Archive for January, 2002

Vrindaban A Navadvipa Remembrance Srila

January 28th, 2002


A Navadvipa Remembrance
Srila Krishna dasa Kaviraja wrote something new and refreshing about Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu in Sri Caitanya-Caritamrita although Vrindaban dasa Thakur had already composed a heralded and remarkable biography of the Lord, Sri Caitanya Bhagavat. Krishna dasa Kaviraja specifically told his readers that he
would avoid repeating or elaborating on what was described before by Vrindaban dasa Thakur. I have a similar apprehension about describing this year’s tour because I have already elaborately written about the same pilgrimage last year. And it’s not only that that I fear repetition. I was also too busy leading the tour to be in the mood of a journalist, to step back as an observer and experience the pilgrimage with a view to recall its unique mood and drama. The tour itself was still as fulfilling and exciting as any I’ve ever had, but just not conducive for journal keeping. Let’s see what I can remember.

An Auspicious Start
It never takes more than a first-day visit to Srivas Angan, the place where the sankirtan movement began, for newcomers to shake off any trepidation about being in India. The kirtan spontaneously explodes and all doubts dissipate. I happened to jot down some comments from the devotees on that same night:

“I can go home now and feel satisfied.”

“I now have no doubts about Krishna consciousness.”

The Ganga
A unique feature of this year’s tour was the lonely sandy beach on the bank of the Ganga, less than ten minutes from our ashram door. Usually, to bathe in the Ganga in front of ISKCON’s center, one has to negotiate with a small mixed crowd of local pilgrims and then wade through a river floor of precariously small pointed boulders, dumped to check the course of the Ganga threatening to deluge our temple. Last year we only managed to get in a solitary snana (bath) at the end of our trip. This year we bathed on the very first day, and all of the devotees spontaneously managed to find time in our busy schedule?usually squeezed between lunch and late afternoon class?to bathe almost every day.

We work hard by our spiritual practices to uplift our consciousness beyond the modes. A quick bath in the Ganga and those same modes almost seem to be miraculously washed away down her sublime waves. What a relief, and who can resist such a quick fix?

“It Ain’t Normal!”-Part I
Last year several readers enjoyed my descriptions of New Yorker Deva Dhrta and his colloquial expressions of appreciation/ecstasy upon visiting each holy place. “It ain’t normal!” he would excitedly exclaim. It’s a charm to bring city characters to the dhama and observe their unique approach to Krishna consciousness in India. This year we had Ken Murtag.

Ken is a burly and jolly Irish construction worker from Brooklyn. He has been coming to the 2nd Avenue center for a year now. His simple and unshakeable faith has already endeared him to the devotees. While others delayed their decision about coming on the tour after September 11, Ken purchased his ticket on September 13, fearing that this might be his only chance to see the dhama. “Better to get stuck there than to not go at all,” he reasoned. I once joked with some others that Ken is so intrepid that his real plan is to head for Kabul to establish a Gaura-Nitai temple. On the second day of the tour, he came to me early in the morning about a stomach-ache caused by an ill-advised evening visit to Govinda’s the night before. Unfortunately, fearless Ken thought nothing about gulping down several deep fried samosas on just his second day in India! I gave him the standard advice to fast, but he looked at me incredulously and smiled. “No. No. It’s maha-prasadam. I’ll be okay.”

I explained my concerns further. “We have a long bus ride today. Let your stomach cool. It’s too risky.” I pressed my point but nothing penetrated his simple faith.

“It’s maha-prasadam. How can one fast?”

During breakfast, just a few hours later, I was really taken aback to see Ken walk by with a plate from the restaurant piled with heavy sweets. When I again
cautioned him, he faithfully responded, “It’s always good to honor maha-prasadam!”

Our parikrama that day ended at Mamagacchi where we were offered an exceptional feast cooked personally by the hand of the legendary resident saint of Mamagacchi, the 76-year-old Jagad Bandhu. This feast was especially packed with extraordinary Bengali sweets like misti-dahi and plentiful pebble-sized gulabjamons. When it came to honor prasadam I saw Ken right there with the others relishing the extraordinary fare, especially the sweets, and without reservation. Concerned for his health, I sought him out after the feast. Chuckling and slapping the sides of his belly, he proclaimed the glories of maha-prasadam once more. “No problem. I feel great. See Maharaja, we should always honor maha-prasadam!”

Afterward: Later, in Vrindaban, Ken got sick and couldn’t eat anything for two days. I thus considered whether his exceptional luck in Nabadvipa was the unreserved and causeless mercy of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu in Sridham Mayapur, Audarya-dhama (the place of overflowing magnanimity). When he was
challenged in Vrindaban by my disciple Akincana Krishna dasa, who asked if he still had faith in maha-prasadam, he still staunchly replied, “Yes, but not all Indian maha-prasadam.” He humbly added, “And I really miss Yajna’s cooking!”

“It Ain’t Normal”-Part II
Arpit Puri joined the 2nd Avenue congregation from their NYU preaching. Although from an Indian family, he is psychologically, by nature, more of an American East Coast existential type. He thus suffers, tries to relieve his suffering, but paradoxically remains attached to that suffering for the authenticity and meaning it appears to give life. I’ve discussed these things with Arpit many times and although his objectives and outlook are now imbued with a more theist perspective, he realizes that becoming purified is a gradual process. Arpit arrived in Mayapur with Akincana Krishna dasa a few days before the general tour group so we went to ISKCON??s celestial Jagannatha Mandir for darshan of the Deities and to honor chappan-bhoga. Chappan-bhoga means that Lord Jagganatha is offered 56 different bhoga (food) preparations daily, just as in Jagannatha Puri. For a small donation one can honor the noon offering of uncountable, incomparable, and finely prepared prasadam. After the feast I asked Arpit what he thought. His response was appreciative. “It was really something,” he said.

Mistakenly, I though he replied that “it was really suffering.” Perplexed, I questioned, “Suffering?”

“Yes,” he replied, “Suffering for my suffering!”

Srila Rupa Goswami wrote a beautiful verse about the glories of Sri Vrindaban-dhama where he uses a poetic device whereby one says something, but obviously means the opposite. He thus tells the readers, “Don’t go to Vrindaban-dhama. Don’t go to Kesi-ghata. And don’t take darshan there of the beautiful form of Sri Sri Radha-Govinda as it will break all your attachments to the world!” The real import is that we should visit the dhama to take darshan of the beautiful form of Sri Sri Radha-Govinda so that we will certainly experience devotional ecstasy and become indifferent to that which binds one to this world. Our pilgrimage group also went to Vrindaban this year, but I think that, for the most part, my journals of this year’s tour will end here with a similar prayer to Srila Rupa Goswami’s: “If one is at all attached to suffering, then don’t go on Mayapur/Vrindaban parikrama. Don’t take darshan of Sri Jagannatha, Baladeva, and Subhadra. And certainly don’t honor Jagannatha-prasad!”

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Vrindaban A Puri Remembrance Partha

January 27th, 2002


A Puri Remembrance
Partha Prabhu, a dear Godbrother, is living next door to me at the Birla Guesthouse. He is spending a month in Puri. By concentrated spiritual practice he is trying to absorb the mood of the dhama. The night I was leaving, I casually asked him if he had yet gone to the Gambhira. His answer was deep. I liked it.

“The Gambhira is the most sacred place,” he replied. “Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, the Supreme Personality of Godhead Himself, spent the last 18 years of his life in the mood of Srimati Radharani. He was experiencing intense separation from Krishna. To appreciate my visit there properly, I want to first imbibe the appropriate mood. I will certainly visit before I go, but I want some more time here first.”

From hearing Prabhu’s response it becomes obvious that there are different levels of realization in approaching parikrama. A new person, visiting the dhama without guidance, may visit the dhama only on the plane of mere sightseeing. With guidance, that same person might even glimpse the transcendental nature of the dhama. An especially serious and practiced practitioner, like Prabhu, however, may visit the holy places and tune oneself to the unique internal sanctity of the dhama, extracting the personality and mood within each lila-sthan (place of the Lord’s pastimes). Puri is deeply enriched with Sri Caitanya’s mood of separation. It is the place where Mahaprabhu fulfilled His mission by not only tasting the mood of Srimati Radharani, but by simultaneously teaching the world the yuga-dharma?calling the Lord in heartfelt separation. I was disappointed that I couldn’t go deeper this time. By the time I became settled here, I was already headed for the train to Calcutta. Still, I got something.

How fortunate to visit Haridas Thakur’s samadhi, where Sri Caitanya personally placed the Namacarya’s sacred body, or to chant by siddha-bakula, the hallowed tree where Thakur Haridas chanted 300,000 names daily. How auspicious to prostrate oneself before Tota Gopinatha, the personal Deity of Gadadhara, or to bathe in the ocean sanctified by the Lord’s daily bath. How lucky to have graced Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya’s house where Lord Caitanya rested in ecstatic trance, or to have honored Jagannatha-prasad. I pray that the sacred places of the Lord in Puri may serve as a conduit for the mercy of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu so that even a modicum of the separation temper (vipramlambha-bhava) tasted by the Lord in Gambhira may one day grace my heart.

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Vrindaban My pilgrimage tour group

January 26th, 2002


My pilgrimage tour group ended today. Just two months ago I wasn’t even sure anybody would come because of the world situation. A few people did cancel, but it was still my biggest group yet. By the time we began our Vrindaban parikrama nearly thirty visiting foreign pilgrims were with us. Even Satyaraja and Vrinda could join us at least for a few days. The fact that so many people came despite the world situation instilled me with a strong realization of how much Krishna wants these tours to continue, that these tours will continue to grow despite impediments, and that I should humbly continue as an instrument for this service.

When I first started the tours about seven years ago, the group was quite homogenous; probably over 90 percent of the devotees who came were young people from the straightedge scene living in temples. Paralleling the demographics of ISKCON, the devotees on this tour were not temple devotees; in fact, only two were. The group this year was exceptionally varied: from 19-year-old NYU student Arpit Puri to 67-year-old retired nurse Saroj Rede; from two Boston brahmacaris to professionals like Ed Kenaan, who runs an advertising company in New York City. Unexpectedly, even two nondevotees joined part of the tour by chance: Ted, the guitarist for Saves The Day, came with Steve Reddy, and Sherri Lee, a doctor from New York, was visiting Kula Pradip, her brother.

I loved every minute of the tour, but it was more taxing than in previous years because many of the devotees were new and I was basically the only senior Vaishnava on the tour. I thus managed the tour, gave every class, and even led 90 percent of the kirtans. It wasn’ planned that way. Initially, another sannyasi was to accompany the tour and other devotees were also coming to help, but the uncertainty caused by recent world problems threw everyone’s plans topsy-turvy. I’m just happy that when everyone’s life was tossed in the air, so many devotees still landed in Sridham Mayapur. Next year, I will bring a tour manager and I will ensure that a few more senior devotees join us. Although the tour still went exceptionally well, I unfortunately just didn’t have the time or energy to keep a daily journal.

Although it is far better to write a journal and remember one’s realizations on the day of their occurrence, I will attempt to recall at least tidbits of nectar starting with my personal pilgrimage to Puri. I pray my offering will not be stale and tasteless.

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