On Monday May 15th ISKCON’s Governing Body Commission hosted a Town Hall Meeting to explain why it is opposing the pending sale of Brooklyn’s Radha Govinda Mandir, and what it plans to do about it.
The sale has been a matter of interest, concern and controversy amongst the New York temple’s board members and congregation as well as devotees around the U.S. So the meeting, held at the Dweck Auditorium of the Brooklyn Public Library, was well-attended by over 120 people.
The event was hosted by the GBC’s Brooklyn Temple Sale Committee – Bhakti Charu Swami, Sesa Das and Praghosa Das. They were joined by co-counsel Guru-Gauranga Das, a Prabhupada disciple and corporate finance attorney.
Proceedings began at 7pm with a spiritual invocation by Bhakti Charu Swami, who emphasized the need for trying to understand Prabhupada’s desires and working cooperatively together.
Praghosa Das then answered the question of why the GBC is opposing the sale of Radha Govinda Mandir by its current management (ISKCON affiliate the Bharati Center and its board members).
Praghosa called the previous sale of a skyscraper ISKCON once owned in the heart of Manhattan – which Prabhupada was very proud of – “one of the greatest blunders in the history of our movement” and said the GBC didn’t want to repeat that mistake. Today, he said, Brooklyn is booming, and a temple there is to be treasured and protected.
He added that according to Srila Prabhupada’s last will and testament, absent a genuine need ISKCON properties should never be sold – particularly when Deities of the Lord have been invited to reside there.
He acknowledged that the GBC had given permission for the Brooklyn temple to be sold 20 years ago and again 10 years ago, but said that Brooklyn was now a very different place and the circumstances had changed.
He said that the current temple management had given a lack of parking and dire need of renovation as reasons to sell, but that the GBC had concluded these did not constitute good enough reasons.
Praghosa opined that relocation and the proposed construction of a new temple would cost more than the sale would likely bring and could set ISKCON’s outreach and community work in New York back many years – with the Deities and devotees having to be shifted to an interim place in between.
According to Praghosa, the GBC had only learned about the pending sale in 2015 eight months after a contract was already negotiated and signed. “The sale of a temple worth sixty million dollars in the most important city in the world demands a broad, thorough and open review beforehand with the local congregation and the GBC body being fully informed and involved,” he said. “ That’s not what happened, and is another reason why the GBC stands against the sale.”
He also said that the GBC had first been told the new location would be in Queens, then that it would be somewhere else in Brooklyn.
“But we already have a temple in Brooklyn!” he said. “All we have to do is stay here, reap its advantages, work with its challenges, and move forward.”
Next David Samuels, an attorney at the Manhattan law firm that is representing the GBC in the matter of the temple sale, explained via video what the GBC is doing about it.
Samuels is a well-known legal expert on real estate sales of religious and non-profit properties. He explained that there are New York State laws protecting religious organizations and their congregants from property sales that may not be in their best interest. Under these laws all sales of churches or temples must be granted approval by the New York Attorney General and/or New York courts before going ahead.
Thus the GBC comittee has submitted a letter to the Attorney General’s office, identifying the GBC as the ultimate managing authority for ISKCON, and stating that they intend to oppose the sale.
One of the ways New York State law judges the sale of a building by a religious society is to ask the question “Does the sale transaction promote the purposes of the religious corporation and serve the interests of its members?”
Samuels said that the GBC is legally raising objections on the basis that the sale would constitute a violation of Srila Prabhupada’s desire stated in his will not to sell ISKCON temples.
Samuels also cited the GBC’s other objections as outlined previously by Praghosa Das. And he stated that the Bharati Center would be violating several of its own bylaws by moving ahead. He quoted one: “The corporation shall recognize his Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada’s last will and teachings as the supreme authority in all matters, and the Governing Body Commission (GBC) as his authorized agents or executors in accordance with the certificate of incorporation.”
Samuels said that legally the two previous GBC resolutions approving the sale were antiquated and inapplicable due to “intervening changed circumstances.” He also addressed the concern that if the proposed sale is rejected by the Attorney General or the court, then the Bharati center will have somehow breached the sales contract it is already under.
“Under the New York religious corporations law, the sales contract is not enforceable if it has not been approved by the Attorney General or the court,” he said.
After David Samuels’ presentation, Sesa Das gave a detailed description of the inner workings of the GBC and how it had come to its decision. “This was not a rushed or political process, but rather a measured and deliberate one,” Sesa said.
The process, he explained, included fact finding, dialogue, meeting with the chairman of the Bharati Center Board Rompada Swami, meeting with Jayadvaita Swami who represented congregational members opposed to the sale, and consulting expert legal counsel.
Sesa also notably said, “The Attorney General’s office may be quoted as saying that there was an unprecedented number of objections from the congregation to this proposed sale.”
Following the presentations was a question and answer session in which devotees asked for more clarification on the various subjects that had been discussed.
Some disagreed with opposing the sale and raised objections. One devotee stated that the Brooklyn temple is in a prohibitively expensive area for congregation devotees to live in, and that the congregation may diminish if the temple remained there. Others said that the congregation may already be too small for keeping such a large temple. Some were concerned that opposing the sale would cause financial loss.
The GBC committee members responded to all of these in detail, essentially saying that they had considered all of these issues while weighing the pros and cons before making their decision to oppose.
Some Bharati Center board members, of course, also disagreed, although these disagreements were not expressed at the meeting. The GBC says that they first sent invitations for the meeting to the Bharati Center Board, and board chairman Romapada Swami did attend in full. Temple president Ramabhadra Das, however, did not, and offered this statement to ISKCON News:
“This meeting was not a Bharati Center Radha Govinda Mandira meeting nor was I offered a fair opportunity to speak with equal time in rebuttal to the Organizers, therefore I did not attend. However reports I received from persons in very good standing who were in attendance indicated a highly controlled one-sided presentation by the organizers.”
Ramabhadra did not respond to requests for further comment on the Bharati Center’s plans.
According to Sesa Das, the GBC Brooklyn Temple Sale Committee received feedback that meeting attendees felt well-informed afterwards.
The issue of the Brooklyn temple sale is yet to go to the Attorney General’s office and the New York State courts, where the GBC will oppose it.
Below is a video of the full Town Hall Meeting as filmed by Siddhanta Das of the “Memories of Srila Prabhupada” series:
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