[Marxism] New Age shenanigans part 2

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Oct 24 12:48:18 MDT 2011

NY Times October 24, 2011
Swami Bhaktipada, Ex-Hare Krishna Leader, Dies at 74

Swami Bhaktipada, a former leader of the American Hare Krishna 
movement who built a sprawling golden paradise for his followers 
in the hills of Appalachia but who later pleaded guilty to federal 
racketeering charges that included conspiracy to commit the 
murders-for-hire of two devotees, died on Monday in a hospital 
near Mumbai, India. He was 74.

The cause was kidney failure, his brother, Gerald Ham, said.

Mr. Bhaktipada, who was released from prison in 2004 after serving 
eight years of a 12-year sentence, moved to India in 2008.

The son of a Baptist preacher, Mr. Bhaktipada was one of the first 
Hare Krishna disciples in the United States. He founded, in 1968, 
what became the largest Hare Krishna community in the country and 
presided over it until 1994, despite having been excommunicated by 
the movement’s governing body.

The community he built, New Vrindaban, is nestled in the hills 
near Moundsville, W.Va., about 70 miles southwest of Pittsburgh. 
Its conspicuous centerpiece is the Palace of Gold, an 
Eastern-inspired riot of gold-leafed domes, stained-glass windows, 
crystal chandeliers, mirrored ceilings, inlaid marble floors, 
sweeping murals, silk brocade hangings, carved teak pillars and 
ornate statuary.

New Vrindaban eventually comprised more than 4,000 acres — a 
“spiritual Disneyland,” its leaders often called it — with a live 
elephant, terraced gardens, a swan boat and bubbling fountains. A 
major tourist attraction, it drew hundreds of thousands of 
visitors in its heyday, in the early 1980s, and substantial annual 
revenue from ticket sales.

The baroque frenzy of the place stands in vivid contrast to the 
founding tenets of the Hare Krishna movement. Rooted in ancient 
Hindu scripture, the movement was begun in New York in the 
mid-1960s by an Indian immigrant, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami 
Prabhupada. It advocates a spiritual life centered on truth, 
simplicity and abstinence from drugs, alcohol and extramarital sex.

But by the mid-1980s, New Vrindaban had become the target of 
local, state and federal investigations that concerned, among 
other things, the sexual abuse of children by staff members at its 
school and the murders of two devotees.

The resulting federal charges against Mr. Bhaktipada, a senior 
spiritual leader of the movement, and the ensuing international 
publicity did much to contravene the public image of the gentle, 
saffron-robed acolytes who had long been familiar presences in 
American airports.

He was the subject of a book, “Monkey on a Stick: Murder, Madness 
and the Hare Krishnas” (1988), by John Hubner and Lindsey Gruson, 
a former reporter for The New York Times, and a documentary film, 
“Holy Cow Swami” (1996), by Jacob Young.

Mr. Bhaktipada, also known as Kirtananda Swami, was born Keith 
Gordon Ham on Sept. 6, 1937, in Peekskill, N.Y., the youngest of 
five children of the Rev. Francis Gordon Ham and the former 
Marjorie Clark.

The elder Mr. Ham was a Baptist minister steeped in old-line 
tradition, Gerald Ham said.

“My father would fit in very well with some of the evangelical 
people we have today raising such a ruckus,” Mr. Ham said. “The 
Bible was inerrant. We were all indoctrinated and baptized and so 
forth. Keith, too.”

Keith Ham earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Maryville 
College in Maryville, Tenn., in 1959, graduating first in his 
class of 118. As a senior, he received a prestigious Woodrow 
Wilson fellowship for graduate study.

He entered the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to 
pursue a doctorate in American religious history. But in the early 
1960s, his brother said, the university asked him to leave after a 
love affair he had with a male student came to light. He settled 
in New York, where he did graduate work in history at Columbia.

Like many young people then, his brother said, Keith Ham became an 
experimenter and a seeker, dabbling in LSD and above all looking 
for a spiritual haven. In 1966, after leaving Columbia without a 
degree, he met Swami Prabhupada, who was running a storefront 
mission on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He joined the Hare 
Krishnas and was initiated as a swami in 1967.

Mr. Bhaktipada rose quickly in the nascent movement. After seeing 
a notice in an alternative newspaper from a West Virginia man 
offering land to anyone willing to start an ashram there, he 
secured the property for New Vrindaban, named after a holy site in 
India. Work began there in 1968.

New Vrindaban’s initial costs exceeded half a million dollars. The 
money was raised largely by Mr. Bhaktipada’s followers, who sold 
caps and bumper stickers adorned with counterfeit team logos and 
cartoon characters, including Snoopy, at shopping malls and 
sporting events.

Sales of these products would ultimately generate more than $10 
million for the community, according to court documents.

New Vrindaban opened in 1979, and by the 1980s the community had 
more than 500 members.

Mr. Bhaktipada appeared to have created an earthly paradise at first.

“I think most of the residents found him extremely charismatic, 
like a loving father,” Henry Doktorski, who was a member from 1978 
to 1994 and who is writing a book about New Vrindaban. “That’s how 
I saw him, at least until I left. At that point I became convinced 
that he was not actually what he was claiming to be.”

In the mid-80s, former members began to accuse Mr. Bhaktipada of 
running New Vrindaban as a cult of personality. The Hare Krishnas’ 
governing body excommunicated him in 1987 and New Vrindaban itself 
the next year. But, proclaiming the community independent of the 
larger movement, he refused to step down.

In May 1990, a federal grand jury indicted Mr. Bhaktipada on six 
counts of mail fraud, including using the mail to send followers 
the counterfeit souvenirs they were to sell, and five counts of 
racketeering. The most serious racketeering charges centered on 
the murders of the two devotees, Charles St. Denis, killed in 
1983, and Steve Bryant, killed in 1986.

According to court records, Mr. St. Denis was believed to have 
raped the wife of a New Vrindaban member and to have been killed 
in retribution. Mr. Bryant, the most vocal critic among the 
community’s ex-members, had publicly accused Mr. Bhaktipada of 
condoning the molestation of New Vrindaban’s schoolchildren and of 
having had sex with under-age boys.

A New Vrindaban member, Thomas Drescher, was convicted of 
murdering Mr. St. Denis. (Another member, Daniel Reid, pleaded 
guilty to voluntary manslaughter in exchange for testimony against 
Mr. Drescher.) In a separate trial, Mr. Drescher was convicted of 
murdering Mr. Bryant.

The indictment against Mr. Bhaktipada charged that he had engaged 
his followers to commit the murders. At trial, prosecutors argued 
that he had considered both of the murdered men threats to his 
multimillion-dollar empire.

In 1991, Mr. Bhaktipada was convicted on all six counts of mail 
fraud and three of the five counts of racketeering. He was 
sentenced to 30 years in prison.

In 1993, an appeals court vacated his convictions and ordered a 
new trial on the grounds that testimony about child molestation, 
Mr. Bhaktipada’s homosexuality and his mistreatment of the 
community’s women had been prejudicial.

In 1996, three days into his second trial, Mr. Bhaktipada accepted 
a plea bargain under which he pleaded guilty to one count of 
racketeering — which included mail fraud and conspiracy to commit 
both murders — while simultaneously denying his involvement in the 

He was sentenced to 20 years, later reduced to 12. After his 
release, Mr. Bhaktipada lived in Manhattan at the headquarters of 
his splinter group, the Interfaith League of Devotees, before 
moving to India.

Besides his brother, Gerald, a retired state archivist of 
Wisconsin, Mr. Bhaktipada is survived by two sisters, Joan 
Aughinbaugh and Shirley Rogers.

New Vrindaban was accepted back into the Hare Krishna movement in 
1998. Today, the community endures, though with fewer than 250 
members. The elephant is long gone.

Visitors are always welcome, according to New Vrindaban’s Web 
site, at $8 for adults and $6 for children. A snack bar serves 
Indian food, pizza and French fries.

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