Lessons from Seventeen Years in the Hare Krishnas

Used with permission of the author.

This article was written by Steven J. Gelberg (Subhananda das). He was a member of ISKCON for seventeen years (1970-1987), serving as the organization’s principal liaison to the international academic community, as well as its Director for Inter-religious Affairs. After leaving ISKCON he went on to earn his M.T.S. degree in Comparative Religion at Harvard Divinity School (1990). He now lives near San Francisco with his wife, and is an accomplished fine-art photographer.

Preface

By nature, I’d rather be enthusing over something I love or feel passionate about than criticizing something I don’t. Because I’m not a vindictive or combative sort, while composing this piece I have had my moments of feeling slightly villainous. This is, after all, a rather sharp piece of criticism. I believe, however, that my motives are sincere and my intent benign. What compelled me to write this essay-of-sorts is a desire to deconstruct and better comprehend why I devoted a full seventeen years of my life (ages 18-35, my youth!) to the “Hare Krishnas,” and then to share my thoughts with a wider public.

Concerning my years in the Krishna movement, I have little to be bitter or angry about—personally. Compared to most members, I enjoyed (after I’d been in a few years) a relatively high degree of autonomy, due to the nature of my work in the organization and the prestige attached to it. That privileged status notwithstanding, I was a fully socialized member and underwent the same process of conversion and comprehensive transformation as anyone else. My devotion to “Krishna consciousness” was absolute and I invested my entire being in it.

If any of what I write here offends people associated with the Krishna movement, its various offshoots, or its root tradition in India, I apologize, but ask that they allow themselves to read this with an open mind and see if any of it resonates with their own private musings.

Readers will quickly notice that this is not merely a critique of the Hare Krishna organization, but is a wider comment on “cults” (or “new religious movements”) in general. Though my immediate purpose is to make sense of my own conversion and lengthy commitment, my wider intent is to understand why anyone would wish to embrace a high-intensity, high-demand, fundamentalist, authoritarian religious group. These “lessons” reflect many of the insights that have been gained from the study of cultic groups by psychologists, sociologists, historians of religion, social critics, and therapists working with ex-members. I have no doubt that much of what I say here will resonate with those who have lived portions of their lives as True Believers within cultic milieus. I also engage some deeper, philosophical questions surrounding the perennial human quest for spiritual attainment, and discuss how a passion to go to the absolute limit in pursuit of enlightenment and salvation often becomes co-opted by intermediaries in the form of self-appointed, self-interested religious teachers and self-serving institutions.

In the end, however, all this reflection and analysis is firmly rooted in personal experience and deep introspection, which are, after all, the best and most reliable teachers.

I think of this as a work in progress, and so sincerely invite responses from interested readers, whatever their perspective. I welcome constructive criticism and am always ready to refine my thinking and revise my words when needed. I may be reached at gelberg[at]earthlink.net.

sjg

Initial Attraction / Conversion / Early Days

1
On my first day in the ashram, I learned that by reciting the Hare Krishna mantra while looking intently at a picture of Krishna, I could take the edge off my piercing existential anxiety. Standing there, entranced, I wanted to disappear into that poster-sized image of Krishna hanging on the temple wall—it seemed a magic portal into a beautiful, transcendent world.

2
I learned from the devotees that Krishna was real, and that by becoming his devotee I could eventually return to and stay forever in that vibrantly colorful, beatific realm depicted in that and similar images from India.

3
I learned that the hippie critique of conventional society as brutal and absurd, and of consensual reality as little more than organized madness, was neatly mirrored in ISKCON’s damning critique of the material world as a place of darkness and illusion—and noticed that virtually all the people living in the Krishna temple had transitioned over from the Counterculture.

4
I learned from the devotees that the peace, wisdom, love and bliss I’d been seeking through LSD and other consciousness-expanding potions were readily available right there in the ashram.

5
I learned that I would attain such perfections only if I was ready to completely shed my old, material self and fully embrace my new (“original”) identity as Krishna’s servant.

6
I learned that becoming Krishna’s devotee would free me from the intense mental confusion I’d acquired from years of desperate and inconclusive philosophical searching; that a mind at the end of its tether could attain peace and bliss through total immersion in a beautiful spiritual fantasy. What a relief!

7
I learned how to shave my own head, how to wear a dhoti (orange robe), how to clean Krishna’s temple, how to play the cymbals while chanting Hare Krishna, how to distract my mind from material thoughts by chanting and by studying Prabhupada’s (the guru’s) books.

8
Among a million other practical matters, I learned that it is wrong to use toilet tissue after “passing stool” (that being the proper term). I learned this on my first full day in the ashram. I had just completed the act, noticed that the dispenser was empty, called out to anyone who might hear asking where I might find the toilet paper, and was answered by a disembodied voice explaining that using toilet paper is the “smear-method” and that water and fingers are the appropriate tools for the job.

9
I learned that some young people, unable to function in the “real” world due to serious psychological problems (ranging from depression to psychosis) could find a haven within the ashram. This was due, in part, to a certain tolerance of mental aberrations in the ashram, based upon the notion that madness is a natural by-product of a mad world, and that Krishna consciousness could cure anything. I noticed that some such refuge seekers could learn to function well within the structure of the ashram, even becoming, over time, skilled and productive workers within that protected, regimented environment.

10
I learned that the same held true for young people undergoing a temporal psycho-spiritual crisis, in part because devotees view mental confusion and breakdown as a convenient and auspicious entree to radical spiritual transformation (part of Krishna’s saving plan). Encouraged by ISKCON’s anti-worldly, anti-ego philosophy, the troubled new convert is made to feel that shedding the old, defective self is the right and proper thing to do, and can best be achieved by surrendering to Krishna.

11
I learned, thus, that I could escape the hellish labyrinth of my own mind and lift the burden of confusion and anxiety by a simple, if gradual, process of letting go, of surrendering to a new, beautiful shining super-reality.

12
I learned that however one wishes to explain it, or explain it away, there is an uncanny power in the repetition of the Hare Krishna mantra, or any other mantra-like construction of names of the divine—a meditative practice that can be found, in one form or another, in every major religious tradition.

13
I learned, however, that the pleasure derived from chanting can act as a kind of bliss-fix that reinforces one’s attachment and loyalty to the particular path, institution or guru that introduced one to the practice—and that this attachment can function as a means of control.

14
I learned that if you and your cohorts chant Sanskrit mantras on the streets of any city, you will attract such a degree of disbelieving stares, hostility and ridicule, that you are forced to construct a fire-wall of mental separation from the outside world, one that becomes nearly impenetrable.

15
I learned that two closely related people, sitting inches apart, can inhabit utterly different cognitive universes, as when I visited my parents for the first time after becoming a devotee (bald and in orange robes), and had my mother sit and watch in horror as I performed the traditional Hindu arati ritual (for her spiritual benefit).

16
I learned to taste the intense exhilaration that comes from participating in a holy mission to reform society, to enlighten the world, to end all suffering; the feeling of rising above the commonplace and leading humanity in that upward flight—to feel the excitement of the reformer, the revolutionary, the messenger of glad tidings, the herald of heaven on earth.

17
I learned that there seems to be a fundamental human desire, a compelling need even, to feel superior to others, and I learned that the most exquisite gratification of that need is to be continually assured, by the highest authorities in the universe, that one (along with one’s friends) is superior to all the other inhabitants of Planet Earth, and that this clear fact would certainly be acknowledged by them if they could but see.

18
I learned that the outside world, the material world, the world outside Krishna’s temple, is little more than an enormous hell, a kingdom of sin and madness. I learned that any thought to the contrary is but an illusion, a trick of Maya to draw me away from Krishna’s loving protection.

19
I learned that listening to worldly music (i.e., any music other than temple chants or recordings of our guru’s devotional singing) is forbidden, because mundane music, being a creation of Maya, would certainly contaminate our pure consciousness. Beware of Beethoven, Brahms, or the Beatles (except for a few songs by George Harrison which mention Krishna) because trying to derive pleasure from worldly music is nothing but sense gratification, which increases our bondage to the material world.

20
I learned that the same principle held for art, literature, film, dance, or any other aesthetic form. No matter how apparently beautiful, refined or inspiring, all such human creations are merely the siren song of Maya and a danger to our eternal souls.

21
I learned that to avoid being drawn back into the outside world, it was necessary that we constantly remind ourselves, and each other, how truly vile that world is. I learned to pay close attention to the morning scripture class, wherein one of the senior members would provide an endless litany of the horrors of life in the material world. I learned to make an art and a science of inventing ever new and interesting ways to describe the fallen nature of the non-devotees—piling example upon example, anecdote upon anecdote, lesson upon lesson, proof upon proof of the foolishness of being anything other than a devotee of Krishna and a member of ISKCON. This exercise provided not only a necessary daily inoculation against Maya, but also strong feelings of communal closeness and camaraderie.

22
Just as native Arctic peoples possess a multiplicity of words for snow, we spiritual islanders had a wealth of terms for the vast hoards of non-devotees surrounding us: conditioned souls, sense-gratifiers, fools, rascals, meat-eaters, materialists, mental speculators, miscreants, and demons (along with the proper Sanskrit term for each). I learned that it was necessary to be tough-minded and unsentimental in our view of fallen humanity.

23
I learned that any critic of ISKCON is, by definition, a demon. Who but an evil person would want to criticize something as good, pure and holy as Krishna consciousness?

24
I learned that any such criticism, even if it seemed that it might have substance, was null and void, because it came from meat-eaters and sex-mongers. What could they possibly know?

25
I learned that whatever admirable qualities a non-devotee may appear to have—however seemingly benign, benevolent or admirable—the mere fact that the person is not a devotee of Krishna renders him a sinner, to be avoided at all costs. Even our biological family and former friends were to be avoided as far as possible, lest we become contaminated or, alternatively, incinerated: to associate with non-devotees was, according to our scriptures, tantamount to entering “a cage of fire.”

26
I learned this lesson graphically when, as a fresh new convert, my college girlfriend appeared one day, unexpectedly, to visit me while traveling with her family on a camping trip. While a large RV waited out front on the street, she and I spoke in an upstairs room of the temple. She told me she still loved me, that she missed me, and that she and her parents were inviting me to join them on their camping trip—that I could come with them right now. After just a few minutes (I was reading her verses from the Bhagavad-gita), the temple president entered the room, handed her a broom, and instructed her to sweep the floor. As he later explained to me, he’d intervened in order to protect me from Maya, as well as to engage the girl in Krishna’s service. Though her visit provoked a twinge of sadness and a sense of loss (she’d been a dear friend and lover), I was grateful and proud that I’d overcome this first major test from Maya.

I Learned About an Ancient Tradition, But Through a Distorted Lens

27
I learned about an ancient spiritual tradition from India, as profound, rich and engaging as any in the world, but I learned about it through a particular filter: that of an immature, highly-sectarian, aggressively missionary organization.

28
I learned that any philosophy of life, however ancient, profound or intellectually nuanced, can be dumbed-down and transformed into a patchwork of truisms, slogans and formulas for the consumption of the uninformed.

29
I learned that considering the plethora of options available to the seeker, I’d been extraordinarily fortunate to have chosen the pinnacle of all spiritual paths. I learned that to know God, it was not sufficient merely to be a Hindu—one had to be a Vaishnava Hindu. Not only that, but one had to be a Chaitanya-Vaishnava Hindu. And one must, further, be a member of the right sub-sect of Chaitanya-Vaishnavism, specifically the one represented by Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati, Prabhupada’s own guru. Even then, one had to be very wary of Bhaktisiddhanta’s contemporary followers because most were unkosher for one reason or another. To reach spiritual perfection, then, it was ultimately necessary to become a disciple of Prabhupada, the guru of the Hare Krishna movement. Even then, one had to stay clear of the various schismatic and heretical splinter groups that began appearing during the 1980s.

30
I learned, further, that even within the sanctum of ISKCON, one had to be wary of any devotees expressing heretical ideas (and report such deviations to the proper authorities). Not only that, but, through the agency of Maya, wrong notions may invade my own mind. Such wrong ideas must be recognized, identified, and vanquished by careful reading of Prabhupada’s books, which are—in the end—the only completely wholesome and reliable source of knowledge in the universe.

31
I learned, thus, that the path to ultimate truth is razor thin, and that therefore I must be ever vigilant concerning those with whom I associate and which thoughts I allow enter my mind.

32
I learned that within Prabhupada’s books (which he said would provide the standard of spiritual knowledge on Earth for at least the next ten thousand years), any apparent inconsistencies or errors couldn’t actually be such. If at any time I should find something confusing or illogical, I should have my doubts cleared up by further study or by consulting a more advanced devotee.

33
I learned that doubts are signs of spiritual weakness, are never to be heeded, and that one must be brutal in their suppression. Questioning the absolute veracity of the teachings of Krishna consciousness indicates spiritual malaise and one must act at once to cure the disease.

34
I learned that to doubt the guru is to risk one’s very being. One must literally banish the thought.

35
I learned that I must do anything and everything necessary to avoid being lured away from the safety of the golden path. Any and all ideas, propositions, arguments and evidences contrary to the truth as I now know it must be rejected on their face, must not even be considered, lest the forces of sin and illusion appeal to the sin and illusion that already live darkly within me.

36
I learned that it is best to get in the habit of constantly checking my own thoughts and ideas against the official truth, which can be found only in Prabhupada’s books, lectures, recorded conversations and stray utterances.

37
I learned that this process of truth testing becomes second nature as one more fully absorbs the teachings and as official doctrine becomes synonymous with common sense.

38
I learned, as the months and years passed, that my defenses against the material world had more-or-less solidified, and I now felt less immediately vulnerable to Maya. As the intense thrust of initial world-leaving had more or less freed me from the gravity of the mundane world and put me into the serene orbit of my spiritual master, I could now go about happily serving ISKCON as a fully functional, productive member.

39
I learned that if I did not strive and succeed in becoming fully Krishna conscious in this lifetime, my guru would be obliged to come back to be born again on earth to save me—as many births as it took. Such was his ineffable kindness, and such was my grave responsibility.

On Transplanting an Indian Religious Tradition to the West

40
I learned, in the end, that it is nearly impossible to transmit and translate a religious tradition from its land of origin into a completely foreign cultural environment. However earnestly one may attempt to preserve its original cultural and experiential ethos, that tradition is unavoidably refracted through a radically different cultural lens, and in the process is distorted, perhaps fatally.

41
I learned that any such attempt to universalize a religious tradition is further complicated when the transitioning culture has been redefined and repackaged as an elitist monastic society preaching a world-rejecting ideology.

42
I learned that such a foreign religious transplant, re-branded as a world-rejecting monasticism, would naturally create a high level of tension with the new host society, further causing the transplant to assume a defensive posture and recede into a hard institutional shell.

43
I learned, thus, how a religious tradition practiced by millions in India and studied respectfully by scholars throughout the world can, through this process of cross-cultural transplantation and social restructuring, essentially transform into a cult, creating an unhealthy and abusive environment for its members.

44
I learned that it is both extremely tempting and extremely dangerous to claim divine status for a religious institution—as in Prabhupada’s declaration that “Krishna has appeared as ISKCON” or “ISKCON is my body.” On the one hand, such divinizing increases devotees’ willingness to sacrifice all for building, maintaining and expanding the institution. But defining ISKCON itself as a divine entity became problematic once the organization began to fail. How does one account for proliferating corruption, scandal, abuse and financial crisis within a transcendental movement? If ISKCON is a divine emanation of Krishna or of Prabhupada, how dare a disciple criticize the organization or justify leaving it? It is the inability or reluctance to differentiate between the core teachings and practices on the one hand, and the outer socio-political institutional shell on the other, that has lead many devotees to cling to the organization well past the point of personal disillusionment.

45
I learned a thing or two about the role of the intellectual in a cultic milieu. Because intelligence, like everything else, is to be used only in Krishna’s service, the intellectually inclined member finds him or herself constrained to a narrow range of intellectual or academic activity. His research library consists not of the accumulated wisdom of mankind, but of the writings of his guru (and those who support the guru’s views). Thus, while the independent, non-apologetical intellectual engages in open-ended reflection and analysis in search of deeper insight and unbiased understanding of a chosen subject, the cult intellectual works under a particular mandate: to explain, promote and defend the ideology of the cult, as well as to promote the institution that embodies it. This often involves the task of translating simplistic cult teachings into more sophisticated language for consumption by an educated elite—dressing up raw dogma in the garb of reasoned, nuanced reflection. Like the court jester who is given very limited license to satirize his king in the course of entertaining him, the movement intellectual must be extremely circumspect in his creative articulation and application of his guru’s teachings, lest he incur his displeasure.

Religious Absolutism and Self-Alienation

46
I learned that proclaiming one unitary Absolute Truth, one truth for all and to which all minds must bend, creates a form of mental tyranny with a simple brutality at its heart. To discount individual human subjectivity, or to subordinate it forever to ultimate “truths” and unassailable “facts,” is a repudiation of free human consciousness and lays the groundwork for the creation of religious totalism. All Absolute Truth claims contain that toxic germ of religious fascism.

47
I learned that, after having become a devotee, to then persist in seeking truth through my own mental efforts would not only be nonsensical and non-productive, but would represent an arrogant challenge to divine authority. No matter how reasonable, insightful or meaningful my own thoughts about the nature of things may appear to me, if they diverge from official doctrine they are worthless and must be rejected.

48
I learned that I simply could not trust my own sense of reality. My inward, subjective being is, in fact, a dangerous realm of illusions where I might inadvertently re-connect with my old, false sense of self. I learned that I must counteract the impulse to enter those realms of personal subjectivity (or to extricate myself once there) with the antidotes of chanting, reading scripture, and performing devotional service.

49
I learned, in essence, that I must not trust my own perceptions and thoughts because they’re all material and therefore completely unreliable sources of information. The time-honored metaphysical notion that the mind is not sufficiently subtle to lead one into finer mystic realms became, in practice, an ordinary sort of anti-intellectualism and a means for corralling ideological non-compliance into the straight and narrow path of groupthink.

50
I learned that there is little scope within a cult for the expression of personal, artistic creativity. Inasmuch as creative acts articulate inner, subjective perceptions and emotions, they may potentially undermine group cohesion and institutional goals. Members with artistic talents, therefore, generally find their special skills either suppressed or subsumed within official institutional projects.1

51
I learned that this radical devaluation of the subjective self and absolute exaltation of the Holy Other together form the foundation of religious fanaticism. Because God is everything and I am nothing, a full surrender and sacrifice of myself is the least I can do, and the minimum necessary, to please Him. I must now be prepared to sacrifice the best of what I have and the best of what I am—ready and willing to push mind, body, heart and spirit to the absolute limit, whatever the cost, whatever the outcome.

52
I learned that becoming a true devotee entails undergoing a profound, fundamental self-transformation—changing my core identity from spiritually blind inhabitant of the material world to a pure devotee of Krishna, loyal disciple of the spiritual master, and a humble servant of the mission. I was to adopt the official “26 Qualities of a Devotee,” a list of spiritual virtues, as a model to follow in effecting that transformation.

53
I learned, in retrospect, that establishing a doctrine of personal spiritual perfectibility creates, in effect, a three-fold psychological regimen consisting of 1) perpetually flawed imitation of the utopian ideal, and 2) unrelenting self-criticism, and 3) carefully managed self-presentation to other members of the community.

54
I learned that faced with the imperative of attaining spiritual perfection, one must, of necessity, continually scrutinize one’s own psychological character and root out anything that appears to contradict that ideal. This state of perpetual, purposeful self-criticism and self-correction, driven by a constant awareness of one’s shortcomings and the fear of failure, is viewed not only as healthy but also as necessary to advancing on the path.

55
I learned that regardless of one’s success or failure in that quest for inner purification, one must try at least to act out the ideal within the devotee community. Whatever one’s internal state of being, it is important to maintain an image of purity by emulating the common ideal. Such emulation becomes in effect a condition of perpetual role-playing, imitation, pretending, of stage-managing one’s self-presentation to one’s fellows.

56
I learned, thus, that imposing an artificial standard of purity and asceticism (at least upon those not ready for or capable of it) creates a toxic environment of self-denial (in both senses) and interpersonal dissimulation. The fear of failure, and of the resulting humiliation and stigma, poisons both the individual and the community.

57
I learned that a member who fails to submit to this regimen of self-correction is merely “puffed up” with false pride and ego, that he lacks humility—itself an essential psychological attribute and a prerequisite for spiritual advancement (with the fortuitous side-benefit that it makes for smooth dealings between superiors and inferiors).

58
I learned that the membrane separating humility from humiliation is rather delicate and porous.

59
I learned that ultimately, through this regimen of self-correction and social display, one succeeds in smoothing out the rough edges of a distinct, flawed personality into an imagined ideal one, and so one begins to look and sound increasingly like one’s co-religionists.2

Radical Ideological Change

60
I learned that this fundamental re-education of the self can have profound effects upon one’s attitudes towards just about everything. The fully re-socialized member has readjusted, radically and with seemingly little hesitation, his or her entire value system and sense of reality.

61
I learned, for example, that even well-educated, intellectually sensitive, liberal-minded people can be co-opted into becoming apologists and champions for a starkly conservative, fundamentalist religious ideology.

62
I learned that otherwise socially aware, politically progressive people will find themselves quite contentedly inhabiting a social universe that is essentially hierarchical and authoritarian, as well as sexist and racist.

63
I learned that provided the right theological justification, people with a strong ethical orientation will find themselves quite willing to participate in unethical, immoral, and illegal acts.

64
I learned that a genuine desire for spiritual enlightenment can cause otherwise intelligent, accomplished, self-respecting women to accept the notion that women are inherently inferior to men, that they have measurably smaller brains than men, that they are spiritually weaker than men, that they should always be under the control of men, and that their natural position is to serve men (not to mention that, as a gender, they are basically childish, irresponsible, conniving and lustful).

Women, Sex, Children

65
In spite of a personal history of appreciating and respecting women, I learned that women are the enemies of spiritual life, not only because their very presence invokes lust, but because they themselves are of a lower, more sensual order of being. Women are, in fact, the very embodiment of Maya, the universal force of material illusion, and therefore must be covered ankle to neck.

66
In weak moments, I learned that ample sensuality may be observed in the faces, hands and feet of young women, and in the shifting folds of their modest saris.

67
I learned that for a person on the spiritual path, the worst possible thing he can do is to engage in illicit sex (i.e., sex for any purpose other than creating godly children within marriage). I learned that non-procreational sex displeases God and fatally undermines any hope of spiritual progress.

68
I learned that my ex-girlfriends were bloodsuckers. Since, according to the guru, it takes forty drops of blood to produce one drop of semen, when my girlfriends had sex with me they were draining me of my vital energies. No matter how kind, beautiful or intelligent they might have seemed at the time, they were de facto vampires.

69
I learned that no matter how good and decent a non-devotee may appear on the surface, if he engages in illicit sex he is little better than a monkey. Those who indulge their lust are sinful, dirty, and doomed to perpetual misery.

70
Among Prabhupada’s mighty arsenal of potent condemnations of sex was this one: he once directed a disciple who was about to be interviewed on the radio to declare boldly to the interviewer (in these exact words), “America is the civilization of licking the dripping vagina.” Our guru taught us to be uncompromising in our preaching to the sex-crazed masses.

71
I learned that in spite of my strong desire to be the ideal celibate, physically and emotionally impervious to the charms of women, my appreciation for and attraction to women never completely left me. I learned that it would require an act of sustained misogynist self-indoctrination to fortify such detachment, against my deepest instincts and better judgment. I came to bridle against the notion that platonic friendship between a man and a woman is an impossibility, that any such relationship can only have a sexual motive and a sexual outcome.

72
I learned that a doctrine and culture of asceticism, particularly total sexual abstinence (even for married couples not wishing to conceive) creates, in effect, a psychology of frustration and a culture of hypocrisy—hidden under a veneer of happy compliance. While there may be a role for celibacy within certain religious contexts, the wholesale imposition of celibacy on all committed members of ISKCON was a recipe for profound individual and institutional malaise.

73
I learned that I had made a bad choice of a wife (and she of a husband) when one of ISKCON’s most successful “pickers” (street fundraisers) and I decided to get married. Her young American guru forbade the marriage on the grounds (explicitly stated) that if she had to get married she should marry someone who could be securely relied upon to keep her busy fundraising (a responsibility I was unfit for since my interests laid elsewhere). He wasted no precious time finding her just the right man (a committed fellow picker). A few years later I made a similar ill-advised choice of a partner, and another ISKCON leader, also concerned with the bottom line, forbade the union. We managed to get married anyway (surreptitiously). We avoided serious repercussions only due to my status within the organization.

74
Though I myself was not a parent and never involved in children’s affairs, I learned from my guru’s teachings that it is good for children, starting around age five, to be separated from their parents and sent to special boarding schools. Such separation served to mitigate the parent-child bond, which, because it is based on mere flesh-and-blood attachment and familial sentimentality, is not healthy for spiritually evolving children. I assumed that devotee kids in these schools were happy little saints. I had no clue that they were being systematically brutalized and sexually abused in some of those schools. It is that awful and inexcusable abuse (along with the leaders’ complicity and efforts at a cover-up), more than any other factor, that causes me feel embarrassed by my long association with ISKCON.

Evangelistic Ethics

75
I learned how economic pressures can, over a remarkably short period of time, transform a religious organization’s operational values from spiritual to material (albeit disguised as spiritual via ad hoc theological tweaking). I learned that the prestige attached to personal spirituality can, as a result, shift over to successful salesmanship of spiritual product (books, incense, candles, etc.). I learned that dollars could be re-christened “lakshmi points” [Lakshmi = the Hindu goddess of wealth], and that those who amass the greatest number of lakshmi points should be exalted as model disciples.

76
I learned that service to Krishna trumps mundane morality and ethics—that ethics is, most fundamentally, whatever serves the mission (ethics based on any other motivation is mere sentimentality and mental speculation). To get one of our books or other products into the hands of a non-devotee, and to separate him or her from their money, one could say and do virtually anything. I learned that, despite appearances, such actions could not be called lying or cheating, because they represent the enactment of a higher law, meant for the true benefit of the donor.

77
I learned that human beings who are not members of the Hare Krishna movement are essentially clueless as to the nature of reality, and that it is our momentous duty and thankless task to enlighten them. Since most people are not intelligent or pious enough to realize the truth of our lofty teachings directly, we must do whatever is necessary to get them to buy our things and donate money, whereby they will benefit indirectly. In other words, we’re so unfailingly kind and compassionate that we will skillfully bypass their external consciousness (which rejects Krishna) and compel them (“by hook or crook,” in Prabhupada’s words) to give us money, which will earn them Krishna’s blessings (like it or not).

78
I learned, thusly, how the seemingly opposite impulses of compassion and misanthropy can be inextricably melded in the act (or pretense) of saving souls.

79
I learned that it is illegal to “impersonate Santa Claus” on the streets of Hollywood (when, during our annual Christmas [i.e. fundraising] Marathon, I was dropped off at Hollywood and Vine in full Santa regalia and a metal can to take advantage of the season of giving). And then I learned what the inside of a jail looks like, and what it’s like to have all my possessions taken away, forced to strip naked, deloused, put in special ill-fitting clothes, eat institutional food, receive a new (numeric) name, and have all my bodily cavities searched for sharp objects.

80
I learned that I’m no good at fundraising or salesmanship of any sort, that I hate holding a can out to strangers asking for money, or selling magazines or incense or anything at all, or ringing doorbells like a Jehovah’s Witness or a Mormon—that, in effect, I hate being a nuisance to anyone. And I got out of that line of work as fast as I could, moving on to more congenial tasks within the organization.

81
I learned that however much we devotees characterized our quest for converts as a search for authentic spiritual seekers (or, alternatively, for “the intelligent class of men” as Prabhupada termed it), we developed a special sensitivity for spotting people in crisis, those unsure of themselves, those seeking direction, those with weak defenses. Such confusion and vulnerability we interpreted as “receptivity,” spiritual sincerity, a willingness to take direction, to “surrender.” “Sincerity” and “receptivity” became, in effect, subliminal code words for easy pickings. It’s easier, after all, to recruit someone who will put up little resistance than someone with a well defined sense of self and a life plan.

Religious Absolutism and Abuse of Power

82
I learned that when “God” is installed at the top of an institutional hierarchy, the authority and the actions of leaders are divinized and thus rendered immune from criticism.

83
I learned that when a particular person proclaims himself (or is proclaimed by others) to be a perfect and infallible spokesperson for God, it becomes axiomatic that to submit to that person is a righteous act, whereas to avoid or refuse submission marks one as an offender against God.

84
I learned that like all human hierarchies, religious hierarchies (however egalitarian in theory or communitarian in style) favor those at the top, corrupt those at the top, and will tend to attract certain individuals who covet power and prestige.

85
I learned that the intoxication of power can easily replace what originally might have been purer motives for joining a group.

86
I learned that it is naive to assume that anyone devoted to a religious organization has pure motives for being there, because there are attractive, tangible rewards to be had aside from the advertised spiritual ones.

87
I learned that ostensive subordination to higher, transcendent levels within the operative hierarchy (i.e., God, past teachers, etc.) is often not sufficient to contain personal ambition and prevent exploitative behavior. Thus, a leader’s claim that he is acting as the mere servant of his departed guru, that he is but a humble link in the long chain of spiritual command, can be camouflage for what is, in plain fact, self-serving, autocratic rule.

88
Having regular access to the personal sanctums of the movement’s leaders and gurus, I learned that a public spiritual persona can be, in large part, a contrivance, a mask, an act, involving conscious transformations of voice-tone and physical bearing—like the assumed demeanor of an emperor as he leaves his boudoir for the balcony to behold his adoring subjects. As a privileged member of the organization (albeit one without political portfolio), I witnessed numerous such scenes of pretension, pomposity, and puerile Popery.

89
I learned, in the end, the lesson of absolute power. There are scarce venues in modern western society where one can witness absolute power close up, and a cultic environment provides an excellent showcase for such rare phenomena—a learning environment far superior to any college course in social control. In fact, every student pursuing an advanced degree in sociology ought to be required to spend at least a few years in a cult (just a thought).

The Transcendental Ideal vs. Institutional Reality

90
I learned what it is like to experience, as a base-line awareness, the painfully infinite distance between Paradise and the present, between what a religion hypothesizes as the ultimate heavenly realm, and the actual day-to-day life of the devotee. What is held up as the goal, the ultimate spiritual state, the eternal abode of the soul, remains but a dimly twinkling star in the infinite distance. Though continually assured that our present efforts shall lead us to that ultimate glory, so remote is that exalted state that it exists essentially as a tantalizing dream. To those who would complain of this infinite divide is given the slogan, “Work Now, Samadhi [enlightenment] Later.” In other words, don’t be so selfish and self-centered as to actually expect to enjoy the fruits of your labor in the present. Your job is simply to work hard for the mission. Little matter if the heart remains dry and the soul stagnant: the objective act of self-sacrifice to the mission is all that matters for now, and the now is what matters. And for now, you can assess your spiritual status—quantify your progress—by the measure of your service to the institution, your accomplishments on its behalf, and recognition from its leaders.

Taking a closer look at this awkward juxtaposition of two vastly different realms—Krishnaloka (Krishna’s divine planet in the spiritual world) and that of our lives as terrestrial devotees—the first moves on the principle of love, the other, duty; the former is about spontaneous action and expression, the latter about a complex web of confining rules and regulations; the first about free and warm relations between souls, the latter about highly circumscribed relationships and strict protocols; the former about an infinite abundance of elevated sensory pleasure, the latter about rigid asceticism. One is depicted as an endlessly rich environment (of, dare I say, psychedelic proportions); the other is gray and impoverished. To attain the former, one must surrender to the latter, while somehow maintaining faith that an actual connection exists between the two worlds.

91
I learned, in this regard, that a religious organization that fails to deliver on its spiritual promises must re-package its teachings in such as way as to de-emphasize the experiential dimension. In the case of ISKCON, its source tradition in India gives tremendous emphasis to the attainment of high spiritual states centered on mystical devotion to Krishna. However, concerned that his disciples might seek or claim such attainments prematurely, Prabhupada sternly warned us about heterodox Krishna cults in India guilty of the heresy of counterfeit ecstasy (accompanied by loose morals). Such was the paranoia generated by this warning, that any devotee who might seem to overemphasize the experiential dimension of Krishna consciousness, or speak of spiritual emotions as something a devotee might actually experience in the present, would put himself at risk of public censure. The subtle but pervasive effect of this mentality within ISKCON was a general de-emphasizing of the very spirituality that had initially drawn many of us to the organization.

92
I thus learned to question any tangible feelings I might have of Krishna-bhakti (emotional attachment to Krishna) outside of clearly delineated bounds. It was good and right (and strongly encouraged) to express ecstasy while chanting and dancing in regularly scheduled temple services, but one was to question any deep spiritual emotions he or she might have on their own. I came to know one truly gifted young woman, a born mystic, who was hounded from temple to temple, evicted from various communities, because she knew only how to act spontaneously, out of a core of deep spiritual emotion, not always in accord with ISKCON’s narrow codes of conduct. Her behavior was by no means erratic or bizarre. Her offense consisted mainly in demonstrating uncommon depths of devotion (e.g. shedding tears while chanting) and, more provocatively, questioning senior members who she felt misrepresented the guru’s teachings in their lectures—teachings she had practically memorized. This saintly woman brought to life for me the lesson that mystics and saints, historically, are often persecuted by the very religious traditions they invigorate—indicative of the inherent tensions between personal spirituality and organized religion, between individual consciousness and institutional agenda.

93
I learned, thus, that religious institutions (cultic or otherwise), by their very nature, promote conformity and loyalty to a narrowly defined religious brand, lest the centrifugal force of independent spirits shatter the whole. Since true mystics, saints, and other highly evolved persons who live out of their deepest depths tend to be rather individualistic and follow their own intuitive path, every religious institution must find ways to tame, co-opt, or commodify them in order to preserve the institutional status quo.3

The Guru as Historian and Social Analyst

94
I learned that Prabhupada had a surprising talent for making comments, both written and spoken, some oft repeated within ISKCON and all now well documented, which would delight and comfort the most ardent racist, sexist, or anti-Semite. These pearls of social and political commentary are generally hidden, downplayed, or denied by his followers, for whom Prabhupada is now and forever an infallible and unassailable source of truth in matters both transcendental and mundane.

95
I learned that Prabhupada wanted his disciples to eventually establish throughout the world a social program based upon his understanding of certain ancient Indian socio-political ideals known as Varnashrama-dharma (the basis of the Indian caste system). He wanted to see created a heavily stratified system with spiritual teachers and priests (Brahmins—like us) at the top, political/military people (ksatriyas) and business and agricultural people (vaisyas) in the middle, and manual laborers and artisans (shudras) at the bottom.4

96
I learned that shudras—who make up the numeric bulk of human society—are essentially unintelligent, unclean, uncultured, barely better than animals, and generally rascally. On account of this, they must be trained to be obedient to the three higher castes, service to whom is the only condition whereby these “lowest of mankind” can attain fulfillment in life.

97
I learned, in fact, that the institution of slavery in the antebellum American South reflected these higher social principles. Blacks, being shudras and thus degraded and out of control, benefited from this system since they were kept out of trouble. Since slavery ended and blacks were granted equal rights, they are “always creating a fearful situation [because they are] uncultured and drunkards.” It would be best to “keep them under control as slaves but give them sufficient food, sufficient cloth, not more than that. Then they will be satisfied.” Even they, however, can be elevated to the human level and beyond if they become devotees of Krishna.

98
I learned that Native Americans, too, are shudras: “Shudras have no brain. … [T]he whole America once belonged to the Red Indians. Why they could not improve? The land was there. Why these foreigners, the Europeans, came and improved? So Shudras cannot do this. They cannot make any correction.”

99
I learned that modern democracy is simply government by demons (“demon-cracy”/”demon-crazy”) and by asses (“The population are asses and they vote another ass to be head of the government.”). Far preferable is an enlightened monarchy or even dictatorship, as long as the dictator is an enlightened, God-conscious person who rules according to authorized scriptures. One day Krishna devotees will rule the world as such benign monarchs. One of our own will certainly become president of the U.S. within the next twenty years (by circa 1990).5

100
I would have learned, had I been privy to certain of Prabhupada’s personal letters and informal conversations (now documented and in the public domain), that Adolf Hitler wasn’t all that bad and that ISKCON should neither “support or denounce” him. I would have learned, further, that the British, being expert propagandists, “killed Hitler by propaganda. . . . I don’t think Hitler was so bad [a] man.” Further, Der Fuhrer actually had the atom bomb, but didn’t use it because “he was [a] gentleman” and acted “out of humanity.”

101
I learned that the Jews were “financing against Germany.” Otherwise Hitler “had no enmity with the Jews.” The Jews “were supplying . . . They want[ed] interest money— ‘Never mind [that it is] against our [own] country.’ Therefore Hitler decided, ‘Kill all the Jews.’ ”

102
What additional, valuable historical insights I might have gained had I been more attentive or resourceful, Krishna only knows.

Infallible Knowledge and Perfect Credulity

103
I learned that once the blind leap has been leapt, anything goes. Uncompromising credulity is enshrined as unconquerable faith.

104
Among other fun facts, I learned from Prabhupada that the moon is further away from the earth than is the sun, and that therefore the U.S. moon landing was a hoax. These and similar revelations created unique challenges for those ISKCON members with advanced degrees in the sciences, tasked by Prabhupada with convincing the scientific establishment of the veracity of ancient Hindu (“Vedic”) astronomy and cosmology.

105
I learned that the modern scholarly consensus concerning the origins and dates of our scriptures (Bhagavad-gita, etc.) is completely wrong. Rather than being written or compiled by various persons over a number of centuries under differing historical and cultural conditions, as the mundane scholars ignorantly claim, the scriptures were all composed essentially by one person, at a fixed point in pre-history, and as a perfect revelation of absolute truth. All evidence to the contrary is nothing but “mental speculation” and must be rejected.

106
I learned, thus, a multitude of truths and facts, from the cosmic to the trivial, which would tax the credulity only of those not yet pure or wise enough to place complete faith in Prabhupada’s words. Whether it concerned the nature of God, odd bits of Hindu granny wisdom, or stray comments on world affairs, I learned that to believe is to know, and that there was literally nothing that could not be believed if it had been written or spoken by Prabhupada.

On the Positive Side

107
I learned what it is like to be a full and enthusiastic participant in the early, charismatic phase of a religious sect. There’s nothing quite like it. The religious literature of the world is filled with compelling accounts by early comers to new religious sects describing the excitement of being in the presence of a holy teacher or saint, the exhilaration of intense spiritual purposefulness, the thrill of being a world-saver, the sense of being privy to lofty, esoteric wisdom, the adventure of rapid inner transformation, the subtle and sublime inner experiences that defy descriptive language. Whatever the ultimate psychological value, benign or otherwise, of that kind of experience, it has provided me with lasting insights into various aspects of religious charisma, conversion, and mystical experience.

108
I learned that even within the context of an authoritarian and corrupted religious institution, it is possible to experience at least some of what its source tradition offers. However tainted and obscured by the psychological, social and political reality of life in a cult, a core spiritual experience may be accessible to those with the appropriate sensitivity and resourcefulness. I saw a number of other spiritually curious and motivated individuals penetrate, as it were, the outer shell of the institutional structure and connect with deeper, more credible spiritual resources.

109
Leaving aside all questions of what constitutes genuine mystical experience, and whether or not it can be reduced to psychological categories, I did experience spiritual, aesthetic and emotional states of undeniable profundity.

110
Over all, my exposure—both intellectual and experiential—to a particular spiritual tradition, formed a basis, and served as a paradigm and a referent, for my later study of comparative religion and spirituality, both within and beyond academia.

111
I learned, from ancient Indian philosophical teachings, to dramatically expand my sense of cosmic space and time. Their emphasis on the inconceivable vastness of the cosmos, and frequent references to mind-boggling stretches of time, left me with a healthy sense of perspective and in a permanent, pleasant state of spatiotemporal awe.

112
I learned from the same philosophical texts that the external, physical world we experience through our limited senses is, in a critical sense, unreal—and that an acknowledgment of the temporarily and ephemerality of the perceived world can be profoundly liberating. I’m still inclined to believe that assertion, and feel it viscerally to be true, though with certain caveats and under different philosophical auspices.6

113
I learned that the material world—or, put differently, human civilization—is a brutal place unfit for human habitation. But I already knew that, and know it still, but I no longer view the Hare Krishna movement as being in any way distinct from, or a refuge from, that world.

114
I learned a fundamentally important ethical lesson: animals should be acknowledged as sentient beings possessing a spiritual essence, and that therefore they should not be made to suffer for our comfort, pleasure or entertainment. I’m grateful for this lesson, and am still a vegetarian and supporter of animal rights.

115
I learned, through years of mantra meditation, that the mind can be disciplined and focused far more than one might imagine, and that this can be a great aid to concentration. When reading or writing or otherwise focusing attention, I find I am able to create a sort of tunnel vision with relative freedom from distraction. This ability to sharpen and sustain attention, even to the point of trance, is a product, at least in part, of those years of meditation.

116
On a practical level, I learned the discipline and art of writing. Some pre-existing talent was cultivated and refined through numerous writing assignments for ISKCON, often under the skilled editorship of one Jayadvaita, known to his Jewish mother as Jay Israel. His green and red editor’s marks helped me to modify a tendency toward verbosity.

117
I learned the arts of teaching and public speaking. I regularly taught within our communities and, as a spokesperson for the Krishna movement, lectured in hundreds of high school and college classes, made presentations at various academic and interfaith conferences, and was interviewed numerous times by the media. However I may now feel about the content and value of my presentations, I learned invaluable communication skills and now feel at home before a group of any size or distinction.

118
I learned the art of scholarship. In my role as ISKCON’s de-facto representative to the academic world, I was invited to present papers at various academic conferences—principally in the fields of Hindu Studies and the Sociology of Religion. In spite of having dropped out of college after my freshman year (to join ISKCON), and in spite of ISKCON’s endemic anti-intellectualism, I developed, over time, the requisite intellectual and academic skills. Although this occurred within the context of serving ISKCON, my exposure to the world of academia stimulated a wider intellectual curiosity, which ultimately contributed to my decision to leave the organization.

119
As ISKCON’s Director for Inter-religious Affairs (a position I initiated and was subsequently ratified by ISKCON leadership), I was able to further my education in the comparative study of religion. In particular, I was able to discover within the Christian tradition elements corresponding to devotional Hinduism, particularly within Catholic monasticism and mysticism. I made numerous visits to and retreats at Catholic (mostly Cistercian) monasteries in the U.S., Canada, Australia and Ireland, during which I would dialogue with learned monks, study the lives of some of the great saints of the Church (my favorites were Francis of Assisi and Thérèse of Lisieux), and read classics of Christian mysticism. Such dialogue and study broadened, deepened, and universalized my comprehension of the human hunger for transcendence and enlightenment. This introduction to monastic and mystical Catholicism also provided a model for understanding the perpetual tensions that exist between mystics and administrators, between core spiritual experiences and the corporate entities that try and usually fail to preserve and transmit them.

Final Lessons

120
I learned an important lesson about life on Earth: when the Spirit calls, think carefully before running off to join an organization calling itself “religious.” Such institutions are, by nature, toxic to the spiritual quest, because their chief aim is not aiding the individual’s spiritual growth, but growing and strengthening the institution per se (often at the expense and to the detriment of the individual.

121
I learned that a genuine desire for enlightenment, that is, a felt need to understand the mystery of existence and the purpose of life, a quest to relieve suffering, to achieve ultimate awareness and bliss—or however one wishes to characterize the individual spiritual quest—is a rare, exalted, and precious thing. This impulse to seek ultimate meaning is human, but seems to occur primarily during youth, a period before we become psychologically rigid, superficially content, falsely wise, or simply jaded.

122
I learned that there is something essentially tragic, therefore, about the co-optation of the personal spiritual quest represented by embracing a ready-made, pre-packaged system of final and ultimate truths. Affiliating oneself with a religious institution, especially a totalistic one, tames the passion for truth, domesticates the quest for meaning and happiness, and re-channels that precious energy into serving questionable masters and doubtful enterprises.

123
In retrospect, I’ve come to understand that cultic groups of the 60s and 70s were successful in siphoning off many of the best minds, deepest hearts, and liveliest spirits of my generation. The loss of young people having unique spiritual and intellectual gifts, to groups claiming to be fast-tracks to enlightenment, deprived the wider world of what good might have flowed from such gifts. Though many of us later got back on a personal track, the squandering of youthful energy, intelligence and idealism represents a loss to society the measure of which we will never know.

124
I learned that religious institutions are, to a great extent, factories for transforming the sublime into the ridiculous (when not busy manufacturing ridiculousness from thin air). Their chief function, it seems, is to take the pure ideal—or the essential experience—of Spirit and turn it into a lesser, functional form, something useful: the acquisition of money, social prestige, personal power, political power, cultural conquest, the indoctrination of children, exploitation of women, and so on.

125
I learned that all manifestations of the sacred in human life are tainted and compromised by human foible and mixed motives, and that religious collectives institutionalize those impurities.

126
I learned that genuine spirituality commingles—in numerous, complex and unfathomable ways—with the basest human motivations and aspirations.

127
I learned that the human capacity for self-deception is unlimited, endlessly creative and adaptive, astonishing in its subtlety and complexity.

128
I learned that religious elitism is a pitiable, sorry sight. Enrobed with smug certainty and disdain for all other truth claimants, it is nothing but a fitting object of derision. The Sumo arena of contending truth warriors, each wearing the pompous ceremonial garb of his own sect, is a sad spectacle, an absurd tableau, a grand farce, a divine comedy. There is nothing more preposterous and prone to inadvertent self-mocking than spiritual pride and arrogance.

129
I learned that guru-hood and discipleship can become dangerous fetishes. They transform someone who might conceivably have been a helpful mentor, into an artificially sanctified object to whom I must surrender my psychological autonomy and moral freedom, from whom I must continuously beg for spiritual sustenance, and whose displeasure I must avoid at any cost. Traditional guru systems took root, it appears, in societies that were rigidly hierarchical and religiously dogmatic. When imposed on contemporary westerners, the guru principle tends to take perverse forms, encouraging reckless, unreflective surrender from devotees and corrupting gurus with unchecked power. However attractive the notion of a benign, enlightened teacher providing a conduit to the divine may look on paper (in scripture and lore), in practice it invites coercion and corruption and is, by all evidence, a virtual impossibility. Our age calls for more moderate and ethically circumscribed forms of religious pedagogy.

130
I learned that of these many lessons, most can be gotten from numerous venues outside the Hare Krishna movement, and that people, everywhere and in all circumstances, seem to fear radical freedom, and thus arrange their lives and communities in such a way as to make life feel simple, safe and manageable.

131
I learned that the anti-cult movement has, historically, tended toward a certain kind of intellectual dishonesty in its attempt to make clear definitional distinctions between destructive “cults” and benign “religions.” That notion of a clear dichotomy is adopted, in part, presumably to avoid alienating support from mainstream religious institutions. But it also suggests a limited understanding of religious history (and perhaps simple denial). On the face of it, the anti-cult critique is a protest against religious authoritarianism, the violation of personal autonomy, aggressive recruitment tactics, the undermining of families, and so on. All these phenomena, however, may be found throughout the religious traditions of mankind, especially in their more fundamentalist, orthodox forms or phases.7 We see in all religions a continuum from this-worldly to otherworldly, theologically laissez-faire to rigidly dogmatic, socially integrated to communitarian and separatist, politically mainstream to radical or reactionary. Carried to their (theo)logical conclusions, theistic religions are at heart absolutist and totalitarian, with an omnipotent God at the top and a mandate for total self-surrender on the part of the follower. Over time they tend to relax, liberalize, accommodate to multi-religious and secular societies, re-interpret scripture, and soften some of the hard edges of doctrine. In the case of ISKCON, such societal pressures—along with catastrophic internal failings and mass defections—has, over the past three decades, weakened ISKCON’s authority structure, transforming it from strictly communalist to congregational, effectively modifying some of its negative cultic characteristics (although this probably is true more of ISKCON in the United States than in Europe and other areas).8

132
I learned that much of the evil with which cults are credited is of the “banal” variety (à la Hannah Arendt). Cults do not primarily run on the day-to-day calculated evil designs of nefarious individuals seeking the enslavement and abuse of the innocent. They are imperfect institutions built, at least in part, on idealistic principles, principles which become orthodoxies, orthodoxies requiring a system of enforcement, enforcement which creates a normative environment of intensive social control and psychological manipulation.9

133
I learned, further, that such control and manipulation need not be enacted from the top down, nor require explicit or intrusive policing, because it operates communally, between members, within a perpetual reciprocal dynamic. Though grossly manipulative, the system conceives itself as benign, as an enlightened program of mutual encouragement and support in the service of all that is good, true and holy. In this way, raw idealism is reprocessed as fuel for the engine of totalism.

134
I learned that however much we may generalize about cult psychology and dynamics, each group has its own experiential flavor—its own nuanced system of ideation, emotion and inter-subjectivity—which is virtually impossible for non-members, however insightful (or even sympathetic) to fully grasp. To speak of cult conversion and commitment only in terms of general psychological principles and social dynamics is to miss the point, and to render less effective attempts both to educate the public about cults, and to help defectors reorient to the outside world.

135
I learned that the experiential bond between members often continues post-cult, creating a special connection between ex-members. One cannot help but feel kinship with those who’ve inhabited the same alternative universe, lived and breathed within the same rarefied environment. The intensity and particularity of the experience forever binds those who were “there.”

136
I learned, therefore, that ex-members can make a critical contribution to helping other ex-members (particularly newly liberated ones from the same group) make sense of their group experience and reconstitute their lives on the outside.

137
I learned, post-ISKCON, that better than trying to convince a cult member that he or she has been brainwashed (or otherwise psychologically enslaved), is to present compelling evidence of malfeasance and hypocrisy within his or her group. Because cult members are essentially idealists, and think of themselves as highly principled (because living by the highest principles), tangible evidence of violation of official cult ethics by leaders or others can fatally undermine a sense of loyalty to the institution. The fact is, most converts do eventually leave their group, and do so voluntarily, very often due to sudden or cumulative disillusionment. Whether it’s finding out that guru X was caught “meditating” naked with a pretty female disciple, or that leaders are misappropriating funds or cheating on spouses or abusing subordinates, an awareness that foundational values are being violated is often sufficient to cause disillusionment and defection. An enriched perspective on one’s cult experience and psychological healing (with therapeutic assistance or otherwise) can then follow.

If I should try to pinpoint the most important lesson I have learned from having spent many years within an authoritarian cultic environment, and from many subsequent years reflecting on that experience, perhaps it is this: I have learned to appreciate the ineffable, fruitful quality of non-knowing—the serenity that comes from making friends with uncertainty. I have learned that the beauty and profundity of existence—of life itself—is indeed its mystery, its ambiguity, its complexity, its unpredictability, its magical and revelatory undercurrents. I’ve made a motto of Keats’s lovely phrase “Negative Capability,” that state of being, “…when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason…” and, I might add, “perfect wisdom.”

Steven J. Gelberg
June, 2010

Show 9 footnotes

  1. See my article “Art and Authority: Foreclosing Creativity in Cultic Groups,” in Cultic Studies Review, Vol. 9. No.1, 2010.
  2. That said, core personality traits and personal values do seem to survive even prolonged membership in the group. However much social leveling may occur, and however much the devotee may labor to “transcend” his or her “material” or “false” ego, essential personality characteristics and general psychological orientations do persevere. Using myself as an example, I entered ISKCON a committed truth seeker and left the same. I entered with a critical view of conventional society and an instinctual distrust for authority and left with those well intact. Same for a strong conscience, a sense of justice, a fascination with alternative psychological states, a strong sense of the Romantic (individual freedom and expression), a sense of humor and of the absurd, a love of nature, a respect for women, and so on. Such characteristics and orientations may be temporarily dampened, immobilized or adapted to group purposes, but from my own experience (and that of others who’ve shared their experiences with me), never entirely extinguished.
  3. Prabhupada’s guru, Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati, himself the founder of a religious institution, offers this remarkable and unexpected criticism of religious institutions:

    The idea of an organized church in an intelligible form, indeed, marks the close of the living spiritual movement. The great ecclesiastical establishments are the dikes and the dams to retain the current that cannot be held by any such contrivances. They, indeed, indicate a desire on the part of the masses to exploit a spiritual movement for their own purposes. They also unmistakably indicate the end of the absolute and unconventional guidance of the bona-fide spiritual teacher.

    The Harmonist, Jan. 1932, cited in Jan Brzezinski, “Charismatic Renewal and Institutionalization in the History of Gaudiya Vaishnavism and the Gaudiya Math,” in Edwin R. Bryant and Maria L. Ekstrand, eds., The Hare Krishna Movement: The Postcharismatic Fate of a Religious Transplant (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), p. 88.

  4. The information and quotes in this section can be found in Ekkehard Lorenz, “Race Monarchy, and Gender: Bhaktivedanta Swami’s Social Experiment,” in ibid., pp. 357-390.

    For a summary of Prabhupada’s views on women and gender (a subject I alluded to earlier but did not develop here), see the last section in Lorenz’s other essay in the above-cited volume, “The Guru, Mayavadins, and Women” (pp. 121-124). Lorenz is to be commended for his taking on the unpleasant and provocative task of researching and compiling the information found in these two articles.

  5. The closest we ever did come to taking over the world for Krishna was when the head of our Atlanta community decided, in 1974, to run for mayor of that city (I played the role of campaign manager). Halfway through the campaign, realizing that wearing full devotee regalia might hurt his chances of being taken seriously, he decided to split the difference by wearing (when out in public) a shirt, tie and blazer on top and the traditional white Indian robe (dhoti) on bottom. The newspapers then reported that he looked like a businessman wearing an oversized diaper. He came in last in a field of several contenders. Our ambitious plans for creating an “In God We Trust” party were dashed, to the great detriment of American civilization.
  6. I find certain aspects of Buddhist and Taoist (esp. Chuang-Tzu) teachings on the subject meaningful and engaging.
  7. See my article “Hasidism, Cultism, and the Secular Imperative” (Journal of Vaishnava Studies, Vol.13, No. 1, Fall 2004), pp. 41-56.
  8. For a good overview of this forced liberalization within the American context, see E. Burke Rochford, Hare Krishna Transformed (New York: NYU Press, 2007).
  9. This is not to suggest that cultic groups lack individuals who are capable of malice, cruelty and abuse—quite the contrary. Totalistic systems clearly encourage and empower such types (see the section “Religious Absolutism and Abuse of Power” earlier herein).