This Happened

I was drawn in.

My daughter asked me to help her choose a sari for a wedding celebration. In our quest for a store that sold saris, we wound up at a Hare Krishna temple. I haven’t been to a Hare Krishna temple since I left the movement over thirty years ago. My daughter saw that I was visibly shaken.  “I’m okay,” I said, “let’s go,” and we walked inside. My daughter was five when I left the Hare Krishna movement. She doesn’t have a conscious memory of that life.

img_3419The Govinda gift shop and the ladies who worked there were lovely. Their faces were welcoming and effulgent, and they were kind and helpful to my daughter. The shop was filled with saris and cholis and dhotis and kirtas.  Brass dieties. Incense. Dr. Bonner’s soaps. Baby Krishna.

I asked if there were discounts for devotees. I found myself compelled to tell them I was a twice initiated disciple – by Srila Prabhupada – a devotee like them! I had this odd longing to belong again to so much memory.

We heard music in the temple room, so we slipped our shoes off and went inside. A devotee was leading kirtana. Another devotee was placing an offering of food at the feet of a life-size statue of the guru, Srila Prabhupada. I stood with my daughter wrapped in my arms against my chest, remembering ten years of this life. We both wept.

And then I was angry. I remembered the children who were separated from their families and sent to the Gurukula schools, and who were abused and mistreated. There are so many deeply disturbing stories. I remembered the corrupt behavior of the leaders that we all rationalized as acceptable because we believed everything they did was in the service of God. I remembered the tricks we were taught to play on non-devotees to coerce money from them because we were convinced that taking from their pockets for the service of God would only benefit them. I remembered the cruelness inflicted on me and how vulnerable and devastated I was. They will say things are different now. If they are, where is the apology?

Hare Krishna STDs and Modern Medicine

“Not in this country,” the doctor said shaking his head and frowning, his hands planted deep inside his white-coat pockets.  “Chlamydia only exists in third-world countries.  Not in America.”

The doctor looked over the rim of his glasses at me, his forehead creased with puzzlement. He must have thought me odd:  an American girl dressed as if from India, wrapped in a purple and orange sari with intricately woven golden borders, the bridge of my nose painted with a sandalwood-paste lotus petal, my forehead marked with U-shaped lines, red kumkum powder coloring the part in my hair, a red dot between my eyebrows.   I held my newborn daughter, Krishna-Lila, in my arms; Suniti and her brother Kana skipped around us, their rubber sneakers squeaking on the granite tiles as they chased each other.

“My husband lived in India for a while,” I explained. “Is there a chance he could have gotten Chlamydia while he was there?” I looked down at my sleeping, infant child and lightly rubbed my thumb across her eyelids.


We stood in the foyer of Montefiore Hospital in Bronx, New York. My daughter, Suniti, had already been seen by at least a half-dozen specialists, but no one could tell me what was happening to her eyes. Suniti had been suffering from eye ailments since she was an infant, and now she was four years old. Her eyes were not getting better.  Often, it would take up to thirty minutes for her to be able to open her eyes when she woke in the mornings as she adjusted to light and air exposure. Sun and wind caused pain. Much of the time, she squinted and covered her eyes. Now, my infant daughter, Krishna-Lila was scheduled for eye surgery. Her tear-ducts were clogged, and they would have to be probed. She wasn’t producing tears, and her eyes were swollen. She would need anesthesia for the procedure. She was less than one month old. Two daughters with eye problems:  it seemed logical there might have been something common between the two of them. Both had been born in natural conditions with no eye treatments at birth, and I thought it was possible they could have contracted Chlamydia during delivery. My son had been treated with an antibiotic in his eyes as required by the birthing center where he was born, and he had no problems at all with his eyes.

At the time, Montefiore Hospital was one of only two hospitals in the United States doing research on Chlamydia. The other was the University of Washington Hospital where I had gone for prenatal treatment briefly during my first pregnancy, where I had agreed to participate in a study on Chlamydia, and where I had tested positive for the sexually transmitted disease. When the dozen or so interns and researchers had come to visit me in the exam room, they told me the disease causes pneumonia, glaucoma and blindness in third world countries; research was just beginning. No warnings were given when I was forced to change hospitals for insurance reasons, and nothing was said to me about treatment. I honestly did not think anything of it at all and did not know there was any danger. I myself had absolutely no symptoms. How ironic to have contracted a sexually transmitted disease when I was not even allowed to have sex!

The Hare Krishna philosophy was based on four principals:  eat no meat, fish, or eggs; drink no alcohol and take no drugs (including caffeine); do not gamble; and remain celibate except for purposes of procreation within marriage. This meant that even within marriage, sexual intercourse was only permitted if the couple was intending to have a baby, and then only one time per month at the point when the woman was most fertile. The idea of love or physical intimacy in a marriage was frowned upon, and the arranged marriages in the Hare Krishna movement were intended to provide a bit of “licensed sense gratification” for a period, but within limits. During our seven-year arranged marriage, my husband and I had sexual intercourse ten times.  We did not sleep in the same room, nor did we ever hold hands or show any affection toward each other.

Suniti, my oldest, had been less than one month old when I started to worry about her eyes. They teared constantly with yellowish discharge and crusting, and they were always bloodshot. I tried a honey solution and my own breast milk, but the symptoms persisted. There was an unwritten expectation amongst the Hare Krishnas that we should follow alternative forms of treatment rather than trusting modern medicine and procedures. We were encouraged to use naturopathic remedies, so I tried everything I could think of. I even sent a saliva sample to a naturopathic healer who told me that Suniti had herpes in her eyes, and there was no cure; she would likely go blind. I was desperate and terrified. The Hare Krishna philosophy focuses on the concept of karma, and we were taught that sickness was caused by our own sinful activities. I could not help but wonder if my child suffered because of something I had done in this life or in a previous life.

I had just turned twenty-two years old when I gave birth to Suniti. She was born in my Seattle apartment, on the floor, as I lay atop my sleeping bag. I had hired a licensed midwife to help me. When I first met the midwife, she interviewed me, asking about my health and my family history.  She also asked me, again and again, “Are you sure this is what you want?  Are you under the influence of the group you belong to?  Do they say you must have your child at home? Are you sure?” I insisted I was not under anyone’s influence, that I wanted to have a natural, home birth, but I sensed she did not believe me. The truth was that I had been programmed to believe doctors were untrustworthy and modern medicine was a scam. I did not want to have my child in the hospital because I believed the programming. The midwife insisted I have back-up care with an OB/GYN doctor during my pregnancy in the event she deemed it dangerous for me to have a home birth. The only reason I knew about the Chlamydia was because I had back-up care.

Suniti was an overly fussy baby, but I thought she cried because she was hungry or wet or maybe colicky, so I fed her and changed her diaper and bounced her to quiet and soothe her. I never imagined her eyes were causing pain. Despite my distrust of modern medicine, I took Suniti to a pediatrician to see if he could help. The doctor diagnosed her with conjunctivitis and prescribed a topical medication for treatment. As long as I continued to put the medication in Suniti’s eyes, she seemed soothed. Her eyes stopped discharging, and they weren’t as bloodshot. As soon as I stopped the medication, though, the symptoms came back. The pediatrician sent us to a specialist, who said she had ulcers growing on her corneas, but he didn’t know how to stop them from causing damage. He sent us to more specialists for more tests. The doctors put florescent drops and shone lights in Suniti’s eyes, prying her little eyelids open, clenched shut because the light caused her so much pain, and we could see the little spots forming on the corneas right above the pupils. Three little dots on each eye eating away her corneas. No one could say what was happening. This went on for several years.

How many times I had explained that I tested positive for Chlamydia when I was pregnant with Suniti! My explanations and pleas fell on deaf ears until the doctor I met in the foyer of Montefiore Hospital finally agreed that it couldn’t hurt to test, even though he doubted me. Both daughters – and my son – had samples taken of the inner lids of their eyes. My daughters, in fact, did test positive for Chlamydia as I suspected. My son did not have the disease because he had received Erythromycin drops in his eyes, the cure for Chlamydia, when he was born. My entire family was prescribed to take Erythromycin for ten days.  Immediately, the girls’ eyes started getting better. What a joy it was to see Suniti able to open her eyes when she woke in the mornings!  How glorious to watch her swing on a swing-set without squeezing her eyes shut!

When I Stopped Chanting Hare Krishna

Hrsikesa and I were living with the Hare Krishna community in Lake Huntington, New York where a temple and a school had been established.  The property had once been a summer camp and was nestled in a rich, green valley in upstate New York. A small farm was situated on the property with lush vegetable and flower gardens and a couple of cows who roamed freely.  It was a lovely property in the country with dirt roads and summer cabins and rabbit hutches in the neighbors’ yards.  Hrsikesa had saved some money and secured a loan to purchase a mobile home for us, thanks to the help of his father.  The home was installed on a small hill across from the temple building, and we were welcomed as members of the community. The plan was for Hrsikesa to help with temple matters, and he also hoped to start a granola bar business.  I would care for the children and be a good wife.  We were off to a good start, even though our Hare Krishna friends teased us, calling our home “The Yellow Submarine” because, well — it was yellow — but more so because it was considered opulent, despite its simplicity and sparseness. The few other married couples who lived in the community shared space with each other in one of the old camp buildings.  We, on the other hand, had our own private home with a small kitchen, a tiny bathroom, and two bedrooms — one for Hrsikesa and one for me and the children.

Baby Kana

Before moving  to Lake Huntington, we had lived in many different locations, moving from Seattle to Port Royal, PA to Pittsburgh to Puerto Rico to New York to Bellingham, WA and back to Seattle where my second child was born.  We scoped out the famed temple in West Virginia, a temple in Tennessee and other places I don’t even remember.  We had been married for under four years, and we seemed to always be on the move.  Often when we moved, we did not even know where we were going next, and we would land in New York to stay at Hrsikesa’s father’s house until he sorted it out.   Hrsikesa had a hard time staying put and getting along, and eventually, wherever we were, he would come up with a reasonable justification to leave and go somewhere else, finding fault with something or someone, or believing another place would be better. To say the least, it was tiring to persistently go from one place to the next, especially with young children, and much of the time me being pregnant.  My duty as his wife, though, was to follow my husband, to abide to his authority, not to question his decisions, and to willingly, without complaint, go along for the ride.  Even though I was feeling increasingly unnerved with every move, and I was extremely tired, I suppressed my discontent and forced myself to remember that my role was to be submissive and subservient.  If I chanted hard enough, I could make the discontent disappear for awhile.  I was supposed to have blind faith.

We lived in Lake Huntington for almost a year.  Except for our time in Seattle, this was the longest we had lived anywhere during our marriage.  Hrsikesa was working at his granola bar business and attempting to get along with the temple authorities. I kept busy taking care of my little ones and helping in the kitchen when I could.  We had also conceived our third child.  There were a few other women with small children who I became friends with, whose children were not yet old enough to send away to school.  We were expected to do this — to send our children away to a school somewhere geographically far from where we lived so that we would not interfere with their spiritual growth, and they would not interfere with ours.  The school of the Lake Huntington temple was located at the far end of the property, and the only adults who were allowed in the school buildings were the teachers.  From a distance, the children appeared animated and fun-filled, but close up, you could see how skinny they were, how regimented they were, and how sad they seemed.  They looked run-down; they looked beaten.  Sometimes, the children were visited by their parents on weekends, but most parents lived too far away to come very often, if at all.  The pressure was mounting for me to send my oldest daughter away to school, but I had seen the abuse of children in Seattle, and I could see the sadness in the eyes of the children in Lake Huntington.  I never succumbed to the belief that these little people were simply material attachments and were satisfying some need in me to play with dolls for a while.  It was my job to protect them, and I was beginning to suspect that their safety was at stake, and so was mine.

After some months in Lake Huntington, I could see Hrsikesa beginning to itch with dissatisfaction.  The granola bar business idea was not getting off the ground, and the tension was rising.  The temple leaders were becoming more and more displeased with him and he with them, and they all seemed at odds with each other.  We were finally asked to vacate the property.  Hrsikesa told me we would be moving back to the Port Royal, Pennsylvania temple and farm, so I packed up our things and got ready to move again.  By now, I was seven months pregnant.  I was sad, frightened, and I was beginning to genuinely question his ability to be a good husband and father.  I had made a little home for myself and my children, I had made a few friends, and now I was uprooted again and on the road.  I asked one of my friends what I should do, but she only reaffirmed that I should follow my husband, that this is the role of the wife – to be submissive and to serve her husband, and that is how the wife would grow spiritually.  Hrsikesa snarled, “Trust me” when I whined to him a little about moving again, and so I kept quiet and followed. Something had broken in me, though.  It didn’t make sense that I should have to keep dutifully following this man when nothing seemed to work out.

Once we arrived in Port Royal, we learned there was no room on the farm for us, or at least, that is what Hrsikesa told me.  I suspect we were not welcome at this point.  For about a month, we stayed in the attic of a married couple whose house was located just outside the farm property.  I spent most of my time in the attic with my children.  When my children napped, I cried.  When they slept, I cried.  I cried hard, uncontrollably, violently, every single day.  Oh, how I worried that the baby in my womb would be damaged by my distress!  I had no idea where I would give birth to my baby or where we would ultimately wind up.  I wasn’t without a place to stay, but I was homeless.  I tried to comfort myself with chanting, turning my prayer beads between my fingers, but the words would not form in my mouth; I could not chant.  I slowly stopped going to temple services with Hrsikesa, using the excuse that I was too tired, too pregnant, and I was sick.  This was terrifying because I had been programmed for years to believe that if I did not chant for at least two hours every day, if I did not worship Krishna every day and eat holy food and drink holy water, I would be doomed and my spiritual life would be ruined.  I was convinced that I was on my way to hell, and I was taking my children with me.  I had horrifying nightmares about driving stakes into my childrens’ necks and killing them.  My world and belief system had been shattered, and I felt I was falling into a confusing abyss of nothingness.  It is amazing, dumbfounding, in retrospect, to think how deeply programmed I was.

It is difficult to go back so many years and remember the details of these events, and especially challenging to remember how I felt because I had been well programmed not to feel, but this experience has not faded.  I was devastated and felt like I had been kicked one final hard kick in the gut, and I could barely breathe. Here I was, a very faithful and trusting Hare Krishna devotee, following a man who I was told to marry and who was entrusted with my care and with my children’s care, who could not stick to any thing or any place, who had been kicked out of the temple because he could not get along with people, who I had to follow – with my two toddlers and my belly about to burst with my third baby.  It all seemed illogical.  We Hare Krishnas expounded the idea that we were the most compassionate people in the Universe, and here I was — a Hare Krishna devotee — I was one of them, and I was being treated with the most intense lack of compassion I could imagine.    This didn’t make sense to me.  I had bought into the idea that the Hare Krishna community was my new family.  I had been ordered to give up my biological family – my father, my mother, my brothers, my sister, my grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins, my high school friends, my dog – I gave up everyone because I had been convinced that my attachment to them and interactions with them would cause me spiritual harm.  Then, I was abandoned by the family I had adopted and believed in.  This was the ultimate betrayal.

I wish I could tell you I stopped chanting Hare Krishna because one day, I simply woke up and had an epiphany, realizing the tenets of the Hare Krishna philosophy were wrought with twisted and distorted ideals, recognizing that the guru and his appointed leaders were manipulative and abusive.  I want to be able to tell you I stopped chanting Hare Krishna because I was intelligent enough to understand how vile and corrupt the leaders were and how exploited and deceived I was.  But I can’t tell you these things because I was chanting, every day, for hours, and my thinking was entirely clouded.  It wasn’t until I stopped chanting that I started, slowly, to realize how horrible the Hare Krishna movement really was.  To this day, decades later, I am still unraveling the programming.  I admit, I had personally witnessed and experienced things that were despicable and awful, but I managed to push those images and experiences out of my mind as I had been trained to do.  If ever I doubted the guru, the leaders, my husband, the philosophy, or anything I was told, I found fault with myself, believing I was being influenced by evil.  The mental programming was intense, all pervasive, and difficult to overcome, as Anke Holst describes so well in her lecture, Hare Krishna is bad for your health.  For years, I had been rigidly programmed not to think, not to feel, not to doubt, and I had learned to block any misgivings by chanting loudly, maniacally, and for long periods of time.  I was fairly adept at clouding my own thinking.  As much as I would never want to relive the pain of being abandoned by the family I believed in, trusted and entrusted my life to, I am grateful that I was shaken into thinking again.