Olympic gold medals can't compare with the rewards of a swift moonlit walk around Vrndavana's most sacred hill.
OUTSIDE HIS NATIVE SPAIN Daniel Plaza Montero's Olympic gold medal in the twenty-kilometer walk last summer drew little notice. As one commentator remarked, "Race-walking is like a contest to see who can whisper the loudest."
But I was enthralled. Montero's heels and toes and swinging elbows took me back to the fastest walk of my life. Twenty-two kilometers around India's Govardhana Hill.
It was the autumn of 1987, on the full-moon anniversary of Lord Krsna's dance with the gopis, the cowherd damsels of Vrndavana. At dusk a local swami led me and two other Americans on Govardhana parikrama, a walking tour around the hill Krsna lifted with the pinky of His left hand.
Chanting Hare Krsna, the swami took off like a bullet. Parikrama is a pilgrimage, not a race, but I liked the pace. Somehow the speed revealed the urgency of the chanting. "O Lord, O energy of the Lord, please engage us in Your eternal loving service."
Single-file, we scooted barefoot over the parikrama path. The path was like life now rough, now smooth and even the smooth spots sometimes surprised us. We had to pick our feet up high, or the uneven ground would bang our heels and toes. Serious pilgrims never let Nike or Reebok come between their feet and the holy land. Nor do they spit, gab, run, or look back.
To our left, the full moon was rising through the trees, showing Govardhana, low and lovely, to our auspicious right. We passed villagers placing fresh pots of sweet rice in full view of the moon. Its beams "dripped nectar" into the pots, they said, in honor of Krsna's divine dancing with the gopis.
Lickety-split went Krsna's names, over our tongues, through our ears, and into our hearts. As the trail snaked through a dimly-lit town, the rough terrain ripped the bandages off my blisters. Then … squish! I stepped into a pile of pure cow dung. And another and another. The trail was full of the magic manure, providing antiseptic "shoes" for my tender Western feet. Govardhana was helping me keep pace.
Outside the town, we hit a sandy stretch lined with tall trees, where dogs were howling at the moon. We passed teens who called "Angres!" ("English!") and laughed. All types of people walked the trail farmers, businessmen, professionals, gypsies. One robed man with matted locks stepped quickly, touching giant cymbals to a slow three-beat and calling holy names in a high pitch: "Radhe-Syama!" Another was literally prostrating himself around Govardhana. Stretching forth his arms in the dust, he placed a rock as a marker to begin his next prostration. That sort of parikrama would take months to complete. Slow and steady (and purely devoted) wins the race.
The swami was flying as we approached the village of Radha-kunda, nearly full circle on the parikrama path. Suddenly, a group of ruffians rushed out of the shadows. Our torrid pace amused and excited them. They laughed and danced among us, flashing fiery punk sticks near our eyes and shouting, "Radhe! Radhe!" after Krsna's favorite gopi.
Our feet rushed over the stones as we entered the village, a small stampede of rough and gentle pilgrims. Even the ruffians in this sacred land are Krsna conscious, I thought. But I focused on the heels ahead of me, afraid of falling behind.
We raised our arms and pressed our palms as we passed the kunda, Radha's sacred bathing pond. Descending the sandy steps, we bowed and sprinkled a few drops of her holy waters on our heads. The ruffians were gone. Our starting point was only a few hundred yards away. At last, we bowed in the moonlit dust of Govardhana Hill. I looked at my watch: 3 ½ hours flat.
By the path, an old man stirred steaming milk in a large wok. Cow bells jingled in the night as we sat at his stand and spoke of Govardhana. No one gave us any medals for walking so swiftly around the hill. Everyone was too busy loving the One who lifted it. (Now there's one for the Olympians!) Montero got his gold, but we got the nectar. An immortal evening of Krsna consciousness.
Afterthought: The next Olympics is 1996, the same year as Srila Prabhupada's centennial. Imagine a Hare Krsna Olympics, glorifying the superhuman feats of the Supreme Personality of Godhead and His pure devotee Srila Prabhupada. The perfection of cheers!
Suresvara Dasa chants and walks the country roads around Gita Nagari, ISKCON's farm in Pennsylvania.