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.