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.

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