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All day, every day, the 16 Sanskrit words of the maha mantra, or “great mantra,” rise over New Vrindaban, a would-be farm and religious haven perched atop the hills in West Virginia’s northern panhandle, just south of Wheeling. About two-dozen people live in the temple, and a handful of others live in cabins, apartments and a few small homes on the fringes of the 1,500-acre property, vassals to the temple’s lord.

The Hare Krishna movement, now officially the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, is built around the 16-word maha mantra. Popularized about 500 years ago in India, the movement reveres it as the mantra best suited to bring Hindus closer to God through chanting and contemplation. Indian guru Prabhupada brought the mantra to the Western world in the 1960s when, on the advice of his own guru in Calcutta, he rode a freighter to the United States and landed, penniless, on New York’s Lower East Side. His solitary chanting of the maha mantra in Tompkins Square Park ignited a massive following. George Harrison sung about the movement, temples sprung up nationwide and Hare Krishna followers, clad in their iconic orange and white robes, became ubiquitous sights in airports passing out copies of Prabhupada’s translation of the Hindu holy book, the Bhagavad-Gita.

In 1968, a group of Hare Krishna followers led by Prabhupada’s disciple Kirtananda founded the New Vrindaban community. They dreamed of a life emulating the sustainable and cow-friendly lifestyle of ancient India and a beacon for Westerners seeking Hare Krishna. It swelled, reaching its zenith in the early 1980s when about 700 people lived on the grounds. But the mood grew sour as many doubted Kirtananda’s heavy-handed leadership, controversial plans for the community, and a string of scandals divided that divided residents. The International Society for Krishna Consciousness expelled New Vrindaban from the worldwide movement in 1987. Eventually, Kirtananda and his supporters left, and in 1998 the worldwide Hare Krishna movement readmitted New Vrindaban. A small group of ardent followers remains, and they hope to turn the community from a shrunken hulk of its former self and into the model of Hindu living that Prabhupada had originally envisioned.

Several likeness of Prahupada, the founder of the Hare Krishna movment in the West, are scattered throughout New Vrindaban, including this one in the Palace of Gold.
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all content copyright Rob Hardin and Eric Hornbeck 2008