Bordeaux, France—Four senior ISKCON members from Europe and the United States attended the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) annual Conference in this historic city from June 30-July 2, 2017.
Presentations were made by sociologists, social workers, academic researchers, therapists, Buddhist monks, and government officials, as well as ex-members from a variety of religious and social organizations deemed, in one way or the other, “sects” or “cultic.”
Attending such conferences is not new to ISKCON. ISKCON members first reached out to dialogue with ICSA’s predecessor organization, the American Family Foundation (AFF), more than twenty years ago. Since then, more than a dozen members of the Communications Ministry and other ISKCON leaders have attended such conferences.
The terms “anti-sect” and “anti-cult” are controversial. For simplicity sake, here we refer to those individuals, organizations and government agencies who study or monitor groups said to be cults because those groups exhibit harmful, or cultic behaviors. Cultic symptoms include isolation of members, lack of accountability of leaders, denial of appropriate care for members, unquestioned submission to leaders, excessive demands upon followers, and physical, emotional, psychological, or sexual abuse by leaders.
Not particularly inspiring topics. So why go?
“ISKCON devotees tend to be social critics who understand that great harm is done within human societies all over the world,” said Mahaprabhu dasa, ISKCON European Minister of Communications. “That’s one reason people come to Krishna Consciousness; we’ve been disappointed in our worldly affairs and seek spiritual alternatives.”
Yet a danger still lurks, Mahaprabhu points out. “Religious groups, including our own movement, are vulnerable to the same human frailties. That can lead to cultic or abusive behaviors within. Sadly, we’ve have had our share of abuse and exploitation which have hurt our members, our communities and our reputation.”
“In ISKCON’s earliest years, our members were all young and a little naïve,” said Rukmini dasi, a member of ISKCON since 1968 who has also attended four ICSA conferences. “Overtime we learned that we need checks and balances to hold ourselves accountable and ensure we’re transparent in our interpersonal and professional dealings.”
“Prabhupada himself established the Governing Body Commission (GBC) to oversee Temple Presidents as well as individual the GBC members. He diversified the authority structure in ISKCON and clearly didn’t want too much power in any individual’s hands,” Rukmini concluded.
The bottom line, Mahaprabhu points out, is that we are all subject to making mistakes. As a global movement with thousands of local communities we need to be aware of the potential for harm. Doing so greatly increases our potential for good.
Mahaprabhu also noted that religious groups are especially vulnerable to abuse, or cultic behaviors, because of the extra ordinary importance and faith they place on spiritual leaders, understanding them to represent God in some way. That is true whether those persons serve their communities as Ministers, Priests, Rabbis, Gurus, Imams, GBC members, Temple Presidents, or whatever.
Many conference presenters pointed out that the first principle of avoiding cultic behavior is to ensure that members and leaders of groups know they are never “above the law,” whether social or spiritual.
Within ISKCON, the GBC has made significant strides in recent years to inform and train devotees—both leaders and general members—of the need to act ethically, ensure transparency and provide checks and balances at all levels of leadership. But more needs to be done.
“Efforts like the ISKCON Disciple Course, the Spiritual Leadership Seminar [Guru Seminar], the GBC College, ISKCONResolve, and other projects all provide better training for ISKCON members, especially leaders, and to help ISKCON uphold transparency and ethical behavior across the board,” said Mahaprabhu.
“Its not just that because one is a Bhakta Vriksha leader, GBC member, Prabhupada disciple, or guru, that he or she is above being held accountable,” said Rukmini. “Whatever our seniority, we are all responsible for our behavior. We’ve learned at these conferences about the dangers of abuse, and if we love Prabhupada, we need to be faithful to his society and help protect it by holding ourselves and our society to high standards.”
At the same time, past mistakes and remaining prejudices lead some anti-sect folks to consider meeting Hare Krishnas like dialoguing with the devil. Some ISKCON people may feel the same about the anti-sect groups. “Not so,” says Mahaprabhu. “Over the years, ISKCON has built respectful, beneficial relationships with many people at these conferences.”
The devil, he points out, is if we fail to look honestly and openly at past problems, or don’t follow through in creating systems that will minimize mistakes and abuse in the future.[ anti-cult ] [ bordeau ] [ communications ] [ cult ] [ france ] [ sect ]