Interviews with Nori Muster (on this page)
1990 radio interview
2002 reader/journalist in France
2010 interview for student
1990 Radio Interview
Following is a radio interview from 1990, when Betrayal of the Spirit was just a manuscript, sitting in a drawer.
Nori: Hi, Ron.
Ron: How are you?
Nori: Pretty good.
Ron: We're going to go on in just a moment, so stay with me.
Nori: I'm with you.
Ron: And, as promised, we have on the phone Nori Muster, who is completing, or has completed at this point—I'm not sure we'll find out—a book about the decline of the Hare Krishna in America. She's a former full-time member of that organization for 10 years. She says that with the founder's death things started going a little awry. Let's go back to the beginning. What's your history with the Hare Krishnas? How did you get involved?
Nori: Okay, I was in college in Santa Barbara, in my senior year in 1977, and I met devotees there. I was searching because I wanted to get away from drugs and things like that. I'd just moved to Santa Barbara to do my last year of college but I couldn't meet any other kids at the school who didn't take drugs or drink alcohol. Beer is the big thing there.
Ron: Hard to find at a college.
Nori: Yeah, especially back then. I went to a few of those beer parties—what a drag. Then I met Hare Krishnas and they told me they didn't take drugs, and they didn't eat meat, and they didn't have sex, and they didn't gamble. Those are the four regulative principles. I thought, hey great, here's a whole group of people—it's just what I wanted. So, I ended up joining.
Ron: They don't eat meat, they don't drink, they don't gamble, and they don't have sex. Okay, a basic question now, who is the founder?
Nori: The person who brought the movement to America is named A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. He was raised in this religion in India—he was born in 1896 and raised in Calcutta. His guru told him to bring the religion to the West because he could speak English really well. So he came to New York in 1965 and started the Hare Krishna movement, as everyone probably remembers in New York, back in the hippie days.
Ron: Right. Well, the stereotypical Hare Krishna of the time was the orange robe and the shaved head and at the airport begging for money. When I was talking about the show earlier tonight one of our callers called in and said, "Did you know that a Hare Krishna panhandling in an airport can make $60,000 in a year?" And I said, "No, I didn't know that, but I would ask you." Is that true?
Nori: Well, I moved into the Los Angeles temple in 1977 or '78, and at time—they call it "book distribution" because they give books away when they collect money—so the book distribution was at its height, right before it went into the decline. And, yeah, book distributors—some—not all, but the really good ones, could make $60,000 a year.
Ron: What was done with the money?
Nori: There's temples all over the country and all over the world, and then, in America there's one central book publishing office, which was located in Los Angeles when I joined. The temples would individually send their people out to collect money and distribute books, then they would send the money to the book fund and purchase more books. Then the book trust, called the BBT, or Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, had a semi-truck that had a route all around the country to drop off cases of books at all the temples. Temples could build up book credits by sending money to the BBT and then get the book. So the money was going to the BBT.
Ron: You were a member for 10 years. What did you do during those 10 years?
Nori: When I joined, or actually before I even moved into the temple, I started working in the public affairs department and I worked there the whole time.
Ron: And what did you do in the public affairs department?
Nori: For the first four or five years I was a secretary to the minister of public affairs. I helped him do press releases, deal with the media, answer people's questions, publish books, things like that. We also worked to get our public affairs ministry accepted by the leadership and designated as "the" public affairs department for the whole movement. After things really got going, we started a newspaper, called The ISKCON World Review, and I became one of the editor-writer-typesetter-gofers, and I worked for the newspaper for the rest of the time.
Ron: Was this a happy time, a good time?
Nori: Yeah, well . . yeah, it was a good time. It was a growing time. I had just finished college and it was exciting to be in a public affairs department. We were running the whole thing ourselves.
Ron: During that time, was there anything that was wrong?
Nori: Yeah, there were a lot of things wrong. Myself, I was really naive and I didn't notice it, I didn't get involved. But there were a lot of things wrong. When I met devotees in 1977, Prabhupada, the founder, had just passed away in November. I met devotees practically the day after he died. Somewhere I had heard that he died and when I met devotees, the first thing I asked them was, "Hey, I heard that your guru died." The people I met had just happened to have been with him in India when he died, so they told me all about it, what his passing was like and everything. Then, when I was getting closer to moving in, the man that I'd been dealing with told me that to get initiated I would have to take initiation from one of the guru's disciples, since he had died. I didn't really like that idea.
Ron: Why, what does initiation involve?
Nori: Well, the guru—see, when Prabhupada died, 11 men took over the movement. They were supposed to be the most advanced disciples, the best disciples—you can imagine these American kids taking over a movement from an 86-year-old swami. So when Prabhupada died they divided the world up—pieces of pie, right? One guy got Europe, one guy got Australia, one guy got India—it was all divided up.
Ron: Was it a sincere thing, to spread the good news of this, or was it a money-making thing, where they saw the opportunity to make big bucks?
Nori: I don't know. I think in the beginning they were sincere. They thought it's what he wanted. Maybe there were a few people who were trying to get power, but once they had divided it up, a struggle developed between the different leaders to see who could get more. Who could get more disciples, who could collect more at the airports, who could build bigger temples—and then it became a thing where certain of the gurus were falling down. Then, it was like "who could take over their portion of the pie." It became a competitive thing that got worse and worse. One guy would become a black sheep and then the other guys in the area would want to take over his territory.
Ron: Sounds cut-throat.
Nori: That was part of it. The conclusion of that—remember the four principles I mentioned before? No meat-eating, not gambling, no intoxication, and no illicit sex? Well, of the 11 guys who took over, something like seven of them broke the principles. It started to cause a real credibility gap between the leaders and the followers. We were following these guys—they were our gurus, they were our leaders, they were supposed to be the great devotees. And here they were, taking LSD, having sex with their disciples, having homosexual affairs with their disciples.
Ron: Did you see these things?
Ron: You saw them and there's no doubt that this happened?
Nori: Right. I worked in the public affairs department. For a number of years I was able to rationalize it, overlook it, understand it, write it off, deny it—all those kind of things.
Ron: I'm not sure what the philosophy of the Hare Krishna is. What is the religion, what is the basis of it, besides no meat, no—
Nori: It's based on a form of Hinduism called "Vaishnavism" and Vaishnava means "Vishnu." So Vishnu or Krishna is the basis of the religion. They believe in God, reincarnation, karma, and service to God. In other words, serving God is the main tenet of the religion. Also chanting the names of God, which is "Hare Krishna," when you see them singing. Also, following a guru and all those other things, daily meditation. The whole object is to come to a level of realization where you're dedicating every moment of your waking life to God. You do it through serving God and serving the temple.
Ron: How does one become a guru?
Nori: Political power.
Nori: It's supposed to be based on your purity, but—
Ron: Who judges your purity?
Nori: Okay, when Prabhupada was still living, as he went along in the years that he was managing the movement, it got to be bigger and bigger. More and more temples were opening everywhere and more and more projects were starting. So he picked  of his disciples to be Governing Body Commissioners—that's "GBC." The GBC was supposed to be the governing body, the hierarchy of the movement, to act on Prabhupada's behalf and make sure everything was going smoothly. They're still in existence—they're supposed to be the leaders of the movement. They're the ones who can decide to make someone a guru.
Ron: When you were talking about the decline and how all the gurus were involved in these different things, and you just rattled them off and I sort of said, "Yeah, right." I suppose we should be a little more shocked. You mentioned the taking of drugs, the having affairs, the homosexuality, how rampant was this? Was it overt, or—
Nori: It unraveled over a period of time. Working in the public affairs department was one disaster after another. I moved in the temple in 1978, in June, right after graduation. Then Jonestown happened in October. I had just joined and all of a sudden we're dealing with this—our newspaper clippings increased by about 500 percent and every article started out, "Dangerous cults like Hare Krishna, Scientology, the Moonies . . ." So anyway, our publicity was horrible from day one, when I joined. Then, the very next thing that happened was the guru from Northern California got busted with a bunch of illegal guns and ammunition at his farm. That was part of a World War III philosophy that had been circulating in the movement that he took to an extreme. He bought a battleship in the Philippines and was going to have it sailed over to America.
Ron: He bought a battleship with money that was raised by panhandling?
Nori: Yes, from money raised from the book distribution. He didn't—see, that was another thing. Not all the gurus thought they should turn their collections over to the BBT. They wanted to keep it for their own projects, and this guy's project happened to be battleships and guns. So he got busted twice for having the guns on his farm, so that was our next publicity thing we had to deal with. This story was all over in California.
Ron: And you're trying to do damage control.
Nori: Exactly. Everything that happened, we weren't ready for it. First we had Jonestown, then we had our own Jonestown. Then we had to do press conferences and press releases and say, "Guns isn't the official policy. It was just this one guy." At first he got a little slap on the back of the hand because he was supposed to be a pure devotee, you know, chosen by Prabhupada as a leader, a guru. How could this happen? Everyone just went into denial. Then, finally they had to expel him because it kept happening. He kept getting busted and one of his disciples would take the rap for him. That was the first guru to deviate and everyone else thought it would just be him—no one else would deviate. Then, about a year later, the guru for England started flipping out on LSD. I mean, really flipping out. He was having some heavy psychotic breaks with reality.
Ron: Was this the guru that George Harrison was involved with.
Nori: No, the guru George Harrison was involved with was my boss. He's still in the movement, he's kind of middle-of-the road, he hasn't done anything very controversial.
Ron: When he was your boss, was he a guru?
Nori: No, he became a guru much later, but hasn't taken any disciples yet.
Ron: But he was the guru that George Harrison followed?
Nori: No, George Harrison only followed Prabhupada. Actually, one time George Harrison came to our temple in L.A. He came there a few times, but one time we had a dinner for him and he met my guru, who is this guy from New York. He speaks with a New York accent, you can picture him, he's a little fuss-budget. He has a bad temper, very dogmatic, and hard to get along with, and he's made a guru. Just the most unlikely person to be a guru. So they had this dinner and the big thing was that George Harrison was to meet the new, pure devotee-guru for Los Angeles, and have dinner together. Well, they did not get along. On the way back to the airport, George told my boss that he didn't like the idea of having gurus, that Prabhupada should be the only guru, none of these other guys should be gurus, they don't know what they're doing, they're going to wreck the movement. He could see it—he could see it so clearly, but none of us who were in the movement could see it.
Ron: I don't want to be sensationalistic, but I want to go back to some of this debauchery we talked about. But before we do that, let me give out our phone number in case anyone out there has any questions. The number is 692-0973. If you have any questions about Nori Muster's 10 years in the Hare Krishna movement, give us a call at 692-0973. Now, you say this degeneration happened slowly.
Nori: At first it did. From 1978, when the gurus took over, only those two deviated, the guns guru and the LSD guru. And everyone thought that would be it, because we were all in denial. Then, in 1986, all the godbrothers of the gurus—in other words, there's a guru and his disciples, all the disciples are godbrothers—all the godbrothers of the gurus were tired of being put down. They were being dominated by these gurus and no one else could become a guru except these 11 guys. Actually, I think they made three more gurus at the time. So the godbrothers had an uprising and they threatened—they almost overthrew the gurus—they called it the "guru reform movement." At this meeting in 1986 they decided more people should be allowed to be gurus and the gurus can't have absolute power, they can't have zones where only they can make disciples. So the guru reformers were successful and they made about another 20 gurus at this meeting. That was when "you know what" hit the fan. That was when the other four or five gurus were exposed, at those meetings. Another one resigned, so that only left about three who were still in power—and they're still gurus.
Ron: Now what kind of power do they have, exactly?
Nori: Okay, when Prabhupada was guru, in the very last years of his life they were honoring him with different kinds of worship. This is permitted in the religion, but you only do it for very respected people, very holy men—it's a very high respect where they do ceremonies, like bathe their feet, offer incense, offer them a big throne-like chair to sit on. It was a form of showing respect and worship. Well, when these gurus took office they immediately demanded this kind of respect. So every disciple had to bow down every time they saw their guru. They had ceremonies every morning where the gurus were worshiped—put up on a chair, bowed down to, throw flowers on their feet, offer incense, and other worship. It was pretty elaborate.
Ron: Was this voluntary, or was it mandatory, and how was it enforced?
Nori: It wasn't coercion, but—like for me—at first it was really weird, because I knew they did that for Prabhupada. But I didn't think they would do it for Ramesvara because he was only a—he wasn't that much older than me. He was only about 27 at the time—just a young guy. He looked more comfortable in a business suit than a Hare Krishna robe. He was a publisher, he had been publishing books for Prabhupada—he really wasn't the guru type. Then, all of a sudden we were asked to worship him. But then I just got used to it because that was what everyone else was doing. That's one of the points I bring out in my book—
Ron: Was it brainwashing of a sort?
Nori: I don't know what they mean by brainwashing, but it seems like a certain kind of codependence, or something. You go along with it just because the whole group is. It's kind of like peer pressure.
Ron: Do you feel—did you feel silly when you first started doing it?
Nori: I had to lie to myself to be able to do it. "This is my guru, this is my eternal master, I have to worship him," you have to tell yourself all these things. And the godbrothers—his equals in the movement—did not like it at all. For a while all the gurus were making it so even their godbrothers and godsisters had to worship them. That—it was practically like a mutiny when they finally overthrew them.
Ron: In it's heyday, how big was it?
Nori: Well, in its heyday—it peaked in about 1977, just about the time Prabhupada died, and then went down. Probably, in America, about 5,000 full-time members, living in temples, or very near temples.
Ron: It wasn't really that big of a group.
Nori: No, it was visible, but it wasn't big. But then, if you consider all the Hindus—this was their regular religion, so . . .
Ron: Right, but in the United States there was an over-reaction, probably, considering the size of the group.
Nori: Um, well, they were in every airport—you couldn't really get away from it.
Ron: That's true. Is there anything left of it in America today?
Nori: Yes, surprisingly, there is. There's a temple in New York, there's a temple in L.A., there's Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, Denver, something's happening in San Francisco—it's kind of died out. I've named most of the big cities where it still is.
Ron: You're not involved in any way anymore?
Nori: No, I've moved about as far away from a temple as I could get.
Nori: Remember the GBC that I mentioned before? the leaders? They are really hung up on what they call "purity" and they want everyone whose going to be practicing Krishna consciousness to adhere to their standards and be part of their group. In other words, if you try to have a Hare Krishna temple but the GBC doesn't like you or doesn't accept you, then they do their best to get rid of you. They're doing this right now to a group in Mississippi. There's a farm down there and the people were excommunicated from ISKCON for not following the GBC. They're all Prabhupada disciples and they want to have their own community, and they publish their own newsletter, and the GBC writes them threatening letters telling them not to call themselves "Hare Krishna" and not to call themselves "International Society for Krishna Consciousness." And the GBC has to have their nose in every single thing that's going on in the country.
Ron: Is there a trademark on Hare Krishna?
Nori: There's the International Society for Krishna Consciousness—ISKCON, their acronym. They say that they have that copyrighted and they say they have "Hare Krishna Movement" copyrighted. I don't know.
Ron: According to them you can't go around calling yourself Hare Krishna unless they recognize you as such.
Nori: Right, you have to be part of their group, recognized by them. And anyone who tries to have a temple or whatever, without their sanction, their full participation—they get on your case.
Ron: Sounds like a business.
Nori: That's been criticized. But I ran into my own problems with the GBC. When I worked in the public affairs office, my husband and I were editing and publishing a newspaper. In 1986, when things broke loose, we wanted to print articles about it. These things would be in the newspapers—about our gurus falling down, this and that, and murders—then our newspaper would come out and it looked—blank. There was nothing there about it—it was kind of a "good news" sheet. We wanted to start doing articles and interviews to show what was really happening, and have articles and be objective. Well, the GBC didn't like that at all, so I had my run-ins with those people.
Ron: What are your feelings now about the movement, and, can I say, are you religious today?
Nori: Yeah, I still feel the same way about Prabhupada—to me, Prabhupada was a very saintly person and a guru, who was sincerely following his religion and his orders from his guru. I'm okay with that, I think that's good. Also, I believe the philosophy and read the books of the movement because I think it's a really nice philosophy and I like it. It answered a lot of questions for me. At the time I met devotees in Santa Barbara—I was 21, or so—and had a lot of spiritual questions. I found this philosophy really satisfying and I still feel the same way.
1997 - Amazon.com
This was an interview by Amazon.com that was once posted at the Amazon.com site
Betrayal of the Spirit:
My Life behind the Headlines of the Hare Krishna Movement
by Nori J. Muster
University of Illinois Press, c. 1997
Amazon.com: How did you begin writing?
Nori: I found out about writing in college. The last two years of college were transformational. Before that, I thought writing was a terrible chore. ("I have to turn in a term paper.") When I was in the Hare Krishna movement, I took every opportunity to write & I wrote for the ISKCON World Review for eight years. That's in my book (Betrayal of the Spirit). I believe in studying, I've read a few dozen books on writing & attended lots of writing classes. Then there's a time to write & forget about all the text books.
Amazon.com: What do you like to read?
Nori: I studied the writings of the Hare Krishna's spiritual master, and those books had a great influence on me. They are grand. The Hare Krishnas had a rule that you could only read the guru's writings, so for 10 years I read the books over & over. Since leaving the movement I've tried to catch up with popular culture. I missed the 80s completely. I'm still out of touch with most popular fiction, movies, things like that.
In 1990 I went back to college for my masters. I love reading non-fiction, academic stuff. My favorite subjects are psychology, Noetic Sciences, religion, sociology. For fiction & humor, I love Mark Twain. I read the weekly edition of the Washington Post because I like political cartoons. I always have a stack of books, magazines & things that come in the mail. I read everything. Lately I've been reading a lot of interesting things on the World Wide Web.
Amazon.com: How do you like to write?
Nori: I believe in paper & pen, the easiest way to get an idea out. I do a lot of free writing in my journal, writing down everything that comes to mind without letting the pen rest. It's like mental dumping. I can go on for a dozen pages. That's the stuff I hate to re-read. It always seems depressing, like my mind was detoxifying. I have a bookshelf of old journals, going back to the 80s, also boxes of clippings of things that have been published.
When I'm working on a publishing deadline, I usually work compulsively on the computer until it's finished. My regular routine is to wake up, get centered & begin the day by meditating. After that, I may eat, shower & write (in any order), taking me up to the late afternoon. Usually I like to relax in the evening; if there's too much to do I will go out and do it. When there are no writing projects on the burner I may spend a few days on my art, or I may take a few days off.
If I get writer's block, I do things around the house or work in the yard. That usually works. I get sick of cleaning & go back to the computer. While writing Betrayal of the Spirit I had several severe attacks of writer's block. It can be a difficult thing to break through.
Amazon.com: What do you do on the internet?
Nori: I started using it for e-mail around Thanksgiving 1995, and love it! I recently got a web browser that works & have been exploring the Web. There are many good people out there; many of the people & organizations I love have gone on the Web & I've made many friends that way. I also put out a publication, Pray For Peace Foundation News. We have several interests, one is to promote a peaceful conclusion to the war on drugs.
The internet is a valuable communication tool & I believe the universities are way ahead of the rest of us. They've been using e-mail for years, before we had internet on-ramps. The final editing process for Betrayal of the Spirit was done on the internet. I communicate with my publisher by e-mail. I've also done business deals through e-mail. The internet is changing society, making it more friendly. I think it calms people down because they can answer after they've had time to think, or they can answer spontaneously without a lot of paperwork, stamps, all that.
Amazon.com: Where do you live and what are some of your interests?
Nori: For the last four years I've lived in Tempe, Arizona. This is a great place, a college town. There's a natural foods co-op called Gentle Strength, where people can stock up on organic vegetarian food and natural health care products like herbs and vitamins. The co-op is more than a store, it's a social lab where people can test out their democracy. In 1995 the members "took back" the co-op and it is truly run by the members now. Although it was a little hot & spicy for a while, we have a great community here. People get together for music, yoga, veggie pot-lucks, membership meetings, even the board of directors' meeting is usually packed with visitors.
There's a professor at ASU who is studying the co-op culture from a marketing standpoint. He hopes to publish an article about his findings & he welcomes any graduate students who want to study the co-op.
I love the desert. It's a delicate eco-system that is in danger, especially up in Sedona. I hope that concerned people will oversee the rate of development in that area. There are still many natural, beautiful areas all over Arizona. The main reason I came to Arizona is that my family lives here. My real home is in Southern California, but Arizona is my retreat.
Interview with a reader for her publication
S.T. from France
hi Nori, i've just read your book, i think it is great, i use to write for different magazines, and now i'm planning to do my own magazine. This issue will deal a lot with KC, and you have a lot of interesting things to say. I'dlike to do an interview by e-mail, would you agree? Waiting for your answer.
1. How does your book was welcome into the Krishna Conscious people you know (i mean, devotees into ISKCON and outside, friends, family ?)
It was received well. Of course, there are some who dislike the book. It talks about a lot of taboo subjects. One of the reviewers said that devotees inside ISKCON would learn a lot about the history of their organization by reading this book. When i was a member, i had to deal with a lot of secret information and cover it up. So the book is my way of telling everything i knew, and explaining when i knew it. Of course, there were many in the organization who knew more than me. Many of those people still have an interest in covering it up, so those types of people were unhappy with the book. People who had political power or authority within ISKCON may regret that i stirred things up by writing this book. But other books, notably Monkey on a Stick, by Lindsey Gruson and John Hubner, was much more critical and inflammatory. I think that some of the officials in ISKCON were relieved that the book was less damaging than it could have been. I could have really slammed them, but my book took a more gentle approach. I think that some of the leaders appreciate that, which is why they were mostly silent about the book, rather than condemning it outright. I have gotten many praises from friends and other ex-members who read it and saw their own story within my story. I wrote it for people who went through an experience similar to mine and it was very well received among those types of people.
2. Do you think there is a positive change nowadays in what you see now in ISKCON or that things are getting worse?
There are still some good people in the organization who try to change things. In fact, some of my old friends who chose to stay when i left are still there, still trying to change things. However, as a close outside observer over the last thirteen years, i do not see much change in attitudes or practices. The main thing is that it's getting smaller and more eccentric. It became too frustrating to "change" ISKCON, which is why i left. It's similar to thinking that we could ever "fix" a dysfunctional family of origin, if there were severe problems like child abuse, murders, etc., like we had in ISKCON. I gave up a long time ago, but there are other determined souls who continue to try to change ISKCON for the better, and i believe they deserve credit for that, even if they are ultimately defeated. My best hope for ISKCON is that some future generation will look back on the first thirty years, realize the mistakes that were made, and change things for the better.
3. On the Internet, i saw that some anti-cult organisations were reviewing your book. How do you feel about these people who get every opportunity to discredit religious organizations. I mean, you still a devotee but maybe some people can use your work to say "look, Hare Krishnas are bad people !" when you still think Krishna's something good ?
I'm actually good friends with many of the top anti-cult people. I can tell you that many of these groups are benevolent and have given the Hare Krishnas a fair shake. The American Family Foundation, headed by Dr. Michael Langone, has treated ISKCON especially fairly, inviting them to sit on panel discussions, and so on. I have found that any anti-cult organization that is really worthwhile has seen ISKCON for what it is, a sad tragedy. None of them stand on the sidelines jeering at others' misfortune (although i have met critics like that). Like these other organizations, I get people coming to me with their questions and pain. Many people "lose" their children or loved ones to these groups and it is extremely confusing and hurtful to have a loved one turn against them because they're a meat-eater, or because they refuse to get into the cult. Something about these groups just cuts family ties and close friendship ties in a very painful and ruthless way. It's abusive. So, i have had the opportunity to speak with many people who have lost loved ones into cults, and i can tell you that most of those anti-cult organizations are doing a service to help people understand and cope with the tragedy of losing a loved one. Nobody has ever used my book to try to slander the Hare Krishna people, but they have recommended my book to ease the pain of losing a loved one. By the way, i think that Krishna and the pure form of the Hindu religion are good, but that joining something full time and donating your whole life to something is a big mistake if the group is into crime.
4. How did you feel when you decided to leave ISKCON ? Probably some authorities in the movement told you that you were falling in kind of a demoniac consciousness. Do you still have a problem with some kind of culpability?
That is a good question. Actually, there was nothing like that. The people i worked for understood that i had outgrown ISKCON and it was time for me to leave. Nobody in my immediate circle tried to make me feel guilty. I should have left sooner, but they were glad i left when i did because they were tired of the things i wanted to print in the paper. I would not let up and they knew that. Their best hope was to get me to leave, which they did. It was all meant to be. In the final chapter of my book, i describe my resignation, and i hope that the reader can feel the tension and sadness that i felt when i had to do that It was not just quitting ISKCON, but i also quit my good job and gave up several valuable friendships that meant a lot to me.
Generally, i was really, really happy to be out. It was a new beginning for me. Every day i have felt grateful that i could leave with the minimum friction and move on with my life. It was the best decision i've ever made. As far as lingering guilt, i have had a lot of it, but it was not about leaving. Certain things happened during the years I was a member that still make me feel uneasy. I was involved in some of the worst scandals and instead of acting on my conscience, i went ahead and did what the ISKCON leaders wanted me to do. For example, when they killed Sulochan in Los Angeles in 1986, i typed the press release denying that Sulochan was a member, denying that the hitman was a member. I knew full well that both were members and that one of the gurus hired a devotee hitman to kill Sulochan because Sulochan was their critic. I knew this, but somehow denied it and stayed in ISKCON for two and a half more years. My guilt comes from knowing that i continued to play along, when what i should have done was offer my resignation the day of the murder. "Sorry, but i refused to do p.r. for organizations that murder their critics. Goodbye." But because i accepted the murder and continued to support the organization, i felt tremendous guilt. I have been seeing a psychologist for several years specifically to help me with issues like this.
5. The "sex" issue create big problems into several religious communities, some people says that Hare Krishnas are very strict about abstinence, that it leads to serious damages if people are not prepared. What is your opinion?
The sex problem in ISKCON was that there were extremely strict rules against sex, to the point that it was like a hysterical anti-sex institution. Men had a little saying that if they were really spiritual, they would spit in disgust if they thought about sex. So, even though it's a dirty habit, men would spit on the ground when they saw a pretty woman. There was a lot of illicit sex going on. i mean a lot. Much of it was deviant sex too, like adultary, statutory rape of children, and homosexual sex among men who were supposedly celibate. It was extremely hypocritical. There was one scandal that involved women's ashrams. They believed that women were "ten times lustier than men," so therefore to "keep the women satisfied," they had one man live with about ten women and sleep with (molest) each one of them on different nights. This was going on in Los Angeles when I moved in, but stopped shortly after that. It continued in Berkeley and New Vrindaban (West Virginia). Another sex scandal was that in New Vrindaban, they used to take women and drop them off at bars to raise money through prostitution. The hypocrisy level was pretty darn high, since there were a lot of us naive devotees who thought everyone was following all the principles, including the one against illicit sex. It was a rude awakening to me to find out about all that was really going on. I was innocent when i was a member. It was only later, while writing my book, that i found out about all this. After leaving ISKCON, i went back to school for my master's degree in counseling (Western Oregon State College, 1992). Before grad school i was completely naive about sexual abuse, but then ended up working with abuse survivors and doing my master's thesis on child abuse. I learned a lot about it, which is why i could see what was going on later, when i came to visit the temples again in the mid-1990s and the young people started to tell me about the sexual abuse they experienced in the ISKCON schools. I have studied the symptoms of child abuse and now realize that all the symptoms were present in ISKCON during the years i was a member: a rigid and tightly controlled atmosphere, lots of family secrets to hide, a demand for blind, absolute loyalty to the authority figures, and a low level of appropriate touch. For the people who were truly celibate, it was a cold world where nobody ever touched you. Even friendly hugs and pats were taboo. That's a sure sign that there's sexual abuse going on, because all touching is seen as dirty.
6. Did you tried to find a new guru or do you prefer to lead your spiritual life alone, i mean without a living person to guide you?
I prefer a private spiritual life now. Of course, i have teachers, authors and other people that i look up to and study, but as far as accepting a guru who would be anything like my experience of a guru in iskcon, i would say not. I think that ISKCON's understanding of the guru is a distorted version of what is practiced in mainstream Hindu religion. They got everything all wrong, to the point that having an ISKCON guru was similar to having a really mean boss who could control your life 24/7. I will never put myself in a situation like that again.
7. Do you consider that writing your book was a spiritual service to help newcomers, or do you consider it as a liberating experience (or both)?
It's like anyone who has been through a traumatic experience - it made me feel better to tell my story. If it helps other people, then it makes it all worthwhile for me. I'm grateful that my book has gotten around to people and made them think. My real hope is that it will ultimately prevent ISKCON from getting away with their lies and secrets. A lot of things needed to come out in the open. When a group has committed crimes in Krishna's name, i think that it is a disillusionment for people. The truth needs to come out. People deserve a behind the scenes look at why all that happened. A lot of people tell me they think the Hare Krishnas were sleezy. I wrote my book to distinguish between the real Krishna and what these people tried to get away with in Krishna's name.
8. What is your best memory of the time you were into ISKCON?
I have many good memories. I loved to chant and had friends that i would chant with in the temple. We had fun chanting together. Some of my best times were chanting japa in front of the Krishna Deity after the morning program. I used to love to look at Krishna while i chanted because He seemed so alive, standing there watching me and receiving my prayers. I also used to make flower petal garlands for the small Deities and it was exciting to go see the Deities wearing my garlands. It made me feel great. ISKCON World Review editorial meetings were another good memory. We used to cut up and joke. I wonder how we ever got any real work done. Maybe my best memory was when they invited me to be a writer. I had been typesetting the paper and occasionally wrote an article, or helped to edit one. At one point they decided that they needed a full time writer and since i was already doing the typesetting, it was just a natural. I think that was in about 1983, about a year and a half after we started the ISKCON World Review.
9. What is your worst souvenir of the time you were into ISKCON ?
I have boxes and boxes of paper. At one point i almost gave seven or eight of the boxes to a man who is doing his Ph.D. on the history of ISKCON. But when he drove through my town to pick up the boxes, we missed each other. So, i still have all these boxes of paper and they take up a lot of room. Maybe i will turn them over to this grad student, but i would say that this massive pile of boxes is probably my worst souvenir.
10. I've looked at your website, how would you define your art (photos, painting, novel (spiritual summer) Could you explain about this liberating experience and the concept of Noriland ?
I call my artwork "abstract surrealism." It's a style that i started to develop when i was in college in the mid-1970s. Even before starting college, i painted a large mural that my friends called "NoriLand." Here's my latest rendering of the image:
Every time i've drawn it, it involves several tall mountain peaks, or parts of mountains. These symbolize the isolation i felt as a teenager. I had a rocky adolescence that was chaotic, too. Later on, in the 1990s, when i was in the art school in Scottsdale, my teacher suggested that i start to use that name, "NoriLand," again. I was doing those oil paintings with the abstract creatures. It all seemed to fit together. NoriLand is a very optimistic place these days, much better than when i was a teenager. The novel, Spiritual Summer, is historical fiction novel that takes place in about 1978, the time just after Srila Prabhupada died and his eleven American disciples took over. My idea was that the protagonist, Sandy Edinburgh, is an extremely bright and mature young lady who stays at the Hare Krishna temple for a few months. Unlike me, she is smart enough to see what's going on. She senses that it's an unhealthy environment and she gets out completely and goes back to school. Like so many young people who joined ISKCON, she falls in love with a someone at the temple and they have to sneek around to meet each other. It's a romantic fantasy. The whole story is fictional, but truly could have happened - and probably did happen hundreds of times. These creative writing and visual art forms have helped me release a lot of stressful emotion in a constructive way. My life certainly has had its ups and downs. Writing and painting help me process and integrate my experiences.
11. Do you believe in each word of the Vedic scriptures, for example that there is living people on the moon, on the sun... and other things you can talk about ?
Being Lutheran by birth, i think that my family passed down the proper genes that allow me to sustain a literal understanding of all scriptures. I believe that everything in the Bible, as well as the Vedic scriptures is true, but that certain things might be true in the sense that they're metaphors, or may be true only in another dimension, such as the dimension of dreams and spirit. You could call it a surrealistic view of the scriptures. The images in surrealistic paintings are true because they're metaphors for the way the artist feels about reality. I love the scriptural stories in the Vedas and i do see them as true in the world of feeling and spirit. However, there's no scientific proof of everything in the scriptures and I accept that too.
12. Are you for a kind of liberalisation of the Vaisnava religion, do you think it could be a good thing (for example like Buddhism nowadays) ?
I think that first we have to understand what the Vaishnava religion is. People have heaped layer upon layer of false understandings upon what the Vaishnava - or even the Hindu - religion is. I don't think that it needs to be liberalized, but rather, it needs to be understood for what it originall was. Trying to practice an ancient religion may actually be impossible. I may have mentioned before that my religion is a combination of Christian, Hindu, Vaishnava, Buddhist, Pagan, and Jungian thought. One of the brainwashed things ISKCON officials used to tell us was that we had to accept everything in this one religion and reject anything outside of this one religion. Well, i'm sorry, but that sounds like advice that takes away my freedom and blinds me to anything besides what they want me to see. In ISKCON they told us that it would pollute our minds to read books outside of the BBT books provided by ISKCON. That just shows their fear and their willingness to say anything to keep people from leaving.
13. I'd like to have more information about George Harisson, in ISKCON, he was known like if he was following the principles... What do you know about him and his connections with ISKCON ? (if you have some documentation, apart from the well-known ISKCON stories...)
George Harrison remained friends with Mukunda Goswami and the other two householders who first met George when they started ISKCON in England in 1971, Symasundara and Gurudas. When Srila Prabhupada was still living, George would come to see him often. Srila Prabhupada always encouraged George to continue his career living outside the temple. George had a spontaneous attraction to Krishna, to chanting japa, and to doing service to help Srila Prabhupada spread the holy name. His songs "My Sweet Lord" and others on the double album, "All Things Must Pass," helped many people become devotees of Krishna. As for following the principles, George smoked tobacco and marijuana and i have heard that he also broke other principles and used other drugs over the years. However, his devotion (bhakti) was always strong. George could overlook all the guru scandals, etc., and remain loyal to Srila Prabhupada, right up to the end of his life.
14. Do you have something special you want to say to conclude ?
It is heartbreaking to see what happened to ISKCON. Now, after thirty-six years, the drama of ISKCON had affected several generations of families. Within ISKCON, people have gotten married, divorced, had children, had grandchildren, lost relatives, and watched the organization go through its political stages. These are real dramas that have affected people's entire lives. It's a serious slice of humanity. I'm still filled with regret for some of the things that happened. It was a difficult history to watch, to experience, but the lessons that ISCKON provides are also deep. I believe it's important to study what happened, so that future generations of Srila Prabhupada's followers may be spared some of the grief and pain that we have had to endure. It is possible to learn from the past and that's what motivates me to continue to write about it. Judging what happened, or trying to blame the problems on individuals is unnecessary. Even more destructive is to manufacture a white-washed version of history and try to pass it off as fact. What's most important is to document an accurate picture of what happened in ISKCON in its first three decades so that future generations will have the truth and then they can decide what to do with it.
Interview for a student/researcher
Please add in as much as your experiences as possible. I respect confidentiality with names or places.
1. In your opinion, why would someone want to join a cult?
People with spiritual questions might join to find answers. People who grew up neglected or abused might join to find a surrogate family, or family structure, where they can relive their childhood and work out their developmental issues.
In my case, I was looking for answers. I did not want to join a group, but they talked me into it. They said that I would never find god on my own.
Naïve rich people might be drawn in by conmen who flatter them and make them believe that the cult can offer help with their career.
While I was a member, I saw the cult draw in a lot of rich and famous people. It still happens. Some people are just too vulnerable and after a little flattery, they let people take advantage of them.
2. Do you think the people who want to join a cult or are likely to join a cult mentally stable?
They may be mentally stable, in the sense that they are not about to commit suicide or murder someone. But followers often have issues with relationships, with belonging, with feeling whole, or feeling like they can manage life on their own. They may also have diagnosable mental disorders, such as magical thinking, depression, bi-polar, schizophrenic, etc. But often people like that end up leaving because they have trouble fitting in. Or they get kicked out.
I wrote an essay about women who joined ISKCON, you might find interesting: Life as a Woman on Watseka Avenue.
3. Do you believe ex-cult members could have been possibly brainwashed? Please explain your answer.
The way brainwashing works is mainly through peer pressure. When you first join, or are thinking of joining, the cult members are your new best friends. They spend time with you, call you, invite you to cult activities, etc.
They themselves are starry-eyed and believe all the cult's propaganda, so they convince new people that the cult knows the way, and that the leader(s) have all the answers. Through their own enthusiasm, they get new converts to believe that joining the cult will lead them to god, or whatever the cult is advertising.
The cult members make it easy for new people to join because they offer a free place to stay and food.
If a cult can get a celebrity to endorse them, that's another way to brainwash ordinary people. It's the "jump on the bandwagon" advertising strategy. "XYZ celebrity believes in it, you should too."
Another thing cults may do, if they are into crime, they will get new converts to lie or commit a crime for them. This makes the follower more willing to engage in illegal activity in the future, and it's more difficult to turn back to normal life. I believe gangs and organized crime families do the same.
In the group I was in, the first lie was to go to the airport to collect donations, but lie about where the donation would go. The typical come-on line was that the donation would provide books and food for children in India.
The group also had drug smuggling rings, and they would get followers to do a few drug runs for them with the hopes that the money they would earn would go to some good cause within the cult.
4. (Answer this question if you said yes to number 3) Do you think cult leaders or members perform brainwashing or hypnosis on current members who are thinking of leaving the cult? Please explain your answer.
I never witnessed anything like that myself. However, in my group, if someone talked about leaving, they would "preach" to that person to try to get them to stay. Preaching meant answering their doubts, and encouraging them to keep going.
5. How do you think the behavior and mind of the person converting to a cult changes?
To join a cult, the follower must cut off their previous life and dedicate themselves to the leader and group. This is a painful process that results in a shallow and distorted sense of self.
6. How much do you think a person's behavior and mental state changes to be able to convert or join a cult?
It changes completely. Often, it only takes a few days, and the original personality is wiped out.
7. Please describe as best as you can how you think a current cult member acts(behavior) and thinks(mind).
Instead of checking in with one's own self for answers, a cult follower will check with what the cult leader wants. Instead of forming one's own beliefs, the follower will adopt the beliefs of the guru and the group. Even someone who was previously a liberal who believed in women's rights, civil rights, etc., can change overnight to whatever fundamentalist ideas the cult leader teaches.
8. Please describe the mental state and behavior of a cult member who wishes to leave a cult.
This happens when a follower wakes up and sees the hypocrisy, abuse, and possible crime going on all around in the cult. A follower can wake up for a variety of reasons, but once they are awakened, they will start to make plans to get out. It can be difficult, especially if the follower is financially dependant, or if they have family members who are not awake, who will stay in the cult.
9. Please describe the mental state and behavior of a person who has just got out of a cult.
It might feel like washing up on a beach after a terrible storm. However, the person must make a lot of decisions, including, how to get help, how to support oneself, how to rebuild bridges with friends and family.
Here's an essay I wrote about the mindset of exmembers: Myth and Theme of Ex-Membership.
10. How does deprogramming work?
It does not work that well in most cases, so I don't believe in it. A person has to deprogram their own self after leaving of their own free will to be really free. Deprogramming oneself is a matter of keeping what was good from the experience and throwing out what was bad. Also, weeding out bad behaviors and distorted thinking habits acquired in the cult.
This can take a lifetime. It's just like getting over any kind of bad experience.
11. Why do you think some ex-cult members suffer from little to severe mental illnesses? Brainwashing?
The mental illness might come from a number of things. Most often, it would be a result of being abused (emotional, spiritual, physical, sexual, financial, criminal abuse, etc.). If someone is abused, it will be difficult to heal and they will need a counselor.
Another reason ex-members might suffer mental illness after leaving is if they inflicted abuse, and carry that guilt.
I wrote about this in more depth in Cult Survivors Handbook.
12. Please describe the mental state and behavior of a person who has been an ex-cult member for many years now. Are they leading a normal life?
Most people who leave cults blend back into society. Many go back to college and learn a skill, get into a career where nobody asks them about the cult, and they forget it.
Some people become super-achievers. You would never guess they spent time in a cult. Many famous people dabbled in cults in the 1960s and 1970s, then went on to have fabulous careers, where they were a benefit to society.
Other people come out depressed and they can never get it together. They may become drug addicts, or parasites who live off other people for the rest of their lives.
It all depends on the individual and their circumstances.
One thing that helped me was working in retail for a few years. Nobody asked about me, I was just the clerk. In my other career attempts, being a counselor, a writer, etc., I had to disclose about my past. My most recent career has been in real estate, and nobody ever asks me about my past. I sold houses for a few years before the market crashed. Now I teach real estate at a community college. My past does not come into it at all.