Former SD/3HO follower Kamalla interviews former ISKCON follower Nori Muster
Kamalla: Nori Muster is a fellow cult survivor and the author the book Betrayal of the Spirit. Nori has agreed to an interview to compare notes as cult survivors. Nori was part of the inner circle of ISKCON, the Hare Krishnas. She's a writer-researcher, and lives in Arizona. This interview is extracted from online discussions at wackoworldofyogibhajan.net from December 25, 2015 - March 9, 2016.
Welcome Nori! Thanks for being here! And thanks for your great work as an anti-cult activist!
Nori: Hello Kamalla, and thanks for having me.
I was in ISKCON from 1978-1988, then after moving out I hung around on the fringe for another ten years. Part of my reasoning was to keep up to date on my research. When the book came out in 1997, I continued to stick around for a few more months, but cut ties completely in 1998 when I realized they wanted to continue the cover-up.
In my research years, I helped uncover the child abuse and worked with the survivors and their attorney to bring the lawsuit, Children of ISKCON vs. ISKCON, filed in 2000 and settled in the children's favor in 2008.
Many ISKCON members and former members are good, spiritual people. However, the organization had a vein of criminal activity that ran through the leadership causing a broad underbelly of crime. ISKCON was into murder, systemic child abuse, drug trafficking, assault, petty theft, and money laundering.
Kamalla: ISKCON and SD/3HO were complete philosophical opposites. ISKCON promoted celibacy; we promoted the householder path. They gave up money and we went for it. They ate lots of sugar and we pretended to not eat sugar.
But of course, at a deeper level we were the same "market" - middle-upper-class Western white flower children. Here were the main carrots, I feel:
1. Both groups offered spiritual liberation and a strict practice to attain full mystical mastery and enlightenment. 2. The groups gave us JOBS. This was huge and not talked about enough. 3. Both groups claimed that unlike LSD, we need never have to "come down" if we did the cult practices. 4. Both groups used the power of platonic/no-sex-allowed friendships/mentoring, between men and women, in recruitment. This seems to me to be linked to the fact that many women in the early 1970s were sick of being "chicks" and the second wave of feminism was happening.
Starting with feminism first, you had a friend/mentor when you joined who basically walked you step-by-step into the fold. His name was Subhananda. I think most of us had our yoga teacher, or other Platonic friend/mentor who walked /talked us into Bhajanism.
I was struck with the similar ways we all got recruited into these two distinct 1970s cults and I want to start there. It's clear to see that both cults "cultivated" members by manipulating our natural youthful desires for romance, true love, a soulmate, marriage, family, and brother and sisterhood.
Nori: How wonderful to be young and idealistic. It's the most tragic betrayal to be taken in by charlatans.
Kamalla: I haven't really thought about how powerful and instrumental the opposite sex Platonic mentor/friend was in getting so many of us to join 1970s cults. Was your relationship with Subhananda an unusual thing, or something quite common in the induction process?
Nori: ISKCON absolutely did use men to recruit women and women to recruit men. That was the most common way to get new members. Inside the temple, we were forbidden from talking to people of the opposite gender, so that motivated people to become preachers. It was an acceptable outlet for casual contact with the opposite gender.
When I was in my last year of college at UCSB, Subhananda stayed around so he could have time to write, and he also spent time recruiting me. That type of focused recruitment was called "cultivating." So he cultivated me. Funny, cultivate is so close to cultify.
As it turns out, Subhananda (Steve Gelberg) left ISKCON a few years before me. He and I met up after our ISKCON experiences and became friends. Now he and I often travel to the Cultic Studies (ICSA) conferences as guest speakers. He's one of my favorite friends from those years.
Kamalla: What about couples? Did the organization try to manage their marriages?
Nori: In ISKCON, couples who were fully indoctrinated had to go to the guru to ask permission to marry; ask permission to have children. The guru was like a really bad babysitter who could tell you what to do at any stage in your life.
In ISKCON, arranged marriages were often between criminal element men and innocent women, or underaged women. They also arranged marriages between brainwashed members. It was usually the guru or temple president who decided who would be married to whom.
Some ISKCON couples I knew were pretty good matches, and are still married.
Most of the criminal-to-innocent-women arranged marriages were disasters where the women were abused. I know of one case where an innocent woman turned up dead. Her parents and sister contacted me after reading my book to tell me her story. Marnie had been buried as a Jane Doe for about seven years by the time a smart policeman put the Jane Doe file together with their missing persons file. Up until the policeman contacted them, they thought Marnie had moved to India with her arranged husband and had just neglected to be in contact.
They wanted to ask me if the Hare Krishnas were capable of something like that. The mother thought the Krishnas were benign, while the sister thought it could have happened. I settled it for them, sadly, having to tell them it was quite possible the arranged husband murdered her. Especially considering it was a part of ISKCON, where they had gun running and drug running operations.
Kamalla: Good of you to help the family. How about other murders in ISKCON (solved, unsolved?), and creepy suicides?
Nori: There's about a dozen unsolved murders that I know of, plus a few questionable suicides. I collect published accounts from credible media sources, as well as informal discussions at discussion boards and emails that go around. I don't care if the murders ever get solved. I gave up trying to fix ISKCON in 1988.
I suppose the biggest unsolved mystery is whether they murdered their own guru. It would explain a lot, because the organization was a mess by the time I joined. It may be impossible to prove, because people say the means of death was ground glass, arsenic, or sugar (or a combination of these). Prabhupada had diabetes and was reported to have complained in his final days that he didn't want sweets. Even if they exhumed the body, any glass would be hard to find, arsenic could test consistent with background arsenic levels, and of course sugar would not leave a trace.
Like I said, I find it concerning, but don't care to fix it for them. It's up to the Prabhupada disciples. If he was murdered, It would be better for it to come out in the open. Anyways, the ISKCON person thought to be responsible died in 2002.
One of the most shocking murders involved the Mafia and Witness Protection Program. The murder victim was Steve Bovan, a gangster who had been working with the Laguna Beach drug smuggling ring to launder money. The mob shot Bovan in front of a Newport Beach restaurant October 22, 1977. In ISKCON they used drug money to buy real estate, and there were many drug operations, not just the one in Laguna Beach.
A notorious insider murder took place just outside the L.A. temple on May 22, 1986. The hit man, working on behalf of the gurus, shot Sulochan (Steven Bryant) in the head for being an outspoken critic. The hitman is still in prison, but the main guru behind it got out of prison in 2004, then died of natural causes in 2011.
Another solved murder was the tragic death of Jayatirtha (James Immel). He was one of the eleven zonal gurus, but broke away from ISKCON in 1982 to start his own LSD-Krishna group in London. On November 13, 1987, one of his disciples stabbed him to death and cut off his head. The police arrested the killer giggling hysterically with the guru's head in his lap. The man was sentenced to life in a mental institution.
Thanks for the memories, ISKCON. Jayatirtha wasn't a bad man, and didn't deserve to die like that. None of them deserved to die. I also knew Sulochan pretty well, and it still makes me sad he was killed.
Kamalla: The ISKCON story would make a great movie. Same with Sikh Dharma/3HO, the Rajneesh story, the Moonies (no matter what they call themselves this week), and Scientology. I could see rip-roaring adventure movies with lots of weird twisted humor.
Nori: Too bad murder has to come into it, but so much of dangerous religious cults are underground. Whenever there's power and money at stake, I suppose that leads to people getting killed.
Kamalla: Harder to joke about ISKCON when the original guru-guy may have been an okay person - not a criminal con man at least - who may have become a sad victim of abuse from his students. And making fun of Hare Krishna spiritual practices is making fun of linked branches of worship within Hinduism.
In contrast, just telling the truth about Yogi Bhajan and the group is hilarious (as well as horrific and twisted and gross) and telling the truth helps illustrate how Bhajanism was nothing at all like Sikhi. Just telling the truth, creates this hilarious yet also horrible, scary, story.
Nori: When we joke about ISKCON, it's usually at the expense of the zonal gurus who took over when Prabhupada died. Some of them had characteristic quirks easily exploited for laughs. We also laugh about ourselves, and how dumb it all was.
Kamalla: Speaking of humor, we have a Yogi Bhajan Impersonator on Youtube! See You Have Failed Me! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r44ljp-qJ4w
Nori: I watched it just now. The Yogi Bhajan impersonator is hilarious. He modulates his voice and strokes his beard, pats his brow with a tissue, gives out bank account numbers, shames the listener, great! The actor must be someone who knew him and was a close observer.
I love humor and believe it can cure real problems. Always good to punch up, like punching up at the gurus. Never funny to punch down, like when arrogant gurus make fun of their followers. That's just abuse.
I can't think of any funny ISKCON parodies on Youtube. There's a collection of movies that poke fun at them.
Kamalla: Once, over a decade ago, we simply listed some of the "superstitions" Yogi Bhajan taught us. It is a partial list. We can think of many more superstitions we believed in while in the group, yet for years and years, this list has remained as it first rolled forth - an act of spontaneous improvisational team teaching and among our favorite posts ever. Our list included superstitions like:
* It is better to get a wind up watch because the battery will affect your electro-magnetic field. * People who eat sugar will be sexually perverted. * Anything you wish for on Guru Ram Das's Birthday will come true. * Cockroaches are reincarnated spiritual teachers who betrayed their students. [these are just four of seventy-four items on the list]
Nori: The superstition list is great! Our superstitions overlap, especially the ones about how many lifetimes it took to get back in contact with the guru.
* You had to have been a virtual saint in a past life for the chance to sit at Yogi Bhajan's feet. * There is only one real teacher in each person's life and only one chance to recognize it. * If you deny your teacher it will take 8.4 million lifetimes, 1/3 under water, 1/3 in the sky, and 1/3 on land to become a human again. Then you have to go through lots of human incarnations to even meet a descendent of that student and ask permission to join the path again.
ISKCON had similar beliefs. They said if you find the truth (ISKCON), but then reject it, that's worse than someone who never found it. They had the same 8.4 million lifetimes, which I suppose comes from the Vedic scriptures. So you have come all this way, plus lots of pious karma, to finally find ISKCON. If you leave, you would go to hell for a long time, then start to work your way back up.
Shame shame shame shame on you if you leave.
One thing that reinforced their superstitions was when fallen ex-members came around to the temple and acted all mealy mouthed, repenting their decision to leave. It was best if fallen ex-members would act in accordance with their paradigm. That helped scare people into staying put.
This one I find particularly terrifying: "You will meet Yogi Bhajan face to face on your death day."
Good lord. What if you have differences with him? Does that mean you're in for a barrage of verbal abuse? In ISKCON they used to tell us if we left, we would die of some horrible degenerative disease, friendless, and homeless in the gutter, then go to hell for rejecting our guru.
Kamalla: Bhajanists who "freak out," who get caught by their egos, trapped in "Shakti Pad" (a spiritual stage, a time of soul testing, where you feel tempted to leave the group) - those who leave the group - end up right where they started when they joined the group at best. Usually they become pimps, prostitutes, own liquor stores, or porn sites, they die terrible deaths, lose their souls, and so forth.
Yogi Bhajan's heart troubles, diabetes, kidney failure, high blood pressure, etc., was caused by his straying and undisciplined students.
Nori: Of course it was. In ISKCON, they berated the disciples when a guru couldn't get out of bed to attend the 4:30 a.m. morning program at the temple.
Poor old guru - he's pure, but all his problems come from the terrible disciples he's taken on. I suppose that lie has been going on as long as there have been gurus on pedestals.
I dug up my Short List of ISKCON clichés (unedited from my hard drive):
I'm in maya, he's in maya, they're in maya [illusion, misguided]; I have a bad body [unhealthy, sick, i.e. can't get up for the morning program any longer]; you have to get absorbed [involved in your service]; it was Krishna's mercy [too bad, but it's for your own good]; it was Krishna's arrangement [Krishna willed it, it worked out all right]; we're cultivating him [to become a member]; I have to take care of my body [I have to go to the bathroom, #2]; he wants me to go out on the marathon [forced labor]; I'm fried, he's fried, that temple is fried [unhappy, angry, depressed]; it's a mental concoction [ideas not mentioned in the scriptures]; that's not Vedic [ditto]; he's an old devotee [member more than ten years]; he's an older devotee [more seniority]; he's a fixed-up devotee [following strictly]; he's a big devotee [well known, accomplished]; she has trouble with her mind [depression, confusion]; get off the mental platform [quit trying to think of excuses and do what I say]; rise above the bodily concept [don't think of yourself, your needs]; fired up, in the fire [working hard], he's expert [knows what he's doing]; he's agitated, her mind is agitated [wants sex].
Kamalla: "Agitated." hehehehe....
Expert ISKCON advice: "Get off the mental platform, rise above the bodily concept, get fired up! Be absorbed! It's Krishna's mercy that you are on a marathon. You have a bad body, and you brew a mental concoction that makes you so very easily agitated. You are fried!"
Nori: You got it!
Kamalla: How successful is ISKCON these days? Kundalini Yoga as taught by Yogi Bhajan is big business and a whole new generation of people are being sucked into the racket.
Nori: It's somewhat like that in ISKCON. Just when it seems to be dying out, I'll get an email from somebody who just emerged from a fifteen year ordeal. ISKCON still uses the same tactics to recruit people, then they get them to move in and cut off their families and friends, and donate all their belongings and bank accounts, etc.
Although ISKCON will probably always be there in some form, it is smaller. Fewer people live full-time in the temples, fewer shave their heads and wear the outfits. They claim to have a vast congregation that includes former members, but most of the former members are burned out and do not count themselves as members anymore.
The organization has a liberal contingent that has worked hard over many years to reform it from within, so in places where they listen to liberals, they are less misogynist, and less authoritarian. However, at its core, thanks to the their literal interpretation of the founder's teachings, they are a racist, misogynist, and fundamentalist group that does not necessarily care for the laws of the countries where they reside.
In ISKCON the different gurus competed with each other, and hid each other's crimes. For ordinary devotees who were not of the inner circle, all this tension resulted in sporadic crying. It happened to me a few times, suddenly I would sit up in bed filled with anxiety, and cry. We lived in apartment buildings, where we could hear our neighbors. Occasionally crying would come from another's window. Then the counseling would inevitably be "control your mind," "chant more," "so-and-so is fried, leave them alone," etc.
Like I said, ISKCON has sweet, sincere devotees too. I think they tolerate the stress for the sake of serving god, so I prefer to just leave it on the table. I can't fix it, but I'm not out to hurt anyone either.