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SWAMI KRISHNAMACHARYULU

I have driven the Los Virgenes Road, as it winds from the Ventura Freeway to the ocean, many, many times. Each time I have glimpsed through a flash of trees the fascinating sunlit white tower of an ornate eastern temple. My reticence to pass uninvited into private domains always let my head turn only a moment in curiosity as I drove on. But one day recently, I turned off the main road and into the temple. It is the site of the Hindu Temple of Southern California. One enters barefoot.

The main building is composed of a large tiered tower decorated with elaborate geometric carvings and figures of goddesses. Separate structures at each corner of the temple grounds house statues of holy figures. Loudspeakers broadcast prayers and sitar music. Women, wearing colorful Indian dress, circle the temple, hands clasped in a prayerful pose. This local temple is a copy of one four times as large in the holy Indian city of Tirupathi. It was in that city, near Madras, India, that Krishnamacharyulu was born.

Krishnamacharyulu is the spiritual leader of the Hindu Temple of Southern California. His title is swami. His head is shaven. He wears a “dhoti,” a simple white cotton loin cloth traditionally worn by Hindu men. His voice is soft, exuding a peacefulness that I am sure is part of his nature and his religion. One has to listen intently to understand his words and meaning, not only because of his Indian accent but because, for someone like myself, bred within the traditions of western, Judeo-Christian culture, comprehending the concepts of eastern religion is difficult.

Before we met, I was mindful of a Jewish fable, the story of a man who wanted to understand the essential nature of Judaism. He went to Hillel and said, “teach me the whole Torah while standing on one foot.” The rabbi stood on one foot and said, “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you. All the rest is commentary.” I must have seemed very much like that annoying skeptic when I entered Krishnamacharyulu’s temple and inquired of his life and religion. But he didn’t “shoo” me out. He welcomed me in, invited me to sit before him on a rug, and hospitably offered me a piece of fruit.

My knowledge of Hinduism comes from the distorted roots of the sixties - an amalgam of pop star education from the Beatles; newscasts about trendy Indian gurus such as Maharish Mahesh Yogi, the founder of transcendental meditation; and from a miscellany of little understood hindu terminology like “karma and yoga.”

“What are the Hindu god or gods called?” I asked.

“God is called Vishnu,” he explained. “There is only one god, but different forms. Krishna is a different form of Vishnu. Rama is a different form of Vishnu. In different eras Vishnu took different forms.”

Like the bible, there is also a Hindu scripture. It is called the “Veda,” a Sanskrit word meaning “knowledge.”

I asked the swami to explain the essence of the Veda. My equivalent of asking a rabbi to explain the Torah standing on one foot.

Krishnamachayulu didn’t hesitate. “Do good things,” he answered. He went on to describe the essence of Hinduism as “respect.” Respect first for one’s mother, then for one’s father, for one’s guru or teacher, and then to god. “Mother,” he told me, “gives you birth. She introduces you to your father. They both take you someplace where a guru teaches you, removing your darkness. Only then are you able to pray, to understand god.”

Hindus also believe in reincarnation and are supposed to be vegetarians, to revere all life. There is no special ceremony to become a Hindu. “If you wish to pray,” he told me, “you may pray. If you wish to learn, we will teach.”

Krishnamacharyulu arrived here twelve years ago when a committee requested that the temple in India send a priest. His father was a priest, his grandfather was a priest, as were his forefathers for generations before. He is married and has a son and daughter.

On his forehead, there is a line of orange-yellow paint that reaches to the bridge of his nose. “Tirunaman,” it is called, “feet of the gods.” “I am at the ‘feet of the gods.’ I am a servant of god.”

There are nearly a billion Hindus in the world today, most in India, but also as many as 400,000 here in the U.S. Before Judaism, there was Hinduism. Before Christianity, there were Hindus. Before Islam, there were Hindus. Buddha was a Hindu. And though there may be a great distance between cultures of the east and west, there is a meeting place beside a winding road near the ocean and Malibu. And Swami Krishnamacharyulu is a teacher there.