ISKCON Houston Still Positive in the Face of Tough Challenges

By Madhava Smullen on 15 Oct 2010
ISKCON of Houston, Texas has faced major challenges recently in its efforts to introduce a huge new Vedic-style temple to the local community and to the world. Within the span of just a few days, managers announced that they would not be able to complete the temple building at the time planned; then came the shock that the small presiding deities, Radha-Giridhari, had been stolen.

ISKCON HoustonISKCON of Houston, Texas has faced major challenges recently in its efforts to introduce a huge new Vedic-style temple to the local community and to the world. Within the span of just a few days, managers announced that they would not be able to complete the temple building at the time planned; then came the shock that the small presiding deities, Radha-Giridhari, had been stolen.

An estimated 20,000 devotees, congregational members, and well-wishers including local politicians and celebrities were expected for the temple’s grand opening, originally scheduled from Thursday November 4th through Sunday November 7th this year.

The festivities, which were to include the Govardhana Puja and Diwali festivals, with cultural entertainment, a carnival, fire ceremonies, kirtans and special guest speakers, were to be the culmination of forty years of dedication and hard work.

But then on October 4th, just one month before the temple’s opening day, ISKCON Houston announced that it had been canceled.

“Although most of the construction has been completed, and work on the cosmetic elements has started as well, the construction team recently ran into some structural issues that they couldn’t complete in time,” says management team member Manasi Ganga Dasi. “The temple’s domes need special fittings to hold them in place properly, and there are some issues with the structural components that go above the altar.”

The altar itself has also offered a major setback. Carved completely out of teakwood, it arrived from India in separate pieces back in April. But the nine specialized laborers that ISKCON Houston had hired to travel from India to complete the remaining ten per cent of the carving work and to assemble the altar ran into complications with immigration.

“They were finally approved and have just arrived in Houston,” Manasi Ganga says. “But there’s not enough time to complete everything by the date we had previously scheduled, especially with the construction issues.”

As if this wasn’t enough, on Wednesday October 6th, two days after they had announced the cancellation of the grand opening, the community’s small deities, Radha Giridhari, were stolen from the old temple which is still currently used for worship.

“The last arati, or offering, of the day—Sayana arati—happens at 9:00pm, and the priest leaves sometime between 9:30pm and 10:00pm,” Manasi Ganga explains. “The priest for the early morning mangala arati, which is held at 4:30am, arrives at about 3:30am. Between those times, there’s nobody in the temple, as we don’t have residential facilities.”

So the priest, ascending the altar to wake up the deities in the morning, was the first person to notice something wasn’t right. Some items had been moved around, and as he approached each of the deities to pay his respects, he saw that Radha Giridhari were missing.

Still, he didn’t come to the conclusion that they had been stolen immediately. He performed the arati, then called the head priest to ask if the deities had been taken to be painted, the only likely possibility he could think of. They hadn’t.

“Immediately, we called the Houston Police Department, who came over and took a report,” Manasi Ganga says. “Upon closer inspection, we saw that the heavy wrought iron gates guarding the altar where ajar, and the huge lock that held them together was missing—obviously cut open, so they had to have had the proper tools. Also, the door leading from the construction area into the temple room had been tampered with—that was obviously where the thieves had entered.”

The devotees believe that the culprit had to have been somebody who was very familiar with the premises. But they are quick to say that it is all strictly speculation at this stage.

“What we do know is it looked like they attempted to take Gaura Nitai first, but found that they were too tall and heavy and decided to make off with Radha Giridhari—who are about 17 inches tall and weigh about 40 pounds each—instead,” says Manasi Ganga. “They are made from brass, but they are so radiant and effulgent that the thieves probably thought they were made of gold.”

Since the deities are not of a high material value, the police have considered their disappearance a metal theft. They were given pictures of the deities, as well as a description of them, and have alerted all the pawn shops and metal recycling businesses within the city limits.

The devotees themselves have also gathered their own directory of pawn shops, scrap metal businesses, antique shops and more, and are fervently making their way through the huge list and asking the owners to notify them if they see the deities. The temple is also offering a monetary reward to anyone who returns them or provides information leading to their recovery.

Right now, the devotees are not even willing to think about the possibility that they may not return.

“The community is extremely sad—when we all gathered together on Thursday, the day after the theft, to hold a prayer kirtan, some devotees were crying,” Manasi Ganga says. “Radha Giridhari were given to one of the devotees by the late ISKCON Houston leader Tamal Krishna Goswami, and have been with us for seventeen years. So we are very attached to them. We have placed a nice picture of them on the altar where they used to reside, and we’re still worshipping them and making garlands for them. Every evening, we hold a kirtan from 7pm to 8pm, praying that they will see how much we are lamenting being separated from them, and will come back to us.”

Standing bravely in the face of adversity, the ISKCON Houston devotees are trying to see everything in a positive light, as a blessing from the Lord.

“Our hope is that this is just Krishna’s pastime to spread his glories all over Houston,” says Manasi Ganga. “The local ABC affiliate did a more than three-minute spot for the six o’clock evening news, with many shots of our big deities, Sri Sri Radha Nila Madhava, as well as Gaura Nitai, Giriraj, and of course the picture of Radha Giridhari. And the major Spanish network station Univision featured us as their second lead-in story for the 10 o’clock evening news. So many thousands of Houstonians got to take Darshan of the Lord.”

When Houston devotees wrote to ISKCON guru Keshava Bharati Goswami, telling him of their loss and other challenges, he wrote back with encouragement. Srila Prabhupada also had many setbacks when establishing his major temples in Vrindavana and Bombay, he said. But he always responded with positive action. The opening of a new temple is a blow to this dark age of Kali, which tries to respond—so such setbacks mean we’re doing something right, not something wrong.

“The community and congregation should come together and continue to stay focused on opening the temple,” Keshava Bharati said.

And so that is exactly what ISKCON Houston is doing. They have apologized to devotees who have already bought plane tickets to travel from afar to the canceled temple opening, and everyone has been very understanding.

They will still hold a grand festival over the long weekend from Friday November 5th through Sunday November 7th for Diwali and especially Govardhana Puja, as they have the biggest Sila, or representation of the sacred Hill, in North America. One thousand people are expected to attend, while devotees from out of town who already bought their ticket to the temple opening will be taken on a special tour of the under-construction temple.

“Our huge pujari room—for taking care of the deities—is already 90% complete, as are our deity kitchen, small prasadam food hall, guest rooms, and offices,” says Manasi Ganga. “The stucco work on the exterior of the building has also commenced.”

When completed, the new temple—which construction started on in 2004—will cover 24,000 square feet, and its central dome will stand 72-feet high.

The property will feature a vegetarian restaurant called Holy Cow, a gift shop, three guest rooms and two ashram rooms, an audio / visual library, three administrative offices with a reception area, a deity kitchen, a prasadam area, a shower facility for priests coming to serve straight from their day jobs, a new house for the sacred Tulasi plant, a memorial room for Tamal Krishna Goswami, and a multi-storey parking garage.

The temple’s worship room will be divided into two sections to accommodate small or large crowds, depending on the festival or event. And on its altar will stand Giriraj Govardhan, Sri Sri Gaura Nitai, the life-size Sri Sri Radha Nila-Madhava—the largest Radha Krishna Deities in the US—and, hopefully, Sri Sri Radha Giridhari.

“Construction is continuing, and the temple will definitely open with a wonderful festival sometime in 2011, although an exact date has not been set yet,” Manasi Ganga says. “In the end, we feel it will work out for the best—for instance, our North American GBC and some sannyasis would not have been able to attend because of their Mumbai meetings over the first week of November. But the recent setbacks will free them up to plan for attending the new opening date.”

And so with the challenges they have faced only temporarily halting them, the ISKCON Houston devotees plow forward in their mission.

“We humbly request all the devotees around the world to keep us in their prayers, so that we may overcome all obstacles and offer their Lordships a truly beautiful temple,” Manasi Ganga concludes.

If you have some information that you think may lead to the recovery of ISKCON Houston’s beloved deities Sri Sri Radha Giridhari, please phone (713) 686-4482. Thank you.

Posted in In the News.