28 October 2010

Of llamas and lotuses...

This is an article I wrote a few years back, but I thought it deserved a post.  It's a bit lengthy, but one of my best pieces of writing.

“So, I hear this place’s got llamas,” I said to my friend as we approached the cream-colored, domed building seated atop the hill.  This less-than-astute statement represented the entire extent of my knowledge regarding the Krishna Lotus Temple, its adherents, and the religion which they practiced there—all of which were to be my course of study for the afternoon.  Sure enough, as I walked past a sign reading “DAILY TOURS: 10 AM-7 PM” and began my ascent to the temple, I was greeted by the indifferent, wooly stares of at least a dozen llamas.  It was the last of my preconceptions that would prove accurate.
The gravel road led up to the temple’s front doors— dark, heavy wood engraved with pictures that appeared as if they were copied straight from an illuminated Hindu text.  Indeed, the whole temple looked like it had been transplanted directly from India (and for good reason, too, as I later learned that it was modeled after an Indian devotional palace).  The doors were incongruently bracketed by a pair of metal shoe racks, where after a moment’s consideration I placed our shoes and timidly entered the temple.
When my eyes had adjusted from the bright afternoon sunlight, I observed that the first floor of the temple was in fact part-information desk, part-curio shop, and part-restaurant.  A wall of instructive posters divided several dining tables from a throng of saris, shawls, statues, and peacock plumes.  It was all things Indian jammed into one space, and the sheer enormity of that country, with its culture and its religion, created a crowded feeling in even this large room.
In at least one sense, however, the room was empty—there was not a single person to be found.  I peeked and poked around this first-floor commercial hub of the Utah Krishnas, but to no avail.  Even my hesitating calls for assistance elicited no response.  I deliberated on whether checking upstairs, in the temple precinct itself, would be inappropriate, decided it was not, and had started climbing the stairs when three men came into view. 
Asking for a tour, I was introduced to the youngest of the three, a smiling devotee named Blake.  Now, I’m not sure what exactly I was expecting Krishnas to look like, but Blake was certainly not it.  A far cry from the turbaned and wizened swami I had imagined in my mind, Blake was tall, scruffy, and extremely friendly.  His head was shaved, except for a circle of hair on the crown of his head that hung down and brushed his neck.  He wore a long sleeve shirt and a robe girded around his legs.  Perhaps most surprising to my ignorant self, Blake was white (excepting, of course, a yellow streak of paint beginning at the middle of his forehead and running down the bridge of his nose).      
As it turned out, our linen-clad tour guide was a local, a native of Payson who had devoted himself to the Krishna faith a few years prior.  His recent conversion was a source of great enthusiasm for him, an enthusiasm which became quite contagious as he led us around the second story of the temple, explaining the various points of interest.  There was the bell at the temple’s entrance, its deep resounding ‘ohm’ providing the centering tone for the mantras to come; the lotus-motifs found on the tiled floor and vaulted ceiling, waxy flowers symbolizing a soul unaffected by external strains; the temple deities figuratively and literally central to the unique Krishna worship service.
Throughout the tour, Blake spoke fervently, almost feverishly.  In his excitement he would speak for several minutes at a time, hardly pausing to take a breath, clarifying the Krishna beliefs of reincarnation, meditation, vegetarianism.  Never, however, was he more animated than when he began telling us about the musical instruments used in their worship services.  His eyes took on that look peculiar to musicians talking about their craft, both fiery and dreamy at the same time. Moving rapidly from the double-sided mrdanga drum to the harmonium and thence to the kartals, or hand cymbals, Blake interlaced his monologue with Hare Krishna chants of varying tunes and tempos.  At other times, his obvious love for the Krishna music would overflow, and he would replicate the sounds of all the instruments—drum, harmonium, kartals, and chanting— using only his strong, clear voice.
The impromptu concert being the culmination of my tour, Blake relinquished the floor to any questions I might have.  This opened the floodgates.  How many devotees does the temple have?  What are worship services like?  Are the temple and its adherents accepted by the community? And most of all, how did a Krishna temple come to call that semi-rural Utah community home?
If Blake’s concert was the most impassioned performance of the afternoon, his response to this rapid-fire string of questions was the most inspirational.  The story of Spanish Fork’s Lotus Temple, he explained, began in 1965 with an elderly man named Prabhupada, an impoverished Krishna who had renounced his former life and taken a vow of total devotion to his faith.  Following the advice of his spiritual leader, the sixty-nine year old swami came to America to spread the Krishna religion, begging a ticket on a steam liner bound for New York.  He arrived two months later—suffering two heart attacks en route—with the equivalent of $7.00 in his pocket.  Equipped with only a whittling knife and his mantras, Prabhupada found a space beneath a city park tree and began to chant and preach.  Among the first initiates to embrace Prabhupada’s teachings of chastity, temperance, and vegetarianism were the hippies with whom he shared his park.
Among these early converts were Caru Das and Vaibhavi Devi, a young couple who took Prabhupada’s teachings back to California, where they established a Krishna-centered radio station.  The outrageous expenses of running a radio station in Southern California eventually impelled the couple to seek out less expensive alternatives.  At this, Blake nodded out one of the temple’s pointed windows, where a large radio tower could be seen against the greening background of the Wasatch front.  Near the base of the tower was a wooden building, the original home of Utah Krishnas.
The current temple, Blake continued, was built out of more hard work than I could imagine.  Some even called it the “cookie temple.”  Responding to my confused look, Blake told of how Caru Das would travel from town to town for months at a time, selling cookies in front of supermarkets in order to raise funds for the temple.  I immediately gained a deeper appreciation for the building, from its marble floor to its newly-domed ceiling.  I also better understood why the first floor was partly a store, and why a latent commercialism seemed to filter through the temple.
From this humble beginning, the temple had continued to grow.  There were now thirty devotees that attended Sunday services each week, eight full-time temple caretakers, and even two celibate Krishna monks who lived on the grounds.  For the first time, Blake’s smile faded.  He wished he could do this full-time, he explained, waving his hand around in a circle for explanation, but his father had died last year and he needed to support his mom.  Soon, she would be able to take care of things, and then….  He trailed off, but the smile had returned.
The tour ended with an invitation to stroll the grounds.  Walking out those heavy front doors and collecting my shoes, I gazed out over the slope where thousands of people had gathered three weeks before for the annual Festival of Colors.  This event had actually been my impetus for coming to the temple; the huge rock concert-esque event was heavily marketed to BYU and UVSC students, who turned out in droves.  I was intrigued to find out what they had experienced there—whether it was just a commercial venture or a true attempt at reaching out to the prevailing culture of the community. 
Reflecting on my short time at the Lotus Temple, I decided that I had discovered far more commonalities than differences between my faith and that of the Krishnas.  They were extremely welcoming and accepting, and I hoped that they had been and would continue to be greeted and treated as hospitably as I had.  I found myself sincerely hoping for their success, excited about the new dome that was to be hoisted onto the structure later this year, admiring the three sacred cows that ambled up to me hoping for a carrot or two. 
I walked down the llama-laden road back to my car, listening to the peacocks boastfully ruffle their iridescent tail feathers.  In the sound, coupled with the breeze that had arisen since my arrival, I thought I could distinguish a faint ‘ohm.’

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