Tortured Souls

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

A guru's control over the life of his devotee was absolute. To criticize him was blasphemy, the worst of the 10 offenses recited each day during the morning ceremony. A guru's instructions were deemed "perfect" not only in matters of the spirit but in material matters as well. He would tell you whom to marry, when to have children, what kind of work to pursue. The guru was your direct channel to God; please him, and you please Krishna. Raise money for him, and you raise money for Krishna. "If your guru asked you to steal or scam or sell drugs, it wasn't wrong," Muster says. "Just as long as it's done in the name of Krishna."

Certainly there were gurus with integrity, highly intelligent and spiritually evolved. Others have been implicated in murder plots, drug running, prostitution rings, racketeering scams or child sex abuse. Among these, one is serving a 30-year sentence in federal prison, and a devotee beheaded another.

After the successor gurus took power, chauvinistic attitudes hardened and women were relegated to the back of the temple. They were instructed to lower their gaze, keep their heads down, remain chaste. In the movement's earliest days, Prabhupada taught that men and women were equal souls. He allowed both to pray side by side in the temple, initiated both, even made women priests. On the other hand, he said women were less intelligent than men, their brain size only half the size of a man's. They were also "nine times lustier," which is why, as a preventive measure, a man should refer to any woman not his wife as his mother. Early on, he arranged marriages, but he stopped after becoming fed up with the marital problems of his devotees. The movement began to view marriage and children as a spiritual weakness, a temptation of the material world. Women were instructed to submit to their husbands, and some leaders even advocated wife beating to maintain control.

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.

"The whole repression of women is very related to the child abuse," says psychologist Maria Ekstrand, who is co-editing an academic book titled Hare Krishna: The Post Charismatic Phase of a Religious Transplant. "Only when women feel disempowered do they lose their maternal instincts and agree to send their children away."

Ananda Tiller's mother, Doris Briscoe, had no intention of abandoning her children to the movement. That's why she and her husband, David, joined the Dallas temple where Ananda and her brother could receive the benefits of a spiritual education. There would be no karmi schools for her babies, no "slaughterhouses of the mind," as Prabhupada called them.

David says he was always a religious man, searching for "a form of God to visualize and suddenly finding it in Krishna." At the Dallas temple he became head pujari, high priest, and as long as he and his wife could care for the deities together, he was content. For him, the movement had powerful practices, offering him a way to experience God. But from the day he joined the temple in 1975, "money was its biggest priority," he says. "You could smell the push for money in the air."

Things got worse for them by 1979 after Tamal Krishna became zonal guru over Dallas, his reputation for being a strict fundamentalist preceding him. Doris was instructed to do sankirtan, leaving the temple and her family to work the "women's parties" at the airports. But doing sankirtan wasn't just a matter of selling books anymore. It meant getting donations by any means possible. "It didn't matter how we did it," Doris recalls. "Dressing in street clothes, telling people they were raising money for kids with cancer, cheating them on their change." Prostitution, however, was where Doris drew the line.

With her mother gone, Ananda Tiller, who was only 4, was placed in the new Dallas gurukula. "It was very hush-hush," her father says. "The leaders didn't want the state authorities knowing they were running a school." Some of the living conditions had improved. There were far fewer children, and they lived in the temple's ashrams (dormitories), not its basement. They slept in sleeping bags, not blankets. But the oatmeal was still watery, the showers still cold, and the cockroaches still abundant. There was no toilet paper (use your left hand); there were no toothbrushes (use your right hand).

Tiller was a tomboy, rebellious and always getting into trouble. She wanted to hang out with her big brother, and remembers being drawn to the boys' ashram one night when she heard him screaming while being molested by his teacher. Most of the sexual abuse in the girls' ashram, she says, was done by the older girls on the younger. "It was mostly sexual play," she says. "I felt bad about it, but it was something I wanted--the only way I had to feel close to another human being."

Her guilt was compounded when a devotee in the temple's candle factory sodomized her. He said he would teach her how to make candles. She knew it was wrong; all play was forbidden as maya, but she would play with the wax, play with the man who played with her. He named the game "gingin"; he had no name for the time he placed his penis in her mouth.

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