Memories of Birnagar Dwadash Mandir

Tonight I am back here in Vrindavan. It is very interesting for me to observe this differences in worlds as I constantly go back and forth between Rishikesh and Vrindavan, the two places where I have spent most of the last nearly seven years.

Now, in a few days, I will go to my guru's home. I am barely able to imagine what it will be like. It really will be the first time in ages. I went once a few years ago, in a rented car with Gadadhar Pran. It was a very unsatisfactory visit in that there was little closeness between the two of us white foreigners and the people living at the mandir. This time I go in the company of my godbrother, Harigopal Dasji.

Thirty years ago, I knew Harigopal as Bhakta Das when I first went to Birnagar. There were three young men staying in the ashram; Badol, Madhav and Bhakta Das. Though Madhusudan and I only stayed there a few times for an extended period of time, we developed friendships with all three of them. But Bhakta Das was always curious and friendly, and he helped us negotiate the difficulties of being in an ashram dominated by two old women. Especially two old women who considered us moochers.

And they weren't far wrong. We were babajis. We were moochers. We never brought dakshina. We thought our seva was to do bhajan and to be students and learn. And Prabhu encouraged us, told us to go for it. But we never overstayed our welcome.

The atmosphere was definitely different from what we had been used to in Iskcon and the Gaudiya Math. There was a time warp feel to it. As though we had stepped back another further dimension into this reality of the parampara. An otherworldiness, in an eccentric place where an eccentric old man sat and chanted japa all day long, living and feeding his little family with his government pension. An old man, 100 years old with no teeth, who spluttered and spat each time he spoke, often needing an interpreter to make himself understood.

We would sit in his room and Bhavani, an older disciple from Midnapore, a school teacher, would read from some of Prabhu's unpublished writings. Would that I had known Bengali well enough then to remember all the details. But we got our history lesson, as we had hoped we would. And we got our ticket for this other world, this next layer of the palimpsest. The world of Vaishnavism before the Gaudiya Math brought it into the 20th century and gave it a new shape and color and ethos.

I did not realize how much affection Bhakta Das had for me until this time when I went to see him at Radha Kund. He had taken vesh from Ananta Dasji, not long after Madhusudan and I had both been defrocked by the playful hand of the Player. He has been living there for almost thirty years. I have to confess that I was a little surprised when I heard he had become a babaji, because somehow I had never seen that serious side of him.

I spent a day with him recently and he is pretty much your old school, genuine bhajananandi babaji. He is very simple, both in lifestyle and in behavior. It was quite strange for me to feel so much camaraderie after all these years. A great simplicity is required for this babaji life. To maintain the same rhythm, the same pace day in day out, focusing the mind in one direction only, that of bhajan. Taking joy in the daily routine of japa, bathing in the Kund, kirtan, cleaning, deity worship, cooking, reading Chaitanya Charitamrita, doing Govardhan parikrama.

Living in that renounced community, once a kind of Mount Athos, though not so much anymore. But still keeping to himself, for a community of hermits is still a community, and the people are still hermits. Simple, and I should add, not like me. Which is why he is still there and I am still not.

And now these current developments are taking place. Rather important ones, if you will.

Birnagar, the birthplace of Bhaktivinoda Thakur, was a deserted and desolate place in the 40's when Lalita Prasad Thakur first came to establish himself there. This had once been the site of a prosperous zamindari, but at some time when Bhaktivinoda Thakur was still young and living elsewhere, it was struck with an epidemic of smallpox or cholera, and pretty much decimated and abandoned. Bhaktivinoda wrote a poem about it in English, one of his earliest literary works.

Prabhu reclaimed the property which is where Bhaktivinoda Thakur was born and eventually made this his primary place of residence. Unfortunately I have no dates for all these things yet. When he came, the 12 temples -- one to Kali, one to Durga, and ten Shiva lingas -- and which date back to the time when Ula was a thriving village, had all been long abandoned and were in a fairly advanced state of disintegration. So with his limited means as a government bureaucrat and later living on his pension, he renovated according to his taste and according to his needs.

The Kali mandir was never used except as a goshalla or storage place, because it had been used to slaughter goats in sacrifice, so it was considered unusable. It was altogether outside the walled compound, which was formed by the ten Shiva temples with the Durga temple to the right as you came in. The Durga temple had been made into the main building. Upstairs was made into a temple for Gaur Gadadhar and Prabhu lived underneath the temple. There was a spiral staircase going up the side to get you to the temple, and there was enough space to allow for twenty or thirty people or more to have kirtan. The building had been restuccoed and whitewashed in a light blue color.

The Shiva temples, two rows of five facing each other, were left empty but for one and that courtyard would just be used for drying clothes, or fruits and vegetables, or poppers, or some other preparation at which Masi Ma and Bhakta Ma labored all day long. The kitchen and dining room were after that, past which we, Madhusudan and I, and probably the other men, dared not trespass.

Behind the compound, to the north, there is a fruit orchard, with mangoes and jackfruit, and all kinds of edible roots and leaf plants, ginger and tumeric. This orchard, in fruit season would always become, and still is, the prey of youths who seem to become ever more impolite with each generation.

But there is still a pukur, where the birthplace of Bhaktivinoda Thakur is and Prabhu's samadhi. There is a fair bit of arable land also. But what is missing is a protective wall.

Like everywhere else in India, development or growth is going on unabated in West Bengal. What was once a deserted area now is practically a suburb of Kolkata. It is on the suburban railroad corridor from Sealdah to Krishnanagar. On the western side of the Ganges or here Bhagirathi and then Hooghly rivers, the electrified lines now reach as far as Nabdwip if not further. So both banks are becoming increasingly urbanized.

Birnagar lies on that line, second station after Krishnagar. The pressure on the property is becoming quite heavy. Encroachment, squatting, greedy eyes of speculators, and so on, what to speak of theft and other kinds of insecurities that come with the influx of urbanization.

So Bhakta Das wants to build a wall. I am just going along for the ride because it is Harigopalji's wish. He is going to officially be made president of the Bhaktivinoda Goshthi in Birnagar and he is going try to save the place. Bhaktivinoda Thakur has sent him a disciple, an Englishman he has named Radha Charan Das, who has kindly said he is willing to cover enough of the costs that the work can at least be be begun.

This could be characterized as a concession to the Kali Yuga. And we confess, we did not go looking for the Kali Yuga, it came to us, by the divine arrangement. It is all a question of doing something ourselves to protect Bhaktivinoda Thakur's birthplace or leaving it up to ISKCON or the Gaudiya Math to make an international destination out of it?

It may be to Prabhu's everlasting credit that he had few rich disciples. He was not persuaded to take money, except perhaps for feasts and special events when all would chip in. He lived on his pension pretty much. So he had no great ambition to turn this into anything more than a place where people would honor Bhaktivinoda Thakur in a way that recalled him and his mood.

When there, either Madhusudan and I together or alone, we would go on Nam Tahal, i.e., kirtan in the streets of the village. We would go to at least three houses each to beg people to chant the holy name. bolo krishna bhaja krishna koro krishna shikha. It was always most fun when we did this with another godbrother, Sachinandan Dasji.

Sachinandan was one of Prabhu's most prominent disciples. He was tall, very tall for a Bengali. He had a golden complexion and a magic smile. He worked in a post office in Calcutta, but in those days, Calcutta offices had a lot of tolerance for crazy spiritual sadhu types. If someone was a sadhu, they were thankful they had a sadhu in their office. He pretty much made his own schedule, and if there was a Vaishnava event somewhere, he would take a day off.

Anyway, Sachinandan was an unsuccessful worldly man. His own father had been a babaji in Vrindavan who "returned" to Bengal, got married and lived in a village in Hooghly. Sachinandan's father had also been an "old school" Braj type babaji, and so Sachinandan had it instilled in him from childhood. His specialty was kirtan, and I say that he even influenced ISKCON kirtan through Guru Kripa to some extent. He would close his eyes and dance, especially uddanda, jumping straight up and down. His kirtans were, as we used to say, ecstatic.

If Sachinandan was at the mandir, he would go out with us. He did Nam Tahal in Calcutta as well. We would walk, usually just two, three or four of us, chanting Hare Krishna, and in between sing Bhaktivinoda Thakur's street kirtan songs, like Radha Krishna Bol Bol Bol, Bol o re sabai. Or Gay Gaura madhura svare. And we would go chanting Hare Krishna through the village, taking a different route each day, but we only went to houses where we knew that the people were pious and would come out and pay pranams, would listen to the kirtan and even join in, and would do a Hari lut, throwing puffed sugar (batasa) in the air over our heads.

We all loved Sachinandan. Later on, after Prabhu left, I used to go with Sachinandan to programs. He had disciples in various suburban areas along the Ganges corridor. I went once with him to his home village. We still had to walk on rutted walkways and on the dykes in the rice fields. We always used to have a gathering of Prabhu’s disciples and grand disciples at Panihati for the cheer dahi mahotsava. There would always be so many little groups like ours, doing their own thing, singing their own kirtans and sharing their mangoes and jackfruit and bananas. Bathing in the Ganga in the midst of the joyful noise. The best of all the Bengali Vaishnava festivals I ever attended. Later he came to Radha Kund, became a bit demented in later life, died there and his samadhi is kept by some of his disciples in Gaur Dham Colony.

Anyway, I went off a huge tangent there. So thinking of going back to my guru's ashram is provoking so many memories, even of things like the ashoka tree, and the custard apple tree, the stark room where I stayed, the birds. A lot of scents and sounds are coming back, which I already know will mostly be lost to everything except my memory. It was, I think, just like Jaiva Dharma.

It is rather ironic that the best pictures of Prabhu are this series where he is seen conversing with Srila Prabhupada.


Anonymous said…
wonderful..... is Sacinandan das the founder of Gaur dham??
Jagadananda Das said…
No, Gaur Dham Colony was founded by disciples of Ananta Vasudeva (Puri Maharaj). But I do not know much more about it than that.

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