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Killing Sparks Federal Probe of Krishna Sect : Group Members Cite Internal Conflicts, Allege Threats After Disenchanted Devotee's Murder

July 20, 1986|JOHN DART | Times Religion Writer

The recent slaying of a disenchanted Hare Krishna devotee who persistently alleged wrongdoing and deceit in the movement has sent new ripples through the divided Krishna community.

Since the fatal shooting May 22 in Los Angeles of Steve Bryant, 33, and the arrest of a Krishna follower in the murder, plans for a broad investigation by a federal grand jury have been announced. Even the sect itself has decided to conduct an internal probe of possible wrongdoing by Krishna members.

Both Bryant's death and his allegations of wrongdoing by Krishna leaders will be examined by a federal grand jury in Moundsville, W. Va. That is the city nearest the 600-member commune and Indian-style palace that is a showcase settlement for the 21-year-old International Society of Krishna Consciousness.

The Hindu sect, which drew on young Americans' fascination for Eastern meditation and chanting in the late 1960s, attracted between 5,000 and 10,000 followers in its first dozen years. But the movement also has been embroiled in legal battles over airport soliciting and parental charges of kidnaping vulnerable youth into the order.

Authority Questioned

Internal conflict surfaced after the 1977 death of the sect's 82-year-old founder from India, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, when 11 gurus carved out areas of dominance.

Since then, members of a growing, internal reform movement--estimated to number about 300 Krishna believers--have questioned the authority of the leadership and accused some leaders of condoning or participating in immoral practices and physical intimidation of followers. Most of the self-styled reformers--which included Bryant--are initiates from the days of Prabhupada; Bryant was easily the most vocal among them.

Bryant himself was no saint: By last winter he was carrying a gun and advocating violence against offending gurus as a last-resort solution.

He had joined the street-chanting, saffron-robed sect in Detroit when he was 21. As his disenchantment with the movement grew after Prabhupada's death, he began writing a book he called "The Guru Business," and he hoped to expose alleged wrongdoings by leaving hefty packets of photocopied "evidence" with law enforcement officials and newspapers across the country.

Family Breakup

Bryant's crusade initially stemmed, by his own account, from the breakup of his family at the Krishna's 4,000-acre New Vrindaban settlement--largest in the Krishna movement--which lies perched in the hills of West Virginia about 70 miles south of Pittsburgh, Pa. He attempted to prove that the guru-founder of New Vrindaban, Kirtananda Swami Bhaktipada (formerly Keith Ham), lured Bryant's wife into becoming a devotee several years ago, then helped her get a divorce and prevented Bryant's access to his two sons. Spokesmen for the community countered that Mrs. Bryant left her husband because she wanted to.

Bryant progressively broadened his attack by collecting interviews from others who charged that some among the movement's almost three-dozen gurus manipulated devotees, broke up marriages and allowed child abuse and drug trafficking--claims the dissidents said went unacknowledged or were denied by the movement's various leaders. Bryant also challenged the legitimacy of the 11 gurus who immediately succeeded the founder.

In the year before his death, Bryant tried to drum up support for his claims by traveling between West Virginia and California. Convinced that he was a marked man, he was constantly on the move, living out of his van and disguising his appearance.

Krishna spokesmen have vigorously denied Bryant's accusations. An internal review by a special society committee last year concluded that his claims of wrongdoing were largely unfounded. And a New Vrindaban spokesman this month claimed that Bryant and like-minded supporters were not true devotees, that in fact Bryant "had not followed our religious practices for at least the last seven years."

Danger to Dissidents

But Bryant's fellow dissidents continue to maintain that critics of the sect are in danger. Several followers said in interviews that they have been threatened themselves or have heard certain sect leaders casually mention violence as a way to deal with internal critics.

According to a California member who insisted on anonymity, when Bryant's name came up during a gathering of Krishna leaders in September at New Vrindaban, he heard a ranking commune member allegedly say: "That guy should be afraid. There are 250 residents here looking to blow his head off."

And officials of the reform-oriented Berkeley temple announced early this month that they had received anonymous threats warning them to drop their attempt through federal court to gain control of the temple's assets.

For the most part, dissidents interviewed gave information only on the condition that they not be identified by name, profession or city of residence for fear of reprisals, they said, to themselves or their families.

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