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Growing Hare Krishna congregation to open $3.6 million temple in Baltimore County

An estimated 2,000 people from around the world will be on hand this weekend as New Kulina Bram Dam, also known as ISKCON of Baltimore, spends three days celebrating the opening of its brand-new sanctuary, a $3.6 million, three-story, 12,000-square-foot temple designed to accommodate a thousand worshippers.

The guru who founded the international Hare Krishna movement, Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, said a worship space should be roomy and comfortable enough to make it a joy to share divine truth.

By that standard, the New Kulina Gram Dham congregation in Catonsville was falling short four years ago.

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A surge in membership had left worshipers spilling into the street. The old house they used as a temple was crumbling.

And its kitchen was so small they could never fulfill another important Prabhupada precept: "No one within 10 miles of a temple should go hungry."

"Members began to tell me they were praying we'd get a new temple before they died," congregation president Neeraj Verma says.

Krishna seems to have answered their prayers.

An estimated 2,000 people from around the world are expected this weekend as New Kulina Gram Dham — also known as ISKCON of Baltimore — will spend three days celebrating the opening of a $3.6 million, three-story, 12,000-square-foot temple that will accommodate a thousand worshipers.

The festivities began Friday afternoon, when about 150 devotees removed a lifelike replica of Prabpuhada from the seat it has long occupied in the old temple and carried into the new building. They placed it in a throne-like teak structure that will be its new home.

A statue of Prabhupada, who is considered a divine manifestation of Krishna, is a feature of every Hare Krishna temple. Three robed devotees fanned the figure in its new location atop a set of burgundy pillows as the crowd swayed and sang.

The ceremonial placement was followed by ecstatic chanting, dancing and singing. Later on, a team of priests performed a ritual of spiritual cleansing.

The community was to move five resident deities from the old temple and install them in the new one later in the weekend. Deities are the colorfully painted carved figures that Hare Krishnas believe incarnate various characteristics of Krishna, the supreme god they venerate.

Guests will also have a chance to take part in kitran, ecstatic dancing accompanied by a form of chanting that devotees believe facilitates one's connection to the divine.

The building, designed in a Vedic version of classical Indian architecture, includes a spacious worship hall, a meditation center, expanded space for the community's growing Sunday school program, and a state-of-the-art kitchen in which temple masters will be able to prepare and serve as many as 700 healthy vegetarian meals per hour.

Officials say the kitchen will help the community expand its already busy food-service operation, which has long served six meals per day on site, all of it blessed by priests and offered to the general public free of charge.

It will also allow the congregation to enlarge its food-supply mission to nearby homeless shelters, one of the many acts of kindness Prabhupada envisioned his followers performing without expectation of reward.

"It's not so much [our food service] inside, it's what we do outside," says Steve Szili, the temple's head chef and college outreach director, who became a Hare Krishna in 1972. "In this kitchen I can cook for 800 people without help. Now we can cook for the homeless without killing ourselves."

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The structure is the only one of its kind that ISKCON, the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, plans to open in the United States this year.

It all adds up to a major event in the world of Hare Krishna, a branch of Hinduism that claims hundreds of thousands of adherents worldwide.

Seva Atulya Das, a priest from Mumbai, India, sat on a bench in the gleaming but still not-quite-finished worship hall one day this week, chanting quietly over a set of beads.

Devakinandan Das, a friend and associate from the same city, greeted a visitor in front of the new, hand-carved teak altar that will soon be home to seven deities.

A spiritual master and ISKCON global minister, Devakinandan has taken part in the dedication of dozens of temples around the globe.

He sounded especially pleased with the effort that brought this one into being.

"Baltimore is one of my dearest places outside India," he said. "I was here for the groundbreaking [in 2015]. It is only by the grace of Praphubada that this beautiful temple could be built in such a short time."

Hare Krishnas say their very belief system has just such supernatural power.

Hinduism dates back about five thousand years, to the time when Krishna himself is believed to have taken on human form during the bloody Kurukshetra War in India.

The sacred epic the Mahabharata tells the story of that war, and the Bhagavad Gita — a 700-verse narrative section — introduces us to Krishna, the supreme being, who appears in the story as a great warrior discussing the verities of life with a soldier named Arjuna.

Scholars call the Bhagavad Gita a concise guide to Hindu philosophy, as it introduces the core ideas of the faith: That body and self are temporal; that by following right practice, we can shed our attachment to the imperfect and glimpse the divine; and that in doing so, we fulfill life's purpose, which is to love God.

It wasn't until 4,500 years later that another spiritual leader, Sri Chaitanya of Bengal, established Gaudiya Vaishnavism, a branch of Hinduism that emphasized chanting the many names of god, or Krishna, as a "scientific" means of bridging the mortal and the divine.

After another 450 years, another holy man, Abhay Charan De, was born in Kolkata. Well into adulthood he became an avid student of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, took a vow of renunciation and began writing and teaching.

In 1965, De, then 69 and known as Prabhupada — Sanskrit for "he who has taken shelter at the feet of the lord"— answered what he perceived to be a divine call to travel to America and spread the faith.

Ask any Hare Krishna about the founder, and you'll hear the story of how Prabhupada boarded a cargo ship to New York with $7 in his pocket, survived three heart attacks on the way, and set up shop, alone, in Central Park, where he embarked on a regimen of chanting the Maha mantra, an incantation consisting of three of the supreme being's names: Hare, Krishna and Rama.

Within 10 years, His Divine Grace, as followers call him, had helped found 108 temples, completed a collection of 70 explanatory books, incorporated ISKCON, met and mentored George Harrison of the Beatles, and circled the globe 14 times spreading the Hare Krishna message.

In 1976, Prabhupada was visiting a congregation in Washington when someone showed him pictures of the fledgling Catonsville temple.

Legend has it it he was so impressed by the community's carved deities that he decided to visit the place.

One day this week, Verma, a 44-year-old anesthesiologist, paused while showing a visitor the altar in the old temple.

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"The founder stood on this very spot," the Clarksville man said, pointing to an area near a bookshelf containing the guru's books.

And Verma told a story he has heard from many of the community's older members: that Prabhupada's very presence caused a dozen or so devotees to sing and dance for joy in the living room, then seemed to turn them into a crowd of 100 people.

The community sees the moment as divinely inspired.

"Prabhupada was taking the mission of the previous saints, an old traditional philosophy, and spreading it," says Sai Krishna Rathnam of Ellicott City, a member for the past eight years. "He was the inspiration for this community."

Hare Krishna enjoyed what most consider to have been its heyday in the United States over the following decade and a half, largely because its emphasis on non-aterial pursuits resonated with the values of a Vietnam-era generation already questioning the mores of their parents. Its influence in the years since has waxed and waned.

ISKCON doesn't track membership figures, but the number of temples in the United States has fallen to about 60, a 45 percent drop from its high point.

For a time, New Kulina Gram Dham mirrored the pattern, its membership declining as its original group aged.

By 2010, the congregation was down to about 50 members. Then Vermi became president.

A native of India and nominal Hindu, he discovered Hare Krishna while a medical resident at Harvard.

The men and women who attended a temple near his home seemed to be "happy Americans," people who struck him as radiating a kind of selfless calm.

It was a welcome prospect for a man immersed in the pressure-packed world of medical training.

"They seemed to want to reach out and pull you out of your misery," he says.

Upon moving to Baltimore, the hometown of his wife, Shalini, he immersed himself in Prahubpada's writings and began practicing his teachings, a change he says brought him a peace he had never experienced.

He carried his enthusiasm into his appointment as president, reaching out to members and their friends and kin.

It proved to be good karma — the kind of generous action Krishnas believe reaps positive reaction in the world.

"Treat people with love and affection, stay humble and expect nothing in return, and people simply want to offer their support," he says.

Today the community numbers about 500, a tenfold increase since he started out.

Members dug deep into their pocketbooks to finance the new temple, he says, joining devotees from across the country and around the world.

Amarish Patel, the Hare Krishna builder who led the project, and his crew finished it in 21/2 years.

Soon they'll demolish the 130-year-old house that has served as the temple for 41 years, and replace it with a garden.

As workers hung a last few decorative panels this week, Verma pondered the good he believes the building will do — the people to be fed, the students to be taught, the enlarged capacity to spread constructive karma.

He smiled.

"The sky is the limit," he said.

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