Sunday, September 11, 2011

Utah Becomes “Krishna Country” with New Salt Lake City Temple

By Madhava Smullen on 10 Sep 2011
Salt Lake City temple president Charu Dasa speaks to the public on the topic "Who Is God?"

On a recent Friday evening, motorists in Salt Lake City, Utah pulled over to take photos, and pedestrians stopped in their tracks, staring, as a llama wandered sedately down 33rd South, one of the busiest streets in the city. The surreal scene even made its way onto Fox News that night.

In rural Spanish Fork, one hour’s drive away, the sight of a llama would have been common, as they are one of the many attractions at the area’s Hare Krishna temple. The temple, a stunning feat of Rajasthani-style architecture, has grown more and more popular since its construction in 2001, and draws thousands of guests for its many festivals, including the phenomenally successful Festival of Colors, and yes, Llama Fest.

So naturally any llama-spotting in the area would indicate that the Hare Krishnas weren’t too far away.

But where could a llama have come from in the middle of Salt Lake City?

It turns out, the answer’s the same. For ISKCON now has its own center on a four-acre plot of land in Salt Lake—a satellite of the larger Spanish Fork temple. And because of its location, it looks set to become even more wildly popular.

“33rd South is within five to ten minutes’ drive of most residents of Salt Lake City,” says president Charu Dasa. “That means that now, we’ll see people a couple of dozen times a year at the new center who might have only turned up twice a year at Spanish Fork. Of course, the two temples will complement each other well—Spanish Fork is an ideal place to experience major festivals in the great outdoors, while Salt Lake is perfect for popping in on a daily basis on your way to or from work.”

A panorama view of the new Salt Lake City temple, formerly a Seventh Day Adventist elementary school

Charu’s strategy to bring the new center to the attention of City residents is to hold four major events in rapid succession within a month’s time.
“On August 16th, the Krishna Culture youth tour performed their variety show featuring kirtan, traditional Bharat-Natyam dance, and the epic drama Bharata:

The Three Lives of the Emperor,” he says. “On August 20th, we had our Janmastami festival. On the Labor Day weekend of September 3rd, 4th and 5th, we threw the Great Salt Lake Yoga Fest, a three-day event with twenty yoga teachers, ten different bands, and a host of Krishna conscious exhibits. And on the weekend of September 10th to 11th, we held India Fest, celebrating Diwali.”

Before all this, however, the center officially opened its doors on July 23rd, with 400 locals coming to welcome devotees to the neighborhood and admire the beautifully renovated 13,000 square-foot building.

Building a human pyramid in "Dahi-Hundi," a traditional game re-enacting Krishna's pastime of stealing yoghurt.

“The building had previously been used as an elementary school by the Seventh Day Adventists for fifty years,” Charu says. “So it was a little run down. Still, the renovations only took about five weeks. My wife Vaibhavi brought in subcontractors who were very friendly to us and they worked at discount prices, painting the entire building, installing floating laminate floors, replacing the carpets in the hallway, and sanding the floors in the auditorium. We left the bulletin boards so that we could post notices of upcoming events, and transformed the separate library and computer lab into a giant 75’ x 45’ giftstore emporium, filled with spiritual clothes, brassware and jewelry.”

Meanwhile, rather than having a big temple room, Charu opted for a smaller sacred area, with a separate cultural auditorium, as favored in South-Indian temples at Guruvayur and Udupi, as well as at ISKCON Pune.

“I think people like a certain quiet intimacy when they come to worship or meditate, or when they’ve got problems and difficulties in their life,” says Charu. “I think they prefer it to an overly spacious or crowded place.”

Hundreds gather to watch cultural performances in the auditorium

The temple room, therefore, is a converted classroom that could hold sixty to a hundred people. Currently it is home to a temporary altar and small brass Radha-Krishna Deities, although a larger altar is on order from Mayapur, India and two-and-a-half foot marble Deities will be installed as soon as a qualified devotee comes forward to serve as their full-time priest.

On major festival days, the smaller Utsav Deities are brought into the large, vaulted-ceilinged auditorium for abhiseka bathing ceremonies and aratis, as they were on Janmastami day, ISKCON Salt Lake City’s inaugural event on August 20th.

“We didn’t know how many people would turn up for it, whether the word had gotten out yet or not,” Charu says. “Still, between 1,500 and 2,000 people, half Western and half Indian, came and went throughout the five-hour event.”

The Krishna Culture youth group perform a traditional Bharat Natyam Dance

Several hundred attended Gaura Arati at 7:00pm, followed by a talk by Charu entitled Who Is God? At 8:00pm, guests got to take part in Dahi Hundi, the traditional re-enactment of Krishna’s stealing the gopi’s pots of butter and yoghurt. As many built a four-level human pyramid outside on the grounds, one youth designated as Krishna scaled them all to reach and break a clay pot suspended high above.

“A shower of chocolate coins came cascading down, and kids scrambled to get them,” recalls Charu. “It was great fun!”
Next, guests again gathered into the auditorium, to see local Bharat Natyam dance teacher Divya Narayanam and twenty of her students perform a forty-five minute piece, followed by a drama depicting Krishna’s birth and the killing of the demon Kamsa.

At 10:30pm the grand finale began, with the Abhisekha bathing ceremony of the Deities, and a midnight arati and feast for those who had not eaten the prasadam being served throughout the evening.

“Our next move is to continue reaching out to the community,” Charu says. “I estimate that 50% of the Indian population and 60% of Westerners still just associate us with Spanish Fork, and don’t know we’re here. We also need to connect with the 30,000 students at the University of Utah, just twenty blocks from us.”

Salt Lake City devotees perform a drama depicting Krishna's birth

To do this, ISKCON Salt Lake City will have an onsite traditional dance school, an active mentoring program for Indian and Nepali youth, and up to twenty weekly yoga classes.

“We feel strongly that the yoga community, who are often vegetarian and are now taking a brisk interest in kirtan, are the prime candidates for learning more about Krishna consciousness,” Charu says.

Regular Bhagavad-gita classes, as well as Krishna conscious ‘transformational seminars,’ are also on the cards.

“We want people who come to the temple to leave transformed,” Charu says. “So we put a lot of thought into our talks. They’re usually somewhat different from your standard ISKCON temple class—the speaker stands at a podium, uses Power Point, and talks about contemporary issues, with lessons from the scriptures and Srila Prabhupada’s life. We’ve done lecture series on how to break bad habits, how to think positively, how to master your moods, and one called “Move over Mediocrity,” about how, with faith in God, one can live an above average life. We feel that our philosophy should breathe life into people and give them a sense of purpose.”

In the future—in as soon as four or five years’ time—Charu plans to build a large Rajasthani-style temple on the four acres of land ISKCON now owns right in the center of Salt Lake City. Architects will reconfigure the same molds and domes used on the Spanish Fork temple to create a recognizable yet completely unique look.

“In this location, I believe, it will become one of the top five tourist spots in all of Utah,” Charu concludes.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Hare Krishna Temple Hosts 25th India Fest, BYU Daily Universe

By Megan Adams

Good beats evil. From children’s movies to great works of literature, the motif is everywhere. The Ramayana, an Indian epic poem of the Hindu faith, is no exception.

Spanish Fork’s Hare Krishna Temple plans to host its annual India Fest this weekend, as a celebration of The Pageant of the Ramayana. The event will take place Saturday at the Hare Krishna temple in Spanish Fork at 5 p.m. This year marks the 25th year the temple has put on the pageant.

Photo by Stephanie Rhodes

India Fest is annually hosted by the Krishna Temple in Spanish Fork.

Charu Das, who works at the temple and is in charge of this festival, explained the Ramayana. It is an ancient poem, written by Valmiki, who at the time was a murderer and robber. He wanted to cleanse himself and repent, so he was instructed to shout the name Ram, who is an incarnation of Vishnu, a Hindu god. Because Ram is perfect, Valmiki purified and cleansed himself from all his previous sins. He then wrote the Ramayana. It is now considered so holy, reading it in a seven-day period can cleanse a person of sin.

“The whole story is a triumph of good over evil,” Das said. “Ram is virtuous in every respect: he’s the perfect husband, the perfect son, perfect brother, perfect king. Never does he, even in his mind, commit any fault.”

The story is how Ravana, the antithesis to Ram, kidnaps Ram’s wife, Sita. Ram does everything he can to get her back, and eventually beats Ravana, proving good will always triumph over evil.

“You can get temporary gains by cutting corners and compromising your ethics, but in the long term, the universe is constructed in such a way that virtue is always rewarded, not necessarily immediately, but then again, immediate gratification is not the recipe for happiness anyway,” Das said. “The happy person is the person that acts with a long range view in mind.”

For the event, the Krishna Temple will have an abridged, one-hour production of the Ramayana, featuring local members of the congregation as actors. The pageant will end with a ceremonial burning of a 20 ft. effigy of Ravana, and fireworks. A vegetarian meal of Indian food will be available. There will also be acts of traditional Indian dance as well as a sitar tabla concert.

BYU students usually make up a good portion of attendees at the Krishna Temple’s events. Allyssa Elliott, a junior from Springville studying elementary music, has been attending events at the temple since she was in high school.

“The first time I went was on a date in high school,” Elliott said, “It’s neat to see what kind of people come and to be a part of something that’s bigger than not just Utah, but other parts of the world. We don’t have to fly on a plane to go to India and experience that.”

Kirk Hepburn, 23, a sociocultural anthropology major from Yucaipa, Calif., has also attended many festivals at the temple. Although he is LDS, he said he enjoys spending time there learning about a different culture.

“The chanting, the pictures, the food, the music and the dancing all combined into something so exhilaratingly foreign that I guess I got addicted,” Hepburn said. “It is fun, it’s a great sense of community, it’s a way out of our individual bubbles, and I frankly think we can all stand to learn a lot about how to see the world from those guys’ point of view.”