A Swami, Paroled Into the Open Arms of His Temple

The New York Times/July 11, 2004
By Peter Duffy

New York City -- disgraced religious leader has served his time in prison and has now returned to lead his New York City flock.

Kirtananda Swami Bhaktipada was once a major figure in the Hare Krishna movement. For the past several years, he has been in a federal prison in North Carolina after pleading guilty to racketeering charges.

Released on June 16, Mr. Bhaktipada, a Peekskill native who was born Keith Gordon Ham, returned to Manhattan and took up residence in the downtown headquarters of his Hare Krishna splinter organization, the Interfaith League of Devotees, which operates out of a building on First Avenue near Second Street.

But even as he celebrated his freedom, the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, which expelled Mr. Bhaktipada in 1987, sent out a memorandum reminding its membership that he is prohibited from visiting any society temple.

Undeterred, the 66-year-old swami is resuming his ministry. And the men and women who regard him as a great teacher could not be more pleased.

"It's like having your father back," said a woman who gave her name as Eternal Love during a recent prayer session in the building's second-floor temple.

Mr. Bhaktipada was one of the first American followers of A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, an Indian holy man who opened a temple in the East Village in 1965. His organization, the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, was seen by young members of the counterculture as a thrilling novelty. Known as Hare Krishnas, his followers were famous for dancing around Tompkins Square Park in saffron robes, beating drums and chanting.

In 1968, with the society gaining in popularity, Mr. Bhaktipada found cheap land in West Virginia and began building a commune named New Vrindaban. Its centerpiece was a resplendent Palace of Gold that soon drew busloads of tourists. The domed structure had mirrored ceilings, crystal chandeliers, quartz-handled faucets, finely carved teakwood furniture, and a bevy of murals depicting scenes in Krishna's life.

But as the commune grew to include as many as 700 devotees, Mr. Bhaktipada's manner concerned his colleagues in the Hare Krishna movement. He was expelled from the society in 1987 for "numerous, serious illegal acts" as well as deviations from its teachings and elevating himself above its founder, Mr. Prabhupada.

Then, in 1990, after a two-year investigation, the federal government indicted Mr. Bhaktipada on five counts of racketeering, six counts of mail fraud and conspiracy to murder two Hare Krishna dissidents. The government alleged that Mr. Bhaktipada masterminded scams that netted a profit of more than $10.5 million over four years. It also charged that he ordered the killings - eventually committed by another Hare Krishna devotee - because the victims threatened to reveal that he sexually abused minors.

Jim Lees, a lawyer who represented Mr. Bhaktipada, said that the government was overzealous in its prosecution. Mr. Bhaktipada refused to be interviewed for this article.

The swami was convicted on 9 of 11 counts in 1991, but the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit threw out the convictions, saying that child molestation evidence had unfairly prejudiced the jury against Mr. Bhaktipada, who was not charged with those crimes.

In 1996, before Mr. Bhaktipada's retrial was completed, he pleaded guilty to one count of racketeering, admitting to his role in the scams and murders. After the swami's imprisonment, the International Society of Krishna Consciousness conducted its own investigation and determined that he had committed sexual abuse against two children, said Anuttama Dasa, communications director for the society.

Adi Purusha Das, a spokesman for Mr. Bhaktipada, characterized the charges as "totally fallacious." Mr. Bhaktipada has also been named in two civil cases that allege he allowed child sexual abuse to occur at New Vrindaban. Mr. Purusha Das also denied those charges.

Susan Howard, a community activist on the Lower East Side, said she was reluctant to jump to conclusions about sexual abuse allegations that have not been proved in court. "If he came out of prison and was a known sex offender, I would be concerned because we have so many schools in the neighborhood," she said. "But I don't believe unsubstantiated allegations are enough to cause a knee-jerk response in the community."

According to Mr. Purusha Das, Mr. Bhaktipada is dedicating his life after prison to prayer, preaching and writing.

Near the end of the worship session that was filled alternately with subdued prayers and the trademark singing of "Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna," Mr. Bhaktipada, who because of the lingering effects of childhood polio now uses a wheelchair, took to the microphone to answer questions from his disciples.

When a young man asked about confronting persecution, Mr. Bhaktipada told him not to worry, because true devotees exist on a "platform above good and evil." Only God can truly judge their worthiness, he said.

"If the Lord wants to kick me, he kicks me," he said. "If the Lord wants to embrace me, he embraces me."

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