Panel: Can Cultic Groups Change
Cults and Society, Volume 1, Number 1, 2001
Panel Discussion: Can Cultic Groups Change—The Case of ISKCON
Excerpts from a panel discussion held at the 1999 Annual Conference of the American Family Foundation (AFF), 15 May 1999, in St. Paul, Minnesota, USA (with an introduction written by Anuttama Dasa).
Setting the Stage
Beginning in the mid-1970s in the United States, members of the so-called "anti-cult" movement and organizations, such as the Cult Awareness Network (CAN) and the American Family Foundation (AFF), raised questions about the authenticity and activities of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) and accused ISKCON of being "dangerous cult."
Some anti-cultists lumped ISKCON in with other groups or religions new to the American scene, finding ISKCON guilty by association of a myriad of evils, and simultaneously feeding a media frenzy about the "cult scare." On the extreme, Ted Patrick and other "deprogrammers" kidnapped Hare Krishna members and utilized various abrasive means to try to force devotees to abandon their Vaisnava beliefs and practices.
At the same time there were legitimate concerns about ISKCON, not only from the anti-cultists but also among parents, the media, and scholars. Questions arose about the status of women, young people abandoning their secular education to join ISKCON, families feeling cut off from their children who had joined ISKCON, the long-term care of individual members within the society, and the concentrated power placed in the hands of ISKCON's new generation of leaders.
These concerns, coupled with a series of revelations of serious legal and moral improprieties by some ISKCON leaders and communities, set the stage for twenty years of mutual distrust, shared accusations, jousting in the press, legal maneuvering, and lawsuits between ISKCON and the "anti-cultists."
ISKCON at Thirty
In May 1996, Gustav Niebuhr wrote a column for the New York Times entitled "Hare Krishnas at Thirty: Real Changes or PR?"" Niebuhr reported on the celebration of the Hare Krishna movement's first 30 years in the West, and on the continuing questions surrounding ISKCON.
Niebuhr interviewed me in my role as communications director for ISKCON in North America. Niebuhr also interviewed Marcia Rudin, director of the International Cult Education Program, a program of the American Family Foundation. While stating that she fielded fewer inquiries about ISKCON in recent years, Rudin was quoted as questioning whether ISKCON was really maturing or was just a slick operator. "All cults are very PR-minded," Rudin said. "They want to appear very mainstream."
I was not happy that Niebuhr had felt obliged to talk to Rudin, nor that her quote more or less rained on our Thirtieth Anniversary article.
Niebuhr's response to my follow-up phone call was direct, and hard to ignore. "It is out there, Anuttama, you need to deal with it [the lingering perspective that ISKCON is a cult]."
So, I wrote a letter to Marcia Rudin. Rudin referred me to Dr. Michael Langone, Executive Director for AFF. After an exchange of several letters and extended phone calls, Langone invited me to attend a cult education program at the National Institute of Health in Washington, DC., at which he and several colleagues were presenting.
Harvey Stemple, or Hari Dasa, at that time a Masters student in pastoral counseling, attended the conference with me. We found the program interesting, and surprisingly full of very diverse views. Afterwards, Langone and some friends joined Hari Dasa, my wife Rukmini Dasi, and myself for dinner at a nearby vegetarian restaurant.
David Clark, an AFF member, broke the ice with an innocent question: "What is Bhaktipada doing these days?"" This was 1996, New Vrindaban was completing its tenth year of expulsion from ISKCON, Kirtanananda Swami Bhaktipada was facing a lengthy jail term, and I was extremely uncomfortable with this first topic of discussion.
I explained that Kirtanananda was expelled from ISKCON, that ISKCON officials had co-operated with the government proceedings against him, and that he did not at all represent the values or behavior that ISKCON advocates. Clark was genuinely pleased to hear of ISKCON's housecleaning.
Reciprocating, I also asked an innocent question: "What is Ted Patrick doing these days?" Clark and his colleagues were as discomfited by my question as I had been by theirs. Patrick, they explained, was not representative of AFF views or policies, nor did his earlier criminal conviction and jail term exemplify the principles and behavior that AFF members adhere to.
It was an interesting exchange. From that point on, I was convinced there was room for genuine dialogue.
In 1997, following that landmark meeting, Ravindra Svarupa Dasa, Rukmini Dasi, and I attended the annual AFF conference. In 1998, we again attended the conference and this time met privately with leaders of AFF to address some of their questions and concerns about ISKCON. The meetings were frank and informative.
In 1999, Radha-devi Dasi, an attorney and consultant to the ISKCON North American Temple Support Office, and I were asked to appear on a panel at the AFF Convention. The panel's title was: "Can Cultic Groups Change: The Case of ISKCON." Despite our discomfort with the underlying assumptions of the title of the panel, we welcomed the opportunity to speak with approximately 100 leaders from anti-cult organizations from around the world.
What follows are excerpts from the panel discussion "Can Cultic Groups Change: The Case of ISKCON."
Editor's note: This panel discussion has been abridged for the sake of brevity and edited for purposes of clarity with consent of the participants.
Anuttama Dasa, ISKCON, Director of Communications. Anuttama Dasa is Director of Communications for the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON).
Radha-devi Dasi, ISKCON, Legal Consultant for the North American Temple Support Office (Legal Department). Radha-devi Dasi, also known as Rebecca Cornia, is legal consultant to ISKCON's Temple Support Office. She received her undergraduate degree from the University of Chicago and her J.D. (Juris Doctor) from Harvard University. She is the author of articles on domestic violence and the treatment of women in the Hare Krishna movement.
Joseph Kelly, Thought Reform Consultant. Joseph F. Kelly, a Thought Reform Consultant since 1988, spent 14 years in two different Eastern meditation groups. He has lectured extensively on cult-related topics and is a co-author of "Ethical Standards for Thought Reform Consultants," which was published in AFF's Cultic Studies Journal.
Michael Langone, Ph.D., Executive Director of the American Family Foundation (AFF). Dr Michael Langone, AFF's Executive Director, is also a counseling psychologist and the Editor of AFF's Cultic Studies Journal
Steve -Eichel, Ph.D., (Moderator), Director, RETIRN. Dr Steve Dubrow-Eichel is a psychotherapist and Director of RETIRN, a cult-counseling center in Philadelphia.
Dubrow-Eichel: This panel was several years in the making. What impressed a number of people in AFF was the way that the individuals representing ISKCON, especially Anuttama, were not only acknowledging past abuses and problems within ISKCON, but current problems as well. So we decided to go ahead and continue this discussion. This dialogue can potentially lead to continuing reform in ISKCON and an expanded mission and, possibly, enhanced vitality for AFF. These dialogues ultimately lead to a maturation process, a growing sense of trust and a clear exposition of what each group wants from the other.
I am impressed in my discussions with people in AFF as well as the people in ISKCON. It does not feel to me like anyone is pulling any punches or not stating their true feelings about what has happened in the past as well as what might happen now and in the future.
Anuttama Dasa: This is the third AFF Convention I have attended. I have been very intrigued to see the amount of discussion and differences of opinion that exist among members of this group, some of whom are scholars, over the topics of "brainwashing," "mind control," "undue influence," "sects," "cults," etc. There is a lot of room for further studies. I have seen that theories about these topics are still being developed, refined, and adjusted as new information about their accuracy and applicability surfaces.
Within my organization there is also a lot ongoing discussion and tensions in acknowledging the problems and shortcomings of the past and the challenges of the present. But we are trying to develop systems for addressing those, and I feel part of the benefit of my attending this conference and panel is to gather information to take back to enhance those discussions.
Sociologically, I think there is still the conception that Hare Krishna is a very communal organization, but it is not. It is a congregational organization with a few members living in asrama, or temple communities, and the vast majority of members living independently and maintaining different degrees of affiliation and commitment with their local temples. In the United States approximately 50% of our congregation are Asian Indians.
A critical point is that, while the ISKCON organization itself is only 30 years old, Hare Krishna is very deeply rooted within the broader Hindu tradition. Specifically it is part of the Caitanya Vaisnava lineage.
ISKCON was established in New York in 1966 by A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, a teacher, author, and spiritual leader who brought Krishna consciousness, or the Vaisnava tradition, to the West.
Theologically speaking, I would argue very strongly, and scholars support this, that Krishna consciousness is definitely not new. Organizationally, ISKCON is new. Many of our organizational problems came from the fact that in the early years especially, most ISKCON members were young Western converts. Due to a lack of maturity and organizational structure, there was a vulnerability to excess and abuse of power.
Another issue, or tension, for us is the question of authority and leadership. The traditional model in most Indian religious traditions is a hierarchical organization, with the concentration of power in the hands of one individual, the guru, or acarya. Shortly before his passing away, my teacher, Prabhupada, established a Governing Body Commission, a group of people to oversee the ISKCON organization. After his death in 1977, there was a series of crises with some of the topmost, hand-selected leaders, who had been appointed as gurus. There was quite a struggle between the organization and some of those individuals who argued that as gurus their position was above the authority of the GBC.
This struggle lasted for years. Many people argued that the tradition supports the guru as the absolute principal of authority, divine authority. This can be strongly documented in much of Hindu religious thought. Our organization has struggled to solidly establish that, in our movement, no one is above our managing body and that there must be checks and balances for all. In 1986, there was a series of reforms limiting what is known in ISKCON jargon as the "zonal acarya system." This year, 1999, there was another series of resolutions passed at the international meetings giving more specific interpretation of appropriate powers and privileges for those in leadership positions.
The last area I want to touch on is training and education. Frankly, in our organization there was very little, if any, training and education for the first 30 years. This has caused us a lot of problems. Those of you who travel on a regular basis will be happy to know that we now have a "Book Distribution Training Course" for those individuals who distribute our religious literature in public. It is a four-day course. It is not a lot but it is a good start. It is principle-based and emphases things like honesty—which had been a problem for us with our book distribution—and long-term customer care.
I recently attended the first North American leadership-training course, a four-day course in Northern Florida. The principles taught there focus on accountability and human relation issues. There was a section on the abuse of power, what is legitimate power, how to respect individual effort, teamwork, etc. It was interesting because half of the first day was a discussion about what we can borrow from modern management techniques without compromising our religious tradition.
Radha-devi Dasi: There are gender issues in any organization and, one of the things that struck me when we were talking about this panel was that I am the only woman panelist. That is my first point: there are gender issues everywhere. It is not something that happens only in "cultic groups."
I would like to talk about experience, personal experience. I feel very strongly about the power of narrative; that is where I come from as a woman.
For me, one of the attractions of Krishna consciousness was its reasoned and well thought-out philosophy on how to protect women from sexual exploitation. That was a big issue for me because I have been in universities, I have been in law firms, I have been in so many environments where I saw men misusing their power to exploit young women. This issue of exploitation of women is not something that is unique to any one culture or any one group. I was attracted to Krishna consciousness because there was a philosophy that said we are not our bodies, we are souls, and no one has the right to exploit another soul because all souls are servants of Krishna, God. At the same time, as a university graduate and as a lawyer, I had been trained to question. So, while I was attracted by this philosophy, I was troubled by some of the things I saw.
One thing you need to understand is that the practice of Krishna consciousness is variegated. Depending on which temple or which region of which country you visit, you are going to have a different experience. When I joined in San Diego, the women stood at the back of the temple during ceremonies. They were not allowed to lead the congregational chanting, they were not allowed to give the scriptural classes; they were not allowed to rise above certain levels of management. My first question was: "Why not?"
I was told that it was in order to protect women; otherwise they will be sexually exploited. I was also told that if you want to make spiritual advancement you have to become humble; this is a way of making you humble. I decided that I would give this concept a period of observation. I was worried about other practices, too. I thought, "I am not so sure that makes sense to me, but I am willing to give it a try."
With this particular practice I never came to a realization that putting women in the back and restricting their activities really makes a difference in "protecting" us. What crystallized this for me was when I had a daughter of my own. I started thinking about how she was going to be shaped by this experience. I started talking to some of the younger women who had grown up in our movement and hearing about how being in the back and being limited in their service had caused them to feel bad about being women.
I have to tell this story: When my daughter was three she wanted to stand at the front of the temple room. I told her she was not allowed. I could not explain it very well to her because she was only three. What she understood was that the men will get mad at you if you do. So the next time we went to the temple, she walked up to the first man she saw and punched him as hard as she could. I said to myself, "Okay, it is not just about me anymore."
Institutionally, at about the same time, the International Women's Ministry was formed. There were a number of women who had concerns about the treatment of women in ISKCON. I became part of that organization, and one of our first efforts was a national congress in Los Angeles. We expected about 50–100 participants, but 300 came. We heard a powerful, overwhelming swell of women's voices saying, "We are not happy with the way things are, and we are not going to continue to allow things to be the way they are."
I have written two papers on these topics. One is about women's rights in ISKCON. I looked at the subject from the perspectives of international law and international human rights. This paper challenged the leadership of ISKCON to justify their treatment of women, and pointed out to them, using principles of international law, why the treatment of women does not measure up to the rhetoric of protection that was offered. That paper has been very well received and has resulted in some changes in the way women are treated. The second paper has to do with human rights in ISKCON. Once I started thinking about women's rights, I realized men are here too, and they ought to have some rights also!
We do now have women on our Governing Body Commission, which is the highest level of administrative organization in ISKCON. Internationally, we have a number of women who are Temple Presidents or project leaders. In North America, the GBC Executive Committee has four members; two of them are women. More and more temples have policies providing for women to give scripture class and to stand side-by-side with the men. So, now my daughter does not have to punch anyone if she wants to go up to the altar.
My understanding is that philosophically and historically, ISKCON was a very egalitarian movement at the beginning, but somehow in the 1970s we got sidetracked. In terms of the larger issue of solving institutional abuses and dealing with human rights in general, we are beginning to realize that we were naive. We believed that because we were spiritual people, seeking a spiritual path, that naturally nobody would abuse anybody else. Now we have much evidence to the contrary. We realize that we need institutional safeguards. So there is a movement, within our movement, pushing for ethical standards, pushing for a Constitution, and pushing for a member's Bill of Rights. The papers that I have published include a draft of the Declaration of Rights for ISKCON members.
Kelly: For those who do not know me, I was in two different Eastern groups over the course of fourteen years. In leaving those groups, I began to work with families that were concerned about their loved ones in such groups. Over a period of ten years, I became involved on the frontlines of a more critical exploration of the families' concerns about their loved ones' involvement in various groups, including ISKCON. I can say from my own experience that the [ISKCON] people here are to be congratulated for their willingness to come forward amongst this very discriminating crowd. I think that there are changes [within ISKCON]. I have heard this from different families. Things have improved in the ten years since I got involved in this field.
There still remains a problem though. I hear from a sampling of families who are unable to communicate with their loved ones. There are instances of people involved in ISKCON who are still of high school age, where the family's loved one, their son or daughter, shuts down communication and is being discouraged from opening up to any kind of real dialogue with their parents. Of course, not only is the family dealing with the foreignness of ISKCON culture, but also with a very different belief system. Yet, they are trying as best they can to understand what exactly is going on with their child.
What I have come to understand, and Radha and Anuttama can correct me if I am wrong, is that in ISKCON today we are not dealing with a monolithic authoritarian structure, but independent churches with leadership that is not entirely under one umbrella. This results in a continuing problem with some maybe renegade individuals who are running things their way—maybe it is the old style. So a mark, almost a scarlet letter, gets placed on the organization as a whole. I think it would be valuable if you provided some insight in helping us understand what are the differences in various temples, and how do people relate differently among them, for example, how they structure the education of a young person coming into the society.
Here is an example of some of the old behaviors that we encountered: A young person became involved with a temple. The parents wanted some time to talk and maybe have another person meet with them, just to meet and speak in an open way. The son or daughter was free to come and go, of course. The family was just requesting that they wanted their child to give a weekend before committing his or her life to the organization, to have some time together with people who put things out on the table. "We think these people can help us raise our concerns, and you can explain to us where you stand on the issues."
What happened next was that such young people were encouraged to leave the setting, go to the police, and tell the police, untruthfully, that they were held against their will. According to a young person in the group, this was done on the advice of people from the temple. These kinds of behaviors were going on.
So, if parents have legitimate concerns, if they are seeing behaviors that they cannot account for—not just the belief system, but problems with their children—especially in the younger people, how do we deal with that? Again, I have to say that in the last few years these concerns are not coming forward as much as they had in the five years previous, but they remain. So, how to deal with that? How can a family get that communication? Is there a facility or a system being set up for people to be able to deal with those concerns?
Other issues: From the top-down, how is the authority being policed? Is there a group of peers who can in any way control those "renegade gurus" within that setting? Or, if someone proclaims himself to be a guru, or has been given a position of guru, is there a peer who could say to him, "Look, you are getting out-of-hand"? Is there a system of checks that can be enforced within the temple system as it stands today? I think those are some of the remaining concerns, and I am sure that there are many more, but those are the ones that I have had to contend with in my work as an exit counselor.
Langone: One question that I have is: What do Radha and Anuttama think people in organizations like ours can do that would be more constructive from your viewpoint? I want to make a comment also, related to my talk yesterday morning. We were discussing four areas of concern that arise in regard to controversial groups: the psychological-harm issue, the ethics-of-influence issue, the social-harm issue and the theological issue. I want to reiterate to people here the importance of not mixing up those four elements. Do not, for example, accuse a group of unethical behavior or thought reform because you disapprove of it theologically or because you do not like its social customs. Disagree with it theologically, if you want, but do not unthinkingly slide into a negative mindset that tags all "bad" things on the group. Make your criticisms specific and base them on evidence.
I hope and I wish that the reform within ISKCON goes well, and that you succeed in bringing about the kinds of changes that have started. If ISKCON succeeds in changing, adapting, and establishing accountability mechanisms, it will become more or less mainstreamed, at least ethically, into US society.
ISKCON will always be somewhat deviant and alien because of the nature of the dress and so on. That is something that you will always carry with you, at least for the foreseeable future. Your theology is different too. Many parents, even if you change, might be upset just because of the theological differences. For example, if my son or daughter—in some future day when ISKCON has managed all these problems—shows an interest in ISKCON, I would be concerned. Not necessarily because they are bad people, or it is unethical or anything, but because I am not a Hindu. I would want my son or my daughter to get the best that I can offer, with what I know. And I would quite frankly seek some help. In that situation I would not go to a thought reform counselor. I would try to talk to someone who could represent Christian theology and who also knew the Hindu theology.
I say this to emphasize that there can be a theological disagreement and a theological concern without necessarily having concerns about thought reform, unethical behaviors, and psychological harm. One question then is: What would be your feeling towards a parent who is concerned about the theological aspect? How would you deal with the problem of having a prospective member, interested in ISKCON, who has a concerned family that wants to make sure their relative really makes an informed theological decision?
Radha Dasi: I think everyone should make an informed theological choice about anything they get involved with. Quite frankly, I think that ISKCON has suffered from the effects of people joining with misconceptions and misunderstandings, or joining for the wrong reasons—as much as the individuals themselves suffered.
I think there is a reason that there are different paths to the higher power. People have to find the path that works for them. If my son wanted to become a Presbyterian, I would be very much hurt and I would feel very much rejected. I would worry about his missing the wonderful family traditions that we have. I can see myself asking, "Are you not going to be there for our Janmastami celebration?"
At the same time, I go home to my mother's as often as I can, and we celebrate Thanksgiving together. I think that is just part of the family dynamic. There is always some give and take. Part of growing up is becoming an individual, separating from our parents, and making our own choices. Those should be informed choices, and as parents we have to learn to let go.
I am very intrigued by the question of what AFF has to offer ISKCON. I would be fascinated to have a model that I could take back to ISKCON, where we could test our members, and we could test our leaders, and we could identify what is a potentially abusive practice.
Margaret Singer talked about how women and the elderly are particularly vulnerable groups in society in general. This is also true in ISKCON. Being in a vulnerable group—as a woman of color, growing up in America—that issue resonates with me. One of the things that I have been doing is to try and encourage women in our movement who have suffered to go outside ISKCON for help, to go to a battered-women's shelter, or to go to a counselor for help. One of the fears they have is: "If I go there and they find out that I am a Hare Krishna devotee, they are going to reject me." There is a lot of fear behind that. I think you can help us to educate the public about who we really are. If you can help to educate the public and the therapeutic community about how to deal with Hare Krishna devotees, this will be of immense value to us. One of the biggest mistakes we could make would be to continue to be insular. I hope that this is the beginning of a process of us opening up.
Langone: If I could just comment briefly on your first question about how we evaluate abusive practices and enhance accountability—there is no simple answer to this question, and a lot more research is needed.
Abuse has two aspects: first, the ethical aspect—something unethical is done to a person; second, the psychological effect—how the person reacts to what is done (for example, depression, anxiety, anger, withdrawal). Moreover, personality differences can cause different people to react differently to the same unethical behavior. For example, negative psychological effects can result when unassertiveness prevents a person from exhibiting normal kinds of resistance to what most might see as mildly inappropriate or unethical pushing; that person may perceive it as extreme pushing. To try to give a short answer to the question, let me say simply that you need to evaluate common kinds of interpersonal behaviors, especially leader–subordinate behaviors, according to ethical standards and you need to be alert to the presence of emotional reactions that may result from unethical, abusive behaviors.
Anuttama Dasa: One of the things ISKCON has suffered from is that we expanded too fast. We are very proud that we expanded very fast, and there was a tremendous emphasis on quantitative growth. We measured our successes by how many books were distributed and so on; that is part of our mission. We are a missionary movement and we cannot deny it. But there was very little screening of new members, especially in the early days, and very little training. Now we are seeing the need to go back and make sure there is proper training. This is part of the answer to Joe's question about accountability.
Kelly: There is a history within your group—and I do not know if this is still continuing—of people dropping out of school. These might be quite talented individuals who could benefit the organization [if they completed their education], who end up locked into the system of a celibate monastic community. I am not saying that there is anything necessarily wrong with monastic life, but when people within your organization have some talent and they are not politically astute, do they have an opportunity to rise up and get the education or support they need from the community?
Anuttama Dasa: I think part of what shows up in the equation is a serious generational problem. Some of our young people who had attended our parochial schools and are now in their late twenties spoke to the leadership at an international meeting earlier this year. These were young men and women who unfortunately had suffered abuse as children. One young man said that for the older generation, their parents, ISKCON was the organization or philosophy that gave meaning, focus and purpose—it helped us deal with the excessive materialism all around us—whereas for many in his generation, ISKCON was seen as a source of pain, anxiety, and social pressure. It was very painful to hear these young people speak.
Langone: Some Catholic monastic orders will encourage people to go back, to go out into the world for a year to make sure they want the monastic life. Is there any consideration or action to develop that type of safeguard within ISKCON?
Anuttama Dasa: There is no structure like that yet.
Dubrow-Eichel: I am going to ask our panel a couple of questions here. What other provisions are being made now for those individuals who are full-time members of the temple? What provisions are there for medical insurance, medical care, and things like that?
Anuttama Dasa: Not as much as there should be. It varies from location to location. But it is becoming a bigger issue now that retirement is looming on the horizon for many. These are the kind of practical issues that now need to be addressed. It is definitely on the table, but there is nothing really systematically in place.
Dubrow-Eichel: Another series of questions involve your relationship with the leadership of ISKCON. How are you seen by other people, by other members of the GBC, for example?
Radha Dasi: I have always maintained somewhat more independence than many devotees. I have never lived in a communal setting. Even this year, when I was asked to become more involved in working with the temples on a legal basis, I came as an independent consultant. I do feel the need to maintain some distance. Part of my role is as an observer, as a mirror, and I think that the more I am dependent on a pay check or whatever, the less objective I can be. The North American Women's Ministry made the decision to separately incorporate as an independent non-profit corporation. We decided that we would maintain some autonomy, even though it meant we had to raise our own funds.
Dubrow-Eichel: Michael mentioned to me a year or so ago that what impressed him was that the initial "expose" of abuse in the gurukulas did not occur as a result of external investigations, although I am aware of the investigations that were done in Texas years ago. Nevertheless what I am saying is that ISKCON people began talking about this within ISKCON. This was something very internal.
There are a series of questions here. What is being done, what has been done, what is being done for those who have been abused? How were, and are perpetrators handled? If there are perpetrators in the future, how will they be handled? The whole issue is there, for example, of reporting to police. In Pennsylvania, if you are a registered clergy person you are mandated to report allegations of child abuse. You are mandated by law to report abuse to the Department of Human Services, or you can be criminally liable. So I am curious, as are a lot of people here, about those issues.
Anuttama Dasa: There is an increasing understanding of the problem of child abuse in the past, and the potential for it in the present. Just to highlight some of those steps: In 1990, the Governing Body passed a series of resolutions specifically mandating that any allegations or suspicions of child abuse have to be reported to the local authorities. Preliminary screening processes were put into place, as I mentioned earlier. Statistics now demonstrate that across the board for any group, the boarding school environment is a vulnerable one. The farther the kids are from their parents the more risk is involved. We learned the hard way on that one. Again, the traditional Indian model is generally to live in the gurukula, the school of the guru, away from home. But sometimes this does not work, and we found that out. At least it did not work for us.
In 1996, there was a meeting of North American temple leaders where ten former gurukula students were asked to speak. Many of them had spoken previously with leaders on an individual level, but this is the first time it had been done in an organized way. Nine of the ten were victims of various degrees of abuse. As a result of that meeting—which was an eye opening one for many people including myself—a group called "Children of Krishna" was established to collect funds and provide support for counseling, educational needs, college grants, and other programs. A task force was also set up about at that time which generated the ISKCON Office of Child Protection (OCP). That office is based in Florida and is professionally staffed and led by a Krishna devotee who has a Ph.D. in social work and has worked with the State of Florida for several years in the field of family and child issues.
The Office of Child Protection has three mandates: first, to assure the continued development of programs for protecting kids today; second, to help young people (specifically those who were abused) with grants; third, it has responsibility to investigate allegations of past abuse. The list of alleged perpetrators is far greater than we ever imagined. The OCP is going back to investigate those cases, and even where legal action cannot be taken—because of the passage of time or other reasons—to do its own investigation. It then determines what restrictions are placed on an alleged perpetrator's involvement with ISKCON. For example, one of the first OCP cases involved a Krishna devotee who sexually abused his stepdaughter and served time in jail. The OCP office investigated and determined that although this individual had "paid his dues to society" at large, we still choose to regulate his access to our temples. I don't remember all the exact restrictions, but this man is not allowed to visit temples unless he first notifies the local temple president. He cannot visit a temple if his former wife or stepdaughter is there or if they are active in that community. He can never hold an official position in ISKCON in the future; he can never give scriptural class, etc. So we are putting those types of things in place. I wish it had been done a lot earlier.
Dubrow-Eichel: I am not sure who this question was intended for but I think it is for anyone on the panel. There are individuals who were picketing outside this Conference that accuse AFF of promoting hate theories and things like that. What are your thoughts about that message versus what is happening in here?
Anuttama Dasa: I feel that there are legitimate critiques that this organization puts forth about human behavior in general. Religious groups or certain organizations, by their structure, by their theoretical basis, may be more vulnerable for excesses, abuses, mistakes, or whatever. I am a member of a religious tradition that has a great and legitimate history going back thousands of years in India. However, because of its being a new organization and because it demands a high degree of commitment, it has been vulnerable to abuses. It has ongoing issues that its international communities—which are sometimes relatively isolated—need to be more aware of. We need to understand what the potential problems are, so that the same mistakes that we made, primarily in America, are not repeated. There is beneficial information that you offer that we can learn from.
At the same time, I am absolutely convinced that the earlier critiques of ISKCON, as I understood them—which were based on the old model of a "dangerous cult" and which categorized ISKCON members as the victims of mind control or whatever because we wear strange dress, chant mantras, and are vegetarian—is wrong. It is also wrong if people in my organization say that anyone who criticizes us and says we are "cultic," is not worth listening to. I think the model that has been presented at this conference, that looks at a spectrum of human interaction from healthy to unhealthy, makes perfect sense, and any organization needs to be open to that.
David Clark mentioned yesterday on his panel that the current understanding of exit counseling has developed a higher degree of respect for the integrity and free choice of the individual. So, even within the paradigms that this organization is wrestling with, as far as group dynamics and undue influence, and in counseling people involved in questionable groups, there is room for improvement. I come in the spirit that ISKCON, as an organization, has a lot of room for improvement. There may be very useful information in some of the studies and the information that AFF presents. I do not accept it all, but we do agree on many things.
Kelly: I agree with so much of what you are saying, yet I am curious about what real influence you and Radha and others interested in reform are having on the GBC. Are they listening to you? Is there an openness in your community?
Radha Dasi: Well, there are a number of dynamics. I think there are definitely very, very, influential members in the GBC who are wholeheartedly behind these changes and, for example, speaking out on the women's issue. There are certain leaders who have opened the doors wide, who have traveled the world preaching to various congregations, and are really making an effort to see that changes are made. In addition, there are some institutional and cultural things that are happening that make change inevitable. For example, we have moved from the celibate-student-monk model to the independent-householder model. When you have your own family, your own house, and your own job, then inherently the ability of the guru, or the ability of the Temple President, to manipulate and control people is much less. Also, because the financial resources of the organization are less, the power of institutional leaders over individual members is less. We also have a manpower shortage in many places at this point. It is forcing management to say, "Look, we better treat our people well."
The problem is not, as you know, that we have so many people, or that we are getting so many recruits, and we are getting all of their money. It is not working that way anymore. So we are learning that we have to treat people well. We have to help them develop their skills and their abilities so that they can contribute. When young people come to me and say, "You are a role model and we would like your advice—what should I do about college?" I say, "Go!" I say get an advanced degree, get two advanced degrees. My son is so tired of hearing about career choices and going to college. I do not care what the traditional model of the group was. Things are changing. As a culture we are changing, as an institution we are changing. So I think the positive reforms are inevitable. The question is whether it is going to be a painful process of making those reforms, or whether it is going to be a more pleasant process, a more cooperative process.
Dubrow-Eichel: I want to make a couple of comments oriented toward the panel and toward the audience as a whole. I actually asked Michael if I could be a part of this panel when it was first proposed. I told him I would really enjoy doing this. I did not mention at the beginning of the introductions that my doctoral dissertation was both an observational and, with use of a quasi-experimental statistical approach, an intensive examination of a deprogramming, in 1984, of an ISKCON devotee. So, I had a personal fascination with this topic and with the idea of change.
Having been involved in the field of cultic studies I—along with a number of people, certainly Michael and Joe, and a lot of people in the audience—have seen that a tremendous amount of change has occurred within the critical community. I do not like using the term anti-cult because it denotes a monolithic structure that I have certainly not seen, not recently anyway. But certainly within the critical community, there has been a lot of change that has occurred over the years. The Exit Counseling Panel yesterday certainly brought that forth in a way that was, at least from my point of view, pretty open and honest about where things have gone as the progression from deprogramming to exit counseling to thought reform.
I am fascinated with the idea or notion that groups that have been criticized for being cultic, or abusive, can change. I think change is inevitable, but that does not mean that change is necessarily always positive. Change can certainly be negative, but change is inevitable. My hope is that this panel, and the questions and the answers and the dialogue that occurred here, will be a beginning. I hope no one will walk away from this panel thinking, yes, I now know what is going on within ISKCON, or within AFF; now I have made up my mind about AFF being this way and ISKCON being that way. I hope that we leave here with an increased interest in continuing dialogue and with perhaps a clearer understanding.
I have never known AFF to "certify a group as being cultic or non-cultic." I have found a lot of dissent over the years about where a particular group falls on a continuum of psychological or spiritual abuse. My guess is that there is going to be some additional dissent based on this panel. I really hope that there will be ongoing discussion. Speaking now very personally, just from my own set of values, I feel very strongly that change is an inevitable evolutionary process. I agree very strongly with what you said, Radha, about people needing to seek their path. I would even go beyond that and say that organizations and movements need to seek a path. No organization that I am aware of has ever gone along the path and not stumbled or been turned around in a direction that maybe later on they wish they had done differently. Thank you very much.
Dasi, Radha. (1998). Participation, Protection and Patriarchy: An International Model for the Role of Women in ISKCON. ISKCON Communications Journal, Vol. 6, No. 1.
Dasi, Radha. (1998). Fundamental Human Rights in ISKCON. ISKCON Communications Journal, Vol. 6, No. 2.
This article is reprinted with permission from ISKCON Communications Journal, Volume 7, Number 2, 1999, pages 41-52.