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Thursday, July 08, 2010

REDUCTIVE THINKING AND CULT PROPAGANDA: THE CASE OF ISKCON

Members of groups popularly identified as cults expend a great deal of energy attempting to deny that they are cults at all. Most often they claim the label is simply name-calling based on fear or outright discrimination. What we call begging they call “soliciting contributions,” whereas the love-bombing that alienates inquisitive youth from their families and friends is treated as a means of religious orientation similar to what a nun undergoes as a novice in a convent. In short, the tactics that cults employ for fundraising and indoctrination of new members might seem (at least superficially) to have parallels in the practices of organized mainstream religions. However, once you scratch the surface of the cult in question by examining its propaganda, you will find that what identifies it as a destructive pseudo-religion is not so much what its adherents do as the thinking behind their actions.

To illustrate my point, take my hand and descend with me into the vortex of the past, until you find yourself standing with me in spirit watching me as a 14 year- old girl accompanied by my 16 year-old sister as we approach the ISKCON temple at 26 Second Avenue in the East Village in New York’s Lower Eastside. It is a hot day in the summer of 1967 and we’re visiting the temple after having been informed of its existence at one of the Central Park “Be-In’s” we had attended a week earlier. What we find is a storefront plastered with images of the blue Hindu God Krishna and his retinue of cowherd girlfriends. Also prominent were photographs of an Indian Swami who strongly resembled the noted black actor Scatman Crothers. When we entered we saw rows of white men and women in saffron robes and saris with u-shaped chalk marks from their foreheads to their noses. They were sitting cross-legged on the floor with large metal plates of vegetarian food in front of them, which they were eating with their right hands only. We had stumbled upon one of their weekly love feasts! After standing in the doorway looking rather embarrassed, we were welcomed inside and promptly sat down to join the others and found the food to be quite good. As we left shortly thereafter, we were handed a couple of pamphlets and an issue of Back to Godhead magazine, which we were urged to read before we returned the following weekend. That, reader, is when the trouble started.

The pamphlet featured a story about an incident that occurred when the great Hindu space traveler-preacher Narada Muni visited the house of a pious man. He was depicted in the saffron robes of a celibate monk and held a pair of the small brass hand cymbals ubiquitous in Vaishnava (Hindus who worship the god Vishnu rather than the more typical Shiva) worship services. He related an anecdote in the life of a holy woman, who when importuned by a rich suitor, invited him to see her real beauty in a week. During this time she took a powerful laxative and stored her diarrhea in a number of jars (one would hope that they had tight lids!). When her suitor returned eager to see her “real beauty,” she directed him to her stool collection, telling him that it was where her former beauty resided, now that her purging had reduced her to a haggard, sunken-eyed shadow of her former self. One wonders how fast her suitor fled the scene, but, for us, it was a different matter.

We were simply mesmerized by the story, which seemed to us to have been a thunderbolt of truth Krishna had sent to illuminate our young minds. Imagine being pure spirit, always young and free of the ravages of age and disease! What we didn’t know was that we had been duped by one of the oldest and most effective of all brainwashing techniques cults utilize. As a form of argument, it is reductive thinking carried to an irrational extreme and is usually presented as a philosophical examination of a central human dilemma (such as the fleeting nature of physical beauty that Narada Muni treated in his story). It is then is subjected to what appears to be an objective analysis, but is in reality a withering rejection of human values that ends in rejecting the material world entirely. Furthermore, it treats this life as a trial the faithful must undergo in order to qualify for liberation from it and entrance into the spiritual realm. In practice, of course, it is a recipe for social alienation and psychological dysfunction. For those too weak to find a way out of its argumentative maze, it can be nothing more than a slow and acutely painful method of suicide.

First, let me begin by demolishing what masquerades as an objective analysis and forms the underpinning of Narada Muni’s argument. To the extent possible, I will cast it in the form of a syllogism so that its components (major premise, minor premise, and conclusion) are clear:

• The beauty we perceive in human beings ultimately turns into excrement;
• Beautiful women are human beings;
• Therefore, what makes women beautiful ultimately turns into excrement.

The basic flaw in the so-called logic of this argument should be obvious: it is a gross over-simplification based on extremely reductive thinking. For starters, the first premise is faulty because it ignores the fundamentality subjective nature of our perception of beauty, which is always based on a great deal more than mere appearance. In fact, one can argue that beauty as we perceive it is one of the most spiritual forms of appreciation we can have for another human being. Instead, the beauty=excrement analogy that underpins the major premise of Narada’s argument relies on the immature thinking of a young adolescent who, when just beginning to notice the opposite sex, claims that they are “gross” or fixates on some allegedly “disgusting” aspect of the object of their attraction. This nonsense is silly, of course, but it is just part of growing up. However, once the youth begins to appreciate the intelligence, wit, and other qualities that together can make even the less physically attractive seem beautiful, the youth has crossed from the doldrums of early adolescence into the bloom of a young adult. Unfortunately, in cultures where “child marriages” stunt the emotional development of both sexes, the squeamishness and disgust about sexuality that characterizes early adolescence becomes a permanent feature of their view of the relation between the sexes. Sorry to say, it’s a tragedy, not a state of transcendence that leads to such a reductive treatment of the nature of beauty.

Ultimately, the reductive thinking behind the story of the saintly girl leads to one inescapable conclusion: since the body is pure shit, ridding ourselves of it as soon as possible is something to strive for, even if, as we were advised at the temple, you should abide by Krishna’s instructions in the Bhagavad-Gita and not take any credit for the “fruit of your actions.” In other words, you should work like a automaton, and then, after spending your life chanting and hitting the road to dupe the public with a lot of inane propaganda, die, get cremated, and hope your soul returns to the land of ancient India that happens to be a big planet devoted to the adoration of a flute-playing cowherder and his girlfriends. What appeared to be a doctrine of bliss and contentment to two innocent teenage girls was in reality a cheap cover for a philosophy of renunciation that is a direct route to self-annihilation.

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

3 comments:

Cheyenne said...

Thank you for illustrating what it's like to be indoctrinated with a philosophy that may go against our own sense of morality. I too have gone through the same process as you and your sister have. I know that the glaring differences between what appears to be happening on the surface, the love bombing, ornate decorations, flowers, incense and opulant vegetarian food, against the reality of a non-egalatarian society, is astounding. Behind the sweet vaneer we find the caste system, rampant misogyny, racism and fascism, what to speak of the effect this has on ones own self confidance.
I'm glad you got out eariler than I, Eki. I can't help but feel sorry for all our friends that are still now diving even deeper in.

Me, of course said...

yes! the body is a beautiful instrument, not somethin to be rejected and transcended. this belief also flies in the face of reason, which if followed carefully and methodically shows that the body IS ME, the body and my ego are one and after this body dies there will never be another like it. there is no "constant soul" that travels through time.

Anonymous said...

Yesterday, I met a few Iskon people. As always, its an easy target, because as an Indian, my knowledge regarding indian culture is always greater than theirs. Most of them grew up in SF, or LA etc.

I asked the Iskon guy who was preaching against materialism, " How do you justify the roof made of solid gold in the Bangalore Temple, when there are starving children?"

Guy 1: Lied and said they weren't part of Iskon for preciesly this reason, but they found medication caliming.

Guy 2: Made some bs claim about the body being temporary and suffering necessary.

Then, just to get under their skin, I started talking about the more fun aspects of Krishna, like him being a ladies man..etc. Anyways, I said, "oh Krishna probably would be having fun at the music festival...instead of chanting mindlessly."

They accused me of blasphemy because it contradicted what the guru said, even though most hindus accept the story, and these stories are grafittited, carved into a lot of krishna temples..

I asked them to sing another krishna song, cause this one's boring... They took me so seriously and became very angry and suggested that this is the only song thats needed...

Anyways, after I again, proved to them that the golden roof on the Iskon temple in Banaglore existed, I got some other bs reason regarding architectural "research" in India, which was inconsistent with the first claim.

I just hope, I got them googling about the temple in Bangalore. It is a travesty!