Chakra Discussions

Almost Heaven: Leadership, Decline and the Transformation of New Vrindaban

by E. Burke Rochford, Jr. and Kendra Bailey

Posted November 2, 2004

Editors' note: The article below by Professor Burke Rochford and Kendra Bailey of Middlebury College is a draft copy of a paper reporting on community development in New Vrindavan, and was commissioned by New Vrindavan management. An early draft of this report was forwarded by a third person to Chakra and VNN. Chakra sought permission to publish this paper, but this was denied. Now, however, VNN has published a version of Dr. Rochford's paper without permission of the authors. Since VNN published the paper without authorization, Dr. Rochford has now granted Chakra permission to publish.

I can remember when I was struck with the concept of Srila Prabhupada wanting a new Vrndavana when I came in 1973. I sold myself out to that dream. The dream turned into a horrific nightmare for so many, through no fault of their own. I pray to give myself like that again. But instead I am hiding in a little closet even while I remain here [at New Vrindaban].

An important if underdeveloped focus of sociologists interested in the fate of new religions is in the factors that influence their success, decline, and failure.1 Such an oversight is especially conspicuous given that new religions are prone to rapid and radical changes that promote organizational transformation.2 Rodney Stark has formulated the most comprehensive model addressing success and failure in new religions yet, as he acknowledges, his model “has not yet influenced the case study literature. . . .”3 This paper addresses two elements of Stark’s model—authority of leadership and the presence of a committed labor force. We consider how each of these factors in combination influenced the development of the New Vrindaban community, a renegade Hare Krishna community located in West Virginia.

Stark argues that no religious movement can expect to attain success without effective leaders whose authority is acknowledged as legitimate by followers.4 Moreover, rank and file members must perceive themselves as part of that system of authority.5 Stark further posits that religious movements grow to the extent that they sustain a motivated religious labor force, especially one comprised of committed missionaries devoted to seeking converts.6 This paper describes and analyzes how a crisis of authority at New Vrindaban brought about an exodus of community residents, financial decline, and the ultimate transformation of the community’s purpose. Today New Vrindaban is fragmented and struggling to survive, even while serving as a place of pilgrimage for many Indian Hindus.

After clarifying the data and methods used for this research, the paper is divided into three sections. The first provides a brief social history of the New Vrindaban community and its controversial charismatic leader Kirtanananda Swami. The second details how leadership problems resulted in numerical decline and growing financial problems that transformed New Vrindaban into an institution of pilgrimage. The third section details how the community’s membership responded to the leadership’s emphasis on pilgrimage at the expense of community building.

Data and Methods

Data for this paper were collected over the course of 11 years (1993-2004). In 1993, the senior author visited New Vrindaban during a period when some of the events reported here were taking place. Thereafter fieldwork was conducted in the community on nearly a yearly basis for several days at a time. Interviews were completed with two of the community’s leaders, approximately a dozen residents, and countless other devotees who once lived at New Vrindaban. The later interviews were informally conducted with former New Vrindaban devotees living in communities affiliated with the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON).

In the summer of 2003, the senior author was asked by the leadership and some residents of New Vrindaban to conduct a survey to assess the views, concerns, and hopes of the local congregation. The questionnaire was designed in collaboration with five community residents who read drafts and made suggestions for revision. Questionnaires were distributed within the immediate New Vrindaban community as well as among congregational members living in the surrounding area. To assure confidentiality, completed questionnaires were mailed directly to the senior author. The survey yielded 36 respondents, 60% (N=22) of whom were full-time residents; 17% (N=6) involved congregational members; and, 22% (N=8) while associated with New Vrindaban had little or no involvement in the life of the community. Respondents in the majority were married (54%) and/or had one or more children (59%). One third (34%) worked within the New Vrindaban community while over half (54%) were either self-employed or worked for a non-devotee business. Although eleven of those surveyed became residents of New Vrindaban during the 1970s the majority joined after 1995. The median length of residence at New Vrindaban for the sample as a whole was seven years.

Growth, Leadership, and Sources of Decline

New Vrindaban was established in 1968 by two of the early disciples of Swami Prabhupada, the founding guru of ISKCON. Kirtanananda Swami responded to an advertisement in The San Francisco Oracle for people to help establish a religious community in the hills near Wheeling, West Virginia. With his friend Hayagriva he visited the owner of the property to assess the possibility of establishing ISKCON’s first farm community. Initially they met with stiff resistance from the owner who was determined to develop a community, as he said, that was available “for everybody wanting to learn the Truth.”7 After several failed attempts to secure a lease on a portion of the property, the owner finally relented after he encountered legal problems. The 99-year lease on 130 acres of land was the beginning of what Prabhupada called New Vrindaban. In time the community was able to purchase the property as well as a number of other adjacent ones. Thereafter, Kirtanananda Swami, later known as the guru Bhaktipada, held a firm grip on the leadership of the community.8

New Vrindaban’s early days were difficult. Under the motto of “Plain Living and High Thinking,” Kirtanananda and a handful of other devotees carved fields and pasture out of the wilderness to grow crops and provide grazing areas for cows. The goal from the start was to build a self-sufficient community based on spiritual principles. But there was more. Prabhupada envisioned New Vrindaban much like its namesake in India. He had a vision of seven temples built on the surrounding hilltops. The first “temple” the community built was meant as a residence for Prabhupada. Prabhupada’s Palace of Gold was dedicated on September 2, 1979, nearly two years after Prabhupada’s death. The New York Times declared the palace “America’s Taj Mahal” and the Washington Post called it “Almost Heaven.”

Kirtanananda saw Prabhupada’s Palace as one piece of what he called a “Land of Krishna” theme park, or a spiritual Disneyland, capable of attracting large numbers of visitors. In fact, New Vrindaban did become a major tourist attraction. Busloads of tourists descended on New Vrindaban in the early and mid-1980s and Prabhupada’s Palace became a major tourist attraction in the state of West Virginia. The Wall Street Journal reported: “The flow of traffic into this coal and manufacturing outpost [Moundsville] on the banks of the Ohio used to be as slow as the river on a dusty summer day. But now, a daily confluence of buses packed with gawking tourists is a common sight.”9 The palace attracted over 100,000 visitors in 1982 and climbed to nearly 500,000 between 1983 and 1985.10 One of ISKCON’s gurus who visited New Vrindaban in 1985 stated, “When I was Prabhupada’s personal secretary in 1977, he introduced the phrase ‘cultural conquest.’ He told me dozens of times during this period that this is the way to preach in Americ. . . .. I’ve always been convinced that the project—and especially after seeing the master plan that Bhaktipada [Kirtanananda] inspired—will make America the first Krishna conscious country.”11

After humble beginnings, New Vrindaban grew to approximately 600 residents in the mid-1980s. Many devotees were drawn to the community because of the palace project and Kirtanananda’s vision for New Vrindaban. Others came to live in what they thought would be a self-sufficient farm community focused on realizing Krishna Consciousness. Funds for the palace and related projects, as well as to support the community generally, came largely from traveling sankirtan teams comprised of devotees selling various products in public locations (e.g., candles, hats, records, stickers supporting sports teams), or who solicited funds for fictitious charities. Distributing Prabhupada’s books was largely discontinued when it became obvious that selling products in public—a practice known as “picking,” could raise larger sums of money.12 New Vrindaban devotees solicited funds throughout North America and ultimately the world, generating millions of dollars each year in support of the community’s ambitious building projects.13

Things changed dramatically for Kirtanananda and New Vrindaban after May 22, 1986 when a former resident of the community was murdered near the Los Angeles ISKCON temple. Steven Bryant (Sulochana das) had been on a crusade of sorts after Kirtanananda allegedly initiated his wife without his consent. He ultimately blamed Kirtanananda for ruining his marriage. To those at New Vrindaban, Bryant was a disgruntled devotee out to get Kirtanananda. In fact he had gone to local authorities with allegations of drug smuggling, child abuse and fraud at New Vrindaban.14 Thereafter Bryant became one of the early challengers to the legitimacy of Kirtanananda and the other gurus who succeeded Prabhupada. His manuscript, The Guru Business, exposed the corrupt activities of ISKCON’s successor gurus and argued forcefully that the latter had usurped their positions of power, rather than being appointed by Prabhupada. Following his murder, law enforcement and ISKCON’s leadership began to take more seriously Bryant’s accusations against Kirtanananda. This only intensified a few months later when Bryant’s killer Thomas Drescher (Tirtha) was found guilty of a 1983 murder of another New Vrindaban resident Charles St. Denis (Chakradhari) and was sentenced to life in prison. By now many within ISKCON, as well as local law enforcement officials began to wonder if Kirtanananda had himself been behind the two murders.

Bryant’s murder set off an extensive government investigation by the FBI, the Internal Revenue Service, and the police in Los Angeles and in West Virginia. As the Marshall County (West Virginia) Sheriff proclaimed, “This is the beginning of the end of New Vrindaban as we now know it.”15 The end certainly did seem near after FBI and Internal Revenue agents, in conjunction with local police, raided the community on January 5th 1987. Moreover, several months earlier, on September 15, 1986, a federal grand jury met to investigate a possible connection between members of New Vrindaban and the deaths of Bryant and St. Denis. In April of 1987, John Hubner and Lindsey Gruson published an article in Rolling Stone magazine titled “Dial Om for Murder” wherein they presented evidence suggesting that Kirtanananda was behind the murders of both devotees. A year later the two authors published the book, Monkey on a Stick: Murder, Madness, and the Hare Krishnas.

In the midst of his legal troubles, Kirtanananda undertook a radical change at New Vrindaban: the de-Indianization of Krishna Consciousness. Kirtanananda had believed for some time that the cultural elements of Krishna Consciousness made it difficult to appeal to Americans and other Westerners. Kirtanananda said, “We’re not interested in Indian culture as such. We’re interested in what is productive for Krishna consciousness—whatever is useful.”16 Some of the changes Kirtanananda instituted included: devotees wearing Franciscan type robes, men wearing beards, interfaith preaching and conferences, silent chanting, Western music including the use of a pipe organ and other western instruments, and English in temple worship in place of traditional Bengali and Sanskrit. Moreover, life-sized images (murtis) of both ISKCON’s founder Prabhupada and Jesus Christ were placed side-by-side in the temple.17 Although many community members accepted these innovations, others did not and left the community. Thirteen interfaith conferences held at New Vrindaban brought some new recruits to the community yet, in the end, nearly all them left with bitter feelings toward Kirtanananda. Two protest demonstrations occurred at New Vrindaban in 1991, and 1993, by interfaith members claiming that Kirtanananda had defrauded them.18

On March 16, 1987 at ISKCON’s annual leadership meetings in Mayapur, India, Kirtanananda was excommunicated from ISKCON.19 A year later New Vrindaban and its satellite temples and centers were expelled from ISKCON.20 Freed from ISKCON interference, Kirtanananda continued to add elements of Western and Christian culture to Krishna Consciousness. The community reorganized itself under the name the Eternal Order of the Holy Name, League of Devotees International.21

In May 1990, a federal grand jury indicted Kirtanananda on three counts of violating the RICO statute for illegally using copyrighted and trademark logos during fundraising, six counts of mail fraud, and two counts of conspiring to murder. The government also sought forfeiture of all properties owned by New Vrindaban. After a three-week trial, Kirtanananda was convicted on the RICO and mail fraud counts but the jury failed to reach a verdict on the murder charges. While in jail, Kirtanananda made a motion to appeal the case and awaited a bail hearing. He subsequently hired Allen Dershowitz to represent him in the Court of Appeals. In July of 1993, his 1991 conviction was overturned when the Appeals Court ruled that the District Court had wrongly allowed evidence of child molestation and other irrelevant matters to be presented, unduly prejudicing the jury.

Despite the court proceedings, many of Kirtanananda’s disciples remained loyal to their guru, interpreting the legal proceedings as just further evidence of persecution on the part of local, state, and federal authorities.22 This changed dramatically in September 1993 however when Kirtanananda was caught in an inappropriate sexual encounter with a young adult devotee male while driving back to West Virginia after attending the Parliament of the World’s Religions centennial celebration in Chicago. When confronted by two senior Godbrothers, Kirtanananda confessed to his sexual indiscretions. Later that day however he denied the charges when a group of distraught disciples came to see him. The following day at an open community meeting Kirtanananda emphatically stated his innocence. At this point many left the community, their faith in Kirtanananda shattered. Others left in fear, as a portion of Kirtanananda’s disciples were irate toward those they saw as spreading lies about their spiritual master. Many of those who chose to remain at New Vrindaban lost trust in Kirtanananda’s authority. As a consequence, a growing number of residents openly rejected Kirtanananda’s interfaith experiment and returned to strictly following Prabhupada’s practices of Krishna Consciousness. Because some residents remained committed to Kirtanananda, New Vrindaban essentially split into two camps. Under pressure, Kirtanananda finally terminated his six-year interfaith experiment in July 1994 and New Vrindaban returned to the traditional Indian-style of dress, worship, and religious practices advocated by Prabhupada.23

Kirtanananda’s second trial took place in 1996 after he refused a plea bargain by the government. This time however Thomas Drescher, who was serving a life sentence for murdering Bryant and St. Denis, decided to provide incriminating evidence against his former guru. At the trial Drescher admitted that he had carried out both murders under Kirtanananda’s order. Following Drescher’s testimony, Kirtanananda agreed to plead guilty to one count of federal racketeering and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. In 1997 the sentence was reduced to 12 years because of Kirtanananda’s failing health. Kirtanananda’s few remaining interfaith followers left New Vrindaban and relocated to his New York City temple, called the “Interfaith Sanctuary.” Eight years later, on June 16, 2004 Kirtanananda was released from federal prison in North Carolina. He now resides with a handful of committed disciples and followers at the Sri Sri Radha Murlidara temple in New York City. The Executive Officers of ISKCON’s North American governing board issued a warning prohibiting Kirtanananda from visiting any of ISKCON’s temples or communities.24

The Changing Fortunes of New Vrindaban

Kirtanananda’s legal problems, religious deviations, moral failures, and imprisonment had a devastating affect on New Vrindaban. As one might expect, the community lost a considerable number of residents beginning in 1986 when Kirtanananda began his interfaith experiment and his legal problems initially emerged. A mass exodus followed in the aftermath of the January 1987 FBI led raid on the community. Still others departed when Kirtanananda’s sexual indiscretions became public, in 1993, and the community divided into two antagonistic camps. Many who left during this period rejoined ISKCON.

Community census data indicate dramatically the affect of Kirtanananda’s downfall. In July of 1986, New Vrindaban had 377 adults; that number dropped to 131 in July of 1991. In the span of five years New Vrindaban lost a total of 246 adult members, a reduction of 65%.25 In 1998 a reported 30 devotees resided in temple owned buildings, although many more lived independently in the surrounding area. In 2004, approximately 50 devotees resided full-time within the temple community, with an equal number living independently on land purchased from the community.

New Vrindaban not only lost the biggest portion of its full-time membership however. It also lost the great majority of the community’s many Indian Hindu supporters. Beginning in the early 1980s, New Vrindaban developed an active membership program directed at Hindus in the U.S. and in India. As a holy dham, numerous Hindu pilgrims came to New Vrindaban to worship. These Hindu supporters represented an important source of funds. Yet many were baffled and alienated by Kirtanananda’s interfaith experiment and mounting legal problems. Some were reportedly outraged when they realized their financial contributions to build a Vedic style temple were instead being used to build the “Cathedral of the Holy Name.” This outrage intensified when Kirtanananda publicly stated, “I do not care about Indian people.” One Indian supporter subsequently wrote to Kirtanananda, “I was extremely distressed by your ridiculous remarks about Indian. . . .. If you have such racial inner feelings about Indians, you should realize that Indians do not need you for the spiritual knowledge but you need them for the Lakshmi [money] all the time.”26

New Vrindaban’s financial troubles deepened when funds derived from traveling sankirtan parties essentially dried up following Kirtanananda’s 1991 conviction. Out on bail awaiting an appeal of his case, the court barred him from residing at New Vrindaban after an ISKCON leader warned of possible violence should Kirtanananda be allowed to return. As a result, the considerable funds raised by his disciples were given directly to Kirtanananda. Without sankirtan revenues and contributions from Hindu pilgrims, New Vrindaban’s communal structure rapidly disintegrated.

Beginning, in 1990, householders were required to independently support their families. Many purchased property from the community or in the surrounding area and set up their own households. Householders working at New Vrindaban were paid salaries and stipends. Desperate for funds the community supported itself initially by selling off construction and other equipment such as bulldozers and printing presses when Palace Press closed down. Thereafter the community raised funds by selling parcels of land from its extensive holding. By 1998, the community retained about 1400 acres of what was once a property of over 3000 acres. Several small businesses emerged in 1996 but two of them collapsed in 2001. Due to a shortage of funds, the community’s extensive dairy operation began downsizing, in 1995, by limiting breeding and allowing older cows to naturally die off. In 1999 the community’s day school closed. Financial pressures intensified in 2000 when New Vrindaban was named a defendant in a child abuse case filed in Dallas, Texas, by former devotee students who attended ISKCON schools, including the one at New Vrindaban.27

As financial problems grew worse and members of the community scattered, the leadership initiated an effort to actively encourage Hindu pilgrims to return to New Vrindaban. This was made possible by the abandonment of interfaith, in 1994, and the imprisonment of Kirtanananda in 1996. In addition, ISKCON and New Vrindaban formally renewed their relationship beginning in 1998. Hindu pilgrims thus once again began regularly visiting the community and contributing much-needed funds. No longer a functioning community, New Vrindaban refocused its mission and became an institution of pilgrimage. While perhaps a financial necessity, the emphasis on pilgrimage has nonetheless been controversial. Centering the community’s mission on pilgrimage effectively undermined the remaining remnants of community at New Vrindaban. Among full-time and congregational members surveyed in the fall of 2003,28 three-quarters (73%) agreed that, “New Vrindaban is more concerned with pilgrims of Indian decent than with its local congregation.” Fifty-five percent agreed strongly with the statement. The emphasis on pilgrimage at the expense of rebuilding New Vrindaban as a community has led some of the few remaining householders to relocate to other ISKCON communities. As one husband and parent commented:

Not one single American grhasta [householder] couple has been able to stay doing full-time service over the past several year. . . .. I am in the process of moving away. It should be noted that I am merely relocating my family to another [ISKCON] community. We are leaving NV [New Vrindaban] because there is no vision that includes us. I don’t want to live in a spiritual “Disneyworld.” I want to live in a nice neighborhood with a nice temple. Originally my wife and I had hopes of self-sufficiency but that is not even on the map at NV [New Vrindaban] right now.

Although serving the many Hindu pilgrims who visit New Vrindaban does not require an extensive labor force to oversee the temple, the lodge for guests, tours at Prabhupada’s Palace, and the like, the community’s management has faced ongoing labor shortages. Given the relatively low wages offered, and lingering hostilities toward the community’s management team, few devotees have stepped forward to work. As one devotee stated forcefully, “Unfortunately, I do not see a change in attitude in the leadership. This attitude of using devotees in a utilitarian way is NV’s [New Vrindaban’s] greatest failure.”

Unable or perhaps uninterested in rebuilding the community, the leadership essentially became managers of a business, albeit a spiritually based one. This shift has left many longstanding members of the community vulnerable and in some cases feeling out of touch with the community’s new purpose.29 As one devotee noted:

They could stop making an effort to drive away devotees who do not “fit into” the management’s vision and become more hospitable to all residents. They should stop perpetuating a culture of fear and embrace some of the ideas of those people who have dedicated their lives to the project. The management is out of touch.

Another comments:

The management could cultivate a mood of service towards the devotees. Currently, I find the upper management to be distant, untrustworthy, and cold. The worst part of New Vrindaban for a resident is the unpredictability. The management may decide at any moment to give you and your family a “hard time.” Generally, this is referred to as the “squeeze.” If they don’t see you as useful they drive you away. I think all of this makes the senior members feel much safer if they remain at a distance. The new people pick up the “vibe” and then the whole thing goes to hell.

One focus of hard feelings has been the temple president who returned in 2000 to manage the community, after leaving with his family in the aftermath of Kirtanananda’s legal troubles. Previously he had served as Kirtanananda’s “right hand man” in his role as temple president. For some, his close association with Kirtanananda in itself makes him suspect. Yet many complain about his reportedly high salary and the fact that he and his family choose not to live on the property.

[Name of temple president] receives a rumored $60K salary every year. Many senior members of the community as well as less senior ones mention this to me as a great disparity, given the amount of money given to other full-time grhastas working in the community.

When asked on the questionnaire, “How much trust do you place in the present New Vrindaban leadership?” a quarter of those surveyed (26%) indicated that they were “very distrustful.” An additional 40% suggested that they were “distrustful” or “somewhat distrustful” of the leadership. Moreover, one-third (34%) responded that differences with the present leadership represent a “major influence” on their willingness to become more involved in the community. Another third (31%) reported that differences with the leadership had some influence on their desire to be involved. Finally, when asked, “What changes could be made at New Vrindaban that would make you more welcome and comfortable in the community,” over half (53%) of the total responses (N=62)30 made reference to the leadership: the need for management to be more responsive to the community (19%), leaders becoming more involved in the community’s spiritual programs thus serving as role models (18%), and the need for better or new management (16%). As one resident of New Vrindaban commented:

People are fried out by the present leadership and so they disconnect themselves from the programs offered by the community. Despite the fact that a lot of structural changes have been made, the interactions between the leader and members have fallen as time passes on. Devotees feel they should be treated like devotees and be appreciated for whatever little service they perform.

Given the prevailing resistance to the management, and the overall lack of available labor, New Vrindaban has undertaken a strategy used by other ISKCON communities in North America and, for that matter, by many private companies looking to cut labor costs. New Vrindaban’s management began importing devotee foreign nationals from India, South America, Eastern Europe, and other locations with the promise that they could ultimately secure U.S. residency. In a December 3, 2003 posting on a devotee website, New Vrindaban advertised for devotee workers. While requesting “recent references” from senior devotees interested, the advertisement ended with, “Foreign-citizen devotees can inquire about obtaining religious visas and plane fare to move here.”31 As one devotee stated:

Almost all of the families doing full-time service are being sponsored for immigration by the temple. The families are often very poor and work lots of hours. Most do not have plans to stay on after their paperwork is completed— supposedly 2 or 3 years. (his emphasis)

One longtime resident of New Vrindaban who refers to the devotee immigrants as “R1 Visa slaves,” commented:

As for my own case, I am quite willing to do temple service in exchange for my [temple-owned] apartment. That seems fair to me. But that is not what they want from me ultimately, I don’t believe. Why have one old lady in a temple apartment when they can import a family and have two much more useful and unbiased eager servants? I think that all that is really wanted from me is to be gotten out of the way as soon as possible.

Despite the fact that a substantial number of devotee immigrants live and work within the community, they apparently are not considered part of the community by the leadership, as indicated by the following report:

In a recent closed meeting of about 20 devotees and Radhanath Maharaja [New Vrindaban’s present spiritual leader] not one person aspiring for a green card was invited. This despite the fact the meeting was to discuss community issues. I think this indicates that no one really sees these people as part of the intimate “community.” However people in this category make up about one-third of the immediate temple community.

Being little more than hired employees from the perspective of the community’s leadership, it is hardly surprising that few devotee immigrants remain at New Vrindaban after receiving their green cards. Moreover, as one community member stated, “People coming for a green card really don’t strengthen the community. They create a transient atmosphere, especially for those of us who want to stay and create something permanent for our families.”

Conflicted Goals: Pilgrimage and Community Building

New Vrindaban no longer exists as a spiritual community with devotees living and working together in pursuit of common goals. Rather it now operates largely as a pilgrimage business requiring cheap and reliable sources of labor to further that purpose. Yet many full-time residents and congregational members continue to hold out hope that New Vrindaban can reclaim its original purpose. As one devotee of twenty years stated, “The community needs spiritual management as shown by Srila Prabhupada, not business management, thinking of New Vrindaban as some kind of business.” It is this clash of vision and goals that has produced ongoing alienation and conflict between management and current and former members of the community.

Tables 1 and 2 present findings that indicate how residents and members of the New Vrindaban congregation remain committed to serving and developing the community. Table 1 reports mean scores for how respondents’ rank ordered what they considered the community’s most important responsibilities. Clearly, maintaining the deities, serving the existing congregation, and providing for the community’s cows are significant priorities. Less importance is placed on providing for the needs of the community’s pilgrims and other guests. Moreover, as the findings further indicate, maintaining Prabhupada’s Palace and improving the community’s buildings and infrastructure are deemed less important community responsibilities. The latter of course are central to maintaining the community as an attractive place for Indian pilgrims. Finally, expanding the congregation through preaching and distributing Prabhupada’s books had relatively less importance.

Table 1. Which of the Following Do You Consider New Vrindaban’s Most Important Responsibilities as a Community? (Mean Scores and Standard Deviations)

  MeanStd. Deviation
Maintaining the Deities2.16 (32)1.53
Serve the Existing Congregation3.34 (32)2.59
Providing for the Community’s Cows3.47 (32)1.83
Providing for the Community’s Guests4.45 (31)2.29
Expand the Congregation by Preaching
and Making Devotees
5.13 (31)2.16
Maintaining Prabhupada’s Palace5.16 (32)1.72
Improve and Maintain the Community’s
Buildings and Infrastructure
5.41 (32)2.05
Book Distribution5.71 (31)2.13

Findings in Table 2 underscore the significance of community to those surveyed. Mean scores are reported for eight community-related items that devotee respondents ranked ordered with respect to the community’s most immediate needs. Community building and maintaining the local congregation are viewed as the most significant and immediate needs. Respondents seek more economic development and employment opportunities, expanded social services for devotees in need, community-based schooling and spiritual training for children, and a “community minister” to help tend to the varied needs of the broader community. Structures and opportunities promoting devotee interaction were considered less immediate needs, perhaps because there are ample occasions to socialize within the community already.32

Table 2. Which of the Following do You Believe are New Vrindaban’s Most Immediate Needs? (Means Scores and Standard Deviations)

  MeanStd. Deviation
Economic Development,
Employment Opportunities
3.10 (30)2.37
Expand Social Services for Devotees in Need3.60 (30)2.33
Community Elementary School3.93 (28)2.04
Community Minister to Tend to the
Needs of the Broader Community
4.00 (27)2.50
Sunday School and/or Spiritual
Education for Children
4.07 (27)1.73
Community Center4.74 (27)2.25
New Vrindaban “Town Meetings”5.54 (26)2.30
More Community Social Gatherings5.92 (26)1.85

From the perspective of the management, devotees living in and outside of the temple community are regarded as problematic precisely because their goals are at cross-purposes with the mission of pilgrimage. As a consequence, the management has been portrayed as being largely unresponsive to community members. Seventy-one percent of those surveyed agreed with the statement, “My input into the development of the community seems unwanted by the leadership.” Three quarters (76%) disagreed with the statement, “Temple management in recent years has become more responsive to devotee needs and concerns.” Moreover, while the community board of directors had disbanded prior to the survey, 85% of the respondents agreed nonetheless that, “The community board should represent the diverse views of the local congregation.” Fifty percent agreed strongly with the statement.

Summary and Conclusion

This study has demonstrated how New Vrindaban’s founder Kirtanananda Swami lost legitimacy resulting in mass defection, the loss of vital sources of funding, and goal transformation. New Vrindaban faced decline and possible failure precisely because Kirtanananda, and the community he led, lost legitimacy in the eyes of the membership. It may have only survived because the community was able to create a niche for itself by becoming a place of pilgrimage for Indian Hindus. In so doing however, New Vrindaban essentially gave up the task of sustaining a viable residential community.

Charismatic leadership has been central to the emergence and development of new religions.33 Charismatic authority is based upon a relationship of high emotional intensity. This is readily translated at the group level into high levels of organizational commitment, religiosity, and task performance as followers seek to realize the goals of the leader and his or her organization.34 Yet as Weber makes clear, charismatic authority is inherently unstable and subject to routinization.35 Charismatic leaders thus face the ongoing task of sustaining their legitimacy in collaboration with their followers. As this implies, the actions of leaders have the potential for reinforcing or undermining their authority.36 To sustain authority, leaders must continually display their virtues and prowess as leaders.37 This demands that they produce or otherwise sustain the appearance of new successes.38 This becomes all the more critical in situations where the authority of a leader is under challenge. For new religions and their charismatic leaders, success is often measured in terms of recruiting new members.39

In the midst of serious legal problems and resulting challenges to his authority, Kirtanananda refashioned Krishna Consciousness by blending it with Christianity and other religious systems. Such a radical shift in doctrine was meant to attract new recruits loyal to Kirtanananda’s leadership while pushing out dissenters. Yet as we have seen, this tactic largely backfired as relatively few new recruits were brought into the community, while hundreds of longstanding members defected over the course of several years. This left New Vrindaban’s communal way of life vulnerable and the community rapidly disintegrated. Community stability was further compromised when Kirtanananda’s sexual indiscretions became public, in 1993, and a further round of defections occurred.

The repeated examples of corrupt and immoral activity by Kirtanananda eventually erased any claims to authority he may have had. Ideological work40 meant to restore Kirtanananda’s legitimacy proved too imposing in the face of overwhelming evidence of indiscretions. Moreover, given the community’s transformation to an institution of pilgrimage, New Vrindaban no longer retained the spiritual authenticity capable of integrating members into a functioning community. Community members who remained no longer perceived themselves as part of a legitimate system of authority. While pilgrimage clearly stood as an important element of the original community’s mission, it was seen as emblematic of the spiritual purity of the devotee way of life. Now economic necessity has overwhelmed the spiritual ideals upon which New Vrindaban was originally based.

As we suggest above, Weber considered charismatic authority as inevitably subject to routinization evolving into either traditional or rational-legal forms of authority. As Dawson suggests, when this evolution fails to occur in a charismatically led group, it will either cease to exist or implode and become unstable.41 This latter path of development produces the potential for confrontation and even violent behavior. Kirtanananda’s charismatic authority was never subject to institutionalization while he retained leadership at New Vrindaban. He retained almost complete control over the community and those who were a part of it. Given this fact, the question remains as to why New Vrindaban did not experience open conflict and violence between supporters and opponents of Kirtanananda’s leadership? Such a possibility clearly existed, especially in 1993 when tensions escalated after allegations of Kirtanananda’s sexual impropriety became a contested issue.

One answer is suggested by Hirschman’s exit-voice hypothesis.42 Exit and voice represent two forms of expressing dissent. The potential formation of insurgent groups is closely related to the micro-ecology of aggrieved groups as they exist within organizations or communities.43 If circumstance afford dissenters little chance of successfully securing change, their only options are to exit, or lower their voice and give in. If, on the hand, there is a likelihood of success, or the benefits of confrontation outweigh projected costs, insurgents may chose to stand and fight. A critical situational determinant that influences exit options is the degree to which members can obtain an acceptable and parallel situation elsewhere. If such an option exists, the risks and costs associated with confrontation appear menacing. The latter scenario played a critically important role in lessening the potential for violent confrontation at New Vrindaban. The exodus of large numbers of residents disillusioned by Kirtanananda’s authority was greatly facilitated by the availability of ISKCON communities willing to absorb them. Without the availability of this exit strategy, it is possible, and perhaps likely, that tensions would have escalated to the point where dissenters to Kirtanananda’s rule would have collectively organized in an attempt to seize power from within. The availability of ISKCON however made it possible for dissenters to readily switch devotional communities, rather than seriously consider the possibility of contested struggle.


  1. David Bromley and Phillip Hammond, The Future of New Movements. (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1987); Rodney Stark, “How New Religions Succeed: A Theoretical Model,” 11-29 in Bromley and Hammond, 1987; Rodney Stark, “Why Religious Movements Succeed or Fail: A Revised General Model,” Journal of Contemporary Religion 11, no. 2 (1996):133-146; Bryan Wilson, “Factors in the Failure of New Religious Movements,” 30-45 in Bromley and Hammond 1987.
  2. Eileen Barker, “What are we Studying?,” Nova Religio 8, no. 1 (2004):88-102.
  3. Stark, “Why New Religious Movements Succeed or Fail,” 133.
  4. Stark, “Why New Religious Movements Succeed or Fail,” 139.
  5. Stark, “Why New Religious Movements Succeed or Fail,” 140.
  6. Stark, “Why New Religious Movements Succeed or Fail,” 140.
  7. Hayagriva Dasa, The Hare Krishna Explosion: The Birth of Krishna Consciousness in America (1966-1969). (New Vrindaban, WV: Palace Press, 1985), 231.
  8. Kirtanananda Swami was known as “Bhaktipada” after 1979 in recognition of his guru status. The honorific title can be translated as “he at whose feet the bhaktas (devotees) sit.” To avoid confusion, the name “Kirtanananda” will be used throughout the paper, except where others have referred to “Bhaktipada” in quoted material.
  9. Seth Lubove. 1985. “Hare Krishna Temple Turns a Tiny Town into a Tourist Stop.”
  10. Wall Street Journal, September 16, 1985, 1.
  11. Henry Doktorski. The Great Experiment. Sacred Music and the Christianization of the New Vrindaban Hare Krishna Temple Liturgies. (Unpublished manuscript, 2003), 264.
  12. Shrila Rameshvara.Maharaja, “The Spiritual World Has Descended.” Brijabasi Spirit, (summer, 1985), 19.
  13. E. Burke Rochford, Jr. Hare Krishna in America. (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1985), 200.
  14. The “New Vrindaban Community Income Statement for the Year 1984” indicated that sankirtan devotees collected $2,853,899 or 71% of all revenues generated that year (Doktorski, The Great Experiment, 276).
  15. John Hubner and Lindsey Gruson. “Dial Om for Murder.” Rolling Stone, April 9, 1987, 54.
  16. Doktorski, The Great Experiment, 261.
  17. Doktorski, The Great Experiment, 67.
  18. This was not Kirtanananda’s first attempt. In 1967 he sought to westernize the devotees’ style of dress and appearance in defiance of Prabhupada. Kirtanananda grew a beard and preached to the devotees in New York that the practice of men shaving their heads and wearing dhoti, tilak (clay markings on the forehead and body), and sikha (tuft of hair at the back of a male’s head) were impediments to spreading Krishna Consciousness in America.
  19. Doktorski, The Great Experiment, 271.
  20. ISKCON GBC Resolutions, 1987.
  21. ISKCON GBC Resolutions, 1988.
  22. Doktorski, The Great Experiment, 267.
  23. Kirtanananda also aggressively asserted that persecution was behind his legal problems. In fact he undertook a year long “First Amendment National Freedom Tour” where he defiantly claimed government persecution. He visited numerous cities and spoke to millions of radio listeners and TV viewers (Doktorski, The Great Experiment, 263).
  24. Doktorski, The Great Experiment, 299.
  25. Anuttama das. “Kirtanananda Swami’s Release From Prison.” Chakra website, June 20, 2004. (Available at
  26. Doktorski, The Great Experiment, 263.
  27. Doktorski, The Great Experiment, 268.
  28. Children of ISKCON, et al. vs. ISKCON, et al. (Available at
  29. It is worth noting that none of the survey respondents became residents of New Vrindaban between 1984 and 1994, a period that roughly corresponds to Kirtanananda’s legal problems, interfaith experiment, and ultimate downfall.
  30. Although the emphasis on pilgrimage at the expense of community building has been a source of concern, it has also been New Vrindaban’s greatest success, according to those surveyed. When asked what New Vrindaban’s greatest successes have been, forty-three percent of the responses praised the many preaching efforts directed at pilgrims and other visitors to the community.
  31. Respondents often indicated more than one change they would like to see occur at New Vrindaban, thus the total N of 62.
  32. “Opportunities at New Vrndavana.” Posted December 8, 2003. (Available at
  33. Eighty-three percent (N=29) of those surveyed indicated that they had visited one or more times with friends within the community within the past month. Seventy-nine percent (N=28) attended one or more Sunday feasts within the community. The latter are largely social events.
  34. Eileen Barker, “What are we Studying?;” Lorne Dawson, “Crises of Charismatic Legitimacy and Violent Behavior in New Religious Movements,” 80-101 in David Bromley and J. Gordon Melton, Cults, Religion, and Violence (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002); E. Burke Rochford, Jr., “Social Building Blocks of New Religious Movements: Organization and Leadership,” in David Bromley, Teaching New Religious Movements (New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).
  35. Dawson, “Crises of Charismatic Legitimacy and Violent Behavior in New Religious Movements,” 82.
  36. Max Weber, Economy and Society. Vol 1, Edited by Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), 246.
  37. Dawson, “Crises of Charismatic Legitimacy and Violent Behavior in New Religious Movements,” 85.
  38. Dawson, “Crises of Charismatic Legitimacy and Violent Behavior in New Religious Movements,” 94.
  39. Dawson, “Crises of Charismatic Legitimacy and Violent Behavior in New Religious Movements,” 94.
  40. Dawson, “Crises of Charismatic Legitimacy and Violent Behavior in New Religious Movements,” 94.
  41. Bennett Berger, The Survival of a Counterculture. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981).
  42. Dawson, “Crises of Charismatic Legitimacy and Violent Behavior in New Religious Movements,” 85.
  43. Albert O. Hirschman, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Response to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970).
  44. Mayer Zald and Michael Berger, “Social Movements in Organizations: Coup d’Etat, Bureaucratic Insurgency, and Mass Movement,” 185-222 in Mayer Zald and John McCarthy, Social Movements in an Organizational Society (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1987).