If you were walking by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) temple, you might hear the soft cling of finger cymbals or the beat of a drum. You might smell the drifting, sticky-sweet incense or hear the incantations, which are supposed to bring the Hare Krishnas closer to God. As you approach the house, it gets louder: "Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, HareHare..."
ISKCON was formed in New York in 1966 by an enigmatic little man named A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. He stepped off the boat from India into a country in the midst of a cultural revolution. Prabhupada's mission was to open the world to Krishna consciousness (an offshoot of the Northern Indian Vaisnava tradition) and young seekers swarmed to him. Soon, ISKCON devotees--Hare Krishnas--peppered America's streets and airports, chanting and peddling flowers. In the mind-expanding mood of the 1960s, ISKCON looked like a harmless hippie fad. But as the organization grew, the material world became less and less immaterial. After Prabhupada's death in 1977, ISKCON descended into chaos and scandal. The Hare Krishna world was carved up among 11 gurus, and in each guru's zone, his authority was absolute. Some of the 11 became corrupted absolutely.
In 1998, ISKCON opened a six million dollar temple in India, complete with nine animatronic Gods. The "Glory of India" seemed to show how far the group had come. However, a $400 million lawsuit, filed in the US last year, points to a darker side. If it goes forward, it may be the last chapter of the story--a story of power struggles, drugs, and murders.
EVERY MOTHER'S NIGHTMARE
Those dark problems seem far away at the Portland temple, where about 100 devotees and "fringies" are chanting, being happy, and thinking about Krishna. ISKCON's shadows don't hang over the Sunday feast. It's a mixed crowd of hippies and hipsters, blacks, whites, and a few Indians. Everyone is more or less focused on the two statues at the front of the room, draped in gold robes, sequins and beads; the two brothers who, 500 years ago, first got the idea that chanting Krishna's name would bring them closer to him.
There are four devotees living at the Portland Temple. Tonight, Janardana das (formerly Louis Jackson) beats the drum. Devaprastha (David Willard) is downstairs cooking. Jaya Ya Ram (John Perdue) and Bakhta Travis (Travis Geyer) chant along with the rest.
Behind me is a small, disturbingly life-like statue, a miniature Prabhupada. Someone put a little purple hat and scarf on him, as if he was cold. His eyes are half-closed, and to me--a karmie, a meat eater--he looks either completely detached, or completely stoned. In another painting of Prabhupada on the wall, the bald prophet has bags under his eyes and looks tired and worn. This may be because he slept only three hours a night and wrote his 51 books between 1:30 and 4:30 in the morning.
The chanting goes on for over an hour, but I don't feel closer to anything except extreme boredom. Out the window, I can see the Benjamin Franklin High School baseball field and, as time drags on, it looks more and more beautiful--so geometric and familiar. So American. My mind wanders to the Dairy Queen--to dip cones and Mr. Mistys--then back to the temple, and I wonder, "What am I doing here?"
Every now and then, the incense overwhelms, the cymbals ring in my ears, and I feel like I'm on the edge of being transported on the edge of revelation. Suddenly I'm afraid I'll be sucked in and by tomorrow I'll be downtown peddling books with a bad haircut.
From behind a curtain, a woman comes out and blows into a shell. The sound is deep and primordial and for some reason makes me hungry, which reminds me why I'm really here: free food. Every Sunday, Hare Krishnas around the world bribe people to come hear their message by offering a meal, even though you could pay with your soul--which, according to the Prabhupada, is all you've got.
Devaprastha. Janardana. Ja Ya Ram. Bhakta Travis. Names that strike terror into every mother's heart. I think of my own mother and how this is her worst nightmare--me, chanting at the Hare Krishna temple, swaying with the rest. She was terrified that I would stop writing, stop calling, and show up years later as Chakradara asking if she wanted to buy flowers.
Now I can't help wondering if she was right. How do you know when someone is controlling your mind? How do you know when you're being brainwashed? I feel the urge to run out and purge myself with a banana split, to lie naked in the Benjamin Franklin baseball diamond. But I don't. I stay and slowly give in to boredom.
GUNS, RACKETEERING, AND SEX: THE KRISHNA MAFIA
For a small organization, ISKCON has had more than its share of bad publicity, and most of it was well deserved. When Prabhupada "left" in 1977, there was a deep power struggle over who would lead the movement. The 11 gurus who carved the world made up the "Governing Body Commission," which Prabhupada set up before he died. He may or may not have appointed the 11. No one knows for sure.
One thing that is certain is that their unchecked power was too much for most. According to some devotees, 90 percent of Prabhupada's initiated disciples either left or were pushed out of ISKCON, so the GBC could rule unquestioned. Hansadutta, the West Coast guru, started stockpiling weapons. Kirtanananda, at the "Palace of Gold" in the Appalachian hills of West Virginia, operated a multi-million dollar racketeering operation. There was rampant physical and sexual abuse in the gurukulas (the boarding schools). At least two dissident ISKCON members were murdered, and there is talk of others disappearing in India. All along, there have been rumors of drug smuggling. It sometimes looked like Machiavelli and The Prince had replaced the Krishna and Bhagavad Gita.
In the mid-1980s, some people went to jail for the murders, a few gurus quit, and others broke away to form splinter groups. For a while it looked like ISKCON was self-destructing, because "too many gurus did not want to spread Prabhupada's teachings, they wanted to be Prabhupada," according to John Hubner and Lindsay Gruson in their book, Monkey on a Stick. ISKCON teetered for a while, and there was talk of reform, but little came. In the mid-1990s, the president of the New Orleans temple was found tied to a chair with his throat slit. Today, membership is a fraction of what it was.
Nori Muster worked for 10 years as ISKCON's publicist, before quitting in disgust. She thinks the group is beyond hope.
"They don't like to let people know there's really as much chaos as there is," she says of ISKCON's leadership. In 1997, Muster published her book, Betrayal of Spirit, about her 10 years in ISKCON's publicity department.
"What you have now is just a dying thing that's kind of lingering," she says. "It would take a lot for them to turn it around at this point. And that would involve being more honest about their history, opening up more about their finances, and where they get their money from, which we still can't figure out They (the leaders) have access to lots of money and they channel it where they want it."
For Muster, it's a matter of the corruption and intransigence of the GBC, especially the core group of gurus. "They took over the organization in about 1970, and they have run it ever since. And they have run it with an iron fist."
KRISHNA: EVERYTHING AMERICA IS NOT
Five years ago, Louis Jackson's lease ran out. He had no place to go--so he moved into the Berkeley Hare Krishna temple.
"I figured I'd try it out," he says. Jackson's friend, David Willard, had also recently shaved his dreadlocks and moved in. The two former Stanford students were at that crucial point in life when you leave the institutional womb and jump off the precipice.
Jackson and Willard had vague plans for a music career, but it was more idea than plan. "We were basically trying to figure out what our philosophy in life was, and how we could practice it--and make some money," says Willard.
The friends were also taking a martial arts class in kapoeira, and their teacher was a Hare Krishna. The more they talked about the philosophy, the more Krishna consciousness began to overshadow kapoeira. Jackson graduated with a degree in History and Black Studies, and then got a job at a museum in Oakland--commuting, punching in, punching out. He was totally miserable. So when his lease was up, he quit and moved in with his friend.
It's a hard life, being a Hare Krishna, and no one chooses it easily. You get up at four in the morning and chant for two hours. You stand on street corners all day. You sell books to people who don't want them. You can never eat a cheeseburger. You get no respect. It is austere and unforgiving.
But, as Willard says, it is also simple and sublime. Krishna consciousness is everything America is not, which is why it's so strange and so alluring. "I grew up in a Christian church," says Willard, "so I always believed in God. But because the church wasn't able to explain anything to me about my life, and give what I felt was a logical reasonable framework for living, I abandoned it. I look at being a Hare Krishna as a culmination of five or six years of really grappling with the question of what I'm doing here."
The impermanence of the world also struck both Willard and Jackson. For Jackson, it was when he injured his knee and saw his martial arts career ripped away. It was the realization that he is his soul, not his body. For Willard, it was more all-encompassing. "I'd been on this trip for a long time," he says, "Where I realized, the only thing I know for certain is that I'm going to die. And all those other things, I don't really know. It struck me that all the things that made me happy were external things that could be taken away at any moment."
Now their lives are harder, but better. "I'd rather do this than some useless thing," says Jackson, "There's no way I could go out there and just work for some Joe Shmoe company, where the goal isn't the ultimate goal. There's no way I could do that. This way I work, but at least I work for this goal. At least I work for Krishna."
If 1977 wasa bad year for ISCKON, 1997 might have been worse. That was the year Nori Muster's book came out giving, what was for many, a first glimpse of the machinations of the organization. It was also the year several tapes were leaked to ex-ISKCON member Tim Lee--tapes of Prabhupada's final days on earth. On them, Prabhupada allegedly says several times he is being poisoned.
Lee was kicked out of ISCKON in 1980 for raising questions about the succession of the 11 gurus--whether they were really appointed by Prabhupada. But before they kicked him out, Lee says they offered to make him the guru for Ireland. "When I refused that," he says, "they said, okay, you just better watch your back then."
Lee went on investigating, and in 1986, he found out that those threats weren't empty. On May 22, at 1:00 a.m., his friend Steve Bryant, who was also investigating ISKCON, was assassinated on the orders of GBC guru Kirtananda. In the assassin's pocket was a piece of paper with Lee's license plate number. He was next on the list.
Since then, Lee has been on a mission to reform ISKCON. "The GBC is run by a very small, tight group of people," Lee says, "all the people that were in the room when Prabhupada was poisoned. These guys are all untouchables. You might kick 10,000 or 100,000 people out of ISKCON, but you will never kick these guys out. Never."
Lee's discovery of "The Poison Issue" has given him a vast new arsenal in his war on the GBC. He has amassed an impressive amount of evidence suggesting that when Prabhupada died while visiting Vrindavan, India--surrounded by his closest disciples--something was amiss.
"The FBI has said that if this were in America, you guys would have a very good case," says Lee. "You've got a statement from the victim. You've got eyewitnesses confirming that he's saying he's being poisoned. You've got people whispering about poison. One hair at least with some arsenic in it. Something was going on here."
The tapes have catalyzed reform and splinter groups. (You can listen to them on the internet at www.geocities. com/ CapitolHill/Parliament/3933/.) And the GBC has gone on the defensive. In response to the publication of the book, Someone Has Poisoned Me, they put out their own account, Not that I am Poisoned. The war of words continues. And regardless of whether it is ever proven, the fact that so many people are willing to believe it doesn't bode well for ISKCON. Some have started calling it IS-CON and IT'S GONE.
If there are two sides to ISKCON, this is the darker one. It is a side you will only find once you start turning over rocks. Last year, a huge boulder was lifted up, when Dallas attorney Windle Turley filed a lawsuit against ISKCON on behalf of hundreds of children who were abused and raped in an ISKCON boarding school. If it goes forward, it could mean $400 million worth of bad karma.
"The truth is coming out," says Lee, "And ISKCON is being reformed by force. Gradually, we are informing rank and file people about what happened. And more and more people are finding out. So it is, overall, catching up with them. The molestation is catching up. The poison case is catching up. All these things--layers and layers of lies--are gradually being unpeeled. It's just a question of time before they're fully unpeeled and the whole thing totally caves in. It can't go on."
KRISHNA GOT ME OFF CRACK
ISKCON's lighter sideis visible at the Portland Sunday feast: People chant and listen to a sermon, then laugh, talk, and eat good food.
Mike Bass, a 52-year-old street musician/comedian, says he loves the chanting, and had his first religious experience in this house.
"I'm not an initiated Hare Krishna or anything like that," he says, "but this is a lot more fun than smoking crack." Bass, who once saw Prabhupada in San Francisco in the 1970s, has been coming to the Portland temple for the last year, and it changed his life.
"For two years," he says, "you could see me down on Burnside any day of the week, trying to get you for your money so I could smoke some crack. And since I been coming here, I smoke no crack."
The Sunday mood is festive and relaxed. People seem happy to be here. An Indian man tells me he comes here for a little slice of his homeland. A dreadlocked American says he likes to pick and choose from the different paths to God, this being just one. No one seems obviously brainwashed, glaze-eyed, or in need of deprogramming. There is a hopeful feeling among the people I talk to, like they've found this new way, and it feels right. The politics of ISKCON seem far away. And they may just be, says Muster.
"They have a whole side that's underground," she says of the GBC. "I think that's why they're so secretive, and protective, and uncaring about their members. None of the members know about this stuff. Nobody knows. The younger people don't know anything. And that's the way they like it." Muster worries that this means they will be doomed to repeat ISCKON's mistakes.
Devaprastha has no such worries "For followers here in Portland," he says, "it doesn't matter who's on the GBC--in one sense--because we still have to get up at four, we still have to chant 16 rounds. We still have to follow the four regulative principles. We still have to have a morning program. We still have to have a Sunday feast."
"Whatever goes on in ISKCON," he says, "here in Portland, we're not going to repeat the same mistakes. And whatever happens in the GBC, I can't influence that. But what I know is that we have an impact on how we practice Krishna consciousness, here in our lives in Portland. And over time, this thing's going to fly, because I know this philosophy is pure."
He says that he and Janardana are the second generation, and can learn from the mistakes of the first. "The movement is still very young," he says, "I can see, as time goes by, things are changing. I mean, it's only 30 years."
BEHIND PRABHUPADA'S EYES
As the Sunday feast dies down, devotees and fringies trickle out into the night--stomachs full and souls a little closer to God. The curtains close in front of the two statues and the room gets quiet. As I leave, I look again at the painting of Prabhupada, this mysterious, mystical, little man who came to America as nothing and left as a God. No wonder he looks so tired.
Now his creation, ISCKON, is at a crossroads. Will it turn around and grow slowly over time, maturing like wine? Will it be destroyed in the courts and rise again to new life? Or will it just whither away?
If you look closely, it's almost as if you can see all these questions in Prabhupada's old liquid eyes. There is so much in them you could see--the impermanence, the suffering, the happiness, and fatigue, the transcendence and sadness. There are oceans within them.
Perhaps he's thinking of Dilly Bars.
The Hare Krishna free vegetarian feast happens every Sunday sometime between 5 and 7:30 pm, at 2353 SE 54th, in Portland.
For more information on ISKCON, go to their official website at http://www. iskcon.org/.
For unofficial ISKCON news, see http://www.vnn.org/.