Critics sometimes charge that Krsna consciousness is "brainwashing," a dogmatic, authoritarian power that denies the individual his personal integrity and free will. Supposedly, this authoritarian control forces an otherwise free-thinking person to conform to such a degree that he loses his identity and becomes a "mindless robot"; he loses his capacity for free thought and self-actualization. But such criticism is unfounded, for only by great inner resolve and personal volition can someone succeed in Krsna consciousness.
A perfect example is Brahma, the first being in the universe, who attained spiritual realization eons ago, before there were any teachers, books, or institutions. In fact, according to the Vedic literatures, when Brahma first came to consciousness before the dawn of creation, he looked around and beheld only darkness pervading everywhere. He then sat in meditation for one hundred years, until Krsna revealed to him within his heart the essence of all spiritual and material knowledge. Later, Brahma presented this knowledge as the original Vedic scriptures.
Like Brahma, each of us is a unique, individual person. And each of us must discover his own spiritual identity by unique effort and unique reciprocation with the Supreme. Unfortunately, the widespread influence of materialism nowadays has practically destroyed people's capacity for deep introspection. We cannot meditate for even a hundred minutes, what to speak of a hundred years. On the other hand, we have several great advantages over Brahma in our quest for self-realization: We have recorded knowledge of the Absolute Truth in the form of the Vedic literatures, and we have the guidance and example of perfected spiritual masters coming in a line of disciplic succession beginning with Lord Krsna Himself.
Another example of strong determination in seeking self-realization is Sanatana Gosvami, a highly advanced devotee and scholar who lived in India five hundred years ago. Sacrificing the great wealth, power, and prestige that went along with his position as a high government minister, Sanatana underwent severe hardships to submit himself before the most exalted spiritual authority and master. Lord Caitanya. Sanatana said, "Although I have a reputation as a learned man and a sophisticated politician, I must admit to You that I do not know the real meaning of my life. Like every creature, I am suffering, but I do not know why I suffer or how to end my suffering. Please instruct me." These are the statements of an instrospective individual breaking free from the complacent conformity of the masses and seeking an ultimate solution to life's problems. And Sanatana, by taking advantage of his spiritual master's instructions and the Vedic literature, attained enlightenment as surely as had the original Vedic sage, Brahma.
Now, that Brahma, Sanatana, and many other persons in the past have succeeded in Krsna consciousness does not mean anyone in the present can become self-realized simply through blind conformity to a religious authority. Spiritual realization must always be a matter of personal search, surrender, and growth. Each of us is an individual spirit soul, a part of the Supreme Being, and as such we have each been endowed with all the qualities of the Supreme, including free will. This is why Lord Krsna concludes his teachings to Arjuna in Bhagavad-gita with these words: "Thus I have explained to you the most confidential of all knowledge. Deliberate on this fully, and then do what you wish to do." (Emphasis added.) So God will send His representative, the spiritual master, to teach us spiritual science, He will make transcendental knowledge available to us in the Vedic literatures, and sometimes He will even instruct us personally, as He did Arjuna in Bhagavad-gita but He will never interfere with our free will and independence.
You may ask, "If God is merciful and He sees us suffering here for lack of self-realization, why doesn't He force that realization upon us? Why doesn't He drag us back to the spiritual world?" The answer is that true self-realization, the kind that leads one back to the spiritual world, depends on attaining love of God. And without freedom, how can there be love? So the tiny soul must surrender to God, but that surrender must be voluntary.
Still, although it is not true that Krsna consciousness robs a person of his individuality and then forces upon him an unnatural conformity, it is true that an aspiring devotee can find much assistance by associating with others on the path back to Godhead. Far from "brainwashing" a person or robbing him of his individual integrity, such association prepares a spiritual aspirant for the difficult tests and temptations of spiritual life, which he must meet and overcome on his own. Srila Prabhupada explains this point with the analogy of a jet pilot. In flight school a pilot receives many hours of instruction and help from teachers and other pilots, but when he takes his first solo flight none of his instructors can help him if he runs into trouble. Similarly, during our lifetime we can avail ourselves of the valuable instructions of the spiritual master and the scriptures, and we can associate with other devotees of the Lord, but we must face death alone.
So attaining Krsna consciousness is not a matter of nominally joining a sect or blindly repeating a mantra or a doctrine. Pure Krsna consciousness is attainable only by one who sincerely approaches Krsna and Krsna's representatives and realizes within himself his higher nature as an eternal soul with an eternal relationship to God.
Those who criticize Krsna consciousness as "brainwashing" or as "tyranny over the will" are ill informed, and often malicious. Under the sway of a materialistic misconception of their own identity, they are usually motivated by a desire to avoid surrendering to God. Thus when they see genuine surrender to God, they decry it. The influence of materialistic philosophy has largely obliterated genuine spiritual life from modern society, and there is great pressure for us to conform to the life of materialistic values. There are even materialistic brands of religion. With all this materialism in the air, it's not surprising that when an individual, thinking for himself, decides seriously to seek spiritual life, he meets criticism from his family, friends, teachers, priest, psychiatrist, and so on. Only the rare, genuine individualist has the courage to embark on the path of real spiritual life.
Although criticism of Krsna conscious devotees as "brainwashed robots" may make effective propaganda for the cause of materialistic conformity, it is a lie nonetheless. Krsna consciousness is actually the best method for liberating the self from the miseries of repeated birth and death. Ultimately the Krsna conscious devotee achieves the stage of eternal freedom from material miseries by realizing his eternal loving relationship with Krsna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. And this freedom is attainable only for one who chooses it of his own free will and works for it in earnest.- Satsvarupa Dasa Goswami