Picks and Pans Review: Monkey on a Stick: Murder, Madness, and the Hare Krishna

updated 06/05/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/05/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by John Hubner and Lindsey Gruson

A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada landed in New York City in 1965 with $7, a phone number and a set of beliefs that would soon influence millions of Americans. A former pharmaceutical executive in his native India, Prabhupada was obsessed with theories about the strength of the soul and the weakness of the body and how easily the spirit could unite a believer with his God. He began preaching from a tattered storefront.

At his death in 1977, the movement he began 12 years earlier—the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON)—consisted of more than 200 temples and farms throughout 60 countries, had tens of thousands of disciples and was worth in excess of $50 million. In the U.S. alone, there were 57 temples and farms, more than 5,000 worshipers and an unending supply of cash. On urban street corners, followers braved scorn to sound their message to a Hare Krishna beat. The whole movement seemed a '60s dream come true, a home for Catholics, Protestants and Jews who had distanced themselves from their religions.

But as documented here, the Hare Krishna movement was less a dream than a nightmare. Reporters Hubner (San Jose Mercury News) and Gruson (New York Times) write that the Krishnas ran scams and drugs in a network stretching from New York to India. Money collected at airports and train stations, ostensibly intended for orphanages and churches, ended up in the pockets of movement gurus.

The Krishna devotees were governed by a brazen, deadly array of leaders, among them, Hans Kary, the Berkeley guru, who preached Krishna Consciousness with a blend of rock and roll and guns; William Ehrlichman, who ordered his meals served on gold plates; Keith Ham, who was accused of arson, child molestation and conspiracy to commit murder. One Krishna member was killed after refusing to hand over his wife's $50,000 inheritance. After reading this thorough examination of the cult religion, even its most devout followers might find it hard to accept the myths conjured by those hypnotic chants. (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $19.95)

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