I first met Robert Morrill in 1979. He was 27 and had moved the year before to San Diego with his wife and two young children. The family had settled into a modest apartment on Grand Avenue in Pacific Beach, a few doors down from the Hare Krishna temple, where Morrill served as president. I was writing an article about the local Hindu religious group, which then was thriving. About 60 young Americans lived on or near the temple grounds, their lives dedicated to serving the god they referred to as Lord Krishna. Several hundred more temple supporters were scattered throughout the county. San Diegans saw a lot of the devotees. They ventured out into the streets every day, chanting the movement's mantra. They solicited money at the airport and tourist attractions. There was talk of passing laws to restrain their aggressive exuberance.
Badrinarayan dasa (the Hindu name Morrill assumed when he was initiated into the religion) struck me as being down-to-earth and smart and funny, in a streetwise, self-deprecating way. He charmed me with a quote from Srila Prabhupada, the Indian mystic who had sailed to the U.S. in 1965, at the age of 69, to found the Krishna-worshipping sect in America. "Prabhupada said there's no such thing as bad publicity," the young temple president reassured me, explaining that any dissemination of the words Hare Krishna was beneficial. In that spirit, he welcomed my request to spend 24 hours living with his flock, getting to know them. I would see they weren't the brainwashed cultists that ignorant outsiders often made them out to be.
And that was more or less what I concluded. The austerity of the devotees' lives amazed me. They arose at 3:15 a.m. every morning, then headed for the temple and hours of chanting. ("The ether" was very pure then, one informed me. "The demons aren't around.") Even married couples could only have sex for reproductive purposes. The women with whom I lived took cold showers -- and they showered every time they had a bowel movement. Talk of the "material world" repulsed them. Still, the reasons they gave for joining the movement made as much sense to me as those of any convert to a more familiar religion: they were seeking a higher purpose in their lives. They had come to believe that the creator of the universe deserved their full attention.
After my initial story ran, I expected to visit the temple from time to time. The theology didn't entice me, but I'd been dazzled by the beauty of the services. I loved the throbbing interplay of the drums and the cymbals and the devotees' frenzied songs. Somehow, though, I never found the time. Decades passed.
One day, I couldn't remember the last time I'd seen the Krishnas out chanting. When I stopped by the temple to ask why, the polite young man behind the counter suggested I talk to Badrinarayan dasa.
He has since moved to another little house in Pacific Beach, I discovered, and is long divorced, his children grown. He is no longer the temple president. Instead, he serves as regional director for the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), in charge of overseeing the Hare Krishna temples not only in San Diego, but also Los Angeles, Laguna Beach, Las Vegas, Denver, Boulder, Boise, and Salt Lake City. He's one of the half-dozen Americans who represent the United States on the religion's international governing body, which meets once a year in India. Badrinarayan thus spends a lot of time on airplanes, and he wades through mountains of e-mail. But when I asked if I might get an update from him on the local religious group, he promptly agreed to meet me at the temple.
If it had changed since my visit in '79, I couldn't see how. Built in 1932 by the Army Corps of Engineers, the structure first served as a barracks, then later became an Elk's Lodge. When the Krishnas acquired it 30 years ago, they transformed the interior into something so opulent it seems like a trick of Hollywood. Awash in creamy tones — ivories and peaches and pale baby blues — and illuminated by six chandeliers, the hall gives way to three recessed altars bearing doll-like representations of the Hindu deity, surrounded by flowers and gilded statuary and heavy, glittering fabrics. Elaborate friezes carry the lavish exoticism into the main section of the room, where Hindu arches frame paintings of religious scenes. Along one wall, a canopy shelters a life-sized likeness of the movement's founder. Startling in its realism, the figure sits cross-legged, serene and ageless, as if some Vedic spell had frozen the gnomish Indian in time.
Time has wrought subtle changes in Badrinarayan. A tall, lean man, the skin under his chin has loosened over the years, and some gray has stolen through his short, dark hair. He's less dogmatic in his pronouncements than he once was. But he's still a cordial raconteur.
He was eager to tell me stories about the new temple the local congregation is planning to build. In 1999, when the leadership decided the need for a larger facility was "unavoidable," Badrinarayan was dispatched to Tirupati, one of the most famous of the holy cities in India, where "there are scholars who are very learned in Vedic sacred architecture, going back for generations." He says he gave them the San Diego congregation's wish list: a temple that would be twice the size of the existing one, a 7000-square-foot cultural hall, a couple of classrooms, a dormitory for the monks. He asked the scholars to help design the basic layout. "They asked me if we had the land yet," he recalls. "They said, 'Get the land first, because from the land comes the design.' " That made sense, the San Diego religious leader agreed. He asked if he should look for anything in particular during the search for property. "And they said, 'Well, there are a few things. Like, oh, it has to be cow-shaped, not lion-shaped. It has to be high in the south and slope down to the north. Single road in front. Open to the west. Open to the east. Five types of fruit trees growing spontaneously. Water flowing over it.' "