ICSA E-Newsletter, Vol. 5, No. 1, February 2006
Myth and Themes of Ex-Membership
A researcher and ex-member of ISKCON, The International Society for Krishna Consciousness, offers an inside view of what it’s like to be an ex-cult member. She identifies post-traumatic stress and identity crisis as the two most common themes of ex-membership. At the root of post-traumatic stress are the themes justice, stigma, and perspective; at the root of identity crisis are the themes home, personal belief system, and storytelling. She offers literary examples that serve as myths to illustrate the ex-member experience. The stories are drawn from American literature, the Vedas, and popular culture.
In 1978 the Hare Krishnas told me that if I followed them for the rest of my life, then I’d go back to Godhead with them. To follow, I had to move into a temple, wear Indian clothing, learn hundreds of customs and taboos, and cut myself off from the outside world. They forbade commercial media and criticized outside relationships, unless the outsiders might join, donate, or do service. They said that anyone who left ISKCON, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, would fall back into the material ocean and be lost. They called it “blooping,” the sound a rock makes when it hits the water and sinks. I blooped in December 1988.
I was just one of many who left disillusioned. In the dozen years following the death of ISKCON founder Srila Prabhupada,() ninety percent of members left.() ISKCON turned into an organization with many more ex-members than current, full-time members. One ex-ISKCON member shared his thoughts about ex-membership in his essay, “On Leaving ISKCON.”() Steven J. Gelberg, known in ISKCON as Subhananda, explained what the decision was like for him:
It’s hard to imagine an experience more wrenching, more potentially disorienting, than leaving a spiritual community or tradition to which one has devoted years of one’s life. To lose faith in a comprehensive system of ideas that have shaped one’s consciousness and guided one’s actions, to leave a community that has constituted one’s social world and defined one’s social identity, to renounce a way of life that is an entire mode of being, is an experience of momentous implications.()
Gelberg identified the things that he saw in ISKCON that made him decide to leave. Here is a brief summary: practical and ethical failures, intellectual dishonesty, disrespect for followers, hypocrisy in the demand for celibacy, condescending attitude toward women, and scriptural fundamentalism.() Gelberg believed that many others shared a common experience of ISKCON’s problems, so he addressed “On Leaving ISKCON” to his “brothers and sisters who have shared the ISKCON/Krishna consciousness experience.” Gelberg described the exodus out of ISKCON and said, “There exists, therefore, a substantial and growing body of people who share what can only be described as a traumatic experience.”()
Although the details differ for each individual, and some ex-members claim to feel no stress after leaving, the dominant psychological issues for most ex-members are post-traumatic stress and identity crisis. The same themes play out in myth and story, and there are many parallels to be drawn between the ex-member experience and characters who go through similar trials under different circumstances.
Carl Jung said that story and myth link the inner and outer human experience. He said myth was metaphor, containing symbols and archetypes. Ironically, another meaning for "myth" refers to something that is false. Rollo May, one of the founders of the Humanist Movement and author of The Cry for Myth, said, “There can be no stronger proof of the impoverishment of our contemporary culture than the popular—though profoundly mistaken—definition of myth as falsehood.” He explained that the themes in our myths are "like the beams in a house: not exposed to outside view, they are the structure which holds the house together so people can live in it.”()
I will show you the mythical beams that form the structure of the ex-member experience,() offering examples from American literature, the Hindu Vedas, and popular culture. As a subject, or participant observer, and ex-ISKCON member myself, I will also offer stories from my own experience.
Although I have tried to identify universal themes for ex-ISKCON members, there are several notable exceptions. First, people who left because they were deprogrammed may have more complex issues. Their themes would depend on whether they feel grateful or resentful that someone else made the decision for them. They are tangled in themes of self-determination that are outside the scope of this paper. In addition, deprogrammed individuals are much more likely to reject all aspects of their ISKCON experience. Thus, their identity crisis is different and more complex than the issues described in this paper.
Second, people who perpetrated abuse inside the organization probably will not be able to relate to the themes presented here. Abuse perpetrators often have psychopathic, or sociopathic disorders. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association (DSM-IV), abuse perpetrators may be diagnosed with Antisocial Personality Disorder, Conduct Disorder, or any number of pathologies.() Since perpetrators generally have diagnosable disorders, they would need to go into treatment and reach the stage of recovery before they could comprehend the issues under discussion here.
This paper applies to ex-members who joined as adults and who were never physically or sexually abused in ISKCON. In my other series of essays, “Story Matters,”() I have identified stories that illustrate the common themes of abuse victims. Even though the current paper does not address overt abuse, survivors may still glean insights about ex-membership from the issues presented here. It might help children of cult members understand their parents who have left their cults.
According to the DSM-IV, post-traumatic stress may progress to a diagnosable disorder:
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a debilitating condition that follows a terrifying event. Often, people with PTSD have persistent frightening thoughts and memories of their ordeal and feel emotionally numb.()
Post-traumatic stress follows an experience of intense fear, horror, or helplessness. The onset may occur at the time of the event or it may develop months, or even years after the event.
Many ex-ISKCON members witnessed abuse that could have traumatized them. Not all would warrant the DSM diagnosis, but they may suffer from lesser degrees of stress. Most of the stress in the organization came from the top down, especially the hierarchy’s power struggles in the years following the death of Srila Prabhupada. The leaders struggled over money and property, and there were several murders, as well as untold incidents of emotional and physical abuse. Anyone closely involved with the hierarchy during those years probably left with emotional scars of betrayal, grief, anger, frustration, and a loss of trust in authority figures, especially religious authorities.
Stress spread throughout the organization, so that everyone, not just those involved with the hierarchy, felt it. Devotees clashed over moral, ethical, and practical issues. For example, people fought each other for apartments, control of temples, and for positions in the organization. Women and children were victimized and some people were involved in crimes like drug smuggling or petty theft. Armed guards called kshatriyas caused some devotees to fear for their lives.()
The organization also practiced psychological manipulation to discourage members from leaving. In the days when I joined, the leaders taught us to see the outside world as a place of misery. They said people who left would never make it to the Godhead on their own, because maya (illusion) would drag them down to “repeated birth and death” in the material world. Insiders used unflattering labels like “snake” and “prostitute” to describe ex-members. They said that people who blooped would turn into drug addicts, end up poverty stricken, or die of a horrible, degenerative disease. These fears became self-fulfilling prophecy for some ex-members.
Further programming held that the “material world” was “dry” because there was “nothing out there” but illusion. People who left would become lonely and come back to the organization seeking “association.” Ex-members who still came around admitted that they were “fallen” and that everything the leaders said was true. Broken ex-members work in the hierarchy’s favor, as long as they remain broken. It was a form of brainwashing or terrorism that left many with lasting scars.
ISKCON also programmed members to be ashamed to work for non-devotees, since that would make them less than sudras, the lowest rung of the caste system. This notion increased the probability that ex-members would experience stress upon re-entering the work force.
The first three themes, justice, stigma, and perspective, explain the underlying issues of an ex-member’s post-traumatic stress.
Theme One: Justice
Justice is another word for karma. It’s the law of equilibrium, where every action has an equal reaction. The law says that people get what they deserve for the deeds they perform. It may take a long time, but the sword of justice eventually falls. This holds true throughout the material world, even in ISKCON. Joining up did not make anyone immune from karma. The organization had plenty of bad karma that may still haunt the people who leave.
Members learn to see their gurus as “pure devotees” who can do no wrong. The chief paradox of life in ISKCON was to watch supposed pure devotee gurus and other dishonest leaders carry out incredible follies. Some leaders participated in criminal activity, while their cronies enjoyed special favors for their complicity. Many of us spent a great deal of energy fuming over the leaders’ constant displays of hypocrisy.
One of the big items on the list of injustices (that most members denied) was the gurukula system. During the 1970s and 1980s, the ISKCON schools allowed the emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of hundreds of children. One of the worst things for ex-gurukula victims is the injustice of seeing their perpetrators honored as esteemed elders. The victims know otherwise, of course, but abuse perpetrators in ISKCON portray themselves as Vedic scholars, gurus, and important leaders. It’s part of their disguise. Who would ever suspect a holy man of abuse? For many years, the victims’ accusations went unheard.
Things changed once the victims entered adulthood. Beginning in 1990, former victims started to talk about the gurukula abuse and expose what happened. The organization itself acknowledged the abuse in 1998, when it published a study by Professor Burke Rochford, Child Abuse in the Hare Krishna Movement: 1971-1986.() However, the victims felt the organization was non-responsive to the gravity of the charges, so they filed Children of ISKCON vs. ISKCON, in 2000.() In May 2005, the lawsuit ended when ISKCON went bankrupt to set up a multi-million dollar trust fund for approximately five hundred ex-students abused in their schools.()
In the defense of justice, ex-members may note that most of the original eleven gurus got the consequences for their particular deviations. The guru who ran a gun and car smuggling operation in Northern California was expelled. The guru who got away with sexual deviations and violence against children was expelled. Although he’s back, a lot of people see him as a hypocrite. The guru who participated in kidnapping, conspiracy to murder, and conspiracy to commit fraud, spent a dozen years in prison. The arrogant twosome, the L.A. guru and the guru from Western Europe, are defrocked and out of the organization. The guru responsible for institutionalizing chauvinism and the zonal guru system, and allegedly a conspiracy to murder the founder, died in a tragic car accident in India in 2002. Although these individuals still have their defenders, they all suffered consequences for their crimes, alleged or otherwise.
I am grateful for the spectacle, because I can transfer what I learned to everyday life. I still get upset when I see news stories about people who think they are “getting away with” their arrogance and conflicts of interest. However, I have learned from experience that there is a good chance they’ll eventually have to account for their actions. Witnessing the karmic cycle in ISKCON over the course of three decades taught me that justice is real, although sometimes it takes decades to play out.
Another aspect of justice is to learn the difference between a healthy need for truth and unhealthy intrusion into someone else’s privacy. In ISKCON, members were obsessed with each other’s finances, sex lives, chanting habits, and attendance at the morning programs. Judging one another was a hostile, unfriendly, and embarrassing constant of ISKCON life. It was merely a symptom of the controlling atmosphere.
The Scarlet Letter (1850), by Nathaniel Hawthorne, is a nineteenth century glimpse into the judgmental attitudes among the Puritans of seventeenth century Boston. The protagonist, Hester Prynne, commits adultery and must embroider the letter “A” on her blouse as part of her punishment. Note how Hawthorne describes one woman who stands in judgment of Hester:
What do we talk of marks and brands, whether on the bodice of her gown, or the flesh of her forehead?” cried another female, the ugliest as well as the most pitiless of these self-constituted judges. “This woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die.()
Hawthorne offers a similar negative portrayal of Hester Pryne’s husband, Dr. Roger Chillingworth, referring to him a “satanic analyst.” Chillingworth is insanely jealous of the town minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, whom he suspects is the father of his wife’s illegitimate child. Rev. Dimmesdale is the father, but he keeps this fact concealed. In the course of the story, Chillingworth does everything he can to bring the secret out. One of the questions this classic story explores is whether it is worse to have a secret, or to try to wring a secret out of someone else.
In the final scene, Chillingworth rips the minister’s shirt off and it appears that he has a red “A” blistered on his skin:
Most of the spectators testified to having seen, on the breast of the unhappy minister, a SCARLET LETTER -- the very semblance of that worn by Hester Prynne -- imprinted in the flesh. As regarded its origin, there were various explanations.()
Some of them say that Dimmesdale gave himself the mark at the same time Hester had to embroider the “ignominious badge” on her clothes. Others speculated that Dr. Chillingworth, as a “potent necromancer,” gave Dimmsdale the mark “through the agency of magic and poisonous drugs.” Others said it was a result of the guilt Dimmesdale carried inside, and appeared as a “wonderful operation of his spirit upon the body.” Whatever the explanation, the “A” on Dimmsdale’s chest was a symbol to show that he bore the same shame as Hester, but kept it secret.
Dimmesdale’s shame made him a more animated preacher. However, it ate away at him until it finally overcame him. In the end, he dies in Hester’s arms. The angry Roger Chillingworth dies within a year. Hawthorne explains that Chillingworth went to hell because: “This unhappy man had made the very principle of his life to consist in the pursuit and systematic exercise of revenge.”()
Letting go of grudges and placing faith in the process of justice may help ex-members get over their compulsive need to punish the ISKCON gurus and others from the organization who may have hurt them. Ex-ISKCON members need to take note of any puritanical tendencies in themselves and learn to feel compassion for their enemies instead of hatred. Being the scrutinizer is an unhealthy way to live because it binds an ex-member to the narrow-minded fundamentalism he or she wishes to leave behind.
Theme Two: Stigma
You can’t always tell ex-ISKCON members by how they look, but most of us carry an invisible stigma. For me, stigma is the most prominent theme behind my post-traumatic stress. I investigated ISKCON’s crimes for ten years to write my book, Betrayal of the Spirit,() so I am acutely aware of the history. In the early 1990s when I started my research, I began to feel extremely guilty. I had participated in many cover-ups as a member of the organization’s P.R. office. Writing my book helped assuage my guilt. The book was a catharsis that gave me a chance to process ISKCON’s history and my role in it. The way I see it, the truth needs to come out and stay out in the open to prevent similar situations from happening again.
I may not have been up to the brim of my hat in crime like some others, but I was definitely part of the problem. It’s a chore to have to admit that I did P.R. for ISKCON. It’s not the first thing I tell people about myself, but it has the potential to completely change people’s opinion of me once they find out. It has happened many times. For example, in 2002 I contacted an old high school friend. She was enthusiastic to hear from me, since we had traveled in Europe together in 1973 and had not talked since that time. However, when I told her about the child abuse in ISKCON, she quickly terminated the conversation. Apart from a few emails, we have not spoken since. I didn’t abuse children. I helped expose the child abuse, but some people would say I’m guilty by association.
At times it feels like the weight of ISKCON’s crimes hangs like an albatross around my neck. In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, written in 1798 by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the bird is a good omen.
At length did cross an Albatross,
Through the fog it came ;
As if it had been a Christian soul,
We hailed it in God's name.
The bird flew ahead of the ship, guiding it through fog and floating ice. Unfortunately, the ancient Mariner killed it.
God save thee, ancient Mariner !
From the fiends, that plague thee thus!--
Why look’st thou so ?’--With my cross-bow
I shot the ALBATROSS.
When the bird died, the winds died too and the boat stopped moving. As punishment, the ship’s crew hung the dead bird around the ancient Mariner’s neck. To atone for his sin, the Mariner had to search his soul and do penance. It took more introspection than he thought it would, but at the end of his meditations, the ancient Mariner’s consciousness changed:
A spring of love gushed from my heart . . .
The self-same moment I could pray;
And from my neck so free
The Albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea.
This breakthrough was his return to humanity, humbleness, and gratitude. The wind picked up and the ship sailed to safety. Ex-members may identify with the ancient Mariner’s struggle. It takes more than wishful thinking and denial to throw off the burden of stigma. An ex-devotee who suffers from guilt must go through a transition of emotional healing.
Theme Three: Perspective
When people leave a cloistered ISKCON community, they might feel confused and frightened because of what they’ve been told to expect. They might wonder if they risk going to hell for leaving, or if their “offenses” against the “pure devotees” drove them out. Besides blaming themselves, ex-members are programmed to fear personal failure, a world war, and ultimate demise of society as we know it. At the time of leaving, ex-members might wonder if it was a good decision, but as time passes, they put their superstitions to rest and the past falls into perspective. Everything that may have seemed wrong eventually becomes all right.
Positive thinking author Og (Augustine) Mandino wrote several stories to illustrate how perspective works.() His first bestseller was The Greatest Salesman in the World (1968). The story takes place in the ancient holy land, where the main character, the young Hafid, gets the opportunity to become a salesman. His mentor, the merchant Pathros, gives him a beautiful red robe to sell in Bethlehem. After four days of trying to sell it, Hafid feels discouraged and decides he cannot afford to stay in the inn another night. He goes to a cave behind the inn and sees the Nativity. Since the baby doesn’t have a proper blanket, Hafid wraps the red robe around him, then walks home by the light of a star.
The whole way, he worries that he will get in trouble for giving away the robe after failing to sell it. He feels like a complete failure, but instead of being angry, Pathros sees the bright star above Bethelem as a sign that Hafid is to become his successor. Hafid becomes the greatest salesman in the world.
Although we feared the ISKCON leaders’ warnings about the outside world, we followed our intuition and left. Things turned out okay. Instead of a mistake, we now see our leaving as an act of courage. Perspective changes everything, as it did for Hafid, or it may simply make it easier for us to live with what happened.
Perspective also puts anger to rest. When I left ISKCON I was filled with rage thinking that the organization had victimized me. It took about ten years to finally realize that I was not a victim. Through publishing my book and talking about it, I realized that I was an assistant perpetrator in ISKCON; more a Leni Riefenstahl than a victim. It was a shocking perspective that I never expected, but it has helped me heal. Realizing my culpability in a dishonest hierarchy made me understand why I felt so much guilt. When I saw the situation for what it was, my attitude changed.
Victims get perspective when they realize that what happened to them was wrong. When they finally accept the fact of their victimization, they can stop blaming themselves and start to heal. Perpetrators get perspective when they finally feel people’s disapproval. When they realize that their behavior was wrong and take responsibility, then they can begin to recover. Most ex-cult members have issues in one or both areas.
Identity crisis is a diagnosable psychiatric disorder if it progresses to the level of Dissociative Identity Disorder or Multiple Personality Disorder.() Dissociative disorders are pathological conditions where the ego splinters into parts, due to trauma. It’s possible that some ex-ISKCON members suffer from dissociative disorders, especially those who suffered physical or sexual abuse. However, most ex-ISKCON members only suffer an existential identity crisis in the sense that it becomes difficult to answer the question, “Who am I?” It could be part of an individual’s mid-life crisis, especially for those who left the cult in middle age.
Ex-members must come to terms with their identity inside the group and their identity before joining. Most members received a new name in the group, so they have to decide whether to continue using it or go back to their birth name. The leaders told us we were “dogs” before we met our gurus, and that our life before ISKCON was worthless. We must go back and reclaim our early years, along with our value as human beings outside the organization. Ex-members must also rework their views about gender and sexuality, because ISKCON offered a set of values that are out of step with the mainstream culture. There are hundreds of customs, taboos, and superstitions to unlearn once a person leaves.
Some ex-members choose to retain their insider identity and set up a lifestyle outside of ISKCON to accommodate it. Nowadays there are many shades of gray between inside and outside. Some former members joined groups that resemble ISKCON in every respect, minus flagrant corruption in the hierarchy. In other words, splinter groups offer an “ISKCON-lite” for some ex-members.
Most who left ISKCON had to tone down their group personalities to enter conventional careers. The longer and more intense the insider experience, the harder it could be to adjust to life in the outside world. Some ex-members made ISKCON look like a company they worked for; others left ISKCON off the resume and invented a fictitious personal history. Some were lucky to find good jobs for bosses who appreciated their history in ISKCON, but most of us went through a period of hiding our history.
When I moved to Oregon after leaving the temple, I lived a double life. I didn’t even tell my new next door neighbors what I did in Los Angeles. I had to be vigilant to know when it was safe to talk about my past and how much to say. I felt like I might as well have been a convict who just got out of prison, because there was a ten year gap in my history that I couldn’t talk about. A few of us around that time used the nickname “ex-cons” to refer to ourselves as ex-ISKCON members.
The last three themes, home, personal belief system, and storytelling, are the underlying issues of ex-members’ search for identity.
Theme Four: Home
Many people who joined ISKCON in the 1960s – 1970s were looking for a spiritual family and home. ISKCON may have provided a sense of home, but upon leaving, the ex-member has to start this journey again. When I left the temple in 1988, I spent six months living in my father’s house. It definitely felt like home, since he had lived there the last seventeen years of his life. He died the week after I moved in with him, following a two and a half year battle with cancer. I remained in my father’s house as long as I could before the attorneys sold it and I had to leave.
Sometimes I have dreams that I call my dad on the phone. He invites me over to the house and I say I’ll be there soon. Then I hang up and remember that he’s dead and the house is sold. About five years after my father died, I had the following dream:
I go home on a bus. It drops me off at the bottom of Skylark Lane [my father’s street] with all my luggage. Two parakeets keep getting out of their cage. I realize I don’t live there anymore. Dad is dead. I’m alone with nowhere to go.()
On the battlefield of Kurukshetra, Arjuna and Krishna talked about the fate of an unsuccessful yogi. Arjuna asked,
Does not such a man, being deviated from the path of Transcendence, perish like a riven cloud, with no position in any sphere?()
ISKCON members may feel there is no place for them inside the organization or out. This feeling of being homeless is the crux of the ex-member identity crisis.
The search for home is a universal theme echoed in the world’s literature. One of the greatest of these stories is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain. Running away from an alcoholic and abusive father, Huck Finn was the archetypal orphan. He and the runaway slave Jim were both like orphans, looking for a home they found on the river:
It's lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or only just happened. Jim he allowed they was made, but I allowed they happened; I judged it would have took too long to MAKE so many. Jim said the moon could a LAID them; well, that looked kind of reasonable, so I didn't say nothing against it, because I've seen a frog lay most as many, so of course it could be done. We used to watch the stars that fell, too, and see them streak down. Jim allowed they'd got spoiled and was hove out of the nest.()
Getting “hove out of the nest” is a metaphor for what happens to an orphan and is also a good way to describe an identity crisis. The search for home is the story of the resolution of the crisis.
Theme Five: Personal Belief System
ISKCON offered its members a mandatory philosophical system of theology, morality, and notions about what it means to be religious. Upon leaving ISKCON, ex-members face an identity crisis in the area of faith. Therefore, reestablishing a personal belief system is another common theme of ex-membership. Some people return to their family religion or a philosophy they held dear before joining. Others integrate parts of the ISKCON (Vedic, Hindu) faith into their new belief system. Some discard religion altogether, or go headlong into a new alternative religious path.
In ISKCON, the people I knew liked to chant in front of the deities. It was a good way to commune with Krishna and I thought I’d really miss it. Then, a few weeks after my father died, I inherited a numinous deity that he had brought back from his own trip to India in 1978. Although the deity stood in his office the whole time I was an ISKCON member, I thought it was the Goddess Maya. Soon after I inherited it, a devotee priest identified the deity as Mohini.()
The Hindu scriptures tell this story about the Mohini avatar, an incarnation of Vishnu, or Krishna. The demon Bhasmasura received a special power from the god Shiva to burn people to ashes, simply by touching their head. This power made the demon arrogant and he used it to terrorize the universe. Finally Mohini appeared as a beautiful dancer. She started a dance called Muktanritya, where the final step is to touch the head with the left hand while standing on the right foot. When Bhasmasura followed her, he touched his own head and was burned to ashes.() Mohini was also present at the churning of the Milk Ocean, where she helped the demigods get the amrita (elixir of immortality) away from the demons.() In another pastime, she attracted the attention of Lord Shiva and a son was born.()
I love these stories because Mohini was a trickster. She fooled Bhasmasura and distracted the demons. I love it that Vishnu incarnates as a woman who was so convincing that she even fooled Lord Shiva. For me, having this deity overturns all the chauvinism I was forced to endure in ISKCON. I love this deity because she came through my family, not through ISKCON. Having her with me provides the connection to God that I crave, without binding me to any organizations or rules that I don’t like.
Although connecting with a deity helped me resolve my ex-member existential identity crisis, other ex-members will build their personal belief systems in their own ways. The common experience is that after ISKCON, the search for faith, God, and the meaning of life continues in a new form.
Theme Six: Storytelling
The theme of storytelling does not just mean fiction writing. It can also refer to history, to cultural stories, and the stories of one’s own life. To heal identity crisis, an ex-member must know his or her own story. Telling one’s own story can heal trauma and set the course for recovery. Story must ring true, so storytelling is an art.
Every culture has its stories and therefore its storytellers. In Vedic culture one storyteller was Vyasa, the author of the Mahabharata. It is said that he dictated it while Ganesh (the elephant god) wrote it down. Great literary authors like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Mark Twain knew how to tell a story with just the right nuance to capture the imagination of their audience. The Vedas were also steeped in nuance. The more you know about the Vedic stories, the more fascinating they seem. For example, if you know the story of Krishna driving Arjuna’s chariot on the battlefield of Kurukshetra,() then you might find it intriguing to learn that Krishna and Arjuna also fought each other on one occasion.() It might also be a surprise that the god Maha-vishnu had three wives, Lakshmi, Sarasvati, and Ganga, who became jealous and had a fistfight.()
Storytellers do a disservice if they try to whitewash their characters to uphold a certain worldview. For example, it would be a mistake to try to portray Krishna as a saint who never lost his temper, or Vishnu’s consorts as prim and proper Victorian ladies.
A storyteller knows that a story must turn on a plot. To have a plot, the characters must have unfinished business. If everything is already perfectly resolved, then there’s no story. On the other hand, leaving things undone calls for more story because people want to find out how it all turns out. If the story ends with major plot points unresolved, then the storyteller missed the mark.
Of recent movies, one that left the plot unresolved was Mulholland Drive, by David Lynch. Maybe there was a deep, hidden meaning, but it’s not apparent. Few people claimed to “get” whatever meaning Lynch may have intended for his spooky and confusing piece. Maybe it just wasn’t there. Mulholland Drive started out as a pilot, but the TV series did not fly and Lynch had to condense it into a feature film. Perhaps he simply couldn’t tell the whole story he had in mind in a two-hour format.
It was the opposite in another recent movie, Memento, directed by Christopher Nolan. The story takes place in reverse sequence, alternating between color and black and white scenes, and the main character has short-term memory loss. The ending leaves viewers with the “Huh?” feeling, but everything makes sense as one flashback after another. Watching the movie a second time reveals the genius of its storytelling.
Sometimes directors make up several endings for a movie if the original doesn’t work. Two movies where the director rewrote and reworked the endings were Being John Malcovich and Adaptation, written by Charlie Kaufman. Kaufman himself admitted that he struggled over the endings and said he is not sure whether he got it right in either case.()
One of the most controversial endings in the history of American literature was in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, discussed earlier. Instead of resolving the plot, the book ends with what scholars refer to as “an elaborate burlesque farce.”() The characters act out a charade where Huckleberry Finn meets some of Tom Sawyer’s relatives and pretends to be Tom Sawyer; Tom Sawyer shows up and to play along, he pretends to be his own brother. Further, the Civil War ends and Jim is a free man, but nobody tells him. It appears racist and cruel. Scholars speculate that perhaps Twain’s ending was a satire about the failure of the Reconstruction era following the Civil War. Twain started the book in 1876, the one hundred year anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. He finished the book seven years later in 1883, at a time when scholars say “thousands of African Americans were effectively re-enslaved through such means as share-cropping, lynchings, and the convict-lease system.”()
Another story with a mysterious ending is the story of the Ramayana. Lord Rama, the rightful king of Ayodya, was banished to the forest with his wife Sita and brother Laksmana. While the men were chasing a deer, the evil King Ravana kidnapped Sita. Rama then waged a war to kill Ravana and free his wife. When Sita and Rama returned to Ayodya, Sita proved her purity by passing through a ring of fire. In this symbolic act, the fire god returned the real Sita to Rama.
Even after the test of fire, subjects in the kingdom gossiped about Sita, saying that Rama had broken the religious principles by accepting his wife after she had been touched by another man. To quell the controversy, Rama sent Sita back to the forest, even though she was pregnant with his child. She wandered until she reached the hermitage of the sage Valmiki (author of the Ramayana), who gave her shelter. The fact that Sita could never regain her chastity. and that she was cast out of Lord Rama's palace, is perhaps the most paradoxical and depressing ending of any story in the Vedic literature. There are cultural reasons it had to end that way, but the explanation is even more enigmatic than Twain’s ending to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.()
Aside from these famous examples, most good stories have a satisfying ending that flows naturally from the characters. In a story about unqualified and illegitimate gurus, it only follows that key characters will deviate from their vows and chaos will ensue. A good storyteller knows this because that’s how life works.
When you have a story about bad leaders, there are several possible endings. In the first scenario, a hero with good common sense persuades them to voluntarily admit their follies and step down. Their resignation clears the way for a more egalitarian system. This leads to a satisfying resolution, because it follows the archetypal hero’s journey outline.
In the second scenario, the opposite happens: nothing and nobody can stop the bad leaders. Each one plays out his maniacal plot to its end. This plot is common in horror and science fiction.
The third scenario is a compromise between the first two, where at least one of the bad leaders is stopped. The point of the story is to see which bad leaders will be exposed and brought to justice.
Although plot scenarios two and three are no fun for the people who must live through them in real life, it makes good material for a story. Outside observers say things like, “You’re kidding! A guru did that?” and “Did he ever get caught?” People naturally want bad leaders to get their come-uppance.
I’m grateful that ISKCON gave me so much story material. I got to see the gears grind to pull false heroes off their pedestals and watch them crash like proud plaster busts on a cold marble floor. I have first-hand experience of the hunger a listener feels to find out what happens to demagogues to finally put them in their place.
In a good story, people want to see the punishment fit the crime. If the villain only makes a mistake or acts foolishly, that may be easily forgiven. Nobody wants to see a character suffer great hardship over a mistake. However, if a character makes a mistake and then covers it up, that is a big offense. Cover-up makes the character unsympathetic, especially if innocent people suffer. Story lovers instinctively know that life involves learning. Part of that is learning to come to terms with one’s own behavior. Life offers plenty of opportunities to own up. If a character refuses opportunity after opportunity, he condemns himself.
Another sub-plot of the bad guru story involves the characters who ignore the corruption at the top. They remain unsympathetic until they decide to reveal what they have seen. When I was in ISKCON, I ignored corruption and followed all the rules and regulations. However, perhaps due to the hypocrisy I lived with, I became frail, sore, and developed a limp. I’m sure it was psychological due to always having to deny my feelings, while the gurus got away with murder. They told us our desires were evil, so my shoulders hunched forward and I was always tired. It wasn’t just me; ashram devotees in those days were a sickly bunch.
Imagine where the story would go with a cast of characters who try to be ascetic but loose their souls in the hypocritical environment. Scenario one, a peaceful solution, would be impossible. If all the followers are hunched over with poor self-esteem, who will confront the arrogant leaders? The pathetic repressed followers would have to wait for an outside hero to come along and fix everything. An ending like that would not prove satisfying, because the resolution must come from the people who are repressed. The people who can blow the whistle must get the courage to do it.
If the people are unable to stand up for themselves, then Scenario Two is more likely. Then the challenge will be whether anyone can do anything. Thus, you look to Scenario Three, for hope that at least one of the menacing characters gets what he deserves, perhaps by inflicting consequences on himself.
There is a novel that follows the worst possible scenario: Kalki, by Gore Vidal (1978). Lord Kalki is the incarnation of Vishnu who comes at the time of dissolution to end the human race. In the novel, an arrogant ex-Marine calls himself Kalki and uses a biological agent to exterminate everyone on earth except himself and five followers.
The narrator, one of the survivors, recalls a TV spot from the night before everyone in the world dies:
There was a small smile on Walter Cronkite’s face as he read: “Tomorrow the Hindu messiah from New Orleans, James J. Kelly, sometimes known as Kalki or Vishun or Siva, will appear at noon Eastern Standard Time on a barge in the Hudson River just off the Battery in downtown Manhattan and, as the god Siva, Mr. Kelly will begin what he calls ‘the dance of eternity.’ According to the ancient Hindus, when Siva does this dance all worlds will be annihilated. So the big question is this: is Jim Kelly of New Orleans really the god Siva? If he is, then tomorrow is the end of the world.” Walter Cronkite allowed one eyebrow to lift. Had it not lifted, there would have been a national panic.()
Gore Vidal allows Kalki to play out his diabolical plot to its conclusion and nobody stops him. The narrator, Teddy Ottinger, describes the world after Kalki kills everyone:
Last July the weather was uncommonly good in New York. By good, I mean traditional. There were no freak storms. The climatic anomalies of the last decade seemed to have stopped. Has the Ice Age (or Greenhouse Age) gone into reverse now that man-made fumes have ceased to pollute the air? Too soon to answer. But skies are bright now, and the weather of the northern hemisphere appears to be changing for the better.()
The last sixty-four pages of the novel describe the end of the world. Kalki’s followers die off one by one over forty-three years. The last entry in the book is written by Kalki himself. Although he has exterminated the human race, he still thinks he’s a god.
I am the last as I was the first. Lakshmi dropped her human body twenty-one years ago. Since the death of Teddy Ottinger sixteen years ago, Geraldine and I have been happy together. This, too, was intended from the beginning. Last night, Geraldine died. To the extent that I am human, I am sad that she is gone. Yet there was no real point for her to remain another day in the human state. Our work is complete. Presently, I shall join them all in Vaikuntha.()
He proclaims himself to be Shiva and that’s how the book ends. Even though the evil guru is never brought to justice, it’s a satisfying, if disturbing, ending. The reader closes the book contemplating the horrible power of fanatics. Reading the story would be a catharsis for former ISKCON members who know how power can drive a guru to do horrible things.
If an ex-member can get the insight of a storyteller, then everything that happened in ISKCON makes sense. All the elements were there: arrogant leaders surrounded by lame followers too brainwashed to question them. It only makes sense that everything happened just the way it did. In a cosmic sense, maybe we were drawn to witness the ISKCON story so that we would learn something about the need for heroism. It takes courage to stand up for what’s right. It is all too easy to hold back and wait for someone else to do it. Every experience in life offers something to learn about maturity and personal responsibility. When ex-members can finally look back on their experiences and see the beginning, middle, and end of a grand story, then the identity crisis is resolved.
This paper offers a look at the themes of ex-membership and stories that act as metaphors to illustrate those themes. Individual ex-members will find their own myths to illustrate these themes, and they may explore additional themes relevant to their unique situations. I offer this collection of literary metaphors with the hope that they will help scholars and others understand the ex-member experience.