Book Review - Betrayal of the Spirit

This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1997, Volume 14, Number 2, pages 309-310. Please keep in mind that the pagination of this electronic reprint differs from that of the bound volume. This fact could affect how you enter bibliographic information in papers that you may write.

Book Review - Betrayal of the Spirit: My Life Behind the Headlines of the Hare Krishna Movement. 

Nori J. Muster

University of Illinois Press, Chicago, 1997, 213 pages.

Nori Muster was a member of the Hare Krishna sect, formally known as the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), from 1977 through 1988. In an honest and interesting account, Muster recounts her decade of "devotional service" at the ISKCON public relations headquarters in Los Angeles. Betrayal of the Spirit offers a personal insight into the behind-the-scenes propaganda machine developed by some of ISKCON. As Nandini (Muster's devotee name), the author worked for the ISKCON World Review, the sect's primary public relations tool and in-house newspaper. Circulation reached well over ten thousand throughout the world. The purpose of World Review was not only to inform the members of the goals and gains of the group, but also to feature articles that amounted to damage control of the scandals that increasingly plagued the movement. Muster writes of her years as a member during the most difficult period faced by the sect. She joined just after the founder, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami (Srila Prabhupada), died and left his colorful organization with too many immature, confused, and corrupt leaders.

Woven throughout Muster's presentation of corruption is her struggle to remain a good devotee according to the principles set down by Prabhupada. Her relationship with her father, Bill Muster, also provides a subplot that enlightens us even more about the "politics" behind the public relations scenes. Bill Muster was an accomplished communications professional and businessman who sustained a close relationship with his daughter all the while she worked for ISKCON. He often advised Nandini and her boss, Mukunda, with valuable strategies. This did not mean that he approved of all the group stood for, but he did support his daughter's chosen spiritual path. He died of cancer not long after his daughter found herself outside of ISKCON in 1988.

Nandini was not seeking to quit ISKCON. The pervasive suppression of women's natural rights under Prabhupada's chauvinistic system and her desire to assert those rights coupled to finally set her aside. In the end, Nandini could not convince her bosses to report the news of ISKCON's plights accurately. Despite talk of efforts to reform the movement, the male chauvinism won out; Nandini's efforts were dismissed.

Back in the world as Nori Muster, the author tells us that she still sustains her belief in Krishna as her God. At times she participates in devotional activity at the temples and chants the mantra. At the end she says, "I admire Prabhupada ... Were it not for Prabhupada's courage and sacrifice in coming to the United States in 1965, many more lives would have been wasted on drugs and fruitless searching." I find this last statement filled not only with loyalty and devotion, but also with irony and a touch of denial. I find little in Muster's book about the mixed messages Prabhupada sent to his leaders about selling books and fund- raising. Muster does not write of strong indications in letters by Prabhupada that speak of an insatiable need to have his books distributed and his name recognized globally. Hare Krishna devotees, whether in or out of ISKCON, might admit to corruption within the managerial ranks, but few dare criticize Prabhupada whom they see as the "pure devotee" worthy of a godlike worship.

The hyperactive response in ISKCON to recruit new members and raise money, even illegally and unethically, had to grow from the founder's instruction. As Muster indicates, to many of the devotees, "Prabhupada said" was as good as a word from Krishna himself. Many Hare Krishnas and their agents knew that Prabhupada was pleased with all the money they brought in from major drug sales. Prabhupada made a point to disapprove of selling drugs, but the successful drug sellers were the ones who could "catch the big fish without getting wet," a Prabhupada saying. To her credit, Muster does not flinch in recounting the facts about the corruption.

The book's greatest value, I think, rests in its sensitive exposure of the intricate guru system unwittingly left behind by Prabhupada. It becomes clear that Prabhupada retained ultimate leadership in himself through his writings, and he did not invest an equal rank to anyone, despite the claims of a few ISKCON gurus. Muster both describes and explains this power struggle within the ISKCON sect and self better than anyone has, to my knowledge. Exposures like hers are needed if Prabhupada's movement is to continue in its struggle to reform and become a worthy home for devotees like Nandini.

Joseph Szimhart 

Pottstown, Pennsylvania

Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 14, No. 2, 1997