Mumbai, India – On Sunday, October 23, Kirtanananda Swami, a controversial former leader in the Hare Krishna society who was excommunicated by the parent organization for serious legal and moral transgressions, passed away in India. Expelled from the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) in 1987, Kirtanananda (also known as Black Keith and Swami Bhaktipada) continued to lead a splinter group and maintained a small following of disciples, unaffiliated with the mainstream worldwide Krishna movement.
Born Keith Ham in 1937 to conservative Christian parents in Peekskill, New York, Kirtanananda was one of the first Americans to become a disciple of Hare Krishna movement founder A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, who brought or Vaishnavism, devotion to Lord Krishna, to the west in 1965. Kirtanananda was perhaps best known for helping to found New Vrindaban, an expansive Hare Krishna farm community in rural West Virginia whose ornate Palace of Gold and large temple became a major American tourist attraction in the 1980s, and continues to attract more than twenty thousand visitors and pilgrims each year.
In 1990 the United States Federal Government indicted Kirtanananda on five counts of racketeering, six counts of mail fraud, and conspiracy to murder. He pled guilty to one count of racketeering (mail fraud) and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. He was released early in 2004. Upon his release from prison, Kirtanananda maintained a relatively low profile.
In 2008 he permanently relocated to India. He was 74 at the time of his death.