In search of a lost childhood

Shanthi Shankarkumar
29 June 2000

Brigitte Rittenour's mother dropped her off at a Dallas gurukul (as the Hare Krishna boarding schools were called) when she was five. It was the beginning of a nightmare, which would haunt and scar her for the rest of her life.

She and the other children were periodically lined up and beaten with a stick. One teacher would beat them with a fly swatter while another would pick her off the floor by the ear and throw her against the wall. She was asked to take a bath using cow manure and on occasions forced to drink cow urine.

The children were locked up in closets and if any of them spilt their milk, they were forced to lick it off the floor. When she once threw up her food, a particularly nasty teacher tried to get her to eat her vomit. But the worst was yet to come.

She was constantly sexually abused, but didn't know what was being done to her. "I was sexually abused at least 10-15 times in the Dallas school. Every time I was told that I was going to see the doctor, which didn't make sense because when we were sick we were not allowed to see the doctor. I would be blindfolded and then it was all so very painful," says Rittenour, now 31.

She is one of the 44 plaintiffs who have filed a $400 million lawsuit against ISKCON, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. The former students of Hare Krishna boarding schools allege years of sexual, physical and emotional abuse at the hands of teachers at boarding schools in the United States and India.

The plaintiffs' attorney, Windle Turley, called the abuse "the most unthinkable abuse and maltreatment of little children we have seen. It includes rape, sexual abuse and maltreatment of little children as young as three years of age."

Turley said the abuse started in 1972 with ISKCON's first school in Dallas, and continued in six schools in the US and two in India.

Rittenour has never really recovered from her traumatic childhood. She attempted suicide when she 12, and then as a 14-year-old was given in an "arranged marriage" by her mother to a 37-year-old ISKCON member. By the time she was 18 she was divorced with two children.

"I knew nothing about living in the world. I did not know how to function socially, I had all kinds of fears about things," says Rittenour. What followed were a series of disastrous relationships, and a second marriage. She is now going through a divorce again after 13 years of marriage and four kids. She now has six children to look after, has no money and with no education to fall back on has run through a gamut of jobs.

"I still have trouble taking decisions. I have suffered from depression, and I've gone through counselling when my marriage was in trouble, but my therapist did not believe me when I told him all what had happened to me as a child," says Rittenour.

The lawsuit is really her way of finding some kind of redemption in a situation that really offers none.

"It is not about revenge, that is God's business. But there should be some accountability", says Rittenour. Her parents continue to be members of ISKCON and blame her horrible childhood on her karma. Her mother, in fact, has gone to the extent of warning her that the lawsuit could be so blasphemous that "she would have her tongue cut off".

Rittenour's is not a lone voice in this crisis threatening to tear apart an organization that allegedly preaches "God or Krishna consciousness".

Nirmal Hickey, 30, of Miami, Florida, is a quadriplegic, bound to his wheelchair. Tying him down tighter are fears born from a childhood that robbed him of his innocence. He remembers the horrors of the boarding school in Dallas -- getting up at 4 am to take cold showers, chanting Sanskrit prayers, sleeping on concrete floors, being constantly belittled and told scary stories about ghosts, spirits and an outside world filled with karmis who had to be avoided.

"I escaped being sexually abused because of my father's position in the ISKCON hierarchy, but boys had to give blow jobs every day," he said.

His father was the head of ISKCON's division on education.

When he was 16, Hickey fell off a tree on a Hare Krishna farm and broke his spinal cord. But the adults on the farm refused to call for an ambulance and instead piled him into a station wagon and drove him to a hospital 26 miles away. To this day Hickey is unable to understand the basis for their behaviour.

"The adults did not want negative publicity once they realized there was a possibility of me being paralyzed. It just doesn't make sense," he says.

Hickey blames his parents for abandoning him, and, most of all, the founder of the Hare Krishna movement, A C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, for harbouring criminals and refusing to take action against the perpetrators of abuse even when it was brought to his notice.

"The leadership is made up of criminals and even though people knew for years that all this was happening, they had a vested interest in making sure nothing really came out of all the complaints," says Hickey.

It was the height of the swinging Sixties when the Indian guru, Prabhupada, brought his form of Krishna-centred Hinduism to the United States. It was an age of spiritual emptiness for a generation raised on Vietnam and the euphoria of drugs. Soon, thousands of Westerners looking for peace and love were wearing dhotis and saris, living in Hare Krishna temples, chanting the mantra and leading the life decreed by their guru.

George Harrison of the Beatles too took the chant up the pop charts, but there was more to nirvana than just singing "Hare Krishna Hare Rama" and shaving heads.

Prabhupada taught that celibacy was a means to achieve the highest spiritual state and even married couples were not to engage in sex more than once a month. He said children should be sent to boarding schools so that they could learn to be pure devotees. By 1976, there were 11 boarding schools in the United States and quite a few all around the world, including two in India.

The first complaints of abuse began in the 1980s. The movement had survived scandals involving drug and weapons charges against some leaders, but this one charge would return again and again to haunt it.

Way back in 1996, the movement's leadership was first forced to confront the victims of abuse at a meeting in May 1996, when 10 former Hare Krishna students testified that they had been regularly beaten, denied medical care and sexually molested and raped homosexually at knife-point.

Soon after, an organisation called Children of Krishna was established to provide counselling and to help with the education and support of young people who had been abused.

In 1998 an Office of Child Protection was set up to investigate all past cases of abuse and provide funding for victims of abuse. It compiled the names of 200 people who allegedly inflicted abuse in the 1970s and 1980s. So far, the office claims to have finished investigating 30 cases.

In 1998, in an unusual display of candor, the Hare Krishna movement published the findings of a report written by an independent sociologist, Professor E Burke Rochford Jr, in its official journal. The findings revealed sexual molestation, beatings, public humiliation and isolation in roach-infested closets. Teachers, administrators and monks were among the abusers.

Last year, $750,000 was pledged to bring up the total commitment to the Child Protection Office to a million dollars. But most victims say the money has yet to be raised by ISKCON.

While acknowledging the depth of the problem, Anuttama Dasa, the movement's North American director of communications, insists the malaise is a reflection of what is happening in society today.

"If we look at America at that period, there was widespread abuse. Studies have shown that religious organisations are the most vulnerable to these kind of things for many reasons. For one, there are so many children and, second, relationships tend to be so trusting and abusers specifically infiltrate organisations where they can have access to kids," says Dasa.

He hastily adds that he does not mean to give an impression that ISKCON had no way of stopping the situation. "What I'm saying is that the problem is such a terrible one and that many schools and religious organisations have suffered from the same problem. It is an epidemic of modern society. I have a great fear that abuse is occurring in other places in India today and, terrible as it sounds, I hope this publicity will alert organisations in India too to be extremely cautious.

"Judging by the reaction of people in India, they don't realise that it is happening all over the world," he says.

Something must have gone very wrong indeed with the system if such widespread abuse was prevalent in the 11 boarding schools in the US and the two in India.

Nori Muster, who worked for 10 years as public relations secretary of ISKCON and editor of the organisation's newspaper, wrote a sensational book, Betrayal of Spirit, after she quit ISKCON in 1988. In this book, published in 1997, Muster writes about the almost Mafia-like activities of ISKCON -- from international drug smuggling to arms caches, child abuse and assassinations.

"Some dishonest people made their way up the organisation and when Prabhupada died, they just took it way up further," says Muster. She blames ISKCON's troubles on Prabhupada's attempts to inflict Indian customs and culture on a Western society that was unable to absorb the essence of an alien culture.

Prabhupada introduced arranged marriages between devotees, he advocated celibacy and an almost mediaeval approach to women, whom he considered people of low intelligence who needed to be protected.

"If people believed in the concept of surrendering to the guru, then they could get them to do anything. It was something new for the Westerners not to question all this," says Muster.

After all these years, Muster is still burdened with the guilt of being part of an organisation that was so far from the true teachings of Krishna. "It is unbearable to think that I once belonged to an organisation that did all these terrible things. I've suffered a lot too. Writing the book was healing for me," says Muster.

After years of dealing with one scandal after another, the Hare Krishna movement is now acknowledging that the legacy of abuse and the leadership's failure to grapple with the problems have led to many children and their parents leaving the movement.

"This is the third generation. Prabhupada would say that when the third generation arrives, those will be the pure devotees, but these kids are being raised in poverty and they will never have the opportunities of the baby-boomer generation," says Muster.

The movement now claims an estimated 90,000 followers in the US, of whom only about 800 live full time in the group's 45 American spiritual communities or ashrams. At the movement's peak in the US in the late 1970s, about 10,000 devotees lived in American ashrams, but most now live and work outside the temples.

Hare Krishnas left the movement en masse during the 1980s, when many devotees sensed a growing gap between the movement's values and the gurus' behaviour. In one case in the 1980s, a guru named Swami Bhaktipada was accused of ordering the murders of two members. In a plea bargain in 1996, he pleaded guilty to racketeering.

In recent years, the Hare Krishna movement has seen its biggest growth in Eastern Europe and India, where it was once regarded with contempt by native Hindus. Internationally, there are an estimated one million adherents to the Hare Krishna movement.

Another significant shift is that where once the movement in the United States consisted almost entirely of Anglo converts to Hinduism, about half of the devotees worshipping at Krishna temples are recent immigrants from India and Asia.

According to sociologist Rochford, who has studied the movement and written articles on the widespread abuse, much of the harm occurred because the movement that prized celibacy did not value children. "Marriage and family life came to represent a sign of spiritual weakness," Rochford wrote in the article commissioned by an official ISKCON publication.

Most parents, he wrote, "accepted theological and other justifications offered by the leadership for remaining uninvolved in the lives of their children". Few students recall telling their parents about the abuse. Letters were censored and family visits rare.

There have been several lawsuits arising from child abuse cases at Hare Krishna schools in Alachua and in New Vrindaban, West Virginia, but they do not approach the number or scope of such cases brought against the Roman Catholic church, which recently paid $30 million to settle a case of sexual abuse by a clergyman against several boys in Dallas.

"There has been a surprising lack of suits up until now, for reasons I don't fully understand," said Rochford.

The movement also drew very young devotees, many in their late teens and early 20s. Most of them were hippies, drug addicts and sexual felons. Those who were not successful proselytizing and collecting contributions on the street were put to work in the movement's boarding schools. There was no screening of teacher candidates, no training, little financial support, high turnover and often as many as 20 students per teacher, the article reported.

Rochford adds, "The mentality of the time was that distributing the guru's books and engaging oneself in missionary activity was the most important service one could be involved in. People's status within the movement was very much based on their ability to be effective in those tasks. Sexuality and family were something for those that were spiritually weak."

Celibacy was the ideal, the article said. Gurukuls were started for the children to immerse students in spiritual life. It meant, according to its founder, cutting "the ropes of affection" between parent and child.

Finally, the question which probably only Lord Krishna can answer: Is this the beginning of the end of the Hare Krishna movement?

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