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.