Tag: Cult

Another Pinch of Snuff

I’ve been surprised to find that my most recent post, Regarding Snuff, has generated more traffic to this site, and more quickly, than any other post thus far – several hundred views in just the first few days. It’s also inspired my first substantial criticism, in the form of a comment from one “Damodar Roe.” The comment is a lengthy one. I suggest reading the post that inspired it before diving into the comment itself or to my reply to that comment (both of which will comprise the rest of this post). Naturally, I don’t agree with Damodar’s interpretation of the facts, but I’m grateful for his contribution, and I appreciate the civility with which he presented it. (I’ve seen others refer to my thoughts by invoking a certain scripturally sanctioned response to “blasphemy.” Civility is not a given.)

Damodar begins:

It is true that Prabhupada prohibited intoxication, and yet used snuff. However, it is necessary to understand the context of this prohibition in the Chaitanya-Vaishnava tradition which he represented and the unique circumstances of his life in which he applied this restriction himself. Prabhupad was not hypocritical, as I shall now explain.

No surprises so far. Of course there’s the ever-present (but woefully misguided and always shortsighted) cry for “Context!” Aside from that, let’s be clear from the get-go, we’ll be giving “Srila Prabhupada” a pass. Not that we should’ve expected otherwise. The apologist’s standard operating principle is to assume that whatever he believes is unimpeachable then stack the deck to make it (seem) so. Harrumph. Whatever. Here we go…

This article, ‘Regarding Snuff’, is not a criticism of Prabhupada for using snuff, per se, but more precisely it an accusation that he was hypocritical for using a stimulant while teaching his followers not to use intoxicants of any kind. This means that in writing my rebuttal it is not necessary to prove whether using intoxication is good or bad. All that needs to be accomplished in order to defeat these criticisms of Prabhupada is to disprove the assumption that the tradition which Prabhupada represented would condemn his use of snuff. If Prabhupada had invented the rules himself and then broke them, then that would be hypocritical. But it is not so simple. Prabhupada represented the Chaitanya-Vaishnava lineage, which has both worldly laws and ultimate laws. And the sophisticated interrelationship between these two types of laws is crucial to understand before making a judgment about his snuff use.

I honestly think the distinction Damodar tries to make here is a non-distinction, but what other option does he have? It is a fact, confirmed by ACBS himself, that the “founder-acarya” of ISKCON regularly took tobacco and in so doing broke one of the fundamental rules he established for his followers. (Take note of that: he established. More on that in a moment.) But let me clarify something, because I wrote the article, “Regarding Snuff,” and so I know precisely what my intentions were: It is, most definitely, a criticism of “Prabhupada” for using snuff, per se. Whether or not I think using snuff is “good” or “bad” in general is beside the point. That’s true. And yet Damodar gains nothing by saying so. The particular (damning) criticism is exactly what he suggests it is, namely that ACBS was a hypocrite for using a stimulant while teaching his followers not to use intoxicants of any kind. As for Damodar’s non-distinction, he’s just setting up the pins he feels confident he can knock down. But in doing so, he’s lost. Why? Because of this: “If Prabhupada had invented the rules himself and then broke them, then that would be hypocritical.” I agree. And this is exactly what he did.

Any honest member of ISKCON knows – but apparently won’t admit as much when doing so is inconvenient – that ACBS did indeed “invent the rules himself.” ISKCON devotees like to say their organization represents a “bona fide religious tradition” or that they belong to the “Gaudiya Vaishnava sampradaya” or, as Damodar puts it, that ACBS and his followers “represent the Chaitanya-Vaishnava lineage,” and yet the practical reality is much more simple. It can be summed up in two words: “Prabhupada said.” What ISKCON’s alleged “lineage” has to say about this or that or the other thing will always and forever be subordinate to the personal and idiosyncratic interpretation of that lineage presented by ISKCON’s so-called founder-acarya.

And in this case, ACBS said something very specific about tobacco. Here, I’ll let Damodar tell you (what I told you):

The author of ‘Regarding Snuff’ quotes the following statement of Prabhupad:

“Sometimes we find that someone poses as a great devotee very much advanced in spiritual understanding, but he cannot even give up smoking cigarettes. That means he’s not liberated.” (Dharma: The Way of Transcendence, 16: “When the Krishna Sun Rises in the Heart”)

It’s that simple.

Unless, of course, you’re duty-bound to see ACBS as a man beyond reproach. Then it gets messy.

This statement refers to cheating by presenting oneself one way while acting another.

Like, for instance, instructing your followers to strictly refrain from all intoxication, including – say it with me now – coffee, tea, and cigarettes, and then regularly indulging in said intoxication.

However, within the Chaitanya-Vaishnava tradition there is an exception to breaking prohibitions, for example smoking or using snuff, which is not cheating. In the Bhagavad-Gita, which is a holy text of central authority in Chaitanya-Vaishnavism and Vedantic Hinduism in general, it is said (9.30):

api cet su-durācāro bhajate mām ananya-bhāk
sādhur eva sa mantavyaḥ samyag vyavasito hi saḥ

This verse says that even if a devotee of God does something which is ordinarily prohibited, that he or she should still be considered virtuous because his or her intelligence is fixed on the spiritual path.

I’ll be honest, I always felt uncomfortable with this verse, though I’ve only recently allowed myself to articulate why: it’s proof positive that ISKCON dogma lacks any real morality. Actions are less important than actors. What’s being done is less important than who is doing it.

If you insist, as Damodar does, that the “lineage” is important, then recall his premise: “All that needs to be accomplished in order to defeat these criticisms of Prabhupada is to disprove the assumption that the tradition which Prabhupada represented would condemn his use of snuff.” If you’d rather not read the rest of this, I’ll save you some time. Damodar has set the bar extremely low. The “tradition which Prabhupada represented” would never and will never condemn him for any reason whatsoever. In a moment Damodar will help us understand why, but the simple explanation is this: “Srila Prabhupada” belongs, by the (purely subjective) standard of his “tradition,” in the category of “pure devotee,” and because he belongs in that category there is nothing he could’ve said or done that would require he be condemned. The “pure devotee” is categorically above criticism of any kind. (There’s no real way to prove or disprove that any one person is or isn’t a “pure devotee.” It depends more on sentiment and allegiance than it does on anything tangible or observable, but that’s not important. Not to them anyway.)

It’s also worth noting that Damodar is neglecting to mention the Gita’s next verse, in which Krishna says that such a conditionally sinful person eventually comes to rectify his or her bad behavior. Krishna does not give his devotees carte blanche to behave in any way they want just so long as they go on being his devotees. More importantly, he certainly does not grant them permission to habitually break the rules, as ACBS did. Damodar will say as much in a paragraph or so.

This verse necessarily does not condone cheating because Krishna, the speaker of Bhagavad-Gita, already discouraged cheating in the third chapter, sixth verse. Furthermore, the verse says that the devotee’s intelligence is completely fixed on the spiritual path, which means that his or her intelligence is not bent on cheating.

And who decides if one’s “intelligence is completely fixed on the spiritual path”? As I said, Damodar and devotees like him presuppose that their “Srila Prabhupada” was “comletely fixed,” and so his supposed faultlessness follows from that initial assumption. At one time I too thought this way. But I no longer do. Why? Because on the one hand there is scant evidence and zero proof that ACBS was the sort of “pure devotee” he repeatedly led his followers to believe he was or that “his intelligence was not bent on cheating.” In that regard there is only hagiography and mythology and wishful thinking. On the other hand, there is ample evidence (which for some amounts to proof) that ACBS was neither “completely fixed” nor that “his intelligence was not bent on cheating.” If you turn your attention from the constant eulogizing and mythologizing and instead spend just a little time with what he actually said and did, then you too may come to doubt Damodar’s presupposition.

So eliminating that possible misunderstanding, this verse may refer to two cases:

  1. A person takes up the spiritual path, but sometimes falls short due to past conditioning
  2. A person has to override scriptural or social morality because of exceptional circumstances in order to fulfill the spirit of the law of God

Either of these two persons must, according to this verse, be considered virtuous.

It’s safe to assume Damodar doesn’t put ACBS in category #1. But if he’s in category #2, that means that due to “exceptional circumstances” ACBS repeatedly broke the rules for god’s higher purpose.

Think for just a moment about what that means: Krishna needed ACBS to [insert sanctimonious, self-congratulatory ISKCON rhetoric here] but instead of making his devotee healthy enough to actually carry out that mission, he instead burdened the old man with a minor ailment that could only be alleviated by his breaking the principles he repeatedly instructed his disciples should be rigidly followed without exception. Doesn’t that make Krishna out to be a bit of a jerk?

(To be fair to Krishna – forgetting for a moment that nicotine is not actually a remedy for high blood pressure, and assuming high blood pressure was indeed an ailment from which ACBS was suffering – there are other remedies he could have taken, remedies that would have not involved breaking his own principles. And now, remembering that nicotine will only make high blood pressure worse, can we all, please, acknowledge that Damodar is unwilling to address this basic fact: the excuse that ACBS took snuff for medicinal purposes is no excuse at all. Nicotine elicits the exact opposite effect ACBS would have wanted for his alleged condition. The fact that Damodar does not deal with this at all should tell you everything you need to know.)

Arjuna, who heard the Bhagavad-Gita speech from Krishna, is an obvious example of the second case. [A person who has to “override scriptural or social morality because of exceptional circumstances.”] In the first chapter of the Bhagavad-Gita it is explained how Arjuna finds himself in a fratricidal war against his cousins due to dissentions in his family. He becomes overwhelmed at the prospect of fighting his relatives, and gives many moral arguments why he should not fight. Indeed, all these arguments reflect the values of Hindu culture.

The rest of the Bhagavad-Gita consists in Krishna affectionately explaining to Arjuna a broader and more profound perspective to his situation which justifies fighting the battle against his relatives. And indeed, the Bhagavad-Gita concludes with Krishna reiterating his affection for Arjuna and leaving the decision up to him, and Arjuna in response agreeing to fight. The Chaitanya-Vaishnava tradition, therefore, does not teach absolute puritanism as the author of this article portrays. Restrictions on sex outside of marriage, intoxication, meat-eating, and gambling are meant to guide practitioners away from harmful involvements. But they are by no means absolute restrictions. For example, in the Chaitanya-Vaisnava tradition, the most revered exemplars of devotion are the village girls of Krishna’s home town of Vrindavana, who broke the moral law against affairs outside of marriage by sneaking away from their husbands at night to be with God in romantic love.

All of this makes sense from inside the ISKCON (cult) bubble. I know. I believed it too. But once you step outside and look back at it dispassionately, it’s utterly horrific. Because it boils down to this: You can lie, cheat, steal, rape, kill… whatever, as long as you’re convinced it’s what Krishna wants you to do. ACBS said it most succinctly: “…there is nothing illegal, what we do for Krishna.” http://prabhupadasaid.com/?p=121

And what has been the outcome of that “morality”? An organization with a steady track record of dishonesty, abuse, and violence. When Kirtanananda persuaded Tirtha to kill Sulochana (and Chakradhari and who knows who else), you can bet this verse came up.

Ideologies have consequences, my friends.

In ISKCON the real distinction between who is spiritual and who is not comes less from actions and their consequences than it does from what everyone else is willing to assume about who’s been implicated. And the distinction between what is permitted and what is prohibited has less to do with the act itself than it does with what particular atrocity any one person is willing to defend (as always, making reference to “Prabhupada said.”) Fortunately, not everyone will still defend Kirtanananda, but there are plenty of devotees willing to defend a wide variety of sins, like, for Krishna.

This is an example of what Krishna is saying in this verse (9.30), and the Bhagavad-Gita in general; that although morality is necessary and helpful, devotion to God is of a higher value and may sometimes contradict scriptural morality, including restrictions on intoxication.

So ACBS’s snuff habit was a consequence of his devotion to Krishna? I would imagine that more than a few devotees will be happy to say Yes. I’ve read their comments out there in the digital ether. They think that ACBS’s snuff snorting was a means to an end, a way to either regulate health or to forgo sleep in order to spend more time on his books. Once again, the health claim is total bunk. As for that other thing… Well, frankly, I find that the most exasperating part.

ACBS admits he took snuff (primarily) in a very particular circumstance: “sometimes at night because I am working at night on my books.” Perhaps I was more naive than are other devotees, but when I imagined ACBS composing his “Bhaktivedanta purports,” I imagined him alone in the dark serenity of night, deep in meditation, directly communing with Krishna and channeling that divine inspiration into the texts that would become “the lawbooks for the next 10,000 years.” (Where, I wonder, could I have gotten such a strange idea?) I did not imagine him occasionally snorting a prohibited intoxicant to stay alert while staving off “dizziness” and fatigue. Now, you can argue if you like that I was naive to think this way. But then so are most ISKCON devotees. I didn’t paint that mental picture all by myself. It was handed down to me by devotees “more advanced.” And if you too are an ISKCON devotee, you know good and well it is the mythology you believe as well.

This is confirmed in the Bhagavat-Purana (11.11.32), where God said:

ājñāyaivaṁ guṇān doṣān mayādiṣṭān api svakān
dharmān santyajya yaḥ sarvān māṁ bhajeta sa tu sattamaḥ

“A devotee perfectly understands that the ordinary religious duties prescribed by Me in various Vedic scriptures possess favorable qualities that purify the performer, and he knows that neglect of such duties constitutes a discrepancy in one’s life. Having taken complete shelter at My lotus feet, however, a saintly person ultimately renounces such ordinary religious duties and worships Me alone. He is thus considered to be the best among all living entities.”

So, once again, it doesn’t matter what you do, just so long as you’re on god’s special list.

Oh, and by the by, quoting scripture means nothing to me. I’m aware that devotees wield slokas like cudgels to beat dissenting opinions into submission – whether those opinions come from their opponents or themselves – but I couldn’t possibly care less about such philosophical violence. Having spent some time finding out from where and from whom the “scriptures” actually came, I couldn’t possibly take them seriously anymore. This is in no case more relevant than it is with ACBS and his books. The snuff snorting is not the half of it.

This means that a devotee who risks crossing the moral instructions of the scriptures for the benefit of God and other people does not act selfishly, or ignorantly, but rather with full knowledge disobeys the letter of the law to fulfill the spirit of the law. And for this he or she is praised.

If you say so. But, again, who decides what is “for the benefit of God and other people”? Hint: usually the same person who has decided to “cross the moral instructions of the scriptures.” And who decides which devotees get to do the crossing and which devotees don’t?

All of which is to say nothing of the fact that Hare Krishnas are convinced that endlessly repeating magic words will do more good for humanity than, well, actually doing good for humanity. (Save your “coat of the drowning man” business. I don’t buy it anymore. And, frankly, neither should you. If you actually want to do some good, take a few million dollars (just a few) from that obscene pile of money you’re using to build yet another outrageous monument to tunnel vision in West Bengal and instead use it to make a real difference in the lives of the impoverished local villagers there. Just for once, show the world you care about something other than the legacy of “Srila Prabhupada.”)

Prabhupad was an example of this. He was, like Arjuna, a person who in some cases had to override scriptural rules because of exceptional circumstances in order to fulfill the spirit of the law of God. For example, he crossed the ocean despite scriptural warning not to go to the West. He came to the United States at the age of 70 with no friends or contacts to greet him.

Except for the Agarwals, who took him in as soon as he arrived in America and gave him a place to stay and food to eat for his first month on foreign shores. Why does that always get so conveniently omitted? It makes the story less romantic, I know, but it’s the truth.

And yet within a decade he gathered about 5,000 committed disciples, opened 108 temples, translated over 80 volumes of Sanskrit texts, traveled the world 14 times, and much more.

I’d like to fact check this too, but why bother? More pointless hagiography. History is full of people who’ve accomplished unbelievable things after having had little to show for themselves at the start. Why is this one man the exemplar of all things holy, and all the rest are sinful fallen rascals not worth mentioning? In the realm of religious factions, Joseph Smith is the honored spiritual forefather of the Mormons, a group that has more property and more followers than ISKCON will likely ever see. Is he a figure of greater spiritual stature than “Srila Prabhupada”? You may hear devotees say that quality is more important than quantity, but they sure never miss a chance to make a case for themselves on the strength of quantity.

He had the responsibility of single-handedly representing an ancient and sophisticated spiritual tradition, as well as creating the foundation by which it would remain and grow Worldwide after his death. For this reason Prabhupada hardly slept. He would sleep about 4 hours per day, passing his days guiding the active movement and his nights translating essential texts. So when Prabhupada used stimulants (mild intoxication) to remain awake during the night so that he could translate texts for the benefit of his followers, it was not hypocritical. Rather it was a conscious disobedience to ritual puritanism to fulfill the spirit of the law, and according to his own tradition, a legitimate and even praiseworthy act. According to the Bhagavad-Gita (9.30), he should be considered virtuous.

Look, you can see it that way if you want. (You certainly don’t need my permission.) But you’re still glossing over some very obvious hypocrisy in order to maintain your reverence for someone who, in my opinion, simply does not deserve it. That’s your prerogative, but those who haven’t already been convinced to abandon common sense and then frightened into always and forever giving ACBS the benefit of the doubt will see it for what it is: the true believer’s knee-jerk response to cognitive dissonance. Ideological self-preservation, nothing more.

The author of ‘Regarding Snuff’ wrote that, “You heard it here first: a coffee machine in every temple.” Here he implies that if Prabhupad can do it, then everyone can imitate him because there is no predetermined standard as to who can cross general prohibitions, in order to fulfill the ultimate purpose of the scriptures, namely, service to God.

But there is no “predetermined standard.” At least not one made up of anything but intangibles. If there is, tell us clearly what it is.

Meanwhile, what about the other thing I said, “a box of snuff next to every murti of ACBS”? If you’re so convinced there was nothing wrong with his snuff snorting, then what would be wrong with being more transparent about it? We all know the answer: because common sense tells us it’s hypocrisy. And those who have not yet surrendered still have some common sense. To put it in ISKCON parlance: it’s not good for preaching. To put it in English: it would make it harder to dupe the newbies. No one wants to explain snuff to a guest at the Sunday Feast who just sat through a self-righteous lecture on the Four Regulative Principles.

As for the rest of Damodar’s response to “a coffee maker in every temple,” tell me this: If you found out tomorrow that XYZ Maharaja regularly snorted snuff or drank coffee or popped pills, how willing would you be to defend him like you’re defending ACBS? I suppose it would depend on whether or not XYZ Maharaja was your guru. But personal bias aside, you know the answer, and everyone else in ISKCON knows it too. You’d reject him. Maybe, if you were “humble” (read: fearful and obedient), you wouldn’t say so out loud, but the effect would be the same.

Snuff snorting, by the way, was not ACBS’s sole hypocrisy. Here’s just one more point of data, one I think it would be quite difficult to dismiss with the same philosophical approach Damodar has adopted to deal with snuff. Willem Vandenberg writes, in his excellent essay “Misogyny and Regression of Women’s Rights,” that “although [ACBS] made clear on many occasions that the sannyasa ashram excludes connections with former family and that he had nothing to do with his former wife, children and grandchildren, several letters (like Bombay, June 8, 1971), conversations (like Vrindavana, May 20-22 and October 28-30, 1977), and his will prove that Bhaktivedanta Swami himself continued to both support his family financially with proceeds of ISKCON and the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust and made business arrangements with and for his sons Vrindavana De and Mathura Mohan De to ensure their sustenance as early as 1971.”

Later in the same essay Willem continues, “Some may say that the dollar value was minimal back then and that even the amount of converted Rupees was inadequate, but these arguments are very simplistic…The point here is not the fact that Bhaktivedanta Swami sent some money to his former family in itself, but that he went out of his way to use the modern day equivalent of $350,000 (Rs1,620,000) to do so, with provisions for future investments or acquisition of real estate, and monthly payments that were considerably above (in his wife’s case more than double) the average Calcutta income. If any current ISKCON sannyasi would make similar provisions for his former family with funds provided by unremunerated book distributors, disciples and donors, it would be considered unconscionable.” (emphasis mine)

As I’ve pointed out already, the principle is to presuppose divinity and then make excuses. The only reason ISKCON’s present crop of gurus aren’t allowed to get away with similar (even minor) transgressions is because far fewer devotees are willing to presuppose divinity.

“Prabhupada,” on the other hand, will get a pass. Every. Single. Time.

However, besides the obvious uniqueness of Prabhupad’s life, there is a standard, which is stated in the Bhagavat Purana (11.20.9):

tāvat karmāṇi kurvīta na nirvidyeta yāvatā
mat-kathā-śravaṇādau vā śraddhā yāvan na jāyate

“As long as one is not satiated by fruitive activity and has not awakened his taste for devotional service by śravaṇaṁ kīrtanaṁ viṣṇoḥ, one has to act according to the regulative principles of the Vedic injunctions.”

Again, scripture. So what? You tell me how we decide, without question, that someone “has awakened his taste for devotional service,” then this verse means something. Otherwise, it’s useless. Just consider, even for a moment, that your assumption about the private, subjective experience of a man you’ve never even met may not, in fact, be such solid ground on which to base a life of forgoing “material” pursuits in “service” to “the Supreme.” Even if you had met him, how could you be sure another person’s thoughts and feelings are what you daydream they might be? How can you determine with any sort of certainty that another human being is worthy of your assumption that he – or she, outside of ISKCON maybe – is able to connect you to god directly?

This means that as long as one has a propensity to become diverted from the service of God towards selfish gratification, it is not proper to surpass scriptural prohibitions. However, a person who exclusively finds pleasure in service to God, rather than selfish gratification, is qualified to surpass scriptural prohibitions when it is necessary. Therefore it does not stand that because Prabhupada did it, that everyone can do it. Now the author of ‘Regarding Snuff’, I imagine will challenge my assumption that Prabhupad is on such a level. To this I respond that Prabhupada demonstrated a remarkable power in his life which is not possible to imitate. Prabhupada wrote that:

“Lord Siva drank poison to the extent of swallowing an ocean, but if any common man tries to drink even a fragment of such poison, he will be killed. There are many pseudo devotees of Lord Siva who want to indulge in smoking ganja (marijuana) and similar intoxicating drugs, forgetting that by so imitating the acts of Lord Siva they are calling death very near.” (Bhagavad-Gita As It Is 3.24 Purport)

So before rationalizing “a coffee machine in every temple”, marijuana, or taking snuff oneself in imitation of Prabhupad or Shiva, one must first be able to recreate their accomplishments.

This is too much. Now you’re saying that ACBS could drink poison? (There are a few devotees out there whose version of ISKCON history depends on ACBS’s inability to drink poison. That’s a different blog.) Prove to me that ACBS was not addicted to nicotine. Or that he could have drank alcohol without being “diverted from the service of God towards selfish gratification.” (Or, even, that he was in fact selfless, that he didn’t really kind of dig his golden straw and his Rolex watch and his Rolls Royce and his army of young zealots congratulating him on his every word, no matter how objectionable.)

Damodar writes, “Now the author of ‘Regarding Snuff’, I imagine will challenge my assumption that Prabhupad is on such a level.” I do. Obviously. But more than that I challenge Damodar’s assumption that anyone could be on such a level, “completely transcendental to the modes of nature.” As for ACBS in particular, I think if you more closely study his real life, specifically his interactions with others as documented in his many recorded conversations, you will find a man very often overcome by anger and insecurity and a host of petty concerns. Examine more closely, for example, just about any conversation he had regarding his views on science (the moon landing, evolution, species extinction, and so on). An impartial viewer will more than likely see a man with little to no understanding of the topic who is nonetheless bound and determined to circle his wagons and defend against any and all rational challenges to his worldview, no matter how ridiculous his claims must necessarily become.

My purpose in relating all this information is not necessarily to promote my beliefs, but rather to defeat the criticisms of Prabhupad in this article. And as I already explained, to do this I simply need to accurately prove that the tradition he represented would not condemn his use of snuff. The Bhagavad-Gita and Bhagavat Purana quotes which I have provided accomplish this, which Prabhupada used as his central scriptural authorities. Therefore, he is not hypocritical, but rather, virtuous (sadhu) and the best of saintly persons (sat-tamah), in the words of these scriptures themselves.

And the degree to which you agree with this is directly related to how unquestioningly you accept the presupposition that ACBS was a “pure devotee” and are determined to remain his follower no matter what.

To be candid, I felt upset when I saw this article, and I suspect the author’s intention was to attack followers of Prabhupada rather than express any genuine concern. His research is very thorough, and yet his tone is sarcastic and hateful. I hope that he or she, who has chosen to write anonymously, will have a change of heart and not devote so much time and energy to writing meticulous yet empty criticisms. Life is much more fulfilling when devoted to the trust and love in worthy persons, who for me, includes Prabhupada.

There is too much I want to say about this that including all of it here would be unreasonable. A few things: I think “hateful” is a bit much, and I – truly, honestly – have no intention to attack the followers of ACBS. I do, however, intend to attack the mindlessness that ISKCON and ACBS both require of them. It’s true, I have no “genuine concern” for ACBS’s snuff snorting. (Whatever that may mean practically to Damodar.) I do, whoever, have very genuine concern for the people – people like me, and people like you, Damodar – who have wasted substantial portions of their lives in subservience to fiction. Whether you want to call that fiction “Srila Prabhupada” or ISKCON or Krishna makes little difference to me, the pattern is generally the same: a young idealist, given to spiritual pursuit, moved by the notion of the fundamental equality of all living things (or something similar), inspired by the notion of bringing light and truth to a harsh and unjust world, mistakenly joins an ostensibly spiritual organization that is in fact a narrow and dogmatic spiritual corporation that worships as “god’s empowered representative” a man who was, judging by his own words, a bigot and a fundamentalist. In the face of this particular recurring injustice, I will not apologize for my tone. I will not apologize for sarcasm or “hateful(ness)” or anger. I’ve earned them. They are the natural consequence of my naiveté having been exploited by dishonest persons. And because I no longer subscribe to your view that humility is tantamount to realization – or, in fact, to your version of humility itself – I will express myself in whichever way I find most edifying and/or most effective.

Damodar writes: “Life is much more fulfilling when devoted to the trust and love in worthy persons…”

And I agree. Which is precisely why I left “Srila Prabhupada” behind. I would far rather devote myself to the trust and love of the real people in my life than to some fictional idea of a man, long dead, who in reality was undeserving.

And for those who are new to Prabhupada:

It is possible to criticize anyone, and all influential people have been criticized. But a reasonable reader should not make judgements from criticisms alone. No doubt, it is healthy to apply discretion in approaching any kind of religious authority.

It is healthy, which is exactly why I write this blog and why other ex-devotees I know make similar efforts to tell the truth in as public a way as their lives allow. There are a thousand channels of ISKCON propaganda bleating loudly about the unparalleled spiritual whatever of their “founder-acarya.” There are a scant few of us who hold a dissenting view who are trying to add balance to that noise. (There are, by the way, quite a few more who agree with that dissenting view but who have chosen to do exactly what ISKCON expects of them: leave quietly and don’t look back. There are far more devotees who eventually leave ISKCON than those who stay. And no matter how many may yet join, the majority of those will leave as well.) I’ll let Damodar get in his (no doubt completely unbiased) link below – sarcasm! – like he did in his original comment. But first I’m going to get in a few links of my own, in no particular order.

The Hare Krishna Thing

Kuruvinda :: In Hindsight

Steven J. Gelbrg – On Leaving ISKCON

Hare Krishna Truth Out

Radhika Bianchi

Anke Holst

Nitai Joseph – A Recovering Monk

Paul Ford – Mad After Krishna

Breaking Free

The author of ‘Regarding Snuff’ wrote of “how blindly one must follow in order to remain an ISKCON devotee.” But Prabhupad did not encourage blind following. What he actually taught was, in his own words:

“One is free to deliberate on this subject as far as the intelligence goes; that is the best way to accept the instruction of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Such instruction comes also through the spiritual master, the bona fide representative of Kṛṣṇa.” (Bhagavad-Gita As It Is 1863 Purport)

Well, there’s precept, and then there’s practice. And any ISKCON devotee knows (but will seldom say out loud) that blind following is exactly what ACBS expected. Deliberate as much as you want, in the beginning. But once your ticket’s punched, there’s no getting off the train – “never leave ISKCON,” and never criticize the “pure devotee,” unless you want a one-way trip to Hare Krishna Hell.


I recommend the following webpage for anyone interested in reading more about Prabhupad: http://prabhupada.krishna.com/

Damodar Roe

Oh, Damodar. I have no doubt you are sincere. So many devotees are. But, in my own experience, many of the ones who are the most sincere eventually come to realize that the acarya wears no clothes. Once you see it, the rest comes naturally. It’s not easy, but you definitely won’t be alone.


Regarding Snuff

“A genuine guru must not only speak the truth; he must also live it. In other words, his character must be perfect and his behavior exemplary. In the West we commonly see that a professor or philosopher achieves renown on the basis of his teachings alone, regardless of his personal life. But in Vedic society, if a man is a drunkard or in some other way violates the ideal principles he teaches, then he is considered not a teacher but a cheater. According to the Gita a real guru, who teaches by example, must have the qualities of peacefulness, sense control, austerity, purity, tolerance, honesty, wisdom, and faith in God. So-called gurus who indulge in abominable things like meat eating, cigarette smoking, and illicit sex, and who covet wealth for purchasing various other forms of sense gratification, are all disqualified. One who cannot control his senses cannot rightfully bear the title ‘guru.’” – A “special article” by the Back to Godhead staff, 1977, “Establishing the Proof: Who is a Real Guru”

I first heard about Bhaktivedanta Swami’s using snuff while I was visiting Vrindavana. At an evening sanga I attended, one of Bhaktivedanta’s disciples, Dhananjaya, recounted some of his personal memories from the time he’d spent with his guru. In particular he told about how ACBS, while on a short visit to England, had asked one of his servants to go to the druggist and purchase a tin of snuff for his own use. As Dhananjaya told it, the snuff was to be medicine for a cold or a sinus infection or some other minor, temporary ailment from which ACBS – himself a druggist earlier in life – sought relief. When word got out about the snuff, many of the swami’s followers also bought their own tins and started snorting it, eager to copy their master. The “punchline” to Dhananjaya’s little anecdote was delivered, as always, by ACBS himself, who upon realizing the sniffling, sneezing chorus in his morning class was the product of novice snuff-takers remarked, “You fools. I am taking it for health. You are taking it for pleasure.”

How clever.

Snuff, of course, is tobacco, one of the intoxicants prohibited in the life of a Hare Krishna devotee. Now, so many years after I first heard Dhananjaya tell this story, I wonder why I then paid it no mind. Here was firsthand evidence that the pure and faultless leader of my self-selected religious affiliation was not so pure and faultless after all. Even a child – perhaps especially a child – can see the hypocrisy: “Do as I say, not as I do.” (Which is not to suggest that seeing this as hypocrisy is childish. As we “grow up” we become all too willing to rationalize the things we know in our hearts to be wrong.) Perhaps one reason why ACBS’s snuff taking didn’t then register to me as hypocrisy is because of the way Dhananjaya had framed it. My assumption at that time, due to Dhananjaya’s suggestion, was that ACBS’s snuff use was not only medicinal but also temporary – something used in that particular instance to address a short-lived and easily alleviated condition. Not unlike taking aspirin for a headache.

(Not for nothing: How many devotees do you know who are reluctant or unwilling to do even that?)

Many years later I came to learn that ACBS’s snuff use was not at all temporary, nor infrequent, but persistent, even chronic. A search through the “VedaBase” turns up several references to it, from ISKCON’s early days in 1968 to just before the death of ACBS in 1977. (Each of those references will appear at the end of this post.) The most significant mention comes from ACBS himself:

“Regarding taking snuff, I myself take it sometimes at night because I am working at night on my books, and sometimes I become dizzy. But it is not for you to take. You should not imitate this, neither you work like me at night.” – Letter to Revatinandana, Los Angeles, 9 January 1974

There’s a lot to say about just this quote. A few things now, more later: (1) there can be no debate over whether or not ACBS took snuff; he personally admitted to taking it “sometimes,” (2) what he meant by “sometimes” is in part answered by the scenario he depicts – he took it “at night,” while composing his “Bhaktivedanta purports”; as nicotine, the active (and highly addictive) ingredient in tobacco, is a stimulant, ACBS’s taking snuff is much like a person who drinks coffee to stay awake while pulling an all-nighter, (3) perhaps most importantly, “you should not imitate this”; i.e., do as I say, not as I do.

So, what’s a devotee to make of all this? Luckily for true believers, two devotees (that I’m aware of) have addressed the issue online. We’ll take a look at both online commentaries, because I think what they have to say will help illustrate just how blindly one must follow in order to remain an ISKCON devotee “in good standing.”

First, we have Hari Sauri, direct disciple and previous traveling personal servant of ACBS, former ISKCON guru and sannyasi, present ISKCON celebrity. He’s addressed ACBS’s snuff habit on his blog, Lotus Imprints, in a post titled “In-Snuff-Lated…” from 14 September 2008. I’ll reproduce the bulk of it below, with comments throughout.

“I just got this question from Yadunandan prabhu of the Bhaktivedanta College in Belgium:

“‘While visiting some devotees in the UK, one of them asked me a question about Srila Prabhupada’s snuff box. This devotee was somewhat puzzled thinking that Srila Prabhupada’s snuff was made of tobacco. I did a little research on the folio and looked into the dictionary to answer accurately.

“‘There are two options I see from my little research:

“‘1. Srila Prabhupada was using some type of medicine as snuff.

“‘2. Srila Prabhupada was using tobacco snuff as medicine for his blood pressure and to keep him able to perform his translation work at night.

“‘As you were and are so close to Srila Prabhupada, can you please give some light on this matter so that my answer can be more accurate?’

“Answer : Snuff is a tobacco derivative in fine powder form. This is the type that Srila Prabhupada was using.”

Thank you, Hari Sauri, for the honest clarification. That’s helpful. ACBS was snorting tobacco, not some other type of medicinal, tobacco-free, non-addictive type of snuff.

“Here’s a general definition and history that I got from the internet:

“Snuff, preparation of pulverized tobacco used by sniffing it into the nostrils, chewing it, or placing it between the gums and the cheek. The blended tobacco from which it is made is often aged for two or three years, fermented at least twice, ground, and usually flavored and scented.”

Hari Sauri’s research/copypasta goes on for a few more paragraphs. Aside from what was likely his attempt to confer some sense of tradition and broad cultural acceptance to the practice of snorting tobacco, none of that information is really relevant to our discussion, so I’ve omitted it here. (By the by, the practice of fermenting and drinking alcohol has an extremely long history and the broadest cultural acceptance, and marijuana is gradually becoming accepted by some as medicinal, but because there’s no evidence ACBS was a habitual user of either, those facts are of no interest to Hari Sauri. It’s only snuff we’re concerned with legitimizing now. Just saying.)

This next part of Hari Sauri’s post is far more telling:

“I remember my paternal grandfather was a big fan of snuff. He was never without either a cigarette in his mouth or a pouch of snuff in his pocket and I would watch fascinated and slightly repulsed as he put a few pinches on the back of his had, stuck his nose over the top and insufflated. The brown powder would cling to his nostrils and top lip and sometimes he would absent-mindedly forget to wipe it off. My grandmother would have to give him nudge (he was stone deaf from the age of five) and wordlessly point at his nose. He would give a grunt and swab it off with his handkerchief. For him I guess it was a question of feeding his nicotine addiction. Nowadays its out of style. Too messy I guess.”

Hari Sauri’s grandfather took snuff. In his case it was slightly repulsive, addictive, and messy. It should come as no surprise that he doesn’t regard ACBS’s snuff taking in the same negative terms.

“I never personally asked Srila Prabhupada why he used snuff, although we carried a couple of small tins with us at all times…”

Note, first, the comment “we carried a couple of small tins with us at all times” – once again giving the lie to the notion ACBS’s snuff use was infrequent or conditional. Even more significant is Hari Sauri’s admission that he never asked ACBS about it. That’s incredible, isn’t it? Was it really of no interest to him? Did the hypocrisy of the situation never occur to him? If nothing else, these statements give some sense of what the emotional dynamic could in some cases be like between ACBS and his servants/disciples, namely one of fear and/or mindless obedience.

Next Hari Sauri describes in detail one of his snuff pastimes with ACBS, excerpted from one of the volumes of his Transcendental Diary:

“On June 16, 1976, Srila Prabhupada arrived in Toronto:

“We arrived in Toronto at 6:30 P.M. and had our most disagreeable encounter with customs officials yet. I accompanied Srila Prabhupada, who carried his soft, red vinyl hand bag, while Pusta Krsna Maharaja remained behind to bring the luggage through. On the other side of a glass wall next to the customs counter a large number of devotees, many from the Indian community, expectantly gathered. As soon they saw Srila Prabhupada they cheered, ‘Jaya Prabhupada! Haribol!’ There were two customs officers. One of them, tall, with an unpleasant demeanor and a slight sneer on his face, asked Prabhupada to open his bag. Then, slowly, with exaggerated attention, he searched every single item. Before leaving Bombay I had sealed several new tins of snuff with hot wax. Prabhupada uses it to gain relief from high blood pressure. The official insisted on breaking each seal to check inside.”

A not-so-quick note: This blood pressure business is bunk. Nicotine is a stimulant and as such will raise, not lower, blood pressure. I see three possibilities. (1) Perhaps Hari Sauri got it wrong, and ACBS had low, not high, blood pressure. It’s possible. (And ACBS’s comment about dizziness suggests it might be true.) But the high blood pressure explanation is repeated a number of times by Hari Sauri and by others, so it’s likely something ACBS told his disciples, not something they assumed about him. (2) Perhaps ACBS didn’t understand his own medical condition, or the effects of nicotine, or quite a few other things besides. His “cure” for jaundice, though still cited as an effective home remedy, likely wouldn’t pass a double-blind clinical trial. And his recipe for toothpaste has been known to cause damage to teeth and gums. His status as a skilled pharmacist is just one of several outlandish claims about the breadth of his knowledge it’s only reasonable to regard with suspicion. (3) Perhaps “relief from high blood pressure” was nothing more than a convenient lie intended to keep gullible disciples from questioning the obvious hypocrisy of their guru’s addiction.

“At the end of his fruitless search he turned to his fellow officer, looked askance at Srila Prabhupada, and in a most demeaning way said, ‘So this is what all the noise is about.’ I flushed with anger, but bit my lip.

“Srila Prabhupada seemed utterly indifferent, appearing not to have noticed their obnoxious attitude at all. He quietly shut his bag and proceeded on with a bright smile and a wave to all the assembled devotees…

“Although he had seemed indifferent, the next [day] Srila Prabhupada mentioned the incident in a conversation in his room with Pusta Krsna Swami, Jagadisa and myself:

“‘Everyone in government service, at least it is to be supposed they are all nasty men. Here also, why not? The other day the custom officer, unnecessary. Unnecessarily. He is opening the snuff box, this box, that box. Unnecessarily. Not a gentleman. It is stated there, “snuff,” and he is bringing knife to open.’”

Hari Sauri claims his guru “seemed utterly indifferent,” but the episode affected ACBS enough that he made mention of it the following day. While he and his disciples complained about various problems they were having with passport officers and other government officials, ACBS took the opportunity to revisit the snuff incident and, on that single point of data, conclude that “everyone in government service… they are all nasty men.”

So, not quite “utterly indifferent.” It’s also worth noting that earlier the same day, during a morning walk, ACBS and his disciples derided “so-called priests” – whom ACBS calls “fourth-class, fifth-class men” – for smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, and “indulging in homosex.” Bluster and more hypocrisy.

Hari Sauri continues:

“Srila Prabhupada did use it on occasion, usually in the night time, and I remember particularly coming into his room sometimes in the early morning when he was resident in Vrndavan from September–November 1976 and seeing snuff residue on his lungi or handkerchief where he had wiped the excess off his nose after sniffing it. At that time he was suffering very high blood pressure.”

A few things: (1) “usually in the night time,” so, once again, he used snuff as a stimulant to help him remain awake and alert while (allegedly) receiving the divine inspiration he channeled directly into his books; (2) the description of “snuff residue on his lungi or handkerchief” sounds – to me at least, probably not to Hari Sauri – quite a bit like “grandfather” and his “messy” snuff habit; (3) “at that time he was suffering very high blood pressure,” so it’s unlikely the diagnosis was wrong – perhaps ACBS did have high blood pressure that his snuff use was just making worse.

Hari Sauri again:

“The only reference I can find in Folio is this postscript from a letter to Revatinandana Swami sent from Los Angeles 9 January, 1974:

“‘N.B. Regarding taking snuff, I myself take it sometimes at night because I am working at night on my books, and sometimes I become dizzy. But it is not for you to take. You should not imitate this, neither you work like me at night.’

“So I assume from this that the dizziness he referred to was caused either by too much mucus in his sinus, or by very high blood pressure, and the snuff relieved this.”

I’m not sure what to make of the statement “the only reference I can find in Folio.” Maybe he means it’s the only reference ACBS personally made about it (but even that is not quite true). Maybe he’s being less than honest; by my count, there are 12 references to ACBS’s snuff use. And, once again, we get the high blood pressure explanation. Hari Sauri ends his post with the following:

“Sruta Kirti prabhu or another servant or secretary may be able to add more.”

Maybe. Sadly, that I know of, neither Sruta Kirti nor anyone else with direct knowledge has since added more (though we’ll take a look at a few very telling quotes from Tamala Krishna at the end of this post). I did however mention we’d be looking at the commentary of another true believer “regarding taking snuff.” As I said, I find both commentaries instructive in showing precisely to what degree remaining a devotee requires that one stop thinking.

The post comes from a blog called back 2 Krishna, and is #884 in a series of what the author calls “vanity thoughts.”

(This name itself is rather interesting. According to ISKCON dogma, a true devotee should feel ashamed to have any desire to write or to express him- or herself, especially in such a public forum. Such an act is an obvious sign of vanity that must, at the very least, be acknowledged for the truly self-absorbed and un-humble act it is. There are, as of this posting, 1475 “vanity thoughts” in the author’s collection. So he is a decidedly vain, self-absorbed, and un-humble fellow – at least by the psychologically damaging metric ISKCON proposes for its members – a diagnosis I’m sure he would readily accept, if only in a crass and typically ISKCONian way meant to backhandedly stake a claim on so-called humility. Anyway, I digress…)

He begins:

“One reason I became somewhat lukewarm to never ending quest for knowledge is that sooner or later you run into some snafus that are extremely difficult to explain, which then goes against Occam Razor’s principle. Sometimes things become messed up beyond salvation yet, strangely, it doesn’t have any visible or lasting effect on one’s faith, so why bother? I mean why bother if knowing answers or not knowing them has no effect. Danger of losing faith is still there so why risk it?”

This thought process here is too jumbled for me to completely follow. However, Occam’s Razor is the principle that the simplest explanation – or, rather, the explanation that requires the fewest assumptions – is likely the correct one. In the case of ACBS and snuff, that explanation would be this: ACBS took snuff because he was addicted to it. Honestly, that is the simplest explanation, and the only one that doesn’t require you to assume something supernatural about him or his intentions. In other words, there are more than a few (completely unverifiable) assumptions involved if you’re saying to yourself, “Well, OK. Prabhupada took snuff. But he was transcendental. He wasn’t addicted to it. He couldn’t have been. He was transcendental.” As for the rest of that rambling intro, your guess is as good as mine. Maybe the rest of the post will help to clarify.

“One of such snafus is snuff. Srila Prabhupada used it regularly and his servants always carried a tin or two in his luggage. Snuff is tobacco that is insufflated, that is inhaled, through the nose pretty much like cocaine or other drugs.”

“Pretty much like cocaine or other drugs…” You said it, prabhu, not me. At least we’re being honest. Let’s see how long that lasts…

“Why did Prabhupada use it? We don’t know. His servants remembered that he said it was for relief of high blood pressure or maybe to clear his sinuses or to help him stay up at night, working on books. Well, nicotine in tobacco is a stimulant that would rather increase blood pressure, sinuses can be cleared with non-intoxicant inhalers, and to stay up at night people usually drink coffee.”

Oh. This guy seems like he might be a straight shooter. Maybe I spoke too soon.

“No need to remind of our ‘no intoxication including tea and coffee’ principle that extends even to chocolate. It just doesn’t match.”

And… We’re about to see cognitive dissonance in action. If something doesn’t fit, completely disregard it.

“Maybe the principle is no intoxication, as no recreational drug use. People smoke to get high, if only a little, people drink to get drunk, intoxication means altering one’s consciousness to produce an artificial feeling of happiness. Clarity of consciousness also gets lost and so it’s easy to see why it’s one of our regulative principles.

“Maybe this would explain Prabhupada’s use of snuff – it wasn’t to get high or feel good, it was to keep his work rate through the night, to perform better service, not to enjoy. This is easy to understand, but what then of drinking coffee, the usual go to pick me up elixir? Students cramming for exams don’t drink coffee to get high, no one actually does, people drink it to get perked up in order to function better, though the process can obviously be enjoyed, too.”

You heard it here first: a coffee machine in every temple. (And a box of snuff beside every murti of ACBS.)

“Would that mean that if we feel sleepy it’s okay to have a cup to coffee or a can of Red Bull as long as we need our bodies to function in Krishna’s service? That would make sense but it’s also against our principles, always have been always will be.”

What’s going on here? Make up your mind. It’s either against the principles or it isn’t. And you (and everyone else) know(s) very well which one it is. Stop dithering.

“Or we can say that Prabhupada’s consciousness wasn’t affected by nicotine in snuff, only his blood pressure, heart rate etc. That could be the answer, that would also explain why he forbade his disciples to follow snuff sniffing practice.”

I love that. (By which I mean I completely hate it.) ACBS was transcendental enough to not get addicted to or intoxicated by nicotine, just not transcendental enough to not be affected by problems with his blood pressure. You’re reaching, my friend. Really reaching.

“Still, it’s not how it’s supposed to work with parampara, we are not ‘do as I say, not as I do’ movement, we actually practice what we preach.

“As I said – it’s a snafu.”

Yes! Everyone knows this. Even someone who’s only been to a single Sunday Feast can tell you this. Hence ACBS’s snuff use is hypocrisy. Bas. End of discussion. (At least it should be.)

“Vamsidas Babaji regularly smoke, or actually he used hookah. In his case we are told that he was beyond rules and regulations and didn’t have to follow sadhana prescriptions. Smoking didn’t affect his devotion to Krishna at all, they might even have been enjoying a pipe together. He used to offer it Radha Govinda, after all, but not to Gaura-Nitai.”

Yet more shameless rationalization. “He’s so pure the rules don’t apply to him.” Is it at all possible that because he didn’t follow the rules we have to say he’s pure in order to silence legitimate doubt? Tell me something, in all honesty, if a devotee had tried to slip this past you the first time you went to an ISKCON temple, how quickly would you have turned around and walked right out the door?

“Why not? Lord Nityananda Himself was fond of chewing betel nut according to Chaitanya Charitamrita – at the end of Raghunatha Dasa Goswami’s chipped rice festival (CC Antya 6.97). We can say that Lord Nityananda is God so he doesn’t have to follow any rules but right in the next verse it’s said that after chewing some himself He distributed the rest to devotees.

“Or maybe it was because Lord Chaitanya wasn’t there so Nityananda Prabhu could relax the rules a little, as if Mahaprabhu was a party pooper. Maybe that’s why when They were together Vamsidasa Babaji didn’t offer betel to them. But then Lord Chaitanya personally appeared at that festival and was visible to many devotees.

“As I said – it’s a snafu.”

Which I’m starting to think means something like “For obvious reasons, this is something I’d rather not accept for what it seems to be on the face of it.”

“When Gadadhara Pundit went to see Pundarika Vidyanidhi for the first time he was appalled by the betel nuts and reddened spittoons by his bed. Eventually he realized Pundarika Vidyanidhi’s greatness but it doesn’t say much for no-intoxication principle, does it? Betel nut is a stimulant and people take it to get a mild high, not to increase their work rate when they get tired.”

No argument here. Notice how all of these examples follow the same pattern: (1) assume divinity, (2) find an explanation for mundane behavior that excuses that behavior and at the same time protects the original assumption of divinity.

“Our opponents can have a field day exposing our ‘hypocrisy’ with these cases and I’m sure they can dig up a few more.”

They certainly could, those nasty, dishonest “opponents.” Keep reading, we won’t let you down.

“I was always worried by the saying ‘if you see Lord Nityananda going into a liquor shop’, for example. What’s with this ‘if’? Could it be ‘when’? Where’s this idea of Lord Nityananda and liquor coming from?”

Good question. And that’s not the only “pastime” of Nitayanda’s or Caitanya’s that’s untoward. But there’s no need to comb through the fictionalized accounts of the lives of mostly fictional “personalities.” Snuff-taking is not the length and breadth of ACBS’s hypocrisy. And he’s not alone.

“Anyway, none of that seem to affect my [lack of] faith in the above mentioned personalities though I can see how some might become disillusioned. These examples are also not an excuse to start drinking coffee or take other stimulants, ostensibly ‘for Krishna’.

“Would investigating them further bring any benefits? I don’t think so, I think it would be a waste of everyone’s time and it might lead to eventual disappointment.

“That’s why I think that at some point quest for knowledge has to stop, topping up will not add any value. This idea might not appeal to everyone but there’s a far less controversial side to it, too – it’s not how much you know that makes all the difference, it’s how much you believe in the simplest things – Krishna is God and chanting His holy name is our only duty.

“No one would argue with that.”

For crying out loud! (Sorry about including all of that. I just couldn’t help myself.) Here’s the tl;dr version: There’s this thing that – if I allow myself to think about it clearly – will force me to seriously question whether or not my faith is well placed. Because I have accepted that the highest principle is to maintain that faith no matter what, I will blithely ignore whatever threatens it. Oh, and, chant and be happy!

To be fair, this sort of intellectual dishonesty is exactly what ACBS ensured would always and forever be business as usual in ISKCON. He’s the one that insisted on a standard of so-called purity so unattainable that even he, the purest of pure devotees, could neither attain nor maintain it. And he’s the one that set the ISKCON standard of thoroughly rejecting all “pretenders.” In a letter to Aniruddha (Los Angeles, 4 February 1969), ACBS wrote, “You are right when you say that setting a good example for the boys is the best precept. There is a saying that an example is better than a precept. Our exemplary character depends on strictly following the four principles, and this will conquer the whole world.” At least that explains ISKCON’s foundering attempts at world domination. ACBS also wrote, in Dharma: The Way of Transcendence, “Sometimes we find that someone poses as a great devotee very much advanced in spiritual understanding, but he cannot even give up smoking cigarettes. That means he’s not liberated.” (16: “When the Krishna Sun Rises in the Heart”) Well, if you say so, Srila Prabhupada. You’ve painted yourself into that particular corner.

(What follows are the 12 (+1) separate references to “snuff” found in the “Bhaktivedanta VedaBase,” aka “Folio,” arranged chronologically, with some commentary added by me where appropriate. Uses of “snuff” as a verb – as in “snuff it out” – have been omitted.)

The Hare Krishna Explosion, Hayagriva dasa, Part 3: New Vrindavan, 1968 to 1969, 18: Paramahansa in the Hills

Hayagriva, one of ACBS’s earliest disciples whom readers will probably know as the editor of the “original” Bhagavad-Gita As It Is, mentions snuff in his chronicle of ISKCON’s early days, The Hare Krishna Explosion. Hayagriva tells how ACBS prescribed snuff to him as a remedy for hay fever, from which Hayagriva was then suffering:

After years of dormancy, my hayfever returns with a vengeance. As the grass pollinates, my sneezing and wheezing begin. I run through dozens of handkerchiefs. My eyes constantly itch. At times, after paroxyms of sneezing, I sit helpless, totally congested.

Prabhupada asks Devananda for a valise, and from this he produces a small snuffbox.

“Here,” he says, handing it to me. “When there is discomfort, just take a pinch and sniff.”

I do so. The snuff sets off a fresh barrage of sneezes. Finally I sit dazed. Surely my head must be empty of mucus.

“When you’re irritated,” Prabhupada says, “you may use that. It will help. But you shouldn’t think that you are being attacked.”

Again he laughs, and suddenly, seeing myself pursued by legions of grass pollen, I laugh too.

Letter to Brahmananda, Hamburg, 30 August 1969

P.S. Please send my snuff pot when Hayagriva comes here. I could not get the _____ snuff here.

I wonder what’s been omitted here and, more importantly, why. Placement suggests it could be the name of the brand of snuff ACBS preferred, or maybe it was the word “tobacco,” scrubbed from the record by some loyal follower whose conscience was disturbed enough to make him or her want to “protect” the reputation of the pure devotee.

Letter to Yogesvara, Gurudasa, Digvijaya, etc., Los Angeles, 21 May 1970

…I am so much thankful to you for your respective presentations. They are as follows: one golden cup, mysore sandal soap, some scent in snuff box, one picture of London Radha-Krsna Deities and one xeroxed interview report. So I shall be glad to know what is the contents and its formula in the box, then I can use it as snuff.

This quote comes from a portion of a letter in which ACBS thanks his disciples for the gifts presented to him at the time of their initiation. Around this time it appears that ACBS’s use of snuff was common knowledge among his followers. It was at least well known enough for newly initiated disciples to think the intoxicant would make an appropriate gift to their spiritual master. If this were the only reference to snuff in the Folio, one might have reason to conclude that ACBS snorted a type of snuff that did not contain tobacco, given his query about the snuff box, “the contents and its formula.” But Hari Sauri has already made it clear that ACBS snorted regular tobacco snuff.

Letter to Revatinandana, Los Angeles, 9 January 1974

N.B. Regarding taking snuff, I myself take it sometimes at night because I am working at night on my books, and sometimes I become dizzy. But it is not for you to take. You should not imitate this, neither you work like me at night.

Transcendental Diary, Vol. 1 – Nov 1975 to April 1976, December 13th, 1975

Prabhupada likes to travel early in the morning. At 6:00 A.M., he chanted Gayatri-mantra, donned his coat, gloves, and hat, and headed for the door. In a flurry of activity Harikesa and I quickly packed last-minute items. Harikesa placed the dictaphone and Bhagavatams into a black attache case. Meanwhile I hastily filled Prabhupada’s red vinyl briefcase with his desk paraphernalia (a pen case, a golden straw for drinking coconut juice, a jar of ink, a small silver cask filled with cardamom seeds, his glasses, tilaka clay, lota, mirror, mortar and pestle, a small enameled tin full of snuff for his high blood pressure, and a black Revlon manicure case.) Finally, I swiftly stuffed Srila Prabhupada’s indoor slippers and the brass spittoon engraved with his name into my shoulder bag and rushed to catch up.

This is one of two mentions of snuff in Hari Sauri’s multi-volume Transcendental Diary. Here he simply mentions the presence of the intoxicant in ACBS’s personal effects (and again attempts to dismiss it by mentioning high blood pressure).

Morning Walk, Mayapura, 18 February 1976

Prabhupada: So one thing, if you can do, that India, at the present moment, that Swami Cinmayananda is prominent.

Acyutananda: Yes.

Hari-sauri: He’s very big. Especially in the South.

Prabhupada: (laughs) So if you can subdue him…

Yasodanandana: We’ll take care of that, Prabhupada.

Acyutananda: All right.

Prabhupada: That will be great triumph. He’s a nonsense. That’s… But he’s very popular at the same time.

Prabhupada: But he, he wants to keep his prestigious position.

Acyutananda: Oh, yes.

Yasodanandana: Yes. On your order, we shall try to hamper that.

Prabhupada: No, tactfully.

Acyutananda: I met him once. He is addicted to snuff very, very much.

Prabhupada: Constantly.

Acyutananda: Even during his lectures he makes gestures so that he can take snuff without anybody knowing.

I find this conversation particularly interesting, not just for the mention of snuff but for the context in which that mention appears. To be fair, ACBS is not the snuff snorter in question in this conversation. Rather it’s Swami Chinmayananda Saraswati, someone whom ACBS apparently considered a rival at this point in time. And for good reason: Swami Chinmayananda was a teacher of Advaita Vedanta – the Enemy! – who was the inspiration for Chinmaya Mission and was inspirational in the founding of Vishva Hindu Parishad, one of ACBS’s targets of scorn (despite the fact he was happy to use their name and Chinmayananda’s authority to legitimize his own movement). Chinmayananda was extremely popular in India and outside India as well; he made his first worldwide “preaching tour,” including stops in America, in 1965, beginning several months before ACBS first arrived on Western shores. He was also a renowned scholar of Vedanta who wrote in English and published over 90 books, including commentaries on the Gita and Vedic texts. According at least to his followers, Chinmayananda was a genuine Vedic scholar, which must have felt threatening to a man who had posed himself as a Vedic scholar but who also once admitted, “I have not studied all the Vedas and Upanisads. I have read only Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam.” (TKG’s Diary: Prabhupada’s Final Days, 30 June 1977) It’s not hard to see why ACBS asked his followers to “subdue” Chinmayananda. Moreover, it’s ironic that Acyutananda and ACBS zero in on Chinmayananda’s “constant” snuff use as a point of condemnation.

Transcendental Diary, Vol. 2 – April 1976 to June 1976, June 16th, 1976

This is the account of ACBS’s arrival in Toronto presented in Hari-Sauri’s blog and taken from his Transcendental Diary:

We arrived in Toronto at 6:30 P.M. and had our most disagreeable encounter with customs officials yet. I accompanied Srila Prabhupada, who carried his soft, red vinyl hand bag, while Pusta Krsna Maharaja remained behind to bring the luggage through. On the other side of a glass wall next to the customs counter a large number of devotees, many from the Indian community, expectantly gathered. As soon they saw Srila Prabhupada they cheered, “Jaya Prabhupada! Haribol!” There were two customs officers. One of them, tall, with an unpleasant demeanor and a slight sneer on his face, asked Prabhupada to open his bag. Then, slowly, with exaggerated attention, he searched every single item. Before leaving Bombay I had sealed several new tins of snuff with hot wax. Prabhupada uses it to gain relief from high blood pressure. The official insisted on breaking each seal to check inside.

At the end of his fruitless search he turned to his fellow officer, looked askance at Srila Prabhupada, and in a most demeaning way said, “So this is what all the noise is about.” I flushed with anger, but bit my lip.

Srila Prabhupada seemed utterly indifferent, appearing not to have noticed their obnoxious attitude at all. He quietly shut his bag and proceeded on with a bright smile and a wave to all the assembled devotees…

Room Conversation, Toronto, 17 June 1976

And this is from the conversation in Toronto to which Hari Sauri refers in his blog and in his Transcendental Diary, and which contradicts Hari Sauri’s claim that ACBS was “utterly indifferent” about the episode the day before. The excerpt following this is Hari Sauri’s account of this conversation as presented in his Diary.

Prabhupada: Everyone in government service, at least it is to be supposed they are all nasty men. Here also, why not? The other day the custom officer, unnecessary. Unnecessarily. He is opening the snuff box, this box, that box. Unnecessarily. Not a gentleman. It is stated there, “snuff,” and he is bringing knife to open.

Transcendental Diary, Vol. 2 – April 1976 to June 1976, June 17th, 1976

Although Prabhupada hadn’t reacted to the customs official’s envious dealings when we entered Canada, he most certainly noted it. “Everyone in government service, at least it is to be supposed they are all nasty men. Here also, why not? The other day the custom officer… Unnecessarily. He is opening the snuff box, this box, that box. Unnecessarily. Not a gentleman. It is stated there, ‘snuff,’ and he is bringing knife to open.”

Prabhupada agreed with Jagadisa prabhu’s assessment that it was simply harassment. He quoted from the Srimad-Bhagavatam, Twelfth Canto. “Everywhere. Rajanyair dasyu-dharmabhi, simply wanting some bribe. They are in power, and that will increase. It will be impossible to deal with. Now it is already. In India, any work you want to be done by government, unless you bribe… The situation is becoming very dangerous.”

Conversation with Svarupa Damodara, Vrndavana, 21 June 1977

Svarupa Damodara: …There will be books, proving that these are all nonsense.

Prabhupada: (aside:) You have got increased snuff boxes?

Upendra: Er, one little one and that big one there. I’ll check to see if there’s any more.

Prabhupada: Life is a different material…

This is an interesting reference. As the transcript makes clear, it is something ACBS said to his servant while in the midst of a conversation with someone else. Apparently ACBS’s snuff use was becoming more frequent at this time, in the last several months of his life, as indicated by his request for “increased snuff boxes.” (Emphasis mine.)

TKG’s Diary: Prabhupada’s Final Days – September 26, 1977

TKG’s Diary is a curious document that includes more than a few unsettling revelations about ACBS’s last days (one of which I’ve already included in the text above). In addition to this casual mention of snuff are the following three excerpts, which I’m including because they relate to the general topic of hypocrisy. The first two refer to ACBS’s infrequent to completely nonexistent practice of chanting japa, whereas the last mentions a kaviraja who diagnosed ACBS for gonorrhea(!), an ailment that can only be transmitted sexually.

In the afternoon, Srila Prabhupada had me read from Srimad-Bhagavatam. He sat up and put on his spectacles, then held Radha-Rasabihari’s photo. He looked for Their lotus feet and had me point Them out. He meditated on Them for a long time, leaning back occasionally with his eyes closed and listening to the Bhagavatam recitation. He had me put snuff near him, of which he also availed himself. For practically an hour we had a wonderful meditation, and I could see it was the most effective medicine.

When Tamala Krishna writes “I could see it was the most effective medicine,” I assume he’s referring to the “meditation,” though it seems the snuff was helpful too. Here is a reference to ACBS using snuff not only outside the context so far established as typical – late at night, while writing – but in the midst of a “wonderful meditation.” I find it hard not to see this as depicting a very casual, recreational user of an intoxicating substance to which he has long been addicted.

TKG’s Diary: Prabhupada’s Final Days – June 10, 1977

Gradually, I have seen that Srila Prabhupada is no longer chanting japa on his beads. Many years ago, he was chanting sixty-four rounds, then gradually less, until a number of years ago it was sixteen. But now he does not chant on beads. He can be seen with his eyes closed, always meditating on Krsna with an intense, concentrated expression. Sometimes he stretches his neck, and sometimes he drools in his sleep and his body shakes. Sometimes there is loud belching. In this way, Srila Prabhupada is exhibiting some of the ecstatic symptoms mentioned in The Nectar of Devotion.

That’s a very generous way of tying together those last few statements. Personally, I’m more interested in this: “He can be seen with his eyes closed, always meditating on Krsna…” Perhaps. But, let’s be honest, there are any number of things he could have been “meditating on.” Krishna is just one of a practically unlimited number of possibilities. But that’s the nature of devotion to “Srila Prabhupada,” isn’t it? Take every opportunity, however small, to assume divinity (even if that assumption stands in contradiction to what verifiable facts suggest).

TKG’s Diary: Prabhupada’s Final Days – September 16, 1977

Srila Prabhupada’s condition remained the same today. He was passing sufficient urine, well more than half the quantity of the liquid he consumed. But he seemed to be growing weaker. He began to chant on his japa mala for the first time in many months. In fact, he insisted on always keeping the beads around his neck. Even during his massage, he fingered the beads and silently chanted. His beads also remained around his neck while he slept in his bed.

TKG’s Diary: Prabhupada’s Final Days – October 16, 1977

When the kaviraja saw Prabhupada’s very discolored urine, he said the disorder was a type of gonorrhea. The urine contained semen, which could possibly turn into pebble-like substances and completely block the ureter.

The last two references to snuff come from the years after the demise of ACBS.

The first is from an article in Back to Godhead magazine titled “Drugs and Ecstasy.” In the section “Smoke From The Bottomless Pit” we get a clear picture of how the average ISKCON devotee regards snuff, independent of their founder’s using it:

In 1604, James I, King of England, tagged smoking, “a custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs, and in the black stinking fumes thereof nearest resembling the horrible stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless.” Today some 60 million Americans smoke millions of pounds of tobacco every year at a cost of about $9 billion. Tobacco is taken primarily, of course, in the form of cigarettes (528 billion consumed each year), which are supplemented by pipe tobacco, cigars, snuff and chewing tobacco. In spite of an anti-smoking campaign in the U. S. in recent years – a result of quite conclusive evidence linking cigarette smoking to a variety of diseases – there has been little progress made in stopping the habit.

Vyasa-puja 1984, St. Louis

The second and final reference is from a Vyasa-puja offering submitted by the St. Louis temple in 1984 that (lacking any clear indication from the text itself, I can only assume) is meant to rhapsodically depict the scene in Vrindavan during the final days of ACBS. The swami’s snuff box is a detail apparently too important to be omitted:

It is six-thirty in the morning. The birds sing sweetly, and peacocks sound their exotic meow. The air resounds with japa, chanted by your faithful disciples. Two devotees softly sing the Brahma-samhita on the outer veranda, upstairs in your Vrndavana quarters, waiting. You ring the bell, and one devotee enters the inner veranda, offers obeisances, and enters the mosquito net on the bed to massage your heart. You speak softly about ISKCON matters – Bombay, Mayapur, New Vrindaban, etc. Management is arcanam, you once said. Your servant helps you to your bath and personally bathes your transcendental form. Then he brings you to the indoor room. You sit in a rocking chair as he helps you with your kurta, and you apply tilaka from your Krsna-Balarama compact. The other servant changes the linens and brings the bed on the outer veranda with pillows, scented garland, bouquet, handkerchief, lota, snuff, incense, and camara. He has also brought fresh cloth and kaupina for you. You are then aided to the outer veranda, where you sit on the bed, garlanded by your loving disciples. The incense is sweet as one devotee fans you with a camara, in a figure-eight fashion, not for cooling but for keeping the numerous flies from your thin form.

And, I assume, as Tamala Krishna puts it, he occasionally “avails himself” of a little powdered tobacco.

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?”

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.

Expert at Rape

“Although rape is not legally allowed, it is a fact that a woman likes a man who is very expert at rape.” – A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami; Srimad-Bhagavatam 4.25.41, purport

Since the brutal rape and murder of Jyoti Singh in 2012, much of India has been in an uproar over the “Delhi gang rape” and over sexual violence against women in general. During that same time ISKCON pundits have weighed in on the causes of rape and sexual assault, in nearly all cases by regurgitating the same old predictable, inane rhetoric – something, something, lust…something, something degraded material society…something, something Bollywood. More recently, sexual violence in India has even breached the cult bubble and affected victims within ISKCON itself, causing waves of outrage in addition to the regular pontification.

(For the record, sexual abuse has long been part of ISKCON. But perhaps it’s only recently that anyone wearing a dhoti has gotten publicly upset about it.)

In all this online clamor I have yet to see any of the followers of “Srila Prabhupada” present the so-called founder-acarya’s own views on rape. I wonder why? It’s certainly not because those views are obscure. The above quote from one of Prabhupada’s Bhagavatam purports is well known. If you stick around ISKCON long enough, you’re bound to be exposed to it.

Of course, ISKCON apologists are duty bound to deny how clearly reprehensible it is, and so they attempt to explain it away by saying that in this instance Prabhupada’s use of the word “rape” is meant to employ not the primary definition but rather a secondary, archaic definition. In the words of one defender of the faith, Prabhupada employed a definition “little used, or even considered obsolete.” Devotees of this ilk contend that what Prabhupada really meant to say was that women like to be seduced by aggressive men, “manly” men, and that when Prabhupada says “rape” he really means something like “romantic aggression.” It’s a convenient (though still not benign) interpretation, particularly if you want to defend the notion Prabhupada was perfect and completely transcendental.

But, aside from being convenient, this interpretation is illogical.

The first half of the offending sentence – “Although rape is not legally allowed…” – should be enough to make that clear. Seduction is not illegal. Sexual assault is.

Moreover, cross-referencing Prabhupada’s books and recorded statements tells us he used the word “rape” a total of thirty-two times. Setting aside the three times it’s used in the purport in question, that leaves twenty-nine. In every single one of those twenty-nine instances he used the word to mean precisely what you and I think of whenever we hear it: sexual assault. What are the chances that in this one instance he employed the “little used…obsolete” definition?

If for some reason you’re still not convinced, Prabhupada has provided us with his very own, very concise definition of the word: “Rape means without consent, sex.”

Let’s see his definition in context.

“Yes, that is law always. Rape means without consent, sex. Otherwise there is no rape. There was a rape case in Calcutta, and the lawyer was very intelligent. He some way or other made the woman admit, ‘Yes, I felt happiness.’ So he was released. ‘Here is consent.’ And that’s a fact. Because after all, sex – rape or no rape – they will feel some pleasure. So the lawyer by hook and crook made the woman agree, ‘Yes, I felt some pleasure.’ ‘Now, there is consent.’ So he was released. After all, it is an itching sensation. So either by force or by willingly, if there is itching, everyone feels relieved itching it. That’s a psychology. It is not that the women do not like rape. They like sometimes. They willingly. That is the psychology. Outwardly they show some displeasure, but inwardly they do not. This is the psychology.” – Morning walk, 11 May 1975, Perth

It’s indisputable. Prabhupada said women enjoy being raped. They find it pleasurable. They may protest, they may say No – they may fight for their lives – but they really like it.

“It is not that the women do not like rape. They like sometimes. They willingly. That is the psychology. Outwardly they show some displeasure, but inwardly they do not.”

And though the particular Bhagavatam purport at the start of this post tends to get the most attention, it’s not the only purport in which Prabhupada expresses the same sentiment. In the purport to the very next verse there’s this:

“When a husbandless woman is attacked by an aggressive man, she takes his action to be mercy.” – SB 4.25.42, purport

And in the next chapter we find this:

“Generally when a woman is attacked by a man – whether her husband or some other man – she enjoys the attack, being too lusty.” – SB 4.26.26, purport

(Remember, Prabhupada was also of the opinion that “the sexual appetite of a woman is nine times greater than that of a man.”)

Whenever quotes like these enter the public forum without being qualified or explained away but are instead left to be interpreted in the most literal, most obvious way, devotees will insist they’ve been “taken out of context.” This is another lazy defense of things clearly indefensible. (For one thing, what sort of context could possibly redeem statements like these?) To devotees, “in context” generally means presenting the entire paragraph or chapter or book or lecture or conversation that contains whatever offensive statement is being singled out. Like producing the haystack with the needle, it seems the hope is that in combing through the “context” we might be sufficiently distracted from what we’d objected to in the first place. Whatever the intention, the only “context” acceptable to followers of Prabhupada is whatever absolves him completely, of even the most obvious guilt. Real context is not at all their concern. As we’ve so far seen in this case, context only makes things worse.

In the interest of providing context, here are a few more things to consider.

In 1972, at the time this volume of Prabhupada’s Bhagavatam was published, marital rape was not considered a crime practically anywhere in the world. In fact, spousal rape was not outlawed in all fifty US states until 1993. And in England and Wales there existed a legal exemption for marital rape until that exemption was abolished in 1991. Sadly, spousal rape is still not considered a crime in many parts of the world, including the one place perhaps most relevant to this discussion: India.

I hope the pertinence of these facts is self-evident. If not, here’s more context.

On the strength of Prabhupada’s personal statements, his married male disciples have at times considered it permissible, even necessary, to use violence against their wives.

“Pet, like that. Dhol gunar sudra pasu and nari. Nari means woman. (laughs) Just see. He has classified the nari amongst these class, dhol, gunar, sudra, pasu, nari. Ihe sab sasan ke adhikari. Sasan ke adhikari means all these are subjected for punishment.” – Room conversation, 12 April 1969, New York

“So sasan ke adhikari means they should be punished. (laughs) Punished means, just like dhol [drum], when the, I mean to say, sound is not very hard, dag-dag, if you beat it on the border, then it comes to be nice tune. Similarly, pasu, animals, if you request ‘My dear dog, please do not go there.’ Hut! (laughter) ‘No, my dear dog. Hut!’ This is the way. Similarly, woman. If you become lenient, then she will be troublesome. So in India still, in villages, whenever there is some quarrel between husband wife, the husband beats and she is tamed.” – Room conversation, 12 April 1969, New York

Considering this, and considering again that during Prabhupada’s time it was not criminal for a husband to rape his wife, it’s only reasonable to doubt the harmlessness of Prabhupada’s statements about rape. Is it really any less reasonable to wonder if Prabhupada’s male disciples and grand-disciples have at any time taken their guru’s statements as license to force themselves on their wives (or even on other women)?

ISKCON devotees will insist that their founder was impeccably moral, that he repeatedly preached against “illicit sex,” and that he regarded all sex as illicit save sexual intercourse for “producing Krishna conscious children.” How, they wonder, could someone possibly misconstrue what should otherwise be perfectly clear?

Here’s some more context.

Chaitanya Charan Das, a celibate monk who for some reason feels it necessary to offer advice on sex, recounts the following story:

“At one time there was a devotee who came to Mayapur and then in Mayapur that devotee went to some local society girl over there, and the news spread among the devotee community and then they told Prabhupada. And then Prabhupada called the devotee and Prabhupada asked him, ‘Why did you do that?’ He said, ‘I couldn’t control myself. I was too much tormented by lust.’ And Prabhupada said, ‘But you are married! Why did you have to go to a prostitute!?’ He said, ‘No Prabhupada, my wife wanted to follow the principle of no illicit sex so she refused and I didn’t want to force her.’”

Chaitanya Charan offers no source for this anecdote. Like so many un-documented stories that circulate about Prabhupada, there’s not much hope of knowing for sure whether or not this one is apocryphal. But for the sake of this discussion, let’s assume it’s true. It is after all within the realm of possibility, even plausibility; Prabhupada often referred to marriage in his society as a “license for sense gratification.” And though the publicized standard for an ISKCON marriage is to “engage in sex only for the purpose of procreation,” it should be obvious to anyone connected to reality that this standard is not met in all cases (perhaps not even in most cases). In this case Prabhupada is suggesting that his disciple not follow that standard. And he is doing so in spite of the desires of the man’s wife. Though he doesn’t explicitly instruct the husband to force his wife to have sex against her will, the implication is there, given the context.

Once again, isn’t it reasonable to imagine Prabhupada would allow his married male disciples to follow a cultural standard apparently so ingrained in Indian life that even quite recently India’s minister of Home Affairs has declined to take steps to criminalize marital rape, citing “the mindset of [Indian] society”? Though ISKCON devotees are loathe to admit it, their “Srila Prabhupada” was indisputably a product of his time and culture.

And his culture considered – and still considers – marital rape as being less than criminal.

But let’s speak more generally. When “Prabhupada was present” misogyny was on a global scale far more widespread, being in many cases and in many places socially acceptable. Prabhupada’s views on women were at that time not at all the exception to this general rule, despite his followers’ insistence he was in every way exceptional. Though ISKCON devotees refuse to see Prabhupada as a misogynist, they do so despite an outrageous number of misogynistic statements in his books and in his recorded statements (to say nothing of the example of his own life).

How did Prabhupada feel about women? The following is only a sample of what he had to say on the subject:

“As children are very prone to be misled, women are similarly very prone to degradation. Therefore, both children and women require protection by the elder members of the family. By being engaged in various religious practices, women will not be misled into adultery. According to Chanakya Pandit, women are generally not very intelligent and therefore not trustworthy.” – BG 1.40, purport

“Now, in the Manu-samhita it is clearly stated that a woman should not be given freedom. That does not mean that women are to be kept as slaves, but they are like children. The demons have now neglected such injunctions, and they think that women should be given as much freedom as men.” – BG 16.7, purport

“To understand Brahman is not the business of tiny brain. Alpha-medhasam. There are two Sanskrit words, alpa-medhasa and su-medhasa. Alpa-medhasa means having little brain substance. Physiologically, within the brain there are brain substance. It is found that the brain substance in man is found up to 64 ounce. They are very highly intellectual persons. And in woman the brain substance is not found more than 34 ounce. You’ll find, therefore, that there is no very great scientist, mathematician, philosopher, among women. You’ll never find because their brain substance cannot go. Artificially do not try to become equal with men. That is not allowed in the Vedic sastra. Na striyam svatantratam arhati. That is called sastra. You have to understand that woman is never given to be independence.” – Lecture on BG 16.7, 3 February 1975, Hawaii

“One American woman, was…She was speaking that ‘In India the woman are treated as slave. We don’t want.’ So I told her that it is better to become slave of one person than to slave of become hundreds. (laughter) The woman must become a slave. So instead of becoming slaves of so many persons, it is better to remain satisfied, a slave of one person…And our Vedic civilization says, nari-rupam pati-vratam: ‘The woman is beautiful when she remains as a slave to the husband.’ That is the beauty, not the personal beauty. How much she has learned to remain as a slave to the husband, that is Vedic civilization.” – Morning walk, 19 March 1976, Mayapur

Prabhupada: So far gurukula is concerned, that also, I have given program. They have given the name of “girls.” We are not going to do that.
Tamala Krishna: What is that?
Prabhupada: Girls. Boys and girls. That is dangerous.
Tamala Krishna: Gurukula.
Prabhupada: In that article.
Tamala Krishna: Oh, oh, oh.
Prabhupada: Girls should be completely separated from the very beginning. They are very dangerous.
Tamala Krishna: So we’re… I thought there were girls in Vrindavana now. They said that they’re going to have the girls’ gurukula behind the boys’ gurukula. Gopala was talking about that.
Prabhupada: No, no, no. No girls.
Tamala Krishna: It should be in another city or somewhere else.
Prabhupada: Yes. They should be taught how to sweep, how to stitch…
Tamala Krishna: Clean.
Prabhupada: …clean, cook, to be faithful to the husband.
Tamala Krishna: They don’t require a big school.
Prabhupada: No, no. That is mistake. They should be taught how to become obedient to the husband.                      – Morning conversation, 29 April 1977, Bombay

“People have become so degraded in this age that on the one hand they restrict polygamy and on the other hand they hunt for women in so many ways. Many business concerns publicly advertise that topless girls are available in this club or in that shop. Thus women have become instruments of sense enjoyment in modern society. The Vedas enjoin, however, that if a man has the propensity to enjoy more than one wife — as is sometimes the propensity for men in the higher social order, such as the brahmanas, kshatriyas and vaisyas, and even sometimes the sudras — he is allowed to marry more than one wife. Marriage means taking complete charge of a woman and living peacefully without debauchery. At the present moment, however, debauchery is unrestricted. Nonetheless, society makes a law that one should not marry more than one wife. This is typical of a demoniac society.” – SB 4.26.6, purport

“And it is recommended they should be married at very early age, then the wife will remain always chaste and devoted to her husband. At such young age, from the first night onwards, she can never for a moment forget him, being still child and unspoiled, therefore she becomes the perfect chaste wife, and in those times the wife was so much devoted to her husband that she would voluntarily die in the fire of his cremation, unable to live without him. Myself, I was very young when I got married, and my wife was 11 years only.” – Letter to Mr. Loy, 7 November 1972, Vrindavan

“Yes. That is psychological. They develop…Sex life, sex urge is there as soon as twelve years, thirteen years old, especially women. So therefore early marriage was sanctioned in India. Early marriage. Boy fifteen years, sixteen years, and girl twelve years. Not twelve years, ten years. I was married, my wife was eleven years. I was 22 years. She did not know what is sex, eleven years’ girl. Because Indian girls, they have no such opportunity of mixing with others. But after the first menstruation, the husband is ready. This is the system, Indian system.” – Room conversation, 15 August 1971, London

So, to summarize, in Prabhupada’s opinion women are “less intelligent,” owing in part to their anatomically inferior “brain substance.” They are “not trustworthy” and “should not be given freedom,” for a woman “is beautiful when she remains as a slave to the husband.” To that end, the education of women is a “mistake.” Instead they “should be taught to sweep, how to stitch, clean, cook, [and] be faithful to the husband.” The husband, meanwhile, can have as many wives as he likes, and those wives should be married to him at “ten years” or older, because “after the first menstruation, the husband is ready.”

By and large, present day defenders of ISKCON would prefer not to acknowledge their founder ever said (or did) any of these things. (Some devotees even insist Prabhupada was a sort of feminist – in the case of one devotee, the greatest feminist.)

As with all blemishes on the ISKCON body, the tendency in the society is to deny Prabhupada has anything to do with those blemishes – despite the constant declaration that Prabhupada himself said, “ISKCON is my body” – meanwhile insisting things like misogyny and child abuse are safely in the distant past.

Though there are far more safeguards in place in ISKCON now than there were in Prabhupada’s time, child abuse still rears its ugly head within the society from time to time. Misogyny, at least, is alive and well.

Some members of ISKCON are perfectly comfortable with their guru’s hatred of women, while others even celebrate it. Some of Prabhupada’s followers, on the strength of Prabhupada’s instructions and personal example, even publicly advocate for polygamy and child marriage. More “mainstream” ISKCON members will probably tell you that these other devotees are outliers. Maybe so, but then their founder too is on the fringe. In truth, ISKCON itself is an organization with deep-seated hatred for women. How else can you explain that the leaders of ISKCON have been arguing, unsuccessfully, for years over whether or not those devotees who happen to have a vagina instead of a penis could possibly be spiritually advanced enough to become gurus? Or that a significant number of the society’s members – leaders and rank-and-file alike – behave as if the world might end if it ever became commonplace to refer to female devotees as “prabhu,” master?

Meanwhile, in the real world outside of ISKCON’s alternate universe, public figures who express clearly offensive and illogical ideas about women and rape face real consequences. In 2013, an Israeli court judge, Nissim Yeshaya, resigned amidst outrage over his statement that some girls “enjoy being raped.” And in 2012, two political hopefuls trying to win seats in the US Senate had their campaigns obliterated with acts of verbal self-sabotage that consisted of separate but equally idiotic comments about rape. Todd Akin opined that victims of “legitimate rape” very rarely become pregnant, claiming that “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” And Richard Mourdock inadvertently made god himself a rapist when he said, “Even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that is something that God intended to happen.”

Fortunately for women everywhere, Mourdock is not ISKCON’s founder-acarya. Unfortunately for Mourdock – and Akin and Yeshaya for that matter – he is not ISKCON’s founder-acarya. If he were, he would be worshiped “as good as God” and lauded as the savior of the world, despite his reprehensible rhetoric. (Nonetheless, it’s still doubtful he could win an election in America.)

To know even a fraction of what “Srila Prabhupada” said about women and yet to maintain he’s a saint is, to be charitable, a bit of a paradox. The willingness to do so is easy enough to understand, though the capacity to do it is often baffling.

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.”

The Nectar of Not-So-Transcendental Book Distribution

In this blog’s most recent post I tried to make the case that the shiny-happy ISKCON of the present day is not exactly what the movement’s founder-acarya had in mind.

“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.”

Having joined ISKCON some time after the fall of the Zonal Acaryas, I was brought up with a false narrative: I was led to believe, by devotees who were there and knew better, that in the physical presence of “Srila Prabhupada” ISKCON was an indomitable extension of Lord Caitanya’s mercy, a dynamic preaching movement faultlessly devoted to spreading Krishna’s message through the fully spiritual activity of sankirtana, either in the form of “book distribution” or “chanting the holy names.” I was taught to revere sankirtana and its limitless potential for spiritual transformation and cultural revolution. And when I’d been around long enough to find out that sankirtana had at one time devolved into something less than spiritual – something materialistic, hardly more respectable than panhandling and not far removed from a scam – I was encouraged to adopt the delusion that that unfortunate episode had occurred after ISKCON’s golden years, after Prabhupada’s departure.

Sadly, that’s not true. Paul Ford, initiated by Prabhupada as Pujana Dasa, writes about sankirtana in the seventies in his book Mad After Krishna. He gives a refreshingly un-sanitized account of what it was like to be a devotee in ISKCON’s golden days. I’ll reproduce an excerpt below but urge you to read the rest of the chapter from which the excerpt comes as well as the rest of the book in its entirety.

“Selling books was a bit like stage performance. Successful sankirtan devotees looked good. We shined our shoes, and made sure our clothes and wigs fit properly. We learned our lines, especially our opening lines. We also learned how to ad lib as the situation required. We invented and memorized a repertoire of lines, come-ons, and responses for various situations…

“Prabhupada said that we were to collect Lakshmi ‘by hook or by crook.’ One hook was establishing a rapport with the karmis. If, for example, they said they were from Kansas, we would say something like, ‘I’ve got a brother back that way.’ Some experienced devotees tried to create the feeling of an old friendship. If they succeeded, a request for a donation would seem like asking an old friend for a small loan…

“Another hook was to induce them to answer ‘yes’ to a series of innocuous but loaded questions. Then a ‘yes’ to a request for a donation would come more easily. For example, a devotee selling records to a young karmi might begin with, ‘Do you have a turntable?’ Nearly everyone owned a turntable. For another example, sometimes a devotee said, ‘We’re doing a survey.’ Then he asked a few questions and said, ‘We have a special deal only for the people we’re interviewing today.’ Sometimes a clipboard-carrying devotee in an airport or bus station firmly addressed the servicemen as ‘Soldier!’ and then ordered them to take a book and give money.

“Another successful hook was the come-on to the opposite sex. For example, the women sometimes approached a karmi man, pinned a flower or button on his lapel, told him how big and ‘dangerous’ he was, sometimes even kissed him, and then asked for a donation. Vrindavan Vilasini was a top female sankirtan devotee. Well spoken and convinced of the philosophy, she also had a pretty face and an attractive figure. Mulaprakriti, another top scorer, was less beautiful but was intelligent, strong-willed, hardworking, and highly skilled at sankirtan. The men sometimes accused the women of using their physical attractiveness to their advantage, and the women accurately returned the same charge.

“We often said that to sell to a karmi couple, one first needed to persuade the woman. In private, we laughed at karmi men who appeared to be under the control of their wives or girlfriends. In contrast, women devotees knew their place — subordinate and submissive to the men.

“Sometimes a householder devotee took a child, not necessarily his own, with him on sankirtan. By all reports, cute children were worth their weight in gold in donations. By about the age of fourteen or fifteen, they were ready to go out and collect Lakshmi on their own.

“Besides increasing the amount of money we collected, the cultivation of a tough, unshakeable attitude ‘dovetailed’ well with our philosophy. We had all knowledge; the spiritually covered karmis were incapable of understanding the truth. It was natural, then, to try to entice or trick them into buying into Krishna consciousness.

“The ‘crooks’ Prabhupada referred to were techniques ranging from mild deception to full-fledged transcendental trickery. We tried to give the impression that we were a part of what the public was supposed to experience at that particular time and place — especially if it were an illegal location. For example, in store parking lots we sometimes announced, ‘The manager asked us to come here today.’

“When a karmi asked, ‘Is this Krishna?’ in a hostile tone, we replied, ‘No.’ We answered questions according to how they were asked. For example, if someone asked, ‘What’s this for?’ I would give an indirect, vague answer, never mentioning Krishna. If, however, we hit them up hard enough, they would not even ask. They would give Lakshmi or not, and we would move on to the next karmi.

“Some devotees collected Lakshmi for Vietnam War-era MIA’s (Missing In Action) and POW’s (Prisoners Of War). Others said they were collecting for UNICEF (the United Nations Children’s Fund) or the Red Cross. Other standard lines included, ‘I’m from Apple records’ (the Beatles’ record label) or ‘I’m George Harrison’s secretary.’ Or, ‘This book is about chemistry [or sociology, or political science].’ A book was about whatever we thought might interest that particular karmi. After all, the Hindu scriptures contained all knowledge on all subjects…

“Some sankirtan devotees had perfected a technique known to its detractors within the Movement as ‘shortchanging.’ Gopa, for example, would tell a karmi, ‘I’ve got a bunch of ones I’m trying to get rid of. Do you have a twenty?’ He would take the karmi’s twenty-dollar bill and slowly give him back one-dollar bills, one at a time. As he did so, he would continue to pitch the book. This technique was effective, because karmis often got tired of waiting for their change and gave up, leaving the devotee with a greater-than-intended donation.

“Sometimes, after inducing a karmi to take out his wallet, a devotee pointed to or touched a bill he wanted, say a ten or twenty-dollar bill. I heard that some devotees simply grabbed the money and ran.

“Some women devotees dressed up in attractive karmi clothes and sold flowers in bars. If a devotee got roughed up in a bar, it was because of her lack of faith. Devotees always trusted that Krishna would protect them on sankirtan. In addition, the women distributed books on military bases, especially on military payday. The services were then almost entirely male.

“Nevertheless, a devotee needed to use subterfuge when dealing with people whose intelligence was at the animal level. Karmis were simply too sinful to understand what we were doing. We accepted no legal, moral, or ethical authority other than our own, because God’s law was higher than man’s ‘concocted’ laws. The police and the courts were agents of the ruling class of atheists and materialists. Their job was to keep people ignorant of God and keep the present government in power.

“When we did obey others’ rules and laws, it was with the attitude that for now they were in charge, but that circumstances would be different later. A devotee once told me, ‘When we take over, we’ll demand money at gunpoint.’ Another devotee named Tarun Krishna called sankirtan a cross between sport and war. Tripurari declared sankirtan a holy war. Prabhupada himself said that book distribution was the equivalent of ‘dropping bombs on the laps of the conditioned souls.’”

It’s only natural that an ISKCON devotee “in good standing” will be skeptical of this account. Perhaps a devotee might be willing to believe these practices were adopted by some but not all, certainly not by the majority. Whatever the case, all devotees will insist that Prabhupada knew nothing about this (despite his being in direct communication with Krishna) and that even if he did he would have never under any circumstances condoned such practices. The prevailing narrative – that everything good comes from Prabhupada, whereas everything bad is due to the shortcomings of his followers – is a powerful one, despite the fact it’s not true.

In March of 1977 Prabhupada met in Mayapur with his “GBC men” to discuss their resolutions for that year. One of the things they discussed was the illegal practices devotees were using while on sankirtana. Prabhupada’s response was, in short, “Real point is if we can introduce book, there is nothing illegal. Everything is legal. Now, to save us from so-called legal complication, we must be legal. Otherwise there is nothing illegal, what we do for Krishna.”

Satsvarupa: We made resolutions regarding book distribution techniques. Any illegal techniques for book distribution, that is, illegal according to law, should be banned, including… And then a comprehensive list will follow, mainly supplied by Ramesvara Maharaja. They will include some things like outright illegal techniques.

Prabhupada: Real point is if we can introduce book, there is nothing illegal. Everything is legal. Now, to save us from so-called legal complication, we must be legal. Otherwise there is nothing illegal, what we do for Krishna.

Ramesvara: That was our conclusion, Prabhupada, that there are just a few practices…

Prabhupada: But we have to take care of the public.

Satsvarupa: Things… Some of them mentioned were to imitate a deaf and dumb man and ask for charity, imitating that… (laughter)

Prabhupada: That’s not bad. (laughter)

Kirtanananda: Some boys were arrested for that, Srila Prabhupada. They will arrest you in the United States if they catch you. They have done that.

Brahmananda: That is considered fraud.

Ramesvara: Prabhupada, the points that we are proposing to ban will not decrease book distribution, so they can be eliminated and book distribution will not be decreased.

Prabhupada: Yes. So the real legal thing is: some way or other, introduce books.

Later in the conversation they discuss the practice of dressing up in costumes – in particular, dressing up as Santa Claus, which Paul Ford also mentions in his book – and Prabhupada gives his response:

Satsvarupa: Yes. Also for book distribution techniques, the use of the Santa Claus uniform and other theatrical costumes is banned, not to be done.

Prabhupada: Is there any legal objection?

Satsvarupa: No.

Prabhupada: Then why?

Kirtanananda: They’re legal.

Hrdayananda: There was a great deal of negative publicity.

Kirtanananda: They are legal…

Prabhupada: So if it is legal, why shall they be…?

Ramesvara: The reason it was decided is that even though it is legal in America, in foreign countries there is bad reaction. The Americans do not mind as much as the foreign countries. So we are concerned for the international image of our movement.

Jayatirtha: It was published in practically every newspaper in the world, a picture of Santa Claus being arrested by a policeman in America. We got a lot of questions. Also the President of the United States questioned one boy in a Santa Claus outfit.

Ramesvara: We felt that it would not seriously decrease the book distribution if we stopped this.

Prabhupada: Oh, yes. Then it is all right.

So, the bottom line is, well, the bottom line. If it won’t significantly decrease the amount of money coming in, then it’s all right. I don’t know about you, but when I imagined the heroic book distributors of yore I never imagined them in Santa suits passing out candy canes. That idea doesn’t really resonate with the image of sankirtana we get from Lord Caitanya’s pastimes, does it? It has less to do with spiritual revolution than it does with panhandlers dressed up as cartoon characters in Times Square. It’s certainly no more dignified. It’s a scam.

Unfortunately, an army of begging Santas was not the worst of it. As the conversation continues, Prabhupada and his leaders discuss something far more troubling and far more consequential to the lives of ISKCON’s devotees.

First, some background: As recounted in Monkey On a Stick and by Nori Muster in her essay “Life as a Woman on Watseka Avenue,” at some point in the seventies it had become commonplace for women’s sankirtana parties to be led by a single male devotee who “lived with and slept with” the women under his care. These men preached to their subordinates that they were their “eternal husband and protector” and then took advantage of this status to satisfy their own sexual desires with the rationalization that this was inspiring the victims in their service, because “It is understood that the sexual appetite of a woman is nine times greater than that of a man.”

I think you’ll agree this is troubling. Even more troubling is Prabhupada’s reaction:

Satsvarupa: …One of the popular means to distribute books is by women’s party. A party of women will travel under the care of a man devotee. But in taking care of the women, we have noted that some of these parties have been preaching a false philosophy of the relationship of the man who’s taking care of the women, and that philosophy is that the sankirtana leader is the eternal husband and protector of the women in the party. We want that this philosophy should be rejected. If a man is taking care of a number of women in a sankirtana party, he should be regarded as the son as well as a representative of the spiritual master, of Srila Prabhupada, and not the husband of these women.

Prabhupada: Husband, but why he does not marry them? (laughter)

Satsvarupa: Well, sometimes there may be as many as twenty women in a party.

Kirtanananda: They would like to.

Prabhupada: We have no objection if one marries more than one wife. That I have stated. But law does not allow it. So do the needful.

In comparison to Prabhupada, the approach offered by the GBC is more reasonable. (And what, pray tell, is “the needful” in this situation?) At least Prabhupada’s dsciples seem to show concern, if not for the women being exploited at least for the effect that exploitation might have on the Hare Krishna movement and the way it’s perceived by outsiders. And if you’re shocked by Prabhupada’s attitude about polygamy, please don’t suppress that reaction with knee-jerk veneration for the “founder-acarya.Prabhupada made comments in favor of polygamy throughout his tenure in ISKCON, even though that fact is not talked about in his society today. Like his comments on rape and spousal abuse, they don’t get much attention because that would upset the prevailing narrative. It’s a shame more devotees aren’t upset that the prevailing narrative is the only one they are able to accept.

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.

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.