POSTED: 30 AUGUST 2004 - 9:30am HST

Good Karma: Kaua‘i's Hindu Monastery

Construction on the site of Kauai's Hindu monastery

by Joan Conrow on 24 December 2004 in the Honolulu Weekly
It’s nearly impossible this time of year to resist the siren song of religion, despite the frantic clamor of advertisers singing a far different tune. It is, after all, the alleged birthday of Jesus, whose grassroots, revolutionary teachings were muddled with punitive Old Testament intonations to create the Christian faith that guides so many, including our own supposedly secular nation.

Somehow, though, it’s never quite washed that some people who proclaim to love God can still perpetuate so much hatred, death and darkness in the world. While nearly every faith exhorts its followers to be loving, tolerant, generous, peaceful — you know, the kind of lifestyle Jesus promoted — such an existence so often proves illusive to our troubled human race.

More surprising, then, than the contents of a gaily wrapped Christmas gift was my discovery this past year of a small group of men living just that way, right on my home island. I’d heard of the Hindu Monastery during my 16 years on Kaua‘i, and had met its late founder, Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, more widely known as Gurudeva, at the local jail, where he had arranged a talk by a visiting Indian prison official on the rehabilitative powers of meditation on inmates.

But I knew little of the monks and their temple — save that it housed a 700-pound uncut quartz crystal, the world’s largest — and nothing at all of the Hindu faith, until I got a phone call from the editor of Kaua‘i Magazine , asking me to do a story on the place.

The 458-acre monastery is tucked away at the end of Kaholalele Road, a quiet residential street in Wailua Homesteads, on Kaua‘i’s mauka east side. Its Japanese-style buildings are simple and its tree-shaded grounds are lush, intersected by the Wailua River, which is fed by Wai‘ale‘ale’s heavy rains and dotted with ancient sacred sites.

I was late for my appointment with Paramacharya Palaniswami, who serves as media liaison, yet my hurried pace unexpectedly slowed and my frazzled spirits lifted the moment I stepped onto the walkway that leads to the main Kadavul Nataraja Temple.

Palaniswami, a gentle-eyed man with a bushy gray-white beard who wears a swami’s saffron-colored robes, merely shrugged when I apologized for my tardiness. “That’s one of the benefits of living in a monastery,” he said. “Time is infinite.”

It certainly felt that way when I entered his office, a spacious, incense-scented room he shares with several monks. Natural light streamed through the windows that banked one wall, and soothing, instrumental music played softly in the background. The serene atmosphere was devoid of tension, even though the monks working diligently at their desks were on deadline for Hinduism Today , the glossy, international magazine that Gurudeva launched in 1979 to create a single voice for the diverse expressions of Hindu spirituality. Palaniswami, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, was equally calm and unhurried, despite the fact that my visit was unexpected. Apparently my editor had canceled both the story and the interview without notifying me.

But nothing happens by accident, Palaniswami said, and he chatted hospitably with me as I sipped a cup of tea. Although he had no time to meet with me just then, and I had no further need for an interview, he invited me to tour the monastery, and since I was already there, I accepted.
Gurudeva’s Journey

Dandapani, an articulate, joyful, Malaysia-born young man dressed in the white clothes of an initiate, was called to be my guide. As we walked through the carefully tended tropical landscape, pausing to gaze at waterfalls and cloud-shrouded peaks, the sense of peaceful upliftment continued to build. Still, I wasn’t sure if it was due to the monks, or the place; the region has long been held sacred by Native Hawaiians. When I asked Dandapani what he thought, he credited both factors. But mostly, he said, it emanated from Gurudeva.

It is impossible to separate the Kaua‘i monastery from Gurudeva, who died on Nov. 12, 2001, fasting to hasten the final leg of his earthly journey after learning he had advanced intestinal cancer. By all accounts, the California native had led a remarkable life that spanned nearly three-quarters of a century. His spiritual calling came early; he had his first vision while still an infant in his crib. Orphaned at age 11, his intellect and passion for dance were nurtured by his parent’s friends, who also introduced him to Hinduism. By the time he turned 19, he was lead dancer with the San Francisco Ballet.

But Guruveda’s yearning for self-realization had grown stronger, and he departed for India in search of a teacher. What followed were a series of meetings and events that culminated in his 1949 enlightenment in the caves of Jalani. Shortly thereafter, Gurudeva met his guru, Yogaswami, the spiritual leader of Sri Lanka, who initiated him into the holy orders of sannyasa .

Unlike Islam and Christianity, which are based solely on teachings contained within the Koran and the Bible, respectively, “Hinduism is this wonderfully unorganized religion,” Palaniswami told me in one of several interviews that followed our first meeting. “It’s like 10,000 religions, all following the teachings of a specific guru, and each lineage is its own authority.” But still, they all follow the same basic tenets, which emphasize proper living, without any references to hell, damnation, original sin or eliminating those who believe otherwise. One can commit deeds that can produce bad karma, Palaniswami explained, “but that has nothing to do with the soul, which is perfect.”

After returning to the United States, Gurudeva spent the next seven years in solitary meditation and yoga. He reentered public life in 1957, founding the Himalayan Academy and starting America’s first Hindu temple, located in San Francisco. When Yogaswami died in 1964, Gurudeva became his successor, and his flock of devotees swelled. In 1968 he visited Kaua‘i, returning for good in 1970 to establish his monastery, which is also the headquarters of the Saiva Siddhanta Church. He chose Kaua‘i in part for its isolation, which he saw as conducive to the pursuit of an inner life, and also because it was centrally located, offering access to his devotees in both the West and East, where most of the church’s members live.
Hard-working Monks

Hawai‘i has a tiny Hindu population, with perhaps 600 to 700 on O‘ahu and another 150 scattered through the rest of the state, including about 50 on Kaua‘i and another 21 at the monastery. They represent a fraction of the 2 million Hindus living in America and the 1 billion found worldwide, some 895 million of them in India. It’s one of the world’s fastest-growing religions, a distinction made even more remarkable by its complete absence of a conversion consciousness. Hindus oppose proselytizing. “You can’t force a bee to go to a flower, but if you open a flower and it’s really sweet with nectar, the bee will come,” Palaniswami said. “We’re not trying to convert people or bring them into our church.”

That low-key approach is at least partly responsible for the Hindus’ acceptance on Kaua‘i, where they have been welcomed by leaders and common folk alike. The island’s Thai population, numbering about 150, has adopted the monks as stand-ins for their traditional devotions, bringing them food and offerings on Thai holy days. Others sing their praises for a more mundane reason: The monks do an amazing amount of community service. “They are involved in so many things and they work very, very hard,” said former Mayor Maryanne Kusaka. “They’re a tremendous asset to the island.”

State Sen. Gary Hooser, who participated with Kusaka in numerous community meetings attended by the monks, agreed. “They’re very smart people and have a lot to offer. They brought a lot of value to the meetings, both spiritual and otherwise. They really are good friends to have, and great neighbors, also.”

Palaniswami said the monks offer their assistance because “Gurudeva always taught us we’re a church, so we don’t have to pay taxes, so we need to give back in practical ways to show our gratitude for that gift.” Still, they choose their projects carefully. “Anything that would put us forward in aggressive or political ways, we wouldn’t do. We like to find something that needs doing and do it quietly, like menehune, in the background, not wanting any credit or quid pro quo.”

One of their biggest endeavors has been the East Kaua‘i Water Users’ Cooperative, formed to protect a $200 million irrigation system that serves 6,000 acres on the west side of Wailua River and 7,000 acres on the north, including the monastery. The system was abandoned when Amfac shut down Lïhu‘e Plantation’s sugar operations, and Gurudeva became concerned about the fate of the monastery’s fish and lotus ponds. So the monks got together with farmers, cattle ranchers and the folks managing the wetlands that Bette Midler bought to forestall development mauka of Kapa‘a town, and they figured out a way to keep the system going.

“It was a lot of work, not flashy, something nobody else was doing. It was perfect service for us,” Palaniswami said. The monks frequently donate their printing services, too, creating anti-crystal meth bumper stickers and classroom posters defining aloha.

Gurudeva was also keen to protect Kaua‘i’s natural treasures and Hawaiian heritage. That prompted him to start the nonprofit Kaua‘i Aloha Endowment, which he saw as a way to raise money for cultural and environmental initiatives. To help fund the endowment, the monks printed greeting cards, used eBay to auction off room packages donated by local hotels, and helped stage a benefit premiere of part-time Kaua‘i resident Pierce Brosnan’s film, Evelyn . Gurudeva even served for three years on the endowment’s board of directors. “He saw it as important to Kaua‘i’s future,” Palaniswami explained.

For similar reasons, Gurudeva and Palaniswami participated in monthly community meetings for five years to bring a spiritual influence to the county’s general plan update. Gurudeva also helped launch Kauaian Days, an annual event designed to celebrate the island’s human diversity. He even coined its theme, “One island, many people, all Kauaians,” presenting the county with six rose-colored granite signs, hand-carved in India, bearing the inscription.

Perfect Harmony
The inclusiveness of the monastery was evident during its most recent open house, held on last July’s full moon during the sacred Guru Purnima festival, when Hindus honor their spiritual teachers. Hindus follow a sacred lunar calendar that dictates the timing of all their activities and major events, although few in attendance likely were aware of the date’s significance. Most were not Hindus; they came out of curiosity, or, like me, because they were invited. I was struck both by the size of the crowd, which easily topped 450, and its diversity. It was the kind of mix not often seen on cliquish Kaua‘i, ranging from Portuguese cowboys to North Shore haole trust funders, with a few dozen sari-clad Indian visitors and a 113-year-old swami from New York thrown in. They all sat patiently in the sweltering heat, listening to speeches and traditional Indian acoustical music before devouring a vegetarian feast.

The monks cook all their food, and produce 95 percent of it, raising their own fruits, vegetables and cows, which produce milk for yogurt. They also sew their own clothes, do all the housework, and maintain the monastery grounds, buildings, vehicles and tractors. Their only outside hires are a guy who runs a weed-eater a few hours each week and occasionally a mechanic. “We just have trust that all the skills we will ever need will come to us,” Palaniswami said.

The monks maintain goodwill while doing so, despite differences that arise from their diverse cultural, educational and ethnic backgrounds. One factor in their accord, Palaniswami said, is Gurudeva’s edict that quarreling monks could not go to sleep until the dispute was resolved “and we could look each other in the eye and say ‘I love you.’ We love and like one another, and it’s just because [Gurudeva] thought it should be that way. He set perfect harmony as our goal and we worked at it for 30 years. He described it as, ‘You’re all a bunch of rough gems. A jeweler throws those uncut gems into a drum and they roll against each other for days and days until the sharp edges wear off. You learn, grow, refine yourself, compromise, etc., and emerge as polished gems.’ It’s an amazing process, it really is.”

The monks also steer clear of politics and other such conflicts, which may account for some of the good vibes emanating from the monastery. They don’t vote, listen to the radio, attend movies or performances, read magazines and newspapers or watch TV, save for CNN, which they all view together “to stay abreast of what was in the consciousness of the world,” Palaniswami said.

But while they may not be up the latest in pop culture, they’re definitely not behind the times. Gurudeva, who had never before used a computer, bought a Macintosh in 1985 and, after learning its potential, quickly ordered one for each of his monks. They soon created the world’s first publishing network, earning Apple Computer’s MacConnection User of the Year Award in 1987. The monks also maintain Web sites for the monastery, Hinduism Today magazine and an on-line academy, where cyber cadets can study Gurudeva’s teachings or order one of his books.

Although Gurudeva is no longer physically present at the monastery, his influence is still strongly felt. He left his monks with a very clear vision and a mechanism for funding it, and named Satguru Bodhinatha Veylanswami, his devotee for 37 years, as his successor. Bodhinatha, an elfin man, may not have Gurudeva’s charisma, but he is “quiet, humble, a genius-type person who gets things done,” Palaniswami noted.

Besides their daily chores, publishing projects and community service, the monks also are overseeing a major temple-building enterprise initiated by Gurudeva. He believed that temples, which traditionally serve as the social, religious and cultural focal point of Indian life, are essential to Hinduism’s survival, and encouraged their construction. In the years before his death, Gurudeva founded a village in India of some 80 persons — stone carvers, blacksmiths, craftsmen and their families — that exists solely for the purpose of building the largest Iravain temple in the west, which is slowly being erected on the monastery grounds. When it is completed, Bodhinatha told those assembled for the open house, the temple will draw devotional pilgrims from throughout the world, adding a spiritual component to the island’s tourist trade.

Touching the Divine
Despite their extensive interactions with folks outside the low, noncontiguous walls of the Kaua‘i monastery — the monks also maintain links with church members and religious groups around the world, traveling frequently to various nations, including an upcoming three-week trip to India with 91 devotees — Palaniswami said the devotional practices that build an inner life remain paramount. They seek always “to know and come as close to God as possible. The mission is not external, to conquer the world, but to conquer yourself and touch the divine part of yourself.”

When a man becomes a Hindu monk, he renounces a worldly life, including possessions, hobbies, family and sex. His relatives can come to visit him at the monastery, but he does not go to weddings or other family events “that dilute the power of the spiritual process,” Palaniswami explained. An initiate wears white clothing for the first six years, then adopts the yellow robes that are a sign of a yogi doing more serious disciplines. After another six years elapse, he is initiated into the orange robes of a swami, provided there is consensus among all the other swamis that he is ready.

“It’s all about what they’ve accomplished inside of themselves, what they know,” Palaniswami said. “It’s a spiritual recognition of what’s happened to them over these 12 years. There’s a certain light in their eyes. They’re responsive, able to work with and inspire others.” A swami can only attain guru status if he is initiated by another guru, and while women can become gurus, monasteries are not co-ed. “The mixing of men and women is not a wise thing to do,” Palaniswami said.

Regardless of their status, all the monks at the Kaua‘i Monastery follow much the same routine. Each has his own 10-feet-by-10-feet room, known as a guha , the Sanskrit word for cave. It is nothing more than an altar and a raised wooden platform on the floor where a monk sleeps, with pillows and blankets, and performs morning disciplines. Besides their work, the monks spend hours each day in meditation, both individually and as a group. And one monk is always praying in the temple, so that worship goes on uninterrupted, around the clock.

Perhaps that intensity of devotion is what I felt on my first visit, soothing me like warm balm. But it wasn’t the only thing that prompted me to return, both to walk the comforting grounds and pepper Palaniswami with questions about his adopted religion. Although the monastery is just a tiny enclave of gentle civility in a harsh world, it offered me proof that our existence can be different if we choose to make it so, if we consciously embrace love, kindness and humility over hate, fear and greed. In these cruel, violent times that transcend the short holiday season, it seems we need more influences like Hinduism, a religion that Palaniswami described as “joy, from the beginning to the end. There is no suffering.”

Visiting the Monastery
The public is welcome to visit Kaua‘i’s Hindu Monastery. A two-hour tour is conducted four times monthly; dates vary. Visitors are asked to dress modestly (no shorts, short dresses, tank tops, T-shirts, etc.). For tour dates, driving directions and more information, visit
visiting.html or call (808) 822-3012.