Gold, Guns and God
Vol. 1, nearing completion

A Forthcoming Biography of Swami Bhaktipada and a History of the West Virginia New Vrindaban Hare Krishna Community in Ten Volumes, by Henry Doktorski

70-year-old Bhaktivedanta Swami (seated) and 29-year-old Kirtanananda dasa Brahmachari (standing) during kirtan at Thompkins Square Park, New York City (c. October 1966)

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.


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”
    Boarding school
    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
    Jimmy returns

Chapter 5: Weed, Sex, Booze, Violence and Dropping Out of School

    Discovering marijuana
    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
    Spiritual seekers

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

    Meeting Swamiji
    Swamiji’s childhood
    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
    Matchless Gifts

Chapter 9: The Spiritual Master Is Never At Fault

    Gaudiya-Vaishnava siddhanta
    The soul
    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”
    Kirtanananda reminisces

Addendum: The Cult of ISKCON

    Characteristics of cults
    Cults in history
    The counterculture
    Who joins cults?
    The cult leader
    The cult leader is infallible
    Thought reform
    Cult murders and suicides
    ISKCON suicides: Vishnujan Maharaja
    Taru dasa
    Taru committed suicide?
    Taru murdered?
    Chota Haridasa and Taru “return”
    Principles of thought reform
    The cult of ISKCON

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