Path To The Spiritual World
* * *Pilgrims circumambulating India’s holiest city come to the end of the much-traveled thoroughfare of repeated birth and death* * *
by Vishakha Devi dasi
Nestled ninety miles southeast of Delhi near a curve of the winding Yamuna River, Vrindavana is for Hindus what Jerusalem is for Jews and Mecca is for Mohammedans. En masse the pilgrims come—especially on the holy days—by train, bus, ricksha, taxi, horse-drawn tanga,and even on foot. Carrying their children and luggage, looking wide- eyed and innocent, they come to see the holy tirtha, to touch the sacred earth, to beg the blessings of the Deities in the temple, to hear from the pious residents, to chant the holy names of the Lord, and to circumambulate on bare feet the sacred land of Vrindavana.
It was in Vrindavana that the Supreme Lord, Sri Krishna, passed the first fifteen years of His earthly pastimes fifty centuries ago. There Lord Krishna pleased His parents and neighbors by acting like the perfect child, delighted His young boyfriends by playing with them as equals, killed His mortal enemies by His omnipotence, and charmed the cowherd girls by His all-attractive presence. Through these Vrindavana pastimes, He attracts all of us to rejoin Him in the spiritual kingdom, far beyond our mundane sphere.
Five hundred years ago Lord Krishna appeared again to teach, as well as to relish, transcendental love for God. In this incarnation He appeared as Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, the most exalted devotee of Krishna. He journeyed to Vrindavana, spontaneously compelled by a strong emotional love for the worshipable land of Krishna. Vrindavana, Lord Caitanya knew, was transcendental, the spiritual world itself projected within the material context. In great ecstasy Lord Caitanya, during His pilgrimage to Vrindavana, relived within His heart the pastimes Lord Krishna had enacted there forty-five centuries before. Sri Caitanya later asked six of His prominent followers to reside in Vrindavana, establishing temples and excavating the ancient holy places. The work of these six Gosvamis of Vrindavana paved the way for successive generations of saints and holy teachers who have traveled to Vrindavana, lived in Vrindavana, worshiped Vrindavana, and sung the glories of Vrindavana.
In 1932 Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, the founder of the Gaudiya Math, led an army of pilgrims on a month-long circumambulation of the entire Vrindavana area. And in 1956 His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada—foremost disciple of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura went to Vrindavana to live and write.
One day a stranger to Vrindavana asked Srila Prabhupada, “Why are you living in Vrindavana? Why have you selected such a dirty place to live after retiring?” Srila Prabhupada noted, “Materialists consider Vrindavana an unclean city because there are many monkeys and dogs there, and along the bank of the Yamuna there is refuse. Such people cannot understand that Vrindavana is always a representation of the original Vrindavana, the abode of Lord Krishna in the spiritual world. Lord Krishna and His abode, Vrindavana, are equally worshipable.”
In the winter of 1971 my husband, Yadubara, and I decided to do a photo article on a quaint Indian village, and we asked Srila Prabhupada, who had traveled widely in India, which village would be most suitable. Srila Prabhupada replied that since we were foreigners we would be cheated and robbed wherever we went. We were instantly disappointed, and as Srila Prabhupada looked at us, we must have appeared obviously so. He paused, and after a moment he advised us to go and photograph Vrindavana. In the summer of ‘71 we went to Vrindavana. Then, in the fall of that year, we became disciples of Srila Prabhupada. Now we visit Vrindavana almost yearly.
During my last trip, I joined a few of my Godsisters for daily excursions on the six mile footpath that encircles the town. Srila Prabhupada had explained that one who circumambulates holy places of pilgrimage like Vrindavana counteracts circumambulating through repeated births and deaths in this material world. So, confident of making some spiritual advancement, every afternoon at three my Godsisters and I met together and set off at a brisk pace along the dusty paths, to return by five.
We were staying at ISKCON’s Krishna-Balaram Temple, just a one-minute walk from the westernmost edge of the parikrama (circumambulation) trail. Starting from there we walked through what Srila Prabhupada called “the shimmering silver sands” of Ramana-reti, an open area surrounded by woods, where Krishna, His brother Balarama, and Their friends and calves sported together.
At Ramana-reti we turned right and entered a wide, shaded path that at one time ran along the bank of the Yamuna River. Over the years, the Yamuna has changed course and today flows about half a mile to the north of the path.
After a half-mile walk, with flower gardens hidden behind a five-foot-high mud wall on our left and small ashramas (devotee residences) on our right, we came to Kaliya-ghata. Here the path fanned out, and on our right we saw the string of bathing ghatas from centuries before, each ghata with its wide stone steps leading down to where the Yamuna once flowed. Towering over one such ghata was a huge kadamba tree, seeded from the very one Krishna had jumped from fifty centuries before to chastise the great serpent Kaliya. Just past Kaliya-ghata, we saw the Madana-mohana temple, its time-worn spires majestically adorning a steep hill. Madana-mohana, one of Vrindavana’s first temples, was built by Sanatana Gosvami, one of the six Gosvamis of Vrindavana deputed by Lord Caitanya. Srila Prabhupada has explained that by worshiping the Madana-mohana Deity, we can learn about Krishna, ourself, and our relationship with Krishna. This knowledge, he said, is the first business of human life.
Next we entered a more populated area. On the right, the domes of various temples stood out among two- and three-story apartment buildings. On our left were mud houses and huts and the inevitable scraggly children. Seeing us walking and chanting on our beads, they skipped alongside us, mimicking our “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.”
Further along the parikrama path, partially hidden by a concrete building and a high wall, is Imlitala, the tamarind tree that shaded Lord Caitanya. During His visit to Vrindavana Lord Caitanya would sit under this tree each afternoon, chanting Hare Krishna and explaining the chanting to His visitors. Now the place where He sat is marked by His footprints, and just a few feet away a temple overlooks the Yamuna River.
Soon we were walking on the bank of the river alongside a huge stone palace with many steps and low archways. Pilgrims were bathing and offering their prayers to the sacred river in which the Lord used to frolic.
Our pace slowed as we plodded through more soft sand, and we weaved among the many cows waiting to be herded home from a day of pasturing. On this part of our trek there was a different mood. Gone was the refuse that Srila Prabhupada had commented on along the riverbank; gone were the open sewers, the badgering children, and the gaping pilgrims. We had to proceed single file along the narrow path, and when we glanced inside one small temple, we saw a sadhu sitting before an open scripture reading to a small group, while a peacock strutted in the courtyard before them. On our left was a sandy desert, and on our right, farms and ashramas.
Soon we came to a small temple no bigger than a large closet. The same devotee is there every day, either selling religious books or sitting quietly, chanting on his beads. He always kindly insists that we stop and take some caranamrita, water that has washed the lotus feet of his Deity Gopala (baby Krishna). He had mixed the sanctified water with yogurt and rose water, and we thankfully accepted the purifying and rejuvenating sips that he spooned into our open palms. And as we moved on along the parikrama path, not wanting to lose our momentum, we could hear him say how happy he was to see Westerners taking the most auspicious walk in the world.
Along the path we also passed many Vrindavana residents transporting their goods to market. They carried their fruits, vegetables, and firewood in wicker baskets balanced gracefully on their heads (one sped ahead of us on a bicycle with a basket tottering on his head). Donkeys overloaded with bags full of sand (for construction), buffalo and bulls pulling wagons, and saffron-robed sadhus were all part of the scenario. Often they would greet us with “Jaya Radhe,” reminding us of Srila Prabhupada’s words: “All theinhabitants of Vrindavana are Vaishnavas. They are all auspicious because somehow or other they always chant the holy name of Krishna. Even though some of them do not strictly follow the rules and regulations of devotional service, on the whole they are devotees of Krishna and chant His name directly or indirectly.... Even when they pass on the street, they are fortunate enough to exchange greetings by saying the name of Radha or Krishna” (Cc. Adi 5.232, purport).
By and by we crossed one of the two busy main roads that lead to Vrindavana, and we could peer through some rundown buildings on the right and see Davanala-kunda, so called (davanala means “forest fire”) because there Lord Krishna stopped a fire that threatened to envelop Vrindavana.
Now we were on the final stretch, and with relief we spotted the domes of the Krishna-Balaram Temple in the distance. We reflected on how we had just encircled Lord Krishna’s abode, with its five thousand temples, countless sacred tulasi plants, devotees, Deities, and wish- fulfilling trees; and how we were a little more purified for it.
Finally we crossed Bhaktivedanta Swami Marg and arrived at our starting point. But we didn’t stop yet. Not till we got to the cold drink stand and a nimbu pani (fresh lime juice, with ice, water, and sugar). Sitting down was a great pleasure.
“Before parikrama, I feel too tired to go,” my friend Vidya said, “and when we get back, my legs hurt. But somehow or other, I go so far, so fast, every day. It’s almost like something carries you around.” Sitala and I share her feelings. It’s a mystical experience to circumambulate Krishna’s holy land, Vrindavana.