Tortured Souls

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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."

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Mark Donald
Contact: Mark Donald