Hare Rama, Diorama

Los Angeles Times Magazine/July 8, 2001
By Al Ridenour

Courtesy of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, a "mystical multimedia experience" has joined Sea World and Knott's Berry Farm on the list of Southern California's tourist attractions. The Bhagavad-gita Museum at the group's West L.A. center gives Hare Krishna beliefs the Madame Tussaud treatment with a guided tour of 12 tableaux dramatizing spiritual concepts and episodes from the Bhagavad-gita, a sacred text for mainstream Hinduism and the offshoot Krishna religion.

To sonorous narration and ethereal music, about 200 luxuriantly costumed, nearly life-size painted clay figures enact cosmic dramas such as reincarnation, wherein twinkly diode "souls" light up in sequence between figures of an old man, a spooky corpse and a pulsating pink fetus. The most elaborate tableau depicts the Lord Krishna's expansion from human to universal form, accompanied by animated projections recalling the light shows popular during the Hare Krishna movement's heyday in the 1960s and '70s. The display, which opened to the public June 6, is just the latest avatar of a far older practice, says temple president Emil Beca (Svavasa das to fellow devotees). "Where [movement founder] Srila Prabhupada grew up in India, they would have traveling museums visiting the villages displaying what he called 'dolls.'

So he thought, 'Why not tell our story the same way here?' " During the '70s, disciples trained in Mayapur, India created figures in a centuries-old style using bamboo, straw and unfired clay. An earlier incarnation of the museum opened in 1977, but was plagued by computer glitches and maintenance problems.

Dogged by scandal and declining membership during the '80s and '90s, ISKCON has attempted to show the public a kinder, gentler Krishna ministry through efforts such as the revamped museum. Museum director Chris McNay (Purusottama dasa) says that visitors can enjoy the museum without feeling proselytized--and an adjacent gift shop and vegetarian buffet offer worldly amenities to go with the cosmic dimension.

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