In this blog’s most recent post I tried to make the case that the shiny-happy ISKCON of the present day is not exactly what the movement’s founder-acarya had in mind.
“When he was alive Prabhupada’s desires simply did not include the 24-hour kirtans, weekend chanting festivals, and japa retreats so popular these days. During Prabhupada’s time the importance of the maha-mantra paled in comparison to another ISKCON-approved mantra: ‘Work now, samadhi later.’ During ISKCON’s heyday, Prabhupada’s (and thus ISKCON’s) top priority was selling books, plain and simple. (No one who was there at that time would dispute this. As Prabhupada said, many different times in many different ways, ‘Distribution of books and magazines is our most important activity.’) However, as I’ve already mentioned, that old-time book distribution wasn’t so spiritual.”
Having joined ISKCON some time after the fall of the Zonal Acaryas, I was brought up with a false narrative: I was led to believe, by devotees who were there and knew better, that in the physical presence of “Srila Prabhupada” ISKCON was an indomitable extension of Lord Caitanya’s mercy, a dynamic preaching movement faultlessly devoted to spreading Krishna’s message through the fully spiritual activity of sankirtana, either in the form of “book distribution” or “chanting the holy names.” I was taught to revere sankirtana and its limitless potential for spiritual transformation and cultural revolution. And when I’d been around long enough to find out that sankirtana had at one time devolved into something less than spiritual – something materialistic, hardly more respectable than panhandling and not far removed from a scam – I was encouraged to adopt the delusion that that unfortunate episode had occurred after ISKCON’s golden years, after Prabhupada’s departure.
Sadly, that’s not true. Paul Ford, initiated by Prabhupada as Pujana Dasa, writes about sankirtana in the seventies in his book Mad After Krishna. He gives a refreshingly un-sanitized account of what it was like to be a devotee in ISKCON’s golden days. I’ll reproduce an excerpt below but urge you to read the rest of the chapter from which the excerpt comes as well as the rest of the book in its entirety.
“Selling books was a bit like stage performance. Successful sankirtan devotees looked good. We shined our shoes, and made sure our clothes and wigs fit properly. We learned our lines, especially our opening lines. We also learned how to ad lib as the situation required. We invented and memorized a repertoire of lines, come-ons, and responses for various situations…
“Prabhupada said that we were to collect Lakshmi ‘by hook or by crook.’ One hook was establishing a rapport with the karmis. If, for example, they said they were from Kansas, we would say something like, ‘I’ve got a brother back that way.’ Some experienced devotees tried to create the feeling of an old friendship. If they succeeded, a request for a donation would seem like asking an old friend for a small loan…
“Another hook was to induce them to answer ‘yes’ to a series of innocuous but loaded questions. Then a ‘yes’ to a request for a donation would come more easily. For example, a devotee selling records to a young karmi might begin with, ‘Do you have a turntable?’ Nearly everyone owned a turntable. For another example, sometimes a devotee said, ‘We’re doing a survey.’ Then he asked a few questions and said, ‘We have a special deal only for the people we’re interviewing today.’ Sometimes a clipboard-carrying devotee in an airport or bus station firmly addressed the servicemen as ‘Soldier!’ and then ordered them to take a book and give money.
“Another successful hook was the come-on to the opposite sex. For example, the women sometimes approached a karmi man, pinned a flower or button on his lapel, told him how big and ‘dangerous’ he was, sometimes even kissed him, and then asked for a donation. Vrindavan Vilasini was a top female sankirtan devotee. Well spoken and convinced of the philosophy, she also had a pretty face and an attractive figure. Mulaprakriti, another top scorer, was less beautiful but was intelligent, strong-willed, hardworking, and highly skilled at sankirtan. The men sometimes accused the women of using their physical attractiveness to their advantage, and the women accurately returned the same charge.
“We often said that to sell to a karmi couple, one first needed to persuade the woman. In private, we laughed at karmi men who appeared to be under the control of their wives or girlfriends. In contrast, women devotees knew their place — subordinate and submissive to the men.
“Sometimes a householder devotee took a child, not necessarily his own, with him on sankirtan. By all reports, cute children were worth their weight in gold in donations. By about the age of fourteen or fifteen, they were ready to go out and collect Lakshmi on their own.
“Besides increasing the amount of money we collected, the cultivation of a tough, unshakeable attitude ‘dovetailed’ well with our philosophy. We had all knowledge; the spiritually covered karmis were incapable of understanding the truth. It was natural, then, to try to entice or trick them into buying into Krishna consciousness.
“The ‘crooks’ Prabhupada referred to were techniques ranging from mild deception to full-fledged transcendental trickery. We tried to give the impression that we were a part of what the public was supposed to experience at that particular time and place — especially if it were an illegal location. For example, in store parking lots we sometimes announced, ‘The manager asked us to come here today.’
“When a karmi asked, ‘Is this Krishna?’ in a hostile tone, we replied, ‘No.’ We answered questions according to how they were asked. For example, if someone asked, ‘What’s this for?’ I would give an indirect, vague answer, never mentioning Krishna. If, however, we hit them up hard enough, they would not even ask. They would give Lakshmi or not, and we would move on to the next karmi.
“Some devotees collected Lakshmi for Vietnam War-era MIA’s (Missing In Action) and POW’s (Prisoners Of War). Others said they were collecting for UNICEF (the United Nations Children’s Fund) or the Red Cross. Other standard lines included, ‘I’m from Apple records’ (the Beatles’ record label) or ‘I’m George Harrison’s secretary.’ Or, ‘This book is about chemistry [or sociology, or political science].’ A book was about whatever we thought might interest that particular karmi. After all, the Hindu scriptures contained all knowledge on all subjects…
“Some sankirtan devotees had perfected a technique known to its detractors within the Movement as ‘shortchanging.’ Gopa, for example, would tell a karmi, ‘I’ve got a bunch of ones I’m trying to get rid of. Do you have a twenty?’ He would take the karmi’s twenty-dollar bill and slowly give him back one-dollar bills, one at a time. As he did so, he would continue to pitch the book. This technique was effective, because karmis often got tired of waiting for their change and gave up, leaving the devotee with a greater-than-intended donation.
“Sometimes, after inducing a karmi to take out his wallet, a devotee pointed to or touched a bill he wanted, say a ten or twenty-dollar bill. I heard that some devotees simply grabbed the money and ran.
“Some women devotees dressed up in attractive karmi clothes and sold flowers in bars. If a devotee got roughed up in a bar, it was because of her lack of faith. Devotees always trusted that Krishna would protect them on sankirtan. In addition, the women distributed books on military bases, especially on military payday. The services were then almost entirely male.
“Nevertheless, a devotee needed to use subterfuge when dealing with people whose intelligence was at the animal level. Karmis were simply too sinful to understand what we were doing. We accepted no legal, moral, or ethical authority other than our own, because God’s law was higher than man’s ‘concocted’ laws. The police and the courts were agents of the ruling class of atheists and materialists. Their job was to keep people ignorant of God and keep the present government in power.
“When we did obey others’ rules and laws, it was with the attitude that for now they were in charge, but that circumstances would be different later. A devotee once told me, ‘When we take over, we’ll demand money at gunpoint.’ Another devotee named Tarun Krishna called sankirtan a cross between sport and war. Tripurari declared sankirtan a holy war. Prabhupada himself said that book distribution was the equivalent of ‘dropping bombs on the laps of the conditioned souls.’”
It’s only natural that an ISKCON devotee “in good standing” will be skeptical of this account. Perhaps a devotee might be willing to believe these practices were adopted by some but not all, certainly not by the majority. Whatever the case, all devotees will insist that Prabhupada knew nothing about this (despite his being in direct communication with Krishna) and that even if he did he would have never under any circumstances condoned such practices. The prevailing narrative – that everything good comes from Prabhupada, whereas everything bad is due to the shortcomings of his followers – is a powerful one, despite the fact it’s not true.
In March of 1977 Prabhupada met in Mayapur with his “GBC men” to discuss their resolutions for that year. One of the things they discussed was the illegal practices devotees were using while on sankirtana. Prabhupada’s response was, in short, “Real point is if we can introduce book, there is nothing illegal. Everything is legal. Now, to save us from so-called legal complication, we must be legal. Otherwise there is nothing illegal, what we do for Krishna.”
Satsvarupa: We made resolutions regarding book distribution techniques. Any illegal techniques for book distribution, that is, illegal according to law, should be banned, including… And then a comprehensive list will follow, mainly supplied by Ramesvara Maharaja. They will include some things like outright illegal techniques.
Prabhupada: Real point is if we can introduce book, there is nothing illegal. Everything is legal. Now, to save us from so-called legal complication, we must be legal. Otherwise there is nothing illegal, what we do for Krishna.
Ramesvara: That was our conclusion, Prabhupada, that there are just a few practices…
Prabhupada: But we have to take care of the public.
Satsvarupa: Things… Some of them mentioned were to imitate a deaf and dumb man and ask for charity, imitating that… (laughter)
Prabhupada: That’s not bad. (laughter)
Kirtanananda: Some boys were arrested for that, Srila Prabhupada. They will arrest you in the United States if they catch you. They have done that.
Brahmananda: That is considered fraud.
Ramesvara: Prabhupada, the points that we are proposing to ban will not decrease book distribution, so they can be eliminated and book distribution will not be decreased.
Prabhupada: Yes. So the real legal thing is: some way or other, introduce books.
Later in the conversation they discuss the practice of dressing up in costumes – in particular, dressing up as Santa Claus, which Paul Ford also mentions in his book – and Prabhupada gives his response:
Satsvarupa: Yes. Also for book distribution techniques, the use of the Santa Claus uniform and other theatrical costumes is banned, not to be done.
Prabhupada: Is there any legal objection?
Prabhupada: Then why?
Kirtanananda: They’re legal.
Hrdayananda: There was a great deal of negative publicity.
Kirtanananda: They are legal…
Prabhupada: So if it is legal, why shall they be…?
Ramesvara: The reason it was decided is that even though it is legal in America, in foreign countries there is bad reaction. The Americans do not mind as much as the foreign countries. So we are concerned for the international image of our movement.
Jayatirtha: It was published in practically every newspaper in the world, a picture of Santa Claus being arrested by a policeman in America. We got a lot of questions. Also the President of the United States questioned one boy in a Santa Claus outfit.
Ramesvara: We felt that it would not seriously decrease the book distribution if we stopped this.
Prabhupada: Oh, yes. Then it is all right.
So, the bottom line is, well, the bottom line. If it won’t significantly decrease the amount of money coming in, then it’s all right. I don’t know about you, but when I imagined the heroic book distributors of yore I never imagined them in Santa suits passing out candy canes. That idea doesn’t really resonate with the image of sankirtana we get from Lord Caitanya’s pastimes, does it? It has less to do with spiritual revolution than it does with panhandlers dressed up as cartoon characters in Times Square. It’s certainly no more dignified. It’s a scam.
Unfortunately, an army of begging Santas was not the worst of it. As the conversation continues, Prabhupada and his leaders discuss something far more troubling and far more consequential to the lives of ISKCON’s devotees.
First, some background: As recounted in Monkey On a Stick and by Nori Muster in her essay “Life as a Woman on Watseka Avenue,” at some point in the seventies it had become commonplace for women’s sankirtana parties to be led by a single male devotee who “lived with and slept with” the women under his care. These men preached to their subordinates that they were their “eternal husband and protector” and then took advantage of this status to satisfy their own sexual desires with the rationalization that this was inspiring the victims in their service, because “It is understood that the sexual appetite of a woman is nine times greater than that of a man.”
I think you’ll agree this is troubling. Even more troubling is Prabhupada’s reaction:
Satsvarupa: …One of the popular means to distribute books is by women’s party. A party of women will travel under the care of a man devotee. But in taking care of the women, we have noted that some of these parties have been preaching a false philosophy of the relationship of the man who’s taking care of the women, and that philosophy is that the sankirtana leader is the eternal husband and protector of the women in the party. We want that this philosophy should be rejected. If a man is taking care of a number of women in a sankirtana party, he should be regarded as the son as well as a representative of the spiritual master, of Srila Prabhupada, and not the husband of these women.
Prabhupada: Husband, but why he does not marry them? (laughter)
Satsvarupa: Well, sometimes there may be as many as twenty women in a party.
Kirtanananda: They would like to.
Prabhupada: We have no objection if one marries more than one wife. That I have stated. But law does not allow it. So do the needful.
In comparison to Prabhupada, the approach offered by the GBC is more reasonable. (And what, pray tell, is “the needful” in this situation?) At least Prabhupada’s dsciples seem to show concern, if not for the women being exploited at least for the effect that exploitation might have on the Hare Krishna movement and the way it’s perceived by outsiders. And if you’re shocked by Prabhupada’s attitude about polygamy, please don’t suppress that reaction with knee-jerk veneration for the “founder-acarya.” Prabhupada made comments in favor of polygamy throughout his tenure in ISKCON, even though that fact is not talked about in his society today. Like his comments on rape and spousal abuse, they don’t get much attention because that would upset the prevailing narrative. It’s a shame more devotees aren’t upset that the prevailing narrative is the only one they are able to accept.