Tucked away in Buckingham, an hour from Charlottesville, is an architectural and spiritual triumph: the Light of Truth Universal Shrine (or LOTUS temple).
At the heart of a community called "Yogaville," the temple was commissioned by founder and spiritual leader, Sri Swami Satchidananda, the same swami who kicked off the festivities at Woodstock!
About a month ago, I stumbled upon Yogaville and the LOTUS temple on the interwebs. I couldn't believe that I'd lived in Virginia for 28 years and never once heard of it. After reading about it and looking at all the pictures, I knew I had to SEE it to believe it. I called their marketing guy up, told him I wanted to write this article, and made the four-hour trek from the DMV to Yogaville.
Courtesy Elliott Landy, landyvision.com
How Is This Place HERE?
Yogaville, or Satchidananda Ashram, was founded in 1980 by Sri Swami Satchidananda, whose primary goal was "interfaith understanding as a vehicle to world peace." To him, "interfaith" meant that there are many paths (faiths) that all lead to one truth—God in all different shapes and forms and names.
Aside from his Woodstock opening (where he led thousands in prayer and chanting), the swami is known for founding Integral Yoga (a movement that incorporates yoga into all aspects of life), serving on many world peace and interfaith panels and organizations, starting one of the country's first yoga instructional studios, and consulting on holistic medicine (even to the likes of Dr. Dean Ornish and Dr. Mehmet Oz).
Swami Satchidananda and Dr. Dean Ornish, courtesy swamisatchidananda.org
The property in rural Buckingham, Virginia, is said to have been spotted from the air as the swami flew over in 1979, looking for land farther south than his original ashram in Pomfret, Connecticut. (Fun fact: the land for his Connecticut ashram had been gifted to Satchidananda by famed musician, Carole King, who wrote "You Light Up My Life" for him! Satchidananda used the sale of the Connecticut land to finance the purchase of Yogaville). He bought 600 acres in 1979 to form his community, and as of 1986, when the LOTUS was dedicated, Yogaville had increased to 750 acres.
After about four hours of driving and following my Waze app to Yogaville, a huge archway popped out of nowhere. I was pretty sure I was in the right place.
HOLY LOTUS, I'm here!
I drove through and saw signs directing me to stay on the left side of the road. (I'm later told this is because India is a left-driving country). Driving up a narrow, winding road, surrounded by woods and not another soul in sight, I was starting to get the heebie-jeebies. (This kind of isolation always gets me twitchy about axe-murderers wearing hockey masks). Soon, though, I reached the top of the hill and a clearing, where I saw this sight.
This put all my axe-murderer fears to rest.
The LOTUS temple is, in a word, OTHERWORLDLY. It's one of those places where, in visiting, you can hardly believe that you're really seeing it—kind of like when you see the Taj Mahal for the first time or the Great Wall of China. (Okay, I have never seen either of those places, but I know I will feel exactly this way if I ever do).
There's a sign directing first-time visitors to the gift shop and welcome center before entering the temple, so I walked into the shop, which is in a separate building. A little lady with orange robes and white, flowing hair was sitting at a desk. (I would later learn that the orange robes are swami-gear, and she was named "Swami Bhaktananda"). I told her it was my first time visiting. Her piercing blue eyes lit up, and she explained that LOTUS is constructed to resemble a lotus flower.
Each petal represents one of the world's main religions, including Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Shintoism, Taoism, Buddhism, Islam, Sikhism, and Native American and African religions. (Even agnostics—people who claim neither faith nor disbelief in God—are given a fist-bump in the downstairs area of the temple, where there are artifacts from all types of religions and belief systems).
Holding the swami's piercing gaze, I listened.
"We are all one, all of us. We might have a different religion, but we are the same. We all want the same thing: love. In the love and the light, we are all the same."
I have to tell you, guys: her conviction was so beautiful, I damn near cried.
I managed to thank the swami without blubbering all over her and walked out to see the LOTUS temple for myself. It got more surreal the closer I got.
The swami had told me that meditation was about to start in the temple and that I needed to take my shoes off before entering, so I unbuckled the incredibly complicated shoes I was wearing, entered the building, and climbed a curved staircase to the top. In the dome of the temple, around 50 people were sitting criss-cross-applesauce in total silence.
I crept in, gracelessly crumpling into a heap near the door. I was wearing a skirt so I had to curl my legs beneath me, with my joints cracking and stomach groaning, and my keys jangling in my hand. When I settled myself, I looked around the room. Blue neon tubes were extending up from each of the 12 altars, up along the spines of the vaulted ceiling.
I'm obviously not cut out for meditation, but it was a cool experience. I stayed for 15 minutes, then got up and backed out as awkwardly as I came in.
Sivananda Hall is the social hub and dining hall for the ashram community. It also serves as a venue for weekly spiritual gatherings held by Yogaville's community members, which includes over 200 family households scattered across the Yogaville property. All around the hall are dormitory-style buildings and accommodations to host visitors for the night, weekend, or even month-long stays. There are workshops, retreats, yoga seminars, and classes—dozens of ways to visit Yogaville. Check them out here.
I met with Yogaville's social media and marketing director, Bill Geoghegan, along with Siva Moore, executive director, at Sivananda Hall, just in time for lunch. Lunches at Sivananda Hall are organic, vegetarian, silent lunches, something I wasn't aware of before visiting. Silence is observed because a swami reads from the Bhagavad Gita, a 700-verse Hindu scripture first written in Sanskrit, which Gandhi once referred to as his "spiritual dictionary." On the day I was there, the swami was reading Swami Satchidananda's commentary on the Bhagavad Gita. I helped myself to the salad bar while peeking around at the other tables sitting in silence. The room was jam-packed, and there were tables reserved for different corporate retreats or yoga classes. Pictures of spiritual and religious visionaries lined the walls.
In the history of my 43 years, I have never, NEVER eaten with others in silence! I mean, maybe when I was a kid and the cafeteria ladies turned out the lights and made us stop talking for a few minutes. But otherwise, it was a foreign feeling for me. It definitely pushed me out of my comfort zone to stare politely in silence at people chewing their food across the table, instead of making small talk and uttering the inane things people say when they're uncomfortable with silence.
Lord Shiva Nataraja Shrine
After lunch, I hopped in a bus tour with some other folks to see the Lord Siva Nataraja Shrine, which is situated on a hilltop overlooking the LOTUS temple, with a panoramic view of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance. The shrine was donated to the ashram by Sri Dr. Karan Singh, former Indian Ambassador to the United States, and his wife, Princess Yasho. Lord Siva Nataraja, known as the Lord of the Cosmic Dance, "dances" (or rotates) with a flaming halo every six hours—at 12 p.m., 6 p.m.,12 a.m., and 6 a.m. Adjacent to the shrine are additional enclosures housing marble statues of Hindu gods.
The Chidambaram Shrine is located about 200 steps down from the Nataraja Shrine and houses the interred body of Swami Satchidananda, as well as an (incredibly lifelike) statue of the interfaith religious leader.
That was my last stop on the Yogaville tour, and I grabbed a coffee at the cafe before taking off for home. I am positive I could never fully subscribe to the life of the Satchidananda devotees and residents of Yogaville, but it is an inspiring place to visit. I can truthfully say I left there a more enlightened person than I entered.
Namaste! Would you ever visit Yogaville or consider living there? Tell us all about it in the comments!