Vol. 5, No. 1
Myth and Themes of Ex-Membership
A researcher and ex-member of
ISKCON, The International Society for Krishna Consciousness, offers an inside
view of what it�s like to be an ex-cult member. She identifies post-traumatic
stress and identity crisis as the two most common themes of ex-membership. At
the root of post-traumatic stress are the themes justice, stigma, and
perspective; at the root of identity crisis are the themes home, personal belief
system, and storytelling. She offers literary examples that serve as myths to
illustrate the ex-member experience. The stories are drawn from American
literature, the Vedas, and popular culture.
In 1978 the Hare Krishnas told me that if I followed them
for the rest of my life, then I�d go back to Godhead with them. To follow, I had
to move into a temple, wear Indian clothing, learn hundreds of customs and
taboos, and cut myself off from the outside world. They forbade commercial media
and criticized outside relationships, unless the outsiders might join, donate,
or do service. They said that anyone who left ISKCON, the International Society
for Krishna Consciousness, would fall back into the material ocean and be lost.
They called it �blooping,� the sound a rock makes when it hits the water and
sinks. I blooped in December 1988.
I was just one of many who left disillusioned. In the dozen
years following the death of ISKCON founder Srila Prabhupada,()
ninety percent of members left.()
ISKCON turned into an organization with many more ex-members than current,
full-time members. One ex-ISKCON member shared his thoughts about ex-membership
in his essay, �On Leaving ISKCON.�()
Steven J. Gelberg, known in ISKCON as Subhananda, explained what the decision
was like for him:
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
Gelberg identified the things that he saw in ISKCON that
made him decide to leave. Here is a brief summary: practical and ethical
failures, intellectual dishonesty, disrespect for followers, hypocrisy in the
demand for celibacy, condescending attitude toward women, and scriptural
Gelberg believed that many others shared a common experience of ISKCON�s
problems, so he addressed �On Leaving ISKCON� to his �brothers and sisters who
have shared the ISKCON/Krishna consciousness experience.� Gelberg described the
exodus out of ISKCON and said, �There exists, therefore, a substantial and
growing body of people who share what can only be described as a traumatic
Although the details differ for each individual, and some
ex-members claim to feel no stress after leaving, the dominant psychological
issues for most ex-members are post-traumatic stress and identity crisis. The
same themes play out in myth and story, and there are many parallels to be drawn
between the ex-member experience and characters who go through similar trials
under different circumstances.
Carl Jung said that story and myth link the inner and outer
human experience. He said myth was metaphor, containing symbols and archetypes.
Ironically, another meaning for "myth" refers to something that is false. Rollo
May, one of the founders of the Humanist Movement and author of The Cry for
Myth, said, �There can be no stronger proof of the impoverishment of our
contemporary culture than the popular�though profoundly mistaken�definition of
myth as falsehood.� He explained that the themes in our myths are "like the
beams in a house: not exposed to outside view, they are the structure which
holds the house together so people can live in it.�()
I will show you the mythical beams that form the structure
of the ex-member experience,()
offering examples from American literature, the Hindu Vedas, and popular
culture. As a subject, or participant observer, and ex-ISKCON member myself, I
will also offer stories from my own experience.
Although I have tried to identify universal themes for
ex-ISKCON members, there are several notable exceptions. First, people who left
because they were deprogrammed may have more complex issues. Their themes would
depend on whether they feel grateful or resentful that someone else made the
decision for them. They are tangled in themes of self-determination that are
outside the scope of this paper. In addition, deprogrammed individuals are much
more likely to reject all aspects of their ISKCON experience. Thus, their
identity crisis is different and more complex than the issues described in this
Second, people who perpetrated abuse inside the
organization probably will not be able to relate to the themes presented here.
Abuse perpetrators often have psychopathic, or sociopathic disorders. According
to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric
Association (DSM-IV), abuse perpetrators may be diagnosed with
Antisocial Personality Disorder, Conduct Disorder, or any number of
Since perpetrators generally have diagnosable disorders, they would need to go
into treatment and reach the stage of recovery before they could comprehend the
issues under discussion here.
This paper applies to ex-members who joined as adults and
who were never physically or sexually abused in ISKCON. In my other series of
essays, �Story Matters,�()
I have identified stories that illustrate the common themes of abuse victims.
Even though the current paper does not address overt abuse, survivors may still
glean insights about ex-membership from the issues presented here. It might help
children of cult members understand their parents who have left their cults.
According to the DSM-IV, post-traumatic stress may progress
to a diagnosable disorder:
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
(PTSD) is a debilitating condition that follows a terrifying event. Often,
people with PTSD have persistent frightening thoughts and memories of their
ordeal and feel emotionally numb.()
Post-traumatic stress follows an experience of intense
fear, horror, or helplessness. The onset may occur at the time of the event or
it may develop months, or even years after the event.
Many ex-ISKCON members witnessed abuse that could have
traumatized them. Not all would warrant the DSM diagnosis, but they may suffer
from lesser degrees of stress. Most of the stress in the organization came from
the top down, especially the hierarchy�s power struggles in the years following
the death of Srila Prabhupada. The leaders struggled over money and property,
and there were several murders, as well as untold incidents of emotional and
physical abuse. Anyone closely involved with the hierarchy during those years
probably left with emotional scars of betrayal, grief, anger, frustration, and a
loss of trust in authority figures, especially religious authorities.
Stress spread throughout the organization, so that
everyone, not just those involved with the hierarchy, felt it. Devotees clashed
over moral, ethical, and practical issues. For example, people fought each other
for apartments, control of temples, and for positions in the organization. Women
and children were victimized and some people were involved in crimes like drug
smuggling or petty theft. Armed guards called kshatriyas caused some
devotees to fear for their lives.()
The organization also practiced psychological manipulation
to discourage members from leaving. In the days when I joined, the leaders
taught us to see the outside world as a place of misery. They said people who
left would never make it to the Godhead on their own, because maya
(illusion) would drag them down to �repeated birth and death� in the material
world. Insiders used unflattering labels like �snake� and �prostitute� to
describe ex-members. They said that people who blooped would turn into drug
addicts, end up poverty stricken, or die of a horrible, degenerative disease.
These fears became self-fulfilling prophecy for some ex-members.
Further programming held that the �material world� was
�dry� because there was �nothing out there� but illusion. People who left would
become lonely and come back to the organization seeking �association.�
Ex-members who still came around admitted that they were �fallen� and that
everything the leaders said was true. Broken ex-members work in the hierarchy�s
favor, as long as they remain broken. It was a form of brainwashing or terrorism
that left many with lasting scars.
ISKCON also programmed members to be ashamed to work for
non-devotees, since that would make them less than sudras, the lowest
rung of the caste system. This notion increased the probability that ex-members
would experience stress upon re-entering the work force.
The first three themes, justice, stigma, and perspective,
explain the underlying issues of an ex-member�s post-traumatic stress.
Theme One: Justice
Justice is another word for karma. It�s the law of
equilibrium, where every action has an equal reaction. The law says that people
get what they deserve for the deeds they perform. It may take a long time, but
the sword of justice eventually falls. This holds true throughout the material
world, even in ISKCON. Joining up did not make anyone immune from karma. The
organization had plenty of bad karma that may still haunt the people who leave.
Members learn to see their gurus as �pure devotees� who can
do no wrong. The chief paradox of life in ISKCON was to watch supposed pure
devotee gurus and other dishonest leaders carry out incredible follies. Some
leaders participated in criminal activity, while their cronies enjoyed special
favors for their complicity. Many of us spent a great deal of energy fuming over
the leaders� constant displays of hypocrisy.
One of the big items on the list of injustices (that most
members denied) was the gurukula system. During the 1970s and 1980s, the
ISKCON schools allowed the emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of hundreds of
children. One of the worst things for ex-gurukula victims is the
injustice of seeing their perpetrators honored as esteemed elders. The victims
know otherwise, of course, but abuse perpetrators in ISKCON portray themselves
as Vedic scholars, gurus, and important leaders. It�s part of their disguise.
Who would ever suspect a holy man of abuse? For many years, the victims�
accusations went unheard.
Things changed once the victims entered adulthood.
Beginning in 1990, former victims started to talk about the gurukula
abuse and expose what happened. The organization itself acknowledged the abuse
in 1998, when it published a study by Professor Burke Rochford, Child Abuse
in the Hare Krishna Movement: 1971-1986.()
However, the victims felt the organization was non-responsive to the gravity of
the charges, so they filed Children of ISKCON vs. ISKCON, in 2000.()
In May 2005, the lawsuit ended when ISKCON went bankrupt to set up a
multi-million dollar trust fund for approximately five hundred ex-students
abused in their schools.()
In the defense of justice, ex-members may note that most of
the original eleven gurus got the consequences for their particular deviations.
The guru who ran a gun and car smuggling operation in Northern California was
expelled. The guru who got away with sexual deviations and violence against
children was expelled. Although he�s back, a lot of people see him as a
hypocrite. The guru who participated in kidnapping, conspiracy to murder, and
conspiracy to commit fraud, spent a dozen years in prison. The arrogant twosome,
the L.A. guru and the guru from Western Europe, are defrocked and out of the
organization. The guru responsible for institutionalizing chauvinism and the
zonal guru system, and allegedly a conspiracy to murder the founder, died in a
tragic car accident in India in 2002. Although these individuals still have
their defenders, they all suffered consequences for their crimes, alleged or
I am grateful for the spectacle, because I can transfer
what I learned to everyday life. I still get upset when I see news stories about
people who think they are �getting away with� their arrogance and conflicts of
interest. However, I have learned from experience that there is a good chance
they�ll eventually have to account for their actions. Witnessing the karmic
cycle in ISKCON over the course of three decades taught me that justice is real,
although sometimes it takes decades to play out.
Another aspect of justice is to learn the difference
between a healthy need for truth and unhealthy intrusion into someone else�s
privacy. In ISKCON, members were obsessed with each other�s finances, sex lives,
chanting habits, and attendance at the morning programs. Judging one another was
a hostile, unfriendly, and embarrassing constant of ISKCON life. It was merely a
symptom of the controlling atmosphere.
The Scarlet Letter (1850), by Nathaniel Hawthorne,
is a nineteenth century glimpse into the judgmental attitudes among the Puritans
of seventeenth century Boston. The protagonist, Hester Prynne, commits adultery
and must embroider the letter �A� on her blouse as part of her punishment. Note
how Hawthorne describes one woman who stands in judgment of Hester:
What do we talk of marks and
brands, whether on the bodice of her gown, or the flesh of her forehead?� cried
another female, the ugliest as well as the most pitiless of these
self-constituted judges. �This woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to
Hawthorne offers a similar negative portrayal of Hester
Pryne�s husband, Dr. Roger Chillingworth, referring to him a �satanic analyst.�
Chillingworth is insanely jealous of the town minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, whom
he suspects is the father of his wife�s illegitimate child. Rev. Dimmesdale is
the father, but he keeps this fact concealed. In the course of the story,
Chillingworth does everything he can to bring the secret out. One of the
questions this classic story explores is whether it is worse to have a secret,
or to try to wring a secret out of someone else.
In the final scene, Chillingworth rips the minister�s shirt
off and it appears that he has a red �A� blistered on his skin:
Most of the spectators testified
to having seen, on the breast of the unhappy minister, a SCARLET LETTER -- the
very semblance of that worn by Hester Prynne -- imprinted in the flesh. As
regarded its origin, there were various explanations.()
Some of them say that Dimmesdale gave himself the mark at
the same time Hester had to embroider the �ignominious badge� on her clothes.
Others speculated that Dr. Chillingworth, as a �potent necromancer,� gave
Dimmsdale the mark �through the agency of magic and poisonous drugs.� Others
said it was a result of the guilt Dimmesdale carried inside, and appeared as a
�wonderful operation of his spirit upon the body.� Whatever the explanation, the
�A� on Dimmsdale�s chest was a symbol to show that he bore the same shame as
Hester, but kept it secret.
Dimmesdale�s shame made him a more animated preacher.
However, it ate away at him until it finally overcame him. In the end, he dies
in Hester�s arms. The angry Roger Chillingworth dies within a year. Hawthorne
explains that Chillingworth went to hell because: �This unhappy man had made the
very principle of his life to consist in the pursuit and systematic exercise of
Letting go of grudges and placing faith in the process of
justice may help ex-members get over their compulsive need to punish the ISKCON
gurus and others from the organization who may have hurt them. Ex-ISKCON members
need to take note of any puritanical tendencies in themselves and learn to feel
compassion for their enemies instead of hatred. Being the scrutinizer is an
unhealthy way to live because it binds an ex-member to the narrow-minded
fundamentalism he or she wishes to leave behind.
Theme Two: Stigma
You can�t always tell ex-ISKCON members by how they look,
but most of us carry an invisible stigma. For me, stigma is the most prominent
theme behind my post-traumatic stress. I investigated ISKCON�s crimes for ten
years to write my book, Betrayal of the Spirit,()
so I am acutely aware of the history. In the early 1990s when I started my
research, I began to felt extremely guilty. I had participated in many cover-ups
as a member of the organization�s P.R. office. Writing my book helped assuage my
guilt. The book was a catharsis that gave me a chance to process ISKCON�s
history and my role in it. The way I see it, the truth needs to come out and
stay out in the open to prevent similar situations from happening again.
I may not have been up to the brim of my hat in crime like
some others, but I was definitely part of the problem. It�s a chore to have to
admit that I did P.R. for ISKCON. It�s not the first thing I tell people about
myself, but it has the potential to completely change people�s opinion of me
once they find out. It has happened many times. For example, in 2002 I contacted
an old high school friend. She was enthusiastic to hear from me, since we had
traveled in Europe together in 1973 and had not talked since that time. However,
when I told her about the child abuse in ISKCON, she quickly terminated the
conversation. Apart from a few emails, we have not spoken since. I didn�t abuse
children. I helped expose the child abuse, but some people would say I�m guilty
At times it feels like the weight of ISKCON�s crimes hangs
like an albatross around my neck. In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,
written in 1798 by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the bird is a good omen.
At length did cross an Albatross,
Through the fog it came ;
As if it had been a Christian
We hailed it in God's name.
The bird flew ahead of the ship, guiding it through fog and
floating ice. Unfortunately, the ancient Mariner killed it.
God save thee, ancient Mariner !
From the fiends, that plague thee
Why look�st thou so ?�--With my
I shot the ALBATROSS.
When the bird died, the winds died too and the boat stopped
moving. As punishment, the ship�s crew hung the dead bird around the ancient
Mariner�s neck. To atone for his sin, the Mariner had to search his soul and do
penance. It took more introspection than he thought it would, but at the end of
his meditations, the ancient Mariner�s consciousness changed:
A spring of love gushed from my
heart . . .
The self-same moment I could
And from my neck so free
The Albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea.
This breakthrough was his return to humanity, humbleness,
and gratitude. The wind picked up and the ship sailed to safety. Ex-members may
identify with the ancient Mariner�s struggle. It takes more than wishful
thinking and denial to throw off the burden of stigma. An ex-devotee who suffers
from guilt must go through a transition of emotional healing.
Theme Three: Perspective
When people leave a cloistered ISKCON community, they might
feel confused and frightened because of what they�ve been told to expect. They
might wonder if they risk going to hell for leaving, or if their �offenses�
against the �pure devotees� drove them out. Besides blaming themselves,
ex-members are programmed to fear personal failure, a world war, and ultimate
demise of society as we know it. At the time of leaving, ex-members might wonder
if it was a good decision, but as time passes, they put their superstitions to
rest and the past falls into perspective. Everything that may have seemed wrong
eventually becomes all right.
Positive thinking author Og (Augustine) Mandino wrote
several stories to illustrate how perspective works.()
His first bestseller was The Greatest Salesman in the World (1968). The
story takes place in the ancient holy land, where the main character, the young
Hafid, gets the opportunity to become a salesman. His mentor, the merchant
Pathros, gives him a beautiful red robe to sell in Bethlehem. After four days of
trying to sell it, Hafid feels discouraged and decides he cannot afford to stay
in the inn another night. He goes to a cave behind the inn and sees the
Nativity. Since the baby doesn�t have a proper blanket, Hafid wraps the red robe
around him, then walks home by the light of a star.
The whole way, he worries that he will get in trouble for
giving away the robe after failing to sell it. He feels like a complete failure,
but instead of being angry, Pathros sees the bright star above Bethelem as a
sign that Hafid is to become his successor. Hafid becomes the greatest salesman
in the world.
Although we feared the ISKCON leaders� warnings about the
outside world, we followed our intuition and left. Things turned out okay.
Instead of a mistake, we now see our leaving as an act of courage. Perspective
changes everything, as it did for Hafid, or it may simply make it easier for us
to live with what happened.
Perspective also puts anger to rest. When I left ISKCON I
was filled with rage thinking that the organization had victimized me. It took
about ten years to finally realize that I was not a victim. Through publishing
my book and talking about it, I realized that I was an assistant perpetrator in
ISKCON; more a Leni Riefenstahl than a victim. It was a shocking perspective
that I never expected, but it has helped me heal. Realizing my culpability in a
dishonest hierarchy made me understand why I felt so much guilt. When I saw the
situation for what it was, my attitude changed.
Victims get perspective when they realize that what
happened to them was wrong. When they finally accept the fact of their
victimization, they can stop blaming themselves and start to heal. Perpetrators
get perspective when they finally feel people�s disapproval. When they realize
that their behavior was wrong and take responsibility, then they can begin to
recover. Most ex-cult members have issues in one or both areas.
Identity crisis is a diagnosable psychiatric disorder if it
progresses to the level of Dissociative Identity Disorder or Multiple
Dissociative disorders are pathological conditions where the ego splinters into
parts, due to trauma. It�s possible that some ex-ISKCON members suffer from
dissociative disorders, especially those who suffered physical or sexual abuse.
However, most ex-ISKCON members only suffer an existential identity crisis in
the sense that it becomes difficult to answer the question, �Who am I?� It could
be part of an individual�s mid-life crisis, especially for those who left the
cult in middle age.
Ex-members must come to terms with their identity inside
the group and their identity before joining. Most members received a new name in
the group, so they have to decide whether to continue using it or go back to
their birth name. The leaders told us we were �dogs� before we met our gurus,
and that our life before ISKCON was worthless. We must go back and reclaim our
early years, along with our value as human beings outside the organization.
Ex-members must also rework their views about gender and sexuality, because
ISKCON offered a set of values that are out of step with the mainstream culture.
There are hundreds of customs, taboos, and superstitions to unlearn once a
Some ex-members choose to retain their insider identity and
set up a lifestyle outside of ISKCON to accommodate it. Nowadays there are many
shades of gray between inside and outside. Some former members joined groups
that resemble ISKCON in every respect, minus flagrant corruption in the
hierarchy. In other words, splinter groups offer an �ISKCON-lite� for some
Most who left ISKCON had to tone down their group
personalities to enter conventional careers. The longer and more intense the
insider experience, the harder it could be to adjust to life in the outside
world. Some ex-members made ISKCON look like a company they worked for; others
left ISKCON off the resume and invented a fictitious personal history. Some were
lucky to find good jobs for bosses who appreciated their history in ISKCON, but
most of us went through a period of hiding our history.
When I moved to Oregon after leaving the temple, I lived a
double life. I didn�t even tell my new next door neighbors what I did in Los
Angeles. I had to be vigilant to know when it was safe to talk about my past and
how much to say. I felt like I might as well have been a convict who just got
out of prison, because there was a ten year gap in my history that I couldn�t
talk about. A few of us around that time used the nickname �ex-cons� to refer to
ourselves as ex-ISKCON members.
The last three themes, home, personal belief system, and
storytelling, are the underlying issues of ex-members� search for identity.
Theme Four: Home
Many people who joined ISKCON in the 1960s � 1970s were
looking for a spiritual family and home. ISKCON may have provided a sense of
home, but upon leaving, the ex-member has to start this journey again. When I
left the temple in 1988, I spent six months living in my father�s house. It
definitely felt like home, since he had lived there the last seventeen years of
his life. He died the week after I moved in with him, following a two and a half
year battle with cancer. I remained in my father�s house as long as I could
before the attorneys sold it and I had to leave.
Sometimes I have dreams that I call my dad on the phone. He
invites me over to the house and I say I�ll be there soon. Then I hang up and
remember that he�s dead and the house is sold. About five years after my father
died, I had the following dream:
I go home on a bus. It drops me
off at the bottom of Skylark Lane [my father�s street] with all my luggage. Two
parakeets keep getting out of their cage. I realize I don�t live there anymore.
Dad is dead. I�m alone with nowhere to go.()
On the battlefield of Kurukshetra, Arjuna and Krishna
talked about the fate of an unsuccessful yogi. Arjuna asked,
Does not such a man, being
deviated from the path of Transcendence, perish like a riven cloud, with no
position in any sphere?()
ISKCON members may feel there is no place for them inside
the organization or out. This feeling of being homeless is the crux of the
ex-member identity crisis.
The search for home is a universal theme echoed in the
world�s literature. One of the greatest of these stories is The Adventures of
Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain. Running away from an alcoholic and abusive
father, Huck Finn was the archetypal orphan. He and the runaway slave Jim were
both like orphans, looking for a home they found on the river:
It's lovely to live on a raft. We
had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs
and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or only just
happened. Jim he allowed they was made, but I allowed they happened; I judged it
would have took too long to MAKE so many. Jim said the moon could a LAID them;
well, that looked kind of reasonable, so I didn't say nothing against it,
because I've seen a frog lay most as many, so of course it could be done. We
used to watch the stars that fell, too, and see them streak down. Jim allowed
they'd got spoiled and was hove out of the nest.()
Getting �hove out of the nest� is a metaphor for what
happens to an orphan and is also a good way to describe an identity crisis. The
search for home is the story of the resolution of the crisis.
Theme Five: Personal Belief System
ISKCON offered its members a mandatory philosophical system
of theology, morality, and notions about what it means to be religious. Upon
leaving ISKCON, ex-members face an identity crisis in the area of faith.
Therefore, reestablishing a personal belief system is another common theme of
ex-membership. Some people return to their family religion or a philosophy they
held dear before joining. Others integrate parts of the ISKCON (Vedic, Hindu)
faith into their new belief system. Some discard religion altogether, or go
headlong into a new alternative religious path.
In ISKCON, the people I knew liked to chant in front of the
deities. It was a good way to commune with Krishna and I thought I�d really miss
it. Then, a few weeks after my father died, I inherited a numinous deity that he
had brought back from his own trip to India in 1978. Although the deity stood in
his office the whole time I was an ISKCON member, I thought it was the Goddess
Maya. Soon after I inherited it, a devotee priest identified the deity as Mohini.()
The Hindu scriptures tell this story about the Mohini
avatar, an incarnation of Vishnu, or Krishna. The demon Bhasmasura received
a special power from the god Shiva to burn people to ashes, simply by touching
their head. This power made the demon arrogant and he used it to terrorize the
universe. Finally Mohini appeared as a beautiful dancer. She started a dance
called Muktanritya, where the final step is to touch the head with the left hand
while standing on the right foot. When Bhasmasura followed her, he touched his
own head and was burned to ashes.()
Mohini was also present at the churning of the Milk Ocean, where she helped the
demigods get the amrita (elixir of immortality) away from the demons.()
In another pastime, she attracted the attention of Lord Shiva and a son was
I love these stories because Mohini was a trickster. She
fooled Bhasmasura and distracted the demons. I love it that Vishnu incarnates as
a woman who was so convincing that she even fooled Lord Shiva. For me, having
this deity overturns all the chauvinism I was forced to endure in ISKCON. I love
this deity because she came through my family, not through ISKCON. Having her
with me provides the connection to God that I crave, without binding me to any
organizations or rules that I don�t like.
Although connecting with a deity helped me resolve my
ex-member existential identity crisis, other ex-members will build their
personal belief systems in their own ways. The common experience is that after
ISKCON, the search for faith, God, and the meaning of life continues in a new
Theme Six: Storytelling
The theme of storytelling does not just mean fiction
writing. It can also refer to history, to cultural stories, and the stories of
one�s own life. To heal identity crisis, an ex-member must know his or her own
story. Telling one�s own story can heal trauma and set the course for recovery.
Story must ring true, so storytelling is an art.
Every culture has its stories and therefore its
storytellers. In Vedic culture one storyteller was Vyasa, the author of the
Mahabharata. It is said that he dictated it while Ganesh (the elephant god)
wrote it down. Great literary authors like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Mark Twain
knew how to tell a story with just the right nuance to capture the imagination
of their audience. The Vedas were also steeped in nuance. The more you
know about the Vedic stories, the more fascinating they seem. For example, if
you know the story of Krishna driving Arjuna�s chariot on the battlefield of
then you might find it intriguing to learn that Krishna and Arjuna also fought
each other on one occasion.()
It might also be a surprise that the god Maha-vishnu had three wives, Lakshmi,
Sarasvati, and Ganga, who became jealous and had a fistfight.()
Storytellers do a disservice if they try to whitewash their
characters to uphold a certain worldview. For example, it would be a mistake to
try to portray Krishna as a saint who never lost his temper, or Vishnu�s
consorts as prim and proper Victorian ladies.
A storyteller knows that a story must turn on a plot. To
have a plot, the characters must have unfinished business. If everything is
already perfectly resolved, then there�s no story. On the other hand, leaving
things undone calls for more story because people want to find out how it all
turns out. If the story ends with major plot points unresolved, then the
storyteller missed the mark.
Of recent movies, one that left the plot unresolved was
Mulholland Drive, by David Lynch. Maybe there was a deep, hidden meaning,
but it�s not apparent. Few people claimed to �get� whatever meaning Lynch may
have intended for his spooky and confusing piece. Maybe it just wasn�t there.
Mulholland Drive started out as a pilot, but the TV series did not fly and
Lynch had to condense it into a feature film. Perhaps he simply couldn�t tell
the whole story he had in mind in a two-hour format.
It was the opposite in another recent movie, Memento,
directed by Christopher Nolan. The story takes place in reverse sequence,
alternating between color and black and white scenes, and the main character has
short-term memory loss. The ending leaves viewers with the �Huh?� feeling, but
everything makes sense as one flashback after another. Watching the movie a
second time reveals the genius of its storytelling.
Sometimes directors make up several endings for a movie if
the original doesn�t work. Two movies where the director rewrote and reworked
the endings were Being John Malcovich and Adaptation, written by
Charlie Kaufman. Kaufman himself admitted that he struggled over the endings and
said he is not sure whether he got it right in either case.()
One of the most controversial endings in the history of
American literature was in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, discussed
earlier. Instead of resolving the plot, the book ends with what scholars refer
to as �an elaborate burlesque farce.�()
The characters act out a charade where Huckleberry Finn meets some of Tom
Sawyer�s relatives and pretends to be Tom Sawyer; Tom Sawyer shows up and to
play along, he pretends to be his own brother. Further, the Civil War ends and
Jim is a free man, but nobody tells him. It appears racist and cruel. Scholars
speculate that perhaps Twain�s ending was a satire about the failure of the
Reconstruction era following the Civil War. Twain started the book in 1876, the
one hundred year anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
He finished the book seven years later in 1883, at a time when scholars say
�thousands of African Americans were effectively re-enslaved through such means
as share-cropping, lynchings, and the convict-lease system.�()
Another story with a mysterious ending is the story of the
Ramayana. Lord Rama, the rightful king of Ayodya, was banished to the
forest with his wife Sita and brother Laksmana. While the men were chasing a
deer, the evil King Ravana kidnapped Sita. Rama then waged a war to kill Ravana
and free his wife. When Sita and Rama returned to Ayodya, Sita proved her purity
by passing through a ring of fire. In this symbolic act, the fire god returned
the real Sita to Rama.
Even after the test of fire, subjects in the kingdom
gossiped about Sita, saying that Rama had broken the religious principles by
accepting his wife after she had been touched by another man. To quell the
controversy, Rama sent Sita back to the forest, even though she was pregnant
with his child. She wandered until she reached the hermitage of the sage Valmiki
(author of the Ramayana), who gave her shelter. The fact that Sita could
never regain her chastity. and that she was cast out of Lord Rama's palace, is
perhaps the most paradoxical and depressing ending of any story in the Vedic
literature. There are cultural reasons it had to end that way, but the
explanation is even more enigmatic than Twain�s ending to The Adventures of
Aside from these famous examples, most good stories have a
satisfying ending that flows naturally from the characters. In a story about
unqualified and illegitimate gurus, it only follows that key characters will
deviate from their vows and chaos will ensue. A good storyteller knows this
because that�s how life works.
When you have a story about bad leaders, there are several
possible endings. In the first scenario, a hero with good common sense persuades
them to voluntarily admit their follies and step down. Their resignation clears
the way for a more egalitarian system. This leads to a satisfying resolution,
because it follows the archetypal hero�s journey outline.
In the second scenario, the opposite happens: nothing and
nobody can stop the bad leaders. Each one plays out his maniacal plot to its
end. This plot is common in horror and science fiction.
The third scenario is a compromise between the first two,
where at least one of the bad leaders is stopped. The point of the story is to
see which bad leaders will be exposed and brought to justice.
Although plot scenarios two and three are no fun for the
people who must live through them in real life, it makes good material for a
story. Outside observers say things like, �You�re kidding! A guru did that?� and
�Did he ever get caught?� People naturally want bad leaders to get their
I�m grateful that ISKCON gave me so much story material. I
got to see the gears grind to pull false heroes off their pedestals and watch
them crash like proud plaster busts on a cold marble floor. I have first-hand
experience of the hunger a listener feels to find out what happens to demagogues
to finally put them in their place.
In a good story, people want to see the punishment fit the
crime. If the villain only makes a mistake or acts foolishly, that may be easily
forgiven. Nobody wants to see a character suffer great hardship over a mistake.
However, if a character makes a mistake and then covers it up, that is a big
offense. Cover-up makes the character unsympathetic, especially if innocent
people suffer. Story lovers instinctively know that life involves learning. Part
of that is learning to come to terms with one�s own behavior. Life offers plenty
of opportunities to own up. If a character refuses opportunity after
opportunity, he condemns himself.
Another sub-plot of the bad guru story involves the
characters who ignore the corruption at the top. They remain unsympathetic until
they decide to reveal what they have seen. When I was in ISKCON, I ignored
corruption and followed all the rules and regulations. However, perhaps due to
the hypocrisy I lived with, I became frail, sore, and developed a limp. I�m sure
it was psychological due to always having to deny my feelings, while the gurus
got away with murder. They told us our desires were evil, so my shoulders
hunched forward and I was always tired. It wasn�t just me; ashram devotees in
those days were a sickly bunch.
Imagine where the story would go with a cast of characters
who try to be ascetic but loose their souls in the hypocritical environment.
Scenario one, a peaceful solution, would be impossible. If all the followers are
hunched over with poor self-esteem, who will confront the arrogant leaders? The
pathetic repressed followers would have to wait for an outside hero to come
along and fix everything. An ending like that would not prove satisfying,
because the resolution must come from the people who are repressed. The people
who can blow the whistle must get the courage to do it.
If the people are unable to stand up for themselves, then
Scenario Two is more likely. Then the challenge will be whether anyone can do
anything. Thus, you look to Scenario Three, for hope that at least one of the
menacing characters gets what he deserves, perhaps by inflicting consequences on
There is a novel that follows the worst possible scenario:
Kalki, by Gore Vidal (1978). Lord Kalki is the incarnation of Vishnu who
comes at the time of dissolution to end the human race. In the novel, an
arrogant ex-Marine calls himself Kalki and uses a biological agent to
exterminate everyone on earth except himself and five followers.
The narrator, one of the survivors, recalls a TV spot from
the night before everyone in the world dies:
There was a small smile on Walter
Cronkite�s face as he read: �Tomorrow the Hindu messiah from New Orleans, James
J. Kelly, sometimes known as Kalki or Vishun or Siva, will appear at noon
Eastern Standard Time on a barge in the Hudson River just off the Battery in
downtown Manhattan and, as the god Siva, Mr. Kelly will begin what he calls �the
dance of eternity.� According to the ancient Hindus, when Siva does this dance
all worlds will be annihilated. So the big question is this: is Jim Kelly of New
Orleans really the god Siva? If he is, then tomorrow is the end of the world.�
Walter Cronkite allowed one eyebrow to lift. Had it not lifted, there would have
been a national panic.()
Gore Vidal allows Kalki to play out his diabolical plot to
its conclusion and nobody stops him. The narrator, Teddy Ottinger, describes the
world after Kalki kills everyone:
Last July the weather was
uncommonly good in New York. By good, I mean traditional. There were no freak
storms. The climatic anomalies of the last decade seemed to have stopped. Has
the Ice Age (or Greenhouse Age) gone into reverse now that man-made fumes have
ceased to pollute the air? Too soon to answer. But skies are bright now, and the
weather of the northern hemisphere appears to be changing for the better.()
The last sixty-four pages of the novel describe the end of
the world. Kalki�s followers die off one by one over forty-three years. The last
entry in the book is written by Kalki himself. Although he has exterminated the
human race, he still thinks he�s a god.
I am the last as I was the first.
Lakshmi dropped her human body twenty-one years ago. Since the death of Teddy
Ottinger sixteen years ago, Geraldine and I have been happy together. This, too,
was intended from the beginning. Last night, Geraldine died. To the extent that
I am human, I am sad that she is gone. Yet there was no real point for her to
remain another day in the human state. Our work is complete. Presently, I shall
join them all in Vaikuntha.()
He proclaims himself to be Shiva and that�s how the book
ends. Even though the evil guru is never brought to justice, it�s a satisfying,
if disturbing, ending. The reader closes the book contemplating the horrible
power of fanatics. Reading the story would be a catharsis for former ISKCON
members who know how power can drive a guru to do horrible things.
If an ex-member can get the insight of a storyteller, then
everything that happened in ISKCON makes sense. All the elements were there:
arrogant leaders surrounded by lame followers too brainwashed to question them.
It only makes sense that everything happened just the way it did. In a cosmic
sense, maybe we were drawn to witness the ISKCON story so that we would learn
something about the need for heroism. It takes courage to stand up for what�s
right. It is all too easy to hold back and wait for someone else to do it. Every
experience in life offers something to learn about maturity and personal
responsibility. When ex-members can finally look back on their experiences and
see the beginning, middle, and end of a grand story, then the identity crisis is
This paper offers a look at the themes of ex-membership and
stories that act as metaphors to illustrate those themes. Individual ex-members
will find their own myths to illustrate these themes, and they may explore
additional themes relevant to their unique situations. I offer this collection
of literary metaphors with the hope that they will help scholars and others
understand the ex-member experience.
Srila Prabhupada died November 14, 1977, in the ISKCON temple in
Vrindavana, India. Some of his disciples allege that a cabal of trusted
disciples poisoned Prabhupada with arsenic and ground glass. The exact
cause of Prabhupada�s death was never determined. He was eighty-two and
is buried beneath a memorial on the property.
The original version of �On Leaving ISKCON,� by Steven J. Gelberg, opens
with the statement: �When Prabhupada
predicted, once, that ninety percent of his disciples would eventually
leave his movement, we, his disciples, were shocked that such a thing
could be possible. In time, the overwhelming majority of his followers
did indeed leave ISKCON, and it now appears the same will hold true for
his grand-disciples.� See: http://www.vnn.org/editorials/ET9812/ET25-2737.html
A revised version of �On Leaving ISKCON,� by Steven J. Gelberg, was
published in The Hare Krishna Movement:
The Post-charismatic Fate of a Religious Transplant, by Edwin
Bryant, Ph.D., and Maria Ekstrand, Ph.D., eds., Columbia University
�On Leaving ISKCON,� by Steven J. Gelberg, revised version, part one,
Ibid., part one and two.
DSM-IV codes: Antisocial Personality Disorder (code number 301.7),
Conduct Disorder (code number 312.8). Other variations are Adult
Antisocial Behavior (code number V71.01), Adjustment Disorder With
Disturbance of Conduct (code number 309.3), Adjustment Disorder With
Mixed Anxiety and Depressed Mood (code number 309.28), and Adjustment
Disorder With Mixed Disturbance of Emotions and Conduct (code number
309.4). Abusers might also suffer from a dual diagnosis, such as
antisocial behavior plus one of the following: schizophrenia, mood
disorders, personality disorders, bi-polar disorder, etc.
�Story Matters,� by Nori J. Muster, is posted at http://surrealist.org/gurukula/storymatters.html
DSM-IV, code number 309.81.
To learn more about the dishonest and traumatic events in ISKCON, see my
book, Betrayal of the Spirit: My Life behind the Headlines of the
Hare Krishna Movement (University of Illinois Press, 1997),
Monkey on a Stick, by John Hubner and Lindsey Grueson (Harcourt,
Brace, Javanovich, 1988), Hare Krishna in America, by Burke
Rochford (Rutgers University, 1985), and other published accounts.
ISKCON Communications Journal, Oct. 1998.
Children of ISKCON vs. ISKCON was filed in the State of Texas in
2000, involving approximately one hundred plaintiffs. Four hundred
additional victims registered with the courts when temples in two states
filed for bankruptcy in 2003: http://surrealist.org/gurukula/timeline_lawsuit.html
The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1850, chapter two.
Ibid., chapter twenty-four.
Og Mandino (1923-1996) also wrote The Greatest Secret in the World,
The Greatest Miracle in the World, Success University, and The
Choice, and he was a frequent contributor to Success Magazine.
DSM-IV lists the following identity disorders: Identity Problem
(code number 313.82) and Dissociative Identity Disorder (code number
300.14). Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD) is one aspect of
Dissociative Identity Disorder.
Dream recorded March 24, 1994.
Bhagavad-gita As It is, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada,
(BBT, 1978) verse 6.38.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,
by Mark Twain, Chapter 3.
The story of Bhasmasura and Mohini is described in the Puranic
Encyclopedia, by Vettan Mani (New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass
Publishers, 1993 ed.), p. 127. There�s another demon named Vrikasura who
had a similar power from Shiva, see Puranic Encyclopedia, p. 880.
Ibid., p. 505. Mohini appeared as a beautiful maiden and distracted the
demons. Meanwhile, the demigods carried the elixir away.
Ibid., p. 505. Shiva fell in love with Mohini and through their union a
son named Sasta was born.
Krishna and Arjuna�s famous conversation is the dialogue contained in
Bhagavad-gita, the equivalent of the Hindu bible.
Ibid., p. 272. Arjuna and Krishna became involved in the quarrel of
Galava and Citrasena. Galava wanted Krishna to avenge an offense by
Citrasena, but Arjuna�s wife Subhadra wanted Arjuna to protect Citrasena.
Thus, Krishna and Arjuna fought each other.
Ibid, pp. 276 - 277. As a consequence of the fight, Maha-vishnu asked
Sarasvati to become the wife of Lord Brahma and Ganga to become the
consort of Lord Shiva.
All the movies cited (Mulholland Drive, 2001; Memento,
2000; Being John Malcovich, 1999, and Adaptation, 2002) were
nominated for Academy awards.
Shelley Fisher Fishkin reviews the discussion about the last ten
chapters of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in chapter four of
her scholarly work, Was Huck Black?: Mark Twain and African-American
Voices, Oxford University Press, 1994. The reference quoted is from
I have discussed these points further in �Story Matters,� see �The War
to Free Sita,� http://surrealist.org/gurukula/sita.html
Kalki: A Novel, by Gore Vidal, p. 207.