by Charles Carreon
On A Stick - Murder, Madness, and the Hare Krishnas
by John Hubner and Lindsey Gruson, published in 1989, tells the tale of the time period in the mid-to-late eighties, after the death of Prabhupada, when eleven Western "gurus" ruled the International Society for Krishna Consciousness empire, giving them power over hundreds of thousands of individuals.
The book recounts in its first chapter a chilling murder completed at the direction of Kirtanananda, the head of the West Virginia temple called New Vrindaban.
Kirtanananda was a New York homosexual named Keith Ham who dropped out of the Columbia grad school religious department to become an early devotee of Prabhupada. His gay partner Howard Wheeler joined at the same time, and also rose high in the Krishna hierarchy, availing himself of the pedophile pleasures of operating a temple in Ensenada, Mexico near the flesh markets of Tijuana. Kirtanananda shielded a teacher who publicly sodomized many young Krishna children from prosecution, shipping him to India as the police were closing in with an arrest warrant. Kirtanananda collected millions from drug dealing and money laundering, and directed rings of scam-operators who solicited donations in the name of Vietnam veterans, hungry children, etc. -- virtually anyone but Krishna. The official name for the platoons of urban change-scavengers was "sankirtan groups," but they were colloquially referred to as "scam-kirtan." Armies of young women, bullied by cynical pimpish fellows, wrang innumerable dollars from the pocketbooks of tired Americans, meeting a usual quota of $300 a day, or getting a beating to cover the difference. These young women were also often sexual playthings for the heterosexual appetites of the more plebeian devotees who went for that sort of thing.
Kirtanananda, who thought himself very witty, was unquestionably a woman-hater. He counseled men to beat their wives like their prayer drums, to improve them, and despised audiences with women devotees, describing the occasion as "fish night," when extra incense had to be burned to counter the odor of women. According to the authors, the entire Krishna empire became a haven for homosexuals with a lust for power after Prabhupada, disenchanted with the 80% divorce-rate that afflicted the numerous marriages between devotees that he had arranged by edict, decided that only sannyasins, (male) "renunciates," could take leadership positions in the organization. While celibacy was enjoined upon sannyasins, staying in the closet was no problem for these skirt-wearing, chanting, dancing worshippers of Vishnu. Kirtanananda was reportedly inseparable from a young boy called Samba, who sat at his side at all times, and with whom he often slept.
The greed and prissy arrogance of a guy like Kirtanananda is understandable. He's like Leona Helmsley playing the Pope. The little people sometimes get hurt when God goes about His business. So there's a shallow grave here or there on the property. Big deal. The temple roof is leafed with gold and the floors are pure marble. It overawes with splendor, lifting the mind to God. Lots of people have felt very peaceful and divine there. It is a substantial achievement, and he gets a kick out of it.
What's hard to understand is his followers. The horrifying murder of Chuck St. Denis that's described in the first chapter was carried out under Kirtanananda's express direction, in order to make an example of him, like impaling "a monkey on a stick" to frighten other monkeys. This last was apparently a reference to one of Prabhupada's quaint little Indian sayings. The frightening thing is that it worked. Everyone in New Vrindaban knew that St. Denis had been killed, by whom, and that Kirtanananda approved it. No one dared to speak out because the murderer lived right there in New Vrindaban, and was under the express protection of Kirtanananda. The local West Virginia police had been undermined by Kirtanananda's financial influence and the murderer wasn't prosecuted until he murdered a second young man, Steve Bryant, in LA, again at Kirtanananda's direction. The ensuing flap resulted in a prosecution for the murder of St. Denis, and the killer, Tom Drescher, was convicted and is serving a life sentence in prison. Even in his cell, however, Drescher has been elevated by his service to Krishna as a destroyer of unbelievers. In a special ceremony conducted by Kirtanananda, he was given authority to initiate prisoners in the Hare Krishna path. He has followers already.
Kirtanananda got his reaction when a deranged devotee bashed in his skull with a three-foot steel rod. He lived, but barely and ever after walked with a cane, suffering headaches and double vision. Even in his debilitated state, however, he was still able to direct the murder of Steve Bryant, the New Vrindaban exile who considered it his mission from Krishna to expose Kirtanananda's abuses, and had been publishing the embarrassing truth.
St. Denis, as you can read in the chapter below, did not die easy. Two gunmen
pumped twelve .22 caliber rounds into him. He was stabbed repeatedly in the chest
with a kitchen knife and a screwdriver. As the life fled from him he howled like
a dog. His cranium was fractured with a hammer. He opened his eyes and spoke to
his killers after they were sure he was finally dead. His killers buried him under
a stream, which is probably a good way to make a spirit unquiet, if such a thing
can be done. His cries, which vanished into the West Virginia night, unheard by
anyone who chose to care or help, were never silenced. They kept people up at
night, caused rage to burn in the hearts of the injured, and destroyed the sleep
of the idiot mice-like devotees who hid themselves in the warm darkness of
oblivion, chanting and surrendering their souls to Krishna.
Chuck St. Denis screamed and screamed and screamed until finally the cops found his body, dug it up, and put the horror to rest.
Or so they say ...
Go to Chapter 1: The Planting Party
Book Reviews: Booknews, Inc. , August 1, 1989The history of the movement in America based on taped interviews with present and former devotees, newspaper stories, magazine articles, and trial transcripts. Annotation copyright Book News, Inc. Portland, Or.