Kirtanananda Swami (1937-2011) aka Swami Bhaktipada (Bhaktipāda) The Independent was a spiritual leader and author. He was the co-founder of the New Vrindaban, a Hare Krishna community in Marshall County, West Virginia. He was a Gaudiya Vaishnava guru, who served as a spiritual leader from 1968 to 1994. In 2011, he died of kidney failure.
Kirtanananda Swami aka Keith Gordon Ham The New York Times was born on Monday, 6 September 1937 (age 74 years; at the time of death) in Peekskill, New York, USA. His zodiac sign is Virgo.
In 1952, he completed his class 9 at Drum Hill Junior High School, US. Thereafter, he attended Bob Jones Academy in Greenville, South Carolina, but he contracted hepatitis and dropped out of school. In 1953, his parents enrolled him at Keith attends Stony Brook School in Long Island, New York, but he was again detected with hepatitis and polio. In 1955, he completed his high school at Peekskill High School, New York.
In 1959, he pursued a Bachelor of Arts in History at Maryville College, Maryville, United States, and stood first in his class. There, he received a three-year Woodrow Wilson fellowship to study American history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, United States. Later, he attended Columbia University in New York to pursue PhD, but he could not complete the degree. The Independent
Height (approx.): 5′ 6″
Hair Colour: Grey (half bald)
Eye Colour: Hazel Brown
Kirtanananda Swami was a homosexual. Prabhupad Anti Defamation Association
Parents & Siblings
His father, Francis Gordon Ham, worked as a conservative Baptist minister. His mother’s name is Marjorie. He had four elder siblings named Shirley, Gerald, Joan, and Roberta. His elder brother Gerald was an archivist.
Wife & Children
He was unmarried and did not have any children.
While he was studying at the University of North Carolina, he met Howard Morton Wheeler, who was pursuing graduation in English at the University. Initially, they became friends, and later, fell in love with each other. The couple was in a homosexual relationship for a very long time. In the 1996 documentary ‘Holy Cow, Swami,’ he accepted that he was involved in a homosexual relationship. However, he said that after becoming a Hare Krishna Swami, he did not have a homosexual relationship with his partner.
He belonged to a Christian family, and later, he adopted Hinduism. He followed the Brahma-Madhva-Gauḍīya Sampradāya lineage of the Gaudiya Vaishnavism sect. ISKCON News
From Keith Gordon Ham to Swami Kirtanananda
In June 1966, Keith (Swami Kirtanananda) went to India for a short trip, and after returning from there, he met the Bengali Gaudiya Vaishnava guru A C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. At that time, Bhaktivedanta had founded the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON; also known as Hare Krishnas in the west) and was operating a storefront mission in New York. There, Keith attended Bhagavad-Gita classes in a temple at 26 Second Avenue in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He accepted Prabhupada as his Swami, and on 23 September 1966, he received the title ‘Kīrtanānanda Dāsa.’
Prabhupada used to call him Kitchen-ānanda as his cooking skills were good. Keith’s partner Howard Wheeler also joined the spiritual organisation and received the name Hayagriva Dāsa on 9 September 1966. Kirtanananda had shaved his head and became one of the first swamis of western disciples to do so. In March 1967, on the advice of Swami Prabhupada, Kirtanananda, along with Janus Dambergs (member of the Hare Krishna group as Janardana Dāsa) established a Hare Krishna temple in Montreal. On 28 August 1967, he became one of the first disciples to initiate the Vaishnava order of renunciation (a vow of lifelong celibacy), and thereafter, he received the title Kīrtanānanda Swāmi.
A few days after receiving the title, Kirtanananda returned to New York from India against Prabhupada’s will and started adding a few cultural elements of Christianity to Prabhupāda’s devotional bhakti system. Gradually, he started eliminating a few traditional elements and chanting prayers in English without consulting his Swami.
Other followers of Prabhupāda believed that he was trying to take over the Hare Krishna group. When Prabhupāda (who was living in India) got to know about this, he banned Kirtanananda from preaching at any ISKCON temple. Thereafter, he left New York. In July 1968, Kirtanananda, along with Hayagriva, visited Swami Prabhupada’s place and apologised for their actions.
Establishing The New Vrindaban Community
In 1968, while Kirtanananda was reading a newspaper named San Francisco Oracle, he saw an advertisement from Richard Rose Jr. The advertisement reads,
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.”
Kirtanananda and his partner Hayagriva then visited the properties of Rose, and Kirtanananda decided to live in Rose’s backwoods farmhouse for a few months in isolation. In 1968, Kirtanananda and Hayagriva took a plot on a 99-year lease from Rose for $4,000 (with an option to purchase for $10 when the lease expired). Hayagriva gave $1,500 as deposit money to Rose. Thereafter, Kirtanananda and Hayagriva started the spiritual organisation named New Vrindaban organisation in West Virginia under the guidance of Prabhupada. Later, Swami Prabhupada wrote letters in which he explained the purpose of establishing the New Vrindaban Community and a guideline for the working of the organisation. Prabhupada even visited the organisation four times i. e. in 1969, 1972, 1974, and 1976. According to Prabhupada, New Vrindaban was established to highlight key elements for ISKCON i. e. Simple living, holy pilgrimage, spiritual education, and loving Krishna. Gradually, Kirtanananda started establishing himself as the sole authority and leader of the organisation. In the publications of New Vrindaban, he was titled the Founder-Acharya of New Vrindaban. Gradually, the organisation started expanding and the premises of the organisation acquired over 2500 acres. In the early 1970s, the community had more than 600 members and was visited by thousands of ISKCON visitors annually. In 1972, Kirtanananda decided to build a home for Swami Prabhupada. By the time, his home was completed Prabhupada passed away and it became the memorial shrine of marble, gold, and carved teak wood of Swami Prabhupada. It became a centre of attraction for visitors and was named the Palace of Gold.
The other main attractions of the New Vrindaban were the theme parks “Land of Krishna” and “Temple of Understanding” which made the place a ‘Spiritual Disneyland.’ On 14 November 1977, after Prabhupada’s demise, Kirtanananda, along with the other ten ISKCON leaders, became the successors of Swami Prabhupada. In March 1979, Kirtanananda was given the honorary title ‘Bhaktipāda.’
New Vrindaban City of God
On 27 October 1985, New Vrindaban organised a bricklaying marathon. Suddenly, one of the devotees there hit Kirtanananda on the head with a heavy steel tamping tool. Kirtanananda was badly injured and was in a coma for 10 days. After the incident, Kirtanananda’s behaviour started changing. Some of his close associates started leaving the community due to his changed behaviour. In 1986, Kirtanananda started an interfaith experiment community named New Vrindaban City of God. With the community, he started eliminating the original principles of the ISKCON and adding a western touch to it; repeating the same which he had done earlier in 1967. The devotees at New Vrindaban started wearing robes instead of dhotis and sarees, started chanting prayers in English, using western musical instruments in bhajans, and started keeping beards instead of being clean-shaven. Some of the devotees did not like this practice and left the community.
Kirtanananda Swami was an author too. He authored around 24 books on spirituality. Some of his books were translated into different languages like Gujarati, German, French, and Spanish. A few spiritual books published by Kirtanananda are ‘The Song of God: A Summary Study of Bhagavad-Gita As It Is’ (1984), ‘On His Order (1987),’ ‘Joy of No Sex (1988),’ ‘A Devotee’s Handbook for Pure Devotion (2004),’ and ‘Humbler than a Blade of Grass’ (2008).
Kirtanananda also wrote a few articles and poems on spirituality. Some of his poems are “Man’s Link to God” (1969), “Observing the Armies on the Battlefield of Kuruksetra” (1970), “Sankhya-yoga: Absorption in the Supreme” (1970), “Turning Our Love Toward Krishna” (1974), and “The Things Christ Had to Keep Secret” (1977).
Downfall of Kirtanananda
In 1987, his downfall started. The former members of the Hare Krishna group accused Kirtanananda of running a community as a cult. On 16 March 1987, he was expelled by the governing body of ISKCON for moral and theological deviations. However, he refused to step down from the post of ‘Head of New Vrindaban.’ He then started his own organisation named The Eternal Order of the League of Devotees Worldwide. By the end of 1988, New Vrindaban had 13 satellite centres in the United States and Canada. Later, on his former devotees’ complaints, his premises were raided by the FBI and took all his documents and computer equipment into their custody. The Independent
Life After Imprisonment
In a few molestation and mail fraud cases, he was sentenced to an imprisonment of four years. After four years in prison, he started residing at the Radha Murlidhara Temple at 25 First Avenue in New York City. In 1990, the premises of Radha Murlidhara Temple was purchased by the followers of Swami Kirtanananda. On 7 March 2008, he left the United States and relocated to India. According to some sources, on leaving the US, Kirtanananda said,
There is no sense in staying where I’m not wanted.”
Even after he was convicted of several charges, he had followers in India and Pakistan at that time. He continued working as a preacher. He used to say,
Fundamentalism is one of the most dangerous belief-systems in the world today. Fundamentalism doesn’t promote unity; it causes separatism. It creates enmity between people of faith. Look at the Muslims; Mohammed never intended that his followers should spread their religion by the sword. It is more important today than at any other time to preach about the unity of all religions.”
In 2010, Kirtanananda visited various Hindu temples like Gokulananda temple, Radha-Ramana temples, and Sri Temple on Varshana Hill.
Accused of Criminal Activities
In 1990, Kirtanananda was accused of six counts of mail fraud. He was even alleged to be involved in the murder of Stephen Bryant and Charles St. Denis, who were his opponents in the Hare Krishna movement. He was accused of illegally amassing a profit of more than $10.5 million over four years. He was accused of killing the people who had threatened him to reveal that Kirtanananda was sexually abusing the minors. On 29 March 1991, he was found guilty of nine of the 11 charges filed against him. However, the murder charges against him were not proven. After that, he remained under house arrest for almost two years in a rented apartment in the Wheeling neighbourhood of Warwood. On 16 August 1993, he was released from house arrest, and he returned to New Vrindaban. In 1996, he pleaded guilty in a mail fraud case and was sentenced to 20 years in jail. However, on 16 June 2004, he was released from jail on the account of his poor health. ISKCON News
Once, Kirtanananda was travelling to different places in the US to attend interfaith conferences. At that time, he used to travel around in his Winnebago van. One day, after attending a conference in Chicago at night, he was travelling in his van. In an interview, the driver of the van made a shocking revelation about Kirtanananda. The driver said that while he was travelling with Kirtanananda in a van, he saw Kirtanananda in an intimate position with one of his male devotees from Malaysia. However, the driver was asked to keep mum and not spread the rumours about Kirtanananda. A few leaders of the New Vrindaban including Radhanatha confronted Kirtanananda for the same. Kirtanananda confessed that he was a homosexual and pleaded them to remain silent about the same until the puja was over. Before the pooja ceremony, when some of his Malaysian disciples got to know about his homosexual relationship, they confronted Kirtanananda, but he said that these were only rumours. His devotees believed him and asked Radhanatha to leave New Vrindaban. In an interview, one of his former devotees talked about his homosexual relationship. She said,
To say, for instance, that they [NV residents] didn’t know about Kirtanananda’s homosexual activities when everyone else in the movement knew about them, is just total denial. Kirtanananda had been sleeping with Hayagriva’s young son, in the same sleeping bag, for years. To say you didn’t know about that is just a total illusion or lying. This had been going since the 1970s, when Srila Prabhupada was here, let alone going on during the whole ten-year stretch of the Zonal Acarya period.”
Later, many other young boys complained against Kirtanananda for physically molesting them. On 10 September 2000, he was founded guilty of molestation case by the ISKCON Child Protection Office. He was even prohibited from visiting any ISKCON properties for five years. Hare Krsna A few conditions imposed on him for his reinstatement on the premises of ISKCON were:
- A contribution of at least $10,000 to the organisations which are working for the welfare of Vaishnava youth. Some of such organisations include Children of Krishna, the Association for the Protection of Vaishnava Children, or a Gurukula approved by the Association for the Protection of Vaishnava Children (APVC).
- Written apology letters must be handover to the victims in which he needs to confess that he was involved in child abuse. The letters should be sent through APVC and not directly to the victims.
- He must go through a psychological evaluation by a certified professional approved by the APVC.
- He must comply with all the government proceedings implacable on him.
However, Kirtanananda never fulfilled these conditions.
On 24 October 2011, Kirtanananda took his last breath at a hospital in Thane, Maharashtra. His lungs collapsed, and he died of kidney failure. The Independent
- During his school days, he used to participate in various debate competitions.
- In teens, he developed a reputation for being a heavy drinker. A Chronology of Swami Bhaktipada’s Life
- In 1953, amid the rise of polio cases in the US, he became the first contributor to the Mothers March on Polio donation camp.
- On 3 February 1961, Kirtanananda and his partner Howard Morton left the university where they were studying because they were threatened with an investigation of their sex scandal. They then moved to New York City from Chapel Hill. Later, Kirtanananda started promoting the use of LSD drugs and even worked as an unemployment claims reviewer. The Independent
- On 1 September 1986, he received a golden crown and mace at the Palace of Gold as a birthday gift.
- In 1988, the American authors John Hubner and Lindsey Gruson published a book on Kirtanananda Swami titled ‘Monkey on a Stick: Murder, Madness and the Hare Krishnas.’
- In 1990, Kirtanananda Swami appeared on a live English podcast show ‘Larry King Live.’
- An English documentary film titled ‘Holy Cow Swami’ (1996) was released by the American actor and producer Jacob Young.
- An English TV movie ‘Faith & Fear: The Children of Krishna’ (2001) was released. The movie depicted the story of Kirtanananda Swami.
- An English TV series ‘Deadly Devotion’ (2013) was released in which the story of Kirtanananda Swami was depicted.
- In 2017, a documentary titled Hare Krishna! was released, based on the life of Kirtanananda Swami.
- One of his former followers Henry Doktorski has published a biography on Kirtanananda Swami titled ‘Gold, Guns and God.’
- After his demise, Madhusudan Das (popularly known as ‘Bapuji’), of Anand Vrindavan Dham in Ulhasnagar, Mumbai became his successor.