Betrayal of the Spirit is a thoughtful and critical insiderís account of the Hare Krishnas, more formally named the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). In this religious autobiography, Nori Muster reflects on her experiences as a devotee and describes the Hare Krishnaís decline after the death of Swami Prabhupada, the ISKCON founder, in 1977. She does all this from the unique perspective of a public relations officer.
In the 1970s, a time of social change and experimentation, Nori Muster was a college student who became fascinated with religion and came to a spiritual crossroads in her life. She felt destined to pursue Krishna consciousness after meeting welcoming devotees and connecting with their four regulative principles. She also became interested in the organizationís press, learned about gurus and bhakti yoga, and was taught to chant mantras and japas. Because Prabhupadaís writings provided answers to her questions about the mysteries of God, Nori moved into the Los Angeles temple and immersed herself in Hare Krishna culture, eventually devoting eleven years of her life to working in ISKCONís Public Relations department.
Throughout the book, Nori argues that ISKCONís downfall in the 1980s did not result from Prabhupadaís failings. Some of the factors that contributed to the groupís demise include a zonal guru system and its lack of accountability, corruption of certain influential gurus, an inflexible patriarchal structure, isolation from and dishonesty toward the outside world, and negative publicity brought upon by the Hare Krishnas themselves.
The Governing Body Commission (GBC) held a meeting after Prabhupadaís death and decreed that eleven gurus would initiate disciples and be treated with the same respect formerly paid to Prabhupada. The new zonal guru system was a turning point because the transmission of guru power was not smooth, and the gurus took paths that seemed to diverge from the founderís principles.
Muster attributed a flood of negative publicity about ISKCON to national and international problems caused by one or several individuals. Several gurus had integrity problems. Among them were Jayatirtha who experienced devotional ecstasy as a result of heavy LSD usage, Hamsadutta who stockpiled weapons in the Northern California ranch, and Ramesvara who was attached to a fifteen-year-old girl and failed to chant his japas. If these and other corrupted gurus were held accountable for their actions and immediately excommunicated from ISKCON, much of the bad press would have been avoided. Some of the remaining issues ISKCON had to face included: the Jonestown tragedy, Laguna Beach drug busts, a court case called George vs. ISKCON, deceptive fundraising activities, drug dealing and prostitution in New Vrindaban, neglect and child abuse in the Dallas boarding school, and family incest in a gurukula in Vrindavana, India. Many of these events were covered up.
Despite the bad publicity and a growing negative reputation, Muster gave ISKCON the benefit of the doubt and continued to have faith in its leadership. A struggle between her expectations as a devotee and ISKCONís scandal-filled reality eventually led her to resign from her job and separate from the movement.
I respect and admire Nori Musterís courage in writing Betrayal of the Spirit. One can only imagine the hardship, adjustment, and acceptance she had to face as a female Hare Krishna devotee. Luckily she did not experience any of the abuse, neglect, or organizational incest that was mentioned in one of the chapters. However, the way she describes her experiences, especially as a woman devotee, is inconsistent with her initial knowledge of ISKCON women. In other words, I would argue that she was not as naive as she described herself to be. Numerous situations in the book made her aware of womenís second-class status and submissive roles.
Musterís feelings of confusion and growing alienation became more evident when an award for ISKCONís P.R. department was given to a part-time male staff writer, despite her dedication and hard work as a public relations secretary and editor of the ISKCON World Review. She probably did not realize the extent of the organizationís patriarchal system. Nevertheless, she did present us with several incidents that should have given her fair warning of the lack of recognition or appreciation that she would receive as a female devotee. Two examples include one womanís explanation that ďsubmission is the ornament of womanĒ and her college professorís argument that ISKCON women were considered inferior (16). Muster had persuasive evidence of subservient roles of most ISKCON women, but wanted to believe that it wasnít true.
Why didnít Muster share what she knew about ISKCONís internal problems with other devotees? I have mixed feelings regarding this issue because it is disturbing, yet understandable considering the situation she was in. Of course a fellow devotee would only want to know the facts, so as to not be blindly worshiping Krishna in the midst of internal corruption. Since it was her job in the P.R. department to encourage optimism and to project a positive image of ISKCON, however, it is almost excusable that she did not let the word spread about the organizationís turmoil. I do give Muster credit for attempting to notify others through various interviews and articles, particularly because she was regulated by the GBC, which did not allow reporting of certain new stories that would have brought unfavorable attention.
Because Muster is more objective as opposed to subjective in writing the book, the events that occurred behind the scenes within ISKCON are more believable. It is important to note that she does not write as a bitter, former Hare Krishna devotee of the 1980s, but instead as classic reformer who simply scrutinized the leaders of the movement. I enjoyed reading this book because, as Larry Shinn pointed out in the foreword, two distinctive themes are interwoven within it. Muster provides both an interesting account of what happened to the Hare Krishnas in the United States during that time and a narrative of her own struggles with the Hare Krishnas.
--Gina E. Dapul