Gold, Guns and God: Vol. 4—Deviations in the Dhama
THIS VOLUME OF GOLD, GUNS AND GOD is the product of nearly twenty years of patient and painstaking research. It was in 2002 when I began interviewing residents and former residents of New Vrindaban and recording their testimony for a proposed book: a history of the community. A year later in 2003, a sympathetic Brijabasi gifted me the Swami Bhaktipada Archives: tens of thousands of pages of Bhaktipada’s personal correspondence, New Vrindaban and ISKCON publications, trial transcripts, investigative reports, and more, which during the late-1980s and early-1990s had been locked up safely behind iron bars in a secret room in Bhaktipada’s basement.
It took me ten years to read through everything, but the time was well spent, because some of the documents were classified and revealed secrets about Bhaktipada and New Vrindaban which may have only been known to Bhaktipada himself and his librarian Radha-Vrindaban Chandra Swami. Then more research followed: interviews with devotees, dozens of visits to the Wheeling and Moundsville West Virginia public libraries searching through hundreds of microfiche copies of Wheeling and Moundsville newspaper articles, and hundreds of hours spent hunting for clues to the story of New Vrindaban on the Internet.
In 2016, I decided that the first book to be published would be Killing For Krishna: The Danger of Deranged Devotion, because it illuminated a chapter of ISKCON and New Vrindaban history which I considered of primary importance: the inside story of the conspiracy to murder the former New Vrindaban resident Steven Bryant (Sulochan dasa). This book was published in 2018.
My second book, Eleven Naked Emperors: The Crisis of Charismatic Succession in the Hare Krishna Movement, dealt with the reign of the ISKCON zonal acharyas from 1978 to 1987 and beyond. This might appeal, I thought, to devotees throughout ISKCON and not simply to those who had lived at New Vrindaban. Finally, in 2020, three volumes of Gold, Guns and God: Swami Bhaktipada and the West Virginia Hare Krishnas were published and a forth volume came out early in 2021. I am happy to present this current volume, which mostly deals with the plight of women and children at New Vrindaban.
This volume of Gold, Guns and God was difficult to research and write, for several reasons. The first was due to the incredible suffering of the women and children of Krishna. Their testimonies are heart-wrenching. Women and children were beaten by sadistic husbands, temple authorities and gurukula teachers. Even children as young as three years of age were taken from their mothers and terrorized. I can hardly imagine the trauma they experienced at such a tender age, and the residual psychological suffering they continue to feel for the rest of their lives.
The second reason why this volume was so difficult to write is because of the controversy about my book within the community of gurukula alumni themselves. It is hard for me to understand what they went through thirty-to-forty years ago, and it is not easy for me to understand their feelings today. I was not abused as a child. Yes, my childhood was not free from challenges and a certain amount of trauma, but I survived with, I think, few emotional or physical dysfunctions.
But many children of ISKCON suffered severe physical abuses and sexual molestation. Some seem to have been resilient enough to bounce back, but some others have deep-rooted emotional issues and the mere mention of certain personalities, such as Kirtanananda Swami Bhaktipada, Gopinath, Shri-Galim, Manihar and even Radhanath Swami creates distressing emotions within their hearts. I got the impression that more than a few gurukula alumni wished that I had never embarked upon this volume which deals in some detail with their past.
One gurukula alumnus—a former New Vrindaban gurukuli who left ISKCON more than three decades ago and today is almost sixty years old—said he did not want to read Gold, Guns and God, Vol. 4, “I don’t think I can handle any more negative reading about ISKCON. The pain is still too pervasive. I am just getting older and I realize the less I am reminded about the child abuse that we all went through the better off I am. At the same time I am glad I was raised in ISKCON for all the great stuff. Because of ISKCON I have so many great friends. I just wish the bad guys still in ISKCON were prosecuted or kicked out.”
Another, who was an adult devotee at New Vrindaban in the 1970s and 80s, explained, “It’s hard for me to read [Henry’s books] because it’s depressing. I realize that it’s true. Life is hard enough without reading about children being molested.”
Another area of friction in writing this book was one particular photo which I used for the front cover image. I obtained many photos from the Swami Bhaktipada Archive that show children playing in the woods, swimming in Wheeling Creek, studying at school and relaxing in their comfortable and cozy sleeping bags while the adult ashram moderator reads a bedtime story from Krishna Book. These photos do not portray the whole gurukula experience, but they were the most likely to end up in New Vrindaban publications of the time. These photos support the notion that the gurukula system was superior to public schools. I received permission from the owner, the West Virginia and Regional History Center at West Virginia University in Morgantown, to reproduce these photos.
Along with the positive images, I also discovered a few photos that portray a more horrifying aspect about child abuse. I chose the most disturbing photo to put on the cover. It’s a powerful photo; disgustingly powerful. One gurukula alumni told me, “This photograph is worth a thousand words.” However, several former gurukula students warned me the photo might engender traumatic memories for the children of New Vrindaban.
Fortunately, I have a few gurukula alumni friends who want to see this volume published and have kindly helped me transcend my personal social disabilities and traverse these troubled waters. The sailing has been tumultuous at times, but I believe progress has been made. However, I decided to go ahead and use the controversial photo. I contacted most of the people in the photo through a gurukula alumnus acquaintance and asked permission to use it.
Two gurukula alumni gave me permission to use their photos. One called me on the phone on May 27, 2021 and we spoke for about twenty minutes. He remembered me from his time at New Vrindaban in the 1980s and said that he enjoyed reading Gold, Guns and God, Vol. 3. Another gurukula alumnus contacted me by email, saying:
Hi Henry (aka Hrishikesh),
I grant permission to use this photo, but I respectfully request that you omit my name from the book. I will say that I appreciate that you are requesting permission to use this photo as it is the right thing to do. I also agree, and as you have indicated, that for some it may elicit certain negative memories, while others may be trying to move on and forward from their childhood experiences. However, while a lot of our experiences may have been difficult (there are a lot positive and bright spots, too) it is important to expose/share the truth (good, bad, and ugly) in a fair and transparent way. I hope/expect your book aims to do just that. I will say that I have read some of your content, and it appears that this is the case.
Best of luck for your book!
Four others responded via my gurukula alumnus contact and refused to grant permission to use their photos. These are the four boys whose faces are blurred. The others never responded, or we were unable to find their contact info. One boy on the back cover passed away sixteen years ago.
The photo shows Bhaktipada surrounded by children massaging him, and one child appears to be kissing the guru’s inner thigh. New Vrindaban adults witnessed scenes like this, and I want the truth to come out. I understand this will be painful to anyone who sees the book cover, but I believe telling the true story—in all its horror—is the best way to prevent such atrocities from happening again.
In conclusion, I confess that I am a flawed person. I am not perfect. I make mistakes. Sometimes I say and do stupid things. I cannot please all the people all the time. But I am trying to the best of my ability to present the history of New Vrindaban as accurately and balanced as possible. I may not succeed and some will condemn my efforts.
But that doesn’t mean, in my opinion, I should give up my endeavor to complete this ten-volume biography of Swami Bhaktipada and history of New Vrindaban, despite controversial issues. At this time, at the age of 65, my primary mission in life is to finish these books. I will persevere as long as I am able, despite my myriad faults and praise or condemnation from others. Some may vilify me for publishing this volume, and others may venerate me. It doesn’t make a difference to me.
To those who are learning about New Vrindaban history for the first time: read and weep. The world can be a hellish place, especially in insular societies where deranged devotion under the guise of “spirituality” reigns supreme. We can only hope such atrocities can be prevented in the future. Om Tat Sat.
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