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.
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.
How Prabhupada's Hare Krishna movement grabbed hold of the Woodstock generation had as much to do with the Indian guru's charisma as it did the alienation many felt from the materialistic values of their parents. In the mid-'60s, on the streets of New York's Greenwich Village, he offered them a spiritual alternative, a way of looking at life and death that gave both meaning and purpose. It didn't hurt his movement that Prabhupada counted among his enthusiastic fans George Harrison, the Grateful Dead, Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg. While some were attracted to his version of ultimate truth, others were drawn to raw power and unfettered opportunity. The brief history of Hare Krishna is marred by the scandalous actions of murderers, thieves, drug dealers, gunrunners, pimps and pedophiles.
Before his death in 1977, Prabhupada envisioned a movement of monks, a priestly class of Westerners who lived in the temple and raised money by spreading Krishna consciousness to the outside world, often in airports. Although he wrote nearly 100 books offering his theological insight into the imponderable questions of the universe, there is one question he may have dealt with negligently: What to do about the children?
Prabhupada taught that the children of his devotees would be "purified souls," demigods of the sun and rain who were lining up to take birth in the movement. Spiritually evolved, they would take over the world, leading it out of darkness and into a Golden Age. That's assuming they were conceived with the guru's approval after chanting the name of Krishna for six hours and not to pleasure the body, which he degraded as a sack of "pus, blood, stool and urine." Sex was the greatest obstacle to detaching from the material body and freeing the spirit to connect with Krishna. Devotees were warned to beware of the goddess Maya, who uses material weapons such as sex and alcohol to tempt them away from Krishna. Better to live in the temple, protected from the seductions of the physical world. Only there could they fully surrender to Krishna (and their guru), breaking the cycle of birth and death, and ultimately live in Krishna's eternal kingdom as his friend.
None of this made sense to 4-year-old Bridgette Rittenour, whose overbearing mother would drag her to the temple in Toronto for an occasional Sunday feast. Her mom would describe Krishna to her as someone who was "blue and could do anything and loved cows," she recalls. "I remember eating a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches." But nothing prepared her for what happened the day after she turned 5, the age Prabhupada called "the age of accountability," when the laws of karma first apply to children and their spiritual training must begin. That's why Krishna kids from all over the world were sent by their parents to the Dallas temple, which in the early '70s maintained the movement's first and only gurukula.
No parents were forced to send their children, but most succumbed to "strong psychological pressure," says Jeff "Jagadish" Hickey, ISKCON's former minister of education. "Prabhupada told them to do it, and his word was sacrosanct, as good as scripture. To displease your guru would jeopardize your spiritual advancement." Besides, parental attachments were maya, material illusions that would prevent them from doing the work of Krishna, and Prabhupada wanted to free his female devotees to do sankirtan--selling his books to raise money for his temples.
In March 1974, Rittenour boarded a plane with her mother and traveled to Dallas, not knowing her mother would leave her on their arrival. At night, strangers brought her to the cramped basement of the Dallas temple, where she was handed a red blanket, shown a spot on the cold cement floor and told to sleep. "I remember crying and wanting my mom, thinking she was coming back to get me," she says. "Only she never did." More than 50 girls slept side by side, many of them bed wetters who would pay for their crime by being forced to sleep in their own urine.
At 3:30 the next morning, she was abruptly awakened and herded into the shower room with the others. The shower was quick and cold; hot water, even toilet paper, was considered a material comfort. She had no underwear, no shoes, and what belongings she did have were placed in a milk crate. At 4:30, the children were escorted to the temple room for the morning ceremony, where the deities--statues believed to be different manifestations of Krishna--are awakened, dressed, fed, fanned and offered incense and flowers. "The purpose of the service is to see Krishna as a person," says Nori Muster, who worked in ISKCON's public relations office for 10 years and then authored Betrayal of the Spirit, a highly critical book about the movement. "By making these offerings, you are preparing your soul for transcending the material world."
Of course, for 5- and 6-year-olds, all that meditation, chanting and bowing seemed unbearable, particularly since they were ordered not to talk, fidget or slouch during the four-hour program. Only then would they be served breakfast--a cup of hot milk and cold oatmeal slapped on wax paper, to be eaten with the right hand only. Too often a cockroach found its way into the meal. The temple was infested with these "flying dates" since it was against the teachings to exterminate anything. "If milk spilled on the floor, you had to lick it up," Rittenour recalls. There was no such thing as leftovers; what you didn't eat at one meal, you were served at the next, or the next. "One time they forced me to eat some ginger root and I threw up. They made me lick the vomit off the floor."
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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."
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 Yuga and 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."
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.
"Many of us thought the organization was finally going to do something to help these kids," Muster says. "But when they set up the board, one of its directors was an abuser. And it turned out the money could go to any child of Krishna, abused or not."
By 1998, the governing board appeared to be making progress, setting up its own internal Child Protective Office to investigate abuse. Devotees were trained as prosecutors and judges. Tribunals were impaneled to mete out punishment. "If a devotee has abused a child, we will ban them from the temples, prohibit them from being around children, order them to undergo psychological counseling," says Anuttama Dasa, ISKCON's national director of communications. "We have a policy of mandatory cooperation with the authorities to arrest and convict individual perpetrators."
A year later, the office had identified more than 250 abusers and seemed sincere as it began to target many leaders and gurus within the movement. Like many organizations that police themselves, ISKCON was accused of protecting its loftier members and watering down the sentences of those it did punish.
Dillon Hickey and some of the more activist gurukula kids wanted nothing to do with the Child Protective Office, believing it was a sham set up by the governing board as a pre-emptive strike against possible litigation. At a gurukula reunion in 1998, ISKCON social workers approached victims and offered some $2,000 for counseling. "In return for this insulting amount," Muster says, "they were asked to sign hold-harmless agreements waiving their rights to sue ISKCON."
Also in 1998, Burke Rochford, a sociology professor at Middlebury College in Vermont, wrote a scholarly study that placed much of the blame for the gurukula abuse on the movement's spiritual teachings. "Children were abused in part because they were not valued by leaders," Rochford writes, "and even, very often, by their own parents who accepted theological and other justifications offered by the leadership for remaining uninvolved in the lives of their children."
The study created a tidal wave of bad publicity, not only because it became a front-page story in The New York Times, but also because it was commissioned by ISKCON leaders and published in the movement's own ISKCON Communication Journal. As ISKCON's chief spokesman, Anuttama attempted to soften the blow. He issued a press release pointing out that even the Times called ISKCON's "openness" to the problems of child abuse "unusually candid...in contrast with other religious organizations, including the Roman Catholic Church."
Within the temple walls, the study was even more controversial. Devotees argued bitterly among themselves; fistfights broke out. Some believed the findings were long overdue; others blamed reformers like Anuttama for exposing the problem. Many figured it was just a matter of time before they would all be sued.
Dallas attorney Windle Turley had received national fame when a Dallas jury returned a $119 million verdict against the Catholic Church for concealing abuse by one of its priests. During the trial, Turley received a phone call from a former ISKCON leader who asked him to investigate allegations of child abuse in the Hare Krishna movement. But he didn't speak for Dillon Hickey and five other gurukula kids, who later contacted Turley and became his first plaintiffs.
"What happened to the victims in the Catholic Church case was bad, but I had never seen this kind of abuse before," Turley says. "I spent a year investigating this case, talking to these young people. Some of them had become street kids. They have no education, no family support, no understanding of how to survive in the outside world."
In June 2000, Turley filed a lawsuit in Dallas federal court seeking $400 million in damages against ISKCON, its various entities and several dozen individual defendants including many of Hare Krishna's gurus and leaders. Ninety-one plaintiffs would eventually join the lawsuit, which was pleaded as a stinging indictment of the entire Hare Krishna movement. But perhaps its most inflammatory charges were those leveled against its spiritual founder Prabhupada, who was cast as a knowing accomplice, aware of the abuse and unwilling to stop it. This allegation alone has polarized the gurukula survivors, separating them into warring factions--those who have joined the lawsuit and those who oppose it.
Plaintiffs contend that Prabhupada's spiritual contempt for women and children created a breeding ground for abuse. "It's impossible not to assign some responsibility to him," Dillon Hickey says. "Although Prabhupada was not personally abusive, there is lots of evidence that he was very nonchalant about it." That evidence may be supplied partly by Dillon's father, the former education minister and a defendant. "Early on, Jagadish told the guru that the kids were being physically abused," Turley claims. "And Prabhupada tells him, 'What do you want me to do? Go and do the best you can.'"
Despite being the first victim to publicly expose gurukula abuse, Raghunatha refused to join the lawsuit. He wants all abusers and the leaders who concealed them brought to justice, but not at the expense of destroying Prabhupada and his religion. "Prabhupada was like this little old grandpa, and then you had these wicked stepdads, who are now the fathers of the religion," Raghunatha says. "But don't go after grandpa or a religion that offers us an irrefutable spiritual experience. Go after the wicked stepdads."
Of course, if Turley hoped to win, and win big, he had to go after everybody. To accomplish this, he sued all defendants in federal court, claiming they operated as one enterprise and violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). What better way to target ISKCON's 350 temples worldwide, its 60 rural communities and 60 restaurants?
The defendants, however, strenuously objected to this claim. "ISKCON? There is no one ISKCON," says Anuttama, who believes the plaintiffs' allegations are grossly exaggerated. "There is ISKCON of Washington, ISKCON of Detroit, all individually incorporated. Should the residents of Dallas, innocent devotees, risk losing their temple for abuse that occurred 25 years ago?"
To succeed as a RICO action in federal court, the plaintiffs' injuries had to be economic not personal, which is why Judge Sam Lindsay dismissed the lawsuit, ruling ISKCON did not abuse children for profit or benefit financially by depriving the plaintiffs of their rights. Undaunted, Turley filed the case as a personal injury claim in a Dallas district court in October. Same plaintiffs, same defendants, same claim of $400 million in damages.
It was getting dark outside the Dallas temple, but Ananda Tiller and Bridgette Rittenour didn't feel threatened--even after identifying themselves as plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Several devotees claimed they supported their cause, and the two women were told that things were different in ISKCON, more liberal. Women and children were shown more respect; the gurukula was just a day school; only a monastic few lived in the temple while most were householders living peacefully among the karmis. Signs of change at the temple were everywhere, from the male devotee who wore a Rage Against the Machine T-shirt, to the female devotee who hugged a male acquaintance, to the Indian immigrants who now outnumber their American counterparts.
"None of us who are here now were here 15 years ago," says Dallas temple president Vinod Patel, who is Indian. "We are a completely different group of people. We have a child-protection team now. We teach courses in preventing child abuse."
Tiller believes otherwise. Her gurukula teacher, though one of the nicer ones, was the head of the day school. And she saw several former gurukula kids at the Sunday feast, smiling warmly as they recognized her. That's why she felt guilty, her face breaking out in hives. They all seemed like family, and she was suing them, suing their religion. "One part of me was saying, 'Look at them, they're dealing with this,' and the other part was saying, 'No, they're lost. They don't know how to deal with anything.'"
She left in a hurry, going to her car to collect her thoughts. Even if she didn't get a dime from the lawsuit, at least she and Rittenour and the others knew the abuse they suffered was real. It wasn't their karma, their problem, their fault. The lawsuit was just a first step to get control over their lives--a step those other gurukula kids were unwilling or too terrified to take.
Just last month, Rittenour obtained her GED and was planning to start nursing school, finally getting the education she had been begging for her entire life. And Tiller had recently moved to Houston, following her parents, demanding they be a family. She wants her kids to have the things she was denied: fun, a childhood, grandparents. She and her mother talk constantly. She looked her father in the face the other day. And he even hugged her.
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