Spiritual Pain and Painkiller Spirituality:
Issues of Spiritual Abuse, Religious Addiction, and Codependency in ISKCON

by Dhyana-kunda dasi, 1999
Posted February 13, 2003

I once discussed a current ISKCON problem with a devotee leader. We noted how difficult it was for the parties involved to decide what needed to be done. "Why are we in ISKCON so gullible and fanatical?" -- I expressed my frustration. "Why are we so often disregarding our intuition?" "To anyone who knows a little philosophy, the answer should be obvious," he replied. "The mind can be our greatest enemy."

Putting aside the question of whether or not intuition is a faculty of the mind (as defined in the Vedic tradition) his statement is a half-truth. Consider Bhagavad-gita 6.5-6:

"One must deliver himself with the help of his mind, and not degrade himself. The mind is the friend of the conditioned soul, and his enemy as well. For him who has conquered the mind, the mind is the best of friends; but for one who has failed to do so, his mind will remain the greatest enemy."
Notice that the mind, when controlled, is said to be the best of friends to one who is *still conditioned* - not only to one who is already liberated and passes his days in ecstatic meditation on Krishna's intimate pastimes. Moreover, as Srila Prabhupada states in his purport to the verse above, what should control the mind is not an external agency but rather a higher inner voice: "But when the mind is conquered, one voluntarily agrees to abide by the dictation of the Personality of Godhead, who is situated within the heart of everyone as Paramatma [Supersoul]. Real yoga practice entails meeting the Paramatma within the heart and then following His dictation."

The voice of Paramatma, Srila Prabhupada further explains, is nothing else than intuition and conscience:

"Sarvasya caham hrdi sannivistah. . . Knowledge given by Paramatma from within the core of the heart is explained by the modern scientist as intuition. They do not know wherefrom the intuition is coming. And that is coming from God." (SP lecture on Bg 15.15, Paris, August 5, 1976)

"Sarvasya caham hrdi sannivistah. Everyone has got experience. When we want to do something wrong, there is conscience: 'Don't do it.' 'No, no, let me do.' There is struggle. So this is the struggle between the soul and the Supersoul." (SP lecture on Bg 7.4., Bombay, February 19, 1974)

"God has given advanced consciousness to the human being. Therefore he can feel the suffering and happiness of other living beings. The human being bereft of his conscience, however, is prone to cause suffering for other living beings." (SB 5th Canto, chapter summary for Ch. 26)

Without getting into discussion of all the other scriptural statements that are or can be used in abusive ways, it is fair to say that the Vaishnava spiritual teachings contain warnings both against indiscriminately following one's thoughts, feelings, and desires, and against indiscriminately rejecting them. . . By disregarding the individual's innermost voice (the Supersoul, intuition and conscience), on the grounds that it might be cheating us, we sow seeds of spiritual abuse. Discernment is required, not censure. Intuition is the inner compass that protects us from being abused. Conscience is what prevents us from abusing others. The two are inseparably connected. Therefore a victim of spiritual abuse almost inevitably becomes a perpetrator, if placed in a position of power.


Fanaticism usually stems from fundamental distrust toward one's own thoughts and feelings. Stifling them results in a state of inner numbness, where the individual no longer knows what he wants and feels. In an attempt to give his life some order and meaning, he may try to supplant his lost "inner guide" with the voice of external authority. For such a person, religious authority with its claims to absolute truth has a deep appeal. (Porterfield, 1993) His surrender tends to be fanatical and blind, since he has discarded his capacity for critical evaluation. However, such surrender is not as unconditional as it appears; the person would ignore or distort, for example, teachings on emotional literacy or self-reliance, as they undermine his coping techniques. . . His "radar" picks up selectively on those teachings that can be used to justify blind following, self-abnegation, and hurting others.

"For example, perhaps I feel unsure of myself and as if I don't belong anywhere. I cannot face my feelings of shame, loneliness and fear. Thus, I compulsively read the Bible or rigidly adhere to all the teachings of the Church, looking for absolute answers and a sense of belonging. Whenever that pain tries to come up, I get out my Bible or I go to Mass or I quote the Pope. Or, perhaps I have been deeply hurt and I am very angry. I have been taught to feel ashamed of such feelings and I am terrified of them. I believe that 'good Christians forgive', and I remind myself of Jesus on the cross. I tell myself that every time I don't forgive I am putting another nail in his hands. Whenever that anger and rage try to come up, I use Jesus on the cross to get them under control. Since denied feelings such as shame, anger and rage do not really go away but instead only build up within, the next time such feelings come up I may become even more rigid in my use of religion to get them under control." (Linn, Linn & Linn, 1994)
Religious addiction and spiritual abuse propagate in their own "disciplic successions." A religious addict almost inevitably goes on to spiritually abuse others:
"Because my need to control inner reality through a rigid belief system is so desperate, I insist that everyone else believe in the same way as myself. Anyone who doesn't threatens my system of controlling my inner pain. Thus I have created a world where there are no surprises, inside and outside, because I'm too afraid of them. I am now off the track of evolution, and off the track of my own human process of growth. If I have children, or if I am a religious leader, I may spiritually abuse those who are looking up to me. By spiritual abuse, I mean that I will deny their spiritual freedom by telling them there is only one way to God, my way -- because anything else is too threatening to me." (Linn, Linn & Linn, 1994)

"I don't want to blame such people for what I am calling spiritual abuse and religious addiction. What better drug of choice than a perfect, all-powerful, all-knowing God out there who controls everything and everybody? Well-meaning people are set up for this in a culture that does not teach us how to deal with painful feelings, and in a church that has so often taught us that the truth is in the Bible, in the Pope, in the ministers or priests, in the sacraments... everywhere but inside ourselves. Religion is often taught as a system of control, of rules, rituals, of ideals: of shoulds. It's very easy to use all this to squelch the process of life, all the while thinking we're being good Christians." (Linn, Linn & Linn, 1994)

The task of relating the above to the ISKCON reality is best left to the reader. The problem has been known for centuries and was identified by Rupa Gosvami as an obstacle to devotional service - niyamagraha, blindly following the rules not for spiritual advancement but just for the sake of following. The Linns further state that their intention is not to say that the scripture and religious authority have no truth to offer. Their role as carriers of the tradition is essential. However, they assert, we can't relate to the carriers of this tradition properly if we are out of touch with or trying to escape from our self as we experience it here and now.

Fear of or aversion for one's present self does not lead to the discovery of one's deeper, eternal self. What usually happens, ISKCON history tells us, is that after a few years, the neglected side of the person's nature finds a way to get attention; but by that time, the problems have piled up high.


One symptom of religious addiction is literalistic, black-and-white "letter-of-the-law" thinking. The Linns point out that Bill Wilson (co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous) observed this kind of thinking in alcoholics, and family therapists identify it as characteristic of the dysfunctional families in which addicts are raised.

"Precisely because it's a concrete, written document, the Bible easily lends itself to misuse by religious addicts. Because they tend to take everything literalistically, religious addicts can easily mistake what is nonessential in the Bible for what is essential to the gospel. This is what happens in "proof-texting," in which individual passages are used to prove points that may not be consistent with the overall message of the scripture. . . . Since the Bible is a big book, full of pronouncements about all sorts of things, it is a 'set-up' for misuse by literal-minded religious addicts and spiritual abusers. . . . Scripture may challenge us and it may call us to conversion, but it is not intended to shame us." (Linn, Linn & Linn, 1994)
D. Johnson and J. VanVonderen call this approach to the revealed text "scriptural abuse:"
"In a spiritually abusive system, Scripture is employed to prove or to bolster the agenda of the person using it. . . . . Proof-texting occurs when someone has a point he wants to prove. So he finds a verse to do so, even if it means stretching or ignoring the original issue about which the verse was written or the context in which the verse is found. Because this is the method the leaders use, it is the method the followers learn to use. Consequently, there is little or any opportunity to become capable or 'rightly dividing the word of truth.'" (Johnson & VanVonderen, 1991)
Symptoms of scriptural abuse are undeniably present in our organization. Since for ISKCON members, the recorded words of our Founder-Acharya are as good as scripture, the arsenal of quotes to (mis)use is probably greater than in any other religion. In temple classes, for years we had sannyasis [celibate preachers] quoting a certain set of verses out of context to condemn family life; later we had married men quoting other verses to condemn the sannyasis' "false renunciation." Now we have a debate on what the women's role should be (exclusively that of wives and mothers, or according to their individual propensities), with both sides wielding quotes - often without much concern for the context. "Another one shot down by the VedaBase" - a GBC member once succintly summed up the effect of the procedure.

Approaches to scripture recommended by spiritual masters of the Vaishnava religious tradition will be illustrated here by quotes from two works by Bhaktivinoda Thakura, who calls for approaching scriptural revelation with awakened intuition and conscience. The first quote comes from an early work entitled The Bhagavata: Its Philosophy, Its Ethics, and Its Theology, the other - from Shri Tattva Sutra, written by the Thakura many years later, at the peak of his literary activity.

"In fact, most readers are mere repositories of facts and statements made by other people. But this is not study. The student is to read the facts with a view to create, and not with the object of fruitless retention. . . . Here we have full liberty to reject the wrong idea, which is not sanctioned by the peace of conscience. . . . Liberty then is the principle which we must consider as the most valuable gift of God. We must not allow ourselves to be led by those who lived and thought before us. We must think for ourselves and try to get further truths which are still undiscovered. In the Bhagavata we have been advised to take the spirit of the Shastras and not the words. The Bhagavata is therefore a religion of liberty, unmixed truth, and absolute love. The other characteristic is progress. Liberty certainly is the father of all progress. Holy liberty is the cause of progress upwards and upwards in eternity and endless activity of love. Liberty abused causes degradation, and the Vaishnava must always carefully use this high and beautiful gift of God." (Thakura, Bhaktivinoda, undated)

"The Divine Knowledge is characterized as the sun whereas all the scriptures (shastra) are rays of that sun. This saying reveals that no scripture can contain the Divine Knowledge to the fullest extent. The self-evident knowledge of the jivas [living beings] is the source of all the scripture. This self-evident knowledge should be understood as God-given. The sages endowed with compassionate hearts have received this self-evident knowledge (axiomatic truths) from the Supreme Lord and recorded the same in the scriptures for the benefit of all jivas. . . . The independent cultivation of the self-evident knowledge is always necessary. This is the important thing needed in understanding the Truth along with the study of the scriptures. Since the knowledge itself is the origin of the scriptures, those who disregard the root and depend upon the branches cannot have any well-being. . . . Since knowledge itself is the root of the scriptures the one who has attained that self-evident knowledge will not be ruled by the scriptures, but only they will guide him with advises. In case of ignorant people, this is not so. They must be governed by the rules of the scriptures for their upliftment, if not they will have their inevitable down fall due to the sensual addictions." (Thakura, Bhaktivinoda, undated)

Both quotes from Bhaktivinoda reproduced above end with warnings: liberty can be abused; creative attitude toward scripture requires personal integrity and a measure of spiritual advancement. The writers discussing spiritual abuse acknowledge this, too. Uncritical reliance on external guidance and authority is not always a sign of religious addiction. It is also typical for an early stage of faith development.
"If reliance upon external authority helps provide security and structure for continued growth into higher stages, then it seems to us a part of healthy development. However, if reliance upon external authority is a way of compulsively avoiding one's own reality, then it seems to us more likely a sign of religious addiction. A measure of whether a particular religious behavior is healthy and stage-appropriate, or addictive, might be our ability to tolerate and gradually move toward respect for and even dialogue with those who are different." (Linn, Linn & Linn, 1994)
This leads to an additional insight into the nature of spiritual abuse:
"Just as emotional abuse includes expecting a two-year-old child to behave like a ten-year-old, or keeping a ten-year-old as dependent as a two-year-old, so spiritual abuse includes pushing people to a stage of faith development for which they are not yet ready, or trying to keep them at a stage that they have outgrown." (Linn, Linn & Linn, 1994)

Click here for the full article.