By Olessia Podtserob.
I wished to go to India since a few years, even before I came to know about the Krishna Consciousness Movement. The first time I heard of Mayapur was in my first conversation with a devotee on the street. He was a sankirtana devotee who had given me a book by Srila Prabhupada. Later, from the book “Krishna” I learned about Vrindavan. At first this town was like some hypothetical place for me, where fairy tales happen. Until one hot summer day, when I got stuck in traffic on my way home, and all around me were metal cars, asphalt, huge buildings with shining glass windows. All of this was almost melting from heat and smoke. That is when a picture came to my mind of Krishna and the cowherd boys grazing cows in the forest. I suddenly realized that Srila Prabhupada has got a point there. He actually suggests an alternative to this hellish modern city life.
But my trip to the Holy places of India was just not happening. All of my friends have already left for Vrindavan and come back several times, and I was still sitting in Moscow, wondering how much more sincere does my desire have to be to finally get there? One time there was no money, another time I got sick before the planned trip, and so on. Then, all these books started to appear in my house. First, a “Guide to Vrindavana” by Rajashekhara dasa. A short while later, “Appreciating Sri Vrindavana Dhama” by Mahanidhi Swami. Then, some more. What is happening? – I thought to myself. Could it be true that I will actually travel to this magical place soon?
And soon enough, all was ready for the trip. Visas received, tickets bought, sudden problems at child’s school resolved, anxiety of the mind pacified by the devotees’ blessings and gentle care.
Still, there was a bit of fear on my part to enter Vrindavan. It seemed to me like a queen, who is so opulent that you are afraid to approach her. Or a guru whose fame is such that you think, who am I to come near this exalted person?
But when I finally got to Vrindavan, it actually felt like home. It felt like a spiritual master who treats you like his most dear friend.
What struck me at first was that Vrindavan reminded me of a place where I spent the first few years of my childhood. That place was an Arabic country in North Africa. There, I saw white low-storey houses, smiling people with bright eyes and black hair, men in traditional white clothing. In Tripoli, God was being glorified from mosques loudly throughout the streets. I used to go out on the roof and look at the city from above. Even the smells on Vrindavan streets reminded me of those years, as well as the small shops. Of course, monkeys, pigs and cows wondering through the streets were a new experience for me. Later, devotees told me that many of them find places in Vrindavan that remind them of their childhood.
Srila Prabhupada says that all the sacred places “are so situated that anyone who goes there automatically becomes purified. This is especially true in Vrindavana; any person may go there, and even if he is sinful he will at once contact an atmosphere of spiritual life and will automatically chant the names of Krishna and Radha “. (SB 3.20.4)
And so I had to remind myself that Vrindavan is not an ordinary place and one should not describe Vrindavan merely from this perspective. I remembered all that I had heard about Vrindavan in the lectures and read in Srila Prabhupada’s books – its spiritual nature, Krishna’s pastimes that are going on there eternally, and the external covering of maya, which clouds the vision of ordinary souls and prevents them from seeing the ‘real’ Vrindavan.
From the first day of our trip (I traveled with my daughter Sitarani, and my husband had to stay at home because work could not live without him) I kept a small diary of events. As soon as we stepped into the Arrival hall in Delhi, adventures started to happen and I had to keep track. When we got out of the car in Vrindavan and bowed down, five or six dogs came up to us. Sitarani was thrilled and started to play with one of them. Soon the dogs were almost fighting with each other for who gets caressed by her first.
I wrote down so many things, including impressions from Krishna-Balaram Mandir, offering of lamps in the temple ( we were there for Kartik), Damodara Lila lectures by HH Bhakti Rasamrita Swami, walking to Mangala-arati in the early morning together with other devotees when it is so quiet and even no rikshaws are in sight, meeting Russian devotees who reside in Vrindavan, experience of serving in the kitchen with Indian devotees and of sharing a meal with them, visiting HH Purnacandra Goswami’s Samadhi and the ISKCON Goshala, Gopashatami festival, going to Yamuna with Niranjana Swami and BB Govinda Swami’s group, kirtan at BB Govinda Swami’s house, visiting Radha Kunda, Prabhupada-katha by Malati dd in Srila Prabhupada’s house, Radha-Damodara temple where I was given maha-prasadam in Srila Prabhupada’s room, Govardhan- parikrama where we rolled in the dust while the pilgrims watched, morning SB lectures and how I was lucky to have translated Giriraj Swami’s morning lecture.
I enjoyed discovering Srila Prabhupada’s house. First I discovered the library where matajis were chanting japa in the morning. The next day, I sat in front of a door and realized that it leads somewhere. It actually led to a beautiful small garden. Next day still, I decided to take a walk up the stairs from the garden. I discovered a roof and behind it Prabhupada’s japa room. I remembered how I read about Him receiving massage on that roof. Later, it turned out that behind the japa room, there was still another roof, full of monkeys.
One day before Guru-puja I suddenly saw HH Radhanatha Swami in the crowd of devotees. I thought to myself, “Oh my God! It’s Maharaj!” He was standing very close and looked rather fragile, and the crowd was as usual – everyone was joyfully pushing their way through. Maharaj looked at me and nodded His head as if He knew me personally. Moments later my mind registered that He was surrounded by caring devotees, who were defending Him with their backs so that no one would casually bump into His Holiness.
Witnessing everyday life in Vrindavan, I was amazed at the contribution that Srila Prabhupada has made to the lives of all these people. Many devotees from all over the world came together, danced and sang together. At one of the lectures a thought appeared in my mind that Srila Prabhupada has come to this world for me. Krishna Balaram Mandir was built for me and you. We are always welcome to come there. Everyone is welcome.
During my stay I was taught that it is important to learn to ‘see’ Vrindavan through the ears primarily and by a humble service attitude. Hearing in the association of devotees gives us faith and equips us with the understanding by which one can ‘see’ Vrindavan properly.”When one has purified eyes, he can see that Sri Vrindavana and the original Goloka Vrindavana planet in the spiritual sky are identical.” (CC Madhya lila, 16.281)
People in Vrindavan are so happy. When two rikshaws argue for a client they smile in the end. There is no enmity, no angry rivalry. Why, I thought, is the West pressuring these people to acquire its lifestyle? They are so happy just worshipping God, why turn them into Coca-Cola consumers?
When I was ordering a taxi to get to Delhi airport, an elder mataji asked if she could share the ride with us. On our way, it turned out that she was Srila Prabhupada’s disciple by the name of Uma devi dasi. She now lives in Delhi with her family, and she received her first initiation from Prabhupada in 1975 in Boston, and her second initiation in Philadelphia.
At the Delhi airport, I was wearing a sari in a rather Brijabasi-style. Not only was it a simple cotton sari, but I also wore it throughout the 4-hour car trip. So when I went to the counter to exchange some money, the Indian girl behind it asked me, “Are you coming from Varanasi?” – “Vrindavan”, – was my reply. “Do you have more of these necklaces with you?”- she asked, pointing to my kanthimalas. Apparently, I did not. “Did your life change after you started wearing those?” – she asked me further. I mentally traveled to the time four years ago when I first put them on and thought to myself, “Oh yes, it sure did.” I replied the same to her, adding, that it was not only the necklace that changed my life, but also the mantra that I have been chanting on the beads. With this, I showed her the bead bag, explaining that there are 108 beads and I chant 16 rounds of these beads each day. Then I told her that, to wear these, she needs to follow certain regulations, namely, no meat, no sex outside of marriage, no intoxications and no gambling. She was almost shy to hear of some of these principles and said she was keeping to all of them. I asked the girl if she knew where the ISKCON temple in Delhi was, since that is where she could buy kanthimalas. She knew the temple, “But will they be the same as if I bought them in Vrindavan?”, she asked and I assured her they will be. After this small preaching session, Sitarani and I went off on our way to Mumbai. My hope is that she reaches the temple and might buy the beads as well and start chanting at least some rounds.
As I was planning to come to India, devotees warned me that the first trip might be a cultural shock. And I did receive a cultural shock. But it was not from seeing dirt, or hearing noise, or being in a crowd. Even the sound of car horns did not bother me. But what shocked me was the amount of love that is there. The mood of service. How it comes naturally and brings pleasure to both the servant and the served.
So on my last day in Vrindavan, I was thinking, how will I go back to where I live and not see all of this every day? But then I realized that once I am back, I will get covered by the dark fog of everyday material responsibilities, and then it will be enough for me to just look at a picture and be happy with that. And then I thought that this is perhaps how we survive here in the material world. A dark thick fog covers us and we do not miss Krishna. We do not check the phone frantically for His call or sms, we do not look in our email every hour for a letter from Him, we don’t cry because we have missed saying “Hare Krishna” to Him in the morning.
I am talking about the majority of us and not about those few lucky souls who are thinking of Krishna always. We are just happy with seeing His picture somewhere there on the wall or on the altar. But in Vrindavan, the heart melts. It wants to feel and to be alive. It yearns to know Guru and Krishna.
Upon leaving Vrindavan, I pray that my heart continues to be soft and does not get covered with a big layer of ice. I pray to be able to still feel these emotions weeks and months later. And of course, I pray to Srimati Radharani to please allow me to come back to Vrindavan.