A Personal Message
Guided by the principle that one should move through life with open eyes and some degree of self-awareness, and that one should share the fruits of one’s insights and intuitions, I would like to pass on some useful information to anyone who might be getting involved in the Hare Krishna movement. I myself was a loyal, dedicated, and influential devotee for many years, and have had many years since to reflect on and make sense of my experiences. It’s my hope that what I write here will help bring some clarity to your spiritual quest. (I’ll say a few more words about myself at the end.)
First, please know that I respect and honor anyone who is fed up with the conventional, material world and seeks a meaningful alternative – some kind of life with more truth, wisdom, sanity, ecstasy. The problem is, sincere seeking in and of itself does not guarantee finding one’s true path or reaching the ultimate goal. Making a major decision about what direction to take depends on having a clear sense of what the options are, what’s actually out there in the spiritual marketplace. Some guides are helpful, others aren’t. Many have mixed motives and hidden agendas. At the very least, then, gather enough information so that you have some sense of where you’re going, what you’re getting yourself into. Otherwise, it’s easy to become waylaid by questionable teachers and disciples competing for converts.
What I’m going to present here is an accurate, unbiased, straightforward description of some of the things you’ll be expected to believe and do as an active member of ISKCON. If a Krishna person tells you that any of these points are incorrect or untrue, he or she is probably not being honest. It’s natural that members will want to explain Krishna consciousness to you in as positive and attractive a way as possible, which is certainly what I did when I was there. Here, however, what you will read is the simple, unadorned truth, boiled down to its fine (if rather blunt) essence. I affirm that everything I present here is true and accurate, though admittedly stated with a certain directness that you won’t get from active, committed members trying to make a good impression on a potential new recruit. I have no other motive in this than to share what I know to be the truth on some important matters, and possibly (hopefully) save some people a lot of time and trouble.
So, let’s begin:
If you’re a follower of ISKCON, you will be expected to believe that whatever thoughts or feelings you have within yourself – that is, your entire cognitive world – should be muted, ignored as far as possible, because it’s all a creation of Maya: universal, cosmic illusion. If you try to understand reality within your own mind, without checking your thoughts and ideas against the perfect scripture, then you are guilty of what we call MENTAL SPECULATION. In other words, you yourself are in such a state of darkness and ignorance, that you mustn’t trust your own mind because it will surely lead you astray.
Just to make sure you’re clear on this (because this is very important): The whole realm of private, subjective thought and feeling you have going on within you, that endless stream-of-consciousness in your head, that flow of thoughts, impressions and emotions that you think of as your inner self, your personal being – all that is a kind of madness and illusion, all of it invented, concocted, by Maya. Her job is to keep you from thinking of Krishna, to keep you away from Krishna, to keep you stuck in this miserable material world. So, consider her the Enemy. (It’s OK, she’s actually working for Krishna.)
Now, understanding that Maya is a force external to you, and a force that has your worst interests in mind, you need to fight it at all times. A good devotee remains vigilant against the constant enticements of Maya. The best (and only) way to do this is to always think of Krishna. Now, if you were totally sincere and serious about spiritual life, you’d be able to do this immediately (which would mean you’re enlightened). But because you’re unable to keep Krishna in the center of your thoughts (lowly conditioned soul that you are) you have to work at it – every moment of every day. If you keep at it day in and day out, one day you will achieve the transcendental state of “Krishna Consciousness.” But you need to be very patient. We are so fallen that it takes lots and lots of work to get there.
If, after a number of years of working at it day in day out, you find that you haven’t yet attained this lofty state of consciousness, this just means you haven’t been sincere and surrendered enough, you haven’t wanted it strongly enough, and so you need to become more sincere and surrendered (just keep working at it). And, looking around at the other devotees, if it seems like very few if any ever actually attain Krishna Consciousness, that is, become “pure devotees,” that just means that they’re not sincere and surrendered enough either. But don’t worry, it will come one day. We guarantee it. The guru says it will happen, so it will happen. It’s a sure thing.
As a member of ISKCON you will be expected to have total faith in our teachings and to accept them as the infallible, eternal Absolute Truth. All our ideas come from ancient holy books, the “Vedas,” so they are perfect and you don’t need to doubt them. If you doubt them you won’t understand them, so just surrender and everything will become clear to you, in time.
If you should openly express doubt in or disagreement with our perfect teachings, you will be referred to (directly or behind your back) as “insincere,” “un-surrendered,” “puffed-up,” or “offensive to the spiritual master.” If you have wrong views you will be expected to correct them, because spiritual life is like a “razor’s edge” (very straight and narrow), and must be tread with extreme caution.
All religious or philosophical teachings besides those of ISKCON are at best partial truths, and mostly untruths. Our scriptures reveal the whole Truth to humanity, but we get this whereas all others do not. It’s okay to give lip service to other religions (“Jesus is Krishna’s son” or “Krishna reveals himself to some degree in all scriptures”), but, in the end, you must believe that Krishna consciousness is the highest teaching in the universe. No need to actually go and study any other religion or philosophy to see if you agree. All you need to do is trust us and believe us and you’ll be on the right path to God.
You need, therefore, to substitute whatever you think with what the scriptures teach, because these scriptures come from God. If you think the scriptures are imperfect in any way, then you are committing an offence against Krishna and you’ll never attain God consciousness.
If someone doesn’t agree with our philosophy, that means that they are in Maya (Illusion), and so whatever they might say to you is complete nonsense. To protect yourself from their nonsense, you need either to convince them that they’re wrong and we’re right, or just get away from that person. If you stay and listen to them, their words may contaminate you and then you will fall back in Maya. You don’t want that to happen, do you?
Krishna GOOD, material world BAD. That’s the main thing. Don’t complicate things with nuanced reflection, which is mental speculation. Like Prabhupada’s guru said: When your mind misbehaves you need to beat it with a stick (or a shoe). We’re lucky to have such great gurus in our tradition that tell it like it is.
There are two kinds of people in this world: devotees and karmis (non-devotees). Devotees are enlightened, peaceful and happy. Karmis are ignorant, agitated and unhappy. Which do you want to be?
In order to become Krishna conscious, it is necessary to practice complete control of your senses and your mind. You must give up SENSE GRATIFICATION because that’s what keeps us stuck in this material world. This may seem difficult, but it is absolutely necessary if you are to advance on the path of Krishna consciousness.
Do you like music? Then you can listen to our transcendental music: chanting, kirtans, and bhajans. We have lots of great recordings of the guru chanting and singing. Do you like Classical music? Jazz? Folk? Pop? Rock? We ask that you not listen to any of that mundane music any more. Any music other than that approved by the guru is created by Maya, and if you listen to it, it will contaminate your consciousness and you’ll never attain Enlightenment. Do you miss the music you used to listen to, that moved you in so many ways? Not good. If any of it comes back into your head, drown it out with chanting Hare Krishna. If you’re attracted to mundane music, that’s because you haven’t yet experienced the “higher taste” of Krishna consciousness. Don’t worry. You will in time. Stay with us. Trust us, you’ll thank us later.
Do you like to read? Great! Read Prabhupada’s books. Anything worth knowing is in them. It’s best that you not read anything else. This includes literature and fiction, psychology, philosophy, sociology, economics, anthropology, religion (other than Prabhupada’s books), science (especially science), history, or art. Reading non-Krishna Consciousness books will fill your head with nonsense and ignorance. Best get rid of your non-Krishna books or sell them and give the money to the temple (that’s what the devotees had me do when I joined).
Speaking of science, you need to know that the mundane scientists all are in deep illusion. What do they know if they don’t know Krishna? For instance, they believe in evolution, which we know from our scriptures is a lie (that’s one thing the Fundamentalist Christians got right). And as far as American astronauts landing on the moon is concerned, Prabhupada told us that was a total fraud spread by government propaganda. According to our ancient scriptures, human beings cannot go to the moon because in order to exist on the Moon you must have a subtle body, not a gross body. So they obviously couldn’t have gone. Also, Prabhupada explained that because “Sunday” precedes “Monday,” the Sun comes before the moon, meaning the sun is closer to us than the moon is. So, there’s no way the astronauts could have gone all the way to the moon.
If you are a high school or college student, you need to know that they can only teach you false knowledge. Real knowledge is Krishna. Anything worth knowing is in Prabhupada’s books. That’s real education. If you’re really sincere about becoming God conscious, you might want to re-assess your educational plans, unless you can get a lucrative career and donate lots of money to the temple. (We need lots of money to spread God Consciousness. Know any rich people?)
If you’re going to be serious about your spiritual life, you will need to avoid movies, television, any form of artistic performance (dance, theater, etc.), as well as any kind of museum (unless, of course, it’s all about Krishna). All those things are just Sense Gratification and will only serve to pollute you mind and keep you stuck in this material world. We cannot emphasize enough how important it is to keep your mind and senses pure by sheltering them from all non-Krishna influences; otherwise you are doomed to remain imprisoned forever in the endless cycle of birth and death.
When we all chant together in the temple, you should show your love for Krishna by chanting loudly and dancing vigorously. Show Krishna that you’re enthusiastic, even if you aren’t. Prabhupada said that if you act like a Pure Devotee you’ll become a Pure Devotee. So, what is now imitative will later become natural. And remember, it’s good to show the other devotees that you’re getting it, that you’re feeling Krishna’s Mercy, that you’re feeling blissful when you chant. Then they’ll respect you as a true devotee. Chant and dance and you’ll be happy. If you’re not feeling that happiness yet, that spiritual bliss, that means you’re not chanting and dancing sincerely and enthusiastically enough. You need to surrender more.
Do you like helping people? Do you have an inclination to do humanitarian service of some kind, to help the needy and the suffering? Well, that’s what we do! We’re spreading God consciousness, which will solve all the world’s problems. So if you like to help people, just be a good devotee and help spread Krishna consciousness. If you go and feed or give medical attention to people without giving them Krishna consciousness, then you’re not actually helping those people. It may appear you’re helping them, but by making life easier for them you’ll be making them more satisfied with their lives in the material world, and then they will be less likely to feel a need for Krishna consciousness. So if you’re really compassionate, just get them to chant Hare Krishna and then Krishna will take care of the rest. Not that we can’t ever feed people. We do feed them blessed food now and then, here and there. We sometimes get great PR from that.
Now, this one is extremely important: You may not hear much about this until you’re more committed, but you need to know that women are inherently inferior to men. That’s what our scriptures and our guru say. Just read Prabhupada’s books and you’ll understand that women have less intelligence than men (their physical brains are actually smaller). The nature of Woman is to be lusty, childish, irresponsible, overly emotional, attached to their material bodies and “prone to degradation.” Because women are essentially a lower order of being, it’s generally harder for them to advance in Krishna Consciousness (so they need to work harder at it). Now, remember, if outsiders ask about the role of women in ISKCON, just tell them that “male” and “female” refer only to the material body, and because we’re all spirit souls, men and women are equal. Just say that and they’ll usually not press the matter.
Because women are inferior to men, they must always be under the care and control of a man. If you as a woman are lucky enough to get married to a devotee man, he will tell you what to do and what you can and can’t do, and you will gladly do whatever he says because you know he is there to guide and protect you on behalf of Krishna. A good Vedic wife is humble and submissive to her husband.
If you want to get married at some point, you will need to ask your guru’s permission. The guru knows you better than you know yourself, and he’ll know whom it’s best for you to marry. Don’t be puffed-up and think you know better than him. If you submit to the guru, you will be properly guided. It says that in the scripture. (If anyone tells you ISKCON has a disastrous record with regard to marriage, well, that’s another matter.)
And be aware of proper temple etiquette between male and female devotees. If you’re a woman, you need to know that your very presence in the temple is a source of agitation for the single men, the brahmacaris. You need to stay out of their way. Avoid talking to them or looking them directly in the eye because that will just agitate them. Women make men think of sex, so you need to keep a low profile. And make sure you always wear a sari or a long skirt and also cover your head. Our men must remain pure. If you’re really lucky, one of them will become attracted to you anyway and you can be his wife and serve him.
People outside ISKCON sometimes criticize our position on women, but that’s because they’re ignorant feminists, unaware of Vedic culture (which was perfect). Prabhupada explains that Feminism was created by men so that women would become more sexually promiscuous and men would get more sex. So we’re pro-woman: we think they should be protected from predatory men by their husband or the temple authorities. Isn’t that great? Don’t you want to feel protected?
Women are so lusty that – and this comes straight from Prabhupada – they actually like to be raped – they find it sexually stimulating. Don’t quote him on that because people will just misunderstand and we don’t want them to think badly of Prabhupada. Some things you can understand only when you’re a devotee and have unshakable faith.
Also, Prabhupada says that homosexuality is “degraded,” “abominable,” “godless,” and “demoniac.” Do you know any gays or lesbians? This is how you should think of them.
Sex is dirty, disgusting and sinful. When people do it they are lower than animals, because animals can’t control their senses and humans can. Remember that the physical body is just a bag of urine, feces, blood, mucous, bile, and guts, so people having sex is like rubbing two bags of blood and shit together. The very thought of sex should make you feel sick and want to spit. Sex is not about love; it’s only about material lust. All the karmis (heathen) are having sex all the time. Isn’t that disgusting? Don’t even think about it or you’ll become lusty. The only exception is if you’re having sex to have a baby to raise in Krishna consciousness. Then it is holy. But try not to enjoy it too much because then it might slip over into sense gratification and that’s not good. Don’t forget that a person addicted to sex has to come back in their next life as a pig or a dog. You don’t want that to happen, do you? Just read Prabhupada’s books and it will all become clear.
All relationships between people are insignificant and impure compared to our relationship with Krishna. So you shouldn’t become too emotionally involved with another person – even your parents, your spouse, or your children – because that will distract you from your eternal relationship with Krishna. Krishna comes first.
A man and a woman can never really be “friends,” because it will just lead to sex. Like the guru said, a man is like butter and a woman is like fire. You know what that means, right?
It’s O.K. to have friends among devotees (of the same sex), but don’t get too attached to any one person because that will make you less attached to Krishna. Remember, everything is for Krishna.
As you advance in Krishna consciousness, you’ll be preaching to outsiders to encourage them to become devotees like us. It’s very important to use tact in preaching. Don’t talk about aspects of our teachings that may be hard for them to understand, like the role of women, our opposition to modern science, or our belief in religious monarchy. If they know those things too soon, their material, conditioned minds might react negatively and then they’ll miss out on becoming attracted to Krishna. So be careful and strategic in planning what to say and how to say it. We need to guide them in slowly because Maya is very strong and will try to keep them in her clutches. You’ll get more skilled at this as you advance on the path.
Another important subject: Anyone who eats meat is a demon. Even if someone seems like a good and decent person, if they eat meat they’re actually demonic. Even if your best friend or a family member eats meat, fish, fowl or eggs, you must know that he or she is a demon and you should stay away from them. Don’t be naïve or sentimental about this. Being around meat-eaters will contaminate your consciousness and may turn you into a meat-eater.
We devotees are warm and friendly because we love Krishna and feel blissful, so it’s no surprise you like us. When we ourselves joined ISKCON everyone was warm and friendly and sincere and it made us want to join the community. So we are well aware of the power of warmth, friendliness and sincerity. You’ll become that way too and then you’ll be able to attract new people to the movement. That will really please Krishna. Isn’t that great! And, by the way, we like you, we really like you. And the more you become a good devotee, the more we’ll like you and the more you’ll be one of us. Isn’t that nice? If after you move into the temple the devotees don’t pay as much attention to you, that’s because they’re busy serving Krishna, so don’t take it personally.
In case you hear somewhere that virtually the entire first generation of gurus who succeeded Prabhupada dropped out or were kicked out of ISKCON, most of them for having sex with disciples or molesting children, and that most of Prabhupada’s disciples subsequently left ISKCON and the movement nearly collapsed, well, we don’t like to talk about those things. All you need to know is that everything got straightened out and all our current gurus are approved by the GBC, the Governing Body Commission, and you can trust them totally. Nothing to worry about.
Oh, and all those big scandals where ISKCON gurus were exposed not just for sneaking sex (or drugs), but covering it all up in cahoots with the GBC, and stealing money and living like emperors sitting on high thrones: Don’t worry, they’re mostly gone now. We keep a better eye on things nowadays, so don’t you worry. Nothing bad will happen to you. If your guru tries to molest you, just report him and we’ll kick him out of the movement (if you can prove it).
Whatever guru you may come across in ISKCON is guaranteed to be a Pure Devotee. The scriptures say that a guru must be fully Krishna conscious, completely free from illusion, material desire and false ego. So if you meet one of ISKCON’s gurus, rest assured he’s a Pure Devotee – most especially if he’s the one who usually initiates new devotees in the city where you live. If you doubt it, that means you’re either ignorant or envious, and you will never attain Krishna consciousness.
It comes down to trust: you need to trust the guru, to have complete faith in the guru. Whatever he says is coming straight from Krishna, so it’s the Absolute Truth. If the guru ever says anything that seems to you wrong (or unrealistic, or unreasonable, or far-fetched, or just plain outrageous), that means you clearly don’t understand what he’s saying. You’re letting your own thoughts and opinions get in the way. Who are you going to listen to: a conditioned fool like yourself, or the enlightened guru?
And you may also hear something about the long history of pervasive abuse of women in ISKCON, and all the well-documented abuse of children in the movement – physical, psychological, and sexual – that left many of the children scarred for life. Well, that was a long time ago and we fixed that (we had to shut down all our schools and go into bankruptcy to settle with the victims). Things are way better now. In any case, best not to linger on those matters, because if you’re interested in that sort of thing, that means you’re like a fly that likes to land on stool, attracted to filth. You’re better than that. Let’s change the subject.
Remember that you can only get to Krishna through ISKCON. You may hear about different splinter groups that broke away from ISKCON years ago and follow other gurus. Well, stay far away from them. They are bad. They don’t give the right teachings. Stick with us and you’re guaranteed to go Back Home, Back to Godhead.
As you get more and more involved in Krishna consciousness, you may begin to feel squeezed into a smaller and smaller space, with more and more rules and regulations and a growing expectation that you surrender completely to the guru and to those who represent him in your local temple. Well, don’t think of it that way. Think of it as becoming purified; think of it as getting free from Maya; think of it as transcending the Material World. It’s a good thing! You’ll see! Just hang in there and it will get easier and more blissful as time goes on. Look at us; don’t we seem peaceful and happy? You can be too. Trust us. We know best.
A final note (in my own voice):
I am in no way criticizing or condemning traditional Krishna worship in India or krishna-bhakti in general. It is a rich, complex, legitimate religious tradition. The problem is that the American-based organization known as ISKCON serves up the Krishna religion and culture in a form that is markedly dogmatic, sectarian, authoritarian, ultra-conservative, misogynistic, and homophobic (not to mention unethical and psychologically manipulative). These cult-like characteristics become obvious to many of its own members who decide, after some time, to get out. Even scholars who are sympathetic to ISKCON describe these cultic or totalistic qualities in their historical and sociological studies of the movement. There is a critical distinction to be made between the spiritual essence of Krishna consciousness (krishna-bhakti or bhakti-yoga), and the actual social structure, attitudes, policies, and practices of ISKCON the organization. Though ISKCON promotes itself as the best and highest expression of krishna-bhakti, it is essentially a failed institution with a rather dark and unhappy history riddled with scandal, controversy, and abuse. The result of these ongoing problems and crises is that most members sooner or later become disillusioned and leave the organization (and thus the constant need for new recruits).
As someone who joined the movement early in its history, I personally witnessed how the movement evolved over time in the direction of becoming increasingly materialistic and exploitative of its own members. I was present during the crises of the 1980s when many members attempted to reform the organization and as a consequence became targets of investigations, denunciations, and expulsions by the leaders. This was an ugly, transitional time for ISKCON – a fact that is well documented – and many good people were terribly hurt and many remain bitter to this day. Though some reforms were officially instituted over time (as a cumulative result of determined protests), ISKCON is still essentially the same organization with the same ideologies, attitudes, and practices that I describe here.
You should know that after a long involvement in ISKCON, people usually find it difficult, or at least challenging, to get back on track in their lives – to get back to what they were accomplishing in terms of education, career, relationships, and personal spiritual growth. After emerging from the tight little bubble of ISKCON, many regret the wasted time and lost opportunities in their personal lives.
One more thing:
Spirituality, self-realization, enlightenment, God consciousness – these things ultimately need to be explored within you. The spiritual quest involves your deepest being, your deepest self, with all its complexities and idiosyncrasies. The spiritual path is, as such, something we need to pursue within ourselves with total honesty and authenticity, and with sensitivity to our own spiritual individuality and needs. Your unique spiritual identity cannot be averaged out and matched to one single path or one group of people.
There is truth and meaning and beauty in Krishna consciousness, just as there is truth, meaning, and beauty to be found in a whole range of spiritual traditions and paths. As human beings we can learn from and find nourishment in a rich variety of spiritual and philosophical sources. To limit oneself to one narrowly focused path, perhaps the first you’ve ever explored in any depth, is rather self-limiting, don’t you think? Is it really a good idea to swallow whole a religious system offered by a group of people who may or may not have a full grasp of their own teachings, and who firmly believe that they and only they possess ultimate truth (while having at best a superficial understanding of other paths)? Know-it-all types exist in all religious traditions and they tend to be narrow, fanatic, and judgmental, however sincere and devout they may seem as individuals. Trusting such people to provide for all your spiritual needs is quite a gamble – especially when they say that what you need to do to succeed in this new venture is to think just like they do, talk their language, look like them, act like them, and feel like them – essentially to transform yourself from a self-aware, self-motivated seeker into a conformist, a mouthpiece, and an institutional functionary, a worker-bee. Being part of a spiritual community can be a good experience, but not if you’re required, essentially, to suppress your own distinctive nature and merge into a pre-defined, collective mindset.
It’s quite a risky venture to trust your spirituality, your deepest essence, the integrity of who you are as a person, to a group that makes grand claims of possessing the whole Truth and nothing but the Truth distilled to its golden essence – the spiritual equivalent of processed cheese. It’s a gamble to accept every word coming from people with spiritual tunnel vision, and who themselves are likely to drop out eventually and move on to other things. As I mentioned before, the great majority of Krishna devotees do leave after some months or years, usually because they’ve grown disillusioned with the hypocrisy, half-truths, and manipulation they’ve witnessed, guided by a growing realization that what the organization promises, it does not and cannot deliver.
Wishing you the best on your journey,
Steven J. Gelberg
I was a member of ISKCON for seventeen years, ages 18–35. While there (as “Subhananda Dasa”) I performed many functions, including writing introductions and forewords to many of Srila Prabhupada’s books (e.g., Srimad Bhagavatam and Caitanya-caritamrta), creating compilations of his teachings (e.g. The Spiritual Master and the Disciple, Sri Namamrta), and authoring a study-guide to Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-gita As It Is. In addition, through the years I won many friends and allies for the movement from within academic and religious circles, and edited and published a volume of interviews with scholars sympathetic to ISKCON. Even now, years after leaving ISKCON, I still respect the tradition that ISKCON ostensibly represents, and cherish the beautiful, transcendental form of Krishna. I think of myself as a deeply spiritual and moral person, as well as open-minded, endlessly curious, and independent. From my perspective now, I cannot help but view the way Krishna consciousness is practiced in ISKCON (and similar groups) as spiritually narrow-minded, intellectually dishonest, socially backward, blatantly sexist, and psychologically unhealthy – not a good environment for truth seekers (or anyone else). I hope you’ll consider what I’ve written here as you think about your own personal journey.