Krishnas enduring rocky time

New Vrindaban set to file bankruptcy, leader says

Charleston Daily Mail/February 23, 2002
By Chris Stirewalt

New Vrindaban -- Facing bankruptcy and being part of a national organization beset by critics on all sides, the Hare Krishna community in Marshall County is a much different place than it was during the time devotees now call "the old days."

Back in the 1980s, as many as 250,000 flocked to the temple and Palace of Gold every year to wonder at the sight of an Indian village in the West Virginia hills. Hundreds of Krishna devotees from all over the world lived, worked, played, sang and chanted at the Northern Panhandle complex.

"The concept of bringing the message of our lord to the Western world seemed very possible and reasonable. I think everyone felt that if there was faith enough, anything was possible," said Damodar, a devotee who first came to the community about 25 years ago. "Faith has great power, but now that seems like a very different time."

Now, just as the sting of the rocky decade was starting to wear off, a massive lawsuit in Texas that alleges sexual abuses at schools run by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness will likely lead to bankruptcy filings for at least a dozen temples and communities -- including New Vrindaban.

The leader here said this week that their filing is "imminent."

The loyal band of less than 100 that remains in the community acknowledges that there were serious problems in the past -- namely, the conviction of the founder of the community, the former Swami Bhaktipada, who is serving out a federal sentence at a low-security prison in Butner, N.C.

Bhaktipada, 64, who is serving his sentence as Keith Ham, was convicted in 1991 for mail fraud and three counts of racketeering, including conspiring to kill a fringe member of his sect.

Bhaktipada also was convicted of illegally selling millions of caps, bumper stickers and T-shirts bearing the Snoopy cartoon character and other copyrighted and trademarked logos as part of his community's fund-raising activities.

Prosecutors said the scheme's profits surpassed $10.5 million from 1981 to 1985.

The convictions were later overturned on a technicality, but faced with a new trial, Bhaktipada pleaded guilty to a single count of racketeering and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Former community member Thomas Drescher is serving a life sentence in West Virginia for killing two dissident former Krishnas.

In 2000, a former Hare Krishna devotee pleaded guilty to sexually abusing two girls and a woman at New Vrindaban in the late 1980s. The charges stemmed from forced sexual encounters with a 9-year-old girl, an 11-year-old girl and a 39- year-old woman.

In 1999, another member of the community, Biswanath Sarkar, failed to appear in Marshall County Magistrate Court to face charges of sexually assaulting a 16- year-old retarded girl. He remains at large.

"I think there clearly was a problem with leadership, and I think we did tend to lose our direction," said the community's new president, Kuladri Das, who was part of New Vrindaban from 1970 to 1986, but has since returned to head up the troubled group. "(Bhaktipada) was very dynamic and made people believe in endless possibilities, but power affects an individual in ways that are very often negative.

"That's why we have checks and balances now -- to restrain those kind of fundamentalist tendencies."

Now, Das said that the majority of visitors who come to New Vrindaban are Indians living in the west who treat the community as the North American pilgrimage site. Hindus must find suitable places to make pilgrimages as a part of their religion. Since many are professionals, they can help meet the pressing financial needs of the community.

The community has also started to see more people coming to special Sunday services and feasts, which serve as the major form of outreach for the faith.

"It's wonderful. We had the whole temple filled last Sunday -- easily more than 100 people," Nityodita, who is charged with outreach for the temple, said. "That makes us all very happy, to see so many people here in fellowship and enjoying themselves."

But it now seems that the fate of the community lies in the hands of the courts, and the will of people like Das and Damodar whose connections reach back to the idealistic days of the beginning of the movement.

These are the same people who worked tirelessly on the palace for only the opportunity to serve their god in building a shrine to Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, who came to America in 1965 with the mission of turning converts to Krishna. After his death, the palace turned from a home for Prabhupada to a shrine to his memory.

"They called this our labor of love," said Damodar, who now lives on one of the properties sold off by the community to reduce expenses. "We didn't really know what we were doing. We didn't know how to make concrete, or stained glass or do anything, but we were full of good intentions and hope. We just learned by doing."

The temple and palace are now showing their age, and the community is doing its best to repair them. A shortage of funds and skilled workers makes the task difficult.

The gold dome still gleams, but the walls are cracked, the bathrooms don't work and light fixtures are broken. Only one room in the palace is heated, and a weathered sign outside asks for visitors' indulgence while repairs are under way.

"That's been there too long," Damodar said with a frown. "We can't expect to have tours coming here and visitors clamoring to get in if we don't have something they want to see. . . but without the visitors, where will the money for repairs and improvements come from?"

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