ISKCON as an Addict
In her examination of addictive organizations, Schaef proposes that sometimes the organization itself becomes an addict. It exhibits all the symptoms of an addict: it becomes powerless over its problems; its disease grows progressively worse; it loses its sense of values and morality; it functions primarily out of self-centeredness, the illusion of control, dualism, and isolation; it exhibits confused, obsessive, and paranoid thinking processes; and it exerts progressively more control over its members.
Denial and dishonesty are important aspects of an organization as addict. Schaef explains that an organization, like an individual, is in denial when it refuses to acknowledge what is really happening. Making others believe a denial-ridden assessment is an example of dishonesty. Denial and dishonesty have been important factors in ISKCON's addiction process. The public affairs office's main job was to convince the members and outside world that everything was okay when it wasn't okay. But it wasn't just the P.R. office; other ISKCON leaders engaged in denial and dishonesty.
Much denial surrounded ISKCON's main crisis, which started in 1985. At that time, several hundred ISKCON members led a revolt against the GBC. In a special meeting, the members challenged the GBC for its policy of allowing several gurus to hold all the power. In response to the uprising, the GBC expelled four of the 11 gurus and accepted 30 new men to be gurus. Several gurus also agreed to diminish the amount of worship and respect they received from their disciples. This was known as the "Guru Reform Movement." A period of turmoil, in-fighting, and confusion followed. In 1988, a GBC spokesman gave the following assessment to a group of devotees:
>>In 1986 [ISKCON] reached a very critical point--the optimum point of crisis. And last year, in 1987, it seemed that everything was going to fall apart. No one really knew how the Society could be saved, but somehow by Krishna's mercy, ISKCON has been saved. And now, in 1988, we see that actually things are improving. And I'm sure now we will see that everything will be improving with time. The spirit is high, although we lost a lot of our assets; we lost a lot of our properties; a lot of our devotees. But still, those who are left--they have become very, very strong. Their conviction has become very, very profound. I am quite positive that things will be improving. Things are improving and will be improving in future.>>
Schaef says that when dishonesty and denial are the norm, members believe that the organization would not survive if it were honest. This explains why certain leaders did not want us to publish honest information in the ISKCON newspaper. In 1988, shortly before I resigned, the chairman of the GBC called me a "crusading, expose, get-all-the-dirt-out" journalist. He said the GBC could not tolerate this in the official ISKCON newspaper.
Schaef explains that dishonesty is the result of perfectionism. The illusion that everything is perfect cannot be maintained unless questionable information is withheld. Thus, leaders in an addictive organization may become obsessed with denial and dishonesty, even in matters that are inconsequential, since they want everything to appear perfect.
Members of an addictive organization tend to experience anxiety and pressure. However, they easily lose touch with what they feel because there are no facilities for expressing feelings. When ISKCON members say they are unhappy, leaders may tell them to read scripture or chant. Oft cited in this regard is a verse in the scriptures that promotes "revealing one's mind in confidence," but leaders leave it up to individuals to find a way to carry out that instruction. ISKCON members would benefit from meetings structured similar to 12-step meetings, where they could learn to express thoughts and feelings.
One of the main features of an organization as addict is its confused communications processes. Instead of direct and honest communication, there are gossip and secrets. This goes on in ISKCON, beginning with the people at the top. The men in the GBC are very secretive about what goes on in their meetings. They discuss the organization's secrets, but then suppress the information. Their meetings are exclusive--they rarely allow observers and do not circulate their minutes. Only people who "have a friend in the GBC" can read the minutes. Even then, several resolutions simply appear with the word "unpublished." Thus, no one can learn the intimate secrets of the GBC.
Instituting a more honest editorial policy in the ISKCON newspaper was a personal attempt to clear up the secrets and gossip. We wanted to interview GBC members, but they were reluctant. We tried to publish results of their meetings, but they discouraged us. The resistance we faced shows that the GBC body did not want their secrets exposed in an open forum. It also leads me to belive that they want the organization to remain in a state of confusion.
Schaef explains that addict organizations do not permit "straight talk," honesty, or directness. This was true for the newspaper and also true for individuals. "Good devotees" are not supposed to say anything "blasphemous" about the organization or its leaders.
Crisis is another characteristic of an addictive organization. When the system is confused, deceptive, and unable to deal with situations in a straightforward manner, every problem is allowed to continue to the point of crisis. For example, an electric bill is not a crisis until the utility company turns off the power. Schaef explains that ACOAs are adept at dealing with crises, since they have been doing so all their lives in their dysfunctional homes. Many in an addictive system believe that crisis is natural, since they have never known anything else.
The history of the ISKCON public affairs office has been one crisis after another. The Jonestown tragedy happened two months after I joined. ISKCON's image as a cult had long been denied and ignored, so ISKCON became a target in the backlash against all cults. After Jonestown, a Life magazine photographer wanted to do a photo story about ISKCON's educational system. We panicked because we knew the school's reputation was questionable; the main school in Dallas had been closed down after a negative media reports. The public affairs minister had to make an emergency trip to New York to work out an agreement with Life magazine's attorneys. Next, airport managers tried to evict devotee fundraisers--a crisis, since ISKCON had no other means of finance. Then, another media crisis started in northern California, after a guru's arsenal was exposed. The next crisis was a large hashish bust in Laguna Beach. ISKCON leaders had long denied the problem of drug dealing within the organization, so when "former" members were arrested with drugs, it became a crisis. The next media crisis was in relation to a court case where ISKCON was sued for brainwashing.
All these events happened between 1978 and 1983. The years before and after are similar. Even though the organization faced several media crises every year, the leaders were only willing to spend between $1,000 and $2,000 a month to support our public affairs activities. Often, the local guru blamed us for the crises and threatened to take away our support altogether if we didn't do a better job. Thus, an attitude of denial left ISKCON with no solid public relations plan.
Another aspect of addictive thinking is projection. Schaef defines this as the process of taking something that is inside and placing it outside. In ISKCON, this happens when someone leaves the group. Those inside say the former member is a fool, has lost his spirituality, has made a mistake, or simply lacks piety. Another example of projection is when someone inside ISKCON characterizes the outside world as dishonest, sinful, or degraded. Schaef explains that the organization as addict always blames others, being unwilling to look at itself. Devotees dismiss bad media coverage as "demons trying to discredit ISKCON."
Dualism, another aspect of addict systems, is also present in ISKCON. Members of the organization are taught to think in terms of "us" and "them." According to Schaef, this sets up sides and creates enemies. It serves the purpose of the addict, though, because it simplifies all decisions. Everything becomes black or white, with no room for subtlety or ambiguity. In ISKCON's case, dualism prevents the organization from establishing coalitions within the host society. We tried for several years to foster relationships with animal rights and vegetarian groups by inviting them to submit news items for the newspaper. Unfortunately, a vocal faction of readers complained about our printing animal rights articles. They said "those people" have no place in ISKCON's newspaper.
Along with projection and dualism comes judgmentalism. This involves making a judgment that something is bad, simply because one disagrees with it. People outside of ISKCON are not just different, they are judged bad and inferior. People outside ISKCON are referred to as "karmis" (people who engage in karma, as opposed to yoga). Devotees within ISKCON who cannot measure up to the strict codes of behavior are also judged bad. They are often referred to as "fringies" (people on the fringe).
ISKCON's judgmental attitude toward the outside world is one factor that prevents the temples from attracting a wider congregation. Blinded by judgmental attitudes, full-time devotees send out a condescending message to anyone who will not give up everything and live full time in the temple. This judgmental, condescending outlook has also alienated former full-time members who would otherwise find a place in the congregation. Schaef says that judgmentalism stunts growth, limits creativity, and turns people in the organization against one another. Unfortunately, ISKCON's addictive attitudes toward the outside world have left the organization isolated and without friends. In Schaef's words, "It allows one to stay stuck."
Schaef recommends that religious and spiritual organizations focus on spirituality within the group before preaching to others. I agree. Because ISKCON's stated purpose is to spread spiritual teachings, the organization ought to have high spiritual standards. Unfortunately, leaders of the organization do not see that as a priority. As one ISKCON leader said, "It's easy to assume that there are problems in ISKCON, but there are problems in every organization. Who's to say that in these other groups they don't have any problems?" This is like saying, "Well, ISKCON may be an addictive, sick organization, but some organizations are worse." By maintaining an addictive system, ISKCON is actually cheating sincere religious seekers who join the organization.
Schaef also notes that addictive organizations tend to drive away their best employees. This has been one of the effects of the addictive system in ISKCON. Unless the organization heals itself, it will cease to exist. Even now, most people who remain are there because they derive some benefit in terms of money or admiration. "Ordinary" members are being driven out by economic necessity, while leaders still derive financial support from the temples or from their supporters. There is a common joke among ISKCON's critics that the old leaders are "dinosaurs" who are "running out of watering holes." It is true, the organization is gradually going bankrupt, struggling to hold onto members and real property.
My personal feelings about the demise of this organization are a mixture of resentment, regret, and resign. I sincerely believed in the mission and goals of ISKCON. Hoping to see the mission succeed, I allowed myself to become a co-dependent puppet of the leaders. I resent being used in that way. But even more important, I regret that Prabhupada's work of bringing an ancient religion to the West has been spoiled by an addictive organization that still refuses to own up to its abuses. I have also resigned to the possibility that without Prabhupada, the organization was destined to fail. It is possible that an addictive system naturally follows the death of a charismatic leader.
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