2011 Grinds to a halt: Part II: Vrindavan
|Boat on Yamuna near Keshi Ghat. Well-meaning volunteers diverted the Yamuna stream to come to the ghat, but polluted water draining into the river from town sewers still predominates.|
About two years ago I got involved with the Braj Vrindavan Heritage Alliance and not long afterwards started Vrindavan Today. Actually, when I came to India in 2005, I realized that it was almost inevitable that I would become active -- just in the simple matter of doing something about the ubiquitous garbage eyesore.
I was just reading about Sister Nivedita (1867-1912) and Swami Vivekananda from a book called Changing Gods: Rethinking Conversion in India. She was an Irish convert to Hinduism, so the author Rudolf Heredia, an Indian Catholic priest, uses her personal story of conversion to draw attention to the problems of religious and national identity.
At one point Swami Vivekananda told Nivedita, "Let me tell you frankly that I am now convinced that you have a great future in the work for India. What was wanted was not a man but a woman; a real lioness, to work for the Indians, women especially. India cannot yet produce great women, she must borrow them from other nations." Despite having said this to Nivedita, Swami Vivekananda still had to advise her at another point to transcend her sense of Western cultural superiority, even going so far as to call it "sin." (See Heredia, 208-209)
That was an interesting contradiction, but I think that it was based on the insight that you cannot accomplish anything if you approach from the vantage point of self-superiority. It is hard for a Westerner, even one such as myself, to not fall prey to this kind of attitude. Things have changed considerably in the century since Nivedita died, but the problem of cultural and religious identity is still a very real one for someone such as I, who like her has adopted India through religious conversion and yet sees very real problems in this country, both from the standpoint of cultural background as well as religious idealism.
But I am not going to apologize for it. When I left India in 1985, it was specifically to decode and reexamine the Indian/Western cultural hybrid I had become. In the intervening 25 years, I can separate a little better what is my character, what is cultural conditioning, but more importantly what is right or wrong and what needs to be done.
In other words, I recognize with gratitude how I have been caught up in a current of God's making that I cannot deny, and yet to see from within how I must respond so that I personally and the world get the most out of it. And when I say "world" I mean "my worlds", namely India and whatever part of the West I can speak to.
I don't know what this latest, tiny chapter in the intersection of East and West, which were never supposed to meet, and in some ways still don't, means. Srila Prabhupada often gave the hackneyed metaphor of India as a lame man and the West as a blind one, who somehow were to come together in blissful symbiosis. But it looks like India has itself gone blind on top of its lameness and is in need of some direction, for it has chosen to surrender obsequiously to cultural, economic and aesthetic models that are increasingly obsolete.
Anyway, what it comes down to is this: Vrindavan is my sacred place. And I will be damned if my sacred place is not treated like one. If that is my cultural prejudice, so be it. India's elites seem hell-bent on following the West in every way possible, all the way to complete spiritual and material destruction it seems. The adoption of a modern outlook is not wrong in itself, but when it takes the form of a rapacious capitalism with its attendant short-termism and short-sightedness, then the effects on my Vrindavan are intolerable.
There are many forces, including political ones, that appear to be opposed to the sacred character of the town itself and would rather exploit it for its economic potential as a place of tourism, even turn it into a kind of living museum, than allow it to develop naturally as a place with a religious vocation and all that this entails.
The fact is that we have a rather exemplary "think globally, act locally" situation on our hands here. The destructive path of so-called progress that India has embarked on may be inevitable historically, but environmentally it is the worst of all possible choices. I just read that China is now producing 50% more greenhouse gases than the United States. Though still lagging far behind, India is solidly in third place. The main reason is the coal-fueled power plants, but surely the huge increase in automobile usage is an important factor. These developments will not just have ramifications on India's future, but on that of the entire globe. Yet, from scanning the daily newspapers the conclusion is that local concern over these issues approximates nil.
|Crowds near Krishna Balaram temple on New Year's Day.|
When you look at the environmental problems of Vrindavan, a microcosm in the midst of this frantic, mad rush to "progress" and become an advanced industrial power (though any illusions of grandeur India may have in being grouped with Russia, Brazil and China as a so-called "BRIC" nation should be looked at askance), it is almost enough to despair. There are many Western devotees whose faith in devotion has been completely shattered by the totally cavalier attitude that Indians have toward their surroundings. It is more than just neglect or poverty, it goes deep into the fabric of the culture itself.
I don't know what it is exactly. In the Power Point document you can access by clicking on the picture below, I suggest that caste and impersonalist philosophy are two major reasons. The former leads to a compartmentalization of actions, especially cleaning, that are considered demeaning and therefore are ignored. I have seen brahmins living in the most appalling filth while attending punctiliously to rules of personal ritual purity.
The compartmentalization of society into competing groups undermines the sense of community, with the result is that there is practically no respect for public spaces anywhere in India, what to speak of the common good. An egregious example is that thieves routinely steal parts from machinery that is meant to serve the public good, like electric transmission stations or pumps and generators in sewage treatment plants, etc. But public urination and defecation, wholesale littering and dumping, are some of its ever-present manifestations.
These are not amusing cultural eccentricities. These are deep-seated cultural flaws.
The illusionist (Mayavada) philosophy denies the reality of the world and thus makes care for the environment, aesthetics, the poor, etc., a waste of one's time. Though this may have some salutary effects for cultivating a stoical attitude to personal misery, but it also leads to indifference, and worse, in those without spiritual acument, it weakens the moral fibre.
There are few peoples in the world that are publicly so selfish, competitive or indifferent to others as Indians. Look at how they enter a train or bus, or how they drive on the roads. Vrindavan is a town crowded with pedestrians. But now that so many people have cars and motorcycles, or even tractors, it is not uncommon to see vehicles bearing down at full speed on a crowd of pilgrims from some village with klaxons blazing. Traffic jams are commonplace because no one is willing to cede to another driver, no doubt for fear of being eternally left behind by the hundreds of others who are competing for the same few centimeters of road advantage. Little wonder then that the Mathura Hindustan newspaper announced yesterday that more than 500 people had been killed in road accidents in the district in 2011. I personally suspect this figure is low.
Burgeoning population, poverty and illiteracy are no doubt big factors in the inability of India to improve its true standard of living. I honestly would not know where to begin if I did not think about what I want in my holy land. We want the Yamuna River to be clean. We want the historical and heritage temples to be well maintained and beautiful. We want the streets to be clean and well kept. We want the Yamuna view to be preserved. We would like a parikrama marg that can be walked in peace and in a meditative and devotional mood. We want a population that is respectful on even the most simple level of human interaction, respecting the public space, respecting other people's right to silence and so on. I realize I have already gone way over the realistic in this wish list, but believe me, I could add so much more to it.
So where to start? I start with the cleanliness. It seems that this is in itself the essence of it all and it attacks many of the root problems that are addressed in the above few paragraphs. This is why I have been batting around the idea for a Vrindavan Safaikrama for some time. Now it appears that the time has come to actually make a first attempt at doing it.
The purpose is to:
- Make a massive statement by engaging as many different institutions in voluntarily cleaning Vrindavan, with the hope of actually making a dent in the widespread, normalized state of dirt.
- Through the examples of spiritual, religious and political leaders to set a standard of ideal behavior.
- Through the dissemination of propaganda materials and public programs with the goal of changing attitudes.
- To petition the municipality to take responsibility for the problem and to institute a proper garbage collection and disposal system.
In order to bring this program to a reality, a tremendous amount of work will need to be done over the next two months. Currently, a few people have signed on, but basically we are still on the very ground floor. Anyone who wishes to help in whatever way they can are welcome to communicate with me here or at Vrindavan Today.