Category Archives: Children

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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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.

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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.