Book Review - Servant of the Lotus Feet A Hare Krishna Odyssey

Cultic Studies Review, 4, 2, 2005, 169-177

Servant of the Lotus Feet: A Hare Krishna Odyssey

S. Gabriel Brandis

Universe, Inc. (New York, 2004)

Reviewed by Nori Muster

In a memoir that reads like a novel, Gabriel Brandis recounts his experience in the Hare Krishna Movement, aka International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), from 1980 to 1984. The story begins at the end of his freshman year at Bucks County Community College in Pennsylvania. He travels to Boston College, hoping to transfer there for his last two years. Instead of college counselors and grant administrators, he meets Hare Krishna devotees, joins their temple on Commonwealth Avenue, and drops out of college.

Gabriel takes some hard knocks in school that contribute to his decision to drop out. For example, his bicycle “disappears” after his roommate cleans out the garage, and then he is fired from his job at the library. He comments, “I soon realized that contempt for materialism caused me to lose my job” (p. 11). Gabriel intended to work through these setbacks and finish college. However, what ISKCON promised was too good to turn down: a life of spiritual bliss, free from the ordinary frustrations of the material world.

Gabriel explains that unresolved issues with his family, especially his parents’ divorce, made him vulnerable to joining the temple.  He describes visits with his father as “inevitable torment” (p. 9). He recalls a story from childhood when he tried to set his father up in a fight with another kid’s father. When his father wouldn’t fight, Gabriel recalls thinking, “He wasn’t the tough guy with the leather strap I thought he was” (p. 10). The reader gets the message that Gabriel’s ongoing conflict with his father is a major factor in his need to belong to the cult.

He cites the failure of his religious Jewish upbringing to engage him spiritually and his lifelong search for a meaningful spiritual way of life as the third reason he was drawn into full commitment so easily. (I joined ISKCON under a similar set of circumstances for similar reasons. I was coming up to the end of college, still carrying grief and buried anger over my parents’ divorce, and was not interested in the prospects of a “material” career. Like Gabriel, I was searching for a spiritual way of life.)

Although Gabriel Brandis doesn’t come out and say it, the book shows that ISKCON’s skill at recruiting new members often outweighs the desires of young people to face life’s battles on their own. ISKCON appeared to offer him a loving family of spiritual friends, great food, and answers to all spiritual questions and longings. Like so many who joined up, Gabriel had seen ISKCON literature in libraries and had become interested in the philosophy before meeting ISKCON recruiters.

He meets devotees in the park, visits the temple the next day, and stays overnight. Based on this brief encounter, he decides to drop out of college and move in. It all happens very quickly. He comments:

I had always believed that there are no accidents in life. Conversations with the Krishna devotees over those past couple days led me to a transparent door; on one side was the mundane reality of Commonwealth Avenue, and on the other the eternal glory of the spiritual world. Having considered the situation, I decided to embrace the monastic life (p. 22).

There may be no accidents in life, but there definitely are traps. I know from personal experience that ISKCON is on the lookout for spiritual seekers who appear lost. Their recruiters are trained to single such people out and help them frame their experiences in terms of a destiny to join up.

In the first few days after moving in, Gabriel learns the ISKCON bathroom routines, how to wear the Indian clothes, and how to put on the forehead markings. He begins to attend the morning program, including all the chanting, and so on, and painfully accepts the restrictions on mixing with the opposite sex. He also begins to accept the ISKCON indoctrination of guilt and fear. At first he has trouble staying awake to chant, but his new bhakta leader (mentor) gets him to believe that, “One’s ability to remain awake while chanting is equated with how much love and devotion the worshiper has for the blue god, Krishna” (p. 31).

Within a few days, Gabriel turns over his earthly belongings: a silver college ring, traveler’s checks, his train ticket back to school, and even his clothes. He says, “I expected a thank you, but it never came” (p. 33). He also lets them shave his head. In addition, they make him turn over his journal. He accepts it as necessary because, “By keeping a journal now, comparing the present with the life I renounced, my elevation to pure devotional service would be hindered” (p. 35). Gabriel does not actually say so, but the reader gets the impression that giving up the journal is part of ISKCON’s program to dehumanize new converts and break all connections to their former lives. The temple authorities let him call his mother to tell her where he is and she is devastated.

Within a week of living in the temple, Gabriel turns nineteen. By that time he has completely morphed into an ISKCON devotee, with all the self-deprecating attitudes of long-time followers. Of his birthday, he writes: “Being the commemoration of the birth of my body it was of no significance. Only the birth of Krishna’s pure devotees, so few in number, is celebrated as an ‘Appearance Day’ ” (p. 42).

He fully buys into the guru mystique. He explains:

The mystique was that the pure devotee could “see” his disciple at every moment as though looking into a crystal ball. Fear of offending the spiritual master by thought, word or deed is sufficient to keep the earnest disciple obedient (p. 59).

He learns to lie for the organization the first time he goes out to sell books, a practice known as sankirtan. His sankirtan leader tells him to give someone a button and say he’s raising money for a children’s school. Gabriel asks, “Do we have a school?” He learns that the words don’t matter. The object is to get the money, because anyone who gives money to ISKCON will not have to go to hell. Gabriel catches on and becomes a star sankirtan devotee through most of his four years. He comes to see himself as a spiritual soldier “on the battlefield, preaching to the conditioned souls, and rescuing dollars from their lustful grips” (p. 60).

Although he tells himself he is happy with his new life, the text reveals that he is unhappy. For example, at his first ratha-yatra cart festival, he contemplates suicide, because it is said that anyone who dies under the ratha-yatra cart wheels goes back to Godhead.

I eyed those carnival wheels, imagining what it would be like to lie down in the street, my neck in front of where the wheel would pass, surrounded by dozens of chanting and dancing devotees. Freedom from the torments of this fleshy body, and the mind’s constant cravings would be mine. I would instantaneously become Krishna conscious for eternity (p. 54).

The organization’s brainwashing shows in his attitudes toward practically everything that happens. In one passage a woman devotee is injured in a car accident and her face is permanently scarred from shattered glass. He easily adopts the ISKCON party line:

The underlying belief was that Rasa-Lila Devi, known for being a sincere devotee, was too “attached” to her own beauty, so Krishna affected it for her spiritual well-being (p. 55).

Gabriel’s portrayal is chilling, but accurate. ISKCON trained its devotees to frame everything in terms of guilt for breaking the rules. If someone is too attached to their own beauty, Krishna will “smash” them. If a baby dies, it’s Krishna’s arrangement to break the parents’ material attachments, and so on. In ISKCON there is always a reason for everything that happens, usually something that frightens people into clinging ever more tightly to ISKCON’s shelter.

One of the most significant themes of the book is Gabriel’s relationship to his guru, Bhavananda. Although Gabriel wants to admire Bhavananda and put him on a pedestal, Bhavananda is thoroughly undeserving of worship. It is obvious to the reader that Bhavananda is a fake. (This is not reported in Servant of the Lotus Feet, but in 1985, Bhavananda, supposedly a sannyasi (celibate priest) confessed to forbidden active homosexuality. The ISKCON Governing Body Commission (GBC) then ordered him to give up the company of his traveling companion and stop giving initiations. When he ignored those orders, the GBC defrocked and expelled him in 1987. Bhavananda later returned to ISKCON in the 1990s.)

Reading Gabriel’s account of his guru-disciple relationship with this charlatan is hilariously horrifying. On one hand, the disciple feels guilty over every minor infraction, such as looking at a woman with “lust.” Meanwhile, the guru is carrying on an active sexual life and enjoying plenty of material comforts, such as flying around the world first-class, decorating his fingers with jeweled gold rings, and driving around in a chauffeured white limousine.

Several of Gabriel’s references to Bhavananda make the reader wonder whether he is purposely hinting at the guru’s peccadilloes. For example, this is how he describes one of the other initiates: “Pradyumna, born and raised in England, was flagrantly gay. (p. 92). In the next breath he explains: “I couldn’t help but be jealous of Pradyumna. That frivolous fellow always got the “special mercy” of Vishnupada’s [Bhavananda’s] private association in his chamber” (p. 92)

Later, he follows with: “Pradyumna always made a game of it, generating an air of mystery about his encounter[s] behind Srila Vishnupada’s closed door” (p. 94).

Some things in ISKCON were just secret. In my research after leaving the organization, I discovered underground cultures of both homosexual and heterosexual activity among the sannyasis and their associates. There was also a culture of drug use that was kept secret from the rank and file. Gabriel is not aware of this side of ISKCON until later, when he is deprogrammed. Even then, the deprogrammers only touch on the underlying deceit that is now more out in the open, decades later.

As a devotee, Gabriel only knew what the leaders told him and was not aware of details of the larger troubles plaguing ISKCON and its leaders. His knowledge of the problems is extremely limited and naïve. For example, there was a huge problem in New Vrindaban during those years, which included child abuse, drug smuggling, prostitution, and murder. As a consequence, the guru from that zone later spent twelve years in jail (1992 – 2004). One aspect of the history was that the guru used to send his followers all over the country to do sankirtan in other gurus’ zones. When Gabriel encountered New Vrindaban devotees in his territory at a Grateful Dead concert in Hartford, Connecticut, he explains, “Although they were to be respected as Krishna’s devotees they were regarded as renegades by much of the Hare Krishna movement” (p. 65). That’s all he says about it, because that’s all the ordinary devotees knew.

The organization was writhing with guru problems, but Gabriel only repeats the party line: “The International Society for Krishna Consciousness had been undergoing major internal political changes since the ‘disappearance,’ (i.e. death, for the reader unfamiliar with the jargon) of Srila Prabhupada in 1977 (p. 67). Later he offers up this rumor with innocent curiosity: “There was even talk that some of the spiritual masters, Krishna’s purest devotees on earth, were living secret lives of passion and deceit” (p. 125). Later he adds, “Other spiritual masters were facing criminal charges for serious shenanigans. One by one, the candles of pure devotional service to Krishna were burning out” (p. 190).

In several instances, he mentions a rumor that Ramesvara, the guru for the West Coast, was involved with prostitutes. This is the first time I heard that rumor, even though Ramesvara was my “guru” when I was involved. Though it later came out that Ramesvara had other problems, I never heard that he went to prostitutes. But who knows? There used to be a saying among fringe members that every rumor in ISCKON grows from a grain of truth.

At the end of the book, the deprogrammers show Gabriel newspaper articles about ISKCON’s crimes. He listens to tapes and watches videos of former devotees disclosing what they know about ISKCON’s failings. The deprogrammers introduce Gabriel to former members who tell him what the organization is really like. Finding out the truth about ISKCON helps Gabriel reject his affiliation and give up the indoctrination he had accepted.

Gabriel’s crucial turning point comes way before the deprogramming, however. It happens at the end of Part I, when his guru is giving a class. Gabriel challenges Bhavananda with this question:

Guru-ji, the Hare Krishna philosophy teaches that we are all individuals, and that we each have a unique relationship with Krishna. Yet every day the devotees do the same activities, dress the same, and eat the same. I don’t see where I am becoming an individual? (p. 125)

Gabriel recalls: “The blue-eyed guru turned red. ‘You Hasidic, Mayavadi apparadhe . . . Have you no gratitude for what has been done for you?’ ” (p. 125) Gabriel says, “I didn’t know whether to throw myself off the rooftop, or fall at the feet of His Grace begging forgiveness” (p. 125). He also recounts the condemnation of his peers for challenging the guru. This encounter changes Gabriel from a submissive follower to a follower with doubts. He begins to realize that he is an asset to the organization only as long as he brings in money and doesn’t ask any tough questions.

He also begins to realize that he is criticizing himself for things that are the fault of the organization. The most blatant example is that the organization expected devotees to solicit donations without permits. Over the course of the book he is taken to jail, detained, and ushered off of private property by security guards as a matter of routine. In each incident he tries to cling to the ISKCON party line, blaming himself for the predicament because of his lack of faith, or because of his minor spiritual infractions, such as his “lust” or his “attachments” to the material world.

The reader wants to shake the poor fellow to get him to see what’s really going on. He is being used to raise money and made to feel guilty for everything that goes wrong. His telling of these dilemmas seems true to life. Outsiders who want to understand how brainwashing works will learn well from reading Gabriel’s descriptions. Brainwashing goes deep. Even after undergoing a full deprogramming, he writes in the last chapter, “I understood that the Hare Krishnas are a destructive cult, but it would be years before I could verbalize it without fearing the wrath of God” (p. 218).

The book is a page turner and true to the experience. As an author, Gabriel put himself back into the situation to explain what it was like at each stage. In Part I he is a willing participant, but Part II portrays his disillusionment, leading to his separation from ISKCON. Part II is a study in rebellion against the brainwashers’ rules. He says it himself:

How is it possible to have respect and devotion for a cause when that sentiment no longer exists? That’s what happened in the temple room that night when I inadvertently revealed the little Oz man, my “spiritual master,” behind the grand façade. Ever since then, I simply went through the motions of being Krishna’s devotee” (p. 179).

His feelings toward his guru change from awe and reverence to wishing he could “kick this little man squarely in the ass” (p. 181).

As an expression of his discontent, he starts to skim money off his collections. He saves up about $800 to buy a ticket to Hawaii, where he imagines temple life will be easier. However, he turns the money over to his guru and confesses instead. He asks to trade in his job collecting money for a job in the kitchen, which makes him happy for a time. Still, he finds his enthusiasm slipping. He stops waking up early and takes hot showers instead of the required cold showers. Breaking ISKCON’s rules of austerity, he starts to enjoy things like sunsets, fireworks displays, and looking at women. He even ducks into a peep show cinema one afternoon.

Another theme of the book is his relationship with his parents, which he portrays with touching and realistic emotion. Like Gabriel, and me, many full time ISKCON members stayed in contact with their parents. Often, it’s the only connection that ISKCON cannot completely stamp out, and often it is an individual’s lifeline to eventually leave the organization. It was true for me as it was for Gabriel. His parents eventually lure him out and have him deprogrammed. Meanwhile, a tension builds throughout the book with the reader asking when Gabriel is going to come to his senses and stop hurting his parents by remaining in the group. Even by the end of the story, he has not completely resolved the conflict with his father.

One of the last scenes is a Passover Seder with his father and his father’s side of the family. Gabriel still thinks he’s a member of ISKCON and therefore refuses to eat most of the ritual meal, even the matzah, because “the karma of the non-devotee was baked into it” (p. 198). Despite his fanaticism, his father and other relatives remain tolerant. Perhaps it’s because they know that the deprogramming will take place the following day.

The father makes a small joke about Gabriel’s ISKCON clothing and Gabriel comments, “He had a way of ridiculing whatever I held sacred” (p. 198). The tension is never resolved, but the reader hopes that Gabriel will someday come to terms with his own part in the conflict and use the lessons he learned in his odyssey to make peace with his father.

Another interesting note at the end of the book is his portrayal of the competition between ex-ISKCON members to see who is more detached from the organization. Some ex-members leave the confines of temple life, but remain infatuated with the Hindu philosophy, the practices of ISKCON, and the guru Srila Prabhupada. Others renounce everything about the experience and convert to another religion, or go into the field of counseling cult members who might leave. Most find a comfortable place somewhere in between.

In the epilogue, Gabriel describes meeting a woman he remembered from his days in the organization. Both had been deprogrammed and they exchange stories about their experiences. She says, “It was a shock, but I was happy to get out.” He says, “I think if Hare Krishna was a mainstream religion, and not a rigid cult, it would be okay.” She says, “Personally, I want nothing to do with it.” He says she looked at him “as though I should be back in deprogramming” (p. 216).

The exchange hints at the fact that deprogramming does not solve all of life’s problems. There will still be plenty to learn and plenty of cult programming to undo as the years go on. Brainwashing and cult membership leave a scar that the ex-member must learn to accommodate and live with forever. This book offers a dramatic case study that shows exactly how and why this is so.

This book will be valuable to people who study cult programming. It will also find an audience among people who enjoy novels about cults. It should stand up well along side well known novels about cults, such as Mind Game, by Norman Spinrad (1985), Kalki, by Gore Vidal (1998), and The Program: A Novel, by Gregg Hurwitz (2004). Those books are powerful, but mere fiction. Servant of the Lotus Feet is true.