In the News:
A tabloid reporter's view
Posted April 9, 2005
Editor's note: The following report was published in the New York Post, a rather sensationalist tabloid. It describes a guesthouse or ashram operated by Kirtanananda das, formerly a guru in ISKCON until he he was accused of child molestation and solicitation to murder and sentenced to prison for criminal racketeering. In failing health, Kirtanananda obtained early release in 2004 and opened a preaching centre which, as the article points out, is not affiliated with ISKCON. While the writer is somewhat breezy and dismissive of Vaishnava customs and beliefs, there is nevertheless something to learn from his unsolicited outside perspective.
My week of living with the Krishnas next door
The hot-pink flyer reads, "Even your mom would be comfortable staying here." Sure, if she's into bongo drums, chanting and eating rabbit food blessed by a convicted felon.
Hidden in the heart of the trendy East Village is "The Sanctuary" -- a guesthouse run by a Hare Krishna splinter sect called the Interfaith League of Devotees. They are a clan of saffron-robed, shaved-headed "servants" who try to lure young travelers into their wacky religion by providing cheap, and sometimes free, accommodation.
After one couple was thrown out of the First Avenue flophouse because they refused to convert to kooky Krishna practices, a Post reporter and photographer posed as out-of-towners to investigate the vegan bed-and-breakfast during a six-day stay this week.
"We just thought it would be like a nice, happy hippie commune," said Meagan Fladwood, 22, who with husband Jason Christ, 30, stayed in room 5C for three weeks until March 21, when they said were forced to leave by the Interfaith treasurer who calls herself "Eternal Love."
"She said we 'weren't meshing' with other guests and devotees. We were shocked because we just wanted a place to stay -- not change our way of life."
Flyers advertising a "nice place, quiet, clean rooms" distributed on local streets and an ad posted on Web site Craigslist make no mention of Interfaith or its live-in leader, Kirtanananda Bhaktipada. Known as "the guru," Bhaktipada was released from a federal jail last June after serving nine years for organizing a $10.5 million fund-raising scam.
"We had nowhere to go and we were told to voice our concerns to the guru," said Fladwood. "He just gave us an address of a homeless shelter and told us to chant, 'Hare Krishna.'"
And chanting they do. Every morning at 6.15 a.m., residents awake to the hour-long clanging of cymbals and beating of bongos permeating three stories from the second-floor temple. Thankfully you can't hear the repetitive "Hare Krishna" chant over the din.
From mid-afternoon, the smell of over-spiced beans and potatoes fills all floors of The Sanctuary as face-painted, pig-tailed devotees prepare food blessed by the guru for the storefront restaurant, which opens at 5 o'clock. And again with the chanting at 6:30 p.m. for another hour. By the fifth day, as Fladwood said, "It's a house from hell."
Interfaith raised funds through book sales and panhandling to buy the derelict six-story tenement in 1992 for $500,000. After six years of renovations, The Sanctuary opened with 14 guestrooms, 16 private rooms for devotees, a gold-laden temple and space for yoga classes and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
Single rooms with a desk and loft bed cost $65 a night or $300 for the week. A modest double room with a desk and full-size bunk bed cost $95 a night or $500 for the week. Not one room has a lock on its door. The kitchen on one floor was locked to prevent guests from cooking their own, unblessed and --horror of all horrors -- meat-based meals.
On checking in, Interfaith president Adi Purusha das offered to reduce the bill if the undercover journalists did two hours of work a day, either handing out the misleading flyers or helping in the pungent kitchen. They chose the former. "You stay for free if you come here for worship and scripture," Purusha said. "We really acknowledge self-realization, and we want to make it as easy a journey as possible."
Two days into the stay, Purusha lent three books on Hare Krishna, one titled "Krishna and Christ" written by Bhaktipada in 1986 -- the same year he allegedly told a devotee it was OK to shoot and stab a fellow disciple because he had allegedly raped the man's wife. Bhaktipada beat that rap, but his time in the slammer for racketeering has definitely aged the once-photogenic guru. He has lost the use of both legs and one eye, and instead of a saffron-robe, he wears an orange sweatshirt, white pajama pants and ankle socks every day.
The most bizarre event during the six days was the brief and baffling meeting with Bhaktipada in his front-room studio, next to the temple. Waited on by one young Indian devotee who appeared naked under his robe and an older American devotee wearing a white T-shirt and yellow robe, Bhaktipada said he spends his time chanting and writing. He said he is currently working on a book, which interprets the Bible according to Hare Krishna.
Bhaktipada looked affronted when asked him if he missed his former commune in West Virginia called "New Vrindaban," which at its peak in 1987 covered 5,000 acres and was home to more than 700 devotees. "Wherever Krishna wants me, that's where I will be," he said. "I am here to serve Krishna."
When the chat ended, Bhaktipada, from his wheelchair, tried to lean over and grab a silver platter topped with dried fruit and nuts. "It is tradition that we offer some of this blessed food to guests," he said. The Indian boy noticed that his guru needed help and almost tripped over his robe to get to the platter and offer the guests the nibbles. "You're not being attentive enough," Bhaktipada snapped at the boy.
Reposted from the
New York Post.