Mormons help Hindus build; Hare Krishna temple in rural Utah a labor of love, mutual respect

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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SPANISH FORK, Utah – For television viewers around the world, there’s no sight more associated with Utah than the spires of the Salt Lake Temple, spiritual headquarters of the Mormon faith.

But an hour south, atop a hill and down a country road, sits an altogether different temple. The onion domes, the epic murals and the marble Hindu deities make this Hare Krishna temple look like it belongs in Calcutta, not rural Utah.

The connection between the two isn’t just geographic. Mormons helped build the Hare Krishna temple, too.

“If you’re fortunate enough to associate with saintly people, no matter their religion, you’re enriched by that,” said Caru Das, the Hare Krishna temple’s leader. “The Mormons have just been wonderful people to get to know.”

Hundreds of Mormons have spent thousands of volunteer hours helping build the Sri Sri Radha Krishna Temple, and a foundation associated with the church helped fund it. It’s a perhaps unexpected interfaith effort, but one that leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints fits perfectly with their philosophy.

“We have for a long time tried to be on good terms with all the churches where our people are located,” said H. David Burton, the faith’s presiding bishop. “We like to outreach to our colleagues. We rather pride ourselves in it.”

The Spanish Fork Hare Krishna community started in 1982, when Caru Das, then a leader in a Los Angeles temple, raised funds to buy a small AM radio station here. The station soon began broadcasting Krishna philosophy to the surrounding area, which is almost completely Mormon.

At first, much of the community wasn’t sure what to make of their new neighbors.

“When we first bought the station, I went to the city manager of Spanish Fork to tell him we didn’t have any intention of rocking the boat,” Das said. “We’re not going to be going to the supermarket in our robes and shaved heads and try to convert people. We’re gonna wear jeans like everyone else. He just sat there: ‘Hmm. Hmm. Hmm.’ He was very noncommittal.”

But over time, the locals got used to hearing the broadcasts. Das and his wife, Vaibhavi Devi, opened a llama farm that became a popular attraction for school groups. They started holding festivals that would draw thousands from the area, the vast majority of them Mormon. “After six or seven years of not even getting a speeding ticket, the reservations were gradually put aside,” Das said. “We’re pretty much integral to the community now.”

For years, Das and Devi had dreamed of building a major temple. In the mid 1990s, they started raising funds for one, which they imagined would cost up to $1 million to build: 17 ornamented domes, black teakwood doors and marble floors.

When Stanley Green, president of the local LDS stake, first heard about the Hare Krishnas’ need for funds, he went for a visit. “I found them to be wonderful people who, in their wildest dreams, could never afford to build what they wanted to,” he said. “Their congregation was just too small.” There are only about 2,000 Hindus in Utah.

Dr. Green’s successful visit was a major factor in the church’s philanthropic foundation giving $25,000 to the temple project in 1999.

In many ways, Mormons and Hare Krishnas make a good match. Both faiths proscribe drugs, alcohol, gambling, promiscuity, caffeine, tea and cigarettes. “We’re pretty white bread in our own way,” Das said. “They don’t have any moral quibbles with us.” (They do disagree on vegetarianism, although Das points to some writings of LDS founder Joseph Smith that limit meat consumption.)

But beyond the financial contribution, the church rallied its members to volunteer to help build the Hare Krishna temple. Hundreds showed up on weekend after weekend, waterproofing decks, scraping paint, cutting down thistles in the amphitheater.

“We just asked what we could do,” said Eric Weight, a Mormon who works in construction. “I’d actually never met them before I went down there. You find out they’re not that much different than we are. They’re children of the Heavenly Father, too.”

“They probably gave us 3,000 hours of volunteer time,” Das said. “In monetary terms, that’s enormous, and of course there were benefits far beyond money.”

Barriers of suspicion, already weakened by the two decades Hare Krishnas had been in Spanish Fork, came tumbling down. Neither side has shown most interest in converting the other, although both have reputations for aggressive proselytizing. About half of the attendants at most Hare Krishna services are curious Mormons, Das said. A number of Mormons even adopted some of the temple llamas, Dr. Green said.

“We’ve learned from them, and I hope they’ve learned from us,” he said.