Insight/The Washington Times September 14, 1987 The Place That Consciousness Built Summary

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Insight/The Washington Times September 14, 1987 The Place That Consciousness Built Summary: Their beliefs have driven them to the foothills and prompted them to put up grand structures to their lord. But the Hare Krishnas of West Virginia are not isolated. Their Palace of Gold is a top tourist attraction. Their 5,000-acre commune offers tours and lodging. Despite recent scandals, they dwell on things positive and continue building their apocalyptic city of refuge. By Glenn Emery in New Vrindaban To hear the devotees tell it, one might conclude it is Lord Krishna himself stirring beneath the West Virginia verdure. Dynamite and bulldozers laboriously scratch away the earth to reveal his body. Tufts of hair, freed from the wild Appalachian flora, appear as manicured gardens. Liquid eyes have been exposed as small lakes where swim swans and goldfish and children. A small yet magnificent palace gleams like a gold tooth in the afternoon sun. It is the fervent desire of Kirtanananda Swami Bhaktipada (Keith Ham), founder and spiritual leader of the 5,000-acre Hare Krishna commune called New Vrindaban, that Lord Krishna, god of the ancient Vedic scriptures, be revealed in all his radiance in this remote corner of America. As if sheer will and devotion and incessant chanting will summon the Hindu god from his native India to the rolling farmland of Marshall County. East meets West Virginia. Surrealism infuses the curry and incense atmosphere of New Vrindaban, named after the city in India that is a pilgrimage site for Hindus and, according to the Vedas, the earthly home of Krishna 5,000 years ago. Brightly garbed giants appear to dance behind a veil of early morning mist, though the noon sun reveals they are but statues. A 20-foot boat in the shape of a white swan, with two life-size deities riding on its back, patrols the lake by remote control. Real swans crowd the shoreline. Here and there peacocks roam the conpound. Someday tigers and elephants may be seen. Even that which is familiar becomes oddly alien when refracted through the prism of Krishna Consciousness. Thus, Jesus is a shaktavesh-avatara and perfect devotee of Krishna. Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" is reincarnated as "Lila in the Land of Illusion." To the casual visitor it is a schizophrenic place, fraught with seeming contradictions. The devotees seek to make themselves accessible to outsiders, yet they are sequestered in the foothills of the state's northernmost tip, miles from the nearest town, where they have created a culture wildly alien to Western sensibilities. They preach peace but have had more than their share of violence. They live in simple austerity and denounce the outside world as wickedly materialistic, all the while showering their deities with an opulence befitting royalty. They eschew overtly commercial enterprises (for tax reasons), yet Prabhupada's Palace of Gold ($5 donation for a guided tour) is one of the top tourist attractions in the state. The startling contrasts of Krishna culture upon the rural landscape are expected to grow larger and more elaborate. Terra firma trembles as earthmovers paw the ground, tearing down mountains and filling in valleys. When the multimillion-dollar Land of Krishna project is finished, sometime in the next century, the devotees envision their deity manifested as a fortified city of 10,000 faithful souls. There they will take refuge behind a wide moat and 30-foot-high walls of stone. Dominating this City of God will be the massive 22-story Great Radha Krishna Temple of Understanding, vaguely reminiscent of the ancient Cambodian temple at Angkor Wat. Its outer skin is to be cast in bronze and covered with shimmering 22-karat gold leaf. Estimated cost of the temple alone is $25 million, with a completion date of 1995. It will dwarf the Palace of Gold by a factor of 20. Assuming the Hare Krishnas can pull it off, it will be none too soon. The Vedic scriptures and other prophesies have convinced the devotees they have until about the turn of the century before the world becomes such a hellish place that they will have no choice but to retreat to their walled city while the meat eaters without devour each other. A more inspired group preparing for apocalypse would be hard to find. "When the war comes, [our detractors] are going to wish they were inside our walled city," says Bhaktipada. "When there is a breakdown in society and no more food in the Safeway, what are they going to do? There will be a mass exodus to the countryside, and any place that grows food--watch out. Society will be at the mercy of marauding bands. Of course, we want to help people as much as we can, but we also have to protect ourselves. A walled city will be safe. People will want to become part of our city." A few simple rules must be followed if one is to become a resident of the City of God: daily attendance at a worship service (Jews, Muslims, Christians, Baha'is and those of other non-Krishna faiths will be allowed their own places of worship within the city) and total abstention from meat, intoxicants (including coffee), sex outside of marriage and gambling. Only total purity will be tolerated. Violators will be expelled. Critics and cynics might suggest other reasons for such a lavish and monumental project. The 1980s have been difficult times for the Hare Krishnas, especially those at New Vrindaban, and a project of this nature can shore up sagging morale and divert attention away from the troubles. For starters, two former devotees were murdered, one at New Vrindaban in 1983 and another in Los Angeles last year. A New Vrindaban resident was convicted of the 1983 killing and sentenced to life imprisonment at the nearby state penitentiary (where he serves as a Krishna guru to other prisoners). Investigators are exploring his possible links to the Los Angeles slaying, which occurred a few blocks from the Krishna temple there. To top it off, the skeletal remains of a young male, believed to have died within the past decade, were found late last year at New Vrindaban. In 1985, Bhaktipada was nearly bludgeoned to death by a deranged, pipe- wielding follower. Today, the 50-year-old guru walks with canes and is deaf in one ear as a result. Adding insult to injury, in March the swami was excommunicated, ostensibly for "insubordination," from the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, the official Hare Krishna church. The commune has been accused of drug trafficking, prostitution and child abuse, sued for copyright violations, had its tax-exempt status challenged in court and been the target of a predawn raid by state and federal law enforcement agents. It suffers a lack of potable water (soft drink vending machines abound) and has had its vegetarian restaurant temporarily closed by the authorities because of threats of typhoid and hepatitis. For the most part, the devotees at New Vrindaban prefer not to dwell on such negatives. Instead, the collective energy of the 650-member community (250 of whom are children) is focused on building the new temple and completing the gardens around the Palace of Gold. "Whether or not you have scandals, you have to have long-term projects if you want people to achieve God consciousness," says Bhaktipada. "If you don't have something like this, people sit around thinking maybe they should build themselves a bigger house." "We're an open community, so it's natural there's going to be a few persons who don't behave properly. What can we do? There's no fences around here to keep people in or out," says New Vrindaban President Devamrita Swami (Jay Matsya), who describes himself as a sort of mayor of the community. "We're trying to help people, so naturally we're going to get a few basket cases, a few socially incorrigible persons. What can we do? And if we have bad people here, where did they come from? They came from the wider society that we're trying to help. The vast majority of persons here are wholesome, wonderful, clean, moral persons." Besides the City of God, New Vrindaban planners also have sketched out a huge there park, described as a "spiritual Disneyland," that will cover 100 acres and have elaborate gardens depicting the "Pastimes of Krishna." If this all sounds reminiscent of the PTL's Heritage USA, the devotees are adamant that what they are creating at New Vrindaban is vital to their existence. "We have the conviction that if we don't build this city we'll be annihilated," says Murti Swami Das (William Walsh), once a student of Frank Lloyd Wright's and now New Vrindaban's chief designer, planner and architect. "If we do it, the Lord will spare us from the holocaust, whatever form it takes. We're trying to make it beautiful, but we're building it out of necessity." And if Armageddon is postponed or canceled? "It will be a beautiful city in any event," says Bhaktipada. "Very beautiful, very gorgeous." To bring these and other projects to fruition, the community is counting on donations from the Indian immigrants who make up the bulk of New Vrindabans' visitors, especially those who make extended pilgrimages to the commune. (The guest lodge charges $18 a night for a single; vacation cabins along the man-made lake go for $85 a night for four adults.) The commune is also supported by other fund-raising activities. But what holds this community together is devotion to Krishna. The near- incessant chanting begins each day at 5 a.m., when devotees gather in the temple to chant and dance with drums and cymbals before four impossibly elaborate altars depicting Krishna in various incarnations. A recently acquired 2,000-pipe organ, currently disassembled in a corner of the temple, promises to add to the ritualistic fervor. One quickly grows accustomed to the din of chanting over the public- address system or to seeing a devotee, prayer beads in hand, chanting in solitude beneath the pavilion between the temple and the guest lodge. The words of the chant are welded onto the wrought iron gates of the temple, carved into wooden altars, embroidered in the hanging tapestries--even painted on the silo at the Govardhana dairy barn. They serve as a reminder to keep chanting. At times, this can be mildly disconcerting. With a goal of chanting 16 rounds each day, or approximately 1,700 recitations of the maha mantra, even a brief lull in a conversation can be occasion for a devotee to begin muttering unexpectedly: "Harekrishnakrishnakrishnaharehare..." So far, state officials have been mum about the Krishnas' plans to build a gleaming, teeming metropolis in the hills and the possible separation of church and state issues it would pose should the proposed city become a full-blown municipality. "When something happens, that's when we'll take a position," says J. Donald Kurpica, president of the Marshall County Planning Commission. "Words are one thing, and actions are something else. I don't know what they're saying they're going to do up there, but all a public official can say at this point is, 'This is America.' They can do what they want as long as they comply with the laws of West Virginia." The Krishnas are rapidly putting their words into action. The concrete foundation for the ornate six-story gateway to the new temple was poured recently, and the steel superstructure for the gate was scheduled to be in place by Sept. 1. At the site of the temple itself a short distance away, the elevation of the hill upon which it will sit is being trimmed 80 feet, a job that is about three-quarters complete. It would be easy enough to dismiss such grandiose plans as nothing more than "Cloud Cuckoo Land." But then there is Prabhupada's Palace of Gold just down the road, a nagging reminder to skeptics that Bhaktipada and his followers have a track record of achievement. Each day hundreds of sightseers venture by car and bus over miles of winding rural road to gawk at the gaudy, improbable edifice atop McCreary's Ridge. The devotees claim their community draws 250,000 visitors a year. The palace, a cross between Fort Knox and the Taj Mahal, is not a particularly large structure. The original building was to be nothing more that a simple one-bedroom house for A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, but he died in 1977, two years before its completion. Upon the founder's death, Bhaktipada decided the house would become a shrine and completing it an act of supreme devotion. With tons of imported marble, teak, leaded crystal and 80 troy ounces of gold leaf (hammered out to one-thousandth of an inch, covering 8,000 square feet), the Krishna devotees created a feast of detail. The centerpiece of the palace is the interior temple, where a wax statue of Prabhupada sits in regal splendor upon a gold throne. Throughout New Vrindaban, residents devote their days to vedic arts and crafts that will be applied either to the palace or the new temple. The lotus-shaped fountains, intricate stained glass windows, elaborate cut marble, fancy wrought iron, finely detailed paintings and epic theatrical productions, as well as the more practical aspect of carpentry, masonry, electric work and plumbing, are done with a skill belying the fact that most devotees learned from how-to books. Even the chief herdsman of the commune's 300 dairy cows claims no prior experience with the ultra-modern computerized milking, pasteurization and processing equipment he uses. Plans for New Vrindaban are constantly reworked and revised; deadlines shift, budget projections change with the seasons. Still, the project grows. "It's hard to predict exactly how things will happen because we don't have all the skills and we don't have the money. Yet somehow everything seems to come," says Devamrita. "in other words, this place is a real testament to the glory of God because we don't have the skills or money, yet the skills and money come." There is one obvious reason for all the activity at New Vrindaban, at least from the viewpoint of spreading Krishna Consciousness: It attracts people. "We're not concerned with making beautiful buildings. It's the philosophy they represent," says Sankirtan Das (Andy Fraenkel), head of the commune's theatrical troupe. "Before the palace, we didn't get many visitors."


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