Kirtanananda Swami Bhaktipada: The Myth and the Man
BY: HENRY DOKTORSKI (HRISHIKESH DASA)
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Sep 26, 2011 PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA, USA (SUN)
Kirtanananda Swami, also known as Swami Bhaktipada, was the charismatic, controversial and notorious ISKCON guru and co-founder of the New Vrindaban Hare Krishna community in Marshall County, West Virginia, where he served as the ultimate spiritual authority for 26 years (from 1968 until 1994). He was excommunicated from ISKCON in 1987 and later served eight years in Federal prison for racketeering. He is the author of more than two dozen books. Recent reports from India indicate that he appears to be on his deathbed.
vrndavanam dhama praksitam tu
yenaiva tam sri-prabhupada-prestham
sri-bhaktipadam satatam stumas tam
prasadam adhyam vilasantam eva
vaikuntha-dhameva manim tu yasmat
sri-bhaktipadam satatam stumas tam
ajnapayaj jiva-kulam krpaluh
gurupadesanugatir ya eva
sri-bhaktipadam satatam stumas tam
bhaktam prasantam para-tositam tu
subhotsaham suddha-matim sukham ca
sri-bhaktipadam satatam stumas tam
dharmam param bhagavatam nibodhan
bhaktan sada sasti sutarka-nathah
sri-bhaktipadam satatam stumas tam
bhaktaih stuto yah paramarjavo vai
sri-bhaktipadam satatam stumas tam
samsarinas carvita-carvanan yah
sammajjavaty eva krpambudo vai
sri-krsna-premabdhi-vare 'mrte tu
sri-bhaktipadam satatam stumas tam
santis tu yasya prabhupada-siksa-
nisthapi daksyam tapa isa-bhaktih
sarvesu lokesu suhrt-svabhavah
sri-bhaktipadam satatam stumas tam
Let us sing about the unlimited transcendental qualities of His Divine Grace Kirtanananda Swami Bhaktipada, who is very dear to Srila Prabhupada because of his spontaneous love and devotion, the mature fruit of which is the New Vrindaban Project, which is boldly preaching the glories of Lord Caitanya all over the world.
This love for Srila Prabhupada has blossomed as the gem of Srila Prabhupada’s Palace, the effulgence of which shines brilliantly throughout the universe. In this way Srila Bhaktipada has manifested the opulence of Vaikuntha for attracting every conditioned soul to Krishna consciousness. Therefore, let us always glorify the wonderful attributes of His Divine Grace.
Let us offer prayers in worship of His Divine Grace Srila Bhaktipada. He is delivering the message of the absolute realm to every soul in this world by fulfilling the order of Srila Prabhupada to establish New Vrindaban as a model Krishna conscious community in the Western World.
He possesses all the qualities of a pure devotee; he is always self-satisfied, and always carries within his heart Sri Sri Radha-Vrindaban Candra. Thus, he infects everyone with his ecstatic, enthusiastic serving mood to their Lordships. Therefore, let us sing about the wonderful attributes of Srila Bhaktipada.
Let us chant hymns in praise of His Divine Grace Srila Kirtanananda Swami Bhaktipada, who fully knows the meaning of the scriptures and always enlightens the devotees on the transcendental science of Krishna consciousness. By his undefeatable logic he establishes firmly the truth of Bhagavata-dharma.
Let us sing about the unlimited transcendental qualities of His Divine Grace Kirtanananda Swami Bhaktipada, who appeared in this world simply for the purpose of helping to spread the mission of the Goswamis. From the very beginning he was the first in helping Srila Prabhupada with every aspect of his preaching.
Let us sing the glories of His Divine Grace, who is pouring torrents of devotion from the ocean of his heart, which is over flooded with Krishna-prema, into the desert-like minds of the conditioned souls, who are rotting within this material world, chewing the chewed again and again.
Completely fixed in the instructions of Srila Prabhupada, determined to execute them, fully controlled, an ocean of wisdom, friendly to all living beings, always peaceful, effulgent, expert, grave, completely detached, all these are simply a drop in the limitless list of spiritual attributes of His Divine Grace Srila Kirtanananda Swami Bhaktipada, who we attempt to glorify.
Kirtanananda Swami has become a mythological figure, even as early as c. 1972 when the residents of New Vrindaban first began idolizing him as a pure devotee. I believed these myths for fifteen years when I served him at New Vrindaban as his disciple, and for a number of years after I left his service.
However, during the last decade since I began research for a book—originally intended to be a history of the New Vrindaban Community, but now becoming finalized as a biography of Kirtanananda Swami—I discovered that many of these myths about Kirtanananda—as evidenced in all their glory in the above eight verses of the Bhaktipadastakam Prayers which I used to daily chant every morning when I was out on the “pick”—were simply fabricated fictions adopted by him to deceive his followers into believing that he was worthy of their worship, devotion and unalloyed service.
In my journeys to gather accurate and reliable information I have traveled to New York, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Tennessee and other places to search through libraries and interview people who knew the man before he met Prabhupada. I have also interviewed devotees who knew him during the early days of ISKCON in the 1960s and dozens of others who knew him during the 70s, 80s and 90s. Hidden pieces of the puzzle of his life were recovered and the completed picture that gradually emerged was very different than the propaganda which I read in the Journal of the New Vrindaban Community: Brijabasi Spirit.
I had intended to wait until my book is published before presenting to the public certain previously-unknown details of Kirtanananda’s history, but now that his earthly existence is ending I feel that I must share with the world at least some of the formerly-secret aspects of his life which shed invaluable light on his pyschology and help explain many of his incomprehensible behaviors.
Some of my godbrothers and sisters who still worship Kirtanananda and others who may no longer worship and serve him but hold him dear within their hearts will consider this advance-obituary to be little more than a fault-finding exposé which reveals my inner hatred of the man. Indeed, when interviewing devotees, I found that some refused to speak about incidents which might tarnish his reputation. I think they felt like they were protecting him. One told me that I should just forgive the man and stop my writing; another told me not to speak ill of the dead.
I am sorry that they feel that way, but I do not share their opinions. I believe truth should be told, even if unpalatable. One should call a spade a spade. Should we all continue to pretend that a naked king is wearing beautiful, but invisible, garments? Better to be outspoken like the boy who shouts, “The king is naked!” thereby waking up those blinded by illusion. Truthfulness is the last religious quality left in kali-yuga. If we cannot be truthful, what can we be?
Prabhupada explained, “Satyam, truthfulness, means that facts should be presented as they are for the benefit of others. Facts should not be misrepresented. According to social conventions, it is said that one can speak the truth only when it is palatable to others. But that is not truthfulness. The truth should be spoken in a straight and forward way, so that others will understand actually what the facts are. If a man is a thief and if people are warned that he is a thief; that is truth. Although sometimes the truth is unpalatable, one should not refrain from speaking it. Truthfulness demands that the facts be presented as they are for the benefit of others. That is the definition of truth.”
It is ironic that Kirtanananda used to be fond of quoting Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “Though the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceedingly small.” To my godbrothers and sisters who are still emotionally attached to this man, my sincere wish is that “ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
Kirtanananda was born Keith Gordon Ham on September 6, 1937, the son of a Southern Baptist minister. As a child, he imbibed his father’s missionary spirit and attempted to convert classmates to his family’s faith. Despite an acute case of polio which he contracted around his 17th birthday, he graduated with honors from Peekskill High School (New York) in 1955. In high school and college he excelled at debate. During summer vacations, Keith served as a counselor at Camp Bouman in Freeport, New York.
Ham received a Bachelor of Arts degree in History from Maryville College in Maryville, Tennessee on May 20, 1959 and graduated magna cum laude, first in his class of 117. He then received a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship to study American history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he remained for three years. There he met a twenty-year-old undergraduate English major originally from Mobile, Alabama, who—from their first meeting at Tanya’s gay bar in Chapel Hill in mid-October 1960—became his lifelong friend and lover: Howard Morton Wheeler (1940-1989).
Ham and Wheeler resigned from the university on February 3, 1961 after being threatened with an investigation regarding an alleged sex scandal. They abandoned their classes at UNC rather than face an accusation of pederasty (having sexual relations with a boy). Throughout much of the rest of his life Ham (and Wheeler also, for that matter) was plagued by this chronic sexual addiction which he tried to keep secret, but his clandestine activities were eventually revealed and this ultimately proved to be his undoing.
After leaving Chapel Hill, Ham and Wheeler traveled to Merrick, Long Island, where they briefly stayed with Keith’s parents, then moved into an apartment in Manhattan where they explored the milieu of the 1960s counterculture. The two smoked marijuana and experimented with LSD. To support himself Keith worked as a reviewer of unemployment claims.
Keith enrolled at Columbia University (1961-64) where he received a Waddell Fellowship to study religious history, but due to personal anxieties related to his inability to control his persistent habits of intoxication and promiscuous sex (he used to spend entire days hanging out in the subway restrooms enjoying anonymous sexual encounters when he should have been listening to lectures, studying or writing papers), he became disoriented and discouraged. Keith began cutting classes and finally quit academic life for good, although all he needed to get his degree was to take the written exam for his Ph. D. His life was a mess.
Frustrated by his continual failure to control his passions, it seems he decided that his life could only be saved if he found an enlightened spiritual master who could teach him to transcend the insatiable demands of his untamed senses. He and Howard traveled to India during October 1965 on the steamship Jaladuta in search of a guru, but they returned to New York after six months—unsuccessful in their quest.
Keith becomes Kirtanananda
During June 1966, some three months after returning from India, Howard met the 69-year-old Bengali Gaudiya-Vaishnava guru His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the Founder-Acharya of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), who had recently opened a modest storefront temple at 26 Second Avenue.
Howard told Keith about the new swami in the Lower East Side and they began attending his Bhagavad-gita classes. They gradually recognized that Prabhupada was the guru they had been searching for and formally accepted him as their spiritual master. “Professor Howard Wheeler” was initiated on September 9, 1966 and received the name “Hayagriva dasa.” Hayagriva served as Prabhupada’s senior editor.
Keith could not attend the first initiation ceremony because at the time he had been incarcerated at Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital. However after being released, he was initiated two weeks later on September 23rd. He received the Sanskrit name “Kirtanananda dasa” (“the servant of one who takes pleasure in kirtan”). Prabhupada sometimes affectionately called him “Kitchen-ananda” because of his cooking expertise.
Kirtanananda was one of the first of Prabhupada’s Western disciples to shave his head (apart from the sikha), don robes (traditional Bengali men’s clothing consists of dhoti and kurta), and move into the temple. During March 1967, on the order of Prabhupada, Kirtanananda and a French-Canadian godbrother established the Montreal ISKCON temple. Prabhupada apparently saw much promise in Kirtanananda—who was about ten years older than most other disciples—and began entrusting him with greater responsibilities.
"Kirtanananda is a crazy man"
Prabhupada suffered a stroke on May 31, 1967, and decided he could best recover his strength in India. He chose Kirtanananda to accompany him. In Vrindaban, India, Kirtanananda became Prabhupada’s first disciple to be initiated into the Vaishnava order of sannyasa—a lifelong vow of celibacy in mind, word and body—and became Kirtanananda Swami on Janmastami: August 28, 1967.
Prabhupada wrote about this significant event in an oft-quoted letter, “Kirtanananda is now a completely Krishna Conscious person as he has accepted sannyasa on the birthday of Lord Krishna with great success. He is the first sannyasa in my spiritual family, and I hope he will return back soon to begin preaching work with greater vigor and success.”
However, Kirtanananda had other plans. A few weeks after his initiation ceremony, he returned to New York City in direct disobedience of his spiritual master (Prabhupada told him to go to London) and there he attempted to take over the ISKCON temple. Kirtanananda told the devotees that Prabhupada was probably not coming back to America, but they shouldn’t worry. As a newly-initiated sannyasi (and he had a certificate to prove it), he was the most qualified person to take Prabhupada’s place.
One devotee remembered, “When Kirtanananda had first returned from India, he informed us that Prabhupada was probably not coming back from India and would stay there. This had a demoralizing effect on all of us. But Kirtanananda tried to uplift us by saying that he was personally empowered by Prabhupada to lead the movement in America. In this sense, he was trying to take over the movement.”
It should be noted that Prabhupada later claimed that it was not HIS IDEA to offer sannyasa to his head-strong disciple; he DID NOT suggest that Kirtanananda accept the strict vows of renunciation. It was Kirtanananda who requested this from Prabhupada, and he also asked for a certificate. Why did he need a certificate? It appears that in India Kirtanananda had already begun scheming how he could push Prabhupada aside, take over ISKCON, and become a spiritual master himself.
Prabhupada explained, “Kirtananda [sic] was awarded the position of a Sannyasi because he wanted it although I could understand it that he wanted to be a spiritual master himself. . . but Kirtanananda was too much puffed up and artificially he took up a certificate from me that he has been awarded the order to a Sannyasi.”
Kirtanananda’s first order of business as the new ISKCON spiritual master was to convince his godbrothers to “Westernize” their appearance. He believed that eliminating some of the Indian cultural elements—such as wearing dhoti and tilak, shaving the head and leaving the sikha, and chanting prayers in Sanskrit and Bengali—would make Krishna Consciousness more palatable to Americans. He thought a universal nonsectarian presentation “uniting East and West” would be more successful than the ethnic and provincial Indian-style presentation which Prabhupada had advocated. He showed by example; he grew his hair and beard, and wore a black clerical robe and cape.
However, the devotees weren’t convinced and wrote to Prabhupada asking about Kirtanananda’s “reforms.” In letters from India, Prabhupada soundly chastised his errant disciple and banned him from preaching in ISKCON temples. He called him a “crazy man.” Some of Prabhupada’s disciples became so angry at Kirtanananda that they evicted him from the temple and spat upon him.
Kirtanananda was outraged by this insult and in retaliation took Prabhupada’s recently-completed Bhagavad-gita manuscript from Hayagriva, removed Prabhupada’s name from the title page and replaced it with “Kirtanananda Swami.” He then tried to sell the manuscript to New York religious book publishers. Kirtanananda stole Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-gita and claimed that it was his own!
The publishers were impressed by the book, but they looked at the “author’s” credentials suspiciously. Kirtanananda was no Sanskrit scholar; how could he have possibly written such a masterful Bhagavad-gita translation? They refused to publish. Unsuccessful in his attempt to become a spiritual master, Kirtanananda left New York City and moved in with Hayagriva, who in the meantime had accepted a position teaching English classes at a community college in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania.
During this time, far from the association of Prabhupada and ISKCON, Kirtanananda resumed his old habit of smoking marijuana. It is perfectly reasonable to expect that he—now living with his former lover—also resumed another old habit which he had temporarily renounced while living with Prabhupada and the devotees in the temple: illicit sex.
Actually, as time has revealed, since Kirtanananda left ISKCON in 1967 he has NEVER been able to consistently follow all of the regulative principles (except perhaps only recently during the fag end of life).
The New Vrindaban Community
While reading the December 1967 issue of the underground newspaper City of San Francisco Oracle, Kirtanananda became intrigued by a letter from Richard Rose, Jr. inviting spiritual seekers to help form an ashram in rural Marshall County, West Virginia. “The conception is one of a non-profit, non-interfering, non-denominational retreat or refuge, where philosophers might come to work communally together, or independently, where a library and other facilities might be developed.”
The idea of starting a non-sectarian ashram piqued Kirtanananda’s interest (this was similar to what he wanted to establish at the New York City ISKCON temple before he was foiled by Prabhupada), and on a weekend when Hayagriva was free from classes (probably March 30-31, 1968), the two traveled to West Virginia and introduced themselves to Richard Rose as former Hare Krishna devotees who had left the movement because the Krishnas were too “closed-minded.” After the visit, Hayagriva returned to Wilkes Barre to teach, but Kirtanananda stayed on at Rose’s rundown backwoods farmhouse.
But after living in isolation in the wilds of West Virginia for several months, Kirtanananda became frustrated. He had accomplished nothing—he had attracted no followers. He couldn’t even get along with Rose and his students.
He realized that he needed Prabhupada; he couldn’t do it alone. He visited his spiritual master in Montreal during July 1968 (along with Hayagriva), begged forgiveness, and asked permission to return to ISKCON. Prabhupada “forgave his renegade disciples in Montreal with a garland of roses and a shower of tears.”
When the pair returned to West Virginia, Richard Rose, Jr. and his wife Phyllis E. Rose gave Hayagriva a 99-year lease on the 132.77-acre property for $4,000, with an option to purchase for $10 when the lease expired. Hayagriva put down a $1,500 deposit.
Prabhupada named the West Virginia property “New Vrindaban” and established its purpose and guided its development in dozens of letters and four personal visits (1969, 1972, 1974 and 1976). New Vrindaban would fulfill four major functions for ISKCON:
establish and promote the simple agrarian Krishna conscious lifestyle, including cow protection
establish a place of pilgrimage in the West by building seven temples on seven hills,
create a class of brahmin teachers by training boys at the gurukula (school of the guru), and
establish a society based on varnashram-dharma.
When Hayagriva resigned as temple president in 1972, Kirtanananda established himself as the sole authority over the community. In New Vrindaban publications he was honored as the “Founder-Acharya” of New Vrindaban. He was fond of joking, “Not a blade of grass moves in New Vrindaban without my knowledge.”
Over time the community expanded and devotees from other ISKCON centers moved in. Substantial income was generated at first by Spiritual Sky incense manufacturing and later by traveling fundraising parties—and some other highly-profitable but risky money-making “enterprises” such as buying and selling illegal recreational drugs—which generated millions of dollars.
Cows and land were purchased until New Vrindaban properties consisted of nearly 5,000 acres. New Vrindaban became a favorite ISKCON place of pilgrimage and many ISKCON devotees attended the annual Krishna Janmastami festivals.
The "Cult of Kirtanananda"
New Vrindaban residents admired Kirtanananda for his austere lifestyle (for a time he lived in an abandoned chicken coop), his preaching skills and devotion to the presiding deities of New Vrindaban: Sri Sri Radha-Vrindaban Candra. Yet some of Kirtanananda’s godbrothers—senior ISKCON devotees living outside New Vrindaban—distrusted him and criticized him for good reason: he had started his own cult in competition with ISKCON.
New Vrindaban residents began worshiping Kirtanananda as a pure devotee—a paramahansa—and he accepted their worship, despite his inability to follow strictly the four regulative principles. Those few in the secret inner sanctum who knew about Kirtanananda’s illicit sexual behavior, such as Hayagriva, said nothing and continually propped him up and shouted “Jaya Bhaktipada!” with all the rest. New Vrindaban had become a community of “the cheater and the cheated,” even from its very beginning. Kirtanananda was little more than a show-bottle pretender, but New Vrindaban residents couldn’t see it.
As early as 1968, one devotee suspected that Kirtanananda and Hayagriva were not strictly following the principles.
“I visited New Vrindaban during the winter of 1968 and lived there briefly in the spring of 1969 and 1970. At that time Kirtanananda and Hayagriva appeared to still be lovers. They acted very curiously when around each other: like a husband and wife. Hayagriva was the dominant partner.
During my first visit to New Vrindaban, Hayagriva was standing at the bottom of the stairs at the old farmhouse on the top of the hill and screaming: ‘Ham! Ham!’ Kirtanananda responded with a girlish giggle, and then in a high-pitched flirtatious voice, he replied, ‘Yes, Mr. Wheeler?’ The word ‘Ham’ is, of course, a double entendre.”
A few years later while in India, Kirtanananda’s propensity for bathing naked boys caused anxiety and dissension amongst his godbrothers until Prabhupada had to step in himself and end Kirtanananda’s “program.”
“I met Kirtanananda for the first time in Calcutta. There were just six of us devotees living in a house with Prabhupada, and one day Tamal Krishna got very upset because Kirtanananda was bringing hordes of boys inside the house, bathing them, feeding them, and then sending them away. This was Kirtanananda’s daily program.
Tamal Krishna thought that the neighbors would wonder, ‘What are those Westerners doing with our boys in that house? Are they pedophiles? Are our children being molested?’ Tamal Krishna tried to express his concerns to Kirtanananda and the two got into a big shouting argument. Later that very day, Tamal went to see Prabhupada about it; Prabhupada was in complete agreement with Tamal and in a subsequent meeting told Kirtanananda to end his program.
Kirtanananda—who was sitting directly in front of Prabhupada with only Tamal and me in the room—became insolent and questioned Prabhupada, ‘Why do you give preference to Tamal Krishna above anybody else in the movement these days?’ Kirtanananda badgered Prabhupada, asking two, three, four time the same question in a row very quickly, ‘Why him, why him, why him?’
I was a new devotee at the time, and I was horrified to hear Kirtanananda actually raising his voice and interrogating his spiritual master. I had never heard of such a thing.
Finally Kirtanananda stopped speaking, and waited for Prabhupada’s answer. Prabhupada sat there for a very long moment, then slowly but firmly said, ‘I am like the sun. The sun is the sun; it shines for everyone. It all depends on how close you want to come; how much you want to expose yourself to the sun.’
And that was the end of the argument. Kirtanananda was stunned; he became mute, speechless. He was unable to reply.”
Sometime after Kirtanananda returned to New Vrindaban, a seven-year old boy proudly told his mother that “Kirtanananda fondled my genitals,” but his mother dismissed her son’s comment as nonsense.
“I joined in Columbus . . . I gave them $6,000 right off the bat. My seven-year-old son went directly to Nandagram [gurukula] after spending a week with Kirtanananda at Bahulaban probably during June or July. I stayed in the Columbus Temple until December . . . when I went to visit my son at the New Vrindaban gurukula.
When I saw him, he proudly exclaimed to me: ‘Did you know that I had a great honor when I first came here!? Kirtanananda selected me out of all the kids to be his personal servant and live with him for a whole week. Do you know what he did? He fondled my genitals!’
I was shocked with disbelief, as I had never used that word ‘fondle’ in my son’s presence. Where did he learn it? However I dismissed his complaint as a weird manifestation of a child’s fantastic imagination and chastised him: ‘Don’t make up stories like that! Kirtanananda Maharaja is a pure devotee. I don’t ever want to hear you say nonsense things like that again!’”
Boys were being sexually molested, yet the Brijabasis suspected nothing. If a boy claimed that he had been molested, he was chastised. New Vrindaban residents considered it a great honor for a boy to be “chosen” by Kirtanananda to stay overnight with him in his cabin. The lucky boy would “get the mercy.” One writer for the Brijabasi Spirit explained, “When Maharaja was living in his cabin, it was considered a great privilege to get to stay in the back room. Only a handful of selected boys got the opportunity.”
Kirtanananda’s habits did not change when he moved into his fourth floor apartment in the new Administration/Men’s Ashram building at Bahulaban. One former eleven-year-old gurukula boy told me, “I remember several times, Kirtanananda invited me and another boy to take a shower in his personal bathroom in his suite on the fourth floor of the ashram building. He had a brand new bathtub which was recently installed. To my surprise, he told us to shower together! completely naked! and he insisted that we keep the shower curtain open! He stared at us the whole time. I was embarrassed and extremely uncomfortable.”
When Kirtanananda moved into his “dream house” on the ridge between Palace Road and the Old Vrindaban farm, things even got better: he had an entire “harem” of gurukula boys living on the same floor right in his house just a few steps from his bedroom. The adult brahmacharis, myself included, lived in the basement, and we were completely clueless regarding the secret nocturnal activities which took place upstairs.
Once early in the morning, a gurukula teenager approached me in the men’s shower room in Bhaktipada’s basement and asked, “Hrishikesh, if the spiritual master seems to act in ways contrary to scriptural injunctions, what should the disciple do?” I had no idea why he asked me this question, but I responded as I had been taught, just like a parrot: “Prabhupada said that even if the spiritual master goes to a liquor shop, he is not a drunkard; rather, he must have some purpose in going there.”
The boy politely thanked me for my explanation and walked off. He seemed disappointed. I didn’t think any more about it until years later when I discovered that he had testified in court that Kirtanananda had made sexual advances toward him. I felt badly because I could have perhaps helped him in his time of need, if I had not been so brainwashed myself.
New Vrindaban Residents Loved Kirtanananda
Yet many New Vrindaban residents even today claim that they benefited from hearing Kirtanananda’s classes, following his instructions and obediently serving him. After all, he simply told them to “surrender to Krishna.” He admonished his students to stay out of maya. He led by example. He rose early in the morning and marched through the men’s ashram waking up slumbering devotees by tapping them with his cane. He chanted japa in the temple before mangal aroti and attended all the temple services. When he spoke, the devotees heard Prabhupada speak through him. The Brijabasis considered their siksa guru their perfect leader, because he followed Prabhupada perfectly, or so they thought.
When Prabhupada visited New Vrindaban he showed great affection toward Kirtanananda and seemed to have had no problem with devotees taking instruction from him, “If Kirtanananda Maharaja speaks what I speak, then he can be taken a siksa guru. . . I don’t think he is saying anything against our principles, so what is the wrong? . . There is no harm in going through Kirtanananda.” Many Brijabasis took this order of Prabhupada as their life and soul, even when Kirtanananda spoke or acted in ways incomprehensible.
It was easy for most New Vrindaban residents to love Kirtanananda; he had a great gift of charisma. He knew how to inspire love and devotion in his followers with a sweet word at the right moment, or by the “sauce” or a whack from his cane. His loving “soft-as-a-rose” heart was revealed when tears flowed from his eyes, as when Prabhupada left the planet, when a devoted traveling sankirtan disciple left his body on “the pick,” or when Hayagriva passed away. But he also became angry and “hard as a thunderbolt” when a devotee was careless and wasted Krishna’s energy; or when his orders were challenged. One New Vrindaban temple president said, “It was Kirtanananda’s way, or the highway.”
A few New Vrindaban residents loved Kirtanananda so much that they were prepared to give up their lives for him. One disciple is still “giving up his life” for the last twenty-five years in Federal Prison for “protecting” his spiritual master, and that is where he will remain, “giving up his life” in prison until his dying day. Marshall County neighbors referred to Kirtanananda’s followers as “Swami’s white slaves,” but the Brijabasis were happy to be slaves to their “perfect master.” They considered it the perfection of their lives.
One New Vrindaban resident captured the mood of all the Brijabasis when he wrote:
“All that I know has been taught by you.
All that I have has been given by you.
All that I want I can see in your shining eyes.
Because you have followed perfectly you are the perfect leader.
Your devotion inspires me. Your intelligence defeats me.
Your steadiness comforts me. Your humility shames me.
Your boldness amazes me. Your cane motivates me.
Your mercy sustains me. You are my worshipful Master.
I take shelter at your precious lotus feet.”
The "Golden Age" of New Vrindaban
Late in 1972 sculptor-architect Bhagavatananda convinced Kirtanananda to build a home for Prabhupada at New Vrindaban. In time, the plans for the house developed into an ornate memorial shrine of marble, gold and carved teakwood, dedicated posthumously during Labor Day weekend on Sunday, September 2, 1979. The completion of the Palace of Gold—billed as “America’s Taj Mahal”—and subsequent favorable international media attention catapulted New Vrindaban into the public eye as tens (and eventually hundreds) of thousands of tourists began visiting the Palace annually.
Upon Prabhupada’s death on November 14, 1977, Kirtanananda and ten other high-ranking ISKCON leaders assumed the position of initiating gurus to succeed him. In March 1979, he accepted the honorific title “Bhaktipada,” along with other ISKCON gurus who also accepted honorific titles. Advertisements in Back To Godhead magazine promoted “His Divine Grace Kirtanananda Swami Bhaktipada” as a “Bona Fide Spiritual Master.”
Kirtanananda Swami awarded sannyasa initiation to several godbrothers, most notably Bhakti Tirtha Swami (1979), Bhaktisvarupa Damodar Swami (1980), Gopal Krishna Swami and Radhanath Swami (1982), Vedavyasapriya Swami, Varsana Swami and Candramauli Swami (1986), Umapati Swami (1987), Hayagriva Swami (1989), and the female sannyasini Malati Swami (c. 1992).
The proposed “Land of Krishna” theme park and the granite “Temple of Understanding” in classical South Indian style were designed to make New Vrindaban a “Spiritual Disneyland.” With the influx of millions of dollars from traveling fundraising parties illegally selling paraphernalia with unlicensed copyrighted logos and trademarks, New Vrindaban became the second-largest employer in Marshall County: 187 local residents were hired as construction workers, gardeners and secretaries. Local politicians began to take notice of the community’s significant economic contribution to the region.
The ground-breaking ceremony (May 31, 1985) for the proposed temple was attended by dozens of dignitaries, including a United States Congressman, a member of the West Virginia House of Delegates, the President of Wheeling College, the Executive Director of the Coalition of Religious Freedom, the Executive Director of the Hindu Alliance of America, a Southern Baptist radio Pastor, several State Tourism officials, six Mayors, seven West Virginia Congressmen, City Councilmen, Magistrates, School and Health Board members, six Police Chiefs, ISKCON Swamis and an ISKCON guru. That day, as stated in the Brijabasi Spirit magazine, was considered “the most significant and memorable day in the history of New Vrindaban.”
The Akron Beacon Journal reported on the new improved relations between the Krishnas and the locals, “The Hare Krishnas are verging on respectability these days. The old primitive style of commune life that they started here in the sixties has changed almost beyond recognition. No more mud trails and privies. Now the ‘Land of Krishna’ has a bus system, a radio show, printing presses, acres of landscaped terraces and gardens, a first-rate restaurant and time-share condominiums. For this ‘spiritual theme park’—a cross between Lourdes and Disney World—the ‘almost heaven’ state is turning out to be just that. At the onset of the state’s tourist season, the denizens of this fundamentalist Hindu community took the state spotlight this weekend with the unveiling of plans for a $70 million, three-phase building program. . . . Most West Virginians used to avoid the Krishnas, but all that is changing.”
Kirtanananda’s cherished dream was finally becoming reality; he was not only admired and worshiped by ISKCON devotees as a great self-realized acharya, but he was also increasingly becoming recognized and respected by the non-devotee general public as the leader of a great religious project. He was finally getting the respect and worship that he deserved. He considered himself Prabhupada’s greatest disciple.
Due to his enormous pride, Kirtanananda became more and more critical of ISKCON in general and the GBC in particular. When his godbrothers began legislating “limits” on the powers and worship of the ISKCON gurus, Kirtanananda rebelled; he would have none of that. He considered himself Prabhupada’s rightful heir: an empowered acharya. No one had a right to limit how much power he possessed or how much worship he accepted. Due to his great “spiritual realization,” he had risen far beyond the meager understanding of his envious and less-intelligent godbrothers.
He presented a paper which was later expanded into a book—On His Order—to show his intellectual superiority, his advanced realization and to combat the “guru reform movement” in ISKCON. Kirtanananda had become puffed up by his material success. Little did he realize that “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”
Kirtanananda Attacked and Severely Injured
On October 27, 1985, during a New Vrindaban bricklaying marathon, a crazed and distraught visiting devotee bludgeoned Kirtanananda on the head with a heavy steel tamping tool. He was critically injured and remained in a coma for ten days. Gradually he recovered most of his faculties, though devotees who knew him well said that his personality had changed. Some close associates began doubting his ability to lead the community and local politicians who had once been favorable to the devotees began distancing themselves.
He never fully recovered from this injury, but continued to lead the community despite pronounced hearing loss, severe head aches, vision problems which forced him to wear a patch over one eye, and symptoms of anterograde amnesia, a condition in which immediate memories fail to be transferred to long-term memory.
Kirtanananda had suffered definite brain damage, although this was at first only apparent to those who were close to him. Some began to prop him up so that few would see the truth: Kirtanananda had become unfit to lead. His personal servant stated:
“Bhaktipada and I devised a system of signals we would use to help him in his conversations with people. When devotees came to him for instructions, and when Bhaktipada became confused or forgetful of previous discussions, he would look at me and I would either give him some nonverbal signals by making expressions with my face or I would gently butt into the conversation to offer enough information for Bhaktipada to know what he had previously said. In this way, Bhaktipada was able to continue to give advice and relatively few people realized how badly his memory was affected. This went on for many months. . .
Most of the New Vrindaban Community leaders of that time understood that Bhaktipada had problems with his memory and with his ability to make rational decisions. . . Most ignored or didn’t want to believe that their perfect and pure leader had somehow become damaged or imperfect. . .
Bhaktipada was in no shape to care for himself—physically or mentally—much less lead a community of hundreds of devotees or a world-wide movement. Many times he felt such extreme pressure in his skull that he suffered incredible agony. Several times he told me he wished he was dead because the pain was so unbearable. One time, on an airplane to India, he told me he could see the Yamaduttas (agents of death) surrounding him.”
Kirtanananda was obviously unwilling to admit his inability to provide competent leadership, get professional help from a qualified therapist for his memory problems, and delegate important decision-making responsibilities to senior New Vrindaban managers. With the help of his personal servant he used deceitful means to try to keep up the appearance of being in control of his faculties and keep his followers in the dark about his actual debilitated mental and physical condition. This is not the behavior of a humble saintly person; this is the behavior of a desperate man who is attached to his position and fearful of losing it. Kirtanananda was attached, fearful, and unfit to lead.
After Kirtanananda’s head injury, his sexual activity became more blatant. He began molesting or attempting to molest older boys—teenagers; and at least one reported these aberrations to the temple president, who said:
“During late 1986 I talked to Kirtanananda about the allegations of sexual conduct between him and [teenage boy]. I talked to him about this three times. The first time I spoke to him he said he had had sexual contact with [teenage boy], but he was heavily medicated at the time, so he shouldn’t be held responsible for what he did.
The second time I spoke to him he said he couldn’t remember whether he had had any sexual conduct. . .
The third time I spoke to Kirtanananda about [teenage boy], he told me that it never happened, and I should understand that it never happened.”
It is not hard to see what was happening; Kirtanananda had been having sex for the last twenty years with boys and men and he was not going to stop now. The temple president left the community a few months later with his family.
Excommunication from ISKCON and the "Interfaith Era"
On March 16, 1987, the ISKCON Governing Body Commission—during their annual meeting at Mayapur, India—expelled Kirtanananda from the society for “moral and theological deviations.” They accused him of defying ISKCON policies and claiming to be the sole spiritual heir to Prabhupada’s movement. Thirteen members voted for the resolution, two abstained, and one member, Bhakti Tirtha Swami, voted against the resolution.
Kirtanananda then established his own organization—“The Eternal Order of the League of Devotees Worldwide”—and took several properties with him, including New Vrindaban. New Vrindaban and his satellite preaching centers were excommunicated from ISKCON the following year in 1988.
In 1986-87 Kirtanananda began his so-called “interfaith” experiment and the community became known as the New Vrindaban “City of God.” Once again he attempted to “de-Indianize” Krishna Consciousness to help make it more accessible to Westerners, just as he had tried previously at the New York ISKCON temple nearly two decades earlier.
Devotees wore Franciscan-style robes instead of dhotis and saris; they chanted in English with western instruments such as the pipe organ and accordions instead of chanting in Sanskrit and Bengali with mrdanga drums and cymbals; male devotees grew hair and beards instead of shaving their heads and faces; female devotees were initiated into the renounced order and encouraged to preach independently; japa was practiced silently; a giant thirty-foot-tall statue of Prabhupada resembling the Buddha was constructed behind the Palace; the steel structure for the gateway of the “Cathedral of Understanding” was erected; six computer-controlled cast bronze bells weighing a total of 16,800 pounds were hung from the gateway to chime the Hare Krishna mahamantra tune; and an interfaith community was attempted.
About a dozen interfaith members came to live at the “City of God,” including a Unitarian minister, a Taoist teacher, a retired Quaker English professor, and a Marianist couple, but nearly all eventually left the community and claimed Bhaktipada had cheated and betrayed them. One former interfaith member even wrote an article titled “The City of Fraud,” which was published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Criminal Conviction and Imprisonment
In 1990 the United States Federal Government indicted Kirtanananda on five counts of racketeering, six counts of mail fraud, and conspiracy to murder two dissident devotees: Chakradhari (Charles Saint Denis) and Sulochan (Steve Bryant). The government claimed that he had illegally amassed a profit of more than $10.5 million over four years. It also charged that he ordered the killings because the victims had threatened to reveal his sexual abuse of minors.
On March 29, 1991, Kirtanananda was convicted on nine of the eleven charges (the jury failed to reach a verdict on the murder charges), but the Court of Appeals, convinced by the expert arguments of defense attorney Alan Morton Dershowitz (a criminal law professor at Harvard University who represented such celebrated and wealthy clients as Claus von Bülow, Mike Tyson and O. J. Simpson), threw out the convictions, saying that child molestation evidence had unfairly prejudiced the jury against Kirtanananda, who was not charged with those crimes.
On August 16, 1993, he was released from a rented apartment in the Warwood neighborhood of Wheeling (where he had lived for nearly two years under house arrest) and returned triumphantly to New Vrindaban.
Kirtanananda, however, lost his iron grip on the community after the September 6, 1993 “Winnebago Incident” during which he was accidentally observed in a compromised position in bed with a teenage male Malaysian disciple in the back of a Winnebago van. Community members split into two camps: those who still supported Kirtanananda (believing the allegations of inappropriate sexual activity to be malicious rumors) and those who challenged his leadership.
Kirtanananda avoided the controversy by retiring to his rural retreat at “Silent Mountain” near Littleton, West Virginia, where a contingency of his distraught disciples arrived and asked him if he was actually “wounded by maya” and unfit to be the world acharya for the League of Devotees, as they had heard professed by community leaders. Bhaktipada smiled at their concern and assured them, “I have not broken any of the regulative principles since I met Srila Prabhupada; there must be a conspiracy against me.”
Yet after his disciples left that night and returned to New Vrindaban threatening to “make coffins for the blasphemers,” Kirtanananda enjoyed the intimate company of his handsome young “manservant,” despite the tears of the servant’s newlywed teenage wife who suspected what was actually happening behind the closed bedroom door.
After ten months of constant pressure, the challengers ousted Kirtanananda and his supporters and ended the “Interfaith Era” in July 1994 when a delegation met with him at Silent Mountain and presented to him a document ordering the return of the New Vrindaban temple worship services back to the standard Indian style advocated by Srila Prabhupada and practiced throughout ISKCON.
Kirtanananda understood that he had been defeated, but in a last utterance of childish defiance, he shouted, “I am the world acharya! I am the world acharya! I AM THE WORLD ACHARYA!”—then meekly signed the paper. Most of his followers left New Vrindaban and moved to the Radha-Muralidhar Temple in New York City, which remained under Kirtanananda’s control.
In April 1996, Kirtanananda appeared in court again for retrial, but one key witness—his disciple and former New Vrindaban enforcer, Tirtha Swami, currently serving life in prison for the murders of Chakradhari and Sulochan—instead of protecting “the Swami” as he did in previous trials, testified against his former spiritual master and claimed that Kirtanananda authorized both murders. Because of Tirtha’s damning testimony, Kirtanananda admitted guilt to one count of racketeering (mail fraud). He was fined $250,000 and sentenced to the maximum prison term: twenty years.
Kirtanananda left the once-thriving New Vrindaban Community in shambles. “Back in New Vrindaban, there are many sincere and honest devotees who are trying to pick up the pieces of their shattered community. It will not be an easy task. The income from tourism is down. The old sources of funding are gone forever. The grand cathedral that the Swami envisioned is a shell. The heavy machinery purchased for its construction lies rusting in a field. The place is financially crippled and faces the possibility of more fines and forfeitures. There has been no electricity in the Palace of Gold for months. Worst of all, New Vrindaban’s reputation has been ruined by the Swami.”
The community tottered on the brink of insolvency, yet due to the struggle and perseverance of a handful of devotees who attempted to remain faithful to Prabhupada’s original mission for New Vrindaban, the community gradually reorganized and returned to ISKCON in 1998.
In Federal Prison, Kirtanananda was locked down in solitary confinement for two weeks during January 1997 after his cell mate reported him to prison authorities for making sexual advances. He wrote, “I realized that all this has come upon me as Krishna’s mercy to relieve me of the last bit of material lustful desire.”
On September 10, 2000, the ISKCON Child Protection Office concluded a 17-month investigation and determined that Kirtanananda had molested two boys. He was prohibited from visiting any ISKCON properties for five years and offered conditions for reinstatement within ISKCON; conditions which he did not fulfill.
Kirtanananda’s twenty-year sentence was eventually reduced because of poor health; his ailments included post-polio syndrome, severe asthma, weak abdominal muscles causing hernia, digestive problems, hearing loss, balance problems, vision difficulties due to traumatic head injury, loss of short-term memory, carpal tunnel, and an atrophied leg. The judge said he did not want Kirtanananda to die in prison.
Final Years in New York City and India
After eight years of incarceration, on June 16, 2004, Kirtanananda Swami was released from the Federal Correctional Institution at Butner, North Carolina. The Executive Officers of the ISKCON North American Temple Presidents and GBC sent out a notice stating that Kirtanananda was prohibited from visiting any ISKCON properties.
Kirtanananda, who had abandoned the Franciscan-style robe and returned to wearing the traditional dhoti again, resided for four years at the Radha-Muralidhar Temple at 25 First Avenue in New York City while serving probation. The building, purchased in 1990, was maintained by a small number of disciples and followers.
However, his life there was hardly peaceful: he was confined to a wheelchair, his disciples bickered amongst themselves, an irate woman hit him on the head with a small brass deity, and the temple board actually attempted to evict him from the premises.
On March 7, 2008, after completing his term of probation, Kirtanananda left the United States for India with one long-time supporter and apologist: a former New Vrindaban gurukula headmaster who had been expelled from the community some twelve years earlier for molesting prepubescent boys.
Kirtanananda said he expected to remain in India for the rest of his life. “There is no sense in staying where I’m not wanted,” he explained, referring to the desertions through the years by nearly all of his American disciples and to the attempts to evict him from the building. Kirtanananda still had a significant number of loyal disciples in India and Pakistan—apparently unaware of his checkered past—who worshiped him as “guru” and published his latest books.
During the end of July, 2011, Kirtanananda Swami was admitted to Jupiter Hospital in Thane, India (about 27 kilometers from his temple in Ulhasnagar); one lung had collapsed and the other was filling with fluid. On August 17 a tracheotomy was performed and a breathing tube inserted. He fell unconscious and was put on a respirator. A CAT scan revealed bleeding inside his brain. By August 22, he was moved back to Ulhasnagar to spend his last days at the temple, as doctors confessed there was nothing more they could do for him at the hospital. It was reported that he returned to the hospital sometime after his 74th birthday.
A handful of loyal disciples and followers—mostly in India and Pakistan—memorialize Kirtanananda as a loving father and saintly devotee of God, but most others have a decidedly less favorable opinion of him, especially those former New Vrindaban boys who were sexually molested and the families and friends of the murdered devotees Sulochan and Chakradhari.
Kirtanananda’s legacy is, at best, mixed. Bhakti Tirtha Swami admitted, “Bhaktipada has done some of the most outstanding work for ISKCON, but he has also done some of the most harm to ISKCON.”
One who understands Kirtanananda’s history cannot help but notice two all-important constants which appear again and again throughout most of his life: (1) an all-consuming desire to be recognized and respected as a great spiritual leader, and (2) an equally-consuming desire to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh. I do not need to point out that both are incompatible with the path of pure devotion.
Kirtanananda’s apologists never fail to remind me that their spiritual master never stopped preaching about Krishna; their implication is that, indeed, he was Krishna conscious at all times and his discrepancies should be forgiven. They quote Krishna, who said, “Even if one commits the most abominable actions, if he is engaged in devotional service, he is to be considered saintly because he is properly situated.”
However, I believe there is a big difference between a novice bhakti-yogi who might occasionally slip from time to time in controlling his passions but humbly picks himself up with renewed vigor and dedication to follow the rules and regulations, and a cheating imposter who puts on a show of devotion in public in order to acquire fame, adoration and distinction, but who enjoys forbidden pleasures in secret without any intention of giving them up.
Srimad-Bhagavatam is unequivocal on this matter, “One who first accepts sannyasa but then returns to such materialistic activities is to be called a vantasi, or one who eats his own vomit. He is indeed a shameless person. . . It is abominable . . . for a sannyasi to be addicted to sense gratification. One who acts in this way is to be considered the lowest renegade. Such a pretender is bewildered by the external energy of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and one should either reject him from any position, or taking compassion upon him, teach him, if possible, to resume his original position.”
Ultimately, Kirtanananda wanted to be Prabhupada—“at whose feet masters sit”—but he did not have the determination nor sincerity to actually follow in his spiritual master’s footsteps. He tried to imitate Prabhupada without following the rules and regulations; but he proved himself only a sahajiya. Prabhupada said, “One should not imitate the behavior of an advanced devotee or maha-bhagavata without being self-realized, for by such imitation one will eventually become degraded.”
Because Kirtanananda was innately blessed with an enormous amount of charisma and cleverness, he was able to attract and keep followers despite his lack of integrity. If he had been able to control his enormous ego and unbridled senses—if he had been an honest man with a conscience—he might have actually made a lasting mark on the world for the glory of God and upliftment of mankind.
Personal Note by the Author
I have been amazed by the outpouring of affection by my godbrothers and sisters in India and Pakistan, and also by a few in the United States who still love Kirtanananda Swami. One godsister in particular living in the U.S. told me that she was “crying day and night” when she heard that Bhaktipada was dying. I find this curious, because she left his service about ten years ago, went back to college, got a degree in medicine, found work in a clinic, and married a non-devotee. Yet she obviously still has great love in her heart for her former spiritual master. She told me she would never see, hear or speak anything bad about him.
I find this bewildering. I have a friend who adored one Roman Catholic priest; she considered him a Godly man in communion with Christ. She went to him for marriage counseling and claimed that he saved her marriage. Yet when she found out years later that he had molested boys in the parish, she rejected him as her spiritual guide and her affection for him evaporated completely. She felt in her heart the suffering of the abused boys and realized her “idol” was a cheater, despite whatever good he may have accomplished during his ministry.
Why can’t Kirtanananada apologists identify with the victims he has psychologically maimed for life? They only identify with themselves; with the good things he has done for them and they refuse to see the complete picture.
Yet I must admit, like my godsister, I also have fond memories and affection in my heart for Kirtanananda, despite discovering his dark side. I sometimes kept in touch with him through the years and periodically sent him birthday greetings. I’m almost sorry to say, knowing the suffering he inflicted on others, that I believe my life is better having known the man. Whatever I learned about Krishna consciousness as an inmate at New Vrindaban, I learned from him. Although I ultimately rejected him as my spiritual master, I have few personal regrets all-in-all about giving fifteen years of my life in loving and loyal service to this man, who I now call a “rascal.”
I believe my personal testimony, if anything, reveals the great power of the transcendental message of Krishna consciousness descending through the discipular succession which Srila Prabhupada brought to the West. Kirtanananda was certainly an imposter, but because the message he preached was powerful, it seems to have had effect. But thankfully I can distinguish between the message and the messenger. This is something that perhaps the Kirtanananda supporters cannot do.
"I shall drag him forcibly and make all right again."
Prabhupada promised to rescue his fallen disciple, “Regarding Kirtanananda, I cannot allow him to become Keith again. He is my spiritual son and I shall never allow him to fall down. When I return I shall drag him forcibly and make all right again.”
Since I have left Kirtanananda’s service, the tables curiously have been turned and I have had occasion to serve my former spiritual master by instructing him to get his act together, follow strictly the regulative principles, apologize to those he hurt, and seek forgiveness, as I think Srila Prabhupada might have done.
On June 19, 2004, three days after seeing Kirtanananda in New York City during the homecoming festival celebrating his release from prison, I sent him one particularly scathing letter of admonishment, portions of which appear below.
(The complete letter can be seen here)
“It was wonderful seeing you again at the NYC Interfaith Sanctuary last Wednesday and Thursday after nearly eleven years of separation. I was very glad to see that you looked healthy, despite being confined to a wheelchair. . .
Certainly you have performed great austerities during the last eight years in prison, and no doubt you have learned many lessons. Your welcome address was wonderful. You said that the worship you receive from your disciples and well-wishers is not meant for you, it is meant for Krishna. I noticed also that you were careful not to receive this worship in the presence of the deities; you asked the pujari to close the curtains. This brought joy to my heart, for it appeared to demonstrate, in a small way, your newly-acquired humility, a virtue given from Krishna to you because you desired it.
However there is much more for you to do to fully demonstrate your humility. I do not have to tell you the story about Durvasa Muni and Maharaja Ambarish. You, like Durvasa Muni, have offended the Vaishnavas. Numberless offenses. Grievous offenses. There is much work for you to do. Difficult work; painful work. You must make apologies and beg forgiveness. And you must begin with those who are most intimate with you, your faithful disciples. Only in this way will Krishna be pleased and bless you and your disciples.
You must gather your disciples together and apologize to them. You must explain that you had gradually become proud after Prabhupada passed away, so much so that you thought you were God’s gift to the world. You became proud of your position as an ISKCON guru. You became proud that you were the mastermind behind the building of Prabhupada’s Palace. You became proud that New Vrindaban had grown to become the largest ISKCON center in North America. You falsely believed that you were Prabhupada’s heir; his only true disciple following in his footsteps. You falsely believed you were the “world acharya.”
You offended and insulted your godbrothers by words and deeds. You also offended young men and boys . . . You offended two devotees and their families by permitting (if not authorizing) their murders, because you were afraid of what they knew about you, about your inability to resist Maya’s seductive temptations. You were afraid of losing honor and respect. A sannyasi is supposed to be fearless, but you were filled with fear. . .
Do not be a coward, Bhaktipada. Be fearless, like a true sannyasi, and do the “right thing. . .”
You must confess everything to your disciples and beg their forgiveness. They will not reject you. They love you. To them, you can do no wrong. Some of them ALREADY KNOW about your faults, but they continue to serve you because they love you, despite your faults. . .
However, Bhaktipada, it will not be so easy to receive the forgiveness from your godbrothers, former gurukula boys, and the families of the murdered devotees. But you must try, and keep persistently trying for the rest of your life. Your offenses are not something which they can easily forgive and forget. It may take many years of prostrations. But you must not give up. . .
You have said that sometimes “the child is the father of the man.” Certainly I am your eternal disciple. You saved me from the blazing fire of material existence and taught me everything I know about Krishna consciousness. I can never repay this debt to you. But now I am instructing you out of love. . .
I humbly request, Bhaktipada, that you deliberate on this fully, and then do what you wish to do. Because you are my very dear friend, I am speaking to you for your benefit. . .”
Kirtanananda Apologizes and Seeks Forgiveness
Although he never bothered to send me a personal reply, evidently Kirtanananda recognized in my letter his spiritual master speaking through me, for exactly one week later on Friday June 25, 2004, he gave a morning class in the Radha-Muralidhar temple in which he begged forgiveness for his offenses, and even admitted some of his faults: “for making mistakes; for criticizing unjustly; for not always being truthful; for not always being a completely pure sannyasi.” He even quoted certain parts of my letter.
(The complete class can be seen here)
“Before approaching the Tenth Canto, I feel it is very important that we make our hearts very open, very clean, for receiving the Lord. The Tenth Canto is the Supreme Personality of Godhead directly in the form of sound. It should not be approached without going through the first Nine Cantos, which are meant for purification.
And it’s interesting that at the end of the Ninth Canto is the story of Durvasa Muni, who offended a Vaishnava. Although he went all over the universe, to Lord Brahma, to Lord Siva, even to Lord Vishnu, he could not gain shelter. There was no relief from his offense until he went to those whom he had offended. Then he was relieved. Then sudarshan chakra was calmed.
Sukadeva Goswami says therein we see the glories of a Brahmin, of a Vaishnava: a real Vaishnava, who can forgive, who can beg forgiveness. I’m asking all of you to beg forgiveness for any offenses you have made, and I’m begging you to forgive me for any offenses I’ve committed. And I want to beg all the devotees at New Vrindaban, and everywhere else in the world to forgive me for the offenses I’ve committed. . .
I am here today to ask forgiveness from all of you: for not being perfect; for being human; for making mistakes; for criticizing unjustly; for not always being truthful; for not always being a completely pure sannyasi. . .
So I am begging your forgiveness and I’m begging the Vaishnavas everywhere for their forgiveness. I have not intentionally hurt anyone. Undoubtedly people have been hurt in the course of building New Vrindaban, trying to serve Prabhupada. But I think the best thing I can do is to pick myself up and try again.”
The next day Kirtanananda’s webmaster posted a letter of apology on the Internet in which he admitted “that I have offended many Vaishnavas, and have even broken the regulative principles.”
June 26, 2004
TO: All the Vaishnavas of New Vrindaban, ISKCON, and devotees of Lord Krishna all over the world:
All glories to Srila Prabhupada, our divine Spiritual Master, our eternal Guide, and our Source of all benediction and blessing. I offer my humble obeisances to all of you.
namah om vishnu padaya krishna presthaya bhutale
srimati bhaktivedanta swamin iti namine
namaste sarasvati deve gaura vani pracarine
nirvisesa sunyavadi pasyata desa tarine
I approach all of you with humble prostrations, begging for your mercy so that I may receive the mercy of Guru and Krishna. I know throughout many years of service to Prabhupada and Lord Krishna in New Vrindaban, that I have offended many Vaishnavas, and have even broken the regulative principles. For that I have been reaping corrective chastisement from Prabhupada and Lord Krishna.
I am reminded of the story of Durvasa Muni and Maharaja Amburish. I, too, have offended the Vaishnavas, and no matter where I go or how much punishment I receive I cannot regain the shelter of Prabhupada’s lotus feet without the Vaishnavas’ mercy. Please be kind to me and show me your causeless mercy, and bless me that I may again serve Srila Prabhupada to his full satisfaction.
Your humble servant,
Sri Sri Radha-Muralidhar Temple
Reaction to his apology was mixed. As expected, his disciples glorified him for his deep humility, but others remained skeptical, as they believed he had apologized too little and too late.
During Kirtanananda’s stay in Jupiter hospital during August 2011, one devotee—I presume a disciple in India—posted a “Prayer Request” which was published on several Internet forums, “Although some may hold to the beliefs that he [Kirtanananda] hasn’t felt deep remorse for his failings and offenses, I know for a fact that he has.”
Perhaps this is true, and I hope it is. I like to believe in happy endings; that perhaps Kirtanananda had finally learned his lesson and rectified himself, at least with his maker. After all, I have heard no reliable reports about him attempting to molest boys either at the Radha-Muralidhar temple or in India; so maybe—just maybe—he stopped these nefarious activities in his old age and rededicated himself to purely serving Prabhupada and Krishna.
But when I consider other factors, I must conclude that my “happy ending” scenario is only wishful thinking on my part. I became convinced about this when I tried to contact the author of the “Prayer Request” through the webmaster and I received a reply—not addressed directly to me, but to the webmaster. “No, I absolutely don’t want to deal with him [Doktorski]. When K.S. got out of jail, he rallied round him, faking his feelings, and then openly denounced him, ridiculed him, and used the day when we all welcomed him back as a way to persecute him. So thank you. So sorry you have to deal with this.”
This reveals to me that Kirtananananda Swami probably only posted his July 26, 2004 Internet apology because of the pressure I put on him and not because he felt any real contrition for his sins. I imagine that if Srila Prabhupada came back and personally said the same things I said to Kirtanananda, Kirtanananda’s disciples might also say that Prabhupada “openly denounced, ridiculed, persecuted, etc.” their spiritual master.
My heart goes out to the many people who were harmed by Kirtanananda. Those who he offended may never be able to forgive him, but now that Kirtanananda is near death, that is their choice: to forgive or not to forgive. And I do hope that they learn to forgive despite the suffering and pain they experienced at his hands, because by doing so they will, I believe, break the cycle of hatred which blocks their hearts and finally find peace.
Young Keith Ham (c. 1948)
With his boys at Camp Bouman in Freeport, Long Island (no other comment is necessary)
High school graduation photo (1955)
At 26 Second Avenue (1966)
On the Road Show (c. 1972)
With Srila Prabhupada and devotees at New Vrindaban (1974)
At New Vrindaban (c. 1977)
At the dedication of Prabhupada's Palace with Jayatirtha and Brahmananda Swamis (September 2, 1979)
Advertisement in Back To Godhead, vol. 16, no. 7, p. 30 (1981)
Joking with visiting TSKP devotees: Cediraja, Ramacandra and the author (c. 1982)
With the U.S. Congressman from West Virginia, ISKCON guru Panca-dravida Swami, and other dignitaries during the ceremonies for the ground-breaking of the proposed "Temple of Understanding" (May 31, 1985)
Recovering from severe head trauma with the Temple President soon after returning from the hospital (Nov 1985)
Gurukula boys show their affection for their spiritual master while Gudakesh, Bhaktipada's German shepherd guard dog, enjoys a pat from his master
Under house arrest in Wheeling (1992)
At the courthouse in Martinsburg, West Virginia (1996)
At the Radha-Muralidhar temple in New York City reading his latest book: Humbler Than a Blade of Grass (2008)
In Karachi (2008)
Kirtanananda Swami was the author of two dozen books, some of which were translated and published in Gujarati, German, French and Spanish editions. At least two books published in his name were actually written by volunteer ghostwriters.
Books by Kirtanananda Swami Bhaktipada:
The Song of God: A Summary Study of Bhagavad-gita As It Is (1984)
Christ and Krishna: The Path of Pure Devotion (1985)
L'amour de Dieu: Le Christianisme et La Tradition Bhakti (1985) French edition
Eternal Love: Conversations with the Lord in the Heart (1986), based on Thomas à Kempis' Imitation of Christ
The Song of God: A Summary Study of Bhagavad-gita As It Is (c. 1986) Gujarati edition
On His Order (1987)
The Illustrated Ramayana (1987)
Lila in the Land of Illusion (1987), based on Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland
Bhaktipada Bullets (1988), compiled by Devamrita Swami
A Devotee's Journey to the City of God (1988), based on John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress
Joy of No Sex (1988)
Excerpts from The Bhaktipada Psalms (1988)
Le pur amour de Dieu: Christ & Krishna (1988), French edition
One God: The Essence of All Religions (1989), Indian publication
Heart of the Gita: Always Think of Me (1990)
How To Say No To Drugs (1990)
Spiritual Warfare: How to Gain Victory in the Struggle for Spiritual Perfection (1990), a sequel to Eternal Love
How to Love God (1992), based on Saint Francis de Sales' Treatise on the Love of God
Sense Grataholics Anonymous: A Twelve Step Meeting Suggested Sharing Format (c. 1995)
On Becoming Servant of The Servant (undated), Indian publication
Divine Conversation (undated), Indian publication
The Answer to Every Problem: Krishna Consciousness (2004), Indian publication
A Devotee's Handbook for Pure Devotion (c. 2006)
Humbler than a Blade of Grass (2008), Indian publication
Heart of the Bhagavatam (2009), Indian publication
Articles and poems by, and interviews with Kirtanananda Swami published in Back to Godhead magazine:
1966, Vol 01, No 01, (untitled poem, no. 1)
1966, Vol 01, No 01, (untitled poem, no. 2)
1966, Vol 01, No 01, (untitled poem, no. 3)
1966, Vol 01, No 02, (untitled poem, no. 4)
1969, Vol 01, No 29, "Man's Link to God"
1969, Vol 01, No 31, "Krishna's Light vs. Maya's Night"
1970, Vol 01, No 32, "Prasadam: Food for the Body, Food for the Soul and Food for God"
1970, Vol 01, No 33, "Observing the Armies on the Battlefield of Kuruksetra, Part 1"
1970, Vol 01, No 34, "Contents of the Gita Summarized"
1970, Vol 01, No 35, "Karma-yoga—Perfection through Action, Part 3: Sankirtana"
1970, Vol 01, No 37, "Transcendental Knowledge, Part 4: He Is Transcendental"
1970, Vol 01, No 38, "Karma-yoga—Action in Krishna Consciousness, Part 5:Work in Devotion"
1970-1973, Vol 01, No 40, "Sankhya-yoga: Absorption in the Supreme"
1970-1973, Vol 01, No 41, "Knowledge of the Absolute: It Is Not a Cheap Thing"
1970-1973, Vol 01, No 42, "Attaining the Supreme: What Is Brahman?"
1974, Vol 01, No 66, "Turning Our Love Toward Krishna"
1977, Vol 12, No 12, "The Things Christ Had to Keep Secret"
1986, Vol 21, No 07, "The Heart's Desire: How can we find happiness that is not purchased with our pain?"