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141 6 Guru Authority, Religious Innovation, and the Decline of New Vrindaban E. Burke Rochford Jr. and Henry Doktorski The doubt was there about Kirtanananda but I kept covering it over with the justification that he is a pure devotee [who] knows what Prabhupada [ISKCON’s founder] wants. As long he was following the four regulative principles of no meat, intoxication, sex, or gam‑ bling I could forgive him. But even after he fell down from these principles I still forgave him. I think the turning point came when I saw him preaching different philosophies from what Prabhupada had given us. Then I said, “That’s not right. It isn’t what Prabhu‑ pada wanted.” —Words of a Prabhupada disciple and long‑time resident of New Vrindaban, 2007 Charismatic authority has been central to the development of new reli‑ gious movements. New religions are typically established by charis‑ matic leaders preaching new revelations that in various ways challenge the legitimacy of the existing social order, including the established churches.1 But as recent research suggests, charisma is a dynamic and collaborative process between leaders and followers and is thus more a social construction than a matter of individual personality. Charisma 142 / E. BURKE ROCHFORD JR. AND HENRY DOKTORSKI so defined represents a quality attributed to someone by others who place considerable trust and faith in their leadership.2 At the group level, charismatic authority translates into high levels of organizational com‑ mitment, religiosity, and voluntary service directed toward realizing the goals of the leader and his or her organization.3 The concept of charisma Max Weber formulated applies to lead‑ ers whose authority is “endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities . . . regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary.”4 But as Weber makes clear, charismatic authority is inherently unstable and remains in its pure form only in the short term.5 Because of this volatility, charisma is subject to ongo‑ ing pressures toward routinization and rational‑legal forms of authority. Yet charismatic leaders may resist such threats by employing a variety of counteractive strategies meant to preserve their authority including making sudden and dramatic changes in doctrine in order both to attract new followers and to push out dissenters.6 While these strategies may or may not prove successful, they run the risk of provoking controversy and even violent behavior.7 This chapter focuses on charismatic authority, religious innova‑ tion, and the decline of one of the more significant new religious com‑ munities that emerged during the 1960s era in the United States—New Vrindaban located in West Virginia. New Vrindaban was founded and led by Kirtanananda Swami (1937–2011), one of the early disciples of A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founding acarya of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), more popu‑ larly known as the Hare Krishna movement.8 Following Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada’s death in 1977, Kirtanananda became one of ISK‑ CON’s eleven successor gurus.9 New Vrindaban represents a worthy case study because Kirtanananda’s charisma was never institutional‑ ized a fact that had far reaching implications after he was violently attacked and subsequently charged with criminal activities and moral transgressions. His authority and leadership wavering, Kirtanananda devised several religious innovations that fundamentally altered the religious culture of New Vrindaban. These innovations were intend‑ ed to Americanize Krishna Consciousness in an effort to make it less alien culturally and religiously. As we will see, however, such radical changes in the community’s core teachings contributed to New Vrinda‑ ban’s decline as a religious community. Before turning to these issues, we first provide a biographical sketch of Kirtanananda Swami as well as a history of the community he established and led for twenty‑five years.10 GURU AUTHORITY / 143 Kirtanananda Swami and the Development of New Vrindaban Kirtanananda Swami was born Keith Ham in September 1937 in Peek‑ skill, New York. He grew up in a conservative religious household as his father was the minister of the First Baptist Church in Peekskill. Keith contracted polio as a teenager leaving him permanently impaired with a noticeable limp. In 1959 he graduated with a history degree from Maryville College in Tennessee, a liberal arts college affiliated with the Presbyterian Church USA. Thereafter, he matriculated to the University of North Carolina to pursue graduate work in American history. After two years, however, Keith abandoned his studies and suddenly moved to New York City, where he discovered hallucinogenic drugs and Eastern philosophy...


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