A Brief Cult Update

Almost from the beginning, ISKCON devotees have sold illegal drugs, violated gun laws, abused women and children, and used unethical sales and recruitment tactics.

North American newspapers reported that on July 8, 1977, American devotees in Bengal injured eighteen local villagers with buckshot. The incident occurred after the local ISKCON leader allegedly gave an order to fire on an irate crowd. The dispute was over where village cattle were permitted to graze.

After Prabhupada's death in late 1977, some of his disciples found it hard to submit to the newly appointed gurus, men who had once been their peers. Nevertheless, those who joined the Movement after that year are as fiercely loyal to their gurus as the older devotees were to Prabhupada. I have heard that several of the gurus maintain that they alone are the only legitimate successors to Prabhupada, prompting the others to denounce them as fakes. In addition, some devotees who were not among the original eleven, but who nevertheless aspired to power in the Movement, have staked their own claims to guru status.

In late 1978, more than 900 US citizens, including a staggering 275 children, died in a mass murder/suicide in Jonestown, Guyana. In the wake of this terrible tragedy, ISKCON released a pamphlet entitled, Don't Lump Us In, begging the press not to associate ISKCON with the Peoples Temple. I learned later that the Moonies also released a similar pamphlet to the press at about the same time.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, devotees sold hate-mongering anti-Iranian buttons picturing Mickey Mouse with a raised middle finger. This was curiously disingenuous, given that the cult had applauded the seizure of political power by what it viewed as a like-minded religious fundamentalist movement in Iran.

The sale of items with secular themes as part of a sankirtan effort raises some questions. At its inception in the Middle Ages, sankirtan was the public, congregational chanting of the Holy Names. Prabhupada extended this definition to include the distribution of his books, which he referred to as "recorded kirtans." While a religious organization has every right to raise funds in any legal manner it sees fit, it is difficult to see how the sale of secular items could be classified as a part of the sankirtan effort.

Many devotees have left the Movement over this issue. What they once took as a call to aesthetic renunciation had within a few short years morphed into an obsession with money, real estate, and power.

According to a woman who has since left the Movement, Jiva gave cocaine to and had sex with his female subordinates, to "enliven" them in their devotional service to the Lord. If, however, his subordinates failed to meet their daily financial quotas, he beat them (Hubner and Gruson, p. 216). In 1980, a partner-in-crime murdered Jiva, whom the leadership had by then offered the exalted position of sannyasi (Hubner and Gruson, pp. 242-3).

A former devotee from New Jersey reported hearing that women devotees would eventually become prostitutes. The reasoning was that as the world degenerated, verbal persuasion would become an increasingly ineffective means of proselytization, until finally the only way to reach people would be through sex.

In 1980, police officers in Marshall County, West Virginia, told me that they believed that the Krishnas had for years illegally cremated the bodies of dead infants at the New Vrindavan commune.

The Los Angeles Times reported in 1980 that devotees had beaten Jadurani until she was bloody after she expressed doubts about the legitimacy of one of the newly ordained gurus. She was known for her fierce loyalty to Prabhupada and for her view that some of the gurus were interlopers.

In 1980, the national press reported that police had discovered a cache of weapons and ammunition in a Mercedes-Benz belonging to Hamsadutta, the Northern California guru. A few weeks later, the GBC stripped him of his powers (Hubner and Gruson, pp. 241-3). Also in 1980, police in Northern California raided an underground Krishna bullet factory and discovered anti-Semitic literature, including Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf, according to newspaper reports. In 1981, a former devotee who had been in the US military told me that he had been involved in training devotees in the use of firearms.

In 1981 many national magazines and local newspapers around the country carried uncritical stories about the opening of a lavish new temple at New Vrindavan. Parroting the public relations of the cult, some of the headlines were "Almost Heaven" and "Spiritual Disneyland."

At the temple in Hawaii, the cult kept a supply of penicillin for sick cows, but no medicine for sick devotees. A devotee who was treated with cow dung for an infection nearly lost his leg. A Berkeley devotee who had contracted breast cancer refused to go to the doctor until another devotee noticed the tumor while they were in the shower. The sick devotee eventually went to a Western doctor, but the leaders applauded her "stalwart" attitude.

In 1982, the GBC excommunicated Jayatirtha, then the guru for the British Isles. His alleged offenses included taking LSD on the job and seducing his disciples. In 1987, after starting his own splinter sect in California, he was beheaded by a former ISKCON member (Hubner and Gruson, p. 169).

The leaders told the devotees that they must spend every minute of the day performing work for the sect and that exercise is narcissistic at best and life-shortening at worst. Nevertheless, after becoming a guru, Ramesvara regularly jogged. The GBC later expelled him from the sect after he allegedly had an affair with a fourteen-year-old girl (Hubner and Gruson, p. 352). Ramesvara had once bragged to us that he was "beyond sex."

Since Prabhupada's death, the sect has become increasingly fragmented and quarrelsome. ISKCON's public relations team has consistently attributed the problems to a few bad apples. The current revisionist thinking within the cult is that it was idyllic and pure during Prabhupada's day and would have remained so if only the surviving devotees had been faithful to his high ideals. As I have pointed out, it was under Prabhupada's leadership that a wide range of abusive and illegal behaviors became institutionalized within the Movement.

It's important to keep in mind that all destructive cults maintain that discrepancies between rhetoric and reality are always the result of incorrect application of the doctrine, and never the result of a flawed doctrine. Cult logic dictates that all inconsistencies ("contaminations" in Krishna jargon) originate from outside the sect.

Devotees from the New Vrindavan commune have reported that for several years Kirtanananda Swami repeatedly raped Devin Wheeler, known in the cult as Bhaktipada-dasa. In 1985, a disgruntled adult devotee attacked Kirtanananda with a steel rod, putting him into a coma for nearly a month (Hubner and Gruson, pp. 299-300). The same year, an ISKCON hit man murdered a dissident devotee who was sitting in a parked car outside the Culver City temple. According to the police, the killing resembled a Mafia-style execution (Hubner and Gruson, p. 319).

By 1986, less than ten years after Prabhupada's death, the GBC had expelled or suspended six (Bhagavan, Bhavananda, Hamsadutta, Jayatirtha, Kirtanananda, and Ramesvara) of the eleven original gurus. A seventh guru, Satsvarupa, had by then voluntarily resigned his post, though he has remained in the Movement as a propagandist and house biographer of the late Swami Prabhupada. Kirtanananda continued to lead his own cult at New Vrindavan (Hubner and Gruson, pp. 352-354), even while serving a lengthy prison sentence in North Carolina for racketeering, according to newspaper accounts.

More recent information reveals that only two or three of the 1977 gurus are still active in the Movement.

In June 2000, lawyers representing ninety-five former gurukula children filed a $400 million suit against ISKCON. The suit alleged "sexual, physical and emotional torture." Windle Turley, the lead attorney, stated in a press release, "We believe the facts as they are developed will reveal more than a thousand child victims, many of whom have already taken their own lives or are today emotionally and socially dysfunctional." One of the plaintiffs was Jacob Chatterton, son of Bahudaka, who was a young child in the Vancouver temple when I was there.

The parties settled in 2005 for $9.5 million. By then an additional 430 former cult children had added their names to the complaint. Most were expected to receive between $2,500 and $50,000, depending on the severity and duration of the abuse.