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The Essentials of Reform in ISKCON: An Examination of Psychotherapy and its Compatibility with Krishna Consciousness

From Krishna Kirti dasa

Since the beginning of ISKCON, there has been a constant tension between Western values and Vedic values and which has been a cause of persistent social unrest within ISKCON. An authentic Krishna conscious society is steeped in the ideals of Vedic morality, and as such, a genuinely Krishna conscious society requires a high degree of celibacy from all of its members. Western society, however, especially since the countercultural revolutions of the 1960s, has abandoned celibacy as the basis of a healthy and functional society. To broadly maintain the high degree of sexual restraint mandated by the principles of Krishna consciousness, a high degree of social compartmentalization is necessary. This compartmentalization aims at minimizing social contact between men and women, because, according to the Vedic conception of human nature, women are like fire and men are like butter—when the two come near each other, like the melting of butter, sexual attraction is inevitable.

Western society, however, having liberalized its values regarding sexual restraint, deplores this compartmentalization. Srila Prabhupada noted the resistance of his disciples to the Vedic social model. Once he remarked, “In the Western countries, the boys and girls, they mix very freely. And if I say, ‘My dear boys, you cannot see even a young girl,’ then finished.” (Prabhupada lecture) On many other occasions he made similar remarks. This tension was prominent in Srila Prabhupada’s time, and now it has come to the forefront of ISKCON debate on most social and theological issues.

The tension between Vedic social values and Western social values has caused many to misjudge what is appropriate and what is inappropriate behavior between men and women. This in turn has led to widespread infidelity and unacceptably high rates of falldown among leaders and gurus. To rectify the results of this tension—widespread infidelity and unsteadiness of leading devotees—various reform movements have risen.

Ritvikism is the first of these movements. Through exotic interpretations of Vaishnava theology regarding guru-tattva, the various ritvik movements aimed at trying to protect the sanctity of the office of guru by taking responsibility for initiation out of the hands of people who probably are not qualified for it. This did not address what even the ritviks would agree is a prominent inability to maintain the basic morality required of the Vedic social model, especially required for bhakti-yoga, but they apparently felt that something was better than nothing.

A second reform movement that has tried to resolve the tension between Vedic social values and Western social values has been ISKCON’s suffragette movement, or women’s rights movement. This movement argued that the social unrest within ISKCON was caused primarily by the inability or refusal of ISKCON’s leadership to provide for women’s special entitlements, as per the Vedic model, and the exclusion of women from important social, political, and spiritual roles in ISKCON. The women’s movement posited that because men, by themselves, had failed in this regard, it was necessary for women to have access to ISKCON’s corridors of power so that women could stand up for the rights of women. This movement successfully established itself within ISKCON’s leadership hierarchy and has the broad support of the rest of ISKCON’s leadership. Consequently, the social ideals espoused by this movement, which are close to Western social ideals, guides and informs ISKCON’s social policy. The views and ideals of the women’s movement has, in effect, become ISKCON’s new social orthodoxy—effectively moving ISKCON’s working social values closer to Western social values. Like ritvikism, the successes of ISKCON’s suffragette movement have done little to resolve the widespread difficulties in maintaining the standards of celibacy required by a Krishna conscious society.

A third and complimentary reform movement, related to the other two but nevertheless distinct from them, is the rising popularity of psychotherapy. This is not an organized movement in the sense that the various ritvik movements and ISKCON’s suffragette movement have been, but rather among devotees there has been a broad and spontaneous surge of interest in psychotherapy. Many devotees are now earning advanced degrees in psychology, and many others are willing to part with hundreds and thousands of dollars for therapy sessions.

The psychotherapy movement got its biggest boost from dealing with the child abuse lawsuits that have plagued ISKCON. In this regard, devotees with advanced training in psychology have been at the forefront of protecting ISKCON from bad publicity, forming and enforcing policies designed to protect children in ISKCON schools and temples, and by assuring law enforcement agencies and anxious devotee parents that their children are now safe in ISKCON.

The establishment of the Child Protection Office is the psychotherapy movement’s equivalent of the suffragette movement’s Women’s Ministry. That ISKCON maintains an important office founded on the principles of psychology symbolizes the legitimacy of psychology within ISKCON. As the CPO has administered therapy to victims of child abuse, it has been widely felt that what is good for the children is also good for adults. Many ISKCON converts have less-than-ideal social backgrounds, and to resolve the personal difficulties and tensions they have in balancing Vedic standards of behavior with their personal histories, many have turned to psychology for help.

Although the reformers in each of these reform movements have the best of intentions, all of them have nevertheless pursued reforms that have involved some measure of changing, rejecting, or adding to the essentials of Krishna consciousness. Ritvikism’s idea of posthumous initiation is unprecedented, and for its legitimacy has relied on highly creative interpretations of Srila Prabhupada’s teachings. The women’s movement believes that social and political representation are necessary for self-fulfillment, yet they are at a loss to explain how great ladies from scripture like Kunti, Devahuti, Sita, and others, were superlatively self-fulfilled under a totally patriarchal social system. Similarly, the psychotherapy movement is unable to explain why, if the process of Krishna consciousness is fully capable of removing all material miseries, they think psychotherapy has any place in spiritual life at all.

Perhaps the greatest error made in the name of reform is in changing the fundamentals of Krishna consciousness. In any reform, accepting the self-sufficiency of Krishna consciousness is essential. Especially where some idea, method, or action is designated as capable of advancing a devotee on the path of bhakti, it is a mistake to suggest that something outside of scripture and tradition is also required. Shastra and tradition prescribe a variety of direct and indirect methods for the conditioned soul’s emancipation from material existence: bhakti-yoga is the direct method, and varnashrama-dharma along with other kinds of yoga (karma, jnana, dhyana, etc.) are the indirect methods recommended by shastra and the acharyas. All of the reform movements mentioned here have violated the principle of the self-sufficiency of Krishna conscious, as handed down to us from the parampara.

The following discussion on the use and popularity of psychotherapy within ISKCON will show how external ideas and methods challenge and undermine Krishna conscious essentials.

A variety of reforms within ISKCON aimed at helping devotees transcend adverse material circumstances have relied on modern psychology, but modern psychology itself differs from shastra and teachings of the acharyas in fundamental ways. In trying to show how applied psychology can enhance a devotee’s efforts in removing anarthas, a devotee practitioner of psychotherapy wrote,

A common dynamic is that, when the process of Krsna consciousness reveals weeds, we will deny they are there, because such adulterations do not conform with an image of ourselves as advanced and humble devotees, respectable members of the Vaisnava community, etc. (VLSPT)

If we deny the weeds, then how is it that the weeds were revealed to us? Revelation also includes acceptance, otherwise how is it revelation? The quoted statement is actually a linguistic contradiction, and it has to be a contradiction because sadhana-bhakti is a self-sufficient process. If one steadily follows one’s sadhana, then revelation is guaranteed. On the Vaisnava Family Resources site, other devotees with a background in psychotherapy make a similar claim:

Though our pure chanting and serving dissolve the subtle body (our material mind, intelligence, and false ego in which our material desires and anarthas are stored), it is generally a slow process. Our habitual mental patterns and attitudes often hold us back. They can become so much a part of us that we often don’t notice them or we think there is nothing we can do to change. Counseling is one way to facilitate change, and change, or moving toward our spiritual identity is really what spiritual life is all about. We should be willing to accept whatever will assist us in our progressive change or spiritual awakening. (VFR)

Again, if bhakti-yoga is the most efficacious process of becoming free from material nature, then how can another process make it faster? To be fair to the authors, they say psychotherapy can help devotees come to the mode of goodness, and it is true that the mode of goodness helps a devotee remain steady. The above excerpt is a prose form of this deductive argument:

  • The mode of goodness is helpful for spiritual life.
  • Psychotherapy can help a devotee come to the mode of goodness.
  • Psychotherapy can therefore be helpful for spiritual life.

There are, of course, several implicit caveats to this: the therapist should be a good devotee, should be expert, should be ethical, etc. Aside from these caveats, this deductive argument’s basic form is sound: if the premises are true, then the conclusion must be true—but are the premises true? The first premise, that the mode of goodness is helpful for spiritual life, is unquestionably true.

The second premise, however, is doubtful. Implicit in the second premise is yet another deductive (and seductive) argument: Material things can be used for spiritual purposes, psychotherapy is a material thing, therefore psychotherapy can be used for spiritual purposes. In this argument, “varnashrama-dharma” can be substituted for “psychotherapy” and the argument would still be true. Varnashrama-dharma, after all, is a material thing. It is also true, however, that varnashrama-dharma is not psychotherapy, and psychotherapy is not varnashrama-dharma. That something material can be used for Krishna’s service does not mean it can be used in whichever way we desire. Poison can be used in Krishna’s service, but how much, how often, and for what purpose? What about condoms?

Like varnashrama-dharma, psychotherapy is not just any old material thing. It has specific and essential characteristics that distinguish it from other material things. This means that a material thing’s specific, essential characteristics must be assessed—not the fact that it is a material thing. We determine how something material may be used in Krishna’s service, or if it may be used at all, by evaluating its specific and essential characteristics. Only when this has been done can we say whether a specific material thing can be used for Krishna and in what way.

Psychotherapy is primarily an interpersonal treatment that is based on psychological principles and involves a trained therapist and a client who has some mental problem. (Wampold) The techniques and tools that are evident in clinical jargon or are evident from the therapist’s couch are not of primary interest to us here. Rather, we are most interested in the presumptions embodied in the “psychological principles” on which psychotherapy is based. We want to know the “psycho” in psychotherapy—its essential characteristics—so that we can compare them with corresponding aspects of a Krishna consciousness world view.

The psychotherapy popular among ISKCON’s members is based on the humanistic psychology pioneered by Allport, May, Maslow, Rogers, and others. In establishing an existentialist basis for psychology, these psychologists departed from the empiricism inherent in Freudian psychoanalysis and the empiricism of behaviorists like Pavlov, Watson, and Skinner. (Up to the 1950s, the enterprise of psychology was wholly empirical in its presumptions.) It has been shown in an earlier essay that the testimonials, terminology, and therapeutic objectives described in the promotional literature of the Vaishnava Life Skills / Personal Transformation Seminars closely resemble those of Carl Rogers’s “client-centered therapy”—formerly called “non-directive therapy” or sometimes “therapy for normals.” Roy Jose DeCarvalho, an Assistant Professor at the State University of New York-Institute of Technology whose main area of interest is the history of psychology, writes, “Psychotherapy in its most fundamental bases remains Rogerian in character. There is no psychotherapist who is not, to some extent, Rogerian.” (DeCarvalho 151) The kind of psychotherapy most widely practiced in ISKCON is likely to be based on principles of humanistic psychology, which Rogers pioneered and greatly influenced.

Most practicing psychotherapists in ISKCON seem prone to mistakenly assert that psychotherapy is merely a tool. The co-authors of “Therapy in Krishna Consciousness” say, “Therapy like anything else—such as the practice of medicine, law, architecture, etc—is only a tool, and it can be used or misused.” Behind therapy, however, are presumptions that necessarily give practitioners (and clients) faith that therapy works. If the presumptions are not believed, even unconsciously, then why bother with therapy? It could be said that behind medicine, law, and architecture are also presumptions that must be believed, but psychology is significantly different from most any other body of worldly knowledge. Unlike medicine, law, and architecture, psychology specifically investigates the nature of consciousness, the nature of the self. At the heart of psychological investigation are the ontological questions “What is the self?” and “What is the self’s relation to the world?” (Within a Krishna conscious world view, these questions are often rephrased as “Who am I?” and “What is my relation to this world?”) Belief that a therapy works therefore implies belief in a corresponding set of presumptions about the self. Indeed, the founders of humanistic psychology (Rogers, Maslow, etc.) argued that “an a priori understanding of human nature, whether consciously stated or not, was essential in the making of any psychology. . .” (DeCarvalho 150)

By a priori, it is meant that the understanding itself does not require verification by direct observation. In other words, Rogers and others had to found their psychology on assumptions that were largely unproven. For them this leap of faith was acceptable because, they insisted, any psychology has to proceed at least from assumptions which can be derived from knowledge already at hand. Because their beliefs rest on questions that are ontological, about the fundamental nature of being, they still had to take a wild but hopeful guess as to a human being’s fundamental nature.

The assumptions of Rogers and his colleagues about human nature classifies them as existentialists. Rogers borrowed some of his most important ideas about the self from Kierkegaard, who is considered the founder of existentialism. From Kierkegaard, Rogers learned to “trust and express his own experience,” and his favorite quote from Kierkegaard was “to be that self which one truly is.” (DeCarvalho 62) Rogers also believed that, to some extent, the nature of the self was grounded in biology, and he felt that reality itself was fundamentally subjective. Rogers that reality was more or less subjective, since there was no other way to understand it but by personal perception. According to Rogers, “Objective reality, even if there was one, was always ‘reality as-perceived’ by the phenomenal field of the self. This phenomenal self, he [Rogers] argued, had to be accepted with unconditional positive regard if therapy was to be successful.” (qtd. in DeCarvalho 70) The American pioneers of humanistic psychology were repulsed by the dark views of human nature typically held by atheistic existentialists like Sartre and, with the exception of May, believed in human nature’s inherent goodness. (DeCarvalho 72)

From a Krishna conscious standpoint, the self (soul) is fundamentally distinct from material nature, but on account of misidentifying with it comes under its control. Both the self and material nature are controlled by Krishna, the Supreme Godhead, so under all circumstances the self is always subordinate. The inherent goodness of the self is related to its choices and circumstances, depending on it state of association. In the state of being subordinate to Krishna, the inherent goodness of the self is manifest, but in the state of being subordinate to material nature, conditioned, the inherent goodness of the self is covered. In the conditioned state, the self is prone to suffer and to act immorally—even under the best of material configurations, the mode of goodness.

There are several common points of comparison between humanistic psychology (HPsy) and Krishna Consciousness (KC). At the level of ontology, theory about the nature of being, HPsy blurs or even tries to remove the distinction between the self and its environment. KC, however, maintains a distinction between the self and its environment, material nature, with the self related to material nature as its subordinate. HPsy’s blurring of the distinction between the self and material nature implies that the potential for growth and development lies mainly within the self. KC, however, considers that the potential for growth and self development is extrinsic and resides with Krishna and appointed agents like the guru. HPsy aims at emancipating the self by unlocking the self’s inner potential, whereas KC aims at emancipating the self by obtaining the mercy of Krishna and His devotees.

Although both HPsy and KC accept that the self is inherently good and that this goodness manifests under different circumstances, or states of being, HPsy and KC differ as to what those states are. HPsy asserts that the self’s inherent goodness will manifest when the self removes internal conditions that check its growth—conditions thought to be caused mostly by negative, external influences. KC, however, considers the self’s inherent goodness to be manifest in a state of surrender, when the self subordinates itself to the control of Krishna instead of the control of material nature. This explains why the methods of KC stress so much on subordination: The real power is not within one’s self but within Krishna—(aham) paurusham nrishu, “I [Krishna] am the ability in man”—and so self actualization (realization) lies mainly in the perfection, or mastery, of being subordinate. According to HPsy, the true self manifests when the self takes control, but according to KC, the true self manifests when the self submits to Krishna’s control.

Building on these differing ontological presumptions, at the level of epistemology, or theory of how one can know anything, HPsy and KC diverge further. Because of its subjectivism, HPsy considers the self to be the most reliable source of information about itself. Other sources extrinsic to the self are considered significantly less reliable. HPsy considers the client, not the therapist, to have the greatest and most reliable access to knowledge about his or her self. From this it follows that the “heavy lifting” in therapy must be done by the client—hence the term “client-centered therapy.” (Now you know where the joke “How many psychotherapists does it take change a light bulb?” comes from.) This also explains why therapeutic jargon is laced with terms like “self-discovery,” “self-esteem,” “self-empowerment,” or simply “empowerment.” Real knowledge and, hence, real power is thought to exist inside of one’s own self, and the HPsy therapist only helps the client come to a state where the client discovers his or her own inner potential.

Although KC considers the self (soul) to be full of knowledge, this knowledge cannot be equivalent to the HPsy’s subjectivist understanding of self-knowledge. The self’s identity is one with yet different from Krishna, and so self-knowledge is acquired not by looking inward to one’s independent self but outwardly to Krishna. Because of the self’s simultaneous oneness and difference with Krishna, realization of Krishna automatically results in realization of the self, just as seeing one’s self in the morning also means seeing the morning Sun. That is why, according to KC, seemingly external practices like chanting Hare Krishna, hearing about Krishna’s pastimes, and rendering service to Vaishnavas, results in true self knowledge. Knowledge about the self comes from external sources, but because of the transcendental relationship between Krishna and the self (jiva) and because of Krishna’s absolute nature, seemingly external knowledge about Krishna has real, internal consequences. In the matter of obtaining knowledge, Krishna or his agents have some discretion in bestowing it. This means that (unlike in psychology, humanistic or otherwise) acquiring knowledge within KC is not a deterministic proposition. Even if one does all the right things, Krishna or his empowered agents still have to bless one with knowledge. Although KC is a process, it is a non-deterministic process. As such, procedure (sadhana) and mercy are both required. Because mercy is required, “getting the mercy” by rendering service is therefore a part of the process.

These ontological and epistemological foundations, both of HPsy and KC, suggest practical activity that helps practitioners reach their goals. In psychology, these practical actions are called therapy, and in KC, they are known as sadhana, service, and the various regulations a devotee is obliged to follow. As per the founders of HPsy, it is impossible to have a psychology without a theory of being (ontology) and a theory of knowledge (epistemology) that validates that psychology and its corresponding therapies. Once we are familiar with the presumptions behind any particular set of therapies, the close relationship between theory and therapy becomes apparent.

Rogers, like Kierkegaard, thought that the goal of life was to move away from “oughts” and facades. But while the main aim of Kierkegaard was to purify Christianity, Rogers addressed issues of psychotherapy instead. In therapy, argued Rogers, when the individual becomes what he is inwardly, he is able to hear the inner messages and meanings of the self. When this happens, a deep desire to be fully oneself in all one’s complexity and richness follows, withholding and fearing nothing that is part of the inner self. Self-experience becomes a friendly resource and not a frightening enemy. Psychotherapy was, for Rogers, an avenue to what Kierkegaard thought was the most important thing in one’s life—to become truly what one is inwardly. (DeCarvalho 65)

From this passage it can be seen how therapies emerge. Moving away from the “oughts” and “facades” is why therapy based on humanistic psychology is “client-centered.” If therapists tell their clients what they should do, then they impose “oughts” on their clients—something they are trying to get away from. Rather, from the philosophy behind HPsy comes a therapeutic technique called “empathic listening.” In one book, written to help social work students and practicing therapists develop a “sound base of practice for social work with groups,” is this glowing prescription for empathic listening and understanding:

Some of the ways in which the therapist communicates unconditional positive regard and real interest in the client and what he/she is experiencing are by giving the client and his/her concerns and feelings full attention, listening, and then responding with empathy.

To further demonstrate unconditional positive regard, the counselor must have a nonevaluative attitude without consideration of what the client says or does. Neither positive nor negative judgments are made in regard to the person by the counselor. For the therapist to take an evaluative position would only further support the client’s propensity to value the opinions of others rather than developing self-regard. . . .

The importance of unconditional positive regard, the counselor’s caring without stipulations on acceptance and without contamination by judgment, is emphasized by Rogers. His research found that the more it is present the more likely therapy is to be successful and, conversely, the less it is present the less likely therapy can be expected to be successful. (Fatout 36)

Client-centered therapy and its precepts have profoundly influenced mainstream American culture. Writing for the American Psychological Association, Rebecca Clay remarks,

For many humanistic psychologists, the recent positive psychology movement is simply humanistic psychology repackaged. Similarly, crisis counseling’s emphasis on empathic listening finds its roots in Rogers‘s work. In the wider culture, the growing popularity of personal and executive coaching also points to humanistic psychology’s success. And Moss believes humanistic psychology’s tenets will only become more relevant as the nation ages, creating a culture preoccupied with facing death and finding meaning in life.

In fact, humanistic psychology has been so successful at influencing mainstream psychology and American culture that the field recently suffered what Maureen O’Hara, PhD, calls an “identity crisis.” Had humanistic psychology permeated the culture so completely that the movement itself was no longer necessary? (Clay)

Indeed, not only has Rogers’s work permeated mainstream American culture, it has permeated ISKCON’s culture, too. The terminology of popular self-help books has made its way into ISKCON lectures and literature, and therapy based on humanistic psychology—faithful to Rogers’s move away from “oughts” and “facades”—has become a popular attraction for devotees seeking to improve themselves. In the paper “Vaisnava Life Skills/Personal Transformation Seminars and the Process of Krsna Consciousness,” we find that the same client-centered therapeutic techniques are recommended:


To perceive and recognize the needs, concerns, and desires of others, whether it be aspiring Vaisnavas, the spiritual master, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, or any living entity, is the essence of empathic listening. . . .

Upon completion of the courses, especially after the Advanced Course, participants characteristically experience a supercharged sakti springing from newly released energies from the soul. Much energy that was devoted to preserving masks and facades and pushing down weeds and dust is unleashed. (VLSPTS)

Rogers has arrived in ISKCON.

In stark contrast to Rogers’s client-centered therapy, which eschews “oughts” and “facades,” Krishna conscious technique is fraught with “ought.” From Krishna all the way down the parampara to Srila Prabhupada, spiritual life is defined by prescriptions of what one should and should not do. In the Gita, we find this direct statement:

tasmac chastram pramanam te
jnatva sastra-vidhanoktam
karma kartum iharhasi


“One should therefore understand what is duty and what is not duty by the regulations of the scriptures. Knowing such rules and regulations, one should act so that he may gradually be elevated.” (Bhagavad-gita 16.24 trans)

The verse before this one, 16.23, is no less judgmental: “He who discards scriptural injunctions and acts according to his own whims attains neither perfection, nor happiness, nor the supreme destination.” We should note well the phrase “according to his own whims” and how this verse disparages it. Even the realm of thought is permeated by set dos and don’ts: “Always think of Krishna, and never forget Him”; “O Arjuna, when one performs his prescribed duty only because it ought to be done, and renounces all material association and all attachment to the fruit, his renunciation is said to be in the mode of goodness.” (Bhagavad-gita 18.9 trans) Other well-known dos and don’ts in Krishna consciousness include, “one should rise early in the morning and attend mangala-arati” and “one should not allow oneself to sit on the same seat even with one’s own mother, sister or daughter. . .” All these “oughts” and “ought-nots,” “shoulds” and “should nots,” follow from the Krishna conscious idea that the means of uncovering the true self are mainly extrinsic.

That the techniques that follow from HPsy are so radically different than the techniques that follow from KC should be no surprise, since HPsy and KC differ so markedly at their foundations. HPsy is, fundamentally, a self-centered idea of the person, and KC is a Krishna-centered idea of the person. Indeed, in mainstream American culture (and its worldwide extensions) this difference between the culture of therapy and a society that once stood for values has been noted by Christopher Lasch in The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations,

Even when therapists speak of the need for “meaning” or “love,” they define love and meaning simply as the fulfillment of the patient’s emotional requirements. It hardly occurs to them—nor is there any reason why it should, given the nature of the therapeutic enterprise—to encourage the subject to subordinate his needs and interests to those of others, to someone or some cause or tradition outside himself. (Lasch 13)

An important consequence of humanistic psychology’s radical emphasis of the self is that the role of society in helping individuals is diminished. To understand how this can be a problem, and why it is often not perceived as a problem even though it is, it will help to examine the utility of speed limits on roadways. In America, a typical speed limit in residential neighborhoods is 25 miles per hour, but it is also seen that drivers frequently exceed the speed limit in these 25 mile-per hour (m.p.h.) zones. As it is impossible to police every road and enforce speed limits, it is mostly up to individuals to drive within speed limits. When individuals choose to follow their own whims over legally mandated speed limits, which can be seen as an imposition of society on its members, untold things can happen. In a real-life tragedy, a man driving at 40 m.p.h. in a residential area with a speed limit of 25 m.p.h. accidentally hit and killed a child who ran in front of his car. In court, an expert witness testified that if the driver had observed the speed limit, he would have had enough time to stop the car before hitting the child. Consequently, the man was found guilty of manslaughter and sent to prison.

From this example we can see that a premise of society is that looking out for others also means looking out for one’s self. When this social sense of concern for others is eroded, then the protections one might otherwise expect from society are also eroded. Erosion of social responsibility usually happens gradually, it seldom manifests as sudden collapse (although it can). Most people who speed in residential areas don’t end up killing children, yet it is also true that people who speed in these areas are more likely to do so. If policing these neighborhoods becomes less frequent, or the level of disregard for speed limits increases, or both, then the number of fatalities caused by speeding in residential neighborhoods will most likely increase. Again, even with the increase in fatalities, it will still be the case that most people who speed will not be involved in an accident, but the increase in fatalities will nevertheless be noticed and likely result in some sort of political action. In all cases, it is a minority of law breakers who cause problems, and it is a minority of activist citizens who do something to control those problems. Despite law-breakers and activist citizens being minorities, the actions of both nevertheless have consequences that reach deep into the rest of society.

Of course, most everyone still agrees that killing people, what to speak of killing children, is a bad thing, which means any reaction to an increase in fatalities will result in a reimposition or strengthening of the law and a bolstering of law enforcement. But what happens when society begins to disagree on the goodness of a particular value, which is often caused by a competing value that is gaining social worth? With the ascendancy of the competing value, confusion and turmoil that defies resolution is likely to ensue.

Within ISKCON, the fundamental requirements of celibate behavior compete with an ethos of gender equality, and this competition has been behind much of ISKCON’s long-standing social turmoil. Among all the falldowns that have happened to gurus, the vast number of them involved illicit association with a woman. This condition has been both unacceptable and persistent because, on the one hand, the standards for celibate behavior are unalterable, and on the other hand gender equality is considered almost as important—it is wrong to deny a devotee service because she happens to be female. Of course, for a lady devotee to massage a sannyasi would go beyond limits, but other forms of male-female association, respectable in modern societies but frowned on or forbidden in traditional societies, when accorded some measure of acceptability result in a higher incidence of fall down. An outstanding feature of modern society that goes hand-in-hand with gender equality, after all, is sexual permissiveness. Conflicts between competing social values have, to some extent, eroded the sense of social responsibility shared by ISKCON’s members (which some argue was eroded to begin with). This eroded sense of social responsibility, in turn, has been a cause of persistent, social unrest within ISKCON.

Within ISKCON, the pervasive use of psychotherapy has broadly introduced a radically subjectivist idea of the self, and this idea competes with the Krishna conscious, Krishna-centered idea of the self. These differing conceptual ideas of the self are likely behind some of the lapses of judgment that have led to some fall downs. An outstanding example of this involved one of ISKCON’s senior-most leaders, a sannyasi, who had a therapeutic relationship with a godsister. His godsister acted as his therapist, and, in conformity to ethical standards current in the field of psychotherapy, their relationship to begin with was not considered inappropriate. But from a traditional, Krishna conscious perspective, this relationship at some point was unethical well before it became unethical by current standards of therapeutic practice.

Between HPsy and KC, much of this difference in judgment—as to when a particular relationship becomes unethical—arises from their divergent views of human nature. On the one hand, HPsy’s view of the self affirms the intrinsic goodness of human nature, and thus HPsy predicts that as the client gradually gets in touch with his or her inner self the goodness of the client will shine forth. On the other hand, KC has a more varied view of human nature, where human nature is considered intrinsically good or intrinsically bad, depending on the self’s state of surrender to Krishna. In other words, HPsy says that human nature is fundamentally good, but KC says, “it depends.”

The KC view of human nature is also darker than HPsy’s. According to KC, even if situated in the best of material configurations, the mode of goodness, one is still intrinsically prone to immoral behavior, as shown by this verse from the Srimad-Bhagavatam:

matra svasra duhitra va
naviviktasano bhavet
balavan indriya-gramo
vidvamsam api karsati


“One should not allow oneself to sit on the same seat even with one’s own mother, sister or daughter, for the senses are so strong that even though one is very advanced in knowledge, he may be attracted by sex.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 9.19.17 trans)

Within ISKCON or before its inception, some have said (often enough, apparently) that this verse refers to less educated or less cultured individuals who are unaware of good behavior. Srila Prabhupada, however, dispels this notion:

“Learning the etiquette of how to deal with women does not free one from sexual attraction. . . . even if one is highly advanced, materially or spiritually, he may be attracted by lusty desires. The object of attraction may even be one’s mother, sister or daughter. Therefore, one should be extremely careful in dealings with women.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 9.19.17 purport)

In the matter of evaluating the ethical dimension of a relationship, HPsy’s view of human nature is more optimistic than KC’s, which means that HPsy will tend to consider as ethical some relationships that KC does not. All therapists know that when the client and therapist are of the opposite sex, there is always extra risk that a romantic bond may develop between them. But because HPsy considers human nature to be intrinsically good, it is judged that an opposite sex relationship between client and therapist can be managed. In HPsy, the level of risk is acceptable because, if the client is cooperative and the therapist competent, the client will automatically improve as he or she makes progress in discovering his or her inner self.

But KC has a darker view of human nature, so KC predicts that if even if all goes well in therapy and the client gets in touch with his so-called inner-self, that inner self is still the false ego. The so-called inner-self is still a misidentification with material nature and therefore remains highly susceptible to immoral behavior. Under the right conditions, immoral behavior becomes highly likely, and it so happens that some conditions acceptable within the ethical boundaries of HPsy are unacceptable in KC.

In HPsy, the extra risk in an opposite sex client-therapist relationship is something like people driving at 40 m.p.h. in a residential area with a speed limit of 25 m.p.h. At 40 m.p.h. there is heightened risk of an accident, but for many, the risk appears tolerable. According to KC’s darker perspective of human nature, however, any opposite sex relationship outside of marriage is something like people driving at 60 m.p.h. in the same residential neighborhood and sometimes ignoring stop signs. If the KC perspective on male-female relationships is true, then HPsy standards of acceptable opposite sex client-therapist relationships are clearly unacceptable because they are too risky.

The opposite sex client-therapist relationship scrutinized here is but one example that reflects the kinds of misjudgments that are not uncommon within ISKCON—at all levels—and the misjudgments that are all too common in mainstream American society. As has been shown here, HPsy has become so pervasive in mainstream society, well beyond the domain of psychotherapy, that the existentialist, subjectivist ideas and presumptions about the self and the world have therefore saturated mainstream culture. From mainstream culture, these ideas have entered ISKCON—especially through the widespread use of psychotherapy. The practice of psychotherapy within ISKCON has reinforced a conception of the self that is incompatible with a Krishna-centered conception of the self. This in turn has promoted some measure of confusion about right and wrong behavior—confusion as to what ultimately leads one to Krishna or leads one away from Krishna.

At this point some may still ask whether some aspects of therapy can be used in Krishna’s service. The answer is yes—some things, but not all and certainly not in any way we may like. Empathic listening, for example, can be put to good use but within limits. For people who are coming to Krishna consciousness, people who are disturbed, people who are angry, or people who hold views we disagree with, empathic listening can help overcome barriers to communication. But sometimes people are unreasonable and stubbornly so, and helping them become reasonable often requires a less-than-empathic response. Becoming Krishna conscious means becoming considerate of others, so empathic listening is not always the best means of helping others become more considerate, though it can be helpful.

Although it is conceivable that other byproducts of psychology and psychotherapy can be used in Krishna’s service, that does not mean therapy itself can be used. A stool is made up of three legs and a seat. Even though the seat and three legs could be creatively used in other ways, a stool is still greater than the sum of its parts. If a leg becomes unattached, the stool no longer works. Similarly, therapy is not just a set of tools, but it is also made up of related theories and presumptions about the mind, the self, and the world the self lives in. Although other branches of psychotherapy, such as psychoanalytic and cognitive branches, disagree that presumptions about human nature are necessary preconditions for a psychology, what to speak of being necessary to produce a set of therapies, it has nevertheless been demonstrated that all branches of psychology make important presumptions about human nature and base their therapies on those presumptions—even if the presumptions are unstated. Saying that psychotherapy can be used in Krishna consciousness implies using not only its overt, therapeutic techniques but also implies importing its theories and presumptions.

The overall objective of this essay has been to show why, in the greater context of reform within ISKCON, a fundamental premise of reform, which must be accepted, is that Krishna consciousness as received from the parampara is self sufficient for progress. The growing popularity of psychotherapy among devotees has been part of a larger cultural reform within ISKCON; from this we can learn that popularity of a particular reform that is unchecked by skepticism can be a dangerous thing. If the process of Krishna consciousness is self sufficient, then what will psychotherapy do that chanting Hare Krishna, or living according to the principles of varnashrama-dharma—will not? This same rhetorical question more or less appears in the Bhagavatam:


“But if one performs the prescribed duties for his particular asrama or varna, why are they not sufficient to mitigate all material distresses?”(Srimad-Bhagavatam 7.15.14 trans.)

This applies not only to psychotherapy but to any other innovation as well. As a general rule and guideline, reform should generally be a reaffirmation, a revival, of tradition. Reform that is by nature innovative may also be accommodated, but only after showing that, at its most fundamental levels, Krishna consciousness is not being challenged. That an innovative reform is considered compatible with Krishna consciousness can never be presumed. In general, any reform that resembles social, political, civil, or cultural reform movements in the outside world probably has a well-developed world view that is most likely incompatible with the fundamental tenets of Krishna consciousness.


Works Cited

Clay, Rebecca A. “A renaissance for humanistic psychology: The field explores new niches while building on its past.” Monitor on Psychology. 33.8 (2002): 42. Monitor on Psychology. 8 Sep. 2002. American Psychological Association. 12 Nov. 2005 <>.

DeCarvalho, Roy José. The Founders of Humanistic Psychology. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1991. Questia. 11 Nov. 2005 <>.

Dhira Govinda Das (David B. Wolf, PhD). (VLSPTS) “Vaisnava Life Skills/Personal Transformation Seminars and the Process of Krsna Consciousness.” 23 Sep. 2003. 12 Nov. 2005. <>.

Fatout, Marian F. Models for Change in Social Group Work. New York: Aldine De Gruyter, 1992. Questia. 12 Nov. 2005


Karnamrita Das, Arcana Siddhi Devi Dasi. (VFR) “Therapy in Krishna

Consciousness.” 13 June 2005. Vaisnava Family Resources. 13 Nov. 2005


Krishna-kirti das (HDG). “More on Channeling Krishna – Part II of II.” 4 June 2004.

Hare Krishna Cultural Journal. 13 Nov. 2005


Lasch, Christopher. American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations. New York: W. W. Norton, 1991. Questia.

12 Nov. 2005 <>.

Prabhupada, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami. (Bhagavad-gita As It Is.) The Bhaktivedanta

Vedabase. CD-ROM. Bhaktivedanta Book Trust International. 1998.

(Srimad-Bhagavatam.) The Bhaktivedanta Vedabase. CD-ROM. Bhaktivedanta Book

Trust International. 1998.

Lecture, Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.2.10 — Delhi, November 16, 1973. The Bhaktivedanta

Vedabase. CD-ROM. Bhaktivedanta Book Trust International. 1998.

Wampold, Bruce E. The Great Psychotherapy Debate: Models, Methods, and Findings.

Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001. Questia. 12 Nov. 2005


November 14, 2005 in -ology, Mental Health, Social Sciences, Vaishnavism, Varnashrama Dharma |

Why Therapy and Other Self-Empowerment Initiatives are Bad for Devotees

From Krishna Kirti dasa

Good character, sincerity, and commitment are all characteristics a person needs to truly do good for others and for Krishna’s service as well, but these characteristics alone are insufficient to insure the service is both favorable and appropriate. One also has to sufficiently know right from wrong, truth from untruth, from the perspective of the parampara. Otherwise, without this Krishna conscious perspective, our efforts to help others will at best be ineffectual if not harmful. In this regard, Srila Rupa Goswami says, sruti-smriti-puranadi-pancaratra-vidhim vina, aikantiki harer bhaktir upataiyaiva kalpate, “Devotional service performed without reference to the Vedas, Puranas, Pancaratras, etc., must be considered sentimentalism, and it causes nothing but disturbance to society.” (BRS 1.2.101)

Trying to help others without having a clear view from this perspective would be something like a man without medical training at the scene of a car accident carrying on his shoulders victims who have broken backs. The man’s intentions were noble, but his “assistance,” which induced spinal injuries, ended up paralyzing the victims. The Life Skills / Personal Transformation Seminars, like the untrained man who ended up further hurting rather than helping victims, are premised on ideas based modern psychological principles but from a Krishna conscious perspective are, nevertheless, misunderstandings. A short list of these misunderstandings is presented here.

This list, with its explanations, is by no means comprehensive, but these are some of the most important reasons why the Vaishnava Life Skills / Personal Transformation Seminars (VLSPTS – and other programs like it) are categorically harmful for spiritual life:

  1. The courses are billed as being able to help us identify weeds in our heart that we somehow missed while doing all the right things in our sadhana.
  2. The courses reinforce a conception of our own selves that is opposed to the Krishna conscious conception of the self.
  3. The solutions proposed through the courses lead us away from Krishna conscious solutions, not toward them.

The first point involves a fundamental misunderstanding of how we acquire knowledge in Krishna consciousness, and the VLSPT courses rely heavily on this misunderstanding. In an essay explaining how therapy can help us in our Krishna consciousness, VLSPT asserts: (bolding added)

“A common dynamic is that, when the process of Krsna consciousness reveals weeds, we will deny they are there, because such adulterations do not conform with an image of ourselves as advanced and humble devotees, respectable members of the Vaisnava community, etc.”

This statement violates the rules of logic. If the weeds were actually revealed, then how is that we don’t recognize them for what they are? Revelation is a complete package, which necessarily includes acceptance. By properly performing our sadhana, not only do we discover our weeds but we also accept that they are there once they are discovered. Even Plato, in his epistemology, insisted that acceptance is a necessary condition for true knowledge. The process of sadhana bhakti is self-sufficient and does not require or benefit from the use of psychotherapy, however benign and well-intentioned its application might be.

The second point is about understanding conditioned, human nature: Krishna consciousness and psychology differ on many important points as to what is conditioned, human nature and what is the self. As I demonstrated in my essay “The Essentials of Reform in ISKCON: An Examination of Psychotherapy and its Compatibility with Krishna Consciousness,” the kind of therapy employed by the VLSPTS is of the humanistic (existentialist) approach, and it is this approach that most strongly asserted that any psychology must proceed from an assumed understanding of human nature–an understanding that has no proof but has to be accepted “as is.” (Please see the essay for exact references.) In a nutshell the differences are that KC has a significantly darker view of conditioned human nature than that of humanistic psychology’s view of human nature.

The implications of this difference are that some relationships and behaviors are considered unethical from a Krishna conscious point of view before they become unethical from a psychological point of view. This in turn leads to interpersonal situations that get out of control before psychology would recognize that they are out of control.

This is something like motorist who regularly breaks speed limits. One can go over the speed limit on any given street and not be involved in an accident, yet the chances of an accident happening are nevertheless increased. On account of its fundamental assumptions about human nature, psychology, in its ethics, places the “speed limit” for some interpersonal relationships (like opposite sex relationships) quite a bit higher than where a Krishna conscious world view would place it. The fall down of a a well-known sannyasi with a god-sister acting in the role of his therapist is a classic example. It is conceivable that they could have gotten through therapy without having had a fall down, just as most speeders don’t have accidents. Yet from a Krishna conscious point of view, from the start the relationship itself was too risky. Obviously, they evaluated the relationship from the ethical point of view offered by psychology instead of the ethical point of view offered by Krishna consciousness, and in due course of time their misjudgment became apparent.

An example of this difference in views of human nature between psychology and Krishna consciousness can be found in the Vaishnava Life Skills/Personal Transformation seminars which has this to say about interpersonal relationships as regulated in his seminars: (bolding added)

“Having both genders represented has been very valuable for students, enabling men to learn from women and vice versa. Life involves interaction of genders, and thus the courses characterize a realistic environment. That said, there may be advantages to conduct a course with only one gender, because for some persons such an environment may support them in feeling safer to do the transformational work they want to do.

Important here is the subjective assessment of when the interaction of genders is problematic: when separation of the sexes makes some people feel safer. The Krishna conscious assessment is that people are safer in same sex environments, and that assessment does not depend on how people feel. In other words, the psychological view, as represented above, is a subjective assessment—reality as perceived—whereas the Krishna conscious view is an objective assessment—this is reality, no matter how we perceive it. That’s a big difference, with big consequences.

In the matter of overcoming personal difficulty, psychology ascribes to the individual more ability to solve his or her personal problems than the individual actually has. For example, feelings of loneliness and isolation from others are considered psychological problems treatable by a therapist. Yet feelings of isolation and loneliness are fostered by the kind of society many of us live in. In a highly mobile society, people have to drive long distances to their workplace, and their friends and family are scattered around the area, the country, or the world. Communications technology does little to mitigate this isolation. Having close relationships with coworkers, friends, and family are stymied by physical distances. These are things that psychology says it can help the individual cope with, but what will really help is actually solving the problem at the societal level, not the individual level. No amount of positive thinking on the part of an individual can correct this.

Another example of problems beyond the reach of individuals to correct arises from the kind of economy one has to earn a living in. In an industrial economy or a service economy (post-industrial), children are heavy expenses. That they are heavy expenses suppresses the natural urge to have children but does suppress the urge to have sex. People put off having children because of the financial burden that comes with having children, and the felt need to avoid that burden creates a demand for efficient birth control, contraception, abortion, etc. In an agrarian economy, however, not only are children economic assets (because they help in generating family income), but housework also has economic value. Mother Yashoda wasn’t just cooking and washing the dishes; she was churning butter and providing valuable help that contributed to the family welfare. Young Krishna Himself took care of the calves—also something of economic value (what to speak of transcendentally blissful). In the modern economic context, however, the devaluation of housework has caused deep tensions between husband and wife—tensions, arguments, and breakups that legions of marriage counsellors have more or less been unsuccessfully in containing.

Self-help and self-empowerment movements are based in large part on humanistic psychology, and thus they inherit this fault of overestimating the power an individual has to correct its own problems and circumstances.

To explain the third point, as to how psychology leads us away from Krishna instead of towards Him, psychology does not have any theistic presuppositions, and so when we come to rely on the non-theistic premises of psychology, there is no need to come to Krishna. There are four kinds of people who approach Krishna, and one kind is those who approach Krishna to relieve their distress. But psychology also holds out the hope of relieving distress, so if people can get that without going through Krishna, then why bother with Krishna at all? According to the Nectar of Devotion, even in approaching Krishna, those who approach Him to mitigate their distress are among the first to fall away from Krishna consciousness. After all, once they have what they want, then their relationship with Krishna becomes unnecessary. But an important difference between psychology and Krishna consciousness is that in Krishna consciousness there is a chance that the person who approaches Krishna will come to a higher understanding, but through psychotherapy getting that higher understanding is not possible.

Psychology leads us away from Krishna conscious solutions in two ways: a) psychology and Krishna consciousness propose solutions to the same problems, and those solutions in many cases differ; and b) the chance for transcending material miseries once and for all is offered by the Krishna conscious process whereas transcendence is not possible through psychology.

Works Cited
“Vaisnava Life Skills/Personal Transformation Seminars and the Process of Krsna Consciousness.” 23 Sep 2003. Jagannatha’s Chakra. 20 Dec 2005.>

One Response to Psychotherapy for Devotees?

  • If devotees do what karmis are doing than what is the difference? BTW, your essay is very well written. It’s so true. The only problem is how many devotees can come forward and be honest? As we all know, the first thing to fix the problem is to admit there is one. Hare Krsna

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