“Right before the exit ramp, this voice spoke to me in my head and said if you turn off this highway you’re never going to get back on again … and then at the last second, I remembered how delicious their vegetarian food was.”

When driving down the winding rural roads in the northern panhandle of West Virginia, one wouldn’t think to look for a new age eastern religious commune that’s home to a giant palace filled with gold leaf, 50 types of granite imported from all corners of the globe, and over 20 roaming peacocks. Hidden away in the Appalachian Mountains, outside a rural town called Moundsville, West Virginia, is an unincorporated community named New Vrindaban. 

New Vrindaban is home to the Hare Krishnas; an eastern religious group that’s roots stem from India stretching back centuries but didn’t catch on in America until the 1960s counterculture movement. Originally built as a permanent residence for their guru, it eventually turned into a tourist attraction for the public and a commune for devotees from all walks of life.

It was once the largest Hare Krishna community in America and one of the state’s largest tourist attractions, raking in millions of dollars. But it took a dramatic fall from grace. Over the years, evidence and allegations came out about the group’s shady business practices and abuse that included fraud, racketeering, drug dealing, stockpiling of weapons, forced prostitution, domestic and child abuse and murder.

The facade of a new age utopian society in the picturesque mountains was shattered, resulting in declining membership, financial ruin and a tarnished public reputation. 

The controversies that plagued New Vrindaban were not just exclusive to that one location, rather a microcosm for what was occurring with the group on a nationwide scale at the time. It showed the dangers that can occur in new religious movements when corrupt leadership goes unchecked. 

Background & Beginnings In America

To a majority of Americans and westerners in general, Hare Krishnas are a group they’ve never heard of. And the knowledge many do have is surface level, such as people in saffron robes asking for donations outside public events, a brief satirical portrayal in the 1980s comedic classic “Airplane,” and a name drop in George Harrison’s hit 1970 song, “My Sweet Lord,” off his iconic album, “All Things Must Pass.” 

The group can trace its origins in India dating back to the 16th century and is the largest branch of the belief system called Gaudiya Vaishnavism; one of the many branches that make up the faith of Hinduism. The man credited with bringing the faith to America is A.C. Bhaktivedanta, better known as Swami Prabhupada. Before his arrival in America, Prabhupada spent several years as a traveling monk in India. In 1965 at 70 years old, he hopped on a cargo ship to New York City with the hopes of spreading the religion to the Western world. He couldn’t have come at a more perfect time as Greenwich Village was a hotspot for the counterculture movement on the East Coast.

Young, self-described hippies became infatuated with his charming personality and public displays of worship in parks. His message of free love and the journey to spiritual fulfillment resonated with those looking to find meaning after rejecting the stereotypical post-World War II American dream. He soon created the group ISKCON (The International Society for Krishna Consciousness) which serves as the governing body of the faith to this day.

map showing the location of all 55 ISKCON centers in the United States
Map by Sam Myers. See original.

He soon built a large enough following and finances to travel cross country and opened a temple in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, ground zero of the American counterculture movement. The Swami had large goals for the movement, but knew he couldn’t do it alone. It wasn’t long until one of his 12 highest ranked disciples, a young man named Keith Ham, would look into acquiring some land in rural West Virginia.

West Virginia & Creation of New Vrindaban

New Vrindaban was the brainchild of a man named Keith Gordon Ham. After dropping out of college and moving to Greenwich Village with his gay lover, he became interested in Eastern religion; even taking a two-month trip to India in hopes of finding a guru, to no avail. It wasn’t until he heard the teachings of the Swami that he became truly infatuated. It wasn’t long until he became a devotee and a high-ranking disciple; given a new Hindu name as part of the initiation process, Kīrtanānanda. He even accompanied Prabhupada on a trip to India where he was appointed the first American Sannyasi, a title reserved for someone to renounce the material world and devote their life to Krishna. It also meant other devotees should refer to him as Swami Kīrtanānanda Bhaktipada.

In order to win the approval of his spiritual master, Kīrtanānanda set off to create an idyllic commune where he could take charge and be the center of the American Krishna movement. He eventually found a man named Richard Rose offering property in West Virginia. Rose envisioned a multi-faith commune with no leader at the top. In 1968, after initially refusing to sell or give a long-term lease, Rose became desperate for money and gave Ham a 99-year lease for $4,000 (Equivalent to $33,046 today adjusted for inflation).

Prabhupada would eventually visit and fall in love with the 133-acre property and the gorgeous Appalachian Mountains. He envisioned seven more temples built on the surrounding hills; even looking at the entire state as a possible haven for Hare Krishnas. This new commune would be named New Vrindaban, named after the holy city of Vrindavan in Northern India.

Devotees at New Vrindaban, like all Hare Krishnas, had to follow the strict social guidelines that included four main pillars: no drinking or drugs, a vegetarian-only diet, no gambling, and sex was only allowed in the context of marriage with the goal of procreation. Men would also have the Sikha haircut synonymous with the Hare Krishnas.  

Soon, devotees flocked from all over to help create this paradise in the West Virginia countryside. In 1979, after years of hard work from an unpaid and devoted labor force, the commune of New Vrindaban and its crown jewel, The Palace of Gold, was completed. 

One of the people that made New Vrindaban their home was a young man named Henry Doktorski; who joined the group in 1978 and helped construct the Palace of Gold.

“Well, I had just gotten my undergraduate degree and I had gone to visit the University of Kansas on a trip to hear Baba Ram Dass give a lecture and I thought that was pretty cool,” Doktorski said. “And then I was interested in spirituality; I told my piano professor that I was gonna go find a spiritual commune somewhere and devote my life to that search for the absolute truth… I went to college in Missouri and I was visiting a buddy in Wheeling (West Virginia) on my way home to New Jersey. He had a summer job and we’re sitting in his hot and stuffy apartment with nothing to do and he said, ‘Let’s go visit the Hari Krishna farm. They’re building a palace for their founder.’ And I went there and I liked what I saw. A couple months later, I planned a trip on my way to North Texas State University (now University of North Texas) from New Jersey. I planned to stop there for a few days and wound up never getting back on the road for 16 years.”

To visitors, the first thing that’ll catch your eye when arriving is the gigantic structure that is the Palace of Gold. Originally built as a home for Prabhupada, it has 5,000 feet of gold leaf, brightly colored stained glass windows, crystal chandeliers, and over 50 types of imported marble and granite. As previously mentioned, the palace was constructed entirely by unpaid devotees.

“First of all, we didn’t have jobs. Doktorski said. “You have something called service, which is exactly like a job except you don’t get paid for it. … You do service and you get free room and board.” This would eventually change later on as the group started losing money.

In any type of organization, especially a new religious group, fundraising is what can make or break a group. 

“Well, after the first year, we discovered that I had a talent for fundraising,” Doktorski said. “And then for I guess about seven years I was out on the road. Working mostly parking lots, shopping centers, malls. You hit up a customer and give them a bumper sticker. We had this whole routine, which I named the ‘citation line.’ You have this clipboard and go up to someone who’s putting groceries in their car, or at a sporting event or a concert and give them a citation for having ‘too much fun’ or something like that and at first they’d be worried and then be relieved. And so what you essentially do is you just manipulate them psychologically so that they’re happy. And then we asked for money, and they’d give it to you.”

According to Doktorski, New Vrindaban raised around $17 million between 1981 and 1985 and at least a quarter of that came from on-the-road fundraising he and dozens of others were doing; sometimes driving up to 300 miles in one day to reach a major event such as concerts or sporting events where they could make up to $1,000 a night.

At its peak, New Vrindaban became the poster child for the American Hare Krishna movement. With roughly 500 members, it was the largest commune in the country. The stunning architecture of the palace, rose gardens, a beautiful pond, roaming peacocks, cabins to rent, a free vegetarian lunch, and even an Elephant named Malini made it one of the most popular tourist destinations in the state.

They would even buy more surrounding land, at one point reaching up to 4,000 acres total filled with temples, a school and housing. With money and devotees flowing in, this growing power Kīrtanānanda possessed led to the darkest days in the group’s history that still cast a cloud to this day.

Crimes, Scandals & Decline

In 1977, Swami Prabhupada, who had multiple health issues, died in India at the age of 81 and was buried in the holy city of Vrindavan. The Palace of Gold was initially designed to be the Swami’s home for his twilight years, but was later established as a memorial site. He died without naming an official successor. 

Even before his passing, he realized the vision of his western disciples working in unison to spread Krishna consciousness to the West was far from reality. 

The death of Prabhupada paved the way for Swami Keith to be one of the most influential Krishna leaders in America. He ruled his golden palace with an iron fist. The mid-1980s and a majority of the 1990s is when the allegations and charges pulled the curtain on the supposed peaceful and tranquil lifestyle at New Vrindaban.

In 1983, a man named Charles St. Denis was murdered on the New Vrindaban property. St. Denis was considered a “fringe” member, which meant he didn’t follow the strict guidelines on the commune. In 1986, a man named Stephen Bryant was murdered in his car in Los Angeles, California. According to prosecutors, Bhaktipada ordered the murder of both of these men for threatening to come public with accusations of the corruption and abuse that he and other high-ranking disciples were allegedly partaking in.

Bryant, specifically, was writing a book highlighting the corruption within ISKCON.

The man who carried out these murders was a man named Thomas Drescher; one of  Bhaktipada’s most loyal followers. Drescher was convicted of both murders in 1991 and is currently serving a life sentence. Drescher was also convicted of arson to collect a $40,000 insurance policy in 1987.

Another devotee named Daniel Reid was charged with voluntary manslaughter and would later testify against Drescher in court.

Frederick DiFrancisco, a teachers’ aide at the commune’s school, was charged with sex offenses against a child in 1987 and served a six-month prison sentence.

It wasn’t long until allegations of Swami Bhaktipada became known; creating a rift within the commune and tearing down the image of their spiritual master.

“Well, we had heard rumors, at least as early as 1983, that our spiritual master was having sexual relations with some of the gay men,” Doktorski said. “We had workers, illegal immigrants, from Mexico and Bhaktipada’s long-time lover Howard would go down to Mexico to find young gay men to bring back to work on the commune. So we heard that Bhaktipada would go to some of their parties. A few things a Swami isn’t allowed to do – he’s not allowed to have any type of sex or intoxicants.”

Kīrtanānanda also found himself in hot water with ISKCON leadership over straying from the principles taught by Prabhupada. In 1987, Kīrtanānanda was expelled from ISKCON. Even though he was expelled, he still ruled over the commune for several years after. ISKCON eventually expelled the entire New Vrindaban community after an attempted merger with Christian beliefs. Even through all of this, the personality cult wrapped around Bhaktipada was strong. It was in the early ‘90s when many members, including Doktorski, started questioning the actions of their spiritual master. The infamous “Winnebago Incident” in 1993 is what truly divided the group.

“Then finally in 1993 the ‘Winnebago Incident,’ one of my own god brothers who I knew and trusted said he saw Swami Bhaktipada parked in the back of the Winnebago van at night, during a long drive back from Chicago, messing around in bed with this teenage boy, a Malaysian disciple, and I believed him,” Doktorski said. “I started talking more about this and there were a lot of people talking about it, because it was a big scandal. And not everyone believed that either. Half the community still supported him.”

After going through court documents and reaching out to two young men who accused Bhaktipada of molesting them, he came to the conclusion that they were telling the truth.

“Here I got firsthand evidence, you know, and other people think all these boys are making up stories, you know, but I believed them,” Doktorski said. “That’s when I approached Bhaktipada, he was living in a cabin in an old stone quarry about 25 miles south of New Vrindaban. And, he denied it. And I didn’t believe him. So that’s when I rejected him as my spiritual master.”

Dotkorski would leave the group not too long after in 1994; the same year New Vrindaban officially excluded Kīrtanānanda.

In 1996, Bhaktipada accepted a plea bargain and was found guilty of racketeering, which included mail fraud and conspiracy to commit both murders, and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. He would get released early and, just like his spiritual master before, would spend his final days in India; dying of kidney failure in 2011.

Even though the Swami was removed from the group and New Vrindaban was accepted back into ISKCON in 1998, the money and memberships dwindled; only a fraction of what they saw at their peak in the ‘80s. The lack of money from dwindling tourism, new members, and illegal avenues to fundraise meant the facility started to become a shell of its former self. 

Free room and board to devotees was discontinued and pieces of land would be sold off to interested buyers.

a column chart showing the estimated number of adult members in the Hare Krishna community throughout the years
Chart by Sam Myers. See original.

Modern Day, Reforms & Future

The rampant abuse that happened at New Vrindaban left a black mark on the community. That, along with reports of child abuse at Hare Krishna boarding schools across the United States, led ISKCON to re-evaluate how it operated; which included the creation of two organizations named ISKCON Child Protection Office and ISKCON Resolve.

If the American Hare Krishnas have proven to be anything, it’s resilient. It’s a borderline miracle the group is still running today. It’s been about 54 years since New Vrindaban was founded and in 2019, the Palace of Gold celebrated its 40th anniversary. When visiting the commune today, you can tell that upkeep is needed in certain parts. The tourists are still coming. Not in the quantities they once did, but they are still existent.

Ellen McCarthy, a journalist for the Washington Post who covered New Vrindaban in a 2013 article, talked about her experience when visiting the group.

“Because of the history that went on there, it’s hard to separate that and definitely added some feelings of skepticism and fear,” McCarthy said. “I went to some of their prayer/meditation sessions, where they would gather and worship in the main hall to dance and drum, and it was so loud, lively, and jubilant.”

“This is the draw,” she said. “The palace isn’t the draw, the Peacocks aren’t the draw, the lake, the swan boat, the statues, the food… this moment of communal worship, not just any, but almost out-of-body, joyful communal worship. Seeing how moved these people were made it make sense for me why people would give up everything to come here.”

It’s unlikely New Vrindaban will return to the heights it saw in the 1980s, but that isn’t stopping this community from being a place for people from all walks of life to come together to try and find that absolute truth.

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