Tortured Souls

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

No way she would tell her mother what happened; she was far away, a material illusion. Her father was pujari and might as well have been with Krishna. She only saw him in the temple room, but she never caught his eye. If a sannyasi stared at her even for a second, he would spit, cleansing himself of the impurity. Somehow being a cute little 6-year-old was enough to tempt men into damnation. "I knew I was a prostitute. I knew I was going to hell. I knew I would be reborn as a tree."

For five years, Tiller remained in the Dallas gurukula, until the first allegations of sex abuse surfaced. A teacher in the boys' ashram, Fred Clark, known as Gostabhihari, had sexually brutalized the children under his care. In 1984, two brothers who now live in Mesquite filed criminal charges against Clark. He is currently serving 30 years in the state penitentiary.

Tiller's father knew it was time to leave the movement, but was afraid. It was drilled into his head that the outside world was demonic and would destroy his spiritual life. But why would this religion of love and devotion teach him to be hard and cold? It railed against materialism but shunned many who refused to turn over their possessions. It railed against sexuality but stood silent when its children were being molested. After three years of soul-searching, he finally decided. "I turned to my wife and said, 'This can't be spiritual. This can't be God,' and we split."

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.


David Briscoe was not alone. With each new guru scandal or governing board edict that seemed particularly hypocritical or absurd, such as a religious ban on chocolate, devotees left the temples in droves. "At its peak in the mid-'80s, there were 5,000 devotees living in the U.S. temples," Nori Muster says. "At least 90 percent of the original members left the movement." Some didn't go too far, remaining on its fringes, maintaining a safe enough distance to be critical of its power structure but still worship in its temples. Others divorced themselves from every vestige of Hare Krishna and entered the karmi world with a vengeance.

Tiller's family moved to Temple, where her father found work as a draftsman. They became closet worshipers--literally--setting up small statues of the deities in a walk-in closet in their apartment. Now 12, Tiller was ignorant about the outside world and immediately ostracized by her classmates in public school. "I decided I had been misled my whole life, and I really, really wanted to be a karmi. I wanted everyone to like me. I wanted to fit in."

Her first attempt at a hamburger went badly. She threw it up, unable to get the mental image of slaughterhouses out of her head. She began drinking and dating, running around with a fast crowd. One drunken evening, she says, two boys raped her; the next day her underwear was hanging from a locker at school.

After a halfhearted attempt at suicide, she convinced her parents to let her move to Belton and live with the family of a friend. They owned horses and she loved to ride, but every night she would have terrible nightmares. Her friend's father, who insisted she call him Daddy, would come into her bedroom with hot cocoa laced with a shot of Jack Daniel's. He would fondle her, she says, but she didn't care, blaming herself for tempting him.

"It just hit me that I didn't fit in anywhere," she recalls. "I didn't want to be in this body. I just wanted to die."

Instead, she moved with her parents to Irving, where she stayed high on pot and developed a penchant for throwing herself out of moving cars. She hated her father because he would sneak off to the temple, hated her mother because she would let him.

At 13, she met the boy she would marry when she turned 17. He was older and jealous, the first person she ever told about the abuse she endured at the gurukula. He insisted she tell her parents, who brushed it aside, seeing it as just another attempt to grab attention. Tiller was pregnant by 16, but her marriage didn't last. At 23, she found herself divorced with two children.

"It's uncanny," Tiller says. "Most of the gurukula girls ended up being teen-age or unwed mothers. Many of us are divorced from older men."

Bridgette Rittenour is the mother of six, twice divorced, the first time from a devotee 23 years her senior. Her mother arranged the marriage when she was 14, just like she arranged everything else. After her parents picked up Rittenour from the Dallas gurukula in 1976, they brought her to Los Angeles, but she never attended its temple's gurukula. "My parents had become upset with the politics of ISKCON, but they were still believers, and they didn't want me in school anywhere."

Her mother would leave her home alone with no TV or radio, just her fears that the world was coming to an end. "We had been taught that we were at the end of the age of Kali Yugaand Krishna would soon be coming to set fire to everything, riding his horse, swinging his sword and whacking everyone's heads off," Rittenour says. "I was too terrified to play because Krishna might come at any second and be upset with me."

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