Vrindavan: Today, Tomorrow, Yesterday

Old entrance to Bhagavat Niwas.
I don't go out all that much, but whenever I do, the transformations that are taking place in Vrindavan on a day-to-day basis are constantly at the forefront of my perceptions. The other evening I cycled the length of the Chattikara Road from NH2 to the house and found it quite amazing to see how rapidly everything is mutating.

But that is quite the road at night now. New buildings -- hotels, ashrams, guesthouses, apartment buildings, residential developments, temples -- popping up everywhere, many of them looking quite posh in the night with their glass and polished granite facades and colored neon signage. With the dark night backdrop obscuring the old Vrindavan from view, one could be forgiven for thinking we were actually in at least the 20th century.

I went into the huge Akshaya Patra complex and attended arati there. It is a separate ISKCON, just a couple of centimeters different enough to be a "not-ISKCON", with a personality quite different from Krishna Balaram and yet certainly a brother or cousin. And so it is with all these sects and sampradayas that make Vrindavan their holy center: all brothers and sisters and cousins, all with their own unique personalities, some crazy, some avaricious, so many saintly, so many talented, so many beautiful.

I am old enough that I have seen 35 years of Vrindavan. There are many of Prabhupada's disciples who have been here longer and seen more than me. And indeed it was Prabhupada I thought of as I cycled along, observing the new world of Vrindavan. Because, after all, more than anyone he is the architect of the "new" Vrindavan, just like Rupa and Sanatan Goswami, and all the other Vaishnava families built their temples and made Vrindavan the holy center it is. They attracted people from all over India, and now we have this: People coming from all over the world to see this amazing place.

We really have to make sure it stays amazing. But of course it cannot but be amazing. Because it IS Krishna's own place. Even though it is undergoing huge changes, there is an inevitability about it and people like Rupa and Sanatan or Srila Prabhupada, acted on history to push it in that direction.

The day after I wrote the above, I went -- completely by accident, I must admit -- to Bhagavata Nivasa. I was walking past and noticed that speeches were being given and realized that it was their annual utsava in honor of Ramakrishna Pandit Babaji.

The speakers reminisced about the old days -- not so long ago really. There is one senior Brijbasi, Bhagavatpada Gautam, who is perhaps (with the exception of Haridas Shastri) the only person left alive who actually had darshan of Pandit Baba. He was only a child when Pandit Baba entered the nitya-lila.

Bhagavatpada Gautam is from a family that owned a lot of the land in the area, such as Sheetal Chaya. So he has watched the changes -- and profited from them -- but at the same time it is hard not to be nostalgic about the world in which Ramkrishna Pandit Baba was royalty, a Maharaja. He could still live like the six Goswamis, but such a lifestyle is now gone and for all intents and purposes impossible in the new Vrindavan.

There are still pictures of the Raman Reti area as it was. It still had not changed much even in the early 70s when the Krishna Balaram temple first started construction, or even in 1975 when I first set foot here. All that is long gone now.

As always, there was a lot of talk about Pandit Baba's legendary ascetism and dedication to the life of bhajan. He owned nothing but his kaupin and his karua. One sadhu told the story of how the king of Scindia came to have darshan of the great saint, no doubt accompanied by his entourage, and after an uncomfortable silence, asked, "Is there anything I can do to serve you?"

Pandit Baba answered, "Yes, please never come back here again."

Pandit Baba wold not take service from anyone, not even his younger, renounced followers. One speaker told a story of Kripa Sindhu Baba, the founder of Bhagavata Niwas, which lies just across the street from Dauji Bagicha (the current home of the Vrindavan Research Institute). One day Kripa Sindhu Baba was incredibly thirsty and he could not slate his thirst though drink to his fill. Finally, he had the idea that it was Pandit Baba who was thirsty and that somehow he was experiencing his thirst.

Now Baba did not keep a jug of water in his hut, but only when he came out after his long hours of bhajan would he walk all the way to Baraha Ghat to the nearest sweet-water well and fetch water. Baraha Ghat would have been a fair distance on the Parikrama Marg to the north of Dauji Bagicha.

On this day, however, when Pandit Baba came out into the light, Kripa Sindhu has obtained a big clay jug (gharaa) and filled it with water so that he would not have to go all that trouble just for a drink. But rather than being pleased, Baba was irritated because he was so free of the desire for any possessions that he did not wish to even have a clay pot in his hut.

He inspired Gauranga Dasji, and Kripasindhu Dasji, and many others also, even from other sampradayas. He encouraged everyone to follow the tradition they were in. He could give each sampradaya's siddhanta and convince them to accept it. Even though he had very strong ideas about Gaudiya siddhanta also.

So this is the guy that Siddhanta Saraswati said was a kanishtha. Who knows? If I follow Ramkrishna Baba, I would say, "Follow your GM siddhanta. Do bhajan according to your sampradaya's tradition."

But it may be that for these bhajananandi traditions to survive... well it is hard to see how they will. At least not in the town of Vrindavan. They will all just have to build air-conditioned marble rooms suitable for international spiritual tourism.

I am not even saying it is bad. That is what is happening, that is the way it is going. The world is forcing change on everyone and the forces of time are not gentle. Religion has to adjust to the circumstances like everyone else, like every other department of human existence.

In another anecdote, one speaker recounted that when Pandit Baba was living in Raghava's gupha in Puchari. I once spent three months there in 1980, just a few meters away from this "cave," basically a hole dug in the side of Govardhan, helped by big rocks, where he did his tapasya and bhajan. When I was there it was still empty, semi-desert sandy with many trees, big ones. Like Vrindavan, the Govardhan parikrama has completely changed since the walk was paved, but you can still find spots here and there where the old mood still prevails somewhat.

One day Pandit Baba was chanting the Holy Names and suddenly got the desire to learn how to play the mridanga and sing nice padavali kirtan. This inspired him to go to Govinda Kund to learn from one of the Vaishnavas living there. But after spending three years at it, he managed to learn only one bol, tere ke tinaka te or something, and only one verse from a padavali describing Krishna's beauty. His problem was that he would get so absorbed in that meditation that he could not go on any further.

For three years he remained stuck on that. Finally some older Vaishnava told him it was pointless for him to learn kirtan, and so he gave it up and went back to nāma-japa and līlā-smaraṇa.

Baba would get so absorbed in līlā-smaraṇa that even though he had memorized the whole Govinda-līlāmṛta, he would sometimes forget what pastime came next. So he would prod Kripa Sindhu Baba, who had also memorized Govinda-līlāmṛta, and ask "What's next? What's next?"

Achyutalal Bhatts was there, as he is every year. More than anyone, perhaps, he spoke enthusiastically and authoritatively to the essence of why we were gathered there to take the dust of Pandit Baba's feet. Taking the first verse of Smaraṇa-maṅgala-stotra as his inspiration, he made his short speech a prayer for lobha or eagerness for līlā-smaraṇa. This verse, which is a vandana Krishna's aṣṭa-kālīya-līlā, is the seed from which the Govinda-līlāmṛta grew.

Generally speaking, those who come in the Gaudiya Math tradition have a somewhat one-sided view of Vaishnava history and usually describe the time as one of complete decadence, but in fact, the improved communications installed by the British meant that Vaishnavas in Bengal had much easier access to Braj. From the middle of the 19th century, the search for manuscripts and their translation and publication meant that extensive information was available about the sampradaya's bhajanānandī tradition, including the hagiographies of the practitioners of līlā-smaraṇa. Ramkrishna Pandit Baba was at the forefront of this interest as he more than anyone personified this ascetic devotional lifestyle.

śrī-rādhā-prāṇa-bandhoś caraṇa-kamalayoḥ keśa-śeṣādy-agamyā
yā sādhyā prema-sevā vraja-carita-parair gāḍha-laulyaika-labhyā |
sā syāt prāptā yayā tāṁ prathayitum adhunā mānasīm asya sevāṁ
bhāvyāṁ rāgādhva-pānthair vrajam anu caritaṁ naityikaṁ tasya naumi
Loving service for of the lover of Radha is beyond the comprehension of even Brahma, Shiva and Shesha. It can be attained only by those dedicated to his pastimes in Vraja and who have a deep and exclusive greed for it. That loving service is obtained through mental service (mānasīm sevā) which is to be meditated upon by the practitioners of rāgānugā bhakti. And it with the purpose of making such mental service possible that I bow down to the daily activities in Vraja

Achyuta Lal Bhat said, "Greed for prema-sevā, which is impossible for even the great gods to understand. That greed, that laulya, was manifest in Ramkrishna Pandit Baba. The dust here in Bhagavata Nivas contains that lobha. The lobha that is the only real qualification for attain prema-sevā, which does not care for anything else, not scriptural injunction, not rational argument, just the desire for that service alone. That is all. So we pray to Baba's feet and we take the dust of Bhagavata Nivasa to get that lobha."

So there was a lot of talk about vairagya today. Along with a lot of little digs at those building big ashrams and the such. All that is fairly standard fare in any assembly of renounced Vaishnavas. Bhagavatpada Gautam even said to me privately, while lamenting the current state of Vrindavan, that he could even find 500 Asarams in the town!

So with all this talk, the juxtaposition of a rapidly changing Vrindavan that has relegated the world of Pandit Baba to a past almost as distant as that of Rupa and Sanatan and the other founders of Vrindavan themselves, I found it a little ironic that even the babas in Bhagavat Niwas are building a new arched gateway at the main entrance. Bhagavata Niwas is disputed territory, and one great defense that is forwarded for keeping the status quo is that it is maintaining the bhajananandi tradition.

When the King of Scindia politely requested some opportunity for service, he was told by Ramkrishna Pandit Baba that the best thing he could do would be to stop disturbing his bhajan. And now even Bhagavata Nivas is going to have an arched gateway to announce to the tourists, "Come in!" And hopefully donate for Thakurji's seva. This is how times change:


sriyash said…
What a wonderful and vivid style of reflective writing. Even though I am a neophyte, I almost felt like I was along for the ride on the bicycle. Such a pensive narration, and I foundmyself nodding Iin agreement. Please continue to write in this wonderful way JagatJi.
ndas said…
wonderful.. bahut danyavad

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