Used with permission of the author.

Originally published on March 31, 2014, this article was written by Willem Vandenberg (Varnadi das), who joined ISKCON in Amsterdam in 1990. He served in the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust in Sweden as a translator and editor and as a manager of one of its sub-complexes. After officially leaving ISKCON in 2010 he went on to further his career as a computer programmer in higher education. He now lives in Texas and enjoys life reading, writing, and traveling the world.

 

I’m from Holland.

Isn’t that weird?

         As is undoubtedly the case with most ISKCON[1] yatras[2] around the world, I could easily categorize the history of the Dutch yatra as a case study in cult dynamics. Yet, even the relatively recent and short time that I was part of has largely been forgotten. Information from the day founder Bhaktivedanta Swami visited Amsterdam in 1970 until its late 1990s renaissance is actually surprisingly hard to find beyond the very recent publication of 35 Years of ISKCON in the Benelux.[3] The period of the early 1990s is glossed over rather quickly with the simple statement that “The temple then [1987] moved to a rented building on Ruysdaelkade, where there was a large building. But after a couple of years it became very difficult to maintain. Many devotees went to Radhadesh. Jaya Gopal, as the president, helped the remaining devotees push on.”

For the record, I’d like to share some of that early 1990s history from my own perspective. It would be the first time that this information is made public in this way and I hope that it may help anyone in that region avoid falling prey to the cult or losing loved ones to it.

In July of 2006 Anasuya dasi from Radhadesh[4] issued a global request to members and ex-members of the Dutch, Belgium, and Luxembourg yatras (collectively known as the Benelux yatra) to provide her with information for a comprehensive history.[5] Whether her task was ever completed I do not know, as I have never seen anything published before the already mentioned history, and requests for information have so far gone unanswered. The following is largely based on information I provided her with.

In the 1970s and 1980s the Hare Krishnas were mostly considered a quaint cult in both Belgium and the Netherlands. Luxembourg has somehow been spared from a serious infection. Despite the public view the yatra appeared to do quite well until the mid-1980s. The Dutch architect Surabhi Swami (Hans Keilman) was responsible for the design of several major temples under Bhaktivedanta Swami.[6] Investor-millionaire Hari Krishna (Henk Keilman) was the temple president in Amsterdam from 1981 to 1984.[7] Kadamba Kanana was in charge of the construction of Bhaktivedanta Swami’s Samadhi Mandir (mausoleum) in Mayapur and thereafter became the president of the Krishna-Balaram Mandir in Vrindavan.[8] Hayesvara (Hendrik van Teylingen) translated many of the major books by Bhaktivedanta Swami in Dutch.[9] Since 1975, as a regional zone the Benelux fell under zonal-acharya[10] Bhagavan Goswami.

The Hare Krishna cult has been a part of Amsterdam since 1970. The first temple was situated in the Bijlmer and later moved to the Bethaniënstraat, near Amsterdam’s infamous Red Light District. From there it moved to a larger establishment on the Herengracht in 1973, and then the Keizersgracht in 1980. In 1979 the yatra purchased the castle in Septon, Belgium, named Radhadesh. There were about 75 native members, a third of which were dedicated to the sales of Bhaktivedanta Swami’s books. Those books were expensive and published in encyclopedia style, gilded and embossed. Bhagavan Goswami himself was based in Villa Vrindavana, Italy.

But somewhere along the way cult dynamics caught up.

By 1989 both Surabhi Swami and Hari Krishna were under punitive measures by the cult’s Governing Body Commission (GBC) for their mismanagement in France.[11] They left the cult shortly thereafter, although Hari Krishna has hovered on the fringe ever since. Kadamba Kanana took sannyasa[12] after an assassination attempt in the mid-90s[13] and has increased his involvement with the Benelux yatra since the new millennium. Hayesvara was expelled from the cult in 1981 due to “philosophical deviation” and later joined the camp of competitor Sridhara Swami. Hayesvara passed away in 1998.

Bhagavan Goswami fully lived up to his nickname of “The Sun King” with his insatiable hunger for luxury, but even the palatial environment, golden plates and goblet, and admiration of troves of disciples couldn’t satisfy his primal urges. In 1986 he found himself a girlfriend and moved back to the United States, together with $20,000 from the coffers of the Paris temple.[14] What he left behind was total devastation in France, Italy, and the Benelux. Hundreds of followers left. By then, the temple in Amsterdam had already downgraded to the Keizersgracht location and the altar statues had been moved to Radhadesh, where they remain to this day. When I joined the cult in Amsterdam four years later, it was located on the Ruysdealkade, again at the edge of the Red Light District. Both Radhadesh and the Amsterdam temple were each left with about 15 native followers and a handful of foreigners. The French and Italian yatras were similarly reduced to mere semblances of the old glory days.

So I got involved in turbulent times. As it falls beyond the scope of this essay, I will skip the preamble of how exactly I came to join.

I visited the Amsterdam temple for the first time in late 1989 with a good friend of mine, Edwin, and a young student, Tim, a neighbor of ours. We drove to Amsterdam with Ben, a congregational member, and stayed over the weekend. We attended a program at Ben’s apartment a couple of times with vice temple president Brahmarata, during which we sang a little, read a verse from the Bhagavad-gita, the “Hindu Bible”, and ate a simple meal. Ben was wheelchair-bound due to a failed skydive. His parachute didn’t fully deploy and the impact had shattered both of his legs and caused some brain damage. Because of his limited mobility he would wear the same clothes and shoes for months on end without ever taking them off and his place was, sadly, unbelievably filthy. The yatra simply had neither the means, nor interest to help him better his situation. He was tolerated solely as a resource for capturing potential new converts.

Ben’s mental issues manifested prominently as two strong “ghosts” that constantly told him to do nasty things. Strangely, one of them was from someone who was still alive. When I inquired about the identity of this living ghost he told me in no uncertain terms that I had made a grave mistake, because he would have to kill anyone who’d find out. He was dead serious and afterwards always harbored the suspicion that I was still trying to get to the bottom of it. Ben also had the ability to recite all his sixteen “rounds” of the Krishna mantra (1,728 mantras of 16 names each) in about fifteen minutes because Krishna had personally appeared before him and shown him a coded way of chanting so that his “ghosts” couldn’t interfere. He even showed up at the temple in Sweden in 1997, when I lived there. At that time he was alone and demanded to meet me. I had no idea as to his motivation, but I was sure glad that I wasn’t home that day. I do not know if he’s still around or even alive.

Edwin, Tim, and I joined the cult full-time in late April of 1990 as bhaktas[15], the title given to novice followers. After we moved into the Amsterdam temple an intense time began. Edwin and I were fanatical and competitive, which affected us all. That we shared one room, although the old temple on the Ruysdealkade had dozens of empty rooms, didn’t make things any easier either — nor did the couple of whack-jobs that inhabited the temple back then.

Our main tasks consisted of following a bare-bones bhakta program, cleaning the large kitchen and eight bathrooms, and later on selling books and cooking for the Food For Life program.[16] The bhakta program was given by whoever happened to be available. It meant that we got a daily class on the Isopanisad[17] by temple president Jayagopal, a demonstration on how to put on kaupin underwear[18] by temple commander Vatsalya, and learn-as-you-go lessons on how to lead prayer songs and perform simple ceremonies. After a mere month the indoctrination was considered complete and we were awarded with some saffron dye for our white temple clothes. Throughout, a major part of the general tenets conveyed dealt with the evil and danger of women.

Barely a month in, Tim was already clearly on his way to a nervous breakdown. He had a hard time keeping up with our fanaticism and what was expected of him by the authorities. We literally slept at most four hours a night, nitpicking on the fact that doctrines required that you could only sleep on your back or left side on a hard surface. We followed the tiniest rules and regulations to the tee. So naturally, every little thing that Tim did that wasn’t 100% spot on or directly related to the doctrines was severely criticized. He also had a hard time dealing with the sudden disappearance of philosophical study. Our days consisted of programs and hard work only.

Bhakta Onno lived on the same floor. His anger outbursts and general irritability were hard to tolerate. And then there was the German Murari Chaitanya with his speculations and endless instructions that he never followed himself, walking up and down the hallway loudly chanting “krisn krisn krisn hari hari hari hari hari hari hari hari hari raaaaaaaaaam hari hari.” Every now and then we’d also run into bhakta John, whose questionable underworld background and home-brewed philosophy told us that one day he might cause some serious trouble. There were only a few saner people around, like priests Bhadranga and Rasacarya, to keep the whole thing somewhat grounded.

Jayagopal was often gone for weeks on end and Brahmarata spent a lot of time selling carpets from the back of his car to pay the temple bills. Sastra Siddhi and bhakta Stefan were the only resident book sellers, who considered the temple maya[19] and preferred spending as much time as possible out selling books. Gauranga Prema was their great example, although he was rarely seen. Vatsalya did his best to keep things together. Sravana devi and Yadurani devi where the ashram-mothers, responsible for bhaktins Saskia, Carla and Marjan. There was little to no concern from the authorities for our fanaticism or Tim’s growing depression and anxiety. They were too busy meeting the insane $7,000 monthly rent for the three-story building with more than forty rooms that had at most 20 followers in it at any given time.

When Italian Ananda Swarup Swami paid a visit, it appeared to add some light to our lives. The first Swami we ever met. For Tim and me that light dimmed rapidly, though, when we were subjected to a fifteen minute rage session over the fact that I had taken the Swami’s dry underwear from a clothing rack and neatly put it aside — without even knowing it was his. This was clearly not someone with control over his temper.

Shortly thereafter Tim snapped. He took a hammer and smashed his radio-cassette player to bits. No one addressed the event. We were simply told to continue our service. “Krishna is in control.” A few days later Tim was gone. The next time we saw him was during the Food For Life program, where he came to beg for food. It turned out he had sought shelter in some kind of refugee camp for the homeless in the middle of Amsterdam. He was sleeping in bushes and smelled of urine. The authorities contacted his parents, who weren’t very happy to begin with that Tim had dropped out of college and wasted a promising future to join the Hare Krishna cult, and home he went. The void Tim left was filled with a simple statement: “Don’t be surprised by those who leave Krishna consciousness, be surprised by those who stay.” Life in the temple went on as if nothing had ever happened.

Onno’s work in the temple was translating Bhaktivedanta Swami’s books, which I guess somewhat kept his anger in line. He mostly worked on the Chaitanya Caritamrita, a tedious treatise on the cult’s philosophy in the form of a hagiography of renaissance-era Bengali reformer Nimai Pandit (better known as Chaitanya Mahaprabhu). One day Murari Chaitanya, who was an absolute expert in provoking people, got on Onno’s nerves enough for him to kick a hole in the wall. It was not to be discussed.

Murari got John going, too, by locking the door to the altar kitchen and purposefully taking his sweet time to clean the offering plates so that John couldn’t get anything to eat before he had to run off to the auction halls, where he got large amounts of free flowers and vegetables. John was from Guyanese Indian decent and Murari, who was overtly racist, didn’t like him because of his skin color. I can still see John walking up to the altar kitchen. Murari looked at him and, with a smile on his face, locked the door. John fumed and kicked the door in. For a moment I thought he was going to kill Murari, but he just yelled at him: “Now you know who I am!” Murari was unfazed. John was later initiated by Bhakti Charu Swami as Jada Bharata. Within a year he turned against his guru and left the cult. Murari Chaitanya moved to Ireland somewhere in the mid-1990s.

Edwin had gone on to full-time book sales, joining Sastra Siddhi and Stefan. I could barely relate to the whole proselytizing thing, so I ended up doing all the odd jobs at the temple and helping out in the kitchen and with Food For Life. Bhakta Mark was the man in charge. For this program the temple received fifty pounds of butter from the government every month. Only a fraction of it was used for its intended purpose. The two twenty-five pound blocks were boiled into clarified butter, which was then used for the public Sunday program and general cooking. Two waist-high barrels full of it stood under the kitchen counter. The surplus of food cooked, especially that of the Sunday program, led to an enormous amount of waste. The monthly food leftovers would literally fill two large oil drums, which, when full, were stealthily dumped into one of Amsterdam’s channels at night.

Every morning, Mark and I cooked up two large batches of kicari and halava.[20] Part of it was used for breakfast and the rest was loaded into a van in plastic buckets. We’d drive to various locations where the homeless would congregate. We would usually end up next to the Amsterdam Central Station, feeding mostly heroin addicts that had missed the deadline of the Salvation Army’s soup kitchen and lost, leftover hippies from the 60s.

By the end of June I was breaking down under the pressure of the competition and fanaticism. After a fruitless talk with Brahmarata I decided to leave the temple and commence with the world trip I had been planning for so many years before I got distracted. Early July of 1990, barely two months after moving into the Amsterdam temple, I went back home and left for my starting point in Aachen, Germany. Five days hiking later, while taking a shortcut to the South from Bingen, I arrived in Heidelberg. I ran into a follower at the train station and he talked me into visiting the temple there. I stayed for a couple of days and then returned to Holland. I had, ignorantly, determined that my problems were due to obstinacy and would be solved by full surrender — and thus ended up exactly where I never wanted to end up: in full-time book sales.

Over the next month or so four newcomers joined. The first one was a guy from the U.K. named Steve. He kind of wandered in and decided to stay. His attraction to Krishna was mostly because of a book he was writing about his life. Over half of it was already done. The second one was a bit older man named Willem. He came from a troubled background, but was by far the most sincere. Because my name was Willem, everyone called him Willem II. The third was a teen named Harold, whose gig was the I-Ching, and the fourth was an Indian teen named Sunil.

One of the main problems was that there was absolutely no system or framework to guide newcomers. No bhakta program anymore, no training. Everything had to be learned on-the-job, which meant that they had to work their asses off just like Edwin and I did, and go out selling books to boot. That was it. In a matter of weeks, and only days after the Princes’ Day celebrations of September 1990, Steve lost it and disappeared. He left behind a room filled with remnants of the backpack he had cut to pieces and the torn-up pages of the hand-written book he had worked on for so many years. We never heard of him again. As usual, life went on as if nothing had ever happened.

Soon thereafter it was Harold’s time to go, which wasn’t so bad, really; he was already pretty messed up by prolonged drug use and couldn’t get over the fact that the cult doesn’t give a hoot about the I-Ching. Next was Sunil, who had a bit of a superiority complex and had to tell everyone he met that he knew the real deal because he was a real Hindu by birth. The authorities were not amused and eventually asked him to leave. Willem II was the last one to bite the dust, after a long time of complaining that no one was training him in the philosophy and practice of the Krishna faith. By then, bhaktin Marjan had been in contact with an Indian visitor from another cult who had slowly won her over, and on her turn she won Willem II over. So we were back to square one as to the number of temple residents.

Selling books was hard and draining, both physically and mentally. How some followers can do this for years or decades is beyond me. I can honestly say that this period in my life is among the absolute worst. We walked the streets from early morning to late evening, always back just in time for some hot milk and then to bed to start all over again the next day. Regardless of the weather, which was usually cold and rainy, we wore the daily pseudo-Indian outfits: a long-sleeved cotton shirt called a kurta and a cotton sheet the size of a curtain wrapped in a particular way around our waists, called a dhoti. In addition we wore normal western shoes, a jacket, a hat, and whatever else could keep us warm. We carried our books in two shoulder bags: one with assorted small books and one with a set of six Bhagavatam volumes of a thousand pages each — just in case… The combined weight must have been around thirty pounds. A short lunch break allowed us to eat some of the cold kicari and halava that had been cooked for breakfast. The evenings were filled with renunciant-talk from Bhakti Vikasa Swami’s Brahmacari Handbook[21] about the evils of being naked in the shower and how eating honey before going to bed would cause nightly ejaculations. Other than that we were out on the streets, hitting up people. If people didn’t want a book, we had to try our hardest to at least get a donation.

Edwin was a natural at the book sales, whereas my function appeared to be that of decoy for all the weirdoes and crazies. Most days, after more than ten hours on the street, I wouldn’t have sold a single book, would have been threatened with physical harm, would have been spat on, would have been screamed at or prayed over by born-again Christians, and would not seldom have had a couple of books stolen from me (collecting them from trash cans would become a regular part of my schedule). It didn’t matter whether we were in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague, or some creepy, ultra-religious town in the East of the country. During my near six months in full-time book sales the pressure to perform was so intense that it would sometimes bring me to tears. No one cared. “Just chant more rounds.” “Just read more.”

Once, while going out at the Central Station Shopping Center in The Hague, Vatsalya got us in a fight with the community of drug addicts that lived there. We managed to get out mostly unscathed, but had to have Bhadranga go in incognito to get a visiting Indian follower out who was selling books on the other side. I saved Vatsalya once when he got into an argument with someone in Amsterdam and didn’t see, because of his tunnel vision, that the guy had pulled a knife on him. For a while we moved our base to the preaching center in The Hague, which was a small, unheated, filthy place with bedding that hadn’t been washed in months and where hundreds of cockroaches ran all over the kitchen and stove while you tried to cook. Any allusion to the questionability of these circumstances was nixed with the perennial favorite “tams titiksasva bharata” — a quote from the Bhagavad-gita, 2.14 to be precise, which says how happiness and distress arise from sense perception only and therefore have to be tolerated. It’s the cult’s quick and handy, scripturally-slanted way of saying “shut up and stop complaining.”

It was all a bit too much.

In late 1990 the infamous Orissan tantric Chittesvara[22] conducted a sacrifice in Radhadesh to drive out all the ghosts and spirits. Apparently some lady had “gone berserk” in the lady’s ashram and it was blamed on possession. The sacrifice was performed in the room right next to the temple room, which caused resentment with some followers who maintained that there cannot be any ghosts in a Vishnu temple and that performing a sacrifice like that near the altar was offensive and tantamount to saying that god isn’t strong enough to deal with ghosts himself. It also showed the typical gullibility for the metaphysical that Krishna followers are known for.

Chittesvara made a big spectacle of capturing the ghosts in little wooden bottles that he would later sacrifice to Vishnu in the fire. He’d have the attendees breathe out through their nostrils into the bottles. Every now and then he would open his eyes wide and announce how many ghosts someone expelled. Curiously, this was always a whole number like 300 or 500. He would switch bottles when they got full. According to Chittesvara, Gauranga Prema had an unlimited number of ghosts and could not be helped. He then ran through the whole castle with a bag full of bottles, screaming mantras at the top of his lungs. When everything was said and done he had collected exactly 40,000 ghosts. After the sacrifice everyone got a little kavacha[23] and the temple management a hefty bill. This same Chittesvara later came to Sweden to do his ghost-busting. By then he’d require gold items for the sacrifice to be successful. Again, curiously, the gold was the only item that was not offered into the fire. It also didn’t become a sacred remnant for distribution, like the fruit or camphor. It simply disappeared into his pocket.

In late August, the meager entourage of the Amsterdam temple also managed to reinstate the Ratha-Yatra festival[24] in Amsterdam; the first one since July 1978. Since it coincided with the celebration of 20 years of ISKCON in Amsterdam, there was a lot of congregational help involved. I can’t recall who built the ratha cart, but it was mounted on a trailer without steering. Any and all corners had to be taken by shimmying the entire construct. The parade attracted more honking from drivers annoyed with the blocked roads than people joining in with the festivities. During that time bhakta Marcel was visiting. He was an excellent drum player, raised and educated in one of Bhaktivedanta Swami’s experimental boarding schools in Vrindavan, India. He would delight us in the evenings with stories of how the local population had attacked the temple there in the 1980s and how the brave followers, including the women and children, had heroically fought them back until help arrived. I couldn’t help but notice that despite his exotic adventures Marcel himself seemed overjoyed to be in a first world country for a change, without much eagerness for a return to the holy land.

The year continued with a car trip to the Ratha-Yatra festival in Florence, Italy, and several seminars at the New Mayapur temple in France. By then another newcomer had joined. His name was Rob. Murari Chaitanya didn’t like him because he had long hair and refused to shave his head. Rob was adjusting pretty well and even got his ex-girlfriend and a friend of hers to join for a week or two. I met the girls last on their way out of the temple. They told me they were leaving because of the constant unfairness and disdain with which they were treated — particularly regarding the fact that Rob’s ex-girlfriend was blamed for still making out with him in her car, parked near the temple, whenever he wanted to.

The Christmas book sales marathon[25] was excruciating, mostly because of the ice-cold rain, sleet, and forbidding wind, and partially because I had to spend a lot of time dealing with people who wanted their money back after Rob had sold them books under pretenses that had nothing to do with Krishna — ranging from Christmas stories to the kama-sutra. The promise that we would go to India in January 1991 was the only thing that kept me going.

At least our India trip was interesting, as far as exotic travels for a clueless 22 year old go. We spent one month in Vrindavan, near Delhi, and one month in Mayapur, near Kolkata. On the way there we made a stop-over in Jordan, where customs confiscated Bhadranga’s passport and wanted to take him away for questioning because he had once visited Israel, birth country of his wife Yadurani devi. Fortunately we could somehow convince these people that there was no problem and he got his passport back the next day. A week after we arrived in India the first Gulf War broke out and Jordan closed its airports. It instantly invalidated our plane tickets. I’ll skip the rest of the India trip as it has little to do with the Benelux itself, other than that, while there, Edwin and Onno got initiated by Lokanath Swami as Ekachakragram and Antardwip respectively. Stefan had been initiated a couple of months earlier by Bhakti Charu Swami as Stoka Krishna. Sastra Siddhi had been re-initiated a month later by Giriraja Swami as Sacisuta.

After our return from India, Brahmarata explained that Gangadhara, who took care of the Dutch book production at the North-European division of the cult’s publishing arm, the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust (BBT), in Sweden needed more help, so he made us do a translation test. I wasn’t that interested initially, considering that Antardwip had been sitting in his room day in day out, so it didn’t inspire me much when I was chosen as a candidate. However, when Brahmarata told me that I would have to move to the BBT headquarters in the middle of nowhere in the Swedish mountains, I took to it wholeheartedly. On my last day as a slavish book seller I spent only the first freezing half hour outside. It was enough and I joined Bhadranga, our driver for that day, in the warmth of the car for the remainder. He brought me to the train station when I left for Sweden only days later, on March 21, 1991.

While stationed in Sweden the news reached me that major changes were taking place in the Benelux.

Jayagopal had resigned as temple president of Amsterdam and Radhadesh. Hridaya Chaitanya had taken over in Radhadesh and the temple on the Ruysdaelkade was closed. The Benelux authorities, including Ananda Swarup Swami, wanted all followers to move to Radhadesh. There would be no more book sales. Ekachakragram refused to fulfill these demands and instead bought a van and started a traveling book sales party. The temple in Amsterdam was now gone and over $100,000 had mysteriously disappeared from the temple bank account. At the same time, Brahmarata bought a farm in the middle of Holland and took a sharp turn towards the camp of competitor Narayana Swami. He also took with him practically the entire interior of the old temple,[26] as well as the thousands of books that were stored in its cellar (Radhadesh ultimately got those books back[27]). Both Brahmarata and his wife Vrindavana Tulsi dasi were later re-initiated by Narayana Swami as Brajanath and Govinda dasi respectively. Govinda dasi died in 2012.

Somewhere in 1992, if I remember correctly, a psychologist was invited to Radhadesh to help followers with depression.[28] He stayed for a week or two, after which seven followers distanced themselves from the movement, including former temple president Jayagopala and his wife Aharadha devi.

The Dutch book production itself did well, considering that Gangadhara had severe mental issues and was convinced that his auditory and visual hallucinations were the result of his involvement with the occult from before he joined. When visiting during the Amsterdam Ratha-Yatra he told us that the effects manifested in various ways, like having no reflection in a mirror and black clouds attacking him from the corners of the rooms he slept in. He was controlling and very, very intense. I eventually arranged for his removal from the Dutch production in 1993 because his eccentric behavior was extremely counter-productive.[29] He later on went to India, where he began a quest to inform the GBC about the criminals among them. It wasn’t received well. He was badly beaten by disciples of Jayapataka Swami in Vrindavan and told to leave. Disciples of Gopal Krishna Goswami eventually ambushed him in his room during a festival in Mayapur and beat him unconscious, after which they drove him to an asylum in Calcutta, where he was ordered drugged around the clock for several weeks. When Brahmarata had finally discovered Gangadhara’s whereabouts, the asylum would not release him, but agreed to arrange for a transfer to an asylum in Holland. There, Gangadhara secretly waned off the drugs until he was normal enough to be released. This is the short version of an hour-long conversation I had with the man himself when I met him last in Amsterdam during Janmastami of 1998.[30] I have not heard of him since, though I did notice he is on FaceBook.

After Gangadhara left the BBT, I was put in charge and trained bhakta Ronny, from Belgium. We translated and produced several small books, re-did some of the older books and edited and finalized cantos 5 to 10 of the Bhagavatam. Throughout, the Dutch yatra couldn’t make up its mind most of the time on what books had priority or what to produce at all. Thus, from everything that was actually produced only The Path of Perfection, Life Comes From Life, The Science of Self-Realization, The Vedic Cook Book, and A Second Chance actually made it to the printer and the streets of Holland. The remaining six cantos of the Bhagavatam were shelved by the BBT until a print order was given six years later. Many other small books and an almost complete re-translation of the Gita never saw the printer at all.

Over the years the Benelux had sent me several people to help with the books. Ronny, who was later initiated by Harikesa Swami as Raktambara, was snatched up by the BBT itself a year later to serve as system operator of the internal COM BBS system and personal servant of Harikesa. Then there was Bhandakari devi. I trained her for a couple of months, until she had to leave Sweden to deal with some housing issues in Holland. She never came back. Ivar was another one. He left without notice after several months of training because he couldn’t fully remove himself from his affinity for drugs.[31] Meanwhile, the Benelux yatra would endlessly complain about why no books were being produced. In 1994 they decided to move the Dutch production to the Mediterranean division of the BBT and expected me to move to Italy. I declined and remained in Sweden. I created a list of everything that was produced thus far and shipped it off to Radhadesh in a big crate with all the files, books, print-outs, films, etc. A year later we were asked if we could please send everything produced in Sweden to Italy, and it came out that no one in the Benelux knew about the crate that was sent earlier and it could not be found anywhere.

Over time, I slowly lost contact with Ekachakragram. I met him last in person in the United States, in Florida, somewhere in the early 2000s and we took a walk down memory lane. As the top book distributor, Ekachakragram had become a prominent person in the Benelux yatra. He also served as Lokanatha Swami’s personal servant during several India trips and was, if I remember correctly, the temple president in Antwerp, Belgium, for a while. He grew disillusioned when it was exposed in 1993 that his guru had inappropriately touched an underage girl in 1990.[32] Thereafter a slow decline in his involvement with the cult started, exacerbated by burn-out, dogmatism and fanaticism in the Benelux. He was married for a while to Haraprana devi, the top book seller from Belgium, but the marriage didn’t last. He remarried in 2012 and has a son since 2013. To my knowledge he is currently only marginally involved with the cult.

Over the years I also received sporadic updates on my other former fellow-followers of the early days.

Vatsalya was re-initiated by Tamal Krishna Goswami as Nanda Kumar. He died after falling from a balcony in February of 2004.[33] His wife, Radha Gopinath devi, was re-initiated by Tamal Krishna Goswami as Rati Manjari devi. She used to be a well-known punk singer[34] and had donated about $100,000 for the construction of the floating, reinforced marble floor in Radhadesh’ temple room. The couple was divorced before Nanda Kumar’s death. Rati Manjari later got a girlfriend. To my knowledge she is currently only marginally involved with the cult.

Gauranga Prema was re-initiated by Bhakti Charu Swami as Gauranga Premananda. He was already an extreme literalist and loner. I have never seen him at any programs or even in the temple. He spent most of his time reading and selling books. I know he had liver cancer in the 90s and was at one point married to Sarasvati dasi. There is a YouTube clip that may show him in Suriname in 2012.[35]

Sacisuta was also an extreme literalist. He read the one-volume Bhagavatam almost day and night and memorized thousands of verses. He suffered a lot of emotional and physical pain as the results of a car accident early in life. He left the cult in 2000, spent some time in a mental hospital, and eventually committed suicide in 2001.

Stoka Krishna was an ardent follower of Sacisuta and Gauranga Premananda. During my last couple of visits to the Dutch yatra in the last decade he was nowhere to be found.

Antardwip eventually stopped working on translations. I saw him last in India in 1994, where he still seemed very short-fused and all he talked about was conspiracy theories.

Rasacarya and his wife Sravana devi eventually left Amsterdam and moved to Groningen. I know they still held nama-hattas (congregational programs) there in the late 1990s, but know nothing beyond that. By then, Sravana had endured initiation by Ramesvara Swami, re-initiation by Bhagavan Swami, and re-re-initiation by Ananda Swarup Swami.

Speaking of the devil… In the mid-1990s Ananda Swarup Swami got caught up in the death of one of his disciples, whom he had authorized to perform a “purification” fast lasting over a month. He refused to order him to stop fasting even after it became clear that the situation had turned critical. After intervention by Suhotra Swami (then GBC for the Benelux) Ananda Swarup finally relented. By then it was too late. After 45 days of fasting even IVs couldn’t help the poor guy anymore and he died in the hospital. Only months after this, Ananda Swarup gave up his sannyasa and took off with a female disciple. She later dumped him and he returned to Holland wearing white. To date, he still hovers around the fringe of the Benelux yatra.[36] I know that Tarunyamrta devi, stationed in Antwerp, Belgium, was part of the board that wrote a report on the whole fasting-disciple affair, but I have never been able to get in contact with her.

Bhaktin Saskia got initiated by Bhakti Charu Swami as Sarasvati devi. She later married, and divorced, Gauranga Premananda. I do not believe she is much involved with the cult any longer.

Bhaktin Carla got initiated by Bhakti Charu Swami as Kalindi devi. She later moved to the U.K.

I met bhakta Mark again when I lived in Florida. He had moved to the United States and was working as a truck driver. He had been initiated as Hari Kirtan, but didn’t seem overly involved with the cult anymore.

I also remember a bhakta Jules, who would visit the Amsterdam temple regularly to wash pots after the Sunday feast. He went to India in the mid-1990s and the temple authorities were afraid they were losing him there to a different philosophy. They didn’t. He contracted food poisoning in Vrindavan and died on the way to the hospital in Delhi.

Rob did finally shave his head and went on his own tour through India, where he got initiated by Gaura Govinda Swami and completely indoctrinated into that sub-cult. I had short contact with him on FaceBook in the later 2000s, when he was fully immersed in the cult delusion. He still is quite involved and dabbles in the Krishna-related yoga food industry.

Just before I left for Sweden a young lady named Sandra had joined. She was later initiated by Lokanath Swami as Suryakanya devi. She is still an active member of the Benelux yatra.

There was also bhakta Bas, who joined when I had already left for Sweden and served in Radhadesh for a year or so. He was a candidate for the BBT, but from what I understand he kind of fancied himself a scholar. He moved to Mayapur on his own and worked for some library there for a while. That is the last I have heard from him.

I met former Bhagavan Goswami in the United States back in 2000, when he dropped by the temple in Hillsborough, North Carolina, for Janmastami, straight from the pick (hitting up people for money at events). With shaggy gray curls, he looked ragged and sunburnt, wasted and exhausted. Had I met him on the street, I would have sworn he was a pan handler. Just like the disgraces former Hansadutta Swami, Bhagavan too has been trying to make a comeback in the cult in the last decade or so. Just check their websites, if you can stand all the associated drivel.[37]

Throughout the 1990s, under Hriday Chaitanya’s management, Radhadesh re-invented itself as a hub for seminars and educational courses. Besides that, it still relies on busloads of summer tourists for much of their income. I have visited the Amsterdam temple last during a vacation on a Sunday in October of 2011. It was out of pure curiosity. It was a tiny hole in the wall in the Van Hilligaertstraat, around the corner from the temple where I had joined (they have since moved on to yet another location). The atmosphere was somewhat surreal. I knew no one and no one knew me. No one really cared, either.

And that is exactly what it ultimately all boils down to.

You can devote decades to the Hare Krishna cult, sell tens of thousands of books, translate thousands of pages, spend decades of your life in rain and wind on the streets proselytizing, earn the cult hundreds of thousands of dollars, recite literally millions of mantras, sing tens of thousands of sacred songs,[38] donate all your money, blood, sweat, and tears, and in the end… no one cares.

Unless you have worked your way into the swami-echelon, or some other higher level of corruption and hypocrisy, you leave with less than you came with. More often you leave with absolutely nothing. You will have lost out on some of the best years of your life, during which you could have gotten a degree and built a career, met the love of your life, raised some kids, actually gotten to know family members that are now all dead, enjoyed nature, good food, good music, and good sex, traveled to beautiful destinations, expanded your circle of friends and acquaintances, worked on your health… and the list goes on.

Yeah, sure, within the very narrow and exploitation-prone confines of Bhaktivedanta Swami’s fantasy world I also had some fun, did some neat things, met some fascinating people, and so on, but in retrospect, whatever it was, it certainly pales in comparison to what I could have done with my life without his cult. And just imagine what kind of relationships we all could have had before, had it not been for the artificial gender-tension and unnatural hierarchy-fueled power games. Just imagine…

I count myself extremely lucky that I got out and still have the chance and time to make up for most of it.

Semper questio!

 

– Willem

[1] The International Society for Krishna Consciousness, better known as the Hare Krishna cult, was founded by Bhaktivedanta Swami in 1966. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iskcon

[2] In ISKCON a yatra denotes a distinct group, usually determined by geography or nationality, akin to the English “chapter”. In some cases the distinction is determined by a particular group activity.

[3] 35 Years of ISKCON in the Benelux, by Mahaprabhu das, 2015. See: http://www.radhadesh.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/39-Benelux-History.pdf

[4] Radhadesh is the castle in Belgium owned and operated by ISKCON, and for the most part functioning as the Benelux headquarters. See: http://www.radhadesh.com/en/

[5] PAMHO (http://pamho.net/history.htm) Text #12748577 [to all of you who are (or have been) part of ISKCON Benelux]: “I am asking for more information on devotees who lived in Radhadesh and Antwerp and Amsterdam temples. Since a few years we are trying to complete a list of all devotees who served in Radhadesh.”

[6] Surabhi Swami was responsible for the Krishna-Balarama temple in Vrindavan, the ISKCON temple in Mumbai, and early designs for the Temple of the Vedic Planetarium in Mayapur.

[7] See: https://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henk_Keilman

[8] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kadamba_Kanana_Swami

[9] See: https://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hendrik_van_Teylingen

[10] Acharya is a concept in Sanskrit, meaning “one who teaches by example”, which was routinely applied to the 11 disciples of Bhaktivedanta Swami that were put in charge of the global institution after his death.

[11] GBC Resolutions of 1989, Resolution #78: That the GBC directs Surabhi Swami and Hari Krishna das, to submit themselves to the ISKCON system of Justice, in general, and specifically to all obligations arising from “ISKCON-France (represented by Advaita Acarya Prabhu) vs. Surabhi Swami and Hari Krishna das.” See: http://gbc.iskcon.org/2012/02/05/1989/

[12] Sannyasa is a concept Sanskrit, indicating the stage of life, usually in old age, where men renounce the world in pursuit of spiritual perfection.

[13] According to some sources, Sahasranam Das (Arvind Patil) was involved in the 1995 assassination attempt. See: http://news.vrindavantoday.org/2012/01/arvind-patel-confesses-to-murder-of-vrinda-devi/

[14] “The event which broke the faith of many of the devotees was the sudden disappearance last summer of their spiritual director, Bhagavan Das. This young American high priest of the cult renounced the saffron robe of celibacy to return home and marry his American girlfriend. According to leaders of the sect, he took with him $20,000 from their dwindling funds with a vague promise to give it back one day.” See: http://www.skepticfiles.org/krish/frenchde.htm

[15] The term bhakta literally means “worshiper” or “devotee” and is essentially indicative of followers of Vishnu and Krishna. In ISKCON, however, it has attained somewhat of a double meaning. Although bhakti is recognized as “love for Krishna” and a bhakta is someone who exhibits bhakti, used as an adjective (like “bhakta John”) it merely denotes an uninitiated beginner. Over time it has also taken on a somewhat disdainful meaning.

[16] A high-merit worldwide food relief program whose good reputation and name are disturbingly often misused by individuals, smaller centers, and temples in ISKCON for funding and food supplies. The temple in Amsterdam, back then, received large amounts of butter and grains from the government for this purpose, although only a miniscule fraction was actually used for the program itself. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hare_Krishna_Food_for_Life

[17] Sri Isopanisad, by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, 1969

[18] Also called “brahmin underwear.” Two strips of cloth used as tight, thong-like underwear, said to curb “lusty desires” in celibates — hence its common Dutch nickname of “balleknijper” (ball-pincher).

[19] Philosophically, maya denotes the energy of god by which the material part of his creation is manifested and which governs the souls within that realm. It literally means “that which is not,” because the material realm is not the constitutional home of spiritual beings. In ISKCON it is used for just about anything justly or unjustly deemed not in line with the more zealous interpretations of its philosophy.

[20] Kicari is a simple, traditional Indian dish made of pulses and rice. Halava is a dessert made of semolina, fried in butter and soaked in sugar water.

[21] A book on celibacy, written by one of the more fanatic and misogynist zealots of the cult, divided into two categories. The first part consists of endless quotes from the books of Bhaktivedanta Swami to indicate the glories of celibacy. The second part consists of quotes on women, sexuality, masturbation, etc. that will fill your mind with endless visions of naked girls and sex. A later edition can be found here: http://nitaaiveda.com/All_Scriptures_By_Acharyas/Celibacy_Brahmacharya/Brahmacharya_in_Krishna_Consciousness.htm

[22] Chittesvara is a disciple of Jayapataka Swami who specializes in spiritual exorcism. He would travel the world and offer his services in return for “donations”. He later got embroiled with the resignation of mega-guru Harikesa Swami in 1998 as the one who stealthily administered him (and other followers) psychotropic drugs in the guise of sacrificial ashes (see: http://harimedia.net/forum/viewtopic.php?f=9&t=175). He currently offers his services online (http://www.pagalbaba.net/en/index.html).

[23] A kavacha is essentially a protective spell invoked by ritualistic chanting and hand placements. In physical form it can take the shape of an amulet that usually consists of a small metal cylinder with end caps, which is filled with the spell on paper or metal. In ISKCON the most common one is the Nrisimha Kavacha, produced for sale at the temple in Mayapur, India, and made of silver.

[24] The Ratha-Yatra festival originates in Puri, India, and is more commonly known as the festival of chariots. In Puri it is attended by more than ten million people, who partake in the procession of chariots that seat the wooden effigies of Jagannatha, Baladeva, and Subhadra. It became a worldwide festival largely due to the efforts of Bhaktivedanta Swami, who remembers having his own mini-ratha festival as a child.

[25] The month of December was chosen as prime time for selling books as people tend to be most vulnerable when it comes to good will, charity, and spirituality. It was later renamed to Prabhupada Marathon to get rid of the Christian connotation.

[26] I visited this farm in person during a program by Bhakti Charu Swami in 1992 while staying over in Holland for the book sales marathon. I have seen the items and art from the old temple with my own eyes.

[27] Referenced in PAMHO Text #323643 of November 1993 in personal correspondence.

[28] Referenced in PAMHO Text #260802 of May 1993 as the “Dale Affair” in correspondence with Harikesa Swami.

[29] Thereafter, Gangadhara got involved in temple logistics and scheduling to a point of fanaticism that urged the temple president to have him return to Holland.

[30] Personal Travel Diary, Willem Vandenberg, 1998.

[31] Ivar’s profile on Mediamatic: http://www.mediamatic.net/229257/en/ivar-verploegh

[32] Official GBC Announcement on the abuse by Lokanatha Swami: http://www.iskconirm.com/docs/webpages/lok1.htm, and in contrast, an alleged letter from the victim from 2010 explaining a different perspective: http://www.harekrsna.org/gbc/black/lokanath.htm

[33] From personal correspondence with Ekachakragram.

[34] See http://www.vrouwennuvoorlater.nl/divers/muziek.htm and http://www.geschiedenis24.nl/andere-tijden/afleveringen/2008-2009/No-Future.html

[35] Een groep van Hare Rama Hare Krishna uit Nederland in Suriname, interview with Gauranga Premananda: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6AhqvKBQb5s

[36] Personal blog of Carlo Alberto Dorigatti, formerly known as Ananda Swarup Swami: http://carloananda.blogspot.com/

[37] Personal website of former Bhagavan Swami: http://www.bhagavanacbsp.com/ and former Hansadutta Swami: http://hansadutta.com/

[38] The average daily morning program in the ISKCON cult temples and ashrams consists of reciting a base average of about 1,800 of the exact same mantras repeated every day, in addition to which there are many more for those who follow the cult’s evening program and festival chants and ceremonies.