Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Sweet, Sweet Lord

Kim Cone and I are driving down the road in Spanish Fork, Utah. We're on the way to an even smaller farm town just on the outskirts known as Salem. The smell of fresh hay wafts through the windows of the van on a lonely, dusty road. Then we see it, out in the middle of nowhere sits a massive Taj Mahal-like temple. You'd think in this part of the country we'd be talking about a Mormon temple right? Surprise, this one belongs to the Hare Krishnas. Llamas and peacocks putter around the yard outside. Cries of cockatiels and parrots greet us as we walk up to the ornately carved wooden doors.

The locals say the Krishnas keep the llamas because they are believed to be their reincarnated ancestors. The temple priest, Charu Das, laughs at this one. "No, no, those locals have created a ridiculous urban legend". He said he and his wife built the temple after being impressed with Brigham Young University professors, just 15 minutes northward in Provo. Other Krishna devotees had come in the 80's to sell religious texts to the university. They were surprised when not only the library bought from them, but also 19 professors. This apparently was not the reception they'd received in other parts of the country. Much fanfare was given in the late 90's after Das and his wife announced they'd build a temple there, too. Das says Krishna must've inspired the Mormons and took it as a sign.

Das didn't always go by his name, and he isn't Indian, either. He's white, American, with blue eyes and silver hair. His given name is Chris. It was only after seeking spiritual guidance from an old guru that his name was changed to Charu (Ch-eye-roo) Das. The meaning behind his name translates into something like "Servant of the Beautifully Holy or Enlightened One".

Das is eager to tell us all about his religion and its transformative powers. We go into the temple and take off our shoes. Sitars and incense waft through the air. The sound is from the only Krishna radio station in the U.S. It has a far reach, according to Das, and can even be found in France, where a Krishna follower converted his girlfriend from Atheism just by listening in.

Das proceeds to lead us up to the 2nd floor where they perform their worship service. It's a large room with many ornate rugs and beautifully decorated seating. To the front is a display much like a Christmas manger scene, but with Indian styled costumes. I ask him if this is where they meditate. "Our meditations are very loud" Das informs me. Then he explains the manger scene is actually Krishna with his consort and fellow courtiers. He's already told me they aren't idol worshippers, and that Krishna, or God, is everywhere. I ask him if this is just a mere representation then. He says no, that this is God. I ask him again if this (pointing to the big doll structure in front of me) is God, or just an expression of God. No, that's God. I'll be honest, I am scratching my head over this. He insists they aren't idol worshippers because that would mean you made it up in your head, but this is a god. He also explains reincarnation and Hinduism vs. Krishnas. Apparently there isn't any difference. He is Hindu (sort of-Hindus are actually anybody from India, or a Hindi). He is a Hare Krishna; which is considered a form of Hindu worship. The other is a worship of another god, Vishnu.

We not only have the pleasure of interviewing Das about the upcoming festival, but he also feeds us. The temple also serves as the only Krishna restaurant in Utah. Vegetarian, of course. The food is given freely, with a small box to the side asking for donations. It's buffet style with the obligatory chickpeas and rice with saffron. There are other less known, but traditional Indian foods available. We try the Indian pickles. He warns us they may be strong. I like it, tangy, but Kim wrinkles her nose.

Two young mothers with several children spill in from outside as we wrap up our interview. They are here for a tour. It is, after all, an oddity in a small, and predominantly Mormon town. Kim and I walk out, peer at the curious llamas, and get back in the van. Ringo is slowly singing in my head, "Sweet, Sweet Lord...Hare Krishna" over and over again as we drive away from the white palace in the middle of nowhere.

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