A Test of Faith: Allegations of past child abuse threaten Hare Krishnas' existence
by Don Lattin, San Francisco Chronicle Religion Writer
Tuesday, February 13, 2001
In 1975, Swami Srila Prabhupada, the founder of the worldwide Hare Krishna movement, was visiting his Berkeley temple when a disciple asked him the $64, 000 question.
"What will happen when you die?"
His answer is enshrined on a plaque inside the ornate East Bay temple, between a life-size replica of Prabhupada and flower-bedecked statues of Hindu deities.
"I will never die," the India-born guru replied. "I shall live through my books."
Two years later, Prabhupada was dead. And while his books survive, the Hindu sect he built is foundering, mired in power struggles and legal troubles.
One of the tests facing any spiritual cult or religious sect is surviving the death of its charismatic founder.
For the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, the founding guru's decision to pass the flame to 11 separate disciples may have been a fatal error.
Years of infighting among Prabhupada's successors - along with a huge sexual abuse lawsuit filed against them by the children of Hare Krishna parents - may soon bankrupt the movement.
Hare Krishna devotees were among the most visible of the new religious movements that took root in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s. Known for their incessant chanting, shaved heads and saffron robes, the Hindu sect became one of the spiritual icons of the hippie counterculture.
Now, 25 years after its founding, the Hare Krishna movement faces its most serious challenge.
Last summer, a Texas lawyer filed a $400 million lawsuit alleging widespread sexual, emotional and physical abuse of more than 40 Krishna kids at the Dallas ashram, at the Krishna temple in West Virginia, and at other schools, called gurukulas, around the country.
At least five of Prabhupada's anointed successors have been named in the child abuse suit, including one who already sits in a North Carolina prison, convicted of racketeering.
"There has been a raging political struggle over the movement's leadership, " said E. Burke Rochford, a professor of sociology and religion at Middlebury College in Vermont.
Some of the earliest and most intense infighting took place at New Vrindaban, a golden temple built in rural West Virginia by Keith Ham, one of the founder's earliest American converts and one of his 11 handpicked successors. Some of the worst of the reported child abuse also took place at New Vrindaban.
Ham, also known as Swami Kirtanananda, is now serving a nine-year term in a North Carolina prison for racketeering. Expelled from the Hare Krishna movement in 1987, Ham is one of 18 individual defendants named in the child abuse lawsuit filed by Dallas attorney Windle Turley.
Four years ago, Turley won a $118 million verdict in a child molestation case against the Roman Catholic Church in Texas.
"They can't survive that kind of financial hit," said Rochford, a new religions' scholar who has studied the Hare Krishnas for more than two decades.
One of the most damaging allegations in the lawsuit, Rochford said, is that Prabhupada himself was informed of extensive child abuse back in 1972, but "concealed the wrongdoing from the public, parents and a handful of close advisers."
"Prabhupada has been raised up as a symbol of purity as the other leaders have been brought into question," Rochford said.
Crusades to canonize recently deceased leaders are undertaken in most cults and sects. Leaders of the Church of Scientology, for example, have spent a fortune trying to polish the imperfect life of their founding father, the late L. Ron Hubbard.
But this is even more important in Eastern spiritual movements, where the guru is presented as the embodiment of spiritual purity.
Hare Krishna leaders vehemently deny that Prabhupada tried to cover up the early stages of the child abuse scandal. Rochford also questions this charge, saying he has seen no evidence that the founding guru was involved.
Nevertheless, many Hare Krishna members have already shifted their spiritual allegiance to gurus outside the confines of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness.
Others have drifted farther afield, haunted by years of child abuse committed in the name of God.
One of them is Tina Hebel, who grew up on the West Virginia commune run by Swami Kirtanananda.
Today, she is attending acupuncture school in Santa Clara, trying to put her life back together. A single mother with a 7-year-old daughter, Hebel is one of 40 Krishna kids suing the sect for child abuse.
Hebel, 27, sat in the back of a Saratoga coffeehouse, recalling her days at the ashram.
"There was no warmth, no acceptance," she said. "Most of the adults were rebelling against their Christian upbringing. Pretty much everyone living there were Americans trying to be Indians, to be Hindus. It was very strange.
"My father brought me there when I was 2. I'd stay with different devotees, and he'd come back and forth from India. I never really knew my dad. When I was 22, he gave me a call and told me what happened. He said my mother died. He said he gave Kirtanananda a ton of money to take care of me."
At age 5, Hebel went to live in the girls' ashram. Every morning, she said, they were awakened at 2 a.m to get ready for the 3:30 a.m. religious service. They would pray and chant until 6:30 a.m. During the rest of the day, they would attend classes, cook, clean or work in the fields.
"It was great having the freedom to be out in nature, but there were times when we were not properly clothed or fed," she said. "If you fell asleep in (religious studies) class, you'd get smacked, or get cold water thrown on you."
According to the lawsuit filed against the sect, other Hare Krishna children were "kicked into submission." Some who did not clean themselves properly "were scrubbed with steel wool until their skin was raw and sometimes bleeding."
"In some cases, children were stuffed into trash barrels for periods of two to three days, with the lid on, as punishment for relatively trivial 'sins,' " the suit alleges.
One woman interviewed for a study by Professor Rochford grew up in a Krishna boarding school in Seattle, while her mother was sent to Hawaii. She recalled an incident that occurred when she was about 6 years old:
"They would give us a bowl of hot milk at night, so I would, of course, pee in my bed. Then as punishment they would spank me very hard and make me wear the contaminated panties on my head."
There are also many allegations of sexual abuse.
Another woman raised at a Hare Krishna commune said she was molested by a male teacher for two years, between the ages of 8 and 10. Then, when she was 13, another man at the commune sexually abused her for about seven months.
"We had a substitute teacher come in, and she started telling us about child abuse," she said in an interview with The Chronicle. "I'd never heard of it, but realized I'd been living it my whole life. I remember running out of the classroom crying. Some other girls came out, and we started sharing stories. 'Did it happen to you? Did it happen to you?' "
Some experts say the risk for child abuse is higher in certain new religious movements, especially when cult leaders are more interested in building spiritual empires than raising healthy children.
"Parents in intense groups can become like middle managers in the raising of their own children," said Michael Langone, executive director of the American Family Foundation and editor of the Cultic Studies Journal.
When children are involved, he said, there can be a fine line between religious practice and spiritual abuse.
Many children raised in fundamentalist sects and new religious movements were forced to live like little monks, subjected to long days of work and religious study, getting up in the middle of the night for hours of chanting.
"That was a problem with the Hare Krishnas," said Langone. "They were trying to turn the kids into little Krishna saints. You've got isolation, centralization of power and an ideology that is unrealistically demanding. There's a much higher potential for abuse."
Anuttama Dasa, director of North American communications for the Hare Krishna society, acknowledged that "many of our children suffered abuse at some of our boarding schools."
In 1996, he said, the movement established the Children of Krishna, to provide money for the education and counseling of victims. In 1998, they set up their own Office of Child Protection to investigate all allegations. They also have closed their Indian-style boarding schools.
"Child abuse is not limited to new religious movements," he said. "There was almost an epidemic in the 1970s."
Anuttama denied the lawsuit's allegations that the Hare Krishna set up the boarding schools to "permit the parents to be free to solicit and raise money" and that the sect "granted teaching positions to sexual predators so they would have access to children for their sexual gratification."
"These were terrible acts in gross violation of our principles," he said. "We believe that sexuality, for strict devotees, is meant to be performed between a husband and wife for procreation."
Once those children were born, however, new mothers were expected to head out to proselytize and raise money for the sect.
Rochford's study of child care - and child abuse - at the New Vrindaban commune in West Virginia uncovered a saying used in the community to refer to expectant Hare Krishna mothers:
"Dump the load and hit the road."
Professor Rochford said the "renunciate climate" at Hare Krishna communes was not a healthy one for raising children.
"Children weren't terribly valued," the religion scholar said. "Early on, they were seen as 'special souls,' so you really didn't have to do much for them."
Similar attitudes have been noted by experts studying other new religious movements, such as the Unification Church. Members believe that children born to marriages arranged by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon are "blessed children," born without "original sin."
But Rochford and other observers say the neglect and abuse of children was worse in the Hare Krishna movement, where some of the least responsible members were put in charge of raising kids.
According to Rochford, the child abuse scandal has created "a crisis of faith and trust" among both the parents and the second-generation devotees.
"Many of the children have not committed themselves to the movement like their parents did," he said. "They are very much on the margins."
Nevertheless, Rochford predicts that the Krishna faith "will live on in a weakened way."
"They have thousands of sincere and dedicated followers who will find another way to practice their faith."
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