Spiritual Pain and Painkiller Spirituality

Spiritual Pain and Painkiller Spirituality: Issues of Spiritual Abuse, Religious Addiction, and Dependency in ISKCON

 Diana Lorenz

Contradiction in Terms?

"Spiritual abuse? In the Vaishnava society? Impossible. This is atheistic psychology. How can abuse be spiritual?” Abuse is a selfish act of exploitation; selfish and exploitative equal material in Vaishnava vocabulary. Could ”spiritual abuse” mean misuse of spirituality to abuse others? But spiritual things, being all-auspicious, can never cause harm. Or maybe ”spiritual abuse” is an abusive act that damages another’s spirituality? But how can that which is spiritual in the Vedic meaning of the word (sat, cit, ananda – eternal, full of knowledge and bliss) be hurt? Krishna’s first lesson in the Bhagavad-gita is that the soul cannot be hurt, being unbreakable, insoluble, uncleavable and so on. Neither can one’s eternal relationship with God ever be lost, so what’s the problem?  

No wonder ISKCON devotees were ready to meekly tolerate mistreatment, pacifying themselves that ”It is only my ego/mind/body suffering; the more they suffer, the more I will become purified.” The same rationale served to justify mistreatment of others. High-rank leaders, when alerted to their subordinates’ exploiting rank and file devotees, often admitted the impropriety of particular behaviors but ultimately dismissed the complaint: ”Most important is that he is engaging them full-time in devotional service, so they are being benefited.” The phrase: ”The problems are temporary, the benefits will be eternal” seems to be an all-time ISKCON favorite for rationalizing abuse. More blatant examples of abuse are largely a thing of the past, but the majority of devotees still don’t clearly understand that abuse in a religious society is spiritually destructive. We see abuse as a social problem, psychological problem or a public relations problem. When a devotee loses faith and leaves, we admit we could have taken better care of her, but... ”Ultimately, had she been sincere, she would have stayed.”  

A number of authors writing on spiritual abuse issues are Christians and, like devotees of Krishna, define spirituality in relation to a personal God.  The main constituents of spirituality as distinguished by them are: (1) awareness/development of one’s unique relationship with God, (2) transcending the material world, and, (3) ability to live an authentic life, to be true to what one is.[i] Devotees of Krishna readily agree with the first two. The third one needs to be qualified. While it is unquestionably spiritual to be true to our eternal identity (svarupa) as Krishna’s servants and lovers, as conditioned beings we have other temporary identities that are only relatively true. These identities have to be transcended. However, transcending does not equal negating, which a Vaishnava acharya [eminent spiritual master] Rupa Gosvami termed phalgu-vairagya – incomplete renunciation.[ii] Rather, Rupa recommends yukta-vairagya (true renunciation) -- accepting things without attachment by seeing them as related to Krishna. Srila Prabhupada’s favorite term for this was ”dovetailing.”  

”Geographical understanding” -- matter is here, spirit is there; matter is what we perceive with our senses, spirit is what we cannot perceive – is an oversimplification that misrepresents the Vaishnava philosophy.  What decides whether a thing is material or spiritual is the quality of one’s consciousness.[iii] Spirituality, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. It is not a physical, constant property of an object. That’s why there can be abuse in a society dedicated to spiritual goals, and that’s why in a spiritually abusive atmosphere our Krishna consciousness cannot flourish – never mind the amount of chanting, bowing down, and krishna-prasadam [sanctified food] consumed.[iv]  

Taking all the above into consideration, my attempt to define ”spiritual abuse” in the context of Vaishnava theology is as follows: A spiritually abusive act is (1) an act of abuse directed at the individual’s inner faculties that play a crucial role in spiritual development and spiritual experience, or (2) an act of abuse coming from persons whose role is to support and guide that individual’s spiritual development. It can be, and often is, both. Phalena pariciyate – the nature of a thing is to be judged by the results. If an act of abuse has resulted in diminishing one’s ability to feel, express, and deepen one’s love (or any other positive emotion) for God, that abuse was spiritual abuse.  

As followers of an old and venerable religious tradition, devotees of Krishna tend to be skeptical toward ”novel ideas.” But the phenomenon of spiritual abuse is not new. It has accompanied religion since its dawn, and has been tirelessly fought by the greatest spiritual leaders of mankind. In confronting the Pharisees, in turning over the tables in the Jerusalem temple, in extending mercy and forgiveness to those considered outcasts by the Jewish religious authorities, Jesus was battling the spiritually abusive dynamics of his day. Lord Caitanya did the same when He risked enraging the caste-conscious brahmins by giving Krishna’s name to everyone without distinction and He, too, challenged false spiritual authorities. In nineteenth century Bhaktivinoda Thakura endeavored unceasingly to counteract the harmful propaganda of the apa-sampradayas [offshoot religious groups that misrepresented the Vaishnava doctrine] and of the Christian missionaries who sought to destroy the native spiritual culture of India. His essays in Shri Sajjana Toshani ring with deep concern about abusive religiosity. A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada was fiercely critical of the society’s leaders and charlatan gurus, for he perceived their actions as spiritually abusive. Abusive patterns are ever ready to surface, especially when a religious revelation solidifies into an institution. Bhaktivinoda Thakura wrote about this poignantly in the following passages:  

The original purpose of the established churches of the world may not always be objectionable, but no stable religious arrangement for instructing the masses has yet been successful . . . The mere pursuit of fixed doctrines and fixed liturgies cannot hold a person to the true spirit of doctrine or liturgy. The idea of an organized church, in an intelligible form, indeed marks the close of the living spiritual movement. The great ecclesiastical establishments are the dikes and the dams to retain the current that cannot be held by any such contrivances. They, indeed, indicate a desire on the part of the masses to exploit a spiritual movement for their own purpose. . . The effective silencing of the whole race of pseudo-teachers of religion is the first clear indication of the appearance of the Absolute on the mundane plane. The bona fide teacher of the Absolute heralds the Advent of Krishna by his uncompromising campaign against the pseudo-teachers of religion.[v]  

The same Bhaktivinoda opened Nama Hatta centers [centers for congregational worship and preaching] and reestablished holy places of worship. His son, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, created the Gaudiya Math. Bhaktisiddhanta’s disciple Srila Prabhupada, too, established ISKCON even though his experiences in the Gaudiya Math had made him aware of the danger.  

It is not so much that because there may be some faults in our godbrothers and godsisters, or because there may be some mismanagement or lack of cooperation, that this is due to being impersonalists, no. It is the nature of the living condition to always have some fault. . . So we shall not expect that anywhere there is any Utopia. Rather, that is impersonalism. People should not expect that even in the Krishna Consciousness Society there will be Utopia. Because devotees are persons, therefore there will always be some lacking.[vi]

In other words, rather than brush aside the danger by self-righteously asserting that we are ”beyond it” on the strength of our superior philosophy, unbroken disciplic succession, and the prediction of the ten-thousand-years’ Golden Age, we should learn from others’ hard-earned experiences. History of spirituality in the material world has its dialectics: on the one hand, reaching the masses with the liberating message requires creating institutions; on the other, institutions over time tend to lose touch with their members’ individual needs. The attitude of expecting a Utopia where no error can occur is exactly what allows errors and deviations to go on unchecked. As Brother David Steindl-Rast wrote, “Every generation of believers is challenged to make its religion truly religious.”[vii]  

Dynamics of Spiritual Abuse  

Spiritual abuse occurs when someone is treated in a way that damages them spiritually. As a deeper result, their relationship with God – or that part of them that is capable of having a relationship with God – becomes wounded or scarred.[viii]


Spiritual abuse is the mistreatment of a person who is in need of help, support or greater spiritual empowerment, with the result of weakening, undermining or decreasing that person’s spiritual empowerment.  . .  Spiritual abuse can also occur when spirituality is used to make others live up to a ’spiritual standard.’ This promotes external ’spiritual performance,’ also without regard to an individual’s actual well-being, or is used as a means of ’proving’ a person’s spirituality.[ix]


 There are spiritual systems in which what people think how they feel and what they need or want does not matter. People's needs go unmet. In these systems, the people are there to meet the needs of the leaders: needs for power, importance, intimacy, value - really self-related needs. These leaders attempt to find fulfillment through the religious performance of the very people whom they are there to serve and build. This is  . . . spiritual abuse.[x]


Just as emotional and physical abuse can include neglect, i.e., what is not done, so can spiritual abuse.[xi]


There is no test to diagnose spiritual abuse. There are only spiritual clues: lack of joy in the Christian life; tiredness from trying hard to measure up; disillusionment about God and spiritual things; uneasiness, lack of trust, or even fear of those who care about ’God’ things, even legitimately; a profound sense of missing your best Friend; cynicism or grief over good news that turned out to be too good to be true.[xii]  

Over the last several years, many of the devotees I counseled expressed some or all of the feelings described in the last quote. Looking around, it would be hard to find many abusive leader figures oppressing the rank-and-file devotees. ISKCON’s current recruitment policies are fair, preaching is more balanced, issues of devotee care are approached with increasing seriousness, and most no longer believe that their bodies should be neglected and their individual natures battled against and destroyed. Yet, there seems to be something more subtle still lingering. It is still not common for a devotee who has been in the movement for more than a few years to have the inner experience of growing through his sadhana [practice of worship], of genuinely coming closer to Krishna, of doubts being dispelled and direct vision of spiritual reality beginning to shine in the heart. It may of course be due to lacks in the individual’s spiritual practice. It may also be that even with best sadhana, it will take long before these higher stages are reached. Yet, the further away the experiential validation of a belief is pushed into the future, the more cautious one should be. Srila Prabhupada used to expose the scientists’ cheating the public with ”postdated checks” (”In the future we will create life from matter”). Spiritual checks can be postdated, too.  

In his essay ”On Leaving ISKCON,” Subhananda dasa (Steven Gelberg) writes in the section entitled “Spiritual Depersonalization”:  

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, and that the differences between us all . . . are simply products of an unnatural, illusioned state  . . . and, further, that to evolve into this perfected state we must submit to the authority of certain authorized persons for radical re-education -- cutting ourselves off, more or less, from any ideas, influences of persons that might possibly remind us of the selves we mistakenly felt we were.


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 know and experience myself, that would make me, if I am a diligent practitioner, doubt and question my every perception, my every inner sense of the way things are . . . 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 are.


I began to feel strongly that religion is not a corporate matter -- that of gathering in all manners of minds and hearts into a common, undifferentiated, regimented view of immediate and ultimate reality – but rather of honoring and trusting 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 inner knowledge and to whatever voices of wisdom present themselves on one's journey through life.[xiii]  

The term depersonalization has originally been used in psychiatry to describe loss of identity or of the sense of reality of one’s self. In a broader sense, ”to depersonalize” means to negate another person by ignoring his autonomy and his feelings or by treating him as an object, a thing. In an extreme form, inmates of the concentration camps in the Second World War experienced depersonalization. As Subhananda dasa points out, depersonalization can occur in a spiritual context (even in the context of such a decidedly personalistic theology as Vaishnavism), when in the name of spirituality, followers are led to discard their self-trust along with the capacity for self-determination and self-evaluation.  In other words, one becomes spiritually depersonalized by granting to a spiritual guide (which can be a person but can be a belief system as well) an absolute power to decide what one is, what one should think, feel, and want. ”To this someone may counter with ’But if the guru is qualified then one may blindly follow him.’ No. If the guru is qualified, he will not encourage blind following in the first place. A guru is not one who dictates to us what to think. A guru teaches us how to think.”[xiv]  

A spiritually depersonalizing belief system implicates the follower in logical vicious circles in which one is never right unless the wielders of authority say so. Challenging the official authority is explicitly defined as wrong, so that the content of the challenge does not deserve to be even examined. An individual who has accepted such a logically closed thought system forgets that all of this is only valid if his initial decision to trust this particular person or teaching was right – and if it was, this means that he does have an independent capacity for judgment. Depersonalized devotees see their doubts as possessing a separate existence (”demons”) and disown unaccepted desires by seeing them as implanted in their mind by fearsome outside forces (Maya or other devotees acting as her agents). What this sort of ”disowning tactics” does is it gradually destroys the sense of personal participation, with one’s thoughts, emotions and volition, in anything at all -- even in acts of worship and prayer. The devotee pushes away his unaccepted experiences and so much pushes himself to feel what the authority says he should feel that by doing so, he destroys his capacity for any spontaneous, profound experience – including love for Krishna. All that is left to him is a hope that if he grits his teeth and perseveres against all odds, at the moment of death his present personality will be destroyed and he will wake up in the spiritual world with a brand new identity, no connection whatsoever between the two. This is not an exaggeration; I have seen all too many devotees with this attitude.  

Another way some belief systems abuse the individual who subscribes to them is by internally dividing him into two ”personalities,” one ”good” and the other ”bad.” The promise of attaining direct mystical experience (the ultimate validation of the belief) often contains a built-in requirement that either is next to impossible to fulfill or one in which the believer himself cannot ascertain whether or not it is fulfilled. An example in the first category would be the ”no illicit sex” rule (sex is allowed only when the couple desires a child, once a month when the probability of conception is the highest), coupled with the principle that one’s spiritual progress can be estimated by the degree to which sexual desire has diminished. As a result, devotees who masturbate or who lapse into sex for pleasure with their spouses[xv] feel isolated, not only from the Vaishnava community but also from God, His mercy, and protection – and they have explicit quotes to support this. Even those who strictly follow this ”no illicit sex” vow but still experience sexual desires must conclude that despite all efforts, they are not making any spiritual progress over the years. Some devotees find private justifications for becoming less strict with themselves, while keeping a strict profile externally (sometimes all the more strict). Others continue struggling against their sexual desire, each failure triggering feelings of self-hatred, dread, and condemnation. Both options lead to becoming internally divided.[xvi]

An example of the second category of requirement is the rejoinder to be humble. If one thinks one has become humble, by default one is not humble enough. Thus "You cannot understand this because you are not humble enough" becomes an easy way for those in positions of spiritual power to avoid dealing with any complaints.  

Subhananda dasa points to spiritual depersonalization with its resulting emphasis on blind submission to authority as to the main reason for his leaving ISKCON. However, the statement that ”we are something utterly different from what we presently feel ourselves to be, and that the differences between us all . . . are simply products of an unnatural, illusioned state” represents our teachings correctly -- at the first glance. Who hasn’t read about the covering of illusion, about the mental platform and the four defects?[xvii] These concepts are our theological heritage, and being a Vaishnava means accepting them as a basis of our view of ourselves. Or does it really?  

I once discussed a current ISKCON problem with a devotee leader. We noted how difficult it was for the parties involved to decide what needed to be done. “Why are we in ISKCON so gullible and fanatical?” -- I expressed my frustration. “Why are we so often disregarding our intuition?” "To anyone who knows a little philosophy, the answer should be obvious,” he replied. “The mind can be our greatest enemy."  

Putting aside the question of whether or not intuition is a faculty of the mind (as defined in the Vedic tradition) his statement is a half-truth.  

One must deliver himself with the help of his mind, and not degrade himself. The mind is the friend of the conditioned soul, and his enemy as well. For him who has conquered the mind, the mind is the best of friends; but for one who has failed to do so, his mind will remain the greatest enemy.[xviii]  

Notice that the mind, when controlled, is said to be the best of friends to one who is still conditioned – not only to one who is already liberated and passes his days in ecstatic meditation on Krishna’s intimate pastimes. Moreover, as Srila Prabhupada states in his purport, what should control the mind is not an external agency but rather a higher inner voice: “But when the mind is conquered, one voluntarily agrees to abide by the dictation of the Personality of Godhead, who is situated within the heart of everyone as Paramatma [Supersoul]. Real yoga practice entails meeting the Paramatma within the heart and then following His dictation.”[xix]  

Paramatma, Srila Prabhupada further explains, is nothing else than intuition and conscience:  

Sarvasya caham hrdi sannivisto. . . "I am seated in everyone’s heart and from Me come remembrance, knowledge and forgetfulness. . . . Knowledge given by Paramatma from within the core of the heart is explained by the modern scientist as intuition. They do not know wherefrom the intuition is coming. And that is coming from God. Therefore it is stated mattah, from Me.”[xx]


Sarvasya caham hrdi sannivistah. Everyone has got experience. When we want to do something wrong, there is conscience: "Don’t do it." "No, no, let me do." There is struggle. So this is the struggle between the soul and the Supersoul. But when you’re persistent that "I must do it," then the Supersoul orders, "All right, you can do at your own risk."[xxi]


God has given advanced consciousness to the human being. Therefore he can feel the suffering and happiness of other living beings. The human being bereft of his conscience, however, is prone to cause suffering for other living beings. The assistants of Yamaraja put such a person into the hell known as Andhakupa, where he receives proper punishment from his victims.[xxii]  

Without getting into discussion of all the other scriptural statements that are or can be used in abusive ways, it is fair to say that the Vaishnava spiritual teachings contain warnings both against indiscriminately following one’s thoughts, feelings, and desires, and against indiscriminately rejecting them. The mindset described by Subhananda dasa leans to the latter extreme and thus does not correctly represent the teachings. By disregarding the individual’s innermost voice (the Supersoul, intuition and conscience), on the grounds that it might be cheating us, we sow seeds of spiritual abuse. Discernment is required, not censure. Intuition is the inner compass that protects us from being abused. Conscience is what prevents us from abusing others. The two are inseparably connected, so much so that a victim of spiritual abuse almost inevitably becomes a perpetrator, if placed in a position of power.  

Spiritual Abuse and Religious Addiction

Devotees who have been working in ISKCON communications in the recent decade may recognize the following scenario. A new person joins the movement, and a few months or years down the road the local ISKCON center is being accused by the parents/media/anticult organizations of brainwashing her, disrupting her family relationships and ruining her career. As it turns out, the new devotee has acted with extreme fanaticism, alienating her family. She dropped out from school. She neglected her health. As those in charge of the local center are faced with the problems the new devotee has created, they feel confused and frustrated. “Who taught her this fanaticism?” they wonder. “We have gone through so much pain to ensure that our preaching is fair. We do everything to make sure our new members don’t become social dropouts or alienate the public... and she behaves as if she has been taught just the opposite!”  

Fanaticism usually stems from fundamental distrust toward one’s own thoughts and feelings. Stifling them results in a state of inner numbness, where the individual no longer knows what he wants and feels. In an attempt to give his life some order and meaning, he may try to supplant his lost “inner guide” with the voice of external authority. For such a person, religious authority with its claims to absolute truth has a deep appeal.[xxiii]  His surrender tends to be fanatical and blind, since he has discarded his capacity for critical evaluation. Actually, however, such surrender is not as unconditional as it appears; the person would ignore or distort, for example, teachings on emotional literacy or self-reliance, as they undermine his coping techniques. (ISKCON devotees working in communications know the frustration of trying to talk common sense to persons like the one described in the above story.) His “radar” picks up selectively on those teachings that can be used to justify blind following, self-abnegation, and hurting others.  

Distrust for one’s inner experience is something no one is born with. In fact, young children in a healthy, loving environment are rather at the opposite pole; they fully trust and indiscriminately follow their feelings. In the process of socialization and individual maturation this attitude gradually evolves into a more balanced one, but the basic ability to trust oneself remains. How does the religious fanatic get to the other pole? It can so happen that a person with a balanced attitude toward his inner reality joins a manipulative religious group in his search for a higher experience. By spiritually abusive preaching, compounded by the influence of unhealthy group dynamics, he learns to distrust himself. (How this happens and what it leads to is described in more detail by Bhaktavatsala dasa.) In other cases, however, the damage is done long before the person joins a religious group.  

Manipulative religious leaders do not have the monopoly on promoting spiritual abuse. Heavy responsibility lies with the first authority figures in the individual’s life – the parents. Alluding to the notion that cults break up families, Rabbi E. Friedman remarked: “Cults don’t destroy families; families breed people for cults.”[xxiv]  Families that don’t model a balanced, emotionally literate attitude toward one’s inner experience (e.g., conflicted families or authoritarian families where the child is shamed for his feelings) breed adults who can’t deal with and are threatened by their own feelings. Such persons will try to push them – or some of them – out of awareness. However, feelings often signal needs or offer vital information, therefore ignoring them causes further difficulties and more threatening feelings. It’s a downward spiral.[xxv] Because such persons fear their feelings, they will deny them any value and may seek to alter them through chemical means (through alcohol, drugs etc.) or to control them through a rigid belief system. This pattern – compulsive use of religious activity almost like a mind-altering drug to control one’s inner pain instead of facing and resolving it -- is called religious addiction.  

For example, perhaps I feel unsure of myself and as if I don’t belong anywhere. I cannot face my feelings of shame, loneliness and fear. Thus, I compulsively read the Bible or rigidly adhere to all the teachings of the Church, looking for absolute answers and a sense of belonging. Whenever that pain tries to come up, I get out my Bible or I go to Mass or I quote the Pope. Or, perhaps I have been deeply hurt and I am very angry. I have been taught to feel ashamed of such feelings and I am terrified of them. I believe that “good Christians forgive”, and I remind myself of Jesus on the cross. I tell myself that every time I don’t forgive I am putting another nail in his hands. Whenever that anger and rage try to come up, I use Jesus on the cross to get them under control. Since denied feelings such as shame, anger and rage do not really go away but instead only build up within, the next time such feelings come up I may become even more rigid in my use of religion to get them under control.[xxvi]  

It is not a symptom of religious addiction to pray to God for solace and help. It is an addiction, however, when prayer replaces efforts to understand and resolve the difficulty if possible. A fanatical devotee, whose actions have caused severe disturbance and pain to her entire family, says when confronted: “Oh, if this has happened because of me, then I must not be pure enough. Maybe I am skipping a syllable when chanting the Maha-mantra?”  

Religious addiction and spiritual abuse propagate in their own “disciplic successions.” A religious addict almost inevitably goes on to spiritually abuse others:  

Because my need to control inner reality through a rigid belief system is so desperate, I insist that everyone else believe in the same way as myself. Anyone who doesn't threatens my system of controlling my inner pain. Thus I have created a world where there are no surprises, inside and outside, because I'm too afraid of them. I am now off the track of evolution, and off the track of my own human process of growth. If I have children, or if I am a religious leader, I may spiritually abuse those who are looking up to me. By spiritual abuse, I mean that I will deny their spiritual freedom by telling them there is only one way to God, my way -- because anything else is too threatening to me.


. . . I don't want to blame such people for what I am calling spiritual abuse and religious addiction. What better drug of choice than a perfect, all-powerful, all-knowing God out there who controls everything and everybody? Well-meaning people are set up for this in a culture that does not teach us how to deal with painful feelings, and in a church that has so often taught us that the truth is in the Bible, in the Pope, in the ministers or priests, in the sacraments... everywhere but inside ourselves. Religion is often taught as a system of control, of rules, rituals, of ideas: of shoulds. It's very easy to use all this to squelch the process of life, all the while thinking we're being good Christians.[xxvii]  

The task of relating the above to the ISKCON reality is best left to the reader. The problem is known since centuries ago and was identified by Rupa Gosvami as an obstacle to devotional service – niyamagraha, blindly following the rules not for spiritual advancement but just for the sake of following.[xxviii]  The Linns further state that their intention is not to say that the scripture and religious authority have no truth to offer. Their role as carriers of the tradition is essential. However, they assert, we can't relate to the carriers of this tradition properly if we are out of touch with or trying to escape from our self as we experience it here and now.

Fear of or aversion for one’s present self does not lead to the discovery of one’s deeper, eternal self. What usually happens, ISKCON history tells us, is that after a few years, the neglected side of the person’s nature finds a way to get attention; but by that time, the problems have piled up high.  

Scriptural Abuse  

One symptom of religious addiction is literalistic, black-and-white “letter-of-the-law” thinking. The Linns point out that Bill Wilson (co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous) observed this kind of thinking in alcoholics, and family therapists identify it as characteristic of the dysfunctional families in which addicts are raised.[xxix]  

Precisely because it’s a concrete, written document, the Bible easily lends itself to misuse by religious addicts. Because they tend to take everything literalistically, religious addicts can easily mistake what is nonessential in the Bible for what is essential to the gospel. This is what happens in “proof-texting,” in which individual passages are used to prove points that may not be consistent with the overall message of the scripture.  . . Since the Bible is a big book, full of pronouncements about all sorts of things, it is a ‘set-up’ for misuse by literal-minded religious addicts and spiritual abusers.  . . Scripture may challenge us and it may call us to conversion, but it is not intended to shame us.[xxx]  

D. Johnson and J. VanVonderen call this approach to the revealed text scriptural abuse:  

In a spiritually abusive system, Scripture is employed to prove or to bolster the agenda of the person using it.  . . Proof-texting occurs when someone has a point he wants to prove. So he finds a verse to do so, even if it means stretching or ignoring the original issue about which the verse was written or the context in which the verse is found. Because this is the method the leaders use, it is the method the followers learn to use. Consequently, there is little or any opportunity to become capable or ‘rightly dividing the word of truth.[xxxi]  

Symptoms of scriptural abuse are undeniably present in our organization. Since for ISKCON members, the recorded words of our Founder-Acharya are as good as scripture, the arsenal of quotes to (mis)use is probably greater than in any other religion. In temple classes, for years we had sannyasis [celibate preachers] quoting a certain set of verses out of context to condemn family life; later we had married men quoting other verses to condemn the sannyasis’ “false renunciation.” Now we have a debate on what the women’s role should be (exclusively that of wives and mothers, or according to their individual propensities), with both sides wielding quotes – often without much concern for the context. “Another one shot down by the Folio[xxxii]” – a GBC member once succintly summed up the effect of the procedure.  

Just like in our society, sometimes they do something nonsense and they say, "Prabhupada said." They are doing that. We know that. It is deteriorated like that. [xxxiii]  

Approaches to scripture recommended by spiritual masters of the Vaishnava religious tradition will be illustrated here by quotes from two works by Bhaktivinoda Thakura, who calls for approaching scriptural revelation with awakened intuition and conscience. The first quote comes from an early work entitled The Bhagavata: Its Philosophy, Its Ethics, and Its Theology, the other – from Shri Tattva Sutra, written by the Thakura many years later, at the peak of his literary activity.  

In fact, most readers are mere repositories of facts and statements made by other people. But this is not study. The student is to read the facts with a view to create, and not with the object of fruitless retention.  . . Here we have full liberty to reject the wrong idea, which is not sanctioned by the peace of conscience. . . Liberty then is the principle that we must consider as the most valuable gift of God. We must not allow ourselves to be led by those who lived and thought before us. We must think for ourselves and try to get further truths which are still undiscovered. In the Bhagavata we have been advised to take the spirit of the Shastras and not the words. The Bhagavata is therefore a religion of liberty, unmixed truth, and absolute love. The other characteristic is progress. Liberty certainly is the father of all progress. Holy liberty is the cause of progress upwards and upwards in eternity and endless activity of love. Liberty abused causes degradation, and the Vaishnava must always carefully use this high and beautiful gift of God.[xxxiv]


The Divine Knowledge is characterized as the sun whereas all the scriptures (shastra) are rays of that sun. This saying reveals that no scripture can contain the Divine Knowledge to the fullest extent. The self-evident knowledge of the jivas [living beings] is the source of all the scripture. This self-evident knowledge should be understood as God-given. The sages endowed with compassionate hearts have received this self-evident knowledge (axiomatic truths) from the Supreme Lord and recorded the same in the scriptures for the benefit of all jivas.  . . The independent cultivation of the self-evident knowledge is always necessary. This is the important thing needed in understanding the Truth along with the study of the scriptures. Since the knowledge itself is the origin of the scriptures, those who disregard the root and depend upon the branches cannot have any well-being.  . . Since knowledge itself is the root of the scriptures, the one who has attained that self-evident knowledge will not be ruled by the scriptures, but only they will guide him with advises. In case of ignorant people, this is not so. They must be governed by the rules of the scriptures for their upliftment, if not they will have their inevitable down fall due to the sensual addictions.[xxxv]  

Spiritual Abuse in the Context of the Guru-Disciple Relationship  

Both quotes from Bhaktivinoda reproduced above end with warnings: liberty can be abused; creative attitude toward scripture requires personal integrity and a measure of spiritual advancement. The writers discussing spiritual abuse acknowledge this, too. Uncritical reliance on external guidance and authority is not always a sign of religious addiction. It is also typical for an early stage of faith development.  

If reliance upon external authority helps provide security and structure for continued growth into higher stages, then it seems to us a part of healthy development. However, if reliance upon external authority is a way of compulsively avoiding one's own reality, then it seems to us more likely a sign of religious addiction. A measure of whether a particular religious behavior is healthy and stage-appropriate, or addictive, might be our ability to tolerate and gradually move toward respect for and even dialogue with those who are different.[xxxvi]  

This leads to an additional insight into the nature of spiritual abuse:  

Just as emotional abuse includes expecting a two-year-old child to behave like a ten-year-old, or keeping a ten-year-old as dependent as a two-year-old, so spiritual abuse includes pushing people to a stage of faith development for which they are not yet ready, or trying to keep them at a stage that they have outgrown.[xxxvii]  

An interesting framework in which to examine longitudinally the quality of the teacher-disciple relationship is provided by Gordon MacDonald in his article entitled “Disciple Abuse.”[xxxviii]  The writer addresses dangers brought about by the system practiced in certain small Evangelical churches – so-called ‘shepherding’ churches – that demand from the members full submission to a personal mentor. His main thesis is that a healthy relationship between the disciple and the mentor (called by him “discipler” or “disciple-grower”) goes through certain stages, and that skipping over any of those or arresting the development of the relationship at one of them is abusive. He points out, too, that just as disciples, so also disciplers can be exploited if they have taken on disciples who are interested not in spiritual growth but in unwholesome emotional gratification. At least some of the ISKCON-gurus would probably agree that “guru abuse” is a needed term.  

The stages of discipling listed by MacDonald are:  

1.The calling/commitment encounter, in which the discipling relationship begins

2.The mentoring process, in which a transference of learning takes place

3. The broadening effort, in which the disciple-grower opens the eyes of the disciple to possibilities and opportunities by exposing him to responsibility

4.The releasing, in which the discipler terminates the formal discipling relationship by sending the disciple out to his own tasks

5.The affirming/appreciating element, which ought to happen continually, long after the formal discipling relationship has been transformed into friendship.[xxxix]

The author states that at the calling/commitment stage, abuse occurs when someone seeks disciples with a conscious or unconscious aim of controlling them – often because he himself is insecure, uneasy in normal peer relationships, or has personal gains to accomplish through manipulating others. On the other side of the equation,  

There are many potential ‘disciples’ who are not that at all. Their motive for accepting a mentoring relationship is not a genuine quest for maturity but an emotional need for a surrogate father or mother.  . . For the abusive discipler who wants control, these are ripe for the picking. For the genuine disciple-grower, they are a drain on his energies, and it is important to discern such inadequate motives before it is too late. Certainly these people need help, but what they need is not discipling but counseling.[xl]

 At the mentoring stage, abuse can take the form of the discipler’s pressuring the disciple to become a copy of himself (or what he wishes he himself could be). The disciple may go along with it, seeking to transcend his limitations by “fusing” with the powerful guru. At the “broadening” stage, abuse manifests in attempts to exclusively control the world of the disciple. Again, there may be a fit between unhealthy emotional needs of the discipler and those of the disciple:  

Sadly, there are many people who are only too glad to submit to such an arrangement. They are afraid to think, to make decisions, to take the risks involved in healthy Christian living. They thus open themselves to those who in the name of disciple-making would handle these matters for them by imposing rules, arbitrary expectations, and demands for consultation on all personal matters.[xli]  

Since discipling implies preparing the disciple to reach a certain level of personal maturity, healthy discipling relationships should end or be transformed into friendships once the goal has been reached.  

Disciples are abused when disciple-growers . . . either permit the discipling relationship to become solely a friendship, without goals of change and development, before the discipling is completed, or – worse yet – choose never to release and send the disciple to the goal of the original call and commitment.  The evidence that this is happening will be seen where a strong leader keeps a never-changing group of people around him, each discharging the tasks assigned to him but never released to pursue God’s call for himself.[xlii]  

Relating the above to the ISKCON reality, my general impression is that our greatest problems are with the first two stages as defined by MacDonald (and if the first stages have gone wrong, how can the further ones go right?). These problems seem to be caused not only by personal lacks but by the institutional requirements and constraints as well. The calling-commitment stage is often formal and sometimes shallow, with guru and disciple hardly knowing each other; expectations are rarely negotiated openly and in detail. Few gurus can provide personal mentoring, due to having a large number of disciples as well as due to distance; most maintain contact mainly through correspondence and often refer disciples to the local managers.  

The above will be illustrated by the story of a young devotee who was for some time under my care. Let’s call her Anna. If I were to identify a single event that started me thinking about spiritual abuse issues in our Society, this was the one.  

Anna was a thoughtful and responsible person. From the first day she joined, she followed the full standard of personal behavior and sadhana required of a devotee and was fully engaged in devotional service. She also immediately enrolled in the introductory course and worked hard to get the best out of her learning. After 4 months of chanting 16 rounds of the Hare Krishna mantra, she met her guru. She made her choice on the basis of short association that she found inspiring (lecture, kirtan [temple ceremony involving group dancing and singing]), and because, as she said, her best friend was aspiring for initiation from him.


In her first letter, after asking for his pranama-mantra (personalized mantra the accepted disciple chants each time he or she bows down), she asked a practical question. The guru gave his pranama without asking any questions about her, despite knowing that she was too new (GBC guidelines specify six months as a minimum waiting period). But her question he dismissed as something that should be directed to her local managers. This particular guru used to authorize managers in ISKCON temples to give his pranama to whomever they saw fit.


Next month, Anna sent another letter: "What is happiness in Krishna Consciousness? I enjoy my daily sadhana, arati [temple ceremony of worship], studying, but is this all? Shouldn't there be some goal to strive for? Krishna seems so theoretical and distant. I met a senior devotee who told me that all she expected from herself in this life was to follow the four regulative principles and chant 16 rounds, that she could not aspire for real love of God. Why should devotees limit themselves like this?"


He wrote "Blessings," that everything would be OK (as if her question was a symptom of a problem) and that he was pleased with her. That was all. He signed off, ”Your ever well-wisher...”


Two months later, Anna wanted to ask her guru’s opinion about a service offer she had got. She began her letter: "From your silence about my previous question I have understood that it was a useless question. I can understand now that what you wanted to teach me is that all our little daily activities are our happiness in Krishna Consciousness, and we should not look for anything more."


Even if her spiritual master remembered the original question, he did not comment on this. He wrote instead that the service question could be solved in consultation with the local management, that he is very busy, having many disciples, and so he requests her to write him not more than twice a year.


Anna never came to speak with me again. The last I remember of seeing her was that she did not seem so happy anymore and started gaining weight.


If we try to relate the dynamics of this guru-disciple relationship to MacDonald’s model, the first striking thing is that the calling/commitment encounter never happens. Anna, one out of hundreds in a crowd, sees the visiting sannyasi and likes him and his preaching. He gets a letter from a girl with no face. She has her ideas about becoming his disciple, he has his about becoming her guru, but do these ideas meet?  

Anna then expects the relationship to move on to the mentoring phase. She writes three letters, each with a question, and is stonewalled three times. Beyond words, her guru teaches her the rules for the relationship: Don’t involve me with your life. Just play the role of a disciple and I will play my guru role by sending you letters with ”Blessings” as ”Your ever well-wisher” twice a year.  

Two of Anna’s questions are dismissed on the grounds of belonging to the local management’s sphere of competence. Technically they do, even though the guru could still use them to teach Anna how to make decisions or even just to build a basis for the relationship. His ignoring the third question is especially telling, since Anna is asking about spiritual depersonalization -- the process that has already begun in her own life. Compelled to save her belief in the well-wishing and all-knowing guru, she seeks to interpret his silence as an answer. The answer seems to be: ”Embrace depersonalization. Trash your thoughtfulness and your heart. Just go through the motions.” And again through his silence, he confirms she has guessed right.  

My attempts to open up communication with Anna’s spiritual master failed, and so my interpretation of what things may have looked like from his perspective is just guesswork. I don’t believe he meant to abuse Anna. He was working tirelessly to keep up with his tight schedule of traveling and preaching, visiting several places each week. Probably he had resigned himself to having hundreds of faceless disciples as part of his sacrifice to ”push on the mission,” as was Srila Prabhupada’s desire. He may have felt that since all those new devotees needed a guru – doesn’t it say so in the scriptures? – someone had to accept them. Someone from ISKCON, obviously. There were only a few authorized ISKCON gurus visiting the area, so Anna wouldn’t have much more chance for a personal relationship with anyone else either. And Krishna would mercifully ”carry what they lack,” as He promises in the Bhagavad-gita.  

One still wonders what caused Anna’s guru to be apparently so convinced that their relationship, even though reduced to a mere formality, would fulfill its purpose. His attitude toward Anna’s spiritual needs almost looks like magical thinking, where a name of a thing is believed to stand for the thing itself. Was he giving Anna the same treatment he had gotten as a new devotee? Was he merely an abuser or a victim as well?  

One may also wonder whether Anna possibly set herself up for a disappointment. Thoughtful person that she was, why did she choose a guru on such flimsy grounds? Why was she ready to trust him with her mind and heart without testing? No doubt, partly because he had an ISKCON rubberstamp. ISKCON asssured Anna that this person was safe and competent. Thus whether what he said made sense or not did not count; Anna consistently acted on the premise that if anyone was wrong it could only be her.  

Anna was an orphan. Apart from spiritual guidance, what she needed may have been a parent figure, and this unavailable sannyasi guru was, sadly, the closest approximation. One wonders how many hundreds of such physically or emotionally orphaned individuals ISKCON gurus have to reparent, and what are the repercussions of this for their own spiritual well-being. It seems to be a widespread and very frustrating problem.  

Codependency - A Pseudo-Helping Relationship  

Anna’s relationship with her spiritual master could not develop since the expectations and commitments of the two sides did not correspond. Whether she only wanted guidance for the soul or parental care as well, she got neither. However, matching expectations and commitments do not a guarantee a spiritually uplifting relationship, even though they make for an emotionally intense and lasting one.  

When both parties in the helping relationship focus primarily on getting their own emotional gratification out of the exchange, while helping is reduced to just a pretext, a pattern develops that is called codependency.[xliii] The codependent dynamics have been implicitly referred to by MacDonald (above). Codependent relationship is an unconscious alliance of two persons, both trapped in their unresolved emotional issues, feeding and feeding off each other’s emotional neediness. The codependent relationship is pseudo-helping because both persons are not looking for real solutions to the problems they ostensibly wish to confront. Were the partner with the problem to get better, he would immediately discover a new problem. Such person’s problems are usually chronic (addiction, underachievement, undiagnosable ailments etc.). The helper, on his part, makes sure that his help is never so effective as to remove the need for more help. If anything, he offers the fish, never a fishing rod.  

Guru-disciple relationships, like any relationships where one person is primarily the giver and the other – the taker, are vulnerable to the codependency dynamics. The genuine guru-disciple relationship centers on helping the disciple reach spiritual maturity. In the codependent guru-disciple relationship, on the other hand, both partners merely seek to prolong the emotional gratification derived from the exchange of “mercy” and “surrender.”  

In a codependent relationship, both parties (called “victim and martyr” or “rescued and the rescuer”) are need each other for their own sense of identity and self-worth. “Victims” need constant attention and emotional input; they revel in feeling poor, helpless, and unfortunate (”I am so fallen”). Their self-loathing, self-pitying attitude is a bid for compassion to fill up the inner emptiness they feel. A codependent disciple expects his guru to be a  father/mother figure, to take full responsibility for his life (and full blame if something goes wrong), to make decisions for him, to give lots of attention and to be powerful, an idol to be worshiped.  

The other partner in a codependent relationship, the ”rescuer,” may appear to be a selfless, saintly worker for others’ benefit, but in fact he is moved by an overwhelming need to feel needed (”I am a well-wishing friend of all the living entities”). For such persons, being needed means being loved. Side benefits are the boost of self-esteem they get from adulation of the ”victims” as well as the satisfaction of “turning the other cheek” to the ungrateful. “Rescuers” cannot set limits and repeatedly take on more than they can handle. A ”rescuer” in the position of spiritual authority needs to see himself as a savior, demands rather than commands submission, feels uncomfortable in equal relationships, delivers prescriptions blindly based on rules, without considering the individual’s perspective, and can't admit imperfections in his way of handling disciples. He won’t allow them to grow up and absolutely can’t deal with independent thinkers. Young disciples of such a guru feel happy and cared for, while the senior ones will likely feel alienated.  

It may happen that only one of the partners has a codependent personality, while the other is trapped into participation. When the codependent one is the “rescuer,” he never allows those in his care to be self-reliant or autonomous. Disciples in the care of a “rescuer” feel “babied,” treated condescendingly, and suppressed. On the other hand, if the codependent partner is the “victim,” he is locked in his helplessness mode, never grows up and continuously discovers new problems. The guru of such a disciple feels drained, dispirited, or even exploited.  

In an ISKCON joke, a guru asks his disciple to bring him a glass of water. “Jaya Guru Maharaja!” [“Glory to the guru!”] the disciple responds but doesn’t move from the place at the guru’s feet. “Hey, haven’t you heard? I told you to bring me a glass of water!” The disciple melts with delight: “Nectar, Guru Maharaja! Say something more, Guru Maharaja!” This joke is about a codependent disciple. If we have jokes about codependent gurus, they probably are circulated underground. But we may not have many. A disciple who has spent his best years following his guru stands to lose too much by acknowledging that he has made a mistake. In the name of emotional “equity rescuing”[xliv] such disciples will rather continue down the road, carrying an increasingly heavy load of rationalizations and pushing the goal of their journey farther and farther ahead. “Maybe in fifty lifetimes from now on will become purified enough to I understand what horrible offenses I must have committed that I am still unable to surrender unconditionally to my Guru Maharaja.” In the meantime, they become more and more alienated from themselves and others, and increasingly rigid in their beliefs.  

The dynamics of codependency resemble descriptions of a genuine guru-disciple relationship. Scriptures do emphasize the necessity of surrendering oneself unconditionally to the pure devotee. Disciples are enjoined to consider themselves insignificant, fools before the spiritual master, always in need of his mercy. Pure devotees are glorified for sacrificing themselves – even their own going back to Godhead – for the sake of saving the conditioned souls. Yet, the fact that giving and receiving guidance can be subverted to serve unhealthy agendas does not negate the value of guidance. Rather, it serves as a warning for aspiring transcendentalists to use their intelligence, clarify and review the mutual commitments (including timelines), judge by the results (including emotional results) and not let themselves be lulled by spiritual-sounding rhetoric or pacified by the assurances or choices of others.  

That you have to test. Now I have given you this one formula. By following any guru or any principle, if you actually develop your love of God, then it is nice. Otherwise it is useless waste of time. That is the test. [xlv]


Blind following means, 'Oh, there is a swami. So many thousands of people are following. Let me become his disciple.' this is called blind following. You do not know what is this swami, whether he is a swami or a rascal. You do not know. But because everyone is going, 'Oh, let me become his disciple.' this is blind following, without any knowledge, blind following.[xlvi]


A devotee should have intelligence to know who is deviating. You should surrender through your intelligence, but never surrender your intelligence.[xlvii]


If the disciple’s personality matures and unfolds harmoniously; if he gains spiritual insight and gradually becomes able to live a responsible and spiritually fulfilling life without the guru’s constant supervision; most importantly, if he feels himself growing, if he experiences and appropriately expresses love for Krishna and the living beings, His parts and parcels – then the relationship is spiritually beneficial.  

If the disciple internally shrinks into a helpless child, dreading life’s challenges; if his emotional problems intensify and he feels growing confusion and dejection, seeing the guru as his only (but oh so distant) wellwisher, as wielder of magic powers and the only wise person who knows how his life should be handled; if he can’t be a responsible member of a community -- these are indications that the guru-disciple relationship has failed to provide the right experience. The guru may have been a codependent personality. But the blame may not and usually does not lie exclusively on the guru’s shoulders. The disciple may have required professional help to begin with. The guru may have been too overburdened to spend time straightening out the disciple’s misconceptions (assuming his being overburdened was not a symptom of his compulsive ”rescuing”). It may have happened that the guru got gradually pulled into unhealthy dynamics by hundreds of worshipful, emotionally needy followers – a very real danger and a possible reason why the scripture warns against taking too many disciples. Finally, it may have been a simple lack of knowledge, on both sides. Whatever the case may be, ISKCON history seems to teach that, even though the spiritual dimension of life is higher than the psychological one, no spiritual ”castle in the heart” can be built without solid psychological foundations. More often than not, the devotees’ hope that chanting and other spiritual practices  will automatically eradicate their “mental” problems remains unfulfilled.

When we are unaware of the psychological baggage we bring to our spiritual quest, we can be distracted from the serious psychological work we need to do.  . . . Even though psychology and spirituality aren’t mutually exclusive, we make a major mistake when we fail to see and respect their very real differences. Psychology helps us deal with our emotions and live more effectively. Spirituality helps us transcend the material world for an awarenes of union with the Divine. The two disciplines work on different levels. Expecting one to do the job of the other is like consulting a psychologist instead of an orthopedist for a broken leg.[xlviii]  

The difference between codependent relationships and healthy relationships of spiritual guidance comes out strikingly clear when one studies the guru-disciple narratives in the Vaisnava scriptures: the dialog between Maharaja Parikshit and Shukadeva Gosvami, the dialog between Arjuna and Krishna, the story of Vyasadeva’s dejection, Narada’s initiation by the bhaktivedantas, Narada’s instructing such disciples as Dhruva, Prahlada, Mrigari the hunter, and king Pracinabarhisat, and finally Krishna’s own pastime of studying in Sandipani Muni’s school.[xlix] There is a clear pattern there.  

None of the above-mentioned disciples is motivated by an emotional need for a superhuman savior-guru. Most are, in fact, extraordinarily autonomous, capable, independent-minded persons, strong individuals in their own right. They meet their spiritual masters for a short period of intense learning, during which they feel free to assert themselves and bring up any doubts, even to reject their spiritual masters’ suggestions (Arjuna, Dhruva, Parikshit). Love for their gurus and the feelings of eternal indebtedness do not make these disciples any less self-reliant or unable to take charge of their own lives. They do not consider themselves too ”materially covered” to exercise discrimination and listen to their heart in spiritual matters (Vyasadeva, Dhruva). The gurus rarely interfere with the disciples practical lives. In all these narrations, after challenging the disciple and giving him spiritual knowledge, the guru leaves the final decision to him and quietly departs from the scene. Much like in MacDonald’s model.  

Creating and Maintaining Spiritually Supportive Dynamics

For the following guideline I am personally indebted to Michael D. Langone, Ph.D., the Executive Director of the American Family Foundation, who rendered valuable help with preparing the Spiritual Abuse seminar in Radhadesh this year. A prerequisite for ensuring spiritually healthy dynamics is what M. Langone calls psychological respect.  Its components form the acronym MAID:  

Mind -- honor the individual's capacity to question and think critically.

Autonomy -- honor the individual's right to make decisions that flow from internal deliberations rather than external pressures.

Identity -- honor the individual's existing identity and not let some vision of a prospective "ideal" identity cause one to assault the identity that exists.

Dignity  -- honor the individual's need to feel worthwhile and respected in the eyes of peers and family - and not subject the person to public ridicule or confessions.[l]

All these four have been violated. Those who voiced uncomfortable questions or criticisms were silenced by faulty rhetoric or told that they are the problem. New devotees were manipulated into joining ISKCON before they could make informed choices and were often pressured to accept a guru against their heart. In the name of being Krishna’s eternal servants in the spiritual realm of Goloka Vrindavana, devotees were encouraged and sometimes coerced to relinquish their rights and duties, disregard the needs and gifts flowing from their being husbands, wives, parents, children (a particularly tragic one), citizens, professionals and so on. Even to this day, it happens not infrequently that the guru who has received a letter from a disciple confiding in him a personal difficulty breaches the confidentiality by resending the letter to the disciple’s local managers. Many other examples can be found. Most can be believed to be actions undertaken with the devotees’ best interest in mind; this may help one forgive the abusers but it does not make their actions any less damaging. The gardener may be eager to see the young plant that he cultivates grow high and bear flowers, but will it help if in his impatience he forcibly pulls it up? When plant after plant die, one would expect the gardener to learn not to repeat the mistake.  

Any healthy organization, but especially one whose goal is to facilitate its members’ personal development, must make sure its structure and procedures reflect the above principles (more about this in Bhaktavatsala dasa’s article). However, ultimately no legislation from above can safeguard an organization from spiritual abuse. All individual members must be committed to treating both themselves and others with psychological respect, regardless of position, and must watch out for telltale signs of abuse. They must also feel the personal responsibility to take action. For example, if a Bhagavatam speaker sidetracks a valid challenge from the audience or uses intimidation to silence the questioner, the audience should not let it pass. If they do, they further reinforce the abusive pressure on the one who asked the question and encourage the abuser to continue. Bhishma and Drona did not abuse Draupadi (in the well-known Mahabharata scene) – yet by failing to protest when she was abused in their presence, they became implicated. All that is needed for evil to prevail is for good people to do nothing.  

I believe it is of crucial importance in abuse prevention that we learn to use our internal early warning system – our feelings. (A prerequisite for this is that we “clear up the background noise” by sorting out any personal emotional problems that we may have brought with us to spiritual practice.) Main part of sexual child abuse prevention is encouraging children to trust their feelings and act upon them. Children will often have a “yucky” feeling when in danger, even if they cannot name the danger. So will adults. Submission to a teacher is a necessary part of learning, and not all instructions will make sense before we execute them. However, the farther the teacher’s demands depart from common sense and the louder our inner guide warns of danger, the clearer the contract should be and the shorter the timelines.  

Protecting ourselves from abuse is not an act of egoism. It equals protecting others from both being abused and becoming abusive. Ultimately, it protects the organization from losing touch with reality -- in other words, from losing sanity, since sanity is an ongoing process of dedication to reality at all costs.[li]  

Closing Thoughts  

This article is obviously not a finished piece of research. It is merely ”surveying the landscape.” Many concepts could be only briefly touched upon and some of the statements may be overgeneralizations. I am convinced that we have symptoms of spiritual abuse in ISKCON and that unless we, individual devotees, commit ourselves to understanding and resolving these issues in our own personal lives first and then in the collective life of our ”big spiritual family,” this family may soon cross the line beyond which there is not even the minimum of trust and hope necessary to try to keep it together.  

Throughout the article, I quoted books and articles about spiritual abuse written within the Christian tradition. Reading these left me deeply touched. It was an interfaith experience. I wish that we, devotees of Krishna, can show as much fairness, compassion and keen sensitivity to discern the voice of God in our hearts as shown by those writers (most of whom are also counselors and preachers). I was amazed to find many parallels between the problems our religious organizations are facing. It is encouraging to seee that we, devotees of Krishna, are not alone in our personal concern and commitment to fight for a non-abusive image of God, spiritual authority and the individual self. It is exciting to see how, perhaps for the first time in history, religious communities come so close together, sharing not only their ”good news” but also their painful struggles and the solutions reached through them. With all the challenges that the modern age poses to the traditional religions, this is a beautiful silver lining.  

Most concerns and topics for exploration could be signaled only briefly. Many others were not even mentioned, since I did not feel competent to address them in an informed and balanced way. Let me at least mention here some of these concerns still waiting to be faced and resolved.  

Something very much needed but difficult for us ISKCON members to accomplish, for several obvious reasons, is an objective assessment of Srila Prabhupada’s preaching and leadership style vis-a-vis spiritual abuse issues. In quoting our Founder-Acharya throughout the text of this article, I felt I was sometimes dangerously close to the proof-texting mentality. There are many wonderful examples of spiritually supportive teachings and dealings of Srila Prabhupada, yet there are also quotes and stories with troubling implications. Examples of issues to be researched: Srila Prabhupada’s understanding of psychological issues around self-realization; his understanding of requirements for being a spiritual master (he usually mentions two: taking initiation in a bona fide disciplic succession and repeating one’s spiritual master’s teachings without change or interpretation; the criterion of personal maturity is conspicuous by its absence); his vision of the movement’s (and the world’s) closest future and the priorities flowing from it; his way of dealing with others’ (including but not limited to his disciples) doubts, challenges and personal difficulties.  

Another area for exploration is understanding of spiritual experience in Vaishnavism in general and Gaudiya Vaishnavism in particular. If selfless devotion to God is the ideal, how does one get there from an ultimately selfish motive such as wanting to develop selfless devotion? What are the distinguishing features of a truly spiritual experience?[lii] Does it feel different? How, psychologically, does a material emotion evolve into a spiritual one (or is it rather so that spiritual emotions arise without any connection with the material ones that are already there?) I once asked one of the most senior and respected devotees in our movement how it felt to him to be developing spiritually. ”I don’t know,” he answered sincerely. ”I have never thought about it.” But spiritual development is all about developing love, which, apart from being an attitude, is also a feeling. Without a tool to determine for ourselves whether or not our feelings are evolving in the direction we want, we invite abuse.  

Yet another broad area to be explored is the relationship between abuse and religion as such. Opinions expressed by writers on these issues fall across the entire spectrum, from asserting that spiritual abuse happens when we forget that we are helpless before God and need His mercy to set things right[liii] to seeing the very attitude described above, along with the distinction between ”spiritual” and ”material,” as the root cause of all abuse.[liv]. Is there a level of personal advancement beyond which the principles of respect for the individual’s mind, autonomy, identity and dignity do not apply... which, in fact, can only be reached by relinquishing these, so that what appears to be an assault on a person’s psychological wholeness is in fact an entrance onto a higher plane of experience? The school of transpersonal psychology seems to concur. The Vaishnava scriptures would probably support this idea as well[lv]. But if such a level exists, who is to determine where it is and how to cross it?

Pondering upon these issues generates fear. Not only fear of committing offenses to God and His devotees, but also of desecrating with one’s intellect the realms that can only unfold to one who has the trust of a child. As Krishna said in the Bhagavad-gita, every human being has sraddha, faith, in something. Faith sustains our life and gives it meaning. It also shields us from uncertainty that could make life unbearable. We need to feel certain of who we are and where we are going. One would not want to destroy the life-sustaining, life-promising faith by too much peeking behind the curtains. A devotee responded to my enquiries with a friendly warning: ”This is a dangerous path for one interested in cultivating the creeper of bhakti in the heart.” True. But not always can dangers be avoided.  

Note: The above was written in August 1999. Two months later, a text that I posted to a discussion group of ISKCON's internal bulletin board system, COM, led to my becoming the target of a massive campaign from the side of many senior members and several leaders of ISKCON, who demanded either a public apology or that I be excommunicated, as well as that COM be closed down. I chose to give up my formal membership in ISKCON. The text in question took up the issue of whether ISKCON's founder, Srila Prabhupada, could possibly have made any mistakes or been wrong about anything. Was he a human being with human limitations or rather an all-knowing, divine oracle? How a follower answers this question determines how, with what mindset, he or she will interpret and follow his teachings. It also determines what assumptions Prabhupada's followers will make about themselves: are they always right in their beliefs and actions or can they possibly be in error? This issue is of crucial importance for understanding the nature of spiritual abuse in ISKCON.  My case confirms my own earlier statement that an objective assessment of Srila Prabhupada's preaching/leadership style is something very difficult for ISKCON members to accomplish. However, this issue will keep coming up until it is faced with openness and honesty. There is nothing as persistent as the truth.



[i] D. Johnson, J. VanVonderen, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse. Recognizing and Escaping Spiritual Manipulation and False Spiritual Authority Within the Church, p. 13. Bethany House Publishers, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1991.  K. M. Porterfield, Blind Faith. Recognizing and Recovering From Dysfunctional Religious Groups, p. 66. CompCare Publishers, Minneapolis, Minnesota 1993.  M. Linn, S. F. Linn, D. Linn, Healing Spiritual Abuse and Religious Addiction, p. 19. Paulist Press, New York/Mahwah, N.J., 1994

 [ii] The terms phalgu vairagya and yukta vairagya are defined in Rupa Gosvami’s Bhakti Rasamrita Sindhu 2.258 and 2.255, respectively.

 [iii] See, for example, Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.3.34 purport.

[v]  Bhaktivinoda Thakura, Putana. Essay printed in the January 1932 edition of The Harmonist (English edition of Shri Sajjana Toshani); reprinted in Shri Krishna Samhita, pp. 203-204. Vrajaraj Press, c/o ISKCON Vrindavan.

 [vi]  A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, letter to Atreya Rsi, 4 February 1972.

 [vii] D. Steindl-Rast, The Mystical Core of Organized Religion, http://www.csp.org/docs/steindl-mystical.html This author’s insights are particularly interesting for the Vaishnavas as followers of a tradition renowned for its rich mysticism. He elucidates ways in which live doctrine, morality, and ritual, born of the mystical experience, fossilize into dogmatism, moralism, and ritualism.

[viii] Johnson, VanVonderen, 1991, p. 13

[ix] Johnson, VanVonderen, 1991, pp. 20-21

[x]Johnson, VanVonderen, 1991, p. 23

[xi] M. Linn, S. F. Linn, D. Linn, 1993, p. 15

[xii]Johnson, VanVonderen, 1991, p. 194-195

[xiii] S. Gelberg (Subhananda dasa), On Leaving ISKCON, http://www.trancenet.org/krishna/opinion/gelberg.shtml

[xiv] Kundali dasa, Our Mission: Part Three, p. 45. Rekha Printers, India (undated)

[xv] Judging from my, admittedly limited, counseling experience their numbers might turn out to be significant, if a way were found to obtain truthful answers from a representative sample of devotees.

[xvi]  It is not my intention to argue here whether the ”sex only for procreation” rule is possible to follow. (There are brahmin communities in India who seem to follow it strictly to this day, as evidenced by testimonies of their descendants who have joined ISKCON.) I wish to point out, however, that for significant numbers of devotees this principle is impossible to follow and it thus seems to function as a built-in generator of guilt and shame, damaging their ability to experience loving exchange with God, or even to aspire for such an exchange.

[xvii] For example, the concept of the “four defects” (conditioned human beings have imperfect senses, are prone to illusion, make mistakes and have a tendency to cheat) was originally presented by Jiva Gosvami in the Sarva-samvadini commentary on his Sandarbhas, philosophical treatises Jiva used it to argue that one cannot reach perfect knowledge about transcendent God without hearing shabda-pramana, the Vedic revelation. There is a difference between this claim and the claim that one cannot possibly know anything at all. In a similar vein, devotees not infrequently stretch the traditional concept of the superiority of shabda (Vedic evidence) over pratyaksha (direct perception) and anumana (logical inference) to claim that pratyaksa and anumana have no value at all. A useful reference to compare is Srila Prabhupada’s lecture on Bhagavad-gita 2.8-12, Los Angeles, November 27, 1968.

[xviii] A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Bhagavad-gita as It Is, p. 312. The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust 1986

[xix]A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Bhagavad-gita as It Is, pp. 313-314. The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust 1986.

[xx] A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, lecture on Bhagavad-gita 15.15, Paris 1976

[xxi] A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, lecture on Bhagavad-gita 7.4, Bombay February 18, 1974

[xxii] A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Srimad-Bhagavatam Canto Five, p. 894. The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust 1987

[xxiii] Porterfield, 1993: Chapter Four

[xxiv] E. Friedman, Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue. New York: Guilford Press, 1985).

[xxv] Emotional literacy and facing one’s feelings are the topic of books such as Emotional Intelligence (D. Goleman, Bantam Books, 1996) and Achieving Emotional Literacy (C. Steiner with P. Perry, Bloomsbury, London 1997).

[xxvi] M. Linn, S.F. Linn, D. Linn, 1994, p. 12

[xxvii] M. Linn, S.F. Linn, D. Linn, 1994, p. 12-13

[xxviii] A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Nectar of Instruction, Text 2

[xxix] There are already groups of “Fundamentalists Anonymous” operating in the United States.

[xxx] M. Linn, S. F. Linn, D. Linn, 1994, p. 127

[xxxi] Johnson, VanVonderen, 1991, p. 83

[xxxii]  The Folio contains all the books, lectures, plus almost all conversations and letters by Srila Prabhupada in a digital form. It is not unusual for the Governing Body Commission members to search their laptops for Folio references during plenary discussions.

[xxxiii] A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, conversation, 9 May 1975

 [xxxiv] Thakura Bhaktivinoda, The Bhagavata: Its Philosophy, Its Ethics, and Its Theology, pp. 1, 28, 29. Undated collector’s edition published by Guardian of Devotion Press, San Jose, California. The Thakura’s point beautifully agrees with the Linn’s assertion that “...a healthy relationship with tradition is a conversation in which the dalogue enables both the individual and the tradition to change and grow.” (M. Linn, S.F. Linn, D. Linn, 1993, p. 14)

[xxxv] Thakura Bhaktivinoda, Shri Tattva-sutra, pp. 191-192. This reference has been gleaned from the World Wide Web.

[xxxvi] M. Linn, S. F. Linn, D. Linn, 1994, p. 18

[xxxvii] M. Linn, S. F. Linn, D. Linn, 1994, p. 18

[xxxviii] G. MacDonald, Disciple Abuse, in: Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 2, No. 2, 1986

[xxxix] MacDonald, 1986, pp. 289-293

[xl] MacDonald, 1986, p. 290

[xli] MacDonald, 1986, p. 291.

[xlii] MacDonald, 1986, p. 292.  In a similar vein, other writers remark: "Looking carefully at a guru's inner circle is extremely revealing. Those closest to him, his most dedicated students, display better than anything else where his teaching leads after years of exposure. What is also displayed is who he prefers to have around him: Are they strong and interesting in their own right, or are they boring sycophants who continually feed his ego? Do disciples ever "graduate" and become self-defining adults, or do they remain obedient and tied to the guru? It is also very enlightening to observe how gurus treat and refer to those who leave their fold." (J. Kramer, D. Alstad, The Guru Papers. Masks of Authoritarian Power,  p. 90.  Frog, Ltd. Berkeley, California, 1993)

[xliii] The description of codependency is based on several books on the topic, primarily on: C. Steiner with P. Perry, Achieving Emotional Literacy. Bloomsbury, London, 1997

[xliv] Equity rescuing, a term originally used in economics, describes a situation where more and more investments are made to justify and “rescue” the investments already made. Investments can be money (“money pit” houses), time, effort, emotional input and religious faith as well. The concept of “equity rescuing” might be partially responsible for the fact that the most senior ISKCON devotees are often the ones most entrenched against change and most motivated to “try harder the old way," even if they can intellectually understand that a change is needed.

[xlv] A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, conversation,  Boston, Dec 23, 1969

[xlvi] A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, lecture on Bhagavad-gita 4.34-35, Los Angeles, January 12 1969

[xlvii]  A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada to Bali Mardana, 1974. This reference is not to be found in Srila Prabhupada’s collected works. Source: Ravindra Svarupa dasa, personal communication

[xlviii] Porterfield, 1993, p. 66

[xlix]  All of these narratives are found in the Srimad-Bhagavatam, with the exception of the dialog between Arjuna and Krishna, which is the Bhagavad-gita.

[l] M. Langone, personal communication with the author. M. Langone’s essay detailing the MAID concept has been published in the Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 9, No. 2, 1992.

[li] M. Scott Peck, People of the Lie. The Hope for Healing Human Evil, p. 162. Published by Simon & Schuster, New York 1983

[lii] For example, was the gopis’ [cowherd girls of Vrindavan] lust for Krishna material or spiritual? The Bhagavatam text itself does not introduce a distinction between kama [mundane lust] and prema [spiritual love]; the gopis are attracted to Krishna as a human lover. It’s the later commentators who emphasize that the gopis’ feelings had nothing to do with kama, being transcendental. The Bhagavatam does say, however, that meditating on the gopis’ amorous exchanges with Krishna is a way to transcend mundane lust. Then again, some of the later Gaudiya Vaishnava acaryas warn that one should not meditate on these pastimes unless one is already free from lust. This shift in understanding the nature of spiritual emotion has far-reaching implications. (Personal communication with Tracy Coleman based on research for her PhD dissertation in progress at Brown University.  See also her Erotic Devotion, Erotic Grace:  Adoring Krishna's Body in the Bhagavata Purana. Unpublished paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion, Orlando, FL, November 1998)

[liii] Johnson, VanVonderen, 1991

[liv] Kramer, Alstad, 1993

[lv] The famous verse, yasyaham anugrhnami... comes to mind (“The Personality of Godhead said: If I especially favor someone, I gradually deprive him of his wealth. Then the relatives and friends of such a poverty-stricken man abandon him. In this way he suffers one distress after another.” Srimad-Bhagavatam 10.88.8).