Authoritarian Culture and Child Abuse in ISKCON
by Nori J. Muster

(pt. 1) Continued . . .

Attitudes Toward Women

Probably the biggest factor that led to child abuse was the organization's chauvinistic attitude toward women. In her paper, Fundamental Human Rights in ISKCON, Radha Devi Dasi points out that in ISKCON, "Women and children have been neglected and abused in numerous ways, which allegedly range from dismaying to truly abominable."[15] She attributes this to "imbalanced" policies, "misconceptions about women," and members who were "immature in their faith."[16] The roots of the problem are deep.

The Hindu scriptures offer old-fashioned concepts of women's place, comparing women to menacing animals or children.[17] ISKCON could have tried to modernize the philosophy for a late twentieth century Western audience. Other American Hindu groups have done this, but Prabhupada and other men in the hierarchy amplified the chauvinistic points instead.

According to ISKCON, the only official role for women was to be a man's daughter, wife, or mother. If a woman was independent, they called her a prostitute. In July 1975 Prabhupada told a female Chicago newspaper reporter that women had smaller brains and were therefore intellectually inferior to men. That became the bottom line in ISKCON. A smaller brain meant "less intelligent" due to an unfortunate birth.

Even more ominously, ISKCON portrayed women as lusty temptresses who could force men to break their vows of celibacy. Therefore women had to stand at the back of the temple and could not lead chanting sessions or give classes. Men used to spit at the site of women to show their renunciation. Women would show their chastity by covering their heads with cloth and lowering their gaze to avoid eye contact with men.

Radha Devi Dasi illustrated the ISKCON effort to minimize women when she sited the example of the Mayapur samadhi (memorial shrine for Prabhupada). Historical photos were reproduced as paintings to decorate the shrine, but "Surprisingly the female disciples of Shrila Prabhupada are not in the paintings although they were in the original photographs."[18] She concluded that the paintings send a clear message to women, which goes beyond "don't speak," "don't act," and "don't give class." The murals tell ISKCON women: "Don't exist."[19]

ISKCON men who could renounce women with lifelong vows of celibacy were welcomed into the hierarchy as priests called sannyasis. These men enjoyed material comforts and prestige within the organization. They were the only people who could get close to Prabhupada; they had cooks, maids and laundresses doing their chores; they could travel throughout the organization giving classes, and everyone had to bow down to them at least once a day. In the 1970s, men in the renounced order waged a war against married men and women that Prabhupada characterized as a "fratricidal war."[20]

Misogynistic attitudes led to spousal abuse because some gurus and others in the hierarchy thought hitting was the only way to make women cooperate. Author Mineka Schipper points out that wife-beating maxims exist in most cultures. In England and the United States, it is said, "Women, like gongs, should be beaten regularly." In India they say, "The nails of a cart and the head of a woman, they work only when they are hit hard."[21] In ISKCON the common saying was, "Both a wife and a mridanga [drum] require beating."[22]

Prabhupada's correspondence showed that he was aware of spousal abuse as early as 1972. In 1973 some ISKCON marriages were ending in divorce, so in 1974, in an attempt to deal with the problem, Prabhupada refused to sanction any further marriages.[23] Radha Devi Dasi and others have gone further, arguing that ISKCON should codify the place of women to protect them from further abuse in the organization.[24]

Into the Light

The child abuse came out in the open in several stages. The first significant event happened in 1990, when Raghunatha first published ISKCON Youth Veterans Newsletter. He printed his own essays, letters from friends, news of the gurukula alumni, such as birthdays and weddings, and articles that discussed the abusive conditions in the gurukula schools. Raghunatha published his autobiographical essay, Children of the Ashram, and it was the first widely circulated personal account of gurukula abuse. He explained, "What started out to be a couple paragraphs ended up growing into almost a hundred handwritten pages."[25]

Many people in and around ISKCON read Children of the Ashram and found it deeply disturbing. Some ignored it or turned against Raghunatha. The late guru Tamal Krishna told Raghunatha to "cease and desist" because his essay could "make the Robin George case [another costly lawsuit] look like peanuts."[26] The essay offered a key to unlock the secrets that the organization had been hiding for twenty years. The GBC quickly passed a resolution on the subject of child abuse.[27] Still, even with Children of the Ashram in print, no ISKCON leader would openly acknowledge the abuse.

Raghunatha also helped start the annual gurukula alumni reunions. The first one took place in Los Angeles in the summer of 1990. As young adults, the survivors could finally talk about what happened. Validating each others' experiences set the process in motion; it was only a matter of time until the survivors could make their story known. The reunions continued throughout the 1990s and took place in about a half-dozen cities around the world.

After publishing his own newsletter for several years, in 1993 Raghunatha joined several other alumni to form a new publication, As It Is: The Voice of the Second Generation. One of the editors, Manu, had been interviewing survivors and documenting their cases. In 1995 Manu accepted a position from the GBC as head of the newly-created ISKCON Youth Ministry. Later, in 1997 he attended the GBC meeting in India as a non-voting member and successfully lobbied for two resolutions to help ISKCON youth. The first encouraged temples to offer housing to gurukula alumni attending college, and the other encouraged ISKCON leaders to support the victims in other ways.[28]

Apart from Raghunatha and the As It Is editorial staff, Nirmala Hickey probably had the greatest influence on bringing the history to light through his V.O.I.C.E. (Violations of ISKCON Children Exposed) web site.[29] Written in conjunction with another former gurukula student, Maya Charnell, the site includes an analysis of the failure of the gurukula system, twenty pages of anonymous personal accounts of abuse, and an essay on the matter of Srila Prabhupada's responsibility. These were the most sophisticated and outspoken writings on gurukula, made even more noteworthy because Nirmala was the son of ISKCON Minister of Education Jagadish, and his mother also held a position of authority in the gurukula system. Nirmala began writing after an accident at the Gita-Nagari (Pennsylvania) gurukula left him quadriplegic in 1985.

Progress in the Years 1996 - 1998

The ISKCON hierarchy's main attempt at reconciliation happened in 1996, when the North American Temple Presidents and GBC members met at the ISKCON center in Alachua, Florida. Youth Minister Manu led a panel of gurukula survivors to discuss what gurukula was like for children. According to an editorial by ISKCON World Review publisher Kunti Devi, "Sannyasis cried. You could see the shame in some of the men's eyes. I believe it was even more than the awful threat of lawsuits that spurred these men, so committed to ISKCON to go beyond passing resolutions."[30]

After hearing the survivors' stories, the ISKCON officials acknowledged that they understood the full extent of abuse. They pledged money and resolved to form an organizational entity to manage the funds. This was the beginning of Children of Krishna, Inc., which ISKCON incorporated as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization headquartered in Alachua.

Children of Krishna, Inc. helped some abuse survivors; in particular, several who spoke on the 1996 panel. However, grants could go to anyone raised in the movement, not just those who survived abuse. In addition, Children of Krishna, Inc. set a limit of $2,000 per victim. In this writer's opinion $2,000 is a mere pittance, considering what ISKCON took away.

In 1998 ISKCON formed the Office of Child Protection, headed by two ISKCON disciples.[31] Dhira Govinda and Yashoda Devi were charged with helping the victims, preventing future incidents of abuse, and investigating and punishing past abusers. In the summer of 1998 they attended the Los Angeles gurukula reunion to give out $500 to $2,000 checks to any survivor who would sign legal documents waiving any further claims against ISKCON. Many took this as an insult; some who signed off felt ashamed to take the money.

In 1998 Anuttama Dasa, current public affairs director of ISKCON, and the ISKCON Communications Ministry commissioned an academic report on the history of gurukula from Professor Burke Rochford.[32] Dr. Rochford, a sociology professor from Vermont and author of a book about ISKCON, had been studying the gurukula for almost twenty years. He learned of the child abuse in the same way everyone else did, beginning in 1990. The ISKCON reformers showed Dr. Rochford's analysis to a few people-but no one from the opposition-and then published it in the ISKCON Communication Journal, an academic publication by and about ISKCON.[33] The public relations office supplied copies to the media and The New York Times published a front-page report.[34] A similar article by Associated Press[35] appeared in newspapers across the United States and Dr. Rochford went on numerous talk shows to discuss his findings. My opinion as an outside observer to this turn of events was that it was the single most meaningful gesture that ISKCON had made toward reconciling with its children. Unfortunately, not everyone in the organization shared my opinion.

Some ISKCON officials supported Dr. Rochford, like this one in England who told the media: "Even if we have to go through ten years of court cases and we lose every building in North America, it's more important [to clear up the issues so] we can give people spirituality."[36] Other ISKCON officials denounced Dr. Rochford and those who published his paper. Dr. Rochford said that he felt torn over his involvement. He wrote his paper to help the survivors, but he expressed regret over the way it was received. He said, "Essentially I had been drawn into writing the article and exposing child abuse to promote a partisan political agenda."[37]

The publication of Dr. Rochford's paper led to internal divisions, party-line bickering, rumors, and outright hostility toward abuse survivors, including fistfights at temples. By 1999 ISKCON seemed to polarize into two camps. The reformers are in the Communications department, Children of Krishna, Inc, the Youth Ministry, the Office of Child Protection, the ISKCON World Review and other liberal publications, the fledgling Women's Ministry, and various concerned individuals. The liberals sincerely wanted to help the victims and bring the matter out in the open. The right wing, which consisted of the majority of gurus and GBC members (and their followers), were afraid of lawsuits. They desperately wanted the problems to just go away, and they were opposed to any open discussion or acknowledgement of the problem.

In 1999 the ISKCON Communications Office published a press release stating that it would raise $1 million for Children of Krishna and the Office of Child Protection.[38] Unfortunately, the money never materialized. Some ISKCON officials gave thousand of dollars, but it was nowhere near a million, a half a million, or even a hundred thousand. Aside from the initial enthusiasm in 1996, the bulk of the money for Children of Krishna, Inc. came from Anuttama Dasa, the man who issued the press release.

The lawsuit filed in 2000 caused even deeper internal divisions in ISKCON and more ambivalence toward abuse survivors. Some people believe that ISKCON is currently trying to send some of its centers into bankruptcy in order to address the lawsuit.[39]

The Office of Child Protection started to falter in about 2000 due to a shrinking budget and lack of cooperation from key people in the hierarchy. In February 2004 Dhira Krishna announced that the office would close due to lack of funding.[40]

ISKCON will continue to bear the stigma of child abuse. It is regrettable that the organization could not stop the abuse when it was happening and turn over the perpetrators. Failing that, at least when the abuse came to light in 1996, the organization could have done more to help the victims. Unfortunately, it did not. Most of the victims are now in their thirties. Some are doing okay; others have given up on life. I know of at least two cases of suicide where the victims left notes stating that the memories of their gurukula experiences were too difficult to bear. Others have committed suicide, died in car accidents, or drug overdoses, but did not leave notes. Many young fathers have dropped out of their children's lives. Young mothers have had to move back in with their parents or depend on welfare to support their children.

Abusive gurukulas did not prepare students to earn a living. Rather, they taught children that working for "karmis" in the "material world" would place them at the lowest rung of the caste system (outcaste, sudra). This training was partly due to the organization's eccentricity, but it was also a ploy to make children dependent on ISKCON so they would remain in the organization as adults. Gurus promised the children that someday the organization would be theirs, and that each of them would someday lead a temple, farm, restaurant, or project within ISKCON. This didn't happen.

For many former gurukula students, recovery involves staying away from ISKCON. If they go around the temples they see that men who abused them or conspired to cover up abuse are still privileged ISKCON leaders. The fact that the perpetrators are getting away with their crimes can be infuriating and only leaves victims contemplating their revenge.

Despite ill feelings, many who were abused continue to go to the temples because they can meet other survivors. Surprisingly, some still feel sentimental about the religion, and some still find value in the institution because, after all, it is the religion they inherited from their parents. The second generation has an interest in the fate of ISKCON and therefore some of them continue to interact with the institution and work for change.


In a coercive organization, the mission and religiousness of the group are used as tools to control the followers. The leaders reinforce guilt and denial to hide their negligence. Followers learn to blame their problems on themselves or the cruel outside world, rather than find fault with the leaders. Even if people try to deny the problems or blame themselves, most of the dysfunction in an authoritarian system comes from the top. This was the case in ISKCON. The GBC was teeming with secrets and members were indoctrinated to ignore those secrets. Once in a while a guru's crimes came out in the open. The GBC would then expel (or excommunicate) the man and say that all ISKCON's problems were solved. However, exposing one corrupt guru never fixed the system. The problems were systemic, a consequence of the organization's authoritarian structure.

Some of the child molesters may have been devotees who became molesters; others may have been molesters who became devotees. "Devotional service" in the gurukula was frequently granted in exchange for a big donation. ISKCON did not do background checks on teachers, and it did not ask prospective teachers to give their legal names or show any identification.

Large contributors were also awarded with arranged marriages. The rest of ISKCON's money came from devotees collecting donations from the public. The best collectors were women, but having children limited the amount of time they could work. In his paper published by ISKCON, Dr. Rochford said that the gurukula functioned as childcare so mothers could go back to work collecting donations.[41] Thus, money played a role in the child abuse.

Reforming the Authoritarian System

Outside observers and ex-members like myself thought ISKCON was turning the corner in 1996, but as of the time of this writing, in my opinion and the opinion of many others, the organization has yet to make an honest effort to settle things with the survivors. I offer this brief summary with the hope that it will spark more dialogue and action on behalf of the child abuse victims. Instead of the mire of lawsuits and bankruptcy, I would rather see the organization acknowledge the child abuse history, fire all the alleged perpetrators and conspirators, and reorganize ISKCON around the purpose of helping the victims. ISKCON has a responsibility to its first generation of children. That obligation is not something the leadership can brush aside. ISKCON must do something tangible to resolve the situation, or the plight of the victims could be forgotten and even repeated in future generations. Or, the lawsuits filed on behalf of the victims could drive ISKCON into ruin.

There are many things ISKCON can do to change. The more fairly people in an organization share power, the more their system will move from authoritarianism to egalitarianism. Following is a summary of issues addressed in this paper, along with suggestions that could reform the system.

  1. Problem: Power centralized around charismatic gurus.

Suggestions for change: ISKCON is a Hindu-based organization, so it will always have gurus. However, gurus should concentrate on spiritual and religious responsibilities and refrain from managing other aspects of their disciples' lives. Also, disciples should think for themselves. They should take wisdom from a variety of sources, not just their guru.

  1. Problem: Followers cut off from their former lives.

Suggestion for change: Just as congregational members keep their old friends and connections with outside family, ISKCON should afford this freedom to all full-time, live-in devotees. They should pay devotees for their work and give them time off to spend with their families and others outside the organization.

  1. Problem: A worldview of "us and them."

Suggestion for change: ISKCON needs to be more inclusive and interact with the outside world for mutual benefit and understanding. Instead of just criticizing the outside world, become part of the solution.

  1. Problem: Followers taught to blame themselves for leadership's defects.

Suggestion for change: Create an atmosphere and ethic within the organization that allows disciples to question the leadership. Members need to develop personal boundaries and speak out if someone in the group tries to take advantage of them.

  1. Problem: Dire consequences for criticizing the leaders.

Suggestion for change: The leaders should take responsibility for their own behavior, listen to feedback, and answer questions, especially from devotees.

  1. Problem: Using scriptural tenets to induce guilt.

Suggestion for change: People in ISKCON need a stronger grounding in Hindu philosophy so they can get beyond mind-numbing sound bites, such as "everything is temporary" and "women are ten times lustier than men." ISKCON members need to periodically reexamine their interpretation of the philosophy to avoid stereotypes and superficial understandings.

  1. Problem: Censorship and control over information.

Suggestion for change: Allow members to make their own choices about information and media. If ISKCON is faithful to its precepts and way of life, then it won't have to manipulate its members or subject them to dehumanizing controls in order to win and keep their faith. In fact, manipulation and control may derail the faith of innocent followers and drive them away.

  1. Problem: Peer pressure to follow the organization's dogma.

Suggestion for change: Concentrate on improving the organization instead of covering up problems with dogma. Allow members to think for themselves.

  1. Problem: Atmosphere of chaos and crisis to keep followers off balance.

Suggestion for change: The organization needs more transparency to keep the leaders accountable and honest. One way to achieve this would be to join an alliance of Hindu organizations and ask for their help in living up to the highest standard.

  1. Problem: Grandiose mission used to manipulate followers.

Suggestion for change: ISKCON devotees should look at their organization realistically and stop inflating its relative importance in the world.

  1. Problem: Misogynistic attitudes toward women and children.

Suggestion for change: Encourage women to fill up to fifty percent of the leadership positions in the organization, and lead up to fifty percent of the temple functions, such as giving classes, leading temple services, etc. Establish laws in ISKCON to guarantee protection from violence and discrimination. Hire qualified consultants to provide training on how to implement protections for women and children.

  1. Problem: Arrogant and nonresponsive leadership.

Suggestion for change: Develop a fair system of checks and balances to hold leaders responsible for their actions. Institute a system of voting and term limits to elect the GBC, temple presidents, and other high-ranking officials.

  1. Problem: Employing people with questionable backgrounds in the school system; taking money from drug dealers and other criminals.

Suggestions for change: Do background checks and screen out people with unsuitable histories. Keep records of employees' devotee name(s) and legal name(s). Don't take money from tainted sources.

  1. Problem: Reluctance to acknowledge past abuse and make amends to victims.

Suggestions for change: Come clean about the history of child abuse and other abuse. Make amends to people the organization has harmed, and make that ISKCON's highest priority.

Perhaps the current members of ISKCON can change things for the better. ISKCON has a progressive faction that wants to modernize the organization, but they face a highly structured, rigid, plutocracy that has been in place since the 1970s. The reformers may not have enough influence to enact any real change.

End Notes, continued . . .

[15] Fundamental Human Rights in ISKCON, by Radha Devi Dasi, p. 1. This paper was reprinted in Cultic Studies Review, Vol. 1, No. 1, 2001, Group Report: articles/rahda_devi_dasi2_full.htm. It was reprinted with permission from ISKCON Communications Journal, Volume 6, Number 2, 1998, pages 7-14. The journal's address is: 63 Divinity Rd, Oxford, OX4 1LH, UK (E-mail:; Web site:

[16] Participation, Protection and Patriarchy: An International Model for the Role of Women in ISKCON, by Radha Devi Dasi, p. 3 - 4. This paper was published in Cultic Studies Review, Vol. 1, No. 1, 2001, Group Report: grprept_hk_women/rahda_devi_dasi_p1.htm. It was reprinted with permission from ISKCON Communications Journal, Volume 6, Number 1, 1998, pages 31-41. The journal's address is: 63 Divinity Rd, Oxford, OX4 1LH, UK (E-mail:; Web site:

[17] ISKCON's books have numerous stories that describe the inferior status of women. For example, in the Fifth Canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam (Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1974), a story called, "The Material World as the Great Forest of Enjoyment," says, "wife and children act like tigers and jackals . . . he [the husband] miserably trying not to waste his wealth, feels like a lamb that is seized by force." SB 5.14.3.

[18] Participation, Protection and Patriarchy: An International Model for the Role of Women in ISKCON, by Radha Devi Dasi, p. 4.

[19] Ibid., p. 4.

[20] Rochford (1998) p. 49.

[21] Mineke Schipper is the author of Never Marry a Woman With Big Feet: Women in Proverbs From Around the World, Yale University Press, 2004. The quoted maxims were drawn from her editorial on the subject in the Los Angeles Times, April 20, 2004, Section B, p. 15.

[22] The maxim about beating both the drum and the wife is sometimes attributed to Prabhupada, but in her discussion on the subject, Radha Devi Dasi said, "I have personally not seen any proof that Shrila Prabhupada endorsed wife beating." This citation can be found in Participation, Protection and Patriarchy: An International Model for the Role of Women in ISKCON, p. 8.

[23] Rochford, p. 49.

[24] In her paper, Participation, Protection and Patriarchy: An International Model for the Role of Women in ISKCON, Radha Devi Dasi, argues in favor of establishing official "participation rights and substantive rights" for women, based on the principles of human rights, as established in international law. See pp. 8 - 9. A good example of international human rights law is the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, December 10, 1948. Article 1.6 states: "Men and women have the right to live their lives and raise their children in dignity, free from hunger and from the fear of violence, oppression or injustice. Democratic and participatory governance based on the will of the people best assures these rights." At this time, there is no "democratic, participatory governance" for women in ISKCON, since women do not participate in governing the organization. The UN declaration also set a goal "To combat all forms of violence against women and to implement the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women" (5.25). ISKCON could adopt similar goals if the leadership was willing.

[25] Raghunatha, p. 1.

[26] Raghunatha made this statement in a Dec. 16, 1999 letter circulated on the Internet and posted at Vaishnava News Network, see

[27] The 1990 GBC resolution on child abuse is posted online at:

[28] Manu's resolutions were [Law] 302 and [Law] 303 of the 1997 GBC Resolutions, author's collection. See:

[29] V.O.I.C.E., In 2000 Nirmal-Chandra and Maya Charnell joined Children of ISKCON vs. ISKCON.

[30] Kunti-devi's article was published in the Spring/Summer 1996 issue of Priti-laksanam, author's collection. See:

[31] The heads of the Child Protection Office were disciples of Bir Krishna Goswami and their names were Dhira Govinda (David Wolf, who holds an M.S.W. and Ph.D.) and Yashoda Devi Dasi. I interviewed Dhira Govinda at the Los Angeles gurukula reunion in 1998. See:

[32] Dr. Burk Rochford did his doctorate on ISKCON, wrote the book Hare Krishna in America (Rutgers University Press, 1985) and numerous journal articles about ISKCON, and studied the gurukula system since 1979.

[33] See Rochford (1998).

[34] Laurie Goodstein, "Hare Krishna Faith Details Past Abuse at Boarding Schools," The New York Times (Oct. 9, 1998) p. 1.

[35] Julia Lieblich, "Report Details Hare Krishna Child Abuse," Associated Press (Oct. 9, 1998).

[36] Kim Asch, "Stuck in the Middle: Research and Religion Clash as Scholar Uncovers Uncomfortable Truths," Middlebury College, June 2002. See:

[37] Rochford's comment cited in Asch (2002) p. 2.

[38] ISKCON Communications Media Release, "Krishnas Pledge One Million Dollars to Child Protection (April 29, 1999) - author's collection.

[39] ISKCON attorney David Liberman explains the bankruptcy in a press release and cover letter, "Re. Turley Suit / Gurukula & Other Youth Abuse Claims," April 29, 2003 ISKCON Legal Office, see and the following year, Liberman issued "For Immediate Release," a press release dated Feb. 27, 2004. The following month, ISKCON attorney Joseph Fedorowsky issued a press release entitled, "ISKCON Chapter 11 Reorganization Plan Filed," March 4, 2004. See for the 2004 press releases.

[40] As of Feb. 29, 2004, devotees are trying to reinstate the Child Protection office by raising donations. Here is an article dated March 1, 2004, at Vaishnava News Network: CPO Office Donations, by Jiva Goswami Dasa, see

[41] Rochford (1998).

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