The Winter issue of IN Wheeling Magazine, a quarterly publication devoted to the city of Wheeling, West Virginia, features ISKCON’s New Vrindaban community as its cover story. The in-depth story chronicles the history of the community and focuses on how both devotees and their neighbors have grown to appreciate and learn from one another. The story is accompanied by color photos of devotees and Prabhupada’s Palace of Gold, and a video montage is included as an “online extra” on the magazine’s website. The issue also features ISKCON leader Malati Devi Dasi as one of ten local religious leaders interviewed about how to achieve peace.
We feel that this story – with its recognition of the Krishna devotes as “true West Virginians who proceeded their Catholic, Pentecostal, and Protestant ancestors in search of religious freedom in the bowels of a rugged land where the hills make one’s eyes look up to the heavens” – is especially significant considering the tensions that once existed between the New Vrindaban devotees and local residents of Wheeling.
–ISKCON News Editors
An Unexpected Journey
The Krishnas find an unlikely home in the hills of West Virginia
By Dominick Paul Cerrone
Photography by Jack Blackwell, BlackStone Photography of WV
The road leading to the New Vrindaban Palace of Gold is tortuous, and snakes through some of the roughest interiors of West Virginia. Until recently, much of the road was unpaved, and before that, there was no road at all to the original community. Driving it can awaken the most agnostic of souls out of a mundane slumber and into the realm of heightened awareness. The final epiphany of the opulent black and gold palace at the end of the harrowing drive, called by the New York Times “America’s Taj Mahal,” seems to spring out of nowhere from the ruddy, West Virginia hills.
The Palace of Gold, at the end of a long harrowing drive, seems to spring out of nowhere from the ruddy West Virginia hills.
In some ways, the road resembles the same unexpected path of the one hundred or so original members of New Vrindaban, located approximately 15 miles south of Wheeling in the middle of nowhere in Marshall County, West Virginia. As a group of young, idealistic, self-described naive kids, mostly from larger metropolitan areas, the journey began in the early 1960’s and early 1970’s. However, in finding God, they also found a new home, learned over the years that they had more in common with the locals than they first had realized, and over time, have grown to realize that they, too, are true West Virginians who proceeded their Catholic, Pentecostal, and Protestant ancestors in search of religious freedom in the bowels of a rugged land where the hills make one’s eyes look up to the heavens.
“There is a wrinkle in time when synergy happens. That is what the sixties was for us. You had a lot of people searching and someone who comes along who is able to inspire so much,” says original member and current Marshall County resident Krsna Dasa. Dasa was a young hippie, born and raised in New York City, who encountered the first Krishna community there in the 1960’s.
San Francisco native now proud to call West Virginia her home. The soft spoken, charismatic Malati devi dasi spent time with George Harrison back in the day.
That person who inspired was His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. In 1966, he founded the Hare Krishna movement (International Society for Krishna Consciousness, or ISKON) in India and left for the United States almost penniless to deliver a new consciousness, which attracted the counterculture of the western world increasingly hungry for eastern philosophy. After opening up a house first in New York and then San Francisco, he wanted to open a transcendental place of pilgrimage in the West.
In the late 1960’s, an iconoclastic Marshall County resident with his own Buddhist ashram here ran an ad in a small San Francisco hippie paper about free land in Marshall County for anyone who would use it for spiritual purposes. The Krishnas responded, and their journey moved from the fringes of urban America to one of the most red-blooded areas of the country. New Vrindaban would become the first rural Krishna community in the country, and to this day, its Palace of Gold is esteemed by all Krishnas as one of its great pilgrimages.
By 1973, Dasa, along with a cohort of young men and women in “saffron robes and shaved heads” had arrived at New Vrindaban, West Virginia, as a “rag tag group of kids seeking spiritual truth.” Dasa recalls those first early years. “We were literally starving, living off of nothing, with no hot water and wood heaters in shacks,” he recounted about the early days when there was not even a road to the isolated community. “It was so weird for us to be here in West Virginia. In the early days, there was very little activity outside the community. We were the same way as the Amish. We were nice but kept people out. It was exclusive.” Reflecting on those days of youth, Dasa laughed about their immaturity and attitude of superiority. “We thought if we associated with the outside community, we’d become impure. We were so extreme that we would not see a doctor if we were sick. Some stayed in the commune two years without leaving.”
Much like the inception of many religious communities, the original Krishna community in New Vrindaban was insular and rigid, trying earnestly to obtain the perfection of life through being what they consider servants of God. As clear monotheists, the Krishnas deviate from their polytheistic mother religion of Hinduism. In that way, Krishnas had to develop thick skin to breech the divide between the prehistoric demigods of Hinduism and the God of Christianity. While many Westerners considered the Krishnas at odds with their beliefs, some Hindus considered the Krishna community rigid in its belief, and fundamentalist in its interpretation of Hindu characters. For Hindus, Krishna is just one of seven avatars, or appearances, of one of its three primary gods, Vishnu, the god that preserves. For the Krishnas, Krishna is elevated to be the one God, incarnate in many forms.
A Krishna in ceremonial attire inside the Palace of Gold.
Malati Devi is currently one of the 32 or so Governing Body Commissioners (GCB’s) that oversee the spiritual and philosophic endeavors of ISKON. She first met the Krishnas in her hometown of San Francisco at their second house in the country. She now proudly calls New Vrindaban her home. Malati was one of the first Krishna converts in the country and has a very clear, direct understanding of the ISKON movement, which she says is nonsectarian. “We believe in one God, not limited to one name. We call him Krishna.” She continues, “we accept Jesus Christ as the son of God. We believe we are all servants of God and that the perfection of life is the realization of this.” Specifically, she refers to the Krishna understanding of material and spiritual body. Whereas Christian theologians have labored over the nuances throughout the centuries defining the essence of material versus spirit, Krishnas are unequivocal in their understanding of that. “The soul goes from one body to the next. We have a material body, and the spark of life is the soul,” says Malati. “We also have a spiritual body. The ideal perfection of life is to fully enter into this spiritual body.”
Prabhupada encoded this in 1966, and is considered to be the last one in a lineage of disciples of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu from the 15th century in Mayapur, India, along the Ganges River. This is where the devotional Sankirtan movement of call-and-response chanting based on the teachings of Baghavad-gita was born. Malati visits there twice a year as a GCB member. “You get your spiritual batteries charged here.”
Malati, an uncommon mix of humility and charisma, however, has often been the one charging other peoples’ batteries in the past. Perhaps her most noteworthy association was the friendship she and her husband Shyamasundar had with the Beatles. She and her husband were part of that very first convoy of Krishnas from the US on a mission to import Krishna spirituality to the United Kingdom in the 1960’s. They eventually set up the Radha Krishna Temple in London. In order to obtain recognition, her husband had the idea to meet the Beatles, with the goal of getting the pop stars to chant “Hare Krishna” as a way of getting the new eastern philosophy known. “We chanted and got arrested in front of the Apple Studio,” recalls Malati. “We ultimately got their attention by making and sending in apple pies to the studio.” She also fondly told a story about sending a wind up apple holding a “Hare Krishna” flag into the studio.
Beatles guitarist George Harrison had taken to both Malati and her husband immediately. They ultimately lived with George and his wife Patti for some time. “We were quite integrated,” says Malati. “He was receptive and very spiritual.” Eventually, he asked Malati and her husband for help in making a new record after his departure from the Beatles, one that would hit the top of the charts in both England and abroad in 1970. “My Sweet Lord” ushered into the mainstream culture the fusing of western and eastern religion, and to this day, the song has become one of the most iconic components of the Krishna religion.
My sweet lord (hallelujah)
My, my, lord (hallelujah)
Hm, my lord (hare krishna)
My, my, my lord (hare krishna)
Oh hm, my sweet lord (krishna, krishna)
Oh-uuh-uh (hare hare)
Long before Malati would arrive in New Vrindaban in 1991, those lyrics would resonate with hundreds of youth from throughout the country. Many of them would come to New Vrindaban in the early 1970’s to begin work on creating one of the country’s most compelling religious shrines. “We were 98% untrained,” recalls Dasa. “We read books, went to visit people—it was basically learn as you go.” The palace was built for $500,000 in materials and countless hours of sweat from the 250 devotees in the community at that time. The New York Times reported on its grand opening on September 2, 1979 and quoted the leader of the commune, Kirtanananda Swami Bhaktipada. “In the beginning, we didn’t even know how to lay blocks. As our Krishna consciousness developed, our building skills developed, then our creativity developed and the scope of the project developed.” The palace serves as an eternal home and memorial for Prabhupada, who visited the site during construction but died two years before its completion. The palace is strewn with Italian marble floors, walls inlaid with Iranian onyx, gold-leafed column caps, stained glass peacock shaped windows, and crystal chandeliers. Much of the outside is gold-leafed. The approach onto the palace, keenly situated above the 2,000 plus acres of the Krishna’s forested hills dotted with farms, is awe-inspiring.
According to the Times, reaction by the locals was mixed. For Dasa, many people “looked past who you were.” He specifically remembers the help the fledgling community got from neighboring veterinarian families with the commune’s cows, and farmers that came to help with the farms. The Times quoted a local as saying, “I believe everyone has a right to their religion, though theirs is an awfully queer one.”
New Vrindaban sisters walk the marble floors of the Palace of Gold, “America’s Taj Majal.”