Tag: Delusion

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.


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.

ISKCON’s Liberal Paradox

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

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

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

Irrelevant? Hardly.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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