Wednesday, January 23, 2008

A Lila Without the Amrita

I hesitate to share this because it is neither transcendental nor tragic. It’s a part of my personal history and the tiniest of footnotes in the story that was Iskcon in the 70’s. I always thought that if i had been gifted to be a novelist, i could have written a classic book based on my experiences in the “good old days.” But this is not where my talent lies. So the reader will need to lower his expectations and forgive my clumsy prose.

This little story is related to my personal encounters with leaders back in the glory days of Iskcon. I met and knew almost all of them, some more, some less. But enough to know, by 1984, that i could no longer keep my personal integrity and remain within Iskcon. That was already 24 years ago, a double yuga of years have passed since. Some of the new leaders like to say that Iskcon has changed, and i agree. But change is not always progress. My impression is that in Iskcon’s case, change is regressive, from a movement flawed by ambitious and sick leaders but which had the pure force of Srila Prabhupada's desire, to a sophisticated institution that has become banal and corrupt. The proof of the pudding, at least in the West, is that the preachers, pujaris and cooks are all imported.

But this is a story about the past. It begins when i first moved into a temple in 1970. It was early winter, in Chicago. That is where i met my first “leader,” Bhagavan das. Even in those days, he rarely used the “das” in the name given to him by Srila Prabhupada. He was always arrogant, but he was also very serious about his role as a leader. He personally drove with me from Chicago to his own temple in Detroit, answering my questions as a new man. At that time the devotees had rented a freezing storefront in Chicago, so Bhagavan took me to Detroit where there was a “real” temple, a heated house filled with incense wafting thru it, transcendental paintings on the walls and Lord Jagannath deities on the altar. It was full of enthusiastic young men and women who were eager to get up at 4 am to chant and engage in austerities. Bhagavan ran it like a boot camp. We had four or five classes per day, with arotiks, prasadam and street sankirtan squeezed in between. We did everything together— like clockwork— from rising to taking rest. Bhagavan participated in most of the activities, except going out on the street. The atmosphere was military-like but transcendental. This was 10 years before the gold plated bathroom fixtures and closets full of cashmere sweaters. Bhagavan was a controller, but a modest one.

It was in Detroit that i shaved my head and decided to give this new philosophy and the path offered by Srila Prabhupada a real try. But the discipline and mood of Bhagavan's was a bit rough on me, so as soon as a chance for a more liberal adventure came by, i took it.

That came in just a few weeks time when Kirtanananda turned up on a brief stopover on his way back from India. He was like a special forces colonel (Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now?) compared to Bhagavan’s role as an upcoming lieutenant on the front lines. Kirtananda had just returned from India, and his reputation as Iskcon’s first sannyasi (at that time there were fewer than 10 sannyasis in the whole movement) preceded him. I asked him if i could go with him to New Vrindavan. He replied that only a handful of brahmacaris were spending the winter there and they had to chisel ice out of their shoes when they got up in the morning. But, i could accompany him to Pittsburg, where he had a city temple he told me. I signed up, and because he outranked Bhagavan, i was on my way to Pittsburg.

I was a little awe-struck by Kirtanananda when we first met. He played the role of the charismatic ascetic so well. He spoke with power and conviction. He had a grasp of the philosophy that i was just starting to know. He seemed genuinely austere and determined, generating that “first disciple” aura. But as soon as we got to Pittsburg, i knew i was in trouble. The temple was in a giant former Polish dance hall. It was filled with toxic fumes from vats of chemical dyes used for dipping incense sticks. It was the home of Spiritual Sky. I guess it was funding Kirtanananda’s work because he seemed to love the smell. After the trip from Detroit to Pittsburg, i had very few personal dealing with K. He was busy, and it was up to me to find some engagement in Pittsburg. He never did anything overtly evil or suspect, but i never felt completely comfortable around him. He always seemed ambitious, on the make. For a long time, i thought that was his desire to serve. Only much later i understood he had his own internal demons he was fighting. And his ambition had a ruthless, even sadistic quality to it.

In Pittsburg, i got involved in acting in some plays that we performed for guests on Sundays. And trying to keep my sanity at nites from what appeared to be a number of ghosts who frequented the temple. Perhaps some long deceased jilted Polish lovers.

Soon i was again feeling restless. My friend, whom i had been living with before he joined Iskcon, Marz (who later became Atreya Rishi), was now living in the New York temple. They had recently moved from Second Avenue to Henry Street in Brooklyn. So New York was my next stop. Bhavananda was TP, or TA, Temple Autocrat. Bhavananda was always surrounded by beautiful young brahmacarinis. We called them the “gopi club.” It had nothing to do with philosophy: the girls just served Bhavananda’s wishes. Everyone thought he was so renounced to engage these pretty young girls without becoming attracted to them. That was 15 years before he was outed as a flaming gay queen. His choice of decor should have tipped us off, but we were really innocent kids at the time.

Bhavananda’s istagostis and classes were exercises in power politics. It was fear, not love that ruled. No one had the courage to raise an objection without inciting his sarcasm or wrath. In class, if you asked a question starting with “I think,” you were told to go into the closet. It was the beginning of cult consciousness. After a few months in New York, i told my friend Marz, that the movement would fail because the leaders i had seen were all egomaniacs. Marz didn’t disagree with me, but he excitedly told me that we could change Iskcon. Within six months, his desire to lead was recognized by some of the others and he was added to the GBC, only to be removed by Srila Prabhupada (who temporarily disbanded the GBC for acting without his approval). Later, Prabhupada requested him to join the newly reactivated GBC.

Marz, who became Atreya Rishi that summer, was a different type of leader. He was more intellectual and professional than the rest. He was a graduate of Harvard Business School and a CPA working for a multinational company. He was also coming from a different cultural background, from Iran. Because we had been friends prior to joining, i had a different relationship with him than with the other leaders. It was closer and i trusted him more. He took a lot of crap from the others; he was seen as a misfit and an oddball. He made alliances with some of them, but in the end, after 15 years of being marginalized as the class clown in the GBC, he left Iskcon, along with his own doubts. To this day, i think he remains traumatized by his experiences with his godbrothers on the GBC.

My next encounter was with Rupanuga, a GBC at that time. We shared a plane ride. I had left the movement just before Srila Prabhupada returned to the US in the summer of 1971. I had Prabhupada's darshan for the first time in Detroit, then i sat directly behind Prabhupada on a plane going to Boston. Rupanuga sat next to me. I had wanted to meet Prabhupada personally, but i could not find the right words to introduce myself on the flight, so i kept quiet, listening to Rupanuga. He was trying to convince me to rejoin Iskcon. His argument was that Iskcon was destined to become a big organization, and i could get in on the ground floor. It was basically a sales pitch to join a corporate start up and work my way up the ladder. As a musician and semi-hippie, i thought his rationale was way off-base. I was thinking, i'm here because of that pure devotee who is sitting in front of me, not because i want to join a company. But his words show that even way back then, in 1971, the leaders were already thinking about power and success, not about love or even about Prabhupada.

I failed to meet Prabhupada personally that summer, but i did send him a tape of a couple of songs about Krishna i recorded, and he wrote me back a short but inspiring letter, to use my artistic abilities to please him and Krishna. I immediately decided to join a group of devotees who were forming in New Vrindavan, in what was to become known as “The Road Show.” Again, that meant to be under the influence of Kirtanananda, but i didn’t mind, since i would be with a group of talented devotees, doing what i enjoyed most: music and theatre.

Rehearsals with the musicians at New Vrindavan went pretty smoothly for a few weeks, until an extremely agitated and pushy brahmacari came to join the band. His name was Harikesa, who later became a Swami and one of the infamous zonal acaryas. His self described style of music was jazz-rock, but in my opinion he was just a terrible musician. Worse, he was a bully, and forced his style on the rest of us. I lasted about 2 months with the “Road Show.” Soon after a letter arrived from India giving me my spiritual name in Hari Nama initiation by Srila Prabhupada, i left Sarasota, Florida where we were rehearsing.

That spring (1972) i went to L.A. It was one of the best organized and largest temples in Iskcon at the time. It had a recording studio and produced a weekly radio show. That was where i met Jayatirtha who was the TP at the time. Jayatirtha was always a gentleman with me. This was a welcome contrast for me. He had a more inclusive style and generally seemed a lot less of a sociopath than the others i had seen. I enjoyed the time i spent in L.A., and the great bonus for me was that Prabhupada spent 4 months there, giving morning Bhagavatam classes that spring and summer. He also gave private darshans in his room in the late mornings, and regularly i was allowed to attend those, and occasionally readings of Krishna Book in his small garden just outside the temple. Looking back, i was foolish to leave L.A. when i did. But i was feeling agitated by all the young brahmacarinis at the time. I went to the Chicago temple and worked with a brilliant artist named Jaya Rama on a newspaper project i named “Easy Journey to Other Planets,” after Prabhupada’s book of the same title.

In the spring of 1973 i left Chicago to return to New York. By then Atreya was making plans to go to Tehran to open the first branch of Iskcon in the Muslim world, and he had asked Prabhupada if he could bring me along. After 6 months of preparations and delays, i left for Iran in September. Tehran was really off the beaten path of Iskcon. There were only 4 of us there at first: Atreya, myself and our 2 wives. We were joined by a young sannyasi, Paribrajakacarya, in 1974. I spent probably the 4 best years of my Iskcon life in Tehran, doing a bit of preaching, selling a few sets of Prabhupada’s Bhagavatams to the Iranian Parliament’s Library, doing street kirtan in the park on Fridays (the Muslim holy day of the week), and best of all, spending 11 days with Srila Prabhupada during his 2 visits to Tehran.

I had to leave Iran twice. Once i left after Prabhupada’s final visit in 1976, to get some career training in the US. I needed to work in Tehran, to maintain my visa, so i left for 18 months. I returned and got a great job as the director of a health club for the elite of Tehran, only to be forced to leave during the revolution against the Shah of Iran in early 1979. I went to London (after spending 24 hours at the Tehran airport trying to get a booking— all flights overbooked, everything on strike, high tension in the air and a possible civil war at any moment). In London i met a Bengali doctor who invited me to go to Calcutta with him. I took him to Mayapur and introduced him to Bhavananda (who was now the King— & Queen— of Iskcon’s World Headquarters) and Jayapataka. This was in the early days of Zonal Acaryaism. The jury was still out as we, the godbrothers were naive and still hopeful that Iskcon would continue with the faith Prabhupada had given us. We were, in retrospect, partially responsible for the inevitable outcome by our ignorance. We were complicit. I certainly was. I needed an engagement. I couldn’t return to Iran. So i asked Rameswar if i could go back to L.A. to become his personal secretary.

He didn’t know me well. I had known him as a super sincere, dedicated brahmacari. Now he was a sannyasi and guru. It was a big mistake for me to work for him. When i got to L.A., I was so emotionally disturbed by what i experienced in his office, i could not eat any solid food for 3 weeks. I lived on buttermilk. Rameswar was a meticulous fault finder. He criticized anyone and everyone. He spent thousands of dollars each month on international phone calls. He had his own private Mercedes which he would use to go to see films. The Godfather was his favorite. He would put on an expensive hair piece and karmi clothes and slip into his Benz at nite. I assumed that watching films was all he did. That’s what the resident president at the time, Dhira Krishna, another sannyasi, told me.

After 4 months of being his secretary, i somehow convinced Sruti Kirti to come from Hawaii and take over for me. But during that period, i met all the Zonals who came over for a big meeting. Jayatirtha, one of my few friends amongst the leaders, had started taking drugs. He was going into “trance” while sitting on the vyasasan. One of the 2 gurus who was still a householder at that time, the other zonals brought him to the meeting in L.A., and confronted him. They told him to take sannyas, or they would out him as an LSD user and remove him as "acarya." The poor guy was attached. He put on saffron. That was the end of his marriage and the end of any chance he had to rectify himself. It was not the end of his taking drugs. He later left Iskcon to start his own apa cult, only to be brutally murdered by one of his own disgruntled disciples.

It was at that meeting i met the rest of the Zonals. Of course i knew Satsvarup from BTG days. He was quiet but restless and dictatorial. Hrdayananda was the most blatantly arrogant, like a gifted child who was completely spoiled. He was also a glutton, stuffing himself with chocolate cake whenever he could. (The zonals always had special cooks and the very best prasadam.) Tamal was there as well. He invited me to go with him on a one week visit to Fiji. I accepted his invitation. We ate very well during that visit. Besides the prasadam, all i remember is him arguing with the local devotees about the exact dimensions that was needed for his vyasasan in the temple in Fiji. Everyone of the zonals was playing a role. None of them showed any transcendental symptoms. Rather they acted like Mafia bosses who sometimes cooperated and sometimes fought with each other.

The next year, i left L.A. to rejoin Atreya in San Francisco. By then, the revolution in Iran had forced him to leave as well. He started a small community in S.F., called the Bhaktivedanta Fellowship. The idea was to create an alternative within Iskcon based not on megalomania but on brahminical standards. We had a brahminical council that met weekly, and while our exchanges were more collegial than in the typical temple, none of us really had any idea of how to interact as brahmins. In addition, all of us were already tired from a decade of mismanagement. I noted that Atreya, who was the leader, wanted to do the right thing, but wasn’t fully committed himself. And neither were any of us. The Fellowship was doomed.

During that time i met Hamsadutta. He was across the Bay in Berkeley. I walked into his room one evening while he was going on about the glories of Hitler. I just sat there listening for about an hour. After that one session, i was afraid of visiting the Berkeley temple again until after he left. My instincts were correct. He was soon busted for shooting up an auto showroom in Berkeley with automatic weapons.

It’s been a long time— 30 plus years — and memories fade. But what i do know is that i don’t think i will see such madness, and such disparity between potential and reality again in this life. That was Iskcon then. What it is now does not attract me. As Rocana has written, not a single leader has invited me, over the past 24 years, for any service or association. On my own, i have spent a bit of time with 1 or 2 leaders of the new Iskcon. They were polite to me. I am addressed as a "senior devotee," which in my opinion only marginalizes me. Iskcon appears to be more polished and saner now than it was 30 years ago. But for me, it's also lost its own heart and soul. That is the heart and soul of Srila Prabhupada.


Sita-pati das said...

Condensed nectar!

Thanks for the summary prabhu.

The import phenomenon is definitely a symptom of something wrong. As Srila Prabhupada said, centers should be run by local men (and women).

It's quite like that in the States (and other places in the West, as you point out), but there are some places where old school revival is going on. The same essential dynamic is there - inspired individual initiative.

As Srila Prabhupada himself said: ISKCON may fall, but someone can start the whole thing all over again simply by reading his books. Books are the basis. Purity is the Force.

thanks for writing!

Ekendra Dasa said...

Haribol Prabhu.

I can't really argue with your observation that a lot of the organizational trends in ISKCON are lacking potency to inspire. That's my personal realization too.

I do meet devotees who are sincere and trying their best to just be devotees as Srila Prabhupada wanted. To me, this is what ISKCON really is and if the leadership happens to serve them then great.

If not, oh well - life goes on. I stopped expecting the leadership to be anything useful some time ago. Sometimes I'm pleasantly surprised though. More often, I need to affirm to myself that the weird stuff that may go on in these elitist circles is pretty irrelevant to ISKCON as I want to see it.

Still, the ISKCON of 2008 seems the best place to serve devotees who are committed to Srila Prabhupada and accept his authoritative conclusions and directions. I find very little scope for this in other maths - and, personally, I'm not strong enough to go it alone.

Billy said...

As an outsider - and one who has tried to be a friend of members of ISKCON - I think your writings here took a remarkable amount of courage. Even though you may feel distance from the original spiritual commitment and devotion you had. I know from personal experience denial is a powerful thing, that blinds us from what is true. If God is the essence of truth itself, surely then denial causes a separation from him, by it's very nature.

I am really so sorry for what you all have gone through. I am sure that Krishna and Sri Prabupada feel your collective sorrow as well. When we study the history of Comparative Religions/Man's attempts to collectively raise his spiritual state, your experiences are unfortunately not uncommon, and in every Great Religious movement.

I think inside we know, the Sky is crying. And this pain is not only our own pain, it is the Cosmic pain. But we are children of our Creator, and so to inherit his burden and sorrow is our inescapable destiny. And it is my faith that we cannot, being of divine origin, ever be less. Although I'm sure we all wish to create better for our Children.

Thanks for sharing.

David/Nrsimha/Pyramid/ITV said...

Who said you couldn't be a writer? Your chronicle was brilliant exposition. More! You portrayed the inner life of an aspiring Prabhupadanuga with insight and objectivity. Nothing you said was judgemental. The facts speak for themselves, and you shared your personal realizations without blame. The beauty of how you see yourself is described most clearly on your blog site: "Disciple of His Divine Grace. A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada." I only hope that in some life I can look in the mirror and find that piece of me that reflects that identity. Please visit me any time and give me (and Zubin) your association. YS, Nrsimhananda das