In the mid-1950s, a young US Air Force psychiatrist named Robert Jay Lifton traveled to Hong Kong to investigate the "brainwashing" of Westerners and Asians by the Chinese Communist revolutionaries. In Chapter 22 ("Ideological Totalism") of the resulting work, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, Lifton described eight psychological symptoms of this previously unstudied and poorly understood phenomenon.
Thought reform has its roots in the extraction of confessions during the 1930s-era Soviet purges, and in Chinese culture, particularly the Confucian emphasis on strong family connections. Nevertheless, as I read and reread this chapter, I was struck by the close relationship between brainwashing and the Krishnas, an Americanized version of a Hindu splinter sect. Other observers have concluded from these parallels that contemporary destructive cults may have borrowed certain techniques from the Communists. While it is true that manipulators in any period use whatever technology may be at their disposal, it is equally true that abusive systems of one kind or another have always been with us.
Here are Lifton's eight symptoms of thought reform:
"Milieu control" (p. 420), the control of communication, is the most basic feature of the thought reform environment. The Krishna cult controlled not only everything the devotees read and heard, but everything they said and wrote as well. They were to read only Prabhupada's books, listen only to taped lectures by him and his top disciples, speak only of Krishna or Krishna consciousness, and chant or sing only Hare Krishna and other approved mantras. In my five years in the cult, I watched no TV, heard no radio, and read no books, magazines, or newspapers that originated outside the cult. In addition, the leaders discouraged the keeping of diaries or notebooks. Devotees had little time to write much more than an occasional letter, and they assumed with good reason that the leaders opened and read all mail.
Likewise, the control of information coming from outside the cult was tight. For example, the press often carried stories about crimes that devotees had committed and the struggles between parents and the cult over the custody of minor children. The general devotee population heard little or nothing about these events through official cult channels. As I wrote, outsiders I spoke with on the street often knew more about external cult affairs than I did as a full-time member.
Nevertheless, as pervasive as milieu control might be, it never becomes complete, Lifton wrote. Rather, outside "noise" (p. 421) inevitably leaks into even the most tightly controlled environment. The cult used the term "mundane sound vibrations" to refer to any sounds other than the Hare Krishna mantra or the spiritual master's words of instruction.
Milieu control is based on the assumption of unique access to the truth (p. 421) and a further assumption that truth and reality are the same. That is, doctrine and objective reality are the same. Milieu control thereby succeeds in dividing the world into two mutually exclusive worlds: the "real" and the "unreal" (p. 421). According to the cult, everything associated with it was real, or in their words, "eternal, blissful, and full of knowledge." All else was Maya, that is, characterized by impermanence, suffering, and ignorance.
Further, those who believe that the group possesses all knowledge may adopt a "God's Eye View" (p. 421) of the world. In a similar vein, Prabhupada wrote that his books revealed the Absolute Truth by way of a kind of infallible sixth sense called shastra chaksus, or the "eyes of scripture." Indeed, the devotees did come to believe that, unlike the karmis, they uniquely saw the world as God saw it.
Under the constraints of milieu control, the devotees lost meaningful contact with the world outside the cult and became convinced that they alone had access to what is true and real.
Thought reform environments "create a mystical aura around the manipulating institutions ..." (p. 422). As "a branch of Lord Chaitanya's tree," the Krishna cult was more than simply God's Movement; it was God Himself in an earthly manifestation. Similarly, the chanting of Krishna's names was tantamount to Krishna Himself; as were His books, the Deities, and the ritual of sankirtan fund-raising. The altar, the temple building, and its grounds, were part of the spiritual world. Prabhupada was no ordinary man. As a "pure devotee of God," he was in a perpetual state of transcendental ecstasy. His feces smelled like roses, according to the cult.
Another important feature of mystical manipulation is "planned spontaneity" (p. 422). Krishna devotees sometimes cried, shivered, or even fainted while chanting and dancing. They viewed these emotions as spontaneous expressions of "transcendental ecstasy," even though they arose only after the devotees engaged in chanting and dancing for several weeks or months, all the while hearing the philosophy of Krishna consciousness.
Mystical manipulation is marked by "extremes of idealism and cynicism" (p. 422). The Krishna cult professed a belief in the importance of God's love and God's mercy in human affairs while simultaneously engaging in large-scale charity fraud and other crimes.
Those who had been exposed to thought reform felt that they had "directly perceived" (p. 422) the Communist dogmas of social progress. Using the same exact phrase, the Krishna cult maintained that knowledge is "directly perceived" through obedience to the spiritual master.
Under the enchantment of mystical manipulation, the devotees believed that a spiritual aura surrounded each of the cult's instruments of personal and interpersonal control.
The "demand for purity" (p. 423) is a rigid standard of perfection in behavior and thought. The cult imposed many rules concerning the physical cleanliness of the body, the altar, the kitchen, and the temple building. Other rules enforced rigid standards of doctrinal purity. A devotee was never to "deviate," even for a second, from the teachings. The standard of purity was, for practical purposes, unattainable.
At first, the devotees heard, "All you have to do is chant." After doing this, they heard, "All you have to do is chant and cut off your ties to the outside world." Then it was, "All you have to do is chant, cut off your ties to the outside world, and go out on sankirtan." Then, "All you have to do is chant, cut off your ties to the outside world, go out on sankirtan, and collect more money this week than you collected last week." And so on. The list of demands never ended, and we all knew that no flesh-and-blood devotee ever achieved the mythical state of pure Krishna consciousness. Yet devotees insisted on believing in the divinity or near-divinity of the spiritual master.
Almost every devotee I knew, from low-level members like myself to the top leaders, fell badly from the regulations from time to time. For example, most of the sannyasis — not to mention us lowly brahmacharis — have long since broken their vow of celibacy, often despite their often superhuman efforts.
To achieve such purity, "all 'taints' and 'poisons' which contribute to the existing state of impurity must be searched out and eliminated" (p. 423). In the Krishna cult, everything that was impure or imperfect in the individual devotee was a result of previous or current "contamination" by the world outside the cult. The purpose of devotional service was to eliminate such contamination.
Lifton wrote, "anything done to anyone in the name of this purity is ultimately moral" (p. 423). In this vein, a verse in the Bhagavad-gita As It Is reads: "Even if one commits the most abominable actions, he is considered to be saintly, if he is properly situated." That is, the devotees were to do whatever the leaders asked of them, without considering the rightness or wrongness of the action in question. Prabhupada wrote in a "purport" in the same book that if Krishna wants, the devotee may do anything one would ordinarily consider undesirable. That is, the cult is an amoral place where the dictates of the leader transcend ordinary notions of morality and immorality.
Due to the demand for purity, "each person is made vulnerable ... through his existential guilt" (p. 424). According to the Krishna cult, if one had a body, he was "caught red-handed"; that is, he was guilty of past sins. People were sinful, according to the cult.
Lifton wrote, "the universal psychological tendency toward projection is nourished and institutionalized, leading to mass hatreds, purges of heretics, and to political and religious holy wars" (p. 425). Krishna doctrine used projection (ascribing to others one's own thoughts, feelings, and attitudes, especially when they are undesirable) in many ways:
• "Karmis are slaves." Yet the leaders told the devotees what to do with every minute of their time. Devotees freely admitted their servitude to the leader and to Krishna; they were proud to be a "dog of God."
• "Karmis are miserable." Yet devotees scorned happiness as a goal and led lives of harsh physical, emotional, and moral renunciation.
• "Karmis are materialists." Yet devotees spent most of their time selling things and collecting money.
• "Karmis are brainwashed." Yet the leaders controlled all media and communication within the cult and manipulated the devotees' emotions of love, hate, fear, and shame.
• "Material consciousness is artificial." Yet, to maintain their Krishna consciousness, devotees needed to spend several hours a day chanting and listening to lectures.
• "The [outside] world is an illusion." Yet mythology and idolatry were important parts of the Krishna program. Devotees often imagined that they were dancing with the Deity of Krishna, that He was smiling at them, or that a visible aura surrounded the altar or the temple grounds.
• "The [outside] world is a place of death." Yet Krishna doctrine emphasized the paramount importance of the afterlife and the moment of death.
Under the relentless demand for purity, the devotees strove in vain for a form of perfection no human can achieve.
The thought reform environment employed forced confession as a technique for attaining ideological purity. Krishna leaders insisted that the devotees "reveal their minds" to their peers and superiors. Devotees never knew when others might inform on them. On the contrary, they believed that informing on another devotee helped both to advance in their Krishna consciousness.
The cult used a twist on the idea of confession to rewrite the devotees' personal histories. The spiritual master said in effect that everything the devotees had done before joining the cult was misguided and evil. Trying hard to conform to cult demands, devotees openly talked — or even bragged — about how "fallen" they had been before joining the Movement. All devotees wanted to achieve the mythical status of "the most fallen," presumably so that the distance traveled in becoming a pure devotee of the Lord was the greatest. Thus, selflessness became a form of egotism.
Devotees at first overlooked and then forgot all instances of love, caring, or compassion in their previous lives. Meanwhile, the cult encouraged them to remember the fights, the problems at home, and the other troublesome times, which it labeled as a typical or even necessary aspect of life in the world outside the cult. For example, devotees tended to recall occasional use or abuse of alcohol or other drugs as full-fledged addiction. Likewise, a series of failed relationships became in retrospect full-blown sex addiction.
Under the spell of the cult of confession, the devotees rewrote their life histories to conform to the expectations of the cult.
Not only does the prevailing doctrine in the thought reform environment have strong mystical elements, it has pretensions of scientific accuracy. The key to the enormous appeal of the "sacred science" (p. 427) is its seeming ability to answer questions that are unanswerable by science or religion alone. Besides its theological statements, the Krishna cult offered many pseudoscientific pronouncements. For examples, a woman is nine times lustier than a man; there are exactly 8,400,000 species of living things; and the moon is farther away from the earth than the sun. Science, of course, verifies none of these claims.
Under the seductive dogmatism of the sacred science, a devotee believed that cult doctrine answered all of life's ultimate questions.
Lifton wrote, "the language of the totalist environment is characterized by the thought-terminating cliché" (p. 429). A familiar or often-repeated phrase or expression quickly and decisively concluded any discussion. For example, devotees often began their sentences with "Prabhupada said ..." This ended any possibility of disagreement on a given subject. Doctrinal disputes as such did not exist. The devotees needed only to concern themselves with what Prabhupada had said on that subject. Devotees commanded, "Chant Hare Krishna," the panacea for any ailment. Yet another cliché was, "It's all Maya," which devotees used to dismiss all thoughts or ideas associated with the world outside the cult.
In much the same way, the Sanskrit mantras, such as Hare Krishna, functioned as thought-stopping clichés. One may look at a devotee's day as a long sequence of mantras for every occasion. Ordinary speech, which consisted mainly of English-language mantras in praise of Prabhupada and Krishna, was another collection of clichés.
Some of the clichés were true simply as a result of the definition of the terms involved. For example, "God is in your heart." Surely, if God is everywhere, then He is in your heart. The truism, "God is great and you are small," relegates the listener or speaker to a position less than that of God's representative.
Loaded language also consists of categorical and pejorative statements about the world outside the cult. For examples, "The whole world is demonic," and "The whole world is a burning forest fire."
Loaded language includes "ultimate terms," including "god terms" and "devil terms" (p. 429). Examples of ultimate terms include absolute (as in "the Absolute Truth"), eternal (as in "eternal bliss and knowledge"), perfect (as in "perfect in Krishna consciousness"), and supreme (as in "Supreme Personality of Godhead").
Here are some of the "god terms" and "devil terms" used in the Krishna cult:
A devotee was Aryan, austere, blissful, ecstatic, effulgent, expert, first-class, grave, humble, Krishna conscious, obedient, receptive, sincere, and stalwart. He was advanced, determined, enlivened, fixed up, God-intoxicated, Krishnized, properly situated, regulated, surrendered, and trained up. He was a child before the guru, a cog in a machine, a dog on a leash, a sold-out animal, and a worm in stool.
Those who were not devotees were demons, flapping dead bodies, fools, "fruitive workers," karmis, miscreants, prostitutes, prostitute hunters, puppets on a string, rascals, robots, slaves, sleepwalkers, walking corpses, and witches. They were animals, snakes, "cats and dogs," and "dogs, hogs, camels, and asses."
Nondevotees were asleep, delirious, envious, independent, insane, last-class, morose, rebellious, sentimental, useless, and whimsical. They were agitated, attached, conditioned, contaminated, diseased, entangled, fallen, ghostly haunted, and puffed up. Furthermore, they were in a trance, in illusion, in Maya, in the modes of material nature, and under a spell. This was because they longed to be the controller and the enjoyer. Being situated on the mental platform, they were filled with false ego, ignorance, and nescience. Always engaging in concoction, economic development, word jugglery, and mental speculation, always hankering after sense gratification, and always engaged in "eating and sleeping," they felt only anxiety and misery.
On the other hand, the spiritual master, guru, or pure devotee, was authorized, bona fide, and merciful. He preached the Absolute Truth, Krishna consciousness, and love of God. He engaged his disciples in devotional service, which was auspicious and favorable. Part and parcel of his message was love and devotion for the Deities, who were opulent and transcendental. Meanwhile, big, big "impersonalist" cheaters, bogus yogis, and so-called masters preached unauthorized, dualistic, and many-branched nonsense. They engaged their followers in artificial, hellish, mundane, and offensive activities.
A language that consists entirely of ultimate terms offers no opportunity for analysis from within. Rather, meaningful criticism and analysis are possible only from without.
Krishna language is notable as well for the words it does not contain and the ideas it does not convey. In ordinary conversation, devotees used a vocabulary of perhaps a few hundred words and phrases. They were, therefore, unable to express subtlety in human affairs or describe in depth anything other than Krishna or devotional service. Absent from their vocabulary were words concerning:
• Amusement. For example, diversion, entertainment, fun, game, hobby, humor, joke, laughter, leisure, recreation, relaxation, sport, vacation, variety, and weekend.
• Bodily functions. For example, eating, exercise, fatigue, health, sleep, and stress.
• Thought and imagination. For example, ambiguity, analysis, comparison, creativity, criticism, discovery, dream, education, intellect, interpretation, learning, perspective, and subtlety.
• Logic. For example, premise, deduction, and conclusion.
• Communication and interpersonal relationships. For example, affection, agreement, attention, caring, concern, dignity, help, hug, intimacy, kiss, need, and tenderness.
• Democracy and human rights. For example, citizen, consensus, difference of opinion, election, expression, freedom, individual, liberty, majority, mediation, minority, negotiation, people, privacy, speech, tolerance, and vote.
Paradoxes pervade the doctrine, as Prabhupada had a habit of equating opposites. Paraphrasing him:
• Knowledge is ignorance; ignorance is knowledge. One who sought knowledge from ordinary books was cultivating ignorance. Conversely, one gained real knowledge simply by chanting Hare Krishna.
• Education is propaganda; propaganda is education. Karmi schools trained people to be stupid. Conversely, the cult removed the insidious programming a person had received from the schools. One received a real education by reading Prabhupada's books and chanting.
• Giving is taking; taking is giving. If the devotees gave money or ordinary food to karmis, then the devotees would only be perpetuating their miserable earthly existence, thus taking away an opportunity to become Krishna conscious. Conversely, the more the devotees took money from the karmis, the more the devotees were giving them in spiritual terms. Whether or not the karmis knew it, and whether or not they accepted cult philosophy, they advanced in Krishna consciousness in proportion to how much they gave the cult.
• Selflessness is selfishness; selfishness is selflessness.
• Freedom is slavery; slavery is freedom. One became free only by submitting to strict cult discipline. Conversely, material existence bound and enslaved all those who acted on the mistaken belief that they were free.
• Pleasure is pain; pain is pleasure. The pursuit of earthly pleasures led to an eternity of pain. Conversely, the pain of undergoing strict, unwavering obedience to Prabhupada's instructions led to eternal pleasure in the next world.
• Life is death; death is life. That which people in the world outside the cult called living was actually dying. Before each meal the devotees repeated the saying, "The senses are a network of paths to death." Sensory enjoyment, or attempted enjoyment, hastened death and perpetuated the miserable cycle of birth and death. Conversely, a devotee who died in Krishna's service attained eternal life.
The cult used the power of loaded language to announce the truth of its own assertions and the falsity of all other assertions.
The Krishna cult emphasized the importance of doctrine, even going so far as to elevate it to the status of divinity. The cult simultaneously downgraded ordinary human experience, comparing it to that of a puppet controlled by an evil puppeteer.
The thought reform worldview is like a morality play wherein good always triumphs over evil (p. 431). The Krishna devotees sometimes staged plays at the Sunday feast wherein karmis first cursed the devotees and later became devotees themselves.
Under the crushing weight of doctrine over person, the devotees became less than fully human. Rather, they became little more than human extensions of an ideology.
The final feature of the thought reform environment is "the dispensing of existence" (p. 433), the belief that some people have the right to exist and that others have no such right. Krishna blessed the devotees with eternally blissful lives, and condemned the karmis to innumerable miserable deaths.
Krishna philosophy emphasized death, which it linked closely with the highest level of spiritual attainment. The world was a "place of death." When people were born, they began to die. A cliché was, "If Krishna wants to kill you, no one can save you; if Krishna wants to save you, no one can kill you." Devotees tell the following story: The guru holds a disciple's head under water for two minutes. The guru tells the student, "You must want Krishna more than you just wanted air." Not surprisingly, devotees felt dependent on Krishna for their lives.
Devotees spent their lives preparing for the "moment of death," because the perfection of life was to die in Krishna consciousness. If, however, one were unable to give one's life to Krishna, the next best thing would be to be killed by Him. In the literature, Krishna often killed the demons, thereby liberating them.
Devotees aspired to be chanting, serving Prabhupada, or simply thinking of Krishna at the moment of death. The leaders expected them to think, "Today may be the last day of my life; let me spend it in Krishna consciousness." Devotees believed that if they were not serving Prabhupada at the time of their death, then they would go to hell.
Everyone harbors some fear of death and a skilled manipulator can exploit that fear. Yet, even among destructive cults, the Krishna Movement has a reputation for extraordinary violence.
Under the deadly requirements of the dispensing of existence, the devotees relinquished the greatest responsibility of all — the responsibility for their own lives and for the lives of others.
Several closely related, mutually reinforcing psychological themes characterize and define the totalist environment. In its most extreme form, everything one reads, writes, hears, and speaks is subject to heavy-handed censorship. Language consists of god-terms and devil-terms; expressions of ambiguity are almost entirely absent. Issues large and small are analyzed by way of discussion-ending slogans. Hard-to-obtain standards of ideological and behavioral purity are rigidly enforced.
The prevailing doctrine presumes to offer a unique combination of the accuracy and predictive powers of modern science, along with the insight and intuition of age-old, time-honored wisdom. Constructed as it is by fallible humans and deeply imbedded in the complexities of a modern post-industrial world, the doctrine is nevertheless offered as all-good for all people at all times. It is implemented in their lives by any means necessary and without concern for the welfare of the individual. These and other similar themes in place, the cult asserts the final, godlike right to determine who among its membership and non-membership alike shall live and who shall die.
The above themes are by no means exclusive to full-blown cults; many are found to a lesser extent in moderate, mainstream environments. Above all, the totalist environment is known for its extremist tendencies, its willingness to carry an idea all the way to its logical conclusion without the constraints imposed by commonly accepted notions of ethics, morality, or decency.
Lifton states in his memoir that the above psychological symptoms are relevant not only to Chinese Communist thought reform, but to individual and group psychology as well.