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ISKCON as an Addictive Substance

Schaef explains that an organization may be more than just a setting where addictive behavior takes place. The organization can become the addictive substance itself. Like a drug, work can take over a workaholic's entire life. Schaef describes work as the "fix" that helps the workaholic "to get ahead, be successful, avoid feeling, and ultimately avoid living." Workaholics tend to lose touch with other aspects of their lives and may give up all that they previously knew, felt, and believed.

Just like the workaholic, devotees are praised for letting the organization become everything in their lives. Like the workaholic, devotees may also give up previously-held beliefs. Critics accuse ISKCON and other cults of "brainwashing" members and turning them into "zombies." But Schaef offers what may be a more logical explanation. The new devotee may be an ACOA or co-dependent predisposed to addictive systems. Rejection of family members and old friends may be due to the person's decision to fully embrace the new system.

In 1984, a Ph.D. dissertation published by A.S. Weiss showed that ISKCON devotees' hallmark trait is compulsivity. His findings contradict the stereotypical image of cult members as empty-headed robots. Rather, his findings agree with Schaef's diagnosis of ACOAs and co-dependents in the workplace. According to the theories of Schaef and Weiss, devotees would be better understood as hard working, intelligent people, who are caught up in an addictive system that promotes workaholism.

Schaef explains that another way organizations become addictive is by promising things members did not get from their families: approval, caring, and a sense of belonging. For organizations that appear to be "one big, happy family," the best-adjusted members are those who come from dysfunctional families.

ISKCON members refer to their organization as the "ISKCON family." Everyone is either a "godbrother" or a "godsister," and Prabhupada is referred to as the "spiritual father" of all ISKCON devotees. GBC leaders use the analogy of the ISKCON family to reinforce the concept of unity. This became a form of denial as the organization disintegrated in Prabhupada's absence. The idealized concept of the ISKCON Family was much better than the reality.

Unfortunately, as Schaef explains, an addictive organization cannot fulfill the role of a family. She writes,

>>It is a family in which membership is dependent on playing by rather rigid rules and behaving according to established norms. This kind of corporation is a "family" whose main mode of operating is control. Thus, acceptance in the family is won by learning the right thing to do and doing it (just as in the addictive family). The main thing learned about family from the promise of the organization is that membership is conditional upon not being oneself and following one's own path. The other lesson learned is to keep attuned outside oneself and to be constantly vigilant about those things one needs to do to stay in the company's good graces and win approval.>>

Control and conformity were requirements for membership in the ISKCON family. The family had rigid expectations for every aspect of life, including attendance of temple services and functions, participation in temple jobs, giving up outside activities, standards for child rearing, what to wear, how to eat, and even recommendations of what to think and how to pray. Non-participation and non-compliance could be punished or simply disapproved. That disapproval often came in the form of "chastisement," or correction from a more tenured devotee. Some had financial assistance cut off, others were physically or emotionally abused; one man was murdered for his dissidence. To say the least, members who were unable to meet an organization's codes found themselves living in an inhospitable and unloving environment.

Schaef offers an explanation of how the organization-as-addictive substance makes itself attractive to potential addicts. "The Promise" is the illusion that "directs us eagerly to the future, to some hoped-for reward, while keeping us out of touch with the present." In a commercial organization, the promise may consist of power, money, and influence. In ISKCON, the promise is translated into religious terms: liberation from birth and death, relationship with God, and suffering transcended. Another aspect of the promise is the organization's statement of its mission and goals. The mission gives the organization purpose and propels it forward.

A list of ISKCON's goals printed in Back to Godhead magazine includes "unity and peace in the world." Admirable, but hard to achieve. Other organizational goals (not published, but nonetheless widely espoused by members) include bringing about an age of enlightenment, introducing Krishna consciousness into government circles and gaining political power, a devotee elected president of the United States, opening temples in every city in the world, establishing Krishna consciousness as the most prominent world religion, and ultimately, saving the world.

Schaef explains that the addictive organization is rarely able to fulfill its promises. The goals are usually exaggerated to the point of grandiosity; grandiosity that gives gross self-importance to the group, while keeping the goals lofty and unattainable.

After Prabhupada died, many ISKCON leaders believed that a Third World War would soon destroy everything. When the debris cleared, devotees would emerge as the only survivors and start a new world order. This vision of holocaust is symptomatic of frustration over the grandiosity of the stated goals. It is similar to the evangelic Christian belief that the world will be saved after the Apocalypse. In Schaef's terms, fixation on Apocalypse is how members of an addictive organization may deal with feelings of pain and frustration when they don't see any tangible progress toward their stated goals.

Schaef explains the grandiosity of the mission as a "fix" or "con" that reassures members they are doing important work. She explains that no matter how poorly the organization performs, everything will be all right as long as the mission remains "in its shrine" as a "household god." In ISKCON, the mission is revered like a god; ISKCON is even referred to as "the body of Prabhupada" or "an incarnation of Krishna." The BBT, the book publishing branch, is referred to as "Prabhupada's heart." Dedicated followers used scriptural quotes to validate ISKCON's mission and goals. By quoting scripture, they hoped to convince others that the mission was still intact, even as it become progressively more dysfunctional.

In 1988 in a discussion about ISKCON's problems, a member asked whether all the problems in ISKCON would ever be rectified. The speaker, a representative of the GBC, used a "Prabhupada said" cliche to convince the questioner that ISKCON's mission and goals were still intact:

>>Question: You make the point that things have been rectified, but . . . it took eight years. If something else goes wrong it could take another eight years--I may be dead by the time you solve all the problems. Reply: Fine, but at least things are being rectified . . . Prabhupada gave us a very simple formula: "Chant and be happy." Who can stop us from chanting? Did anyone ever stop you from chanting? Did anyone ever say that you can't chant Hare Krishna, and can't be happy from chanting? I mean, where does our real happiness lie? It lies in our Krishna consciousness. Our Krishna consciousness is actually our real concern, and no one can stop us from becoming Krishna conscious. When we become devotees, then automatically all the problems will be adjusted.>>

Schaef explains that the addictive process is in motion whenever the promise of the mission is used to cover up for problems and shortcomings in the organization. In this case, the ISKCON leader used a concept that has great integrity for the devotees, but turned it into an addictive substance.

Another aspect of the con is that as the organization becomes increasingly self-centered and immoral, the goals become distorted. The organization develops ulterior motives, which Schaef calls "unstated goals." Schaef finds "an inverse correlation between the loftiness of the mission and the congruence between stated and unstated goals." While fixing everyone's attention on the grandiose stated mission, the addictive organization pursues its unstated goals. When discrepancies appear, the addictive organization enters a state of denial.

Among ISKCON's unstated goals were the pursuit of money and property. When the 11 gurus divided ISKCON in 1977, they competed to see who could get the most money by sending disciples to airports and parking lots. They called it "transcendental competition" and said they were doing it for God. The money paid for properties, including castles and chateaus in Europe. Each guru had to buy a rural retreat for the impending Apocalypse. Another mark of accomplishment for a guru was to attract rich or famous followers. Our newspaper regularly printed articles about actors and actresses, models, rock stars, scholars, and government officials who endorsed Krishna consciousness.

Schaef explains that workers become discouraged when they realize how much time they spend working on unstated goals. In fact, Schaef said this duality can cause an individual to lose touch with their own sense of morality and spirituality. In Alcoholics Anonymous it is called "moral deterioration." Often in ISKCON, members became discouraged when they had to work for long hours to collect money. Sometimes leaders told them to conceal their identity as ISKCON members, since what they were doing was illegal, or at least deceptive. Still, the organization condoned these activities; leaders told the members that fundraising was a form of "preaching." These "preachers" often "burned out" and left ISKCON because they couldn't reconcile deceptive fundraising practices with the stated spiritual goals of the organization.

Schaef says that addiction is a spiritual disease. She writes, "Indeed, whenever we confuse religion with spirituality, we are opting for the structure, control, and rules of an addictive system. This reliance on religion may remove us from the inner search only we can do from the depths of our own being."

Go to Part III: ISKCON as an Addict

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