Before offering a brief critique of the Krishna cult, let me state my biases. I grew up in suburban Philadelphia and central New Jersey. My father was a business executive and my mother was a homemaker. They enrolled me in public schools through the seventh grade, and then in private schools for boys through the twelfth grade. After the cult, I earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Mathematics at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.
My religious training as a child was in the Episcopal Church, because of my father, and the Quaker Meeting, because of my mother. If, as a teenager, I had any opinions about politics and society, they were liberal, again due mainly to my mother's influence. After I left home as a young adult, however, the Vietnam War-era movements for peace, social justice, and the environment heavily influenced my views.
I considered myself then, and consider myself now, to be liberal to radical left on most social issues. A more recent influence on my worldview is the dual effect of my experience in a destructive cult and my recovery from it. These cult-related experiences have affected every aspect of my life — not only religion, politics, and social philosophy, as one might expect, but my personal relationships and inner life as well.
More than half a century before me and half a world away, Abhay Charan was born near Calcutta (now Kolkata). As a young man, he started and ran a pharmaceutical company, which failed. A nationalist in the waning years of British colonial rule, he admired the success of the Indian Communist Party in gaining converts by way of a large-scale leafletting campaign in the local languages. At retirement age, he renounced his wife and family, as is the custom in some Hindu sects.
With an eye toward spreading the message of Krishna Consciousness in the West, he began the task of translating some of the Hindu scriptures into English. In 1965, after obtaining financial support for a missionary trip, he sailed to the United States under the name A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami. He hoped and expected to find people who were dissatisfied with what he called the "material advancement of knowledge," and who would be receptive to a different kind of knowledge, that of the Hindu Vedas.
One might say that his timing was excellent, as the guru business was starting to grow rapidly in the West. In 1966, the Swami founded the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) on the Lower East Side of New York. Through it, he offered what he called "spiritual communism," an idiosyncratic brand of intensive, live-in religiosity that quickly proved successful in attracting young adults. Most of his early disciples were students or young professionals including teachers, musicians, artists, and social workers. Some, but by no means all, were religious seekers.
Prabhupada, as he became known, aligned some of his messages with the economic, religious, and social currents of the day. He offered a frugal form of communalism at a time of widespread anti-materialist sentiment and a heightened interest in collective living arrangements. He offered a lively and colorful version of Hinduism when many Westerners were beginning to look to the East for alternative forms of religious expression. He presented himself as a benign grandfather figure when relations between young people and their parents were under considerable strain.
Not all of Prabhupada's messages, however, were in step with the times. He wrote books in a formal, scholarly style at a time when the influence of popular culture, especially the nonliterary kind, was on the rise. He took unpopular positions on the highly charged issues of love and war, preaching chastity when free love was in fashion, and supporting the US war in Indochina even at the height of its unpopularity among youth.
Even more indicative of his lack of desire to cater to popular tastes were his messages concerning the origins and proper exercise of power and authority. He presented his religious ideas as the last word at a time when popular thinking was becoming increasingly relativistic on a wide range of issues. He also assumed within ISKCON a position of absolute administrative power when all forms of established authority were under attack. In short, he offered young people a highly regimented lifestyle when many wanted to simply "do their own thing."
One can perhaps understand Prabhupada's need for a carrot-and-stick approach. What is puzzling, however, is his emphasis on the stick. No amount of retrospective analysis can easily account for the sudden rise in ISKCON and other contemporaneous cults of the kind of supercharged evangelism and seemingly boundless religious, social, and political fanaticism we saw during that period. Such zealotry, which is now known to be widespread throughout the world, was then believed to be rare, if not entirely anachronistic, in the developed, democratic world.
By their nature, ideologically extreme groups are exclusive nearly to the point of closure. It is paradoxical, then, to observe that, as the events of September 11, 2001, have dramatically and painfully reminded us, toxic orthodoxies and at least a certain segment of the lay public have little trouble in finding each other.
At first glance, the cults seem to offer a relatively free and open form of recruitment. Closer inspection, however, reveals a demand for loyalty and obedience that is quite astonishing in its intensity. One possible resolution to this paradox is that the distance from the one culture to the other is shorter than we may have been led to believe. That is, destructive cultists are not much different from you and me.
Another conclusion might be that cult recruitment and induction techniques are more powerfully transformative of the human psyche and spirit than we may care to admit. That is, those who practice ideological extremism are fundamentally different from you and me.
Neither conclusion is especially comforting. Either way, the existence of cults challenges some of our most deeply held beliefs concerning human beings and their relationship to the world around them.
While it is undeniable that destructive cults often immerse themselves into the swirling religious, social, and political currents of their times, it is equally true that they are somehow able to remain oddly aloof from them. That is, they operate in the world without necessarily being of it. Any discussion of ideologically extreme groups must take into account these and other vexing paradoxes. In this chapter, I will offer a perspective that highlights both the deep, mutual embeddedness of these two worlds and the nearly diametrical differences between them.
One approach to the troubling issues raised by cults such as ISKCON is what others have called "mind control." I will use this phrase to mean a system of powerful social influences that seeks to dismantle and reconstruct the inner and outer selves. The resulting system of control excludes all outside influences while bringing about a form of personal change that is quite exceptional in its speed and depth. Left unchecked, such change can be debilitating to the point of fatality. Brought into check, however, it need be neither fatal nor permanent.
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As I have described, ISKCON grew rapidly in the years after its founding in 1966. By the mid-1970s, it placed its own worldwide membership at 10,000. The mainstream press, however, placed the number more accurately at about 5,000. More recent data published by the cult itself confirm that in his eleven years as guru, Prabhupada initiated a little more than 4,700 devotees. Only a fraction of that number were active at any one time, due to a high turnover rate.
Remembering my own visits to various temples in the US and abroad and my conversations with devotees who traveled widely, I would estimate the number of full-time, live-in devotees at 2,000 to 3,000 at any one time. Perhaps an equal number of part-time members attended services at least once a week. Whatever the exact numbers, however, not only has the membership failed to increase ten or 100 fold since the early 1970s, as Prabhupada once predicted, but it has declined steadily over the decades.
In my observation, ISKCON recruits in the US were somewhat whiter than the general population. Indeed, the GBC during the Prabhupada era consisted almost entirely of white males. The number of devotees of African or Latin descent at the temples I visited appeared to be about five percent each. This was true even in large cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco, where one might well expect these numbers to be higher.
Most African Americans who joined the Movement had attended racially integrated schools and were already reasonably comfortable in a majority-white setting. Few, if any, brothers or sisters from the inner city joined ISKCON, even though the devotees regularly proselytized and sold cult magazines and incense in inner-city neighborhoods.
In economic terms, most recruits were middle class. By temperament, most were mildly to moderately idealistic. Beyond these observations, however, I find it hard to generalize about the kinds of people who joined ISKCON. In the 1970s, the media portrayed cult members as naive and gullible at best and psychologically unstable at worst, false images that persist today. Having met several hundreds of members while in the cult, and having since met another several hundred former members of various cults, I can only conclude that those who join cults are ordinary people much like those who do not join.
As I mentioned, the structure of the cult was pyramidal. A few devotees at the top held most, if not all, of the power. Meanwhile, the many below exercised little if any independent authority. To his credit, Prabhupada never declared himself God. He even said, in his typically immoderate way, that anyone who made such a claim should be put to death. Over the centuries, India has apparently had its share of upstart gurus and phony holy men who try to gain sway over their followers by declaring themselves God.
Nevertheless, Prabhupada not only permitted, but actively encouraged, his disciples to believe that he, like God, was omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent. He insisted that they address him as His Divine Grace. He maintained that he "knew the heartbeat of his disciples," wherever they might be. He declared himself the "sum total of the demigods," the powerful godlike beings who control the forces of nature. He even wrote that the spiritual master was "better than God." No one in the cult was able to challenge Prabhupada's place at the top of ISKCON's power structure.
Prabhupada's claim to authority rested on the assertion that he was the most recent link in an unbroken chain of masters that began 5,000 years ago with Krishna Himself. (The "disciplic succession" is roughly equivalent of the Catholic notion of an Apostolic Succession from the disciples of Jesus to the current bishops.) The only information I have seen that supports this claim came, of course, from Prabhupada himself. I know from my own visit to India that the Indian-born devotees at the grand spiritual master's temple in Vrindavan rarely visited the ISKCON temple, and vice versa. Like Prabhupada, the grand spiritual master translated many Hindu classics into English. For reasons he never revealed, however, Prabhupada prohibited his disciples from reading his master's books. It may be that he did not want them to compare his writings with those of his teacher.
Prabhupada was the sole enunciator of the rules, he was their chief enforcer, and the judge of highest appeal. He wrote in one of his books, "If they disobey me, they must be punished."
Though his organization was based on rules, they apparently did not apply to him. For example, some devotees who were close to him maintained that he chanted only two or three rounds a day. In contrast, he demanded sixteen rounds per day of his disciples, while maintaining that thirty-two was the traditional minimum for Indian-born devotees of Krishna. Nevertheless, he considered anyone who criticized or judged him to be "envious" of his position, and therefore, unworthy of his "mercy" (blessings). Only a handful of servants and assistants spent a significant amount of time with him behind the scenes. This made it nearly impossible for a rank-and-file devotee to independently confirm or deny any assertions about his adherence to his own rules.
Prabhupada offered special privileges to top leaders such as sannyasis, GBC members, and the presidents of the larger temples. Many lived in private quarters with their young wives, drove late-model cars, ate fine prasadam, and even had their own pocket money. The leaders' yearly pilgrimage to India amounted to an all-expenses-paid, month-long vacation. Meanwhile, the rank-and-file led lives of genuine renunciation and enjoyed none of the perquisites of leadership. It is ironic that a cult that praised "simple living and high thinking" and loudly denounced materialism rewarded its own leaders with money, possessions, and women.
Prabhupada told his devotees what to do at every moment of the day. A cliché in the cult was, "One should become like a child before the guru." He also called the devotee "a cog in a machine," "a dog on a leash," and "a sold-out animal." Although he called on his devotees to serve him unconditionally, his concern for them was conditional. He liked them so long as they were in some way useful to him or to the Movement. When they ceased being useful, he stopped paying attention to them. His love for them was contingent on their obedience to him.
The spiritual master expected his devotees to carry out his instructions "without consideration and without hesitation." He promised that if they obeyed his orders, he would accept full responsibility for their karma. People who believe that they are not responsible for their own actions are always at risk for acting in ways that are hurtful toward others.
Prabhupada maintained that devotees who became "Krishna conscious" no longer needed to fear death. Toward the end of his life, however, he surrounded himself with armed bodyguards when appearing in public. In addition, we heard that he had on at least one occasion canceled a trip because of his fears of assassination. I knew of no credible evidence of a plot against his safety.
In short, it was hate and fear — not love and trust — that marked the relationship between Prabhupada and his disciples. He taught them to hate themselves, their families of origin, and the rest of the world outside the cult. He taught them to fear their own minds and what would happen to them if they failed to "surrender" it to him. He viewed the world as a hostile place where only the strongest survived, hardly the inspiring or uplifting view of life that one might expect from a holy man.
Believing that the outside world had nothing positive to offer, the cult leadership distrusted, disparaged, and, whenever possible, avoided outside institutions. The cult believed, for example, that it was above the law. The reasoning was that God's laws were higher than man's laws. The devotees did not need to follow the laws of society; rather, society should obey the cult's laws.
The devotees, therefore, regularly broke the law. Their Sankirtan leaders sent them to shopping malls, sports arenas, and amusement parks where the police ticketed or even arrested them for trespassing or soliciting without a license. The cult violated housing and zoning laws when, for example, as many as fifteen or twenty devotees lived together in a three or four-bedroom house. The Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution prohibits slavery; yet the cult recruited thousands of devotees to work hard all day every day without pay.
Central to the business of mind control is the manipulation of language, and the Krishna cult held back little in its efforts to exploit language as a powerful method of control. Whether we realize it or not, the words and phrases we use reflect and reinforce our perception of the world around us. We should hardly be surprised, therefore, that totalitarians, whatever their platform, work hard to manipulate language.
Prabhupada used prophesy to control his devotees. In the mid-1970s, he predicted that by 1980 a nuclear war would devastate the world, and that the cult alone would survive. Devotees would then rule by force what remained of the world. He may have made such statements to discourage the devotees from leaving the cult or to give an added sense of urgency and purpose to their otherwise dreary and monotonous daily chores.
The Krishna cult used deceptive recruiting techniques. For example, the leaders in New Vrindavan made various promises to devotees who were former city dwellers looking for an opportunity to return to the land. They offered a place to camp or even build a log cabin in exchange for work on the farm. Within a short time, however, the recruits discovered that to remain on cult-owned land they needed to "surrender" all to Prabhupada and his surrogates and become full-time members of the cult. During its first contacts with potential recruits, the cult usually failed to describe to them the full extent of its expectations of them. Few knew that within a short time the cult would expect them to work the parking lots six days a week in nearby cities and towns.
Another example of deception was the back cover of a BTG from the 1970s. It pictured a man with short hair wearing civilian clothes, sitting on a rock and chanting on his beads, as a mountaintop loomed with heavy-handed symbolism in the background. Most devotees, especially novices, never let their hair grow for more than a fortnight; they never wore street clothes unless they were selling something; they never visited remote or isolated places unless they were on a mission for ISKCON; and they never went anywhere alone.
For a final example, recruiters nationwide promised prospective devotees whose loved ones had recently died that if they joined the cult, they would become "deathless." Devotees rationalized such methods by saying that the benefits of Krishna consciousness outweighed other considerations.
All full-time devotees spent their time collecting money, recruiting other devotees, or supporting such activities. Armed with the Absolute Truth, they sought happiness and relief from suffering. When their efforts succeeded, they often felt an emotion they took as a transcendental high. Spreading joy was, by the cult's definition, a joyous activity, even though in practice this was not always so. Using the same methods, the recruits then recruited other members. In this way, cult recruitment resembled a pyramid scheme, except that the commodity being exchanged was human lives rather than money.
Another recruitment technique the cult employed was to associate itself with popular artists like Alice Coltrane and George Harrison. The celebrities, however, never scrubbed a pot or slept on the floor of a crowded ashram. Rather, the cult simply took their money or property and used their names in its publicity and fund-raising campaigns.
As a rule, the longer a devotee spent in the cult, the more difficulties he met with while trying to leave. While in the cult, he received no formal education and little or no training that might be useful for a job in the real world. On the contrary, the cult went to great lengths to guarantee that most devotees remained out of touch with the world outside the cult. After a few years in the cult, devotees began to ask themselves, "Who would hire us?"
Despite the heavy emphasis on recruitment and retention, the attrition rate was high. In the mid-1970s, devotees sometimes remarked informally that, of the two dozen or so devotees who formed the first temple on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, only a handful have remained in the Movement. Most of these had long since accepted high positions of leadership and the privileged lifestyle that came with them.
The offer of special privileges failed, however, to protect all devotees from the temptations of Maya. Prabhupada's own personal servants left the cult at a high rate. This may have been due to their inability to reconcile his claims of perfection with his less-than-perfect actions. Several Sanskrit scholars who had worked on Prabhupada's books left the cult in the late 1960s and early 1970s, possibly due to their awareness of serious discrepancies between the original Hindu scriptures and Prabhupada's English-language translations of them.
When devotees thought of leaving the cult, they often became listless or erratic in the performance of their duties. They felt ashamed to turn their backs on God, and they were aware that leaving usually meant an inability to take with them even their few meager belongings. Those who did leave often did so in the middle of the night.
No ISKCON program received more attention from the leaders than book distribution; no program provided the devotees with more interaction with the public; and none better features the organization's moral and financial corruption.
Devotees began their preparation for sankirtan by rising early, chanting intensely, and praying for higher scores. They continued to chant in the car while en route to their locations for the day. While meeting the public, however, they stopped chanting and made an effort to appear friendly and normal, much like the people to whom they were talking.
Devotees typically used high-pressure sales tactics that afforded the person they were talking to as little opportunity as possible to make a rational decision about the sale. They apparently believed that thinking was as bad for a karmi as it was for a devotee. While hustling the public, the devotees' minds rarely deviated from their instructions, and their faces rarely flinched. They failed to question either the validity of cult doctrine or the validity of the claims they themselves were making every day on the street.
Given that most people are likely to ignore a person who they believe is trying to sell them something, sankirtan was a difficult challenge indeed. The devotees, therefore, needed to learn how to turn off their doubts, turn on their sales personalities, and "hit up" as many people as possible. Over time, sankirtan became second nature.
Many sankirtan techniques were deceptive. Most devotees tried to conceal their ISKCON affiliation by wearing wigs and street clothes. Many flatly denied affiliation with ISKCON when asked. Some even wore buttons reading "World Help Organization" or "Children's Charity Crusade" or other nonexistent programs. Others announced that they represented legitimate, mainstream charities. Some even knowingly shortchanged the public.
To its credit, the cult did offer a few small charitable programs aimed at members of the public without regard to their present or future Krishna consciousness. For examples, devotees at the cult compound in Mayapur, India, distributed food to local beggars. Devotees at the LA temple occasionally distributed leftovers from the Sunday feast in the downtown skid row. The leadership apparently approved these programs, however, only after the cult's real or alleged charity fraud resulted in a substantial amount of negative publicity. Except for these few legitimate programs, all the cult's public charity programs had strings attached.
There are poor people in the United States, to be sure, but there are many more in India and they are much poorer. I remember seeing poor people in the Indian villages who did little more than chant all day. Faith and spirituality can be important parts of our lives, but it does not follow that chanting or prayer, however sincere, can by themselves solve serious social and economic problems.
People ask, "Where does all the money go?" Most low-level devotees like me knew little or nothing about where the money we collected went. The leaders considered such a question "idle speculation" at best and punishable disloyalty at worst. Nevertheless, I gathered that some of the money went toward day-to-day expenses such as maintaining the temple buildings, feeding the devotees, and buying flowers, cloth, and incense for the Deities. The majority of devotees ate food made from relatively inexpensive staples such as rice, flour, potatoes, and fruits and vegetables in season. Some money went to pay for the leaders' extravagant lifestyles, and other money went toward the purchase or rental of real estate for the cult's centers.
I heard that fifteen percent of the sankirtan funds collected in the West went to pay for large-scale building projects in India. The cult also hired expensive law and public relations firms at the regional level to deal with the ever-increasing number of criminal charges and negative stories in the press.
The devotees informed potential recruits that Krishna theology conflicted neither with the Bible nor with any other scripture of the world's major religions. They asserted that Krishna was the God referred to in the Bible. The words "Christ" and "Krishna" had a common origin, namely the Greek word kristos. Jesus Christ was a pure devotee, the cult asserted, in the tradition, if not the lineage, of the spiritual masters in succession from Lord Krishna in far ancient India to Prabhupada in the present. Jesus identified himself with the Father, Krishna. Like the Bhagavad Gita, the Bible was a "revealed scripture." On a visit to India not recorded in the Bible, Jesus worshiped Krishna in the temples, according to the cult. Despite these and other claims, however, Prabhupada's teachings were at odds with those of the Bible.
After the devotees had been in the cult for a few months, the leaders gave them a different understanding of Christianity. The Bible was an ethical teaching given to primitive desert dwellers who were unable to accept the more sophisticated teachings of Krishna consciousness. That is, to the Krishna cult, the Bible contained nothing new. The spiritual masters in the line of succession were more knowledgeable and powerful than Jesus Christ, according to the cult.
After a few years, the devotees received yet another understanding. All other religions amounted to nothing more than atheism. There was but one God, and He was Krishna; there was but one path to Him, and that was by way of the ancient Vedic teachings; and there was but one contemporary organization — ISKCON — that put those teachings into practice. All other religious groups had "concocted" a God who did little more than to give his members permission to pursue their selfish desires, according to the cult.
One of the many contradictions of the cult was that although it declared itself the representative in the West of traditional Hinduism, most Hindus rejected it. To most, Krishna is not God; rather, he is a minor god best known for his colorful and ribald adventures with his young, adoring female followers.
For reasons that should be obvious, mainstream Hindu teachers have historically prohibited their disciples from begging for more than their own daily sustenance. Such was the time-tested, mutually beneficial arrangement between the religious order and the wider society that supported it. Prabhupada, however, gave many devotees a daily monetary quota that far exceeded their own personal needs.
In addition, longstanding tradition in mainstream Hinduism prohibited a guru from accepting money or property from a disciple. In contrast, Prabhupada accepted from his devotees a lavish lifestyle for himself.
For example, a former sankirtan devotee from Alberta, Canada, calculated that she had raised about $100,000 per year from for most of the 1970s. This was nowhere near a record, but she kept none of the money. All of it went, tax-free, to the cult. Meanwhile, she slept on the floor every night and lived the frugal life of a brahmacharini.
To my knowledge, no legitimate religious leader, Hindu or otherwise, asserts that he is "as good as God" or permits the worship of living humans as God. No legitimate religion separates children from their parents or wives from their husbands. Nor do they aggressively target adolescents or young adults for recruitment or conversion.
I can say from personal experience that it is difficult for a person born into the Western religious, scientific, and cultural traditions to feel fully comfortable as a Hindu. I concede that some people do appear able to adopt ideological systems that are radically different from those of their upbringing. I have, however, seen in myself and in others how easy it is over the short term to convince oneself that one has undergone such a conversion, and yet how hard it is over the longer term to maintain a steady fidelity to it. This is especially true of those systems that demand the most of their followers.
Without a powerful program of ideological coercion, people tend to grow and change over time, each in their own way.
In much of Asia, reincarnation and the transmigration of the soul are not simply tenets of a particular belief system, or theoretical ideas that one may choose to accept or reject as one wishes. Rather, they are taken as realities, much like the water one drinks, the earth on which one stands, and the sun that beats down daily on one's head.
In Karma Cola: Marketing the Mystic East, the novelist and social commentator Gita Mehta wrote this about the guru game and the cultural differences between East and West:
The seduction [lies] in the chaos. They thought they were simple. We thought they were neon. They thought we were profound. We knew we were provincial. Everybody thought everybody else was ridiculously exotic and everybody got it wrong. (Mehta, p. 5)
At a time of rapid change in both cultures, Americans and Indians believed what they wanted to believe about each other.
At the psychological level, one may refer to the Krishna cult as a juggernaut, which the dictionary defines as "a massive, inexorable force that crushes whatever is in its path." The origin of the word is, ironically, Jagganath, the Hindu deity that the Krishna cult worshiped in many temples and at its yearly outdoor Ratha-Yatra festivals in San Francisco and other cities. In India, zealous worshipers, delirious from chanting and fasting, sometimes achieve what they think of as salvation by fatally throwing themselves under the wheels of the giant carts that carry the wooden Jagganath deities. So it is for the victims of the ISKCON juggernaut.
I do not object to people dressing in robes, shaving their heads, burning incense, and jumping up and down in public or private. I do not care if they study the Bhagavad Gita or the Brooklyn telephone book. I do, however, object when any group, religious or otherwise, uses the destructive techniques of mind control.
Unlike legitimate religions, the Krishna cult used deception and coercion to achieve its ends. When the leaders wanted to recruit new members, they used the techniques of brainwashing. When they wanted to raise money, they used deceptive marketing and advertising techniques. When they needed to fend off a justifiably skeptical outside world, they used the techniques of propaganda. If one is to believe the cult, God is neither loving, nor compassionate, nor forgiving. Rather, God speaks only through a single, fallible human being, and only concerns Himself in a loving way with a tiny, exclusive cult. He judges all people according to a single, rigid system of rules.
The God of the Krishna cult hated peace and had little use for human dignity and the human freedoms. Far from being the only legitimate religion, as the Krishna cult claims, it was not even a religion at all, not at least in the sense of the word I was taught as a child.
There are difficulties involved with offering a single teaching that purports to be all-good for all people at all times. One quickly finds it necessary to minister to different peoples from quite different cultural and religious traditions.
To be sure, Prabhupada made concessions to strict Hindu practice after arriving in the United States. He initiated women, he offered the highly advanced status of sannyasa to relatively young and inexperienced men, and he substantially relaxed the traditional standard of thirty-two rounds of chanting per day. Whatever value a religious teachings may have had in its own time and place, it cannot be expected to apply equally well to everyone.
The Krishna cult achieved its influence by imposing a combination of physical, mental, and emotional controls. Taken separately, none of these can account for the total ownership of the individual. Taken together, however, they often proved irresistible. Over the years, writers and researchers have described these kinds of attack on the personality as mind control, coercive persuasion, and thought reform (also known as "brainwashing"). [See Appendix.]
The cult tried to control all aspects the devotees' lives, including their eating, sleeping, and other personal habits. The diet consisted mainly of foods that were high in carbohydrates, such as white rice and potatoes. Mung beans and breads made from bleached wheat flour did provide certain kinds of protein, but the diet lacked other important protein sources, such as whole grains, meat, eggs, and fish. The large amounts of sugar in the diet added little if any nutrition.
I believe that, in combination with other factors, the poor diet led to eating disorders in many devotees. To be sure, most devotees ate moderately most of the time, but many were not so moderate. Perhaps this was because they felt nutritionally unsatisfied even on a full stomach. Or, perhaps, as the devotees themselves often said, eating was one of the few physical pleasures that the cult allowed. The poor diet led them to spend much time in a prison-camp-like effort to obtain, or even hoard, food that was novel or of a higher-than-usual perceived quality.
Besides the strict control of diet, the cult tightly controlled the devotees' sleeping habits. They typically slept for six hours or less per night. They usually performed their duties, including driving, while half awake. Again, the devotees often expended large amounts of energy trying to sneak a little extra sleep.
The message to the devotees was that they were unworthy of a square meal or a good night's sleep. Furthermore, the cult tried to rationalize and falsely spiritualize the mechanisms of control by making such assertions as, "You are not your body," and "Your body belongs to Krishna." Whatever the merits of these statements as religious teachings, it is undeniable that they were convenient for unscrupulous persons who would try to reduce others to the status of slaves.
Another aspect of daily behavior over which the cult tried to exert control was personal cleanliness. There were many rules, such as "Never wear shoes in the temple" and "Always wash your hands and mouth after eating." The implications of the dogma concerning cleanliness were clear: the devotees were clean and godly, and the karmis were dirty and ungodly.
Prabhupada required the devotees to renounce everything associated with the world outside the cult. He instructed them to give up everything he regarded as incompatible with their duties and responsibilities in the cult. These included money, possessions, jobs, religion, and even, in many cases, spouse and children.
When devotees became ill, the cult offered them Hindu home cures or no treatment at all. There were several reasons for this. First, the cult preached the superiority of Hindu medicine over Western medicine. Second, the cult insisted that the devotees' illnesses were caused by their lack of faith, their forgetfulness of Krishna, or the slackness of their devotional attitudes. That is, illness was God's punishment for one's sins, and the way to cure an illness was to "surrender" one's life to the guru and Krishna. Third, the cult was reluctant to suffer the loss of money incurred by removing devotees, however temporarily, from the sankirtan team, and sending them for medical help. The leaders did permit some seriously ill devotees to see Western doctors, but only if their parents agreed to pay the bill.
An outside doctor reported that many of the Krishna women he examined were anemic, and that others had irregular or nonexistent menstrual periods. The cult interpreted the lack of a period not as a sign of potential illness, but rather as a sign of spiritual achievement, of having "transcended" the demands and restrictions of the body. Some sankirtan devotees developed premature varicose veins, apparently from standing for many hours every day. Male devotees often lost some of their facial or body hair, possibly due to the infantilizing effects of the techniques of cult mind control. The devotees' near-absolute dependency on the cult for the necessities of life infantilized them and caused their adult physiological characteristics to atrophy.
ISKCON businesses tended to be labor intensive. This was undoubtedly because of the ready availability of large quantities of what amounts to slave labor. For examples, handmade incense and candle factories, street solicitation and sales, and low-tech farming and animal husbandry. The number of such menial jobs far exceeded the number of specialized jobs, such as administration, public relations work, or magazine and book publishing. Most of the specialized jobs were concentrated at the larger temples such as Los Angeles and New York. Even in these locations, however, the menial jobs still greatly outnumbered the specialized ones.
In addition, even the specialized jobs offered little room for personal expression. For example, while painting the scenes from Prabhupada's books, every artist used the same colors and style to depict Krishna's features, complexion, and clothes.
As a rule, Prabhupada did not allow the devotees to choose their own duties. Once a leader established what it was that he wanted them to do, however, he did give them some latitude in determining how to do it. For example, Prabhupada expected the sankirtan devotees to use their minds and "intelligence" to devise better ways to raise money. No devotee, however, openly questioned the goal of raising money for ISKCON.
The reward for service was more service. No matter how much work a devotee did, still more remained. The devotees responded by working nearly to the point of exhaustion. They simply accepted and tried to live with the guilt that resulted from their inability to do everything the leaders asked of them.
Frenetic chanting and dancing, especially when performed in public, stripped the devotees of their excess energy, caused them to hyperventilate and feel high, distanced them from the memory of their lives before the cult, and increased their sense of commitment to a present life in the cult. In both the morning and evening programs, a long and intense kirtan immediately preceded the lecture, possibly because a person is more suggestible after an exhilarating or exhausting period of chanting.
Prabhupada asserted that the chanting of Hare Krishna was a form of personal communication with the Lord. He expected an experienced devotee to chant one round in about five minutes. A round consisted of 108 repetitions of the mantra, which in turn consisted of sixteen words of two syllables each. This comes to about eleven and a half syllables per second. If people speak at a rate of eleven and a half syllables every second, and if they repeat the same three-word message for hours, should we consider this a personal, intimate communication from the heart? No mechanical technique or methodology can be expected by itself lead to a spiritual end. On the contrary, excessive chanting emptied the devotees' minds. It deprived them of the opportunity to reflect on the reality around them, to maintain a healthy balance in their lives, and to communicate meaningfully with others.
Prabhupada prescribed and ritualized all the devotees' daily activities, no matter how small. At first, he directed them to simply perform their duties. The "practical realization" of the philosophy, he said, would happen in due course. He did not expect the devotees to understand the doctrine simply by reading and studying his books. Rather, he said that by engaging in his ritualistic practices, they would gradually lose their taste for such "mundane" activities as conversing, watching TV, or reading other books.
A philosophy that says, "Don't expect to understand why — just do what you are told," is a convenient one for those who would mislead others. If a universal, all-encompassing truth exists, then one might reasonably expect it to satisfy every part of us, including our intellectual and logical faculties.
The cult controlled the devotees' sex lives. It encouraged them to feel guilty about their sexual thoughts — not to mention their sexual activities. The cult considered the physical part of love — even kissing — to be dirty and motivated by the basest of instincts. The emotional part of love was nothing more than sentiment, the sworn enemy of spirituality. The highly restrictive rules for married devotees effectively precluded any possibility of tenderness, spontaneity, or genuine affection. The married devotees' sex lives, such as they were, must have been mechanical and lacking in feeling. Yet, at the same time, the cult labeled as animalistic the sex and love of the outside world. Who was without love?
The cult discouraged and even tried to eliminate family life as we usually understand it outside the cult. The leaders usually determined who married whom, as well as the number and timing of children. When children reached the age of five years, the cult sent them to its boarding school. There it limited parental visits to two per year. Like their parents, the children had little or no contact with the world outside the cult. There stimulation was limited to such activities as painting pictures of Krishna and hearing stories about him and his mythological friends.
In her memoir Betrayal of the Spirit, former Krishna member Nori Muster notes Prabhupada's abuse of the institution of sannyasa at the expense of the nuclear family. No matter how steady in the faith a twenty-five or thirty-year-old may be, few are fully prepared to commit to a lifetime of renunciation. Indeed, many have long since fallen away not only from their duties within the cult but from the cult itself. Even worse, however, were the devastating effects of such premature initiations on their wives and children, who were often left with no means of support other than the temple. (Muster, p. 85)
As the strict controls over their bodily functions weakened them physically, the psychological controls weakened the devotees mentally and emotionally. For example, Prabhupada granted his "mercy" — that is, his spiritual blessing or, in the Christian term, his forgiveness — to a devotee only at the end of a lifetime of continuous, unwavering service. This was the carrot at the end of the stick. He linked his idea of "mercy" to his ideas of duty and service. Just as service was a one-way street, so was mercy. The disciples followed the spiritual master's orders "without hesitation and without consideration," and only he could bless or validate their efforts. That is, the price of forgiveness was obedience and servitude.
Besides controlling the devotees' bodies and emotions, the cult made a great effort to control their thoughts as well. Often-heard directives included, "Always think of Krishna" and "Always remember the spiritual master's instructions." The leaders often accused new or rebellious devotees of "thinking too much" or of being "in their minds." The solution to any ideological problem was to chant or engage in service to the cult. The doctrine itself was above criticism.
The devotees vowed at initiation to fully accept the philosophy and never ask a challenging question. Working twelve to fifteen hours a day, they had little time or energy to even formulate such a question. That is, the cult succeeded in creating an environment in which the devotees policed their own thoughts. Knowing from their own experience how problematic for their Krishna consciousness a free moment could be, the devotees worked hard toward the goal of having no free time at all. After all, an omniscient and punitive God knew and recorded all their thoughts as well as all their actions.
Many aspects of the doctrine were hard for a novice to accept. For examples, a blue boy is God; a plant is a pure devotee of God; God likes cows more than humans; Hitler was humane. These kinds of statements served an important function, however. They were ideological loyalty tests. They provided the leadership with a quick and ready method of determining who was fully committed to the cause and who was not; who was willing to believe the unbelievable and accept the unacceptable and who was not; and who was willing to go the entire distance in achieving the mission and who was not.
The leader insisted that the devotees give up all happiness and enjoyment derived from sources outside the cult. These included personal achievements, family, friendships, and even an appreciation of the natural world. The devotees were required to channel their natural sense of mystery, wonder, and imagination into a narrow, rigid ideological and doctrinal system. Although they sometimes felt a temporary sense of relief after giving up problematic "attachments" to the world outside the cult, the devotees also felt pain after losing the positive aspects of their previous lives. In this way, pain and happiness tended to replace each other, leading them to become highly disoriented.
The cult controlled all the devotees' personal habits to the detail level, and forced them to sever all ties with the outside world. These efforts at control made it easier for the cult to narrow their perspectives, isolate them from others, and manipulate their feelings. All devotees had a variety of feelings while chanting, in much the same way that anyone inside or outside the cult is likely over time to have a variety of feelings while not chanting.
One of the more seductive aspects of the cult was the promise that, while chanting, a devotee would experience "transcendental ecstasy" or "bliss," the feeling of having risen above ordinary, mundane existence. This often-repeated assertion fulfilled itself whenever the devotees had intense feelings, whatever their actual nature or origins. They interpreted these emotions as the "transcendental" emotion of which Prabhupada spoke so often.
For an example, the devotees might feel lightheaded after chanting at high volume for an extended time. For another, in winter they might feel a shivering in their bodies due to an open door or window in the temple room. Following instructions, however, the devotees interpreted these feelings as "transcendental ecstasy." Similarly, the leaders labeled as "anxiety" or "agitation" any feeling that was untoward or bothersome. In this way, the cult interpreted the meaning of the devotees' emotions, carefully and conveniently attributing all positive feelings to itself, and all negative ones to the world outside the cult.
If a devotee were thinking of leaving, the leaders usually found out about it before long. No one can fake an attitude forever, not even those who were in the habit of hiding their emotions. Furthermore, one's fellow devotees considered it their duty to tell the leaders about the struggles of a deviant devotee among them. Such information gathering was supposedly done for the sake of the troubled devotee. The leaders reminded the devotee of his vow of obedience, and repeated the assertion that outside the cult he would be unable even to survive, let alone be happy.
Whether for the sake of institutional advancement or simple survival, the devotees ended up spending much of their time trying to maintain outward appearances even as they struggled with their lack of Krishna consciousness. Former member Steven Gelberg has called this, "carefully ... stage-managing one's self-presentation to one's fellows." Robert Lifton calls it "self-protective playacting." A devotee quickly learned that the outward and the inward are closely connected, especially in an environment that places a high value on both external ritual and the quest for inner purity.
One may also see a cult experience as a form of extended hypnosis. At prearranged cues, devotees did, said, and felt no more nor less than what the cult told them to do, say, and feel. The trappings of the Krishna cult — the costumes, decorations, incense, music, and vocabulary — became triggers or cues that reminded them of the imputed divinity and their duty to serve it. In addition, the leaders subjected the devotees to many posthypnotic suggestions. They were saying, in effect, "You will join the cult; you will surrender to Prabhupada; you will give everything to the cult; you will go out on sankirtan; you will be blissful; you will not leave the Movement." Lacking any sense of control over their environment, or even a clear boundary between them and it, the devotees soon found themselves unable to act independently.
Suppose for the sake of argument that one subjected a group of persons to stage hypnosis twenty-four hours a day and 365 days a year. Suppose that the hypnotic suggestions covered every aspect of life, from bodily functions through theology. Suppose even further that the hypnotist never removed these suggestions but only reinforced them through constant repetition. Such persons would eventually face grave difficulties in distinguishing their own thoughts from those of the hypnotist.
Prabhupada wrote that you and I have just two choices: to serve Krishna, or to serve Maya. In another place, he wrote that the will of the individual and the will of Krishna should be one. Furthermore, any act that is considered bad in a narrowly ethical or moral context would be good if performed under the order of the spiritual master. Conversely, if Krishna disapproved, then any act ordinarily taken as good would be bad.
So long as individual will and group will were taken as identical, the devotees remained unable to act on their own behalf. Furthermore, so long as the leaders made no distinction between a moral or ethical act and an immoral or unethical one, the devotees remained unable to verbalize any objections they may have harbored to group activities. This was true even when the devotees knew of or suspected serious problems.
Scientists speak of the importance of genetics in determining who we are and how our lives will unfold. Most would agree, however, that nurture, or the totality of our experiences, is equally important in making us who we are. The genetically determined part of our makeup aside, we are largely the sum of our experiences. They are, in a manner of speaking, the raw materials out of which we create our lives. A cliché holds that we are what we eat. To extend the metaphor, we are what we take in through all of our senses. It would follow, then, that to a large extent those who control our experience, control us. It should not surprise us, therefore, that a leader who is interested in controlling others would go to great lengths to try to micromanage their day-by-day and minute-by-minute experiences.
Mark Twain wrote, "Loyalty to petrified opinion never yet broke a chain or freed a human soul." No closed, totalitarian system can ever fix what is wrong with me, my community, or the world.
In sum, the devotees learned to fear the natural functioning of their bodies and minds, and to direct their love and affection toward an externally imposed system of verbal and physical controls. Constant stress, emotional manipulation, broken families, a poor diet, and a lack of sleep and proper medical care combined to produce an unhealthful, if not life-threatening, experience.