Allegations of child sex abuse could cost America's Hare Krishnas about $600 million. Can the Australian movement survive the fallout? By Sushi Das.
They have been a fixture around Melbourne's city streets for so many years, dancing and chanting in their saffron robes, collecting donations and spreading their patchouli-scented message of peace, love and understanding.
But the Hare Krishnas, the worldwide religious movement, is now embroiled in a multi-million dollar lawsuit over one of the most heinous crimes: child sex abuse. And the details of the alleged crimes, including rape, torture and child slave labour, are horrific.
Ironically, the movement that shunned material wealth and consumerism will now have to use its considerable business acumen to stay afloat. For the organisation is staring at bankruptcy and Hare Krishnas around the world are wondering what this means for the future of their faith.
The $US400 million ($A616.6 million) lawsuit against the Hare Krishnas in America alleges that children between the ages of three and 18 were sexually abused or mistreated at American and Indian Hare Krishna ashram-based boarding schools during the 1970s and 1980s. About 91 victims have joined the lawsuit so far.
Unlike other religious organisations tainted by similar crises, The International Society of Krishna Consciousness, as the Hare Krishnas are officially known, plans to handle this differently. The organisation is not arguing against the abuse claims. It wants to settle the matter by filing for bankruptcy. This keeps it out of the courts, protects its assets, and allows it to pay compensation to victims who come forward by June 30.
As part of the deal, which is designed to save the future of the global sect and block further claims by abuse victims, Australian Hare Krishnas have been asked by head office in America to contribute to the compensation fund, along with other Hare Krishnas elsewhere around the world. The movement operates in more than 350 countries.
This landmark case in America may signal the financial demise of the Hare Krishnas. It also raises questions about the global future of the movement. Can Australia's Hare Krishnas survive this scandal or does this spell the end of a movement that has ebbed and flowed, but neverthless survived for nearly 30 years?
Melbourne's Hare Krishna temple, nestled in the leafy streets of Albert Park, is one of the biggest in Australia. It is a tatty, but impeccably ordered mansion with rosters and timetables for cooking, cleaning, chanting and festival dates hanging on the noticeboard.
The courtyard is serene. Dew sits on huge palm leaves as prayers begin at 4am. Outside the mansion walls, middle-class executives are still asleep before beginning another hectic day in the rat race.
Strictly speaking, Hare Krishnas do not eat meat, take intoxicating substances, gamble, or have sex for any purpose other than to have babies. They are a sect of Hinduism, taking their teachings from Hinduism's bible: the Vedic Scriptures.
George Harrison's association with the movement gave it added kudos among young people searching for an alternative to the stressed-out, materialistic world of their parents. His music was strongly influenced by his spiritual beliefs. The hit song My Sweet Lord introduced millions of people to the Hare Krishna mantra.
Melbourne's Hare Krishnas might have adopted a lower profile in recent years, but they are still here. By keeping their heads down during times of adverse publicity, and employing a sharp business eye, this group has steadily developed successful commercial operations and ensured its survival over three decades. Indeed, of the smaller religious movements in Melbourne, the Hare Krishnas are considered to be the most significant, despite their numbers remaining static over the past few years.
The Melbourne temple, established in 1975, has several roles. It acts as a place of worship, a community centre, a centre for teaching, a focus for festivals and the headquarters of Hare Krishna commercial enterprises. That includes running two "donation" restaurants in Swanston Street, catering, book distribution and donation collection. In the last financial year the temple turned over $1.45 million. The Sydney arm generated $900,000.
In Melbourne they claim a congregration of about 6000 and a core of about 250 families who are active participants and regular donors. The organisation's mailing list has 2700 names. Twenty people live at the temple devoting themselves to temple duties. Others live outside the temple and may have employment in mainstream society.
Aniruddha Das, the temple president, has an office upstairs at the mansion. His desk is cluttered with papers, files, a Matchbox toy car, laptop, Palm Pilot, MP3 player, freshly made sweets and statues of Indian gods. A tall man, his head shaven save for a small pony tail, he wears loose white robes (dohti) and a white, pear-shaped mark down the bridge of his nose. He has an open smile and kindly blue eyes.
Aniruddha joined the Hare Krishnas with his wife in 1978 when he was 23 years old. Before that, he says he used to be a "devotee of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll". It is this generation of middle-aged devotees who are now asking questions about child abuse. Some of Aniruddha's friends in America are the parents of victims.
In the 1970s in Melbourne, the organisation distributed Hare Krishna books and collected donations. The followers were mainly Westerners who adopted religious names and chanted in praise of Lord Krishna. It was not long before their public chanting was deemed a public nuisance under local by-laws and they were seen as idealistic, hippie drop-outs.
Uneasy with being labelled a cult in the 1980s, the organisation scaled back the public chanting and started cultivating a thriving business in restaurants and catering, all the while collecting donations. At about that time the Indian community started attending the temple.
"The core (administrative) people now are mainly Westerners but the major part of the congregation is about 80 per cent Indian," Aniruddha says.
He plans to sell sets of videos of the life of the founder of the Hare Krishnas to raise the $90,000 that the Australians have been asked to contribute to the American compensation fund. "The Hare Krishna movement in Melbourne is a very peaceful community. We're happy to help the devotees in America ¤ These are my friends.
"It's not pleasant to see your friends have to face the issues of trying to create an educational institution for their children and then find out that other people have come in, who were their friends even, and have molested their kids," he says.
So what actually happened to the Hare Krishna victims in America and India, and how did it stay a secret for so long? Legal documents lodged in courts in West Virginia and California by the victims' lawyer Windle Turley allege that children between the ages of three and 18 were sexually abused or mistreated at American and Indian Hare Krishna boarding schools for 20 years until 1990.
The Hare Krishna movement had encouraged many devotees to forgo all their material possessions and devote their lives to the futherance of "Krishna Consciousness".
Turley alleges that in order to advance within the faith, devotees were required to relinquish their parental duties and place their children in Hare Krishna-founded and sponsored boarding schools to indoctrinate them into the disciplines of Krishna Consciousness.
This freed the parents to raise money for the benefit of the gurus, temple leaders and Hare Krishna corporations. But the schools were poorly funded and badly run, and soon became centres of neglect and abuse.
The documents allege children were raped and beaten with boards and fists. Some were kicked into submission. Children were frequently deprived of medical care for conditions such as broken facial bones and malaria. They lived in filthy, overcrowded schools, sleeping on the floor. Some were forced to wear soiled underwear on their heads as punishment. In at least one school, the children learned to routinely remove insects from their food before eating it.
Girls as young as 12 were often "given" or "promised" to older men in the movement. Some children were emotionally abused through near-total parental and societal isolation. Children were also used as slave labour to run the schools themselves. "In many instances, the abuse could be accurately described as torture of children," the documents allege.
The victims say they are now not equipped to enter outside society. They have extreme difficulty holding down jobs and maintaining relationships.
"A significantly large proportion of (the victims) have become alcoholics, drug users, unwed mothers, and suicides. They suffer from a profound sense of guilt, helplessness, and loss of self-esteem. They all suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome as a result of their childhood experience," the documents say.
The founder of the institution, the late Prabhupada, was allegedly told about the physical and sexual abuse of minors in 1972, a time when he totally controlled the institution. The victims allege he and others conspired to suppress the alleged crimes, fearful that the public exposure would threaten the viability of the movement.
Melbourne's Aniruddha says the Australian Hare Krishna community protected its children from abuse by running ordered, well-funded schools with proper checks and balances. They closed the Australian boarding schools in the 1980s because of a lack of funding.
The community has survived for 30 years, been accepted by mainstream society and remains strong despite the American scandal, argues Aniruddha. The movement has a solid financial base, a stable internal structure and offers a way of life that is attractive to those looking for an alternative to the daily nine-to-five grind, he says.
The Reverend Doctor David Millikan, a Uniting Church minister and university lecturer, agrees. "It is essentially a movement of practice rather than thought," he says. "It will survive ¤ But it has not addressed the big philosophical or political questions within Western society. It's really more or less said: 'look, we're going to go about our business, the world is stuffed and we will bliss out in adoration of Krishna'."
Millikan, an expert on cults and sects, says that of all the sects that arose around the 1960s, the most resilient have been the Moonies, the Children of God and the Hare Krishnas. But recruits are getting harder and harder to come by and some of the second generation are drifting away.
Moreover, Millikan questions whether the organisation has a genuine congregation and whether women have achieved equality within the Hare Krishna movement.
"I reckon there is a struggle within the movement itself to give women some degree of equality and that same struggle is present within the Catholic Church," he says.
He also attributes some of the strength of the Hare Krishna congregation to expatriate Indians. "You'll find that when displaced Indians are in a place where they don't have access to a temple they will go along to the Hares."
Despite the current problems, Aniruddha is confident that the Hare Krishna movement has a bright future, with a little help from "Krishna's mercy".
On an international level, a little application of its commercial skills has also been a handy tool for the movement over the years, helping it raise crucial funds. It is fitting, then, that the Hare Krishnas should want to end this chapter with the victims of child abuse, through a suitably sharp business deal.
The author is not related to anyone mentioned in this story.
Hare Krishnas form a sect of Hinduism. The three most important deities in the Hindu pantheon are Brahma (creator), Shiva (destroyer) and Vishnu (preserver). Vishnu's most important feature is as preserver and protector of the universe, which he accomplishes through his many incarnations. One of his most loved and famous incarnations is as Krishna. Krishna was said to be blessed with striking beauty and attracted the adoration of all women.
Keseva Dasa was influenced by the television program Kung-Fu as a young boy. He knew one day he would shave his head like Grasshopper and live a monastic life. Looking for direction, he gave up studying acting at the age of 18, donned the robes and gave his life to Krishna Consciousness. Fifteen years later, he is still there, organising tours to India and teaching the Vedic Scriptures at the temple.
"Without spiritual people, spiritual leaders and spiritual groups like us, I'd say it's very much a hopeless situation. The direction society is going in is very negative . . . people like us stand up and are willing to say this is not right. And we're offering the world an alternative," he says. The temple does good works, says Keseva. Between the temple and the restaurants the Hare Krishnas feed 2500 people a week for free.
Svetadvipa Das is 31 years old and softly spoken. Three years ago he left Sydney, took up yoga, ditched his job at the optometrist and became a devotee. He wears wooden beads around his neck and his orange robes denote his monastic, celibate status. He lives at the temple.
When it his turn on the roster to open the temple doors for morning prayers he is out of bed at 3.15am. He doesn't watch TV and he spends the day managing one of the city restaurants. Occasionally he goes for a swim and he's usually in bed at about 8pm. It is a disciplined life.
"I guess I was dissatisfied with a lot of things, the way society was going, the whole rigmarole. I had a lot of questions and I wanted answers: who am I? What am I doing? Where am I going? I was looking for a better lifestyle," he says. "I'm doing a test period to see if I'll stay a monk and take that path or whether I will take the family path." He says he reaches a blissful state when he identifies with his "internal nature".
Preeti Ananda Krishnan was brought up a Hare Krishna by her parents in Malaysia. She is 23 and says Krishna Consciousness provides more answers to life than the medical degree she is studying for at Melbourne University.
Medicine, she says, does not explain the existence of the soul, for example, but a belief in reincarnation can even explain near-death experiences. Hare Krishnas believe the soul passes from one physical body to another for reincarnation to take place.
Preeti is very clear about her faith: "The mind can be your enemy or your friend. Chanting is to control the mind. The mind gets agitated and chanting helps to focus it. You feel liberated from the mind's agitations. Chanting is like training to focus your mind, so that you will use that focus on God later."