Road Trip: Detour Division

See original article here.

By Chris Goodrich

When I’m forced to drive a long way for work, or some child-related thing, I try to find something fun to do along the way. The drive isn’t a burden if I’ve got a personal reason to go, and sometimes I even look forward to 10 hours in the car.

Driving to Maine, when my son did a semester at a school there, wasn’t much of a problem — it’s an easy drive and there’s always shopping at L.L. Bean headquarters or a night on the shore. Driving to Ohio to deliver my daughter to college, however, has been more challenging; on one trip we toured Frank Lloyd Wright’s spectacular Fallingwater house, 70 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, and on another, a less-well-known Wright house in the same area, Kentuk Knob.

One time, too, we stopped at my very first Cabela’s, just outside Wheeling, West Virginia — truly a “destination” store with its Gun Library (for buying, not lending) and museum-quality dioramas of African as well as North American wildlife (in 2007 Cabela opened a similar store in East Hartford). But the Cabela detour was most significant because, by taking the “southern route” to Kenyon College, we passed a freeway sign for something called “Prabhupada’s Palace of Gold,” less than 20 miles distant.

I filed that information away… and so, a few days ago, became an overnight guest at the New Vrindaban Community, a utopian farm in Moundsville, West Virginia, run under the auspices of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.

Having no more knowledge of “ISKCON” than off-putting memories of devotees in saffron robes chanting “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna!” in unlikely places like airports, I was a little nervous… but my anxiety was unfounded.

The community is at the end of a very windy road on the edge of a West Virginia “holler,” founded there in part because A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada — the Calcutta native and Krishna evangelist who, in his late 60s, travelled to New York City in 1965 to start ISKCON — had a vision of creating “seven temples on the seven hills.” It’s easy to believe the appropriately named “Moundsville” really might resemble the original, Indian Vrindaban, the temple-filled city where Krishna spent his boyhood (and it didn’t hurt that one of Prabhupada’s devotees would donate his land, which has once been a garbage dump).

I stayed in the community itself, down in the holler, in a complex that at first looks like a tiny ski resort, but in the center of the main building is the Sri Sri Radha Vrindaban Chandra Temple (which even has a live webcam). The community rents rooms to visitors — $26.50 a night or less per person, can’t beat that — and it was relaxing to fall asleep, and wake up, to rhythmic chanting. (The community also rents out A-frame cabins around a small lake.)

The Palace of Gold itself is on the main road, a short walk up the hill, and is a diamond in the rough. It was built, starting in 1973, to be Prabhupada’s home but he died in 1977, the building two years from completion. No surprise there: the pocket-size “palace” was built almost exclusively by New Vrindaban devotees, most of whom knew nothing about construction when they started building (without blueprints, supposedly).

Residents learned how to stain glass, cut marble (52 kinds), carve wood, sculpt clay, paint murals, apply gold leaf (five pounds of it), set tile, cast metal, weld steel and rebuild chandeliers, not to mention blast rock, haul lumber with horse teams, mix cement and run electrical wires.

Despite being conceived and built by amateurs, the building is beautiful in both design and execution… though perhaps, indeed, that’s why it’s beautiful, being an expression of love and devotion.

My tour guide — whom I almost certainly saw in the 1980s in Berkeley, California, since we both lived there then, and you couldn’t miss those hand-cymbal-ringing Hare Krishnas dancing down Telegraph Avenue — notes that New Vrindaban hasn’t met its dream of self-sufficiency and a little research uncovers a major reason. The community was expelled from ISKCON from 1987 to 1994 in the wake of criminal activity — child abuse, drug use and eventually murder — that often destroys idealistic groups taken over by messianic leaders.

New Vrindaban has yet to recover from those dark days, though has generated some positive vibes in recent years by starting a “cow sanctuary” program. Since Krishna devotees are Hindu, they revere cows, and eat neither meat nor eggs… and abstain from drugs, alcohol and illicit sex as well, though some previous leaders didn’t follow Swami Prabhupada’s “regulative principles.”

New Vrindaban is nearly 500 miles from Brookfield, so I don’t plan on returning anytime soon. But one day I will, for the whole experience — sleeping in the ashram, chanting with other devotees before dawn, counting out prayer beads, dipping into the Baghvad Gita, working in the fields, eating a healthy vegetarian lunch (one of the Krishna’s bigger economic endeavors is restaurants). If I had known the community’s “backstory,” I might have passed it by… but the good guys, it seems, are in charge once again.

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