My Study of Child Abuse in Cults|
by Nori J. Muster
Chapter 17 of Take Back Your Life: Recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationships, by Janja Lalich and Madeleine Tobias, Bay Tree Publishing, 2006*
One of the most colorful and aggressive guru cults of the 1960s was the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). Better known as the Hare Krishna movement, its members danced in the streets to the beat of Indian drums and solicited donations in airports. Thousands joined ISKCON seeking truth from the organization's Hindu roots in India. Their motto was "chant and be happy," but the organization also had a dark side.
After a ten year stint in ISKCON, my husband and I moved to Oregon and stayed away from the organization for two years. He got a job managing a newspaper and I went back to school for a degree in youth counseling. I based my thesis on the work I did using art therapy to help juvenile sex offenders at Hillcrest Juvenile Reform School. Then in 1994, I made contact with Hare Krishnas again and met some of their grown children. Kids who were five when I joined were now in their twenties. I told them about my graduate work and they told me about the emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, and neglect that they had endured in the ISKCON schools system.
I wanted to learn more, so in 1995 I rented an apartment in Los Angeles and spent most of my time with the children of Krishna who came around the L.A. temple. I learned that most of the abuse occurred between 1971 and 1986 in the boarding schools in Texas, West Virginia, and India. During those years, the organization required parents to send their children to the schools once they reached the age of five. Some children were enrolled as young as three or four. Rampant abuse also took place in "arranged marriages" that would otherwise be considered statutory rape. The leadership (the Governing Body Commission, GBC) claimed that the schools were safe environments for children and denied any knowledge of abuse until 1996.
At first it was hard for me to believe that ISKCON had perpetrated violent child abuse for fifteen years and then covered it up for an additional ten years, especially considering that I was a member during those years and did not know about it. However, looking back now, all the symptoms were there: blind obedience to authority, a paranoid fear of sex and all touching, children were isolated and kept away from the parents, and so on.
The organization was set up to keep secrets. It was a typical high control, authoritarian pyramid structure. All the power was concentrated with a few people at the top, while the bulk of membership and their children were at the bottom. The top of the pyramid was the GBC board of directors, and among the GBC, the most powerful people were the gurus. Among the gurus, several were child abusers. Here is an account by a former student:
I remember one time during his Vyasa puja [guru's birthday] I wasn't adequately enthusiastic. He pointed at me and signaled that he'd seen me. After it was over, he had me and a few other kids come up to his room where he gave us a few of his patented smacks. He would smack harder than anyone else. After a few of his smacks my ears would ring, I'd see stars, and would be so disoriented that I could barely stand up. Needless to say, we were all crying when we left. I think he liked to hurt kids and make them cry.
Another guru molested his disciples' children and allowed other men to sexual abuse children in his community boarding school. The rest of the GBC members knew of these two abusive gurus, but took part in a conspiracy of silence to cover things up.
The main person to perpetrate the cover-up was Minister of Education Jagadish. His job was to defend the gurukula system, make it work, and stand up for its benevolence. However, he moved sex offenders from one school to another, instead of turning them over to the authorities. In an interview in the organization's newspaper, ISKCON World Review, Jagadish deflected controversy about the school system with statements like, "Gurukula is a scientific system for preparing children to live effective human lives as devotees of the Lord." Any challenged to the system that Jagadish represented was considered blasphemy. The GBC cemented Jagadish's reputation when they elevated him to the position of a guru in 1985.
Most of the physical, sexual, and emotional abuse was perpetrated by classroom teachers and those who watched over the children in their ashrams (dormitories). In the Vrindavana, India, boys' school, teachers mixed sex with violence, beating and raping the students on a daily basis. There was no one to defend the children, since it was so isolated and they censored the students' letters home. The school had an atmosphere of sexual harassment. Teachers peeped through holes in the walls and walked through the shower rooms to see the boys naked. I once asked a survivor if he had been raped there and he said, "No, because after a while we learned to stick together. Boys who stayed on their own were the most vulnerable."
Former gurukula student Nirmal-chandra wrote about his experiences at the school in his essay, Vrindavana Gurukula. He said:
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.
Nirmal-chandra was one of the people who brought the abuse out in the open. He and another former student published the V.O.I.C.E. web site (Violations of ISKCON Children Exposed). The site included an analysis of the failure of the gurukula system, a collection of anonymous personal accounts of abuse, and an essay on the culpability of the founding guru (Srila Prabhupada) for failing to stop the abuse even though he was aware of it. The web site contained some of the most outspoken writings the former students published, made even more significant because Nirmal-chandra was the son of Education Minister Jagadisha. His mother was also involved in the gurukula. Nirmal-chandra began writing after an accident at the Gita Nagari gurukula left him quadriplegic. Another former student, Raghunatha, published similar writings, including his own chilling essay, Children of the Ashram, in his newsletter, ISKCON Youth Veterans.
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 and former gurukula student Manu Dasa led a panel discussion of ten former students to explain to the leaders what gurukula was like for children. According to an editorial by ISKCON World Review publisher Kunti Devi,
Sannyasis [priests] 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.
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 entity to manage the funds. This was the beginning of Children of Krishna, Inc., which they incorporated as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization headquartered in Alachua.
Children of Krishna 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 set a limit of $2,000 per student. In this writer's opinion $2,000 is too little, considering what ISKCON took away.
In 1998 ISKCON formed the Child Protection Office (CPO), which was directed by David Wolf, Ph. D. (Dhira Govinda dasa). He was charged with investigating and adjudicating internal child abuse cases, organizing training programs to prevent future abuse, and counseling victims. In 1998 Dhira Govinda dasa attended the Los Angeles gurukula reunion, along with Yasoda devi dasi, who had served ISKCON in child protection capacities prior to the opening of the CPO, and gave grants to several child abuse survivors.
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. Dr. Rochford, a sociology professor from Vermont and author of a prominent 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, when former students started to write their stories in the 1990s.
Reform minded people in ISKCON published Dr. Rochford's analysis in the ISKCON Communication Journal without clearing it with the hierarchy. The public relations office supplied copies to the media and The New York Times published a front-page report. A similar article by Associated Press 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 is that this was the most meaningful gesture that ISKCON has ever made toward reconciling with its children. As one ISKCON official 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."
Unfortunately, the publication of Dr. Rochford's paper led to internal divisions, party-line bickering, and outright hostility toward abuse survivors, including fistfights at temples. By 1999 ISKCON had polarized into two camps. The reformers genuinely wanted to help the victims and bring the matter out in the open. However, they were outnumbered by the conservative wing, which consisted of the majority of gurus and GBC members (and their followers), who seemed to just want the kids to just go away. They opposed any open discussion or acknowledgement of the problems.
Dr. Rochford said that he felt torn over his involvement. He wrote the 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."
In 1999, the ISKCON Communications Office published a press release stating that it would raise $1 million for Children of Krishna, Inc., and the Office of Child Protection. Unfortunately, the money never materialized.
It was apparent to the victims and observers like me that ISKCON did not want to help. Many survivors needed counseling, they were trying to raise their own children, and many were suicidal or extremely depressed. A few of us got together in 1999 and found an attorney who was interested in the case. Windle Turley met with the survivors and initiated Children of ISKCON vs. ISKCON in 2000, asking $400 million in damages and compensation.
ISKCON responded by filing for bankruptcy protection, then the suit was finally settled in October 2008. Nevertheless, according to various reports, the organization has welcomed back some of the child abusers. Further, the abusive acts were criminal in nature, yet so far few criminal charges have been filed.
In June 2004 I expanded my study to include child abuse in other high control authoritarian groups, such as the Children of God, Unification Church, Transcendental Meditation, Scientology, 3HO, the polygamous Mormons, and Bible-based cults. I have found that some cults do not sexually abuse their children, but many do perpetrate systemic child abuse. By systemic I mean that, like ISKCON, the leadership knows about the abuse and either participates in it or covers it up.
It is amazing how similar the abuse is in many of these groups. Like ISKCON, other groups take children away from their families and house them in isolated trailer parks or boarding schools in other countries. Like ISKCON, other groups give pre-adolescent girls in "arranged marriages" to abusive, older men. In ISKCON, the leaders seemed to protect insiders who abused children, but beat up the perpetrators that they perceived as outsiders. There are similar patterns in other groups. I studied one group that appeared to let molesters work in the schools in exchange for large donations. In another group, the leaders encouraged incest and used their own children to make child pornography. In some of these groups, like ISKCON, the perpetrators mix violence with sex, beating and raping the same children.
I support the efforts in the U.S. Congress and in the courts to bring these crimes out in the open. Systemic child abuse can only take place in an atmosphere of strict secrecy and rigid authoritarian rule. I also support a suspension of the statute of limitations in these cases. The children grow up thinking their treatment is normal. It may take many years before they realize that what happened to them was wrong.
I am currently working on a book that will be a collection of narrative stories by people who grew up in authoritarian groups.* I offer this brief summary with hope that it will spark more dialogue and action on behalf of the children of cults.
The Past is Not Done With, Chakra.org, 1997. See: Surrealist.org
ISKCON World Review 1.6, p. 1, 1981. See: Surrealist.org
Interview with A. Dasa, author's collection, 1999. Now online: Surrealist.org
Vrindavana Gurukula, by Nirmal Chandra (Dylan Hickey), author's collection, 1995.
Priti-laksanam, Spring/Summer 1996. See: Surrealist.org
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: Surrealist.org
Dr. Burk Rochford did his doctorate on ISKCON, wrote the book Hare Krishna in America (Rutgers University Press, 1985), wrote numerous journal articles about ISKCON, and has studied the gurukula system since 1979.
ISKCON Communications Journal is an academic journal of the organization, published in the U.K.
The New York Times, "Hare Krishna Faith Details Past Abuse at Boarding Schools," by Laurie Goodstein, Oct. 9, 1998, p. 1. See: Surrealist.org
Associated Press, "Report Details Hare Krishna Child Abuse," by Julia Lieblich, Oct. 9, 1998. See: Surrealist.org
Middlebury College, "Stuck in the Middle: Research and Religion Clash as Scholar Uncovers Uncomfortable Truths," by Kim Asch, June 2002. See: Surrealist.org
Rochford's comment cited in Asch, p. 2.
ISKCON Communications Media Release, "Krishnas Pledge One Million Dollars to Child Protection (April 29, 1999). See: Surrealist.org