Monday, August 26, 2013

Vrindavan parikrama: Living in a man's world

The last couple of days there has been a little bit of intensity over on a thread that I started about yet another Western woman writing of her experiences of sexual harassment in India. See discussion here.

I have been hanging out on the internet quite a bit since I got to Vrindavan. There are probably various reasons for it. The time I spent in Rishikesh was very structured and intense, not really what I am used to. Coming back here, I remained in my room, reclusively, but as soon as I got me some internet, I just dove right into. Mostly American leftist news and political sites, believe it or not. And interactions with, again mostly Americans, on Facebook.

Something of a disconnect: physically in Vrindavan during Hariyali Teej and Jhulan, but mentally in a kind of no-man's-land.

Part of the reason is that I am having a horrendous case of writer's block... again. It seems I can write and write, pontificate on unimportant matters left and right, show off my knowledge and debating skills here and there, but when it comes to doing a serious bit of work, even for money? There is some kind of psychological problem at work there that I have not been able to lick. And so, for the flickering and momentary adulation of my handful of Internet friends and admirers, I proclaim forth.



Yet I stay in my room, in the hope that the next time I sit down at the computer, something magic will happen. But it doesn't. There is nothing complicated about what I have to write, just a few words about the Gita Govinda and about the Yoga-tarangini... Soit. Laissons-le.

So today, in an attempt to decipher what transpired in the great rape debate and in order to perhaps kick start some work ethic into this lazy bag of bones, I set off on my first Parikrama since coming to Vrindavan more than two weeks ago.

It started out ordinarily enough, on the Marg from out in front of Lalit Ashram, pranams to the Mother Goddess and setting off to the slow murmur of Radhe-Shyam nam, money to a beggar woman with palsy near Chattikara Road, dandavats to Prabodhananda at Kalidaha, dandavats to Sanatan Goswami at Madan Mohan, and onward. Dandavats to the Yamuna. The ugly bridge pilons are still there, but Yamunaj is swollen to quite a hgh level, so Keshi Ghat is inaccessible. So turn into the town at Chir Ghat and head to Nidhivan, Radha Raman, Radha Raman is closed, will not wait 45 minutes, go to Gopinath.

At Gopinath Mandir, there is no one. I take a look at Paramadvaiti Maharaj's gardens before going in for darshan. Both are green with grass, but look incomplete still. Some trees have been planted, but are still in their infancy. Inside the temple I just stand there quietly, taking a pause with the Thakur. The Gosai pujari recognizes me from a previous visit and we talk. He tells me he is translating the Bhagavatam into Hindi verse. He says he has already done the Gita, being inspired by Prabhupada's Bengali Gitar Gan. He is friendly, talks about the three hills (tilas) of Vrindavan, Dwadashaditya, Vamshi Vat, and Gomukh. The three deities of Madhan Mohan, Gopinath and Govinda are each on a different hill.

Then I proceed on back to Keshi Ghat on the other side and walk steadily as far as Tatia Sthan and I decide to go for darshan. As always, Tatia Sthan brings waves of well-being into the mind and heart. Great luck, they are having Samaj Gayan. I sit down.

There is something really special about the temple there, because it is built on the Yamuna sand (tatia is derived from the word for riverbank), so is like walking on a cool evening beach in your bare feet. When you pay your obeisances, you lie down in the Braja raj. The samaj consists of three younger babas in Tatia Sthan uniform, their faces and heads covered with Braj mitti; one plays the harmonium, another kartals. There are two men playing tampura behind them. Then twenty or thirty men are seated behind them. They sing in their own classical style. There was even one Sikh gentleman I observed who participated eagerly in following along. There were only a few books to go around, but I got one. So I could also follow a bit. But I need to study this music. I really like the style. I have been thinking of going and asking Rasik Pagal Baba or someone in his ashram to give me lessons.

At a little after 6, the Mahant came in. In complete silence, but with his retinue of twenty or so people. I noticed more women in this group, which had obviously come from darshan with the mahant. All the people doing kirtan except for the harmonium stand up out of respect. The Mahant pays dandavat obeisances to the deities and samadhi temples and then sits down in an elevated seat made of Braja raj. All go and offer obeisances to him, including myself.



And then I move on. A little further on, I come to the Bhagavata Vidyalaya, a Nimbarki ashram in Pani Ghat, where instruction in the Bhagavatam is taking place. I decide to go in. The hall is fairly large and there are 50 or 60 students. They daily go through the Bhagavata verse by verse, with the acharya explaining each verse's meaning briefly. No elaborations, just so that everyone gets the grammar, the meaning and any significant implied meanings. It takes 14-15 months to go through the whole Bhagavata once. Generally, a student is expected to sit through this course for three repetitions of the Bhagavatam in order to be ready to speak publicly. I notice that the audience is not only young brahmin men in their teens and early 20s, but renunciates and older men as well. Everyone has a copy of the Bhagavata. Two young men kindly shared their Bhagavata with me. They have reached the 12th canto and have almost finished. When they do, in a few days time, they will then start from the beginning again. If I were young again, I would certainly have been tempted to join them.

Across the street is another ashram, and it seemed that everyone was going there. A young man in white told me that they were going to serve prasad and all the students, who come from various places in the town, would eat there and then go home. I did not catch the name of the ashram, though it is large and obviously well endowed.

They have a temple there called "Mangalkarini Bhagavan," in front of which a group of 15-20 women were singing bhajans, though the rest of the campus was filled with at least 100 men, sitting around and socializing with the onset of evening. The deity, if I understood the pujari correctly (which was difficult with the singing going on), is a form of Hanuman connected to Govardhan. And there is a whole story there that I did not recognize or fully understand. Hanuman came there for the sweet water after bringing Govardhan to Braj in the time of Ramachandra, since it is one of the only places in Vrindavan where the water is sweet, hence the name pani-ghat. [pani means water]. I decided not to stay for supper but to continue walking.

Through Pani Ghat, I observed that there are few cars here and that the neighborhood is very peaceful. There will be more cars further up the road where the feed road to the Yamuna Expressway joins the Parikrama Marg. There seem to be so many temples with programs going on, different kinds of groups in each one, some smaller, some bigger, some with mixed sex groups, others with vairagis. None with quite the dignity of the Haridasis, but lovely nevertheless.

Of course, the public presence in the street is, as always in India, overwhelmingly male. Still, I was struck by an overall positive feeling and freedom from tension, which I should say in India generally and Vrindavan in particular is a fairly rare feeling. I talked to an older gentleman chanting japa in the street, a retired professor of political science from Bihar who has brought his wife to live out his life in Vrindavan, near his guru's ashram there in Pani Ghat.

It is here that the thought began to strike me how much I had enjoyed these two experiences in totally male dominated environments and how completely peaceful I had found them. I also saw how easy my access to these cultural experiences had been simply because of my gender. In both circumstances I had been given a book. Maybe it is because I have a big white beard now and look like a baba. But I don't remember being spontaneously treated with this kind of spontaneous and silent respect and acceptance before. Speaking Hindi is obviously a great boon.

I thought about these young men studying the Bhagavatam. It is clear that some of them are going through the same adolescent tribulations as most young men in India today. From a segregated society to a coed society... how many generations does it take? Could any of these nice clean brahmin boys also sink into the confusion? Of course they could. But it seems to me that men are pretty confused everywhere in the world. It is just that this society is going through transition and it is going to take a while.

But I enjoyed the clarity and peace that these all-male spiritual environments created. Truth or illusion I don't know, but for those few minutes, the problems of sexualty and relations, in short "the world" were far away.

A litte further on I came to the bead shops run by Bengalis. They have been there for years, even before the road was paved. It is almost impossible to remember what those days were like any more. I was looking for neck beads. One old widow lady was closing the store and bringing her stock inside, but I just managed to find what I was looking for. I asked her how she was doing. I said she looked like she was doing OK for a widow in Vrindavan, since everyone always says how terrible it is. She told me she had just spent a couple of weeks in Gopinath Bazar at the Amiya Nimai temple doing service. Amiya Nimai is right next door to the Bhajan Ashram, which is where hundreds of widows do kirtan every day, "widow central" so to speak. Now she is back and just sits there all day and makes beads. "besh shantite achi" (Life is quite peaceful for me"). I gave her a 100 Rs note, expecting change, but ended up giving her the whole thing without regret. I liked her, called her "mother."

I walked on and not far from Mathura Road I ran into none other than Jagannath Poddar. He told me he had seen on FB that I was doing Parikrama and "he wanted to catch me"! He was obviously having me on, as our meeting was quite fortuitous as he just had that little section of the Parikrama Marg to cover before turning off to head to Kailas Nagar. I was a bit disoriented as the power had been off and I had been walking in the dark. I was not even aware that I had passed Chamunda Devi, what to speak of Gore Dauji. We talked for a while about what he is doing, etc., and then I came home. It is good to see Jagannath; it is a mark of my "official" return to Vrindavan.

So basically I take three thoughts from my parikrama. One is the extent to which I feel at home in Vrindavan, and the extent to which that is still pretty much a result of my male privilege. I had great good fortune to experience several dimensions of traditional spiritual India -- in Mayapur, in Nabadwip, in Kalna, in Rishikesh, in Vrindavan. And though this means I have become something of a foreigner to the West, I will never be completely Indian either. This cultural split in myself, however, only means that I am in a position to recreate myself as a kind of hybrid; but what form that will take.... well I suppose it has already taken...



The other is that even though there may be a lot that is good and valuable in the segregation of the sexes, a lot that may even be considered necessary and worthwhile, we are not going back to that world. So India really needs to make the adjustment. In actual fact, they have barely begun.



The third is, what is the place for Western women in this world? Clearly they could never change their expectations of being able to live in the "outer world" alongside men, as equals. And in the changing environment in India, with the persistent harassment they have to face, a great number of them have nothing but contempt for Indian men, and by extension, everything Indian, its past, its present, its future.

I have been spending these last few days on the Internet, reading the news of the world, talking with many such disappointed and disillusioned women for whom spiritual experience is pointless without social freedom and independence. I think many of them have come to the conclusion that a life without men is probably the path that makes the most sense, but this also seems to me to be an illusion. After all, the men who have discovered and developed the philosophies and practices of yoga made genuine internal or subjective research into the psyche, which is beneficial to the entire human race, regardless of gender.

What is needed now is a sadhana that accommodates and transcends the divide while giving equal status to both men and women--whether it is in India or the West. This is what we have discovered and are trying to develop in Yugal Bhajan. The goal is to release the great spiritual potential that the meeting of the sexes provides.



Radhe Shyam! Jai Vrindavan Dham!

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

"tatia is derived from the word for riverbank"
radhey radhey I want to correct your knowledge that tatia is not derived from the word for river bank. Tatia stands for the bamboo sticks by which this ashram is made. Those bamboo sticks are called tatias and the tatia sthan is made of those bamboo sticks.

Hari Bol

Well I am drinking the nector of your vrindavan yatra.

brajbhoomi.wordpress.com

Jagat said...

Quite right. I actually knew that...