1 LOSS OF FAITH FOR FRENCH KRISHNAS Scripps Howard News Service Release date: 7-27-87 Avai

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1 LOSS OF FAITH FOR FRENCH KRISHNAS Scripps Howard News Service Release date: 7-27-87 Available only to U.S. clients By ROBIN SMYTH London Observer Service PARIS _ In the 1970s when exotic sects were reaping a rich harvest of converts in France, the followers of Krishna owned two castles, a number of other country houses and a vegetarian restaurant in Paris. Propagated by an Indian guru, the Krishna cult reached France by way of the United States in the late 1960s. Shaven-headed young monks of various nationalities were to be seen dancing in Paris streets as they sold expensive copies of their bible, the Bhagavad-Gita, to passers-by attracted by their message of non-violence and rural simplicity. Today only one run down property, the Chateau d'Oublaisse in the Indre department of central France, shelters the last 35 believers, some of them children. With main water and electricity cut off, the sect faces a $16 million bill from the French tax authorities as well as claims from unpaid local tradesmen. Seeing no way of avoiding disaster, some of the faithful have slipped away to found new communities. But financial troubles alone would not have decimated a closeknit body of 300 clergy and laity who ran their own school so their children would not be corrupted by the outside world. The event which broke the faith of many of the devotees was the sudden disappearance last summer of their spiritual director, Bhagavan Das. This young American high priest of the cult renounced the saffron robe of celibacy to return home and marry his American girlfriend. According to leaders of the sect, he took with him $20,000 from their dwindling funds with a vague promise to give it back one day. The Canadian director of the international Krishna cult, Lucien Dupuis _ religious name Vyshwambhar Das _ who has stepped in to pick up the pieces says that Bhagavan's desertion in a time of crisis was "an absolute catastrophe" for the morale of the community. He admits that the "gross ngligence" of his predecessors over the past three years is partly to blame for their present destitution. But he also accused the French government of hounding them. "We are a non-profitmaking religious movement, but the tax authorities insist on treating us as a commercial enterprise," Dupuis says. The French tax authorities saw no reason to let the Krishna people get away with a tax-free sale of hundreds of thousands of holy books and other products of the labors of their flock. A nine year claim for back taxes put an abrupt end to the reckless spending of the Krishna clan. For some years now French public opinion and official policy have taken a tougher attitude to the new wave of religious sects. Parents have complained that their children were lured away and then brainwashed by under-feeding, lack of sleep, repetetively chanted prayers and promises of spiritual regeneration. When a few months ago the Krishna community was forced to sell the imposing Chateau d'Ermenonville near Paris, local villagers rejoiced. When Krishna teachers opened a school for their children at their Oublaisse, local parliamentarians objected to shaven headed pupils being subjected to their parents regime of monotonous prayer. But ministry of education inspectors found that the Krishna children's studies were up to standard, and their afternoons, spent gardening and running in a 176 acre park, did them no harm. They appeared to thrive on their vegetarian diet. Although they were awakened at 4 a.m. to pray in the Krishna temple they were in bed by 6 p.m. The most persuasive argument of critics of the school was that the children were completely sealed from any criticism of the beliefs of the adults around them. They were taught the value of repetetive litanies: their elders recited the same invocation to Krishna 1,728 times a day. Without television, radio or movies, they had no news or pictures of the outside world that were not served to them by their teachers. The occasional visits of some of the children to grandparents beyond the chateau park were more likely to plunge them into strife and incomprehension than to open new horizons. The teachers pointed out that the children are also shielded from the worst of the modern world _ violence and drugs. And nothing prevents them, when they are older, from turning their backs on their upbringing. But finally loss of faith has hit the cult at a higher level. It often happens in sects that the rank and file are prepared to undergo hardship and poverty while their gurus live in luxury. But the charisma of their leader must never be in doubt. The robed Krishna zealots threw themselves face downwards on the ground when their American spiritual guide first appeared at the chateau in his BMW. But the way he vanished with _ they say _ the contents of the safe, opened the eyes of all but the most trusting worshipper. The last group of believers hope that when they have sold the chateau they will be allowed to stay on in the outhouses and continue growing their vegetables. But their neighbours would not be surprised if one day they quietly packed their statues and robes and disappeared. (Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)


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