Vrindivan is the holiest place in India for Hindus and Krishna worshippers. It is the birthplace of Krishna and the site of many temples and holy places. For Hindus, this is a dream land to visit and those that are born in Vrindivan are vrajawasy and considered very special
I’ve visited India 5 times and I’ve NEVER seen a place like Vrindivan. I’ve been pushed at rush hour by old ladies on the metro in Mumbai, climbed mountains in the heat in Tamil Nadu, had a surprising Ayurvedic massage in Allepy, explored the tea plantations in Munnar, road buses packed with people on narrow highways, been under the direct teaching of the Iyengars and nothing prepared me for the holiest place of pilgrimage for Hindus in India and abroad.
Vrindivan is the home of ISKCON informally known as the Hare Krishnas. The temple is a stunning white marble complex complete with hundreds of devotees every day visiting the deities and the place where Prabhubap, as they say, “left his body.” Westerners dressed in complete saris or dhotis or in some cases the orange of sannyasis engage in meditation, chanting and living in this spiritual community. There are also tons of visitors from all over the world. some very poor devotees traveling miles in the open train cars, affluent families from Dehli with small boys resembling young almond eye shaped, Krishna or the growing number of russian devotees.
Prabu took Krishna Consciousness which is basically love and devotion for god represented as Krishna in everything and everything an expansion of Krishna, to the west and it spread, the westerners observing even more religiously than the Indians. I can’t help but be so surprised it’s still growing. In Vrindivan everyone says Hare Krishna to greet, or Hare Bol and rickshaw drivers holler Radhe, Radhe in lieu of excuse me.
Growing up in LA , I was terrified of the hare krishnas and the chant that i thought if got stuck in my head I would end up a hare krishna. The irony or fate or whatever of being in the absolute heart of the place did not escape me as I wrestled to understand all that i was witnessing.
I retruned with Joaquin who wanted to share this place with me. He has good friends from his youth when he was part of ISKCON that had moved their young family to Vrindivan to live in the holiest of Holy land. For them, one having grown up her life in a Krishna farm community in Mexico, this emigration to the holy land is a dream come true. As she said, it’s easier to live the lifestyle 100% of the time when everyone around you is also a devotee. They personally are no longer members of ISKCON but the whole town is full of temples, gurus and saintly sages walking in orange robes. Honestly, I wasn’t sure who was a saint, homeless or a bit “off” dropping out to wander around India or a combination of everything.
One would think as a holy place Vrindiavan would be a utopia of love. Joaquin had said before we arrived you can choose to see all the dirt and confusion or you can see the holiness. I found this comment very profound and then I arrived and realized it was hard for me to see holy. What reality is real? The one I can see with open sewers, trash and chaos or the one Rohini and his wife sees or a holy place touched by god?
As a pilgrimage town, the place is packed with zeal and excitement of a rock concert pushing, honking, negotiating it’s still a town in north India. I expected to find extra measure of kindness and helpfulness at the Isckon guest house but it was just a guest house.
The trip began auspiciously as we spotted from the train window, the blue cow standing mid-field staring out or pointing towards something ahead. This creature, part horse part cow -looking appeared like an apparition and etched it’s character on my memory. When we arrived at the train station, there were people everywhere. Whole clans of women in bright red saris huddled together on the platform stared at me as much as I stared at them. We finally made our way the 1/2 hour to Vrindivan. I was kinda expecting some sort of green, lush, clean spiritual heaven but the pollution immediately got me sick and I spent the next day in bed trying to kill the virus creeping into my lungs.
Vrindavan is like an alternate reality where monkeys hide in the buildings and temple arches waiting for unsuspecting passerbys with glasses to steal. In one day, we say 5 robberies. One sannyasi in yellow pleaded with the monkey above him to exchange his offering of banana for his glasses. After watching for 15 minutes, the monkey, full on fruit chewed up the glasses. Other robberies, called in all the surrounding young men to chase, carefully and then cajole the glasses out of the clutches of these animals with opposable thumbs- some only accept Frooti drink in return. Others walked away head down, knowing they had lost to the monkeys. I walked anxiously looking carefully because a direct stare incites agression. And the camera safely stored as they are also targets for robbery. Joaquin’s friend Rohini loses his glasses about 2-3 times per year!
On our way through the crowded narrow market streets we stopped for a lassi. I wasn’t going to eat anything outside of the Iskcon restaurant after seeing the colonies of flies in the markets but Rohini had said this was safe. The lassi is prepared individually and presented in a clay cup. I had no idea what to expect. What touched my lips was a creamy, cool, sweet, salty thick liquid. As it went down my throat, the scent and royal taste of rose hit my senses. We looked at each other speechless. No words can describe. I’m not sure if it was the lassi or the contrast of it’s luxiourous sensual experience in contrast to the previous hour of visual sites. No flies entered the open aired lassi store. We had somehow been transported to yet another world where our tastebuds were taken to truly a gastronomic utopia. One I’ll never ever forget.
We arrived through many narrow streets to the home of Joaquin’s friends Rohini, Rasa and their adorable kids. We had to carefully approach the door passing a family of monkeys just on the doorstep. Up the narrow dark stone steps we arrive to their upstairs home four small rooms all connected onto a central open air patio. “open” because every building is caged in to protect you from the monkeys. The humans are in the cages. The kids are exceptionally warm and immediately piled up in my lap asking me “Cuantos años tiene?” (how old are you?)”Por que no tiene un Tilak y un bindi” (Why don’t you have a tilak – the sign on the forehead of a Kirshna devotte and bindhi- red marking of a married woman.” Eres hermosita” (you are so pretty). I am struck by the free expressions of love and very impressed with little 10 year old Kishore’s ability to slide through english, spanish and hindi. He would later become an integral help to us.
We had a simple delicious meal of potatoes, puffed lotus seeds and peanuts and a nice Mexican surprise of chia lemon water! That day was one where the family observed abstinence from grains. They have only been in Vrindivan for 4 years and I am obsessed with trying to relate and understand the transition to their lifestyle. I see so many changes, so many sacrifices. By the way, I’ll remember it when I’m complaining I can’t find good chocolate in San Miguel. Boo hoo. But I think for them, it’s such a dream to live in Vrindavan, the lifestlye is also part of that dream.
The kids created their own bubble game, filling their hands with soap and blowing bubbles, passing them to each other, I remarked to myself that most kids need so much to play these days and here they were enjoying something so simple. They don’t have many things so they are able to create their own games. 5 year old, Radha runs to the kitchen to feed her monkeys that come asking for food.
The following day we took Kishore and Poorima to visit three very very holy sites. Rasa had gotten sick and had to stay at home and little Radha curled up next to her all day. Kishore now took on his appreciated role helping us communicate with the driver and guarding us from oncoming monkeys.And he colorfully and perfectly explained to me all the stories related to this holy sites. This is his world view. His world is viewed through the lens of all these stories that are perfect of the imagination of a10 year old. Giant Krishna stepping down on giant serpent heads, pulling up mountains, milk appearing in the bathing waters, flying monkeys-I listened and thought that in the west 10year old boys have Disney, super heroes ,video games, karate turtles and pokemon cards (i’m dating myself) and here it’s the same only the super hero is Krishna, a shape shifting divinity with a lot of girlfriends and everything else an expansion of him. In Kishore’s world these aren’t comic books or movies but actual events and places right where we were walking.
Kisohore and Poornima taught me how to properly sanctify myself in the holy bathing sites. “When you bathe here, all your sins go away,” Kishore said. “what if you have no sins?” I asked. He stopped thought and answered, “Up until you are 5 you have no sins and then after that you start getting them.’ Hmm, this was the first moment that I started to think that it’s really all the same. All the devotion for a god whether it be a flute playing blue skinned androgynous sheep herder surrounded by beautiful women or a guy hanging on a cross, or whatever image you create. And the believers circumventing the town on foot or proceeding by laying down on their side taking a step and laying down again is not so much different than those that crawl on their knees for miles to the nearby church near where I live.
For Kishore, his world is full of real wild pigs that bite like pit bulls, dogs that kill young children, snakes that hide in the rice fields, the simultaneously stunning peacocks with deadly sharp claws, the turtles that follow your swimming path, the swans that attack, worms that burn and of course mob attacking monkeys on and on. He isn’t playing some video game with monsters and creatures, he is in it. I too had to grow some courage.
Kishore and the kids are approached by many people who mostly likely are just so tickled to see white kids with tilak and other symbols of Krishna they yell out “Hari Bol!” and reach out to touch them. I grab them protectively to my side honestly not quite convinced it’s good natured. Kishore places his hands together and says Hari Krishna but is observedly guarded. He states later that those swimming in the Radhe Kunda just don’t know any better and says a few other things that make me wonder if his experience will be one of assimilation with Indians and indian culture or quite the opposite. AS outsiders, their observance of ritual is quite conservative and unequivicol. And this might be much different for those who have been raised in the culture and religion. For him, it’s his whole life. They don’t go to regular school as the kids were picking on them for being so whilte. Like anything, they will most likely find their own world within a world but they are a spectacle. And because of this, I’m unearthing a mama bear in me that finds me suspicious of any and all. I think my guard is specifically up because joaquin had explained this place as so open and kind and I’m not seeing it. I”m seeing the ecstatic believers, I’m seeing the devout pilgrims but I’m also seeing a chaotic north indian town where you gotta be on your toes. I’m not charmed. I wonder if I can’t see the godliness and my cynicsim, disbelief is that inflexibility I’ve been warned about. Or am I seeing reality? Is it quite possible that what we perceive as correct and true is far from that? Can we trust ourselves and our reactions?
I’m still thinking of this place where cows wandering in the middle of streets fed by everyone, open sewage runs through town and monkeys have humans watching their back I’m not even sure what to think of the older white lady in a faded sari chanting her mantra while walking down the street is she meditating and clearing her thoughts or checked out of reality? Can I trust my reaction so affected by my own childhood perceptions. The guy ecstatically dancing reminds me of a sight from the SF gay pride parade. The temple dancer seems fairly erotic for a place where women have to be covered up at all times. And the line of people some in orange robes outside the temple asking for money or the thousands of people Iskcon feeds everyday for free or for very little. With a donation from Clinton for their work feeding the poor, they are building a veritable Krishna Disneyland- I imagine, The chai cups, Travel through the universe of Krishna or Clear your karma Water park.
I can’t imagine living there and wonder if it’s the best thing or the worst, I can’t imagine that much faith, I admire that much belief, I think the westerners are all lost or crazy, I think they may have stepped into a world where questioning and wondering is over, I’m utterly suspicious, overwhelmed and speechless.
What I do know is that it is very hard for me to see beyond the human trash as a result of a temple festival. If Krishna is everywhere is he not in the animals and the trees and grass? The temples are pristine on the inside and trash ridden on the outside. Is this just another metaphor? Or is it just easier for me to see whatever god is in the green trees swaying on the beach? Am I limited I only see God in the pretty , cleaned up things? Or is it a matter of modernization and trash is no longer biodegradable and are people missing out on taking care of god’s earth while they worship him in a man-made building?
But to be in Vrindian itself is extremely auspicious. People dream to visit for their entire lives. Like the young B’hai woman on the plane with me said when i told her “oh, i’ve been to the B’hai temple in Israel, “I’m therefore so very fortunate to meet someone who has been there, it’s almost like myself being there.” I don’t take my opportunity to visit Vridavan or anyplace really lightly even if it was challenging for me. The effects of the visit will continue to percolate. In the meantime, I’ve certainly been blessed by the experiences, hugs and kisses of those three divine beings.