Dreams of ISKCON

ICSA Today, Vol. 13, No. 3, 2022, 11-13

Dreams of ISKCON

by Nori Muster

From 1978 to 1988, I lived in the Los Angeles headquarters of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). ISKCON is a Hindu-based group that came to America in 1965. When I was new there the authority figures did not allow me to keep a journal. However, in 1979 they gave me permission to write about my prayers and spiritual realizations, and to record dreams—if they were about god. Eventually, I got permission to record all my dreams, and by the time I left ISKCON, I had recorded 1,369 dreams.

In 2016, when I turned sixty, I wanted a new writing project I could commit to for a long time. When I thought about my dream journal, I realized it could open doors to a new area of study. Soon after my birthday, I discovered an obscure, but well-established branch of psychology that studies dreams. I met some of the top people in the field, and they became my mentors.

Quantitative Dream Content Analysis started in the 1960s when Drs. Calvin S. Hall and Robert Van de Castle set forth their categories for statistical dream analysis: characters, settings, plots, social interactions, activities, objects, and emotions.1

Dream content analysis is also known as the Continuity Hypothesis (CH) since researchers investigate three continuities:

·         continuity between daytime and dream experiences,

·         continuity of one person's dreams over time, and

·         continuity of all people's dreams.

Researchers in this field compare daytime and dream experiences. For example, if the dreamer has multiple dreams about a particular relative, the researchers may predict that this relative is a concern in the dreamer’s daytime life. If someone frequently dreams about travel, the researchers may predict the person travels a lot in daytime life.

When I learned about content analysis, I finally understood why I frequently dreamed about travel: I traveled a lot. During the pandemic, I had fewer travel dreams because I didn’t travel for two years. I used to interpret my dreams using symbolism, but the way I see it now, most dreams refer to literal daytime concerns. Then, like other stories, dreams may also include symbols and metaphors.

My dream research mentors encouraged me to digitize my journal so I could study it for science. From 2018 to 2021, I typed nearly three hundred journal notebooks. Since completing the typing, my research has centered around the first continuity, comparing my dreams to events and people in my waking life. For example, I have counted the dreams and daytime notations that mention the most important people in my life: my father, mother, brother, husband, and four lifelong friends. They are also my most frequent and enduring dream characters. During the ISKCON years, I also dreamed about people I knew in the organization. After leaving, most of those characters faded quickly from my dreams.

Since my dream journal spans four decades, I also study it for the continuity of one person’s dreams over time. For example, I have looked at instances where new characters enter my dreams after meeting them in daytime life. Then I track how long they stay in my dreams after they are no longer in my daytime life.

I have not attempted to compare my dreams to other populations yet, but one of my mentors published a blind study of my dreams and compared my dream statistics to baseline dream statistics for all women.2 My other mentor asked me to compile all my dreams about the Covid pandemic to use in a section of his new book.3

I have also studied my dreams of Krishna. In 2018 I presented my dreams on a panel with two other dreams of god researchers.4 In the course of studying my dreams about Krishna, I found several significant dreams continuous with my daytime experience.

Dreams of Krishna

My job in ISKCON was to work in the public affairs office, and part of our responsibility was to respond to scandals reported in the media. The worst disaster we handled was the murder of Steven Bryant (also known by his ISKCON name, Sulochan). He was a dissident from ISKCON’s rural community in West Virginia who believed the guru there broke up his marriage. He wanted to bring his case, and the guru’s corruption, to light. He got himself locked in protective custody there and told the police everything he knew; then he traveled to Los Angeles where he thought he would be safe. On May 22, 1986, he was parked in his van about a mile from the L.A. temple, and a man from West Virginia shot him in the head.

The conspiracy to murder Bryant traced back to ISKCON officials. Everyone knew it, and I knew it as well. Nevertheless, I compliantly typed and mailed the press releases we issued to deny ISKCON's involvement. The matter was before a West Virginia grand jury by the time I had the following dream:

Dream dated October 17, 1986 (abridged): I dreamed that people I know were deeply involved in the murder the grand jury is investigating.... After, they told me everything I had to hide it.... There were Jagannatha Deities with knots on them, according to our impurities.

The Jagannatha deities are a form of Krishna carved from wood. Normally they do not show knots in the wood, which would be considered an impurity or flaw. In the dream, the deities had knots that showed our impurities. The dream mirrored my daytime concerns because deep inside I was mad at myself for lying to the media. However, the dream mirrored my daytime concerns with compassion. It was as though the deities noticed, acknowledged, and shared the burden of guilt with me.

I had another dream that offered a symbolic, but direct correspondence to my waking life role in ISKCON: “Dream dated February 26, 1987 (abridged): ... I was an actress in a play where demons kill each other for Krishna....”

Of course, I knew it was wrong to lie, but I felt obligated to protect ISKCON. About a year after the murder, I had the following dream that corresponds to my defensive daytime attitudes and behavior at the time:

Dream dated May 31, 1987 (abridged) The media (TV, radio, etc.) were making a campaign against ISKCON. Went to the devotees’ store and the window was whitewashed. I put a message like, "We're proud to be ISKCON," or something, in the window to counteract bad PR.”

ISKCON had other problems, but the Bryant murder stood out, turning the organization into a media spectacle. Around that time, I was out shopping, dressed in a sari as usual. A man called out "Hare Krishna," and I shouted back, "Yeah, what about it?"

Typing the ISKCON Years

UC Santa Barbara Special Research Collections Library has the largest collection of cultic materials in the country. It's now called the American Religions Collection (ARC). In 2005 they wanted the papers related to my memoir about ISKCON, Betrayal of the Spirit.5 I had just turned fifty when I sent them seven boxes of internal documents, news clippings, and other materials including my journal notebooks up to that time. Because UCSB holds my notebooks, I needed to travel there to work on site. Later they allowed me to take notebooks home to type them.

My original connection with UCSB was completing my Bachelor of Arts degree there in 1978. I met devotees when they opened a preaching center in an apartment in Isla Vista, the college town adjacent to campus. I spent a lot of time at the preaching center learning the philosophy, then joined the Los Angeles temple the day after graduation.

There I was forty years later, setting out to type the ISKCON years of my journal. It took four weeks, typing eight hours a day in the UCSB Special Research Collections reading room. During my free time, I walked around Isla Vista revisiting landmarks from my senior year. I walked to the apartment building where I had lived and noticed the pool was gone. The man in the office told me my $90 studio apartment rented now for $1,500 a month.

I found the old preaching center and was dismayed at how rundown the building looked. It reminded me of ISKCON, and how broken down it had become, still pitifully trying to hide its history of child abuse, murder, etc. I knew about some of their crimes all along, but after leaving, and doing the research for my memoir, I realized ISKCON was like a building that became a money pit. The more I looked, the more problems I found.

I felt reluctant to revisit my ISKCON years because I knew it would bring back bad memories. But as it turned out, typing the notebooks was therapeutic. For one thing, I realized I had valid reasons for joining and staying so long. I was alienated from my family as a teenager, so I still wanted to experience growing up in a family. ISKCON gave me that. The people in the public affairs office cared about me and made me feel like I belonged. I worked my way up from secretary to my position as associate editor of The ISKCON World Review newspaper.

The best part was to find out I was the hero of my own story. In 1987 the organization started to unravel, and there was little more the public affairs office could do. By that time my husband and I had started our own company doing freelance typesetting, so we walked away in 1988 when we were both ready to leave. Instead of feeling traumatized about leaving, I realized it was not up to me to fix ISKCON. I felt proud of myself for getting on my own two feet. Uncovering the true story of my life set the record straight. I could forgive myself and let go of my self-hatred and guilt for the first time. That left me with a sense of gratitude for everything I remembered.


[1] Calvin Hall’s and Robert Van de Castle’s dream content analysis is explained in further detail in G. William Domhoff's article, “If we don’t interpret dreams, what do we do?” Go to https://dreams.ucsc.edu/Info/content_analysis.html

[2] Bulkeley, K. (2018). The meaningful continuities between dreaming and waking: Results of a blind analysis of a woman’s 30-year dream journal. Dreaming, 28(4), 337–350. https://doi.org/10.1037/drm0000083

[3] Nori's pandemic dreams are referenced in G. William Domhoff’s new book, The neurocognitive theory of dreaming: The where, how, when, what, and why of dreams (MIT Press, 2022). See the section on Beverly: A frequent pandemic dreamer, pp 133-136.

[4] Nori Muster on a panel on Dreams About God (2018, June 19). Dreams of ten years with the Hare Krishnas, Conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams (IASD), Scottsdale, Arizona. See: surrealist.org/dreams/dreamsaboutgod.html

[5] Muster, N. (1997). Betrayal of the spirit: My life behind the headlines of the Hare Krishna movement, University of Illinois Press.

About the Author

Nori Muster, MS, Arts Editor of ICSA Today, is an artist, writer, and teacher. From 1978 to 1988, she was a full-time member of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), then left and earned her Master of Science degree at Western Oregon University in 1991. Her thesis is on whether to use creative art therapy with juvenile sex offenders. In 1997, she published her memoir, Betrayal of the spirit: My life behind the headlines of the Hare Krishna movement (University of Illinois Press, 1997, paperback 2001, e-book 2014), then Cult survivors handbook: Seven paths to an authentic life (first edition, 2000; Kindle Paperback edition, 2017), and Child of the cult (2012; revised edition, 2015; Kindle Paperback edition, 2017). Her web page for cultic-studies information is surrealist.org/cults/