With Prabhupada in Vrindavan

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“We walk the golden mica sands that bank the Yamuna River, . . . led by our peerless Pied Piper.”

[Excerpted from Chasing Rhinos with the Swami, Volume 2. Copyright 2019 Samuel Paul Speerstra (Shyamasundar das). Volumes 1 and 2 are available from the Krishna.com Store and the author’s website: www.chasingrhinos.com.]

The Delhi pandal program had been an overwhelming success, attended by nearly a million people – another huge rhino for His Divine Grace. Over twelve thousand copies of the new Hindi BTGs had been distributed. Highlights of the pandal program appeared on TV news even in America and Europe. The Los Angeles Times printed this article on November 21, 1971:

U.S. KRISHNA CHANTERS TELL IT TO THE HINDUS

NEW DELHI – The Hare Krishnas have put on an old-fashioned, Gita-thumping revival here in bustling Connaught Circus in an attempt to sink some roots in their spiritual motherland. Indians in general are skeptical of the Hare Krishnas. Many Indians think of them as American hippies in Hindu clothing. However, the Indians learned during the 10-day festival that the American gurus know their Vedic scriptures. Inside the vast multicolored tent a few days ago, a thin, elfish-looking young American in a saffron robe sat cross-legged on a stage and answered questions from about 400 Indian listeners . . . And so it went for more than an hour. The Hare Krishna guru spoke with a New York City accent right off the East River, but he knew his Sanskrit and the Indians were no doubt impressed.

Prabhupada’s triumph at the pandal event in New Delhi was like completing a full circle: in the early ’60s, the Swami had struggled in Delhi alone and penniless to print the few volumes of an ancient scripture that he hoped, beyond reason, to someday bear with him to America; now, just a few years later, he had returned to India’s capital as acharya of a worldwide spiritual organization that distributed thousands of his books every day.

And now Prabhupada would take us to Vrindavan, Krishna’s home, the place where Bhaktivedanta Swami had hatched the Hare Krishna Movement.

chintamani-prakara-sadmasu kalpa-vrksha-
lakshavrteshu surabhir abhipalayantam
lakshmi-sahasra-shata-sambhrama-sevyamanam
govindam adi-purusam tam aham bhajami

“I worship Govinda, the primeval Lord, the first progenitor, who is tending the cows, yielding all desires, in abodes built with spiritual gems and surrounded by millions of purpose trees. He is always served with great reverence and affection by hundreds of thousands of Lakshmis, or gopis.”

Vrindavan! The place where Krishna lived five thousand years ago and, by all accounts, where you could still see Him if you have the eyes. Prabhupada had lived here himself and had been telling us about this magic village for the past five years.

In the very early morning of November 26, 1971, heading south from Delhi on Highway 2, Prabhupada pointed to a mile-long ancient stone wall in the distance – it looked maybe eighty or a hundred feet high, with turrets, arched gateways, slots on top for shooting arrows – and he said, “That is Indraprastha fort, built by the Pandava dynasty, where Krishna used to visit.”

What?

“Yes, it is still existing,” Prabhupada said.

There were four of us in the car, an Ambassador with a crazy driver whom we had to tell over and over, “Slow down! Bus! Behind!” He apparently didn’t speak English. “Wait for the bus behind us, you jerk!” Gurudas yelled, and whacked him on the shoulder. The bus behind us held nearly forty devotees, and we were all on our way to see Vrindavan for the first time, with Srila Prabhupada as our master guide.

A few other devotees had been to Vrindavan over the years, but it was Jaya Govinda’s photos and description in the August 1969 Back To Godhead that had captured my imagination:

The Supreme Lord is described as eternally youthful. He is not burdened by the maintenance of all the planets, but, by His omnipotence, He maintains them effortlessly and at the same time enjoys childlike sports as a cowherd boy, in eternal Vrindaban. He has many companions and lovers there, amid beautiful fields and surroundings described as “all-conscious.” That spiritual realm, the Supreme Lord Sri Krishna and all His eternal associates, the enactment of His eternal pastimes – all this is sometimes made manifest in the material world.

Thus the Vrindaban which we find as a small village in north central India today, and pictured on these pages, is in reality the very Vrindaban of the spiritual sky, the supreme abode of the Lord. At this location the Lord reveals His eternal pastimes, although He has not left that original locality in the spiritual sky. This is done by the Lord’s omnipotence, and it is as though a dimensional window has opened, making the spiritual realm visible to beings of this mundane world.

The BTG article included photos of temples, bathing ghats, giant banyans, and the ancient paths where Krishna walked, covered by the patina of centuries. And we were almost there! Prabhupada pointed and said, “Vrindavan is just in those trees.” Suddenly the driver pulled off the road, stopped the motor, and got out, opened the hood – and was engulfed in a cloud of steam. Prabhupada exchanged a few words in Hindi with him, then motioned for us to get out, this car has broken down. The bus pulled in behind us, and Prabhupada herded us aboard. So we entered Vrindavan all together in our giant chariot, coughing diesel smoke and resounding with loud kirtan, Srila Prabhupada and his forty pioneers, to explore the homes and hearts of Vrindavan and its legendary inhabitants.

The Delhi festival was finished, but there were matters to be watched carefully in  Bombay and Mayapur – so we’d probably only stay in Vrindaban for three or four days. There was never much of a plan to these trips, usually just some vague arrangements. In this case, Srila Prabhupada, his immediate entourage, and the few female devotees with us would be housed at Saraf Bhavan, a kind of guesthouse for upper-class pilgrims; the rest of the devotees went to a dharmasala (hostel) nearby.

Right away, Prabhupada took us sightseeing. Our first stop was the Radha-Damodar temple. The tiny courtyard and rooms where Swamiji had sat for so many years designing the Hare Krishna movement seemed disappointingly small and drab at first, but when we saw the love in Srila Prabhupada’s eyes and felt his connection with the place, we began to make the leap: look behind what you observe in Vrindaban, through the layers and deeper dimensions where faith will take you – and there find the holy of holies. Is that a flute I hear? How many ecstatic dawns did Rupa Goswami see creep into this courtyard? On how many hundreds of freezing-sweltering nights did Prabhupada crouch by dim candlelight to exact our language from the Srimad Bhagavatam? At Radha-Damodar we feel the pangs of Prabhupada’s lonely meditations and the rising ironic chuckle in his throat as he writes, in 1958:

I am sitting alone in Vrndavana-dhama.
In this mood I am getting many realizations . . .
Everyone has abandoned me, seeing me penniless –
Wife, relatives, friends, brothers, everyone.
This is misery, but it gives me a laugh. I sit alone and laugh . . .
Who will give me news of them, tell me who?
All that is left of this family life is a list of names.

As secretary, the cassette recorder and handheld mic are my best friends because they allow me to walk or sit beside Srila Prabhupada wherever he goes. My excuse is to record every word, as he points with his cane and says, “This is the samadhi of Jiva Goswami” or “Here is where Rupa Goswami wrote his books.” Hah! Gesturing with his right index finger poking through his saffron silk bead-bag he looks fifty years younger at Brahmanda Ghat as he assumes the part of Krishna’s mother – his eyes  big as saucers – and tells us: “Here Krishna used to eat dirt while playing, and His friend complained to Krishna’s mother, ‘Oh, your son is eating dirt.’ ‘Krishna, You are eating dirt?’ ‘No, they are enemies; they are telling lies. This morning we had some quarrel, so they have become My enemies and are telling lies.’ [laughter] And they charged again, ‘No, He has taken dirt. He has taken. We have seen.’ ‘All right, open Your mouth. I want to see.’ And as soon as Krishna opened His mouth, she saw the whole universe within.”

Srila Prabhupada tells us the eternal stories of each place we pass, dead matter coming to life with his fluid animations. We were his kids being taken by their father to his childhood haunts, showing us where this or that actually occurred, from tales we’d heard by the fireplace and, before, could only imagine.

Saraswati’s caught a shuddering cough from the cold nights and sleeping rough in Delhi, but she follows – or leads – Srila Prabhupada around Vrindaban, sometimes holding his hand.*

We walk the golden mica sands that bank the Yamuna River, a straggling band of cheering white geese, fresh with the glow of youth and a lifetime of good food and education, led by our peerless Pied Piper. “This is where Krishna stole the gopis’ clothes,” he tells us. “And here is where Krishna killed the Keshi demon.” Dr. O.B.L. Kapoor joins us, too. He has been Prabhupada’s friend and godbrother since 1932. He is so intelligent, learned, gentle, and familiar, and we develop an immediate fondness for him.

Early on the second morning, fog burns off the Yamuna River in the first hazy sun. “Can we take bath here, Srila Prabhupada?” Prabhupada, sitting on the steps at Keshi Ghat next to his pal Dr. Kapoor watches our tentative entry into the freezing Yamuna water, then laughs as we splash and whoop and a few bold Americans swim out into the sacred current. Even the women overcome their shyness, strip to their slips, and jump in. Prabhupada squats on the steps, dhoti up around his knees, and smiles at Saraswati running back and forth at his feet. She badly wants to jump in the river, but she’s still coughing, so I tell her no. “Come on, Prabhupada, come on in!” He can’t resist any longer. He removes his marigold garlands, takes off his sweater, hands someone his watch, unbuttons and removes his kurta – and wades a few steps out until water is up to his waist. He pinches his nose, then – swppp! – ducks straight down and under the water. Splash! He reemerges straight-up, wiping water from his eyes. As Prabhupada dries off with a towel on the steps, we steal glances at his golden full-body beauty: he’s happy as a lark.

Then off in the bus to Govardhan for a swim in Bindu Sarovara pond, at the base of Govardhan hill. Then on again, to Barsana, Radharani’s birthplace, where two men carry Srila Prabhupada up many concrete stairs to Her palace on a palanquin – “Make way! The Maharaja returns!” He’s laughing like a little kid.

Prabhupada: Yes, to ride on this palanquin is very comfortable, [laughter] at the cost of others. [laughs] [indistinct yelling in background; mynah birds singing]

Tamal Krishna: We should construct one, Prabhupada, for the remainder of the trip.

Prabhupada: It is better than any other vehicle. Formerly, kings were being carried by palanquin. They did not like carriage. Palanquin was transformed to carriage first in England – palanquin-carriage, drawn by horse. [looking around] Just see, how much fine work in marble stone. This is the spot – 

Shyamasundar: This is the spot?

Prabhupada: – where Radharani was born.

Shyamasundar: Oh, wow. Right there?

And then over to Nandagram, Krishna’s hilltop childhood home:

Prabhupada: Nanda Maharaja left Gokula and came here because the demons were disturbing Krishna. They decided to change.

[a local guide explains something about the temple in Hindi]

Tamal Krishna: What did he say, Srila Prabhupada?

Prabhupada: [to guide] You explain in English. Explain in English.

[curtain opens: obeisances]

Guide: The statue, this one, with the turban, that is the deity of Nanda Maharaja. And on this side in yellow sari, that is Yasoda Mata. You see? And in between Yasoda Mata and Nanda Baba there are Krishna and Balarama, both brothers. Krishna is on the side of Yasoda Mata, and Balarama is on the side of Nanda Baba. And in that corner on the left-hand side you see Radharani, there in that corner. And in the extreme right, there are these two, they are friends of Lord Krishna – Sudama and Madhumangala.

Prabhupada: [to Tamal Krishna] You just give them one rupee. Put here.

Leaving Nandagram, Prabhupada points at Radha’s Barsana palace in the distance and tells us how Radharani would sneak out on moonlit nights while Krishna climbed down from this side and They’d meet in the middle – “Just see, down there, in that forest between.”

As we tour the environs of Vrindaban, we are seeing and meeting the Vrajavasis, the citizens of Vraja, living cultural descendants from Krishna’s time, with their reverence, their lives patterned by love for Krishna, whose Deity stands in every home and in each of five thousand temples around town.

We chant and dance down Vrindaban’s ancient streets, barely wide enough for a bicycle rickshaw – ching ching! – as we step aside to avoid open sewers. Krishna’s name is echoed by the time-darkened walls. Haribol! shout the shopkeepers and pilgrims we meet. We see majestic temples packed between brick-and-stucco homes, walled compounds, arcades and verandas, pavilions and alcoves. Iron bars or carved stone screens protect windows from marauding, pink-faced macaque monkeys. A maze of plumbing runs down the sides of buildings and tangles of wire top every utility pole, where electricity pirates grab their volts. (One power company worker tells us that only about 60 percent of electricity in Vrindaban is actually paid for.) Everything seems run-down, deteriorated. Parts of town look almost abandoned. But from this day forward, Srila Prabhupada and his pack of angels begin to breathe new life into the holy precincts of Vrindaban.

*Saraswati is the author’s three-year-old daughter, the first child born in the Hare Krishna movement; wherever they are in the world together, Saraswati is Prabhupada’s constant companion.

About the Author: 

Shyamasundar Das

Shyamasundar das, one of Srila Prabhupada's earliest disciples, helped open ISKCON's second temple, in San Francisco (1967), and the London temple (1968). In 1971 he served as Prabhupada's secretary, staying by his side day and night.