Honest Questions, Honest Answers – Interlude: It’s Not Like That Anymore

A: I’d like to briefly address something that’s come up a few times since we started talking. You keep telling me that “ISKCON’s not really like that anymore.”

B: Yeah. It seems like you have an outdated impression of ISKCON. When you talk about brainwashing, when you claim ISKCON’s a cult, I can’t help but think that that’s how things were in the eighties, during ISKCON’s dark ages. But it’s not like that now. At least, that hasn’t been my experience in ISKCON.

A: It’s true, in many ways, ISKCON is not like it’s been in the past. As a result, many devotees think it’s changed for the better. I’ll agree there’s been a shift over the last several years, away from an obviously authoritarian, cultic atmosphere toward a somewhat more liberal approach to ideology and one’s relationship to the organization. At least that’s true in some areas of ISKCON’s (waning) influence, North America in particular.

In my own experience, as a young devotee I was led to believe (perhaps because it’s what I wanted to believe) that “ISKCON’s dark ages,” as you called them, were a regrettable anomaly that arose after “Prabhupada’s departure,” in large part because his followers were so young and inexperienced and impure. As this narrative has it, these immature young devotees gradually grew up – by passing through a despicable series of hard knocks – and settled into the mature practitioners of krishna-bhakti they are today. Through hardship they learned to trust in Prabhupada and take shelter of the holy names, and now ISKCON is so much better off because of it. Central to this mythology is the idea that this is what Prabhupada wanted all along, that ISKCON is finally focused on the true essence of Prabhupada’s teachings.

Does this sound familiar?

B: Well, yes. Isn’t that the way things are?

A: Not really. But it does make a nice story, if for no other reason than it allows devotees to compartmentalize some of ISKCON’s indisputably horrendous historical episodes, ensuring that those episodes are seen to have nothing to do with Prabhupada and preventing devotees from wondering whether or not he could have prevented them.

I think it’s important to acknowledge how this narrative protects the institutional assumptions about Prabhupada – now, at least officially, regarded by ISKCON devotees as an infallible, godlike spiritual superman – by its tacit declaration that all good things can be attributed to him, whereas all bad things are the fault of his all-too-painfully human disciples.

It’s too bad that’s not really how things are.

B: Here we go… How so?

A: Well, for one thing, even while Prabhupada was alive ISKCON was far from perfect. It’s not true that things fell apart only after 1977. You won’t get this impression from listening to his disciples reminisce about “the good old days,” but it’s a fact whether or not it’s publicly acknowledged.

For instance, did you know Kirtanananda, shortly after he became Kirtanananda Swami, was first kicked out of ISKCON (by Prabhupada) in 1967? Or that Brahmananda, Gargamuni, Visnujana, and Subala Swamis were also excommunicated from the society (again, by Prabhupada) for a while? Did you know that sannyasis fell down at least as frequently while Prabhupada was still here as they’ve done since he left? For that matter, did you know that during those days devotees actually left all the time? (Even the Prabhupada-Lilamrta makes those two facts clear.) Did you know there were signs of child abuse in ISKCON as early as 1970? Or that sankirtan became a money-making scheme, rather than a preaching strategy, long before the days of the Zonal Acaryas? Speaking of which, did you know that ISKCON’s temple in Mayapur was built in part with money that one of Prabhupada’s sannyasis got by fencing stolen jewelry, which by the way was only one of the things he did that got ISKCON banned in Japan?

B: Um, no. I didn’t know any of that.

A: And all of that happened while Prabhupada was still with us.

Now, ideologically speaking, the dual emphasis on chanting and faith in Prabhupada – elemental aspects of what ISKCON presently wants to believe about itself – were hardly fundamental principles during the time of the “founder-acarya.”

Sure, it’s true enough that while he was alive Prabhupada’s disciples were zealously devoted to him, eager to fulfill his every desire. But their devotion wasn’t enough to keep scandal out of ISKCON. And today his disciples may say they value faith in Prabhupada as one of ISKCON’s core principles, but they certainly don’t accept his instructions in the same unquestioning – and, frankly, fanatical – way they did in his presence.

ISKCON’s present focus on “the holy name” is actually a perfect case in point.

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.

B: I don’t know about all this. Prabhupada always stressed chanting Hare Krishna. We’re known as “the Hare Krishnas,” after all.

But, even if what you say is true, it’s definitely also true that Prabhupada’s disciples are more mature now. There are many advanced devotees in ISKCON who have grown in spiritual realization since they first joined.

A: Maybe so. (I told you how I feel about that the last time we talked.) Right now the point isn’t really whether or not Prabhupada’s disciples grew out of their naivete and inexperience and fanaticism, it’s that (supposedly) they did it just the way Prabhupada had always wanted them to do. For the sake of this conversation, that’s where I disagree; I don’t think ISKCON today is the culmination of Prabhupada’s desires.

Here’s the thing: The fanatic “pure devotee syndrome” you often hear blamed for ISKCON’s many mis-steps, and which those mature devotees now caution their young proteges against, was once typical not just of Prabhupada’s direct disciples, it was in a way typical of Prabhupada himself.

Haven’t you ever wondered why this “pure devotee syndrome” exists in the first place, why over the years virtually every one of ISKCON’s new recruits is seen to pass through a period of hyper-fanatical application of so-called Krishna conscious philosophy? This phenomenon is commonly attributed to “immaturity,” a sort of naive enthusiasm endemic in young converts, that will gradually be tempered as they grow older and are forced to confront life’s practical realities.

(It’s no coincidence that so many of these young arrogant fanatics happen to be brahmacaris, celibate monks. Nor is it a coincidence that their fanaticism is, thankfully, often tempered by the extreme re-orientation required by marriage, parenting, and the responsibilities that come with having to care for others.)

Still, all practicalities aside, it would be naive to the point of stupidity to ignore the fact that fanaticism in ISKCON actually comes from reading and diligently following the instructions found in Prabhupada’s books. Last time we talked it came up that Prabhupada’s instructions about material education aren’t being so closely followed by ISKCON devotees today. The same can be said about welfare work and temple management, even daily spiritual practice. Speaking of which, how many devotees do you know – even temple devotees – who never sleep more than six hours a day, who always wake up by four in the morning, who eat only offered food, who never watch movies or TV?

B: Not many.

A: That’s what I thought. Is that one of the ways ISKCON has changed for the better? Maybe so. I for one think a lot of these changes are perfectly sane and reasonable, especially as they pertain to treating women like human beings and caring at least a little bit about how we treat one another in general (devotees and non-devotees alike). Nonetheless, so many of the changes in ISKCON, for better or worse, divert from Prabhupada’s original vision.

What does that say about Prabhupada? What does it now say about ISKCON? And what does it say about ISKCON devotees in general? How can you praise someone as “the savior of the world,” regard him as an infallible messenger of God Himself, and at the same time disregard much of what he said, even as it relates to the society he established and to the lives of its members?

I know no one wants to say so, but is it possible that Prabhupada’s followers actually disagree – in a very substantial way – with much of what their founder taught?

Of course, there are more than a few ISKCON devotees who are perfectly happy to accept as impeachable truth every single word Prabhupada ever wrote or uttered. (Even when those words are clearly, indisputably false or self-contradictory.) There will always be conservatives in ISKCON. (Maybe someday there will only be conservatives in ISKCON.)

But what about the liberals? As I said, how can you worship and revere Prabhupada as the “founder-acarya” and at the same time ignore (for fear of otherwise having to publicly disagree with) so much of what he said?

B: I don’t have an answer.

A: For conservatives in ISKCON, things are comparatively straightforward – ideologically enshrine Prabhupada’s original, “un-edited” books and hold on for dear life as time and science and society and general human progress all march on without you.

As for ISKCON’s liberals, their “Srila Prabhupada” is a fiction, and thus they’re forced to mystify and mythologize the idea of him just to keep cognitive dissonance from tearing them apart.

Either way, delusion is indispensable.

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