Tortured Souls

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

After breakfast, the children attended classes, receiving instruction in Prabhupada's teachings, Hindu scripture and little more. Many became functionally illiterate, learning no math or hard science. Eastern mythology was taught as history--the ancients conversing with monkeys as factually accurate. Nothing from the outside world was taught inside. On the contrary, children were told outsiders were karmis, meat-eaters who would likely eat them. "Our teachers would terrorize us, tell us that people who were not devotees were demons," Rittenour says. "If we were bad, they threatened to send us out to the karmi world. I lived in a constant state of terror."

With more than 200 children of all ages and only a handful of teachers, discipline became the highest priority. "Prabhupada said we were these purified souls, but we just wanted to do kid stuff," says ex-gurukula student Dillon Hickey, the son of the former education minister. "That made them doubly angry. They began beating the shit out of us for our own spiritual good."

Each day, claims Dillon, kids were lined up and whipped, sometimes for what they did, other times for what they might have done. Dayananda, the headmaster of the school and an ex-Marine, was particularly brutal, punching and kicking kids, says Rittenour, for the slightest infraction. For those who blasphemed Krishna or were habitually uncontrollable or just plain never listened, there was a night of solitary confinement in a rat-infested closet or a large trash bin.

Bridgette Rittenour peers through a door inside the Dallas temple, hoping to refresh her recollections about the abuse she says she suffered while attending the gurukula in the mid-'70s.
Mark Graham
Bridgette Rittenour peers through a door inside the Dallas temple, hoping to refresh her recollections about the abuse she says she suffered while attending the gurukula in the mid-'70s.
Dallas attorney Windle Turley represents 91 plaintiffs who are suing the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) for $400 million, alleging severe physical, sexual, emotional and spiritual abuse.
Mark Graham
Dallas attorney Windle Turley represents 91 plaintiffs who are suing the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) for $400 million, alleging severe physical, sexual, emotional and spiritual abuse.

Many of the teachers were unqualified and frustrated, having been sent to the gurukula because they were failures at fund raising. Of course, the teachings said that devotees who chanted Hare Krishna could do anything because Krishna would empower them. Other teachers were sex abusers who were attracted to the gurukula, which gave them unregulated access and absolute power over their innocent prey. The movement was known for its open-door policy--spiritually elevating misfits, drug addicts, dropouts and those running away from their former lives. "The public thought Hare Krishnas were these cuddly little people in pajamas who dance in the streets," says Muster, who helped popularize that perception. "But there were many who used Krishna as a cover for their crimes."

Although children seldom received medical attention, Rittenour recalls being blindfolded and taken to the "medicine room" in the temple, where someone--she was told a doctor--applied an ointment to her vagina. "Sometimes it hurt. Sometimes it felt good. I wanted it to feel good." Of course, afterward she felt bad. Any kind of touching or hugging, getting too friendly with another child, was considered subtle sex. When she grew lonely for her parents she was told that loving them was sentimental nonsense. In the spiritual world there were only souls and no parents. She must shun attachments, think of nothing but Krishna, serve only Krishna. For her two years in the gurukula, she never saw her parents, never heard from them.

In 1976, Prabhupada decided to close the Dallas gurukula and build a new one in India. Bad media publicity about the gurukula had state health inspectors and social workers ready to shutter the school. "I got a very strongly worded letter from Prabhupada, who made it clear that even if we made the school nicer, the government was going to shut us down," says Jeff Hickey. "He believed India would support the kind of austerity children needed so they could turn into strong, spiritually motivated people."

When her parents came to pick her up, Rittenour didn't even recognize them. Her mother reached down to give her a hug, and Rittenour fell apart. She started screaming and crying; she didn't want to be touched, convinced it wouldn't please Krishna and she would go to hell. Nothing could comfort her as they drove away from the temple. She was on the outside now and deathly afraid that someone--her mother, her father--was going to eat her.


Although there are those devotees who suspect Prabhupada was poisoned by his closest disciples, at 82, he was also a sick man suffering from diabetes. Partly because he was vague about who would succeed him, his death in 1977 created a controversy that still smolders. In 1970, he set up a "governing board commission" to function as the managerial arm of the movement. Most of its members consisted of men who had risen to the spiritual level of sannyasi, ostensibly dedicating their lives to celibacy and preaching. In the days before he "left his body," he gave nine of these men the authority to initiate new devotees, the traditional province of the guru. The following day, one of the more powerful sannyasi, Tamal Krishna, announced that Prabhupada had appointed him and his 10 godbrothers as successor gurus.

"He said, 'All 11 of us are equal to the body of Prabhupada,'" says Nori Muster. "There were challenges to it, and some devotees left the movement, but most just sheepishly accepted the takeover. It was quite a coup."

These successor gurus were not wise Indian elders who had begun their spiritual journey after living a full life. Most were former hippies now in their late 20s who had either left their wives to follow Prabhupada or never married. But when they saw power, they grabbed it, dividing the world into 11 zones, huge fiefdoms where they could be worshiped like gods.

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