Longform

Tortured Souls

Page 4 of 9

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.

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Mark Donald
Contact: Mark Donald