On the Gaudiya Vaishnava Express: Better stories than mine

There was a book by the famous travel writer Paul Theroux left lying by a previous guest in the cottage at SRSG, The Old Patagonian Express. Theroux writes about pretty much nothing with such ease. He is a good writer and learned in literary matters, but his subject matter seems somewhat trivial to me. This book is about his travels on trains from Boston to Patagonia, the things that happen to him and the people he meets. Seems like a very easy formula: no reason for writer's block if that is all you have to do.

It is basically a diary. But diaries can be a great literary form... I have often wanted to write a kind of spiritual journal, like Thoreau or even like Satsvarupa Maharaj, but I am afraid I just don't have the discipline. Writing is time-consuming and exhausting, and I have a lot of it to do. Day-job type of thing. This kind of writing is an indulgence if it cannot be monetized... and even then it is not my genre, so I should rather avoid getting trapped in trivia purely for the purpose of pursuing that career path..

Though Theroux first wrote several novels, he later became known principally as a travel writer, much like V.S. Naipaul, whose three caustic books on travels in India I have read. This is one of Theroux's earlier works in that genre, which may account for his extensive reflections on travel itself in the first chapter. His main theme there is that the trip itself is usually ignored by writers and only the destination itself prioritized, even though the journey is full of its own interest.

So this book is full of accounts of the people he encountered, insignificant and significant  -- the latter mostly literary figures in Peru and Argentina. Like most trips taken for their own sake, the book ends up being pretty anticlimactic, the diary of an American wandering through a poor and backward third world of stalled trains and poverty as bad "as anything he had seen in India."

On the way back from Rishikesh, I thought a bit about Theroux's book. It seemed to me that there was a lot that was worthwhile in the travel genre, and I have indulged from time to time myself, but at the same time, looking around me at the exhausted Kanwariyas lying comatose on the upper berths around me, I really did not see that much worth writing about.


It was a little different on the Agra Cant.- KOAA Express, which runs once a week, loading up with Bengali bhaktas in Mathura station, either grihastha devotees headed home or babajis on their way east for preaching or collecting. I love that train, it is like a traveling tirtha, transformed by the presence of so many devotees. I have had the opportunity to meet many advanced bhakta acharyas in the few times I have taken it. Once I got together with some bhaktas from the Sundarbans and we had a rollicking sandhya arati kirtan, but mostly the devotees are shy and sit together in groups and socialize or alone chanting japa. This train really deserves a better name, so I will hereby call it the "Gaudiya Vaishnava Express." This time it seemed to be even more populated by devotees as many were returning home after spending Guru Purnima in Govardhan or elsewhere.

I had an upper birth on the aisle side. In the evening I was chanting japa and partly watching the people walking by. One small group of four of five clean-cut respectable-looking young men passed by -- Radha Kund tilak on their foreheads, but mostly dressed in pants and nondescript T-shirts like most Indian youths, One of them stopped and paid respects to me. He seemed to know me, and he introduced himself as Tamal Krishna Das, a disciple of Radhakund Mahant Ananta Das Pandit. He asked me if I remembered him and I had to say no.

He said, "I was there when you were alone with my Gurudeva. I took the pictures of you that you later posted on your blog." I was quite amazed because that was a significant moment for me and I had been very pleased that a permanent reminder of it had been recorded.

We did not talk further that evening. The next morning however, when he walked by I thanked him again for taking the photos and talked briefly of my relationship with his guru. That day, I had to tell my feelings to Anantadasji Maharaj that I had been bereft of good fortune in this lifetime since I had not availed myself of his association. I was thinking that I would no doubt have to wait to be born again to have such a blessing.

Now, just the previous day in Vrindavan (sorry to bring this up again) one devotee had said to me that I was a poseur, using these pictures of my coming into the association of these great devotees for self-promotion, without really being anugata to any of them. Of course, that is nonsense, because that is not necessarily the way Guru-tattva works, but in this case, it was fortuitous that Tamal Krishna had been there and thought it worthwhile to record that moment and then share it with me, but in such a way that I did not know where they had come from.

Anyway, the point of this story is not to talk about myself, for though I am proud of the blessings I got in this lifetime from Pandit Baba, I am going to talk about someone who has had much greater blessings than I, in more ways than I can count.

We were sitting on the benches, face to face, with an elderly Gaudiya Math householder sitting nearby, and Tamal started to tell me his story. He is only 27, but his devotional life started by Nityananda Prabhu's grace when he was 12.

He lives in Khardah, the son of a vegetable seller in the town marketplace which is only a short distance from his house. But the great spiritual wealth of Khardaha is the Shyamasundar temple, the home of Nityananda Prabhu and his descendants. The temple happened to be on his way to school and he stopped there to get darshan of Radha and Shyamasundar both on his way to classes and on the way back. As a result of this regular visiting of the temple he got a lot of kripa.

Once ISKCON was having a program in the town and Jayapataka Swami Maharaj was visiting the temple while Tamal happened to be there. As Jayapataka was paying his prostrated obeisance, the temple Gosais gave him the special kindness of touching Nitai's jashti (walking stick) to his head, an exceptional blessing that very few people get. Tamal immediately paid his obeisances next to Jayapataka Maharaj and also received the same blessing.

There was a Vaishnava in the quarter, an elderly disciple of Ananta Das Babaji, and Tamal learned many things from him. When he was 15 or 16, this bhakta told him that Pandit Baba was in Kolkata on a preaching tour. Tamal immediately wanted to go and see him, but the bhakta was unable to take him. Tamal had more or less decided that Babaji Maharaj would be his guru, but the family situation was not good. His parents and other family members, including a sister-in-law and nephews, etc. were all non-vegetarians and non-devotees, in fact, completely uninterested in spiritual life. He had already decided to follow a vegetarian diet and over time had gradually been improving his standards.

That night he had a dream in which he saw Ananta Dasji coming out of an effulgent cloud of smoke and told him that he would give him initiation. On waking, Tamal knew that he had to go to see his guru in Kolkata. That day, without telling his parents, he skipped school and with the elderly bhakta's instructions found his way to the south Kolkata private home where Pandit Baba was staying.

The trip was a somewhat intimidating adventure for the young man unused to Kolkata's bustling crowds and difficult geography. But he made it and came into the house where Pandit Baba was being hosted. Several devotees were sitting around and they pointed to a closed door behind which Baba was sitting. Tamal went in and saw Babaji Maharaj sitting in a chair, absorbed in lila-smaran, tears slowly trickling down his cheeks, oblivious to the world. A devotee couple was sitting nearby, the owners of the flat, and they indicated that Babaji Maharaj should not be disturbed. So, a little disappointed, Tamal paid his obeisances and started to leave. But as he left, Babaji Maharaj suddenly broke out of his trance and called him by name, "Tamal, you have come from Khardah?"

Tamal was astonished, how did Babaji know his name? Had the old bhakta in Khardah told Babaji about him? He threw himself at Baba's feet and said yes and told him he had come to ask for initiation. Babaji said, "You are still in school, if I give you initiation it will take up a lot of your time to do the Yoga Peeth smaran that we do in our line. So I will just give you Harinama at this time. Go and get a new cloth and some other necessary items and we will do it tomorrow."

Tamal came home a little worried that his parents would be angry with him for skipping school. And besides, where would he get the things he needed for initiation? He told his mother, expecting her to object, but was quite surprised when she agreed to help him get the things he needed. So the next day he went back and got Harinam, and was able to give dakshina and so on.

After that his sadachar became more strict. He started wearing a dhoti and tilak every day when he went to school. To his amazement, his mother also adopted the sattvika diet and eventually took initiation from Baba. He began visiting Radha Kund and Babaji Maharaj even gave him the assignment to preach in Delhi, where he started a very effective program that has brought more than 600 devotees to Baba for initiation. He has formed a kind of loose network of friends, young men of his own age who like him are enthusiastic about bhakti and have taken initiation from Babaji Mahashay or other bhajananandis in Radha Kund. These were the others I had seen with him earlier on.

In time, Tamal had a second story temple built on the humble family dwelling, which now houses beautiful Gaura-Nitai and Radha-Shyamasundar deities. The house is now known in the neighborhood as "Radhe Radhe Bari." When devotees come from Puri, Nabadwip or Braj to visit Nityananda Prabhu's Sripat, they usually come to his house also and spend the night there, or give path or have kirtan. He rattled off quite an impressive list of names. It has become another center of Braj-bhakti in Khardaha.

The Gaudiya Math bhakta who was listening to our conversation was so amazed by this young man's story that he asked him to come to Bongaon to give Bhagavata class. I also invited myself to spend the night in Khardaha at his house especially since I had never had darshan of Nitai Chand's Shripat. So, that night after arriving in Kolkata, I took the local train with him and his companions and had the good fortune to take darshan of Nitai Chand and Shyamasundar in Khardaha for the first time in my life.

Jai Nitai! Jai Gaur! Jai Jai Sri Radha Shyamasundar.


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