Monday Morning Greetings 2017 #7 – Leaving Vṛndāvana: Oy Vey!

February 13th, 2017

Leaving Vṛndāvana: Oy Vey! [1]
After having visited Varṣāṇā and being harassed for money by the very aggressive children, beggars, hawkers and brāhmaṇa guides there, a western pilgrim politely challenged me during my final get together with the tour group she had joined and I was hosting:
“These are the most aggressive and cruel people I have ever seen, and there is so much poverty, hunger, and garbage. And how they treat dogs! And this is a holy place?”
Unlike the person asking the question, the rest of the group had some connection and some affinity for bhakti. I looked around at my audience. After she posed her question, they also seemed desperate for an answer to reconcile their doubts and preserve their faith. [2]
I wouldn’t use the word disturbed, but I was highly concerned that before leaving Vṛndāvana their doubts were cleared. I have strong faith that one who approaches the dhāma [3] properly will see the real Vṛndāvana, not only the beautiful gardens and forest that rest just outside of the main town, but also the world of grace and pure devotion that lies just below the surface of its rapidly urbanized center. I have therefore dedicated myself to guiding the people who visit here and by the mercy of the dhāma we have met with some success. Vṛndāvana has become the “mecca”, the favorite pilgrimage place of most who visit me here as part of their India tour, and many return again and again to rekindle that spark of divine love.
And so an interesting discussion ensued. I didn’t deny the challenge posed for those who visit when confronted by the effects of urbanization combined with village mentality. I shared my own sadness regarding the increasing decay of the dhāma, and stressed the responsibility of its residents to protect and preserve Vṛndāvana’s environment. At the same time I tried to put the matter into perspective.
The complete Vṛndāvana, or Vraja-maṇḍala, is not a small place. It touches three states in India and has nearly 1,300 villages. The urbanization and consequent greed only covers a very small part. In fact, not more than ten minutes from ISKCON rests thousands of acres of the untouched flower gardens and farms where simple bhakti-filled residents still reside.
The people who beg in Varṣāṇā are not begging for food, but money for cell phones. Kṛṣṇa told Mādhavendra Purī that “no one starves in my village” [4] and that is still true today. No one goes hungry in Vraja, especially Varṣāṇā, where at the drop of a hat the disciples of Ramesh Bābā, the local saint, will feed hundreds of visitors. Then why do at least some of the simple local people still aggressively beg at some of Vṛndāvana’s major “tourist” towns like Varṣāṇā and Nanda-grāma? We are partly to blame by initiating India into modern life. We have exponentially increased the village people’s desire for many unnecessary things that simply are hard to afford in a village economy.
Before placing the full blame for poverty in India on its culture or religiosity, we should first look at the way we live in America and other westernized places, where the excess in our life style is often at the cost of others around the world. We should also ponder how much our vision has been conditioned to a false standard of opulence that doesn’t allow us to see within a poor villager’s life the opulence of friends and family within walking distance, fresh air, vegetarian organic food, and a lifestyle that leaves one relatively free for family and spiritual life. We pity their poverty while at the same time don’t question our so called opulent lifestyle where most break their necks working ten hours a day at horrible jobs, and many have to span continents or even oceans just visit their grown up children and families.
One thing that is certainly overtly disturbing and shameful is the clutter of plastic bags. When I came to India forty years ago everyone, especially at big functions, ate off leaf plates and clay cups. I was shocked that after the feast the leaf plates and cups were just haphazardly thrown and smashed, cups I would have sworn were at least ten dollars a piece at Pier 1 Imports. In other words, until recently everything in India was naturally biodegradable, so one didn’t need a sanitation department to cart off trash. Unfortunately, the indiscriminate throwing of trash became part of simple village people’s conditioning or DNA in such a way that it still continues for generations. Now instead of compost, the haphazard throwing of trash leaves mountains of unsightly plastic bags, and a once glorious biodegradable system of sanitation has become an inexcusable eyesore.
And while generational conditioning has its flaws, it also has its perks. Walk through any simple village in Vṛndāvana and many people who we may deem backward will immediately open their doors and feed you the most delicious vegetarian fare, “vrajavāsī rotīs”. [5] How would you be welcome in a small town in America if you showed up at people’s doors and more significantly what would they feed you? And while we are complaining about the poor neglected street dogs in India, in America they regularly slaughter millions of cows. A true spiritual culture respects all living beings. America has no claim to the ethical treatment of animals. [6]
I also talked about many things including how the Moghuls and British ruled India for hundreds of years and deliberately attempted to ravage their culture. There were questions and answers and a healthy discussion ensued. We then finished with a final kīrtan where I asked the audience to visit their favorite place among the many beautiful places visited in India during their tour. I was surprised and relieved how many still chose the beautiful flower gardens of Vṛndāvana with its simple village folk, but still pray hopelessly for the day when the people of Vṛndāvana even more fully embrace their bucolic roots.


A Yiddish word indicating dismay or grief that has become so much part of the vernacular in New York that the sign leaving Brooklyn over the Williamsburg Bridge says Leaving Brooklyn: Oy Vey!
[2] Varṣāṇā is the most sweet and beautiful place, but taking new people there can be hit or miss. The group went to Govardhana the day before and normally we wouldn’t give them a second long outing during their short stay, but the group, except the one lady from America who posed the question, were from Colombia and Dīna Bandhu, who speaks Spanish and had preached there, was leading the tour.
[3] Holy place
[4] See Caitanya-caritāmṛta, Madhya-līlā, Chapter 4
[5] A thick Indian flat bread with ghee that, in my opinion and the opinion of many I have taken to enjoy that fare, is the most tasty food in the world, better than pizza.
[6] I am not mocking America. If the people of America are attacked unfairly, I could also show their assets. In the MVT restaurant, which hosts here most of the foreign tour groups, the senior waitress who worked there once confided in me that of all nationalities the Americans are the most accommodating and polite while the Indians are generally the most rude. Again it’s the acculturation of people that influences their behavior and we should always take that into consideration before judging a culture harshly. Even Śrīla Prabhupāda noted that Americans generally have more respect for the dignity of labor than Indians.

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