Controversy erupts over possible sale of Hare Krishna temple in Brooklyn

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Sri Sri Radha Govinda Mandir, the Hare Krishna temple located in Brooklyn (Photo credit: www.radhagovindanyc.com)

NEW YORK – The Sri Sri Radha Govinda Mandir, the Hare Krishna temple located in Brooklyn, is mired in controversy after fight over leadership – pitting the temple president and his board of trustees against the leaders of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, and a possible sale of the temple for close to $60 million to a developer, reported The New York Times.

The man who started the Hare Krishna movement in the United States, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Srila Prabhupada, was part of Mahatma Gandhi’s civil disobedience movement in India and later became a disciple of a prominent Hindu guru who asked him to spread his teachings to the English-speaking world, said the report. So in 1965, at the age of 69, Swami Prabhupada stowed away on a cargo ship, arriving in New York with about $7 in Indian rupees and a crate of Sanskrit texts, according to the documentary “Hare Krishna! The Mantra, the Movement and the Swami Who Started It All.” He founded the Hare Krishna Society in 1966.

In Brooklyn, the temple attracted hundreds of people for Sunday services at first, but the congregation soon started to fracture, as did the organization at large. In 1996, a prominent leader in West Virginia, who had once run the largest Krishna community in the United States, was accused of murder and jailed for racketeering. Two years later, the Hare Krishna Society conceded that physical, sexual and emotional abuse of children occurred at its boarding schools across the country, including in Dallas, Seattle and several in India, the Times reported.

Although there were between 50 and 60 devotees who lived at the Brooklyn temple in the ’80s, the number of full-time volunteers dwindled over the years. By the ’90s, many of the congregants were Indian and Bangladeshi immigrants who traveled from Queens and Long Island to the temple, which prompted the idea of building a new temple in Queens, said Heather Britten (Satya Dasi), the temple’s treasurer.

Britten said that she believes a more modern space would benefit the community and help attract future members. Even though Downtown Brooklyn is booming, she explained to the Times, “The rent is so high in the area, there’s not a lot of people from our congregation who live around here anymore.” About 100 or so members attend Sunday services on a regular basis, she said.

The temple’s president, David Britten (Ramabhadra Das), and his board twice asked the Hare Krishna Society’s ecclesiastic directors, known as the Governing Body Commission, for permission to “move the deities,” which implied a property sale — once in 1998 and again 2008. Britten and his board were given approval both times, said Seth Spellman (Sesa Das), a commission member and the head of a group tasked with halting the current sale. But a lack of interest from buyers, and then the financial crisis, held back possible deals, the report said.

As the economy and the real estate market once again gathered steam, however, it became easier for the board to find a buyer. Two years ago, congregants were shocked to discover that the temple board had signed a sales contract with a developer for $58.8 million.

Many members say an existing temple, and more important, the deities that live there, cannot be moved unless there’s an urgent need, as stipulated in Swami Prabhupada’s will. It is sacrilegious, said Shakti Assouline, a 36-year-old yoga instructor and former congregant of the Brooklyn temple who said she is no longer welcome there because of her differing opinion, the report said.

Tensions erupted in late July 2017, when the commission tried to remove Mr. Britten from his post after decades of service. He refused to leave the temple, where he lives, or abdicate his position. Instead, he locked the temple doors for several weeks, shuttering Govinda’s as well. Although Sunday services resumed a few weeks later, congregants noticed private security personnel at the door blocking several members who had been vocally against the sale from entering the building.

The commission grew more concerned when the large Hare Krishna Society temple sign was removed from the building’s facade in August, leading some to believe that Mr. Britten was disassociating the temple from the society.

The tension, of course, is over which governing entity — the local temple board, led by Mr. Britten, or the global Hare Krishna Society, led by the Governing Body Commission — will have control over the millions of dollars from the property sale, if it is allowed to proceed, the Times reported.

The temple property is owned by a religious corporation called the Bharati Center Inc., which legally makes the temple board trustees the owners of 295-311 Schermerhorn Street.

If the sale goes forward, the commission is worried that the money will be in the hands of a temple board that no longer seems to be part of the Hare Krishna Society, so it has taken steps to wrestle back control of the temple by forming a new board of trustees, which includes Mr. Surti. But the Brittens, as well as the other board members who are supportive of the sale, continue to exist and operate.

The New York State attorney general’s office told the Bharati Center board in September that the multiple proposals it had submitted didn’t meet the legal requirements for approval and that it should find recourse in court. A date has been set for late January at State Supreme Court in Brooklyn, the New York Times reported.

The fractured Brooklyn congregation has led to the formation of many smaller Hare Krishna groups. Surti said a group in New Rochelle attracts society members from Westchester, the Bronx and Upper Manhattan, while there are several in Queens, including a Bengali and Gujarati group that meets in Long Island City and Jackson Heights, the report said.

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