Vrindavan Welcomes

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.

Vanity thought #262. Svabhavat.

This is to push forward my varnashrama thoughts from last week. I left this topic at discussing asura varnashrama and there I outlined the basic organization of the demoniac world, and I argued that this is actually the world we are living in now and will live in for the foreseeable future.

Now to svabhavat, which appears in SB 11.2.36 and is translated as “according to one’s conditioned nature”. The verse itself is a lesson given to King Nimi in response to his question a few verses earler:

Please speak about how one engages in the devotional service of the Supreme Lord

So the first of the nine Yogendras, nine of the hundred of sons of Rishabhadeva who didn’t want to rule the world or become respected brahmanas but wandered around naked to spread the knowledge of the Absolute Truth instead, gave his reply with this verse coming right in the beginning:

In accordance with the particular nature one has acquired in conditioned life, whatever one does with body, words, mind, senses, intelligence or purified consciousness one should offer to the Supreme, thinking, “This is for the pleasure of Lord Nārāyaṇa.”

Check how he states it right away – one should act according to one’s particular nature, one’s svabhavat. He doesn’t say one should become a brahmana, he doesn’t say one should move into a temple – one should just remain himself. We have been hearing this for a long time, of course, but we still think that real devotees are the ones who either live in the temples or at least engaged in the temples full time. Anything less than that is a sign of maya, sigh of lack of devotion, sigh of insufficient surrender, sign of impure bhakti and what not. In short it’s a sign of a second rate devotee.

The problem is that not many beginners want to be treated as second rate, they want to make progress, they want to be appreciated, but we put up an artificial barrier to guard our “pure” devotees in the temples that works as just like the glass ceiling feminists in the West love to complain about. Things are slowly changing with more recognition given to the community but all our leaders and role models are still full time devotees and sannyasis.

Should it be changed? Should our sannyasis be given special treatment? Sure, but on what basis? Should they be respected for being at the top of the varnashrama pyramid or should they be respected as dedicated devotees on purely transcendental level? The answer is not easy. We should respect brahmanas and sannyasis as being far above bosses and presidents but those are only material designations. To respect our sannyasis for their spiritual realizations we need to establish what those really are first. Most of us are in not in the position to judge and so we go with the flow because it’s simply safer.

In reality, however, there could be far more advanced devotees present in the room who might be overlooked because the etiquette requires all respect be given to sannyasis. The whole idea of giving sannyasa in Kali Yuga was to recognize the level of spiritual advancement and dedication to preaching work but it has become just another society label – those are brahmanas, that’s the temple president, those guys just clean the floor, and this is a sannyasi.

Generally speaking it is great that our society has been able to introduce such exalted stages of varnashrama in the middle of the Kali Yuga and develop quite a few individuals who fit in this role very nicely, for whom being a sannyasi is svabhavat indeed.

On the other hand, members of the asuric social order are not supposed to show any respect to anyone just on the basis of their social designation. We need proof of actual abilities first. In ISKCON we’ve been told who to worship and how but our own nature, our svabhavat, is different. In our asuric society everyone is equal and there are no saints, if one wants to be treated better than others he needs to prove himself and he should never forget that his elevated position and privileges are only temporary. Basically, you can’t look down on people no matter how high you get.

We have Coca-Cola and everyone, including the president, drinks from the same can.

So, teaching us how to behave in Hare Krishna society is tinkering with our svabhava. This is just a crude example and I hope to clarify this point later on but this is an example of an attitude that goes against prescriptions of the Nine Yogendras. They’ve been completely outside varnashrama, btw, they were avadhutas just like Lord Nityananda or Vamshidas Babaji.

In practice no one expects newcomers to follow all the rules of offering respects, newcomers are forgiven, as time goes by, however, they are expected to comply. Should they? To what degree can we safely tweak our svabhava? Try to be holier than thou and you’ll get burned, we’ve learned this lesson the hard way. Kirtanananda got sannyasa after only about a year of being a devotee, now you have to wait five years after people think you are ready, times have clearly changed. Still, people who want to become devotees are expected to drastically change their lifestyle, or at least they are shown what their ideal lifestyle should look like, they are put against pretty high standards, bombarded with criteria, and the lines are quickly drawn.

What Nine Yogendras were telling King Nimi was different – one has to stay true to his svabhavat, and the same thing Krishna told Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita – better fail doing your duties than succeed doing the duties of others.

That doesn’t mean there should be no relative difference between various social groups. Brahmanas and sannyasis should always be at the top, what it means is that one can reach Krishna from any of the varnas if he performs his duties with the correct consciousness. Maybe it also means that if one wants to become a brahmana he should wait until the next birth. There’s nothing wrong with that. Some people have brahmanical qualifications even if they were born into the mleccha families, some people can purify their lives through chanting the Holy Name and devotional service to the point of being better than a nominal brahmanas, but if their svabhavat is still a mleccha than taking the position of a nominal brahmana would be a mistake.

Another important point is that no one needs to read Vedic books to know what his duties are. Duties come with birth and natural development, if you need to read them up in a book they are probably not your duties by definition. Everyone knows what he has to do according to society’s standards. Everyone knows what time to wake up and what time to eat breakfast, when to have lunch and when to go home, when to go to gym or do yoga and when to relax at home. Everyone knows what Saturdays and Sundays are for and everyone knows his responsibilities before family members, friends and colleagues. To follow one’s svabhavat one need not to read books on foreign culture, in this case Vedic.

The problem is how to add Krishna to our lives without making unnecessary changes. I don’t know what will happen in the future but for now we are bound by our initiation vows – four regulative principles and minimum sixteen rounds a day. It might not agree with our svabhava but this a special arrangement we have with our gurus and Srila Prabhupada, it’s non-negotiable. Everything else, however, is.

It’s nice to wake up at four in the morning but if it causes inconvenience to the family members we are responsible for, we should be sensitive. Mlechhas do not wake up before dawn, their lifestyle is generally unfavorable to the execution of devotional service and it is sad to be born in such unfortunate circumstances but it’s better to be a devoted mleccha than pretend to be a brahmana.

Maybe one can gradually develop brahmanical qualities but the recognition should come from the Supersoul and Krishna Who will make suitable arrangements in due course of time. Until then we should patiently wait and mind our own business. Would work great for our egos, too.

I don’t believe it’s very complicated, we all know when something feels right and we all know when we want something that does not belong to us. Even ordinary materialistic people have this kind of sense. If we choose to ignore this inner voice we will have to pay, sometimes dearly, but it will be for our own education so that next time we would pay more attention to our conscience, or the Supersoul.

Whatever the arrangements are, we all equally have twenty four hours a day to think of Krishna and Krishna is equally helping each and every one of us to achieve that. He won’t give us tests that we can’t pass or teach lessons that we can’t learn.

We just have to have a little faith.

Vanity thought #227. Comfort zone.

This is an old idea that doesn’t want to go away yet hasn’t ripened into a proper shape for a blog post. For one thing, it’s all based on one single verse from Srimad Bhagavatam, 3.30.4, and I haven’t found any collaborating slokas or commentaries, it’s just that I can’t seem to let it go. It’s from Lord Kapila’s description of fruitive activities.

So, the verse,:

The living entity, in whatever species of life he appears, finds a particular type of satisfaction in that species, and he is never averse to being situated in such a condition.

Nothing seems to be out of the ordinary but to me this verse carries a profound revelation into our lives and offers new clues I’ve never understood before. Basically, it says that we love ourselves, love who we are.

If, however, I look at it form the point of view of constant whining and endless suffering it suddenly casts a big shadow of doubt over all our motivations.

Materialistic people never ever stop complaining about their lot. They always find reasons to be dissatisfied with their lives and they always find plenty of reasons why. Forget the fat cats from the west for a second, they are often being told that they are just big babies comparing to real suffering folks.

Right now it’s the drought in Somalia that melts people’s hearts. They say it’s entirely man manufactured, in a sense that droughts come every year on the clock but poor Somalians are not given a chance to prepare themselves and are being held hostage by the heartless thugs who run that country instead of a government.

These thugs are the only means of distribution of any help there and they make sure the donations go to all the right places, like buying new weapons to maintain their military superiority. Giving food to the people is the secondary objective so they are not in a hurry to help.

Meanwhile, Somalian mothers have to travel across the desert for many days and weeks to escape the drought. They travel with their children and all their belongings and they just can’t carry it all at once. They have to take one child up, carry him as far as they can, then return and pick the other kid and carry him to the new spot and they have to do this routine many times a day. Eventually they admit that they don’t have enough food and water to maintain both so the mother must make a choice – which child to leave dying in the desert. They promise him they would come back but they never do, they just keep going, trying to run away from the drought, from thugs, from their dying children, from their guilt, from their lives.

Material nature is merciless that way, BUT, it is also so powerful that it still finds a way to make the mothers feel good about themselves and enjoy their miserable conditions. They can’t help it, the maya forces them to love themselves no matter what. That is the meaning of this particular verse.

I know that this is the most controversial topic but maya makes people love their miseries and they hate themselves for that. Even victims of the most horrible abuse imaginable find bright moments among all the suffering inflicted on them. The Stockholm Syndrome is well popularized in the media but it actually points to the darker secrets of the human soul – all victims are made to find something attractive in all abusers. Not at all times and always against their will but it happens anyway.

We fight it tooth and nail, we deny the existence of this attraction and rightly so, because it excuses the perpetrators, but it would be unwise to deny it forever. Sad fact of life – there’s some perverted enjoyment in being humiliated and violated, it’s the force of the material nature, and it’s also the law of nature – we get what we want.

I’m not going to give examples of empathy the victims develop towards their abusers. Victims know about it and abusers know about it. They know that it’s wrong but they can’t help it.

Anyway, enough with dramatics, we have everyday lives to live.

I was always wondering about the moments that define a man. Is it at the peak of his glory, when he is on top of his little world, or is it in the moments of defeat and despair when he finds courage to pull himself together and persevere, or maybe give up? Is it in his relationships with others, when he is the most generous and noble or greedy and selfish? Is it when he is hopelessly in love with his heart laid out on his sleeve? Some say that you should listen to the man when he is drunk because that’s when he tells the truth about his real feelings.

These are the moments that people are remembered for when they enter the annals of history but I’ve never been quite satisfied with these definitions. Too much is left for passion and chance, too little for the expression of the soul itself. Men in love are going through chemical imbalances in their bodies and the effects are temporary, not to mention completely materially based. People often become heroes by circumstance, by being at the right place at the right time and with the right set of skills. For most of us these moments never come, should we consider our lives “undefined” then?

In all these situations I see mostly the interaction of the modes of nature and results of one’s karma. They do not define a soul.

What I found the better assessment is catching people in their most private moments when they let their guard down and simply enjoy being themselves. They could be chilling out on a sofa or they could be cuddling to their loved ones or they could be just sitting quietly and smiling to themselves. These are the moments when they truly love their fate, truly love themselves and their present incarnation.

These are the moments when one could note to himself – oh boy, they have been truly fooled! Hook, line and sinker, they are going down.

This has become the test of my own conditioning, too. I notice the moments when I feel good about myself, satisfied with just being myself, and I try to remember Krishna instead. I hope eventually it would come naturally for me – I hope I will develop natural aversion to being myself.

I hope one day I will be more like Prabhupada who, in those private moments, saw himself as a humble servant of his guru and Krishna. He surrendered his life and soul and dedicated his body to Krishna’s service and that has become his real identity – he loved being a servant.

So far I only love being an enjoyer and despite all my chanting I still strive for the moment I can lay down my japa, sit down, and just enjoy being myself and indulge in whatever little pleasures my life has in store for me.

Sadly, these moments define my life not as I want it to be, much work lies ahead if I want to change it around.

In the meantime I got sudden interest in how other people, especially our acharyas, managed to shake off their material identities and stopped seeking the safety of their maya provided comfort zones.

More on that later.