Best Intentions — Dynamics of Spiritual Abuse

Bhaktavatsala Dasa

In this article, Bhaktavatsala Dasa will discuss what spiritual abuse is, why there is a need for it to be discussed, some dynamics, causes, consequences and suggested solutions. The material in this article is based on research into ISKCON's needs,[1]examination of how other institutions dealt with the problem,[2]some perspectives from the Vaisnava tradition, and solutions that synthesise and reconcile these various approaches.

As far as possible I will speak in generic terms so as to avoid getting caught in the issues related to specific examples or areas of abuse. In the process of giving ISKCON Leadership and Management courses, it became apparent that there was a need to address the issues of abuse within the movement. In response I contacted Dhyanakunda-devi Dasi, a clinical psychologist, and together we wrote a seminar on the subject. We delivered it over five days at the ISKCON Convention 1999, at Radhadesh, Belgium. Much of what I write here was delivered as part of that seminar.

What is spiritual abuse?

Our seminar was entitled 'Spiritual Abuse — Symptoms, Prevention and Healing', and although some Vaisnavas might view the term 'spiritual abuse' as a theological oxymoron,[3]we decided to use it since it is an accepted term within the field of abuse counselling.

In their book, Healing Religious Addiction, the Linns (Dennis, Sheila and Matt Linn) define spiritual abuse quite broadly as denying other's spiritual freedom through claiming that only one's own way to God is valid (The Linns, p. 12). Johnson and Van Vonderen are more specific: 'Spiritual abuse is the mistreatment of a person who is in need of help, support or greater spiritual empowerment, with the result of weakening, undermining or decreasing that person's spiritual empowerment' (Johnson and Van Vonderen, p. 20). For our seminar, we arrived at a working definition to fit our own theological context:

Spiritual abuse is perpetrated when, in the name of spirituality or spiritual authority, the individual's dignity and right to advance through serving Krsna is violated.[4]

To help clarify the concept; some testimonies from various sources:

My bible study leader tells me that I haven't taken on the 'mantle' as spiritual head of my home. I should be praying more, taking authority in the Spirit — then spiritual forces wouldn't be able to attack my family. Then my wife wouldn't be having menstrual problems and my oldest son wouldn't be suffering from asthma. I guess their sickness is my fault. (Johnson and Van Vonderen, p. 21)

Being forced to defend yourself on the basis of quotes from religious books is very exhausting and discouraging. The whole process demonstrates a lack of emotional expression.You become very afraid and guilty for feeling, especially when those around you feel different. (VOICE, 1997, 4.3.2e)[5]

There is a common dynamic in the above examples — the person seeking spiritual guidance, in need of information, dialogue, support, acceptance or counsel, was made to feel that their spirituality was defective. This can impel a person to agree with a particular belief or to feel discouraged from asking legitimate (but potentially awkward) questions. This is the general dynamic.

Spiritual abuse frequently occurs in conjunction with other forms of abuse — or one could say that other forms of abuse, be they physical, psychological, emotional, sexual or financial, when perpetrated within a spiritual community or society, will have a spiritual component. The abuse is being backed up by authority and power derived from a spiritual institution or teaching. Those abused have had their boundaries beaten down, they have been shamed out of their 'no', had their discrimination clouded by someone else's religious agendas. Spiritual abuse does not refer to simple mistakes of judgement, but to concerted misuse of position or power. The dynamics, causes and consequences of spiritual abuse are relevant to all members of a spiritual society since abuse seems to be an unavoidable reality within any society, and spiritual abuse seems to be programmed into the process of spiritual growth, a point that I will discuss later in this article.

Why spiritual abuse is often hidden or missed

Although the New Christian Dictionary of Ethics and Pastoral Theology defines abuse as 'perversion / misuse of the privilege of caring for another person', it does not list spiritual abuse in its examples of abuse (Atkinson and Field, p. 136), even though in pastoral theology or care it would seem to be an obvious choice. Spiritual abuse is often hidden, overlooked or ignored because it frequently occurs in conjunction with other abuses, and may be overshadowed by the other, more obvious forms.[6] Thus it may happen that the spiritual component becomes minimised, although it is often this element that provides not only the environment, but the leverage, the platform of power, from which the abuse takes place.

We derive and define our sense of self largely in terms of our belief system (Storr, p. 200). Challenges questioning our belief system scare us because they threaten to shake the self-identity fundamental to our sense of personal security. The abused are afraid of upsetting the apple cart of their own belief system by challenging its champions (their spiritual superiors). Abusers take advantage of their subordinates' fears, hiding behind taboos and holy cows such as tradition, position and etiquette, and casting aspersions on any who challenge them. 'In an abusive system, you are told that you are "the problem" for noticing the problem. That makes it hard to expose the abuse, even after you've left the system.' (Johnson and Van Vonderen, p. 49)

It is important to discuss the issue of spiritual abuse because it addresses a current need. That this need is also there in ISKCON was not only apparent from the seminars I conducted, and the proliferation of reform movements within or outside of the Society, but in a recent survey, Dr. E. Burke Rochford, Jr. confirmed a general dissatisfaction about the gap between leadership and rank-and-file. In his 'Summary of Major Findings', his first point was: 'There is a striking lack of trust between ISKCON members and the movement's leadership, ... there is a lack of honest open communication between devotees.' (Rochford 1999, p. 17)

Diminished trust and dysfunctional relationships between authorities and subordinates create an environment in which abuse can flourish. Rochford's other findings suggest to me that spiritual abuse was responsible for a good proportion of the 'striking lack of trust between ISKCON members and the movement's leadership'.[7]

One of the aims of our seminar, and this article, is to help devotees become more conscious of spiritual abuse, since acknowledgement obviously precedes cure (Stafford and Hodgkinson, pp. 90, 93). Such seminars and articles will increase open discussion in the areas of spirituality, morality, ethics and the rights and responsibilities of members of the Krsna consciousness movement. These discussions not only serve to identify the nature, symptoms and consequences of spiritual abuse, but also begin the process of healing, encouraging devotees to come to terms with possible negative experiences and foster their confidence as individuals and as members of ISKCON. This will ultimately help in making commitments to reduce abuse, within the movement and as individuals.

About abuse dynamics

Abuse can occur in any authority structure or wherever there is an assumption of authority[8] — between, for example; Governing Body Commissioners (GBC, ISKCON's highest management authority) and intermediate levels of management; adult and child; a devotee living in a temple and one in the congregation. I have often heard devotees complaining about spiritual abuse issues as 'the problem with ISKCON', as if such problems were ISKCON- exclusive. Seminar participants expressed great relief to learn that we share our problems with other religious organizations.

Based on researching problems in other institutions, reactions to our seminars and our experiences in ISKCON, we formulated the following list of dynamics conducive to abuse:

1. Unrealistic evaluation of spiritual acumen


a) Position/external success = spiritual advancement


2. Unrealistic expectations


a) The myth of the infallible leader



b) The myth of the totally surrendered subordinate


3. Misapplication of philosophy


a) Twisting theology or interpreting scripture to suit personal or institutional agendas



b) Sweeping problems under the carpet of spiritual catch-phrases


4. Coercion through shame and fear


a) Shaming people into submission and/or silence



b) Criticising/humiliating anyone with a different opinion or who notices a problem



c) Demonisation, name-calling and fear of ostracism as coercion methods


5. Premature transcendence


a) Elitism and exclusivism as a justification for segregation and prejudice



b) Ignoring physical, psychological, emotional or social needs



c) Encouraging renunciation far beyond a person's realisation


Although in the seminar we elaborated on this list with subcategories (Bhaktavatsala Dasa, 1999, pp. 1,2) and discussion, for the purposes of this article I would like to concentrate on two categories that the American Family Foundation (AFF) found to be most important:

In our research survey of 308 former members from 101 different groups, the highest rated group characteristic was elitism (4.86 average out of a possible 5.0 on a 1-5 Likert scale). The second highest rated item was that dissent was not tolerated. One can speculate that elites protect their status by suppressing dissent and disagreement. Therefore, a group trying to avoid spiritual abuse could practice ways of increasing awareness of elitist feelings and ways of responding respectfully to dissenting opinions [our emphasis]. (Langone, 1999)

We termed these two characteristics 'premature transcendence', and 'coercion through shame and fear' respectively. Because the AFF have related their statistics to religious groups, it would be interesting to research more general statistics on elitism and shame as dynamics of social alienation, to see if these sort of statistics are more widely applicable to social structures.

Premature transcendence

Elitism is generally regarded as a defence mechanism related to underlying feelings of inadequacy (Dixon, p. 202). Many religious traditions have recognised it as an attitude that new converts are prone to adopt. It manifests as a tendency to look down on or criticise others, on the basis of their own, new-found 'superiority'. In Madhurya-kadambini, Srila Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura refers to this phenomenon as utsaha-mayi (Visvanatha, 1993, p. 15): 'A brahmana child, having just begun study of the scriptures, thinks he has immediately become a learned scholar worthy of everyone's praise. Similarly, a person just beginning devotional service may have the audacity to think that he has mastered everything. This is called utsaha-mayi, or filled (puffed-up) with enthusiasm.' St. John of the Cross warns in The Dark Night of the Soul (Backhouse, 1988, p. 7):'But because beginners are imperfect they need to speak of spiritual things in front of others, and even to teach rather than to learn, because they are conceited. In their hearts they condemn those that do not have the devotion they themselves want.' Time and interactions within the world of the unconverted usually temper the zealous fervour of a new convert; if, however, the convert disassociates himself from this world, then that maturation process can be retarded or halted.[9]Isolated from the rest of society, the convert is free to construct a world wherein he is an advanced transcendentalist and all others are very fallen. Such self-righteousness leads to elitism and exclusivism — adequate justification for the segregation and prejudice that alienates inhabitants of the world of the unconverted.

Living in a 'transcendental bubble', converts ('us') often condemn and reject outsiders ('them'), including family, peers and those with necessary expertise (medical, educational, etc.). Such attitudes may be supported and perpetuated by pejorative jargon — a language of segregation which becomes established and subtly influences all users. In ISKCON the word 'karmi' alludes to a non-devotee, a materialistic person. The meaning has become extended to encompass anyone who is not a member of ISKCON (Rasamandala Dasa, pp. 84-6), regardless of their religious or devotional inclinations. Derivative words: karmi world, karmi job, karmi school, karmi bread, karmi clothes — denote the materialistic, contaminated nature of the world of non-devotees. The extremely dualistic perspective of the new convert is also captured within the jargon: Positive examples — devotees are not simply happy, they are 'blissful', similarly, a feast is not delicious, it is 'ecstatic'. Negative examples — those who do not concur with our ideology are 'demons' and 'materialists'.

In the letter quoted in the previous section, Langone hypothesises that leaders might maintain their influence through creating such a dualistic world-view. One could also make a case that such elitism is the result of an unconscious defence mechanism rather than a premeditated tactic. I would suggest individual cases of both possibilities could be found. Whether deliberately orchestrated or naturally occurring, the process of establishing the superiority of one's own group and focussing on an external enemy distracts attention from perpetrators of abuse or internal organisational problems. Creating a fearful image of life outside the transcendental bubble keeps the sheep within the fold, and increases their dependence. On the basis of these ends, which some (leaders or followers) may view as advantageous, some may justify cultivating elitism as a substitute for merit.

The quest for transcendence is about going beyond the temporal world of material imperfection, and ISKCON, as other religious groups, has the experience of premature transcendentalists considering themselves beyond the constraints of material requirements and ignoring physical, psychological, emotional or social needs.

[In 1974] sannyasa [the renounced order of life] was a kind of reward for achievement. The number of men initiated into the sannyasa-asrama increased dramatically. A genuine desire for transcendence, often co-mingled with an urge to acquire prestige, position and power within the institution, had propelled most of these young men into rash and improvident heroics. The persistence of desires they could neither acknowledge nor control started to manifest as intolerance and fanaticism ... . As one would expect, over the long run, many of these sannyasis found it impossible to maintain their vows. There was a steady, even growing exodus. In most cases, an extreme sense of disgrace and shame, amplified by the merciless condemnation of the sannyasi community itself, propelled them into exile into the fringe and beyond. (Ravindra Svarupa Dasa, 1994)

The history of ISKCON provides examples of various forms of self-deception that only became evident when the compounding effects reached a critical stage. The assumption that spiritual advancement can be measured by external renunciation has led to some validating the acceptance of unhealthy levels of self-deprivation in the name of transcendence.

�Authorities have been known to encourage levels of renunciation in their wards that far exceeds the subordinate's realisation (Rasa-mandala Dasa, p. 90). Such authorities could be motivated by the prestige of having highly renounced (thus supposedly advanced) wards, or by the fact that renunciates are obliged to be submissive, and are cheaper to maintain in the short-term. Wards could be motivated by the opportunity to escape their responsibilities (of conditional devotional service[10]) on the pretext of being beyond them.[11]

Coercion through shame and fear

Once an elitist authority structure has developed, or been established, the powers that be may feel the need to protect their elite position. This may be achieved through shame and fear. Followers are coerced to agree, submit, obey — in body and/or mind. It has been a popular allegation that religious practitioners are coerced through mind control,[12]with the terms 'brainwashing' and 'snapping' being bandied about by more extreme accusers. Although brainwashing is rarely an issue these days,[13]many still object to the mind control they feel is used as a tool for exploitation within religious groups.[14] In Combating Cult Mind Control, anti-cultist Steven Hassan defines a cult as: 'an exclusive group that exercises negative uses of mind control, which may be understood as a system of influences that disrupts an individual's identity (beliefs, behaviour, thinking and emotions) and replaces it with a new identity.' (Hassan, 1990) Hassan's idea of 'negative mind control' implies the existence of 'positive mind control' (presumably such things as army training, Ameri can history lessons and TV News). His definition is dependent on his own personal judgement of what is negative and positive. Rather than losing cognitive autonomy, as these charges of brainwashing imply, victims of abuse are often psychologically manipulated� into relinquishing to their authority, a portion of their judgement and decision-making capacity.

Shame and fear are the abuser's main weapons of coercion. Shame is used to belittle the abused, and make them feel that their spirituality is defective, or that they are unworthy, stupid, unqualified or in some way inferior. Such humiliation (in the eyes of peers, superiors or self), can undermine self-determination and discrimination, and corner an abused person into submission and silence. Once an authority has demonstrated the consequences of dissent or disobedience, subordinates live in fear of punitive shaming, public censure, stigmatisation, ostracism or demonisation.

These dynamics do not only occur in a gross Orwellian fashion; dissenters may simply find the focus of the issue being subtly changed: 'The issue of which you are complaining is not the problem, you are the problem.' There is an example of a devotee who brought to the atention of one of the temple authorities that an unmarried couple were sharing a room (contravening the asrama rules). The authority responded: 'Well, I am wondering how it is that as a brahmacari [celibate monk], you are so concerned with others' marital affairs.' Which translated as, 'You are supposed to be a celibate, but you are obviously so smitten by lust that you are absorbed in thoughts of others' marital/sexual affairs.' In this way the devotee found himself suddenly 'on trial' for having raised a legitimate issue.

The weapons of fear and shame can be very effective in enforcing a regime or a social code of silence which has the short-term effect of protecting the status quo (and thus the elite) and establishing an illusion that there is total consensus and no problems (Ravindra Svarupa Dasa, 1996, p. 81). In such an environment problems are only discussed as a means of finding someone to blame so that the leadership is vindicated. Norman Dixon pointed out the unfortunate consequences of such scapegoating:

It is a sad feature of authoritarian organisations that their nature inevitably militates against the possibility of learning from experience through the apportioning of blame. The reason is not hard to find. Since authoritarianism is itself the producer of psychological defences, authoritarian organisations are past masters of deflecting blame. They do so by denial, by rationalisation, by making scapegoats, or by some mixture of the three. However it is achieved, the net result is that no real admission of failure or incompetence is made by those who are really responsible; hence nothing can be done about preventing recurrence. (Dixon, 1994, pp. 43-4)

Such silence is comparable to a rabbit's defence mechanism of closing its eyes when attacked. It allows problems to go unchallenged and escalate to chronic, destructive proportions. Another consideration that prevents discussing problems is the opinion that talking about problems will make the movement or religion look bad in others' eyes.

An unwillingness to acknowledge or value different opinions is reflected in the absence of a grievance procedure. This lacking subtly forbids dissent — 'My way or the highway!' demands: 'Become a yes-man or leave.' Secrecy and censored information flow are the allies of those unable to live up to their own standards, who need to hide the facts and propagate a myth of success.

Reasons for abuse

Going through the above-mentioned list of dynamics in our seminar evoked some disturbing accounts from the devotee audience. Hearing these descriptions caused many to wonder how these abuses could have been carried out by devotees — spiritual seekers striving for divine consciousness? What is going wrong? What could motivate them to such inappropriate actions? Of course the adherent of any religion could look at internal problems (past or present) and ask the same question. It is, in a sense, to be expected that there are problems. The US writer James Baldwin wrote: 'The price one pays for pursuing any profession or calling is an intimate knowledge of its ugly side.' The Bhagavad-gita teaches that every endeavour is tainted by fault, just as every fire produces smoke (Prabhupada, 1985, p. 832). Srila Prabhupada also warned his followers to have realistic expectations:

People should not expect that even in the Krishna Consciousness Society there will be Utopia. Because devotees are persons, therefore there will always be some lacking.[15]

One thing, we can never expect to find any kind of utopia, even in the spiritual world. Wherever there are persons there are bound to be differences, so we should not expect any kind of perfect arrangement, especially here in the material world.[16]

Accepting that there are always differences, and hence always problems, does not justify the occurrence of spiritual abuse, but it helps us come to terms with the existence of such abuse within a spiritual society. Looking in more detail at reasons for abuse may offer clues to prevention.

Common pitfalls of spiritual life

When we asked our seminar participants for suggested reasons for spiritual abuse, their first suggestion was 'impurity'. In Vaisnava terminology such impurities are known as anarthas, or unwanted things in the heart. Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura, the great Vaisnava scholar of the 17th century, concurred that certain dynamics and attitudes conducive to abuse arise almost unavoidably, as if programmed into the process of spiritual growth:

... it is well known that the very nature of bhakti is to be attractive, thus many people become attracted to the devotee, the abode of bhakti ... . Bhakti produces much opportunity for material gain, worship, and position (labha, puja, pratistha). These are weeds around the creeper of bhakti. (Visvanatha, 1993, p. 17)

Next are the anarthas arising from bhakti. As many weeds grow along with the main plant, along with bhakti appear wealth and other facilities, worship and respect by others, and a comfortable position and fame (labha, puja, pratistha). These weeds grow powerful and overwhelm the devotee with their influences. (Visvanatha, 1993, p. 27)

Excessive striving for, and attainment of, fame and worship (puja) produces elitism. Similarly, an obsession with distinction and position (pratistha) leads to authoritarianism, and greed for material profit (labha) leads to exploitation. Elitism, authoritarianism and exploitation are characteristics that arise from these false motivations, or 'weeds' in the heart (labha, puja, pratistha). According to the Thakura, they are destructive to spiritual life, but to be expected. These three are usually found intertwined together, and those infected may abuse others in order to protect their image, keep funds coming in, maintain their position in the pecking order, and build religious kingdoms to bolster their own image of themselves as spiritualists.


Those who 'grew up' in an abusive environment are likely to perpetuate the paradigm they know — today's victims become tomorrow's abusers. A collection of similarly conditioned individuals creates a supportive corporate culture, an environment conducive to abuse. Certain individuals carry within them the seeds for abuse either as 'perpetrators' or 'victims' in the form of prior circumstances or psychological disposition (Stafford, pp. 33-51).

Lack of training

It is said that poverty brings out the worst in people. Leaders thrust into positions beyond their qualification, appointed by default or elimination, may be poverty-stricken in terms of leadership knowledge, skills and experience. Untrained and over-challenged, some leaders may resort to authoritarianism to compensate for their deficient training. Authoritarianism often seems cheap and easy, but is primitive and costly in terms of initiative, innovation (Dixon, p. 267) and genuine commitment — it may elicit initial obedience, out of fear of potentially adverse consequences, but the commitment is superficial, and efforts may turn to sabotage when 'no one is looking' or when the threat is no longer present.

A lack of spiritual training may lead to the type of premature transcendentalism wherein aspiring spiritualists assume that their spiritual practices will also tend to their physical, psychological, emotional or social needs (Dhyanakunda-devi Dasi, 1999). Thus they may continue for years with unresolved personal issues (psychological, emotional, interpersonal, etc.) thinking that external rites alone will carry them beyond these issues.

Institutional interpretation

Some see religious organisations in general as havens for abuse (Winebrenner, p. 26). Speaking specifically about child abuse, E. Burke Rochford, Jr. has pronounced such abuse and religion to be mutually attractive (Rochford, 1998, p. 43). The mutual attraction between rigid religious authority structures and certain compulsive character disorders has also been documented in writings on religious addiction and codependence (Dhyanakunda-devi Dasi, 1999; Stafford p. 85). As Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura and St. John of the Cross have warned us, the path of spiritual advancement is beset with traps, traps that can set a traveller up for spiritual abuse as a perpetrator, victim or both. Hierarchical authority structures, absolute teachings and requirements of submission make religious organisations particularly fertile grounds for abuse of various descriptions, all of which will most likely contain a component of spiritual abuse. Thus religious institutions are intrinsically susceptible to spiritual abuse.

Persons who are prepared to take a less trodden path and commit themselves to a high level of participation in a religious organisation often display above-average idealism. Young idealists may also be naive, but naivety is not confined to the young. On occasions I have encountered what I would consider extreme naivety in individuals that hold important leadership positions.[17]The path to hell is paved with good intentions and well-intended assumptions about others' character and competence. Thus those committed to a high ideal within the context of a religious movement may find it difficult to accept that leaders within that framework are guilty of acts that contravene that ideal.

Some unhealthy dynamics within ISKCON can be better understood if we look at the circumstances under which the movement began and developed. Srila Prabhupada viewed the West as a bastion of materialism, a hostile environment (Prabhupada, 1978, p. 230). He often compared the effort to preach in such circumstances to a military campaign.

Success or failure has no meaning for a pure devotee because he is a soldier in the field. Preaching the cult of devotional service is something like declaring war against materialistic life. (Prabhupada, 1987, Vol. 2, p. 473)

When the soldiers risk their lives on the battlefield, the government is very much inclined to give them all facilities in their work, even the citizens may be deprived of their comforts. So Krsna takes special appreciation for His devotees who are engaged in risking for His preaching work, and He will give you special care and guidance at all times because you are sincerely trying to serve Him in this way. (Srila Prabhupada, quoted in Kurma Dasa, p. 218)

He adopted a mode that he felt addressed this situation:

Srila Prabhupada's success in establishing a beachhead in the counterculture soon produced problems within the movement ... . Srila Prabhupada had constructed his movement out of dubious raw material. He was convinced that his efforts were a matter of spiritual life or death, and he was animated by a sense of extreme urgency. In a raging storm one must construct a shelter out of whatever comes to hand. Indeed, Srila Prabhupada was well aware of the defects of his handiwork. (Ravindra Svarupa Dasa, 1994)

Extending this often-used analogy, comparing ISKCON to a country at war may give some insight into how certain dynamics arose and were tolerated, accepted or rationalised. The following is a list of extraordinary measures sometimes established during wartime.[18]

A country at war declares a state of emergency and can have:

. Authoritarian management structure — martial rule.

. Normal democratic functions (such as referendums) suspended.

. The leaders are the biggest heroes, usually veterans.

. Law and order is maintained with greater force.

. The biggest offence is treason; traitors are killed, their deaths advertised.

. 'Us and them' mentality.

. Strong anti-foe propaganda.

. Individuals are expendable, even big leaders.

. It is normal to have casualties, suffering and amputees.

. Risky campaigns are undertaken, opportunities for instant glory.

. Victories are exaggerated.

. Failures are covered up and minimised.

. Everyone is a soldier; others who stay back are cowards.

. Training means the smashing of independent spirit and enforcing a state of self-alienation.

. Promotion happens quickly.

. Education, culture and arts are stifled.

. Social development is stifled.

. There are many austerities imposed upon the citizens, who do not protest.

. Women and children are working in munitions factories etc.

. Normal industrial worker's rights are curtailed.

According to this interpretation of the movement's history (whether or not it is justifiable), Srila Prabhupada established ISKCON in an emergency mode. The movement's interpretation of that mode resulted in the instigation and enforcement of many of the above tactics, notably in the 1970s and early 1980s. Abuses carried out in the name of expediency or pragmatic preaching strategies are at least understandable from the perspective of a country at war. But as with any war there are casualties, and ISKCON has had its fair share in the form of devotees who left feeling disgruntled and alienated. (Rasa-mandala Dasa, pp. 85-6)

Consequences of the resulting alienation

Alienation is an emotional state with which most are familiar and try to avoid. Humans are social animals and are especially gregarious when it comes to religion. The sense of belonging that comes through acceptance by a group provides psychological and emotional security. To feel rejected by social peers is traumatic and when coupled with excommunication, an alienated reject may feel forsaken by God as well. Abusers take advantage of people's natural fear of alienation — through this fear those who are abused are compelled to obey and conform, at risk of being ostracised. Being banished can take two forms, the non-conformists can be officially cast out, or simply made to feel like outcastes to the point where they leave of their own accord. The second variant is more common in ISKCON. Non-conformists may be labelled rebels or 'fringies' (those on the fringe of spiritual life; Ravindra Svarupa Dasa, 1994), and their rebellion against the authorities seen as an expression of the original rebellion against Krsna that landed them in the material world. The Vaisnava scriptures recommend avoiding the association of materially minded people (Prabhupada, 1975, p.13). Stigmatised as antagonists, outcastes will soon feel alienated and antagonistic. (Ravindra Svarupa Dasa, 1994)

Rejection and alienation generally evoke two kinds of emotions: those directed towards oneself (emotions related to a loss of self-esteem, for example, inadequacy and humiliation), and emotions (such as resentment and anger) directed towards those perceived to be causing the alienation. Initial enthusiasm, naive submission or a psychological predisposition on the part of the abused (Oaks 1997; p. 124, Dhyanakunda-devi Dasi, 1999) may pave the way for abuse (possibly evoking feelings from the first set of emotions), but if abuse is ongoing, then the abused may be pushed over the tolerance threshold, and come under the sway of the second set of emotions. These emotions will most likely be translated into actions such as the abused disassociating from the institution.

Some victims will not want to associate with anyone representing religion or spirituality — 'A cat that sits on a hot stove lid won't ever sit on a hot stove lid again. But it probably won't sit on a cold stove lid either' (Mark Twain). People generally seek out like-minded company, and we have seen that those 'burnt' by mistreatment within ISKCON often find other such victims with whom to commiserate, expostulate and agitate. Well trained in finding a philosophical explanation (or justification) for everything (in preference to acknowledging the emotional issues), such congregations may come up with philosophical explanations for their enmity towards the movement that they felt betrayed their trust. I am not claiming that everyone who ever left ISKCON feeling disgruntled is a victim of abuse, but some certainly were.

Presently a number of former ISKCON members are attacking the movement in the name of some philosophical alternative. There are groups and individuals pushing for reform, others have made the total destruction of ISKCON a major agenda in their lives — publishing sensational books, proliferating angry papers and setting up vindictive web-sites. I am not claiming that all antagonistic, ISKCON-derived splinter groups are simply assemblages of individuals reacting to the abuses they suffered in the movement, projecting the problem on the entire institution. The purpose of this article is not to discuss the legitimacy of the various grievances, but the nature and sheer volume of grievances would suggest that there are legitimate grievances at the institutional level. It is my observation that there are groups or individuals whose, ostensibly philosophical, complaints reveal so much emotion that it seems as if the real solution lies in counselling and reconciliation rather than philosophical debate.

By what some would describe as a sacrificing of individual care for institutional needs (Rochford, 1999, p. 17), ISKCON has created a significant force working towards the disruption or fragmentation of the institution. Canakya Pandita, the pre-Christian Indian political expert, warned of this social mechanism:

By the destruction of the welfare and security of the people due to the negligence and laziness of the ruler, impoverishment, avarice, and discontent are produced in the people. Impoverished people become avaricious, and avaricious people become discontented. Discontented people go over to the enemy or destroy the ruler themselves. (Artha-sastra 144-7, in Subramanian, p. 167)

Apart from spiritual consequences,[19] spiritual abuse sets off a chain reaction of many obvious negative repercussions. It results in short- and long-term suffering for the victim as well as crippled spiritual, social, institutional and personal growth. It also frustrates and undermines efforts to bring new people into contact with Krsna consciousness, gives fuel to our adversaries and creates new enemies.


Having looked at the dynamics, causes and consequences of spiritual abuse, I would like to return to the causes we mentioned, and suggest some solutions.

Institutional interpretation

Comparing the movement's beginnings to a country under martial law gave insight into some of the attitudes and circumstances that allowed dynamics conducive to abuse to develop within ISKCON. It might be useful for members of ISKCON to examine current modes of activity in the light of this analogy and identify areas where things are still managed as in a country at war. For this purpose it would be of value to put Srila Prabhupada's instructions within a historical framework, identifying which are appropriate for war mode and which for peace. In order to do this properly, ISKCON needs to write and study its own history, otherwise the context and significance of Srila Prabhupada's various instructions will be lost (Hopkins, p. 6).

Lack of Training

Systematic education will go a long way to counteracting spiritual abuse caused by naivety, over-idealism and a lack of training. Sefton Davies recommended in his article on ISKCON management: 'Where officers are not performing as required ... training is needed and ISKCON needs to establish orderly procedures for this' (Davies, p. 22). Leaders need to be equipped with knowledge, skills and values so that they can utilise legitimate forms of authority rather than subtle or gross forms of coercion. The establishment of standardised accreditation for leadership qualifications will help establish a leadership ethos that will inhibit abuse. Increasing competence will reduce reliance on authority based on elitism rather than merit, or, as Srila Prabhupada put it, 'Impressive, not repressive, that is the system ... .'[20]

As mentioned above, the issue of spiritual abuse is already the subject of a seminar. It is also incorporated into ISKCON Leadership and Management training, and will be part of the Ministerial Studies Course currently under development. Dhyanakunda-devi Dasi is currently writing a book on self-help and counselling, specifically aimed at addressing the needs of devotees.


As mentioned, today's victims become tomorrow's abusers, but breaking the cycle of abuse from individual to individual is a task that cannot be tackled by legislation and education alone. Individual counselling and reconciliation is being taken up within ISKCON, mainly for victims of child abuse.[21] Recognising and addressing cases of spiritual abuse would help leaders and followers trapped within the vicious cycle raise awareness and decrease the likelihood of recurrence.

Introducing more thorough enrolment or admission procedures into ISKCON asramas would help identify persons with existing, unresolved emotional, social or psychological issues that predispose them to abuse (as either abuser or abused). It needs to be made clear to people moving into the asramas what they can expect in terms of facilities, apart from those necessary for their spiritual education. The time frame and conditions of their stay need to be defined, too, so that the asrama is not exploited by those simply hoping to shirk responsibilities. Leaders should know whereto to refer people experiencing disruptive emotional, social or psychological difficulties. Leadership duties need to be properly defined, and there need to be appropriate screening procedures for positions of responsibility.

Common pitfalls in spiritual life (elitism)

The main characteristic we looked at in our seminars was elitism leading to a lack of trust and honest open communication between ISKCON members and the movement's leadership. Traditionally, old cultures had institutions especially designed to protect leaders from elitist feelings. Kings often kept jesters — the only persons allowed to openly criticise and ridicule them. In Roman times, when a commander led a victory procession through Rome, amidst the adulation and cheering crowds, he would have a servant on his chariot whisper into his ear: 'Remember, man, that thou art mortal.' Both leaders and followers need to be reminded that they are mere mortals, and cultivate an attitude of mutual appreciation for spiritual achievements as well as human vulnerability. Lauding other devotees for their supposed infallibility, mystic powers, divine descent etc., is a precursor for abuse, as is setting leaders far above others through allocation of exalted rank or extraordinary privileges. A true leader is not reliant on such trappings:

�In the life of the cloister ... there are still to be found age-old rituals governing the etiquette of superiors, involving demands of respect from subjects, secretiveness, manifestations of superiority, appeals of superiors to a higher wisdom, displays of condescension, etc. All this should gradually be permitted to wither away. Superiors should cast a long and quiet glance at the world around them: those who are truly powerful and influential, who receive a great deal of unquestioning obedience, place no value on ceremonial of this sort. (Rahner, pp. 202-3)

Gaudiya Vaisnavism places great importance on humility. It is one of the twenty-six distinguishing qualities of a devotee. One of six essential tenets of the Gaudiya tradition recommends that one should be 'in a humble state of mind, thinking oneself lower than a straw in the street; one should be more tolerant than a tree, devoid of all sense of false prestige and should be ready to offer all respects to others' (Prabhupada, 1989, Canto 6, p. 195). It is also said that a devotee counts himself as the least of all entities (Sarasvati, 1987, p. 284) and that the idea that he should be the master of other devotees leads to hell (Sarasvati, 1989, p. 286). These attitudes, conducive with graciously accepting honest appraisal, are considered signs of spiritual advancement.

Excessive praise and no exposure to critical feedback are proven ways to make even the best leader lose contact with reality and ultimately falter. If the message from the followers is not just 'You have not made any mistakes' but 'You cannot possibly make any mistakes.' then it is not surprising that such leaders lose touch with the world around them. Many, if not most pastors receive messages from their congregation that signal: 'Because you're the pastor, you need to look good, never struggle, always know the answer, and never be wrong.' To succumb to those 'false needs' is to let yourself become trapped in a double life and double talk ... . When image is everything, when 'how things look' is what matters, spiritual abuse is the next step, because you cannot help but demand performance from others when you are working so hard yourself. (Johnson, Van Vonderen, pp. 128, 133)

Abuse comes as the logical consequence of followers having unrealistic expectations of the leaders and failing to offer them adequate feedback.

ISKCON needs to develop and systemise its culture of feedback — through learning how to better offer, accept and act upon helpful, respectful critical feedback. The Vedic literature provides evidence that even the greatest of kings accepted feedback from the lowliest of subjects.[22] Scriptural aphorisms and moral teachings confirm the importance of feedback:

Canakya-sutra 557-8: Inaccessible rulers destroy the people. Very accessible rulers please the people. (Subramanian, p. 84)

Artha-sastra 34: An inaccessible ruler is made to do the opposite of what ought or ought not to be done by those surrounding him. (Subramanian, p. 148)

Artha-sastra 217: No one should be disrespected. Everyone's opinion should be heard. The wise one should utilise even a child's sensible words. (Subramanian, p. 178)

Most corporations have systems in place to ensure that their executives receive regular assessment and feedback on the performance of their responsibilities. This may consist of written and/or verbal feedback between peers, as well as between higher and lower levels of the managerial hierarchy. Such appraisal can only be really meaningful if responsibilities are defined, becoming dependent on precise job descriptions (as mentioned earlier). Feedback allows workers to derive satisfaction and validation for what they have done well, and obtain constructive suggestions on how to improve. A functioning grievance procedure providing neutral, confidential arbitration is also an essential part of any organisation.

Some companies conduct a leaving interview wherein persons leaving the company, under whatever circumstances, are interviewed and asked their honest opinion of what is right or wrong with the company. This not only gives the employer the chance to hear what is really on the mind of the departing worker, but it gives the workers a chance to get things off their chest, and feel that they've been heard. Regular, formal assessment will help prepare devotees for non-formal types of feedback that goes beyond execution of duty.

Considering that not a blade of grass moves without the sanction of the Lord, devotees should also learn how to accept and evaluate feedback that does not appear helpful or respectful — appreciating that Krsna sanctioned the feedback. In a society free of subtle or gross recriminations for honest feedback, truth, justice and spiritual growth will hopefully prevail.

Concluding thoughts

Some accuse religions of demanding unquestioning obedience. It was reassuring to see the degree to which the Vaisnava tradition stresses critical questioning and self-enquiry and shuns blind following. I feel sure that further research in this field would yield insights that could prove valuable in avoiding some of the unhealthy dynamics described in this article.

Looking at spiritual abuse within ISKCON has sometimes been disconcerting. But it was very encouraging, as well as ironic, that the amount of openness and support I received throughout (institutionally as well as from individual devotees) almost belied the subject matter. There was no wall of silence, and the devotees were willing to discuss the subject; however, there was an uncomfortable feeling that they and ISKCON were being challenged. I was reminded of the work of the physicist Ilya Prigogine, who won a Nobel prize for his theory of 'dissipative structures', part of which contends that friction is a fundamental property of nature and nothing grows without it, neither mountains, pearls nor people. He saw the quality of fragility, the capacity to fail, as an essential prerequisite to growth. Structures at any level — molecular, physical, psychological, social or institutional — that are insulated from disturbance are also insulated from change and thus doomed to stagnation. Or, in sporting terms — no pain, no gain. ISKCON is fighting to continue despite many setbacks.

I see many individuals and departments within and associated with the movement, pushing for positive change. Although, as always, there are those who resist change, it seems to me that they are outnumbered by devotees enthusiastically embracing reform.

We cannot change what has happened, but we can decide how we react to it. As instances of abuse within ISKCON come to light, some react by distancing themselves from an institution that they see as having (unwittingly) nurtured abuse and abusers. To blame an institution such as ISKCON seems to ignore the fact that it is made up of volunteers, who have, consciously or not, willingly or not, participated in mistreatment and thus share some responsibility. Taking responsibility for participation on whatever level enables devotees to take a serious look at the mistakes; otherwise they may not get beyond finger-pointing and laying blame. Bhaktivinode Thakura suggests that rather than abandoning the present structure, we should aim at righting the wrongs:

'Begin anew', says the critic, 'because the old masonry does not answer at present. Let the old author be buried because his time is gone.' These are shallow expressions. Progress certainly is the law of nature and there must be corrections and developments with the progress of time. But progress means going further or rising higher.[23]

Anyone who interacts with ISKCON as a community of devotees rather than a faceless institution will have the opportunity to contribute to the growth that comes from addressing past mistakes. In our seminars we have found devotees more than willing to commit to change — which gives us ample reason for optimism.


[1]Our assessments of ISKCON's needs were based on: Dhyanakunda-devi Dasi — through her counselling of devotees, and experience as a GBC Deputy; Bhaktavatsala Dasa — through experiences as a GBC management assistant and executive secretary to the Chairman of the GBC Executive Committee; general exchanges; and the Leadership and Management seminar. We also drew on the findings of the Prabhupada Centennial Survey, conducted by E. Burke Rochford, Jr. (see ICJ Vol. 7, No. 1).

[2] This mainly entailed reading books from Christian perspectives (see bibliography).

[3]Since, according to Vaisnava theology, something defined as spiritual is something pertaining to the flawless nature of God, something within the realm of divine love cannot be exploitative or abusive. (See also Dhyanakunda-devi Dasi, 1999)

[4]This working definition is in the context of the theological understanding that spiritual advancement is a product of sincere loving service to God, Krsna.

[5]Further examples: 'Quite a number of us wanted more information about how the church finances were being spent. We wanted to know if more money could go into direct ministries, benevolence, things like that. When I asked some questions at the elders' meeting - boy did the room get icy. Later I was told to stop trying to create a faction in the church.' (Johnson and VanVonderen, p. 21)

'Our church has gotten into this heavy emphasis on home schooling and having big families. Also on women wearing head coverings to show they're in submission — and no makeup. Eventually it came out. Our best friend told us we weren't spiritual because our kid is in public school, and I'm "of the world" because I wear eyeshadow and lipstick.' (Johnson and VanVonderen, pp. 21-2)

'I remember my dad telling me he loved me, and even though [from his spiritual authorities] he knew it was maya he couldn't help himself.' (VOICE, 1997, 3.8)

[6]This observation was corroborated by a devotee who was participating in a workshop for abused women. She told me that although her workshop dealt with physical, psychological, emotional, sexual and financial abuse, she felt that in her case the issue of spiritual abuse was central and needed addressing.

[7]'It is clear that many ISKCON members (temple devotees, congregational members) and former members alike place minimal trust in ISKCON's leadership. Child abuse, the mistreatment and abuse of women, the neglect of householders, guru scandals, etc., all have eroded the trust that binds devotees to Prabhupada's movement.' (Rochford 1999, p. 22)

[8]There is a vying for, or an assumption or attributing of authority to some degree within most personal interactions. (Pennington, 1999, 202)

[9] One of the reasons Srila Prabhupada wanted all members of ISKCON to preach.

[10] The Vaisnava tradition teaches that looking after one's own (and one's dependant's) material needs is a form of bhakti (devotional service) and not simply an activity of illusion (maya). 'When a living entity is conditioned, he has two kinds of activities: one is conditional, and the other is constitutional. As for protecting the body or abiding by the rules of society and state, certainly there are different activities, even for the devotees, in connection with the conditional life, and such activities are called conditional. Besides these, the living entity who is fully conscious of his spiritual nature and is engaged in Krsna consciousness, or the devotional service of the Lord, has activities which are called transcendental. Such activities are [ ]performed in his constitutional position, and they are technically called devotional service. Now, in the conditioned state, sometimes devotional service and the conditional service in relation to the body will parallel one another. But then again, sometimes these activities become opposed to one another. As far as possible, a devotee is very cautious so that he does not do anything that could disrupt his wholesome condition.' (Prabhupada, 1985, p. 449)

[11]In ISKCON's early history, there were cases of young married men giving up married life to become renounced sannyasi preachers (which meant travelling the world as an ISKCON VIP and preaching, rather than getting a job to support a wife and children).

Unfortunately most of them later married again (Ravindra Svarupa Dasa, 1994), showing that they had never really transcended the attachments to married life.

[12]Not only so-called cults stand accused. Practices common to most religions, such as chanting, praying and fasting, are all considered by some to be dubious and methods of mind-control, hypnosis or auto-suggestion. On this pretext, Marx called religion 'the opiate of the masses.'

[13]Academics have refuted brainwashing allegations. (Richardson, p. 75)

[14] This is ironic since devotees of Krsna will be the first to admit that mind control is an important issue — Krsna mentions in the Bhagavad-gita, 'For one who has conquered the mind, the Supersoul is already reached' (Bhagavad-gita 6.7). Of course, the yogic concept is that one should learn to control one's own mind, not have it controlled by another.

[15] Letter from Srila Prabhupada to Atreya Rsi Dasa, 4 February 1972. (Prabhupada, 1998)

[16] Letter from Srila Prabhupada to Jayarge, Lindon Linese, 25 May 1972. (Prabhupada, 1998)

[17] For example, a newly appointed co-GBC representative was asking me what I thought of some new reforms that had been legislated. I replied that the reforms might be wonderful, but I was curious as to how such reforms were to be implemented in a movement that is more or less a confederation of highly autonomous communities. I explained that there is a whole science known as change management, and that international corporations go to great lengths to develop change strategies, and still sometimes fail since people naturally oppose change. Without even acknowledging that there might be a need for something like an implementation plan, the devotee became disgusted with my 'negativity', assuring me that we should all just pray that the desired change comes about and telling me that these materialistic ideas from outside don't apply to devotees.

[18] Private letter by Guruttama Dasa to the author, 18 September 1998.

[19] According to Vaisnava theology, vaisnava-aparadha (offending Vaisnavas) is considered the 'mad elephant offence', and will destroy spiritual life just as a mad elephant will destroy a garden. This is usually referred to in an individual context, but is also applicable to groups who share responsibility for the offensive act.

[20] Letter from Srila Prabhupada, 13 February 1972 (Prabhupada, 1998).

[21] Under the auspices of the ISKCON Child Protection Office (See also Bharata-srestha Dasa, pp. 71-6).

[22] When King Yayati broke tradition and bequeathed his kingdom to his youngest son, Puru, members of the four social divisions respectfully aproached him and challenged his decision (Mahabharata).

Before installing his beloved son Dhruva on the throne of the empire of the world, King Uttanapada consulted his ministerial officers, considered the opinion of the public, and also personally examined Dhruva's character. (Prabhupada 1987, 4.1)

[23] Bhaktivinoda Thakura, The Bhagavata. Although Bhaktivinoda Thakura was referring to scriptural tradition, scripture is an important facet of the religious institutional tradition.


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