Swami Bhaktipada, former American Hare Krishna leader, died Monday in a hospital near Mumbai, India. According to his brother, Gerald Ham, he died of kidney failure at age 74.
Mr. Bhaktipada, also known as Kirtananda Swami, was born September 6, 1937 New York. Given the name Keith Gordon Ham, he was the youngest child of a Baptist minister, Bhaktipada was among the first Hare Krishna devotees in the United States. In 1968 he founded what eventually became the largest Hare Krishna community in the country. Despite having been excommunicated in 1987 by the leadership of the Hare Krishna movement, he presided over that community until 1994.
Keith Ham earned a degree in history from Maryville College in Tennessee, graduating first in his class. He pursued a doctorate in American religious history at the UNC at Chapel Hill, but was asked to leave after a love affair he had with a male student came to light. He moved to New York, doing graduate work in history at Columbia. He was what many people called “a seeker”, trying out LSD and looking for spiritual peace. After leaving Columbia without graduating, he met Hare Krishna Swami Prabhupada and was initiated as a swami a year later.
Bhaktipada rose quickly through the ranks of leadership. After a West Virginia man offered land for an ashram in 1968, he began building a ‘golden paradise’ for Hare Krishna followers near Moundsville, West Virginia, with money raised by devotees. New Vrindaban opened in 1979, and by the 1980s the community had more than 500 members. Based on ancient Hindu scripture, Hare Krishna advocates a spiritual life centered on truth, simplicity and abstinence from drugs, alcohol and extramarital sex.
By the mid-1980s, New Vrindaban had become a target investigation into the sexual abuse of children, and the murders of two devotees. In 1990, Bhaktipada was indicted on six counts of mail fraud and five counts of racketeering. According to court records, two of Bhaktipada’s followers were convicted of murder. Bhaktipada’s indictment charged that he had engaged his followers to commit the murders. Bhaktipada pled guilty to federal racketeering charges, including conspiracy to commit the murders-for-hire. He was convicted on all six counts of mail fraud and three of the five counts of racketeering, and sentenced to 30 years in prison.
In 1993, an appeals court vacated his convictions and ordered a new trial. Three days into his second trial, Bhaktipada accepted a plea bargain. He pleaded guilty to mail fraud and conspiracy to commit both murders and was sentenced to 20 years, later reduced to 12. Upon being released from prison in 2004 after serving eight years of a 12-year sentence, Bhaktipada moved to India in 2008.
Bhaktipada is survived by his brother Gerald, and by two sisters, Joan Aughinbaugh and Shirley Rogers.