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