By Tattvavit das
The first of Hari Sauri Prabhu’s articles, ‘A Reply to Concerns about the Current Design of the Temple of the Vedic Planetarium‘, was his response to a letter we had written to the exhibits committee chaired by him. This article, which reproduced the content of our letter, was published by Hari Sauri on Dandavats without our consent. In writing our letter to the committee we had sought a private dialogue with its members, and, as a consequence of this, at a later stage with others responsible for the project.
One commentator, Sucih, asks why we “whip up anti-sentiment”, against the project and Ambarisa Prabhu’s and his team’s dedicated service. This is a very strange description of our modest and carefully formulated ideas in our non-public letter to the exhibits committee and in our Nine Reasons.
Hari Sauri’s public reply to our letter more or less forced us into a public exchange on Dandavats and PAMHO. In this exchange, distortions and misunderstandings of our position abound - not just in Hari Sauri’s two replies but also in some Dandavats comments by others on our articles, which, dishearteningly, imply that our design-improvement group is trying to discourage Ambarisa Prabhu and his team, or wants to go against the desires of Srila Prabhupada. Thus a new article-format reply is called for. We hope that all concerned will appreciate our efforts to clarify the issues at stake and the actual history of the design, and to contextualize more adequately Srila Prabhupada’s statements about the U. S. Capitol. We want to see a beautiful Temple of the Vedic Planetarium, and we want Ambarisa Prabhu and his team to receive full credit for it. We also want, however, to see Srila Prabhupada’s desires fulfilled, including what were, as we will show, his last expressed desires: to have Surabhi Prabhu’s Indian design built. (Surabhi designed and oversaw the construction of the Vrindavana and Bombay temples, and designed both of Srila Prabhupada’s samadhis in Vrindavana and Mayapur.)
There can indeed be “no doubt as to the degree to which [Srila Prabhupada] was impressed” by the Capitol. Hari Sauri makes the assertions that the thrust of our Nine Reasons is to “demolish in the readers’ minds the idea that Srila Prabhupada himself liked that design [the Capitol building]”, and that we do not like the U. S. Capitol and therefore do not like what Srila Prabhupada likes. But there is absolutely nothing in our Nine Reasons about Srila Prabhupada not liking the U. S. Capitol, and we explicitly and clearly state it is an architectural masterpiece. Hari Sauri says he has “shown conclusively” that it is not the case that Srila Prabhupada did not like it. We should have spared Hari Sauri the effort by stating explicitly that Srila Prabhupada liked what we say is an architectural masterpiece. We have now stated in our reply to Ambarisa that it is obvious that Srila Prabhupada was impressed by the U. S. Capitol. (We also stated that Srila Prabhupada liked Western architecture more generally.) He had every reason to be impressed. The Capitol is wonderful both at a distance and in the exquisite and consistently conceived details, not least the dome’s, that become more clearly discernible as one moves closer. It is easy to see the extent to which the Capitol differs from the current design of the TVP.
What we have done is just to point out that we do not know that Srila Prabhupada wanted in the historical heart and most sacred dhama of the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition in India a building that looks like the U. S. Capitol in any other respect than having a big dome, and that, as Hari Sauri now himself insists, Srila Prabhupada also liked other designs (we say he approved them). And we have questioned the rightness and wisdom of using the U. S. Capitol design for Srila Praphupada’s “purpose in advertizing his international society around the world”, as Hari Sauri puts it.
Hari Sauri says that none of the previous designs “factored in Srila Prabhupada’s own stated preference for the exterior design”, and that for this reason Ambarisa Prabhu “decided to go back to a design which he knew Srila Prabhupada liked”. But the real fact is that in 1977 Srila Prabhupada approved the Indian design for the TVP made by Surabhi and said that construction should start. These were very explicit instructions that he gave to the design team itself in person, and there is nothing like that concerning the Capitol design.
In a letter from Bombay dated April 6, 1977, Srila Prabhupada wrote:
“My Dear Gurukrpa, Please accept my blessings. I beg to thank you for your letter dated 30 March, 1977. . . . Now that our Bombay temple is nearing completion you must begin to construct a nice temple at the birthplace of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu at Mayapur dham. I think in Japan there are some of the best architectural construction firms in the world. If it is possible kindly find out the best architect in Japan. Describe generally our Mayapur temple project and for more details have him write to Surabhi Swami, c/o Hare Krishna Land, Bombay.”
The significance of this letter is that by April 1977, Srila Prabhupada had seen Surabhi’s non-Capitol design in Mayapur and approved it. Here he is approving the beginning of construction based on that design. He is leaving it to Surabhi to come up with the final design.
There is no evidence that Srila Prabhupada emphatically, directly, and repeatedly said to his architectural team that he wanted the final design of the TVP to be just like the U. S. Capitol. If he really had wanted something American, something just like the Capitol, why did he enthusiastically approve Surabhi’s non-Capitol presentation and order it to be built?
Only a month or two before sending that letter, Srila Prabhupada had asked Surabhi to draw a master plan for Mayapur City. The “Srila Prabhupada-lilamrta” tells us what happened:
“Staying up all night, Surabhi made a preliminary architectural sketch, showing specific areas of the city for brahmanas, ksatriyas, vaisyas, and sudras. The sketch also showed temples, schools, streets, walkways, residential buildings, cottages, a stadium and an airport, as well as self-sufficiency features like windmills, irrigation systems, and agricultural fields. Prabhupada was taking his massage when Surabhi brought him the drawing. Prabhupada’s golden body was glistening with mustard oil as Hari Sauri carefully, strongly massaged his head, back, chest, and limbs. Prabhupada was relaxed and silent, his eyes closed in meditation. But when Surabhi entered with the drawing of Mayapur, he became animated. Prabhupada liked the drawing and talked about it for an hour. Now Surabhi should make a formal drawing and approach professional architects and appropriate government agencies. The devotees coming to Mayapur should also see it. As fabulous and far-reaching as it was, the Mayapur City should now become a reality.”
The evidence from the above two sources is that Srila Prabhupada, after having given brief suggestions about the Capitol in 1976, no longer mentioned this idea in 1977 and in fact multiple times approved the design by Surabhi. Thus it cannot be argued that in preferring the kind of design offered by Surabhi, we are opposing Srila Prabhupada. We claim that in advocating an India-style design or non-Capitol design, we are following Srila Prabhupada’s last expressed wishes.
That Srila Prabhupada “did not want a repeat of the many Indian-style domes and temples” in Mayapur does not accurately describe the historical reality. We have learned from Surabhi Prabhu that Srila Prabhupada did consider using Indian-style architecture in Mayapur. He informed us that “Based on previous talks Srila Prabhupada liked the idea of having the Temple of Understanding with 108 domes. We studied many styles taking into consideration the local architecture, including the Gaudiamath and the older terracotta architecture from Bengal, to be used as the main features for the external looks. For the universal idea we used the pyramid shape as it represented the most ancient of buildings known to men (in general) and also would allow for a very large open space as we had little idea what would go inside and where the planetarium would be situated.” (Surabhi’s recent letters, which we have permission to quote, are included at the end of this article.)
Again, from the standpoint of actual history, Srila Prabhupada is on record as approving the Indian design made by Surabhi in 1977, and he gave instructions that construction should begin on the basis of that design. He had ample opportunities to correct Surabhi, in person, on several occasions in 1977, which indicates that Hari Sauri’s claims are not correct.
In a room conversation on April 19, 1977, Srila Prabhupada extensively discussed an article about the Mayapur City project, including the Temple of Vedic Planetarium, that appeared in the “Times of India”. The article presented the Indian design for the project that Srila Prabhupada had earlier seen and approved during the annual GBC meeting in Mayapur. The significant thing about the conversation is that Srila Prabhupada focused on the fact that the article did not mention his name, but only the name of Surabhi. Surabhi was there in the room, and explained that he had given the reporters material that did mention Prabhupada’s name, but they had left it out of the article. In any case, the main point is that Srila Prabhupada approved the design and wanted his name associated with it. He did not ask, “Where is the Capitol design?” If he were really that concerned about it, this would have been the time to mention it. He was in Bombay, where the design team was based, and he was talking with the head of the design team.
Here is just a short excerpt from the conversation to give the tone of it:
Patita-pavana: This is a great mistake. Surabhi Maharaja did not want that. He specifically said, and we also told him, “You must put this, ‘Founder-Acarya: His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.’” He said it definitely; I said it, and I wrote it down. And I wrote it down, I think, in two places for him. And then it was also written down on our release, “disciples of His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.” Prabhupada: So how is that, nobody’s name is there, only Saurabha’s? And they have mentioned, “his city.”
Surabhi Prabhu has concurred with our opinion. He wrote, “I studied the articles [about changing the design of the TVP] and in my opinion the look alike of the Capitol Building was not the intention. Sometimes when a new project was to be started Srila Prabhupada would give me some photos. For Bombay I received the L. A. planned square skyscraper (copy attached) and photos of the Govindiji Temple that he gave me personally when I was in Bombay in ‘73. As far as I can recall the set of photos of the Capitol Building was not received by our office in Bombay, however I would like you to check that with Yadubara as well.” (We have written to Yadubara, but did not receive his response.)
Here Surabhi mentions a drawing made in Los Angeles of a square skyscraper, on which Shyamasundara wrote: “Use this as model for Juhu skyscraper.” As anyone who has been to ISKCON’s project in Juhu Beach knows, the five-story twin towers of the guesthouse turned out round, not square; Srila Prabhupada was very pleased with them.
It is clear that Srila Prabhupada had faith in Surabhi, and relied on him to make the final designs. Again, Srila Prabhupada could of course always exercise his authority, but he did not exercise his authority over Surabhi when he saw his Indian designs for the TVP and Mayapur City in 1977, by asking him to change the design to a Capitol design (and he had several opportunities to do this). Instead, he ordered construction to begin on the basis of the India design. One might argue that he just let his disciple go on, not wanting to expend the energy to correct him, but Srila Prabhupada’s criticism of Surabhi for allowing an article about the TVP to be published without his name being included, shows that Srila Prabhupada was not just letting Surabhi do whatever he wanted.
In fact, those who are supporting the Capitol design are disregarding Srila Prabhupada’s expressed wishes, though probably unintentionally.
Hari Sauri confirms that Srila Prabhupada welcomed Surabhi’s “multi-domed, pyramidal structure”, and thus what we insisted on, namely that he was “open to other options”. We welcome this. We pointed out that Ambarisa Prabhu himself not long ago supported other designs, and he would of course hardly have done that if he did not think Srila Prabhupada liked them. Our point was that the fact that Srila Prabhupada approved of other designs, and that even Ambarisa Prabhu supported other designs, are among those that render the decision to build the current one highly dubious. It was one of our main arguments that for thirty years, other designs were alone considered possible.
Hari Sauri argues that three designs were not Indian: Ranchor Prabhu’s early design, the design discussed in Hari Sauri’s “Transcendental Diary” of which Srila Prabhupada was “extremely enthusiastic”, and Surabhi’s design which Srila Prabhupada approved. Of course they were Indian-inspired. Although the design of the temple was “not yet fixed up at the January 1976 meeting” - we add that it seems it was not fixed up for thirty years! - and the plans at this time were “preliminary”, it is quite clear that the plans described are of an Indian-style temple; clearly it must have been similar to the design Surabhi developed not long after this. A multi-domed, pyramidal structure is, as such, a classical, Orissan one; Ranchor and Surabhi just made variations in the shape of the domes and the pyramids. As we pointed out, it is impossible to conceive of the centerpiece of the “Vedic city”, discussed both in the passage from Hari Sauri’s “Transcendental Diary” and in another conversation cited by us, as the current Capitol design, or any non-Indian structure. But we would much prefer even a multi-domed, pyramidal design that differs considerably from the traditional Orissan ones to the design based on the U. S. Capitol. There is, needless to say, still a decisive difference also between these alternatives.
In one of his comments, Hari Sauri argues that the Capitol design of the TVP “is going to be a large part of its attraction simply because it is different from other ‘Hindu’ temples in India.” We do not mind if the temple is different; but it should differ in the right way, by being a more expansive and creative development and renewal of some part of the Indian architectural tradition, which alone is relevant to the temple’s purpose, location, and symbolic status.
Hari Sauri asserts that the thrust of the first of our Nine Reasons is “to minimize as much as possible Srila Prabhupada’s own statements made in 1976 in order to deny the fact that he wanted a dome, or indeed a whole building, like the U. S. Capitol”. This first part of this sentence is an obviously misleading description of the first of our Nine Reasons: we INSIST that the only thing that is clear from Srila Prabhupada’s statements is that he wanted a big dome. The second part is what reduces Hari Sauri’s whole argument to petitio principii, or begging the question.
According to Hari Sauri, we “extrapolate or qualify” Srila Prabhupada, we “attempt by sleight-of-word, to reduce the unequivocally clear preference of His Divine Grace”. But nowhere does Hari Sauri show that or how we can know that Srila Prabhupada meant by “like that” etc. anything more than what we say it is clear he meant. Nothing but the latter is “unequivocally clear”.
The charge that we have avoided the relevant quotes from Srila Prabhupada in our Nine Reasons presentation is untrue. We have already pointed out in a comment that all of the quotes are given in extenso in the supplement part of that post, and Hari Sauri must of course have read it before responding. He even proceeds to repeat this accusation, saying that “it is interesting that again the authors have excluded my exact wording”, referring to the quote from his “Transcendental Diary”. Thousands of readers will have seen us give the exact wording and the full quote.
“Any discerning reader”, Hari Sauri claims, can see that Ambarisa is “attempting to build something we know without a doubt Srila Prabhupada likes”. But it is not just that what Hari Sauri calls the “stated preference for the exterior design” cannot with certainty be said to mean anything more than what we have explained. It is also of course obvious that we know nothing whatsoever about what Srila Prabhupada would have thought of the current design.
Hari Sauri asks why the fact that Srila Prabhupada’s statements were made in the course of long conversations about other things minimizes their importance. He thinks the case is “rather the opposite”. We do not understand this. It is obvious to us that if the importance of the statements were more than minimal to Srila Prabhupada, he would, considering the importance of the project, have made them in conversations, probably long ones, exclusively devoted to their content; he would have repeated them more than once, he would have emphasized them much more strongly, he would have written letters, he would have seen to that they were followed as instructions when he could clearly see they were not, instead of approving, as he did, another, Indian design. The argument that the fact that he made the statements in the course of a long conversation about other things with Harrison “shows that despite many other possible subject matters, he was meditating on the Capitol building and was eager enough to have it for his Mayapur project that he, again without prompting, voiced his desire” is not persuasive. Many other subject matters were apparently discussed in the long conversation - they were actual, not just possible - and Srila Prabhupada was not meditating on the Capitol and was not eager to a greater extent than that which made him make just a brief mention of “like that” and “a big dome” in the course of it.
We repeat again that in the statements Prabhupada made directly to his design team, he did not mention the Capitol, but in fact approved an Indian design and said it should be constructed. These statements directly to the design team are more important than remarks he may have made to others, given the actual history. Yes, at one point Srila Prabhupada said some things about the U. S. Capitol, but did not say them directly to his design team. He only instructed that photos of the Capitol be sent to the team, something he regularly did, without this being intended by him (or taken by Surabhi) as orders. The proof is this is that when Srila Prabhupada saw Surabhi’s Indian design in 1977, he approved it and said construction should begin, though he seemed to have thought there might be some refinement of the plans by professional architects, as mentioned in his letter to Gurukrpa. If, in 1977, when Srila Prabhupada met with Surabhi on several occasions and approved an Indian design, he had instead directed him to change it to a Capitol design, then Hari Sauri’s interpretation would make sense. But the history shows him to be wrong. To ignore this part of history and then go back to these other few remarks about the Capitol seems to misrepresent Srila Prabhupada’s decision-making process, as he carried it out historically.
Without adding any new, strong, and convincing argument for it, Hari Sauri has in his replies only repeated the simple assumption we have by now analytically refuted in very considerable detail, namely that Srila Prabhupada requested a building like the current design.
Trying to serve Srila Prabhupada and to set forth constructive criticism in a spirit of devotional unity and cooperation, we have, as our articles should have shown, tried to learn as much as possible about Srila Prabhupada’s stated desires, and to keep as close as possible to them. We have certainly expressed our own opinions, but definitely not at the expense of what we know about Srila Prabhupada’s desires. It is clear that at the end of his own historical decision-making process, Srila Prabhupada in 1977 approved the Indian design of the TVP. That should be accepted. In the context of this process, the Capitol remarks were not intended as instructions that could not be disregarded. If they had been, Surabhi would have been corrected, as Srila Prabhupada corrected him for not ensuring that Srila Prabhupada’s name was mentioned in the article about the project.
We note that our main concerns have this far not been properly addressed at all by Hari Sauri or anyone else. But the fact that there are other, responsible leaders and widespread support for our campaign to improve the design makes us trust that the GBC and those in charge of the project will, after all, be responsive to them.
Fortunately, it seems to us that Ambarisa Prabhu is the one who is most open to considering changing the design. At least he seems willing to accept the substantial changes in the current design that we included as one of the options in our poll and discussed in our reply to Ambarisha as an acceptable second-best solution, and that were also advocated by India’s Regional Governing Body.
SUPPLEMENT: LETTERS FROM SURABHI AND PANCARATNA
Letters from Surabhi Prabhu
Hong Kong October 6, 2008
I studied the articles and in my opinion the look alike of the Capitol Building was not the intention. Sometimes when a new project was to be started Srila Prabhupada would give me some photos. For Bombay I received the L. A. planned square skyscraper (copy attached) and photos of the Govindiji Temple that he gave me personally when I was in Bombay in ‘73. As far as I can recall the set of photos of the Capitol Building was not received by our office in Bombay, however I would like you to check that with Yadubara as well. Bhavananda has not yet sent me any photos of the new design. I will e-mail you this week my full comments on the matter as I can remember and what records I can find still with me.
I will get back to you very soon.
Yours S. D.
October 8, 2008
The first time when I was asked by Srila Prabhupada to make some drawings for the Mayapur Temple must have been a couple of months before the Mayapur Festival in ‘76 where I was to present those for the first time.
Based on previous talks Srila Prabhupada liked the idea of having the Temple of Understanding with 108 domes. We studied many styles taking into consideration the local architecture, including the Gaudiamath and the older terracotta architecture from Bengal, to be used as the main features for the external looks.
For the universal idea we used the pyramid shape as it represented the most ancient of buildings known to men (in general) and also would allow for a very large open space as we had little idea what would go inside and where the planetarium would be situated.
I prepared the drawing in perspective (artist rendering) and took the train to Calcutta, but in the night my luggage got stolen and I arrived in Mayapur with nothing.
I was told on arrival that Srila Prabhupada was anxious to see the plans. I went straight to his room and told what happened. He asked me how long it would take to make the drawings again and arranged for a room to work there till it was finished.
Two or three days later I presented the new drawings and he seemed to like the concept. Along with the Temple of Understanding and the Vedic Planetarium there was a city plan partially based on the Vastu Purusa.
From those original drawings we made a model that was displayed a year later. I was asked by the GBC to contact engineering companies to give us a realistic idea about cost and construction. At that time Pancaratna got involved and we invited several big international companies out of which three did come to India. [Surabhi added in an email dated October tenth: Bill Lemessurier was one. Also Paul Andrue from Paris who recently built the Beijing Opera House came to visit me in Bombay and two German engineers visited Mayapur.]
In the meantime Srila Prabhupada’s health deteriorated and I spent most of my time to concentrate trying to finish the Bombay temple as quick as possible leaving no time to further discuss the Mayapur project with Srila Prabhupada till he passed away.
The later developments in which I was involved after Srila Prabhupada’s departure, became GBC matters and various ideas were tested and two more models were prepared by me in the next three years. If more details are needed I could elaborate.
During that time my main design projects were the two Samadhis in Vrindaban and Mayapur.
I hope this will be of some use in the process of making the right decisions.
Yours sincerely S. D.
Letters from Pancaratna Prabhu
September 11, 2008:
Dandavat pranams. Srila Prabhupada kijaya.
All I remember is:
1) During the 1977 festival we installed a scale model on a pedestal outside the Lotus building. Srila Prabhupada saw this. In Mayapur I believe I have some color photos of the model.
2) Srila Prabhupada ordered the bhumi puja to be conducted at the site in the field where the temple was planned (approximately where Pada’s design is planned for, not the Lotus park).
3) He was too ill to preside over the ceremony, but the cornerstone was brought to his room and he “laid hands” on it.
4) Yasodananda Maharaja organized the yajna and BV Puri Maharaj presided.
5) We neglected to guard the site properly and at night the Ananta Sesa murti was stolen. However, I’m told that this does not invalidate the puja, as often the deity is removed after the yajna.
6) Based on this design world-class engineers were called [in] to bid on the project. One of them, Bill Lemessurier (a prominent US engineer) visited Mayapur.
7) However the engineers felt the pyramid shape of the design was not practical, so Surabhi started on a new design. Srila Prabhupada’s comments about the Capitol were well known, but no one, to my mind felt they were strong design directives that had to be incorporated. Rather the over-riding directive was to be world-class.
8) Surabhi’s next design did include a dome, but was primarily an exercise in form follows function. The design was considered too futuristic and was rejected.
[Surabhi commented on point 8 in an email dated October tenth: “The model with the Spiral Lotus Dome was presented to the GBC much later
(maybe early eighties?) but it had no relevance to the Capitol Building. It was developed at a time when confusion dominated ISKCON and the Mayapur project. Hence I did this experiment as some members expressed the need for Modern International Architecture! The top of the dome was meant to be replaceable as it was modeled after a concept of the Tower of Babylon, which speaks for itself. Please note that this development was fully paid for by the VCT (Vrindaban Coop Trust) a trust run by Ganarnava and myself (from the sales of paintings) and no ISKCON money was used at all. The GBC was informed about that.”]
9) Surabhi felt we should try a professional architect and there were two more designs, before Pada-sevana stepped in.
I was never with Srila Prabhupada when the plans were presented to him.
Your servant, Pancharatna dasa