NEW YORK -- Weekdays at Govinda's Vegetarian Lunch, a cafeteria in the basement of Sri Sri Radha Govinda Mandir, the Hare Krishna temple located in the rapidly developing area of downtown Brooklyn, is a peaceful affair. Outside, there are cranes, scaffolding and cement trucks. But inside and down a few stairs, there is faint, dulcet chanting piped through speakers. Contented diners, ranging from municipal workers to financial sector employees, sit together with plates piled full of eggplant Parmesan and chana masala.
It's a soothing respite for Govinda regulars. "It's been a weekly staple," said Javiel Vazquez, who works for Consolidated Edison nearby.
The tranquil atmosphere hasn't permeated the four floors above, however, where a fight over leadership has roiled the shrinking congregation. Prompted by a possible sale of the temple, at 295-311 Schermerhorn St., for close to $60 million to a developer, a power struggle has pitted the temple president and his board of trustees against the leaders of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, also known as the Hare Krishna Society.
It's the latest chapter in a series of sweeping changes for the Hare Krishnas in New York, many of whom have divergent views on how to adhere to the rules and tenets of what is now a large, international organization. These days, the religion is more popular in India than it is in the United States, the country that nurtured and fueled the movement in the late 1960s and '70s. But at its most basic, the conflict also reveals how the real-world notions of financial power and political control can disrupt a religion that is supposed to embrace selflessness.
For a humble spiritual movement that was born in an East Village storefront, the Hare Krishna conflict in Brooklyn involves a lot of money, a good amount of litigation, and even, at some point, locked temple doors and private security guards.
The man who started the Hare Krishna movement in the United States, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Srila Prabhupada, was part of Mahatma Gandhi's civil disobedience movement in India and later became a disciple of a prominent Hindu guru who asked him to spread his teachings to the English-speaking world. So in 1965, at the age of 69, Prabhupada stowed away on a cargo ship, arriving in New York with about $7 in Indian rupees and a crate of Sanskrit texts, according to the documentary Hare Krishna! The Mantra, the Movement and the Swami Who Started It All.
Soon, Prabhupada found himself on the Bowery, leading workshops on the Bhagavad Gita and overseeing devotional chanting in Tompkins Square Park, where there's now an elm tree dedicated to the religion. The idea of Krishna consciousness, that the material world is temporary and that people could attain high spiritual development through devotional service to the deity Krishna, dovetailed easily with the city's counterculture scene, according to Burke Rochford, a religion professor at Middlebury College.
Poet Allen Ginsberg, an early devotee who attended some of the first outreach sessions in New York, told The New York Times in 1966 that the chanting "brings a state of ecstasy."
Prabhupada, known to his followers as Srila Prabhupada, officially founded the Hare Krishna Society that same year. Its first temple was located in a former gift shop at 26 Second Ave. in Manhattan. Early devotees were mostly white Westerners, many of whom were disillusioned with U.S. culture as the Vietnam War bore on.
Devotees quit their jobs or dropped out of school; initially, they also gave up drugs and extramarital sex. Buoyed by the positive reaction from New Yorkers, and as donations and book sales started to bring in some money, Prabhupada started to crisscross the nation to spread his teachings.
He even made hippie history in San Francisco, when members of the Hare Krishna Society organized the Mantra Rock Dance at the Avalon Ballroom in December 1967, according to the documentary. The Grateful Dead and other bands performed for free to raise money for a new Bay Area temple, with the founder as its special guest.
Celebrity Krishnas also included George Harrison. "The Vedic scriptures gave some sort of backbone to my life," Harrison said in the film. Harrison's first solo single after the Beatles, "My Sweet Lord," was an ode to Krishna and a worldwide hit.
By the religion's heyday in '70s New York, devotees were out in full force, chanting and selling scripture at the Port Authority Bus Terminal and at area airports. The temple moved several times, first to another Second Avenue location and then to 439 Henry St. in Brooklyn. In 1975, the organization moved to 340 W. 55th St., an 11-story building, where it thrived. There was a theater, a gift shop and a hotel, with hundreds of followers living communally in the upper floors.
"The Manhattan location was so central, there were tons of people coming in and out of the building, raising money," said Lorelee Somershein (Jambavati Devi Dasi), a Queens resident who used to attend services there. "It was an exciting place to be."
In 1977, Prabhupada died, and soon thereafter, the Krishnas were troubled with financial difficulties. Local leadership decided to sell the Manhattan property and splinter off into three groups, according to Jay Israel (Jayadvaita Swami), a disciple of Prabhupada and the editor of many of his books. Between 1981 and 1982, one group went upstate, another to New Jersey and the third to the current temple in downtown Brooklyn.
"We let prime Manhattan real estate go," Israel said.
In Brooklyn, the temple attracted hundreds of people for Sunday services at first, but the congregation soon started to fracture, as did the organization at large. In 1996, a prominent leader in West Virginia, who had once run the largest Krishna community in the United States, was accused of murder and jailed for racketeering. Two years later, the Hare Krishna Society conceded that physical, sexual and emotional abuse of children occurred at its boarding schools across the country, including in Dallas and Seattle, and at several in India.
The religion, he added, is actually thriving in India. The society is currently building a $90 million facility, which includes a planetarium, in Mayapur, near the Bangladesh border, where it will serve as the new global headquarters. Alfred Ford, a devotee and the great-grandson of Henry Ford, donated $25 million to the project, said Geoffrey Walker (Anuttama Dasa), a spokesman for the society.
Although there were between 50 and 60 devotees who lived at the Brooklyn temple in the '80s, the number of full-time volunteers dwindled over the years. By the '90s, many of the congregants were Indian and Bangladeshi immigrants who traveled from Queens and Long Island to the temple, which prompted the idea of building a new temple in Queens, said Heather Britten (Satya Dasi), the temple's treasurer and the force behind Govinda's Vegetarian Lunch.
The qualities that had once made the 93-year-old building attractive -- large communal rooms and upper-floor dormitory space -- now seemed outdated and unnecessary, Britten said. The income from donations, book sales and the cafe has not been enough to pay for the much-needed building repairs and utility bills.
The temple's president, David Britten (Ramabhadra Das), and his board twice asked the Hare Krishna Society's ecclesiastic directors, known as the Governing Body Commission, for permission to "move the deities," which implied a property sale -- once in 1998 and again in 2008. He and his board were given approval both times, said Seth Spellman (Sesa Das), a commission member and the head of a group tasked with halting the current sale. But a lack of interest from buyers, and then the financial crisis, held back possible deals.
Tensions erupted in late July, when the commission tried to remove Britten from his post after decades of service. He refused to leave the temple, where he lives, or abdicate his position. Instead, he locked the temple doors for several weeks, shuttering Govinda's as well. Although Sunday services resumed a few weeks later, congregants noticed private security personnel at the door blocking several members who had been vocally against the sale from entering the building.
The temple property is owned by a religious corporation called the Bharati Center Inc., which legally makes the temple board trustees the owners of 295-311 Schermerhorn St. The Hare Krishna Society was not mentioned in the paperwork when the building was bought in 1982, because some members of Congregation Mount Sinai, the synagogue that owned the property, had concerns over selling the building to Hare Krishnas, Walker said. The commission has allowed temples to be bought under various names before to protect the group from potential legal action, he said. This was one of those cases.
If the sale goes forward, the commission is worried that the money will be in the hands of a temple board that no longer seems to be part of the Hare Krishna Society, so it has taken steps to wrestle back control of the temple by forming a new board of trustees. But the Brittens, as well as the other board members who are supportive of the sale, continue to operate.
Religion on 01/13/2018
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