Michael Kress

Writer & Editor - Religion, Spirituality, Values

Article: Hare Krishnas

The Changing Face of Krishna
By Michael Kress

The following articles ran in the Dallas Morning News on March 19, 2004.

BOSTON – Sam Richardson is a graphic designer. Jay Gupta is a pharmacist. Celia Markey home schools her three children.

Their paths might not cross naturally, but these New Englanders all chant, dance, study and eat together at Boston's temple of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness – the Hare Krishnas.

Theirs are the new faces of Krishna in America.

"It's entirely possible these days that a Hare Krishna could be living next door to you and you wouldn't know it," said Burke Rochford, a professor at Vermont's Middlebury College, who has been studying the movement since the 1970s. "They're just now part of the culture in ways that the average person couldn't have imagined some 20 or 25 years ago."

The society was founded in 1966 by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, an Indian monk who'd arrived in New York the previous year to spread Hinduism in the West. Its theology is based on the teachings of Caitanya Mahaprabhu, the philosopher born in 1486 whom Hare Krishnas believe was an incarnation of the Hindu god, Krishna. The movement emphasizes devotion through simple living and the repeated chanting of Krishna's name.

Today, the Hare Krishnas operate almost 400 temples and farm communities worldwide, about 50 of them in North America. Officials of the movement claim 100,000 members in North America, and 1 million worldwide, but Dr. Rochford cautioned that those numbers may not be reliable. Other estimates, he said, place the number of U.S. devotees at no more than 50,000.

In the 1960s and early '70s, the movement seemed to capture the counterculture zeitgeist. Those it originally attracted were largely young, single and white. They lived in the temple, wore distinctive saffron robes and worked exclusively for the Hare Krishnas – often handing out incense or literature while soliciting donations on college campuses or at airports.

Today's Hare Krishna is far more likely to live and work outside the temple, be married with a family, and dress in clothes from Brooks Brothers or L.L. Bean.

Most North American temples are heavily Indian – a sign, many say, that the Krishna movement has gained respectability among worshippers from the birthplace of Hinduism.

But these are only the most noticeable differences to have taken place through the decades.

Leaders and scholars of the movement describe a religion that is maturing, one that is part of, rather than apart from, mainstream American life. Once known for their enthusiastic – many would say annoying – proselytizing, Hare Krishnas today speak of tending to the needs of existing members. Once a haven for the anti-establishment, the movement today trains temple leaders in such worldly concerns as fiscal management and administration.

In the early days, "most of the emphasis was placed on expanding the mission," said Premananda Dasa, congregational director of the Boston temple. "Right now our primary emphasis is more liturgical and pastoral."

The shift comes after years of scandals and waning membership following the death of the Krishna movement's founder in 1977. Even now, the movement is coping with the fallout from its biggest scandal, the sexual and physical abuse of hundreds of children by teachers and other adults in Hare Krishna schools in the 1970s and '80s, including one in Dallas.

The abuse led to a $400 million lawsuit, which in turn led about a dozen Hare Krishna temples to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, so they could remain open while negotiating a settlement with the victims. The movement last month filed a reorganization plan that proposes up to $15 million for the victims, and Krishna officials said they hope to reach a final agreement with the victims later this year, closing at least the legal chapter of the abuse tragedy.

Observers point to the Hare Krishnas' newfound emphasis on family as a major indicator of the depth of the movement's changes.

"That shift from just monks and nuns to more of a congregation-based religion has really led to openness and has had consequences in a lot of areas," said Maria Ekstrand, a longtime member and co-editor of the upcoming book The Hare Krishna Movement: The Postcharismatic Fate of a Religious Transplant.

In Boston, 16 people live in the temple, while about 125 attend services on Sundays. Dallas has 10 devotees in its temple, near Interstate 30 and East Grand Avenue. About 50 worshipping families live nearby, and there's a broader Dallas-Fort Worth community of about 150 initiated devotees and 300 families, according to temple president Vinod Patel.

At the Boston temple, Mr. Richardson, Mr. Gupta, and Ms. Markey are part of a community that includes students and recent college graduates, young couples and their toddlers, and middle-aged members who've been around since the 1970s.

With such diversity come broader concerns, spiritual and material.

"Twenty-year-olds who are single can live pretty simple," said Anuttama Dasa, a spokesman for the movement. "You don't need playgrounds if your whole community is 20-year-olds. You may not need marriage counseling. You may not need to deal with a lot of the different kinds of social issues that churches and synagogues all over the country deal with."

Today, Hare Krishna communities run social services programs, participate in interfaith activities and operate Sunday schools. In a few cities, including Dallas, they have day schools. The one in Dallas educates 18 children.

Unlike in years past, devotees are encouraged to maintain good ties with relatives outside the Hare Krishna community.

As much as some things have changed, though, others remain constant. The Hare Krishna mantra (heard on the George Harrison song "My Sweet Lord") is still ubiquitous, strict vegetarianism rules, and gambling and extramarital sex are forbidden.

One young couple, Mangala-Arotik Dasi and Brahma Muhurta Dasa – known in their secular lives as Madeleine and Michael Buhler-Rose – met while living in a rural Hare Krishna community in Pennsylvania.

They now live in an apartment around the corner from the Boston temple, where they attend services at least three times a week. He, an initiated priest, performs "life cycle" rituals, such as weddings and baby ceremonies, around the country.

They use their devotional names and wear robes while in the temple or with fellow Hare Krishnas elsewhere. At school or work, they dress in Western clothes.

"What I found was a group of people walking their talk," Mangala-Arotik Dasi said of her fellow members. "They were acting and living what they spoke."

"Walking their talk" was not always the case for many movement leaders.

There is widespread acknowledgment that early converts were "overzealous," a word that repeatedly came up in interviews with those who watched the movement evolve.

From its inception, the movement was labeled a cult. Temple leaders were accused of brainwashing impressionable young converts, convincing them to remove themselves from society and giving themselves wholly to the Hare Krishnas.

Many of the accusations stemmed from the same activities that made the movement an authentic expression of Hinduism, said Larry Shinn, president of Berea College in Kentucky and author of The Dark Lord: Cult Images and the Hare Krishnas in America.

"Dancing in the streets with ochre robes on your men, women in saris with the red dot on their forehead, and reciting in Bengali old Krishna stories that originate from the 16th century is absolutely deemed to be cultic" by many Americans, he said.

"But the 'strange' behavior is really Indian and Hindu. It's not some aberrant human being who's developed this system in the last 10 or 15 years."

That's not to say all accusations were unwarranted.

Former members say the movement pressured devotees to renounce their lives and sever ties with friends and families. Some leaders abused and coerced followers. Parents were expected to proselytize while leaving their children at boarding schools with untrained teachers – where, it would later be revealed, many were physically and sexually abused.

"Speaking as a member of the first generation, we made a lot of mistakes," said Anuttama Dasa, the Hare Krishna spokesman.

The problems were exacerbated by the unexpected success of Prabhupada's mission to America, said Edwin Bryant, an assistant professor of religion at Rutgers University in New Jersey and the co-editor, with Ms. Ekstrand, of the forthcoming book on the Hare Krishna movement.

"You had one elderly swami, and the next thing, you had tens of thousands of disciples. Who's going to manage all those people?" he said. "Kids that were one minute smoking pot and living hedonistic lifestyles in the streets, the next minute they were shaved up and they were temple presidents."

The gravest problems began after Prabhupada's death. During the next decade, many leaders left in disgrace because of sex scandals and criminal behavior.

The darkest episode in the movement's history was not revealed publicly until the '90s. Early in that decade, young people who had grown up in Krishna boarding schools began speaking about the physical and sexual abuse by teachers and other adults.

In 1999, an official Hare Krishna publication ran an article by Dr. Rochford documenting the abuse. Soon after, Dallas attorney Windle Turley filed a $400 million lawsuit against the International Society for Krishna Consciousness on behalf of nearly 100 people who said they'd been abused. The suit is on hold while the Hare Krishnas work on their Chapter 11 reorganization plan, which is expected to include a settlement with the victims.

By the time the lawsuit was filed, all U.S. boarding schools, known as gurukulas, had been closed. The Hare Krishnas, all sides agree, took steps to help and compensate victims; to investigate charges of abuse and punish perpetrators; and to institute prevention programs. (There is less agreement, however, about the extent and efficacy of these steps.)

About a dozen temples and other institutions named in the suit have filed for bankruptcy protection. The Hare Krisnhas called the bankruptcy filing the fairest way to ensure justice for victims while not shutting down temples. Mr. Turley called the move a dodge, adding that the voluntary compensation to victims, generally $2,000 grants, was paltry.

Others question how sincerely and thoroughly the society faced up to the abuse, at least in the past.

"There are some really wonderful, smart, liberal people who were always jumping up and down saying that something had to be done," said Ms. Ekstrand. "But the only reason the rest of them listened was out of fear of what would happen if they didn't."

Leaders now speak of the need for healing, of doing whatever can be done, spiritually and financially, for victims – and of eradicating abuse. Child abuse prevention is at the top of the agenda of the movement's new management training courses, and systems are in place for reporting and investigating complaints, said Anuttama Dasa.

"We hope it's going to be something that's really going to heal our communities and provide for the kids as much as possible and keep temples open," he said.

But while the organization looks ahead, many of the roughly 500 abuse victims who've come forward say they still live with the trauma of the past.

"Everything was given to ... these people, and they took it all, even my 6-year-old body," said Ananda Tiller, who said she was abused in the Dallas school in the early 1980s. Now in her late 20s, she is a plaintiff in the lawsuit. "The basic teachings are very chauvinistic, and they don't value family, they don't value children."

She said her brother, who also lived at the school, was another victim of abuse.

"We were in houses side by side, and I literally heard him screaming one night," she said. "I ran out of my ashram and was trying to look through the window. ... It sounded like he was being tortured."

Scholars agree that the attitude toward children is dramatically different today. They point to the closing of the gurukulas and the emphasis on family.

"Children are now in nuclear families," Dr. Rochford said, adding that the Hare Krishna organization "has very little direct role in the life of those children."

The scandals led many devotees to leave in disillusionment. While some gave up on their adopted faith entirely, many continued to live "Krishna-conscious" lifestyles outside of the Hare Krishna organization.

One who left was Nimai Nitai, a Hare Krishna since the late '70s. Known as Nicolas Carballeira in his secular life, he teaches at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston. Five years after leaving, he returned to the Hare Krishnas in 2001. At 52, he's now planning on retiring to live at the Boston temple and serve it full time.

"There's not much support out there for what we do," he said, adding that without the Hare Krishna organization, "it would be virtually impossible in the West to attempt to follow this path."

The movement faces continuing financial difficulties and dwindling numbers of converts. But Hare Krishnas say numbers are not the most important measure of success.

"Now that the movement is poor – surviving, but poor – those who have remained have remained because they truly believe, they truly practice, and they truly care," Nimai Nitai said.

"And the quality of devotion that one encounters is very different from the sad days of the '80s and '90s."

Michael Kress is a Cambridge, Mass.-based freelance writer.

Krishnas File for Bankruptcy

The decision last month by the Hare Krishnas to seek bankruptcy protection could signal the beginning of the end of a legal process in which the movement faced a $400 million lawsuit over child abuse in the 1970s and '80s.

The reorganization plan filed by the Hare Krishnas on Feb. 27 proposes setting aside up to $15 million for nearly 500 abuse victims – plaintiffs in the suit and others who came forward after the movement advertised internationally for victims to lodge claims of abuse. About a dozen temples and other institutions of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness filed for protection under Chapter 11 of the federal bankruptcy law to ensure that they would not have to close, should the lawsuit go to trial and should the plaintiffs prevail.

During the bankruptcy process, the litigation is suspended. As part of the Chapter 11 reorganization, the movement will try to reach a negotiated settlement with the victims, the first step of which is the proposed plan filed last month. If the two sides cannot agree on a settlement, a judge will impose one. Either way, Chapter 11 is intended to bring an end to the lawsuit without any temples closing.

"We hope it's going to be something that's really going to heal our communities and provide for the kids as much as possible and keep temples open," said Anuttama Dasa, spokesman for the Hare Krishnas.

Though the Dallas temple, which opened the Hare Krishnas' first U.S. boarding school in 1971, was named in the suit, it so far has resisted joining the bankruptcy filing. Like all Hare Krishna boarding schools in the United States, the one in Dallas closed years ago.

In coming months, the Hare Krishnas and those who have financial claims against them – including Windle Turley, the Dallas attorney who filed the lawsuit in 2000 – will hammer out the details of the reorganization. If they can't reach agreement, a judge will finalize the details.

Mr. Turley initially called the bankruptcy filing a "total dodge" and said his lawsuit is not intended to force the Hare Krishna movement to shut down.

Mr. Turley's suit was originally filed in federal court in Dallas, then moved to the state courts. It alleges that students at the boarding schools were hit, deprived of food, sexually abused and otherwise treated cruelly. Hare Krishna leaders have acknowledged the abuse and say they want to help the victims as much as they can without closing temples.

While highly critical of the past actions of Hare Krishna leaders, Mr. Turley said the movement has been more responsive than other institutions implicated in similar scandals – including the Catholic Church, which he's also sued.

"Both say they want to deal with the issue," he said, but the Krishna society "has been institutionally more proactive in dealing with it."

In response to the revelations of abuse, the Hare Krishnas created two international organizations. One, Children of Krishna, offers support, including cash grants, to victims. The other, the Child Protection Office, investigates abuse claims and runs prevention and training programs.

"The tragedy of child abuse is obvious," said David Wolf, head of the protection office. "The pain that that causes and the devastation to the children, the youth, the families, to the movement, to the congregations, to the trust, all of that is obvious."

In many cases, criminal statutes of limitations had passed by the time the Child Protection Office was established, meaning perpetrators could not be criminally charged, Hare Krishna officials said. Some were turned over to authorities and prosecuted.

Mr. Turley said the Hare Krishnas' response has not been adequate. Some perpetrators of abuse, he said, weren't even banned in perpetuity from teaching positions in the United States or India.

Anuttama Dasa said that in the cases Mr. Turley is referring to, the perpetrators were not guilty of abuse themselves but rather of being in a position of responsibility at a school where abuse took place. Those individuals, he said, were banned from managerial positions but allowed to teach after a three-year banishment.

The movement's legal strategy has revolved around two goals: compensating victims and keeping temples open.

"We don't have the kind of money that Mr. Turley thinks we have, and secondly, we're not going to close down these temples to provide compensation for the victims," said David Liberman, attorney for the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.

"We just can't do that. It's not fair. So we're doing the best we can do."

He said the final amount paid to victims will depend on several factors, including when an agreement is reached and how much is covered by insurance. The total paid out could range from $2 million to $15 million, he said.

The Hare Krishnas have invited abuse victims who were not parties to Mr. Turley's lawsuit to come forward. About 400 – on top of the 100 plaintiffs – have done so.

Ananda Tiller, one of the lawsuit plaintiffs from Dallas, said she was angry that the bankruptcy would prevent a trial.

"I wanted our day in court. I wanted to stand up, and I wanted to face them, and that would have been closure, to have a jury hear everything we had to say," she said.

Dallas temple president Vinod Patel said the conditions that allowed the abuse to occur have been changed: The movement today is focused on family life, not temple life. The boarding school where Ms. Tiller lived has been replaced with a day school.

"When there is a difficulty in a family, what that does is bring the family closer together," Mr. Patel said. "People start asking questions: why did that happen, who did what, what are we going to do to redress the situation, what are we going to do to make sure that our systems and procedures don't allow negative circumstances to arise again?"

What is future for movement?

BOSTON – As it matures, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness is facing serious challenges, spiritually and financially.

Though leaders have succeeded in making reform a priority, "there is a very strong fundamentalist contingent, and they are going to be fighting all of this tooth and nail," said Maria Ekstrand, co-editor of The Hare Krishna Movement: The Postcharismatic Fate of a Religious Transplant.

Tensions come out in different ways, such as questions over the role of women, authority and leadership, and how much should be done to compensate victims of the child abuse that took place decades ago in Hare Krishna schools.

In addition, demographics are working against the Hare Krishnas. The children of early converts have largely shunned the movement, and recruitment of new converts is weak.

Indian immigrants make up the only steady stream of new Hare Krishnas. But the movement has not always integrated them well into leadership positions in U.S. temples, said Burke Rochford, a professor at Middlebury College in Vermont.

"We may have, in time, the very curious possibility of having a largely East Indian congregation, with white-faced Westerners preaching and serving on the altar," he said.

Sometimes in a religious movement, charismatic leaders can bring large numbers of recruits in through the example of their own high spiritual attainment, said Edward Bryant, a Rutgers University professor. But the Hare Krishna movement "hasn't really produced those," he said.

Then, too, there are money issues. The Hare Krishnas rely almost entirely on member donations. As communities of devotees have shrunk, so have temple bank accounts.

"At most temples these days, there's not a lot of money. They're struggling in most every instance to get by," Dr. Rochford said.

Some critics note that the Hare Krishnas have managed to build lavish new temples in India – even as many American communities struggle, and the organization says it is hard pressed to make restitution to hundreds of victims of past sexual abuse at its schools. Anuttama Dasa, a spokesman for the Hare Krishnas, said temples are independent entities, and the movement has no central authority to redirect building funds.

For all its challenges, no one predicts an end to Krishna consciousness in the West.

"The people who have been touched by the religion and the philosophy, they seem very committed," Dr. Ekstrand said.

Another Version of This Article:

Hare Krishna Comes of Age
The movement has matured after years of tumult and scandal—but escaping the past never is easy. Published in USA Today Magazine, July 2005