The ISKCON Narrative (Part 3)

What Do ISKCON Members Believe About Themselves?

Personal narratives are an important part of ISKCON life. When ISKCON members meet one another for the first time, they often ask, “How did you join?” In one sense it’s ISKCON small talk, much like you might ask someone, “Where are you from?” or “What do you do?” At the same time, in asking and answering this question ISKCON members are enacting an interpersonal rite with its own power and significance. In forming an answer to the question, ISKCON members create for themselves a personal mythology in which they invariably imagine a divine hand orchestrating the events of their lives. The most powerful stories are the ones marked by serendipity (even epiphany) and that evoke (if not explicitly describe) a conversion experience. Perhaps most importantly, the act of recounting these stories tends toward the performative, even the ritualistic, as the telling and retelling of one’s own narrative serves as an affirmation (and reaffirmation) of faith, especially if the telling is rewarded by the approval of peers and superiors.

Once you’ve joined, for whatever reason you may have (or think you may have) done so, who you were before joining ISKCON is considered so unimportant that it’s not worth ever thinking about again. What you’d liked and didn’t like, where you’d been born or grew up, what you’d studied in school, what you’d been good at, who your family and friends had been, what you’d planned for your future… All of these things become unimportant details that you’re told it’s better to forget if you ever want to truly enjoy the spiritual rewards ISKCON promises. (Of course, hardly anyone is able to heed this advice with complete rigor. Nonetheless, it is ISKCON doctrine. And, like any number of things ISKCON members are taught to believe but have difficulty fully implementing, the ultimate spiritual necessity of cutting ties with the past – or of “avoiding the association of non-devotees” or of “giving up mental speculation” or of whatever else – hangs over one’s head like a dark cloud of guilt or foreboding or both.) Within the ISKCON bubble, the rationale for this disavowal of personal history is quite simple – nothing in human life is important in comparison to the great fortune of having joined ISKCON, and so “ISKCON devotee” is now the only aspect of personal identity that truly matters.

Consequently, ISKCON’s members are expected to completely depend upon the organization’s so-called spiritual process for dealing with any and all problems (personal, familial, social, psychological) they might have had at the time of joining. Counseling, therapy, even familial responsibilities, and (depending on how fanatical one is) medical attention are all regarded as unimportant and, ultimately, unnecessary. You’re Krishna’s devotee now, and Krishna will take care of you.

(There is, however, one very important caveat: Krishna will take care of you in direct proportion to your “sincerity,” which means among other things that Krishna and Bhaktivedanta and ISKCON will receive credit for everything that goes right, whereas you’ll only have yourself and your lack of sincerity to blame for everything that goes wrong.)

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Perhaps the most pernicious assumption embedded within the narrative of the individual ISKCON member is the insistence that anyone can (and surely will) achieve the spiritual goal as long as he or she stays in ISKCON, diligently and humbly – that is, obediently – following its rules. An arsenal of pat phrases are employed to bolster this idea, the two most common of which (allegedly) came from the mouth of Bhaktivedanta himself (and are therefore all the more persuasive for those who revere him). He told his followers that ISKCON is his “body” and exhorted them to “never leave.”

And although staying in ISKCON no matter what happens (or doesn’t happen) may be the foremost concern of most of ISKCON’s members, it is not their only concern. Certainly, the average ISKCON member is concerned also with “making spiritual progress” (even if ultimate success has to be postponed until after death). How do they know if they’re making progress? As long as they increasingly “surrender” by forever giving themselves more fully to ISKCON, they can be assured they’re making progress. They may experience moments of “transcendence” or “ecstasy,” but real progress means gradually coming to the point of being “24-hours engaged in Krishna’s service.” Anything less means there is a need to surrender more. And if somehow an ISKCON member manages to come to this point of total absorption, it is predicted that he or she might finally become a pure devotee, like Bhaktivedanta, and be able to see and communicate directly with god himself.

What percentage of ISKCON devotees achieve this state? Naturally, it’s difficult to say. And this difficulty is not helped by the fact that in ISKCON there exists a culture of silence, framed as “humility,” in which speaking about what one’s personally seen or experienced in his spiritual quest is actively discouraged to the point that doing so is seen as utterly disqualifying. This mentality has a number of consequences, one of which may not be immediately obvious but is nonetheless far-reaching – within the greater culture of humility and of absolute deference to one’s superiors, the social disincentive to speak openly about personal spiritual realization means that everyone, especially everyone at the bottom of the power structure, is encouraged to assume that those above them have seen and experienced things that can only be imagined. (ISKCON dogma promises that by chanting their mantra and following their rules a sincere practitioner should eventually be able to see and hear and talk and interact with god, directly, in this life. So what one might assume has been experienced by those more advanced practitioners is not vague but rather quite tangible.)

What this amounts to, practically speaking, is that ISKCON’s members are taught to reflexively assume the spiritual best about those in positions of authority; more specifically, the established etiquette encourages the vulnerable and the naive to unreasonably inflate the significance of what little their authorities do tell them about their own “realizations.” It shouldn’t be difficult to see how all of this inhibits the possibility of ever finding out how effective the process really is. It also shouldn’t be difficult to see just how readily this power dynamic can be exploited.

But, even barring exploitation, this dynamic is still developmentally crippling in that it prevents ISKCON’s members from seeing where they truly stand, thus limiting their ability to make informed decisions about their lives, spiritual or otherwise. Even if she knows her own progress has been minimal, a genuinely humble practitioner assumes that others have been comparatively more blessed. And so she struggles on, hoping to someday see for herself whatever it is she imagines is a concrete reality for her superiors, even peers.

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Despite the constant pleading to “never leave ISKCON,” many of ISKCON’s members do in fact leave. And because so many have left (and because so many more will no doubt leave in the years to come), there must also be an aspect of the ISKCON narrative that deals with this eventuality. It should come as no surprise that, among active members, no one acknowledges there could be a legitimate reason for leaving ISKCON (much less of leaving the process of “Krishna consciousness” altogether). As with one’s failures while actively pursuing “spiritual advancement,” the act of leaving ISKCON is seen without exception as the fault of the individual who’s left and never the fault of the organization or its dedicated members.

The reason most commonly given for why someone has left ISKCON is that he or she could no longer maintain the strict lifestyle prescribed for ISKCON’s members – in other words, he or she just wanted to have sex or do drugs or engage in some other purportedly sinful and degraded activity which ISKCON does not condone. Surely, even ISKCON members “in good standing” sometimes admit that it’s impossible to follow ISKCON’s rules and regulations without occasional (even frequent) difficulty. And though active members will from time to time commit the same sins, they do so in secret in order to preserve their standing in the organization. Meanwhile, those who leave are accused of weakness and shamed (however politely) for having committed the ultimate sin of falling back into so-called materialistic life.

Deviants of all kinds, whether yet inside ISKCON or finally outside of it, can be disregarded by the faithful as being “in maya,” meaning that they’ve been captured by an invisible, personified force (much like Satan) whose duty it is to constantly test god’s people by trying to trap them in a web of illusion. For that reason, members are constantly warned to protect themselves from this possibility by more fully devoting their attention, time, and resources to ISKCON.

But the failure to follow – even the act of leaving itself – is ultimately attributed to one’s having “committed offenses,” meaning that the offender has been careless in executing his or her spiritual practices, has intentionally broken the rules, or has shown ingratitude by openly doubting or criticizing Bhaktivedanta or other “advanced devotees.” Indeed, ISKCON members in good standing who wish to maintain their place in the organization often live in fear that they might do or say (or think) something that will doom them to be ejected from the organization or from spiritual practice altogether.

Which is to say that if one comes to the point of actually changing his or her mind about ISKCON or about Bhaktivedanta, that reappraisal (however thoughtfully one may have come by it) can be dismissed as a consequence of prior spiritual mistakes. To put it more bluntly, the intellectual position of having rejected ISKCON or Bhaktivedanta is not accepted as a valid intellectual position at all but is instead rejected by true believers’ imagining it to be a punishment arranged by god himself, who has not only expelled the offender from the company of his chosen people but also has personally altered the offender’s mentality toward the things he or she had previously worshiped.

A concomitant part of this narrative about leaving ISKCON is the belief that “no one leaves Krishna’s service forever,” meaning that anyone who leaves ISKCON will eventually return (even if that happens in some future lifetime, a provision that makes this claim conveniently difficult to falsify). This aspect of the narrative serves also to repudiate whatever negative experiences or genuine concerns may have been the actual, proximate cause of an individual’s having left; indeed, it rejects the free will and free thought of the individual altogether. At the same time, it offers a great deal of comfort to those who stay, just as it serves to reinforce the society’s norms and to encourage active members to conceal serious doubts or transgressions and, ultimately, to keep all criticism to themselves.

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No aspect of the personal narrative of ISKCON’s members is more far-reaching or consequential than the following all-powerful dyad: Srila Prabhupada is perfect; I am not. In other words, by continually inflating one’s estimation of Bhaktivedanta Swami and by simultaneously undermining one’s estimation of oneself, it’s guaranteed that ISKCON’s members will remain completely dependent on their founder in navigating virtually every aspect of their lives. Indeed, while many devotees come to completely reject ISKCON and its management, so many of the same people remain wholly incapable of even questioning ISKCON’s founder.

In fact, those same people could read the preceding text and object, saying that it does not describe the experience of an average ISKCON member in the present day, a time in ISKCON’s history at which the now mature leaders of the movement have overcome the uninformed fanaticism of their youth and begun to adopt the sort of balanced spiritual practice that Bhaktivedanta had always intended for his society to embody. The rigid and cult-like practices described above are a part of ISKCON’s past, they might say, adding that now the society and its members are far more mature in their approach to Krishna consciousness and far less fanatical about, for example, cutting ties with family and friends outside of ISKCON or eschewing mental health and medical help.

But the truth is this: Though some current members (even ex-members) will no doubt dismiss the preceding as misinterpretation – a specific misinterpretation that they do not condone – what’s described here outlines ideals established by Bhaktivedanta himself, ideals still deeply held by many of ISKCON’s leaders and senior members and corroborated by the most straightforward reading of ISKCON’s texts. The degree to which ISKCON’s members have become more “mature” and “balanced” (and less fanatical and cult-like) is directly related to the degree to which they have departed from the stated desires of ISKCON’s founder; fanaticism is what comes from strictly following Bhaktivedanta Swami.

The ISKCON Narrative (Part 2)

What Do ISKCON Members Believe About Their Founder?

(1) Before his birth in Calcutta in 1896, ISKCON’s founder, Bhaktivedanta Swami, was living in the spiritual world with god himself, who personally requested that he come to Earth to start the Hare Krishna movement and write books. (2) As a young man Bhaktivedanta met his guru, who prophetically ordered him to preach in English in the Western world and “spread Krishna consciousness.” (3) After many years as a family man, largely unimportant to his guru’s movement, he left his wife and family and took up the life of a mendicant by moving to a holy place to write and publish his English translations of, and commentaries on, sacred texts. (4) Having long dreamt of following his guru’s prophetic instruction, he begged a wealthy Indian businesswoman to let him travel to the US on one of her ships. While on the boat he had a series of heart attacks, at which time Krishna appeared to him with the assurance that his mission would be successful. (5) After failing to persuade people he considered “high class Americans,” Bhaktivedanta made inroads preaching to the bohemians and hippies on the Lower East Side of New York City and his movement began to take off. (6) Ten years later he had thousands of followers and over a hundred temples in cities all over the world. He also had published over 80 books, all of which are still highly regarded by scholars. He accomplished all of this despite very poor health, sleeping only two or three hours per night, a feat his followers consider to be literally superhuman. (7) He died in the best possible way according to the tradition to which he belonged and after his death returned to the spiritual world to once again be with god.

How much of this is true?

Once again, like the narrative ISKCON members believe about ISKCON, much of their narrative about Bhaktivedanta is impossible to verify. We’ll look more closely at the rest. But we really should talk about a few things first.

To begin, let’s identify the central assumptions embedded within this narrative: Bhaktivedanta was/”is” (A) chosen and empowered by god, (B) pure, (C) omniscient, and (D) omnipotent.

(ISKCON’s members do not believe their founder was absolutely omniscient or omnipotent. But they do believe he possessed these qualities to a degree that makes them worth mentioning. We’ll get to all that shortly.)

(A) ISKCON members believe their founder was chosen by (and thus directly empowered by) god himself. Naturally, it was Bhaktivedanta himself who told his disciples that god had asked him to come to the so-called material world. He too was the one who suggested that his mission had been predestined for success. The fact that both of these claims come directly from Bhaktivedanta is fine if you’ve been convinced to believe he is beyond reproach and completely incapable of dishonesty or manipulation or even exaggeration. If you haven’t been convinced of all of that, then we can politely say that the source for these claims gives us good reason to be skeptical of them.

(B) ISKCON members believe their founder was pure. (He is for his followers the embodiment of what they call a “pure devotee.” In a moment, we’ll discuss that concept in detail.) Bhaktivedanta’s followers believe that he was completely untainted by material influence, meaning (among other things) that he was in no way a product of his particular time or culture. Because he was unaffected by cultural conditioning, any views he expressed that appear to come from a man of Indian descent born in Bengal toward the end of the 19th century – for instance, ideas about polygamy or child marriage or slavery or homosexuality or the size of women’s brains or Hitler or any number of things – are not remnants of a specific historical or cultural milieu but rather eternal spiritual truths that must somehow be incorporated into one’s understanding of the world as his dedicated follower.

(Even ISKCON’s more progressive members – those who would like their society to reflect more modern ideas about women and homosexuality and other “controversial” topics – cannot entirely dismiss Bhaktivedanta’s offensive statements, though many of them seem to want to ignore those statements altogether. Because of who they believe their founder to be, the liberals in ISKCON are forced to grapple with Bhaktivedanta’s antiquated views, usually by offering tortured interpretations of what he said or did in an effort to make it appear as if he would have fit right into their modern, socially liberal worldview.)

Bhaktivedanta’s being untainted by material influence also means that he was completely pure in motive and intent. That is, his followers believe that he was unfailingly concerned for the welfare of others and that in no way was he ever motivated by self-interest. Of course, this implies that he was unaffected by all the money, property, adulation, and power that came his way as the head of ISKCON. Perhaps more than any other individual trait, this is what ISKCON members understand the phrase “pure devotee” to mean – a pure devotee is someone who is, as Bhaktivedanta would put it, “unalloyed” in his dedication to serving god, that he has one, singular, undiverted interest throughout life, without exception.

Related to this idea of unalloyed devotion is another important aspect of Bhaktivedanta’s supposed purity – his purity is seen as being synonymous with a level of spiritual realization. (For ISKCON’s members, purity and spiritual attainment are ideologically equivalent.) Related to this is the idea that Bhaktivedanta’s superlative purity was achieved by him (in a previous life, as he suggested) through the practices he prescribed for those who would become his followers, and so his purity stands also as proof of the efficacy of his process. Consequently, to doubt his purity is to doubt the process. It is therefore extremely difficult for ISKCON members to think rationally about their founder, precisely because to doubt him is to doubt the thing they’ve quite literally given up their lives to pursue.

(C) ISKCON members believe their founder was (and is) omniscient, to a degree. His followers widely believe that he was able to speak to god directly (again, because he said as much). At the very least, they believe that god told Bhaktivedanta exactly what to write when he was writing his books. At this point in time perhaps the most prevalent belief about Bhaktivedanta’s omniscience is that he was on a need-to-know basis with god, though the popularity of that moderated view (over a more wide-ranging omniscience) is largely due to the many scandals that occurred while Bhaktivedanta was alive but have been exposed only after his death – like ISKCON’s abysmal track record with child abuse, to name just one.

Regardless of the degree to which his followers are willing to regard him as omniscient, there remains a pervasive attitude toward the things Bhaktivedanta wrote and said that means they’re taken to be true (even sometimes prophetic) in spite of their being in many cases demonstrably false. While you might find an ISKCON member who is willing to cautiously admit that something Bhaktivedanta wrote or said was not fully accurate, in one sense or another, you will never hear an ISKCON member state unequivocally that Bhaktivedanta was wrong. A “good devotee” comes to the point of reflexively defending ISKCON’s founder, regardless of what he’s said.

(In that regard, ISKCON members are reluctant even to admit that Bhaktivedanta made statements that are contradictory, preferring instead to gloss over such anomalies with the curious phrase “apparent contradictions.” Such is the nature of cognitive dissonance.)

(D) ISKCON members believe their founder was (and is) omnipotent. In this case as well we’re not referring to absolute omnipotence, rather it is believed that Bhaktivedanta was and still is empowered by god to grant spiritual rewards to anyone he deems to have pleased him by their service. Naturally, there’s another belief about Bhaktivedanta’s omnipotence that’s conversely related to this one – to displease him – or, in ISKCON parlance, to “offend” him – (for instance, by openly doubting or criticizing him) is to ensure one’s spiritual condemnation, to the point of having to suffer lifetimes of future torment for having done so.

All of this clearly suggests yet another belief about Bhaktivedanta’s omnipotence – that he’s currently able to guide his followers, and to directly reciprocate their service to him, essentially from beyond the grave. Indeed, it was a common belief, even while Bhaktivedanta was still alive (once again, at his suggestion) that he played the role of an all-seeing-eye in the lives of his disciples, able to witness both their sacrifices and their transgressions and to direct god to reward or punish them accordingly.

All of these assumptions, embedded within the prevailing narrative about Bhaktivedanta, are also present within what he taught his disciples to believe about the “pure devotee.” It’s worth considering that at any time an ISKCON member thinks about a pure devotee, he or she is reflexively thinking about Bhaktivedanta. Yet they would likely find it cynical to suggest that their founder was in fact referring to himself whenever he used the phrase. Consider the following.

Bhaktivedanta Swami’s translation and commentary on the Bhagavad-gita is one of ISKCON’s foundational texts. The phrase “pure devotee” is used in Bhaktivedanta’s Bhagavad-Gita As It Is upwards of 70 times. All of those uses appear not in the original Sanskrit verses of the Gita itself but rather within Bhaktivedanta’s commentary. There are, in fact, no verses within the original text that contain a Sanskrit phrase for which the English words “pure devotee” could serve as a reasonable translation. Regardless, Bhaktivedanta clearly considered it a priority to establish the idea of the pure devotee within the minds and hearts of those who aspired to follow his instructions. Why it was such a priority for him we can only speculate, but precisely what he had to say about it is easy to establish.

According to Bhaktivedanta, a pure devotee is directly in touch with god.

“…Krishna is fully realized only by His pure devotees. …The pure devotees both here and in the transcendental abode associate with Him in person…” – BG 4.11, purport

Because he is directly connected to god, only the pure devotee can fully know god. Consequently, he is empowered to allow others to know god (and you can persuade him to enlighten you by serving him in exactly the way he instructs you to do).

“Krishna can, however, be known as such by the causeless mercy of the pure devotee and by no other way.” – BG 2.29, purport

The pure devotee is completely free from desire, selfish motivation, and fault in general. He is categorically innocent of all wrongdoing. This means that he is above criticism.

“A pure devotee does not desire anything. …He has no desire for self-interest.” – BG 8.14, purport

“…Although a pure devotee who is completely engaged in the service of the Lord may sometimes appear to go against the prescribed Vedic duties, actually it is not so. …Even the most intelligent person cannot understand the plans and activities of a pure devotee. … He is above all materialistic criticism, just as [god] is above all criticism.” – BG 9.28, purport

In short, Bhaktivedanta exists in the minds of his followers as a thoroughly selfless and completely faultless spiritual superman, directly in touch with god and empowered to grant enlightenment to anyone he chooses.


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Now that we’ve identified the underlying assumptions embedded within the prevailing narrative about Bhaktivedanta, let’s return to the details of the narrative itself.

(1) Before his birth in Calcutta in 1896, ISKCON’s founder, Bhaktivedanta Swami, was living in the spiritual world with god himself, who personally requested that he come to Earth to start the Hare Krishna movement and write books.

According to whom? Bhaktivedanta. Even if the source for this claim were someone (or something) besides the subject of the claim, how could we possibly confirm or disconfirm it? It’s an article of faith. An extremely consequential article of faith, but an article of faith all the same.

(2) As a young man Bhaktivedanta met his guru, who prophetically ordered him to preach in English in the Western world and “spread Krishna consciousness.”

Bhaktivedanta’s guru, Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati, actually made this request of many of his disciples. According to some, Bhaktisiddhanta asked this of practically every English-speaking person he met who seemed sympathetic to his cause. This is notable because it contradicts the way in which the story is more commonly presented within ISKCON – as a unique and prophetic statement that signaled not just Bhaktivedanta’s inevitable success but also the guru’s mystical knowledge of his young disciple’s true identity and storied future.

(3) After many years as a family man, largely unimportant to his guru’s movement, he left his wife and family and took up the life of a mendicant by moving to a holy place to write and publish his English translations of, and commentaries on, sacred texts.

ISKCON’s presentation of Bhaktivedanta’s family life is unfailingly charitable, to put it lightly. Bhaktivedanta’s wife is often shamelessly portrayed by ISKCON members as an antagonist to their great, selfless hero. The facts suggest that the situation was, shall we say, more complex. Bhaktivedanta married his wife when he was 22 and she was only 11. According to one of Bhaktivedanta’s sons, she became pregnant with their first surviving child at age 13 (and gave birth at 14), but only after having had several other children die before or shortly after birth. Bhaktivedanta openly admitted to having never liked his wife and even told his disciples how, not long after they were married, he had asked his father for permission to marry again. (Bhaktivedanta was unequivocally in favor of polygamy but did not press that it be adopted in ISKCON for fear of legal repercussions. Nonetheless, there have been polygamous marriages within ISKCON, and there are ISKCON members still today who advocate for the practice to be widespread.) Bhaktivedanta and his wife had five surviving children, only one of whom became a Hare Krishna devotee (which is notable for the fact that Bhaktivedanta told his disciples that “One who cannot deliver his dependents from the path of repeated birth and death should never become a guru, a relative, a father, a husband, or a mother…”). Not surprisingly, he blamed his wife for the fact that their children were not devotees. Later in his family life, Bhaktivedanta’s business failed and his wife became increasingly dissatisfied with him. He interpreted these failures as blessings meant to bring him closer to god and to propel him into fully dedicating himself to the religious life. It’s worth considering another perspective: that his religious preoccupations contributed to his problems in family life as well as to the failure of his business. Lastly, regarding this era of Bhaktivedanta’s life, we should note that before leaving for America his early attempts to start a mission in India were met overwhelmingly with indifference. It wasn’t until he’d won some white, Western disciples and brought them back to India that anyone there took notice of him.

(4) Having long dreamt of following his guru’s prophetic instruction, he begged a wealthy Indian businesswoman to let him travel to the US on one of her ships. While on the boat he had a series of heart attacks, at which time Krishna appeared to him with the assurance that his mission would be successful.

The story about the heart attacks and the vision of Krishna comes, of course, from Bhaktivedanta. There is perhaps no legitimate reason to insist his claims are false. At the same time, there’s no reason (other than allegiance to Bhaktivedanta) not to doubt them. At the very least the part about Krishna’s appearing to him would seem an appropriate target of skepticism. But even if it were true, what would such a vision really prove? It’s only meaningful insofar as you already accept the articles of faith essential to being a follower of Bhaktivedanta. Like so many of the details in the official ISKCON narrative about the founder’s life, it makes for a dramatic story that (like a lot of good stories) from time to time requires the suspension of disbelief.

(5) After failing to persuade people he considered “high class Americans,” Bhaktivedanta made inroads preaching to the bohemians and hippies on the Lower East Side of New York City and his movement began to take off.

This is often presented by ISKCON members as proof of their founder’s extreme mercy. The fact of the matter is that he’d really wanted to preach to Americans he called “high class” or “first class” people but found that they weren’t interested. In the end, the much younger (and much more anti-establishment) bohemians and hippies that he met in the Bowery were the ones willing to give up their previous lives (such as they were) and become his disciples. Though ISKCON’s members like to say that god “personally arranged” for the social and political situation that existed in the US in the late ‘60s in order to make it easier for his pure devotee to attract followers among the youth counterculture movements of that time, they fail to acknowledge that this milieu also made it possible for several other Indian gurus to do the same. Regardless, the simplest explanation is often the correct one, and in this case the simplest explanation for Bhaktivedanta’s success among the hippies is that he’d ended up in the right place at the right time merely as an accident of history. (For an interesting comparison, see the life of Premananda Bharati, who belonged to the same religious tradition ISKCON claims to represent and travelled to America to spread its message more than half a century before ISKCON’s founder.) Moreover, Bhaktivedanta had success in selling his religious product at that specific time because there was a cultural demographic already in the market for something like it (a fact which had been less true about America ten years before that, and is again true about America now).

(6) Ten years later he had thousands of followers and over a hundred temples in cities all over the world. He also had published over 80 books, all of which are still highly regarded by scholars. He accomplished all of this despite very poor health, sleeping only two or three hours per night, a feat his followers consider to be literally superhuman.

Bhaktivedanta repeatedly complained of high blood pressure, which (unbeknownst to most of ISKCON’s current members) he self-medicated by snorting tobacco snuff, despite the fact that nicotine (aside from being highly addictive and also one of the intoxicants he prohibited his disciples from taking) makes high blood pressure worse. He actually wrote to one of his disciples: “Regarding taking snuff, I myself take it sometimes at night because I am working at night on my books, and sometimes I become dizzy.” In other words, he took snuff as a stimulant (despite his general ban on drugs of all kinds) to help him stay awake at night and work on his books. Have no doubt that this is not what the vast majority of ISKCON members imagine when they picture their founder awake in the wee hours of the night, communing directly with god and writing his allegedly transcendental books.

Regarding Bhaktivedanta’s books, though ISKCON members claim their founder was and is respected as a scholar – “widely regarded as the foremost Vedic scholar, translator, and teacher of the modern era,” according to a hyperbolic blurb on one official ISKCON website – the actual process he followed in producing his books was not at all comparable to what’s generally expected of a scholar or academic. And despite the frequent assertion that his editions of the Gita and the Bhagavat-purana and other Vedic texts are the definitive versions, those editions were not created by scrupulous study of all extant versions of a given text in order to arrive at something that could reasonably be considered authoritative. Rather Bhaktivedanta frequently read from a single edition of each text, sometimes consulting others’ commentaries, and dictated onto tape the translations and commentaries that his disciples would then transcribe and prepare for publication. In the case of the Gita, Bhaktivedanta did not prepare an English translation at all but rather ordered a disciple to copy the translations from a competing edition, insisting that what really mattered was his commentary. What’s more, it was not his practice to reread or revise any of his work, but instead to plow through each text from verse to verse. As a result, much of his “writing” has an unsystematic, even haphazard quality that can make his books difficult to read and to make sense of – in other words, his thoughts on a chapter of the Gita, or on the Gita as a whole, do not necessarily cohere in the way they might if he’d planned out his thoughts beforehand, or if he’d gone back to revise and better organize his thoughts after the fact, as an author typically would. As a result, his commentaries tend to come across as being the result of one or more streams of consciousness – that is, haphazard and repetitive – which was essentially the case.

Regarding his thousands of followers, Steven Gelberg writes at the start of his brilliant essay “On Leaving ISKCON”:

“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.”

And regarding the number of temples ISKCON had established by the time of the founder’s death, the easiest way to find an exact number would be to consult an ISKCON publication from that era, assuming that including a list of centers in the back matter of a book or magazine was common practice then just as it is now. But, then again, if their current list is any indication, the estimate is likely inaccurate and the criteria for what constitutes a “temple” is unclear. Whatever the case, it’s worth noting that statements like these – whether about number of temples or number of members – are little more than attempts to bolster the image of ISKCON’s success by referring to quantitative, “material” achievements, which ISKCON’s members will insist are ultimately unimportant (although they miss no opportunity to trot them out as tangible proof of something fundamentally intangible – spiritual potency).

(7) He died in the best possible way according to the tradition to which he belonged and after his death returned to the spiritual world to once again be with god.

In the wider tradition to which ISKCON is said to belong, that someone has died in the town of Vrindavan is proof in and of itself that he or she has returned to the spiritual world. Bhaktivedanta died there in 1977, but wherever and however he had died his disciples would have found a way to see it as glorious all the same. Shortly before his death, at a time when he was extremely ill, Bhaktivedanta had planned to travel from India first to the UK and then to continue on to a triumphant world tour. If he’d gone through with that plan and died at any point on his journey, there’s no doubt his followers would have seen it as just as wonderful and spiritually validating as his actual death in Vrindavan. Regarding his return to the spiritual world, that fact is wholly unverifiable, being little more than yet another article of faith.



*        *        *


Given the standard he set for himself and for someone who might claim to be a pure devotee, to show that Bhaktivedanta was human is really all one needs to show in order to legitimately cast doubt upon the prevailing narrative about him. There is no need to show, or even to claim, that Bhaktivedanta was evil or ill-intentioned. Besides, in the eyes of his followers it is offensive enough to simply claim that Bhaktivedanta was complex and conflicted and very, very human (and thus subject to fault and self-interest and all the rest of it).

Right now it would be impossible (and unnecessary) to present a complete counter-narrative of Bhaktivedanta’s life. Instead we’ll focus on one smaller part of the bigger picture which suggests that Bhaktivedanta was indeed human and therefore something less than the fully pure and perfect person his followers claim he was.

In May and June of 1972 Bhaktivedanta wrote three separate letters, each to one of his disciples who were prominent leaders in the movement at that time, in which he declared that it was time in ISKCON to “boil the milk.” This was a metaphor he used to express the idea that instead of continuing to expand the size of the organization by attracting new members and potentially lowering their standards, they should direct all of their energy toward improving the spirituality of the existing ISKCON population. It was an argument for quality over quantity.

Despite the fact that some ISKCON members still take inspiration from this idea of “boiling the milk,” the very existence of the letters (as well as the fact that there were only three of them, all written within a month or so) begs the question: What happened? The history of ISKCON clearly shows that, if there ever was an attempt to boil the milk, it didn’t last for very long. Soon after that time ISKCON began to expand more rapidly than it ever had before, and over the next several years (up to and for some years after the death of Bhaktivedanta) the emphasis in ISKCON was not on “boiling the milk” at all but rather on selling as many books as possible as quickly as possible (and then using that money to build temples in India – primarily in Vrindavan, Mayapur, and Bombay, three projects that were indisputable priorities for ISKCON’s founder).

So… What did happen? One possible answer to that question comes from a transcript of a recently resurfaced interview with one of Bhaktivedanta’s disciples. The interview was one of many conducted (just after ISKCON’s founder had died) in preparation for the multi-volume hagiography about Bhaktivedanta then being written. The person being interviewed was one of the most prominent leaders in the era of ISKCON’s “Zonal Acharyas.” As he tells it, in December of 1972, some five or six months after Bhaktivedanta wrote these letters about “boiling the milk,” his followers’ efforts at selling magazines and books suddenly shifted from being a reliable stream of revenue to an unexpectedly lucrative source of funds.

Book-selling had already been a part of the movement for years, but it would go through a few separate stages of escalating success until taking off in the end of 1972. At first ISKCON members would sell Bhaktivedanta’s books only through bookstores, or they would try to get them placed in libraries, primarily at colleges and universities. In mid-1971 they started to sell them on the street, standing outside grocery stores or department stores and stopping passersby. Shortly thereafter they began selling them door-to-door. The next frontier was shopping malls, where in December of 1972 they accidentally stumbled onto what remains an ISKCON tradition to this day – the “Christmas Marathon.” Over three days just before Christmas in 1972, the book sellers at ISKCON’s temple in Los Angeles sold nearly $10,000 worth of books –valued at nearly $58,000 today – an unplanned, unexpected, and completely unprecedented quantum leap in book sales. That success helped to convince Bhaktivedanta and his followers that selling books should be the focus of their efforts. The years following would see widespread adoption of the sort of proselytizing that Hare Krishna devotees are still known for – small groups of young men or young women travelling and selling books on the street, at concerts, outdoor festivals, and in airports.

It appears that Bhaktivedanta’s plan to boil the milk was indefinitely put on hold (or just outright abandoned) when it was discovered that there was a lot of money to be made in selling books. ISKCON members would no doubt take issue with this reading of the facts, but there is one thing they cannot dispute: Bhaktivedanta placed an unparalleled amount of emphasis on the importance of selling books. (In fact, he repeatedly declared that success at book-selling is synonymous with one’s having achieved spiritual salvation.) Consider this letter from Bhaktivedanta to the ISKCON leader whose interview is referenced above (written, we should note, in early January of 1973):

“I am so much pleased upon all of the boys and girls in Los Angeles and all over the world who are understanding and appreciating this unique quality of our transcendental literature and voluntarily they are going out to distribute despite all circumstances of difficulty. By this effort alone they are assured to go back to home, back to Godhead.” – Letter to Ramesvara, 9 January 1973

That is, they are guaranteed to get into Hare Krishna Heaven.

This is just one of many similar statements. You could fill… In fact, ISKCON has filled entire books with Bhaktivedanta’s words of inspiration regarding what he called book distribution. Note the euphemism – ISKCON members aren’t selling books; they’re distributing them, despite the fact that money is most definitely changing hands. Actually, there’s no shortage of euphemisms employed to sanctify what to outsiders appears to be simply commerce. When selling books, salesmen will ask for a donation, even though they also frequently request a specific amount of money. And in keeping track of one’s income while selling books, book sellers refer not to dollars but rather to Lakshmi Points (in reference to the Hindu goddess who presides over wealth).

To be fair, your average rank-and-file ISKCON member probably doesn’t suffer from a materialistic attitude when selling Bhaktivedanta’s books; after all, he or she generally doesn’t keep a penny of the funds collected. The motivation for most ISKCON members is not money at all but rather the aforementioned spiritual rewards Bhaktivedanta promised to them. But, much like money, those transcendental rewards too tend to have a corrupting influence on those who seek them, and so it’s been easy for ISKCON’s members to lose sight of the spiritually altruistic conceits of proselytizing, focusing instead on the recognition they might receive from Bhaktivedanta for having sold so many books (and made so much money for his movement).

Throughout ISKCON’s history, this spiritual greed has led to many philosophical innovations, encouraged in large part by carelessly (or perhaps pointedly) Machiavellian comments from Bhaktivedanta like his instruction to sell books “by hook or by crook,” or the more alarming declaration that “there is nothing illegal, what we do for Krishna.” Based on Bhaktivedanta’s instructions there was a common idea that preachers were liberating Krishna’s money from atheistic people, who would unknowingly benefit from their contribution to the movement. Influenced by this end-justifies-the-means mentality, it was once commonplace among ISKCON’s book salesmen to practice an art of deception known as the change-up, in which (in its most basic form) book sellers would request that a customer exchange large bills for small ones and then hold that money hostage in an attempt to get more than was at first promised. ISKCON “book distributors” were also known to request donations for charities they did not legitimately represent, a practice which Bhaktivedanta personally sanctified:

“Your mentioning Bangladesh feeding of refugees, of course we are feeding sometimes the local inhabitants, up to 1,000 persons on some occasions, but there is no organized program of feeding the refugees at Mayapur. In fact, so far I have seen, all the refugees from Nadia District have gone back to Bangladesh, there are no more refugee camps. So it will not be the truth to say to people like that, but I have no objection if they give more hearing by such thing. Let them say, who will check us? We may tell any damn thing to induce people to give us money on Krishna’s behalf, that is not the point. The point is that by saying lies, the less advanced neophyte devotees may become entangled or disturbed in their minds by it.” – Letter to Bali Mardan, 31 December 1972

In other words, those who have not yet been convinced that Bhaktivedanta is pure and his mission is fully spiritual will likely feel cognitive dissonance if confronted by the fact he’s in favor of lying in order to get more money. It’s for that reason – not the illegality or the immorality – that he warns his followers to be careful about telling lies as a general principle.

In ISKCON, selling books was a major source of revenue for decades – it is, in fact, making a comeback today – and it’s easy to see how unexpected financial success may have affected the course of the movement and, ultimately, the mentality of its founder. The heart of this counter-narrative is the contention that, encouraged by the feedback loop created by the sudden financial success of his movement, Bhaktivedanta’s estimation of himself and his importance was inflated to the point that, as time progressed, he became increasingly authoritarian. If you compare the sort of things he said in the early days of his movement to what he said towards the end, you can see that he became more and more willing to speak with astonishing conviction on topics he really had no business saying anything about. This was exacerbated by the growing number of followers who surrounded him and enthusiastically agreed with, even congratulated him for, quite literally anything he said. It was during these latter years of Bhaktivedanta’s life that he predicted the imminent start of WWIII, became much more insistent about the categorical inferiority of women, more adamant that evolution was a lie, that the moon landings had been faked, and pontificated on a number of many other alarming things.

In brief, the counter-narrative is this: A man who, most likely having been a sincere follower of his own guru, started out with good intentions is gradually corrupted by success and power. In contrast to the heavily mythologized and overtly supernatural narrative about Bhaktivedanta that’s accepted by his followers, this counter-narrative is far more likely to be true.

The ISKCON Narrative (Part 1)

What Do ISKCON Members Believe About ISKCON?

(1) ISKCON is the modern manifestation of the world’s oldest and therefore original religion. (2) The organization is connected directly to god through its “pure devotee” founder and what it calls its disciplic succession, a chain of spiritual teachers presumed to reach back through history directly to god himself, who lived on this planet in human form roughly 5,000 years ago. (3) The beliefs and values held by ISKCON’s members are governed by a voluminous body of unerring and internally consistent texts, the bulk of them composed roughly 5,000 years ago by a single “empowered incarnation” of god and completely unchanged since that time. (4) ISKCON’s mission is to revive the “ancient Vedic culture,” which members believe is not only how the entire human race lived thousands of years ago but also how fully enlightened beings live with god in the “spiritual world,” ISKCON’s version of heaven. (5) ISKCON is destined to bring about a 10,000-year “Golden Age” of “Krishna consciousness” in which the founder’s books will serve as “the law books for human society.”

Well, how much of that is true?

Obviously, much of it is unverifiable, based as it is on various articles of faith. As for the rest, let’s take a look.

(1) ISKCON is the modern manifestation of the world’s oldest and therefore original religion.

ISKCON claims to represent what it calls sanatana-dharma, humanity’s religious essence, which they say has existed since before the beginning of the so-called material creation. While ISKCON members will sometimes explain that this religious essence is exemplified by actively serving god with love, that vague and inoffensive view of an ur-religion is, in practice, much more concrete and exceedingly sectarian.

In presenting their beliefs to the world, ISKCON members are often heard to say that their organization represents Hinduism (more generally); Vaishnavism, the monotheistic worship of the Hindu god Vishnu (more specifically); and Gaudiya-Vaishnavism, the monotheistic worship of Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu (much more specifically).

The last description is the most accurate of the three, and not just because of its specificity. Although Gaudiya-Vaishnavism does in fact belong to the wider tradition of Vaishnavism, for an official ISKCON website to say (as one does) that ISKCON devotees are Vaishnavas and then to point out that there are approximately 560 million Vaishnavas worldwide is misleading at best. It’s more misleading still to say that ISKCON represents Hinduism. Although Vaishnavism and Gaudiya-Vaishnavism are both denominations under the wider umbrella of Hinduism, Bhaktivedanta Swami, ISKCON’s founder, frequently denied that his organization had anything at all to do with Hinduism. He denied, in fact, that such a thing as Hinduism even existed. The specific religious practice he wanted ISKCON to embody – namely, the exclusive worship of Krishna as god – he insisted was the pure and original (and historically preeminent) form of the “hodgepodge” that, in his view, later became Hinduism. Bhaktivedanta famously asserted that the word hindu does not appear anywhere in the Vedas, the books considered by most Hindus to be their religion’s primary sacred texts. (Not-so-incidentally, it’s disputable whether or not the word krishna appears in the Vedas. At the very least, Krishna is not mentioned there in a context that suggests he has any great importance, let alone preeminence, in the Hindu pantheon.) Nevertheless, ISKCON devotees are more than willing to claim that their organization is connected to Hinduism whenever that connection might be politically (or financially) advantageous – a practice established by Bhaktivedanta himself.

(2) The organization is connected directly to god through its “pure devotee” founder and what it call its disciplic succession, a chain of spiritual teachers presumed to reach back through history directly to god himself, who lived on this planet in human form roughly 5,000 years ago.

ISKCON’s connection to god through its founder will be the topic of Part 2 of this 3-part series. For now, let’s say a few things about ISKCON’s idea of disciplic succession.

There are legitimate doubts about the authenticity of ISKCON’s list of spiritual teachers, including accusations that the list itself was just concocted by the guru of Bhaktivedanta in order to give his own organization the stamp of authenticity. Outside ISKCON’s ideological closed loop, there are perfectly reasonable doubts to be raised about any allegedly unbroken chain of human teachers said to consist of 30-odd members and extend over some five thousand years. Naturally, a tradition that’s existed over thousands of years – or even hundreds of years, as is more accurately the case for Gaudiya Vaishnavism – is bound to be host to controversies, scandals, and just general inconsistencies.

The important point here is that ISKCON’s story about itself contains the idea that the organization is connected to an authentic lineage. ISKCON’s founder repeatedly claimed that a spiritual organization must be connected to such a lineage in order to itself be authentic. He said this to impress upon his followers the idea that unless an individual practitioner is connected to such a lineage there is absolutely no hope of his or her becoming “Krishna conscious,” that is, enlightened.

In establishing ISKCON in the late 1960s, Bhaktivedanta positioned his then nascent society as the rightful institutional heir to an authentic spiritual lineage. This would seem to place ISKCON in a specific historical and cultural context. However, it would be inappropriate to say that ISKCON is just one branch of a particular religious sect. Not because such a statement would be factually inaccurate, but because that’s not what ISKCON members believe by the time they’ve made a formal commitment to the organization.

No one joins ISKCON thinking that he’s adopting a several-hundred-year-old Indian religion, or that she’s becoming a member of an obscure Hindu sect. New converts join ISKCON because they have been convinced that it’s the religion, the only religion directly connected to god, established by a man who could see and communicate with god as easily as someone else might make a phone call. They think ISKCON represents something timeless and eternal. And they think all these things both because they want to and because that’s exactly what the organization’s founder has told them to believe.

(3) The beliefs and values held by ISKCON’s members are governed by a voluminous body of unerring and internally consistent texts, the bulk of them composed roughly 5,000 years ago by a single “empowered incarnation” of god and completely unchanged since that time.

Well… Not according to the scholars and historians who have devoted their professional lives to studying the history of India and its religious traditions. The Vedas, the four books that comprise Hinduism’s oldest texts, date to no earlier than 1200 BCE and, like most other texts handed down from antiquity, have been subject to revision and interpolation. The Bhagavat-purana and the Bhagavad-gita, arguably the most revered texts within ISKCON, have also been tainted by the same process of human tampering. The Bhagavat-purana – what ISKCON members call the Srimad-Bhagavatam – was composed sometime between the 8th and 10th Centuries, and evidence strongly suggests that it was the work of multiple authors. The Gita, which ISKCON devotees consider to be the unaltered transcript of a five-thousand-year-old conversation between god and one of his closest friends, scholars say was composed some time between the 5th and 2nd Centuries, BCE. The more recent literary history of Gaudiya-Vaishnavism has its own problems with interpolation and even pseudepigraphy, meaning that some texts were written by practitioners in the tradition who attempted to pass them off as having been written hundreds of years prior by established luminaries.

(4) ISKCON’s mission is to revive the “ancient Vedic culture,” which members believe is not only how the entire human race lived thousands of years ago but also how fully enlightened beings live with god in the “spiritual world,” ISKCON’s version of heaven.

Religious beliefs aside, the verifiable claims made here are not supported by historians or archaeologists; there’s simply no compelling reason to believe ISKCON’s version of human history. Having said that, it’s worth explaining exactly what the above means for ISKCON’s members. Among committed members there is frequent talk of the ancient Vedic culture, which they imagine was a monotheistic, Krishna-centered theocracy that controlled the entire planet five thousand years ago (and for tens, if not hundreds of thousands of years before that) and which followed not just the religious but also the cultural, aesthetic, and culinary standards ISKCON devotees (aspire to) practice today. In other words, what (in ideal circumstances) ISKCON devotees believe and do and wear and eat is emblematic of what they’re convinced was common on Earth for all of humanity five thousand years ago. Again, there is no reliable archaeological evidence to support this. Many of ISKCON’s aesthetic and cultural practices – especially those in relation to food and clothing and architecture – resemble much of wider Indian culture, that is, a mishmash of things taken from the various ethnic groups that have existed on the Indian subcontinent over the centuries. They are by no means a representation of some ancient, pure root culture.

(5) ISKCON is destined to bring about a 10,000-year “Golden Age” of “Krishna consciousness” in which the founder’s books will serve as “the law books for human society.”

To explicitly state what should be obvious, the future is difficult to accurately predict. (Though the last five decades since ISKCON’s founding give little reason to expect that any of the above will come to pass.) Prognostication aside, we can however speculate on what might be some of the consequences of believing in all of this. Because ISKCON members are convinced that their organization is destined, essentially, for total world domination, they are obsessively results-oriented and all too often tainted by the conviction that their ends justify whatever means might be available to them. Practically speaking, belief in the ISKCON narrative ensures that the priorities of its members will forever remain the same – sell books, make new members, build temples, and very carefully protect the organization’s public image.

What might be a more reasonable approach to describing ISKCON’s history and its place in the wider world that surrounds it?

Simply put, ISKCON is the institutional manifestation of one man’s idiosyncratic interpretation of what was, only a few decades ago, a very small, very obscure Indian religious sect. Because he happened to be in the right place at the right time, Bhaktivedanta’s special brand of Gaudiya Vaishnavism has achieved a wider degree of exposure than it likely would have otherwise achieved. But now, fifty years after it was first established, ISKCON is still a far cry from commanding any sort of significant presence in the wider culture, to say nothing of its aspirations for world domination. It is in fact suffering from internal factions and institutional splintering, much of which has been caused by the organization’s decreasing ability to control its public image and the historical narrative about itself.

If ISKCON’s members were to embrace a revised (more factual) narrative, they might be able to re-align their organization with the wider tradition to which they claim to belong and to become more focused on the specific spiritual practices they claim to champion. If material – that is, monetary – success were no longer an organizational priority, ISKCON might also become willing to sell some of the larger properties they have long had difficulty maintaining (in North America especially) and instead focus on smaller congregations who are more personally dedicated to spiritual practice. Essentially, ISKCON could dismantle the narrative of world domination and focus instead on caring for the spiritual well-being of its committed members.

And yet, that would require the institution to do something it’s extremely unlikely to ever, ever do. It would have to de-emphasize the importance of its founder, Bhaktivedanta Swami, by allowing its members to openly criticize him. ISKCON would need to officially denounce some of their founder’s more offensive statements and to assert, unequivocally, that the organization is capable of making decisions without those decisions being ratified by what Bhaktivedanta said he wanted for his society.

…Which brings us to Part 2: What do ISKCON devotees believe about their founder?

Another Pinch of Snuff

I’ve been surprised to find that my most recent post, Regarding Snuff, has generated more traffic to this site, and more quickly, than any other post thus far – several hundred views in just the first few days. It’s also inspired my first substantial criticism, in the form of a comment from one “Damodar Roe.” The comment is a lengthy one. I suggest reading the post that inspired it before diving into the comment itself or to my reply to that comment (both of which will comprise the rest of this post). Naturally, I don’t agree with Damodar’s interpretation of the facts, but I’m grateful for his contribution, and I appreciate the civility with which he presented it. (I’ve seen others refer to my thoughts by invoking a certain scripturally sanctioned response to “blasphemy.” Civility is not a given.)

Damodar begins:

It is true that Prabhupada prohibited intoxication, and yet used snuff. However, it is necessary to understand the context of this prohibition in the Chaitanya-Vaishnava tradition which he represented and the unique circumstances of his life in which he applied this restriction himself. Prabhupad was not hypocritical, as I shall now explain.

No surprises so far. Of course there’s the ever-present (but woefully misguided and always shortsighted) cry for “Context!” Aside from that, let’s be clear from the get-go, we’ll be giving “Srila Prabhupada” a pass. Not that we should’ve expected otherwise. The apologist’s standard operating principle is to assume that whatever he believes is unimpeachable then stack the deck to make it (seem) so. Harrumph. Whatever. Here we go…

This article, ‘Regarding Snuff’, is not a criticism of Prabhupada for using snuff, per se, but more precisely it an accusation that he was hypocritical for using a stimulant while teaching his followers not to use intoxicants of any kind. This means that in writing my rebuttal it is not necessary to prove whether using intoxication is good or bad. All that needs to be accomplished in order to defeat these criticisms of Prabhupada is to disprove the assumption that the tradition which Prabhupada represented would condemn his use of snuff. If Prabhupada had invented the rules himself and then broke them, then that would be hypocritical. But it is not so simple. Prabhupada represented the Chaitanya-Vaishnava lineage, which has both worldly laws and ultimate laws. And the sophisticated interrelationship between these two types of laws is crucial to understand before making a judgment about his snuff use.

I honestly think the distinction Damodar tries to make here is a non-distinction, but what other option does he have? It is a fact, confirmed by ACBS himself, that the “founder-acarya” of ISKCON regularly took tobacco and in so doing broke one of the fundamental rules he established for his followers. (Take note of that: he established. More on that in a moment.) But let me clarify something, because I wrote the article, “Regarding Snuff,” and so I know precisely what my intentions were: It is, most definitely, a criticism of “Prabhupada” for using snuff, per se. Whether or not I think using snuff is “good” or “bad” in general is beside the point. That’s true. And yet Damodar gains nothing by saying so. The particular (damning) criticism is exactly what he suggests it is, namely that ACBS was a hypocrite for using a stimulant while teaching his followers not to use intoxicants of any kind. As for Damodar’s non-distinction, he’s just setting up the pins he feels confident he can knock down. But in doing so, he’s lost. Why? Because of this: “If Prabhupada had invented the rules himself and then broke them, then that would be hypocritical.” I agree. And this is exactly what he did.

Any honest member of ISKCON knows – but apparently won’t admit as much when doing so is inconvenient – that ACBS did indeed “invent the rules himself.” ISKCON devotees like to say their organization represents a “bona fide religious tradition” or that they belong to the “Gaudiya Vaishnava sampradaya” or, as Damodar puts it, that ACBS and his followers “represent the Chaitanya-Vaishnava lineage,” and yet the practical reality is much more simple. It can be summed up in two words: “Prabhupada said.” What ISKCON’s alleged “lineage” has to say about this or that or the other thing will always and forever be subordinate to the personal and idiosyncratic interpretation of that lineage presented by ISKCON’s so-called founder-acarya.

And in this case, ACBS said something very specific about tobacco. Here, I’ll let Damodar tell you (what I told you):

The author of ‘Regarding Snuff’ quotes the following statement of Prabhupad:

“Sometimes we find that someone poses as a great devotee very much advanced in spiritual understanding, but he cannot even give up smoking cigarettes. That means he’s not liberated.” (Dharma: The Way of Transcendence, 16: “When the Krishna Sun Rises in the Heart”)

It’s that simple.

Unless, of course, you’re duty-bound to see ACBS as a man beyond reproach. Then it gets messy.

This statement refers to cheating by presenting oneself one way while acting another.

Like, for instance, instructing your followers to strictly refrain from all intoxication, including – say it with me now – coffee, tea, and cigarettes, and then regularly indulging in said intoxication.

However, within the Chaitanya-Vaishnava tradition there is an exception to breaking prohibitions, for example smoking or using snuff, which is not cheating. In the Bhagavad-Gita, which is a holy text of central authority in Chaitanya-Vaishnavism and Vedantic Hinduism in general, it is said (9.30):

api cet su-durācāro bhajate mām ananya-bhāk
sādhur eva sa mantavyaḥ samyag vyavasito hi saḥ

This verse says that even if a devotee of God does something which is ordinarily prohibited, that he or she should still be considered virtuous because his or her intelligence is fixed on the spiritual path.

I’ll be honest, I always felt uncomfortable with this verse, though I’ve only recently allowed myself to articulate why: it’s proof positive that ISKCON dogma lacks any real morality. Actions are less important than actors. What’s being done is less important than who is doing it.

If you insist, as Damodar does, that the “lineage” is important, then recall his premise: “All that needs to be accomplished in order to defeat these criticisms of Prabhupada is to disprove the assumption that the tradition which Prabhupada represented would condemn his use of snuff.” If you’d rather not read the rest of this, I’ll save you some time. Damodar has set the bar extremely low. The “tradition which Prabhupada represented” would never and will never condemn him for any reason whatsoever. In a moment Damodar will help us understand why, but the simple explanation is this: “Srila Prabhupada” belongs, by the (purely subjective) standard of his “tradition,” in the category of “pure devotee,” and because he belongs in that category there is nothing he could’ve said or done that would require he be condemned. The “pure devotee” is categorically above criticism of any kind. (There’s no real way to prove or disprove that any one person is or isn’t a “pure devotee.” It depends more on sentiment and allegiance than it does on anything tangible or observable, but that’s not important. Not to them anyway.)

It’s also worth noting that Damodar is neglecting to mention the Gita’s next verse, in which Krishna says that such a conditionally sinful person eventually comes to rectify his or her bad behavior. Krishna does not give his devotees carte blanche to behave in any way they want just so long as they go on being his devotees. More importantly, he certainly does not grant them permission to habitually break the rules, as ACBS did. Damodar will say as much in a paragraph or so.

This verse necessarily does not condone cheating because Krishna, the speaker of Bhagavad-Gita, already discouraged cheating in the third chapter, sixth verse. Furthermore, the verse says that the devotee’s intelligence is completely fixed on the spiritual path, which means that his or her intelligence is not bent on cheating.

And who decides if one’s “intelligence is completely fixed on the spiritual path”? As I said, Damodar and devotees like him presuppose that their “Srila Prabhupada” was “comletely fixed,” and so his supposed faultlessness follows from that initial assumption. At one time I too thought this way. But I no longer do. Why? Because on the one hand there is scant evidence and zero proof that ACBS was the sort of “pure devotee” he repeatedly led his followers to believe he was or that “his intelligence was not bent on cheating.” In that regard there is only hagiography and mythology and wishful thinking. On the other hand, there is ample evidence (which for some amounts to proof) that ACBS was neither “completely fixed” nor that “his intelligence was not bent on cheating.” If you turn your attention from the constant eulogizing and mythologizing and instead spend just a little time with what he actually said and did, then you too may come to doubt Damodar’s presupposition.

So eliminating that possible misunderstanding, this verse may refer to two cases:

  1. A person takes up the spiritual path, but sometimes falls short due to past conditioning
  2. A person has to override scriptural or social morality because of exceptional circumstances in order to fulfill the spirit of the law of God

Either of these two persons must, according to this verse, be considered virtuous.

It’s safe to assume Damodar doesn’t put ACBS in category #1. But if he’s in category #2, that means that due to “exceptional circumstances” ACBS repeatedly broke the rules for god’s higher purpose.

Think for just a moment about what that means: Krishna needed ACBS to [insert sanctimonious, self-congratulatory ISKCON rhetoric here] but instead of making his devotee healthy enough to actually carry out that mission, he instead burdened the old man with a minor ailment that could only be alleviated by his breaking the principles he repeatedly instructed his disciples should be rigidly followed without exception. Doesn’t that make Krishna out to be a bit of a jerk?

(To be fair to Krishna – forgetting for a moment that nicotine is not actually a remedy for high blood pressure, and assuming high blood pressure was indeed an ailment from which ACBS was suffering – there are other remedies he could have taken, remedies that would have not involved breaking his own principles. And now, remembering that nicotine will only make high blood pressure worse, can we all, please, acknowledge that Damodar is unwilling to address this basic fact: the excuse that ACBS took snuff for medicinal purposes is no excuse at all. Nicotine elicits the exact opposite effect ACBS would have wanted for his alleged condition. The fact that Damodar does not deal with this at all should tell you everything you need to know.)

Arjuna, who heard the Bhagavad-Gita speech from Krishna, is an obvious example of the second case. [A person who has to “override scriptural or social morality because of exceptional circumstances.”] In the first chapter of the Bhagavad-Gita it is explained how Arjuna finds himself in a fratricidal war against his cousins due to dissentions in his family. He becomes overwhelmed at the prospect of fighting his relatives, and gives many moral arguments why he should not fight. Indeed, all these arguments reflect the values of Hindu culture.

The rest of the Bhagavad-Gita consists in Krishna affectionately explaining to Arjuna a broader and more profound perspective to his situation which justifies fighting the battle against his relatives. And indeed, the Bhagavad-Gita concludes with Krishna reiterating his affection for Arjuna and leaving the decision up to him, and Arjuna in response agreeing to fight. The Chaitanya-Vaishnava tradition, therefore, does not teach absolute puritanism as the author of this article portrays. Restrictions on sex outside of marriage, intoxication, meat-eating, and gambling are meant to guide practitioners away from harmful involvements. But they are by no means absolute restrictions. For example, in the Chaitanya-Vaisnava tradition, the most revered exemplars of devotion are the village girls of Krishna’s home town of Vrindavana, who broke the moral law against affairs outside of marriage by sneaking away from their husbands at night to be with God in romantic love.

All of this makes sense from inside the ISKCON (cult) bubble. I know. I believed it too. But once you step outside and look back at it dispassionately, it’s utterly horrific. Because it boils down to this: You can lie, cheat, steal, rape, kill… whatever, as long as you’re convinced it’s what Krishna wants you to do. ACBS said it most succinctly: “…there is nothing illegal, what we do for Krishna.”

And what has been the outcome of that “morality”? An organization with a steady track record of dishonesty, abuse, and violence. When Kirtanananda persuaded Tirtha to kill Sulochana (and Chakradhari and who knows who else), you can bet this verse came up.

Ideologies have consequences, my friends.

In ISKCON the real distinction between who is spiritual and who is not comes less from actions and their consequences than it does from what everyone else is willing to assume about who’s been implicated. And the distinction between what is permitted and what is prohibited has less to do with the act itself than it does with what particular atrocity any one person is willing to defend (as always, making reference to “Prabhupada said.”) Fortunately, not everyone will still defend Kirtanananda, but there are plenty of devotees willing to defend a wide variety of sins, like, for Krishna.

This is an example of what Krishna is saying in this verse (9.30), and the Bhagavad-Gita in general; that although morality is necessary and helpful, devotion to God is of a higher value and may sometimes contradict scriptural morality, including restrictions on intoxication.

So ACBS’s snuff habit was a consequence of his devotion to Krishna? I would imagine that more than a few devotees will be happy to say Yes. I’ve read their comments out there in the digital ether. They think that ACBS’s snuff snorting was a means to an end, a way to either regulate health or to forgo sleep in order to spend more time on his books. Once again, the health claim is total bunk. As for that other thing… Well, frankly, I find that the most exasperating part.

ACBS admits he took snuff (primarily) in a very particular circumstance: “sometimes at night because I am working at night on my books.” Perhaps I was more naive than are other devotees, but when I imagined ACBS composing his “Bhaktivedanta purports,” I imagined him alone in the dark serenity of night, deep in meditation, directly communing with Krishna and channeling that divine inspiration into the texts that would become “the lawbooks for the next 10,000 years.” (Where, I wonder, could I have gotten such a strange idea?) I did not imagine him occasionally snorting a prohibited intoxicant to stay alert while staving off “dizziness” and fatigue. Now, you can argue if you like that I was naive to think this way. But then so are most ISKCON devotees. I didn’t paint that mental picture all by myself. It was handed down to me by devotees “more advanced.” And if you too are an ISKCON devotee, you know good and well it is the mythology you believe as well.

This is confirmed in the Bhagavat-Purana (11.11.32), where God said:

ājñāyaivaṁ guṇān doṣān mayādiṣṭān api svakān
dharmān santyajya yaḥ sarvān māṁ bhajeta sa tu sattamaḥ

“A devotee perfectly understands that the ordinary religious duties prescribed by Me in various Vedic scriptures possess favorable qualities that purify the performer, and he knows that neglect of such duties constitutes a discrepancy in one’s life. Having taken complete shelter at My lotus feet, however, a saintly person ultimately renounces such ordinary religious duties and worships Me alone. He is thus considered to be the best among all living entities.”

So, once again, it doesn’t matter what you do, just so long as you’re on god’s special list.

Oh, and by the by, quoting scripture means nothing to me. I’m aware that devotees wield slokas like cudgels to beat dissenting opinions into submission – whether those opinions come from their opponents or themselves – but I couldn’t possibly care less about such philosophical violence. Having spent some time finding out from where and from whom the “scriptures” actually came, I couldn’t possibly take them seriously anymore. This is in no case more relevant than it is with ACBS and his books. The snuff snorting is not the half of it.

This means that a devotee who risks crossing the moral instructions of the scriptures for the benefit of God and other people does not act selfishly, or ignorantly, but rather with full knowledge disobeys the letter of the law to fulfill the spirit of the law. And for this he or she is praised.

If you say so. But, again, who decides what is “for the benefit of God and other people”? Hint: usually the same person who has decided to “cross the moral instructions of the scriptures.” And who decides which devotees get to do the crossing and which devotees don’t?

All of which is to say nothing of the fact that Hare Krishnas are convinced that endlessly repeating magic words will do more good for humanity than, well, actually doing good for humanity. (Save your “coat of the drowning man” business. I don’t buy it anymore. And, frankly, neither should you. If you actually want to do some good, take a few million dollars (just a few) from that obscene pile of money you’re using to build yet another outrageous monument to tunnel vision in West Bengal and instead use it to make a real difference in the lives of the impoverished local villagers there. Just for once, show the world you care about something other than the legacy of “Srila Prabhupada.”)

Prabhupad was an example of this. He was, like Arjuna, a person who in some cases had to override scriptural rules because of exceptional circumstances in order to fulfill the spirit of the law of God. For example, he crossed the ocean despite scriptural warning not to go to the West. He came to the United States at the age of 70 with no friends or contacts to greet him.

Except for the Agarwals, who took him in as soon as he arrived in America and gave him a place to stay and food to eat for his first month on foreign shores. Why does that always get so conveniently omitted? It makes the story less romantic, I know, but it’s the truth.

And yet within a decade he gathered about 5,000 committed disciples, opened 108 temples, translated over 80 volumes of Sanskrit texts, traveled the world 14 times, and much more.

I’d like to fact check this too, but why bother? More pointless hagiography. History is full of people who’ve accomplished unbelievable things after having had little to show for themselves at the start. Why is this one man the exemplar of all things holy, and all the rest are sinful fallen rascals not worth mentioning? In the realm of religious factions, Joseph Smith is the honored spiritual forefather of the Mormons, a group that has more property and more followers than ISKCON will likely ever see. Is he a figure of greater spiritual stature than “Srila Prabhupada”? You may hear devotees say that quality is more important than quantity, but they sure never miss a chance to make a case for themselves on the strength of quantity.

He had the responsibility of single-handedly representing an ancient and sophisticated spiritual tradition, as well as creating the foundation by which it would remain and grow Worldwide after his death. For this reason Prabhupada hardly slept. He would sleep about 4 hours per day, passing his days guiding the active movement and his nights translating essential texts. So when Prabhupada used stimulants (mild intoxication) to remain awake during the night so that he could translate texts for the benefit of his followers, it was not hypocritical. Rather it was a conscious disobedience to ritual puritanism to fulfill the spirit of the law, and according to his own tradition, a legitimate and even praiseworthy act. According to the Bhagavad-Gita (9.30), he should be considered virtuous.

Look, you can see it that way if you want. (You certainly don’t need my permission.) But you’re still glossing over some very obvious hypocrisy in order to maintain your reverence for someone who, in my opinion, simply does not deserve it. That’s your prerogative, but those who haven’t already been convinced to abandon common sense and then frightened into always and forever giving ACBS the benefit of the doubt will see it for what it is: the true believer’s knee-jerk response to cognitive dissonance. Ideological self-preservation, nothing more.

The author of ‘Regarding Snuff’ wrote that, “You heard it here first: a coffee machine in every temple.” Here he implies that if Prabhupad can do it, then everyone can imitate him because there is no predetermined standard as to who can cross general prohibitions, in order to fulfill the ultimate purpose of the scriptures, namely, service to God.

But there is no “predetermined standard.” At least not one made up of anything but intangibles. If there is, tell us clearly what it is.

Meanwhile, what about the other thing I said, “a box of snuff next to every murti of ACBS”? If you’re so convinced there was nothing wrong with his snuff snorting, then what would be wrong with being more transparent about it? We all know the answer: because common sense tells us it’s hypocrisy. And those who have not yet surrendered still have some common sense. To put it in ISKCON parlance: it’s not good for preaching. To put it in English: it would make it harder to dupe the newbies. No one wants to explain snuff to a guest at the Sunday Feast who just sat through a self-righteous lecture on the Four Regulative Principles.

As for the rest of Damodar’s response to “a coffee maker in every temple,” tell me this: If you found out tomorrow that XYZ Maharaja regularly snorted snuff or drank coffee or popped pills, how willing would you be to defend him like you’re defending ACBS? I suppose it would depend on whether or not XYZ Maharaja was your guru. But personal bias aside, you know the answer, and everyone else in ISKCON knows it too. You’d reject him. Maybe, if you were “humble” (read: fearful and obedient), you wouldn’t say so out loud, but the effect would be the same.

Snuff snorting, by the way, was not ACBS’s sole hypocrisy. Here’s just one more point of data, one I think it would be quite difficult to dismiss with the same philosophical approach Damodar has adopted to deal with snuff. Willem Vandenberg writes, in his excellent essay “Misogyny and Regression of Women’s Rights,” that “although [ACBS] made clear on many occasions that the sannyasa ashram excludes connections with former family and that he had nothing to do with his former wife, children and grandchildren, several letters (like Bombay, June 8, 1971), conversations (like Vrindavana, May 20-22 and October 28-30, 1977), and his will prove that Bhaktivedanta Swami himself continued to both support his family financially with proceeds of ISKCON and the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust and made business arrangements with and for his sons Vrindavana De and Mathura Mohan De to ensure their sustenance as early as 1971.”

Later in the same essay Willem continues, “Some may say that the dollar value was minimal back then and that even the amount of converted Rupees was inadequate, but these arguments are very simplistic…The point here is not the fact that Bhaktivedanta Swami sent some money to his former family in itself, but that he went out of his way to use the modern day equivalent of $350,000 (Rs1,620,000) to do so, with provisions for future investments or acquisition of real estate, and monthly payments that were considerably above (in his wife’s case more than double) the average Calcutta income. If any current ISKCON sannyasi would make similar provisions for his former family with funds provided by unremunerated book distributors, disciples and donors, it would be considered unconscionable.” (emphasis mine)

As I’ve pointed out already, the principle is to presuppose divinity and then make excuses. The only reason ISKCON’s present crop of gurus aren’t allowed to get away with similar (even minor) transgressions is because far fewer devotees are willing to presuppose divinity.

“Prabhupada,” on the other hand, will get a pass. Every. Single. Time.

However, besides the obvious uniqueness of Prabhupad’s life, there is a standard, which is stated in the Bhagavat Purana (11.20.9):

tāvat karmāṇi kurvīta na nirvidyeta yāvatā
mat-kathā-śravaṇādau vā śraddhā yāvan na jāyate

“As long as one is not satiated by fruitive activity and has not awakened his taste for devotional service by śravaṇaṁ kīrtanaṁ viṣṇoḥ, one has to act according to the regulative principles of the Vedic injunctions.”

Again, scripture. So what? You tell me how we decide, without question, that someone “has awakened his taste for devotional service,” then this verse means something. Otherwise, it’s useless. Just consider, even for a moment, that your assumption about the private, subjective experience of a man you’ve never even met may not, in fact, be such solid ground on which to base a life of forgoing “material” pursuits in “service” to “the Supreme.” Even if you had met him, how could you be sure another person’s thoughts and feelings are what you daydream they might be? How can you determine with any sort of certainty that another human being is worthy of your assumption that he – or she, outside of ISKCON maybe – is able to connect you to god directly?

This means that as long as one has a propensity to become diverted from the service of God towards selfish gratification, it is not proper to surpass scriptural prohibitions. However, a person who exclusively finds pleasure in service to God, rather than selfish gratification, is qualified to surpass scriptural prohibitions when it is necessary. Therefore it does not stand that because Prabhupada did it, that everyone can do it. Now the author of ‘Regarding Snuff’, I imagine will challenge my assumption that Prabhupad is on such a level. To this I respond that Prabhupada demonstrated a remarkable power in his life which is not possible to imitate. Prabhupada wrote that:

“Lord Siva drank poison to the extent of swallowing an ocean, but if any common man tries to drink even a fragment of such poison, he will be killed. There are many pseudo devotees of Lord Siva who want to indulge in smoking ganja (marijuana) and similar intoxicating drugs, forgetting that by so imitating the acts of Lord Siva they are calling death very near.” (Bhagavad-Gita As It Is 3.24 Purport)

So before rationalizing “a coffee machine in every temple”, marijuana, or taking snuff oneself in imitation of Prabhupad or Shiva, one must first be able to recreate their accomplishments.

This is too much. Now you’re saying that ACBS could drink poison? (There are a few devotees out there whose version of ISKCON history depends on ACBS’s inability to drink poison. That’s a different blog.) Prove to me that ACBS was not addicted to nicotine. Or that he could have drank alcohol without being “diverted from the service of God towards selfish gratification.” (Or, even, that he was in fact selfless, that he didn’t really kind of dig his golden straw and his Rolex watch and his Rolls Royce and his army of young zealots congratulating him on his every word, no matter how objectionable.)

Damodar writes, “Now the author of ‘Regarding Snuff’, I imagine will challenge my assumption that Prabhupad is on such a level.” I do. Obviously. But more than that I challenge Damodar’s assumption that anyone could be on such a level, “completely transcendental to the modes of nature.” As for ACBS in particular, I think if you more closely study his real life, specifically his interactions with others as documented in his many recorded conversations, you will find a man very often overcome by anger and insecurity and a host of petty concerns. Examine more closely, for example, just about any conversation he had regarding his views on science (the moon landing, evolution, species extinction, and so on). An impartial viewer will more than likely see a man with little to no understanding of the topic who is nonetheless bound and determined to circle his wagons and defend against any and all rational challenges to his worldview, no matter how ridiculous his claims must necessarily become.

My purpose in relating all this information is not necessarily to promote my beliefs, but rather to defeat the criticisms of Prabhupad in this article. And as I already explained, to do this I simply need to accurately prove that the tradition he represented would not condemn his use of snuff. The Bhagavad-Gita and Bhagavat Purana quotes which I have provided accomplish this, which Prabhupada used as his central scriptural authorities. Therefore, he is not hypocritical, but rather, virtuous (sadhu) and the best of saintly persons (sat-tamah), in the words of these scriptures themselves.

And the degree to which you agree with this is directly related to how unquestioningly you accept the presupposition that ACBS was a “pure devotee” and are determined to remain his follower no matter what.

To be candid, I felt upset when I saw this article, and I suspect the author’s intention was to attack followers of Prabhupada rather than express any genuine concern. His research is very thorough, and yet his tone is sarcastic and hateful. I hope that he or she, who has chosen to write anonymously, will have a change of heart and not devote so much time and energy to writing meticulous yet empty criticisms. Life is much more fulfilling when devoted to the trust and love in worthy persons, who for me, includes Prabhupada.

There is too much I want to say about this that including all of it here would be unreasonable. A few things: I think “hateful” is a bit much, and I – truly, honestly – have no intention to attack the followers of ACBS. I do, however, intend to attack the mindlessness that ISKCON and ACBS both require of them. It’s true, I have no “genuine concern” for ACBS’s snuff snorting. (Whatever that may mean practically to Damodar.) I do, whoever, have very genuine concern for the people – people like me, and people like you, Damodar – who have wasted substantial portions of their lives in subservience to fiction. Whether you want to call that fiction “Srila Prabhupada” or ISKCON or Krishna makes little difference to me, the pattern is generally the same: a young idealist, given to spiritual pursuit, moved by the notion of the fundamental equality of all living things (or something similar), inspired by the notion of bringing light and truth to a harsh and unjust world, mistakenly joins an ostensibly spiritual organization that is in fact a narrow and dogmatic spiritual corporation that worships as “god’s empowered representative” a man who was, judging by his own words, a bigot and a fundamentalist. In the face of this particular recurring injustice, I will not apologize for my tone. I will not apologize for sarcasm or “hateful(ness)” or anger. I’ve earned them. They are the natural consequence of my naiveté having been exploited by dishonest persons. And because I no longer subscribe to your view that humility is tantamount to realization – or, in fact, to your version of humility itself – I will express myself in whichever way I find most edifying and/or most effective.

Damodar writes: “Life is much more fulfilling when devoted to the trust and love in worthy persons…”

And I agree. Which is precisely why I left “Srila Prabhupada” behind. I would far rather devote myself to the trust and love of the real people in my life than to some fictional idea of a man, long dead, who in reality was undeserving.

And for those who are new to Prabhupada:

It is possible to criticize anyone, and all influential people have been criticized. But a reasonable reader should not make judgements from criticisms alone. No doubt, it is healthy to apply discretion in approaching any kind of religious authority.

It is healthy, which is exactly why I write this blog and why other ex-devotees I know make similar efforts to tell the truth in as public a way as their lives allow. There are a thousand channels of ISKCON propaganda bleating loudly about the unparalleled spiritual whatever of their “founder-acarya.” There are a scant few of us who hold a dissenting view who are trying to add balance to that noise. (There are, by the way, quite a few more who agree with that dissenting view but who have chosen to do exactly what ISKCON expects of them: leave quietly and don’t look back. There are far more devotees who eventually leave ISKCON than those who stay. And no matter how many may yet join, the majority of those will leave as well.) I’ll let Damodar get in his (no doubt completely unbiased) link below – sarcasm! – like he did in his original comment. But first I’m going to get in a few links of my own, in no particular order.

The Hare Krishna Thing

Kuruvinda :: In Hindsight

Steven J. Gelbrg – On Leaving ISKCON

Hare Krishna Truth Out

Radhika Bianchi

Anke Holst

Nitai Joseph – A Recovering Monk

Paul Ford – Mad After Krishna

Breaking Free

The author of ‘Regarding Snuff’ wrote of “how blindly one must follow in order to remain an ISKCON devotee.” But Prabhupad did not encourage blind following. What he actually taught was, in his own words:

“One is free to deliberate on this subject as far as the intelligence goes; that is the best way to accept the instruction of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Such instruction comes also through the spiritual master, the bona fide representative of Kṛṣṇa.” (Bhagavad-Gita As It Is 1863 Purport)

Well, there’s precept, and then there’s practice. And any ISKCON devotee knows (but will seldom say out loud) that blind following is exactly what ACBS expected. Deliberate as much as you want, in the beginning. But once your ticket’s punched, there’s no getting off the train – “never leave ISKCON,” and never criticize the “pure devotee,” unless you want a one-way trip to Hare Krishna Hell.


I recommend the following webpage for anyone interested in reading more about Prabhupad:

Damodar Roe

Oh, Damodar. I have no doubt you are sincere. So many devotees are. But, in my own experience, many of the ones who are the most sincere eventually come to realize that the acarya wears no clothes. Once you see it, the rest comes naturally. It’s not easy, but you definitely won’t be alone.

Regarding Snuff

“A genuine guru must not only speak the truth; he must also live it. In other words, his character must be perfect and his behavior exemplary. In the West we commonly see that a professor or philosopher achieves renown on the basis of his teachings alone, regardless of his personal life. But in Vedic society, if a man is a drunkard or in some other way violates the ideal principles he teaches, then he is considered not a teacher but a cheater. According to the Gita a real guru, who teaches by example, must have the qualities of peacefulness, sense control, austerity, purity, tolerance, honesty, wisdom, and faith in God. So-called gurus who indulge in abominable things like meat eating, cigarette smoking, and illicit sex, and who covet wealth for purchasing various other forms of sense gratification, are all disqualified. One who cannot control his senses cannot rightfully bear the title ‘guru.’” – A “special article” by the Back to Godhead staff, 1977, “Establishing the Proof: Who is a Real Guru”

I first heard about Bhaktivedanta Swami’s using snuff while I was visiting Vrindavana. At an evening sanga I attended, one of Bhaktivedanta’s disciples, Dhananjaya, recounted some of his personal memories from the time he’d spent with his guru. In particular he told about how ACBS, while on a short visit to England, had asked one of his servants to go to the druggist and purchase a tin of snuff for his own use. As Dhananjaya told it, the snuff was to be medicine for a cold or a sinus infection or some other minor, temporary ailment from which ACBS – himself a druggist earlier in life – sought relief. When word got out about the snuff, many of the swami’s followers also bought their own tins and started snorting it, eager to copy their master. The “punchline” to Dhananjaya’s little anecdote was delivered, as always, by ACBS himself, who upon realizing the sniffling, sneezing chorus in his morning class was the product of novice snuff-takers remarked, “You fools. I am taking it for health. You are taking it for pleasure.”

How clever.

Snuff, of course, is tobacco, one of the intoxicants prohibited in the life of a Hare Krishna devotee. Now, so many years after I first heard Dhananjaya tell this story, I wonder why I then paid it no mind. Here was firsthand evidence that the pure and faultless leader of my self-selected religious affiliation was not so pure and faultless after all. Even a child – perhaps especially a child – can see the hypocrisy: “Do as I say, not as I do.” (Which is not to suggest that seeing this as hypocrisy is childish. As we “grow up” we become all too willing to rationalize the things we know in our hearts to be wrong.) Perhaps one reason why ACBS’s snuff taking didn’t then register to me as hypocrisy is because of the way Dhananjaya had framed it. My assumption at that time, due to Dhananjaya’s suggestion, was that ACBS’s snuff use was not only medicinal but also temporary – something used in that particular instance to address a short-lived and easily alleviated condition. Not unlike taking aspirin for a headache.

(Not for nothing: How many devotees do you know who are reluctant or unwilling to do even that?)

Many years later I came to learn that ACBS’s snuff use was not at all temporary, nor infrequent, but persistent, even chronic. A search through the “VedaBase” turns up several references to it, from ISKCON’s early days in 1968 to just before the death of ACBS in 1977. (Each of those references will appear at the end of this post.) The most significant mention comes from ACBS himself:

“Regarding taking snuff, I myself take it sometimes at night because I am working at night on my books, and sometimes I become dizzy. But it is not for you to take. You should not imitate this, neither you work like me at night.” – Letter to Revatinandana, Los Angeles, 9 January 1974

There’s a lot to say about just this quote. A few things now, more later: (1) there can be no debate over whether or not ACBS took snuff; he personally admitted to taking it “sometimes,” (2) what he meant by “sometimes” is in part answered by the scenario he depicts – he took it “at night,” while composing his “Bhaktivedanta purports”; as nicotine, the active (and highly addictive) ingredient in tobacco, is a stimulant, ACBS’s taking snuff is much like a person who drinks coffee to stay awake while pulling an all-nighter, (3) perhaps most importantly, “you should not imitate this”; i.e., do as I say, not as I do.

So, what’s a devotee to make of all this? Luckily for true believers, two devotees (that I’m aware of) have addressed the issue online. We’ll take a look at both online commentaries, because I think what they have to say will help illustrate just how blindly one must follow in order to remain an ISKCON devotee “in good standing.”

First, we have Hari Sauri, direct disciple and previous traveling personal servant of ACBS, former ISKCON guru and sannyasi, present ISKCON celebrity. He’s addressed ACBS’s snuff habit on his blog, Lotus Imprints, in a post titled “In-Snuff-Lated…” from 14 September 2008. I’ll reproduce the bulk of it below, with comments throughout.

“I just got this question from Yadunandan prabhu of the Bhaktivedanta College in Belgium:

“‘While visiting some devotees in the UK, one of them asked me a question about Srila Prabhupada’s snuff box. This devotee was somewhat puzzled thinking that Srila Prabhupada’s snuff was made of tobacco. I did a little research on the folio and looked into the dictionary to answer accurately.

“‘There are two options I see from my little research:

“‘1. Srila Prabhupada was using some type of medicine as snuff.

“‘2. Srila Prabhupada was using tobacco snuff as medicine for his blood pressure and to keep him able to perform his translation work at night.

“‘As you were and are so close to Srila Prabhupada, can you please give some light on this matter so that my answer can be more accurate?’

“Answer : Snuff is a tobacco derivative in fine powder form. This is the type that Srila Prabhupada was using.”

Thank you, Hari Sauri, for the honest clarification. That’s helpful. ACBS was snorting tobacco, not some other type of medicinal, tobacco-free, non-addictive type of snuff.

“Here’s a general definition and history that I got from the internet:

“Snuff, preparation of pulverized tobacco used by sniffing it into the nostrils, chewing it, or placing it between the gums and the cheek. The blended tobacco from which it is made is often aged for two or three years, fermented at least twice, ground, and usually flavored and scented.”

Hari Sauri’s research/copypasta goes on for a few more paragraphs. Aside from what was likely his attempt to confer some sense of tradition and broad cultural acceptance to the practice of snorting tobacco, none of that information is really relevant to our discussion, so I’ve omitted it here. (By the by, the practice of fermenting and drinking alcohol has an extremely long history and the broadest cultural acceptance, and marijuana is gradually becoming accepted by some as medicinal, but because there’s no evidence ACBS was a habitual user of either, those facts are of no interest to Hari Sauri. It’s only snuff we’re concerned with legitimizing now. Just saying.)

This next part of Hari Sauri’s post is far more telling:

“I remember my paternal grandfather was a big fan of snuff. He was never without either a cigarette in his mouth or a pouch of snuff in his pocket and I would watch fascinated and slightly repulsed as he put a few pinches on the back of his had, stuck his nose over the top and insufflated. The brown powder would cling to his nostrils and top lip and sometimes he would absent-mindedly forget to wipe it off. My grandmother would have to give him nudge (he was stone deaf from the age of five) and wordlessly point at his nose. He would give a grunt and swab it off with his handkerchief. For him I guess it was a question of feeding his nicotine addiction. Nowadays its out of style. Too messy I guess.”

Hari Sauri’s grandfather took snuff. In his case it was slightly repulsive, addictive, and messy. It should come as no surprise that he doesn’t regard ACBS’s snuff taking in the same negative terms.

“I never personally asked Srila Prabhupada why he used snuff, although we carried a couple of small tins with us at all times…”

Note, first, the comment “we carried a couple of small tins with us at all times” – once again giving the lie to the notion ACBS’s snuff use was infrequent or conditional. Even more significant is Hari Sauri’s admission that he never asked ACBS about it. That’s incredible, isn’t it? Was it really of no interest to him? Did the hypocrisy of the situation never occur to him? If nothing else, these statements give some sense of what the emotional dynamic could in some cases be like between ACBS and his servants/disciples, namely one of fear and/or mindless obedience.

Next Hari Sauri describes in detail one of his snuff pastimes with ACBS, excerpted from one of the volumes of his Transcendental Diary:

“On June 16, 1976, Srila Prabhupada arrived in Toronto:

“We arrived in Toronto at 6:30 P.M. and had our most disagreeable encounter with customs officials yet. I accompanied Srila Prabhupada, who carried his soft, red vinyl hand bag, while Pusta Krsna Maharaja remained behind to bring the luggage through. On the other side of a glass wall next to the customs counter a large number of devotees, many from the Indian community, expectantly gathered. As soon they saw Srila Prabhupada they cheered, ‘Jaya Prabhupada! Haribol!’ There were two customs officers. One of them, tall, with an unpleasant demeanor and a slight sneer on his face, asked Prabhupada to open his bag. Then, slowly, with exaggerated attention, he searched every single item. Before leaving Bombay I had sealed several new tins of snuff with hot wax. Prabhupada uses it to gain relief from high blood pressure. The official insisted on breaking each seal to check inside.”

A not-so-quick note: This blood pressure business is bunk. Nicotine is a stimulant and as such will raise, not lower, blood pressure. I see three possibilities. (1) Perhaps Hari Sauri got it wrong, and ACBS had low, not high, blood pressure. It’s possible. (And ACBS’s comment about dizziness suggests it might be true.) But the high blood pressure explanation is repeated a number of times by Hari Sauri and by others, so it’s likely something ACBS told his disciples, not something they assumed about him. (2) Perhaps ACBS didn’t understand his own medical condition, or the effects of nicotine, or quite a few other things besides. His “cure” for jaundice, though still cited as an effective home remedy, likely wouldn’t pass a double-blind clinical trial. And his recipe for toothpaste has been known to cause damage to teeth and gums. His status as a skilled pharmacist is just one of several outlandish claims about the breadth of his knowledge it’s only reasonable to regard with suspicion. (3) Perhaps “relief from high blood pressure” was nothing more than a convenient lie intended to keep gullible disciples from questioning the obvious hypocrisy of their guru’s addiction.

“At the end of his fruitless search he turned to his fellow officer, looked askance at Srila Prabhupada, and in a most demeaning way said, ‘So this is what all the noise is about.’ I flushed with anger, but bit my lip.

“Srila Prabhupada seemed utterly indifferent, appearing not to have noticed their obnoxious attitude at all. He quietly shut his bag and proceeded on with a bright smile and a wave to all the assembled devotees…

“Although he had seemed indifferent, the next [day] Srila Prabhupada mentioned the incident in a conversation in his room with Pusta Krsna Swami, Jagadisa and myself:

“‘Everyone in government service, at least it is to be supposed they are all nasty men. Here also, why not? The other day the custom officer, unnecessary. Unnecessarily. He is opening the snuff box, this box, that box. Unnecessarily. Not a gentleman. It is stated there, “snuff,” and he is bringing knife to open.’”

Hari Sauri claims his guru “seemed utterly indifferent,” but the episode affected ACBS enough that he made mention of it the following day. While he and his disciples complained about various problems they were having with passport officers and other government officials, ACBS took the opportunity to revisit the snuff incident and, on that single point of data, conclude that “everyone in government service… they are all nasty men.”

So, not quite “utterly indifferent.” It’s also worth noting that earlier the same day, during a morning walk, ACBS and his disciples derided “so-called priests” – whom ACBS calls “fourth-class, fifth-class men” – for smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, and “indulging in homosex.” Bluster and more hypocrisy.

Hari Sauri continues:

“Srila Prabhupada did use it on occasion, usually in the night time, and I remember particularly coming into his room sometimes in the early morning when he was resident in Vrndavan from September–November 1976 and seeing snuff residue on his lungi or handkerchief where he had wiped the excess off his nose after sniffing it. At that time he was suffering very high blood pressure.”

A few things: (1) “usually in the night time,” so, once again, he used snuff as a stimulant to help him remain awake and alert while (allegedly) receiving the divine inspiration he channeled directly into his books; (2) the description of “snuff residue on his lungi or handkerchief” sounds – to me at least, probably not to Hari Sauri – quite a bit like “grandfather” and his “messy” snuff habit; (3) “at that time he was suffering very high blood pressure,” so it’s unlikely the diagnosis was wrong – perhaps ACBS did have high blood pressure that his snuff use was just making worse.

Hari Sauri again:

“The only reference I can find in Folio is this postscript from a letter to Revatinandana Swami sent from Los Angeles 9 January, 1974:

“‘N.B. Regarding taking snuff, I myself take it sometimes at night because I am working at night on my books, and sometimes I become dizzy. But it is not for you to take. You should not imitate this, neither you work like me at night.’

“So I assume from this that the dizziness he referred to was caused either by too much mucus in his sinus, or by very high blood pressure, and the snuff relieved this.”

I’m not sure what to make of the statement “the only reference I can find in Folio.” Maybe he means it’s the only reference ACBS personally made about it (but even that is not quite true). Maybe he’s being less than honest; by my count, there are 12 references to ACBS’s snuff use. And, once again, we get the high blood pressure explanation. Hari Sauri ends his post with the following:

“Sruta Kirti prabhu or another servant or secretary may be able to add more.”

Maybe. Sadly, that I know of, neither Sruta Kirti nor anyone else with direct knowledge has since added more (though we’ll take a look at a few very telling quotes from Tamala Krishna at the end of this post). I did however mention we’d be looking at the commentary of another true believer “regarding taking snuff.” As I said, I find both commentaries instructive in showing precisely to what degree remaining a devotee requires that one stop thinking.

The post comes from a blog called back 2 Krishna, and is #884 in a series of what the author calls “vanity thoughts.”

(This name itself is rather interesting. According to ISKCON dogma, a true devotee should feel ashamed to have any desire to write or to express him- or herself, especially in such a public forum. Such an act is an obvious sign of vanity that must, at the very least, be acknowledged for the truly self-absorbed and un-humble act it is. There are, as of this posting, 1475 “vanity thoughts” in the author’s collection. So he is a decidedly vain, self-absorbed, and un-humble fellow – at least by the psychologically damaging metric ISKCON proposes for its members – a diagnosis I’m sure he would readily accept, if only in a crass and typically ISKCONian way meant to backhandedly stake a claim on so-called humility. Anyway, I digress…)

He begins:

“One reason I became somewhat lukewarm to never ending quest for knowledge is that sooner or later you run into some snafus that are extremely difficult to explain, which then goes against Occam Razor’s principle. Sometimes things become messed up beyond salvation yet, strangely, it doesn’t have any visible or lasting effect on one’s faith, so why bother? I mean why bother if knowing answers or not knowing them has no effect. Danger of losing faith is still there so why risk it?”

This thought process here is too jumbled for me to completely follow. However, Occam’s Razor is the principle that the simplest explanation – or, rather, the explanation that requires the fewest assumptions – is likely the correct one. In the case of ACBS and snuff, that explanation would be this: ACBS took snuff because he was addicted to it. Honestly, that is the simplest explanation, and the only one that doesn’t require you to assume something supernatural about him or his intentions. In other words, there are more than a few (completely unverifiable) assumptions involved if you’re saying to yourself, “Well, OK. Prabhupada took snuff. But he was transcendental. He wasn’t addicted to it. He couldn’t have been. He was transcendental.” As for the rest of that rambling intro, your guess is as good as mine. Maybe the rest of the post will help to clarify.

“One of such snafus is snuff. Srila Prabhupada used it regularly and his servants always carried a tin or two in his luggage. Snuff is tobacco that is insufflated, that is inhaled, through the nose pretty much like cocaine or other drugs.”

“Pretty much like cocaine or other drugs…” You said it, prabhu, not me. At least we’re being honest. Let’s see how long that lasts…

“Why did Prabhupada use it? We don’t know. His servants remembered that he said it was for relief of high blood pressure or maybe to clear his sinuses or to help him stay up at night, working on books. Well, nicotine in tobacco is a stimulant that would rather increase blood pressure, sinuses can be cleared with non-intoxicant inhalers, and to stay up at night people usually drink coffee.”

Oh. This guy seems like he might be a straight shooter. Maybe I spoke too soon.

“No need to remind of our ‘no intoxication including tea and coffee’ principle that extends even to chocolate. It just doesn’t match.”

And… We’re about to see cognitive dissonance in action. If something doesn’t fit, completely disregard it.

“Maybe the principle is no intoxication, as no recreational drug use. People smoke to get high, if only a little, people drink to get drunk, intoxication means altering one’s consciousness to produce an artificial feeling of happiness. Clarity of consciousness also gets lost and so it’s easy to see why it’s one of our regulative principles.

“Maybe this would explain Prabhupada’s use of snuff – it wasn’t to get high or feel good, it was to keep his work rate through the night, to perform better service, not to enjoy. This is easy to understand, but what then of drinking coffee, the usual go to pick me up elixir? Students cramming for exams don’t drink coffee to get high, no one actually does, people drink it to get perked up in order to function better, though the process can obviously be enjoyed, too.”

You heard it here first: a coffee machine in every temple. (And a box of snuff beside every murti of ACBS.)

“Would that mean that if we feel sleepy it’s okay to have a cup to coffee or a can of Red Bull as long as we need our bodies to function in Krishna’s service? That would make sense but it’s also against our principles, always have been always will be.”

What’s going on here? Make up your mind. It’s either against the principles or it isn’t. And you (and everyone else) know(s) very well which one it is. Stop dithering.

“Or we can say that Prabhupada’s consciousness wasn’t affected by nicotine in snuff, only his blood pressure, heart rate etc. That could be the answer, that would also explain why he forbade his disciples to follow snuff sniffing practice.”

I love that. (By which I mean I completely hate it.) ACBS was transcendental enough to not get addicted to or intoxicated by nicotine, just not transcendental enough to not be affected by problems with his blood pressure. You’re reaching, my friend. Really reaching.

“Still, it’s not how it’s supposed to work with parampara, we are not ‘do as I say, not as I do’ movement, we actually practice what we preach.

“As I said – it’s a snafu.”

Yes! Everyone knows this. Even someone who’s only been to a single Sunday Feast can tell you this. Hence ACBS’s snuff use is hypocrisy. Bas. End of discussion. (At least it should be.)

“Vamsidas Babaji regularly smoke, or actually he used hookah. In his case we are told that he was beyond rules and regulations and didn’t have to follow sadhana prescriptions. Smoking didn’t affect his devotion to Krishna at all, they might even have been enjoying a pipe together. He used to offer it Radha Govinda, after all, but not to Gaura-Nitai.”

Yet more shameless rationalization. “He’s so pure the rules don’t apply to him.” Is it at all possible that because he didn’t follow the rules we have to say he’s pure in order to silence legitimate doubt? Tell me something, in all honesty, if a devotee had tried to slip this past you the first time you went to an ISKCON temple, how quickly would you have turned around and walked right out the door?

“Why not? Lord Nityananda Himself was fond of chewing betel nut according to Chaitanya Charitamrita – at the end of Raghunatha Dasa Goswami’s chipped rice festival (CC Antya 6.97). We can say that Lord Nityananda is God so he doesn’t have to follow any rules but right in the next verse it’s said that after chewing some himself He distributed the rest to devotees.

“Or maybe it was because Lord Chaitanya wasn’t there so Nityananda Prabhu could relax the rules a little, as if Mahaprabhu was a party pooper. Maybe that’s why when They were together Vamsidasa Babaji didn’t offer betel to them. But then Lord Chaitanya personally appeared at that festival and was visible to many devotees.

“As I said – it’s a snafu.”

Which I’m starting to think means something like “For obvious reasons, this is something I’d rather not accept for what it seems to be on the face of it.”

“When Gadadhara Pundit went to see Pundarika Vidyanidhi for the first time he was appalled by the betel nuts and reddened spittoons by his bed. Eventually he realized Pundarika Vidyanidhi’s greatness but it doesn’t say much for no-intoxication principle, does it? Betel nut is a stimulant and people take it to get a mild high, not to increase their work rate when they get tired.”

No argument here. Notice how all of these examples follow the same pattern: (1) assume divinity, (2) find an explanation for mundane behavior that excuses that behavior and at the same time protects the original assumption of divinity.

“Our opponents can have a field day exposing our ‘hypocrisy’ with these cases and I’m sure they can dig up a few more.”

They certainly could, those nasty, dishonest “opponents.” Keep reading, we won’t let you down.

“I was always worried by the saying ‘if you see Lord Nityananda going into a liquor shop’, for example. What’s with this ‘if’? Could it be ‘when’? Where’s this idea of Lord Nityananda and liquor coming from?”

Good question. And that’s not the only “pastime” of Nitayanda’s or Caitanya’s that’s untoward. But there’s no need to comb through the fictionalized accounts of the lives of mostly fictional “personalities.” Snuff-taking is not the length and breadth of ACBS’s hypocrisy. And he’s not alone.

“Anyway, none of that seem to affect my [lack of] faith in the above mentioned personalities though I can see how some might become disillusioned. These examples are also not an excuse to start drinking coffee or take other stimulants, ostensibly ‘for Krishna’.

“Would investigating them further bring any benefits? I don’t think so, I think it would be a waste of everyone’s time and it might lead to eventual disappointment.

“That’s why I think that at some point quest for knowledge has to stop, topping up will not add any value. This idea might not appeal to everyone but there’s a far less controversial side to it, too – it’s not how much you know that makes all the difference, it’s how much you believe in the simplest things – Krishna is God and chanting His holy name is our only duty.

“No one would argue with that.”

For crying out loud! (Sorry about including all of that. I just couldn’t help myself.) Here’s the tl;dr version: There’s this thing that – if I allow myself to think about it clearly – will force me to seriously question whether or not my faith is well placed. Because I have accepted that the highest principle is to maintain that faith no matter what, I will blithely ignore whatever threatens it. Oh, and, chant and be happy!

To be fair, this sort of intellectual dishonesty is exactly what ACBS ensured would always and forever be business as usual in ISKCON. He’s the one that insisted on a standard of so-called purity so unattainable that even he, the purest of pure devotees, could neither attain nor maintain it. And he’s the one that set the ISKCON standard of thoroughly rejecting all “pretenders.” In a letter to Aniruddha (Los Angeles, 4 February 1969), ACBS wrote, “You are right when you say that setting a good example for the boys is the best precept. There is a saying that an example is better than a precept. Our exemplary character depends on strictly following the four principles, and this will conquer the whole world.” At least that explains ISKCON’s foundering attempts at world domination. ACBS also wrote, in Dharma: The Way of Transcendence, “Sometimes we find that someone poses as a great devotee very much advanced in spiritual understanding, but he cannot even give up smoking cigarettes. That means he’s not liberated.” (16: “When the Krishna Sun Rises in the Heart”) Well, if you say so, Srila Prabhupada. You’ve painted yourself into that particular corner.

(What follows are the 12 (+1) separate references to “snuff” found in the “Bhaktivedanta VedaBase,” aka “Folio,” arranged chronologically, with some commentary added by me where appropriate. Uses of “snuff” as a verb – as in “snuff it out” – have been omitted.)

The Hare Krishna Explosion, Hayagriva dasa, Part 3: New Vrindavan, 1968 to 1969, 18: Paramahansa in the Hills

Hayagriva, one of ACBS’s earliest disciples whom readers will probably know as the editor of the “original” Bhagavad-Gita As It Is, mentions snuff in his chronicle of ISKCON’s early days, The Hare Krishna Explosion. Hayagriva tells how ACBS prescribed snuff to him as a remedy for hay fever, from which Hayagriva was then suffering:

After years of dormancy, my hayfever returns with a vengeance. As the grass pollinates, my sneezing and wheezing begin. I run through dozens of handkerchiefs. My eyes constantly itch. At times, after paroxyms of sneezing, I sit helpless, totally congested.

Prabhupada asks Devananda for a valise, and from this he produces a small snuffbox.

“Here,” he says, handing it to me. “When there is discomfort, just take a pinch and sniff.”

I do so. The snuff sets off a fresh barrage of sneezes. Finally I sit dazed. Surely my head must be empty of mucus.

“When you’re irritated,” Prabhupada says, “you may use that. It will help. But you shouldn’t think that you are being attacked.”

Again he laughs, and suddenly, seeing myself pursued by legions of grass pollen, I laugh too.

Letter to Brahmananda, Hamburg, 30 August 1969

P.S. Please send my snuff pot when Hayagriva comes here. I could not get the _____ snuff here.

I wonder what’s been omitted here and, more importantly, why. Placement suggests it could be the name of the brand of snuff ACBS preferred, or maybe it was the word “tobacco,” scrubbed from the record by some loyal follower whose conscience was disturbed enough to make him or her want to “protect” the reputation of the pure devotee.

Letter to Yogesvara, Gurudasa, Digvijaya, etc., Los Angeles, 21 May 1970

…I am so much thankful to you for your respective presentations. They are as follows: one golden cup, mysore sandal soap, some scent in snuff box, one picture of London Radha-Krsna Deities and one xeroxed interview report. So I shall be glad to know what is the contents and its formula in the box, then I can use it as snuff.

This quote comes from a portion of a letter in which ACBS thanks his disciples for the gifts presented to him at the time of their initiation. Around this time it appears that ACBS’s use of snuff was common knowledge among his followers. It was at least well known enough for newly initiated disciples to think the intoxicant would make an appropriate gift to their spiritual master. If this were the only reference to snuff in the Folio, one might have reason to conclude that ACBS snorted a type of snuff that did not contain tobacco, given his query about the snuff box, “the contents and its formula.” But Hari Sauri has already made it clear that ACBS snorted regular tobacco snuff.

Letter to Revatinandana, Los Angeles, 9 January 1974

N.B. Regarding taking snuff, I myself take it sometimes at night because I am working at night on my books, and sometimes I become dizzy. But it is not for you to take. You should not imitate this, neither you work like me at night.

Transcendental Diary, Vol. 1 – Nov 1975 to April 1976, December 13th, 1975

Prabhupada likes to travel early in the morning. At 6:00 A.M., he chanted Gayatri-mantra, donned his coat, gloves, and hat, and headed for the door. In a flurry of activity Harikesa and I quickly packed last-minute items. Harikesa placed the dictaphone and Bhagavatams into a black attache case. Meanwhile I hastily filled Prabhupada’s red vinyl briefcase with his desk paraphernalia (a pen case, a golden straw for drinking coconut juice, a jar of ink, a small silver cask filled with cardamom seeds, his glasses, tilaka clay, lota, mirror, mortar and pestle, a small enameled tin full of snuff for his high blood pressure, and a black Revlon manicure case.) Finally, I swiftly stuffed Srila Prabhupada’s indoor slippers and the brass spittoon engraved with his name into my shoulder bag and rushed to catch up.

This is one of two mentions of snuff in Hari Sauri’s multi-volume Transcendental Diary. Here he simply mentions the presence of the intoxicant in ACBS’s personal effects (and again attempts to dismiss it by mentioning high blood pressure).

Morning Walk, Mayapura, 18 February 1976

Prabhupada: So one thing, if you can do, that India, at the present moment, that Swami Cinmayananda is prominent.

Acyutananda: Yes.

Hari-sauri: He’s very big. Especially in the South.

Prabhupada: (laughs) So if you can subdue him…

Yasodanandana: We’ll take care of that, Prabhupada.

Acyutananda: All right.

Prabhupada: That will be great triumph. He’s a nonsense. That’s… But he’s very popular at the same time.

Prabhupada: But he, he wants to keep his prestigious position.

Acyutananda: Oh, yes.

Yasodanandana: Yes. On your order, we shall try to hamper that.

Prabhupada: No, tactfully.

Acyutananda: I met him once. He is addicted to snuff very, very much.

Prabhupada: Constantly.

Acyutananda: Even during his lectures he makes gestures so that he can take snuff without anybody knowing.

I find this conversation particularly interesting, not just for the mention of snuff but for the context in which that mention appears. To be fair, ACBS is not the snuff snorter in question in this conversation. Rather it’s Swami Chinmayananda Saraswati, someone whom ACBS apparently considered a rival at this point in time. And for good reason: Swami Chinmayananda was a teacher of Advaita Vedanta – the Enemy! – who was the inspiration for Chinmaya Mission and was inspirational in the founding of Vishva Hindu Parishad, one of ACBS’s targets of scorn (despite the fact he was happy to use their name and Chinmayananda’s authority to legitimize his own movement). Chinmayananda was extremely popular in India and outside India as well; he made his first worldwide “preaching tour,” including stops in America, in 1965, beginning several months before ACBS first arrived on Western shores. He was also a renowned scholar of Vedanta who wrote in English and published over 90 books, including commentaries on the Gita and Vedic texts. According at least to his followers, Chinmayananda was a genuine Vedic scholar, which must have felt threatening to a man who had posed himself as a Vedic scholar but who also once admitted, “I have not studied all the Vedas and Upanisads. I have read only Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam.” (TKG’s Diary: Prabhupada’s Final Days, 30 June 1977) It’s not hard to see why ACBS asked his followers to “subdue” Chinmayananda. Moreover, it’s ironic that Acyutananda and ACBS zero in on Chinmayananda’s “constant” snuff use as a point of condemnation.

Transcendental Diary, Vol. 2 – April 1976 to June 1976, June 16th, 1976

This is the account of ACBS’s arrival in Toronto presented in Hari-Sauri’s blog and taken from his Transcendental Diary:

We arrived in Toronto at 6:30 P.M. and had our most disagreeable encounter with customs officials yet. I accompanied Srila Prabhupada, who carried his soft, red vinyl hand bag, while Pusta Krsna Maharaja remained behind to bring the luggage through. On the other side of a glass wall next to the customs counter a large number of devotees, many from the Indian community, expectantly gathered. As soon they saw Srila Prabhupada they cheered, “Jaya Prabhupada! Haribol!” There were two customs officers. One of them, tall, with an unpleasant demeanor and a slight sneer on his face, asked Prabhupada to open his bag. Then, slowly, with exaggerated attention, he searched every single item. Before leaving Bombay I had sealed several new tins of snuff with hot wax. Prabhupada uses it to gain relief from high blood pressure. The official insisted on breaking each seal to check inside.

At the end of his fruitless search he turned to his fellow officer, looked askance at Srila Prabhupada, and in a most demeaning way said, “So this is what all the noise is about.” I flushed with anger, but bit my lip.

Srila Prabhupada seemed utterly indifferent, appearing not to have noticed their obnoxious attitude at all. He quietly shut his bag and proceeded on with a bright smile and a wave to all the assembled devotees…

Room Conversation, Toronto, 17 June 1976

And this is from the conversation in Toronto to which Hari Sauri refers in his blog and in his Transcendental Diary, and which contradicts Hari Sauri’s claim that ACBS was “utterly indifferent” about the episode the day before. The excerpt following this is Hari Sauri’s account of this conversation as presented in his Diary.

Prabhupada: Everyone in government service, at least it is to be supposed they are all nasty men. Here also, why not? The other day the custom officer, unnecessary. Unnecessarily. He is opening the snuff box, this box, that box. Unnecessarily. Not a gentleman. It is stated there, “snuff,” and he is bringing knife to open.

Transcendental Diary, Vol. 2 – April 1976 to June 1976, June 17th, 1976

Although Prabhupada hadn’t reacted to the customs official’s envious dealings when we entered Canada, he most certainly noted it. “Everyone in government service, at least it is to be supposed they are all nasty men. Here also, why not? The other day the custom officer… Unnecessarily. He is opening the snuff box, this box, that box. Unnecessarily. Not a gentleman. It is stated there, ‘snuff,’ and he is bringing knife to open.”

Prabhupada agreed with Jagadisa prabhu’s assessment that it was simply harassment. He quoted from the Srimad-Bhagavatam, Twelfth Canto. “Everywhere. Rajanyair dasyu-dharmabhi, simply wanting some bribe. They are in power, and that will increase. It will be impossible to deal with. Now it is already. In India, any work you want to be done by government, unless you bribe… The situation is becoming very dangerous.”

Conversation with Svarupa Damodara, Vrndavana, 21 June 1977

Svarupa Damodara: …There will be books, proving that these are all nonsense.

Prabhupada: (aside:) You have got increased snuff boxes?

Upendra: Er, one little one and that big one there. I’ll check to see if there’s any more.

Prabhupada: Life is a different material…

This is an interesting reference. As the transcript makes clear, it is something ACBS said to his servant while in the midst of a conversation with someone else. Apparently ACBS’s snuff use was becoming more frequent at this time, in the last several months of his life, as indicated by his request for “increased snuff boxes.” (Emphasis mine.)

TKG’s Diary: Prabhupada’s Final Days – September 26, 1977

TKG’s Diary is a curious document that includes more than a few unsettling revelations about ACBS’s last days (one of which I’ve already included in the text above). In addition to this casual mention of snuff are the following three excerpts, which I’m including because they relate to the general topic of hypocrisy. The first two refer to ACBS’s infrequent to completely nonexistent practice of chanting japa, whereas the last mentions a kaviraja who diagnosed ACBS for gonorrhea(!), an ailment that can only be transmitted sexually.

In the afternoon, Srila Prabhupada had me read from Srimad-Bhagavatam. He sat up and put on his spectacles, then held Radha-Rasabihari’s photo. He looked for Their lotus feet and had me point Them out. He meditated on Them for a long time, leaning back occasionally with his eyes closed and listening to the Bhagavatam recitation. He had me put snuff near him, of which he also availed himself. For practically an hour we had a wonderful meditation, and I could see it was the most effective medicine.

When Tamala Krishna writes “I could see it was the most effective medicine,” I assume he’s referring to the “meditation,” though it seems the snuff was helpful too. Here is a reference to ACBS using snuff not only outside the context so far established as typical – late at night, while writing – but in the midst of a “wonderful meditation.” I find it hard not to see this as depicting a very casual, recreational user of an intoxicating substance to which he has long been addicted.

TKG’s Diary: Prabhupada’s Final Days – June 10, 1977

Gradually, I have seen that Srila Prabhupada is no longer chanting japa on his beads. Many years ago, he was chanting sixty-four rounds, then gradually less, until a number of years ago it was sixteen. But now he does not chant on beads. He can be seen with his eyes closed, always meditating on Krsna with an intense, concentrated expression. Sometimes he stretches his neck, and sometimes he drools in his sleep and his body shakes. Sometimes there is loud belching. In this way, Srila Prabhupada is exhibiting some of the ecstatic symptoms mentioned in The Nectar of Devotion.

That’s a very generous way of tying together those last few statements. Personally, I’m more interested in this: “He can be seen with his eyes closed, always meditating on Krsna…” Perhaps. But, let’s be honest, there are any number of things he could have been “meditating on.” Krishna is just one of a practically unlimited number of possibilities. But that’s the nature of devotion to “Srila Prabhupada,” isn’t it? Take every opportunity, however small, to assume divinity (even if that assumption stands in contradiction to what verifiable facts suggest).

TKG’s Diary: Prabhupada’s Final Days – September 16, 1977

Srila Prabhupada’s condition remained the same today. He was passing sufficient urine, well more than half the quantity of the liquid he consumed. But he seemed to be growing weaker. He began to chant on his japa mala for the first time in many months. In fact, he insisted on always keeping the beads around his neck. Even during his massage, he fingered the beads and silently chanted. His beads also remained around his neck while he slept in his bed.

TKG’s Diary: Prabhupada’s Final Days – October 16, 1977

When the kaviraja saw Prabhupada’s very discolored urine, he said the disorder was a type of gonorrhea. The urine contained semen, which could possibly turn into pebble-like substances and completely block the ureter.

The last two references to snuff come from the years after the demise of ACBS.

The first is from an article in Back to Godhead magazine titled “Drugs and Ecstasy.” In the section “Smoke From The Bottomless Pit” we get a clear picture of how the average ISKCON devotee regards snuff, independent of their founder’s using it:

In 1604, James I, King of England, tagged smoking, “a custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs, and in the black stinking fumes thereof nearest resembling the horrible stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless.” Today some 60 million Americans smoke millions of pounds of tobacco every year at a cost of about $9 billion. Tobacco is taken primarily, of course, in the form of cigarettes (528 billion consumed each year), which are supplemented by pipe tobacco, cigars, snuff and chewing tobacco. In spite of an anti-smoking campaign in the U. S. in recent years – a result of quite conclusive evidence linking cigarette smoking to a variety of diseases – there has been little progress made in stopping the habit.

Vyasa-puja 1984, St. Louis

The second and final reference is from a Vyasa-puja offering submitted by the St. Louis temple in 1984 that (lacking any clear indication from the text itself, I can only assume) is meant to rhapsodically depict the scene in Vrindavan during the final days of ACBS. The swami’s snuff box is a detail apparently too important to be omitted:

It is six-thirty in the morning. The birds sing sweetly, and peacocks sound their exotic meow. The air resounds with japa, chanted by your faithful disciples. Two devotees softly sing the Brahma-samhita on the outer veranda, upstairs in your Vrndavana quarters, waiting. You ring the bell, and one devotee enters the inner veranda, offers obeisances, and enters the mosquito net on the bed to massage your heart. You speak softly about ISKCON matters – Bombay, Mayapur, New Vrindaban, etc. Management is arcanam, you once said. Your servant helps you to your bath and personally bathes your transcendental form. Then he brings you to the indoor room. You sit in a rocking chair as he helps you with your kurta, and you apply tilaka from your Krsna-Balarama compact. The other servant changes the linens and brings the bed on the outer veranda with pillows, scented garland, bouquet, handkerchief, lota, snuff, incense, and camara. He has also brought fresh cloth and kaupina for you. You are then aided to the outer veranda, where you sit on the bed, garlanded by your loving disciples. The incense is sweet as one devotee fans you with a camara, in a figure-eight fashion, not for cooling but for keeping the numerous flies from your thin form.

And, I assume, as Tamala Krishna puts it, he occasionally “avails himself” of a little powdered tobacco.

As It Is

Look, here’s the thing: ISKCON is a cult. It just is. This is a fact – both because ISKCON is what it is, and because we use words to mean things. Particular things. That’s what they’re for. They allow us to make statements about the things in the world around us in such a way that other people who hear those statements can understand this or that factual truth about the world and those things. So the fact that ISKCON is a cult is something easily verified by one’s finding out what the word “cult” means and then evaluating whether or not it can be reasonably applied to ISKCON and how it operates.

Now, the definition of the word “cult” has boundaries somewhat more nebulous than is sometimes manageable (as is often the case when small words are unfairly tasked with helping us to understand big ideas). One might prefer the definition of Robert Jay Lifton or Michael Langone or Margaret Singer or the “BITE” model of Steven Hassan or whatever else. But whichever definition you choose, you will (if you’re honest) have to conclude that the word “cult” applies to ISKCON.

At this point it’s only fair to admit that the degree to which ISKCON occurs as a cult may be different for you than it is for Bhakta Bob or your TP or GBC or for that nice mataji who first helped you put on a sari. It might also be less (or more) true today than it was in 1983, or in Eastern Europe than it is in North America, or in Los Angeles than it is in Alachua. That’s worth noting. But let’s not waste time splitting hairs. Regardless of degree, ISKCON is a cult.

If you like, you also could argue that what some refer to as the cult dynamic is somehow conducive for your “advancement in spiritual life,” and that if that dynamic somehow helps you to surrender to Krishna, then it can’t be so bad. (Right?) But that’s just the cult talking, isn’t it? Don’t waste your time with this either. Instead, I suggest you allow yourself to honestly determine to what degree your experience in ISKCON is in fact a cult experience. Then ask yourself this very important question:

“Am I really OK with this?”

Stop Misusing the Trust of Sincere People

“So far Ksirodakasayi is concerned, or anyone else who is newcomer, [he] should be allowed some concession. And after some time when he is accustomed to our principle, then we can make the screw tight. I think this point will be sufficient hint to deal with him.” – Letter to Tamala Krishna, 20 February 1970, Los Angeles

One of the reasons my last post took so long to prepare was the time involved in gathering the links appended to the text. So many of those links deserve more attention, but there’s one in particular I’d like to highlight here. It’s a short essay posted (perhaps re-posted?) on a site called “ISKCON Media Vedic Library.” The title of the post is direct enough – “Please Stop Misusing Srila Prabhupada’s Quotes” – though the logic of the post is rather muddled.

The post’s author, Amara dasa – who I assume from a detail given in the text itself is Amara Das Wilhem, founder of GALVA, the Gay and Lesbian Vaishnava Association – is upset because some of his fellow devotees are using the well-documented statements of ISKCON’s “founder-acarya” to publically advance the backward notions those statements clearly express.

(People like Amara say these statements have been misinterpreted. I say, As ACBS himself said, “…There is no need for interpretation. Interpretation is necessary if things are not clear. But here the meaning is clear.” That’s another conversation.)

What Amara has to say fits into four short paragraphs, and I encourage you to take a moment to read them all. While it may appear he’s well intentioned, Amara’s approach exemplifies a type of dishonest and unethical behavior endemic to the followers of “Srila Prabhupada.” Amara writes:

“There are some quotes from His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada that are commonly misused to discriminate against women and minorities. These quotes concern relative social and bodily issues that have nothing to do with the spiritual nature of the soul. They are frequently taken completely out of context and delivered in a fashion that is both mean-spirited and ill motivated. The result has been that many sincere people and prospective devotees are completely turned off to the Krsna consciousness movement and given a poor impression of Srila Prabhupada.”

Later in his essay Amara writes, almost as an aside, “I normally do not take interest in these types of quotes, in fact, I would rather they were not even made public.” (And yet Amara’s plea is, perplexingly enough, followed by a very limited selection of the sort of quotes he “would rather…were not even made public.”)

(In Amara’s defense, Bhaktivedanta Swami too thought his bigotry should remain in house: “Certainly we are not going to say these things about the negro people publicly…” I suppose it’s possible that instruction applies only to his bigotry toward black people. After all, he often spoke publicly – freely and to journalists – about his deeply held conviction that women were inferior. The same could be said of his disdain for “homosex.”)

But why would Amara rather these statements were not made public? Let’s read the last sentence of the first paragraph again:

“The result [of such quotes being publicly available] has been that many sincere people and prospective devotees are completely turned off to the Krsna consciousness movement and given a poor impression of Srila Prabhupada.”

So, in order to prevent these sincere people from not wanting to have anything to do with “Srila Prabhupada,” Amara suggests that what Prabhupada said should be selectively concealed from view, hidden away and ignored.

I’d like to suggest an alternative: Stop pretending these quotes don’t exist, that ACBS didn’t profess some thoroughly objectionable opinions you’d think a genuinely spiritual person could never, ever even entertain. Instead, allow those sincere people to decide for themselves – before they’ve had their heads filled with propaganda – what sort of person your “Srila Prabhupada” must have been. My guess is that, given the opportunity, they’ll decide he was something quite different from what you’d hoped.

Let’s be honest. Those sincere people are really only important to Amara and his colleagues – to ISKCON and the other organizations that seek to represent Bhaktivedanta Swami – because, as Amara says in practically the next breath, those sincere people are also “prospective devotees.” No one’s upset that those sincere people might get a bad impression of ACBS, or that they might miss out on the opportunity to adopt his version of “spiritual life.” Not really. What’s really upsetting is that those sincere people won’t be sticking around to swell the ranks of ACBS’s ostensibly spiritual movement, to wash the pots and fill the hundi and pack those kirtans with bodies. Even more upsetting is the thought they won’t help bolster the collective delusion Bhaktivedanta Swami was someone special, someone “transcendental.”

Normal people, people who have not been exposed to ISKCON’s special brand of groupthink, have no trouble understanding that Bhaktivedanta Swami’s more “controversial” statements are not controversial at all. They’re just hateful – proof that ACBS, just like everyone else, was a product of his time and culture. That is, fallible and mundane. It’s no wonder that those whose primary goal in life is to “make devotees” would prefer that the public image of Bhaktivedanta is carefully controlled.

Perhaps ACBS said it best himself: “It is said that a fool is undiscovered as long as he does not speak…but as soon as he speaks, he reveals himself at once.” So, better speak for him by selectively presenting his teachings. Or don’t let him speak at all.

And lest you think Amara is alone in his approach to this very real problem for Bhaktivedanta’s legacy and the longevity of ISKCON, consider Krishna West.

Krishna West is Hridayananda Swami’s last-ditch attempt to save ISKCON North America from itself (and to earn bragging rights, if he’s successful). Those sympathetic to Krishna West agree that Bhaktivedanta’s misogyny and racism and homophobia are problematic, at least insofar as the audience among “Westerners” for kirtan and Hindu-ish-ism consists of left- (often far-left-)leaning yogis, hippies, environmentalists, and New Age types. Their approach to that problem is different in form but, as ACBS would say, non-different in substance from what ISKCON generally does. Hridayananda and his followers separate the teachings of ACBS into two categories: “spiritual” and “material.” According to them, the spiritual teachings are essential, whereas the material teachings are dispensable. Care to guess which category the racist, misogynistic, and homophobic stuff gets relegated to?

It’s not a stupid approach. It is, however, indefensible for the very simple reason that it contradicts what ACBS said about himself and how his followers should regard him.

Meanwhile, the very existence of Krishna West has caused friction within ISKCON at large, where the party line is still very much to accept everything Bhaktivedanta ever said as unimpeachable truth. After some protracted passive-aggressive conflict (on- and offline), ISKCON released this statement.

Take note of point 8.

“If questions arise regarding Hridayananda das Goswami’s preaching or Krishna West, concerned parties should first contact Hridayananda dasa Goswami directly, or Bir Krishna Goswami, and then, if necessary, the GBC Executive Committee, rather than air issues or grievances in unproductive ways, such as on the internet.”

That is, keep your mouths shut about it, because airing dirty laundry in public is bad for business – it drives the customers away. Also, please note: ISKCON is not, never was, and likely never will be a democratic society that values free speech, free press, free expression, and other wonderful things that begin with the word “free.” (Except of course for free lunch.) But none of this should come as a surprise, certainly not to “sold out” ISKCON members. Their so-called founder-acarya was not a fan of democracy.

“I like this position, dictatorship. Personally I like this.” – Room conversation, 21 August 1975, Bombay

Or, more directly:

Prabhupada: If you can introduce this system, varnasrama, then it will establish. No more change. This is a rascal’s government, this democracy.

Tamala Krishna: “Demoncracy.”

Prabhupada: “Demoncracy.”

Hari-Sauri: “Demon-crazy.”

Prabhupada: “Demon-crazy.” (laughter) Demon and crazy. Not only demon… There are demons whose brain is all right, but they are crazy also.

Tamala Krishna: (laughing) Demon-crazy.

Prabhupada: And introduce books in the school, colleges, libraries, so nice books. There is no doubt about it. There is no such literature throughout the world.

Tamala Krishna: Gradually some of the people are beginning to understand what you’re up to, Srila Prabhupada. Some of these big demons in America especially, they are beginning to understand that you are the most dangerous personality in the world to them.

Prabhupada: To kill “demon-crazy,” LSD. (laughs) Yes, that is my mission. That is Krishna’s mission, paritranaya sadhunam vinasaya ca duskrtam [BG 4.8], to kill all these demons, crazy demons. I have no such power; otherwise I would have killed them. Either establish Krishna conscious government or kill them – bas, finish. I would have done that, violence.

Room conversation, 25 February 1977, Mayapur

Neither was he an advocate of free speech:

Ramesvara: But now, suppose there is some businessman, and he knows that everybody is wanting this sex. So he is making movie or writing a book describing these things.

Prabhupada: These things were formerly restricted-censor board.

Ramesvara: So there must be censorship…

Prabhupada: Yes.

Ramesvara: …in a Krishna conscious…

Prabhupada: Oh, yes.

Ramesvara: …government.

Prabhupada: Oh, yes.

Morning walk, 21 January 1977, Bhuvanesvara

But the people ISKCON is hoping (against hope) will become its next generation of loyal members are generally in favor of democracy and free speech – and against the sort of backward social notions Bhaktivedanta all too frequently espoused – that is, at least until someone manages to convince those sincere people it’s somehow “spiritual” to think otherwise. They should know that, despite what their handlers insist, the process of making them into devotees is not a process based on rational inquiry, or even on rational persuasion. They should also know that those who, posing as their “well wishers,” attempt to bring them into the fold are anything but transparent about their founder, his teachings, and a host of other things “sincere people and prospective devotees” expected to give their lives to ISKCON should be well informed about.

Expert at Rape

“Although rape is not legally allowed, it is a fact that a woman likes a man who is very expert at rape.” – A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami; Srimad-Bhagavatam 4.25.41, purport

Since the brutal rape and murder of Jyoti Singh in 2012, much of India has been in an uproar over the “Delhi gang rape” and over sexual violence against women in general. During that same time ISKCON pundits have weighed in on the causes of rape and sexual assault, in nearly all cases by regurgitating the same old predictable, inane rhetoric – something, something, lust…something, something degraded material society…something, something Bollywood. More recently, sexual violence in India has even breached the cult bubble and affected victims within ISKCON itself, causing waves of outrage in addition to the regular pontification.

(For the record, sexual abuse has long been part of ISKCON. But perhaps it’s only recently that anyone wearing a dhoti has gotten publicly upset about it.)

In all this online clamor I have yet to see any of the followers of “Srila Prabhupada” present the so-called founder-acarya’s own views on rape. I wonder why? It’s certainly not because those views are obscure. The above quote from one of Prabhupada’s Bhagavatam purports is well known. If you stick around ISKCON long enough, you’re bound to be exposed to it.

Of course, ISKCON apologists are duty bound to deny how clearly reprehensible it is, and so they attempt to explain it away by saying that in this instance Prabhupada’s use of the word “rape” is meant to employ not the primary definition but rather a secondary, archaic definition. In the words of one defender of the faith, Prabhupada employed a definition “little used, or even considered obsolete.” Devotees of this ilk contend that what Prabhupada really meant to say was that women like to be seduced by aggressive men, “manly” men, and that when Prabhupada says “rape” he really means something like “romantic aggression.” It’s a convenient (though still not benign) interpretation, particularly if you want to defend the notion Prabhupada was perfect and completely transcendental.

But, aside from being convenient, this interpretation is illogical.

The first half of the offending sentence – “Although rape is not legally allowed…” – should be enough to make that clear. Seduction is not illegal. Sexual assault is.

Moreover, cross-referencing Prabhupada’s books and recorded statements tells us he used the word “rape” a total of thirty-two times. Setting aside the three times it’s used in the purport in question, that leaves twenty-nine. In every single one of those twenty-nine instances he used the word to mean precisely what you and I think of whenever we hear it: sexual assault. What are the chances that in this one instance he employed the “little used…obsolete” definition?

If for some reason you’re still not convinced, Prabhupada has provided us with his very own, very concise definition of the word: “Rape means without consent, sex.”

Let’s see his definition in context.

“Yes, that is law always. Rape means without consent, sex. Otherwise there is no rape. There was a rape case in Calcutta, and the lawyer was very intelligent. He some way or other made the woman admit, ‘Yes, I felt happiness.’ So he was released. ‘Here is consent.’ And that’s a fact. Because after all, sex – rape or no rape – they will feel some pleasure. So the lawyer by hook and crook made the woman agree, ‘Yes, I felt some pleasure.’ ‘Now, there is consent.’ So he was released. After all, it is an itching sensation. So either by force or by willingly, if there is itching, everyone feels relieved itching it. That’s a psychology. It is not that the women do not like rape. They like sometimes. They willingly. That is the psychology. Outwardly they show some displeasure, but inwardly they do not. This is the psychology.” – Morning walk, 11 May 1975, Perth

It’s indisputable. Prabhupada said women enjoy being raped. They find it pleasurable. They may protest, they may say No – they may fight for their lives – but they really like it.

“It is not that the women do not like rape. They like sometimes. They willingly. That is the psychology. Outwardly they show some displeasure, but inwardly they do not.”

And though the particular Bhagavatam purport at the start of this post tends to get the most attention, it’s not the only purport in which Prabhupada expresses the same sentiment. In the purport to the very next verse there’s this:

“When a husbandless woman is attacked by an aggressive man, she takes his action to be mercy.” – SB 4.25.42, purport

And in the next chapter we find this:

“Generally when a woman is attacked by a man – whether her husband or some other man – she enjoys the attack, being too lusty.” – SB 4.26.26, purport

(Remember, Prabhupada was also of the opinion that “the sexual appetite of a woman is nine times greater than that of a man.”)

Whenever quotes like these enter the public forum without being qualified or explained away but are instead left to be interpreted in the most literal, most obvious way, devotees will insist they’ve been “taken out of context.” This is another lazy defense of things clearly indefensible. (For one thing, what sort of context could possibly redeem statements like these?) To devotees, “in context” generally means presenting the entire paragraph or chapter or book or lecture or conversation that contains whatever offensive statement is being singled out. Like producing the haystack with the needle, it seems the hope is that in combing through the “context” we might be sufficiently distracted from what we’d objected to in the first place. Whatever the intention, the only “context” acceptable to followers of Prabhupada is whatever absolves him completely, of even the most obvious guilt. Real context is not at all their concern. As we’ve so far seen in this case, context only makes things worse.

In the interest of providing context, here are a few more things to consider.

In 1972, at the time this volume of Prabhupada’s Bhagavatam was published, marital rape was not considered a crime practically anywhere in the world. In fact, spousal rape was not outlawed in all fifty US states until 1993. And in England and Wales there existed a legal exemption for marital rape until that exemption was abolished in 1991. Sadly, spousal rape is still not considered a crime in many parts of the world, including the one place perhaps most relevant to this discussion: India.

I hope the pertinence of these facts is self-evident. If not, here’s more context.

On the strength of Prabhupada’s personal statements, his married male disciples have at times considered it permissible, even necessary, to use violence against their wives.

“Pet, like that. Dhol gunar sudra pasu and nari. Nari means woman. (laughs) Just see. He has classified the nari amongst these class, dhol, gunar, sudra, pasu, nari. Ihe sab sasan ke adhikari. Sasan ke adhikari means all these are subjected for punishment.” – Room conversation, 12 April 1969, New York

“So sasan ke adhikari means they should be punished. (laughs) Punished means, just like dhol [drum], when the, I mean to say, sound is not very hard, dag-dag, if you beat it on the border, then it comes to be nice tune. Similarly, pasu, animals, if you request ‘My dear dog, please do not go there.’ Hut! (laughter) ‘No, my dear dog. Hut!’ This is the way. Similarly, woman. If you become lenient, then she will be troublesome. So in India still, in villages, whenever there is some quarrel between husband wife, the husband beats and she is tamed.” – Room conversation, 12 April 1969, New York

Considering this, and considering again that during Prabhupada’s time it was not criminal for a husband to rape his wife, it’s only reasonable to doubt the harmlessness of Prabhupada’s statements about rape. Is it really any less reasonable to wonder if Prabhupada’s male disciples and grand-disciples have at any time taken their guru’s statements as license to force themselves on their wives (or even on other women)?

ISKCON devotees will insist that their founder was impeccably moral, that he repeatedly preached against “illicit sex,” and that he regarded all sex as illicit save sexual intercourse for “producing Krishna conscious children.” How, they wonder, could someone possibly misconstrue what should otherwise be perfectly clear?

Here’s some more context.

Chaitanya Charan Das, a celibate monk who for some reason feels it necessary to offer advice on sex, recounts the following story:

“At one time there was a devotee who came to Mayapur and then in Mayapur that devotee went to some local society girl over there, and the news spread among the devotee community and then they told Prabhupada. And then Prabhupada called the devotee and Prabhupada asked him, ‘Why did you do that?’ He said, ‘I couldn’t control myself. I was too much tormented by lust.’ And Prabhupada said, ‘But you are married! Why did you have to go to a prostitute!?’ He said, ‘No Prabhupada, my wife wanted to follow the principle of no illicit sex so she refused and I didn’t want to force her.’”

Chaitanya Charan offers no source for this anecdote. Like so many un-documented stories that circulate about Prabhupada, there’s not much hope of knowing for sure whether or not this one is apocryphal. But for the sake of this discussion, let’s assume it’s true. It is after all within the realm of possibility, even plausibility; Prabhupada often referred to marriage in his society as a “license for sense gratification.” And though the publicized standard for an ISKCON marriage is to “engage in sex only for the purpose of procreation,” it should be obvious to anyone connected to reality that this standard is not met in all cases (perhaps not even in most cases). In this case Prabhupada is suggesting that his disciple not follow that standard. And he is doing so in spite of the desires of the man’s wife. Though he doesn’t explicitly instruct the husband to force his wife to have sex against her will, the implication is there, given the context.

Once again, isn’t it reasonable to imagine Prabhupada would allow his married male disciples to follow a cultural standard apparently so ingrained in Indian life that even quite recently India’s minister of Home Affairs has declined to take steps to criminalize marital rape, citing “the mindset of [Indian] society”? Though ISKCON devotees are loathe to admit it, their “Srila Prabhupada” was indisputably a product of his time and culture.

And his culture considered – and still considers – marital rape as being less than criminal.

But let’s speak more generally. When “Prabhupada was present” misogyny was on a global scale far more widespread, being in many cases and in many places socially acceptable. Prabhupada’s views on women were at that time not at all the exception to this general rule, despite his followers’ insistence he was in every way exceptional. Though ISKCON devotees refuse to see Prabhupada as a misogynist, they do so despite an outrageous number of misogynistic statements in his books and in his recorded statements (to say nothing of the example of his own life).

How did Prabhupada feel about women? The following is only a sample of what he had to say on the subject:

“As children are very prone to be misled, women are similarly very prone to degradation. Therefore, both children and women require protection by the elder members of the family. By being engaged in various religious practices, women will not be misled into adultery. According to Chanakya Pandit, women are generally not very intelligent and therefore not trustworthy.” – BG 1.40, purport

“Now, in the Manu-samhita it is clearly stated that a woman should not be given freedom. That does not mean that women are to be kept as slaves, but they are like children. The demons have now neglected such injunctions, and they think that women should be given as much freedom as men.” – BG 16.7, purport

“To understand Brahman is not the business of tiny brain. Alpha-medhasam. There are two Sanskrit words, alpa-medhasa and su-medhasa. Alpa-medhasa means having little brain substance. Physiologically, within the brain there are brain substance. It is found that the brain substance in man is found up to 64 ounce. They are very highly intellectual persons. And in woman the brain substance is not found more than 34 ounce. You’ll find, therefore, that there is no very great scientist, mathematician, philosopher, among women. You’ll never find because their brain substance cannot go. Artificially do not try to become equal with men. That is not allowed in the Vedic sastra. Na striyam svatantratam arhati. That is called sastra. You have to understand that woman is never given to be independence.” – Lecture on BG 16.7, 3 February 1975, Hawaii

“One American woman, was…She was speaking that ‘In India the woman are treated as slave. We don’t want.’ So I told her that it is better to become slave of one person than to slave of become hundreds. (laughter) The woman must become a slave. So instead of becoming slaves of so many persons, it is better to remain satisfied, a slave of one person…And our Vedic civilization says, nari-rupam pati-vratam: ‘The woman is beautiful when she remains as a slave to the husband.’ That is the beauty, not the personal beauty. How much she has learned to remain as a slave to the husband, that is Vedic civilization.” – Morning walk, 19 March 1976, Mayapur

Prabhupada: So far gurukula is concerned, that also, I have given program. They have given the name of “girls.” We are not going to do that.
Tamala Krishna: What is that?
Prabhupada: Girls. Boys and girls. That is dangerous.
Tamala Krishna: Gurukula.
Prabhupada: In that article.
Tamala Krishna: Oh, oh, oh.
Prabhupada: Girls should be completely separated from the very beginning. They are very dangerous.
Tamala Krishna: So we’re… I thought there were girls in Vrindavana now. They said that they’re going to have the girls’ gurukula behind the boys’ gurukula. Gopala was talking about that.
Prabhupada: No, no, no. No girls.
Tamala Krishna: It should be in another city or somewhere else.
Prabhupada: Yes. They should be taught how to sweep, how to stitch…
Tamala Krishna: Clean.
Prabhupada: …clean, cook, to be faithful to the husband.
Tamala Krishna: They don’t require a big school.
Prabhupada: No, no. That is mistake. They should be taught how to become obedient to the husband.                      – Morning conversation, 29 April 1977, Bombay

“People have become so degraded in this age that on the one hand they restrict polygamy and on the other hand they hunt for women in so many ways. Many business concerns publicly advertise that topless girls are available in this club or in that shop. Thus women have become instruments of sense enjoyment in modern society. The Vedas enjoin, however, that if a man has the propensity to enjoy more than one wife — as is sometimes the propensity for men in the higher social order, such as the brahmanas, kshatriyas and vaisyas, and even sometimes the sudras — he is allowed to marry more than one wife. Marriage means taking complete charge of a woman and living peacefully without debauchery. At the present moment, however, debauchery is unrestricted. Nonetheless, society makes a law that one should not marry more than one wife. This is typical of a demoniac society.” – SB 4.26.6, purport

“And it is recommended they should be married at very early age, then the wife will remain always chaste and devoted to her husband. At such young age, from the first night onwards, she can never for a moment forget him, being still child and unspoiled, therefore she becomes the perfect chaste wife, and in those times the wife was so much devoted to her husband that she would voluntarily die in the fire of his cremation, unable to live without him. Myself, I was very young when I got married, and my wife was 11 years only.” – Letter to Mr. Loy, 7 November 1972, Vrindavan

“Yes. That is psychological. They develop…Sex life, sex urge is there as soon as twelve years, thirteen years old, especially women. So therefore early marriage was sanctioned in India. Early marriage. Boy fifteen years, sixteen years, and girl twelve years. Not twelve years, ten years. I was married, my wife was eleven years. I was 22 years. She did not know what is sex, eleven years’ girl. Because Indian girls, they have no such opportunity of mixing with others. But after the first menstruation, the husband is ready. This is the system, Indian system.” – Room conversation, 15 August 1971, London

So, to summarize, in Prabhupada’s opinion women are “less intelligent,” owing in part to their anatomically inferior “brain substance.” They are “not trustworthy” and “should not be given freedom,” for a woman “is beautiful when she remains as a slave to the husband.” To that end, the education of women is a “mistake.” Instead they “should be taught to sweep, how to stitch, clean, cook, [and] be faithful to the husband.” The husband, meanwhile, can have as many wives as he likes, and those wives should be married to him at “ten years” or older, because “after the first menstruation, the husband is ready.”

By and large, present day defenders of ISKCON would prefer not to acknowledge their founder ever said (or did) any of these things. (Some devotees even insist Prabhupada was a sort of feminist – in the case of one devotee, the greatest feminist.)

As with all blemishes on the ISKCON body, the tendency in the society is to deny Prabhupada has anything to do with those blemishes – despite the constant declaration that Prabhupada himself said, “ISKCON is my body” – meanwhile insisting things like misogyny and child abuse are safely in the distant past.

Though there are far more safeguards in place in ISKCON now than there were in Prabhupada’s time, child abuse still rears its ugly head within the society from time to time. Misogyny, at least, is alive and well.

Some members of ISKCON are perfectly comfortable with their guru’s hatred of women, while others even celebrate it. Some of Prabhupada’s followers, on the strength of Prabhupada’s instructions and personal example, even publicly advocate for polygamy and child marriage. More “mainstream” ISKCON members will probably tell you that these other devotees are outliers. Maybe so, but then their founder too is on the fringe. In truth, ISKCON itself is an organization with deep-seated hatred for women. How else can you explain that the leaders of ISKCON have been arguing, unsuccessfully, for years over whether or not those devotees who happen to have a vagina instead of a penis could possibly be spiritually advanced enough to become gurus? Or that a significant number of the society’s members – leaders and rank-and-file alike – behave as if the world might end if it ever became commonplace to refer to female devotees as “prabhu,” master?

Meanwhile, in the real world outside of ISKCON’s alternate universe, public figures who express clearly offensive and illogical ideas about women and rape face real consequences. In 2013, an Israeli court judge, Nissim Yeshaya, resigned amidst outrage over his statement that some girls “enjoy being raped.” And in 2012, two political hopefuls trying to win seats in the US Senate had their campaigns obliterated with acts of verbal self-sabotage that consisted of separate but equally idiotic comments about rape. Todd Akin opined that victims of “legitimate rape” very rarely become pregnant, claiming that “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” And Richard Mourdock inadvertently made god himself a rapist when he said, “Even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that is something that God intended to happen.”

Fortunately for women everywhere, Mourdock is not ISKCON’s founder-acarya. Unfortunately for Mourdock – and Akin and Yeshaya for that matter – he is not ISKCON’s founder-acarya. If he were, he would be worshiped “as good as God” and lauded as the savior of the world, despite his reprehensible rhetoric. (Nonetheless, it’s still doubtful he could win an election in America.)

To know even a fraction of what “Srila Prabhupada” said about women and yet to maintain he’s a saint is, to be charitable, a bit of a paradox. The willingness to do so is easy enough to understand, though the capacity to do it is often baffling.

Going Back to Godhead: ISKCON and the Prison of Belief

The cult experience is a paradox. It is both completely unique and thoroughly unoriginal. Only those who have lived it can truly say what it’s like, and yet the experience itself differs so slightly from one cult to the next that the personal story of any one survivor can seem familiar, even if the specific beliefs or practices of his or her cult contradict your own.

The documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief had been getting press for months before it finally premiered last night on HBO. Last week, writer and director Paul Haggis, who spent thirty-five years in The Church of Scientology, wrote about his own personal response to the film. I find that his thoughts mirror my own and that his words speak for me, giving an intelligible voice to the regret, anger, and embarrassment I now feel after having wasted a decade or so of my life in ISKCON.

I’ve reproduced nearly all of Paul Haggis’ words below, replacing some relevant pronouns and organizational details with those specific to ISKCON. These are not my words. I did not write this. But I could have.

If Paul Haggis or Tony Ortega or anyone at The Underground Bunker would like me to remove this post, I’ll readily oblige. Nonetheless, I think they would be able to recognize its value as an expression of the cult experience and “the prison of belief.”

“I was very involved in ISKCON for most of my adult life. While I thought the Vedic astronomy madness, I enthusiastically followed the regulative principles and performed the daily practices of Krishna consciousness — so much so that it took several years after leaving to actually question the many practices, behaviors, and thought patterns that I had learned and used. The slow indoctrination process is as subtle as it is dangerous — largely because you truly believe that you are thinking for yourself, when in fact you are discouraged to do anything of the sort.

“Paradoxically, there is great pride in belonging to a stigmatized group. It’s like being in love with a narcissist. All your friends will warn you that you are just being used. You understand why they think what they think, but you believe in your heart that they just don’t see what you see. You just tune them out. For that reason, when I did discover what many outside ISKCON knew, I was truly shocked. While some of the information had been out there for many years, like all devotees ‘in good standing,’ I refused to look. Yes, I was told not to, but I didn’t have to be. This was my group and I knew there to be many people in the world who were bigoted and close-minded, and when I was told that we were ‘under attack’ in Kazakhstan or Siberia or wherever, instead of looking for the reasons, I assumed this to be the case.

“It makes little or no sense in retrospect, and it’s very hard to understand unless you’ve been a part of a marginalized group. While my doubts were a constant thorn in my side, questioning philosophies I thought unjust, it never crossed my mind to voice my concerns outside the organization. In fact, even after I had left the organization I maintained a great fondness for ‘the old man.’ Yes, Prabhupada was a kind of revolutionary, and he might have lost perspective later in life, I thought, but I still mistakenly believed he was a genuine mystic who legitimately represented an authentic religious tradition. Even then. I might have been outraged by injustices I witnessed or heard about, but I dropped the blame at the doorstep of the GBC and Prabhupada’s ‘immature’ disciples.

“It took years after leaving to understand that these practices I railed against had always been at the core of ISKCON — that the GBC was just very faithfully, if clumsily, following Srila Prabhupada’s cruel playbook. The reason this was hard to believe is exactly because of the duplicitous nature of Prabhupada’s writing. He wrote and spoke about the practice and necessity of not ‘following blindly’; how nothing should be accepted without ‘intelligent inquiry.’ But it is advice given to the brainwashed. All these high-minded teachings are useless when you factor in the things you are never allowed to question — ‘Srila Prabhupada,’ his teachings, practices, and leadership.

“Somehow devotees are able to accept those incongruous and contradictory thoughts. For example, they truly believe that only ISKCON can save the world, and that they are making major strides in this direction every year. They hold onto this belief despite the fact that there isn’t even a modicum of evidence that they are having even the tiniest impact on any problem in any part of the globe. Devotees simply accept the assurances of their gurus and the GBC that it is so. To the contrary, volumes of compelling evidence from unimpeachable sources that their organization has done and is doing serious damage to thousands of people is dismissed before it is ever inspected.

“That’s what will happen to sites like The Hare Krishna Thing and blogs like Hare Krishna Truth Out. At least that’s what ISKCON hopes happens. Without even reading any of it my former friends will condemn it as lies. You see it happening already. Understand that many of these devotees are damn smart people; many of them truly lovely and caring. But they are the same people who will not hesitate to cut their closest friend or family member out of their lives if they commit the ultimate crime of criticizing Srila Prabhupada. You could do anything else and they would stand by you; commit any crime and they would be there to defend you. But not this.

“I believe this is because somewhere in the back of their heads they know, as I did, that the very act of questioning could bring down their entire belief system. They have been slowly but surely trained to believe that if you don’t agree with something that Prabhupada wrote, you just don’t understand it. Questioning anything means questioning everything. Even the slightest crack in that belief system could spread into a fissure. They cannot afford or allow the smallest doubt, because if it took root, their perfect world — a world where there is an answer to every one of life’s questions — could fall apart around them, and they would be left, like the rest of us, searching in the dark for their own answers in an uncertain world. Which brings to mind something a true genius wrote: ‘Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack, a crack, in everything. That’s how the light gets in.’ For the sake of my former friends, many of whom I loved, I hope that sites like are the first crack, that they will read essays like Steven Gelberg’s ‘On Leaving ISKCON’ or ‘Oh! The Things I Learned,’ and the light will slip in.”

The Nectar of Not-So-Transcendental Book Distribution

In this blog’s most recent post I tried to make the case that the shiny-happy ISKCON of the present day is not exactly what the movement’s founder-acarya had in mind.

“When he was alive Prabhupada’s desires simply did not include the 24-hour kirtans, weekend chanting festivals, and japa retreats so popular these days. During Prabhupada’s time the importance of the maha-mantra paled in comparison to another ISKCON-approved mantra: ‘Work now, samadhi later.’ During ISKCON’s heyday, Prabhupada’s (and thus ISKCON’s) top priority was selling books, plain and simple. (No one who was there at that time would dispute this. As Prabhupada said, many different times in many different ways, ‘Distribution of books and magazines is our most important activity.’) However, as I’ve already mentioned, that old-time book distribution wasn’t so spiritual.”

Having joined ISKCON some time after the fall of the Zonal Acaryas, I was brought up with a false narrative: I was led to believe, by devotees who were there and knew better, that in the physical presence of “Srila Prabhupada” ISKCON was an indomitable extension of Lord Caitanya’s mercy, a dynamic preaching movement faultlessly devoted to spreading Krishna’s message through the fully spiritual activity of sankirtana, either in the form of “book distribution” or “chanting the holy names.” I was taught to revere sankirtana and its limitless potential for spiritual transformation and cultural revolution. And when I’d been around long enough to find out that sankirtana had at one time devolved into something less than spiritual – something materialistic, hardly more respectable than panhandling and not far removed from a scam – I was encouraged to adopt the delusion that that unfortunate episode had occurred after ISKCON’s golden years, after Prabhupada’s departure.

Sadly, that’s not true. Paul Ford, initiated by Prabhupada as Pujana Dasa, writes about sankirtana in the seventies in his book Mad After Krishna. He gives a refreshingly un-sanitized account of what it was like to be a devotee in ISKCON’s golden days. I’ll reproduce an excerpt below but urge you to read the rest of the chapter from which the excerpt comes as well as the rest of the book in its entirety.

“Selling books was a bit like stage performance. Successful sankirtan devotees looked good. We shined our shoes, and made sure our clothes and wigs fit properly. We learned our lines, especially our opening lines. We also learned how to ad lib as the situation required. We invented and memorized a repertoire of lines, come-ons, and responses for various situations…

“Prabhupada said that we were to collect Lakshmi ‘by hook or by crook.’ One hook was establishing a rapport with the karmis. If, for example, they said they were from Kansas, we would say something like, ‘I’ve got a brother back that way.’ Some experienced devotees tried to create the feeling of an old friendship. If they succeeded, a request for a donation would seem like asking an old friend for a small loan…

“Another hook was to induce them to answer ‘yes’ to a series of innocuous but loaded questions. Then a ‘yes’ to a request for a donation would come more easily. For example, a devotee selling records to a young karmi might begin with, ‘Do you have a turntable?’ Nearly everyone owned a turntable. For another example, sometimes a devotee said, ‘We’re doing a survey.’ Then he asked a few questions and said, ‘We have a special deal only for the people we’re interviewing today.’ Sometimes a clipboard-carrying devotee in an airport or bus station firmly addressed the servicemen as ‘Soldier!’ and then ordered them to take a book and give money.

“Another successful hook was the come-on to the opposite sex. For example, the women sometimes approached a karmi man, pinned a flower or button on his lapel, told him how big and ‘dangerous’ he was, sometimes even kissed him, and then asked for a donation. Vrindavan Vilasini was a top female sankirtan devotee. Well spoken and convinced of the philosophy, she also had a pretty face and an attractive figure. Mulaprakriti, another top scorer, was less beautiful but was intelligent, strong-willed, hardworking, and highly skilled at sankirtan. The men sometimes accused the women of using their physical attractiveness to their advantage, and the women accurately returned the same charge.

“We often said that to sell to a karmi couple, one first needed to persuade the woman. In private, we laughed at karmi men who appeared to be under the control of their wives or girlfriends. In contrast, women devotees knew their place — subordinate and submissive to the men.

“Sometimes a householder devotee took a child, not necessarily his own, with him on sankirtan. By all reports, cute children were worth their weight in gold in donations. By about the age of fourteen or fifteen, they were ready to go out and collect Lakshmi on their own.

“Besides increasing the amount of money we collected, the cultivation of a tough, unshakeable attitude ‘dovetailed’ well with our philosophy. We had all knowledge; the spiritually covered karmis were incapable of understanding the truth. It was natural, then, to try to entice or trick them into buying into Krishna consciousness.

“The ‘crooks’ Prabhupada referred to were techniques ranging from mild deception to full-fledged transcendental trickery. We tried to give the impression that we were a part of what the public was supposed to experience at that particular time and place — especially if it were an illegal location. For example, in store parking lots we sometimes announced, ‘The manager asked us to come here today.’

“When a karmi asked, ‘Is this Krishna?’ in a hostile tone, we replied, ‘No.’ We answered questions according to how they were asked. For example, if someone asked, ‘What’s this for?’ I would give an indirect, vague answer, never mentioning Krishna. If, however, we hit them up hard enough, they would not even ask. They would give Lakshmi or not, and we would move on to the next karmi.

“Some devotees collected Lakshmi for Vietnam War-era MIA’s (Missing In Action) and POW’s (Prisoners Of War). Others said they were collecting for UNICEF (the United Nations Children’s Fund) or the Red Cross. Other standard lines included, ‘I’m from Apple records’ (the Beatles’ record label) or ‘I’m George Harrison’s secretary.’ Or, ‘This book is about chemistry [or sociology, or political science].’ A book was about whatever we thought might interest that particular karmi. After all, the Hindu scriptures contained all knowledge on all subjects…

“Some sankirtan devotees had perfected a technique known to its detractors within the Movement as ‘shortchanging.’ Gopa, for example, would tell a karmi, ‘I’ve got a bunch of ones I’m trying to get rid of. Do you have a twenty?’ He would take the karmi’s twenty-dollar bill and slowly give him back one-dollar bills, one at a time. As he did so, he would continue to pitch the book. This technique was effective, because karmis often got tired of waiting for their change and gave up, leaving the devotee with a greater-than-intended donation.

“Sometimes, after inducing a karmi to take out his wallet, a devotee pointed to or touched a bill he wanted, say a ten or twenty-dollar bill. I heard that some devotees simply grabbed the money and ran.

“Some women devotees dressed up in attractive karmi clothes and sold flowers in bars. If a devotee got roughed up in a bar, it was because of her lack of faith. Devotees always trusted that Krishna would protect them on sankirtan. In addition, the women distributed books on military bases, especially on military payday. The services were then almost entirely male.

“Nevertheless, a devotee needed to use subterfuge when dealing with people whose intelligence was at the animal level. Karmis were simply too sinful to understand what we were doing. We accepted no legal, moral, or ethical authority other than our own, because God’s law was higher than man’s ‘concocted’ laws. The police and the courts were agents of the ruling class of atheists and materialists. Their job was to keep people ignorant of God and keep the present government in power.

“When we did obey others’ rules and laws, it was with the attitude that for now they were in charge, but that circumstances would be different later. A devotee once told me, ‘When we take over, we’ll demand money at gunpoint.’ Another devotee named Tarun Krishna called sankirtan a cross between sport and war. Tripurari declared sankirtan a holy war. Prabhupada himself said that book distribution was the equivalent of ‘dropping bombs on the laps of the conditioned souls.’”

It’s only natural that an ISKCON devotee “in good standing” will be skeptical of this account. Perhaps a devotee might be willing to believe these practices were adopted by some but not all, certainly not by the majority. Whatever the case, all devotees will insist that Prabhupada knew nothing about this (despite his being in direct communication with Krishna) and that even if he did he would have never under any circumstances condoned such practices. The prevailing narrative – that everything good comes from Prabhupada, whereas everything bad is due to the shortcomings of his followers – is a powerful one, despite the fact it’s not true.

In March of 1977 Prabhupada met in Mayapur with his “GBC men” to discuss their resolutions for that year. One of the things they discussed was the illegal practices devotees were using while on sankirtana. Prabhupada’s response was, in short, “Real point is if we can introduce book, there is nothing illegal. Everything is legal. Now, to save us from so-called legal complication, we must be legal. Otherwise there is nothing illegal, what we do for Krishna.”

Satsvarupa: We made resolutions regarding book distribution techniques. Any illegal techniques for book distribution, that is, illegal according to law, should be banned, including… And then a comprehensive list will follow, mainly supplied by Ramesvara Maharaja. They will include some things like outright illegal techniques.

Prabhupada: Real point is if we can introduce book, there is nothing illegal. Everything is legal. Now, to save us from so-called legal complication, we must be legal. Otherwise there is nothing illegal, what we do for Krishna.

Ramesvara: That was our conclusion, Prabhupada, that there are just a few practices…

Prabhupada: But we have to take care of the public.

Satsvarupa: Things… Some of them mentioned were to imitate a deaf and dumb man and ask for charity, imitating that… (laughter)

Prabhupada: That’s not bad. (laughter)

Kirtanananda: Some boys were arrested for that, Srila Prabhupada. They will arrest you in the United States if they catch you. They have done that.

Brahmananda: That is considered fraud.

Ramesvara: Prabhupada, the points that we are proposing to ban will not decrease book distribution, so they can be eliminated and book distribution will not be decreased.

Prabhupada: Yes. So the real legal thing is: some way or other, introduce books.

Later in the conversation they discuss the practice of dressing up in costumes – in particular, dressing up as Santa Claus, which Paul Ford also mentions in his book – and Prabhupada gives his response:

Satsvarupa: Yes. Also for book distribution techniques, the use of the Santa Claus uniform and other theatrical costumes is banned, not to be done.

Prabhupada: Is there any legal objection?

Satsvarupa: No.

Prabhupada: Then why?

Kirtanananda: They’re legal.

Hrdayananda: There was a great deal of negative publicity.

Kirtanananda: They are legal…

Prabhupada: So if it is legal, why shall they be…?

Ramesvara: The reason it was decided is that even though it is legal in America, in foreign countries there is bad reaction. The Americans do not mind as much as the foreign countries. So we are concerned for the international image of our movement.

Jayatirtha: It was published in practically every newspaper in the world, a picture of Santa Claus being arrested by a policeman in America. We got a lot of questions. Also the President of the United States questioned one boy in a Santa Claus outfit.

Ramesvara: We felt that it would not seriously decrease the book distribution if we stopped this.

Prabhupada: Oh, yes. Then it is all right.

So, the bottom line is, well, the bottom line. If it won’t significantly decrease the amount of money coming in, then it’s all right. I don’t know about you, but when I imagined the heroic book distributors of yore I never imagined them in Santa suits passing out candy canes. That idea doesn’t really resonate with the image of sankirtana we get from Lord Caitanya’s pastimes, does it? It has less to do with spiritual revolution than it does with panhandlers dressed up as cartoon characters in Times Square. It’s certainly no more dignified. It’s a scam.

Unfortunately, an army of begging Santas was not the worst of it. As the conversation continues, Prabhupada and his leaders discuss something far more troubling and far more consequential to the lives of ISKCON’s devotees.

First, some background: As recounted in Monkey On a Stick and by Nori Muster in her essay “Life as a Woman on Watseka Avenue,” at some point in the seventies it had become commonplace for women’s sankirtana parties to be led by a single male devotee who “lived with and slept with” the women under his care. These men preached to their subordinates that they were their “eternal husband and protector” and then took advantage of this status to satisfy their own sexual desires with the rationalization that this was inspiring the victims in their service, because “It is understood that the sexual appetite of a woman is nine times greater than that of a man.”

I think you’ll agree this is troubling. Even more troubling is Prabhupada’s reaction:

Satsvarupa: …One of the popular means to distribute books is by women’s party. A party of women will travel under the care of a man devotee. But in taking care of the women, we have noted that some of these parties have been preaching a false philosophy of the relationship of the man who’s taking care of the women, and that philosophy is that the sankirtana leader is the eternal husband and protector of the women in the party. We want that this philosophy should be rejected. If a man is taking care of a number of women in a sankirtana party, he should be regarded as the son as well as a representative of the spiritual master, of Srila Prabhupada, and not the husband of these women.

Prabhupada: Husband, but why he does not marry them? (laughter)

Satsvarupa: Well, sometimes there may be as many as twenty women in a party.

Kirtanananda: They would like to.

Prabhupada: We have no objection if one marries more than one wife. That I have stated. But law does not allow it. So do the needful.

In comparison to Prabhupada, the approach offered by the GBC is more reasonable. (And what, pray tell, is “the needful” in this situation?) At least Prabhupada’s dsciples seem to show concern, if not for the women being exploited at least for the effect that exploitation might have on the Hare Krishna movement and the way it’s perceived by outsiders. And if you’re shocked by Prabhupada’s attitude about polygamy, please don’t suppress that reaction with knee-jerk veneration for the “founder-acarya.Prabhupada made comments in favor of polygamy throughout his tenure in ISKCON, even though that fact is not talked about in his society today. Like his comments on rape and spousal abuse, they don’t get much attention because that would upset the prevailing narrative. It’s a shame more devotees aren’t upset that the prevailing narrative is the only one they are able to accept.