Golden Arches would seem to fit in better than Hindu arches next to the driving shops on lower Grand Avenue, and Hare Krishna devotees in white and saffron robes somehow look misplaced strolling along the seawall. But both sights should become increasingly common ones for residents of Pacific beach, where the Krishnas have settled into a new temple home.
Local leaders of the Indian religious organization say the move reflects growth which has come despite years of negative publicity over alleged Krishna “brainwashing” and belligerent soliciting. When a handful of Los Angeles members of the sect started the San Diego branch about seven years ago (just a few years after A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the Krishna “grand master,” brought his teaching to the United States), those individuals settled down on Third Avenue in Hillcrest, a neighborhood bulging with spiritual development groups. But although the Krishnas were not out of place, the site proved less than utopia; members first distressed neighbors by nocturnal ceremonial bell-ringing (they finally appeased complaints by sound proofing their building). Far more troublesome, the third avenue house only could accommodate about fifteen devotees, and nearby apartments were scarce, thus preventing the committed followers from living close to one another, as the religion prescribes. Furthermore, while Sunday services were drawing up to 200 congregation members, the old structure only could hold about seventy-five. So a few years ago Krishna leaders began house-hunting but met with resistance from potential neighbors. Finally they found the Grand Avenue site and moved into it about six months ago.
The transformation there has progressed to the point that the building looks new, even though it dates back to the 1800s and at different times it housed a factory and an Elks Club. Devotees still haven’t completed the extensive renovation, but the central temple room, an enormous hall, glitters with the members’ labor. A fountain splashes at the foot of an ornate altar. Red, Blue, and magenta festoons embroidered with gold hang from the ceiling edges, sculptured Hindu arches adorn the walls, and four crystal chandeliers punctuate the huge space overhead. “This is just what you see if you visited a temple in India,” temple leader Gunagrahi Das Explains proudly.
He says the new location won’t change the devotees’ monastic daily schedule. Men, for example, rise at 2:30 a.m., devote two hours to private meditation and devotion, then sing and chant for a half hour, study classical Indian literature for an hour, meditate and go through another ceremony, and at about 7:30 they eat the first meal of the day and prepare to go out to various assignments (working on the temple, distributing food, chanting “hare Krishna” on the streets soliciting). The evening brings more classes, ceremonies, and chanting, and finally sleep about eight p.m. Gunagrahi, an affable former drummer from New York, says devotee preaching patterns may shift somewhat away from traditional Krishna hunting grounds such as Balboa Park and Horton Plaza and move toward the beaches. The beach area is “a lot more vibrant,” he judges already. “People seem to be more tolerant and a lot more people are coming,” he says.
The new temple also reflects another subtle change in the Krishna orientation. Eschewing the terms Hare Krishna and “temple” altogether, members are calling the Pacific Beach building the Radha Govinda Center of Meditation and Transcending Arts. In line with the concept of blending in with the community, they’re planning activities such as classes in vegetarian cooking, and classical Indian painting and dancing. Gunagrahi says the name shift presents no theological problems, since Indian culture and religion are interchangeable and it avoids a public relations dilemma, “If you say ‘temple,’ people don’t really know what’s going on there. We’ve had that experience before. People think we’re Jewish, or they’re afraid to come in.”