Gelberg (Subhananda das) has been a member
of Iskcon for more than 17 years, working within the societies publication department
the "Bhaktivedanta Book Trust".
most devotees do eventually leave ISKCON (AC Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada correctly
predicted that the great majority of his disciples would ultimately abandon the
movement), the leaving experience itself (and its aftermath) is certainly one
of the core experiences in the life of most devotees, and therefore worthy of
reflection and discussion.
It's hard to imagine an experience more wrenching, more potentially disorienting,
than leaving a spiritual community or tradition to which one has devoted years
of one's life. To lose faith in a comprehensive system of ideas that have shaped
one's consciousness and guided one's actions, to leave a community that has constituted
one's social world and defined one's social identity, to renounce a way of life
that is an entire mode of being, is an experience of momentous implications.
Especially when the community/tradition one is leaving defines itself as the repository
and bastion of all goodness, all meaning, all truth, all decency, all meaningful
human attainment, it may require a major psychological effort to reorient both
to one's own self and to the wider world. Internally, one must work to rediscover
and reclaim one's own unique, personal sources of meaning and to live authentically
from those inner depths. Externally, one must learn how to deal with the outer
world, the vast territory laying beyond the gates of the spiritual enclave --
that place that has for so long been viewed as a dark and evil abode unfit for
human habitation. Very often devotees no longer content living in ISKCON prolong
their stay simply out of fear of the demonized world.
This re-orientation to self and re-entry into the world is no small task, and
it's more easily finessed when one has the support of others who've travelled
a similar path. Though I've had little to do with ISKCON for nearly fourteen years
now, I still feel a certain kinship with devotees, both past and present. How
could I not? I devoted fully seventeen years of my life (ages eighteen to thirty-five
-- my youth) to a life of Krishna consciousness in the association of similarly
committed devotees. Virtually all my friends and acquaintances were devotees.
I absorbed Prabhupada's teachings into the depths of my being and preached them
with an enthusiasm born of serene confidence in their absolute truth and efficacy.
I dedicated myself both to encouraging a deeper immersion in Vaishnava spirituality
on the part of my fellow devotees (through editing such books as The Spiritual
Master and the Disciple and Namamrta: The Nectar of the Holy Name), and to cultivating
respect and appreciation for ISKCON among intellectuals and scholars such as with
my volume of interviews, "Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna: Five Distinguished
Scholars on the Krishna Movement in the West" (Grove Press, 1983).
Though my way of thinking and mode of being have changed considerably since leaving
the movement, I cannot forget all my brothers and sisters who have shared the
Krishna consciousness experience. I, like them, entered the movement driven by
a need to know and experience truth, enlightenment, peace, bliss. I, like most
devotees, felt an inexplicable attraction to the supernaturally beautiful, blue-skinned
boy Krishna, to the strangely beautiful music of the Hare Krishna "mahamantra"
to the promise of transcendence. I cannot help, therefore, but feel a special
kinship with them.
Most devotees experience doubts, now and then, about the truth of Krishna consciousness,
or about its relation to their personal spiritual and psychological growth. In
my last few years in the movement I certainly did. And I know that, in spite of
claims to the contrary, there are powerful disincentives to openly expressing
one's doubts in the company of devotees.
Doubts, however, may be the voice of one's own inner self, the self that doesn't
always exactly reflect the exterior "system" of Krishna consciousness,
the self that protests being shaped and molded into something it is not. Notwithstanding
one's outer loyalty to ISKCON and its parent tradition, if the inner self is not
being addressed, respected, honored, allowed to grow, provided means of expression,
that authentic self is, sooner or later, going to raise a protest. When that little
inner voice first begins to speak, it can be quieted with regimental thinking,
louder chanting, extroverted activity, or simple denial. But sometime down the
road it is bound to return, a little louder, a little more insistent, and at some
point one is left no choice than to acknowledge it.
I would like, now, to address that inner voice and answer it with my own. I have,
by the way, no malicious intent in doing so. I'm no anti-cultist or any other
species of crusading ideologue. I've nothing to gain personally from this exercise
except the pleasure of speaking words that I think need to be spoken to old friends
and friends yet unknown.
Allow me to relate some of the reasons why I left ISKCON after so many years of
committed service. I've organized my reflections into several sections, which
Where are the Pure Devotees?
As I think back, it seems to me that the factor that initially set in motion my
gradual disillusionment with ISKCON was my growing awareness that, judging by
its own criteria for success, ISKCON had, quite simply, failed as a spiritual
movement. It became increasingly and inescapably obvious that the movement was
simply not fulfilling its own stated primary goal: to create "pure devotees"
-- to skillfully and successfully guide serious practitioners to those sublime
states of spiritual consciousness elaborately described in the scriptures and
endlessly reiterated in the movement's teaching forums.
One does, of course, encounter devotees who seem peaceful, content, full of sincere
purpose and conviction, high-spirited, enthusiastic, and so on. And it is true
that most devotees have experienced, at one time or another, uplifting feelings
from chanting, seeing the deity, etc. But what of the more developed and sustained
spiritual states described by such terms as "bhava" and "prema"?
What of the love of Krishna that flows from the depths of one's being, overwhelms
the mind and heart, and utterly transforms one into a holy person whose very presence
inspires sanctity in others? Is ISKCON actually producing such manifestly Krishna
conscious persons? Need I ask?
To account for this embarrassing lack of pure devotees in ISKCON, one is forced
to enact a version of "The Emperor's New Clothes": do the best one can
to convince oneself and others that certain high-profile devotees are, indeed,
pure devotees, and proclaim that those who don't acknowledge their status are
either not yet advanced enoughfor such discernment or are "envious fools."
Or, alternatively, redefine the term "pure devotee" in such a broad,
generous manner as to include the greatest number of devotees possible (e.g.,
all those aspiring to be pure devotees, all those following their initiation vows,
Some few, highly self-motivated, highly disciplined devotees do apply themselves
to the principles of bhakti-yoga and taste the fruits of their efforts. But for
the overwhelming majority of devotees, spiritual life in ISKCON is little more
than a perpetual struggle against the base material instincts. One goes on, year
after year, hoping against hope that, "One day, yes, one day, a day far off
in the future, one magic and wonderful day, I shall become a pure devotee."
After many years in the movement I came to the conclusion that whatever other
success the movement may enjoy -- whatever the proliferation of shaved heads and
saris, numbers of temples opened, books distributed, celebrity endorsements procured
-- in the absence of the creation of highly evolved Krishna conscious persons,
it's all an empty show.
Ethical Failure and Intellectual Dishonesty
Over the course of my years in ISKCON I became alarmed at the extent to which
people who joined the movement in part as a reaction against the pervasive dishonesty
in interpersonal dealings in mundane society, permitted themselves to become clever,
sneaky and two-faced in the name of promulgating Truth. However much it may be
hard to admit, The-Ends-Justifies-the-Means has long been a defining and controlling
ethic in the movement. Based on the presumption that tricking, deceiving and cajoling
illusioned souls to financially subsidize, and otherwise support ISKCON represents
a "higher" morality, devotees are taught to say and do almost anything
if it can be justified in the name of "preaching." From the new devotee
in the street extracting money from non-devotees through blatant dissimulation,
to the most intellectually and socially sophisticated devotee skillfully packaging
ISKCON in such a way as to most effectively win friends and undermine enemies,
the ethic of pulling the wool over the benighted eyes of non-devotees in order
to save their souls is the same.
Though this attitude may appear justified from the point of view of a certain
self-serving, contrived "spiritual" ethic, in practice it encourages
a fundamental disrespect and superior attitude toward those for whom it claims
feelings of compassion, and a manipulative, controlling attitude towards those
it claims to liberate. Though some of the grosser manifestations of that cheating
ethic have been tempered in recent years, the basic attitude, as far as I can
see, hasn't changed, because it is rooted in ISKCON's presumption of moral superiority.
Another kind of dishonesty fundamental to the movement is an intellectual one:
a learned orientation by which one's chief philosophical project ceases to be
the sincere and disciplined effort to open oneself to Truth, but instead to study,
memorize, internalize, preach and defend an already defined, pre-digested, pre-packaged
"Truth." Instead of a genuinely open-minded, open-hearted quest for
knowledge, one simply waves the banner of received "truth" come what
may, however much that "truth" may or may not address the reality or
facts at hand.
This tenacious defense of received "truth" in the face of potentially
disconfirming realities represents, I suggest, not an act of courage but of cowardice:
an ultimately futile attempt to defend a fragile existential security masquerading
as enlightened certainty. I am continually amazed, and in retrospect somewhat
embarrassed, by my own and other ISKCON intellectuals' easy willingness to sacrifice
intellectual honesty in order to fortify our own and others' imperfect faith --
to wave our tattered little banner of Truth in the face of the wealth of ideas
and multi-textured realities surrounding us.
I can recall, throughout my years in ISKCON, often being disappointed with the
behavior of leaders, who seemed to care little for the personhood of the devotees
under their command. There's a certain hardness of heart that comes from subordinating
people to principles, to defining the institution itself as pre-eminent and its
members as merely its "humble servants".
This rhetoric of submission has, of course, a certain ring of loftiness to it:
the idea of devotees striving together, pooling their energies and skills, sacrificing
personal independence and comforts in order to serve the Glorious Mission. The
trouble is, in effect it creates a social/interpersonal environment in which the
particular needs of individuals are devalued, downplayed, and postponed indefinitely
-- leaving the individual devotee sooner or later feeling used and abused. Through
my years in ISKCON I became increasingly aware, painfully and sadly aware, of
the ways in which, in the name of "engaging devotees in Krishna's service,"
leaders and administrators at all levels deal with the devotees "under"
them in a patronizing, condescending, heavy-handed and authoritarian manner --
viewing and dealing with their subordinates not as unique individuals possessing
rich and complex inner lives, but as units of human energy to be matched to the
necessary tasks at hand. I recall leaders criticizing, even ridiculing the very
notion that special attention should be paid to the individual psyches and needs
of devotees -- who dismissed such concerns as mere sentimentality, unnecessary
coddling, a lack of tough-mindedness, and opposed to the sacred principles of
humility and surrender.
This hard-nosed, hard-hearted attitude, this insensitive disregard for the individual,
this almost cynical exalting of the principles of humility and surrender to ensure
that the floors get swept and the bills paid, leaves many devotees, especially
those low on the institutional totem-pole, feeling betrayed. Many of these devotees,
when the frustration, anxiety and disappointment reach a high enough level, simply
leave -- many becoming (understandably) bitter and vindictive.
Most devotees will acknowledge that ISKCON's prohibition against "illicit
sex" (any sex other than to conceive children in marriage) is the hardest
of ISKCON's ascetical prohibitions to observe, the cause of the greatest difficulty
among devotees, and (with the possible exception of disillusionment with ISKCON
per se) the most common cause of "fall-down" from Krishna consciousness.
Without debating the merits of celibacy in the spiritual life, it's fair to say
that the typical devotee, over time, is going to violate the celibacy rule one
or more times. Desire for sex appears in every devotee's life sooner or later,
to one degree or another, in one form or another. From the guru lecturing from
his throne down to the new recruit cleaning the bathroom, devotees think about
sex, fanaticize about it, or indulge in it (with other willing devotees, old lovers,
outside contacts, whomever) if they think they can get away with it. This rather
obvious fact isn't openly acknowledged in ISKCON because it's a source of significant
embarrassment to devotees, who view indulgence in sex as disgusting, disgraceful,
and a sign of personal failure -- and, further, because they're forever boasting
to non-devotees that their enjoyment of a "higher taste" is evidenced
most conclusively by their disinterest in mundane sense gratification.
To be frank, there is something very sad, tragic even, in the spectacle of sincere
spiritual aspirants endlessly struggling against and denying sexual feelings,
continually berating themselves for their lack of heroic detachment from the body,
seeking dark corners in which to masturbate or, finding themselves "attached
to" another devotee, planning and scheming "illicit" encounters.
All this cheating and hypocrisy, guilt and shame, denial and cover-up, make a
pathetic sham of ISKCON's ascetical conceit.
After many years in ISKCON, the whole celibacy fetish began to appear to me a
bit suspect. Why the abysmal failure of most devotees to be uncompromisingly celibate?
Why the pervasive inability to perform an act of renunciation that ISKCON defines
as a precondition not only of serious spiritual practice but of civilized human
life? Why this fundamental failure?
Some devotees feel it's due to some innate deficit in the consciousness of Westerners
(we're too lusty); others blame it on devotees' chronically flawed performance
of bhakti-yoga (offensive chanting, etc.); a few contend that Prabhupada passed
on Gaudiya Vaishnava practice imperfectly (by omitting certain necessary mystical
elements in the initiatory process); some say it's a natural consequence of co-ed
ashrams (and periodically suggest that the temples be rid of women). Whatever
the cause, the fact remains that most devotees fall far short of serene celibacy,
finding themselves deeply rooted in a physical body which, by its very nature,
desires to touch and be touched, to feel the warmth of another human being.
So strong is the natural human desire for physical touch, that in order to avoid
it, to repress the desire for it, one must paint the most exaggeratedly negative
picture of it possible: one that envisions sex as a purely wild, disgusting animal
act. But consider: is love-making really just bestial humping and grunting? Does
it have no connection at all to feelings of love, caring, appreciation, affection?
Certainly, like any other human activity, sex can be beautiful or ugly. It can
be an act of gross, selfish, piggish abandon, or it can be an expression of affection,
a gentle act of mutual pleasuring, even a catalyst for feelings of emotional and
spiritual oneness. It is only through a deliberate denial of past personal experience,
or of intuition, that one can obliterate such memories, or pre-empt such capacity
My purpose here is not to advertise the glories of sex, but to note the problems
associated with outlawing it -- and also to make the radical suggestion that perhaps
it is possible to be a spiritual person, a person of goodness, compassion, wisdom,
sensitivity, awareness -- under whatever spiritual banner -- without denying and
repressing one's implicit sensuality.
Disrespect for Women
If ISKCON had truly been the glorious spiritual movement it advertises itself
to be, with its only defect being its offensive attitudes and discriminatory policies
toward women, my then wife Sitarani and I still would have felt fully justified
in abandoning the organization to which we'd devoted our lives. It became increasingly
difficult for us to tolerate (and to defend among the scholars and students it
was our service to "cultivate") the raw, unreflective, juvenile, boys-club
mentality of the movement -- the official, insulting view of women as childlike,
irrational, irresponsible, emotional, and wild-unless-controlled-by-a-man.
It's not at all surprising that ISKCON would be a woman-fearing, woman-hating,
woman-exploiting institution. A male-centered religion that defines sex as the
enemy of spirituality naturally is going to define the objects of men's sexual
desire as the Enemy Personified: Woman as chief antagonist in the holy drama of
Man Transcending. Women, thus stigmatized, are, at best, to be tolerated -- allowed
to exist on the fringe in an officially reduced status, their wanton energies
mercifully channelled into the service of men -- and, at worst, to be officially
and systematically denigrated, shunned and, not infrequently, abused emotionally
A movement that can allow a brand new male recruit to feel superior -- by the
sheer fact that he's got a penis -- to a seasoned woman devotee who's been refining
her consciousness for decades; a movement that can encourage a husband to feel
at ease bossing his wife as if he were a Maharaja and she a coolie, as if she
were placed on earth simply to serve and satisfy him -- as if Krishna must be
pleased by such a display of proper hierarchical dealings between the sexes --
is going to invite the ridicule of outsiders, as well as incite pangs of conscience
in its own thoughtful members. It's a wonder that any self-respecting women tolerates
such attitudes and treatment, and it's to her credit (I suppose) that she tolerates
such abuse so as to remain connected to a spiritual tradition that she feels,
or hopes, is wiser and grander than that.
For a time, Sitarani and I felt content with being "liberal" on the
issue -- with lending our weight, for example, to efforts to allow the occasional
woman to give a lecture, lead a kirtan, or have a vote on the temple board. But
we grew tired of struggling to put the best possible spin on the issue when questioned
by discerning college students and others -- with having to employ our intelligence
and savvy in the noble quest of covering up for an organization unabashedly sexist.
When we finally left the movement we felt greatly relieved to have removed ourselves
from a social and political environment that so determinedly denigrated women
and positive feminine principles. ISKCON is, after all, such a positively male
institution: all that obsession over power, control, order, hierarchy, protocol,
and competition, not to mention all the chest-pounding martial rhetoric: "conquering
the senses, destroying illusion, defeating enemies, smashing demons."
What of the beautiful "feminine" qualities of Sri Chaitanya and his
followers? What of gentleness, humility, empathy, love, compassion, spiritual
protection and nurturance, delicacy of emotion and of interpersonal dealings?
While devotees pay occasional lip-service to these acknowledged Vaishnava qualities,
in practice it's the cherished male qualities of tough-mindedness, aggressiveness
and the power to dominate and manipulate others that the ISKCON establishment
promotes and rewards.
A final factor in my accumulative decision to leave ISKCON was a philosophical
one: a growing awareness that however much wisdom and beauty may be found in a
particular religious tradition, no one tradition, no one system, can speak fully
for any one individual. Whatever the possible transcendent origins of a spiritual
path, it is passed down through human persons: wise, insightful, saintly persons
perhaps, but distinct, individual persons nonetheless -- having their own distinctive
life histories, experiences, temperaments, ways of thinking, feeling and communicating.
Though there was much in Krishna consciousness that I found deeply meaningful
and appealing, I began to realize (subtly, slowly, over a long period of time)
that, short of simply obliterating my own thoughts and feelings, I could not blindly,
automatically accept every word of the scriptures (e.g., women are inferior to
men, thunder and lightening come from Lord Indra, the sun is closer to the earth
than the moon, etc.)
More important than difficulties with particular passages of scripture, however,
was my growing sense that there was something unnatural, something artificial
and forced, about the very idea of my having to completely supplant my own thoughts,
reflections, insights, and intuitions about myself, the world, and my own experience,
with a pre-packaged, pre-approved system of ideas and doctrines which, whatever
its origins, has evolved through countless hands and been refracted through many
minds and sensibilities through the centuries. I began to feel (though it took
a long time to admit it to myself) that this is an unrealistic and unfair demand
to be made upon any of us, however "imperfect" we may be, because it
dishonors the integrity and particularity of who we, in our essential individuality,
I came to feel that there is something ultimately impersonal about the notion
that we are something utterly different from what we presently feel ourselves
to be, that our manifest personality is simply the product of an unnatural, illusioned
state, and that to "transcend" this felt, immediate sense of self we
must submit ourselves to the authority of certain authorized persons for radical
re-education -- cutting ourselves off, more or less, from any ideas, influences
or persons that might possibly remind us of the selves we mistakenly felt ourselves
Now, whatever the beauties of the spiritual path, there is something slightly
ominous about a spiritual system that so utterly and uncompromisingly devalues
me as I directly know and experience myself, that would make me doubt and question
my every perception, my very sense of reality, a system that would have me submit,
body and mind, to certain "authorities" about whom I've seen no conclusive
evidence of perfection--whose spiritual status is tenuous at best (in light of
the periodic scandals involving those advertised in ISKCON as "pure"
Must spiritual life really depend upon such an extreme act of self-abnegation,
such an uncompromising rejection of personal experience? Are Truth and Wisdom
to be so radically abstracted from my own consciousness, the depth of my own being?
Is such turning of a blind eye and deaf ear to my inner vision and voice really
in my best interest? Is this self-denial really "humility" -- a rational
recognition of personal limitations -- or is it ultimately little more than a
form of self-shaming and self-negation?
I began to sense that true spirituality cannot be reduced to a corporate, conformist,
authoritarian structure. On the contrary, it honors and trusts the individual
spirit enough to allow it to seek its own path, make its own mistakes, find its
own way, by listening to its own intuitions and acknowledging the various sources
of wisdom that present themselves throughout one's journey through life. I realized,
ultimately, that for all ISKCON's talk of freedom, liberation, escaping conditioned
modes of being, the prevailing mentality in ISKCON is, in fact, characterized
by a distinct fear of freedom: an anxiety about personal quest, a fear of trusting
the moment, of opening to the unexpected, of allowing the mind and heart to remain
receptive, curious, vulnerable, adventurous.
Is There Life After ISKCON?
That such a question might even occur to a devotee is itself a telling comment
on the ISKCON mind-set. In seventeen years of Krishna consciousness I sat through
literally thousands of Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam classes (a great many
of them my own!) in which I was regaled with nightmarish images of the world looming
outside the walls of ISKCON -- warned repeatedly of the miseries to come should
I foolishly wander outside our fortifications. In a place where higher spiritual
experience is in short supply it is necessary, indeed, to create powerful disincentives
to leaving -- even if they must be based on exaggeration and fear.
But the world, as it turns out, is not the unrelieved chamber of horrors described
in Bhagavatam classes. It's a mixed bag, just like ISKCON. Yes, there are all
manner of terrible things in this world: war, poverty, disease, sexual abuse,
racism, and many more. One cannot help but affirm that the world is a place pervaded
by suffering and cruelty. But in the midst of all that darkness and craziness
there is good as well. To begin with, there are many good-hearted people who come
to the aid of those who are disadvantaged, persecuted, misunderstood, mistreated,
who try to relieve others of suffering in myriad ways.
Out here in the wider world there are also many who seek truth, meaning and beauty
through artistic self-expression. At their best, all of the arts -- painting,
music, dance, literature, and so on -- support a quest for truth, beauty and sublimity.
One has only to open oneself to the works of master creators -- wander a fine
arts museum, hear a great symphony, witness a ballet, lose oneself in a great
novel or poem -- to experience the depths and heights of the human spirit. There
are infinite riches to be seen, heard, experienced and absorbed in these works.
One has only to open oneself, to allow oneself to feel and experience.
Speaking personally, over the past several years I've immersed myself in fine
art photography -- both as a working artist and as a student of the history and
aesthetics of the medium -- and derive profound satisfactions therein. Through
creative photography I've discovered in myself new capacities for seeing, intuiting,
feeling, creating, communicating. I'm currently working on a book which explores
the spiritual dimensions of the medium.
Besides artistic expression, which is my own path, there are other venues for
living a meaningful life: through intellectual pursuits, through works of compassion
(both within and outside of formal institutional and career contexts), through
teaching, and through a thousand other forms of honest, meaningful activity. And
there are, of course, a world of spiritual paths and practices to explore. Leaving
ISKCON, one is pleasantly surprised to discover that there are many who devote
themselves to the spiritual path -- who seek, through various means, to become
more aware, more sensitive, more compassionate, and who work to integrate spiritual
truths into their daily lives. And there are, of course, many former ISKCONites
who continue on the Vaishnava path, but in ways they feel retain an integrity
and humanism largely missing in ISKCON itself.
Once one steps outside the gates of ISKCON one discovers that it's the quality
of ones own consciousness and heart that determines what sort of person you're
going to be and what sort of life you're going to live. When you leave the temple
you do not suddenly and automatically fall into wanton debauchery, become a demon,
or go mad. Nor will you need assume an attitude of uncritical acceptance of the
world. It's quite possible to remain acutely aware of the limitations and imperfections
of the world and maintain a creatively ambivalent relationship with it, while
constructing a safe, sane, and meaningful space for yourself within it. It's a
project, to be sure, but quite do-able.
Out here in the wider world one will find, if one simply looks, people who are
good and decent, who share one's values, and whose friendship will nourish and
deepen one. People who've left ISKCON also often find profound satisfaction in
developing the kinds of deep, intimate, loving relationships that they missed
as celibate "brahmacaris" and "brahmacarinis", or as married
persons caught in unsatisfying, hierarchical, sexless (or sexually abusive) relationships.
Well, that's more or less what I wish to say.
Though I've canceled my subscription to ISKCON's view of reality, I am deeply
and sincerely interested in Truth/truth, and feel confident that I have common
ground with people in ISKCON who's love of truth supersedes any automatic allegiance
to doctrines and lines of authority. Whatever the sorry state of ISKCON, whatever
dimness with which it reflects its potential glory, there are many good and decent
people in the movement who seek answers to life's most profound questions and
who are serious about discovering and fulfilling their highest purpose in life.
To all of them, I offer my respects and my friendship.
If any of what I've written here has meaning for you, makes sense to you, touches
you in some way, then I hope you'll feel free to write to me. I'd love to hear
from you, to hear your thoughts, and I promise I'll do my best to respond. You
can reach me at the following address: Steve
Gelberg. I look forward to hearing from you.