In Celebration of a Masterpiece
by Nori Muster
The Hare Krishna organization started out innocent, but quickly developed a criminal underbelly that included smugglers, pedophiles, thieves, and paid assassins. Rarely has a journalist come forward to tell the story without making it sound sensationalistic. The last worthy article I read was published in 2001: "Murder, Sex and Free Food," by Frank Bures, Portland Mercury News.* It's been a while. Therefore, with gratitude, I want to offer praise for a new masterpiece of storytelling: "Inside the dark secrets of the Hare Krishnas," by Ralph Jones, Shortlist Magazine, March 9, 2017.
Last year, Jones visited Bhaktivedanta Manor, the ISKCON center in Watford, England. For the morning program he wore tilak and kurta, watered the tulasi tree, bowed, and danced before the deities. When the kirtan got going, he experienced it as a "frisky conga." During the day he went with devotees to the London Borough of Camden to observe Food For Life, ISKCON's free food distribution program. In the evening he went on harinama on Oxford Street, chanted, and posed for tourists' photos with the devotees.
In his article, Jones said he went to the temple to find out "Who are the Hare Krishnas? Why are they so happy all the time? And how can we heathens get some of their sweet bliss?"
He found his twenty-four hours with the devotees exhilarating, but came away feeling disturbed. As he explained, "The group seem like a loopy and harmless crowd. But their vacant expressions—like those you'd see on the recently lobotomised—make me wonder: is this the whole story?"
Ralph Jones did not write extemporaneously. To do justice to his experience, he spent nearly a year researching ISKCON's history, interviewing followers and ex-members. His article quotes ISKCON's chief spokesman in the USA, Anuttama Dasa; a spokesman from the UK; several unnamed ex-members; former Laguna Beach temple president Roy Richard, and myself.
As Ralph Jones dug into the history, he kept finding more. In November, he told me his publisher wanted him to cut it short, and publish the piece by the end of the year. Because I knew Ralph Jones had seen the dark side, and knew he would express what he had seen, I encouraged him to put off publication so he would not mar ISKCON's year-long celebration. Last year marked fifty years since ISKCON's founding.
Whether Ralph Jones delayed the piece at my request, or whether he just needed more time, I don't know. However, I believe the care he put into the article was well worth it. He focused on three points:
The founder's antiquated attitudes;
the murder of Sulochan and dissidents' fear of assault;
ISKCON followers' denials and rationalizations.
The Founder's Antiquated Attitudes
One thing members and non-members find difficult is Prabhupada's concept of astronomy. He stated emphatically the sun is closer to the earth than the moon. Also, that man never went to the moon. Ralph Jones confronted Anuttama and the UK spokesman, and was confounded that otherwise rational people would not commit to accepted findings of astronomy. For the record, it's not important whether ISKCON followers believe in modern science. However, it shows how cloistered a society ISKCON really is.
Much more disturbing were Prabhupada's attitudes about women Ralph Jones noted in his article, as follows:
Prabhupada impregnated his wife when she was fourteen.
Prabhupada said men's brains are twice the size of women's.
Prabhupada claimed women had sex with dogs, and that was the origin of syphilis.
Prabhupada said "a woman likes a man who is very expert at rape."
Confronting ISKCON's spokesmen with Prabhupada's statement about rape, Anuttama said: "Did he mean physically accosted, violently threatened, sexually assaulted? Absolutely not. Did he mean women like men to be aggressive? I think so." The UK spokesman said, "His choice of words must be looked at in context of his traditional colonial upbringing and education, as he often uses obsolete definitions of words, such as rape, which in the 19th century meant 'to delight' or 'ravage' as opposed to the horrific meaning of the term we know today."
I find it tragic how Prabhupada followers in the twenty-first century still cannot recognize women's struggle to have control of their own bodies. Rape means rape and it always has, despite men's perennial drive to minimize the meaning of the word rape. Women have been trying to make this clear to men since at least the 1840s. Do women like forcible sex? Does anybody? No. Perhaps the only exception would be people with sadomasochistic tendencies.
Sexual abuse inflicts lasting harm to body, mind, and soul. It's the most destructive form of abuse. I believe Prabhupada left it to his disciples to update attitudes about women, because times change. Unfortunately, ISKCON men adopted antiquated attitudes rather than move the organization forward. As difficult as it is to face, perhaps the founder's lax attitude toward rape allowed an elevated level of rape to go on in ISKCON. Women were raped in arranged marriages, children were raped in the organization's schools, and even men were raped by men in the ashrams.
The Murder of Sulochan and Dissidents' Fear of Assault
The tragic death of Sulochan (Steven Bryant) was the most notorious murder in ISKCON. It was a central theme in the book, Monkey on a Stick, by John Hubner. The phrase "monkey on a stick" comes from farmers in India, who would impale a monkey and leave it out as a scarecrow to warn monkeys away from their crops. The brutal murder of Sulochan left a chilling effect, warning all dissidents they could be next.
Ralph Jones began his article with these words from an anonymous former member:
"I am considered by the Hare Krishna movement what they call a demon. There's nothing more they would like to do than get their hands on me and literally, physically, actually, factually, with a very sharp knife, cut out my tongue."
Another ex-member said:
"In my heart I want you to use my name, because I'm old and sick and tired of being anonymous. I could be a prime target for retribution. One phone call and a Miami thug will fuck me up."
Whether or not these men's fears are grounded in reality, they definitely are grounded in the history of the murder of Sulochan. The only flaw in the article is that Ralph Jones said Sulochan was lying down on a cot in his van when he was shot. In fact, he was sitting in the front seat. However, that flaw does not mar the overall mastery of the piece.
ISKCON Followers' Denials and Rationalizations
While current followers of ISKCON are apt to overlook—even resent—everything in the article, it is good to get the truth out. Yes, ISKCON has changed and improved in recent years, especially since they ended systemic abuse of children in their school system. However, it still bothers me how easily they can dismiss their sins. Does it serve ISKCON to cover up the past? In a broader sense, is it even possible to cover up the past? An organization that still employs thugs to beat up dissident ex-members is not an organization putting the past to rest. Because so many ex-members still fear physical harm for revealing ISKCON's secrets, the past lives on as a ghost. Once in a while, the ghost reveals itself, like it does here, "Inside the dark secrets of the Hare Krishnas," by Ralph Jones.
- Nori Muster, March 11, 2017
Read the original article:
"Inside the dark secrets of the Hare Krishnas"
by Ralph Jones
SHORTLIST March 9, 2017
A Letter to ISKCON on its Fiftieth Anniversary
by Nori Muster
November 4, 2016
Dear ISKCON . . . when you were an adolescent you had a lot of problems. The waves of maya broke and forced you out of your denial. You stood up. You got yourself together, and you continue. Yes, you have lost your founding acharya, and that will always sting. But that's part of living in the world. We all must endure the pain of loss.
A lot of original members now living outside of ISKCON are along a spectrum, supporting you still, to hating and fearing you with every cell in their body. Most of us who have left learned valuable lessons. It was like a second chance at having a family. Some people grow up with parents who love them, who teach them well, and support them. Others of us grow up in families where no adult had the time or inclination to interact with us very much, except when we were in trouble. Many of us were in trouble when we joined ISKCON, and living under its strict rules, we learned self-discipline.
ISKCON could also be likened to a college-like learning experience with an internship. We could sign up for jobs we wouldn't have been offered in the karmi world. Some of us were just too eccentric to go into the mainstream willingly. We found this little bit of shade where we felt we would be safe, and we took it. We didn't care what our old family thought. We cut ourselves off from our old family and all our dysfunctional relationships. ISKCON allowed us to make new relationships in a safe environment. It was like a micro society unto itself. Some people found their calling in technical skills, others in sales, management, domestic arts, or working in an office. Since I had just earned my college degree at UC Santa Barbara, I was offered an office job.
However, unlike having a degree from UCSB, which ranks in the top ten colleges in the country on various polls, telling people I spent ten years in ISKCON usually didn't cut it in a job interview. I finally got my dream job in 2010, but that dream took ten years to work out. So ISKCON, as you move forward into your next fifty years, I encourage you to get to the root of what went wrong with you as a teenager. After all, back then you had a lot of people stuck in their own dysfunctional adolescent ways. There were some responsible adults around, but nobody listened to them. Please improve yourself, ISKCON. You've come this far.
Usually people don't want advice, but if you asked for my advice, here's what it would be. First, admit you were powerless over your behavior during the 1970s and 1980s. Second, believe that a power higher than yourselves will restore your dignity. Make a decision to trust the higher power . . . . you get the idea.
As for myself, I try every day, but am still somewhat disappointed in myself. For ten years I was a slave to a system that covertly abused as many as eight hundred innocent children. While I was in ISKCON people whispered about such things, but most were too repressed to say anything. A few people tried, but the leadership made such an example of the whistleblowers it discouraged others. When I used to write the ISKCON World Review for you, I made it even more difficult for people to speak out. If you get a publication from the organization, you're supposed to read it and believe what it says. I wrote articles that characterized the schools as enlightened. I painted a rosy picture because I believed what I wrote. It was only after leaving ISKCON, earning my master's degree in clinical child and youth counseling, that I found out what had happened.
In 1994, visiting the ISKCON center in Topanga Canyon, after the Sunday feast, I found out about the child abuse. Most of the guests were leaving, but just a handful of people from the L.A. temple were still there. They were the grown children of people I'd known in the L.A. temple. There they were, all in their twenties. As most grandparents know, seeing a child grow up into adulthood is one of the most rewarding feelings in this world.
There I was, I'd been outside of ISKCON for six years. I told them in the meantime I'd written a book, and was getting it ready for the publisher. Also, that I'd gotten my master's degree doing art therapy with juvenile sex offenders. One of the young men said to me, "We were all abused in the gurukulas in India. We want to ask you, because we are interested in becoming teachers. If you are abused as a child, will you go on to abuse other children? Would it be safe for us to become teachers?"
I said, "What?" and for the next three years, the children told me what. I interviewed dozens of survivors, or spoke to them briefly. Sometimes there's just nothing else to say. They told me who they were, and what they'd been through. They adopted me as one of their own, and I adopted all of them as my god children.
One thing you, ISKCON, could do to make people like me proud of you, would be to stop denying the crimes and abuse that went on in you in the 1970s and 1980s. You ISKCON, and your associates, killed people, beat people up, intimidated people, raped, and emotionally abused people. You financially abused people. If you can get to the first step, I know you'll be okay. Since you're fifty now, I think you're ready to hear this and do something about it.