The mercy of guru and Krsna salvaged a life of degradation born of childhood abuse.
When Tota Gopinatha Dasa arrives at the Chilliwack Community Services building driving a shiny black Harley Davidson motorcycle, the loud rumbling pouring out of the polished silver tailpipes turns every head in the parking lot. At first sight, the long hair tied back into a ponytail and the big belt buckle might suggest that another biker from the halfway house has arrived for an appointment with his parole officer. But when he walks in and takes his seat behind the supervisor's desk, you notice something different about this biker. His clothes are clean, there's a warm glisten in his eyes, and he wears neck beads and tilaka. He may indeed be an angel, but he's clearly not one of hell's.
Tota Gopinatha is a well known, easily recognizable, and highly valued social worker in this town of fifty thousand people in British Columbia, Canada. When he gives motivational lectures to high school audiences and other groups, people listen. His total honesty in confronting human despair and his complete faith in the power of people to heal themselves through prayer has saved and inspired hundreds, if not thousands.
Against the Odds
Although Tota is regarded as confident, happy, well-adjusted, and deeply religious, the road he traveled was filled with violence, addiction, and sexual abuse.
After hearing Tota tell his story to a packed courtroom audience, a highly seated provincial judge said, "In my experience, anyone who has gone through what you have is either dead or serving a life sentence in our federal prisons."
By the time Tota Gopinatha moved into the Vancouver temple at age seventeen, in 1976, he had already been living alone on the streets for seven years. He had escaped the clutches of a violent alcoholic father, who was later tried and convicted for his attempts to murder Tota.
On the streets, Tota was periodically picked up and placed into different missions and foster homes, where sexual abuse was common. He recalls being brought into a steam-bath house where a number of sweaty men lined up to impose sexual favors on the boy.
"I had 'victim' written all over my face," Tota explains.
Mercy to Last More than a Lifetime
Somehow he ended up on Krsna's doorstep and spent eight years chanting Hare Krsna and following the regulative principles of devotional life. It was during this initial encounter with Krsna consciousness that Tota feels he received the mercy that would later save him. One episode stands out. Tota recalls once spending eighteen straight hours distributing Srila Prabhupada's books 640 in one day. He was later told that when an ailing Srila Prabhupada had seen the book-sales report, he had touched Tota's name at the top of the list and commented that seeing his disciples taking up this work with such great enthusiasm gave him life. Close to thirty years later, Tota remembers that event with great satisfaction. He feels certain that for at least a moment he received the mercy of his spiritual master, and that's more than enough to guarantee his ultimate spiritual success.
That moment of glory unfortunately was followed by a decade of degradation. Ten long years of drug and alcohol abuse, financed by stealing and cheating, ended in a jail term at British Columbia's Ocala prison.
As Tota now laughingly puts it, "I still had a few issues to work out."
The emotional trauma of a wickedly cruel, almost inhuman, childhood filled with sexual abuse had yet to be reconciled.
In 1990 Tota hit rock bottom. It was on the front lawn of a wild bikers' party. Inside, behind darkened windows, his friends were engulfed in hysterical revelry fueled by cocaine and alcohol. Outside, a weeping Tota was on his knees begging Lord Krsna for help. As he did so, a familiar voice in his heart reassured him. From that moment he turned his back on addiction and never returned.
That was the beginning of his road to recovery. It was followed by endless hours of counseling and prayer. Gallons of tears from his heart poured out over the weeks, months, and years that followed.
Tota's childhood trauma was eventually brought to closure when a highly publicized court case sentenced his father to prison for the wrongs he had inflicted upon his son over a quarter of a century earlier. After a three-day hearing, regularly interrupted by a tearful court reporter who found it difficult to record the history of Tota's tormented childhood, Tota was award-ed a court settlement from the province of Ontario. He invested it in real estate, and the one-time penniless, skid-row drug addict and ex-con now expects to retire by age sixty.
Using Life's Lessons
It was during the years of rehabilita-tion that Tota began an in-depth study of the psychology of addiction and sexual abuse. Nearly every waking hour has found him enrolled in one course or another. His certificates now fill a fat binder and cover the better part of a wall.
His early training in the philosophy and principles of Krsna consciousness, coupled with his own real life lessons and the same passionate enthusiasm that once made him a top book-salesman, synthesized into a dynamo of a self-made social worker infused with the power to heal. His deep understanding of human suffering and his overpowering belief in the ability of prayer to salvage damaged lives have made him popular with local law enforcement agencies, regional educators, government ministries in the top echelons of the social services field, and especially with his clients.
When asked to summarize effective methods for overcoming addiction and the trauma caused by sexual abuse, the big, gruff biker with a helmet in one hand and a bead bag in the other will tell you he owes everything to his guru and Krsna.
"I never gave up on Krsna, and He never gave up on me. But I never take His blessings for granted. I begin every day on my knees praying, and I end it the same way. If I do that, everything in between seems to work out fine."
Yoginatha Dasa lives in ISKCON's Saranagati Dhama community in British Columbia, Canada. His "How I Came to Krsna Consciousness" appeared in our November/December 2003 issue.