Tag: Brainwashing

As It Is

Look, here’s the thing: ISKCON is a cult. It just is. This is a fact – both because ISKCON is what it is, and because we use words to mean things. Particular things. That’s what they’re for. They allow us to make statements about the things in the world around us in such a way that other people who hear those statements can understand this or that factual truth about the world and those things. So the fact that ISKCON is a cult is something easily verified by one’s finding out what the word “cult” means and then evaluating whether or not it can be reasonably applied to ISKCON and how it operates.

Now, the definition of the word “cult” has boundaries somewhat more nebulous than is sometimes manageable (as is often the case when small words are unfairly tasked with helping us to understand big ideas). One might prefer the definition of Robert Jay Lifton or Michael Langone or Margaret Singer or the “BITE” model of Steven Hassan or whatever else. But whichever definition you choose, you will (if you’re honest) have to conclude that the word “cult” applies to ISKCON.

At this point it’s only fair to admit that the degree to which ISKCON occurs as a cult may be different for you than it is for Bhakta Bob or your TP or GBC or for that nice mataji who first helped you put on a sari. It might also be less (or more) true today than it was in 1983, or in Eastern Europe than it is in North America, or in Los Angeles than it is in Alachua. That’s worth noting. But let’s not waste time splitting hairs. Regardless of degree, ISKCON is a cult.

If you like, you also could argue that what some refer to as the cult dynamic is somehow conducive for your “advancement in spiritual life,” and that if that dynamic somehow helps you to surrender to Krishna, then it can’t be so bad. (Right?) But that’s just the cult talking, isn’t it? Don’t waste your time with this either. Instead, I suggest you allow yourself to honestly determine to what degree your experience in ISKCON is in fact a cult experience. Then ask yourself this very important question:

“Am I really OK with this?”

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Stop Misusing the Trust of Sincere People

“So far Ksirodakasayi is concerned, or anyone else who is newcomer, [he] should be allowed some concession. And after some time when he is accustomed to our principle, then we can make the screw tight. I think this point will be sufficient hint to deal with him.” – Letter to Tamala Krishna, 20 February 1970, Los Angeles

One of the reasons my last post took so long to prepare was the time involved in gathering the links appended to the text. So many of those links deserve more attention, but there’s one in particular I’d like to highlight here. It’s a short essay posted (perhaps re-posted?) on a site called “ISKCON Media Vedic Library.” The title of the post is direct enough – “Please Stop Misusing Srila Prabhupada’s Quotes” – though the logic of the post is rather muddled.

The post’s author, Amara dasa – who I assume from a detail given in the text itself is Amara Das Wilhem, founder of GALVA, the Gay and Lesbian Vaishnava Association – is upset because some of his fellow devotees are using the well-documented statements of ISKCON’s “founder-acarya” to publically advance the backward notions those statements clearly express.

(People like Amara say these statements have been misinterpreted. I say, As ACBS himself said, “…There is no need for interpretation. Interpretation is necessary if things are not clear. But here the meaning is clear.” That’s another conversation.)

What Amara has to say fits into four short paragraphs, and I encourage you to take a moment to read them all. While it may appear he’s well intentioned, Amara’s approach exemplifies a type of dishonest and unethical behavior endemic to the followers of “Srila Prabhupada.” Amara writes:

“There are some quotes from His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada that are commonly misused to discriminate against women and minorities. These quotes concern relative social and bodily issues that have nothing to do with the spiritual nature of the soul. They are frequently taken completely out of context and delivered in a fashion that is both mean-spirited and ill motivated. The result has been that many sincere people and prospective devotees are completely turned off to the Krsna consciousness movement and given a poor impression of Srila Prabhupada.”

Later in his essay Amara writes, almost as an aside, “I normally do not take interest in these types of quotes, in fact, I would rather they were not even made public.” (And yet Amara’s plea is, perplexingly enough, followed by a very limited selection of the sort of quotes he “would rather…were not even made public.”)

(In Amara’s defense, Bhaktivedanta Swami too thought his bigotry should remain in house: “Certainly we are not going to say these things about the negro people publicly…” I suppose it’s possible that instruction applies only to his bigotry toward black people. After all, he often spoke publicly – freely and to journalists – about his deeply held conviction that women were inferior. The same could be said of his disdain for “homosex.”)

But why would Amara rather these statements were not made public? Let’s read the last sentence of the first paragraph again:

“The result [of such quotes being publicly available] has been that many sincere people and prospective devotees are completely turned off to the Krsna consciousness movement and given a poor impression of Srila Prabhupada.”

So, in order to prevent these sincere people from not wanting to have anything to do with “Srila Prabhupada,” Amara suggests that what Prabhupada said should be selectively concealed from view, hidden away and ignored.

I’d like to suggest an alternative: Stop pretending these quotes don’t exist, that ACBS didn’t profess some thoroughly objectionable opinions you’d think a genuinely spiritual person could never, ever even entertain. Instead, allow those sincere people to decide for themselves – before they’ve had their heads filled with propaganda – what sort of person your “Srila Prabhupada” must have been. My guess is that, given the opportunity, they’ll decide he was something quite different from what you’d hoped.

Let’s be honest. Those sincere people are really only important to Amara and his colleagues – to ISKCON and the other organizations that seek to represent Bhaktivedanta Swami – because, as Amara says in practically the next breath, those sincere people are also “prospective devotees.” No one’s upset that those sincere people might get a bad impression of ACBS, or that they might miss out on the opportunity to adopt his version of “spiritual life.” Not really. What’s really upsetting is that those sincere people won’t be sticking around to swell the ranks of ACBS’s ostensibly spiritual movement, to wash the pots and fill the hundi and pack those kirtans with bodies. Even more upsetting is the thought they won’t help bolster the collective delusion Bhaktivedanta Swami was someone special, someone “transcendental.”

Normal people, people who have not been exposed to ISKCON’s special brand of groupthink, have no trouble understanding that Bhaktivedanta Swami’s more “controversial” statements are not controversial at all. They’re just hateful – proof that ACBS, just like everyone else, was a product of his time and culture. That is, fallible and mundane. It’s no wonder that those whose primary goal in life is to “make devotees” would prefer that the public image of Bhaktivedanta is carefully controlled.

Perhaps ACBS said it best himself: “It is said that a fool is undiscovered as long as he does not speak…but as soon as he speaks, he reveals himself at once.” So, better speak for him by selectively presenting his teachings. Or don’t let him speak at all.

And lest you think Amara is alone in his approach to this very real problem for Bhaktivedanta’s legacy and the longevity of ISKCON, consider Krishna West.

Krishna West is Hridayananda Swami’s last-ditch attempt to save ISKCON North America from itself (and to earn bragging rights, if he’s successful). Those sympathetic to Krishna West agree that Bhaktivedanta’s misogyny and racism and homophobia are problematic, at least insofar as the audience among “Westerners” for kirtan and Hindu-ish-ism consists of left- (often far-left-)leaning yogis, hippies, environmentalists, and New Age types. Their approach to that problem is different in form but, as ACBS would say, non-different in substance from what ISKCON generally does. Hridayananda and his followers separate the teachings of ACBS into two categories: “spiritual” and “material.” According to them, the spiritual teachings are essential, whereas the material teachings are dispensable. Care to guess which category the racist, misogynistic, and homophobic stuff gets relegated to?

It’s not a stupid approach. It is, however, indefensible for the very simple reason that it contradicts what ACBS said about himself and how his followers should regard him.

Meanwhile, the very existence of Krishna West has caused friction within ISKCON at large, where the party line is still very much to accept everything Bhaktivedanta ever said as unimpeachable truth. After some protracted passive-aggressive conflict (on- and offline), ISKCON released this statement.

Take note of point 8.

“If questions arise regarding Hridayananda das Goswami’s preaching or Krishna West, concerned parties should first contact Hridayananda dasa Goswami directly, or Bir Krishna Goswami, and then, if necessary, the GBC Executive Committee, rather than air issues or grievances in unproductive ways, such as on the internet.”

That is, keep your mouths shut about it, because airing dirty laundry in public is bad for business – it drives the customers away. Also, please note: ISKCON is not, never was, and likely never will be a democratic society that values free speech, free press, free expression, and other wonderful things that begin with the word “free.” (Except of course for free lunch.) But none of this should come as a surprise, certainly not to “sold out” ISKCON members. Their so-called founder-acarya was not a fan of democracy.

“I like this position, dictatorship. Personally I like this.” – Room conversation, 21 August 1975, Bombay

Or, more directly:

Prabhupada: If you can introduce this system, varnasrama, then it will establish. No more change. This is a rascal’s government, this democracy.

Tamala Krishna: “Demoncracy.”

Prabhupada: “Demoncracy.”

Hari-Sauri: “Demon-crazy.”

Prabhupada: “Demon-crazy.” (laughter) Demon and crazy. Not only demon… There are demons whose brain is all right, but they are crazy also.

Tamala Krishna: (laughing) Demon-crazy.

Prabhupada: And introduce books in the school, colleges, libraries, so nice books. There is no doubt about it. There is no such literature throughout the world.

Tamala Krishna: Gradually some of the people are beginning to understand what you’re up to, Srila Prabhupada. Some of these big demons in America especially, they are beginning to understand that you are the most dangerous personality in the world to them.

Prabhupada: To kill “demon-crazy,” LSD. (laughs) Yes, that is my mission. That is Krishna’s mission, paritranaya sadhunam vinasaya ca duskrtam [BG 4.8], to kill all these demons, crazy demons. I have no such power; otherwise I would have killed them. Either establish Krishna conscious government or kill them – bas, finish. I would have done that, violence.

Room conversation, 25 February 1977, Mayapur

Neither was he an advocate of free speech:

Ramesvara: But now, suppose there is some businessman, and he knows that everybody is wanting this sex. So he is making movie or writing a book describing these things.

Prabhupada: These things were formerly restricted-censor board.

Ramesvara: So there must be censorship…

Prabhupada: Yes.

Ramesvara: …in a Krishna conscious…

Prabhupada: Oh, yes.

Ramesvara: …government.

Prabhupada: Oh, yes.

Morning walk, 21 January 1977, Bhuvanesvara

But the people ISKCON is hoping (against hope) will become its next generation of loyal members are generally in favor of democracy and free speech – and against the sort of backward social notions Bhaktivedanta all too frequently espoused – that is, at least until someone manages to convince those sincere people it’s somehow “spiritual” to think otherwise. They should know that, despite what their handlers insist, the process of making them into devotees is not a process based on rational inquiry, or even on rational persuasion. They should also know that those who, posing as their “well wishers,” attempt to bring them into the fold are anything but transparent about their founder, his teachings, and a host of other things “sincere people and prospective devotees” expected to give their lives to ISKCON should be well informed about.

Going Back to Godhead: ISKCON and the Prison of Belief

The cult experience is a paradox. It is both completely unique and thoroughly unoriginal. Only those who have lived it can truly say what it’s like, and yet the experience itself differs so slightly from one cult to the next that the personal story of any one survivor can seem familiar, even if the specific beliefs or practices of his or her cult contradict your own.

The documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief had been getting press for months before it finally premiered last night on HBO. Last week, writer and director Paul Haggis, who spent thirty-five years in The Church of Scientology, wrote about his own personal response to the film. I find that his thoughts mirror my own and that his words speak for me, giving an intelligible voice to the regret, anger, and embarrassment I now feel after having wasted a decade or so of my life in ISKCON.

I’ve reproduced nearly all of Paul Haggis’ words below, replacing some relevant pronouns and organizational details with those specific to ISKCON. These are not my words. I did not write this. But I could have.

If Paul Haggis or Tony Ortega or anyone at The Underground Bunker would like me to remove this post, I’ll readily oblige. Nonetheless, I think they would be able to recognize its value as an expression of the cult experience and “the prison of belief.”

“I was very involved in ISKCON for most of my adult life. While I thought the Vedic astronomy madness, I enthusiastically followed the regulative principles and performed the daily practices of Krishna consciousness — so much so that it took several years after leaving to actually question the many practices, behaviors, and thought patterns that I had learned and used. The slow indoctrination process is as subtle as it is dangerous — largely because you truly believe that you are thinking for yourself, when in fact you are discouraged to do anything of the sort.

“Paradoxically, there is great pride in belonging to a stigmatized group. It’s like being in love with a narcissist. All your friends will warn you that you are just being used. You understand why they think what they think, but you believe in your heart that they just don’t see what you see. You just tune them out. For that reason, when I did discover what many outside ISKCON knew, I was truly shocked. While some of the information had been out there for many years, like all devotees ‘in good standing,’ I refused to look. Yes, I was told not to, but I didn’t have to be. This was my group and I knew there to be many people in the world who were bigoted and close-minded, and when I was told that we were ‘under attack’ in Kazakhstan or Siberia or wherever, instead of looking for the reasons, I assumed this to be the case.

“It makes little or no sense in retrospect, and it’s very hard to understand unless you’ve been a part of a marginalized group. While my doubts were a constant thorn in my side, questioning philosophies I thought unjust, it never crossed my mind to voice my concerns outside the organization. In fact, even after I had left the organization I maintained a great fondness for ‘the old man.’ Yes, Prabhupada was a kind of revolutionary, and he might have lost perspective later in life, I thought, but I still mistakenly believed he was a genuine mystic who legitimately represented an authentic religious tradition. Even then. I might have been outraged by injustices I witnessed or heard about, but I dropped the blame at the doorstep of the GBC and Prabhupada’s ‘immature’ disciples.

“It took years after leaving to understand that these practices I railed against had always been at the core of ISKCON — that the GBC was just very faithfully, if clumsily, following Srila Prabhupada’s cruel playbook. The reason this was hard to believe is exactly because of the duplicitous nature of Prabhupada’s writing. He wrote and spoke about the practice and necessity of not ‘following blindly’; how nothing should be accepted without ‘intelligent inquiry.’ But it is advice given to the brainwashed. All these high-minded teachings are useless when you factor in the things you are never allowed to question — ‘Srila Prabhupada,’ his teachings, practices, and leadership.

“Somehow devotees are able to accept those incongruous and contradictory thoughts. For example, they truly believe that only ISKCON can save the world, and that they are making major strides in this direction every year. They hold onto this belief despite the fact that there isn’t even a modicum of evidence that they are having even the tiniest impact on any problem in any part of the globe. Devotees simply accept the assurances of their gurus and the GBC that it is so. To the contrary, volumes of compelling evidence from unimpeachable sources that their organization has done and is doing serious damage to thousands of people is dismissed before it is ever inspected.

“That’s what will happen to sites like The Hare Krishna Thing and blogs like Hare Krishna Truth Out. At least that’s what ISKCON hopes happens. Without even reading any of it my former friends will condemn it as lies. You see it happening already. Understand that many of these devotees are damn smart people; many of them truly lovely and caring. But they are the same people who will not hesitate to cut their closest friend or family member out of their lives if they commit the ultimate crime of criticizing Srila Prabhupada. You could do anything else and they would stand by you; commit any crime and they would be there to defend you. But not this.

“I believe this is because somewhere in the back of their heads they know, as I did, that the very act of questioning could bring down their entire belief system. They have been slowly but surely trained to believe that if you don’t agree with something that Prabhupada wrote, you just don’t understand it. Questioning anything means questioning everything. Even the slightest crack in that belief system could spread into a fissure. They cannot afford or allow the smallest doubt, because if it took root, their perfect world — a world where there is an answer to every one of life’s questions — could fall apart around them, and they would be left, like the rest of us, searching in the dark for their own answers in an uncertain world. Which brings to mind something a true genius wrote: ‘Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack, a crack, in everything. That’s how the light gets in.’ For the sake of my former friends, many of whom I loved, I hope that sites like Kuruvinda.com are the first crack, that they will read essays like Steven Gelberg’s ‘On Leaving ISKCON’ or ‘Oh! The Things I Learned,’ and the light will slip in.”

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).

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.