he face of the god is bright blue, of course. So is the lustrous skin on his four arms. Just as you'd expect in any ancient image of Krishna in Bombay or Bengal.
But this statue of the Hindu deity is 5 feet tall, fashioned from the latest in space-age acrylic resins, artfully illumined by computer-driven light banks and speaking through a pair of high-response stereo speakers.
And he's standing in the middle of East Detroit, just down the road from the scabrous urban wrack around the old Chrysler plant, plop in the middle of a stolid neighborhood of square brick homes.
He's the highlight of the Hare Krishna movement's latest acquisition: The Bhaktivedanta Cultural Center, housed in the fabled Fisher Mansion and opening to the public at $3 a head this weekend.
As befits Motown mysticism, it owes as much to the auto industry as to India.
The monstrous structure, a Hollywoodish mongrel of Moorish, Italian Renaissance and Spanish styles, was built in 1927 by Lawrence ("Body by") Fisher, founder of Cadillac Motors. It passed to an heir sympathetic to the Hare Krishna cause, and in 1975 was purchased jointly for $300,000 by two movement devotees from once-hostile clans: Alfred Brush Ford (great-grandson of Henry Ford) and Elisabeth Reuther Dickmeyer (daughter of the late Walter Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers.)
During the '70s, Ford sank another $2 million into renovating the building and 4 1/2 walled acres of grounds. And today the first visitors will see one of America's most outlandish homes and the finest in super-tech proselytizing--from the "Disney-like multimedia diorama exhibition," explaining the aims of Krishna consciousness, to Govinda's, "Detroit's most exciting vegetarian restaurant."
Fisher might never have survived the sight of what one devotee calls "a spiritual Disneyland." His opulent gardens are now dotted with life-size canopied sculptures of the 10 principal incarnations of Krishna--each with a differently colored overhead light, each crafted of plastic resin "treated to look just like aged bronze." His marble-floored ballroom has become a temple where worship begins at 4:15 a.m., his bowling alleys a 300-seat theater, his underground boat garage the site of the diorama.
In the administrative offices, a woman in a green sari and nose ring is batting data into the big Radio Shack computer, and across the grounds, workers with shaved heads and pigtails scurry to adjust sprinklers, dodging wandering peacocks ("Very auspicious birds," says a devotee, grinding at a molar-load of salad, "a great favorite of Krishna's") and avoiding the trucks disgorging electronic gear and color video monitors. And whining skyward over the whole, the naso-guttural chanting of sacred songs from outdoor speakers.
A bizarre meld of cultures, even for Motor City. But no stranger than the modern Hare Krishna movement itself, an amalgam of millennia-old Hindu tradition, cybernetic hyper-tech and public relations acumen.
Since its founding in 1966 by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, who died in 1977, the movement has evolved from a ragtag rabble of airport panhandlers into the evangelical equivalent of Amway: The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (incorporated in various states as ISKCON Inc.)
Although the movement embodies venerable forms of worship and rigorous prohibitions--sexual relations, allowed in marriage only for procreation; no intoxicants, tea or coffee; no gambling, and no consumption of meat, fish or eggs--most Americans know the movement only from the saffron-sheeted drum-and-hummers on busy corners. That's like trying to understand the Girl Scouts through cookie sales.
"We're implanting a whole culture by osmosis," says Mukunda Goswami (Michael Grant), ISKCON's director of public affairs and a former pop music arranger for David Bowie and others. "And our impact can't be measured by the number of people who dance in the street."
Impact, indeed: Five years ago, no sane politician outside San Francisco would dare show up in public with a bunch of beaded baldies. Yet this week the Michigan Senate, hungry for tourist dollars, passed a resolution calling the new center an occasion for "glad rejoicing" at the "many exciting experiences for all who visit"--and a senate contingent presented the resolution in person at Wednesday night's private grand opening.
It's just the beginning, says Mukunda: The mansion project is part of the movement's new "cultural phase," a three-part nationwide assault on western souls through multimedia presentations, re-creation of ancient Indian architecture such as ISKCON's Palace of Gold in the West Virginia panhandle and a chain of 12 natural food restaurants from Seattle to San Juan. And more.
In North America alone, there are 45 temples and nine farm communities, not to mention sundry chattels like the 53-foot, three-masted teak sailing temple in Hawaii. There's a toll-free information number; a glossy monthly magazine, Back to Godhead, ("trial subscription" $6.95 by postage-free business reply card); dozens of well-edited hardcover and paperback books for lay readers and Sanskrit scholars; cassette tapes of the founder ("Transcendental Sounds" at $2.50 each) and video cassettes of religious instruction ("Transcendental Television" at $50 a pop).
No wonder ISKCON estimates its active U.S. devotees at 50,000, with perhaps 5 million practicing some aspect of the movement.
"Our founder always urged a union of Indian culture and Western technology," says Subhananda Das--formerly Steven Gelber, formerly Jewish, now the movement's pudgy and affable director for inter-religious affairs. Although "this is not a new cult, but an ancient tradition, considered in India an orthodox and genuine representation of Hinduism," Prabhupada was a man of his century. "He said the United States and India were like a blind man and a lame man": The West spiritually blind, the East technically crippled. "What you see here is a manifestation of that idea, using modern computer technology and audio systems to present the message of the Bhagavad-Gita," the Hindu holy text in which Krishna teaches the way to escape the wheel of death and rebirth by transcending the self and achieving inward detachment.
And that's not all you see. Every example of Fisher's plutocratic deco extravagance and eclectic whimsy--coffered hand-painted ceilings, acres of hand-laid tile, walnut and rosewood parquet floors and pounds of pure gold and silver leaf (even in the bathrooms, several of them large enough to park a Buick)--are undisturbed. The devotees have simply superimposed their own icons, so that cross-legged Hindu statues stare up at winged cherubim, and arti-colored tiled walls are overhung with Hindu tapestries of surpassingly lurid hue. The result is an eye-busting visual cacophony that makes San Simeon look like a Greyhound waiting room.
Twenty-five feet above the temple room, the concave arc of ceiling is painted with a blue sky and scudding cottony clouds. Below, beneath a hand-carved wooden canopy, an aged brown-skinned, bald-headed man sits cross-legged, his fingers knit in thought. A half bushel of carnation blossoms are strewn at his feet. It is Prabhupada, sculpted in resin and eerily lifelike, right down to the microfolds of skin by the ears.
"Many people ask," Subhananda says, "When is your master going to come out of meditation?"
There is another of these macabre life-size mannequins in an upstairs study. That one holds a pen over a page of the guru's actual handwriting.
But nothing rivals the diorama show, known as FATE (First American Transcendental Experience). It begins with a bank of slide projectors firing images of anxiety-ridden modern life at a movie screen as the voiceover explains that we are suffering "a spiritual identity crisis," and moves into a discussion of reincarnation.
Lights suddenly arise at the base of the screen, revealing 18 lifelike statues as the voice follows the stages of a man's life from infancy to death. At the center is a bone-heap out of which oozes a glistening fetal sack, completing the chain. The grisly tableau fades and the screen revolves to reveal a stage on which the four-armed, blue-skinned Krishna is announcing he will appear on earth to lead men to godhead.
The story of his incarnation will be told in a succession of still uncompleted room-sized dioramas. In the murk of one room, a young programmer sits in a tangle of wires, a pigtail erupting from his crew cut, his hands busy with two computer terminals and an audio board. He looks with mild-eyed satisfaction at the uncompleted gladed scene across from him. "Those leaves were cast in latex from real trees," he says. "And all completely fireproof!"
Alfred Ford sits with the absence of wriggle or gesture that characterizes most devotees. Yet his spiritual progress seems incomplete. His tweed jacket and tie have a smug Saville Row look; and at 33, his chubby, moustached face hints a vestigial arrogance. When he meets the press, he is surrounded by senior devotees, including Vishnupada, the fortyish spiritual leader of this and many other groups.
He came to Krishna, says Ford (as Ambarish Das, he is ISKCON's director of cultural affairs) as a 19-year-old art student at Tulane University. "I was dumped from boarding school into the worst turbulence of the '60s," losing his sense of self, "just acting out of conditioning, going around taking lots of drugs like all my friends."
Then he saw some devotees chanting, and bought "The Radha Krishna Temple Album" with George Harrison. "The first time I heard it, it sounded so familiar, it made me believe I must have remembered it from previous lifetimes."
Intrigued, he found that "no other religion gives you more information about God in detail. And it's very personal. There's none of this nebulous b.s. you get in the more esoteric spiritual life or whatever." He left Tulane without graduating, and headed west, eventually arriving at Honolulu, where he met Prabhupada and Lisa Reuther. He liked the Hawaii temple so much that "I bought it and still own it."
The money has posed problems. On trips to India, his sincerity was treated with brutal skepticism by the Indian press. (No doubt aggravated by his flip remarks: "They asked me what I thought of capitalism, and I said, 'Well, it's always been very good to me.' ") But it does exempt him from the injunction to gather alms. "I collected mine in my last lifetime," he smirks. And it gives him a certain leverage, as when the talk turns to matrimony.
Marriages are arranged by a guru, assuring that "they're happy," says Vishnupada, "their minds are not clouded by uncontrolled desires like sex." Unions are not so much compelled ("not like the Moonies!" says a devotee, his voice thick with contempt) as firmly encouraged. "I introduce the girl to the boy and let them talk," Vishnupada says. "And if they don't like each other, we let it go."
Will Ford marry? "Nah, I'm too old to change my ways."
"We'll talk about that," Vishnupada says, with menacing good humor.
"Oh no we won't," Ford snaps. An awkward silence ensues. Soon Ford leaves.
During his remarks, Lekhasravanti Dasi (Elisabeth Reuther), 35, a handsome, strong-jawed woman in an elegant sari, has been sitting calmly at the end of a sofa, speaking only when addressed directly, deferring to the males. It is the way. When the men leave, she says, "I think there's a lot of misconception. A lot of women think to be submissive is to be weak. Actually it takes a lot of strength. And patience. Sexually we're not exploited. We have wonderful husbands and children. That's real liberation."
She thinks she may have developed an affinity for Hindu ways in a former life. "When I was a little girl, I always went barefoot and sat on the floor. My father used to call me his little yogi."
And in 1970 when she heard that her parents had been killed in a plane crash, she says, "I felt myself evolve spiritually immediately. My first thought was, They're eternal now.' It took me a year to find the books to explain it. My relatives all said, 'You're crazy, you're just reacting to your parents' death,' " but by the early '70s she was a devotee, and in 1977 she married a then-celibate monk named Bhusaya Das (Bruce Dickmeyer, 33, of Mankato, Minn.), a pink-faced, freckled fellow who has kept his grain-belt grin.
They have a 5-year-old son and a 1-year-old daughter. Father and son celebrate a common birthday. Celebrate? Doesn't that imply an irreligious attachment to life, to the wheel of rebirth? "Ah," says Bhusaya, "but the Vedas say you are becoming one year closer to death."
That reminds Lekhasravanti of their son. "We have a little song we sing to him." To the tune of "Happy Birthday to You," she sings, "Hare Krishna to You," concluding with "may you never take birth again." Isn't that maybe a shade morbid for a 5-year-old? "Oh no," she says, her face warming in joy. "My son is always talking about how he wants to go back to godhead when he dies."
Given the relentlessly worldly diet of Western thought, this is tough to swallow, and the movement is invariably described as a "cult," the media code word linking them by implication with Jonestown and the Manson gang.
"We're incredulous when we hear those charges," says Subhananda. "If we're a cult, then every cloistered Christian monk and nun is a cultist. Some people have even suggested that a vegetarian diet makes you more vulnerable to brainwashing. If we are brainwashed, then everyone who takes his religion seriously--as his scriptures say he should--is brainwashed."
In the late afternoon, Lekhasravanti, in jeans now, walks down the sidewalk carrying her 1-year-old daughter, Mohini, plump as a Renaissance cherub and with a calm in her eyes beyond even the blissful solipsism of infants. Both of her ears are pierced with gold studs, and she wears a tulsi necklace and four bracelets on her left wrist. Smiling like any suburban mom showing off her child, Lekhasavranti pokes the baby gently. "C'mon, Mohini," she coos, "say 'Hare Krishna.' "
A few minutes later, two black teen-age boys stroll by the entrance. The shorter one, in a tight T-shirt which reads, "I'm High on Jesus," veers toward the mansion gate. His friend hangs back, then haltingly follows.
Edging forward a step at a time, they gawk at the exotic spectacle, the color-flooded statuery of gods and monsters, the bustling workers in pigtails and saffron. What is it, the T-shirted boy asks a by-stander, who quickly describes the mansion, the temple, the film, the four-armed, bright blue deity.
"Oh yeah?" he says. "Hey, I'm gonna check it out."