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.)

*        *        *

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.

*        *        *

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.

*        *        *

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.


12 thoughts on “The ISKCON Narrative (Part 3)

  1. Namaste. I note that your post is dated 13 December 2016. forty four years from the date of my initiation via letter by A.C. Bhaktivendanta Swami. Back then I could never imagine I would some day read and agree with such a thesis as you have written. You write with clarity and dispassion without rancor.Your writing has stirred up memories both pleasant and painful and as well validated questions and answers I have posed to myself and others over the years as I examine the influence of Bhaktivedanta Swami and ISKCON on my life and lives of friends. In my opinion your writing and that of Steven Gelberg are the best of this type of spiritual research. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Good article. I agree with your assessment of how the members of ISKCON view their founder.

    We were encouraged to cut ties with our family. I left my home to join the temple when my parents were on vacation. I promised them I would visit after some time to assure them that I was alright.

    When I told the TP, Gopijanavallabha das that I was going to visit them for a few days, he was not very supportive, but hey I made the promise so I went. He blew his brains out with a 45 pistol years after this incident.

    I visited my parents and returned to the temple. I remember one of the brahamanas there arrogantly patting my stomach and saying “Mommy fattened you up nicely”, which I found very insulting as I ate only prasadam while I was visiting.

    In any case, yes, the official party line was that Bhaktivedanta was a ‘pure devotee’ and everything he said was true in all circumstances. These people were unable to see the many contradictions in his teachings blaming the imperfection of their senses. If our senses are so imperfect, they why did Bhaktivedanta write so many books and tell us to study them very carefully? Would not our imperfect senses alter the words read through our eyes before entering our brains?

    While I am not a Bhaktivedanta apologist, I have to give him credit, for to my knowledge, he never said he was a pure devotee or omniscient. For example, referring to Srila Prabhupada’s Morning Walk Conversation of April 8, 1975;

    “Jayadvaita: Because we see… For instance, sometimes the acarya may seem to forget something or not to know something, so from our point of view, if someone has forgotten, that is…
    Prabhupada: No, no, no. Then…
    Jayadvaita: …an imperfection.
    Prabhupada: That is not the… Then you do not understand. Acarya is not God, omniscient. He is servant of God. His business is to preach bhakti cult. That is acarya.”

    So we can see that Bhaktivedanta did not assert that the acarya is omniscient.

    Yet many disciples believed he was. Why? Well my personal opinion is that his so called ‘advanced’ disciples pushed that belief because if they were ‘repeating’ the teachings then they also would be considered infallible. Anyone who spent some time in ISKCON can attest to the fact that people would fabricate ‘Prabhupada said’ quotes in order to win a point or be considered as ‘advanced’.

    Fortunately for us, Krishna describes in the Bhagavad Gita, ISKCON’s main scripture, the behavior of one who is a pure devotee, i.e. has transcended the modes of material nature. In 14.21 Arjuna is asking Krishna by what symptoms can one who is transcendental to the tree modes be recognized. In verses 14.22 through 25 Krishna responds.

    “The Supreme Personality of Godhead said: O son of Partha, he who does not hate illumination, attachment and delusion when they are present or long for them when they disappear; who is unwavering and undisturbed through all these reactions of the material qualities, remaining neutral and transcendental, knowing that the modes alone are active; who is situated in the self and regards alike happiness and distress; who looks upon a lump of earth, a stone and a piece of gold with an equal eye; who is equal toward the desirable and the undesirable; who is steady, situated equally well in praise and blame, honor and dishonor; who treats alike both friend and enemy; and who has renounced all material activities—such a person is said to have transcended the modes of nature.” (Vedabase 2003 Revised BGAII)

    So we can judge Bhaktivedanta by these. Was he equal toward the desirable and the undesirable? Did he treat alike both friend and enemy?

    Also in 17.15 Krishna says: “Austerity of speech consists in speaking words that are truthful, pleasing, beneficial, and not agitating to others, and also in regularly reciting Vedic literature.”

    Did not Bhaktivedanta’s calling people who followed a different spiritual path fools, rascals and demons agitate them? Some were right there at his lectures. Bhaktivedanta says in his purport “Of course, when a teacher speaks, he can speak the truth for the instruction of his students, but such a teacher should not speak to those who are not his students if he will agitate their minds.” Did he expect his criticism of his Gaudiya Math god brothers would not reach them?

    And the older he got the more outlandish things he said.

    In summary, while Bhaktivedanta subtly mislead his followers, in my opinion, they inflated his position because of an inherent, unreasonable desire to find a perfect philosophy and perfect leader to follow. If they had objectively read the Bhagavad Gita they would not have been confused.


    1. Thank you for sharing some of your personal experience with us.

      Re: your analysis of ACBS and his position in ISKCON. You may be right. Who knows? I’m familiar with the conversation with Jayadvaita that you quote above. But like so many of ACBS’s statements, you can find other instances in which he contradicts this more liberal view. About the general position of the “spiritual master” and “authority” (personal and/or scriptural) ACBS said some pretty outrageous things.

      Here’s some food for thought:



  3. Is there any help available to bring my child out of Iskon. She is totally blinded by it and cut ties with all the family. Please advice.


    1. In my own case, the continued and unfailing love and support of non-devotee family and friends is what ultimately helped me to get out and leave it all behind. In many places, particularly in North America, ISKCON authorities are afraid of their group being perceived as a cult that directs its members to cut ties with family. Have you visited your daughter at the temple? If so, can you speak with the leaders there and ask them if it’s their desire that she cut ties with you? If you can somehow keep connected to her and show her that you love her and support her, it’s likely that she will eventually come to see how little her ISKCON “family” actually loves her in comparison.


  4. Thank you for the encouragement. I am still working on new content – an in-depth look at the history of child abuse in ISKCON’s gurukulas and further installments in the series “Honest Questions, Honest Answers,” to name two – but I often need to take extended breaks from thinking about this stuff. It’s been months since I’ve even logged in to this blog, simply out of personal necessity, but I’m note done writing because I still have more to say. Thank you for reading. Thank you especially for letting me know that this is worth my while. And thank you for continuing to be patient while I slowly work on new stuff.


  5. I would like to thank you for writing these important articles. You’ve really done your homework! For the past few years I’ve been pointing out that problems of Iskcon are not separate from Prabhupada, but are a result of Prabhupada’s writing and speaking. It’s not easy to get out of Iskcon machinery with 108 safety locks. I’ve been a Prabhupadanuga for 10 years, interestingly raised to question gurus, but never Prabhupada. I was always critical, though, and when I bought the whole Iskcon package (I have no idea how that happened) I struggled all the time to silence the critic in me. Doubts haunted me for years and eventually I could no longer block holes in the bubble I’ve been living in. I had to leave or better put, I was quickly forgotten when I expressed my doubts and confirmed the rumors I was no longer chanting. It was painful, especially because both me and my wife were so much involved and that was basically our family. So when you say that we can be sure our friends in Iskcon will cut us off when we express our doubts in Prabhupada, you were correct. At the end I felt like a preacher’s trophy and an object for cementing other people’s faith. Failure of basic human relationships, control with fear, Prabhupada’s racist and sexist statements, his ignorance about astronomy, perpetual falldowns of gurus, and a philosophy that I would today describe as dark were all good reasons to simply remove myself from this sect and in fact, from a greater part of Indian spirituality. It’s an ongoing process, though, and it isn’t easy. There are many who silently suffer, because they can’t swallow Prabhupada nor the philosophy even if pushed down their throats, but decide to be silent and stay in the sect, because otherwise they feel they wouldn’t belong anywhere. You know, pretty much like a cloud that finds no shelter. Articles like this can be helpful, because one sees that he/she is not alone in seeing things this way.


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