Sex, drugs, embezzlement chant today's Hare Krishna
Asia Times Online/July 25, 2001
By Sujor Dhar

Kolkata -- Sex scandals and embezzlement charges that have knocked the image of the Hare Krishna cult are now being compounded by street battles and court arbitration between its rival groups.

Last month, internal dissensions became public when rival factions fought over which of them would lead the annual Rathyatra (chariot-pulling festivals) through the streets of Kolkata and New York.

In April, meanwhile, the shaven-headed, saffron-robed cult members abandoned their drums and dancing to pelt each other with stones outside the temple of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) on Kolkata's Albert Road, forcing police to intervene and arrest several feuding devotees.

ISKCON is better known as the Hare Krishna cult, because its adherents are best known for chanting it ritually. Krishna is a spiritual leader said to have lived in northern India 5,000 years ago, but is deified as a god. The rival groups within the cult are the ISKCON Revival Movement group led by its expelled Kolkata chapter president Adridharan Das and the ISKCON Governing Body controlled from the United States.

ISKCON, founded in New York in by one-time professor of philosophy Srila Prabhupada, rapidly grew into a world movement. It attracted celebrities like Beatle George Harrison who incorporated the trademark Hare Krishna chants in his music. When Prabhupada died in 1977, he left behind a translation of the Bhagvad Gita (The song of Krishna), an ancient Hindu text which, among other things, explained the laws governing transmigration of the soul and its ultimate liberation.

But Prabhupada also left behind a worldwide empire with more than 100 temples, centers and schools run by 3,000 full-time members - and over which an intense struggle for control has grown. By the Nineties, a string of sex and money scandals had overtaken the movement with a large number of its devotees leaving the fold in disgust.

The biggest blow came in 1988 when Nori J Muster, ISKCON's public relations secretary and editor of the organization's newspaper, left and went on to write "Betrayal of The Spirit", a book which thoroughly exposed the organization. Muster's book detailed a sordid story of drug dealing, weapons stockpiling, deceptive fundraising, child abuse, and murder within ISKCON - and the schisms that forced 95 percent of the group's original members to leave.

"The root of the present problems with ISKCON is the proliferation in number of gurus," alleged its expelled president Aridharan Das. "Our founder, Srila Prabhupada, had set up a system within ISCKON which allowed him to remain the diksha [initiating] guru for new disciples for as long as the society exists," he added. "After his departure in 1977, his leading disciples unauthorizedly stopped this system and set themselves up as the new initiating gurus. Today there are some 90 gurus who are creating all the problems, many accused of sexual offenses and many languishing in jails," he claimed.

"Our first and foremost mission is to restore our founder as the only guru and disenfranchise the other 90 gurus who are actually enjoying the assets of ISKCON," Adhridharan Das said.

Countered Dayaram Das, member of the ISKCON Governing Body at Mayapur, 100 kilomters from here, "Throughout Srila Prabhupada's written and spoken instructions, he consistently stated that after his departure his disciples would become spiritual masters."

The Governing Body insists that it operates on the guidelines set forth by Prabhupada and that Das has siphoned off funds and misused the order's property. "This is all rubbish," the expelled president said.

Fissures within the cult reached a flashpoint recently at the world famous annual Calcutta Rathayatra procession on June 23. Armed with a court order, a rival group of the Kolkata chapter, which owes allegiance to gurus mostly based abroad and wield local clout through the global headquarters at Mayapur, hijacked the Rathyatra this year.

Said Adridharan Das, "I have performed this festival without a break for the past 20 years. It has grown to be the largest Rathyatra festival in the world with some 1.5 million people of the city taking part annually."

Das had appealed to the Kolkata High Court to stop his rivals from taking out the Rathyatra procession, but the court ruled against him. The court observed that he has been expelled as the president of the Kolkata unit. "We are armed with the court order. We will now ask the court to evict Adridharan Das from the Albert Road temple of Kolkata," they said.

The sex scandals involving its gurus have prompted long-time devotee Vineet Narain to set up the ISKCON Reform Group, which has branches in Australia, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Canada.

Narain stated that disciples have been leaving, especially after one of the gurus, Loknath Swami, was involved in the molestation of a teenage girl in the United States. Several other self-proclaimed gurus fell from grace following serious charges of child abuse.

Several of the religious leaders are in US prisons serving terms on various charges. A group of former ISKCON gurukul (boarding house) inmates also filed a lawsuit in 1999, alleging sexual abuse when they were staying as students.

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