Disciples, deities and development

A senior member of a religious sect wants to turn one of New Zealand's most picturesque locations into a private residential retreat and tourism eco-village. Allan Tibby, from the World Vaishnava Association, is seeking investors to fulfil his dream. The development has stirred up memories of when another secretive sect, the Science of Identity, led by the reclusive Chris Butler, were involved in a high profile spat with a local MP after he labelled them a 'cult'.

The Timaru Herald, New Zealand/May 17, 2015

By Bevan Hurley

Located between the majesty of the Southern Alps and the vast Canterbury plains, the MacKenzie Basin is hailed as one of the most beautiful places on earth.

Allan Tibby certainly thinks so. As a world traveller of 38 years, the New Zealander believes he is well-placed to make such a call.

Tibby is a charismatic holy man, who claims to be privy to a secret knowledge that has been handed down through thousands of years of oral history. Known as Acharya Das, Tibby is secretary general of the World Vaishnava Association. He also appears in eight videos on the YouTube channel of the Science of Identity, a branch of Vaishnava Hinduism - more commonly referred to as Hare Krishna. Tibby denies he is or has ever been a member of the group.

Allan Tibby appears as the face of the group on its official YouTube channel, appearing in dozens of clips chanting and singing.

Tibby is also the main shareholder of Pukaki Tourism Holdings, a company which wants to transform a large swathe on the banks of the stupidly pretty Lake Pukaki into an 'eco-tourism and wellness' village, along with 40 residential homes.

The Science of Identity have a long and controversial history in the area. Back in the mid-90s, Tibby along with the group's founder Chris Butler and several dozen followers rented out a farmhouse on the same site where they now hope to develop. The secretive outsiders caused such a stir that the rumour-mill was soon churning all the way from the streets of Twizel to the corridors of power in Wellington.

High court showdown

Alec Neill was the MP for Waitaki back in the mid-1990s when he got wind of strange goings on the shores of Lake Pukaki. Constituents complained to him about a group which had rented the Pukaki Downs Station to make an action adventure film. Known as Ti Leaf Productions, around a dozen people had moved into the farmhouse to film a martial arts movie - but two years on there was no sign any filming had taken place.

Chris Butler, the scriptwriter for the production,  had transformed the homestead, lining it in tin foil, and installing a complex and energy-guzzling air filtration system, with extra water being trucked in from Twizel, according to a report in the Timaru Herald.

Neill's attempts to talk to the group were met with stony resistance. On March 20, 1996, he made a speech to Parliament claiming Butler was the leader of an organisation called the "Science of Identification Foundation".

Using the protection of Parliamentary privilege he questioned whether Ti Leaf Productions Limited was "nothing more than a front for a religious cult or more importantly Mr Speaker, it is in fact an international drug ring".

He added: "Mr Speaker, unless the veil of secrecy is broken, these questions will remain unanswered but the people of Twizel do not want a David Koresh and Waco, they do not want a Jim Jones in Guyana."

Neill repeated the claims in interviews outside of the House, was sued for defamation for $1.75 million.

Ti Leaf Productions also sued the owners of a homestead they rented, Lester and Robyn Baikie, and took a petition to Parliament demanding the naysayers back off.

Neill spent several years of his life investigating the group. But he eventually settled and apologised on the fourth day of a High Court defamation trial. 

"It just about destroyed me, both financially and otherwise," he says.

The Baikies continued to trial and they were eventually ordered to pay $5500 for breach of contract and defamation for making comments to the Timaru Herald - well short of the $1.3m Ti Leaf Productions had been seeking.

At that time, Tibby complained that the allegation had also scuttled his chances of setting up a film production business in the MacKenzie Basin.

But he and his friends among the Science of Identity have remained there ever since. 

The homestead and surrounding lands have been bought from the Baikie's and consent has been sought to transform the area into a rural residential retreat or eco village. 

A survivor's story

Rama Das Ranson is his real name.

Unlike many involved with the Science of Identity, Ranson wasn't given an initiated name. He was born into it, in New Zealand in 1979.

Rama Ranson's parents Allan and Robyn were among the first New Zealanders to join the Science of Identity back in the 1970s. Growing up, all of his friends were in the sect. He says as Krishna kids, they learnt the chants and the rituals, its beliefs and prejudices, from birth. It was all he'd ever known.

Rama Ranson moved from New Zealand to Arizona with his parents and brother when he was young, and lived for several years with in a commune in Sedona National Park.

It was here that he first met Chris Butler, also known as Jagad Guru Siddhaswarupananda, and Patrick Bowler, who he knew as Paramahansa Das.

His childhood memories are of swimming in the rivers, playing with his brother and the other children, and Butler's curious habits.

His parents had been hired as Butler and his wife Wai Lan's personal cooks, and had to adhere to their strict dietary and allergy requirements.

He says Butler would have "crazy security around him all the time".

"We were made to worship him like a God. In private, everyone fully hits the ground in his presence."

Like the homestead on Lake Pukaki, Rama Ranson said Butler's house was lined with tin foil, with weird dehumidifiers piped in.

"Everyone wears surgical masks – he's a total germophobe. He pushes that out onto everyone.

"The place was swarming with (Science of Identity) members that are doing all his chores."

He says Butler and his wife were "always flipping out on everyone's food".

Ranson moved back to Whangamata with his family a few years later.

They continued to practise their own version of Hare Krishna. Chanting, vegetarian food, and the endless watching of videos of Chris Butler.

All the kids were home schooled, and there was limited contact with the outside world.

Ranson said from a very young age he was forced to follow the teachings of Hare Krishna.

"You want to try your hardest to become a pure enough devotee of Krishna to be liberated when you die. If you can't advance enough then you'll be endlessly incarnated. It's a pretty sad scenario. They tried to push that into me growing up, like really hard. They were pretty far gone."


The family returned to Hawaii when he was aged 14, and soon afterwards he was sent to the Science of Identity's boarding school in the Philippines, which was then run by Allan Tibby. Tibby denies being involved in any Science of Identity schools.

He describes the school as a military-style boot camp.

"You had to wash all your clothes by hand, take showers at 4am with cold water.

"Horrendous shit. Everyone else was into it. It was full-on indoctrination. I lasted about two weeks and was totally over it."

Ranson was sent back to Hawaii and drifted away from the Science of Identity through his teenage years.

He said the group's homophobic views were a deciding factor in making him want to leave.

He moved to San Francisco, where he still lives, and set about re-setting everything he ever knew about the world.

He describes the scene he came across when he last time he saw his parents in person, during a trip to Twizel in 2005.

Pride of place in the centre of the living room was a picture of Chris Butler's "old wrinkly feet with flowers all around them".

In his view: "They worship his feet, it's super sacred. I know that the feet of him and the feet of Krishna are sacred."

"I'm only glad they weren't that far gone when I was a kid."

As part of his "going clear", Rama posted comments on a thread on the Cult Education Forum under his own name which were highly critical of the Science of Identity in 2005.

The response was swift. He says his mother "flicked the switch" and disowned him.

His father wrote that he had to take down the posts, or he could never be a part of the family.

Rama refused. In 2008, his father Allan Ranson passed away suddenly in his sleep in Lake Pukaki.

Stranded in the United States and unable to afford a plane ticket, Rama Ranson says he was told the family could not help him get home. Besides, he wouldn't be welcome. He later spoke to relatives who had attended the funeral, who informed him only "believers" were allowed to be present when his father's ashes were scattered.

Rama's brother Sudama Peter Ranson still lives on the same Kailua, Hawaii, location as the leader Chris Butler.

Robyn Ranson, who still lives in the old Lake Pukaki homestead near Twizel, did not respond to requests for comment.

Rick Ross, founder of the US-based Cult Education Forum, says the Science of Identity appears to him to exhibit the three main characteristics of being a "destructive cult": a charismatic leader, who increasingly becomes an object of worship, a process of coercive persuasion or thought reform and the exploitation of group members.

"In my opinion Chris Butler fits the role of the charismatic leader, who is the driving force and defining element of the Science of Identity group," he says.

"Butler has essentially become an object of worship and the group is largely personality driven."

He says he has received many serious complaints about abuse within the Science of Identity from posts on the Cult Education Institute message board. "They have said that they were exploited and hurt through involvement with Butler and the Science of Identity."

Disciples turn to dealers

Patrick Bowler was drawn to the healthy living mantras of the Hare Krishna religion in the 1970s.

He became an adherent to Chris Butler's Science of Identity, an offshoot of mainstream Hare Krishna. He later became a master drug smuggler, earning millions of dollars as he trafficked hundreds of tonnes of hashish from Afghanistan and India to North America and Europe.

The Sunday Star-Times revealed last month how Bowler and fellow Kiwi Greg Timewell turned Federal witness in return for reduced sentences. When Timewell was arrested in 1995, he turned in his former mate Bowler,  and Timewell's testimony led to hundreds of convictions worldwide. Bowler was arrested in Switzerland and became a prolific informant, flying to Thailand, Holland and around as a DEA undercover operative, and risking his life on perilous assignments.

They were released from prison in the United States in 2010 after serving lengthy sentences, and their stories were revealed in the Star-Times last month.

The paper has now tracked Timewell down to a remote border town in Thailand. He had changed his name by deed poll. He and his girlfriend declined to speak.

But Timewell's cousin Greta Jourdain said he was a bit of a "wild child" who had found solace in the Hare Krishna religion.

"He had a magnetism, he always had a beautiful lady on his arm."

Listed on Bowler's US indictment were his many aliases, which included the Guru, Top Hat, and Das Paramahaja, a misspelling of his initiated name Paramahansa Das. In the judge's sentencing notes, it was noted how Bowler "always seems ready to help others and share in the spiritual resources" while in prison.

"He leads classes in meditation to assist in keeping the level of the activities there calm. He teaches yoga and meditation classes there."

Rama Ranson remembers Bowler from his time within the Science of Identity.

"I have known him and his children my whole life.

"He was known through the whole cult, he was the man and everyone knew he had tonnes of money."

He says Bowler was heavily involved in the Science of Identity in New Zealand, which is believed to number several hundred.

Bowler declined a request for an interview.

In a statement, Jeannie Bishop, president of the Science of Identity Foundation, said: "As a branch of Vaishnava Hinduism, the Science of Identity Foundation recognizes the free will of every individual to follow the path of life they want to follow.

"Rama das Ranson has never been a member of the Foundation and we have respected his right not to follow the path of Vaishnava Hinduism].

"Patrick Bowler is not a member of the Foundation, but to our knowledge, is now sincerely trying to practice Vaishnava Hinduism, which includes using his life to help others.

"We are aware of certain allegations but do not wish to dignify them with a response other than to say you should be very critical of the motivation of people making many of these allegations.

"Chris Butler and the Foundation have worked to help many people get their lives back on track, including Patrick Bowler and will continue to do so."

Blending in

Final plans for the Pukaki Downs Tourist Zone were submitted to the MacKenzie District Council late last year. The development will see 40 residential homes built a few kilometres from the lake, along with an 'eco and wellness tourism activity area/zone'.

There was a massive public outcry when the Science of Identity first came to town back in 1995. But like the homes they propose to build, the Science of Identity have learnt to blend into the high country this time around.

The Science of Identity

Established by 'Jagad Guru' Chris Butler in 1977. It claims to be an offshoot of Hinduism, and teaches yoga and meditation.

* It is believed to number about 20,000 worldwide, including several hundred in New Zealand.

* It's followers adhere to strict belief system and are said to worship leader Chris Butler like a God.

* The US-based Cult Education Institute believes it has all three indicators of a cult.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.

Educational DVDs and Videos