Excerpts from the diary of a young American on a
twenty-five-day pilgrimage through the
land of Krsna's pastimes.
February 13, Mathura
It is 2:00 AM. Outside in the courtyard a dog is barking. We slept last night eighteen to a room in the asrama attached to the temple here at Krsna's birthsite. I retired at 9:30, and this barking dog has awakened me. Returning to sleep is impossible. This makes my third night in a row with less than five hours sleep; but, somehow one does not grow tired in Mathura. There is a weariness in my body, like you might feel after doing strenuous exercise, but not that drowsy, dull, mode-of-ignorance feeling you experience elsewhere.
As we left Mathura, our pada-yatra elephant led, followed by the kirtana party and ox-cart with the deities.
We entered the village of Madhuvana the land that time forgot. Who can describe it! I thought the town of Vrndavana was a village, but compared to Madhuvana, Vrndavana is a big city. This is a real village. First you see the fields, then the huts, with their simple thatched roofs, In the center of the village stands the village well. There is no electricity. We enter the village 150 devotees strong. The villagers have never seen anything like its. They don't quite know what to do.
The village children follow our kirtana their faces lit with happiness and excitement. The piety of these people cannot be fathomed. Their faces are like lights in the night. The kirtana reverberates off the cement walls in the narrow village street, and ecstasy descends upon us. The austerity of the walk now seems worth it, a million times over.
We started out from Madhuvana this morning to go to Santanu-kunda. The distance is fourteen kilometers. The early morning walk was one of extraordinary beauty. We passed field after field of bright-green wheat, punctuated by tall fields of sugarcane. The road was soft and pleasing, cooling to the feet. It was like getting a foot massage.
On the way we passed through Talavana forest, where there are deities of Balarama black, with His right hand raised and Revati, His eternal consort. Talavana forest is where Dhenukasura was killed. This demon, in the form of a giant ass, was not allowing anyone into this part of Vrndavana. The cowherd boys were attracted to the beautiful fruit trees there. So Balarama killed the demon by grasping one of his hind legs and throwing him into a tree. There are still palm trees in this part of Vrndavana; one is in the courtyard of the temple.
We then walked to Kumudavana. Kumuda means "water lily." During Krsna's pastimes beautiful water lilies grew here. Lord Kapila, an incarnation of Krsna, performed austerity here in the Treta-yuga. The Varaha Purana states that whoever bathes here will be blessed to understand the purport to the Vedic literature. I filled my canteen and rubbed the water over my body.
Near Kumudavana is Santanu-kunda, where King Santanu performed austerities to beget Bhismadeva. The kunda is now muddy and only a few feet deep, but it is the only place in the area to bathe. The village here is very poor. There is no grass, and dust is blowing all over. Many devotees are staying in tents set up on a sandy plain. I am staying in a room with pigeons flying above me here and there.
This morning we went on procession to the temple at Santanu-kunda. When we arrived in the middle of mangala-arati five local devotees were ringing beautifully tuned gongs and chanting mantras. Even though the simplicity of the village was reflected in the worship, the beauty of the Deity shone through black Krsna with a flute.
Now we have arrived at Bahulavana and are camped for the day. We have walked through four of the twelve forests of Vrndavana. The Bahula-kunda is one of the nicest kundas I've seen. Clean water. This is a picturesque village, and the people are helpful and happy. They seem materially a little better off than the people at Santanu-kunda. Through a Hindi speaking devotee from Delhi I was able to talk to some of the local teenage boys.
Tonight after prasadam we had our regular evening program kirtana, a lecture, a play, and a puppet show. All the devotees gather onstage, the villagers all around us. After an exuberant kirtana Radha-ramana dasa introduces all the Western devotees. The amazing thing is the way the people react. It is very easy to get them to chant, often with great enthusiasm. You haven't lived until you've heard a hundred Brijbasis chanting Hari Bol! at the top of their lungs.
The parikrama left Bahulavana about 9:00 A.M. for Radha-kunda and Syama-kunda. I took the opportunity to walk quite a distance ahead of the party. It was nice to be out in the countryside by myself. Upon arriving at Radha-kunda, we were told to respect but not enter this most sacred of all kundas, so I put some water on my head and then bathed with water from Syama-kunda. Many old people reside here, living out their last days in this holy place. I passed one old woman on the street who seemed one step from death. She looked at me and just said, "Jaya Radhe," but she said it in such a way, with such feeling, that it touched me very deeply. One has to be very careful around these holy places. I hope I did not commit any offenses here, either to the site or to its saintly residents.
Often I see people circumambulating Syama-kunda and Radha-kunda by offering prostrate obeisances, placing a rock before them, and then offering obeisances again. It is quite an austerity to go all the way around the two lakes this way. It takes several hours to complete. I don't think I'll try it, soft American that I am.
Today we'll walk four kilometers to Govardhana a very short distance by pada-yatra standards and on the way we will stop to bathe at Kusuma-sarovara, where the gopis used to pick flowers for Radha and Krsna.
This morning Lokanatha Maharaja gave a wonderful talk on the significance of Vraja-mandala pada-yatra. He read from a work written by a disciple of Gadadhara Pandita. This disciple, Narayana Bhatta, wrote twelve books on Vrndavana. He compares different parts of Vrndavana to Krsna's body. He says there are 2,500 forests in Vrndavana. Krsna's heart is Mathura, Vrndavana is his navel, Madhuvana his chest, and so on. In this way we will touch many of the parts of Krsna's body on ourpada-yatra.
The path we are walking is approximately 168 miles long. In A.D. 1515 Lord Caitanya performed the Vraja parikrama. When Lord Caitanya came here, the local people did not know the significance or the location of many of the sites of Krsna's pastimes. But because Caitanya Mahaprabhu is the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krsna, He knew everything about Vraja, and He revealed all the holy places so people could come here and take advantage of the supreme dhama.
Lokanatha Maharaja said that Vraja-mandala pada-yatra is a fully authorized way to get closer to Krsna. Everything we are doing chanting, bathing, taking prasadam, kirtana, Bhagavatam class all are fully authorized activities for getting closer to Krsna. If we adopt the right means, then we will get the correct results and will find Krsna and not maya. Here in Vrndavana we can practice the Krsna culture openly and freely, more so than anywhere else in the universe. We can dress as devotees, chant as devotees completely and openly to our hearts content.
Today we circumambulated Govardhana Hill. This is an easy statement to make; it is another thing to actually do it especially barefooted. We started at 6:30 in the morning and ended tonight at 5:00. We stopped at many sacred places along the way, including Manasi Ganga (the Ganges that Krsna created from His mind) and Annakuta (the spot where Indra bathed Krsna after Krsna had lifted Govardhana Hill).
February 21, 22
On our way to Kamya-vana, a sannyasi said that even if we can't see Krsna in Vrndavana, He can see us. He sees us and acknowledges that we made the pilgrimage here. Most of the time I don't want Krsna to see me I'm so low and filled with gross desires. In the past I've even tried to hide from Krsna. But here in Vrndavana the thought that Krsna is watching gave me a thrill. It is like that here in Vrndavana.
This is a harsh land. Even now, in the middle of spring, it is ninety degrees by mid-afternoon. It is desertlike, a land where you can't find fresh, clear brooks. All the drinking water has to be dug for. But all of a sudden you remember Krsna, and sweetness overtakes you, and all the pain of this harsh climate and land seem a million miles away, and even your own body and its pains seem like they don't belong to you.
It is nighttime. The devotees are packed up right next to each other. There is no "I want this room…. I need this facility." The beauty of pada-yatra is its simplicity and its sacrifice. Everyone is sacrificing bodily comfort for the comfort of close association with devotees. In one corner, a devotee reads a book by flashlight. Another chants softly in another corner. Others walk through with japa beads in their hands. One elderly devotee comes through with a tray of hot coals and frankincense and fills the room with fragrance.
Today we left Kamya-vana, the fifth of Vrndavana's twelve forests. It was worth all the trouble of coming to India just to take the walk from Kamya-vana to Varsana, the home of Srimati Radharani. Last night it rained and broke the heat spell of the last few days. We took a path to Varsana that was completely through the countryside. There was a cool, refreshing breeze blowing, and the sand was soft and moist. We went through field after field of irrigated crops. The sun slipped over the horizon, and the clouds filtered the light through their deep-blue billows.
One feels the real Vrndavana here. There is great peace and beauty. We go into the interior farming villages that can be reached only by footpaths. The faces of these people are so pious it is a benediction just to see them. Here in the farming villages the water is fresh and clean, the crops plentiful. The villagers chant the holy names spontaneously. Everywhere it is "Jaya Radhe!" "Radhe Syama!" All the villagers greet each other like this. It's a way of life enviable to complicated Westerners.
February 25, 26
We have spent two days in Varsana. It is very peaceful and still here. Tonight, after bathing in Pilu-koti-kunda, where Radharani used to wash Her hands, I thought how nice it would be if everyone could experience this wonderful place. I composed an invitation: "My friends, walk out to the Pilu-koti-kunda and see the peacocks in the fields. It is evening, and in Varsana everything is cooling. Meet the devotees of Krsna here and join in kirtana with them. See their faces, for one look at the true devotees of Srimati Radharani in Varsana is enough to free you from all anxiety. Then join them in procession up the hill that has hundreds of worn steps climbing into the heavens. Each stone bears the footprints of millions of devotees who have walked here before you.
"At the top of the hill, look over the land of Krsna as it stretches out, panoramic, before you. See the Krsna-blue clouds hanging over the purple horizon, lightning flashing from one to another. Then turn and behold Radharani's temple, with its murals depicting the pastimes of Radha and Krsna. See the Deities of Radha and Krsna here and join in the enchanting kirtana, being sung in Their glorification. If you do this, Radharani will be pleased with you, and Her kindness on you will bring the happiness you ache for in this world."
Here in Nandagrama, Krsna lived from age eight to sixteen. He lived for His first seven years in Gokula, and for one year He lived in Chattikara, just down the road from ISKCON's Krishna-Balaram Mandir. We bathed in Pavana-sarovara, where mother Yasoda used to bathe child Krsna.
At Prema-sarovara, a little outside Varsana, Narayana Maharaja spoke on the glories of Vrndavana-dhama. He said that great persons like Brahma, Siva; and Narada are always desiring to take the dust of Vrndavana on their heads. Vrndavana is not part of the earth planet; it is the spiritual world. He said that if somehow a sinful person sneaks onto this parikrama and associates with the devotees, he will also become totally purified. By going on Vraja-mandala parikrama, one achieves the same result as that achieved by performing millions of births of sadhana-bhakti. But one must be careful not to commit offenses to the holy dhama.
This morning I went up to the main temple here at Nandagrama. It has black marble Deities of Krsna and Balarama. They are both in the threefold-bending form and are holding flutes. On Their left and right are two tall deities of Yasoda and Nanda. Radharani is also there, as well as two of Krsna's friends, Sridama and Madhumangala.
It is nice to be in Nandagrama early in the morning, chanting Hare Krsna in the place where Krsna lived. One is overcome with the timelessness, the eternity of it all, and reverence to Krsna is a natural emotion. What has to be forced in the West is completely natural here.
We spent the day in Kosi, where Srila Prabhupada came to meet Srila Bhaktisiddhanta's parikrama in the 1930's. This evening we had a huge sankirtana down the main street in town. Although the street is only about ten feet wide, it is lined with shops and packed with people. If it hadn't been for Laksmi, our elephant, I don't think we could have made our way through the teeming humanity. People came forward to give offerings to the deities and food to the elephant.
At around four in the afternoon we arrived in Shergarh, where Lord Balarama performed His rasa dance. A small group of us has been rehearsing a play "The Transcendental Attempts of Lord Caitanya to Reach Vrndavana." The play finally came together for a few seconds during rehearsal today. Our play ends with everyone chanting Hare Krsna, and as we were all chanting together Japanese, Americans, South Americans, Europeans, Indians I felt perhaps one of the most ecstatic moments I have felt since coming to Vrndavana. At least for some moments I felt a strong kinship with these devotees these souls-and I transcended the bodily conception and felt real union in worship of Krsna.
This morning I went out to the Vrndavana countryside to chant the holy name. This part of Vrndavana, the Yamuna River basin, is the most beautiful part of Vraja I have seen very flat and lush. There are many peacocks here. This time of year the Yamuna flows shallow, and I saw many cranes, swans, and egrets.
We have arrived at ISKCON's Krishna-Balaram Mandir, and a German devotee and I have rented a room nearby. The room is spartan, with no running water, only a pump outside. Three weeks ago I could not have thought of staying in a room like this. But now, after three weeks of pada-yatra, just to have a water pump to myself is a great luxury. We will spend three days here visiting the many holy spots in the town of Vrndavana.
Tonight after sunset we took a short walk up to the Dauji temple. Dauji is Lord Balarama, and He is accompanied by His consort Revati. It is a very sweet temple with a wide, open courtyard. Dauji was shrouded in slight darkness, with Revati standing not by His side, but facing Him. We had a wonderful kirtana before the Deities. The locals hardly ever see foreigners, and to see us dancing in kirtana fascinates them. We try to tolerate their constant stares. No matter how many times we tell them we don't speak their language, they still speak to us a mile a minute. We remind ourselves that they are all exalted persons, being residents of Krsna's eternal home.
Today we walked from Dauji to Gokula, where Krsna lived until age seven. We stopped many times along the way to see the spots where Krsna performed His childhood pastimes.
Tonight my wife and I walked up a hill overlooking the pada-yatra deity cart and the temple where we are staying. Two kirtanas were going on below us, and in the distance a major storm was brewing and sweeping over the darkened plains. My wife turned to me and said, "I don't think we'll ever be the same again." I agreed. Vraja-mandala parikrama is permanently etched in our hearts.
Today is the last day of the parikrama. We walk down the streets of Mathura to Visrama-ghata, where our pilgrimage began, and bathe in the Yamuna River. I've lost count of how many times the sacred Yamuna has bathed my body, bathed my soul. Lokanatha Maharaja garlands all the devotees, and as I receive my garland, I touch his feet and put the dust to my head. We start out for Krsna's birthplace, and the chanting begins. I feel very fortunate as I walk through the streets of Mathura chanting Krsna's holy names. Krsna is so kind upon His devotees. I pray to become His devotee.