Hare Krishna Temple, Laguna Beach
aka International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) Laguna Beach
By Carisa Carlton
The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) Laguna Beach temple sits two blocks from the ocean in a 1930’s beach cottage neighborhood situated in the heart of an international tourist enclave. The temple itself is a converted two-storey former Baptist church (ISKCON) with vaulted ceilings and etched cathedral-like windows. Mature trees and abundant native flowers line Legion Street leading to the temple’s quaint entry. True to Asian customs, shoes must be removed before entering the temple.
The temple is locally known as the Hare Krishna Temple; and the humble organization is widely regarded as a syncretic fusion of Hindu rituals and liberal hippy values (67% of Laguna Beach residents voted Democrat in the 2016 presidential election compared to 50.9% Democratic votes countywide (California Secretary of State)). While the Laguna Beach community largely accepts of the Hare Krishnas, tension between the temple and their immediate neighbors stifles the temple’s expansion as locals complain about limited parking and congested traffic during ceremonies and festivities. In their last three published income and expense statements, the Hare Krishna temple reported a negative net income; however, their I&E’s do not reflect assets (ISKCON).
When I arrived on Sunday evening of the 2017 Vashant Navaratri, a nine-night spring worship of the Mother Goddess, a grandmotherly figure sat on a teak and velvet throne in the open foyer with a microphone. Covered in a white robe and a sheer violet scarf, she spoke in a soft, even tone as if she was telling a children’s bedtime story. She explained to a small crowd seated on the checkered marble floor, “We reveal our actual character by our manner of speech.” Life, she said, is the result of the sounds we make. Glorifying oneself while criticizing others is a subtle way of praising oneself. Talking about our own glories “is like trying to enjoy a prostitute.” This entanglement in karma is “like urine trickling off a big donkey: There is no peace or joy.” When there is a disconnect between what we say and what we do, we have the wrong motivations…we are our own destroyers. It’s like “hiring your own thieves to drag you around.”
She said Krishna is love. We must act on the truth. Become a jewel of loving service. Seek honor for being pure, for radiating purity. Serve the saints instead of seeking recognition from others. When you are loving, serving, and giving, you feel satisfied and you won’t seek recognition from the world. You are like a secret agent serving your country. Materialism is an impediment to your spiritual path. You are a good person and you can change your identity. Drink nectar from the supreme lord by worshiping, glorifying, meditating, hearing the divine, and offering respect.
She spoke highly of her achievements in giving money away. She said she was asked by a wealthy patron to manage a large sum of money for gifting to the needly.
When she offered to answer audience questions, I asked her how Hare Krishna teachings handle domestic violence in patriarchal societies. “What advice do you provide to women who are oppressed by their husband’s controlling behavior or violence?” She stalled, looked away, and then asked me, “You mean practical advice like call the police?”
“No, maam. I mean spiritual advice. What does Hare Krishna teach about domestic violence against women?”
One must connect with oneself, she explained, but one does not have to accept ill-treatment. Entitlement leads to conflict. No one is going to get what they need with entitled attitudes. Be grateful you can be a conduit for humility, she said. I was hoping for something more substantial, but admittedly, she had not prepared for my left-field question.
When she finished speaking, I approached her and introduced myself. I told her I was writing an academic paper and I would like to know more about her. She was pleasantly avoidant typical of California’s pretentious non-confrontation culture. When I asked her where she was from, for example, she stuttered and hesitated. I wondered if she understood my question, so I asked her again, “Are you from here?” She said her son is local but she is international. Then she quickly turned away and pointed me to her $5 book displayed on the other side of the foyer. As a Krishna devotee, she calls herself Urmila Devi Dasi. In public, however, her name is Edith Best. She authored a self-published book titled “The Great Mantra for Mystic Modification.”
Ms. Best claims she has a Bachelor of Science degree in religion and education from distance education school, Excelsior College (Dasi). Excelsior College offers neither a religion or education degree program (Excelsior). If they did, the degree would be a bachelor of arts, not science, or a Bachelor of Education (B.Ed.). She also claims she has a PhD in Educational Leadership from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Given the suspect nature of her bachelor’s degree, I attempted to verify her PhD through National Student Clearinghouse, but they were “unable to verify a degree for this individual.” Three months ago, I wrote to Ms. Best and I offered her the opportunity to clarify her educational background. As of this writing, she has not responded.
Given the success of a brainwashing lawsuit against the organization (Berkman), Hare Krishna would be better served by more rigorous screenings. Her education is not a prerequisite to teaching Hare Krishna dogma, but truth should be: “A people’s ethos is the tone, character, and quality of their life, its moral and aesthetic style and mood; it is the underlying attitude toward themselves and their world that life reflects” (Moro 71).
“ISKCON Laguna Beach has the only Pancha Tattva Deities in the Continental US.” (ISKCON) The five goddesses are displayed on a wooden altar draped in turquoise saris with offerings of oranges, bananas and green apple offerings at their feet. (This wooden altar was formerly the baptism tub for the Baptist church (ISKCON).) President Tukaram (Tuka) dasa admitted the Pancha Tattva are as difficult to define as why Jesus died on the cross, but the simplest explanation is that this temple was designated to receive these deities because they were in Hawaii and since Laguna Beach is like Hawaii, devotees decided to provide a second set of these deities to the Laguna Beach temple. The deities represent God in his most merciful, generous, accommodating form, explained Tuka, and the five deities were sculpted in Los Angeles on commission specifically for the Laguna Beach temple. While the goddesses appear female in form, Tuka referred to them as male.
The olive-green walls are adorned with iconographic paintings of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and Radha-Krishna (ISKCON). Tuka said the paintings are depictions of sacred actions between God and mankind from the 406 year old Bengali religious text, Charitamrita. A statue of Hare Krishna sits under a tasseled umbrella on a carved wooden chair.
Some guests painted red bindis between their brows to signify marriage and devotion. Representing the power of holiness, others painted vertical white lines on their foreheads and noses. Symbolic of grace, many women were draped in vibrant saris.
Most rituals involve “repetition, formality, reliance upon symbols, and the capacity to intensify bonds within a community” (Moro 86) and perhaps no organization demonstrates that more carefully than the Hare Krishnas in Sunday night worship. Immediately following Ms. Dasi’s presentation, drums began to beat and tambourines started clinking. The barefooted, ornately robed guests stood facing the five goddesses of truth with their arms raised in praise. In unison, they chanted softly, harre ho, harre ho.
More guests shuffled onto the checkered maroon and beige tiles. They swayed from side to side collectively. The drum beat and tambourine clinks energized the small room with increasing tempo much like the North Malukan dance of ritual and war (Bubandt 98). As the chants grew louder, dancers exhibited less inhibition. Long, flowing skirts swept across the floor to the beat of the increasingly loud drums. Nothing of their practice or behavior led me to conclude that they were in states of trance, nor did they flail themselves like the spontaneous Pentecost serpent handlers (Moro 81).
A robed man politely squeezed through the crowd of about 200 with a brass tray of flaming candles and smoldering incense. Worshippers approached and held their hands over the flames then lifted the warmth to their nose and lips. Others tossed dollars onto the tray. The old man shuffled around the room a few more times so everyone could experience the light. Off to the side, devotees prepared to serve the homemade evening meal.
Hare Krishna chants blared through the concert size speakers hanging from the walls…
Hare Krishna Hare Krishna
Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hara Rama
Rama Rama Hare Hare
Around came a sarong clad old man tossing water from a vintage Indian brass watch pitcher onto dancing guests. Tambourines rang even louder now and heavy incense smoke rose to meet the orbs of light suspended from the ceiling. As the natural light faded behind neighboring cottages, worshipers kneeled on the floor and bowed to the Gods. The chanting quieted as the folding wood doors were closed to conceal the five godesses of truth.
Rupa, the vice president of the temple, announced birthdays and upcoming events as guests sat yogi-style back-to-back in orderly rows on the floor. Guests waited patiently as a man with white dots between his forehead handed out paper plates and cups. Volunteer servers dished-out creamy vegetable curry, crispy vegetable rolls, and luscious tomato and cardamom bisque. Yamini, a devotee, directed others to serve me the evening meal. Though I had intended to remain an observer, I couldn’t resist my cravings.
As a Chinese woman spoke to me about converting to Hare Krishna Hinduism because of its “scientific teachings,” other women showered me with stringed pink, white, and yellow carnations. Donning the flowers as a crown, I discretely dashed out of the temple to watch John Oliver on HBO’s Last Week Tonight with friends.
Berkman, Leslie. “Ruling Relieves Hare Krishnas : Religion: Court-Ordered Retrial in ‘Brainwashing’ Case and Cap on Punitive Damages Stave off Immediate Need to Sell Laguna Beach Temple.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 1 Feb. 1992, articles.latimes.com/1992-02-01/local/me-1066_1_hare-krishna-members. Accessed 10 Apr. 2017.
Bubandt, Nils. The Empty Seashell: Witchcraft and Doubt on an Indonesian Island. Singapore, NUS Press, 2015.
“Statement of Vote – November 8, 2016, General Election.” California Secretary of State, California Secretary of State, www.sos.ca.gov/. Accessed 12 Apr. 2017.
Dasi, Urmila Devi. “Biography for Urmila Devi Dasi (Dr. Edith Best).” Urmila Devi Dasi, urmiladevidasi.org/urmila-devi-dasi-biography/. Accessed 11 Apr. 2017.
“All Programs.” Excelsior College | All Programs, Excelsior College, www.excelsior.edu/programs/all-programs. Accessed 9 Apr. 2017.
“Temple.” Temple | ISKCON Laguna Beach Temple, ISKCON Laguna Beach Temple, iskcon.lagunatemple.org/page/578/Temple. Accessed 10 Apr. 2017.
Moro, Pamela. Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion: an Anthropological Study of the Supernatural. Boston, McGraw Hill, 2008.