The following article was written on Wednesday, 16 Sept 2020 and first published in my gopherspace.
Wednesday, 16 Sept 2020
It’s been one week since I returned from the ashrama.
I still haven’t wrapped my head around everything.
It’s been several years since the brahmacaris have been telling me to join the ashrama and stay with them. Every time someone gave me the proposal I’d shrug it off and say I’d consider it when the time was right.
Maybe this time wasn’t right.
Or maybe the time would never have been right.
The general method ISKCON uses to recruit new members is by feeding them prasadam. And it’s nice to give people the mercy of the Lord but it’s not very appropriate to exhibit duplicitous behavior when dealing with outsiders.
Just because outsiders don’t know much about devotional service doesn’t mean they’re incapable of noticing when there’s shady behavior.
I grew up in ISKCON. I’ve lived in 3 other temples for various periods of time. But I’ve lived outside the temple for the most part.
I understand how life in the temple works. And it amuses me when devotees living within the temple treat me like some newbie.
Simple feeding people delicious foodstuff offered to the Lord isn’t enough to convert them and change their minds. There has to be transparency.
When Srila Prabhupada went to the West, he was very transparent about everything.
Anyone could write a letter to “the Swamiji” and get a response.
And he responded to every letter. No matter how brief it was.
It was a personal touch. He was aware of the problems and obstacles each of his disciples were facing.
His senior disciples could not misguide or mistreat the junior disciples and get away with it.
Where is that personal touch in ISKCON today?
The GBC, Sannyasis and Temple Presidents don’t care about the lives of individual devotees anymore. They deal with the masses of congregations. The only people fortunate to have a meeting or personal conversation with them are the rich and wealthy donors and senior initiated devotees.
And all the junior devotees and new members wander around aimlessly, constantly being micromanaged and harrassed by senior devotees; and they either move out of the temples or leave ISKCON entirely.
When I met the Temple President from the local temple, I gave him my word to move in, do service and perform kirtana.
And to the senior devotees present, that must have been their green light: “Now that the boy’s trapped, we own him now. He’ll have to play by our rules.”
I have no idea what they were thinking, but it must have been something pretty much along the line of what I just said.
A man’s gotta eat. But there’s much more to life than just feeding the stomach. You can’t expect someone to stay put in a mismanaged organization simply by feeding him.
The prasadam is nice. But there’s other things too.
When you move into the ashrama, and you tell the devotees there that you don’t know how to do something, this is the response you get (aka I got): “Oh! That’s so simple! It’s the easiest thing in the world! You just do this and this (describes how quickly he does it) and that’s it!”
Yeah, but can you show me how to do it, just once?
“Ah it’s easy! I just told you how to do it!”
But I asked you to show me!
“Yeah, no. I’m busy right now. I have services at this time and that time and our free times won’t align.”
And that’s it.
If you’re a newbie, you’ll never see a demonstration of the “simple and easy things”. You’ll just beat your way around the bush, make a dozen mistakes and learn from it.
Why is it so difficult to take some time out to help a new guy? He’s a part of the ashrama as much as you are. If you know something that he doesn’t, why don’t you share it with him?
And then there’s the constant mockery and demotivational beatdown from your first day there.
Note that the person you’re doing the service with, or have been assigned the service by, has been doing this for several years. This may be your first day on the job.
“Hey! Why are you so slow! It’s getting late and you’re working so slowly! I used to do finish this service in half an hour max! You’ve been here for two hours and still haven’t finished it!”
And the whining and moaning goes on. If you’re assigned to work with someone, they’ll do the whining. “Oh! When so and so was here, he’d do this and I’d do that and we’d finish it in an hour. He was really fast and we worked really well together.”
Riiiiight. But it’s my first day on the service. And you’re comparing me to someone who’s been doing it regularly for a long time. Way to go.
It seemed to me that some of the devotees were almost feeling threatened by my presence there. And they were focused on belittling me and making my stay there as difficult as possible.
What were they afraid of?
Were they afraid I might take over their services in a short while?
Were they jealous that I had more potential in multiple areas than them?
It surely would make them look questionable if some new guy came in, learned the ropes, did everything so well, was quite knowledgeable in the scriptures and talented in cooking, cleaning, kirtanas etc in a short period of time. Because the comparison would be there. If so and so could learn so fast and do different services, why couldn’t the others?
There is no brotherhood in the ashrama. It’s every man for himself.
And everyone living there is burdened with so many services by the management, that they’re never free to do anything or expand their knowledge, skills and talents.
So a guy walks in and is handed the service of washing big pots and drums. And 3 years later, that’s the only thing he knows how to do.
10 years later, that’ll be the only thing he’s still doing.
Yet the senior devotees and management have the audacity to point out that so and so is not advancing in their devotional life.
HOW? How do you expect someone to make progress in their devotional life when they’re washing big pots and drums every morning, afternoon and evening?
They don’t have time to chant, let alone read Srila Prabhupada’s books or attend the aratis. They don’t have time to take association of other devotees.
There’s this one guy who’s lived in this center for 2+ years now. He was assigned to wash pots and drums in the devotee’s kitchen, then he moved into the paraphernalia service.
That’s the only thing he really knows – to wash utensils and clean floors.
He still doesn’t know how to play karatalas. He still doesn’t have time to read the Bhagavad Gita, let alone the Srimad Bhagavatam. The only spiritual knowledge he has is from the YouTube clips he watches when he’s on the phone.
How will this guy get initiated? According to the new rules in ISKCON, devotees have to read a number of scriptures and take written tests in order to receive initiation. So when will this guy receive his initiation? When will he complete reading one cycle of the Bhagavad Gita As It Is, The Nectar Of Devotion and the first Canto of Srimad Bhagavatam?
And simply reading the scriptures for the sake of reading them isn’t enough. One has to study them and understand them. And for that, one needs a peaceful stress-free atmosphere, and more importantly, the time to do that. So when will he do that?
In order to receive second initiation in ISKCON, devotees have to read even more scriptures and attend the Bhakti Sastri courses. So when will this guy do that? Will he ever find time for that? Because it seems impossible to me. There are grhasthas living outside the temple who have more time on their hands than he ever will.
Hell, I had more free time living outside the temple than I had living here for 2 days while doing the same services.
I wanted to learn 2 tala mrdanga from mantras and I thought I’d get free time to do that in the temple. I never got to touch the mrdanga even once while I was there!
This is the reason why devotees who get into their respective services end up doing just that and nothing more. The cooks simply cook, the cleaners simply clean, the kirtaniyas only do kirtana and the lecturers only sit on the vyasaasanas and preach to the public.
It’s almost impossible for devotees to gain skills in multiple areas because they simply never get the chance to do so.
If you look at my journal, after the lockdown began due to Covid-19, there were no more evening aratis in the temple. Even though there were devotees living in the temple, none of them had the time to even attend the evening aratis. So the pujaris would come every evening, perform aratis and sing by themselves in the altar.
When the lockdown was lifted, the public started gathering outside the temple for darshan, and they saw the pujaris doing arati in the evening and there was no kirtana, and it gave off a bad impression to the public. So the management decided to assign each day of the week to one brahmacari so they could sing Gaura arati.
Now the scene is, every evening one brahmacari goes to the temple room to lead arati on his assigned day of the week, while the rest of the devotees remain nowhere to be seen.
According to one brahmacari, over a decade ago, there were 35 brahmacaris living in the temple. Now there’s just about 15 or so. Some of them don’t even have any regular services assigned.
So there is an inequality in the services assigned to the monks. Some of them have three hours of service assigned in one portion of the day, while others have multiple services spread throughout the span of the day.
What I observed was that everyone was pretty much doing their own thing. And that’s been the case even before the Covid-19 situation.
While there was aarti going on inside the temple, there’d be lectures going on inside the halls in the back.
The senior devotees never attended the evening aartis. If they showed up at all, they’d simply take darshan and leave.
I don’t think some senior devotees could even sing Gaura aarti if asked to.
Mangala aarti is compulsory for everyone but Gaura aarti is not. Why is that? Is Gaura aarti less important than Mangala aarti? Is the mercy of Sri Gauranga Mahaprabhu and Sri Nityananda Prabhu less significant on the path of devotional service?
I’ve focused this article solely on the devotees living in the temple. When I think about it, it’d be worth writing a piece on the senior devotees living outside the temple and how things were run before the pandemic. Hint: Things weren’t so good back then either.
The motto in ISKCON is always to remain engaged in the service of the Lord. While that’s a good slogan to live by, when some guy living in the temple doesn’t do anything for days, another guy only has a fixed service in the mornings, yet others are burdened with services all day long, I think someone, somewhere, is going to have a moment of clarity. And they’re going to leave. Nobody in the ashrama is getting paid for their services. They’re fed prasadam and some have decent rooms to sleep in while the others sleep in filthy rooms.
When you really think about it, one could do the same outside the temple – find a decent apartment to live in, get a job and have a decent life. One could actually have some savings for emergencies and old age, as opposed to depending on the temple management and having to beg them for something.
When some senior devotee sits on the vyasaasana and gives a lecture, they’ll talk about sadhu-sanga and how association with the Lord’s devotees is very important to make progress in devotional life.
Well, what about the guy who’s been washing pots and drums for 3+ years? He’s never had time to associate with anyone. Hell, he doesn’t even know the names of some of the devotees living in the ashrama.
And if by chance, the senior devotees or management do see him talking to someone in his free time, they’ll take a mental note of that to increase his services plus reprimand him for wasting his time talking to others.
So, if the new guy ever complains of getting tired, not having free time or being assigned too many services, he’s going to get an earful along with a detailed reminder of when he was last seen talking to someone and wasting his time.
Once I walked in with my bag, they knew I was in.
I sat there for two hours, just waiting to be told where I was going to stay.
I’d told my contact I’d be moving in on this day, and that they should make arrangements for where I would sleep and what services I would do etc.
He told me everything was ready and they were just waiting for me to join the ashrama.
They didn’t tell me where I’d be staying otherwise they knew I would never have joined.
A brief description of the room is in my journal.
So one day before I joined, my contact called me and asked me if I would be okay living in another ashrama in a different city.
He warned me that there was a lot of politics here and that maybe I wouldn’t like my stay here.
Since I’d served in this temple for a long time I thought everything would just be fine and I assured him I didn’t need to go elsewhere.
On the day I joined, he told me the same thing.
He said the management wasn’t very nice and I’d get stuck between the political factions. I may not be treated well by everyone and it still wasn’t too late to decide if I wanted to move to another city.
This isn’t the right time to demoralize someone who’d just joined.
Timing is everything.
If he’d told me how messed up the ashrama was back in the months and years before, instead of asking me to join the ashrama and become a monk, I’d have made an easy choice.
Back then, everyone kept urging me and encouraging me to move in and become a brahmacari.
But when I finally joined, everyone was distant and my contact was trying to get me to move elsewhere.
Finally, let’s just consider the fact that one of the guys sitting in the front office got infected with Covid-19, and the senior management didn’t even warn the brahmacaris in the ashrama of what had happened.
On the day that I joined, the VP and manager wanted me and my contact to sign a document that stated that I would be solely responsible for my stay in the temple and that the management would not be held responsible if anything happened to me.
Maybe I could mention that the VP’s son was, in fact, the Covid-19 case from the front office.
I’ve noticed how there’s always a bunch of devotees backing up the senior management even if they’re in the wrong.
This kind of blind following is why there have been several cases of abuse within ISKCON.
The excuse they use is “complete surrender”. The yes-men in ISKCON who agree with everything happening in ISKCON are known as fully surrendered souls.
And those who point out the discrepancies are known as envious demons.
This is the same logic used to pressure neophytes into accepting a certain spiritual master.
Without accepting a spiritual master and fully surrendering unto him, there is no question of progress in devotional life. In fact, anyone who has not been initiated is regarded as a neophyte.
Therefore I am a neophyte.
There’s always the hints which are dropped to “guide” a neophyte into accepting a certain spiritual master.
Since ISKCON has dozens of initiating sannyasis, each one’s disciples is always trying to recruit more neophytes to accept initiation from their spiritual master. And while the outside world remains uninformed about these “spiritual competitions”, the members of ISKCON are well aware of what’s going on.
To the outside world, they portray the image that all spiritual masters within ISKCON are the same, but within the walls of the organization, there’s a silent unacknowledged envy amongst the sannyasis and their disciples, with each one thinking they’re better than the others.
Thankfully, the neophytes don’t have to engage in this silent warfare but unless they take sides and “surrender” unto someone, they will be left floating in the waves, being bashed from all sides.
For the new guys, this can all be too overwhelming to deal with. Which is why they are purposefully kept in the dark about the conflicts raging within the society. On the other hand, they are kept busy with washing pots and drums so that the “more intelligent” members of the organization can play their political flamewars.
It takes a seasoned devotee to remain unaffected from the inner turmoils within the organization.
But surviving it is a huge task.
I, for one, have very little tolerance for the multiple inconveniences caused by all these levels of hierarchy and the total disregard for the welfare and well-being of a neophyte’s progress in spiritual life.
In the beginning, one may be fascinated and even interested in this stuff. But after a while, it’ll suck the life out of you. If you’re constantly being tortured by the mental afflictions caused by the senior devotees and management, you’ll end up killing yourself. And if you’re stuck washing pots and drums for several years, it’ll tire you down and you’ll start wishing you’d stayed at home and gotten married instead.
As for all the talk about the brahmacaris being better than the grhasthas, I don’t think the brahmacaris are better than the grhasthas if this is how they live.
How could you ever focus on the service of the Lord with all these problems affecting you?
Is this the path of liberation?
I was attending this lecture last year where a senior brahmacari said ISKCON needs more brahmacaris. He said statistically, ISKCON has been losing more brahmacaris every year and all of them are leaving the ashramas to go out and get married.
Well, why are they getting married?
Why are they getting so disturbed that they’re moving out and getting married?
Is it solely their fault? Are they so lusty and illusioned by Maya that they could not control themselves?
Or is it something else?
Could it be that the ashramas in the temples absolutely suck?
Could it be that the state of ashramas in the temples is so despicable, that the monks are better off living in homeless shelters?
I was reading the Gita last night. And Srila Prabhupada writes in one of the purports stated that one cannot be happy without peace. First one must be peaceful, then one can be happy.
Well, how does one remain peaceful in ISKCON?
The senior devotees will say chant more! Chant loudly. If one is getting so agitated, then they haven’t controlled their minds. They must chant properly to control their minds. Then they will be peaceful and happy.
Well, how about this: How about you improve the quality of their lives so they can naturally be peaceful?
They gave me a dirty filthy dormitory to sleep in, shared by a bunch of other guys. And it was dirty and filthy. I couldn’t even lay down to rest until I’d cleaned the room up. That’s how filthy it was.
So if I hadn’t arrived that day, and cleaned the room up, the rest of the guys would still be living in that filth, as usual.
If I want to live in filth, I’ll take birth as a pig. Thank you very much.
But I’m a human. At least they could’ve gone in there and surveyed that room before asking me to move in there! Was that too difficult for them?
At this point I felt like I was just adding another inconvenience to them.
And the room had cockroaches running around. Mosquitoes everywhere. I got bitten as soon as I stepped into that room.
There was trash laying around, plastic containers of prasadam everywhere, and a thick layer of dust carpeted the floor, from all the dirty pairs of feet that walked in and out all day. One single metal cupboard with other people’s junk in it. It was so filthy, the dirt inside had turned into grease!
No shelves in the room. Nowhere to put my books or my clothes. Nowhere to put any of my stuff. Just a couple of chairs and a bunch of filthy mattresses piled up in one corner of the room, infested with cockroaches and mosquitoes.
Thanks for inviting me to the ashrama, but I think I’ll just live outside.
The mosquitoes were everywhere. Mosquitoes in the kitchen, mosquitoes in the pujari room, mosquitoes in the temple room.
Did nobody think of putting up some mosquitoe killing machines to get rid of them?
Nobody wore a mask. Nobody used a hand sanitizer.
Despite the fact that several high profile devotees had been infected by Covid-19 around the world. Despite the fact that many senior devotees had lost their lives due to Covid-19. Nobody wore a mask.
Bhakti Caru Swami died from Covid-19.
Gopala Krishna Goswami was infected with Covid-19.
The Vrndavana temple was sealed after 22 pujaris and devotees were infected with Covid-19.
In Dhaka, 36 devotees tested positive for Covid-19.
In the UK, 5 devotees passed away, with 16 others testing positive for Covid-19.
And those are just the cases in temples with some level of transparency.
In this one, obviously there isn’t much transparency because even the brahmacaris aren’t kept informed of what’s going on.
How long can one be safe in a temple where nobody else wears a mask or uses a hand sanitizer?
From the brahmacaris’ conversations, it seems they’ve come to a common understanding that if Krsna wants them to live, nothing can kill them. And if Krsna wants them to die, nothing can save them.
So, was that the same mentality that Bhakti Caru Swami had when he went to Florida in the middle of the pandemic? Because that sure would explain all the Covid-19 cases in ISKCON.
I couldn’t fall asleep.
I stayed there for two nights and I kept tossing and turning around.
And when I told my contact that I wasn’t getting any sleep, the genius suggested that maybe I didn’t need any sleep. Maybe I need to do more services and eventually I would get so tired, I would just fall asleep!
Since I left, my contact has texted me to call him thrice. I only did it the first day. Now, I’m just going to ignore his text messages.
A man can learn a lot if he pays attention to detail.
I learned more in two days time than some of the guys have learned in several years of living there. It really makes me wonder how they could be so oblivious to all these issues. How terrible were their lives before they joined the ashrama?
Anyway, they will eventually have their moments of clarity and leave at their own pace. Like the dozens of others before them.
Personally, I’m better off living on my own and just visiting the temple like the rest of the congregation.
Maybe I’m just really petty. Or maybe I actually have standards in life.
I know the monk life is full of austerities. But this doesn’t seem like an austere life. This seems like torture in a one of those dirty prisons in Bolivia or Madagascar.
And the management in ISKCON doesn’t seem to be very different from the management in the corporate world. They’re both good at making humans work like donkeys for very little in return.
I had my corporate experience two years ago.
Now that I’d have had this one, life seems to be complete. What more is there to learn?
I think I’ve added more bits and pieces of related information in my journal since then. But this is the single most comprehensive piece I’ve written about my experience in the organization.
Maybe in the future, I’ll elaborate on more events and details.