Tortured Souls

Horribly abused children of the Hare Krishna movement seek justice--and peace--through a multimillion-dollar lawsuit

Two women stand warily by a chain-link fence in old East Dallas, peering over their past, searching their fragile memories for landmarks of the abuse they suffered as children of the Hare Krishna movement. By age 5, each was sent by her devotee parents to a religious boarding school at the Dallas temple--its gurukula as it was called in Sanskrit, which means "house of the guru." Throughout the '70s and '80s, these "second generation" Krishna kids claim, they were subjected to all manner of abuse--physical, emotional, sexual, spiritual--by those entrusted with their care.

"Over there," says Ananda Tiller, pointing across an open field, "that's where this Venezuelan man pushed me up against the fence." He was a bhakta, someone who hadn't yet been initiated into the movement. "He put two fingers on my tongue and placed his thumb on my jaw to keep me from screaming. He was masturbating with his other hand, hunching me like a dog." He wanted to marry her, take her back to Venezuela with him, even asked her father for permission.

She was 9.

Bridgette Rittenour, left, and Ananda Tiller return to the Hare Krishna temple in East Dallas where they claim they were abused as children while attending the temple's boarding school.
Mark Graham
Bridgette Rittenour, left, and Ananda Tiller return to the Hare Krishna temple in East Dallas where they claim they were abused as children while attending the temple's boarding school.
As a high-spirited 6-year-old, Ananda Tiller was told by a gurukula teacher that she was a prostitute and would be reincarnated as a tree, much like the one growing at the Dallas temple.
Mark Graham
As a high-spirited 6-year-old, Ananda Tiller was told by a gurukula teacher that she was a prostitute and would be reincarnated as a tree, much like the one growing at the Dallas temple.

Tiller crosses the temple grounds and approaches a gnarly pecan tree, its branches mostly barren despite the mild November temperatures. The tree has a gaping triangular hole in its trunk, which Tiller will never forget. "My ashram [dormitory] teacher told me the tree was a woman in her past life, a prostitute, and this large mangled hole was her vagina. She said that's what I was going to be in my next life." Tiller was a high-spirited child, stubborn and rebellious. She doesn't recall what her particular infraction was that day, perhaps not covering her head or showing her ankle--or worse, being looked upon by a male devotee. "I remember staring at the tree and wondering if she felt as guilty as me."

Bridgette Rittenour laughs as Tiller tells her story, more out of recognition than humor. She recalls being "scared to death" that she, too, was going to be reincarnated as a tree and spend her next life "naked." A soft-spoken redhead, whose passivity was the source of her troubles, she was castigated by her teachers for engaging in "subtle sex" when she didn't towel herself off quickly enough after showering.

She was 5.

Rittenour, whose stay at the gurukula predates Tiller's, walks anxiously toward a short flight of steps inside the main temple, hoping the location will jog one of her more hellish memories. It comes in fits and starts, snatches of recollection, but she remembers standing at the end of a long line of children, ringing a bell. That's when the girl in front of her fell down the stairs, her head splitting open, blood everywhere. "I know I didn't touch her, but they said I killed her," Rittenour whispers, her eyes tearing easily. "They took my clothes off and beat me with a strap. All I could think about was how Krishna was going to punish me for being naked in the temple." She was locked in a room for two days, she says, given no food, no water.

She was 6.

Raised in a monastic lifestyle that made the Taliban look like Unitarians, these children of Krishna were cut off from all outside influences, denied access to radio, television, medical attention and any semblance of secular education. While devotees ecstatically danced in the streets, clanging tambourines and chanting Hare Krishna, gurukula teachers terrorized young students if their thoughts naturally drifted to fun, friends and family. These were material attachments, illusions (maya) of the body, which only served to separate the soul from its true spiritual path of returning home to Krishna, the supreme God. And what pleased Krishna was austerity--no drinking, no gambling, no meat, no sex--well, certainly not the kind that felt good.

Both women have come to Dallas to meet each other and share their stories, but they are also curious about whether the movement has discarded its cultic ways. Immediately, they are struck by the number of female devotees wearing blue jeans, not saris (traditional garb for Indian women). Few men appear to be "shaved up," although many still wear the long tuft of hair (sikha) that marks their renunciation of worldly things. Material possessions are in abundance. Nearly everyone has a cell phone; one home within the temple community is adorned with a satellite dish.

Reformers within Hare Krishna claim the movement has undergone its own reincarnation in the last 15 years, adopting a healthier attitude toward women and children, turning away from its harsh fundamentalist roots. But Rittenour and Tiller won't be dissuaded from suing the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) for the abuse they and 89 other plaintiffs allegedly suffered while attending its gurukulas. Their pending lawsuit, which seeks $400 million in damages, was filed locally by Dallas attorney Windle Turley, who successfully sued the Catholic Diocese for concealing sexual abuse by one of its priests, Rudy Kos.

ISKCON leaders are hard-pressed to deny these charges, particularly since research they commissioned documents findings of severe abuse throughout the gurukula system. Yet not every abused Krishna kid has joined the lawsuit. Many believe it goes too far, seeking to destroy their religion and implicate their spiritual founder, Srila Prabhupada--whom they worship as a god--in a conspiracy to conceal the abuse. His ascetic Hindu teachings, some of which are rabidly chauvinistic and racist, still captivate their spirits.

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