By J.W. JOHNSON JR.
MOUNDSVILLE - As word of Swami Bhaktipada's death traveled from India to the rolling hills of Marshall County last week, members of the New Vrindaban community the man founded remained quiet.
Photos by J.W. Johnson Jr.
Crews work on the roof of the Palace of Gold, the crown jewel of the New Vrindaban community. Officials said a $4 million restoration project is on tap for the building over the next five years.
As the number of members living on the campus has shrunk in the nearly 20 years since Bhaktipada left the community after a conviction on racketeering charges, only a handful of the current 250 members were around, let alone alive, when Bhaktipada's actions brought the community into the national spotlight. However, those in charge of the community said they will always remember the past and work to move New Vrindaban forward.
Under Bhaktipada's leadership, New Vrindaban grew into what at one time was the nation's largest Hare Krishna community. In the late 1960s, Bhaktipada and his lifelong partner, the late Howard Morton Wheeler, formed New Vrindaban. They started with about 132 acres and eventually acquired nearly 5,000 acres, becoming a destination for pilgrims in the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, or ISKCON.
Bhaktipada took over the community in the 1970s but was in trouble with ISKCON by 1987, when the governing body expelled him for ''moral and theological deviations."
"He was a strong leader, but suddenly there were these charges that he had deviated from our standards," said Jaya Krsna Das, community president for New Vrindaban.
That included murder charges, complaints of child abuse, fraud and racketeering charges. Former U.S. Attorney William Kolibash, who brought federal charges against Bhaktipada in the late 1980s, said his office received tips of what was going on at New Vrindaban and eventually found evidence of Bhaktipada's actions.
"He was not a pleasant person," Kolibash, a Wheeling attorney, said.
In 1987, Kolibash accused Bhaktipada of ordering the killings of two devotees who had threatened his control of New Vrindaban. One dissident, Charles St. Denis, was killed in 1983 at New Vrindaban. Another, Stephen Bryant, was killed three years later as he sat in his van in Los Angeles.
Bhaktipada denied any involvement in the killings, though another man was convicted of the murders and testified that the swami ordered him to commit the slayings.
Prosecutors also alleged that Bhaktipada had amassed more than $10 million through illegal fundraising schemes, including the sale of hats and bumper stickers bearing copyrighted and trademarked logos. Kolibash said many organizations, including Major League Baseball and Charles Schulz, creator of the Peanuts comic strip, helped in bringing charges against the swami.
Kolibash said the practices encouraged by Bhaktipada were occurring across the country, with devotees following a standard pitch line at sporting events and concerts.
"They would come up to you and say 'you are under arrest for having too much fun,'" he said. "Then they'd say for $5 you can buy this sticker and be let go, and they did this all over the country."
Bhaktipada appealed his 1991 racketeering conviction, then pleaded guilty at a second trial in August 1996 and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. A judge reduced the sentence to 12 years in 1997, citing Bhaktipada's poor health.
Decades of Separation
During the course of his legal troubles, Bhaktipada lost the support of his New Vrindaban followers and left the community entirely in 1994. Shortly afterward, the community petitioned to rejoin ISKCON, and it was restored to full membership in 1996. Kolibash said ISKCON and other members of New Vrindaban played a crucial role in bringing charges against and eventually convicting Bhaktipada.
"They were very cooperative with us, and they obviously had a stake in it because this man disgraced them as a community," he said.
Krsna Das said after Bhaktipada left the community, he also ceased communication, which allowed for members to look ahead and begin to distance themselves from the disgraced former leader.
"As a community, we know this is part of our past, and at that time we committed to a new direction," he said.
Part of that new direction included bringing in new members and returning to the moral and spiritual traditions of ISKCON. John Curran, a 29-year-old Kansas City native, joined the community earlier this year and said he is aware of the community's past.
"I had visited this place a number of times for festivals, and I had always liked it," he said. "I knew about the past, but I also knew the spirit of this place and so I didn't let the past interfere with my decision."
Krsna Das said most members of the outside community recognize the change in direction New Vrindaban has taken, though there are a few exceptions.
"It is clear the remaining portion of people who have ideas about our past haven't had a chance to meet with us and see what we are really doing here," he said.
Curran said not much was made last week after the community learned of Bhaktipada's death. He said the community expected the reaction that his death spurred from those outside the community, but inside the walls there was little to no conversation.
"There hasn't been any formal gathering to discuss" his death, he said. "Everyone is internalizing it and letting it pass and looking forward to the future."
A New Direction
Krsna Das said the community has plenty on its plate, with a 25-year plan recently created. That includes a complete restoration of the Palace of Gold over the next five years, a $4 million project.
Additionally, the community hopes to build modern apartments for younger families and returning members as they aim to grow the number of devotees. And, in the near future, officials are hoping to construct a hotel and seminar area to accommodate the more than 25,000 visitors that travel to the site every year.
The community signed over its natural gas rights in 2010 for $2,500 per acre for 4,000 acres, a $10 million up-front windfall that will help complete the upgrades.
"I foresee we are a growing community," Krsna Das said, adding the community also hopes to eventually become entirely self-sufficient in food and energy production. Curran said he believes the potential for the community is "huge" and that he and other young people are the new generation that will help take it to the next level.
"I feel like I represent a new generation that wants to establish this place and lead it to new places," he said.