On Leaving ISKCON, by Steven J. Gelberg
When Prabhupada predicted, once, that ninety percent of his disciples would eventually leave his movement, we, his disciples, were shocked that such a thing could be possible. In time, the overwhelming majority of his followers did indeed leave ISKCON, and it now appears the same will hold true for his grand-disciples.
It's hard to imagine an experience more wrenching, more potentially disorienting, than leaving a spiritual community or tradition to which one has devoted years of one's life. To lose faith in a comprehensive system of ideas that have shaped one's consciousness and guided one's actions, to leave a community that has constituted one's social world and defined one's social identity, to renounce a way of life that is an entire mode of being, is an experience of momentous implications.
Especially when the community/tradition one is leaving defines itself as the repository and bastion of all goodness, all meaning, all truth, all decency, all meaningful human attainment, it may require a major psychological effort to reorient both to one's own self and to the wider world. Internally, one must work to rediscover and reclaim one's own unique, personal sources of meaning and to live authentically from those inner depths. Externally, one must learn how to deal with the outer world, the vast territory laying beyond the gates of the spiritual enclave—that place that has for so long been viewed as a dark and evil abode unfit for human habitation. Very often devotees no longer content living in ISKCON prolong their stay simply out of fear of the demonized world.
This re-orientation to self and re-entry into the world is no small task, and it's more easily finessed when one has the support of others who've travelled a similar path. Though I've had little to do with ISKCON for nearly fourteen years now, I still feel a certain kinship with devotees, both past and present. How could I not? I devoted fully seventeen years of my life (ages eighteen to thirty-five—my youth) to a life of Krishna consciousness in the association of similarly committed devotees. Virtually all my friends and acquaintances were devotees. I absorbed Prabhupada's teachings into the depths of my being and preached them with an enthusiasm born of serene confidence in their absolute truth and efficacy. I dedicated myself both to encouraging a deeper immersion in Vaishnava spirituality on the part of my fellow devotees (through editing such books as The Spiritual Master and the Disciple and Namamrta: The Nectar of the Holy Name), and to cultivating respect and appreciation for ISKCON among intellectuals and scholars such as with my volume of interviews, "Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna: Five Distinguished Scholars on the Krishna Movement in the West" (Grove Press, 1983).
Though my way of thinking and mode of being have changed considerably since leaving the movement, I cannot forget all my brothers and sisters who have shared the Krishna consciousness experience. I, like them, entered the movement driven by a need to know and experience truth, enlightenment, peace, bliss. I, like most devotees, felt an inexplicable attraction to the supernaturally beautiful, blue-skinned boy Krishna, to the strangely beautiful music of the Hare Krishna "mahamantra" to the promise of transcendence. I cannot help, therefore, but feel a special kinship with them.
Most devotees experience doubts, now and then, about the truth of Krishna consciousness, or about its relation to their personal spiritual and psychological growth. In my last few years in the movement I certainly did. And I know that, in spite of claims to the contrary, there are powerful disincentives to openly expressing one's doubts in the company of devotees.
Doubts, however, may be the voice of one's own inner self, the self that doesn't always exactly reflect the exterior "system" of Krishna consciousness, the self that protests being shaped and molded into something it is not. Notwithstanding one's outer loyalty to ISKCON and its parent tradition, if the inner self is not being addressed, respected, honored, allowed to grow, provided means of expression, that authentic self is, sooner or later, going to raise a protest. When that little inner voice first begins to speak, it can be quieted with regimental thinking, louder chanting, extroverted activity, or simple denial. But sometime down the road it is bound to return, a little louder, a little more insistent, and at some point one is left no choice than to acknowledge it.
I would like, now, to address that inner voice and answer it with my own. I have, by the way, no malicious intent in doing so. I'm no anti-cultist or any other species of crusading ideologue. I've nothing to gain personally from this exercise except the pleasure of speaking words that I think need to be spoken to old friends and friends yet unknown.
Allow me to relate some of the reasons why I left ISKCON after so many years of committed service. I've organized my reflections into several sections, which follow:
Where are the Pure Devotees?
As I think back, it seems to me that the factor that initially set in motion my gradual disillusionment with ISKCON was my growing awareness that, judging by its own criteria for success, ISKCON had, quite simply, failed as a spiritual movement. It became increasingly and inescapably obvious that the movement was simply not fulfilling its own stated primary goal: to create "pure devotees"—to skillfully and successfully guide serious practitioners to those sublime states of spiritual consciousness elaborately described in the scriptures and endlessly reiterated in the movement's teaching forums.
One does, of course, encounter devotees who seem peaceful, content, full of sincere purpose and conviction, high-spirited, enthusiastic, and so on. And it is true that most devotees have experienced, at one time or another, uplifting feelings from chanting, seeing the deity, etc. But what of the more developed and sustained spiritual states described by such terms as "bhava" and "prema"? What of the love of Krishna that flows from the depths of one's being, overwhelms the mind and heart, and utterly transforms one into a holy person whose very presence inspires sanctity in others? Is ISKCON actually producing such manifestly Krishna conscious persons? Need I ask?
To account for this embarrassing lack of pure devotees in ISKCON, one is forced to enact a version of "The Emperor's New Clothes": do the best one can to convince oneself and others that certain high-profile devotees are, indeed, pure devotees, and proclaim that those who don't acknowledge their status are either not yet advanced enoughfor such discernment or are "envious fools." Or, alternatively, redefine the term "pure devotee" in such a broad, generous manner as to include the greatest number of devotees possible (e.g., all those aspiring to be pure devotees, all those following their initiation vows, etc.)
Some few, highly self-motivated, highly disciplined devotees do apply themselves to the principles of bhakti-yoga and taste the fruits of their efforts. But for the overwhelming majority of devotees, spiritual life in ISKCON is little more than a perpetual struggle against the base material instincts. One goes on, year after year, hoping against hope that, "One day, yes, one day, a day far off in the future, one magic and wonderful day, I shall become a pure devotee."
After many years in the movement I came to the conclusion that whatever other success the movement may enjoy—whatever the proliferation of shaved heads and saris, numbers of temples opened, books distributed, celebrity endorsements procured—in the absence of the creation of highly evolved Krishna conscious persons, it's all an empty show.
Ethical Failure and Intellectual Dishonesty
Over the course of my years in ISKCON I became alarmed at the extent to which people who joined the movement in part as a reaction against the pervasive dishonesty in interpersonal dealings in mundane society, permitted themselves to become clever, sneaky and two-faced in the name of promulgating Truth. However much it may be hard to admit, The-Ends-Justifies-the-Means has long been a defining and controlling ethic in the movement. Based on the presumption that tricking, deceiving and cajoling illusioned souls to financially subsidize, and otherwise support ISKCON represents a "higher" morality, devotees are taught to say and do almost anything if it can be justified in the name of "preaching." From the new devotee in the street extracting money from non-devotees through blatant dissimulation, to the most intellectually and socially sophisticated devotee skillfully packaging ISKCON in such a way as to most effectively win friends and undermine enemies, the ethic of pulling the wool over the benighted eyes of non-devotees in order to save their souls is the same.
Though this attitude may appear justified from the point of view of a certain self-serving, contrived "spiritual" ethic, in practice it encourages a fundamental disrespect and superior attitude toward those for whom it claims feelings of compassion, and a manipulative, controlling attitude towards those it claims to liberate. Though some of the grosser manifestations of that cheating ethic have been tempered in recent years, the basic attitude, as far as I can see, hasn't changed, because it is rooted in ISKCON's presumption of moral superiority.
Another kind of dishonesty fundamental to the movement is an intellectual one: a learned orientation by which one's chief philosophical project ceases to be the sincere and disciplined effort to open oneself to Truth, but instead to study, memorize, internalize, preach and defend an already defined, pre-digested, pre-packaged "Truth." Instead of a genuinely open-minded, open-hearted quest for knowledge, one simply waves the banner of received "truth" come what may, however much that "truth" may or may not address the reality or facts at hand.
This tenacious defense of received "truth" in the face of potentially disconfirming realities represents, I suggest, not an act of courage but of cowardice: an ultimately futile attempt to defend a fragile existential security masquerading as enlightened certainty. I am continually amazed, and in retrospect somewhat embarrassed, by my own and other ISKCON intellectuals' easy willingness to sacrifice intellectual honesty in order to fortify our own and others' imperfect faith—to wave our tattered little banner of Truth in the face of the wealth of ideas and multi-textured realities surrounding us.
I can recall, throughout my years in ISKCON, often being disappointed with the behavior of leaders, who seemed to care little for the personhood of the devotees under their command. There's a certain hardness of heart that comes from subordinating people to principles, to defining the institution itself as pre-eminent and its members as merely its "humble servants".
This rhetoric of submission has, of course, a certain ring of loftiness to it: the idea of devotees striving together, pooling their energies and skills, sacrificing personal independence and comforts in order to serve the Glorious Mission. The trouble is, in effect it creates a social/interpersonal environment in which the particular needs of individuals are devalued, downplayed, and postponed indefinitely—leaving the individual devotee sooner or later feeling used and abused. Through my years in ISKCON I became increasingly aware, painfully and sadly aware, of the ways in which, in the name of "engaging devotees in Krishna's service," leaders and administrators at all levels deal with the devotees "under" them in a patronizing, condescending, heavy-handed and authoritarian manner—viewing and dealing with their subordinates not as unique individuals possessing rich and complex inner lives, but as units of human energy to be matched to the necessary tasks at hand. I recall leaders criticizing, even ridiculing the very notion that special attention should be paid to the individual psyches and needs of devotees—who dismissed such concerns as mere sentimentality, unnecessary coddling, a lack of tough-mindedness, and opposed to the sacred principles of humility and surrender.
This hard-nosed, hard-hearted attitude, this insensitive disregard for the individual, this almost cynical exalting of the principles of humility and surrender to ensure that the floors get swept and the bills paid, leaves many devotees, especially those low on the institutional totem-pole, feeling betrayed. Many of these devotees, when the frustration, anxiety and disappointment reach a high enough level, simply leave—many becoming (understandably) bitter and vindictive.
Most devotees will acknowledge that ISKCON's prohibition against "illicit sex" (any sex other than to conceive children in marriage) is the hardest of ISKCON's ascetical prohibitions to observe, the cause of the greatest difficulty among devotees, and (with the possible exception of disillusionment with ISKCON per se) the most common cause of "fall-down" from Krishna consciousness.
Without debating the merits of celibacy in the spiritual life, it's fair to say that the typical devotee, over time, is going to violate the celibacy rule one or more times. Desire for sex appears in every devotee's life sooner or later, to one degree or another, in one form or another. From the guru lecturing from his throne down to the new recruit cleaning the bathroom, devotees think about sex, fanaticize about it, or indulge in it (with other willing devotees, old lovers, outside contacts, whomever) if they think they can get away with it. This rather obvious fact isn't openly acknowledged in ISKCON because it's a source of significant embarrassment to devotees, who view indulgence in sex as disgusting, disgraceful, and a sign of personal failure—and, further, because they're forever boasting to non-devotees that their enjoyment of a "higher taste" is evidenced most conclusively by their disinterest in mundane sense gratification.
To be frank, there is something very sad, tragic even, in the spectacle of sincere spiritual aspirants endlessly struggling against and denying sexual feelings, continually berating themselves for their lack of heroic detachment from the body, seeking dark corners in which to masturbate or, finding themselves "attached to" another devotee, planning and scheming "illicit" encounters. All this cheating and hypocrisy, guilt and shame, denial and cover-up, make a pathetic sham of ISKCON's ascetical conceit.
After many years in ISKCON, the whole celibacy fetish began to appear to me a bit suspect. Why the abysmal failure of most devotees to be uncompromisingly celibate? Why the pervasive inability to perform an act of renunciation that ISKCON defines as a precondition not only of serious spiritual practice but of civilized human life? Why this fundamental failure?
Some devotees feel it's due to some innate deficit in the consciousness of Westerners (we're too lusty); others blame it on devotees' chronically flawed performance of bhakti-yoga (offensive chanting, etc.); a few contend that Prabhupada passed on Gaudiya Vaishnava practice imperfectly (by omitting certain necessary mystical elements in the initiatory process); some say it's a natural consequence of co-ed ashrams (and periodically suggest that the temples be rid of women). Whatever the cause, the fact remains that most devotees fall far short of serene celibacy, finding themselves deeply rooted in a physical body which, by its very nature, desires to touch and be touched, to feel the warmth of another human being.
So strong is the natural human desire for physical touch, that in order to avoid it, to repress the desire for it, one must paint the most exaggeratedly negative picture of it possible: one that envisions sex as a purely wild, disgusting animal act. But consider: is love-making really just bestial humping and grunting? Does it have no connection at all to feelings of love, caring, appreciation, affection? Certainly, like any other human activity, sex can be beautiful or ugly. It can be an act of gross, selfish, piggish abandon, or it can be an expression of affection, a gentle act of mutual pleasuring, even a catalyst for feelings of emotional and spiritual oneness. It is only through a deliberate denial of past personal experience, or of intuition, that one can obliterate such memories, or pre-empt such capacity for imagining.
My purpose here is not to advertise the glories of sex, but to note the problems associated with outlawing it—and also to make the radical suggestion that perhaps it is possible to be a spiritual person, a person of goodness, compassion, wisdom, sensitivity, awareness—under whatever spiritual banner—without denying and repressing one's implicit sensuality.
Disrespect for Women
If ISKCON had truly been the glorious spiritual movement it advertises itself to be, with its only defect being its offensive attitudes and discriminatory policies toward women, my then wife Sitarani and I still would have felt fully justified in abandoning the organization to which we'd devoted our lives. It became increasingly difficult for us to tolerate (and to defend among the scholars and students it was our service to "cultivate") the raw, unreflective, juvenile, boys-club mentality of the movement—the official, insulting view of women as childlike, irrational, irresponsible, emotional, and wild-unless-controlled-by-a-man.
It's not at all surprising that ISKCON would be a woman-fearing, woman-hating, woman-exploiting institution. A male-centered religion that defines sex as the enemy of spirituality naturally is going to define the objects of men's sexual desire as the Enemy Personified: Woman as chief antagonist in the holy drama of Man Transcending. Women, thus stigmatized, are, at best, to be tolerated—allowed to exist on the fringe in an officially reduced status, their wanton energies mercifully channelled into the service of men—and, at worst, to be officially and systematically denigrated, shunned and, not infrequently, abused emotionally and sexually.
A movement that can allow a brand new male recruit to feel superior—by the sheer fact that he's got a penis—to a seasoned woman devotee who's been refining her consciousness for decades; a movement that can encourage a husband to feel at ease bossing his wife as if he were a Maharaja and she a coolie, as if she were placed on earth simply to serve and satisfy him—as if Krishna must be pleased by such a display of proper hierarchical dealings between the sexes—is going to invite the ridicule of outsiders, as well as incite pangs of conscience in its own thoughtful members. It's a wonder that any self-respecting women tolerates such attitudes and treatment, and it's to her credit (I suppose) that she tolerates such abuse so as to remain connected to a spiritual tradition that she feels, or hopes, is wiser and grander than that.
For a time, Sitarani and I felt content with being "liberal" on the issue—with lending our weight, for example, to efforts to allow the occasional woman to give a lecture, lead a kirtan, or have a vote on the temple board. But we grew tired of struggling to put the best possible spin on the issue when questioned by discerning college students and others—with having to employ our intelligence and savvy in the noble quest of covering up for an organization unabashedly sexist.
When we finally left the movement we felt greatly relieved to have removed ourselves from a social and political environment that so determinedly denigrated women and positive feminine principles. ISKCON is, after all, such a positively male institution: all that obsession over power, control, order, hierarchy, protocol, and competition, not to mention all the chest-pounding martial rhetoric: "conquering the senses, destroying illusion, defeating enemies, smashing demons."
What of the beautiful "feminine" qualities of Sri Chaitanya and his followers? What of gentleness, humility, empathy, love, compassion, spiritual protection and nurturance, delicacy of emotion and of interpersonal dealings? While devotees pay occasional lip-service to these acknowledged Vaishnava qualities, in practice it's the cherished male qualities of tough-mindedness, aggressiveness and the power to dominate and manipulate others that the ISKCON establishment promotes and rewards.
A final factor in my accumulative decision to leave ISKCON was a philosophical one: a growing awareness that however much wisdom and beauty may be found in a particular religious tradition, no one tradition, no one system, can speak fully for any one individual. Whatever the possible transcendent origins of a spiritual path, it is passed down through human persons: wise, insightful, saintly persons perhaps, but distinct, individual persons nonetheless—having their own distinctive life histories, experiences, temperaments, ways of thinking, feeling and communicating. Though there was much in Krishna consciousness that I found deeply meaningful and appealing, I began to realize (subtly, slowly, over a long period of time) that, short of simply obliterating my own thoughts and feelings, I could not blindly, automatically accept every word of the scriptures (e.g., women are inferior to men, thunder and lightening come from Lord Indra, the sun is closer to the earth than the moon, etc.)
More important than difficulties with particular passages of scripture, however, was my growing sense that there was something unnatural, something artificial and forced, about the very idea of my having to completely supplant my own thoughts, reflections, insights, and intuitions about myself, the world, and my own experience, with a pre-packaged, pre-approved system of ideas and doctrines which, whatever its origins, has evolved through countless hands and been refracted through many minds and sensibilities through the centuries. I began to feel (though it took a long time to admit it to myself) that this is an unrealistic and unfair demand to be made upon any of us, however "imperfect" we may be, because it dishonors the integrity and particularity of who we, in our essential individuality, are.
I came to feel that there is something ultimately impersonal about the notion that we are something utterly different from what we presently feel ourselves to be, that our manifest personality is simply the product of an unnatural, illusioned state, and that to "transcend" this felt, immediate sense of self we must submit ourselves to the authority of certain authorized persons for radical re-education—cutting ourselves off, more or less, from any ideas, influences or persons that might possibly remind us of the selves we mistakenly felt ourselves to be.
Now, whatever the beauties of the spiritual path, there is something slightly ominous about a spiritual system that so utterly and uncompromisingly devalues me as I directly know and experience myself, that would make me doubt and question my every perception, my very sense of reality, a system that would have me submit, body and mind, to certain "authorities" about whom I've seen no conclusive evidence of perfection--whose spiritual status is tenuous at best (in light of the periodic scandals involving those advertised in ISKCON as "pure" and "perfect").
Must spiritual life really depend upon such an extreme act of self-abnegation, such an uncompromising rejection of personal experience? Are Truth and Wisdom to be so radically abstracted from my own consciousness, the depth of my own being? Is such turning of a blind eye and deaf ear to my inner vision and voice really in my best interest? Is this self-denial really "humility"—a rational recognition of personal limitations—or is it ultimately little more than a form of self-shaming and self-negation?
I began to sense that true spirituality cannot be reduced to a corporate, conformist, authoritarian structure. On the contrary, it honors and trusts the individual spirit enough to allow it to seek its own path, make its own mistakes, find its own way, by listening to its own intuitions and acknowledging the various sources of wisdom that present themselves throughout one's journey through life. I realized, ultimately, that for all ISKCON's talk of freedom, liberation, escaping conditioned modes of being, the prevailing mentality in ISKCON is, in fact, characterized by a distinct fear of freedom: an anxiety about personal quest, a fear of trusting the moment, of opening to the unexpected, of allowing the mind and heart to remain receptive, curious, vulnerable, adventurous.
Is There Life After ISKCON?
That such a question might even occur to a devotee is itself a telling comment on the ISKCON mind-set. In seventeen years of Krishna consciousness I sat through literally thousands of Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam classes (a great many of them my own!) in which I was regaled with nightmarish images of the world looming outside the walls of ISKCON—warned repeatedly of the miseries to come should I foolishly wander outside our fortifications. In a place where higher spiritual experience is in short supply it is necessary, indeed, to create powerful disincentives to leaving—even if they must be based on exaggeration and fear.
But the world, as it turns out, is not the unrelieved chamber of horrors described in Bhagavatam classes. It's a mixed bag, just like ISKCON. Yes, there are all manner of terrible things in this world: war, poverty, disease, sexual abuse, racism, and many more. One cannot help but affirm that the world is a place pervaded by suffering and cruelty. But in the midst of all that darkness and craziness there is good as well. To begin with, there are many good-hearted people who come to the aid of those who are disadvantaged, persecuted, misunderstood, mistreated, who try to relieve others of suffering in myriad ways.
Out here in the wider world there are also many who seek truth, meaning and beauty through artistic self-expression. At their best, all of the arts— painting, music, dance, literature, and so on— support a quest for truth, beauty and sublimity. One has only to open oneself to the works of master creators—wander a fine arts museum, hear a great symphony, witness a ballet, lose oneself in a great novel or poem—to experience the depths and heights of the human spirit. There are infinite riches to be seen, heard, experienced and absorbed in these works. One has only to open oneself, to allow oneself to feel and experience.
Speaking personally, over the past several years I've immersed myself in fine art photography—both as a working artist and as a student of the history and aesthetics of the medium—and derive profound satisfactions therein. Through creative photography I've discovered in myself new capacities for seeing, intuiting, feeling, creating, communicating. I'm currently working on a book which explores the spiritual dimensions of the medium.
Besides artistic expression, which is my own path, there are other venues for living a meaningful life: through intellectual pursuits, through works of compassion (both within and outside of formal institutional and career contexts), through teaching, and through a thousand other forms of honest, meaningful activity. And there are, of course, a world of spiritual paths and practices to explore. Leaving ISKCON, one is pleasantly surprised to discover that there are many who devote themselves to the spiritual path—who seek, through various means, to become more aware, more sensitive, more compassionate, and who work to integrate spiritual truths into their daily lives. And there are, of course, many former ISKCONites who continue on the Vaishnava path, but in ways they feel retain an integrity and humanism largely missing in ISKCON itself.
Once one steps outside the gates of ISKCON one discovers that it's the quality of ones own consciousness and heart that determines what sort of person you're going to be and what sort of life you're going to live. When you leave the temple you do not suddenly and automatically fall into wanton debauchery, become a demon, or go mad. Nor will you need assume an attitude of uncritical acceptance of the world. It's quite possible to remain acutely aware of the limitations and imperfections of the world and maintain a creatively ambivalent relationship with it, while constructing a safe, sane, and meaningful space for yourself within it. It's a project, to be sure, but quite do-able.
Out here in the wider world one will find, if one simply looks, people who are good and decent, who share one's values, and whose friendship will nourish and deepen one. People who've left ISKCON also often find profound satisfaction in developing the kinds of deep, intimate, loving relationships that they missed as celibate "brahmacaris" and "brahmacarinis", or as married persons caught in unsatisfying, hierarchical, sexless (or sexually abusive) relationships.
Though I've canceled my subscription to ISKCON's view of reality, I am deeply and sincerely interested in Truth/truth, and feel confident that I have common ground with people in ISKCON who's love of truth supersedes any automatic allegiance to doctrines and lines of authority. Whatever the sorry state of ISKCON, whatever dimness with which it reflects its potential glory, there are many good and decent people in the movement who seek answers to life's most profound questions and who are serious about discovering and fulfilling their highest purpose in life. To all of them, I offer my respects and my friendship.
If any of what I've written here has meaning for you, makes sense to you, touches you in some way, then I hope you'll feel free to write to me. I'd love to hear from you, to hear your thoughts, and I promise I'll do my best to respond. You can reach me at the following address:
Writing by Steven Gelberg