"I only want to read a book that's written in blood. This book is written in blood."
Monkey on a Stick: Murder, Madness, and the Hare Krishnas
"An important testimony that might be instructive to those involved in the leadership of any religious movement."
October 14, 1996
Perhaps the most colorful and aggressive of the Asian spiritual communities to take root on the American shores was that of the Hare Krishnas, more formally known as the International society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). Who has not witnessed their American converts' dancing in the streets in their orange robes, confidently baring their shaven heads, or endured their fundraising efforts in airports? Against those finger cymbal-clanging memories of the 1970s, Muster's narrative of her insider's experience of ISKCON is nothing less than mesmerizing. That the American adventure into the worship of the noble Krishna would come to grief after the death of ISKCON's charismatic Guru Srila A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada in a scandal of murder, greed and corruption was perhaps not surprising to those who saw more than the Hare Krishna's superficial celebration of Krishna's love. For Muster, who worked for ten years as a public relations secretary and editor of the organization's newspaper, the ISKCON World Review, the humiliation of ISKCON meant the loss of an admirable spiritual vision. Her narrative of that scandal confronts the ways in which traditional patriarchy and philosophical rigidity regularly defeated spiritual vitality. Muster's book is an important testimony that might be instructive to those involved in the leadership of any religious movement.
"This memoir, now in paperback with a new preface, is an important insider critique of a disturbing era in ISKCON's history."
Books in Brief
March 26, 2001
This autobiography by an ex-Krishna Consciousness member offers troubling revelations about life in the movement's upper echelons. Muster worked in public relations at the national headquarters from 1978 until 1988, while the movement weathered accusations of child sexual abuse, corruption, mishandling of funds and even murder. In her privileged position, Muster came to the painful realization that many of the accusations were true, despite leaders' repeated denials. She says that, with the benefit of hindsight, "it seems obvious . . . that I could have packed up and left ISKCON at any time," but at the time, she was "so engrossed in 'getting religion' that I confoundedly accepted too much dark along with the light." This memoir, now in paperback with a new preface, is an important insider critique of a disturbing era in ISKCON's history. - Jana Riess
"Muster hopes the book will help others who are attracted to cults."
Nori Muster - A Spirit Betrayed
Profile by Lauren Winner
March 26, 2001
Nori Muster had everything going for her. Sure, her teenage years had been a bit rocky, but nothing more than the normal teenage rebellion in the wake of her parents' divorce. Now she was graduating from the University of California at Santa Barbara, and the world was her oyster.
The day after commencement, Muster drove to the west L.A. temple of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON)—more commonly known as the Hare Krishnas—and joined up. She would spend the next 10 years in the religious group, which she now considers to be a cult. "I had finished college, I could have just walked out into the world and done anything, and instead my life has been sucked up," she now reflects bitterly.
In 1997, Muster published Betrayal of the Spirit: My Life behind the Headlines of the Hare Krishna Movement (Univ. of Illinois), a memoir of her days in ISKCON. This spring the press is reissuing the book in paper with a new preface that is more critical than in the original. "When I wrote the book, I was sort of half-in, half-out" of the Hare Krishnas, says Muster. "Now I am totally out."
Muster's time as a Hare Krishna went from idyllic to nightmarish. At first there was a feeling of community, of family. Muster, who had found the college social scene far too dominated by beer and pot, appreciated the Hare Krishnas' rejection of drugs. She also found a good job within the Hare Krishna community, working on their newspaper; she eventually became the assistant editor.
It was that "central position" of editor, says Muster, that gave her a different view of the movement. "I began to see that it was very hypocritical," she recalls. Hypocritical, and worse: she asserts that Hare Krishnas were involved in murders, kidnappings and child abuse, crimes they didn't want Muster to report on. When Muster finally did begin to publish articles probing the underbelly of the Hare Krishnas, the movement's top dogs cracked down. She resigned from the paper and left the Hare Krishnas at the end of 1988.
Not surprisingly, the Hare Krishnas aren't thrilled with Muster's spin on the movement. Anuttama Dasa, international director of communications for ISKCON, tells PW, "If you just read her book you get a very unbalanced, biased picture. Every institution has its individual participants who fall far below the principles of the organization."
The University of Illinois Press expects to get a sales bump for the paperback from the publicity surrounding a current lawsuit brought by adults who claim they were abused as children in the movement, says Danielle Dupuis, publicity manager at Illinois. "Since Nori is involved with the lawsuit, she would be great at speaking about what is happening."
Muster hopes the book will help others who are attracted to cults, and their families. To the former, she counsels, "Be aware when you're in a dysfunctional system, and don't let it control you. Back away—then heal yourself." To families, she says simply, "If you have a loved one that is in a cult, just stand by them."
"This is a highly significant work for scholars and students of new religious movements."
Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries
A publication of the Association of College and Research Libraries
June 1997 Vol. 34, No. 10
by L.H. Mamiya, Vassar College
This is a highly significant work for scholars and students of new religious movements. Not only was Muster a devoted member but she also worked for a decade in the hierarchy of the Western world headquarters in Los Angeles of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) as a public relations secretary and editor of the organization's newspaper, the ISKCON World Review. Her book recounts her initial joy and excitement at being at the nexus of communications with the outside world, finding a fulfilling spiritual path as an undergraduate at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and also her growing disenchantment with the Hare Krishna movement as media tales spread of drug dealing, weapons stockpiling, deceptive fund-raising, child abuse, competition among American gurus, and murder. But it was over the movement's rigid patriarchal hierarchy and paternalistic treatment of women that Muster ultimately resigned. Her story proves an insight into the decline of a movement that has lost 95 percent of its original members. In contrast to other works on the Hare Krishna movement like The Dark Lord, by Larry Shinn (CH, Jan. '88), who also writes an excellent foreword for Muster's book, the strength of Betrayal is its purely personal narrative and lack of academic theory and jargon. Photographs of movement leaders; extensive bibliography drawn from ISKCON sources. Highly recommended. General; undergraduate through professional.
"She writes that . . . when she left she was scarred with scandal, enmity, and disgrace."
Nori Muster worked in the public relations office of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) from 1978 until 1988. She writes that when she joined ISKCON after her graduation from the University of California, Santa Barbara, she was "exuberant, joyful, and confident." When she left she was scarred with scandal, enmity, and disgrace. Her account of her experiences as a member, and of the "drug dealing, weapons stockpiling, deceptive fund-raising, child abuse and murder within ISKCON" describes how this came about. However, she writes: "I still hold the philosophy, the rituals, and my relationship with Krishna as sacred." Her account is illustrated with 27 photos.
"Scholars of religion will find much of value in Muster's thoughtful and well written account. Anti-cultists will find ammunition for their crusade as well."
Nova Religio - The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions
A publication of the University of California Press
Catherine Wessinger, Loyola University, New Orleans
Nori Muster is a Krishna devotee and second-generation disciple of A.C. Bhaktivedanta (d. 1977), who founded the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) and brought Chaitanya devotionalism to America in 1965. She joined ISKCON in 1978, and her first tutor in Krishna theology was Subhananda (Steven Gelberg). After graduating from the University of California, Santa Barbara, Muster moved into the Los Angeles temple and began working in the public relations office. From 1980 to 1988, she was a key writer and editor of ISKCON World Review, which during that time moved from being a "good news" publication to one that discussed ISKCON's problems.
Muster's book illuminates numerous important aspects of new religious movements: the bumbling process of routinization of charisma after the death of the founder; the pitfall of attributing divinity to religious leaders; how the sexism of a foreign tradition can be adopted enthusiastically by converts; the treatment of children; the painful problem of attributing infallibility to revered sources of authority (fundamentalism); financial difficulties; how catastrophic millennial expectations increased when a group experiences opposition and internal problems; the evolution of public relations efforts within a criticized organization; the perils of public relations' glosses over real abuses; and finally the process by which a believer becomes disenchanted with leaders and an organization and decides to leave.
The foreword by Larry Shinn, a scholar of South Asian religions, provides a context for understanding Muster's ISKCON experiences. Shinn points out that while ISKCON is authentically Hindu and looks normal in India, it is culturally anomalous in the United States. He also alerts the reader to the fact that Muster writes about ISKCON in the 1980s when it was struggling with institutional issues which arose after the death of A.C. Bhaktivedanta. In short, Muster's book is not about ISKCON in the 1990s. Shinn argues that the rationality displayed by Muster and other American devotees who criticized the abuses of the successor gurus belies the brainwashing theory. Many critical devotees such as Muster left ISKCON, while others remained to work for reform within the organization.
The problems of ISKCON described by Muster are also found in mainstream religious institutions. Muster quotes one male leader who observes that ISKCON was a "hierarchical society" that did not permit independent action (especially on the part of women) and was "just like the Vatican" (p. 177).
Scholars of religion will find much of value in Muster's thoughtful and well written account. Anti-cultists will find ammunition for their crusade as well.
"A cautionary tale showing how a religious institution can warp reality for its members."
Briefly Noted Books, Spirituality, June 1997
by Holly Hammond & Todd Jones
In 1977, at the age of 22, Nori Muster joined the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON)—better known as the Hare Krishnas. Swami Prabhupada, the organization's spiritual leader, had just died. Over the next decade, as scandals and political infighting almost destroyed ISKCON, where Muster worked as a public relations secretary and editor of the organization's newspaper. Now, having left ISKCON, Muster has used her insider's knowledge to describe that time. Her story is a cautionary tale showing how a religious institution can warp reality for its members. Muster's continued faith in the value of a life of devotion and service—despite her disillusionment—testifies to the powerful appeal of the ideals that led her to the Krishna movement.
"A wonderful account of a fascinating life experience."
Robert Ellwood, Ph.D.
Professor of Religion
University of Southern California
"Exposures like hers are needed if Prabhupada's movement is to continue in its struggle to reform and to become a worthy home for devotees like Nandini, who Nori Muster once was."
Cultic Studies Journal Vol. 14, No. 2, 1997
Review by Joe Szimhart
Nori J. Muster was a member of the Hare Krishna sect, formally known as the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), from 1977 through 1988. She recounts her decade of "devotional service" at the ISKCON public relations headquarters in Los Angeles in an honest and interesting account. Betrayal of the Spirit represents a personal insight into the behind-the-scenes propaganda machine developed by some of ISKCON's "gurus." As Nandini (Muster's devotee name) the author worked for the ISKCON World Review, the sect's primary PR and in-house newspaper. Circulation reached well over ten thousand throughout the world. World Review's purpose was to not only inform the members of the goals and gains of the group, but it also featured articles that amounted to damage control of the increasing scandals that plagued the movement. Muster writes of her years as a member during the most difficult period faced by the sect. She joined just after the founder, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami (Srila Prabhupada), died and left his colorful organization with too many immature, confused and corrupt leaders.
Woven throughout Muster's presentation of Hare Krishna corruption is her struggle to remain a good devotee according to the principles set down by Prabhupada. Her relationship with her father, Bill Muster, also provides a subplot that enlightens us even more about the "politics" behind the PR scenes. Bill Muster was an accomplished communications professional and businessman who sustained a close relationship with his daughter all the while she worked for ISKCON. He often advised "Nandini" and her boss, Mukunda, with valuable strategies. This did not mean that he approved of all the group stood for, but he did support his daughter's chosen spiritual path. He died of cancer not long after Nori Muster found herself outside of ISKCON in 1988.
Muster was not seeking to quit ISKCON. The pervasive suppression of women's natural rights under Prabhupada's chauvinistic system and her desire to assert those rights, coupled to finally set her aside. In the end, Nandini could not convince her bosses to report the news of ISKCON's plights accurately. Despite talk of efforts to reform the movement, the male chauvinism won out; Nandini's efforts were dismissed.
Back in the world as Nori Muster, the author tells us that she still sustains her belief in Krishna as her God. At times she participates in devotional activity at the temples and chants the mantra. At the end she says, "I admire Prabhupada....Were it not for Prabhupada's courage and sacrifice in coming to the United States in 1965, many more lives would have been wasted on drugs and fruitless searching." I find this last statement filled not only with loyalty and devotion, but also with irony and a touch of denial. I find little in Muster's book about Prabhupada's mixed messages he sent to his leaders about selling books and fundraising. Muster does not write of strong indications in letters by Prabhupada that speak of an insatiable need to have his books distributed and his name recognized globally. Hare Krishna devotees, whether in or out of ISKCON, might admit to corruption within the managerial ranks, but few dare criticize Prabhupada who they see as the "pure devotee" worthy of a godlike worship.
The hyperactive response in ISKCON to recruit new members and raise money, even illegally and unethically, had to grow from the founder's instruction. As Muster indicates, "Prabhupada said" was as good as a word from Krishna Himself to many of the devotees. Many Hare Krishna's and their agents knew that Prabhupada was pleased with all the money they brought in from major drug sales. Prabhupada made a point to disapprove of selling drugs, but the successful drug sellers were the ones who could "catch the big fish without getting wet," which was a Prabhupada saying. To her credit, Muster does not flinch in recounting the facts about the corruption.
The book's greatest value, I think, rests in its sensitive exposure of the intricate guru system Prabhupada unwittingly left behind. It becomes clear that Prabhupada retained ultimate leadership in himself through his writings, and he did not invest an equal rank to anyone, despite the claims of a few ISKCON gurus. Muster both describes and explains this power struggle within the ISKCON sect and self better than anyone has, to my knowledge. Exposures like hers are needed if Prabhupada's movement is to continue in its struggle to reform and to become a worthy home for devotees like Nandini, who Nori Muster once was.
Joe Szimhart's website, including more book reviews - click here
"The Most Tragic Betrayal" - Hinduism Today
"Free of malice, the book reveals how the young woman, who entered the movement filled with hope and idealism, eventually left thoroughly disillusioned, thanks to the very people she had hoped would guide her on the spiritual path."
India West Ex-ISKCON Devotee Vents In a Revealing Book
by Viji Sundaram
Nov. 21, 1997
In the 1970s and '80s, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness made reams and reams of press, a good part of it negative.
After its founder Srila Prabhupada's passing, some of the 11 gurus he had named to run the organization grew power hungry. Stories one would ordinarily not link to a religious institution—of kidnappings, high-handedness, non-accountability, drug deals, illicit sex and murder—were linked to ISKCON, whose reputation steadily plummeted.
In Betrayal of the Spirit, Nori Muster, a 22-year-old graduate of U.C. Santa Barbara, who did a 10-year stint with the organization as secretary of public relations and editor of its newsletter, ISKCON World Review, uses her insider's knowledge in her tell-it-all book She describes what went on behind the scenes of an organization which, to the public mind, was one of white dhoti- and sari-clad hippie-types who made a nuisance of themselves at airports and bus terminals, and sang with frenzied fervor on the streets.
Free of malice, the book reveals how the young woman, who entered the movement filled with hope and idealism, eventually left thoroughly disillusioned, thanks to the very people she had hoped would guide her on the spiritual path.
'The ISKCON I joined was exuberant, joyful and confident,' she says, in the last chapter of the book. 'The ISKCON I left was scarred with scandal, enmity and disgrace. When I consider that difference, I cry.'
Acknowledging that the title of her book does indeed sound somewhat harsh, Muster in the preface says that 'most Krishna followers are gentle people, who observe the principles of celibacy, sobriety and vegetarianism.
'Millions have found peace through chanting Hare Krishna, and I believe A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada brought genuine spirit to the West. The word 'betrayal' refers to the attitudes and events that betrayed the spirit.'
That betrayal took the form of the male leaders expecting the female devotees to unquestioningly carry out their orders, uncomplainingly occupy the back rows at ISKCON conferences, and resignedly accept the fact that they were of 'lesser intelligence.'
In illustration of this, Muster writes about a male-dominated ISKCON conference she and a handful of other women devotees once attended in a New Jersey temple.
Toward the end of the conference, she writes, a woman in the back row stood up, shaking with self-consciousness and said: 'I joined the New York temple in 1968,' she began. ' . . . I've tried to do everything my authorities asked. I'm so fed up with the way I'm treated that I could cry.
'The women have the worst rooms in the building, and the plumbing is breaking down. When I told the temple president our shower was broken, he said to use a bucket.
'We never have a place to chant because the men won't let us in the temple room during japa time. Sometimes I think ISKCON is only for men and I'm just in the way.'
From a literary standpoint, the book is not a page-turner and one that perhaps will never make the best-seller list. It doesn't grip like Monkey on a Stick—a book published in the late 1980s by a Bay Area journalist and a New York Times reporter—exposing the revolting goings-on at some of the ISKCON centers.
Nevertheless, Muster's book provides the curious with vivid glimpses of an organization that has since made serious efforts to redeem itself.
"Betrayal of the Spirit records many of ISKCON's past shortcomings. It is up to the current members and leaders of ISKCON to provide future writers and commentators with an accurate picture, a factual picture, of its renewal."
ISKCON Communications Journal
Reviewed by Anuttama Dasa, ISKCON Director of Communications
Published in ISKCON Communications Journal, 1997
Betrayal of the Spirit is a troubling book for several reasons. First, because most of the decay and denial graphically described in the book's categorization of ISKCON during the ten years after the passing away of Srila Prabhupada, its Founder-acarya, is true.
Secondly, because the author's attempt to illustrate the society's discrepancies—and, perhaps, validate her decision to distance herself from the International Society for Krishna Consciousness and her former position with the society's newspaper—largely ignores ISKCON's very significant and positive contributions in nurturing the lives of many, since its founding in 1966.
It is a helpful book in understanding ISKCON's early years. But, standing alone it offers a glimpse of the society that is neither balanced nor complete.
Muster weaves a colorful story of her decade of temple life within ISKCON, beginning with her first meeting Hare Krishnas as a college student at the University of California. She narrates her early ashram years, her years of editorial work at the society's newspaper (the ISKCON World Review), and her gradual disillusionment with the organization.
As a former member of the public relations department, she experienced particular angst, and thus focuses much of her book, on ISKCON's unwillingness to publicly address critical issues that arose from 1977 to 1987, the first ten years after Srila Prabhupada's "departure."
I empathize with the narration and dilemma that Muster vividly describes. As Director of Communications for ISKCON in North America since 1993, I am often beleaguered with the pressure of presenting a healthy institution to its constituents, while providing objective—and often harsh—internal critique to facilitate growth and reform.
At a seminar I attended in 1994, the Director of Public Relations from an Alabama Baptist seminary taught that institutions expect their communications people to be "a mouthpiece for the organization: to tell the good news." But, he warned, a communicator's most important job is to be a "mirror for the organization." To communicate from the outside in, how the larger society perceives, evaluates, appreciates, and faults that smaller community or institution.
In that capacity, oddly, Muster continues to serve ISKCON. Her (only slightly exaggerated) description of the eventual corruption (of an uncomfortably large number) of early gurus, ISKCON's skepticism towards non-devotee opinions and input, and the unwillingness to demand accountability at all levels of leadership, tell a painful story. In the Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krishna says that every endeavor is covered by some degree of fault. Or, as the common adage goes, to err is human. So, to some degree, we must forgive the mistakes of the past and move onward.
Real danger, however, lies with the close mindedness and lack of self-criticism that often accompany religious zeal. Documenting ISKCON's failures, then—and its unfortunate willingness to overlook them—is the book's strength.
As Larry Shinn writes in his foreword to Betrayal:
Muster's account shows that considerable personal and institutional denial took place among Hare Krishnas who were in positions of leadership and had the capacity to stop illegal economic activities or correct religious practices that were unethical by the Hare Krishnas' own standards. More circumspect leadership would have saved the group a half decade of public denial and internal conflict.
Betrayal of the Spirit is an interesting read. Few ISKCON devotees, friends, or observers will not find herein some previously unknown detail of the movement's tumultuous ten years after the departure of our Founder-acarya. Human frailty, sin, chauvinism, lust, greed, and envy are historically proven elements for a successful publication. Thus, they find here a prominent place. This overemphasis on the negative, however, is also the book's greatest weakness. Although Muster doesn't dwell exclusively on controversy, an objective reader familiar with ISKCON will recognize that the journalistic penchant for sensationalism and (perhaps) a need for "personal healing" has overshadowed the more important demand for balance and objectivity.
As Shinn comments,
Much as a disillusioned spouse looks back on his or her marriage with both longing and regret, so too, Nori Muster's story provides a selective remembering of her experiences within ISKCON...Therefore, many positive ISKCON news events are passed over for their more negative counterparts. For example, without additional sources a reader of Muster's book may be unaware that within a 30 year span, ISKCON has grown to include over 300 temples in 85 countries. Or, that most American temples minister to a predominately Asian Indian congregation. Or, that ISKCON's Food for Life project is the largest vegetarian food relief program in the world, having served 75 million free meals. Or, that the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, the ISKCON affiliated book publishing house, is reportedly the world's largest publisher of Vedic scriptures.
Nonetheless, much can be learned from Betrayal of the Spirit; especially by ISKCON leaders who should be vigilant to not repeat the mistakes of the past, while zealously pursuing a brighter future. As a member of ISKCON since 1975 I, like Nori Muster, am painfully aware of the society's historical shortcomings, and its often spastic endeavors for renewal. But, despite that, the contributions of ISKCON have far, far overshadowed its mistakes.
After Nori Muster left the movement [in 1987], reforms continued not only in the United States but also in India and throughout the world. It is not surprising that the Hare Krishnas who experienced major institutional setbacks began to develop mature spiritual and institutional reforms in response to these crises...It is important, therefore, to understand that Nori Muster writes about ISKCON in the United States during the 1980's, not the Hare Krishna movement throughout the world in during the 1990's. ISKCON does not choose to see itself as a "marginal religious organization," as some scholars describe it. It wishes to be an important spiritual movement, just as Srila Prabhupada envisioned his presentation of Srimad Bhagavatam to be "a cultural presentation for the respiritualization of the entire human society." (SB, preface) To fulfil its vision and its mission, ISKCON must continue to mature. Betrayal of the Spirit records many of ISKCON's past shortcomings. It is up to the current members and leaders of ISKCON to provide future writers and commentators with an accurate picture, a factual picture, of its renewal.
"If it's controversial swamis you want, Betrayal of the Spirit, by former Hare Krishna flack Nori Muster, offers an insider's account."
New York Post
Dec. 14, 1996
Book Report by Mark Marvel
With the holidays in full schwing, soul-searching books that dare to bare it all are giving this season's reading a certain joyful Scrooginess. . . . If it's controversial swamis you want, Betrayal of the Spirit: My Life behind the Headlines of the Hare Krishna Movement (University of Illinois Press), by former Hare Krishna flack Nori Muster, offers an insider's account of gun-running, drug dealing, and, yes, fornicating among bald-headed, airport canvassing, toga-wearers during the struggle for power following Swami Prabhupada's death in 1988.
"Betrayal offers a fascinating glimpse at how even the most spiritual groups can fall prey to human failings."
The Boston Herald
Hard times with the Krishnas
by Bill Peschel
The 1980s were not a good decade for the Hare Krishna movement. Long mocked for their robes, bald heads and airport fund-raising, the cult was racked by more serious troubles involving murder, drug trafficking and child abuse. Betrayal of the Spirit describes those times from one of its members. Nori Muster was a publicist for the group in Los Angeles, and she coolly describes her 10 years as a member and how her faith was tested by the sins of her leaders.
The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) was started in 1965 by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. After his death in 1977, ISKCON fell into an extended power struggle that nearly destroyed the movement. The leaders' refusal to openly discuss its problems and to suppress dissent made the problem worse.
Muster initially supported the group's public relations policy. She printed "happy news" in ISKCON's newspaper about its leaders even as they were being indicted on various crimes. She also ignored the group's latent and blatant chauvinism that forbid her from holding higher office and to continually defer to men. As time went on, she began to question both attitudes, and her attempts to introduce journalism into the newspaper led to conflicts with her superiors, and her resignation.
Betrayal offers a fascinating glimpse at how even the most spiritual groups can fall prey to human failings.