Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Hare Krishna leader Swami Bhaktipada is dead

... and I imagine we will be hearing some scary stuff now. It was already plenty scary while he was alive!

Swami Bhaktipada, Ex-Hare Krishna Leader, Dies at 74
By MARGALIT FOX, New York Times
Published: October 24, 2011

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.
Scandalmongers among you will enjoy the true crime account titled Monkey On a Stick: Murder, Madness and the Hare Krishnas, which I think is out of print in paperback? Check your local library, the true crime section, helpfully numbered "364" in the Dewey decimal system. (For us rushed, busy scandalmongers who have no time to browse, it's easy to just run to the 364s, grab one, and run out. Yes, I HAVE.)

Let's see, can I think of anything nice to say about the Hare Krishnas? I can't think of anything nice to say about Bhaktipada.

Okay, a few things:

The West Virginia Hare Krishnas were very kind to the Rainbow Family (apparently some crossover membership) when they had the Gathering of the Tribes in WV, I think in 1979 or 1980? (corrections and/or clarifications welcome)

Also, the fruit crepes they made at their restaurants and missions were really good. When we slept overnight in Central Park during the Democratic National Convention, they came out and gave us free fruit crepes. Wasn't that nice? I recall that the strawberry/blueberry ones were especially fabulous.

Once upon a time in a galaxy called the 70s, a dancing Hare Krishna* --possibly sensing my high spiritual nature (joke)-- stopped dancing, approached me smiling beatifically, and simultaneously pulled out a copy of the Bhagavad Gita, when I was about 18 or 19. "Do you like George Harrison?" he asked me, as I stared at that painted stripe down his face. (Will somebody please tell me what that IS and why they wear it?)

"I LOVE George!" I replied, amazed that he had correctly guessed my favorite Beatle.

Then he showed me "George's favorite book" --the Bhagavad Gita, which for some reason was titled Bhagavad Gita As It Is. He offered it to me for a fee. I have no money, I said, and must have looked either convincingly-poor or cute, since he went ahead and gave it to me. He made me promise to read it; I solemnly promised. I had actually just intended to look at the pictures (see link), which were bloody AWESOME. I had never seen Indian art before, and certainly, never a blue-colored God, which made sense to me... I mean, if he's in the sky, right?

Not only did I read it, I took notes in the margins.

I regret to say I eventually lost my Hare Krishna-published version (bankrolled by George, and it said so right inside!), which was a lovely, large, multicolored hardcover volume, as impressive as any Bible. There were photos of various Swamis and gurus and ashrams in it and I was utterly fascinated. I studied it extensively. When I lost it, I replaced it with a more dignified, nicely-bound Bhagavad Gita, but it isn't nearly as big, pretty or flashy as the one paid for by Fab Four money.

At yard sales and used bookstores, I nose around and sometimes find other ancient holy books re-published by ISKCON, and consequently, I own several. One of these, The Path to Perfection by founder Swami Prabhupada, was also scribbled in quite a lot.

So at least they did a couple of good things.

I realize that legally, child abuse pales next to murder-for-hire (which grabbed all the headlines), but the Hare Krishna child abuse allegations were as extensive as the Catholic abuse scandal, at the time. Interestingly, the Catholic Church dug their heels in, but the Hare Krishnas, on this subject (if not others), came clean:
Three years later, [Texas lawyer Windle Turley] followed up with a $400 million lawsuit against the International Society for Krishna Consciousness [ISKCON], a Hindu missionary sect popularly known as the Hare Krishnas.

Both the Krishnas and the Catholics warned that Turley's lawsuits would drive them into bankruptcy, hurting innocent Hindus and the faithful people in the pews.

But that's not what happened -- at least for the Catholics. And the moral of the story may turn out to be that honesty may not be the best policy.

Talk to Hare Krishna spokesman Anantanda Dasa and he'll tell you that his movement did exactly what many have said the Catholic bishops should have done 15 years ago.

Long before Turley's lawsuit was filed, the Krishnas admitted they had a history of molestation and other physical abuse in their religious boarding schools, called gurukalas.

They set up an office of child protection and hired an outside investigator to study the treatment of children in this hippie-era sect, which became famous in the 1960s and 1970s for its chanting Western converts wearing saffron robes.

That report was devastating, but the Hare Krishnas published it anyway. And it was like handing Windle Turley a lawsuit on a silver collection platter.

The Krishna case, which is still in the courts, alleges that dozens of children of Hare Krishna members were abused in the 1970s at church boarding schools in Texas, West Virginia and New York.

E. Burke Rochford, a professor of sociology and religion at Middlebury College in Vermont, was the sympathetic scholar hired by the Krishnas to investigate the allegations of abuse.

His damning report, however, provided lots of material for Turley's suit as well as for others who accuse the Hare Krishnas of being an abusive and exploitive cult.
The shit first hit the fan in 2000, when there was an ABC 20/20 report about ISKCON's gurukula (religious school) system. (Transcript here.) It was ugly, indeed.

It was all downhill from there. According to news accounts, the once-robust cult has only 200 residents left.

And I hope they all leave.

*I keep wanting to say this was near Central Park in New York, since I did see them happily gyrating there all through the 70s. Then again, I might be confusing my memory with the scene in Hannah and Her Sisters, wherein Woody Allen, on a spiritual quest, is similarly given his free copy in Central Park. Woody then says to himself/us:
Who are you kidding? You're gonna be a Krishna? You're gonna shave your head and dance around at airports? You'd look like Jerry Lewis!


JoJo said...

Fascinating info Daisy. I had forgotten all about the Hare Krishnas, except for the occasional joke about them selling flowers at airports. I had no idea there was a child molestation scandal attached to them. Ick.

You might be able to find those books at the website for Powell's Books in Portland Oregon.

bryce said...

u didnt mention he was gay. nyt did.

good post, d.

Gregg Jocoy said...

The Hare Krishna also established with absolute clarity that public spaces include even privately owned air ports. By suing for the right to give away flowers, and solicit donations, in airports, they established that privately owned space which is opened to the general public can't be closed to speech just because the owners don't care for the speech.

zhinxy said...

The forehead mark is a tilak, a traditional mark to identify devotees of Krishna. The Consciousness folks use a particular shape and import the clay direct from India, if I'm not mistaken. Or at least I think they tell the followers they do, or did. In Khrishna consciousness and other, wider hinduism it marks the body as a temple, containing Khrishna and the individuals soul.

Stuart said... said...

Well, I don't really suppose this is likely to have effect.