Aspects of Vaisnava Theory & Practice
Varieties Of Dysfunctional Experience
Chapter 4
On Pondering Zimbardo’s Hell
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Part 5

Unfortunately, our leaders are not in touch enough to pick up on the signs of depression on the faces of the devotees

(18) The prisoners, on the other hand, began to slouch and keep their eyes fixed on the ground:

We have this with increasing frequency. Unfortunately, our leaders are not in touch enough to pick up on the signs of depression on the faces of the devotees. Our leaders simply keep their eyes focused on the new, hopeful, zealous devotees. If their godbrothers are miserable, that is considered stemming from envy out of hand. Injustice or deprivation are never considered possibilities. How can one not be perturbed when ill-treated by his own godbrothers?

Prabhupada said about his godbrothers who became leaders in the Gaudiya Math after Srila Bhaktisiddhanta’s disappearance, “They were thinking, ‘Who are these godbrothers, let them go away’.” And history is repeating itself under the rubric “Casualties of war.” Is it the fate of every generation to be psychologically brutalized at the hands of their godbrothers? I remember how Srila Prabhupada used to be so pleased by the bright faces of his followers. In those days, he proudly referred to us as “happies,” in contrast to the hippies. Today a bright face among our devotees is more the exception than the general rule. I saw so many unhappy devotees at the 1996 Mayapur Festival that I was eager to be away from the festival. No less than four other devotees confided to me that they had made the same observation. If we ask ourselves why, and seek honest answers, one answer will stand out among all others–our dysfunctional dynamics.

(19) Perhaps the most vivid accounts of what it was like to take part in such dehumanizing experience were the diary entries of those directly involved: 

Here we have a good example of how to diagnose the physical and mental health of ISKCON: not by an impersonal reference to the philosophy as idealized in a book, but by seeking feedback from those involved in the experience. Leaders should conduct interviews, or better still, routinely give out anonymous questionnaires to get feedback from the devotees, so we can have informed leadership. Lord Rama personally mingled with His citizens in disguise so he could understand their outlook on issues in His kingdom. We glorify Him for it, but we do not follow in his footsteps.

(20) Before the experiment one of the guards wrote in his diary that he was a pacifist and so unaggressive that he could not imagine maltreating any other living being. By the third day, he appeared to be thoroughly enjoying the power to manipulate people: 

Here is an example of how one’s ideals and character are subverted by circumstances or by the group. Power is so seductive. Are our men above this?

ISKCON history does not give us a positive answer. It would be prudent, therefore, to have systems of checks and balances to protect persons with power from themselves, as well as to protect the integrity and sanity of our society. Accountability to the leaders is assumed. We need to establish systems of accountability from the leaders. That would protect all of us from the tendency of power to manipulate.

(21) Before the prisoners received visitors, he warned them not to complain unless they wanted the visit to come to an abrupt end: 

This is a classic example of how the little functionary in the bureaucratic setup finds exquisite glee in wielding his “power” in the pettiest of ways just to assert, “I have might.” It paints a pathetic picture of spiritual life. This problem is also there in the big functionary, who is owned and controlled by his Little Prabhu. Read all about it in the chapter by that name.

(22) What he really liked, he said, was having almost total control over everything that was said and done: 

This is the same pacifist guard who was transformed by a little power that was destined to end within two weeks. Imagine absolute power for an undetermined period, eternity. Control seduces many who take to the role of guru. They do not go in with that motive, but power seduces them. Imagine what absolute power can trigger in the minds of persons not fully prepared to serve as circuits for the power of God (parampara) to flow through them. If the truth is to be told, it is nothing short of madness, as we shall see in the ensuing pages. We lived through it once before when it was manifest as the zonal acarya blunder. This time around we are at a loss to label the problem, perhaps because the same people who were instrumental in dismantling the zonal acharya’s status have now all gone absolute. Thus we now have significantly less godbrothers to rise up and address the issue.

(23) On the fifth day, problems arose because a new prisoner refused to eat his sausage. The guard’s diary at this point reads as follows: “We throw him into the Hole ordering him to hold sausages in each hand. . . We decide to play upon prisoner solidarity and tell the new one that all the others will be deprived of visitors if he does not eat his dinner. . . I walk by and slam my stick into the Hole door . . . I am very angry at this prisoner for causing discomfort and trouble for the others. I decided to force-feed him, but he wouldn’t eat. I let the food slide down his face. . . :

It is most interesting how the guard, despite his provocative displays of power, sees the prisoner as “causing trouble for the others.” I have witnessed the same perverse logic in perpetrators of absurdity in the Krishna consciousness movement. This irrationality becomes the rationalization for everything, up to savaging the psyche of the “offender.”

The ISKCON version that enables us to perpetrate similar vindictiveness is that the offender is “disturbing the devotees.” For their protection and security we rationalize inhumane, non-Vaisnava dealings, but it is not a problem, because in authoritarian dealings, the end justifies the means. Once we decide that our irrational methods are a necessary evil, our strategies tend to become more and more necessary and less and less rational. The alienated man, out of touch with himself, has not a twinge of conscience while enacting all this physical or mental cruelty. How can he when he believes he’s doing his duty to God?

(24) I hated myself for making him eat but I hated him more for not eating.” 

This is really the essence of the problem–self-contempt projected unto others. We want to be perfect so passionately that we resent our inability to be that perfect. Our discovery that we are driven by the pettiest and cruelest motives causes us to loathe ourselves even more. This self-contempt is manifest in a most curious way. Finding it difficult to face, we project our contempt elsewhere, unto another person.

In Escape From Freedom, by Erich Fromm, is an enlightening discussion from his study of character types. In just a few sentences he explains the phenomenon of this guard’s attitude:

For the authoritarian character there exist, so to speak, two sexes: the powerful ones and the powerless ones. His love, admiration and readiness for submission are automatically aroused by power, whether of a person or of an institution. Power fascinates him not for any values for which a specific power may stand, but just because it is power. Just as his “love” is automatically aroused by power, so powerless people or institutions automatically arouse his contempt. The very sight of a powerless person makes him want to attack, dominate, humiliate him. Whereas a different kind of character is appalled by the idea of attacking one who is helpless, the authoritarian character feels the more aroused the more helpless his object has become.

Underlying this self-contempt and frustration for not being more virtuous is our fear of being vulnerable, of being persons. Even after taking to spiritual life, we have trouble letting down our guard and actually caring about others, actually extending ourselves on others’ behalf, actually seeing them and thinking of them as persons; we think of them as things. To see others as persons we have to be vulnerable ourselves; we have to be human. This is uncomfortable for most of us. We are more comfortable with the persona of being a super-Vaisnava. That’s why we have the phenomenon in ISKCON that the “advanced” devotees become more and more inaccessible to the ordinary devotees. They need the distance to insulate themselves from being vulnerable.

Also, the exalted, the pure, comes to loathe the unwashed masses. They are closed, but affect openness. We have another type of “advanced” devotee, who is able to elicit feeling warm and fuzzy from the younger devotees. This passes as personalism: however, the possible defect of this method is that affection can be used as a technique for coercion.

Being personal is more difficult than overcoming gross sex desire. Mayavadis, for example, sometimes overcome gross sex desire, yet, philosophically speaking, they cannot understand nor practice personalism. Practically, in my experience and that of several others, there are many institutions that profess impersonalism but nevertheless practice more personalism than us. This was observed in a news article by someone conducting a study of spiritual groups.

Failing in our repeated attempts to be better devotees, in the sense of striving to be a super-Vaisnava instead of becoming more human, causes us to have trouble really believing that being “the servant of the servant of the servant, one thousand times removed” is possible. Srila Prabhupada touched on this problem of conditioned soul’s fear of being a person in his purport to 4.10 in Bhagavad-gita. One may say that there he was speaking about impersonalism, but the authoritarian dynamic, in which we treat people as things, is nothing but impersonalism.

In the summer of 1996, I visited Baltimore. The son of the devotees who were hosting me, a man in his mid-twenties, but 16 years in the movement, who had lived several years in the asrama before returning to the sanity of his home environment, was driving me somewhere. I asked him, “What do you consider the main problem in our movement?”

“Impersonalism,” he shot back. He did not need a moment to consider. “We speak personalism, but we practice impersonalism.”

Talk about finding out the health of the society by asking the members in the trenches. I was so impressed that this relatively young man hit it right on the nose. Impersonalists fear being persons, that is the self-contempt that they project unto others when they are caught in a dysfunctional system.

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