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The International Society for Krishna Consciousness as an Addictive Organization

by Nori J. Muster, 1991

The ISKCON Organization

I was a full-time member of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), or Hare Krishna Movement, for 10 years. ISKCON represents an ancient branch of Hinduism called "Gaudiya Vaishnavism," primarily concerned with worship of God as Krishna and His incarnations. A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, a lifelong Vaishnava born in Calcutta, brought the religion to the West at the request of his guru. Prabhupada came to America in 1965 at the age of 72 and attracted a following of hippies. He opened the first temple 1966 in New York's lower east side, and at the time of his death 11 years later, ISKCON listed 108 temples in 25 countries around the world.

I joined ISKCON in 1977, just when Prabhupada died. At that time, 11 senior disciples named themselves as gurus and legislated themselves into power. Although Prabhupada had formed a 24-man committee (the "Governing Body Commission" or "GBC") that was supposed to be in charge, the 11 gurus became the only men in the GBC with real power. The gurus divided the world into 11 zones, taking control of the temples within their zones. New people joining ISKCON took initiation from whichever guru controlled the temple in their geographical area.

During my years in ISKCON, I worked in the public affairs headquarters in Los Angeles and wrote a book about my experiences called Betrayal of the Spirit. The P.R. office worked with the media, celebrities, and the organization's leaders on a variety of projects. I helped published several books, pamphlets, and periodicals, including a monthly newspaper called ISKCON World Review. After managing the newspaper for eight years, my husband and I resigned over editorial policy conflicts. While the precepts and practices of Krishna consciousness are benevolent, the organization (at least in North America) had spiritual psychological trouble. In his book, Path With Heart, Jack Kornfield criticized groups like ISKCON, saying that

>>When Eastern spirituality in America began to be popular in the 1960s and 1970s, its practice was initially idealistic and romantic. People tried to use spirituality to "get high" and to experience extraordinary states of consciousness. There was a belief in perfect gurus and complete and wonderful teachings taht if followed would lead to our full enlightenment and change the world. Thse were the imitative and self-absorbed qualities that Chogyam Trungpa called "spiritual materialism." By undertaking the rituals, the costumes, and the philosophy of spiritual traditions, people tried to escape their ordinary lives and become more spiriutal beings.>>

Kornfield proposes that superficial idealism is to blame in unsuccessful Eastern group. After living as a member of a spiritual group that became material, I believe the problems go deeper. ISKCON's weaknesses mirror the weaknesses of dysfunctional families, as happens in many modern organizations. The Addictive Organization, by A.W. Schaef, explains this dynamic and in this paper I will use Schaef's model to examine American temple life in ISKCON.

Schaef's Model of Addictive Organizations

Systemic addiction theory explains why addicts and their families fight and fall into dysfunctional modes. In Addictive Organizations, Schaef says there's "a generic addiction process that underlies all the various addictions. She takes addiction beyond the family and states that treatment must involve the addictive workplace, since that is where people spend most of their time. Thus she identifies addictive organizations as the "infrastructure of the addictive society" and as the "glue" that perpetuates addiction at a societal level.

Schaef observes that addictive organizations exhibit the characteristics of addicts and usually have addictive employees. She explains, "Individuals function the same way as the organization they inhabit." Once the addictive process is in motion, however, the organization perpetuates its own addiction, even though individuals may come and go.

Addictive people working in addictive organizations include addicts, co-dependents, and Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOAs). Each has their own characteristics, with some of the characteristics overlapping between addictive types. Addicts are those who abuse substances like alcohol, drugs, or food; or processes like work, sex, money, gambling, or relationships. Co-dependents are those who try to protect the addicts from suffering the effects of their addiction. They generally have low self-esteem and may be addicted to work and to pleasing authority figures. ACOAs are also co-dependent, although they may resent the authority figures they try to please. Because ACOAs come from broken or dysfunctional homes, they are attracted to organizations that portray themselves as surrogate families.

Schaef identifies four ways the disease of addiction may afflict an organization. First, one of the key people may be an addict. Second, the organization may have many addicts, co-dependents, and ACOAs who bring dysfunctional behavior into the workplace. Third, the organization itself may be the addictive substance. And finally, the organization itself may be the addict. These states form a downward spiral and organizations at the bottom of the spectrum abuse the workers and clients they try to serve. In 1989, when I left ISKCON, it exhibited symptoms in each of these categories.

ISKCON Leaders as Addicts

Addicts tend to make faulty decisions, exhibit paranoid or schizoid behavior, and perpetuate dishonesty and confusion. Having an addict in a key position can lead an organization to disaster.

Of the 11 men who assumed control of ISKCON in 1977, several were later exposed as addicts. "Addiction" means a habit that is impossible to break, even with evidence that the habit is causing problems in one's life. ISKCON members (including leaders) are sworn to follow spiritual principals of no intoxication, no meat eating, no gambling, and no illicit sex. Of the 11 gurus, six were expelled for breaking the principles and failing to meditate, among other reasons.

Schaef explains that organizational addicts cannot remain in power unless they are surrounded by co-dependents. Without the co-dependents covering up, the key person's addiction would be exposed. Thus, the organization enters a state of denial to cover up for and protect the addict. This happened in ISKCON, as I explained in my book. Schaef says that one way an addictive organizations may deal with a key-person-as-addict is by trying to exert control over the addict. According to Schaef, this makes the problem worse: "Focusing on control puts the company into the same addictive system as the addict, that is, a system operating out of the illusion of control." Schaef says this method almost always results in crisis.

ISKCON gurus tried unsuccessfully for years to control one guru's problem with hallucinogens. As good co-dependents, they kept the problem a secret, hoping they could reform him before it got out of hand. The guru exhibited bizarre behavior, such as going into trance and chanting for hours at a time. He would sometimes scream or exhibit other symptoms of hysteria under the influence of LSD. None of his disciples were aware of his drug problem, so they were left confused about his behavior. Jayathirtha led them to believe that he was exhibiting the ecstatic symptoms of an enlightened soul. After years of trying different plans to reform this guru, the GBC expelled him. This caused a split among his disciples--some followed Jayatirtha and some remained in ISKCON. Jayatirtha started his own group; a mixture of Krishna consciousness, Christianity, and LSD. In 1986 he was stabbed to death and decapitated in London by a drug-crazed disciple, a former ISKCON member.

Schaef explains that key addicts sometimes "con" others into excusing their behavior, or their irrational behavior is overlooked simply because they are the boss. This was the case in ISKCON. Even though the gurus' problems were widely known in 1980, the GBC didn't take action to expell gurus until the mid-1980s.

It is interesting that more than half of the 11 gurus were expelled for breaking the rules of celibacy. Schaef explains that the duality of good and bad, right and wrong, can create a repressive-addictive system. In the case of ISKCON, the celibate gurus became overly concerned about the sexual habits of their disciples. There was a tragic problem with child abuse in the ISKCON school system. As psychotherapist A.W. Richard Sipe observes, organizations like the Catholic Church (and ISKCON) demand celibacy but do not train for it. One ISKCON member accused of child molestation tried to defend himself in court by saying that the sexual repression in ISKCON drove him to molest children. It may be true, however the judge sentenced him to jail anyway.

Taking Your Disease With You

Schaef explains that organizations become more addictive when addictive people replicate their dysfunctional behaviors at the workplace. She says that for addicts, co-dependents, and ACOAs, "A person not involved in active recovery is probably part of the problem." The organization becomes a crisis clinic, with everyone pouring their own fears and dysfunctions into the tumult.

Some ISKCON members were addicts, ACOAs, and co-dependents before joining the organization. Many abused drugs and many had a troubled adolescence. Some could be called social dropouts, but such behavior was typical of 1960s and early 1970s culture when ISKCON had its greatest influx of new members. (Despite its addictive structure, ISKCON has had a positive effect on many people who joined. However, this is a separate subject.)

Schaef defines co-dependents as "servers, volunteers, and people who set aside their own needs to serve the needs of others." ISKCON encourages its members to think of themselves as "servants of God" and "servants of the guru." This is a tenet of the ancient philosophy, but in the context of a spiritual organization that has become materialistic, being a servant means being co-dependent. The disciples had to overlook a guru who cannot even follow the basic principles.

Schaef identifies specific behavioral difficulties for the ACOA and the co-dependent at work. ACOAs may become obsessed with perfectionism, self-criticism, workaholism, and rigidity in thinking. Co-dependents may exhibit symptoms similar to an enabler spouse, who protects the addict or covers up when their performance is questioned. I found this to be true in my own case. Whenever I heard rumors about my guru or another authority figure, I tried to ignore or defuse the rumor. Our office gave official statements to the media, to officially deny allegations. As editors of the ISKCON newspaper, my husband and I routinely whitewashed corruption or deviation. The newspaper voluntarily carried the party line until 1986, when we tried to develop editorial independence, publishing interviews, editorials, and news stories about ISKCON's problems.

Go to Part II: ISKCON as an Addictive Substance

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