Disgraced former US Hare Krishna leader dies

Community founder served jail time over murder-for-hire case

A former Hare Krishna leader in the United States who constructed a gaudy Shangri-La retreat in the West Virginia mountains and served prison time after being implicated in a murder-for-hire scheme has died in India.

Swami Bhaktipada, who moved to India in 2008 four years after his release from prison, died from kidney failure in a hospital near Mumbai, a family member said. He was 74. A Hare Krishna spokesman paid hesitant tribute. "Although he played a positive role in the Krishna movement's earliest years, he later severely violated the strict standards expected of a Krishna devotee, especially a leader," Anuttama Dasa said.

The son of a Baptist pastor from upstate New York, Mr Bhaktipada – born Keith Gordon Ham – was one of the first leaders in the United States of a movement that became identified for many people with the small groups of saffron-clad disciples who still today assemble in public places to chant, bang drums and raise money.

The most obvious physical legacy of Mr Bhaktipada is New Vrindaban in West Virginia. It was begun in 1968 and became the largest Hare Krishna community in the US. It included a so-called Palace of Gold which, in all its eccentric extravagance, is about as understated architecturally as the Brighton Pavilion. New Vrindaban, which was to grow to more than 500 members and into an important tourist attraction, featured terraced gardens, topiary trees, pools and an elephant.

In time, however, it became the object of federal investigations and unflattering books and documentaries after allegations began to surface of sexual molestation of children and even the case of two followers being murdered.

In trials that followed, prosecutors said one victim was killed because he had raped the wife of another Vrindaban member. They said the other died because he tried to blow the whistle on the abuse happening in the community. Mr Bhaktipada was convicted of six counts of mail fraud and three counts of racketeering, one of which implicated him in arranging and paying for the two men to be murdered. He was sentenced to 30 years. After a successful appeal, he was convicted again but given a lesser sentence at a second trial

New Vrindaban, however, endures. While the community was thrown out of the Hare Krishna movement when scandal engulfed it, it was readmitted in 1998. Today it has about 200 members and remains popular with tourists.

The negative publicity Mr Bhaktipada and his exotic campus generated for the Hare Krishna movement was typified by the 1988 book, Monkey on a Stick: Murder, Madness and the Hare Krisha, written by John Hubner and Lindsey Gruson, a former reporter for The New York Times, and a documentary film, Holy Cow Swami, which came out 15 years ago.