Gold, Guns and God
Vol. 1, nearing completion
SUMMARY: Volume 1—A Crazy Man
Vol. 1 of Gold, Guns and God begins with the birth of Keith Gordon Ham in September 1937, and ends thirty years later in December 1967 when Keith (now known as Kirtanananda Swami) is banned from the New York City ISKCON temple and moves in with his best friend and former (we assume) lover, Howard (Hayagriva), in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.
Chapter One examines the genealogy of the Ham family; Keith’s childhood in Peekskill, New York; his strict Baptist upbringing; and his affliction as a junior in high school with the dreaded paralyzing disease: polio. During his senior year in high school, Keith develops a reputation as a heavy drinker and party animal, although he also serves on the student council, is elected to the National Honor Society, and graduates with honors. This chapter could not have been written without the generosity of Keith’s older brother, Gerald Ham, and his sharing the Ham Family Archives with the author.
Chapter Two deals with Keith’s college days, and his rejection of the strict Protestant religious principles espoused by his parents. As a graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he meets the most influential person in his life up to that time: his life-long best friend and lover, Howard Morton Wheeler. This chapter culminates as Keith and Howard are threatened with an investigation due to a sex scandal and they resign from UNC.
As an aside, it is important to note that Chapters 2 through 7 would have been impossible to write if not for the discovery in the Keith Gordon Ham/Swami Bhaktipada Archives of two autobiographical typewritten manuscripts written by Howard Wheeler in 1966. These two priceless manuscripts were obviously treasured by Kirtanananda Swami and protected in his secret library for decades, as the manuscripts tell in great detail how the two lovers met in Chapel Hill, and their activities from 1960 to January 1966. The full story regarding the acquisition of this archive can be found in the Acknowledgements section at the end of this volume.
Keith and Howard’s lives as Bohemian graduate students in New York City are described in Chapter Three, including a few of their impulsive sexual adventures (they were not monogamous), including a hilarious visit to a Coney Island bathhouse where they are groped by dirty old men. For several months, they befriend a homeless boy; giving him food, shelter, beer and marijuana in return for sex. The boy turns out to be a source of great pleasure, but also great pain, especially for Howard, who grows emotionally attached to the boy.
Subsequent chapters discuss Keith and Howard’s discovery of marijuana, peyote and LSD, and the expanded consciousness they experience while under the influence of the hallucinogenic drugs. They ponder the nature of existence and the meaning of life, and they study religious texts, especially from Buddhism and Hinduism, in an effort to understand the Absolute.
Chapter Seven relates Keith and Howard’s September-October 1965 journey to India on a steamship to search for answers to their questions, their adventures in India smoking hashish “as powerful as Lord Krishna,” their eventual disillusionment of Mother india, and their return to New York City three months later in January 1966.
Howard’s serendipitous meeting, hardly 100 yards from his Mott Street apartment front door, with the Bengali Gaudiya-Vaishnava guru, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, on a Lower East Side street corner, is described in Chapter Eight. Howard introduces himself to the Swami, and the Swami invites him to attend Bhagavad-gita classes at his little storefront preaching center at 26 Second Avenue called “Matchless Gifts.” Howard brings along his two housemates to the class, Keith Ham and Wally Sheffey.
All three spiritual seekers are attracted to Swamiji (the name he was known at that time to his followers) and his teachings, and within two months all three formally accept Swamiji as their spiritual master. Keith becomes Kirtanananda, Howard becomes Hayagriva, and Wally becomes Umapati. Kirtanananda serves in the kitchen (Swamiji affectionately calls him “Kitchen-Ananda”) and Hayagriva, who taught English at Ohio State University a year earlier, serves as Swamiji’s editor. Swamiji calls him “Professor Wheeler.” Kirtanananda especially is regarded as a serious student; he is one of the first disciples to shave up, wear a dhoti, and move into the temple.
Swamiji’s history is briefly discussed, his childhood in Calcutta, his marriage, meeting his guru Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakur Prabhupada, writing and publishing Back to Godhead, founding the League of Devotees, becoming a swami, and his journey to the United States. A summary of the philosophy and beliefs of Gaudiya-Vaishnavism is also presented.
Chapter Eleven describes Swamiji and Kirtanananda’s trip to India, where, in August 1967, twenty-nine-year-old Kirtanananda becomes Swamiji’s first disciple to accept the order of sannyasa, the most honored ashram in Hinduism. A sannyasi vows to renounce the world (including family and sex) and dedicates himself fully to preaching Krishna consciousness. After the initiation ceremony, held at the Radha-Damodar temple in Vrindaban, Swamiji announces—perhaps a bit prematurely—that “Kirtanananda is now a fully Krishna conscious person.”
Within a fortnight, however, Kirtanananda Swami causes quite a shock to Swamiji when he disobeys his spiritual master, returns without permission to New York, and attempts to convince his godbrothers to reject some of Swamiji’s teachings and adopt Kirtanananda’s “new and improved” methods for preaching Krishna consciousness in the West. The bewildered New York devotees write to Swamiji in India requesting clarification, and Swamiji condemns the actions of his first sannyasa disciple, calling him a “crazy man.”
Kirtanananda is banned from the temple and spat on. In retaliation, he takes Bhaktivedanta Swami’s Bhagavad-gita manuscript from Hayagriva and tries to sell it himself to religious book publishers. He sends nasty letters to Swamiji and others. This volume concludes with an analysis of what defines a cult, and how ISKCON fits within that description.
TABLE OF CONTENTS—VOLUME I: A PREMATURE ATTEMPT TO BECOME SPIRITUAL MASTER
Chapter 1: This Child Is Going to be a Great Preacher
Rev. Francis Gordon Ham
Keith Gordon Ham
Living on a preacher’s salary
Strict Baptist upbringing
Keith is “born again”
High school graduation
The life of the party who always keeps the beer bottles empty
The Ham family moves to Long Island
Keith goes to college
Keith’s declaration of independence
Chapter 2: A Couple of Wild and Crazy Guys
Discovering the pleasures of the flesh
At the University of North Carolina
A propitious meeting
Howard tests Keith
The sex scandal
Chapter 3: The Big Apple
Living on West 20th Street
Keith and Howard’s “first anniversary”
Keith and Howard acquire a boy
New Years Eve at Time’s Square
Chapter 4: Denizens of Mott Street
Keith enrolls full time at Columbia
Howard begins his master’s degree program
Hunting for sex partners at a Coney Island bathhouse
Chapter 5: Weed, Sex, Booze, Violence and Dropping Out of School
The Hudson Hornet
Keith and Howard’s country cottage
Howard smashes a beer bottle on Keith’s skull
Keith drops out of school
Howard receives masters degree
Chapter 6: Tripping
Jimmy robs the Mott Street apartment
Howard flips out
Wally joins Keith and Howard
Keith, the LSD guru
Chapter 7: Passage, O Soul, To India!
Crossing the Atlantic
Docking in Egypt and Yemen
India at last!
Delhi and Calcutta
Chanting Hare Krishna
Chapter 8: Turning Hippies Into Happies
Abhay De marries
Abhay meets his guru
Abhay’s marriage sours
Back to Godhead magazine
The League of Devotees
Tea or me?
Abhay becomes A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami
The journey to America
Preaching in America
Chapter 9: The Spiritual Master Is Never At Fault
Transmigration of the soul
Krishna: The Supreme Personality of Godhead
The material world: a prison for rebellious souls
Maya: the material energy
Transcendental knowledge is transmitted by disciplic succession
Chaitanya Mahaprabhu: the most recent incarnation
Qualifications of guru
Qualifications of disciple
The secret of success in spiritual life
Symptoms of a self-realized soul
Chapter 10: Keith Becomes Kirtanananda
Howard becomes Bhaktivedanta Swami’s editor
Keith becomes a serious student
Keith becomes the chief cook
The Sunday “Love Feast”
Decorating the “Temple”
Keith moves in with Swamiji
Keith shaves up and wears a dhoti
Sex in Krishna consciousness
Keith saves Howard and Wally
Visit to Ananda Ashram
Keith confined in a psychiatric hospital
The first initiation ceremony
Keith released from Bellevue
Keith becomes Kirtanananda
Swamiji opens a second temple in San Francisco
Establishing ISKCON Montreal
Chapter 11: Return to India
Swamiji suffers a stroke
Swamiji decides to return to India
Swamiji departs for India
Swamiji arrives in India
Kirtanananda becomes a swami
Chapter 12: A Crazy Man
Swamiji sends Kirtanananda to London
Kirtanananda disobeys Swamiji and returns to New York
Kirtanananda attempts to add cultural elements from Christianity into Vaishnavism
Chanting Om namah sivaya
Devotees write to their master in India
Swamiji plays the “part of a thunderbolt”
Kirtanananda banned from the temple; spat on
Kirtanananda and Hayagriva steal Swamiji’s Bhagavad-gita manuscript
Kirtanananda and Hayagriva threaten to start their own ashram in West Virginia
Swamiji still loves his “beloved son”
“Hayagriva is not as fanatic as Kirtanananda”
Addendum: The Cult of ISKCON
Characteristics of cults
Cults in history
Who joins cults?
The cult leader
The cult leader is infallible
Cult murders and suicides
ISKCON suicides: Vishnujan Maharaja
Taru committed suicide?
Chota Haridasa and Taru “return”
Principles of thought reform
The cult of ISKCON
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