Globalization and the Dham (Part I)

Prema Mandir, now the number one attraction in Vrindavan.

I wrote the following article at the request of Steve Rosen, the editor of the Journal of Vaishnava Studies, for an issue about tirthas, so I tried to distinguish Braj from other tirthas in India. I have written a lot about Vrindavan over the past decade and it was something of a task to extract the essence of my experience of Vrindavan and express it in the present moment. I will publish the article on this blog in three parts.

  • Part I of this three part series. [Introduction, Places of Pilgrimage: Tirtha, Kshetra and Dham, Vaishnava criticisms of tīrtha-yātrā, Braj/Vrindavan is a dhāma]
  • Part II of this three part series. [How a Gaudiya Vaishnava performs pilgrimage to the Dham, The eternal glory of residence in the Dham]
  • Part III: Sattva-guṇa and Nirguṇa, Globalization and the Dham, Can a culture truly be translated?


The town of Vrindavan, now a part of the municipality of Mathura-Vrindavan, and the wider area in which is lies, Braj, which also goes by the name Mathura Mandal, together form one of India’s most prominent pilgrimage centers or tirthas due to their association with the birth and childhood of Krishna, universally accepted by Hindus as a divine figure and teacher of the highest spiritual truths, and by Vaishnavas as the supreme form of God. As such, it is usually called the Dhāma, Braja Dham or Vrindavan Dham.

Though Mathura has a millennial history with long periods of Buddhist and Jain dominance, its current prominence as a Hindu or specifically Vaishnava holy place dates from the 16th century, in particular from the time of Sri Krishna Chaitanya’s visit in 1516, which is also when he sent some of his disciples to rediscover the lost sites of Krishna’s activities as recorded in the Bhāgavata Purāṇa. It was a very different world from that of today.

Though Vrindavan has grown steadily since that time, it has seen the greatest transformations in the last two decades after the Congress government opened the country to international commerce and economic liberalization in 1991, and even more so since the current Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has come to dominate all three levels of government in Mathura-Vrindavan – federal (since 2014), Uttar Pradesh state (since 2017) and the newly merged municipality of Mathura-Vrindavan (since 2017). But copious amounts of money were also showered on Vrindavan by the UP governments of both Mayawati (Bahujana Samaj Party 2007-2012) and Akhilesh Yadav (Socialist Party, 2012-2017).

One of the first acts of the Adityanath Yogi (BJP) government was the formation of a Braj Teerth Vikas Parishad, with full administrative powers over the entire region of Braj, having the purpose of developing it as a viable national and international tourist destination. For the BJP, the issue is not simply one of economic development but one that matches the party’s nationalism rooted in the country’s religious heritage. The development of that religious heritage is very much aligned with their own vision of the nation. To have tourism or pilgrimage and economic development mutually beneficial is a big plus.

As of 2015, according to official statistics, there were 45 million visitors, 90 thousand of which were foreign. These numbers have no doubt risen with the concerted efforts of the governments, which are seeing tourism as an important way of increasing the GDP. In all likelihood the overwhelming majority of those visiting Braj do so with some religious sentiment. [page 238. Only 1% of tourists to the Mathura region are "general purpose tourists," i.e., the rest are religious pilgrims, whether they are Indian or foreign.]

I first visited Vrindavan in 1975, which coincided with the inauguration of the ISKCON Krishna-Balaram temple, the event that might also be reasonably considered the date that marks the beginning of Vrindavan’s entry into globalization. After a long absence I returned in 2007 and became a permanent resident a couple of years later.

In 2009 I started a news blog called Vrindavan Today in which an attempt is being made to chronicle the environmental and heritage issues in the town as it undergoes the radical changes brought about by increased government investment and tourism.

My personal interest is in theology of the Dham, the specifically privileged position of the sacred space in Vaishnavism as one of the five principal practices of bhakti-yoga, and how it is being affected by Vrindavan’s entry into the modern, globalized world and its repackaging as a tourist destination. Since I am a practitioner of bhakti-yoga, a convert and immigrant from the Anglosphere, I personally experience the intersection of worlds taking place internally as much as externally, which leads to some of the reflections that I have made on Vrindavan Today and will try to summarize here.
Places of Pilgrimage: Tirtha, Kshetra and Dham

In India, places of pilgrimage number in the thousands. Most are situated on sacred bodies of water -- oceans, rivers, lakes – and thus are given the name tīrtha, which etymologically has the meaning of “ford.” It derives from the symbolic idea of “crossing over” the ocean or river of material suffering. They are in effect portals to “the other side,” and depending on the associations of the particular holy place, each leads to its own realm.

Since this quality has been attached to all holy places, the term tīrtha has come to be used in a generic manner for any such spot, and tīrtha-yātrā for all pilgrimage.

Devotees come to these places to perform the timeless rituals of bathing, saying prayers and offering oblations while standing in the sacred waters. As they do so, they feel that not only are they cleansing the body, but are also being cleansed of sin. They are thus crossing over from this world into the next. This “crossing over” can be figurative or real –many pious Hindus consider it to be the ultimate act to go to Benares or Jagannath Puri to die – or failing that, to simply lie by the banks of the Ganges to breathe their last. If that too is not possible, they try to have their funeral rites carried out there, so that their ashes may be sprinkled in the holy water. One of the customary duties of the Hindu pilgrim is to make offerings to the ancestors (śrāddha) in such a holy place.

Pilgrims invest a further level of sacredness in places where great saints were born, practiced their spiritual life, experienced the Divine, attained perfection or died.

So for the general, less knowledgeable Hindu pilgrim, the purpose of pilgrimage is to eliminate bad karma, accumulate good karma, for the sake of happiness in this world and the next. At the very outside, he may be interested in liberation.

Vaishnava criticisms of tīrtha-yātrā

Vaishnavas criticized all acts of piety that lead to heaven or salvation as a distraction from the real purpose of spiritual practice which is to attain love of God in the form of Krishna, and as a result they called the institution of pilgrimage itself into question.

Narottam Das Thakur, the influential second-generation follower of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, is often quoted:

tīrtha-yātrā pariśrama kevala maner bhrama 
sarva-siddhi govinda caraṇa
Making great efforts to visit the holy places is nothing but illusion. All perfection can be found at Lord Krishna’s lotus feet. (Prema-bhakti-candrikā 17)
Bhaktivinoda Thakur expands on the idea in his Kalyāṇa-kalpa-taru:

tumi cāha bhramibāre e sakala bāre bāre
mukti lābha karibāra tare |

se kevala tava bhrama nirarthaka pariśrama
citta sthira tīrthe nāhi kare ||
O mind! You just want to travel around, repeatedly visiting these places,
hoping to attain liberation in the end.
This is all an error on your part and a lot of wasted effort.
The steady mind does not go on pilgrimage.
(Kalyāṇa-kalpa-taru, Upadeśa 14)
The real value of a place of pilgrimage is that it is where the company of spiritually advanced people can easily be found. The holy land thus acts like a strong medicine, giving pilgrims a concentrated dose of the sacred that they can then carry with them back into their own everyday lives. A pilgrim does not simply make a physical journey, but an internal one. This was no doubt especially true when he or she had to walk for weeks in order to get to the destination, something that with our rapid modes of transport today has to a great extent been lost. Today’s “day tripping” religious tourism might also be called “pilgrimage light.”

Sri Krishna says in the Bhāgavatam,

yasyātma-buddhiḥ kuṇape tri-dhātuke /
sva-dhīḥ kalatrādiṣu bhauma ijya-dhīḥ
yat-tīrtha-buddhiḥ salile na karhicij/
janeṣv abhijñeṣu sa eva go-kharaḥ
One who thinks … that the holy places are meant for bathing and not for associating with those who have experience of spiritual matters, is nothing better than a cow or mule. (Bhāg. 10.84.13)
Vaishnavas furthermore understand that tīrtha-yātrā means visiting holy places that are favorable to their mood of worship, and visiting any other site that is contrary to that mood to be a waste of time. In the Vaiṣṇava-toṣaṇī commentary on 10.14.3, Sanatan Goswami says, “Rather than accepting the troubles of touring various holy places, one should spend his life in Krishna bhajan, staying peacefully in a dhāma such as Vrindavan, and hearing hari-kathā in the association of the great souls who naturally reside there.” (sthāne satāṁ nivāsa evāvyagratayā sthitāḥ, na tu tīrtha-paryaṭanādi kleśān kurvantaḥ.)

Braj/Vrindavan is a dhāma

Although Mathura Mandal, which includes Vrindavan as its most prominent center, is a pilgrimage place or tīrtha, it is more often and more correctly called a dhāma. The Sanskrit etymological meaning of dhāma is “effulgence,” which indicates the concept of the sacred place as an extension of the divine presence, non-different from Bhagavan himself.

The more common understanding of the word dhāma, however, is “dwelling place.” Vaishnavas use it to specifically refer to places where Krishna appeared and lived during appearance on Earth. In fact, it is not considered to be different in any real sense from his eternal transcendent abode.

Mathura-Vrindavan or Braj and Dwaraka are the principal areas where Krishna had his pastimes, but of these, Braj is the more important, since it is associated with Krishna’s mādhurya rather than his aiśvarya.

Therefore Vaishnavas in the Gaudiya tradition, following Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, do not consider the Dham and other tīrthas to be on the same level. Whereas a tīrtha is visited and one takes bath there to expiate sins and attain liberation, the Dham is invested with a special kind of sacredness that requires far more commitment. Thus living permanently in the Dham, not just visiting it, is the objective and the spiritual requirement. The concept of the tīrtha is included in dhāma, but it is not so the other way around.

Dwelling in Braj Dham is thus included by Rupa Goswami as one of the five topmost devotional activities, viz.

śraddhā viśeṣataḥ prītiḥ śrī-mūrter aṅghri-sevane
śrīmad-bhāgavatārthānām āsvādo rasikaiḥ saha
sajātīyāśaye snigdhe sādhau saṅgaḥ svato vare
nāma-saṅkīrtanaṁ śrī-mathurā-maṇḍale sthitiḥ
(1) Faith and special love for serving the Deity,
(2) Relishing the topics of the Bhāgavatam in the company of rasikas,
(3) Keeping the company of saintly persons who share the same devotional aspirations, who are affectionate and superior to oneself,
(4) Chanting the Holy Name, and
(5) Living in the region of Mathura, i.e., Braja-mandal.
(Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu 1.2.90-92)
durūhādbhuta-vīrye 'smin śraddhā dūre 'stu pañcake
yatra svalpo 'pi sambandhaḥ sad-dhiyāṁ bhāva-janmane
Each one of these five devotional activities is possessed of extraordinary power. Even without faith, if a pure-hearted person has the slightest connection to such activities, he will quickly develop deep feeling for Krishna. (Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu 1.2.238)
Mahaprabhu Krishna Chaitanya himself wanted to remain permanently in Vrindavan, even though he was never able to do so. ["Please inform Sanatana on my behalf: I shall also be coming,
He should arrange a place for me in Vrindavan." (CC 3.13.40)] However, he did send some of his principal disciples like Rupa and Sanatan Goswamis there, and after he left the world, many other immediate associates such as Raghunath Das came to Braj and established themselves there, in Vrindavan or Govardhan and other places. The presence of these important disciples made Braj the principal holy place for Gaudiya Vaishnavas, and at the same time it was also being developed by other saints who founded or followed other traditions of Krishna worship and had followings in other parts of India.

Chaitanya told Rupa and Sanatan in particular to search for the “lost holy places” related to Krishna. From this it may be understood that Goswamis were developing the entire land as a place for remembering Krishna, making it a destination for pilgrims or religious tourists. In modern terms, the idea of a “theme park” might not be altogether without its parallels.


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