Book Review - Hare Krishna Transformed

Cultic Studies Review, 7, (2), 2008, 169-174

Hare Krishna Transformed

E. Burke Rochford, Jr.

New York, NY: New York University Press (The New and Alternative Religion Series), 2007. ISBN 978-0-8147-7579-0 (paperback), $22. 288 pages.

Reviewed by Marcia R. Rudin

Because I’ve been involved in counter-cult work for nearly 30 years, one of my major interests today is how cultic groups change and accommodate themselves to new circumstances over time. E. Burke Rochford, Jr., details this process in the ISKON movement in his important new book Hare Krishna Transformed.

Rochford, a professor of sociology and religion at Middlebury College in Vermont, has studied ISKON for 30 years. Hare Krishna Transformed is an excellent examination, via personal interviews and research questionnaires, of how this troubled group has adapted to changing and often dire circumstances in order to survive.

In the 1980s ISKON could no longer able support itself through the sales of literature and preaching that had produced its large income in the 1970s. Members, who until that time had lived primarily together in ISKON temples and communities, were forced to obtain outside jobs to support themselves and the movement. They were also forced to seek individual housing. These changes brought them into more contact with the outside materialistic world and weakened the group’s opposition to the alien popular culture.

At the same time, the young members began to marry, most of these marriages arranged by the group leaders as the only acceptable outlet in the Hare Krishna movement for handling sexual urges. The formation of families caused child-, women-, and family-related issues to come to the fore at the same time the rank and file members were questioning the legitimacy of the leadership.

Rochford concludes that these struggles and the resulting changes the group made have transformed ISKON from an isolated counter-culture organization into a mainstream congregational one. Changes in the economic structure of the organization and the living conditions of its members have caused ISKON to soften its opposition to the outside-world culture. Such changes include that Hare Krishna children now attend public schools and ISKON must accommodate that fact. As a result,

IKSON could no longer assert totalistic claims over the lives and identity of householders and their children, in large part because ISKCON’S leaders lost their ability to control their members through financial dependence…Freed from ISKCON control, householders formed social enclaves between the larger culture and their local ISKCON community, which resulted in the disintegration of ISKON’S traditional communal structure. (p. 67)

Hare Krishna leaders were forced to accelerate reforms when children who had grown up in the group disclosed the occurrence of severe physical, psychological, and sexual abuse in Hare Krishna ashram-based Gurukalas (boarding schools to which children as young as 5, and sometimes 3 years old, were sent); these schools operated either in the United States or in India from 1971 to the 1980s (p. 74). When the extensive child-abuse accusations became public, primarily through a federal lawsuit filed in June 2000 in Dallas, Texas on behalf of 44 young men and women who claimed to be abuse victims, ISKON leaders were forced to deal with these accusations publicly. By 2002, the number of plaintiffs in the case had grown to ninety-two (p. 92).

Busy with their own work and separated physically from their children, parents had had little knowledge of the treatment and the inadequate education provided to them. Many who cared for children and taught in the Gurukalas were not qualified and did not like these jobs, which were on the lowest rung of the work ladder. Often occurring out of frustration and hidden from supervision, physical, psychological, and sexual abuse became rampant. High leaders themselves sometimes instigated the abuse, and they certainly ignored it.

The abused youngsters’ revelations prompted many ISKON women also to complain about and attempt to rectify discrimination against them. Active and increasingly assertive and organized ISKON women protested the negative view of women (women are the source of sexual temptation, they are not qualified for leadership roles in the movement, their spiritual role is to raise children and submit to the men). This protest prompted a counter-movement among some men in the group, which was ultimately defeated. As a matter of practicality, women’s leadership roles in the group also increased because with most of the men working at outside jobs, ISKON needed the women to fulfill leadership roles in the remaining temples, and in the complicated and time-consuming organizational structure.

As the result of drastically declining membership among westerners—the original recruits and target of founder Prabhupada’s outreach—and of declining income, ISKON has turned to cultivating Hindu immigrants from India since the beginning of the 1980s to increase membership and financial contributions. ISKON initially appealed to the Indian immigrants because in those years there were few other Hindu temples to attend in the United States. Today most new ISKON members are Hindus from India who come to the group’s temples only on Sundays, primarily to meet other Indians and to affirm their Hindu heritage and identity. According to Rochford, this trend has resulted in a dilution of Prabhupada’s original teachings and a general “Hinduization” of the ISKON movement. (Rochford reports little social interaction between the Western ISKON members and the Indians, who do not share the group’s spiritual teachings, especially Prabhupada’s emphasis on preaching.) Rochford also points out that ISKON leaders early on deliberately linked ISKON to traditional Hinduism to counteract accusations that the group was a cult. The leaders were able to deflect much criticism of the movement by connecting ISKON to other historical Hindu movements, and by using Indian Hindus to accuse cult critics and the government of religious discrimination when cult accusations were made.

The author summarizes the important changes ISKON has undergone:

…world accommodation has gone hand in hand with the production of new cultural repertoires supportive of families and community development. When they were pushed out of the movement’s oppositional world to establish lives in the conventional society, householders reworked ISKON’S traditional culture to make it responsive to new institutional demands… From radical beginnings that placed preaching and conversion above the needs of families, the Hare Krishna has evolved into an American religious community centered on family life. (p. 214)

As to Rochford’s methodology: I am not a sociologist. However, my father was a sociologist, and when I was as young as 5, he warned me about the pitfalls of statistics. While it appears that Dr. Rochford’s research is for the most part accurate and extensive, my common sense and my father’s long-ago warnings prompt me to wonder about the pool of interviewees and survey subjects Rochford (and other sociologists of religion) draw from, especially when they are querying ex-members about their attitudes after they have left the group.  For example, according to Rochford’s study of former ISKCON members, “In virtually every case, those former ISKCON members who responded to the Centennial Survey affirmed their unwavering commitment to Prabhupada” (p. 165). Rochford admits that the ISKON ex-member population from which he drew his survey subjects might be a bit skewed: “The sample of former ISKCON members is weighted toward those who remained in the devotee networks either inside our outside ISKCON. This is because the Centennial Survey questionnaires were distributed through devotee networks. Although considerable effort was made to include a wide range of former members, it is clear that those who were no longer involved in devotee relationships were unlikely to participate in the Centennial Survey.” (footnote p. 244-245, referring to points made on p. 164).

I would like to have heard more from those ex-Hare Krishnas who have networked with ICSA and other helping organizations or individuals who have over the years reported abuse and mistreatment at the hands of the group and complete disillusionment with it. It seems to me Rochford could have gained access to them for his surveys if he had networked with us. (He claims he put in "considerable effort," but these people are readily available to us.) As usual, the sociologists of religion still ignore this pool of ex-members, attributing criticism of “new religious movements” to “deprogrammers” and “anti-cult” groups. (p. 13).  (By the way, when are these scholars going to stop using these outdated terms?)

I realize that it is not the purpose of Rochford’s book to deal with the issues of abuse in of ISKON or other “new religious movements,” other than to point out how the revelations of extensive child abuse and discrimination against women forced ISKON to deal with these issues and to modify its structure to better accommodate children, women, and the burgeoning family structure in the movement. To be fair, Rochford does credit the ISKON leaders, as we “anti-cult” people do also, with honestly and openly dealing with the scandals of child abuse when they surfaced. (Of course, they were forced to do so when the now-grown children made public the abuses; before that, these accusations were swept under the rug, a practice not uncommon in mainstream religions and institutions, as well.)

And while sociologists of religion emphasize changes that “new religious movements” undergo over the course of time, they rarely if ever acknowledge changes in the “anti-cult” movement, particularly the constant increase in balance of fine scientific studies of cultic movements that ICSA researchers undertake. The sociologists must be aware of these studies—Rochford himself was featured as a prominent speaker at (formerly) AFF conferences in Seattle in 2000 and in Connecticut in 2003.

Perhaps the problem here is these sociologists’ use of the term “new religious movements” to describe what we in the counter-cult movement call, for want of a better term, “cults.” The key question is, as Rochford quotes fellow sociologist Eileen Barker, “When do new religions stop being new? … In the twenty-first century the Unification Church, ISKON, and Scientology are beginning to look old” (p. 215). Does the use of the term “new religious movements” mean that when these groups grow older they are no longer abusive because they have had to accommodate themselves to the outside culture they created themselves to battle? Although this might be the case for ISKON, if you believe Dr. Rochford (and before I accept that it is, I want to hear from ex-members not in ISKON’s network), it is not true for some of the other older groups.

Hare Krishna Transformed is extremely useful for scholars. Rochford argues his points carefully and systematically, building his argument with excellent summaries at the end of each chapter and introductions to the next points he will make. He includes extensive appendices with explanation of statistics, charts, and data tables. The book includes numerous explanatory footnotes, a large glossary of terms, and a large useful bibliography.

Hare Krishna Transformed also will appeal to a general audience. For example, the first chapter, “Growing Up,” which traces the life of a boy born into and raised in the movement, is especially interesting. Rochford’s organization of ideas and writing is extremely clear, and the book is highly readable. Anyone interested in how these groups modify themselves over time and the situation of ISKON in particular today should read this fascinating and informative work.