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Some Things I Learned

ICSA e-Newsletter, Vol. 6, No. 3, 2007

Some Things I Learned During My Seventeen Years in the Hare Krishna Movement

Steven J. Gelberg


A former member of the Hare Krishna movement lists positive and negative learning experiences from his years as a devotee.  The list is presented in a way that invites the reader to reflect on how a personal, autobiographical account may shed light upon aspects of the movement, and on the cult experience in general, that have been described in less personalized terms in scientific and professional analyses.

1)  On my first day in the ashram, I learned that by reciting the Hare Krishna mantra while looking intently at a picture of Krishna I could take the edge off my generalized, existential anxiety.

2) I learned that it’s wrong to use toilet-tissue after “passing stool” (as the devotees call it).  I learned this on that same first day in the ashram. I had just completed the act, noticed that the dispenser was empty, called out to any who might hear me, asking where I might find the toilet paper, and was answered by a disembodied voice who explained that using toilet-paper is the “smear-method” and that water and fingers work much better.

3) I learned that if you and your cohorts chant Sanskrit prayers on the streets of any city, you attract such a degree of disbelieving stares, hostility and ridicule, that you’re forced to construct a fire-wall of conscious separation from the outside world, one that becomes nearly impenetrable.

4)  I learned that however one wishes to explain it, or explain it away, there is a felt and uncanny power in the repetition of the Hare Krishna mantra, or any other mantra-like construction of names of the Divine (a form of prayer found in virtually every religious tradition).  The use of such spiritual techniques may certainly be co-opted for cultic purposes, but that does not diminish the fact of their transformative efficacy.

5)  I learned that certain young people, unable to function in the “real” world due to serious psychological problems, can learn to function well enough within the structure of the ashram, and even to become highly skilled and productive within that regimented and protective environment.

6)  I learned about an ancient spiritual tradition from India, as profound, complex and engaging as any in the world, but I learned about it through a particular filter--that of an immature, highly-sectarian, aggressively missionary organization.

7)  I learned, over the years, that it is nearly impossible to translate and transmit a religious tradition from one culture to another.  However earnestly one may attempt to retain its cultural and experiential ethos, that tradition is unavoidably refracted through a radically different cultural lens, and in the process is distorted, often fatally.

8)  I learned that any philosophy of life, however ancient, profound or intellectually nuanced, can be dumbed-down and transformed into a patchwork of truisms, slogans, and formulas for the consumption of blockheads.

9)  I learned--through ascetic and meditative practices in use long before the contemporary Krishna movement appeared on the scene--that the mind can be disciplined and refined so that one’s powers of perception and intuition are heightened.  How one applies those psycho-spiritual skills within a social context—for good or otherwise—is a separate matter.

10)  I learned how two closely related people, sitting inches apart, can inhabit utterly different cognitive universes, as when I visited my parents for the first time after becoming a devotee (bald and in orange robes), and had my mother sit and watch in horror as I performed the traditional Hindu arati ritual for her spiritual benefit.

11)  I learned that the human capacity for self-deception is unlimited, endlessly creative and adaptive, astonishing in its subtlety and complexity.

12)  I learned that otherwise thoughtful, sensitive, intelligent, even charming people can, under the right psycho-social conditions, find themselves quite happily and contentedly inhabiting a social universe that is essentially hierarchic, authoritarian, and sexist.

13) I learned that even highly intelligent, liberal-minded people can be co-opted to become apologists for a conservative, fundamentalist religious ideology (even while maintaining the trappings of intellectuality).

14)  I learned that genuine spirituality can commingle, in numerous, complex and unfathomable ways, with the basest human motivations and aspirations.

15)  I learned, later, that most of these lessons can be gotten from numerous venues outside the Hare Krishna movement, and that people, everywhere and in all circumstances, seem to fear radical freedom, and thus arrange their lives and communities in such a way as to make life feel simple, safe, and manageable.

16)  I learned that there seems to be a basic human desire, even a need, to feel superior to others, and that the most exquisite gratification of that need is to be continually assured, by the highest authorities in the universe, that one (along with one’s friends) is superior to all the other inhabitants of Planet Earth, and that this clear fact would certainly be acknowledged by everyone if they could but see.

17)  I learned how the seemingly opposite impulses of compassion and misanthropy can be inextricably melded in the act (or pretense) of saving souls.

18)  I learned that whatever good qualities a non-devotee may appear to have--however benign, good-hearted, conscientious, or moral—the mere fact of that person’s not being a devotee of Krishna renders him a sinner, to be avoided at all costs (lest one become “contaminated”).

19)  I learned that human beings who are not members of the Hare Krishna movement are essentially clueless as to the nature of reality, and that it is our momentous responsibility to enlighten and lead them.

20)  I learned that service to Krishna automatically trumps mundane morality and ethics.  To get one of our books or other products into the hands of a non-devotee, and to separate him or her from their money, one could say and do virtually anything.  I learned that, despite appearances, doing so cannot be called lying or cheating, because it is the enactment of a higher law, meant for the true benefit of the donor.

21)  I learned that it is illegal to “impersonate Santa Claus” on the streets of Hollywood (when, during our annual “Christmas [i.e. fundraising] Marathon,” I was dropped off at Hollywood & Vine in full Santa regalia and a metal can to take advantage of the season of giving).  And then I learned what the inside of a jail looks like, and what it’s like to have all my possessions taken away, forced to strip and put on special ill-fitting clothes, eat special food, receive a new (numeric) name, and have my bodily cavities searched for sharp objects.

22)  I learned that I’m no good at fundraising or salesmanship of any sort, that I hate holding a can out to a stranger asking for money, or selling magazines or incense or anything at all, or ringing doorbells like a Jehovah’s Witness or a Mormon—that, in effect, I hate being a nuisance to anyone.  And I got out of that line of work in ISKCON as fast as I could, moving on to more congenial tasks.

23)  I learned that animals are to be acknowledged as sentient beings possessing a spiritual essence, and that they therefore should not be made to suffer unnecessarily.  I’m grateful for this lesson, and am still a vegetarian.

24)  I learned that for one on the spiritual path, the worst possible thing one can do is engage in illicit sex (meaning, sex for any purpose other than creating godly children).  I learned that sex displeases God and fatally undermines any hope of spiritual progress—that however good and decent a person may appear to be, if he engages in illicit sex he is sinful, polluted, and doomed to ignorance and suffering.

25) In spite of a personal history of appreciating and respecting women, I learned that women are, in fact, the enemy of spiritual life, not only because their very presence invokes lust, but because they themselves are of a lower, more sensual order of being.  They are, in fact, the very embodiment of Maya, the universal force of material illusion, and must be covered neck to ankle.

26)  In weak moments, I learned that ample sensuality can be seen in the faces, hands, and feet of young women, and in the shifting folds of their modest saris.

27)  I learned that in spite of my strong desire to be the ideal celibate, physically and emotionally impervious to the charms of women, my appreciation for and attraction to women never completely left me.  I learned that it required an act of sustained misogynist self-conditioning to fortify such detachment, against my deepest instincts and better judgment.

28)  I learned how a genuine, heartfelt desire for spiritual meaning and enlightenment can cause otherwise intelligent, accomplished, self-respecting women to re-fashion themselves as subservient beings, fully dedicated to the notion of their inferiority to men and therefore their natural servants (not to mention impediments to their spiritual progress).

29)  I learned that it is good for children, starting age five, to be separated from their parents and sent to special boarding schools—in part to mitigate the parent-child bond which, because it is based on mere flesh-and-blood attachment and familial sentimentality, is not healthy for spiritually-evolving children.  I assumed that devotee kids in these schools were happy little saints.  I had no clue that children were being systematically brutalized and sexualized in some of those schools.  It is that terrible abuse, more than any other factor that makes me feel embarrassed by my long association with ISKCON.

30)  I learned how to write well.  Some pre-existing talent for language was cultivated and refined through various writing assignments for ISKCON, under the skilled editorship of one Jayadvaita, known to his Jewish mother as Jay Israel.  His green and red editor’s marks (nearly) cured me of a tendency toward verbosity and obfuscation.

31)  I learned the art of public speaking.  As a representative of the Krishna movement I lectured in hundreds of high school and college classes, taught adult education courses, and made presentations at numerous academic and inter-religious conferences.  Whatever I may now feel about the value of the content of my presentations, I learned invaluable skills as a teacher and speaker, and feel at home before a group of any size or distinction.

32) I learned the art of scholarship.  In my role as ISKCON’s de-facto ambassador to the academic world, I was invited to present papers at various academic conferences.  In spite of having dropped out of college after my freshman year (to join ISKCON), I developed, by sheer practice, the intellectual skills of a scholar.  These skills were learned in spite of, rather than because of, my being a devotee, inasmuch as scholarship requires careful, unbiased, critical thinking.  This academic activity contributed, over the years, to my disillusionment with the intellectual insularity and dishonesty of ISKCON.

33) Compelled by the requirements of my role as academic liaison, I received a virtual education in the fields of comparative religion, sociology of religion, and the psychology of religion, forming the foundation for later academic pursuits outside the organization.

34)  Having regular access to the personal sanctums of the movement’s leaders and gurus, I learned that a public spiritual persona can be, in large part, a contrivance, a mask, an act, involving conscious transformations of voice-tone and physical bearing—like the transformation of an emperor leaving his boudoir for the balcony to behold his adoring subjects.

35)  I learned that power is an intoxicant and that it corrupts, and that absolute power corrupts absolutely.  There are few venues in modern western society where one can witness absolute power up close, and a cultic environment provides an excellent laboratory for such phenomena—a learning environment far superior to any college course in social control.  In fact, (tongue in cheek) every student pursuing an advanced degree in sociology should be required to spend at least a few years in a cult.

36)  I learned that professional anti-cultists can be rather naïve when attempting to differentiate “real” from “false” religion, that any argument that attempts to make absolute distinctions between religion and cult is a false argument, supportable only by willful ignorance and intellectual dishonesty—that all manifestations of the sacred in human life are compromised and tainted by human foible and mixed motives, that all institutions are corruptible.

37)  I learned, from the scriptures studied by Krishna folk, that the outer world, as we experience it through our limited senses, is, in an important sense, unreal.  I’m still inclined to believe that, and feel it to be true, though with certain caveats, and under different philosophical auspices.

38)  I learned that the material world—or, put differently, human civilization—is a brutal place unfit for human habitation.  But I already knew that, and know it still, but no longer view the Hare Krishna movement as being in any way apart from, or a refuge from, that world.