Thursday, January 14, 2016


The primary method the founder of the Hare Krishna (ISKCON) movement used to quickly gain disciples in his quest to disseminate Gaudiya (Bengali) Vaishnavism to the West relied on confusing the gullible with promises he could not possibly fulfill. A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami’s arrival in New York in 1966 coincided with the hippie phenomenon and its participants’ experimentation with LSD and other psychotropic drugs and a general disillusionment with what they deemed an excessively restrictive social order. 

Conditions were ripe for taking advantage of the hippies’ flirtation with Eastern mysticism. The guru, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, quickly attracted many such followers, as did numerous other Indian gurus. Disgust for materialism of all kinds remained a feature of his new disciples, but the agent of escape from it was shifted from mind-altering drugs to a mind-altering mantra. Specifically, the chanting of the “maha mantra” or Hare Krishna mantra was used as a means to induce dissociation to the point where fantasy and reality became virtually indistinguishable. 

In this guru’s dualistic world view, the material world is an inverted and debased version of the spiritual world and chanting of Lord Krishna’s name offers an instant way to directly contact the Godhead. For initiated and would-be devotees alike, this practice appeared to transport them mentally to a timeless void that the swami filled with a contrived and often ludicrous broth of half-truths, prejudices, and a “Vedic” culture that never existed.


Freeing oneself from the delusions brought on by years of evading reality is at the root of the struggle drug addicts and other substance abusers face every day. Whether traumatized by abusive parents and/or the destructive effects of growing up in poverty made worse by crime and social indifference, many who turn to drugs and alcohol are simply anesthetizing themselves. Waking them up and shaking them out of their stupefaction requires sustained effort and generous funding, both of which are in short supply in most neighborhoods.  

When all else fails, religion seems to work. In place of substance-fueled delusions, religion supplies an alternate reality that quickly supplies some glimpses of joy at the cost of self-denial and privations. Far from being the end goal of existence, it generally functions as a transitional state that can help a person learn to curb destructive behavior and join society as a productive member.

Unfortunately, as the Hare Krishna (ISKCON) movement and other religious groups with an extreme agenda have shown, it is easy to lead people deeper into an alternate universe by convincing them that self-control is achieved by an ever-increasing withdrawal from worldly distractions. Far from encouraging them to become productive members of society, the initiated disciples of A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami wasted their lives laboring to sell his books at any and all costs to their personal lives and responsibilities. 

Today the many gurus and GBC members who succeeded their guru after his death in 1977 continue his legacy of attracting seekers of bliss and truth and using the typical cult brew of “instant” bliss and perfection to use them until they either leave or are ejected after questioning ISKCON tactics. Fools that they are, these power-mongers continually betray their real agenda by targeting people with the money or gullible mindset to further their aims. They might engage in any number of "feeding the poor" programs, but these are merely diversionary tactics that underlie their schemes to rob the affluent in order to build ornate and enormous temples

The hippies who joined the Hare Krishna cult in the late 1960's are perfect examples of the tendency of ex-drug addicts to embrace an alternate reality. I personally observed this transformation and my memories in this respect are, after more than 40 years, crystal clear because I--unlike most of the other early initiates of the cult--joined as an innocent 14 year old. So, it was rather fascinating to see the jumping, gyrations, and other antic behavior of devotees who just a few months earlier were stoned out of their minds on LSD, marijuana, and heroin. 

Furthermore, many came from affluent families and had attended or graduated from college.  To say that they were looking for a free ride intellectually seems an understatement: in truth, many of the devotees I knew who seemed to be so interested in spirituality were just looking for a "transcendental high" as an easy, safe, and cheap replacement for their once drug-induced euphoria. The repetitious, formulaic Hare Krishna mantra seemed to serve the purpose since our guru assured us that its words were identical with the deities Radha and Krishna and that chanting them instantly wiped out our bad karma. It seemed as if we were all winners in some kind of spiritual lottery!

Others who were sincere seekers of the truth were initially quite skeptical about the claims of the swami, but their doubts were often mitigated by the typical cult indoctrination process, which, in general, peeled away their rationality by appealing to their baser instincts. In this way, the chanting and dancing reduced an educated, fundamentally decent human being into an irrational, superstitious, saffron-clad caveman. It did not help that very few of these inquisitive souls had ever even bothered to study the Judeo-Christian scriptures they were now so eager to decry. 

Indeed, they thought that following the rules and regulations of ISKCON elevated them into Brahmins who, with the ability to quote a few lines of the Gita and wear tilak, gave them the right to teach the Indian visitors they encountered Gaudiya Vaishnavism as if Hindus by birth and culture know next to nothing about their own religion. Little did they know that, as the says goes, they were trading the frying pan for the fire: ISKCON, so welcoming at first with its love feasts and colorful decorations and deities, soon proved to be a scorpion’s nest of rabid lies, exaggerations, and prejudices.

It was tragic to see how many educated people fell for A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami’s sexist rants (e.g., women are nine times as lustful as man and possess half their brain matter) and his so-called “Vedic” cosmology (including fantasies such as the idea that the sun is nearer to the Earth than the moon and that the Apollo astronauts could have never gone to the moon because it is a “heavenly” planet controlled by the demigod Chandra). Like so many before us, trusting a charismatic person and not examining the basis of our trust dealt a catastrophic blow to our quest for true enlightenment. To say that we were naïve is an understatement: it is one thing to extol a culture that protects cows, but it is altogether another matter to blithely accept an undereducated and manipulative swami’s inane and backward views concerning the fundamentals of science and human relations. 

Still, many of us who have long since left the cult, fondly remember times when our chanting and camaraderie seemed to mitigate some of the doubts and distress we were laboring under. Had we not been living in such profound isolation and ignorance, we would have poked our heads out of the ashram-burrows in which we lived and realized that most of the Eastern (Buddhist and Hindu) gurus active at the time taught their followers to chant various mantras and also insisted that they live in ashrams or communes where, they too were more or less cut off from the outside world. ISKCON was clearly not the only faux-Hindu cult in town. However, our guru was a shrewd businessman and knew that he had a system and that it worked.

The cult’s modus operandi was and is unmistakable: once the interested party arrives at the temple, alienation from Western culture and indoctrination into the swami’s version of Indian/Vaishnava culture begins in earnest. Intellectual inquiry based on fact and objective evidence is actively discouraged: in its place, the new bhakta is offered the swami’s translations of the Bhagavad-Gita, the Bhagavad Purana (“Srimad Bhagavatam”), and the Chaitanya Charitamrita. [i]  No other scriptures, Vedic or otherwise (the swami, by his own admission, never read the Vedas, so there was a good reason for his restrictions) are allowed, what to speak of literature, magazines or newspapers. A little knowledge is certainly a dangerous thing and this was true of both the spiritually curious followers of A.C. Bhaktivedanta  Swami and the guru himself.

Lacking the academic credentials and training necessary to tackle as prodigious a project as translating the Gita, he directed his American disciple Howard Wheeler to create a pastiche of translations from other editions. He clearly had no idea of the notion of intellectual property and so cheerfully plagiarized without giving the matter another thought. What he valued were the “purports” he wrote for all of these texts, which were in fact interpretative commentaries that, lacking advanced knowledge of Sanskrit and the Vedas (at the very least), he simply had no authority to foist on an unsuspecting public in the first place. In this way, the swami tried to repress any scriptural interpretation but his own, as if his followers lacked the intelligence to think for themselves.

However, as new devotees soon learned, the chanting produced a brief euphoria that could not be sustained without spending hours at the practice in a group ("sankirtan") or on one's japa beads. The trance state it produced was a fundamentally dissociative or impaired psychological state that threatened to evaporate outside of a paranoid view of the non-devotee ("karmi") life. This meant that relationships with family were often abruptly terminated (even though many retained some communication, often for the purpose of begging for money). The swami furthered this disassociation process by insisting that the aspiring disciple (”bhakta”) move into a same-sex ashram and renounce connections with the outside world to the extent possible. 

This “us and them” mentality is characteristic of most cults and ISKCON was and is no exception. New devotees found themselves effectively cut off from the outside world.  Those who joined were often so gullible that they gave the cult everything they had and soon found themselves sleeping on the floor (often with vermin crawling about the room) that they shared with strangers. Our guru often reminded us that our so-called austere living was an example of "simple living and high thinking," but, in reality, it was simply a living hell.

Our personal liberties as rational beings were stripped away as a matter of course: the four "regulative principles" treated us like animals in a farm whose choices about diet and sexuality were closely monitored in an effort to make us mere cogs in the wheel of the cult's progress. If the swami said that an idol (or guru) was a god or as good as God and that such and such a Hindu scripture was authoritative, his word was accepted without giving it another thought. The chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra often resembled the group ravings of a group of saffron-robed lunatics and in individual practice on our prayer beads, was usually a rapid, incoherent hiss or mumble. Like all addicts, our “bliss” could only be sustained as long as we could keep the depressing realities of daily life from interfering with our delusions.

When thinking of those days, one memory stands out as a wry, if unintentionally hilarious observation on how matters really stood. While attending the Sunday love feasts back at the storefront temple at 26 Second Avenue, we often noticed a young man who often peered inside at our antics, but usually kept outside. One day we asked him why and he said that he wanted to go inside, but he just couldn't understand why we were jumping up and down yelling, "horrible, horrible." After we stopped laughing hysterically, we told him that we were actually shouting, "Hari Bol" (chant Hari/Vishnu’s name). The young man, who later on became an ISKCON sanyasi, initially had it right: the "bliss" we experienced was manifestly a form of group hysteria and the simplistic philosophy we so naively imbibed was, in one form or another, a snare for the unwary used by opportunistic Indian gurus who were busy seeking out gullible Western youth in order to use (and abuse) them.

This chanting of the “maha mantra” (Hare Krishna mantra) was carried out in parks and on the street and was often accompanied by pamphlet distribution and an invitation to attend a feast on Sunday at the temple. Typically a saffron-clad, shaven-headed youth would earnestly accost a passerby with a copy of a pamphlet and a packaged set of comments about the evils of society and an assurance that the solution was as easy as chanting and eating free vegetarian food. This appeal is the classic half-truth: yes, evils exist in the world, but what relation do they have to the solution you are presenting? It is catnip to lazy, gullible people and it remains as appealing today as it was to the earnest hippies of yesteryear. 

This “book distribution” was nothing more than an organized campaign of harassing the public into buying a publication that most of them promptly threw in the trash. Afterwards, the exhausted devotees would return to the temple, shower, and don Indian attire (saris and dhotis), and then spend the evening chanting and playing hand cymbals while pacing back and forth in front of a collection of idols that typically include a brass or marble Radha and Krishna and the Bengali Vaishnava saint, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (who is worshipped as a combination of Radha and Krishna), and the animistic Jagannath idols.  

To Indian visitors (who generally found the proceedings as alien to their culture as non-Indians did) the scene must have been ludicrous: the idols were dressed in a manner of Bollywood actors on the set of a cinema reenactment of the Bhagavad Gita or another Indian religious epic. Moreover, the con artists in ISKCON have continued to use a remarkably stable set of brainwashing techniques to the present. For example, back in 1975, a young college student lured into the cult recounted his experience as follows:

You don’t have time to think, to be bored.  . . . It’s like being high, but worse. Chanting is a form of escapism. The more confused the mind is, the easier it is to be manipulated. Everything was so structured: rise at 4 a.m., cold shower, meditate, class, meditate. Everything starts slowly and builds up to a fever pitch—dark, bright lights; music, dancing—it’s very powerful, and you’re confused. You don’t quite know what you’re experiencing. [ii]

We paid a steep price for our “bliss” as the foreign became familiar and reality receded to the background. While there is little doubt that many truth-seekers of the hippie era were infatuated with Eastern mysticism due to their intellectual laziness and desire for instant gratification, what led many to waste their youths in cults was a carefully scripted program that exploited their vulnerabilities and fears. Clearly, there is a high price to be paid for dropping out of society for the best years of one’s life. Our intellectual and cultural lives were virtually nonexistent. Cultural appropriation of all things Hindu seemed to be the rule of the day, as Westerners who had only recently repudiated their own cultural identities adopted what they thought were the attire of both Vedic India and the Krishna loka of Vaishnava tradition, striding about in bindi, saris, and dhotis.

Today blogs and websites maintained by ex-ISKCON members tell the same story with few modifications. The irony of these responses is that they all originate with mantra chanting, a practice that has been used in India for centuries as a means to “awaken the higher potentials of the brain and change the flow of energy in the nervous system.” [iii] (It is also notable that the Rig Veda, very possibly the oldest religious text of the Vedic period, is a collection of various hymns.) The potential of mantra chanting for regulating breathing and other brain functions usually held to be strictly involuntary in nature is a fascinating subject worthy of greater attention and study. It captivated early yoga practitioners in the West, who most often combined it with yogic postures (as in Kundalini Yoga) or used various mantras as meditative aids. However, in virtually all cases, the sacred nature of mantra chanting requires that the atmosphere in which it conducted is as free from distractions as possible and that the syllables are carefully and reverently pronounced.

While other mantra practitioners in the West were instructed to pay attention to breathing patterns as a means to reduce anxiety and stress (“mindfulness”), we instructed to chant while contemplating the deity with all of the rapt adoration one usually associates with an object of unrequited love. Our guru, who held the illicit passion of Krishna, Radha, and the gopis as described in the Chaitanya Charitamrita to be the highest form of Bhakti-Yoga, viewed the chanting of the Maha Mantra as a form of adoration, a direct conduit to the deity, and the Godhead himself in one convenient package. 

In effect, he encouraged a certain “mindlessness” in the emotional excesses of the kirtan, believing them to be self-evident proof that the devotees were indeed possessed by holy ecstasy. (We might have indeed been possessed, but there was nothing holy about it.) In this way, young men and women in the flower of their youth wasted it worshipping idols of brass and marble at the direction of a guru whose edicts were directed to spreading the thinly-veiled eroticism of Gaudiya Vaishnavism under his self-assumed mantle as the only living genuine guru in the line of disciplic succession from the androgynous Bengali saint Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.


In so exploiting these gullible, damaged young souls of an alien culture, the swami foisted on them numerous indignities in addition to utterly disregarding their health and mental and emotional wellbeing. For him, his disciples were simply a means to an end. Far from introducing the Gita and Hinduism to the West—an achievement that properly belongs to the genuine saints Sri Ramakrishma Paramhamsa and Sri Vivikenanda—he presented the beliefs of the tiny Gaudiya Vaishnava sect to the West as representative of a non-Hindu “Sanatana Dharma.” He then initiated legions of grossly under-qualified and misinformed Americans and Europeans, gave them new Hindu names ending with “das” or “devi dasi,”and sent them out on the streets of their countries to preach his message. 

Most of these one-time Hare Krishna devotees have long since left the ISKCON movement and tend to look back with bewilderment as to why they joined it in the first place. To help answer that question has been the purpose of this essay.  Keep in mind that the method by which Srila Prabhupada (as we called the swami) used to keep his initiated disciples from learning the truth about his essential beliefs was a practice he brazenly called “gradually revealing the truth.”  

Today the deception he practiced on his disciples has been transferred to the Hindu public (both in India and abroad), as a number of his one-time disciples have assumed the mantle of the guru and have diligently worked to deceive them. They have the audacity to present ISKCON as not only genuinely Hindu, but also claim that its practices and members aspire to the highest standards of religious conduct. None of these claims has a basis in fact, as this and other essays both in this website and my blog ( endeavor to prove. ISKCON was and is a cult.

Keeping disciples in the dark about the guru’s core beliefs and strictly controlling their contact with the outside is more than enough to qualify the ISKCON sect as a cult, but using our thirst for knowledge and joy to coerce us into to a world of deprivation, personal indignities, and cheating others is diabolical fraud by any definition of the term.

i] Little did we know that, as Howard Wheeler (“Hayagriva Dasa”) recounts in his book, Hare Krishna Explosion,      pp. 210-211 that A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami never translated the Bhagavad Gita; rather, he asked Wheeler to "just copy the verses from some other translation,” adding that “the verses aren’t important.”

ii] Markoutsas, Elaine. “Krishna Converts Who Fled the Cult: Personal Story Krishna Converts Struggle Against the Spell.” Chicago Tribune, August 11, 1975.

 Iii] Bengaluru, Satguru Bodhinatha, et al. “Mantra Yoga,” 36-51. Hinduism Today. 34.1 (Jan.-March 2012).

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