Vrindavan. 2013.08.28. Yesterday I went to the FRRO in Mathura for my visa extension appointment. Bipin Sharma, the officer, rather gleefully refused my extension, telling me that the letters from Jiva Institute no longer had any standing with the Foreign Registrations Office because they were not an accredited officially sanctioned bonafide degree-bestowing honest-to-goodness educational institution.
I had been half expecting it ever since the department chief popped into Jiva one day while I was reading Paramatma-sandarbha with Satya Narayan Dasji and were told there would be a crackdown. I was rather surprised this time when the people at Jiva seemed to think there was no problem. But Bipin told me the hammer just came down four or five days ago. Had I made my appointment just a little earlier I may have been able to squeeze in, like Kamala. But, there you go, the I Ching kept talking about me heading over “across the great water” so it seems I could not escape that destiny.
Nevertheless, I must confess, I was in a state of slight shock. Now today is Janmashtami and I was hanging out at the house again doing nothing much… still… again… finally I decided that this being Janmashtami and all, I needed to do darshan of the Seven Great and Original Temples of Vrindavan, the Sat Devalaya. And so I set off.
I went first to Madan Mohan. This time I went up the stairs and circumambulated the temple and took darshan. Then I went to see Sanatan Goswami’s samadhi temple, the original Boro Baba, and gave my dandavats there.
Madan Mohan is really the lighthouse of Vrindavan, standing atop the only hill really worthy of the name in Vrindavan, Dwadashaditya Tila. And there it reigns. You can see it from quite far away. For instance, in Kiki Nagla, you have a very clear view of Madan Mohan, and I should think that is ten kilometers away up the Yamuna.
Anyway, Boro Baba wanted people to come to Vrindavan. He wanted the enchanter of Cupid to enchant many more people. Why else would he have built this iconic temple? And now they are coming from all over the world. Sometimes Vrindavan looks like a madhouse, so different from the way it was in 1975 when I first came, but that all seems to be part of the plan.
Today was Janmashtami, there were crowds of people from outside Vrindavan in the street today. All kinds of different people. Many village women, looking happy in their brightly colored saris new for the occasion. Not as many city people as usual, but they mostly go to ISKCON, Prema Mandir and Banke Bihari, and are not so interested in the old Gaudiya traditions. Or maybe they all went to the Janma Sthan in Mathura to celebrate the occasion.
But today, for the first time in many a year, it will be Seven Temples day, which means I will see and hear mostly Bengalis: widows, Babajis, ISKCON-Gaudiya Math (but less), and maybe groups of Bengali villagers or Kolkata tourists. For so many living in Vrindavan, this is a daily duty. Vrindavan parikrama, bathing in the Yamuna, sat-devalayer darshan. That is why people come to live here. To hear the bells of arati chiming on every street and gali as the twilight descends into darkness. To hear arati and kirtan and bhajan and Bhagavata and Rasa on every corner. To see tilak-dhari Vaishnavas from so many colorful sampradayas, but especially the Gaudiyas in their white rags and Radha Kund mitthi. Beadbags on every hand. To celebrate the loves of Radha and Krishna. This is Vrindavan!
I nearly continued on from Madan Mohan to take the road towards Banke Bihari, but stopped myself and turned back. Nope, today I have time for the Seven Devalayas. There are many other interesting and glorious temples in this town, but we Gaudiyas have the seven. Madan Mohan, Damodar, Shyamasundar, Radha Raman, Gokulananda, Gopinath and Govindaji. When you do the walk to get darshan of all seven, you can see how the Bengalis built this town and how, even now, they really are its flesh and blood, its life breath.
So no detours to Banke Bihari or Radha Vallabha… love them all though I do.
Next stop Radha Damodar. I split off the Parikrama Marg at the proper exit and come right into Damodar. Damodarji is rightfully one of the most vibrant temples in Vrindavan. This is Jiva Goswami’s temple. The samadhis of Jiva Goswami, Krishnadas Kaviraj and Rupa Goswami are all here, and as a special added attraction is Srila Prabhupada’s bhajan kutir.
Sometimes I think that Prabhupada could not have planned his life better. This residence at one of the most sacred spots in this sacred town, independent of any math, in the direct presence of Sri Jiva and Sri Rupa Prabhus. Can you just imagine what a family that was, three such spiritual geniuses! And now, Damodar is doubly dear to the Vaishnavas from all over the world because it is associated forever with Srila Prabhupada, who for better or worse brought Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and the names of Radha and Krishna to the world. And so this is one place where ISKCON actually touches the traditional Vrindavan community.
Anyway, I went and had a good cry at Jiva Goswami’s samadhi, and then at Krishnadas Kaviraj’s, and then Sri Rupa’s. My Prabhus! Not feeling sorry for myself, it was a more spontaneous happening, with only the smallest amount of trigger. It almost always happens to me at Radha Damodar, more than anywhere else.
All of my life flooded through me as I lay in sashtanga dandavats before all my gurus! All my attachment for Vrindavan, for this Vaishnava life, for Radha and Krishna, all the mercy I have received through Sri Rupa, Sri Jiva, and Kaviraj Gosai ! Radhe Shyam! Tears of ecstasy.
I went into Prabhupada’s room, spoke to him in Bengali. Chanted for a while, chatted for a while. A bit one sided. I think I may have been overly familiar, but I spoke to him as though I was my age, as I am now, to him as he was then.
When Prabhupada was alive in Mayapur, the year he left, Bhavananda Maharaj berated me, “Why don’t you do a bit of the Bangla bolchi, impress Prabhupada.” I know Prabhupada would have loved it. But somehow, I always kept my distance, never breaching the invisible wall and the phalanx of the inner circle. Today though, I just gave him an update of what I was doing and ended up thanking him: “khair, amar boro bhagya hoyeche je ami apnar kripa patra holam.”
From there I went to Shyamasundar. Kirtan was going on there, nice Bengali style, so I sat for a while. Then to Radha Raman, but first I did parikrama of Nidhivan. What a great place Nidhivan is. It really has a fairy tale feel to it. If they can get the same effect in Seva Kunj or Kishor Van, it would really be marvelous. It frankly feels like a lung in the middle of town. I will tell you that I love Swami Haridas, just like I love Hit Harivams and all the rest of the saints and songwriters who built this town. This lifetime has been too short. I could not enter all these worlds…
Radha Raman. Again, the curtains are closed. A large crowd sits peacefully in expectation of arati. There is a bhajan going on. I wait, but as the wait is too long I decide to just go to Gokulananda, since I would have to come back this way anyway.
On the way out I run into Padmanabh Goswami, sitting on his porch. I stop and talk for a while, tell him about my visa situation. He says, “This government. If you do namaaz, they will give you your visa.” He is a longtime leader and even local head of the RSS. We talked about Chandan Goswami; I asked him if he is happy with his son’s progress, which of course he is. I complimented Chandanji on his success. I think that he is unassuming and simple young man, even while carrying with him the generations of tradition, refinement and nobility that comes with being a Radha Raman Gosai. Just imagine what it is to live just a few feet away from Radha Raman, to be his servant, his pujari. To live in a community that is dedicated to serving one of the most “awake” deities in Vrindavan. Certainly, of the seven temples, he is the most jagrata.
You see, Radha Raman never left Vrindavan. When Aurangzeb became emperor then things became rather anxious in Vrindavan, and most of the major temples spirited their deities away to Rajasthan where there was a bit of independence from the Mughal rulers and a tacit pact of non-aggression. The Rajasthani kings took the Vrindavan deities and built temples for them in various towns. It was a bit like the stepping on a ketchup packet effect: it squished and splashed the Vrindavan mood further West. Govinda and Gopinath went to Jaipur. Madan Mohan went to Karauli. And so on. But Radha Raman was small enough to hide, so he was safe in Vrindavan. And believe me, though I love all the other temples, Radha Raman is the most vibrant living Gaudiya family tradition in Vrindavan.
On the other hand, when you see the original Govindaji in Jaipur and compare it to the deity currently presiding over the big temple here, there is really no comparison. They may all be murtis of the same one divine lord of Vrindavan, but the original Govindaji is the asli cheez, the real thing.
So living next door to Radha Raman for generations? Really, living in his “enclosure.” Sure, some traditions get lost or neglected, but Radha Raman has not done too badly. Now Chandan and Pundarik and other young Gosais from the family are starting to preach internationally, it certainly is an interesting and welcome development. Padmanabh Prabhu concluded our conversation by good humoredly praying to Radha Raman that I get a ten-year visa.
Anyway, I zipped over to Gokulananda and did my riti-mata dandavat pranams to the samadhis of Narottam, Vishwanath and Lokanath Goswamis, including a nod of familarity to Tarapada Mukherjee, who was a professor at SOAS when I was there, an important member of the original Vrindavan Research Institute team doing Bengali manuscripts who inspired me to write a few articles back in the day.
Then I went inside the temple and who should be singing Krishna’s birth lila but Radhe Shyam Das of Nabadwip!
I was so surprised I went right up to him and hugged him. He did not recognize me what with my white hair balding head big white beard general old guy babaji look. We were much younger thirty years ago.
Radhe Shyam and I know each other from old days in Nabadwip. We actually traveled together once to Kanpur for a program. Maybe 1984. He did lila kirtan and I gave Bhagavata to the Bengali community there. We were there for a week, billeted in mostly working class Bengalis’ rather simple dwellings.
He is also Gadadhar Pran’s music teacher, which may not be that great a commendation. But after listening to him sing, I think I never admired him quite as much as I did on this night, like I was seeing him for the first time, and yet so familiar. I only came in near the end, just heard him sing a couple of songs, how Rohini came with Balaram, who was just learning to walk and say a few words. How did Balaram know that Krishna had been born? But he told his mother, “I want to see my brother!” And they went into the birthing room and Balai Dauji snuggled into Yashoda’s arm while she breastfed baby Krishna and to whomever came, he said, “My brother has come, see?” Sweet and corny stuff. So many of these things seem almost like cultural fossils, but today my mind is simple and childlike. I just listen and enjoy.
It has been so long since I have been in Bengal, so I don’t know what is going on with lila kirtan these days. Radhe Shyam is an old style lila kirtan singer with a huge repertoire of almost every Krishna and Chaitanya lila you can imagine. I would not be surprised if he was the seniormost lila kirtaniya in Nabadwip today.
He still looks boyish and his hair is only slightly graying; his forehead is free of wrinkles. But there is a bit of sadness in him. After he finished his set, we talked only briefly since he had to go to another engagement. He told me his wife died last year and he has had difficulty being without her. His mental and physical health have suffered. He will be singing again tomorrow at Murari Mohan Baba’s ashram in Keshi Ghat, so I may go there for Nandotsava lila and prasad tomorrow.
I said, “Look at that, I came for Gokulananda darshan and I got Nabadwip darshan!” Actually, my place of residence in Nabadwip was Gokulananda Ghat, and my Giridhari still goes by the name of Gokulananda, so that was rather neat synchronicity.
And then back to Radha Raman, quick darshan, a little sweet prasad. Then on to Gopinath, quick darshan as I had just been there a couple of days before. Then through Gopinath Bazaar, past Amiya Nimai to Govindaji. Temple closed… early for Janmashtami… anyway Govindaji is the least spiritually vibrant of the seven temples, in my opinion, even though it is Rupa Goswami’s own temple and probably the most impressive architecturally. Rupa Goswami himself is more alive at Radha Damodar than here. Govindaji always strikes me as a big, empty ruin.
Anyway, from there I walked up the Mathura Road, which was remarkably peaceful. Actually the whole town was pretty festive everywhere I went. Crowded but not too crowded, not too much traffic overall.
Munger Temple. I decided to go and see Sadhu Maharaj. His temple is lit up with Christmas lights. They were there last time I went too, I wonder if they ever come down. Some of them are fancy. The grounds are nice. Since Maharaj started traveling, the grounds are much nicer. Even five-six years ago they were fairly run down.
In Sadhu Maharaj’s room there are a group of people singing songs. They appear to be relatives of the Maharaj, or anyway people associated with him through his temporal role as [former] King of Munger. A well-to-do family anyway, but thoroughly enjoying singing Krishna bhajans together. ladli kya nazaara tere barasaane men hai!
It reminded me a little of family Christmas carols in my childhood. Everyone joining in the chorus. The father, beak-nosed, portly and mustachioed, sat in his chair and led with much gesticulation and facial expression. One of his adult sons sitting at his knee and even sometimes affectionately leaning his head against it while his father rested his hand on his cheek. The womenfolk drumming rather inexpertly; a Western girl playing kartals rather well. Sadhu Maharaj leaning back in his rocking chair with his eyes closed and a smile on his face, then suddenly sitting up to join in the chorus. A devotional family scene.
I told Maharaj about the visa. He asked why don’t I just go to Nepal. I said, “I think it is time to go back to America again.” He said, “Yes, it is time you should help people.” I said, “Well I am curious to see what Radharani has planned. I am sure it will be interesting.” He smiled. I like Sadhu Maharaj. He actually is cool…
And from there I returned home. Thoroughly in love with Vrindavan again. More than ever. And with Nabadwip… all those Nabadwip memories surged in quite by surprise. There are some parallels to my first departure from India in 1985, but the differences are probably going to prove much greater.
This time I cried when at Radha Damodar’s when I told Jiva Goswami that I was going to have to leave. But really, Radha Damodar is part of every ISKCON devotee or Prabhupada disciples’s personal mythology. So how could I not think that crossing the “great waters” was not somehow paralleling Srila Prabhupada’s heroic journey? I have to be honest, my formula is not quite as ready-made as his was, but I felt today that if Vrindavan is as infused in me as it seems, then nothing inauspicious could ever happen.