Isolation in Krishna Consciousness


This article by Hrdayananda dasa Goswami challenges the theory of isolationism constructed by modern psychology and it serves as a response to an article by Professor Lewis Rambo in particular. He attempts to show us here that this paradigm of isolation does not serve as a very effective tool in the objective analysis of religious communities. He consequently calls into question the habit of social scientists to observe their subjects from predetermined vantage points which tend to undervalue fundamental philosophical and motivational tenets of their subjects thus compromising their observations. If the effect of this phenomenon were purely academic few would worry about this but the effect is often translated into public misconceptions, sensationalism and even fear.

In his article, ‘Psychology of Conversion’1 Professor Lewis Rambo presents a heuristic stage model of the conversion process. His article presents a good picture of current social scientific approaches to the conversion experience, from the pen of a learned and sympathetic scholar. Within his model, the first stage is ‘context’, and in that section Professor Rambo discusses ‘isolation’, a controversial feature of religious training. We will briefly explore this category to illustrate the different ways in which social science and religion can approach the same phenomenon from different perspectives. A similar analysis can be done for the other categories, but we will limit our discussion to isolation.

Monotheistic religious communities typically teach that we can all realise our true nature, identity, and function, through loving service to God. Modern society, however, tends to be ‘me-centred’ rather than God-centred, self-gratifying rather than self-sacrificing. Thus many religious teachers try to protect or insulate their students from what they perceive to be the corrupting influence of a sensuous social environment. As described by Professor Rambo, this has provoked criticism.

Many believe that some religious groups deliberately isolate themselves from the wider world… so that people may be rendered compliant to the wishes of the group, which considers itself in special relationship to the divine.2

In trying to understand the ‘isolation’ issue as it relates to the Krishna consciousness movement (ISKCON), I will make three claims:

 

  1. Isolation is not unique to religious movements, such as ISKCON, but is actually a universal social phenomenon.
  2. Society often tries to isolate its members from ISKCON.
  3. The language and assumptions of social science often reflect an anti-religious bias which underlies many of the attacks on the Krishna Consciousness Movement.

To isolate, in a social context, means to place a person apart or alone, to separate a person from others. Here are some common examples of isolation:

Americans working in underdeveloped countries often live in tightly insulated American neighbourhoods, complete with American clubs, stores, and recreation facilities.

Overseas American schools are designed to avoid excessive contact of American children with the host culture, or ‘native population’.  Nowadays the affluent often seek security and social isolation behind the armed gates of ‘private communities’.

Scholars traditionally isolate their disciplines behind the steep walls of technical language and sophisticated methodology which are virtually inaccessible, if not unintelligible, for people in general.

Mothers and fathers attempt to isolate their children from what they perceive as corrupting influences in the ‘wider world’.

Nationalism creates a distinct national identity which isolates citizens from a broader identification with people of other nations.

Certain philosophies and theologies isolate mankind from the rest of nature, thus discouraging broad-based empathy with other life forms and species.

As a way of organising society and culture, isolation is virtually a universal phenomenon. Indeed, isolating mechanisms are employed so routinely, they are almost unconscious.

Scholars frequently cite cases of a numerically smaller group, a ‘micro-context’, counteracting the influence of a numerically larger group, a ‘macro-context’, thus isolating its members from the ‘wider world’. It is also interesting to note, however, the many cases of a numerically larger group seeking to impose its vales by isolating people from an unusual or ‘aberrant’ micro-contextual influence. Powerful social forces, such as the media, law-enforcement officials, legislators, and deprogrammers, often seek to discourage people from participating in a minority religion, such as Krishna consciousness, through slanted media coverage, legal harassment, and free-speech restrictions that cripple the open forum. In the course of our missionary work, we have personally observed many such cases, a few of which can be mentioned here:

In Russia, devotees were imprisoned, tortured, and even killed for the crime of practising Krishna consciousness. These devotees were widely recognised by the international community as prisoners of conscience.

In Greece, new members of the Krishna consciousness movement have been regularly subjected to overwhelming harassment by family, press, and government, making it almost impossible for them to practice Krishna consciousness in Greece.

In Argentina, a neo-fascist military dictatorship which seized power in 1977 persecuted and banned the Hare Krishna movement along with most other minority denominations. On the island of Bali, Hindu caste brahmanas, fearing loss of priestly revenue and prestige, conspired with the Muslim government to ban the Hare Krishna movement in Indonesia.

In the United States, hired ‘deprogrammers’ kidnapped members of the Krishna consciousness movement, subjecting them to physical and mental abuse in a captive state until they recanted their religious views or escaped.Although ISKCON can and does fight back, legal and media remedies are often so costly that a type of Pyrrhic victory is achieved. Indeed, in the United States, those who oppose Krishna consciousness have openly articulated a policy of harassing ISKCON through costly legal battles.

The above examples illustrate how a larger social group may seek to isolate its members from the influence of the Krishna consciousness movement. But this fact is usually neglected or perhaps unobserved, by traditional social scientific studies of religious movements, especially when the religious movements are perceived as new, strange, and intense.

Professor Rambo states that scholars need to acknowledge the more subtle values inherent in their theoretical models and analytical tools. For instance, if psychologists are attempting to evaluate the mental health consequences of conversions, do they recognise the cultural values which shape their model of mental health? Do they recognise how their model might be differently constituted in other cultures? 3

Let us give a concrete example of ‘cultural values which shape’ the work of social scientists. Those involved in the scholarly study of religion often refer to religious doctrines as ‘belief systems’, ‘stories’, and ‘myths’. They talk about people engaging in ‘world construction’ in order to ‘create meaning and purpose in life.’ Clearly a normal spiritual viewpoint would be that meaning and purpose exist in life. We discover them. We don’t create them, just as we don’t create the fundamental reality of the physical world. And although academicians have recently refurbished the concept of myth, it retains a disquieting sense of a made-up tale, albeit an instructive and edifying tale. Indeed we should keep well in mind that although certain terms such as ‘belief system’, ‘story’, ‘myth’, ‘world-construction’ etc. are used in special ways in social science, these words are clearly flavoured to some degree by their non-technical, ordinary usage. Thus the phrase ‘isolate…from the wider world’ can be extremely misleading since it makes us feel that the isolated ones are confined to a ‘narrower world’ and hence are being existentially impoverished. To call materialistic society the ‘wider world’ is, in one sense, as ludicrous as calling the inside of Plato’s cave the ‘wider world’ based on the numerical strength of the cave-dwellers, in contrast to those who have escaped the dark cave for the light of the absolute. In fact, a materialistic society, especially ours today, would appear itself to be dangerously isolated from a larger, and more meaningful spiritual reality.

Social scientists often reply that they cannot endorse or validate a particular spiritual doctrine, and thus they have recourse to a neutral or objective language. And yet, although we may agree that the dispassionate discussion of religion requires a neutral, objective language, current social science terminology does not fully provide it. Meaningful discussion of religion, even from the social scientific standpoint, would be greatly enhanced by a language which was more truly neutral and objective.

The limits of the social science approach to spiritual reality are clearly stated by Professor Rambo in his discussion of one branch of social science, psychology: ‘Scientific psychology is a human discipline which can only attempt to use theories to understand a phenomenon that is beyond the scope of human comprehension.’4 Mundane sciences seek knowledge which gives mankind independent power over nature. The Krishna conscious view, however, is that our perfection as living beings lies in our submission to a supreme controller, and that the highest knowledge is forthcoming from spiritual surrender. It is not surprising therefore that psychoanalysis and behaviourism tend to be at odds with Krishna consciousness. There is not so much a problem of differing experimental data, or data vs. faith, as there is a simple conflict in world view, in axiomatic starting points.

The Krishna consciousness movement challenges and strongly criticises materialistic values. This may hurt and anger persons who formerly held important or authoritative positions in the lives of converts, and who seem to be directly or indirectly exposed and discredited by the strong spiritual philosophy of the Krishna consciousness movement.

Krishna conscious devotees strive for purity in an admittedly materialistic age. Naturally some people interpret that as a form of unhealthy isolation. Underlying this view, we would contend, is the materialistic conviction that there is little of substance in the spiritual life. Real pleasure comes from the physical senses. Real relationships are in this world, with one’s friends, family, and sex partners. God is remote, vague, and tentative, whereas things of this world are bright, immediate, and real. This philosophy often underlies the fear that the disciplined, devoted lifestyle of Krishna consciousness is unhealthy and wrong.

It is interesting to note that in less materialistic societies, the Krishna conscious devotees tend to have a more relaxed and engaging relationship with the ‘wider world’. For example, in many Asian countries, devotees move freely in the surrounding society, without fear of constant ridicule, kidnapping, or physical abuse. The same robes which provoke mockery in one place, are highly revered in other lands as the dress of a saintly priest.

In many ways, mainstream society itself seems to have evolved into a type of bizarre cult, a cult in which people pour adulation and worship on drug addicts, adulterers, gamblers, and animal killers who may possess a materially gratifying talent. Similar worship is lavished on those who, by hook or by crook, accumulate ephemeral fortunes and power.

We should remember that the world is not evil for a Krishna conscious person. The ontology of the Bhagavad-gita clearly identifies the physical cosmos as a divine emanation from God. It is rather our misuse of this world that is wrong. When God’s creation is engaged in His loving service, even matter regains its original spiritual quality. Thus a devotee of Krishna seeks to establish a positive relationship with all that exists, by seeing all things in relation to Krishna. A clear grasp of this ancient ontology is crucial to a fair understanding of the issue of ‘isolation’ as it occurs in the Krishna consciousness movement.

Isolation necessitates the renunciation of that from which one seeks to isolate oneself. The search for a clear definition of renunciation is a central theme in the Bhagavad-gita.5 Arjuna, the Lord’s student, wants to give up his worldly duties, whereas Lord Krishna repeatedly reminds him that real renunciation means to perform one’s duty, but without desire for the fruit of action. It is our greed and lust for the fruit of our work, and not the work itself, which we must renounce. The Supreme Lord is the enjoyer of the fruit, and we should work for His satisfaction. Work for the Lord’s satisfaction is called yajna, or ‘sacrifice.’ Thus the things of this world can be engaged in the Lord’s service and, in the process, spiritualised. Our home can be a place of ordinary gratification, or it can be consecrated as a temple of God. Similarly, the food we eat can be offered to God, and by eating the remnants of sacrifice to God, we sanctify our existence. Without offering our food in sacrifice, the Gita explains, we are eating only sin.

The Krishna consciousness movement teaches, on the authority of Bhagavad-gita, that all our activities should be performed as sacrifice to the Supreme Lord. Work in sacrifice to Krishna is free of reaction, or entanglement in the material laws of karma which oblige us to repeatedly accept the miseries of birth, old age, disease, and death.

The Krishna consciousness movement does not require isolation from the world, per se, but rather that all our acts be performed as loving service unto the Supreme Lord. Since the Lord is the creator and proprietor of all things, serving Him is a truly logical or rational response to this world.

A devotee of Krishna satisfies his senses within the Lord’s service. Just as we nourish a tree by watering its root, we can similarly satisfy the individual soul by satisfying the Supreme Lord, who is the source of the soul’s existence.

When an entire society is absorbed in sense gratification, the society becomes a source of pollution for the pure soul. A society dedicated to the loving service of the Lord would be a sublime environment for the Lord’s devotee. The world is not necessarily evil, we just make it that way. And yet, as a devotee of the Lord advances in his spiritual comprehension, he learns to turn the world towards the Lord’s service. There were many Vaishnava saints who actively engaged in this world without compromising their spiritual purity. Thus in the advanced stage of Krishna consciousness, the same material objects that once threatened the devotees nascent spiritual understanding, now appear as promising challenges and opportunities to transform a mundane world into the divine kingdom.


Postscript

I originally presented this paper at a conference on religious conversion in new religious movements, held in 1989, at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California. Professor Lewis Rambo, whose views I discuss here, was present and after my presentation, he remarked to me that he felt my arguments were valid. Since then, Dr. Rambo has published Understanding Religious Conversion (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1993), in which he has dropped the term ‘isolation’ in favour of the term ‘encapsulation’. He remarks in that book, ‘encapsulation is a procedure employed to some extent by everyone who wants to teach something new.’ (p. 104) I cannot say whether or to what extent my remarks on these issues have influenced Dr. Rambo in his most recent formulation of his conversion stage model.

 

This paper was originally delivered as a lecture at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California, 1989.

 

Footnotes

  1. Rambo, Lewis R., ‘Psychology of Conversion’ reprinted in Handbook on Conversion, H. Newton Malony and Samuel Southard, eds., Birmingham, Religious Education Press, 1992
  2. Rambo, Lewis Rl, ‘Conversion’ The Encyclopaedia of Religion, Mircea Eliade, ed., New York, Macmillan, 1987, vol. 4, p. 75.
  3. Rambo, ‘Psychology of Conversion’, pp. 26-27.
  4. I bid.

 

Comments on the Bhagavad-gita are based on the following edition: Prabhupada, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, Bhagavad-gita As It Is, Los Angeles, The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1983 (reprinted in 1991)

Resnick, H. J. (1994). Isolation in Krishna Consciousness. Epoche: University of California, Journal for the Study of Religions, XIX.

Resnick, H. J. (1994, December). Isolation in Krishna Consciousness. ISKCON Communications Journal, 2(2).