Rocky Mountain Higher Power

A pastel angel stretches across the retaining wall that keeps Kit Carson Mountain from falling in on the Haidakhandi Universal Ashram in Crestone, Colorado. Slightly larger than life (though with angels who really knows?), he pulls a banner displaying symbols of so many religious traditions it seems a job more appropriate for a diesel truck than a heavenly creature. Painted yellow on a blue background are a Sanskrit om, a Star of David, a variety of crosses (short, round, tall, thin), an outlined Torah scroll that looks like two corndogs cooked together, a pentagram, a rainbow, a squiggly yin-yang, and an assortment of other spiritual hieroglyphs. The banner folds around a corner and unfurls behind an empty flower bed where several dragons, two Buddhas, an elephant, and Saint Francis congregate like interdenominational garden gnomes. Despite doctrinal differences, it’s easy for them to get along. They’re all made of stone, after all.

The town of Crestone isn’t so different. Within a mile or so of the ashram, you’ll find the Karma Thegsum Tashi Gomang Center, the Dragon Mountain Zen Center, a Carmelite Monastery, the Sri Aurobindo Learning Center, the Yeshe Khorlo Bhutanese Retreat Center, as well as, under construction, the new international home of the Japanese quasi-Shinto group known as Shinji Shumeikai, and a 40-foot-tall Tibetan stupa that overlooks the rest like a guard tower.

What brings all these groups here? Call it ecumenical orthodoxy: the belief that all paths lead to God, by way of Crestone.

In the past 20 or so years, the valley surrounding this boom-then-bust mining town has come to read like a textbook on religious diversity with a few pages missing. You’ll find no Jewish or Muslim groups here, just representatives of “paths” pick-and-choose seekers find exotic without being too threatening. Much is made of the millennia of tradition represented by these various groups (they’re “age old, not new age,” folks like to say), but that doesn’t protect the area from spiritual quackery.

Fifteen years back, for example, Shirley Maclaine intended to build a metaphysical fitness center here; more recently, a group called the Arcturians hoped to construct a 40-story pink pyramid so that their mother ship would know where to land. And it’s not just the kooks of Crestone who are a little cuckoo: The businessman’s wife who gathered this religious menagerie once said of her affinity for Native American spirituality, “I read The Last of the Mohicans and knew they were my people,” which is sort of like a white man liking Amos n’ Andy so much he decides to join the NAACP.

Yet regardless of its questionable beginnings, the area around Crestone has grown into a unique landmark in America’s spiritual landscape. For better and worse, the various traditions assembled here now serve conspicuously as pieces of a larger religious structure. Yes, these pieces have been forced together somewhat unnaturally, often at the expense of their particularity. But it’s undeniable that together they are being made into a new whole — not through spirit alone, as is often assumed of religious change, but through human effort, through work. For precedent look to the stacked stones of any cathedral.

If Crestone is indeed becoming something of an open-air, multi-faith cathedral, then Haidakhandi Universal Ashram is one stone among many. While some would say it’s a jewel in the crown, and others might scoff that it’s merely another charm on a pieced-together bracelet, to the few devotees who live here, it’s mainly just a lot of hard work.

When we visited last week we were greeted by a man named Jonathan, who had just returned from a run to the town dump. Standing about five-foot-three, he wore an over-sized blue flannel shirt and a knit wool hat pulled over his forehead; it gave him the appearance of a hungry elf. Though he carried the remnants of his lunch — a half-gallon glass jar filled with a few pale green pickle chips — he looked like he hadn’t eaten in days. Either that or he’d just escaped from a forced labor camp.

“I’m from Misery,” he said, and we weren’t surprised until we realized he’d said Missouri. Nor were we surprised to learn that he’d been raised Presbyterian. After a few days in Crestone it seemed every Buddhist, Hindu, and Witch me met had been either a Presbyterian or a Catholic in the most immediate of their former lives.

“I got into yoga, and Native American spirituality,” Jonathan said, “and then I found the teachings of Babaji, our guru, or whatever.” He took his time with words, not so much explaining his spiritual interests as reluctantly admitting them. “The teachings are basically about the original religion, the religion before all religions,” he said. “So we accept them all, you know.” He took a few steps toward the flower bed, nodded to the statues, and motioned to the angel with the banner of holy hieroglyphs, who seemed to strain against the collective weight of all those symbols. “That about sums up what we do here.”

Just then some high school kids fumbled out of the woods in jeans as big as Hefty bags. They’d started hiking in Crestone and had no idea where they were. Wispy beards and twigs in their hair, they stared at Jonathan and stopped pushing each other and smirking just long enough to ask, “Is this like your house or something?”

Jonathan moved the pickle jar to his left hand and shrugged with his right shoulder. “Well, this isn’t my ashram,” he confessed. “But I do live here.”

Over a small hill from the angel and the statue garden, another of the ashram’s full-time residents was busy pulling a ladder from a shed next to the temple. A tall, blond man who went by the name Prem, he seemed as healthy as Jonathon seemed in need of a good meal. He told us he first heard of Babaji through the lyrics of the ’70s rock group Supertramp. “I didn’t like the song much, though,” he said, “so it was a few more years before I even knew what Babaji was all about.”

He knew now; he’d lived at the ashram for six years. “It’s all karma yoga,” Prem said. “Taking care of this place, tending the garden: That’s the practice. Following Babaji is all about the work. When he was still in physical form, back in India, he had his followers work more than they prayed. Just repeat the name of God while you work, that’s all he asked.”

Prem lifted the ladder to his shoulder and headed for the temple. When he saw we weren’t following he said, “Well, you can come in if you want.”

Inside, the evening service was just getting under way. Annie, a local yoga teacher and massage therapist, sat in the middle of the floor working a brown-keyed harmonium like an accordion and singing a song to the Hindu monkey god Hanuman while Prem carried the ladder in through the back door.

“Would you like to stay?” an older woman asked us, and motioned with her right hand toward the floor.

The room was getting dark as the sun fell behind the mountains, so we sat down where we stood, facing a four-armed statue, or murti, of Shiva, the creator/destroyer of the universe, and also Babaji’s consort. Framed photographs of Babaji himself decorated every wall, staring down from a dozen portraits like a one-man-pantheon.

Annie pumped the harmonium with her left hand, and the room filled with a single low tone. Prem leaned the ladder against the back wall and climbed to change a light bulb.

You’d think one or the other would stop for a moment, to let either the prayer finish or the work get done. But they both kept on with their respective tasks, Prem balancing ten feet above Annie as her voice rose and filled the vaulted ceiling around his head. They were mirrors, in fact: Prem’s work, Annie’s prayer. Prem singing as he climbed the ladder, Annie’s yoga-toned forearms flexing as she forced air though the instrument. Sanskrit syllables made a melody that swung around the harmonium’s drone like a maypole, and the temple brightened as Prem climbed down.

Light from the new bulb shone on the photographs of Babiji, and for the first time we could see him clearly. There were one or two of him as a striking young man, a Bennetton model before the third world was in vogue. In all the rest, no matter his age, he was baby-skinned, round and jolly. It looked like he’d never worked a day in his life.

Peter Manseau is the author of Songs for the Butcher's Daughter, Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son and, most recently, Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World's Holy Dead. He founded Killing the Buddha with Jeff Sharlet, and the two wrote Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible. Follow him on Twitter @petermanseau.