| Life as a Woman on Watseka Avenue |
by Nori J. Muster
Published in the book
The Hare Krishna Movement:
The Postcharismatic Fate of a Religious Transplant
by Edwin Bryant, Ph.D., and Maria Ekstrand, Ph.D., eds.
Columbia University Press, 2004
From ages twenty-two to thirty-two I was a devotee at the Western world headquarters of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, located at 3764 Watseka Avenue in West Los Angeles. Although a native Californian, I dressed in saris, followed the four regulative principles, attended early morning services to chant japa [mantra repetition] and kirtan [musical chanting], and dedicated my heart to the beautiful Lord Krishna. Although there were some bright spots and good friendships, we women lived under a cloud of chauvinism and outright hatred of our gender. I look back on my ten years with regret.
I sum up my experience as a woman in the following way: it was about trying to remain as innocent as a child in a family with a lot of secrets. The elders never spoke about the drug money flowing through our zone, nor did they honestly discuss the gurus' various problems. They also hid the child abuse and made it taboo to criticize any leader for anything. I spent a lot of energy forcing myself to look straight ahead, ignoring gossip, rumors and my own gut feelings. I was like a horse with blinders on; a blind follower.
When I joined in 1978, ISKCON's leadership consisted of multiple patriarchs who divided the globe into eleven "zones." Each zone had an all-male retinue of gurus, commissioners, ministers, temple presidents, directors, trustees and department heads. In addition, the organization sponsored a priesthood of celibate men called sannyasis, who traveled around the world enforcing GBC doctrine.
The daily schedule on Watseka Avenue started at 4 A.M. with religious services in the temple building, including sermons from the scripture Srimad-Bhagavatam. The book contains chauvinistic purports, such as: Women's breasts are "agents of maya [illusion] meant to victimize the opposite sex." Rather than attempting to minimize or modernize these sorts of statements, most Bhagavatam speakers embellished them with even more degrading statements about women.
They said it was our bad karma that we were born as women and that our only hope of salvation was through serving a male guru. They preached that our brains were half as big and that our bodies were ten times more lusty. They said it was a sin for a woman to look at a man's face, therefore some of us acquired the uninformed, humiliating and sorry behavior of turning to the wall if we were alone and a man passed by. They barred us from teaching the Bhagavatam class and leading the morning kirtans. With practice, most of us could have learned to handle these responsibilities, but our participation would have been a threat to celibate men. Their cruel words, reinforced with official policy, had a demoralizing effect. The words, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm wearing a sari," ran through my head for years after leaving ISKCON.
ISKCON had a concept of utopia they called Vedic civilization, which was based on ancient Hindu civilizations in India described in the Srimad-Bhagavatam and other scriptures. The ideals were lofty, but I never experienced ISKCON actually living up to any kind of utopian standard. One aspect of Vedic civilization that was completely lost on ISKCON was the culture of respect for women, nor did we women know anything about being genteel Vedic mothers. We simply had low self-esteem. The men were also off track. They thought it was Vedic to spit on the ground to demonstrate their resentment toward women. They got their cue from a stanza in the scriptures that said: "Since I have been engaged in the transcendental loving service of Krishna, realizing ever-new pleasure in Him, whenever I think of sex pleasure, I spit at the thought, and my lips curl with distaste."
In ISKCON, women were supposed to work obediently without questioning the leadership. If a woman acted out of character, the other women corrected her. All temples had self-appointed female monitors who went around correcting other women and telling them what to do. For example, once when I was a young devotee, I raised my hand and asked a question at the end of a Bhagavatam class. Afterward, a woman told me that my behavior was pretty brazen, considering the number of traveling sannyasis in the audience. The practice of women correcting and criticizing women was everywhere. Most of us did it at least part of the time. Sometimes women ended up in tears after receiving more corrections than they could handle in one morning.
When I moved to Watseka Avenue I lived in the new bhaktin [female devotee] ashram [dorm] with four other new women and a housemother called a bhaktin leader. I have terrible memories of the experience, which I described in my book, Betrayal of the Spirit. The temple authorities moved us into another apartment, then gave us an ever-changing series of baktin leaders, and finally closed down the ashram. The few new bhaktins who were left were eventually moved into the newly opened women's sankirtan ashram. Sankirtan has become the common name for airport solicitation, even though the word historically refers to public devotional chanting.
The new women's sankirtan ashram consisted of two one-bedroom apartments on the top floor of a building, across the street from the former bhaktin ashram. They installed a door to join the two apartments that provided lodging for approximately sixteen women. The new ashram had female leaders, which was quite an improvement over the former arrangement where a man lived with and slept with all the sankirtan women.
Once, while I was still in college, I visited Watseka Avenue and met some of the sankirtan women who lived in the scandalous ashram. They took me back to their living quarters and introduced me to their male leader. At the time I had absolutely no idea of what was going on. In retrospect, I now remember the experience as scary, because of the disgusting way he looked me over. It was as if he thought I might someday become one of his victims.
Due to numerous complaints, the GBC passed resolutions in 1977 and 1978 to end the practice. The Los Angeles ashram closed down in 1978, but the arrangement of male leaders for women's sankirtan parties continued in Berkeley under the guru Hamsadutta Swami, with the addition of drugs and rock 'n roll, and in New Vrindaban, West Virginia, under the guru Kirtanananda Swami, with the additional features of prostitution and physical abuse. In 1998, I interviewed a former sankirtan woman from New Vrindaban who told me that her male sankirtan leader would drop the women off at bars, where they would wait by the exit and offer to do anything a man wanted in exchange for money. I used to hear "rumors" about it, but 1998 was the first time someone told me about it first hand.
The new sankirtan ashram closed down within a year, but the system worked eventually with good leaders like Gouri [now deceased], Vrindavan-vilasini and Jadurani. With passing years the specter of the scandals faded. However, back in 1978, most of my roommates had just come out of the abusive situation. I even knew a woman who had a child from her time in a sankirtan ashram.
After a few weeks of living in the sankirtan ashram, I caught the flu and had a fever for at least three months. The female sankirtan leaders told me to rest and chant instead of sending me to a doctor. When I finally got to a doctor, he gave me a shot of antibiotics and scolded me for waiting so long. Doctors cost money and the temple policy was that until a devotee could get on Medical (a public assistance program that was available to nuns and monks in California before 1980), they had to be satisfied with natural healing.
Srila Prabhupada and the Treatment of Women
Women who lived in India during the early days of ISKCON told me that Founder-Acharya Srila A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada always made sure that his women disciples were treated well and that they felt included. He personally took care of details like making sure that they had adequate living quarters, good food and even rides to events. When the devotees went places as a group, Srila Prabhupada invited the women to ride with him in his car to make sure they got there. He set it up so that women could stand at the front in the temples to behold the altars [darshan], he encouraged women to give Bhagavatam class and lead kirtan, and he nominated two women, Yamuna and Govinda, to the Governing Body Commission (GBC). Unfortunately, an elitist and rowdy band of male disciples, headed by the late Tamal Krishna Goswami, turned all this around so that women were counted out of GBC positions. Sannyasis received all the advantages, while women generally got the worst accommodations, waited at the end of the food line and prayed at the back of the temple. When these changes took place in the mid-1970s, people who resisted were either silenced or forced out. By the time I joined, the controversy was settled: Women's place as second class citizens was cemented and thoroughly institutionalized.
Although the organization was blatantly slanted in favor of men, many followers of both genders were in denial. The first time I met devotees and attended a lecture at their Sunday feast, I questioned the speaker, Radha Vallabha, general manager of the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust (BBT), about the place of women. He told me that ISKCON considered women to be spirit souls and therefore completely equal with men. Looking back now, I realize he was in denial and so was I most of the time.
In the P.R. department, where I worked for Mukunda Goswami, I was sheltered from the worst ISKCON had to offer. Our department was a close-knit family where we respected each other. Also, we had constant interaction with the outside world. I believed women and men were equal in ISKCON because the people I knew treated me well and valued my work. I started as a P.R. secretary and later became associate editor of the monthly newsletter ISKCON World Review. During my last two years, I did nearly the entire paper single handedly. However, I also knew that due to my gender, I was a thorn in the side of at least one guru, who protested: "The worst thing about this paper is that it's written by a woman!" Actually, there were several women who wrote for the P.R. department so I had good company.
In Los Angeles, the BBT had women working in the publishing house, legal offices, photo department, ISKCON Cinema, and other art departments. Usually these women became successful through a combination of skill in their field and the right personality to navigate a chauvinistic bureaucracy. In my ten years on Watseka Avenue, I knew many of these women because the P.R. department and the BBT were financially linked. For several years after leaving the sankirtan ashram I roomed with other BBT women. One year I lived with the female artists who painted illustrations for the BBT books. Those were good times that reminded me of my college dorm experience. In another ashram I lived with Koumadaki, Ramesvara's secretary, and Sita, a typesetter at the Spanish BBT. These two dedicated and generous Prabhupada disciples were my strongest role models. They tolerated ISKCON's chauvinism with a mixture of tolerance, humor and rebellion.
My experiences in the BBT women's ashrams were good, but in the 1980s the BBT became more decentralized and its presence on Watseka dwindled. Whole divisions of the BBT left and all my artist and publishing friends moved away. After that, I shared an apartment with the other P.R. secretary, and then for about a year I had an apartment to myself. Meanwhile, the sankirtan women lived in over-crowded conditions. Another privilege I enjoyed was that I had constant contact with my father, who volunteered his time as a P.R. consultant for ISKCON. Having him nearby helped me keep my sanity and eventually his support made it possible for me to decide to leave the organization. Meanwhile, the other women on Watseka Avenue had to renounce their "material" families and accept ISKCON as their "real" family.
The sankirtan women woke up at 3 A.M. to chant, then worked long days at the airport. The ones I knew were genuinely dedicated to Krishna, but to please the gurus, they remained naive to ISKCON politics. Many of them were my friends. We danced and chanted in temple services, but on some levels I felt alienated from them. I dealt with top secret matters that Mukunda and Ramesvara told me I wasn't allowed to talk about with anyone outside the department.
Tragic Cases, Criminals and Victimized Women
During my years on Watseka I met many wonderful women and I've kept a few friends from those times, who have also moved on with their lives. But along with the relatively healthy women, I also met some clinically depressed and psychotic women. For several years in the 1980s there was a woman living in the sankirtan ashram who had a psychiatric disorder. She constantly exhibited eccentric behaviors, such as lying down on the floor during kirtans. Nevertheless the temple leaders tried sending her to the airport to solicit donations. I once saw her grab money out of a traveler's wallet, stash it in her bag and repeat Sanskrit phrases until the person walked away. She eventually left the temple to live with her relatives.
ISKCON also harbored criminal women and I met a few of them. One of the female sankirtan leaders ran away from Watseka Avenue with the airport shuttle driver to get married and deal drugs. Before leaving, they kidnapped his children from a previous marriage while he held the mother at gunpoint. The children were reunited with their mother years later when she was dying of cancer. Another woman I knew was convicted of enabling her husband to molest children at the Watseka Avenue nursery school. Both husband and wife served time in jail. She was a quiet woman; my sense was that she also had a psychiatric disorder. I interviewed another woman from the East Coast who told me that when she was a new bhaktin they trained her to shoplift for the deity department. She and an older woman would go on shopping sprees where they stole beaded saris, jewelry and other expensive items to decorate the altars and dress the deities.
Even though the vast majority of ISKCON women were not criminals, if they joined as adults, they willingly participated in a sick culture and took on dysfunctional attitudes and behaviors. It was a different story however for the girls born into the movement, or brought in as children. These innocent souls were often abandoned to the schools at the age of five. In certain schools during the 1970s and 1980s, children grew up communally, deprived of the bare necessities, including love, and they often received an inadequate education. Abuse of one's children was the worst thing that could happen to a woman in ISKCON. In addition to the children suffering long term trauma, many of the mothers have never recovered. I had one friend who confided that she felt she had alienated her new husband because of her constant grief over one son from a previous marriage who was hurt in ISKCON schools.
Girls and boys suffered physical and sexual abuse, as well as humiliating punishments. The schools taught girls to be ashamed of their bodies and young female minds. A dear friend named Subhadra who grew up under these conditions told me that she has a frightening image of her shame as a black hole in the center of a beautiful multi-faceted diamond.
Gurus and temple leaders also arranged marriages for girls who were barely eleven or twelve years old. The men, who were typically much older, emotionally, physically and sexually abused their child brides while the parents and everyone else in the organization looked the other way. One guru, Hridayananda Goswami wrote, "These early marriages show our concern for not letting women become polluted" and he promoted and defended the practice in GBC meetings.
There were also instances of women who joined as adults who were forced into arranged marriages with abusive men. In my research I interviewed a family who lost their daughter to ISKCON in 1980. The people at the temple said she had moved to India with her "husband." The family accepted that and believed it until 1994, when they learned that their loved one had been brutally murdered and buried as a Jane Doe for fourteen years.
I had some degrading experiences as a woman on Watseka Avenue, but for some women, life in ISKCON was tragic. There is mounting evidence of an alleged conspiracy among the leaders to allow wife beating. One of the most outspoken proponents of spousal abuse was Kirtanananda, who explained on national TV that it's okay to slap a woman who disobeys. He compared it to training a dog. The culture of wife beating was widespread in ISKCON, although I never knew about it when I was a member.
In ISKCON temples, the deity of Lord Krishna is always standing side by side with his consort, Srimati Radharani. The Jagannatha deity (Krishna) appears with his sister Subhadra and brother Balarama. Lord Rama appears with the goddess Sita, and the scriptures say that Lord Chaitanya was an incarnation of Radha and Krishna in one body. Since the Deities themselves honor women, it's ironic that the women of ISKCON came to accept their inferior status as normal; as though it was mandated in the scriptures.
ISKCON could have up to fifty percent women kirtan leaders, Bhagavatam reciters and gurus. The GBC could resolve that women may go anywhere inside the temple room and participate freely in the cultural life of ISKCON. While it is possible that ISKCON may someday change, lingering attitudes ensure that change will be difficult: ISKCON is the way it is because a majority of the men want it that way.
In the 1990s there were hopeful developments, such as the formation of the Women's Ministry. The Ministry, along with some of the adult children of ISKCON, held open forums to air these issues. A tense moment came in September 1999, when men assaulted a group of women inside the ISKCON temple in Vrindavana, India, during a morning kirtan. Allegedly they did it because the women were trying to get to the front. The controversy over this incident brought women's issues to a head and nine women addressed the all-male leadership at the March 2000 GBC meeting. However, little changed. It's still rare to see women lead the pre-dawn kirtans or teach the morning Bhagavatam class. There are several women temple presidents now, but only one woman on the GBC and not even one woman guru. Attitudes have also remained fixed. Some devotees in ISKCON still try to argue that the child abuse was the victims' karma. Elsewhere, the practice of arranging marriages continues. A young college student told me that an ISKCON temple president tried to convince her to marry one of his "disciples" in December 2001.
In the thirty-seven year history of ISKCON, women have married, divorced, had children, grandchildren, lost loved ones, aged and suffered their humiliations in silence. In my opinion, ISKCON's policies toward women have been unacceptable. Even more destructive would be to manufacture a white-washed version of the history and try to pass it off as fact. These are real dramas that have affected families over several generations. It's a difficult history to observe, but the lessons are valuable. I believe it's important to study what happened, so that future generations of Srila Prabhupada's followers may be spared the grief that the first three generations of women have had to endure.
 Srimad-Bhagavatam 4.25.24, purport.
 The stanza "yadavadhi mama cetasah . . ." appears in Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu 2.5.72, by Rupa Goswami (16th Century), to illustrate the transcendental sentiment of jugupsa-rati, love in disgust or ghastliness. Srila Prabhupada mentions the verse at least six times in his purports in Srimad-Bhagavatam and more than fifty times in his lectures, conversations and letters. However, in some of these instances (SB 4.24.25, 9.18.39, 9.19.16 and other places) he attributes the quote to the tenth century devotee Yamunacarya. The verse has also been attributed to the poet Bilvamangala Thakur in connection with his renunciation of material life after receiving spiritual instructions from Cintamani. Further, the quote is in Gaudiya-kanthahara, a Gaudiya Math verse book published in 1926 and used in the Gaudiya Math in India around the time Srila Prabhupada met his guru, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakur, founder-acharya of the Gaudiya Math. The literal translation is: "Since the time my mind was trained to enjoy the lotus feet of Krishna, which are the abode of ever newer rasas, whenever previous sex with a woman is being remembered - Alas! there is distortion of the mouth and profuse spitting [or: ". . . my mouth distorts and I drool profusely]." Special thanks to Ekkehard Lorenz and Dr. Maria Ekstrand, as well as members of the Dharma Mela discussion boards at HareKrsna.com, for supplying this information.
 For a description of life in the new bhaktin ashram, see chapter three of Betrayal of the Spirit (University of Illinois Press, 1997).
 The 1977 GBC resolution said: "Regarding [women's] sankirtan parties - Resolved: The philosophy that the man sankirtan leader is the eternal husband and protector of the woman in a women's party is rejected. The philosophy of the man sankirtan leader as the representative of the spiritual master - and not the husband - should be preached instead" (GBC Resolutions, item 22, 6). The following year, a GBC resolution called for a committee to "correct difficulties regarding women's [sankirtan ashrams] in Berkeley and Los Angeles within three months' time" (GBC Resolutions, item 4, 1). The same resolution also called for a committee to correct sankirtan irregularities in New Vrindaban.
 See description in Betrayal of the Spirit, p. 168. The guru Hridayananda was a consistent foe of ISKCON World Review's expanded editorial policy, 1986-88, and its editors.
 Hridayananda Goswami wrote this in a letter to the P.R. department and is quoted in Betrayal of the Spirit, p. 74.
Ed's note: This review by an ISKCON follower shows how much tension there was in ISKCON between current and former members. Factual errors in her comments: I resigned from ISKCON World Review* and trained the new editors before putting out the last issue in March 1989. Before joining ISKCON in 1978 I didn't know about the alleged murder of Srila Prabhupada. Naranarayan Dasa told me about it after my book was published in 1997.
By Braja Sevaki Devi Dasi
Contributor to Back to Godhead magazine
RE: The Hare Krishna Movement:
The Postcharismatic Fate of a Religious Transplant
Edited by Edwin Bryant and Maria Ekstrand
Columbia University Press 2004
It's safe to say that a book review generally serves two purposes: to bring a book to the attention of the reading public (usually for recommended reading purposes), and to discuss the merit of a book's existence and the contribution it might make to a particular genre.
My purpose in writing this article is not to review the contents of the book, but to highlight the disqualification of two of the authors and both editors to write a book that is in any way advertised or promoted as an authoritative study on ISKCON, and to prove through statements of their own why they are disqualified. I wouldn't stop anyone from reading the book, but in doing so, one must be armed with all the facts. I will also add that this article is addressed to the loyal devotees of ISKCON and followers of Srila Prabhupada, who expect (and rightly so) that people who contribute negatively to the study of ISKCON, it's founder-acarya Srila Prabhupada, and its history, do not go unchallenged.
This book by Bryant (Adwaita Das)* and Ekstrand (Madhusudani Radha dasi)* was written for academia, a look at the progress of ISKCON in the years since Prabhupada's departure, and is a collection of chapters by various authors, both former and current members of ISKCON. What might have begun as a valid contribution to the growing number of academic studies on ISKCON has turned into a book rejected even by some contributors who, from their position as loyal members in good standing within ISKCON, are disassociating themselves from this book and its content, specifically two chapters written by ex-members of ISKCON. It has further been revealed that one of the book's editors, Ekstrand, is responsible for some highly offensive comments directed at Srila Prabhupada and ISKCON. Those comments were made after the compilation and completion of the book, and have only recently come to light.
One of the two chapters mentioned above is by a woman named Nori Muster - formerly Nandini dasi - who along with her husband was fired from her position on ISKCON World Review for her criticism of ISKCON and its members, and who obviously still bears an active grudge. Some years back Muster wrote a book called (quite dramatically) Betrayal of Spirit, sharing her negative experiences of ISKCON. The ISKCON Communications Journal requested a summary of the book from Muster, but never published it. Not surprising. The other chapter is written by Ekkehard Lorenz, formerly known as Ekanath das, a disciple of Harikesa. A few years ago Lorenz revealed his views on Srila Prabhupada and ISKCON on a PAMHO conference, making rude and unsavory comments about Srila Prabhupada being a "deluded guru" who came to the West to cheat everyone. He is singularly disqualified to speak in any official or unofficial capacity for ISKCON or its founder-acarya, but unfortunately that hasn't stopped the editors from including him.
I'll get to Ekstrand and Co. in a minute, but first I wanted to establish the point about the involvement of certain contributors: why Ekstrand/Bryant would invite Muster to contribute a chapter unless their intentions were actually dishonorable to ISKCON. Muster has nothing positive to say, and her own book is based on unsubstantiated rumor, gossip, and memories produced and nurtured in a self-admitted psychologically unbalanced mind. Rather than simply denounce Muster's book out of hand, I've selected a few quotes to give an overall idea of how unqualified she is to speak on ISKCON. I'll address her contribution to this other book in a moment. In Betrayal of the Spirit, she writes:
"Like many other members, I believed that the organization had The Answer and everyone else was in the dark. I tried to force my group's beliefs and values on other people."
Apparently this is a trait Muster possesses independently of the influence of any organization. She is still trying to force her own beliefs and values on other people, and does so repeatedly in her own book, and in her chapter in the book Ekstrand and Bryant edited. The fact that some people have found favor with her forcefulness in its present incarnation does not validate her contribution to anything worthy in terms of literature, her own spiritual life, or an organization that offers spiritual solutions to material problems. It is simply an indication that people are more interested in scandal and gossip than the absolute truth.
"When I met devotees in 1977, the original guru Srila Prabhupada died (some say he was murdered). This lead to a power struggle within ISKCON, as the alleged guru killers quickly assumed the mantle of leadership and then mounted a tremendous campaign to hold onto their power."
So, after trying to establish herself as genuine and as a person not prone (any longer) to fanatical trains of thought or unproved statements, here Muster falls face first into the pile of excrement that has landed on the doorstep of ISKCON, compliments of some other ex-ISKCON disenchanteds hell-bent on proving that Prabhupada was murdered, but who have failed to produce a single piece of evidence to support their fanciful claims. Muster appears still to be suffering from the same defect of character that caused her so much misery in ISKCON: she simply lacks the intelligence to disseminate information herself and shows symptoms of an excessive personality disorder (accept fanatically, reject fanatically). She still swallows whole the most fanatical statements available and spews them back out, undigested, as if they were the venerable, absolute truth.
"It has taken years of psychotherapy to overcome my guilt and forgive myself. I'm still working out my victimization issues because I came to ISKCON innocently seeking spiritual life . . . "
Didn't we just read that Muster was aware one year before joining that the guru of the institution had been "murdered," and that there was a "power struggle," and presumably so many other things as well? "Innocently joined"? It's hard to keep track of Musters wild claims.
She admits codependency then, and still displays the symptoms of it, defining every success or failure in her life by the contact she had with this institution: that without this institution, her life would be fine; that her problems stemmed and continue to stem from this institution; and that it ruined her life and continues to hamper her spiritual and psychological development. They are mighty claims and are, again, unfounded.
We are meant to believe that Muster would never have required psychotherapy had she not clapped eyes on ISKCON, that her life would have been devoid of hardship, that no obstacles would exist in her familial and social circles and the existent relationships within, and that she would be a spiritually advanced and well-adjusted person.
"I had to leave completely to restore my own soul.
Herein lies the crux of the issue: Muster's fundamental inability to understand the nature of the soul. After failing to find a solution to her myriad problems, she takes leave of the institution and pronounces it unfit to provide her with any answers on how to attain soul realization, preferring instead to resort to her own method of restoration which has, if her writing is any indication, failed miserably.
There is more, of course, but it all falls into the same category. This book and others like it rarely fail to disappoint. They are a litany of complaints by disgruntled ex-members with little or no substance. Muster's inclusion in the book by Bryant/Ekstrand is, therefore, highly suspect. Her contribution is more in the genre of tabloid gossip than something befitting academia - her writings are basically one person's account of how they couldn't cut it in a spiritual institution. Constructive criticism has its place, but this goes beyond good taste.
Recommended reading? Hardly. Evidence that the author is qualified to contribute to an academic study on ISKCON? Definitely not.
Lorenz is no different. His contribution is similarly questionable, since his obvious lack of understanding of the philosophy Srila Prabhupada imparted is evident in his writing, which also resembles a venting spleen more than an academic contribution. No one is demanding that he agree with everything Srila Prabhupada writes; however one would expect that he stop pretending that he knows better than Srila Prabhupada. I considered including a sample of his text from the book edited by Bryant and Ekstrand, but it refers to what he deems to be Srila Prabhupada's "obsession with sex." I find it seriously difficult to respond to something as blatantly foolish and low class as this, and can only conclude that it leaves no doubt as to the mindset of Lorenz and his dismissal as a qualified contributor to a serious and academic study of ISKCON.
Former members of ISKCON, like Lorenz and Muster, or those who (like Ekstrand) never really 'joined' in the first place, seem to think that they have some unique insight denied to others, as well as an authority to speak on behalf of the movement. Their association with the movement - however dubious - sends a message of it being "an insider's look." In Betrayal of Spirit, Muster writes about co-dependence, dysfunction, and addiction. When a person suffers from these individualized afflictions of character - which is not really surprising in this day and age - it hardly warrants rubbishing an entire organization. Perhaps when Muster is searching through her psychological thesaurus, she might consider "accountability," "denial," etc.
The same line of questioning can be directed at Ekstrand. One naturally questions the aims of a person who has expressed only negative, critical, and often grossly offensive statements towards the founder-acarya of ISKCON, and has made every effort to reduce to the ordinary every extraordinary thing he has ever done. In fact, I'm stunned that a person like Ekstrand can even consider compiling a book that she thinks might 'benefit' anyone, when she has this to say of Srila Prabhupada's Bhagavad-gita As It Is:
"The title seems especially arrogant given the multiple mistakes." . . . as seen by Gaudiya Vasnavas" or ". . . by followers of Caitanya Mahaprabhu" would have been more accurate and humble."
Her singularly uninformed opinions form the basis of inaccurate comments so obviously devoid of any philosophical understanding that they are embarrassing. Her grasp of what role the parampara plays in the context of spiritual writings is revealed rather sadly in this statement made in response to someone calling Srila Prabhupada a "thief":
". . . . Although I'm afraid your tone offended some members, I think your points are important ones. Perhaps it's not called "plagiarism" and "stealing" in asramas in Indias, but those are indeed the terms used to describe these behaviors in the West. . . . I only learned last year that Prabhupada did the same thing; used other people's translations and copied chunks of purports verbatim."
Interesting accusation, considering Ekstrand's/Bryant's use of the title "Post Charismatic Fate" for this book. The title has its origin in Prophets Die: The Postcharismatic Fate of New Religious Movements (published 1991) by Steven J. Gelberg (Subhananda Dasa). More recently, it was applied to a paper by German professor Dr. Afe Adogame, presented at the "Minority Religions, Social Change, and Freedom of Conscience" conference in Utah, June 2002. The full name of the paper is "Legal Imbroglios and the Post-Charismatic Fate of the Celestial Church of Christ." Is this plagiarism? Not according to academia. In fact, as one academic recently confirmed, it is common practice amongst academics to borrow titles and quotes that enhance or capture what one is trying to express. In light of that, Ekstrand's view of Srila Prabhupada's actions is narrow minded to the extreme - hardly the 'inclusive' or 'liberal' credos she claims to live by. In truth, her comments about Srila Prabhupada's so-called plagiarism don't even require an explanation for anyone with the slightest understanding of the significance of the parampara in terms of sastric accuracy and the purity of the writings. With her ignorant comments, Ekstrand has proven herself unqualified in yet another area.
In summary, Ekstrand considers Srila Prabhupada's writing inaccurate, lacking humility, riddled with mistakes, stolen from others, and arrogant. In fact, when the rather considerable collection of Ekstrand's insults and criticisms of ISCKON and Srila Prabhupada are stacked up, one wonders why she is bothering with ISKCON at all. Her comments reach far back into the disciplic succession, beginning with an attack on Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura:
"I don't think Bhaktisiddantha was particularly in tune with the lives of householders or people who lived and worked in the world. His opinion reflected the experience of a lifelong renunciate, which is not the experience of most of us."
. . . and continuing to question the qualifications of personal associates of Lord Caitanya, whom she admits never even hearing of, and worse, comparing them to substance abusers and psychologically damaged mental patients (no, I'm serious!):
"I don't have a clue what "Gaura-ganodessa-dipika's" means, but it sounds like you're putting your faith in something that somebody wrote because someone else claims it's a part of our tradition and written by spiritually elevated people who had a clue. Is that right? If so, I'm questioning the credentials of the folk who wrote those books. What makes you decide they can be trusted and that they knew who was who in Krsna lila? And who are these sources that have the qualifications to make such claims? How do you decide that they're qualified to do so and that you believe them? I've worked with both substance users and psych patients who make similar claims. I'm not saying that's the case here - but how do you know?"
She displays her excruciating ignorance of the philosophy with a final little gem, this one aimed at the Supreme Personality of Godhead Himself, Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu:
"OK, but should we really use his sannyasa as an example? After all, he took sannyasa at a very early age, abandoned his young wife and wasn't his sannyasa guru an impersonalist?"
We're awaiting Ekstrand's paper on how God has abandonment issues, since she also accused Lord Rama of the same thing with Sita - obviously an errant behavioral pattern, "Dr." Ekstrand?
Entertainment value aside, it's achingly obvious that Ekstrand lacks even a basic understanding of the philosophy; has absolutely no respect for Srila Prabhupada; has to date displayed no desire to learn the philosophy (a fact that she's proven time and again in her reluctance to enter into anything vaguely resembling a philosophical discussion); and has no understanding of or capacity to appreciate the ancient tradition and culture surrounding the philosophical precepts or the majestic contribution to society, education, and religion that Srila Prabhupada made. In short, she is in every way unqualified to speak on ISKCON or Srila Prabhupada.
As if that weren't enough to convince us, are we expected to believe that Ekstrand possesses either a higher intellectual capacity, or a blindingly brilliant insight into matters philosophical that someone like Dr. Shaligram Shukla, an Assistant Professor of Linguistics at Georgetown University, somehow missed? He had this to say about Srila Prabhupada's Bhagavad-gita As It Is:
"It is a deeply felt, powerfully conceived and beautifully explained work . . . I have never seen any other work on the Gita with such an important voice and style. It is a work of undoubted integrity. I have strongly recommended this book to all students interested in Sanskrit and Indian culture. It will occupy a significant place in the intellectual and ethical life of modern man for a long time to come."
A professor of linguistics who recommends the book to anyone interested in Sanskrit. Kind of nullifies Ekstrand's and Bryant's opinion of Srila Prabhupada:
". . . devotees refuse to listen to the fact that a certain % of Prabhupada's translations are missing or incorrect. By the way, my husband, who's a great admirer of Prabhupada says the same thing."
Well, good for Mr. Bryant. Not good, however, that he holds this opinion of Srila Prabhupada yet considers himself qualified to compile a book of this nature directed at the institution Srila Prabhupada founded.
Besides the pieces in this book by Muster, Lorenz, and one or two others, there are also well written and obviously valuable contributions by members of ISKCON in good standing - holders of PhD's who were approached and agreed to contribute to what they believed would be a valid academic volume. One can see the relative merit in doing so; the considerations held by the academia toward such a publication are drastically different from those a devotee of ISKCON and loyal servant of Srila Prabhupada might apply in the same circumstances. It is a unique field in which there is some very relevant preaching by qualified devotees: HH Hridayananda Maharaja is one example (and he is included in this book); another is Krishna Ksetra Das, a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow with the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies; Ravindra Svarupa Das is also included, as is HH Tamal Krishna Goswami, Garuda Das, Satyaraja Das, and HH Mukunda Maharaja.
All of these learned gentlemen contributed to this book in good faith that it had something viable to offer the academic community. However, in the space of time that has passed since the articles were gathered and edited by Ekstrand and Bryant, the highly offensive comments quoted above have come to light, as has the content of the two chapters by Muster and Lorenz. It is now obvious that the combined intentions of Ekstrand and Bryant toward ISKCON are dishonorable and that their biased and offensive approach to the institution basically renders their book invalid.
As for the inclusion of HH Tamal Krishna Goswami, I can categorically state that Goswami Maharaja would have objected to being used in such gross terms as those employed by Ekstrand and Bryant, which do nothing to contribute to a study of the institution's progress and growth over the last 25 years, but which serve only to further their own profiles in the academic community and label their work as 'authoritative.' Let me state quite clearly - It is not. While appreciating the benefits that a positive study of this nature might have, HH Tamal Krishna Goswami would have disassociated himself from the negative content of this book. Since he is not here to do so, I am, as his disciple, speaking for him. I do not do so independently or without sanction or authority. The godbrothers of Goswami Maharaja, who oversee his legacy of published and unpublished works (the fruit of his service to Srila Prabhupada), wrote to me that it was indeed my "duty to do so as his disciple." They have given direction and guidance, and most importantly, their blessings to defend and represent Goswami Maharaja in a fitting manner.
Other contributors to the book have stated their objections and their intention to disassociate themselves from this book. Satyaraja Das has this to say about his involvement in the book - the first paragraph referring to the valid contributions by his godbrothers who remain loyal to Srila Prabhupada, and even those former members of ISKCON who contributed to the book in a dignified manner:
"I want to go on record as saying that the volume offers some good material in terms of Vaishnava history and even in terms of understanding ISKCON, its virtues and its weak points. And it can be used by thoughtful people in the movement as an impetus for us to improve in areas where we need improvement.
"That being said, I am embarrassed by two essays in particular: Nori Muster's and the second article by Ekanath. These articles are unnecessarily blasphemous and are not even truly scholarly (from a material point of view). They are one-sided and do not accurately portray ISKCON's teachings, nor do they properly represent the personality of Srila Prabhupada. Unfortunately, these two essays render the volume nearly useless and put me in a position where I cannot recommend the book to scholars or devotees. Period. I am in the process of commissioning someone to write a scholarly review of the book, to be published in my Journal of Vaishnava Studies. This review will mention the book's few good points but will highlight the potentially damaging though inaccurate and superficial contributions mentioned above."
HH Hridayananda Maharaja shares a similar view, but takes a different approach. He says that while he and his peers were aware that there would be some offensive pieces in the book, he believes that his own contribution, and that of the other loyal members of ISKCON, was crucial. He says:
"Indeed in the Mahabharata, when Draupadi was being offended, wise Vidura stood up and declared that when an offense is being committed, one who sees the offense and does not speak out shares in the guilt. So it would be more offensive, in our view, to let negative contributions to such a book be published without answering them."
As Hridayananda Maharaja, Satyaraja Das, and their peers will confirm, there are dignified and valuable ways to approach a comparative study of this nature, and to deliver it with integrity. Consider, for example, the following comment made by Dr Julius Lipner, PhD (King's College, London), former teacher in the Divinity Faculty at the University of Cambridge, where he is now Reader in Hinduism and the Comparative Study of Religion. He has published and lectured widely. Dr. Lipner was greatly responsible for HH Tamal Krishna Maharaja's entry into Cambridge for the pursuit of his doctorate. In his obituary to Goswami Maharaja in the ISKCON Communications Journal, Dr. Lipner writes:
"Though, as some know, evidence of internecine disagreements in ISKCON has surfaced, there is also refreshing evidence of a number of other members working seriously in academia to meet the objectives outlined by Goswami. Much seems to be at stake. In stating his aims for accomplishing a doctoral degree, Goswami was a courageous pioneer and a man of vision, and an inspiration, not only for his Society but also for the goals of scholarship more generally." (ICJ 9.1 2002)
In other words, a man who was capable of acknowledging ISKCON's problems with dignity, integrity, and humility, and addressing those issues in a mature and enlightened manner. Unlike Ekstrand and Bryant, who seem distracted by their habitual muckraking and self-aggrandizement.
Ekstrand, Bryant, Muster, and Lorenz have revealed a shared trait: they pass themselves off as "authorities" on a movement with whom they have no contact and of which they are no longer members (or in Ekstrand's case, never was). Their view is, at the very best, tainted by an apparent lack of ability to access anything spiritual, since their writings constantly miss the philosophical understanding so crucial to developing one's inner spiritual life. Can that be the fault of an organization? What individual capacity to attain spiritual upliftment or understanding did any of them possess in the first place? It could well be that the answer is: very little. It adds to the heavy load of evidence that reduces to nothing the self-proclaimed "authority" status, and reduces the contents of any publication by them to little more than schoolgirl gossip and misdirected confusion at a philosophical level. Hardly the qualifications required for what is meant to pass as an offering to academe.
Ultimately, the faults of humans are many, of the divine, none. If one possesses little or no ability to seek the sincere amongst the rabble, then inevitably the result will be that he or she is cheated. It doesn't require a great degree of intelligence or aptitude to see the faults in anything these days: Kali yuga is an ocean of faults. Rather, it requires a healthy dose of sincerity and an intellect sharpened by transcendental knowledge to separate the good from the bad. Ekstrand, Bryant, Muster, and Lorenz seem to have a long way to go in acquiring the basic tools necessary for their spiritual journey.
Perhaps before embarking on any further tomes of literature they wish to inflict upon on us, they might consider this piece of advice, penned by none other than Ekstrand herself:
"Of course you can judge whether you think another group is worth joining (or staying with), but why does a person have to badmouth those with whose spiritual tradition s/he disagrees? Live and let live. And stay away if it bothers you."
Amen, Ekstrand. Amen.
Note Regarding the use of non-devotee names - My use of non-devotional names can be misconstrued as an insult, used in an effort to separate someone and their 'non devotional sentiments' from the institution they're criticizing. That is not the case here. Both Ekstrand and Bryant have written the book in question under their non-devotional names, and that is how I will address them. Neither have, to my knowledge, renounced their devotional name, and it is not my place to do it for them. Ekkehard Lorenz, however, did revert to his non-devotional name when dealing with devotees, and made mention of it in a public conference on PAMHO. As for Nori Muster, she also writes under a non devotional name, and her pieces make it clear she considers herself unconnected with anything ISKCON - that would include her name.
* This excerpt from Betrayal of the Spirit, Chapter 10 - Moving on, shows how I left ISKCON:
My ISKCON World Review interview that month was with Drista, headmaster of the Dallas gurukula, the very location that had once been so controversial. I asked Drista, "At one time teachers tried to keep parents from seeing their children. How has that changed now?" He explained that after being closed down for many years, the gurukula had reopened with new management and policies. He showed me the schoolhouse and pointed out that the children had toys and lived with their parents. I asked how he felt about children going to college, and he said, "We think it's great, we encourage it." He added that the school used a creationist curriculum developed by Christians, which prepared students for college. He spoke enthusiastically and said he was proud that many of his graduates had gone on to a local junior college and one had even received a scholarship to a four-year school.
Mukunda and Ravindra Svarupa approved my Monkey on a Stick articles but changed the question about the old gurukula to say, "What is the relationship between parents, children and the school?" It seemed a cowardly sidestep of the issue I had intended to address. They also changed Drista's positive response about college to read, "Prabhupada didn't encourage it, but we feel it can be worthwhile." I wondered why the topic was so sensitive. Perhaps because many valuable members had, like Subhananda, left to pursue degrees. Up until then I trusted the editorial board, but now I felt betrayed because they had unfairly censored my writing, even before the first meeting. I wanted to argue for fair play, so I confronted Ravindra Svarupa on the telephone.
He reacted with force, warning me not to be a "crusading, expose, get-all the-dirt-out journalist" in the official ISKCON publication. He called ISKCON a "hierarchical society" that didn't allow women (or anyone) to act independently. "Just like the Vatican," he said, "they have their official newspaper," and he added that there were some things he would like to "see buried." In my view, if the GBC advisory board had a problem about the content of an interview, they were welcome to write an editorial, not change the interview. Ravindra Svarupa and Mukunda had even called Drista to get his approval for the changes. I felt this was even more dishonorable, because a simple gurukula teacher could hardly say no to the GBC chair and minister of public affairs.
After a bit more discussion Ravindra Svarupa finally agreed to let the question read, "In the old days, the school discouraged parental involvement. What's your philosophy now?" It was a victory, but he wouldn't budge on the question about going to college. Ravindra Svarupa, a doctor of philosophy, said Prabhupada just wouldn't have liked it if the official newspaper seemed to advocate college.
I was especially disappointed to learn that the editors had spiked my story, "GBC-IWR Editorial Board Formed." When I asked Ravindra Svarupa about it, he said, "Your article presents your opinion from your own point of view, but I just don't see that any particular point of view came out in that meeting where we decided, ‘Yeah it's going to be like this."
"All right," I said. I realized it was true. The Governing Body commissioners at the meeting didn't support my policy, they formed a committee to discuss it. I was fooling myself to think otherwise.
"That's my reason," he said.
"Okay, well, we'll see how it goes, if we can all work together," I said. "Maybe you and Mukunda would like to do the paper yourselves. Then you can have it any way you want."
"Oh, don't get the wrong idea," he said. "I don't want to discourage you in your service."
"We're still going to have a meeting soon?" he asked.
"Yes, soon," I said. The meeting was scheduled to coincide with the George v. ISKCON appeal, when commissioners would be in San Diego.
That evening I told Uddhava all that had happened, and he said, "Let's get out of this." I talked things over with my father, other relatives, and friends. Koumadaki agreed that changing an interview to suit a political position was wrong. Subhananda, who happened to be visiting, assured me that there would be life after the ISKCON World Review. Uddhava and I wrote our resignation to bring to San Diego.
On the day of the meeting we knocked on Mukunda's apartment door. His assistant let us in, then we waited a long time. Finally, Ravindra Svarupa and Hari-vilas joined us, and we formed a circle in Mukunda's living room. I sat on the couch, Uddhava sat in a rocking chair, Hari-vilas sat in a round "papa-san" chair, Ravindra Svarupa took a kitchen chair, and Mukunda sat on the floor.
"Let's start by making an agenda," Mukunda said. "Why not start by going over the last issue? Let me write that down." He scribbled it on a legal pad.
"We want to talk about the editorial policy," I said.
"Okay. Editorial policy," he said, writing down those words.
"I think I can save a lot of time," Uddhava said. "Let me just explain that we came here to resign."
"Okay," Mukunda said without flinching. "Can we put that under the heading ‘editorial policy'?" He started to write again.
Uddhava and I looked at each other.
Hari-vilas spoke up. "Mukunda, Uddhava just told you he wants to resign. We better talk about this, seriously."
"I've already talked to them about it," Mukunda said. He put his pen down and reflected for a moment.
Uddhava spoke again. "Nandini and I have been trying for years to come to an understanding about the editorial policy. Maybe we alienated ourselves by ignoring criticism from the GBC and others. But now we've decided to stop forcing our writing on people. We're ready to quit."
"You can't just do that," Ravindra Svarupa said.
Everyone argued at once, but no one listened to each other.
"Everything has an apparent cause and a subtle cause," Hari-vilas said, commanding silence with his esoteric philosophical point. "Maybe Nandini's disagreement with Ravindra Svarupa was the apparent cause, but I think it goes deeper than that." He paused for a moment to see if everyone was with him, then continued. "Uddhava and Nandini's decision has come from months of frustration. Uddhava, you said before that you alienated yourselves by ignoring feedback from the GBC, so that contributed to the problem. As I see it, Ravindra Svarupa was just a catalyst for something that was developing for a long time."
"I agree," Uddhava said, finally.
"Okay, then," Hari-vilas continued, "we have a lack of communication. There's no reason to be mad at Ravindra Svarupa. Simply, Uddhava and Nandini feel they can't do the ISKCON World Review the way they want anymore, so they're resigning. Maybe it was meant to be, and I think we all appreciate their service. Perhaps they could do another issue or two until Mukunda can find someone else to take over."
Hari-vilas was seated on a wicker chair the shape of an inverted umbrella, with blue paisley cushions. He reminded me of the caterpillar in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. He got us to agree to produce three more issues without controversial content, then turned to Mukunda, "The newspaper has gone on for eight years already. I think that's remarkable in itself. You started the paper, didn't you Mukunda?"
"With a little help from my friends," Mukunda replied.
"Uddhava ran it all those years, right? It's like the Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. Brahma is the creator, so that's like Mukunda. Vishnu's the maintainer, so that's like Uddhava. And Shiva's the destroyer. Nandini? Nandini, are you the destroyer?"
Hari-vilas smiled at me, and I raised my arms over my head and made a face to look like an ominous destroyer. I guess I startled Hari-vilas, because the chair tipped over and spilled him onto the floor. Everyone was surprised, and there was a moment of hilarious laughter.
"I don't know what happened," Hari-vilas said, getting to his feet. He brushed himself a few times and straightened his robes. Then he set the chair up and hopped back into it.
We all looked around at each other. There was a sad silence as everyone realized that the resignation had been accepted. Uddhava vaguely smiled. Mukunda, who was sitting on his hands, stared at the floor. I felt sorry, and it was all I could do to keep from changing my mind.
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