Krishna and Culture

Cultural Exclusivity and the Debate Over 'Mind Control'

Thomas Robbins

A wonderful Jules Feiffer cartoon depicts a young boy and girl growing up being told by parents, teachers, an army sergeant, politicians and by the media what to think and who to hate. Finally, the now elderly couple watches a TV documentary that exposes a new and sinister menace: CULTS AND THE THREAT OF MIND CONTROL!

The implication is that only indoctrination which aims at inculcating something which threatens, or is contrary to the institutionalised patterns and values of the culture is labelled pernicious 'mind control.' Mind control that is built into the perpetuation of a culture is not seen as problematic. A somewhat similar point has been made by Thomas Dunn in his provocative paper, 'Religious Mindopoly' (Dunn, 1983), in which he argues that in terms of producing closed minds, the most effective mind control transpires when 'two or more institutions collaborate for the purpose of instilling a particular ideology . . . The family and the church routinely enter into covenants designed to ensure the religious conversion of a family member(s). As such, a 'religious mindopoly,' which uses the family in the conversion process, is a vastly superior technique to the most effective form of brainwashing.' But the family, even if it is unfashionably authoritarian, is sacred; and the 'Christian school' and evangelical summer camp is becoming less culturally esoteric and thus appear to be controversial only in terms of occasional policies of racial discrimination or excessive use of corporal punishment (plus legal conflicts over certification).

In short, evaluation of the means by which persons are socialised is rarely independent of evaluation of the goals or aims of a given program of conditioning, a point acknowledged by Schein et al. (1961). Seemingly pro-social, or rather 'pro-cultural' conditioning is generally accepted, even if rather stringent. Conditioning in pursuit of esoteric or dissident values is more likely to raise eyebrows. Moreover, inculcation of the values of a small 'cognitive minority' with a highly sectarian orientation of 'go ye out and be ye separate' more or less mandates intensive indoctrinational and ideological supports which will be conspicuous and likely to elicit a label of brainwashing.

The cultural exclusivity of certain groups whose worldviews devalue dominant institutions and cultural patterns constitutes, in our view, a key issue underlying the controversies over 'destructive cultism' and religious 'mind control.'

Cults and Thought Reform
'Washing a brain,' as Thomas Szasz (1976) has noted, is merely a metaphor, akin to drawing blood with a 'cutting remark.' On the other hand, there are surely significant models of 'thought reform' (Lifton, 1961:85) and 'coercive persuasion' (Schein, 1961) which have heuristic value in understanding socialisation patterns in certain groups. Some of these models are relatively broad and highly sophisticated, and are surely applicable to ISKCON and other contemporary communal and relatively 'totalistic' movements or 'cults' (Richardson et al., 1972; Lifton, 1985). In this sense it is not strictly incorrect to say that ISKCON 'practices thought reform' or 'employs coercive persuasion' (in terms of Lifton's and Schein's model) although such a statement oversimplifies a complex situation.

But what does this really mean? Neither Lifton or Schein's sophisticated models imply that 'persuadees' necessarily lose their free will although there may be special cases of subcategories of coercive persuasion or thought reform in which ideological commitment may be involuntary. Lifton (1961:3) specifically rejects the term 'brainwashing,' because it has misleading connotations of an omnipotent psychotechnology that gains total control over passive slaves. Schein (1961) notes that coercive persuasion is somewhat ubiquitous and can be seen in numerous legitimate contexts including conventional religious orders, college fraternities, social rehabilitation programmes and the armed forces. Society thus tends to evaluate coercive persuasion according to its objectives, that is, it's OK to mould a marine, but it is sinister to shape a communist or a Moonie. Nevertheless, basic patterns of thought reform and coercive persuasion are evident in some socially valued institutions. Ebaugh (1977) identifies some close parallels between social control processes in a respectable cloistered religious order and Lifton's model of though reform.

In our view, serious distortions arise when models of thought and coercive persuasion are used as sticks to beat unpopular social movements. The basic rhetorical device appears to involve an equation of thought reform with 'brainwashing.' The latter is implicitly equated with the lurid and sensational connotations from which Lifton and Schein attempted to emancipate their models. In contrast, Lofland and Skonovd (1980, 1983) have recently argued that Lifton's 'thought reform' concept basically embodies 'ideological totalism' (a term used frequently by Lifton), which is likely to be a property of any communal, religious or ideological movement. They distinguish this from true coercive conversion. The latter, a rare phenomenon, should be defined, in Lofland and Skonovd's view, by the criteria adumbrated by Albert Somit in the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (1968), which are substantially more restrictive (and thus more difficult to apply to formally voluntary movements) than the broader models of Lifton and Schein. Weightman (1983:154-160) makes a similar point.

Parenthetically, Lofland and Skonovd argue that the controversial 'Moonies,' and possibly to a lesser extent the Krishnas, have essentially resurrected the traditional 'revivalist' conversion pattern of manipulated ecstative experiences in a group or crowd context. This pattern has been central to American religious history, but it has declined in significance since the early nineteenth century although it is ubiquitous in conversion processes in many areas of the world today. Since real revivalism has been, until very recently, rather scarce in modern America, its reappearance is perceived with alarm, and it is mistakenly assumed to be a totally new and horrifying mind controlling monstrosity which turns individuals into robots.

To conclude this section: while relatively broad models of thought reform and coercive persuasion would clearly fit the Hare Krishna movement, this is simply not tantamount to saying that devotees are 'brainwashed' in the sense that they lose free will and that their ideological and organisational involvement is largely passive, unmotivated, and involuntary. The stigma of 'brainwashing' in this sensational 'robotist' sense of the term tends to be applied when the goals as well as the means of socialisation are disvalued and the whole thrust of group values is perceived as antisocial and antithetical to cultural norms.

Socialising Krishna Children
An important paper by Lilliston (1987) indicates that the more collectivistic and goal- directed pattern of child rearing and education within the Krishna community does indeed depart from the more individualistic and 'permissive' model that is currently normatively dominant in the United States. On the other hand, Lilliston's data appear to show that negative consequences for the children in terms of creativity, independence, pathological symptomatology, and coping capacity do not appear to ensue (see also Ross, 1983a; 1983b).

On the other hand, the Lilliston paper, as well as papers by Gordon (in press) and Bromley (in press), which attempt to evaluate and analyse the allegations against Hare Krishna in the realm of mental health, indicate that in this area the 'anticult' critics have set the agenda of discourse. Lilliston, Gordon, and Bromley are all concerned to refute the allegations against 'cults' put forward by various activist clinicians; nevertheless, their efforts seem to reinforce the tendency whereby the relevant psychiatric, mental health, and child rearing issues bearing upon the Hare Krishna movement are defined by the vehement opponents of the movement.

There are other interesting issues, however, which do not get ventilated, because they have not become entangled in cult/anticult polemics. One such possible issue entails the doctrine that the physical body does not pertain to the essence of being. At the Gurukula schools (run by Hare Krishna) children who become concerned with minor pains are told that they are experiencing an illusory identification with their physical body; that is, once one realises that one is not 'really' one's physical body, bodily afflictions will be experienced as less traumatic and pain (or hunger or sexual urge) will seem less imperative. The thrust of this theodicy seems to manifest a striking estrangement from the increasing 'holistic' emphasis of contemporary culture. The current media stress on physical conditioning and the interrelationship of strength, beauty, personality, and happiness seems to imply that one's body is integral to one's inner being and that the state of one's body reflects one's essential self. The radical soul/ body dualism of Hare Krishna appears to hark back to earlier American traditions (for example, Puritanism) in contrast to more recent 'narcissistic' currents.

The Gurukula children are brought up reading largely stories from Hindu mythology and scripture. By and large, they are not introduced to much of the material through which the reading skills of most American children are developed, for example, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Shakespeare, 'Judy's Visit to the Zoo' and so on.

This system runs contrary to the views of those who like American Federation of Teachers president Albert Shanker (1985), believe that 'literacy requires learning the culture' and 'kids must know Jack Sprat and Emerson.' Shanker cites the paper, 'Cultural Literacy and the School' by E. D. Hirsch, Jr. (Hirsch, 1985) which argues that to be acculturated, functionally literate Americans, children must develop some familiarity with Adam and Eve, Noah and the flood, David and Goliath, Humpty Dumpty, Cinderella, Pinocchio, Peter Pan, and other elements of our 'literary and mythic heritage,' as well as Davy Crockett, Yankee Doodle, Emily Dickinson, Lord Cornwallis, and so forth. For various reasons, according to Hirsch and Shanker, contemporary school curricula are deficient in terms of inculcating the rudiments of cultural unity and tradition. 'It's a mistake to think that kids cannot be as excited by Daniel Boone or Davy Crockett or John Brown as much by Bruce Springsteen or Dwight Gooden' (Shanker, 1985).

The Hare Krishnas actually share with Shanker and Hirsch a firm rejection of the view that reading is essentially a technical skill such that it does not matter what content or subject matter is employed to develop reading powers-it is the skill that counts. Nevertheless, the Hindu exclusivity of Gurukula reading programs reflects the underlying alienation of the Krishnas from the conventional American culture-Davy Crockett and Bruce Springsteen. This alienation is also manifested in the visions, as expressed to the writer, by some devotees at the emerging New Vrindaban settlement in W. Virginia, that that community will develop as a refuge and a fortress when America's 'dying culture' collapses and chaos and violence pervade the land. (This view is not normative for all of ISKCON; indeed Swami Bhaktipada of New Vrindaban has just been expelled from the movement.)

The Krishnas and the 'Moonies,' so different in many respects, nevertheless, appear to converge with regard to a self-definition as the exclusive beacon of spirituality in a world pervaded by demonic forces. 'Today the world is controlled by demons totally devoid of Krishna consciousness,' notes Swami Bhaktipada. 'In such an atmosphere, there can be neither peace nor happiness. Until the Lord's devotees spread Krishna consciousness throughout the world, there will be no peace' (Bhaktipada, 1984:183).

It is our view that this attitude, which is resented by many Americans, whose lives and accomplishments are radically devalued, underlies much of the hostility to 'totalistic' and 'intolerant' religious 'cults.' The latter naturally appear as threats to basic values and institutions. As one relatively moderate theorist of the 'anticult movement'has written, intolerant cults provoke a 'valid cultural protest' on the part of citizens, which unfortunately sometimes leads to regrettable persecutory excesses (Langone, 1985). While avoiding extreme persecution, the law, it has been suggested, might explore ways to 'incline toward defence of the culture.'

Krishna and Culture
This attitude of radical estrangement form the dominant cultural milieu is hardly foreign to the history of Christianity. The classic expression of this outlook was by Tertullian, who asked, 'What has Jerusalem to do with Athens?' (That is what has our truth in Christ to do with the doomed and degraded dominant (pagan-Hellenistic) culture?) Like many Christians of the first and second century, Tertullian believed that 'whatever does not belong to the commonwealth of Christ is under the rule of evil . . . so that the plain alternative was to be either a Christian or a wicked man' (Neibuhr, 1951:50). Sin, according to Tertullian, resides chiefly in culture. Christ comes not to civilise 'boors and savages' but 'to enlighten men already civilised, and under illusions from their very culture, that they might come to the knowledge of truth' (quoted in Neibuhr, 1951:53, my emphasis). Thus, Tertullian 'has no sympathy with the efforts of some Christians of his time to point out positive connections between their faith and the ideas of the Greek philosophers. "Away," he exclaims, "with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of stoic, platonic and dialectic composition . . . with our faith we desire no further belief'" ' (Neibuhr, 1951:54).

But his attitude has not remained dominant in Christianity. More popular in the twentieth century has been the attitude embodied in Bruce Barton's best-seller, The Man Nobody Knows, which argued that Christ was an amazingly proficient businessman and corporate executive. Christ as anti-cultural demiurge has become Christ as culture hero. In this view, accepted to some extent by Locke, Leibniz, Kant, Jefferson, and even Christian radicals, Christ works through culture and within the human community rather than on it from without. The 'Christ of Culture' 'does not call upon men to leave homes and kindred for his sake; he enters into their homes and all their associations as the gracious presence which adds an aura of infinite meaning to all temporal tasks' (Neibuhr, 1951:93).

The Hare Krishnas presently incline toward the 'anti-cultural' polarity. However, this may change. If Krishna can drive a chariot, perhaps he can also drive a truck and sing country music. Nevertheless, the self-concept of the movement as the exclusive beacon of spirituality in a degraded and demonic world presently renders the movement somewhat of an 'uncivil religion' in the sense that there is a violation of the American 'Religion of Civility' (Cuddihy, 1978)-its fetish of tolerance, its sacralisation of religious pluralism, and its fervent, apocalyptic hostility to fervent and apocalyptic messianic religion (Robbins, 1985).

American culture might thus be said to be 'intolerant of intolerance.' In this regard, it resembles imperial Roman culture, which encompassed a great diversity of customs and faiths such that unity could only be sustained if reverence and respect were granted to the multifold traditions and rites of constituent elements. Romans could thus be expected, notes Gibbon, to 'unite with indignation against any sect of people that should separate itself from the communion of mankind and disdain every form of worship except its own as impious and idolatrous.' (Gibbon, 1969: 402)

Over time, American faiths have tended to surrender their elements of intolerance and exclusivity. This, as John Cuddihy (1978: 26) notes, is what happened to the major American religious communities:

In the American setting, and under the steady gaze of the American 'public philosophy' and its civil religion, these traditional monopolistic pretensions made their own adherents uneasy and embarrassed. The Roman Catholic claim to uniqueness (the 'One True Church'); the Jewish claim to uniqueness ('the chosen people'); the Protestant fundamentalist claim to uniqueness ('Jesus only saves')-are variants of a more general claim: the claim to be religiously superior or elite. While the traditionalist spokesmen for these religions . . .[may still ritualistically put forward old totalitarian claims] . . . few members of their own religions take these claims very seriously, and, of course, even fewer members of the other religions.
The 'established' situation of pluralism in America makes these traditional definitions of religious reality sound silly as their large claims echo across the American heartland; the pervasive civil religion of America makes them sound heretical.

The pressure of the dominant 'religion of civility,' which celebrates, indeed sacralises, 'established' denominational pluralism, pushes religionists toward the assumption of a humble one-among-many men. The prophet Elijah becomes Uriah Heep. Thus, apocalyptic visions and claims to an exclusive truth tend to be gradually mitigated, as Cuddihy has demonstrated, until 'no offence' is given.

As Gordon (in press) notes, there are certainly signs of incipient cultural accommodation and mitigation of exclusivity in ISKCON. But if the intolerance is exorcised from the symbolic universe of Hare Krishna, what will be left of the latter? Tolerance, notes G. K. Chesterton, is the virtue of those who believe in nothing. The contribution of ISKCON lies partly in its claim to uniqueness. Without these claims and with too humble an acknowledgement that there are other ways and other truths, Hare Krishna would not be Hare Krishna.

Ultimately, the process of assimilating Hare Krishna is a two-sided or relational one: the perception of Krishna civility by the society qua 'audience' is a vital component of the process. In the 1970s, 'ISKCON was viewed by many people in America as a threatening movement which sought to exploit the public for financial gain' (Rochford, 1985:269). In his recent monograph, Hare Krishna in America, E. Burke Rochford (1985:275) writes:

More than any other single factor, the continuation of the current public attitude toward the Krishna movement in America threatens to severely limit its efforts to gain legitimacy, and this would hinder its prospects form becoming a denomination. . . . Without gaining some degree of public acceptance, ISKCON cannot hope to reach the status even of a tolerated adjunct to other religious institutions in America.

In the 1980s revelations and allegations involving violence arising in factional struggles within ISKCON and drug profits funnelled into the operations of certain regional projects (Huber and Gruson, 1987) have impeded the process of cultural assimilation and legitimation of ISKCON. It is perhaps unfortunate that these allegations have arisen while the litigation connected with 'brainwashing' conversions appears to be reaching a crucial stage. The Los Angeles Krishnas are appealing a $9.5 million civil award for having falsely imprisoned (via brainwashing) a minor and inflicting emotional distress on her parents. In the trial much was made of Hare Krishna intolerance and its alleged use of eschatological threats (For example, apostates may be reincarnated as worms); moreover, there was dubious clinical testimony that the basic ritual chanting of Hare Krishna produced a pathological disassociative trance state. The outlook for the 'normalisation' or civility-assimilation of the movement does not now seem terribly bright.

Ironically, were it not for current scandals and legal crises, the outlook for cultural assimilation would look rather favourable. The dilemma of sectarian assimilation--that mitigation of doctrinal rigidity and intolerance will alter the fundamental nature and spiritual integrity of the movement-does not seem insuperable in the light of the current extension of American religious pluralism. Televangelists such as Jimmy Swaggert continually proclaim intolerant formulations in which not only non-Christian faiths but also many churches are accused of implicitly serving Satan. Although religious conflict is now growing in the United States, Americans will probably be compelled to accustom themselves to intolerant sectarian faiths in their midst challenging the liberal consensus. The adaptations in the direction of moderation which zealous sects must make (see Rochford, 1985:269-75 on Hare Krishna efforts to develop a positive public image) are thus less substantial than might otherwise be the case.

Unfortunately the present legal problems of the movement and the tangible transgressions (for example, violence, sale of contraband) which may have intensified these problems cannot be automatically assumed to be merely fortuitous consequences of the personalities of certain regional leaders. The scholarly observer must inquire whether the interesting mixture of relativism and absolutism in the ISKCON worldview has contributed to the current crisis by implying that any means to spread the word (for example, 'stealing for Krishna'-see Rochford, 1985:198-99) is legitimate and that, moreover, conventional moral rules are illusory emanations of maya. The primacy of charismatic authority in the Krishna symbolic universe has also contributed to volatility and factionalism (Rochford, 1985:221-254) and has permitted the dangerous eccentricities of youthful regional leaders to flourish in the post-Prabhupada period. It is possible that the elements of intolerance, practical absolutism, cosmic relativism, and need for charismatic authority which are combined in ISKCON render the movement's stable institutionalisation and evolution of a modus vivendi with the broader society very difficult, at least in the absence of a strong but moderate single leader.