A pilgrim from the West discovers that the spiritual rewards far
exceed the physical challenges of a walking tour of Krsna's holy land.
LAST FALL I HAD the special opportunity to take part in ISKCON's sixteenth annual Vraja Mandala Parikrama. Now the wonderful sights and sounds of this sacred land live in my heart and ash through my mind constantly.
Located eighty-five miles south of New Delhi, India, the villages of Vraja, the place of Lord Sri Krsna's childhood pastimes, spread over an area about forty miles in diameter. it includes the city of Mathura (the birthplace of Lord Krsna) and twelve primary villages and forests, of which Vrndavana is the most famous. ISKCON's annual Vraja Mandala ("circle") Parikrama ("circumambulation") is open to all. It lasts the entire Vedic month of Kartika, which falls in October and November.
Before I departed for India from Baltimore, various doubts ran through my mind. How, where, and when would basic needs of hygiene and food be fulfilled while we walked through the villages of Vraja? Being fifty-seven years old, I feared getting ill and the physical challenge of walking several hours each day. But with encouragement from my family and other devotees in Baltimore, and after prayers to the most merciful Srimati Radharani, the eternal queen of Vraja, I departed, ready for whatever was to come.
Our group from Baltimore arrived in India on October 17. It was a bright, sunny day, and the scenic drive from New Delhi to Vrndavana reminded me of my childhood in India and past trips to Vrndavana. Still, this trip felt special. Upon nearing Vrndavana and seeing temple domes and complexes from afar, I began to think of the countless pastimes of Radha and Krsna and was overjoyed to be in the holy land.
Once we arrived at ISKCON's Krsna-Balarama Mandir, I quickly settled in and then went to offer respects to the deities Gaura-Nitai, Krsna-Balarama, and Radha-Syamasundara and to Srila Prabhupada in his Samadhi Mandir (memorial temple). I was excited to see the hundreds of devotees who had come from all over the world, and to talk to devotees I had met over the years.
The first day of walking started with the town of Vrndavana. The Vrajavasis (residents of Vraja) believe that circumambulating Vrndavana can wash away any offenses committed in the holy land. Following custom, and out of respect for the holy land, I walked barefoot during the Vrndavana Parikrama. I was tired, and my feet were sore and blistered as the day came to an end. I questioned my commitment to last the entire month if every day was going to be like this. But encouragement from Parikrama veterans like Radha-Ramana Dasa, Radha Govinda Swami, and others strengthened my resolve.
The next morning, before departing Vrndavana and the Krsna-Balarama Mandir, devotees took personal vows in front of the deities. I prayed to Sri Sri Radha-Syamasundara for the strength to finish the one-month walk. Leaving the temple gates, I looked back at the massive white domes of the Krsna-Balarama Mandir and felt the presence of the Lord in the form of the hundreds of devotees walking with me. We were now on our way to Mathura.
A Challenging First Week
After walking about half the day, we arrived at historic Vishram Ghat, where Krsna and Balarama rested after killing the demonic Kamsa, and where Lord Caitanya bathed upon entering Mathura. After bathing in the cold, murky waters of the holy Yamuna River and setting up camp for the evening, a small group of us visited some nearby temples.
The next day, we performed Mathura Parikrama, stopping at various holy places in the city. Radha-Ramana Dasa, Bhadra Dasa, and other senior devotees gave short talks and led kirtanas at the holy sites. After another night in Mathura, we departed for Madhuvan at six o'clock the next morning, the fourth day of the Parikrama.
The first week of the Parikrama seemed long and hard. I was tired from walking during the cold mornings and hot afternoons. Slowly but surely, though, my fearful thoughts for health, hygiene, and food faded away, and only thoughts of the people and places of Vraja entered my mind. Other devotees, too, lost track of time. We became oblivious of what day it was, and our entire focus was to understand and meditate on the pastimes of Lord Sri Krsna at each spot we visited. The daily schedule of rising early, bathing in the cold, and living the village life became routine and felt natural. In this way, we walked each day from place to place hearing about the pastimes of the Lord, taking part in ecstatic kirtanas and aratis, and associating with many devotees,sannyasis, and Vrajavasis.
A Midnight Dip
In the afternoon of the seventh day we reached the famed Radha Kund, our base for the next three days. I was especially excited about visiting Radha Kund, home to so many temples and holy sites. We set up camp and then visited the banks of Radha Kund and Shyama Kund, which are adjacent to each other. Telling the history of the two ponds, Radha-Ramana Dasa explained how and why Krsna had called on all of the sacred rivers of the world to come fill them. [See BTG, September/October 2002].
After paying our obeisances and performing a short worship ceremony at Radha Kund, we visited several surrounding places, including the memorial tombs of Raghunatha Bhatta Gosvami, Raghunatha Dasa Gosvami, and Krsna Dasa Kaviraja Gosvami, prominent followers and contemporaries of Lord Caitanya.
The next day we walked around Govardhana Hill, stopping occasionally to hear of the numerous pastimes of Lord Krsna at locations such as Manasi Ganga and Kusuma Sarovara. Our final full day at Radha Kund consisted of doing Parikrama of Radha Kund and Shyama Kund during the day and bathing in the holy waters at midnight. Because it is the anniversary of the appearance of Shyama Kund and Radha Kund, a midnight bath on this day is an annual ritual for all the Vrajavasis who live in the area.
As we left Radha Kund the morning of the tenth day, I felt new appreciation for our disciplic lineage. Hearing lectures by Lokanath Swami, Radha-Govinda Swami, and Gopal Krsna Swami on the pastimes of Radha and Krsna, and visiting temples and places of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu and past acaryas like the six Gosvamis, gave me a strong feeling for the Gaudiya Vaisnava tradition carried on by Srila Prabhupada.
As we walked farther along the Parikrama path, the days and nights went quickly. From Deeg to Badrinath to Kedarnath with each stop I was learning more and trying to absorb as much as I could of the holy land.
Each day as we walked through forests and villages filled with a plethora of vibrant colors and sounds, local residents would come out of their homes, fields, and shops to greet us. The children of the villages would follow us to the edge of town, shouting "Haribol!" and "Radhe! Radhe!" with their arms raised. Many adults would greet us with offerings of hot milk or sweets. And if we happened to be staying overnight in their village, they would often invite a group of us into their small homes to stay for the night or eat prasadam in the evening. Their love and kindness for us, total strangers, amazed me. I feel as though I got a glimpse of why the Vrajavasis are so dear to Lord Krsna. On the sixteenth day we reached Varshana, home of Srimati Radharani. Realizing that Varshana was the midpoint of our pilgrimage, I was saddened that there would eventually be an end to the bliss I had been feeling the past two weeks. I wanted to take in all I could in the time remaining. We spent two days in Varshana exploring the glorious homeland of Srimati Radharani. From way atop the hill on which the main Radharani temple sits, to the narrow alleys of the bazaars of Varshana, all I could hear was glorification of Radha-Krsna. Jaya Jaya Sri Radhe-Syama!Also at this halfway mark, I began to realize the magnitude of effort put forth by the organizers and devotees assisting the Parikrama. Twice a day a group of devotees from Mayapur cooked delicious food for Lord Krsna and the more than four hundred Parikrama participants. Another group brought gallons upon gallons of filtered water to the campsite for the devotees to drink, and yet another group of devotees assisted in setting up and taking down the camp. This task included erecting several huge tents under which devotees slept (when better facilities such as schools or hostels were unavailable). The tents provided modest cover from the chilly autumn evenings and mornings. A hired crew kept the campground safe, and cleaned up the next morning. Each evening a mo-bile shop arrived at the campsite, selling basic items such as soap, candles, and batteries. Laundry service was al-so available daily, as was a shuttle bus to and from the ISKCON center in Vrndavana.
Spiritual Health For A Doctor
As in past years, a doctor accompanied the Parikrama. This year it was Dr. Mahesh Bhatt, from Baroda, Gujarat. He told me he had met ISKCON devotees before but had never really considered himself religious. He decided to help the devotees as a humanitarian service. He had never before worn a dhoti or tilaka, or even risen before sunrise. After he'd received Lord Sri Krsna's blessings and the association of devotees, everything changed for him. He told me that by taking part in the Parikrama, chanting the holy names of Sri Krsna, and coming in touch with Vraja's atmosphere of simple living and high thinking, he had been changed for life. He said he would assist the Parikrama organizers with his services every year from now on. We left Varshana on the morning of the eighteenth day and traveled to Nandagram and then, the next day, to Kokilavan. The second half of the Parikrama ew by just as fast as the first half. In the waning days, we traveled from Brahmanda Ghat, where Mother Yasoda saw the entire cosmos within Krsna's mouth, to Raval, the birthplace of Radharani. Finally, on the thirtieth day of our pilgrimage, we returned to Mathura for a concluding bath at Vishram Ghat. Upon ending the Parikrama, I could feel my faith in Lord Sri Krsna and the message of Srila Prabhupada increase tenfold. I encourage all devotees to take part in the Vraja Mandala Parikrama, be it for one week, two weeks, or the entire month, at least once in their lifetime. I have the greatest respect for all of the organizers and participants of the Parikrama. I will never forget the wonderful sights and sounds of Vraja. They will live forever in my heart. I hanker to go back there again and again.
Pradyumna Dasa, a disciple of His Holiness Satsvarupa Dasa Goswami, lives outside Baltimore, Maryland, with his wife, Damodara Devi Dasi. Together they teach Krsna consciousness in the Indian community through home programs and other events. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.