From Counterculture to Krishna Cult - Memories and Reflections

ICSA Today, Vol. 8, No. 3, 2017, 8 - 11

From Counterculture to Krishna Cult—Memories and Reflections

By Steven J. Gelberg

The following is an excerpt from my article “Why Did Hippies Become Hare Krishnas?.”1 To contextualize this excerpt, it follows sections that describe, first, some of the aspects of the early Krishna movement (The International Society for Krishna Consciousness, or ISKCON) that were positively appealing to countercultural youth (e.g., an ideology of antimaterialism, promises of spiritual enlightenment and bliss, communal living, vegetarianism), and second, a number of potential or likely turn-offs: separation from friends and family, extreme conformity of appearance and behavior, authoritarian leadership structures, strict celibacy, separation of the sexes, strident sectarianism, and so on. In the reproduced section that follows, I try to convey a sense of the internal psychological dynamics that might lead a potential recruit to rationalize, excuse, or ignore the negatives in favor of joining. Though it draws on my own subjective experience, I believe it expresses some universal factors related to joining authoritarian groups. The piece ends with “A Sutra of Loss, a meditation on disillusionment.

For many who joined ISKCON, the principal impetus for bypassing or leaping over the rational impediments to joining was having one or more subjective bouts of bliss, often while chanting. I can relate the following from my own story: Several days after I’d tentatively moved into the Boulder, Colorado temple, while still in the process of deciding whether or not to take the leap, I was riding in a van full of devotees returning from downtown Denver, where we’d been chanting all day. The devotees were each reciting the Hare Krishna mantra individually on prayer beads, some softly, some more loudly, some in a monotone, others in a singsong way. I was also chanting on the beads that had been issued to me. At a certain point during the ride, the cumulative sound of mantra recitation welled up into a kind of sweet, shimmering wave of sound, which in my imagination seemed to be pouring out of some mysterious realm of beauty and profundity. Awash in the sound of chanting, I began to feel a wave of bliss rise up in me, a tangible feeling of extreme happiness and lightness, all burdens lifted, all knots untied, all things made good. The feeling didn’t result from any particular thought or pattern of reflection, from any process of intellectual synthesis or resolution. It was simply a rich, delicious, sublime, subjective feeling of bliss, ecstasy—an unexpected, indescribable sensation of mental clarity and peace. That sensation was so delectable, so uniquely wonderful, and such a gift to a mind in deep conflict, that I consciously said to myself (I remember this quite clearly):

If by chanting Hare Krishna and practicing Krishna Consciousness I might come to a point one day where I’ll feel what I’m feeling now all the time, then I’m ready to do whatever is required. I want that sweet, pure, clear, lovely feeling so badly; I’ll do anything to get there. If this particular feeling, this rich, dense, sublime emotion, this intimation of perfect wholeness and harmony is what this practice leads to, then I’ll make whatever sacrifice is necessary to stay on the path. I’ll follow the guru. I’ll be celibate. I’ll study hard. I’ll work hard. Whatever it takes.

By the following day, still aglow, I was starting not to let the negatives bother me too much, to pay them less attention. The lingering memory of the bliss-bath of the previous evening then seemed to overwhelm everything else. If you could peer into my mind, you’d have heard an internal monologue that sounded something like this:

OK. So, I don’t really understand the male/female separation thing. But I think it has something to do with purity and detachment and transcending. I guess it’s just a necessary part of the process. The devotees say it’s about a kind of mutual respect, a way of allowing each other space to advance on the path. I can sort of understand that.

And what about giving up acid? They say chanting takes you to a place even higher than LSD and lets you stay there forever. I think I felt a little of that while chanting last night, and I’m sure there are higher states to experience. If I stay around, I could become enlightened naturally, without acid. I can do that.

And yeah, they all do seem kind of hard–core, kind of obsessed with their spiritual practice. They’re totally and deeply into this and have cut themselves off from everything else. That seems kind of extreme, but it does seem to work for them. It’s obvious they’re happy. I guess you have to get that serious, that focused, that self-denying, to achieve a high spiritual state. Am I ready for this? I think I am.

What about surrendering to the guru? In pictures he looks really blissful—obviously he’s in some higher state. And the devotees seem to really love him. Some of them have seen him and talk about how incredible it was to be near him and how wonderful and kind he is. For a long time I’ve been intrigued by the idea of holy men, people who’ve reached advanced spiritual states. So maybe he’s one? If he’s a totally enlightened and pure-hearted teacher, why not become his disciple?

And they seem to have some pretty far out ideas about gods and goddesses and demons and avatars and Krishna’s planet in the spiritual world. Seems there’s a lot of Hindu mythology in this and they seem to take it all literally. This is pretty far out stuff. But I’ve tripped enough to know that anything is possible, that the highest truth is beyond anything I can conceive, so who’s to say what’s weird and what’s not, what’s true and what’s not? And those Indian prints of Krishna are pretty trippy—I really feel something when I look at those. I suppose the least I can do is be open-minded and try to experience all this more deeply and see where it takes me.

But what about all those rules and regulations, following a strict schedule and having people tell you what to do? If someone tells me I have to peel fifty potatoes or sweep and mop the temple floor, I’ll have to do it. Will I be able to deal with that? But those things do need to be done and someone’s gotta do them, and I’d be the new guy and probably have to play humble. But the thing is, they all seem really nice, genuinely sincere. They don’t seem to be into exploiting each other. They seem pretty content. So how bad could it be? I’ll deal with it. I mean, if they can do it, I can do it.

But if I totally join and stay, it seems I won’t be able to just come and go when I please. I’ll really be tied to the ashram. I mean, it’s a full-time commitment. That could feel a little confining, even claustrophobic. Well, I guess I can just try it and see how it goes.

And what about the idea that they have the highest truth, and so I shouldn’t read any books other than their guru’s? Am I ready for that? I have to admit I’ve read a lot of philosophical and spiritual books and I’m more confused than ever. These people seem so happy and so sure of what they have. So who knows, maybe this is really it, maybe this is what I need to do. Can’t hurt to stay around a while and see what happens.

Plus, all of this is from India, which is obviously a spiritual place with ancient wisdom traditions—all those holy men meditating in the Himalayas. So I guess it’s road tested. Plus Allen Ginsberg chants Hare Krishna, and Ram Dass chants, and George Harrison is into Krishna consciousness. I’d be in good company.

OK. So I’ll stay. I guess I’m ready to become a Hare Krishna. Wow, who’d have thought? But this may really be what I’ve been looking for. I can always leave if I want, so what’s there to lose?

After living in the ashram for about a week, I took the initiative and cut off all my hair with a pair [of] scissors, and one of the devotee men finished the job with shaving cream and a razor. Generally you had to ask permission before “shaving up,” because it had to be clear you were serious, but I recall feeling that I wanted to do it myself as a kind of statement that this is my own choice and I didn’t need to be pressured. I wanted this.

* * *

This, then, is how and why a few thousand of the most idealistic, spiritually motivated hippies chose to, or felt compelled to, submit themselves to an insular, totalistic cult. Like Allen Ginsberg in his poetic masterpiece “Howl,” I mourn the fact that some of the best and brightest minds and spirits of my generation—refugees from the mainstream in search of utopia, deep feelers in search of goodness and beauty, free-spirits in quest of ultimate Liberation, intellectuals engaging the profoundest truths—ended up in the wrong place. Like travellers dying of thirst in the desert, they came upon what appeared to be an oasis, and desperate for nourishment they dove in headfirst. This was a particularly lovely mirage: idyllic, colorful, innocent, full of happy, shiny people ready to travel to a transcendent world of surpassing beauty and joy. But—long, complicated story short—the vast majority of those who joined eventually left, replaced by many others who, in turn, would eventually leave.

A Modest Sutra of Loss

I’d like to conclude this essay with a kind of litany, if you will—a recitation of things sought and never found, a lament for idealism dashed and innocence lost, of vast amounts of time, energy, resources and soul-force spent and misspent—a modest sutra of loss:


In the end, those most interested in exploring and “expanding” consciousness were taught, in the name of “spiritual advancement,” to contract consciousness to a thin, narrow band of (obsessive) attention.


Those young seekers who’d been drawn to the notion of enlightenment, of spiritual wakefulness, of shedding all illusions, of opening one’s deepest being to ultimate reality, were instead shepherded into one small, windowless room within the infinite mansion of human possibilities and told that everything we’d ever need was there and nowhere else.


We who were deeply introspective, fascinated by the breadth and complexity of the human mind, were taught instead to “transcend” the mind by immersing ourselves in a particular brand of groupthink.


We’d struggled to free ourselves from one form of conformity—that which society demands—only to be sweet-talked into another kind of conformity masquerading as “self-realization.”


Those who had enjoyed experimenting with a freer aesthetics of adornment learned to wear a virtual uniform (because “This is how souls dress in the Spiritual World”).


Those who had loved music, for whom music had deeply enriched their lives, were told to sell their guitars and flutes and LPs and give the proceeds to the temple, convinced that creativity and its tangible fruits were nothing but “sense-gratification,” a frivolous and petty indulgence that would subvert and destroy our spiritual progress, our ears and our souls simply too fragile and pure for Beethoven, Bach, or the Beatles.


Those who had once sought a communitarian, egalitarian way of life instead found themselves embedded in a rigidly hierarchical system in which one was well-advised to know one’s place, as well as to whom one must literally bow down.


Those who had tried to imagine a oneness of humanity, a unity of all beings, an ethic of universal love and acceptance, instead found themselves members of a highly insular, self-proclaimed elite, harshly judgmental of outsiders, all of whom were deemed less than human (“dogs, hogs, camels, and asses”). The meat eaters and sex fiends of the world were to be shunned and avoided at all costs (other than to be approached in carefully circumscribed rituals for the purposes of fundraising).


We came, many of us, for a safe haven from the insanity of the wider culture, the intensity of the rat race, and the harshness of cities, but were quickly turned around and sent back out into those bleak environments for the daily grind of fundraising and book selling. Rather than being free to live peaceful lives of gentle spirituality, we were instead trained as street missionaries and scam artists.


We’d left a world where we were certain money was evil and corrupting, then trained to raise funds for ISKCON by any means necessary, unbound by “mundane” ethics because “everything belongs to Krishna.” In the world of ISKCON, not love (bhakti, prema) but money became the coin of the realm (dollars neatly transubstantiated into Lakshmi points).


Those for whom sex might have been a source of affection, intimacy, or pleasure, even a sacramental union of archetypes, learned to regard it as the most vile thing imaginable, the filthy doings of dogs and swine—beneath dignity but not beneath discussion, for the subject was discussed and analyzed endlessly, creating an almost fetishistic horror of human sexuality.


Men who had enjoyed the social company of women, and women who had enjoyed the social company of men, now nervously avoided each other in order to maintain “spiritual purity.” Men, in particular, learned to distrust women, to view them as impediments to spiritual advancement, the fire that melts the butter of a man’s spiritual resolve. Men who before joining might have had tender and respectful attitudes toward their female family members, friends, and lovers morphed into scripture-quoting misogynists.


Those who valued the ideals of honesty and sincerity, of being true to oneself in dealing with others—without script or hidden agenda—of being and acting spontaneously, without premeditation or artifice, instead learned to live and act according to a complex web of predetermined codes of behavior, interpersonal rituals and formulas, and specialized modes of speech.


The spiritual notion of surrender, of opening oneself fully to the universe or the divine presence, was transfigured into the imperative to submit body, mind, and soul to the guru. Rather than a private, intentional act, a movement of the soul, an expression of deep psychic receptivity, “surrender” now came to mean a capitulation of the autonomous self, an unconditional submission to unchallenged and unchallengeable authority.


Those who had loved to read, to explore ideas, to wonder and reflect, were made to believe that intellectuality was the enemy of enlightenment, that autonomous thought (“mental speculation”) was a dangerous affront to the Spiritual Master, who had already gifted us with all the truth anyone needed to know. No need for wonder or imagination when you already have “perfect knowledge.”


Those who had cherished the concept of radical personal freedom, who had sought to liberate themselves from societal conditioning and compulsion in order to become fully authentic, autonomous selves, were led to embrace the diametric opposite: absolute submission, obedience, and conformity to a preexisting orthodoxy with a fixed notion of reality, under a regime of unrelenting, unforgiving, internalized self-surveillance.


We sought inner peace, but found ourselves with a permanent, anxious buzzing in our heads, a voice forever asking,

Are your thoughts pure? Are you being a good devotee? Are you avoiding all forms of sense gratification? Are you being chaste? Are you showing proper respect to the guru? Are you being submissive to the temple chain of command? Are you being submissive to your husband? Have you chanted all your beads? Have you met your fundraising quota? Are you taking every opportunity to spread Krishna Consciousness? Are you showing your sincerity by working hard for Krishna, or are you letting your personal needs and desires get in the way? You’re not being self-centered, are you?


We sought a community of kind, gentle, pure-hearted souls—and such individuals certainly existed—but over time we found ourselves increasingly in the proximity of a few too many hypocrites, narcissists, careerists, petty tyrants, inquisitors, women-haters, wifebeaters, wife rapists, child molesters, sociopaths, and other products of a toxic, totalistic environment.


We sought discipleship, but received a guru who was rarely present, shielded by secretaries and servants, travelling the world to build and promote his institution. But he told us not to worry, that he was mystically incarnated in his books, and that the harder we worked to sell those books and perform other prescribed duties, the more we’d feel his divine presence.


In conclusion, we’d come for spirituality and were handed institutional religion in its most corruptible form; we sought freedom and were given obedience training; we were assured that Bliss was imminent, then given the slogan “Work Now, Samadhi (Enlightenment) Later.” We sought a genuine spiritual path, but instead were hitched to an apparatus consisting of a carrot and a stick: the carrot of eternal bliss, and the stick of metaphysical anxiety, guilt, and fear. Idealism brought us there, to the Hare Krishna movement, and idealism and good sense (however bruised and battered) convinced us eventually to leave. For that we are grateful.


[1] The original article, entitled “Why Did Hippies Become Hare Krishnas?,” was published and is available online at The Hare Krishna Thing ( Permission to reprint this excerpt from the original article with minor edits has been granted by the site’s webmaster.

About the Author

Steven Gelberg, MTS (Harvard Divinity School,1990), joined ISKCON in 1970 (aged 18) and left in 1987. He was ISKCON’s Director for Interreligious Affairs and liaison to the international academic community. His book India in a Mind’s Eye, which deals in part with his gradual exit from ISKCON, was reviewed by Marsha Rudin in the International Journal of Cultic Studies (Vol. 4, 2013, pp. 71–72). He lives with his wife in the San Francisco Bay Area, immersed in classic darkroom photography (, and also independent studies in art, music, and mysticism.