Let me see Vrindavan

photo by Shyam GopalI remember my trip to Vraja last year in May/June. On my first day, I had a terrible experience! The road was being fixed with a new drainage system and that caused the Parikram Marg to be congested completely. So I prayed to Krishna Balarama. Well, I kind of pleaded to Them: “Krishna Balarama! photo by Govinda SwamiYou have brought me all the way here to Vrindavan. Now, please, let me see Vrindavan dhama as it is”. That evening, on the rickshaw, a monkey very elegantly took away my glasses. I was practically blind without it! And this all happened in the midst of a busy market! So my mum and I took shelter on the side of the road, while my dad purchased a banana. The monkey was still waiting on a roof for the barter to commence. photo by Govinda SwamiSuddenly, a local Brijwasi appeared on a motorbike, took the banana from my dad, and climbed up the roof! The monkey bitterly rejected the offer. He wanted something new. My father got a cucumber and the Brijwasi successfully got my glasses back. All the while, I was practically blind, looking around in a blurred world. All I could see was a greenish tree, and the dark blue sky. That was all I could see. Just the tree and sky. I could not hear anything either. And I realized that very moment, this is Vrindavan, the very same forest in which Radhe Syama would play. I got my glasses back in exceptional condition. Except… for the bite mark on its edge as prasadam from a Vrindavan monkey 🙂photo by Shyam Gopal

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The Secret of Vrindavana

I just returned from a profound experience at the residence of a devotee named Prema Kishore, a Canadian man who I’m guessing is in his early 60s. He has lived here in Vrindavana for over 20 years, and it is definitely his home in every sense of the word. He has some land, cows and bulls, gardens where he grows flowers for the Radha-Shyamasundara deities at Krishna-Balarama Mandira, and a beautiful, yet modest house.

This morning, along with my brother, Amala-purana, and his fiancee, Nadia, I went to visit Prema Kishore, arriving a little after 9am. He had just begun bathing a bull named Balaji, and when he saw us approaching he called out, “Radhe Shyam!” Prema Kishore gave us some brushes and a bar of soap, asking us to join him in cow seva, “the real mood of Vraja,” he said. “Get in cowherd boy mode,” my brother said, as he hiked up his dhoti and discarded his socks and shoes. I followed suit with my skirt and shoes, and soon my feet were squishing in the soft clay and grass with the warm water from the hose splashing between my toes. After we had cleaned and brushed Balaji’s white coat, the sisters Ganga and Yamuna came. These two cows are beautiful, with gorgeous black eyes, white coats, big humps on their backs, and gentle demeanors. All of Prema Kishore’s cows are indigenous species of India, and these two he purchased in Jaipur, Rajasthan. Ganga has a bull-calf named Bhima, and a heifer named Nandini, who was conceived on Prabhupada’s dissappearance day and born on his appearance day just four months ago. Yamuna has not had any calves, yet three years ago her udder swelled with milk, and ever since she has been giving milk for Giriraja, the Lord of this little haven of Vraja.

Prema Kishore personally found this particular Giriraja stone, who has an imprint of a cow on his back, and a face with an endearing smile naturally engraved on the other side. At that time, Prema Kishore promised Giriraja that if he came home with him, he would always have fresh milk to offer him. That is Prema Kishore’s explanation for Yamuna providing milk without ever having calved, just at a time when Ganga had started drying up. This is just one example of the magic of this place, and the very real connection devotees like Prema Kishore have to their deity.

These sisters are the two milking cows Prema Kishore has, and he said they are inseparable. After brushing, lathering, and rinsing them, we were ready for the next round. Saraswati, Triveni, Bhima, and tiny Nandini followed in quick succession, as we brushed them from heads to hooves, from noses to tails, until all of them were cleared of mud and dung and gleamed in the sunshine.

Yamuna was then fed and milked, and then Ganga’s calf Nandini was brought to drink a little milk and be next to her mom as Ganga was milked. Ram Charan, Prema Kishore’s helper, squatted while he milked with fast adept hands into a stainless steel bucket that he held between his knees. Ganga licked Nandini’s back, throughout the milking, showing us the affectionate nature of the mother cow.

Once the morning activities of bathing, feeding, and milking were done, the cows and bulls all ran off, tails upraised, down the path to their grazing area.

Carrying the bucket of fresh milk, we then followed Prema Kishore upstairs to a spacious rooftop adjoining his living quarters. With the warm sun upon us, we prepared for our next activity for the morning, churning yogurt into butter with a hand-pulled wooden churning rod. Prema Kishore began, showing us the rhythmic way of pulling back and forth, churning the yogurt until frothy bubbles began forming on the surface. For the next hour we took turns between the four of us as Prema Kishore shared with us not only his butter churning skills, but his deep spiritual wisdom. He explained his dependent relationship with his cows, telling us how he is maintained by them in a very real way, and that respect for what cows give us humans is not at all theoretical for him. His life is simple, yet wealthy in all the ways it is important. He has land, friends, cows that give him dairy products, which he consumes, and also trades for vegetables from his neighbors, and he has a peaceful heart. ”I find this churning very relaxing,” he said to me. “It calms the mind, and the rhythmic work is peaceful.”

I thought of us in America, surrounded by our machines that are supposed to save us time, but we run through our lives alone and stressed out, with no time. We’ve replaced high quality life skills like cooking, baking, gardening, and caring for animals with an industrial lifestyle that is good for making money, but not for living.

“Paper money has no value,” Prema Kishore explained. “Devotee families who are like-minded should get together and produce a functioning life-style that has true value. You find a community area where the cows can graze during the day, and then in the evening they go home to their individual respective homes. If you have land, cows, and the skills and ability to grow your own food, that is the greatest security and wealth,” he finished as he looked down at the big steel bucket now filled with floating butter.

The simple activity of churning butter, especially when done with friends as the gopis of Srimad-Bhagavatam did, accomplishes so much for mental, physical, and emotional well-being. It strengthens your arms, calms the mind, gives you the opportunity to talk and get to know your friends, and of course gives the valuable product of fresh butter!

Prema Kishore scooped out the fruits of our labor into a bowl, and then put the butter directly in front of his Giriraja, whom he had brought outside to enjoy the sun and watch us churn.

“I have to watch out for the monkeys,” he said, as he looked at Giriraja’s enormous smile with the big bowl of butter in front of him. “The other day I left the door to the roof open and came back to find a monkey sitting next to Giriraja, his palms and face full of butter. Then I saw Giriraja’s cheeky smile, and guessed that the monkey must have been invited to enjoy the butter with him,” he says with a laugh, “as the monkeys were many thousands of years ago with that naughty butter thief, Krishna.”

With a smile he hands my brother and me cups of the cold fresh buttermilk, chach as it is called here. It can be drunk with added sugar or salt, and is an elixir for all things related to digestion. He also gave us a little bit of the residue butter left on his hand from scooping it out. “The best face cream,” he explained as he smoothed it on his face, arms, and hands. I’m not exaggerating when I say that he literally lives off the gifts his cows give him.

After having our fill of buttermilk, and with the noon sun on our faces, I thanked him for his time and wisdom and we headed back to our home for lunch. While walking back, I thought of Prema Kishore’s words, and the impact that they, as well as his example, had had on me.

photo by Amala PuranaI yearn for a simpler life, where those things that are important take precedence over everything else. Here in Vraja, the people I have encountered don’t try to do too much, and what they do may seem on the outside to be trivial and basic. But to them taking care of their cows, in the case of Prema Kishore, or chanting in kirtana for a few hours a day, like my brother does,photo by Nanda Heintz or simply making one garland for Radharani, like Nadia does, all these things are considered a day well-lived. And really they are. Just a simple activity of devotion here in Vraja is so worthwhile and fulfilling and satisfying. And that is the way of the simple cowherd community, whom we aspire to follow.

Those cowherd men and women, boys and girls, they are just thinking of how to do something for Krishna everyday, something to make him smile. And Krishna is also just a simple cowherd boy, who is pleased just by simple things. You take care of his cows, his friends, those devoted to him, serve his Radha, and sing his name and you bring a smile to his lotus face. He loves his cows and cowherd village, and so when you serve those whom he loves he will take notice. It’s all so simple actually. This is the secret of Vrindavana, and I feel today that I had a small glimpse of it. This village is being covered over by those who don’t know this secret, and trash, pollution, population, high-rise apartments and condominium, cars and motorcycles are overtaking it. But if you’re lucky enough to come to this practically unknown little village, I hope you can walk down a dusty path away from all of that and find someone like Prema Kishore who knows the secret of Vraja and is living the simple yet oh so wealthy life.

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photo by Govinda SwamiVrindavana means harmonious living, and a daily reminder that lifestyle here is the presence of all kinds of animals. They become part of the landscape, part of the daily life.
The cows were the very life of the inhabitants of Vraja, and I find them everywhere here in present-day Vrindavan. Cows are very affectionate animals, and while passing them in the street I always try to give them a little pat and rub under their chin. Just yesterday I stopped to pet a rather impressive looking large bull, and he was so smitten with the bit of affection, that he began licking my arm with his huge rough tongue!
When I see the cows everywhere, it is easy to have them disappear into the background and see them as a nuisance on the already congested roads. But I try to remember their place in Krishna’s heart, and the importance of them being here in their home. One person who has truly seen the cows of Vraja is Kurma Rupa, one of my personal heroes. Ten years ago, upon seeing the plight of the abandoned cows here, he began feeding and taking care of 10 of them. From that early beginning, he formed Care for Cows, which now feeds and houses over 400 cows, all of whom were brought to his safe haven from dejected, often severely injured, starved, and abandoned situations. People from around the world, who understand the importance of taking care of cows in Vraja, can sponsor the maintenance of a cow. The first day I visited Care for Cows, I was lucky to find Kurma Rupa there.
photo by Shyam Gopal“When you take care of cows,” he shared with me, “you don’t need anybody to tell you that you are doing the right thing. You just know it in your heart, because it pleases Krishna so much.”
The cows and bulls at Care for Cows are all fed and maintained nicely, but thrive most of all on the love and affection they receive there. While I was there the cows were let out of their pen for the morning feeding. One cow, instead of running to the feed lot, came over to our little group. Kurma Rupa began petting her and speaking to her lovingly. “Jhanava here is one of our best preachers,” he said, “because she is good at melting peoples’ hearts and convincing them to take care of cows. You see how affectionate cows are, that she would rather come here and get some love than go to eat.”
Unfortunately as Vraja becomes more and more industrialized, hundreds and hundreds of cows roam the street, hungry, neglected, affection-starved, and many times injured. Care for Cows is a shining example of cow service and educates visitors and locals alike in the importance of taking care of these animals.

photo by Govinda SwamiThe other prominent animal here is the monkey, and they remind me of Krishna’s mischievous nature. They have been here since Krishna’s time on the earth, and like him, they enjoy stealing food from people. They can be a nuisance for visitors as they can be aggressive and grab food and other personal items right from your hand, though I have had no problems personally with them…yet.

The green parrots are a delight to see, they are Srimati Radharani’s personal messengers, bringing love notes back and forth between Radha and Krishna. They have bright green feathers and red-beaked faces and fly all over Vraja. One temple just a block from where I was staying feeds the parrots every day at 3:45pm. The person who runs this temple spreads about six hundred pounds of bird seed all over the courtyard. At 3:45 he makes a loud bird sounding call, and all the parrots and pigeons in the area come flying to this temple. photo by Radha MohanIt was an amazing sight, seeing literally over a thousand green parrots and pigeons flying down for their meal. As the saying goes, birds of a feather flock together, and so they made a beautiful formation with the bluish pigeons in the middle and the green parrots forming a large circle around them. When they flew away the wind made from so many of them flapping their wings was strong enough to create a dust storm and a strong blast in my face.

The horses, camels, buffaloes and donkeys I see are used to pull carts and loads, and are usually taken care of due to their service to their masters. It is nice to see that there are still animal-pulled carts here, and I hope that the locals can see the benefit of that over the numerous problems of fuel-fed transportation.

photo by Govinda SwamiThe pigs are enormous, ugly, and produce copious amounts of little piglets that are cute and pink for but a short amount of time. They are part of the natural garbage system here, though with the introduction of plastic bags and styrofoam, the amount of trash the pigs cannot consume is enormous and everywhere.
A friend of mind who lives here in Vraja said to me the other day, “No matter what people try to do to make Vrindavana more technologically advanced, it will always be a village.”
And that is a fact. It is Krishna’s rural village, and so the animals stay a part of it.
But due to Vrindavan becoming industrialized, with the dusty roads and thick forests giving way to cement streets and high-rise apartments, the situation of the animals is a precarious one. With their natural habitat and food system being destroyed, many of the animals are in a sad state. Some are being pushed out as well. Peacocks, which once flourished in Vraja and whose singing delighted the hearts of the Vraja inhabitants, are now no where to be seen. With trees being cut down and the air polluted, they have retreated to the outskirts of Vrindavan where one can still find fields of green with tall trees and quiet air.
photo by Govinda SwamiI want my children and future generations to be able to visit here and see the animals from Krishna’s pastimes and the beautiful village of Vraja. In the twelve years since my last visit here, so much of that rural beauty has been replaced with construction. Imagining Krishna going down the soft sandy pathway here in Raman Reti with his hundreds of cowherd boyfriends and their thousands of cows and calves, is becoming more and more difficult. When I came here 20 years ago with my then 3-year old brother, we walked to the Yamuna and when we turned a bend, he expected to see Krishna sitting there with his friends eating lunch. “Where are they, he asked?” Such was the strength of the holy place.
Will we be able to protect it, caring for the animals and forests and rivers, so that we will get glimpses of the place Krishna roamed in ages past?

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photo by Shyam GopalVrindavana, Vrindavana!.. Here cows are wandering along the streets, dogs don’t bark at passers-by, but at one another when they cannot get on with each other. Sluggish buffaloes resting and chewing grass with their young can be seen everywhere. Monkeys jump from twigs to roof, from roof to wires, from there on travelers, and steal their glasses and fruits. Hogs are happily grunting in town waste water and eating up tailings at disposal tips. photo by Shyam GopalPeacocks are calling here and there, and at times they can be seen sitting on the fences or on the trees, or dancing, with their beautiful tails open. Big green parrots are merging with the trees, but by scrutinizing their leaves you’ll see – here they are, Vrindavana’s dandies! Beautiful black and headlong-streaming Yamuna river with its sweet water is half embracing the town of Vrindavana. Everywhere grow, and at every home people are growing, small trees of holy basil, Tulasi, or Vrinda. Vridavana is named after this graceful plant, Vrinda, and “vana” means “forest”. The forest of Tulasi-trees…

photo by Shyam GopalIt is not so easy to go to Vrindavana. In the holy Vedic scriptures, it is said that even those who are of the highest rank and those who are wealthy or well-educated, cannot enter Vrindavana without God’s grace. It is great fortune to come to Vrindavana. Vrindavana is God’s embassy on earth, his home, holy land, where every grain of sand or a stone is a jewel, every step is a dance, and every word is a song. “Hmm” – you will probably smile. Well, if you don’t take it on trust – then test! I had no faith before. “All right! It is the holy land, and it is wonderful of course. And what next?” This is what comes next: all cherished desires are fulfilled in Vrindavana. The point is that when one comes here, something starts to take place, something strange. The heart aches. The soul longs to find its place in the world, and find out who is behind everything. Answers to all these questions come in Vrindavana.

photo by Shyam GopalWhen I came to Vrindavana for the first time, I got off the taxi, looked around and became afraid. I thought I will understand nothing, because everything around me appeared so ordinary, and even weird for us Westerners – waste water, hogs on the streets… But I remembered how I had read in a book that when one comes to a holy place, one should bow down to it and ask it to bestow its mercy upon one. So I did that. When I arose, I was completely transformed. I did not expect that a place I had never seen before would welcome me as its family member. As if by magic, or with the help of an affectionate relative, I at once found a room in a hotel. It was a good and really inexpensive one, and I didn’t have much money at that time. photo by Govinda SwamiI went to the Hare Krishna temple and met my girlfriend from Moscow there. She invited me to assist her in making flower garlands for the deities in the temple. It is special mercy to do something for God in his home. Then I met another acquaintance, and for the next few days, she was my guide to the different places in Vrindavana, on which she spoke. By then, I liked being in Vrindavana so much that I did not want to leave at all. And you know what happened then? My return ticket could not be confirmed, and I was told that it could be only confirmed for another date, a week later! I got everything I wanted – visiting many temples, personal service to God, staying longer – all these things I got at once!

A remarkable, for me, story happened there. When I made a flower garland for the first time, the priest did not put it on the deity of Krishna. I was upset because I decided that God did not accept my service. My acquaintance requested me to make a garland once again, and when I came to the temple the next day, I found that Krishna was wearing my garland! Usually there are special garlands made for Krishna and Radhika, his beloved; they differ from others. On the morning the priests dress the deities in new attire and put fresh garlands on them. photo by Shyam GopalSo on that day, Krishna was wearing his usual garland as well as the one I made for him – two at once! Can you imagine my joy – God reciprocated with me, accepted my garland, which I made for him. He showed me that he knows the heart and desires of everyone. On that day, faith appeared in my heart that God is a person, and that he is not indifferent to me. He reciprocates, he always answers our prayers, requests, questions, he fulfills our desires and guides us to him, in different ways, but to the same place – the eternal abode of God, where everything is eternal, and filled with knowledge and bliss of love, where every grain of sand or stone is a jewel, every step is a dance, and every word is a song – to Vrindavana.

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