Beware if You Follow the Call of Destiny
An ex-member of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) since 1988, Nori Muster discusses her regrets about joining ISKCON, and compares the experience to other mistakes she has made in life. She reflects on her writings about ISKCON and describes an art piece she made for the July 2010 International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) conference, which embodies her ISKCON experience.The Trap of Destiny
I have heard the call of destiny three times in my life. The most recent was when I moved into a waterfront condo in 2006. The first time I came to see it, I stood there looking down at the lake and a turtle surfaced and looked back up at me. Then I went inside. It seemed perfect. For the condo and me, it was love at first sight. The turtles and other wildlife continue to be the best thing about living here.
Another life-changing destiny I followed was when I decided in 1995 to pursue a relationship with a man in Los Angeles. We first met in the 1960s when we were on the same school bus and I was best friends with his sister. We reconnected just before our fortieth birthdays and spent most of our fifth decades together, ending in 2005. Even though it ended, it was still a good experience because we helped each other resolve problems we had carried since the 1960s because of our families.
The most fateful decision I ever made was when I joined the Hare Krishnas (the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, ISKCON) in 1978. I was a twenty-two year old woman finishing my last year of college. The day after graduation, I moved into the Los Angeles temple and stayed in the organization for ten years. After my first three years as a hard-working public relations secretary, they promoted me to become a writer and associate editor of the publication, ISKCON World Review. The man who started the paper, the managing editor, became my husband in 1984. We published eighty-two issues together over eight years before we resigned and left ISKCON together at the end of 1988.
Visions of destiny may make it feel like something great is about to happen. My decision to follow Krishna also seemed like something wonderful at the beginning. I experienced it as the fulfillment of an ancient longing for god. I based my decision to join the temple on a vision and a prayer. One night after returning from the preaching center near campus, I had a vision of ancient sadhus meditating in the Himalayan Mountains. I imagined that they were meditating on Krishna and that they wanted me to join them. The devotees helped me frame the vision as a sign that I should join ISKCON.
There was no way I could have resisted any of these three decisions. Looking back now, I cannot see any other way that my life could have unfolded that would have led me to be the person I am now. However, entering into such a destiny, my advice is to prepare for serious challenges. In the case of the waterfront condo, it felt like the fulfillment of a cherished dream. In some ways it has been good. I enjoy looking out on the water, but the downside includes two homeowners associations (one for the condo and one for the lake subdivision), and a sharp crash in property values. It has not been a storybook experience. The relationship with my friend was also filled with conflict. The bad dreams went away, but toward the end of our ten years together, after months of couples counseling with two different therapists, I ended it by moving back to Arizona. We parted as friends, so that's the only consolation.
The euphoria also wore off somewhere along the way in ISKCON. Although I set out to find Krishna, I ended up with an unwanted lesson in dangerous group dynamics. After leaving, I wrote my memoir, Betrayal of the Spirit (University of Illinois Press, 1997), where I had my say about the organization and the people who ran it. Ex-ISKCON members ultimately accepted my book as a mind-opening narrative of what happened to ISKCON in the 1980s.
They say that the subconscious mind never gives you more than you can handle. That is the case for mentally balanced souls who take everything in stride. I suppose it depends on the inner resources a person has built. People with good upbringings probably acquire healthy emotional boundaries and a measure of common sense as teenagers, so by the time they are old enough to make decisions about their destiny, they put more rational thought into it than I did. Each time I tried to follow what I thought was my path, I ended up in an emotional rut that took ten years to resolve. The condo is ongoing, and there is no hope in sight for moving. The relationship felt impossible to escape toward the end, and the ISKCON situation definitely seemed overwhelming and unending for the last several years until I finally got out.
Leaving ISKCON, I also lost my father. He had terminal cancer for two and a half years, and died within a week after I finally moved away from the temple. It was as if he waited for me to leave ISKCON and put away my saris so he could die in peace. Since we never had a chance to debrief, I am left to theorize what he might say about ISKCON. There have been many things I wish I could tell him, like when the Berlin Wall came down just a matter of months after he died. He would have liked that because he was a GI in Germany during World War II. He would have also liked to know that I got my book published, coincidentally by the same school where he earned his bachelor's degree in journalism after the war. He had given his blessings for the book, but knowing that he would die, he said that I would have to write it by myself.
I have a couple of ex-ISKCON comrades who are at peace with their experience in the organization. They feel no stigma, no regrets. They left and never looked back, seamlessly transitioning into the next phases of their lives. My ex-husband moved to Canada, started his own business, and got dual citizenship. Another dear friend became an acupuncturist. She is happy, now a grandmother, with a successful career. For me it was not at all like that. First, I left ISKCON in 1988, then a few years later I was back as an outsider, a fringie, making friends, visiting the temples, and researching my book.
My quest to find spiritual life in ISKCON had failed so utterly and was such a haunting disappointment, I had to find out why. In my search for answers, the most horrible thing I uncovered was the organization's history of systemic child abuse. When I was putting together the pieces of my life, I looked back at early issues of ISKCON World Review and saw that we had published puff pieces about gurus when they were accused of child abuse. We printed flattering articles about the schools, timed to quell suspicions. When I was there, I had no idea what we were doing, probably because I was thoroughly convinced that the schools were safe for children.
I threw myself into producing that newspaper and it was a good publication with good people behind it. My husband had studied journalism at the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University and was a brilliant editor. We studied graphic design books and experimented with different styles. He taught me everything I know about writing and publishing. We also got my father involved, editing and writing headlines. My father had a degree in journalism and had worked in journalism, photo-journalism, and public relations his whole life. At the time we thought we were doing something good and so did my father. It was only toward the end that we saw the corruption, and only after my father died that I found out about the child abuse, and the sinister part our office played by covering it up.
When I wrote the preface for the paperback edition of Betrayal of the Spirit in 2001, I stated that I was the Leni Riefenstahl of ISKCON, "print version." Leni made propaganda movies for Adolph Hitler and the Third Reich, and her film, Triumph of the Will (1935), brought her international notoriety. Through her creative work, she turned a merciless dictator into a revered national god and savior for Germany.
I recently watched The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, by director Ray Müller (1993). He combines footage of her movies and director's cuts with his interviews. He asks her how she looks back on Triumph of the Will and she denies any deliberate attempt to promote the Third Reich. She said she was just doing the best she could with the footage she had, and that she was disgusted that anybody would accuse her of making the movie for Nazi propaganda. In the movie she said,
If an artist dedicates himself totally to his work he cannot think politically. That's true of practically every artist in the past who produced great works, be it Michelangelo, Rodin, Rubens, or the Impressionists.Of course, that is not true. Artists like Pablo Picasso and Salvadore Dali, who were active in the same era, had a point of view. They painted conscience-shocking murals of the Spanish Civil War, and their artwork was their commentary on the horrors of war. They clearly opposed war and dictators. The way I see it, calling someone an activist artist or activist writer is redundant. Artists, writers, and musicians often make political statements through their work.
Leni seemed satisfied with her career as the greatest female filmmaker of the twentieth century. However, Müller confronted her on camera about why she was afraid to answer certain questions, and why she pretended like she didn't remember things. Referring to her work for the Third Reich in the 1930's, she finally admitted, "It casts such a shadow over my life that death will be a blessed release." Leni lived to the age of a hundred and one, and died in 2003.
Like Leni, my creative work enabled corruption. Like Leni, I had a high level of autonomy in a rigid, anti-woman environment. I can only imagine the burden she must have carried. Even ISKCON's lesser crimes used to keep me awake at night. All I did was enable abuse in a cult that involved no more than five or ten thousand people, plus I have spent years exposing and renouncing what I did in ISKCON. Leni moved on to other subjects, but never produced movies to denounce Nazism. Even though there are significant differences in our stories, my experience is like a toy model of a wonderful, horrible life.
While I still carry a measure of regret from ISKCON, the experiences offered some value. First, due to my book and the website I built for it, Surrealist.org, I have met hundreds of people, and have convinced a few of them not to join (or to leave) a cult. Whenever that happens, I see my life flash before my eyes. I sometimes feel self-pity that nobody could stop me from joining, but at least some good has come of it.
One of the greatest benefits to come in spite of my folly has been my education. After leaving ISKCON, I moved to Oregon and earned a Master of Science degree in youth counseling at Western Oregon University. I took art therapy workshops at nearby Marylhurst University, and that led to my graduate research as an art therapy teacher in a juvenile correctional facility. My education played a part in my destiny a few years later when I returned to study ISKCON and discovered the evidence of child abuse.
Meeting the people I have met, and having the friends that I have had, is another reward from the challenging paths I have followed. Here at the condo I have met all the hardcore HOA volunteers, and admire the way they manage the lake. I met lifelong friends in each of the adventures, and strengthened my ties with family after leaving the cult. We have a large extended family, especially on my mother's side, and the different branches get together for family reunions. Besides all the interesting, accomplished, and wonderful people I have met, I have also made friends with my guilt and bad memories, and have processed them through writing.
Due to my bad experiences, I am wary of organizations. If I get involved with anything cultish, I usually experience triggers that make me flash back to my identity as Nandini, the person I was in ISKCON. Due to not wanting to experience that, I generally stay away from organized religion. For me, god exists as a friend, and spirituality as a magical feeling inside. Perhaps following my destiny led me closer to god. I will never know because I cannot go back and find out what course my life would have taken if I had not joined ISKCON.
I recently made an art piece that sums up my ISKCON experience. It is a collage, based on a watercolor that I did in 1990 after leaving ISKCON, that shows a woman in a dark sari, holding prayer beads. I had the watercolor as a jpg in my computer, so I enlarged it, then scanned the cover of my book and an old ISKCON World Review masthead. I like the way it turned out because the juxtaposition of the images shows how these publications overshadow my life. The newspaper is in the past, since it is behind me. The masthead I happened to scan was from the last issue we did, the eighty-second issue, Vol. 8, No. 8, March 1989. That makes it even more final and over.
The art piece is dark and haunting, exactly the way I feel about the whole experience. The tile floor of my book cover makes a pattern over my face, and the man bowing down on the floor seems to be holding onto my shoulder. He died in December 2009. He was in his mid-sixties, and had been living at the Dallas ISKCON temple. They said he simply did not wake up one morning. It made me feel sad, since he was a good friend, but I had not seen him in years. He remained in ISKCON and once told me he did not want to be on the cover of my book. I talked him into it after the fact. I still remember how proud he was of the photo when it originally appeared in the Orange County Register.
Comparing my three fateful decisions, I can say with absolute certainty that two of them were totally my doing. Nobody twisted my arm to buy the condo; nobody force me to move to L.A. to be with my friend. However, joining ISKCON was not fully my decision. The ISKCON recruiters could pick out a vulnerable soul like me, and they had their sites set on me from the time I met them. The organization trained its recruiters to lure people like me into the group, applying subtle pressures, such as telling me that I would only find Krishna if I moved in. They told me there was nothing out there for me in the material world, and that my life would be wasted, and I would never get this chance again.
One of the men who preached me into the group left ISKCON two years before me and later apologized for getting me to join. He said that at the time he thought it was the highest act of goodness and compassion to convince others to enter ISKCON. He regrets that we were both fooled, and that something he thought was great at the time turned out to nearly ruin my life.
Buying real estate and having problems, or jumping into a romantic relationship that later falls apart—those are just common problems. Joining a dangerous religious cult and staying for ten years to enable the organization's crimes is a dilemma of a much greater order. I was a naïve and gullible cult victim who was coerced into a difficult destiny. So here I sit in the here and now, writing this by candlelight, gazing at the art piece.
It makes me realize that life really is a circle because I always end up back here, alone with my thoughts. We only get so many years in this lifetime, yet when I was young, I acted like I could throw away ten years of it at a time, and it would never have lasting consequences. That is why I say, if you decide to follow your destiny, be prepared for what you might find.