ISKCON Laguna Beach.
Sri Sri Panca Tattva Mandir, 285 Legion Street, Laguna Beach, CA 9265.
Pancha-Tattva, Jagannath, Baladeva and Subhadra, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati and Srila Prabhupada.
Tukarama Dasa, Rupanuga Dasa
The current temple was launched on Gaura Purnima 1980, although ISKCON has had a presence in Laguna since 1968.
A converted two-storey former Baptist church, built in the1930s, with high vaulted ceilings. Marble floors and an ornate wooden altar have replaced the baptismal tub, while early ISKCON paintings of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and Radha-Krishna adorn the walls.
The temple is located in Laguna Beach, Orange County, on the main freeway from Los Angeles to San Diego, and one hour’s drive from each. The beach, one block away, is visible from the temple’s lovely brick patio, and the weather’s as close to perfect as you can get.
Close enough to LA to be easily accessible, yet remote enough to feel like a retreat, Laguna Beach was the chosen spot for Hollywood celebs back in the day to unwind on the weekend. It’s still an extremely popular vacation destination—the small town’s 30,000 population doubles in the summer. And it continues to be an artists’ haven, just as it has been for the past 100 years, with at least fifty galleries and large art festivals held regularly.
What it’s known for:
Besides its beautiful location, ISKCON Laguna Beach has the only Pancha Tattva Deities in the Continental US (excluding Hawaii). Meanwhile its festivals throughout the year feature some of the most energetic kirtan and sumptuous feasts you’ll find, delivered with a uniquely heartwarming service attitude. Chief amongst these is Laguna’s regional Maha Gaura Purnima festival in honor of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, held a week after Gaura Purnima Day and attended by devotees from all over Southern California and beyond.
Number of residents:
While the temple does not have residential quarters, 50 to 100 devotees living close by make up ISKCON Laguna’s core crew.
Number of visitors:
A diverse mix of professionals, college students, local folk and members of Orange County’s Indian community attend the temple, including around 200 at Sunday Feasts and 75 at the weekly Friday Bhagavad-gita class.
Best time of year to visit:
ISKCON Laguna’s Maha Gaura Purnima Festival, held a week after Gaura Purnima (late February, early March) is unmissable. Besides that, the weather is to die for year around, and summer is an especially popular time to visit.
In 1968, when the counterculture movement had a strong presence in Laguna Beach, ISKCON Los Angeles’ then temple president Tamal Krishna Goswami, along with Vishnujana Swami, would travel to Laguna to do kirtan at the popular psychedelic store Mystic Arts World.
Bigwigs of the counterculture scene were drawn to Krishna consciousness, and the people of free-spirit, anti-establishment Laguna followed. Seeing the tremendous interest in spiritual life, Tamal Krishna sent Durlabha, Sukadeva, Kanapriya, Mahapurusa and Rukmini to Laguna to start a temple there in 1969.
The devotees would chant Harinama all the way from their temple on Woodland Drive into town, distribute books at various stores, and then chant all the way back. They would also visit high schools in the area, including that of three youngsters who are now ISKCON Laguna mainstay Shuddhi Dasa, GBC member Badrinarayan Dasa and kirtan musician Badahari Dasa.
“While still in high school, we would stay at the temple on Saturday nights, chant japa in the morning with the devotees, and help them prepare their noon-time Sunday feast,” recalls Shuddhi. “Then everyone who had cars would collect as many people as they could, and we would drive to the Los Angeles temple on La Cienaga Boulevard to have another feast with Srila Prabhupada. I said, ‘Can I really have two feasts?’ And they said ‘Yeah! You’re a growing boy!’”
The devotees later moved to a new temple just down the street, on Ramona Avenue, which Srila Prabhupada visited on two occasions in 1972 and 1975. But the temple was not to last.
In 1977, an article in the local paper announced that the city was going to fine ISKCON for having religious services in a commercially zoned building.
“One day, an Iranian gentleman dropped by,” Shuddhi recalls. “He said, ‘I read about your predicament—and I have just the opposite problem! I bought a property for commercial purposes, but they told me it was zoned as a church. So what do you say I give you the church, and you give me the commercial building, and then we’ll both have the buildings we want!’”
The trade was made, and devotees moved into the current building on Legion Street. Headed by then temple president and well-known kirtan singer Agnideva Dasa, they converted the church into a temple, and acquired Deities. They even transferred bricks from the old building that Srila Prabhupada had walked on so that it would be like he had been at the new temple too. Devotees from ISKCON Los Angeles, which has had a sister relationship with Laguna for many years, helped, and on Gaura Purnima 1980, the new temple was officially opened.
After Agnideva Dasa, Badahari Dasa and Kosharupa Dasi, and Jagai Nitai Dasa all served as temple presidents for several years, Tukarama Dasa assumed the position in 1998, and still remains in the service now.
As soon as he arrived, Tukarama launched extensive renovations on the old building which have continued to this day. A marble floor was laid in the temple room and wood floors in the other rooms, a brick patio built at the front entrance, the stairs rebuilt, and all the bathrooms, the backyard, and the kitchen renovated.
This year, the altar will be renovated, while the temple’s thirty-year mortgage has been paid off in full with the support of the congregation.
Under Tukarama’s management, Friday evening Bhagavad-gita classes also began five years ago, and have since grown in attendance from half a dozen to a crowd of about seventy-five people.
“Our Bhagavad-gita classes provide a much more in-depth study of Krishna consciousness than our Sunday Feasts, which are designed as first interaction programs,” Tukarama says. “Bhagavad-gita classes have been instrumental in helping people turn the corner from casual participant in the Hare Krishna movement to becoming full-time devotees who chant japa, offer their food, and identify themselves as Vaishnavas in a serious way.”
That’s not to say that the Laguna Beach Sunday Feast isn’t impactful, too. The lively kirtans and good vibes are famous. And on festival days throughout the year, the local devotees take it up a notch.
“We have a real focus on celebrating the major Vaishnava festivals in a special way here,” Tukarama says. “We spend a lot of time making great prasadam, organizing the program, and decorating the temple and Deities.”
Other standout projects at ISKCON Laguna Beach include its Sunday School, Gift shop, and Gopi Skirts by Radhika, a business created by Tukarama’s wife in 2007. The fashion forward designs based on Indian skirts (lengha), blouses (choli) and scarves (dupatta) fuse traditional and modern influences, and have created a fashion revolution as well as extra income for the temple.
Perhaps the most dramatic development in recent times at ISKCON Laguna Beach, however, has been its book distribution renaissance.
“North American Sankirtan Strategist Vaisesika Dasa visited in March last year, and did his pied piper thing,” laughs Tukarama. “He’s been coming down from San Jose regularly since then to keep us inspired. Last year, we increased our book distribution 1,000%, and this year, despite the fact that we’re a small temple, we’re currently number six in North America.”
This is quite an achievement considering Laguna Beach has no full time “sankirtan” devotees—instead, its book distribution team is made up of “weekend warriors” who live and work outside the temple, but are incredibly dedicated to outreach.
“Some will go out and sell a dozen Bhagavad-gitas in a couple of hours and collect $100, a respectable score for any any full-time celibate book distributor,” Tukarama says. “Only it’ll be a husband and wife doing it while going shopping for groceries on a Thursday night. One will give out books in the parking lot, and then the one shopping will have to drag them home because they’ll want to finish distributing the whole box of books before going home for dinner.”
These devotees come back from sankirtan with incredible stories, and a deep sense of satisfaction at being instruments in the hands of Lord Chaitanya and Srila Prabhupada. And every Sunday at the temple, they give out dozens of book packs to new guests.
As ISKCON Laguna works on stabilizing its newfound book distribution success, it also has a new, exciting project on the horizon.
“For the past two years, we’ve been offering only cruelty-free dairy to our Deities, shipping the milk in twice a week from Audarya Dairy, a devotee-run organic farm in Northern California,” says Tukarama. “But within the next six months, we expect to be getting all our own milk from our own farm.”
The new 23-acre organic farm is a joint venture with ISKCON San Diego, and lies forty minutes’ drive from each temple. A devotee family who comes from a farming background is already living on it, and has planted one acre of crops. Cows and a goshala are on the way in a few months, making the farm the first cow
protection project in Southern California’s history.
“We’re trying to follow Srila Prabhupada’s instructions that city temples be connected to farms, which provide them dairy, fruits and vegetables,” Tukarama says.
“And also to show people that we can really walk our talk, and have a synergy between our philosophy and practice. With the current prominence of the environmental and vegan movements, that will be very impressive to people, and will be a very important part of our future.”