The Hare Krishnas of Coal Country

The world is full of make-believe. Some of it is sweet, some of it is sick. It persists because we have found no other antidote for pain.

Ashley Stimpson | Longreads | February 2022 | 26 minutes (7,219 words)

We’ve been fortunate to publish Ashley Stimpson in the past. In Shades of Grey, she explored both sides of the dog racing debate in Florida.

Trevor Krenzelak grew up in a mobile home in Bellaire, Ohio, just across the river from West Virginia. He liked it there, liked watching beavers rearrange the woods behind the trailer park. But on Krenzelak’s 13th birthday, his family’s home was destroyed when remnants of Hurricane Ivan stalled over the valley and dumped nearly 10 inches of rain in 24 hours. The flood waters had barely receded when Krenzelak’s dad “got messed up” in a motorcycle accident; before long his father was addicted to painkillers.

Everything spiraled. The disease that gripped his dad seemed to infect nearly everyone in Krenzelak’s life. “There were a lot of drugs,” he remembers, “and hardly any food.” His grandma got him a job at Target, where she worked as a cashier, but Krenzelak quit after a few weeks. “People were just there for the money,” he says, without a trace of irony. 

That was the thing about Krenzelak: What tempted everyone else — drugs, money — didn’t call to him. He always felt like a “strong spiritual seeker … longing for a connection.” His mother grew up Catholic and sent Krenzelak to Vacation Bible School, but he thinks that was to get him off her hands.

“I was different. I never felt like I fit in,” Krenzelak says. “I never had a cell phone, never had a car. I had a lot of questions about why life is the way that it is.” 

Initially, he wasn’t seeking answers when he first visited New Vrindaban, the 1,200-acre Hare Krishna community atop a hill outside of Wheeling, not five miles from his childhood trailer park. He just needed an interesting setting for the skateboarding videos his friends filmed and uploaded to YouTube, which featured Krenzelak doing kickflips and ollies, his long golden ringlets flying free behind him.

When he met some of the Hare Krishna devotees, swaddled in orange robes, japa bead bags slung around their necks, he was a little weirded-out — but that was before he learned they offered free food to anyone who wanted it. Soon, 18-year-old Krenzelak took a job at New Vrindaban as a landscaper, mowing grass and trimming roses around the temple.

“But really,” he says, “I was a spy.”

A spy needed to know his subject, Krenzelak reasoned, so he started reading the Bhagavad Gita and chanting, triggering a transformation he calls “intense” with a laugh that sounds more like a cough. Not long after, Krenzelak shaved his head, moved into the ashram, and adopted the moniker Pranatakaruna, a Sanskrit name that means “surrender to mercy.” He’s been a monk ever since.

Initially, he wasn’t seeking answers when he first visited New Vrindaban, the 1,200-acre Hare Krishna community atop a hill outside of Wheeling, not five miles from his childhood trailer park.

His family wasn’t thrilled about Krenzelak’s new faith — or his new friends — but that didn’t surprise him. The relationship between the locals and the Hare Krishnas had been fraught since the community was founded in 1968, a low simmer that periodically boiled over into roadside fistfights, petty arson, gunshots in the middle of the night. “I had grown up hearing the rumors,” says Krenzelak, now 30. “That [the devotees] were criminals. That there was a lot of bad stuff going on up there. That there had been murder.”

But many of the things Krenzelak had heard weren’t rumors; they were true. In the mid-’80s, when the community had swollen to more than 600 residents, New Vrindaban’s swami, a thin-lipped former Baptist, was accused of ordering the assassination of two disgruntled devotees. The community school was consumed by allegations of abuse and molestation, and the swami himself was caught in the backseat of a car with a 15-year-old boy. Once known as the Taj Mahal of the West, New Vrindaban withered; the gilded temple and its shrine to the movement’s founder, Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, fell into disrepair. By 2004, only 50 residents remained.

Like Krenzelak, I came to New Vrindaban by accident. In September 2020, I needed a quiet, pandemic-safe place halfway between Columbus and Baltimore, where I could meet up with a client to write. A website full of stand-alone cabins and deserted hiking trails convinced me I had found it.

In between writing sessions, we wandered the grounds, taking photos of peacocks and searching for their feathers among a riot of wildflowers. We tried not to stare at the young men in orange robes, their heads shaved save for a single tuft sprouting from the butt of their skulls. We sat next to them and made small talk at the free lunch we nervously attended. We were disappointed when no one tried to convert us.

Back home after our weekend in “Krishna Land,” as we took to calling it, we googled furiously, trading links to old articles. It didn’t take us long to discover the FBI raid, the sex scandals, the murder conspiracies. We were titillated. But weeks later, I was still reading, trying to reconcile the living, breathing community I had visited with the stories I had found on my phone. The only thing more surprising than the scandal this place had endured was that it had endured at all. How did a radical, communal movement of the ’60s, dismissed as a cult and lampooned by everyone from Kermit the Frog to Cheech and Chong, manage to survive, let alone on this ruined patch of Appalachia, where fracking trucks rumble past weed-choked doublewides folding in on themselves?

I scheduled another weekend getaway. For a break. For fun.

But really, I guess, I was a spy.

***

On September 18, 1965, Abhay Charanaravinda Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada peered out from a porthole aboard the cargo ship Jaladuta to see the soaring skyline of New York City. On the 12,000-mile journey from Bombay, he had turned 69 years old and suffered two heart attacks; he was lucky to be alive. But as the ship docked, Prabhupada opened his diary and wrote a missive to his Lord Krishna: “Why would you bring me to this terrible place?”


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It was a rhetorical question. Prabhupada had spent 30 years preparing for this journey, ever since his spiritual master, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakur, tasked him with taking their religion to the West. Thakur and Prabhupada belonged to the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition, a Hindu sect that forwarded the teachings of 15th-century Indian saint Chaitanya, who they believed was the incarnation of Krishna, one of the most revered of the Hindu deities. Chaitanya’s teachings placed Krishna at the center of the universe — the supreme lord and the only way to salvation — and encouraged chanting the Hare Krishna maha-mantra. Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Chaitanya predicted that one day, these words would ring out from every country on Earth.

In New York City, Prabhupada descended the gangplank carrying a small suitcase, an umbrella, and a rumpled bag of cereal. He was draped in folds of saffron fabric, white rubber shoes on his feet.

Perhaps the story would be different had Prabhupada disembarked from the boat into Houston or Miami. By karma or coincidence, he landed in the Lower East Side, the stomping ground of Allen Ginsberg and Alan Watts, to a counterculture hungry for meaning.

The hippies he found listened intently as he told them they had lived millions of lives, that they were trapped in a perpetual cycle of birth and death. He told them that the things they had been taught to identify with — their bodies, their families, their political parties — were all meaningless, temporary distractions, as perishable as a garden tomato. He told them that they were right to be skeptical of this material world, its squeaky-clean suburbs, the promise of happiness wrapped in ribbons of credit card debt. He knew he was preaching to the choir: “Hippies are our best potential,” he said, according to his biography, Swami in a Strange Land. “Although they are young, they are already dissatisfied … and frustrated.”

The real way off the hamster wheel, Prabhupada promised, was to live this life fully absorbed in God. But this wasn’t the God of their childhoods, that stodgy old man hidden behind a thicket of facial hair; this was Krishna, and Krishna was just like them. Playful and joyful and young. Mischievous and even a little libidinous. Better yet, the best way to be fully absorbed in Krishna was through song and dance. Prabhupada introduced them to kirtan, a jubilant ceremony of call-and-repeat chanting. He led them in kirtans beneath an elm tree in Tompkins Square Park; a photo of one that appeared in the New York Times effectively introduced the rest of the country to the burgeoning movement.

During his first year in the U.S., Prabhupada initiated 19 disciples and registered ISKCON, the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, as a nonprofit, tax-exempt, religious organization, though the swami insisted that his movement was not a religion, nor was it Hindu, but rather the “business of all living souls.” In 1967, he decamped for Haight-Ashbury, where hundreds of hippies flocked to a recently opened temple. A sign above the temple door promised they could STAY HIGH ALL THE TIME, FIND ETERNAL BLISS. Because many of the young followers were transient, a communal structure in San Francisco emerged that would serve as a model for devotees who began spreading out around the country, following Prabhupada’s edict to establish more temples and to fill them with recruits.

That same year, two of Prabhupada’s earliest disciples, Keith Ham and Howard Wheeler, saw an ad in the San Francisco Oracle, the area’s underground newspaper: “trying to form an ashram of sorts here in West Virginia,” it said. “I want to meet one, two, or any number of people who would be willing to settle here and devote some time to getting the thing started.” The ad had been placed by a self-described mystic named Richard Rose, who had no connection to the Krishnas, just a lot of land and some vague notions about a spiritual retreat.

Ham and Wheeler traveled to West Virginia in 1967 and negotiated a 99-year lease on a remote 132-acre farm atop McCreary’s Ridge Road outside the Ohio River town of Moundsville, 70 miles south of Pittsburgh. At Prabhupada’s urging, they named their inchoate community New Vrindaban. A few months later, the Charleston Gazette reported that the area “had been labeled a hippie haven by nearby residents and hippie-watching had become a popular pastime.”

“They dance on the roof of a barn at night,” the article continued, “and one man said he had seen them talk to trees.”

***

The second time I went to New Vrindaban, I knew what to expect. I knew to fuel up at the bottom of the mountain, to download an album before cell service cut out. I knew that the flambeau above a natural gas compressor station was not the moon and that the two-story replica of the Twin Towers in someone’s yard was, in fact, a two-story replica of the Twin Towers in someone’s yard, its tiny windows lit up in patriotic defiance. I knew to expect the concrete elephant and the spangled minarets atop Prabhupada’s Palace of Gold, the massive temple that Ham, Wheeler, and the hundreds of devotees who flocked to New Vrindaban in the ’70s built to honor their spiritual master. Krishna is Watching a security sign read as I pulled into the registration center. It was late winter, and an extended family of starlings was nesting in the walls of the cabin I rented.

Guests at New Vrindaban can choose from among modest motel quarters to a three-bedroom cabin overlooking a small, placid lake. At check-in, they receive a schedule of the day’s events, any of which they are welcome to attend. In addition to four daily worship ceremonies, visitors can watch devotees milk cows in the Goshala, where a tinny recitation of the maha-mantra emanates from a boombox. On weekends, they can drop in on Bhagavad Gita and yoga classes or explore the walking paths and lotus ponds. A restaurant called Govinda’s serves vegetarian fare kids will actually eat, like pizza and nachos. A gift shop sells South Asian bric-a-brac: ghee, bindis, prayer beads, plastic deities shellacked in Technicolor.

In addition to four daily worship ceremonies, visitors can watch devotees milk cows in the Goshala, where a tinny recitation of the maha-mantra emanates from a boombox.

The tidy schedule, the manicured grounds, the snack machine stuffed with sugary carbs — nothing about New Vrindaban today suggests the darkness of past decades, nor the community’s rough-and-tumble beginnings. Prior to my return, I had watched grainy film reels on YouTube of baby-faced devotees carrying buckets of water through winter mud, tilling fields with a horse-drawn plow. These were the young people who had heeded Prabhupada’s 1968 letter, in which he entreated “stout and sturdy devotees,” to West Virginia, “especially those with carpentry experience and [who] can do manual labor.”

Progress was slow and seasonal. When Andy Fraenkel, who asked to be referred to by his Sanskrit name, Sankirtana, showed up in 1976, “nobody was living in a house,” he says. Instead, couples and families were camping out in a quartered-up old barn, sharing a bathroom and a large commercial washer. Sankirtana served as a cook, preparing food over an open fire in the area the devotees called “the pits,” using the creek as an improvised refrigerator. “It was very austere,” he remembers.

Sankirtana and his wife, who considered themselves anti-establishment hippies, had for years resisted fully committing to the Hare Krishna movement they had discovered and admired during college in New York City. But their time with Prabhupada, who was “actually a genuine saintly person,” Sankirtana contends, and their desire for simple living and fellowship eventually convinced them to join the community.

No matter what the Charleston Gazette had to say about it, life at New Vrindaban wasn’t easy. Nor was adhering to the major tenets of Krishna Consciousness, which Prabhupada insisted that devotees follow as they began cohabitating unsupervised. Being fully immersed in Krishna, it turned out, didn’t just mean singing and dancing with your friends; it meant getting up at 4 a.m. to begin chanting, renouncing connections to the material world, and abandoning interests that couldn’t be put to good use in the community. Meat was off the table, as were alcohol, drugs, or any intoxicants (including, I learned on that first grim morning, coffee). Gambling was a hard no and celibacy was expected, except for married couples who were permitted to conjugate for purposes of procreation — but only after chanting for five hours.

Regardless, Sankirtana and his wife liked it there. They raised two children at New Vrindaban and watched as the community grew and the movement gained steam.

While devotees shivered through merciless mountain winters, Krishna Consciousness was pervading the world they had left behind. The cover of Jimi Hendrix’s 1967 album Axis: Bold as Love showcased the musician’s face atop Krishna’s blue body. Allen Ginsberg chanted Hare Krishna on TV, making earnest eye contact with a visibly uncomfortable William F. Buckley, and again for an audience of Hells Angels at Ken Kesey’s house, famously documented in Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Tom Paxton sang “sumpin’ about Hare Krishna,” and George Harrison told listeners that “by chanting the names of the Lord,” they could be free. The maha-mantra featured prominently in the musical Hair and on Stevie Wonder’s classic 1976 album, Songs in the Key of Life.

Prabhupada also enjoyed celebrity, selling millions of his books, and appearing alongside acts like the Grateful Dead and Moby Grape at music festivals. By the mid-’70s, he was circling the globe on a speaking tour and ISKCON had established communities and temples in 36 North American cities.

Around the time Sankirtana arrived at New Vrindaban in 1976, the community was beginning to show hints of prosperity. Led by their own guru, Keith Ham, devotees had built two temples and were beginning work on the Palace of Gold, teaching themselves to cut marble, carve wood, and create elaborate stained glass windows. A school for the community’s children had opened, as had the cow sanctuary, and leaders were slowly amassing more acres, using a few local sympathizers to sign the papers, since most area residents wouldn’t sell to the Krishnas. More and more visitors arrived on their own spiritual pilgrimages; so did Malini, a 4-year-old, two-ton Indian elephant, supposedly the first of dozens that would find sanctuary at New Vrindaban.

“The community actually became a boomtown,” Sankirtana says.

Seven years later, the boomtown would go bust.

***

What happened next is contained in a short paragraph inscribed on the 50-year timeline displayed outside New Vrindaban’s Temple of Understanding. “The difficulties of the next decade were prone to happen,” it says, “deviant tendencies filtered through the community, causing dissension and distress.”

There are lots of opinions about when the trouble started. Sankirtana says things went haywire after Keith Ham was attacked with a metal pipe by a disgruntled “fringie,” the name given to devotees who hung around but didn’t adhere to the movement’s guiding principles. Ham spent nearly a month in a coma, suffering brain damage that permanently affected his memory and altered his personality. (He attributed his improbable survival to Lord Nrsimhadeva — half lion, half man — whose figure he said appeared in his brain scan.)

Many scholarly accounts, like E. Burke Rochford Jr.’s book Hare Krishna Transformed, argue that the movement as a whole faltered after Prabhupada’s death in 1977, when the 11 disciples he had put in charge established what became known as the zonal acarya system, exercising “exclusive political, economic, and spiritual control” of their own distinct geographical regions. Instead of initiating devotees on Prabhupada’s behalf as he had instructed, these men — many of whom were in their 20s with only a handful of years in the movement — became the spiritual masters of new disciples. Each guru was worshiped as if he was god himself, perched upon ornate thrones in the temple, where they lounged while devotees honored them in daily ceremonies with flowers, incense, and special mantras.

Still others, like former devotee and New Vrindaban resident Henry Doktorski, say that the trouble was baked in from the beginning. His book, Killing for Krishna, is an exhaustive tome of the community’s dysfunction, clocking in at 660 pages and corroborated by 1,336 endnotes.

Doktorski’s book includes a detail that is often missing in historical accounts of New Vrindaban: When they negotiated the lease in West Virginia in 1967, Ham and Wheeler were actually at odds with Prabhupada after Ham had attempted to wrest power from the ISKCON founder while he was sick in India, going so far as to sell one of Prabhupada’s manuscripts under his own name. When Prabhupada chastised him publicly, writing to followers that Ham was “a crazy man,” Ham printed up stationery for an organization called First United Church of Krishna — Youth Organization Underground (FUCK YOU), so that he could send less-than-subtle messages to his estranged spiritual master.

Prabhupada forgave his prodigal disciples around the time they secured those 132 muddy acres, but Ham’s reign at New Vrindaban would be characterized by the same audacity and self-aggrandizement he had demonstrated during that defection. Doktorski says that long before Prabhupada’s death or Ham’s head injury, the community wasn’t just rife with deviant tendencies; it ran on them.

Doktorski says that long before Prabhupada’s death or Ham’s head injury, the community wasn’t just rife with deviant tendencies; it ran on them.

Doktorski was 22 when he arrived at New Vrindaban in 1978, a recent college graduate with a bachelor of arts degree that included double majors in piano performance and music education. He was interested in Eastern thought, he says, already a vegetarian who read Ram Dass and the Bhagavad Gita. Doktorski was on his way to graduate school in Texas when he got off the freeway in West Virginia, struggling with deep insecurity. “I had some disappointments in college,” he says, “and a negative experience with a girlfriend.” He was also harboring “great doubts” about his future as a musician. “I was ripe for joining a cult.”

Doktorski was initiated by Ham in the spring of 1979, taking the name Hrishikesh Dasa, which means “servant of the master of the senses.” Right away, Ham sent the young devotee on the road, where he would spend six years, living out of vans and working as a picker.

“Picking” was a polite euphemism for the illegal fundraising devotees undertook on the road, selling counterfeit sports memorabilia and soliciting for non-existent charities at places like concerts and corner stores. Doktorski says that picking created “enormous profits” — $12.5 million dollars between 1981 and 1985 alone — that were used to bankroll the community. (Prabhupada’s Palace of Gold, Doktorski alleges, was financed through the sale of high-quality hashish smuggled from Afghanistan.)

Women especially were expected to excel at picking — or face consequences. “If a woman didn’t make her quota,” Doktorski writes, “the [picking] leader might slap her around a little.” Women faced violence at home too: “Wife beating was not uncommon at New Vrindaban,” and even encouraged by Ham, according to Doktorski.

Indeed, Ham and other ISKCON gurus had nothing to gain from devotees enjoying an insular or idyllic family life. In the eight years after Prabhupada’s death in 1977, the movement had lost an estimated three-quarters of his disciples and was no longer cashing in on his book sales. To sustain the communities they had spent decades building — and safeguard their own power — the gurus needed devotees in the temple or on the road. If devotees insisted on becoming “householders” — those who married and lived outside the communal structures of the movement — those marriages were typically arranged by leadership, who often conspired to match partners based on ISKCON’s economic need rather than compatibility. Lucrative pickers, for example, were placed in marriages that would not hinder their service. Likewise, any children the marriage produced were essentially community property. At New Vrindaban, that meant parents were admonished to deposit their children in the community nursery and residential school, or, so the saying went, “dump the load and hit the road.”

“Instead of an institution meant to train and educate, the gurukula became the functional equivalent of an orphanage,” according to Rochford. The combination of distracted parents, untrained teachers, and nonexistent oversight led to rampant malfeasance. Studies carried out in the late ’90s revealed that a quarter of students in ISKCON’s 11 gurukulas were sexually abused; a third of students reported being physically abused. By 1986, all ashram-based gurukulas in North America were shuttered.

Ham, however, continued to host a private ashram in his home, full of teenage boys who he spent many unsupervised evenings with. It was well-known that Ham enjoyed numerous sexual relationships with young laborers the community employed, not to mention alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine.

While Prabhubada certainly would have condemned Ham’s decadence and lechery, he also left behind a trove of letters and literature that in many ways gave rise to the community’s dysfunction. In his writings, Prabhupada suggested that women had smaller brains than men and should think of their husbands as the Supreme Lord, insisted on residential – not day – schools, and, Doktorski points out, preached that one day, when ISKCON ruled the planet, Krishna Conscious soldiers would “kill all the mudhas,” the Sanskrit word for fools. “We are not nonviolent,” Prabhupada confessed. “We are violent to the mudhas.

***

At around 1 a.m. on Thursday, May 22, 1986, a 33-year-old devotee named Steven Bryant parked his boxy Dodge conversion van near the intersection of Cardiff and Flint Avenues in Culver City, California. An almost full moon traced shadows of palm and Chinese elm trees onto the tile roofs of darkened homes and made it easy for Bryant to see the joint he was assembling in his lap. The morning was still and cool, about 60 degrees, so he may have had his window rolled down. He may have heard footsteps approaching the van. He may have looked up and recognized the sad eyes and pinched lips of Thomas Drescher, an old buddy from New Vrindaban.

“Chant Hare Krishna, because you’re about to die,” Drescher reportedly said, before shooting Bryant twice in the face.

It was the second murder Drescher had carried out for Keith Ham. The first had occurred three years before Bryant bled out on that quiet Culver City street. Like Bryant, Charles St. Denis had been loudly — and rightly — accusing Ham of breaking the movement’s regulative principles, and worse, doing so with underage boys. In 1983, Drescher had shot St. Denis outside New Vrindaban’s art studio and buried his body beneath a stony creek bed.

In West Virginia, local authorities, suspicious of the “hippy haven” from the jump, had been monitoring Ham’s enterprise for years; they felt confident enough that the missing St. Denis had been murdered, but the lack of a body hampered their investigation. When the LAPD, whose own inquiry into Bryant’s death had led them immediately to the nearby ISKCON temple in Los Angeles, called and asked for their assistance, officials in West Virginia finally had the information they needed to make their move.

As Drescher hid out in Ohio and waited for the $8,000 he had been promised for his second hit, police knocked on the door of his mobile home. Five days after he shot Bryant, Drescher was arrested on a felony warrant for the murder of St. Denis. Six months later, around the time he was sentenced to life in prison, the FBI swarmed New Vrindaban, filling three semi-trailers full of filing cabinets, financial records, and a cache of counterfeit sports memorabilia. In the fall 1986, the community laid off their entire 187-member workforce. The Marshall County Sheriff told the local newspaper, “This is the end of New Vrindaban as we know it.”

Despite a 25-million-dollar lawsuit from major league sports teams as well as an 11-count indictment that included racketeering, mail fraud, and conspiracy to murder, Ham remained serene. He weathered trials and convictions, appeals and house arrest, with help from high-powered, high-cost attorneys like Alan Dershowitz and Greta Van Susteren, draining what little money remained in the coffers at New Vrindaban. He went on Larry King Live and insisted that the case against him was fueled by anti-Hindu sentiments, while at the same time ushering in an interfaith era at New Vrindaban he called the City of God. Ham asked devotees to wear Franciscan robes and Doktorski, by then the community’s music director, to play the accordion in new Christianized Krishna hymns. A statue of Jesus, his legs twisted into a lotus position, was placed in the temple.

Through it all, Doktorski and about 100 other devotees stayed loyal to their spiritual master. Sankirtana says he was “too lazy and too stubborn to leave something that I already devoted twenty years to.” Doktorski stayed simply because he “couldn’t say no to the guru.”

By the fall of 1993, Ham had beat all the charges in time to celebrate his 56th birthday at New Vrindaban, but the occasion was spoiled by some alarming news from Ham’s chauffeur. He confided that on a long drive back from a conference in Chicago, the privacy curtain of the exonerated guru’s Winnebago had fallen open to reveal Ham in bed with a teenage disciple. That was the last straw for Doktorski; he left the community soon after. Sankirtana and his wife remained.

Ham would eventually be retried and serve eight years in prison for mail fraud and racketeering. He died of kidney failure in Mumbai on October 24, 2011, surrounded by Indian devotees who, during their spiritual master’s infirm final days, had purchased him a motorized wheelchair.

***

Gopal Campu Dasa was born in New York City to Dominican parents who named him Cesar. By the time he turned 20 in 2014, Gopal Campu was a full-time car salesman with “all the things money can buy.” But he was miserable. “My life was lacking substance,” he says.

Before he found the Bhagavad Gita, he found Eat Pray Love, which he summarizes for me succinctly: “In there this lady, she goes through a one-year mid-life crisis, and she decides to travel. At some point, she got in contact with the Bhagavad Gita and that helped her overcome obstacles she was facing at the time.”

Gopal Campu figured that if these ancient Vedic texts helped Elizabeth Gilbert, maybe they could help him, too. He found a used copy but didn’t get around to reading it until his youngest sister suffered a stroke. “I was like, ‘my God, what is the point of life? I can die tomorrow.’… I just had this overwhelming desire to go home and read the Bhagavad Gita.” One year later, he quit his job and moved into the ISKCON temple in Brooklyn, where, he says, “I just felt at home.”

Gopal Campu’s Caribbean family thought he was “getting into some voodoo.” They teased him about wearing a dress. “You’re definitely losing it,” they said. “There is something wrong with you.” But six years later, Gopal Campu says even his family can see that he’s “developed into a real person.”

Today, Gopal Campu is 27 and spends much of his time proselytizing, distributing literature in airports and subway stations, and hosting kirtans in the streets of New York City and posting them on his Instagram page, which has 33,000 followers.

When I met him, he had traveled to New Vrindaban with friends to take part in the annual 24-hour kirtan, just one of the community’s many festivals that brings in a deluge of visitors and cash. Events like it have been a significant part of righting the ship — and regaining financial footing — after the shame and struggle of the last century. These days New Vrindaban is a big player in regional tourism, too, holding a well-attended parade in Wheeling every summer and an even more popular Holi festival each fall. The community is even a stop on the Moundsville Area visitors’ shuttle, which includes other attractions like the old state penitentiary and an ancient Adena burial mound.

Fiscal recovery hasn’t been all fun and festivals, though. Doktorski calls the late ’90s the “Dark Age of New Vrindaban.” Kicked out of ISKCON and without a spiritual leader or a way to raise money, the community survived by hawking just about everything that wasn’t bolted to the floor. Two organs and six bronze bells from the bell tower. Bulldozers and dump trucks. Steel for scrap and a long-buried chest of gold. Four deities went to a temple in New Jersey and Yoga Jesus ended up, well, God knows where. Malini the elephant was sold to the circus.

Next on the auction block was land. No longer able to support communal residents, community leaders sold acres to devotees on which to build their own homes, where they could park the cars they would need for the jobs they would inevitably have to find, some for the first time in more than 20 years. Instead of living in the temple or spending hours there each day, they would now practice their faith the way the majority of us do — in between other things, when it’s convenient for us. They had been evicted, kicked back out into the material world they had left behind so long ago.

Meanwhile, this transition — from commune to congregation — was happening in ISKCON communities around the world. While Ham’s scandals inspired the most headlines, by 2005, nine of the 11 gurus who took over after Prabhupada’s death had been expelled from the movement, one for an illegal weapons charge, another for allegedly using LSD to hold extended, ecstatic kirtans.

ISKCON had lost its social and financial grip on devotees, but growing congregationalism wasn’t all bad. Now that total renunciation was no longer a requisite for membership, new faces began appearing at the temple.

New Vrindaban on a Thursday looks very different from New Vrindaban on a Friday. During the week, the community is quiet, full of head-down devotees, who, I couldn’t help but notice, are mostly white. On Fridays, things get more diverse. South Asian and Hindu Americans arrive in minivans full of kids, their license plates bearing the names of surrounding states. They wear jeans and T-shirts and flout the temple’s no-photography rule, pointing their smartphones at children beaming in front of beflowered deities.

It wasn’t always like this. Prabhupada himself “ignored Indian immigrants in America, fearing that ISKCON would be overly identified with Hinduism,” according to Rochford. But as Krishna Consciousness took root in the United States, Hindu Americans were drawn to its communities and temples, not necessarily for spiritual reasons, but as a way “to maintain cultural traditions and ethnic identities.” Over time, ISKCON leadership began to see the benefit that Hindus brought, leaning heavily on those members to speak up in response to allegations that the movement was cult. More importantly, Hindu Americans had money; homeless hippies, generally, did not.

By 2005, by Rochford’s estimate, some 95 percent of monetary donations originated from immigrant pocketbooks.

Hindu influence has helped ISKCON survive but also changed the culture of Krishna Consciousness. Because Hindu Americans are more likely to visit ISKCON communities for social purposes while Western devotees typically arrive for impassioned spiritual pursuits, schisms have erupted over which deities should occupy the temple and how raucous a kirtan really needs to be.

At New Vrindaban, the tension between fundamentalism and cash flow were on display again in 2010 when the community signed a contract with AB Resources, allowing the natural gas company to begin fracking the land beneath devotees’ bare feet.

But for young people like Gopal Campu, these factional disputes are just distractions from devotees’ real work, which is understanding where they stand “in relation to Krishna,” not each other, not temple etiquette or fracking leases.

“As our guru would say,” Gopal Campu told me, “you have to make the best of a bad bargain.”

***

The last time I visit New Vrindaban, in the spring of 2021, I blow my cover and come as a journalist. I reach out to Anuradha Dasi, the community’s communications director, and tell her I am interested in talking to young people who have recently joined the movement. Anuradha is aggressively helpful, emailing possible sources before we get off the phone. During my weekend at the community, where I spend most of my time conducting interviews at a picnic table outside the temple, I often see Anuradha out of the corner of my eye, shepherding another innocent my way. One of them is Marissa Stakeley, a 20-year-old new arrival from Pittsburgh’s suburbs.

The last time I visit New Vrindaban, in the spring of 2021, I blow my cover and come as a journalist.

Stakeley speaks in hurried, excited fragments, like someone whose cell phone is about to die. Wearing a tan sari and lacy, gold earrings the size of silver dollars, she strikes me as painfully young. At one point during our interview, a carful of boys drives by, honking and waving. “Oh my gosh,” Stakeley says, leaning close on her forearms, “were they looking at us?” (Sixteen years her senior, I feel confident letting Stakeley know they were looking at her.)

When I ask how she found her way to New Vrindaban, Stakeley says she “came in distress.” The pandemic exacerbated her despair over the America of her young adulthood. “The world is ending around me,” she says, “I need to understand my purpose.”

After meeting a devotee at a yoga retreat, Stakeley began visiting the community on the weekends and in between classes at a local college, where she’s majoring in sustainability. At first, she thought the devotees might help her get started in the kind of work she wants to do, building self-sufficient and off-the-grid communities. But soon, she made friends at New Vrindaban. “I was praying for some community,” she recalls, “just some people who would talk to me and actually care about some things that I cared about.” She decided to spend the summer of 2021 living in the ashram to develop her spirituality.

Stakeley’s father “doesn’t really know the details,” of her living arrangements, she says. Her mother passed away in 2018; briefly talking about her is the only time during the hour we spend together that Stakeley’s eyes and voice lower. She tells me that her mom was “strongly intuitive,” and taught her daughter to harness her own instinct. “Just because I’m young, doesn’t mean I’m not intelligent or wise,” Stakeley insists.

Being young probably makes celibacy more difficult, though, and Stakeley admits that for a while she had developed an unrequited crush on a male devotee. Then, after many nights of torment and prayer, she remembered a ring that she had brought with her, a loud, sparkling thing she plays with for most of our interview. “They’ll never want to put a ring on my finger, but I know Krishna will. I think of it like I’m engaged to God.”

It’s one of the stranger things someone has told me, but it makes more sense when Stakeley says she thinks young people like her are drawn to Krishna Consciousness because it offers them an escape from the outrageous pressures of growing up.

“It’s just a relief,” Stakeley sighs. “We have these social constructs in American society. First step: school. Next step: job. Next step: marriage. Next step: kids. Next step: death,” she counts these steps on her fingers. At New Vrindaban, Stakeley tells me, “It’s first step: develop your love of God. Next step: continue.”

These conflicting urges — to be held securely yet completely free — remind me of my own youth. (Don’t they remind you of yours, too?) It’s not hard to trace a line from the early pioneers of New Vrindaban to kids like Stakeley, seekers fueled by an idealism dwarfed only by their own existential terror. Of course, this doesn’t make me feel less worried for Stakeley, an eager young woman on her own in a community full of celibate men. In fact, over the next few months I’ll prowl around social media looking for traces of her. I’ll email her twice, but she never writes back.

It’s not hard to trace a line from the early pioneers of New Vrindaban to kids like Stakeley, seekers fueled by an idealism dwarfed only by their own existential terror.

***

The next day, at the morning arati, I take a seat in the back and watch as devotees file in and fall prostrate on the floor before the statue of Prabhupada, who nests deep in a throne on the east wall of the temple, dressed in a sunset-pink robe and matching socks. Some chose an instrument from the table nearby, hand cymbals or khols, before joining the group assembled near a microphone — females on the left, males on the right.

The ceremony begins with a song for the deities, Krishna and Radha, who receive freshly laundered clothing and freshly cut flowers each day. The next song is for Prabhupada, and devotees line up to deposit rose petals into the bowl beneath his feet, rubbing his sock before they hurry away, as if for good luck. Soon, a full-blown kirtan has begun and I attempt a respectful sway. Anuradha looks back and I wave happily, hoping the gesture will communicate that I’m just fine, standing here swaying, observing, all by myself. Of course it doesn’t and soon she’s at my side.

“Do you want to come dance with us?” she says over the noise.

Anuradha takes my fingers in her tiny palm. She leads me across the gleaming parquet floors until we are a part of the small throng of women near the altar. Most of them look like me — white, 30-something, tired. They wear saris and move in a coordinated way that reminds me of the easy part of the Electric Slide, a choreography I am relieved to find I can reasonably imitate.

At first, the men, who have the instruments and the microphone, seem to have all the fun, yanking their knees into their chests in great bursts of joy, as if the floor is on fire. But as the chant speeds up and the drums grow louder, the ladies find more vigor, grinning at each other knowingly. Suddenly they — we — are moving in a wide circle, skirts really rippling now, like flags in a storm. I concentrate on the scapula of the woman in front of me, where the tip of a blue-black butterfly wing is emerging from the satin thrown over her shoulder.

The whole thing feels like a birthday party. All the colors and the costumes. Songs that everybody knows by heart, even, by this point it turns out, me. Before I notice, I am really dancing, really smiling, really singing:

Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama, Rama, Hare, Hare.

Reader, I felt so many things. Above all else: silly. More Catholic than I had in a long time; midwestern as always. Unmoved, unchanged, unbelieving.

But I did not feel sad. I did not — for the first time in many hours — worry about how I would write this story or if I could write it well. I didn’t worry about home, if the dog walker had shown up or if my partner had turned the AC down. I didn’t worry about my parents contracting COVID or my best friend’s kids as climate change and political belligerence dismantles any recognizable version of the reality they will inherit.

I did not worry. I did not feel sad.

***

The world is full of make-believe. Some of it is sweet, some of it is sick, and some of it’s just downright preposterous. It persists — of course it persists — because we have found no other antidote for pain. Mothers die, fathers become addicts, sisters have strokes, pandemics and hurricanes stalk the land. That I wondered how New Vrindaban had weathered its scandals seems naive to me now, a question with a million personal and tragic answers.

When I meet Trevor Krenzelak at that picnic table outside the temple, he’s wearing white, not saffron, a nod to the relationship he’s recently begun with another devotee. We catch up for a while about his family and his life at the temple; he tells me he still goes to the skatepark once a week or so, but not in his dhoti.

Before we say goodbye, I ask Krenzelak what bearing, if any, the past has on life at New Vrindaban today.

He says, “whatever happened before still lingers,” but that the residue of scandal actually performs a gatekeeping function for the community. “It serves as a natural filter for the sincere people. If people aren’t really interested in Krishna, then they’re going to get absorbed in hearing criticism and negative things … and go away. But if you really want to know about Krishna, then Krishna is here.”

It’s such a masterful rhetorical maneuver I am tempted to applaud.

But isn’t that what we all do — repackage our sins as sentinels, weave our pain into some larger, self-affirming narrative, the very reason we can persevere at all? Give thanks for those troubles, we tell ourselves, they made you who you are today.

I know that weekend will be my last in Krishna Land. As I drive down the mountain, my senses are heightened, every sight an easy and willing symbol. The billboards trumpeting the arrival of high-speed internet. The front yards full of obscene political slogans. The scar of a freshly buried pipeline. On the radio, an old man recites the Stations of the Cross. At a convenience store, a young man buys a stack of lottery tickets. The maha-mantra coils through my brain as the road unspools before me, thin and vanishing like the line between faith and delusion.

***

Ashley Stimpson is a freelance writer based in Columbia, Maryland. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, Nat Geo, WIRED, Johns Hopkins Magazine, Atlas Obscura, and elsewhere.

Editor: Krista Stevens

Copy Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Fact checker: Julie Schwietert Collazo