by Nori Muster
This article is excerpted from a longer essay,
Myth and Themes of Ex-Membership
ICSA E-Newsletter, Vol. 5, No. 1, February 2006
See full essay at this site
The theme of storytelling does not just mean fiction writing. It can also refer to history, to cultural stories, and the stories of one's own life. To heal identity crisis, an ex-member must know his or her own story. Telling one's own story can heal trauma and set the course for recovery. Story must ring true, so storytelling is an art.
Every culture has its stories and therefore its storytellers. In Vedic culture one storyteller was Vyasa, the author of the Mahabharata. It is said that he dictated it while Ganesh (the elephant god) wrote it down. Great literary authors like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Mark Twain knew how to tell a story with just the right nuance to capture the imagination of their audience. The Vedas were also steeped in nuance. The more you know about the Vedic stories, the more fascinating they seem. For example, if you know the story of Krishna driving Arjuna's chariot on the battlefield of Kurukshetra,() then you might find it intriguing to learn that Krishna and Arjuna also fought each other on one occasion.() It might also be a surprise that the god Maha-vishnu had three wives, Lakshmi, Sarasvati, and Ganga, who became jealous and had a fistfight.()
Storytellers do a disservice if they try to whitewash their characters to uphold a certain worldview. For example, it would be a mistake to try to portray Krishna as a saint who never lost his temper, or Vishnu's consorts as prim and proper Victorian ladies.
A storyteller knows that a story must turn on a plot. To have a plot, the characters must have unfinished business. If everything is already perfectly resolved, then there is no story. On the other hand, leaving things undone calls for more story because people want to find out how it all turns out. If the story ends with major plot points unresolved, then the storyteller missed the mark.
Of recent movies, one that seemed to leave the plot unresolved was Mulholland Drive, by David Lynch. But it was resolved, the story was just told out of order. It took years for people to get the happy ending in his spooky and confusing piece. Mulholland Drive started out as a pilot, but turned into a feature film. My review of the movie is posted at this site.
Another recent movie, Memento, directed by Christopher Nolan, was the same way. The story takes place in reverse sequence, alternating between color and black and white scenes, and the main character has short-term memory loss. The ending leaves viewers with the "Huh?" feeling also, but everything makes sense as one flashback after another. Watching the movie a second time reveals the genius of its storytelling.
Sometimes endings don't work and directors make up alternative endings. Two movies where the director rewrote and reworked the endings were Being John Malcovich and Adaptation, written by Charlie Kaufman. Kaufman himself admitted that he struggled over the endings and said he is not sure whether he got it right in either case.()
One of the most controversial endings in the history of American literature was in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, discussed earlier. Instead of resolving the plot, the book ends with what scholars refer to as "an elaborate burlesque farce."() The characters act out a charade where Huckleberry Finn meets some of Tom Sawyer's relatives and pretends to be Tom Sawyer; Tom Sawyer shows up and to play along, he pretends to be his own brother. Further, the Civil War ends and Jim is a free man, but nobody tells him. It appears racist and cruel. Scholars speculate that perhaps Twain's ending was a satire about the failure of the Reconstruction era following the Civil War. Twain started the book in 1876, the one hundred year anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. He finished the book seven years later in 1883, at a time when scholars say "thousands of African Americans were effectively re-enslaved through such means as share-cropping, lynchings, and the convict-lease system."()
Another story with a mysterious ending is the story of the Ramayana. Lord Rama, the rightful king of Ayodya, was banished to the forest with his wife Sita and brother Laksmana. While the men were chasing a deer, the evil King Ravana kidnapped Sita. Rama then waged a war to kill Ravana and free his wife. When Sita and Rama returned to Ayodya, Sita proved her purity by passing through a ring of fire. In this symbolic act, the fire god returned the real Sita to Rama.
Even after the test of fire, subjects in the kingdom gossiped about Sita, saying that Rama had broken the religious principles by accepting his wife after she had been touched by another man. To quell the controversy, Rama sent Sita back to the forest, even though she was pregnant with his child. She wandered until she reached the hermitage of the sage Valmiki (author of the Ramayana), who gave her shelter. The fact that Sita could never regain her chastity. and that she was cast out of Lord Rama's palace, is perhaps the most paradoxical and depressing ending of any story in the Vedic literature. There are cultural reasons it had to end that way, but the explanation is even more enigmatic than Twain's ending to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.()
Aside from these famous examples, most good stories have a satisfying ending that flows naturally from the characters. In a story about unqualified and illegitimate gurus, it only follows that key characters will deviate from their vows and chaos will ensue. A good storyteller knows this because that is how life works.
When you have a story about bad leaders, there are several possible endings. In the first scenario, a hero with good common sense persuades them to voluntarily admit their follies and step down. Their resignation clears the way for a more egalitarian system. This leads to a satisfying resolution, because it follows the archetypal hero's journey outline.
In the second scenario, the opposite happens: nothing and nobody can stop the bad leaders. Each one plays out his maniacal plot to its end. This plot is common in horror and science fiction.
The third scenario is a compromise between the first two, where at least one of the bad leaders is stopped. The point of the story is to see which bad leaders will be exposed and brought to justice.
Although plot scenarios two and three are no fun for the people who must live through them in real life, it makes good material for a story. Outside observers say things like, "You are kidding! A guru did that?" and "Did he ever get caught?" People naturally want bad leaders to get their come-uppance.
I am grateful that ISKCON gave me so much story material. I got to see the gears grind to pull false heroes off their pedestals and watch them crash like proud plaster busts on a cold marble floor. I have first-hand experience of the hunger a listener feels to find out what happens to demagogues to finally put them in their place.
In a good story, people want to see the punishment fit the crime. If the villain only makes a mistake or acts foolishly, that may be easily forgiven. Nobody wants to see a character suffer great hardship over a mistake. However, if a character makes a mistake and then covers it up, that is a big offense. Cover-up makes the character unsympathetic, especially if innocent people suffer. Story lovers instinctively know that life involves learning. Part of that is learning to come to terms with one's own behavior. Life offers plenty of opportunities to own up. If a character refuses opportunity after opportunity, he condemns himself.
Another sub-plot of the bad guru story involves the characters who ignore the corruption at the top. They remain unsympathetic until they decide to reveal what they have seen. When I was in ISKCON, I ignored corruption and followed all the rules and regulations. However, perhaps due to the hypocrisy I lived with, I became frail, sore, and developed a limp. I am sure it was psychological due to always having to deny my feelings, while the gurus got away with murder. They told us our desires were evil, so my shoulders hunched forward and I was always tired. It was not just me; ashram devotees in those days were a sickly bunch.
Imagine where the story would go with a cast of characters who try to be ascetic but loose their souls in the hypocritical environment. Scenario one, a peaceful solution, would be impossible. If all the followers are hunched over with poor self-esteem, who will confront the arrogant leaders? The pathetic repressed followers would have to wait for an outside hero to come along and fix everything. An ending like that would not prove satisfying, because the resolution must come from the people who are repressed. The people who can blow the whistle must get the courage to do it.
If the people are unable to stand up for themselves, then Scenario Two is more likely. Then the challenge will be whether anyone can do anything. Thus, you look to Scenario Three, for hope that at least one of the menacing characters gets what he deserves, perhaps by inflicting consequences on himself.
There is a novel that follows the worst possible scenario: Kalki, by Gore Vidal (1978). Lord Kalki is the incarnation of Vishnu who comes at the time of dissolution to end the human race. In the novel, an arrogant ex-Marine calls himself Kalki and uses a biological agent to exterminate everyone on earth except himself and five followers.
The narrator, one of the survivors, recalls a TV spot from the night before everyone in the world dies:
There was a small smile on Walter Cronkite's face as he read: "Tomorrow the Hindu messiah from New Orleans, James J. Kelly, sometimes known as Kalki or Vishun or Siva, will appear at noon Eastern Standard Time on a barge in the Hudson River just off the Battery in downtown Manhattan and, as the god Siva, Mr. Kelly will begin what he calls 'the dance of eternity.' According to the ancient Hindus, when Siva does this dance all worlds will be annihilated. So the big question is this: is Jim Kelly of New Orleans really the god Siva? If he is, then tomorrow is the end of the world." Walter Cronkite allowed one eyebrow to lift. Had it not lifted, there would have been a national panic.()
Gore Vidal allows Kalki to play out his diabolical plot to its conclusion and nobody stops him. The narrator, Teddy Ottinger, describes the world after Kalki kills everyone:
Last July the weather was uncommonly good in New York. By good, I mean traditional. There were no freak storms. The climatic anomalies of the last decade seemed to have stopped. Has the Ice Age (or Greenhouse Age) gone into reverse now that man-made fumes have ceased to pollute the air? Too soon to answer. But skies are bright now, and the weather of the northern hemisphere appears to be changing for the better.()
The last sixty-four pages of the novel describe the end of the world. Kalki's followers die off one by one over forty-three years. The last entry in the book is written by Kalki himself. Although he has exterminated the human race, he still thinks he is a god.
I am the last as I was the first. Lakshmi dropped her human body twenty-one years ago. Since the death of Teddy Ottinger sixteen years ago, Geraldine and I have been happy together. This, too, was intended from the beginning. Last night, Geraldine died. To the extent that I am human, I am sad that she is gone. Yet there was no real point for her to remain another day in the human state. Our work is complete. Presently, I shall join them all in Vaikuntha.()
He proclaims himself to be Shiva and that is how the book ends. Even though the evil guru is never brought to justice, it is a satisfying, if disturbing, ending. The reader closes the book contemplating the horrible power of fanatics. Reading the story would be a catharsis for former ISKCON members who know how power can drive a guru to do horrible things.
If an ex-member can get the insight of a storyteller, then everything that happened in ISKCON makes sense. All the elements were there: arrogant leaders surrounded by lame followers too brainwashed to question them. It only makes sense that everything happened just the way it did. In a cosmic sense, maybe we were drawn to witness the ISKCON story so that we would learn something about the need for heroism. It takes courage to stand up for what is right. It is all too easy to hold back and wait for someone else to do it. Every experience in life offers something to learn about maturity and personal responsibility. When ex-members can finally look back on their experiences and see the beginning, middle, and end of a grand story, then the identity crisis is resolved.
 Krishna and Arjuna's famous conversation is the dialogue contained in Bhagavad-gita, the equivalent of the Hindu bible.
 Ibid., p. 272. Arjuna and Krishna became involved in the quarrel of Galava and Citrasena. Galava wanted Krishna to avenge an offense by Citrasena, but Arjuna's wife Subhadra wanted Arjuna to protect Citrasena. Thus, Krishna and Arjuna fought each other.
 Ibid, pp. 276 - 277. As a consequence of the fight, Maha-vishnu asked Sarasvati to become the wife of Lord Brahma and Ganga to become the consort of Lord Shiva.
 All the movies cited (Mulholland Drive, 2001; Memento, 2000; Being John Malcovich, 1999, and Adaptation, 2002) were nominated for Academy awards.
 Shelley Fisher Fishkin reviews the discussion about the last ten chapters of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in chapter four of her scholarly work, Was Huck Black?: Mark Twain and African-American Voices, Oxford University Press, 1994. The reference quoted is from page 69.
 Ibid., p. 73.
 I have discussed these points further in "Story Matters," see "The War to Free Sita" [currently off line].
 Kalki: A Novel, by Gore Vidal, p. 207.
 Ibid, p. 223.
 Ibid., pp. 277-78.