Ten miles from the booming fast-food strip in this industrial town of 17,000 and only an hour from Pittsburgh, the 22-carat gold leaf dome of a Hindu temple being built on the highest point on McCreary's Ridge rises above the rural West Virginia hills and hollows like a mirage.

The Prabhupada Palace, which has been under construction since 1973, is the most glaring symbol of the decision by the International Society of Krishna Consciousness to establish its international headquarters in this implausible spot.

Its leader, who arrived here in 1968, said he intends to build a "transcendental village' here, where people who belong to the Farm Wives club or the Marshall County Coon Hunters Association have lived and farmed for generations.

With this recipe for conflict, a war of nerves has been seething between local residents and the Krishnas.

Since 1973, the Krishnas have been accumulating a stockpile of weapons, including military surplus semiautomatic rifles, to protect themselves, they say, from the threat of assaults from hostile outsiders.

Sitting in a folding chair in the middle of the intricate marble palace, the Kirtanananda Swami, now the head of the Krishnas, dismissed the tensions as if they were merely an organic part of the laws of nature.

"Human nature is always the same," said the swami, 41, bundled against the cold in a saffron cotton robe, a ski jacket and wool cap to cover his shaved head. "There are demons and there are devotees and they are always at loggerheads. You'll never convince the demons to become devotees or the devotees to become demons. So they are always destined to fight."

"Demons" is how the Krishnas refer to anti-Krishnas. "Devotees" is what they call themselves.

The swami said that the Krishnas have armed themselves for defense and would never make the first move. Nevertheless, there are indications that they could hold up well in a fight.

Since 1973, they have spread the word that they have a collection of weapons that includes M14 semiautomatic rifles and handguns, according to S&t. Thomas Westfall, a local sheriff. One member has a federal firearms dealer's license.

Local authorities say they do not know how large the Krishna arsenal is, although the Krishnas deny it is extensive. But one sheriff says he believes that it must be large because once when he went to the local sporting goods store to buy bullets for police target practice, the store was all out of them. The Krishnas, the storekeeper explained, had bougth up his entire stock, thousands of rounds.

Marshall County Sheriff Robert L. Lightner, who is known for his antagonism toward the Krishnas, said he is concerned about the weapons.

"It doesn't make any sense to me why a peace-loving, nature-loving, religion-loving people would have an arsenal," he said.

The Krishnas trace their interest in defense to an incident in June 1973. Two men came to the farmhouse that the Krishnas are using as a temple, one of them looking for his 15-year old daughter, They were permitted to search the farm's buildings and the property but did not find the girl.

At 6:15 the next morning, two men armed with shotguns burst into the farmhouse. They shot and wounded four Krishnas.

A short time later, a bartender and a motorcycle club leader from Louisville, Ky., were arrested and extradited to Marshall County. Krishnas identified them as the men who had come looking for the girll, the bartender's daughter.

A local grand jury refused to indict the two men. Law enforcement officials indicate that some of the Krishnas had given conflicting testimony and that the jury members' distrust of the Krishnas may also have been a factor.

The experience has left the Krishnas bitter, giving them more reason to regard themselves as a besieged band of devotees, surrounded by "demons."

There have been other incidents to reinforce that feeling.

In July 1976, two men -- "good ole boys" from nearby Alma Grove, according to Westfall -- were convicted of shooting at the Krishnas' farm. No one was hurt. The Krishnas say wild and indiscriminate shootings occur almost every Friday night, when the locals have been drinking down the road at the Skyview Inn and elsewhere. The police say the incidents are not reported to them, and doubt that they occur.

Then, it didn't help already strained relations when, in the harsh winter of 1977, Kirtanananda Swami was arrested after neighboring farmers complained that five of the Krishnas' cattle had died from neglect.

"That was the year that 20,000 cattle died in this state from the harsh winter," the swami said, smiling coldly, "and no one else was arrested."

The charges were dismissed on appeal.

Last Halloween, someone burned two trailers standing on the edge of the Krishnas' property. Three hours later, someone laid a gasoline trail to two cars and a house where Betsy Rich, the wife of a truck driver, and her two sons were sleeping.

The trail was ignited and the fire destroyed a pickup truck and a Cadillac. The house was singed, but Mrs. Rice, whose husband was away, escaped unharmed with her sons.

No one has been arrested for either fire. Sheriff Lightner says he thinks the Krishnas set the second one in the mistaken belief that the Rices were responsible for the first. Investigators at the Rice house found candle wax that matched candles made by the Krishnas, he said. The swami denies any knowledge of who the culprits might be.

On an earlier occasion, when the founder of the Krishna movement, the A.C. Bhaktivendanta Swami Prabhupada, was riding along the main road in his stately teak-domed palanquin (portable throne) borne high above the heads of his dancing, chanting followers, there was an explosion in the middle of the procession.

Angry that he could not get his car past the swami's procession, Billy Aston, a local country and western musician, had lit a firecracker and tossed it into the crowd.

No one was hurt, but the marchers pressed charges. Aston was convicted of interrupting a religious service and disturbing the peace. Justice of the Peace Mary Alice Knous gave him a choice: spend 10 days in jail or attend four worship services or Love Feasts with the marchers.

Aston chose not to go to jail.

The latest skirmish was over a huge billboard erected by the Krishnas last June. The billboard, its bold white-on-blue lettering visible more than a mile way, already has been singed by a burning cross and smeared with paint.

The billboard says, "Hare Krsna Ridge." (Like members of some other religions, the Krishnas do not write the full name of their deity.) Last January someone hung a banner over the word "ridge." In equally bold letters, the banner proclaimed, "Sodomy."

The Krishnas came to this part of West Birginia by chance. Richard Rose, a local philosopher, had placed a letter in the San Francisco Oracle in 1966 inviting people to an intellectual exchange on his farm. Keith Ham, a native of Peekskill, N.Y. who later became Kirtanananda Swami and says he was the first American Krishna, came for a visit and decided to stay.

He and his followers call their community "New Vrindaban," after the town where the Hindu god Krishna is said to have appeared 5,000 years ago. Today, about 375 people live on Krishna property, although local sheriffs say they seem to disappear when outsiders visit.

The palace is their masterpiece in progress. When it is finished next August, it will have two terraces, moats, gardens, fountains spurting water from cement elephants' trunks, marble from 40 countries and gold and copper leaf everywhere.George Harrison, the former Beatle, is said to have contributed $100,000 toward its cost, which the Krishnas say would have been millions if they weren't building it themselves. They estimate its cost to be $300,000.

The temple was intended to serve as the western residence of Swami Prabhupada, who planned to live there six months of each year. But he died in September 1977, leaving Kirtanananda Swami as his heir apparent, and the palace will be a memorial to him, the swami says.

A teak throne, big enough for two men, has a gold satin footstoll with the late swami's slippers resiting on top. They have been plate in gold. "Harassment," says the present swami. "These people try to do anyThing they can."

Recalling the critical shooting incident in 1973, he said, "They came in and began defacing the temple. They threw the deity of Krishna on the floor. That was very hard for us to forgive them for."

In the aftermath, "It made all of the devotees conscious that death is very close," the swami said with a slight smile. He paused.

"I think the only thing the Krishnas regretted was that they didn't give up their lives to protect the deity from the demons," he said.

After the incident, Swami Prabhupada wrote the Krishnas "and told us we must prepared to defend ourselves," the swami said.

"So we purchased several items similar to what [the assailants] were using." That was a much as the swami would say about the guns. "We are not paranoid. We just want to protect ourselves."

Asked how he reconciled the arsenal with the Krishnas' avowed belief in nonviolence, the swami cited the Krishna Code of Manu, which teaches, he said, "If someone burns your home, that is an offense punishable by death.

"But that doesn't mean we're going to do that," he said. The code also teaches that it is a favor to kill someone who has committed an offense, because it absolves him from carrying the sin into his next life.

"When a murderer is hanged," he explained, "his crime is atoned for, and in his next life, he won't have to suffer for it. Krishna is the author of the principle of nonviolence."

Except for Sgt. Westfall, who visits the Krishnas frequently, a few outsiders have steady friendly relations with the movement.

Even Richard Rose, who inadvertently brought them to the area in 1967, is suing the Krishnas over boundary disputes, and for allegedly obtaining a 99-year lease for his 113-acre farm under false pretenses.

Rose now contends that Ham, as the swami then was, told him that he had left the movement because he found it "absurd."

"Then he showed up one day in a bedsheet," Rose said.

The two men no longer talk to each other and Rose contends he once received the checks for taxes on the property "wrapped in a mimeograph sheet that spelled out under what conditions Krishna authorizes them to kill. I took it as a threat."

Only Westfall is the exception. He says he is the only member of the police who can "rap with them about when the world was falling apart when a lot of them decided to drop out."

Westfall, 30, is a Vietnam veteran. So are about 25 residents of the Krishna farm, he says.

But even he has misgivings about the Krishnas -- about complaints from some young people who visit the farm, decide to leave and later say they are assaulted and robbed. But Westfall says they refuse to sign complaints against the Krishnas.

He is also concerned about the potential for violence. He wonders what would happen if one of the frequent custody battles between non-Krishna parents and their Krishna spouses keeping children on the farm required the police to come into the farm with a warrant.

"You have to be careful in how to say this, but if it came to as situation, like in the kidnaping of a child and if we came in there and took out the mother and child and arrested her for kidnaping, and if they felt we were 'the Force' coming in, there could be violence.

"Some of these guys who have had such a tough time living elsewhere and came here to find peace, a situation like that could push it over the edge," he reflected.

"In the winter, our uniforms are pitch black. To them, we would be the threatening force. We would be the rednecks who come in there with guns." CAPTION: Picture 1, The Krishnas' new temple, still being built, will be centerpiece of the sect's "transcendental village." Copyright (c) Philadelphia Inquirer; Picture 2, Kirtanananda Swami: "There are demons and... devotees... at loggerheads."; Pcture 3, Betsy Rice outside her fire-singed home: apparently a victim of the conflict between Krishnas and townsfolk. Copyright (c) Photos by Philadelphia Inquirer; Map, Site of the Krishnas' new headquarters. By Richard Furno -- The Washington Post