Swami Bhaktipada, Ex-Hare Krishna Leader, Dies at 74

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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 New York Times says

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 Daily Mail writes

Without the permission of his leader in India at the time, early on in his spiritual journey, he set out to ‘westernise’ the religion by eliminating some traditional elements and chanting prayers in English at a New York City temple.

He was evicted from the temple and left New York in 1967, but was later forgiven. […]
In 1968 he founded, alongside his lifelong partner Howard Morton Wheeler,  New Vrindaban – which would become the movement’s largest community in the country. […]

Membership quickly grew and it became the nation’s largest Hare Krishna community. But in 1987, the FBI raided the area, seizing records and computers.

Bhaktipada and New Vrindaban were excommunicated from the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) and members began to leave as Bhaktipada formed a new League of Devotees.

Prosecutors later accused Bhaktipada of ordering the killings of two devotees who had threatened his control of New Vrindaban. […]

Prosecutors also alleged that Bhaktipada had amassed more than $10 million through illegal fundraising schemes, including the sale of caps and bumper stickers bearing copyrighted and trademarked logos.

He appealed his 1991 racketeering conviction, then pleaded guilty at a second trial in August 1996 and was sentenced to 20 years.

A judge reduced the sentence to 12 years in 1997, citing Bhaktipada’s poor health. […]

Bhaktipada was freed four years early from a prison in 2004, but he was barred from returning to New Vrindaban and eventually moved to India in 2008.

Community spokesman Anuttama Dasa said: ‘Although he played a positive role in the Krishna movement’s earliest years, he later severely violated the strict standards expected of a Krishna devotee, especially a leader.’

Today, New Vrindaban has about 200 members living on or next to the property.

It remains a destination for pilgrims, drawing crowds for festivals, major holy days, and weekend or weeklong retreats.
About 25,000 people visit annually, enjoying the ornate palace, a rose garden with more than 100 varieties, and an organic farm and dairy.

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This post was last updated: Oct. 25, 2011