MOUNDSVILLE, W.Va. – Thirty years after Hare Krishnas built a flamboyant shrine for their swami on a remote Appalachian ridge, the Palace of Gold is crumbling, and light from the chandeliers occasionally glistens in rainwater puddled on the marble floor.
This religious colony about 90 minutes south of Pittsburgh is dubbed New Vrindaban after a holy city in India and once was meant to be the showpiece of the Hare Krishnas, a Hindu sect founded by a Bengali missionary during the boom years of the hippie movement.
Tourists once poured in by the busload to see the ornate palace, the swan boats, the elephants — both a statue and a real one — and the dancing devotees with shaved heads and saffron robes who built it all.
Then power struggles, religious schisms, money scams, murders and child abuse scandals wracked the Hare Krishnas.
The faith’s international governing council excommunicated the New Vrindaban sect for heresy. Its founder went to prison. It went bankrupt.
Believers scattered. Only 100 still live in New Vrindaban’s rundown apartments or in farmhouses in the nearby hills, down from more than 700 during its heyday.
But on a recent Saturday just over the hill from the palace, the Temple of Understanding throbbed once again as the newest Hare Krishnas drummed, danced and sang to summon their lord.
“You get some kind of vibrations inside you when you keep listening to this music,” said Srinivasan Madhita, a visiting New Jersey software programmer, shouting to be heard as a conga line of worshippers snaked by.
Madhita was among about 80 Indians at New Vrindaban last month for two days of seminars, vegan buffets and chanting. Pilgrims stayed in a spartan lodge near the temple or in cabins on the edge of the woods where peacocks roost in trees.
Like most Hare Krishna temples in North America, New Vrindaban now depends on Indian professionals for donations and new blood.
Indians comprise at least half the congregation in several North American temples, including Los Angeles, Toronto, and Washington, D.C., as well as most New Vrindaban visitors.
Gauranga, 36, a Bombay monk and former computer programmer leading the seminars, said he puts the lessons of the Bhagavad Gita scriptures in terms the new followers can relate to: “How does the hard drive of the mind crash, and how do you restore it?”
“It really doesn’t matter who the temple builders are, if they’re Indians or Americans. It’s the same god, and all the prayers go to him,” said Sai Chandrasekharan, 29, an electrical engineer who drove up from North Carolina with his wife for the weekend.
Some long-time residents have mixed feelings about the faith’s evolution.
“All I know is, it’s not what it used to be, that’s for sure,” said Gopalasyapriya, formerly Diane White, who came to New Vrindaban from a tepee in Michigan and has spent most of the past 30 years there.
“To be honest, the last few years it’s become harder for me to find reasons to want to stay,” she said.
The modern Hare Krishna movement started in 1965 when a 69-year-old swami named Prabhupada sailed to New York with a trunk full of Hindu scriptures.
Then Prabhupada took a bus to Pittsburgh.
His sponsor was Gopal Agarwal, an Indian engineer living in Butler. Prabhupada held evening salons in the Agarwals’ living room for a month before returning to Manhattan.
There he founded the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, or ISKCON, the official name of the Hare Krishnas.
His timing was perfect. Counterculture types flocked to the faith, which demanded worldly renunciation to approach the soul’s true essence. Within a few years, Prabhupada had a mass movement with thousands of former hippies and at least one member of the Beatles.
The most observant Hare Krishnas chant their holy mantra several hours a day and abstain from meat, eggs, mushrooms, onions, garlic, caffeine, tobacco, alcohol, recreational drugs, and illicit sex.
In 1968, Keith Ham, a disciple with the Sanskrit name Kirtanananda, bought a tumbledown farmhouse on a West Virginia hill locals used for rabbit hunting and began to build New Vrindaban.
He planned the Palace of Gold as a home for Prabhupada, and it was suitably grand. Devotees adorned it with stained glass, handmade chandeliers, carved teakwood, murals and oil paintings, gold leaf and tons of imported marble and onyx.
Those who weren’t building fanned out to airport terminals to trade flowers and books for donations to pay for it all. Their aggressive soliciting tactics led to crackdowns and lawsuits at airports across the country, including Pittsburgh. Eventually the U.S. Supreme Court sided with airport operators in 1992, forcing the Hare Krishnas to look elsewhere for income.
Prabhupada died in 1977. The palace opened two years later as a shrine to him.
Terry Sheldon, 57, was on the crew that cleared the ridge and chipped out the limestone with picks for the palace foundation. Today, he tills New Vrindaban’s 7-acre farm, nurturing it with fertilizer produced by the community herd of 100 protected cattle.
“That much dung, if you honor it, revere it as a gift from the cow — not just the milk — it’s the foundation for a sustainable society,” he said.
Sheldon, also known as Tapah Punja, works with local universities on agriculture education programs. Besides producing vegetables and medicinal herbs for the community and visitors, Tapah Punja’s garden supplies produce to a Wheeling soup kitchen.
“I want to be composted here,” he said.
Kirtanananda and the other gurus jockeyed for power after Prabhupada died. The dispute turned violent.
A visitor bashed Kirtanananda with an iron bar in 1985, sending him to Pittsburgh’s Allegheny General Hospital in a monthlong coma.
Shortly after, a New Vrindaban man tracked down a Kirtanananda rival in California and shot him. The killer, Tom Drescher, later testified that Kirtanananda ordered the hit.
Drescher, known as Tirtha, is serving a life sentence in West Virginia for that murder and the killing of another devotee. Sheldon spent two years in prison for conspiracy in the California murder.
Kirtanananda took a plea deal in 1996 and was sentenced to 20 years in prison for racketeering. The charge related to the murders and a fundraising scam in which devotees raised $10 million over five years trading knock-off copies of licensed merchandise, such as sports gear and Snoopy bumper stickers, for donations.
ISKCON excommunicated Kirtanananda and New Vrindaban for the crimes and for deviations, such as putting a statue of a cross-legged Jesus Christ in the temple next to Prabhupada. The West Virginia community eventually recanted and was allowed back into the fold.
After eight years in prison, the renegade guru was released in 2004, weak from asthma and childhood polio and using a wheelchair.
Now 68, Kirtanananda lives in a breakaway temple in Manhattan, where he still preaches a kind of Christian/Krishna fusion. He claims he was the victim of a witch hunt.
“My greatest mistake was that I became proud of what I did. I thought that I did it. And that’s a great mistake. Pride goeth before a fall,” he said.
The worst blow was to come, with revelations of widespread beatings and sexual abuse of children in Hare Krishna boarding schools in New Vrindaban and elsewhere.
Ninety-two self-described “children of ISKCON” filed federal lawsuits in 2001, seeking $400 million in damages for sexual, physical and emotional abuse by teachers and other devotees.
New Vrindaban and temples in Los Angeles and San Diego declared bankruptcy, and ISKCON settled the lawsuit last year for $9.5 million. No payments have been sent yet to the more than 500 victims named in the settlement, though ISKCON spokesman Anuttama said he expects the first checks to be sent later this month.
New Vrindaban President Naradamuni said temples will need financial support from donors.
“Right now, in reality, the temples in North America certainly don’t have the ability to meet this obligation,” he said. “Just how and where the money’s going to come from, I can’t tell you at this point. It’s not like ISKCON is flush with money.”
New Vrindaban has paid some $400,000, nearly half its annual budget, into an account for victims, Naradamuni said. Much of it came from selling timber, he said.
With the settlement taxing an already strained budget, fixing the palace’s leaky roof and other repairs are on hold, said Malati, a New Vrindaban resident and the first and only woman to serve on ISKCON’s governing board.
“The consequence if we don’t (pay) is we would start losing some property, including New Vrindaban,” she said. “We don’t really consider that an option, but it could happen.”
The former Melanie Nagel was living on a mountaintop in Oregon when friends convinced her to come to San Francisco and found a Hare Krishna temple. Before long, she was chanting with Beatles guitarist George Harrison in England.
Now in her drafty office at New Vrindaban, Malati, 60, wears a fleece jacket zipped to the neck over her robe and jokes with Naradamuni about their hearing aids.
While they and others hope the dark clouds of scandal are finally lifting, a mile down the road from the Palace of Gold lives another devotee who says ISKCON is hiding the biggest crime of all.
Keith Haslam, 65, claims the founder of the Hare Krishnas was murdered by his followers.
Haslam and others calling themselves the Bhaktivedanta Investigation Force have written a book, “Judge For Yourself.” In it, they lay out the case — with capital letters and red and blue ink, accompanied by poems by a licensed toxicologist — that Prabhupada was poisoned.
According to Haslam, whose devotee name is Kamsahanta, the smoking gun is a recording from Prabhupada’s deathbed that purportedly captured a disciple whispering, “The poison is going down,” as the feeble swami, then 81, drank a glass of milk.
A CD included with the book has the recording. The whisperer, faintly but clearly, says, “The swelling is going down.”
Nevertheless, the conspiracy theory is so persistent that ISKCON released its own book to refute it.
“If the Krishnas are the fringe, these guys are the radical fringe,” said Malati.
The Next Generation
Naradamuni’s son, Gauranga Kishore, 24, is a Hare Krishna monk who teaches vegan cooking classes at the University of Pittsburgh. He said he hopes to attract more non-Indians to the faith that way.
“I see it as one of my missions in life,” he said.
Devotees claim growing Krishna temples in Russia and China prove the faith has an appeal outside Hinduism’s homeland. Mormons are helping build a new temple in Utah, and some Mormons have converted, followers say.
Still, Prabhupada’s original mission to bring Krishna Consciousness to the English-speaking world appears to have created a refuge for transplanted Indians.
Software engineer Virinchi Kotikalapudi, who moved from Madras to Natrona Heights two years ago, gave New Vrindaban more than $500 in 2005, earning him a listing in the community newsletter. Most of the 270 donors from Pittsburgh and around the country are Indians, said the newsletter’s editor, Kuladri.
Kotikalapudi, 42, takes his family to New Vrindaban once a month. He says he doesn’t pay much attention to the ethnicity of his fellow worshipers.
“It wouldn’t matter much to me, who comes or doesn’t come. People are always welcome to hear what we say,” he said.