While hanging around the temple the other day I picked up “Vrindavan Memories” book and read a few stories from it. This book is a collection of personal remembrances related to building Krishna Balaram Mandir. Usually our memoirs are centered on Srila Prabhupada, on what he had done, where he had gone, what he had said etc, but this book is about stories between individual devotees and Vrindavan and therefore it provides an unusual insight into the early days of our movement.
Take the story of Surabhi Prabhu, Krishna Balaram’s architect. First he was invited to design Bombay temple but construction there hit a snag with the court case against the original landowner who wanted to cheat ISKCON out of the land. Having nothing to do there Surabhi was sent to Vrindavan to work on design of Krishna Balaram instead.
When their group arrived in Vrindavan they had nowhere to go and so they decided to start with bathing in Yamuna first – you know, to get purified before they get to know Vrindavan itself. So they went to the river, changed into gamchas, and started bathing.
Right at this moment an Indian man from a local group bathing nearby, in other words a Vrijavasi, got swept away by the currents and started drowning. There was huge commotion and devotees went in to save him but he was drawn under the water and they just couldn’t find him. The man drowned and his body was never seen again.
Just think about it – you go to Vrindavana for the first time. You know it’s a sacred land non-different from the spiritual world, and the first thing you see is this sacred Yamuna River killing a man before your eyes. How do you react? Do you treat her as a person and therefore hold her responsible? Or do you think about it is a dumb river, a mass of water flowing under the law of gravity? What just happened? What kind of welcome message Vrindavan is sending you?
I’m still not sure what to think. Was it a spiritual decision by transcendental personalities and the message was that “life” as we know it means nothing here and can be legitimately taken away at any moment with no recourse whatsoever? Or do you brush it off as an accident, a kind of natural disaster with no one responsible?
Second story was told by Gunarnava Prabhu, the name I don’t think I have heard before, and there are actually two stories here. He was in a group of devotees who flew into Delhi and were told to go to the train station and travel to Vrindavan. So, they started off in the “civilized” world when they got on an airplane, albeit Indian. They arrived in a half-civilized world airport, but their next stop was Delhi train station and they’ve never experienced anything like this before.
Sights, sounds, and smells of Indian train stations are overwhelming. They’ve never seen so many people in one place doing so many different things, all seemingly chaotic. “Vibrant” is one word to describe it. There were screams and shouts, everybody was dressed colorfully but at the same time filth was everywhere, too. There were smells of trains, diesel fuel, smoke from the exhausts, cooked food being sold, food being cooked, spices, sweat, and urine.
Okay, they went to the ticket office and decided that because the journey was going to be only a couple of hours they could get by in a third class carriage. Little did they know that two hours on the schedule means four or more hours in real life, or that third class carriage means standing room only for many many passengers, and that “passengers” included chicken, goats, and even cows.
From Mathura they took the last bus to Vrindavan and they arrived when it was already dark. If you seen Vrindavan at night – the city is practically dead. All the doors are bolted and there isn’t a soul on the streets, not even animals. Lucky for them, a man spotted a group of lost looking westerners and offered them to spend the night at the nearby Ramakrishna Mission ashram.
You know how our scriptures describe the Sun as an eye of the Lord? They experienced it for real the next morning when they first got the chance to see where they actually were. The Sun literally opens our vision of the world around us, and they were taking in the sights with the thirst of a tired pilgrim.
They were taken by rikshaws to the Radha Damodara temple where ISKCON devotees stayed at the time and so they went through a maze of narrow streets with open sewage on both sides and it all looked decidedly medieval. “What is this place?” question was on everybody’s minds. Welcome to Vrindavan.
After a while Srila Prabhupada sent them a letter asking them to move onto the newly donated land in Raman Reti – where our Krishna Balaram temple now is. At that time (1972) Raman Reti was far out on the outskirts from Vrindavan Town and there was nothing there, it was just overgrown land and nothing else.
They moved in, they got a few huts to stay in, and that was all. There was no running water, no toilets, no plumbing or facilities of any kind, but they did get an electric wire coming from the main road. By that time it was already summer and summers in Vrindavan are unbearably hot. During the day temperature regularly goes into mid forties, means ten degrees higher than the human body. I don’t know how much it is in Fahrenheit. 238923 to the power of ten? This would be a suitable place for a joke about non-metric systems but 108 degrees Fahrenheit is about 42 degrees Celsius so they got at least something right in that system there.
To relieve themselves from heat, or to actually survive the heat stroke, devotees would soak gamchas and chaddars in water, lie down, and cover themselves with wet clothes, waiting for them to dry, then rinse and repeat. The highlight of their day was when one of them would ride a bicycle to Loi Bazaar to buy a block of ice from ice-walla, bring it back, and make it into a cold drink. Once a day. They didn’t have things like refrigerators back then. One glass of cool drink a day was all they had available in transcendentally unbearable 108 degree heat.
There was one devotee named Vyala among them. He was a pukka brahmacharit – very neat and very organized. One day it was his turn to ride to Loi Bazaar. Devotees also got a watermelon and it was decided that they’d wait for ice and then have a nice, cooling watermelon with nice, cooling drink. This time, however, Vyala was not back on time.
Tired of waiting they decided to have watermelon themselves first and they left Vyala’s piece on a plate inside a hut. At this point one stray cow, which are everywhere in Vrindavan, smelled a juicy piece of watermelon, spotted it in the hut, and went straight inside to get it.
Devotees tried to stop her but nothing can stand in the way between cow and her food. Except small doors. She went through the outer room okay but got stuck in the door to the inner quarters. Her stomach was too big to squeeze through. Lucky for her, she still could reach the watermelon and she started chomping on it.
Because she was stuck in the door devotees could not get into the inner room and save the watermelon either so they helplessly listened to the cow enjoying her food. When she was done she backed out of the door but cows are not very good at walking backwards so she tried to turn herself around inside the outer room. There were three-four devotees in that room as well and they all started pushing and shoving her. The cow thought that she was trapped and she backed up into the inner room again but this time it was her rear end that went in. Panicking, she relieved herself and a huge pile of hot steaming cow dung dropped on the same plate where there was Vyala’s watermelon before.
When they eventually got the cow out Vyala finally came back. Turned out the bicycle had a flat tire and he had to fix it himself on the side of Vrindavan road and it took a very long time. He was hot, sweaty, and very very irritated. He was cursing the bicycle, the tire, everything, but mostly the heat.
To his disappointment the ice block completely melted so cool drink was no longer on the menu. “Where is my watermelon”, Vyala asked hopefully. “Well, about that….”
Vyala went inside the hut and realized that not only he spent hours out in the burning sun for nothing – no ice and no cold drink, but that for prasadam he literally had only a pile of cow sh*t. He just flipped out. “I’ve had enough”, he said, and he left Vrindavan soon afterwards.
When I replay this story in my head I can’t contain laughter, it’s pure gold comedy, but there’s a very important lesson here for us. Surrender everything to Krishna means surrender everything. There’s absolutely nothing that Krishna will let us to hold back. Nothing. We cannot demand water, food, tolerable temperature – we cannot demand anything.
When we approach Krishna there will be severe tests given and we are expected to pass. One can chide this Vyala devotee for not being patient and tolerant enough but he was given a test no one of us is ready for yet. He didn’t pass it but we are not even in the same grade. From his example we can only estimate what will be asked of us when the time comes.
Alternatively, instead of imagining all the possible things we will have to tolerate or give up we can concentrate on the chanting of the Holy Name and then absolutely everything else in our consciousness will have to go.
In our lives we try to orient ourselves relative to all kinds of phenomena. “How do I react to this? What do I do when this happens? How to I reply here? What about that? Is it safe for me to think this way?” Our true position, however, should be relative only to Krishna/Holy Name. Once we see this connection our positions in regards to all the other phenomena will be clear automatically. We won’t have to think or ask questions about it. Just try to develop Krishna consciousness and everything else will fall into place naturally without any extra endeavor.
Perhaps it’s for this reason that I’m not eager to go to Vrindavan anymore. I feel like I’ve seen everything that there’s there to see already. That is – I’ve seen everything I can see with my present eyes and if I continue looking – meaning I continue engaging my senses in my current materialistic mentality – I will be making nama-aparadhas. New eyes are necessary.
Of course it’s not just eyes – eyes are only tips of the senses but the main perception occurs in the mind. Then the intelligence catalogs the experiences in the vast library of dates, places, meanings, and connections, and then the ego decides what kind of experiences I want to pursue in the future.
I feel the need to cleanse this whole mirror in the heart, the one that reflects reality for my perception, before I dare to have another look at Vrindavan. Interesting thing – once this mirror is cleansed Vrindavan can been seen everywhere and in its full transcendental glory, too.
Another aspect of it is that Vrindavan is not a city, not a town, and not even a village. Vrindavan is a forest and Krishna lives in Vraja, which is a special kind of place that needs to be described separately. This Vraja or Vrindavan doesn’t have electricity, air conditioning, cool drinks, ice boxes, apartment buildings, cars and rikshaws, or the Internet. Or rupees in your wallet. If I interact with these things I’m not in Vrindavana and these are the things that Krishna wants to be given up completely. There will be a test as well so I better get ready. First learn offenseless chanting, establish your own Krishna Consciousness, then Vrindavan will appear together with Krishna Himself. They are inseparable, you can’t see one without seeing the other.