On June 20th 2008 Gokulananda, a second generation ISKCON member—or gurukuli—died by suicide in Marina Del Rey, California. His death was reported to his family and Gurukuli peers by his girlfriend of five years, Michelle Lemay.
On June 29th, about ten of Gokulananda’s gurukuli peers gathered with other friends to honor his bright spirit and to pray for peace and happiness on his journey. The memorial at Lemay’s residence featured a communal drum ceremony led by a Native American shaman, kirtan, prasadam and exchanging of memories.
Thirty-six years old, Gokulananda had been living in Los Angeles for the past five and a half years. His mother is Mahidhara, his sister Jayanna and his brother Nanda Kishore.
During the 1970s and ‘80s, Gokulananda attended ISKCON’s gurukula boarding schools in New Vrindaban, West Virginia and Mayapura, India. “As a child he was bright, smart and daring,” says fellow gurukuli Chaitanya Mangala, who attended the New Vrindaban gurukula with Gokulananda. “He was always pushing the boundaries. He could be a lot of fun, adventurous and exhausting. He was a good and loyal friend to those close to him.”
After gurukula Gokulananda went to college, where he worked towards a degree in business administration.
But there was a darker side to Gokulananda’s life. As a child, he had an exceptionally hard time in gurukula. Because of his outspoken and boisterous nature he was often singled out by school authorities and became a lightening rod for corporal punishment.
Afterwards, Gokulananda chose drugs as one of his coping mechanisms. Over the years he struggled with addiction, going in and out of rehab and back and forth on drug use.
When he first arrived in Los Angeles, he had cleaned himself up and was sober for an extended period. But according to his girlfriend Michelle LeMay, Gokulananda again began using drugs and alcohol after filling out the questionnaire for ISKCON’s settlement to abused gurukulis. This was the beginning of a slow and steady decline that ended with his suicide.
His childhood friend Chaitanya Mangala says, “It is a sad time when one of our peers chooses to end their life in such a drastic fashion. Gokulananda’s passing is another reminder that there is still so much unresolved in regards to the gurukuli generation and that dealing with the after-effects of the ‘gurukula experiment’ will be a life-long effort for everyone involved. I am hopeful that some positive dialog and action will come in the wake of his death.”
Some already has, with Chaitanya Mangala helping to plan the 2009 Los Angeles Kuli Mela, a festival that will inspire and offer practical help to the gurukuli community. Attendees also plan to hold a Gurukuli Memorial Ceremony to honor peers who are no longer with them.