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ISKCON Brooklyn Rebuilds

By: for ISKCON News on May 3, 2019
Activism

Devotees put up a new ISKCON sign outside the building

Many ISKCON devotees around the world are now aware of the conflict and court cases that took place over the past few years regarding managerial authority of the Sri Sri Radha Govinda Mandir in Brooklyn, New York City.

The conflict arose when the former board and temple president attempted to sell the property without consulting the congregation and ISKCON’s Governing Body Commission, and against their wishes. (Read more: https://iskconnews.org/gbc-opposes-brooklyn-temple-sale,6170/)

A series of court cases ensued, in which the court ruled in favor of the GBC. On November 4th, 2018, a new ISKCON and GBC-approved managerial body assumed control of the temple, and by February 2019, they were running all aspects of its operations.

The current board includes six congregation members -- Gokulesvari Radha Dasi, Caitanyananda Das, Mañjulali Manjari Dasi, Talban Syamsundar Das, Dhanañjaya Krishna Das, and Mahagopi Radhika Dasi; as well as North American book distribution leader Vaisesika Das, and Connecticut temple president Pyari Mohan Das.

The new temple president is Hansarupa Das, a Srila Prabhupada disciple who joined ISKCON in New York at the Henry Street temple in 1974, and served at the famous 55th street skyscraper in Manhattan. He is working with the board, secretary Mithuna Das, and treasurer Bindu-madhava Das.

Rathayatra meeting with (top) Bindu Madhava Das, Jayadvaita Swami, Chaitanyananda Das, Mahaprabhu Das, Kadamba Kanana Swami,  (bottom) Harivilasa Das, Mithuna Das, Priya Sakha Das, president Hansarupa Das

Although there is still a pending appeal from the former board, ISKCON’s legal team headed by Guru Gauranga Das are confident that the outcome will be in their favor, based on previous rulings and the lack of any new information presented by the opposition.

Thus the new temple management team are focusing on the task of rebuilding the community, no small feat after years of decline.

The process, in fact, started during the court cases, when the previous management had removed the ISKCON sign from the temple façade and was barring congregation members who disagreed with them from entering.

“To keep the congregation going, we were holding programs at Tompkins Square Park, at different devotees’ homes, and then at a nearby school,” says new Board Vice-Chairman Chaitanyananda Das. “We would have lectures, kirtans and prasadam, celebrating whatever festivals we could with the congregation, to keep them enthused that ISKCON was still alive and present.”

(left) new flooring in Balaram Hall (right) a painting in the newly refurbished Govinda's restaurant

Chaitanyananda, whose parents Sivaradhya Das and Ragamarga Dasi joined ISKCON in New York in the mid 1970s and are disciples of Srila Prabhupada, was born into the Brooklyn congregation. Now 41, he has been part of it ever since.

Like many other devotees, he and his family were hurt by the conflict. “We sacrificed many volunteer hours, and donated so much money,” he says. “So to be shunned just because we had a difference of opinion really hurt us.”

According to Chaitanyananda, over the past few years, even before being barred many devotees no longer felt inclined to volunteer or worship at the temple. The congregation had dwindled considerably. When ISKCON and the new board took over management on November 4th, however, the first Sunday Feast drew 350 people.

“Everyone was very hopeful on that day, and continue to be so,” Chaitanyananda says.

Devotees busy cooking prasadam for the newly reopened restaurant

One of the first efforts by the congregation and the new management team was a maha clean-up of the temple, which had been deteriorating over the years. The devotees removed large amounts of trash from the temple, took care of sanitation and pest control issues, fixed leaks, patched roofs, saved forty BBT paintings from ruin, and renovated the bathrooms.

They also shut down Govinda’s restaurant, refurbished it, re-opened it in February, and are now evaluating how to increase the quality and variety of prasadam on offer there. Next they plan to renovate the former “bingo hall,” an adjacent building on the temple property now renamed Krishna & Balarama Hall, to use for classes, weddings, and other events.

Meanwhile under the previous management the temple resident population had also declined, as had the temple programs. With the help of Kadamba Kanana Swami, the new ISKCON management recruited a number of brahmacharis to reside in the temple – there are now fifteen to twenty men living in the ashrams, and six women, with more on the way. These devotees have revived the full morning program at Sri Sri Radha Govinda Mandir, which had not been happening for many years.

“There are now devotees chanting in the temple room during japa time, attending Bhagavatam class, and more,” says Chaitanyananda, obviously excited about the new life sprouting everywhere.

Serving lunch prasadam to a packed hall

Older devotees are also returning to New York, inspired by the new energy. Ruci Sevana Das has moved from Alachua to manage the restaurant, while sannyasis such as Jayadvaita Swami and Chandrasekhar Swami have become local residents.

Meanwhile, traveling preachers like Devamrita Swami, Bhakti Prabhav Swami and Bhakti Prabhupada-vrata Damodar Swami are visiting regularly to conduct programs in congregation members’ homes and public venues. And Radhanath Swami will spend two months in New York specifically to enliven the Radha Govinda Mandir congregation, including a special Mother’s Day program on May 12th.

For spiritual education, Bhagavad-gita classes or seminars are now being held every evening in the temple. Fifty devotees flocked to take the ISKCON Disciples Course earlier this year. Recent seminars include Yugala Kishor Das on the Bhagavad-gita, and Bhakti Prabhava Swami on Bhakti-lata Bija. Upcoming presentations include Madhavananda Das from Bhubaneshwar on Jagannath Lila, and Sridam Das from Chowpatty on Devotee Relationships.

To inspire the congregation in book distribution, sankirtan legends Vaisesika Das and Navina Nirada Das will conduct a Monthly Sankirtan Festival on May 18th.

Devotees distribute books during the newly introduced Monthly Sankirtan Festivals in Brooklyn

Another positive development is that Radha Govinda Mandir has begun formal relationships with two other New York temples – 26 2ndAvenue and The Bhakti Center – who are very close to ISKCON Brooklyn physically and historically, although relationships in recent years had become distant at best.

Now, all three temples will work together to put on the 44thAnnual New York Rathayatra over the weekend of June 7th, 8thand 9ththis year, with each temple taking on a different aspect of the festival.

The three-day event will include kirtans at Tompkins Square Park and Times Square on Friday; the main parade down Fifth Avenue and festival in Washington Square Park on Saturday; and a kirtan festival and Sunday Feast brunch on Sunday.

Looking to the future, the sky is the limit for ISKCON Brooklyn. In recent years the area has become highly sought after, and the temple is now “sitting on a goldmine,” according to president Hansarupa Das.

The first Guru Puja at Radha Govinda Mandir after ISKCON management took over on November 4th 2018

Historically, the fabled 55thStreet skyscraper temple in Manhattan, which Srila Prabhupada was very proud of, was sold, a move that was recently called “one of the greatest blunders in the history of our movement,” by GBC Praghosa Das. 

ISKCON now has a chance to do right by Srila Prabhupada and never repeat that mistake. And Hansarupa is dedicated to developing the Brooklyn temple facilities and making it all it can be.

“I joined in New York when I was 23, and now I’m 68 and I’ve come full circle,” he says. “Krishna has arranged for me to come back here. And Sri Sri Radha Govinda Mandir is an amazing place to preach and influence, not just this area of Brooklyn, but all of New York.”

“The future is optimistic,” Chaitanyananda adds. “Everyone is excited. Just like with any new change in your life, there’s always going to be some ups and downs, some nervousness as to how everything will fall into place. But our goal is to take care of Radha Govinda very nicely and to push on Srila Prabhupada’s mission in New York; to bring it back to where it can once again be at the forefront of the preaching movement.”

The beautiful Sri Sri Radha Govinda

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