In support of Indradyumna Swami – by Sitala Dasi
Many devotees are understandably disappointed, angry, upset and/or confused about scenarios of abuse that have recently come to light. Naturally, we all want to see justice done, reforms made, and systems of accountability established in order to work towards developing a safer more balanced, healthy society for all, especially our children. Yet, I fear that, in the name of reform, many false accusations are being spread on social media. I recently heard very harsh allegations made against Indradyumna Swami. I have good reason to believe he is being wrongly attacked, so I feel compelled to speak up in his defense.I have known Indradyumna Swami since the day he joined and have had ample opportunity over the past 50 years to observe his character and actions. My daughter is his disciple, so I’ve had plenty of firsthand hand experience of watching how he deals with children.
First, I would say that since the early days, Maharaja always had a natural inclination to extend himself to the youth. From the ghetto kids in Detroit who followed him on Harinam as if he were the Pied Piper, to the adoring gurukula kids of New Mayapur – who affectionately called him Pita Maharaja, to the hundreds of kids who have come into their own as devotees by taking part on his Polish tours – he has always had a unique interest and ability to engage and inspire the youth wherever he goes. His own youthful spirit and attitude of Krsna consciousness being a joyful adventure, resonates with the young. In short, he loves them, and they reciprocate. It is a unique gift that he has used well in Srila Prabhupada’s service.
I mention this because I think it important to recognize Maharaja’s nature. I can understand how someone who doesn’t know him or hasn’t worked with him, might see his actions with youth in another light. To be honest, I might feel uncomfortable if I saw other sannyasis interacting in a similar way, but those who have had close association with Maharaja see that he has a unique and natural way of helping young people. This ability should not be misunderstood as something frivolous or childish – or worse something sinister, lustful or manipulative…but rather, a powerful and effective strategic tool that he has utilized to empower and enlist young people into Mahaprabhu’s mission for decades. As a general in Srila Prabhupada’s sankirtana army, Maharaja makes this look easy – even fun. But, it actually takes tremendous strength and determination to do this. My point is that Maharaja has a specific talent and nature, which he has used in the same way consistently for over half a century; he extends himself in a warm and personal way, especially to the youth – and it produces wonderful results.
As a very protective mother, I watched carefully from the time my daughter took an interest in him at a young age, to her initiation at the age of fifteen, and then touring with him for the last fifteen years. I saw how he cultivated and encouraged her in age appropriate ways all along the way. Never did I have any reason to be alarmed by his behavior, but rather immensely grateful for his expertise, sensitivity, and kindness. During those years, I often accompanied my daughter on tours where I witnessed hundreds of youth go through a similar process–receiving some special attention from Maharaja, then eventually becoming serious devotees. Never did I see him do anything that could be considered inappropriate. From the earliest days to today, I never saw him engage with a child or young girls or boys in any way that could be deemed misconduct. Yes, he pays special attention, gives them gifts, celebrates their birthdays, has fun with them, etc, but all in the mood of encouraging their Krsna consciousness. He is definitely not the most traditional of swami’s, and I admit that I would probably feel uncomfortable if I saw other swamis behaving in a similar way. But, he is who he is…and I have seen that his strategy works and his intentions honorable.
Maharaja’s life is an open book. He almost always has godbrothers living and traveling with him – something not many sannyasis do. So, there is nothing secretive or private about the exchanges he has with young girls, or anyone else. I’m quite sure there are numerous godbrothers who have spent time with him who could verify the integrity of his conduct.
My positive attitude towards Maharaja’s behavior is not born out of mere sentiment. I have had professional training in child protection and spent some years as a member of the Child Protection Team in Mayapur. So, I am well aware of the signs and symptoms of inappropriate behavior both subtle
and gross. Having watched him closely for many years, I am confident that there is nothing to be concerned about in this regard.
Of late, I have noticed that he is more cautious about his interactions, especially with young girls. So, he is trying his best to satisfy those who have concerns. Certainly there is no harm in toning down his interactions, but should he be less sensitive, caring and affectionate? I hope not.
Regarding the recent revelations around Anirdesh Vapu, although devotees around the world have had doubts and concerns about him for many years, I think this came as a shock to many, IDS included. I do not see that Maharaja is implicated in ANV’s problems in any way. IDS never had a particularly close relationship with him, as far as I have seen. When IDS came to Mayapur, he visited the gurukula, and on occasion ANV visited IDS’s Polish festival tour…as so many other sannyasis, godbrothers & sisters have done. That was the extent of their relationship. There just was no intimate link between them. Therefore to throw IDS under the bus due to the problems of ANV, is foolish, uninformed and unfair.
If there is any blame on the part of Maharaja, it could be seen in regard to his support of the former girls school which was run by his disciple, and attended by some of his young disciples. When the school opened in 2003/4 some devotees doubted the school’s agenda, but for the most part, many highly placed devotees were fully supportive of the school and saw it in a positive light, including IDS. Yet, in 2015 the CPO received complaints about the school, and consequently uncovered the fact that an emotionally abusive environment existed in the school. The school was closed., and the principal sanctioned. However, the actual extent of the abuse and the devastating impact it has had on the lives of some of the former students has come to light only recently.
Now, some devotees naturally wonder, what was IDS’s role in all of this as it involved a number of his disciples. Did he know what was going on? Why did he support such a school, etc? The short answer to this is, no he did not realize what was going on in the school. However, it is true that when the school was operational, there was at least one student who openly divulged to Maharaja the problems she saw in the school, and no doubt there were others who alluded to possible problems. Regrettably, Maharaja did not pay close attention to the concerns raised. Therein lies the oversight. Knowing what he knows now, he deeply regrets this. But, considering that he is bombarded daily by the numerous problems and concerns of the hundreds of devotees he mentors, it is not surprising that he may not respond adequately or understand every issue, or get everything right.
It is not easy to identify child abuse, especially emotional abuse, which is often subtle, insidious and difficult to perceive. But, when Maharaja heard the testimonies of the girls involved, he was devastated and remorseful that he had not understood the magnitude of the problem or been there to help when they needed it. But, from the time he learned of the problems the girls faced, he has been eager to help and support them in any way possible. He recently met with them to discuss what they have been through and to find out how he could help. He continues to be in regular correspondence, and has created a fund to pay for counseling for those who feel the need for it. So he is responding proactively to help the girls move forward in a positive way.
Even if one feels disappointed, or even angry, that Maharaja was not more aware and responsive to these serious issues, he certainly does not deserve to be labeled a child abuser. That is an unfounded and offensive claim.
Personally, I feel we all have to take some degree of responsibility for what has transpired in our schools/communities….gurus, sannyasis, managers, teachers, parents, students, community members, Ministry of Education & GBC’s, we all play a part. We should all be looking closer at what is going on, and working on action plans to help to both heal the past and move forward to a more positive future. Slandering IDS, will not help make these changes.