Then and Now: Continuing on the Path after ISKCON
Twenty years ago I met Hare Krishna devotees and joined the temple in Los Angeles. I stayed in the ISKCON organization for ten years. Over the last decade as an outsider I've learned a lot about my subject and my relationship with it. John Knapp, trancenet.net executive director, asked me to write about what it was like then and what it is like now.
I was young when I decided to dedicate the rest of my life to Krishna. The devotees I met were nice people who were living in the temple, working for ISKCON. They encouraged me to join them. I felt that I was old and wise enough to make an informed choice. But now at forty-two, I look back and realize how young I was and how that decision made a permanent mark on the rest of my life.
I became a dedicated follower, faithfully chanting and observing the principles, accepting initiation, attending the morning program and festivals, preaching, reading all the books several times over, and working six to ten hours a day without pay. I'm glad the people I worked with encouraged me to complete the morning program every day. Some devotees had services or other responsibilities that took priority over their spiritual practices. I still meditate daily, by choice.
Another habit I have kept is working at home. Our p.r. office was just like any other office, with desks, a conference room, multiple phone lines, plus a newspaper production facility, and at times a dark room. Our department rented six apartments in the building; each of us had our office in the front and private living quarters in the back. I learned job skills and discipline working there, so there were some good parts.
Goodbye to Bad Vibes
One bad part was the stress of living in a crumbling institution. During the years I was a member, ninety percent of the original members left. Looking back now, I see that the eleven gurus were highly motivated to make their own disciples stay. They manipulated us with warnings about the "karmi" (non-devotee) world. The gurus said that if we blooped (left the organization), we would go to hell. They told us that before taking their initiation we were "animals," or more specifically, "dogs," and that we would go back to being dogs if we left. The gurus used other blooped devotees' horror stories to scare us. I developed a debilitating fear of leaving, just as they hoped. Insiders subtly discouraged people from leaving by making fun of blooped devotees who visited the temple wearing civilian clothes. They would tell nasty jokes and make fun of ex-members behind their backs. Some of this still goes on.
Another disquieting symptom of ISKCON's disintegration was the all-pervading competition for limited resources. The allocation of budget funds from the BBT (Bhatkivedanta Book Trust) was a big point of contention. The BBT received money from book sales and funded projects such as the p.r. department, the legal department, the publishing house, and about a dozen other things. It seemed everyone was watching to see who was getting what, and whenever someone's budget increased, the other projects wanted a raise too. In 1986 when Ramesvara left ISKCON, BBT Council members flew to L.A. and resolved to cut off funding for all Ramesvara's projects. When I no longer had money to pay rent, I should have left. However, I stayed because I "believed" in ISKCON's goals and thought I could "help" through my publishing work for the ISKCON World Review.
Cultural Habits and Attitudes
Within three years of leaving the temple I had changed back to my middle-class American habits. I quit observing the fasting rules and rituals over food, although I remain vegetarian. I quit wearing saris and enjoy shopping for clothes. I started wearing my shoes in the house, despite the danger of tracking toxic waste and germs onto the carpet. I simply find it impractical to remove my shoes all the time (or get others to do it) so I gave up. I quit taking cold showers required in the ashram and I wake up at a reasonable hour, instead of four a.m.
I earned my master's degree within two years after leaving, which has been the cornerstone of my recovery. I've caught up on a lot of cultural things like music and movies that I missed. I joined the Los Angeles County Art Museum and a list of organizations that protect the environment. I watch tv, read magazines and books and subscribe to the Los Angeles Times.
Attitudes have been the hardest things to change. In the process of writing my book I had to take a frank look at ISKCON and what happened in that organization. Under Ramesvara, the BBT accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars from drug dealers and lied about it. It has been difficult to reconcile the violence and criminal activity done in the name of God. I am still working out my victimization issues because I came to ISKCON innocently seeking spiritual life and became caught-up in a dysfunctional system. At one extreme I think God planned this for me, so I would learn lessons about life. On the other extreme I agonize over how my common sense to leave a bad situation failed me. My mistake could be compared to a woman who stays in an abusive relationship to try to help her spouse. It is co-dependency clear and simple, so if I learn anything, I want to at least learn to think for myself.
Facing a Few Facts
I recently got a sense of the pain I may have caused my relations by "disappearing" into the temple. In the last few months people have told me about their loved ones who joined other cults. They describe feelings of being left behind, as though their lost relative were "dead." I have attempted to apologize to some of my friends and relatives. The book helps. One of my great aunts read it and told me that she would have been less worried if she had known my father was involved. I still have a hard time understanding why people worry about me, but it is human nature.
When I was in ISKCON I felt like my organization had "The Answer" and everyone else was in the dark. Since leaving I have come to realize that people fall on a wide spectrum of spirituality. Some feel alienated from their spiritual center, so they may become drug addicts, overeaters, workaholics, analysis patients or abusers, or they may join a religious group to meet their needs. Healthy people with good spiritual roots usually avoid joining organized religions, especially groups that profess to have the answer.
As an ISKCON member I tried to force my group's beliefs and values on other people. ISKCON preachers tell members and others to accept their whole philosophy and reject any other philosophy. They forbid members from reading outside literature for fear that they would be "influenced" by opposing philosophy. When I was a member I agreed with that notion, but now I recognize it as a disrespectful and fanatical attitude. Ever since leaving the organization I have studied Taoist, Christian and Buddhist philosophies, and my new spiritual path involves all of these, along with Hinduism.
Life as an Ex-ISKCON Member
One facet of life as an ex-member has been my love-hate relationship with the L.A. temple. I've lived in L.A. on and off and the temple is still there, pretty much the same as when I left. Many old friends still live there, so I have had pleasant encounters with them when I have visited. I sometimes join in a kirtan (chanting session) or eat in the restaurant. After knowing a person fifteen, twenty years, as I have known some devotees, it is pretty obvious that we will be lifelong friends. I hate to throw away the good things about my experience; at least some relationships have been salvaged. I have also formed new friendships among the second generation. There are many fine young people who were born in ISKCON, who have overcome the worst aspects of their abusive upbringing and I support them fully. However, I feel uncomfortable visiting the temple because of the repressive atmosphere.
ISKCON is a difficult group to be an ex-member of. For one thing, I still love Krishna and think about Him. Nonetheless, I feel distant from the group that led me to Him. That's another duality I've had to accept, without resolving. Sometimes I meet people who love the Hare Krishnas, and only remember them from college in the sixties, and they are shocked to find out things went wrong in the group. Whenever I'm confronted with that side of the duality, I just tell them to read my book. Most people probably wish that the Hare Krishnas had remained the innocent and carefree group that they appeared to be when they were young. I cannot change ISKCON, so I let it go.
In regards to Betrayal of the Spirit, some devotees love it and thank me for telling their story too. I'm grateful for their positive feedback because the things I described affected a lot of people. One of my objectives was to tell the collective story in a loving way. Some devotees start out skeptical, but enjoy the book when they finally read it. However, most full-time members refuse to read it and base their judgment solely on the title. If they read it, they would find that it's a lot different than they imagine. I think insiders tend to exaggerate what I may have written, simply based on their own fear of ISKCON's secrets. I've told them that my book is my offering, written from my heart. Still my worst critics refuse to read it.
Member of the Internet Link Exchange