Vrindavan heat stirs up old bhajan memories
|With Malati Lata Dasi on Govardhan Parikrama in 2005. This is the Dauji temple in Puchari where I stayed in 1980. It is now a Nimbarki ashram and being well taken care of.|
A few days ago I was on a bit of a roll... and it stirred up so many memories of my life in Nabadwip and Braj in the early 80s. In my kaupin, the sweat rolling down my chest as I chanted japa, the heat reminded me of the way my summer days back then were spent sitting, almost entirely inactive except for chanting, meditating and studying. I was feeling a bit of appreciation for the immobilizing heat. It seems to push you inward... not such a bad thing, on the whole, despite all the prejudices and pressures to externalize, externalize, externalize.
After reading Ramdas's book, I was thinking about his idea of laminar flows... that material and spiritual activities are separate and parallel streams that do not really affect one another, existing side by side, ebbing and flowing to their own rhythms. Ramdas's thesis, that we should allow bhakti to take the lead and not think that we can force it by our own ego-dominated discipline, struck a bit of a chord.
The South-Indian Shri Vaishnava school is famous for its "cat" and "monkey" schools of devotion. The kitten allows itself to be carried around by the mother cat in total surrender, while the baby monkey has to at least hang on to the mother for dear life as she jumps around from branch to branch. Ramdas' vision of bhakti seems to follow the kitten school, while most of us, to some degree or another, think that we are the doers, even when all we are doing is hanging on for dear life.
Perhaps that is what happened, as the heat has made it difficult to sustain any kind of discipline over the past few days. The enthusiasm that overcame me just a few days ago wilted suddenly. It seems that I have been afflicted with something akin to narcolepsy. I will be working or meditating and then be overcome by a precipitous need to lie down and drift off into a lengthy nap.
For most of the time in Nabadwip, I recall getting up regularly in the early hours and scurrying off to the Ganges, usually energetically chanting a host of memorized stanzas and ashtakas, bathing in the holy river before dawn and coming back with a clay jug of Ganges water for all our cooking and drinking needs. Harinam, puja, house cleaning, cooking, begging for food if necessary, studying. Our [Madhusudan's and my] days were very disciplined and classical bhajananandi lives.
|It was a lot more desolate and quiet 25 years beforehand. These photos were taken by Madhavananda.|
My godbrother Radha Charan Dasji lived right next door in an old deserted chatri that has become a totally uninhabited refuse tip. When he was there, he kept such a nicely tended garden for vegetables and flowers. His bhajan kutir was really ideal, so clean and beautiful. The chatri had four sides and I believe a different baba stayed in each one, but his was the best because he took care of the outside. Very few babas did things like garden, which made him a bit of an odd man out. He had been there so long that he was a familiar and well-liked face to most of the villagers over quite a wide area, probably because he did have that agricultural side. The villagers were always ready to help him out, but the other Gaudiya babas seemed to think that he was not a "real" bhajananandi, for some reason. Now he is gone, not even a picture. No memorials. No disciples. Just another mahatma merged into the Braj raj.
Radha Charan Dasji arranged for me to stay at the Dauji temple. There was an old baba who did the seva there and he wanted a vacation or something, so he was quite happy to let me be the pujari for Dauji and Revati for the three months. My being a foreigner did not even enter into the discussion.
My idea was to spend chaturmasya there, with Karttik at Radha Kund. My food came from madhukari, which basically meant going door to door and getting pieces of roti, often the thick black barley or red millet based country-style bread of the Brijbasi farmers, and only if lucky, some vegetable. I remember going for days without anything but the bread and the occasional green chili.
This made me increase my daily walk for madhukari to further and further villages. Jatipura was the biggest nearby town and I would sometimes get a little something interesting there... but it was still a tough bit of austerity, no doubt.
One day I was doing madhukari in the small Puchari settlement and I went down a back alley. The Brijbasi living there came out so excited. He had roti and sweet rice to give me. I can still remember him saying, "This is the opulence of Radharani." To me, I was still foreign enough to think that the offering was pretty humble, but I remember the spirit in which it was given. Life was certainly different in out-of-the-way Braj villages of the time.
Usually if there was some utsava in Govardhan, Govinda Kund or Radha Kund, some babaji would invite the other bhajananandis who were dispersed in the outlying areas, so that was always welcome, even though these feasts were often humble affairs. Malpoa, a runny and overly spiced vegetable, and some laddus. After a few weeks, we really began yearning for Bengali rice, dal and veg.
When Madhusudan and I came to Braj that time, it was with a bit of determination to really become immersed in the bhajananandi spirit. We had been together for five or six months in Nabadwip, following our schedule with determination, but living in close contact with each other on a daily basis became wearying and we had started to annoy each other pretty badly. We followed this pattern of getting on each other's nerves in Nabadwip and then going separate directions for a while for the next few years. On this occasion, we both decided to get on the train to Mathura, even though we had no money for fare, and just try it somewhere else.
When we got off the train in Mathura, we split and went separate ways. I headed straight for Puchari, I don't remember where he went at first, but after a month or so, he ended up finding a place to stay in Shyam Dak, a village on the Rajasthan side about five kilometers from Puchari itself. There he had his own adventures with the local people.
The most notable thing I remember was an Indra puja that the locals held for rain. It was a big affair that lasted for days. On the last day, I went there to see what was going on and watched as the sky filled with huge black clouds that would have reminded anyone of Krishna himself. It looked like the yajna would have its miraculous denouement in a thunderstorm, but the clouds passed over and soon it was as sunny as ever. Anyone who knows the Bhagavata would surely have gotten a chuckle out of that.
At the Dauji temple, it would get really hot. I would just close the doors (no windows) and do japa the best I could. I got malaria and spent many a day lying there alone, shaking with fever and nobody to look in on me except for Radha Charan, who dropped in once or twice to make sure I had water. During one of those fever sessions I had a vision of Bhaktivinoda Thakur and Lalita Prasad Thakur. I don't remember it all that clearly, but basically Bhaktivinoda Thakur just came to tell me that he was taking Lalita Prasad back home and not to worry, they would take care of me. Despite the sad news, it was a sweet moment for me and I got better quickly after that.
Sitting in Puchari, I got to see many of the annual Braj parikramas come through. Thousands of Gujaratis from the Vallabha sampradaya, the Kathia Baba gang of wild sadhus. The Gujaratis were especially attractive to those with a thirst for pranami. I got kicked out of my home for that day. Who knows who the real owners of the Dauji temple were? A few Brijbasi brahmins transformed my room, which believe me was as empty as a Himalayan cave, into "Shyam Dasji's baithak." To collect money from the pilgrims, they made it a spot where some great saint had done his bhajan in the past. In those days, they still had those two and three paisa coins. All the pilgrims would have these tiny denomination coins and would sprinkle them everywhere. I had to sit out at the front gate and chant japa as the parikrama of several thousand pilgrims stormed through. I also got a sprinkling of coins!
Those three months were pretty formative. All the times I did Govardhan Parikrama. Sitting by Apsara Kund, Airavata Kund, Surabhi Kund, Govinda Kund, watching the monkeys and peacocks. Basically wearing nothing but a scrap of cloth, often just a kaupin and nothing else.
I didn't really associate with anyone. The main thing was to be alone and do bhajan. I only had the Bhagavata, Chaitanya Charitamrita, my Stava-kalpa-druma, and O.B.L. Kapoor's Braj ke bhakta, books that are still with me and the backbone of my library--in fact, my only real library, one that I can carry in a bag with me wherever I go.
Still, the overriding memory is of the hunger and the desire for some variety in food. When the time for Annakuta came, then just up the road near Surabhi Kund they would have a huge chapanna bhoga. There is an old building, still there, which remains deserted all year, but when Annakuta comes, it suddenly becomes a beehive of activity with hundreds of cooks and devotees who prepare so much food, the idea being to cover the entire side of Govardhan with offerings. I can remember waiting hungrily and watching the opulent offerings and hoping to get some remnants, for a milk sweet or something special and different.
Nabadwip was better for us, that is why we kept going back. We would go begging in the market or door to door. Being foreigners, we got special treatment. In Braj, out in the boondocks, strangely enough, there was no "special treatment." But in Nabadwip, even the vegetable sellers in the market were willing to give a potato or two, a handful of shak or chunk of pumpkin. We could get a week's supply of rice in an hour or less. I like going door to door, chanting some bhajan like "Parama Karuna" and waiting for the householders to give me a thimbleful or fistful of rice. Often I was embarrassed to accept, the people were so poor. And yet they would give.
Those are all the externals. The internal part was just sitting and chanting the Holy Names. That was an entirely different stream, running separately, which still flows. I feel it here in Vrindavan, connected up as though there had never been an interruption.
When I finally left India five years later to set off on a new adventure, this time in my supposedly home country, I did so in the full faith that nothing would be lost and that whatever small riches of bhajan I had accumulated in those few short years would be available to me whenever I sought them out. In a way, I had forgotten that. The Vrindavan heat helped me to remember.
It is true. So, I say, don't underestimate those who stay in Radha Kund or the Holy Dham for their entire lives. They are all accumulating immortal bhakti points, far more than anything I was ever able to do.
So the point I am just remembering, friends, is this:
pratyavāyo na vidyate
svalpam apy asya dharmasya
trāyate mahato bhayāt
In this undertaking there is no failure; there are no disappointments or losses; just a tiny bit of bhajan saves one from great fear. (Gita 2.40).Radhe Shyam.