SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The hole in the ground has been there for a month now, but Caru Das can’t stop admiring it.
Who’d have thought? A Krishna temple in the heart of the Salt Lake Valley?
Caru and his wife, Vai Bhavi, are local leaders of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, started in New York City in 1966 by a devotee of Krishna — “God,” in the Hindu vernacular — named A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. It’s more commonly known as Hare Krishna, a branch of Hinduism.
An early Hare Krishna enthusiast was George Harrison of The Beatles, whose support helped the new religion gain its popular footing, reported the Deseret News.
As for Caru, it wasn’t Beatles music that attracted him to the Hare Krishnas, but rather a search for a spiritual foundation that would carry him through this life and the lives to come.
Born in 1946 in Pennsylvania as Chris Warden, Caru traveled the world in the ’60s, making his way to the Canary Islands, France, Israel, India and finally Australia, where he ran into Hare Krishna missionaries on George Street in Sydney. He was 24 years old and working construction at the time.
“I’d seen it all: beaches, palm trees, beautiful lands,” Caru says 45 years later. “But that horizon wasn’t as attractive to me as the inner landscape” those devotees helped him see.
He went all in, as did his wife, Christine (she’s from England; they met in Australia). In 1970, they were baptized as Krishna devotees and given their new spiritual names — preparing them both for further enlightenment and, as Caru likes to quip, rid them of the problem of “People calling on the phone and asking for ‘Chris’ and us having to ask, ‘Which one?'”
Whatever your mental image of a Krishna consciousness leader, add in humor, friendliness, kindness and charisma and you have Caru Das, a man whose ability to transcend borders, ideologies and religious differences has enabled him, and his religion, to survive and thrive in the middle of Mormondom.
He and Vai first came to Utah in 1982 to purchase a small AM radio station in Spanish Fork, along with the five acres the station sat on.
Ten years later, they had expanded to 15 acres and announced plans to build a temple. The ornate structure, believed to be the only legitimate example of Rajasthani architecture in the United States, was designed by Vai, opened in 2001 and has become not only a gathering place for Hare Krishna followers, but also a tourist site that attracts some 50,000 people a year. The annual Color Festival held on the temple grounds has evolved into a Utah County rite of spring, attended by thousands, many of them college students from Utah Valley University or LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University.
“We did it the hard way,” says Caru. “We opened our first temple in a place that’s 90 percent LDS. If we’d done our R&D, that would have never happened.”
But if converts weren’t exactly beating down their door, the neighbors, Caru adds, nonetheless welcomed them with open arms.
“Great neighbors, great friends,” he says. “The LDS Foundation gave us $20,000 just to get started.”
The only part that confused the locals, Caru recalls with a grin, was the accessibility of the temple. Mormon temples aren’t open to the general public, while Krishna temples, in addition to being houses of preaching, ritual and worship, are also community centers with places to eat, play music, study, socialize and even stay overnight — with no restrictions.
“People kept asking, ‘Will the public be invited?'” says Caru. “I was like, ‘Well, yeah.'”
Suffice it to say that the success in Spanish Fork paved the way for plans to build a similar, if smaller, temple in Salt Lake County on property the Hare Krishnas own just east of 900 East and south of 3300 South.
Also designed by Vai, the completed temple “will be exquisite,” promises her husband.
Caru envisions the Salt Lake temple as a beacon of spirituality for not only the 100 families active in the faith in the valley, but for others looking for positivity and enlightenment as well.
“Salt Lake City is a different story than Spanish Fork,” he says. “There are more here who need ministration. We can make a difference in more lives here.”
It took three years to get enough funds pledged and secure the proper building permits to get started, but on July 10, after a ceremony apologizing to Krishna for disturbing Mother Earth (but for all good purposes), track hoes moved in and dug the hole Caru has been admiring ever since.
Soon enough, the foundation will be poured and the temple will take shape. The domes and cones that will grace the exterior, Taj Mahal-style, have already been built and are in storage, awaiting the walls to get framed.
“We’ve got the batter and we’ve got the icing,” muses Caru, putting Krishna consciousness on a level all can understand. “Now we’ve just got to bake the cake.”