Can Cults Change: The Case of ISKCON
by Nori Muster
April 18, 1999
The American Family Foundation (AFF) will host their 1999 "Conference: Cults, Psychological Manipulation & Society" and one the featured panel discussions will be about whether cults can change and will specifically focus on the case of ISKCON. The panel consists of Anuttama das, head of ISKCON Communications; Radha dasi, a dedicated follower; and two seemingly friendly observers—Michael Langone, director of AFF and Joseph Kelley a "thought reform consultant" closely tied to AFF.
It seems that the people on the panel will say ISKCON has changed for the better. I would like to offer a dissenting voice—since I was once a member of ISKCON, spent ten years in that organization and then devoted another decade studying and researching the group to produce books on the subject.
Originally there was a time when ISKCON was innocent. It truly represented a branch of Hinduism in a pure way. Many ISKCON members feel nostalgia for those days and their ideal is to make ISKCON just like it was when Srila Prabhupada their guru was alive and actively leading the group. If ISKCON were to change for the better, this would mean reviving that innocence.
However, in order to see what that would entail and whether ISKCON has successfully accomplished that ideal, it would be helpful to look at the years of lost innocence and see what went wrong.
Beginning in the early 1970s, certain greedy and cruel men came into power within ISKCON. If the organization now really wants to change for the better, it should remove all illegitimate gurus, Governing Body Commission (GBC) board members, temple presidents, sannyasis (priests), and zone managers. There are at least 20-30 illegitimate leaders that still remain firmly in place within its hierarchy.
Beginning in the early 1970s, ISKCON sent its members into airports, malls and other public venues to sell books. After a short time, the leaders told them to dress in Western clothing and obscure their identity, until after they receive the money. In many temples, members were asked to lie about their identity and deny being Hare Krishnas, in order to get donations. ISKCON leaders accepted tainted money from drug dealers and other illegal sources.
If things are to change for the better, ISKCON needs to solicit donations in a legitimate way and refuse all tainted money.
Throughout its history ISKCON has used irresponsible recruitment methods. The most "cult-like" aspect is that they encouraged interested people to move in and dedicate their whole lives to the organization, often giving up careers, and cutting ties with former friends and family. Legitimate religions promote living and working in the world, maintaining strong family ties and friendships. Many parents feel they lost their children to ISKCON.
In order for things to change for the better, ISKCON needs to stop such extreme control over their members' lives.
Alienated Former Members
Over the years ISKCON's board of directors has made many enemies, especially among former members. For example, they excommunicated a vocal critic named Puranjana (Tim Lee), after he accused one of the gurus of taking LSD—speaking about this violated their rules. Pranjana has now it seems become a lifelong enemy of ISKCON.
Another vocal critic named Sulochan (Steve Bryant) was excommunicated after he accused one of the gurus of selling drugs and running a prostitution ring. Sulochan was then murdered by a Krishna hitman shortly after his excommunication.
Some of these former members have dedicated their lives to toppling the current ISKCON leadership through lawsuits or public opinion. ISKCON leaders keep them away by claiming that these onetime Krishna devotees have certain ideological differences that are dangerous. In reality, their differences are very minor, but these disagreements have resulted in beatings, death threats and even murder.
If things are to change for the better, ISKCON needs to acknowledge these former members and make peace with them. This would be an obvious sign that things have actually changed for the better.
I am currently writing a book about the rampant abuse of the first generation of Krishna kids, born in the late 1960s to early 1970s. These people deserve justice. It has been almost ten years since this abuse became known. But it took until 1996 for the GBC to acknowledge the problem. In 1998 the organization made this abuse known publically in press releases to The New York Times and other news agencies. However, in all those years, they have only raised about $30,000 to compensate the victims and ISKCON has substantial resources. They could locate almost all of the child abuse victims by using class photos, but that will probably never happen.
The attitude of ISKCON's leadership so far seems to be keeping the victims quiet by offering them checks for $500. They appear to be trying to find out who the abusers are, but do little other than giving the men a slap on the wrist. This is humiliation upon humiliation for the victims. This serious issue may ultimately have to be sorted out in a courtroom. ISKCON has done a lot of talking, but has actually taken little action—with the exception of Anuttama and his wife Rukmini, who donated about $15,000 of their own money to the cause.
If things are to change for the better, I believe it would be more reasonable to give $30,000 for each count of abuse, for each victim.
For a long time, ISKCON has had leaders who beat their wives and advocate wife-beating among the other married men. Also, ISKCON arranged marriages between minor-aged girls and often abusive men. The girls' complaints were generally ignored.
In order for ISKCON to really change for the better, they must come out in the open about their spousal abuse problem, remove abusers from official positions, and compensate the victims.
Over the years, many innocent people were beaten or kicked out of temples because they sided with the wrong political interests. The temple leaders keep their enemies away by threatening them, but this creates a sick environment throughout the organization.
In order for ISKCON to really change all these attitudes must change and then it could really become a better organization.