Review of Eleven Naked Emperors by Chand Prasad
May 21, 2021: Dear Hrishikesh dasa,
Eleven Naked Emperors is an amazing achievement.
In a previous essay, I argued that ISKCON is basically a case study of the Iron Law of Oligarchy, articulated by Robert Michels. (available here: Killing For Krishna) My review of Eleven Naked Emperors shall not repeat those points. However, I will to some extent, suspend my deep disdain for ISKCON in the paragraphs that follow.
In my humble opinion, Henry Doktorski should have explicitly and forcefully explained how his book contributes to the existing literature on ISKCON. Such an explanation is a key ingredient to good marketing. ISKCON has been a subject of ongoing academic inquiry. What gaps exist in the literature? I personally feel that Eleven Naked Emperors makes important contributions. But more importantly, the author himself should explicitly point out the unique, original, or distinctive angles of his published work.
Henry Doktorski provides readers with an unsurpassed understanding of the power struggles within ISKCON. The internal dynamics that he so carefully documents must be placed in the following context—ISKCON still exists. ISKCON is an enduring, time-tested institution with a proven ability to withstand financial crises and negative publicity. Even with all of its self-inflicted problems, an undeniable, inescapable fact is that ISKCON persists.
Regarding negative publicity, sadly, many people have become desensitized to child abuse, in part because of the news coverage of the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church makes ISKCON appear to be not so bad—former members who look forward to the downfall of ISKCON often do not consider this factor.
In my view, Eleven Naked Emperors did not adequately analyze or document the economic foundations of ISKCON. Although the history of ISKCON provides many lessons, it is also a tale of economic survival. However, in Doktorski’s defense, his intended objectives focused on how the emperors clashed with each other and rooted out dissenters. Moreover, ISKCON is hardly known for financial transparency.
ISKCON has not transcended the material realm. Analytical frameworks that were developed in such fields as political science, economics, and sociology can provide useful tools for understanding the history of ISKCON, predicting the future of the organization, and assessing the credibility of their public statements.
A key principle of geopolitics is that leaders, including ISKCON’s emperors, are constrained by reality. George Friedman, a geopolitical savant, uses a chess analogy. A novice chess player may believe he can choose from a wide range of various moves. In contrast, an experienced player is more capable of weighing the costs and benefits of alternatives—he knows that only a few good moves are available to him. To avoid defeat, he needs to find those relatively few good moves. Despite all of its boneheaded policies, ISKCON survived because it played enough good moves. I mean “good” in a Machiavellian, not moral sense.
With binding constraints and relatively few good moves available, leaders eventually become somewhat predictable, unless of course, he is a chess master, in which case he can find brilliant, unexpected moves. Predictably, ISKCON gurus were subject to disciplinary action when they embarrassed the institution. A guru could avoid excommunication if he threatened to take his wealthy disciples out of ISKCON. Obviously, such threats were of no use when dealing with the police.
As the media publicized the institution’s abuses and “karmi” law enforcement authorities prosecuted ISKCON’s illegal fundraising activities, it became almost inevitable that ISKCON would seek greater integration with the local Hindu populations. Who else could ISKCON turn to for support? Also, ISKCON has historically defended itself by claiming that they are experiencing religious and cultural persecution. ISKCON would bolster its claims of persecution by seeking support from Indians.
In my opinion, three of the most subtle actors were B. R. Sridhara, Ravindra Svarupa, and Radhanath. Maybe I am just being obtuse, but Eleven Naked Emperors did not leave me with an exact understanding of B. R. Sridhara’s motivations. Was he attempting to shape ISKCON in the image of the Gaudiya Math? Perhaps Doktorski could have directly asked Kailasa-Chandra dasa to explain the nature of B. R. Sridhara’s motivations.
The Eleven Naked Emperors would have communicated more effectively if it had used visual aids or graphics. The author could have created a color-coded map showing the territory controlled by the zonal acharyas. Doktorski has a masterful understanding of ISKCON’s complex organizational dynamics. Given the large number of variables and moving parts, it might be helpful to see a series of flowcharts or schematics that depict shifting alliances, coalitions, and conflicts among key players. A timeline of major events would also be a useful addition to the book.
None of the comments given above detract significantly from the immense value of Doktorski’s contributions. Historians are indeed a valuable asset to humanity. I have the highest regard for the author’s thorough, painstaking research and his writing ability.
Doktorski kindly referred to Angela Burt. Doktorski mentioned that she is in good standing with ISKCON and therefore she has access to information that he does not. However, after reading one of Dr. Angela Burt’s summary papers, I realized she is a publicist or at least an apologist for ISKCON, which explains why she is in good standing with the cult. Although it is not clear to me that Doktorski is truly biased, I am quite certain that Dr. Burt lacks objectivity.
Mr. Doktorski accumulated his own powerful base of knowledge and he is not dependent on ISKCON. Academic scholars could, at the very least, diversify their sources of information by writing articles and books in collaboration with Doktorski. It is not possible to write a credible study of ISKCON’s history without making reference to Henry Doktorski’s published works.
I look forward to hearing from you, and I hope this letter finds you well.
Yours in the Service of Krishna,
Chand Prasad, Ph.D.
Maryland, United States
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