It was supposed to be a spiritual place free from anxiety, but the Hare Krishnas' East Village Sanctuary has become the target of an ugly legal battle between two groups of devotees.
Last month, one group of Hare Krishnas who claim they make up the legal board of directors in charge of the building served eviction notices to other Hare Krishnas who say their building has been "hijacked" by outsiders who never worked for the place or belonged to their organization.
"It's like you invite guests into your home and they start taking over your kitchen and locking you out of your bedroom," said Sachit Hariyogam, 41, who faces eviction along with his two brothers, two cousins and his sister-in-law.
A splinter sect of the Hare Krishnas called the Interfaith League of Devotees founded the Sanctuary in 1998. Led by their guru Kirtanananda Swami, Interfaith devotees raised funds to purchase a six-floor warehouse building at 25 First Ave. for $500,000 and turn it into a temple and living space with a vegetarian restaurant on the ground floor.
Hariyogam and his family have been Interfaith members for most of their lives. They say they joined an Interfaith Hare Krishna temple in Malaysia as teenagers, and after raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to help establish Sanctuary, they were invited to America to work in the Sanctuary restaurant in exchange for free room and board and $50 per week.
Four out of the five alleged Interfaith board of directors, in contrast, became involved with Sanctuary only about two years ago. They belong to another Hare Krishna sect, the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, or ISKCON.
ISKCON excommunicated Kirtanananda Swami in 1986 after the guru was charged with child molestation, conspiracy to murder and racketeering. But after serving eight years in federal prison for racketeering, the guru let bygones be bygones and invited ISKCON devotees into his building as paying guests.
"Kirtanananda invited devotees of ISKCON to take care of deities, worship in the temple, and the then-board of directors asked certain people to help," said Edward Keenan, president of the alleged Interfaith board. "As far as we're concerned, there is no takeover attempt."
ISKCON devotees were aided by longtime Interfaith treasurer Susan Bauer a.k.a. "Eternal Love." Bauer invited Johann Diermann, a leader of ISKCON's community center at 26 Second Ave., to be an Interfaith board member in 2005.
The Sanctuary restaurant closed in 2005 after disputes began between Interfaith and ISKCON devotees.
Now the so-called "Interfaith League of Devotees Landlord" has served a 30-day notice demanding that Hariyogam and his family move out by July 31. And Interfaith's lawyers filed a complaint in State Supreme Court in early June charging that commercial and residential leases signed by Hariyogam's cousin, Nark Palliandy, are not valid.
The "landlord" has also turned against the original Interfaith guru.
"We'd like him to live elsewhere," Keenan said of Kirtanananda Swami.
Kirtanananda wears an eye patch over one eye to keep from seeing double and also uses a wheelchair. While not formally evicting him, ISKCON is trying to make arrangements to relocate the swami.
Hariyogam said Keenan and his posse are using "technical word jugglery" to justify their actions.
"They can quote the bylaws, but you have to see the human element as well," Hariyogam said. "Who are the ones who actually built this corporation?"