Review of Killing For Krishna in Nova Religio
August 1, 2019: A review of Henry’s 2018 non-fiction book about the murder of a Hare Krishna devotee, Killing For Krishna, was published in the August 2019 issue of Nova Religio: the Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, a peer-reviewed academic journal of religious studies that focuses on New Religious Movements. The review was written by E. Burke Rochford, Jr., the scholar of ISKCON and Professor of Sociology, Anthropology and Religion at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont. Rochford is the author of the books Hare Krishna In America and Hare Krishna Transformed, and numerous articles addressing the development of the Krishna movement. In 2013, the State University of New York (SUNY) Press published a book titled Homegrown Gurus: From Hinduism in America to American Hinduism which included a 22-page chapter about New Vrindaban co-written by Henry and E. Burke Rochford Jr. The Review follows:
Killing for Krishna: The Danger of Deranged Devotion. By Henry Doktorski. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2018. 660 pages. $19.99 paper; ebook available.
Established in 1968, New Vrindaban became the most successful Hare Krishna community in the mid-1980s, with about 500 residents. Best known for Prabhupada’s Palace of Gold, the community attracted tens of thousands of tourists and pilgrims yearly. This all changed, however, after former community resident Steven Bryant (Sulochan) was brutally murdered near the Los Angeles ISKCON community in May 1986. Bryant became a target after threatening to destroy New Vrindaban and the community’s spiritual leader, Kirtanananda Swami Bhaktipada. To those at New Vrindaban, Bryant’s threats were credible in light of a 1985 attack on Kirtanananda that left him with life-threatening injuries. In the days following the murder of Bryant, Thomas Drescher (Tirtha)—a Kirtanananda disciple—was arrested in the United States as he was attempting to escape to India. In 1991, he was sentenced to life in prison. Bryant’s murder attracted widespread media attention and set the stage for New Vrindaban’s rapid decline and potential failure in the 1990s.
These events and their consequences are the focus of Henry Doktorski’s book, Killing for Krishna. The author is a former New Vrindaban resident and Kirtanananda disciple. Having lived at New Vrindaban for 15 years, Doktorski had unique access to the key players involved in the plot to murder Bryant. In addition to interviews, he also had access to Kirtanananda’s personal archive, including correspondence and a range of internal New Vrindaban publications and documents. He also made good use of transcripts of court testimony.
In the aftermath of Bryant’s murder, state and federal authorities raided New Vrindaban in January 1987. In May 1990, a federal grand jury returned an eleven-count indictment charging Kirtanananda with racketeering, kidnapping, running a charity swindle, mail fraud, and conspiring to murder. Other community residents were also charged and several received prison sentences. Not surprisingly, ISKCON authorities moved quickly to excommunicate Kirtanananda and New Vrindaban. In 1996, Kirtanananda pleaded guilty to mail fraud and served eight years in prison.
Although not a trained scholar, Doktorski thoroughly researches the critical events that led to the murder of Steven Bryant. While the focus is largely on the handful of players involved in the plot, the reader also learns a considerable amount about the history of New Vrindaban and about Kirtanananda’s evolving leadership. At times, the story reads much like a whodunit as Doktorski skillfully reveals how extreme devotion and identification with Kirtanananda led to Bryant’s murder. Most controversially, Doktorski directly implicates Radhanath Swami, a well-known ISKCON guru with thousands of disciples worldwide. In essence, Kirtanananda and his most ardent supporters created a culture of violence at New Vrindaban based on what the author refers to as “deranged devotion.”
The book has a few shortcomings. First, not being a religion scholar, Doktorski provides little in the way of analysis. Nonetheless, new religion scholars will find plenty here that illustrates themes addressed in Lorne Dawson’s work on charisma and violence. Second, too often, the author digresses at great length about topics only marginally related to Bryant’s murder. While some scholars and insiders will be interested in ISKCON’s guru reform movement in the 1980s and Kirtanananda’s response to it, this and other peripheral discussions often distract from the book’s central storyline. Given that the text is more than 600 pages in length, some readers will find this a source of some frustration. Finally, the book is written primarily for insiders to New Vrindaban and ISKCON rather than a broader spectrum of readers.
New religion researchers will nonetheless find this a useful book given its focus on charismatic leadership, violence, and the development of one of the most controversial new religious communities from the 1960s era. It also represents the most comprehensive treatment to date of New Vrindaban’s history and this in itself makes Doktorski’s book a worthwhile contribution.
E. Burke Rochford Jr., Middlebury College