Aspects of Vaisnava Theory & Practice
Varieties Of Dysfunctional Experience
Chapter 4
On Pondering Zimbardo’s Hell
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Part 1

Turning to the numbered points in the previous chapter we shall see how they have parallels within our everyday ISKCON

Turning to the numbered points in the previous chapter we shall see how they have parallels within our everyday ISKCON:

(1) Warned of their constitutional rights:

This is something we do not have in ISKCON. We in ISKCON, the organization of the most civilized people on the planet, the positive alternative society, are “citizens” of a country in which (at the time of this writing) the ordinary citizens ultimately have no rights. We are supposed to be sincere devotees who show our love for Srila Prabhupada by cooperating, which means blindly follow. Now a constitution is supposed to be in the works, but it is a sad comment on the rajas-tamas nature of our society that it has taken us 30 years to get around to this vital need.

In the authoritarian set up, the constitution is framed to protect the institution, which means those in power. Sociologists and lawmakers say, however, that the main function of the constitution should be to protect the individual from abuses of power. It must guarantee due process. Is this wisdom being factored into our constitution under development?

Assuming such a constitution does materialize and a mechanism to enforce it is created, if that system becomes a highly politicized program, like so many other aspects of our society, we will end up with rich justice and poor justice, which we already have, and that will be just another disappointment. The idea of a constitution, therefore, should not be a pacification measure, a gimmick. It must confer on us real rights and privileges. With my years of experience in the society, I am skeptical that this will happen. In our version of spiritual communism, everybody is equal, but some are more equal than others. Or as an unhappy godbrother once scrawled on a building in Europe: “All for one and none for all.”

(2) Only minimal guidance about the way they were expected to behave:

Unlike Zimbardo’s guards, Prabhupada gave us several practical guidelines in his letters and books for how the society should function, how the individual devotees should behave, and how Krishna conscious leaders should behave. Besides that, we have the philosophy of personalism to guide us. That alone should be all we need. If we would only follow a few basic directives, then all the others will follow.

Some fundamental guidelines Prabhupada gave for leaders were persuasion instead of force; command respect and not demand it; teach by example; older devotees should take care of the younger devotees and not just attend to the new uninitiated; leaders should manage themselves out of their service by training others to replace them; and do not drive members away.

Little of this is applied. If, however, we would simply care for people and not be impersonal, that would go a long way to alleviating the situation. But we always follow the line of least resistance, which is the line rajo-guna always offers us. But, as human potential guru Anthony Robbins likes to point out, in life, as long as we keep doing what we always did we will keep getting the results that we always got. It doesn’t take rocket scientists to tell us that. Look at the condition of ISKCON in the USA as described by Dayananda prabhu in 1995 in the ISKCON publication, Prabhupada:

In the United States especially, there’s been a decline of membership in the organization. The temples are struggling to maintain themselves… There’s been too much emphasis on the organization. But we need balance… We do not have to depend on the organization for sadhu-sanga, or to chant our rounds for us. The organization can certainly provide a tremendous preaching vehicle. But in the ultimate issue, preaching depends on individuals. They could be within the structure of an organization, or they could be outside an organization. And I do not think that ISKCON is limited to an organization. I think ISKCON includes and goes far beyond structure… The purpose is not to increase the membership of the organization. The purpose is to bring people to Krishna consciousness…

Know for certain that our dynamics that led to this condition is sure to give us what we always got. If actions speak louder than words the message, we send is that our purpose is to attract people and then chase them away if they will not agree to being “thinged.”

(3) They were specifically prohibited from using physical aggression:

This is not such a big problem in the leadership of ISKCON. Physical aggression undertaken by a high-up leader is rare. At least, some get their disciples to do it and can claim deniability. An excellent example of how this works is seen in the chapter “A Knock ‘me Dead Lecture” in which the guru is inciting the passion of his disciples to cut out the tongues and kill all who “blaspheme” the guru, namely himself. This is thinly veiled as a presentation of the philosophy complete with a disclaimer, “I do not say, the sastra says it.” It is more on the domestic level that physical abuse is a problem. With all the prominence physical abuse gets in the media, it is often overlooked that psychological abuse can be more dehumanizing and damaging–and ultimately a far greater problem. What we have in psychological aggression more than makes up for any absence of physical aggression. This will become clear in later chapters. Psychological aggression is the mainstay of authoritarian dynamics. It diminishes the individual by causing the intelligence of the victim to atrophy. What could be a more heinous crime against a man than to kill him yet keep him alive?

(4) Uniform, which consisted of plain khaki shirts and trousers, a whistle:

We have our equivalent symbols of office– sannyasa and other titles, dandas, informants too, and reflecting sunglasses as well. The institutional conditioning is such that we learn to respect the symbols of the ruling class rather than judge each on personal merit. Intellectually one may know it stinks, but the social pressure to conform is difficult to resist.

(5) The 10 prisoners and 11 guards who actually took part in the experiment were among those respondents judged to be the most stable (physically and mentally), the most mature:

We do not have this assurance about our recruits. We gladly accept neurotics, psychotics, and the character disordered. In one temple we even shaved-up a spastic case, such is our sentimentality and enthusiasm for recruiting, as long as he or she can cut the profile sufficiently to live among us. Clinical research shows, however, that the socially functional, yet deranged, can be a more cancerous menace to society than the completely deranged, who generally get put away. It is possible that deranged persons can be so disguised that we accept them as advanced devotees. This subject will be explored in a future volume.

We call our minimal discrimination in recruiting “being merciful.” Consequently, how can we ourselves anywhere near to recruiting the physically and mentally stable? And once these less qualified people become the majority, they will define to the rest of us what is advanced devotional service, definitions that are whimsical, or superficially sastric, and certainly devoid of mature realization. Thus, a dedicated follower of the parampara has to face a decision–either quit, compromise, face persecution, or foment rebellion.

One likely response to my objection about how we recruit just for the body count is “But devotees are the most intelligent people, prabhu.” Yes, devotees are the most intelligent people, so we must become devotees by being intelligent. Not that “I am a devotee therefore I am intelligent.” This kind of hard-headed realism is, unfortunately, unwelcome.

We use the philosophy to opiate our intelligence. And we say nonsense like,

“I am not into Krishna consciousness from the head, prabhu; I am into the heart.”

We say,

“Don’t discriminate about others. Discriminating is risky. You’ll make Vaisnava-aparadha. Accept the chaos and irrationality as Krishna’s mercy. Just try to improve yourself. Don’t fault-find.” We say, “Who am I to judge? I have problems myself.”


“Deny your perceptions. Whatever you see that does not make sense, is really some fault in yourself. (The assumption must be that ISKCON is flawless). You have four defects and so your intelligence is zero. However, discriminating in which you lay blame on yourself, justifiably or not, is perfect. Discriminating in other ways is really your excuse to fault-find.”

“Don’t criticize the devotees,” we say,

“Close your eyes, stunt your intellect, do not take a realistic look around you and see the inconsistency between the character and performance of those around you and the model described in the sastras. Even if you do, say nothing. Of course, those above you have all right to take you to task for your shortcomings. One-sided dealing in ISKCON is perfectly normal.”

The result of our impractical ways is that people find themselves in conflict with their conscience and their integrity compromised. When find it difficult to ignore our perceptions, we begin doubting our own sincerity. For those of us lacking a strong sense of identity, we conform to the dysfunctional system in order to fit in (“If you cannot lick ’em, join ’em”). Before long we are enacting the same abusive or irrational dealings on others, because we become inured to our conscience, alienated from ourselves.

The functioning dysfunctional person who joins our movement, can do book distribution or fund-raising and make a meteoric rise through our hierarchy. Before long he’ll have others under him to be victims of his crazy-making routines; and they, having been fed a disempowering interpretation of the philosophy, will accept humiliation in the name of humility. They will permit this dehumanizing of themselves in the belief that they are surrendering on the path of spiritual life and cooperating to please Srila Prabhupada. All this happens because we are indiscriminate in recruiting members, as if bhakti–the topmost process–needs no qualifications, but lesser paths do.

What reasonably mentally healthy person will go along with such a program? Research says none. Birds of a dysfunctional feather tend to flock together. So, if my thesis is right–that we have a prevalence of irrationality in ISKCON–our hope of attracting intelligent people to Krishna consciousness is a fantasy. We may attract them, because Prabhupada’s books are definitely rational, powerful, and appealing to the intelligent class, but we won’t keep them. Even with eternal salvation on one end of the scale, no intelligent person will trade their sanity for it. A whiff of our dynamics has a repelling effect on intelligent people akin to a whiff of a skunk. But the dysfunctional have no problem, being in their element.

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