Child Abuse inthe Hare Krishna Movement: 1971-1986
ISKCON Communications Journal, Vol. 6, No. 1, June 1998, pp. 43-70

Dr. E. Burke Rochford, Jr.
with Jennifer Heinlein
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
Middlebury College

...All these boys must be taken care of very nicely. Theyare the
future hope (Prabhupada letter, July, 1974, in Prabhupada 1992:795).

These kids were growing up and seriously leaving [ISKCON]. Not a
little bit leaving. Not leaving and being favorable, still
chanting and living outside. Nothing like that. They were
leaving. And suddenly it was like "What happened?" And then it
started to be revealed that the kids were molested. (Long-time
ISKCON teacher, interview 1990)1

Religion and child abuse, "'perfect together'... and mutuallyattractive." So concludes Donald Capps in his 1992 presidential addressto members of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. Mutuallyattractive in spite of the fact that religion has often vigorously defendedthe rights of children, including condemning child abuse and neglect (Capps1992; Costin et al. 1996:47). Yet research on child abuse suggeststhat religious beliefs can foster, encourage, and justify the abuse ofchildren (Capps 1992; Ellison and Sherkat 1993; Greven 1990; Jenkins 1996).Moreover, church structures may provide opportunities for abusive clergy(Krebs 1998; Shupe 1995).

This paper deals with how children in a religious organizationwere abused physically, psychologically, and sexually by people responsiblefor their care and well-being. My purpose is to describe the problemas it existed within the International Society for Krishna Consciousness(ISKCON), more popularly known as the Hare Krishna movement. This discussionof child abuse within ISKCON is an historical one.2 I considerchild abuse and neglect within the context of ISKCON's boarding schools--orashram-based gurukulas--as they existed from 1971 until the mid-1980s.I develop a sociologically informed framework to understand how and whychild abuse and neglect took place. Thus my attempt is not concernedwith identifying or explaining the "causes" of child abuse by focusingon the abuser per se. Rather attention is given to a variety of organizationalfactors which fostered, and indeed created opportunities for child abuseto occur within ISKCON's schools.

I argue that child abuse must be understood within thebroader context of ISKCON's development as a religious organization.The expansion of marriage and family life has defined ISKCON's transitionfrom a communally-organized sectarian movement, to one characterized bya loosely organized congregation of financially independent householdersand their children (Rochford 1995a, 1995b, 1997). As the number ofmarriages and children began to grow in the mid-1970s, householder lifewas redefined by ISKCON's renunciate elite as a symbol of spiritual weakness.As a stigmatized and politically marginal group, householders were leftpowerless to assert their parental authority over the lives of their children.Children were abused in part because they were not valued by leaders, andeven, very often, by their own parents who accepted theological and otherjustifications offered by the leadership for remaining uninvolved in thelives of their children.

In recent years child abuse has played an influential role inthe ongoing politic surrounding the authority and legitimacy of ISKCON'sleadership. For many ISKCON members, and devotees marginal to oroutside of the organization, child abuse stands as a powerful symbol ofthe failure of ISKCON's traditionalist, communal, hierarchical (i.e., sectarian)form of social organization. Child abuse has come to represent afundamental betrayal of trust, not only for abused children and their parentsbut for the membership more generally. (Also, see Rochford 1998 onleader misconduct and changing sources of religious authority within ISKCON.)

It is important to make clear from the start that no one knowshow many of ISKCON's children were abused in the gurukula. It isalso the case that ISKCON's gurukulas did not uniformly experience problemsof child abuse. Finally, the virtual collapse of these institutionsin North America and worldwide in favor of community day-schools, has allbut eliminated the context of abuse considered here.3

Before turning to the substantive issues raised above,I first want to build a broader context for my discussion. One onlyhas to pick up the local newspaper to realize that child abuse occurs alltoo frequently in the communities in which we live. Moreover, whilewe might assume that religious life would remain immune to the tragedyof child abuse, the facts suggest otherwise. Various religious groups--conventionaland unconventional alike--have been shaken by allegations of child abuse,especially sexual misconduct on the part of church authorities (Jenkins1996:50-52; Palmer 1997; Shupe 1995, 1998).


Reported cases of child abuse and neglect have been on the risein the U.S. in recent years (Costin et al., 1996:136-7; Daro 1988).4More than a million young people suffer abuse and mistreatment annually(Daro 1988:13; U.S. Bureau of the Census 1997:218). The AmericanAssociation for Protecting Children found that 1.7 million children sufferedneglect or abuse in 1984, an increase of 156% since 1976, the first yearthis agency began collecting data on child abuse (Daro 1988:13).5In 1995, there were just under two million reported cases of child abuseinvolving 2.95 million children in the United States. After investigationby state child protective services, evidence suggests that 1 million childrenwere abused or neglected (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1997:219). Becausemany cases of child abuse go unreported the actual number of abused childrenmay well be substantially higher (Daro 1988:14-15).

Although overall rates remain high, the prevalence of varioustypes of child abuse and neglect appear to be changing. Physicalabuse has decreased while sexual abuse has expanded as a proportion ofthe total percentage of reported cases of child abuse (Costin et al. 1996:138).The latter trend may be changing however as the percentage of substantiatedcases of child sexual abuse actually declined between 1990 and 1995 (U.S.Bureau of the Census 1997:218). A majority of parents in the U.S.continue to use physical punishment, however, and the percentage of parentsfavoring corporal punishment declined only slightly during the 1970s and1980s (Straus and Gelles 1986; Straus 1994:23-24).6

While child abuse no doubt is present within any community inthe U.S., it can also be found within a variety of religious groups anddenominations--perhaps especially among those adhering to a Judaic-Christiantradition. Both the Old and the New Testaments recommend the use of physicalpunishment on the part of parents to help tame the will of a child (Ellisonand Sherkat 1993; Greven 1991). Such intervention is mandated becauseall persons are believed to be born sinful (i.e., displaying egocentrismand selfishness). Parents thus face the responsibility of "shapingthe will" of their children to ensure they become right with God.Biblical passages giving legitimation to physical punishment of childrenare many.
Among the most commonly cited are: "He that spareth the rod hatethhis son; but he that loveth him chaseneth him betimes." "Withholdno correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, heshall not die. Thou shall beat him with the rod, and shalt deliverhis soul from hell" (Proverbs 13:24 and 23:13-14, respectively, quotedin Bottoms et al. 1995:87). Accordingly, parents who subscribe to a doctrineof biblical literalism--such as conservative Protestants--are especiallyprone to using physical punishment as a form of discipline (Ellison andSherkat 1993). Corporal punishment is viewed both as a necessaryand legitimate means to combat the sinfulness of a child, while simultaneouslyre-enforcing parental (i.e., patriarchal) authority.

Apart from encouraging and justifying corporal punishment, religiousideas have also been used by parents and religious institutions alike to"cause emotional pain" by tormenting children through the excessive useof shame and fear (Capps 1992:7-9). The latter researcher concludesthat "religious ideas might be as abusive as physical punishment for children"(1992:8).7

When the average person reflects on child abuse and religion todayhe or she is likely to identify sexual misconduct by religious officials,particularly on the part of Catholic priests (Berry 1992; Jenkins 1996,1998). This is largely because sexual misconduct by Catholic priestshas received widespread media coverage in the U.S. and worldwide (For areview, see Jenkins 1996:53-76, 1998). Yet child sexual abuse by clergyis hardly limited to Catholicism (Isely and Isely 1990). The mostoften quoted survey dealing with sexual problems among Protestant clergyfound that 10 percent were involved in sexual misconduct of one sort oranother, and that "about two to three percent" were pedophiles (Rediger1990:55, quoted in Jenkins 1996). This rate is equal to or perhapseven slightly higher than for Catholic priests (Jenkins 1996:50).8

While the sexual abuse of children is troubling, it becomes doublyso when religious figures are involved. Afterall clergy are viewedin most religious traditions as God's ordained representatives, this comprisingthe very basis of their religious authority. In cases of clergy sexualabuse religious authority is directly or indirectly used to exploit children,and to cover it up. Clergy who sexually abuse children are oftenable to escape disclosure, because their status as religious figures shieldsthem from accusations of abuse (Barry 1992; Bottoms et al. 1995).Allegations made by a child concerning clergy sexual misconduct are likelyto be ignored, or dismissed as fabrication by parents and other adults(see e.g., Barry 1992). Clergy sexual abuse of children, in significantrespects, parallels familial incest because it is "often characterizedby the same guilt, betrayal of trust, and shame..." (Bottoms et al. 1995:90;also see Blanchard 1991:239-240). It is thus hardly surprising tofind allegations of clergy sexual misconduct being made by adults victimizedas children.

As one might expect, sexual abuse by religious authorities isespecially damaging to victims. One study concluded that abuse byreligious authorities "is as psychologically damaging, and perhaps moredamaging, than even the violently physical abuses of parents whose religiousbeliefs led them to view their children as evil incarnate" (Bottoms etal. 1995:100). Children molested by religious authorities often sufferfrom depression, suicidal ideation, and affective disorders (Bottoms etal. 1995:99). Moreover, it is not uncommon for those sexually abusedby clergy to change religions, or more likely still, to repudiate religionaltogether (Bottoms et al. 1995:99). Such an outcome appears evenmore likely when clergy sexual misconduct is hidden or otherwise covered-upby the church hierarchy.9


Unlike most instances of child abuse that occur in the home, ISKCON'schildren were abused and neglected within the confines of the movement'sschools, by unrelated adults and older children acting on a teacher's behalf.During these formative years of ISKCON's development the movement's childrenwere educated in boarding schools, living more or less separate lives fromtheir parents. It was here that a portion of ISKCON's children were physically,psychologically, and sexually abused.10

Because Prabhupada saw the public school system in America asindoctrinating "children in sense gratification and mental speculation,he referred to the schools as 'slaughterhouses'" (J. Goswami 1984:1).By contrast, the gurukula as he envisioned it, was specifically meant totrain students in spiritual life, so that they could return to Godhead.Given that the fundamental goal of the gurukula was to train students insense control, children were removed from their family as early as agefour or five years. Prabhupada believed little hope existed for a childto learn self-control within the nuclear family because of the "ropes ofaffection" between parent and child. Children thus attended the gurukulaon a year-round basis, with occasional vacations to visit with parents.They resided in ashrams with children of similar age and sex. Ashramsvaried in the number of children cared for. In 1979 there were 6-8students living in each of the boys ashrams in Los Angeles. Reportsindicate that in other gurukulas the number of students residing in anashram ranged as high as 20 or more. An adult teacher lived in theashram and took responsibility for supervising the children, and tendingto their day-to-day needs (Rochford 1997).

ISKCON's first formal gurukula was established in Dallas, Texas,in 1971. The Dallas gurukula remained the only school of its typewithin the movement, until 1976, when it was forced to close by state authorities.At the time of its closing the school had approximately 100 students, themajority of whom were between the ages of four and eight. With theimpending demise of the Dallas school, gurukulas were established in LosAngeles and at New Vrindaban in 1975. In 1976, the BhaktivedantaSwami International Gurukula began accepting adolescent boys as studentsin Vrindavan, India.11 Between 1975 and 1978 a total of 11 ISKCONschools opened in the North America. Gurukulas also started in France,Australia, South Africa, England, and Sweden, in the late 1970s and early1980s. Regional schools appeared in Lake Huntington, New York, andcentral California (Bhaktivedanta Village), in 1980 and 1981 respectively(dasa, M. 1998).

As the last two regionally based ashram-gurukulas closed in NorthAmerica by 1986, ISKCON schools became almost exclusively day-schools.The only exception in North America today is the Vaisnava Academy for Girlslocated in Alachua Florida, for high school aged women. The schoolhas both day-students and students living full-time in the ashram.12Worldwide only the Vrindavan and Mayapur, India, schools remain ashramonly gurukulas. A sizable majority of ISKCON's children in NorthAmerica presently attend state-supported schools (Rochford 1997, forthcoming),a trend found in a number of other countries as well.

Reports by second generation youth, parents, and educatorsalike suggest that a portion of the children who attended the gurukulasuffered psychological, physical, and sexual abuse. Yet it remainsunclear just how many children were abused directly, or otherwise witnessedtheir friends and classmates being abused. The latter representinga form of psychological abuse in its own right.

Lacking reliable quantitative findings, it becomes extremely difficultto determine with any degree of precision what the actual incidence ofchild abuse was within ISKCON's gurukulas. Unfortunately, we areleft to estimates of uncertain quality. Over the years any numberof estimates have been offered ranging from 20% of all students who attendedan ashram-gurukula suffering some form of abuse, to as many as 75% of theboys enrolled at the Vrindavan, India, gurukula having been sexually molestedduring the late 1970s and early 1980s. Whatever the actual incidenceof child abuse, it remains clear that abuse directly and indirectly influencedthe lives of a sizable number of children. Yet child abuse did notoccur uniformly, either across gurukulas, or, very often, even within thesame school. As one long-time teacher concluded, child abuse

...wasn'tall pervasive. It wasn't in all gurukulas. It didn't
affect all children. But it was in enough schools andaffected
enough children and it went on for enough time...(interview1990).13

Abuse and neglect within the gurukula took a variety of forms.The following statements from young adults and former gurukula studentsindicate the kinds of abuse that occurred.

....Iremember dark closets filled with flying dates (large 3
inch, flying cockroaches) and such, while beatings and "no
prasadam" for dinner became everyday affairs (devi dasi,K. 1990:1).

Seattle was hell because I was only 6 years old, my mom livedin
Hawaii, and I had always been a very shy mommy's girl.The
movement was in its earlier stages and the devotees were
fanatical--beyond fanatical. I mean, they would give usa 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. In general, at that time,
because I was so young, I was so spaced out and confused.I would
cry...for my mom, but that wasn't allowed, so I would say Iwas
crying in devotional ecstasy. I really regret Seattlebecause I
had a dire need for my mother's warmth and reassurance at that
time in my life. (Second Generation Survey 1992)

The teacher use to say, "Oh, you don't know when you are goingto die. You could die in your sleep." And one dayI was really bad and one of my teachers said, "Who knows youmight die tonight. Krishna might be punishing you.He might be taking away your life....And from that night onI use to pray every night, "Krishna please don't killme. I promise I will be a good girl tomorrow. Pleaselet me get fixed up enough so I can go back to Godhead.Don't take me in my sleep." And for years I hadinsomnia. I was too afraid to go back to sleep.
(Interview 1991)14

Two young men recount their days as students in the Vrindavan, India,gurukula during the early 1980s.

X: I wasn't afraid of being sexually molested. I don'tthink I was afraid of being mentally abused either. Iwas definitely afraid of being physically abused....Sexualmolestation, all of us, man, we'd just take it, you know....That'swhat we all felt. We didn't even consider it abuse backthen.
XX: Yeah, that was just normal....The ironicthing about that, though, is probably the mental thing [abuse]was probably the longest lasting.
X: There was no wayto escape that. (Group Interview 1993)

As word of child abuse within the gurukula came to the attention ofISKCON authorities, some efforts were made to intervene. Yet thisvery intervention sometimes resulted in new strategies of coercive abuse.Most significant was enlisting older boys in the Vrindavan gurukula tophysically abuse younger students who were deemed troublesome and unrulyby teachers.

X: The other thing was that older boys acting in the capacityof
monitors were used to abuse the younger students. Somestarted to
realize that 'Hey, teachers can't be beating kids.' Theydid it
in a new way. EBR: With the monitors.
X: Yeah.Which was the
older boys beating the younger boys, and I was one of the older
ones....and they [teachers] would call me in on occasion andI
would just have to knock the living shit [out of a younger
student]...I'd be sitting there going "Man, I love you.I don't
want to be doing this...." [I]t's like, what are you gonnado? If I don't do it to you, they're gonna do it to me.
XX: That's
another kind of mental abuse. (Group Interview, 1993)

While a portion of ISKCON's children were themselves abused, othersexperienced the terror of abuse as they watched their friends and classmatesbeing mistreated by teachers and others responsible for their care.

If the teachers treated one of our friends bad then we all felt
bad. I remember there was one teacher that use to grabone of us
by the ears and bang us against the wall. And we all stoodthere
and watched and felt really bad....She [the teacher] was doingit
to all of us. (Interview 1992)

Maybe what [name of ashram teacher] was doing to [name of student]
was hurting others [students] more than him. For
[name of student] it was an everyday thing. I was standingright
next to [him] and I was crying. I was freaked out.I was afraid I was gonna be next because I knew he was gettin'it for no reason. If he could get it for no reason socould I. (Group Interview 1993)

In the school in Vrindavan, India, abusive treatment became so commonplacethat students sought to routinize their mistreatment as a protective strategy.

It was like boot camp, but it wasn't temporary. You becamepart
of a unit. Boot camp was a full-time thing for us.They're just
constantly knocking you down, knocking you down....lower, lower,
lower. There were points where, it was like, there wasno more
lower. What are they gonna do? Beat me again?Go ahead.
(laughter). Big deal! (Group interview 1993)

But beyond the question of young people being abused by adultsworking in the gurukula15 was the general environment of neglect that existed.Without parents present, many felt abandoned, or as one second generationyouth remarked, "We were just unwanted." Many of the young peopleinterviewed described the atmosphere in the gurukula as one lacking inlove and compassion. They felt invisible, abandoned, and unworthyof love and affection from both their parents and adult caregivers.16


In this section I explore a number of factors which combinedto create a context conducive to child abuse within the gurukula duringthe 1970s and 1980s. The first of these is somewhat different fromthe others because it defines the broader milieu in which parents and childrenlived within ISKCON's communities. Put simply, marriage and familylife came to symbolize spiritual failure, and children a sexual productof that failure. Following this discussion, I then consider threespecific factors which fostered child abuse and neglect: (1) Sankirtanand competing demands on parents; (2) Lack of institutional support forthe gurukula; and, (3) Exclusion of parents from the gurukula and, thereby,from the everyday lives of their children.17 I end this sectionby considering how some children were able to escape abuse.

Attitudes Toward Marriage, Family Life, and Children

ISKCON scholar and leader Ravindra Svarupa dasa argues that marriageand family life were viewed favorably during ISKCON's early days.As he states, "When I joined ISKCON [1971] it was assumed that everyonewould become married, and indeed devotees were urged to do so" (1994:9).But this view changed after Prabhupada became increasingly discouragedby the marital problems encountered by his disciples. In a 1972 letterhe wrote "I am so much disgusted with this troublesome business of marriage,because nearly every day I receive some complaint from husband or wife...sohenceforth I am not sanctioning any more marriages..." (Prabhupada 1992:866).18As Prabhupada withdrew from "the troublesome business of marriage," localTemple Presidents and other ISKCON authorities (i.e., regional secretaries,GBC representatives) assumed the responsibility for arranging marriagesand otherwise dealing with the problems and needs of householders.The result was married life underwent a fundamental transformation in meaningand value within ISKCON.
Marriage came to represent a sign of spiritual weakness, a concessionfor those too weak to control their sexual desires. Such a view applieddifferently to men and women however. The ideal for a man was tomaintain a life of renunciation, avoiding marriage if at all possible.Spiritual and material fulfillment for women by contrast were defined interms of marriage and family life (Rochford 1997). Given the prevalenceof these ideas, women became threats to a man's spiritual advancement.
The changed atmosphere surrounding marriage and family life turnedcontentious by the mid-1970s as renunciate leaders undertook a preachingcampaign against householder life and women. As Ravindra Svarupadasa suggests, this brought about growing conflict and factionalism withinISKCON.

Some of these sannyasis embarked on preaching campaigns againsthouseholders and even more so against women, whose life in themovement at this time became extremely trying. Feelings grew soheated that in 1976, a clash between householder temple presidentsin North America and a powerful association of peripateticsannyasis and brahmacaries escalated into a conflict so major thatSrila Prabhupada called it a "fratricidal war" (1994:9).

Despite the ongoing denigration of marriage and family life andthe corresponding loss of status accorded householders, most devotees ultimatelymarried. By 1980, there appears to have been about an equal numberof married and unmarried devotees residing within ISKCON's North Americancommunities. About one-quarter had children (Rochford 1997).Conversely, a survey in 1991-92 (N=268) revealed that a sizable majorityof ISKCON's North American membership were married, or previously married.Only 15% had never been married. Family life also expanded with asubstantial majority (70%) of those surveyed in 1991-1992 having one ormore children.19 By the onset of the 1990s, ISKCON had become a householder'smovement in North America (Rochford 1997), and increasingly worldwide (Rochford1995b).

Even with the rapid expansion of marriage and family life, anti-householderattitudes changed little organizationally.20 Householder life remaineda "dark-well" spiritually. Many parents who accepted the leadership'sideas about marriage and family sought to counteract their lowly statusby placing their commitment to ISKCON and Krishna Consciousness above theirfamily obligations. This presented a burden of considerable proportionsfor both parents and their children. One second generation womansuggests just how difficult this proved to be for her own mother.

But sometimes I would look at her and I could see her beingtorn
apart inside. I could see how she yearned to be a motheronce
again; sewing by the fire, cooking our dinners, and helpingus
with our hard days at school, and at the same time trying her
hardest to please the Guru and the community by showing her
detachment to her family (my emphasis; devi dasi, K. 1990:14).

As householder life became disparaged children too were definedand redefined in ways that undermined their status, and ultimately thecare they received within the gurukula. Up until the early 1980s,children born within ISKCON were commonly portrayed as being spirituallypure. After all, it was believed that their souls had progressedspiritually to the point where they had gained the good fortune of takingbirth in a devotee family. Yet this view changed by the mid-1980sas some leaders complained that ISKCON's children were turning out to belittle more than "karmies" (i.e., non-religious outsiders), and, therefore,gurukula had failed in its mission to produce spiritually advanced children.Both of these frameworks, I want to argue, became justifications used bythe leadership to dismiss the gurukula, the children, and their responsibilitytoward both.21

As two long-time ISKCON teachers recount.

They [leadership] put a lot of energy into making new devoteesfrom outside the community. But you didn't have to put any energyinto making children into devotees, or so they thought....And Ithink there was a lot of misconception about how Prabhupadathought the children [were] conceived. They thought that if thechildren were conceived properly then it was a cinch. And thatmakes no sense at all. I compare it to going through a store andbuying good seeds and then you don't plant them, you don't waterthem, you just throw them around....So many things that weassumed, that we never sat down and analyzed. We just tookit for granted; That the children were born into the movement, andparticularly if they were conceived properly of chanting fivehours of Hare Krishna. Does that make sense? It never made senseto me. I always assumed that we would train the children, that wecould never take their Krishna Consciousness, or their character,or anything for granted. (interview 1990)

And everyone just thought that you send them away to the gurukulaand when they came back they were going to be like PraladMaharaja [a spiritually-realized devotee of Krishna]. They weregoing to be chanting japa. They were going to be shaved-up.They were going to be distributing books. They were goingto be nice little chaste wives, rolling chapatis. (interview1997)

Yet, by the mid-1980s, as the children were growing into teenagers,understandings of the second generation and the gurukula began to change.To the surprise of many leaders and parents alike, the children raisedin the gurukula were less than pure spiritually. Few were committed toa life of renunciation and full-time involvement in ISKCON (Rochford forthcoming).As a result, some leaders openly challenged the need for the gurukula altogether.Economic decline, as I discuss below, made this view all the more attractiveto some leaders.

But they [the leaders] did not go back and become introspective
and say "Well, we should have been taking care of these things.
Let's get it together now. We made a mistake, whetheran honest
mistake or not. Let's now provide an excellent educationfor the
children. Let's rebuild the community's faith in ISKCON."They
didn't do that. They took (laugh) the opposite track.Instead of
saying "the kids are going to turn out good no matter what,"now
they were saying "things are going to turn out bad no matterwhat
you do." The leaders' position was, "No, we did everything right.We did what Prabhupada said. We had ashrams. We had these niceschools. These wonderful schools. And everything went badanyway. So why should we put alot of energy into it [thegurukula]. We're just kidding ourselves. Right." (interview,ISKCON teacher 1990)

But these two very different frameworks for constructing ISKCON's childrenfunctionally served the same purpose. In the first instance leaderssaw no reason to invest resources in the gurukula because it couldn't fail,given the elevated spiritual status of the children. The second framework,precisely because it emphasized failure, rather than success, likewiserejected the need to maintain a viable system of education. As Iargue in the next section, however, the gurukula did serve a crucial functionfor ISKCON, one that ultimately had little to do with educating and socializingISKCON's next generation.

Sankirtan and the Gurukula

Although ISKCON's sannyasi leadership believed that a loss instanding would discourage marriage, as we have seen, the solid majorityof ISKCON's membership married, and most had children. The growthof marriage and family represented a significant threat to sankirtan, andthereby to ISKCON itself.22 Sankirtan served ISKCON's mission intwo respects. First it represented the principle means by which themovement proselytized its Krishna conscious beliefs. In fact Prabhupadacontinually emphasized that book distribution represented the means tospread Krishna Consciousness in America and worldwide. Secondly,and of equal importance, sankirtan supported ISKCON's communities financially.Without a work force of dedicated sankirtan devotees, ISKCON's missionarygoals and financial stability were placed in jeopardy. The solutionrested with the gurukula because it relieved parents of the burdens ofchild care, thus affording them the opportunity to work full-time sankirtan.Put differently, the gurukula allowed ISKCON's leaders to reclaim householdersfor sankirtan, a move that only grew in importance as ISKCON's North Americancommunities faced deepening economic decline by the late 1970s (Rochford1985, 1995c). As one parent described.

We got the children, the bothersome children--from the leader's
perspective--we got them out of the way by putting themin the gurukula. Now the adults could do some work. Go outon sankirtan. This was a very present issue, freeingup the parents. (interview 1990)

To a leadership concerned primarily with distributing Prabhupada'sbooks and raising funds, the gurukula communalized child care thus freeingparents to work on behalf of ISKCON and its mission. Not surprisingly,many of the young people who attended the gurukula during this period sawISKCON's schools in precisely these terms.

I did feel that my mom used the gurukula as a convenience fornot
keeping me around. My mother later told me her authorities
strongly encouraged her to put us there so we would not hinderher
sankirtan service. (Second Generation Survey 1992)

Findings from my 1992-93 Second Generation Survey in North America makesthis point more forcefully. Nearly two-thirds (63%) of those surveyed(N=87) agreed with the statement, "The ashram gurukula primarily servedthe interests of parents and ISKCON, rather than the spiritual and academicneeds of children." One quarter of those surveyed (26%) agreed stronglywith the statement.
Freeing parents for sankirtan was facilitated by enrolling childrenin the gurukula as early as age three or four, although the majority enrolledat age five. Some ISKCON communities communalized children even earlier,establishing day-care centers for infants and toddlers. One suchcommunity was ISKCON's New Vrindaban community, in West Virginia.

Kirtanananda [New Vrindaban's guru and leader] was very successfulbecause he had a nursery from day one. For those kids born at NewVrindaban, he took the kids and communalized them. They got somuch work out of the people in that community. (interview 1990)

A second generation woman who grew up at New Vrindaban recalls:

[S]oon after Kapila was born...the Guru of the farm asked her[mother] to go travel and preach in airports, she sadly said"yes." Kapila was only three months old when she left him to bebrought up by some other lady who lived on the farm. For monthsshe cried at night wondering if he was okay and yet her body couldhardly stand any more emotional work after standing nearly twelvehours that day,... collecting donations from strangers (devi dasi,K. 1990:14)

An indication of the leadership's motivation in providing child careat New Vrindaban is suggested by a saying used in the community to referto expectant mothers; "Dump the load and hit the road." And to "hit theroad" meant returning to full-time sankirtan. While leaders in otherISKCON communities were clearly more subtle, and humanistic in their approach,they were no less anxious to return mothers to full-time sankirtan, orother work on behalf of the community. For the fact was, women were amongthe very best sankirtan workers in the movement.
Sankirtan represented the foundation of ISKCON's sectarian world,and the movement's sannyasi elite took measures to assure that it was protectedagainst the presumed deleterious effects associated with the expansionof marriage and family life. While initially established to educatespiritually ISKCON's children, the gurukula ultimately served the interestsof ISKCON's missionary activity, and the need to raise money in supportof the movement's communal way of life. One long-time teacher from thisera underscores the primary interest of ISKCON's sannyasi leadership.

And you had to have a vision for the future to even understandwhy you were doing this [the gurukula]. For the teachersthis might have been there but for the administration of ISKCON,what it means is that you are paying for a day-care center.These kids cause trouble wherever they are....You are talkingabout sannyasis who are thinking like, "Get these kids outof here. And look how much money I am having to pay toget these kids out of here. And look at how many devoteeshave to be there [in the gurukula] to get these kids out ofthe way." That was the whole psyche surroundinghow the school was put together. (interview 1997)

The importance placed on sankirtan by ISKCON's leadership meantthat the significance of the gurukula rested on its child care function,rather than as an educational institution. Moreover, as parents facedincreasing pressures to engage in sankirtan many had little ability tocommit time to the needs of their children. Children and family lifethreatened ISKCON's purpose as a missionary movement, but each also threatenedthe financial base upon which the authority of the leadership rested.

Lack of Institutional Support for Gurukula

Given the leadership's view of gurukula and its purposes, it failedto provide the support necessary to maintain an educational institution.Throughout its existence the gurukula operated with insufficient staffing,funding, and oversight. I want to suggest now that in failing toprovide the resources and management necessary to maintain the gurukula,it became an institution defined by neglect, isolation, and marginalization.Because of these qualities, the gurukula also became a context in whichISKCON's children became subject to abuse.
From the gurukula's beginning days in Dallas it faced a shortageof trained and qualified staff to serve as academic and ashram teachers.In American culture we have a saying, "Those who can't do otherwise, teach."ISKCON, during the 1970s and 1980s, had its equivalent, "Those who can'tdo sankirtan, work in the gurukula." As a gurukula teacher of sometwenty years commented, "The gurukula was the dumping ground as far asgetting staff went. When devotees couldn't do other things like goingon sankirtan they were sent to work in the gurukula." The resultwas that outside of a limited number of professional academic teachers,ISKCON's schools were staffed by devotees untrained and generally ill-preparedto take on the demands of working with children. Moreover, becausethere was little or no status attached to working in the gurukula, manydevotees had little or no desire to be there. Success at sankirtanbrought individual recognition within the devotee community, working withchildren, invisibility and a loss of status.23 As one ISKCON parentcommented.

I was concerned that the teachers were often selected based on
their inability to do sankirtan, rather than because they loved
children and education. As far as I could see, there wereno
mandatory classes in childhood development for teachers or staff
either. How could anyone expect those in charge to knowwhat was
normal or abnormal behaviors and how it should be dealt with?
(Anonymous a 1996)

As a former gurukula teacher and Headmaster makes clear, it was assumedthat any devotee who was steady in his or her spiritual practice was qualifiedto work in the gurukula. Yet as he further explains, few were ableto stand up to the everyday demands of working with children.

There were very few qualified or experienced teachers in theearly
Gurukula at Dallas....At that time in ISKCON in general therewas
a hubris about individual qualification. It was thought that a
devotee who was chanting his rounds was empowered to doanything
and that he did not need any specialtraining. The task of
dealing with a hundred childrenor so from morning to night on a
tough schedule through mangalarati to bedtime was too much for
most of them. (Brzezinski 1997)

As the above remarks make clear, working in the gurukula was stressful,especially for an untrained staff lacking sufficient interest in children.This was all the more so in instances where a single ashram teacher wasresponsible for the care of 20 or more children. These conditions contributeddirectly to acts of child abuse by teachers. As one teacher fromthis era observes, "There may have been some [teachers involved in abusingchildren] who were actually diabolical. But in most cases it wasa lack of expertise, lack of training, lack of assistance, lack of knowingwho to go to." And, as the former Headmaster of one school, described.

Therefore, we have someone like [name of ashram teacher] whois put into a situation in which he does not belong.It is so stressful. So therefore a kid gets out of line--whatto speak of his other transgressions--and he pushes him hardand the kid falls on the floor and breaks his arm. Andthat's what happened. (interview 1997)

But while finding people capable of working in the gurukula wasan ongoing problem, retaining them represented another. Many secondgeneration youth tell of having as many as 15, 20, or more, ashram-teachersduring their time in the gurukula. Eight in ten (82%) of the secondgeneration youth surveyed in 1991-92 agree that, "The major reason forthe demise of the ashram-based gurukulas was the lack of qualified teachers."The former Headmaster quoted above suggests one reason why.

At one point they sent all the kids from [region of the country]to our school in Lake Huntington. So now we have this bigregional school. Then at one point [guru from that region]decides that he needs the ashram teacher [for the oldest boys] todo some other service.... So I call him [guru] and say, "Listenthere is no one but me. I am the Headmaster. I'm already doingthis and that. Now I am going to have to do the ashram. Thereis nobody here that can do it." He just said, "Well youare just going to have to get somebody. Good-bye."Pull the man out so now we have 16 older boys who don't havea teacher. What to do? (interview 1997)

The effect of an ever changing complement of gurukula teachers and staffmeant that the children were unable to build and sustain meaningful andperhaps loving relationships with their adult caregivers. This very factonly increased the likelihood that children might be neglected and/or abused.24
The question of "What to do?" only intensified as ISKCON in NorthAmerica faced growing economic decline. By 1982, the level of ISKCON'sbook distribution in North America was less than half its 1978 peak (Rochford1985, 1995c). The corresponding drop in sankirtan revenues had adevastating effect on ISKCON's communities. It also had a dramaticimpact on the gurukula, which, even in the best of economic times, facedhardship. As the Headmaster of one school made clear, "Even at thepeak of our movement's resources...the gurukula was getting barely anything.Anything. And so as soon as there was less to go around it barelygot anything at all" (interview, 1997). Below he describes the financialdifficulties encountered by the Lake Huntington gurukula just priorto its closing in 1986.

More difficult was our financial situation. And what happened.When New York was broken up, Lake Huntington, Long Island, NewJersey, and Manhattan each of these areas was assigned a certainnumber of collectors,...sankirtan devotees. Four months after thebreakup I was shifted from Long Island to Lake Huntington and Itook over the project. Within a few months I became theHeadmaster. We had eight sankirtan devotees. We were strugglingbut were making it. But the zone was collapsing [financially].So the new GBC man... came in and took all the sankirtan devoteesand centralized it. The plan was to just give money to thedifferent temples in the zone. We lost our eight sankirtandevotees and we were promised $8000. a month, which we got for onemonth. They reduced and reduced the amount until we got $2100 topay the mortgage. When we asked what to do they said take morestudents [thereby gaining more tuitions]. And that's what we did.Until finally it dawned on us that we were killing our teachersand cheating our students. We can't run a school like this.That was the environment we were actually functioning in.25(interview 1997)

A final issue here has to do with the apparent lack of oversightthe gurukula received by ISKCON leaders. While it is true that therewas a Minister of Education whose responsibility was to provide guidanceand leadership for ISKCON's schools, it appears, nonetheless, that thegurukula failed to gain the attention and supervision required. And,without it, the likelihood of child neglect and abuse grew. As oneteacher described, the leadership simply placed too little importance onthe gurukula.

I have come to the conclusion that they [the leadership] aren'tgoing to do anything; at all, not anything. They should have donesomething 20 years ago, or 15 years ago. They had plenty ofopportunity. They had money. They had man-power. Theyhad Srila Prabhupada right there behind them. Why didn'tthey take it? I can tell you why they didn't do it.They didn't think it was important. Obviously. (interview,1990)

One indication of the leaders' disinterest can be seen in theway ISKCON's renunciate leaders responded when parents complained aboutthe mistreatment of children in the gurukula. As a second generationyouth recounts:

When I was 5 and 1/2 years old, I'd been in gurukula (Dallas)since its insemination (about 3 years). My dad had some to Dallas(against the wishes of his temple authority who only cared aboutmy dad's money-making ability on sankirtan) after discoveringbruises all over my body on a Rathayatra [festival] visit. Aftermuch discussion with the school authority he found that he couldnot get them to change the policy of daily beatings. He removedme from the school. Very disillusioned he nearly left ISKCON.On hearing that Prabhupad would be in L.A., we went there.When Prabhupad saw me he asked why I was not in the gurukula.My father told him that he'd removed me because of the dailybeatings. Prabhupad told him that I belonged in gurukula and thatif my dad had a problem with the treatment he should work toresolve it....[Prabhupad] did nothing to resolve the situation.Instead of going himself or sending one of his top people toresolve the problems he sent my dad who had never had any power.Needless to say when my dad returned to Dallas nobody listened tohim. If a problem arose at some temple or other, Prabhupad wasmore than willing to go or send someone effective to handle thesituation, but for the kids he sent my dad who was effective atgetting people to give him money. (Anonymous b 1996)26

After Prabhupada's death, the response of the newly appointed guruswas apparently much the same.

Kutila [woman gurukula teacher] was furious when she saw thecuts and beating marks and she ran to tell Bhaktipada who coollysaid, "Don't complain, do something about it, if you thinkyou can do any better." (devi dasi, K. 1990:1).

Initially the leadership's disinterest in the gurukula stemmedfrom an overriding concern with maintaining and indeed expanding sankirtan.Yet with Prabhupada's death in November, 1977, however, ISKCON faced yearsof succession problems that preoccupied ISKCON as a whole. As ISKCON'snewly appointed gurus struggled to establish their own religious and politicalauthority, and attract disciples, householders and their children lostfurther relevance organizationally (Rochford 1995a). This becameall the more so in the early 1980s as book distribution virtually collapsedin North America, and parents were pushed outside of ISKCON's communitiesto find employment in support of themselves and their families (see Rochford1997). (For a treatment of ISKCON's succession problems, see Rochford1985: 221-255, 1998. On how acceptance or rejection of ISKCON leaders'authority influences types and levels of ISKCON involvement, see Rochford1995a.)

Exclusion of Parents from the Gurukula

One potential safeguard against child abuse rested with parentalinvolvement and oversight of the gurukula. If children were beingabused and neglected there is reason to believe that involved parents mightwell have become aware and taken corrective action. Yet in most instancesthis did not happen, and when it did, parental concerns were often ignoredor dismissed, as we saw in the previous section. The fact was parentswere actively discouraged from becoming involved in the gurukula, and,thereby, from the day-to-day lives of their children.
Prabhupada himself discouraged parent involvement in the gurukula.He reasoned that the best interests of ISKCON's children were served bycommunalizing them within the context of the gurukula. Away fromparental influence, a child would more readily take to a life of spiritualpractice and renunciation. As Prabhupada stated in a 1973 letter,"Regarding gurukula, it is not required that parents live there with theirchildren. We can take care of children, but not the parents" (1992:794).While relinquishing their children to the gurukula proved difficult formany parents, they took solace in the knowledge that their children wereadvancing spiritually.
The idea that parents represented a threat to the spiritual livesof children was widely promoted throughout ISKCON, and was accepted bymany devotee parents. As we have seen, ISKCON's leadership promoted thisidea as a means to reclaim parents for sankirtan. Accepting the "ideologicalwork" (Berger 1981; Rochford 1985:191-220) of the leadership, many parentsmaintained minimal contact with their children. In fact it appearsthat in some cases parents essentially abandoned their children to thegurukula. Teachers too considered parents as threats to the spiritual well-beingof their children. In the words of one teacher.

There is a problem with parents. The experience that wehave had in gurukula is that much of the training that youare trying to give the child is lost when the child is withthe parents. Because the parent is not maintaining thesame standards, or doesn't have the same abilities, whateverit is....And you knew as a teacher that when you sent a kidhome for three and a half weeks [for vacation] you knew youwere going to get a basket case when they came back. (interview1997)

As this teacher further suggests, this way of thinking influenced stronglyhow parents were treated by those working in the gurukula.

And so maybe unfortunately, in retrospect, the wrongattitude was conveyed about parents. The parents are a problem;keep the parents away, all of that. (interview 1997)

The larger consequence of these ideas was the virtual exclusion of parentsfrom the gurukula. Parental involvement with their children was largelyunwelcome. Moreover, when children did return to their parents' homecommunity for school vacations, these visits very often afforded limitedopportunities for parent and child to spend time together. As onemother and teacher explained.

You have to remember that parents didn't have houses. Theydidn't have their own place. We never had a house....So when you say a kid went home, that's a euphemism.He went to the temple. His mother had service that shewas doing all along. His father had service that he wasdoing all along. And now all of a sudden this kid isthere. So now what does he do? He hangs around thetemple. He gets stepped on by people as they are coming up thestairs [into the temple]....And he wants his mother's attentionwhen she is cooking for the deities. The fact is no one took careof the kids....The kid did whatever he did. And the parents justkept on doing whatever it was they were doing. (interview 1997)

A second generation devotee recounts her vacations from school and theburden these visits placed on her and other family members.

When I got older, I started to spend my vacations with my Mata.
But vacation time for me was not vacation time for her.For
Kapila [her brother] and I, she would get a motel room everynight but her service to the temple still came first.Only after she had chanted all of her rounds without interruptionand she had
collected at least three hundred dollars did Kapila and I getto
do anything. We usually would sit for six hours in thecold van
parked outside a shopping mall and wait for her. Finallyshe would finish, and even though her back was aching and hershoulders were heavy from carrying a ninety pound bag of books allday, she somehow would find the energy to sneak us into a nearbypool and then take us to ice cream. But most of the time wedidn't see how tired she really was and so, whining andcomplaining about how little attention we got, we sometimes droveher to tears (devi dasi, K. 1990:12).

The gurukulas in India undertook what can only be described as extremeefforts to further isolate children from their parents. In the Vrindavangurukula it appears that the administration of the school monitored, andsometimes censured, letters written by students to their parents.When a student attempted to write his parents about the negligent and abusiveconditions found at the school, he was reprimanded and told to re-writehis letter.

X: I used to write letters to my mom, during the rough times,
saying, "Get me out of here." And he [school administrator]read them and would tear' em up and make me write new ones.

XX: He did that to me too. (Group Interview, 1993)

In other cases, students in the Vrindavan gurukula avoided writing theirparents about the conditions found at the school because they assumed theirletters would be read by the administration, or, as in the case below,they feared their parents would reject allegations of abuse. As onemother explained.

My son complains bitterly about what went on in Vrindavan.Of course I have asked him a million times why he didn't tellme what was going on. Because I used to go and visithim every year. And he wouldn't say anything to me.He would just give me his shopping list. When Iasked him in retrospect why didn't you tell me he just said,"Because you wouldn't believe me."... He assumed I wouldn'tbelieve him. And he assumed his letters would be censured.And so he never wrote anything that would cause him to be censured.(interview 1997)27

In still other instances the administration of the school in Vrindavanapparently sought to hide the abuse taking place there during the early1980s.

He [Headmaster] knowingly covered-up....There are
two or three incidents that I can think of where I was beatenor
something happened to me. He would take me into his roomand he'd
lock me in there for like a day with him and he was like
constantly preaching to me and so finally I just went "Okay!I
won't say anything to anybody. It didn't happen!" And he wouldlet
me out of the room. (interview 1993)28

On final analysis it seems clear that the gurukula became aninstitution onto itself, in Goffman's (1961) terms, a "total institution."Within the gurukula children remained largely separate from the day-to-daylives of their parents, and, very often, from ISKCON community life moregenerally. From an institution meant to train and educate, the gurukulainstead became the functional equivalent of an orphanage. As oneteacher from this period remarked.

The whole scenario set up an orphanage.... Even though you havekids with parents. Because we didn't allow the parents to becomepart of their children's lives. (interview 1997)

Avoiding Child Abuse: Resources and Victimization

Although my focus thus far has sought to understand a number offactors and processes that contributed to child abuse within ISKCON's schools,I now want to consider why some young people were able to escape abuseand neglect. As I have already suggested, a portion of the students whoattended the gurukula during the 1970s and 1980s escaped being victimsof child abuse. This happened despite the fact that in some casestheir classmates were targeted for abuse, while they were spared.
Perhaps the most obvious factor in whether a child was abusedor not related to the school itself. It seems that some gurukulasexperienced far less child abuse, while others were defined by neglectand abuse. To a significant degree, where a student was sent to gurukulahad a profound influence on whether he or she became targets of abuse.Perhaps the most vivid example is provided by the schools in India, whereabuse and neglect were by all reports commonplace. Since only adolescentboys were sent to the schools in India they faced far more abuse than theirfemale counterparts. In the United States several of ISKCON's schoolsalso experienced relatively high levels of child abuse (e.g., Dallas, Seattle,New Vrindaban), whereas others experienced considerably less (e.g., BhaktivedantaVillage, California; New Talavan, Mississippi). It appears also thatchild abuse was far less prevalent in Europe and Australia than in eitherIndia or North America.
But what explains these differences? I think several things.First some schools had a more stable gurukula staff--both academic andashram teachers, as well as the school's administration. Whileteachers in these schools may have been more devoted to working in thegurukula, they also were able to establish enduring and caring relationshipswith the children they worked with. Two former gurukula studentssuggest why a particular school proved especially positive for them inways that highlight the role of the teacher.

It was M[other] Kutila who changed our lives and who let us knowthat someone could love us; that devotees did love one another. Iswear for the first week I thought I was a princess. We werenever hit any more, we had all new clothes, our own bags, filledwith our own soap, brushes and hot water showers. It was thenthat I knew I had a mother and father, they were Kutila andKuladri (her husband) (author's emphasis; devi dasi, K. 1990:1).

One of the high points of my life in gurukula was because theteacher, (name), took us in as his sons (original Vedic standard)and treated us like adults. We had incredible camaraderie as wellas growth--including fitness, mental strength, creativity, andKrishna Consciousness. (Second Generation Survey 1992-93)

A second factor that played an especially important role in limitingthe possibility of abuse had to do with the level of parental involvementin the gurukula. While the leadership and the gurukula staff eachpressured against parental involvement, some parents found ways to remaininvolved nonetheless. In some cases this was made easier as parentsresided in the same community as their child/children's gurukula. In othercases parents wrote letters, made phone calls, and visited their childor children on a regular basis.
The sad irony is that parents who accepted the ideological justificationsoffered by the leadership and chose to remain "detached" and minimallyinvolved in the lives of their children, effectively left them vulnerableto neglect and abuse. Simply put, children without involved parentsbecame ready victims for abusers. As one second generation devoteeconcluded.

Usually, if our parents showed an interest in us, by sendingus mail and gifts, visiting us, and maintaining a tight bond,the abusive teachers would view that child as a liability tothem. (Hickey and Charnell, 1997)

To assure regular involvement with their children, some parents--especiallymothers--chose to work in the gurukula as teachers. As the Headmasterof one school commented, "Practically every teacher had their childrenin the school. And that was an important factor [limiting the potentialfor abuse] that those parents' eyes were there. It was important."As this suggests, the presence of parents working in the gurukulaserved to protect all children against abuse, not simply the child of theteacher. Because mothers were much more likely than fathers to havea position in the gurukula, girls more so than boys gained parental protectionagainst abuse. As one woman teacher recounts.

With my daughters it was a little different because I hadsome ability and determination to keep my daughters with me.So I was a teacher and I taught my daughters, or at least Iknew where my daughters were being taught. But with myson it wasn't allowed. He had to be removed from my presence.(interview 1997)

A child also gained protection against abuse if he or she hada male parent who was an ISKCON leader, or was otherwise recognized asimportant and influential within the movement. For an abuser, thesechildren presented substantial risks and thereby were less likely to betargeted. Even in India, where abuse was more commonplace, childrenwith influential fathers normally escaped being targets of abuse.As one mother whose son spent years at a gurukula in India reported.

My son tells me that he didn't get abused. And its funnyisn't it in light of his [activism over the abuse issue].But this is because of who his father was [a member of theGBC].29 (interview 1997)

For children whose parents remained largely uninvolved in theirlives, there was one available means to create a protective resource againstabuse. Again, India was the context. Apparently adolescentboys in the gurukula were less subject to abuse if they received initiationfrom one of ISKCON's gurus. In effect, initiation created an interestedand powerful ally who could expose or punish an abuser. Initiationthus served as a means to create an interested party in the absence ofinvolved and/or influential parents.


Marriage and family life have played a central role in the developmentof religious communities and institutions (Berger 1969:133; Dobbelaere1987; Foster 1991; Kanter 1972:86-92, 1973). Kanter's investigation of19th century American communities demonstrated that successful utopiancommunities--religious and secular--controlled or otherwise regulated two-personintimacy and family relationships. Only by renouncing couple andfamily relationships could intimacy become a collective good serving theinterests of the community as a whole. As such, utopian communitiesface the task of building and maintaining relational structures "whichdo not compete with the community for emotional fulfillment" (Kanter 1972:91).

Beginning in the 1970s ISKCON sought increasingly to control marriageand family life. This involved several processes: First, marriageitself was redefined such that it became symbolic of spiritual weakness,an institution suited only for those unable to control their sexual desires.Secondly, in order to educate children separate from their parents, Prabhupadaestablished the gurukula. While founded initially as an educationalinstitution, the gurukula also freed parents to work full-time on behalfof ISKCON and its communities. For many parents this involved performingsankirtan.30

In important respects sankirtan and children represent interrelatedand pivotal issues in ISKCON's North American and worldwide development.To ISKCON's largely sannyasi leadership, sankirtan represented the meansby which the movement could fulfill its missionary objectives. Itserved too to bring substantial resources into ISKCON's communities duringthe 1970s (Rochford 1985:171-189). Children, on the other hand, representeda potential threat to each of these objectives. With a decline inrecruitment beginning as early as 1974 in North America (Rochford 1985:278),ISKCON leaned ever harder on householders to perform sankirtan. Theresult was the purpose of the gurukula organizationally came to rest onits ability to provide child care. Unfortunately, as I have described,the gurukula became an institution defined by neglect and the abuse ofchildren.

Prior to widespread allegations of child abuse, ISKCON representedwhat Shupe (1995) refers to as a "trusted hierarchy." Religious groupsand organizations are distinct from their secular counterparts preciselybecause "those occupying lower statuses in religious organizations trustor believe in the good intentions, nonselfish motives, benevolence, andspiritual insights/wisdom of those in the upper echelons (and often areencouraged or admonished to do so) (italics in the original Shupe 1995:29).Indeed parents often socialize their children to respect the religiousauthority of church leaders, thus perpetuating the very basis of trustwithin religious organizations. It was such unquestioned trust inthe leadership, and in ISKCON as a whole, that led parents to readily assumethat their children were being properly educated and cared for in the gurukula.As we have seen, this very assumption helped create opportunity structuresfacilitating abuse and exploitation (see Krebs 1998; Shupe 1995 for otherexamples).

As one might expect, child abuse affects far more people thanthose directly victimized. As Pullen suggests "religious congregationscan collectively share psychological, emotional, and spiritual trauma whenfaced with the reality that their most vulnerable members have been sexuallyviolated by individuals the community invested with authority" (1998:68).Among members of a support group formed in response to clerical sexualabuse of children in California, Pullen found members making referenceto their own "spiritual abuse." Although not directly abused themselves,group members nonetheless expressed "that their trust and faith in thecredibility and integrity of their religious leaders had been shattered"(1998:68-69). Nason-Clark (1998) found much the same response amongfemale congregants in the aftermath of child sexual abuse by Church officialsin Canada. In organizational terms, child abuse and malfeasance byclergy precipitates a crisis of trust among rank and file members.As Seligman argues the "existence of trust is an essential component ofall enduring social relationships" (1997:13) and is indeed necessary forthe continuation of any social order.

The betrayal of trust represented by child abuse has challenged,if not undermined, the ISKCON commitment of many first and secondgeneration members alike. Child abuse stands as a powerful symbolof the failure of ISKCON's leadership, and that form of social organization(i.e., communalism) which supported its' political and spiritual authority.As trust gave way to anger and doubt, householders became less willingto commit their lives to ISKCON as they had in the past. Needlessto say, many second generation devotees also rejected their ISKCON collectiveidentity. This fact, perhaps more than any other, accounts for thefragmentation and decline of ISKCON in North America. (But see Rochford1997 for another interpretation). In failing to maintain a safe andhealthy environment for the movement's most vulnerable members, ISKCONfaced discreditation from within, and a corresponding loss of legitimacyin the eyes of many long-time members. Many abandoned ISKCON, whileothers joined an emerging congregation of independent householders andtheir families residing on the margins of ISKCON's North American communities.As this implies, the tragedy of child abuse has shaped, and continues toshape, the career of ISKCON as a new religious organization.


1. This article has been painful to write, and certainlymany readers will feel distressed by the story told here. Many pastand present ISKCON members--second generation devotees and their parentsalike--have been personally touched by child abuse. And, as I suggesthere, ISKCON's larger membership has also been affected. One resultis that child abuse has become an issue of growing political significancewithin ISKCON and the broader movement. While I am not so naive asto believe that this paper won't become part of this ongoing politic, myattempt here is to maintain a sociological stance to the issue. Yetit seems likely that some readers will find reason to charge me with partisanshipof one sort or another, and perhaps even dismiss what is said here (Seee.g., Rochford 1992). I would only ask that devotees in and outsideof ISKCON who care deeply about this issue do something constructive toaid young adults abused as children within ISKCON's schools. In needof support too are the largely forgotten parents, who often suffer in silence,riddled with guilt because of what happened to their children.

2. I had planned to address the ongoing efforts by ISKCONauthorities to address the problem of child abuse, including assistancefor abuse victims, child protection policies, and so forth. Becauseof the length of the present article this did not prove feasible.I asked the editor Saunaka Rsi dasa to have someone else knowledgeablein this area to write a separate paper to accompany this one. SeeBharatasrestha dasa in this volume.

3. Yet there is no reason to assume that child abuse isabsent from ISKCON's communities. To the extent it does exist, itis far more likely to occur within the context of nuclear family life.Thus child abuse within ISKCON today likely mirrors causes and patternsfound within mainstream cultures.

4. While research and official statistics demonstrate thatchild abuse has been on the rise, the question of why remains less certain.Surprisingly, before the 1960s there were no laws which prohibited childabuse in the United States (Pfohl 1985:309). Yet within a few shortyears all fifty states "discovered" the problem and passed legislationto control it (Pfhol 1985:309). The question is why, then?Violence against children was hardly new in the 1960s. One researcherhas shown that "child abuse" only gained legal status as the medical profession--specificallypediatric radiology--was able to "break the legal hold that parents heldover children" (Pfohl 1977, 1985:309). Thus the legal basis of childabuse is derived from professional expertise and power. Beating atroublesome child, an act taken for granted by many parents even a singlegeneration ago, is now often considered "abusive," if not illegal behavior.Obviously these issues are critical to understanding child abuse as a socialproblem. Just as obviously, such a treatment goes well beyond thescope of the present paper. (For a social constructionist account of religionand child abuse, see Jenkins 1996.)

5. Some researchers have expressed concern that data fromthe American Association for Protecting Children (AAPC) overstates theamount of child abuse in the U.S.. This is because the AAPC datafails to account for duplicate reports involving a single child.In counting the total number of abuse reports these data overstate theactual number of abuse cases. Costin et al. (1996:136) assertthat the result is a 20% inflation of the actual incidence rate.This conclusion seems born out by a study conducted by Westat (1981) whofound an incidence rate of child abuse in the U.S. of 22.6 per 1,000 children.By contrast the AAPC incidence rate was 32.8 per 1,000 children, 23% abovethe Westat figure (Costin et al. 1996:136).

6. Defining what we mean by child abuse and child neglect is animportant yet difficult task. Moreover, how we use the term "childabuse" in ordinary language often differs from legal and social sciencedefinitions. What one person defines as physical abuse, for example, anothermay view as necessary discipline for an unruly child. Physical abuseis often defined as inflicting physical injury by other than accidentalmeans (Costin et al. 1996:5). Corporal punishment by contrast is "the useof physical force with the intention of causing a child to experience pain,but not injury" (Straus 1994:4). Physical abuse and corporal punishmentinvolve the use of violence in that both intend to cause pain and suffering(Straus 1994:7). Child sexual abuse involves a number of specificacts from fondling a child's sexual organs, vaginal intercourse, and sodomy(including oral and anal intercourse). It may also involve an adultforcing a child to fondle his or her sexual organs and child pornography.Psychological abuse involves the attempt to inflict "mental or emotionalinjury that results in the child's physical or emotional deterioration"(Costin et al. 1996:5). Child neglect is even a more ambiguous conceptto define. Typically, a neglected child is one that lacks propercare and supervision from a parent or adult, or where the environment representsa threat to his or her health (Costin et al. 1996:5). Apart fromthese formal definitions is another offered by Rabbi Lawrence S. Kushner.While he speaks specifically about "parents" we could substitute "adult."In his address on the occasion of Yom Kippur, he argues that child abuse"is when parents deliberately treat children as objects so as to gratifythemselves. It is using a child for one's own pleasure, without regardto the child as an autonomous person....using them as lightening rods forour own misdirected hostility, manipulating their trust and love for ourgratification against their will....The child is deprived of personhood,autonomy, spontaneity, the ability to respond freely and appropriately,sense of self worth and holy uniqueness" (1990:7).

7. Medical neglect of children has also been identifiedas a form of abuse associated with religion. The Jehovah's Witnesses,who do not believe in blood transfusions, and Christian Scientists, whooften favor prayer over medical expertise and procedures, are perhaps thetwo most well known examples (Bottoms et al. 1995:88). Citing FirstAmendment protections against government intrusion in religion, these,and other religious groups, have generally retained the right to refusemedical treatment. This trend may be changing however as some stateshave successfully challenged these legal exemptions, especially when achild's life is placed at risk. (See e.g., Skolnick 1994, on changes inMassachusetts' exemption laws following the death of two and a half yearold Robyn Twitchell who died of a bowel obstruction after his ChristianScience parents denied him treatment.)

8. These figures should be viewed with a certain amountof suspicion, however. Information collected relied heavily on individualsalready undergoing therapy. Cases included were therefore selective,and the findings reported unrepresentative. It is worth noting howeverthe relatively large number of sex abuse cases for both celibate and non-celibateclergy. This questions the view that the Church's policy of celibacyexplains pediphilia among Catholic priests (see e.g., Berry 1992).

9. The noted author, sociologist, and Catholic priest AndrewGreely wrote the following in the forward to Jason Berry's book Lead UsNot into Temptation: Catholic priests and the sexual abuse of children:"Bishops have with what seems like programmed consistency tried to hide,cover up, bribe, stonewall; often they have sent back into parishes menwhom they knew to be a danger to the faithful....Catholicism will survive,but that will be despite the present leadership and not because of them"(1992:xii-xiv).

10. In 1979 I served as a teacher's assistant for a boy'sashram at the Los Angeles gurukula. In 1989, thinking about the youngboys who I often took to the park and beach, I began an investigation ofISKCON's second generation. I began by interviewing 70 first-generationparents in four ISKCON communities in the U.S. Over the past eightyears I have also interviewed dozens of second generation youth about theirexperiences in the gurukula. In 1992-3 I conducted a non-random surveyof second generation youth in North America (N=87). I have also attendedfour gurukula reunions in Los Angeles and at New Vrindaban, and servedas a member of ISKCON's North American Board of Education.

11. It was assumed that adolescent girls would marry atan early age and hence none were sent to India for further schooling. Therather "primitive" living conditions in India also were deemed unsuitablefor adolescent girls. At ISKCON's New Vrindaban community in WestVirginia, for example, it was not uncommon for girls as young as 13 tobe married or betrothed in the late 1970s. When many of these marriagesfailed, and girls and their parents began to resist the idea of early marriage,adolescent girls began attending local public schools. Lacking secondaryschools for girls within ISKCON, and with few other acceptable alternatives(e.g., home schooling), outside schooling became a solution, if not alwaysa preferred one. (For a discussion of how attending state-supported secondaryschools has influenced the collective identity and religious involvementsof ISKCON youth in North America, see Rochford forthcoming.)

12. In the midst of writing this article the teacher andHeadmaster of the Vaisnava School for Boys in Alachua, Florida, was accusedof sexually molesting four of his former students some 10 years ago.He admitted his sexual misconduct and left the ISKCON community in Alachua.The case was investigated by Florida State officials, as well as by theAlachua ISKCON community and ISKCON's Governing Body Commission (GBC).The school now only accepts day students, having disbanded its ashram inresponse to the molestation charges (dasa, N. et al. 1998).

13. Relying on estimates of child abuse is especially tricky.For the fact is child abuse and children in general represent ongoing socialand political issues within ISKCON. Dedicated "moral entrepreneurs"(Becker 1963) are actively at work attempting to make child abuse and theplight of ISKCON's children a publicly defined social problem. Asone might expect, many of those involved are young adults who attendedthe gurukula. Many were themselves abused. While opposition withinISKCON appears to be lessening, a few leaders and some other ISKCON memberscontinue to argue that child abuse was only a minor and isolated probleminvolving relatively few children. I raise these issues here notto in any way diminish the seriousness of the abuse that took place.Rather, I want to underscore the fact that no one knows with any degreeof precision how extensive child abuse actually was. Obviously, systematicresearch on this question is long overdue.

14. The reader will note that normally individual's namesare avoided in order to maintain the anonymity of my interviewees.In a limited number of instances, where I quote from published sources,names are used, including the author's. However, in every case, Iavoid using names of alleged abusers in published and unpublished sources,including the VOICE Web Page. The latter source is an internet siteestablished by ex-gurukula students to expose the child abuse that theyand their peers suffered. This web site has become very controversialwithin ISKCON. Because ISKCON leaders are concerned about the adversepublic relations impact of VOICE, the latter has exerted considerable pressureon the leadership to respond constructively to the problem of child abusein general, and to the young people abused as children.

15. It appears that sexual abuse of children was not limitedto teachers and others working within the gurukula. There are reportsthat single renunciate men (bramacharies) were involved in molesting childrenin India (Brzezinski 1997). Allegations also persist that some maleleaders associated with the Mayapur, India, gurukula were involved in sexuallyabusing children (Brzezinski 1997; Prabhupada Anti-defamation Association1993).

16. This situation contrasts sharply with other groups whichhave communalized children and child-rearing. In the Oneida community,founded in northern New York during mid-1800s by John Humphrey Noyes, childrenwere also raised separate from their parents in a community school.Yet as Kephart explains this system of communal child-rearing was basedon "ample affection and kindness...[and] that childhood in the Old Communitywas a happy and exhilarating experience" (1963:268). This suggeststhat the communalization of children and child-rearing is not in itselfneglectful or abusive. (For a discussion of children in the Kibbutzim,see Spiro 1958; Talmon 1973.)

17. There is a fourth factor that I have been forced toforgo considering here because of limitations of space. This involvesa selective understanding of Prabhupada's views on disciplining childrenheld by some teachers and others working in the gurukula. Simplyput, some teachers felt that corporal punishment was fully sanctioned byPrabhupada as a means to deal with unruly children. And it appearsthat there is some evidence to support such a conclusion. Yet, aclose inspection of Prabhupada's ideas on child discipline suggest thatoverall he was not in favor of physical punishment.
It is worth noting however that Prabhupada's letters and conversations,now widely available from ISKCON's Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, were not availableto any great degree during this period. Most members of ISKCON, includinggurukula teachers, had limited and certainly incomplete information concerningPrabhupada's views on child discipline and other issues.

18. Ravindra Svarupa dasa (1994) states that Prabhupadarefused to sanction any further marriages beginning in 1974. His1972 letter suggests the decision came earlier, although it is possiblethat Prabhupada did not actively withdraw from marital concerns until sometimeafter the letter was written.

19. The findings reported should be taken as reasonableestimates rather than precise figures. Neither the 1980 or the 1991-2surveys were based upon probability samples.

20. Prabhupada provided somewhat mixed messages on the spiritualstatus of householders. He often reminded his disciples that theentanglements associated with marriage and family made it "difficult tomake any progress in Krishna Consciousness" (Prabhupada 1992:852).The spiritual ideal therefore was to remain an unmarried renunciate.Yet Prabhupada also said that,

...if you cannot [avoid sex life], then get yourself married,live with wife, but have sex only for progeny. Not forsense enjoyment. Therefore even [if] one is married,then the husband is also called brahmacari. Even thoughhe is grhastha [householder]. And wife is calledchaste (quoted in devi dasi, U. 1992:6).

21. This attitude continues to the present day. ISKCON'sleaders remain hesitate to engage issues relating to children and familylife, claiming that neither is the proper domain of sannyasis. Theresult is that leaders have essentially turned their collective backs onthose issues most salient to the lives of ISKCON's membership. Thereis evidence that this stance may be changing however. See dasa, this volume.

22. During the 1970s and early 1980s it was common formarriage partners to be selected by the leadership with an eye toward reducingthe likelihood that a particularly productive sankirtan devotee would belost to his or her local ISKCON community (See Rochford 1997).

23. As one second generation devotee commenting on an earlierdraft of this paper said. "I agree 100%. Every day in the morning,sankirtan scores [were] read out to inspire the devotees and praise theindividuals who [did] good collecting money, or distributing the most books.Never, never ever [were] the teachers' praised, or the kids who [did] goodat school."

24. It also resulted in long-term emotional consequencesfor some second generation youth. As one reported:

We don't want to trust anyone else with our feelings, ouremotions, our love....because we "know" that that person will justturn around and hurt us...They'll leave, they'll reject us..."Theydon't really care about us..." we think. I'm 26 years old.I'm still struggling to trust someone on an emotional, "feelings"level, and to share my feelings with them. It's hard for me.Damn hard. Being raised by 26 parents/caretakers from age 7 to 15makes it damn hard to place my love and trust in someone again.(personal communication 1998)

25. Things became so bad financially that one winter theschool ran out of funds for coal to heat the school. Realizing thatthe GBC man responsible for the school was unlikely to help, the Headmasterwas forced to call on some of his temple president friends for assistance.As he said,"...and they sent money just because they realized 'Our friendis in need.'"

26. Questioning of Prabhupada's role in the child abusethat occurred in the gurukula has only recently surfaced as an issue amongsecond generation youth. In fact the VOICE Web page has given considerableattention to the issue. Those implicating Prabhupada charge thathe knew that children were being physically punished, yet failed to directlyintervene, or have leaders under him put a stop to such behavior.It does seem clear from Prabhupada's letters that he was aware, as earlyas 1972, that physical punishment was being administered to children inthe gurukula (See, e.g., Prabhupada 1992:797, 799). There is alsoevidence suggesting that he did intervene (Prabhupada 1992:797).In a 1972 letter to a disciple who had complained that her child was beingmistreated in the gurukula in Dallas, Prabhupada wrote:

But you may be assured that I am always anxious about the welfareof my disciples, so that I am taking steps to rectify theunfortunate situation... [C]hildren should not be beaten at all,that I have told. They should simply be shown the stick strongly.So if one cannot manage in that way then he is not fit as a
teacher....[H]e must have two things, love and education.So if
there is beating of child, that will be difficult for him to
accept in loving spirit, and when he is old enough he may wantto
go away--that is the danger (1992:793).

Yet physical punishment and various forms of abuse only escalated inthe years to follow. Some former gurukula students believe that Prabhupada"...did not implement appropriate measures to guarantee the safety of childrenin his movement from his disciples. [And] that the programs he establishedand interpretations of his words greatly fostered an environment underwhich child abuse flourished" (Hickey et al. 1997).

27. This raises another issue about parental involvement.Many of those who attended the gurukula had less than close relationshipswith their parents. This may have dissuaded some from telling their parentsof the neglect and abuse present within the gurukula, including their ownabuse.

28. In one instance parents sending their child to the Vrindavangurukula developed a strategy to circumvent the monitoring system in place.Responding to rumors about child abuse, and the censuring of student mailby the administration, the parents and child developed a code that wouldsound the alarm if harmful things were occurring. In a letter tohis parents, the student would request pizza be sent to him through themail. This served as a request to be removed from the school.

29. I am aware of one influential ISKCON member whose sonwas sexually molested.

30. It may be worth noting here that the state-supportedschool system in North America and elsewhere also serves the latent functionof providing child care. In my own community some parents were outragedwhen teachers at the local elementary school wanted to release studentsearly one afternoon a month so they could discuss curriculum. Workingparents were upset largely because they had to find alternative child carearrangements.


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Child Abuse in the Hare Krishna Movement*

E. Burke Rochford, Jr.
with Jennifer Heinlein
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
Middlebury College
Middlebury, VT, USA, 05753
(802) 758-2363 (home)
(802) 443-5303 (College)
I thank Chaitanya Mangala dasa, Madhusudani Radha devi, Manu dasa, NirmalHickey, Pancaratna dasa, Saunaka Rsi dasa, Tamal Krishna Goswami, JeanBurfoot, Robert Ferm, and Peggy Nelson for comments and suggestions.Despite the good advice offered, I didn't always follow it.

copyright: E. Burke Rochford, Jr.

Published in ISKCON Communication Journal, Oct. 1998.
Published at, March 1999.

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