Excerpt from Betrayal of the Spirit

Chapter 8, pp. 73-77, "Who's Watching the Children?"

Copyright (c) 1997 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.
Used with the permission of the University of Illinois Press.


Life's 1980 article, "Children of a Harsh Bliss" began with a fifteen-inch-wide, black-and-white photo of three bald gurukula [school] boys, holding their hands out to Kirtanananda as if begging. Kirtanananda, sniffing a flower, looks them over. Gurus sometimes passed out flowers during worship time; the children wanted the flower that Kirtanananda held to his nose. The lead paragraph said, "The children with the outstretched hands have already begun their training as lifelong members of the sect of Hare Krishna." ("Sect" not "cult" was a small concession to Mukunda's legal front.)

Life printed a good picture of the palace, but the rest of Hoffman's black-and-white photo essay was moody and bleak. In one picture, a group of men bow to someone on a bare, rutted road. In another, a sari-clad woman shaves her son's head. Bold type beneath a photo of children in a classroom reads, "The study of Sanskrit in a climate of few comforts." On the seventh page of the eight-page article is the heading "Strict rules to separate the sexes" and a photo of a gurukula [school] girl receiving a sewing lesson. Finally, a full-page photo shows a teenage girl with almond eyes, her face partially illuminated by rays of sunshine. "The fourteen-year-old at right, caught in a reflective moment, was married recently. 'She was developing a lot of crushes,' a devotee explained. Her sister, sixteen, is married and pregnant." . . . .

In his newsletter Mukunda described the Life cover as a victory and printed comments by the guru Hridayananda:

"Concerning the part on women, it says that we segregate the sexes and stress chastity for women, which are values that most Americans respect. Don't forget that the Equal Rights Amendment failed in America. America, as a nation, does not believe in the equality of women. It's a proven fact, because ERA failed. . . .

"The mention of a sixteen-year-old pregnant wife and a fourteen-year-old who will get married came off very well. The article mentioned that one is married and the other is getting crushes. These days, there's a big movement in America against illicit sex, and these early marriages show our concern for not letting women become polluted."

In controversies like this I wanted to take ISKCON's side, but such inane arguments by the leaders gave me new doubts. I trusted my father above anyone else because he knew P.R., and I was glad Mukunda respected his opinion. As far as Life magazine, Dad and Mukunda were right. The cover was remembered. Life readers voted it one of the best of the year, and the magazine published several letters about it. The Hare Krishna girls even appeared on a Bombay billboard advertising Life. Ethan Hoffman won praise for the photo, and it remains one of the most memorable and well-known of all his prize-winning shots. . . .

The Life cover was a metaphor for the children of ISKCON. On its face, the picture seemed like good publicity, with innocent, smiling faces, but it hid a growing desperation. All the children in ISKCON during those years felt it, even if they were not assaulted. Some adults sensed the tension, but most trusted the GBC leadership and left childcare to the gurukulas. Perpetrators told the children it was their karma that they were abused, but that's not true. It was neglect on the part of idealistic and irresponsible adults. . . .


index