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