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Hare Krishna Community Survives Struggle, Scandal

The Intelligencer & Wheeling News-Register, USA
June 21, 2004
Kelly Strautmann • Monday June 21, 2004

MOUNDSVILLE – After 36 years of struggling to build a community and survive scandal within its ranks, the New Vrindaban Community is living a peaceful existence among the hills of Marshall County. Four miles down a winding country road stands the beautiful establishment of the New Vrindaban community.

The 2,000-acre Hare Krishna community is home to about 100 members, all of whom worship at the facility. There are about 30-40 full-time devotees who live in apartments that surround the grounds. There also are around 50 families that own their own homes and come to the temple to worship.

New Vrindaban General Manager Kuladri dasa said things have changed at the community in the recent years since it was under the leadership of Swami Bhaktipada, who went to prison on federal mail and racketeering charges. Bhaktipada, also known as Keith Gordon Ham, 66, was sentenced to 10 years in jail in 1996. He was granted early release last week. He is believed to have relocated to New York City.

“We used to be more isolated, but now we are more integrated into the larger community,” Kuladri said.

Several of the community members work their own jobs and attend local schools. One member of the Hare Krishnas is Mekhala Sofsky. Sofsky has been a part of the establishment in Moundsville since she was 10 years old. She is an aspiring journalism student at West Virginia University and comes back to the temple, where her family lives, during the summer months.

“It is a pretty incredible thing to be a part of. There aren’t a lot of places you can just go to like this,” Sofsky said.

Kuladri dasa believes the larger community is not aware that so many Hare Krishna youth attend local schools.

“I am surprised that after all these years that people are still ignorant of who we are,” he said.

Kuladri dasa said that Hare Krishnas are a non-violent, peaceful group of people who are vegetarians. He explained that a typical devotee’s day begins at 4 a.m. with prayer and meditation, followed by a discussion on scriptures and then breakfast. The rest of the day consists of different manual services, such as gardening and maintaining the buildings. In the evenings, there are often social gatherings.

From Easter until Labor Day there are several festivals at the community that attract many tourists. Often, there are seminars and conventions on organic farming and stress management, as well as motivational speakers who come to the facilities.

Palace of Gold tour guide Tripad said people come from all over to view the palace and noted many Indians see the trip as a sort of pilgrimage.

The palace is currently under reconstruction but, since the center’s financial situation is tight, there is no expected completion date set.

One part of the establishment that keeps tourists coming is the All American Award Winning Rose Garden.The garden has continuously won in competitions and is judged on such things as the number of roses in the garden and whether the roses are free of diseases and weeds.

The New Vrindaban Community continues to recover after being under the former leadership of Swami Bhaktipada, aka Ham. He also has been accused of having connections to two murders and was named in a civil lawsuit alleging negligence with regard to the reported mistreatment of students at the community’s school.

Tripad said even though the swami got the community off track with its goals, it is now “back on track again.”

Escorted tours of the Palace of Gold are offered 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily during the summer months. For more information, call (304) 843-1812.

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