Review of Branding Bhakti
Pranams. Jaya Srila Prabhupada! Religious studies academics are prone to the same weakness in relation to the religious institutions they examine as media organizations covering government. It becomes far too easy to trade objectivity for ease of access to official information. At worst the reporter or academic becomes “embedded” and more or less acts as the mouthpiece of the state or institution. The journalist I.F. Stone said, “All governments lie,” and religious institutions are not that different. The author of Branding Bhakti, Nicole Karapanagiotis, PhD., is also relatively young and therefore more dependent on previous scholarship on the ISKCON institution (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) which was founded in 1966. Although her book is a thorough study of some of the institution’s more recent marketing techniques, these factors cause it to fall short in regard to big picture causality and direction. Karapanagiotis also provides a number of important critiques regarding inclusivity and diversity.
In regard to becoming too close to the institution’s leadership, the reasons given for the ISKCON institution having become overly dependent on the Western Indian Hindu Diaspora read like they came right from the institution’s communications minister. The book emphasizes the lawsuits and cult accusations at its beginning, giving only distant and incomplete mention to the leadership’s authority crisis (“philosophical hairsplitting”). This distortion can almost be taken as purposeful when we consider that previous ISKCON institution scholar E. Burke Rochford concludes his Moving On (membership decline) chapter of Hare Krishna Transformed (2007), based on a somewhat extensive survey, (that) “ISKCON’S GBC and guru structures of authority lost legitimacy in the eyes of large portions of ISKCON’S first- and second-generation members,” and that this set the stage for “Hinduization.” This omission by Karapanagiotis is interesting because she otherwise cites Hare Krishna Transformed extensively. GBC is the ISKCON institution’s Governing Body Commision. Also, the most damaging lawsuit cited, the Turley child abuse case, did not occur until the late 90’s, a number of years after Hinduization was in full swing. The subsequent dependency of the institution on ethnic Indian Hindus is the reason given by the “Krishna branders,” for the marketing techniques they employ to attract non-Indians that are the subject of the book.
There is also a certain lack of critical examination of the “guru” branders themselves (Devamrita Swami, Radhanatha Swami, Hridayananda Swami) or their philosophical presentations according to the core teachings of Hare Krishna movement founder A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (Srila Prabhupada) or Gaudiya Vaishnavism in general. Although there is discussion of whether strict upholders of those teachings will prevail in their struggles with the branders, this causes the book to largely miss the overall direction of the institution, something that also, coincidently, favors the leadership. In this regard, Rochford also cites scholar Mark Chaves at the end of his Moving On chapter – “organizational or internal secularization results from the decline of religious authority, and secularization grows from the shrinking influence of social structures whose legitimization rests on the world of the supernatural.” In Krishna conscious speak “the supernatural” translates to “Srila Prabhupada’s instructions.” Unless otherwise cited all quotes are from Srila Prabhupada.
Hinduization itself was a type of secularization in that it replaced the previous temple-resident, celibate preachers, who had left the institution as per the above, with a householder, outside-resident and wage-earning, congregational social structure. Srila Prabhupada’s previous emphasis on proselytizing thus greatly declined. His position as spiritual head of the institution was also greatly devalued shortly after when the GBC failed to defend him and his statements on women when they were being criticized by some devotee women and their supporters. This prompted Rochford to write, “The fact that the leadership failed to act decisively on Prabhupada’s behalf was an acknowledgement that his authority was no longer absolute” (Hare Krishna Transformed, p159-160). The branders’ use of hatha yoga classes, something Srila Prabhupada said was a mundane diversion, and promoting chanting of Hare Krishna to provide material benefits like stress relief is just further secularization.
The author also makes little attempt to contrast the brander’s preaching techniques and guidance to their followers with Srila Prabhupada’s. Elaborating on such context would have provided a valuable overview of the institution’s direction beyond a marketing study. It also entailed far more risk of negatively portraying the institution’s leadership however.
In this regard, Srila Prabhupada was the model Gaudiya Vaishnava spiritual master who constantly emphasized having Krishna at the center of all his disciple’s activities, words and thoughts. The other side of this coin was giving up material consciousness with the goal of eventually becoming free from material desire altogether. To accomplish these things one had to follow “the rules and regulations,” such as the ten offenses to chanting the holy name. The idea was that, by engaging the followers in this 100% Krishna “pure devotional service,” the guru remained free from material karmic reactions that would result from any deviations from the scripturally prescribed methods. This was a consciously practiced process of gradual transformation, sadhana, “the yoga ladder,” not some pie-in-the-sky unexplainable deliverance. His ideal disciple was the preacher who engaged as much of his or her day talking directly of Krishna, wanting to follow the footsteps of their guru and thus become as pure as him. Those who couldn’t do this could provide support, worship the Deities or do farm work.
Karapanagiotis does make much of the brander’s, who are said to be gurus, desire to please Srila Prabhupada by attracting non-Indians in order to diversify the institution, as if engaging their disciples in this must inherently be Krishna conscious. However, both Devamrita’s and Radhanatha’s disciples are cited in the book as promoting chanting Hare Krishna to relieve the stresses of modern life as an integral part of their preaching programs. This is like comparing chanting to auspicious activity, the eighth offence to the holy name. Srila Prabhupada would not have condoned such a thing:
Hari-śauri: If you advertise the mahā-mantra gives some material benefit, isn’t that an offense?
Prabhupāda: Then that is aparādha (offensive). – Room Conversation With Artists and About BTG, February 25, 1977, Mayapura
In another place Srila Prabhupada associates such preaching of material benefit with that of “bogus swamis.”
“…philosophy and the so many bogus swamis’ philosophies, they are different. They offer some material benefit by their philosophy. ‘If you take this mantra, then your material life will be easier.’ People are captivated for material benefit. Spiritual benefit, they do not understand, and neither our philosophy provides any facility for material benefit. Although spiritual benefit includes material benefit, but people do not understand this.” Morning Walk at Villa Borghese, May 26, 1974, Rome
Srila Prabhupada is also well known for his many condemnations of hatha yoga having any transcendental benefit at the current time, especially as it is practiced now in the many temples or “loft preaching” centers of Radhanatha and Devamrita:
“The process of yoga is very clearly described in this verse of Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam. It is said here that the ultimate end of the yogīs and mystics who perform meditation is to get rid of this material body. Therefore they meditate in secluded places to attain yogic trance. Yoga has to be performed in a secluded place, not in public or in a demonstration on stage, as nowadays practiced by many so-called yogīs. Real yoga aims at ridding one of the material body. Yoga practice is not intended to keep the body fit and young. Such advertisements of so-called yoga are not approved by any standard method. Particularly mentioned in this verse is the word yam, or ‘unto whom,’ indicating that meditation should be targeted on the Personality of Godhead.” Purport, Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam 3.19.28
“The members of the Krishna consciousness movement are not at all interested in so-called meditation in the Himalayas or the forest, where one will only make a show of meditation, nor are they interested in opening many schools for yoga and meditation in the cities. Rather, every member of the Krishna consciousness movement is interested in going door to door to try to convince people about the teachings of Bhagavad-gita As It Is, the teachings of Lord Chaitanya. That is the purpose of the Hare Krishna movement.” Purport, Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam 7.9.44
The followers of Devamrita and Radhanatha who are preaching in these ways are thus engaged in both distracting people from pure Krishna consciousness and offending the holy name. According to Srila Prabhupada’s teachings, these things will only serve to prolong their material life. Ordering them to do these unauthorized things will also create karmic reactions for these two so-called gurus that will obligate them to also take future births and experience hellish consequences. In short, no genuine self-realized guru, because of their knowledge of the scriptures and their guru’s words, would have any follower do such “service.” Devamrita and Radhanatha are thus demonstrated to be gurus in name only.
In addition to the GBC or institution, the author also has hardly anything critical to say about the branders themselves. She does discuss “ISKCON’s most infamous outlaw guru,” Kirtanananda “Swami,” but completely fails to mention that both Devamrita and Radhanatha were his understudies in pretence for many years and even left the ISKCON institution after his ousting in 1987 for the years he conducted his Christian-look-alike Interfaith League of Devotees. During this period Devamrita was supposedly known as “Friar Tuck” and actually initiated his loft preaching. Neither does she mention how Radhanatha instantly went from “zero to hero” in the ISKCON institution by “reinitiating” thousands of Kirtananada’s disciples and bringing them back to the fold after Kirtanananda was exposed as a pedophile in the mid 90’s. In this one stroke he practically became the biggest “guru” in the institution. Of course in bringing up this history the author would be pretty much forced to illustrate the real mundane, utilitarian, “numbers are king” criteria that the GBC uses to determine who becomes “guru” in the group, as opposed to spiritual qualifications. Just consider, a few days before becoming “guru,” Radhanatha was a reprobate heretic for the group. This isn’t real Vaishnavism according to Gaudiya Vaishnava standards. Devamrita and Radhanatha can be condemned practically as much as their former role model. The detailed history of Kirtanananda’s West Virginia cult can be found in his former disciple, Henry Doktorski’s, Gold, Guns and God multi-volume series. Doktorski’s other book, Killing For Krishna, also strongly implicates Radhanatha in one of the two 80’s cult murders there mentioned by Karapanagiotis.
Regarding Hridayananda, although Karapanagiotis does bring up the “zonal acarya” scandals at her book’s conclusion, she again fails to mention that Hridayananda was one of these eleven, what to speak of their intellectual mouthpiece. In her Krishna West chapter he, that sub-movement’s founder, was described as having been “asked” by Srila Prabhupada “to be one of eleven men to take disciples of his own and lead the movement after his death.” Although this is cited as coming from his bio on ISKCONLeaders.com, that has since been changed to more closely reflect the truth. For years it has been well known that there was no “asking” or appointment but that the eleven initially out and out lied that there was. Hence none of their peers dared to question them then. This was, bar-none, the single-most reason why “ISKCON’S GBC and guru structures of authority lost legitimacy in the eyes of large portions of ISKCON’S first- and second-generation members.” This is substantially more than “philosophical hairsplitting.” However the lie apparently has so much staying power that it still made it into Karapanagiotis’ 2021 book. This should give anyone hesitation before calling any of the eleven, including Hridayananda, guru. Real gurus don’t lie, especially about getting appointed by their guru. Yet four of them remain on the institution’s “approved” list. This again serves to illustrate the crass, even unethical, criteria that the GBC employ to maintain thralldom over those who populate the group. The eleven were only appointed to be officiating priests (rittviks) at initiating ceremonies for new people who would become Srila Prabhupada’s disciples.
The eleven, or an ever-decreasing non-scandalized remainder, demanded worship and overlording ability from their peers and followers until their powers were downsized by middle manager reformers in 1987. Hridayananda rode high during this shameful period. Karapanagiotis’ fawning praise of this man, apparently overcome by the snowblower volume he can produce, is particularly nauseating for any genuine follower of Srila Prabhupada. He is a first class spiritual criminal.
“By a false display of religious sentiments, they present a show of devotional service while indulging in all sorts of immoral activities. In this way they pass as spiritual masters and devotees of God. Such violators of religious principles have no respect for the authoritative acharyas, the holy teachers in the strict disciplic succession……to mislead the people in general they themselves become so-called acharyas, but they do not even follow the principles of the acharyas.
“These rogues are the most dangerous elements in human society. Because there is no religious government, they escape punishment by the law of the state. They cannot, however, escape the law of the Supreme, who has clearly declared in the Bhagavad-Gita that envious demons in the garb of religious propagandists shall be thrown into the darkest regions of hell (Bg. 16.19-20). Sri Isopanisad confirms that these pseudo religionists are heading toward the most obnoxious place in the universe after the completion of their spiritual master business, which they conduct simply for sense gratification.” Purport, Sri Isopanisad, Mantra 12
Hridayananda was actually a serious sannyasi in the 70’s, one that brought many people to Srila Prabhupada. He is intellectually brilliant and quite funny and charming, things that make for a great preacher. He was sought out to give classes by virtually all his peers. However, the results of all his offences to them and Srila Prabhupada during his zonal acarya years have brought him to the place he now finds himself. He now apparently has no visible sadhana (daily spiritual practice), including not chanting his previously vowed 16 rounds of maha mantra daily. He also regularly disputes certain statements of Srila Prabhupada and the scriptures. Instead he values the association and empirical mindset of academia after pursuing post-graduate degrees in the 90’s, something Srila Prabhupada recommended against.
His Krishna West project is the natural outgrowth of his questioning of his guru, and is simultaneously the continuation of his spiritual master business. The fact that the GBC are willing to accept it is indicative of how many quantum leaps they are willing to make regarding secularization. It is not that Srila Prabhupada did not specify how devotees should be Krishna conscious or how they should preach. Hridayananda just isn’t interested, but he can talk rings around opponents, citing all sorts of scripture and the words of Srila Prabhupada. He also still has many followers, the GBC’s prime motivator, and knows where a lot of the group’s skeletons are buried. Their not being able or wanting to rein him in is just more of what Rochford cited Chaves saying previously, the result of a “decline of religious authority.”
Hridayananda is well known as a big public sense enjoyer, and all three of the branders’s followers preach the material benefits of chanting Hare Krishna, an offense to the holy name. This is called karma-mishra bhakti, or Krishna consciousness mixed with desire for fruitive gain, material enjoyment. Srila Rupa Goswami, one of devotee’s predecessor gurus, says that one must give this up to be engaged in pure Krishna consciousness:
śīlanaṁ bhaktir uttamā
Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu 1.1.11, Sri Chaitanya Charitamrita, Madhya 19.167
“One should render transcendental loving service to the Supreme Lord Kṛṣṇa favorably and without desire for material profit or gain through fruitive activities or philosophical speculation. That is called pure devotional service.”
Yet this mixed concept is being advertised by the ISKCON institution as Krishna consciousness and is called pure devotional service. This sort of pretentiousness is a symptom of watered down so-called Krishna consciousness or sahajiyaism.
“Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Ṭhākura comments that saralatā, or simplicity, is the first qualification of a Vaiṣṇava, whereas duplicity or cunning behavior is a great offense against the principles of devotional service. As one advances in Kṛṣṇa consciousness, one must gradually become disgusted with material attachment and thus become more and more attached to the service of the Lord. If one is not factually detached from material activities but still proclaims himself advanced in devotional service, he is cheating. No one will be happy to see such behavior.” Purport, Sri Chaitanya Charitamrita 2.117
Scholars of religious studies regularly analyze absolute concepts, and Karapanagiotis nicely discusses devotee’s basic beliefs in the first chapters. So although she later writes, “even though scholars of religion know that such conceptions of ‘the core’ are shifting goalposts or mere rhetorical moves mobilized at different times and for different reasons,” (p223) there is apparently another reason for her lack of critical analysis of the brander’s and GBC’s operating philosophies. This does, as noted previously, quite well serve the ever-increasing secularization and the GBC’s constantly shifting “absolutes.” There is no doubt she will receive ample access for her next projects with them.
“We have got practical experience how a great institution was lost by whimsical ways. Without carrying out the order of the spiritual master, they manufactured something and the whole thing was lost. Therefore Viśvanātha Cakravartī Ṭhākura stresses very much on the words of the spiritual master. Vyavasāyātmikā buddhir ekeha kuru-nandana [Bg. 2.41]. If you stick to the order of spiritual master, then, without caring for your own convenience or inconvenience, then you become perfect.” Class on Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam 1.2.11, Vṛndāvana, October 22, 1972
by bhakta Eric Johanson