Before I go to in-depth of my experiences with a particular southern California ISKON, I have to write this disclaimer.
Having attended many different churches, temples and synagogues in my life, I know that one does not necessarily represent all. My experiences are mine alone and while I was shocked and grieved at my treatment at this particular ISKON, I do not begrudge anyone their faith or place of worship.
With that being said….
I hope and pray to God that I never step foot in another ISKON again.
Two Sunday’s ago, Bear and I went to a southern California ISKON temple in order to speak with the Pundit there for assistance with choosing an auspicious date for our wedding. We also wished to speak to him about the possibilities of our marriage occurring there. We wanted to know what they offered in regards to services, function and reception.
In preparation for this, I had called and spoke with the Pundit a month and a half in advance. He had introduced himself to me with a Hindu name and sounded on the phone like a wise man, if somewhat pushy with his belief that Bear and I had to meet his standards in order to be allowed to marry there. I would later learn that he was a convert from southern California who studied in India for five years, took the vows and came back to be a Pundit in a So Cal temple.
I called him again two weeks in advance to confirm our attendance and once more a few days before. He confirmed each time that he would speak to us during the feast or directly afterwards. He stated that he would like us to attend the full service so we could see what they represented. I chose to honor this and prepared Bear for attending the service.
We arrived in time, to find approximately 15 women and their children outside or in the store selling copies of the Bhagavad-Gita, incense, kurta’s and gypsy skirts.
No one spoke to us or greeted us. People averted their eyes from us. We finally found a door leading to where the actual “services” were being held. Upon entering we found that a group of mostly men and very few women were being taught by a Guru. He was a small man, with a Boston accent; quite obviously a white Christian convert and his answers to followers were divinely vague and mostly copied from statements made by Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gita. After each answer, everyone would say “Hari Bhau, Hari Krishna”. It seemed to me that after ANYONE spoke, some one would always answer with that.
After this session, they had regular service. I have attended other Mandir’s previously and the chanting had always been subdued, calm, reflective and peaceful. This was a full on parade with drums and symbols and loud chanting and rhythmic dancing and swaying and clapping and hands in the air. The air itself was heavy with incense and stagnant with a lack of breeze in the shut in service room. Women stood away and to the back of the men wearing their version of sari’s, gypsy skirts with cut off half sleeve halter tops and a long scarf barely convincing as a dupatta. I had come wearing an authentic Punjabi dress I had bought in Pune. They wore bright and sparkly eye makeup and large sequined tikkla’s between their eyebrows. I wore little makeup and one dark red dot. They had tied their hair back or braided back, my own was long and flowing down my shoulders. The women glared at me or stared as if I was an intruder or non-believer without even speaking once to me. I got the distinct impression that they held no power in this ‘temple’, they worshiped in the back of the room and away from the men if at all, most were dressed as show pieces, and (as I later found) they were not even allowed to help serve during the feast. It was as if they could ‘smell’ individual strength or entitlement on me and disliked me for it.
The dancing and loud chanting and continued drum playing went on for almost a full 30 minutes and finally the aarti was performed. I was relieved. I was beginning to get a headache.
Afterwards, they served a feast, where Bear and I sit, there were a few people who seemed nicer than the rest, more open to us…but we sat on the edge of the group away from the others. We waited for the Pundit but he never came. We notified another leader of the temple that we were there and why and he said that the Pundit was aware of it and would come to us. We should wait. So we did. We waited all throughout supper, through out desert, as the hall started to clear and still we waited. We were there almost forty five minutes after desert when I told Bear I felt sick in that place, that it was making me sick to stay there. And I wasn’t kidding. I’ve always been very aware of my surrounding, paying attention to people’s behavior to me and to other’s, picking up the ‘vibes’ of the crowd….and this place and it’s people were making me physically ill. I felt they were frauds. That they weren’t attending services to find their place with God or their own path to spiritual completion. I felt they were there for show. There was so much feigned “godliness” and barely concealed animosity.
As we were leaving, we saw the Pundit talking with other members; we bowed and began to make our way out. He stopped us and asked us to wait a few more minutes. We explained that we had other commitments and it was getting very late. He entreated us once more so we agreed and sat on a bench by the door to wait “just a few more minutes”. I sat there and listened to that man speak to other people as if he knew more than they did, that they should do as he said without question and as if their independent thought didn’t matter and should not be encouraged. I listened to that man ‘gossip’ with other members. Who did what or said what, who was seen with who, who wasn’t chanting enough and needed to be “spoken to” by an elder. They seemed to put quite a bit of emphasis on chanting as much as possible throughout the day.
Finally, after waiting another 20 minutes, he came to us. Before asking us anything, he stared at us for a while, closed his eyes as if in meditation, opened them and then asked Bear if he had thought what the problems would be by marrying a woman so much older than him. Bear attempted to explain to him his thoughts on this; however the Pundit interrupted and said that he didn’t think Bear had thought about the real consequences. That when Bear was forty and going through a mid-life crises he would be married to a woman 9 years his senior and no longer young and beautiful. He told Bear that while men grow distinguished with age, women rarely grow more beautiful. He said that he was worried about my future and my safety because he felt that Bear hadn’t thought about these things and would leave me once I had grown old and no longer youthful looking. I felt Bear tense beside me and saw the look of tension/anger cross his face and then he was calm once more. The Pundit then asked if we had really and truly tried to convince Bear’s parents to our marriage. We both attempted to tell the Pundit what we had done, said, the many times and ways we had spoken with them, the time we had allowed to pass…but it was in vain. The Pundit said it wasn’t enough. He said that I must go to India and spend one month living with Bear’s family, serving them, and waiting on them, praying with them, to prove that I was a good Indian and Hindu girl. He said when I went I must wear a sari before them everyday, that I must wash and bathe every day, and that I must always have my hair tied back.
By this time, he had interrupted speaking with us to talk to members as they left. And it wasn’t for prayers or well wishing….it was for gossiping or controlling.
Two of these conversations stuck out….
The first was with an African American member, to whom he was telling of how many women had approached him (the Pundit) asking who the “new guy” was and going on and on about how attractive he was and could they be introduced. He told this man that “white women like black men better” with a grin that bordered on a leer.
The second was when two young men were asking him if something they did was correct or not and the Pundit told them; “I’m wiser than you are right? I know more than you do about what Krishna wants right? Well, I’m telling you it was fine, so why are you worrying about it?” He didn’t try to explain to them why what they did was right, or teach them anything about morals behind their decision or how to come to the conclusion of right and wrong for themselves. He just said, I am know, I’m telling you it’s right, so stop worrying over it.
When he finally directed his attention back to us, he then asked us to stand and thinking that we were going to be allowed to escape there without showing disrespect, we did. He studied us and said, “Good, she’s shorter.” He went on to say that there are two rules in the Indian culture with regards to marriage that must be always followed. One, the woman must be shorter and Two the woman must be substantially younger. He called his wife, a pretty young blonde with sparkly everything pasted on her face and asked her and his four children to repeat to us the two main rules with regards to marriage and they dutifully answered the same.
By this time, both Bear and I had shut down and were answering with only ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in order to not encourage him further so that we could leave. Finally, I was forced to say that we had other commitments that we were now very late for and must leave. Before going, the Pundit said that he would not give us the date or agree to marry us until we could prove to him that we had tried other ways to get Bear’s family approval and that Bear would need to prove that he would not leave me when I was “old and no longer youthful looking”. We said thank you and left.
And I’ve been sick with the flu and URI ever since then. Draw your own conclusions.
As we entered, they gave us a pamphlet that had the Hare Krishna mantra in it so we could follow along, as well as the principles of ISKON and the dress code. Here was some of what it said….
Seven purposes of ISKCON are as follows:
1. To systematically propagate spiritual knowledge to the society at large and to educate all people in the techniques of spiritual life in order to check the imbalance of values in life, and to achieve real unity and peace in the world.
2. To propagate consciousness of Krishna as it is revealed in the Bhagavad-Gita and the Srimad-Bhagavatam.
3. To bring the members of the society together with one another and nearer to Krishna, the prime entity, and thus develop the idea within the members and humanity at large that each soul is part and parcel of
the quality of Godhead (Krishna).
4. To teach and encourage the Sankirtana movement of congregational chanting of the holy names of God as revealed in the teachings of Lord Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu.
5. To erect for the members and for the society at large, a holy place of transcendental pastimes, dedicated to the personality of Krishna.
6. To bring the members closer together for the purpose of teaching a simpler and more natural way of life.
7. With a view towards achieving the aforementioned purposes, to publish and distribute periodicals, magazines, books and other writings.
Ladies are advised to wear a sari and the body including bellies should be covered at all times.
Non-devotees – If however you are uncomfortable wearing a sari then please ensure you are fully clothed. We can also teach you how to wear a sari. “Gopi outfits” which are very comfortable can be purchased at any ISKCON temple shop.
Jeans and tops or shorts and tops are not allowed. No short skirts.
Men should wear neat and clean dhotis and kurtas, Or comfortable long pants and shirt. No shorts allowed.
In their personal lives, devotees observe a strict ethical code and disciplined lifestyle involving vegetarianism, rising early in the morning for worship and chanting, limiting contact between the sexes, and other restrictions. The main spiritual practice for individual devotees is repeating the divine Hare Krishna mantra as constantly as possible, sometimes aloud, sometimes in whisper, sometimes silently. Devotees keep track of their japa (mantra recitation) on a rosary, often kept in a special, small cloth bag draped over the hand as the beads are turned. Some of the devotees at the temple are monastics, as indicated by their orange robes. Most are householders (i.e., married); male householders wear white clothing for religious functions. Single devotees are expected to remain celibate.
After I returned home, I compared that with the pamphlet I had received from Ayra Samaj. Here is what Ayra Samaj says…
The ten principles of the Arya Samaj
1. God is the source of strength.
2. God is just.
3. The Vedas are the scriptures of knowledge. It is the duty of all Aryas to read them, teach them to others.
4. One should accept truth and seek knowledge.
5. All acts should be performed in accordance with Dharma, after deliberating what is right and wrong.
6. The primary object of Arya Samaj is to do good to the world, by promoting physical, spiritual and social good of everyone
7. Our conduct towards all should be guided by care, justice.
8. We should dispel ignorance and promote knowledge, science.
9. One should see one’s own greatest welfare as residing in the welfare of others.
10. One should regard oneself under restriction to follow the rules of society. A disciplined individual is free in a democratic society.
There was no dress code listed in the pamphlet for Arya Samaj, there was no rules or principles listed for how people should live their life with regards to interaction with the opposite sex or prayer. There was only a focus on what Ayra Samaj was about…and that was always based on their Ten Principles and the study of the Vedas.
For me personally, I have chosen to stay with Arya Samaj and study under them. I connect well with their ideology and theory and am encouraged by their open and accepting nature. From the moment I first stepped into the Ayra Samaj temple I attend in So Cal, I was greeted with warmth and smiles. Is Arya Samaj for everyone? Perhaps not. And that’s ok. Like I said, it’s an individuals right to decide.
But my thought on the So Cal ISKON was that they were more about tradition than they were religion or spirituality.
I found an excerpt from a paper written in 1991 by Nori J. Muster which summed up for me what I felt this ISKON represented.
by Nori J. Muster, 1991
“Control and conformity were requirements for membership in the ISKCON family. The family had rigid expectations for every aspect of life, including attendance of temple services and functions, participation in temple jobs, giving up outside activities, standards for child rearing, what to wear, how to eat, and even recommendations of what to think and how to pray. Non-participation and non-compliance could be punished or simply disapproved. That disapproval often came in the form of “chastisement,” or correction from a more tenured devotee. Some had financial assistance cut off, others were physically or emotionally abused; one man was murdered for his dissidence. To say the least, members who were unable to meet an organization’s codes found themselves living in an inhospitable and unloving environment.”