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.
I 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, 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.
Vrindavana 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.
“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.
The 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. It 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.
The 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.
I 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?