A: Is ISKCON a cult?
That’s the simplest and most honest answer.
It is, however, not the most complete.
First the one; then the other.
There’s a disciple of Prabhupada’s, renowned as a bookseller, who has a clever, if disingenuous, way of dealing with this question. He tells devotees, if they are ever asked, “Is this a cult?” to reply, “What’s a cult?”
Like many dishonest answers to honest questions, this one does its best to divert. The hope, of course, is that the asker will not have anything specific in mind. And if the asker is unable to say exactly what a cult is, how can the asked say whether or not he belongs to one?
And yet the question remains unanswered. So…
What is a cult? And does this fit the bill?
Again, the answer to the second question is, mostly, yes. But let’s take a closer look at the first question so we know exactly what we’re talking about.
As many ISKCON members will be happy to tell you, theirs is “the cult of Lord Caitanya,” as the Gaudiya Vaishnava sect is sometimes referred to. But to say so is to confuse the issue. It’s true that the word “cult” has historically been used to refer to any sort of religious sect, free from the negative connotations the word indisputably carries today. (Not for nothing, but this is another reason why the above approach to this question is so insidious: it feigns ignorance of a fact about which everyone is aware and to which practically everyone agrees.)
In general parlance, “cult” refers to a religious group with beliefs lying well outside the mainstream and which demands a level of involvement, allegiance, and group cohesion that most would consider unreasonable, even dangerous. (Does that gel with the nebulous definition you already had in mind?)
But let’s get more specific.
Groups like ISKCON have, understandably enough, objected to being called cults, preferring instead to be dubbed “new religious movements” or something similar. I’ll admit that there exists a useful distinction between a religious organization and a cult (ignoring, for a moment, that this sort of linguistic misdirection is damning in and of itself). Robert Jay Lifton, who quite literally wrote the book on cults, responds to this calculated re-branding – in particular, the objection that the word “cult” is a pejorative one – by saying that pejorative is precisely the point.
Lifton gives three broad guidelines by which a cult can be distinguished from a new religious movement.
(1) In the context of religion, a cult tends to worship or revere a particular person, as opposed to broad spiritual principles. (This is not to say that one completely replaces the other. A cult can also espouse principles apparently spiritual, but those principles are of subordinate importance to the cult’s leader or founder, who is usually responsible for establishing the group’s principles in the first place.)
This sort of cult of personality is indisputably at work in ISKCON, in which the checks and balances supposedly embodied by “guru, sadhu, and sastra” are repeatedly subordinated to the institution’s true concern: “Prabhupada said…” Nothing in ISKCON can be decided without one’s making a case for how Prabhupada did (or would have) felt about it. Indeed, “Prabhupada said” is in ISKCON “the highest pramana,” the silver bullet in silencing philosophical contention. Broad spiritual principles – like the spiritual equality of all living beings expressed by the phrase “you’re not that body” – are discarded again and again in favor of Prabhupada’s personal opinions – for example, about women and their relative inferiority to men.
(2) Cults depend upon a social hierarchy in which those at the top exploit the genuine spiritual desires of those at the bottom. This institutionalized exploitation is often sexual or financial in nature, but it doesn’t have to be so gross. It can also exist on the level of what ISKCON doctrine dubs “subtle sex desire,” the drive for fame, adulation, affection. There is however no reason to think that exploitation in ISKCON exists only on this “subtle” level.
Sexual exploitation has been well documented in ISKCON’s past, and it no doubt continues to exist in the present. A number of high profile “falldowns” have even been exposed very recently. Only the most naive would suggest that such things won’t happen again in the future. Regardless, exploitation doesn’t need to be confined to the uppermost echelons of society to indicate that the dynamics of a cult are at work. Exploitation can exist in any relationship distinguished by a power differential. Your local temple president or bhakta leader or sankirtan leader or spiritual mentor are all susceptible to indulging in this sort of exploitation. It’s called pastoral abuse, and it unfortunately occurs more often than we’d like to believe, certainly more often than it is exposed or reported. (And when it is, victim blaming is sadly the norm.) Any time someone in a position of power is taking advantage of the willingness of someone in his or her charge, that is abuse. And it’s a clear sign of a cult.
Consider for a moment that this dynamic, at least in its more subtle form, animates all of ISKCON. Those who hold office in ISKCON, from temple presidents to GBCs to initiating gurus, all enjoy the perks of their position because of the unremunerated labor and unquestioning allegiance (not to mention charity) of those below them. In the case of ISKCON’s highest caste, the sannyasis, their very existence is predicated on their exploiting the rest of the society’s members. Though we are told that a sannyasi is meant to be a pauper, thoroughly dependent on Krishna, the so-called dependence of an ISKCON sannyasi is in no way remarkable (if it exists at all). Unlike the archetypal sannyasi of fabled “Vedic India,” XYZ Maharaja never has to worry if he will have enough to eat or a place to sleep at night. The embarrassing fact is that a sannyasi in ISKCON never has to worry even that his clothes will be washed and ironed or that he will have the money to purchase a new computer or a business class ticket to his next destination, where he can expect a first class meal prepared precisely according to his special diet, a soft bed, and round-the-clock menial service from an eager sycophant hoping to receive his “mercy.”
If you like, you can dismiss this as cultural etiquette or social nicety, but the fact remains: Exploitation is the engine on which ISKCON runs, whether it’s this sort of hierarchical exploitation or the sort of financial exploitation by which virtually all religious groups operate in societies where they are allowed to subsist on charity without ever having to pay tax or otherwise contribute meaningfully to the greater social body.
(3) Finally, but perhaps most importantly, cults operate with the help of what Robert Jay Lifton called “totalist thought reform practices,” eight social/psychological dynamics he outlined in his landmark book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism. A cult will make use of these dynamics in indoctrinating and subsequently in controlling its members. Over the next several posts we will examine each in depth. For now, a brief introduction.
Thought reform is now more generally known as “brainwashing” or “mind control.”
A: Wait. Brainwashing? You must know what Prabhupada said about brainwashing: “Your brains need to be washed.”
B: I’ve heard it. And, yes, it’s clever. But, excuse me for saying so, the degree to which you think that remark settles the question is directly related to how thoroughly you’ve been brainwashed.
Prabhupada was full of aphorisms like this. Many of them are pithy. Some of them are insightful. But don’t mistake wit for wisdom. Often the wisest thing about a response like this is how expertly it avoids answering a direct question.
Let’s take a look at exactly what brainwashing is, and then we can decide whether or not it’s at work in ISKCON. Fair?
B: Lifton lists eight things characteristic of brainwashing. As I describe them, you can determine for yourself whether or not you’ve ever experienced or participated in these things while in ISKCON. These brief descriptions may be difficult to fully understand, but I think a few of them at least will sound familiar.
– Milieu Control: strict control of information and communication
– Mystical Manipulation: events are made to appear spontaneous though they in fact were planned and orchestrated (or events that happened by chance are deemed to have been divinely arranged)
– Demand for Purity: the world is viewed as black and white (as is morality), and members are pressured to conform to the ideology of the group
– Confession: sins and other transgressions, as defined by the group, are to be confessed either privately or publicly
– Sacred Science: the doctrine of the group is considered the Absolute Truth, beyond question, not open to discussion
– Loading the Language: words and phrases are used in ways that often make them inscrutable to the outside world
– Doctrine over Person: personal experiences of the members are subsumed by group doctrine – the sacred science – and experiences that contradict that doctrine must be rejected or made to fit a dogmatic understanding
– Dispensing of Existence: the very right to existence is meted out by the group according to its needs
Can you see any of these things present in ISKCON? I’m afraid that, while you feel you should say yes, you may be inclined to explain them away instead. As I said, over the next several posts we’ll examine each one individually and in depth. Just like the greater question of ISKCON’s cult status, denying the prevalence of brainwashing within ISKCON makes little sense if you don’t first understand what brainwashing is.
In that regard, I’d like to offer a word of warning: When we think about cults we often imagine a malevolent leader or leaders who are consciously manipulating weak-minded victims. That may not necessarily be the case. In introducing these eight dynamics, Lifton writes that “Thought reform has a psychological momentum of its own, a self-perpetuating energy not always bound by the interests of the program’s directors.” Perhaps one of the most tragic aspect of the cult experience is that the individual is largely responsible for his or her own manipulation; it is a process undertaken by him- or herself, aided by the favorable environment the cult creates for such an undertaking. Just because you can’t point a finger at some evil mastermind who is to blame for your ongoing manipulation, you shouldn’t automatically dismiss the idea that you’ve been brainwashed.
A: At the very beginning, when I asked if ISKCON’s a cult, you said that yes was “the simplest and most honest answer” but “not the most complete.” What are you not telling me?
B: Thanks for reminding me.
All in all, ISKCON is a cult. But it doesn’t have to be.
Because there is some variation in how ISKCON operates in different countries and cultures, or even in different cities or local centers within the same country, there may also be some variation in the degree to which ISKCON exemplifies a cult dynamic. It may even vary depending on the individual member. Nevertheless, it is clearly unavoidable that the more deeply one becomes involved in ISKCON, the more that experience becomes a cult experience.
It is possible that as an organization ISKCON could carefully study the characteristics of the cult dynamic, honestly and bravely confront those instances where such a dynamic is at work within the organization, and then make a determined effort to change.
For instance, ISKCON could make an effort to shift its emphasis to a more general adherence to the principles and philosophy of Gaudiya Vaishnavism as they have been presented throughout its spiritual lineage and in the wider community of the tradition, as opposed to insisting, ad naseum, that Prabhupada is an infallible authority on virtually every known topic and the only proponent of the philosophy worth consulting. Anyone who’s spent any time in ISKCON knows that this is, at best, extremely unlikely.
It is perhaps just as unlikely that ISKCON would enact substantial reform of its hierarchical structure by insisting that its sannyasis and other leaders give up the many perks they enjoy. And it is highly unlikely too that the society would seriously consider the prevalence of brainwashing within its ranks and endeavor to do something about it.
Yes, ISKCON is a cult. And though it doesn’t have to be, the possibility that it might change is almost laughably improbable.
A: That’s pessimistic. You can criticize ISKCON if you want, but I’d rather be part of the solution by staying and working to change it, instead of just abandoning ship.
B: Of course. That’s your choice.
But consider this: Motivated (or perhaps browbeaten) by phrases like “ISKCON is my body” and “never leave ISKCON,” the society’s most persistent directive has become nothing more than this – never leave. Stay in ISKCON, despite its many problems, despite your better judgment. Just stay.
As we’ll see when we look more closely at Lifton’s eight principles of thought reform, the cult dynamic within ISKCON has elevated persistent membership to the highest and most virtuous act, promising postmortem spiritual elevation to anyone who simply sticks around and tolerates their exploitation.
I can think of few more indisputable proofs of ISKCON’s status as a cult.