Inside the dark secrets of the Hare Krishnas

Ralph Jones investigates the cheery monks in saffron and discovers a movement with a disturbing past

An ex-Hare Krishna is talking to me on the phone from Australia. “I am considered by the Hare Krishna movement what they call a demon,” says Alistair calmly, explaining why he has asked that his real name be withheld. “There’s nothing more they would like to do than get their hands on me and literally, physically, actually, factually, with a very sharp knife, cut out my tongue.”

Flash back seven months and I am in Watford, visiting the gigantic temple that George Harrison donated to the UK’s Hare Krishna organisation in 1973. I have come because I want to unpick one of the great mysteries of our age; a conundrum you’re confronted with every time you see them bouncing down Oxford Street. Who are the Hare Krishnas? Why are they so happy all the time? And how can we heathens get some of their sweet bliss?

To better understand the men in orange I live as one for a night and a day. I wake up with them in the cold hours before dawn; I wear a devotional white tunic; my forehead is daubed with a yellow mixture of clay and water called tilaka. After he has helped dress me, my guide, Deon, leads me down the stairs into their prayer room. There I kneel on the floor with other followers, palms against the temple’s cold stone. It is 4.30am. I dance back and forth with the Hare Krishnas, singing hesitant gibberish in an attempt to follow the words of their morning chant. “You don’t have to sing,” says Deon. But I want to, Deon. I want to. Walking in a circle, we take turns dribbling a spoonful of water onto a plant. At one point, the incantation turns into a frisky conga, more and more followers dancing wildly around, grabbing the microphone and shrieking the mantra they are enjoined to repeat 1,728 times every day.

Later that day I travel to Camden and watch as two members of the organisation distribute free hot food to the homeless – a vast and commendable operation that makes use of produce that supermarkets would otherwise bin. Taking the Tube over to Soho and the movement’s London headquarters, I join a handful of followers and bash a tambourine down Oxford Street. Parting crowds like Moses, I chant about Hare Krishna for half an hour on one of the busiest streets in the world, flanked by men with shaved heads, rat tails and orange robes. At one point we stand in a line in front of Marks & Spencer, stopping shoppers walking by. We sway from side to side and tourists take photos of us, the inexplicable noisemakers in the February drizzle.

The group seem like a loopy and harmless crowd. But their vacant expressions – like those you’d see on the recently lobotomised – make me wonder: is this the whole story? 

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Ralph walking down Oxford Street with the Hare Krishnas

HUMBLE BEGINNINGS

“My introduction to Hare Krishna was similar to yours,” Alistair says. “You kind of think, ‘Wow, I didn’t realise the Hare Krishnas were such nice people.’” Now 62, Alistair was a member of an Australian branch for 17 years. “It’s only in the past four or five years that I’ve come to realise the ideology is a load of bollocks,” he says of the belief system that tells its followers not to eat garlic because it will make them too passionate.

Though the Hare Krishna theology is rooted in Hindu scripture, its manifestation in the West is a modern phenomenon. When you and I speak of ‘the Hare Krishnas’, we’re talking about the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCon), the late-20th-century legacy of Abhay Charanaravinda Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. The controversial guru is responsible for launching the organisation in the West, bringing it to the attention of millions after he arrived in the United States in 1965. So integral is he to the movement that devotees mention him far more often than the religion’s deity, Krishna himself. In the Watford temple, followers regularly prostrate themselves before a life-sized – and none too creepy – sedentary model of him.

Because Prabhupada’s near-every word was documented, followers are aware of his colourful history. He impregnated his wife when she was 14; he said men’s brains weigh twice as much as women’s; he claimed that syphilis is the result of women keeping large dogs for sex, and he believed men never really landed on the moon.

Almost all the ex-members I speak to are too scared to have their real name reported. One exception is Nori Muster, a sunny 60-year-old American I interview several times. Her book Betrayal Of The Spirit is the most eviscerating account written by an ex-member. After joining in 1978, Nori lived in a close-knit community in the organisation’s nine-building LA compound. There she produced the ISKCon World Review, a newspaper that published the organisation’s good news: “We used to call it the whitewash rag.” Things took an unexpected turn in 1986 when Stephen Bryant, a man who had just left the movement, was fatally shot. Nori’s father was outraged that the Review failed to mention it. Soon after, disgusted with how the organisation conducted itself, Nori left – not before the chairman of ISKCon’s managerial authority called her a “crusading, exposé, get-all-the-dirt-out journalist”. 

Red flow

MURDER AT NIGHT

Stephen Bryant’s assassination is a watershed moment in ISKCon’s history. In the eyes of senior gurus at the West Virginia temple, he had become that most dangerous of things: an apostate. Increasingly erratic, he was taking cocaine and had threatened to kill his gurus. On 22 May 1986, Thomas Drescher, an ex-disciple from the same temple, travelled to LA and found Bryant lying in his van. In the middle of the night, Drescher fired two bullets into Bryant’s brain.

Laughed at by police and ignored by journalists when he referred to ISKCon as a “demonic cult” that harboured child molesters, Bryant had written a manuscript exposing the serious crimes of various gurus. One of these was Kirtanananda Swami Bhaktipada (real name Keith Ham). The assassin Drescher, who had already been convicted for murdering another devotee in 1983, was given a life sentence for Bryant’s murder. At one point he testified that Kirtanananda had ordered him to kill Bryant. In 1996 Kirtanananda pleaded guilty to racketeering charges and conspiracy to commit murder, all the while denying he was involved in the murders. ISKCon’s international director of worldwide communications, Anuttama Dasa, says, “There’s definitely evidence that Kirtanananda had something to do with it.”

For an organisation so proud of its blissed-out, peaceful reputation, the Hare Krishna movement has been linked to some shockingly violent scandals. Thirty-five years after joining, another ex-member, Jonathan (not his real name), says he is still terrified of the group. “In my heart I want you to use my name, because I’m old and sick and tired of being anonymous,” the 69-year-old says. But this resolve loses out to fear for his safety. “I could be a prime target for retribution,” he says. “One phone call and a Miami thug will fuck me up.”

It was in the late ‘70s that ISKCon looked like it might fall to pieces. Nori says that during this period the movement was connected to a range of drug rings, the biggest of which was probably that in California’s Laguna Beach. Roy Richard, then president of the Laguna Beach temple, tells me that the temple was founded in order to cultivate members of the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, who distributed most of the LSD, hash and pot to the US in the ‘60s. He says that, on the instruction of Jayatirtha Prabhu, another senior ISKCon member (who was later decapitated by one of his disciples), he introduced fallen Hare Krishnas to drug smugglers in the Brotherhood, letting these smugglers return with money for ISKCon.

Richard served a year in prison for helping to smuggle hashish honey oil from Pakistan to the US, while officially still the temple president. The smugglers evaded Pakistani customs and walked through with the drugs hidden in hollow typewriter cases. Once in Laguna Beach, they sold the oil in baby bottles that fetched $11,000 apiece. Richard tells me that as the operation developed, the smugglers bribed officials in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and other countries. He also confirms that senior members of the organisation were complicit in running drug rings, stressing, however, that most of ISKCon’s leaders were innocent.

Anuttama does not deny that there were people bringing in money via drug sales. But he claims that when Prabhupada learned about it, he ordered that the money be cut off. Prabhupada did condemn drug smuggling in his disciples, Richard says, but that did not necessarily mean the organisation could not accept the money: “He said that only after giving them good counsel and opportunity could I accept donations from them. And is that wrong,” he asks, “to take money from dark doings and engage it in welfare works instead?”

Hare Krishna HR (1)

A newspaper clipping about the Hare Krishnas from the 1970s

GOD CREATED MAN

To this day, women cannot become gurus within the Hare Krishna organisation. When I visit the Watford temple, men and women are generally kept separate and it is noticeable that women are rarely encouraged to move from the background into the foreground. Anuttama defends the current climate, saying that he doesn’t think misogyny is “a big problem”. But all of the ex-members I interview testify that, because of its leader’s influence, sexism courses through the veins of the organisation. During her time in the group Nori witnessed “really terrible misogyny” that had “a chilling effect on women”.

Another baffling element of the faith is that Hare Krishnas believe that Earth is closer to the sun than it is to the moon. I press Anuttama: does he personally believe the moon is farther away from us? “I don’t know,” he says. “I’ve never been there and I don’t wanna go. Have you been to the moon, Ralph?” In an email statement the UK spokesperson says, “I’ve still got a lot to learn; I don’t want to be tied down to an answer.”

Lucy, a 57-year-old ex-member from Australia, says, “The Hare Krishnas are worried the world will find out what AC Bhaktivedanta really preached.” At one point he said: “Although rape is not legally allowed, it is a fact that a woman likes a man who is very expert at rape.” I ask Anuttama how he feels about this. “Did he mean physically accosted, violently threatened, sexually assaulted? Absolutely not,” he says. “Did he mean women like men to be aggressive? I think so.” In an email statement, the UK spokesperson said: “His choice of words must be looked at in context of his traditional colonial upbringing and education, as he often uses obsolete definitions of words, such as rape, which in the 19th century meant ‘to delight’ or ‘ravage’ as opposed to the horrific meaning of the term we know today.” (Prabhupada died in 1977.)

Anuttama and Richard are at pains to point out that the group’s values are noble ones. “Have there been defects and bad people? Absolutely,” says Anuttama. “Are we gonna have bad people in future? Absolutely. Do we have some bad people now? Probably.” Listening to him say that the organisation’s positives must be taken into consideration, it is difficult not to be reminded of an abusive husband who insists in court that no one should forget about all those cups of tea he made for his wife. This is a group that lost a massive child-abuse lawsuit only 17 years ago. But, in addressing its treatment of women, in making themselves available for questioning, and in founding a taskforce to confront the systemic child abuse, ISKCon has shown improvement. Richard tells me that since the mid-’80s the only drug dealing in the Hare Krishna world is carried out by devotees “far removed from ISKCon communities”.

If ISKCon is so pock-marked by scandal, why do so many of its followers cling to it like limpets? Jonathan says they are paralysed; the organisation is like “a spider’s nest that catches butterflies and drains them of all capacity to think critically about what they got themselves into”. According to Alistair, “A lot of them end up destitute. No family. No friends. No resources. No career. No money. No assets. No hope. Just misery, by the end of their life.”

Nori says that when the hot summers came around, and the California nights grew so warm you had to open your windows, the air was filled with the sound of crying. “I remember I did it a few times,” she says. “I would wake up in the night and just cry – loud.”