Betrayal of the Spirit:
My Life behind the Headlines of the Hare Krishna Movement
by Nori Muster
A note regarding my book, Betrayal of the Spirit
In 1978 I joined the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) looking for spirit, but something went wrong. The original guru, Srila Prabhupada, had died suddenly and eleven of his most ambitious disciples took over as gurus. During the decade that followed, the gurus' follies basically ruined everything. With the eleven gurus in control, ISKCON became increasingly cultish and isolated. They told me that ISKCON would be better than the material world, but it was worse. Ultimately, the leaders' fighting, criminal behavior and hypocrisy drove me away. I realize now that I was part of an abusive cult system. I had to "bloop" or fall like a stone back into the ocean of maya.
When I left ISKCON in 1988, most of the leadership still wanted to ignore if not cover-up the problems that I described. I wrote my book because I believe that obscuring history dooms future generations to repeat the same mistakes. The book grew out of my ISKCON experience.
In 1997, the University of Illinois Press published my autobiographical account, Betrayal of the Spirit: My Life behind the Headlines of the Hare Krishna Movement. The book received positive reviews in the media and academic journals so I went to book signings and spoke to audiences. In 1998 I built a website and suddenly started receiving email from people asking for support. I also get email from an online service that sends me people's questions.
I have found it satisfying to describe my life in ISKCON and have it published by the University of Illinois Press, along with the thoughtful forward by Dr. Larry Shinn. I hope devotees, especially the younger generation, will find it relevant to their experience, and helpful in piecing together their own stories during the decade following Srila Prabhupada's passing.
This book is for people who have suffered betrayal in a group situation. The worst abuse potentially happens in religious groups where people's full faith is invested, but these days cult dynamics may take root in any circumstances, for similar reasons. One example is when a corporation is exposed for illegally polluting the environment. People in the organization must have known, so who was responsible, or was the situation just ripe for abuse, like in a cult? Another example is when police corruption is revealed. At least a few people must have known what was going on, but did nothing. Unfortunately, another common setting for betrayal is within families. Families may pass along intrigues, old debts, feuds, alcoholism or child abuse. Abuse problems pass down through the generations, even in organizations and governments.
Never allow any group to ruin your life. Cult leaders are often sociopathic and power hungry. They teach their followers that the outside world is evil; that the cult offers the only salvation. This creates an atmosphere of isolation, leading to hopelessness.
Cult recruiters target people with low self-esteem, presenting the group as a loving surrogate family. Members are taught to do whatever the family asks. They must repress their individuality and work for the good of the group. New people may receive excellent treatment, but once they are established members, they may be exploited and abused. Demoralized, they change their personality to please authority figures and fit into the group.
Cult leaders preach that society is on the brink of destruction, then they isolate their members and control the flow of information to reinforce the party line. They manipulate members with guilt and fear. Cults portray themselves as benign and may hide undesirable aspects of their operation from the public and from members. Hence, the stereotype of the "blind" follower.
One of the most insidious things about my cult experience was that they told us we had to give up our previous "material" life and devote one hundred percent of our time and energy to the group. Some ISKCON gurus still preach this as the meaning of surrender. At ISKCON's request, I abandoned all my friends and family without thinking about how I may have hurt them or made them worry about me. When my book came out, parents of other cult members began to contact me for advice. Listening to their grief made me realize how my own family may have felt. Hopefully this book will help bring families back together, or at least help them understand each others' perspectives.
Although this book is written for people who are recovering from victimization in a cult, it can also help people who are still deciding whether to leave a difficult group situation. Some people may feel they are in a dysfunctional, cult-like business or family environment, so they may use this book to help them decide whether they need to make some changes.
My study of children raised in cults began in 1994, when I learned the true history of the group I was in, ISKCON, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. Through the nineties, I listened to the children's stories and collected their writings. The key writers I followed were Dylan Hickey (Nirmal-chandra), John Giuffre (Raghunatha Anudas), Srimad B. McKee, and the late Ananda McClure (taped interview). I appreciate and love all the children of ISKCON who accepted me as one of their own in the 1990s. I also want to thank Windle Turley, JD, and his legal team, who pursued justice for the children of ISKCON.
Definition of the Term "Dangerous Cult" Throughout this book, I use the terms "cult" and "dangerous cult" to describe authoritarian networks constructed around dangerous people who portray themselves as spiritual leaders. Authoritarianism in this context refers to the worst groups, where the leaders exhibit extraordinary dominance, abuse, and exploitation over their followers.
The Betrayal Scenario
When a betrayal is taking place in your environment, part of you shuts down to process the dishonesty. As a result of closing down in denial, your ability to love and trust is diminished. Betrayal takes away your innocence, that part of you that trusts life. Betrayal victims feel powerless in an unfair and uncaring world. Symptoms of devastating betrayal may include panic attacks and generalized feelings of fear, lack of self-worth, exaggerated feelings of guilt, resentment, paranoia and hostile behavior, eating disorders, addictions, psychosomatic disease syndromes, career and relationship problems, psychotic breaks, flashbacks, depression, suicidal feelings and antisocial behavior.
It's frightening to be victimized in someone else's hypocritical mind game when your principles or someone or something you love is at stake. The instinct is to fight against the abuse, but often the abusers have all the advantages. It's especially debilitating when the abuse blatantly goes on unchecked for years. Usually, if you try to do something about it, you are silenced or victimized further. You put yourself in harm's way trying to expose injustice. The abusers usually come out on top, because if they have the power to enact an effective cover-up, then they continue to receive recognition and special status while their victims' lives are ruined. We want justice and that may be the thing that drives us crazy long after the emotional, financial, or other abuse has stopped.
A common result of betrayal is to become jaded, deadened by the pain, hopeless and unable to love. However, a victim may also decide to use their suffering to become a deeper, more conscious and empathetic person. It is possible to break out of dysfunctional roles and quit stepping into abusive situations. This book is a starting point for people who want to heal. Some readers still suffer extreme emotional hardship from their betrayal experience, so I advise them to work with a therapist or support group while using this book.
This book is primarily written for the ex-member, but friends and family may get something out of it too, if only to understand more fully what the cult member is going through. For some direct advice, here is a letter I wrote to a woman who lost an old school friend to a cult (click here). As you read Cult Survivor's Handbook, you may recognize the cult dynamics because they manifest in subtle ways throughout society.
When you step out of a betrayal situation, a lot changes. When I left the organization in 1988, I changed my name, clothing, occupation, residence, daily schedule and religion -- and then my father died. When I left ISKCON I was in a state of grief and mourning, ready for some stability, but at first the material world appears just as dysfunctional as a cult. Actually, the temple is also in the material world and the karma I accumulated there made it harder for me to fit back into society. It took me a long time to face this, because while living in the temple I imagined that all my problems would go away as soon as I could leave. However, once I faced the fact that the world has its hell - and its heaven too, thankfully - I felt grateful to be alive, here in the material world.
Nori J. Muster [Nandini Dasi] joined the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) - the Hare Krishnas - in 1978, shortly after the death of the movement's spiritual master, and worked for ten years as a public relations secretary and editor of the organization's newspaper, the "ISKCON World Review". In this candid and critical account, Muster follows the inner workings of the movement and the Hare Krishnas' progressive decline. Combining personal reminiscences, published articles, and internal documents, "Betrayal of the Spirit" details the scandals that beset the Krishnas - drug dealing, weapons stockpiling, deceptive fundraising, child abuse, and murder within ISKCON - as well as the dynamics of schisms that forced some 95 per cent of the group's original members to leave. In the midst of this institutional disarray, Muster continued her personal search for truth and religious meaning as an ISKCON member until, disillusioned at last with the movement's internal divisions, she quit her job and left the organization. In a new preface to the paperback edition, Muster discusses the personal circumstances that led her to ISKCON, and kept her there as the movement's image worsened. She also talks about "the darkest secret" - child abuse in the ISKCON parochial schools - that was covered up by the public relations office where she worked.
Author's Bio: Nori J. Muster [Nandini Dasi] grew up in Los Angeles and Phoenix and earned her bachelor's degree from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1978. After graduation she joined the Hare Krishna movement and worked for ten years in the public relations office of the Krishnas' Los Angeles headquarters.
She became involved in producing the ISKCON World Review, the organization's internal newsletter, and married the managing editor in 1984. She and her husband published the newsletter as a team for eight years. In 1988 they resigned over editorial differences with the leaders of the organization. This information is covered in her book, Betrayal of the Spirit: My Life behind the Headlines of the Hare Krishna Movement (University of Illinois Press, 1997).
After leaving ISKCON, Nori earned her master's degree at Western Oregon State College in 1992 and spent two years working with troubled adolescents. "I could see a lot of myself in these young people, struggling with the questions of life." Nori has also written several works of fiction based on her experiences. She works as a consultant on the subject of cults and has answered hundreds of questions for reporters, attorneys, law enforcement officials, and families and friends of cult members since her first book on the subject came out. She also enjoys the creative arts and uses art therapy in her counseling work and teaching.
Each chapter of the Cult Survivor's Handbook describes a different school of psychology. Some are specialized fields, while others are standard in most counseling departments. The ultimate goal of all the healing paths is to connect us back to our own hearts. The paths are simply different frames for reality. The frames I've chosen are from the humanist, modern psychology schools that blossomed in the mid-twentieth century.
Chapter One, "ISKCON, the Krishnas' International Society," explains how I met devotees in fall of 1977 and learned that Srila Prabhupada had passed away. It also describes ISKCON's culture and social structure (varnashrama-dharma), recruitment (Sunday feast, hari-nama), basic beliefs and practices (hearing, chanting), social networks (temples, farm communities), and hints at the issue of chauvinism and discrimination against women.
Chapter Two, "Unexpected Requirements," explains how I decided to join the L.A. temple and how I got my job in the P.R. office. It also addresses the socialization of new members (new bhakta/bhaktin ashrams), temple ceremonies (morning, evening programs, holy days), stated moral values (vegetarianism, celibacy, sobriety), deprogramming, the place of women in Hindu society, and ISKCON's relationship with the Hindu community.
Chapter Three, "Going Solo Into ISKCON," describes how I moved into the L.A. temple after college graduation. The chapter gets into the structure of ISKCON's hierarchy (GBC, ministers, temple presidents, etc.), the history of the lineage in India and the U.S. (Lord Chaitanya, Srila Prabhupada's arrival in America), the P.R. department's role in communicating with mainstream society (Robin George case, 1977 Laguna Beach drug murder, and early publicity for New Vrindaban), GBC announcement of the 1978 decision to establish the eleven-guru system, and how the GBC dealt with resistance to their decision.
Chapter Four, "My Zonal Guru," shows how I move into the women's sankirtan ashram and take initiation from Ramesvara. I discuss corruptions of sankirtan (the change-up, wigs, lakshmi points, male sankirtan leaders having sex with the women in their ashrams), ISKCON rituals (daily arotik for Ramesvara, Bhagavatam class, initiation), social implications of initiation, gender inequality among brahmanas, seniority, and deviations on traditional customs (corruptions of sannyas ashram). One of my first P.R. responsibilities was help stage a press conference in advance of the Venice Beach Ratha-yatra.
Chapter Five, "Jonestown Fallout," portrays ISKCON in its conflict with mainstream society and it's attempts to deal with the cult label.
Chapter Six, "A Spiritual Disneyland," tells the background of the Prabhupada's Palace of Gold temple project in New Vrindaban, West Virginia, and describes ISKCON's attempts to integrate with mainstream society, social deviance of gurus and entire zones within ISKCON (Kirtanananda's zone), and how chauvinism was present in the L.A. temple, as well as New Vrindaban.
Chapter Seven, "Drug Busts, Guns and Gangsters," tells about the Southern California drug dealers who supported Ramesvara's temples and about Hamsadutta's legal problems with guns in Northern California. With these media disasters, the BBT began funding the P.R. department and the GBC raised our operation to the level of a GBC ministry; our office hosted the first worldwide public relations seminar in Bombay, and P.R. delegates pilgrimaged to Vrindavana to observe Srila Prabhupada's disappearance day.
Chapter Eight, "Who's Watching the Children?" tells the story of child abuse in the Dallas, New Vrindaban and Vrindavana gurukulas; media coverage and ISKCON's denial of the problem.
Chapter Nine, "The Gurus Start World War III," explains some gurus' preparations for world war. It is also about the split between supporters of the GBC's eleven guru system and those who opposed it, and ISKCON's culture of denial, gossip and rumors, guilt and fear as instruments of social control; divisiveness in the upper echelons of the BBT, further deviance of leadership (Jayatirtha leaves ISKCON), and physical abuse of women.
Chapter Ten, "The Storm Within, the Guru Issue," focuses on the ritvik issue and and various schismatic events--the Pyramid House talks, Amogha-lila's automatic writings, splinter groups, Ramesvara's attempts to remove his vyasasana and stop guru-pujas. In answer to BBT financial problems Ramesvara introduced cookie sankirtan; most zones adopted painting sankirtan, the pick, and other materialistic funding schemes. The chapter also explains oppression and intolerance of critics and the GBC's rejection of Pyramid House talks. The chapter ends with the L.A. Times' publication of its landmark article, "Krishna: a Kingdom in Disarray."
Chapter Eleven, "P.R. Publications Promote ISKCON," tells how our Los Angeles operation became the propaganda headquarters for the worldwide ISKCON, publishing promotional books, newspapers and magazines including Chant and Be Happy, Coming Back, and the Higher Taste. Our media newsletter, ISKCON Report, and membership newspaper, the ISKCON World Review newspaper, published good news from England, the (former) USSR, Nepal, South Africa, Mauritius, Fiji, the Philippines, Bangladesh, America, etc. Mukunda, the leader of the P.R. effort, becomes a sannyasi and GBC minister.
Chapter Twelve, "Ramesvara Crashes," tells the background of problems that led Ramesvara to leave the organization in 1986 (financial crisis in the North American BBT, Robin George vs. ISKCON, continued power struggles with Hamsadutta, Kirtanananda, Tamal Krishna, etc.). The chapter touches on relations between ISKCON and born-again Christians, and my own struggles with identity and co-dependence. There was also some good news: the P.R. department won good publicity for the opening of Bhaktivedanta Cultural Center (Detroit) and started the Hare Krishna Food For Life program.
Chapter Thirteen, "The Revolution of Guru Reform," discusses the 1985 attempt to reform the institution from within, and the violence that was brewing in the organization at that time (introduces conspiracy to kill Sulochan; notes attack on Kirtanananda). ISKCON World Review continued to avoid ISKCON's bad news; instead focused on coverage of Lord Chaitanya's 500th anniversary and Pada-yatra in India.
Chapter Fourteen, "P.R. Bails Out of L.A.," tells about our office's move to Laguna Beach in 1986 to escape mounting controversy centered around Ramesvara. It also explores the culture of denial in a dysfunctional organization, and the issues of deviance, scapegoats and abuse. Describes financial problems developing in ISKCON; also Bhavananda's and Ramesvara's moral deviations.
Chapter Fifteen, "1986: The Year of Crisis," is about the murder of Sulochan dasa in L.A., media coverage of ISKCON's problems, further deviation leading to GBC censures of Kirtanananda, Bhavananda and Ramesvara, and the futility of ISKCON's denial. ISKCON World Review started publishing controversial interviews with leaders & leading ISKCON observers.
Chapter Sixteen, "The Budget Axe," describes the BBT Council cutting off the P.R. department's budget at the end of 1986, and our struggle to continue publishing with no budget. Bhagavan and Ramesvara abandon ISKCON, the Western Zonal Council resolves that volatile issues should not be discussed in ISKCON World Review.
Chapter Seventeen, "ISKCON World Review Crosses the Line," shows the conflict between editor and publisher, and how little can be said in an institutional newspaper during times of conflict. Also describes the FBI raid of New Vrindaban and resulting exposure on network news. Kirtanananda saw it as good publicity and started his "Freedom Tour" to address the media about his innocence.
Chapter Eighteen, "Six Months Out Of Print," explains how ISKCON World Review went out of print in 1987 to make decisions about editorial policy, then back into print after six months. The chapter describes institutional breakdown (conflict in the GBC), continued opposition to ISKCON World Review (Hridayananda, Badri-narayana oppose new editorial policy), leadership deviation (Kirtanananda and his zone expelled), media exposure of problems (Monkey on a Stick published) and the leadership's reaction.
Chapter Nineteen, "Women's Lesser Intelligence," is about my disillusionment with chauvinism in ISKCON. I address a Towaco conference on the role of women, and a North American GBC meeting to lobby for freedom of speech in the ISKCON World Review.
Chapter Twenty, "Moving On," describes my final confrontation with the GBC chairman over ISKCON World Review editorial policy, which led to my resignation. The chapter talks about honesty in ISKCON, individual members' free will, and Srila Prabhupada's role in bringing the Vaishnava religion to the West.
BETRAYAL OF THE SPIRIT: MY LIFE BEHIND THE HEADLINES OF THE HARE KRISHNA MOVEMENT is a book by Nori J. Muster [Nandini], a former member of the Hare Krishnas, who has kept the faith but left the organization, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). Muster worked in the Los Angeles temple’s public relations office and now has much to tell but no particular axe to grind, and has much to offer: not only as an insider’s account of the workings of what once was the United States’ largest and most visible alternative religion/religious cult, but as a spiritual autobiography and, more importantly, as a way to shed light on both the persistence and pervasiveness of the cult phenomenon in the United States. Such a book could help explain why people join; why they stay or leave; how cults are organized and operate; how they represent themselves to their members and to outsiders; how the media represent them; how they respond when they feel besieged; and in what ways and to what extent cults such as MOVE, the Branch Davidians, Heaven’s Gate, and ISKCON serve as latterday versions of the utopian communities and millenarian sects that flourished in America in the nineteenth century. Above all, such a book could help readers understand why so many people find living in a country which its politicians like to call the greatest on earth so deeply unsatisfying. Regrettably, BETRAYAL OF THE SPIRIT betrays all of these expectations. Despite its...
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My Study of Child Abuse in Cults
Child of the Cult
Cult Survivors Handbook
AMAZON - Mad After Krishna: My Life in a Destructive Cult
Authoritarian Culture and Child Abuse in ISKCON
On Leaving ISKCON by Steven J. Gelberg