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.

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