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.