MONKEY ON A STICK: Murder, Madness, and the Hare Krishnas by John & Lindsey Gruson Hubner
Kirkus Star

MONKEY ON A STICK: Murder, Madness, and the Hare Krishnas

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You've seen them at the airport and on city streets, robed and top-knotted, chanting and dancing. What you haven't seen--and what Hubner and Gruson bring into shocking focus in this riveting work of investigative journalism--is the global empire the Hare Krishnas serve, a religious bureaucracy rife with con men, killers, and drug runners. Gruson, Chief of the El Salvador Bureau of the New York Times, and Hubner, a San Jose Mercury News reporter, make clear in their scathing exposÉ that it's not the sect per se--offshoot of an ancient faith--nor most of its ""sincere, gentle devotees,"" nor its saintly, deceased founder, Prabhupada, who are at fault. The corruption that rots the movement stems, they demonstate, from the venality of the disciples Prabhupada recruited among street trash and rootless intelligentsia when he landed as a penniless immigrant to New York City in 1966. With novelistic license--down to the reproduction of thoughts--the authors show how the greed, egoism, and cruelty of some of these disciples came to the fore after their guru's death a decade later. The extraordinary centerpiece of this story is the summit conference held after Prabhupada's death, where his 11 leading disciples--among them Bhagavan, aka William Erhlichmann, enamored of limos and gold-plated fixtures; Bhavananda, aka Charles Backus, enamored of pretty boys; and, central to this tale, Kirtanananda, aka Keith Ham, enamored of raw power--divided up the globe like Mafia chieftains into fiefdoms (""'I pioneered Australia. It's mine,' cried Bhavananda""). After that, chaos: money-milking scares, hashish smugglings, child abuse, gun-hoardings, and, finally, several murders, most horridly that of a disaffected follower out to expose Kirtanananda and his hellhole ashram in West Virginia. Despite the best efforts of local cop Tom Westfall, vividly detailed here, Kirtanananda still runs free--although other Hare Krishna leaders are slowly trying to clean house. Melodramatic and lurid, but thoroughly documented and as compelling as a nightmare: a grand tale of promise and betrayal, the most unusual and one of the best true crime books of the year.

Pub Date: Nov. 2nd, 1988
Publisher: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich