Rochford, Jr. with Jennifer Heinlein
NB. The footnotes for this article are linked to
a separate footnote page.
All these boys must be taken care of very nicely.
They are the future hope. (Prabhupada letter, July, 1974, in
These kids were growing up and seriously leaving
[ISKCON]. Not a little bit leaving. Not leaving and being favourable,
still chanting and living outside. Nothing like that. They were
leaving. And suddenly it was like 'What happened?' And then
it started to be revealed that the kids were molested. (Long-time
ISKCON teacher, interview 1990)1
Religion and child abuse, ' "perfect together" . . .and
mutually attractive.' So concludes Donald Capps in his 1992 presidential
address to members of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.
Mutually attractive in spite of the fact that religion has often
vigorously defended the rights of children, including condemning
child abuse and neglect (Capps 1992; Costin et al. 1996:47). Yet
research on child abuse suggests that religious beliefs can foster,
encourage, and justify the abuse of children (Capps 1992; Ellison
and Sherkat 1993; Greven 1990; Jenkins 1996). Moreover, church structures
may provide opportunities for abusive clergy (Krebs 1998; Shupe
This paper deals with how children in a religious organisation
were abused physically, psychologically and sexually by people responsible
for their care and well being. My purpose is to describe the problem
as it existed within the International Society for Krishna Consciousness
(ISKCON), more popularly known as the Hare Krishna movement. This
discussion of child abuse within ISKCON is a historical one.2
I consider child abuse and neglect within the context of ISKCON's
boarding schools-or ashram-based gurukulas- as they existed
from 1972 until the mid-1980s. I develop a sociologically informed
framework to understand how and why child abuse and neglect took
place. Thus my attempt is not concerned with identifying or explaining
the 'causes' of child abuse by focusing on the abuser per se. Rather
attention is given to a variety of organisational factors that fostered,
and indeed created opportunities for child abuse to occur within
I argue that child abuse must be understood within the
broader context of ISKCON's development as a religious organisation.
The expansion of marriage and family life has defined ISKCON's transition
from a communally-organised sectarian movement, to one characterised
by a loosely organised congregation of financially independent householders
and their children (Rochford 1995a, 1995b, 1997). As the number
of marriages and children began to grow in the mid-1970s, householder
life was redefined by ISKCON's renunciate elite as a symbol of spiritual
weakness. As a stigmatised and politically marginal group, householders
were left powerless to assert their parental authority over the
lives of their children. Children were abused in part because they
were not valued by leaders, and even, very often, by their own parents
who accepted theological and other justifications offered by the
leadership for remaining uninvolved in the lives of their children.
In recent years, child abuse has played an influential
role in the ongoing politic surrounding the authority and legitimacy
of ISKCON's leadership. For many ISKCON members, and devotees marginal
to or outside of the organisation, child abuse stands as a powerful
symbol of the failure of ISKCON's traditionalist, communal, hierarchical
(that is, sectarian) form of social organisation. Child abuse has
come to represent a fundamental betrayal of trust, not only for
abused children and their parents but also for the membership more
generally. (Also, see Rochford 1998a on leader misconduct and changing
sources of religious authority within ISKCON.)
It is important to make clear from the start that no
one knows how many of ISKCON's children were abused in the gurukula.
It is also the case that ISKCON's gurukulas did not uniformly
experience problems of child abuse. Finally, the virtual collapse
of these institutions in North America and world-wide in favour
of community day-schools, has all but eliminated the context of
abuse considered here.3
Before turning to the substantive issues raised above,
I first want to build a broader context for my discussion. One only
has to pick up the local newspaper to realise that child abuse occurs
all too frequently in the communities in which we live. Moreover,
while we might assume that religious life would remain immune to
the tragedy of child abuse, the facts suggest otherwise. Various
religious groups-conventional and unconventional alike-have been
shaken by allegations of child abuse, especially sexual misconduct
on the part of church authorities (Jenkins 1996:50-52; Palmer 1997;
Shupe 1995, 1998).
Defining the problem of child abuse
Reported cases of child abuse and neglect have been on the rise
in the USA in recent years (Costin et al., 1996:136-7; Daro 1988).4
More than a million young people suffer abuse and mistreatment annually
(Daro 1988:13; US Bureau of the Census 1997:218). The American Association
for Protecting Children found that 1.7 million children suffered
neglect or abuse in 1984, an increase of 156% since 1976, the first
year this agency began collecting data on child abuse (Daro 1988:13).
5 In 1995, there were just under two million reported cases
of child abuse involving 2.95 million children in the United States.
After investigation by State child protective services, evidence
suggests that 1 million children were abused or neglected (US Bureau
of the Census 1997:219). Because many cases of child abuse go unreported,
the actual number of abused children may well be substantially higher
Although overall rates remain high, the prevalence of
various types of child abuse and neglect appear to be changing.
Physical abuse has decreased while sexual abuse has expanded as
a proportion of the total percentage of reported cases of child
abuse (Costin et al. 1996:138). The latter trend may be changing
however as the percentage of substantiated cases of child
sexual abuse actually declined between 1990 and 1995 (US Bureau
of the Census 1997:218). A majority of parents in the USA continue
to use physical punishment, however, and the percentage of parents
favouring corporal punishment declined only slightly during the
1970s and 1980s (Straus and Gelles 1986; Straus 1994:23-24).6
While child abuse is no doubt present within any community in the
USA, it can also be found within a variety of religious groups and
denominations-perhaps especially among those adhering to a Judaic-Christian
tradition. Both the Old and the New Testaments recommend the use
of physical punishment on the part of parents to help tame the will
of a child (Ellison and Sherkat 1993; Greven 1991). Such intervention
is mandated because all persons are believed to be born sinful (that
is, displaying ego-centrism and selfishness). Parents thus face
the responsibility of 'shaping the will' of their children to ensure
they become right with God. Biblical passages giving legitimisation
to physical punishment of children are many. Among the most commonly
cited are: 'He that spareth the rod hateth his son; but he that
loveth him chaseneth him betimes.' 'Withhold no correction from
the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die.
Thou shall beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from
hell' (Proverbs 13:24 and 23:13-14, respectively, quoted in Bottoms
et al. 1995:87). Accordingly, parents who subscribe to a doctrine
of biblical literalism-such as conservative Protestants- are especially
prone to using physical punishment as a form of discipline (Ellison
and Sherkat 1993). Corporal punishment is viewed both as a necessary
and legitimate means to combat the sinfulness of a child, while
simultaneously re-enforcing parental (that is, patriarchal) authority.
Apart from encouraging and justifying corporal punishment,
religious ideas have also been used by parents and religious institutions
alike to 'cause emotional pain' by tormenting children through the
excessive use of shame and fear (Capps 1992:7-9). The latter researcher
concludes that 'religious ideas might be as abusive as physical
punishment for children' (1992:8).7
When the average person reflects on child abuse and
religion today he or she is likely to identify sexual misconduct
by religious officials, particularly on the part of Catholic priests
(Berry 1992; Jenkins 1996, 1998). This is largely because sexual
misconduct by Catholic priests has received widespread media coverage
in the USA and world-wide (for a review, see Jenkins 1996:53-76,
1998). Yet, child sexual abuse by clergy is hardly limited to Catholicism
(Isely and Isely 1990). The most often quoted survey dealing with
sexual problems among Protestant clergy found that 10 percent were
involved in sexual misconduct of one sort or another, and that 'about
two to three percent' were paedophiles (Rediger 1990:55, quoted
in Jenkins 1996). This rate is equal to or perhaps even slightly
higher than for Catholic priests (Jenkins 1996:50).8
While the sexual abuse of children is troubling, it
becomes doubly so when religious figures are involved. After all,
clergy are viewed in most religious traditions as God's ordained
representatives, this comprising the very basis of their religious
authority. In cases of clergy sexual abuse, religious authority
is directly or indirectly used to exploit children, and to cover
it up. Clergy who sexually abuse children are often able to escape
disclosure, because their status as religious figures shields them
from accusations of abuse (Barry 1992; Bottoms et al. 1995). Allegations
made by a child concerning clergy sexual misconduct are likely to
be ignored, or dismissed as fabrication by parents and other adults
(see for example, Barry 1992). Clergy sexual abuse of children,
in significant respects, parallels familial incest because it is
'often characterised by the same guilt, betrayal of trust, and shame
. . .' (Bottoms et al. 1995:90; also see Blanchard 1991:239-240).
It is thus hardly surprising to find allegations of clergy sexual
misconduct being made by adults victimised as children.
As one might expect, sexual abuse by religious authorities
is especially damaging to victims. One study concluded that abuse
by religious authorities 'is as psychologically damaging, and perhaps
more damaging, than even the violently physical abuses of
parents whose religious beliefs led them to view their children
as evil incarnate' (Bottoms et al. 1995:100). Children molested
by religious authorities often suffer from depression, suicidal
ideation and affective disorders (Bottoms et al. 1995:99). Moreover,
it is not uncommon for those sexually abused by clergy to change
religions, or more likely still, to repudiate religion altogether
(Bottoms et al. 1995:99). Such an outcome appears even more likely
when clergy sexual misconduct is hidden or otherwise covered-up
by the church hierarchy. 9
Child abuse within ISKCON schools
Unlike most instances of child abuse that occur in the home,
ISKCON's children were abused and neglected within the confines
of the movement's schools, by unrelated adults and older children
acting on a teacher's behalf. During these formative years of ISKCON's
development, the movement's children were educated in boarding schools,
living more or less separate lives from their parents. It was here
that some of ISKCON's children were physically, psychologically,
and sexually abused.10
As Prabhupada saw the public school system in America
as indoctrinating 'children in sense gratification and mental speculation,
he referred to the schools as "slaughterhouses"'(J. Goswami
1984:1). By contrast, the gurukula, as he envisioned it,
was specifically meant to train students in spiritual life, so that
they could return back to Godhead. Given that the fundamental goal
of the gurukula was to train students in sense control, children
were removed from their family as early as age four or five years.
Prabhupada believed little hope existed for a child to learn self-control
within the nuclear family because of the 'ropes of affection' between
parent and child. Children thus attended the gurukula on
a year-round basis, with occasional vacations to visit with parents.
They resided in ashrams with children of similar age and
sex. Ashrams varied in size and the number of children they
took in. In 1979 there were 6-8 students living in each of the boys
ashrams in Los Angeles. Reports indicate that in other gurukulas
the number of students residing in an ashram ranged as high
as 20 or more. An adult teacher lived in the ashram and took
responsibility for supervising the children, and tending to their
day-to-day needs (Rochford 1997).
ISKCON's first formal gurukula was established
in Dallas, Texas, in 1971. The Dallas gurukula remained the
only school of its type within the movement, until 1976, when it
was forced to close by state authorities. At the time of its closing
the school had approximately 100 students, the majority of whom
were between the ages of four and eight. With the impending demise
of the Dallas school, gurukulas were established in Los Angeles
and at New Vrindaban in 1975. In 1976, the Bhaktivedanta Swami International
Gurukula began accepting adolescent boys as students in Vrindavan,
India.11 Between 1975 and
1978 a total of 11 ISKCON schools opened in the North America. Gurukulas
also started in France, Australia, South Africa, England and Sweden,
in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Regional schools appeared in
Lake Huntington, New York, and central California (Bhaktivedanta
Village), in 1980 and 1981 respectively (Das, M. 1998).
As the last two regionally based ashram-gurukulas
closed in North America by 1986, ISKCON schools became almost exclusively
day-schools. The only exception in North America today is the Vaisnava
Academy for Girls located in Alachua, Florida, for high school aged
women. The school has both day-students and students living full-time
in the ashram.12 World-wide
only the Vrindavan and Mayapur, India, schools remain ashram-only
gurukulas. A sizeable majority of ISKCON's children in North
America presently attend state-supported schools (Rochford 1997,
forthcoming), a trend found in a number of other countries as well.
Reports by second generation youth, parents and educators
alike suggest that a proportion of the children who attended the
gurukula suffered psychological, physical and sexual abuse.
Yet it remains unclear just how many children were abused directly,
or otherwise witnessed their friends and classmates being abused.
The latter represents a form of psychological abuse in its own right.
Lacking reliable quantitative findings, it becomes extremely
difficult to determine with any degree of precision what the actual
incidence of child abuse was within ISKCON's gurukulas. Unfortunately,
we are left to estimates of uncertain quality. Over the years any
number of estimates have been offered ranging from 20% of all students
who attended an ashram-gurukula suffering some form of abuse,
to as many as 75% of the boys enrolled at the Vrindavan, India,
gurukula having been sexually molested during the late 1970s
and early 1980s. Whatever the actual incidence of child abuse, it
remains clear that abuse directly and indirectly influenced the
lives of a sizeable number of children. Yet, child abuse did not
occur uniformly, either across gurukulas, or, very often,
even within the same school. As one long-time teacher concluded,
child abuse . . . wasn't all-pervasive. It wasn't in all gurukulas.
It didn't affect all children. But it was in enough schools and
affected enough children and it went on for enough time . . .
Abuse and neglect within the gurukula took a variety of
forms. The following statements from young adults and former gurukula
students indicate the kinds of abuse that occurred.
. . . I remember dark closets filled with flying dates
(large three inch, flying cockroaches) and such, while beatings
and 'no prasadam' for dinner became everyday affairs. (Devi
Dasi, K. 1990:1)
Seattle was hell because I was only six years old, my mom lived
in Hawaii and I had always been a very shy mommy's girl. The movement
was in its earlier stages and the devotees were fanatical-beyond
fanatical. I mean, they would give us a bowl of hot milk at night,
so I would, of course, pee in my bed. Then as punishment they
would spank me very hard and make me wear the contaminated panties
on my head. In general, at that time, because I was so young,
I was so spaced out and confused. I would cry. . .for my mom,
but that wasn't allowed, so I would say I was crying in devotional
ecstasy. I really regret Seattle because I had a dire need for
my mother's warmth and reassurance at that time in my life. (Second
Generation Survey 1992)
The teacher use to say, 'Oh, you don't know when you are going
to die. You could die in your sleep.' And one day I was really
bad and one of my teachers said, 'Who knows you might die tonight.
Krishna might be punishing you. He might be taking away your life
. . .' And from that night on I use to pray every night, 'Krishna
please don't kill me. I promise I will be a good girl tomorrow.
Please let me get fixed up enough so I can go back to Godhead.
Don't take me in my sleep.' And for years I had insomnia. I was
too afraid to go back to sleep. (Interview 1991)14
Two young men recount their days as students in the Vrindavan,
India, gurukula during the early 1980s.
X: I wasn't afraid of being sexually molested. I don't
think I was afraid of being mentally abused either. I was definitely
afraid of being physically abused . . . Sexual molestation, all
of us, man, we'd just take it, you know. . . That's what we all
felt. We didn't even consider it abuse back then.
XX: Yeah, that was just normal. . .The ironic thing about
that, though, is probably the mental thing [abuse] was probably
the longest lasting.
X: There was no way to escape that. (Group Interview 1993)
As word of child abuse within the gurukula came to the attention
of ISKCON authorities, some efforts were made to intervene. Yet
this very intervention sometimes resulted in new strategies of coercive
abuse. Most significant was enlisting older boys in the Vrindavan
gurukula to physically abuse younger students who were deemed
troublesome and unruly by teachers.
X: The other thing was that older boys acting in the capacity
of monitors were used to abuse the younger students. Some started
to realise that 'Hey, teachers can't be beating kids.' They did
it in a new way.
EBR: With the monitors.
X: Yeah. Which was the older boys beating the younger boys,
and I was one of the older ones . . .and they [teachers] would
call me in on occasion and I would just have to knock the living
s--- [out of a younger student] . . . I'd be sitting there going
'Man, I love you. I don't want to be doing this. . .' [I]t's like,'
what are you gonna do? If I don't do it to you, they're gonna
do it to me.'
XX: That's another kind of mental abuse. (Group Interview,
While a porportion of ISKCON's children were themselves abused,
others experienced the abuse as they watched their friends and classmates
being mistreated by teachers and others responsible for their care.
If the teachers treated one of our friends bad then we all felt
bad. I remember there was one teacher that use to grab one of
us by the ears and bang us against the wall. And we all stood
there and watched and felt really bad. . . She [the teacher] was
doing it to all of us. (Interview 1992)
Maybe what [name of ashram teacher] was doing to [name
of student] was hurting others [students] more than him. For [name
of student] it was an everyday thing. I was standing right next
to [him] and I was crying. I was freaked out. I was afraid I was
gonna be next because I knew he was gettin' it for no reason.
If he could get it for no reason so could I. (Group interview
In the school in Vrindavan, India, abusive treatment became so
commonplace that students sought to routinise their mistreatment
as a protective strategy.
It was like boot camp, but it wasn't temporary. You became part
of a unit. Boot camp was a full-time thing for us. They're just
constantly knocking you down, knocking you down. . . lower, lower,
lower. What are they gonna do? Beat me again? Go ahead. (Laughter).
Big deal! (Group interview 1993)
But beyond the question of young people being abused by adults
working in the gurukula
15 was the general environment of neglect that existed. Without
parents present, many felt abandoned, or as one second generation
youth remarked, 'We were just unwanted.' Many of the young people
interviewed described the atmosphere in the gurukula as one
lacking in love and compassion. They felt invisible, abandoned and
unworthy of love and affection from both their parents and adult
Accounting for child abuse
In this section, I explore a number of factors that combined
to create a context conducive to child abuse within the gurukula
during the 1970s and 1980s. The first of these is somewhat different
from the others because it defines the broader milieu in which parents
and children lived within ISKCON's communities. Put simply, marriage
and family life came to symbolise spiritual failure, and children
a sexual product of that failure. Following this discussion, I then
consider three specific factors which fostered child abuse and neglect:
(1) Sankirtan and competing demands on parents; (2) Lack
of institutional support for the gurukula; and, (3) Exclusion
of parents from the gurukula and, thereby, from the everyday
lives of their children.17
I end this section by considering how some children were able to
Attitudes Toward Marriage, Family Life, and Children
ISKCON scholar and leader Ravindra Svarupa dasa argues that
marriage and family life were viewed favourably during ISKCON's
early days. As he states, 'When I joined ISKCON  it was assumed
that everyone would become married, and indeed devotees were urged
to do so' (1994:9). But this view changed after Prabhupada became
increasingly discouraged by the marital problems encountered by
his disciples. In a 1972 letter he wrote 'I am so much disgusted
with this troublesome business of marriage, because nearly every
day I receive some complaint from husband or wife. . .so henceforth
I am not sanctioning any more marriages . . .' (Prabhupada 1992:866).18
As Prabhupada withdrew from 'the troublesome business of marriage,'
local Temple Presidents and other ISKCON authorities (that is, regional
secretaries, GBC representatives) assumed the responsibility for
arranging marriages and otherwise dealing with the problems and
needs of householders. The result was married life underwent a fundamental
transformation in meaning and value within ISKCON.
Marriage came to represent a sign of spiritual weakness, a concession
for those too weak to control their sexual desires. Such a view
applied differently to men and women however. The ideal for a man
was to maintain a life of renunciation, avoiding marriage if at
all possible. Spiritual and material fulfilment for women by contrast
was defined in terms of marriage and family life (Rochford 1997).
Given the prevalence of these ideas, women became threats to a man's
The changed atmosphere surrounding marriage and family life turned
contentious by the mid-1970s as renunciate leaders undertook a preaching
campaign against householder life and women. As Ravindra Svarupa
dasa suggests, this brought about growing conflict and factionalism
Some of these sannyasis embarked on preaching campaigns
against householders and even more so against women, whose life
in the movement at this time became extremely trying. Feelings
grew so heated that in 1976, a clash between householder temple
presidents in North America and a powerful association of peripatetic
sannyasis and brahmacaris escalated into a conflict
so major that Srila Prabhupada called it a 'fratricidal war' (1994:9).
Despite the ongoing denigration of marriage and family life and
the corresponding loss of status accorded householders, most devotees
ultimately married. By 1980, there appears to have been about an
equal number of married and unmarried devotees residing within ISKCON's
North American communities. About one-quarter had children (Rochford
1997). Conversely, a survey in 1991-92 (N=268) revealed that a sizeable
majority of ISKCON's North American membership were married, or
previously married. Only 15% had never been married. Family life
also expanded with a substantial majority (70%) of those surveyed
in 1991-92 having one or more children.19
By the onset of the 1990s, ISKCON had become a householder's movement
in North America (Rochford 1997), and increasingly world-wide (Rochford
Even with the rapid expansion of marriage and family life, anti-householder
attitudes changed little organisationally.20
Householder life remained a 'dark-well' spiritually. Many parents
who accepted the leadership's ideas about marriage and family sought
to counteract their lowly status by placing their commitment to
ISKCON and Krishna Consciousness above their family obligations.
This presented a burden of considerable proportions for both parents
and their children. One second generation woman suggests just how
difficult this proved to be for her own mother.
But sometimes I would look at her and I could see her being torn
apart inside. I could see how she yearned to be a mother once
again; sewing by the fire, cooking our dinners, and helping us
with our hard days at school, and at the same time trying her
hardest to please the Guru and the community by showing her detachment
to her family. (My emphasis; Devi Dasi, K. 1990:14)
As householder life became disparaged children too were defined
and redefined in ways that undermined their status, and ultimately
the care they received within the gurukula. Up until the
early 1980s, children born within ISKCON were commonly portrayed
as being spiritually pure. After all, it was believed that their
souls had progressed spiritually to the point where they had gained
the good fortune of taking birth in a devotee family. Yet this view
changed by the mid-1980s as some leaders complained that ISKCON's
children were turning out to be little more than 'karmis' (that
is, non-religious outsiders), and, therefore, gurukula had
failed in its mission to produce spiritually advanced children.
Both of these frameworks, I want to argue, became justifications
used by the leadership to dismiss the gurukula, the children, and
their responsibility toward both.21
As two long-time ISKCON teachers recount,
They [leadership] put a lot of energy into making new devotees
from outside the community. But you didn't have to put any energy
into making children into devotees, or so they thought . . . And
I think there was a lot of misconception about how Prabhupada
thought the children [were] conceived. They thought that if the
children were conceived properly then it was a cinch. And that
makes no sense at all. I compare it to going through a store and
buying good seeds and then you don't plant them, you don't water
them, you just throw them around . . . So many things that we
assumed, that we never sat down and analysed. We just took it
for granted; That the children were born into the movement, and
particularly if they were conceived properly of chanting five
hours of Hare Krishna. Does that make sense? It never made sense
to me. I always assumed that we would train the children, that
we could never take their Krishna Consciousness, or their character,
or anything for granted. (Interview 1990)
And everyone just thought that you send them away to the gurukula
and when they came back they were going to be like Prahlada Maharaja
[a spiritually-realised child devotee of Krishna]. They were going
to be chanting japa. They were going to be shaved-up. They
were going to be distributing books. They were going to be nice
little chaste wives, rolling chapatis. (Interview 1997)
Yet, by the mid-1980s, as the children were growing into teenagers,
understandings of the second generation and the gurukula
began to change. To the surprise of many leaders and parents alike,
the children raised in the gurukula were less than pure spiritually.
Few were committed to a life of renunciation and full-time involvement
in ISKCON (Rochford forthcoming). As a result, some leaders openly
challenged the need for the gurukula altogether. Economic
decline, as I discuss below, made this view all the more attractive
to some leaders.
But they [the leaders] did not go back and become introspective
and say 'Well, we should have been taking care of these things.
Let's get it together now. We made a mistake, whether an honest
mistake or not. Let's now provide an excellent education for the
children. Let's rebuild the community's faith in ISKCON.' They
didn't do that. They took (laugh) the opposite track. Instead
of saying 'the kids are going to turn out good no matter what,'
now they were saying 'things are going to turn out bad no matter
what you do.' The leaders' position was, 'No, we did everything
right. We did what Prabhupada said. We had ashrams. We
had these nice schools. These wonderful schools. And everything
went bad anyway. So why should we put a lot of energy into it
[the gurukula]. We're just kidding ourselves. Right.' (Interview,
ISKCON teacher 1990)
But these two very different frameworks for constructing ISKCON's
children functionally served the same purpose. In the first instance
leaders saw no reason to invest resources in the gurukula
because it couldn't fail, given the elevated spiritual status of
the children. The second framework, precisely because it emphasised
failure, rather than success, likewise rejected the need to maintain
a viable system of education. As I argue in the next section, however,
the gurukula did serve a crucial function for ISKCON, one
that ultimately had little to do with educating and socialising
ISKCON's next generation.
Sankirtan and the Gurukula
Although ISKCON's sannyasi leadership believed that a
loss in standing would discourage marriage, as we have seen, the
solid majority of ISKCON's membership married, and most had children.
The growth of marriage and family represented a significant threat
to sankirtan, and thereby to ISKCON itself.22
Sankirtan served ISKCON's mission in two respects. First,
it represented the principle means by which the movement proselytised
its Krishna conscious beliefs. In fact, Prabhupada continually emphasised
that book distribution represented the means to spread Krishna
Consciousness in America and world-wide. Secondly, and of equal
importance, sankirtan supported ISKCON's communities financially.
Without a work force of dedicated sankirtan devotees, ISKCON's
missionary goals and financial stability were placed in jeopardy.
The solution rested with the gurukula because it relieved
parents of the burdens of childcare, thus affording them the opportunity
to work full-time sankirtan. Put differently, the gurukula
allowed ISKCON's leaders to reclaim householders for sankirtan,
a move that only grew in importance as ISKCON's North American communities
faced deepening economic decline by the late 1970s (Rochford 1985,
1995c). As one parent described,
We got the children, the bothersome children from the leader's
perspective, we got them out of the way by putting them in the
gurukula. Now the adults could do some work. Go out on
sankirtan. This was a very present issue, freeing up the
parents. (Interview 1990)
To a leadership concerned primarily with distributing Prabhupada's
books and raising funds, the gurukula communalised child
care, thus freeing parents to work on behalf of ISKCON and its mission.
Not surprisingly, many of the young people who attended the gurukula
during this period saw ISKCON's schools in precisely these terms.
I did feel that my mom used the gurukula as a convenience
for not keeping me around. My mother later told me her authorities
strongly encouraged her to put us there so we would not hinder
her sankirtan service. (Second Generation Survey 1992)
Findings from my 1992-93 Second Generation Survey in North America
make this point more forcefully. Nearly two-thirds (63%) of those
surveyed (N=87) agreed with the statement, 'The ashram gurukula
primarily served the interests of parents and ISKCON, rather than
the spiritual and academic needs of children.' One quarter of those
surveyed (26%) agreed strongly with the statement.
Freeing parents for sankirtan was facilitated by enrolling
children in the gurukula as early as age three or four, although
the majority enrolled at age five. Some ISKCON communities communalised
children even earlier, establishing day-care centres for infants
and toddlers. One such community was ISKCON's New Vrindaban community,
in West Virginia.
Kirtanananda [New Vrindaban's former guru and leader] was very
successful because he had a nursery from day one. For those kids
born at New Vrindaban, he took the kids and communalised them.
They got so much work out of the people in that community. (Interview
A second generation woman who grew up at New Vrindaban recalls:
[S]oon after Kapila was born . . . the Guru of the farm
asked her [mother] to go travel and preach in airports, she sadly
said 'yes.' Kapila was only three months old when she left him
to be brought up by some other lady who lived on the farm. For
months she cried at night wondering if he was okay and yet her
body could hardly stand any more emotional work after standing
nearly twelve hours that day, . . . collecting donations from
strangers. (Devi Dasi, K. 1990:14)
An indication of the leadership's motivation in providing child
care at New Vrindaban is suggested by a saying used in the community
to refer to expectant mothers; 'Dump the load and hit the road.'
And to 'hit the road' meant returning to full-time sankirtan.
While leaders in other ISKCON communities were clearly more subtle
and humanistic in their approach, they were no less anxious to return
mothers to full-time sankirtan, or other work on behalf of
the community. For the fact was, women were among the very best
sankirtan workers in the movement.
Sankirtan represented the foundation of ISKCON's sectarian
world, and the movement's sannyasi elite took measures to
assure that it was protected against the presumed deleterious effects
associated with the expansion of marriage and family life. While
initially established to spiritually educate ISKCON's children,
the gurukula ultimately served the interests of ISKCON's
missionary activity, and the need to raise money in support of the
movement's communal way of life. One long-time teacher from this
era underscores the primary interest of ISKCON's sannyasi
And you had to have a vision for the future to even understand
why you were doing this [the gurukula]. For the teachers
this might have been there but for the administration of ISKCON,
what it means is that you are paying for a day-care centre. These
kids cause trouble wherever they are . . . You are talking about
sannyasis who are thinking like, 'Get these kids out of
here. And look how much money I am having to pay to get these
kids out of here. And look at how many devotees have to be there
[in the gurukula] to get these kids out of the way.' That
was the whole psyche surrounding how the school was put together.
The importance placed on sankirtan by ISKCON's leadership
meant that the significance of the gurukula rested on its
childcare function, rather than as an educational institution. Moreover,
as parents faced increasing pressures to engage in sankirtan
many had little ability to commit time to the needs of their children.
Children and family life threatened ISKCON's purpose as a missionary
movement, but each also threatened the financial base upon which
the authority of the leadership rested.
Lack of Institutional Support for Gurukula
Given the leadership's view of gurukula and its purposes,
it failed to provide the support necessary to maintain an educational
institution. Throughout its existence the gurukula operated
with insufficient staffing, funding and oversight. I want to suggest
now that in failing to provide the resources and management necessary
to maintain the gurukula, it became an institution defined
by neglect, isolation and marginalisation. Because of these qualities,
the gurukula also became a context in which ISKCON's children
became subject to abuse.
From the inception of the gurukula system in Dallas it faced a
shortage of trained and qualified staff to serve as academic and
ashram teachers. In American culture we have a saying, 'Those who
can't do otherwise, teach.' ISKCON, during the 1970s and 1980s,
had its equivalent, 'Those who can't do sankirtan, work in
the gurukula.' As a gurukula teacher of some twenty
years commented, 'The gurukula was the dumping ground as
far as getting staff went. When devotees couldn't do other things
like going on sankirtan they were sent to work in the gurukula.'
The result was that outside of a limited number of professional
academic teachers, ISKCON's schools were staffed by devotees untrained
and generally ill-prepared to take on the demands of working with
children. Moreover, because there was little or no status attached
to working in the gurukula, many devotees had little or no
desire to be there. Success at sankirtan brought individual
recognition within the devotee community, working with children,
invisibility and a loss of status.23
As one ISKCON parent commented.
I was concerned that the teachers were often selected based on
their inability to do sankirtan, rather than because they
loved children and education. As far as I could see, there were
no mandatory classes in childhood development for teachers or
staff either. How could anyone expect those in charge to know
what was normal or abnormal behaviours and how it should be dealt
with? (Anonymous a 1996)
As a former gurukula teacher and Headmaster makes clear,
it was assumed that any devotee who was steady in his or her spiritual
practice was qualified to work in the gurukula. Yet as he
further explains, few were able to stand up to the everyday demands
of working with children.
There were very few qualified or experienced teachers in
the early Gurukula at Dallas . . . At that time in ISKCON
in general there was a hubris about individual qualification.
It was thought that a devotee who was chanting his rounds was
empowered to do anything and that he did not need any special
training. The task of dealing with a hundred children or so from
morning to night on tough schedule through mangal arati
to bedtime was too much for most of them. (Brzezinski 1997)
As the above remarks make clear, working in the gurukula
was stressful, especially for an untrained staff lacking sufficient
interest in children. This was all the more so in instances where
a single ashram teacher was responsible for the care of 20
or more children. These conditions contributed directly to acts
of child abuse by teachers. As one teacher from this era observes,
'There may have been some [teachers involved in abusing children]
who were actually diabolical. But in most cases it was a lack of
expertise, lack of training, lack of assistance, lack of knowing
who to go to.' And, as the former Headmaster of one school, described,
Therefore, we have someone like [name of ashram teacher]
who is put into a situation in which he does not belong. It is
so stressful. So therefore a kid gets out of line-what to speak
of his other transgressions-and he pushes him hard and the kid
falls on the floor and breaks his arm. And that's what happened.
But while finding people capable of working in the gurukula
was an ongoing problem, retaining them represented another. Many
second generation youth tell of having as many as 15, 20, or more,
ashram-teachers during their time in the gurukula.
Eight in ten (82%) of the second generation youth surveyed in 1991-92
agree that, 'The major reason for the demise of the ashram-based
gurukulas was the lack of qualified teachers.' The former
Headmaster quoted above suggests one reason why.
At one point they sent all the kids from [region of the country]
to our school in Lake Huntington. So now we have this big regional
school. Then at one point [guru from that region] decides
that he needs the ashram teacher [for the oldest boys]
to do some other service . . . So I call him [guru] and
say, 'Listen there is no one but me. I am the Headmaster. I'm
already doing this and that. Now I am going to have to do the
ashram. There is nobody here that can do it.' He just said,
'Well you are just going to have to get somebody. Good-bye.' Pull
the man out so now we have 16 older boys who don't have a teacher.
What to do? (Interview 1997)
The effect of an ever-changing complement of gurukula teachers
and staff meant that the children were unable to build and sustain
meaningful and perhaps loving relationships with their adult caregivers.
This very fact only increased the likelihood that children might
be neglected and/or abused.24
The question of 'What to do?' only intensified as ISKCON in North
America faced growing economic decline. By 1982, the level of ISKCON's
book distribution in North America was less than half its 1978 peak
(Rochford 1985, 1995c). The corresponding drop in sankirtan
revenues had a devastating effect on ISKCON's communities. It also
had a dramatic impact on the gurukula, which, even in the
best of economic times, faced hardship. As the Headmaster of one
school made clear, 'Even at the peak of our movement's resources
. . . the gurukula was getting barely anything. Anything.
And so as soon as there was less to go around it barely got anything
at all' (interview, 1997). Below he describes the financial difficulties
encountered by the Lake Huntington gurukula just prior to
its closing in 1986.
More difficult was our financial situation. And what happened.
When New York was broken up, Lake Huntington, Long Island, New
Jersey, and Manhattan each of these areas was assigned a certain
number of collectors, . . . sankirtan devotees. Four months
after the break-up I was shifted from Long Island to Lake Huntington
and I took over the project. Within a few months I became the
Headmaster. We had eight sankirtan devotees. We were struggling
but were making it. But the zone was collapsing [financially].
So the new GBC man . . . came in and took all the sankirtan
devotees and centralised it. The plan was to just give money to
the different temples in the zone. We lost our eight sankirtan
devotees and we were promised $8 000 a month, which we got
for one month. They reduced and reduced the amount until we got
$2 100 to pay the mortgage. When we asked what to do they said
take more students [thereby gaining more tuitions]. And that's
what we did. Until finally it dawned on us that we were killing
our teachers and cheating our students. We can't run a school
like this. That was the environment we were actually functioning
in. 25 (Interview1997)
A final issue here has to do with the apparent lack of oversight
the gurukula received by ISKCON leaders. While it is true
that there was a Minister of Education whose responsibility was
to provide guidance and leadership for ISKCON's schools, it appears,
nonetheless, that the gurukula failed to gain the attention
and supervision required. And, without it, the likelihood of child
neglect and abuse grew. As one teacher described, the leadership
simply placed too little importance on the gurukula.
I have come to the conclusion that they [the leadership] aren't
going to do anything; at all, not anything. They should have done
something twenty years ago, or fifteen years ago. They had plenty
of opportunity. They had money. They had man-power. They had Srila
Prabhupada right there behind them. Why didn't they take it? I
can tell you why they didn't do it. They didn't think it was important.
Obviously. (Interview, 1990)
One indication of the leaders' disinterest can be seen in the way
ISKCON's renunciate leaders responded when parents complained about
the mistreatment of children in the gurukula. As a second
generation youth recounts:
When I was five and a half years old, I'd been in gurukula (Dallas)
since its insemination (about three years). My dad had gone to
Dallas (against the wishes of his temple authority who only cared
about my dad's money-making ability on sankirtan) after
discovering bruises all over my body on a Rathayatra [festival]
visit. After much discussion with the school authority he found
that he could not get them to change the policy of daily beatings.
He removed me from the school. Very disillusioned he nearly left
ISKCON. On hearing that Prabhupada would be in LA, we went there.
When Prabhupada saw me he asked why I was not in the gurukula.
My father told him that he'd removed me because of the daily beatings.
Prabhupada told him that I belonged in gurukula and that
if my dad had a problem with the treatment he should work to resolve
it . . . [Prabhupada] did nothing to resolve the situation. Instead
of going himself or sending one of his top people to resolve the
problems he sent my dad who had never had any power. Needless
to say when my dad returned to Dallas nobody listened to him.
If a problem arose at some temple or other, Prabhupada was more
than willing to go or send someone effective to handle the situation,
but for the kids he sent my dad who was effective at getting people
to give him money. (Anonymous b 1996) (See footnote 26
for further discussion of Prabhupada's response to allegations
of child abuse.)
After Prabhupada's death, the response of the newly appointed gurus
was apparently much the same.
Kutila [woman gurukula teacher] was furious when she saw the
cuts and beating marks and she ran to tell Bhaktipada who coolly
said, 'Don't complain, do something about it, if you think you
can do any better.' (Devi Dasi, K. 1990:1)
Initially the leadership's disinterest in the gurukula stemmed
from an overriding concern with maintaining and indeed expanding
sankirtan. Yet with Prabhupada's death in November, 1977,
however, ISKCON faced years of succession problems that preoccupied
the movement as a whole. As ISKCON's newly appointed gurus
struggled to establish their own religious and political authority,
and attract disciples, householders and their children lost further
relevance organisationally (Rochford 1995a). This became all the
more so in the early 1980s as book distribution virtually collapsed
in North America, and parents were pushed outside of ISKCON's communities
to find employment in support of themselves and their families (see
Rochford 1997). (For a treatment of ISKCON's succession problems,
see Rochford 1985: 221-55, 1998a. On how acceptance or rejection
of ISKCON leaders' authority influences types and levels of ISKCON
involvement, see Rochford 1995a.)
Exclusion of Parents from the Gurukula
One potential safeguard against child abuse rested with parental
involvement and oversight of the gurukula. If children were
being abused and neglected there is reason to believe that involved
parents might well have become aware and taken corrective actions.
Yet in most instances this did not happen, and when it did, parental
concerns were often ignored or dismissed, as we saw in the previous
section. The fact was parents were actively discouraged from becoming
involved in the gurukula, and, thereby, from the day-to-day
lives of their children.
Prabhupada himself discouraged parent involvement in the gurukula.
He reasoned that the best interests of ISKCON's children were served
by communalising them within the context of the gurukula.
Away from parental influence, a child would more readily take to
a life of spiritual practice and renunciation. As Prabhupada stated
in a 1973 letter, 'Regarding gurukula, it is not required
that parents live there with their children. We can take care of
children, but not the parents' (1992:794). While relinquishing their
children to the gurukula proved difficult for many parents,
they took solace in the knowledge that their children were advancing
The idea that parents represented a threat to the spiritual lives
of children was widely promoted throughout ISKCON, and was accepted
by many devotee parents. As we have seen, ISKCON's leadership promoted
this idea as a means to reclaim parents for sankirtan. Accepting
the 'ideological work' (Berger 1981; Rochford 1985:191-220) of the
leadership, many parents maintained minimal contact with their children.
In fact, it appears that in some cases parents essentially abandoned
their children to the gurukula. Teachers, too, considered
parents as threats to the spiritual well-being of their children.
In the words of one teacher:
There is a problem with parents. The experience that we have
had in gurukula is that much of the training that you are
trying to give the child is lost when the child is with the parents.
Because the parent is not maintaining the same standards, or doesn't
have the same abilities, whatever it is . . . And you knew as
a teacher that when you sent a kid home for three and a half weeks
[for vacation] you knew you were going to get a basket case when
they came back. (Interview 1997)
As this teacher further suggests, this way of thinking influenced
strongly how those working in the gurukula treated parents.
And so maybe unfortunately, in retrospect, the wrong attitude
was conveyed about parents. The parents are a problem; keep the
parents away, all of that. (Interview 1997)
The larger consequence of these ideas was the virtual exclusion
of parents from the gurukula. Parental involvement with their
children was largely unwelcome. Moreover, when children did return
to their parents' home community for school vacations, these visits
very often afforded limited opportunities for parent and child to
spend time together. As one mother and teacher explained:
You have to remember that parents didn't have houses. They didn't
have their own place. We never had a house . . . So when you say
a kid went home, that's a euphemism. He went to the temple. His
mother had service that she was doing all along. His father had
service that he was doing all along. And now all of a sudden this
kid is there. So now what does he do? He hangs around the temple.
He gets stepped on by people as they are coming up the stairs
[into the temple] . . . And he wants his mother's attention when
she is cooking for the deities. The fact is no one took care of
the kids . . . The kid did whatever he did. And the parents just
kept on doing whatever it was they were doing. (Interview 1997)
A second generation devotee recounts her vacations from school
and the burden these visits placed on her and other family members.
When I got older, I started to spend my vacations with my Mata.
But vacation time for me was not vacation time for her. For Kapila
[her brother] and I, she would get a motel room every night but
her service to the temple still came first. Only after she had
chanted all of her rounds without interruption and she had collected
at least three hundred dollars did Kapila and I get to do anything.
We usually would sit for six hours in the cold van parked outside
a shopping mall and wait for her. Finally she would finish, and
even though her back was aching and her shoulders were heavy from
carrying a ninety pound bag of books all day, she somehow would
find the energy to sneak us into a nearby pool and then take us
to ice cream. But most of the time we didn't see how tired she
really was and so, whining and complaining about how little attention
we got, we sometimes drove her to tears. (Devi Dasi, K. 1990:12)
The gurukulas in India undertook what can only be described
as extreme efforts to further isolate children from their parents.
In the Vrindavan gurukula it appears that the administration
of the school monitored, and sometimes censured, letters written
by students to their parents. When a student attempted to write
his parents about the negligent and abusive conditions found at
the school, he was reprimanded and told to re-write his letter.
X: I used to write letters to my mom, during the rough
times, saying, 'Get me out of here.' And he [school administrator]
read them and would tear'em up and make me write new ones.
XX: He did that to me too. (Group Interview, 1993)
In other cases, students in the Vrindavan gurukula avoided
writing to their parents about the conditions found at the school
because they assumed their letters would be read by the administration,
or, as in the case below, they feared their parents would reject
allegations of abuse. As one mother explained.
My son complains bitterly about what went on in Vrindavan. Of
course I have asked him a million times why he didn't tell me
what was going on. Because I used to go and visit him every year.
And he wouldn't say anything to me. He would just give me his
shopping list. When I asked him in retrospect why didn't you tell
me he just said, 'Because you wouldn't believe me.' . . . He assumed
I wouldn't believe him. And he assumed his letters would be censured.
And so he never wrote anything that would cause him to be censured.
In still other instances the administration of the school in Vrindavan
apparently sought to hide the abuse taking place there during the
He [Headmaster] knowingly covered-up . . . There are two or three
incidents that I can think of where I was beaten or something
happened to me. He would take me into his room and he'd lock me
in there for like a day with him and he was like constantly preaching
to me and so finally I just went 'Okay! I won't say anything to
anybody. It didn't happen!' And he would let me out of the room.
On final analysis it seems clear that the gurukula became
an institution unto itself, in Goffman's (1961) terms, a 'total
institution.' Within the gurukula children remained largely
separate from the day-to-day lives of their parents, and, very often,
from ISKCON community life more generally. From an institution meant
to train and educate, the gurukula instead became the functional
equivalent of an orphanage. As one teacher from this period remarked.
The whole scenario set up an orphanage . . . Even though you
have kids with parents. Because we didn't allow the parents to
become part of their children's lives. (Interview 1997)
Avoiding Child Abuse: Resources and Victimisation
Although my focus thus far has sought to understand a number
of factors and processes that contributed to child abuse within
ISKCON's schools, I now want to consider why some young people did
not experience abuse and neglect. As I have already suggested, a
proportion of the students who attended the gurukula during
the 1970s and 1980s escaped being victims of child abuse. This happened
despite the fact that in some cases their classmates were targeted
for abuse, while they were spared.
Perhaps the most obvious factor in whether a child was abused or
not, related to the school environment itself. It seems that some
gurukulas experienced far less child abuse, while others
were defined by neglect and abuse. To a significant degree, where
a student was sent to gurukula had a profound influence on
whether he or she became targets of abuse. Perhaps the most vivid
example is provided by the schools in India, where abuse and neglect
were, by all reports, commonplace. Since only adolescent boys were
sent to the schools in India they faced far more abuse than their
female counterparts. In the United States several of ISKCON's schools
also experienced relatively high levels of child abuse (for example,
Dallas, Seattle, New Vrindaban), whereas others experienced considerably
less (for example, Bhaktivedanta Village, California; New Talavan,
Mississippi). It appears also that child abuse was far less prevalent
in Europe and Australia than in either India or North America.
But what explains these differences? I think several things. First
some schools had a more stable gurukula staff-both academic
and ashram teachers, as well as the school's administration.
While teachers in these schools may have been more devoted to working
in the gurukula, they also were able to establish enduring
and caring relationships with the children they worked with. Two
former gurukula students suggest why a particular school
proved especially positive for them in ways that highlight the role
of the teacher.
It was M[other] Kutila who changed our lives and who let us know
that someone could love us; that devotees did love one
another. I swear for the first week I thought I was a princess.
We were never hit any more, we had all new clothes, our own bags,
filled with our own soap, brushes and hot water showers. It was
then that I knew I had a mother and father, they were Kutila and
Kuladri (her husband). (Author's emphasis; Devi Dasi, K. 1990:1).
One of the high points of my life in gurukula was because
the teacher, (name), took us in as his sons (original Vedic standard)
and treated us like adults. We had incredible camaraderie as well
as growth-including fitness, mental strength, creativity and Krishna
Consciousness. (Second Generation Survey 1992-93)
A second factor that played an especially important role in limiting
the possibility of abuse had to do with the level of parental involvement
in the gurukula. While the leadership and the gurukula
staff each pressured against parental involvement, some parents
found ways to remain involved nonetheless. In some cases this was
made easier as parents resided in the same community as their child/children's
gurukula. In other cases parents wrote letters, made phone
calls, and visited their child or children on a regular basis.
The sad irony is that parents who accepted the ideological justifications
offered by the leadership and chose to remain 'detached' and minimally
involved in the lives of their children, effectively left them vulnerable
to neglect and abuse. Simply put, children without involved parents
became ready victims for abusers. As one second generation devotee
Usually, if our parents showed an interest in us, by sending
us mail and gifts, visiting us, and maintaining a tight bond,
the abusive teachers would view that child as a liability to them.
(Hickey and Charnell, 1997)
To assure regular involvement with their children, some parents-especially
mothers-chose to work in the gurukula as teachers. As the
Headmaster of one school commented, 'Practically every teacher had
their children in the school. And that was an important factor [limiting
the potential for abuse] that those parents' eyes were there. It
was important.' As this suggests, the presence of parents working
in the gurukula served to protect all children against abuse,
not simply the child of the teacher. Because mothers were much more
likely than fathers to have a position in the gurukula, girls
more so than boys gained parental protection against abuse. As one
woman teacher recounts:
With my daughter it was a little different because I had some
ability and determination to keep my daughters with me. So I was
a teacher and I taught my daughters, or at least I knew where
my daughters were being taught. But with my son it wasn't allowed.
He had to be removed from my presence. (Interview 1997)
A child also gained protection against abuse if he or she had a
male parent who was an ISKCON leader, or was otherwise recognised
as important and influential within the movement. For an abuser,
these children presented substantial risks and thereby were less
likely to be targeted. Even in India, where abuse was more commonplace,
children with influential fathers normally escaped being targets
of abuse. As one mother whose son spent years at a gurukula
in India reported.
My son tells me that he didn't get abused. And it's funny isn't
it in light of his [activism over the abuse issue]. But this is
because of who his father was [a member of the GBC].29
For children whose parents remained largely uninvolved in their
lives, there was one available means to create a protective resource
against abuse. Again, India was the context. Apparently adolescent
boys in the gurukula were less subject to abuse if they received
initiation from one of ISKCON's gurus. In effect, initiation
created an interested and powerful ally who could expose or punish
an abuser. Initiation thus served as a means to create an interested
party in the absence of involved and/or influential parents.
Marriage and family life have played a central role in the development
of religious communities and institutions (Berger 1969:133; Dobbelaere
1987; Foster 1991; Kanter 1972:86-92, 1973). Kanter's investigation
of 19th century American communities demonstrated that successful
utopian communities-religious and secular-controlled or otherwise
regulated two-person intimacy and family relationships. Only by
renouncing couple and family relationships could intimacy become
a collective good serving the interests of the community as a whole.
As such, utopian communities face the task of building and maintaining
relational structures 'which do not compete with the community for
emotional fulfilment' (Kanter 1972:91).
Beginning in the 1970s ISKCON sought increasingly to control marriage
and family life. This involved several processes: First, marriage
itself was redefined such that it became symbolic of spiritual weakness,
an institution suited only for those unable to control their sexual
desires. Secondly, in order to educate children separate from their
parents, Prabhupada established the gurukula. While founded
initially as an educational institution, the gurukula also
freed parents to work full-time on behalf of ISKCON and its communities.
For many parents this involved performing sankirtan.30
In important respects sankirtan and children represent interrelated
and pivotal issues in ISKCON's North American and world-wide development.
To ISKCON's largely sannyasi leadership, sankirtan
represented the means by which the movement could fulfil its missionary
objectives. It served too, to bring substantial resources into ISKCON's
communities during the 1970s (Rochford 1985:171-89). Children, on
the other hand, represented a potential threat to each of these
objectives. With a decline in recruitment beginning as early as
1974 in North America (Rochford 1985:278), ISKCON leaned ever harder
on householders to perform sankirtan. The result was the
purpose of the gurukula organisationally came to rest on
its ability to provide childcare. Unfortunately, as I have described,
the gurukula became an institution defined by neglect and
the abuse of children.
Prior to widespread allegations of child abuse, ISKCON represented
what Shupe (1995) refers to as a 'trusted hierarchy.' Religious
groups and organisations are distinct from their secular counterparts
precisely because 'those occupying lower statuses in religious organisations
trust or believe in the good intentions, nonselfish motives, benevolence,
and spiritual insights/wisdom of those in the upper echelons (and
often are encouraged or admonished to do so)' (italics in the original,
Shupe 1995:29). Indeed parents often socialise their children to
respect the religious authority of church leaders, thus perpetuating
the very basis of trust within religious organisations. It was such
unquestioned trust in the leadership, and in ISKCON as a whole,
that led parents to readily assume that their children were being
properly educated and cared for in the gurukula. As we have
seen, this very assumption helped create opportunity structures
facilitating abuse and exploitation (see Krebs 1998; Shupe 1995
for other examples).
As one might expect, child abuse affects far more people than those
directly victimised. As Pullen suggests 'religious congregations
can collectively share psychological, emotional, and spiritual trauma
when faced with the reality that their most vulnerable members have
been sexually violated by individuals the community invested with
authority' (1998:68). Among members of a support group formed in
response to clerical sexual abuse of children in California, Pullen
found members making reference to their own 'spiritual abuse.' Although
not directly abused themselves, group members nonetheless expressed
'that their trust and faith in the credibility and integrity of
their religious leaders had been shattered' (1998:68-9). Nason-Clark
(1998) found much the same response among female congregants in
the aftermath of child sexual abuse by Church officials in Canada.
In organisational terms, child abuse and malfeasance by clergy precipitates
a crisis of trust among rank and file members. As Seligman argues
the 'existence of trust is an essential component of all enduring
social relationships' (1997:13) and is indeed necessary for the
continuation of any social order.
The betrayal of trust represented by child abuse has challenged,
if not undermined, the ISKCON commitment of many first and second
generation members alike. Child abuse stands as a powerful symbol
of the failure of ISKCON's leadership, and that form of social organisation
(that is, communalism) which supported its political and spiritual
authority. As trust gave way to anger and doubt, householders became
less willing to commit their lives to ISKCON as they had in the
past. Needless to say, many second generation devotees also rejected
their ISKCON collective identity. This fact, perhaps more than any
other, accounts for the fragmentation and decline of ISKCON in North
America. (But see Rochford 1997 for another interpretation). In
failing to maintain a safe and healthy environment for the movement's
most vulnerable members, ISKCON faced being discredited from within,
and a corresponding loss of legitimacy in the eyes of many long-time
members. Many abandoned ISKCON, while others joined an emerging
congregation of independent householders and their families residing
on the margins of ISKCON's North American communities. As this implies,
the tragedy of child abuse has shaped, and continues to shape, the
career of ISKCON as a religious organisation newly arrived on the
North American Scene.