Holy Places

Kurmakshetra

Lord Chaitanya visited this sacred place more than four centuries ago, yet His instructions to one of its residents are remembered even today.

It was early April when our group of four devotees from the United States arrived in Calcutta. We were on pilgrimage to Kurmakshetra, a remote holy place on the southeastern coast of India.

To the people of South India, Kurmakshetra is an important holy place owing to its magnificent temple of Sri Kurma, a Deity of Lord Vishnu, the Personality of Godhead, in the form of a kurma, or tortoise. Kurma-avatara is one of the ten incarnations of Godhead known in India as Dashavatara. As described in Bhagavad-gita, the incarnations of Godhead appear in this world to deliver the devotees and vanquish the miscreants.

The Srimad-Bhagavatam explains that during the early days of the universe Lord Vishnu appeared as Kurma to help the demigods and demons produce the nectar of immortality by churning the milk ocean. Lord Kurma submerged Himself within the ocean, and His back became the pivot for Mandara Mountain, which was used as a churning rod. By the Lord’s arrangement, the nectar produced was distributed only to the demigods.

We were eager to visit Kurmakshetra because even though the pastimes of the Kurma-avatara have been widely portrayed throughout India’s history in paintings, sculpture, literature, songs, and drama, the temple of Sri Kurma at Kurmakshetra is unique, for no other temple of Lord Kurma has ever existed.

There was another reason for our pilgrimage: we wanted to retrace the footsteps of Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. The Chaitanya-caritamrita describes Lord Chaitanya’s visit to Kurmakshetra during His travels through South India almost five hundred years ago. At Kurmakshetra-as in all the places He visited-Lord Chaitanya introduced the sankirtana movement by dancing in ecstasy and chanting the Hare Krishna maha-mantra: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna. Krishna Krishna. Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama. Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu taught that in this age no other process for self-realization is as effective as the congregational chanting of the holy names of God.

It was typically hot and humid when we arrived in Calcutta. After refreshing ourselves at our hotel, we went straight to the Government of India Tourist Bureau and purchased four train tickets to Kurmakshetra via Sri Kakulam.

The next morning, we were up early, and by 4:30 we were in a taxi headed for Howrah Station. There is no such thing as “beating the rush hour” in Calcutta. At the Howrah bridge, which crosses the Ganges River, the cars and buses were already bumper to bumper.

At the station we struggled through the crowds and haggled with the porters over price. Once inside the train, we put our baggage under the seats and waited. The train was twenty passenger cars pulled by an old steam-powered locomotive. At 6:30 the engineer blew the whistle, and the train inched away from the platform. After around forty-five minutes the train cleared the outskirts of the city, and we enjoyed watching the Bengal countryside pass by our window.

By late afternoon we entered the state of Orissa, which marked a significant change in scenery-from lush green jungle to semi-arid plains. I took out my Bartholomew map of the Indian subcontinent and marked our route along the coast. We chanted Hare Krishna on our beads and read Bhagavad- gita as we rumbled along.

The next day an Indian gentleman entered our cabin. He wore traditional Hindu clothing, a white cotton shirt and matching pants. “Yes, you can sit here, sir,” I said, pointing to the seat next to me. The gentleman sat down and introduced himself as Mr. Gopalam Dosi. Mr. Dosi said this was the first time he had ever met Western devotees of Lord Krishna. He said our meeting was God’s arrangement.

When I asked Mr. Dosi where he was from, he said, “Kurmakshetra. Are you going there?” “Yes!” I replied. “We are on pilgrimage.” I explained to Mr. Dosi that we were members of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness and that our mission was to spread Krishna consciousness all over the world. I mentioned that Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu wanted everyone born in India to preach Krishna consciousness. In a half-serious tone I suggested that Mr. Dosi might take sannyasa, the renounced order of life, and become a preacher of Lord Chaitanya’s movement. “Yes,” he said, “that would be good. But we are householders; our duty is to stay at home.”

“Perhaps you know,” he continued, “Chaitanya Mahaprabhu came to Kurmakshetra a long time ago. He told the people of our village to remain in their homes and chant the name of Krishna.” I was surprised to hear Mr. Dosi’s conviction about chanting Krishna’s name, and I was especially surprised to hear him mention Lord Chaitanya.

The Chaitanya-caritamrita describes that when Lord Chaitanya came to Kurmakshetra, He stayed in the house of a local brahmana. When the Lord was preparing to leave, the brahmana wanted to take sannyasa and travel with Him, but Lord Chaitanya forbade him to do so. He instructed the brahmana to remain at home and always chant the holy name of Krishna. Lord Chaitanya said, “Don’t speak like that again. Better to remain at home and chant the holy name of Krishna. Instruct everyone to follow the orders of Lord Krishna as they are given in Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam. In this way become a spiritual master and try to liberate everyone in this land. If you follow this instruction, your materialistic life at home will not obstruct your spiritual advancement. If you follow these regulative principles, we will again meet here, or rather, you will never lose My company.”

While speaking with Mr. Dosi. we became absorbed in thoughts of Lord Chaitanya’s sankirtana movement and became more eager to see the temple of Sri Kurma.

Suddenly the train began to slow down. The conductor stuck his head into our compartment and announced, “Sri Kakulam! Next stop, Sri Kakulam.” Mr. Dosi turned to me and said. “This is where we get off.” When the train came to a stop at the platform, we parted company.

The railway station was about ten miles from the center of town. We spent the night in a hotel and were up early the next morning, intent on seeing some of the temples in Sri Kakulam before going on to Kurmakshetra. It was still a little dark when we left our room and went out onto the street, already alive with activity. People we re moving about performing their morning duties-drawing water from the neighborhood well, milking the family cow, and going to and from the temples for morning worship.

As light began to appear on the horizon, we met with a group of local chanters-three men emerged from the dawn playing musical instruments and chanting the maha- mantra. What a wonderful sight! It was as if they had appeared from the pages of Chaitanya-caritamrita. At their request we joined in the chanting and continued along the road.

Shortly we came to a small neighborhood temple. After more chanting we sat down and got acquainted with our new friends. Each of the men owned a small business in the marketplace but came out on the chanting party each day before going to work. They begged us to continue with them, but we had to start for the temple of Sri Kurma, and so we bid farewell.

Boarding a fifty-two-seat bus with at least seventy-five other passengers, we began our twenty-two-mile journey to the village of Kurmakshetra. Half the passengers were pilgrims, and the other half were local farmers. The bus stopped along the road about every mile or so to either pick someone up or drop someone off. Within an hour we arrived at Kurmakshetra.

Getting off the bus, we decided to follow the flow of the other pilgrims. We walked along the narrow village streets filled with children at play and past the thatched-roof dwellings until we came to a still lake. Looking across, we got our first view of the ancient temple of Sri Kurma.

Rows of stone steps led up fromthe lake toward the temple. Beyond a stand of palm trees towered the temple gate and the main shrine of the Deity. Our path led us around the left bank, and as we drew nearer, many of the pilgrims began to run toward the temple as if it might vanish before they could reach it. Their enthusiasm was like that of small children about to fulfill their heart’s desire.

When we reached the main entrance, many pilgrims were sitting and waiting. The temple doors were closed. It would be another hour before they opened. So, cameras in hand, we began to circumambulate the outer wall of the temple.

On the way, a village boy started to tag along. He turned out to be a guide and offered to show us around-for one rupee. On the southern side of the temple, we came upon a small shrine perched on a knoll. As we approached the shrine, the boy said, “Mahaprabhu pada, Mahaprabhu pada.” I understood that he was saying, “Mahaprabhu’s feet,” but I wasn’t quite sure what he meant. When we reached the shrine, the boy went inside and pointed, “Here.” We looked inside and saw two large footprints in a marble slab. Below, an inscription in Telegu read: “Mahaprabhu visited Kurmakshetra in A.D. 1512. Chaitanya footprints installed by Paramahamsa Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Gosvami in 1930.”

Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, the spiritual master of our spiritual master, Srila Prabhupada, had the shrine built to commemorate Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s pilgrimage to Kurmakshetra. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta had laid the footprints in their place. As we stood by the shrine, we felt the inspiring presence of our parama-guru. Now there was a third dimension to our pilgrimage: we were following in the footsteps of Srila Gosvamis.

Suddenly, conchshells blew and the temple bells rang, announcing the opening of the temple doors. Our hearts leaped, and we ran toward the temple.

Leaving our shoes behind, we merged in the column of pilgrims passing through the massive doorway. The temple was vast-a seemingly endless array of sculptured stone columns, colonades, corridors, domes, and passageways. We crossed a large, open courtyard in which stood a bronze pillar with Garuda, the great carrier of Vishnu, at the top. In an awesome mandapa (pavilion) with five hundred magnificent pillars, each with a different design, a group of musicians sat playing classical South Indian melodies. The sounds of the drums, hand cymbals, and shenai (wind instrument) created a celestial atmosphere. At the far end of the courtyard we entered a small corridor barely wide enough to allow more than two people through at a time.

Now our progress was slow. The way was dimly lit by occasional ghee lamps along the walls. The scents of ghee smoke, sandal, and camphor mixed in the air. The only sound was the murmuring of prayers as we inched our way forward through the winding passage. With only a few feet to go-the air surcharged with feelings of devotion-we stood humbly with folded hands waiting our turn.

Then we entered the ancient Deity sanctum. It was gorgeous. The room was well lit by burning torches. The walls and ceiling were adorned with colorful paintings depicting the pastimes of the ten incarnations of Vishnu. From the high ceiling hung a thousand-petaled stone lotus. The highly polished black-and-white marble floor reflected everything in the room.

Bare-chested brahmana priests wearing white silk dhotis and adorned with marks of tilaka (sacred clay) on their foreheads, arms, and torsos, moved about the room as they performed their duties of administering sacred rites to the pilgrims. On the left side of the sanctum stood the main altar, covered in silver and decorated with flowers and the leaves of the tulasi plant.

There we saw the Deity of Sri Kurma, with His raised back. He was wearing a golden crown studded with valuable jewels and topped with a peacock feather, the symbol of the Vishnu avataras.

To the right stood another altar, where the consorts of Lord Vishnu known as Sri Devi and Bhu Devi were being worshiped in great opulence. The room was filled with the fragrance of incense, and flickering light from torches and ghee lamps danced along the ancient stone walls.

A brass chain stretching between two pillars kept us from going farther. The brahmanas were busy presenting offerings of fruits and flowers to the Deity. Suddenly one of the brahmanas noticed us and turned to us with folded hands. Removing the brass chain, he beckoned us to come closer. We were now standing right next to the altar of Sri Kurma.

The brahmana asked our names and began chanting Vedic hymns, requesting the Deity to bestow mercy and good fortune upon us. Then we were each given caranamrita- three drops of sacred water-in the palm of our hand. The Vedic scriptures state that whoever takes caranamrita before the Deity of Lord Vishnu becomes free from the miseries of material existence and becomes eligible to enter into the eternal kingdom of God.

The head priest then came before each of us and placed upon our head a large pair of silver slippers marked with the four symbols of Vishnu-the conch, disc, club, and lotus-while the other brahmanas chanted a sacred mantra: om tad vishnoh paramam padam sada pashyanti surayo diviva cakshur atatam/tad vipraso vipanyava jagrivamsah samindhate vishnor yat paramam padam. “The abode of Lord Vishnu is the supreme worshipable object of all the demigods. The Lord’s lotus feet are as effulgent as the sun” (Rig Veda 1.22.20).

The brahmanas then placed fruits, flowers, and sweets from the Deity in our hands. Feeling great awe and reverence for the Lord, and grateful for the special treatment we’d received, we withdrew from the Deity room and walked down the long corridor out into the courtyard.

The moments we had spent before the Deity of Sri Kurma now seemed Fixed in eternity. We walked again to the shrine of Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s footprints and, after paying our humble respects, began our journey home.

Kurukshetra—The Land of Dharma


Kurukshetra, about one hundred miles north of New Delhi, is best known as the place where the great battle of the Mahabharata was fought and Lord Krishna spoke the Bhagavad-gita. But long before that, Kurukshetra had played a dominant role in the history and culture of ancient India. For thousands of years it was a hub around which the Vedic civilization spun in its full glory. Kurukshetra’s religious importance is described in many scriptures, including the Bhagavad-gita, the Mahabharata, and various Upanishads and Puranas. The scriptures refer to it as a place of meditation and an abode of demigods. The atmosphere of Kurukshetra is still charged with the chanting of Vedic hymns, especially the Bhagavad-gita.

The first verse of the Gita refers to Kurukshetra as dharma-kshetra, or “the field of dharma,” indicating that it was already known as a holy place. Today one can find many ancient temples and sacred lakes at Kurukshetra, an area of about one hundred square miles between the sacred rivers Sarasvati and Drishadvati in Haryana state.

The Great King Kuru

Kurukshetra was formerly known as Brahmakshetra, Brighukshetra, Aryavarta, and Samanta Pancaka. It became known as Kurukshetra because of the work of King Kuru.

The Mahabharata tells of how King Kuru, a prominent ancestor of the Pandavas, made the land a great center of spiritual culture. King Kuru went there on a golden chariot and used the chariot’s gold to make a plow. He then borrowed Lord Siva’s bull and Yamaraja’s buffalo and started plowing. When Indra arrived and asked Kuru what he was doing, Kuru replied that he was preparing the land for growing the eight religious virtues: truth, yoga, kindness, purity, charity, forgiveness, austerity, and celibacy.

Indra asked the king to request a boon. Kuru asked that the land ever remain a holy place named after himself, and that anyone dying there go to heaven regardless of his sins or virtues. Indra laughed at the requests.

Undaunted, Kuru performed great penance and continued to plow. Gradually, Indra was won over, but other demigods expressed doubts. They said that death without sacrifice did not merit a place in heaven. Finally, Kuru and Indra arrived at a compromise: Indra would admit into heaven anyone who died there while fighting or performing penance. So Kurukshetra became both a battlefield and a land of piety.

The Mahabharata Battle

When the Pandavas claimed their legitimate share of their paternal kingdom from their uncle Dhritarashtra and his sons, the Kauravas, they were given the Khandava Forest in the south of the Kuru kingdom. There they built a magnificent city called Indraprastha, located where Delhi is today. The Kauravas kept Hastinapura, situated to the northeast of Delhi, as their capital.

Later, the Pandavas were exiled for thirteen years after Yudhishthira’s defeat in a game of dice. After the exile, the Pandavas demanded the return of their kingdom. On behalf of the Pandavas, Lord Krishna went to Duryodhana, the eldest Kaurava, and begged for five villages for the five Pandavas. But proud Duryodhana refused to give any land. “I won’t even give them enough land to fit on the tip of a pin,” he said.

The war was therefore unavoidable, and the Kauravas and Pandavas decided to fight at Kurukshetra, because it was large, uninhabited, and abundant with water and fuel-wood.

The Pandavas won the Battle of Kurukshetra, which lasted only eighteen days.

The Birth of the Gita

The Battle of Kurukshetra began on the day known as Mokshada Ekadashi. (Ekadashi is the eleventh day of either the waxing or waning moon, and mokshada means “giver of liberation.”) On that day, Krishna enlightened Arjuna with the knowledge of Bhagavad-gita, liberating him. Now every year on that day—considered the birthday of Bhagavad-gita—festivals in honor of the Gita are held at Kurukshetra and many other places in India. The grand festival in Jyotisar, the spot where the Gita was spoken, is organized as a state function, with chief ministers and governors presiding. Coincidentally, this is also the time of ISKCON’s annual Prabhupada Book Marathon, when devotees distribute hundreds and thousands of copies of Srila Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-gita As It Is in India and around the world.

Rathayatra’s Kurukshetra Roots

Once, when Krishna was preparing to go to Kurukshetra at the time of a solar eclipse, He invited the gopis (cowherd girls) and other residents of Vrindavana to meet Him at Kurukshetra. When He had left Vrindavana in His youth, He had promised to return very soon. But He had been away for a long time (about a hundred years), so out of intense spiritual love, the residents of Vrindavana had always felt ecstatic longing to see Him again.

The residents of Dvaraka (a majestic city) arrived at Kurukshetra on chariots; the residents of Vrindavana (a simple cowherd village), on ox carts. Because the families of Vrindavana and Dvaraka were related, a joyful reunion took place.

Of all the residents of Vrindavana, the leading gopi, Srimati Radharani, had felt the pangs of separation from Krishna more than anyone else. She and the other gopis were determined to bring Krishna back to Vrindavana. The loving exchange between Krishna and the gopis at Kurukshetra is the esoteric meaning behind the festival known as Rathayatra (“Festival of the Chariots”). So whenever Hare Krishna devotees put on Rathayatras in cities around the world, they are proclaiming the glories of Kurukshetra.

Pandharpur: Land of Lord Vitthala

Throughout the provinces of India, the Supreme Lord is worshiped in various forms. In Andhra Pradesh He appears as Tirupati Balaji, in Kerala as Guruvayurappan, in Karnataka as the beautiful Udupi Krishna, in Gujarat as Dvarakadhisha and Ranacora Raya. And in Pandharpur, the spiritual capital of Maharashtra, the Lord is worshiped as Sri Vitthala. His devotees also fondly call Him Vithobha or Panduranga.

Pandharpur Dhama is located about four hundred kilometers southeast of Bombay. Some call it Bhu-vaikuntha, “the spiritual world on earth.” Others call it Dakshina Dvaraka, the Dvaraka of the South. The town is located on the western bank of the river Bhima. Because of the way the river bends as it reaches Pandharpur, it is known there as the Candrabhaga (“crescent moon”). For the devotees of Vitthala, this river is as holy as the Ganges.

Along the riverbank are fourteen ghatas, or bathing places. The main one is Maha Dvara Ghata. The short street that links this ghata to the eastern gate of the Vitthala temple is lined with shops and stalls selling tulasi, flower garlands, coconuts, incense, and sweets, all to offer to the Lord.

Temple and Deity Worship

The black stone temple hosts the five-thousand-year-old self-manifested Deity of Lord Vitthala. As one enters through the main door, one sees a deity of Sri Ganesha, to whom the Vitthala devotees pray to remove all obstacles to their worship.

Across the courtyard, up a few steps, one enters the darshana-mandapa, the hall where one can see the Lord. To proceed to the Deity room, visitors queue up through corridors built alongside the walls. Flanking the entrance of the Deity room are huge four-armed statues of Jaya and Vijaya, the doorkeepers of Vaikuntha, the spiritual world.

The slightly smiling, blackish-complexioned Deity of Sri Vitthala is three and a half feet tall. He stands on a brick, His hands resting on His hips. This posture reflects His pastimes in Pandharpur.

The Padma Purana and the Skanda Purana briefly describe why the Lord journeyed to Pandharpur and why He stays there in this form.

Once Srimati Radharani, Lord Krishna’s consort in the village of Vrindavana, visited Dvaraka, where Lord Krishna lived as a king. At that time, Rukmini Devi, Lord Krishna’s queen, noticed that Krishna was dealing more intimately with Radharani than He had ever done with her. Upset, she departed for the forest of Dindirvana, near Pandharpur.

Lord Krishna followed Rukmini to apologize, but His apology left her unmoved. So the Lord moved on to Pandharpur to visit one of His devotees, Bhakta Pundarika, now popularly known in Maharashtra as Pundalika.

When the Lord reached Pundarika’s ashrama, Pundarika was serving his elderly parents. So Pundarika gave the Lord a seat of brick and asked the Lord to wait. The Lord did as told. He stood, lotus hands on His hips, waiting for Pundarika to return.

While He was waiting, Rukmini, having forgotten her distress, came from Dindirvana and rejoined Him. Both of Them stayed in Pandharpur in Deity form. To this day the Lord stands on the same brick, but now He’s waiting for all His devotees to come see Him.

While waiting, the Lord seems to tell the devotees, “Do not fear. For those who have surrendered unto Me, I have reduced the depth of the ocean of material suffering. See, it is only this deep.”

He indicates the shallowness of the ocean by placing His hands on His hips.

Elegantly dressed in yellow and other colors, Lord Vitthala wears around His neck a vaijayanti garland and tulasi, whose aroma permeates the darshana hall and the surrounding area. His right hand holds a lotus flower and His left a conchshell. On His chest He bears the mark of Bhrigu’s foot. His ears are decorated with shark- shaped earrings, and on His forehead beneath His crown is a broad mark of tilaka. The Lord’s smile irresistibly enchants His devotees. Each pilgrim who approaches Him gets a glimpse of His peaceful smiling face and considers this the perfection of life.

The worship of Lord Vitthala begins with the mangala- arati ceremony at four o’clock in the morning. After arati the Lord is offered pancabhisheka, a bath with milk, yogurt, ghee, honey, and sugar water. At some point the bathing is interrupted so that the Lord may be fed butter mixed with sugar candy. A big lump of butter is literally put into His mouth. Then a short arati is offered, and the bathing resumes. After the bath, the Lord is meticulously dressed and profusely garlanded. Finally, He is offered a mirror in which to view His appearance.

As a token of His merciful nature, Lord Vitthala allows everyone to watch His bathing ceremony. After this the crowds, till then restrained along the walls of the darshana hall, are let into the sanctum sanctorum.

Daily, thousands of devoted pilgrims take darshana (seeing of the Lord). It is also the unique tradition in Pandharpur that everyone can go up to the altar and touch the lotus feet of the Deity. Some pilgrims even rest their heads upon His feet. But one has to move on quickly.

After taking darshana, pilgrims re-enter the darshana hall. Looking back, they get a last glimpse of the Lord’s attractive form. In the buzzing atmosphere of the darshana hall they fall flat on the floor, offering obeisances. Then, holding each ear with the hand across from it, they turn about, springing up and down on the same spot, begging the Lord to forgive any offenses they may have committed at His lotus feet.

One of the pillars of the hall—the Garuda Stambha—represents Garuda, the eagle who serves as the carrier of Lord Vishnu. Pilgrims embrace the pillar, with the prayer that toward the end of life Garuda will carry them back to Vaikuntha.

On the way out of the darshana hall, one sees hanging from the ceiling the famous eight prayers known as Pandurangashtakam, composed by the acarya Sankara during his visit to Pandharpur in the eighth century. Each verse glorifies the beauty, qualities, and devotees of the Lord and ends with the refrain para-brahma-lingam bhaje pandurangam, meaning “I worship the supreme spiritual form of Lord Panduranga.”

In the same temple compound, behind Lord Vitthala’s shrine, stands the shrine of Srimati Rukmini Devi, the Lord’s beautiful consort. Darshana, offerings, and aratis go on all day, except for a short break in the afternoon when the Deities rest. After the last arati, at eleven o’clock, the pujaris change the Lord’s dress and chant special hymns asking Him to rest for the night.

Just as the Lord played the role of father and grandfather in Dvaraka, here too He reciprocates affectionately with His devotees. A famous painting depicts Him in a fatherly mood, carrying several devotees, some on His shoulders, some around His waist, and others holding His finger as they walk beside Him.

Devotees of Lord Vitthala

Some illustrious devotees of Lord Vitthala traveled widely throughout Maharashtra. Their preaching and their exemplary devotional mood left a permanent impression on the people. Their unanimous conclusive instruction to their followers was this: “Go on singing, go on dancing, and when you get to the lotus feet of the Lord, beg for love from Him.” So nama-sankirtana, congregational chanting of the Lord’s holy names, is very popular in Maharashtra.

In a letter dated July 30, 1977, Srila Prabhupada encouraged me in this way: “The whole of India and specifically your Maharashtra are enthused with Krishna. Now you have to revive their Krishna consciousness. This is Tukarama’s country, but now they are becoming bad politicians. So revive them by the process of the sankirtana movement.”

Saint Tukarama was the most famous of all Maharashtrian saints. He lived during the seventeenth century, and over the last three hundred years his devotional influence has been deeply felt by the local people. His poems, the 4,500 verses known as the Abhangas, have become part of the public memory of Maharashtra. They are sung in every village and every home.

Tukarama preached throughout his life, exhorting his countrymen to take to the path of bhakti, devotional service. His language was so simple and down to earth that even the most simple villagers understood it completely. He is the main force behind the continuous kirtanas and bhajanas performed at the many festivals in Pandharpur.

In his autobiography, Tukarama says he was initiated in a dream by Raghava Caitanya Keshava Caitanya. Though not everyone agrees, Gaudiya Vaishnavas (such as the ISKCON devotees) understand this to mean Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu.

As Srila Prabhupada comments (Caitanya-caritamrita, Madhya 9.282, purport), “The sankirtana party belonging to Tukarama is still very popular in Bombay. [It] exactly resembles the Gaudiya Vaishnava sankirtana parties, for they chant the holy name with mridanga and karatalas.” They also wear neck beads and tilaka similar to those of the Gaudiya tradition.

Tukarama Acarya was a great devotee of Lord Vitthala. As mentioned before, the Deity is self-manifested. That is, He spontaneously appeared, without being carved and installed. Expressing full faith in this Deity of Lord Vitthala, Tukarama wrote, “If anyone says that this Deity was once installed, his mouth will be filled with worms.”

Saint Tukarama sometimes had to suffer humiliation and opposition from envious people, but he always stayed more humble than a blade of grass, thus changing the hearts of his enemies. The saint left for the spiritual world in his selfsame body while engaged in nama sankirtana, chanting of the holy names of the Lord, with the residents of his home village. The villagers attested they saw a spiritual airplane descend and saw Tukarama board the plane and leave for the spiritual sky.

Another exalted spiritual leader among Lord Vitthala’s devotees was Jnaneshvara, who lived in the thirteenth century. At the age of sixteen, he translated the complete text of Bhagavad-gita into simple Marathi, the language of Maharashtra. His work is known as Jnaneshvari. He attained samadhi (passed away) at the age of twenty-one.

Also famous is the life of Saint Namadeva. Once when Namadeva was a young boy, his father, who worshiped a Deity of Lord Vitthala at home, went out, leaving Namadeva in charge of the Deity. When the time came to offer food to the Lord, Namadeva prepared a plate, placed it on the altar, and sat down, begging the Lord to accept the offering. Following his father’s advice to give the Lord some time to eat before taking back the plate, Namadeva left the Deity room and patiently waited, expecting the Lord to literally eat up the food. From time to time the boy would check, but the Lord seemed to be standing still.

After quite some time had passed and Namadeva saw no sign that the Lord would ever eat, Namadeva decided to intervene. Entering the Deity room, he appealed to Lord Vitthala, insisting that the Lord eat right away. And if He wouldn’t, the boy threatened, he would smash his own head against the wall. To the boy’s surprise, Lord Vitthala then took His lotus hands off His hips and physically ate the offering.

Dindi Procession: 200,000 Pilgrims

The most outstanding display of the Maharashtrians’ devotion to Lord Vitthala is the Dindi Yatra, a pilgrimage on foot that culminates in Pandharpur. It has been performed annually for the last seven hundred years.

In fact, every month at Pandharpur on Sukla Ekadashi (the eleventh day of the waxing moon), a festival is held that attracts a large number of pilgrims. But, four of these festivals are especially large. And the main one, Dindi Yatra—the huge Ashadhi Ekadashi festival—draws a crowd of 700,000 people. As many as 200,000 come on foot. The festival falls during the month of Ashadha (July) and marks the beginning of Caturmasya, the four months of the rainy season. According to the Padma Purana, on that day the Lord goes to sleep for four months. When He wakes up, at the end of the month of Karttika, another festival is held, the second biggest.

For each of these festivals, pilgrims come from all the districts of Maharashtra and from other provinces of India like Gujarat, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh. The pilgrims follow in the footsteps of their many saints and spiritual leaders. Many of the pilgrims are varkaris.

The word varkari combines the words vari and kari, the former standing for the regular trip to Pandharpur, the latter meaning the one who does it. Varkari thus means “one who journeys to Pandharpur at a specific time in the year.” Varkaris vow to visit Pandharpur every month, or at least once a year, during an Ekadashifestival.

The varkaris form well-organized and disciplined processions called Dindis, which start off from the birthsites and samadhi places of various saints and converge in Pandharpur. The pilgrims travel 150 to 300 kilometers, depending on where they start. The biggest of all Dindis is that of Jnaneshvara, which forms a gigantic procession. It originates in Alandi, near Pune, and covers about 250 kilometers in an eighteen-day walk. Some of the smaller groups are on the road for about a month. Many more come by bus and train.

The men on the procession, dressed alike in white dhotis, kurtas, and typical Gandhi hats, walk in lines of six or seven abreast. They beat small brass cymbals, called tal, in such a perfect rhythm that even when several hundred play, it sounds like one person alone. In the front, several men carry saffron flags. Next, a group of men on each Dindi carry a decorated palanquin (palaki) bearing symbolic footprints (padukas) of the saint they follow. The leader of the group walks at the back, playing the vina, accompanied by one or more drum players.

Behind the men follow the women, dressed in bright colorful saris. Some carry tulasi plants in decorated pots on their heads. Others carry pots with water to serve their fellow varkaris.

Fifty to five hundred people walk in each Dindi group. Responding heartily to their kirtana leaders, they sing the mantras "jaya jaya vithobha rukhumai! jaya jaya vithobha rukhumai!" and "jaya jaya rama krishna hari," interspersed with lively songs glorifying Lord Vitthala.

Day after day, undaunted by heat or rain, the pilgrims fill the air with tumultous chanting. Sometimes they dance and sometimes run, rushing ecstatically towards Pandharpur and their Lord. In the midst of this procession the words spoken by the Lord in the Padma Purana come alive:

tatra tishthami narada
yatra gayanti mad-bhaktah

“O Narada, I stay where My devotees glorify Me.”

Each Dindi is supported by vehicles—trucks and bullock carts—carrying crews ahead to cook and set up tents. When the pilgrims stop to rest and have their meals, each group finds its supporting crew just as calves recognize their mothers in the midst of a herd.

No one goes hungry on Dindi. The bigger groups cook in gigantic pots and distribute prasadam to anyone who sits in the line. The government supplies water for drinking and bathing.

The walkers reach their day’s destination by late afternoon. The convergence of pilgrims, and the symbolic presence of their saints, awakens the sleepy villages with intense religious fervor. In the evening, groups everywhere perform kirtana, and crowds of thousands listen to various speakers, who spice their discourses with songs of the saints, to the tune of musical instruments. These speakers are like one-act players. They entertain and involve their audience, inspiring them to sing along.

On Dindi everything is done collectively. Crowds are cooking, crowds sitting in lines for prasadam, crowds sleeping side by side, crowds moving around, crowds queuing up for darshana in the temples along the way, crowds meeting the calls of nature in the fields.… You’re never alone on Dindi.

The dense crowd stretches many kilometers, people walking ahead or struggling in the back to keep up. Many people independently follow the Dindi, carrying their few belongings upon their heads. Some begin walking as soon as they get up, as early as 2 A.M. The main group starts at 6:30.

Walking about fifteen kilometers a day, the Dindis finally reach the outskirts of Pandharpur and unite at Wakhari, a small village three kilometers away. On the eve of the Ashadha Ekadashi, still more people join for the last leg of the pilgrimage. The three-kilometer stretch from Wakhari to the holy town of Pandharpur turns into a river of humanity flowing towards the ocean of mercy at the Lord’s lotus feet. In his writings, Bilvamangala Thakura warns travelers passing through Pandharpur, “Do not walk on the bank of the river Bhima. A bluish-black person stands there, and even though His hands rest peacefully on His hips, He is expert at stealing the heart of anyone who sees Him.”

It seems that the varkaris carefully ignore Bilvamangala Thakura’s advice. In fact, they are especially eager to meet that person.

Upon reaching Pandharpur, the pilgrims take a dip in the Candrabhaga River. Then, carrying the palanquins on their shoulders, they perform nagara-pradakshina, walking a circle around the holy town. The circle complete, they queue up all night at the temple to catch a glimpse of Lord Vitthala on the Ekadashi day. In the heavy rush, each will get to see the Lord for perhaps a few seconds. For them it will be enough: their souls will be satisfied, and it will have been worth the trouble.

Pilgrims From Abroad

Lokanath Swami: Amongst the multitude of pilgrims on Dindi Yatra, a pilgimage on foot that culminates in Pandharpur, there are always a few visitors from abroad, their eyes and ears wide open in amazement.

In 1989, some fifty fortunate ISKCON devotees, about a dozen of them foreigners, took part in the Dindi with Padayatra India, our own traveling party. All of us were treated nicely, without discrimination. Our saffron-robed party sparkled amidst the white dhotis and kurtas of the varkaris (pilgrims to Pandharpur). The Vitthala devotees would greet us Krishna devotees with a friendly “Hare Krishna.”

Many people were impressed by our strict following of the Vaishnava principles. The varkaris, most of them householders, are devoted and very faithful to Lord Vitthala, but for lack of a living example to follow they sometimes still have a few attachments, such as tea, onions, and bidis (leaf-rolled cigarettes). So they saw our devotees as real renunciants. Varkaris would often dive to touch our devotees’ feet.

A constant flow of pious souls would encircle the Padayatra Deity cart, eager for darshana, thrusting hands towards the pujari for maha-prasada and caranamrita, the water from the bathing of the Deity. But it wasn’t rare to see a man wearing tilaka take off his shoes to receive the sacred caran-amrita with his right hand while holding a bidi in his left.

Dr. Thomas J. Hopkins, chairman of the Department of Religious Studies at Franklin and Marshall College, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, relates his experience of Dindi:“Pandharpur is pervaded by much of the same quality of genuine devotion to Krishna that you find in a place like Vrindavana. There’s a simple, popular movement there [Dindi] which draws people from a very wide range of backgrounds—college professors, professional people, peasants from farms—all brought together in a conscious community of believers. You really see the power of devotion break through all these ordinary barriers of caste and education and bring people together for worship.

“When I was there in 1969 during the festival period … both of us Westerners there at that festival were welcomed with open arms. There was no question of separation or difference due to caste or nationality.… The association of genuine devotees can exert a powerful effect upon one’s consciousness. I can still not just remember but almost hear the singing of certain devotees at Pandharpur.”

ISKCON At Pandharpur

Across THE Candrabhaga River, right on the bank, rests a small and peaceful Hare Krishna ashrama, started by ISKCON devotees from Maharashtra in the early 1980’s. They cultivate the land, keep cows, and during Ekadashi festivals help serve the pilgrims. The devotees supply Srila Prabhupada’s Marathi Bhagavad-gita, always popular.

The ISKCON ashrama served as host for our Padayatra’s first visit to Pandharpur, in December of 1984. During that visit, the priests of the Vitthala temple warmly welcomed us and gave us the special privilege of bathing the Deity of Lord Vitthala.

We were on a pilgrimage of our own to celebrate the appearance of Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu five centuries before. So we installed symbolic footprints of Lord Caitanya under a huge pipal tree on the ISKCON property, commemorating Lord Caitanya’s visit to Pandharpur.

Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s Visit

Lord Chaitanya visited Pandharpur while on a journey through South India, apparently to search for His sannyasi brother, Sankararanya, formerly known as Vishvarupa.

After traveling down the east coast of India through the province of Tamil Nadu and up the west coast through Kerala and Karnataka, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu entered Maharashtra. As stated in the Chaitanya-caritamrita (Madhya 9.282-283), the Lord went to Pandharpur, where He happily saw the Deity of Lord Vitthala and chanted and danced.

In Pandharpur Lord Chaitanya met Sri Ranga Puri, a Godbrother of His spiritual master, Ishvara Puri. They talked about Lord Krishna continuously for five to seven days.

Sri Ranga Puri recalled that he had once been to Navadvipa, Lord Chaitanya’s birthplace, where he had visited the house of a brahmana named Jagannatha Mishra. Sri Ranga Puri remembered the taste of a curry cooked from banana flowers by Jagannatha Mishra’s wife. Jagannatha Mishra’s eldest son had accepted the renounced order. Sri Ranga Puri had later learned, he said, that this son had passed away in Pandharpur.

Jagannatha Mishra, Lord Chaitanya then revealed, had been His father, and the son who had passed away had been His brother.

Lord Chaitanya stayed four more days in Pandharpur, before moving on. During His tour of South India, Lord Chaitanya was constantly on the move, but He stayed in Pandharpur for about eleven days. His pastimes there, and those of His brother, establish yet another link between Pandharpur and the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition followed by the present-day Hare Krishna devotees.

Parasurama Kunda—A Journey into Unknown India

A Western pilgrim finds a rare, nearly unknown shrine built in honor of Lord Krishna’s warrior incarnation.

“You are all the descendants of the kshatriyas [warriors] who ran from the ax of Lord Parashurama.” The words stunned me. It was 1971, and I was sitting just at the feet of Srila Prabhupada, my spiritual master. He was seated royally upon the holy vyasasana (seat of the guru), lecturing to a large gathering at the Brooklyn ISKCON temple. I paused to muse that somehow Srila Prabhupada had the potency to speak astounding never-before- heard things in such a matter-of-fact way that the listener knew at once that whatever he heard was the truth. And I was excited to be hearing, learning, and realizing Krishna consciousness all at once. Sitting at the lotus feet of His Divine Grace, I could see that his abilities came not only through his inner realization of the highest order, but from a power descending via disciplic succession, like electricity through a wire.

Across Europe and Asia

Srila Prabhupada continued to explain how Lord Parashu-rama, an incarnation of the Supreme Lord Sri Krishna, had single- handedly defeated vast armies of errant warriors, emerging victorious after each encounter. Many of the kshatriyas had escaped and traveled west across Asia, eventually settling in parts of Europe. Later I would realize that this provides one explanation for the Sanskrit influence upon languages of every European tongue—Germanic or Romantic—and upon the names of European countries and regions.

In only a few thrilling sentences, Srila Prabhupada had linked all of us Westerners to his Vedic culture and civilization. Rebels of the sixties, we were now handed an identity we could be proud of.

Within a few years I found myself drawn to India. I was traveling by bus and train across Europe and western Asia, in a reversal of the migration of my past “ancestors.” I was moving slowly, keeping Srila Prabhupada’s words in my mind and looking in France, Italy, Turkey, Iran, and Afghanistan for vestiges of Vedic culture, which resettling kshatriyas might have brought with them ages earlier. It would be no exaggeration to say that I saw hundreds of such reminders along the way.

In India I learned that temples and holy places connected with the worship of Lord Parashurama are rare. At the Himalayan town of Uttar Kashi, the “northern Benares,” I came across a very small Sri Parashurama Mandir just above the famous temple of Ekadasha Rudra, “the eleven forms of Siva.” A sadhu passing by explained to me that because Lord Parashurama had once performed penance at this spot, a tiny shrine had been built here many hundreds of years ago in his honor. He added that he knew of no other Sri Parashurama shrines except one, a Parashurama Kunda (lake) in Assam. (Unfortunately, a few years later the Brahmaputra River flooded the area, and in the late 1970’s the shrine in Assam was lost.)

Sitting before the deity of Lord Parashurama and chanting Hare Krishna on my beads, snow-capped Himalayan peaks high above me and the roaring Ganga just below, I felt a strong reverence for this incarnation of Krishna. After all, any demon killed by the Supreme Lord is granted moksha, or liberation. Since my physical lineage is European and therefore from kshatriya roots, I could have had ancestors liberated by the Lord’s ax millions of years earlier.

I had to wait only a few months longer to discover the full version of Lord Parashurama’s pastimes (lila) in the Srimad-Bhagavatam. By then I would be at the developing Hare Krishna Land in Mumbai, trying to serve Srila Prabhupada in some small capacity. Prabhupada’s Ninth Canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam had just arrived, and therein, in Chapters Fifteen and Sixteen, I was to learn more about Lord Parashurama’s pastimes.

Discovery of Parashurama Kunda

Now fast forward with me from the time I first learned of the details surrounding Lord Parashurama’s lila to 1980. It was the time of my marriage to Raagini, a young Hindu lady, a medical graduate from Jabalpur, in Madhya Pradesh. After an elaborate wedding in Lucknow and “honeymoon,” or, rather, pilgrimage, to the Himalayas, my bride and I traveled to stay with her family at Jabalpur, a large city nestled between the Vindhya Hills and the Narmada River. There I made friends with a few local panditas, and by day I would scooter about in my discovery of local holy places.

I visited the place where Hanuman and his friends played before they joined the army of Lord Rama to defeat Ravana. I saw high above the Narmada in white marble cliffs the cave where Lord Dattatreya, a combined incarnation of Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva, had meditated. I boated up the sparkling emerald Narmada to a place of the penance of Banasura, whose daughter married Lord Krishna’s grandson, Aniruddha. Banasura was the descendant of Prahlada Maharaja and son of Bali Maharaja. At Banasura Ghat, present-day Bhera Ghat, he worshiped millions of Siva-lingas. Hence it is from this place that the Narmada produces self-manifested (svayambhu) Siva-lingas that are worshiped in temples all over India. Since Banasura’s daughter Usha married Krishna’s grandson Aniruddha, son of Pradyumna, Banasura became a member of Krishna’s family after a great war described in the Srimad-Bhagavatam.

I walked for days in the Vindhya Hills, once a towering mountain range whose great height had “the power to block the sun.” These mountains became hills when they bowed to the sage Atri, who had intervened on behalf of the sun-god. But the mountains left behind huge boulders betraying their once monumental past. Indeed, Jabalpur and the extended surrounding area is a charming and undiscovered part of the world containing holy spots where devatas (demigods) once played. Today gentle village folk till fertile fields, and primitive tribals dwell in jungles along with tigers, deer, and wild bison.

One day while searching the area, I asked my guides if they knew of any nearby place of penance, or tapo-bhumi, of Lord Parashurama. I knew that he had sheltered himself in the Vindhya Hills, and perhaps a place of his penance could be found.

One of my local guides, Sri Gyan Prakash Khare, told me of a Parashurama Kunda along the Pariat River, a Narmada tributary. Beside it was a lone hill called Parashurama Giri, part of the Vindhyas. The place was in a remote area, part jungle and part farmland, and few locals knew of it.

The next day we hopped on our Vespa scooters and were off exploring. Beyond the bazaars, through the tiniest villages of mud and straw huts, we made our own way into the fields and pathless jungle till we stood overlooking the kunda formed by giant tantaniya stones, so named for the sound caused when the wind blows through them. A quarter mile beyond the kunda was the hill of Sri Parashurama, which (a yogi would later tell me) has a stone at its top marked by the lotus footprints of Sri Parashurama.

“This shila [stone] has been seen by very few men,” he said, almost admonishingly, daring me to find it.

Between the hill of Parashurama and his kunda is a usually deserted Sri Parashurama Mandir, erected a few generations ago by local village folk. Within the tiny temple’s sanctum is a rare smiling deity of Lord Parashurama holding his parashu (ax) in much the same way as he does at his Uttar Kashi temple. As it is said, the Lord is very enchanting and inviting to the devotees, yet fearful to the demons.

A festival is held here each year on Makara Sankranti (in January), when Lord Surya Narayana, the sun-god, enters Capricorn (by Vedic calculations), and thus starts his six- month trek through the celestial regions. This is the only festival held here, and it attracts but a handful of villagers. The nearest village, Matamar, is about a mile away and consists of a few mud-and-straw huts. In the surrounding jungle dwell tribal Gonds, who live either by fishing and hunting or by menial jobs paying a day-to-day wage. Whenever I bathe here, several tribals will squat motionless behind the bushes to silently watch. They have their own religion, language, and customs that separates them from mainstream Hindus. Indeed, language and customs vary from tribe to tribe.

An English-speaking yogi moved into the area a few years ago. Nepali-born police officer M. K. Rana has now become renunciant Mahankal Baba. He lives in a hut and eats only things grown by his own hand on the banks of the kunda. He points to the huge trucks in the distance now intruding into the otherwise idyllic setting to make bricks out of the red soil.

“If I don’t stop them from desecrating the holy bhumi [land] of Lord Parashurama, then who will?” he asks.

I once asked Baba Mahankal if any other foreigner had visited the kunda in recent memory.

“Are you kidding?” he chuckled. “Even locals don’t know of this place!”

While taking pictures for this article, I once asked him to sit on a boulder beside the kunda.

“Why should I sit there?” he demanded indignantly. “I have my own place to sit!”

Another yogi lives in the area, in a small cave beside Parashurama Giri. Because he lost a leg in an accident, villagers bring him a little rice each day. Around his cave, lying abandoned, are archeological treasures: carved pillars of an ornate temple that once stood nearby many centuries ago. In the 1500’s, the army of Akbar, Emperor of Delhi, invaded the area. The local queen of Gondwana, Maharani Durgavati, then in her early twenties, raised an army of Gond tribals and fiercely met the invading ranks astride her elephant. Unfortunately she was unfairly killed in the battle. Successive waves of invaders razed many temples, just as Aurangzeb, grandson of Akbar, desecrated the Sri Radha-Govinda Mandir in Vrindavana. The pillars prove that a grand temple once stood here, but research is needed to find out the details. Queen Durgavati’s samadhi tomb still stands about twenty-five miles away. Much revered by locals, it is behind the Gaur River, at the spot where she gave her life to protect Vedic civilization.

An Appeal

There is no proper pilgrimage site or temple anywhere in the world dedicated to Lord Parashurama. If this area around Sri Parashurama Kunda were to be reestablished as a shrine, millions of people could learn about and worship this wonderful incarnation of the Supreme Lord Sri Krishna. A motorable dirt trail into the area runs from Panagar on National Highway 7, the Jabalpur-Sihora Road. Thousands of pilgrims travel National Highway 7 each month to visit the Hill of Devi, Goddess Sharada of Maihar. Each pilgrim bus or van would surely stop to see the temples of Sri Parashurama.

The lost jungle shrine of Sri Krishna’s avatar Lord Parashurama could be turned into a place of pilgrimage once again, before industries, shopping centers, and horrendous megalithic apartment complexes encroach upon a spiritual treasure. Which will arrive first, bulldozers or devotees?

Ramakeli—Historic Home of Rupa and Sanatana

Two leaders of Lord Chaitanya’s movement once lived here as ministers to the Muslim ruler.

Recently I fulfilled a long-cherished desire to visit Ramakeli, in northern West Bengal. It was once home to Rupa Goswami and Sanatana Goswami, direct disciples of Lord Chaitanya and leaders in His Hare Krishna movement. Ramakeli is a small village, where groups of cows and goats are more common than cars on the dusty roads. There are no shops, and water is available only from hand pumps. It appears that little has changed here for hundreds of years.

I stayed with friends at the home of Amalendranath Maitra, a well-known advocate in nearby Malda. He arranged a car to take us on a tour of Ramakeli, some fifteen kilometers from Malda.

We arrived at the gateway of the Radha-Madana-Mohana temple, founded by Rupa and Sanatana and later managed by their nephew Jiva Goswami, another pillar of Lord Chaitanya’s movement. After Jiva left to join his uncles in Vrindavana, the area became plagued with cholera. The deities were kept closed within the temple until Jitendranath Maitra, in the disciplic line from Jiva Goswami, started the worship again three hundred years later.

In 1930, Amalendranath Maitra’s father, Upendranath Maitra, came to Ramakeli, and the local people, who were very poor, asked him to repair the temple. He told them he would go home and think about it. That night he dreamt of Radha-Madana- Mohana, who asked him to build a new temple for Them. Without hesitation Upendranath Maitra arranged for all the building materials, and within a month a new temple was built.

From Ministers to Goswamis

As we sat looking at the beautiful deities of Radha- Madana-Mohana, the head priest, Purna Chandra Panigrahi, related the following history of Rupa and Sanatana:

Five hundred years ago the area was governed by the Muslim ruler Nawab Hussein Shah, who controlled Bengal, Orissa, and Bihar. At that time Rupa and Sanatana (then known as Amara and Santosh) were living in Ramakeli. They were highly respected in the brahmana community. Noting their incredible intelligence, the Nawab forced the brothers to work in his government. He made Rupa his treasurer and Sanatana the prime minister. The government thrived under their expertise, and in appreciation the Nawab showered them with immense wealth.

Being great devotees of Krishna, Rupa and Sanatana cared nothing for their wealth and positions and yearned for the time when they would be freed from their predicament. They frequently wrote letters to Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, asking for His help so that they could dedicate their lives to Him.

In 1514, Lord Chaitanya, on the excuse of going to Vrindavana, visited Ramakeli only to see His eternal associates Rupa and Sanatana. He was accompanied by thousands of devotees. He initiated the brothers and told them that Krishna would soon release them from their government posts.

Rupa and Sanatana had been living at the Nawab’s house, but after meeting Lord Chaitanya they started worshiping the deities of Radha-Madana- Mohana and lived near Them. They could no longer tolerate working for the Nawab. Rupa gave his wealth to his family and the brahmana community and made his way to Vrindavana.

Sanatana, being the prime minister, stayed for some time but told the Nawab he was too sick to work. The Nawab became suspicious and sent his doctor to find out what was wrong. When the doctor arrived at Sanatana’s house, he saw that he had made it into a devotional ashram with daily scriptural classes going on. The Nawab was furious. Seeing that Rupa had already left, he ordered Sanatana to do more work for him. When Sanatana told him he was now resigning, the Nawab had him imprisoned.

Meanwhile, in Vrindavana, Rupa Goswami dreamt that Sanatana was in jail. He managed to get a letter to him informing him that he had deposited ten thousand gold coins with a local shopkeeper for the service of devotees. With seven thousand of these coins, Sanatana was able to bribe the jailkeeper to release him, enabling him to join Lord Chaitanya. Jiva Goswami joined Rupa and Sanatana later, after the death of his mother.

Gupta Vrindavana

When the priest finished his narration, we were served maha-prasadam, food offered to the deities, on banana leaves. After lunch we went to see Radha Kunda and Syama Kunda, two lakes next to the temple. Rupa and Sanatana built the lakes, replicas of Radha Kunda and Syama Kunda in Vrindavana, to use their wealth and pacify their minds in separation from Vrindavana. The area surrounding the lakes is known as Gupta (“Hidden”) Vrindavana. I filled a small container with sacred soil here as a souvenir.

The main priest then took us to see the sitting place of Lord Nityananda, which faces two trees. The larger tree is said to be six hundred years old and is next to a tiny temple containing Lord Chaitanya’s footprints. The other tree was grown from a branch of the tree under which Lord Chaitanya initiated Rupa and Sanatana and their brother Vallabha, who became Anupama. Jiva Goswami, then a young boy, hid behind a tree, watching. Nearby stands a temple of a beautiful deity of Lord Chaitanya worshiped by Jiva Goswami.

Around Ramakeli

After thanking the priest for showing us all these places, we went back to the car to see the rest of the village. Ramakeli is very beautiful, covered with lush vegetation interspersed with many tranquil lakes and thatched cottages. The area has been famous since ancient times for silk and excellently shavored mangoes. Coconut trees and date palms tower gracefully above the other greenery.

We passed the remains of Nawab Hussain Shah’s government building. His horses and elephants would graze on the expansive grassy slope nearby.

A short ride along the road brought us to the prison where Sanatana Goswami was held. Slowly making our way through the many cows grazing outside, we entered the building. The inside shape reminded me of the Radha-Govinda temple in Vrindavana. The tall building with its arched brick ceiling was built without any supports. Modern builders are baffled at how it stays up. Walking back outside, I was thinking how Sanatana Goswami would have come through the same doorway to be released after spending seventeen months and nineteen days inside.

Ramakeli got its name to commemorate a visit by Lord Rama. Our last stop was the lake where Sita, the wife of Lord Ramacandra, performed pinda (oblations for departed souls) for her mother. Nearby is a tree said to be five thousand years old. Many thousands of people come once a year from Bihar to perform pinda here and worship the tree, known as Bala Briksha. It is certainly the largest tree I have ever seen, with fronds hanging from huge branches almost to the ground.

As we drove back to Malda, I considered how fortunate I was to have visited this village touched by the feet of Lord Chaitanya. Here He recruited three towering spiritual figures: Rupa Goswami, Sanatana Goswami, and Jiva Goswami. They built the foundation upon which the present Krishna consciousness movement was built. All of us who have been blessed by this movement are eternally indebted to them.

Serving Srinathaji

Sri Nathdwara means "the gateway of Lord Srinathaji." The town was built in the seventeenth century for the Deity of Lord Srinathaji, after He was brought to Rajasthan from the town of Jatipur, at the foot of Govardhana Hill in Vrindavana. Devotees from Jatipur had fled to Rajasthan with the Deity to protect Him from the destructive reign of the Muslim ruler Aurangzeb. Of course, the Lord doesn?t have to flee from anywhere, but simply to give His devotees a chance to serve Him He engages in the pastime of fleeing from one place to another.

Nathdwara lies near Udaipur in the hills of Mewar, a brave and chivalrous area of Rajasthan. For centuries the armies of Mewar succeeded in resisting aggression by many Mogul kings and preserved the Vedic culture intact.

The great Mewar king Bappa Rawal thwarted assaults by the first Mogul attacker, Mohammad Bin Kasim. Later, Maharana Kumbh, Maharana Sanga, and other kings fought valiant battles against the Moguls, stopping them from taking over Mewar. Even the powerful emperor Akbar faced a great battle in Mewar, and only for a few years could he subjugate Mewar, until Maharana Pratap Singh chased the Moguls away.

The Founding Of Sri Nathdwara

At the time of King Akbar, several members of the royal family of Mewar were ardent devotees of Lord Srinathaji, or, as He was known at Govardhana, Lord Gopala. Initiated by Vitthalanathaji, the son of the revered teacher Vallabhacharya, they were anxious to have Srinathaji in their kingdom, and they prayed to the Lord that He come there. But in the reign of King Akbar religious tolerance prevailed, so there was no need for the Deity to move. But fifty-three years after Akbar came the fanatical king Aurangzeb, who desecrated and destroyed Hindu temples, especially in the area of Vrindavana. And the forces of Aurangzeb also threatened Govardhana.

When the devotees saw the Mogul army advancing on Govardhana, they somehow showed the attackers the various titles and gifts given to the temple by the Mogul kings. Thus the devotees persuaded the leaders of the army that the temple had always been looked upon gracefully by the emperor of Delhi. So the army commander said, ?We will not attack you. But move the Deity from here as soon as possible.? Thus Srinathaji was allowed to move from Govardhana.

For almost six months the Deity stayed in Agra, where His devotees observed the Lord?s festivals in secret. Then He set out for Mewar. In the places along the way, devotees were enthusiastic to welcome Srinathaji, and they would oblige Him to stay with them, sometimes for as much as one or two months. Thus the journey from Govardhana to Mewar took some thirty-two months to complete.

In Mewar the Lord?s chariot gradually reached the town called Sinhad, where a princess had resided who was a great devotee of the Lord. She had strongly desired that Lord Srinathaji make this His home, and the Lord had promised her in a dream that He would do so. Now the princess had passed away, but the Lord inspired His devotees to build a beautiful temple there, next to the Aravalli hills. This abode of the Lord, established around the year 1675, came to be known as Sri Nathdwara.

The atmosphere of Mewar calls to mind Vrindavana. Mewar has pleasant hills that resemble Govardhana, and the river Banas reminds one of the Yamuna.

The Temple

The temple of Srinathaji differs in design from most of the temples of India. Most temples have large decorative domes called shikharas, conspicuous from a long distance. But the temple of Srinathaji, and other places of worship for the followers of Vallabhacharya, are more like houses. Called havelis (Persian for ?home?), they are made to suggest the Vrindavana house of Krishna?s father, Nanda Maharaja. The temple, therefore, is also known as Nanda Bhavan or Nandalaya, ?the house of Nanda Maharaja.?

Decorating the top of the Srinathaji temple is a spire, or kalasha, as well as the disc of Lord Vishnu and seven flags. A guard stands by the flags twenty-four hours a day, protecting them from the discourtesies of the birds.

The History of the Deity

According to the Sri Chaitanya-charitamrita, the Deity of Srinathaji is none other than the Gopala Deity who appeared in a dream to Madhavendra Puri, the great spiritual forefather of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. The Deity had been lost, so in the dream the Deity told Madhavendra Puri to find Him on Govardhana Hill, extricate Him from the thickets, and establish Him in a temple. ?Please pull Me out of this forest, make a beautiful temple for Me, and hold a great festival.?

Commanded by the Lord, Madhavendra Puri inspired the local villagers to rediscover the Deity and perform the festival to install Him atop the hill. So the followers of Lord Chaitanya and those of Sri Vallabhacharya are united in adoring this Deity of Srinathaji as the Supreme Personality of Godhead.

The Beautiful Form of Srinathaji

Srinathaji is Lord Sri Krishna in His pastime of lifting Govardhana Hill. Thus the Lord?s left hand is upraised. His right hand, closed in a fist, rests on His waist. It is also said that the Lord waves His devotees towards Him with His left hand and keeps the nectar of devotion in His right. His eyes look downward, guiding us to devote ourselves to His feet.

The Deity appears in a large black stone, from which His form emerges in bas-relief. The stone itself, surrounding the Deity, bears several marks: a parrot by the Lord?s head, two sages seated on His right side and a third on His left, and below the sages a snake, two cows, another snake, a lion, and two peacocks. On the Lord?s neck appears a flower garland, resembling a black snake.

Here is how the devotees understand these markings. The parrot symbolizes the sage Sukadeva Gosvami or the great poet Lilashuka. The snake is the divine serpent Ananta Sesha, the sages are the devotees of the Lord, and the two cows stand for religion and the earth. The lion protects the Deity from being seen except through devotional service, and the peacocks symbolize pure love for the Lord and detachment from material things. The stone slabs represent Govardhana Hill and the groves of Vrindavana.

Once when Sri Vallabhacharya defeated a large group of impersonalist scholars at Vidyanagar, King Krishnadeva Raya gave him a gift of many gold coins. Sri Vallabhacharya gave most of these to the local brahmanas and kept only seven. Those seven coins were then made into an ornament for Srinathaji. It is still used to adorn the Lord today.

The servitors of Srinathaji say that the Deity is the original form of Sri Krishna, known as Nikunja Nayaka, ?the Lord of the Celestial Bower.? Since this form of Lord Krishna includes all others, His devotees see Him both as Sri Radhanatha (the Lord of Radha) and as child Krishna. The Deity, therefore, is sometimes entertained with childish toys like spinning tops and silver animals and sometimes offered a herding stick meant for a cowherd boy. Srinathaji is most renowned for His amorous pastimes with the gopis, the dairymaids of Vrindavana. Although much of the poetry sung before Him tells of His childhood pastimes, most of it depicts these exchanges with the gopis.

Temple Management

The temple is under the management of the main acharya (spiritual leader) of the Vallabha Sampradaya. He is called the Tilakayata and is the head of the temple. He is assisted by a committee of prominent devotees who help him run the temple and make major decisions. He is the chairman of the committee. They approve most of the expenses.

The monthly expenses of the temple come to some 500,000 rupees, but the income is more. At least ten million rupees are kept as a savings fund.

In recent times the government of Rajasthan has taken charge of the temple, but the Tilakayata is still the authority on all the details of worship.

The holdings of the temple include 829 shops and buildings and six thousand acres of land, with many farms and cow pastures. The temple has a dairy with five hundred cows, one of which, called ?Srinathaji?s cow,? comes from a lineage that has served the Deity for generation after generation. The milk from this cow goes only for Srinathaji to drink. Milk from other cows makes various sweets for the Deity.

The way of devotional service taught by Vallabhacharya is known as pushti-marga, ?the path of nourishment.? In Sri Nathdwara the devotees nourish the Lord, and, even more, the Lord nourishes the love of His devotees.

Sri Vallabhacharya

We can scarcely think of the holy town of Nathdwara without Sri Vallabhacharya, the great religious reformer and teacher. His pushti-marga has brought millions of people in western India to Krishna consciousness.

Sri Vallabhacharya was born in 1479 in the forest of Champaranya, near the present city of Raipur, in central India, while his parents were returning from pilgrimage. His father, Lakshmana Bhatta, a renowned scholar from a brahmana family of South India, died while Vallabha was still a child. His mother therefore stayed at the home of her parents, and Vallabha soon went to study at Varanashi, where he became a great scholar. He studied under the saint Madhavendra Puri.

Vallabha realized that since the world comes from Brahman, the Supreme Absolute Truth?Lord Sri Krishna?the world cannot be false. As the ornaments fashioned from gold must be golden, the world created by Brahman, the supreme reality, must be real.

After studying in Varanashi, Sri Vallabhacharya began traveling all over India, speaking about the Srimad- Bhagavatam and teaching sublime devotion to Lord Krishna. The eighty-four ?seats,? or places where he taught, are held in great esteem by his followers. These baithaks, as the seats are known, are marked by shrines where he is offered daily homage. As part of the worship, Srimad-Bhagavatam is placed upon the seat, for it is felt that Sri Vallabhacharya stays there to this day, revealing from the Bhagavatam the glories of Lord Sri Krishna.

Sri Vallabhacharya once visited the great city Vidyanagara, on the bank of the River Tungabhadra. There he enlightened Krishnadeva Raya, the great South Indian king, and defeated the impersonal Sankarite philosophy. This victory moved the other scholars to glorify him with a grand procession.

At the time of Sri Vallabhacharya, India?s religious life had been torn by the Mogul invasion. Spiritual practices had worn down, and the schools of Buddha and Sankara had brought confusion. Sri Vallabhacharya spread the true spirit of the Vedas through dialogues and debates at many of the eighty-four seats.

He taught, ?The one scripture is Bhagavad- gita, the Supreme Godhead is Sri Krishna, the supreme mantra is Sri Krishna?s name, and the best work is His service.?

The strong personal devotion taught by Sri Vallabhacharya closely resembles the spirit of the followers of Lord Chaitanya. Lord Chaitanya?s followers point more toward public congregational chanting of the holy name of the Lord, while the tradition of Vallabhacharya centers more on private chanting, worshiping the Deity of Lord Krishna within the home, and singing devotional songs for the Deity?s pleasure.

Sri Vallabhacharya urged his followers toward humility and told them to rely on Lord Krishna?s grace. If there is a means to get the Lord?s grace, he taught, it is humility.

Vallabhacharya?s book known as Shodasha- grantha, his Anubhashya commentary on Vedanta- sutra, and his Subodhini commentary on Srimad-Bhagavatam are among the most famous of the many books he wrote.

Sri Vitthalanathaji

One of Sri Vallabhacharya’s two sons was Sri Vitthalanathaji. He brought a wealth of devotional art, music, and culture into the pushti-marga and raised the worship of Srinathaji to a very high standard. He arranged for the Deity to be adorned every day according to the seasons and festive occasions.

With the changing of the seasons and the time of day, the Lord wears different fabrics and colors, and different types of ragas and poems are used to praise Him. The foods chosen for the Lord also vary, following the Ayurvedic scriptures. In the hot season, for example, cool foods like mung sprouts are offered, and in the cold season the Lord enjoys a spicy milk sweet called svadhsont.

Vitthalanathaji was also famous for attracting many kings to the service of the Lord. He converted the king of Mewar, Udai Singh, and since that time the royal family of Mewar have been pushti-marga devotees. Even the great Mogul emperor Akbar was drawn to Vitthalanathaji and gave large tracts of land for the service of the Deity.

The Lord’s “Eight Friends”

During the time of Vallabhacharya and Sri Vitthalanathaji, the ashta capa poets (literally, the Lord’s “eight friends”) were selected to sing the praises of Srinathaji at each of His eight daily darshanas. These famous poets left a wealth of verses glorifying the Lord. These are still sung daily before the Deity. Sura Dasa, perhaps the most famous among the poets, is said to have written more than 100,000 verses. In one well-known poem, another of the ashta capa poets, Caturbhuja Dasa, sings of Srinathaji’s splendor:

Today He is something.
Tomorrow He is something more.
Every day Srinathaji is totally fresh and new!

Helping Srila Prabhupada

We disciples of Srila Prabhupada are grateful to the pushti-marga devotees because they aided Srila Prabhupada early in his mission. Srimati Sumati Morarji, a lifelong follower of Sri Vallabhacharya, was a main trustee of the Srinathaji temple. She helped Srila Prabhupada print his books and served as a patron for him in Bombay. As the head of a shipping company, she arranged for his original passage to New York on one of her ships, the Jaladuta. And since that time, faithful followers of Sri Vallabhacharya have helped Srila Prabhupada’s efforts to spread Sri Krishna’s glories through-out India and the rest of the world.

Darshanas and Festivals

Starting from early in the morning, eight offerings and six aratis are performed for the Lord each day. The Lord has His last darshana in the evening and then takes rest. When He lifted Govardhana He was just a young boy, so He rests early.

There is a well-known story that Srinathaji once tore His garment while rushing back to the temple to be on time for darshana. From that day on, it has been a custom to blow the conch and then wait several minutes before opening the altar doors. That way, Srinathaji may return leisurely to His temple from wherever He may be sporting in the land of Vrindavana.

Practically every day there is a festival in the temple. There are swing festivals, processions, flower festivals, boat festivals, and festivals in which thousands of mangos are offered.

In April, roses are abundant, so there is a rose festival. The Deity is sprinkled with rose water and rose scent, and beautiful flower decorations are arranged.

In May the appearance day of Vallabhacharya is observed with great pomp.

In the hot summer season, a courtyard in the temple is filled with water. Pilgrims can stand on a ledge at the back and see the Deity without getting wet, but most devotees enjoy coming forward and standing in water up to their knees. Lord Srinathaji is sprayed with scented water, smeared with sandalwood, and adorned with many garlands. Music plays, and because of the water everything is cool, and the people are happy.

Toward the end of the hot season comes the Ratha-yatra. The Lord is taken around in a silver chariot, and 100,000 mangos are offered.

In the afternoon in the rainy season (June-July), the Lord is swung on a big swing. There are many swings for the Lord—a golden swing, a silver swing, a swing of glass, one of flowers, and a swing made of leaves such as sandalwood.

On Janmashtami, the appearance day of the Lord, which comes in August or September, the Lord is bathed in five kinds of nectar and honored by a 21-gun salute. The next day, known as Nandotsava, is also celebrated with great joy.

The Annakuta Festival

One of the largest festivals in Nathdwara is known as Annakuta. It celebrates the pastime in which the people of Vrindavana worshiped Lord Krishna by worshiping Govardhana Hill. The Annakuta festival of Srinathaji draws people from all over India. Many come in special trains, and all the guesthouses are full. Even the aborigines from the surrounding hills come to take part with great enthusiasm, wearing only a loincloth or a garment down to their knees. Groups of people wander about in the town, chanting and dancing in praise of the Lord.

In the late afternoon, in a special courtyard called the Govardhana Puja Chowk, a replica of Govardhana Hill is made of cow dung, and beautiful ceremonies are arranged. Many cowherds bring cows and feed them, cows are worshiped, and two cows are led to walk over the hill. People throng the roadsides, windows, and terraces to see the unique scene.

As part of the celebrations, a hill of rice is offered to the Lord—2,500 kilos. Then the temple gates are closed.

In the evening the gates are opened for the darshana of Srinathaji, and as soon as they open the people start looting the rice prasadam from the Govardhana Hill. While the aborigine women stand at the door, their men grab rice from the hill, fill up their shoulder bags, pass the rice on to the women, and then go back for more. All this adds to the festive scene.—YD

“Always Remember Krishna”

These four well-known verses by Sri Vallabhacharya present the essence of his teachings.

sarvada sarva-bhavena
bhajaniyo vrajadhipah
svasyayam eva dharmo hi
nanyah kvapi kadacana

evam sada sma kartavyam
svayam eva karishyati
prabhu sarva-samartho hi
tato nishcintatam vrajet

yadi shri-gokuladhisho
dhritah sarvatmana hridi
tatah kim aparam bruhi
laukikair vedikair api

atah sarvatmana shashvad
gokuleshvara-padayoh
smaranam bhajanam capi
na tyajyam iti me matih

“Always worship Lord Krishna, the Lord of Vraja, with all your feelings. This is the true dharma. There is no other at any time or place.

“Always remember this, and Krishna will accomplish the rest. He is all-powerful, so have no anxiety.

“If Lord Krishna, the Lord of Gokula, resides within your heart, enabling you to experience Him everywhere, what else is there to attain from the world or the scriptures?

“Therefore, always have full devotion for Lord Krishna’s lotus feet. It is my view that you should never leave His remembrance or His worship.”

Sri Rangam—Temple of Temples

The history of this holy place traces back to the beginning of creation.

Sri Rangam, or Sri Rangakshetra, is the largest temple in the world in which worship is still being performed. Situated on an island at the confluence of the Kaveri and Kollidam rivers in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, Sri Rangam is the main center of worship and culture for the Sri Vaishnavas, the disciplic line of devotees of Lord Vishnu (Krishna) that begins with Lakshmi Devi (Sri, Lord Vishnu’s consort). Historically, their main acharya, or spiritual teacher, was Sri Ramanuja (See sidebar, page 31).

The Sri Rangam temple compound covers about three square miles. The main temple is surrounded by seven walls, which represent the seven planetary systems described in Vedic cosmology. The seven walls have twenty-one towered entrances (gopurams), the highest of which, at 250 feet, can be seen from at least ten miles away. Much of the town of Sri Rangam is within the three outer walls of the temple compound.

The Deity in the main temple is Sri Ranganatha Swami, a two- armed form of Lord Vishnu reclining on the divine serpent Ananta Sesha. The priests of Sri Rangam have worshiped Sri Ranganatha in much the same way since the eleventh century, when Sri Ramanuja set up strict standards of worship, with a meticulous schedule of songs, prayers, rituals, and offerings.

Since the time Sri Ranganatha decided to stay at Sri Rangam (See sidebar “Sri Rangam: The History, page 29) countless kings, queens, saints, sages, devotees, demigods, and goddesses have eagerly stood before the doors of His chamber awaiting His merciful glance. Millions of souls since ancient times have had that fortune, and many more will have it for many years to come.

The Brahmanas of Sri Rangam

An old brahmana struggles to climb the stairs to perform his service in the temple. I ask him when he is going to retire.

“No, the Lord wants our surrender,” he replies. “The Lord does not want our surrender up to one week or three weeks before our death. He wants our lifelong surrender.”

I have met many Sri Rangam brahmanas, and they are very special people. They have very great feeling for Sri Ranganatha Swami and Sri Ramanuja. They will not give up their service. “What would Ramanuja think?” they say.

I have met brahmanas who have been worshiping Sri Ranganatha Swami all their lives. They will not miss a day, even when sick. If they have a high fever and are too sick to bathe, they will stand near the Deity’s chamber and direct someone else on how to perform a particular service for the Lord.

Many Sri Rangam brahmanas who by circumstance have to live elsewhere, even outside India, carry with them their great devotion to Sri Ranganatha Swami.

Sri Rangam: The History

The history of Sri Rangam, as told in various Puranas and other Vedic writings, traces back to the beginning of creation. Pleased by the penance of Brahma (the first created being), Lord Vishnu (the Supreme Lord) manifested Himself in the form of Lord Ranganatha for Brahma to worship. Lord Ranganatha appeared with His Deity chamber, or vimana.Brahma worshiped Lord Ranganatha for a long time and eventually handed the worship over to Vivasvan, the sun-god, who handed it over to Svayambhuva Manu, the father of mankind. Manu passed on the worship to his son Ikshvaku, a great king and the head of the dynasty in which Lord Krishna was later to appear in His incarnation as Lord Ramachandra.

Lord Ramachandra ruled in Ayodhya, in northern India, during the age known as Treta-yuga, millions of years ago. The pastimes of Lord Ramachandra are recounted in the epic Ramayana. Lord Ramachandra defeated the great demon Ravana, who had kidnapped the Lord’s wife, and placed Ravana’s brother Vibhishana on the throne of Sri Lanka, Ravana’s former kingdom. Because Vibhishana was a great devotee, Lord Ramachandra presented Him with the Deity of Sri Ranganatha to worship in Sri Lanka, off the southeast coast of India.

While traveling to Sri Lanka with Sri Ranganatha (along with the Lord’s vimana), Vibhishana stopped near the Kaveri River, at a holy place called chandra Pushkarini, where a Deity of Ananta Sesha (the Lord’s serpent-bed) was worshiped. Dharma Varma, a king of that region, had seen Lord Ranganatha in Ayodhya and had been praying for some time to be able to serve Him. Lord Ranganatha blessed the king by promising to stay at Sri Rangam. When Vibhishana tried to continue his journey, Lord Ranganatha would not move.

Lord Ranganatha then blessed Vibhishana by promising to always look toward Vibhishana’s kingdom, Sri Lanka. So although most Deities in India face east, Sri Ranganatha Swami reclines on His right side with His head toward the west as He looks south toward His great devotee Vibhishana.

King Dharma Varma and his successors in the Chola dynasty built a large temple around the vimana of Lord Ranganatha and served Him with great opulence. But after many generations the temple was covered in sand and gradually lost and forgotten.

Then one day, temple histories say, a king of the Chola dynasty was resting under a tree in the area when a parrot told him that Lord Ranganatha was buried under the sand. The king then excavated the temple and restored all parts of the huge complex. Over the years to follow, numerous Chola and Pandya kings, including King Kulashekhara (See sidebar, page 36), expanded and renovated the temple.

Great Vaishnava leaders Yamunacharya, Ramanujacharya, and Sudarshanacharya all had important roles in the further development of Sri Rangam. But during the fourteenth century invading Moghuls plundered most of the Lord’s treasures. Then in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the Vijayanagar and Nayak rulers slowly began to revive the glories of Sri Rangam. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Muslims, the French, and finally the British used the fort-like temple of Sri Rangam during their conquests. Eventually, when India gained independence in 1947, the Indian government and the Sri Vaishnavas took over the management of the temple.

Sri Ramanuja

Sri Ramanuja (A.D. 1017-1137) spent 80 of his 120 years at Sri Rangam. For twenty years he was the chief priest of the temple.

Ramanuja is the main acharya, or spiritual teacher, in the line of teachers and disciples knows as the Sri Sampradaya. His presentation of Krishna consciousness is known as vishishtadvaita, “qualified nondualism.” A staunch proponent of the philosophy of personalism, he taught that although the Supreme Lord and the individual souls are qualitatively one, there is still a difference between them, for the Lord is infinite and the living entities are infinitesimal. Ramanuja traveled extensively throughout India, teaching personalism and debating proponents of monistic philosophy. His commentary on the Vedanta-sutra is known as Sri-bhashya.

Ramanuja founded seventy-four centers of Sri Vaishnavaism and initiated seven hundred sannyasis (renunciants), twelve thousand brahmacaris (celibate students), thousands of householders (including kings and wealthy landowners), and three hundred ketti-ammanis, women who took vows of renunciation.

Here are some of Sri Ramanuja’s instructions as he was about to leave this world:

“Worship all Vaishnavas as you worship your guru. … Have faith in the previous acharyas. … Study scriptures that describe the glories of the Supreme Lord. … Always endeavor for purity. … Take shelter of the Lord and have faith in Him alone.

“If you follow these instructions, you will never be separated from me. Why should one grieve over the disappearance of the temporary body?”

Because the body of a great devotee is considered spiritual, Ramanuja’s followers preserved his body after he passed away. Over the years the priests of Sri Rangam have regularly applied a special preservative, and after more than 850 years Ramanuja’s body has not decayed. It is worshiped in a temple within the Sri Rangam compound. Sri Ramanuja sits in the lotus position, his right hand extended slightly forward, bestowing benedictions.

Appreciating the Residents of Sri Rangam

Those who live and die in Sri Rangam, as in any holy place, are rare, fortunate souls. Somehow or other they have a special internal relationship with the Lord, which may be much deeper than we can see. Visitors should always give the local residents of any spiritual place the utmost respect.

In the course of Padayatra, our walking tour of India, we come in touch with hundreds of thousands of people, but when we enter a holy place we try to view everything with a different consciousness. We have entered a spiritual zone , where the Lord and His associates enact numerous pastimes. If we offer respect with care, reverence, and sincerity, the Lord may allow us some understanding of His pastimes here.

Though we have visited many places, only in Sri Rangam have I seen such great respect toward Lord Chaitanya and kindness toward His devotees. Only in Sri Rangam have I seen brahmanas offer full prostrated obeisances to the Padayatra Deities as we chanted in procession around the temple precincts. And only in Sri Rangam have I heard the priests serving Sri Ranganatha stop the rushing queue so “the Hare Krishnas can have an extra long darshana [audience] of the most merciful Sri Ranganatha Swami.”

One evening in the temple of Sri Ranganayaki Nachiyar (Maha- Lakshmi, Lord Ranganatha’s consort), we met an eighty- five-year-old Sri Vaishnava who could barely walk and see. Still, despite his advanced age and physical difficulties, he was coming to the temple. He looked up at us, surprised to see foreign devotees.

“How are you?” I asked him.

“Very fine!” he replied in a clear voice.

He then chanted various mantras glorifying the Lord. He loudly chanted “Govinda!” full of youthful enthusiasm, and he raised his hands and danced.

The next evening I met him again and asked how he was doing.

“I’m very happy, very happy!” he said.

Such happiness is the potency of the holy names of the Lord chanted by one of His devotees in the holy places of Sri Rangam.

—Jaya Vijaya Dasa

Lord Chaitanya’s Visit to Sri Rangam

Lord Krishna appeared five hundred years ago in West Bengal as Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, who accepted the mood of a devotee of Krishna. After taking sannyasa, the renounced order of life, Lord Chaitanya traveled throughout India for six years, visiting holy places and spreading the chanting of the holy names of the Lord. During that period, the longest time He spent in one place was at Sri Rangam.

Lord Chaitanya observed the practice that a sannyasi ceases travel during the four months of the rainy season. So one year He spent those four months in Sri Rangam, at the home of a Sri Vaishnava brahmana named Vyenkata Bhatta. Because Vyenkata Bhatta was a devotee with whom Lord Chaitanya could discuss the transcendental pastimes of Lord Krishna, Lord Chaitanya passed His days at Sri Rangam in great happiness.

Lord Chaitanya would bathe daily in the sacred Kaveri River and visit the temple to see Sri Ranganatha Swami. Many hundreds of thousands of people from various parts of India came to Sri Rangam to see the beauty of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and His ecstatic love for Lord Krishna. Every day, local Vaishnava brahmanas would invite Chaitanya Mahaprabhu to their homes for lunch.

Vyenkata Bhatta and Chaitanya Mahaprabhu developed a friendly relationship, and they would happily laugh and joke together. Since Vyenkata Bhatta belonged to the Sri Sampradaya and worshiped the Supreme Lord in His majestic aspect as Lakshmi-Narayana, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu would have lengthy spiritual discussions with him about the differences between worshiping Lakshmi-Narayana and worshiping the Lord in His most sweet form as Radha-Krishna. To establish that the worship of Radha-Krishna is higher than that of Lakshmi-Narayana, Lord Chaitanya (all the while in a pleasant mood) cited a scriptural reference that tells how Lakshmi, the consort of Narayana, wanted to join the most confidential pastimes of Krishna but was not allowed to do so.

Unable to defeat Lord Chaitanya’s arguments, Vyenkata Bhatta said, “You are the Supreme Personality of Godhead Krishna Himself. You know the purpose of Your activities, and the person whom You enlighten can also understand Your pastimes.”

Chaitanya Mahaprabhu enlightened Vyenkata Bhatta in all the subtle details of Lord Krishna’s most intimate pastimes.

Lord Chaitanya then said, “There is no difference between the transcendental forms of the Lord. Different forms are manifested due to different attachments of different devotees. Actually the Lord is one, but He appears in different forms just to satisfy His devotees.”

When the four-month period ended, Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu took permission from Vyenkata Bhatta to continue on with His travels. When Chaitanya Mahaprabhu bade farewell, Vyenkata Bhatta fell down unconscious in the ecstasy of spiritual love.

Pilgrims to Sri Rangam can still visit the house of Vyenkata Bhatta.

The Prayers of King Kulashekhara

King Kulasekhara, who scholars say may have lived during the ninth century, was one of the twelve Alvars, ecstatic mystic poets who appeared in South India at various times between one thousand and five thousand years ago. The Alvars wrote mostly in the South Indian language Tamil. The Sri

King Kulashekhara was the tenth Alvar. After giving up the throne, he resided at Sri Rangam, where he wrote two great works: Mukunda-mala-stotra*,in Sanskrit, and a collection of 105 Tamil hymns.
*Available in English from the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust (BBT). The translations of the prayers given here are from the BBT edition.

The following prayers are from the Mukunda-mala- stotra:

jayatu jayatu devo devaki-nandano ’yam
jayatu jayatu krishno vrishni-vamsha- pradipah
jayatu jayatu megha-shyamalah komalango
jayatu jayatu prithvi-bhara-nasho mukundah

mukunda murdhna pranipatya yace
bhavantam ekantam iyantam artham
avismritis tvac-caranaravinde
bhave bhave me ’stu bhavat- prasadat

maj-janmanah phalam idam madhu- kaitabhare
mat-prarthaniya-mad-anugraha esha eva
tvad-bhritya-bhritya-paricaraka-bhritya-bhritya-
bhrityasya bhritya iti mam smara loka- natha

O enemy of Madhu and Kaitabha, O Lord of the universe, the perfection of my life and the most cherished mercy You could show me would be for You to consider me the servant of the servant of the servant of the servant of the servant of the servant of Your servant.

krishna tvadiya-pada-pankaja-panjarantam
adyaiva me vashatu manasa-raja- hamsah
prana-prayana-samaye kapha-vata-pittaih
kanthavarodhana-vidhau smaranam kutas te

O Lord Krishna, at this moment let the royal swan of my mind enter the tangled stems of the lotus of Your feet. How will it be possible for me to remember You at the time of death, when my throat will be choked up with mucus, bile, and air?

Srila Prabhupada was very fond of this prayer, and he would sing and quote it often.

Visiting Sri Rangam

How to get there—Sri Rangam is ten kilometers from Tiruchirapalli (also called Trichy), a prominent city in Tamil Nadu you can reach by air, rail, or road. You can take a taxi or a city bus from Trichy to Sri Rangam.

Lodging—There are no hotels in Sri Rangam, but Trichy has a good selection.

Festivals—There’s a good chance you’ll see one when you visit—festivals are held on 250 days each year.

ISKCON center—Be sure to visit the ISKCON center in Sri Rangam. The address: 6A E.V.S. Rd., Sri Rangam. Phone: 433945.

Temple of the Supreme Enchanter

The temple of Sri Radha-Madana-Mohana was the first of many Vrindavana temples built by the followers of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu

“Glory to the all-merciful Radha and Madana-Mohana! I am lame and ill-advised, yet They are my directors, and Their lotus feet are everything to me.”—Srila Krishnadasa Kaviraja Goswami

In 1515 Sri chaitanya Mahaprabhu sent Rupa Goswami and Sanatana Goswami, two of his foremost disciples, to Vrindavana with four tasks: to write devotional books, to teach and spread the rules of devotional service, to uncover the lost places of Radha-Krishna’s pastimes, and to build temples and establish deity worship. The Goswamis accomplished all of these assignments.

The first temple to be built was that of Sri Radha-Madana- Mohana (Radha with Krishna, “the attractor [mohana] of Cupid [madana].”) Like many other temples in Vrindavana, the original temple was attacked during a Mogul invasion in 1670. Part of the old temple remains today atop Dvadashaditya Hill. A new temple was built near the old one. Today two of my children and I are going to visit both temples.

Many of Vrindavana’s roads are old and too narrow for a car, so we make our way by ricksha. Our driver, Vijay, comes from Mayapur, West Bengal, the birthplace of Sri chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Vijay takes on the role of guide, pointing out holy places along the route. As we pass local people, they call out “Radhe! Radhe!” and encourage my children to repeat this lovely glorification of Srimati Radharani. When my children respond, the people smile.

We arrive outside the new temple, and Vijay stops the ricksha and confirms: “Radha-Madana-Mohana.”

As we enter the compound, a surge of excitement rushes through me. The temple courtyard is one of the largest in Vrindavana, and last time I came here I was with several hundred devotees holding tumultuous kirtana. Today it’s just the three of us, and the temple is quiet. We make our way to the altar to see the beautiful deities, who have been decorated with intricate sandal-paste designs.

Attending the deities today is Brajesh Goswami, who is about fourteen years old. His family members, custodians of the temple, are in the disciplic line coming from Srila Sanatana Goswami. They worship the deities according to strict rules. Brajesh asks where we are from and offers us some caranamrita (water that has bathed the deities).

Some children sitting near the altar lead us to the temple garden. In an area dotted with plants, they point to one of Sanatana Goswami’s bhajana kutirs, huts where he would sit to chant, sing, and meditate. Nearby stands a well said to have been dug by Madana-Mohana Himself with His flute. Before we leave, the children remind us to visit the old temple and point in its direction.

Madana Gopala

Madana-Mohana, Govindaji, and Gopinatha are known as the presiding deities of Vrindavana. The spiritual masters in the line of Lord chaitanya divide devotional service into three parts: establishing our relationship with Krishna, acting in that relationship, and attaining pure love for Krishna. Madana- Mohana oversees the first division: He helps new devotees reestablish their lost relationship with Him, especially by attracting them. Krishna’s name Madana-Mohana means that He’s so attractive that He even attracts Cupid, who attracts everyone in this world. By worshiping Madana-Mohana we can overcome affection for Cupid (or sensual enjoyment) and become attached to Krishna.

Five hundred years ago, the deity Madana-Mohana was known as Madana Gopala. Advaita Acarya, an intimate associate of Lord chaitanya, discovered the deity at a place near the Yamuna River now known as Advaita Vata. When Advaita Acarya returned to Bengal, he left the deity in the care of a brahmana in nearby Mathura named Purushottama Chobey. Purushottama had many children, and out of his intense love for Madana Gopala he treated the deity like one of his own children.

One day Sanatana Goswami, while walking along the bank of the Yamuna, saw Madana Gopala in His form as a cowherd boy playing with His friends. Madana Gopala stopped playing when He saw Sanatana Goswami, overwhelmed by the devotional activities of His great devotee.

That night Madana Gopala appeared to Sanatana in a dream.

“Because of your great love for Me,” the Lord told him, “I have become attracted to you and want to come live with you in Vrindavana. I am living in the house of Purushottama Chobey in Mathura. Go there tomorrow for alms and bring Me back to Vrindavana with you.”

Sanatana replied that because he was poor he didn’t know how he could serve the deity nicely. But Madana Gopala assured him He would make all the arrangements for His own service.

That night Purushottama also dreamt of Madana Gopala, who told him, “You have many children, but Sanatana has none. When he comes to your home tomorrow, give Me to him.”

The next day Purushottama gave the deity to Sanatana Goswami, who made an altar out of branches and leaves next to his own thatched cottage.

The Old Temple

Vijay pedals us to the base of Dvadashaditya Hill, and we climb the steps leading to the original temple. The temple opened in 1580. Because of its historical significance, it is under the care of the Indian government. The main dome, a Vrindavana landmark, is shaped like a gigantic bottle and carved with auspicious symbols.

The temple stands where Sanatana Goswami lived with Madana- Mohana. Constantly writing and performing other devotional practices, Sanatana was absorbed in spiritual happiness. Understanding the mind of His great devotee, Madana-Mohana would accept Sanatana’s humble offerings of dry chapatis (flatbreads).

But one day Madana-Mohana asked Sanatana, “Could you at least add some salt to My chapatis?”

When Sanatana replied that he was unable to supply the salt, Madana-Mohana made His own arrangements. That day a wealthy merchant named Ramdasa Kapoor was taking a large cargo down the river to Agra when his boat got stuck on a sandbar near Dvadashaditya Hill, putting Ramdasa in great anxiety. Taking the form of a cowherd boy, Madana-Mohana went to advise Ramdasa. He informed him that on top of the nearby hill lived a great saint named Sanatana Goswami who would certainly be able to help. Ramdasa climbed the hill and asked Sanatana what to do about the boat. Sanatana told him to pray to Madana- Mohana, as only He could help.

Ramdasa followed Sanatana’s advice, and as he prayed heavy rain fell. The river soon rose, freeing the boat. Before leaving for Agra, the grateful merchant left a large chunk of salt from the cargo for Madana-Mohana.

When Ramdasa returned to Vrindavana, having made a large profit, he gave Sanatana Goswami money to build a temple. He also gave food supplies and beautiful clothes and jewelry for Madana-Mohana.

The temple’s hilltop location provides a wonderful panoramic view of Vrindavana. I look down to see the Yamuna and Kaliya Ghat, where the cargo got stuck.

Sanatana goswami’s Samadhi

Down a grassy bank behind the temple we visit the samadhis (memorials) of Sanatana Goswami and several other devotees, including Lord chaitanya’s associates Tapana Mishra and Candrashekhara Acarya. After a long life of devotional service, Sanatana Goswami departed from the world at Govardhana Hill. His body was brought here to be entombed near his beloved deities, Radha-Madana-Mohana.

In their spiritual forms, the great saints eternally reside at their samadhis to bless those who seek their shelter. While green parrots dart around and disappear into the foliage of many trees, old sadhus sit near the samadhis, some chanting on beads, others talking quietly. They relish being in the spiritually surcharged area. I imagine that one of the sadhus might be Sanatana Goswami himself, watching over everyone who comes here. This spot also contains a rare grantha samadhi, which contains some original scriptures written by the Goswamis.

Sanatana Goswami was the elder brother of Rupa Goswami, who respected Sanatana as his guru. A verse describes their good qualities: “Within Vrindavana, Rupa and Sanatana Goswamis were the reservoirs of natural love and mercy. They were foremost among the devotees, oceans of kindness, and friends of the poor. They possessed unflinching devotion to Radha and Krishna. Giving up all worldly pleasures, they always sang the glories of Vrindavana’s groves and the lotus feet of Srimati Radharani. Therefore, these two brothers are the gifts of Sri chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the ocean of mercy. In their absence I have become an orphan.” (Bhakti- ratnakara)

Sitting beside Sanatana Goswami’s samadhi, I feel honored and appreciative of what he and his associates accomplished. In the modern era, his follower Srila Prabhupada spread the message of Vrindavana to the West, and now everyone has an opportunity to visit the holy places and learn about devotional service.

The History of Kumbha-Mela

The Inhabitants of the earth benefit from a cosmic fight for immortal nectar.

The Lord’s pastime of protecting the devas (demigods) from the asuras (demons) by producing nectar from the ocean of milk is described in detail in the Srimad-Bhagavatam, Canto 8, chapters 5 through 11.

Millions of years ago, the sage Durvasa visited the capital of Indra’s kingdom in the heavenly planets. While Durvasa Muni was passing on the road, he saw Indra on the back of his elephant and was pleased to offer Indra a garland from his own neck. Indra, however, being too proud of his material wealth, took the garland and placed it on the trunk of his carrier elephant. The elephant, being an animal, could not understand the value of the garland. It threw the garland between its legs and smashed it. Seeing this insulting behavior, Durvasa Muni cursed Indra to become poverty- stricken.

The asuras, the natural enemies of the devas, took this opportunity to attack Lord Indra and steal all the riches and virtuous possessions in his kingdom. A fierce battle for supremacy of the heavenly planets raged. Bereft of all influence and strength, the devas were defeated.

The devas then went to Lord Brahma for help. Unable to offer a solution, Lord Brahma took them to Svetadvipa, the abode of Kshirodakashayi Vishnu in the ocean of milk.

Snake-And-Mouse Logic

Lord Vishnu advised the devas to cooperate with the asuras and churn the ocean of milk to attain an immortal nectar that would make the devas invincible. He told the devas to follow the logic of the snake and the mouse in dealing with the asuras. A snake and a mouse were once caught in a basket. The snake said to the mouse, “Look, I could eat you very easily, but it’s more important for me to get out of this basket. So why don’t you make a hole so that we can both escape?” The mouse agreed and started working. But as soon as the hole was big enough, the snake ate the mouse and came out of the basket.

Similarly, the Lord wanted the devas to take help from the asuras, but He had no intention of giving any of the nectar to the asuras. He would appear as Mohini-murti and cheat them.

The asuras and devas uprooted Mandara Mountain to use as a churning rod and requested Vasuki, the king of the serpents, to serve as the churning rope. With the churning, the mighty golden Mandara Mountain began to sink slowly into the ocean of milk. The devas and asuras became discouraged at the turn of events.

Then the Lord took the form of a tortoise, known as Kurma- avatara. He entered the water and held the great mountain on His back. The mountain moved back and forth with the churning motion, scratching the back of Lord Tortoise, who, while partially sleeping, was pleasingly experiencing an itching sensation.

Soon a fiercely dangerous poison was produced from the ocean, covering all directions. The compassionate Lord Siva drank the poison and held it in His throat, turning his neck bluish and earning him the name Nilakantha, “one who has a bluish neck.”

Products Of The Milk Ocean

The milk ocean then produced many wonderful items: a surabhi cow, a beautiful horse named Uccaihshrava, the elephant Airavata, eight great white elephants that could go in any direction, eight she-elephants, the crescent moon, a conch shell named Pancajanya, a bow named Haridhanu (“the bow of Hari”), the goddess Varuni, the precious Kaustubha jewel, a desire-fulfilling parijata flower, Apsaras (the most beautiful women in the universe), Lakshmi (the goddess of fortune), and Dhanvantari.

A partial incarnation of the Lord, Dhanvantari rose slowly from the ocean. Srimad-Bhagavatam (8.8.32-33) describes his beautiful form:

He was strongly built; his arms were long, stout, and strong; his neck, which was marked with three lines, resembled a conch shell; his eyes were reddish; and his complexion was blackish. He was very young, he was garlanded with flowers, and his entire body was fully decorated with various ornaments. He was dressed in yellow garments and wore brightly polished earrings made of pearls. The tips of his hair were anointed with oil, and his chest was very broad. His body had all good features, he was stout and strong like a lion, and he was decorated with bangles. In his hand he carried a jug filled to the top with nectar.

The jug of nectar was the prize everyone was waiting for. The asuras quickly stole the jug, and they began to fight over who should take the first drink. While they argued, the Lord assumed the form of an extremely beautiful woman known as Mohini-murti and slowly approached them.

Mohini-murti said, “The demigods are very miserly and are excessively anxious to take the nectar first. So let them have it first. Since you are not like them, you can wait a little longer. You are all heroes and are so pleased with Me. It is better for you to wait until after the demigods drink.”

The asuras, overwhelmed by Her beauty and charm, gave Her the jug of nectar, and She promptly delivered it to the devas.

The asuras were furious at the deception and attacked the devas with all their force. According to the Skanda Purana, at one point during the fight, Jayanta, a son of Indra, took the kumbha (jug) and ran away toward the heavenly planets. The asuras followed, eager to retrieve the nectar, and the fierce fighting continued. From time to time during twelve days of fighting, circumstances compelled Jayanta to place the kumbha at four places on earth: on the bank of the Godavari River in Nasika, Maharashtra; at the Shipra River in Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh; at the Ganges in Haridwar, Uttar Pradesh, and at the Triveni-sangam in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh.

When the kumbha was lifted at each location, some drops of nectar fell onto the earth. That same nectar appears at these sites during certain planetary configurations. Even today, millions of people come to partake of the nectar, to become immortal by bathing in the holy rivers and drinking the nectarlike waters. Because the fighting between the devas and the asuras lasted for twelve earth years (twelve demigod days), Kumbha-melas are held at each of these sites once every twelve years.

Srila Prabhupada at Allahabad

For thirteen years Srila Prabhupada lived in Allahabad. He moved there in 1923 with his family. Allahabad was a good location to start his pharmaceutical business, Prayag Pharmacy. He entered a business partnership with a physician, Dr. Ghosh, who diagnosed patients and gave medical prescriptions, which Prabhupada would fill. Motilal Nehru and his son, Jawaharlal, (the future Prime Minister of India) were both customers at Prabhupada’s pharmacy.

During his time in Allahabad, Prabhupada stayed in contact with Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, whom he had first met in 1922 in Calcutta. On November 21, 1932, under the direction of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta, the Allahabad Gaudiya Matha held a cornerstone-laying ceremony for their new temple. The governor, Sir William Haily, was the respected guest. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta held an initiation ceremony, and Prabhupada received initiation (harinama andGayatri) from him.

Previously, upon learning that Prabhupada had requested initiation, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta had remarked, “He likes to hear. He does not go away. I have marked him. I will accept him as my disciple.”

Prabhupada at Kumbha-mela

The Vedic literature states that whoever bathes in the Triveni-sangam at the auspicious time of the Kumbha-mela is guaranteed of liberation from birth and death. That is why the Mela has always attracted millions of pilgrims.

Yet Srila Prabhupada said, “We are not interested in liberation. We have come to preach devotional service. Being engaged in Krishna’s unalloyed devotional service, we are already liberated.”

In contrast to almost everyone present, Prabhupada emphasized giving spiritual knowledge as the prime reason for attending the Mela.The devotee’s only ambition is to enlighten as many people as possible. Pilgrimage was secondary. With this mood, the devotees attended the 1971 Kumbha-mela with Prabhupada and enthusiastically presented Krishna consciousness to the millions of pilgrims.

None of the western devotees had ever attended the Kumbha- mela. The many bizarre sights can bewilder and confuse the mind, but Prabhupada reminded the devotees that spiritual life is neither exotic nor bewildering, but simple and practical.

“To go to a holy place means to find a holy person and hear from him,” Prabhupada had said. “A place is holy because of the presence of the saintly persons.”

In a conversation recorded in January 1977 (just before the Kumbha-mela), Prabhupada said that the real purpose of the Kumbha-mela is to take advantage of the spiritual knowledge presented there:

The Kumbha-mela is sat-sanga. If you go to the Kumbha-mela to find out a man of knowledge, then your Kumbha-mela is right. If one thinks that this shalila, the water—to take bath in the water—is Kumbha-mela, then he is a go-kharah [a cow or an ass]. But the real idea is “Now there are assembled so many saintly persons. Let me take advantage of their knowledge.” Then he is intelligent. People should take advantage. You can go to different groups of saintly persons. Different groups means brahmeti paramatmeti bhagavan iti. There are some yogis, some jnanis, some bhaktas. They are of the same category, little difference. But they’re all spiritual. They have no interest in this material world.

Some Real Yogis

Srila Prabhupada said that although many of the sadhus present were inauthentic and didn’t really know the highest goal of human life, many were perfect yogis. These yogis, from remote parts of India, would come out for the Mela and then return to seclusion.

“I have personally seen,” Prabhupada said, “that they take bath in the Ganges and come up in the seven sacred rivers. They go down in the Ganges and come up in the Godavari River. Then they go down and come up in the Krishna River, and go down, like that.”

The devotees, therefore, should respect everyone who attended the Mela.

Prabhupada also explained that one is not liberated automatically by taking bath at the Kumbha-mela on the specific auspicious days. But by coming to the holy tirtha and taking bath on the holy days, the door to liberation gets opened.

“If you are trying to enter a room and the door is closed,” he said, “there is some prohibition. It is more difficult for you to enter the room. But if the door is opened for you, then your entrance to the room is easier.”

Monkey Renunciation

After the 1977 Kumbha-mela, the story of the death of a Naga Baba made the national newspapers. Wearing no clothing, he had died from the extreme cold.

Prabhupada commented on the incident.

“He must die. They imitate. They have no sadhana [regulated spiritual practice], no bhajana [worship], and simply naga [naked].”

The devotees told Prabhupada that the imitators smoke chillums (marijuana) and become so intoxicated that they don’t feel the cold. One disciple told Prabhupada that he had seen a Naga who had been smoking cigarettes for twelve years without stopping. Another man had been holding his arm up in the air for the past twelve years. His fingernails had grown very long, and his arm was flat. Another renunciant hadn’t sat down for eighteen years. He carried a small swing with him, which he would tie to a tree and lean on.

“This is markata-vairagya, the renunciation of a monkey,” Prabhupada said, referring to the type of renunciation that, although difficult to perform, doesn’t produce any advancement in Krishna consciousness. The monkeys also have no clothes to wear and live in treetops in the secluded forest, but the male monkeys have a large group of female monkeys to sport with.

Some devotees concluded that severe penance was not recommended anywhere in the Vedas, but Prabhupada corrected them: “No, Hiranyakashipu did it. But what did he gain? He became a rakshasa [demon] and was killed.”

The Significance of Prayag

The word prayag refers to a place where great sacrifices are held. Many ages ago, Lord Brahma chose as a place for sacrifice a prime piece of land encircled by three sacred rivers: the Ganges, the Yamuna, and the Sarasvati. That site became known a Prayag. In A.D. 1573, the Mogul king Akbar erected a large fort at the confluence of the three rivers and renamed the city Ilahabas or Ilahabad, “the city of Allah.” From that time, Prayag became known as Allahabad.

The confluence of the three rivers is known as the Triveni- sangam. Tri means “three,” veni refers to a braid, and sangam means “union.” The dark blue and black Yamuna flows swiftly into the white and gray Ganges. The Sarasvati flows underground.

Bathing in any of these sacred rivers is purifying, but the purification is said to increase a hundred times where the rivers meet. The Varaha Purana states: “In Prayag there is the Triveni. By bathing there one goes to heaven, and by dying there one gets liberation. It is the king of all tirthas [holy places of pilgrimage] and is dear to Lord Vishnu.”

Lord Brahma has said, prayagasya pravesheshu papam nashyanti tatkshanam: “All sins are at once cleansed upon entering Prayag.”

Many exalted saints and sages have visited Prayag. Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, Lord Nityananda, and Advaita Acarya all spent time there during pilgrimage tours.

The Hub of the Spiritual World

Many great devotees reside eternally at the Radha-Damodara temple, one of the oldest temples in Vrindavana.

"Vrindavana is a charmingly beautiful place, and situated there in the grove known as Seva Kunja is the sacred temple of Radha-Damodara. I take the lotus feet of these Deities as my only shelter, and I petition Them to be kind upon me and guide me to life’s ultimate goal.”—Srila Prabhupada

Today I have the great fortune of being in Vrindavana, India, home to some five thousand temples of Lord Krishna. For a few weeks during the holy month of Damodara (October- November), I have left aside all my worldly commitments in search of spiritual rejuvenation. Here, in this sacred place at this auspicious time, any service performed for Lord Krishna is said to be magnified one thousand times.

Lord Krishna sported in Vrindavana five thousand years ago. About four hundred years ago Lord Chaitanya’s principal disciples, the six Goswamis, established several temples in Vrindavana that today remain the central places of worship. I’m on my way to visit one of those famous original temples—the Radha-Damodara temple—just off busy Loi Bazaar. “Damodara” is a name for Krishna that means “bound at the waist.” Krishna’s mother once bound His belly with ropes when He was a playful young boy. Alongside Krishna at the Radha-Damodara temple, as with most temples in Vrindavana, stands Radha, His eternal consort.

My ricksha driver takes me through the narrow, twisting, crowded streets of Vrindavana. It has been ten years since I last came here, but everything looks familiar. We pass by chanting pilgrims, busy shopkeepers, women carrying goods on their heads, and laughing children calling “Haribol!” [“Chant God’s name!”] Then there are the animals—cows, pigs, dogs, camels, horses, and the mischievous monkeys.

After paying the ricksha driver ten rupees, I proceed barefoot, the reverential way to tread on holy soil. After a short walk I come to the gateway of the Radha-Damodara temple. The temple is not visible from the arched gateway, which looks like it might be the entrance to a private house. During the infamous attacks on Vrindavana’s temples in 1670, the Moguls went straight past Radha-Damodara, mistaking it for a private residence and sparing the temple from attack. Out of fear of the Moguls, the temple priests had already moved the original Radha-Damodara Deities to Jaipur, a stronghold of Krishna devotees, where the Deities remain today.

To the left of the gateway the main entrance comes into view. Before entering the temple, I wash my feet at the tap near the door. As I pass through the stone archway, everything appears just as I remember it. An old festival cart lies next to the doorway. Sacred Tulasi plants grace each corner of the open-air central courtyard. At the right-hand corner near the altar, a checkered marble floor leads to the rooms where my spiritual grandfather, Srila Prabhupada, lived and wrote for several years before bringing Krishna consciousness to the West. I climb the marble steps toward the central altar and pay my respects to the Deities.

Thousands of visitors come here every year. Today about a dozen local worshipers have come to see the Deities’ arati (worship) ceremony. Soon, a pujari (priest) appears in the Deities’ chamber and offers the Deities incense, a flaming lamp, water, a silk handkerchief, and a yak-tail fan. The pujaris perform this ceremony several times a day. As the pujari makes the offerings, a devotee rhythmically rings a large bell suspended overhead. With enthusiastic calls of “Jaya Damodara!” [All glory to Damodara!] and “Radhe Radhe!” [O Radha! O Radha!”], the devotees begin congregational chanting of the holy names. Radha- Damodara—Their beautiful eyes resembling lotus petals—share their altar with Radha’s assistant Lalita and three other sets of Radha-Krishna Deities.

Before building any temples in Vrindavana, the Goswamis worshiped their Deities in the hollows of trees. The original Damodara Deity, now in Jaipur, is only eight inches high. Sri Rupa Goswami carved the Deity in 1542 for his disciple Sri Jiva Goswami. Finding a hollow big enough for the new Damodara Deity would be difficult—He’s nearly five feet tall.

Today Damodara’s dark form and Radha’s golden form are dressed in white with golden jewelry. Sandalwood- paste designs adorn Their faces. Krishna wears a garland of sacred Tulasi leaves and flowers, while Radha’s is made of lotus buds. The divine couple smile sweetly. The other Deities are similarly decorated.

At the end of the arati the pujari blows a conch shell and then distributes Tulasi leaves from the Deities to eager outstretched hands. It is said that anyone who tastes Tulasi leaves that have touched Krishna’s body will achieve the Lord’s abode. A small donation enables me to see the Govardhana-shila (a stone from sacred Govardhana Hill) of Sri Sanatana Goswami, kept here on the altar. The pujari lifts the large shila and shows me the marks of Krishna’s footprint and a calf’s hoofprint. Krishna gave the stone to Sri Sanatana Goswami to worship, as explained in the following story.

Sri Sanatana Goswami had taken a vow to walk around Govardhana Hill every day. (Such circumambulation, as devotees usually call it, is the traditional way to offer respect to a sacred place or object.) When Sri Sanatana Goswami became old, he struggled to complete the twentyfour-mile walk. Lord Krishna appeared to him and said that now that he was old there was no need to go around Govardhana every day. Sanatana Goswami replied that he had taken a vow and did not want to stop. Krishna then instructed him to bring a stone from Govardhana. Krishna stood on the stone and played His flute, which attracted a nearby calf. The stone began to melt in ecstasy, and Krishna’s footprint and the calf’s hoofprint left impressions on the stone. Krishna then told Sanatana Goswami that four times round this stone would equal going around Govardhana Hill.

Nirmal Chhandra Goswami and his five sons take care of the Deity worship here. His family has been serving Radha-Damodara for generations, being the disciplic descendants of Sri Jiva Goswami. The pujari services here and in the rest of Vrindavana are strictly for men only. The women cook and do other services.

Prabhupada’s Rooms

The curtains close, and I pay obeisances and descend the steps. I’m on my way to Srila Prabhupada’s rooms.

Srila Prabhupada, the founder-acharya of ISKCON, stayed at the Radha-Damodara temple from 1959 to 1965. It was the last place he lived before going to the West. His memory is very much alive here.

Srila Prabhupada used two rooms: his living quarters and a kitchen. I lightly tap on the brown wire-meshed door to the main room. On entering I see the life-sized murti (carved form) of Srila Prabhupada at his desk, pen poised in hand. Here he translated the first volumes of Srimad- Bhagavatam into English. The room has the Hare Krishna mantra painted in Sanskrit around the top of the walls. Although the room is small, Srila Prabhupada was fond of it. “I live eternally in my rooms at Radha-Damodara temple,” he said.

Facing the main room is the kitchen. At one end of the kitchen a small window looks out at Sri Rupa Goswami’s samadhi. Srila Prabhupada would sit and take his meals here, and he took Sri Rupa Goswami’s full blessings to start the worldwide Hare Krishna movement. I imagine how this took place here in Srila Prabhupada’s rooms, which possess a magical atmosphere.

The Samadhi Area

After paying respects to my spiritual grandfather, I make my way to the samadhi area outside, where a compact courtyard enshrines the remains of some of the greatest spiritual masters in the line of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.

Chanting softly on my beads, I come face to face with several Vrajavasis, residents of holy Vrindavana. We hardly know a word of each other’s language, but “Hare Krishna” says it all. They smile with approval that I have taken up Krishna consciousness.

The step leading to the samadhis has worn smooth, bearing witness to the countless souls who have passed through here.

The Radha-Damodara temple has many samadhis. The first on the right belong to Sri Krishnadasa Kaviraja Goswami [see sidebar, page 24] and Sri Jiva Goswami.

One of the six Goswamis, Sri Jiva Goswami organized the construction of the Radha-Damodara temple. Born in 1513, he was the youngest of the six Goswamis and assisted the others. After the departure of the other Goswamis, Sri Jiva Goswami was left in charge of the temples they had established. A great scholar and philosopher, he wrote more books than any of the other Goswamis. At one time the Radha-Damodara temple held an impressive library. The temple was also famed for discourses given by Sri Rupa Goswami and Sri Jiva Goswamis, which attracted devotees from all over India.

I pay respects and then look up to see a couple of monkeys watching me. They seem to detect I don’t come very often and are hoping I’ll leave my possessions unattended. People regularly lose their glasses to monkeys, who take them to the bazaar to trade for food.

Nearby stands the samadhi of King Birhambhir of Vana Vishnupura, who stole the Goswamis’ writings when they were being transported to Bengal. He later became a great devotee of Lord Krishna.

Further down stands the white square pushpa (flower) samadhi of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, the spiritual master of Srila Prabhupada. Looking along the rows of samadhis I see flower garlands offered anonymously here and there. Two old women pass by in white saris, the dress of widows. One carries a plastic bag of milk. A hole in the bottom produces a trail—her way of honoring the sacred ground she treads. A small squirrel scurries about. How fortunate for him to be living at the Radha-Damodara temple, which Srila Prabhupada called the hub of the spiritual world.

Continuing around the pathway, I notice an enclosed area with the most healthy looking Tulasi plants I have ever seen, along with roses and jasmine.

Sri Rupa Goswami’s Courtyard

Through an archway Sri Rupa Goswami’s saffron-colored bhajana-kutira (“worship hut”) and graceful samadhi come into view. This area contrasts sharply with the other side of the temple courtyard, which is packed with dozens of samadhis. Except for these two memorials to Sri Rupa Goswami, and two small samadhis, only shining ground tiles fill the open courtyard. Every evening after the seven o’clock arati, chanting and singing devotees form a procession and go around the temple four times, ending here at Sri Rupa Goswami’s samadhi.

In 1516 Sri Rupa Goswami and his elder brother, Sri Sanatana Goswami, came to Vrindavana under the direction of Lord Chaitanya, who gave them the tasks of building temples, installing Deities, writing books, spreading Krishna consciousness, and finding the lost sites of Radha- Krishna’s pastimes. The brothers wandered like mendicants all over Vrindavana, sleeping under a different tree every night. When they came to Seva Kunja, the site of this temple, Sri Rupa Goswami selected it for his headquarters.

No temples or buildings stood here then, just some trees. Every day the Goswamis would meet here to discuss Krishna’s pastimes and give discourses. Sri Rupa Goswami would write books here, sometimes on palm leaves and sometimes on handmade paper. His beautiful handwriting was said to resemble rows of pearls. Considered the leader of the six Goswamis, Sri Rupa Goswami treated his elder brother, Sri Sanatana Goswami, as his guru and the others as his assistants. I bow before Sri Rupa Goswami’s samadhi.

Kanika Prasada Goswami, a member of the resident Goswami family, tells me that Sri Jiva Goswami would wash his feet in the pit beside the samadhi before serving his guru. Praying for his blessings, I happily place some of the dust from this holy spot to my head. One white and two dark trees produce some shade in this courtyard. Kanika Prasada tells me the white tree represents Western devotees who have taken to Krishna consciousness.

Out of all the wonderful places in Vrindavana, I especially like visiting the Vaishnava samadhis. Being at the samadhis enables me to feel closer to all these great personalities, who are actually present. They are able to give their blessings to those who seek their shelter. A poem by Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura, a pioneer in spreading Krishna consciousness to the West, explains the influence of a devotee before and after his departure:

He reasons ill who tells that
Vaishnavas die
When thou art living still in sound!
The Vaishnavas die to live, and living try
To spread the holy name around!

A nearby doorway brings me back into the temple courtyard. As I leave I silently pray to Radha-Damodara and all the devotees eternally residing there that I may come back to their wonderful temple well before another ten years goes by.

The Other Deities of the Radha-Damodara Temple

Radha Vrindavana Chandra, the tallest Deities on the altar here, were worshiped by Sri Krishnadasa Kaviraja Goswami. A great scholar, he wrote SriChaitanya-caritamrita and Govinda-lilamrita. Sri Jiva Goswami awarded him the title Kaviraja, “king of poets.”

Radha-Madhava are the Deities of Jayadeva Goswami. A pandita in the royal court of Bengal, he left the opulence of palace life to write devotional songs. His works include Gita-Govinda, a poem about Krishna’s pastimes that is recited daily in the Jagannatha temple in Puri.

Radha-Chalachikan are the Deities of Bhugarbha Goswami, a close friend of Lokanatha Goswami. They were contemporaries of the six Goswamis and worked to uncover the lost pastime places of Radha and Krishna. To avoid material distractions, Bhugarbha Goswami performed his devotions underground. His samadhi is here at Radha-Damodara.