QUESTION: From my association with ISKCON and its likes, I very strongly got the point that for Krishna’s service one should be willing to sacrifice everything and sever all connections with parents, spouse and children and more so if they are non devotee category.
It’s not a nice thing for me to say, and it’s not pretty, but it’s true and its something very important for us to come to grips with: ISKCON was a cult – a radically sequestered group with radically different outlooks than the main society, where the members were exploited for the benefit of the leaders. Some people in this cult are super nice. Some are even super good. Some are even super spiritual and some even have super bhakti. That doesn’t change the fact that, as a social entity, ISKCON society operates as a cult, and many of their interpretations of śāstra are made to serve this purpose.
Maybe modern ISKCON isn’t as much of a cult as it was in the 70s, but there are still a lot of holdovers from that strong cultism lingering in the ISKCON of today.
Now, I know this isn’t nice to say, especially since the founder of ISKCON, A.C. Bhaktivedānta Swāmī Prabhupāda was a very great soul, and also because, very ironically, practically each and every one of us is extremely indebted to and grateful for many of the things this cult managed to do. Nonetheless ISKCON has a cult foundation, and that’s important to recognize and admit, because if we don’t, we will never get past the doubts of wondering if the Vedas actually legitimately justify ISKCON’s radical demonization of almost everyone, especially anyone who is a) not a theist, b) not a Vedic theist, c) not a Vaiṣṇava theist, d) not a Vaiṣṇava theist practicing to their measure of “strictness”, e) not a strict Vaiṣṇava from Gauḍīya sampradaya, and specifically not from other Gauḍīya groups outside of the “ISKCON” controlled by this big nasty thing called the “GBC” with all its “ministry” tentacles.
A cult wants to radically separate its members from everyone and everything outside the cult, so that the members feel exclusively dependent upon the support of the cult, so that they accept the flaws and malpractices of the cult leaders, because they feel they have no alternative.
I’m not saying this because I feel like being mean. I’m saying this because it’s important. We have to admit that ISKCON is a cult. It’s important.
If we can’t see or admit this, we won’t be able to objectively and clearly understand the Vedic messages. The real Vedic scriptures like the Upaniṣads and Bhagavad Gītā and Śrīmad Bhāgavatam very, very often contradict the cult-values of ISKCON. For example, Vedic śāstra like Bhagavad Gīta very often tells us to take care of our family responsibly, dutifully and lovingly. If we can’t accept that ISKCON is flawed, we won’t be able to directly accept the śāstra “as it is.”
We must realize that ISKCON has a flaw of having been built as a cult, and that the social values of ISKCON do not reflect the social values of classical Indian culture, or the Veda history. If we don’t, we won’t be able to figure out 80% of the Veda. ISKCON will tell us that it understands Indian culture better than centuries of Indians do. ISKCON will tell us it understands the Vedas better than centuries of ācāryas do. ISKCON will tell us to ignore or “rise above” the parts of the śāstra that contradict the values of a cult. This is just a cult being a cult. It is certainly not the Vedic method of approaching śāstra to cut out the parts that don’t match what we expect to hear. The Vedic method of śāstric analysis is samanvaya: syncretic, wholistic, and all-inclusive.
If we can admit that ISKCON is a cult (which really isn’t hard if anyone just takes an objective look at their history) and find guidance from someone who is not a member of a cult but is deep in bhakti and śāstra (there are plenty) then all the sudden we are free to understand śāstra a lot more clearly and without all the divisive, dualistic, demonizing cult stuff. We can let go of the misconception that karma, karma-yoga, jñāna-yoga, and bhakti-yoga are at odds with each other, and that only only the most expreme for of “purest” bhakti is of any use to anyone with any integrity. We can then begin to understand śāstra with samanvaya.