Reflections on Braja-vāsa from Canada
I have been in the West for four months on a "fact-finding expedition" (!) out in the field, this time the field being the country of Canada, which for all intents and purposes has now become more of a foreign country to me than one that I can identify as my own.
My fact-finding mission mostly took place in a basement TV room, where I steadfastly observed popular entertainments as administered by the One-eyed God who stares unblinking at all and reveals to everyone exactly who they are and what they are to do.
For most of these four months, I did my best to keep in contact with Vrindavan through Vrindavan Today, but, as my series of daily commentaries on Vṛndāvana-mahimāmṛta amply demonstrates, I could only last 78 days before the cumulative effect of being in this strange world of the American-made future finally broke in on me.
So now with only a few days left in my exile, I am sitting on a sunny autumn morning in a Tim Horton's in Laval, drinking the principal drug that carburates this Western world, typing in the convivial atmosphere of a generic Canadian coffee shop, cozy with comfortable chairs and an electronic fireplace as the clientele gets warmed up for the coming winter. And fortified by the caffeine, I feel like writing like a writer -- one with something to say to the world.
There is much to reflect on in this image. But of course, on my side of things, after four months of exile from the Dham and trying to understand my love for Vrindavan, I would like to say something to my readers about the current situation in Braj.
Love is a strange beast. It makes one constantly call into question its object, as it is natural for the lover to want to own the object of his love. And he detests the idea that anyone should see blemishes in her beauty, for this is the beauty he has chosen to see, she is his love to whom he has given himself. And yet he sometimes wonders, even doubts... Is she beautiful enough? Do I love her enough to see only beauty? And then, as love falters, What are people saying about her?
I realized since I have been here in Canada that because I write primarily in English, Vrindavan Today will always be mainly for those who are attracted to Vrindavan from the outside, but who, because they identify with the Dham in some way, find what is written here relevant and the vision of Vrindavan we are trying to present to them meaningful. And that is the Vrindavan of all its pasts, all its presents and a future that we can collectively define.
At the same time, because I interact with many Western devotees through the VT articles, I see many of the opinions are openly critical of Vrindavan. And those opinions come from foreigners who, whatever their degree of devotion to bhakti or devotion to Radha and Krishna, still think that Krishna can leave Vrindavan and "go West."
We may be devotees, living in Vrindavan or not, observing Indian and bhakti traditions, wearing dhotis, putting on tilak and adopting other aspects of the local dress, and even learning Bengali or Braj Bhasha, but we fundamentally remain foreigners. And no matter how long we might stay in the Dham we will always be foreigners, though we may technically be a part of the Dham. And, worse yet, we are converts to a religion we barely understand, which comes from a world that is culturally and linguistically foreign to us. And because of our foreign saṁskāras, it may in many cases even be distasteful.
But, the final word in this brand of Krishna bhakti is about becoming a Brijbasi, externally and internally. It requires adopting an identity as a resident of a transcendent place, the underglow that lights up this worldly Vrindavan. Even so, our foreign minds naturally rebel if we cannot reconfigure these Indian dreams so that they fit our ways of imagining that world, which is not ours by birthright, but ours to learn and adopt. Yet, in our ignorance, we all too often take it that our particular imaginings are the more authentic ones.
Our imaginings of Vrindavan are those that were created from the whole cloth of India's mythical past, given to us in pure, original, practically unmediated, as-it-is form, and stamped with the status of fact: all of it, from flying mountains to gods wielding thunderbolts and titans with ten heads, to a cowherd boy who dances on the heads of a thousand-headed cobra. We drank this world in like newborn babies and imbibed the dream India in which Radha and Krishna were born. And all that was imprinted on the canvas of our hidden Western saṁskāras.
By mythical past, I mean that upon conversion, we accepted the ideal without questioning the reality, conflating the two. We did as the scriptures tell us to do--accept without question that this story represents the ideal. And the very reason it was possible for us rare Westerners to seize through Shrila Prabhupada or other gurus the decidedly Indian ideal of a universe centered on finding God was because we were already fed up with the Western way of life, with the very concept of civilization as pounded into us from the propaganda centers of Western civilization.
It might be said we tried to effectuate a brain transplant, undertaking a voluntary act of brainwashing. "Because," as Prabhupada said, "your brains are in need of washing." That was the conviction with which we turned our eyes to Vrindavan. We also laughed at Gandhi's quip about Western civilization that "it would be a good idea."
But the problem lies in the fact that we are not the only representatives of the West in town. The so-called West is leaving a stronger and stronger imprint on India, for better or worse. And Indians are enthusiastically taking it up, for the rewards of Western civilization are an improved standard of life in the here and now, as well as all the potential for enjoyment that it proposes. The result is a tremendous and yet fascinating paradox. Westerners heading East and Easterners heading West, meeting in one confused whirlpool.
We who come from the West and have taken up the practice of bhajan, including Vrindavan vasa, or even honoring Vrindavan as a holy Dham, a place where the external energy meets the internal, must trust in the tattva, in the real potency of the Dham to resist the onslaught of materialistic thinking. The irony is that our Western background inoculates us to some extent from the enchantment of the modern world's glamour, which makes us sanguine about the so-called development, but at the same time we have to be sufficiently self aware to recognize the aspirations of the people of India to the "good life" that most of us have known from birth. Furthermore, the prejudices we carry as a result of our Western background against what we see as shortcomings in Indian civilization, past and present, should be recognized as an obstacle.
In fact, the situation is one that needs to be negotiated carefully through the use of intelligence. We need not fear the process of ongoing revelation, which is nourished by the clashes of ideas and civilizations. There is no doubt that the mixture of different cultural backgrounds is going to result in developments in our understanding of the Dham and of the philosophy of Radha-Krishna devotion. What is needed is the intelligence to find the essence of our path of devotion to the Divine Couple and the meaning of Braja-vāsa and taking on the identity of a Braja vāsi.
In Vrindavan, that God in the center is Radhe Shyam. And because they are who they are, God incarnate in a particular historical time and situation, so the entirety of Vrindavan and Braj have their natural core and center in their symbolic presence. They are the axis mundi that point to the highest truths of the human heart, represented by madhura rasa. And throughout Braj, mādhurya's retinue serve in their natural centers – śānta, dāsya, sakhya, and vātsalya.
What I would like to say is that the whole of Braj-Vrindavan is the embodiment of our religion of prema. And that is what Vṛndāvana-mahimāmṛta is saying. So we will be returning to our daily meditations shortly.