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New Hare Krishna Temple Opens in Seattle

by Janet I. Tu for The Seattle Times (USA) on 23 Aug 2008

Posted September 2, 2008


Image: Jim Bates Once based in a run-down three-bedroom house, the Seattle area's Hare Krishnas now gather at their spacious new Vedic Cultural Center in Sammamish. The colorful $4.5 million temple, with marble floors, has 12,200 square feet.

The giant pink wedding cake of a building stands in bold contrast to nearby houses painted polite Northwest shades of beige and taupe.

Naresh Bhatt beams as he gives a tour of this new temple in Sammamish. He chose the colors. Happy, blissful colors, he says.

Inside, as the service begins, Bhatt joins his wife, two daughters and many others - most of Indian descent - who chant exuberantly: "Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare."

The Hindu-based movement, highly visible in the 1960s and '70s, is making a comeback here and elsewhere across the country, and even globally. But it's a different movement today from what it was back then.

Where it once attracted mainly young white people known for their shaved heads and peach robes, today many if not most of its members are Indian.

Where before, most members lived in temples and communities called ashrams and made a living selling their guru's books, members today typically have homes, families and regular jobs.

And while the temples are still houses of worship, many are also cultural centers that offer programs for children and seniors, and Indian cultural festivals and performances.

When Bhatt, a 40-year-old high-tech professional, came to the U.S. from India in 1993, the only local Hindu community he could find was centered in a run-down three-bedroom house in what was then Issaquah. It was all that remained of the local Hare Krishna movement.

He found some things strange: The temple was not grand. Almost all of the 25 or so members were white. And they ate zucchini. But other things were familiar: The aroma of Indian vegetarian food, and the colorful Krishna and Rama deities - statues that devotees believe embody the spirits of the gods they represent.

"I felt a connection right away," said Bhatt, who lives in Sammamish and is now a temple board member.

These days, about 300 people worship regularly in the 12,200-square-foot temple that replaced the old house. The $4.5 million, marble-floored structure, formally called the Vedic Cultural Center, opened last month and has its grand opening this weekend.

The temple represents how the movement has matured, said Vineet Chander, a national spokesman. People ask Chander where the Hare Krishna are these days, "like they're looking for public chanting and saffron robes.

"It's not that we've gone," he said. "It's that we're growing up."

The beginnings

The Hare Krishna movement, formally called the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), was established in 1966 in New York by a Hindu guru from India, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.

Its main mission was to spread spiritual knowledge and to raise awareness of, and love for, Krishna, whom devotees believe to be the Supreme Being, or God.

It attracted idealistic young people. By the 1970s, the movement nationwide had up to 4,000 monastics living in temples and ashrams. Many had cut ties with families and friends, leading some to accuse the movement of brainwashing converts.

Within years, bookselling income plunged and members made money in controversial ways, including dressing up as Santa Claus to solicit donations. After Prabhupada died in 1977, power struggles ensued. Some of the guru's successors became embroiled in scandals. One was convicted of racketeering.

Then came allegations of abuses at boarding schools - including a school in Seattle - where Hare Krishna parents had sent their children. Several temples elsewhere in the U.S. that were named in an abuse lawsuit filed for bankruptcy and paid millions in a settlement with some 600 victims. The boarding schools in the U.S. have since closed.

By 2000, there were fewer than a thousand monastics nationwide.

But then came the influx of Indian immigrants - the basis for the movement's revitalization, said E. Burke Rochford, a professor at Vermont's Middlebury College and an expert on the Hare Krishna movement.

Many temples were facing financial difficulties and "they didn't have anyone else who was knocking at their door," he said. "The organization simply needed them."

That's not to say temples across the country are flourishing. Today, about half still struggle financially. Nonetheless, there are now an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 members in North America.

And especially in India, the movement is gaining a large following, with temples built or under way in New Delhi, Mumbai and many other cities.

Troubles in Seattle

The local Hare Krishna community, which had grown to about 120 people in the 1970s, faced its own controversies.

Neighbors of the temple, when it was on Capitol Hill, complained about sunrise chanting and drumming. After travelers complained, Port of Seattle officials sought to limit proselytizing and soliciting by Hare Krishnas at the airport.

The temple moved to Madrona and then to its current location. By 1991, when current temple president and head priest Harry Terhanian arrived, it was on the verge of closing. "There were more deities than devotees," recalled Terhanian, who was sent by ISKCON to help the dwindling group.

Slowly, he built up the community. But it wasn't until the mid-1990s, as Indian families began joining, that Terhanian saw a "base by which we rebuild our legitimacy."

Though some Indians were wary of the Hare Krishna movement in the past, "I don't think in today's generation, that's an issue," said Ganapathy Krishnan, chairman of the Hindu Temple and Cultural Center in Bothell, a traditional temple that opened in 2003.

Now, there are people who attend and contribute to both the Bothell and Sammamish temples, he said.

"I found my place"

On a recent Saturday evening, Anjan Chakraborty, a 40-year-old software engineer who lives in Sammamish, was enjoying one of the free vegetarian meals the temple provides regularly.

Chakraborty first came to the temple about 10 years ago when he moved to the U.S. He had been looking for a place to introduce his daughter to Hindu culture. The other families were welcoming and he found the rituals similar to those he had practiced in India.

"I found my place," he said.

As for the movement's controversial history, he thinks it's unfair to judge an entire movement based on individuals' past actions. The movement "should be known by what the founder teaches, stands for."

For Vishakha Dasi, 25, a software engineer from Sammamish, a big draw is the chance to perform classical Indian songs at the temple's festivals. "The people here are encouraging," she said.

The temple started "cradle-to-grave" programs three years ago, said Bhatt, the board member. "Not everybody is very interested in spiritual practices and becoming very staunch. Some are interested in culture. Others, food."

For Bhatt and his wife, Bansri, talking with Terhanian and reading Prabhupada's books help them understand their faith better. They both were raised as Hindus, taking part in rituals and practices mainly because their parents and grandparents had done so.

Now they understand better why Bhatt's grandfather read Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita, every morning - because doing so provides guidance on how one should live each day.

Practicing his faith has helped him become a better husband, father, worker and citizen, Bhatt said. "Without this faith, I think I would be lost."

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