Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Autobiography of a Yogi

I've been reading Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda. I read his account of his exceptional life as a mystic yogi many decades ago, when i was also dreaming about a spiritual trek to the Himalayas. I never made it there (neither did Yogananda it turned out), but the Swami's book made an impression on me then, and it still does after all these years and variegated experiences in Krishna Consciousness.

What impresses me is not the philosophy of Kriya Yoga. His line, to the best of my understanding, is an eclectic mix of Pantanjali, Kundalini, Shankaracarya's monism and bhakti! Yogananda never gives a clear and concise definition of his philosophy, and i think in his line, practice and realization of mystic yoga siddhis takes precedence over both oneness and service. But in terms of philosophy, the undercurrent of monism that moves thru their line, puts salt in the sweet rice, at least for any aspiring bhakta.

He also spends some time in his book trying his best to reconcile Christian thought from the Bible and modern scientific theories with yoga. For someone preaching yoga and vegetarianism to Americans in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, Yogananda was remarkably ahead of his time. You might even say he personally introduced yoga and 'new age' thinking to the West.

But what really impresses me in his book (and almost makes me jealous), is the wonderful, intimate and loving personal exchanges he was able to have with yoga masters during his early training years in India. Yogananda was born in 1893 in Bengal, just three years prior to the birth of His Divine Grace Srila Prabhupada. Basically, they were contemporaries, growing up in a culturally opulent period, when Calcutta was the capital of India, when Bengalis were highly cultured and when genuine vaisnavas and yogis could be found simply for the seeking.

Yogananda was inclined to be a yogi, and he met many amazing personalities. These yogis had perfected yogic meditation and possessed some supra-human qualities along with humility. Similarly, there also were pure vaisnavas, even so-called ordinary men, such as Srila Prabhupada's humble father, Sri Gour Mohan Dey, who had divine qualities. Where today, can such men and women be found?

We live in a time of mass culture. Just by a few keystrokes i can discover libraries worth of information and knowledge about a vast range of mundane and spiritual subjects. But where are the personalities who have imbibed this knowledge? Where are the saints and yogis who have assimilated the teachings of their gurus and can animate yoga and bhakti with joy and illumination? Who is there to pour cooling water over our dry minds and soothe our scorched hearts?

In this mood, i enjoyed reading Yogananda's journey from his childhood to becoming a swami and yogi, while at the same time, i lamented how such a journey at least on the outward plane, is no longer possible in our world today. With all our technology, we have lost the wealth of masters and highly evolved devotees. We have also lost the sensitivity for seeking such personalities. We live in a much poorer world because of it.

But thanks to the mercy of Srila Prabhupada, at least, we do have a clear map of how to get from Point A (material consciousnss) to Point B (Krishna Consciousness). That map is accessible to anyone and everyone who wishes to follow his guidance with their own intelligence. (And not blindly follow anyone who claims to represent him.) Some of us also have precious memories of Srila Prabhupada who bestowed love on us with every word and glance and thought. We can only pray that our prayers and chanting bring us closer to his lotus feet. That is possible by his mercy. We also can have hope -- not to change external circumstances in any group or organization-- but to one day find a time and space where, with intimacy and an open heart, and without any hidden motive, we will associate with a pure devotee of Krishna.

No more will we feel in want, in need or envious of anyone or anything in this world when that day finally comes. Our most cherished desires will be fulfilled. Even the perfections and charms of the mystic yogis will have no attraction for us. We will see the Supersoul in everyone. With God realization, our inner poverty, ambition and grief will be conquered. With love, a yogi can give up his meditation, a king can renounce the world and even a dog can be better than a brahmin. That's the perfection of yoga.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

It's a Mad, Mad, Madoff World

The latest in a series of earthquakes in the financial world is the news that one of Wall Street's most successful private investment firms was nothing more than a $50 billion Ponzi scheme. A Ponzi scheme is a fraud: someone claims to offer you an excellent return on your money and actually pockets the money, paying off previous clients with your cash. It was named after Charles Ponzi, an Italian immigrant who set up a scheme in Boston almost a century ago that made millions. (Mr. Ponzi landed up in both Federal and State prisons.)

Now there are three extra zeros added to the 21st century sequel: billions of dollars were invested with Bernard Madoff, a Jewish New York investor whom everyone thought was brilliant and a pillar of his community. There seems to be nothing left of the money. "We think it went to money heaven," an investigator said.

"It's all basically a lie," Mr. Madoff confessed to his sons just before being arrested.

Mr. Madoff is allegedly a first-class fraud, but how is his hoax much different from the so-called honest brokers and bankers of Wall Street who have lost trillions of investor money? I'm no economist or lawyer, but when trillions of dollars are gambled and lost by clever people, is there no penalty? The problem is, the entire global economy has been built on greed and cheating. So where do you draw the line?

And it's not just about money. The imbalance of wealth achieved by those who manage (and lose) other people's money corrupts the society as a whole. Greed becomes an ideal rather than the powerful human fault that it really is.

Communism failed, in part, because it did not engage people's greed. The totalitarian state works by fear, not greed. But fear does not make people work hard. Greed does. Unfortunately, greed creates its own imbalances, which ultimately corrupt the whole system in a different way. Its like pigging out. Eventually a person pays the price for stuffing himself by becoming ill. Society also pays for pigging out.

In my own life experience, i have witnessed the effects of greed. It's unhealthy, malignant and damaging. Multiply that by millions and you get a society that is totally out of balance and discordant with nature.

On Wall Street, earning a million dollars is nothing special, and many money managers make incomes of $20 million or more. While the incomes of doctors, lawyers and Wall St. executives have inflated, ordinary workers wages are flat. And while doctors try to "do no harm," (although they often do no good and sometimes unintentionally do a lot of harm), the same can't be said for high-powered Wall St. bankers. They cleverly exploit a bubble, create an illusion of high profits, and when the bubble bursts, ordinary people lose their pensions and life savings, while the bankers keep their million dollar salaries and bonuses.

Most of all, the vast riches and quick money being made by a few promotes an unsustainable and corrupt myth: that you can get something for nothing. We idolize men who can make a lot of money, regardless of how they do it, or whether they are actually contributing anything useful or not to society. That's what Srimad Bhagavatam tells us is standard in Kali Yuga. If you can show money, you are a gentleman to be respected. If you can't, you're an unfit beggar, perhaps a criminal. But who are the real criminals? You never know in a mad, mad, madoff world.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Freedom Lovers

Life is a struggle, no matter what condition we are in. Poor persons struggle to survive and rich persons struggle with subtle desires. Ignorant persons struggle with inferiority and intelligent persons struggle with arrogance. Everyone struggles with the mind and the senses. We are dominated by our own mind, while we think we are free.

Youths who protest for more freedom will never understand that real freedom can only be found within the heart, in the connection between our soul and Supersoul. Freedom is not political. Or economic. Or social. Freedom is not so cheap it can be found in a mob or on the internet.

The middle aged who work so hard to pay their bills and achieve their goals have no time for ideals like freedom. They have been put to sleep by the drug of progress and the drudgery of working to satisfy insatiable desires. To them freedom is sleeping.

For the aged and elderly who have become redundant and are pushed aside, they passively nurse their memories of good times and bad. They are told to distract themselves, accept their disappointments and remain quiet. Freedom for them is the very death they fear. At least death will give them another chance. But no one is dying voluntarily. We are all forced by nature to die.

So, where is freedom? Freedom is part of the very fabric of the soul. God gave us our freedom as an intrinsic quality of our self. It is freedom that gives us the opportunity to desire and pursue anything we want. Freedom allows us to exercise our will. Free will. In this world we use our free will to enjoy and control money, women, men, workers, citizens, autos, drugs, food, gold, fame. We use art and science to exercise our will and to lord over this endlessly mutable creation.

But finally, after many, many lifetimes, we realize the futility of our misuse of freedom. That is when we become receptive and receive the mercy of a saint or devotee. By his or her grace, we turn our attention to the Lord again. At that time, just before our soul fully awakens from its almost timeless sleep, the purpose of our freedom becomes realized. With hesitation at first, then later with single-minded will, we shall exercise our freedom to become students, servants, friends and lovers of our Beloved Prabhu.

Freedom comes to us in its perfected form as all-consuming love. It is a divine irony that full freedom, complete wisdom and voluntary slavery are interchangeable qualities when we become perfected in love. Freedom equals divine slavery equals love of God. Full freedom is found only when we fall in love with God. Freedom lovers.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Only Medicine that Works

Now that the terrorist attacks in Mumbai are gradually receding in the collective human consciousness, the puzzle remains how young boys, barely men, could be brainwashed into becoming mass murderers. The forces of fundamentalism -- using religious prejudice and misusing the words of God's prophets and messengers-- are today's fascism.

By appealing to popular desires, envy and prejudice, fundamentalist leaders of all persuasions -- Muslims, Christians, even Hindus -- mislead their followers, and create havoc for others who are complete strangers, innocent civilians caught in the crosshairs of Kali yuga.

It is a symptom of Kali that compassion is conspicuous by its absence. Pity the poor cows and bulls and other farm animals who have zero rights and who are tortured and murdered without any protest. And grieve for the innocent victims of terror attacks who are standing or sitting in the wrong place at the wrong time. None of us can say that we are free from the curse of Kali.

Harer nama, harer nama, harer nama eva kevalam..... only the holy names can nullify the miseries of the modern age. Only the chanting of divine names of God can pacify the heart. It's the only medicine that works.

That sounds simplistic and naive but it is based on the experiential evidence of genuine sadhus, fakirs and saints, and the transcendental words of wisdom found in all scriptures. God does not belong to anyone. Everyone belongs to God. And He is absolutely free from prejudice and therefore can be seen only by someone who is similarly pure in heart.

We are not sincere enough to appreciate the medicine we are offered. Instead we like to drink poison in the form of distractions, diplomacy and debate. Nevertheless, let us pray to become sincere. So that we can take the medicine and experience the cure. And taste the real sweetness and lightness that can be found beneath the heavy suffering of an iron age.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Punya Bhumi

Big chaos, Small heroes

The terror attack on Mumbai ended at least 173 lives and created havoc and fear throughout the city, and via cable news, the world. But it also brought out acts of spontaneous heroism from unassuming persons. Like Vishnu Datta Ram Zende, the platform announcer at Victoria Terminus Railway Station. His job is to use the public-address system at Mumbai's largest railway station to direct rushing hordes of travelers to their trains. His voice is similar to voices that most of us have heard traveling across India on trains.

But last Wednesday just before 10 p.m., Mr. Zende became a lone rescue worker in a horrific situation. He heard a loud explosion and saw people being shot at and running across the platform. He gripped his microphone in his small control booth and calmly directed a panicked crowd toward the safest exit.

"Walk to the back and leave the station through Gate No. 1," he chanted alternately in Hindi and Marathi, barely stopping to take a breath until the platform was cleared. The gunmen, armed with AK-47 automatic weapons and hand grenades, located his announcement booth and fired at him, puncturing one of the windows. But they missed Mr. Zende who was not hurt.

As Mumbai faced a brutal and merciless attack by ten highly trained Pakistani militants shooting at random on everyone they came across, ordinary citizens like Mr. Zende displayed extraordinary grace and fearlessness. Many times, they did so at considerable personal risk, performing acts of heroism that went far beyond their job descriptions. Without their quick thinking and courage, the toll of the attacks would have been greater than the 173 confirmed deaths from the attacks.

At Victoria Terminus, the gunmen acted with a cool precision. They first struck the long-distance section of the station, spraying the large waiting hall with gunfire. Those waiting were about to board the slow, crowded, cheapest train to Varanasi, scheduled to depart at 11:55 pm, and most of the fatalities at the station happened here. Satya Sheel Mishra, who runs a second-floor restaurant called Re-Fresh Food Plaza, saw the two gunmen take their positions and fire. Seven bullets pierced his glass windows. Crouching on the ground, he saw the men shoot indiscriminately and then march toward the other side of the station, where Mr. Zende was making his announcements.

Zende saw the gunmen walk in front of his window which was one floor up from the train platforms. He crouched on the ground and heard them shoot. One bullet shattered the window. Above his microphone, a murti of Ganesh, the remover of obstacles, sat in a blue box with twinkling red lights around him. Saved because the gunmen did not climb the stairs to his announcement booth, Zende called his wife when the shooting stopped. "I am in the office. I'm safe. Don't worry."

He is one of many heroes who displayed noble qualities in the midst of bullets, death and panic. Many of us westerners who regularly visit India or who have lived there have come to appreciate the finer qualities of ordinary Indians. Despite so many ugly and distorted influences, Punya Bhumi, the land of spiritual culture, remains alive somehow. No matter how much under attack it becomes, whether from within its own borders-- by corrupt politicians or misguided religionists-- or from outside forces who envy and hate the Indians because they do not embrace their fundamentalism, the character of India's people still shines thru, as it did in some of the darkest hours last week in Mumbai.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Massacre in Mumbai

As i write, the standoff between terrorists and Indian army commandos in Mumbai continues. Till now, more than 150 people have been killed, around 300 injured by the attacks. Yes, the remaining attackers will be killed, the body count of dead persons will go higher, the eyewitness accounts on 24/7 cable news stations will be told and retold, and the speculation about who may be responsible and how they did it will go on.

But behind the sheer horror of such barbaric and seemingly random acts of murder and chaos, what is the lesson to be learned? You will not get any underlying truths from the politicians' sound bites, the expressions of condemnation or the expert talking heads on cable tv. To get a clearer picture, we need to look at events thru the eyes of sastra.

The verse that first comes to mind is the famous padam padam ya vipadam natesam. Instead of Louis Armstrong's song, "What a Wonderful World," the reality is: What a Dangerous World this is. Anything can happen and in this world, it's often that it does. Shit happens here. You go to have dinner at a 5 star restaurant (as some were doing at the Taj and Oberoi Hotels in Mumbai yesterday evening), and without warning hand grenades are tossed, explosions go off and automatic rifles are firing rounds of deadly bullets in your direction. Who is shooting, who is dying, who is being injured, who is escaping unharmed?? In the chaos, all seems to be random, and all reason appears to be absent (although we know from sastra that everything follows nature's laws which includes the law of destiny or karma, and nature is under the control of Krishna). To the ignorant, which is basically everyone in the material world, life seems predictable, but this predictability is quite temporary and no one can predict how and when this life will end.

Another thought related to this tragic event is how this needless killing is a result of prejudice and brainwashing. My first reaction when i started seeing the unfolding drama on the internet and tv was to condemn the killers. But then i saw a photograph of one of the alleged terrorists who had attacked the VT train station in Mumbai. Most of the people he killed were innocent children, women and vendors who sell chai and snacks at the station. But this killer looked to be only around 20 years old, dressed in a t shirt and jeans, like he could have been a college student. What inspired such misplaced blind faith in him that he chose this path? For sure, it was the work of malicious hate-mongers who misuse the teachings of God to incite hopeless young men to think of themselves as martyrs and actually become murderers.

Fundamentalists of all religions are the best and worst at the offense of interpreting God's desires and His words to incite hatred, bigotry and violence to achieve not God's wishes, but their own perverted goals. How can anyone who claims to follow God not accept that everyone who has life, has God within him? How can they claim to be superior to others? How can they justify murdering other jivas, either in human form or animal form? How can one claim to act for the Father while making plans to destroy their Father's other children?

So brainwashed boys who still look like children, are inspired to kill innocents by their fundamentalist gurus. The secular societies are also ignorant about how to follow a divine system, a society based on equality and spiritual values. So they create sytems that breed injustice, greed and imbalances. These injustices are the nourishment of the envious fundamentalists. Ignorance on both sides. A world where everyone talks about freedom or truth or God, but no one listens to Him when he speaks or to his pure devotees when they appear. Everyone talks; no one listens.

The noise, both inside everyone's mind and outside in the geopolitical world, keeps getting louder and louder. It's the sound of danger. The only real protection in any dangerous situation, is the presence of God. In such dire times as these, we should remind one another of the promise of Mahaprabhu, that God is not different from his names. In fact, He is more accessible in his names than any other form. Unfortunately, i have no attraction for hearing his names. This is the real tragedy of the precarious times we live in.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Photos from the Dham

Here are a few photo albums from my recent visit to Vrindavan.
Click on the slideshow, the title of this post, or type in the link: http://picasaweb.google.com/jauvana

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


"Couper les cheveux en quatre"

I just received an email from a nice godbrother from France who read my India Journal here. He especially liked the descriptions about being generous with the ricksaw wallas, and he elaborated on that point with some examples from Srila Bhaktisiddhanta and Srila Prabhupada. How, for example, in Haridwara, there was a long line of beggars sitting in front of their bowls and Prabhupada had his disciples go and put a few paisas in each one of them.

This godbrother explained the reason he didn't leave his comment directly on my blog was because of the tendency for others--especially on the internet-- to immediately tear apart another's opinions. He cited a French expression: Couper les cheveux en quatre-- splitting hairs in four parts lengthwise-- to describe this phenomenon. It seems that today's devotees, instead of focusing on unity in diversity, which is the basis of spiritual life and of Lord Caitanya's acintya bedabeda tattva, focus on debating and trying to defeat, ad nauseam, those who do not think, look, speak or act like they do.

This hairsplitting is one of the pastimes of the material world. It represents the backside of God-- along with other forms of false lordship/ false friendship/ worship-me ship. That does not mean i am against being critical when there is due reason. Anyone who reads this blog knows that i don't hold any punches if i see injustice or incompetence on the part of so-called leaders. Tyranny and oppression need to be weeded out, whether they are found in governments or in religious societies.

But being critical for its own sake, to exhibit one's superiority, while avoiding a tolerant mood of reconciliation that could bring jivas together in one house-- in this case the biggest tent in the universe, devotees who want to liberate the world-- is madness.

Hairsplitting is a holier-than-thou pastime. It splits us away from Kesava, the controller of Brahma and Siva, the possessor of the most beautiful, fine Hair. And it turns us into caricatures of sadhus, not worthy of the name.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

India Journal, Conclusion

When i wake up i open the door to my room and walk out on the veranda, offering my pranams to the towers and cakras of the Imli Tala mandir within sight next door. The open courtyard of Yamuna Kunj has a net placed over the top of it, to protect it from becoming a monkey sanctuary. Monkeys run across it and they sometimes fight on it, using it as a bridge. Below in the garden is a tiny marble kund that is filled with water, some grass, a picnic table and on the brick wall, a painting of Yamuna devi. I have spent several months in this room on previous trips. This morning i realize i will be leaving Yamuna kunj and Vrindavan in a few hours.

I chant my rounds on the veranda, pacing back and forth. The early morning light and quiet with the sight of the cakras on top of Imli Tala make this a wonderful place to chant. Japa in this setting is effortless and immediately rewarding. Chanting on beads in Vrindavan is one of the opulences of Vrindavan. I read that some western devotees once approached Krishna das babaji, the great kirtaniya godbrother of Srila Prabhupada, to record his singing. They brought instruments and a tape recorder. It was ekadasi in Vrindavan. When requested, he declined to sing. He said, "tonight we shall chant without any distractions." And he began chanting japa. Vrindavan is perfect for such modest kirtan. There is no need of distractions, not even melody and rhythm.

Later in the morning i attend a Tirobhav (Disappearance day) festival for Srila Prabhupada at Vrinda Kunj. This is the day Prabhupada left us 31 years earlier and departed for Goloka Vrindavan. I was invited to speak at Iskcon but i am too negative towards the institution to speak there. They want to celebrate in their own sentimental way the fantasy that Iskcon still represents Prabhupada's legacy. They will never admit that they distorted his vision and drove away most of his disciples. I don't have the power or the purity to persuade them otherwise. Better to share my thoughts with a small group of devotees who are not victims or perpetrators of lies and envy.

There are four or five godbrothers who speak about Prabhupada at Vrinda Kunj, along with a few local Gaudiya math personalities. I am touched by the sincerity of the godbrothers. All of them had been in Iskcon, some more than 30 years. Now they are independent-- householder, vanaprastha, sannyasi. All keep Srila Prabhupada in the core of their hearts. Their allegiance and faithfulness is to him, not to a society. They are not blinded by politics. When their eyes finally open to transcendental reality, they will see Srila Prabhupada as he is.

They are not like those devotees who pretend to know Prabhupada while they focus on their narrow self interest. Such devotees are like those who pretend to be asleep. Try as you will, no one can awaken them. Shake them, shout, jump up and down, they continue their pretense of sleeping. But the honest disciples, even if they experience difficulty controlling their senses or depression due to lack of association, they will wake up when Prabhupada calls them. They are like the gopis who lost Krishna's darsan for some time, but will find him again by the intensity of their searching.

After the speaking program and puspanjali (offering of flowers to Prabhupada) we enjoy a satisfying (and not too spicy) feast. I stay after prasadam to sit with the godbrothers until things wind down. Then i go back to my room for one last tidying up. The books and clothing that i am keeping here i lock up in my almira, a large steel cupboard. An almira is very useful in India. Not only does it keep your things locked, but also keeps dust out of your things. I have already given extra keys to the room to the manager of Yamuna Kunj and the TP of Vrinda Kunj. Their guests can use this room when needed. I don't know when i'll return.

I find a ricksaw on the parikram marg and go up to Raman Reti. I still need to get a haircut. It's one of the simple pleasures of life in Vrindavan. The barbers are not fashion stylists; they are Brijbasis who make a meager living cutting hair and giving shaves with open razors. I find a barber and ask him for a trim. I explain it carefully otherwise he will think i want to shave up. The haircut takes all of 10 minutes. I offer him 40 rupees, at least twice the local rate, and he nods his head to signal his acceptance.

After taking a shower, i go for darsan at Iskcon. The deities look stunning with a rainbow assortment of flowers behind them. Deity worship is one area where Iskcon never compromised. They have taken this instruction of Prabhupada's seriously. I think it goes along with a kanista (neophyte) understanding that God is in the temple. Outside, between brothers and sisters, anything goes-- envy, greed, money, power, control, prestige, backstabbing. But inside the temple, everyone agrees, God is here. And gorgeously dressed today are the Vrindavan deities, an opulent feast for the eyes. During my darsan i bump into a godbrother who is friendly to me, Bhurijan. I also like him. He's a scholar and keeps his own counsel. He reminds me about the ceremony in Srila Prabhupada's quarters that takes place later this evening, and asks me if i'm going. I tell him i'm not going, but it reminds me that i have not yet been to Prabhupada's rooms this visit. I wish Bhurijan well and offer my obeisances to Krishna Balaram and Radha Syamasundar, walking to Prabhupada's quarters behind the temple.

My first visit to Vrindavan was in 1974, when the temple was under construction. There where some shacks here for a handful of devotees, an open pit where the temple foundation was being laid, and one room had been built-- the first room of what later became Srila Prabhupada's quarters. I was lucky enough to spend a few freezing days in February of that year when Prabhupada was visiting. He was here to oversee the construction which was not going well. His foreign disciples were unable to order the building materials and organize the work. Prabhupada needed to personally come here to tell them how to do things. In those days India was a quasi-socialist country. All requests for supplies of materials like bricks, concrete, etc. needed to go thru government agencies. Somehow Prabhupada knew what to do and whom to see, and he was the only one who knew. So he was acting as a mistry (contractor) to build his own temple. It was an especially cold winter month in Vrindavan when temperatures dropped below freezing and there was no heat available. I was also freezing there, sleeping on a stone cold floor in Fogel Ashram, the closest ashram that had rooms at the time. But Prabhupada's presence was more than enough warmth to keep me in Vrindavan for those days.

Srila Prabhupada was continuously teaching us that as spirit souls we have a loving relationship with Krishna. He was also always engaged in creating facilities for us to serve Krishna with devotion. He lived for these principles and that's what i remember about my times with him. The morning walks, the darsans and the talks in his room, everything centered on the philosophy of devotional service and nice dealings amongst devotees. Now as i enter Prabhupada's room, i try to go back to that time. It's difficult, because there are distractions. The room is decorated ceiling to floor with flowers. Prabhupada's bed where he left this world is a duvet of roses. An elaborate kirtan led by Aindra is going on. The room is filling up with visitors and devotees are being screened at the door to determine who can remain and who needs to exit. At the gate outside the room there is a metal detector and security guards.

In my mind, i flashback to the same room 34 years ago when life was a lot more simple in Vrindavan. The temple, a construction site, was way out in what seemed like the countryside. The road in front was made of sand and there was only one shop across the road. Inside his room, Prabhupada was sitting cross legged behind a low table, and 20 or so disciples were around him, listening to him speak. Even on the Abirbhav (Appearance Day) of his spiritual master-- which happened to be the centennial celebration of his birth (Srila Bhaktisiddhanta appeared at Puri in 1874), Srila Prabhupada did not make a big show. He simply asked Jamuna to cook a feast in the kitchen and he called all his disciples, regardless of their positions (even me!), into his room, and asked us to sit with him as he spoke about our relationship with Krishna. His informal class went on for several hours that morning. During that time, Ravi Shankar and George Harrison stopped by to see him, unannounced. Without skipping a beat or asking any of us to leave, Prabhupada handled them expertly, making both of them feel welcome. He had Guru das feed George some samosas in the kitchen, even before the offering had been made. And when Ravi and George departed after their brief visit, Prabhupada continued talking with us as if there had been no interruption.

Now, 34 years later, the pomp and ritual in the room make the Prabhupada i remember difficult to place in this setting. I offer my dandavats in front of his murti, and get up to leave. It's the memory i want to keep, not the ceremony. For Iskcon, the spectacle has become the thing. For Prabhupada, it was his mission to wake us up to our real nature. I don't think he liked the pageantry, especially if it became a replacement for his message. The essence of his life was to speak about Krishna and to give us the vision to make us all mad after Krishna, like he was.

From Prabhupada's room, i walk quickly to my storage room, next to Radhapati's apartment. Radhapati and i meet and we talk as i fine tune my packing. I'm taking five pieces of luggage. I hope they will allow me to carry three on the plane. Otherwise i will need to pay. Whatever happens at the airport, at least i want to be within the weight limit. Using a hand scale that Kurma Rupa lent me the other day, i lift the heavy bags, while Radhapati bends down to read the kilo weight on the small metal scale. The bags weigh around 24 kgs, just a kilo over the limit. We wonder about the accuracy of the hand scale. It's probably meant for weighing straw for Kurma's cows. We laugh about it, but this is Vrindavan, and you use what you have.

Radhapati and i talk until around 8 pm, and then, knowing he takes rest early, i say goodbye to him. I try to relax, although waiting for a taxi to take you on a 3.5 hour ride to the airport with all this luggage is stressful. Downstairs i tell the chokidhar (guard) the taxi will come in an hour or so, just to prepare him. I had called Gopal das, the oldest and most reliable taxi walla in Vrindavan, to book a taxi. He has been meeting me at the airport and dropping me off for more than 10 years. He has Ambassador cars, the white work horse that was practically the only model in India for 45 years, before the motorcar culture exploded here. It's a heavy car with a 50s style and roundness to it. It's still my favorite.

Right on time, at 9:30, Gopal's driver shows up in a white Ambassador. I start bringing the bags downstairs and together we pack up the car. The two large bags just fit into the boot (trunk). The front seat is loaded with my harmonium, one guitar and a backpack. One last check and we take off. I sit alone, behind the driver, as we slowly pull away on a dark, back road leading out of Vrindavan.

Friday, November 14, 2008

India Journal, Part 12

I wake up Saturday morning thinking that only two more mornings remain. Throughout this visit i have been aware of how limited (10 days) my time is in Vrindavan, and this economy of time has made me more appreciative. Today, however, my appreciation turns into melancholy when i realize that i will soon be on my way to the airport and back to the West.

I have been assembling the things i plan to bring back with me in a storage room located next to Radhapati's apartment. This gives me an oppotunity to have an ongoing dialogue with Radhapati. But today i can no longer put off the inevitable packing up and talk. To make things worse, i will be traveling heavy back to the US: three guitars that i had brought to India over the years (which are gradually getting ruined by the extreme temperature and humidity changes), a harmonium, a bag full of clothing, books, devotional stuff, plus a backpack filled with a video camera, digital recorder, still camera and other semi-valuables. To save money, i asked the luggage walla in Loi Bazaar to custom-make a black canvas carrying bag for me. I brought the hard guitar cases to the shop so the tailor can measure them to make the canvas bag large enough to fit both cases. I will place both guitars in their cases and tape the cases together with Gorilla duct tape (very sticky stuff). Then i will place the tapped cases into the black canvas bag and check in both guitars as one piece of luggage. That's my plan.

But now i have no energy for packing so i take a ricksaw to Rupa's Sandipani Muni School to see the kids one more time, during their morning program. I take my camera and almost immediatly i'm taking portraits at the request of the boys. The girls are shy, but the boys have no inhibition about getting their pictures taken. (I will upload some of these photos soon and will include the web address where they are located in a future post.)

After the morning program at the school i force myself back to the storage room to sort thru my things and begin the packing process. It takes me the rest of the morning. I have been a gypsy my whole adult life. I have not stayed in one place. I must have lived in 60 places in the past 40 years. This has given me a kind a forced detachment in terms of place. But also a kind of weariness. Whenever i pack up now this sadness appears, and all the more when it means i'm leaving the dham.

In the afternoon i go to see Manjari at her MVT apartment. We have a good friendship now and i consider myself fortunate to have been close with her for so many years. She is a unique person and a devout bhakta. But it is difficult to reconcile a failed marriage, no matter how friendly it is. It is hard not to find fault or relive regrets. In some states, they have "no-fault" auto insurance. I'm not sure what that means, but there should be something similar for marriages. After all, everyone enters their vows with the best of intentions and highest of hopes. And after 5, 10, 20, 30 or 40 years, either by commission or omission (by infidelity or by death) it ends in disappointment. It's a law of nature underlined by a disposable society. One jiva who was a source of happiness for another becomes a source of grief. When we hear the great personalities discuss this topic in the Bhagavatam, we see that sometimes even they experience these changes and feel bewildered by them.

It's all part of the cosmic wheel that keeps us spinning around. Destiny, the hand of providence, is the mover and shaker! Shakin' that tree ("i"). Causin' that grief ("me"). Makin' us cry ("mine"). But, it's not really i, me, mine. It's destiny. Destiny drives a hard bargain. To experience suffering. To become exhausted. And finally, to chase after and embrace my connection with Sri Guru and the pure vaisnavas with a full heart. Hey vaisnava thakur! Only you can relieve me from this burden of samsara.

I go back to the storage room to complete my packing. Tomorrow is my last day in Vrindavan, and i don't want to spend it packing up. Kesava Maharaj, a nice sadhu godbrother who preaches in Latin America, comes by to say hello to Radhapati while i'm packing. We all sit down in the storage room for a chat. His presence along with Radhapati makes me feel less sad about leaving Vrindavan. When he gets up to leave we all hug each other and wish each other good fortune. When someone is a genuine devotee, i don't feel envious or uncomfortable in their presence. I feel a lightness in my own being, a contact high, a hopeful spirit. That's what sadhu sanga is. It's not a performance. It's a matter of the heart.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

India Journal, Part 11

Yamuna Kunj is a beautifully preserved 19th century bath house for Hindu Queens who took their baths in the Yamuna, when the holy river formerly flowed in front of it. It was purchased by Paramadwaiti Swami in a state of complete disrepair and he and one of his disciples renovated it while keeping its classic elegance. It's now an ashram for an odd assortment of brahmacaries, vanaprasthas and sannyasis who are friends or followers of Paramadwaiti's mission.

I stop off in Loi Bazaar on my way back to my room at Yamuna Kunj. I'm looking for peacock feathers, conchshell eyes and jewelry for my Giriraj sila, in the bazaar where murti wallas and jari wallas have their storefronts or in some cases, simple stalls. It's a pleasure to shop for God, much more fun than for myself. I also enjoy the human exchanges with the shopkeepers. No impersonal dealings here. At the bazaar i realize that i'm running out of rupees, so i find a money changer to exchange $200, enough rupees for the rest of my trip plus some extra. I'm taking excess baggage back with me to the US, and it may cost me at the airport. The money changer gives me the daily exchange rate of 48.20 for one dollar, down a bit from last week. I agree to the rate and give him my dollars. He starts counting out 9640 rupees with 100 rupee notes. I stop him and explain i don't want to carry 96 pieces of currency with me. I want 500 rupee notes which have been standard currency in India for several years. He doesn't have 500 rupee notes he apologizes. How can you not have them, i reply, currency is your business. After some prodding, he insists he is out of 500 rupee notes. I feign anger and demand my dollars back. He tries to calm me down by promising "to find" some 500 rupee notes. We finally agree on a compromise: 7500 in 500 notes (15 pieces) and the balance of 2100 in 100s (21 pieces). All the notes are counted twice by him and once again by me. Rather than end the transaction on a positive note, he sarcastically lets me know that i was aggressive to demand the 500 rupee notes: So, are you satisfied now? he asks. Yes, I say, packing the bills away in my money belt, mentally deciding to avoid him if i need more rupees. Being personal cuts both ways.

I meet a Swedish godbrother and fellow musician, Raivata, in front of Prabhupada's samadhi and we go for lunch together. He lives in rural Sweden, almost like a hermit. Still he meets young people and has brought several young Swedes to Krishna consciousness. He tells them he cannot recommend a guru, but he develops friendships and instills the spiritual practice in them. I admire him for that. After lunch we both get on a ricksaw and meet Paramadwaiti Swami and a group of mostly Latin devotees for Harinam.

Maharaj is in a jovial mood, and he leads the group to the nearby Gopinath Gaudiya Math, the Vrindavan base of the late Bhakti Premode Puri Maharaj who lived to be over 100. The temple is charming: the presiding deity is Lord Balaram who is known as Dauoji in his deity form here. Dauoji is a marble vigraha who has been in Vrindavan for several hundred years. He shares the altar with a large Giriraj, making this an unusual Mandir. We have a lively kirtan in front of the deities, while the Bengali pujaris offer everyone leaf cups with guava and banana prasadam.

From Dauoji, the kirtan makes its way thru the lanes of old Vrindavan to another little known temple of Narasinga dev. The pujari and his children know Paramadwaiti and run ahead of the kirtan party to unlock the temple and let us in. According to the pujari, this is the only deity of Lord Narasinga in Vrindavan. He was discovered 150 years ago in the Yamuna. The temple is quite simple and basic but the deity is nicely dressed. It is a bit of a shock to see Narasingha dev in Vrindavan, a feeling of awe and reverence, although i'm sure He has his own pastimes here.

When the kirtan party moves on, i somehow get separated from them. I don't mind, as i want to complete the shopping i started earlier in the day, and Loi Bazaar is walking distance. I have only 48 hours left in Vrindavan, and i need to use the remaining time efficiently. I stay in the Bazaar until 8 pm and then take a ricksaw back to my room. By the time i reach there, i'm tired from a long day. I unzip my mosquito net and climb inside. I may not be doing much bhajan here, but just lying down and drifting off to sleep in Vrindavan, next to Imli Tala on the Parikram marg, feels more holy to me than anything i do in the West.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

India Journal, Part 10

During lunch at the Food for Life Restaurant (near Lalita Ashram on the Parikram Marg), an Italian devotee offers us a box of sweets. I indulge in a couple of burfi and pushing my luck, a rasagulla. Later that nite, my throat becomes sore and chocked with mucous. The next morning i'm sick-- low fever, sneezing, symptoms of a full blown cold. Indian microbes have no mercy on western bodies. They are serious about their business. We are sitting ducks for them. So i fast all day, no appetite anyway. I need a low key day. Chanting and resting.

The following morning i feel well enough to get up and visit my favorite temples. I have only a few days left in Vrindavan and i have not yet had darshan. I find a very humble riscksaw walla and ask him to take me to Radha Damodar. I leave my shoes in the ricksaw and go inside. After obeisances and having darshan of Radha Damodar (and a collection of other deities: Radha Chalchikan, Radha Madhava, Radha Vrindavan Candra, Lalita Devi) and a giant black stone that the pujaris show only when someone offers a donation --they claim Lord Krishna gave this sila to Sanatan Goswam to circumambulate in his old age, and also claim the sila has the footprint and flute print of Lord Krishna melted in it-- i quickly go to Srila Prabhupada's room.

There has been a big controversy over Prabhupada's rooms at Radha Damodar. Iskcon was negligent about paying rent on the rooms; the Goswamis kept raising the rent. Iskcon made a grand plan to renovate the rooms and in the midst of their planning, the Goswamis tricked them and got possession of the rooms. The police came, Iskcon protested and finally it went to district court where Iskcon lost possession of the rooms, except for doing seva on alternate months. Then, Narasinga Swami (formerly Jagat Guru) who has his own mission based in Karnataka, somehow became involved with the Goswamis. So the simple peaceful place i used to visit, greeted by a godbrother from Hyderabad who cooked and cleaned and was pujari in these rooms for 10 years, is no more. I enter Prabhupada's room and after paying my obeisances, i'm greeted by an unknown western devotee who asks me, in a forced friendly manner: "Where are you from?" Without thinking, i respond: "What difference does it make where i'm from?" He says: "Well it helps to know where you're from in order to be personal." I reply: "I didn't come here to be personal. I came to offer my respects to my spiritual master." He gets the hint and graciously leaves the room, allowing me a few minutes alone with Prabhupada's murti. I don't stay long. The atmosphere is not the same as before. The walls are painted and it's clean, but there's an edge in the room that makes me uncomfortable. It's become someone's collection spot.

From Radha Damodar i get back on the ricksaw and want to go to Radha Raman. But Radha Shyamasundar Mandir (the deities of Shyamananda Prabhu) is just down the lane, and the ricksaw walla kindly reminds me of Them. So i enter the open courtyard of the temple and have darshan of these very beautiful, large deities, still in their early morning clothing. Some ladies are singing Hindi bhajans with the high-pitched female voices one hears in India. The pujari is relaxed and allows me to take photos of the deities. I leave a small donation and go back to the ricksaw. We proceed past Loi Bazaar and around Nidhuvan, a mysterious walled area that no one enters at nite, and arrive at Radha Raman Mandir. This is one of the favorite temples in Vrindavan. Radha Raman is self-manifest from a salagram sila that was worshipped by Gopala Bhatta Goswami. The Goswami was originally from Sri Rangam in Tamil Nadu, and Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu was his father's guest for four months when he toured South India. Later, Mahaprabhu asked him to move to Vrindavan, and the charming temple he built with first class puja for Radha Raman, reflects his South Indian brahminical upbringing. The deity worship is going on uninterrupted for 450 years. In the evenings classical musicians come here to play their instruments for Radha Raman, and a few vocalists sing bhajans in the improvisational style known as Drupada. Arotik is a community affair with a priest banging a loud gong and local Brijbasis shouting praises to Radha Raman.

Radha Raman jui is kind to me. At least he lets me pray to Him to allow me to return to Vrindavan, and has always granted me that prayer. He is the Chief Immigration Officer of Vrindavan for me. Just outside the temple, i walk thru a courtyard surrounded by apartments that house the many families who are descendents of the original pujaris. They have the right to live inside the temple complex and each have a turn doing temple seva. Padmanabha Goswami is the most well known of these sevaites to western devotees. His late father was a friend to Srila Prabhupada. Some mornings Prabhupada would walk to Radha Raman from his room at Radha Damodar and have darshan and visit with Padmanabha's father.

Around the side of the temple courtyard is the samadhi of Gopal Bhatta Goswami. It is nicely maintained by a small group of older babas who are bearded and dreadlocked. They are always friendly to me. The front door to the room containing the samadhi has a special bolt to secure the door from being pried open by monkeys, who hang out in abundance in the courtyard. Sometimes the babas let a cow into the samadhi area but monkeys are strictly unwelcome guests.

Despite my cold, i continue to visit several more temples this morning. The body really troubles us when the mind is unengaged. Experiencing pain and pleasure in this world is more a function of mind than body. That does not mean the body has no reality. But the mind is a higher reality and therefore controls the experience of the body. All reality is subjective, and the highest subject for us is our relationship with God. So when one experiences the Ultimate Subjective Reality, lower realities become insignificant and tolerable.

After visiting a Hanuman temple i had never seen before, across from Lal Babu Mandir, i land up at Vrinda Kunj, the ashram of my godbrother, Paramadwaiti Swami in the old section of Vrindavan. He tells me that this afternoon he will be taking his group out on nagar kirtan thru Vrindavan. That's always a treat for me. I tell him i will try to make it and take off for my room to get some rest.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

India Journal, Part 9

On Govardhan puja, i have lunch with Radhapati at a restaurant operated by Food for Life. Food for Life Vrindavan was developed originally as an Iskcon project run from the Krishna Balaram Mandir by Rupa Ragunath. Rupa is another old friend of mine-- i call him the Mother Theresa of Vrindavan. He is an empowered devotee. Starting with a kitcherie program served to poor families at Prabhupada's Samadhi 15 years ago, it grew to include Vrindavan clean up crews, Braj village water projects, self sufficiency training for women, and finally free schools for children, especially girls, who previously could not afford school. These kids would stay at "home," which often consists of no more than a few plastic sheets held down by bricks, loiter and beg in the streets. Rupa understood that to offer them a hot meal is not enough to change their lives and give them hope. So he persuaded some friends in London to donate seed money and he built a school for Vrindavan's poor kids. The government wasn't helping, nor were the wealthy temples or philanthropists. There was a great need and Rupa took it as an opportunity to serve the Brijbasis.

As the program became successful, Iskcon wanted to control the funding and decision-making. Never mind that Rupa, who single-handedly raised the money from international donors and personally built, staffed and managed the school, understood the needs of the project. No, if there was credit to be had, Iskcon wanted to control it (and potentially ruin it). Rupa did not agree. So Iskcon booted him out of the Krishna Balaram Mandir and cut him off from their congregations.

For Rupa, who is one of the most effective managers i've ever met, that was liberating. Rather than destroy or demoralize him, it pushed him to increase his activities. Sandipani Muni School now has two campuses that provide for 1,000 kids. (Two thirds of them are girls. Rupa favors girls for admittance because they are especially abused or neglected by their poor parents.) The kids receive free transportation (on a Bullock cart) to and from school, free nutritious meals of prasadam, school uniforms, books and supplies, a full curriculum of studies, an on-site nurse, a computer lab and a performing arts school for classical Indian music and dance. The kids start each day with a morning program of prayers, kirtan, dancing and arotik attended by all the students and teachers.

Rupa is also building a hospital to serve the local Brajbasi villagers. He takes me to the construction site a few kilometers away on the back of his motorcycle. He goes thru the site and personally gives instructions to the mistry (local contractor) and workers who are from nearby villages. It's a struggle to get the workers to meet Rupa's standards. But when completed next spring, the hospital will be the cleanest, most modern medical facility in the district. It has its own power supply, water supply and even an organic garden to provide patients with fresh vegetables.

Rupa and Radhapati are friends and Radhapati serves as a trustee on Rupa's school board. Rupa is a great doer. In one of the more dysfunctional places in the world, UP India, Rupa amazes me with his ability to get things done. He is never intimidated by anything. Radhapati is also a fighter but more focused on the internal, a self-critical observer. Although their personalities could not be more distinct, they are both righteous without being proud, uncorrupted in their intentions, compassionate and selfless in their actions. Both are godly and both have been purged from Iskcon for being themselves and benefiting Brijbasis on behalf of Srila Prabhupada. While Krishna must be blessing them, Iskcon bans them. Let Iskcon keep its temples, its money, its men and influence and popularity in India. I will take the friendship of Rupa and Radhapati over Iskcon any day. Seeing them gives me hope. It brings me relief to see there are devotees who can rise above cynicism and pretense and pettiness. They are an antidote to the poison that pervades Iskcon.

Another godbrother living in Vrindavan in this rare circle of down-to-earth saintly souls is Kurma Rupa. He's also been a resident of the dham for several decades now. He was a gurukul teacher and a graphic designer who left Iskcon more than 10 years ago but remained in Vrindavan. One day he was wondering what to do to justify staying in the dham. As wonderful and sweet as it is, Vrindavan is tough as nails. Unless you are serving the dham, there is no generosity or license for any offenses. Kurma was lying on a hammock thinking about his future when an abandoned cow came up to him and started to lick his freshly shaved head. That gave him the inspiration to start an orphanage for injured and abused cows in Vrindavan. Care for Cows was born. He now provides a home for 150 cows, calves and bulls that would have no shelter without Kurma's goshalla. These cows and bulls have become his family. He spends $150 per day to maintain them. That's more than $50,000 per year, all from donations.

The morning after Govardhan puja, Radhapati brings me to Kurma's house. It's a small home built by an architect devotee in Madhubhan Colony, just past Raman Reti. The atmosphere on the veranda is ideal. We sit on straw mats looking at the garden which has a pleasing campak tree and several healthy tulasi bushes. The walls are washed with lime to keep it cool during the severe summers. There is also an underground room which provides relief from the heat in summer and the short but intense cold season. Kurma Rupa is another unique individual who has found a way to stay in Vrindavan dham, contributing to the welfare of its residents, without depending on institutional support. He tells me how satisfied he feels on an emotional level from his work with the cows. I hear him and believe him, but for me it's only intellectual.

However, Srila Prabhupada confirms what Kurma is describing. For example, in a lecture in Vrindavan on Nov. 10, 1976, Prabhupada spoke: "Nobody is prepared to become brahmana, and so far cow protection is concerned, it is in the oblivion. This is the whole world position. Therefore it is in chaotic condition." What Kurma is experiencing is how on a personal level cow protection can satisfy one's mind. If that culture could be replicated on a social level, it could bring real peace to the world. Without protecting cows, children and the elderly, there is no way the world will become peaceful. But how far we are from that, when the so-called religious institutions are either openly supporting slaughter houses (as in Christian, Muslim and Jewish societies) or just giving lip service to cow protection, as the Hindus are doing, and even Iskcon is doing. Keep the vyasasans, guys. You missed the essence and you're hopelessly caught up in politics. You should be ashamed of your inability to set an example. Kurma Rupa on his own is showing us the meaning of what Srila Prabhupada taught us.

Kurma also makes another interesting point. He still does some graphic design projects on the side, and is working on the design of a book that he says will be published next year by the BBT. (Finally something other than concocted revisions of Prabhupada's original books.) It's a collection, Kurma tells us, of Srila Prabhupada's poetry, which he wrote before his arrival in the US. The main theme running thru the poetry, Kurma says, is Prabhupada's criticism of his godbrothers for mismanaging their guru maharaj's mission since Srila Bhaktisiddhanta's departure in 1937. Sound familiar? The very thing that Iskcon finds most offensive-- when godbrothers criticize the GBC for their idiotic and incompetent leadership-- is the main theme found in our guru maharaj's own poetry. Poetry he wrote when he lived in Vrindavan as a vanaprastha and sannyasi. I wonder if any of the current leaders will connect the dots after reading Prabhupada's poetry, but quickly realize they will not. The current generation of leaders will die with their misconceptions. It will be a new generation who gets to clean out the rot on the inspiration of Caitanya Mahaprabhu.

Kurma offers me a small cup of kheer (sweet rice) he has cooked with milk from his cows. It tastes like nectar. We sit there on his veranda sharing stories for a couple of hours until he looks at his watch and tells us he needs to get moving. There is a shortage of straw in Vrindavan, a staple food for his cows, and he needs to make some calls to ensure tomorrow's food supply. We get up to leave and Kurma walks us to the front door. Just outside, three cows are waiting. I guess word is out in the cow community. This vedeshi (foreigner) is a real brahman. Love has no limits.

Monday, November 10, 2008

India Journal, Part 8

On the main road walking thru Loi Bazaar i run into my godbrother and friend, Radhapati das. Radhapati is a one-of-a-kind sadhu who lives in Vrindavan. He has been here for the past 18 years. He is one of the most honest men i know, in addition to one of the most disciplined and individualistic. He was a medic in Vietnam, where he saw, felt and touched repeated death and destruction close up. Many men died in his arms. A lot of his contemporaries were scarred for life by similar experiences with PTSD. Posttraumatic stress disorder is an anxiety disorder from exposure to terrifying events that threatened or caused grave physical harm. It is a severe and ongoing emotional reaction to an extreme psychological trauma.

Seeing Radhapati wander the streets and lanes of Vrindavan, wearing kajal (black eye ointment), a white turban, lungi, giant tulasi beads around his neck and a large shopping bag full of candy that he passes out to Braj kids, one would never imagine the horrors he experienced 40 years ago as a teenage medic in Vietnam. Every morning he walks barefoot thru Vrindavan (not so easy anymore when even the parikram marg is paved over with rough asphalt), calling out: Jai Jamuna Maharani! Jai Prabhupada! Jai Krishna Balaram! When the local children respond he reaches into his bag and pulls out lollipops and hard candy. The poor kids are his "market" and every one in town knows him. Sometimes fathers or mothers reach out for the candy to give to their kids, and he knows everyone of them. "Street sweeper with lots of kids" he tells me when one mustached man pauses in front of us, smiles and holds out his hands.

Radhapati takes me to what looks like a chai shop just around the corner from Loi Bazaar. Shyam, the proprietor, greets him. They are good friends. Radhapati has helped him and his family out of some serious jams over the years. I didn't know about this place, but they make subji, roti, rice and dhal-- 25 rupees for a complete thali. That's up from 12 rupees just a couple of years ago. But the preparations look sattvic. It's probably the best "restaurant" in town. We sit and talk. Radhapati insists he has no qualification to live in Vrindavan. But he has a gig here. He spends $100 of his own money every month to purchase candy to distribute. "The kids chant with me and glorify the dham, then they get some candy. It's a way of training them, reminding them, about their own spiritual culture."

For Radhapati, who has western sensibilities, it's a stretch to live in Vrindavan. He does not fit in with the locals, although they respect him, appreciate him and offer him food or whatever they have. Nor does he feel comfortable hanging out with the western devotees. He is here because he lost his ambition for living in the West and he decided to make a stand. He has a small apartment in Raman Reti where he takes rest every evening at 8 pm and gets up around 2 in the morning to chant and read. He does not go to the Iskcon temple at all these days. A recording of Srila Prabhupada chanting japa is continuously playing. "I get tired of everything. Except Prabhupada's voice. That's my one and only shelter," he says.

I have great affection for Radhapati. We have become good friends during my numerous visits and stays in the dham. When i come to Vrindavan, i bring him a bar of white chocolate from the West, and we have long conversations. He does what i cannot do: he stays and serves in the holy dham. It's not easy for him, but he has exceptional perseverance. And, like most western vaisnavas who manage to remain in Vrindavan, he created his own unique way to serve the Brijbasis. Such a great soul is very rare.

Radhapati is not someone who follows the crowd or who seeks anyone's approval. He stopped talking the talk a while back. Now he lives in Vrindavan just to walk his walk. That trek could well be his ticket home.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

India Journal, Part 7

In Vrindavan, every day to me feels like ekadasi. That is, i feel the intensity of my anarthas more than usual when i'm in Vrindavan. This creates a sometimes extraordinary pressure within me. At times i can say that feeling is mentally excruciating, like living inside a pressure cooker. Then why do i keep returning to Vrindavan? Because that severe, stabbing sensual force is balanced and outweighed by the attraction and beauty of the land, the animals, the deities and the people of Vrindavan. Heavy mind balanced by light heart, and in Vrindavan, the heart always wins.

For me, experiencing Vrindavan means to watch the sideshow of my egoistic mind who wants like anything to enjoy, to be recognized, to be served. It means to observe this illusory parade and feel uncomfortable by it, while making small breakthroughs to a higher reality. With darshans, with lots of japa that is more natural and easier, with prayers to the pervasive divine personalities who can be found in the old and new temples, Vrindavan is a living course in becoming tolerant, offering respect and always remembering Hari Kirtan. It is the ultimate humbling experience.

India Journal, Part 6

They say a picture is worth a thousands words. In Vrindavan it's worth more than that. And faces are worth even more. The faces of Brijbasis, those souls who by coincidence, choice or sukriti, reside in Vrindavan, offers blessings to visitors. They are not sages and saints, the vast majority of dham residents, but i would rather look at the face of the lowest Brijbasi than the most glamorous actors of Hollywood or Bollywood. Eye candy can tease the mind but it gives no nourishment for the soul. It actually distracts the soul, while Brijbasis do not always look nice, but their faces somehow nourish my soul.

For me, the faces of Brijbasis offer a sense of wonder, piety, intuition, spiritual fortune and dignity in distress. I don't see (and cannot judge) who is a sadhu or not. I discount most of the westerners like myself who are more or less spiritual "tourists" in Vrindavan. Sometimes i appreciate the western devotees in Vrindavan and sometimes i find them disturbing, out of sync with its reality. The Delhi wallas who come and go are more upsetting, creating traffic jams with their middle class cars, trying to enjoy a pious outing, like customers at a spiritual disneyland. But the Brijbasis who are born there or who have adopted Vrindavan as their home, offer me something i have not found elsewhere: a sense of home comfort-- despite the fact that i will always remain a foreigner to them and Vrindavan will always remain an exotic, exalted and challenging place for me.

I wander around Vrindavan with an improvised purpose. Sometimes to have darshan of the beautiful, powerful and historic deities who are enshrined all over town, sometimes to shop for particular needs, sometimes to meet with an old friend. Often, these purposes merge as i meet someone or run into a transcendental event quite by chance on my way somewhere. One day i was looking for silver and gold items. I wanted to purchase gifts for a few relatives and friends. I always go to a very reliable silver walla who has a small shop on Atkambar Road, which intersects the road to Loi Bazaar near Banki Behari temple. The shopkeeper's name is Ram Niwas. His late father, who started the shop, was named Gopal Das. Thus the shop's name: Gopal Das Ram Niwas. It's one of my favorite places to shop in Vrindavan and Ram Niwas is as nice a Brijbasi as i know. Many evenings i have seen him attending arotik at Radha Raman Mandir, about one kilometer from his shop. He is always polite, warm and gracious, and in his shop, he is never pushy, condescending or tricky. He is someone i like to meet with every visit, even if i don't have anything to purchase.

I am in his shop looking at gold and silver items. He sits cross legged behind a glass counter on a raised platform covered with white sheets. I sit on bench overlooking the counter. Although there are tens of thousands of dollars worth of gold and silver jewelry in the shop, there are no alarms and no guards in the small store. (Can you imagine that in the West?) Hopefully it can remain that way. Today i notice a huge commotion on the narrow Atkambar Road in front of the shop. I ask Ram Niwas what is happening. He explains that there is a feast today for Hanuman, who has the smallest of temples-- a deity of the great monkey devotee is inlaid on a wall, covered by an iron grating-- just opposite the silver shop. It is Govardhan puja today, and the priests of the wall temple have arranged an opulent feast for Hanumanji, who once offered his respects and blessings to Govardhan Hill. Hanuman is covered, except for his eyes, in silver foil. Tables are set up right in front of him on the street filled with hundreds of different varieties of savories and sweets. Passerbys carry on as an arotik starts, gongs and bells ring out, foot traffic becomes jammed (rickshaws are temporarily banned from this section of the road), as i sit just 10 feet away, looking at silver items inside the shop.

Now i understand how Ram Niwas got his name. His father, a devotee of Krishna, named him in honor of Lord Ram and Hanuman, whose auspicious presence is just opposite their shop. Business and worship are not necessarily in conflict in Vrindavan. Days later, when i return to the shop to pay my bill, Ram Niwas offers me this as a farewell: "I hope you return to Vrindavan soon." Coming from his lips, i don't take it as business but as a blessing.

I walk down to Loi Bazaar from the silver shop, a short 8 minute walk. I am having a set of japa beads restrung at one of the bead shops. In the West, no one knows how to string tulasi beads, and my japa beads have been broken for 6 months. My friend and godbrother, Ananda Swarup from Amsterdam, who preached in India during Prabhupada's Iskcon days, advised me to ask for "parachute thread" to restring my beads. I tell the bead walla, another familiar face whose hair has turned white over the years, to use parachute thread, and he immediately understands my request. I repeat it once or twice, until i hear him say "parachute thread" just to make sure he really hears me and will do it correctly. The regular thread breaks easily but parachute thread is nylon and lasts a long time. The bead walla tells me the cost will be 40 rupees (less than $1) and my mala will be ready tomorrow. I happily agree. A nice japa mala is worth more than its weight in gold, if one actually chants Hari Nama on it. When i come to collect the beads the next day, the mala is perfect. He has also replaced four beads that were cracked (meaning they could fall off anytime) and has carefully counted the mala to make sure it has 108 beads. He charges an extra 10 rupees for the four new beads, a discount from the current price, he says. Even tulasi beads have become expensive by Indian standards. Inflation must be in double digits in India now.

When i ask the bead merchant if he will guarantee the restrung beads, he gives me an answer i don't expect. "Only God can guarantee," he says. "But they should be good for 3-4 years." An interesting mix of philosophy and Indian business tactics that makes me laugh out loud.

Friday, November 7, 2008

India Journal, Part 5

Vrindavan is crowded during Kartik. Sometimes the traffic near Krishna Balarama Mandir or further down the main road creates gridlock. All it takes is one or two buses or tempos to stop in the middle of the road. The "shortcut" to Loi Bazaar is via the Bengali neighborhood where the Madan Mohan temple is located. That area is especially historic. The hill on which the original Madan Mohan temple was built is Dwadash Aditya Teela, the place where Lord Krishna rested and warmed up under 12 suns after dancing on Kaliya's heads.

I heard that there were three reasons why Krishna spared the life of Kaliya. First, although he had no interest in bhakti, he permitted his wives, who were devotees, to continue their devotional activities and to see Krishna's pastimes on the banks of the Yamuna. Second, those vaisnavi wives prayed on Kaliya's behalf to Krishna. When Krishna was defeating Kaliya, the wives were at first indifferent to his fate. But when Kaliya realized he was going to die, he repented and it was then that his wives felt compassion for him and asked Krishna to protect him. Finally, once Kaliya had eaten another snake that had been intended as a sacrifice for Garuda. Garuda become angry at this, and brushed Kaliya with his wings, which caused Kaliya to be thrown back. Because of that passing contact with Garuda, Kaliya was purified, and had become eligible for further mercy from the Lord. These things were told to me by Manjari, my former wife, during this visit to Vrindavan. I don't have any sastric reference.

Back on the hill where Madan Mohan mandir is located, the view of the Yamuna in the distance is very nice. Fields of yellow mustard dot the flood plain. Green parrots can be seen flying from treetop to treetop. Next to the old temple is the bhajan kutir where Srila Sanatan Goswami did his bhajan. I also heard that our Srila Prabhupada, when he was a young householder, spent one week here, during his first visit to Vrindavan, doing his own kirtan. This was a few years before he took initiation from his guru maharaj, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Thakur.

Down from the hill and old temple that was later desecrated by soldiers of Arungzeb, a few meters around a back lane is the entrance to Srila Sanatan Goswami's samadhi. Sanatan was much loved by the local Brijbasis as a baba, and at times he would wander from village to village and the villagers would treat him as a family member. He would enter a village and spend only one nite, listening to the everyday problems of the villagers and offering them advice. The next morning they would beg him to stay for at least one more day, but he would move on to the next village. When Sanatan Goswami left his body, many of the Brijbasi men who heard about his passing shaved their heads, as they did when their own fathers died.

It's here in this garden-like setting where Rupa Goswami, Sanatan's younger brother, who accepted Sanatan as his guru, put him in samadhi. Sanatan Goswami helps us to establish our eternal relationship (sambandha) with Krishna. He is the senior of the Six Goswamis whom were sent to excavate Vrindavan and reestablish it as the earthly counterpart to Goloka Vrindavan by Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

India Journal, Part 4

In the West there is little or no contact between human beings except if they are colleagues, friends, family. The society is basically impersonal and increasingly so. In the US, you cannot even talk to a person when you call a business until you navigate thru a series of computer-prompted questions. In India, at least in Vrindavan, there remains a very personal level of exchange in every dealing. Buying fruit from a fruit seller who knows your face and you know his. His friendliness is part of your shopping experience. You get something extra when you go to purchase tangerines.

Vrindavan, being a small town or large village, allows for varieties of personal relationships. Even with the ricksaw wallas, who are immigrants from West Bengal and other parts of India, you can have a satisfying exchange. This trip being short, i decided to be generous with the ricksaw wallas, and rather than the usual practice of haggling and pre-negotiating a price before getting on a ricksaw, i paid them 50% more or even double what i thought the fair price was. That allowed me to be more friendly with them and to see their good qualities. When i paid them, many of them were touched that i gave them something extra. Some were just happy that they were not being treated like trash, that i was showing them a kind of respect by being generous. You know, it's only an extra 10, 20 or 30 rupees. Fifty cents. To them, it meant recognition, a small moment of appreciation.

Since i could not have a regular conversation with the ricksaw wallas in Hindi or Bengali, i could only look at their faces to read their reactions. Those faces showed character, dignity, humility or humor. For me, they were the faces of the struggle for existence, more real and honest and open than the faces i see in the West.

"Bhai Saheb," i called them, "brother sir." Although i was sitting behind them on a seat attached to their bicycle while they were pedaling thru Vrindavan, and although it was a commercial exchange-- their energy for my rupees-- still i felt some kind of personal connection with many of them. Although they were in a subordinate position and i was directing them and paying them, we were both sharing a moment of time together, each in our own way. It is an experience of human dimension and quality that i can't find anywhere else than in Vrindavan. Even the ricksaw wallas can be sages and yogis in Vrindavan.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

India Journal, Part 3

Finally i get out of bed in my room at Yamuna Kunj, and open the door which leads to a veranda. From the veranda to the left you can see the white marble towers and brass cakras of the Imli Tala Mandir. The original Imli Tala is the tamarind tree that Krishna sat under during the ras lila after Radha disappeared from His sight. He meditated on Radha and turned a golden color, foreshadowing His appearance as Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu. In that avatara, Mahaprabhu returned to this same spot on the Yamuna where he sat and meditated on Himself. It's at this sacred place that the Imli Tala Mandir was built by Sripad Bhakti Sarangi Goswami, a godbrother of Srila Prabhupada. He installed beautiful deities of Sri Sri Radha Gopinath and Sri Sri Gaura Nitai here, as well as the footprints of Lord Caitanya. Sometimes Prabhupada would visit this godbrother's temple when he lived at Radha Damodar.

The sun shines every day in India during this season and it is surprisingly hot in the late morning. I just need a t shirt and lungi and baseball cap as a sunscreen. No coat, jacket, sweatshirt, shoes and socks. Life is simple here.

I pay my obeisances to Imli Tala as i leave Yamuna Kunj and catch a ricksaw to take me to Gopeswar Mahadev, my first stop in Vrindavan. This temple is in the old part of Vrindavan where no tourists come and most pilgrims rarely visit. I buy a 10 rupee garland from one of the flower wallas who sit on the temple steps, take off my shoes and walk in. It's around 11 am and the morning worship is coming to an end. Inside the inner sanctum where Gopiswar Mahadev sits, a brahmin priest presides over the final washing of the Lingam while reciting prayers before the temple closes for midday. I appear with my garland and the priest decides to let me offer it and participate in the worship. First he indicates i can drink some "caranamrita" that has been collected in a gumshaw from the washing of the Lingam. An assistant wrings a piece of the gumshaw into my cupped right hand, and i sip the caranamrita. Then the priest asks me to come close to the Lingam and offers me a lota of clean water to bathe Mahadev. I first ask him to purify my hand that sipped the caranamrita by pouring some water on it, then i take the lota and do my impromptu abhiseka. After the bathing, i bow down on my knees and the priest takes my head and touches it three times to the low silver or brass walls that surround the Lingam. I feel a bit like a child in doing this "forced obeisance" but don't mind since it's for Gopiswar Mahadev. I offer a quick silent prayer while this is happening. Obeisances complete, the priest asks me for a donation. I was already thinking about that. I take out a 50 rupee note and place it on the floor next to the Lingam. The priest looks satisfied and i am also satisfied and get up. He gives me a leaf cup of Lord Siva's maha prasad to take with me as i leave.

On my way out of the inner sanctum, the worker who had given me caranamrita from the gumshaw takes 2 flower garlands that are the maha prasad of Mahadev, and puts them around me. I give him a 10 rupee donation. As i'm leaving the outer temple, a couple of brahmans who are sitting on the floor reading scriptures also indicate that they want a donation. I place two 10 rupee notes on their place sittings. They also appear satisfied. Now i go out to the street. I see a street dog and offer him a piece of the maha prasad by placing it in front of him. A couple of local beggars see that and ask for some maha prasad for themselves. I oblige until there is only a small amount of prasad left, which i pop in my mouth.

From Gopiswar Mahadev it's only 100 meters to Vrinda Kunj, a beautiful ashram developed by my godbrother, Paramadwaiti Swami. I'm glad to see him. Last time we met was one year earlier in Miami. Vrinda Kunj is much nicer than Miami, a green garden with monkeys playing freely, basic bungalows for brahmacaries and guests and an old restored temple for Giriraj. It's ekadasi and i stay for a simple lunch of vegetables and peanuts.

India Journal, Part 2

The auto ricksaw somehow easily finds the dentist's office-- i'm impressed when they find any address in India, since the street names, numbers and directions always seem so confusing to me. I get there 30 minutes before my scheduled appointment and before the office is open. A worker is washing the front steps with water. I go and sit down in the waiting area. A few minutes later the driver of the taxi from Vrindavan that is supposed to meet me there shows up-- one hour early. I guess he has no other gig today. He also comes into the waiting room, looking for a power plug to recharge his mobile. These days, even some ricksaw wallas can be seen playing with their mobiles. (Does anyone actually call them?)

The dentist arrives. He is devotee-friendly, a nice guy and trained in Holland. I am sitting in the dentist chair less than 8 hours after landing in Delhi. He does his work while i listen to Prabhupada on my iPod. (It's a great survival tool for the dentist.) As soon as the appointment is complete i pay my bill by giving the receptionist nine 500 rupee notes and she shakes her head from side to side after counting it to indicate i have paid the correct amount ( i had a two hour appointment). Then i'm off in the subcompact taxi to Vrindavan. The 130 kilometer trip is familiar to me. Getting used to the traffic again is always an adjustment-- especially when my driver decides to go against the traffic-- going south on the northbound lanes of the national highway, to save a few hundred meters while playing chicken with oncoming cars and trucks. I chastise him for this, but it doesn't seem to matter to him.

It's still hot in this part of India in late October and i'm drinking more water than i drink in the West. After a 3.5 hour drive, which includes a stop at the beloved roadside cafe, Hari Om Dubba, we reach Vrindavan, past billboards advertising high-priced apartments for sale. The housing bubble has not yet burst in India it seems. The immediate challenge facing me is to clean my room at Yamuna Kunj which has not been used by anyone for 18 months. I am shocked when i unlock the door and find 5 cm (2 inches) of dust on the floor and most of the furniture, along with extensive webs and a few very large spiders on the walls and ceilings. I have no choice but to start sweeping it out with a straw hand broom i had kept in the room. I use a wet cloth over my nose and mouth to filter the dust. It's the spiders i'm afraid of, not knowing if they are poisonous or not. A devotee downstairs assures me not to worry-- even the scorpions are OK he says-- only Australian scorpios can kill you. Just use the broom to sweep them into an empty bucket. I feel a bit of an intruder to kick them out, but do it gingerly, so as not to cause them to take revenge on me.

It takes about 3 hours for me to clean the room and unpack a few essentials i had kept there-- like a battery operated light for when the power goes out. Miraculously, it still works after sitting uncharged in my almira for 18 months. Finally i try to shake the dust off my two thin cotton mattresses, and assemble my hi-tech mosquito net on the simple wood bed. It's 8 pm and i'm exhausted. I have just enough energy to set up the net and climb into it before falling off to a deep sleep. In the early morning around 5 am, i hear the sounds of kirtan parties chanting as they walk past Yamuna Kunj on the parikram marg. It reminds me that yes, i'm in the holy dham, far from the maddening material society. I know that it's better to be here, in bed, hearing the kirtaniyas, than to be out there, anywhere, doing just about anything that produces karma. It's my first morning in the dham and i have 10 days ahead of me. I enjoy the moment and the hope of recharging my spiritual life in a natural way, and blissfully drift back to sleep.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

India Journal, Part 1

I'm writing this as the polls in America are open and the final crescendo of news hype in the presidential election pervades the media here. It's one day and a parallel universe since i landed from Vrindavan. It's such a different world-- India and Vrindavan-- from the West. For someone who is searching for transcendence, and particularly for devotion, Vrindavan offers hope and affection, while the West offers depression and distraction.

It's not that everything is better there. Lots of things are much better here and many things much worse there. Perhaps i will elaborate on this in a later post. But i promised to share some details of my experiences of my visit to Vrindavan, so i will start today with my arrival in India. I did not take notes or record a journal, so these impressions are from memory.

As soon as i walked off the Air India flight from London and took my first steps at the Delhi airport, there was a familiar smell in the air. It is the smell of India. I am not exactly sure wherefrom or what that smell is, but it is distinctive. It's always my first impression of India, since my very first visit there in 1973. Then as now, i'm struck looking at the faces of the airport workers, so different from the working class in the West. And the architecture, despite renovations, seems stuck in a 1960s retro mode, but that just adds to the sense that one has arrived in a different world.

Going thru immigration is painless-- no questions, just the formality of getting the passport stamped-- and keeping the slip of paper to give to the Customs agent on the way out. Then queueing up just outside the airport at the Pre-paid taxi stand. Usually a taxi from Vrindavan is waiting for me, but this time i'm spending a few hours in Delhi (it's 3 am when i land) and i'm going to the dentist later in the morning. I pay 330 rupees for a pre-paid taxi to East of Kailash, where the Iskcon temple is located. I'm going to spend 4 or 5 hours at the guest house before my dentist appointment. The agent taking my rupess for the pre-paid taxi does not give me change from the 500 rupee note i give him for the fare. I take the ticket and start to leave, before remembering he owes me 170 rupees. My first reminder: in India you need to pay attention to details. Sometimes people will be honest with you. Often they will try to cheat you. Westerners have targets on their backs for easy pickings. I ask for my change and he grudgingly gives it to me.

The taxi driver doesn't speak any English, but i keep repeating Hare Krishna Mandir and he knows where it is. When we get to the temple, the chokidar (guard) directs us to another gate for the guest house. That gate is locked and the chokidar is asleep in a house behind the gate. He doesn't want to get up and open the gate, but finally consents to letting me leave the taxi and walk thru the gate. When i finally find my way to guest house (no signs are visible), the worker there looks like he could have been there 100 years ago. He can't find my name in the guest register and tells me i have no reservation. I know i have one, since someone made it for me. After several attempts of insisting i had a booking, he makes a call and then tells me my booking is at "The New Guest House," which is outside the gates of the temple complex, about 300 meters away. I try to negotiate to stay where i am, but it's not possible, according to the peon who is the night manager. He does convince me that the "new guest house" is not far and i decide to go off into the black nite to find it. I walk out the gate and cross the street, walk down a lane where again there are no signs to be seen, but as i walk, the chokidar from the new guest house is waiting for me, and pulls me in. I sign in with a 25 year old life membership card i have, which entitles me not to a free room but a subsidized price of 150 rupees for my short stay. The chokidar walks me to my room on the third floor. It has a fan that works only on the fastest speed. It also has an attached toilet and water for a bucket bath.

It's 4:30 am, so i decide to go across the street and begin my pilgrimmage by attending mangal arotik for Radha Parasarathi, the Deities installed by Srila Prabhupada in Delhi in the early 70's. I need to walk thru a metal detector and security guard to get into the temple grounds. The guard asks me for my room number at the guest house and that seems to satisfy him. I walk into the temple and pay my dandavats to Srila Prabhupada, Gaura Nitai, Sita Ram Laksman and Hanuman, and Sri Sri Radha Parasarathi. The arotik concludes, i sit in the back of the temple room while one devotee makes some announcements and then i go back to my room to rest for 3 hours, lying under a sheet while the fan spins at top speed, until 8:30 am when i get up, take a bucket shower and leave the guest house with my things to catch an auto rikshaw to the dentist's office. My Kartik trip has begun.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Just Back from Vrindavan dham

I just returned this evening from 10 days in Sri Vrindavan dham. It was a trip worth taking, from the taxi ride from Delhi airport to the plane ride back. I will share some of my impressions over the next few days while they are still fresh with me. In one sense, Vrindavan stands still as a place where bhakti can be seen and practiced. In other ways, (at least what we see and hear of it with our senses) it's a place that is changing and being influenced by the forces of time and culture. Perhaps no where else is that contrast (between the eternal and the temporal) so clear as in Vrindavan dham. Details soon.

Monday, October 13, 2008

God as One of Us

Unhelpful for establishing the tone McCain sought in Davenport was the Rev. Arnold Conrad, past pastor of the Grace Evangelical Free Church. His prayer before McCain arrived at the convention center blocks from the Mississippi River appeared to dismiss faiths other than Christianity and cast the election as a referendum on God himself.

"I would also pray, Lord, that your reputation is involved in all that happens between now and November, because there are millions of people around this world praying to their god — whether it's Hindu, Buddha, Allah — that his opponent wins, for a variety of reasons," Conrad said.

"And Lord, I pray that you would guard your own reputation, because they're going to think that their god is bigger than you, if that happens. So I pray that you will step forward and honor your own name with all that happens between now and Election Day," he said.

Yep, don't allow their Hindu God or Buddha God or Allah God to compete with our red, white and blue, evangelical Christian God. No one can be greater than "our" god-- fearful, hateful and intolerant, just like us. Pray and pass the ammunition.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Self-fulfilling Meanness

"As nearly as possible, no nationalist ever thinks, talks, or writes about anything except the superiority of his own power unit. It is difficult if not impossible for any nationalist to conceal his allegiance. The smallest slur upon his own unit, or any implied praise of a rival organization, fills him with uneasiness which he can relieve only by making some sharp retort," - George Orwell, the author of 1984.

Almost all politics and religion as practiced in today's world incites and panders to prejudices and sectarian thinking. The most powerful sects in today's world are nations and state-approved or accepted religions. These social structures bring a sense of national and religious identity that is self promoting. While praising its own merits and sanctity, national and religious identification divides rather than unifies; it pits one group as insiders against a hostile world of "outsiders." This identification is essentially based on temporary designations and mental impulses. It creates paranoia against self-exacerbated threats from "others." Such identification polarizes and creates frustration and anger. False friends and false enemies produce a self-fulfilling meanness. What it cannot produce is peace and harmony in human society.

Patriotism and religious fanaticism are similar. It's not as obvious when it's your sect rather than your flag. But as Srila Prabhupada put it, it's all skin disease. That includes today's Iskcon, Narayan Maharaj's sanga and other vaisnava groups who cannot tolerate openness, transparency and accountability. It's the tyranny of fundamentalism.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Uddhava's Gita

The Uddhava Gita

The other day i received a request to review the recent publication of the Uddhava Gita, the heart of the 11th Canto Srimad Bhagavatam, where Lord Krishna personally speaks to Uddhava just as He is about to depart this planet. These are the Lord's final instructions to us, his parts, who now find ourselves the unhappy residents on this troubled earth. These instructions are a continuation of Sri Krishna's penultimate teaching to Arjuna at Kuruksetra, a Bhagavad Gita, Part II. The Uddhava Gita gets its name from one of the Lord's dearest and most confidential associates who was sent from Mathura to Vrindavan as Krishna's personal representative to the gopis.

With commentaries and purports by two of the greatest vaisnava acaryas, Srila Visvanath Cakravarti Thakur and Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakur, this new volume of the 11th Canto by Touchstone Media is a gold mine for serious devotees. By serious, i mean those devotees who have "seen it, heard it and done it" in terms of material dealings, and who are now on the cusp of proper detachment. Those who do not seek fame, glory or profit from bhakti (as most kanistha adhikaris are apt to do, without admitting it to themselves or others), but rather, those who are tired of the endless ego games and who are thirsty for inner peace and humble service to the Lord are the rare, truly qualified readers of such transcendental literature.

I know Isvara Das, the publisher of Uddhava Gita, from Vrindavan. He has been a prolific independent producer of important vaisnava texts over the last decade. Isvara prabhu has single-handedly published a body of work that contributes much to our Gaudiya Vaisnava siddhanta.... filling the lacuna created by the BBT, who instead of producing new works or adding useful compendia to Srila Prabhupada's vast literary output, have been busy attacking the founder-acarya's original translations with editorial revisions bordering on (or even surpassing) the offensive.

The Uddhava Gita by Touchstone Media is unlike some of the BBT's works in this regard. It is not just dedicated to Srila Prabhupada but serves him by presenting the words of two great previous acaryas without alteration or self indulgence. It is stylistically based on Prabhupada's books, presenting the original Sanskrit verses from the Bhagavatam, Roman transliterations, English translations, and complete commentaries by Srila Cakravarti and Sarasvati Thakurs. It also contains glossaries of terms used and a general index. It is 820 pages.

Thankfully, this translation of the 11th Canto is refreshing in its conspicuous absence of arrogant purports by Hridayananda Das written and published during the great zonal acarya epoch in Iskcon. That era produced a translation that was polluted with grandiose statements about the soon-to-be-fallen zonal gurus of Iskcon. The BBT has probably removed the most egregious content from those volumes, but i still remember my discomfort in reading the commentaries and i refused to accept them as a companion to Prabhupada's Bhagavatam. It is indeed sad that even the highest things, such as this 11th Canto, considered the Crown on the Head of Sri Krishna, can be made temporary hostages of darkness. This publication remedies some of the shame and disgrace done in the name of Srila Prabhupada by offering a transparent translation of the commentaries by Visvanath Cakravarti Thakur and Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakur.

In the first chapter, Srila Sarasvati Thakur tells us, for example, in a purport to the 32nd verse:
"Those who are averse to Krishna and who are full of anarthas are always busy lording it over material objects. They spend their days accomplishing the three objectives of life— religiosity, economic development, and sense gratification. Their only aim is to enhance their duration of life, as well as their glories and beauty. Because Avadhuta Mahasaya did not display any such behavior, King Yadu asked him the reason for his wandering about in this way. In reply, the avadhuta said: 'Rather than accepting these twenty-four entities that are observed within this visible world as the means of my enjoyment, I have accepted them as my instructing spiritual masters, giving up the conception of accepting something and rejecting something else. I do not live like an ordinary human being, who is driven by mental speculation and thus bereft of the service of a spiritual master. I travel in this world under the shelter of my fixed intelligence. With a desire to surpass all anarthas and to always render loving service to the Supreme Lord, I have taken shelter of these twenty-four spiritual masters.'”

A few verses later, in verse 44, the avadhuta tells the King:
"O King, a saintly person is naturally pure, free from all contaminations, well behaved, and a benefactor of all human beings. Just by seeing, touching, or hearing such an exalted soul, one is purified just as one is cleansed by bathing with pure water. A saintly person, like a holy place of pilgrimage, purifies all those who meet him, because he is always engaged in chanting the glories of the Lord. "

And Cakravarti Thakur comments on this verse:
"Now the lesson to be learned from water is being described. Water is by nature pure and cooling. It is considered to be affectionate toward everyone. Water is sweet. Saintly persons are also sweet by nature and they purify all living entities by instructing them about devotional service. Saintly persons should behave as the well-wishing friend of everyone, just like water. Devotees purify everyone, just as water purifies everything by its contact."

A real devotee is a well-wishing friend of everyone. Like water, he or she is affectionate, pure and cooling towards all. What matters to a devotee is what is pure, not what is popular. Where we find real affection, real humanity, real purification is where we find a real devotee.

Without the company of such devotees, no amount of mental, intellectual or quasi-spiritual assets have any true value. Without having such association, we can only feel deep sadness and separation. We can try our best to hear from such saintly persons via these books and the recordings of pure devotees. This is our only source of hope.

The spiritual ocean that is Bhagavad-gita is thus expanded in the ocean of the Uddhava-gita. True to form, the Lord always glorifies his devotees as He instructs them. Thus, we can praise the unexcelled good fortune of both Arjuna and Uddhava, the extremely confidential friends and direct disciples of Bhagavan Sri Krishna. And pray to get more and more opportunity to drop all remaining pretense so that we can receive these profoundly pure teachings and they will act on our hearts. Books such as Uddhava Gita and the original Bhagavad-gita As It Is (1972) give us this chance.

All the books, dvds and other media produced by Touchstone Media can be accessed and purchased at www.touchstonemedia.com

Friday, August 22, 2008

Chasing After You

A small offering at the lotus feet of om visnupada paramhamsa 108 Sri Srimad A.C. Bhativedanta Swami Prabhupada, on his holy Vyasa Puja (Birth Anniversary)

Part 1
Sometimes history is cruel, Srila Prabhupada.
It turns rulers into fools.

It takes ambitious devotees and corrupts them into thieves.
I'm sorry, i'm referring to your crooked GBCs.

Sometimes i wonder who i am, Srila Prabhupada.
Am i really your man, ready to risk and even die?
Or am i just a caterpillar, a wannabe butterfly?

Easily i can see the faults in all others,
but how come i'm not a more solid brother?

You conquered my heart with your spotless sincerity,
but wherefrom do i feel all these heavy impurities?

Part 2
Srila Prabhupada, once i sat with you in your room in Tehran, and i felt your presence surround me.
After 30+ years the bond is not broken, but the inspiration's gone in the darkness around me.

Yes, you were the light of the moon and the sun for your spiritual daughters and enthusiastic sons.
You always lit up the hearts of your gentle, faithful ones.

For those who decided to usurp your spiritual powers,
you vanished like a yogi and became a plastic model.

They waved your flag like crusaders, just to game their way,
but like Karna at Kuruksetra, their strength will fail them
when it's time to pay.

It's you who steals the hearts of those whose souls are dear,
If someone tries to steal you, you simply disappear.

Part 3
Now my prayer becomes more real,
as i need to tell you frankly what my weak heart reveals.

O Prabhupada, when i look into my heart and see my own conceit,
i know my tears are insufficient, my surrender incomplete.

Surrender is not a show, a dress, success or popularity poll.
It's the battle to give up all things unfavorable, the desire to control.

Srila Prabhupada, of your golden legacy, i'm just a petty thief.
Calling myself 'disciple,' but resisting your lotus feet.

What am i doing in this world? What opulence do i have?
Credit cards and shopping bags, senses like 2nd class rags.

Part 4
When will i discard my anarthas and naked run behind you?
Like a humble, hungry dog who wants only to find you?

O master, they can curse me, tease me or beat me blue,
as long as i can keep on running and chasing after you....

Srila Prabhupada, i'm still fallen, a jiva gone astray.
Guide me to your shelter, by hook or crook someway.

You're my president, my true friend, my deepest love, my lord,
in every word, every step and every type of chord.

In my in breath and out breath, each and every birth and death,
may you always be my goal, my heaven, my moksa, my test.

Part 5
Srila Prabhupada, steal my mind and be my inner heart's thief.
Uproot my illusions. Cut this broken-hearted grief.

By your mercy, and by the power of your love for me,
open my eyes to All-Attractive Krishna Conscious Reality.

Nitya nityanam centanas cetananam.....

Your life was the perfect purport of this Katha Upanisad verse.
You purify my existence when i hear you chant these words.

Srila Prabhupada, let your presence within me be my single-minded truth.
Transform me into what you named me:
a liberated servant of the Ever-Fresh Youth.

your melancholy and impoverished sisya,

nava jauvana das