Art and Authority

Cultic Studies Review, 9(1), 2010, 232-249

Art and Authority: Foreclosing Creativity in Cultic Groups

Steven Gelberg, M.A.

Creative, artistic work presupposes, most fundamentally, that the creator exists within a relative state of freedom—both external and, more importantly, internal. Authoritarian cultic groups—like all totalistic, ideologically bound collectives—cannot abide free-thinking creatives because of the latter’s tendency to question the status quo and seek new ways of being. In Part I of this essay, I discuss this issue from various angles with reference to my own long-term commitment to the Krishna Consciousness movement (ISKCON). In Part II, I describe how, in my post-ISKCON life, immersion in fine-art photography inadvertently served as a healing path vis-à-vis reintegration into the world, and became a new basis for personal spiritual evolution.

No one, I think, can propose a definition of “creativity” or of “art” that will encompass every nuance of the multidimensional nature of the subject, or satisfy all those who reflect on it. But for me, the creation of art—music, painting, literature, dance, and so on—presupposes, most fundamentally, that the creator exists within a relative state of freedom, both external and, more importantly, internal. A free, self-possessed mind can create masterpieces in a prison cell (as it often has done), but a mind bound by rigidity, compulsivity, and fear is hard put to create, even within the most liberating environment.

In light of this, it seems rather obvious that highly structured, authoritarian environments, particularly when those environments are fully internalized by those who inhabit them, will be relatively unconducive to the free flow of creativity. This essay is, simply, an elaboration on this theme, with particular reference to authoritarian religious groups, whether they are “cults” or authoritarian expressions of “mainstream” religions.

For seventeen years (ages 18 to 35), I belonged to a religious group that certainly qualifies as authoritarian. Despite its sometimes-benign appearance, and despite the group’s proven roots in a longstanding religious tradition, from a psychosocial standpoint the Hare Krishna movement (ISKCON) has always operated on a more or less authoritarian model.

Within this model, all truth, meaning, and salvation come down to us from above: from Krishna (God) to guru, to those who “represent” him throughout the institutional hierarchy, down to the humble disciple. The new member enters the community in a state of impurity and illusion, and then by submitting fully to the authority and control of those above him in the chain of command, he can begin to receive enlightenment, happiness, and all things worth having. Due to our “fallen” or “conditioned” nature, we cannot trust our own internal mental processes to advance us on the spiritual path, and therefore submission to the outside guidance of the guru is an absolute necessity. We are told which books are suitable for reading (and how to interpret them); how to pray; how to meditate; how to worship the guru; what to wear; what (and how) to eat; how to clean oneself after defecating; who can have sex (married couples, and only to procreate “Krishna conscious” children); what music is safe to listen to (that which glorifies Krishna and the guru); who one’s friends should and shouldn’t be; and which people in the outside world should and shouldn’t be associated with, and under what circumstances. And we are generally drilled in all the awful, terrible things that will happen if we leave the shelter of the community and return to the outside world (such a return to the secular world is likened to “eating one’s own vomit”—i.e., reappropriating what formerly one had renounced). All of these strictures exist solely, of course, for the benefit of the devotees, with our highest purpose in mind. The proper response to such mercy and magnanimity is extreme gratefulness and eternal commitment to the guru. The distant, hazy backdrop to all this asceticism and surrender is Krishna’s transcendent, paradisiacal world, which we’ll reach one day if we manage to attain a state of spiritual “perfection.”

Personally, I’d love to find myself in such a place. It’s quite a colorful and happy abode, according to the scriptures. But, in reality, on the ground, within the actual institution that presents itself as the necessary gateway to Krishna’s heaven, life grinds on rather tediously (punctuated by episodes of orchestrated exhilaration), power politics permeate, bitter and never-ending theological battles rage, and very few members seem to attain the lofty states of consciousness described in the holy texts.

If Part I of this essay has a somewhat episodic character, and at times is repetitious, it is because I’ve only recently (for purposes of this publication) begun to think about the topic at hand in any kind of systematic manner. Let this, then, be a preliminary attempt to reflect on the subject; perhaps one day I will develop my thoughts further.

Part I: Theoretical

Creativity presumes freedom and openness of thought rather than ideological constraints and pre-existing perspectives. The creative act requires that the creator is operating out of the authentic self with reference to inner states of being— inner thoughts, feelings, intuitions, as opposed to slavishly conforming to external models of thought and behavior. Although acknowledging influences and sources of inspiration outside himself, the artist in the act of creation seeks to stand in his own place, focus his attention on what is within and unique to him—to stand within the ray of light that shines only upon him, to paraphrase Emerson,[1][i] and then create something new, or show something as it has never been seen before, offer fresh insight into the nature of reality. The cult member, in contrast, not only must acknowledge his sources, but also must live continually within them and under their shadow, making constant reference to them. He cannot make a move, as it were, without consulting their edicts. He lives at the end of a very short leash, lest he stray from the master and fall into the abyss. It is for his own protection, of course, that he walks alongside his master. He must forever be checking his own thoughts against those of the master, must carefully scrutinize his innermost motives to be sure they do not violate the intentions and designs of the master. If the inner mind does not conform to the manifest teacher, he places his very being in jeopardy, risking his ontological standing within Official Reality.


The artist seeks to create new worlds, invent hypothetical universes or appropriate objects and ideas, re-arrange them, and fashion new constructions. The cult member is handed an already-constructed world, fashioned by others who by definition are vastly superior to him—various divine and semidivine entities who long ago completed the process of creation and published all the blueprints and diagrams in sacred texts. His task merely is to enter that pre-existing structure, understand it through the published guidelines of its authors and official interpreters, find his humble niche within, and inhabit that abode in a manner the authorities mandate. If he has an urge to be creative, he may build a few shelves within his tiny room, and perhaps place a few small ornaments upon them, as long as such minor elaborations fall within the approved design. It is for him to live within established structures, not to imagine new ones.


Another factor that militates against free artistic creativity in ISKCON and comparable groups is the organization’s foundational philosophy of transcendence: We are not of this physical body or material world, and therefore we must forever be diverting our attention away from the things of this world. Although the natural world is theoretically connected to God through his original act of cosmic creation, and although the world is in some sense an extension of his divine energies, we must not allow it to charm and please too deeply. Even though the enlightened sage sees Krishna in every aspect of his creation, the not-yet-enlightened devotee is cautioned not to ponder too closely the ephemeral things of this temporal world, however they might dazzle and delight. Beholding a majestic tree or a beautiful flower without the proper enlightened perspective or interior theological narrative is a mere act of “sense gratification,” a wasteful, ego-centered indulgence that distracts the mind from its true object of contemplation: God. The artist, presumably one who attempts to approach the sensory world with a certain openness and freshness of vision, unbound by rigid orthodoxies of thought and sense, will likely feel ill at ease within an institutional setting that takes great pains to define what is real and what is not, what is meaningful and what is not, what is beautiful and what is not.

I am not negating the possibility that, in some ultimate metaphysical context, individual consciousness (or spirit, or soul) exists independently, not only of the physical body but also of all temporal psychological states (the constructed, evolving ego). In fact, I find the idea both intellectually attractive and spiritually therapeutic. But it is clear that in practice, among young Westerners living communally in Hindu ashrams, such abstract, ontological principles, poorly understood and imperfectly digested, translate into a hard and unforgiving asceticism that encourages an unhealthy denial of individual identity; a negation of personal needs, desires, and inclinations; and a progressive deafening to one’s own emotional states and personal intuitions.


“Sense gratification” is, as I learned in ISKCON, the great enemy of Krishna Consciousness. To engage in the pleasures of the material world is to be dragged into illusion, to lose the self-mastery necessary for surrender to Krishna. Off-bounds not only were the obvious things like sex and drugs, but also music, movies, literature, fine art. However exalted or refined such art forms might appear, they are in actuality the self-indulgent outpouring of the illusioned souls of this material world, the siren song of Maya (illusion personified) herself (note the gender assignation), appearing in an infinity of alluring shapes and forms. Music (unless composed for and about Krishna) is merely a mundane cacophony that pollutes consciousness. Paintings, unless they depict Krishna and his world, merely document the mundane world and material states of consciousness. Literature, if not about Krishna and his divine acts (or that of the gurus, saints, etc.), is useless drivel. To be a true devotee following the strictest standards of Krishna consciousness is to ignore and repudiate all these expressions of mundane illusion.

Small scraps might be salvaged from that massive heap of worldly creative product if they served our purposes. Such found items could be accepted, even endorsed, if Krishna was somehow present, such as in George Harrison’s song “My Sweet Lord,” which featured the Hare Krishna mantra. Occasionally, Swami Bhaktivedanta, ISKCON’s founder, would quote a line or two from some poet if he felt that it illustrated some aspect of his teachings. We could, on one occasion I recall, reprint a famous painting by William Blake to illustrate an article in our Back to Godhead magazine, because it seemed to depict, however imperfectly, the soul crossing over from the material world into the spiritual realm.

Although occasionally we might make distinctions and judgments concerning the relative merit of a particular work of art (based on the traditional Hindu model of sattva, rajas, and tamas—goodness, passion, and ignorance), the arts of this material world are all, essentially, products of illusion and therefore not worthy of the attention of Krishna’s devotees.


To make art, to create form from chaos, one must be prepared to launch oneself off into realms of the unknown and the unfamiliar, to places of mystery and uncertainty. The artist must be willing to enter the darkness and await new lights from within, to leave the safe moorings of common perception and routine and see with new and awed eyes. But these mysterious realms are harshly devalued and made off-limits to those who suckle on the teat of Truth, feeding on perfect Knowledge.

Religion is often described as an inward journey; but often in practice it becomes a tool for obscuring paths to the inner world of consciousness and personal being, a strategy for preempting inward journeys—sometimes even defining inwardness itself as a dangerous path, a deadly detour from religious “healthy-mindedness.” The inner, subjective world is an impure place, authoritarian religion warns, inhabited by dark spirits and ghostly presences, a commodious and secure hiding place for Satan or for Maya. If one should happen to fall into the darkness, and the demons of doubt and confusion begin nipping at one’s heels, one is taught, through intensive training, to haul oneself out of the pit by grabbing onto the holy beads, the purifying mantra, the protective prayer, the saving words of scripture, the purifying sound of the guru’s voice, which cleanse the mind and fill it with clarity and conviction. The way of art, however, is an inner way, a journey through the dark caverns and illuminated fields of the interior universe, a search not for “perfection” but for authentic being, guided not by external agents but by inner imperative.


If art is about making sense of the world, if it is a seeking of answers to primal, existential questions, a quest for comprehension and insight into the nature of reality through the apprehension and inspired molding of the materials of thought and perception—if it is, as many have said, a path to knowledge—then it is tragically preempted by the tyranny of authoritarian Truth. Religions, corporate truth systems, have already done the work of researching and establishing Truth and Meaning. The religious cultist prides himself on his official affiliation with Absolute Truth, Inc. His group (and none other!) offers a direct line to God and the infinite mind of God, which encompasses everything. His scripture, being perfect and complete, answers all questions, resolves all philosophical and theological matters, settles all controversies, renders unnecessary the sin of “mental speculation” (the operative term in ISKCON). If one lacks the time to study and memorize the official religious canon, one is given concordances, keys to the scripture, study guides, boiled down repeatedly and condensed into easy, digestible catechisms, and finally into aphoristic slogans.

If all truth is thus condensed and consecrated within one’s own religious tradition, one’s own scripture, one’s own lineage, and received from the authorized teacher, then further seeking, further intellectual or artistic experimentation, is rendered unnecessary and nonsensical. Where “God” has supplied all the answers, uncertainty is a sin.


One of my happiest discoveries after leaving ISKCON concerns the beauty and fruitfulness of not knowing, the serenity that comes from making friends with uncertainty. I found inspiration in Keats’s phrase “Negative Capability”: that state of being “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Such “irritability” denotes the neurotic need to “know,” to possess all the facts, to be regularly assured that what one thinks is true is indeed true. There’s a certain smug intoxication that sweetens the heady conviction that one (or one’s group) has been endowed with perfect knowledge and has been authorized to bestow wisdom upon the ignorant masses. But there is a sweeter, saner pleasure in knowing that the universe and individual consciousness are immeasurably vast, full of rich complexity, poignant mystery, unexpected revelations, and that it is possible for human beings to be creators of beautiful and wondrous things.


By definition, cultic groups center the individual’s attention on a common truth, a common goal, and a common mindset. As an “intentional” community, the thoughts, needs, and desires of the individual are subsumed under a group ethic and mode of life: “We are Krishna’s devotees, and it is our duty to serve Him and to spread Krishna Consciousness throughout the world.” Because it is the group’s work that is center stage, individual or idiosyncratic thought and behavior are discouraged, either by direct edict or by inherent and pervasive social pressure. Inasmuch as artistic creation is an individual pursuit, inspired by the unique, personal vision and talent of the artist, such pursuits are not likely to conform to the group’s purposes and therefore must be devalued and discouraged. In light of the compelling spiritual work of the community, which serves the highest cosmic purposes, a devotee who remains attached to such private, individualistic pursuits will be viewed as being egoistically self-absorbed and lacking sufficient devotion to God and guru.

To focus more closely, for a moment, on the notion of the artist as nonconformist: The point is not to fortify the stereotypical notion of the artist as eccentric, rebellious, bohemian, and the like, but rather to highlight an essential characteristic of artistic creation: that it is an expression of a personal, subjective view of reality, the product of an individual consciousness that stands apart from normative constructions and definitions of reality in order to tune in to an inner world of individual perception, emotion, insight, and inspiration. It entails apprehending the world afresh, and forming a new articulation of human experience.

The most hospitable a cultic group can be to the individual artist member is to “dovetail” (a well-worn term in ISKCON) his talents to serve the higher cause of the group. Thus, a painter might be encouraged to paint illustrations of Krishna’s holy pastimes, the musician to compose music glorifying Krishna, filmmakers to make bright and cheery propaganda pieces about the Krishna movement, and so on.

Such narrow accommodations of individual artistic talent may, however, remind one of other forms of institutional art. The art approved and sponsored by totalitarian regimes does not generally take the form of expressions of individual vision, but of corporate ideals. One thinks of “Socialist Realist” art posters depicting heroic, hammer and sickle-wielding men laboring joyfully in the bright fields of the Worker’s Paradise, or of National Socialist (Nazi) art celebrating the wholesome, racially pure Aryan family—or, for that matter, of the graphic art produced by any regime promoting social, political, or military goals. Art produced under the auspices of religious institutions depicts a particular theological view of the world, an ideologically circumscribed corpus of myths of gods and saints, and the historical struggles and achievements of God’s chosen people. However inspired the participating artist might feel—whatever elevated sense of purpose he or she might possess that helps to concretize and make visible the grand vision and purposes of the Holy Cause—the role of such an artist is essentially that of a propagandist.[2][ii]

What I’m offering here, I should point out, is in no way a general criticism of religious art. The expression of spirituality in art is, in fact, a strong and consuming interest of mine.[3][iii] I cannot help but marvel at the momentous works of religious art created by artistic geniuses, even those laboring under the watchful eyes of megalomaniacal monarchs and pushy popes. In the hands of a genius, or in fact anyone whose primary source of inspiration resides within, the art spirit can trump institutional compulsion and historical contingency.[4][iv]


With particular regard to those already on an artistic path at the time they join a cultic group, my thesis boils down to something like this: Homo aestheticus (the human as seeker of beauty) seeks the company of homo religiosus (the human as seeker of the divine), only later to find out that homo religiosus has fallen under the sway of homo hierarchicus (the human as builder of socio-political control systems). In other words, creative, aesthetically oriented people often feel their creative path to be simultaneously a form of spiritual growth—identifying art with a quest for meaning, truth, enlightenment, and ecstasy. Because Art and Spirit share similar aims (and can be allies), artists sometimes find themselves drawn to particular spiritual practices and religious communities. Once well ensconced in a religious collective, however, artists often find themselves in an authoritarian environment that is inherently hostile to the notion of individual questing, open-ended experimentation, and any sort of artistic production that does not serve the purposes of the collective. By that time, individual priorities frequently have been transformed and adapted to those of the group, with prior artistic interests either rationalized away, or, cleansed of personal inspiration and ambition, put into the service of the group.

Part II:


After several years of growing disillusionment with the Krishna movement,[5][v] in 1987, I left ISKCON (with my then wife) to begin a master’s program at Harvard Divinity School. By that time, I had let my parents know that institutional and personal changes had led me to reconsider my status as a member. One day in March of that year, my father telephoned me at the Philadelphia ISKCON center and made an offer I decided not to refuse—that if I left ISKCON and returned to higher education, he would temporarily support my wife and me financially. Although I had completed only one year of college before I joined ISKCON in 1970, I managed to get myself admitted to Harvard’s M.T.S. (Master of Theological Studies) program with the help of Harvey Cox and Diana Eck, two Harvard faculty members whom I had come to know over the years in my capacity as ISKCON’s de-facto liaison to the academic world.[6][vi]

During my three intellectually rich and transformative years at Harvard, I studied (often under scholars of international renown) Buddhist and Taoist philosophy, Hindu devotional poetry, comparative scripture, hagiography, the notion of pilgrimage, the writings of the American Transcendentalists Emerson and Thoreau, the exultant spirituality of Walt Whitman, Islamic mysticism, Hasidism (with Elie Wiesel), comparative theories of inter-religious dialogue, and many other subjects concerning the religious dimension of human life.

During those three years, I also launched into the project of reconstructing a life and, for that matter, an identity. My “pre-cult” identity as a spiritually inclined intellectual fascinated with the mysteries of human consciousness was, happily, still intact. And although I had greatly relished the intellectual stimulation at Harvard, I came to feel that all those years of learning how to transcend the material world, followed by years of intellectual study, had left me feeling rather unembodied and ungrounded, at home in cerebral realms but not at home within my body and senses. Feeling that I needed something that would engage me at a deeper, more personal and passionate level, I decided not to continue on to a Ph.D. degree and the life of an academic. For a while I considered becoming a full-time writer, but the idea somehow didn’t satisfy. I found myself wondering, rather vaguely, if there were not some way I might be creative within a less cerebral, more physical, visceral, tactile mode. I lacked any background in the plastic arts, but I had friends who were visual artists whom I greatly admired for their ability to conjure new worlds on paper and canvas.

That vague desire was—I like to think—heard by some beneficent being out there in the benevolent universe, for I felt myself drawn to the Cambridge Adult Education Center to enroll in introductory courses in black-and-white photography and darkroom printing. Oddly, I cannot recall the exact circumstances in which I initially decided to explore photography as an art form. I moved into photography, it seems, as if beckoned by some angelic muse. In any case, within a brief time I had set up a functional darkroom at home and fallen in love with the alchemy of creation. Simultaneously, I began to read books dealing with the history of the medium and discovered kindred souls therein: seekers of meaning, excavators of the beautiful and the marvelous—people such as Edward Weston, Josef Sudek, Andre Kertesz, Minor White, Wynn Bullock, Paul Caponigro, Clarence Laughlin, and Ruth Bernhard (I later had the fortune to meet Ms. Bernhard, who strongly encouraged me in my work). From that time onward, my life has been centered on the creation of photographic images: captured on black-and-white film, hand-processed, and hand-printed onto silver-gelatin photographic paper.

Photography is not only an art form to which I’ve become devoted, but a de-facto means of personal healing, as well. Although I did not embrace photography with that purpose in mind, it came to function early on as a means to re-inhabit my body and the given world, to mend the rift between matter and spirit.[7][vii] And though I do continue to sense, viscerally, the existence of worlds or realms of greater subtlety and sublimity than the obvious one, I’ve come to see those realms as coexisting with and fully inhabiting the physical world, simultaneously transcendent and imminent—in the philosophical spirit, I suppose, of Idealism and Romanticism (flavored with Taoism and Surrealism).

Even though I photograph a variety of subjects, my main focus has been on two in particular: the natural world (landscape and nature studies), and portraiture (broadly defined), particularly that of women. I was not surprised to find the following statement in an essay by one of my favorite authors, Aldous Huxley: “Landscape and the human figure in repose—these are the symbols through which, in the past, the spiritual life has been most clearly and powerfully expressed.”[8][viii] Ongoing immersion in these two subjects has, I believe, greatly aided my healing journey to terra firma.

With regard to the focus on the natural world, I’ve come to see the landscape (as have so many artists through time) as a divine presence, a manifestation of the ultimate Sublime. Like Wordsworth and other romantics, I believe (nay, feel!) that behind or within the outer appearances of the natural world lie Spirit, Ultimate Being, the Fruitful Void. Not in the sense that trees and rocks and clouds are mere outer symbols of deeper realities—a code to decipher—but rather that they are themselves the expressive language of Spirit, the very being of the Sacred. I cannot help but feel there are supernal realities residing within the fugitive etchings we find within and upon natural forms.[9][ix] As art critic Charles H. Caffin wrote some time ago, “It would not be far wrong to say that landscape art is the real religious art of the present age.”[10][x] I concur, and I have devoted two books of images to that subject.[11][xi]

Concerning my other prime subject, portraiture, I’ve come to appreciate the human face and form as an outer expression of a person’s inner spirit. ISKCON teaches not merely that the soul is ontologically separate from the physical body, but that its temporary association with the body is an unnatural and tragic predicament, a degradation of the eternal soul. Consequently, one must constantly be reminded of the lowly status of the body (a vile “bag of pus, stool and bile”) and strive to overcome the needs and whims of the flesh. While bound to the physical body, the soul must strive not only to transcend it, to rise above its urges, but also to nullify the testimony of the body’s five senses as well as that of the mind—rejecting both sensory perception and intellectual thought as limited and defective instruments for perceiving reality. As an antidote to that rigid polarization, with its harsh, simpleminded negation of physicality, I have found that the act of portraiture compels me to contemplate the close connection between outer form (face/body) and inner self. As I’ve suggested elsewhere,

The eyes are, as the saying goes, the gateway to the soul. I think this truth extends more broadly to the face and to the entire physical form. Aware of it or not, something of our depths (emotional, psychic, spiritual) is written across our entire physical being. If our sensitivities are sufficiently developed, we can intuit much from looking into the eyes and face of another.[12][xii]

One can, if one must, look upon the form of a fellow human as a “bag of stool” (ISKCON supplies numerous such complimentary epithets), or one can become sensitized so as to see the eternal spirit shining through and even transfiguring its temporal habitation. I’ve chosen the latter, and I find wisdom in Edmund Spencer’s statement, “For of the soule the bodie forme doth take / For soule is form, and doth the bodie make.”[13][xiii]

Because my work in portraiture focuses mainly on women, photography has been a means, also, of removing whatever residue might have remained of years of misogynist conditioning in ISKCON (drawn from ancient Hindu social models). Photographing women has profoundly deepened my appreciation for the “Divine Feminine”: womanhood not only as a specific gender, but an expression of a liberating spiritual principle. As I wrote in my first book of photographs,

This collection of portraits and nudes ... begins from a simple appreciation of the beauty of women. But for me, that appreciation opens up onto a deeper level of experience, what I think of as a search for the Anima, my quest for the Archetypal Feminine, both in principle and in flesh-and-blood.[14][xiv]

I like what Anna Farova, the noted historian of photography, says of Czech photographer Frantisek Drtikol in this regard: “[He] was fascinated by the female body ... He saw in it the primal form of beauty, thought and the soul: the body [as] the soul’s garment.”[15][xv] I can certainly identify with that view.

If I have a personal credo of photography as a creative pursuit, or, even more broadly, a manifesto of the creative life I now pursue, it is this:

For me, the essence of photography is in the pure pleasure of seeing, the experience of opening a more intuitive, patient, contemplative eye to the world. It is about exploring the strange synergy between quiet receptivity and probing curiosity. It's about appreciating the “suchness” of things, as well as experiencing their complex resonances within personal consciousness. Photography is, for me, the cultivation of a deeper seeing, and through deeper seeing, heightened awareness and emotion. It's about being surprised and delighted by the “ten thousand things” (as the Taoists say) of the world, and cultivating a sense of wonder. It is both a contemplative discipline and a hedonistic surrender to the senses. It’s about paying homage to the perceived object itself, and to the process of perception itself—allowing oneself to luxuriate in the exquisite visual pleasures of form, shape, texture, line, light and shadow.

Though photography can be—due to the inherent mechanics of the process—a fairly literal medium for recording surface “facts,” my work is, in part, an attempt to use the camera as a tool for exploring and questioning the concept of objective reality. Perception becomes a form of play. Apprehending the manifest world as constructed and conditional, the world becomes endlessly malleable, a fairyland for the playful imagination. Moving about the world with a camera opens my eyes and mind to the beauty, strangeness, and mystery of it all, while crafting images in the darkroom provides a means for communicating my wonder and delight.[16][xvi]

Although making art has played a central role in my story of healing, that narrative would be sorely incomplete if I did not mention my becoming a devoted consumer of art as well—particularly painting and music, both of which I cannot imagine living without. My inner life has been immeasurably nourished by studying the work of fine artists: landscapists of various schools [e.g., Van Ruisdael, Corot, (Theodore) Rousseau, Friedrich, Heade, Parrish]; Pre-Raphaelites Burne-Jones and Waterhouse; Symbolists Redon and Munch; the French academicians Leighton and Bouguereau; American Tonalists Inness, Tryon, and Blakelock; Surrealists Delvaux, Tanguy, Matta, and Tanning; abstractionists Gorky, Seliger, and Pousette-Dart. These and so many other artists have deepened my capacity to see, and have led me into multifarious worlds of vision, sense, and refined emotion.

As for music—well, it similarly feeds and excites the soul. My tastes are expansive—artists too numerous to mention: from Brahms to Beatles, Debussy to Dylan, Stravinsky to Sneaker Pimps, Rautavaara to Rasputina, Sati to Seefeel, Ravi Shankar to Smashing Pumpkins, ad infinitum. I thank them all for the multitudes of moods and imaginings they have inspired. Gratitude.


Cultic Studies Review, Vol. 9, No. 1, 2010, Page

[1][i] “A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the luster of the firmament of bards and sages. … The eye was placed where one ray should fall, that it might testify of that particular ray.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” 1839–40. Cited in Stephen E. Whicher, Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1957), pp. 147, 148.

[2][ii] On the inherent opposition of ideological systems to creative freedom, Rollo May writes:

…[A]ny kind of closed, exclusive system destroys poetry, as it does all art. ... [A] sine qua non of creativity is the freedom of artists to give all the elements within themselves free play in order to open up the possibility of what Blok excellently calls “the creative will.” ... Dogmatists of all kinds ... are threatened by the creative freedom of the artist. This is necessarily and inevitably so. We cannot escape our anxiety over the fact that the artists, together with creative persons of all sorts, are the possible destroyers of our nicely ordered systems. For the creative impulse is the speaking of the voice and the expressing of the forms of the preconscious and unconscious; and this is, by its very nature, a threat to rationality and external control.... If it were possible to control the artist—and I do not believe it is—it would mean the death of art.

Rollo May, The Courage to Create (New York: W. W. Norton, 1975), pp. 75, 76.

[3][iii] I am currently working on a book that will explore the “spiritual” in photography. This involves a close look at writings by and about photographic artists for whom the medium has been, variously, a path of self-discovery; an investigation into matters of appearance and reality, of essence and meaning; experiments and investigations into the nature of light (literally and as metaphor); and a Zen-like discipline of radical receptivity—to name a few of the approaches explored. I hope to weave together voices from the history of the medium with my own evolving insights. This research is deeply rooted in and informed by the broader subject of art and its relation to the spiritual.

[4][iv] The first time I saw a picture of Krishna (several months prior to joining ISKCON), I was mesmerized by this indescribably beautiful painting (in poster form) of a violet-blue boy of indeterminate age, head adorned with a peacock feather, and holding a flute in one hand while embracing a contented-looking calf with the other. This was perhaps my first experience of being drawn into a painting, body and soul, with a strong desire to enter the world in the image, to disappear into a realm of unearthly beauty. That particular image was the creation of an unnamed Indian artist, and was of an order far beyond the common poster and calendar art one sees everywhere in India, and far beyond the work of ISKCON artists of the time, which in comparison appears coarse and cartoonish. The Krishna tradition in India is an ancient and culturally rich one, with deep and broad traditions in art, music, dance, and drama. But here I would make a distinction between art forms grown organically in original cultural soil, expressive of a profound and deep-rooted spiritual sensibility, and those that have been transplanted to foreign ground in attenuated, repackaged forms with a strong Western imprint.

[5][v] See “On Leaving ISKCON,” in Edwin F. Bryant & Maria L. Ekstrand, eds., The Hare Krishna Movement: The Postcharismatic Fate of a Religious Transplant (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004). (An earlier version can be found online at

See also “Some Things I Learned During My Seventeen Years in the Hare Krishna Movement,” ICSA e-newsletter, Vol. 6, No. 3, 2007 ( thingslearned_en0603.htm). A revised, expanded version of the above will be presented at the 2010 annual meeting of the International Cultic Studies Association in New York.

[6][vi] See Steven J. Gelberg, ed., Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna: Five Distinguished Scholars on the Krishna Movement in the West (New York: Grove Press, 1983).

[7][vii] Much of that project of re-inhabitation had, of course, been accomplished during the seven years between my leaving ISKCON and entering photography. I’d made significant progress in breaching the thick wall of ideology that separated me from the lived-in world. I’d learned to trust my own sense of reality, to explore my own thoughts and perceptions, to rediscover and reclaim immediacy and spontaneity. These freedoms are, as I discussed earlier, necessary for a truly creative life, and they were greatly aided by my immersion in an art based upon careful visual observation.

[8][viii] “Variations on El Greco,” in Morris Philipson, ed., Aldous Huxley on Art and Artists (New York: Meridian Books, 1960), p. 235.

[9][ix] Some of this language is adapted from my artist’s Statement in my Website “Steven Gelberg Fine Art Photography” (

[10][x] Charles H. Caffin, Photography as a Fine Art (Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y.: Morgan & Morgan, Inc., 1971 (1901), pp. 165–166:

When the artist has entered into nature and allowed it to enter into him, his work, however simple, becomes impregnated with a sincerity that is unmistakable to any careful observer. … It is this sincerity that leads the artist to eschew the trivial and seek for the large qualities in a landscape; to feel so deeply the meaning of these that he can communicate the feeling to us and, so, recreate the emotion we might have received if ourselves in the presence of the scene. For the lover of nature can never be satisfied with a mere record of the physical facts; to him there is, as it were, a soul within them, and he looks to pictures for its interpretation. It would not be far wrong to say that landscape art is the real religious art of the present age.

[11][xi] Dreaming the Landscape (Heliograph Editions, 2007) and Pictures from the Earth: Things Seen on the Surface of a Strange Planet (also Heliograph Editions, 2007).

[12][xii] Steven J. Gelberg, Consorting with Anima: Portraits, Nudes, Dream-sightings (Heliograph Editions, 2007), p. 7.

[13][xiii] Hymne in Honour of Beautie, line 132 (1596).

[14][xiv] Consorting with Anima (op. cit.).

[15][xv] Frantisek Drtikol, Art-Deco Photographer (Munich: Schirmer Art Books, 1993), p. 24.

[16][xvi] From [artist’s] Statement, Website of “Steven Gelberg Fine Art Photography” (

About the Author

Steven Gelberg, M.A., while a member from 1970-1987, served as the Krishna Movement's principal liaison to the international academic community (e.g., edited Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna: Five Distinguished Scholars on the Krishna Movement in the West, Grove Press, 1983), and its Director for Interreligious Affairs. He is author of a number of scholarly articles on ISKCON (and related historical, social-scientific, and cultic issues) published in various academic books and journals. He subsequently earned a Masters degree (comparative religion) from Harvard Divinity School in 1990. He currently lives with his wife near San Francisco, where he is an accomplished fine art photographer, working on a book, Photography and Imagination.