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 It seems like you have an outdated impression of ISKCON.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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Honest Questions, Honest Answers – Part 2, Milieu Control

A: In our first conversation I said we would explain the characteristic aspects of “thought reform,” commonly known as “brainwashing.” I also said we would discuss whether or not these dynamics exist in ISKCON. Ready?

B: I guess so.

A: There are eight aspects in all. We’ll deal with them one at a time. Robert Jay Lifton – the psychiatrist who first described how brainwashing works – calls this first aspect “milieu control” and identifies it as “the psychological current upon which all else depends.” Through controlling the milieu, or the environment, a group “seeks to establish domain over… the individual’s communication with the outside (all that he sees and hears, reads and writes, experiences and expresses).”

B: Wait… Do you honestly think that’s what goes on in ISKCON? I’ve met devotees who don’t trust the GBC, but I think you’ve gone over the edge.

A: Have I? Remember what I said in our first conversation. If in trying to determine what a cult is we imagine only the most dangerous caricature – like Heaven’s Gate or Jim Jones and The People’s Temple – then we’ll probably overlook some alarming things. That’s why we’re taking time to define the word “cult” as precisely as possible. Definition isn’t necessarily about comparison.

Lifton’s description of milieu control – and the other aspects of thought reform – may at first sound like something out of George Orwell’s “1984,” and thus may not appear to resemble your own experience in ISKCON. But try to look at things more broadly. Consider the concepts themselves, not just the dystopian images they evoke.

We’re talking about restricting information and communication. You might not live in a cult compound, physically isolated from the outside world and restricted from communicating with anyone who doesn’t belong to the group. (Then again, you might.) But just because no one is holding you hostage, what you believe about yourself and the world around you might be achieving the same result.

As I said, in severely restricting the environment, a cult seeks to control its individual members by isolating them from the world around them. In ISKCON, in the most general sense, this is accomplished through the ideological split created between “material” and “spiritual,” “devotional” and “non-devotional.” This creates in devotees a feeling that it’s “us against them,” “us against the world.” This feeling is one of the central dynamics of ISKCON life, which divides the world into “devotees” and “karmis,” true believers and everyone else.

Devotees, we are told, are embodiments of “all good qualities,” whereas non-devotees have “no good qualities” and so must be avoided as much as possible. Unless a devotee thinks she’s pure enough to “give association” and “make a devotee” – to convert someone – she’s warned to keep a safe distance from non-believers. Exactly how much distance – and what sort of distance it is, whether physical or psychological – depends on the degree to which the devotee feels confident she can, in the company of “materially-minded” persons, maintain her faith in Krishna and her allegiance to ISKCON.

B: Come on. That’s not really what ISKCON is like anymore. Nobody isolates themselves from non-devotees like that.

A: Really? Tell me something: Have you ever been told to “avoid the association of non-devotees”?

B: Sure, but no one really does. It’s impossible.

A: I can’t disagree with that. But you admit you’ve been told or you’ve read in Prabhupada’s books that you should “avoid the association of non-devotees”?

B: Yes.

A: Have you ever asked, or have you ever heard anyone else ask how to “avoid the association of non-devotees,” at a job or at school or elsewhere “out in the world”?

B: Yes.

A: Before we talk about what the answer was, let’s talk about the question. Tell me: What’s a “non-devotee”?

B: Well, someone who’s not a devotee. Someone who doesn’t believe in Krishna, in God. A materialistic person.

A: Someone who doesn’t belong to ISKCON?

B: Yes. But not only. A devotee could be a Christian. The important thing is that he believes in God.

A: Really? Let me ask you something else: Could someone believe in God but also be a materialistic person?

B: Yes, of course.

A: So, could a Christian be a materialistic person?

B: Yes.

A: Could an ISKCON devotee be a materialistic person?

B: It’s possible.

A: Out of the two, a materialistic Christian or a materialistic ISKCON devotee, whom do you think it would be better to “associate” with?

B: It’s a personal decision, isn’t it? I could choose to associate with or not associate with either of them, or with anyone at all.

A: Of course. You could. But that’s not really what we’re talking about, is it? Let me be more specific – and you don’t really need to answer, this can be hypothetical – according to what you’ve been taught in ISKCON, according to what you’d be comfortable defending to other ISKCON devotees – or to your guru – is it better, safer to be friends with a materialistic Christian or with a materialistic ISKCON devotee?

While we’re at it, assuming you might avoid the association of a materialistic ISKCON devotee (or Christian or Jew or Muslim or Mormon or whatever), would you also avoid the association of someone who worships Krishna but happens to belong to a group other than ISKCON? Say, for instance, a follower of Narayana Maharaja, or Tripurari Swami, or even a Vaishnava from another lineage, another sampradaya? And if you wouldn’t, do you know more than a few devotees who would?

B: Well, yes.

A: Is that line between devotees and non-devotees getting a little less fuzzy? There really is a difference between “devotees” and “non-devotees,” isn’t there?

B: I suppose.

A: So whatever that specific difference might be, there is, in ISKCON, some separation between “us” and “them.” Is that fair?

B: I guess so.

A: Let’s get back to that question: What does it mean – in the present day in which most ISKCON devotees have jobs and families and lives in the outside world – to “avoid the association of non-devotees”?

B: If we live outside the temple, if we have jobs or go to school, we can’t avoid interacting with non-devotees. We must speak with them, sometimes even be social with them – eat with them or otherwise spend time with them outside of work.

A: But?

B: But we should give association to them, rather than take association from them.

A: And what exactly does that mean?

B: Well, we should try to give them Krishna consciousness. We shouldn’t let them influence us with their materialistic ideas.

A: OK. I get the feeling you’re avoiding something. Let me be more direct. You mentioned “giving” as opposed to “taking” association. Have you ever been told that, in order to avoid taking the association of a non-devotee, you should interact politely, cordially, but you should withhold your affection?

B: Yes.

A: So, let me clarify this instruction: It’s all right to spend time with someone who doesn’t believe in Krishna, just so long as you guard yourself from being influenced by him or her. And the way you guard yourself from that influence is by not having affection for the non-devotee you’re interacting with. Is that accurate?

B: Well, yes.

A: Isn’t it disingenuous to behave that way? Kind of two-faced? Wouldn’t it be easier just to avoid non-devotees altogether?

To suggest that someone maintain this sort of relationship with friends, even casual acquaintances, is troubling enough. But what about a newly converted devotee’s family, assuming his or her family members have no intention of abandoning their so-called materialistic lives. Feel free to spend time with them – your brother or sister, your parents, your spouse – and you should be nice to them, just as long as you don’t have any genuine affection for them. Doesn’t that idea bother you?

B: But true affection would be to give them Krishna.

A: You mean convert them?

B: I guess so. Yes.

A: So, they’re worthy of affection only inasmuch as they’re willing to adopt your way of life.

Let’s talk about something else related to the devotee’s non-devotee family.

Lifton says milieu control has another effect useful to the cult dynamic: “It is used to achieve complete separation from the past.” As Prabhupada said of his disciples’ lives before ISKCON, their previous lives were “completely black.” Who they were, who they were related to, where they were from, what they had previously valued: these things were no longer of consequence to the devotee. And though present-day ISKCON may not demand its members completely cut ties with former lives and allegiances – something I imagine you might be eager to remind me of right about now – that difference is only superficially true.

There can be no argument with the fact that, ideologically speaking, a “good devotee” is expected to cut family ties “in his heart.” Even a devotee who is married to another devotee, with devotee children – he too is expected to be detached, to carefully manage his affection for them, and eventually to give up that affection entirely. Again, that may be something he does “internally” – whatever that means in a practical sense – but he should have the intention to eventually do so in a more tangible way, perhaps hoping Krishna will physically cut those ties for him.

Am I wrong? Am I making this up?

B: No.

A: OK. Then let’s move away from social relationships. Let’s talk about ideas, information, communication. ISKCON clearly seeks to restrict what its members see and hear and read and eat and do, and with whom they may do these things.

In Prabhupada’s “Nectar of Devotion” there is the instruction that “one should not try to read too many books.” Are you familiar with it?

B: Yes.

A: And, regarding education, Prabhupada repeatedly referred to so-called material schools as “slaughterhouses.” Did you know that?

B: Yes.

A: Well, here’s something you might not know. When asked what the female children of his disciples should learn in ISKCON’s boarding schools Prabhupada said, “They should be taught how to sweep, how to stitch, clean, cook, to be faithful to the husband.” (On another occasion he said that women “are not allowed to go to school, college, or the spiritual master.”)

B: But Prabhupada had hundreds of female disciples. And ISKCON has a school for girls in Mayapur. There was another school for girls in Florida.

A: We can talk about those schools in a moment. But first you should know Prabhupada’s position on the matter. In the first conversation I mentioned, when the idea of a girl’s school was brought up, Prabhupada said, and I quote, “No, no, no. No girls.” (Remember, as Prabhupada wrote, “To emphasize something to an ordinary person, one may repeat it three times, just as one might say, ‘You must do this! You must do this! You must do this!’”) And when a disciple sought clarification, Prabhupada provided it, saying that a school for girls would be “a mistake.” He said, “They should be taught how to become obedient to the husband.”

B: I’d never heard that. But what about the school in Mayapur?

A: What about it? Their curriculum – “based on the fourteen books of Vedic knowledge with emphasis placed on the study of Srimad Bhagavatam” – and mission statement don’t suggest much in the way of what I think most Western devotees would consider a traditional education, the sort of education one needs to survive in the world outside ISKCON. It’s quite possible they’re carrying out the sort of curriculum Prabhupada had in mind.

But even if they’re not, that’s nothing new. Despite Prabhupada’s often comparing so-called material education to a slaughterhouse, many of Prabhupada’s senior disciples, and now his grand-disciples, have earned higher degrees. Still, no one is willing to publicly dispute what Prabhupada said.

So, given that the “founder-acarya” of ISKCON opposed material education, for both men and women, isn’t it fair to say that ISKCON devotees, followers of Prabhupada, are at least in some way expected to restrict what they see and hear and read?

B: But ISKCON devotees do go to school, like you just said. Many have higher degrees. Many more have high school and college degrees. ISKCON devotees are doctors and lawyers and scientists and university professors.

A: How convenient for ISKCON (and its public image). Besides, someone has to pay the bills and keep the lights on.

B: That’s not fair.

A: Isn’t it? Prabhupada didn’t think any of that higher education was necessary. He didn’t even think those disciples performing service that required specialized knowledge should have a specialized education. He told them that if they just chanted and depended on Krishna, then Krishna would give them the knowledge they needed, from within their hearts.

Again, am I making this stuff up?

B: No, but…

A: But what? But that’s not what anyone ended up doing is it? When ISKCON needed lawyers, devotees went to law school (or ISKCON preachers went out and recruited lawyers, or the money they raised on sankirtan was used to hire lawyers). When ISKCON devotees need to know how to do something specialized or technical, they teach themselves or they go to school, regardless of what Prabhupada had to say about it.

But it doesn’t matter much in the wider picture. Ultimately, according to Prabhupada, according to ISKCON doctrine, all material knowledge and material accomplishment is inconsequential. The only thing that matters is “spiritual advancement.” Right?

Let’s move on.

Aside from this opposition ISKCON ideology creates between the material and the spiritual, it even seeks to create opposition within the spiritual sphere itself, by restricting what devotional materials its members may and may not come in contact with. In this regard, Lifton writes, “If his intelligence and sensibilities carry him toward realities outside the closed ideological system, he may resist these as not fully legitimate…” For our purposes that means if a devotee finds herself interested in something not found in Prabhupada’s books – whether that something is material or spiritual – she knows she really should dismiss her interest as “mental speculation,” a “bogus” waste of time. And that includes books by other Vaishnavas outside of ISKCON, as well as other translations or commentaries on Bhagavad-Gita and the like.

I’m sure you could, if you let yourself, make a sizable list of devotional books and persons and organizations that you have, in the interest of being a good ISKCON devotee – or a “prabhupadanuga,” a “Prabhupada man” – forbidden yourself from having any contact with. No?

B: I suppose.

A: And even within that “closed ideological system,” ISKCON further endeavors to restrict things like what mantras its members can chant. Just investigate the ongoing crusade to establish “kirtan standards” for the society.

B: That’s not a fair example. Some mantras are just not authorized. If you have any faith in the power of mantras, you’ll have to admit there could be mantras that are effective and mantras that are ineffective, even dangerous. Things like the kirtan standards are there to protect devotees.

A: Protect? They may say they want to protect you, but when the religious organization you belong to starts putting restrictions on whether or not you can chant a certain iteration of “god’s name,” or on how many times you can safely chant an “authorized” mantra, you might consider asking yourself if protecting you is what they truly have in mind.

Is it at all possible they just want to control you?

B: Control is an important part of Krishna consciousness. Self-control. Controlling the mind and senses. Without self-control, human life is just animal life.

A: That’s an interesting perspective on what makes us human. Tell me, does human life have anything to do with freedom? Autonomy? That’s another sort of self-control – the ability to independently choose what aspects of your self you will try to control.

Lifton calls milieu control a “profound threat to…personal autonomy.” He says that it limits the individual’s “communication with himself,” resulting in a “disruption of balance between self and outside world.” Once again, by controlling the environment the cult forces an artificial separation between the individual and the world around him. If successful, Lifton writes, “he undergoes a personal closure, which frees him from man’s incessant struggle with the elusive subtleties of truth.” The “fixed up” devotee no longer has to worry about what’s right or what’s wrong, what’s moral or immoral. Those concerns will remain settled for him as long as he accepts that truth and goodness reside solely within ISKCON.

And to achieve that mindset he must thoroughly restrict what he sees, hears, eats, and does throughout the day so as to avoid “material influence.” This never-ending process of restricting and avoiding is a perfect depiction of the life of a “full-time devotee.” In fact, only the most thoroughly brainwashed would deny that this describes the very process of becoming Krishna conscious – to restrict what we see, hear, and do in order to minimize material influence and maximize the time spent on things related to ISKCON. The fact that so many of us undertake this process ourselves, and do so willingly, should not keep us from acknowledging what it has in common with brainwashing.

But don’t worry. You’re not alone. The parameters of the process have been established by the society, and the process is carried out “in the association of like-minded devotees.” Becoming a “good devotee” is therefore, more than anything else, a process of socialization, wherein we abandon how we previously thought and felt in favor of what will win us the approval of our peers.

B: I think I know what Prabhupada would have said about all this – other than dismissing it as mental speculation – he’d say you just want to give a dog a bad name and hang it. It’s spin. Just like your calling ISKCON a cult. You can call it whatever you want. That won’t change what it really is. Krishna consciousness is a bona fide religion, directly connected to an ancient lineage of self-realized spiritual teachers.

A: Fine. You object to me calling ISKCON a cult and equating Krishna consciousness with brainwashing. That’s your prerogative. If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck… But, whatever. At least ask yourself this: How successful has the process been? Has it met your expectations? Have you experienced spiritual realization to the degree you were promised or you desired? Are the results you’ve experienced at all in proportion to what you’ve sacrificed for them?

B: Unrealistic expectations are the result of a neophyte mentality. Surely, success in Krishna consciousness is not a cheap thing. It may take an entire lifetime, if not many lifetimes, before one sees real progress.

A: That’s very humble of you. But do you recall what Prabhupada often said about so-called material science and its practice of writing post-dated cheques? By indefinitely delaying the promised outcome of Krishna consciousness, aren’t you just writing another sort of post-dated cheque?

Are you really satisfied with that?

Besides, what real proof do you have that anyone else has been successful? Even Prabhupada. How do you know he saw and spoke with Krishna? How do you know he was a “pure devotee”? What’s the proof that’s so convincing you’re willing to sacrifice so much? Is it at all possible the result you’ve been promised is something no one has ever or will ever experience?

Sure, ISKCON enjoys the membership of some very remarkable and apparently selfless individuals, spiritual seekers who seem to have benefited from what they’ve sacrificed for the movement. But have they seen Krishna?

And what about the others? Doesn’t it sometimes seem to you that ISKCON is populated by a much greater number of selfish jerks pretending to be on the path to purification than it is by genuinely self-realized souls? Be honest. Chances are that even the saintliest person you can think of has more than a few times surprised you with his or her very human shortcomings. And, in spite of what Prabhupada and his books will tell you about the “karmis,” the so-called material world is also full of remarkable and selfless individuals who have sacrificed all sorts of things for all sorts of reasons (just as much as it’s full of selfish jerks).

Vyasa-puja 2014

[This is, obviously, an old post I found unpublished. Originally composed in August of last year, I’ve decided that rather than delete it I should share it here.]

On your birthday, I shall not bow to you. I shall not offer rose petals at your feet. I shall do my best to forget you, as I do every day. I prefer to regard you as a relic of my past, no more.

On your birthday, I still find you wherever I turn. I will admit that I have loved aspects of you, hated others, and could not understand many more.

On your birthday, I will say that I have loved the rebel in you, that you were once a source of inspiration to me, and that I detest the halos of divinity around you. I shall not pray to you.

For months, ever since I first read about Hamza Kashgari’s tweets to Muhammad on Mawlid, I’ve been planning to post a similar “tribute” to Prabhupada on his Vyasa-puja. But in sitting down today to do just that I’ve discovered it’s impossible, for two reasons: Kashgari’s tweets display an affection (albeit a complicated affection) for Muhammad that I no longer have for Prabhupada, and furthermore I have come to realize that the “Srila Prabhupada” I worshipped and idolized has never been anything more than a figment of my imagination.

My Prabhupada does not exist. He never existed, at any place or time outside the confines of my wishful thinking. Having come to know the more complex and conflicted man who was the historical Prabhupada, I want nothing to do with him. At least according to his recorded statements, he’s a racist, a misogynist, a homophobe, a cult leader whose teachings directly caused the suffering of thousands of men, women, and children, and a fanatic who wished for the totalitarian expansion of a sectarian regime (much like the Muslim Caliphate) and who eagerly awaited the end of the world.

He’s no hero. Certainly not my hero. And my blind devotion to an idea of whomever it was I needed him to be has robbed me of a substantial portion of my life. As I imagine that today my former friends and acquaintances are bowing down at his feet and sincerely praising him as a saint and a savior of mankind, I myself am filled with profound anger and sadness.

And pity. Pity for otherwise intelligent and soft-hearted souls who have allowed an exploitative cult to convince them that to be happy they need to cling to the fantasy of a “pure devotee.”

Honest Questions, Honest Answers

A: Is ISKCON a cult?

B: Yes.

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?

A: OK.

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.

#YesAllWomen, ISKCON Edition

The hashtag #YesAllWomen is currently trending on twitter, in response it seems to the most recent mass shooting in the US. The shooter left behind a manifesto and several YouTube videos to make it clear that his killing spree was inspired by his hatred for women. If you’re a man who has yet to accept the radical notion that women are people, try reading some of these tweets and see what sort of world we are creating for our wives, mothers, daughters, and female friends. For men in ISKCON (and women in ISKCON still struggling to accept the “spiritual wisdom” that they are “less intelligent” than their male counterparts), I’ve written some of my own ISKCON-centric tweets in this vein. Re-tweet them if you like, or add your own.

#YesAllWomen #ISKCON Because you can’t tell a woman “you’re not that body” and then make her stand at the back of the temple.

#YesAllWomen #ISKCON Because “protection” doesn’t mean teaching your daughter that she has to cover her head.

#YesAllWomen #ISKCON The “law books for the next 10,000 years” shouldn’t contain the words “a woman likes a man who is very expert at rape.”

#YesAllWomen #ISKCON Because a pure devotee doesn’t hold a press conference to say that women’s brains are anatomically inferior to men’s. (Chicago; 7/9/75)

#YesAllWomen #ISKCON Because “mataji” is not a magic word that excuses your participation in a culture that subjugates and demonizes women.

ISKCON’s Liberal Paradox

In “Pouring Ghee Into Ashes,” Niscala DD joins her cadre at the ramparts of iskcon.us to defend the sanctity of gay devotees everywhere. She attempts to make several points in the space of some 1600 words, points that should be self-evident to all but the most fanatical, but the crux is this: Discriminating against gay devotees is another form of “skin disease,” unwarranted prejudice on the basis of the body and indicative of spiritual shortcomings in the offender.

Publicly professing such a view is still fairly revolutionary for an ISKCON devotee, so Niscala’s article is worth a read (as are many other articles on the site, a selective aggregator of various online content). But the real point of interest is in the comments below the article itself. One reader, Anže Čimžar, has taken it upon himself to post a generous helping of Prabhupada’s more damning statements about what he called “homosex.”

Niscala’s reply, in brief: “Anze, posting quotes like these, by Srila Prabhupada is actually irrelevant.”

Irrelevant? Hardly.

Niscala’s attempt to dismiss Prabhupada’s homophobic statements is speculative and, frankly, ridiculous. At some point the liberals in ISKCON will have to confront the fact that their conception of Prabhupada is disingenuous and largely indefensible. Any honest appraisal of his comments on this particular issue (collected here for ease of inspection) must acknowledge that Prabhupada did not consider all types of non-procreative sexual activity to be equally as sinful, as liberal devotees would like to insist. He wrote in his Bhagavatam commentary that “the homosexual appetite of a man for another man is demoniac” (a statement that refers simply to the desire for, not even the consummation of, homosexual activity) and equated such an appetite with insanity. In various public statements he referred to “homosex” as “animalistic,” “even less than animal,” and spoke of the possibility of gay marriage in the same context as abortion, a sign of human society’s alarming degradation.

Apparently in support of Anže’s approach, a reader named Gaura Das reproduces in another comment a letter from Prabhupada to Lalitananda, who had apparently revealed his homosexual orientation to Prabhupada. The letter reads, in part, “Even though you are in a very degraded condition Krishna, being pleased with your service attitude, can pick you up from your fallen state. You should stop this homosex immediately. It is illicit sex, otherwise, your chances of advancing in spiritual life are nil. Show Krishna you are serious, if you are.”

This letter shows not only Prabhupada’s view that homosexuality is incompatible with spiritual life (“…your chances of advancing in spiritual life are nil…”) it also reveals his conviction that it could be “cured” (“…Krishna…can pick you up from your fallen state…”). Devotees familiar with some of the less publicized parts of ISKCON’s history will know that this is in keeping with Prabhupada’s dealings with several other gay disciples.

As Gaura himself points out, by referring to a second letter, written in response to yet another gay devotee brave enough to expose his “abominable” proclivities to his guru, Prabhupada more than once instructed a gay male disciple to get married to a Krishna conscious wife and procreate as a means to curb his “perverted desires.” This seems to have been Prabhupada’s go-to prescription for this particular “malady,” often unbeknownst to the third party charged with the spiritual/sexual reform of her or his partner. The other prescription, of course, was sannyasa, a remedy adopted by Kirtanananda, Bhavananda, Umapati, and others. Neither prescription ended up having a very good record for success.

In the present day the “reform” of homosexual orientation through heterosexual marriage is seen by most as misguided, as the widespread failure of so-called conversion therapy proves. While devotees like Gaura are yet reluctant to admit that Prabhupada could have been at all misguided, this is not the only thing about homosexuality (or, indeed, several other subjects) Prabhupada clearly got wrong. Prabhupada more than once asserted, like many who seek to deny the equal rights of homosexuals on religious grounds, that “in animal society there is no homosex,” proof to him that homosexuality is unnatural or, as he put it, “less than animal.” Trouble is, there is “homosex” in animal society. Animals in over a thousand species (found so far) show signs of homosexuality that include affection, courtship, pair bonding, sexual activity, and even parenting among same-sex animal pairs.

Still, regardless of Prabhupada’s misguided approach to dealing with gay disciples and his willingness to repeat false information to support his position, exactly how he felt about homosexuality should be clear to anyone willing to take the time to examine his statements on the matter. And yet liberal devotees will defend him by arguing, as at least one other article argues elsewhere on the same site, that Prabhupada was unfailingly respectful (cordial, even welcoming) toward those homosexuals he dealt with in his public life. (The primary example given, that of Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, can hardly be considered representative, as Ginsberg, and the boon he could have been to ISKCON, was himself hardly representative. To say nothing of the fact that on at least one occasion Prabhupada spoke less than cordially about Ginsberg and his sexuality. Actually, none of the anecdotes in this article held up as representative can be referenced to Prabhupada’s recorded statements.) By extension, liberal devotees also contend, on practically no basis but their own desires and opinions, that Prabhupada would have eventually allowed some form of monogamous homosexual unions within ISKCON.

Perhaps.

Personally, I find the prospect doubtful, based on Prabhupada’s well documented opinions on the matter. Take a look at the quotes linked to above and you’ll find that he repeatedly referred to gay marriage in particular as a sign of the degradation of human society, lambasting the priests who were willing to perform the rite for their gay parishioners.

But, who knows? Prabhupada was nothing if not a pragmatist. He repeatedly stated that “women are not very intelligent” and made it clear that in his opinion they belong to the category of papa-yoni, “sinful birth.” He also instructed that the female children of his disciples should not be given a proper education, only taught how to cook, clean, and serve their husbands. (Actually, on several occasions he bemoaned the birth of girl children in his movement, clearly preferring boys.) In spite of all this, there is some roundabout truth to the claim that he was “the greatest feminist.” At least insofar as he was willing to give brahmana initiation to his female disciples and to allow them to live in his temples alongside the men, though not in the sense that he considered them deserving of the same rights and privileges, across the board, as their male counterparts.

Considering that he saw limited cultural innovation to be the only way forward in a world already past the point of no return in allowing women to be treated as human beings, a world that had at that point taken some steps toward regarding women as equal in some respects to men, I’ll grant that Prabhupada may have eventually come around to the idea of gay marriage. It is conceivable that he would have eventually allowed some sort of formal declaration of monogamy between same-sex devotees in an effort to encourage their continued service, whether physical or financial, to ISKCON. But it is also conceivable that he would have limited their service, restricting them from brahmana initiation or positions of power, possibly even forbidding them from giving class or leading kirtans. It is, moreover, highly likely that, if he’d done so, he would have made that decision based on a desire not to hinder ISKCON’s influence in a world that, by and large, now accepts homosexuality as perfectly normal and deserving of equal respect.

After all (conservatives in ISKCON take note!), the war is over. The homophobes lost. Sure, not everyone has received the memo, so legal and symbolic battles will still be fought for some time to come. But, as for your attempts to stand at the edge of the ocean and order the tide to recede – it’s not happening. Homosexuality in general and gay marriage in particular have passed the tipping point of acceptability in mainstream Western culture. In India and the rest of the world, it’s only a matter of time.

But let’s not get distracted. The real point here, at least as far as this missive is concerned, is how much the validity of liberal ISKCON depends on a revisionist’s view of Prabhupada. Their conception of ISKCON’s founder, “the savior of the most fallen,” depends on an alchemical blend of wishful thinking and denial, informed primarily by their assumptions about what a saint should and shouldn’t be. Because they can’t imagine a “pure devotee” would be a misogynist, a racist, or a homophobe, they refuse to believe that Prabhupada could have been any of those things. So in those cases he said or did something that indicates he was a misogynist, a racist, and a homophobe, the evidence must be either creatively re-interpreted, conveniently ignored, or actively suppressed. The liberals’ attempts to make Prabhupada into a feminist, an egalitarian, or a gay rights advocate are all attempts to remake him in their own image. You can thank cognitive dissonance for that.

Now, let me be absolutely clear, as this last bit is starting to read like an editorial from The Sampradaya Sun: As far as gay marriage is concerned (and gay rights in general, to say nothing of racial equality, women’s rights, and a host of other things), I don’t agree with Prabhupada at all. In my opinion, the approach Niscala outlines in her article is the only sensible approach for a religious institution that allegedly proclaims the basic spiritual equality of all living beings. Let me say that again but in another way: If there is any credibility to ISKCON’s claim “to systematically propagate spiritual knowledge to society at large…in order to check the imbalance of values in life and to achieve real unity and peace in the world,” then it must ensure that its philosophy is, in theory and in practice, equally available to all, regardless of bodily considerations – even if that means disagreeing with Prabhupada.

But, unfortunately, ISKCON’s course of action overwhelmingly has been, is, and will very likely be, always and forever, to regard Prabhupada as infallible and thus to make decisions only in the context of his desires, whether expressly stated or otherwise indistinct. Failing on his part a clear affirmation or condemnation, as in the case of the equally contentious fracas over “female diksha gurus,” ISKCONians still feel themselves duty bound to debate every issue based on what Prabhupada would have wanted. Alternatively, they could, bravely and intelligently, evaluate the options in a given situation within the wider context of their tradition or, Krishna forbid, in consideration of what appears to be the greatest good for the greatest number. But, let’s be honest: That will never happen, so long as Prabhupada is revered “as good as god” and his every word is regarded as having been dictated directly by Krishna. And because this is exactly what Prabhupada prescribed for his followers and what he said about himself, the conservative approach is the one he authorized, whereas the liberal is a deviation. In fact, to be a liberal in ISKCON is a paradox, requiring dishonesty and self-delusion in relationship either to Prabhupada or to oneself. The only choices are to become a misogynist, a racist, and a homophobe yourself, or to disavow the all-or-nothing approach Prabhupada demanded in favor of free thought and a clear conscience.

ISKCON’s True History

Details also has on its site an eminently clickable timeline that gives the almost completely sanitized history of ISKCON. Here’s an alternative timeline. (Reproduced below, w/ links from the original.) I think you’ll find that it fills in some of the gaps left by Details’ broad, dumb strokes.

1965 – Srila Prabhupada sails to America to establish ISKCON, Aug. 27 to October 1.

1966 – ISKCON corporation founded Aug. 5. First centers open in New York and Height Ashbury.

1967 – Mantra-rock dance and first U.S. Ratha-yatra festival held in San Francisco, July 26.

1968 – Disciples establish ISKCON in England with the help of the Beatles.

1969 – Disciples open dozens of new temples, including New Vrindaban, Toronto, and Los Angeles.

1970 – Srila Prabhupada establishes the GBC, Governing Body Commission, with the Direction of Management, July 28. | Evidence that child abuse taking place in ISKCON, see VNN.org document | Bhavananda (later one of the eleven gurus) begins abusing ISKCON devotees’ children in New York.

1971 – First gurukula established in Dallas.

1972 – According to Prabhupada’s letters, by this time he was aware of temple presidents beating their wives and child abuse in gurukula (Rochford, 1998, p. 49 ).

1973 – ISKCON increasingly depends on panhandling to raise money. | After only a few years, ISKCON-arranged marriages are ending in divorce (Rochford, 1998, p. 49). | Motorcycle gang attacks New Vrindaban, June 5.

1974 – By this time, the gurukula basically functions as childcare so mothers can go on sankirtan (Rochford, 1998, pp. 51-53, 61). | Prabhupada refuses to sanction any further marriages (Rochford, 1998, p. 49). | Hamsadutta convicted of weapons possession charges in Germany (three years later he will become one of the eleven gurus). | ISKCON-wide standards set for gurukula behavior modification program. (Proposed List of Standards for Boys, public relations files, circa 1974)

1975 – Gurukulas established in Los Angeles and New Vrindaban. | Los Angeles BBT publishes Caitanya-caritamrta. | National media criticize ISKCON’s airport soliciting. | Chicago media report Prabhupada’s statement about women’s brain size, July 24. | Disciples fear World War Three after Srila Prabhupada describes tensions between India and Pakistan, morning walk tape, April 4. | ISKCON sannyasis launch a campaign against householders and women, Srila Prabhupada calls it a “fratricidal war” (Rochford, 1998, p. 49). | Father sues ISKCON over custody of his son, Joey Yanoff, November.

1976 – State authorities close Dallas gurukula, which had approximately a hundred students, the majority of whom were between the ages of four and eight (Rochford, 1998, p. 46). | Jagadish appointed minister of primary education. | Bhaktivedanta Swami International Gurukulas open in Vrindavana and Mayapur, India. | Bhavananda begins abusing devotees’ children in India. | National media criticize Hare Krishnas soliciting as Santa Claus. Santa suits and resulting negative publicity continue each year through December 1978.

1977 – More than a hundred worldwide ISKCON temples listed in Back to Godhead magazine. | New York State Supreme Court judge dismisses Ed Shapiro brainwashing case, March. | Susan Murphy, eighteen, who became a devotee at thirteen, and her mother file suit against ISKCON of New England, April. | Hare Krishna Land temple and guest house open in Juhu Beach (Mumbai), India. | Shooting incident at ISKCON’s property in Mayapur, India, July. Bhavananda arrested (his name added to the list of eleven gurus one day after the appointment tape). | Appointment tape recorded in Vrindavana, India, July 8. | Tamal Krishna writes letter listing eleven gurus, July 9. | First Venice Beach Ratha-yatra festival. | Robin George and her mother file suit for kidnapping and other charges, Oct. 14. | Steven Bovan murdered; ISKCON holds press conference in Laguna Beach temple, Nov. 7. | Srila Prabhupada enters samadhi at the ISKCON temple in Vrindavana, India, Nov. 14. Link to information about Srila Prabhupada’s passing: blowback links.

1978 – Newsweek magazine publishes “Krishna-by-the-Sea,” on the Juhu temple opening, Jan. 30. | GBC institutionalizes zonal guru system, March. | A total of eleven gurukula schools in North America. | Famous actor murdered at Hare Krishna Land, Juhu Beach, July. | Jonestown tragedy, Nov. 18. | U.S. Airport and street soliciting reach the highest point. In some airports, travelers face a gauntlet of a dozen or more ISKCON devotees at a time. | Devotee punches Western Airlines Employee, Dec. 28.

1979 – Krishna kids garland Queen Elizabeth and Princess Diana at the Childrens Fair in London. | Bhaktivedanta Book Trust publishes Prabhupada Lilamrita, Srila Prabhupada’s official biography, by Satsvarupa. | New gurukula opens in Dallas. | Airport clickers, August. | Media cover Prabhupada’s Palace of Gold grand opening, New Vrindaban, Labor Day weekend. | “Krishna Hash Bust” reported in Orange County Register, Nov. 6. ISKCON holds press conference in Los Angeles, Nov. 7. | Dr. Burke Rochford begins to study the gurukula. (Rochford, 1998, p. 64)

1980 – Life magazine publishes cover story about the New Vrindaban gurukula, “Children of a Harsh Bliss,” April. | Life readers vote the children of Krishna cover one of the year’s best. The cover also appears on a Bombay billboard advertising Life magazine. | Life prints three letters to the editor in the December issue. (Letter to the editor, Life magazine, Dec. 1980) | Australian “60 Minutes” features the children of Krishna. | Gurukula opens in Lake Huntington, New York.| The number of married and unmarried devotees evens out; about one-quarter of devotees have children (Rochford, 1998, p. 50). | Hamsadutta’s Mt. Kailash farm raided, ISKCON issues press release, April 1. | Hamsadutta arrested for illegal submachine gun, ISKCON holds press conference in Berkeley, June 11. | GBC holds three “full extraordinary special” meetings to deal with guru deviations. Hamsadutta, Jayatirtha and Tamal Krishna are suspended for a year. | Ramesvara removes his vyasasana and writes an essay on guru reform, July 1. The GBC rejects Ramesvara’s conclusions, Aug. 17. | ISKCON Public Affairs holds first international communications conference in Bombay, November. | Pyramid House Talks take place in Topanga Canyon, Dec. 3.

1981 – Los Angeles Times publishes “Krishna: a Kingdom in Disarray,” Feb. 15. | Mayapur meeting: GBC rejects conclusions of the Pyramid House Talks; Hamsadutta and Tamal Krishna endorse the zonal guru system and are reinstated as gurus. | Steve Allen visits L.A. temple while researching his book Beloved Son, Aug. 31. | Grove Press publishes Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, edited by Steve Gelberg (Subhananda). | Children of Krishna pictured on the cover of the Australian BBT’s The Wonderful World of Hare Krishna in Australia. | Bhaktivedanta Village gurukula opens in central California. | ISKCON World Review begins publication. | IWR cites twenty-four gurukulas running in eighteen countries, with approximately seven hundred students. | IWR features an interview with Jagadish, minister of education. (Gurukula: School for the soul–An interview with Jagadish dasa, ISKCON’s minister of education, IWR, Vol. 1, No. 6, p. 1, Oct. 1981)

1982 – IWR cites more than thirty gurukulas worldwide. | Children of Krishna Prahalad and Dhanvantari give books and a garland to Princess Diana in Brisbane. | New gurukulas in France, Australia, South Africa, England, Sweden; Manipur, Tirupati and Assam, India. Detroit starts ISKCON’s first dayschool, breaking the trend of the boarding school system. | Lake Huntington gurukula offers summer camp for life members’ children. | The level of airport and street soliciting in America is less than half its 1978 peak. With revenues down, parents are pushed outside of ISKCON’s communities to find employment in support of themselves and their families (Rochford, 1998, p. 55). | Mayapur meeting: three new gurus added to original eleven (Pancadravida, Bhaktisvarupa Damodara and Gopal Krishna). | Jayatirtha leaves ISKCON; Bhagavan inherits his zone, March. | The New York Times publishes a story about ISKCON’s influence in the Soviet Union, April 15. | ISKCON holds Ratha-yatra in Washington D.C., Aug. 21. Mayor Marion Barry proclaims official Ratha-yatra Day; Washington Post covers the parade, Aug. 22; | The Public Affairs department and BBT publish Who Are they? magazine, Chant and Be Happy, and Coming Back. | Two year old boy in New Vrindaban dies from battering, October.

1983 – Children of Krishna appear on the cover of Hare Krishna Today, published by the Australian BBT. | Bombay announces plans to build a gurukula building on Juhu property. Day classes begin at the school. | The New York Times publishes a second story about ISKCON’s influence in the Soviet Union, April 18. | The Public Affairs department and BBT publish A Higher Taste cookbook.| Media cover Bhaktivedanta Cultural Center (Fisher Mansion) grand opening in Detroit, May 25. State senators Kelly and Vaughn, and Secretary of State Kondler issue a Senate Resolution recognizing Ratha-yatra and Fisher Mansion grand opening. | The GBC expels Hamsadutta at an emergency meeting in Miami Beach; the Miami Herald, New York Daily News, Associated Press, and other media report the story, July 11. | Charles St. Denis (Chakradari) murdered in New Vrindaban. | Food For Life begins. | ISKCON ordered to pay $32.5 million in George vs. ISKCON case, June 17; ISKCON appeals the case. | Hamsadutta disciples picket San Diego temple, San Diego Union-Tribune publishes story, June 20. | French government cracks down on sankirtan; Bhagavan’s summer festivals moved to Italy.

1984 – Mayapur meeting: GBC ratifies Hamsadutta’s expulsion. | Croome Court sold. | Imprisoned devotee Ujjvala lights Charles Manson on fire; ISKCON issues press release, Sept. 26. | Child abuse exposed at L.A. temple nursery school; Santa Monica Evening Outlook, Oct. 11, and the L.A. Daily News, Nov. 19, report the story. | Two boys, four and five years old, die in an abandoned refrigerator in New Vrindaban. | IWR reports benign nature of gurukula (ISKCON children win poetry writing awards, IWR 3.9, p. 2, Jan. 1984) | IWR article about Mayapur ignores rumors of abuse in Indian schools. (Spiritual city rising in Sri Mayapur, IWR 4.1, p. 7, May 1984) | IWR covers Los Angeles gurukula board meeting. (ISKCON’s educational leaders plan secondary school studies, IWR 3.10, p. 4, Feb. 1984) | IWR reports that six boys travel in U.S. with Muralivadaka. (Krsna kids touring America, IWR 4.5, p. 7, July 1984) | Gostabhihari prosecuted and imprisoned for abusing children in Dallas

1985 – Bhaktidayal files charges against Harikesh with the GBC, Jan. 6. | Children of Krishna perform peace dance at Gita Forum, Dallas. | Nirmal candra’s art recognized in magazine. | Lake Huntington gurukula girls meet New York congressman in Washington, D.C. | Sulochan begins distributing copies of The Guru Business to ISKCON disciples. | GBC names Minister of Education Jagadish a guru. (Four new gurus appointed, IWR 5.1, p. 3, May 1985) | Anonymous letter to the GBC describes Bhavananda’s sexual deviations, including child abuse, March. | ISKCON leaders complain that children are turning out to be like “karmies” (Rochford, 1998, p. 50) | Dignitaries attend grand opening of South African temple. | GBC holds an emergency meeting in Los Angeles to examine Bhaktidayal’s evidence against Harikesh (one of the eleven gurus); they pardon him. | New Vrindaban announces $60 million, ten-year temple construction project, media report the story, May 31 (never built). | Ravindra-svarupa writes “Under My Order,” describing the need for guru reform, June 6. | Prabhupada disciples meet in New Vrindaban to discuss guru reform, September. | The GBC votes to excommunicate Sulochan after he locks himself in protective custody during GBC meeting. | Rutgers University Press publishes Hare Krishna in America, by Burke Rochford. | Kirtanananda assaulted and sent to the hospital in a coma, Oct. 27. While recovering, he begins openly molesting children. | Persuaders documentary by Anna Raphael (Ritasya dasi), exposing Bhagavan’s arrogance, airs on BBC TV, December. | Dr. Lawrence Liliston publishes academic papers praising Lake Huntington gurukula. (Hare Krsna kids rate high in general awareness test, IWR 5.7, p. 2, Nov. 1985)

1986 – Mayapur meeting: GBC accepts list of twenty new gurus. Ravindra svarupa, author of the guru reform movement, becomes a GBC and guru. | Prahlad and the Krishna Kids (of Australia) record an EMI album, including a plea to Mikheil Gorbachev to free the Soviet Krishnas. | Lake Huntington gurukula closes. | Children of Krishna in Vancouver demonstrate to free Soviet Hare Krishnas. | Year-long observance of the five-hundredth anniversary of the appearance of Lord Chaitanya, including Pada-yatra pilgrimage to Chaitanya’s birthplace in India. | Forty children of Krishna walk with Pada-yatra. | Governor Sir Walter Campbell meets ailing devotee child Trishandhya in her hospital room in Brisbane. | Children of Krishna meet Queen Elizabeth in Auckland. | Children of Krishna ride float in Penn State University Homecoming Parade. | Nirmal-candra, son of Minister of Education Jagadish and a gurukula headmistress Laxmimoni, is left quadriplegic after an accident at the Gita Nagari gurukula. He begins writing about his gurukula experiences. | The last two regionally based ashram gurukulas close in North America; Indian boarding schools continue. | Ramesvara caught with minor-aged girl in Santa Monica mall, report given to GBC, May 7. | Sulochan murdered in Los Angeles, May 22. | GBC holds an emergency meeting in San Diego, Aug. 18-19, to discuss Kirtanananda, Bhavananda and Ramesvara. Kirtanananda agrees (by telephone) that he will resign if indicted for the murders of Sulochan or Chakradhari. Public Affairs office issues a news release denouncing Kirtanananda’s presence in the media. | Grand jury convenes to study New Vrindaban , Sept. 5. | Bhavananda agrees to quit initiating disciples while he is suspended, Sept. 8; when he goes through with an initiation ceremony, the GBC expels him. | The GBC holds an emergency meeting at the Pyramid House in Topanga Canyon to discuss Ramesvara. | Ramesvara, Bhagavan resign and leave ISKCON; L.A. Times covers story, Oct. 5. | BBT Council cuts off funding for all Ramesvara’s projects, October. | Hamsadutta followers finally vacate ISKCON Berkeley property, October. | Sulochan’s son drowns at New Vrindaban, Dec. 7. Grandparents obtain court order to take five year old brother away from the farm. | Kirtanananda embarks on “Freedom Tour” to distance himself from alleged crimes, December.

1987 – FBI raids New Vrindaban, exhumes St. Denis’ remains and collects evidence of copyright infringement and racketeering, Jan. 5. | New Vrindaban former school principal Larry Gardner (Sri Galim) and teacher’s assistant Frederick de Francisco (Lalita Madhava) arrested for child abuse; story reported in Wheeling News Register, Feb. 11, 17, and 18. | Mayapur meeting: GBC excommunicates Kirtanananda and all of his temples, and accepts the resignations of Ramesvara and Bhagavan. They issue a letter to all New Vrindaban residents asking them to leave Kirtanananda and be re-initiated in ISKCON, March 16. | Ananta-santi (Prabhupada’s Soviet disciple) finally freed from Soviet forensic hospital. | Westminster Press publishes Dr. Larry Shinn’s The Dark Lord. | Rolling Stone magazine publishes “Dial Om for Murder,” by John Hubner and Lindsey Grueson, April 9. | Time magazine publishes “Troubled Karma for the Krishnas,” Sept. 1. | Jayatirtha murdered in England. | California superior court hears George vs. ISKCON appeal. | Bhaktivedanta Archives publishes Srila Prabhupada’s letters in a five-volume set. | Satsvarupa resigns his position on the GBC, removes his vyasasana, writes an essay on guru reform, and grants an interview to IWR. | Temple presidents of Ramesvara’s former zone form an alliance called the Western Zonal Council. The council elects Badrinarayan as their GBC representative. | New Vrindaban holds “Religious Freedom Gathering,” Nov. 21-22.

1988 – A mother writes to Minister of Education Jagadish about child abuse at the Gita Nagari [Pennsylvania] gurukula, Jan. 26. (Dear Jagadish Maharaja, anonymous letter from a mother, 1988) | Mayapur meeting: The GBC admits Badrinarayana as a GBC to manage the Western Zone, including all of Ramesvara’s former territory. Within the GBC, he advocates gurukula reform (but favors keeping the matter a GBC secret). | Former member Christina Mills accuses New Vrindaban of abusing her as a child, March 3. | Harcourt Brace Javanovich publishes Monkey on a Stick, by Hubner and Grueson, including a statement about gurukula abuse in New Vrindaban. (Monkey on a Stick excerpt, Hubner & Grueson, p. 347) | GBC orders an interview of former gurukula students. (The Results, ISKCON Youth Veterans newsletter, 1988) | Jagadish resigns; GBC dissolves the Ministry of Education and forms the Board of Education. Jagadish becomes a member of the board. (GBC Resolution, 1988) | IWR interviews Drista Dasa, head of the Dallas gurukula, and Sri Rama Dasa, secretary of the ISKCON-wide GBC Board of Education. (IWR interview: Gurukula Today in Dallas, IWR 8.4, pp. 6-7, Nov. 1988) and IWR interviews Sri Rama Dasa, IWR 8.5, pp. 6-7, Nov. 1988)

1989 – Princeton University publishes The Hare Krishnas in India, Charles R. Brooks. | Detroit opens new gurukula schoolhouse.

1990 – ISKCON Youth Veterans newsletter publishes “Children of the Ashram,” by Raghunatha. (Children of the Ashram, by Raghunatha, ISKCON Youth Veterans newsletter, Vol IV, Aug. 1990, supplement, pp. 28-49) | Gurukula alumni hold their first reunion, Los Angeles. | Southern California-based Public Affairs office closes; ISKCON Communications opens in Potomac, Maryland. | A minor aged bride from New Vrindaban tells her story in the ISKCON Youth Veterans newsletter, January-May issue. (Gurukula, by D.D., ISKCON Youth Veterans newsletter, Vol II, Jan.-May, 1990, p. 1) | GBC passes a series of resolutions dealing with child abuse. (GBC Resolutions, 1990)

1991 – Householders outnumber renounced members. Seventy percent of devotees have at least one child (Rochford, 1998, p. 50 ). | Kirtanananda sentenced to thirty years in prison for using murder, kidnapping and fraud to protect an illegal, multimillion dollar enterprise; Associated Press reports story, March 30. | Thomas Drescher (Tirtha) convicted of first degree murder in Los Angeles for killing Steve Bryant (Sulochan); United Press International and Associated Press report the story, Aug. 21. The Washington Post follows with a feature story on New Vrindaban, Sept. 8. | Thomas Drescher found guilty in the murder of Sulochan, Aug. 20; Los Angeles jury recommends life in prison, Oct. 10. | U.S. Supreme Court finds ISKCON not liable for brainwashing Susan Murphy; case remanded to lower court on other issues; Associated Press and United Press International cover the story, Oct 7.

1992 – Gurukula alumni hold their third reunion in Los Angeles. Annual summer reunions continue in Los Angeles through the nineties.

1993 – Gurukula Alumni, Inc., publishes three issues of their color magazine, As It Is: The Voice of the Second Generation. | Hamsadutta asks to be accepted back into ISKCON. | Burke Rochford, in conjunction with ISKCON, begins “Project Future Hope,” designed to match members of the second generation to compatible jobs.

1994 – Gandhari studies the history of gurukula in her UCLA World Arts and Cultures Senior Colloquium. | A panel of former gurukula students, including Gandhari, addresses the Devotee Relationship Conference in Topanga Canyon about abuse they suffered in gurukula. | George vs. ISKCON settled for an undisclosed amount. | Gurukula alumni Jivananda commits suicide, he was eighteen. He grew up in the Pyramid House in Topanga Canyon. | As It Is, the Voice of the Vaisnava Youth interviews a former gurukula teacher. (From a Teacher, by Krsna-kumari, As It Is, the Voice of the Vaisnava Youth, No. 5, Summer 1994, p. 12)

1995 – Gurukula alumni Gaura-vani appears in three summer movies: “The Brady Bunch,” “Dangerous Minds,” and “Virtuosity.” | Manu appointed GBC Youth Minister. (ISKCON Youth Ministry Mission Statement, author’s collection)

1996 – An eight year old is molested in New Vrindaban; the girl’s father and other men beat up the perpetrator and pull out his ponytail (sikha). These incidents were never reported to authorities. | Former students from the Vrindavana, India, gurukula confront Dhanurdar, the former school principal who directed the abusive school in Vrindavana. The meeting takes place in the Los Angeles temple, arranged and facilitated by GBC member Badrinarayan. After the confrontation, Dhanurdara continues in his position as guru, sannyasi, and member in good standing. | A Los Angeles gurukula teacher resigns after she receives death threats for reporting incidents of child abuse to the proper authorities. ISKCON’s new Women’s Ministry learns of the incident, but is powerless to do anything. | The first lawsuit filed against any ISKCON and/or ISKCON entity alleging child abuse filed against Frederic DeFrancisco, Larry Gardiner, Keith Ham (AKA Kirtananda)Ê and other New Vrindavan and Vrindavan gurukula leaders. Originally filed in 1996 in Marshall County Circuit Court. The local newspapers (Wheeling Register-Intelligencer reported on the event).Ê | ISKCON World Review changes its name to Hare Krishna World. | V.O.I.C.E. (Violations of ISKCON Children Exposed) website by Nirmal-chandra Hickey and Maya Charnell posted, including personal accounts of abuse and a statement about Srila Prabhupada’s responsibility for gurukula. (Janmastami Nightmare: One Account of Child Abuse, anonymous, posted at the V.O.I.C.E. website, 1996). (Prabupada’s Responsibility, by Nirmal-chandra and Maya Devi, posted at the V.O.I.C.E. website, 1996) Nirmal-chandra also wrote an account of Vrindavana gurukula, which spoke for many victims of that school. (Vrindavana Gurukula, by Nirmal-chandra, author’s collection, 1996) | Ten gurukula alumni give three hours of moving testimony about child abuse in gurukula at the North American GBC meeting in Alachua, Florida, May 17-18. Children of Krishna, Inc., formed to help abuse victims and other children raised in the movement. (Excerpt from Priti-laksanam, by Kunti, 1996). (The Children of Krishna, Inc., Strategic Guidelines, author’s collection) | Srimad Bhagavan writes his autobiography to help effort to gather information about what happened to the children in ISKCON. “My Life Story,” by S.B. McKee, (author’s collection, 1996) | Maria Ekstrand (Madhusudani Radha dasi) starts an online conference called “Child Abuse Prevention” (CAP).

1997 – Manu persuades the GBC to pass two resolutions favoring the second generation, Mayapur Meeting, March. (GBC resolutions, 1997) | Guru B.V. Madhava leaves ISKCON after admitting that he touched a male follower inappropriately. | Muralivadaka resigns Board of Education and Children of Krishna, Inc., board of directors when confronted with evidence that he abused children. | University of Illinois Press publishes Betrayal of the Spirit, including one chapter about gurukula abuses. | Children of Krishna, Inc., report in their newsletter that in their first ten months of operation they had granted four individuals a total of $2,000. | Accounts of guru Bhavananda’s child abuse were gathered and published by Dr. Maria Ekstrand at chakra.org, a GBC-approved forum for discussing controversy. The Past is Not Done With, statements about Bhavananda’s acts of child abuse, (posted at chakra.org, by Dr. Maria Ekstrand, 1998)

1998 – Raghunatha revives his old newsletter on the Internet. Gurukula Veterans Journal website posted. | Gurukula alumni Manjari Devi performs with Madonna on the international MTV Video Awards. | Dhira Govinda (David Wolf, Ph.D.) establishes Child Protection Office (CPO), along with Yashoda Devi. (Child Protection Office interview with Dhira Govinda at Culver City Park, author’s collection, 1998). (Child Protection in ISKCON, a task force report, 1998) | Dhira Govinda (David Wolf, Ph.D.) also establishes the APVC, Association for the Protection of Vaishnava Children, to oversee ISKCON child protection efforts, “creating and maintinaing safe environments for children in ISKCON communities around the world.” Malini Dasi is assistant director. The establish the website apvc.org. | Harikesh resigns and leaves ISKCON. | ISKCON Communications Journal, based in Sweden, publishes Burke Rochford’s “Child Abuse in the Hare Krishna Movement: 1971-1986.” (click here to read a synopsis of this paper) When the article is published in their October issue, ISKCON Communications issues a press release. Media cover the story (click here to see articles): the front page of The New York Times; Associated Press, Religious News Service, Dallas Morning News, India Express, Deccan Herald, and numerous local radio, TV and news stories. | ISKCON Communications issues press release about the child abuse media coverage, along with confidential media guidelines to all ISKCON centers, Oct. 13. (Media Release: Hare Krishnas Investigate Past Abuse at Boarding School, Oct. 13, 1998) | Gurukula alumni Nimai Bhakti Pralad Dasa commits suicide, Dec. 13, he was twenty-six. | Gurukula alumni survey conducted, see results (Manu Dasa made the results public through chakra.org in April 2000).

1999 – Mayapur meeting: gurukula alumni address the GBC, Feb. 13. (Can We Mend the Shattered Fragments of ISKCON?, by Krsna-devata and Shakuntala, author’s collection, 1999) | Bhakta-Visvareta loses his cool in Mayapur, beats former Vrindavan gurukula principal Dhanurdara. (Hi everyone, by Bhakta Visvareta, author’s collection, 1999) | ISKCON’s Office of Child Protection issues its first newsletter, April 6, including their findings against two child abusers: Srutadeva dasa (Robert Kaufman) and Muralivadaka dasa (Michael Mager). (Cases Resolved by the Child Protection Office, vnn.org, April 6, 1999) | ISKCON’s Office of Child Protection begins to look for evidence that Kirtanananda and Bhavananda abused and molested children, April 23. | Dr. Michael Langone, Executive Directory of the American Family Foundation, an cult information organization, defends ISKCON’s reform movement at the AFF Annual Conference, May 14. | Windle Turley, P.C., of Dallas prepares to file a class action suit on behalf of several former gurukula students. | Associated Press publishes “Hare Krishnas Threatened by Lawsuit,” by Julia Lieblich, June 6; Jean Sonmor of the Toronto Sun follows with “Hare Krishnas on the hotseat,” June 14, and “Dark Side of Krishna Looming Class-Action Suit Alleges Physical and Sexual Abuse of Kids,” July 6. | ISKCON Communications pledges that the organization will donate $1 million to child abuse prevention efforts (Media Release: Krishnas Pledge One Million Dollars to Child Protection, April 29, 1999)

More Cult than Cult Classic

Details, a popular American men’s magazine, has published an article about ISKCON: The Return of a Cult Classic—The Hare Krishnas are Back. What follows is the comment I left below the article:

This sort of calculated misinformation used to be reviled as propaganda, now it’s celebrated as good marketing, if anyone notices it at all. DETAILS should be ashamed to have any part in ISKCON’s “re-branding.”

Forget this new-agey whitewash. Here’s what you need to know about ISKCON, because no Hare Krishna will tell you willingly: Their founder, Bhaktivedanta Swami “Prabhupada,” made an embarrassing, and embarrassingly long, list of statements that this article’s target demographic would undoubtedly consider racist, sexist, and homophobic, statements that would easily put him in the company of Donald Sterling, Cliven Bundy, and the like. Don’t believe me? Give a Hare Krishna a $10 “donation” for a copy of their Bhagavad-gita, in which you’ll find the timeless spiritual wisdom that “women are generally not very intelligent and therefore not trustworthy,” that they “should not be given freedom” because “they are like children,” and that they are categorically of “lower birth.” That’s just one example. Regarding “negroes,” Bhaktivedanta Swami remarked that it was “best to keep them under control as slaves.” And he referred to homosexuality as “demoniac” and “not for any sane male,” to him a clear sign of the degradation of human society. These are just a few out of a disturbing number of examples.

Aside from his outright bigotry, Bhaktivedanta Swami was anti-family, anti-education, and distinctly anti-science. He repeatedly denied that we had, or ever would, land on the moon. He believed that the sun was the only source of light in the universe. And he enlisted his disciples in a crusade to “debunk” evolution. Like all good cult leaders, he also erroneously predicted the imminent end of the world, in his case via nuclear armageddon.

The liberals in ISKCON would like to think these things are anomalies, overshadowed by the valuable and altruistic gifts their leader supposedly gave the world. At most they’ll refer to their guru’s back-catalog of backward views as “controversial” or “problematic.” Meanwhile, the conservatives in ISKCON embrace the same claptrap as divine. But the real trouble is that neither faction will ever denounce or even significantly question Prabhupada. They all worship him as infallible and, even when conscience tells them not to, consider everything he wrote and said and did to be flawless, inspired by god directly.

So, buyer beware! Read the volumes of fine print appended to this product. It’s way more cult than “cult classic.” All that stuff about vegetarianism and reincarnation and blissing out on mantra meditation may sound nice, but it comes at a high price. And despite this article’s intimations of cafeteria Hinduism and it’s guarantee that “with Hare Krishna…there is no commitment”—sure, they’re happy to have you volunteer your time, and they sure as hell will take your money if you offer it, without expecting too much else—if you want them to consider you one of them, you will absolutely have to revere Prabhupada “as good as god,” no a la carte option available.

A Few Words on Anonymity

“Why publish anonymously? If you have something to say, why not stand behind it by attaching your name to it? It’s cowardly to remain anonymous!”

It’s not because I’m afraid of confrontation that I post anonymously. At least that’s not the main reason why I’ve chosen anonymity. I will admit to being concerned that what I have to say may be upsetting enough to inspire, in the wrong reader, threatening rhetoric or behavior. And I wouldn’t be at all surprised if those with the desire and the means to do so attempted to suppress the sort of dissenting opinions to which this blog seeks to give a voice.

And yet there are other reasons I wish to remain anonymous, reasons more significant than a fear of retribution, however reasonable that fear may be.

The most significant of these reasons has to do with a major shortcoming I perceive in devotee circles: the tendency to de-value ideas, deferring instead to who or what is presenting those ideas. That is to say, a “good devotee” is likely to respect authority in the form of the “person Bhagavat” or the “book Bhagavat,” accepting without honest inquiry whatever that authority tells him or her to accept, rejecting without real investigation whatever that authority tells him or her to reject. Having practically relinquished any claim on critical thinking, ideas in themselves no longer have intrinsic value to the “good devotee,” who is unable to evaluate anything without first situating it in relation to its source.

This is the very definition of dogmatism.

So, in the hope that the ideas presented here might not be so easily dismissed, I have tried to let them stand up for themselves. May they be evaluated on their own merits. As for me, I don’t suppose my anonymity will last long; those who know me will likely not have difficulty identifying the ideas, and the words chosen to express them, with their source. So be it.

At least, from the outset, let it be known that I’d prefer readers of this blog paid more attention to what is being said than to who is saying it.

Disclaimer and/or Statement of Intent

What follows will reflect (largely) my opinions and/or personal convictions. In the tradition of Gaudiya Vaishnava theology, in the context of ISKCON doctrine, and in light of what “Prabhupada said,” those opinions may be indefensible. They remain my opinions nonetheless.

Throughout my so-called devotional career I have wasted much energy pretending I believe things I am not entirely convinced about, that I support things I am actually opposed to, and that I agree with opinions I find distasteful. These are things I no longer have any use for.

While I readily acknowledge that in the grand scheme of things my opinions matter little, I cannot just discard them. It was, in part, my willingness to consider any option reasonably presented that I ended up in the Hare Krishna movement in the first place. Having joined, I refuse to relinquish my critical faculties without a compelling reason for doing so.