Monday, January 14, 2008

Hubner and Gruson, "Monkey on a Stick" (1988)

I've written on a few occasions about the Hare Krishna farm community in the northern panhandle of West Virginia. I have visited New Vrindaban four times. It is an impressive retreat located in the wild hills near Moundsville. Its central focus is Prabhupada's Palace of Gold, a grand edifice built to honor the founder and spiritual master of the Krishna Consciousness Movement. The place has a storied history, and has weathered a lot of controversy over the years. I learned a lot about its development by watching a documentary called Holy Cow Swami- a documentary film made by West Virginian filmmaker Jacob Young. I thought that Young's examination and portrayal of New Vrindaban was fairly balanced, and that his appreciation for his subject was sincere.

Still there are plenty of crazy and dark tales to tell about both New Vrindaban and the Krishna movement throughout the West. During further research on these topics I became aware of a book by John Hubner and Lindsry Gruson entitled Monkey on a Stick. It was written in the midst of the media frenzy that followed the trials of Kirtanananda Swami Bhaktipada (Keith Ham), and the shocking tales being told by disgruntled devotees and fringies* across America and beyond. People had viewed the Movement with suspicion ever since the New York Times covered the activities of the very first temple in Manhattan in the mid-60's. Despite this nation's professed respect for freedom of religion- if you are not a conventional Christian, a lot of folks will view you with distrust and confusion. Certainly some of the harsh criticism leveled against the Krishnas in the 80's was a result of such attitudes.

But if you dig a little deeper, you can find plenty of salacious details originating from within the Movement itself. Hubner and Gruson did a thorough job of cataloging the negative perspectives of both current and ex-devotees, along with those of independent observers, law enforcement figures, and peripheral adherents. Before reading Monkey on a Stick, I could have outlined a basic overview of some of the difficulties that New Vrindaban has faced over the years, but I was missing a lot of the background details that would explain some of the complexities involved in the community. This book filled in the gaps. Even more helpfully, the authors put the local problems in a wider frame by examining the conflict between the Governing Body Council of ISKCON (that was supposed to manage the Movement) and the initiating gurus who viewed themselves as individual succesers to Prabhupada himself.

Kirtanananda wasn't the only swami who ran afoul of the law after Prabhupada's death. A California-based guru named Hansadutta (Hans Kary) collected an arsenal of weapons near San Francisco to confront what he thought would be a massive invasion of Karmis**. He fortified himself with illicit drugs and sex with his female devotees. Jayatirtha (James Immel, the London guru ) used LSD to connect with Krishna, and decided to likewise avail himself of the flesh of his disciples. He was later killed and beheaded by his most ardent follower, who had decided he was a modern-day Rasputin. Bhagavan (William Ehrlichman) ruled over multiple European temples with an imperious approach. He had an overwhelming weakness for luxury that earned him the nickname "The Sun King". He lived a lavish life in a mansion and drank out of a $10,000 goblet made from pure gold.

Ultimately Monkey on a Stick makes a pretty convincing case that the downfall of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness followed quickly upon Prabhupada's passing in 1977. He gave instructions from his deathbed for succession. He designated 11 of his disciples rittvik representatives, and gave them the power to act as his deputies in initiating future devotees. Unfortunately the chosen ones viewed themselves as divine acharyas- or as the infallible representatives of God on Earth. They became trapped in Maya (the sensory world of the ego) and misused their perceived authority to further their insatiable desires for power. The danger of a religion based upon a master-devotee relationship is that it is particularly vulnerable to exploitation. Luckily for Krishna Consciousness there have been 'reformers' in the Movement like Ravindra Svurupa (William Deadwyler, Philadelphia) and Bahudaka (Peter Chatterton, Vancouver) who have arisen to keep ISKCON 'Honest'.

*"Fringies" are those that generally follow the teachings, philosophy and faith-based beliefs of Prabhupada and Krishna Consciousness, but do not adhere rigidly to the strictures of devotees.

** "Karmies" are the meat-eating heathens who have yet to embrace Krishna Consciousness. They are doomed to a cycle of reincarnation on the "material platform" until they surrender fully to God and work off their accumulated karma.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I should just like to inform those who are searching for the facts in so much analysis often by people who jump on the Monkeys Stick that there as many untruths as facts in this book. The unfortunate thing is that once a devotee has been misrepresented that gets repeated again and again and so becomes a fictional "truth"
I am a disciple of Jayatirtha Prabhu, and I had the good fortune to send the last 10 years of his life in his close association. He was a man of very high morals and never had sex with his disciples, with the exception of one disciple whom he married. Jayatirtha lead a life of innovative spiritual devotion and was of a very high intelligence. While in iskcon he did wonderfull work in service of his Guru and after leaving he continued that work which was carried out in a spirit of service to God and humanity. I think that books like "Monkey on a stick" are so full of half truths and misinformation that they can not be taken seriously in Jayatirtha's case at least and if the authors had interviewed those who lived and worked with him they could have averted this basic rule of not reporting lies and slanderous heartless misinformation. Jayatirtha's teachings, spiritual and charitable works will go on long after this book is resigned to the mediocre of bad retorting and I pray and hope that the people involved in this very low class activities fine a vocation in life that will be of some use, or at least not be causing harm to others. I am all for the facts and speaking against those who do harm to others and their selves, but this book has failed miserably where Jayatirtha is concerned.

3:28 AM  

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