The Letter He Didn’t Ask Me To Write


Oct 18, USA (SUN) — As did many of you, I followed Bhakti-Tirtha Swami's illness from its inception last year until his recent demise. During that time, I began to reflect on what meaning could be drawn from his condition. My first thoughts focused on BTS’s personal conclusion that his cancer had resulted from his recent prayer, wherein, in the mood of Vasudeva-datta, he'd requested Srila Prabhupada to let him accept the sins of the conditioned souls to relieve them of their suffering.

Vasudeva-datta had prayed to Lord Caitanya, “My Lord, my heart breaks to see the sufferings of all the conditioned souls; therefore I request You to transfer the karma of their sinful lives upon my head. My dear Lord, let me suffer perpetually in a hellish condition, accepting all the sinful reactions of all living entities. Please finish their diseased material life.“ (CC Madhya 15.162-163.)

Bhakti-Tirtha Swami expressed surprise at the efficacy of his prayer and the ensuing cancer, explaining on August 14, 2004, “So here in like ten days I have this accelerated tumor, I have sugar diabetes, I get the operation, then I have cancer. The MRI, nothing seemed to suggest this, nor the previous bloodwork. So my intuitive understanding or reflection is that Prabhupada seems to be calling me back, maybe not. The prayer has been heard, the prayer has been accepted. Now how and what he does with it I am okay.”

The Maharaja continued pressing this point over the months. On December 18, 2004 he states, “So you know there are times when I'm thinking how much more. I know that we're never given more than what we can bear. And so whatever is given there is a purpose for it. There is a reason. Because in my case I particularly asked allow me to suffer or to experience whatever can assist helping a quantity number of people to be more free in their own spiritual journey.”

On January 8, 2005 he stated, “In my own immature way I am trying to take on some of the mood of Vasudeva Datta, by asking to be used to extinguish some of the obstacles that many devotees are experiencing which causes them so much suffering in their daily lives.”

This continued up to his final letter last May, “I want to thank you so much for helping my life to be successful by allowing me in my own small way to offer myself up in sacrifice, somewhat in the mood of Vasudeva Datta, to try to be the servant of the servant.”

Satsvarupa Prabhu concurs with him in The Letter He Asked Me to Write. “He wanted to do something more dramatic because the world's corruption was so great and there was also a need for purification even in ISKCON.” Then he concludes, “Some have doubted his prayer, but I accept it as sincere and also as efficacious.” Many devotees shared Satsvarupa's view in attributing the cancer to the prayer request, so much so that at one point some even told him to take back his prayer.

One might argue that the real intention of his prayer was to increase awareness of the inequities in ISKCON, and to inspire more loving relationships among devotees. But the above statements make clear his conviction, namely, that his prayer to alleviate the burden of the world caused the cancer.

Unfortunately, accepting this logic introduces serious theological complications, including compelling us to accept Krishna as unfair and whimsical, a God Who torments His devotees for delivering others. Krishna, in fact, descended as the ecstatic incarnation of Lord Caitanya already for this purpose, Who Srila Prabhupada explains, "appeared in this present epoch for the salvation of all souls." (Intro, Bramha Samhita)

In Vaisnavism, the devotees and good souls are protected and even cured by the Lord Himself-like in the case of the leper Vasudeva-and not made to suffer on account of their good intentions. Word-jugglery notwithstanding, there is no connection between the compassion we may feel for the suffering population and our personal pain and disease.

By encouraging-either by direct assertion or tacit support-devotees to accept this idea, we are guilty of manipulating their sentiments. Remember, Vasudeva-datta did not contract a terminal disease as a consequence of his prayers; in fact, Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu instructed him that such sacrifice wasn’t needed. The perpetuation of the "compassion-melanoma link" theory is thus rasa-bhasa and has no place in the doctrine of pure bhakti. By ignoring this significant deviation IKSCON authorities open the door to future fabrications in the name of Srila Prabhupada’s teachings.

Such beliefs better fit the views of certain Christians, or even the Aztecs or the Shintoists. For example, Christians claim the Lamb of God is sacrificed-by suffering, shedding his blood, and ultimately dying like a common thief-to cleanse the sins of the faithful. The Aztecs also routinely sacrificed princes to the Sun god to secure the welfare of the population. And during the Shinto's Hadaka Matsuri Festival in Japan, a sacred man accepts the torment of running naked through a drunked, unruly mob filled with people who hope to divest their bad fortune upon him.

As troubling as this distortion of Vaishnav philoshophy may be, it takes another turn for the worse, becoming some sort of morbid fascination when Bhakti Tirtha Swami begins offering his own flesh to alleviate ISKCON’s problems. He writes on April 23, 2005, "When I had my amputation I offered it up as a sacrifice. I offered that a substantial quantity of pain that some of the women, children, elders, brahmins, and cows etc in our movement had suffered, could be absorbed in my extremely deteriorated leg and that when the leg was amputated, as it was thrown away from my own body, that there would also be some elimination of this unhealthy karma from the body of our institution."

But even this is a prelude to the main show as BTS states in the same letter, "So now today in a similar spirit I want to offer in sacrifice all the rest of what remains with this body. In other words, I fully want to present myself to the Lord in the mood of Saranagati-full surrender. ‘Thy will be done, so please use me in this last way to make an ultimate sacrifice for those devotees, saints and sadhus who are having seemingly insurmountable obstacles in their own spiritual journey.’"

Holy smoke! We have clearly entered the realm of witchcraft or pagan ritualism, where a priest rubs an egg all over a person's body-purportedly to absorb all the negative energy-and then throws it away. Or they may use a chicken or pigeon and then kill it. But offering your own diseased flesh is yet unheard of until now. Yet it is presented as a means to clear the spiritual path for other Vaishnavas.

Bhakti Tirtha Swami's sacrifice-tinged as it is with necrophilia-is obviously not the solution to the problems that face ISKCON. I would suggest that in preference to shamanic sacrifices the leadership might contemplate institutionally supported programs to assist the vulnerable members of the Society. Unfortunately such assistance has been slow in coming, or non-existent. Perhaps it was this widespread institutional lethargy that so haunted BTS that he decided he needed to offer his own flesh. Sorry Maharaja, but not the right approach.

Allow me to turn to the nature of Bhakti-Tirtha Swami’s disease since devotees express confusion over how Krsna would take away such a distinguished “general” from the “battlefield” when ISKCON yet faces so many important challenges. In an istagosthi on August of 2004 he explained, "They took the MRI, saw the slides, x-rays. Nobody had any clue that it was cancer, in the slightest. As a matter of fact on the MRI it suggested that the tumor is able to be taken out because previously I didn't have it taken out. Twenty years ago when I first had some little trouble because it continued to grow, I had a biopsy, and the biopsy, they said it is benign, but have it taken out ... so then recently I started getting more trouble."

So twenty years ago BTS became aware of a benign tumor in his foot that began to grow, and the physician recommended that he remove it-advice neglected by BTS. Potentially, this neglect resulted in the development of the melanoma cancer. As do many other undiagnosed or untreated illnesses, melanoma strikes 55,000 people, killing 8,000, every year in the U.S.

In a written tribute to Bhakti-Tirtha Swami, Prahladananda Swami states, "A few years ago in the Bhaktivedanta Hospital in Mumbai you showed me your foot that you had been dancing on for years, and I could understand that it was certainly empowered by Lord Caitanya, otherwise, from the material point of view, it would have been difficult even to use for walking." Were there, then, clear indications that BTS should treat his condition and prevent further medical complications?

The point I am stressing is that, even after the melanoma appeared, BTS refused to acknowledge the untreated skin abnormality as the probable cause of his cancer but instead claimed his compassionate prayer was the cause of it. He lost an important opportunity to use his own illness as a platform to create greater health awareness throughout the Society.

Many people in the world have used their own afflictions in a highly effective way to create community awareness. While it may not be as glamorous as heralding oneself to be a Post-modern Vasudeva-datta, it would certainly be more helpful to the devotee population. Didn’t Srila Prabhupada often finish his letters with, "I hope this meets you in good health”?

This becomes more relevant considering ISKCON's abyssmal record in taking care of its own. The cows haven't been very lucky, nor the children, nor the women, nor the devotees who served the Society for twenty years and-for whatever reason-have to start thinking "now what?" Time flies, devotees grow old, there is no health insurance, no savings, no regular check ups, and ISKCON is not going to provide these, except-of course-to the elites. But rather than addressing these grave shortcomings with actions and tangible results, Bhakti-Tirtha Swami chose instead to present himself as an incarnation of compassion, announcing his readiness to sacrifice his own life for the welfare of others.

I was speaking with my niece the other day, and she made an interesting point to me in this regard. I take her opinion seriously as she is an educated person (M.A. in Government Administration from Harvard and currently a fellow and Ph.D. candidate in Conflict Resolution at M.I.T). She offered the insight that an organization that heaps such grandiose attributes on its leading members is still in the messianic stage. Real compassion in an organization must be the result of an official policy of total respect to its members by acknowledging their qualities and rights. In ISKCON this is not yet possible due to its paternalistic culture and static layers of management authority, neither of which reflects Srila Prabhupada’s instructions on the subject.

If ISKCON had adopted a functional structure along the lines of Srila Prabhupada’s neglected Directions of Management, today compassion would be more of an everyday reality. There wouldn’t be a need for priviliged individuals to lead causes that often improve more their own prestige than the real well-being of the community.

To give just credit, Bhakti-Tirtha Swami was not a typical, or ordinary, if you will, person. Perhaps his life is even interesting enough to warrant the biography he personally commissioned. On the other hand, many of his personal beliefs and characteristics seem oddly out of place in a person claiming to be an exalted representative of the Gaudiya Vaisnava Sampradaya.

First, consider his books, the source of numerous questions by numerous serious-minded devotees. In response to such concerns BTS flatly declared, "This is their problem not mine." Speaking from personal experience, I recall receiving from him a complimentary copy of his Leadership for an Age of Higher Conciousness. My honest opinion is that it does not favorably compare in quality with the better "karmi" books on leadership, health, stress management, compassion, personal-growth, or even new-age fussion ideas. Deepak Chopra, the Dalai Lama, Covey, Jack Welsh, or Dr. Phil all do a far superior job of addressing these issues. Unfortunately, in many of his other writings, such as his essay Die Before Dying, Krishna is barely mentioned or omitted all together. So much for that "saving grace."

And, of course, there are his outfits, canes, crowns, hats and other unconventional accessories he was so fond of wearing. Defenders point to them as part of his unorthodox preaching-creative adjustments according to time and circumstances. Personally, I find the photo of Srila Prabhupada in Moscow's Red Square much more inspiring and dramatic. He declined whimsical dress to please the Commies and stayed true to his Vaishnava heritage. Neither did Srila Prabhupada, while visiting us here in Mexico, don a Zoot Suit to blend in with the locals. A crown on a sannyasi? Regrettably, BTS looked every bit as silly in it as did the original royalist, Kirtanananda.

Unfortunately, Bhakti-Tirtha Swami sees all strange behavior as evidence of his spiritual advancement, and actually implores us to relish his frivolity. He even went so far as to establish a museum to display his collection. "When the full biography comes out and when some of you later visit the museum that’s being set up and you see all the outrageous clothes, crowns, canes, and volumes of books that I used as references, you will realize that it's amazing how I appeared to be as sane as I did." Uh, excuse me Maharaja, but to many you didn't appear particularly sane. And might I suggest a suitable location for this much anticipated museum? How about Las Vegas, next door to the museum of the flamboyant Liberace? Better yet, skip the whole thing and sell off the stuff, and use the proceeds to help buy health insurance for a few ISKCON devotees.

And then, of course, let us not forget the voodoo. In a personal conversation some years back I noticed how BTS kept directing the subject towards black magic, incantations and occult powers. When I told him that it was a bunch of superstitious mumbo-jumbo, he began ranting that I better start believing in it, to which I replied that it can only affect you if you bring your mind to that level. I explained how in 1519 the Conquistadores were overunning Aztec fighters and approaching the Aztec capital. A desparate Montezuma began placing curses and magic charms to impede their progress, but the Spanish soldiers cared nothing for his magic and so nothing stopped them, and Montezuma was completely subdued.

Not wanting to leave any bogus beliefs untouched, Bhakti-Tirtha Swami also includes extra-dimensional encounters in his portfolio as well. Time and again he speaks of appearing to people in dreams and connecting with them in a different dimension. He stated last April, "Why am I at this time ready to take more disciples when I am leaving in a short time and won't see 99 percent of you again in this lifetime other than if I appear to you via visions, dreams, or sound etc? ... and some even have connected with me from a previous life."

Some leaders joined in endorsing these nocturnal pow-wows, such as Radhanath Swami when he revealed how BTS told him that they will continue to communicate after he leaves the body. And, according to Bhakti-Charu Swami, in their last conversation BTS assured him, "Don’t worry, even after I leave, I will come to you. We will continue to communicate with each other. You know that the physical plane is not the only plane for us to relate to each other." Is that the theme from the Twilight Zone I hear softly in the background?

As a result, some have already signed up for the inter-planetary communications. Lokanath Swami says, "You read my mind... so... you kindly came to me, you paid me a visit in a dream." Satsvarupa says in his letter, "He promised to keep in communication with me even after he has left his body and I hope that this can be true. Why not? Everything is possible in the line of transcendental communications." In another testimony we read, "One or two weeks before his glorious departure, Maharaja wrote to me: ‘From now on, Sacinandana Swami, we will associate in our dreams.’ And he kept his promise. One of these mornings he came and pacified us. And before leaving he imparted an instruction: ‘In our hearts there are two dogs-fighting. Who will win?’ Then he gave the answer: ‘That dog will win whom you give food.’" That is profound.

The catalogue of oddities continues and seems almost limitless: The “Love” thing, his idea of continuing to live through others, his intimacy with Lord Krsna, his thoughts a couple of years ago about leaving this world, the UFOs, the animism, or his missed departure dates.

We also have his revelation last December about his own spiritual status, “A few rare cases, where some of us, or some have come in from some realms, rather exalted and have gotten a little too entangled in some missions in the material energy. In some rare cases where that happens, mercy is there and the Lord arranges according to His desire how to reclaim such souls. We perhaps have had a few people in that category in our own society who are very highly evolved beings, but after several missions, have gotten a little too much identifying with the work, more than the identity. So some of that may be there in my own case also.”

As the philosopher Ivan Illich states, "Nothing worse than corrupting the best." This is true, perhaps more dangerously so, when the corruption is unrecognized by the corrupted party. So when the GBC claims that Bhakti-Tirtha Swami was "strict with himself," it is not accurate, at least not ideologically.

Nonetheless, by the time he died the voodoo and many other oddities had dissapeared. Everything was now very devotional, and selected vaisnava symbols accompanied him-the Govardhana Sila on his head, the Tulasi garland surrounding his neck, the sprinkled Radha Kundha water, the devotional pictures around him, the chanting of Hare Krsna, etc. Spiritual items befitting a Spiritual Warrior, a Vaishnava King, a Devotee Gentleman. Just like the distinguished individual with his Gucci briefcase, Hugo Boss suit, Bentley conveyance, and Rolex watch.

Although such a comparison may outrage some devotees, I offer it for an important reason. A few years ago I witnessed a godbrother of Bhakti-Tirtha Swami die in the most pitiful way in the Mexico City temple-a temple BTS regularly visited already. This godbrother was not some indigent; in fact he was a temple board member who lived in the temple building and attended all the temple functions. Yet he died alone, lying on the floor in his sleeping-bag with no arrangements for auspicious paraphernalia.

Sadly, his death from pneumonia was completely preventable, but he lacked resources to pay for any medical attention. With no help, or even apparent concern, from the temple devotees and authorities, he developed a pulmonary congestion that became fatal. His lonely death stands in stark contrast to BTS’s elaborate departure, replete with the victory palanquin, the Krsna conciouss ambiance, the devotees singing at a perfect tempo, the flower bouquets, the bonfires, the exuberant dancing, and the stately, well-organzed ceremonies. BTS even was able to pick his "own samadhi and all the stuff that comes with it."

Ironically, BTS was personally cared for by his dear godbrother and fellow guru Radhanath Swami-a New Vrndavana fellow-alumnus of Sulochan Prabhu, who also passed away unceremoniously from a bullet to his head for speaking out about the corruption of ISKCON’s authoritarian leadership. But Radhanath did not want to see BTS pass away so ignomiously, so he assisted him week after week along with a team of caretakers in his well-being and visnu-smaranam and arranged for nurses to check his vital signs and administer the right doses of pain medication.

Present at the time of his demise was also the heavenly singer Vrakesvara Pandit Prabhu. BTS had asked him to “chant for me to go back to Godhead” and stated that “your kirtana helps me to remember Srila Prabhupada and Krsna.” It didn’t matter that Vrakesvara Pandit is a certified child molester who had been officially forbidden from leading any public function in ISKCON.

Yes, as many of you already guessed, most ISKCON members won’t get to die like a Spiritual Warrior; more likely they will be treated as used up merchandise. If this seems hyperbolic, might I suggest you read ISKCON Vrndavana’s recent statement on the terminally ill.

Nonetheless, I still am prepared to acknowledge Bhakti-Tirtha Swami’s devotional service over the years. He did please Srila Prabhupada with his colleage preaching. He did lead many of kirtans in which the Holy Name was invoked. He did lecture a lot creating interest in Srila Prabhupada’s teachings. If his mind was fully Krsna conciouss at the time of his death it is very auspiciouss. I am not in a position to judge all this. But might I remind you that such service does not equate with nitya-siddha status, nor does it excuse him from his overlooking and/or contributing to so many of ISKCON's serious and even dangerous shortcomings. He was clearly part of the problem and his passing only makes this more evident.

So after all is said, I leave you with one question. What should we expect from ISKCON gurus in the future? I would anticipate more of the same-let those who initiate disciples do as please as long as the ISKCON boat is not rocked too hard by their actions. The current de facto lassier-faire policy on guru matters will likely continue, with some ambitious gurus on permanent campaign for the role of successor acharya, while others abide this to protect their comfort and security and to keep certain skeletons in the closet. Be prepared for more of the baroque complexity in both the lives and the deaths of those in prominence, while the ISKCON commoners experience neglect and indifference. All a bit too medieval for my taste, and, I suspect, too discriminatory and exploitative for the true good of ISKCON. Forgive me if speaking my mind honestly causes you any inconvenience. I invite you to reply and tell me what you think.

Your servant
Radha Krsna dasa
Mexico City


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