India's PM takes to robots for Krishna

Peter Popham in Delhi watches the fuses blow as Hinduism joins the Disney age
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Peter Popham The All Attractive: The Hare Krishna temple in Delhi, devoted to Krishna but inspiring exhortations to work harder Photograph: Tenzin Dorjee

INDIA'S new prime minister, Atal Vajpayee, gave up a couple of hours on his day off last weekend to open an extravagant, huge Hindu temple in Delhi, and to extol the part Hinduism had to play in making Indians work harder.

It was an odd message to hear in the precincts of a temple built by the devotees to Krishna, the lover god whose most famous exertions are devoted to satisfying the sexual appetites of the Gopis, his cowherd mistresses. But the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (Iskcon), better known as the Hare Krishna cult, who built the pounds 4m complex, have developed a version of India's polytheistic indigenous religion which is quite as peculiar as that espoused by Mr Vajpayee's party, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The new complex, which includes both a temple and the Glory of India Vedic Cultural Centre, is the latest in a long line of epic architectural projects to be sponsored by the Hare Krishnas, who have 300 temples around the world. It is dominated by three, 90ft-high stone lattice work sikharas or towers, but its boldest innovation is a Museum of Vedic Culture, which features animatronic robots, supplied by the people who build them for Disneyland, representing Lord Krishna himself, other figures from the Bhagavad Gita (the sect's holy text), and their founder, the late Srila Prabhupadan.

Although the Glory is now open, nothing has been finished. The robots were set in motion for the benefit of the Prime Minister, but were then switched off again. The opening was a chaotic affair, with many important guests barred from entering.When a national television crew filmed the manhandling of female devotees by volunteer security guards, they were set on and beaten up.

Inside the complex, the Prime Minister told the assembled VIPs: "Some people say my government is opposed to globalisation. But let me say I am all in favour of the globalisation of the message of the Bhagavad Gita." He declared that the new national motto should be hard work in the name of God. "What we need today is the application on a national scale of the work-related ideology of the Bhagavad Gita. This will create a new work culture, and a new work culture will create a new India."

The Hare Krishna movement is one of the odder contemporary manifestations of Hinduism. India's national religion comprises a baffling pantheon of gods, but Hare Krishna describes itself as monotheistic, professing exclusive belief in Krishna, "the All- Attractive". And while Hindus on the whole are born not made, Hare Krishna converts all over the world. It claims "a few million" members worldwide.

And while Hinduism is a baggy aggregation of rites, superstitions, texts and practices, with little internal consistency, Hare Krishna reveres only the Bhagavad Gita. It is a slimmed-down, toned up Hinduism, fit to take on the lean, mean monotheistic faiths of Islam and Christianity. That helps to explain why Mr Vajpayee was persuaded to open the new temple, because the BJP strives for a similarly modernised Hinduism.

It was left to the Communist Party to object that in a secular state such as India, the Prime Minister has no business attending the opening of temples. But the BJP has few such inhibitions; and with a name like Glory of India, the invitation must have been impossible to resist.