Twenty years after her first visit, a pilgrim tries to enter
deeper into the mood of this best of holy places.
I FEEL ANXIOUS AS our taxi careens in and out of traffic made up of cows, human beings, motorbikes, and bicycle rickshas. Incessantly blowing the horn, our driver maneuvers past slower conveyances, barely squeezing by without collision. This ride through Vrndavana's commercial center surpasses any of my past encounters with amusement park thrill rides.
My body begins to relax as we exit the bazaar and come onto a wider, less congested road. Familiar smells of open-air cow-dung fires mixed with hot cooking oil bring back memories of my last visit, twenty years ago.
I never thought I'd return to India. The expense, my weak health, and a bout last time with amoebic dysentery all factored into my general indifference about returning. But one evening, feeling particularly moved after reading about Krsna's pastimes in Vrndavana, I felt a stirring of desire to go back. Perhaps the twenty years of devotional service I had done since my last visit would help me get a glimpse of the Vrndavana Prabhupada describes in his book Krsna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
Vrndavana is more than a geographical location; it is a replica of Krsna's spiritual home. It descended in preparation for His coming to this world five thousand years ago. The Lord enjoyed His earthly activities for 125 years and then returned to His original spiritual home. Krsna's place of pleasure pastimes, Vrndavana, stays on earth and keeps its spiritual potency. But only with a pure heart can one see the actual Vrndavana. That vision is a rare commodity in this world. It comes only to a very sincere practitioner of devotional life who has attracted the mercy of the Lord.
Seeing The Real Vrndavana
Most people see Vrndavana with material vision. In the commercial section they see the narrow lanes lined with shops, the open sewage, the beggars, and the hogs, cows, and dogs competing for refuse piled high on the side of the street. Further out they see many ashrams and temples, as well as flat agricultural fields dotted with grass and mud huts.
One may be repulsed, attracted, or indifferent to this landscape. But to love Vrndavana, one must have spiritual vision to see past the material covering.
I for one don't have such spiritual vision. After twenty years I reenter Vrndavana with mixed emotions. I haven't transcended the material plane. I'm put off by some features and charmed by others. But I believe that with purified vision one can see the real Vrndavana beyond the external covering, the Vrndavana of spiritual cintamani gems and wish-fulfilling trees.
Because I've become a little purified from practicing bhakti-yoga for the past twenty-five years, I can detect the increased intensity of spiritual energy at this holy place. When we arrive at the Krishna-Balarama Temple, I'm flooded with feelings of gratitude at having been allowed to come despite my disqualification. I enter the samadhi (shrine) of my spiritual master, Srila Prabhupada. After paying respects and gazing at the bright brass form of Prabhupada, I pray to deepen my relationship with him and Krsna's holy name. I pray to develop humility and compassion for others. That's why I've come to this holy place: to receive spiritual blessings from my spiritual master and all the eternal residents of Vrndavana.
I also pray that I can accept whatever form of mercy the Lord gives me here. We have a tendency to discriminate between mercy we like (e.g., receiving a plate of delicious prasadam sweets) and mercy we don't like (e.g., getting sick or injuring our body). I expect to get both kinds of mercy and remind myself that everything Krsna does is for our highest good.
After praying to Prabhupada, my husband and I go to see the gorgeous deities in the Krishna-Balarama Temple. The temple is in the section of Vrndavana known as Raman Reti, where Krsna and Balarama, along with Their cowherd boyfriends, would play as children. For this reason, the center altar sports beautiful black Krsna and His older brother, Balarama, who rests His graceful white arm on Krsna's dark shoulder. On the left altar stand the most merciful incarnations of Krsna and Balarama: Lord Caitanya and Lord Nityananda. Flanking Them are nearly life-sized white marble forms of Srila Prabhupada and his spiritual master, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati.
On the right altar, exquisitely beautiful Radha-Syamasundara are lovingly served by Lalita and Visakha, Their principal cowherd girlfriends. At home I often gaze at my photos of all these deities, but that doesn't compare to seeing them here in person.
The altar and the deities' clothing, jewelry, and other ornaments are a feast for my eyes. I breathe in the sweet aroma of the incense and listen to the melodious kirtana. The sensually pleasing atmosphere in the temple startlingly contrasts with the sordid conditions of Vrndavana's commercial district. Prabhupada understood his disciples' need for aesthetics and comfort, so he had this temple built to provide a favorable and pleasing atmosphere to help us take up the path of bhakti-yoga. In our pure state, to be fully absorbed in loving Krsna we don't require any amenities, but before coming to that platform, we require so many things.
I have more appreciation this visit for the greatness of Srila Prabhupada's mission. Inspired by the order of his spiritual master and deep compassion for suffering humanity, he left his quiet spiritual home here in Vrndavana to travel west to New York City, one of the most materialistic cities in the world. After successfully spreading Krsna consciousness in the West, Prabhupada returned to Vrndavana in 1970 to get land and start building a magnificent temple to attract devotees from all over the world. Now, twenty-four years after Prabhupada's departure from this world, thousands of devotees from all over the world have come to Vrndavana and taken shelter of his Krishna-Balarama Temple, gaining spiritual strength to continue his mission. The temple is a tribute to Prabhupada's greatness, his compassion, and his love for his spiritual master and Krsna.
My eighteen-day visit to Vrndavana passes quickly. Days are filled with spiritual activities in the temple, visits to holy places where Krsna performed pastimes five thousand years ago, shopping for devotional supplies to take back to the West, and associating with devotees from all over the world.
As I expected, the Lord's mercy comes in many forms. I get my share of intestinal problems, was well as a su and a cold. But I get to speak with advanced devotees who inspire me with their realizations and their service to the Lord. I get to celebrate Govardhana Puja and Prabhupada's Disappearance Day in the holiest of places in the world. I receive gifts and prasadam from devotees I meet. One devotee gives me a shawl that Radharani wore on the altar. Another devotee brings my husband and me garlands from Krsna and Balarama as we are leaving Vrndavana.
The greatest gift is the mornings I chanted attentive japa and felt a deeper connection with Krsna's holy names than ever before. Although I would leave Vrndavana, Krsna's holy names would be with me wherever I went. As Krsna and Vrndavana are identical, so are Krsna and His holy names. I have come to Vrndavana to deepen my relationship with Krsna in the form of His holy name, and I feel that the desire has been fulfilled.
While sitting in the New Delhi airport waiting for our 1:30 A.M. flight home, I reflect on things I will and won't miss about Vrndavana:
I won't miss the herds of monkeys that congregate almost everywhere.
I won't miss the hogs, the open sewers, and the garbage in the street.
I won't miss the firecrackers and other fireworks that exploded almost every night when I was trying to go to sleep.
I won't miss the polluted air and water.
I won't miss the bicycle-ricksha rides to Loi Bazaar or the taxi rides to Govardhana or New Delhi.
I will miss the beautiful Krishna-Balarama Temple, the decorative altars hung with canopies of fresh flowergarlands, and the exquisitely adorned forms of the Lord.
I will miss the melodious kirtanas with hundreds of voices singing responsively together glorifying the Lord.
I will miss chanting in Prabhupada's samadhi in the pre-dawn hours.
I will miss chanting in Prabhupada's warm, cozy writing room.
I will miss going barefoot in the soft sands around Govardana Hill and seeing the white cows with lotus eyes that gather around us at Govinda Kund while we sing a soft kirtana.
I will miss hearing the Srimad-Bhagavatam class from so many mature devotees.
I will miss the little banana-leaf bowl full of warm maha-prasadam kitri I buy at the end of class for five rupees.
I will miss the many sweet devotees who came to Vrndavana this holy month (Kartika) and the stalwart residents I had the good fortune to meet.
I will miss having someone wash and iron my laundry each day for a few rupees.
I will miss the absence of mundane news.
I pray that Radharani will allow me to return soon and some day go beyond the external Vrndavana. I hope that one day I will be able to see the eternal home of the Lord in all its beauty and splendor and engage in uninterrupted, unmotivated devotional service to Sri Sri Radha-Syamasundara.
Arcana-Siddhi Devi Dasi was initiated by Srila Prabhupada in 1976. She lives with her husband and son in Baltimore, Maryland, where she works as a family therapist.