On Leaving ISKCON
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.
When Prabhupada predicted, once, that ninety percent of his disciples would eventually leave his movement, we, his disciples, were shocked that such a thing could be possible. In time, the overwhelming majority of his followers did indeed leave ISKCON, and it now appears the same will hold true for his grand-disciples. The effect of this on-going exodus is that the number of ex-members of ISKCON vastly exceeds that of current members, and the gap will only widen as the years pass. There exists, therefore, a substantial and growing body of people who share what can only be described as a traumatic experience.
It’s hard to imagine an experience more wrenching, more potentially disorienting, than leaving a spiritual community or tradition to which one has devoted years of one’s life. To lose faith in a comprehensive system of ideas that have shaped one’s consciousness and guided one’s actions, to leave a community that has constituted one’s social world and defined one’s social identity, to renounce a way of life that is an entire mode of being, is an experience of momentous implications.
Especially when the community/tradition one is leaving defines itself as the repository and bastion of all goodness, all meaning, all truth, all decency, all meaningful human attainment, it may require a major psychological effort to reorient oneself both to one’s own self and to the wider world. Internally, one must work to rediscover and reclaim one’s own unique, personal sources of meaning, truth, and spirituality and to live authentically from out of those inner depths. Externally, one must learn how to deal with the outer world, the vast territory laying beyond the gates of the spiritual enclave — that place that has for so long been viewed as a dark and evil abode unfit for human habitation. It’s a fact that very often devotees no longer happy living in ISKCON prolong their stay simply out of fear of the demonized world.
This re-orientation to self and re-entry into the world is no small task, and it’s more easily finessed when one has the support of others who’ve travelled a similar path. In my own journey I’ve received such support, and wish now to offer it to others.
Though I’ve had little to do with ISKCON for nearly six years now, I still feel a certain kinship with devotees, both past and present. How could I not? I devoted fully seventeen years of my life (ages eighteen to thirty-five — my youth!) to a life of Krishna consciousness in the association of similarly committed devotees. Virtually all my friends and acquaintances were devotees. For most of those seventeen years I had not the slightest doubt that I’d die while still in ISKCON (and rate a half-page obituary in BTG). I absorbed Prabhupada’s teachings into the depths of my being and preached them with an enthusiasm born of serene confidence in their absolute truth and efficacy. I dedicated myself both to encouraging a deeper immersion in Vaishnava spirituality on the part of my fellow devotees (through editing such books as The Spiritual Master and the Disciple and Namamrta: The Nectar of the Holy Name), and to cultivating respect and appreciation for ISKCON among intellectuals and scholars (such as with my book of interviews, Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna).
Though my way of thinking and mode of being have changed considerably since leaving the movement, I cannot forget all my brothers and sisters who have shared the ISKCON/Krishna consciousness experience: aging pioneers, subsequent joiners, and expatriates alike. I embrace all of you, both friends and strangers, sisters and brothers, as fellow travelers on the path. There must be something in our respective temperaments that drew us all to the path of Krishna consciousness — some similar karmic history, some particular spiritual orientation, some certain degree of sincerity — something or other that landed both you and I on a path traversed by so few.
I, like you, entered the movement because I desperately wanted to know what in the world is going on in the universe, to find order in this madness, to be touched and transformed by Truth, to experience peace and joy, to crawl out of my rotting skin and confused mind and rise into some sublime Transcendence. I, like you, felt an inexplicable attraction to the supernally beautiful, blue-skinned boy Krishna, to the strangely beautiful music (how rarely heard!) of the mahamantra, to a felt sense of progression toward liberation from this highly imperfect material world (not to mention cauliflower pakoras and sweet-rice). I, like you, was blessed with tastes, now and then, of spiritual bliss — feelings not easily expressed in words. I cannot help, therefore, but feel a special kinship with you, and I offer you my sincere respects and affection, whoever you are.
I am writing this because I know that some of you, or many of you, perhaps most of you, have doubts, at times, about the truth of Krishna consciousness, or at least its relevance to your life — to your own personal spiritual and psychological growth. In my last few years in the movement I certainly did. And I know that, in spite of claims to the contrary, there are powerful disincentives to openly expressing one’s doubts in the company of devotees (loss of prestige, to name one), and even to admitting them to oneself (loss of self-respect, acknowledgement of grave personal failure, fear of falling apart, etc.).
Doubts, however, may be the voice of one’s own inner self, the self that doesn’t always exactly jive with the exterior “system” of Krishna consciousness, the self that protests being shaped and molded into something it is not. No matter how much one’s external mind assents to the authority of ISKCON (and the spiritual tradition from which it emerged), if the inner self is not being addressed, respected, honored, given expression, allowed to grow, it is, sooner or later, going to raise a protest. When that little inner voice first begins to speak, it can be quieted with regimental thinking, louder chanting, increased outer busy-ness, or simple denial. But sometime down the road it is bound to return, a little louder, a little more insistent, and at some point you’ll have no other choice than to acknowledge it.
I would like, now, to address that little inner voice (or that voice of growing volume) and answer it with my own. I have, by the way, no malicious intent in doing so. I’m no anti-cultist or any other species of crusading ideologue. I don’t wish to start a club, an organization, a revolution, or any other exciting enterprise. I’ve nothing to gain personally from this exercise except the pleasure of speaking words that I think need to be spoken to old friends and friends yet unknown. I hope that you’ll listen to me with an open mind.
What I wish to do, now, is relate to you some of the reasons why I (and my then wife, Sitarani) left ISKCON after so many years of committed service (twenty-five between us). I’ve divided my reflections into several categories:
Where are the Pure Devotees?
As I think back, it seems to me that the factor that initially set in motion my gradual disillusionment with ISKCON was my growing awareness that, judging by its own criteria for success, ISKCON had, quite simply, failed as a spiritual movement. It became increasingly and inescapably obvious that the movement was simply not fulfilling its own stated primary goal: to create “pure devotees” — to skillfully and successfully guide serious practitioners to those sublime states of spiritual consciousness elaborately described in the scriptures and talked about endlessly in Gita and Bhagavatam classes.
One does, of course, encounter devotees who seem peaceful, content, full of sincere purpose and conviction, high-spirited, enthusiastic, and so on. And it is true that most devotees have experienced, at one time or another, uplifting feelings from chanting, seeing the deity, etc. But what of the more developed and sustained spiritual states described by such terms as bhava and prema? What of the love of Krishna that flows from the depths of one’s being, overwhelms the mind and heart, utterly transforms one, and makes of one a saint whose very presence inspires sanctity in others? Is ISKCON actually producing such manifestly Krishna conscious persons? Take a look around and decide for yourself.
To account for this embarrassing lack of pure devotees in ISKCON, one is forced to enact a version of “The King’s New Clothes”: do the best one can to convince oneself and others that certain high-profile devotees are, indeed, pure devotees, and proclaim that those who don’t acknowledge their status are either not yet advanced enough for such discernment or are envious fools. Or, alternatively, redefine the term “pure devotee” in such a broad, generous manner as to include the greatest number of devotees possible (e.g., all gurus, all those aspiring to be pure devotees, all those following the regulative principles, etc.)
Some few, highly self-motivated, highly disciplined, spiritually gifted devotees do apply themselves to the principles of bhakti-yoga and taste the fruits of their efforts. But for the overwhelming majority of devotees, spiritual life in ISKCON is little more than a perpetual struggle against base attachment, pride, greed, and lust. One goes on, year after year, hoping against hope that, “One day, yes, one day, a day far off in the future, one magic and wonderful day, I shall become a pure devotee.”
After many years in the movement I came to the conclusion that whatever other success the movement may enjoy — whatever the proliferation of sikhas and saris, numbers of temples opened, books distributed, celebrity endorsements procured — in the absence of the creation of highly evolved Krishna conscious persons, it’s all an empty show.
Ethical Failure and Intellectual Dishonesty
Over the course of my years in ISKCON I became alarmed at the extent to which people (myself included) who joined the movement in part as a reaction against the pervasive dishonesty in interpersonal dealings in mundane society, permitted themselves to become clever, sneaky and two-faced in the name of promulgating Truth. However much it may be hard for us to admit, The-Ends-Justifies-the-Means has long been a defining and controlling ethic in the movement. Based on the presumption that tricking, deceiving and cajoling illusioned souls to financially subsidize, and otherwise support ISKCON represents a “higher” morality, devotees are taught to say and do almost anything if it can be justified in the name of preaching. From the new devotee in the street extracting money from karmis through blatant dissimulation, to the most intellectually and socially sophisticated devotee skillfully packaging ISKCON in such a way as to most effectively win friends and undermine enemies, the ethic of pulling the wool over the benighted karmis’ eyes in order to save their souls is the same.
Though this attitude may appear justified from the point of view of a certain self-serving, contrived “spiritual” ethic, in practice it encourages a fundamental disrespect and superior attitude toward those for whom it claims feelings of compassion, and a manipulative, controlling attitude towards those it claims to liberate. Though some of the grosser manifestations of that cheating ethic have been tempered in recent years, the basic attitude, as far as I can see, hasn’t changed, because it’s rooted in ISKCON’s necessary presumption of moral superiority.
Another kind of dishonesty fundamental to the movement is an intellectual one: a learned orientation by which one’s chief philosophical project ceases to be the sincere and disciplined effort to open oneself to Truth, but instead to study, memorize, internalize, preach and defend an already defined, pre-digested, pre-packaged “Truth.” Instead of dedicating one’s faculties of awareness to the fearless quest for truth through reflective openness to all that presents itself to experience and scrutiny, one simply waves the banner of received “Truth,” come what may, however much that “Truth” may or may not address itself to the reality or facts at hand.
This loyal and tenacious defense of received “Truth” in the face of potentially disconfirming realities represents, I suggest, not a courageous fending off of Illusion in protection of divine Truth, but a cowardly hiding away from unexpected and disarming truths in hopes of defending a fragile existential security masquerading as enlightened certainty. I am continually amazed, and in retrospect somewhat embarrassed, by my own and other ISKCON intellectuals’ easy willingness to jettison any sort of intellectual/philosophical/existential honesty in order to fortify our own and others’ insecure faith — to wave our tattered little banner of Truth in the face of the wealth of ideas and multi-textured realities surrounding us.
I can recall, throughout my years in ISKCON, often being disappointed with the behavior of high- and low-level leaders in the movement who seemed to care little for the personhood of the devotees under their authority. (I might have turned out the same way had I opted for a management position. Fortunately, I have an aversion for being “in charge” of other people.) I think the lesson to be learned from ISKCON is that there’s a certain hardness of heart that comes from subordinating people to principles, to defining the institution itself as pre-eminent and its members as merely its humble servants.
This rhetoric of submission has, of course, a certain ring of loftiness to it: the idea of devotees striving together, pooling their energies and skills, sacrificing personal independence and comforts in order to serve the Glorious Mission. The trouble is, in effect it creates a social/ interpersonal environment in which the particular needs of individuals are downplayed, devalued, postponed indefinitely and generally ignored — leaving the individual devotee sooner or later feeling neglected, not listened to, not taken seriously, taken advantage of.
Because of the nature of my service in the movement, the fact that I enjoyed a high degree of personal autonomy in my work (I was not closely monitored and directed by overlings), I have little to complain personally on this account. But through seventeen years of observation, as well as speaking with and counseling devotees on numerous occasions, I became more and more aware, painfully and sadly aware, of the ways in which, in the name of “engaging devotees in Krishna’s service,” leaders and administrators at all levels deal with the devotees “under” them in a patronizing, condescending, heavy-handed and authoritarian manner — viewing and dealing with their subordinates not as unique individuals possessing rich and complex inner lives, as having particular emotional needs, unique perspectives and opinions, but as units of human energy to be matched to the necessary tasks at hand. I recall leaders criticizing, even ridiculing the very notion that special attention should be paid to the individual psyches and needs of devotees — who dismissed such concerns as mere sentimentality, unnecessary coddling, a lack of tough-mindedness, and opposed to the principles of humility and surrender.
This hard-nosed, hard-hearted attitude, this unfeeling instrumentality, this insensitive disregard for the individual, this almost cynical exalting of the principles of humility and surrender to ensure that the floors get swept and the bills paid, leaves many devotees, especially those low on the institutional totem-pole, feeling used and abused. Many of these devotees, when the frustration, sadness and anxiety reach a high enough level, simply leave — and become, understandably, bitter and vindictive ex-members.
To the degree that I allowed myself to participate in this system — at least by enjoying its fruits — I feel ashamed. I sincerely apologize to any persons I might have offended.
Most devotees will acknowledge that ISKCON’s prohibition against “illicit sex” (any sex other than to conceive children in marriage) is the hardest of ISKCON’s rules to follow, the cause of the greatest difficulty among devotees, and (with the possible exception of disillusionment with ISKCON per se) the most common cause of “fall-down” from Krishna consciousness.
Without debating the merits of celibacy in spiritual life, it’s fair to say that the typical devotee, over time, is going to violate the celibacy rule at least once, if not multiple times. Desire for sex appears in every devotee’s life sooner or later, to one degree or another, in one form or another. From the guru lecturing from his asana down to Bhakta Bruce cleaning the bathroom, devotees think about sex, fanaticize about it, relieve themselves in secret and, as is often the case, indulge in sex (with other willing devotees, old girlfriends or boyfriends, outside contacts, whomever) if they think they can get away with it. This rather obvious fact isn’t openly acknowledged in the movement because it’s a source of significant embarrassment to devotees, who view indulgence in sex as disgusting, disgraceful, and a sign of personal failure — and, further, because they’re forever boasting to non-devotees that their enjoyment of a “higher taste” is evidenced most conclusively by their disinterest in mundane sense gratification.
To be frank, there is something very sad, tragic even, in the spectacle of sincere spiritual aspirants endlessly struggling against and denying sexual feelings (which are, after all, perfectly natural if you’re embodied), continually berating themselves for their lack of heroic detachment from the body, seeking dark corners in which to masturbate or, finding themselves “attached to” another devotee, planning and scheming “illicit” encounters. All this unavoidable cheating and hypocrisy, guilt and shame, denial and cover-up, make a pathetic sham of ISKCON’s ascetical conceit. Granted, there are some devotees, small in number, who have a gift (if that is what it is) for serene, contented celibacy. But the mass of devotees simply do not.
After many years of monitoring my own and other’s (through conversation and counseling) ambivalence about and mixed-success in following the standards, the whole celibacy fetish began to look a bit suspect. Why the abysmal failure of most devotees to be uncompromisingly celibate? Why the pervasive inability to perform an act of renunciation that ISKCON defines as a precondition not only of serious spiritual practice but of civilized human life? Why that fundamental failure?
Some devotees feel it’s due to some innate deficit in the consciousness of Westerners (we’re too lusty); others blame it on devotees’ chronically flawed performance of bhakti-yoga (offensive chanting, etc.); a few contend that Prabhupada passed on Gaudiya Vaishnava practice imperfectly (by omitting certain necessary mystical elements in the diksha); some say it’s a natural consequence of co-ed ashrams (and periodically suggest that the temples be rid of women); others blame it on the Kali-yuga. Whatever the cause, the fact remains that most devotees are nowhere near free from sex desire.
The result of the imposition of absolute celibacy upon those not sufficiently disassociated from their bodies is, as we’ve seen, the generation of great amounts of guilt, self-loathing, dishonesty and denial. “One day,” we assure ourselves, “I shall be sufficiently Krishna conscious to be free from sex desire.” Meanwhile, we remain within a physical body which, by its very nature, and in spite of chanting and the rest, desires to touch and be touched, to physically nurture and be nurtured, to feel the soothing embrace of a lover.
So strong is the natural human desire for physical touch that in order to avoid it, to successfully repress the desire for it (temporarily), one must paint the most exaggeratedly negative picture of it possible: one that envisions sex as a purely wild, disgusting animal act — one of total, chaotic abandon, or of regression into panting, drooling, general disgustingness.
But think back to your own past, my dear devotee friend: when you made love with your girlfriend or boyfriend, husband or wife, was it all really just bestial humping and grunting? Did it have no connection at all to feelings of love, caring, respect, appreciation, affection? Certainly, like any other human activity, sex can be beautiful or ugly. It can be an act of gross, selfish, piggish abandon, or (as you will recall from your own past or envision in your imagination) an act of gentle, loving self-expression, of affectionate mutual pleasuring, even a source of profound feelings of emotional and spiritual oneness. It is only through deliberate denial of personal experience, or of intuition, that one can obliterate such memories, or pre-empt such capacity for imagining.
My purpose here is not to advertise the glories of sex (glorious though it can be), but to remind you of the problems associated with outlawing it — and also to make the radical suggestion that perhaps it is possible to be a spiritual person, a God-conscious or cosmos-loving person, a person of goodness and compassion, of wisdom, sensitivity and awareness — under whatever spiritual banner — without denying and repressing one’s natural sexuality.
Disrespect for Women
If ISKCON had fully been the glorious spiritual movement it advertises itself to be, with its only defect being its offensive attitudes and discriminatory policies toward women, Sitarani and I still would have felt fully justified in abandoning the organization to which we’d devoted so much of our lives. It became increasingly difficult for us to tolerate (and to defend among the scholars and students it was our service to “cultivate”) the raw, unreflective, juvenile, boys-club mentality of the movement — the official, insulting view of women as childlike, irrational, irresponsible, emotional, and wild-unless-controlled-by-a-man.
It’s not at all surprising that ISKCON would be a woman-fearing, woman-hating, woman-exploiting institution. A male-centered religion that defines sex as the enemy of spirituality naturally is going to define the objects of men’s sexual desire as the Enemy Personified: Woman as Chief Antagonist in the holy drama of Man Transcending. Women, thus stigmatized, are, at best, to be tolerated — allowed to exist on the fringe in an officially reduced status, their wanton energies mercifully channeled into the service of men — and, at worst, to be officially and systematically denigrated, shunned and, not infrequently, abused emotionally and sexually.
A movement that can allow a brand new male recruit, still stinking of the street, to feel utterly comfortable in viewing himself as superior — by the sheer fact that he’s got a penis — to a seasoned woman devotee who’s been refining her consciousness for decades; a movement that can allow a husband to feel perfectly at ease bossing his wife around as if he were a Maharaja and she a coolie, as if she were put on Earth simply to serve and satisfy him — as if Krishna must be pleased by such a display of proper hierarchical dealings between humans — is going to invite the ridicule of outsiders, as well as incite pangs of conscience in its own thoughtful members. It’s a wonder that self-respecting women can tolerate such attitudes and treatment, and it’s to their credit, I suppose, that they tolerate such insult and abuse so as to remain connected to a spiritual tradition that they feel, or hope, is wiser and grander than that.
For a time, Sitarani and I felt content with being “liberal” on the issue — with lending our weight, for example, to efforts to allow the occasional woman to give a lecture, lead a kirtan, or have a vote on the temple board. But we grew tired of struggling to put the best possible spin on the issue when questioned by discerning college students and others — with having to employ our intelligence and savvy in the noble quest of covering up for an organization that was hopelessly and ridiculously out of touch with the contemporary world and with common decency.
When we finally left the movement we felt greatly relieved to have removed ourselves from a social and political environment that so determinedly denigrated women and positive feminine principles. ISKCON is, after all, such a positively male institution: all that obsessing over power, control, order, hierarchy, protocol, and competition. Not to mention all the chest-pounding martial rhetoric: conquering the senses, destroying illusion, defeating enemies, smashing demons.
What of the beautiful “feminine” qualities of Sri Chaitanya and his followers? What of gentleness, humility, empathy, love, compassion, spiritual protection and nurturance, delicacy of emotion and of interpersonal dealings? While devotees pay occasional lip-service to these acknowledged Vaishnava qualities, in practice it’s the cherished male qualities of tough-mindedness, aggressiveness and the power to dominate and manipulate others that the ISKCON establishment promotes and rewards. ISKCON is, clearly, an institutional environment that is innately hostile to women and to the spiritual attributes and principles that they, in particular, embody and exemplify.
I invite my sisters in the movement to contemplate these facts and to ask yourselves whether or not you truly feel at home in such an environment — whether it is possible for you to live in such a place without sacrificing your basic self-respect and resorting to painful denial. I encourage you, as many of you apparently now are doing, to discuss these matters among yourselves and come to your own conclusions.
A final factor in my decision to leave ISKCON was a philosophical one: a growing awareness that however much wisdom and beauty may be found in a particular religious tradition, no one tradition, no one system, can speak fully for any one individual. Whatever the possible transcendent origins of a spiritual path, it is passed down through human persons: wise, insightful, saintly persons perhaps, but distinct, individual persons nonetheless — having their own distinctive life histories, experiences, temperaments, ways of thinking, feeling and communicating. Though there was much in Krishna consciousness that I found deeply meaningful and appealing, I began to realize (subtly, slowly, over a long period of time) that, short of simply obliterating my own thoughts and feelings, I could not blindly, automatically accept every word of the scriptures (e.g., women are inferior to men, thunder and lightning come from Lord Indra, the sun is closer to the Earth than the Moon, etc.)
More important than difficulties with particular passages of scripture, however, was my growing sense that there was something unnatural, something artificial and forced, about the very idea of my having to completely supplant my own thoughts, reflections, insights, and intuitions about myself, the world, and my own experience, with a pre-packaged, pre-approved system of ideas and doctrines which, whatever its origins, has evolved through countless hands and been refracted through many minds and sensibilities through the centuries. I began to feel (though it took a long time to admit it to myself) that this is an unrealistic and unfair demand to be made upon any of us, however “imperfect” we may be, because it dishonors the integrity and particularity of who we are.
I came to feel that there is something ultimately impersonal about the notion that we are something utterly different from what we presently feel ourselves to be, and that the differences between us all (qualities of mind, behavioral style, etc.) are simply products of an unnatural, illusioned state — that when we become who we are meant to be, we’ll all conform to a particular, precise check-list of personality traits. And, further, that to evolve into this perfected state we must submit to the authority of certain authorized persons for radical re-education — cutting ourselves off, more or less, from any ideas, influences or persons that might possibly remind us of the selves we mistakenly felt we were.
Now, whatever the beauties of the spiritual path, there is something slightly ominous about a spiritual system that so utterly and uncompromisingly devalues me as I know and experience myself, that would make me (if I’m a loyal and diligent practitioner) doubt and question my every perception, my every inner sense of the ways things are, and that would render me so utterly dependent (even for my very sense of reality) upon others about whom I have no conclusive evidence of perfection (and whose spiritual status is tenuous at best, in light of the periodic scandals involving those promoted in ISKCON as “pure” and “perfect”).
Consider, again, the essential insult to the self that this kind of thinking entails. The Voice of Authority proclaims: “Whatever you think you are, is not you. The person you feel yourself to be, this complex accumulation of personal, idiosyncratic experience, thought and emotion, is but an illusion. You must not trust your own deepest instincts and intuitions about who and what you are, what your needs are, what your ideas are, what your ways of conceptualizing and dealing with the world are, what your purpose in life is. You are fallen, ignorant, in illusion, and incapable of knowing what is best for you. Your only hope lies in submitting yourself to the absolute guidance of certain individuals, living and dead, whose wisdom you must acknowledge as far superior to yours, as affirmed by themselves and their representatives.”
Must spiritual life depend upon such an act of extreme self-abnegation, such an uncompromising rejection of personal experience? Are Truth and Wisdom to be so radically abstracted from my own consciousness, my own life, the depth of my own being? Is such turning of a blind eye and deaf ear to my own inner sense of “the way things are” really in my best interest? Is that kind of self-denial really “humility” — a wise recognition of personal limitations — or is it ultimately little more than a form of self-shaming leading to blind adherence to the dictates of others who may or may not possess a firm, unadulterated grasp on Truth?
I began to feel strongly that religion is not a corporate matter — that of gathering in all manner of minds and hearts into a common, undifferentiated, regimented view of immediate and ultimate reality — but rather of honoring and trusting the individual spirit enough to allow it to seek its own path, make its own mistakes, find its own way by listening, intently and conscientiously, to its own inner knowledge and to whatever voices of wisdom present themselves on one’s journey through life.
I realized, ultimately, that for all ISKCON’s talk of freedom, of liberation, of escaping conditioned modes of being, the prevailing mentality in ISKCON is, in fact, characterized by a distinct fear of freedom: fear of personal quest, of trusting the moment, of openness to the unexpected — a self-defeating distrust of all those glimmerings of truth that present themselves to us in various forms and in various places (like gold within garbage), and that have the power to guide, instruct and enlighten.
Being outside ISKCON and the ISKCON mind-set, becoming intellectually and spiritually open-minded and adventurous, has been, for me, an exhilarating liberation: a far more genuine freedom than that promised by the commanding, disembodied Voice of “Vedic Authority” — the smoke-and-mirrors Wizards of Ozkon.
Is There Life After ISKCON?
That such a question might even occur to a devotee is itself a telling comment on the ISKCON mind-set. In seventeen years of Krishna consciousness I sat through literally thousands of Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam classes (a great many of them my own!) in which I was regaled with nightmarish images of the world looming outside the walls of ISKCON — warned repeatedly of the miseries to come should I foolishly wander outside our fortifications. In a place where higher spiritual experience is in short supply it is necessary, indeed, to create powerful disincentives to leaving — even if they need be based on exaggeration and fear.
But the world, as it turns out, is not the unrelieved chamber of horrors described in Bhagavatam classes. It’s a mixed bag, just like ISKCON. Yes, there are all manner of terrible things in this world: war, poverty, disease, madness, sexual abuse, racism, and all the rest. A thoughtful and sensitive person has to acknowledge that the world is a place pervaded by suffering and illusion. But in the midst of all that craziness and suffering there is good as well. There are people whose hearts contain benevolence and compassion and who try to relieve others of their pain, who sincerely come to the aid of those who are misunderstood, disadvantaged, persecuted and mistreated.
There are many who seek truth, meaning and beauty through artistic self-expression in music, art, dance, creative writing. There are many who devote themselves to spiritual practices of various sorts, who seek to become more aware, more sensitive, more enlightened, and who try to apply the truths they experience within their hearts in their daily lives. And there are people who are not focused on ambitious spiritual goals but who have a basic decency about them and who try, in the course of their lives, to be kind to their fellow humans.
Out here, beyond the gates of ISKCON, one encounters good people and bad (just as in ISKCON), generous and selfish people (just like ISKCON), sensitive and insensitive people (ditto), geniuses and fools (ditto), spiritual and unspiritual people (likewise) — and, of course, all combinations of the above. Seek and you will find people who are good and decent, who share your values, whose friendship will nourish and deepen you.
Once you step outside the gates of ISKCON you’ll discover that you are, simply, who you are. Whether you reside in a temple, at home or in a ditch, it’s the quality of your own consciousness that determines what sort of person you’re going to be and what sort of life you’re going to live. When you leave the temple, you will not suddenly fall to pieces and find yourself transformed into a wanton debauchee (unless you really wish to be so, in which case you’ll tire of that soon enough). You’ll neither become a demon nor go crazy. Nor will you need assume an attitude of uncritical acceptance of the world. It’s quite possible (believe me) to remain acutely aware of the limitations and imperfections of the world and maintain a creatively ambivalent relationship with it, while constructing a safe, sane, and meaningful space for yourself within it. It’s a project, to be sure, but quite do-able.
You will most likely not, by the way, end up pumping gas (in keeping with the oft-cited case, enthusiastically repeated in innumerable Bhagavatam classes, of one former sannyasi). Ex-ISKCON people are doing anything and everything, vocationally speaking, from collecting unemployment checks to running companies. Some are “successful” in life, materially speaking, and some aren’t. It runs the gamut.
Often, because Krishna consciousness provided a powerful and consuming sense of meaning and purpose, one may feel depressed when one leaves — temporarily let down from the considerable excitement entailed in attaining perfection and saving the world. But one finds reasons to get up in the morning other than to attend mangala-arti and sell Bhagavad-gitas or bumper stickers to uninterested karmis. One finds meaning and purpose (or many meanings and many purposes) in life, sooner or later, through alternative spiritual practices, through pursuit of personal interests, through career, through helping people, and through friendship and love (strange, isn’t it, how “friendship and love” is practically an obscene term in ISKCON?). Ex-devotees often find profound satisfaction in developing the kinds of deep, intimate, loving relationships that they missed as brahmacaris and brahmacarinis, or as married persons caught in unsatisfying, hierarchical, sexless (or sexually abusive) relationships.
There are also, by the way, parks to wander, trees to climb, sunsets to watch, friends to be made, lovers to love, places to visit, authors to read. There are films, concerts, art museums, lectures, camping trips, parties — and a myriad other interesting, engaging, edifying and enjoyable experiences to be had. A life to be lived.
So, I’ve said what I’ve wanted to say. Thanks for hearing me out. Let ISKCON, if it wishes, commission one of its intellectual or literary lights to respond to these reflections of mine with some impressively philosophical defense of the status quo. I really don’t care. I only wish that sincere devotees honestly consider what I’ve said here and decide for themselves whether or not it speaks to their own minds and hearts.
Though I’ve canceled my subscription to ISKCON’s view of reality, I am deeply and sincerely interested in Truth/truth, and feel confident that I have common ground with people in ISKCON who’s love of truth supersedes any automatic allegiance to doctrines and lines of authority. Whatever the sorry state of ISKCON, whatever dimness with which it reflects its potential glory, there are many good and decent people in the movement who seek answers to life’s most profound questions and who are serious about discovering and fulfilling their highest purpose in life. To all of them, I offer my respects and my friendship.