the welfare of the children. I did this on the recommendation of Ananda Vrindavana prabhu. She had properly told me that if I felt that the children were not safe, I needed to inform the CPO immediately.
One last thing I think is important to mention is that Padyavali prabhu, from Australia, another longstanding teacher in the Vrindavana Gurukula, has been recently laid off as well. I am concerned that the school management may be operating on a policy of removing qualified and experienced teachers such as herself if they happen to disagree, confront or challenge the administration's modus operandi.
From what I have observed, the principal, vice-principal and ashram director actively discourage any form of feedback and constructive criticism. I think this is very unhealthy and is likely to cause an environment that will foster abuse.
Let's do what's needed to ensure that the children in the Vrindavana Gurukula are safe and happy.
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