A pivotal episode in the great drama of Srila Prabhupada’s fight to build the Bombay temple.
By Giriraj Swami
Juhu devotees put up a heroic defense against attacks by corrupt police and municipal workers.
Excerpted from I’ll Build You a Temple: The Juhu Story, by Giriraj Swami. Copyright © 2020 The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust. This excerpt retains the book’s style for Sanskrit words and other considerations. Available from the Krishna.com Store.
Tamal Krishna and his party were traveling in Madhya Pradesh, and I was keeping him informed by post. He would come every now and then, just to see how things were going, and a few weeks later, in mid-May, he came for a visit, enlivened and full of stories about his preaching.
At around ten o’clock on the morning of May 18, Tamal Krishna left to rejoin his party, and less than two hours after his departure, two large trucks from the Bombay Municipal Corporation drove onto Hare Krishna Land and fifty municipal workers carrying crowbars, chisels, and sledgehammers descended on the temple. Following close behind was a big police truck, from which twenty or thirty constables emerged.
I rushed forward to meet the municipal officer in charge and asked him what was happening, why were they there. He said that the structure was unauthorized and that they had come to demolish it. I replied that the temple was authorized and that I had the papers to prove it, that I had just had our permit renewed. “We have permission,” I said. “You can’t do this.”
The officer, however, seemed uninterested, even after I showed him the permit and the letter I had received at city hall, signed by the municipal commissioner himself. “We don’t accept your papers,” he said. And he ordered the demolition to begin.
I approached the policemen for help but was told offhandedly, “We are just here to see that there is no trouble.” Actually, they knew that we would try to stop the demolition, and they were there to make sure it continued without interference. What we heard later was that Mrs. Nair had collected twenty-five thousand rupees on the death of her husband and had distributed the money to the municipal corporation and the police; and the municipal councilor for Juhu, Pushpakant Mhatre, who had been supporting Mr. Nair all along, had arranged for the temple to be demolished.
Some workers put a ladder up against the temple, but when one of them was about to climb up with a sledgehammer to break the roof, I knocked the ladder over. Three policemen grabbed me – one by each arm and one by the neck – and tossed me into the police truck. Other devotees rushed forward to stop the demolition, but one by one each was apprehended and thrown into the truck – maybe twenty of us in all.
The last one left was Maithili, the head pujari. She had locked the doors to the Deity chamber and was standing steadfast in front of them, ready to knock down anyone who came near. “I was carrying the Deities’ raja-bhoga offering,” she later recalled. “When I saw that there were a lot of policemen surrounding the temple, I dropped the plates and started to run towards the temple. I closed, locked, and bolted the Deity-room doors, which were up a few steps, and I stood on the top step with my back to the doors. The workers were knocking down the whole roof of the temple hall, including the long tube lights, as well as the framed pictures of Krishna, and when they turned to destroy Tulasi I left my position with my back to the doors and went to the middle of the temple, where she was standing from the morning – because they were going to hit her – and at that point they grabbed me. I hit one of the officers in the face – then they all came around me and starting to drag me out of the temple.
“On the way, I wrapped my elbow around one of the steel tubes supporting the corner of the temple and held on as hard as I could.” She was a big, strong woman, and they couldn’t pry her off. “They started hitting my elbow with a stick so I would let go, and I fell onto the floor of the temple, and then they picked me up by one foot and one braid of my hair and dragged me across the field, which was now full of people watching the whole thing. They carried me halfway across the field and, as many people watched in horror, threw me face down into the police wagon.”
When Prabhupada heard that Maithili had been kicking and screaming at the policemen as they were dragging her by the hair, he said that she would go back to Godhead kicking and screaming. And he compared her to Draupadi, whose hair, infamously, had been grabbed by the evil Duhshasana.
After Maithili had been dragged from the temple, two women – Jagat Purusa’s mother-in-law, Yashoda, and another local woman – guarded the Deities. And because they were Hindu Indian ladies, the police did not touch them. But other than them, no one – not any of the hundreds of neighbors, tenants, or passersby – lifted a finger to help us.
When the demolition squad had destroyed or dismantled the entire temple hall except for the steel poles supporting the roof, they called for a blowtorch. Meanwhile, some of the neighbors who opposed us had gathered to watch and were laughing and joking together. Mhatre was standing by the little Shiva temple across the street, and he and his accomplices were enjoying the show.
One man who lived across the street, Krishna Rao Rane, stood quite close and was laughing as he watched the workers cutting the steel rods with the blowtorch. Before we arrived on the land, he had distilled illegal liquor there and hid it in the overgrown weeds and bushes. He was quite influential in Juhu in a tamasic sort of way and didn’t think he would maintain the same power – the same hold on people – with us there.
Yashoda was also something of a mystic, and when she saw the man watching and laughing, she cursed him, “Just as you are laughing now when Krishna’s temple is being burned, one day you will also burn.”
Only one devotee wasn’t arrested during the demolition – Manasvi. He was crouched behind some bushes watching the whole thing. When he saw us all being carried away, he found a telephone, called Mr. Mahadevia, and asked him to help.
Mr. Mahadevia phoned Bal Thackeray, a staunch Hindu and the founder and leader of the Shiv Sena, one of Bombay’s most powerful political parties, and told him what was happening. If he did not intervene, Mr. Mahadevia told him, the temple would be destroyed and he would get a bad name.
Bal Thackeray phoned the municipal commissioner, informed him of what was taking place, and told him to stop the demolition. The municipal commissioner, being part of the clique that had conspired against the temple, objected, but Bal Thackeray warned him, “Just remember who this city belongs to.”
“Okay, Balasaheb, okay,” the commissioner said, and he called the local ward, which had dispatched the attackers, and told them to halt the demolition.
The ward officer himself came running, reached the site just as the workers were getting ready to dismantle the Deity chamber, and ordered them to stop. They had already completely destroyed the darshan-mandapa (viewing area) and had removed the first few pieces of the roof covering the Deities.
Those of us in the police truck were taken to the Santa Cruz station and locked up in a holding cell. “I want to phone my lawyer,” I called out.
“No phone calls,” they said. “Stay where you are. You’re not going anywhere.”
When Dr. Singhal heard that we had been arrested, he came to the station and appealed to the officer in charge on our behalf. “They are not sinful,” he said. “Or criminals. And they are not hypocrites. They are genuine people. We know them. They should be released.”
The police allowed Dr. Singhal to come inside and see us. “The devotees were doing kirtan,” his wife recounted, “sitting and chanting with kartals. They were not sad – except for the Deities and the temple. Otherwise, they were happy there. They had full faith in Krishna.”
Only after several hours were we released from custody and able to return to the site. When we got back from the police station, we came upon a strange scene. In the middle of a vacant lot strewn with rubble and the metal bars that had once supported the temple structure were the beautiful Sri Sri Radha-Rasabihari, dressed in Their green-and-silver outfits and garlanded with flowers. They stood on Their carved teakwood altar amid the fragrant scent of burning incense and warm glow of ghee lamps. Only a few small pieces of the roof over Them had been removed; other than that, They and Their Deity room remained intact. And the picture of Lord Nrisimhadeva over the altar doors, though slightly tilted to the side, had survived as well, as if He was looking down upon us and assuring us that He had been there to protect the Deities.
“It was amazing,” Maithili recalled. “The flower that I had put behind the ear of Radha-Rasabihari was still there and the ghee lights were still burning. The only offering They had missed was the räja-bhoga offering.”
The next morning, headlines broadcast the news of the temple demolition. “UNAUTHORIZED TEMPLE DEMOLISHED BY MUNICIPAL AUTHORITIES,” announced the Free Press Journal. “The makeshift Radha-Krishna temple constructed about a year ago by followers of the Hare Krishna sect at Nairwadi, Juhu, was demolished by thirty municipal officers amidst police security. This resulted in a clash between members of the Hare Krishna sect and the municipal officers.”
Mhatre had arranged for hostile reports about us to appear everywhere, which, as we learned, could be achieved by bribing the newspaper people. He had been paying people off and spreading his false propaganda, telling them that we were hippies, drug users, kidnappers, even CIA agents. He raised questions about our charitable status with the charity commissioner and even more alarming, had approached the Foreigners Registration Office to have us kicked out of India.
When Srila Prabhupada was informed of what had happened, he was, of course, concerned, but he told us not to worry. The episode was part of Krishna’s plan, he said, and if we took it as an opportunity the results would be positive. The demolition of our temple by the municipality would actually strengthen our position.
Still, he told us, the incident showed that we could not manage it all on our own; we needed the help of our life members. We should take advantage of the incident to organize them and get them more involved in our activities and, along with our other supporters and sympathizers, to publicly protest the attack, expose the persons responsible, and begin the rebuilding process. He suggested several who might be of particular assistance. Mr. Sadajiwatlal, who led the Vishva Hindu Parishad, an organization that defended Hindu dharma, could help with publicity, and Mr. Sethi could help prevent further attacks.
We began to approach our friends and life members. Prabhupada himself sent an open letter, which we published in the next edition of The Hare Krishna Monthly. “The Krishna Consciousness Movement is considerably well known all over the world,” he began. “This Movement is meant for the total reformation of the whole human society. It is not a sectarian religious movement, but is a scientific method to awaken dormant God consciousness in every human being. . . . In 1965 I went to the States, and for more than one year I had no support there. Later on, by July 1966, some of the younger section of America had joined me, and they supported this movement wholeheartedly. Our basic principle is the Bhagavad-gita as it is. After organizing this movement in America, Europe, Canada, Australia, etc., I came back to India in 1970 with a group of American assistants. . . . With this purpose I took the Hare Krishna Land.”
He then reported the latest development, “that the Bombay Municipality, under the influence of Mrs. Nair, had the audacity to smash our temple, against the law and principle of religious faith. So, a great clique is going on in Bombay to drive us away from the land, without returning our money or [compensation for] damages.
“We have many sympathizers and life members of our society, and I wish they may come forward to help us in this precarious position and save the situation. Our cause is so noble, scientific, and pure, that everyone, irrespective of caste, creed, and religion, should come forward and save us from this position. I hope that my appeal to the people of Bombay will not go in vain.”