Foreword to Gold, Guns and God, Vol. 9, by Suresh Persaud, Ph.D. (Chand Prasad)
Most humans are constitutionally predisposed to follow authority figures—there will always be segments of populations that feel the allure of dictatorships. Cult leaders and their followers (religious and non-religious) have marred human history and will continually emerge in the future. As Mark Twain forcefully indicated, “It is not worthwhile to try to keep history from repeating itself, for man’s character will always make the preventing of the repetitions impossible.” Of what possible use then are historical analyses of cult dynamics, such as the kind that Henry Doktorski presents in the pages that follow?
The immediate answer, of course, is that studies of past events provide greater insight into the complexity of man’s character in which needs for order, clarity, and security often clash with desires for freedom, creativity, and discovery. Moreover, studies of corrupt, authoritarian regimes have dissuaded countless numbers of individuals from putting their trust in ideologies that discourage critical thinking. People who refuse to surrender to cult-like groups (because they have indeed learned from history) are rarely publicized in the media, meaning that their rational decisions almost never become part of recorded history. And historians such as Henry Doktorski who publish cautionary treatises are not properly credited for steering individuals away from blindly accepting authority.
As a devotee of the Vaishnava tradition, His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada is driven to distribute religious principles throughout the world, principles that include the nature of God, the nature of the soul, and the relationship between God and the soul. Srila Prabhupada’s global preaching mission required an organization. In 1966, Srila Prabhupada founded the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), whose members are often referred to as Hare Krishnas. He delegated responsibilities to men of initiative. He gave these energetic men opportunities to use their missionary spirit, leadership qualities, and enterprising nature to expand his movement by establishing Hare Krishna temples and farm communities throughout the world.
Srila Prabhupada’s rare and unselfish qualities fascinated a range of inquisitive and thoughtful people who were willing to make incredible sacrifices for a higher mission. These were mostly trusting souls whose primary inclination was to follow rather than lead. Sadly, in many instances these unsuspecting spiritual seekers gave their loyalty to leaders who falsely claimed to be pure representatives of Srila Prabhupada.
Srila Prabhupada adroitly utilizes logical arguments in his efforts to turn every man towards the Supreme Lord Krishna. In sharp contrast to Prabhupada, false gurus are narcissistic and self-serving, and their followers are often blinded by fanaticism. Srila Prabhupada repeatedly explained the importance of understanding religion through logic and philosophy. Fanaticism and Vaishnavism are mutually exclusive.
“Religion without philosophy is sentiment, or sometimes fanaticism, while philosophy without religion is mental speculation. The ultimate goal is Krishna, because the philosophers who are also sincerely searching after the Absolute Truth come in the end to Krishna consciousness.” [Bhagavad-gita 3.3, purport by Srila Prabhupada]
“So we should not become religious fanatics, nor dry mental speculators. Both these classes of men are dangerous.” [Lecture on Bhagavad-gita 3.1-5 by Srila Prabhupada—Los Angeles, December 20, 1968].
Intoxicated by emotional allegiances to charismatic con artists, many members of ISKCON failed to apply logic and consequently lost sight of their Vaishnava training. Being rational, observant Vaishnavas know a genuine spiritual teacher is above suspicion. On the other hand, deranged followers ignored evidence that their false gurus violated Srila Prabhupada’s teachings and engaged in grossly immoral activities.
ISKCON became a collection of harmful cults, as Doktorski’s writings reveal. High-ranking members of ISKCON were strong-willed, cunning, and ambitious to carve out autonomous spheres of influence. They could create their own set of rules that differed from Srila Prabhupada’s instructions. Unlike the totalitarian Nazis, Srila Prabhupada did not employ aggressive, sophisticated methods of surveillance or command and control—indispensable tools for creating an absolute position and a centralized power structure.
Srila Prabhupada’s choices were quite limited. In general, he was forced to work with men who were not at all sattvam (mode of goodness). The “disciples” most motivated to take on major projects were often mentally unbalanced empire builders. Although Prabhupada attempted to hold his top men accountable, he could not be everywhere throughout his sprawling, multinational organization. Moreover, Prabhupada devoted so much of his energy to publishing his books, even a cursory reading of which would provide rank-and-file devotees with the knowledge to discern instances of deviant behavior by leaders.
At their discretion, managers withheld letters that devotees had sent to Prabhupada. Should we believe these were rare occurrences? It is also likely that high-ranking individuals censored Prabhupada’s outgoing mail—senior men may have selectively destroyed letters Prabhupada wrote to his followers, rather than mailing all of his correspondence. ISKCON should have been the body of Prabhupada, and yet as early as 1970, he was being cut off from the organization he founded.
Bhaktipada Kirtanananda was among the first of Srila Prabhupada’s followers. But Kirtanananda turned against his guru, Srila Prabhupada. In that spirit of rebellion, Kirtanananda attempted to start his own religious organization in the backwoods of West Virginia. He failed to attract spiritual seekers independently.
After almost a year AWOL from ISKCON, he admitted defeat and begged Srila Prabhupada to take him back while never renouncing and temporarily concealing his megalomaniacal ambitions and twisted sexual predilections. Kirtanananda’s West Virginia commune became known as New Vrindaban at about the time when it first joined ISKCON. New Vrindaban and ISKCON would have a contentious “on again, off again” relationship.
When I was a graduate student at The Ohio State University, I attended a class at the Columbus Temple and heard Radhanath falsely indicate that New Vrindaban began auspiciously. Specifically, Radhanath told us, “New Vrindaban started out as a nice place. Then it became a different place. Now it is a nice place again.” Although Bhaktipada Kirtanananda advertised New Vrindaban as a divine sanctuary, it was a place of perversion from the start. From his very beginnings, Bhaktipada had dark intentions. His is not a story of a benevolent visionary who later became corrupt when he subsequently acquired power.
Kirtanananda’s leadership rapidly transformed New Vrindaban into a wealthy tourist attraction with lavishly constructed temples. He basked in opulence during the early- to mid-1980s, as he received favorable publicity from the media and millions of dollars per year from fundraising activities. New Vrindaban’s fame and renown arguably peaked in May 1985 during the cornerstone-laying ceremony for a massive building project, the “Great Temple of Understanding.” This ceremonial event was attended by two ISKCON gurus, Marshall and Ohio County mayors, police chiefs, politicians in West Virginia state government, and a United States Congressman.
Some New Vrindaban residents reportedly stated that Srila Prabhupada did not know how to preach to Americans. Ostensibly for the purpose of uniting the East and West, Bhaktipada felt it necessary to create interfaith programs and “de-Indianize” congregational prayers, chanting, and class formats. Bhaktipada essentially created his own religion based on a conglomeration of various religions. Srila Prabhupada did not favor interfaith worship in the temple because it dilutes the pure message of Godhead simply to attract followers.
With one of Prabhupada’s books in hand, my grandfather told me about Sri Haridas Thakur when I was a kid. I expected New Vrindaban would be sort of like that. Instead, I noticed a Christian-type morning program and later on a Sufi dancing event. Malati devi dasi (then a swami), gently and respectfully mentioned that I could partake of a Native American sweat lodge. I politely declined. Given my Hindu background, interfaith seemed off-putting—why become distracted by a confused mixture faiths?
“All Vedic knowledge is infallible, and Hindus accept Vedic knowledge to be complete and infallible.” [Bhagavad-gita, Introduction by Srila Prabhupada]
”. . . the purpose of the Vedas is to understand Krishna.” [Bhagavad-gita 15.15, purport by Srila Prabhupada]
Why then should my Hindu brethren not chant the holy name of Krishna?
New Vrindaban and ISKCON could have drawn greater non-Indian support while maintaining an exclusive focus on Krishna consciousness. Whenever Srila Prabhupada entered a particular region/country/city, the preaching program was always Krishna-centered, based on chanting Hare Krishna, holding class on the sastras (scriptures), and serving prasadam (sanctified food). Srila Prabhupada’s nonsectarian teachings and methodology have proven effective, regardless of ethnicity, nationality, or race.
If Bhaktipada had been serious about attracting pious “Westerners” (of which there are many), he might have begun by not engaging in illegal money-making schemes, not being complicit in murder, and not molesting children. It is not advisable to insult non-Indians by trying to sell them garbage. That’s just offensive. Moreover, Bhaktipada treated his cows in West Virginia with greater cruelty than commercial livestock farms, to the dismay of meat-eating Christians, Hindus, and some New Vrindaban residents.
Less than a decade after its apogee, Bhaktipada’s empire experienced a stunning reversal of fortunes. By around the middle of 1994, the bulk of his followers lost faith in his “divinity” in light of overwhelming evidence of his hypocrisy. New Vrindaban entered a dark age. The community staggered from one crisis to the next, and sold off parcels of land to pay its bills. New Vrindaban ceased to be a magnet for money and visitors. This formerly wealthy tourist attraction could not afford to keep the electricity running and degenerated into a dump with its deserted buildings and abandoned heavy machinery lying idle and rusting in the fields. Sharp declines in tourism forced the community to close its guest lodge in 1999. And worst of all, former disciples were horribly dejected when they realized they had sacrificed so much of their life energy for a fraud.
To better understand the origination and dissolution of cults of personality, it is important to recognize that followers are not necessarily stupid, although they may chastise themselves as such after they realize they were deceived. It is not at all helpful or useful to simply dismiss people who become entangled in abusive relationships as weak-minded morons. In fact, such a condescending view is counterproductive because it fails to grasp a key point—true believers are blinded by their love for a charismatic individual, and some of the smartest people fall in love. Drawing on the work of Anna Fels, a psychiatrist and faculty member at Weill Cornell Medical College, Henry Doktorski explains, “when the region in the brain for love is activated, the region for logical thinking is simultaneously deactivated.” [Gold, Guns and God, Volume 9, Chapter 93]
Srila Prabhupada warns against excessive emotion and fanaticism, as logical reasoning and philosophy are intrinsic to Vaishnava principles. “. . . all genuine servants of God, understood everything according to logic and reason. The instructions of Krishna are not meaningless dogma. Religion often gives rise to dogmatism. . . . do not follow blindly, on the basis of sentiment alone. One who fails to apply logic can easily be misled by unscrupulous persons.” [bold mine] (A Second Chance, Chapter 14, by Srila Prabhupada)
Bhaktipada Kirtanananda is a prime example of such an unscrupulous person, supported by blind followers who surrendered their critical faculties. Devotees considered all of Bhaktipada’s words divinely inspired. They would say, “Even when he is wrong, he is right.” Although non-devotees quickly noticed that Bhaktipada was a pedophile, his followers initially rejected information that contradicted their cherished ideal of their master. “In order to break through the impenetrable iron curtain in the mind created by great emotional investment, true believers must be exposed to an equally great amount of evidence (unassailable proof) which contradicts their cherished beliefs. And even then, there will still be some who refuse to believe the evidence.” [Gold, Guns and God, Volume 9, Chapter 93]
In September 1993, a respected devotee friend (Sarvabhauma) witnessed Bhaktipada engaging in extremely inappropriate behavior with a young male devotee. Rumors of sexual impropriety had circulated since the early 1980s with almost no damaging impacts on Bhaktipada’s reputation. But the 1993 allegations were far more credible, turning roughly half of the community against Bhaktipada.
Some disciples had difficulty giving up their loyalty to Bhaktipada, despite irrefutable evidence of his perversion. During a morning class at New Vrindaban (sometime in the mid-1990s), I heard a resident express her support for Bhaktipada without actually using his name. During the question/answer part of the program, she asked why the most-senior devotee, who had done so much for the movement, was not allowed to come to New Vrindaban. Her challenge elicited a slight stir amongst the assembled devotees but not an answer from the speaker. Another believer explained to me she had visited Bhaktipada to point out to him that he was still empowered. Although Bhaktipada created a society that abused women and children, he had promoted a number of his female disciples to the sannyasa order. I noticed some of those female swamis were disappointed when they lost their fancy job title, despite the possibility that they were more sincere than the males.
Bhaktipada would likely have retained most of his supporters if he had humbly admitted his mistakes and paid penance. His denials, claims of innocence, and attempts to cover up his sins signaled that he would keep on sinning, which understandably alienated many. In fact, the devotees I encountered felt betrayed, with some exceptions. Their angry condemnations of Bhaktipada represented a striking turnabout—some of these same detractors had, only a few days prior, preached that I must surrender to a guru like Bhaktipada.
Gold, Guns and God, Volume 9 (GGG9) is particularly exciting because it gives us quite a bit of information about the author. For years, Henry Doktorski loyally followed and supported Bhaktipada. But when Doktorski realized things were amiss, he confronted Bhaktipada with pointed questions delivered with civility. Doktorski’s personal experiences constitute a fascinating subplot within the larger and equally captivating story arc. I have been an avid reader of Henry Doktorski’s published works. Doktorski never put himself at the center in any of his books. But with every volume I read, I became more curious to know details of the author’s spiritual evolution. Although GGG9 is not even remotely autobiographical, it does inform readers of the events that led Henry Doktorski to reject Bhaktipada.
Through his books, Henry Doktorski powerfully illustrates the dangers of joining charismatic, totalitarian organizations. In his own humble way, he seeks to heal former members from the abuse they endured. Many who joined harmful cults were motivated by genuine spiritual aspirations, and those desires for personal growth should be embraced that much more intensely, especially after falling out of love with psychopaths such as Bhaktipada.
The fortunate few transcendentalists attracted to Krishna consciousness need not risk their spiritual life by depending on misguided institutions or organizations, particularly since they can associate with a pure devotee, Srila Prabhupada, by reading his books. His writings transformed the lives of rare individuals. Srila Prabhupada’s living presence can revive the potent spiritual instincts of others in the years to come.
“Somehow or other you become dear friend of Krishna and He’s within you. He’ll always talk with you, most confidentially, and your life will be successful.” [Srila Prabhupada Lecture—Jakarta, March 1, 1973]
All glories to Srila Prabhupada. Hare Krishna.
Suresh Persaud, Ph.D. (Chand Prasad)
July 30, 2022
Maryland, United States
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