New to the world of spirituality, I had just begun my meditation practice.
It was the fall of 2015.
After a short meditation in a big field at my university, a student approached me wearing a Bhakti Yoga T-shirt. He invited me to a meeting where people came together to practice mantra meditation (something I’d never tried before), yoga, and connection through dance and song. The next day, I found myself chanting at my first Bhakti Yoga club meeting.
Bhakti Yoga is known as the path of devotion or divine love. It originated in South India as one of four different paths to spiritual salvation. What I didn’t know was that the Bhakti Yoga being presented to me on campus was actually not aligned with the origins of Bhakti Yoga at all. The Bhakti Yoga I was introduced to was a branch of The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) that was born in the West, much different from 16th century Bhakti Yoga.
At the time, I was simply looking for connection. Not a spiritual guru or a disciplined practice, but simply others who felt the same way about experiencing the greater depths of our existence.
Upon entering the meeting room, I was greeted with a sacred energy. I saw people of all different ethnicities playing instruments I’d never seen before. I saw smiles and laughter, and felt a warmth in the air that felt extremely inviting.
I paid little mind to the man featured in the picture frame that was placed on a pedestal in the center of the room with prayer beads, candles, flowers, and offerings surrounding it.
We chanted and sang the same mantra for two hours. I found this strange, but it tested my tolerance and patience, so I decided to stay. I recently had learned that there is growth through challenge.
One by one, people started getting up and dancing freely, openly. It was so open and authentic, and for the first time in my life, I saw free movement of the body without judgment. Instead of being surrounded by alcohol and dance music, the dancing was fueled by sobriety and the rhythm of our voices.
I was offered some of the best tasting food I’ve ever had when the meeting was over. A vegan chocolate drink, dahl, quinoa with delicious herbs, and naan.
The next day, the couple who led the mantra meditation invited me to go play with animals on a farm and meet other “like-minded” people. Most of the group was going, they said, and many of them had had enlightening experiences on the beautiful land—exactly what I was hoping for.
At that point in my life, nothing more needed to be said. And considering this group was affiliated with one of the most highly respected public universities in the United States, I didn’t think twice before going.
The next morning, I found myself in the back of a van on my way to a farm in Port Royal, Pennsylvania, in a car full of people chanting that same mantra, over and over, for hours. I put my headphones in and didn’t participate—I felt that I’d heard the mantra ad nauseam by this point.
I noticed irritability between the couple in the car, impatience of the passengers sitting next to me, and nearly everyone’s discomfort with silence—red flags. But the chant they sang seemed to wash over all of these. I could see how it was hypnotic for them, drawing them away from their discomforts. And in my experience, whatever works, works.
So I looked past it.
The experience at the farm was both beautiful and strange. Everyone there adopted Indian names, and the group requested that I find one I liked and do the same.
Another red flag.
I was greeted by 20-somethings from Ireland who were sent to work on the farm by their gurus. One of the women gave me a tour and told me about how she left drugs, sex, alcohol, and her bartending lifestyle to live on the farm. She revealed to me that she used to be sexually abused, and had traveled to Africa and India in search of peace.
She said she knew that she’d found the truth in Bhakti Yoga when she met her guru, and kept reiterating, “I know this is the truth.” But I wasn’t sure who she was trying to convince. My uneasiness grew.
Meanwhile, she told me about how she doesn’t listen to music, doesn’t eat any sugar, and abstains from sex unless it is with her guru living in Africa, who she also happens to be married to. She said she gave all of her money away to this cause for a better life, and no longer affiliates with anyone not on the path of Bhakti Yoga. She abstains from the use of technology and spends six hours out of her day praying when not doing farm work.
I was seeing the cult-like signs at this point.
After our walk, we went to go play with the animals—the most sacred to them, the cow. The cows were covered in dirt and feces, seemed to be starving, and had bacterial infections growing on their skin.
There was also a stray cat on the farm who was also visibly starving to death. They said they needed someone to get rid of it or else it would die.
These were cow-worshipping vegans who seemed to neglect and starve their animals, yet none of the people on the farm seemed phased by this incongruence.
The red flags were burning so brightly at this point, I felt sick.
I noticed one of the people in our group was not participating in the chanting or in any of the prayers either, and so I asked him why he was there. He seemed to be just as skeptical as I was.
He said, “Why wouldn’t I be here? I’m a sociology major. Cults are fascinating to me.”
At this point, all I wanted was to get out of there and go home and do my research.
I was only a few hours away from learning about the man the bhaktas (bhakti yogis, otherwise known as “devotees”) glorified and worshipped. Represented in both the form of a large statue in the farm’s temple and as the man in the framed photo at my first meeting, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada founded ISKCON in New York in 1966 as a branch of the Hare Krishnas, who have been around since the 16th century.
The Hare Krishnas of the 16th century practiced traditional Bhakti Yoga, which is one of the four yogic pathways described in the Bhagavad Gita. When ISKCON was developed in the West, it was created with the goal to perpetuate the ancient wisdom of the Vedas, but in the process, Prabhupada translated those ancient texts according to his own interpretation of them.
His society has been sued for money laundering, drug dealing, deceptive fundraising, murder, hundreds of sexual abuse reports, and a string of money and sex scandals all over the United States.
Many of the gurus involved with ISKCON have abused their disciples through sexual molestation. I’d then learn that ISKCON uses Bhakti Yoga as a front for deception, money laundering, and sexual abuse.
Upon establishing his movement in the 60s and 70s under the name the Hare Krishnas, Prabhupada traveled to universities all over the United States, finding vulnerable students who wanted to connect with others through spirituality. (Sound familiar?) But due to the negative press from money laundering and sex scandals associated with the group in the 70s, the Hare Krishnas changed their name to Bhakti Yoga and created clubs across the country.
Prabupada did such a good job of promoting the movement that more than 300 temples, farms, communities, ashrams, schools, and institutes have been developed in North America.
Many of these schools have been sued for physical and sexual abuse. MSNBC reported the ISKCON movement was sued for child abuse in a $400 million lawsuit alleging years of torture:
“Among the allegations against ISKCON are that young girls were given as brides to older men who donated to the religious community. The lawsuit also claims that children were: Forced to sleep in unheated rooms and walk great distances in bitter cold without coats or shoes; Deprived of medical care for malaria, hepatitis and broken bones; Scrubbed with steel wool until their skin bled; Moved to different schools in different states without their parents’ consent.”
Even more frightening is that these temples are found in nearly every major city in every continent in the world. Many of these temples and institutions promote the idea, “Chant Hare Krishna and Be Happy!”
Under the guise of complete acceptance and love, the fundamentalist and rigid requirements that came along with being a member of ISKCON would only become known to those who became more involved. And in offering free food, it’s no wonder that many vulnerable and young 20-somethings who were newly coming into their identities found this group appealing. Nearly everyone I met on the farm was young and recruited at what seemed like extremely vulnerable points in their lives.
A friend who was assigned to the same small group as me for elephant journal’s apprenticeship spoke to me about her six years of living in an ashram in India. “In Sanyasi lineage, hatha tantra tradition, yogis who worship Shiva…there is indeed discipline, but not so many restrictions.” She went on to say:
“I don’t believe a guru necessarily wears a uniform of robes, and I’m not actually convinced a guru is anyone other than your well-tuned (like a satellite connection to the abundant universe) intuition, however much I’m surrounded by so called ‘gurus.’” ~ Nicole Jacquis
This couldn’t be more true. There are so many self-proclaimed gurus and lightworkers, so many of whom are acting from ego instead of authenticity. These are not inherently bad people, but are rather deluded into believing they stand for truth themselves. This is the essence of so many cult leaders and why they are so successful. They are passionate, captivating, and hone in on vulnerable individuals.
After learning about all of ISKCON’s scandals, watching a few cult documentaries (“The Source Family” is a great one), and reading about Jim Jones and the Manson Family, I began to understand the revolutionary counterculture that permeated America in the 60s and 70s. With all the uncertainty, it was the perfect time for a guru to come to America and sweep up as many spiritual seekers as one could.
And unfortunately, it was done so well, that it didn’t just affect a couple hundred people. It’s continuously taking the lives of thousands, who unwittingly devote their lives not to the traditional spiritual yogic path, but the dangerous, cult-like translation of it.
On the way to the farm, I was asked a significant question. “Who is God to you?”
I responded, and I’ll stick with this answer for as long as it resonates with me, “To me, God is experienced. It is not a man or a woman, but holds both of these energies. God is the miracle of science, our very nature. I recently heard someone say that they stand for what they stand on, the earth. Love itself is my religion. Nature is where I experience God.”
I was met with perplexed faces and silence.
Visiting the farm turned me off to any kind of spiritual discipline for a long time. I wanted my practice to be my own, and I refused to take any yoga classes or go to any public meditation groups. I even stopped meditating for a while because I felt confused and betrayed. In my coursework, I learned about domestic violence, physical abuse, emotional abuse, and verbal abuse, but I’d never learned of spiritual abuse. The line between our voice of reason and ego is very thin, and sometimes it can feel impossible to tell the difference.
I still have a hard time joining others in my practice, as I’m sure many others do, for it is so deeply personal to me. But in writing this, I feel a call to help others find their individuality balanced with connectedness. Most often, I find those to be one and the same. And eventually, I got to a point of understanding that everything we ever seek is within, and others who feel that way will show up in our lives because that’s just how it works.
We attract who we are.
I worry for the vulnerable 20-somethings who are looking for connection and identity who don’t have the luxury of mental health or support. (Mental health really is a luxury.) I worry for those who don’t have supportive families, those who don’t have friends and loved ones to be there in the vulnerable times.
The red flags of spirituality are easy to overlook when one is vulnerable. All people have the need to connect, and in every search for connection inherently lies vulnerability. If one is searching, there’s always something he or she is looking to find. And the essence of that search makes us vulnerable. Trusting our insides, figuring out what makes us feel uniquely connected, and sharing moments with ourselves without feeling the burning need to have others understand are all ways to help keep spirituality sacred.
Otherwise, we’re just subscribing to McDonald’s spirituality. And we all know how toxic that is.
“Man is the most insane species. He worships an invisible God and destroys a visible Nature. Unaware that the Nature he is destroying is this God he is worshipping.” ~ Hubert Reeves
P.S. If you were still wondering about that stray cat on the farm, don’t worry—I took him home with me.
Editor: Callie Rushton