International Journal of Cultic Studies Vol. 4, 2013, 71-72
India in a Mind’s Eye: Travels and Ruminations of an Ambivalent Pilgrim
Steven J. Gelberg
Reviewed by Marcia R. Rudin
Richmond, CA: Spiraleye Press. 2012. No ISBN number (paperback), $16.95 (hardcover, $31.95). Available from Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble, Apple itunes, and Kobo. 189 pages.
Shortly after Prison or Paradise? The New Religious Cults was published in 1980, my co-author, husband Rabbi James Rudin, and I were guests on a late-night, live, radio talk show in Manhattan. I think it was The Barry Farber Show, but I could be wrong. On the program with us with us was a brilliant and personable young man named Subhananda, who was at that time Director of Interreligious Affairs for the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, aka Hare Krishnas (ISKCON) and liaison to the international academic community. His job that night obviously was to refute our charges that cults are harmful and that cult members are brainwashed. Apparently in order to soften us up, or perhaps just to be gracious, the devotee appeared with his lovely, quiet, and submissive wife, who dispensed to all of us a large amount of ISKCON vegetarian food. The host of the show thought Jim, Subhananda, and I were so terrific he asked us to continue on the air for another hour, at that time well past midnight, as I recall. I struggled to keep awake for the additional time, knowing I’d have to get up early with my two young daughters the next morning.
Imagine my surprise when several years later this young man, now using his birth name Steven Gelberg, approached me at an ICSA conference and reminded me of our long-ago late-evening radio encounter. He had left ISKCON.
Gelberg has written an extremely interesting book based on journals he kept during a 6-week trip to India in 1986, his last trip of several to the homeland of Hinduism. At that time, he had been a Hare Krishna devotee since 1970, just 4 years after its founding in the United States. Although Gelberg didn’t leave the group until the following year, his observations in this memoir are already tinged with the “mind’s eye” of a skeptic, albeit one laced with dry wit and humor. By then he had been in the group long enough to witness its growing problems and contradictions, and to begin to question his own journey.
The book is part travelogue and part memoir of his pilgrimage in, as Gelberg terms it, “Spiritual India” as opposed to modern India. As a travelogue detailing that vast fascinating country, Gelberg’s vivid descriptions reminded me of Paul Theroux’s observations in his classic first travel book written in 1975, The Great Railway Bazaar. (When I followed Theroux’s journey through Europe and Asia via train, I vowed never again to leave the safety of the four walls of my home.) Gelberg also describes ISKCON temples and headquarters, especially Vrindaban, and details ISKCON activities in India. He talks about the strange position in which Western devotees of Hinduism such as he and his then-wife found themselves. Hindus in India didn’t entirely accept them or ISKCON; and yet, at the same time, many Indians admired the couple because they had renounced Western materialism. He summarizes other trips to India he had made by 1986, including visits with prominent ISKCON leaders from throughout the world, and his bedside presence at the death of ISKCON founder Swami Prabhupada, an especially vivid scene.
Those of us in the counter-cult movement, who focus primarily on the harm done by these groups to their members and outside loved ones and families, and on the mind manipulation and pressure that gets adherents to join and stay in, often forget to factor in the power of the individual personal spiritual quest in the process. Gelberg’s own search for answers reminds the reader of the potency of the quest, and of the impact of mystical experiences.
I found especially interesting Gelberg’s detailed encounters with and portraits of three near-saintly Western women he met in India who were completely devoted to Krishna and to their work for ISKCON there. Yet, sadly, in antiwoman Hinduism and ISKCON, these women were not appreciated or allowed to fully reach their potential in the movement, or to fully realize their spirituality. This, of course, can be true for women in our patriarchal Western religions, as well. Gelberg points out that highly spiritual male devotees also often lose out in the ISKCON administrative structure to those more adept at executive and networking skills.
I also enjoyed Gelberg’s chapter titled “Confessions of a Hin-Jew.” Eli Weisel, one of Gelberg’s mentors when he took courses at Boston University after he left ISKCON, urged him to examine why he had left his own religion to become a Hare Krishna. Gelberg explains in the book that his bland and uninteresting Jewish religious education had never allowed him the spiritual quest or imparted to him the emotional fulfillment he found in ISKCON. I am happy to report that Jewish education for youngsters has greatly improved thanks to efforts of people like my rabbi daughter, who is bringing the emotional Jewish youth camping experiences into formalized synagogue education.
Gelberg and his then-wife left the group when his parents offered to pay their tuition to finish their education. He writes poignantly of the difficulty of leaving ISKCON, with which I’m sure most ex-members of such groups would agree:
After many years of inhabiting a cerebral realm of universals, it is not easy to return to a universe of particulars, difficult to break the pattern of subordinating personal perception and experience to unassailable abstract absolutes, hard to breathe the untreated air of a non-ideological universe. There is tremendous snob appeal, after all, in being one among the elect – a privileged consumer of revealed knowledge whose sense of reality is unsullied by personal subjective experience, who floats serenely above human fallibility and illusion. (p. 179)
Gelberg did study at Harvard Divinity School, with courses also at nearby Boston University; but unfortunately he stopped at his MA instead of pursuing a PhD as he had planned. Gelberg did not become a formal scholar in the field of what we used to call comparative religion in the days when I taught it, and that is a great loss to the academic world. He would have contributed his brilliance and wonderful writing skills to that discipline. However, he has written broadly and is now also a successful photographer in the San Francisco Bay area.
Anyone interested in India or Eastern thought or cults, or just fascinating travel writing will enjoy this wonderfully written and insightful book.