Where have all the Krishnas gone?

More cash-conscious than counterculture, the Hare Krishnas are changing their marketing plan and going mainstream

The Boston Phoenix/February 2, 2001

By Dorie Clark

Standing in the lobby of the Hare Krishnas' posh Comm Ave townhouse, located just two blocks from the Public Garden, [Mr. H.] is waiting to meet up with friends. Thirty years ago, at the height of the Krishnas' national prominence, he would have been the perfect recruit: a college student (at UMass Boston), far away from his family in upstate New York, interested in religion and philosophy. But on a recent Sunday, instead of sporting saffron robes and a shaved head, [Mr. H.] was wearing street clothes; he'd fit in as well at Newbury Comics as at the New England headquarters of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON).

Like earlier Krishna devotees, [Mr. H.] started out as an activist - though where the last generation was involved in the antiwar movement, he was committed to animal rights and anarchism. He says, "I was basically fed up with material society and wanted an alternative." But he doesn't live at the temple. And though he's been interested in the movement since 1996, he still has a full head of hair. In fact, standing amid a throng of devotees just as the service is starting, he's astonishingly candid about the fact that the organization may not be right for him. "Krishna consciousness provided a basis to my spiritual life and set me up with the belief that there is a God," says the onetime atheist, "but Krishna consciousness isn't the vehicle I want to use to approach God right now." [Mr. H.] - filled with more spiritual curiosity than fervor - is typical of today's members. With revenues and recruits steadily declining since their 1970s heyday, and with charges of cultishness tarnishing their public image, the Hare Krishnas were forced to fight for their survival. Today, they've drastically altered their organizational structure, reached out to Indian immigrants, and embraced casual congregants such as [Mr. H.], all in a struggle to find a place in the post-hippie world.

You won't find the Hare Krishnas in Logan Airport anymore. In fact, people like the old-style devotees - primarily disaffected white kids on the outer edge of the '60s and '70s counterculture who traded their privileges for ascetic rigor - are hard to come by these days. At their height, the Krishnas boasted 5000 adherents who lived in temples, dressed in robes and shaved their heads, and worked exclusively for the cause - often proselytizing in public places - in exchange for room and board. Today, that number has dwindled to about 800 nationwide.

Yet temple attendance is at an all-time high, thanks to a complete repositioning of the organization. Today, the Hare Krishnas admit that monastic life is not for everyone and are building Christian-style "congregations." They're toning down their hard-sell recruitment efforts (and welcoming doubters like [Mr. H.]) in hopes of finally putting the cult charges to rest. And in a marked change from their early days, they're actively claiming and embracing their Hindu roots.

But it is not at all clear what these changes mean for the movement in the long term. Former devotee Nori Muster, who has written an exposé called Betrayal of the Spirit: My Life Behind the Headlines of the Hare Krishna Movement (University of Illinois Press, 1997), says Indian families visit the group's temples to pay homage to their God. Still, "I don't know that they actually join ISKCON,"she says. "They come to the temple, but that's something different." Anti-cult watchdog Steve Hassan [Warning: Steve Hassan is not recommended by this Web site. Read the detailed disclaimer to understand why.], author of Combatting Cult Mind Control (Park Street Press, 1988), agrees. And he says of the Hare Krishnas, "I'm not aware that they're a force that's growing. In fact, I have the impression they're a force that's shrinking." In the face of these uncertainties, the group now faces the biggest question of all: just what makes a Hare Krishna?

It was 35 years ago this summer that a 70-year-old Indian guru named A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada began preaching out of a Second Avenue storefront in New York City. He had come to America the previous fall, intent on fulfilling the mission his own guru in India had directed him to undertake: spreading the love of the Hindu god Krishna, whom devotees identify as the Supreme God and "the source of all incarnations of God, including Lord Buddha and Jesus Christ."

Hinduism, which arose in India thousands of years ago, does not have a central authority that determines official dogma - as does, say, Catholicism. As a cultural term applied to a variety of beliefs held by peoples of the South Asian subcontinent, "Hinduism" is a singular religious tradition only in the loosest sense of the term. Hindus can embrace polytheism, or believe in an amorphous universal energy source, or devote themselves to monotheism, and still be regarded as Hindu. ISKCON identifies itself with a strain of Hinduism dating back to a 16th-century devotional movement that named Krishna as the sole God.

Prabhupada paired his theology with a series of prohibitions designed to sharpen spiritual awareness and devotion. In the midst of the sexual revolution, his message was remarkably ascetic. Meat, fish, eggs, gambling, alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine were verboten. Sex was allowed only within marriage; even then, it was permitted just once a month, after chanting the famed Hare Krishna mantra ("Hare krishna, hare krishna, krishna krishna, hare hare, hare rama, hare rama, rama rama, hare hare") for approximately six hours. Adherents lived lives of monastic devotion, residing at temples under the supervision of spiritual leaders; they rose before dawn to chant and pray, and spent the day in service to the movement.

Young people from the counterculture quickly jumped on board, as did celebrities. Beat poet Allen Ginsberg was a fan of Prabhupada's. Beatle George Harrison donated a 23-acre property just outside London to the group. (The estate, in the town of Watford, is now known as Bhaktivedanta Manor and has been expanded to 80 acres.) John Lennon hosted the guru for two weeks at his own mansion in Tittenhurst, England. Prabhupada even starred in a San Francisco rock concert featuring the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Big Brother and the Holding Company, fronted by Janis Joplin. The Hare Krishna movement permeated the highest echelons of the hippie food chain.

Though the Hare Krishnas certainly benefited from pop-star largesse, along with the funds that devotees surrendered when they joined the temple, the organization's fundraising backbone was also its chief missionary tool: book distribution. Devotees would peddle copies of Prabhupada's lectures or the Hindu holy text the Bhagavad-Gita in public places - most notoriously in airports. Often using pretty girls to proselytize - and often, in the early years, deceiving book buyers as to what organization they represented - they were able to rake in significant amounts of money and, sometimes, new converts.

Indeed, it was through reading a copy of the Bhagavad-Gita purchased from a devotee on a South End street corner in the early 1990s that Paul Swinford went from selling computers for Sun Microsystems to becoming a Hare Krishna named Premananda Dasa. Today, he is director of congregational and community services for the Boston temple. "I was in a rush," says Premananda, "so I gave him $5 to make him go away. Finally, two years later, I read it." Shortly after, he decided to convert.

By the late 1970s, America's mood of curiosity toward alternative communities had changed. Images of a gun-toting Patty Hearst had been emblazoned on the public consciousness. And as the culture moved from hippie utopianism to yuppie materialism, America began to look with suspicion upon groups ranging from the bank-robbing Symbionese Liberation Army to ISKCON. The era saw the rise of an increasingly vocal anti-cult movement, often made up of parents who were convinced their children had been brainwashed into joining the Hare Krishnas or other alternative religious groups, such as the Reverend Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church. Airport officials tried to kick the Hare Krishnas out of airports (and in 1992, won a landmark Supreme Court case ruling that the Krishnas could distribute literature in terminals, but could not charge for it, making it financially impractical for them to continue the practice). Other stewards of public places also bristled at the group's presence. Middlebury College sociologist E. Burke Rochford Jr. recalls that, in an ironic twist on "Do Not Feed the Animals" warnings, "the Denver zoo in 1980 actually had someone who stood outside telling people as they approached that there were Hare Krishnas distributing literature there, and the zoo asked that they not give them anything." These measures cut the legs out from the formerly lucrative book trade. Premananda says that today, the Boston temple raises almost no funds from book distribution; instead, nearly 100 percent comes from donations from the congregation.

But the end of book-selling income wasn't the only change that rocked the Krishnas. In 1977, Prabhupada, their guru, died at age 81. The line of succession was not clearly determined beforehand, so 11 leaders came forward and attempted to share power by carving up international fiefdoms. Trouble arose almost immediately, according to Nori Muster, who joined the organization shortly after Prabhupada's death and left in 1987. "They had 11 guys who thought they were gurus, and all of them started to exhibit problems," she says. "First the guy in the Bay Area got caught with guns and importing illegal Mercedes Benzes. The guru for England was on LSD all the time and he got murdered.... Ninety percent of the [original] Prabhupada disciples had left within five years. It was just the corrupt people and their disciples; all the good people had left."

Attracted to Prabhupada's ideals, new members like Muster were deliberately kept unaware of the group's mounting problems - which included widespread domestic violence and child abuse, ties to drug dealers, and fraudulent financial dealings. Meanwhile, in Boston, a well-publicized anti-cult lawsuit began wending its way through the courts. It would take 21 years before the Hare Krishnas, in 1997, finally negotiated a settlement with Susan Murphy, a former devotee who became involved at age 13 and later sued for emotional distress. (Under the terms of the agreement, ISKCON is not permitted to discuss the lawsuit.)

With each scandal, the movement became increasingly discredited in the outside world. But on the inside, reports of organizational misdeeds were heavily censored. Muster's disillusionment began when, as the associate editor of the society's international newspaper, she tried to cover the news objectively. "They told us we could't do it anymore," she says, "and issued resolutions that we should go back to printing the good news and shouldn't be so controversial. The Governing Body Commission completely censored us, so I finally resigned and left." The Hare Krishnas were at a crossroads.

With public sentiment raging against ISKCON, the organization had to scrape for allies. Ironically, it found them in the Indian immigrant community, which had been extremely wary of the group's early outreach efforts. Admits Premananda, "Partly we've gotten a reputation in the Indian community that isn't so great because we've made mistakes," among them, not fully respecting Indian culture. But as the Indian community grew, Hare Krishna temples were often the only places available to worship Krishna and celebrate traditional holidays.

As the group plunged further into cultural and financial crisis, these Indian immigrants became an extremely effective PR tool, giving legitimacy to the Hare Krishnas - who, though they traced their roots back to the 5000-year-old Bhagavad-Gita, were still little more than a decade old. Notes Rochford, "They could stand forward and say,"If you threaten ISKCON, you challenge all of Hinduism. I'm a Hindu by birth, and ISKCON is a part of that." "Indians also provided something else: money. They were relatively wealthy and willing to give. In a departure from the usual practice, they rarely decided to live in the temples. But - with book sales down - it helped far more for the Indians to donate part of their sizable outside-world salaries anyway.

Accordingly, the Hare Krishnas began to replace their monastic structure with a congregational model, where members voluntarily attend Sunday services or special lectures. Anuttama Dasa, the national spokesman, estimates that today there are around 70,000 congregants at ISKCON temples nationwide - over half of whom are Indian or Indian-American. In some areas, like suburban Washington, DC, that figure is 85 percent. Nirmala Sehgal, who's been coming to the Boston temple about every other month since 1993, feels "at home" there because "Krishna is God in India." But the Indian influx meant the organization had to make peace with having less control over its members. "In Hindu traditions, you don't so much become a member of a temple," says Anuttama. "You visit a temple for a sacred experience of visiting a holy place. You might go to this temple for a special holiday, or another one for a different holiday."

The Hare Krishnas' hold on American devotees was also lessened, since temples could no longer afford to feed and house so many people: members were turned out to fend for themselves. Says Rochford: "People who had lived their lives within ISKCON, even 10 or 15 years, now they're 35 years old and having to go outside to rent houses and apartments, get jobs, educate their kids, pay mortgages, basically confront the things many of us are forced to confront in raising our own families." The economic problems disgruntled some devotees, who felt they had given their lives to the movement in exchange for protection from such worldly concerns. Some began to drift away. "If people are more involved in working and attending school in the outside society, they're also in some ways accommodating to that society," says Rochford. "Now people had the flexibility to make decisions about what they want to do with their own lives, whether they want to go to the movies, have TV sets, do a variety of things that had been limited by living communally." Other devotees maintained a slightly diminished role in the temple, living nearby and becoming part of the congregation.

Indeed, Boston's temple (one of only two in New England - the other is in Hartford) is surprisingly reminiscent of a Christian church, the tradition in which many American converts were raised. A bulletin board by the door informs members of the status of a capital campaign (with the upbeat tag line "Investing in our people"). The posted requests are commonplace - the temple wants to redecorate the lounge, raise money for staff training, pay off the mortgage. But there's a jarring openness. "In 1986," reads the board, "we took out a mortgage (at $2500 a month) to pay legal costs related to an anti-cult suit [the Susan Murphy case]. Over the years, the financial pressure has contributed to high staff turnover." That's not language you're likely to see at a Catholic parish dealing with a pedophilia scandal.

Hare Krishna officials now admit that they've made mistakes in the past. The organization shocked observers in 1998, when it commissioned - and then publicly released - an independent report by Rochford on child abuse at its boarding schools, which revealed widespread neglect, abuse, and molestation. And though officials won't go so far as to say that the movement once operated like a cult, they allude to allegations of deceptive or overaggressive recruitment practices made by infuriated anti-cult activists. Says Premananda from the Boston temple: "There were a number of people in the deprogramming movement who thought their children or their neighbors' children had been brainwashed. I think some ISKCON members exacerbated that perception by being overzealous in proselytizing. Sometimes the behavior of our members has contributed to the perception that it's a sect, something dangerous, a cult."

Today, the Hare Krishnas have organized dialogues with Christian groups in Boston, Detroit, Washington, and England. Anuttama has been attending conferences held by the American Family Foundation, an anti-cult group, for the past five years. "I've sat down with these groups and said, "From an organizational point of view, how can we do better? We don't want people thinking we're in this [cult] category." "As a result," he says, "we're looking toward trying to ensure there are grievance procedures in place, checks and balances on people in leadership positions." Anuttama's temple has its books audited by an outside accounting firm to allay fears of financial impropriety. The organization reaches out by operating 80 vegetarian restaurants worldwide and an international relief project called Food for Life, which has shipped vegetarian meals to Mozambique, India, and Chechnya. Temples also continue to provide free weekly feasts after services (which has long been a tactic for luring hungry college students).

Krishna devotees are trying to change the culture within the organization, too. "Instead of casting the net widely, distributing lots of books and getting people to come and they only come once," says Premananda, "we're trying to focus on building community in the temple, among people who come [regularly]." The Boston temple has started a Bhagavad-Gita study group and a support group for people with chronic illness and their caregivers, and it has increased home visits to congregants.

They're also, in some ways, chilling out. The aggressive recruiting techniques are gone, Premananda says. So are the hard-core expectations. "In the '70s, there was more a mood that if you joined ISKCON, that was it," he says. "If you burned your bridges to your old life, so much the better. Nowadays we have a more realistic approach. We expect people who move into an ashram [i.e., a temple] will come, get religious training, but likely - after two to four years - they'll move out." In fact, he says,"If they're not suited for [monastic living], we'll tell them, "Don't give up your day job, don't quit school, but keep practicing Krishna consciousness."

The Hare Krishnas will always hold appeal for a small number of American-born religious seekers like Erika Kitty, a 22-year-old from Worcester who works in a health-food store and has been attending services at the Boston temple since November. But the face of the movement has changed dramatically since the days when legions of hippie youth crowded into Prabhupada's Lower East Side storefront. As Rochford says, " It's a [Hindu] religious sect that increasingly these days is accommodating to American society and is coming to be seen as one more different - but legitimate - denomination in American society." In fact, the organization - with casual members in street clothes - is ironically looking more and more like the Judeo-Christian faiths many believers left behind.

Some critics do remain skeptical that the Hare Krishnas have really changed. Though she applauds the publication of Rochford's findings on child abuse, Nori Muster says: "The same people are still basically in charge. They're always trying to say that the organization has changed now, that they've weeded out the bad people, that the organization is more open now. I just see that as more smoke screen." She says a real measure of openness would be reaching out to disaffected former members. Anti-cult expert Steve Hassan agrees. He's pleased that fewer Krishna devotees live in temples and are therefore beyond the reach of constant monitoring. But, he says, "until they can get rid of the corrupt leaders in this organization and establish a system of accountability and allow people to think negative thoughts, meet with critics, former members, and consider alternatives ... I'm still going to have grave concerns about them."

Indeed, as critics such as Hassan point out, the organization's ultimate success in broadening its appeal and shaking its negative reputation will come from the way it handles the religious doubts and questions of people like Erika Kitty - including their doubts about the Hare Krishna movement itself. "I won't say I have faith that Krishna is the same as God," she said after a recent Sunday service, " so I can't even say I'm a devotee.... [But] I think there's a reason for me to be here, things I have to learn."

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