The organisation finds itself in a holy mess after students file a $400-milion sexual abuse suit
Around 1,000 children were alleged to have been sexually, physically and emotionally abused in ISKCON schools.
The abuse is said to have taken place in 11 schools in the US and two in India between 1972 and the early 1990s.
Many of those abused reportedly became alcoholics and drug-users later. Some even committed suicide.
The late founder Swami Prabhupada is also an accused in the case.
Controversy hovers over them like a halo. Two years ago, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) was rocked by reports of sexual and physical abuse at the society’s gurukuls (boarding schools) in both India and the US. Hare Krishna leaders had immediately moved in with a series of damage-control measures, including a promise to set aside $250,000 (Rs 12 crore) annually to investigate the abuse and to provide counselling and financial help to the victims.
Last week, however, ISKCON relived the nightmare when 44 former students of these gurukuls filed a $400-million (Rs 1,800 crore) lawsuit, alleging years of sexual, physical and emotional torture. The suit was filed in Dallas by high-flying Texas attorney Windle Turley, who had successfully sued a Catholic archdiocese in Texas for over $50 million in sexual abuse cases last year. Turley believes that at least 1,000 children — some as young as three years old — were abused at the gurukuls. He has been quoted as saying that the abuse was of an “unthinkable” nature and included rape, sexual abuse, physical torture and emotional terror.
There are also allegations that teaching positions were granted to sexual predators so that they could have access to children and that young girls from the boarding schools were offered as brides to older men who had donated money to the organisation. The wrongdoings are alleged to have begun in 1972 at ISKCON’s first school in Dallas and continued into the early 1990s.
For the first time, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada — Hare Krishna founder who died in 1977 — has been implicated as one of the accused. Founded in 1966, ISKCON today has a million devotees, runs 50 day schools, 50 spiritual centres, 60 rural communities and 60 restaurants in the US alone.
According to the lawsuit, Swami Prabhupada had ruled that children should be sent to boarding schools at the age of five so that they could learn to become pure devotees.
In 1972, when Swami Prabhupada controlled the institution, he was informed about the extensive physical and sexual abuse of minors but he had concealed the wrongdoings from the public as well as the parents, confiding only in a handful of close advisers, the complaint states. The abuse occurred at 11 gurukuls in America and at two in India. Of these only one gurukul exists today in America, says the suit.
The suit goes on to say that teachers and leaders in Indian schools were among the worst offenders and many of them had also been in schools in the US. It is, however, quick to point out that the boarding schools in India were “staffed and controlled by appointees of ISKCON who were, for most part, assigned from the US”.
The suit also alleges that a significant number of ISKCON children have become alcoholics and drug users, with many having committed suicide. They suffer from a profound sense of guilt, helplessness and loss of self-esteem, it says.
Turley and his associates are demanding $200 million in actual damages and an equal amount in punitive damages, saying that the second demand seeks to “punish and deter outrageous conduct carried out in heedless and reckless disregard for the safety of plaintiffs”. Turley dismisses the ISKCON claim that the organisation does not even have a fraction of the money sought by the plaintiffs. The critics believe that the property and assets of the ISKCON temples would amount to over $500 million.
While the teachers and leaders named in the suit are non-Indians (with the exception of the founder), several Indians who were on the governing body of ISKCON find themselves being named in the suit. Among them is Naveen Khurana who is described as the registered agent for Alachua, the Florida-based ISKCON Foundation.
Another accused is Gopal Khanna, a Montreal businessman and an executor of Swami Prabhupada’s estate. Most of the defendants refuse to comment on the case, seeking time to read the complaint and prepare their defence.
ISKCON was first forced to confront the problem of student abuse at one of its meetings four years ago when 10 former pupils announced that they had been regularly beaten and caned at school, denied medicines and sexually molested and raped at knife point.
“I remember being made to sleep naked in a cold bathtub for a month,” disclosed Jahnavi Dasi, 26, who was sent to a boarding school in Los Angeles as a four-year-old. “I had wet my bed and it was easier for them to make me sleep in the tub than to change my sheets,” she had said. Jahnavi also said that she had gone into a diabetic coma for three weeks because “they neglected to take me to a doctor”.
The meeting led to serious introspection within ISKCON. “We need to get to the bottom of this,” Anuttama Dasa, ISKCON North American director of communications, had said. “And to the best of our ability, we have to do whatever we can to try and repair the damage to the children and show them that we do care as a religious society,” he had added. A sociology professor, E. Burke Rochford Jr from Middlebury College in Vermont, had also been commissioned to carry out a study, which ended up confirming several cases of sexual abuse.
However, Turley and the 44 plaintiffs think ISKCON has not done enough and are determined to seek retribution for a scarred childhood.