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Book Review - Monkey on a Stick

This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1991, Volume 8, Number 2, pages 252-254. Please keep in mind that the pagination of this electronic reprint differs from that of the bound volume. This fact could affect how you enter bibliographic information in papers that you may write.

Book Review - Monkey on a Stick

John Hubner & Lindsey Gruson. Penguin, New York, 1990, 462 pages.

Who are the real Hare Krishnas? Robed zealots with shaved heads, jumping and chanting to the sound of cymbals. Sincere disciples of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, one of the new religions, persecuted by bigots and anti-cult zealots. Pioneers in fusing Eastern and Western religions, a critical event of the mid-twentieth century. Gentle, saintly men and women dedicated to serving Krishna, living simply and joyfully, abjuring worldly goods and profit with compassion for all creatures. Tens of thousands of devotees engaged in a multimillion-dollar enterprise with over 200 temples and farms in 60 countries. Brainwashed zombies who hustle in airports and shopping malls. Former stoned-out hippies, street people, and college dropouts rescued from personal disintegration.

Or, under the religious facade, a spawn of murderers, madmen, child abusers, white slavers, drug users and pushers, arms runners, cyclists, thieves, ex-cons, scam artists, embezzlers, rapists, and exploiters. This latter image is the primary focus of Monkey on a Stick. The 462-page paperback is a novelized documentary, a crime thriller about sickening abuses; its pornographic dialogue would offend Jesse Helms. Using hundreds of taped interviews, depositions, and newspaper stories, Hubner and Gruson have assembled a series of vivid, shocking personal portraits to illustrate the fable of the monkey on a stick. On Indian banana plantations, when a monkey is captured stealing fruit, farmers impale the animal on a stick, leaving it to rot as a warning to other monkeys.

Thomas Drescher, a devotee of the New Vrindaban temple in West Virginia, murdered Chuck St. Denis, a fringie and pot dealer (the monkey), for alleged rape. The New Vrindaban temple was founded by Keith Ham, now known as Kirtinananda, a disciple of Prabhupada. Prabhupada, an Indian guru who came to the Bowery in 1965 and developed ISKCON as a religious movement, taught his followers: Chant and obey the Krishna principles, principles rooted in Hinduism and the Gita. Krishna, he told them, is God. ISKCON appealed to seekers around the world and flourished. However, when Prabhupada died at age 82 in 1977, Kirtinananda and 10 other gurus were unable to collaborate and abuses multiplied.

Sergeant Tom Westfall of the Marshall County, West Virginia, police has collected evidence about devotees at the New Vrindaban temple near Moundsville for more than 20 years: arson, theft, child abuse, drugs, confidence games; children drowned, suffocated, and neglected; women raped, beaten, and humiliated. Sri Galima, former headmaster of boys guru, was wanted by the police for sexually molesting his students. Steve Bryant challenged Kirtinananda and sought to expose his illegal activities; he was murdered in 1986. Thomas Meyers disappeared in 1980. Todd Schenker was murdered in 1988. (All monkeys!)

In Germany, guru Hansadutta was accused by the police of collecting 4,000,000 Deutsch marks "for charity" but keeping all for the temple. Guru Kripa, president of ISKCON's Tokyo temple, and his team of devotees stole watches from jewelry stores. In New York, Advaita was busted at JFK airport for smuggling hashish oil. In California a group of ex-cons who sold heroin for Krishna was convicted and jailed. When Hansadutta became president of the Berkeley temple, the self-styled secretary of God, involved with rock-and-roll scams and guns, was frequently arrested for bizarre public behaviors; eventually he entered a drug program. Finally, guru Ravindra (William Deadwyler, Ph.D. in religious studies from Temple University), president of the Philadelphia temple, organized a reform movement. Kirtinananda and Hansadutta were among those expelled. (At the time the book ended, Hansadutta ran a trailer court and Kirtinananda's New Vrindaban continued to be a tourist attraction and to grow prize-winning roses.)

Although the corpus of the book reads like an X-rated thriller, Hubner and Gruson substantiate their tale with photographs and detailed notes. They do not consider in depth such issues as how the Krishnas convert their followers, the psychological effects of endless chanting, parallels with other new religions which have also strayed from sanctity to savagery, and why ISKCON appeals to certain mainstream theologians, civil libertarians, psychiatrists, and sociologists. The authors remark on the discrepancy between doctrine and practice and the evil of unrestrained religious power. However, they fail to consider carefully some of the true evils of that doctrine, for instance, the paranoid belief that outsiders, karmis, are demons or that transcendental trickery, or any act however destructive, is justified in the name of Lord Krishna. They are sympathetic, perhaps naively, to the reform gurus and to the many sincere devotees.

The squeamish may wish to skip Monkey on a Stick. This is much more than a book for thrill seekers, however. For a diverse audience -- teenagers, college-age religious seekers, civil libertarians, theologians intrigued by Eastern religion, social scientists, police officers, and anti-cultists -- there are major messages.

Finally, as I write this review in the summer of 1991, according to The Cult Observer (Vol. 8, No. 2, 1991),

The leader of the Hare Krishna spin-off community in West Virginia was convicted in late March of authorizing murder, kidnapping, and beating of devotees to protect an illegal, multimillion-dollar enterprise....A jury found Kirtinananda Swami Bhaktipada, 53, guilty of mail fraud and racketeering, including being part of a conspiracy to murder fringe member Charles St. Denis in 1983. Bhaktipada faces a maximum of 90 years in prison and more than $76 million in fines....Bhaktipada lieutenant Jerry Sheldon was convicted of racketeering and mail fraud, while Steve Fitzpatrick, another lieutenant, was convicted of mail fraud.
Arthur A. Dole, Professor Emeritus

Psychology in Education Division

Graduate School of Education

University of Pennsylvania

Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 8, No. 2, 1991