Monday Morning Greetings 2024 #2 – A Guide for Beginners (and Their Guides)

January 8th, 2024

Many people have told me that they appreciate the definition of faith that I frequently cite: “faith is trust by experience”.[1] Experience engenders faith because faith is what we trust as our goal, and that goal is generally based on a good experience. Therefore, the greatest tragedy is to have misplaced faith, such as trust in intoxication based on an initial experience of getting high, for example, and then becoming addicted and ruining one’s life. The greatest blessing, in contrast, is having faith in a worthy objective, such as attaining mature devotion to God based on an initial religious experience and becoming fulfilled in life. For that reason, I have adopted as one of my services guiding pilgrims visiting Vrindavan, for I believe it is, more than any other place, where one can easily have a transcendent experience and awaken the faith to develop love for Śrī Krishna. Being here since 1976, I have witnessed hundreds of people coming in a humble mood, under the proper guide and getting that experience and faith. I have also witnessed pilgrims visiting Vrindavan completely missing that experience, or even having a negative experience, because they are not ready to humbly follow a guide, or their tour was not properly organized. For this week’s post I will concentrate on a few basic principles that in my experience are essential for introducing new people to Vrindavan.


Only take qualified pilgrims


A pilgrim doesn’t necessarily have to have faith, which is generally the precursor for any spiritual experience such as a pilgrimage, but they at least must be open enough to the path of bhakti to be guided by a spiritual tour leader. Such minimum humility is the door to experience Vrindavan, or any devotional practice for that matter. The “failed” tours that I observed were when the pilgrims had not sufficiently been informed beforehand what was expected of them and thus had not fully bought into the pilgrimage’s objective or leadership, and never got beyond what they externally saw in India, which can at times be disconcerting. Pilgrimage is a group activity that, like all congregational practices, requires a shared experience by all members for the collective group to have the fullest experience. Even a few people that are dissatisfied can ruin it for the whole group and make the life of the tour leader difficult. Conclusion: Don’t sell a pilgrimage. Be totally transparent about your objectives and let those who really have interest convince you that they are ready and eager for what you are giving.


Intensely focus on serving the needs and reasonable desires of the pilgrims


This is not a contradiction with my previous statement about pilgrims humbly accepting the leadership of the tour. The leader must be very sensitive to the pilgrims’ needs. I have seen those humble and open to guidance have a bad experience because the tour was ill managed, and the schedule was impractical and too demanding.


The duration of a pilgrim’s stay should only be commensurate with their level of faith


Just as an eastward wind is helpful and pleasant when navigating a sailboat if you are going in the same direction, and that exact same breeze becomes unpleasant when you turn the opposite way, in the same way there is a spiritual energy in Vrindavan moving one towards God that is so helpful when going in the direction of service, but so unpleasant when moving in the opposite direction towards ego. I have composed this analogy inspired by my own experience living in Vrindavan and my observation of those staying here longer without being fully engaged in service. Therefore, one who is new to Vrindavan should stay only as long as they can maintain a very humble mood of service. The successful pilgrimage leader knows how long he can keep his people enthusiastically engaged in Vrindavan, often deciding beforehand to stay only a couple of days, focusing their tour on other less intense holy places. Those leaders who command more respect from their group can demand more from them, and of course those pilgrims new to Vrindavan, but with faith, can also stay longer provided they are enthused to remain fully engaged in service under the guidance of a senior Vaiṣṇava.


A mature pilgrimage guide should be expert in guiding new people to experiences in Vrindavan, especially at the beginning of the tour, that invoke a positive mood of appreciation


When new people first come to Vrindavan they can be overwhelmed by the urbanization of the town where their ashram is generally located. As our first experience in a place is generally the eyes by which we see everything else there, I usually initially take pilgrims to the flower gardens of Vrindavan nearby where the external bucolic scene and humble Brijabasis match more with their expectations of what Vrindavan should be. That positive and often profound experience can help open them up to the beauty and devotion of Vrindavan in other places that they may visit later that are more challenging to their cultural expectations.




When retreat groups visit me in Vrindavan, I explain to them that just as a dog can hear high pitches that we are not able to perceive because we lack the proper apparatus to do so, similarly there is something here in Vrindavan—the beauty of the spiritual world—that they are not able to perceive now because they lack the faculties to do so. I assure them, however, that if they follow their guide and absorb themselves in potent devotional activities, then before they leave they will realize that Vrindavan is the most beautiful place in the world. When I see the same people before they go, I am rarely disappointed. They have seen and felt the unique transcendent beauty of Vrindavan, and by that experience have received the greatest treasure, faith in the worthiest goal!



[1] I first heard this definition of faith in an interview with the prominent Christian apologist Alvin Plantinga.


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