Tag: Honest Questions Honest Answers

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 It seems like you have an outdated impression of ISKCON.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.

Advertisements

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.