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New Vrindaban Community Graces Magazine Cover

By: for IN Wheeling Magazine on Jan. 9, 2010
Photo Credits: Wheeling Magazine
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 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.

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.

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.

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.”


The growing New Vrindaban community, which peaked at almost 800 members in the early 1980’s, raised the eyebrows of a nation that was emerging from a tumultuous two decades of social liberation and transformation. In April of 1980, Life Magazine featured two young Krishna girls from New Vrindaban on the cover of its magazine and chronicled the daily life of the insular community through a series of eerie black and white photographs. “We went from starving and living off of rice soup to making the cover of Life,” noted Dasa. The photographs depicted women and men kept in separate quarters, tonsured children raised in boarding schools with no mattresses, Sanskrit being studied, and devotees waking at 3 A.M. for daily worship.



The unconventional mores of the community often placed it at odds with the local media and government. The commune’s original leader, Kirtanananda Swami Bhaktipada, was no help to the emerging religion’s public relations. His interfaith movement at New Vrindaban placed it at odds with the international ISKON movement. Several years after the completion of the palace, Bhaktipada was arrested on allegations of child abuse and the conspiracy of murdering two fellow members of the community. He was excommunicated from ISKON in 1988 by the GCB and indicted on more crimes in 1990 by the federal government. After a defense by famed attorney Alan Dershowitz, he eventually was able to return to New Vrindaban, but was permanently ousted in 1994 by members there, and New Vrindaban returned in good standing to its ISKON community in 1998.



By that time, something else had happened in the community that would indelibly change perceptions both of the Krishna devotees and those outside. “The real genesis for the community,” explains Dasa, “was when our kids went to the public schools. In the old days, the community was geared toward isolationism. The idea that our children would have gone to outside schools was not a question.” That changed with the closure of the commune’s own school. The once forbidden commune had decided that it was time to become one with its larger community.



Dasa recalls one antidotal story particularly well. “When my kids were young, one of them joined the basketball team. One day, I pulled up to drop off my kid, and I overheard the coach say, ‘there comes the critters.’” Dasa recalls his uncontrollable anger at the time. That all changed by the end of the season, when the coach pulled Dasa and his wife aside. “I had bad impressions of you all, but after getting to know your son, I have converted,” said the coach.



It was not only locals who were undergoing a conversion, but also the Krishnas. Malati Devi described the transformation of her community in New Vridaban after the dark years of the 1980’s. “With all the stuff we’ve been through, we’ve all been humanized as we have grown up. We are a lot more like our neighbors than we thought. We’ve become less rigid in our outlook,” she says. Internationally, the Krishna communities transformed from authoritarian communities to democratic ones, where members have a voice, and spiritual and administrative management have been separated. Local Krishnas now actively work outside the community, own their own businesses, and are connected through modern technology to the rest of the community. “In the meantime, people have become more open. We have found common ground,” says Malati.



So much so, that a local mother in Marshall County was overheard recently talking about how her son had been hanging around the wrong crowd. According to her, that all had changed for the better when he started hanging around a Krishna kid. “They’re a breath of fresh air,” says another man, a long time Marshall County educator. He was particularly proud of one of the first Krishna students who entered the public school system in the 1990’s and is now graduating from Duke University. “They have an enterprise here in the county and definitely want to become part of the community.” Another man, a Wheeling doctor, was excited that his daughter was coming home to visit from North Carolina, to attend an interfaith conference at New Vrindaban. Tourist bureaus and locals alike boast a visit to the palace as one of the area’s most endearing experiences.


 


New Vrindaban sisters walk the marble floors of the Palace of Gold, “America’s Taj Majal.”

New Vrindaban sisters walk the marble floors of the Palace of Gold, “America’s Taj Majal.”







Today, there are approximately 200 people living in New Vrindaban, with over 1,000 supporters who visit regularly. Only 15 to 20 remain of the original pact of idealistic youth that made that original journey deep into the West Virginia hills. The palace has seen its share of problems, both spiritually and structurally. Valiant efforts by the community to restore the palace have been successful, and the temple still shimmers atop the hill as it has now for 30 years.



“There has been nothing about the journey that I expected,” waxes a philosophical Dasa. “If the journey is what we expected, we probably would not be on the right road. After all, ‘Thine will be done.’ It is not our choice.”



“Our neighbors are welcome, and more and more, they are coming,” says Malati. “We’ve been finding common grounds of appreciation to meet.” She cited the recent “Farm, Faith, and Food” symposium that the community hosted that, like many symposiums, attracted people from the outside.



Perhaps, as the Krishnas become one with their home, there are signs that West Virginia is gradually becoming one with the Krishnas. Dasa says, “no matter what struggles we have, we have such a beautiful place. The people here are wonderful—we are living our life in heaven.” That would be “Almost Heaven.”
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