"I only want to read a book that's written in blood. This book is written in blood."
Monkey on a Stick: Murder, Madness, and the Hare Krishnas
"An important testimony that might be instructive to those involved in the leadership of any religious movement."
October 14, 1996
Perhaps the most colorful and aggressive of the Asian spiritual communities to take root on the American shores was that of the Hare Krishnas, more formally known as the International society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). Who has not witnessed their American converts' dancing in the streets in their orange robes, confidently baring their shaven heads, or endured their fundraising efforts in airports? Against those finger cymbal-clanging memories of the 1970s, Muster's narrative of her insider's experience of ISKCON is nothing less than mesmerizing. That the American adventure into the worship of the noble Krishna would come to grief after the death of ISKCON's charismatic Guru Srila A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada in a scandal of murder, greed and corruption was perhaps not surprising to those who saw more than the Hare Krishna's superficial celebration of Krishna's love. For Muster, who worked for ten years as a public relations secretary and editor of the organization's newspaper, the ISKCON World Review, the humiliation of ISKCON meant the loss of an admirable spiritual vision. Her narrative of that scandal confronts the ways in which traditional patriarchy and philosophical rigidity regularly defeated spiritual vitality. Muster's book is an important testimony that might be instructive to those involved in the leadership of any religious movement.
"A rare look into the world of those women who put flowers in your hands at the airport."
Feminist Bookstore News
Nov./Dec. 1996 Vol. 19, No. 4
I can only say, wow! It's this kind of book that I find not only interesting but an off-beat and quirky, though worthy, addition to the memoirs or spirituality section of any women's bookstore. In Betrayal of the Spirit: My Life behind the Headlines of the Hare Krishna Movement, Nori Muster recounts the story of her life in the Hare Krishna movement since 1977. For more than ten years, she worked as a public relations secretary and editor of the organization's newspaper. It's an insider's view of drug dealing, weapons stockpiling, deceptive fundraising, child abuse and murder. Though she has formally left the movement, she is still a believer. It may not be feminist but it does offer a rare look into the world of those women dressed in orange who put flowers in your hands at the airport in search of spare change.
"A cautionary tale showing how a religious institution can warp reality for its members."
Briefly Noted Books, Spirituality, June 1997
by Holly Hammond & Todd Jones
In 1977, at the age of 22, Nori Muster joined the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON)—better known as the Hare Krishnas. Swami Prabhupada, the organization's spiritual leader, had just died. Over the next decade, as scandals and political infighting almost destroyed ISKCON, where Muster worked as a public relations secretary and editor of the organization's newspaper. Now, having left ISKCON, Muster has used her insider's knowledge to describe that time. Her story is a cautionary tale showing how a religious institution can warp reality for its members. Muster's continued faith in the value of a life of devotion and service—despite her disillusionment—testifies to the powerful appeal of the ideals that led her to the Krishna movement.
"If it's controversial swamis you want, Betrayal of the Spirit, by former Hare Krishna flack Nori Muster, offers an insider's account."
New York Post
Dec. 14, 1996
Book Report by Mark Marvel
With the holidays in full schwing, soul-searching books that dare to bare it all are giving this season's reading a certain joyful Scrooginess. . . . If it's controversial swamis you want, Betrayal of the Spirit: My Life behind the Headlines of the Hare Krishna Movement (University of Illinois Press), by former Hare Krishna flack Nori Muster, offers an insider's account of gun-running, drug dealing, and, yes, fornicating among bald-headed, airport canvassing, toga-wearers during the struggle for power following Swami Prabhupada's death in 1988.
"This is a highly significant work for scholars and students of new religious movements."
Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries
A Publication of the Association of College and Research Libraries
June 1997 Vol. 34, No. 10
by L.H. Mamiya, Vassar College
This is a highly significant work for scholars and students of new religious movements. Not only was Muster a devoted member but she also worked for a decade in the hierarchy of the Western world headquarters in Los Angeles of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) as a public relations secretary and editor of the organization's newspaper, the ISKCON World Review. Her book recounts her initial joy and excitement at being at the nexus of communications with the outside world, finding a fulfilling spiritual path as an undergraduate at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and also her growing disenchantment with the Hare Krishna movement as media tales spread of drug dealing, weapons stockpiling, deceptive fund-raising, child abuse, competition among American gurus, and murder. But it was over the movement's rigid patriarchal hierarchy and paternalistic treatment of women that Muster ultimately resigned. Her story proves an insight into the decline of a movement that has lost 95 percent of its original members. In contrast to other works on the Hare Krishna movement like The Dark Lord, by Larry Shinn (CH, Jan. '88), who also writes an excellent foreword for Muster's book, the strength of Betrayal is its purely personal narrative and lack of academic theory and jargon. Photographs of movement leaders; extensive bibliography drawn from ISKCON sources. Highly recommended. General; undergraduate through professional.
"Betrayal offers a fascinating glimpse at how even the most spiritual groups can fall prey to human failings."
The Boston Herald
Hard times with the Krishnas
by Bill Peschel
The 1980s were not a good decade for the Hare Krishna movement. Long mocked for their robes, bald heads and airport fund-raising, the cult was racked by more serious troubles involving murder, drug trafficking and child abuse. Betrayal of the Spirit describes those times from one of its members. Nori Muster was a publicist for the group in Los Angeles, and she coolly describes her 10 years as a member and how her faith was tested by the sins of her leaders.
The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) was started in 1965 by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. After his death in 1977, ISKCON fell into an extended power struggle that nearly destroyed the movement. The leaders' refusal to openly discuss its problems and to suppress dissent made the problem worse.
Muster initially supported the group's public relations policy. She printed "happy news" in ISKCON's newspaper about its leaders even as they were being indicted on various crimes. She also ignored the group's latent and blatant chauvinism that forbid her from holding higher office and to continually defer to men. As time went on, she began to question both attitudes, and her attempts to introduce journalism into the newspaper led to conflicts with her superiors, and her resignation.
Betrayal offers a fascinating glimpse at how even the most spiritual groups can fall prey to human failings.
"Her narrative serves on two levels: as behind-the-scenes historical reportage and as a very personal account of her journey into Krishna consciousness."
Nexus, Colorado's Holistic Journal
Betrayal of the Spirit is a rare glimpse into the workings of the Hare Krishna movement in the US by a former insider. Author Nori Muser joined the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) in 1977 and left in 1988, disillusioned with the way that the mechanisms of the institution interfered with her pursuit of spiritual truth.
Nori Muster joined the group not long after the death of its founder and master, Swami Prabhupada—which ushered in an era of considerable disarray for ISKCON. In her position as public relations secretary and an editor of ISKCON World Review Muster was especially privy to the group's workings and many times had to present cover stories to soften the impact of the many scandals that rocked the movement—scandals involving membership schisms, fund-raising anomalies, child abuse, drugs, weapons stockpiling and even murder.
Her narrative serves on two levels: as behind-the-scenes historical reportage and as a very personal account of her journey into Krishna consciousness and her search to find meaning within the confines of religious institutionalism. Despite her frustration with the inner workings and the rampant religious hypocrisy and sexism that forced her to leave her job and the group in 1988, Nori remains true to her spiritual path and even sympathetic about ISKCON and its shortcomings.
Nori Muster's balanced critique gives many helpful insights for those seeking a better understanding of the structure and nature of religious cult groups at the fringe of society.
"Written with a devotee's ideal for truth and a raconteur's sure command of story and syntax."
Gentle Strength Times
Newspaper of the Gentle Strength Co-op
A True Story of Spiritual Intrigue
by Rose' Sullivan
Betrayal of the Spirit: My Life behind the Headlines of the Hare Krishna Movement, by Nori J. Muster is a forthright, sympathetic account of a Hare Krishna devotee's search for spiritual awareness. She finds some answers and a good measure of peace, but all is not well nor all peaceful within the temple, or indeed with the sect. Nori Muster found not only spiritual awakening, but in due time she found individual and group corruption that some of the leaders wanted to cover up. The flow of her story is intensely personal and poignant, and at times gripping, as she recounts her part in the play of a misguided organization that crumbled and fragmented in the 1980s.
Nori Muster's story is written with a devotee's ideal for truth, and a raconteur's sure command of story and syntax. Don't start reading this book too late in the day, or you'll stay up all night to finish it.
"Her book discusses international drug smuggling, arms caches, airport fundraising, child abuse, and assassinations within the organization."
University of California, Santa Barbara Alumni Association
Alumni Authors, Summer 1997
The author joined the International Society for Krishna Consciousness in 1978. She lived in the Krishnas' western world headquarters in Los Angeles and worked for 10 years as a public relations secretary and editor of the organization's newspaper. Her book discusses international drug smuggling, arms caches, airport fundraising, child abuse, and assassinations within the organization, as well as the dynamics that forced most of the group's original members to leave.
"She writes that . . . when she left she was scarred with scandal, enmity, and disgrace."
Nori Muster worked in the public relations office of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) from 1978 until 1988. She writes that when she joined ISKCON after her graduation from the University of California, Santa Barbara, she was "exuberant, joyful, and confident." When she left she was scarred with scandal, enmity, and disgrace. Her account of her experiences as a member, and of the "drug dealing, weapons stockpiling, deceptive fund-raising, child abuse and murder within ISKCON" describes how this came about. However, she writes: "I still hold the philosophy, the rituals, and my relationship with Krishna as sacred." Her account is illustrated with 27 photos.
"Scholars of religion will find much of value in Muster's thoughtful and well written account. Anti-cultists will find ammunition for their crusade as well."
Catherine Wessinger, Loyola University, New Orleans
Nori Muster is a Krishna devotee and second-generation disciple of A.C. Bhaktivedanta (d. 1977), who founded the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) and brought Chaitanya devotionalism to America in 1965. She joined ISKCON in 1978, and her first tutor in Krishna theology was Subhananda (Steven Gelberg). After graduating from the University of California, Santa Barbara, Muster moved into the Los Angeles temple and began working in the public relations office. From 1980 to 1988, she was a key writer and editor of ISKCON World Review, which during that time moved from being a "good news" publication to one that discussed ISKCON's problems.
Muster's book illuminates numerous important aspects of new religious movements: the bumbling process of routinization of charisma after the death of the founder; the pitfall of attributing divinity to religious leaders; how the sexism of a foreign tradition can be adopted enthusiastically by converts; the treatment of children; the painful problem of attributing infallibility to revered sources of authority (fundamentalism); financial difficulties; how catastrophic millennial expectations increased when a group experiences opposition and internal problems; the evolution of public relations efforts within a criticized organization; the perils of public relations' glosses over real abuses; and finally the process by which a believer becomes disenchanted with leaders and an organization and decides to leave.
The foreword by Larry Shinn, a scholar of South Asian religions, provides a context for understanding Muster's ISKCON experiences. Shinn points out that while ISKCON is authentically Hindu and looks normal in India, it is culturally anomalous in the United States. He also alerts the reader to the fact that Muster writes about ISKCON in the 1980s when it was struggling with institutional issues which arose after the death of A.C. Bhaktivedanta. In short, Muster's book is not about ISKCON in the 1990s. Shinn argues that the rationality displayed by Muster and other American devotees who criticized the abuses of the successor gurus belies the brainwashing theory. Many critical devotees such as Muster left ISKCON, while others remained to work for reform within the organization.
The problems of ISKCON described by Muster are also found in mainstream religious institutions. Muster quotes one male leader who observes that ISKCON was a "hierarchical society" that did not permit independent action (especially on the part of women) and was "just like the Vatican" (p. 177).
Scholars of religion will find much of value in Muster's thoughtful and well written account. Anti-cultists will find ammunition for their crusade as well.
"While it is clear that Muster did care about the organization, her contradictions can be disturbing because she contributed to a facade that hid the degradation that ensued."
West Coast Review of Books, Art & Entertainment
The path to enlightenment has never been so crooked. Chronicling the breakdown within the Hare Krishna, Muster provides a behind-the-scenes glimpse into a religious movement that many have considered to be a "cult"; she combines this with her personal experience as a devotee working for its public relations department for a decade. While the record of changes within the organization is satisfyingly well researched, Muster's personal account of her beliefs versus her actions is frustratingly inconsistent.
Searching for spirituality and purpose in her life, Muster joined the "missionary Indian religious movement," the Hare Krishna, in 1978. Formally known as the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKON), this group provided Muster with a job. Despite stating she didn't want to be a "subservient woman," she joined an organization where the members told her straight out that one of their fundamental beliefs is "submission is the ornament of a woman." She claims her enthusiasm as a new devotee made her overlook the significance of this belief.
Muster encountered scrapbooks of newspaper clippings chronicling ISKON's history which involved charges of drug smuggling, murder and brainwashing. But Muster provides another glaring inconsistency: despite having chosen the Hare Krishna path for spirituality, her only response to the clippings was as follows: "I got a shiver reading the scrapbook, sensing the challenges that could lie ahead as a public relations secretary." Undisturbed by any possible moral degradation in ISKON, she explains that her father had worked in public relations, and his example taught her "P.R. means selling yourself out occasionally to protect your self-interest." No kidding. This explanation sounds as though ISKON merely provided a career move, and spirituality was a secondary concern.
As she progresses with her personal account, Muster expresses a sense of betrayal by corruption within this spiritual organization; however, while the movement as a whole may have been betrayed, the sense that she as an individual was betrayed fails to be cogent because she learned of the possible corruption when she saw the scrapbook.
Muster's intertwining of different accounts proves effective. This chronicle of ISKON's changes over 10 years gives much insight on how malfeasance ate at the spirit of this organization, leading to disillusionment among many devotees. While it is clear that Muster did care about the organization, her contradictions can be disturbing because she contributed to a facade that hid the degradation that ensued. -N.R.
"Betrayal is an excellent investigative and gripping book."
West Coast Review of Books, Art & Entertainment
Ms. Muster was a child of parents who were part of the hippie age of the 1960s who would try different alternative ideas, such as sensitivity training and encounter group classes. The author's mother was an atheist and her father was agnostic.
Growing up without God or any kind of spiritual sense paradoxically encouraged her to search for some meaning in her life. She finally ended up a devotee of the Hare Krishna movement in the early '70s and a member of ISKCON, the International Society of Krishna Consciousness. In this organization she worked as public relations secretary and editor of its newspaper.
At that time, and even today, the Hare Krishnas were often subjected to a negative public reaction. She and the people she worked with were at first successful in having portrayed life in the organization in a positive light. During her time the organization was featured in Life magazine. The text itself was not too flattering, but the cover was more successful in disseminating a positive portrayal of the movement. But corruption, greed and child abuse disillusioned her to the movement and she finally left. As it turned out, most of the original members of the group had already left for the same reasons.
Author Muster was most sensitive to the many child abuse cases that occurred at the headquarters in India where parents would often send their children, believing they would get a good Krishna education. Instead, they were often subject to beatings and sodomizing by the older kids with the full compliance of the teachers.
Betrayal is an excellent investigative and gripping book, especially for those who are considering joining the Hare Krishna lifestyle. - D.M.