“How Could This Happen?” Reflections on Child Abuse in ISKCON and Beyond

Recently, due to this newly released documentary and website created by a second-generation Hare Krishna member, the subject of widespread child abuse within the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) has been reignited on social media. After seeing some express bewilderment as to how these kinds of abuses can go on within a spiritual community, I’ve decided to offer my analysis on the subject. In doing so, I’ve found a lot of confirmation and insight in Esther Rockett’s blog post titled “Cultivating Sexual Abuse in Religious Communities“, which is in turn based heavily on the work of Father Tom Doyle.

One reason these recent releases are stirring up discussion is because they show that despite ISKCON’s desire to present child abuse as a (well-documented) stain of the past, the problems continue, although they do seem to be less widespread. 

Please note that of course not all of the components in the following analysis are present in all places or at all times, but they are absolutely not anomalous, either. In fact, many of them stem from core tenets of Gaudiya Vaishnava doctrine and how ISKCON has instituted those tenets from its inception in the 1960s. While I set out to write this solely as an analysis of behaviors and attitudes, I found it impossible to separate those from the theological and philosophical stances of the tradition. For those who can’t understand the framework that has made ISKCON and others such a fertile place for abuse, I offer the following:

Rejection of the “material world” and preoccupation with theology

At the root of the issue is the idea that the entire material world is illusory, and the only thing with Absolute Relevance is the spiritual world and activities in pursuit of it. With this belief in place, even when abuse is known members will often lament most over the fact that it might cause the abused and others to lose faith in the teachings, as if that itself is worse than the abuse in the first place. “Why is this discussed on Facebook?” and “It’s bad preaching,” are real comments I have read in recent days. 

Furthermore, from within the vantage point of “life-as-we-know-it-is-an-illusion,” abuse and the subsequent struggles of victims are not given the weight that they are and ought to be within cultures that believe in the importance of our present lives. Hare Krishna scriptures and commentaries have plenty of content glorifying suffering for its potential to detach us from material life and encourage reliance on god (and guru). On top of that is the doctrine of karma, in which even the most seemingly compassionate adherents must believe the abuse to be the victim’s karmic allotment for actions of previous lives which we know not of.

This means, literally, that some leaders and adults can and have looked someone who had been starved, beaten, raped, sleep-deprived, isolated, etc. in the face, and tell them that what they endured as children was a result of their own doing. We hear a lot about victim-blaming in the present day, and I don’t think you could conjure up a more twisted, philosophically veiled version. A different post on social media equated the child abuse scandal the familiar Hare Krishna idea that when one eats meat, they in turn will be eaten in a future lifetime. Put plainly, that is saying that the these horrible systemic abuses against children are actually the cosmic hand of justice. 

Disdain for attachments and family life

Material life being illusory and ultimately something that members aim to escape, things that keep us tethered to it naturally become objects of scorn. What is more grounding and attachment-forming than the love of a family and of parents for children? Nothing, of course. And therefore family life is denigrated as a pit of suffering at worst and a lesser-stage of life at best. In the past, these ideas were much more overt in ISKCON. As time goes on and people find themselves more independent in thought and action, some of the fanaticism calms down. But I personally cannot see how the subtle derision of family bonds can be eradicated within an ideology that views the present life as fundamentally undesirable, our present identities and the identities of loved ones as fleeting and irrelevant to salvation, and even simple happiness as further bondage to the cycle of birth and death. This leaves little room for healthy loving relationships in the lives of those who seek to be the most dedicated to the spiritual path.

Also in the past, arranged or mostly arranged marriages were common. My own mother’s first marriage in ISKCON, within her first year or two of joining, was a polygamous marriage to an abusive husband. Her later marriage to my (also abusive) father was presented as a choice between two suitors, mediated by the temple president where she lived. Nowadays, while such overt meddling seems to have waned, there is still pressure on second generation members and others to marry quickly, with sex outside of marriage being a taboo.

Worship of celibacy and denigration of sexuality

One of the ways these negative attitudes toward family, women, and children play out is that men (and on rare occasion, women) are directly or indirectly encouraged toward celibacy. Marriage is viewed as less-than, even while the overwhelming majority of women are taught that their proper role is that of the subservient “Vedic” wife to a husband. In the past especially, most men in ISKCON pursued celibacy for at least a short period, making their eventual marriage seem like a “fallen” state. At the same time, women were taught to view themselves as temptresses, potentially guilty of hindering mens’ spiritual lives, including their own husband’s. The men who do remain in roles as celibates under immense social and psychological pressure, have historically often become the abusers. While some were no doubt predisposed to acts of sexual and physical assault, some no doubt found themselves there due to situational factors. Often the difference between a pedophile and a child molester who isn’t naturally sexually attracted to children is that the molester ends up acting due to an inability to access a normal, healthy sexual relationship. Believing your entire spiritual life, social standing, and sometimes financial security rest on your continuing to play the role of a celibate monk is absolutely an impediment to pursuing a healthy, consensual, adult relationship. I know this pressure personally as I was a prominent monk in my offshoot sect of ISKCON and toward the end of my vocation was secretly dating and having (perfectly consensual) sex with women, with immense guilt and shame.

For those who do get married in a culture like ISKCON, is it any surprise that a marriage built on a foundation of shame and supposed failure to meet a higher standard of renunciation would result in sub-par treatment of children? Children were, for all intents and purposes, a product of sin, or at least of a lesser version of spiritual life. To some extent their existence was redeemed by members being taught to think of their children as the next generation of Krishna’s army; but that is not love. That is commodifying and birthing children as a preaching tactic (creating more preachers). This same emphasis on preaching is what allowed thousands to rationalize putting their children into day-schools or shipping them across the globe in order to free up more time for parents to serve the guru. Naively assuming all things ISKCON and Krishna Consciousness were destined for success, and following the systems encouraged by the founder, parents left their children in the hands of mostly untrained and unstable teachers. These “caretakers” were themselves trying to live up to an impossible system of submission and identity dissolution, and expected to impart that system into the children. 

Preaching as priority and end-justifies-the-means mentalities

The deeply rooted emphasis on preaching also inhibits proper investigation and reporting of abuse, because more important than the suffering of children is the hope that their suffering doesn’t become a public blemish on the institution. Hushing abuse and trying to keep justice “in house” becomes a PR move, at the further expense of victims and potential future victims, who remain ignorant if the institution gets its way. Even in instances when ISKCON has addressed criminals in its ranks, it is usually when a social pressure to do so has built to such an extent that the cost (in public perception, membership, etc.) of ignoring the issue finally outweighs the cost of addressing it. Historically, upset members or the public has had to force the hand of ISKCON justice, and even then it’s often harder for justice to be served (due to statutes of limitations, perpetrators relocating, etc.).

Us/them mentality and contempt for outsiders

Adding to the indifference to abuse and lack of response is an underlying belief that the outside world and secular and governmental institutions are places of danger or materialism. This attitude helped create the child abuse epidemic in the first place, as teachers weren’t expected to get real training nor teach competitive curricula that would enable students to enter the secular world. Like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who also have a huge history of child abuse, ISKCON at one point put systems in place to discourage reporting to outside authorities (although I can’t say if those policies are still on their books or not). They developed the Child Protection Office, which the documentary at the beginning of this blog post shows to mostly be a farce and another PR tool at this point, as well as terribly underfunded.

It is important to recognize that many lay members do not consciously hold some of these attitudes, and indeed some even work against them for the betterment of ISKCON. But there is, in my opinion, an inescapable component of the core teachings of the tradition that make it difficult if not impossible to negate these dynamics. In my own experience, the healthiest families I’ve known either carry a sense of shame for being too loose and materially distracted or are denigrated in private by celibate leadership, or both. This creates a sort of catch-22 wherein devoutness and psychological/familial health are at odds. When I try to envision a healthy ISKCON and Gaudiya Vaishnavism, I can only do so on the unrealistic assumption that members break from defining beliefs and attitudes that are currently regarded as vital doctrine.

These issues can be very complex, and also have unique characteristics in different regions, communities, and families. Please feel free to add other components to the above list in the comments section.

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  1. Prahlad
    May 26, 2016

    Too much analysis for a unbearable sinful horrible act for which death should be the punishnent.

  2. May 27, 2016

    It seems to be a real problem with the renunciate ideal. Family is seen as an indulgence, children an inconvenience, mundane life, chores, bills as something to deride. Unfortunately, as you point out, pursuit of the spiritual life/enlightenment, and family life are seen as mutually exclusive.

    Great blog, I look forward to reading your past posts and more to come.

  3. May 27, 2016

    Really, Prahlad? Seems to me, your “analysis” is the same idiocy (as the ISKCON-sanctioned approach) in an ostensibly different package: that is, avoid confronting reality by histrionically insisting on a non-solution that doesn’t address the actual problem.

  4. JayaBlissNectar
    May 27, 2016

    Thoughtful reflections and well articulated too – thanks for posting it. If the Vaishnava faith is ever going to serve its current adherents more effectively and ever be taken seriously in the modern world, then the necessary reforms have only just begun. Progressive thinkers and innovators please step forward!

  5. Maga
    June 10, 2016

    I recently read an article on b-I-f.com about the root of sexual abuse on children being on some secret activities of Lord Caitanya mentioned on Chaitanya Bhagavat.. Knowing that came to me as a shock, since what we got from Prabhupada was apparently totally different. Perhaps because of that he encouraged us not to read other books of Gaudiya Vaisnavism apart of those translated by himself, because we could misunderstand. I certainly have no the capacity to understand, and if previously I was trying to stay away of everything related to Gaudiya Vaisnavism, now I want absolutely nothing to do with it, even though the heart pains because of love for Prabhupada. But I understand that upon knowing “that” truth, everyone is free to take it according to his capacity to understand it. I am not able to understand it. . . . Bigger than the pain about what I have come to know, is the pain of feeling what would be the effect on the faith and the heart of those devotees on the Gaudiya Vaisnava line whom coming to know about those activities, if they do not know it yet, find out that the truth as it roots is different of what they were taught, and even bigger pain is to think that perhaps that is the reason of sexual abuse on children and other deviations, as devotees felt totally frustrated and perhaps cheated or manipulated, feeling that their worlds had fall apart, and then falling again prey of their own physical desires, sending celibacy and morality to. . . . I feel pain, and tend to think that perhaps Prabhupada had not read about those activities and/or that perhaps gave us his own version of Gaudiya Vaisnavism only to. out of love, save us. He gave us the happiness in Krishna consciousness, which is unforgettable; the kirtan, the prasadam, the classes, the four principles, with the hope this will work, without the need to mention the activities on the root, which could be misunderstood, or perhaps turn people away. And of course I feel guilty of aparada and with no good qualities as I write this, because without the association of devotees and without kirtan and classes and prasadam, my life is empty. I missed them too much. But the truth at the root impacted me too much.

  6. Gita
    October 4, 2017

    What “secret activities of Lord Caitanya”? Perhaps you are refering to Lord Nityananda, Avadhuta? Read Caitanya Bhagavata to understand Caitanya Bhagavata. Srila Prabhupada never discouraged reading that book.

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