Why Did Hippies Become Hare Krishnas?
This is a work in progress – in effect, an early draft of what has already evolved into a more substantial project, but one needing more time and effort to put into final form. I’ve become increasingly intrigued by the question posed in the title (in part because it has serious autobiographical implications), and have spent quite a bit of time and effort on further research (for example, exploring academic and popular writings on the Sixties Counterculture, early scholarly studies on the Hare Krishna movement, revealing memoirs by pioneering disciples, unpublished interviews, personal reminiscences, and so on). There is, in fact, already enough raw material for a book, though at this point I’m undecided whether or not to commit to a project of that size and scope. In any case, the editor of this blog kindly asked for permission to publish this version “as is,” and I have no objection. I hope you enjoy reading it.
Setting the Scene
Unless you were there, it is hard to imagine, except remotely and abstractly, what it felt like to be in the thick of things during the countercultural Sixties. Having “a sense of the Sixties” requires more than can be found in the historical record, the musings of sociologists, cultural analysis, or television documentaries. Talking heads and vintage film clips may offer a taste, a tease, but cannot convey the distinctive experiential flavor of the multi-layered, carnivalesque, ad hoc, utopian otherworld that many of us inhabited during portions of our youth. The wise guy who said that if you think you remember the Sixties you weren’t really there (presumably because we were perpetually stoned) was just being a wise guy. We do remember, even if the details sometimes get a little fuzzy, blurry, or sprinkled with a thin veil of fairy dust. There are times when an almost visceral remembering kicks in, a kind of synesthesia that momentarily re-envelops one as one descends back into that dense and complex subjectivity and re-experiences the rich patterns of mood, ideation, fantasy, intellectual experimentation, and metaphysical reverie we experienced, both communally and individually.
Balancing the exhilaration, however, was the darkly surreal sense of living in a society gone mad with materialism and militarism. The latter had something to do with being a citizen of an arrogant superpower whose leader lied our way into carpet-bombing a small Asian nation in the name of a geopolitical ideology borne of Cold War paranoia – while at home federal agent-provocateurs broke laws in order to crush dissent. And as background to all that killing abroad and social turmoil at home, a soul-numbing civilization based on power and profit. No wonder many of us viewed our own society from the perspective of a protagonist in a dystopian novel and sought refuge in ad hoc enclaves of the similarly disaffected and disenfranchised. You had to be there to appreciate the profound sense of cultural estrangement, the intensity of utopian idealism, the longing for metaphysical truth, the quest for radical self-transformation. This was not the first romantic rebellion in history, of course, but it was ours. And for those whose utopian aspirations were a little vague or half-baked, there was always “revolution for the hell of it” (the title of a popular book by countercultural gadfly Abbie Hoffman).
I believe it is impossible to over-estimate the role psychedelics, particularly LSD, played in this widespread radicalization. Much has been written and debated on the subject of psychedelics, but this much is certain: in the late Sixties and early Seventies, millions of young people availed themselves of an experience so completely out of the ordinary, so metaphysically profound, so wondrous, beautiful and unforgettable (and not infrequently terrifying), that it fundamentally changed the way we experienced ourselves, the world, and “reality.” Many felt they’d been given new eyes, awakened to a higher, more comprehensive understanding of existence itself, of the human condition, of the expansive nature of personal consciousness, and of the ultimate significance of the cosmos. All that along with liberating (though sometimes terrifying) insights into the constructed and arbitrary nature of social reality and ego identity.
In other words, psychedelic experience amounted to far more than swirling colors and strange visions. For those who approached the experience with the right attitude and a bit of preparation (preferably in a safe place with trusted friends), it could be hands-down the experience of a lifetime. Under even modest doses one might experience dramatic sensory enhancements: hear music with a fullness and clarity that reached the depths of the soul, or see an apple as Cezanne might have – in its ultimate, stark, pure visuality, monumental and glorious. Without necessarily hallucinating, that is, seeing things not actually there, one might experience a flower as a heart-meltingly eloquent expression of the infinite wisdom and kindness of a vibrantly conscious universe. Anything within the range of eyes and ears might seem to glow and purr with cosmic significance, the most commonplace object vibrate with an almost unbearable loveliness. Published first-hand accounts describe an incredible range of experiences: eidetic recollections of prenatal and birth experience, molecular or atomic-level perspectives on the structure of matter, panoramic visions of human evolution and history, a God’s-eye view of cosmic infinitude. And all of this accompanied by emotions of indescribable depth, intensity, subtlety and sublimity. All in all, an overwhelming experience, or as the Beatles chant in one of George Harrison’s LSD-inspired songs: Too much! … Too much! … Too much! … Too much!
Coming down from a trip, returning to “normal” awareness – or, as Aldous Huxley or Alan Watts might describe it, climbing back into the fragile shell of personal ego, with the usual meager range of sense perception, the tiny trickle necessary for base-line biological survival – one might feel struck dumb, amazed beyond amazement, and possessed by a new fascination with matters like Eternity and Infinity. As those incredibly rich and nuanced feelings inevitably faded into the dull light of day, one might feel an indescribable nostalgia for Paradise, a sense of having been expelled from some ultimate Eden, and a longing to return to that realm of profound beauty and wisdom. One could, of course, wait several days and take LSD again, and you may well have done so, but one might also begin to wonder whether it might be possible to reach such sublime states of awareness without chemical aids. Having sampled, perhaps for the first time, truly post-rational states such as an awareness of timelessness or ego-transcendence, having had all ones previous conceptions of human consciousness and its limits blown to bits, having brushed up against the numinous and the ineffable, it isn’t surprising that many of us became deeply interested in consciousness itself, and if we were in college we searched for courses within psychology, philosophy and religious studies.
You’d likely find your way to the writings of Alan Watts, lucid introductions to core concepts in Buddhism, Zen, and Taoism, with eloquent disquisitions on phenomenology of mysticism and meditation. Whether you read people like Watts or not, the counterculture itself, as a culture, was deeply and variously colored by Eastern mystical ideas, sounds and images. The examples are limitless: psychedelic and mystical themes in rock lyrics (“Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream…”); the fascination with Indian classical music, due largely to Ravi Shankar’s magic sitar and his disciple George Harrison introducing Indian and drone elements into Beatle music; Allen Ginsberg chanting “Om” and “Hare Krishna” at poetry readings and antiwar rallies; Tim Leary re-purposing the Tibetan Book of the Dead as a tripping manual; Richard Alpert (Ram Dass) challenging us to go “Beyond Acid” (the title of a 1970 talk) by studying eastern thought and learning how to meditate. If you visited a head shop in New York or San Francisco, or anywhere else, you’d likely see color-saturated images of softly smiling Hindu gods and goddesses. I first met Krishna as a college freshman in the Student Union gift shop, where a particularly beautiful Indian art print hung high on one wall. I purchased it and gave it pride of place in my dorm room, over my bed, not having a clue who Krishna was but finding the image hypnotically serene and “trippy.”
If you weren’t there, it must be hard to imagine a substantial swath of a generation being profoundly transformed by way of mind-blowing encounters with existential ultimacies, universes in grains of sand and eternities concealed in moments–not to mention aesthetic delights beyond description. Some trippers were willing, if deemed necessary, to flirt with psychosis and dance with demons, if that purgatory might accelerate the journey to Enlightenment. It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that LSD created a transient but genuine religious awakening in the youth culture of the time, most of the members of which had lost faith, (if they’d had any) in the standard American religious brands. Spiritual longing is, of course, a universal human phenomenon, but psychedelics added a particular intensity and substance to that impulse.
Of course, for many people acid mysticism was more hobby than quest, providing a temporary pass to strange psychic territory – absorbing and entertaining, but not necessarily spiritually significant or personally transformative. Many had experiences that were simply too much to deal with: too soul-bearing or ego shattering, too otherworldly, too disorienting. But for others, including myself, planned periodic journeys to extraordinary realms of transcendent beauty and bliss became a part of life, as did the growing desire to integrate those experiences, to internalize their insights and live their truths. I can recall the poignant, almost desperate hunger for some kind of final, definitive release from the ontological insecurity occasioned by the experiences of ego loss and mystical bliss. We wanted to build foundations under our castles in the sky, erect reliable bridges to the beautiful Beyond. Eastern spiritual paths, which had formerly been intellectual curiosities, became indispensible maps to those desired realms.
Enter the Krishnas
And there, in all their otherworldly splendor and spectacle, on the streets and in the parks, were the Hare Krishnas. Here are these people, around your age, chanting and dancing in a communal trance ritual, people who’d seemed to have broken through into some higher tier of consciousness characterized by intense bliss. Hippies, tolerant of extremes and attracted to spectacle, viewed them as colorful religious exotics, former fellow hippies who’d gone Beyond, and even Beyond the Beyond – intrepid seekers of Enlightenment and Liberation. The dancing, chanting Krishnas seemed to embody evidence of “higher states,” intimations of this mysterious commodity called “bliss” – the holy grail, as it were, for mystically-inclined hippies seeking Enlightenment, a state beyond the gravitational pull of the mundane world with its madness and suffering. You knew from tripping that such states existed, that they were in our essential nature, and that it was simply a question of how to get from “here” to “there.” To some of us, the Krishnas appeared to be “there.”
Public displays of apparent ecstasy were a compelling advertisement for the Hare Krishnas, as was the sheer radicalness of their appearance. The hippie ethic of disengaging as far as possible from materialistic society seemed embodied and exemplified by these people who were so radical, so deeply immersed in their thing, that they had actually performed the highest renunciation possible: shaving off all their long hippie hair, going intentionally bald. Now that was strangely impressive, if a bit unnerving. And they were wearing clothes from some other galaxy, those wind-swept flowing orange robes. They were here in this world, but clearly not of it. This extreme “otherness,” rather than a liability, could be seen as a mark of true detachment, of hard-core, unapologetic rejection of the conventional world. They’d clearly blown their minds out to some distant universe, perhaps one worth checking out. What was certain was that they’d definitively turned their backs on Western Civilization. They seemed at home in their exotic otherworld, and you had to give them points for that.
Public encounters with the Hare Krishnas became common. They were, after all, out to make converts, to share their newfound truths and spread the bliss. Those early converts knew how to talk to their uninitiated brethren in the streets, their former friends and acquaintances: “Stay High Forever!” “No More Coming down!” were printed on cards and flyers handed out in the thousands. Their mission was aided by none other than Allen Ginsberg – not only a serious student of eastern religions, but an elder statesman of the Counterculture. As it happens, he had picked up the Hare Krishna mantra during a recent visit to India and had made it a part of his personal daily meditation. When he heard that there was a swami living in his own neighborhood, the Lower East Side, who was promoting the same mantra, Ginsberg sought the swami out. He soon became a friend and supporter of the swami and helped publicize the mission – most notably, later on the West Coast, when he introduced the swami and his disciples to the Haight Ashbury community by helping organize a “Mantra Rock Dance” at the Avalon Ballroom, a major rock venue that hosted groups like Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead. At that widely advertised and well attended event, Ginsberg formally introduced the swami, got everyone chanting the Hare Krishna mantra, and told the crowd (most of whom were tripping) that the local Krishna temple on Frederick Street was a good place to go to when coming down from an LSD trip, when you need to get re-grounded, to come in for a gentle landing on terra firma. He called it “stabilization upon re-entry.” The Krishna temple became a fixture in the Haight, attracting many new members, quite a few of whom later were sent to other cities to found new temples.
Here I’d like to review and comment briefly on the various features of the fledgling Hare Krishna movement that would have been attractive to hippies, especially those who saw themselves as spiritual seekers. The following themes are not rigid categories but inter-blending aspects of the ISKCON allure.
Psychedelic experience had provided many with an appreciation for rarefied mystic states, often characterized by feelings of bliss or ecstasy, not easily defined but undeniably powerfully and transformative. Many had come to feel that such experiences were not merely an artifact of psychedelics, but an intrinsic property of human consciousness (and an expression of human potential) – rarely experienced, perhaps, but accessible via LSD. The Krishnas, especially while chanting, would seem to embody bliss, and early academic studies of the Hare Krishna movement affirm the primary role of the public chanting for recruitment and conversion.
The Krishnas preached enlightenment, a concept with a unique cachet for seekers: the notion that there exist states of illumination, revelation, full awareness of Truth, and that one could attain those states simply by chanting Hare Krishna – an easy, direct path to “perfection.”
3. Anti-materialism and world-renunciation
The stupidity and pointlessness of materialism (compulsively seeking wealth, possessions, power, and frivolous self-gratification) was a view central to countercultural ideology, and here were these people who preached endlessly about how empty and illusory worldly pleasure is, and who seemed to be living that truth. Any devotee who’d been around at least a few months could articulate to anyone who’d listen a biting critique of materialism based on the swami’s teachings. The Krishnas seemed to have made a complete break from the materialistic world, to have cut their last ties to the society the hippies had rejected and abandoned as organized insanity. The devotees’ apparent asceticism, their virtually total rejection of material culture, was seen by some hippies as worthy of imitation.
Core hippie doctrine (if one can speak of such) included a sense of protest against societal control, the entire system of socialization and indoctrination evinced by mass conformity, with everyone tuned into the same media, speaking the same conventionalized language of consensus reality, submitting to the same laws with the same fears of appearing different from the herd. To know our true identity, to re-discover and fearlessly express the uniqueness of our deepest selves, to tap the wellsprings of inner wisdom, we needed to somehow free our minds from societal conditioning and control.
Lo and behold, the Krishnas had lots to say about “conditioning.” We are all conditioned, they explained, by “material nature,” also known as ‘Maya” – the World of Illusion that causes all our suffering in life. The Krishnas, therefore, spoke the language of mind liberation, and claimed to offer the means to achieve it.
And, as it turns out, mind liberation was not an impossible or even necessarily difficult achievement. It could be had simply by chanting the Hare Krishna mantra, comprised of the sacred names of Krishna – magic “sound vibrations” from the spiritual world that had the power to free a person from worldly conditioning. And communal chanting looked like lots of fun, a kind of group celebration, and a form of meditation that was musical and physically expressive. It looked like a way to loosen up, free the mind, get in touch with higher energies and bliss out.
6. Krishna: the ultimate hippie
Here was this ageless, androgynous youth with beautiful blue (sometimes tending toward periwinkle) skin, long flowing hair decorated with flowers, and a gently seductive smile on his sweet cherubic face – an expression that seemed to hint at the possibility of eternal bliss. The devotees would describe to fantasy-receptive hippies that Krishna is always eternally dancing and playing with his friends in beautiful rural settings on his very own planet, Krishna-loka, located in an infinite spiritual world beyond this wretched plane. This presented quite an alluring image to a young hippie with kaleidoscope eyes. Beautiful posters of this sweet, seductive boy playing his bamboo flute in his transcendent sylvan paradise adorned the walls of Hare Krishna temples, and in the right state of mind one could easily become deeply immersed in these Edenic, otherworldly scenes.
But wait, there’s more: this lovely, luminous blue boy is actually God! Clearly, young Krishna was a far more attractive option for love and devotion than the bearded, dour Old Man of Judeo-Christianity, and this simple fact preempted what for many hippies would have been a deal-breaker: the prospect of joining a religion. Few hippies were conventionally religious, and therefore generally not in search of a supreme being to serve. But if God turned out to be a blissful blue youth who danced and played in an enchanted forest in a sublime psychedelic otherworld, that might just work.
7. Bhakti-yoga: the yoga of love
And, incidentally, the Krishnas practiced Bhakti yoga, the yoga of LOVE. According to them, the goal of life was to learn to love Krishna, and this was the highest spiritual state a person could attain, the true goal of all religion and philosophy. The Krishna scriptures delineated the “science” of Bhakti, offering typologies and describing nuances of the kinds of blissful, rapturous love that the devotee could look forward to experiencing some day as he advanced on the path (viz., uncontrollable crying, rolling on the ground, hairs standing on end, etc.). LOVE was, in fact, the very coin of Krishna’s realm, a love surpassing all mundane comprehension. So, if you were searching for the highest form of love, the devotees assured, you’d come to the right place.
There was much talk and hearsay among young seekers about communes. For many of us, finding one to join, sooner or later, was high on the to-do list. But if you explored the matter in any depth, you might have learned that a lot of communes weren’t getting far off the ground, or disbanding after failing to coalesce. The combined ethic of unconditional personal freedom, in-the-moment spontaneity, and absolute egalitarianism had made getting organized (setting up work-schedules, planting crops, cooking, child-care, etc.) a nearly insurmountable challenge.
But check out the Krishnas: here was this really tight commune, everyone focused on the same lofty goals, who had managed to organize themselves well enough to keep themselves fed, pay rent, show up in the parks daily to chant and hand out free food, even publish their own books. They appeared, in a word, “together” (focused, resourceful, organized enough to get things done). The Krishna community had an aura of stability and reliability that elsewhere was lacking. The idea of a smooth-running spiritual community, an established ashram, a community of spiritually-minded people following a well-defined path, might well appear inviting to the spiritually (and often literally) homeless.
9. Vegetarianism & free food
Motivated by notions of universal love, peace, gentleness, and kindness, many hippies practiced vegetarianism of one sort or another, and appreciated the Krishna’s fervent ethical stance against animal slaughter and meat-eating. Besides, the Krishnas were big on preparing tasty meals of ritually blessed food for general distribution – modified (less spicy) versions of traditional Indian dishes and sugary sweets. You could go to the temple any Sunday to partake of a specially prepared multi-course meal (the “Love Feast”) and eat your fill. Word spread quickly, and this drew many potential recruits to the temple, most willing to sing (chant) for their supper. Those who stuck around after the chanting and the free food would likely be approached by one or more devotees who’d tell them about beautiful Krishna, the wonderful Swami, and how to achieve spiritual “perfection” and eternal bliss. If a guest seemed “sincere” (receptive, inquisitive, or possibly just spaced out) the devotee preacher might encourage the guest to perform some “service” for Krishna (wash dishes, sweep and mop the temple floor, etc.), stay overnight, and generally get involved with the temple community.
NEGATIVES: Impediments to Joining
Those, then, were some of the major features of early ISKCON that naturally appealed to many countercultural youth. For an already spiritually-curious hippie open to the notion of finding a path and even settling into a practice, it is not hard to imagine why joining the Krishnas might have seemed a plausible option. Indeed, as I mentioned earlier, the vast majority of early joiners came from the ranks of the Counterculture. On more than one occasion the Swami referred to hippies as “our best customers.”
However, an outsider who spent increasing amounts time at the temple inevitably would be confronted with certain ideas, particular aspects of the teachings, that might give a countercultural libertarian pause, that might even become an impediment to making a full commitment. Some of the obvious disincentives would include the prohibitions against drugs and sex. I’ll briefly discuss these and several other potential turn-offs.
1. No drugs
For many potential converts, it was psychedelics such as LSD that had introduced them to the world of metaphysical ideas and experiences, and had even made plausible the notion of seeking out a path and a practice. For many, LSD had served as a kind of sacrament, a magic portal to extraordinary experiences, profound insights, and extraordinary spiritual emotions. For many who were still enjoying the adventure of tripping, the notion of giving it up might be a deal-breaker. Chanting Hare Krishna may make you feel good, but how could it compete with the aesthetic and spiritual intensity of an LSD trip? In any case, prohibition (not only of LSD but any and all “intoxicants” including coffee and tea) might seem a bit extreme.
2. No sex
The notion of widespread or indiscriminate “free sex” among hippies – the hippie as a new breed of swinger – was largely an invention (or at least a robust exaggeration) of a media and a public hungry for salacious tales of hippie decadence. But sex there was, along with a growing generational openness about the body and sexuality. The claim that sex is the enemy of spirituality, a sin that would keep one forever mired in ignorance and illusion – and, beyond that, that sex is an essentially disgusting and degrading act – would be a rather big pill to swallow. Many hippies would have been incredulous and dismissive of what would appear to be an extreme prudishness, as well as an overall phobic attitude toward the body and physicality. If one wanted to join a spiritual group, there were others far less sexually restrictive than the celibate Krishnas.
3. Separation of the sexes
As if giving up sex were not challenge enough, the Krishnas had a policy of separation (and minimal interaction) between males and females. The policy, as articulated by the Swami, was mainly for the benefit of male monks, perpetually in danger of being seduced by the dangerous sexual energies known to emanate from women. The protection of male members was a firm priority. In fact, to be graphic, males were taught how to carefully fold their members underneath their scrotums and bind them there securely with special “Brahmin underwear” to prevent hard-ons. In any case, celibacy and separation of the sexes would have seemed rather draconian and counterintuitive to many youthful seekers.
4. Your friends are no longer your friends
Membership in ISKCON, especially in those early days, assumed cutting personal social ties extraneous to the organization. You were in it totally, or you were out. This would logically have seemed drastic to those accustomed to freedom of movement and association within the wider youth culture. To explore a spiritual path is one thing, but to divorce oneself entirely from all existing social and familial bonds – to be required to say farewell to friends, acquaintances, lovers, and family members – is quite another. One had already renounced (more or less) mainstream culture for the Counterculture; to then reduce one’s social world to a handful of people living in an ashram, could be quite a hurdle.
Another clear disincentive to joining the Krishnas would have been the recognition that having made a complete break from one’s social past, one would now be required to submit to a distinctly regimented mode of life. There were fixed schedules to follow and rules to abide by, posted throughout the ashram. This was quite a change for an independent, free-range hippie, a radical shift from the ethic of living in the moment, of being carefree, spontaneous, courting serendipity, open to the natural flow of life. To join the Krishnas was to submit to a narrowly defined, strictly controlled regimen, to be required to follow orders without question, to please one’s superiors in the ashram and to compete for the attention and blessings of the Swami.
6. Conformity of physical appearance
Another hurdle for some was the required conformity in dress and appearance. Hippie fashion was eclectic, innovative, often wildly decorative, an expression of radical individuality, whereas the Krishnas wore what was essentially a uniform – orange polyester robes for the men and simple saris (cut from large bolts of inexpensive fabric) for the women. Hippie hair, generally speaking, was long and loose, a sign of freedom from the uptight conventions of short hair for men and quaffed or helmet hair for women. Long hair served as a proclamation of freedom from social expectations, an emblem of personal liberation, and a badge of honor for self-styled “freaks.” In contrast, the Krishna women were required to tie back and hide their hair under their saris, while men shaved their heads, leaving a small tuft of hair in the back. (I recall that some of those “tufts” were quite long, the perhaps cherished remnants of former cascades of bohemian hair, outer signs that “we” had only recently been “them” and that “they” could feel safe in our company.) In any case, for most hippies, voluntary baldness was beyond consideration or comprehension.
7. Discipleship: “surrender” to the guru (and his proxies)
Eventually, membership would lead to formal initiation that, by definition, implied a total surrender of will and full acceptance of the Swami as a perfect, infallible representative of God. Many hippies might have been drawn to the idea of spiritual guidance, of forming a fruitful relationship with a benevolent, wise teacher. But here, in the Hare Krishna movement, the guru was held to be not merely holy, not merely godly, but god-like (“as good as God” is how the Swami described his status). As a fully enlightened soul, the guru knew everything worth knowing and thus was virtually omniscient. As Krishna’s direct representative, he possessed unimagined powers to act on Krishna’s behalf, a kind of situational omnipotence. And because he was said to literally inhabit the heart and mind of every true disciple, he was functionally omnipresent. To disobey, offend, or doubt (what to speak of criticize) the guru was tantamount to rejecting God. To displease him was a spiritual felony, and doing so would condemn a disciple to spiritual ruination. Inasmuch as the leader or leaders of a particular ashram represented the guru’s authority, they also were to be obeyed at all times. The imperative of obedience to authority certainly kept many potential joiners away.
8. Restriction of free thought
In the same vein, the notion that certain subjects or ideas are taboo, that there are safe and unsafe places for the mind to go, was certainly unsettling to many a freethinking seeker. Like medieval nautical maps that delineated the far limits of the known world (beyond which sea monsters dwelled in wait of wayward ships), so the well-trained Krishna devotee learns how to sound an internal alarm whenever his or her mind wanders too far from thoughts of Krishna or service to the guru. Devotees were discouraged, for example, from talking about their pre-ISKCON lives or discussing current events (outside the context of endless recitations of the horrors of the outside world). New internal maps of reality had to be drawn, clearly demarcating truth from falsehood, Krishna from Maya (illusion), orthodoxy from heresy. To indulge oneself in private, independent thought, to attempt to comprehend reality outside the guidance of guru and scripture, was to commit the sin of “mental speculation” – an act of hubris, a sign that one was “puffed-up” with exaggerated self regard. By keeping one’s thoughts fixed on Krishna at all times, one is spared falling into the dangerous, illusion-filled realm of personal, subjective awareness.
Of course this process of gradual self-erasure, this muffling of the sounds of private thought, this rejection of previous identity, was presented in ideal terms as a kind of spiritual heroism, the noble pursuit of aspiring saints and sages. If the implications of this teaching were made clear to potential recruits from the start, if it were understood that being a devotee required working to systematically detach oneself from the content of personal consciousness – all the data of spontaneous thought, reflection, ideation, imagination – who would willingly join?
9. Rejection of prior personality, the biographical self
The first doctrinal lesson of Krishna consciousness, virtually a mantra in its own right, is this: “I am not this body; I am an eternal spirit soul.” “Body” here refers not only to the physical body, but to the mind as well (what Krishnas call the “subtle body”). What we commonly call “mind” is, therefore, a substance external to our true spiritual selves – simply one component of our temporary material identity. As one devotee might instruct a fellow devotee complaining of anxiety or doubt: “You are not your mind.”
Now, if it’s true that personal identity, one’s entire sense of self, is merely a construct and artifact of the mind, then the person I think myself to be is nothing but a fiction, an illusion. I am faced now with this great spiritual truth: I am something entirely other than the person I viscerally feel myself to be on a moment-to-moment basis – and therefore it behooves me to act in that spirit (i.e., selflessly, as a humble servant having no needs or aspirations apart from pleasing the Master). If I fully embrace this notion that I am not who I now think I am, that true self-realization will come only later when I’ve earned it by surrendering fully to Krishna, then I’m left, in the present, with no solid, felt identity at all – other than what I’m repeatedly told I am: a humble servant of Krishna (and his agent, the Spiritual Master). To put that in devotee-speak: “Chant Hare Krishna and surrender to the guru, and your eternal spiritual identity as Krishna’s servant will gradually be revealed to you. Then you shall be enlightened and blissful forever.”
The fundamental and profound idea that we are essentially and ultimately spiritual rather than material beings has an ancient pedigree in both Eastern and Western thought. It’s my experience, however, that in ISKCON the idea is grossly over-simplified and interpreted in such a way as to promote unconditional submission not only to the guru, but also to the institution. Many members view ISKCON as a kind of divine entity, a manifestation of Krishna himself (or, alternatively, the guru himself). No wonder that the various ethical and managerial scandals that have plagued ISKCON over the years have caused so many to lose faith and consequently defect.
For our hypothetical or prototypical hippie, the notion of shedding or transcending the “false ego” might suggest something far less extreme than institutional servitude, such as learning to rise above narcissistic self-absorption and other neuroses via meditation or the practice of compassion. But few young seekers would have had the philosophical sophistication, or the spiritual intuition, to grasp the radical nature of what ISKCON proposed, namely a total overhaul of one’s entire sense of personal reality by way of unconditional devotion to a theological abstraction – “I am Krishna’s (or the guru’s) eternal servant.” Waiting for his or her true spiritual identity to take hold, waiting for the promised bliss to come, the new devotee has only to settle into a kind of identity limbo while obediently serving the holy mission.
10. Unapologetic sectarianism
Another stumbling block for many potential joiners would have been the blatantly sectarian character of the founder’s teachings: the claim that Absolute Truth was singular and could be found in his writings and nowhere else. It is not uncommon for sects and religions to claim they teach the highest truths, but ISKCON’s founder aggressively condemned virtually all other teachers and gurus, living and dead. His most concentrated venom was directed at those who taught that God was anything other than a divine “person” to be worshipped and served, and at other Hindu teachers and sects that failed to exalt Krishna as the Supreme Deity. All such false teachers were (to name just a few of his favorite terms of abuse) “bogus,” “cheaters,” “rascals,” even “demons,” and he advised that one should (figuratively) “kick on their face with boot.” To an adoring disciple, these attacks were inspiring displays of the guru’s courageous and uncompromising defense of the Absolute Truth, a sign of his unwillingness to waste precious time indulging in pointless theological niceties. He was the great, unequalled spiritual warrior able to “defeat” all who might question his interpretations of scripture. But for a young seeker who may have been exposed to a variety of teachings and teachers, or who thought of spirituality in more fluid, universal terms, ISKCON’s overt sectarianism might make it appear as just another form of religious narrow-mindedness and arrogance, some strange breed of Hindu fundamentalism, triumphalist and aggressive, and thus a dead-end.
So, why join?
One would think that all these negative features of ISKCON would amount to a powerful disincentive for joining the group. And this would be the case if the typical joiner were a paragon of rationality, capable of calm, critical reflection. But he’s not, because none of us are, and certainly not when in the throes of a psychological or spiritual crisis with all that may entail: profound confusion, anxiety, despair, suggestibility, and so on. There is plenty of evidence (beyond my personal recollections) that many or most joiners were indeed in crisis mode, desperately seeking clarity, stability, and a sense of rootedness in some tangible reality. Many were simply at the end of their mental ropes, groping about for direction and relief. This may be especially true for those who’d been excessive or reckless in their use LSD, explorers of consciousness whose consciousness had “expanded” beyond what could reasonably be processed and integrated – for whom normative, consensual reality had been substantially deconstructed, relativized, blown apart. Having intentionally disassembled, to some degree, the scaffolding of psychosocial conditioning, some found themselves adrift, lacking a cohesive sense of self. Psychedelic consciousness expansion, however eye opening, undoubtedly left some seekers’ psyches foundering, skirting the edges of psychosis, desperate for something to grab on to. Even if not actually teetering on the precipice of a breakdown, many were simply desperate for stability in their lives, some new structure to replace those that had been abandoned in the quest for higher meaning and transcendent experience. Also, many countercultural wanderers simply had no reliable access to food or shelter, commodities which the Krishnas were all too happy to offer to those who showed up at the temple.
Now, if a person in the midst of a psycho-spiritual crisis could be convinced that Krishna consciousness offers a path out of existential angst, that it might relieve psychic pain, that chanting the Hare Krishna mantra would not only deliver her from mental distress but also usher her into a world of indescribable beauty and bliss, then she might be willing to overlook those impediments to joining, or bracket them conceptually, or set about the task of rationalizing them, even reconfigure them into positives.
For many who joined ISKCON, the principal impetus for bypassing or leaping over the rational impediments to joining was having one or more subjective bouts of bliss, often while chanting. I can relate the following from my own story: Several days after I’d tentatively moved into the Boulder, Colorado temple, while still in the process of deciding whether or not to take the leap, I was riding in a van full of devotees returning from downtown Denver, where we’d been chanting all day. The devotees were each reciting the Hare Krishna mantra individually on prayer beads, some softly, some more loudly, some in a monotone, others in a sing-song way. I was also chanting on the beads that had been issued to me. At a certain point during the ride, the cumulative sound of mantra recitation welled up into a kind of sweet, shimmering wave of sound, which in my imagination seemed to be pouring out of some mysterious realm of beauty and profundity. Awash in the sound of chanting, I began to feel a wave of bliss rise up in me, a tangible feeling of extreme happiness and lightness, all burdens lifted, all knots untied, all things made good. The feeling didn’t result from any particular thought or pattern of reflection, from any process of intellectual synthesis or resolution. It was simply a rich, delicious, sublime, subjective feeling of bliss, ecstasy – an unexpected, indescribable sensation of mental clarity and peace. That sensation was so delectable, so uniquely wonderful, and such a gift to a mind in deep conflict, that I consciously said to myself (I remember this quite clearly): “If by chanting Hare Krishna and practicing Krishna Consciousness I might come to a point one day where I’ll feel what I’m feeling now all the time, then I’m ready to do whatever is required. I want that sweet, pure, clear, lovely feeling so badly; I’ll do anything to get there. If this particular feeling, this rich, dense, sublime emotion, this intimation of perfect wholeness and harmony is what this practice leads to, then I’ll make whatever sacrifice is necessary to stay on the path. I’ll follow the guru. I’ll be celibate. I’ll study hard. I’ll work hard. Whatever it takes.”
By the following day, still aglow, I was starting to not let the negatives bother me too much, to pay them less attention. The lingering memory of the bliss-bath of the previous evening then seemed to overwhelm everything else. If you could peer into my mind, you’d have heard an internal monologue that sounded something like this:
OK. So, I don’t really understand the male/female separation thing. But I think it has something to do with purity and detachment and transcending. I guess it’s just a necessary part of the process. The devotees say it’s about a kind of mutual respect, a way of allowing each other space to advance on the path. I can sort of understand that.
And what about giving up acid? They say chanting takes you to a place even higher than LSD and lets you stay there forever. I think I felt a little of that while chanting last night, and I’m sure there are higher states to experience. If I stay around, I could become enlightened naturally, without acid. I can do that.
And yeah, they all do seem kind of hardcore, kind of obsessed with their spiritual practice. They’re totally and deeply into this and have cut themselves off from everything else. That seems kind of extreme, but it does seem to work for them. It’s obvious they’re happy. I guess you have to get that serious, that focused, that self-denying, to achieve a high spiritual state. Am I ready for this? I think I am.
What about surrendering to the guru? In pictures he looks really blissful – obviously he’s in some higher state. And the devotees seem to really love him. Some of them have seen him and talk about how incredible it was to be near him and how wonderful and kind he is. For a long time I’ve been intrigued by the idea of holy men, people who’ve reached advanced spiritual states. So maybe he’s one? If he’s a totally enlightened and pure-hearted teacher, why not become his disciple?
And they seem to have some pretty far out ideas about gods and goddesses and demons and avatars and Krishna’s planet in the spiritual world. Seems there’s a lot of Hindu mythology in this and they seem to take it all literally. This is pretty far out stuff. But I’ve tripped enough to know that anything is possible, that the highest truth is beyond anything I can conceive, so who’s to say what’s weird and what’s not, what’s true and what’s not? And those Indian prints of Krishna are pretty trippy – I really feel something when I look at those. I suppose the least I can do is be open-minded and try to experience all this more deeply and see where it takes me.
But what about all those rules and regulations, following a strict schedule and having people tell you what to do? If someone tells me I have to peel fifty potatoes or sweep and mop the temple floor, I’ll have to do it. Will I be able to deal with that? But those things do need to be done and someone’s gotta do them, and I’d be the new guy and probably have to play humble. But the thing is, they all seem really nice, genuinely sincere. They don’t seem to be into exploiting each other. They seem pretty content. So how bad could it be? I’ll deal with it. I mean, if they can do it, I can do it.
But if I totally join and stay, it seems I won’t be able to just come and go when I please. I’ll really be tied to the ashram. I mean, it’s a full-time commitment. That could feel a little confining, even claustrophobic. Well, I guess I can just try it and see how it goes.
And what about the idea that they have the highest truth, and so I shouldn’t read any books other than their guru’s? Am I ready for that? I have to admit I’ve read a lot of philosophical and spiritual books and I’m more confused than ever. These people seem so happy and so sure of what they have. So who knows, maybe this is really it, maybe this is what I need to do. Can’t hurt to stay around a while and see what happens.
Plus, all of this is from India, which is obviously a spiritual place with ancient wisdom traditions – all those holy men meditating in the Himalayas. So I guess it’s road tested. Plus Allen Ginsberg chants Hare Krishna, and Ram Dass chants, and George Harrison is into Krishna consciousness. I’d be in good company.
OK. So I’ll stay. I guess I’m ready to become a Hare Krishna. Wow, who’d have thought? But this may really be what I’ve been looking for. I can always leave if I want, so what’s there to lose?
After living in the ashram for about a week, I took the initiative and cut off all my hair with a pair scissors, and one of the devotee men finished the job with shaving cream and a razor. Generally you had to ask permission before “shaving up,” because it had to be clear you were serious, but I recall feeling that I wanted to do it myself as a kind of statement that this is my own choice and I didn’t need to be pressured. I wanted this.
* * *
This, then, is how and why a few thousand of the most idealistic, spiritually motivated hippies chose to, or felt compelled to, submit themselves to an insular, totalistic cult. Like Allen Ginsberg in his poetic masterpiece “Howl,” I mourn the fact that some of the best and brightest minds and spirits of my generation – refugees from the mainstream in search of utopia, deep feelers in search of goodness and beauty, free-spirits in quest of ultimate Liberation, intellectuals engaging the profoundest truths – ended up in the wrong place. Like travellers dying of thirst in the desert, they came upon what appeared to be an oasis, and desperate for nourishment they dove in headfirst. This was a particularly lovely mirage: idyllic, colorful, innocent, full of happy, shiny people ready to travel to a transcendent world of surpassing beauty and joy. But – long, complicated story short – the vast majority of those who joined eventually left, replaced by many others who, in turn, would eventually leave.
There are many factors that contributed to the eventual instability and failure of ISKCON as a movement or institution (though it continues to exist in ghostly, fractured forms), and I and others have told pieces of that story. Academic disciplines such as the history and sociology of religion have evolved general theories for understanding the formation, transformation and demise of religious movements and institutions. But for me and others who’ve spent years in cults, general theoretical principles express themselves in tangible forms, in the details and textures of daily life in insular, altered worlds. No theory or set of theories, no quantitative studies, can provide a full and felt understanding of the complex, multifaceted ways in which individual psyches interact with a particular religious or cultic environment.
* * *
A Modest Sutra of Loss
I’d like to conclude this essay with a kind of litany, if you will – a recitation of things sought and never found, a lament for idealism dashed and innocence lost, of vast amounts of time, energy, resources and soul-force spent and misspent – a modest sutra of loss:
In the end, those most interested in exploring and “expanding” consciousness were taught, in the name of “spiritual advancement,” to contract consciousness to a thin, narrow band of (obsessive) attention.
Those young seekers who’d been drawn to the notion of enlightenment, of spiritual wakefulness, of shedding all illusions, of opening one’s deepest being to ultimate reality, were instead shepherded into one small, windowless, room within the infinite mansion of human possibilities and told that everything we’d ever need was there and nowhere else.
We who were deeply introspective, fascinated by the breadth and complexity of the human mind, were taught instead to “transcend” the mind by immersing ourselves in a particular brand of groupthink.
We’d struggled to free ourselves from one form of conformity – that which society demands – to be sweet-talked into another kind of conformity masquerading as “self-realization.”
Those who had enjoyed experimenting with a freer aesthetics of adornment learned to wear a virtual uniform (because “This is how souls dress in the Spiritual World”).
Those who had loved music, for whom music had deeply enriched their lives, were told to sell their guitars and flutes and LPs and give the proceeds to the temple, convinced that creativity and its tangible fruits were nothing but “sense-gratification,” a frivolous and petty indulgence that would subvert and destroy our spiritual progress, our ears and our souls simply too fragile and pure for Beethoven, Bach, or the Beatles.
Those who had once sought a communitarian, egalitarian way of life, instead found themselves embedded in a rigidly hierarchical system in which one was well-advised to know one’s place, as well as to whom one must literally bow down.
Those who had tried to imagine a oneness of humanity, a unity of all beings, an ethic of universal love and acceptance, instead found themselves members of a highly insular, self-proclaimed elite, harshly judgmental of outsiders, all of whom were deemed less than human (“dogs, hogs, camels, and asses”). The meat-eaters and sex fiends of the world were to be shunned and avoided at all costs (other than to be approached in carefully circumscribed rituals for the purposes of fundraising).
We came, many of us, for a safe haven from the insanity of the wider culture, the intensity of the rat race and the harshness of cities, but were quickly turned around and sent back out into those bleak environments for the daily grind of fundraising and book selling. Rather than being free to live peaceful lives of gentle spirituality, we were instead trained as street missionaries and scam artists.
We’d left a world where we were certain money was evil and corrupting, then trained to raise funds for ISKCON by any means necessary, unbound by “mundane” ethics because “everything belongs to Krishna.” In the world of ISKCON, not love (bhakti, prema) but money became the coin of the realm (dollars neatly transubstantiated into “Lakshmi points”).
Those for whom sex might have been a source of affection, intimacy, or pleasure, even a sacramental union of archetypes, learned to regard it as the most vile thing imaginable, the filthy doings of dogs and swine – beneath dignity but not beneath discussion, for the subject was discussed and analyzed endlessly, creating an almost fetishistic horror of human sexuality.
Men who had enjoyed the social company of women, and women who had enjoyed the social company of men, now nervously avoided each other in order to maintain “spiritual purity.” Men, in particular, learned to distrust women, to view them as impediments to spiritual advancement, the fire that melts the butter of a man’s spiritual resolve. Men who before joining might have had tender and respectful attitudes toward their female family members, friends, and lovers, morphed into scripture-quoting misogynists.
Those who valued the ideals of honesty and sincerity, of being true to oneself in dealing with others – without script or hidden agenda – of being and acting spontaneously, without premeditation or artifice, instead learned to live and act according to a complex web of pre-determined codes of behavior, interpersonal rituals and formulas, and specialized modes of speech.
The spiritual notion of surrender, of opening oneself fully to the universe or the divine presence, was transfigured into the imperative to submit body, mind, and soul to the guru. Rather than a private, intentional act, a movement of the soul, an expression of deep psychic receptivity, “surrender” now came to mean a capitulation of the autonomous self, an unconditional submission to unchallenged and unchallengeable authority.
Those who had loved to read, to explore ideas, to wonder and reflect, were made to believe that intellectuality was the enemy of enlightenment, that autonomous thought (“mental speculation”) was a dangerous affront to the Spiritual Master, who had already gifted us with all the truth anyone needed to know. No need for wonder or imagination when you already have “perfect knowledge.”
Those who had cherished the concept of radical personal freedom, who had sought to liberate themselves from societal conditioning and compulsion in order to become fully authentic, autonomous selves, were lead to embrace the diametric opposite: absolute submission, obedience and conformity to a pre-existing orthodoxy with a fixed notion of reality, under a regime of unrelenting, unforgiving, internalized self-surveillance.
We sought inner peace, but found ourselves with a permanent, anxious buzzing in our heads, a voice forever asking, “Are your thoughts pure? Are you being a good devotee? Are you avoiding all forms of sense gratification? Are you being chaste? Are you showing proper respect to the guru? Are you being submissive to the temple chain of command? Are you being submissive to your husband? Have you chanted all your beads? Have you met your fundraising quota? Are you taking every opportunity to spread Krishna Consciousness? Are you showing your sincerity by working hard for Krishna, or are you letting your personal needs and desires get in the way? You’re not being self-centered, are you?”
We sought a community of kind, gentle, pure-hearted souls – and such individuals certainly existed – but over time we found ourselves increasingly in the proximity of a few too many hypocrites, narcissists, careerists, petty tyrants, inquisitors, women-haters, wife-beaters, wife-rapists, child molesters, sociopaths, and other products of a toxic, totalistic environment.
We sought discipleship, but received a guru who was rarely present, shielded by secretaries and servants, travelling the world to build and promote his institution. But he told us not to worry, that he was mystically incarnated in his books, and that the harder we worked to sell those books and perform other prescribed duties, the more we’d feel his divine presence.
In conclusion, we’d come for spirituality and were handed institutional religion in its most corruptible form; we sought freedom and were given obedience training; we were assured that Bliss was imminent, then given the slogan “Work Now, Samadhi (Enlightenment) Later.” We sought a genuine spiritual path, but instead were hitched to an apparatus consisting of a carrot and a stick: the carrot of eternal bliss, and the stick of metaphysical anxiety, guilt, and fear. Idealism brought us there, to the Hare Krishna movement, and idealism and good sense (however bruised and battered) convinced us eventually to leave. For that we are grateful.