Chants Can’t Drown Out the Discord
Posted December 23, 2017 5:03 p.m. EST
NEW YORK — Weekdays at Govinda’s Vegetarian Lunch, a cafeteria in the basement of Sri Sri Radha Govinda Mandir, the Hare Krishna temple located in the rapidly developing area of Downtown Brooklyn, is a peaceful affair. Outside, there are cranes, scaffolding and cement trucks. But inside and down a few stairs, there is faint, dulcet chanting piped through speakers. Contented diners, ranging from municipal workers to financial sector employees, sit together with plates piled full of eggplant Parmesan and chana masala.
It’s a soothing respite for Govinda regulars. “It’s been a weekly staple,” said Javiel Vazquez, who works for Consolidated Edison nearby.
The tranquil atmosphere hasn’t permeated the four floors above, however, where a fight over leadership has roiled the shrinking congregation. Prompted by a possible sale of the temple, at 295-311 Schermerhorn Street, for close to $60 million to a developer, a power struggle has pitted the temple president and his board of trustees against the leaders of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, also known as ISKCON or the Hare Krishna Society.
It’s the latest chapter in a series of sweeping changes for the Hare Krishnas in New York, many of whom have divergent views on how to adhere to the rules and tenets of what is now a large, international organization. These days, the religion is more popular in India than it is in the United States, the country that nurtured and fueled the movement in the late 1960s and ‘70s. But at its most basic, the conflict also reveals how the real-world notions of financial power and political control can disrupt a religion that is supposed to embrace selflessness.
For a humble spiritual movement that was born in an East Village storefront, the Hare Krishna conflict in Brooklyn involves a lot of money, a good amount of litigation, and even, at some point, locked temple doors and private security guards.
The man who started the Hare Krishna movement in the United States, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Srila Prabhupada, was part of Mahatma Gandhi’s civil disobedience movement in India and later became a disciple of a prominent Hindu guru who asked him to spread his teachings to the English-speaking world. So in 1965, at the age of 69, Prabhupada stowed away on a cargo ship, arriving in New York with about $7 in Indian rupees and a crate of Sanskrit texts, according to the documentary “Hare Krishna! The Mantra, the Movement and the Swami Who Started It All.”
Soon, Prabhupada found himself on the Bowery, leading workshops on the Bhagavad Gita and overseeing devotional chanting in Tompkins Square Park, where there’s now an elm tree dedicated to the religion. The idea of Krishna consciousness, that the material world is temporary and that people could attain high spiritual development through devotional service to the deity Krishna, dovetailed easily with the city’s counterculture scene, according to Burke Rochford, a religion professor at Middlebury College.
Poet Allen Ginsberg, an early devotee who attended some of the first outreach sessions in New York, told The Times in 1966 that the chanting “brings a state of ecstasy.”
Prabhupada, known to his followers as Srila Prabhupada, officially founded the Hare Krishna Society that same year. Its first temple was located in a former gift shop at 26 Second Ave. in Manhattan. Early devotees were mostly white Westerners, many of whom were disillusioned with U.S. culture as the Vietnam War bore on.
Devotees quit their jobs or dropped out of school; initially, they also gave up drugs and extramarital sex. Buoyed by the positive reaction from New Yorkers, and as donations and book sales started to bring in some money, Prabhupada started to crisscross the nation to spread his teachings.
He even made hippie history in San Francisco, when members of the Hare Krishna Society organized the Mantra Rock Dance at the Avalon Ballroom in December 1967, according to the documentary. The Grateful Dead and other bands performed for free to raise money for a new Bay Area temple, with the founder as its special guest.
Celebrity Krishnas also included George Harrison. “The Vedic scriptures gave some sort of backbone to my life,” Harrison said in the film. Harrison’s first solo single after the Beatles, “My Sweet Lord,” was an ode to Krishna and a worldwide hit.
By the religion’s heyday in ‘70s New York, devotees were out in full force, chanting and selling scripture at the Port Authority Bus Terminal and at area airports. The temple moved several times, first to another Second Avenue location and then to 439 Henry St. in Brooklyn. In 1975, the organization moved to 340 W. 55th St., an 11-story building, where it thrived. There was a theater, a gift shop and a hotel, with hundreds of followers living communally in the upper floors.
“The Manhattan location was so central, there were tons of people coming in and out of the building, raising money,” said Lorelee Somershein (Jambavati Devi Dasi), a Queens resident who used to attend services there. “It was an exciting place to be.”
In 1977, Prabhupada died, and soon thereafter, the Krishnas were troubled with financial difficulties. Local leadership decided to sell the Manhattan property and splinter off into three groups, according to Jay Israel (Jayadvaita Swami), a disciple of Prabhupada and the editor of many of his books. Between 1981 and 1982, one group went upstate, another to New Jersey and the third to the current temple in Downtown Brooklyn.
“We let prime Manhattan real estate go,” Israel said.
In Brooklyn, the temple attracted hundreds of people for Sunday services at first, but the congregation soon started to fracture, as did the organization at large. In 1996, a prominent leader in West Virginia, who had once run the largest Krishna community in the United States, was accused of murder and jailed for racketeering. Two years later, the Hare Krishna Society conceded that physical, sexual and emotional abuse of children occurred at its boarding schools across the country, including in Dallas and Seattle, and at several in India.
As the original, mostly Western members started to abandon the religion, there was an almost simultaneous uptick of new South Asian congregants. Many Hindu immigrants were attracted to the society’s temples because they were reminders of home, said Rochford, who is the author of the book “Hare Krishna Transformed.”
These days, the congregations of many U.S. temples don’t follow the Hare Krishna Society’s tenets strictly, but rather use the temples to gather for cultural reasons, he said.
The religion, he added, is actually thriving in India. The society is currently building a $90 million facility, which includes a planetarium, in Mayapur, near the Bangladesh border, where it will serve as the new global headquarters. Alfred B. Ford, a devotee and the great-grandson of Henry Ford, donated $25 million to the project, said Geoffrey Walker (Anuttama Dasa), a spokesman for the society.
Back in New York, however, the organization is suffering from an identity crisis and a lack of vision.
Although there were between 50 and 60 devotees who lived at the Brooklyn temple in the ‘80s, the number of full-time volunteers dwindled over the years. By the ‘90s, many of the congregants were Indian and Bangladeshi immigrants who traveled from Queens and Long Island to the temple, which prompted the idea of building a new temple in Queens, said Heather Britten (Satya Dasi), the temple’s treasurer and the force behind Govinda’s Vegetarian Lunch.
The qualities that had once made the 93-year-old building attractive — large communal rooms and upper-floor dormitory space — now seemed outdated and unnecessary, Britten said. The income from donations, book sales and the cafe has not been enough to pay for the much-needed building repairs and utility bills.
Britten said she believes a more modern space would benefit the community and help attract future members. Even though Downtown Brooklyn is booming, she explained, “the rent is so high in the area, there’s not a lot of people from our congregation who live around here anymore.” About 100 or so members attend Sunday services on a regular basis, she said.
The Krishnas are not the only religious order facing hard real estate decisions in New York. Many organizations, including several Catholic churches, have become key players in high-power real estate transactions. Facing dwindling attendance, churches, temples and synagogues have sold their properties to start fresh elsewhere, combine parishes or even sell their properties’ air rights to developers.
The New York state attorney general’s office, whose approval is required for most sales of religious properties in New York, received 165 sale petitions in 2016. So far this year, it has received 198, according to a spokesman. (In its review, the office, among other things, considers whether the transaction terms are fair and reasonable and if the interests of its members will be promoted by the sale.)
The temple’s president, David Britten (Ramabhadra Das), and his board twice asked the Hare Krishna Society’s ecclesiastic directors, known as the Governing Body Commission, for permission to “move the deities,” which implied a property sale — once in 1998 and again 2008. He and his board were given approval both times, said Seth Spellman (Sesa Das), a commission member and the head of a group tasked with halting the current sale. But a lack of interest from buyers, and then the financial crisis, held back possible deals.
As the economy and the real estate market once again gathered steam, however, it became easier for the board to find a buyer. Two years ago, congregants were shocked to discover that the temple board had signed a sales contract with a developer for $58.8 million.
Pragnesh Surti, 39, a member of the Downtown Brooklyn congregation since childhood, recalled David Britten first mentioning a possible sale during a service in 2014: that the property could fetch $60 million and that it was “a sign from Krishna” that it was meant to happen. In 2015, Britten told the congregation that the New York state attorney general’s office was reviewing a sales petition. Surti recalled Britten envisioning details of the new temple with large domes and Swarovski crystals.
“Many of us,” Surti said, “were like, ‘Wait, what?'”
Congregants said they were worried as questions to the board about a temporary location went unanswered. Financial details and architectural plans were not disclosed. People wondered where in Queens land was available. Discord over the sale increased.
Many members say an existing temple, and more important, the deities that live there, cannot be moved unless there’s an urgent need, as stipulated in Prabhupada’s will. It is sacrilegious, said Shakti Assouline, a 36-year-old yoga instructor and former congregant of the Brooklyn temple who said she is no longer welcome there because of her differing opinion. (She prefers to raise money to renovate the building rather than sell it.)
“We are in an amazing location, which serves our outreach endeavors and is conveniently located for visitors,” Assouline said.
Although the Hare Krishna Society’s Governing Body Commission had previously approved the sale, it had not been informed that a contract was signed in 2014, or that it was revised in 2015. By this time, Downtown Brooklyn was thriving; giving up the property seemed unwise. So the commission revoked its previous approval, and in March 2016 it told David Britten to stop the sale, Spellman said.
In the year that followed, commission leaders started to suspect that the Brooklyn temple board was defying its order and was continuing to push the property sale through, Spellman said. Britten declined to comment for this article.
Tensions erupted in late July 2017, when the commission tried to remove Britten from his post after decades of service. He refused to leave the temple, where he lives, or abdicate his position. Instead, he locked the temple doors for several weeks, shuttering Govinda’s as well. Although Sunday services resumed a few weeks later, congregants noticed private security personnel at the door blocking several members who had been vocally against the sale from entering the building.
The commission grew more concerned when the large Hare Krishna Society temple sign was removed from the building’s facade in August, leading some to believe that Britten was disassociating the temple from the society, said Spellman.
The tension, of course, is over which governing entity — the local temple board, led by Britten, or the global Hare Krishna Society, led by the Governing Body Commission — will have control over the millions of dollars from the property sale, if it is allowed to proceed.
As usual, when ideals and money are at odds, things get complicated.
The temple property is owned by a religious corporation called the Bharati Center Inc., which legally makes the temple board trustees the owners of 295-311 Schermerhorn St. The Hare Krishna Society was not mentioned in the paperwork when the building was purchased in 1982, because some members of Congregation Mount Sinai, the synagogue that owned the property, had concerns over selling the building to Hare Krishnas, said Walker. The commission has allowed temples to be purchased under various names before to protect the group from potential legal action, he said. This was one of those cases.
If the sale goes forward, the commission is worried that the money will be in the hands of a temple board that no longer seems to be part of the Hare Krishna Society, so it has taken steps to wrestle back control of the temple by forming a new board of trustees, which includes Surti. But the Brittens, as well as the other board members who are supportive of the sale, continue to operate.
The New York state attorney general’s office told the Bharati Center board in September that the multiple proposals it had submitted didn’t meet the legal requirements for approval and that it should find recourse in court. A date has been set for late January at State Supreme Court in Brooklyn. David G. Samuels, a partner at Duval & Stachenfeld and the attorney representing the society, said there is legal ground for the court not to approve the sale because it is not in the best interest of the temple congregation. Mark J. Weinstein, counsel to David Britten’s temple board, declined to comment.
“A real estate transaction for religious entities can be very complex,” said Patricia C. Sandison, a senior associate at Hodgson Russ, whose firm is not involved in the sale. “People identify themselves with a temple or a church, and it’s a facet of their belief, so selling that property can be very challenging.”
Nikhil Gupta (Nimai Pandit Das), a Hare Krishna follower, said a prolonged court battle should be expected. He would know, since the Hare Krishna Society has been trying to remove him, as well as other leaders of a temple in Freeport, Long Island, for 13 years.
In 2004, the commission accused the Long Island leaders, and subsequently Gupta in 2007, of not following Krishna doctrine. In court filings, the commission said Gupta, the current temple president, was deviating from society philosophy and must therefore be removed. Gupta disputes this claim and said he has many other grievances with the commission’s governance.
In October, State Supreme Court in Nassau County ordered Gupta to vacate the temple premises, but he appealed and has attained a stay. Gupta said he will continue his fight to remain as president of the local temple in court.
“The society’s penchant for legal battles takes away from the purity of the founder’s teachings,” Gupta said.
The fractured Brooklyn congregation has led to the formation of many smaller Hare Krishna groups. Surti said a group in New Rochelle attracts society members from Westchester, the Bronx and Upper Manhattan, while there are several in Queens, including a Bengali and Gujarati group that meets in Long Island City and Jackson Heights.
There are also splinter groups in the city. Cesar Bisono (Gopal Campu Das), 23, tried services at the Downtown Brooklyn temple, but he said he was more attracted to the purity of NYC Harinam, which he joined full time in 2015, he said. The group has 10 devotees, all in their early 20s, who live communally with their mentor in an apartment on the Lower East Side. Their daily lives revolve around chanting and conducting outreach services; they all lead a monastic lifestyle.
Bisono surmised that NYC Harinam was more akin to how the society was in the early days. “I felt more spiritually inspired by going outside,” he said of his decision not to join the Brooklyn temple. “This group was more inviting.”
Mike Ramlogan (Sunandana Das), the president of the Hare Krishna Society temple in South Richmond Hill, Queens, has been watching the Brooklyn conflict unfold. He said both sides seem to be more concerned about the money and haven’t come forth with a vision for the future.
“Would it be nice to have a big, new temple in Queens? Sure,” Ramlogan said, noting that the small space he manages can squeeze in only about 100 people during Sunday services.
“I hope the good souls, the good swamis, put the place back together again. But I’m not exactly sure who they are.”