The changing face of Krishna

Sam Richardson is a graphic designer. Jay Gupta is a pharmacist. Celia Markey home schools her three children.

Their paths might not cross naturally, but these New Englanders all chant, dance, study and eat together at Boston's temple of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness – the Hare Krishnas.

Ishan Pujari, a Hare Krishna priest, leads a midday service this week at the Old East Dallas temple. "It's entirely possible these days that a Hare Krishna could be living next door to you and you wouldn't know it," said Burke Rochford, a professor at Vermont's Middlebury College, who has been studying the movement since the 1970s. "They're just now part of the culture in ways that the average person couldn't have imagined some 20 or 25 years ago."

The society was founded in 1966 by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, an Indian monk who'd arrived in New York the previous year to spread Hinduism in the West. Its theology is based on the teachings of Caitanya Mahaprabhu, the philosopher born in 1486 whom Hare Krishnas believe was an incarnation of the Hindu god, Krishna. The movement emphasizes devotion through simple living and the repeated chanting of Krishna's name.

Today, the Hare Krishnas operate almost 400 temples and farm communities worldwide, about 50 of them in North America. Officials of the movement claim 100,000 members in North America, and 1 million worldwide, but Dr. Rochford cautioned that those numbers may not be reliable. Other estimates, he said, place the number of U.S. devotees at no more than 50,000.

In the 1960s and early '70s, the movement seemed to capture the counterculture zeitgeist. Those it originally attracted were largely young, single and white. They lived in the temple, wore distinctive saffron robes and worked exclusively for the Hare Krishnas – often handing out incense or literature while soliciting donations on college campuses or at airports.

Today's Hare Krishna is far more likely to live and work outside the temple, be married with a family, and dress in clothes from Brooks Brothers or L.L. Bean.

Most North American temples are heavily Indian – a sign, many say, that the Krishna movement has gained respectability among worshippers from the birthplace of Hinduism.

But these are only the most noticeable differences to have taken place through the decades.

Leaders and scholars of the movement describe a religion that is maturing, one that is part of, rather than apart from, mainstream American life. Once known for their enthusiastic – many would say annoying – proselytizing, Hare Krishnas today speak of tending to the needs of existing members. Once a haven for the anti-establishment, the movement today trains temple leaders in such worldly concerns as fiscal management and administration.

In the early days, "most of the emphasis was placed on expanding the mission," said Premananda Dasa, congregational director of the Boston temple. "Right now our primary emphasis is more liturgical and pastoral."

The shift comes after years of scandals and waning membership following the death of the Krishna movement's founder in 1977. Even now, the movement is coping with the fallout from its biggest scandal, the sexual and physical abuse of hundreds of children by teachers and other adults in Hare Krishna schools in the 1970s and '80s, including one in Dallas.

The abuse led to a $400 million lawsuit, which in turn led about a dozen Hare Krishna temples to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, so they could remain open while negotiating a settlement with the victims. The movement last month filed a reorganization plan that proposes up to $15 million for the victims, and Krishna officials said they hope to reach a final agreement with the victims later this year, closing at least the legal chapter of the abuse tragedy.

Observers point to the Hare Krishnas' newfound emphasis on family as a major indicator of the depth of the movement's changes.

"That shift from just monks and nuns to more of a congregation-based religion has really led to openness and has had consequences in a lot of areas," said Maria Ekstrand, a longtime member and co-editor of the upcoming book The Hare Krishna Movement: The Postcharismatic Fate of a Religious Transplant.

In Boston, 16 people live in the temple, while about 125 attend services on Sundays. Dallas has 10 devotees in its temple, near Interstate 30 and East Grand Avenue. About 50 worshipping families live nearby, and there's a broader Dallas-Fort Worth community of about 150 initiated devotees and 300 families, according to temple president Vinod Patel.

At the Boston temple, Mr. Richardson, Mr. Gupta, and Ms. Markey are part of a community that includes students and recent college graduates, young couples and their toddlers, and middle-aged members who've been around since the 1970s.

With such diversity come broader concerns, spiritual and material.

"Twenty-year-olds who are single can live pretty simple," said Anuttama Dasa, a spokesman for the movement. "You don't need playgrounds if your whole community is 20-year-olds. You may not need marriage counseling. You may not need to deal with a lot of the different kinds of social issues that churches and synagogues all over the country deal with."

Today, Hare Krishna communities run social services programs, participate in interfaith activities and operate Sunday schools. In a few cities, including Dallas, they have day schools. The one in Dallas educates 18 children.

Unlike in years past, devotees are encouraged to maintain good ties with relatives outside the Hare Krishna community.

As much as some things have changed, though, others remain constant. The Hare Krishna mantra (heard on the George Harrison song "My Sweet Lord") is still ubiquitous, strict vegetarianism rules, and gambling and extramarital sex are forbidden.

One young couple, Mangala-Arotik Dasi and Brahma Muhurta Dasa – known in their secular lives as Madeleine and Michael Buhler-Rose – met while living in a rural Hare Krishna community in Pennsylvania.

They now live in an apartment around the corner from the Boston temple, where they attend services at least three times a week. He, an initiated priest, performs "life cycle" rituals, such as weddings and baby ceremonies, around the country.

They use their devotional names and wear robes while in the temple or with fellow Hare Krishnas elsewhere. At school or work, they dress in Western clothes.

"What I found was a group of people walking their talk," Mangala-Arotik Dasi said of her fellow members. "They were acting and living what they spoke."

"Walking their talk" was not always the case for many movement leaders.

There is widespread acknowledgment that early converts were "overzealous," a word that repeatedly came up in interviews with those who watched the movement evolve.

From its inception, the movement was labeled a cult. Temple leaders were accused of brainwashing impressionable young converts, convincing them to remove themselves from society and giving themselves wholly to the Hare Krishnas.

Many of the accusations stemmed from the same activities that made the movement an authentic expression of Hinduism, said Larry Shinn, president of Berea College in Kentucky and author of The Dark Lord: Cult Images and the Hare Krishnas in America.

"Dancing in the streets with ochre robes on your men, women in saris with the red dot on their forehead, and reciting in Bengali old Krishna stories that originate from the 16th century is absolutely deemed to be cultic" by many Americans, he said.

"But the 'strange' behavior is really Indian and Hindu. It's not some aberrant human being who's developed this system in the last 10 or 15 years."

That's not to say all accusations were unwarranted.

Former members say the movement pressured devotees to renounce their lives and sever ties with friends and families. Some leaders abused and coerced followers. Parents were expected to proselytize while leaving their children at boarding schools with untrained teachers – where, it would later be revealed, many were physically and sexually abused.

"Speaking as a member of the first generation, we made a lot of mistakes," said Anuttama Dasa, the Hare Krishna spokesman.

The problems were exacerbated by the unexpected success of Prabhupada's mission to America, said Edwin Bryant, an assistant professor of religion at Rutgers University in New Jersey and the co-editor, with Ms. Ekstrand, of the forthcoming book on the Hare Krishna movement.

"You had one elderly swami, and the next thing, you had tens of thousands of disciples. Who's going to manage all those people?" he said. "Kids that were one minute smoking pot and living hedonistic lifestyles in the streets, the next minute they were shaved up and they were temple presidents."

The gravest problems began after Prabhupada's death. During the next decade, many leaders left in disgrace because of sex scandals and criminal behavior.

The darkest episode in the movement's history was not revealed publicly until the '90s. Early in that decade, young people who had grown up in Krishna boarding schools began speaking about the physical and sexual abuse by teachers and other adults.

In 1999, an official Hare Krishna publication ran an article by Dr. Rochford documenting the abuse. Soon after, Dallas attorney Windle Turley filed a $400 million lawsuit against the International Society for Krishna Consciousness on behalf of nearly 100 people who said they'd been abused. The suit is on hold while the Hare Krishnas work on their Chapter 11 reorganization plan, which is expected to include a settlement with the victims.

By the time the lawsuit was filed, all U.S. boarding schools, known as gurukulas, had been closed. The Hare Krishnas, all sides agree, took steps to help and compensate victims; to investigate charges of abuse and punish perpetrators; and to institute prevention programs. (There is less agreement, however, about the extent and efficacy of these steps.)

About a dozen temples and other institutions named in the suit have filed for bankruptcy protection. The Hare Krisnhas called the bankruptcy filing the fairest way to ensure justice for victims while not shutting down temples. Mr. Turley called the move a dodge, adding that the voluntary compensation to victims, generally $2,000 grants, was paltry.

Others question how sincerely and thoroughly the society faced up to the abuse, at least in the past.

"There are some really wonderful, smart, liberal people who were always jumping up and down saying that something had to be done," said Ms. Ekstrand. "But the only reason the rest of them listened was out of fear of what would happen if they didn't."

Leaders now speak of the need for healing, of doing whatever can be done, spiritually and financially, for victims – and of eradicating abuse. Child abuse prevention is at the top of the agenda of the movement's new management training courses, and systems are in place for reporting and investigating complaints, said Anuttama Dasa.

"We hope it's going to be something that's really going to heal our communities and provide for the kids as much as possible and keep temples open," he said.

But while the organization looks ahead, many of the roughly 500 abuse victims who've come forward say they still live with the trauma of the past.

"Everything was given to ... these people, and they took it all, even my 6-year-old body," said Ananda Tiller, who said she was abused in the Dallas school in the early 1980s. Now in her late 20s, she is a plaintiff in the lawsuit. "The basic teachings are very chauvinistic, and they don't value family, they don't value children."

She said her brother, who also lived at the school, was another victim of abuse.

"We were in houses side by side, and I literally heard him screaming one night," she said. "I ran out of my ashram and was trying to look through the window. ... It sounded like he was being tortured."

Scholars agree that the attitude toward children is dramatically different today. They point to the closing of the gurukulas and the emphasis on family.

"Children are now in nuclear families," Dr. Rochford said, adding that the Hare Krishna organization "has very little direct role in the life of those children."

The scandals led many devotees to leave in disillusionment. While some gave up on their adopted faith entirely, many continued to live "Krishna-conscious" lifestyles outside of the Hare Krishna organization.

One who left was Nimai Nitai, a Hare Krishna since the late '70s. Known as Nicolas Carballeira in his secular life, he teaches at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston. Five years after leaving, he returned to the Hare Krishnas in 2001. At 52, he's now planning on retiring to live at the Boston temple and serve it full time.

"There's not much support out there for what we do," he said, adding that without the Hare Krishna organization, "it would be virtually impossible in the West to attempt to follow this path."

The movement faces continuing financial difficulties and dwindling numbers of converts. But Hare Krishnas say numbers are not the most important measure of success.

"Now that the movement is poor – surviving, but poor – those who have remained have remained because they truly believe, they truly practice, and they truly care," Nimai Nitai said.

"And the quality of devotion that one encounters is very different from the sad days of the '80s and '90s."