Betrayal of the Spirit

Betrayal of the Spirit: My Life behind the Headlines of the Hare Krishna Movement

NORI J. MUSTER
Foreword by Larry D. Shinn
Copyright Date: 2001
Pages: 256
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/j.ctt5hjjjv
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    Betrayal of the Spirit
    Book Description:

    Combining behind-the-scenes coverage of an often besieged religious group with a personal account of one woman's struggle to find meaning in it, Betrayal of the Spirit takes readers to the center of life in the Hare Krishna movement. Nori J. Muster joined the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON)--the Hare Krishnas--in 1978, shortly after the death of the movement's spiritual master, and worked for ten years as a public relations secretary and editor of the organization's newspaper, the ISKCON World Review. In this candid and critical account, Muster follows the inner workings of the movement and the Hare Krishnas' progressive decline. Combining personal reminiscences, published articles, and internal documents, Betrayal of the Spirit details the scandals that beset the Krishnas--drug dealing, weapons stockpiling, deceptive fundraising, child abuse, and murder within ISKCON–as well as the dynamics of schisms that forced some 95 percent of the group's original members to leave. In the midst of this institutional disarray, Muster continued her personal search for truth and religious meaning as an ISKCON member until, disillusioned at last with the movement's internal divisions, she quit her job and left the organization. In a new preface to the paperback edition, Muster discusses the personal circumstances that led her to ISKCON and kept her there as the movement's image worsened. She also talks about "the darkest secret"–child abuse in the ISKCON parochial schools--that was covered up by the public relations office where she worked.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09499-6
    Subjects: Religion, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface to the Paperback Edition
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Foreword
    (pp. xi-xvi)
    Larry D. Shinn

    Betrayal of the Spiritis an honest and critical insider’s view of the missionary Indian religious movement in the United States popularly called the Hare Krishnas and more formally named the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). It is also a thoughtful religious autobiography by a young woman who joined the Krishna movement in 1978 and assumed a position in the public relations office at the national headquarters in Los Angeles.

    Betrayal of the Spirit,therefore, interweaves two narratives. The primary story line unfolds a well-researched account of what has happened to the Hare Krishnas in the United States since...

  5. Preface
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
  6. People in This Volume
    (pp. xix-xx)
  7. 1 ISKCON: The Krishnas’ International Society
    (pp. 1-9)

    The Hare Krishnas’ Western world headquarters is on a residential street in West Los Angeles called Watseka Avenue, just off Venice Boulevard near Culver City. Every weekend the temple holds a gathering, the “Sunday Love Feast,’ for the congregation. It was a warm summer evening in 1978. I was twenty-two and had been a Hare Krishna for about a month. Dozens of people milled on the sidewalk and more cruised Watseka Avenue for parking places. A loudspeaker atop the temple gift store broadcast the rhythmic, fast notes of an Indian raga over the congregation. I walked up the block, beginning...

  8. 2 Unexpected Requirements
    (pp. 10-22)

    During the winter quarter another group of devotees passed through Santa Barbara and asked me to start abhakti-yogaclub on campus. Having an official club meant that we could chant and give out BBT literature in front of the student union. I did the paperwork and got my sociology professor and a few students from my psychology class to sign as club sponsors. After the traveling devotees went on their way, Subhananda and I enjoyed our afternoons “preaching” on campus. We brought a string instrument called a tamboura and brass cymbals, spread a rug on the concrete, displayed a...

  9. 3 Going Solo into ISKCON
    (pp. 23-33)

    Subhananda and I were studying together one day when he announced that he would leave Santa Barbara soon to spend a year preaching at the Denver temple.

    “I’m sorry to have to leave you, but in spiritual life, everyone ultimately has to fly their own plane,” he said. “It’s called going solo.”

    I accepted his philosophical remarks but felt sorry I would lose my friend. In exchange for a year of service, the Denver temple president had offered to send Subhananda to the Mayapur Festival, an annual gathering in India. The pilgrimage marks the appearance of Lord Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu,...

  10. 4 My Zonal Guru
    (pp. 34-46)

    One summer morning the alarm clock failed to go off, and everyone in our ashram woke up late. We had a good excuse, but I hated being late to anything, even the dentist. The ashram mother reinforced my compulsivity by reminding me that the whole day would be less spiritual on account of missing the conch shell at 4:30 A.M. I could picture the temple room lights dimming and the altar doors opening. The morning prayers were beginning as I waited in line with my towel. By the time I got to the temple room the service was almost over....

  11. 5 Jonestown Fallout
    (pp. 47-53)

    Summer ended, and talk around the temple turned to the Christmas marathon. Rumors went around that the L.A. airport might be closed to ISKCON because of badsankirtanpractices. Mukunda and Ramesvara spent hours negotiating with LAX officials, finally reaching a compromise. LAX painted red safety lines around the escalators, and ISKCON promised that their solicitors would stay behind the lines and not buttonhole traffic coming off the escalator. It seemed like the compromise would guarantee a great Christmas marathon. Unfortunately, the reputation for aggressive fundraising, combined with a mass suicide in an obscure country on the northern rim of...

  12. 6 A Spiritual Disneyland
    (pp. 54-60)

    In April 1979, Kirtanananda, the guru for the Krishna commune in West Virginia, announced ambitious plans to turn his rural community into a “spiritual theme park.” He wanted to chart a ten-year publicity plan, and when he called the P.R. office Mukunda told him about my father. I’d been a devotee barely a year when Kirtanananda sent tickets for Mukunda, my dad, and me to fly to New Vrindaban for a P.R. consultation.

    We landed in Pittsburgh at dawn, and the temple president met us at the gate. He and Mukunda talked all the way to the baggage claim, while...

  13. 7 Drug Busts, Guns, and Gangsters
    (pp. 61-71)

    My first year of doing ISKCON’s P.R. had been a challenge, especially because of Jonestown. Mukunda didn’t let Jonestown get to him. It probably seemed like nothing, because his first year in ISKCON P.R., 1977, had been much worse, especially October and November of that year.

    In October 1977, a former devotee named Robin George (initiated by Prabhupada as Rajanath-devi Dasi) and her mother, Marcia George, filed a multimillion-dollar civil lawsuit charging seven ISKCON branches and two individuals with kidnapping, brainwashing, and false imprisonment. One of the individuals named in the suit was Rishabdev, the longtime Laguna Beach temple president....

  14. 8 Who’s Watching the Children?
    (pp. 72-77)

    My father once commented, “You can win more people to your side with pictures of kids and animals than with any other gimmick.” This rule applied to the April 1980Lifemagazine cover of two beautiful Hare Krishna girls wearing colorful saris and big smiles. Fortunately for ISKCON, the magazine was on the stands in every market in the United States throughout most of Hamsadutta’s upheaval.

    Lifephotographer Ethan Hoffman had originally contacted our office shortly after Jonestown. He told me that he wanted to shoot pictures of the Los Angelesgurukula,the private school for Hare Krishna children. I...

  15. 9 The Gurus Start World War III
    (pp. 78-85)

    Externally, ISKCON was exposed and suffering from the backlash of negative press. Within the organization there was an abundance of gossip, distrust, and backbiting but little real communication. Some devotees said it was better to continue in one’s service, ignoring the confusing political situation, while others wanted accountability from the leaders. It takes two to tango and there are two sides to every story, my mother taught me. If a war were to start in the Hare Krishna organization it would be between two distinct parties: those who supported the Governing Body Commission and those who felt the GBC betrayed...

  16. 10 The Storm Within: The Guru Issue
    (pp. 86-94)

    Just as all inside devotees were practically next of kin, we also shared a host of common symbolism. When a man shaved his head, it was an act full of meaning for himself and everyone he met. Most people would interpret it to symbolize the renunciation and spiritual transformation of someone entering into ascetic life.

    When someone said the gurus were not “real” gurus like Prabhupada, that was also symbolic and charged with meaning. Prabhupada was theacharya,the spiritual leader, and he was thesik-shaguru (instructing guru) for all his followers. He was also thedik-shaguru (initiating...

  17. 11 P.R. Publications Promote ISKCON
    (pp. 95-104)

    In addition to playing the piano, Mukunda’s other passion was writing. He no longer played, but he wrote for publication all the time. In 1980, he, Ramesvara, and another guru dreamed up a plan that made our operation the ISKCON propaganda headquarters for the world. TheL.A. Timeshad already dubbed Mukunda’s press kits “smooth, slick and effective,” and Ramesvara took that as a good sign. He raised the P.R. budget to $2,000 a month so Mukunda could work on a series of best-selling paperback books under a new BBT imprint, the Vedic Contemporary Library Series.

    Ramesvara knew that ISKCON...

  18. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  19. 12 Ramesvara Crashes
    (pp. 105-116)

    While the P.R. office chugged along at a steady pace, I didn’t notice that my guru’s world was deteriorating. Ramesvara’s woes were typical of the gurus. In L.A. he had trouble keeping the good Prabhupada disciples and went through several temple presidents in a few years. At one point he felt obliged to take on the role himself, which only added to his stress. Senior devotees formed a temple board to make decisions, including what to do about Ramesvara himself.

    Revenues to the BBT were down, too. Ramesvara’ssankirtanteams couldn’t deliver like they had in the 1970s, and other...

  20. 13 The Revolution of Guru Reform
    (pp. 117-127)

    There is an old story about eleven blindfolded men trying to describe an elephant. One man touches the tusk and says the elephant feels smooth and hard. Another inspects the ears and says the elephant is thin and flexible, another man touches the trunk, another the tail, and so on. The guru issue was like an elephant, with each zone representing a different part. Possibly the only person who ever fully understood it was Prabhupada himself, and he did not name a successor. He could neither predict how the family tree would evolve nor order it by decree. Only time...

  21. 14 P.R. Bails Out of L.A.
    (pp. 128-136)

    TheISKCON World Reviewdeadline loomed over the holiday season while Uddhava and I sold cookies in front of department stores. It was our duty to Ramesvara, but we were both getting sick of the routine. It was my sixth Christmas marathon; Uddhava had done as many and also worked parking lots and airports in Denver and Las Vegas. We were totally dedicated to the newspaper but only slightly patriotic about soliciting funds for the BBT. Nevertheless, completing the marathon and making the deadline would provide a sense of satisfaction. Our fiftieth issue, including the story of the assault on...

  22. 15 1986: The Year of Crisis
    (pp. 137-145)

    Ramesvara’s admission of weakness and his stern censure were blows to the movement, but the next week brought a harsher and more fateful event. Sulochan, the man who claimed to be on New Vrindaban’s hit list, was shot to death in his van near the Los Angeles temple. When someone from L.A. called to tell us the news, Uddhava and I went out the door for a long, reflective walk on the beach. It was impossible to get back to work that day because neither of us could explain why being a Hare Krishna had suddenly become so dangerous. We...

  23. 16 The Budget Axe
    (pp. 146-154)

    Mornings were a good time to chant, as Subhananda had taught me. Rising early to see the deity and meditate helped me put ISKCON’s problems out of my mind. Chanting at the Laguna Beach temple was lonely though, because it was always deserted. The dozen or so full-time devotees worked through the morning program tending the deities and preparing the restaurant to open.

    One morning in August the desolate restaurant area depressed me, so I threw open the doors to look at the sun making its way over the hills. I chanted outside on the concrete steps as people drove...

  24. 17 The ISKCON World Review Crosses the Line
    (pp. 155-162)

    When the December issue came back from the printer, I drove to Hollywood to bring Dad his copy. We sat and talked about Kirtanananda and the situation in New Vrindaban. Tirtha (Thomas Drescher) had been convicted of the 1983 murder of Chakradhari (Charles St. Denis) and sentenced to life in prison in West Virginia. Next, he faced a federal grand jury indictment and trial in California for Sulochan’s murder. The grand jury was building a conspiracy case against Kirtanananda. To make matters worse for the P.R. department, Kirtanananda had gone on a nationwide “Freedom Tour” to vindicate himself. His press...

  25. 18 Six Months Out of Print
    (pp. 163-170)

    In an editorial meeting with my father, Uddhava suggested that we print a stinging statement of solidarity with Panchadravida, announce our resignation, and then go out of print. Dad warned against burning our bridges and said that doing so would destroy whatever good we had already accomplished. Instead, he encouraged us to do the honorable thing: follow the Western Zonal Council’s advice to produce two separate publications and make both of them the best we could. One would be all the good news, suitable for congregational members; the other would be interviews, editorials, and letters on the guru issue. If...

  26. 19 Women’s Lesser Intelligence
    (pp. 171-175)

    As the spring of 1988 turned into summer, an ad hoc committee of East Coast devotees planned a conference at the Towaco, New Jersey, temple to examine ISKCON’s issues. By that time, more temples were reducing guru worship, especially on the East and West Coasts, and Towaco had been the site of the temple presidents meeting that originally led to guru reform. Sponsoring another conference there, now that guru reform was taking place, attracted much favorable attention. The organizers ran an ad in theISKCON World Reviewto invite people to present papers on any subject, including the role of...

  27. 20 Moving On
    (pp. 176-182)

    The lead story for the November issue was theMonkey on a Stickbook review. My father suggested the headline, “‘Monkey’ Book Unfair to Hare Krishna Movement” and wrote the lead paragraph: “A new book, now at the bookstores, deals harshly with the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), painting a picture of worldwide crime and corruption.” Our editorial, “New Book Slights Movement, Sincere Devotees,” argued that many devotees were not even aware of the illegal activities described inMonkey on a Stick.

    My interview that month was with Drista, headmaster of the Dallasgurukula,the very location that had...

  28. Appendix: Status of People and Things in This Volume, 2000
    (pp. 183-184)
  29. Notes
    (pp. 185-194)
  30. Glossary
    (pp. 195-196)
  31. Bibliography
    (pp. 197-206)
  32. Index
    (pp. 207-214)
  33. Back Matter
    (pp. 215-217)