by Chand Prasad, Ph.D.
Academic scholars will benefit from reading Gold, Guns and God: Volume 2—A Pioneer Community (GGG Vol 2). Prabhupada disciples should be forewarned. GGG Vol 2 presents Prabhupada in an unjustifiably negative light.
Doktorski contributes to the literature with his (a) coverage of Kirtanananda’s heretofore undocumented defection from ISKCON in September 1967 and his subsequent reunion with Prabhupada in July 1968; (b) insights into the inauspicious founding of New Vrindaban; (c) detailed information on the community’s expansion through the purchase of properties in the McCreary Ridge. Doktorski provides a valuable understanding of Kirtanananda’s charisma, his extensive travels outside of West Virginia, and the separation that the New Vrindaban community felt when Kirtanananda was away. I have not found this information elsewhere.
In the paragraphs that follow, I focus on a key shortcoming of GGG Vol 2—Doktorski builds on the notion that Shrila Prabhupada exercised absolute authority to create a harmful cult. Doktorski appears to play the role of a prosecutor who marshals arguments to convict Prabhupada. Doktorski certainly has the freedom to do so, liberties that I would defend, by the way.
However, as a reviewer, I am entitled to respond with counter-arguments that cast reasonable doubt on the prosecution’s case. My previous review of Gold, Guns and God: Volume 1 rebutted the idea that Prabhupada is complicit in the creation of a malevolent cult, available here: http://krishna1008.blogspot.com/2021/06/re-henry-doktorskis-writings-chand.html. I shall avoid wholesale repetition of those earlier points.
A key principle of geopolitical analysis is that leaders are constrained by reality. GGG Vol 2 fails to investigate and explain the specific factors that restrict Prabhupada’s options. Doktorski’s research is far from complete because it does almost nothing to elucidate the limits to Prabhupada’s power and influence. Instead, Doktorski takes an easier path—GGG Vol 2 constructs a relatively simplistic narrative in which Prabhupada enjoys a position of absolute authority.
At the risk of stating the obvious, people have the freedom to reject Prabhupada, which means he does not have an absolute position. A devotee willingly enters into the guru-disciple relationship which he can terminate at any time. Henri Jolicoeur is a clear example. After using magic mushrooms in Mexico, Jolicoeur knocked on Tamal Krishna’s door at the LA temple in June 1969, and requested to become a Hare Krishna monk. Jolicoeur became a sannyasi in 1970, by Prabhupada’s grace.
I do not blame Jolicoeur for leaving ISKCON. However, his decision to turn against Shrila Prabhupada could be viewed as treachery. Jolicoeur uses the term treachery to describe Kirtanananda’s actions toward Prabhupada in one of his videos, and yet Jolicoeur also turned against Prabhupada. Prabhupada was forced to take huge risks because the disciples he trusted to carry out his mission could walk away. Cults attempt to prevent their members from leaving, but ISKCON’s “fortified walls” seem quite porous.
Prabhupada had a golden opportunity to take an absolute position when four funky sannyasis preached to the devotees at New Vrindaban that Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada had abandoned them and fled to India as punishment, because his disciples had not recognized that he was actually God. [p. 151, Kindle page numbering] Many devotees did not immediately recognize this obvious deviation, despite the fact that Prabhupada had ruthlessly attacked and debunked mayavadis right from the start. Anyone who claims to be God is the opposite, a dog. Prabhupada never took the opportunity to assume the absolute position of God. Prabhupada is philosophically constrained. There is no evidence he violated his obligation to follow the teachings of his guru. Prabhupada is transcendentally constrained to remain consistent with sadhu and shastra.
Prabhupada’s decision to reinstate Kirtanananda was not necessarily unreasonable. Kailasa Candra’s statements about Hayagriva [p. 94] could apply to Kirtananda. Prabhupada took a risk. It did not pay off, but taking a risk means that it may not pay off. It did not pay off, because Kirtananda, due to misuse of free will, refused to truly surrender to Prabhupada. To fault Prabhupada is absurdly unjust. Demoniac characteristics, including homosexuality, can be overcome; otherwise, there is no meaning to changing character, which is intrinsic to the process of spiritual advancement. Prabhupada gave Kirtanananda a chance to use his leadership qualities in the service of the Lord; instead Kirtanananda used his free will to pursue a self-aggrandizing and perverted agenda.
Personally, I would not have given Kirtanananda a second chance. It is a risk I would not have taken. But then again, Prabhupada is the man who gave up his relatively predictable life to bless vast numbers of individuals with spiritual opportunities, through his books and lectures.
Despite their belief that humans are sinful by nature, Christians maintain redemption is possible. It stands to reason the Vaishnava tribe would be even more inclined to the possibility of redemption, given their belief that every living entity is part and parcel of the Supreme Lord. Indeed, the Vaishnava philosophy contends demons can be purified.
Nevertheless, Prabhupada’s job would have been much easier if he had received first-class men to work with. The disciples most motivated to take on major projects were often mentally unbalanced empire builders. Prabhupada’s choices were quite limited. In general, Prabhupada was forced to work with men who were not at all sattvam (mode of goodness).
Prabhupada’s authority within ISKCON derived greatly from his charisma [p. 238]. But did he actually have tangible means of forcing his managers to do his bidding? Unlike Kirtanananda, Prabhupada is not willing to use violence. Kirtanananda closely monitored New Vrindaban: not a blade of grass moved without his knowing. Although Prabhupada attempted to hold his top men accountable, he could not be everywhere throughout his sprawling, multinational organization. Moreover, Prabhupada devoted so much of his energy to publishing his books.
High-ranking members of ISKCON were strong-willed, cunning, and ambitious to carve out autonomous spheres of influence. They could create their own set of rules that differed from Prabhupada’s instructions. Unlike the totalitarian Nazis, Prabhupada did not employ aggressive, sophisticated methods of surveillance or command and control—indispensable tools for creating an absolute position and a centralized power structure.
To his credit, Doktorski explains that temple authorities read and censored letters sent to Prabhupada [p. 144]. Should we believe these were rare occurrences? At their discretion, managers withheld letters that had been sent to Prabhupada. It also likely that high-ranking individuals censored Prabhupada’s outgoing mail—senior men may have selectively destroyed letters Prabhupada wrote to his followers, rather than mailing all of his correspondence. ISKCON should have been the body of Prabhupada, and yet as early as 1970, he was being cut off from the organization he founded.
More objective research is needed to clarify the organizational dynamics of ISKCON during the pre-1977 period, before Prabhupada left his body. Different individuals have different recollections of events, as noted by Doktorski in GGG Vol 2. In addition, it is important to make a distinction between (a) Prabhupada’s actual written statements about Kirtanananda versus (b) devotees’ perhaps faulty recollections of Prabhupada’s spoken words about Kirtanananda.
Moreover, as indicated in the preceding paragraphs of this review, it is not likely that Prabhupada enjoyed an absolute position. It may be useful to consider the following hypotheses. The managerial class within ISKCON acted as a barrier (rather than a transparent via medium) between Prabhupada and his rank and file followers. Prabhupada’s senior men were adept at deflecting his directives, and misusing his words to protect and expand their positions, even as they deviated from his principles.
Finally, a crucial question remains, one that haunted me when I was a teenager. Can any organization give us love of God? Personally, I cannot answer this question in the affirmative. I do not believe bureaucrats can institutionalize bhakti. My aversion to organizations was one factor that drove me to build the resource base to finance an early retirement, and to make my home into a temple. “Somehow or other you become dear friend of Krishna and He’s within you. He’ll always talk with you, most confidentially, and your life will be successful.” [Prabhupada Lecture—Jakarta, March 1, 1973]
Chand Prasad, Ph.D.
Chand Prasad’s website: www.biodynamictheology.com