Print | Back to e-WV The West Virginia Encyclopedia

Swami Bhaktipada


Swami Bhaktipada (September 6, 1937-October 24, 2011) was a Hare Krishna guru who founded New Vrindaban, a religious community near Moundsville. Bhaktipada led the community until getting in trouble with the law and being ousted by the religious organization.

Bhaktipada was born Keith Gordon Ham in Peekskill, New York. The son of a Baptist minister, Ham graduated from Maryville College in Maryville, Tennessee, in 1959. He studied American history at the University of North Carolina but left before completing his studies. In 1966, he met Swami Prabhupada, the founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). Ham accepted Prabhupada as his spiritual master and took on the name Kirtanananda Dasa.

In 1968, Kirtanananda and his lifelong partner, the late Howard Morton Wheeler, leased 130 acres in Marshall County for the establishment of a rural retreat. Kirtanananda eventually established himself as the leader of the community, and in March 1979, two years after the death of Prabhupada, he accepted the honorary title of Bhaktipada. In 1979, ground was broken for the ornate temple called the Palace of Gold that attracted Krishna pilgrims and many tourists. By the mid-1980s, hundreds of followers had joined Bhaktipada, and New Vrindaban became the largest Krishna community in the United States.

Bhaktipada’s troubles began in 1987 he was expelled from ISKCON for claiming to be the group’s sole spiritual leader and other violations. In 1990, he was accused of ordering the deaths of two of his followers and charged with racketeering, fraud and conspiracy. He was convicted the next year on nine of 11 charges against him. An appeals court threw out the charges, and he was released from house arrest in 1993. He was ousted from New Vrindaban in 1994, and he and his remaining followers moved to a temple in New York.

In 1996, Bhaktipada faced a retrial, but he pleaded guilty to one count of mail fraud. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison but was released in 2004. In 2008, Bhaktipada left the United States for India where he died three years later.