A Heart Touched by Vrindavan
Some faraway dike in my consciousness had cracked, and a new openness to alternative notions was starting to trickle through.”
Chapter Five: Immersion
Two days and two nights on a dirty train and a bumpy, cramped ride on an antediluvian bus brought John and me to Vrindavan. It was past midnight, July 17, 1971. I was twenty-one.
Ashrams were locked, streets were deserted, and the only noises were the occasional soft grunts and shuffles of dozing animals. We slept on a sandstone ledge outside an ashram and woke the next morning to a symphony of birds and the common bustle of Indian village life. A woman bent low to sweep the unpaved road with a short, stiff, straw broom, raising billows of dust; a man washed his clothes by pounding them against a large flat rock; a girl coaxed flames from a small cow-dung fire, preparing to cook breakfast for her family; a salesman pushing a cartful of fruits meandered by, shouting about his goods; a boy on a clunky farmer’s bullock cart lumbered past; men balancing milk jugs on both ends of a long stick that straddled their shoulders struggled by, looking down and bouncing the weight as they walked; school children in dark blue uniforms gleefully ran to their classes along sunlit roads.
Yet there was something different about Vrindavan. The air, sweet and caressing, carried song – the washerman’s lilting tenor, the sweeper woman’s warbling soprano. The moment I stepped into the street, the chant “Jaya Radhe!” was directed toward me from a smiling, elderly woman. She walked past in a white sari, her right hand in a small white cotton bag. I didn’t know what either “Jaya” or “Radhe” meant, or how to return this friendly greeting.
Using sign language and broken Hindi, John and I found an elderly resident who spoke English.
“We’d like to rent a place to stay in Vrindavan,” John told him.
“Yes, yes, I can arrange, I can arrange,” he said with a wiry grin.
A couple of hours later, with our loaded backpacks on our backs, John and I walked with him along the dusty, cobbled streets to a rental.
“I have traveled all over India,” he told us as we went. “And I see Vrindavan is the best place. Best place.”
I glanced at John, who was listening politely.
“In other places,” the old man continued, “in the cities, in the ordinary towns, the people’s hearts are heavy. So many responsibilities they have, so much worry, pressures. They cannot escape. Prisoners – all the men, women – they’re life’s prisoners. Here, in this place, you will find the people are more free. Not so burdened by family, job, endless duties.” He looked from John to me, smiling, “You will see.”
After turning enough corners to make me lose my sense of direction we finally stopped walking. “Here it is,” he said. “This is a good location – just a couple of minutes from the river,” and he pointed down the street to our left, “and only a few steps from the Radha Raman temple!” and he pointed to our right, where I could see a sign announcing the entrance to the famous Radha Raman temple.
By that afternoon we’d rented it, a fine, three-story house for fifty rupees (about seven U.S. dollars) monthly. The house’s one drawback was its pitch-dark bathroom and the bat family that lived in it. I thought bats avoided crashing into things by using ultrasonic echolocation, but these Vrindavan bats didn’t. After a couple of them had flown into my face, I noticed their flying altitude was four feet and higher, so I began crawling into the bathroom, remaining crouched while in there, and crawling out. If I accidentally stood up, a bat would inevitably dash into my head. To feel those furry, bony, muscled lumps hit, be momentarily stunned, recoup and then fly off was absolutely spooky.
The top floor of our new home was hotter than the average outdoor temperature of 110 degrees Fahrenheit, but since any hint of a breeze only reached the top floor, John and I stayed there. The day after we moved in, we both got pinkeye from the soot that had poured into the train windows during our trip. Our elderly friend got us some medicated eye drops.
“I’m going to bathe in the Yamuna and wash my eyes in it too,” John, ever the experimenter, said. The Yamuna, a holy river that flowed around Vrindavan, was supposed to be purifying.
“I’ll keep up with the eye drops,” I said, and put a couple more drops in each eye. As fate would have it, John’s eyes cleared up before mine.
Pinkeye made my eyes tear continuously, acute hay fever made me sneeze often, my nose ran continuously, and the heat made me sweat profusely. For three days, between sneezes, I lay motionless on my back under a mosquito net – which stopped swarms of flies from reaching me but also stopped any vestige of a breeze.
An incapacitated mess, I wondered, “Why is garbage and rubble strewn throughout this crooked and crumbling town? Who would ever think with longing of this place with its fetid stench from the open sewers that line the streets and the dust so thick it catches in your throat? Who would want to cohabit with bats, mice and rats, or dwell in the dismal, stale rooms with their chipped plaster and tyrannical heat or bathe in the filthy brackish water of the river? Who could be inspired by the scores of sullen, sneering young men lolling in the streets? Who would even want to visit this place?”
When I was mobile again, though, in the relative cool of the mornings and evenings, camera in hand, I took to the streets and alleys of Vrindavan, a Mecca for Vaishnavs – followers of Vishnu. Our elderly Vrindavan friend had explained that I should return the oft heard “Jaya Radhe!” with a “Jaya Radhe!” of my own, which I did with caution at first, like dipping a tentative toe in a swimming pool. One morning while John was shopping for our fruits, vegetables, and yogurt, I tagged behind a few “Jaya Radhe!” women to a temple where 150 widows in white saris sat for three hours chanting Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Half the women listened as the other half chanted, and then the roles reversed. Their feeling for the song more than made up for any lack in melody or harmony. They sang like this, I learned, every morning throughout the year. I wondered at the softness and satisfaction in their faces, at their concentration.
In the afternoons, I saw these same women scattered throughout the town, giving water to pilgrims, cooking rice, begging from shopkeepers, cleaning with those absurdly short brooms, offering prayers in temples, talking with friends, drying or gathering dry cow-dung patties. They seemed secure in their apparently impoverished lives. Decades later, I learned that estranged families sent their widowed, childless women to Vrindavan; even “modern” families abandoned these burdensome women on God’s doorstep. But the widows I observed in those early years seemed grateful to be in Vrindavan. At least some of them appeared to have declared their independence from the rigid caste hierarchy and petty family squabbles that often pervade Indian society, and from ambition and its complexities. It was clear to me, even with my nascent spiritual senses, that some had even reached a rare point of satiation with material things and had moved into a more transcendent world. As I saw them serving their sister widows, they seemed angelic to me. None of the grasping neediness often seen in the poor was visible; they really seemed selfless. I even saw some of these widows giving portions of their rations to hungry dogs and cows. And they seemed spontaneously joyful, having embraced the humility of their circumstances. I was inspired as I watched them, these few evolved human beings, and I was not alone; other Vrindavan residents seemed exceptionally fond of them.
Like the monks in Nepal, these widows opened me up to an alien paradigm. Perhaps social status – through academic accomplishment or a prestigious position (or a position gained through one’s husband) – wasn’t necessary. Perhaps things weren’t what mattered. Instead, perhaps like these widows, I could learn to have the strength to live in a place of “enough” – a place no one in my world knew existed let alone desired. It was a place I wanted to explore. If I felt complete within myself, greed and envy would have no place in me, and ambition would become meaningful only when I strove to better myself in the moment, doing whatever I did in the best possible way each time I did it, conscious and focused on making it of value. Fame would become irrelevant, I wouldn’t use knowledge to prove myself, and power would be used solely to help others.
In that place of enough, I would know that I mattered, just as, it seemed, these widows knew they mattered. They mattered not from gathering attention of any kind but by living and mining a rich tradition. Perhaps, freed of smugness and self-approval, I too could be at ease with life and perhaps even my death one day. I could learn to be amiable, mellow, disciplined, restrained, honest, tolerant. I could put my being in order. Such rumination, sparked by the Vrindavan widows, challenged me: perhaps they had something I was unaware I lacked. Perhaps I was missing something.
The Vrindavan residents’ sincere devotion and the atmosphere of service and worship that permeated their town affected me deeply. I had come as a removed photographer to observe and document, as one might observe and document dolphins in the wild, but inside I was lurching about in an ocean of uncertainty searching for landmarks. Some faraway dike in my consciousness had cracked, and a new openness to alternative notions was starting to trickle through.
Who was the elegant, graceful woman who danced carefree through the streets and alleys of Vrindavan, who peeked at me from among the fervent, singing widows or the sincere supplication of pilgrims or from the children playing in temple courtyards or who sat among the mystical and alluring rites? She was a stranger my mind distrusted but my heart yearned to know – a sublime confidence who vanished before skepticism, suspicion, and disbelief.
In Vrindavan, that elusive person – faith – was nearly palpable. She was present in the services in the temples (there were five thousand temples, from five to five hundred years old, from vest-pocket to palatial, from simple to ornate). She was present in the evening worship on the banks of the sacred Yamuna, in the shops selling devotional paraphernalia, and especially in the reverence of the town’s residents. These people, as a community, had set their hearts on divinity. I saw that, although they were at the mercy of the sweltering heat, or the pains of aging or poverty, they could tolerate these because their faith gave them the hope of being united in spirit with a supernatural presence.
I still denied that presence. My denial, I was realizing, was my armor; it allowed me to deflect a barrage of difficult questions. But it didn’t answer those questions. It protected me from charlatans, yes, but it didn’t fill my emptiness or give me direction. Doubt served a purpose, but it also prevented me from trusting anyone or anything. Without trust, how could I ever be happy?
One night, after an argument with John about some green beans that I hadn’t cooked to his liking, I left the house where we were staying, walked the short distance to the Yamuna and sat alone on the bank. It was then that I felt how much affection I had for this place. Just its ether was soothing. The soft night breeze, the silky river, the gentle sounds and exotic smells, the devoted people, all felt rarefied and all embraced me.
If that dancing woman of faith was an ever so slight softening of the heart, an allowing, an opening, an acknowledgement of a possibility, then it meant I was stepping out of my skepticism into . . . what? The impractical? The unbelievable? The unknowable? It was bewildering.
Prabhupada’s students had established centers in Calcutta, Delhi and Bombay. When they traveled between them, Vrindavan, ninety miles south of Delhi, was a natural stopping point. Since John and I knew which ashram they would stay in during their visits, we’d go over regularly to see who’d come. One day Brahmananda Swami, a burly young man in the renounced order, was there. Brahmananda invited us to join him for parikrama – a walk on the path that encircles Vrindavan. While John, who didn’t enjoy walking, stayed back to photograph Vrindavan’s downtown area, I joined Brahmananda. As we went I asked him about a Bhagavad-gita verse where Krishna says to Arjuna, “Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor all these things.”
Brahmananda said, “No, no, that’s not how it goes. Krishna says, ‘Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor all these kings – not things.’”
“What does that mean?”
“Bhagavad-gita was spoken on a battlefield where kings had assembled to fight. Krishna was telling Arjuna that he, Krishna, was eternal, and that Arjuna and all the warriors on the battlefield were also eternal.”
“They’re eternal in the sense that the soul never dies?”
“But I think that things are also eternal – their form may change but the elements that made them are never lost,” I said, more to save face than to argue philosophy.
“That’s another point,” Brahmananda said. “In the verse you’re talking about, Krishna’s talking about the existence of the soul beyond the demise of the body.”
Another of Prabhupada’s students who visited was Giriraj das, who had a childlike simplicity that belied his intelligence. After graduating cum laude from Boston’s Brandeis University, Giriraj had joined the Hare Krishna movement, much to his parents’ dismay. His parents had offered him a million dollars if he would leave, but Giriraj was not allured. He remained firmly convinced about his path.
The gaunt Subal Swami was a distant, dour, taciturn twenty-year-old who avoided company and had a wide-eyed stare that seemed to harbor some secret fear. I kept a distance from him.
One especially hot day, Yamuna Devi and I sat like water buffalo in the cool waters of the Yamuna River. With heartfelt gratitude, Yamuna spoke of Prabhupada and his teachings – how a spark of divine presence was within every living entity and how understanding this presence unified all beings, breaking barriers caused by gender, race, religion, nationality, economic status, and species. Spiritual life, she said, was inclusive. Yamuna spoke of how Prabhupada was complex yet simple and how he embraced unity along with diversity. Prabhupada, she said, loved Krishna.
At another time and in another place, on hearing such a rhapsody I would have countered with severe questions: “But how do you know a divine spark is present? Have you ever seen it? Has anyone ever seen it? What’s the evidence?”
But this day, with only our heads bobbing over the broad expanse of the clear, dark water, as temple bells and gongs sounded in the distance and scents of dinners cooking over open cow-dung fires drifted past and a few merry children ran along the riverbank flying small paper kites, I let it go. Yamuna, next to me, broadly smiling, straightforward, expressive and earnest, coaxed a laugh out of me – she somehow made me laugh at my own reluctance. “When all was said and done,” I thought, “what do I know, anyway?” Oddly – very oddly – it felt good to say, “I don’t know, I just don’t know.” I hardly knew what I thought about anything.
One afternoon, Yamuna, John, and I were together in Loi Bazaar, Vrindavan’s shopping center, when Yamuna, smiling sweetly, shamelessly (her word) said to John, “I saw gorgeous little deities in a shop; could you buy them for me?”
Without much hesitation, John benevolently said, “Okay.”
“Wait a minute,” I thought, “how much do they cost? What do we get in return? Are we being taken advantage of?” But before I could say anything, Yamuna had taken John to a deity shop a few steps away and brought out the deities she’d chosen and set aside. In another few seconds, they were Yamuna’s and she was so gleeful that I didn’t find the heart to voice my concerns.
Excerpted from Five Years, Eleven Months and a Lifetime of Unexpected Love, a memoir. Copyright 2017 Jean Griesser (Visakha Dasi). Available from the Krishna.com Store and Amazon.com.