Dear Devotees and Friends of New Vrindaban, Please accept my humble obeisances. All glories to Srila Prabhupada.
On Friday, June 19, many devotees attended the memorial service for Venkatachalapati prabhu, a beloved member of the New Vrindaban community. As GBC representative for New Vrindaban, I would like to officially report the latest information regarding the events leading up to his death.
Although an earlier report speculated that his death was an accident, several things have made it clear that Venkata took his life by drowning. One is that he was found holding his personal deity of Lord Nrsimhadeva. Another is that a handwritten suicide note was later found in his office. Finally, we learned that Venkata had personally pre-arranged a sraddha ceremony (puja for a departed soul) to be offered in Vrindavan, India, in his legal name on the day he drowned.
We also have some indication of why he may have committed this grave act. Approximately one week before his passing, ISKCON New Vrindaban received an email from a family that Venkata had been cultivating alleging that Venkata had had an inappropriate exchange with their daughter, a teenage girl, over the phone. The family was concerned and wanted to bring the problem to the attention of the New Vrindaban authorities, primarily so that Venkata could be helped.
That email was reported to Jaya Krsna das, the temple president. He asked Malati dasi (ACBSP)—who has been trained by the ISKCON Child Protection Office—to interview Venkata personally, and the mother of the girl on the phone.
As an organization, ISKCON takes child protection very seriously. Thus, upon receiving Malati’s preliminary report, Jaya Krsna informed the New Vrindaban internal legal committee and the ISKCON North American Child Protection Office (CPO). Malati also contacted Radha dasi, a Family Law attorney, who confirmed that the incident met the criteria for mandatory reporting. Thus, as ordained by law, the case was reported to West Virginia authorities.
Per mandatory CPO protocol, Venkata was informed that for the duration of any investigation, he would be restricted from services that bring him into contact with minors. He was not permanently removed from any of his services. Jaya Krsna then arranged for Venkata to meet with Sukhavaha dasi, who serves in devotee care and counsels devotees in the community. The first session was to happen on Tuesday morning.
However, on Tuesday, when Jaya Krsna went to Venkata’s apartment to bring him to counseling, he was told by Madhava Kanti dasi, Venkata’s wife, that he was not home. She thought he was at the temple. Fearing something was wrong, Jaya Krsna called other devotees to help and they began searching for Venkata. Malati assisted Madhava Kanti in calling the police to file a missing person report.
After an extensive search, some of Venkata’s personal articles were found by the swan boat house. In the late afternoon, with the help of the sheriff’s department, his body was retrieved from the water.
The weekend after the death, Rambhoru devi dasi, a respected Srila Prabhupada disciple and trained Pastoral Chaplain and grievance counselor, visited New Vrindaban. During her two-day visit she met with many devotees, including Madhava Kanti and devotees in the department who served with Venkata. Rambhoru also met for over three hours with forty community members that Sunday evening, where she led a group discussion about grief. Devotees shared their sense of loss, pain, and shock at Venkata’s death.
Although we will never know the exact thoughts or circumstances that led to Venkata’s death, during these meetings, and from the note that he left, it has become clear that Venkata struggled with serious personal issues. Sadly, on the very morning he was to get additional help from trained counselors he ended his life.
During the memorial service, under the direction of several ISKCON priests, Jaya Krsna performed the functions of Venkata’s father. Devotees were able to view the body, perform kirtan, offer flowers and Tulsi twigs in respect, and then share their memories of Venkata for more than two hours. Afterwards, a smaller number were present and performed kirtan while the crematorium fire was lit.
I am aware that many devotees and friends of New Vrindaban, both local and global, have struggled to make sense of Venkata’s passing. Some social media posts have speculated in false and hurtful ways, perhaps the result of the authors’ own grief. Therefore, I’ll end by clarifying some important points:
There was no foul play in the death of Venkata; he took his own life.
The devotees who served with Venkata, as well as his wife, confirmed that he had a friendly and close working relationship with his Temple President, Jaya Krsna das.
When the above-mentioned allegation surfaced, New Vrindaban authorities followed the required child protection protocols, while also reaching out to help Venkata.
Some questioned whether the memorial service should have been performed differently. I consulted with the International Child Protection Director who advised that the memorial should continue as planned. While an allegation had been brought forward, a CPO investigation had not commenced. Thus, it would be wrong to not allow devotees to honor Venkata as they chose to remember him.
The New Vrindaban community continues to grapple with the pain of Venkata’s passing. Although we know the soul is eternal, death can still be a bitter experience. We are also reminded that many devotees struggle with personal issues and are aware that we must accelerate our shared efforts to provide support and understanding.
Please continue to pray for Venkata prabhu and his surviving family members. I thank you for your prayers, and for your concern for the wellbeing of all the residents, extended members, guests and friends of ISKCON New Vrindaban.
Anuttama dasa Governing Body Commissioner (GBC) ISKCON New Vrindaban