Careful with Cults

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.

Vraja Kishor

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  1. Worthwhile points.
    As one needs to be open minded from the general, modernistic way of thinking to come to ISKCON, I think one needs to be truly open minded being associated with ISKCON to get to the core of what’s Bhakti all about in its true sense as per the Sastras.
    Thanks Prabhu ji, for straight forwardly putting it across in so many words.


  2. Sorry that’s wrong Vic Prabhu. ISKCON was setup to help people become KC. We all have connections with all souls in the world. I’m sorry but you’re personal life/issues shouldn’t distort or taint what Srila Prabhupada provided for us.


    1. The article fully admits that the founder is great and that the purpose of founding it was great and that it has done and still does great thing. However it was also built with a cult social model and this has huge repercussions, which is what in discuss in the post.


    2. Prabhu, the author of the article doesn’t say anything of his personal life or issues with ISKCON. He has just dispassionately brought out the structure of the organisation which somehow doesn’t support deep insight into the Sastras and harmonising it with the overall GV Siddhant.
      Neither the author has shown any interests in correcting this, but has simply stated that for people interested in getting to know the factual GV Siddhant, there are alternatives available. Depending on one’s interest and inclination one may take it or leave it.


      1. Thank you. In fact my personal experiences in ISKCON are very benign and tame in comparison to many, many others. My main dissatisfaction with ISKCON was simply philosophical and ideological. On the other hand, many of my friends (especially women or those who were children at the time) suffered extreme exploitation, physical abuse, prostitutionalization, rape, and even murder in ISKCON and as a direct result of ISKCON’s policies, often directly from its highest leaders. Nonetheless these extreme cases are not the sole factors determing ISKCON to be a cult, equally important is its pervasive, inherent attitude towards demonization of everyone who does not follow in all respects whomever they appoint as the unquestionable leader.


  3. The biggest problem with ISKCON & other Neo-Gaudiya groups in my opinion is that they’re not really duly initiated with empowered Deeksha mantras. The entire concept of the Siksha parampara was concocted to cover-up the fact that the Neo-Gaudiya founder was not duly initiated in any bona fide parivara. Now this is bound to have detrimental effects in ones entire spiritual outlook. It cuts one off from higher, subtler dimensions of Vaishnava consciousness and forces them into a mode of extreme exoteric-focus. Rules are more important than spirit and conformity trumps spontaneity. Perhaps you’ll disagree with me on this but this is my diagnosis of the problems of the Neo-Gaudiyas. On another note, I recently ordered your book * Dancing in the downpour of Devotion* and it just arrived today, can’t wait to get started on it!


    1. Thank you for reading my book! I do disagree a bit with your logic. On one hand you say that the problem stems from not following a rule; then on the other hand you say the problem manifests as being obsessed with rules. It’s a little hard to keep that logically straight (though not impossible). I do agree in essence, though, that the real problem is that they don’t (as a whole, and especially the leaders – not to condemn EVERYONE in ISKCON) really chant Krishna nāma deeply enough and with a viable conception of sambandha jñāna. That would solve all the other problems.


  4. This article will help everyone desiring to tread on the path of God realization.
    Exceptionally well written article.

    I didn’t see anywhere in the article any criticism for ISKCON. What I could notice is Prabhu’s constructive suggestions. In order to effectively preach KC it is imperative to be aware of any loopholes in preaching efforts (organization).

    ISKCON being an international society has a vast populace connected to it. In order to present truth “as it is” one must be truthful and must not have any ulterior/selfish motives. This is when the organization and people connected to it enjoy spirituality, naturally.

    Prabhu also points out ISKCON more of a cult in the 70s and not much inclined toward being a sect at present.

    He, honestly presents that not EVERYONE in ISKCON is at flaw, which is a fact.

    The good thing is- many contemporary leaders of ISCKON admit the loopholes which had existed (some of which may still continue to exist); and many of them are working to improve the society.

    I agree there is a tendency among some immature practitioners to demonize family, relationships, etc. Such a tendency is only derogatory to our spiritual life and does create havoc in others’ life. Nonetheless, advanced practitioners (within ISKCON) are really sensitive for others.

    Starved attention toward Japa and not giving the desired focus on Japa, in my observation, is the root cause of all malpractices which invariably are born.

    I thank Prabhuji for bringing out this beautiful article. You are a great source of inspiration for me personally.


  5. Great insights, prabhu. Having been seasoned in ISKCON, and SCS Math, I agree that some newer Gaudiya organisations can come off as cultish; perhaps not as in the past, but still in its degree of strictness. I think though that with the third generation of devotees in the West, that is slowly changing and integrating into the rest of secular society. ISKCON nowadays have become a cultural heritage for many devotees, both practicing and non-practicing, converts and kulis, and a family-oriented Sunday-Feast worship kind of place.

    Not being as religious myself as I used to, I still reflect on the words of Sri Chaitanyadeva’s Sri Shikshashtakam. His words make true, quintessential Vaishnavism as a liberal, awe-inspiring, and all-encompassing Dharma of love and beauty through the names of God, especially Krishna.


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