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  • Lotuses in Muddy Water:Fracked Gas and the Hare Krishnas at New Vrindaban, West Virginia
  • Kevin Stewart Rose (bio)

Each morning before the sun rises, devotees of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) in New Vrindaban gather in a dimly lit temple to chant the mahamantra to Krishna. As the residents of this remote religious commune in West Virginia's northern panhandle chant in unison, their voices rising and falling over the hourlong service, robed worshippers offer a series of objects to an image of Krishna to stir up their lord's love for the Earth. The flame of a ghee lamp is waved before the image, offering Krishna the pleasure of warmth and light produced from the milk of the community's sacred cows. Then the lamps are carried to each of the devotees, who, one by one, briefly hold their hands over the flame before placing them on their heads, transferring the warmth of the lamp to their own bodies. Next, a pink flower is held up to Krishna before again being carried to the devotees. They look intently on the flower and again place their hands near the object before moving them to their noses to take in its scent. In this series of offerings, New Vrindaban's residents frame their day with a sensuous, physical encounter with the beauty of the Earth. First, offering the objects to Krishna, they remind themselves of their deity's love for the Earth. Then, carrying these objects to one another, they engage their own senses in this same love. The ritual offers an embodied foundation for their appreciation of the planet and their commitment to the communal life of plain living and high thinking that called them to West Virginia in the first place.1

As the service comes to a close, residents and pilgrims enter a period of meditation. Often, especially when pilgrims are visiting, a few devotees undertake another event, go-puja, a service of cow worship and milking that reflects another linchpin in the community's environmental ethic: cow protection. Crossing the road that divides the temple and barn, residents and pilgrims carry a ghee lamp to offer the same warmth and light to the cows, a red powder to apply a bindi to each cow's forehead, and several bananas to be given as gifts [End Page 749] to the animals. Devotees offer these gifts to the cows and then begin the daily task of milking, undertaken with care and gentleness.2

These two events reflect New Vrindaban's love for the land and animals that surround them. Yet, as devotees make the short walk from the temple to the barn, they cross over a freshly paved road that serves as a subtle visual marker of a tension in the community's environmental ethic: their partnership with fossil fuel capitalists in extracting natural gas from beneath their feet. In 2010 New Vrindaban agreed to a contract with AB Resources, allowing fracking to commence on New Vrindaban's sacred land.3 Many devotees have expressed ambivalence about this partnership with the fossil fuel industry, though others are more sanguine about the way the royalties might lead to opportunities for expanding their Krishna-conscious relationship with the land. On both ends of this spectrum, ISKCON religious thought and practice have provided resources through which the devout might process this newfound partnership between their back-to-the-land commune and American petrocapitalism.4

Over the past few decades, scholars of religion and ecology have been preoccupied by the question of whether contemporary religious communities contain thought and practice that can help mount a response to the growing climate crisis.5 A recent wide-ranging survey of religion and ecology publications found that most "advance a claim that the world's religions or some of them are becoming environmentally friendly."6 In this way, scholarship on religion and ecology tends to assume, as another review put it, that "what [religions] say and do about climate change—whether they encourage concern or help their adherents recognize and cope with the challenge—could … make a decisive difference."7 In other words, many scholars are themselves hopeful that green religions will help...


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