Introduction to Group Report on ISKCON (Hare Krishna)
Michael D. Langone, PhD
Executive Director, International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA)
Editor, ICSA Today
In an article reprinted in this collection ("Further Reflections on Child Abuse Within ISKCON" by E. Burke Rochford, Ph.D.), the author says:
Many members of the media, who called me for interviews about my paper, including the New York Times reporter, started by asking, "Why did the Hare Krishnas come forward with this story about child abuse in their own journal? Why would they tell the world about such a troubling part of their past?" To most journalists this was the story. Without this news angle, I think there is every reason to believe that the child abuse story would have been a page three article, or even buried in the religion section of the newspaper. Yet making the front page of the Times signalled to the worldwide media that this was a major story which obligated them to cover. (Rochford, 1998, p. 64)
To a large extent, this sense of surprise motivated my colleagues and me to invite ISKCON representatives to participate in our 1999 annual conference (see the transcript of this panel discussion -- published in this collection) and to compile this collection on ISKCON, a task that has been exhausting to say the least.
In the 1970s and early 1980s ISKCON was one of the groups for which people frequently approached AFF (ICSA’s original name was American Family Foundation – AFF) and other organizations for help. Most people active in helping families and former group members probably would have placed ISKCON in the top five, and certainly in the top 10, with regard to the number of inquiries and requests for help. We heard many stories of abuse, manipulation, lying, and criminal behavior. Although some scholars and ISKCON leaders tended to dismiss such stories as mere "atrocity tales," not worthy of credibility, events have demonstrated that the critical reports were often true. Moreover, the validation of so many critical reports from ex-members obligates ISKCON to pay close attention to current and future criticisms from former as well as current members, even though these criticisms will not always be valid or up-to-date and may sometimes be "in right field."
By the late 1980s and certainly by the early 1990s, inquiries concerning ISKCON dropped significantly. Probably like many of my colleagues, I tended to attribute this fall-off in inquiries to ISKCON's institutional decline, most conspicuously reflected in the criminal prosecutions concerning activities at New Vrindaban. Reading the articles reprinted in this collection, however, made me realize that the changes affecting ISKCON were much deeper and broader than I realized. These changes include:
As Dr. Rochford explains in his article on family formation, ISKCON has socially transformed itself from a largely communal organization in which members live in temples and place their children in organizational schools to a congregational organization in which most members live and work "in the world," raising families, and usually sending their children to public schools. In 1980, for example, 53% of ISKCON members had never been married and only 27% had children, whereas in 1991-92, only 15% had never been married and 70% had children.
ISKCON has opened up to internal dissent and outside criticism to a remarkable degree. This is not to say that defensive closed-mindedness no longer exists within the organization. Too many ex-members and current members have recently testified to the fact that this problem still remains. Indeed, Dr. Rochford's survey (Rochford, 1999) of 1966 devotees from 53 countries concluded: "There is a striking lack of trust [emphasis in the original] between ISKCON members and the movement's leadership, as well as between devotees themselves" (p. 17). See also the list of links, particularly the Chakra page, for examples of criticism and dissent from current as well as former members of ISKCON. Also noteworthy are Ravindra Svarupa dasa's article, "Cleaning House and Cleaning Hearts: Reform and Renewal in ISKCON" and Steven Gelberg's article, "On Leaving ISKCON" are especially interesting. Thus, I believe it reasonable to conclude that whatever deficiencies may remain, ISKCON has clearly become more open and self-critical.
A reform movement concerned about human rights, ethics, training, and accountability seems to be very strong, if not dominant, within the organization. Of course, a reform movement would not be necessary, if there were no "old guard" resisting change. Hence, it is unrealistic to expect all ISKCON temples and leaders to behave according to the reformers' vision. Moreover, certain doctrinal issues (e.g., the "fundamentalist" perspective described at the end of Dr. Flood's article on Hinduism and ISKCON and Prabhupada's status as a "divine oracle," the questioning of which led to strong criticism of Diana Lorenz -- see the note at the end of her article on spiritual abuse) may be incompatible with some forms of dissent or openness. The degree of the reformers' success, then, may depend upon a loosening of doctrinal literalness, as well as an increased awareness of the psychological and social processes conducive to abuse, for the defense of doctrinal rigidity may sometimes call forth authoritarian control processes. On the other hand, if a religion has no solid core of foundational beliefs, it can have no identity. Where ISKCON as an organization locates itself on what one could call the dogmatic continuum may greatly affect the character and number of its adherents. Tamal Krishna Goswami's article on the perils of succession demonstrates the degree to which ISKCON has dealt with and continues to deal with contentious theological issues.
A candid acknowledgment, however belatedly, of the problem of child abuse in ISKCON schools in the 1970s and 1980s (several articles on this subject are reprinted here from ISKCON Communications Journal). Ironically, ISKCON's openness to the child abuse issue may have increased the organization's vulnerability to lawsuits from those who were abused.
A lawsuit filed in June 2000, which is discussed on Chakra's child abuse page may gravely damage the organization and possibly the plaintiffs as well, especially if litigation is protracted (which results in monstrous legal fees for all parties and sometimes disappointing settlements for plaintiffs). The financial costs and advocacy nature of litigation may threaten ISKCON's economic viability and severely strain relationships among former members, current members, reformers, and traditionalists (the "old guard"). Discussion and debate among these various categories of persons may become less open and candid when those expressing opinions have to be concerned about how lawyers, on either side of the litigation, may exploit what they say. As a result, friendships among people holding different priorities concerning the litigation may be adversely affected, if the individuals concerned are not vigilant.
Historically, organizational change, especially when it involves high-control systems, tends to manifest in conflicts among reactionaries, radicals, and reformers (e.g., the downfall of the Soviet Union and recent history of Russia). Reactionaries mount the most vigorous defense of the status quo. Radicals have lost all faith in the system and are often willing to destroy it in order to replace it with something entirely new. Reformers want to preserve aspects of the defective system but change it, sometimes from top to bottom. Reformers, obviously, are in the most fragile position, for they get attacked from both sides and always have to worry about the establishment of a reactionary, authoritarian regime or the breakout of anarchy. For ISKCON, the entry of lawyers into the fray puts added pressure on reformers, for reactionaries and radicals are likely to use the advocacy-driven polemics of their opponents' lawyers to strengthen the emotional appeal of their arguments and weaken the appeal of their nearest competitors, the reformers. In this climate of polarization, reformers may find themselves having to defend some things that they had been formerly trying to change in order to prevent the destruction of those aspects of the system they have wanted to preserve.
ISKCON's challenge is not historically unique, even though it may seem highly unusual to those of us whose focus has only been on controversial groups during the past two decades. ISKCON, and other organizations facing similar challenges regarding the prevention of abuses, could benefit if historians of religion (and perhaps also of political systems) identified and illuminated historical precedents that could provide guidelines and advice for these changing organizations.
The collection assembled here includes articles or links to articles that address the above issues.
The collection also includes reprints of Cult Observer articles on ISKCON since 1984 "ISKCON in the News: 1984-1999", a comprehensive bibliography (including a selected guide to relevant links and a list of the contents of all ISKCON Communications Journal articles), and two pertinent book reviews from AFF periodicals.
The two articles on spiritual abuse should be especially illuminating to anybody interested in the processes that cause groups to harm individuals. These processes are common to groups of all kinds and, consequently, cross denominational lines. Diana Lorenz's comment in this issue's "Spiritual Pain and Painkiller Spirituality," is apt:
Throughout the article, I quoted books and articles about spiritual abuse written within the Christian tradition. Reading these left me deeply touched. It was an interfaith experience. I wish that we, devotees of Krishna, can show as much fairness, compassion and keen sensitivity to discern the voice of God in our hearts as shown by those writers (most of whom are also counselors and preachers). I was amazed to find many parallels between the problems our religious organizations are facing. It is encouraging to see that we, devotees of Krishna, are not alone in our personal concern and commitment to fight for a non-abusive image of God, spiritual authority, and the individual self. It is exciting to see how, perhaps for the first time in history, religious communities come so close together, sharing not only their ”good news” but also their painful struggles and the solutions reached through them. With all the challenges that the modern age poses to the traditional religions, this is a beautiful silver lining. (p 17)
The challenge to those wishing to combat spiritual abuse is to cultivate discernment, to learn to recognize the subtleties and complexity of human behavior and its consequences, and to learn how to prevent one's preconceptions from obscuring truths that might disturb those preconceptions. In order to be truly open to corrective change, we must all become more aware of what psychologists call "confirmatory bias," the tendency to perceive, interpret, and remember events in ways that are consistent with our preexisting beliefs.
I hope that this collection will broaden and enhance the understanding of people in the so-called "anti-cult movement," what Dr. Steve Dubrow-Eichel more gently and appropriately calls the "critical community." I also hope that it will help ISKCON devotees and scholars of new religious movements better understand and appreciate the core concerns of the "critical community," namely, abuse and human rights violations. Lastly, I hope that this collection will help members of other controversial groups recognize abuse dynamics in their own organizations and motivate them to try to institute reforms and join the interfaith struggle for, to quote Diana Lorenz again, "a non-abusive image of God, spiritual authority, and the individual self."
In closing, I wish to express my gratitude to Lyall Ward, Editor of ISKCON Communications Journal (which has many more interesting and useful articles than I could possibly have reprinted here), without whose cooperation this collection would not have been possible, and Anuttama Dasa, ISKCON's Director of Communications, whose warmth and openness have made him a welcome friend at AFF conferences and whose dedication to reform will, I pray, bear the fruit that it deserves.
Rochford, Jr., E. Burke. (1999). Prabhupada Centennial Survey: A summary of the final report. ISKCON Communications Journal, 7(1), 11-26.
Rochford, Jr., E. Burke. (1998). Further reflections upon child abuse with ISKCON. ISKCON Communications Journal, 6(2), 64-67