Revolt of Krishna's children

Former pupils of the saffron-robed cult are taking the movement to court

Independent News, 18 June 2000
By Peter Popham

The message is devotion, bliss, happiness, purity; the medium, the winding lines of happy-clapping, shaven-headed, chanting folk in saffron robes who used to clog up London's Oxford Street pavements.

But this week the disaffected children of the Hare Krishna movement snapped back, declaring war on a cult that has spread all over the world from its base in northern India, becoming a massively wealthy business empire in the process.

In Dallas, Texas, on Monday, 44 former students in schools run by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) across the United States and India filed a $400m (£274m) case against the movement, accusing senior Hare Krishna leaders of sexual, physical and emotional torture.

The lawyer representing the plaintiffs, Windle Turley, said, "This lawsuit describes the most unthinkable abuse and maltreatment of little children we have seen. It includes rape, sexual abuse, physical torture and emotional terrorising of children as young as three years of age."

In Vrindavan, 130km south of Delhi, the seat of Krishna worship and home of one of the ISKCON boys' boarding schools described in the writ as "profoundly abusive", local citizens showed no surprise at the charges. Talk of the terrible conditions at the Vrindavan school has been commonplace in the town for years.

"Physically and mentally the boys are tortured by the staff," said Vivekananda Ghose, a teacher in a junior high school a couple of hundred yards from the ISKCON school.

"One teacher told me when I complained to him, 'This is discipline'. But they take children as young as three years of age. What does a three-year-old understand about discipline?"

Krishna, the blue-skinned, flute-playing cowherd god is the most popular divinity in Hinduism. The fertile flood plain of the river Yamuna at Vrindavan is where, according to tradition, Krishna and his clan moved when he was a child of eight.

Here he beguiled the gopis, the adoring cowgirls with whom he is often pictured, with the music of his flute; when they bathed in the Yamuna here, Krishna the "playful divine" stole their clothes and spied on them from a tree, laughing at their confusion.

Vrindavan, as a consequence, has always been a town of temples, its dusty but tree-lined streets crowded with pilgrims and mendicants.

ISKCON, of course, is here: it has a huge white marble temple in the middle of town. The school, a modern four-storey building faced with granite tiles and in need of maintenance, is situated next door.

But Vrindavan has changed since the arrival of ISKCON, locals charge.

"They are thinking of money, not service," says Dr Kamla Ghose, principal of the nearby junior high school (and Vivekanda Ghose's mother). "They talk about social work but don't perform it. The façade is beautiful, but the rear is very bad." Dr Ghose and others in the town say that ISKCON's wealth has driven up the value of property, making it impossible for the poor widows who survive on niggardly temple charity to pay the rent.

"In the past they paid one rupee per month," says Dr Ghose, "now they are told they have to pay 300 rupees (£4.60). They simply can't afford it." "Vrindavan used to be a spiritual place," adds her son. "Now it is a five-star place. Many sannyasin (Krishna monks) left ISKCON because it became like a Las Vegas thing."

The Dallas lawsuit concerns maltreatment of students going back as far as 1972, one year after the Dallas school was established. The Dallas school was forced to close in 1976 by the state authorities. But meanwhile new schools were opening around the world. Some schools were better than others, but complaints of abuse have been widespread.

Former students interviewed by an American sociologist, E Burke Rochford Jr, testified that abusive treatment at the Vrindavan school became routine. "It was like boot camp," said one. "They were just constantly knocking you down, knocking you down." Violence occurred within what Rochforddescribes as "a general environment of neglect".

"We were just unwanted," said one of his interviewees.

Some victims of abuse at ISKCON schools have recorded their experiences on a website ?

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