Hindus stake faith in flash, cash Technology: Hare Krishnas in India are increasing their numbers -- members and wealth -- with dazzling temples equipped by Western high-tech gurus.

Sun Journal

August 11, 1998|By Mark Drajem | Mark Drajem,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NEW DELHI -- India's richest man, a former Madison Avenue ad man and the Hollywood company that put life in the "Jurassic Park" dinosaurs are bringing a Disney feel to a Hare Krishna temple here.

Chants, saffron pajamas and wooden prayer beads are no longer enough to lure people to this strict Hindu faith, the temple's planners say. A multimedia message might.

"People believe in technology so much. They believe everything they see on the television, hear on the radio or see robots do," says Madana-Mohana Das, a Russian chemical engineer and religious student at the New Delhi temple.

So the Hare Krishnas, who became famous in the United States for chanting on street corners and in airports, are planning a high-tech, multimillion-dollar museum to adjoin this new temple.

By using clips from American action movies, robotic versions of Hindu deities and "Star Wars"-style holograms, the temple's museum will teach a new generation the ancient Hindu message, Madana-Mohana says.

"We're taking the plug of Western civilization and plugging it back into itself. We want to short it right out," says Bhaktisiddhanta Das, the museum's director and an American who worked in advertising and as an art professor before joining the Hare Krishnas more than 20 years ago. "It's an American's dream: We're doing something here that can actually change the world."

Other Hindus wonder if the Hare Krishnas' high-tech approach may instead short-circuit traditional Hinduism, cutting out the time-consuming, traditional method of passing knowledge from guru to disciple.

And still others say the Hare Krishnas are tapping into the latest Indian phenomenon of turning temples into amusement parks -- and making ox-cart loads of money from them.

Mantra on sound system

Perched above a tony south New Delhi neighborhood, the three 100-foot-high towers of the Hinduja Vedic Centre of India, as the new temple is called, can be seen all over the city. The temple is named for India's richest man, Srichand P. Hinduja, who donated much of the $7 million the construction cost.

Five years in the making, the 3-acre complex has India's largest man-made waterfall and a gold-chandeliered, marble-floored main temple. Five times a day, the Hare Krishna mantra blares from the temple's state-of-the-art sound system.

So far, the people of New Delhi are impressed. About 100,000 people visited on opening day -- April 5. The temple is packed on evenings and weekends.

"We had heard how beautiful it is. I wanted to show it to my family," says S. C. Singh, a member of the Sikh faith who brought his two children to see the temple on a recent evening.

The thieves have also found it. Beside the "Chant Hare Krishna and be happy" sign is one that says, "Watch out for pickpockets."

The opening of the real show -- the high-tech museum -- is months away. When it is completed, visitors will be guided in groups from room to room, as if in Disney's "It's a Small World." Each of the 15 exhibits in the museum will illustrate scenes from the "Bhagavad Gita," the epic poem in which the god Krishna lays out the Hindu philosophy to the warrior Arjuna.

The main attraction will be giant, robotic versions of both Krishna and Arjuna, and a lifelike, mechanical reincarnation of the guru A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, who brought this Hindu sect to the United States in 1966. The mechanical gods and the guru will "preach" to visitors, moving their hands and heads as if they were alive. "It will be as if the guru was there himself," says Madana-Mohana.

Robots from Hollywood

The humanoid robots were designed and programmed by Creative Presentations, the Hollywood company that made the dinosaurs of "Jurassic Park" look alive.

After three months in Indian Customs, the robots required eight months of programming to get them ready for the dress rehearsal at the temple's inauguration. The $300,000 robots are back in Hollywood getting tweaked; they won't be back until the museum opens early next year.

The robots are just the beginning of the tour. In one room, American horror films and an earthquake simulator will give visitors a taste of death. Another room will use a video version of a concept Bhaktisiddhanta said he picked up from the Smothers Brothers -- the history of the world in 60 seconds -- to show the rush of time.

The museum's final exhibit will feature a hologram of Krishna programmed to preach, answer questions and exhort each of the visitors -- by name -- to study the Hare Krishna faith.

"What's exciting is that with this technology we can show what the incarnation of Krishna is actually like," Bhaktisiddhanta says. Krishna appeared to him, he said, "and he looked just like a hologram."

"Most temples in India are great commercial ventures," says Pankaj Butalia, a documentary filmmaker.

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