In 1975, Swami Srila Prabhupada, the founder of the worldwide Hare Krishna movement, was visiting his Berkeley temple when a disciple asked him the $64,000 question.

"What will happen when you die?"

His answer is enshrined on a plaque inside the ornate East Bay temple, between a life-size replica of Prabhupada and flower-bedecked statues of Hindu deities.

"I will never die," the India-born guru replied. "I shall live through my books."

Two years later, Prabhupada was dead. And while his books survive, the Hindu sect he built is foundering, mired in power struggles and legal troubles.

One of the tests facing any spiritual cult or religious sect is surviving the death of its charismatic founder.

For the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, the founding guru's decision to pass the flame to 11 separate disciples may have been a fatal error.

Years of infighting among Prabhupada's successors--along with a huge sexual abuse lawsuit filed against them by the children of Hare Krishna parents--may soon bankrupt the movement.

Hare Krishna devotees were among the most visible of the new religious movements that took root in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s. Known for their incessant chanting, shaved heads, and saffron robes, the Hindu sect became one of the spiritual icons of the hippie counterculture.

Now, 25 years after its founding, the Hare Krishna movement faces its most serious challenge.

Last summer, a Texas lawyer filed a $400 million lawsuit alleging widespread sexual, emotional, and physical abuse of more than 40 Krishna kids at the Dallas ashram, at the Krishna temple in West Virginia, and at other schools, called gurukulas, around the country.

At least five of Prabhupada's anointed successors have been named in the child abuse suit, including one who already sits in a North Carolina prison, convicted of racketeering.

"There has been a raging political struggle over the movement's leadership," said E. Burke Rochford, a professor of sociology and religion at Middlebury College in Vermont.

Some of the earliest and most intense infighting took place at New Vrindaban, a golden temple built in rural West Virginia by Keith Ham, one of the founder's earliest American converts and one of his 11 handpicked successors. Some of the worst of the reported child abuse also took place at New Vrindaban.

Ham, also known as Swami Kirtanananda, is now serving a nine-year term in a North Carolina prison for racketeering. Expelled from the Hare Krishna movement in 1987, Ham is one of 18 individual defendants named in the child abuse lawsuit filed by Dallas attorney Windle Turley.

Four years ago, Turley won a $118 million verdict in a child molestation case against the Roman Catholic Church in Texas.

"They can't survive that kind of financial hit," said Rochford, a new religions scholar who has studied the Hare Krishnas for more than two decades.

One of the most damaging allegations in the lawsuit, Rochford said, is that Prabhupada himself was informed of extensive child abuse back in 1972, but "concealed the wrongdoing from the public, parents, and a handful of close advisers."

"Prabhupada has been raised up as a symbol of purity as the other leaders have been brought into question," Rochford said.

Crusades to canonize recently deceased leaders are undertaken in most cults and sects. Leaders of the Church of Scientology, for example, have spent a fortune trying to polish the imperfect life of their founding father, the late L. Ron Hubbard.

But this is even more important in Eastern spiritual movements, where the guru is presented as the embodiment of spiritual purity.

Hare Krishna leaders vehemently deny that Prabhupada tried to cover up the early stages of the child abuse scandal. Rochford also questions this charge, saying he has seen no evidence that the founding guru was involved.

Nevertheless, many Hare Krishna members have already shifted their spiritual allegiance to gurus outside the confines of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness.

Others have drifted farther afield, haunted by years of child abuse committed in the name of God.

One of them is Tina Hebel, who grew up on the West Virginia commune run by Swami Kirtanananda.

Today, she is attending acupuncture school in Santa Clara, trying to put her life back together. A single mother with a 7-year-old daughter, Hebel is one of 40 Krishna kids suing the sect for child abuse.

"There was no warmth, no acceptance," she said. "Most of the adults were rebelling against their Christian upbringing. Pretty much everyone living there were Americans trying to be Indians, to be Hindus. It was very strange.

"My father brought me there when I was 2. I'd stay with different devotees, and he'd come back and forth from India. I never really knew my dad. When I was 22, he gave me a call and told me what happened. He said my mother died. He said he gave Kirtanananda a ton of money to take care of me."

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