This article about the TOVP, written by Tiziano Fusella (Tulasi das), an Italian journalist, appeared in Italy’s most popular and prestigious weekly magazine, il venerdi di Repubblica, on May 29. It is translated below into English from the original Italian.
Casa Hare Krishna (House of Hare Krishna)
by Tiziano Fusella
For five centuries the Basilica of San Pietro (St. Peter’s Basilica) has been the largest religious building in the world. But this record is about to be challenged, at least on the surface, by the new temple of the Hare Krishna religion that stands in Mayapur, West Bengal, India on the banks of the Ganges river, three hours by car from Kolkata. With eight times more traffic than the road to St. Peter’s Basilica, the only road that leads to Mayapur is among the most tortuous and dangerous on the subcontinent. Crossings without signs follow one another, from which animals and vehicles of all sizes and shapes suddenly appear.
In Rome it took 120 years and twenty Popes to complete the work of St. Peter. The brilliant minds of Donato Bramante, Michelangelo, Giacomo della Porta, and Bernini worked there, just to name a few. In Mayapur, India, the Hare Krishnas have built their World Headquarters’ Temple relatively quickly: from 2009 to 2022, the year in which the structure will be inaugurated.
The sacred Ganges river that flows less than a kilometer remains special. Its floods are periodic, sometimes devastating. “The road leading to Mayapur will be widened with the help of the Indian government” – assures Saul Porecki, spokesman for the new temple project . “We cannot do much about floods, but we have equipped ourselves with underground water systems to keep water away from foundations “.
The heart and engine of the project is Chairman Alfred Ford, great-grandson of Henry Ford the inventor of the assembly line and car manufacturing magnate of the same name. Alfred, 70, married with two daughters, donated $30 million for the construction of the temple. Another $30 million was donated by members and followers of ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness), the organization name with which the Hare Krishna religion is registered. The remaining $40 million will be collected from other members around the globe. Who better than him, in fact, can boast of good contacts with wealthy industrialists and crowned heads. He lives in Florida, but spends several months a year in India where he monitors the work of a thousand architects, sculptors, artists, engineers and bricklayers dealing with reinforced concrete and Vietnamese marble.
His day begins at 4.30 am, as with any devoted practitioner. He always carries a rosary made of 108 wooden beads, recited in prayer for 16 laps a day, and is a strict vegetarian who avoids coffee, tea, and, least of all, cigarettes and alcohol. In 1975 his parents learned from a newspaper that he had joined an unspecified sect that would surely have stolen his $1.2 billion share of inheritance. A legacy of that size didn’t happen. Alfred never even shaved his head, as befits the classic Hare Krishna monk. “I have one foot in religion and the other out,” he said, but it is easy to meet him in his robes.
He was also initiated into spiritual life in 1975 by the master Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the one who first taught the monotheistic worship of the god Krishna outside India. Except for his sister, Alfred found in the family two excellent allies in term of oriental philosophies. His cousin, William Clay Ford Jr., CEO of the Ford Motor company, is a fervent Buddhist. And Ford Founder Henry Ford himself frequented Sufi mystics’ meetings. A Detroit, Michigan newspaper article in 1926 caused quite a stir, and some competitive businessmen branded him as extravagant and eccentric, perhaps in an attempt to steal his industrial jewel in case he had a disruptive mystical crisis. But Henry remained firmly in command of the company and continued to profess reincarnation, as his heirs Alfred and Bill did a century later.
Reincarnation will be one of the central themes of the Mayapur temple, called TOVP, an acronym for the English “Temple of the Vedic Planetarium”. According to Hinduism, on which the Hare Krishna religion is based, the universe is made up of multiple planetary systems each orbiting their respective stars. Life is potentially present on every planet. Incarnate souls can wander not only from one body to another, whether animal or human, but even from planet to planet. A Western mind immediately thinks of Giordano Bruno, but there is no trace that the Campania monk studied scriptures from ancient India.
From the ceiling of the central wing of the Mayapur planetarium, a rotating representation of the universe weighing 5,000 kilos will hang. At the top, past the material planets, there is the spiritual world where the god of Hinduism, Krishna, enjoys himself in the form of a child with herds of cows in green meadows, and stolen yogurt in hand. His fellow adventurers, the cowherd boys, are none other than his own devotees, so immersed in rural life that they become unaware of being in the presence of God. And so they treat him as a fellow “trouble-maker” like themselves.
The priest’s room, called the pujari room, was inaugurated in February, with 69 rooms for the services, including kitchens, worship paraphernalia storage, offices, and priests’ residences. The TOVP temple will be able to accommodate 10,000 faithful, about half of the basilica of San Pietro, on an area of 37,000 square meters. There will also be a 300-seat theater, gardens, squares, hotels, condominiums, land and a community for retirees, all on 242 hectares.
Elders are a central theme in the Hare Krishna religion. Despite being the most widespread Hindu cult beyond Asian borders with about ten million devotees in the world, for some years there has been a rapid aging of the ranks. In the 1960s, the leader Prabhupada managed to address an audience of young Americans and Europeans, mostly from the counterculture. Today the social milieu has definitely changed. “Leave the materialistic society, live in the temple”, “simple living, high thinking”, were the more or less implicit slogans that in the past decades favored the expansion of the community.
When Prabhupada died in 1977, there were more than a hundred temples. In the 1980’s the number of temples continued to grow, especially the farms that still teemed with young residents cohesive in their choice of monastic life. Today the generational change is much different. The “leave society” message no longer has the appeal it once had. Western devotees’ residential preferences are also changing. Preferable to large temples in the countryside are smaller, urban temples in easy to reach towns.
The average age of the practitioners, since there was little turnover between old and new members, has risen. So some have sought assistance in terms of retirement. An example is in the US, where 78-year-old devotee Roger Seigel (Guru das) created the Vedic Care Charitable Trust, a fund to help senior members who in their youth worked to expand the Hare Krishna movement while neglecting their own sustenance in view of old age.
In Mayapur, however, everything is focused on the flows of tourists that the TOVP should attract, from India and the rest of the world. Six million pilgrims a year visit the villages on the banks of the Ganges river, considered sacred for centuries. It is expected that after the opening of the TOVP they will double.
However, San Pietro with its 20,139 square meters, will not lose the primacy of height: the dome of Rome exceeds Mayapur 137 meters against 113 meters.