By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
At age 8 she can remember becoming despondent, sitting in a closet, crying for hours, nearly suicidal. Although she was illiterate, she desperately wanted to learn how to read and write. She begged her parents to send her to school, but they refused. So she decided to teach herself, copying page after page from the Bhagavad Gita (Hare Krishna bible) and slowly reading a Nancy Drew novel on loan from her mother's friend. Her father had a booth at a Los Angeles flea market, and on Sundays after temple, she would go to work with him. He taught her about business and selling, which she was surprisingly good at. The more fed up he grew with ISKCON, the less strict he grew with her. One day, he brought home a radio, which became her window to the outside world.
Her mother had always wanted to live on a Texas ranch, and in 1981 her father found her one outside San Marcos. Despite moving far from any Krishna community, they would still be devotees, still be vegetarians, and Rittenour still couldn't go to school. Her mother claimed that public school would force her to eat meat, but her father bought a TV and let her drink Coca-Cola, and at 12 she decided she no longer wanted to be a devotee.
Rittenour hated her mother, hated the fact that she was always trying to marry her off. At a flea market in San Antonio, Rittenour met a devotee from the Dallas temple who showed some interest in her. Her mother invited him over for dinner and told her daughter that he would make a good husband. He was 37. Under a tree on their property, they had a marriage ceremony, said a few mantras and vows and believed Krishna would recognize it, even if the state of Texas didn't.
At 14, she was now stepmother to an 11-year-old son and pregnant with her first child. Her husband seemed nice enough, taking her to her first movie, her first restaurant, and didn't fight her when she tried to enroll in high school, though no high school would take her pregnant. Because he wanted to live a simple life, they moved to a devotee farm outside Fredericksburg. But she wanted to live in the city, be around karmis, experience life. "My husband bored the hell out of me, and we started having marital problems." They separated, and she started drinking, sleeping around and ending up in one abusive situation after another.
Within 10 months of leaving her first husband, she married her second, a flight instructor who was going into the Air Force. "I thought this is going to be normal, but I had no idea how to have a real relationship. I had this crazy TV fantasy in my head about a big family, and I decided I would just be Mom." She quit drinking, but he didn't, berating her when he was drunk. The marriage lasted eight years, but it was over long before then.
Rittenour had always wondered about the other Krishna kids who had gone to gurukula. Had they survived? Were they alive, as messed up as her? After she moved to Brownwood, she bought a computer and went online, searching for anything to do with Hare Krishna. She came across a Web site called VOICE (Violations of ISKCON Children Exposed), which had postings from gurukula kids describing the abuse they suffered while in Dallas--the meals, the beatings, the torment.
"I became so emotional," she recalls. "For the first time in my life, I realized I was not alone."
VOICE, which was co-edited by Dillon Hickey, wasn't the first attempt to expose the abuse suffered by Krishna kids or to attempt to get ISKCON leaders to do something about it. Children who dared report the abuse to temple leaders or trusted teachers were chastised for being critical, or told it was just their karma. As they grew older, some began sharing their experiences with their parents--those who still had relationships with their parents. Several devotees wrote graphic letters to Minister of Education Jagadish (Jeff Hickey) relating their children's experiences. On at least one occasion, he reassigned the perpetrator to another temple where he was free to abuse again. The governing board did pass a resolution in 1988 authorizing a former gurukula student, Raghunatha, to interview other students about their schooling. The survey, however, was suppressed, perhaps because its responses were so damning. Raghunatha, who was himself severely abused, eventually published these results in his own newsletter, ISKCON Youth Veterans, much to the dismay of the governing board.
In 1990, Raghunatha also published Children of the Ashram: Breaking the Silence of ISKCON, perhaps the first public accounting of the pervasive mistreatment he and other children endured in Dallas and Indian gurukulas. "I made certain the [governing board] was hand-delivered a copy of the story in 1992," he says. "My response was from Tamal Krishna, who told me I had to stop. I told him if we were serious about taking over the world, we would have to stand up to a bit of scrutiny."
Raghunatha encouraged his former classmates to speak openly about their abuse, particularly during the annual gurukula alumni reunions he helped organize. But it was only after VOICE went online in 1996 that the governing board began to take notice. During its annual meeting that year, 10 former gurukula kids (now in their late 20s and early 30s) appeared before the board and spent much of the next two days telling their harrowing stories. Many sannyasi were moved to tears, bowing to the victims with apologies. The board opened its wallet, agreeing to fund the Children of Krishna Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping the survivors financially.