By Giriraj Swami
On January 14, Makara-sankranti, marks the anniversary of the grand opening of Sri Sri Radha-Rasabihari’s temple and cultural complex in Juhu, Bombay.
Two days after the opening, The New York Times ran an article on the front page of its second section, with the headline “Hare Krishna Sect Displays Vitality At Its New $2 Million Temple in India”:
“JUHU, India, Jan. 15—Several hundred members of the Hare Krishna sect, chanting and singing and clapping, opened a $2 million temple and cultural center here this weekend in a colorful festival of devotion.
“To the young American monks of the movement the dedication of their sumptuous carved marble temple on the Arabian seacoast here, 10 miles north of Bombay, symbolized a kind of coming of age of the sect, which they hope is becoming less controversial.
“ ‘We are gaining a broader base among the general public, in both India and America,’ explained Tamal Krishna, a 32-year-old New Yorker who is a member of the organization’s 23-member governing board. ‘We’re learning that there’s no way we’re going to give Krishna consciousness a general appeal if we make everyone shave their heads and chant “Hare Krishna” all day long.’
“But like most leaders of the movement, Tamal Krishna, who was named Thomas Herzig when he was growing up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, does have a shaved head, a saffron-colored flowing garment called a dhoti and streaks of Ganges River mud on his forehead. Like all of them, he chants this mantra at least 1,728 times a day: “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.”
“The chant, which has been sung with stomping feet on hundreds of American street corners in the 12 years since the International Society for Krishna Consciousness was started in New York, was the motif of the weekend here. Crowds shouted it to the beat of drums and cymbals as each statue of Krishna was anointed, as each of the huge teak and brass temple doors was opened and as marigolds and bananas were laid in offering beside the silver-plated altars.
“But one difference between this celebration and the performances in the United States was reflected in the fact that India’s Health Minister and other high Government officials were among the speakers at the dedication ceremony, lending respectability. As a saffron-clad monk from Miami Beach put it, ‘When we come to India, we are coming home.’
“Spiritualism is common to Indians, and several thousand of them visited the new temple here during the opening ceremony, joining enthusiastically in the chant of homage to Krishna, a Hindu god, and responding with alacrity when the American monks greeted them in the Hindu fashion, palms pressed together under their chins, as if in prayer.
“But the International Society for Krishna Consciousness is still essentially American, as it has been ever since it was founded by A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, an Indian-born ascetic who went to New York in 1965 with the idea of combining Indian spiritual wisdom and American resourcefulness—a lame man and a blind man helping each other to walk, in the analogy he used to make.
“By the time of his death two months ago at the age of 81, Swami Prabhupada had built up a movement that has 10,000 full-time monks and an annual income, its present leaders say, of $16 million from the sale of its books—mostly the swami’s translations and interpretations of the ancient Vedic scriptures.
“The Hare Krishna people (a term they use themselves) are reluctant to disclose the details of their finances. But it is known that they have at least a few very substantial donors, including George Harrison, the former Beatle, and Alfred Ford, a great grandson of the founder of the Ford Motor Company and a nephew of Henry Ford 2d. In the last few years the society has acquired working farms in several American states, as well as two dozen big urban properties, including a 14-story temple and hotel at 340 West 55th Street in New York, which it bought for $1 million.
“Another sign of what its leaders like to think of as its move into the Establishment was a ruling in Queens last year by Justice John J. Leahy of the State Supreme Court. He turned aside allegations of brainwashing and ruled that the members of the movement should be allowed to ‘practice the religion of their choice.’
“To the Hare Krishna people, that ruling drew the line between their sect and what they disdain as ‘the modernistic cults,’ such as the Children of God. They also see a great distinction between themselves and the thousands of other young Americans attracted by Indian mysticism in the fact that instead of the self-indulgence offered by some swamis, Krishna consciousness demands an extraordinarily rigorous routine in which gambling, smoking, drinking, taking drugs, and eating meat, eggs and fish are all forbidden, as is any sexual activity that does not have conception as its immediate goal.
“But beyond the extremely religious vanguard, there is a growing body of other members of the faith who believe to one extent or another in the society’s interpretation of the ancient texts of Lord Krishna. The society, which regards itself as the most orthodox exponent of Hinduism, decrees that spiritual purification, through the omnipresent Lord Krishna, can lead to a life free of anxiety and to ‘pure, unending, blissful consciousness.’
“Its leaders say there are tens of thousands of sympathizers in America and perhaps more than that attending its temples in India. Tamal Krishna, who is called His Holiness and carries a six-foot orange staff as a symbol of complete control over his senses, looks toward a day when Krishna consciousness will be unexceptional in American society.
“ ‘When you go to the factory or the office and the guy at the next bench or the next desk is a Krishna follower, then we won’t be regarded as weird anymore,’ he said. ‘And believe me, that day is coming.’ ”
The article carried two photos, one with the caption “A young American Krishna follower gives Sanskrit discourse to Indian counterparts at festivities,” and the other with “Hare Krishna devotees chanting at dedication of their new temple in Juhu, India, on Saturday.”
The January 30 edition of Newsweek carried nearly a full page about the opening in color, a rare feature for the time, with the heading “KRISHNA-BY-THE-SEA.” At the top of the page was a photo of the diorama of Srila Prabhupada standing in Tompkins Square Park, next to one of the new temple and guesthouse, with the caption “Rags to riches: Diorama of swami teaching, $2 million complex.”
“The rituals performed,” the article stated, “were as old as India itself—the Sanskrit chants, the sacrificial ?re, the bathing of the marble deities in sacred Ganges water—but the celebration was essentially American. For three days last week, several hundred saffron-robed U.S members of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness descended on a fashionable beach resort in suburban Bombay to dedicate their new $2 million temple complex, complete with hotel, library, theater and neon signs that flash such blessings as YOUR LIFE WILL BE SUBLIME. The affair was aimed at establishing a legitimacy for the Krishna-consciousness movement, founded in a Greenwich Village storefront twelve years ago by Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, who died last November. Today, the movement numbers only 10,000 devotees, half of them in the U.S. Still, the sect—which forbids meat, alcohol, tobacco and illicit sex—claims to earn close to $20 million a year, largely from sales of the prolific swami’s writings.
“The dedication ceremonies attracted 15,000 spectators, including Indian Health Minister Raj Narain. ‘It is amazing to me,’ he said, ‘that now Westerners have taken to the ancient Indian culture just when we are losing it.’ ”
At the bottom was a photo of the procession on Juhu Beach and one of a devotee speaking at the foot of Prabhupada’s vyasasana. The caption read, “Spreading the swami’s word: A joyous procession on the beach, a devotee lecturing inside the temple.” At the front of the procession was a portable seat with a photo and a small brass deity of Srila Prabhupada, and standing near the deity, I was fanning him with a camara. The devotee preaching in the temple was Tamal Krishna. At the front of the magazine was a small photo with the caption “Barry Came with a Krishna follower” (Gopal Krishna) and a preview of the main article.
“The rituals were as old as India itself,” the preview began, “but the celebration was essentially American. Hundreds of U.S. members of the movement for Krishna consciousness dedicated their flashy new temple last week in a beach resort near Bombay—and Barry Came joined 15,000 Indians during the devotions.”
I thought of how perfectly Krishna—or Srila Prabhupada—had arranged everything. There I was fanning Prabhupada, happy in my position as his simple servant. And there was Tamal Krishna sitting behind one of Prabhupada’s books, his right arm extended, preaching forcefully on Prabhupada’s behalf—his natural position. And Gopal Krishna, who always worked with the media, was shown with the reporter.
It all seemed perfect. Mukunda, who was responsible for the coverage, had done a great job. I thought how happy Prabhupada would have been to see it—how major news media were recognizing and appreciating his and ISKCON’s progress “from rags to riches.” I could just picture him smiling broadly, his eyes wide open—beaming with pleasure.