Longform

Tortured Souls

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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."

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Mark Donald
Contact: Mark Donald