Happy to be in Alachua, Krishnas looking to grow


Hare Krishna devotees attend Sunday worship services at the Hare Krishna Temple in Alachua, Fla., Sunday, May 5, 2013.

Doug Finger/Staff Photographer
Published: Sunday, May 19, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, May 18, 2013 at 10:22 p.m.

ALACHUA — The Hare Krishnas founded their community in Alachua in 1977. More than 35 years later, they say it is the largest Hare Krishna community in North America.

It's become a wonderful home for devotees over the years, said Miriam Tassinare, president of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, or ISKCON, of the Alachua temple. It's been the perfect place, she said.

But the Krishnas are feeling squeezed and are pursuing approval from the Alachua County Commission for a planned development on their property at 17306 NW 112th Blvd. that would give them the flexibility to expand their operation over the course of the next 20 years.

Their plans include building a retreat center and a new temple, but they'll add those developments in phases since they'll need to design and gather funding for each project.

The master plan, if approved by the County Commission, would give them the ability to implement their long-term plans at their own pace, said Jay Brown, president of Brown and Cullen and principal engineer on the project.

After two years of working with county staff, Tassinare watched Wednesday as the Alachua County Planning Commission unanimously approved ISKCON's proposal. Their plan will come before the County Commission in June for final approval. If the planned development is established, the Hare Krishnas will be free to move forward with their ideas for a new temple, retreat facilities and other structures at their leisure.

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The Hare Krishna Temple in Alachua stands on a 127-acre spread of land, lying across a dirt path from a charter school with green-and-cream buildings and a playground.

The temple and the Alachua Learning Center are the first two places you'll pass as you enter the rural community. Next comes a barn housing pottery and woodworking stations along with farming tools, which sits beside a fenced-in field of grass.

Past that, you'll see organic gardens where Hare Krishna devotees grow kale, Brussels sprouts and other vegetables for their Sunday feasts and for their Santa Fe College lunches. (A separate Krishna community brings lunch to the University of Florida's Plaza of the Americas each weekday.)

A little farther down, kindergarten-age girls in navy blue skirts and light-blue shirts and boys in matching pants and shirts wave rainbow-colored cloth streamers and walk around the playground on makeshift stilts made of small upside-down buckets attached to strings.

They're students at Bhaktivedanta Academy, a Montessori school that sits on the property.

Modular homes where some devotees live are interspersed between the schools, fields and gardens of ISKCON of Alachua.

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Tassinare says she is impressed by how the Gainesville area and the Krishna community have melded over the years.

"We are really interwoven into this community here as a culture, and we really appreciate that about Gainesville actually," Tassinare said. Alachua is quiet and close to the natural beauty of nearby springs, and residents are within reach of the University of Florida's resources.

The congregation has always felt welcome here and has tried to stay engaged with the greater Gainesville area, devotees say. But the Hare Krishnas have decided it's time to further develop their land and grow their community in ways that will welcome more visitors to experience life at the temple.

Tassinare said Wednesday's planning commission meeting went "beautifully," largely due to the cooperation between ISKCON and the county. The Hare Krishnas worked with the county on a couple versions of this proposal before county staff determined a planned development would work best. ISKCON has spent around $40,000 on the effort, she said.

Jerry Brewington, senior planner with Alachua County Growth Management, said the planned development is a zoning master plan that covers everything the Krishnas want to do.

"We don't want them to have to keep coming back. They don't want to have to keep coming back," he said.

While ISKCON wants to add several facilities, Brewer said much of the Hare Krishnas' land will remain conservation management areas.

Tassinare considers the proposal less as an expansion and more as broad development since they're planning additions within their existing property instead of buying more land. Although the changes will be significant, they fit with the overall feel of the community, she said.

"We're not trying to put in Disneyland out here," she said. "We have a vision of what works for us for our religious practices, for our culture and for what we want to do for Alachua County."

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With 500 families who worship there and a congregation of 3,000 people on the books from the local area as well as cities like Orlando, ISKCON wants to build a larger temple.

Their current temple is packed on Sundays as devotees dance and chant while a few sit cross-legged on the black-and-white checkered floor, eyes closed and bodies still as they meditate.

The Hare Krishnas also want to set up retreat facilities so people can stay there for a weekend to get away from the noise of everyday life and experience the simple way of life at the temple, Tassinare said.

Twenty-five or so people live there and devote their time to working for the community in various ways, such as cooking or gardening, she said.

"You know, our philosophy is captioned with ‘Simple living, high thinking,' " Tassinare said. "We're going to create programs for all kinds of people, not just Hare Krishna devotees."

To establish the retreat, they'll build a space where they can hold seminars as well as cabin lodging for visitors. They also plan to build some additional housing for farm workers.

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Brewington said the Hare Krishnas' planned development is the first rural retreat the county has worked on extensively in his 15 years here. Other groups have discussed such a plan but never followed through.

The Krishna complex in Alachua is already well-prepared for such a development because of its pre-existing facilities and infrastructure, he said.

ISKCON needs the county to approve the planned development in order to add those facilities, but it's already working on plans for an eco-teaching farm that's separate from that proposal. Through the teaching farm, community members can teach visitors about farming, organic gardening and caring for the cows and bulls they keep on the property.

"It's like an old-age home for the cows and bulls, because we don't kill them," Tassinare said. "We see God in all living entities, so we would not presume to kill any of them."

At the eco-teaching farm, they can teach children where beef comes from and explain to both kids and adults the realities of how cow's meat reaches their dinner table.

"McDonald's would have you think burgers grow on trees, seriously," she said.

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ISKCON's plans for growth in Alachua over the next couple decades aim to bring in more visitors. But the Krishnas already have a big, bustling community that's active at the temple as well as in the greater Gainesville area.

Locals might see them chanting on the corner of West University Avenue and 13th Street on Fridays, and Santa Fe College students and faculty often see them providing Krishna lunch on campus.

On Sundays, much of the congregation gathers for an evening temple service and a communal feast. The devotees maintain a vegetarian diet that excludes certain foods, such as onion and garlic because they are malodorous in the body, Tassinare said.

Many are converts like Tassinare, who was Jewish before becoming a devotee after she visited a Hare Krishna temple in Detroit for a collegiate world religion class in the 1970s.

Vaismavi Rodriguez, who is raising her 6-year-old son Laksman as a devotee, used to be Catholic. "This is a process that connects us with God," she said of the Hare Krishna movement. "That is when you feel real happiness."

Devotees sporting everything from floor-length floral garb to jeans dance and clap as they chant. Some, but not all, wear the tilak markings on their foreheads, which devotee Sridevi Dasi says serve as a reminder their bodies are temples of God.

Dasi, who has been a devotee for almost five years, said she was drawn to the Hare Krishna philosophy. Devotees believe in reincarnation and worship a supreme lord who manifests in different forms, she said. Every living entity is part of him — whether a person believes it or not.

Dasi emphasized the importance of chanting the Hare Krishna mantra, which she said is the most important part of the religious process in the modern age. "It cleanses the heart basically and cleanses our misconceptions," she said. "It's divinity encased in sound."

Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or morgan.watkins@gainesville.com.

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