Featured Story, Part Two of a Three-part Series
by Christine Gralow
KAILUA, HI - To his disciples, Kris Butler is a bona-fide Bhakti yoga guru who has helped them live healthy, God-centered lives free of drugs, meat, and sexual deviance. To his detractors and former disciples, he is a deeply homophobic cult figure who has misappropriated ancient Bhakti tenets to achieve financial and political power.
In the Bhakti yoga tradition, which stems from India’s Southern Tamil Nadu region, yogis practice loving devotion to a personal God. The practice reached Hawai'i in the late 1960s with the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), to which Butler briefly formally belonged in his 20s.
As detailed in Part One of this series, Butler’s disciples have included at least five elected officials in Hawai'i, and his Science of Identity Foundation (SIF) maintains legally questionable international financial ties. Butler’s most politically successful disciple, U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, grew up deeply within SIF’s fold and remains actively involved. Her father, Hawai'i State Sen. Mike Gabbard, ran a SIF school and served as Butler’s personal secretary in the 1980s. At least five of Rep. Gabbard’s current, key Congressional staffers are also Butler disciples.
While Butler and SIF have remained largely unresponsive to local press inquiries amid Rep. Gabbard’s national political rise, former Butler disciples have grown increasingly vocal about negative experiences, and mainland reporters have begun asking questions.
Gabbard’s political supporters – including those hoping she’ll make a 2020 U.S. Presidential run – argue that her relationship with Butler will prove no more politically significant than Barack Obama’s relationship with his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, proved. Reporter Kelefa Sanneh, who has explored both relationships in articles for The New Yorker, wrote in his recent Gabbard profile piece, “But Wright represented only a small slice of Obama’s life, whereas Gabbard’s life would be unrecognizable without Butler’s influence.”
Rick Alan Ross, who runs the New Jersey-based Cult Education Institute (CEI), says he rarely receives complaints about leaders of Hindu-based organizations, but he has received many complaints about Butler. CEI’s discussion thread on Butler and SIF contains significantly more posts than other threads, and the discussion has been ongoing for 14 years.
While some posts on the CEI discussion board contain inaccurate information, others include verifiable documents detailing the history of Butler’s activities. Former SIF members have joined the CEI discussion forum to express concerns about Butler’s political involvement, his treatment of disciples, and his hatred of homosexuals. Current SIF members have joined to claim religious bigotry and to defend Butler as a benevolent spiritual leader. Others have chimed in with evidence of Butler’s apparent eccentricities, such as the tin foiled walls in his home and his requirement that disciples wear respirator masks in his presence.
“I think it would be easier if he wore the mask,” suggested one CEI discussion forum user.
CEI's Ross began researching fringe religious groups in the 1980s, after he learned his grandmother had been targeted for recruitment by Jews for Jesus missionaries at a nursing home. Ross has since served as an expert witness in court cases involving accusations of cult indoctrination, and he controversially consulted with the FBI on the siege of the Branch Davidian Waco complex. Ross says he differentiates between benign and destructive cults, and he has concerns about SIF, which he called, “the fringe of the fringe.”
“Objectively speaking, Butler has become a very powerful man in a fashion not unlike (the Unification Church’s) Sun Myung Moon,” Ross said. “Subjectively, some people consider him a psychopath.”
Childhood and Sibling Rivalry
The son of a plantation doctor, Butler was born in Louisiana in 1948 and spent most of his childhood on Molokai and O‘ahu islands. Though born Kris Butler (no middle name), he has often spelled his name Chris. His father, the late Dr. Willis Butler, was well-known locally for his far-left political activism and his staunch opposition to U.S. involvement in foreign regime change wars, which he considered counterproductive. Dr. Butler was particularly concerned about U.S. funding of groups in Central America that he viewed as terrorists.
Childhood classmates and his older brother Kurt say Kris was an average student, a solid surfer, and a star Little League shortstop. He may have taken his first guru name (Sai Young) from professional baseball pitcher Cy Young. He told the Honolulu Advertiser in a 1977 interview that he got into a lot of trouble as a teenager and was expelled from Kailua High School. He attended Kalani High School for his junior and senior years, graduating in 1966.
Maui resident Kurt Butler says his younger brother Kris was “a playboy type” in high school, “very popular with the girls.”
“Popular with the wahines,” agreed an old Kalani High School classmate and current O'ahu resident (who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation). “I remember when Kris showed up, I lost my best buddy. She was just fascinated by him. She pretty much disappeared. Everything was suddenly all about Kris. He had these piercing eyes and this intense way of looking at you.”
After high school, Kris began classes at U.H. Manoa. He became deeply involved in the late-'60s psychedelic counterculture scene in Honolulu, heavily using LSD (as documented in his 1970 booklet, Sai Speaks). He also explored yoga and meditation for a few years before he dropped out of college, started going by Sai Young, and declared himself a guru in his early 20s.
Kurt and Kris Butler have long been estranged, and Kurt says they are “philosophical polar opposites.” Kurt told Meanwhile in Hawai'i that he believs Kris rebelled against their non-religious, communist-minded father by embracing religious fundamentalism and right-wing politics. Kurt said he disagrees with his brother’s portrayal of himself as a guru, and he expressed concern for his brother’s followers.
“He is indoctrinating his followers into a life of know-nothingism and ignorance, while giving them the delusion that they know everything that really matters,” Kurt Butler said of his brother.
Kurt also said his “biggest beef” with Kris - back when they still communicated - was Kris’s staunch anti-science stance.
“He used to believe there is abundant life on the moon, because the scriptures say so,” said Kurt. “Ergo, the U.S. moon landings must be a hoax. I don't know whether he still believes such nonsense.”
Despite calling his organization “Science of Identity,” Kris Butler has, in fact, delivered dozens of decidedly anti-science lectures. In one recorded lecture, he mocks Carl Sagan and science experiments. In another, he states, “There is no evidence that life has ever been created from matter.”
Though the lectures are from the ‘80s and ‘90s, SIF still actively promotes them online.
Early Guru Days
In 1970, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada’s movement to spread Western love for the Hindu deity Krishna was four years old and spreading quickly in Hawai'i; men in orange robes with shaved heads and tiny pony tails chanted “Hare Krishna, Hare Rama” on the streets of Waikiki; George Harrison released his ISKCON-inspired hit single, “My Sweet Lord”; Kris Butler was a self-proclaimed guru at 22; and Janice Wolf was a 23-year-old religion writer for The Honolulu Advertiser.
As Butler’s following approached about 50 young adults living communally on Maui and O'ahu, he crossed Wolf’s radar. She found Butler and his early devotees living in a Quonset hut in Sunset Beach, on Oahu’s North Shore. In her July 1970 article, Wolf called Butler the group’s “dictator.”
The headline read, “Absolute power over devotees … One man rules Haiku Krishnaites.”
Wolf, who later became an attorney and the administrator of Hawai‘i’s courts, interviewed two of Butler’s young, female followers. They told her they did whatever Butler instructed them to do, they did not ask why, and they said they would kill anyone who attacked him. Wolf also reported that Butler had arranged the marriage of an 18-year-old (coincidentally named Tulsi) to a man who did business for Butler on the mainland.
In response to Wolf’s article, several Butler followers wrote letters to the Advertiser defending Butler and criticizing Wolf as close-minded and uptight.
In a recent interview with Meanwhile in Hawai‘i, Wolf, now a children’s rights attorney in Nevada, asked, “So is Kris Butler still around?”
When told Butler now claims thousands of disciples, including a Hawai'i State Senator and a U.S. Congresswoman, Wolf replied, “You’re kidding me. I totally didn’t see that coming.”
Wolf said she recalls having “no preconceived notions” about Butler’s group when an Advertiser editor assigned her to write about them in 1970. She said she “didn’t expect to express negativity,” but when writing the article, she “kept coming back to cult.”
“He was very good-looking and knew it,” Wolf said of Butler. “Very charismatic, a chick magnet. All these young people just worshiped him. He was the center rather than the religion. I remember walking away thinking, ‘There’s something icky about this.’”
“I didn’t see Butler as a spiritual person.” Wolf added. “I saw him as living the good life with all this power and control. I never expected to hear he had thousands of followers. I guess I really underestimated that one, but I didn’t see how they could support themselves.”
Two months after the Advertiser published Wolf’s article, a reader who identified as “Mrs. Joseph Ryan” expressed further concern about Butler in a letter to the editor. Mrs. Ryan critically compared two talks she had attended – one by ISKCON founder Swami Prabhupada, the other by Butler. Mrs. Ryan wrote that she enjoyed Prabhupada’s talk and found him to be wise and well-versed in Sanskrit passages from the Bhagavad Gita. A week later, she attended a Butler talk, where she reported encountering a group of teenagers - some she thought to be as young as 15. She described her attempt to discuss the Bhagavad Gita with Butler.
“Apparently, he hadn’t read it,” Mrs. Ryan wrote.
And, just two months after that, in November 1970, Prabhupada wrote a letter from Bombay to one of his disciples in Honolulu named Govinda dasi. He discussed his fondness for Hawai'i, and he instructed Govinda dasi to widely circulate a letter about Butler.
“I authorize you to print them profusely and distribute to the public so that the misunderstanding created by (Butler) may be dissipated,” wrote Prabhupada.
It was a denouncement. The next month, Wolf reported that Butler’s group was disbanding and joining ISKCON.
“The Swami recently wrote a public letter denouncing (Butler’s group) and disclaiming any affiliation with them,” Wolf reported in December 1970. Wolf also wrote that the event “marked the end of a growing rivalry between two Hare Krishna groups here.”
Butler promptly renounced all of his disciples, gave a reported $28,800 to Prabhupada, and flew to California to join ISKCON’s San Francisco temple. Wolf reported that at least 35 of Butler’s early followers also joined ISKCON at the time, and they were sent to various cities around the world as ISKCON missionaries.
Soon after Butler joined ISKCON, Prabhupada encouraged him to recruit lost hippies.
“In your country there are so many confused young men and girls known as the hippies,” Prabhupada wrote to Butler in 1971, “and if you work very steadfastly I am sure a tremendous advancement can be done in our missionary activities.”
By 1972, Prabhupada and Butler’s relationship was already on the rocks again, with Prabhupada accusing Butler of being “detrimental” to the “disciplic succession.” The Butler/ISKCON rivalry was apparently not yet over.
Letters preserved by the Bhaktivedanta Archives in Sandy Ridge, NC, detail how Butler traveled to New Zealand and Australia during his time with ISKCON. In New Zealand, Butler began a long business/spiritual partnership with David Muncie, aka Tusta Krishna das. Around this time, another New Zealander, Patrick Bowler, also began a close relationship with both Muncie and Butler. Bowler, aka Paramahamsa das, would later become SIF’s primary financial supporter in the '80 and '90s. (Bowler would also, incidentally, get arrested in 1997 for running a major, decades-long international hashish smuggling ring.)
In 1973, Prabhupada wrote that Butler and an associate stole and sold ISKCON’s Hawai‘i temple and “went away with all the money without taking any permission from me.” Prabhupada seemed equally upset about the fact that Butler “abandoned the beautiful Tulasi plants” at the temple.
This was “a great fall down on their parts,” Prabhupada wrote of Butler and the associate in 1973. “It is actually a criminal act … anyone who follows them will also fall down without a doubt.”
Later letters suggest Butler and his associates appeased Prabhupada financially.
“Whenever they see me they give me money,” Prabhupada wrote in 1975. “So they are not against me. It is a natural thing for the brothers to fight.”
On their side, Butler and his associates claimed threats against them from within ISKCON’s leadership. Prabhupada dismissed the claims. The archived letters do, however, mention ISKCON “strong men."
Independence and Political Organizing
By the mid-70s, Butler was back to running his own guru show in Hawai'i. He and his followers began cultivating land on Kaua'i and the Big Island, creating impressive fruit and vegetable farms. Despite Prabhupada’s multiple denouncements, Butler continued to expand and tighten his following in Hawai'i. To some, the ISKCON controversy only boosted Butler’s reputation as a maverick guru, free of bureaucracy and stifling traditions. Others recall the mid-1970s rift between Butler and ISKCON becoming overly dramatic in Hawai'i, with each side harassing the other and taking paranoid measures to protect themselves.
Not long after Prabhupada’s death in 1977, Butler’s followers began calling him Prabhupada.
Also in 1977, Honolulu Advertiser investigative reporter Walter Wright began to see clearly what had eluded Janice Wolf in 1970. While Wolf had certainly seen the intense hold that Butler had on his followers – a hold so strong they were willing do anything for him - she never imagined they would organize and enter politics.
In a hard-hitting, three-part investigative series in 1977, Wright exposed Butler’s close connection to a new political party called Independents for Godly Government (IGG). Wright uncovered how IGG candidates William Penaroza and Kathy Hoshijo were both Butler's disciples, as were the other IGG candidates. Although none of the IGG candidates won election that year, Wright was struck by the group’s ambitions.
“It is just the beginning,” Wright wrote of the Butler group’s political movement in 1977.
Wright also wrote that the IGG party's significant connection to Butler had gone unreported during the 1976 election, because, “The news media didn’t dig hard enough, and several candidates skillfully ducked and dodged the questions.”
Regarding the IGG candidates’ 1976 campaign finances, Wright noted how an unusually high percentage of the strikingly few people who had funded the campaigns were connected to a budding health food business called Down to Earth. (The same company that is now owned by QI Group.) Wright’s campaign finance analysis also found that the legality of Hoshijo's campaign contributions fell in the “mathematically impossible” range.
"The Advertiser was no more successful this year than last in determining precisely where the major contributors to Hoshijo and IGG got their money," Wright reported in 1977.
When Wright, now retired, recently discussed his 1977 reporting on Butler and IGG with Meanwhile in Hawai’i, he went straight to the mysterious finances.
“What struck me was the small, very tight, intricate network of business and politics,” Wright said. “Almost all the money was coming from about 20 people.”
Wright also recalled how, as a reporter, the Butler/IGG story felt, "so big and had so many tendrils," and he commented on the "worrisome cult aspect."
“And just soaring right out of that stuff now is Tulsi,” Wright added.
When given copies of his investigative articles from 40 years ago, Wright read them and replied, “Damn I was good.”
And he was.
Coming Soon: Butler's Web, Part 3
Part 1: Butler's Web: Krishna, Politics, and QNET's International Pyramid Scheme
Note: Neither Rep. Gabbard nor Butler responded to requests for interviews. Last week, Meanwhile in Hawai'i reviewed a letter purportedly written by a Washington, D.C., publicist hired by Gabbard. The publicist stated in the letter that if he has "anything to do say about it, Tulsi will not cooperate with Ms. Gralow."
The publicist also attempted to claim that Gralow "is not a reporter." The rather mysterious letter contained an odd number of grammatical and factual errors, yet the writer emphasized his eleven years of experience with the Wall Street Journal. Gralow has taken the position that if Rep. Gabbard actually paid for this letter, she deserves a refund. This publicist was apparently trying to convince another news organization not to publish an article by Gralow.
Meanwhile in Hawai'i continues to welcome all perspectives and has a policy of swiftly correcting and apologizing for any errors. Thus far, the only possible factual error brought to the attention of Meanwhile in Hawai'i has been whether the wedding mentioned in Part 1 was technically held in Ka'a'awa or Kāneʻohe. Meanwhile in Hawai'i encourages readers to point out errors when found.
Mahalo for reading.