One Man's Road to Hare Krishna

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    Clan's Chants for Survival

By Frank Ahrens
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 8, 1991; Page F01

t's almost noon, time for services in the Temple of Understanding, the hub of community activity here at New Vrindaban, the largest Hare Krishna community in North America. Devotees -- some in saffron robes, some in jeans and T-shirts, some with shaven heads, some not -- stroll into the temple, a two-story, dark wood structure nestled in the lush West Virginia countryside. Inside, the unsettling aroma of hot vegetarian lunch mixed with incense hangs heavy in the room. Krishna chanting swells and ebbs to the surprising harmony of an unlikely orchestra: an organ, harpsichord, accordion, violin, tambourine, flute, bells, chimes and a thunderous bass drum.

An hour passes. Meditation time is declared, and a sepulchral silence descends. Only a few sounds break the temple's stillness on this hot summer day: The click-click of devotees fingering strings of prayer beads. The loud pop of a joint cracking as someone shifts in a chair.

Then, startlingly, the ring of a telephone.

A man bounces up from his lotus position on the polished parquet floor and hustles over to an altar upon which sit three lavishly upholstered thrones. On the highest one, in the middle, is a life-size wax figure of A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the late holy man who brought Krishna Consciousness to the United States in 1965. To its right and below it, in a less exalted position, is a wax figure of Jesus Christ, also in a lotus position, looking somewhat more Eastern than in his depictions by the Renaissance masters.

The third throne -- on the same level as Christ's -- contains both the ringing phone and a framed 8-by-10 glossy smiling color photograph of Kirtanananda Swami Bhaktipada, born Keith Ham, guru and spiritual leader of everyone in the room and, worldwide, of many hundreds of other devotees of this breakaway, renegade Krishna sect.

It is Bhaktipada who admits new members, assigns all jobs, sets all rules, punishes transgressors. It is only with his blessing that Krishna members are permitted to marry and have children. He must authorize each act of coitus.

The phone is answered, switched onto a Duophone 102 Electronic Telephone Amplifier, hooked up to the temple's public address system.

It's Bhaktipada calling. From prison.

Nearly every day since he was convicted March 29 for racketeering and conspiracy to commit murder, Swami Bhaktipada (pronounced BOK-tee-pod) has telephoned his devotees after noon worship.

"Guess where I am?" Bhaktipada teases, his high-pitched voice made staticky by the speakerphone.

"Where?" several people call out.

"I'm in Wheeling!"

This is news to most of the rank-and-file devotees. Bhaktipada, as part of a bail arrangement, has just been moved from a jail in the state's eastern panhandle, near where his trial was held, to a jail in Wheeling. He is now closer to his flock, awaiting appeal. Soon, in a private home, he will be fitted with an electronic surveillance device and placed under house arrest, tagged like a deer in a preserve.

The devotees greet this news with a whoop. Then, as every day, the questions begin. From the impossibly broad ("Who am I?") to the painfully mundane ("What should we do about the trees that lost leaves?"), devotees seek their spiritual master's counsel, which usually is delivered in platitudinous doses that, to the uninitiated, seem inscrutable.

"What if we perceive you don't love us?" one young man hesitantly asks.

"That means you don't have faith in the spiritual master {me}. ... If you surrender to Krishna, all will work for the good."

Another man approaches the speakerphone. "Why did some people get dropped out when reapplying? Wasn't that kind of heavy?" (The Krishnas recently held a rededication service -- similar to a reaffirmation of marriage vows. Some longtime devotees, while wishing to remain in the group, declined to reaffirm their allegiance to Bhaktipada and likely will be stripped of their Sanskrit names and receive a one-year "probation," during which they must reprove their dedication.)

Bhaktipada answers: "Yes, but just as a parent chastises a child, if the spiritual master loves us, he will be a little firm. The scriptures tell us the master will simultaneously be like a rose and a thunderbolt. ... Please understand this is for your own good." An uncomfortable silence follows.

Crippled by polio as a child, beaten into a 20-day coma four years ago by a former devotee wielding an iron rod, the 53-year-old Bhaktipada is not in the best of health. On the other end of the line, he coughs and hacks. A thunderous rasp rattles around the temple.

Bhaktipada recovers. "Well, if that's all, let's sing." The devotees rise, join hands and intone a Krishna hymn.

When it is over, Bhaktipada hangs up, returning to his cell where he will write his flock more lessons, which arrive almost daily by mail. The 200 followers, who awoke at 4 for the morning service, now break for lunch. They will go back to work -- some farm, some run Krishna stores, some care for children, some tend to the upkeep of the 4,000-acre complex -- and return to the temple at 7 p.m. for the day's final service. Their day is as regimented as a soldier's.

An observer has dozens of questions, but two stand out: How did these people ever come to be here, and now that their spiritual master is a convicted felon, why do they stay?

'Put Down "Zero" for Money'
The ride out of New Vrindaban to the blacktop that leads to town is a chassis-rattling four miles. Goldfinches dart and bob in front of you, like porpoises leading the bow of a ship.

Along the road, you see houses buttressed with cinder blocks, concrete, railroad ties and bricks. Dirt and gravel driveways ramp up from the road at crazy, oil-pan-busting angles.

As you roller-coaster into Moundsville you pass the Fostoria Glass plant, closed for years. Nearby is a metal stamping plant, also closed.

This is Moundsville, population 12,000, the county seat of Marshall County, home of the Krishnas. Of the 86 percent of adult county residents who have jobs, a third are farmers. The per capita income is $8,087 ("Just put down 'zero' for money, because none of us have any," quips one worker in the county assessor's office) and 99.03 percent of county residents are white.

For the past two decades, since they first hacked out their 4,000-acre commune in an inhospitable tract of muddy bramble and forest in West Virginia's northern panhandle, the Krishnas have been "out there" to Marshall County residents. The distance between the two communities is widened not only by the rough countryside but by the palpable cultural gulf. To townspeople, the Krishna community has always been that big, dark house at the end of the street where the grass is a little too high and the lights come on at odd hours. You don't know if there's something wrong inside, but you suspect the worst.

The resentment that exists toward the Krishnas is easily explained by the way they look, the way they dress, the exclusionary lifestyle they practice. But it also comes from seeing them in welfare lines, from seeing them buy groceries with food stamps, from seeing them go to free clinics.

In a county such as Marshall, where unemployment runs more than twice the national average, that makes the Krishnas ordinary citizens, though many in town will raise this point: The people of Marshall County didn't ask to have the hard times brought on them; the Krishnas willingly relinquished their wordly belongings to join the movement.

If they are victims, the locals maintain, they are victims of no one except themselves.

This is Robert Lightner's belief. He's the sheriff of Marshall County. It's his county, he's the law over all of it, even -- and especially -- the Krishnas.

Lightner, a barrel-chested, red-faced man with gray hair and a quick smile, has been sheriff for much of the Krishnas' two-decade stay here. He was instrumental in the investigation that ended in Bhaktipada's conviction.

Bhaktipada was found guilty of two principal crimes. The first was that he commandeered a criminal enterprise that solicited funds fraudulently, by claiming to represent more mainstream religious or charitable organizations. The second was that Bhaktipada tacitly authorized a murder; that when a devotee requested permission to kill his wife's lover, Bhaktipada advised that such a thing was authorized under ancient Hindu law.

His appeal, to be handled by celebrity constitutional lawyer Alan Dershowitz, is expected to contend in a December oral argument that the jury was tainted by religious prejudice fostered by the prosecution.

Sheriff Lightner is not bashful about expressing his opinion of the Krishnas. He doesn't like the way they look, he doesn't like the way they panhandle in the streets. Mostly, he doesn't like the way they chant and sing and seem almost zombified by their faith. Sometimes, he wonders if it's a faith at all.

"You could start a religion worshiping coffee cups and you'd get followers, because a lot of people love coffee. And you'd get rich."

The sheriff scowls.

"I don't believe this is what our Founding Fathers were talking about when they said 'freedom of religion.' "

The Guru's Tough Rules
New Vrindaban is a sprawling place, governed by stricture. In a glass case on the wall of the dining room are about two dozen community rules and the punishments for breaking them. The No. 1 no-no is a physical attack upon Bhaktipada; this will result in immediate expulsion. Farther down the list but also prohibited is a conversation in a "secluded place" between an unmarried member of one sex and an unmarried member of the opposite sex. This is punishable by a one-day prohibition against speaking.

Most of the people here are white, almost all are Americans, and almost all are long-timers, having lived here for more than a decade. Almost all have developed a reflexive defensiveness about their jailed leader: He is a martyr to their faith, they believe, victimized by a nation that boasts religious freedom but squelches it when you act too weird. They say he is no more a fanatic dictator than was Christ.

"Look," says Gadadhar das, the blue-jeaned public affairs director of New Vrindaban, "if anybody did anything 24 hours a day like we do, people would think they were fanatics."

On this morning at New Vrindaban, two Krishna kids -- Sukadevi Bauer, 12, and her sister, Narahari, 10 -- hugged their mother goodbye. She, along with other devotees, packed a beat-up navy blue Ford Econoline van with T-shirts, hats and other paraphernalia and headed out on a one-month fund-raising trip. The sanskrit word for what they will do is sankirtan, though most Westerners probably would call it begging. The hollow walls of the van are packed with pink Fiberglas insulation -- devotees sleep in the vans and shower by dousing themselves with buckets of water, even in winter. They will crisscross the country, asking for donations in exchange for their goods. This community survives on these funds, as well as on outright cash gifts, mostly from wealthy Asians.

While their mother is away, Sukadevi and Narahari will be cared for by others, by the vast extended family that is New Vrindaban. The girls do not see this as an abandonment or an imposition; it is simply part of the cadence of their lives.

Sukadevi is an intriguing work in progress. She has dark, chin-length hair, a crystal on a string around her neck and adult teeth elbowing out baby ones. Like all the children and teens, she wears Western clothes. Both she and her sister are American and were born at New Vrindaban and both are keenly aware of the sort of image problem the Krishnas have. "It's just a religion," Sukadevi offers.

Which is followed instantly by an unsolicited comment from 10-year-old Narahari, who looks like a young Isabella Rossellini with a Beatles haircut and scuffed-up knees:

"We're not a cult."

Capitalism, Krishna-Style
Down a curvy road behind the temple is a small school where Sukadevi, Narahari and about 30 other Krishna kids through mid-high school attend classes. Others go to public schools. One Krishna boy will play football at John Marshall High in nearby Glen Dale this fall.

Rumbling up the steep brick-and-gravel road from the temple, Gadadhar, our guide, is remembering what brought him to Krishna in 1969. His story is typical. He was Jewish, from a strict family where achievement was demanded. Everything in his family was result-oriented; nothing was contemplative. His older brother became an engineer.

"I believed that to change the world, you had to change your consciousness," he says. And so he became a Krishna.

He quit the movement a couple years after he joined and returned to New York City, where he was a cab driver for a year and a half. Why did he leave?

"Quite frankly, I was having trouble with the celibacy."

Now, though he has a wife and two children at New Vrindaban, he lives by himself in a room above the temple, near other celibate men. The celibate women live on the other side of temple's second floor. The purpose of the Krishnas' denial-based lifestyle -- "simple living, high thinking" -- is to remove sensual pleasures to focus the mind on God. At 46, Gadadhar says he is finally succeeding in this, and it has brought him peace.

As we approach the top of the hill above the temple, "simple living" is not the phrase that comes to mind. "Ornate," "extravagant," "bizarre" seem to fit better. Prabhupada's Palace of Gold looms over the horizon. It is probably the most unusual structure in the state.

The rose-and-black, two-story, gold-domed palace is a paean to Indian architecture. Its dome is gilded with 22-karat gold leaf, making it one of only two gold-roofed structures in the state, the other being the state capitol in Charleston.

In 1973, Bhaktipada ordered this palace built as a home for his aging guru, Prabhupada. Unskilled devotees studied do-it-yourself books and built the palace on their own, a laudable effort but one for which the community is paying, as improperly mixed concrete is crumbling and needs constant maintenance. Prabhupada's 1977 death only inspired workers to finish what would become a monument to their movement's founder in America.

At the palace gift store and jewelry shop, Madhurya lila -- or Meg Phillips to her technical theater classmates at Drexel University -- puts in a 10-hour day. She is 41, an imposing woman with long salt-and-pepper hair tied in two braids, one on each side of her silver, wire-rim glasses.

Her job is part store manager, part jewelry maker. She sells everything from books on American Indian religion to bead trinkets to enviro-T-shirts to those thousand-dollar custom-made altars for convenient in-home worship of Krishna. Thousands of outsiders each year visit the temple; most end up in the gift shop.

The former editor of a science fiction magazine, Phillips is asked if her life is better now than before she became a Krishna.

"I don't like to use terms like 'better' and 'worse' because I don't like to be judgmental," she says. To illustrate, here's what she would tell her 17-year-old son if he told her he wanted to try drugs: "I would say, 'That is something I choose not to do anymore, but if you want to do it, I know where we can get clean, safe drugs for you to try.' I don't have the right to tell him not to do that."

Visitors, mostly white, elderly couples -- the very picture of the establishment -- filter in and out of Phillips's gift shop, browsing, asking questions and buying. "Is that a Buddha out there?" asks one short, graying man with a flat Midwestern accent. "That's Prabhupada, who brought the movement to this country," Phillips says. "But Buddha's coming!"

The man laughs uncertainly, not quite sure what she means. What she means is that large sculptures of Buddha, Muhammad, Christ and other religious leaders will soon encircle Prabhupada's icon, creating a poly-spiritual sculpture garden.

"Is this the main headquarters of the sect?" another man asks.

"This is the largest temple in the United States," Phillips evades.

"But is this, like, the head of the international organization?"

"No. This community split with the International Society for Krishna Consciousness -- ISKCON -- a few years ago."

Well, that's one side of the story. ISKCON says it kicked Bhaktipada and New Vrindaban out for breaking religious tenets; that he's a greedy megalomaniac who exerts unusual control over his disciples. At Bhaktipada's May 10 bail hearing, the head of the Philadelphia Krishna temple -- an ISKCON temple -- testified that Bhaktipada's followers would encircle him if he were allowed to return to New Vrindaban and that authorities were risking a Jonestown-like holocaust by releasing the guru. New Vrindaban Krishnas find this ridiculous and say ISKCON is jealous because Bhaktipada is so popular.

To Phillips, Bhaktipada is like a father, and their relationship has moved from that of father-little girl to father-adult child as she and he have grown older together.

"Years ago, I never would have disagreed with Bhaktipada, but now, whoo, boy, do we go head-to-head." If she wants to "do this" and Bhaktipada says "do that," she explains, there are two options: (A) She'll convince him that his is not a good idea or (B) she won't convince him and will go ahead and do it, cursing him under her breath. But even if she was right and Bhaktipada's decision turned out to be a bad one, he gets off the hook: "If it was a bad decision, there was a lesson I needed to learn."

Her job is one example: She didn't want to run the gift shop. She didn't want to have anything to do with merchandising. She'd done it on the outside, and it was one of the things she wanted to leave behind. But Bhaktipada told her to do it, she obeyed and now, she says, she enjoys it. By buying merchandise to sell in the store, she says, "I get to spend other people's money!"

For the second half of her day, Phillips moves over to the store's jewelry shop, where real and fake jewels, beads, electroplated metal, wire and so on are crafted by needle-nose pliers, hammers and other tools into jewelry for the statuary of deities the Krishnas worship. The devotees dress in robes or simple clothes with little or no adornment; the deities are dressed to the nines for the glory of Krishna. The devotees live in spare conditions -- Phillips lives in a semi-refurbished, burned-out trailer.

As she works the pliers and crimps metal around jewels in what will be a ruby crown for a deity, she is asked what good she and the other devotees are doing for civilization in general. Can't you seek God and try to contribute to society as well?

"That's a good point," she says. Crimp, crimp, crimp. The way she explains it, monasteries such as New Vrindaban -- be they Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, whatever -- are generators of prayer being sent up to the heavens, 24 hours a day. Imagine those high-powered spotlights the British used in World War II to sweep the skies for Nazi bombers. Now, imagine not light but beams of concentrated prayer firing up onto the heavens, searching out the deity, from a Buddhist monastery in Tibet. From a Christian monastery in England. From a Hare Krishna monastery in West Virginia. Contributions from outsiders are fair retribution for the spiritual labor done on their behalf at New Vrindaban, devotees say.

When she gets home, Phillips cooks a vegetarian dinner and watches a little TV. Public television, the weather, or maybe even -- her voice drops low, conspiratorially naughty -- "regular TV!" This is a woman who, probably half out of devotion and half out of revolutionary irony, wrote in Prabhupada's name -- nine years after his death -- when she voted in the 1988 presidential election.

Maybe tonight she'll work on her word processor. She explains she is editing a manuscript for a book sent to her by a devotee named Tirtha.

The name seems familiar.

Isn't Tirtha also known as Thomas Drescher, she is asked.

Yes, she says, cheerfully.

Thomas Drescher is the man serving a lifetime prison term for the murder of his wife's lover. This is the man whose crime, a jury concluded, was okayed by Bhaktipada.

Tirtha is still a Krishna member in good standing, Phillips explains. In prison, she says, he has been growing spiritually.

The world does not operate in black and white, Phillips says. Neither do the Krishnas.

"We're a microcosm of society here," she explains.

Twisted Paths of Thought
Talking to the Krishnas can be a maddening exercise in trying to decipher abstruse parables. It can also be a treat.

"Hari bol," says Pradyumna, a handsome 29-year-old Indian Krishna. A former Indian national champion in table tennis and badminton, Pradyumna is a host for visitors, mainly Indian, of which there are many. He spends a lot of time thinking about things.

"Just the other day, I was considering the clouds," he says. "Millions of tons of water can fall from them and not hurt anyone. In fact, it gives life. But if you were to drop a glass of water from the top of the temple, you'd probably kill someone. That is the difference between God's work and man's work."

The newest, biggest thing at New Vrindaban is the interfaith movement. Structural steel is being raised for a huge, $2 million cathedral, a place where people of all faiths can come, experience different religions, keep what they like and throw out what they don't. A spiritual salad bar, of sorts.

"We have to find the best package for the '90s," Gadadhar says, with Madison Avenue glibness. "The place of robes and ponytails in the future may be in India."

It's not unusual to hear "Amazing Grace" set to Krishna lyrics here ("Hare Krishna, how sweet thou art, that saved a wretch like me ..."). Also, the Hare Krishna mantra, chanted hundreds of times daily by devotees, is sung to the melodies of Bach, Handel and Chopin.

New Vrindaban's brand of Krishna Consciousness is like a sailboat tacking to the wind. Yachts in races often will not sail a straight line -- they will cut zig-zag, pinking-shears-like patterns to catch the best wind, keeping the same course but deviating from side to side. Likewise, these Krishnas have modified their worship, their fund-raising, their image to seem less alien. Tack to port, tack to starboard.

It is hard to know what to make of New Vrindaban. There is surely no evil presence here. The dark, forbidding house at the end of the block turns out to be a kind of okay place. One finds no spiritual zombies, just vulnerable souls. There is life and hope and spirit; but there is also a troubling sense of resignation. Troubling, at least, to outsiders.

On this day, Sukadevi and Narahari are going to meet up with some other Krishna kids to discuss starting up a hangout on the community grounds. They formed a group -- Creative Kids Inc. -- to take over some rooms in an old Ashram, so they can have a place to "be constructive with our time." It sounds suspiciously, and delightfully, like a clubhouse.

Then, Madhumongala das wanders over. A devotee at New Vrindaban since 1979, he came to Krishna after "chanting om for two years as an art student."

In the dining room hangs one of his paintings. It is striking, a vibrant 5-by-2-foot portrait of the Hindu deity Jagannatha.

Madhumongala painted it in 1985. It was the last time he held a brush.


"I'll paint again if Bhaktipada says I can," says Madhumongala das. There is no trace of regret in his voice.

"I was too much in Maya," he explains. What he means is that his pride in his work distracted him from his search for God. The Krishna devil, Maya, had captured him.

So how has his life gone, at New Vrindaban?

He points with this thumb to his fourth finger, which bears a wedding ring. Under orders from Bhaktipada, he married a Pittsburgh nurse's aide he met on a fund-raising trip, and with whom he had "illicit sex." The wedding came after his tryst was discovered and he was forced to read a confession of his transgression to the assembled devotees.

"It was for the best, though," Madhumongala says earnestly.

As it grows dark, he excuses himself to play chess against his computer. Pride in one's chess-playing ability is not forbidden, as far as he knows. Madhumongala is good at the game, and finds pleasure in sharing his talent by teaching chess to a Krishna kid.

"I don't need permission for that," he explains.

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