More than 100 “Vedic Pandits” have gone missing over the last few months after coming to the United States from India for their 2-year training at a campus in Iowa. The sponsoring organization says the priests may have been lured by employers who could be exploiting them.
The U.S. immigration authorities have been informed of the disappearances, according to the Global Country of World Peace (GCWP), the organization which has sponsored 2,600 priests over the last 7 years on the R-1 (religious) visa, William Goldstein, general counsel of the GCWP told Desi Talk.
Goldstein, who is also the Dean of Global Development at Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa, said he has been closely involved with the Vedic Pandit program since its inception in 2002. He has worked closely with Indian authorities and the U.S. State Department to make it a reality starting 2006. Priests who have trained in India since childhood, and are above the age of 18, are eligible for the all-expenses paid 2-year program that brings them to the campus in Fairfield, Iowa, near the Maharishi Vedic University. However, the average age of the priests who have come to the U.S., is 26.5 years, Goldstein said, contrary to some news reports which described them as ‘teens’.
The GCWP is a non-profit which runs the Vedic Pandit program partly on tax-deductible donations that it seeks on its website. In an October 2012 entry on the site, the GCWP says, “In the last six years we have built with your help a Vedic Pandit campus consisting of a quarter million square feet of housing, dining, meditation halls, Vedic performance halls, recreation buildings, sports fields, lake and parks. We now have enough capacity on the Vedic Pandit campus to comfortably accommodate 1200 Vedic Pandits.” These pandits live in “Maharishi Sthapatya Veda housing” where they are “meditating long hours, eating high quality food prepared by their own Brahman cooks according to Vedic tradition, and spending many hours a day in Vedic recitations and study,” the GCWP says, adding that “All this has been made possible by over 15,000 separate donations,” the organization says.
Goldstein said that over the 6 to 7 years of the program, barely 30 priests had left it.. The recent surge was perplexing and he believed there may be “some kind of organized racket of employers who take these people and put them into sweatshops.”
“This is a relatively new occurrence. We are trying to figure it out,” Sandy Crowe, spokesperson for the Brahmananda Saraswati Foundation and Trust, which conducts the worldwide Vedic Pandit program and oversees the GCWP’s program, told Desi Talk. “It’s a sticky situation. We have to follow the law. We are really trying to find out why it is happening. This program means a lot to us,” Crowe added. “But we can’t detain them. We are not their jailers,” Crowe said, if the priests abscond.
Desi Talk contacted the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, but did not receive a response by press time. A spokesperson at a regional ICE office told Desi Talk there is very little the agency can do if someone goes missing. “If it is somebody who’se just left, it would not be our problem. It would be our concern if they were caught doing something,” said Shawn Neudauer, public affairs officer at the ICE Minnesota office.
Goldstein related one instance where 4 priests were recently found working in the bathrooms of a local Pakistani restaurant in Chicago. They were put on the first one-way flight back to India at the expense of the GCWP. The priests are not forthcoming when questioned about their motivations or about other priests, he said and insisted it was not premeditated on the part of the priests.
“My sense is this is something that happens after they (priests) come here. They have pressures back in India and with the rupee declining, they may think – if I work for a short while I could earn enough to help family back home,” Goldstein said.
The recent disappearances are not apparently hampering the Vedic Pandit program. “We have 400 pundits currently ready in India to depart for the U.S.,” Goldstein said.