Murder and Mayhem in Mumbai

By Shyamasundara Dasa - 12.1 2018

At the Mayapura festival of 1978 I had joined the Bhaktivedanta Institute and given the service of studying Jyotish. I was relocated to ISKCON Juhu, the BI headquarters in Mumbai, India. Aside from studying Jyotish with the BI my temple service was overseeing the Deity kitchen and I also cooked the 7 PM offering for Sri-Sri Gaura-Nitai, Sri-Sri Radha-Rasa Bihari, and Sri-Sri Sita-Rama-Laksmana-Hanuman, along with my assistant cook Kundali Prabhu. After the offering was taken off the altar we would load up our plates with as much maha-prasadam as we could fit (it was my only meal of the day) and walk back to our rooms in the Brahmacari ashrama at the back of the Juhu property to honor prasadam.

On the evening of Sunday, July 2, 1978 as we were walking back to the ashram to honor prasadam I noticed some altercation was going on with the security guards. On enquiry I found out that they had caught a shoe thief and had garlanded him with a garland of shoes, as was the custom with shoe thieves. Thinking that it wasn’t much we continued back to the ashram. While honoring the maha-prasadam with Kundali Prabhu and talking about esoteric points of astrology I could distinctly hear the sound of glass breaking in the distance and wondered what it was. As we walked back to the temple to return the plates we entered on to a scene of devastation. All the windows had been smashed and the lamps broken (now I knew what that sound was), tables and chairs were strewn everywhere along with tipped over sweet stalls and other paraphernalia. The usual Sunday evening crowd was gone all that remained were few stunned devotees with a shocking story to tell. The following is what I pieced together.

Some of the local hooligans living on our property had begun an argument with our security staff over the shoe thief. (At that time there were many non-devotee tenants on our property some of whom were unsavory characters, they could not be removed because Indian laws favor tenants.) They wanted our security men to release him but were refused; it started to get very heated. Mahabuddhi Prabhu the temple commander came out to sort things out and told both parties to follow him to the foyer of the guesthouse to talk. Thinking that both parties were following him Mahabuddhi Prabhu walked toward the guesthouse, he didn’t get more than 20 feet when he heard what sounded like a coconut being cracked open, except it wasn’t a coconut but a man’s skull being smashed. While Mahabuddhi Prabhu had been walking to the foyer the leader of the thugs took a piece of rebar that was laying on the ground and tried to hit one of our security men but instead the guard wrestled the rebar out of his hands and struck the thug over the head smashing his skull. When this happened gundas appeared from nowhere throwing rocks at windows and attacking the devotees. Devotees described the melee that followed as something out of a Hollywood bar room brawl. Gauranga Prabhu smashed a chair over some gunda who was attacking a devotee. There was a lot of violence. Tejas Prabhu just managed to close the temple doors and kept the gundas out by poking them in the face with the pointy end of his umbrella. Luckily no devotees had any serious injuries.

As it turned out these gundas and hooligans were all in the employ of Puspakanta Matre the municipal corporator and adopted son of Mr. Nair the former owner of the property who had previously tried to cheat Srila Prabhupada and attempted to destroy the temple (that incident is mentioned in the Lilamrita see this link for more ). Puspakanta Matre had paid these thugs to cause trouble and start the riot but things didn’t go as planned when his own man got killed.

We all went to bed that night a little tense but when we woke up the next day things were much worse. By sunrise there were thousands of people crawling all over our property. Apparently Mr. Matre’s men had put up hoardings (bill boards) in the area exhorting people “to avenge the death of our brother at the hands of the foreigners.” The fact that the dead man’s body had been placed on the roundabout in front of the guesthouse and that his common-law wife was wailing over it successfully made the hooligan out to be a victim and us the villains.

The police arrived and started searching the ashrams and property for weapons. Then they gathered all the devotees and put us in one room and had the man’s “widow” go through the room to identify those responsible for his murder. She picked out anyone who was thought to be in management, in all about 12 devotees. It became obvious that the whole thing was a setup when she picked out the main temple leaders H.H. Tamala Krsna Gosvami (TKG) and Giriraja (then) Brahmacari. The police whispered to her that she could not pick them because they had an ironclad alibi; they had not been in the temple the night before but in Ahmadabad and could prove it. Also the woman had not been present for the previous night’s violence so how could she know who was there. The whole episode seemed a tactic with police cooperation to decapitate the leadership of the temple in one blow. Though they were not able to take TKG or Giriraja the police took several other devotees to the Santa Cruz jail including but not limited to: Sridhar Svami, Mahabuddhi Prabhu, Ruci-sevana Prabhu, Jagat Purusha Prabhu, Amogha Lila Prabhu, Pundarik Prabhu and Patita Pavana Prabhu plus a few others who I can not remember.

After the police left with their prisoners I went outside to survey the situation and saw that many thousands of people mostly gundas were loitering on our property in a very angry mood. It seemed to me that we were in a very precarious position since our enemies were in the thousands while we had only a few chowkidhars (security men) armed with short lathis (cane sticks) to defend us.

Then I met a God-brother, who was in his 90s and about 10 years older than Srila Prabhupada himself. This Prabhu whose name I can’t remember (this happened 33 years ago) was the retired former Chief of Police of Multan, Pakistan and very experienced in these matters. He told me that he had walked among the gundas and overheard their plans, which was to wait till it became dark, then attack and kill us all. I had lived in India long enough to know what mob violence was like having a few months before survived weeklong riots that had engulfed Hyderabad leaving many dead. I also knew that the type of killing that he was talking about would most likely mean being hacked to death with crude but deadly choppers like those used for cutting dhabs (tender green coconuts); a slow, terrifying and painful way to die.

I searched out Tamal Krsna Gosvami and gave him my report: that we had no effective security and under threat of imminent attack with deadly force. TKG and Giriraja tightened our defensive perimeter and had all the devotees (about 200 including women and visiting gurukulis) relocate to the guesthouse (managed by Citrakara Prabhu) and temple complex. At the same time we started calling the police in order to get protection but each time we called them they would hang up, further proof that they had been paid off. Then our phone lines got cut. The situation was desperate, it was now about 3 P.M. and only about 3-4 hours before dark and no help was in sight. It was decided that Mahamsa Svami and I should go directly to the Governor of Maharashtra’s residence in Mumbai to get help and by-pass the corrupt police. At the last minute Abhinanda Prabhu was sent with Mahamsa Svami in my place. If I recall correctly it was about 17-18 km to the Governor’s residence through very congested traffic and for them to arrive in time and get help to come before dark was compared to Arjuna fighting his way through the Kuru army in order to reach Jayadratha before sunset.

Since our phone lines were cut we had no way of knowing what progress Mahamsa Svami and Abhinanda Prabhu had made (remember these were the days before PCs, faxes and cell phones, India didn’t even have TV then). Were they stuck somewhere in traffic? Did they reach the Governor? Would he send help? Would the help arrive on time? We just did not know and time was getting shorter and the mob was getting meaner and uglier.

The mob’s banners and placards denounced us demanding revenge. They were loudly chanting slogans and working themselves up into a killing frenzy. When I looked out the window at them a dozen stones were hurled at me. Prasannatma Prabhu was in the temple room leading prayers to Nrsimhadeva for protection to which the mob falsely claimed that we were singing songs in celebration of the murder of their brother the gunda, further infuriating them. Many devotees, myself included, cursed Puspakanta Matre with terrible imprecations and broke their Brahmin threads. As it was getting close to sunset with no relief in sight I recalled that I was seriously thinking that I would not live to see the next sunrise. A thought shared by many that evening.

The mob of about 1000-1500 began massing near the glass doors at the entrance to the guesthouse. They shouted slogans and pushed against our two chowkidars “armed” with short bamboo lathis. Just then we got word that Puspakanta Matre wanted to talk with us. Giriraja was deputed to talk to the other party and stall them as long as possible. The meeting was held in the foyer of the guesthouse. Matre’s motives surfaced, he wanted money. Ostensibly the money was for the “widow” of the dead man. Matre demanded that ISKCON set up a trust that paid the “widow” INR 100,000/year, which was a lot of money in those days (in 1978, $1= INR 8, in 2011 it is $1 = INR 45). Giriraja agreed that this should be done but added that he was only one man and did not have the power to make such decisions unilaterally. This was not the answer that Matre wanted to hear. The meeting ended and Giriraja returned to give us his report.

Still no news about the mission to meet the Governor, and the sun had now set and soon it would be dark as twilight is very short in the tropics. The night is when the Rakshasas become powerful, and it is the favorite time for criminals to do their black work. The mob was working itself up to a feverish pitch in preparation for the assault and expected massacre. They were pushing on the doors in a “heave, ho” motion and even from a distance you could see the glass doors and walls bend; at any moment they would break and the gundas would rush in. I do not know about everybody else but to me it looked like the end and I was fervently praying to the Lord for protection.

Then literally just before all hell broke loose and darkness fell two military trucks of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRFP) pulled in front of the guest house. I could see CRFP jawans jump out with fixed bayonets on their assault rifles. It was all over in less than 5 minutes. That was the end of our close call with mass murder but just the beginning of a much longer ordeal.

The Media Assault

Though we were saved from certain death that night our problems were far from over, a dozen or so of our senior devotees were still in jail and we were inundated by extremely bad media reports on a daily basis. You will laugh at the outrageous leaps of fantasy when I tell you what was printed in the newspapers but we were not laughing. Almost daily for several weeks papers would print stories with headlines such as:

“Submarine-pens found under Hare Krsna Temple”

“Missile silos found in the domes above the temple”

“Sudarsan Cakras above temples found to be radio antennas, Hare Krsnas communicating with US 6th Fleet in Indian Ocean.”

“Police neither confirm nor deny that they found 23 wireless sets under the Deity room of ISKCON temple.”

“ISKCON smuggling drugs to India in cases of Gitas”

“ISKCON devotees conducting Rasalila dances at midnight.”

I told you you would laugh. Well, we weren’t laughing; people read these newspaper reports, took them at face value and stopped coming to Sri-Sri Radha-Rasabhihari Mandir. The only guests coming to our temple were the street dogs. Remember these were the days when ISKCON was accused in the Indian Parliament of being CIA agents. Our temple on Juhu Beach is located only about 200-300 meters from the Arabian Sea hence the accusations that we kept submarines under the temple and were communicating with the US 6th fleet. And, just seven years before in 1971 during the previous Indo-Pakistani war the US had sided with Pakistan. Hence people believed the worst.

When we approached our leading Life Members and supporters to counter these wild allegations no one stepped forward to help because they all believed these outright lies printed in the press. They stopped answering our calls and hung-up on us. This bad press also hit us financially as our Life Membership program came to a halt and no one was prepared to give any donations. We had to depend on support from the BBT and loans from other temples.

The only persons who stood by us during our darkest hour were Dr. Narendra Desai, a.k.a. Nathaji Prabhu a prominent Mumbai industrialist, and Mahaprabhu Prabhu a courageous lawyer. Their help was of inestimable value. And, if I recall correctly Nathaji Prabhu was temporarily made Temple President during the crisis, while Mahaprabhu Prabhu became the brain behind our legal defense, a service you will appreciate more considering that we had a dozen men behind bars accused of murder.

The whole temple went into “damage control” mode. First we had to somehow stop the daily beating that we were getting in the press. A letter writing campaign was started aimed at the editors of various newspapers to print our side of the story. This was ineffective. So it was decided that we had to personally approach the editors of each and every media outlet in Mumbai and Jasomatinandana Prabhu, the president of Ahmadabad temple who came down to help, and myself were assigned to this task.

Do you know how many papers and magazines there are in Mumbai? Lots. There must have been dozens of magazines and papers in English, Marathi, Gujarati, Hindi, and Urdu languages and we had to go to all of them and meet the editors and get them to give our side of the story. One of those meetings stands out in my memory. After slogging through Mumbai during the monsoon we arrived at the office of the editor of “Mother India.” I don’t know if it was a big or small magazine or even what language it was published in. I do remember that the man’s wife was a faded Bollywood starlet from yesteryear who wore too much makeup and looked cheap. They were not friendly and actually insulting. But just as the insults that the asuras would make to the Lord were actually compliments in disguise it was the same with their insults. In particular they said “we know why people are addicted to the prasadam from your Deities, you put opium in it.” At first we were shocked to hear such a statement but then we laughed because they were in fact acknowledging and glorifying Sri-Sri Radha-Rasabihari’s prasadam as being so tasty that it caused euphoria and was addictive like opium. What higher praise is there?

Eventually after great struggle we got most of the major papers to print our side of the story but our problems were still not over as people were still not coming to the temple.

The other side was not inactive but doing all they could to cause us problems. Though we got a court order to keep them at least 100 meters from the temple every day a large group of gundas would demonstrate on the roads leading to the temple discouraging attendance. Once Janardana Prabhu (now Vaikanasa Svami) and Gauranga Prabhu were driving back to the temple after doing some service and came upon this mob not knowing they were paid thugs of Puspakanta Matre. The car was stopped and they were beaten but managed to escape with their lives, they came back to the temple frightened and covered with bruises and lacerations but still in one piece.

Black Magic

Puspakanta Matre also used black magic on us. His house was not far from the temple on the way to the beach and his compound housed sanctuaries for worship of bhutas and pretas. At one time during the siege we were attacked every night by bhutas (ghosts) sent by Matre. We found this out because many brahmacaris reported having strange and terrible dreams of a spectral woman who would approach each of them. This could only be black magic because people do not share dreams. We also noticed that before the attacks occurred that the local dogs would howl in concert as they could sense the presence of the bhutas. This female pisacha was going from one brahmacari to the next looking for someone weak who could be manipulated by Matre. We knew this because it was not the first time Matre had used black magic on us. My God-brother Upendra Prabhu had told me that the previous January several devotees came close to being murdered by black magic in the following manner.

One of our God-brothers Bilvamangala Dasa somehow got married to a local Indian girl who had some connection with Matre’s family. Through this girl Bilvamangal Dasa, a naïve Westerner who knew nothing about these occult matters, was convinced to perform a black magic ritual. He was given a straight razor and instructed to stand waist deep in the Arabian Sea and chant some incantations after which he became haunted and under the control of Matre. What he did next bears witness to what real black magic can do. Bilvamangala Dasa went to the temple in the morning and met Karandhara Prabhu, the temple president, in his office and slashed his abdomen open with the razor. Then leaving him for dead he approached Hari-dasa Prabhu one of our biggest collectors who was sitting in his car about to go out for Life Membership collection. Before Bilvamangala could slash his throat Karadhara Prabhu staggered out of his office holding his intestines in and shouted a warning to Hari-dasa Prabhu. Seeing his plan to kill Hari-dasa Prabhu thwarted Bilvamangala then ran into the temple room and threw the razor onto the floor in front of Giriraja who was giving Bhagavatam class and ran away. When captured he revealed that he had been ordered to kill three people: Karandhara Prabhu, Hari-dasa Prabhu and Giriraja Prabhu. He was later arrested but released on bail, and amazingly would come to the temple for darshan. I personally saw him several times as devotees would whisper and point to him whenever he came. I do not know what happened to him later.

Reverting back to our history, Matre’s attempted use of black magic to find a pawn like Bilvamangala Dasa failed. He only succeeded in disturbing our sleep for a few nights.

Santa Cruz Jail turned into a Temple

As difficult as our situation at the temple was our men in jail had it much worse. In order to give them some relief I, as head of the Deity kitchen, cooked a lot of extra bhoga for offering and ordered all the other cooks to do the same and then had as much of Sri-Sri Radha-Rasabhihari’s, Sri-Sri Gaura-Nitai’s and Sri-Sri Sita-Rama-Laksmana-Hanuman’s mahaprasadam sent to the Santa Cruz jail. The devotees who I sent with the maha-prasadam brought back amazing stories:

Without any devotional paraphernalia those disciples of Srila Prabhupada led by Sridhara Svami had a full morning program. For example they would do manasa puja to a Tulsi plant who only existed in their imagination with equally imaginary incense and flowers; all other pujas were done in the same way. They would have Bhagavatam class and of course lots of kirtan but without karatals and mrdanga. Then they would honor the maha-prasadam I sent them and distribute what was left to the other prisoners. The other 150-200 prisoners were so impressed with our devotees that out of respect for them they gave them one cell out of the three in the jail all to themselves while they crammed themselves into the remaining two cells. That was a big sacrifice and austerity for them. This could only happen in India.

After hearing so many wonderful pastimes I wanted to see for myself so one day I decided to personally bring the maha-prasadam to the jail. As I approaching the Santa Cruz jail I could hear the Harinama kirtan from over two kilometers away as 200 prisoners chanted at the top of their lungs. As I got closer and the kirtan got louder I could tell this was a very ecstatic and enthusiastic kirtan. I was very anxious to get there and join in.

When I arrived the kirtan quickly ended, as the devotees were eager to honor maha-prasada. We were very happy to see each other and though I could not embrace them—they were behind bars—I bowed down to pay my obeisance. As my face approached the floor I encountered an incredibly foul odor and felt the urge to vomit. I was brought back to material reality that this was a filthy Indian jail. But the horrible conditions in no way dampened the spirits of the devotees who had turned a stinking hell into Vaikunta by the power of Krsna’s Holy Name. I saw large pots full of “food” with a slick of red colored oil on top meant for the prisoners. The smell of this “food” was reminiscent of the foul smell I encountered on the floor and probably the cause of it when it spilled from plates and not properly cleaned up. I suppose prison is meant to punish and reform the prisoners so they will not sin again but that “food” was not fit for dogs. I felt sorry that our Deity kitchens could not provide enough maha-prasadam for all the prisoners, but at least they were able to get some remnants of what was left over from the devotees. I resolved to send as much prasadam as was physically possible for distribution to the other prisoners.

Before I left the jail I met a visiting Sikh gentleman who told me his story: He lived in the UK and was visiting Mumbai. As a result of breaking a man’s arm in a bar room brawl he ended up in Santa Cruz jail where he met the devotees. He was so impressed by them that he decided to become a Life Member of ISKCON and now that he had been released from jail he had come to visit his friends the devotees.

Planning for Janmastami

Janmastami was just a few weeks away on Aug 25, 1978 and all this time no one had yet come to the Juhu Temple. We started planning for a propaganda counter attack and worked with our closest supporters to develop a plan to turn the situation around. I recall meetings with leaders of the VHP (Vishva Hindu Parishad) at the Taj Hotel and going to the home of the Maharaja of Udaipur. Despite the fact that the temple had been like a ghost town since July 2nd we planned for a huge Janmastami celebration and sent out every able bodied man to Victoria Station (Chatrapati Shivaji Station) and other crowded sections of Mumbai to distribute invitations to the public to attend our Janmastami function.

Daily the RSS would conduct exercises in the field adjacent to the temple (there is now a park in that location) indicating their support for us. Puspakanta Matre still had his men stationed as close to the temple as the courts would allow. It was feared that they would disturb our Janmastami celebrations but it was said that the RSS let the word get out to Mr. Matre that if his men disturbed ISKCON’s festival there would be blood in the streets, his.

About 10 days or so before Janmastami we had our first visitor to the temple since the incident; the governor of Maharashtra personally came for darshana of Their Lordships with his whole entourage. We took this as a good sign. Then on the Sunday just before Janmastami our main supporters (Maharaja of Udaipur, VHP etc) took out a full-page editorial ad in every major newspaper in Mumbai wherein they wrote of their full support for ISKCON and signed by many high profile dignitaries.

Also before Janmastami all our men were released from jail, at least temporarily. I believe Mahabuddhi Prabhu had to go back to a maximum-security prison as the main accused in the murder. It was so dangerous that Ruci-sevana Prabhu volunteered to go to jail with Mahabuddhi so that he would not be alone. They told me many hair raising stories of what they experience while locked up with murderers, serial killers and the certified criminally insane. But that is something that Mahabuddhi and Ruci-sevana can tell us themselves.

When Janmastami day finally came we were simply overwhelmed. For almost two months no one came to the temple then suddenly we got 100,000 plus guests in one day. It was a major logistics campaign to organize cooking and prasadam distribution with makeshift kitchens built outside (and it was still monsoon season). There were so many guests that all the devotees were swamped in their efforts to take care of them and I suddenly found that I had no one to help in the Deity kitchen to cook the many offerings that are traditionally cooked on Janmastami. I tried shanghaiing anyone I could find but still I was short of help. Though fasting I cooked continuously from 6 AM till midnight and did what I could to offer the best that we had to the Deities. With the support of our congregation, supporters and the herculean efforts of the temple devotees it was a very successful Janmastami celebration and since then the Juhu temple has become a massive success.

I don’t know the details but I heard that Puspakanta Matre’s life went in a downward spiral after this incident. And, the police didn’t get off lightly either. Two years later in 1980, the Mumbai police went on strike and the Indian government sent in the Gurkhas to break it leading to the deaths of several police officers, a fitting karmic payback for their treacherous behavior.

These are my fading memories of what happened in July and August of 1978. I would like to request those devotees such as:

Giriraja Svami, Gopala Krsna Gosvami, Kavicandra Svami, Kesava Bharati Gosvami, Abhinandana Prabhu, Amoghalila Prabhu, Bahusira Prabhu, Bhima Prabhu, Citrakara Prabhu, Gauranga Prabhu, Hari-dasa Prabhu, Jagat-purusa Prabhu, Jasomatinandana Prabhu, Mahabuddhi Prabhu, Narottamananda Prabhu, Ruci-sevana Prabhu, Tejiyas Prabhu, Parvati-devi dasi and Visva-devi dasi

And anyone else I may have forgotten who were serving in Mumbai at that time to please share their memories of that great adventure and correct my mistakes and supplement my narration with their own experiences of that time.

Your humble servant

Shyamasundara Dasa