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BOOK REVIEW: SCHOLAR'S WORK ASSAILS CULT STEREOTYPE ISKCON WORLD REVIEW 10/87 "The Great American Cult Scare" has taken its toll on the spread of Krishna Consciousness in America and the world. Deprogrammings, multimillion-dollar brainwashing suits, media and governmental harassment, conflicts with parents and other relatives are all effects of a strong anti-cult movement. In his book, The Dark Lord, Cult Images and the Hare Krishnas in America, Prof. Larry D. Shinn describes the anti-cult movement as "one of the most ominous challenges to ISKCON's future in America." He says that the anti-cultists' attempts to depict the Hare Krishna movement as "a dark and demonic cult that seduces the minds of unsuspecting youth" will succeed to the extent that the "images of Jonestown are successfully transferred." In chapter one, "The Great American Cult Scare," Shinn states his intention to prove that the Hare Krishnas are "a religious faith worth studying in their own right as a Hindu missionary venture into the English-speaking world." He says, "This book purposely accepts the double entendry of the title, The Dark Lord. On the one hand, Krishna is the name of the Deity at the center of ISKCON devotion and is presented quite often in dark-blue or black images. The name Krishna in Sanskrit literally means 'black,' and this Deity has been worshiped in India for more than 2,000 years without any prejorative meaning being attached to His color. In fact, the scriptures of India extol Krishna's color as the beneficent expression of the God who chooses to enter our bleak period of history in a form that will be most beneficial to the salvation of humankind. "On the other hand, the anti cult writers have painted Krishna and the movement that bears His name as dark and demonic blots on the recent religious history in America. Claiming violence to be at the very heart of the scriptures of ISKCON (namely, the Bhagavad-gita), cult critics have accused ISKCON devotees of teaching parental hate, promoting societal disharmony, and developing an 'army' of robots willing to do anything for the success of ISKCON. These are among the images that will be tested [in The Dark Lord] against the realities of ISKCON's teachings and practices." Each chapter begins with an abridged story of one devotee's life, to illustrate the issues Shinn intends to discuss. The word "zombie" is often used to describe a cult member, where an intelligent young person has been turned into a manipulated, unthinking, undernourished "robot." Shinn not only debunks the "goon" theory of the anti-cultists, but answers the question, "What is the attraction of the dark Lord Krishna?" Truth Behind the Cult Scare He dedicates one chapter, "Godmen and Gurus," to examining the role of the guru. While anticultists propagate negative images of "deceptive leaders," Shinn tells Prabhupada's life story and reveals his true position as a pure devotee of Krishna and spiritual leader who attracted his followers by his personal piety. Chapter five, "Why Worship a Blue God?" examines the conversion process. While anti-cultists claim devotees are "brainwashed" into joining ISKCON, Shinn explains the commitment in terms of genuine religious devotion. He summarizes Krishna's pastimes and bluntly states that the Krishna Consciousness religion answers a lot of questions for some people. He writes, ". . .in all religious traditions, the story of one's sacred reality is the most true story one can tell and live. . . . The answer to this chapter's basic question, Why worship a blue god? is a simple one: because it makes sense to live within the symbolic and meaningful universe circumscribed by Krishna's lila, or play." In chapter six, "New Identities: Secure in the Arms of Krishna," Shinn brings up the anti-cultists' argument that cults change the actual identity and behavior of their converts. He argues, "are not new converts of the Krishnas cut off from their families and old 'material lives' and swept into a secretive community that bestows on them a new, foreign name, Indian dress, vegetarian diet, and mind-numbing chant? Is not this new life oriented around totally different values that entice young persons into begging on the streets, pestering travelers in the airports, and working endless hours each day for no pay?" He tells the story of Lakshmh dash [not her real name] in an attempt to get behind the devotees' "thousand-mile stare." Lakshmi's story is one of the 1960s and 70s counterculture, full of free love, heavy drug use, and college life during the hippie/peace movement. After some time Lakshmh drops out of college and travels with a friend from commune to commune around America. She gradually becomes disgusted with her freewheeling lifestyle and turns to yoga and meditation. After some time she meets the devotees, but falls into bad association and for does not become fully committed to ISKCON. Finally her husband leaves her for a more free lifestyle and she becomes initiated and fully dedicated to ISKCON. Shinn discusses the "classical Chaitanya traditions" practiced by ISKCON and explains the basis of the beliefs, practices, and Krishna conscious lifestyle. After discussing the benefits Lakshmh found within ISKCON, Shinn says, "Traditional Krishna explanations of the saving effect of the Hare Krishna chant are not easily squared with anticultists' claims that the Krishnas' chanting is primarily a brainwashing technique. . . " "Bhakti," Not "Brainwashing" The next two chapters, "Pathways to Krishna: Conversion or Brainwashing?" and "Deprogramming: Fear and Its Legacies," discuss the fallacy of brainwashing and the destructive effect of deprogramming. In the last chapter, "Through a Dark Looking Glass," Shinn launches his attack on the entire anti-cult movement. He says, ". . .more mainline churches in America are beginning to realize that much of the anti-cultists' critique is thinly disguised opposition to deep-felt religious piety of any kind. Therefore, to a great extent, all persons who value their religious freedom have a stake in how well a new and marginal missionary movement like ISKCON is treated." He quotes Lord Acton, a noted historian: "The most certain test by which we judge whether a country is really free is the amount of security enjoyed by minorities. Liberty by this definition, is the essential condition and guardian of religion." He concludes: "The Hare Krishna Movement in America reflects the same limitations and foibles as any religious institution. Devotees are human beings who, like most religious disciples, have higher aspirations for themselves than they often can achieve in practice. Devotees often fall short of that which they know to be right and good and yet seek a level of religious commitment that is uncommon in most religious institutions in America. (Compare Paul's words in Romans Seven.) Nonetheless, the stylized anti-cult images of Krishna devotees as slaves of a dark and demonic Lord are inappropriate caricatures if one is truly interested in understanding why thousands of American youths have sought religious satisfaction in the Indian tradition of the dark Lord Krishna." Organized Oppression The anticult movement is made up of independent organizations like the Citizens Freedom Foundation (CFF), the Tucson Freedom of Thought Foundation, and the American Family Foundation (AFF). One clearing house for information on cults, the Center for Destructive Cultism, works with the AFF to provide legitimacy to their research and work. These groups have strong financial backing and use the public media to try to stop all "destructive cults," always naming "Hare Krishna" as one of the worst. The AFF fights cultism by running full page ads in major newspapers and magazines. One ad described by Shinn in chapter eight begins with the announcement, "Cult activity didn't die at Jonestown" and ends with a plea for funds saying, "Prevent another Jonestown." Half of the page of the ad is covered with a scene of the dead victims spread on the streets of Jonestown. Part of the text reads, "Cult activity is still alive in this country. Maybe in your own neighborhood. They're stealing your children and possessing their minds. We, the American Family Foundation, are fighting back, but we need your help." These organizations publish newsletters and frequently contact the media. They are backed by personalities that Shinn describes as a "who's who" of anti-cult spokespersons. The appearance of The Dark Lord is an important event for the future of ISKCON. The book refutes the cult image for anyone who will read it. It is a landmark book, coming at a time when the Hare Krishna Movement in America is threatened by one brainwashing lawsuit after another. Dr. Shinn has made a major contribution toward gaining recognition for ISKCON as a real religion, one which has a right to exist in American society.


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