Thursday, August 24, 2006

The New Vrindaban Community, WV.

One of the "cults" mentioned in the books I've been reading is ISKCON- the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. I've had the pleasure of visiting their national headquarters at New Vrindaban on several occasions. Prabhupada's Palace of Gold, is located at the end of some windy little roads near Moundsville, WV.

ISKCON was started by an Indian businessman named Srila Prabhupada, who made his journey to the west in 1965. He was devoted to venerating the Hindi deity Krishna, and set as his purpose the spread of Krishna-consciousnes. Krishna devotees became well known for chanting the names of their lord, and dancing down urban corridors to the sounds of their own hand-held drums. They were notably parodied in the movie "Airplane", for their practice of giving out flowers in public spaces, and soliciting donations.

Like other followers of Hinduism, the Hare Krishna group refuses to eat eggs, meat or seafood. Gambling, intoxication and "illicit sexual behavior" are not allowed. They consider cows sacred. They preach non-violence... in fact there are prohibitions against harming any other living thing. For their sacred texts, they look to the Bhagavad-gita and the Srimad-Bhagavatam (Vedic scriptures). All-in-all their description should lead others to believe that they are simply a force for good in a troubled world. Realities are always more complex than this.

The chain of succession for leadership in the movement led to Kirtanananda Swami Bhaktipada, (orginally named "Keith Ham"). Kirtanananda Swami Bhaktipada was a dominating force in the life of his followers- he had the final say on all major life decisions made by them. In fact, he was considered so domineering that he and the temple were actually kicked out of ISKCON under his leadership. His push to add interdenominational elements to the community was controversial and led to factional strife within the Krishna movement. In the early 90's, Kirtanananda was indicted for child molestation, racketeering and conspiracy to commit murder. He was convicted and incarcerated.

My first visit to New Vrindaban occurred right around the time Kirtanananda Swami Bhaktipada was experiencing his legal troubles. The place was rundown, and an air of oppression lingered over the grounds. There were naked children running wild through the temple, and many of the residents looked (for lack of a better term) like zombies. Many of the buildings were experiencing a rapid deterioration, and others looked like they needed to be torn down years before. Our tour guide seemed extremely slick for a guy with a shaved head, and dressed in a robe. There was only an older couple to accompany us on our look at the palace. They stayed very silent until the guide gave us an opportunity to ask questions before our departure. The couple broke their silence and the man stepped forward to present a photo of their son, who they had been searching for since his disappearance a few months previous. The woman was inconsolable, as our guide recognized her son, but did not know of his whereabouts. This encounter lent a very strange finish to my visit.

Last year, I returned once again to New Vrindaban. My experience was of a wholly different character. The grounds were immaculate, and the crumbling buildings I had seen previously had been torn down. The people inhabiting the place were bright-eyed, alert and welcoming. Our guide was forthcoming about the difficulties the community had experienced during the 90's, and did not try to duck my more difficult questions. There were a fair amount of pilgrims from India and other parts of the world. One of the greatest pleasures of that visit was a tour and lecture introducing us to the ground's organic gardens. The man in charge of agriculture at New Vrindaban was a natural communicator and very knowledgable about his business. He characterized himself as "just an aging hippie". He had known Kirtanananda Swami Bhaktipada for decades, and characterized the former swami as a great man corrupted nby power.

New Vrindaban seems to have suffered through its time of troubles, and now exists in a state of peace and optimism. Its people are generous with their resources and their knowledge. It exists as a great opportunity for exposure to Hindi worship, thought and action. Kirtanananda Swami Bhaktipada has been released from prison, but is no longer allowed to set foot in the community. New Vrindaban has re-entered the fold of ISKCON.


Blogger thekcblogger said...

thanks for this great post. i just visited this place for the first time last weekend and completely agree with how amazing NV is!

take care and have a look @my site if u like.

ps ur lucky to get no tax charged on clothes...

6:33 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

It's gratifying to me that you found my blog and entry. I will absolutely check out your blog, and I encourage any other readers to do so as well.

Just click on his profile... and away you go!

10:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

OH MAN. I have been wanting to go there for 2 are you? Has school started yet? Coffee tues or weds? I will give you your book back...!

9:41 AM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...


D. reports that he is rapidly acclimating himself to his new schedule. He thanks you for asking. His availability during the week is now extremely limited. He also says that there is no rush as far as getting the book back.

You should certainly make the time to visit New Vrindaban. It is worth the relatively short (and non-congested) drive.

4:53 PM  

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