The Fast Rise & Hard Fall of Cult Leader Keith Ham
Hear WHK discuss this article on Radio
February 16, 2012
[Author's Note: This examination focuses on the dealings of some corrupt former leaders of the Hare Krishna Movement (ISKCON) and is not intended as a blanket condemnation of all followers of this Faith. Freedom of religion and freedom from religion are rights we all enjoy under the U.S. Constitution. Unfair discrimination and verbal or violent harassment against any group is legally & morally wrong. Please keep in mind that ISKCON members feed over 1,500,000 starving people daily for free through their world wide hunger relief program. They deserve immense admiration for this humanitarian act of kindness to the multitudes of the hungry around the globe who are enjoying free nutritious Hare Krishna served food as you read this. Please treat members of this religion with gentle tolerance and afford them the basic respect and dignity that all people of good will deserve. Peace & Blessings to All, WHK]
On October 26, 2011 the UK's Telegraph newspaper ran an obituary which read Disgraced former leader of US Hare Krishna community dies at 74 and recounted the bizarre life and passing of cult leader Swami Kirtanananda Bhaktipada (1937-2011). Kirtanananda was born Keith Gordon Ham in upstate New York the son of an extremely conservative Southern Baptist minister. Keith inherited his father's zeal and recruiting tactics and successfully converted many classmates to "born again" evangelical Christianity. Despite a childhood case of polio, he excelled in high school academics graduating with top honors in 1955 and received a degree in History from Maryville College in 1959, and graduated magna cum laude, first in his class of 117.
fellowship to study
American history at the
University of North
Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he remained for three years.
along the way Ham lost touch with his Christian
Fundamentalist roots. While studying for his master's degree
he met Howard Morton Wheeler (1940–1989), an undergraduate
English major who
lifelong friend. Later Ham admitted that he engaged in an intense
homosexual relationship with Wheeler that lasted for
many years as he recounted in the film Holy
1996 documentary by renowned PBS film maker Jacob Young. The
university on February 3, 1961, and left Chapel Hill after being
threatened with an investigation over a "sex scandal" involving
intimate relations with underage
boys, and fled to New
York City. Ham promoted psychedelic drug use and
quickly became an LSD guru. He
worked for a short stint as an unemployment
claims reviewer and
decided to enroll
full time at
University in 1961, where he
received a fellowship to study
After a few
years Ham's burgeoning drug and alcohol addiction began to take its
toll and he neglected his studies
opting instead to get
intoxicated and cruise
subway men's rooms seeking
anonymous gay sex with
The Coming of Swamiji
His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada was born Abhay Charan De on September 1, 1896 in a upper middle class home in Kolkata, India. Abhay's parents, Sriman Gour Mohan De and Srimati Rajani De, were devout worshipers of Krishna. He received a European education at the famous Scottish Church College whose professors, most of whom were Europeans, offered him an outstanding course of study which was rare for a Hindu. During his years in the college, Abhay was a member of the English Society as well as that of the Sanskrit Society, and this education provided him a foundation for his future leadership of a Hindu sect in the West. He graduated in 1920 with majors in English, philosophy and economics but, being a follower of Gandhi at the time, Charan refused to accept his diploma in protest of the British occupation of India.
Charan seated with Mustache
Abhay founded and operated a successful pharmacy which dispensed both Western and traditional Indian patent remedies. He married and fathered a son and worked hard supporting his family while remaining devoted to Krishna worship. He joined the Gaudiya Vaisnava Movement lead by spiritual master Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati who lead a congregation who praised the god Krishna through ecstatic chanting, music and dancing. This form of devotion can be traced to the Hindu reformation sparked by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1486–1534) who sought to liberate the worship of Krishna from the elitist temple establishment by bringing the simple group chanting of divine names to the masses of devotees during outside gatherings. The Hare Krishnas that can be seen singing and dancing in the streets of large modern cities can be traced to this tradition centering on public displays of devotion.
Charan's wife did not share his deep devotion and this caused constant conflict in his home. Mrs Charan drank tea which he disapproved of and things came to a head when his wife, in a spiteful gesture, traded one of his religious manuscripts for some tea biscuits. After making financial arrangements to take care of his family Abhay became a celebate monk of the Vaisava Order and left his family forever. As a means to spread his message he founded a magazine called Back to Godhead which he struggled to operate and he oftentimes could not pay his bills.
In 1959 at the age of 63 he took his final vows and was awarded the title of Swami. Although he translated some important Hindu texts into English, Swamiji's ministry was a complete failure in India. He decided to take his preaching to the United States where he believed his message would be better received.
Krishna Temple in NYC (1966)
Some Hindu followers paid for his passage to the USA aboard a cargo ship which docked in Boston harbor in 1965 and Swamji came with only 8 dollars, some books and a bag of cereal for food. After visiting some contacts in the states, he concluded that New York City was the best place to spread his message of "Krishna Consciousness". Swamji's early days in NYC were rough and he barely earned a living but gained a few followers. Some of these early devotees gathered up a small amount of money and rented a storefront in the lower East Side which they called Matchless Gifts with an adjoining apartment for Swamiji to live and promote his ministry. It was in this makeshift store/temple which sold books and incense that Howard Wheeler bought Keith Ham to meet the religious leader in 1966.
Hare Krishna S.F. Concert Poster 1967
A few weeks after Keith Ham moved into the temple, the new Krishna followers decided to head over to Thompson Square Park and perform some public chanting and recruiting of new members. That day was monumental in the history of the Hare Krishna Movement. Not only were hippies interested in their chanting but a reporter from a large newspaper interviewed them.
The rest, as they say, is history. The press coverage caused huge crowds to gather at their public worship services and donations quickly began to roll in. Swamiji was invited to San Francisco to a psychedelic rock concert and hippie gathering at Golden Gate Park in 1967 -- the summer of love was to follow -- and even more young people began to join the movement as full time devotees.
Beatles George Harrison (L) & John Lennon (R) financially endowed ISKCON
Hoping to spread his message, Swamiji sent some of his early followers to open temples in various world capitals. In London the group caught the attention of Beatle George Harrison who joined the sect and produced a record of members chanting the Hare Krishna mantra. This became a big hit reaching number 12 on the British charts and funneling vast sums into the movement's coffers. Harrison also donated a giant estate near London to the group which was now officially called "The International Society for Krishna Conscouseness" (ISKCON). Fellow Beatle John Lennon took a liking to ISKCON and used their mantra in his songs I am the Walrus and Give Peace a Chance. Lennon donated money and allowed the Krishnas to set up a temple in a guest house on his estate.
Famous Poet Allen Ginsberg endorsed the Krishnas
ISKCON invested their new found wealth in a business venture they called Spiritual Sky which quickly became the largest manufacturer of incense sticks in the United States. They also produced organic oils and soaps which became hugely popular in the burgeoning New Age Movement at the various shops and bookstores which catered to this metaphysical trend. In order to spread their message the devotees started the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust and a multimedia operation which produced films and recordings called Golden Avatar Productions.
With this new source of financing Swamiji circled the globe 14 times spreading his message and opening temples throughout the world. He also began to operate farms and dairy production facilities as a means for devotees to support their communities via agriculture. By 1977 the movement had roughly 100,000 followers and temples throughout the world with gigantic financial holdings. However, the religious leader was now very old and ill and decided to return to India for his final days.
On November 14, 1977 A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada died at the age of 81. There are persistent rumors that he was poisoned by his close followers but no one was charged murdering him. It is clear that his passing caused a massive rift in the movement which would take decades to mend but not before several of Swamiji's earliest followers were expelled from ISKCON. Some wound up in prison and one was murdered in a deranged ritual.
Guru's Gone Wild!!!
Swamiji's written instructions for the leadership of ISKCON after his passing were very unclear. His will stated that the Governing Body Commission (GBC) is sanctioned to operate the daily affairs of the organization and to act as the ultimate authority. He also charged 11 initiating Gurus to visit temples and enforce orthodoxy. The Gurus who, by definition, are living representatives of God are worshiped by devotees in public ceremonies and personal daily devotions. The two factions soon clashed as would be expected and the Gurus divided the world up geographically amongst themselves and ignored the GBC directives and ran their districts as dictators. "Absolute power, corrupts absolutely" as Lord Acton's much quoted axiom states. All 11 Gurus became power obsessed and began to abuse their followers emotionally, physically, financially and even sexually. It took the GBC many years of legal battles to take control of the Gurus's holdings and even a cursory review of their sinister activities demonstrates their cultic nature.
[Author's Note: The remainder of this essay is drawn primarily from Henry Doktorski's (Hrishikesh Dasa a former disciple of Keith Ham) recent article]
Ham's Early Attempt to Hijack ISKCON
Long before Swamiji's passing Keith Ham attempted to overthrow Prabhupada and take over ISKCON. Swamiji suffered a stroke on May 31, 1967, and decided he could best recover his strength in India. He chose Ham (Kirtanananda) to accompany him. In Vrindaban, India, Kirtanananda became Prabhupada’s first disciple to be initiated into the Vaishnava order of sannyasa -- a lifelong vow of celibacy in mind, word and body -- and became Swami Kirtanananda on August 28, 1967. This was a huge promotion and usually reserved for older devotees.
Prabhupada wrote about this significant event in an oft-quoted letter, “Kirtanananda is now a completely Krishna Conscious person as he has accepted sannyasa on the birthday of Lord Krishna with great success. He is the first sannyasa in my spiritual family, and I hope he will return back soon to begin preaching work with greater vigor and success.”
However, Kirtanananda had other plans. A few weeks after his initiation ceremony, he returned to New York City in direct disobedience of his spiritual master (Prabhupada told him to go to London) and there he attempted to take over the ISKCON temple. Kirtanananda told the devotees that Prabhupada was most likely not going to return, but they shouldn’t worry. As a newly-initiated swami/sannyasi (and he had a certificate to prove it), he was the most qualified person to take Prabhupada’s place.
One devotee remembered, “When Kirtanananda had first returned from India, he informed us that Prabhupada was probably not coming back from India and would stay there. This had a demoralizing effect on all of us. But Kirtanananda tried to uplift us by saying that he was personally empowered by Prabhupada to lead the movement in America. In this sense, he was trying to take over the movement.”
It should be noted that Prabhupada later claimed that it was not HIS IDEA to offer sannyasa to his head-strong disciple; he DID NOT suggest that Kirtanananda accept the strict vows of renunciation. It was Kirtanananda who requested this from Prabhupada, and he also asked for a certificate. Why did he need a certificate? It appears that in India Kirtanananda had already begun scheming how he could push Prabhupada aside, take over ISKCON, and become a spiritual master himself.
Prabhupada explained, “Kirtananda was awarded the position of a Sannyasi because he wanted it although I could understand it that he wanted to be a spiritual master himself. . . but Kirtanananda was too much puffed up and artificially he took up a certificate from me that he has been awarded the order to a Sannyasi.”
Kirtanananda’s first order of business as the new ISKCON spiritual master was to convince devotees to “Westernize” their appearance. He believed that eliminating some of the Indian cultural elements -- such as wearing Hindu garb, shaving the head, and chanting prayers in Sanskrit and Bengali -- would make Krishna Consciousness more palatable to Americans. He thought a universal nonsectarian presentation “uniting East and West” would be more successful than the ethnic and provincial Indian-style presentation which Prabhupada had advocated. He showed by example; he grew his hair and beard, and wore a Roman Catholic black clerical robe and cape.
However, the devotees were not convinced and wrote to Swamiji asking about Kirtanananda’s “reforms.” In letters from India, Prabhupada soundly chastised his errant disciple and banned him from preaching in ISKCON temples. He called Ham a “crazy man.” Some of the disciples became so angry at Kirtanananda that they evicted him from the temple and spat upon him.
Kirtanananda was outraged by this insult and in retaliation took Prabhupada’s recently completed Bhagavad-gita manuscript from Hayagriva, removed Prabhupada’s name from the title page and replaced it with "Swami Kirtanananda .” He then tried to sell the impressive tome to various New York religious book publishers. Kirtanananda stole Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-gita and claimed that it was his own!
The publishers were impressed by the book, but they looked at the “author’s” credentials suspiciously. Kirtanananda was no Sanskrit scholar; how could he have possibly written such a masterful Bhagavad-gita translation? They refused to publish the manuscript. Unsuccessful in his attempt to become a spiritual master, Kirtanananda left New York City and moved in with Hayagriva, who in the meantime had accepted a position teaching English classes at a community college in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania.
During this time, far from the association of Prabhupada and ISKCON, Kirtanananda resumed his old habit of smoking marijuana. It is perfectly reasonable to expect that he -- now living with his former lover -- also resumed another old habit which he had temporarily renounced while living with Prabhupada and the devotees in the temple: illicit sex.
The Palace of Gold
The New Vrindaban Community
While reading the December 1967 issue of the underground newspaper the San Francisco Oracle, Kirtanananda became intrigued by a letter from Richard Rose, Jr. inviting spiritual seekers to help form an ashram in rural Marshall County, West Virginia. “The conception is one of a non-profit, non-interfering, non-denominational retreat or refuge, where philosophers might come to work communally together, or independently, where a library and other facilities might be developed.”
The idea of starting a non-sectarian ashram piqued Kirtanananda’s interest (this was similar to what he wanted to establish at the New York City ISKCON temple before he was foiled by Prabhupada), and on a weekend when Hayagriva was free from classes the two traveled to West Virginia and introduced themselves to Richard Rose as former Hare Krishna devotees who had left the movement because the Krishnas were too “closed-minded.” After the visit, Hayagriva returned to Wilkes Barre to teach, but Kirtanananda stayed on at Rose’s rundown backwoods farmhouse.
But after living in isolation in the wilds of West Virginia for several months, Kirtanananda became frustrated. He had accomplished nothing -- he had attracted no followers. He couldn’t even get along with Rose and his students. He realized that he needed Prabhupada; he couldn’t do it alone. He visited his spiritual master in Montreal during July 1968 (along with Hayagriva), begged forgiveness, and asked permission to return to ISKCON. Prabhupada “forgave his renegade disciples in Montreal with a garland of roses and a shower of tears.”
When the pair returned to West Virginia, Richard Rose, Jr. and his wife Phyllis E. Rose gave Hayagriva a 99-year lease on the 132.77-acre property for $4,000, with an option to purchase for $10 when the lease expired. Hayagriva put down a $1,500 deposit. Prabhupada named the West Virginia property “New Vrindaban” and established its purpose and guided its development in dozens of letters and four personal visits (1969, 1972, 1974 and 1976).
When Hayagriva resigned as temple president in 1972, Kirtanananda established himself as the sole authority over the community. At one point he had himself crowned as "King" and had a coronation ceremony complete with thrown, crown and scepter. In New Vrindaban publications he was honored as the “Founder-Acharya (Great Teacher)” of New Vrindaban. He was fond of joking, “Not a blade of grass moves in New Vrindaban without my knowledge.” Over time the community expanded and devotees from other ISKCON centers moved in. Substantial income was generated at first by Spiritual Sky incense manufacturing and later by traveling fund raising parties -- and some other highly-profitable but risky money-making “enterprises” such as buying and selling illegal recreational drugs -- which generated millions of dollars.
Cows and land were purchased until New Vrindaban properties expanded to nearly 5,000 acres. New Vrindaban became a favorite ISKCON place of pilgrimage and many devotees attended the annual Krishna festivals held on the huge estate. The population of devotees swelled to a high of around 800 and a grammar school was set up called a gurukula for the Krishna children. The disciples constructed the Palace of Gold meant to be a home for Swamiji who died before its completion.
The "Cult of Kirtanananda"
New Vrindaban residents admired Kirtanananda for his austere lifestyle (for a time he lived in an abandoned chicken coop), his preaching skills and devotion to the presiding deities of New Vrindaban. Yet some of Kirtanananda’s colleagues -- senior ISKCON devotees living outside New Vrindaban -- distrusted him and criticized him for good reason: he had started his own cult in competition with ISKCON.
New Vrindaban residents began worshiping Kirtanananda as a pure devotee -- a paramahansa -- and he accepted their veneration, despite his inability to follow strictly the four regulative moral principles. Those few in the secret inner sanctum who knew about Kirtanananda’s illicit sexual behavior, such as Hayagriva, said nothing and continually propped him up and shouted “Hail Bhaktipada!” (stealing Swamiji's title) with all the rest when Ham passed by. New Vrindaban had become a community of “the cheater and the cheated,” even from its very beginning. Kirtanananda was little more than a show-bottle pretender, but New Vrindaban residents couldn’t see it.
As early as 1968, one devotee suspected that Kirtanananda and Hayagriva were not strictly following the principles,
During my first visit to New Vrindaban, Hayagriva was standing at the bottom of the stairs at the old farmhouse on the top of the hill and screaming: ‘Ham! Ham!’ Kirtanananda responded with a girlish giggle, and then in a high-pitched flirtatious voice, he replied, ‘Yes, Mr. Wheeler?’ The word ‘Ham’ is, of course, a double entendre.”
A few years later while in India, Kirtanananda’s propensity for bathing naked boys caused anxiety and dissension amongst devotees until Prabhupada had to step in himself and end Kirtanananda’s “bathing program.” A fellow Krishna recalled,
“I met Kirtanananda for the first time in Calcutta. There were just six of us devotees living in a house with Prabhupada, and one day Tamal Krishna got very upset because Kirtanananda was bringing hordes of boys inside the house, bathing them, feeding them, and then sending them away. This was Kirtanananda’s daily program.
Tamal Krishna thought that the neighbors would wonder, ‘What are those Westerners doing with our boys in that house? Are they pedophiles? Are our children being molested?’ Tamal Krishna tried to express his concerns to Kirtanananda and the two got into a big shouting argument. Later that very day, Tamal went to see Prabhupada about it; Prabhupada was in complete agreement with Tamal and in a subsequent meeting told Kirtanananda to end his program.
Kirtanananda -- who was sitting directly in front of Prabhupada with only Tamal and me in the room -- became insolent and questioned Prabhupada, ‘Why do you give preference to Tamal Krishna above anybody else in the movement these days?’ Kirtanananda badgered Prabhupada, asking two, three, four times the same question in a row very quickly, ‘Why him, why him, why him?’
I was a new devotee at the time, and I was horrified to hear Kirtanananda actually raising his voice and interrogating his spiritual master. I had never heard of such a thing.
Finally Kirtanananda stopped speaking, and waited for Prabhupada’s answer. Prabhupada sat there for a very long moment, then slowly but firmly said, ‘I am like the sun. The sun is the sun; it shines for everyone. It all depends on how close you want to come; how much you want to expose yourself to the sun.’
And that was the end of the argument. Kirtanananda was stunned; he became mute, speechless. He was unable to reply.”
Oftentimes supporters of Swamji claim that he has little or no knowledge of the massive problem of child rape in ISKCON and that he was a pious and holy man who was somewhat gullible when it came to matters of sexual misconduct on the part of his close disciples. However, this was not the case as evinced in the following research conducted by author Sushi Das,
The founder of the institution, the late Prabhupada, was allegedly told about the physical and sexual abuse of minors in 1972, a time when he totally controlled the institution. The victims allege he and others conspired to suppress the alleged crimes, fearful that the public exposure would threaten the viability of the movement (S. Das, 2003).
Sometime after Kirtanananda returned to New Vrindaban, a seven-year old boy proudly told his mother that “Kirtanananda fondled my genitals,” but his mother dismissed her son’s comment as nonsense. The mother recounted the incident,
“I joined in Columbus . . . I gave them $6,000 right off the bat. My seven-year-old son went directly to Nandagram [Krishna elementary school called a gurukulla] after spending a week with Kirtanananda at Bahulaban probably during June or July. I stayed in the Columbus Temple until December . . . when I went to visit my son at the New Vrindaban gurukula.
When I saw him, he proudly exclaimed to me: ‘Did you know that I had a great honor when I first came here!? Kirtanananda selected me out of all the kids to be his personal servant and live with him for a whole week. Do you know what he did? He fondled my genitals!’
I was shocked with disbelief, as I had never used that word ‘fondle’ in my son’s presence. Where did he learn it? However I dismissed his complaint as a weird manifestation of a child’s fantastic imagination and chastised him: ‘Don’t make up stories like that! Kirtanananda Maharaja is a pure devotee. I don’t ever want to hear you say nonsense things like that again!’”
Boys were being sexually molested, yet most disciples suspected nothing. If a boy claimed that he had been sexually abused, he was chastised. New Vrindaban residents considered it a great honor for a boy to be “chosen” by Kirtanananda to stay overnight with him in his cabin. The lucky boy would “get the mercy.” One writer for the Brijabasi Spirit explained, “When Maharaja (Ham) was living in his cabin, it was considered a great privilege to get to stay in the back room. Only a handful of selected boys got the opportunity.”
Kirtanananda’s habits did not change when he moved into his fourth floor apartment in the new Administration/Men’s Ashram building. One former eleven-year-old gurukula boy explianed, “I remember several times, Kirtanananda invited me and another boy to take a shower in his personal bathroom in his suite on the fourth floor of the ashram building. He had a brand new bathtub which was recently installed. To my surprise, he told us to shower together! completely naked! and he insisted that we keep the shower curtain open! He stared at us the whole time. I was embarrassed and extremely uncomfortable.”
When Kirtanananda moved into his “dream house” on the ridge between Palace Road and the Old Vrindaban farm, things even got better: he had an entire “harem” of gurukula boys living on the same floor right in his house just a few steps from his bedroom. The adults lived in the basement, and were completely clueless regarding the secret nocturnal activities which took place upstairs.
Once early in the morning, a gurukula teenager asked an adult, "if the spiritual master seems to act in ways contrary to scriptural injunctions, what should the disciple do?” The grown up replied "Prabhupada said that even if the spiritual master goes to a liquor shop, he is not a drunkard; rather, he must have some purpose in going there.”
In Jacob Young's documentary a former Hare Krishna named "Dr Nick"-- who was a physician who met the medical needs of the group -- stated that Ham set up a police state at New Vrindaban. There was a constant state of paranoia wherein devotees were refused food, not allowed to see their children and forced to do extra work if they even slightly deviated from Kirtananda's demands. He had a small team of enforcers who constantly monitored everyone even to the point of using high tech listening devices to eaves drop into follower's homes to see if they where criticizing the leadership in any way. The enforcers could enter any home at any time of the day or night to search the premises for unsanctioned materials like books, radios and televisions.
If devotees complained
they were informed that they were free to leave the community.
Keep in mind that most of these disciples had donated all
savings to ISKCON, cut off all relationships with their families and
literally had no where else to go.
In a recent interview, Jacob Young stated that attractive Krishna devotee women were sent out in fund raising vans all over the nation. At first they wore their traditional Hindu dresses and solicited money at airports. This annoyed travelers and became a stereotype for the Krishnas which was parodied in the comedy film Airplane and was quickly abandoned by the cult. Ham had these women dress in ordinary clothes and solicit funds under false pretenses.
Most of these women were young mothers whose children were left in the care of the Krishna grammar school. They were ordered not to reveal that they were ISKCON members and instead lied and claimed to be collecting donations for legitimate charities like MDA (Jerry's Kids), Meals on Wheels and Vietnam Veterans. If the women did not meet daily money quotas they faced severe physical punishments and warnings that they would never see their children again.
The fund raising crews even started selling unlicensed copyrighted stickers, hats and tee shirts at sporting events. They were very successful and generated millions of dollars which they delivered directly to Ham. Even after raising these huge sums they oftentimes found that their children were undernourished when they visited them at the Krishna grammar school. Many of them later discovered that their kids were sexually abused while they were away soliciting cash for the movement.
Former devotee Steven Bryant also alleged in his anti-Ham newsletter Jonestown in Moundsville that some of these women were also forced into prostitution under various threats and beatings. These poor brainwashed women were given stimulant drugs and compelled to sexually service men to raise money for Ham. As we shall see these accusations along with others cost Bryant his life.
The "Golden Age" of New Vrindaban
Late in 1972 sculptor-architect devotee Bhagavatananda convinced Kirtanananda to build a home for Prabhupada at New Vrindaban. In time, the plans for the house developed into an ornate memorial shrine of marble, gold and carved teakwood, dedicated posthumously during Labor Day weekend on Sunday, September 2, 1979. The completion of the Palace of Gold -- billed as “America’s Taj Mahal” -- and subsequent favorable international media attention catapulted New Vrindaban into the public eye as hundreds of thousands of tourists began visiting the Palace annually.
As Mentioned, upon Prabhupada’s death Kirtanananda and ten other high-ranking ISKCON leaders assumed the position of initiating Gurus to succeed him. In March 1979, he accepted the honorific title “Bhaktipada,” along with other ISKCON gurus who also accepted honorific titles. Advertisements in Back To Godhead magazine promoted “His Divine Grace Kirtanananda Swami Bhaktipada” as a “Bona Fide Spiritual Master.”
Kirtanananda Swami awarded high sannyasa initiation to several disciples, most notably Bhakti Tirtha Swami (1979), Bhaktisvarupa Damodar Swami (1980), Gopal Krishna Swami and Radhanath Swami (1982), Vedavyasapriya Swami, Varsana Swami and Candramauli Swami (1986), Umapati Swami (1987), Hayagriva Swami (1989), and the female sannyasini Malati Swami (c. 1992).
They proposed building a “Land of Krishna” theme park and the granite “Temple of Understanding” in classical South Indian style were designed to make New Vrindaban a “Spiritual Disneyland.” With the influx of millions of dollars from illegal drug sales, traveling fundraising parties illegally selling paraphernalia with unlicensed copyrighted logos and trademarks, New Vrindaban became the second-largest employer in Marshall County, West Virginia: 187 local residents were hired as construction workers, gardeners and secretaries. Local politicians began to take notice of the community’s significant economic contribution to the region.
The ground-breaking ceremony (May 31, 1985) for the proposed temple was attended by dozens of dignitaries, including a United States Congressman, a member of the West Virginia House of Delegates, the President of Wheeling College, the Executive Director of the Coalition of Religious Freedom, the Executive Director of the Hindu Alliance of America, a Southern Baptist radio Pastor, several State Tourism officials, six Mayors, seven West Virginia Congressmen, City Councilmen, Magistrates, School and Health Board members, six Police Chiefs, ISKCON Swamis and an ISKCON guru. That day, as stated in the Brijabasi Spirit magazine, was considered “the most significant and memorable day in the history of New Vrindaban.”
The Akron Beacon Journal reported on the new improved relations between the Krishnas and the locals, “The Hare Krishnas are verging on respectability these days. The old primitive style of commune life that they started here in the sixties has changed almost beyond recognition. No more mud trails and privies. Now the ‘Land of Krishna’ has a bus system, a radio show, printing presses, acres of landscaped terraces and gardens, a first-rate restaurant and time-share condominiums. For this ‘spiritual theme park’ -- a cross between Lourdes and Disney World -- the ‘almost heaven’ state is turning out to be just that. At the onset of the state’s tourist season, the denizens of this fundamentalist Hindu community took the state spotlight this weekend with the unveiling of plans for a $70 million, three-phase building program. . . . Most West Virginians used to avoid the Krishnas, but all that is changing.”
Kirtanananda’s cherished dream was finally becoming reality; he was not only admired and worshiped by ISKCON devotees as a great self-realized acharya, but he was also increasingly becoming recognized and respected by the non-devotee general public as the leader of a great religious project. He was finally getting the respect and worship that he deserved. He considered himself Prabhupada’s greatest disciple.
Due to his enormous pride, Kirtanananda became more and more critical of ISKCON in general and the GBC in particular. When the GBC began legislating “limits” on the powers and worship of the ISKCON gurus, Kirtanananda rebelled; he would have none of that. He considered himself Prabhupada’s rightful heir: an empowered acharya. No one had a right to limit how much power he possessed or how much worship he accepted. Due to his great “spiritual realization,” he had risen far beyond the meager understanding of his envious and less-intelligent ISKON leaders.
He presented a paper which was later expanded into a book called On His Order to show his intellectual superiority, his advanced realization and to combat the growing “guru reform movement” in ISKCON. Kirtanananda had become an egomaniac by his material success. Little did he realize that “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”
Crazed Disciple (L) assaulted Ham (R) Notice the Head Scar
Kirtanananda Attacked and Severely Injured
On October 27, 1985, during a New Vrindaban bricklaying marathon, a crazed and distraught visiting devotee bludgeoned Kirtanananda on the head with a heavy steel tamping rod. This nasty assault came after Ham refused to promote the unstable acolyte within the movement. He was critically injured and remained in a coma for ten days. Gradually he recovered most of his faculties, though devotees who knew him well said that his personality had radically changed. Some close associates began doubting his ability to lead the community and local politicians who had once been favorable to the devotees began distancing themselves.
He never fully recovered from this injury, but continued to lead the community despite pronounced hearing loss, severe head aches, vision problems which forced him to wear a patch over one eye, and symptoms of anterograde amnesia (short term memory loss), a condition in which immediate memories fail to be transferred to long-term memory.
Ham's Antics Became more Demented after Suffering Brain Damage
Kirtanananda had suffered definite brain damage, although this was at first only apparent to those who were close to him. Some began to prop him up so that few would see the truth: Kirtanananda had become unfit to lead. His personal servant stated:
“Bhaktipada (Ham) and I devised a system of signals we would use to help him in his conversations with people. When devotees came to him for instructions, and when Bhaktipada became confused or forgetful of previous discussions, he would look at me and I would either give him some nonverbal signals by making expressions with my face or I would gently butt into the conversation to offer enough information for Bhaktipada to know what he had previously said. In this way, Bhaktipada was able to continue to give advice and relatively few people realized how badly his memory was affected. This went on for many months. . .
Most of the New Vrindaban Community leaders of that time understood that Bhaktipada had problems with his memory and with his ability to make rational decisions. . . Most ignored or didn’t want to believe that their perfect and pure leader had somehow become damaged or imperfect. . .
Bhaktipada was in no shape to care for himself -- physically or mentally -- much less lead a community of hundreds of devotees or a world-wide movement. Many times he felt such extreme pressure in his skull that he suffered incredible agony. Several times he told me he wished he was dead because the pain was so unbearable. One time, on an airplane to India, he told me he could see the Yamaduttas (agents of death) surrounding him.”
Kirtanananda was obviously unwilling to admit his inability to provide competent leadership, get professional help from a qualified therapist for his memory problems, and delegate important decision-making responsibilities to senior New Vrindaban managers. With the help of his personal servant he used deceitful means to try to keep up the appearance of being in control of his faculties and keep his followers in the dark about his actual debilitated mental and physical condition. This is not the behavior of a humble saintly person; this is the behavior of a desperate man who is attached to his position and fearful of losing it. Kirtanananda was attached, fearful, and unfit to lead.
Ham Could not Restrain Himself from Rapping Children
After Kirtanananda’s head injury, his sexual activity became more blatant. He began molesting or attempting to molest older boys -- teenagers; and at least one reported these aberrations to the temple president, who said:
“During late 1986 I talked to Kirtanananda about the allegations of sexual conduct between him and [a teenage boy]. I talked to him about this three times. The first time I spoke to him he said he had had sexual contact with [the teenage boy], but he was heavily medicated at the time, so he shouldn’t be held responsible for what he did.
The second time I spoke to him he said he couldn’t remember whether he had had any sexual conduct. . .
The third time I spoke to Kirtanananda about [the teenage boy], he told me that it never happened, and I should understand that it never happened.”
It is not hard to see what was happening; Kirtanananda had been having sex for the last twenty years with boys and men and he was not going to stop now. The head injury destroyed any sexual restraints he had and even his ability to recall his past actions. The temple president left the community a few months later with his family.
Excommunication from ISKCON and the "Interfaith Era"On March 16, 1987, the ISKCON Governing Body Commission -- during their annual meeting at Mayapur, India -- perminately expelled Kirtanananda from the society for “moral and theological deviations.” They accused him of defying ISKCON policies and claiming to be the sole spiritual heir to Swamiji’s movement. Thirteen members voted for the resolution, two abstained, and one member, Bhakti Tirtha Swami, voted against the resolution. The GBC had enough of Ham's nonsense.
Kirtanananda then established his own organization -- “The Eternal Order of the League of Devotees Worldwide” -- and took several properties with him. New Vrindaban and his satellite preaching centers were excommunicated from ISKCON the following year in 1988. Ham and Wheeler wisely signed all of the paperwork which gave them legal control over these properties.
In 1986-87 Kirtanananda began his so-called “interfaith” experiment and the community became known as the New Vrindaban “City of God.” Once again he attempted to “de-Indianize” Krishna Consciousness to help make it more accessible to Westerners, just as he had tried previously at the New York ISKCON temple nearly two decades earlier.
Devotees wore Franciscan-style robes instead of Hindu garb; they chanted in English with western instruments such as the pipe organ and accordions instead of chanting in Sanskrit and Bengali with drums and cymbals; male devotees grew hair and beards instead of shaving their heads and faces; female devotees were initiated into the renounced order and encouraged to preach independently; Hindu prayer was practiced silently; a giant thirty-foot-tall statue of Prabhupada resembling the Buddha was constructed behind the Palace; the steel structure for the gateway of the “Cathedral of Understanding” was erected; six computer-controlled cast bronze bells weighing a total of 16,800 pounds were hung from the gateway to chime the Hare Krishna tune; and an interfaith community was attempted.
About a dozen interfaith members came to live at the “City of God,” including a Unitarian minister, a Taoist teacher, a retired Quaker English professor, and a Marianist couple, but nearly all eventually left the community and claimed Ham had cheated and betrayed them. One former interfaith member even wrote an article titled “The City of Fraud,” which was published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Ham's High Priced Lawyers
Criminal Conviction and Imprisonment
In 1990 the United States Federal Government indicted Kirtanananda on five counts of racketeering, six counts of mail fraud, and conspiracy to murder two dissident devotees: Chakradhari (Charles St. Denis) and Sulochan (Steven Bryant). The government claimed that he had illegally amassed a profit of more than $10.5 million over four years. It also charged that he ordered the killings because the victims had threatened to reveal his sexual abuse of minors.
On March 29, 1991, Kirtanananda was convicted on nine of the eleven charges (the jury failed to reach a verdict on the murder charges), but the Court of Appeals, convinced by the expert arguments of defense attorney Alan Dershowitz (a criminal law professor at Harvard University who represented such celebrated and wealthy clients as Claus von Bülow, Mike Tyson and O. J. Simpson), threw out the convictions, saying that child molestation evidence had unfairly prejudiced the jury against Kirtanananda, who was not charged with those crimes. Ham paid Dershowitz 2.5 million dollars to get him out of this jam -- funds which came from the poor mind controled women who collected money from the van runs.
August 16, 1993, he was released from a rented apartment in the Warwood
neighborhood of Wheeling (where he had lived for nearly two years under
house arrest) and returned triumphantly to New Vrindaban. Kirtanananda,
however, lost his iron grip on the community after the September 6,
1993 “Winnebago Incident” during which he was
observed in a compromised position in bed with a teenage male Malaysian
disciple in the back of a Winnebago van. Community members split into
two camps: those who still supported Kirtanananda (believing the
allegations of inappropriate sexual activity to be malicious rumors)
and those who challenged his leadership.
Kirtanananda avoided the controversy by retiring to his rural retreat at “Silent Mountain” near Littleton, West Virginia, where a contingency of his distraught disciples arrived and asked him if he was actually “wounded by maya” and unfit to be the world acharya for the League of Devotees, as they had heard professed by community leaders. Bhaktipada smiled at their concern and assured them, “I have not broken any of the regulative principles since I met Srila Prabhupada; there must be a conspiracy against me.”
Yet after his disciples left that night and returned to New Vrindaban threatening to “make coffins for the blasphemers,” Kirtanananda enjoyed the intimate company of his handsome young “manservant,” despite the tears of the servant’s newlywed teenage wife who suspected what was actually happening behind the closed bedroom door.
After ten months of constant pressure, the challengers ousted Kirtanananda and his supporters and ended the “Interfaith Era” in July 1994 when a delegation met with him at Silent Mountain and presented to him a document ordering the return of the New Vrindaban temple worship services back to the standard Indian style advocated by Srila Prabhupada and practiced throughout ISKCON.
Kirtanananda understood that he had been defeated, but in a last utterance of childish defiance, he shouted, “I am the world acharya! I am the world acharya! I AM THE WORLD ACHARYA!” -- then meekly signed the paper. Most of his followers left New Vrindaban and moved to the Radha-Muralidhar Temple in New York City, which remained under Kirtanananda’s control.
In April 1996, Kirtanananda appeared in court again for retrial, but one key witness -- his disciple and former New Vrindaban enforcer, Tirtha Swami (Thomas Drescher). Tirtha was a specially trained US army hit man who served two tours of duty in Vietnam and specialized in the covert assassination and disposal of suspected Vietcong agents. The army refused to let him serve another tour deeming him psychologically unstable for duty. Within ten days of being in heavy combat Drescher found himself discharged from the service against his will and stateside. Neither the army nor the Veteran's Administration offered him any cogent psychological help to readjust to civilian life. He was a soldier in search of a killing mission and someone to give him orders and he found these things in a very unlikely place. Drescher joined ISKCON not long after returning home and went to New Vrindaban the day after the temple suffered a horrible attack.
From the onset of the Krishna's move to West Virginia they faced the wrath of local bigots who constantly harassed the devotees. Some locals were open minded and welcomed the group but many more hated and mistrusted ISKCON. Some randomly fired bullets into the Krishna compound while others swerved their vehicles toward any devotees they encountered walking on the roadside nearly hitting them. The culmination came when a hostile biker gang invaded the temple during services and shot and wounded several devotees who tried to stop them. The Krishnas armed themselves with machine guns and pistols and recruited Drescher to act as a policeman for the compound.
Drescher took the onus and confronted locals who constantly badgered the group. He would sneak up behind them, knock them unconscous and when they woke up they found themselves under their vehicles with a note pinned to their shirts warning them to leave the devotees alone or next time they would be dead. The tactic was successful and the rednecks left the sect members alone.
Ham's victims Charles St Denis (L) his remains (C) and Steven Bryant (R)
At the onset of Ham's second trial, the hardened Vietnam vet was serving life in prison for the murders of St. Denis and Bryant -- instead of protecting “the Swami” as he did in previous trials, testified against his former spiritual master and claimed that Kirtanananda authorized both murders. Drescher claimed that Ham sent him and a man named Dan Reid -- whose wife may or may not have had an affair with the victim -- to kill St. Denis and that he chanted "Hare Krishna" while stabbing and shooting the victim before burying the poor man alive under a stream bed. Ham payed Drescher $8000 to travel to California and pump Bryant full of bullets while the victim sat in his van. Reid felt remorse and confessed to the police and exposed the plot. The patsy Drescher was unaware that Ham was having these men killed because he feared they were exposing his pedophile activities to the news outlets. When Drescher learned the truth while in prison he deeply regretted his actions and agreed to testify against Ham.
Because of Tirtha’s damning testimony, Kirtanananda admitted guilt to one count of racketeering (mail fraud). He was fined $250,000 and sentenced to the maximum prison term: twenty years.
Kirtanananda left the once-thriving New Vrindaban Community in shambles. “Back in New Vrindaban, there are many sincere and honest devotees who are trying to pick up the pieces of their shattered community. It will not be an easy task. The income from tourism is down. The old sources of funding are gone forever. The grand cathedral that the Swami envisioned is a shell. The heavy machinery purchased for its construction lies rusting in a field. The place is financially crippled and faces the possibility of more fines and forfeitures. There has been no electricity in the Palace of Gold for months. Worst of all, New Vrindaban’s reputation has been ruined by the Swami.”
The community tottered on the brink of insolvency, yet due to the struggle and perseverance of a handful of devotees who attempted to remain faithful to Prabhupada’s original mission for New Vrindaban, the community gradually reorganized and returned to ISKCON in 1998.
In Federal Prison, Kirtanananda was locked down in solitary confinement for two weeks during January 1997 after his cell mate reported him to prison authorities for making sexual advances. He wrote, “I realized that all this has come upon me as Krishna’s mercy to relieve me of the last bit of material lustful desire.”
On September 10, 2000, the ISKCON Child Protection Office concluded a 17-month investigation and determined that Kirtanananda had molested two boys. He was prohibited from visiting any ISKCON properties for five years and offered conditions for reinstatement within ISKCON; conditions which he did not fulfill.
Kirtanananda’s twenty-year sentence was eventually reduced because of poor health; his ailments included post-polio syndrome, severe asthma, weak abdominal muscles causing hernia, digestive problems, hearing loss, balance problems, vision difficulties due to traumatic head injury, loss of short-term memory, carpal tunnel, and an atrophied leg. The judge said he did not want Kirtanananda to die in prison.
Veggie Ham Died a Free Man
Final Years in New York City and India
After eight years of incarceration, on June 16, 2004, Kirtanananda Swami was released from the Federal Correctional Institution at Butner, North Carolina. The Executive Officers of the ISKCON North American Temple Presidents and GBC sent out a notice stating that Kirtanananda was prohibited from visiting any ISKCON properties.
Kirtanananda, who had abandoned the Franciscan-style robe and returned to wearing the traditional Hindu garb again, resided for four years at the Radha-Muralidhar Temple at 25 First Avenue in New York City while serving probation. The building, purchased in 1990, was maintained by a small number of disciples and followers.
However, his life there was hardly peaceful: he was confined to a wheelchair, his disciples bickered amongst themselves, an irate woman hit him on the head with a small brass deity, and the temple board actually attempted to evict him from the premises. Ham could not turn to his old boyfriend Wheeler because he died of AIDs many years earlier.
On March 7, 2008, after completing his term of probation, Kirtanananda left the United States for India with one long-time supporter and apologist: a former New Vrindaban gurukula headmaster who had been expelled from the community some twelve years earlier for molesting prepubescent boys.
Kirtanananda said he expected to remain in India for the rest of his life. “There is no sense in staying where I’m not wanted,” he explained, referring to the desertions through the years by nearly all of his American disciples and to the attempts to evict him from the building. Kirtanananda still had a significant number of loyal disciples in India and Pakistan—apparently unaware of his checkered past—who worshiped him as “guru” and published his latest books.
During the end of July, 2011, Kirtanananda Swami was admitted to Jupiter Hospital in Thane, India (about 27 kilometers from his temple in Ulhasnagar); one lung had collapsed and the other was filling with fluid. On August 17 a tracheotomy was performed and a breathing tube inserted. He fell unconscious and was put on a respirator. A CAT scan revealed bleeding inside his brain. By August 22, he was moved back to Ulhasnagar to spend his last days at the temple, as doctors confessed there was nothing more they could do for him at the hospital. It was reported that he returned to the hospital sometime after his 74th birthday, developed kidney failure and passed away at 7:15 Mumbai time during the morning of Monday, October 24, 2011.
A handful of loyal disciples and followers—mostly in India and Pakistan—memorialize Kirtanananda as a loving father and saintly devotee of God, but most others have a decidedly less favorable opinion of him, especially those former New Vrindaban boys who were sexually molested and the families and friends of the murdered devotees St. Denis and Bryant. The greatest insult to these victims is that Keith Ham died a free man with devotees worshiping him as God's representative on Earth.
Sources and Links of Interest
Monkey on a Stick EbookKirishna Tube Videos