Thirteen Years After Leaving ISKCON
by Nori Muster, 30 July 2001
In 1978, when I was twenty-two years old, I decided to join the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) and dedicate my life to the organization. Over the next ten years, I lived and worked in ISKCON as a Hare Krishna devotee. Finally, in 1988 I resigned my position as associate editor of their newsletter, ISKCON World Review, and left. It has now been thirteen years of learning and recovery, including publishing a book about my experiences: Betrayal of the Spirit. This essay will explain some of the major hurdles and lingering effects of my fateful decision.
Organization of Bad Vibes
One of the most insidious teachings of ISKCON is that you must give up your previous "material" life and devote one hundred percent of your time and energy to the group. At ISKCON's request, I abandoned all my friends and family without thinking about how it would hurt them or make them worry about me. When my book came out, relatives and friends of other Hare Krishna devotees have contacted me for advice. Listening to their grief made me realize how my own family may have felt. It has been a struggle to reclaim some of my roots. I also found that once cut off, some relationships never grow back. It has been difficult for me to face this consequence. Like many other members, I believed that the organization had The Answer and everyone else was in the dark. 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 philosophies. I now recognize this as a disrespectful and fanatical attitude meant to control members. I also got a few people to join and i've apologized to a few of them.
When I met devotees in 1977, the original guru Srila Prabhupada died (some say he was murdered). This lead to a power struggle within ISKCON, as the alleged guru killers quickly assumed the mantle of leadership and then mounted a tremendous campaign to hold onto their power. Living inside an institution like this, which was based on a lie, took its toll. During the years I was a member, ninety percent of the original members left. Looking back now, I see that the eleven gurus (the alleged murderers) were highly motivated to make their own disciples stay. They manipulated us with warnings about the karmi (non-devotee) world and told us that if we blooped (left the organization), we would go to hell. They told us that before taking initiation we were dogs and that we would go back to being dogs if we left. The gurus told horror stories about other blooped devotees, meant to scare us into staying. Insiders told nasty jokes about ex-members and make fun of them behind their backs. Gurus' thugs (called kshatrias) beat people up to maintain order. In 1986 a devotee thug killed a man in Los Angeles for speaking against the gurus.
I developed some of the same bad qualities that the gurus and their followers exhibited. Financial abuses were rampant in ISKCON and I committed several financial abuses myself. I also learned to be judgmental and superstitious, character flaws I'm still trying to unlearn, thirteen years after the fact. The group was extremely chauvinistic toward women, minorities and anyone who disagreed with them. It's been a struggle to get my real personality back, because before joining ISKCON I was open minded and much more gentle. I went through a long phase of hating myself for staying in a group like that. It has been ten years of psychotherapy to overcome my guilt and forgive myself. I'm still working out my victimization issues because I came to ISKCON innocently seeking spiritual life and became a cog in the wheels of a dysfunctional system. I agonize over how my common sense to leave a bad situation failed me. It was co-dependency pure and simple.
Conclusions: Living with the Betrayal
I tried being a fringie (a fringe member) for a few years. I even went back for a time to try to help the children of the organization. Then in the late 1990s I came to the conclusion that I couldn't fix ISKCON anymore than someone can fix their own dysfunctional family of origin. I had to leave completely to restore my own soul. It has now been three years since I've visited an ISKCON property or attended any of their functions. Sometimes I meet people who only remember the Hare Krishnas' good old days in the sixties. When I tell them about my book, they are shocked to find out about the things that went wrong in the group. Most people probably wish that the Hare Krishnas had remained as innocent and carefree as they appeared in the sixties. I do too, but I've had to live with the reality that even the Hare Krishnas became corrupt.
In regards to Betrayal of the Spirit, some ISKCON followers show their hatred of my book by writing negative comments about it at Amazon.com or showing up to argue with me at book signings, etc. I find their attitudes hypocritical, since most of them have never even read it. Devotees who actually read it usually like it. Many have given me positive feedback. One of my objectives was to tell the collective story in a loving way. I think insiders tend to exaggerate what I may have written, based on their own fear of ISKCON's secrets. I've told them that my book is my offering, written from my heart. Still the critics refuse to read it.