Prof. Shinn's article was delivered at the Vaishnava Academy
Conference, Wiesbaden, Germany, in January 1994. The purpose of
this paper was to address German concerns over reported problems
about ISKCON's development in America. In general the reports have
been exaggerated or ill-informed, and Prof. Shinn's contribution
provides us with objective and well researched information which
helps identify fact from fiction. This study is important for thosel
of us who are not so well informed about the problems experienced
in ISKCON's social development in the US.
I want to thank my hosts for inviting me to this conference and to thank all of you for coming. I would like to begin by telling you a little bit about who I am professionally and personally, and what brings me to this podium. My educational background includes undergraduate study in religion and history following which my wife and I spent a year in the Middle East teaching in Quaker Mission schools. I then returned to America to attend theological school at Drew University and was ordained as a Christian minister in the Methodist Church in 1970. I first encountered the religious literature of the Hare Krsna tradition during my doctoral study in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions of India and Asia, at Princeton University. I did my dissertation on a tenth-century Sanskrit text, Srimad Bhagavatam, which essentially is a collection of stories about the life of Krsna, and received my Ph.D. degree from Princeton University in 1972 as an historian of world religions. I subsequently taught courses on the religions of India for fourteen years at Oberlin College. During that time my scholarship focused primarily on the religious ideas and ritual practices of the Hindus in India, and in 1973 1 made the first of four research trips to India. There I deepened my understanding of how the religion centring around the Krsna tradition is actually practised in villages and cities by lay people engaged in a complex modern world.
In 1980 1 began research for a book on psychological theories of conversion under a fellowship at the Institute for the Advanced Study of Religion at the University of Chicago. After reviewing psychological literature on conversion, I decided to base my psychological studies of religious conversion in fieldwork among the Hare Krsnas in America. The fact that I had studied their traditions in India for more than a decade meant that I was familiar with the native traditions from which they had come. However I, like many lay persons and scholars, began my study with the belief that the Hare Krsnas would be a pale reflection of their parent tradition in India. In short, I shared many of the same stereotypes about their superficiality and non-traditional status that we still read in the newspapers today. What I found when I arrived in California for a three-week stay at two different Krsna temples startled my sensitivities and led me to redirect my religious conversion project to work on the Hare Krsna movement in America instead. This necessarily required studying the anti-cult response to the Krsnas and other such groups.
During the first four years of my research, I travelled and lived among fourteen different Krsna temples and farm communities in America and two in India. I interviewed more than 130 Krsna devotees for an average time of three hours each as I sought to understand how these young American people who came from all walks of life, all religious and non-religious backgrounds, had decided to convert to this Hindu tradition. I also read the literature of the Hare Krsnas, as well as that of their opponents. I interviewed some of the leading anti-cult opponents in America, including John Clark who, at that time, was travelling widely and who gave at least one talk in Germany warning about the cults, among which he included the Hare Krsna movement. I have conducted interviews at the American Family Foundation which, even today, along with the Cult Awareness Network, provides leadership in the anti-cult movement not only in America, but in Europe and elsewhere.
Given my background, I come to you today as one who has intimate knowledge of the Hare Krsnas' beliefs and practices and of the Indian traditions from which they come. My studies are grounded in four years of research and field studies that include living inside Krsna temples for more than three months and from a study of the anti-cult literature, as well as the professional psychological and sociological literature on the cults. As a Christian minister, I come as much concerned about the protection of our rights as religious people as I do one grounded in the academic issues associated with my study of the Hare Krsnas as an Indian religion. I do not pretend to know in any detail your experiences of the Hare Krsnas here in Germany. Rather, I have attempted to understand their missionary activities worldwide in the context of the world's religious traditions and the opposition to them as engendered by the anti-cult movement. The result was the publication of my book, The Dark Lord: Cult Images in the Hare Krsnas in America.
I have been an expert witness in four major cult trials in America involving the Krsnas and have spoken on dozens of television and radio programmes about my research findings. My willingness to testify in courts and to travel around the world to talk about what I found when I studied the Hare Krsna movement, stems from a deep sense that this movement has too quickly been lumped with the 'cults' in America and not accorded due respect for its religious authenticity. I usually accept no honorarium or fees for presentations such as these, although I do accept reimbursement for travel costs. I volunteer my time because I believe we who are grounded in mainstream religious traditions have something important at stake in the way in which we treat the more marginal religious movements in our culture, such as the Hare Krsnas. I believe that the real threat to those of us who are serious about our religious heritage and practice is not the so-called cults but, rather, those who would oppose them - and in a fundamental sense - oppose all deep religiosity, including our own. Let me begin then with some general. comments on what I have found during my research into the Hare Krsna movement in America. I have been asked to direct my comments to some of the mistakes they made, but I would like to put my remarks in context, lest you hear only the negative examples I will give.
The first thing that startled me during my three weeks of living inside Krsna temples in California in 1980 was the authenticity of the rituals and practices that I saw. As one enters the Hare Krsna temple in Berkeley, California, one immediately encounters the images, rituals and practices that are common throughout all of India among native Hare Krsna devotees. This particular tradition of the Krsnas stems from the sixteenth century Bengali Saint Caitanya. Although the Krsna tradition can trace its roots to the famous Indian scriptures, the Bhagavad-gita of the second century BC and through the tenth century text, the Srimad Bhagavatam, it was Caitanya who revitalised this popular devotional Hindu faith and began a period of renaissance in India not unlike that of Martin Luther here in Germany. In fact, the parallels between Caitanya and Luther are very interesting, especially when one considers they were contemporaries and, as far as we are aware, had no contact with each other.
The state of the Krsna faith in Eastern India at the time of Caitanya's birth was almost entirely monopolised by the Brahmin priesthood. The rituals were secretive; they all took place in the ancient Sanskrit language and the religious texts of Krsna were, for the most part, available to the average practitioner only through oral readings by priests. In a fashion similar to that of Martin Luther, Caitanya and his followers translated these scriptures into the vernacular languages of Hindi and Bengali. He argued that lay persons should take responsibility for their own religious faith and not leave it in the hands of the priesthood alone. Caitanya then went on to the streets to preach this popular form of Krsna piety. When you see the Hare Krsnas dancing and singing on street corners in London or New York, Bonn or Frankfurt, the songs they sing, the cymbals and drums they use and the theology they espouse, all originate with Caitanya in the sixteenth century Bengal. While such dress, songs and behaviour are conventional and widely present in India, they usually stand in stark contrast to the native dress and religious traditions of America or Germany. Consequently, the Hare Krsnas look like a radically new and different group on your streets and mine. Yet, they are traditionally Indian in their roots.
The second surprise that awaited me in my discovery of the Krsnas in America (known officially as the International Society for Krsna Consciousness or ISKCON) was the sincerity and piety of their founder, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Although he was reared in a traditional Hindu family, Prabhupada was educated in English Christian schools in Bengal. He became a pharmaceutical salesman and, sometimes, shop owner, but quite early in his adult life he became more and more immersed in the Krsna religious tradition of his native Bengal. At the age of fifty-nine he left his wife and family with his brother and entered into the monastic religious state of the Sannyasin. Prabhupada spent years in Krsna monasteries in Delhi and in the birthplace of Krsna called Vrindavan. He devoted hours each day to studying the Krsna scriptures and translating them into English. In 1965, at the age of nearly seventy, he was given passage on the Indian ship Jaladutta, fulfilling his own spiritual master's encouragement to come to America and preach the Krsna faith to the 'heathens'.
Arriving in New York City at the height of the counter-culture movement in America, Prabhupada attracted many young people in their late teens or early twenties who had been part of the drug and counter-culture movements in America. These roots explained some of the not-so-savoury behaviour of Krsna devotees even from their earliest times in the movement in America. However, the religious tradition Prabhupada brought to them was traditionally Hindu and Indian, and was modified only as you would expect a missionary venture to be. The second correction, therefore, that I had to make to my initial assumptions was that the founder of the Hare Krsnas was not, in fact, a greedy guru coming to America to spread a superficial version of his Indian faith for profit, like those I had already encountered in movements such as Transcendental Meditation and the Divine Light Mission in America. Prabhupada was a deeply pious and learned devotee of Krsna who was a missionary for his faith in America.
The third thing that caused me to correct my initial prejudices about the Krsnas was that those who joined the movement came through several modes of conversion and from many different backgrounds. Satsvarupa Dasa, who later was appointed as one of Prabhupada's guru successors, was one of the earliest devotees I met. He was in his late twenties when I met him in New York City. He had discovered the Krsnas as a result of a spiritual quest which was satisfied within this Indian tradition. In my research, I found quite a few previously Christian or Jewish youth who, as devotees, are sincerely religious persons. I also met other devotees who were running away from something or someone: an unsatisfactory university life, a broken relationship with a family member or a loved one, or just from the American material culture itself.† Many were attracted to the food of ISKCON, the reclusive life in its temples or the close family feel of its lifestyles. Most of the people in this group did not last very long in the movement, but some moved on to more devoted religious practice. Yet a third group of devotees were those who found a particular feature of this Hindu religion to be attractive. Some were drawn specifically to its intricate theology and philosophy. Each day within a Krsna temple the Sanskrit scriptures are read, expositions are given and chanting of the name of Krsna occurs. This creates for many devotees a sense of religious community that is appealing. Whatever their reasons for joining the Krsnas, for most of the devotees I interviewed it usually took approximately two years from the time of first contact before they became full-time devotees inside a Krsna temple.
My third misconception, therefore, was that, somehow, young people who joined the Hare Krsnas were transformed dramatically and quickly and by the same conversion methods. Unlike the Unification Church, or so-called Moonies, who have a very systematic mode of proselytising, the Krsnas attract disciples for many different reasons and they exhibit varying degrees of religious seriousness. Thus, in America, the vast majority of new devotees, perhaps as high as seventy to eighty percent, leave the temple they have joined after only a year of living inside. A lengthy chapter on the issues of conversion and brainwashing in The Dark Lord stems from hundreds of hours of interviews I have done with Krsna devotees and explains more fully these conclusions. What is clear to me is that so-called 'brainwashing' never has been, and is still not, in any way a useful description of the joining process for the many devotees I interviewed. Rather, there are many paths into ISKCON and the number of persons who become deeply devoted is a small percentage of those who initially join.
††††††† A fourth and final impression I got from my early studies of the Hare Krsna movement is how attractive and inclusive their lifestyle can be for devotees.† Although I was interviewing devotees some three to six years after the death of Prabhupada in 1977, and more than fifteen years after the movement was founded in America, I still found among many devotees an exuberace in virtually blind commitment to their new faith that ine funds among devotees to other new religious movements whether Christian, Islamic, Buddhist or Hindu.† New devotees all over the world exhibit the exuberance, and sometimes excess, of new initiates. As such they give the external appearance of being blindly committed when, in fact, they are in the midst of a deep personal transition that may never be completed. In my interviews I discovered that some of the devotees whose parents thought uncritically blinded by their new faith were, in fact, in a deep doubting process and ready to leave the movement. This understanding of the excitement, yet tenuousness, of a newly adopted faith explains the hyperactivity of some devotees in fund-raising, building new communities, setting up schools for their children and fighting their critics in the outside world. Many of the excesses that one can point to in the early years of ISKCON in America, and I expect to a great extent in Germany, came from young people who believed they have a vision of a better world and were often overly exuberant in trying to pursue this. In America it led to the development of an idealised Krsna parochial school system, the gurukulas, in places such as Dallas, Texas. Krsna devotee families sent their children to these schools so they might be educated in traditional Vaisnava teachings. The excesses practised by some devotees in trying to shape young children's lives brought criticism to such schools. Unhealthy child-rearing and sexual practices also resulted. While gurukulas still exist in parts of the Krsnas' world, there is a sober realisation that such idealised religious instruction is not easy to accomplish.
In a similar fashion, one of the most visible practices of the Krsnas in America and around the world, is the selling of their books in airports and on the streets of major cities. No activity in which the Krsnas have engaged has brought them greater criticism, often justifiable. In their early years, the Krsnas dressed in their typically Indian ochre robes and saris and quite often made nuisances of themselves as they urged travellers in airports or bus stations to take one of Prabhupada's or Caitanya's books and give a donation. The roots of this activity is quite ancient in India, where holy men often preach and expect donations or simply beg for alms door-to-door in cities and villages. The early notion of spreading the word of God or Krsna through book distribution was the means through which Prabhupada thought Krsna teachings would be spread throughout the world. At its best, this book distribution is a spiritual activity. However, Prabhupada also encouraged it as the primary economic activity for all Krsna temples. Unfortunately many questionable selling practices crept into this activity, known as sankirtan, or 'preaching'. 'Change-up' practices were common, as were attempts to misrepresent the literature or the use of the money. However, for the most part, the practice of book selling on the streets is, in the minds of the most serious Krsna devotees, a religious practice as well as an economic one.
The early failures in the Krsna schools and the negative public relations that came from their sankirtan practice have, from my point of view, a common source. What I discovered as I moved among the temples and farm communities of the Krsnas in America, was a deep commitment to a full-time religious lifestyle that many young people were not quite able to make. Again and again I saw the young people of the Krsna movement being asked to assume the serious monastic disciplines of celibacy and full-time religious practice, roles that are difficult for even the most mature religious practitioner to adopt. This meant that many devotees failed to live up to the Krsnas' teachings, and their failures were broadcast publicly by the media and anti-cult critics. This tendency was especially true among the eleven young gurus who were appointed to replace Prabhupada when he died in 1977. While the circumstances surrounding their appointment were controversial within the movement itself, their behaviour over the next ten years brought discredit to more than half of the eleven who were originally appointed. Improper sexual conduct, the use of hallucinogenic drugs, and excessive authoritarian attitudes that led to illegal and immoral behaviour, brought the downfall of six of the eleven of the original gurus.
Even as I carried out interviews of these young gurus between 1980 and 1985, I sensed that many would not succeed. One of the reasons I gave was that they were simply too young chronologically and spiritually to assume the ominous burden of providing organisational and spiritual leadership to a fledgling movement that found itself, in most cultures, in a hostile environment. Given recent events in the American Catholic Church, we are reminded of how difficult it is to fulfil the demands of the priestly spiritual life, even in long-established religious institutions. It is in this context that I present the first of two examples of how religious excess among enthusiastic young Krsna devotees led to widely criticised behaviour that has been used by the anti-cult movement as typical of all cults, including all Krsnas.
Perhaps some of you have read the negative media stories about the Krsna community in West Virginia called New Vrindavan, which was founded in 1968 on 130 acres of land just outside of Mountainsville, West Virginia. Prabhupada appointed a young man, Bhaktipada Dasa, to be the guardian of this estate. Prabhupada's initial plan was for Krsna devotees to have a traditional farm community which also could serve as a spiritual retreat. It was therefore named after Krsna's birth city in India, Vrindavan. Bhaktipada expanded this idea to include a temple city for Krsna, increasing the community's land holdings to more than 2,500 acres, and developing a community of more than 800 devotees over a fifteen-year period. The architectural centrepiece of this community was a palace, a traditionally designed Indian structure that was meant to be the retreat home for Prabhupada. Its ornate stained glass windows and unusual Indian architecture soon brought many tourists to New Vrindavan and with them, a source of income. It became a place of pilgrimage for many American and Indian Krsna devotees even though the late fall and early spring rains turned the community into a quagmire with remote farm buildings and a nearly impassable road to the palace.
After the death of Prabhupada, Bhaktipada increasingly saw the development of New Vrindavan as that of a spiritual Disneyland. Bringing in architects to design the seven temples that would sit on the hills of this rural community, Bhaktipada's ideas became more and more grandiose. When I first interviewed him in the winter of 1981, I was struck by the absolute zeal of this newly appointed guru to develop a spiritual showplace for ISKCON in America. One could see his father's Baptist roots in Bhaktipada as he interpreted Krsna texts quite liberally to suit his own institutional designs. Likewise, even at this time rumours abounded within ISKCON that some devotees in New Vrindavan were being asked to distribute drugs and engage in other illegal activities in order to raise funds for the expensive building projects Bhaktipada had in mind.
Each time I returned to New Vrindavan, in 1985 and again in 1989, I found a more and more isolated mind-set among Bhaktipada and his followers. The guru himself had been attacked with a lead pipe and nearly killed by an angry devotee during that period. Law enforcement officers had raided New Vrindavan and found a wide variety of sporting paraphernalia, such as baseball caps and tee shirts, that were illegal because of copyright violations; they confiscated truckloads of these items that would have been sold on the streets for profit. In 1986, a murder and conspiracy indictment was served against a former devotee who was still living on the outskirts of the community. The indictment also implicated Bhaktipada as a conspirator in the murder.
During my final visit to New Vrindavan, I was struck by the denial on the part of Bhaktipada and some of his chief lieutenants to all the charges of illegal conduct that were brought against them, even though some of them had been corroborated by legal prosecutions that had already established guilt. There was a certain arrogance and righteousness that came through the denials and pious statements by Bhaktipada that struck me as all too common in the history of religions, wherein religious leaders have been given so much autonomy and power that they lose sight of the very religious tradition they espouse. I was also struck during that visit by the absolute sincerity of the devotees in the community, most of whom had little to do with the illegal activities themselves. Consequently, even in New Vrindavan where a murder had occurred involving ex-devotees, illegal drug trafficking was documented and even the basic economic activities were tainted by illegal selling of trademarked goods, the vast majority of the devotees had little knowledge of the extent or seriousness of these activities. FBI and police reports, however, indicated that the community's leadership was engaged in activity antithetical to their faith, and one after another its devotees became disenchanted and moved to another Krsna community, reducing the number of resident devotees to fewer than 100.
The tragedy of New Vrindavan is not only that one of the Krsna gurus and some of his chief followers were led astray by the arrogance of power to illegal and immoral behaviour, but also that it became for many people in America a symbol of ISKCON itself. Even though Bhaktipada was formally excommunicated in March 1987, many Americans have been encouraged by the anti-cult movement in the media to believe that the illegal and immoral practices found in New Vrindavan are typical of all Krsna communities in America and elsewhere. Two newspaper reporters, John Hubner and Lindsey Gruson, wrote a book in 1988 called Monkey on a Stick: Murder, Madness and the Hare Krsnas, which was an exposť of the two murders that occurred in connection with the New Vrindavan community. The flyleaf of Monkey on a Stick says: 'As the old swami lay on his death bed, the seeds were sown that would destroy his legacy. As his followers clamoured to succeed him, the movement splintered, grew venal and belligerent. His death signalled the horrors to follow.' This book assumes throughout its pages that the two deaths connected to the New Vrindavan community were committed by Krsna devotees and sanctioned by ISKCON as well as the community's leaders. The book is, at best, a docu-drama which creates dialogue that was never recorded nor ever overheard but, rather, projected back into the mouths of the murder victims by the book's authors. While it has some factual material at its basis, the book is essentially a sensationalised exaggeration that, if taken seriously, would lead any reader to believe that the Krsnas throughout America condone murder and are violent to their very core.
The true picture of New Vrindavan's community has been distorted by the anti-cult movement of which the book is but one representation. The media events surrounding this Krsna farm also reveal the very heavy price the Krsnas had to pay when one of their more than fifty communities in America went awry. What I hope you will believe by the time I have finished speaking today is that this is an exception among the Hare Krsna communities and was excluded from their fold by the Krsnas themselves when they discovered the extent of the illegal and immoral conduct of Bhaktipada and some of his senior followers.
The second example of how some Krsna devotees' behaviour led to a lengthy lawsuit and much bad publicity, is the 'brainwashing' and kidnapping case of Robin George. Perhaps some of you have heard of this legal case, since anti-cult opponents of the Krsnas often use it as an example of 'brainwashing' activities. The facts are relatively straightforward, although the interpretation of them are not. Robin George was, by most standards of American culture, a normal teenager when she encountered the Hare Krsnas for the first time at the age of fifteen. She was reared by a Lutheran family who encouraged Robin to explore religious alternatives to be confident about her confirmation in the Lutheran church. Robin subsequently visited various Baptist and Catholic churches, and a Jewish synagogue. In July 1974, one of Robin's friends suggested that they visit a Hare Krsna temple near their home in Laguna Beach, California. This was her introduction to the Krsnas; but after her friend Caron, joined, Robin visited the Krsna temples on a regular basis. Marsha and Jim George, Robin's mother and father, became quite concerned about Robin's seeming acceptance of the Krsna religion that led to her chanting of the Krsna mantra or prayer and reading of their scriptures.
Four months after her first contact with the Krsna temple, Robin erected an altar to Krsna in her bedroom and rose early in the morning to chant the two thousand-year-old Krsna prayer she had been taught. Her parents became angry about her participation in this Hindu faith and tore down her altar and burned the Krsna books she had collected. The response of devotees in the nearby Laguna Beach temple was that her parents were demonic in their opposition to Krsna and that Robin should come and live in the temple if she wanted to practise her Krsna faith full-time. On 16 November, 1974, Robin took their advice, packed some of her belongings, climbed out through her bedroom window and fled to the Laguna Beach temple. The Krsnas subsequently took Robin to their temple in New Orleans, more than 2 000 miles away, to hide her from her parents. But after a persistent search by her father and extensive press coverage, the police found Robin and her father came and took her home to California.
The conflict between Robin and her parents increased after she was returned home. When Robin attempted to escape, fairly soon after her arrival, her father squirted her with a garden hose and wrestled her to the ground. Her parents took turns sleeping so that one of them was awake during the night to prevent Robin from escaping again. Finally, a long chain was attached to Robin's ankle and secured to the base of the toilet, allowing her to move freely in her bedroom and bathroom, but preventing her escape. Nonetheless, Robin planned her next escape from home with one of her friends inside the Krsna movement. She was then assisted in moving to the Krsna temple in Ottawa, Canada. Again, the frustrated Georges began a public relations campaign against the Krsna movement in Southern California. The Georges eventually learned of Robin's presence in the Ottawa temple and her father once again made a trip to try to retrieve his daughter. Robin escaped her father in mid-October, but by early November she had returned home to California, having been encouraged and assisted by the Krsnas to go home.
The aftermath of the experience of Robin George was twofold. First, her father died of a heart attack within a year. Although Jim George had a heart ailment for several years, Robin and her mother believed that his negative encounters with the Krsnas had hastened his death. Second, after Robin's return home, she and her mother became active in the anti-cult organisation known as the Citizens Freedom Foundation. In October, 1976, they spoke at one of the organisation's national conferences. In October, 1977, Robin and Marsha George filed a suit against the Hare Krsnas on the basis of false imprisonment of Robin, intentional infliction and emotional distress of Robin and Marsha, libel against her and her mother and the wrongful death of her father. I was an expert witness in this trial and offered more than four hours of testimony over a two-day period on the nature of conversion and brainwashing,and also on the issue of Robin joining ISKCON at such a young age. Although it was clear to me that the Krsnas had erred dramatically in concealing Robin from her parents, it was also apparent that she was not brainwashed into joining the movement. The charges of false imprisonment stemmed entirely from the claim that she was under the influence of mind control and had not made her own decision to join the movement. Nonetheless, the jury returned a verdict in favour of the Georges on all of their charges and instead of awarding Marsha and Robin George the $9 million the prosecuting attorney had originally asked for, the jury returned an award of $32 million in May 1984.
This case travelled through the appellate courts from 1984 to 1992. The verdict was reconsidered by the California Supreme Court, and finally by the United States Supreme Court itself. The charges of brainwashing and false imprisonment were overturned on the appellate level quite early in the proceedings. The extremity of the award was reduced from $32 million to approximately $4 million at the end of the appeal. In the fall of 1992, the Krsnas and the Georges settled out of court for considerably less than the $4 million that had finally been awarded.
What the Robin George case reveals is the extent to which the enthusiasm of the Krsnas led them to believe that they were above the law in their behaviour towards a minor. They were clearly wrong to hide Robin from her parents. However, the case also reveals the success of the anti-cult movement in promoting the theories of brainwashing. Margaret Singer, and other so-called experts, testified that Robin's 'decision to run away from home on 16 November was not a product of her own free will.' This brainwashing argument persists in Margaret Singer's testimony in other cases against the Moonies, the Hare Krsnas and other so-called cults. Although the courts have consistently denied this brainwashing theory, juries often initially decide in her favour. The Robin George case is one that the anti-cult movement has used not only in America, but also in Germany and elsewhere, to argue that the Hare Krsnas brainwash and steal the children of families against their will. While it is true that the Krsnas were guilty of exuberance in their desire to hide Robin George from her parents as the court records made clear, it is not the case that Robin George's joining of the Krsnas exemplifies the brainwashing of young children, as some critics would have us believe.
Both the New Vrindavan and Robin George cases reveal that the Krsnas in America have sometimes erred illegally and immorally in their economic, religious and other conduct. These excesses are just that, and are not typical of the hundreds of Hare Krsna devotees I have met nor of the dozens of their communities in America, Europe, India, and elsewhere. I would expect the history and experience of the Krsnas in Germany to be similar to that in America, reflecting behaviour borne of excess enthusiasm and a few misguided leaders. I would also suspect that most of the disciples who joined the movement in Germany did so for religious reasons and not out of psychological manipulation. Why then does much of the public in America and Germany believe that the Krsnas are a cult instead of a sixteenth-century Indian religious movement, and why is it that the extremes of their behaviour are considered to be the norm?
One answer that I have given appears in my essay, Religious Freedom and the Psychology of Fear: The Hare Krsnas on Trial, copies of which are here for those who are interested. In this essay, I try to show how the anti-cult movement in America and around the world has used the age-old technique of fear-mongering as a way not simply to discredit the Hare Krsna movement, but to attempt to eradicate it altogether. There are two basic assumptions upon which the anti-cult movement was based and from which they build their stereotypes. First, they insist that all cults are the same. For example, in all the anti-cult literature, Scientology, the Moonies, the Way International and the Hare Krsnas, are spoken of as though they were the same cult in spite of the real differences that exist among these groups. Here the technique of 'guilt by association' is used since all cults are considered to be virtually identical in effect and, hence, the mere naming of one group as 'a cult' thereby stigmatises it with the excesses of all the groups so named. Second, anti-cultists proclaimed that all cults are destructive psychologically and often physically as well. For example, groups like the American Family Foundation and Cult Awareness Network assert that brainwashing is a fact in all cult proselytising and† refuse to accept the scholarly studies of new religious movements that refute these claims.
Australian psychiatrist Michael Ross has shown in systematic and longitudinal studies of the Krsna devotees that they become more mature and well adjusted the longer they are in the movement. Nonetheless, anti-cult critics like John Clark and Margaret Singer insist that the daily chanting of Krsna's name is mentally debilitating and a form of brainwashing. It is these two basic assumptions - that all cults are the same and that they are all dangerous - that leads the media and legal and psychiatric institutions to believe that the excessive behaviour and mistakes of any one new religious movement can be associated with the Hare Krsnas or any other group named a cult. There is no defence a group can give to generalised charges that are based on imprecise fear involving words like 'cult' or 'brainwashing'. The words themselves carry the fear they intend.
Consider for a moment the extent to which the techniques of fear used in America to discredit the Hare Krsnas and other such marginal religious movements, may well be present in Germany now. In my essay on the psychology of fear, I compare the engendering of cult fear to the strategies of Senator McCarthy in the 1950s. The techniques he used to engender fear of communism are, in fact, emblematic of the techniques the anti-cult movement uses. The first technique is to assert guilt by association. I have made clear in my work that there is a whole spectrum along which cults fall in terms of their dangerousness. No one can doubt the danger and violence present at Jonestown or in Charles Manson's family or, most recently, in David Koresh's group in Waco, Texas. On the other hand, groups like the Moonies, the Hare Krsnas and Scientology are often painted with the same brush even though they are entirely different kinds of religious communities and have never engaged in the systematic violence identified with the dangerous cults. Yet, in the minds of anti-cultists one episode of violence in New Vrindavan among a renegade Krsna community links all communities of ISKCON to the violence of a Jonestown. Martha and James Ruden, in their book Prisons or Paradise, make the claim that all cults are essentially like Jonestown. My decade-long work among the Hare Krsnas, presented in The Dark Lord, makes clear the considerable differences between the various Krsna communities within ISKCON, not to mention the vast differences from other groups called 'cults'. If you were inside a Catholic monastery where a murder or child molestation occurred, how would you defend yourself from the charge that all Catholic monasteries are thereby dangerous? This is a challenge the Hare Krsnas and all cults face as they are lumped together as though they have a common theology, lifestyle and practice that make them equally dangerous.
A second technique of fear-mongering is to manipulate the media and, thereby, public opinion. As I have suggested earlier, with the release in 1988 of Hubner and Gruson's book Monkey on the Stick, all Hare Krsna communities around the world were painted with the brush of violence restricted to the one community of New Vrindavan. The leader of New Vrindavan was thrown out of ISKCON and is now in jail, due in part to the co-operation of other Krsnas who strongly disapproved of his behaviour. Nonetheless, for much of the media, and certainly for all the anti-cultists, Monkey on the Stick simply confirmed the Jonestown stereotype for all of ISKCON. Anti-cult writers like Singer and Clark have used this expose to confirm the public's fear that the Krsnas are as dangerous as Jim Jones' People's Temple. Likewise, the Robin George case has been used by many to confirm the stereotype that all cults brainwash their adherents and steal young children from their families. Never mind that this charge was dismissed at the very first appellate level. Never mind that 'brainwashing' as a legal and psychological category has been discredited in scholarly literature over a ten-year period. Even as a case of harbouring a minor, Robin George is very much an exception to the rule of most Krsna devotees who join in their late teens and early twenties. In one psychological study after another, Krsnas are described as rational and wilful people in their decision-making.
Dismissing contradictory and scholarly evidence by name-calling represents a third effective fear- mongering tactic. Scholars like Michael Ross, David Bromley, Stillson Judah and I have been attacked by the anti-cult antagonists as 'bleeding heart liberals' and 'first amendment flunkies'. Just as in the days of McCarthy's slander, the anti-cult media has attempted to suggest that anyone taking a more balanced view of the Krsnas or of any cult are, somehow, unthinking representatives of the movement and that our research should be discounted. There is considerable sociological, psychological and religious research done on individual new religious movements like the Hare Krsnas as well as on the phenomena of cult joining. I have just completed a ten-year review of all psychology, sociology and religious studies literature, including that on brainwashing, that has been published in America. The almost singular conclusion of the hundreds of scholarly articles and books written in this area is that the so-called cults are considerably different from each other, that their proselytising tactics are quite distinct and that persons join them for a wide variety of reasons, which in no case can be construed as brainwashing. Yet, the anti-cult movement again and again attempts to distort the findings of scholars and to dismiss the evidence that contradicts their fear-mongering tactics.
The fourth, and perhaps most insidious technique, has been the Big Lie. In their films, speeches, literature and books, anti-cultists like CAN have created a believable picture of how dangerous and deceptive cults are by combining groups and techniques into one generalised scenario. They use code words like 'authoritarian leader', 'mind control', 'brainwashing, 'false imprisonment' and 'violence' as hot words that they weave into a general narrative that closely approximates the story of Jonestown and is then applied to any group they call a 'cult'. The anti-cult Big Lie is a story that goes something like this: 'A greedy or power-hungry guru or his successor seduces new converts into a completely submissive faith and life by brainwashing them. The only avenue out of the cults for the members, therefore, is to deprogramme them and break the cult's spell'. This is the anti-cult thesis that I tested and found wanting again and again during my years of research into the Hare Krsna movement, as I measured it against the Krsna conversion stories I heard, the life I saw in the various temples and farm communities in which I lived and the religious faith I saw practised. Although I have lived inside the Krsna temples, have studied their literature and have carefully considered the claims of their antagonists for more than ten years, my credibility is drowned out by the words of the prosecuting attorney in the Robin George trial with his ringing proclamation that 'this decision (against the Krsnas) sends a message to all cults in this country.' The jury foreman simply drew all his fellow jurors back to the Big Lie that all cults are the same and are evil. It is this fearful and unsubstantiated Big Lie that is often believed by the media, the courts and the psychiatrists who deal with members of new religious movements like the Hare Krsnas.
I imagine many of you here have already seen some of the practices I have described. Newspaper articles about the Hare Krsnas will take true stories of the Krsnas' illegal or questionable activities, exaggerate them and then proclaim them to be typical of the movement's behaviour. Even as these Krsnas stand before you today acknowledging their exuberant excesses and misguided errors of the past, I suspect few of you know how deeply sincere most devotees are about their Krsna faith. The devotees in America have made significant mistakes and have paid dearly not simply in the courtrooms, but in the press and in the public's mind.
Today I urge you to take a balanced view of the Hare Krsna movement and recognise it as an authentic Hindu faith whose missionary branches in America and Europe have often revealed their immaturity, even as they exemplify adherence to its authenticity. What I know from my research in America and India is that the Hare Krsnas do represent a devotional religious tradition that the German theologian Rudolph Otto, almost a hundred years ago, called 'India's religion of grace.' While many of us in our Christian, Hindu, Buddhist or Jewish faiths often fall short in our behaviour of that which our scriptures demand of us, I would urge you to consider carefully the whole range of Krsna tradition and conduct. I am confident that if you are patient in your looking and listening, you will discover that many of these young people are now much more mature spiritually than they were some ten, fifteen or even twenty years ago.
Again and again I encounter devotees whom I met ten or twelve years ago, who now are much more confident in their faith and therefore less strident in their claims. This maturation is occurring throughout all of America where the numbers of Hare Krsnas are clearly reduced from that of fifteen years ago, and yet the depth and sincerity of their faith has actually increased. I suspect the Hare Krsna movement in America will always remain a marginal religious tradition in our predominantly Judeo-Christian context. However, I am also confident that those who have remained in the movement and those who are yet to come, will represent quite often the best of this faith as they engage in interreligious dialogue and accommodate themselves to life in America and here in Germany.
In a very real sense, the Krsnas are maturing throughout the world. You are seeing an example of that today as they stand before you acknowledging their errors, while appealing for your understanding. Would that all of us, whatever our religious or ideological faith, be willing to examine our behaviour and to acknowledge our faults as publicly and openly. This very conference, I would submit, is a clear indication that the Hare Krsnas in Germany are coming of age.
Delivered as a lecture at the 'Twenty-five years of ISKCON in
Germany' Conference in Wiesbaden, Germany,
29 January 1994, organised by the Vaisnava
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