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.

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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!

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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.

No Kidding. My Children. Not Yours.

“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.

mommy

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.

 

Pilgrimage

We arrived in Delhi, India in the mid-afternoon.  As I stepped out of the plane, a waft of heat blasted my face and whirled into my nostrils, waking my travel-weary senses.  The surrounding horizon was dry, dusty, and shimmering with a reddish-orange radiance as if on fire.  I am certain I heard the trill of melodic, ancient mantras resonating from somewhere in the far distance. Dark, leather-skinned, black-eyed men grappled and fought each other to help us with our bags, chattering loudly in Hindi, studying us curiously — these white people dressed as if they belonged in India.  We wore our best saris and sandals, and we marked our foreheads with sandalwood-paste tilaka as is worn by Vaisnavites.  We wore strands of beads made from the sacred Tulasi plant looped around our necks, and we carried our japa mala, sandalwood prayer beads, in little cotton sacks marked with Sanskrit letters.  We looked like we could be Hindus, save the color of our skin.  We weren’t tourists, but we definitely were not from India either.

Laurie Schaffler, 2015
Laurie Schaffler, 2015

We followed our leaders down the stairs, across the tarmac and into the terminal like little goslings.  We had been chosen for this trip as a reward, a respite from the hard work we were doing in America —  distributing books and soliciting donations.  The pilgrimage was part of our spiritual journey, to expose us to the temples of India, to witness the culture, to visit the places of Krishna’s pastimes.  The idea was for the excursion to help us gain a clearer understanding of what we ourselves were trying to emulate, to give us a better view of why it was important that we spread the word and help purify the rest of the population.  As Bhakti Yogis, it was our role, our duty, to be of service to God and spread the Hare Krishna movement.

We were the young women of the Seattle temple, the girls who scurried back and forth across the linoleum floor of SeaTac airport to distribute literature and collect money.   Six days a week following our morning rituals of chanting, worship, and scripture class, we dressed ourselves in civilian clothes, grabbed a quick breakfast, and piled into the Winnebago camper to hurry south.  By 6 a.m., we were ready to welcome the first incoming passengers:  Alaska pipeline workers coming home for a break and G.I.s traveling to and from tours of duty, all with pockets filled with cash, flattered by the attention of a pretty, flirtatious girl.  We waited as the wave of passengers approached, picking the most likely givers out of the crowd, and we swooped in to pin flowers on their collars before they could protest.  We handed the travelers a book, saying, “We’re with ISKCON,” pointing to our badges, then told a story about feeding starving children and printing books in thirteen different languages. “You know, the International Society for Kri——— Consciousness,” I would say if they looked quizzical, being sure to blur over the word ‘Krishna’ and hoping it sounded more like ‘Christian.’  We had been taught tricks.  We would ask for large bills, explaining that it was unsafe for us to carry so many small bills in our satchels.  Most often this worked.  With a little coaxing, the traveler would hand over a twenty, a fifty, or even a hundred dollar bill, and we would give change slowly, stopping every few dollars.  With a tilt of the head and a little smile, we would say, “You can leave it at that, right?”  Each of us was assigned a minimum amount of money we were expected to bring home every day, and we took this seriously.  Lately, I hadn’t been meeting my quota.  I was tired.  People were starting to catch on.  They knew who we were despite our disguises and pretenses, and it was exhausting to be pushed out of the way and called a fraud.  For me, the leaders hoped the trip to India would cure what they perceived as my lack of surrender.  If this didn’t work, I would be matched with a husband.

In Delhi, we spent a few days shopping for saris, raw-silk fabrics, jewels for the deities, and temple paraphernalia.  We rode around the city in a rickshaw, well-fed Americans pulled by a thin, barefoot man.  The city buzzed with taxis and bicycles and rickshaws crisscrossing and running into each other, horns honking, bells ringing, and shouting people everywhere.  Vendors whistled and called to us, luring us into their alcoves, jingling bangles and ankle bracelets, snapping open colorful saris and silks, offering sodas with ice.  A snake charmer played his punji, coaxing a cobra out of its basket.  A smiling woman offered areca nuts wrapped in betel leaves, her lips and teeth stained a deep red from chewing the nuts.  Just on the outskirts of the marketplace, cows roamed freely, and women followed them, collecting piles of warm dung, forming them into large patties to dry in the sun, later to be used as fuel for stoves.  Holy men clad in loincloths, their bodies painted with ash and oil, dreadlocks piled high on their heads and beards dyed yellow with turmeric, sat crossed legged on the stoops of temples, watching us pass by with deep, knowing eyes.  The atmosphere was dizzying.  The food was spicy and pungent, even for my sense of taste which I thought had acclimated to Indian food and spices over the past couple of years.  Though we were careful about the water, we didn’t think about the ice, and I developed a mild case of dysentery.  For several days, my diet consisted of white rice, Coca-Cola, and buffalo-milk yogurt that smelled of the dry, grassy field.

We ventured by train to Vrndavana, the holy land and place of pilgrimage where millions of Hindus visit yearly.  Vrndavana is the town where the Krishna stories are based, where it is said that Krishna grew up and played with his cowherd boyfriends and girlfriends, where he danced on the head of the great serpent, Kaliya, subduing him and saving the villagers from the deadly poison.  We stayed at the Hare Krishna temple that had been built there, one of many of hundreds of temples, but it was a temple revered by local townspeople.  It was grand and opulent and clean, having been built and maintained with American and European money.  It had become a tourist attraction, and parts of the temple were off limits even to us.  The air in Vrndavana felt magically ancient; it was hot and filled with the smells of incense and cooking fires and spices.  Peacocks fanned their iridescent blue and green tail feathers, whirring and singing to the peahens, their calls like the meowings of cats. Hundreds of little monkeys clambered up and down the roots of banyan trees and ran at us, grabbing at our belongings, hoping to snatch something from our hands.  Beggars squatted on the roadside with tin cups held out, pleading.  During the night, sentries sounded from rooftop to rooftop, signaling to each other that all was well.  In Vrndavana, we were treated as Vaisnavites, as authentic devotees of Krishna, and we were permitted to enter places that were normally restricted from ordinary tourists.

We walked up the hundreds of steps to visit the temple of Radharani, Krishna’s favorite girlfriend.  As we climbed, we stopped at dozens of tiny temples dug into the side walls along the stairway.  These temples had dirt floors, cleanly swept, and were dark, lit only with candles, their altars displaying brass and marble deities of Radha and Krishna colorfully dressed and bejeweled.  The priests offered us morsels of prasadam, food that had been offered to the deities, in exchange for donations.  We visited the Radha Kunda, Radharani’s bathing pond, and touched the water, placing our wet fingers to our foreheads.  It is considered to be the supreme of all holy places, containing the most pure and sacred water and is said to contain magical properties to heal.  While there, we were accosted and circled by village children who were bartering strings of beads made out of mud from the base of the pond.  They pressed the beads into our hands, signaling for something in return, pointing at our bracelets and hair clips.  These children were happy to receive anything we might have in our possession.  I gave a button with a picture of our guru, a bobby-pin from my hair, the rubber band that held my braid together.  One of the women I was traveling with became indignant when she realized she was expected to give something in return for her gift, and she chastised the child, raising her voice and pointing her finger, “I’m not giving you anything.  You gave this to me!”  The child tried to pull the strand out of her hand, breaking the string and scattering beads everywhere.  Within seconds, the adult villagers circled around us, pulling the waif-like children toward them, scolding us in Hindi.  How ironic!  This was the exact tactic we used at the airport at home.

It took a while to readjust after arriving back in Seattle from our pilgrimage to India.  We were given a couple of days to get used to the time difference and recover from jet lag, but soon, we were expected to get back to our airport duties and fulfill our quotas.  For me, this was impossible.  My trip to India had jogged something in me, something deep and unnerving.  I had a lingering and nagging awareness that, although I wore a sari every day, applied tilaka to my body, chanted the maha mantra, worshipped the Tulasi plant, sang in kirtans and studied Vedic scriptures, something about my practice was ingenuous, distorted, contrived, and forced.  My deep-down sense was that I was brainwashed and imprisoned by a force I didn’t know how to battle.  The life I was living as a Hare Krishna in America was nothing like what I had witnessed in India.   I was a foreigner trying to be something that I was not, stuffing myself into someone else’s culture.  I had been well programmed to push away any negative thinking, though, or any thinking at all, so I did as best I could.  My days at the airport were becoming filled with more and more hours of hiding in bathroom stalls, trying to get my nerve up and force my concentration, but secretly I fantasized that someone would come and save me, deprogram me, and help me to think clearly and on my own.  The temple leaders were becoming dismayed about my quota not being met.  They forced me into cold showers, yelled, accused, and belittled me relentlessly.  They gave me personal lectures about my inability to surrender and told me I was going to hell.  When nothing worked, a marriage was arranged.  But that is another story.

 

 

 

Learning to Build Walls

In the early mornings, I take my dogs for their walk on the Baxter Preserve in North Salem, New York.  We dog owners are permitted to let our dogs run off leash before 9 a.m., before the horses and their riders take precedence over the dogs.  My dogs love romping and running with their friends;  they benefit from socialization and exercise,  and I start my day with an invigorating walk.  These are pensive moments, and even though I often run into fellow walkers, it is a time of reflection and solitude.  I am grateful for this, for the time to slow down and contemplate.

The Preserve, also known as the ‘Racetrack’ because horses used to race there decades ago, is a large expanse of donated land with open fields and endless trails.   It is beautiful in the morning when you can witness, at the same time, the sun rising from the east and the moon setting to the west.  You can walk for miles and miles along the trails, passing by black cherry, cottonwood, maple, apple, walnut and oak trees.  A great pond is in the center of the old racetrack, and nearby is the grandstand where people used to watch the races.  There are ancient rock walls everywhere,  still standing, constructed by former landowners hundreds of years ago, sectioning off squares and rectangles of property.

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I think of Robert Frost’s poem, “Mending Wall” as I pass by and over these ancient rock structures, and I find myself reciting, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”  I imagine the farmers rebuilding their walls each spring, reforming the boundaries between each other, a wall high enough and solid enough to define what each considers his, but not so high that it completely blocks out the other.  It is a wall that protects the neighbors but also leaves them open.  It is a wall that continually needs maintenance because the earth shifts, weather beats down, an animal skitters across, knocking down a boulder or two.  There is something to be learned about constructing such a wall.

Lately, I have been considering the idea of walls and boundaries.  I was talking with a friend once, and she asked, “and how is that working for you?”  I couldn’t answer.   For me, the question was perplexing because most often I don’t know.  It is difficult to judge when something is working for me or not, on any level.  I haven’t known when to say yes and when to say no, and I tend to be more worried about how my actions and choices will affect another.  Now, when I reflect on relationships I have had with friends, bosses, co-workers, boyfriends, and family members, I can see how my inability to understand personal boundaries has negatively impacted these relationships to the point of permanent damage.  I do believe that most of us struggle with boundaries to some extent.  We want to be pleasing; we want to be loved.

For almost a decade of my life – most of my twenties – I was involved in a destructive, religious cult where I was not permitted to have any sense of self.  Destructive cults negate a person’s individuality; members’ personal boundaries are seriously and deliberately stripped away.  Members are programmed to ignore their own wants and needs but instead are told what to do, how to do it and when to do it.  There was no point in asking if something ‘worked for us’ or not.  We – ‘I’ – didn’t matter, and it was considered selfish – even sinful – to consider our own wants or needs.  It takes tremendous work to recognize and repair the trauma brought on by cult involvement; there are layers of damage.  I, personally, have suffered serious consequences because of not understanding the simple concept of personal boundaries.  I’ve believed people when I should not have, even when it’s been proven that they are not to be believed, and I’ve been extremely sacrificial about my own needs while putting others’ needs first.  This has left me depleted in every possible way.  I have assumed that those for whom I have sacrificed would do the same for me, and I have been wrong.  This is a dangerous assumption.   People will accept what we offer, but nobody really loves the sacrificial lamb.

As I have slowed and my life has become less frantic, I am learning to pay attention to what works for me and what doesn’t.  In this way, I am becoming more creative, energetic, healthy and happy.  I am learning to say, “I don’t care if he/she likes it or not.  This is what works for me.”  I am reading and working through Sarri Gilman’s book, “Transform Your Boundaries.”  Sarri tells us that boundaries are about yeses and noes, and that “no is life saving.”  I believe this to be true.  I said a resounding “no” a long time ago when the cult  leaders insisted I send my oldest daughter away to school.  I was not going to send my daughter away; I had seen too many bad things happen to the children in the schools.  I said “no” to protect my daughter and my children, and thankfully, that “no” ultimately helped me to leave the cult.  Now, my work is to find the “no” that works for me, that protects me in my daily life.

In “Mending Wall,” Robert Frost playfully questions his neighbor about the need for walls, and his neighbor answers, “Good fences make good neighbors.”  Despite his questioning though, it is Frost who calls on his neighbor when it is time to rebuild their walls, to make sure the rocks are in place, to “set the wall between us.”  I like the idea of a mending wall, and I am building my own boundaries, slowly and carefully.  My wall formations may be a little awkward and crooked, but I have drawn a line, and I am strong enough to pick up the fallen boulders and place them back where they belong when they do fall.

A Time For Resolve

Today is the first day of 2015.  This is the time of year when resolutions are made, when intentions are set, when we start fresh.  Many of us are reflecting deeply on the past year as we look forward to a new year. We think about what we might have done differently, and we resolve to do better in the future.  We make commitments about exercising, dieting, drinking less alcohol or drinking none at all. We promise to save money, floss every day, be perfect recyclers.  We decide we’ll volunteer every week.  We vow to get more sleep and to be more mindful of our bodies.  In the days and weeks leading up to this first day of the year, we contemplate change and look forward to new beginnings, we plan our goals and compare ours with our friends’.  We make lists, we spend money on gym memberships, we join weight-loss programs, we buy exercise equipment, even our grocery shopping shifts in preparation for our new life, which begins today.

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In truth, our new life – a new day – a new year – begins every moment.  Our new life is now.  We are as good as we are at the moment, and honestly, that’s plenty good enough.  For me, when I am intent and determined to forcibly change something I am doing or some thing about myself I am not happy with, I know it won’t work.  I’ve tried enough times to know this.  Maybe, a few days or a few weeks will pass with success, but it won’t last.  I will fail, and then I will flog myself for my failure, and then I will flog myself even more because this is yet another failure to add to my pile.  When I am focusing on the failure pile, I somehow forget anything good I have done or accomplished.  I neglect to remember the simple goodness in my heart.  I start to believe I am unlovable.  So, now, I don’t commit to unrealistic resolutions.  I try to set my goals in the spirit of kindness toward myself rather than with the idea that I am not good enough and I need to make myself better.

This year, I want to work toward living in the moment, lamenting less about the past and worrying less about the future.  I want to gain a deeper sense of gratitude for what I have and for who I am.  My goal for this year is to be attentive, to listen, to be present.  When I pay closer attention to the world around me, I experience a greater joy.  If I am joyful and smiling, I am more apt to spread that joy to others.  My aim is to be kinder to myself and be less judgmental about my imperfections.  In this way, I find it easier to be committed and resolute about my goals and life in general.  I will keep it simple this year.  I hope to maintain some semblance of balance and peace — even when I feel waves crashing against me.  I will write, I will sew, I will create.  This is simple.  This is what I love.

His Last Christmas

Billy was ten years old when he celebrated his last Christmas with us.  He was brought home from the hospital in an ambulance so that he could be with his family.  The driver knew what this trip was about.  He flashed the ambulance lights and gave an occasional siren whistle as he drove my little brother home.  How excited Billy must have been!  My parents had ordered a hospital bed and set it up in the dining room to ensure Billy’s visit was as comfortable and safe as possible.  My other brothers and I were filled with anticipation to have Billy home for Christmas, but we were also anxious.  We hadn’t spent much time with our brother recently, and we didn’t know what to expect.  Billy had spent the majority of the past year in the hospital; he had been diagnosed with lymphosarcoma, an acute form of leukemia.  My mother had taken him to see the doctor one day when she noticed some strange lumps on his shoulders, and she came home without him.  His prognosis was bleak.  There wasn’t a cure, and the disease was aggressive.

During earlier visits, Billy had been different from the brother we had known only a few months before.  He was bloated and glassy eyed, and he spent much of his time sleeping.  He couldn’t go out and play with us.  His hair had thinned, and one side of his face sagged because it was paralyzed.  For this Christmas visit, our parents warned us to control our wild behavior and roughhousing, to be careful not to knock into our brother and cause him to fall.  Billy was in pain.  He was fragile, sick and dying.  We were told it was his last Christmas with us, his last trip home,  but we were just too young to understand.  The magnitude of this information was beyond our comprehension.  Our excitement for the holiday season, for school vacation, Santa Claus and presents under the tree, was subdued by the mysterious melancholy and sadness that filled our home.  I can’t imagine the  helplessness my parents felt over those many months of watching their young son die.  I can’t imagine how it felt for them to know this Christmas was his last, how they possibly could have found even an ounce of holiday spirit.  They did all they could to celebrate– for us, for them, for Billy.

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Over the thirteen months of his illness, Billy fought like a brave little warrior.  At one point as he neared the end of his life, he said he didn’t know it was so easy to lose a life.   Billy’s little body was simply giving out.  His doctors and my parents agreed that nothing more could be done.  It didn’t make sense to continue the barrage of medications he was taking; he was administered morphine instead to relieve the pain and help him through his last days.   Billy wasn’t expected to live much longer than a week.  I think he knew he was nearing his end.  Our parents wanted to make this a special time for him and for our family.  He was a feisty little boy with a big heart, and they wanted to bring him home.  Billy’s caregivers had grown to love him, and though they are trained to deal with disease and death every day, they were deeply saddened to witness his dying.  Nothing more could be done to save him.  I am grateful to those caregivers for devoting their lives to helping our family, to helping families like mine who suffer through the terminal illness and death of a loved one.  They give us strength and guidance, and they hold us when we grieve and mourn.

It has been forty-six years since Billy’s last Christmas.  Often, I ask myself why I still feel that gloomy little cloud over my head during the holiday season.  Billy’s death was so long ago, but no matter how hard I try to shake off the sadness, it’s still there.  For me, it’s more than grieving the anniversary of a loved-one’s death.  Of course, I mourn deeply the loss of my little brother.  He would be fifty-six years old now.  I miss having known him.  I wonder what he would be like, who he would have married, if he would have had children.  I wonder what he would have done for a living, if he would have loved music or the arts or hunting or flying.  There is something far more profound that I am saddened by, though.  My brother’s illness and death was the beginning of the eventual demise of my family.  My family did not survive this loss.  My parents relied heavily on alcohol to mask their pain, and they eventually divorced.  My older brother killed himself through extreme alcohol abuse and drug addiction; I believe he suffered survivor’s guilt.  I turned to religion and joined a religious cult, hiding from my family and from society for almost a decade.  My younger brother dangerously started down a wayward path, but luckily caught himself.  My younger sister, who was conceived a year after Billy died, was born into a shattered and broken family and grew up alone with a heartbroken mother.

I will never forget that Christmas Day.  My young parents did the best they could and tried hard to create a Merry Christmas for all of us.  My brothers and I romped and played with our new toys and  gifts, fighting and bickering as we normally did.  Billy was brave; he intuitively knew he was dying, yet his excitement and joy filled the air.  He couldn’t participate in most of our crazy antics, but he loved watching us.  We did somersaults and cartwheels in the living room, driving our parents crazy, and we sang and danced for Billy while he sat on the couch and laughed at our silliness.  He watched us with smiling, soulful eyes because he was so happy to be home with us.  My every Christmas is touched with memories of our last Christmas with Billy whose gift was his presence, his love, and his joy.  I write this in memory of my brave little brother.