Swami Bhaktipada, 1937–2011

The errant swami of West Virginia

Swami Bhaktipada’s career as America’s foremost Hare Krishna leader began when he established the movement’s opulent headquarters in rural West Virginia in the late 1960s. It ended two decades later when he was indicted on charges of racketeering, fraud, and conspiracy to commit murder.

Bhaktipada was born Keith Gordon Ham in Peekskill, N.Y., as the son of a Southern Baptist minister, said the Associated Press. He dropped out of graduate studies at Columbia University in 1966 to become one of the first American disciples of Hare Krishna, a Hindu-based creed of spiritual devotion and abstinence. As a Krishna swami, he “set out to ‘westernize’ the religion” by chanting prayers in English, and soon left New York to set up a community for his followers.

The swami built his “sprawling golden paradise” in the hills above Moundsville, W.Va., said The New York Times. Named New Vrindaban, the 4,000-acre compound centered on the Palace of Gold, an “Eastern-inspired riot of gold-leafed domes…carved teak pillars and ornate statuary.” An elephant roamed the grounds of “the Taj Mahal of Appalachia,” and Krishna followers lived and prayed in its terraced gardens.

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The FBI raided the compound in 1987, said the Lehighton, Pa., Times News. The U.S. Department of Justice later accused Bhaktipada and other members of the commune of mail fraud and racketeering linked to unauthorized trade in caps and stickers bearing sports and cartoon logos. The swami was further accused of ordering the murders of two devotees “who defied Bhaktipada’s rule.”

Bhaktipada was expelled from the Krishna movement for “moral and theological deviations” in 1987, said the Wheeling, W.Va., News-Register. Convicted in 1991, he appealed and eventually pleaded guilty in a deal that allowed him to deny a role in the murders. He spent 12 years in jail and moved to India after his release. New Vrindaban was readmitted to the Krishna movement in 1996. John Curran, a member of the community, said little had been made of Bhaktipada’s death. “Everyone is internalizing it and letting it pass and looking forward to the future,” he said.

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