When I look around and see children happily running across the temple grounds, I sometimes wonder if the things I endured as a child in this same ISKCON really happened. I feel reality is suspended because, although I was a Hare Krsna boy just like a lot of youngsters growing up in the movement today, my personal experience seems so different from theirs. I struggle trying to see my experience through the eyes of an outsider so that I can tell what I went through in simple language.
Leaving the Hare Krsna setting was like having to change from diesel to petrol. I had to switch to a completely different way of thinking to fuel my motivation. I suppose I just wasn't pure enough to continue to try to do everything to please Krsna after I left the temple. That whole way of reasoning just didn't make sense in the outside world while trying to fend for myself and get an education. Looking back, seeing the naivety I took with me as I walked out of the communal setting, it's amazing in some ways that I lived to tell the tale.
I was taught that Krsna consciousness should be the broadest of all viewpoints, not the narrowest. It is a viewpoint that should never become irrelevant, no matter what disci-plines I enter for practical life. But I found I understood little of the world by looking through the lens I had been taught to use. Instead of illuminating my vision, I felt reality was so narrowly defined that I was restricted from seeing major parts of it. I initially rejected my Hare Krsna way of thinking in order to mix with the outside world. Eventually, experience and philosophical reasoning showed me that it wasn't an 'either/or' situation in which I had to reject one viewpoint to accept another. It was just a question of broadening my vision to encompass both worlds. I didn't understand why my authorities didn't concentrate more on helping me to see the whole picture. Our philosophy is broad enough to embrace everyone's point of view without causing anyone to feel threatened by another's existence or lifestyle. I wish the focus had been more on this than on insulting and putting down people whose lifestyles were different from our own. In my upbringing in ISKCON, I gained the impression that devotees had a very egotistical view of goodness. It seemed that if goodness did not ultimately come from a 'devotee' then it was not worth appreciating. When introducing children to Krsna consciousness, devotees need to be careful that out of their enthusiasm they don't misinterpret the philosophy and hinder their children. I feel that overprotecting children from exposure to the real world because of a phobia that they may succumb to illusion can stifle a child's emotional growth.
It is easier now, as an outsider, to see this visceral fear and to expose it. But when you're a dependent child in the tight grip of the Hare Krsna movement, it's a difficult knot to cut and hard to protest against. The institution starts with a stringent philosophy that has a philosophical rebuttal for any counter-argument. Combine that foundation with spiritual authorities who, according to the book, can be questioned but in all practicality often have mammoth egos that are easily threatened by penetrating, persistent questions; mix in a dash of nudging peer pressure from your older temple-mates who may also be your Godbrothers or Godsisters, and you may well question who is there to encourage the personal develop-ment of the lone individual in this institutional quagmire.
This is the reason why, when I occasionally meet people who are interested in my spiritual beliefs, I hesitate to send them to a Hare Krsna temple for the answers. Personally, I can now enjoy the positive spiritual result of visiting an ISKCON temple without feeling my individuality threatened too much, but I wouldn't want to be responsible for sending a neophyte to the Hare Krsna movement without some 'adult supervision'. I do not feel there is a high enough standard of uniform care offered to visitors for me to feel assured that my guest would be treated properly everywhere. I'd hate to see another innocent individual who had finally gathered the guts to seek spirituality be given a raw deal at the hands of a mismanaged ISKCON facility.
Growing up in an authoritarian structure
As I grew up in ISKCON, I was fed an attitude of such awe and reverence for the untouchable position of my spiritual authorities that I could not even question them when they started to influence and be intimately involved in my personal life. They intervened in decisions of family, marriage, education and future; all, of course, in the name of Krsna consciousness and for my 'ultimate benefit'. They had a 'transcendental' answer to defend all their intentions, and my intellectually under-nourished teenage mind did not have the savvy to battle effectively with their answers and superior position without becoming emotionally charged. As the slightest outbreak to defend myself was construed as being spiritually offensive, I learned to keep my emotions under check lest I be punished by the wrath of God Himself for raising my eyebrows at the intentions of His purest souls (my ISKCON authorities).
I don't think many people can understand the indelible mark that was etched in my mind when those I wholeheartedly trusted for my material and spiritual welfare tried to bind me to a life of spiritual slavery by attempting to cripple my mind by misapplying their so-called spiritual philosophy.
I was admonished over claims I made for my future survival. When I talked about higher education, I repeatedly heard things like, 'Who has gone back to Godhead by going to college? Don't you believe that Krsna will protect you and maintain you?'
I heard one guru say to his teenage disciple, 'I never went to college. Do you think I lack in any way?' When a spiritual master whom you worship as being perfect asks such a question, what is the correct answer?
I felt that the gist of my training at the temple was to make me dependent on the institution. If they couldn't make me dependent by gaining my voluntary acceptance of a Hare Krsna temple lifestyle, then they sought to make me unfit for any other career.
At the age of fifteen I was not yet sophisticated enough to effectively mask my personal interests with a veneer of spirituality so that my desires would be seen as socially acceptable in ISKCON. My attempts to deal with these issues left me drained and confused. As a survival mechanism, I wrote to clarify my thoughts. The following excerpt from those journals illustrates my view of ISKCON when I first walked out: 'True, Vaisnava-aparadha is a killer and we should all avoid it. But also, people who are wrong should not be allowed to get away with murder in the name of the victims practicing titiksava-karunika (tolerance).'
Although ISKCON has been forced over the years to develop better responses to counteract corruption in its ranks, there is still a lot of subtle corruption that slips by due to politics. Of course, no organisation is free from corruption, but we should be honest about our leaders and understand that they may be less than perfect. They may be sincere, and even good-willed, but they are not all pure devotees whose mistakes can be written off as some sort of 'spiritual pastime'. Although we say the system of checks and balances in Vaisnava society is guru, sastra, and sadhu, I personally haven't seen it used very effectively in ISKCON.
The fact remains that if a guru is one of the institutional leaders and has enough influence among the 'sadhus' (read, 'other gurus, senior managers, devotees in general, etc.'), then he can interpret sastra to suit his needs with relative impunity. The result of this was that the Hare Krsna temple started to resemble George Orwell's Animal Farm. When someone left ISKCON, sick of the whimsical emotional molestation, they were awarded the title of 'blooped', and their claims and grievances were lumped with and lost amongst all the other 'insincere and offensive' voices on the internet.
For practical purposes, ISKCON needs an effective system of checks and balances. The US government has judicial, executive and legislative branches. Perhaps ISKCON could have something resembling it. This way, issues might be dealt with responsibly without devotees going through the trauma of being torn while treading the sensitive and narrow line between fearing damnation for being 'offensive' to spiritual authorities (by questioning them) and attempting to find the justice they deserve.
Getting away from the Hare Krsnas
My personal space was violated so badly that I did not want anything to do with the Hare Krsna movement. Getting away from the Hare Krsnas was not a luxury for me, it was a necessity. I needed to develop an identity that had nothing to do with them. Until I left ISKCON, I was emotionally dependent on their validation of my identity. I felt the devotees had a monopoly over my perception of reality, and I was scared of that. Nobody likes to see that other people have that much power over their life.
After years of slowly training me on heavy philosophy, ISKCON authorities had a deep control over my ideology. I felt they used that power to secure their own permanent posi-tions as masters of my existence. My identity had become inexorably linked with them.
There are qualities like love, goodness, knowledge, and beauty that a human naturally seeks. Being young and inexperienced, I had let them define what these positive experiences were to be in my life. They explained that there is no means of attaining true happiness in life except on this path; they then linked those best and highest qualities with their own per-sonalities. 'We are the custodians of pure devotional service. Everything else is maya [illusion]. Everyone else is trying to lead you to hell.' Looking for support outside of the world of their construction and control was vehemently characterised as a futile effort. So no matter what happened and how they treated you, and despite the fact that your spiritual authorities gave you a raw deal, emotionally you had to go back to the Hare Krsna movement and surrender to the same personalities or lose your spiritual identity - perhaps forever.
I hear about the harmful effects of television and advertising on minds. In ISKCON, our minds were subject to advertising from one single station every waking hour, seven days a week, year after year. Talk about a monopoly on our mental media! Imagine, for a moment, the effort and knowledge it takes to undo that type of constant input and then to finally think original thoughts that naturally come to your head.
I learned through experience that it was not enough to simply see that spiritual principles were not taught properly. As one struggles to establish the correct definition of things, it is very hard to adjust the programming of the mind. This programming runs so deep within us that if we don't take the time to redefine it in a positive manner, then we unconsciously lapse into the old way of thinking because that is the only deeper existence we have affirmed. For me, this meant that I had to take the time to do the 'unmentionable', namely, use my imperfect senses and conditioned mind to redefine what was to be valued in my life. As I did this, for the first time I took account of my newly found awareness of the greater world around me.
It is very difficult to mentally untangle oneself from a philosophy that teaches that guru, a personal God, scripture, and Vaisnavas are inextricably linked together as objects of worship. With a personal God, not only do you have all the hurdles associated with clearing your thoughts of intellectual inconsistencies but you also have to put your own relationship with God (as you understood it) on the line to discover the truth about your greater existence. You must move cautiously so as not to offend Krsna. You are painfully aware that you may be risking your eternal relationship with Him by casting any doubts on His spiritual representatives (your spiritual authorities). You foray into uncharted territory by questioning and challenging the intentions of the very people who taught you to love Him. This exercise is fraught with emotional extremes.
Over and above the philosophical implications, it was very painful to acknowledge that those you had trusted to have the best interest of humanity in mind felt no compunction in sacrificing your best interests in order to further their own spiritual careers.
Distinguishing the transcendental from the mundane in ISKCON
An outsider may ask why I didn't reject the whole gamut of experiences instead of going through the trouble of distinguishing the transcendental from the mundane in ISKCON. The fact is that there is no way I could honestly and effectively cut myself off without hating myself for killing a very deep part of my identity that I respect as a spiritual person. To reject that identity would be to reject a whole world of valuable experiences. There is also an often ignored danger of loving those spiritual experiences too much. It can mean that a neophyte who is too attached to that bliss can easily fall prey to spiritual monopolists who know how to work the system in their own favour.
Although I experienced many doubts, I had been attached to chanting and had been chanting a regular number of rounds. When I started to realise my mental predicament I forced myself to stop chanting and began looking for alternative paths of spirituality. Unfortunately (or fortunately), I couldn't find any. After some time, when I felt I had distanced myself enough from my dependant identity to know who I was and who I wanted to be, I resumed chanting. It gives me a great sense of power today to continue to chant Hare Krsna as I had been taught by my authorities, but now knowing that I do it for personal reasons, not because I am being manipulated by the self-serving doctrines of others.
On a sadder note, I find it difficult to approach and reconcile Prabhupada's books after having seen them misinterpreted so often. When I start to read, those caked thoughts that for so many years had served as the foundation of my convoluted thinking come back to haunt me. Sometimes I hurriedly shut the book. The threat of having my mind suffocated once again and jumbled up with someone's manipulative philosophy makes it not worth the trouble to try and understand the deeper, eternal message of Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam.
My experience is not unique. Certain aspects of sadhana (like japa or kirtana) are still anathema to many gurukulis who haven't been able to disassociate themselves from the negative emotions linked with those activities. I'm sure time and effort will heal this.
Three stages of life: restriction, generalisation, and specialisation
As I look back at my struggle to analyse my life and fix myself on my own path, I see that when making the big decisions of our life, like choosing a career, education, mate, and religious faith, there are three stages we go through.
First is the stage of restriction, where we don't know what we want in the greater world because of a lack of exposure to life's options. In this stage we observe our immediate environment in very personal, unique and individual units and do not conceptualise any similarities with a greater reality. At this stage we may acknowledge that we need to gather more information as we seek to understand our relationship with the greater world.
Then we go through the process of generalisation. Here, we are like a bee tasting from each flower in the garden. For me, this stage is akin to the first twelve years of school and two years of college, where we're exposed to many subjects but don't specify a major area of study. Through our broader dealings in the state of generalisation, we may be able to find a shared definition of those experiences that we previously categorised as private and exclusive. We may no longer whimsically and sentimentally restrict the definition of our identity by the preferences of the group of people that we were born among. We may feel closer to the conceptions of those people in the rest of the world that share and desire views that are common to all normal and healthy human beings.
The mature fruit of generalisation is specialisation. When your mind is stretched to the point at which you consider all the things you could identify yourself with, you realise your own limitations in the material world. You realise that the world isn't getting any 'newer' by your jumping into new environments, religions, relationships and careers. Being a jack-of-all-trades without making a commitment starts to have diminishing returns.
As we stand at the crossroads and observe all the choices we can pursue, we have the potential of being able to objectively measure the pros and cons in pursuing each life choice. While acting in generalisation, we may also have observed recurring patterns of preference in our own dealings that help us to conceptualise and determine our own psychophysical nature. At this point, we may be ready to settle for what suits our personality and circumstance rather than continue to swim in the thinness and uncertainty of generalisation.
Working through the stages progressively
Unfortunately, zeal may send us right back to the restriction stage from which we started. There are times that we immaturely assume that we want to jump to specialisation without taking the adequate steps of generalisation (for example, deciding to be a brahmacari for life, taking sannyasa at a young age, choosing pujari for a lifetime career, marrying the first girl/boy you meet). We might find that as life goes on that these 'career' choices restrict the natural expression of our full individual personality. We realise later that we had neither the knowledge nor maturity to make that type of commitment. As Sri Krsna puts it: 'What will artificially repressing yourself accomplish?' Realising this after making lifelong commit-ments can have disastrous consequences for the individual and for the society, as seen, for example, in the number of divorces and sannyasi falldowns in ISKCON.
I think that except for a exalted few personalities like Sankaracarya, who took sannyasa at age five, and Sukadeva Goswami, who took sannyasa right after birth, most of us should take the long trial and error route through all three stages of personal development and life choices.
The parents of today's gurukulis went through all three stages. They started off in restriction like everyone does at the beginning of their lives. But the important difference between ISKCON parents and their children is that the parents went through the process of generalisation, in which they experimented with different lifestyles and religions, before they came upon ISKCON. By the time they came upon Srila Prabhupada's movement they had some experience through the stages of generalisation and so had the confidence to make the commitment to specialise in Krsna consciousness.
By trying to get their children to accept the Krsna conscious lifestyle instead of giving them the time and space to observe other options and letting them choose for themselves, parents display their own lack of faith in the idea that the inherent beauty of Krsna consciousness will attract everyone. They also insult their own children by not giving them the credit of having enough intelligence to appreciate that which is most attractive to everybody else.
In a more positive light, parents must have thought that children born into Krsna consciousness were fortunate that they didn't have to go through the search that they themselves had undertaken. Gurukulis were lauded for being born directly into the perfect faith. In an effort to avoid the loss of time and the risk of losing their kids in the chaos of generalisation, our leaders and parents forced us to jump over that stage into the specialisation stage by becoming fulltime preachers and pujaris. But in doing so, a very important part of human development - exercising our free will to make our own choices based on our own understanding of life's options - was repressed. What did that repression accomplish?
Am I initiated?
People ask me if I am initiated. I ask myself the same question. Am I initiated? Is an indentured servant who is bound to his master at fifteen considered a willing employee? Should a girl who was married at twelve consider herself a wife?
In business law there is a statute that relates to minors: 'Any contract entered with a person who is under the age of 18 is to be considered void because he is not considered to be mature enough to enter into such dealings'.
If even ordinary law can recognise that a minor is not mature enough to be bound to contracts, how can ISKCON allow gurus to recruit minors and initiate them? When a minor is considered unfit for a temporary material contract, how can he be bound by a lifelong spiritual contract? If I were to be cynical and look through the eyes of the initiator, it actually appears quite ingenious: get them while they're young, before their thinking has fully matured, and you've just ensured yourself some very faithful disciples for the rest of your life.
On reflection, when I consider my future advancement in Krsna consciousness this thought comes up in my mind: One cannot advance without the guru, but if advancing spiritually means having to open up and forcing myself to trust some of the spiritual authorities of my past, then I'm sorry but I would rather not work to go back to Godhead in this lifetime.
So why do I still want to be a devotee?
I don't know how many people can relate to this, but today, as I live an independent life and practice Krsna consciousness and expose myself to other good things in life, I feel very fortunate to be living a life that I almost lost. My life wasn't threatened physically. Rather, I feel that it was very insidiously challenged by an attempt to mentally trap me into misunderstanding what spiritual freedom is.
People have asked me why, despite all this, do I still chant Hare Krsna and want to be a devotee? The reason is that I don't want to give the power to other human beings to make me hate God because of their misrepresentation of Him.
I feel that with every step I take, both in ISKCON and outside of it, I am rebuilding my life. I am redefining my spiritual life without any help from those people who told me that I could never have a worthwhile life without their blessings. This gives me a lot of self-confidence and faith in both the positive values of human life and in the objectivity of Krsna consciousness.
Though I do not want to minimise the gravity of our negative experiences, I'd like to take some time to appreciate the more enjoyable aspects of growing up within ISKCON.
Despite everything, I cannot thank ISKCON enough for allowing me to grow up in it. I really do treasure the innocence of that time. On the extremes there was fanaticism and naivety, but, on a more positive side, there was also sincerity and encouragement to be good devotees.
I graduated from gurukula about six years ago. I think the current quality of education has improved dramatically and that I had a healthier educational experience than the older gurukulis had. Gurukula was a big relief from the superficiality and crime of public school education.
As kids who grew up in ISKCON, I feel fortunate that we are part of an international spiritual culture and have a home and a family in almost every country of the world. If we go to a new place, we just need to go to the temple to realign ourselves with our roots. The beauty of spirituality, like the deities, holy name, kirtana, prasadam and devotee association are universally accessible through our association with ISKCON.
Today I have too many responsibilities in the outside world to renounce everything to live in a temple, but I'm glad I took full advantage of that opportunity when I was given the chance. I don't know where I would go, or if I would even know to search for such an experience, had I not been brought in contact with it. Nowhere else have I experienced that special joy I felt while practicing Krsna consciousness in a strict and austere setting.
I am grateful that in my youth, spirituality had a chance to touch and penetrate my heart. The paradigm shift that the spiritual influence has given me cannot be easily denied.
Even though I may find myself in different corners of this material world dealing with all sorts of people, having devotee friends and seeing myself contributing to ISKCON in the future keeps me aligned with a spiritual identity.
At this point, as I approach Krsna consciousness, I feel like a new bhakta in the sense that I am approaching it in a completely different frame of mind than I did when I was younger. I understand that I have a long way to go spiritually and have many things to learn about the science of Krsna consciousness, but I feel fortunate that at least I do not need to struggle for what many people in the world are struggling for: namely, finding a spiritual path that fills them with deep satisfaction.
Someone recently asked me whether I felt my past experience in ISKCON was positive or negative. I had to think for a while. I answered that I feel that if I had not been able to go out and take the time to make up for the things that my Hare Krsna upbringing denied me, then I would view it today as a negative experience. But now, because I feel that I have gotten the chance to compensate for the limitations in my early life, I have a more balanced perspective of reality and can accept Krsna consciousness in my life. I don't feel threatened in designating myself as a devotee because I have enough power and independence to go out and make up for the things that ISKCON cannot give me. Because of this broader definition of what it means to be a devotee, identifying as a devotee does not make me feel deprived in any way; in fact, Krsna consciousness brings many positive experiences in my life today.
One devotee who has made a big difference in the way I perceive ISKCON is Anuttama Dasa, of ISKCON Communications. He gives me hope that there are open-minded, educated and understanding adults within ISKCON. His personal example shows me the future of ISKCON, a future in which leaders will have changed their whole paradigm of the concept of preaching: from a society of clich�-spouting 'preachers', who try to force their own interpretation of scripture down other people's throats, to a society of spiritual individu-als who lead others through the process of empathic listening and through their own personal example of principle-centred Krsna consciousness.
I look forward to being in that ISKCON.