Can Hare Krishnas at Palace of Gold in W.Va. rebuild its tarnished community?
By Ellen McCarthy,
The sign announced that the Palace of Gold was ahead, but somewhere along the way, pulling the steering wheel back and forth across the tight West Virginia turns, a visitor might begin to think it was wrong. That the promised land can’t be reached. Instead he’ll spend eternity driving by one-story homes that double as beauty parlors, and hillside cemeteries dotted with bright silk flowers that never lose their bloom.
Then at the top of the mountain — his hands cramped and heart racing from another near-miss with a deer — it unfolds. The palace is massive and ornate, with gilded spires cutting into the sky. Instantly, it’s evident why this place, about 15 miles southeast of Wheeling, was called America’s Taj Mahal.
“Welcome to Heaven,” a New York Times story proclaimed of New Vrindaban, once the nation’s largest Hare Krishna community. The palace opened its doors to great celebration in 1979 and became one of West Virginia’s biggest tourist attractions. Newspapers, magazines and television raved about the handiwork of the devotees who built the magnificent structure in honor of their guru.
Then came the scandal, the corruption, the child abuse and murder. The betrayal of faith, the fissions of community.
New Vrindaban is now often eerily still, the rural silence pierced only by the shrill cry of a peacock making its way along the path. In solitude, one might notice that the walls are crumbling and the paint is peeling. The palace is in decay.
But change is rumbling through the mountains: New leadership has arrived, as has a controversial new source of money. American Hindus and tourists are once again making the pilgrimage to New Vrindaban.
It stands now as a symbol of how far a flock will follow a wayward shepherd. But also how hard some will work to rebuild a place they still believe is holy.
Sankirtana Das felt a pull grow stronger as he, his wife and their two young children approached New Vrindaban on a dark winter night in 1976. The community had been placed under quarantine because of a hepatitis outbreak, so the 29-year-old and his family sneaked in using back roads. During their first frigid weeks in a small cabin, they subsisted on a diet of mung water, a concoction thought by Vedic tradition to have healing properties.
Sankirtana, born Andy Fraenkel, was the son of a Jewish father and Lutheran mother. He grew up in Manhattan, and later studied theater and filmmaking at the City University of New York.
After seeing the Hare Krishna devotees chanting in colorful robes around the city, he decided to make a short documentary for a school project. He was intrigued by the chant — especially after hearing it on the George Harrison track “My Sweet Lord” — so when he and his future wife struck out for a quieter life in Canada, they brought along the Bhagavad-Gita, the ancient Hindu scripture, and made their own beads to use when chanting the Hare Krishna mantra.
“My wife and I both felt a kinship to the meditation,” recalls Sankirtana, now 65.
They gave up marijuana and LSD, and became vegetarians. When the money ran out, they headed back to the States, stopping in Detroit to hear a talk by the founder of the Hare Krishna movement, Srila Prabhupada.
Prabhupada had sailed to New York on a freight ship in 1965 at 70. He carried with him $8, an umbrella and a command from his spiritual guru to spread to the West their religious traditions, which shared roots with Hinduism but emphasized a holy repetition of God’s name. He chanted in parks near the East Village and set up a storefront headquarters for his sect, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON).
Prabhupada’s message of material renunciation and spiritual focus resonated with counterculture types looking for higher meaning. Within a few years, he had initiated thousands into the movement. Each new devotee agreed to the four rules: no gambling, no intoxicants, no sex outside of marriage and no eating meat. They were to chant for 90 minutes or more every day and devote themselves to living in service of God, or Krishna. The men shaved their heads, save for a small tail in the back, and everyone donned saffron robes.
One of Prabhupada’s first initiates was Keith Ham, son of a Baptist minister who would take the name Kirtanananda Swami, or Swami Bhaktipada. In 1968, Kirtanananda acquired farmland in West Virginia to build a rural Hare Krishna community where devotees could seek respite and live off the land. It was named after Vrindavan, a holy city in India near Krishna’s birthplace.
By the time Sankirtana and his family arrived, eight years later, there were nearly 80 devotees living on the mountainside. The community’s motto was “Simple living, high thinking.” Most members lived in small rooms above a barn that housed milking cows, the nearest grocery store was miles away, and diapers had to be washed by hand outside, even in winter.
Sankirtana’s job was to cook breakfast and lunch. He awoke before dawn for a 4:30 a.m. devotional service, followed by chanting and meditation. Then he went outside to cook huge pots of beans and rice over wood-burning fire pits.
“It was tough, but we felt like we were pioneers,” Sankirtana recalls. “And we owned this project. It was a very communal atmosphere. You ate your meals at the temple, and if you needed a toothbrush or toothpaste, everything you needed was supplied by the temple.”
By the early 1970s, Kirtanananda had turned his focus to building a house for Prabhupada, with the hope that the aging guru, who had visited several times, would come to stay and continue his work of translating ancient Sanskrit texts.
The vision for a modest home morphed into an opulent palace. Land was cleared at the top of McCreary’s Ridge, and the devotees learned how to stain glass and lay bricks. They imported 52 varieties of onyx and marble for walls and floors. They carved furniture out of teak, constructed crystal chandeliers, painted elaborate murals on the ceilings and adorned the 10 rooms with jewels.
“We were making things up as we were going along,” Sankirtana says.
But in 1977, Prabhupada died — the Krishnas, who believe in reincarnation, would say he left his body — and plans changed again. Now the palace was to be a majestic memorial.
Two years later, the Palace of Gold opened to the public. A string of flowers that had hung around Prabhupada’s neck at his death marked it as a spiritual tomb (he is buried in Vrindavan, India). Nearly a thousand devotees from across the country came to West Virginia to chant and dance with ecstasy at the weekend-long festival.
“People always ask, ‘Why is it so opulent?’ ” Sankirtana says. “I always say, ‘This opulence is actually a manifestation of the devotees’ love and appreciation of what Prabhupada gave us.’ ”
The palace became an immediate sensation.
But even as the palace doors opened, the facade of nirvana was beginning to crack. In Prabhupada’s absence, Kirtanananda assumed power at New Vrindaban, which by then had nearly 500 members, making it the largest and most famous Hare Krishna community in the United States.
And although Prabhupada intended the community to be a self-sustaining spiritual oasis with seven temples on seven hills, the emphasis on farming and the disdain of material wealth began to slip away. Devotees were sent to airports and sporting events to work the crowd for donations — often under false pretenses — and sometimes sold counterfeit goods.
The community became heavily male-dominated. Women were forced to leave their children in communal nurseries for hours at a time. Kirtanananda’s ego grew as his sway over devotees increased. He was a slight man who walked with a limp from childhood polio, but he was charismatic and persuasive. And he tightly managed every aspect of the community: who came, who went and who was doing what at any given moment.
Kirtanananda strayed from Prabhupada’s teachings by introducing interfaith elements to the prayer services. The shifts were deeply divisive, but Kirtanananda had little tolerance for dissent.
The community feared an attack from outsiders and armed themselves with guns. Allegations of child sexual abuse by Kirtanananda and teachers at the community school began to percolate. Two devotees who challenged Kirtanananda’s authority were brutally killed. Another devotee, who was convicted of the murders, would later say he acted on the order of Kirtanananda.
Kirtanananda himself was attacked by a mentally ill visitor. After 10 days in a coma and a month in the hospital, Kirtanananda returned to New Vrindaban, and two German shepherds were acquired to guard him at all times.
Because of his departure from Prabhupada’s teachings, ISKCON leaders excommunicated Kirtanananda and, ultimately, his whole community.
After an FBI raid, a federal grand jury charged Kirtanananda with racketeering, mail fraud, conspiracy to murder and other crimes. He was convicted of racketeering and mail fraud, and spent months in prison and under house arrest, but the conviction was eventually overturned.
Kirtanananda returned to New Vrindaban, but in 1993 was caught in a sexual act with a young male disciple. Even those who had been loyal during his prison stay were now seeing that the spiritual master they long revered was perhaps the biggest sinner among them. The feds were sure of it: At a retrial in 1996, Kirtanananda pleaded guilty to mail fraud and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
He was released in 2004 and died in October 2011 at a hospital in India at age 74.
Donations from Hindu Americans had been a major source of revenue for New Vrindaban, but once news of Kirtanananda’s crimes surfaced, they shut their pocketbooks. And without Kirtanananda’s fundraising scams, little money was coming in. Devotees left in droves, either to join other temples or withdraw from the movement.
“I was too stubborn to leave,” Sankirtana recalls. “We were saying, ‘Well, wait a minute. This is not Kirtanananda’s community. This is Prabhupada’s community. We’re here to serve Prabhupada.’ ”
By the late 1990s, New Vrindaban’s population dropped to 225 members. Only 10 cows continued to produce milk. The school had fewer than a dozen students. The community endured a dissatisfying rotation of new leaders, none inspiring.
To stay afloat, New Vrindaban sold off land to members, who built houses. To pay their taxes, some became long-haul truckers, others took seasonal jobs selling Christmas gifts at mall kiosks. Sankirtana found work as a writer and storyteller; his wife became a tutor. Life became less communal, but also less restrictive.
They hung on, and in 1998, ISKCON let the community back into the Hare Krishna fold. Last year, they got a new leader, someone they felt they could trust, someone aloft in spirit and grounded in business savvy.
Today, New Vrindaban feels something like an abandoned garden. There are neglect and desolation, but also signs of beauty and new life. About 165 devotees belong, living either above the temple in an ashram, in a nearby apartment complex or in modest homes that dot the winding road. There is still a pasture of 65 cows, though 60 are too old to give milk.
New Vrindaban is most alive before 5 a.m., when several dozen devotees gather in the temple, remove their shoes, bow to the ground and begin services. While even the birds still sleep, the devotees dance and drum and sing before colorful statues of their deities.
They lay food and flowers at altars, each representing a form or facet of God. To the side sits a wax statue of a cross-legged Prabhupada. When there is a chill, devotees adjust a covering over his shoulders; in the heat they turn a fan to face him.
It is a jubilant scene, illuminated by candlelight and perfumed with incense. After 45 minutes, they will sit with prayer beads and meditate on the names of God. Then there will be more chanting and a class on scripture. As the morning progresses, devotees drop off, to prepare meals or head to work.
Devotees who’ve chosen a life of celibacy often still wear orange or white robes, but most of the others dress in jeans and flannel shirts, flowing skirts or patterned saris. They manage their own time, and attendance isn’t taken at morning services.
Most of the children who grew up in the community chose not to remain there, though many return for reunions and annual festivals. But a small stream of other young people has begun to flow in — devotees from other temples who want a quiet place to raise children or are drawn to living off the land and studying under Prabhupada’s early disciples.
Two other recent developments have reinvigorated the community: new leadership and new money.
The new leader
Take away the white robes, stocking feet and streak of clay running down his forehead, and you can almost see the businessman that Jaya Krishna once was.
He is sitting at a long table beneath a picture of Prabhupada. He is 59, though he looks a decade younger. Until 10 years ago, he was a sales executive at a software company in his native Switzerland.
But even as his career thrived, he longed for something more. “You have your house. You have your second car,” he says. “But where is happiness coming from? Is this really what life is all about?”
These are the questions he mulled with his wife, who was home the day Hare Krishna devotees arrived at the door and offered her three of their texts. “You have to read this book,” Jaya Krishna remembers her saying when he arrived home. “This book is for you.”
Six weeks later, his wife and 23-year-old son were killed in a car accident. “She was gone. And then suddenly I said, ‘Oh, there is a book somewhere I have to read,’ ” he recalls.
What he read in the Bhagavad-Gita struck a chord. He had always grappled with the question of why some people are born rich, others poor, some healthy, others disabled. The concepts of reincarnation and karma made sense. “And somehow you get this feeling, ‘Oh, that’s right,’ ” he says. “The soul is hankering for this relationship with God, and the mantra is reestablishing this relationship.”
He went to India and was initiated as a Hare Krishna. Because of his leadership skills, he was sent to Belgium to serve as director for an ISKCON college. Last year, he was asked to come to New Vrindaban.
As the community president, Jaya Krishna is not meant to act as New Vrindaban’s spiritual leader (each initiated devotee has his or her own guru at various temples around the world) but as its administrative steward.
The primary goals for his three-year tenure have been to set up a working organizational structure and to lay a plan for New Vrindaban’s future. But the first step, he says, is to help the devotees once again believe in the purpose of their community.
“Based on the history, their trust has been shattered — their faith,” he says. “We have such big potential. Everybody loves to be here. We just have to change ourselves internally so we can believe it.”
Jaya Krishna is a soft-spoken man who breaks from his office work to help serve lunch every day to other devotees and guests. Lately the guests have been making more regular appearances. American Hindus and tourists are once again making the pilgrimage, touring the Palace of Gold and taking pictures at the 25-foot-tall statues of deities overlooking a fish pond.
“I would like to support the community ... to become prosperous and focused on the instructions of our founder [Prabhupada]. That is, protect the cows, educate — everyone, not just the children — and finally, deepen and spread Krishna consciousness,” he says.
And there has been an influx in money to advance the cause.
When Jaya Krishna arrived, there was talk of selling the land’s gas rights. With the temple property, the farmland and the homeowners’ individual plots, New Vrindaban owned about 2,000 acres on the Marcellus Shale, a gas-rich stretch of earth running from Tennessee through West Virginia to Upstate New York.
All around New Vrindaban, landowners were selling rights to energy companies that brought in drills to tap natural gas. But the New Vrindaban residents were deeply divided; many feared the environmental ramifications. Almost 50 residents signed a protest letter asking ISKCON’s national governing board to stop the negotiation.
But ultimately a board of members voted to sell the rights to Chevron, arguing that the gas from their land would be tapped through nearby drills even if they didn’t make a deal, so they might as well get a cut of the money.
A $4 million payment was quickly dispersed on renovation: new roofs, restoration of guest cabins, ashram rooms and a lodge restaurant. Other payments went to a trust holding the community’s agricultural land and to individual homeowners. Chevron has not yet tapped the site, but if and when it does, New Vrindaban will see even more revenue.
Jaya Krishna is hoping the spruced-up grounds will bring an influx of visitors. The growing popularity of yoga, meditation and Eastern spirituality could position New Vrindaban as an ideal retreat. He envisions expanded accommodations, educational offerings, shops. The community also hopes to acquire more milking cows and revitalize the agricultural program.
There is a renewed emphasis on living off the land, and young followers interested in the local food movement consider the community a mecca.
“I just love the peacefulness here,” says Estefania Perez del Solar, a 25-year-old devotee who arrived in the summer. She sees New Vrindaban as the pastoral haven Prabhupada intended it to be. She was not born when Kirtanananda was banned from the place. To her, the history is an interesting footnote, not the defining truth.
Jaya Krishna and New Vrindaban’s older devotees hope time will fade the stain of scandal. That their guru’s vision will once again flourish on the mountaintop.
Ellen McCarthy is a Washington Post staff writer.