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
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
"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
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,
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
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
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.