Australian Devotee – Australia: This letter is a response to the glossy damage control article on New Govardhana recently published on ISKCON News (Temple Profile: New Govardhana, Australia).
Yes, the ISKCON farm community is nestled in the beautiful Tweed Valley with gorgeous presiding Deities amidst a relaxed atmosphere. But lightly scratch the picturesque surface and you will soon discover a very different reality from the one recently publicized. Though the farm has indeed recovered financially since the mid ’90s, the community spirit and morale of New Govardhana is at an all time low, with many residents and members of the wider community feeling unappreciated, unheard, uncared for, and demoralized by the current management style, which focuses heavily on money and prestige, but at the expense of people and loving relationships. This has spawned an atmosphere of fear, apathy, mistrust, and disdain.
From the outset, the temple president of this community himself prefers not to use the word President as his title, instead he is described as the Director in the ‘official’ New Govardhana brochure. This is most probably because he sees himself as the head of a company, rather than a community.
The temple profile states ”70 people live in the Temple while 500 people visit per week “. In reality, the property is a virtual ghost town during the week (save for the odd festival) up until Sunday afternoon when the free feast is about to be served. With a ‘supposed’ congregation of 570 devotees, one might say that mangala arati and the morning program is attended by a rather small following (between 2-20 people).
Spiritual advancement and guidance does not seem to be a priority for management at New Govardhana. Whenever in the temple the TP can be spotted glued to his beloved iPhone (this includes during classes given by visiting sanyasis), or barking orders to one of his latest ‘yes’-men.
Out of the seventy people living on the property many are new comers. There is a constant revolving door policy on the property due to the outdated and dictatorial- style management of Ajita Das (aka- John Cozzi). New comers ask less questions and are easier to control and manipulate. Most residents who have been on the property longer keep to themselves, while others last a few months to a few years before they have had enough and leave or fall out of favour and are removed. Recently many of the grhastha families have either moved off or are looking to move off, opting for much higher living costs on the outside rather than staying on the community. There is no security for residents who live in cheap, old dilapidated houses without rental agreements, and therefore no rights. All decisions are made solely at the whim of the TP, Ajita das (by his own admission). Of course the Temple president and family have been residing on the property un-impeded for 13 or so years, and the ex Head Pujari / Temple ‘Commander’ Gaura Shakti dd and husband for approx 8 or so years. Needless to say these people have had no rent to pay for this period.
When new people come to New Govardhana they are usually either charmed or frightened into submission by Ajita Das, and subsequently used as free labour until they are worn out and disillusioned enough to leave, or until they are no-longer useful and have therefore outstayed their welcome. Those who are weak and most in need of protection, guidance, and shelter are the ones who are most exploited.
Senior devotees are also not welcomed and cared for. Most live off the farm, and the few who remain are not valued. The temple profile makes mention of the devotee Sabhapati Das, who was one of the founders of the property and a previous TP. This long serving Prabhupada disciple has repeatedly asked to be relocated out of his current residence, which is next door to the backpackers/WOOFers (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) quarters, to a more suitable location for someone entering Vanaprastha. Instead the TP with help from a few others attempted to put a gag order on this devotee so as to quieten down the ‘rabble’. Other senior devotees have been moved off the farm at the TPs leisure, and though this might at times have been justified, the lack of community consultation and proper channels (such as an effective advisory board) means that all residents are subject to removal if the TP sees them as trouble makers (independent thinkers), or simply not useful anymore.
The temple profile mentions the WOOFing program as though it is a flying success. However, in reality the standards of this program are highly problematic, and have recently been plunging even lower. You now have a free labour camp conveniently planted at the entrance to the property. Illicit sex between itinerant workers and devotees, as well as the consumption of alcohol, cigarettes and pot, and a general disregard for the original tenets given by Srila Prabhupada regarding ISKCON farming communities, are all condoned here at N.G. Yes, some WWOOFers have shown interest in Krishna consciousness, but there is no proper channels through which they can be respectfully taught and welcomed into the movement. Because of the issues surrounding the WWOOFer program there is a general mood of distrust and disdain towards the WWOOFers, who are given liberties because they are seen as convenient labour that can be utilized and then moved on. And if one chooses to speak out on this issue they will be met with a swift reminder from Ajita Das that the rank and file should be more accommodating toward the free help.
Ed note: you see, when you are trying to run a company, the last thing you want to do is chase away or scare off the free labour.
Regarding the Burleigh Heads Govindas restaurant and catering programs earning 2.5 million dollars per annum.- by now the reader is probably getting the hint that this ‘Director’, Ajita Das, really does see himself as the head of a company. Though the restaurant is financially successful, it is by most employees seen as a miserable and non-devotional place to work. Described by some as the worst place they have ever worked. The wages are below minimum, the atmosphere is stressful, there is no holiday pay, sick pay or super-annuation, and most of it runs illegally off the books (making it vulnerable to tax and fraud investigation).
Most of the money from both the restaurant and catering program runs through one person’s hands (and credit card). You guessed it, Ajita Das. No one knows how much money exactly, and he has full control of what it is used for. The restaurant takings are not included in the annual financial report of New Govardhana because it is seen as a ‘separate thing’. Could it be that Ajita Das sees it as his own private business?
Interestingly the advertising spiel for the Burleigh Govindas restaurant stated that proceeds would go to the N.G. cow protection program. However, the cow protection money promised is sadly lacking, and the cow heard people are told to do their own fundraising.
The temple profile states that N.G. recently built a ‘community’ hall. The truth is that the Gurukula, which is located on the farm, but runs as a separate enterprise, has built the hall chiefly with public funding. However, the whole issue is a running joke, with the hall remaining unfinished for more than a year and a half because of insufficient funding. With the T.P currently in a stand off with the Gurukula (for which the hall was actually built), over who will fund the finishing touches. Basically the Director wants more control over the hall before he will fund its completion (so he can host wedding receptions and charge top dollar). As you can see, having sole control is a running theme here.
And as far as a New Govardhana college goes, there isn’t one! Come and have a look for yourself. The supposed ‘New Govardhana College director’ Damodara Pandit Das, who is also the local secretary, has been allocated a broom cupboard for his accommodation. As you can see the right Royal treatment is only rolled out here for the ‘chosen ones’, the ‘Directors’ who make the grade.
And so toward the end of the glossy sales brochure ‘Temple Profile’, what do we find? Of course, big plans for expansion – brand new temple, commercial kitchen, new ashrama etc. etc. The trouble is, hardly one single resident or member of the N.G farming community has been asked whether or not the place, in their humble opinion, requires any of these things. In fact, the community is not consulted about most decisions, even important ones like ‘how shall we spend millions of dollars?’. Does the congregation really want an expensive new temple, restaurant and underground parking on the community? Or would they rather that the money be spent on more housing, fixing up existing houses and roads, on cow protection, on renewable energy technology, etc.? Do they want the farm to become a commercial enterprise, or do they have other wishes? Management wouldn’t know (or care), because these questions are not asked, and complaints or concerns are met with ridicule.
After years without Isthaghostis (community meetings), community members finally started organising monthly or bi-monthly meetings (Prabuphada advised weekly, and in some instances daily meetings) in order to discuss issues concerning the community and to seek more information from management about concerns and future plans. However, in almost every case management refuses to attend or seriously answer questions. This has left N.G. members feeling frustrated, disillusioned, disrespected and disappointed with no proper channels through which to voice their concerns and ideas.
After many requests for a new management structure, Ajita Das finally installed an ‘advisory board’ made up of senior devotees (including a well respected sanyasi). This board was supposed to meet monthly (though these meetings have all but ceased) to discuss important issues pertaining to the management of the community. In reality, however, the board has no say whatsoever, with the T.P. disregarding and displaying a mood of contempt and paranoia towards these respected senior devotees and other community members, who have many valid opinions and ideas. Thus, Ajita Das continues to completely run the show, autocratically and dictatorially making all final decisions from his safe house at the top of the hill (behind a continuously growing solid block wall that he is currently building around his house).
The temple profile states that N.G. has no Indian congregation and relies solely on prasadam distribution. However, almost every Sunday feast is sponsored by the Indian congregation (as well as numerous other donations and invaluable service by local Indian devotees). This statement in the profile gives the reader a hint of the current T.P.’s racist attitudes.
According to the temple profile N.G. used to rely on growing vegetables, milking cows, growing grains and planting many hundreds of fruit trees. In other words, they were striving to be a self-sufficient farm, as Srila Prabuphada had wished for the farm communities. Presently, however, most of the fruit trees are dead or growing wild without any maintenance, the food growing program is a shambles, directed at supplying the restaurant rather than the deities and devotees, while self-sufficiency and simple living is viewed with disdain as ‘backwards’ and ‘primitive’ by management,
In the final passage of the temple profile, if you look closely, you will see the intentions clearly stated for this ‘community’. Not a word is mentioned of self-sufficiency, simple living and higher thinking, devotee care and guidance, raising the sadhakas’ consciousness to uttama adhikari platform, and so forth. Instead the modus operandi is to start more businesses (will you legally employ the staff Ajita Das?), grow ‘as much food as possible’ , with free labour of course, to sell through the restaurant chain (while purchasing 3rd rate bhoga for the Deities and community members), and employ the resident devotees (at slave wages, no doubt). This is how you run a business, this is how you strategize for expansion and increased profits. This is the mindset you enter into when you want to be the company Director. Again, trouble is, that New Govardhana farm community is not a company, not yet anyway.
The temple president of New Govardhana farm community obviously is using the religious institution of ISKCON as a front in an attempt to fulfill his grand desires of becoming a successful business man and ‘king’ of his own empire/cult. The GBC would be well advised to step in now and redirect this project back into line with their own resolutions regarding Temple management, ISKCON farming communities and devotee care. and with the desires of Srila Prabhupada, before it becomes another embarrassing episode in the history of ISKCON Australia.
All this is just one slice of the whole picture (other N.G. community members can, no doubt, contribute many more facts). The point is that the New Govardhana project is overseen by one person, Ajita Das, who answers to one other person, Ramai Swami. The question is for the GBC men, if they care to listen, is this how you think Srila Prabhupada would guide an ISKCON farming community?
According to the current focus within ISKCON (More Devotees Happier Devotees) this Australian T.P. is operating directly against the most important directives that have been set down for ISKCON temple and community leadership – those that emphasise devotee care and support.
From the recent ISKCON Leadership Sangha: “In order to break the past pattern of the revolving doors and attrition in our ranks, we had to finally get it right by understanding that our core mission is to provide suitable care and nourishment to all our members as our first priority”. It now lies with the GBC’s and the congregation’s conscience whether they wish to step in here and bring the Australian yatra into the 21st century, encouraging an inspired, healthy, growing Krishna consciousness movement, rather than an outdated, dysfunctional cult.