for ISKCON News on June 2, 2012
In Mayapur, West Bengal, construction work on ISKCON’s flagship temple—the Temple of the Vedic Planetarium—is continuing, with an expected 2016 grand opening, in honor of ISKCON’s 50th anniversary.
Fifty engineers, 800 laborers, and dozens more team members are hard at work on the project, which will feature a 300 foot-high dome inspired by Washington D.C.’s Capitol building. It will rise high above the Ganges, as predicted by the 19th century Vaishnava saint Bhaktinode Thakura: “One exceedingly wonderful temple (adbhuta-mandira) will appear from which Gauranga's eternal service will be preached everywhere.”
The elaborate project has many different facets, each of which is unique and fascinating in itself. Here at ISKCON News, we’ve already taken detailed looks at both the $60 million fundraising campaign for the temple, and its world-class acoustics. In this, our third ‘close-up’ article on the TOVP, we’ll be taking a look at one of the project’s most important aspects—the development of the eponymous Planetarium itself.
The Planetarium is at the center of ISKCON Founder Srila Prabhupada’s vision for the temple, as well as at the core of his spiritual message to the world.
“I don’t think a day went by when I was with Prabhupada that he didn’t say something about the way modern science cheats people by telling them that life comes from matter,” says Hari Sauri Dasa, who travelled with Srila Prabhupada as his personal servant from November 1975 to March 1977, and who is the Planetarium’s Exhibits Coordinator.
“Prabhupada saw this as a lynchpin for establishing Krishna consciousness,” Hari Sauri continues. “First you have to expose the limitations and defects of the modern scientific mechanistic worldview. Then you have to give a credible alternative explanation of the two greatest mysteries it attempts to address—the origins of life and the origins of the universe.”
In 1976, with Vrindavana’s Krishna Balarama Mandir opened and Bombay’s Juhu Beach temple well underway, Srila Prabhupada wanted this credible alternative to be given to the public at his next big Indian project, in Mayapur. The temple would not only gloriously worship Radha Krishna Deities, but would also include a Planetarium that would show people an alternative view of the universe and its workings, based on the fifth canto of the ancient spiritual text Srimad-Bhagavatam. Prabhupada wanted this to be not a sentimental religious presentation, but a solid scientific alternative explanation of the origins of life and the universe.
While ISKCON Mayapur did grow into a vibrant spiritual community, Srila Prabhupada’s dream of a “Vedic Planetarium” was not realized in his lifetime, due to the sheer magnitude of its ambition. In fact, after his passing in 1977, there was a general consensus throughout ISKCON and its scientific arm the Bhaktivedanta Institute that the fifth canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam was too esoteric to be presented to the public in a credible manner. This continued throughout the 1980s.
Hari-sauri Das with Srila Prabhupada
But one of Prabhupada’s foremost scientist disciples—Sadaputa Dasa—wasn’t going to give up so easily. Working alone for a decade, he dedicated himself to cracking the code of the fifth Canto. And in 1989, he released the astonishing book Vedic Cosmography and Astronomy, conflating the Bhagavatam’s description of the layout of the planets with that of modern science. Suddenly, the impossible was possible.
Throughout the 1990s, there was a renewed focus on Srila Prabhupada’s vision for the Temple of the Vedic Planetarium, and Sadaputa was heavily involved in exhibit development. Progress on the project took a dip again the late ‘90s, but in 2005, astrophysics PhD Charana Renu Dasi, inspired by Sadaputa’s work, consulted with him and assembled a new cosmology team. Today, this team, now led by Antardwip Dasa and scholar Ravindra Svarupa Dasa, is building the vision for the Temple of the Vedic Planetarium’s scientific exhibits.
“The loss of Sadaputa Prabhu, who passed away in 2008, was a huge blow,” says Hari Sauri. “Fortunately, however, he had written all his ideas down, and his personal archives were acquired by the Bhaktivedanta Research Centre in Kolkata this January.”
As well as Sadaputa’s work, the BRC also has a vast, 16,000 volume library of ancient spiritual, scientific, and cosmological manuscripts, which will support the TOVP’s exhibits and displays. These include, of course, the Bhagavat Purana, but also many other texts from India’s vast astronomical and cosmological tradition.
There’s the Jyotisha Shastra, one of the six Vedangas, or ancilliary sciences for understanding the Vedas. Then there’s the siddhantic literature, including the Siddhanta Shiromani, and the Surya-Siddhanta, Soma-Siddhanta, and the Brahma-Siddhanta, believed to have been spoken eons ago by the sun god, the moon god, and the creator Lord Brahma respectively.
The Bhaktivedanta Research Centre has also gathered commentaries on Puranic cosmology by various acharyas. These include several works by Srila Prabhupada’s guru Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, such as his commentary on the Surya Siddhanta, and the entire third year of his early 20th century astronomical magazine the Jyotirvid. The collection also includes the works of a number of South Indian commentators of the 20th century, and modern interpretations by Professor David Pingree of Brown University.
These works will be the basis for two major displays at the Temple of the Vedic Planetarium: one in the main dome, and one in the Temple’s west wing.
Hanging from the 300-foot main dome will be a giant rotating model of the universe as described in the Srimad-Bhagavatam, in the form of a two-hundred-feet-across chandelier. As outlined by Srila Prabhupada in a 1976 letter to one Mr. Dhani, the chandelier will comprise of fifteen different levels. From lowest to highest, these will depict the source of the universe, Garbodaksayi Vishnu, resting on the divine serpent Ananta Sesa; the subterranean planets; the earthly realm; the heavenly planets, all the way up to Brahmaloka; the outer covering of the material universe; Lord Krishna’s effulgence Brahmajyoti; the Vaikuntha planets, where devotees worship the Lord in servitude; and finally, at the very top, Goloka Vrindavana, where Krishna interacts with his closest devotees in deep, personal relationships.
Three more levels of exhibits, depicting the journey of the Brihad-Bhagavatamrita’s protagonist Gopa Kumar as he ascends through the different levels of the universe and eventually reaches Goloka Vrindavana, will be housed in verandas lining the circumference of the temple.
The Temple of the Vedic Planetarium
Meanwhile, in the west wing of the temple, will be the planetarium itself. With seating for 275 people at a time and a 23-meter tilted dome, it will screen various film presentations showing the planetary configurations according to the Srimad-Bhagavatam. The multi-purpose venue will also be used for conventions, theatrical presentations, and other events.
Below the planetarium theater will be a further three levels of scientific walk-through exhibits, combining traditional dioramas with the cutting edge of modern multimedia such as short films, moving robots, holograms, and laser projections.
Two of these walkthrough exhibits, as well as three planetarium theater films, are expected to be completed by the time the Temple of the Vedic Planetarium opens in 2016. While no specific exhibits have been decided on yet, a ten-devotee team is expected to narrow down the hundreds of ideas within three months. Next, storyboards and shooting scripts will be created, after which teams consisting largely of devotees, advised by professionals in the field, will begin the practical tasks of construction and filming.
Possible exhibit and film titles include Vedic Astronomical Instruments and Measurements; Facts or Illusion?—The Scientific Knowledge Filter; Vedic Astronomical Instruments; The Vedic Method of Knowledge; Limitations of Modern Science; and Concepts of Distance in Vedic Cosmology.
“In his works, Sadaputa Dasa demonstrated how the Vedic sages thousands of years ago had an accurate understanding of the movements and distances between the planets, which does in fact correspond with that of modern science,” says Hari Sauri. “So his ideas—he left plans for over fifty exhibits—will be a big plus in convincing people that the Bhagavatam does contain real science.”
Other topics explored may include the spiritual world, the Bhagavad-gita, reincarnation, biology, chemistry, consciousness, the existence of God, Karma, the origin of the universe, physics, the soul, Vedic culture, the Varnashrama Dharma social system, and western science, including evolution. Sources besides the Srimad-Bhagavatam and other scriptures will include Drutakarma Dasa’s books Forbidden Archeology and Human Devolution: A Vedic Alternative to Darwin’s Theory, as well as Lalitanatha Dasa’s book on intelligent design, Rethinking Darwin.
A whole host of experts in their fields are expected to contribute to Vedic Planetarium’s exhibits. As well as Drutakarma and Lalitanatha, there’ll be technical designer Dinanatha Dasa, who developed several of the exhibits for ISKCON’s Glory of India project in Delhi; Sukhala Dasi, who has created many artistic public exhibits for the Gold Coast Council in Australia; professional film-maker Krishna-lila Dasi of Karuna Productions; modern media whizz Rasikananda Dasa of cantthinksmall.com; and the project’s ideological leader, GBC Ravindra Svarupa Dasa.
Despite his current physical limitations due to suffering a brain hemorrhage in 2008, ISKCON guru Jayapataka Swami also continues to be involved in the project, as he has been for the past thirty years, as an exhibits advisor and chief fundraiser.
“None of this stuff comes cheap,” Hari Sauri says. “Just to install and equip the Planetarium theater will cost about 3 million dollars. Part of that will be
production expenses for the twenty-minute planetarium show, which typically costs from $300,000 to a couple of million in the West, but can be made for between $20,000 and $50,000 in India. Still, it’s a high cost, and so we’re aiming to attract corporate sponsors to sponsor specific exhibits."
Production on the first two walkthrough exhibits and three feature films is expected to begin by the end of 2012, although exhibit development will be continuous once the temple opens.
“Just like in any science or natural history museum, there will be some permanent exhibits, and others which will be replaced with new exhibits every six months to a year,” Hari Sauri explains.
ISKCON Mayapur currently draws over four million visitors a year, and Hari Sauri expects that number to swell to between 10 and 12 million once the Temple of the Vedic Planetarium opens in 2016. And of course, the scientific exhibits will be a major part of the draw.
“We’re aiming to attract an educated audience from around the world ,” Hari Sauri says. “They may not accept everything we’re presenting. But at least we want them to not just dimiss it as dogmatic, religious fanaticism, but to see it as a reasonable, scientific, credible alternative worldview, comparable with the knowledge being presented through modern educational institutions.”
He concludes: “We want to give people something that will make them seriously think.”