Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The 'Temple of the Vedic Planetarium' as Mission, Monument and Memorial

Urmila Mohan explores the monumental "Temple of the Vedic Planetarium" being built in Mayapur, West Bengal, India, as an example of mediation that intertwines the expansionary goals of Iskcon and the aspirations of local devotees and non-devotees. The temple/planetarium is critiqued for its ability to missionise by providing a compelling spiritual experience and view of a Vedic universe.

MLA citation format:
Mohan, Urmila
"The “Temple of the Vedic Planetarium” as Mission, Monument and Memorial"
Web blog post. Material Religions. 30 September 2014. [date of access]

1. Introduction
Iskcon stands for the “International Society for Krishna Consciousness” and is a neo-Brahmanical Hindu group that was incorporated in 1966 in New York by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada. Inspired by the message of Chaitanya the medieval Bengali saint who is considered an incarnation of the God Krishna, Iskcon has grown beyond its Gaudiya Vaishnava [i] roots to become a global organisation with four hundred temples worldwide. Conceptualised as a spiritual “United Nations” [ii], Iskcon’s early growth was in the U.S. and U.K. with its most rapid growth now in Russia and in India. Iskcon’s global, spiritual headquarters are in Mayapur, West Bengal, and there are approximately sixty temples in India with multiple temples in cities such as Delhi, Mumbai, and Bangalore. Yet, there is little scholarship on Iskcon’s contemporary influence in India. In this paper, I intend to address that silence by exploring the “Temple of the Vedic Planetarium” (TOVP) being built in Mayapur as an example of Iskcon’s universalising identity. The temple is commonly referred to as the adbhut mandir or the wondrous temple in Hindi. I suggest that the making of the temple is part of a process of mediation not just between categories of ‘East’ and ‘West’ but between the missionising goals of Iskcon and the concerns of local devotees and non-devotees.

Figure 1: Signboard with computer rendering of the TOVP, Mayapur, October 2012. Photo by author.

2. The landscape
Formerly known as Miyapur, Mayapur has been converted from a landscape of jute and paddy fields to a small town with three thousand residents and three million annual visitors. About two thousand residents are Indians while the rest are termed ‘international’. Mayapur is one of nine islands that form the ‘Navadwipa’, and each of the nine islands represents one stage of the devotional process. Mayapur represents the ultimate stage of atma nivedanam or self-surrender and is regarded as the birthplace of Chaitanya by Iskcon devotees.

The TOVP towers over the banks of the Ganges and has been the site of vigorous activity since 2008. It is slated to be opened to the public in 2016, a date that also marks Iskcon’s 50th anniversary. For a pilgrim who takes a ferry across the Ganga to visit Mayapur, the view of the temple is restricted to the tall construction cranes that loom over the site and hint at the final height of the dome. Based on artist renderings that are available at one can imagine what the blue fabergé-style dome of the temple might look like from a distance. The builders claim that the dome will be the largest one of its kind in the world and that the temple will be the tallest Hindu temple in the world – probably the eighth or ninth wonder! It is this kind of hyperbolic rhetoric about the temple that is needed to convey the vision behind the drab grey concrete structure that stands on the site currently.

Figure 2: View of TOVP entrance and partial dome, Mayapur, October 2012. Photo by author.

3. About TOVP
TOVP is said to be the only structure in the world that is both temple and planetarium. The dome is intended to evoke the memory of structures such as St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Taj Mahal, Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C. and Victoria Memorial in Kolkata. The large central hall in the temple will accommodate ten thousand people who have come to take and receive the embodied sight of the deity through darshan and do sankirtan or congregational chanting and dancing. Suspended from the dome will be a two hundred feet scale model of the Vedic cosmos where Mount Meru forms the centre of the universe and the sun, contrary to modern conceptions, is depicted moving around the earth. There will be three altars of white and blue marble with lapis lazuli and gold embellishments in the fabergé-style. The first altar to the left will contain deity figures of the Guru Parampara or lineage of Iskcon gurus and the central altar will contain the seven feet tall deities of the Panchatattvas (Chaitanya and his 4 associates). The altar to the right will contain the approximately six feet tall deities of Radha-Madhava and the Astasakhis or eight female friends; the Pancatattva and Radha-Madhava deities are currently being worshipped in the existing Chandrodaya temple which is a simple, one-storeyed building. The floor of the temple will have inlay work depicting the kalachakra or orbit of eternal time with the 12 zodiac signs. The priest or pujari floor below the altar level will have kitchens and sewing rooms to support the production of six daily food offerings, handmade clothing, jewellery and garlands for the deities. There will also be conference rooms for training new priests. Since ‘hi-tech’ is welcome as long as it is in Krishna’s service, the temple will have a domed planetarium with a screen, the largest of its kind in India. The upper levels of the temple will be a museum with depictions of the devotee Gopakumar’s spiritual journey based on the text “Brihad Bhagavatamritam” with each floor corresponding to a section of the story and a level of the cosmos. [iii]

Building this “eighth wonder of the world” involves fifty engineers, eight hundred labourers and dozens of team members. Senior Prabhupad devotees who administer the project are from the U.S., U.K. and Australia while the engineers and consultants are mostly from India. Labourers come from the neighbouring villages of Swarupganj, Maheshganj, Navadwip etc. The architecture of the building is primarily Neoclassical with Art Deco, Art Nouveau and Indian touches such as elements from the Govindaji temple in Vrindavan. The temple structure including the dome is made out of stainless steel and a special cement. The surface will be clad with coffered ceilings, white marble and artwork. The materials are being sourced primarily from India with plans to recreate Thai gold lustre ceramics and to buy marble from Bolivia and Vietnam. Deities for the Guru Parampara are at the time of writing being moulded in fibreglass with plans to cast them in bronze. TOVP will also be a ‘green’ temple by generating electricity from the Ganges, and using LED lights and solar panels.

Figure 3: Devotees designing the blueprint of the main altar, Mayapur, November 2012. 
Photo by author.

The project chairman and the main donor for the temple is Alfred Ford a.k.a Ambarisha Das, a great-grandson of Henry Ford and a Prabhupad initiate. The temple is being constructed in three phases with an estimated total completion cost of U.S. $60 million. Phase one is establishing the location, design, size and most of the superstructure of the temple. Phase two is the basic internal finishing and moving the deities into the new temple. Phase three is the remaining internal finishing and external finishing. About $22.5 million of the total $60 million cost has been collected so far and one square foot of the temple area can be funded for $150. [iv]

4. Jirat pandal
Although incomplete, the TOVP has filtered into the local imagination. The general consensus of the other Gaudiya Vaishnava temples around Iskcon is that the new temple is a positive development for the area. The predominant view of local businesses – including those in the neighbouring town of Navadwip – is that Iskcon devotees are foreigners with money, and that the TOVP project will lead to economic development since more devotees will travel from abroad to Mayapur to visit the temple. To indicate another dimension of the influence of the TOVP, I will describe the Durga Puja pavilion or pandal that was built in October 2012 in the town of Jirat about two hours drive from Mayapur. As anybody who has visited Kolkata during Durga Puja knows, the pandals are competitive with each neighbourhood trying to outdo the other to come up with something new. The Durga Puja festival is the biggest Hindu festival celebrated throughout the state of West Bengal and marks the victory of Goddess Durga over the evil buffalo demon Mahishasura thus epitomising the victory of good over evil. Nowadays, corporate sponsors are also involved and both money and prestige are at stake when innovating new themes and designs.

Figure 4: Club members in front of the Durga Puja pandal inspired by the TOVP, Jirat, October 2012. Photo by author.

While the Durga Puja pandals in the town of Jirat are not as big or as flashy as the ones in Kolkata, the club members were still anxious to win the competition. Based on the suggestion of an elderly member who was also an Iskcon devotee, the Jirat club decided to use the TOVP as their theme. The cloth and bamboo façade of the pandal was built over four months and was based on computer graphics of the TOVP while the interior creatively used elements from the existing Prabhupada Pushpa Samadhi [v] or memorial in Mayapur. Inspired by visits to the memorial and the internet, a club member spent three weeks replicating the mosaic design from the ceiling of the Samadhi that featured scenes from Prabhupad’s life. Painted clay figures of pale-skinned celibate initiates or brahmacharis playing musical instruments were stationed around the room and referenced the golden statues that adorned the roof of the Samadhi.

The Jirat club made the inspired decision of inviting a well-known Iskcon preacher and his team of brahmacharis for the inauguration. The group conducted a rousing sankirtan program, dancing and singing through the town and then cut the inaugural ribbon. The pandal attracted visitors with its unusual theme and external visual elements such as a fountain, a statue of Prabhupad and Gaur-Nitai, [vi] refreshment stalls, lighting etc. Inside the pandal, visitors paid their respects before the deities of Durga and her family and then transferred their attention to the colourful ceiling. The deities too formed part of the Iskcon theme since a hastily painted and adorned clay figure of Krishna as a child was seated in the front of the altar.

Despite the claim made by the club that all the members were Vaishnavas, the overall message was neither inspired by Iskcon nor by Vaishnavism. Instead, I suggest, it emphasised the need to create something new and attractive in order to win the competition. This perspective was reinforced by my observations of the altar. Comparing it to a Durga Puja altar in an old Vaishnava house in North Kolkata – one similar to kind that Prabhupad may have grown up in – I noted that the Jirat altar lacked any attempt at syncretism or synthesis. Whereas the Vaishnava altar in Kolkata celebrated Durga in a suitably domesticated form through the commemoration of her homecoming, the Jirat altar portrayed her in the popular enraged form of killing the demon Mahishasura and celebrated her as a Shakta Goddess or feminine force. The Vaishnava altar subsumed Durga within the role of consort, seated on her husband Shiva’s lap surrounded by their progeny and made it a form that would suit the ethos of the Vaishnava devotee. The Jirat altar instead catered to a different audience and showcased Durga’s physical and emotional efficacy and strength. Beautifully carved and painted, Durga in all her finery radiated over the vanquished buffalo-demon as a protective force while the presence of Krishna seemed more of an afterthought.

Figure 5: Durga Puja altar with deities, Jirat, October 2012. Photo by author.

The preacher, however, did not seem particularly concerned by this. He reasoned “People are mad for Durga Puja. They have to do something new and here puja means big competition. This time they have taken this. Maybe next time they will do according to Ramakrishna Mission.” This was nevertheless a good opportunity for proselytising and quoting from scripture. With extensive experience as a Nama Hatta (literally market place of the holy name in Bengali) preacher in West Bengal [vii] he knew how to energise the crowds and “catch the momentum”. In his talk, he imaginatively (re)presented Durga as Krishna’s “supreme devotee” and called upon the crowd to be ‘Krishna Conscious’ just like her. Mantras were chanted, bhajans or religious songs were sung and about one thousand five hundred people viewed the pandal that day. In the end, the Iskcon devotees left satisfied that they had conducted an energetic preaching session and the Jirat club later won the prize for the best pandal.

5. Where ‘East’ meets ‘West’
Since Iskcon is in the unique position of being a Hindu sect that is headquartered in India but was revitalised in the West, the TOVP is often presented as a building where East ‘meets’ West. But how does this meeting, or rather mediation, take place? It is the residents who live in and around the Iskcon campus who will be immediately affected by the construction of the temple and as we have seen in Jirat, the temple has already captured the imagination of nearby towns. But the rhetoric and style of the TOVP project targets an audience that is primarily outside India. This applies to the way architectural elements are selected and combined. Although labelled a “mixture of traditional Indian and (Western) Classical architecture” [viii] there is little about the temple’s style that is drawn from India. Without the dome the TOVP is an anonymous structure and as one devotee stated “a corporate building that resembles a car-park.” Referring to the crowds of up to 50,000 pilgrims during festival seasons, another devotee suggested that it would have been better to base the design on South Indian temples such as the famous Ranganatha Swamy temple in Srirangam, Tamil Nadu. People could enter, take darshan and exit easily. Invoking the fundamental purpose of a Hindu temple, she questioned how devotees on the upper museum floors would be able to see the murtis or deity images when the temple was packed. Indeed, as a combined shrine, planetarium, museum and congregational space, the TOVP has a highly ambitious, multi-purpose design.

My pressing the devotees at the TOVP about the stylistic issue revealed their ambivalence about being too overtly ‘Indian’. While the official view is that the temple is a mixture of ‘East’ and ‘West’, one devotee who oversaw the designing stated bluntly that they didn’t have to incorporate Indian elements since Indians were not interested when they started the movement. He reminded me in an excited tone that it was an “international society” with the design more reminiscent of the Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. than anything else. Whereas Capitol Hill was a symbol of material emancipation from slavery, the TOVP would serve as a symbol of “spiritual emancipation”. Another senior devotee framed this lack of reference to traditional temple architecture in terms of a modernity that is dedicated to Krishna. “By doing something traditional like Akshardham (the Swaminarayan temple in Delhi) you can create a whole city where you are transported back in time and can imagine yourself thousands of years ago. But if you are sending people back in time and its not connected with Krishna then what’s the value? What you want is for people to experience the culture that they can take back with them. If you make it too old world they are not going to take back anything with them.”

The goals of the TOVP are didactic – to re-establish Vedic culture and convince Western scientists and devotees of the validity of a theistic model of the universe. The descriptions of the TOVP on their website and in brochures present these goals as rather straightforward accomplishments but further exploration reveals some contradictions and tensions. I will describe briefly two examples – one being internal concerns about the TOVP’s Vedic cosmological model and the second, the application of Vastu Shastra or traditional Hindu architectural principles where directional alignment can affect the nature of a building and its inhabitants.

Can the cosmological model of the planetarium actually fulfil the mandate of challenging what devotees characterise as “the atheistic, mechanical worldview” prevalent in the West? There is a difference of opinion between those who believe that their task is merely to fulfil Prabhupad’s vision without question and the Vastu specialist who think that the Vedic description of the universe in the 5th Canto of the “Srimad Bhagavatam” scripture has gaps. According to the specialist who was on the committee to choose the cosmic model, the TOVP is just a planetarium with a model, and examples of such planetariums can be found anywhere. It is “not convincing of anything to anyone” he says. It is important to note that his concern is not about the merits of a debate between Western and Vedic science but about a lack of information that would make the Vedic model internally coherent.

A young devotee inadvertently questioned the proselytizing capability of the project when he suggested that one should be “fixed in one’s faith” and then learn about the cosmic model. Being told that the sun goes around the earth or that the universe is flat may shake a person’s belief in the infallibility of scripture. However, this logic of ‘preaching to the choir’ completely defeated the purpose of the TOVP which was to attract and missionise by providing an alternate, compelling view of a universe created and managed by God.

Since the TOVP was to my mind a Hindu temple, I also assumed that Vastu principles would be important to the architects who planned the temple. But the responses to my questions about Vastu were ambivalent. A senior devotee who is one of the key administrators was emphatic that the temple was built according to Vastu principles and that they had consulted an eminent Vastu specialist from within Iskcon. The latter confirmed that the TOVP design started out at a disadvantage and was limited by the size of the plot of land and the scale of the temple. The temple and its deities face South and not the preferred direction of East – a directional compromise dictated by the lay of the land and a priority of the scenic and monumental over any concerns for auspiciousness. Another devotee-administrator who knew Prabhupad flatly denied any consideration of Vastu. He claimed that Prabhupad never once mentioned Vastu in his vision for the temple and even joked about his astrology chart while he was seriously ill. He believed that although astrology was an important material science nobody was qualified to interpret it. The devotee concluded that the reason for this interest in Vastu is because Iskcon has expanded in India and that these kinds of things are important for Indian devotees. Based on these observations, I characterise this ambivalence as a symptom of choice born out of revivalism of what is termed ‘Vedic knowledge’ in Iskcon; and present its negotiated application to the TOVP as a dimension of Iskcon’s growth in India.

6. Conclusion
I have so far explored the TOVP as ‘monument’ and ‘mission’, i.e. its influence as a visualised, materialised structure that houses the deities as well as its role in preaching and attracting devotees to ‘Krishna Consciousness’.  I end by referencing it as a ‘memorial’. By combining elements from the Prabhupad Pushpa Samadhi and the TOVP in their Durga Puja pandal, the Jirat club created a completely new design that drew upon the temple’s importance as a memorial to Prabhupad. Devotees speak of TOVP as a testament to the determination of Iskcon’s founder Prabhupada who recorded his vision for the temple in great detail. As many senior Iskcon devotees expressed, their “association” with Prabhupada was their greatest gift. They emphasised how the TOVP project went through many designs and was quagmired because of land issues in communist West Bengal. It finally came to pass only when they returned to Prabhupad’s vision for the temple thus indicating a form of divine intervention and prediction fulfilment. In a publicity video, Ambarisha Das mentions dreams of Prabhupad that encouraged him to go on with the project. [ix] Senior devotees recall Prabhupad’s words and gestures when he was living in Mayapur in the humble bhajan kutir (bhajan hut) and how they chose to retain this hut so that it could someday be contrasted with the monumental TOVP. This would serve as a physical reminder of what they were and what they have become.

The senior devotees administering the TOVP program are aging and want this to be completed during their lifetime. There is a sense of urgency behind the project. On the other hand, young residents of Mayapur question this urgency and ask why the seniors are in such a hurry to build this temple. “Whatever happened to the belief that we are not our bodies?” asked one young woman, invoking the primacy of the soul and the de-materialising logic of spirituality in Iskcon. Some expressed doubts about the appearance of the temple. Others had concerns about the accommodation and considered the capacity of “ten thousand standing” too small to justify the expense of the temple. Despite these reservations and the need for a huge fundraising drive, vigorous construction continues on the temple and it is a local tourist attraction.

For somebody who reads about Iskcon’s transcendental goals, all of this activity is in seeming contrast to the anti-materialism of ‘Krishna Consciousness’. Yet, it operates within Iskcon’s missionising and universalising paradigm and the need to attract and impress new devotees, and spread the faith. The goal is to create a centre for Gaudiya Vaishnavism comparable to Mecca and the Vatican that will proclaim the greatness of Krishna as the “Supreme Personality of Godhead”. But has the Jirat Club taken back anything more philosophically inspired than a computer rendering? And to what extent will the ‘hi-tech’ planetarium convince a non-devotee of the validity of the scriptures? Most importantly, will Iskcon succeed in creating a ‘wondrous’ structure that truly represents its international identity and what kind of negotiations will it involve? We may have to wait till 2016 to find out. [x]

Notes and References

[i] The term Vaishnava refers to those who exclusively worship the God Vishnu or Narayan in some form, for example, his incarnation as Krishna. The term Gaudiya refers to the region of Bengal.

[iii] Gosvami, Sanatan, translated by Gopiparanadhana Dasa, “Brihad Bhagavatamritam”, BBT, 2002.

[iv] Iskcon News,,3211/ Subsequently, the cost of the project has increased to about U.S. $90 million.

[v] This lotus shaped building contains the flowers from Prabhupad’s body before it was interred. As a Vaishnava acharya or teacher, his body and the associated objects are considered sacred.

[vi] Chaitanya is also called Gauranga or Gaur and his brother is called Nitai. They are often worshipped together in Iskcon temples and are considered an incarnation of Krishna and his brother Balaram.

[vii] There are approximately 2,000 Nama Hattas or preaching centres in West Bengal with a total membership of 100,000.

[viii] TOVP, “Temple of the Vedic Planetarium: Naming Opportunities and Donor Recognition Program, Prophecy to Reality”, TOVP, 2012.

[ix] TOVP Video,

[x] The date of completion has subsequently been moved to 2022 or later depending on construction and funding.


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