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Authoritarian Culture and Child Abuse in ISKCON


Cultic Studies Review, 3(1), 2004, 1-27

Authoritarian Culture and Child Abuse in ISKCON

Nori J. Muster


Ninety plaintiffs and 400 additional claimants have filed claims against the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, ISKCON, the Hare Krishna movement, for alleged child abuse suffered in the organization’s school system in the 1970s and 1980s. Nori J. Muster, a former member and researcher, explains what happened in the schools and how it remained secret for twenty years. She also discusses indoctrination into authoritarian attitudes in ISKCON and offers suggestions on how to prevent future child abuse.

In an authoritarian system, everyone obeys someone else in a chain of command. People near the top have more power over others, while a large segment at the bottom has no power in the system whatsoever. When a few people control everything, abuse is practically inevitable. A high concentration of power means that only the higher-ups get what they want, while everyone else must take what they get.

People may find themselves in a system like this for a variety of reasons. Some people are born into countries or subcultures or groups with closed boundaries and intolerant leaders. Others may choose to join authoritarian groups. Some of these people may feel comfortable in an authoritarian environment, perhaps because they were raised in an authoritarian family and feel isolated and empty on their own or because a temporary experience of extreme stress and self-doubt makes the certitude and structure of an authoritarian environment look appealing. Still others may not recognize or appreciate the implications of an authoritarian environment and may join because of what the group claims to be, not what it is.

Eric Fromm said that people join authoritarian religious groups for a sense of belonging, meaning in life, and direction. He describes the move toward conformity as a longing to “fuse one's self with somebody or something outside of oneself in order to acquire the strength which the individual self is lacking.”[1] What Fromm identified as the natural human tendency to conform may be the element that allows authoritarian groups to thrive and make new members.

Although some people join voluntarily, as Fromm suggests, there is a large gray area in what is meant by voluntary. For example, people may join the military voluntarily, but also for financial reasons because they lack the money to attend college. Someone might take a job in an authoritarian corporation for the same reasons, so that survival, not authoritarianism, is the main attraction. In the case of religious groups, people may join because they think it will lead to enlightenment. Later they may realize the group is less enlightening than it originally appeared. People may remain in the group if they feel psychologically or financially dependent. Converts’ children may find themselves trapped, simply because their parents are in the group.

Some people get along fine in a coercive authoritarian structure, perhaps because they instinctively know how to navigate the system. Others have a moderately hard time, while still others are seriously hurt.

Usually the weakest link in the system receives the most abuse, and so it was for the children of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON).

Between the years 1970 and 1988, an estimated eight hundred ISKCON children suffered criminal neglect, emotional, physical, or sexual abuse. Most of the abuse took place in the boarding schools system for members’ children called gurukula, Sanskrit for “school of the guru.” During the 1970s and 1980s, members were required to send their children to gurukula at the age of five (or younger). Children were cloistered in the gurukulas and totally isolated from daily temple life. Parents were only allowed to see their children once or twice a year in most cases.

Emotional, physical, and sexual abuse also took place within “arranged marriages” between girls as young as eleven to men who were twice or three times the girls’ ages. A smaller number of children endured abuse at festivals and other social functions at the ISKCON centers, or from parents in family settings.

In April 2004 ISKCON was facing a $400 million lawsuit, Children of ISKCON vs. ISKCON, brought by one hundred former students. (As of the date of publication, this suit was still pending.) In his statement to the press, the attorney for the plaintiffs, Windle Turley, said:

This lawsuit describes the most unthinkable abuse and maltreatment of little children which we have seen. It includes rape, sexual abuse, physical torture and emotional terror of children as young as three years of age. . . . As a result, a generation of ISKCON children are permanently, and many profoundly, injured.[2]

The purpose of this paper is to examine how the authoritarian culture of ISKCON contributed to child abuse and its cover-up. My analysis is based on my personal experience as a member of ISKCON from 1978 to 1988, and subsequent study of the child abuse problem for ten years (1994 to 2004). In my research I read approximately two hundred pages of survivors’ writings about their experiences, and have met and interviewed approximately sixty ISKCON child abuse survivors. In 1995 I befriended three ISKCON child abuse survivors as god children and worked with them (and their families) to help them to find their place in mainstream society. In 1996 one of my Hare Krishna godsons wrote his autobiography for my research and read some of my manuscripts to help me refine my portrayal of the abuse history. I also reviewed the legal documents submitted by all sides in the lawsuit, and have worked as an advocate and media spokesperson for the plaintiffs for the last four years.
The ISKCON Pyramid Structure

ISKCON started out as a relatively benign autocracy with founding guru A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada as the absolute authority on all matters material and spiritual. In 1970, he designated a twelve-member Governing Body Commission (GBC) to help manage the organization. When Prabhupada died in 1977, eleven gurus arose to take his place and head the organization. The gurus took on the roles of oligarchs for the GBC and the whole organization. Beneath the gurus and GBC was a network of ministers, secretaries, temple presidents, temple commanders, and others appointed or confirmed by the GBC. During the 1970s and 1980s, the entire ISKCON hierarchy was male. As of April 2004, the hierarchy included one woman guru, one woman GBC member, and four female temple presidents.

As in most authoritarian systems, the people on the upper rungs were there because they were willing to do anything to please the people at the top. All full-time ISKCON members worked under an authority figure, who in turn answered to one of the oligarchs. ISKCON members usually lived communally in centers that could be anything from a single family home, to a church surrounded by apartments, to an estate with various buildings and grounds.

All ISKCON centers worked under the auspices of the GBC. If any center rejected GBC authority, then it would have to relinquish the name “ISKCON” and leave the organization.
Indoctrination in the Authoritarian System
Surrender

In ISKCON during the 1970s and 1980s when the bulk of the child abuse took place, the concept of “surrender” was important. It meant that the only way to please Krishna was to move into a temple, forsaking all contact with the “material world” of friends, family, school, career, and any other “material attachments.” Preachers looked for naïve spiritual seekers who were attracted to the exotic ceremonies and chanting in ISKCON. If a potential convert had a numinous experience while gazing at the Krishna deity in the temple (e.g., while chanting or while meeting or seeing Prabhupada), preachers would help the person interpret the experience as a sign to join ISKCON. People also joined for mundane reasons, such as the need for friendship, housing, and food. The temples provided room and board to practically anyone who agreed to work full time and follow the rules.

Once someone moved into an ISKCON center and felt committed to full surrender, the indoctrination phase began. New people learned the group’s ways through formal classes and darshans. Classes took place morning and evening in the temple room; new converts also attended extra classes in their ashrams (dorms). The word darshan means audience, and referred to an audience with the guru, or after the death of Prabhupada, one of the successor gurus.

People who accepted ISKCON doctrine received congratulations and positive reinforcement from peers. People learned to repeat ISKCON slogans and introduce Sanskrit sayings into their speech, voluntarily molding their characters to please the hierarchy. In addition, members learned how to indoctrinate others. Indoctrination, called “preaching,” came from all directions in the tightly controlled environment.
Teachings that Reinforced Authoritarian Control

Mistrust the outside world. The first lesson ISKCON taught new converts was to mistrust the outside world, which was populated with meat-eating non-devotees they called “karmis,” or people caught up in karma. No matter how smart they seemed, people in the material world lived in maya (illusion) because they had not surrendered to ISKCON.

ISKCON's gurus are infallible. The second important lesson was that ISKCON provided shelter from the material world because of the “pure devotees” in the hierarchy. ISKCON portrayed its gurus as infallible, pure, and perfect human beings. In classes new devotees learned to recite the “Ten Offenses to the Holy Name.”[3] The first offense was: “To blaspheme the devotees who have dedicated their lives to the propagation of the holy name of the Lord.” Since the gurus were dedicated members of the hierarchy, it was an offense to doubt them. Everything they said was true and good. There were terrible consequences for blaspheming pure devotees. They called it the “mad elephant offense,” because it was like letting a mad elephant into your garden to stomp all over your devotional creeper. The creeper, in Sanskrit bhakti-lata, was a metaphor for growing love of god.

Open dissent may cause catastrophic consequences. Since the leaders knew what was best for everyone and were always right, all one had to do was follow. Any doubt would make you fall back into material life. ISKCON’s glossy magazine was called Back to Godhead, but the implication was that everybody would go back to Godhead except those who rebelled. In classes and darshans speakers gave concrete examples of former members who criticized the leadership and became “snakes” and “demons” in the outside world. The indoctrination made it easy to cover up child abuse. If the leaders said there was nothing going on, that was the end of the discussion.

Simple living saves ISKCON money. The Hindu scriptures say that material life is temporary, but ISKCON interpreted this scripture to mean that members didn’t need material things. Devotees usually slept in sleeping bags on the floor, had few belongings, and did not indulge in worldly comforts like vacations, hobbies, or recreation. This dogma saved ISKCON a lot of money and also gave the organization an excuse to neglect the basic needs of children. The misinterpretation of the Hindu philosophy of simple living was twisted into a doctrine that deprived growing children of food, shoes, beds, and toys.

Scriptures twisted to the leaders’ advantage. The hierarchy promoted a distorted view of the scriptures that allowed them to shift the blame for all problems onto their followers. For example, they said that according to the scriptures, the gurus had perfect, spiritual bodies. The only way a guru could suffer physical distress was if his disciples committed sin. Therefore, when our gurus got sick, we were supposed to pray for forgiveness for whatever we did to cause it. If a guru had to sleep in and could not get up for the early morning services, it was the disciples’ fault.

The gurus told us that according to the scriptures, everything in the world depended on whether Krishna was pleased. If the movement got into trouble with the law, or a bad article came out, they told us to work harder, ask for less in return, and learn to control our material senses. In fact, if anything bad happened anywhere in the world, heavily indoctrinated members felt responsible; something they had done must have failed to please Krishna. With all the followers blaming themselves for everything, the leaders were freed of responsibility for anything.

Informational isolation and control. To isolate members further, ISKCON preached that exposure to outside information in the form of books, movies, television, and so on, would result in material consciousness. Good devotees could only listen to ISKCON music, watch ISKCON movies, and read ISKCON books. Along with keeping devotees’ minds “pure,” it also kept them uninformed. There was a joke on the fringes at the end of the 1980s that devotees were like potatoes (“they have eyes but they can’t see”) and mushrooms (“keep ’em in the dark and feed’ em a lot of s-t“). Keeping members in ignorance made it easier to conceal the organization’s problems, including child abuse. ISKCON was in the news frequently in the 1970s and 1980s, usually for its eccentricities and crimes. If members could have known what outsiders knew about the organization, they may have decided to take their children and leave.

Information about what was going on inside the hierarchy was also heavily controlled and censored. The publications Back to Godhead and ISKCON World Review (where I worked) had a strict policy of printing only the good news of the organization. In the public relations office, our job was to unite the organization and help members feel proud of ISKCON.

Manufacturing crises to enhance control. If followers cut ties with the outside world, crises will force them to turn to the coercive leadership for protection even more. In the mid-1980s, during the height of child abuse, the leaders announced that a devastating nuclear war was imminent now that Prabhupada had “left the planet.” They said the war would bring about the total collapse of society, but after that ISKCON would arise as the one world religion and the ISKCON hierarchy would rule the world. Whether they actually believed this or not, they put the organization into crisis mode. Everyone was frightened and worried about what would happen after the war, rather than the here and now.

Coercive organizations usually have a grandiose mission, such as saving the world. No matter how hypocritical life in the organization gets, the leaders can point to the mission to distract people from the organization's problems. Due to the sense of crisis and urgency in ISKCON, people were willing to overlook everything. The mission of saving the world through Krishna consciousness became all-consuming, for the end was supposedly near. Moreover, in this climate of crisis, the thought of defecting from ISKCON was unthinkable.

Thus, with founding guru Prabhupada gone and the new gurus failing, war fears became another ploy to stop people from “blooping,” or falling like a stone into the material ocean.
Abuse in the Authoritarian System

In a corrupt authoritarian system, there are various abuses. One of the most common is financial abuse, because plutocrats will reward themselves first, and then distribute the leftovers. A system like this often leaves people at the bottom lacking basic necessities. This was the case in ISKCON, where funding the gurukula was at the bottom of the organization’s list of priorities. Even though parents often paid high tuition fees, children did not receive proper food, clothing, or medical care.

The following accounts illustrate the poverty level of the gurukulas. The first excerpt is from an interview with former Dallas gurukula teacher Krsna Kumari:

I can remember Bhakta-rupa used to cook the Sunday feast and all we had was USDA stuff plus what we could beg down at the market. . . . I can remember the kids covered in rotten vegetables! Sorting through the rotten bhoga [food] to try to find the good things.[4]

Nirmala Hickey, one of the Children of ISKCON vs. ISKCON plaintiffs, described the situation in these words:

We were hungry all the time. I distinctly remember that, being starving all the time, always wanting food and never getting enough. I believe that’s why a lot of us ended up shorter. I was always hungry, and I don’t think that was unusual. That we were starving was normal, I would say. That was something I remember myself and other kids saying very often, “I’m starving.” Especially if you weren’t a teacher’s pet. If you were one of their chums, brahmana initiated, or if you were having sex with the higher-ups, you would be okay. You would get all the food you wanted.[5]

Following is Nirmala’s description of the stark reality at the boys’ school in Vrindavana, India:

One [bathroom] was the teachers’. One was the monitors’ and second initiates’. Another bathroom was for boys like me that were maybe a little stronger that could fend for themselves but didn’t really have any alliance with monitors or teachers. This group wasn’t necessarily being sexually molested for different reasons, usually having to do with [who their parents were].

The fourth bathroom was just for the children that were not in any position to speak or stand up for themselves. The children who were just being totally neglected used that bathroom. That bathroom was always filthy. . . . Their things would be stolen all of the time. When we lost or had our supplies stolen, the punishment was that we would have to wait until the next time they distributed supplies. Subsequently, these boys would always be wearing dirty rags and smelling badly. The only exception was during festival times when people would visit. At those times the teachers would make sure, by whatever means necessary, that everyone looked clean and acted as if everything was okay.[6]

The very nature of an authoritarian structure means that a few people will make all the important decisions for everyone else. A system like this is bound to go out of control if the leaders are ruthless and uncaring. Living under tyranny is humiliating, so the natural tendency for victims is to rebel. If people rebel, they can sometimes overthrow unwanted dictators or find a way to escape. Thus to prevent rebellion, the authoritarian system constantly seeks ways to increase its control. The coercion may be overt (threats, border guards, torture), or subtle (fear, guilt, etc.).

One of the plaintiffs said, “I know that the philosophy behind the school was to break our spirits. This was blatantly spoken to us all the time.”[7] In gurukulas, teachers used emotional abuse to discipline the children. For example, children who wet their beds were forced to drink urine or wear their wet underwear on their heads. One teacher made children wear a sign that said, “I am a dog.” Teachers punished children by isolating them for hours or days in closets, walk-in refrigerators, or trash bins.

Some gurukula teachers were large, muscle-bound men who never should have been around children. One such teacher allegedly threatened to maim or kill any child who misbehaved. One teacher was said to cup-slap children’s ears so hard that they could experience bleeding and loss of hearing. Teachers also pinched children’s ears, painfully breaking the cartilage. Teachers regularly beat children. Here is one former student’s description:

It was school policy, that every morning after breakfast there was an assembly, and at that assembly one student would be brought in front of the group and “punished” for something he had done the day before. This would show the other children that they should behave well. “Punishment” consisted of [the principal] picking up the boy by the ears, dropping him, and slapping both his ears with his hands as the boy fell. If a boy tried to escape the slaps, a teacher standing next to them, would punch the child with his fist, and the kid would collapse on the floor, screaming. This would “teach” the other children a lesson, to be afraid of the teachers and to behave.[8]

Here is another example of physical abuse as coercion:

Two friends (10 years old) decided to run away. They went off by themselves, with 50 rupees, and were running away from the gurukula. Some people, who recognized the boys to be from Bhaktivedanta Gurukula, informed the gurukula and the principal brought them back. He took the boys from door to door of every ashrama in the gurukula building, and in front of every door, beat these boys to show the other children how bad they were. The witness says the boys were “bleeding from their ears, screaming in pain.”[9]

Sexual abuse permeated the gurukula school system during the years in question. Teachers created an atmosphere of sexual harassment by peeping on children in the shower rooms or watching them dress. Here is an excerpt from an ABC TV interview with Ben Bressack, a plaintiff in the lawsuit:

I was pretty much sexually raped every day. My monitor was a teacher that I lived with in the same room with, like, five other students and he used me as his — for his sexual pleasures at any time . . . This was probably the one person that raped me the most, but I had maybe ten or fifteen different men rape me as a child.[10]

Following is an excerpt from Nirmala Hickey, speaking on the same broadcast:

I remember nights sleeping all night with the boy next to me being raped. Yeah, and — and hearing the sounds of it and, you know, wanting to just close my eyes and not, you know — but this was normal.[11]

Victims also suffered spiritual abuse, where authorities used rituals or symbols of the religion as punishment. Raghunatha, a former student, described an incident where one of the teachers beat him using a special ring as brass knuckles. The ring had a lion’s head and the teacher called it his “Nrsimadev ring,” named for the man-lion incarnation of Krishna.[12]

Teachers and gurus told children that the abuse was their karma because they must have hurt children in a past life and said that to oppose the abuse would only bring more bad karma. Many children who were born and raised with such rhetoric believed that the abuse was their fault.

In 1985, ISKCON leaders started to complain that children were turning into non-devotees.[13] Many former gurukula students left the authoritarian organization with bitter feelings toward the religion. Spiritual abuse may result in a complete loss of faith, or victims may imagine a cruel and violent god that resembles their abusers. Raghunatha once said that he thinks god gets some kind of sick pleasure out of punishing him.

I asked another former student if he ever prayed for help. He said:

Yeah, but you quit that after a while. I prayed like I’ve never prayed in my life, but not once has God ever answered one single prayer of mine. Every time I pray, it seems to be answered with some bullshit.[14]

The school authorities covered up the abuse and censored children’s letters home. The organization purposely tried to make the schools look good in self-promotional publications and movies, including the ISKCON World Review, where I worked. The first issue of the organization’s official newspaper carried a flattering article about one of the abusive gurus. On the same page was a picture of a billboard in India that depicted smiling gurukula children on the cover of Life magazine. For the next eight years that I was there, our publication continued to publish articles to protect the secrets of gurukula and quell criticism.

While I was writing for the ISKCON World Review, I knew that it was a public-relations publication meant to counteract bad publicity outside and negative attitudes inside the organization. I knew that there was something wrong with the leadership, but had no idea about the depth of their secrets. I knew that the gurukula authorities were strict with the children, but didn’t know they were beating or sexually exploiting them. There was one incident of sexual abuse in the Los Angeles temple nursery school in 1984, but the police arrested the perpetrators and a judge sentenced them to prison. I was not aware of any other child abuse in ISKCON, even though all the classic symptoms were present: a rigid, tightly controlled system with a demand for blind, absolute loyalty; a low level of appropriate touch, and so on. I left ISKCON in 1988, obtained my master’s degree in 1992, and found out about the child abuse in 1994. If I had known what was going on when I was a member, I would not have agreed to cover it up. I honestly thought that the gurukula schools were as good as we portrayed them and that any criticism was completely without merit.
Attitudes Toward Women

Probably the biggest factor that led to child abuse was the organization’s chauvinistic attitude toward women. In her paper, Fundamental Human Rights in ISKCON, Radha Devi Dasi points out that in ISKCON, “Women and children have been neglected and abused in numerous ways, which allegedly range from dismaying to truly abominable.”[15] She attributes this to “imbalanced” policies, “misconceptions about women,” and members who were “immature in their faith.”[16] The roots of the problem are deep.

The Hindu scriptures offer old-fashioned concepts of women’s place, comparing women to menacing animals or children.[17] ISKCON could have tried to modernize the philosophy for a late twentieth century Western audience. Other American Hindu groups have done this, but Prabhupada and other men in the hierarchy amplified the chauvinistic points instead.

According to ISKCON, the only official role for women was to be a man’s daughter, wife, or mother. If a woman was independent, they called her a prostitute. In July 1975 Prabhupada told a female Chicago newspaper reporter that women had smaller brains and were therefore intellectually inferior to men. That became the bottom line in ISKCON. A smaller brain meant “less intelligent” due to an unfortunate birth.

Even more ominously, ISKCON portrayed women as lusty temptresses who could force men to break their vows of celibacy. Therefore women had to stand at the back of the temple and could not lead chanting sessions or give classes. Men used to spit at the site of women to show their renunciation. Women would show their chastity by covering their heads with cloth and lowering their gaze to avoid eye contact with men.

Radha Devi Dasi illustrated the ISKCON effort to minimize women when she sited the example of the Mayapur samadhi (memorial shrine for Prabhupada). Historical photos were reproduced as paintings to decorate the shrine, but “Surprisingly the female disciples of Shrila Prabhupada are not in the paintings although they were in the original photographs.”[18] She concluded that the paintings send a clear message to women, which goes beyond “don’t speak,” “don’t act,” and “don’t give class.” The murals tell ISKCON women: “Don’t exist.”[19]

ISKCON men who could renounce women with lifelong vows of celibacy were welcomed into the hierarchy as priests called sannyasis. These men enjoyed material comforts and prestige within the organization. They were the only people who could get close to Prabhupada; they had cooks, maids and laundresses doing their chores; they could travel throughout the organization giving classes, and everyone had to bow down to them at least once a day. In the 1970s, men in the renounced order waged a war against married men and women that Prabhupada characterized as a “fratricidal war.”[20]

Misogynistic attitudes led to spousal abuse because some gurus and others in the hierarchy thought hitting was the only way to make women cooperate. Author Mineka Schipper points out that wife-beating maxims exist in most cultures. In England and the United States, it is said, “Women, like gongs, should be beaten regularly.” In India they say, “The nails of a cart and the head of a woman, they work only when they are hit hard.”[21] In ISKCON the common saying was, “Both a wife and a mridanga [drum] require beating.”[22]

Prabhupada’s correspondence showed that he was aware of spousal abuse as early as 1972. In 1973 some ISKCON marriages were ending in divorce, so in 1974, in an attempt to deal with the problem, Prabhupada refused to sanction any further marriages.[23] Radha Devi Dasi and others have gone further, arguing that ISKCON should codify the place of women to protect them from further abuse in the organization.[24]
Into the Light

The child abuse came out in the open in several stages. The first significant event happened in 1990, when Raghunatha first published ISKCON Youth Veterans Newsletter. He printed his own essays, letters from friends, news of the gurukula alumni, such as birthdays and weddings, and articles that discussed the abusive conditions in the gurukula schools. Raghunatha published his autobiographical essay, Children of the Ashram, and it was the first widely circulated personal account of gurukula abuse. He explained, “What started out to be a couple paragraphs ended up growing into almost a hundred handwritten pages.”[25]

Many people in and around ISKCON read Children of the Ashram and found it deeply disturbing. Some ignored it or turned against Raghunatha. The late guru Tamal Krishna told Raghunatha to “cease and desist” because his essay could “make the Robin George case [another costly lawsuit] look like peanuts.”[26] The essay offered a key to unlock the secrets that the organization had been hiding for twenty years. The GBC quickly passed a resolution on the subject of child abuse.[27] Still, even with Children of the Ashram in print, no ISKCON leader would openly acknowledge the abuse.

Raghunatha also helped start the annual gurukula alumni reunions. The first one took place in Los Angeles in the summer of 1990. As young adults, the survivors could finally talk about what happened. Validating each others’ experiences set the process in motion; it was only a matter of time until the survivors could make their story known. The reunions continued throughout the 1990s and took place in about a half-dozen cities around the world.

After publishing his own newsletter for several years, in 1993 Raghunatha joined several other alumni to form a new publication, As It Is: The Voice of the Second Generation. One of the editors, Manu, had been interviewing survivors and documenting their cases. In 1995 Manu accepted a position from the GBC as head of the newly-created ISKCON Youth Ministry. Later, in 1997 he attended the GBC meeting in India as a non-voting member and successfully lobbied for two resolutions to help ISKCON youth. The first encouraged temples to offer housing to gurukula alumni attending college, and the other encouraged ISKCON leaders to support the victims in other ways.[28]

Apart from Raghunatha and the As It Is editorial staff, Nirmala Hickey probably had the greatest influence on bringing the history to light through his V.O.I.C.E. (Violations of ISKCON Children Exposed) web site.[29] Written in conjunction with another former gurukula student, Maya Charnell, the site includes an analysis of the failure of the gurukula system, twenty pages of anonymous personal accounts of abuse, and an essay on the matter of Srila Prabhupada’s responsibility. These were the most sophisticated and outspoken writings on gurukula, made even more noteworthy because Nirmala was the son of ISKCON Minister of Education Jagadish, and his mother also held a position of authority in the gurukula system. Nirmala began writing after an accident at the Gita-Nagari (Pennsylvania) gurukula left him quadriplegic in 1985.
Progress in the Years 1996 - 1998

The ISKCON hierarchy’s main attempt at reconciliation happened in 1996, when the North American Temple Presidents and GBC members met at the ISKCON center in Alachua, Florida. Youth Minister Manu led a panel of gurukula survivors to discuss what gurukula was like for children. According to an editorial by ISKCON World Review publisher Kunti Devi, “Sannyasis cried. You could see the shame in some of the men’s eyes. I believe it was even more than the awful threat of lawsuits that spurred these men, so committed to ISKCON to go beyond passing resolutions.”[30]

After hearing the survivors’ stories, the ISKCON officials acknowledged that they understood the full extent of abuse. They pledged money and resolved to form an organizational entity to manage the funds. This was the beginning of Children of Krishna, Inc., which ISKCON incorporated as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization headquartered in Alachua.

Children of Krishna, Inc. helped some abuse survivors; in particular, several who spoke on the 1996 panel. However, grants could go to anyone raised in the movement, not just those who survived abuse. In addition, Children of Krishna, Inc. set a limit of $2,000 per victim. In this writer’s opinion $2,000 is a mere pittance, considering what ISKCON took away.

In 1998 ISKCON formed the Office of Child Protection, headed by two ISKCON disciples.[31] Dhira Govinda and Yashoda Devi were charged with helping the victims, preventing future incidents of abuse, and investigating and punishing past abusers. In the summer of 1998 they attended the Los Angeles gurukula reunion to give out $500 to $2,000 checks to any survivor who would sign legal documents waiving any further claims against ISKCON. Many took this as an insult; some who signed off felt ashamed to take the money.

In 1998 Anuttama Dasa, current public affairs director of ISKCON, and the ISKCON Communications Ministry commissioned an academic report on the history of gurukula from Professor Burke Rochford.[32] Dr. Rochford, a sociology professor from Vermont and author of a book about ISKCON, had been studying the gurukula for almost twenty years. He learned of the child abuse in the same way everyone else did, beginning in 1990. The ISKCON reformers showed Dr. Rochford’s analysis to a few people—but no one from the opposition—and then published it in the ISKCON Communication Journal, an academic publication by and about ISKCON.[33] The public relations office supplied copies to the media and The New York Times published a front-page report.[34] A similar article by Associated Press[35] appeared in newspapers across the United States and Dr. Rochford went on numerous talk shows to discuss his findings. My opinion as an outside observer to this turn of events was that it was the single most meaningful gesture that ISKCON had made toward reconciling with its children. Unfortunately, not everyone in the organization shared my opinion.

Some ISKCON officials supported Dr. Rochford, like this one in England who told the media: “Even if we have to go through ten years of court cases and we lose every building in North America, it's more important [to clear up the issues so] we can give people spirituality.”[36] Other ISKCON officials denounced Dr. Rochford and those who published his paper. Dr. Rochford said that he felt torn over his involvement. He wrote his paper to help the survivors, but he expressed regret over the way it was received. He said, “Essentially I had been drawn into writing the article and exposing child abuse to promote a partisan political agenda.”[37]

The publication of Dr. Rochford’s paper led to internal divisions, party-line bickering, rumors, and outright hostility toward abuse survivors, including fistfights at temples. By 1999 ISKCON seemed to polarize into two camps. The reformers are in the Communications department, Children of Krishna, Inc, the Youth Ministry, the Office of Child Protection, the ISKCON World Review and other liberal publications, the fledgling Women’s Ministry, and various concerned individuals. The liberals sincerely wanted to help the victims and bring the matter out in the open. The right wing, which consisted of the majority of gurus and GBC members (and their followers), were afraid of lawsuits. They desperately wanted the problems to just go away, and they were opposed to any open discussion or acknowledgement of the problem.

In 1999 the ISKCON Communications Office published a press release stating that it would raise $1 million for Children of Krishna and the Office of Child Protection.[38] Unfortunately, the money never materialized. Some ISKCON officials gave thousand of dollars, but it was nowhere near a million, a half a million, or even a hundred thousand. Aside from the initial enthusiasm in 1996, the bulk of the money for Children of Krishna, Inc. came from Anuttama Dasa, the man who issued the press release.

The lawsuit filed in 2000 caused even deeper internal divisions in ISKCON and more ambivalence toward abuse survivors. Some people believe that ISKCON is currently trying to send some of its centers into bankruptcy in order to address the lawsuit.[39]

The Office of Child Protection started to falter in about 2000 due to a shrinking budget and lack of cooperation from key people in the hierarchy. In February 2004 Dhira Krishna announced that the office would close due to lack of funding.[40]

ISKCON will continue to bear the stigma of child abuse. It is regrettable that the organization could not stop the abuse when it was happening and turn over the perpetrators. Failing that, at least when the abuse came to light in 1996, the organization could have done more to help the victims. Unfortunately, it did not. Most of the victims are now in their thirties. Some are doing okay; others have given up on life. I know of at least two cases of suicide where the victims left notes stating that the memories of their gurukula experiences were too difficult to bear. Others have committed suicide, died in car accidents, or drug overdoses, but did not leave notes. Many young fathers have dropped out of their children’s lives. Young mothers have had to move back in with their parents or depend on welfare to support their children.

Abusive gurukulas did not prepare students to earn a living. Rather, they taught children that working for “karmis” in the “material world” would place them at the lowest rung of the caste system (outcaste, sudra). This training was partly due to the organization’s eccentricity, but it was also a ploy to make children dependent on ISKCON so they would remain in the organization as adults. Gurus promised the children that someday the organization would be theirs, and that each of them would someday lead a temple, farm, restaurant, or project within ISKCON. This didn’t happen.

For many former gurukula students, recovery involves staying away from ISKCON. If they go around the temples they see that men who abused them or conspired to cover up abuse are still privileged ISKCON leaders. The fact that the perpetrators are getting away with their crimes can be infuriating and only leaves victims contemplating their revenge.

Despite ill feelings, many who were abused continue to go to the temples because they can meet other survivors. Surprisingly, some still feel sentimental about the religion, and some still find value in the institution because, after all, it is the religion they inherited from their parents. The second generation has an interest in the fate of ISKCON and therefore some of them continue to interact with the institution and work for change.
Conclusions

In a coercive organization, the mission and religiousness of the group are used as tools to control the followers. The leaders reinforce guilt and denial to hide their negligence. Followers learn to blame their problems on themselves or the cruel outside world, rather than find fault with the leaders. Even if people try to deny the problems or blame themselves, most of the dysfunction in an authoritarian system comes from the top. This was the case in ISKCON. The GBC was teeming with secrets and members were indoctrinated to ignore those secrets. Once in a while a guru’s crimes came out in the open. The GBC would then expel (or excommunicate) the man and say that all ISKCON’s problems were solved. However, exposing one corrupt guru never fixed the system. The problems were systemic, a consequence of the organization's authoritarian structure.

Some of the child molesters may have been devotees who became molesters; others may have been molesters who became devotees. “Devotional service” in the gurukula was frequently granted in exchange for a big donation. ISKCON did not do background checks on teachers, and it did not ask prospective teachers to give their legal names or show any identification.

Large contributors were also awarded with arranged marriages. The rest of ISKCON’s money came from devotees collecting donations from the public. The best collectors were women, but having children limited the amount of time they could work. In his paper published by ISKCON, Dr. Rochford said that the gurukula functioned as childcare so mothers could go back to work collecting donations.[41] Thus, money played a role in the child abuse.
Reforming the Authoritarian System

Outside observers and ex-members like me thought ISKCON was turning the corner in 1996, but as of the time of this writing, in my opinion and the opinion of many others, the organization has yet to make an honest effort to settle things with the survivors. I offer this brief summary with the hope that it will spark more dialogue and action on behalf of the child abuse victims. Instead of the mire of lawsuits and bankruptcy, I would rather see the organization acknowledge the child abuse history, fire all the alleged perpetrators and conspirators, and reorganize ISKCON around the purpose of helping the victims. ISKCON has a responsibility to its first generation of children. That obligation is not something the leadership can brush aside. ISKCON must do something tangible to resolve the situation, or the plight of the victims could be forgotten and even repeated in future generations. Or, the lawsuits filed on behalf of the victims could drive ISKCON into ruin.

There are many things ISKCON can do to change. The more fairly people in an organization share power, the more their system will move from authoritarianism to egalitarianism. Following is a summary of issues addressed in this paper, along with suggestions that could reform the system.
Problem: Power centralized around charismatic gurus.

Suggestions for change: ISKCON is a Hindu-based organization, so it will always have gurus. However, gurus should concentrate on spiritual and religious responsibilities and refrain from managing other aspects of their disciples’ lives. Also, disciples should think for themselves. They should take wisdom from a variety of sources, not just their guru.
Problem: Followers cut off from their former lives.

Suggestion for change: Just as congregational members keep their old friends and connections with outside family, ISKCON should afford this freedom to all full-time, live-in devotees. They should pay devotees for their work and give them time off to spend with their families and others outside the organization.
Problem: A worldview of “us and them.”

Suggestion for change: ISKCON needs to be more inclusive and interact with the outside world for mutual benefit and understanding. Instead of just criticizing the outside world, become part of the solution.
Problem: Followers taught to blame themselves for leadership's defects.

Suggestion for change: Create an atmosphere and ethic within the organization that allows disciples to question the leadership. Members need to develop personal boundaries and speak out if someone in the group tries to take advantage of them.
Problem: Dire consequences for criticizing the leaders.

Suggestion for change: The leaders should take responsibility for their own behavior, listen to feedback, and answer questions, especially from devotees.
Problem: Using scriptural tenets to induce guilt.

Suggestion for change: People in ISKCON need a stronger grounding in Hindu philosophy so they can get beyond mind-numbing sound bites, such as “everything is temporary” and “women are ten times lustier than men.” ISKCON members need to periodically reexamine their interpretation of the philosophy to avoid stereotypes and superficial understandings.
Problem: Censorship and control over information.

Suggestion for change: Allow members to make their own choices about information and media. If ISKCON is faithful to its precepts and way of life, then it won’t have to manipulate its members or subject them to dehumanizing controls in order to win and keep their faith. In fact, manipulation and control may derail the faith of innocent followers and drive them away.
Problem: Peer pressure to follow the organization’s dogma.

Suggestion for change: Concentrate on improving the organization instead of covering up problems with dogma. Allow members to think for themselves.
Problem: Atmosphere of chaos and crisis to keep followers off balance.

Suggestion for change: The organization needs more transparency to keep the leaders accountable and honest. One way to achieve this would be to join an alliance of Hindu organizations and ask for their help in living up to the highest standard.
Problem: Grandiose mission used to manipulate followers.

Suggestion for change: ISKCON devotees should look at their organization realistically and stop inflating its relative importance in the world.
Problem: Misogynistic attitudes toward women and children.

Suggestion for change: Encourage women to fill up to fifty percent of the leadership positions in the organization, and lead up to fifty percent of the temple functions, such as giving classes, leading temple services, etc. Establish laws in ISKCON to guarantee protection from violence and discrimination. Hire qualified consultants to provide training on how to implement protections for women and children.
Problem: Arrogant and nonresponsive leadership.

Suggestion for change: Develop a fair system of checks and balances to hold leaders responsible for their actions. Institute a system of voting and term limits to elect the GBC, temple presidents, and other high-ranking officials.
Problem: Employing people with questionable backgrounds in the school system; taking money from drug dealers and other criminals.

Suggestions for change: Do background checks and screen out people with unsuitable histories. Keep records of employees’ devotee name(s) and legal name(s). Don’t take money from tainted sources.
Problem: Reluctance to acknowledge past abuse and make amends to victims.

Suggestions for change: Come clean about the history of child abuse and other abuse. Make amends to people the organization has harmed, and make that ISKCON’s highest priority.

Perhaps the current members of ISKCON can change things for the better. ISKCON has a progressive faction that wants to modernize the organization, but they face a highly structured, rigid, plutocracy that has been in place since the 1970s. The reformers may not have enough influence to enact any real change.


Cultic Studies Review, Vol. 3, No. 1, 2004, Page

[1]End Notes

Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom (New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1969) p. 140.


[2]

Windle Turley, Press release: "Hare Krishna" Sued for Child Abuse (June 12, 2000) – see: http://www.wturley.com/news/2_News-HareKrishna.htm


[3] The ten offenses against the Holy Name are attributed to a sixteenth century saint of the religion, Rupa Goswami.


[4]

Krsna Kumari devi dasi, interview. Kumari is also the author of "From a Teacher," As It Is, 5 (Summer 1994) – see http://surrealist.org/gurukula/fromateacher1.html.


[5] Nirmala Hickley, "Vrindavana Gurukula," p. 1. Unpublished manuscript – author's collection.


[6] Ibid., pp. 10-11.


[7]

Ibid., p. 7.


[8]

V.O.I.C.E., “Accounts of Child Abuse in Hare Krishna Schools,” p. 4, author’s collection. The V.O.I.C.E. web site went off line in 1999, several months before the plaintiffs filed their lawsuit. They gave no explanation for why they closed the site.


[9] Ibid, p. 4.


[10] ABC News, 20/20, "Childhood of Shame" (Nov. 27, 2000).


[11]

Ibid.


[12]

The story about the Nrsimhadev ring appears in Raghunatha, "Children of the Ashram," ISKCON Youth Veterans Newsletter, Vol. 14 (Aug., 1990) See: http://surrealist.org/gurukula/children.html. He made his comments about god in an informal interview to the author in 1995.


[13]

E. Burke Rochford, " Child Abuse in the Hare Krishna Movement:1971-1986," ISKCON Communications Journal, 6/1 (1998), pp 41-69 (quotation on p. 50).


[14]

A. Das, interview, Oct. 15, 1997, author's collection.


[15] Fundamental Human Rights in ISKCON, by Radha Devi Dasi, p. 1. This paper was reprinted in Cultic Studies Review, Vol. 1, No. 1, 2001, Group Report: http://www.culticstudiesreview.org/csr_ articles/rahda_devi_dasi2_full.htm. It was reprinted with permission from ISKCON Communications Journal, Volume 6, Number 2, 1998, pages 7-14. The journal's address is: 63 Divinity Rd, Oxford, OX4 1LH, UK (E-mail: icj@bbt.se; Web site: http://www.icj.iskcon.net).


[16] Participation, Protection and Patriarchy: An International Model for the Role of Women in ISKCON, by Radha Devi Dasi, p. 3 - 4. This paper was published in Cultic Studies Review, Vol. 1, No. 1, 2001, Group Report: http://www.culticstudiesreview.org/csissueidx/toc2001.1/grprept2001.1_harekrishna/ grprept_hk_women/rahda_devi_dasi_p1.htm. It was reprinted with permission from ISKCON Communications Journal, Volume 6, Number 1, 1998, pages 31-41. The journal's address is: 63 Divinity Rd, Oxford, OX4 1LH, UK (E-mail: icj@bbt.se; Web site: http://www.icj.iskcon.net.


[17]

ISKCON’s books have numerous stories that describe the inferior status of women. For example, in the Fifth Canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam (Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1974), a story called, “The Material World as the Great Forest of Enjoyment,” says, “wife and children act like tigers and jackals . . . he [the husband] miserably trying not to waste his wealth, feels like a lamb that is seized by force.” SB 5.14.3.


[18] Participation, Protection and Patriarchy: An International Model for the Role of Women in ISKCON, by Radha Devi Dasi, p. 4.


[19] Ibid., p. 4.


[20]

Rochford (1998) p. 49.


[21]

Mineke Schipper is the author of Never Marry a Woman With Big Feet: Women in Proverbs From Around the World, Yale University Press, 2004. The quoted maxims were drawn from her editorial on the subject in the Los Angeles Times, April 20, 2004, Section B, p. 15.


[22] The maxim about beating both the drum and the wife is sometimes attributed to Prabhupada, but in her discussion on the subject, Radha Devi Dasi said, “I have personally not seen any proof that Shrila Prabhupada endorsed wife beating.” This citation can be found in Participation, Protection and Patriarchy: An International Model for the Role of Women in ISKCON, p. 8.


[23]

Rochford, p. 49.


[24] In her paper, Participation, Protection and Patriarchy: An International Model for the Role of Women in ISKCON, Radha Devi Dasi, argues in favor of establishing official “participation rights and substantive rights” for women, based on the principles of human rights, as established in international law. See pp. 8 – 9. A good example of international human rights law is the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, December 10, 1948. Article 1.6 states: “Men and women have the right to live their lives and raise their children in dignity, free from hunger and from the fear of violence, oppression or injustice. Democratic and participatory governance based on the will of the people best assures these rights.” At this time, there is no “democratic, participatory governance” for women in ISKCON, since women do not participate in governing the organization. The UN declaration also set a goal “To combat all forms of violence against women and to implement the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women” (5.25). ISKCON could adopt similar goals if the leadership was willing.


[25] Raghunatha, p. 1.


[26] Raghunatha made this statement in a Dec. 16, 1999 letter circulated on the Internet and posted at Vaishnava News Network, see http://www.vnn.org/editorials/ET9912/ET16-5091.html.


[27]

The 1990 GBC resolution on child abuse is posted online at: http://surrealist.org/gurukula/documents.html#19.


[28]

Manu’s resolutions were [Law] 302 and [Law] 303 of the 1997 GBC Resolutions, author’s collection. See: http://surrealist.org/gurukula/documents.html#29.


[29]

V.O.I.C.E., In 2000 Nirmal-Chandra and Maya Charnell joined Children of ISKCON vs. ISKCON.


[30]

Kunti-devi’s article was published in the Spring/Summer 1996 issue of Priti-laksanam, author’s collection. See: http://surrealist.org/gurukula/documents.html#26


[31]

The heads of the Child Protection Office were disciples of Bir Krishna Goswami and their names were Dhira Govinda (David Wolf, who holds an M.S.W. and Ph.D.) and Yashoda Devi Dasi. I interviewed Dhira Govinda at the Los Angeles gurukula reunion in 1998. See: http://surrealist.org/gurukula/documents.html#31


[32]

Dr. Burk Rochford did his doctorate on ISKCON, wrote the book Hare Krishna in America (Rutgers University Press, 1985) and numerous journal articles about ISKCON, and studied the gurukula system since 1979.


[33]

See Rochford (1998).


[34]

Laurie Goodstein, "Hare Krishna Faith Details Past Abuse at Boarding Schools," The New York Times (Oct. 9, 1998) p. 1.


[35]

Julia Lieblich, "Report Details Hare Krishna Child Abuse," Associated Press (Oct. 9, 1998).


[36]

Kim Asch, "Stuck in the Middle: Research and Religion Clash as Scholar Uncovers Uncomfortable Truths," Middlebury College, June 2002. See: http://istagosthi.org/archive/open-forum/000337.htm.


[37]

Rochford’s comment cited in Asch (2002) p. 2.


[38]

ISKCON Communications Media Release, "Krishnas Pledge One Million Dollars to Child Protection (April 29, 1999) – author's collection.


[39]

ISKCON attorney David Liberman explains the bankruptcy in a press release and cover letter, "Re. Turley Suit / Gurukula & Other Youth Abuse Claims," April 29, 2003 ISKCON Legal Office, see http://surrealist.org/gurukula/bankruptcy1.html and the following year, Liberman issued “For Immediate Release,” a press release dated Feb. 27, 2004. The following month, ISKCON attorney Joseph Fedorowsky issued a press release entitled, “ISKCON Chapter 11 Reorganization Plan Filed,” March 4, 2004. See http://surrealist.org/gurukula/bankruptcy2.html for the 2004 press releases.


[40]

As of Feb. 29, 2004, devotees are trying to reinstate the Child Protection office by raising donations. Here is an article dated March 1, 2004, at Vaishnava News Network: CPO Office Donations, by Jiva Goswami Dasa, see http://www.vnn.org/editorials/ET0403/ET01-8566.html


[41]

Rochford (1998).

Nori J. Muster is the author of Betrayal of the Spirit: My Life Behind the Headlines of the Hare Krishna Movement (University of Illinois Press, 1997) and Cult Survivor's Handbook: How to Live in the Material World Again (Surrealist.org, 2000), and a contributor to Hare Krishna: The Post-Charismatic Fate of a Religious Transplant (Columbia University Press, 2004). She was an ISKCON member for ten years (1978 – 1988) and associate editor of ISKCON World Review: Newspaper of the Hare Krishna Movement. She has a master's degree in Interdisciplinary Studies from Western Oregon University (1992), using art therapy to treat juvenile sex offenders. She is currently an advocate and media spokesperson for the plaintiffs in Children of ISKCON vs. ISKCON.