The purpose of Vrindavan Today is to serve Vrindavan Dham. Why? Because we believe that Vrindavan Dham is the source of all auspiciousness for humanity. Therefore it is partly our responsibility to explain why. This excerpt from Satyanarayana Dasa Babaji’s Bhakti Sandarbha explains in part the importance of the holy places in spiritual life.
नन्वेवमपि तस्य कथारुचिर्मन्दभाग्यानां च न जायत इत्याशङ्क्य तत्र सुगमोपायं वदन्, तामारभ्य नैष्ठिकीपर्यन्तां भक्तिमुपदिशति पञ्चभिः (भा. १.२.१६)—
In spite of the fact that hearing about Bhagavān’s pastimes can easily slash the knot of karma, unfortunate people do not develop a taste for it. Considering this possibility, Sūta Gosvāmī offers an easy method by which it can be awakened. In five verses, he delineates the progression of bhakti beginning from getting the taste for such kathā, up to naiṣṭhikī bhakti, or fixity in devotion:
शुश्रूषोः श्रद्दधानस्य वासुदेवकथारुचिः ।
स्यान्महत्सेवया विप्राः पुण्यतीर्थनिषेवणात् ॥
O learned ones, by visiting or dwelling in a holy place a person gets an opportunity to associate with great devotees and to render service to them. By such service a person is blessed with faith [in devotees and their practices].This results in an interest in hearing narrations about Bhagavān that brings about a taste for such narrations. (1.2.16)
भुवि पुरुपुण्यतीर्थसदनान्यृषयो विमदाः (भा. १०.८७.३५) इत्याद्यनुसारेण प्रायस्तत्र महत्सङ्गो भवति इति तदीयटीकानुमत्या च पुण्यतीर्थनिषेवणाद्धेतोर्लब्धा यदृच्छया या महत्सेवा तया वासुदेवकथारुचिः स्यात् ।
In the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam it is said, “Humble sages live in the holy places,” (10.87.35), and Śrīdhara Svāmī comments: “Generally, the association of sages is obtained there.”
In accordance with these statements, if one dwells in or visits the holy places, then by the grace of Bhagavān one may attain the service of a devotee, from which a taste for hearing Kṛṣṇa-kathā develops.
कार्यान्तरेणापि तीर्थे भ्रमतो महतां प्रायस्तत्र भ्रमतां तिष्ठतां वा दर्शनस्पर्शनसम्भाषणादिलक्षणा सेवा स्वत एव सम्पद्यते । तत्प्रभावेण च तदीयाचरणे श्रद्धा भवति । “तदीयस्वाभाविकपरस्परभगवत्कथायां किमेते सङ्कथयन्ति ? तत् शृणोमि ? इति तदिच्छा जायते । तच्छ्रवणेन च तस्यां रुचिर्जायत इति । तथा च महद्भ्य एव श्रुता झटिति कार्यकरीति भावः ।
Even if one should wander into a holy place for some other purpose, one automatically gets the opportunity to see, come in contact with, or talk to devotees, who may be walking or sitting there, and these activities constitute a type of service. By the influence of such service, one develops faith in their conduct. Devotees naturally talk among themselves about Bhagavān, and a person who comes in contact with them develops a desire to hear, thinking, “What are they discussing? Let me hear.”
From hearing their talks, he develops a liking for them. But the full effect is immediate only when one hears from great devotees. This is the sense of the above verse.
तथा च श्रीकपिलदेववाक्यम्—सतां प्रसङ्गान् मम वीर्यसंविदो भवन्ति हृत्कर्णरसायनाः कथाः (भा. ३.२५.२५) इत्यादि ।
Śrī Kapiladeva makes a similar statement:
By association with devotees, one gets an opportunity to hear discussions of My pastimes, which illustrate My prowess and act as a tonic for the ears and the heart. By listening to these pastimes, faith, attachment and devotion to Bhagavān Hari quickly manifest one after another. (3.25.25)
Bhakti is the internal potency of Bhagavān. It belongs to Him alone. He gives it to His devotees who can further pass it on to another living being by their causeless grace. Without the grace of a devotee or Bhagavān, no one can have bhakti.
Bhagavān is not manifest to common people except when He descends into the material world as an avatāra. At the time when there is no manifest avatāra on earth, therefore, the only way human beings can get bhakti is by the grace of a devotee.
The devotee’s grace has no specific cause because they are not in need of anything material. Their grace usually comes through the medium of hearing their words and doing some personal service to them. The grace first descends in the form of faith, śraddhā, in devotees themselves. One gets a feeling that a devotee or devotees are good people and one likes to associate with them, listen to what they say and to do some service to them.
In the beginning one just likes to be with them, observe their behavior and listen to them speak. One thereby comes to have an appreciation for them. This is the beginning point of bhakti.
To facilitate the possibility of meeting such holy people, the founders of Vedic culture prescribed visiting holy places like Vrindavan, Jagannath Puri, Haridwar, Kurukshetra, Kashi, Ayodhya, Ujjain, and so on. Usually there are devotees residing in temples and ashrams in these holy places. By visiting them, an ordinary person gets the opportunity to see devotees and hear them speak. In India it is customary to go and visit a saintly person for darśana. Sometimes saintly persons themselves travel and give people the opportunity to meet them.
There are also various festivals such as the Kumbha Mela where saintly people congregate and give discourses. The Kumbha Mela was and still is like a spiritual supermarket. The real purpose behind such festivals was to give the common person a chance to meet a variety of saintly persons following different sādhanās all in one place.
Traveling in the past was not easy – for most it meant walking – and could be quite dangerous because of the many ferocious animals in Indian forests, as well as robbers who were just as dangerous. Even up to fifty years ago very few people were able to make pilgrimages to the holy places mentioned above. Sometimes relatives would cry when a member of the family decided to visit a place of pilgrimage because no one could be sure if he would return alive or not. Indeed many people went to holy places specifically to leave their body. Then, when someone returned from pilgrimage, the village people would flock to hear about his adventures and about the holy places and the sadhus residing there.
Once a person has got the initial quantum of faith by the grace of a devotee, then this faith impels him or her to seek further association of a devotee. When one meets and further associates with a devotee, one’s faith become more firm and one develops a desire to do some service, śuśrūṣā.
The common meaning of the word śuśrūṣā is service, but literally it means the desire to hear. The word has come to mean service because hearing is the beginning of service and the cause of further service. By hearing and serving regularly one develops a relish for the narrations about Bhagavān. One’s doubts are dispelled and one puts one’s faith in the scripture. This is called śāstrīya śraddhā, scriptural faith. One who has acquired this has a firm footing on the path of bhakti.
There is also another type of śraddhā that comes because of one’s birth in a particular family or community. It is not rooted in scripture but on the opinions of people and may even be contrary to the scriptural injunctions. This is called prākṛta- or laukika-śraddhā, material or social faith. It is faith that has not sustained scrutiny. This is the faith referred to by Arjuna in his question to Kṛṣṇa:
O Kṛṣṇa, what is the status of those who, endowed with faith, perform worship but set aside the injunctions of the scriptures? Are they situated in sattva, rajas or tamas? (GĪTĀ 17.1)
Kṛṣṇa answers by saying that everybody has some faith based upon his or her personal psychology. It is not just spiritualists or religious people who have faith, but scientists and even atheists have some kind of faith. For example, no atheist has conclusively proven that God does not exist. It is his faith based on some scientific theories, or personal logic, or both. This faith of an atheist, being a negative, is not conclusively verifiable, but one can have experience of Bhagavān by following śāstra.
Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī comments that if one hears from the mouth of a great devotee, a mahā-bhāgavata, then its effect can be seen immediately. It can moreover be added that hearing directly is more effective than listening to a recorded talk.
The word tīrtha in the verse is also used in the sense of a spiritual teacher or guru, as stated in Amara-koṣa, “The word tīrtha can mean water near a well, scripture, holy water related to sage and a spiritual teacher” (nipānāgamayos tīrtham ṛṣi-juṣṭe jale gurau, 3.3.86). This results in the meaning that by listening to an authentic guru one gets faith, which leads to further hearing and serving him or her. This then results in a taste for hearing the narrations of Bhagavān.