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.

 

 

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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.

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2 thoughts on “The ISKCON Narrative (Part 2)

  1. I enjoyed reading your ISKCON narrative. I have a few thoughts that I would like to contribute.

    I started chanting 16 rounds and following the 4 regs before I ever met a devotee as a friend gave me a Bhagavad Gita As It Is. I traveled from Connecticut to visit the Henry Street temple once in 1973 before moving in at the beginning of 1974. I was rather stunned by the worshipful attitude the devotees had toward Bhaktivedanta. It didn’t make much sense, it was more like Prabhupada Consciousness instead of Krishna Consciousness.

    I agree that Bhaktivedanta’s teachings and books have many contradictions. I was at a brahamacari class given by Harikesa and questioned one of the contradictions. I thought he was going to rip my head off. This was a very important lesson for me, that the dedicated devotees could not question any apparent contradiction, not necessarily because they though Bhaktivedanta was perfect, but maybe because if they allowed themselves to doubt one statement, then all the hard to believe teachings would become suspect.

    You wrote “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.”

    This I never heard. You also wrote “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”

    I remember one of Bhaktivedanta’s lectures where is said something along the lines that the mercy from the spiritual master is not like an electric shock. It is my understanding that what he was saying is that the instructions of the spiritual master contain the power to liberate us and by following these instructions the inherent power will act without any specific intention of the spiritual master.

    I did very much like your statement “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).” I saw this flaw in many so-called advanced book distributors. The rewards of recognition, maha-prasadam and implied advanced spiritually actually motivated many of them. The temple presidents also pushed the sankirtan devotees to the limits of human endurance so that they would appear to be very advanced managers and attract Bhaktivedanta’s attention.

    I remember very clearly the Bangladesh scam. Actually, Romapada was the sankirtian leader at the time (early 1974) and he told us not to mention Bangladesh anymore since it was generating bad publicity. I refused to lie or cheat on sankirtian. Once I was even ordered to set up a table and sell some rock and roll records someone donated. I set up the table, but didn’t sell any.

    I think Bhaktivedanta was at the right place at the right time, but I do think he worked very hard and was an exceptional man. He was not omniscient, omnipotent or perfect. And yes, I agree that as time went on he became much more ‘puffed up’ as he admitted on his deathbed.

    I look forward to your next installment.

    Like

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