Population Dwindles in West Virginia Hills : Amid Worldly Woes, Hare Krishna Community Struggles to Survive
They flocked to West Virginia’s hill country to build their Hare Krishna community, seeking peace and a higher consciousness. Now there has been talk of demons whirling in the upper air to menace their faith.
More tangible threats have bedeviled the community below: a murder a year ago, a mysterious death last spring, arson, lawsuits, harassment by dissidents, excommunication by the larger Hare Krishna movement, ugly accusations of child molestation and abuse, even an FBI “raid.”
Through it all, the remnant of adherents at New Vrindaban, down to fewer than 300 from perhaps twice that strength several years ago, is carrying on.
Whatever was wrong in their community in the past, the faithful say, has been straightened out, and they place their hopes for the future in their children--children whose upbringing is admittedly “different.”
A 7-year-old worries about the afterlife. “He asked me: ‘If you think of Godhead when you die, do you get to Godhead?’ ” his spiritual teacher said.
The boy had special reasons to wonder. His father’s body, charred, a bullet wound in its head, the remains gnawed by his own pit bulls, was found near Krishna property this spring.
Donald Bordenkircher, the Marshall County sheriff, won’t say that Todd Schenker was murdered. He said:
“What we have is a male adult who apparently shot himself in the head, set himself on fire and then threw the gun away. Like everything at New Vrindaban, this case is very suspicious and bizarre.”
In 1987, the FBI seized truckloads of computers, financial records and sports souvenirs the Krishnas were selling but never filed charges and returned most of the goods.
New Vrindaban, named after a holy town in India, was founded 19 years ago. Here the devotees built their “Palace of Gold,” a dazzling little shrine that once drew some 250,000 tourists a year. There are far fewer now.
The remaining believers live below and beyond the hilltop shrine, scattered in the valleys and ridges in mostly make-do houses.
The community was rocked by formal charges against two ashram teachers that they sexually abused their wards. A former member claims in a court deposition that New Vrindaban leaders ignored the sexual molestation of her son and even told her it would advance the youngster spiritually.
Other former members say the community’s leader, Kirtanananda Swami Bhaktipada, forced them into childhood marriages. They tell of beatings and other abuses.
It was when these and other troubles thickened that Bhaktipada--a former Columbia University student and the son of a Baptist minister--spoke of the demons trying to bring misfortune on the Palace of Gold.
The Krishnas have made changes. New ashram leaders have been brought in. Some Krishna children now attend public schools. And community teachers have been trained to spot sexual abuse.
But child molestation charges still are pending against one former ashram teacher, Schenker’s death is unsolved, one swami still must stand trial on charges that he killed a devotee who turned against the sect and a 2-year federal investigation of the community continues.
Devotees are weary.
“I feel like an animal in the zoo,” said Gopi, an 18-year-old who moved to New Vrindaban with her parents when she was 12. She left once, but soon returned.
Believe in Reincarnation
“This is my religion. This is what I believe, my home,” she said.
The Krishnas believe in reincarnation, the level of each succeeding life determined by spiritual attainments and a higher consciousness. They are vegetarians and allow no drugs, illicit sex or gambling.
Menial tasks are considered acts of devotion when performed in the name of Hindu deity Krishna--the Krishna who rewards and punishes for the deeds of past lives. Krishna controls destiny. Krishna is all.
I was crazy and I was lazy until I offered a daisy to Krishna, with love and devotion
Hari Kirtan crooned off-key as he plunked on the piano, 10-year-old fingers stretching to hit the right keys.
About 30 children live in the ashram, a long building with rustic bedrooms surrounding a central hall large enough to roller-skate in. Each of six teachers cares for half a dozen children, boys on the right, girls on the left. Their parents work in the community or raise money on the outside.
The children rise for a 5 a.m., 2-hour worship service at the gold-embellished temple next door, men on the right, women on the left.
Small boys jump wildly through the incense to the rhythm of drums and cymbals, ponytails flying, saffron robes riding high above white athletic socks. Small girls in long skirts and scarfs wind through the chanting, dancing crowd with flowers or small flaming lamps cradled in their hands.
They attend school (either Krishna or public), eat vegetarian meals, sing religious songs and play.
They look happy. They look healthy.
Former devotees have told of a darker side to ashram life.
Kanka Dasi, her Krishna name, contends that her 12-year-old son told her in 1986 that his ashram teachers sexually molested him for five years.
She testified in a court deposition that she told Bhaktipada about the abuse.
“He became angry,” Kanka testified. “He said I was just a stupid woman--how much sex have I had in my life? And I told him that it didn’t compare, that two consenting adults and a child being molested by a teacher are two different things and it’s very demonic.”
Kanka said Bhaktipada threatened to expel anyone who supported the allegations. Other parents did nothing, she said.
Kanka told her story in a lengthy deposition given for Christina Mills, a former devotee who left her children with their father at New Vrindaban two years ago and now is trying to get them back.
Mills’ lawyers filed depositions from several former adherents who told stories of intimidation, beatings, filth and sexual abuse.
According to Marshall County Circuit Court records, Kanka said she was discouraged from being too close to her child lest it interfere with his spiritual development.
She left with her son, while the accused teachers remained in the ashram until the county prosecutor’s office filed charges against them.
Teacher’s aide Frederick Difrancisco, known as “Lalita” and 21 at the time, pleaded guilty to third-degree sexual assault and served six months in a state correctional center. Headmaster Gary Gardner fled the country rather than face a criminal charge, authorities said.
Another former devotee, Lisa Weltmer, told Mills’ lawyers her mother put her in New Vrindaban’s ashram in 1976 when she was 10. Weltmer, still a Krishna, said Bhaktipada betrothed her when she was 12 and again when she was 13. She said she was betrothed a third time at age 14, with the swami’s blessing, and had two children by age 16.
In her deposition, Weltmer said that she was taught to lie to outsiders and was encouraged to drink cow urine, which was considered to be pure. She said cow dung was used to purify cooking utensils.
She said the children were afflicted with parasites and sores. She said she was whipped with a rose bush stick by her ashram teacher, and beaten for talking back to Bhaktipada. She told of other abuses.
“I have no education. I had no self-esteem,” she said. “I had nowhere to go. I couldn’t even read.”
Mills lost her custody case, however. Marshall County Circuit Judge Steven D. Narick held that “the Hare Krishna Society, the New Vrindaban Community and the life style of its members are not an issue in this proceeding. The community is not on trial in this proceeding.”
Referring to the child abuse charges of the past, William Henry, the New Vrindaban operations manager, said: “It’s over.” Narick’s ruling in the Mills custody case, he said, closes the book on 90% of those allegations and the community should not bear the brand “on the other 10%.”
“There are many things that we do differently,” said Gadadhar Das, the community’s public relations man whose own child was reared in the ashram. “But we’re not a weird, spaced-out cult that’s fighting the government.”
The spiritual leader for New Vrindaban’s children, Chakravarty Swami Maharaja, and his wife, the ashram headmistress, say the sexual abuse preceded their arrival at New Vrindaban.
“We’re told there’s more threat from outsiders because our children are so open and friendly,” said Chakravarty.
“That was in 1976 or ’78,” said Parayana Dasi, whose daughters were reared at New Vrindaban. “Initially our movement was much more Indian-motivated. In the beginning our society was to simulate the ancient Vedic culture.
“Originally everybody was shaved bald. In the beginning we were eating on the floor.
“In India, it is quite customary that the girls are being betrothed before puberty. In this way is avoided the whole period of sexual experimentation.
“What we didn’t realize was that we’re Americans too.”
The marriages? “They just dissolved,” Parayana said.
Fifteen-year-old Hari Vamsa said the marriages are dead, but young girls still can be betrothed. She said her own flower ceremony with a boyfriend a year ago was just a way to say: “OK, we’re going to try to take this serious.”
New Vrindaban’s teen-age population has shrunk. Where there were about 40 teens, there now are only four teen-age girls left, along with a handful of boys.
“I imagine that after they do whatever they have to do out there, they’ll come back here,” said Gopi, whose own education stopped at 12 when she arrived at New Vrindaban.
“Mainly they all wanted to go to school,” said Hari Vamsa.
New Vrindaban runs three grade-school classes in a building a mile from the temple. Other Krishna children go to the public schools.
In a room beneath the Palace of Gold, Hari Vamsa and the other junior high students attend morning classes. In the afternoon, they scatter to work. One runs heavy machinery. Others learn to cook, make jewelry, sew or tend cows in the dairy.
There is no community high school.
Gopi has earned her high school equivalency diploma. At 18, she collects unicorn statues, dances to rock ‘n’ roll from the radio and takes care of New Vrindaban’s many horses. She wears boots and jeans underneath her flowing robes.
She is satisfied.
Hari Vamsa isn’t.
‘Want to Learn’
“I want to learn. I want to get in as much as my brain can take,” said the 15-year-old, who listens to classical music and is considering correspondence school after high school.
The girls know that this is a community under fire. They say they are accustomed to stares and whispers when they make occasional trips to the nearest town, Moundsville.
Neither contemplates leaving New Vrindaban.
“I don’t consider this a strange place, not a bad place,” Gopi said.
At morning prayer, small boys swarmed around Bhaktipada’s throne-like chair, knelt at his feet, clung to his legs. He tossed sweet balls to his guard dog. He dropped one in each eagerly outstretched child’s hand.
“Children are small devotees,” Bhaktipada said later as he waited in a back room of the temple to lead his followers in the day’s lesson.
“We are all servants of God. Some of us are big servants, some of us are little servants.”
He turned his head to hear the questions. One ear is deaf, a reminder of when an angry devotee cracked his skull with an iron bricklaying tool two years ago.
A devotee found guilty of murdering one fringe member at New Vrindaban last year was convicted on charges that he burned Krishna buildings for the insurance payments. That man, Thomas Drescher, is charged in California with slaying another former devotee who accused Bhaktipada and others at New Vrindaban of criminal acts.
Law enforcement officers in the past said the federal investigation looked into allegations that Drescher was promised money to kill the second dissident, but they now decline to discuss the case.
Gadadhar Das, the public relations man, sees New Vrindaban as a “loving community.”