“We’ll find a wet-nurse for it. We’ll put it in a basket and keep it in the attic.”
Padyavali followed me into the kitchen, and before I could stop myself, I turned and said, “No. No one is going to be my baby’s wet-nurse. I am not giving up my baby.” Padyavali reached up and slapped me, hard, on the face. I heard the clap of her palm against my cheek, but somehow, I did not feel the sting. I was stunned, but what was most surprising to me was that I said ‘no.’ I had never said ‘no’ to her before.
Padyavali was older; she did not have children, nor had she ever been married. She was our headmistress, the overseer of the women and girls of the Seattle Hare Krishna temple. Rocan, our temple president, had hired her as his right hand ‘man’ so he wouldn’t have too much direct contact with us. Women, according to the Hare Krishna philosophy, were the downfall of men. We were full of lust, and our brains were half the size of a man’s. We were simple minded, and if supplied with enough children, jewelry and saris, we would be satisfied. It was unusual for a Hare Krishna woman to have any position of authority, but Padyavali was not woman-like; there was not an ounce of femininity about her. She was short and skinny, and her movements were jerky and rigid. She was pinched and tight-lipped, her forehead lined with deep furrows, a permanent scowl chiseled into the middle of her dark eyebrows. Her wide, black eyes darted behind thick-lensed glasses that constantly slipped down her hooked nose. Despite her size, she was powerful and foreboding, and we all feared her. Padyavali hovered around Rocan constantly, her white-widow’s sari engulfing her small body, her arm hooked up like a princess to prevent the folds from falling. I suspected she had a secret crush on Rocan, that she was jealous of me and the other women because we were young and pretty, but I chalked this up to my own sinful thinking and wiped it away. I had learned to be good at that — ignoring any doubt that entered my mind. I remember the way Rocan looked at us, though, tilting his head back slightly, fluttering his eyelids and rolling his eyeballs in their sockets as if he was experiencing some sort of ecstasy, oddly flicking his tongue around in his mouth while he led chanting sessions and preached inaudible sermons.
After my pilgrimage to India, when it was deemed I needed special attention and guidance because of my lack of surrender, because I could no longer meet my daily quota of collecting $250, I was informed that it was time for me to be married. My future husband, Hrsikesa, had flown to the Seattle temple from New York seeking a wife, and we were betrothed. “Please,” I begged, “Please don’t make me marry him.” I sat on the floor, cross-legged, my head bowed in a gesture of humility, while Padyavali and Rocan sat on satin pillows on the other side of the room, stone-faced and cold: “You need your own personal guru.” I was usually good at forcing myself to be submissive and quieting my mind, but I was concerned about marrying this man, and submitting to the idea was difficult. Hrsikesa was a stranger to me, a man with a thick Brooklyn accent and anxious, tense expressions. Even though he had a handsome face, with soft blue eyes, and he appeared strong-bodied and healthy, something about him made me uncomfortable. We were discouraged from knowing each other, from becoming attached to each other, from even liking each other. During our betrothal, we were allowed to interact for one hour each day, and then only to read scriptures together in the temple room. I didn’t want to get married, but I was not given a choice, or at least I believed I had no choice. If I didn’t follow the plan, I would be forced to leave the temple. For me this was terrifying because it equated to going to hell and being damned for life. “We know what is best for you,” Padyavali said, and she forced me, fully clothed, into a cold shower and berated me until I agreed to surrender. I had witnessed one of the other women refuse an arranged marriage, and she was shoved down a flight of ceramic-tiled stairs, out the door, and into the street. I pushed away my thoughts, my feelings, and my unhappiness about this arrangement. Hrsikesa and I were married less than six months after our betrothal. A few months after we were married, I was pregnant. I was twenty-one years old.
My husband and I stayed in Seattle up until a month after I gave birth to my daughter. For much of the first year of our marriage, I wasn’t permitted to live with Hrsikesa, even while I was pregnant. Padyavali continued to control my daily activities, so I remained in the temple, living with the other single women and working in the kitchen. On the weekends, I looked after the young girls who lived at the boarding school and whose parents did not live close by. We took trips to parks and playgrounds, but I always asked the girls to keep our activities secret. They were not supposed to be having fun, and we would all be punished if anyone found out. One Saturday, we took a trip to the beach on Lake Union. It was an early Spring day, the air crisp and chilly. As soon as the girls were out of the car, they romped and raced toward the water, hooting loudly, stripping off their saris and slips. They jumped into the frigid lake, swimming and splashing until their lips turned blue and their teeth chattered, but they seemed immune to the cold — they were having too much fun. I suspected this Saturday’s adventure would be impossible to keep secret. In her excitement, one of the girls told her mother about the day, who in turn told Padyavali. I was called to the office and severely chastised for having been such a bad influence, for having allowed the girls to be so unchaste as to frolic around in their panties, in public. “But, they need exercise,” I said quietly, trying to defend myself and the girls. Padyavali sneered, clenched her teeth and proclaimed, “They get exercise going from one building to another to attend classes!” I was no longer permitted to care for the children.
I worried, for not only were the children prohibited from being children, but abuse and horrifying punishments were being inflicted on the little girls. These were children. Padyavali and Rocan rationalized and attempted to hide the abuse, but it was impossible to hide it all. One day, I found a little girl in the basement standing before the washing machine, waiting for the wash cycle to complete, her urine-soaked panties pulled onto her head like a hat, sobbing while she chanted the Hare Krishna mantra at the top of her lungs. She was a shy and sweet little girl, with curly reddish hair, her cheeks and nose spotted with tiny, red freckles. She tried so hard to be pleasing, and she seemed always anxious and remorseful. Her mother lived in a temple in another state, so she could not see what was happening to her daughter, and her father did not know where she was. If I tried to help the little girl, she would be punished even more. The most I could do was to gently rub her back and whisper, “It will be okay.” How sad she was! Despite her punishment, she could not stop wetting the bed, so she was locked inside the basement’s dirt-walled root-cellar, behind a heavy, metal door, too heavy to push open, her chanting so loud and desperate you could hear the anguish all the way on the third floor of the building. “She’s a bed-wetter!” Padyavali condemned the little girl, her lips curled in disdain, when I expressed concern.
Another time, I found a little girl locked inside a dark, basement closet as punishment because she could not control her energy. She was impish and giggly, but her sense of humor was considered defiant and disrespectful. She bounced even when she walked, and her laughter was infectious. I heard scratching behind the door, so I quietly unlocked it and snuck in. She was humming to herself, scribbling little cartoon characters on the walls with a crayon she had smuggled in with her, a little mischievous smirk on her face. We whispered and read together for a while, and I only hoped she would not feel alone and frightened. A few of the children’s parents lived near the temple, and they were able to spend time together with their girls on Saturdays, but even they seemed helpless when it came to their own children. A mother asked me one evening to come to her house. Her six-year-old daughter slept in her lap while she stroked her hair. Tears streamed down the mother’s face. She showed me her child’s bruised and swollen lips. “Look,” she whispered. “What do I do?” A protective, maternal sense was waking inside of me; what I was seeing was deeply disturbing. I would have a child soon. I could not fathom any child being treated so badly.
During my seven-year marriage, Hrsikesa and I had three children – two girls and a boy. The Hare Krishna standard was for parents to send their children away to boarding schools when they reached the age of five, and it was encouraged to limit contact with them. It was not unusual for parents to only see their children a few weeks out of the year. Children were considered material attachments, we were told, and material attachments were impediments to spiritual advancement. We were expected to procreate, but we were also expected to hand our children over to others to raise. We were discouraged from loving our children and our spouses; we were told that love was a perverted sense of lust and kept us stuck in the material world, impeding our spiritual advancement. As my oldest daughter was nearing the age of five, pressure was mounting to send her away to school. I had seen too much abuse, and I was not going to allow this to happen to my children. Even if Hrsikesa tried to force it, I would not send my daughter to a Hare Krishna school.
This, in my Hare Krishna life, was the second time I said ‘no.’ I was not going to give my child to someone else to raise. I was not going to send her to a boarding school, away from me, where I would not be able to protect her. With a great fear of the unknown, I snuck away with my children, finding refuge in New York with my mother and father-in-law, who were kind and offered protection for us. After leaving, I received countless threats, and I spent many sleepless nights, staying awake to protect my children from their father, worrying that he would sneak into the house, kidnap them, and drive with them across the border to Canada. I feared if I fell asleep, I would never see my children again. My fear was not unfounded. There were cases like this: Hare Krishna members kidnapping children and hiding them from estranged spouses, taking them to other countries where they would be impossible to find. There were cases of young runaway teenagers hidden from their parents by the Hare Krishna movement, and even a case of a father who committed suicide because he could not find the daughter who was taken from him. I can imagine nothing worse than having my children taken from me.
Prior to being recruited into the Hare Krishna movement, I did not see myself as a mother. I was fairly certain I did not want to have a family. But, my indoctrination into the group was complete and overwhelming. I lost all sense of self, and I surrendered to a group of people who told me they knew what was better for me than I did, even to the point of telling me who to marry. As a Hare Krishna wife, my role was to be submissive and follow my husband, to serve him and to bear children, and I did just that. Ultimately, my children saved me. These three people are the greatest gifts of my life. Even if it were possible, I would not turn back time and eradicate the Hare Krishna experience despite the incredible pain and abuse I endured over nine years because it would mean I would not have these three wonderful people in my life. My children saved me, they gave me purpose, they protected me, and they helped me to grow up.