Holy Places

The Rescue of Govindaji

A devotee-king uses his royal power and opulence to protect and glorify the Supreme Lord.

There are indeed many examples of kings who misused their royal position. But there have also been many saintly rulers. Jai Singh II, king of Amir from 1699 to 1745, ascended the throne at the age of thirteen. He quickly mastered engineering, architecture, mathematics, and astronomy. And like his father and grandfather, he was a devotee of Lord Krishna. With daring and devotion, at the age of nineteen he rescued the Govindaji Deity and took Him to his fort in the hills of Rajasthan.

Although the rulers of ancient India and their royal states have passed into legend, the mere mention of a Maharaja or a royal palace of India still conjures up exotic, romantic images. A Maharaja’s luxury was a reflection of his power, and the palace in which he and his family and retinue lived represented an ethos and a way of life that have all but vanished.

Nowadays most people are unaware that the greatest of ancient India’s rulers were devotees of Lord Krishna who used their wealth and influence in His service. Indeed, the primary purpose of Vedic India’s ruling class was to protect religious principles. This they did, and the stories surrounding their activities are more alluring and fascinating than the myths that have grown up over the centuries.

One such true story concerns Govindaji, a Deity of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krishna. Devotees of Lord Krishna have traditionally worshiped Him in His Deity incarnation, which is made of stone, wood, clay, or other material elements. Since Krishna is the all-powerful Supreme Lord, He can appear anywhere, even in a form fashioned from matter. The Deity is not an idol—an imaginary form worshiped according to whim—but is shaped and worshiped according to directions given in the Vedic literature.

Krishna also appears personally on earth—as He did five thousand years ago in the district of Mathura in India. Such visits are rare, however, and therefore Krishna’s sincere devotees take advantage of the opportunity to worship Him in His Deity forms. Shortly after Krishna disappeared from the earth almost fifty centuries ago, a great devotee named Vajra established various Deities of the Lord, and one of these is Govindaji. (Govindaji is a name of Krishna that means “one who gives pleasure to the senses, cows, and land.”) These Deities were loved and worshiped for many centuries.

Then came the Moghul invasions, and all of northern India was plunged into war. People fled Mathura—but only after placing their beloved Deities within the earth and burying Them. They prayed that the Moghul rulers would not commit the offense of destroying the Deities, and they hoped the Deities might one day be discovered and worshiped again with full regalia.

Govindaji and the other Deities of Mathura remained hidden until the early 1500s, during the time of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu. * [*Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu is Krishna Himself in the role of His own devotee. He appeared five hundred years ago in India to teach love of God through the chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra.] At that time, two of Lord Caitanya’s chief disciples, Srila Rupa Gosvami and Srila Sanatana Gosvami, set about recovering Mathura’s ancient Deities.

One night, the Govindaji Deity whom Vajra had installed thousands of years ago appeared to Rupa Gosvami in a dream and revealed to him where He lay buried. Rupa Gosvami then excavated Govindaji and personally took charge of His regular worship. Being in the renounced order, however, he had no means for building a temple for his beloved Deity.

Rupa Gosvami was renowned as a great philosopher and as an authority on the Vedic literatures; therefore, he was often requested to attend the court of Emperor Akbar, who had a love for religious and philosophical discussion. Rupa Gosvami had written many books on the science of Krishna consciousness, and his writings, which embodied the very essence of spiritual wisdom, intrigued Akbar. After all, the emperor was an avid reader of the world’s great scriptures, and Rupa Gosvami had mastered the Vedas, the most time-honored and comprehensive of them all.

Akbar had a dear friend named Man Singh. As a general in the emperor’s army, Man Singh faithfully executed many arduous tasks, eventually attaining the post of king of Amir. Like Akbar, Man Singh was fascinated by Rupa Gosvami, and he one day set out for Vrindavana to meet the great saint. On meeting Rupa Gosvami, Man Singh became convinced of his exalted character. Wanting to render service to this genuine holy man, he decided to finance the building of a magnificent temple in Vrindavana for the Govindaji Deity. For five full years, several thousand men labored with great care, building one of the most gorgeous temples in the world.

The temple was four stories high, with an altar of marble, silver, and gold. A sculptured lotus flower weighing several tons decorated the main hall, where pilgrims thronged daily to see the Deity. Thus Govindaji was again being worshiped with great opulence and devotion. This continued until the early eighteenth century.

Aurangzeb, one of the last in the line of Moghul rulers, was a tyrant and an avowed enemy of Vedic culture. He plundered much of India, destroying many beautiful temples and their Deities. During the time of Aurangzeb’s infamous emperorship, Man Singh’s grandson, Jai Singh II, ascended the throne of Amir at the age of only thirteen. As he grew to manhood, he quickly mastered engineering, architecture, town-planning, mathematics, and astronomy. And like his father and grandfather, he was a devotee of Lord Krishna. Although he extended his patronage to all communities equally, the Krishna devotees enjoyed his special favor, because he understood the devotees to be engaged in the very essence of authentic spirituality.

One night as the aging Aurangzeb sat on his veranda enjoying the clear night and starry sky, he noticed one stationary star. On inquiring from his servant, he learned that the so-called stationary star was, in fact, the fire atop the Govindaji temple in Vrindavana, some ninety miles away. Unable to control his fury and envy, Aurangzeb vowed to blot out the disconcerting star.

That very day, Jai Singh II, now nineteen, was visiting the royal court at Agra. When he heard that Aurangzeb was going to destroy the temple of Govindaji, the temple his grandfather had built for Rupa Gosvami, he became overwhelmed with disgust and anger. Immediately Jai Singh set out for Vrindavana with a plan to save Govindaji. He knew he would be unable to save the temple, but at least he could rescue the Deity.

On arriving in Vrindavana, Jai Singh warned the people, who then fled the town. Jai Singh next carefully removed Govindaji from the splendor of His temple and, in great haste to avoid Aurangzeb’s advancing army, transported Govindaji to his well-fortified capital in the desert hills of Rajasthan.

When Aurangzeb and his army reached the Govindaji temple, Aurangzeb was furious to find that the Deity was gone and the townspeople had been alerted. Still, with hundreds of war elephants and thousands of men, he began to bring down the mammoth Govindaji temple, story by story, until only one story remained. All of a sudden, the ground of Vrindavana began to shake violently. Aurangzeb’s men were terrified and ran for their lives, never to return.

Although Aurangzeb wanted to kill Jai Singh for disrupting his plans, he was now old and faced more pressing problems within his empire. He soon died in South India.

With the rapid decay of the Moghul empire after Aurangzeb, Jai Singh’s reputation as a righteous and powerful ruler grew. At the age of forty, he envisioned an immense new city, with Lord Govindaji at the center, residing within a beautiful temple. And as fifty-five thousand men labored for fifteen years, the dream began to manifest. Thus Jai Singh created his “City of Victory,” Jaipur, a dedication to Lord Govindaji.

Jaipur city was fashioned according to Silpa- shastra, the part of the Vedas dealing with architecture and design. And although established in the early eighteenth century, it is still functional and appreciated for its masterful construction. The city was arranged on a grid of wide avenues connected by smaller roads, all focusing on the palace at its heart. Govindaji’s temple stood in a beautiful garden by the palace, and when the temple doors were open, Jai Singh could see his beloved Deity from the royal quarters. Government buildings and open marketplaces surrounded the central palace and temple, and a forty-five- foot-high wall circled the entire city. With God at its center, Jaipur was the ideal city, and today it is the capital of Rajasthan.

From the story of Govindaji we can see how Lord Krishna gives His devotees opportunities to serve Him in magnificent ways. Jai Singh’s grandfather, Man Singh, was able, by the Lord’s grace, to build a magnificent temple for Govindaji. And although that temple was later partially destroyed, Jai Singh had the opportunity to rescue and protect Govindaji and to later construct for Him an entire city. Thus the devotee is always unshaken, seeing even a dangerous situation as an opportunity offered by the Lord to render loving service.

Postscript

In 1972, when His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder-acarya of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, traveled to Jaipur with some of his Western disciples, Govindaji was still being worshiped by thousands of devotees, Srila Prabhupada and his followers were happy to see this. Thus, there was a mutual exchange of love between the inhabitants of Jaipur and the ISKCON devotees, for these devotees were also worshipers of Lord Govinda, or Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead.

Just as Srila Prabhupada’s American and European disciples were moved to see a living legend of Krishna consciousness in Jaipur, so the queen of Jaipur, Maharani Gayatri Devi, was moved by the devotion of Srila Prabhupada and his followers. To show her appreciation, she offered Srila Prabhupada a pair of large marble Deities of Radha and Krishna, similar to the original Radha-Govindaji Deities. Srila Prabhupada accepted the Deities and immediately shipped Them to his ISKCON center in New York. The Deities, he said, would be known as Radha-Govinda.

The Ride to Rama Giri

An American disciple of Srila Prabhupada and his Indian Sikh friend ride their classic motorcycles to an ancient hilltop shrine.

I first saw SAW Rama Giri before you were born,” I say, boasting to my young Sikh friend Anukaran, trying to stir his interest in visiting the hill (giri) of Lord Ramachandra with me.

“I’ve never been there,” he replies, “although I was born just thirty miles away in Nagpur.”

“So why don’t we ride up there tomorrow? We can take the Enfields.”

“Let’s get an early start,” he says, accepting the invitation. “I can leave at nine.”

Anukaran Singh was born in a wealthy Indian family, descendants of proud Punjabi Sikh warriors who generation after generation have laid down their lives against successive waves of tyrannical invaders. Despite his involvement with his family’s business, Anukaran is frank about wanting to reestablish his link with India’s ancient heritage, the birthright of anyone born in this vast and diverse land.

“In the 70s, it was the fashion to be ignorant of our civilization and culture,” Anukaran jokes. “For my present generation, it is the fashion to know more about our actual heritage.”

Anukaran is a founding member of the Nagpur Royal Enfield Club, a group of motorcycle riders dedicated to promoting bike safety in a country largely dependent on two-wheeled transport. Everything has its service, and the real use for everything is service to Krishna. So tomorrow Anukaran and I will use our classic Enfields in the service of tirtha- yatra, traveling to holy places.

It will be our privilege to journey to the sacred hill where the Personality of Godhead Lord Rama, His wife and queen, Sita Devi, and younger brother Lakshmana were received by the great ascetic Agastya Muni. Ever since that memorable hilltop meeting, the Agastya ashram has been honored by pilgrims as Rama Giri.

History Of Rama Giri

Millions of years ago in the age called Treta-yuga, the Supreme Personality of Godhead Lord Sri Krishna descended as a king: Lord Rama, or Ramachandra. Lord Ramachandra’s adventures—His lilas—were written down by the adikavi (“first poet”) Valmiki Muni. Valmiki literally means “he who comes from an anthill.” By meditating on Lord Rama’s transcendental lila, Valmiki became so steadfastly absorbed in the yoga of spiritual trance that huge jungle ants were able to build a hill all about him. After many years he emerged from the anthill to scribe the 24,000-verse Sanskrit scripture Ramayana, the world’s oldest book.

The purpose of Lord Rama’s advent is to attract us conditioned souls to the timeless, transcendental path of bhakti-yoga, devotional service. By reading the Lord’s pastimes in the Srimad-Bhagavatam or Sri Ramayana, and by hearing of His exceptional prowess from the lips of pure devotees like Srila Prabhupada, even the unsophisticated soul becomes drawn to the blissful security of genuine spiritual life. If a pilgrimage is undertaken in a spirit of remembrance of the Lord’s lila, then visiting the holy places connected with His pastimes—places like Vrindavana or Ayodhya, or in this case Rama Giri—can be purifying, uplifting, and helpful in the all-important quest for inner development.

Since time immemorial each of us embodied jiva souls has been revolving through the grim cycle of rebirth—samsara. To deliver His servants trapped in the net of maya, God comes Himself or sends His avatar for our salvation from the delusion of material ignorance. Attraction to the lotus feet of the Lord, acceptance of His divine shelter, and the joyful singing of His name open the door for going back home, back to Godhead.

To this day, millions of years after the advent of Sita- Rama, their followers number in the hundreds of millions. The supreme royal couple is even worshiped outside India. In Thailand, for example, a quarter-mile stretch of the halls of the royal palace is artistically painted with scenes from the Ramayana. In the island of Bali in Indonesia, and also in Cambodia and Nepal, thousands more Rama temples can be found. In every corner of India, from tiny village shrines to fabulous temple palaces like Hare Krishna Land at Juhu Beach, Mumbai, the transcendental form of Lord Rama is worshiped, His all-liberating name sung by His devotees.

According to Valmiki’s Ramayana, Sri Rama, on the order of His father, King Dasharatha, left His hometown of Ayodhya (in present-day Uttar Pradesh State) and embraced forest life. “As the full moon enters a cloud bank,” Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana wandered south through the woods to the mountain Chitrakuta. From there they wended their way into Madhya Bharata (central India), hiking through the valleys of the holy Vindhya Hills and crossing the sacred Narmada River. Then they came to the vast Dandaka Forest, the abode of hermits. As Lord Sri Rama passed through Dandaka Forest, Srila Prabhupada recalls in TheNectar of Devotion, many sages achieved perfection in yoga just by seeing Him. With their dormant love of Godhead awakened, these fortunate rishis were later (in Dvapara-yuga) reborn as gopis (cowherd girls) in the lila of Lord Sri Krishna, the original Supreme Personality of Godhead. (Srila Prabhupada and Srila Rupa Gosvami have drawn this information from the Padma Purana.)

The divine threesome camped here and there, bearing bravely the hardships of jungle life and finally arriving at the ashram of Agastya Muni, atop what is now called Rama Giri. As a king, a member of the kshatriya class, Lord Rama offered His respects to the brahmana Agastya Muni with sweet words. The Lord feels so grateful to His devotees that He bows before them, just as Lord Sri Krishna once bowed down to wash the feet of the poor brahmana Sudama.

The incomparable Agastya Muni was tri-kala-jna: He could see the three features of time—past, present, and future. Hence he was well aware that Sri Rama was none other than the almighty Vishnu Himself and that in the very near future He would fight a great war with the enemies of dharma, the demons (asuras).

Many sages of the Dandaka Forest had already suffered grievous harassment at the hands of atheistic asuras, and many had fallen victim to their evil schemes. Yet try as they might, none of these asuras could trap the wily Agastya. Through his unbreakable penance and high intelligence, the sage had even outwitted the evil duo Ilvala and Vatapi. Ilvala, taking the form of a Sanskrit-speaking brahmana, would invite different sages to share a meal. Then Vatapi would assume the form of the meal. After dinner Ilvala would smile and say, “Come out, Vatapi,” and Vatapi would suddenly burst forth, splitting the poor rishi’s belly.

Once Agastya, requested by the devas (demigods), accepted Ilvala’s invitation to dine with him. After the meal, the grinning Ilvala called for his wicked brother to exit the sage’s body.

But Agastya smiled and declared, “Your brother cannot come out now because he has already been sent to the abode of Yamaraja [the Lord of death] by the fire of my digestion.”

The infuriated Ilvala sprang forward, rushing at Agastya, but one stern and fiery look from the powerful sage reduced him to ashes in an instant.

Agastya once requested the Vindhya Mountains to bow low, because their towering peaks were blocking the sun. Agastya promised the lord of the Vindhyas that his rolling hills could rise up and become mountains again after Agastya returned from the south. To keep the Vindhyas humble, Agastya never went north again. Instead he made his hermitage at Rama Giri, in the Deccan, south of the Vindhyas. That is how the Vindhya Mountains became the Vindhya Hills, India’s traditional line of North-South division.

Saint Agastya received Sita, Rama, and Lakshmana with customary offerings of fruit and flowers. Then he presented Lord Rama with the Brahma-datta bow, which Lord Indra had earlier entrusted to his care. The bow had been inset with diamonds by its creator, Vishvakarma, the engineer of the universe. Along with the bow, Agastya handed over to Sri Rama a quiver of arrows that included the undefeatable brahmastra weapon. Lord Ramachandra was also given a sword in a bejeweled scabbard.

In His talks with the sages of Dandaka Forest near and about Agastya’s hilltop hermitage, Rama took a vow to vanquish the trouble-making demons. When the Lord took His vow, Rama Giri shook.

By accepting the weapons from Agastya, the Lord displayed His intention of protecting His devotees. Today the village at the foot of Rama Giri is called Rama Tek, literally “Rama’s vow.” In Bhagavad-gita (4.7- 8) Lord Krishna explains His vow to shelter His devotees: “Whenever and wherever there is a decline in religious practice, O descendant of Bharata, and a predominant rise of irreligion—at that time I descend Myself. To deliver the pious and to annihilate the miscreants, as well as to reestablish the principles of religion, I Myself appear, millennium after millennium.”

Much later at Sri Lanka, during the battle with Ravana and his demonic horde, Sri Rama’s charioteer, Matali, was to remind Rama of the weapons presented by Agastya Muni. True to Agastya’s vision and Rama’s promise, Rama fired the arrow imbued with brahmastra mantras into the heart of Ravana, where the demon had stored amrita, nectar of deathlessness. [See the sidebar “Champion of the True and Righteous.”]

Whether protecting Prahlada as Nrisimha, the sages of Dandaka Forest as Rama, Arjuna as Krishna, or the Hare Krishna sankirtana party as Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu, the Lord defends His devotee in every age. That is His promise.

The Trip

At 9:00 the next morning, Anukaran pulled up and revved his engine in front of the house of Baba, my brother-in-law, where I was staying as a guest. I rushed out and kick-started my Enfield Bullet.

“Let’s get going,” I advised him. “The auspicious timefor departure lasts for only another fifteen minutes.” Within seconds we were headed north to Rama Giri.

After an hour of country riding, sunburned and smiling, we saw the hill of Lord Rama off to our right. Leaning east, we rode through Ram Tek village, with its unusual collection of shops, ashrams, dharmshalas (pilgrim’s rest houses), and Buddhist Ayurvedic ashrams.

Riding through the narrow lanes of merchants and farm animals, we at last found ourselves on the twisting road up the hill to the peak of Rama Giri. About half way to the top, we slowed down to pass a group of several dozen pada- yatris, “pilgrims who go by foot.” Judging by the dhoti-like way the women tied their saris, I guessed they were a group of Maharastrian villagers. Some walked barefoot, not for want of shoes, but for the higher merit accrued for the austerity.

As the last curve of the road widened to the top, we found ourselves before the steep rock wall of Rama Giri fort. I was to learn that the fort was built several centuries ago by kings of the Bhonsle clan. Rama Giri was chosen as the fort’s site for two reasons: (1) strategically, the hill offers a 360-degree view of the surrounding area, which it was the kings’ duty to protect, and (2) Vedic kings, even as late as the eighteenth century, were impelled by their burning religious convictions to guard holy areas.

In 1827, however, after the Bhonsle warriors suffered defeat at the hands of British invaders at the Battle of Sitalbuldi, their reign over the area rapidly deteriorated. Today the fort with its old tanks and temples is a protected monument, a historical oddity frozen in time.

After parking the Enfields, we paid our obeisances to the huge, rare deity of Lord Vishnu-Varaha who overlooks the valley and the fort. This is one of two giant Varaha deities weighing several tons that I know of. There are two Varaha temples in Mathura, ancient ones visited by Lord Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, as documented by “the king of poets” Krishnadasa Kaviraja in his most inspiring Sri Caitanya- caritamrita. There is also a beautiful white marble deity of Lord Varaha worshiped in a fine temple along the shores of Pushkar Lake in Rajasthan. But the only other deity of Lord Varaha of this immense size is the svayam-bhu (“self-manifested”) Sri Vishnu-Varahaji of Majholi, Madhya Pradesh. I was unable to ascertain the ancient history of the Ram Giri Varahaji, probably one of the two largest in all of India. After garlanding Lord Varaha and receiving prasadam from the priest, Anukaran and I entered the ashram of Agastya Muni.

Lavishly preserved in marble and carefully maintained by a group of devoted sadhus, the hermitage has been developed as a pilgrims’ destination of much importance. Even the yajna-shala, the holy place of fire sacrifice where the rishi received Lord Rama, has been continuously maintained since Treta-yuga. An iron door has been installed over Agastya’s deep cave of meditation; only select yogis are allowed entrance into the chamber, called Hatiphor. The ashram’s astute crew of ascetics display extreme care in the upkeep and worship of Saint Agastya’s shrine. Their devotion reveals that they have correctly understood the place’s Puranic significance.

Beyond Agastya Muni’s peaceful cave is a large group of temples, the first of which is dedicated to Lakshmana, who led the way to Rama Giri, announcing to the sages the arrival of his brother and sister-in-law. This explains why the Lakshmana Mandir is first. The other temples are separately dedicated to Lord Rama, Goddess Sita, and Bhakta Hanuman.

The local history of the deities is noteworthy. In 1736 King Raghu Bhonsle visited Rama Giri only to discover that just the padukas—or wooden sandals—of Lord Rama were being worshiped. The deities were no longer present. The king vowed to commission Jaipur deities for the temple. But once the sacred murtis were prepared for temple installation—prana-pratishtha—the king had a dream in which Lord Rama told him to search under the waters of the River Sur a few miles north. Finally, in 1753, the original deities were discovered and re-installed atop Rama Giri amidst much festivity and celebration. The Jaipur deities are privately cared for in a reserved area.

Anukaran and I lingered at each temple, offering whatever rupees we had to spare. After darshana, we climbed up the steps to the top of the fortress wall to view the vast valley of farmland, lakes, and tiny villages encircling Rama Giri. Gently at first, the sound of kirtana, the yuga-dharma of chanting of the Lord’s holy name, wafted up from the temple room, accompanied by the ringing of karatalas (hand cymbals). The pada- yatri pilgrims we had passed on the road were now sitting peacefully before Lord Rama’s deity, singing His holy names. Now every face within earshot reflected blissful meditation upon God. [See the sidebar “The Power of Rama’s Name.”]

More Enfields To Rama Giri

We fell into silence as our attention now drifted to the pristine beauty of the sacred lake below, Ambala Kund. Around the still waters of the lake, temples and shade trees dot the shore. The lake is said to have been named for King Amba, who was cured of a terrible disease after his bath in these waters, which originate from an underground river called Patala Ganga.

In the eighteenth century King Raghu Bhonsle had the lake and many of the shore temples renovated with fine stone work. These temples include those of Jagannatha, Pancamukhi Mahadeva (“five-faced Siva”), and Surya Narayana (the Sun incarnation of Vishnu).

Carried more by spiritual energy than reason at this point, Anukaran and I found ourselves in the saddles of the Enfields, riding downhill toward Ambala Kund. Finding a shady spot, we pulled over. The noonday sun overhead told me it was time for my Gayatri meditation. After a dip and prayers, the silence was broken when Anukaran mused, “I’ve ridden by Rama Giri many times with the Enfield Club, but somehow the beauty and meaning of the place were never before revealed to me.”

I’m back in San Francisco now, catching up on bills and household concerns. The trip to India, like so many I’ve taken there, now seems almost like a dream. Yesterday I checked my email and got this message: “The other members of the Enfield Club are eager to visit Rama Giri on our next ride. Hare Krishna. Anukaran.”

NOTE: Devotee-pilgrims who would like to visit Ram Tek and Rama Giri may make arrangements with the devotees at ISKCON Nagpur’s Sri Sri Radha-Madhava Temple.

The Power of Rama’s Name

Struck By The serenity of Lord Rama’s temple on Rama Giri, I took advantage of the uplifted mood to hazard a few words.

“Anukaran,” I began, “the worship of Lord Rama or Lord Sri Krishna is universal and is not intended only for some particular sect or religion. Their names are imbued with the potency to deliver anyone, any living entity, from every misery into the unlimited world of transcendental bliss. The name of the Lord is nondifferent from the person of the Lord Himself. Although He is the master of the personal spiritual worlds, inhabited by liberated souls absorbed in His loving service, He descends to our world for our deliverance. His worship is performed best in the Kali-yuga by the chanting of His name, a means open to members of all races and religions. The sankirtana movement Srila Prabhupada introduced to the entire world is essentially the same as the melodic vibrations which we are savoring even now.

“Lord Rama never fancied Himself to be some Hindu God. His is none other than the all-pervasive Vishnu, the Lord of the universe, and is accepted as such by sages like Agastya. See how Hanuman and his army of vanaras (monkeys), as well as jungle bears and even a squirrel, were impelled to offer their service unto Sri Rama, never considering any selfish rewards. You must be aware your fourth Sikh guru was named Guru Ramadas, ‘servant of Rama.’

“Just as worship of Lord Rama or Vishnu is uplifting and spiritually invigorating, so is the chanting of Their holy names. Lord Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu often quoted the Brihan- naradiya Purana verse harer nama harer nama harer namaiva kevalam/ kalau nasty eva nasty eva nasty eva gatir anyatha: ‘The holy name! The holy name! The holy name! In this iron age called Kali-yuga there is no other way, no other way, no other way to reach the goal!’

“In fact, quite along these lines your Guru Granth Sahib, which I spent a week at Amritsar studying, plainly advises: ‘The name of the Lord Hari destroys all miseries and purifies sinners, O beloved. … Through service to Sri Hari is the highest platform achieved. … The name of Sri Hari is the highest benediction in Kali- yuga.’ (Raga Asa, Mahala IV, Ghar II.1-2)

“In Kali-yuga the name of Rama is the boat that ferries the disciple. In this world and in the next the disciple of the guru lives in bliss by the grace of the name of Rama.

“Guru Nanak advises, ‘Having heard the name of Lord Rama, we have become absorbed with love of God. … The name of Rama pleases the chanter’s mind, and he achieves supreme happiness. He for whom the chanting of the name of Rama is a constant companion, even when leaving this world he never goes to the world of Yamaraja. O brother, I meditate on Lord Rama.’ ” (Raga Asa IV, Ghar I, Chant II, IX. 1, 2.3)

Champion of the True and Righteous

In a poetic translation of Ramayana, Sri Ramesh Chandra Dutta, a nineteenth-century Vaishnava poet from Bengal, described Ravana’s last moments and the joy of victory of Lord Rama’s troops:

Pike and club and mace and trident
scaped from Ravan’s vengeful hand,
Spear and arrows Rama wielded,
and his bright and flaming brand!
Long and dubious battle lasted,
shook the ocean, hill and dale,
Winds were hushed in voiceless terror
and the livid sun was pale,
Still the dubious battle lasted,
until Rama in his ire
Wielded Brahma’s deathful weapon
flaming with celestial fire!
Weapon which the Saint Agastya
had unto the hero given,
Winged as lightning dart of Indra,
fatal as the bolt of heaven,
Wrapped in smoke and flaming flashes,
speeding from the circled bow,
Pierced the iron heart of Ravan,
lain the lifeless hero low,
And a cry of pain and terror
from the Raksha ranks arose,
And a shout from joying Vanars
as they smote their fleeing foes!
Heavenly flowers in rain descended
on the red and gory plain,
And from unseen harps and timbrels
rose a soft celestial strain,
And the ocean heaved in gladness,
brighter shone the sunlit sky,
Soft and cool the gentle zephyrs
through the forest murmured by,
Sweetest scent and fragrant odours
wafted from celestial trees,
Fell upon the earth and ocean, rode
upon the laden breeze!
Voice of blessing from the bright sky
fell on Raghu’s valiant son,
“Champion of the true and righteous!
Now thy noble task is done!”

Tirumala-High Haven of Krishna Consciousness

Half a mile up in the mountains of South India, the temple of Lord Venkateshvara attracts pilgrims from all over the world.

Krishna has millions of names. Each name denotes one of His unlimited attributes. He is Rama, the source of bliss for His devotees; He is Hari, who takes away the anxieties of His devotees; He is Paramatma, the Supersoul in the hearts of all living entities;He is also called Vyenkateshvara, the “Lord of Vyenkatacala,” a chain of hills about one hundred fifty miles northwest of Madras, in South India.

Of course Krishna, being God, is the Lord of all hills. “Vyenkatacala” refers to the hills where He appeared in a self-manifested Deity form of Lord Vishnu some five millennia ago. The same Deity, also known as Balaji, now resides in a temple in the town of Tirumala, nestled half a mile up in the Vyenkatacala Hills, known today as the Eastern Ghats. This Vishnu temple is the most popular place of pilgrimage in all of India.

To get to Tirumala you must go into the Vyenkatacala Hills to Tirupati, a town founded by the great saintly devotee and reformer Sri Ramanuja (1017-1137). The primary function of Tirupati is to accommodate the tens of thousands of pilgrims traveling daily to and from Tirumala. Day and night a constant roar emanates from these hillsides, as bus after bus wends its way along the steep and winding mountain road.

If you arrive in Tirupati without a tour bus or some means of a ride to Tirumala, you’re in for a thrill. You can always walk up the eleven-kilometer (seven-mile) footpath—it’s well lighted at night. Or you might get a seat on board a local bus—one leaves Tirupati every three minutes, from 3:30 a.m. until night. If you board a bus early enough, you can arrive in Tirumala with sufficient daylight left to wait in line, see Lord Vyenkateshvara and the temple, then visit the other shrines and places of interest.

Although in Tirumala you will find much to see, your first priority will probably be to get in the long line that goes winding around the temple, from the front entrance and up into the sprawling Queue Complex, a covered stadiumlike building that holds as many as ten thousand devotees at a time, sheltering them during the long wait to enter the temple. Fortunately, because of the high altitude, the air in Tirumala is fresh, light, and cool. Even in the fierce South Indian summer the devotees are fairly comfortable while waiting to get darshana, the audience of Lord Balaji.

Waiting in line to enter the temple, you’ll have ample opportunity to take in one of the very fascinating features of the trip: the people. In Tirumala, you will see a greater cross section of Indian people than in any other single place in India (except for Allahabad during the Kumbha- mela, when, every twelve years, millions congregate to bathe in the Ganges). You’ll see bands of gypsies, their womenfolk in colorful full skirts ornamented with tiny mirrors sewn into the fabric. Perhaps you’ll encounter tribal people from the hills of Assam or from remote parts of Gujarat. You’ll see wealthy, sophisticated Hindus arriving from all over the globe. You’ll see acrobats, jugglers, traveling minstrels, and snake charmers; blissful ascetics, their bodies emaciated from austerities; wealthy businessmen and their families from Calcutta, Delhi, and Bombay. All these diverse peoples flow together, united in their eagerness to see the Personality of Godhead and win His grace.

Waiting in line is also a good opportunity to observe the magnificent architecture of the temple. From outside you can see the dome over the main entrance, teeming with depictions of demigods and various incarnations of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krishna. You can also admire the dome over Lord Vyenkateshvara’s altar. Thickly coated with pure gold, the dome glitters like the self-resplendent spiritual gem cintamani, of which all the buildings in the transcendental kingdom of God are made.

As the day progresses the town gets crowded. There is a perceptible difference, however, between this crowd and the kind of crowd you experience in cities like Bombay or New York. This is a peaceful crowd. The devotees have traveled hundreds, even thousands of miles to see the Deity and make their offerings of prayers and gifts; they are elated, but patient. Waiting to see the Deity, they read scripture, offer prayers to the Lord, chant on their beads, or make small talk. Thus, even though the town appears crowded and hectic, because everyone’s mind is on Lord Vyenkateshvara, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the atmosphere is always spiritual. Tirumala and the kingdom of God are identical in many ways. For example, the scriptures and great devotees teach that the chief distinction between the spiritual world and the material world is that in the material world everyone is forgetful of Krishna, whereas in the spiritual world everyone is fully conscious of Krishna. In Tirumala everyone is absorbed in remembering Krishna in His four-handed form of Balaji. Certainly such a place is not of this material world.

After seeing the Deity you can tour the rest of the temple and the other buildings within the temple compound. (No cameras are allowed.) You’ll find numerous statues and reliefs depicting the Lord’s incarnations and pastimes. And there are shrines and statues of many great devotees. The Deity’s gold and silver palanquins and other sacred paraphernalia are also on display.

That the Deity in Tirumala is a plenary form of Lord Vishnu, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, was not always known. Traditionally, a Deity of Lord Vishnu will bear in His hands certain distinguishing symbols: a lotus, a conch-shell, a discus, and a club. During the time of Ramanuja, however, in the eleventh century, Lord Vyenkateshvara’s two upper hands were empty. No one knew why. It was impossible to verify the true identity of the Deity. Was this a form of the Supreme Personality of Godhead or a form of a demigod? To further complicate matters, figures of snakes, symbols of Lord Siva, are on the body of the Deity. A dispute developed. Some claimed the Deity was Lord Siva, while others insisted it was Lord Vishnu.

In the midst of this feud, Ramanuja, a saint of great renown, came to Tirumala on pilgrimage. Both factions called on him to settle their dispute. Sri Ramanuja locked a gold discus and conch, symbols of Lord Vishnu, in the Deity’s room overnight. Next morning, all were astonished to find the conch and discus in the Deity’s hands, and since that day Lord Vyenkateshvara’s identity as Lord Krishna has never been questioned.

The temple of Lord Vyenkateshvara is the wealthiest in all of India, with an average income of three lakhs of rupees (thirty thousand dollars) a day. It is said that at Tirumala, Lord Vishnu grants the wish of anyone who offers Him their weight in something, be it gold, fruit, cloth, or whatever. Pilgrims who make such an offering and ask a boon or blessings generally return (after achieving their desire) and make another offering to the Lord, acknowledging His kindness.

By nightfall most visitors to Tirumala are gone, accommodations for pilgrims being limited. The main facilities are down in Tirupati, an hour’s drive away. With a floating population of sixty thousand people a day coming through Tirupati, the town is an almost unbelievable feat of municipal management and organization. After seeing Tirumala the devotees usually spend another day seeing the sacred sites in Tirupati. The principal temples there are the temple of Govindaraja Svami, a Vishnu Deity, and the temple of Padmavati, the eternal consort of Lord Vyenkateshvara.

ISKCON in Tirupati

When ISKCON’s founder-acarya, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, visited Tirumala and Tirupati in 1974, he spoke with administrators of the Vyenkateshvara temple. He encouraged them to join with ISKCON for the glorification of Lord Vyenkateshvara (Krishna) throughout the world. Indian-born Sankha-bhrit dasa heard these discussions and took heart. Over the years Sankha-bhrit dasa served in nearby Bangalore and Hyderabad. As a natural result of his preaching activities, he developed good relations with the Tirumala-Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD), the board of trustees in charge of the management and development in the region. In 1981 Sankha-bhrit decided to preach in Tirupati. Mr. P.V.K. Prasad, the executive officer of the TTD at that time, provided an apartment for Sankha-bhrit and his family. Sankha- bhrit dasa and his wife began to distribute Srila Prabhupada’s books and Back to Godhead magazine door to door and at the bus and train stations.

Sankha-bhrit: “My idea was to have a big book distribution program, taking the help of TTD for printing books in the South Indian languages. Later on, Srila Bhaktisvarupa Damodara Maharaja visited, and he was very impressed with the potential here for preaching. He thought we should build here, so he advised me to request Mr. Prasad to donate a hundred acres of land. Our proposal was rejected. Mr. Prasad, seeing that I was alone, felt we couldn’t make use of so much land.”

At every opportunity Sankha-bhrit reminded Mr. Prasad of Srila Prabhupada’s vision: TTD and ISKCON working together in the service of Lord Vyenkateshvara. Gradually other devotees joined, and Sankha-bhrit expanded his preaching programs. In 1982-83, Srila Bhaktisvarupa Damodara Maharaja, director of the Bhaktivedanta Institute, the scientific preaching arm of ISKCON, arranged a “number of conferences and seminars in the local schools and colleges. This greatly impressed the people of Tirupati with the’ scope and purity of ISKCON’s programs for presenting Krishna consciousness on all levels and to all people.

In 1983 Mr. Prasad paid a visit to Sridhama Mayapur, the birthplace of Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu and the site of ISKCON’s largest project in India.

Sankha-bhrit: “When Mr. Prasad returned from Mayapur, he was very enthusiastic to do something to help us. It was a crucial time, because his term as executive officer was coming to an end. I had no idea if the next officer would be as favorable as Mr. Prasad, so I said, ‘Forget about the one hundred acres. I humbly beg you to give me a piece of land—whatever you can manage—and we will develop something on it.’He said, ‘O.K. Tomorrow morning come early to my office. I have a place in mind.’

“The next morning I went to Mr. Prasad’s office, but they told me he had gone to my apartment. I rushed back and found him with a crew of about twenty workers marking off some property and clearing the land. It was about fifty acres covered with thorns and bushes, and it was very uneven. Mr. Prasad said, ‘I am allotting you this piece of land, and these people will clear it for you.’ He could see I was a little disappointed because the land looked so rough and so out of the way, but he said to me, ‘Don’t worry. You don’t know the future of this place. It will be one of the best locations in Tirupati, considering the plans for development of this city. It will be a good place for your preaching work.’ He also gave seventy thousand rupees for us to build an ashrama and bhajana hall.”

Soon a small temple was constructed to temporarily house the Deities of Sri Sri Radha-Govinda, who had been installed in the summer of 1984. At present, Sankha-bhrit is busily raising funds for developing the property. Plans include an ornate temple, a three-hundred-room modern guesthouse, a gurukula school, and landscaped gardens.

Sankha-bhrit: “From here we will be able to preach to people all over the world—just by preaching in Tirupati. Everyone comes here on their way to Tirumala. I prayed very hard to Srila Prabhupada to make this happen, and now it is all coming to pass. In the future the bus station will be moved near here, and all the buses will go past our project on the way to Tirumala. We’ve hardly started our work, yet already we get several busloads of people a day. We will be able to distribute Krishna conscious books in every Indian language.

“It is significant that the TTD has given us this land. Every religious group, yoga organization, and what-have-you in India has tried to get a place here. Some have been trying for years. They want to come because to be in Tirupati is prestigious. And Tirupati is the wealthiest temple in all of India. If the TTD, which controls a lot of that wealth, decides to back some project, that project will flourish.

“But the TTD hasn’t allowed any of these groups to come in. ISKCON is the exception. That’s because we are preaching the scriptural conclusions without deviating, without concocting anything. We follow the prescribed dharma for the age, chanting the holy names of the Lord, and we are convincing people to live a spiritual life. The TTD trustees like us. They want us to work with them to give people real religion. Srila Prabhupada’s vision is coming true.”

Visit to Sri Rangam

While touring the holy places of pilgrimage, Lord Caitanya spent four months in this culturally prominent South Indian city—and left His indelible transcendental mark.

Shortly after entering the renounced order, Lord Chaitanya set out on foot to tour the holy places of South India. Chanting God’s holy names (Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare) and absorbed in ecstatic love of God, He turned everyone into a devotee of Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. After having traveled to many holy places in South India, He came to the city of Sri Rangam. A number of significant events occurred during the Lord’s stay here. And as we shall see, the residents of Sri Rangam have not forgotten those events, even though almost five centuries have passed.

On an island in the Kaveri River the Lord saw the city of Sri Rangam. He also saw the beautiful temple of Ranganatha, the largest Vishnu (Krishna) temple in all of India, with its seven surrounding concentric walls and its towering gopuras (gateways). And when He entered the temple, He began dancing in ecstatic love of God and chanting the holy names. His tall and graceful form was effulgent and golden. His arms reached down to His knees. Lord Chaitanya was dressed in the traditional saffron cloth of a sannyasi, a member of the renounced order. And when lie began to dance before the Deity, everyone was struck with wonder. The news of Lord Chaitanya’s arrival quickly spread throughout the city, and many people began to assemble just to see Him.

Having heard about this uncommon personality who had come to Sri Rangam, Vyenkata Bhatta, the head priest of the temple, came forward with great respect and invited Lord Chaitanya to dine at his house. Lord Chaitanya accepted the invitation, and Vyenkata Bhatta requested Him to remain a guest in his house until the four months of the rainy season Caturmasya) had ended. “Please be merciful to me,” Vyenkata Bhatta said, “and stay at my house during Caturmasya. Speak about Lord Krishna’s pastimes and kindly deliver me by Your mercy.”

Lord Chaitanya agreed, and lie passed His days in great happiness, discussing Lord Krishna’s transcendental pastimes. Sometimes He would perform sankirtana through the streets of the city. On seeing the beautiful form of Lord Chaitanya and the ecstatic way in which He chanted and danced, the people were astonished. Man thousands of people from various parts of the country came to see the Lord, and after seeing Him they too began chanting Hare Krishna in ecstasy. Indeed, after seeing Lord Chaitanya, all these people became devotees of Lord Krishna, and all their unhappiness and distress vanished. Lord Chaitanya was very pleased by all these happenings, and He requested everyone to go out and spread the sankirtana movement. The influence of Lord Chaitanya was felt in every home in Sri Rangam.

On one occasion Lord Chaitanya came upon a devotee reading the Bhagavad-gita. The Lord observed in the body of that devotee symptoms of ecstatic love of God—hair standing on end, tears welling in the eyes, trembling, and perspiration. The Lord was very pleased to meet this pure devotee. Some people standing nearby, however, were laughing and joking about the way the devotee was reading. Actually he was illiterate. That’s why people were laughing at him.

Lord Chaitanya asked the devotee, “My dear sir, why are you in such ecstatic love? Which portion of the Bhagavad-gita gives you such transcendental pleasure?”

“I am illiterate,” the devotee replied, and therefore do not know the meaning of the words. Sometimes I read Bhagavad-gita correctly and sometimes incorrectly, but in any case I am doing this in compliance with the orders of my spiritual master. Actually I am looking at this picture of Lord Krishna sitting as Arjuna’s charioteer. Taking the reins in His hands, He appears very beautiful and blackish. When I see this picture, I am filled with ecstasy. As long as I read the Bhagavad-gita I simply see the Lord’s beautiful features. It is for this reason that I am reading Bhagavad-gita, and my mind cannot be distracted from this.”

Then, much to everyone’s surprise, Lord Chaitanya embraced the devotee and proclaimed that he was actually the greatest scholar of the Bhagavad-gita because he had realized the real purport: love for God Krishna. Being touched by Lord Chaitanya that devotee felt great spiritual ecstasy, and he realized that Lord Chaitanya was none other than Lord Krishna Himself.

When the four months of the rainy season ended, Lord Chaitanya prepared to Leave Sri Rangani and continue His pilgramage Vyenkata Bhatta, who had developed great affection for Lord Chaitanya, became overwhelmed with lamentation and fainted. All the residents of Sri Rangam felt their hearts ache with love for the great transcendental personality who was leaving thetas.

Even though almost five centuries have elapsed since the Lord’s South India tour, the residents of Sri Rangam have not forgotten the great fortune Lord Chaitanya brought to their city. A shrine at the main entrance to the city displays the Lord’s footprints and commemorates the Lord’s arrival. In another area of the city, what was once the home of Vyenkata Bhatta is now a beautiful little temple. The temple has many paintings depicting Lord Chaitanya’s pastimes at Sri Rangam. In the central hall of the temple, there is a diorama of Lord Chaitanya and a Deity of Lord Krishna (Jagannatha).

Amazingly, the family descendants of Vyenkata Bhatta still live at Sri Rangam. The head of the household, Rangaraja Bhatta, continues to carry on the tradition and heritage of his forefathers by serving on the Ranganatha temple advisory committee. Whenever visited by devotees of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), Rangaraja Bhatta and his family are always glad to receive them. Rangaraja Bhatta says, “The members of ISKCON, headed by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, are fulfilling the mission of Lord Chaitanya and preaching the sankirtana movement all over the world. This is very wonderful, because it was predicted by the Lord Himself.”

What is a Temple?

The form may vary, but the function doesn’t.

A temple of Lord Krishna is a “house of God” and is completely spiritual. But what exactly does that mean?

Consider the following analogy. If you were to take an iron rod and place it in fire, the rod would become hotter and hotter until it would glow red hot. Then, practically speaking, your iron rod would have become fire, giving off its own heat and light. Indeed, if you dared touch it, it would burn you.

Similarly, if a building is actually functioning as a house of God, a place where the Supreme Lord is worshiped with love and devotion, then it should be accepted as totally spiritual, as a part of the kingdom of God. Of course, an iron rod has the capacity to burn you only when it is put into fire, and a building may appropriately be called a temple only when it is used in the service of the Supreme Lord. Its use in the sincere service of God, therefore, distinguishes a temple from an ordinary building. And such a temple will purify all who enter, just as a red-hot iron rod will burn whoever touches it.

Sometimes people avoid the temple. Understanding that God is everywhere, they say, “God is all-pervading. I don’t have to go into your building.” But if God is all-pervading, then He is certainly in the temple.

Actually, God’s presence in the temple is especially beneficial for us, for despite His omnipresence, He is not readily perceivable, except to one with spiritual vision. In a genuine temple, we’re able to associate with people trained in such spiritual vision, and we get to enhance our own realization of the all-pervading nature of the Lord by hearing transcendental philosophy. Furthermore, we learn to perceive the Lord’s personal presence in the Deity (arca-vigraha) on the altar.

Thus, by taking advantage of spiritual association, by hearing transcendental philosophy, and by worshiping the Deity in the temple, an ordinary person is more likely to remember the Lord’s all-pervasiveness in day-to-day life. Moreover, the temple offers us an opportunity to meet others who are also interested in broadening their spiritual perception. So, if a building cannot afford one all these facilities, then it should not be called a temple.

The activities within a genuine temple are intrinsic to the soul—they are natural. A temple of Lord Krishna affords one the opportunity to sing the holy names of God, to worship the Deity, to eat food offered to the Deity, to perform various services for the pleasure of the Deity, and to hear transcendental philosophy from Vedic texts like the Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam. Such activities are inherently pleasing. One need simply acquaint himself with these things to know for sure that devotional service to Lord Krishna is the natural activity of the soul.

A bona fide temple is actually a sample of the spiritual world. Thus, in the material world, genuine temples are few and far between. When we enter such a temple, however, we need no one to tell us it is genuine. Does one who is well fed need someone to tell him that he is no longer hungry? When we enter a bona fide temple, we are naturally uplifted and reminded of our original relationship with God in the transcendental kingdom. We feel at home.

After all, the spirit souls in this material world have a sort of “amnesia.” We identify with our gross material bodies and forget our real identity in our eternal relationship with God. Thus there is no end to our misery, birth after birth. But when we enter a temple, we feel relief. This is because a place where the Supreme Lord is worshiped according to the rules and regulations of the revealed scriptures is reminiscent of the spiritual world, our original home.

Even in the conventional sense, when someone has amnesia, expert psychologists agree that the most reliable cure is to place the patient in the environments he should be most familiar with. No other remedy is quite as effective. Similarly, when one goes to the temple, associates with devotees, and chants the holy names of God—Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare—one is cured of the amnesia of material life. Soon one becomes spiritually aware, naturally happy.

The temples of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, being genuine temples by all the above standards, are fully spiritual. Therefore, although they appear to be within the major cities of the world, they are also within the spiritual world—a transcendental phenomenon visitors everywhere are experiencing daily. If you visit, you too might remember something you’ve long forgotten.

Revealing the Land of Krishna

Among the sacred cities of the world, Vrindavana is probably the least well known. Yet this small town in northern India ranks with Rome, Jerusalem, and Mecca as a center of worship. It was in Vrindavana that the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Krishna, displayed His transcendental pastimes during His appearance on this planet some five thousand years ago. Over the course of centuries, the places of Krishna’s pastimes were lost to human memory, until they were rediscovered in the sixteenth century by Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, who is Krishna Himself in the role of His own devotee.

But Vrindavana is more than a place of historical importance. According to the teachings of Lord Chaitanya, the earthly Vrindavana is a replica of Goloka Vrindavana, Lord Krishna’s eternal abode in the spiritual sky. Great souls with transcendental vision can actually perceive this and worship Vrindavana as nondifferent from the Lord Himself.

This consideration led one of Lord Chaitanya’s dearmost associates, Sri Gadadhara Pandita, to say to Lord Chaitanya as He departed from the city of Jagannatha Puri on His journey to Vrindavana, “Wherever You stay is Vrindavana. Although where You stay is Vrindavana, You still go to Vrindavana just to instruct people.”

Srila Prabhupada explains, “It was not essential for Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu to go to Vrindavana, for wherever He stayed was immediately transformed into Vrindavana… . He said that His very mind was Vrindavana (mora mana—vrindavana). Because His mind was Vrindavana, all the pastimes of Radha [Lord Krishna’s eternal consort and the personification of His supreme pleasure energy] and Krishna were taking place within Himself. Nonetheless, just to teach people, He visited bhauma-vrindavana, Vrindavana- dhama in this material world. In this way the Lord instructed everyone to visit Vrindavana-dhama, which is a very holy place.”

The Lord departed Jagannatha Puri at the end of the night, unseen by others. Taking only two brahmana assistants with Him, He avoided the main roads and passed into the Jharikhanda forest. Chaitanya’s biographer, Krishnadasa Kaviraja, states that while Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was passing through the jungle, all the does and five or seven tigers came and began to follow the Lord. “Seeing the tigers and deer following Him, Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu immediately remembered the land of Vrindavana. He then began to recite a verse describing the transcendental quality of Vrindavana: ‘Vrindavana is the transcendental abode of the Lord. There is no hunger, anger, or thirst there. Though naturally inimical, human beings and fierce animals live together there in transcendental friendship.’ When Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu said, ‘Chant Krishna! Krishna!’ the tigers and deer began to dance and chant “Krishna!”’

After passing through the Jharikhanda forest, Lord Chaitanya arrived in Benares and proceeded to Prayaga, finally arriving at Mathura, where forty-five centuries before, Krishna had taken birth in the prisonhouse of King Kamsa. Immediately after Krishna appeared, His father Vasudeva had carried Him across the river Yamuna to the region of Vrindavana, where Krishna displayed His childhood pastimes for the pleasure of His devotees. In Mathura, Lord Chaitanya met a brahmana devotee of Lord Krishna, who served as His guide to the Vrindavana area.

Krishnadasa Kaviraja states, “The mind of Sri Chaitanya was absorbed in ecstatic love at Jagannatha Puri, but when He passed along the road on the way to Vrindavana, that love increased a hundred times. The Lord’s ecstatic love increased a hundred times when He visited Mathura, but it increased a thousand times when He wandered in the forests of Vrindavana. When Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was elsewhere, the very name of Vrindavana was sufficient to increase His ecstatic love. Now, when He was actually traveling in Vrindavana Forest, His mind was absorbed in great ecstatic love day and night. He ate and bathed simply out of habit.”

While in Vrindavana, the Lord rediscovered many important places of Krishna’s pastimes. Among such places are Radha- kunda and Syama-kunda, two ponds that featured prominently in Krishna’s Vrindavana pastimes five thousand years ago. When Sri Chaitanya asked the local inhabitants about the location of these two places, they were not able to tell Him. By virtue of His supreme knowledge, the Lord then located the two ponds (in areas that were then being used as rice fields) and took His bath there. He prayed, “Of all the gopas [Krishna’s confidential spiritual associates, the cowherd girls of Vrindavana], Radharani is the dearmost. Similarly, the lake known as Radha-kunda is very dear to the Lord because it is very dear to Srimati Radharani. In that lake, Lord Krishna and Srimati Radharani used to sport daily in the water and have a rasa dance on the bank. Indeed, Lord Krishna gives ecstatic love like that of Srimati Radharani to whoever bathes in that lake even once.”

The Lord then visited Govardhana Hill. Seeing it from a distance, He was overcome with ecstasy, and when He arrived He fell down upon the ground as if mad. Dancing and chanting, He recited this verse: “O My friends, this hill supplies Krishna and Balarama [Krishna’s elder brother in His Vrindavana pastimes], as well as Their calves, cows, and cowherd friends, with all kinds of necessities—water for drinking, very soft grass, caves, fruits, flowers, and vegetables. In this way the hill offers respect to the Lord. Being touched by the feet of Krishna and Balarama, Govardhana Hill appears jubilant.”

In this spirit, the Lord visited all the places connected with Lord Krishna’s pastimes in Vrindavana. Eventually, the Lord returned to Puri in Orissa. On the return journey He gave confidential instructions to His chief disciples, Srila Rupa Goswami, and Srila Sanatana Goswami. He advised them to reside in Vrindavana and reconstruct the places of Krishna’s pastimes.

Krishnadasa Kaviraja states, “Srila Sanatana Goswami collected some books about archeological excavations in Mathura, and wandering in the forest, he sought to renovate all those holy places.” Sri Kavikarna-pura states in Chaitanya-candrodaya: “In the course of time, the transcendental news of Krishna’s pastimes in Vrindavana was almost lost. To enunciate explicitly those transcendental pastimes, Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, at Prayaga, empowered Rupa Goswami and Sanatana Goswami with the nectar of His mercy to carry out this work in Vrindavana.” In addition to discovering the sites of Krishna’s pastimes, Rupa Goswami and Sanatana Goswami, along with other followers of Lord Chaitanya, erected many beautiful temples that pilgrims may still visit.

Srila Prabhupada, the founder-acarya of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), following in the footsteps of Lord Chaitanya and His confidential associates, also assisted in the renovation of Vrindavana as an important place of pilgrimage. He was especially eager to give Westerners the opportunity to visit Vrindavana, which lies off the main tourist routes and lacked accommodation suitable for those unaccustomed to the austere facilities preferred by Indian pilgrims. For this purpose Srila Prabhupada established the Krishna-Balaram temple and the adjoining international guesthouse, with clean, nicely furnished rooms with baths. A first-class vegetarian restaurant provides nourishing, spiritually purifying meals of krishna-prasadam,food offered to the Supreme Lord with love and devotion.

In the opulent temple itself, very much beloved by the residents of Vrindavana, are found exquisite Deities of Krishna and Balarama, who five thousand years ago played with Their cowherd friends in the very same area, called Ramana-reti. On separate altars, worshipers also may find Deities of Radha and Krishna—and of Lord Chaitanya, whose visit to Vrindavana in the sixteenth century reestablished its importance as a place of pilgrimage.

The price of passage to Vrindavana cannot be calculated in monetary terms. Srila Prabhupada once said, “Sometimes, materialistic people who have no spiritual understanding go to Vrindavana as tourists. One who goes to Vrindavana with such materialistic vision cannot derive any spiritual benefit.” The real price is purification of consciousness through the process taught by Lord Chaitanya: chanting the Hare Krishna mantra and avoiding the sinful activities of meat-eating, gambling, intoxication, and illicit sex. Anyone can start their journey to Vrindavana by putting Lord Chaitanya’s process into practice in their own life. (Travel preparations can also include a visit to the nearest ISKCON temple, where you can experience the spiritual atmosphere of Vrindavana. Srila Prabhupada explains, “Because we live in the temples of Radha-Krishna and continuously hold hari-nama sankirtana—chanting of Hare Krishna—we consequently live in Vrindavana and nowhere else.”)

Knowledge of Vrindavana and the opportunity to visit this important holy place are great gifts to humanity, and we are indebted to Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and His followers. If life is a journey, we should carefully choose our destination. Lord Chaitanya taught that life’s goal should be to return to Goloka Vrindavana, Krishna’s eternal abode in the spiritual sky. A journey to the earthly Vrindavana can be a vital part of that greater journey.

Entering Orissa

Complexity: 
Easy

Garlands, incense, elephants, jostling crowds, thousands of cheering voices: pada-yatra—a walking tour of holy India—arrives in the land of Lord Chaitanya.

Nearly as much as France differs from Italy, Germany, or Greece, Orissa differs from the other states of India. It has its own language, its own food, its own customs—and its own way of receiving the pada-yatra.

In the state of Kerala, South India, for example, as we walked into a town or village the people would receive us first with five musicians—always five—playing wooden drums and shenai. Following them would come a delegation of temple priests, chanting mantras in unison from the Vedas. Rows of young girls might line the roadside, bearing ghee lamps and tossing flower petals. Leading men would honor us with flower garlands. Sometimes temple elephants, foreheads shining with golden ornaments, would lumber forth to add more weight to the greeting.

But in Orissa, forget the elephants, forget the shenais, the orderly rows of petal-throwers. Here it’s crowds—five hundred people, a thousand, maybe two thousand or more—and loud, exuberant chanting of the Hare Krishna maha-mantra: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.

Right now I’m in the southern Orissan town of Kabisurya Nagar in a crowd of maybe two thousand people. And it’s only two thousand because the pada- yatra has reached today’s resting place—an elementary school campus—and the police have closed the gates behind us. But on our way into town the crowds must have come to twenty thousand: five or seven Hare Krishna chanting parties … streets all festooned … welcome gates of banana trees … auspicious waterpots topped with mango leaves outside the doorways of people’s homes … people jostling forward to offer garlands, incense, coconuts, full stalks of banana … near-riots as we pull the bananas off the stalks to throw into the crowd and people jump, shout, grab, and tumble to get them … Ladies line the rooftops, oscillating their tongues to make a special high- pitched cheer of appreciation that sounds like “ulu- ulu-ulu-ulu-ulu.”

Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the original father of the Hare Krishna movement, spent six years traveling through south India but a full eighteen in Jagannatha Puri, the spiritual focal point of Orissa. So even today, five hundred years later, Orissa still feels Lord Chaitanya’s influence.

In south India we had to tell people who Lord Chaitanya was. Lord Chaitanya, we said, was the Supreme Lord, Krishna Himself, the Personality of Godhead, descended on earth as a devotee of Krishna to teach devotional service and relish performing it Himself. And we had to offer evidence from Vedic scriptures to prove it. Lord Chaitanya, we’d also explain, had taught that the best means of self-realization in the present age is the chanting of the Vedic maha-mantra: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare. Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.

But in Orissa, no need to tell all this. People, even common people, already know Lord Chaitanya is God. They already worship Him. And they already chant the Hare Krishna maha-mantra.

As we walk along the road, we’re greeted by kirtana (chanting) parties of 10, 20, 50, 150. They chant the Hare Krishna mantra with fervor, and above their heads they carry posters, tacked to bamboo poles, of Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu dancing with His main companion. Lord Nityananda.

Yet for the most part these kirtana singers are not what we’d consider pure devotees. Some smell of fish and sugarcane liquor. And when the chanting is over we see singers and mridanga drum players relaxing with a smoke.

Not good.

Chanting Hare Krishna can cleanse our hearts of all material dust and dirt. But tobacco, fish, and liquor just throw the dirt back on. To get the full effect of chanting we should chant under the guidance of a pure devotee of the Lord.

In Orissa, therefore, we make a special point of telling people about Lord Chaitanya’s most prominent modern emissary, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.

Though people know Gaura-Nitai (Lord Chaitanya and Lord Nityananda), they don’t yet know Srila Prabhupada. Often they’ve been awed to hear that some other swami, a hundred years ago, went to America bearing the torchlight of Vedic knowledge. They’d be let down to learn that the swami’s mission in America was a fizzle: a hundred years later, not a single American had become Krishna’s devotee, no one had adopted the Vedic culture, and today the swami and his teachings are still virtually unknown.

The real person who brought Vedic culture to the West was Srila Prabhupada. He is the one who has put more than five million copies of Bhagavad-gita—in twenty-six languages—into people’s hands. It’s by his efforts that thousands of Americans have become full-time devotees of Krishna. It is he who spread Krishna consciousness to Europe, Australia, Africa, Japan, and even Russia. The Krishna temples opened in the major cities of the West are his, and the Krishna devotees chanting Krishna’s names in the streets of New York, Tokyo, and London are following him.

All this has been possible because Srila Prabhupada faithfully represented the message of Lord Sri Krishna, as taught by Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. In Bhagavad-gita Lord Krishna asks us, “Think of Me, become My devotee, worship Me, and offer your homage to Me.” And Lord Chaitanya showed us how to do this.

At Lord Chaitanya’s request, His most intimate followers explained, step by step, how to advance in Krishna consciousness. Although Lord Chaitanya relished and revealed the highest sentiments of love of Godhead, what He taught was not a religion of sentimental fervor but a scientific process for developing love of Krishna. Love for Krishna, He taught, is dormant in the heart of everyone, and as we cleanse our hearts by properly hearing, chanting, and rendering devotional service, that love naturally reawakens.

In the villages and towns of Orissa, love for Krishna and Lord Chaitanya is already astir—but it still has sleep in its eyes. So as our pada-yatra travels we introduce people to Srila Prabhupada and give them his books, confident that the same powerful emissary who awakened Krishna consciousness in the West can here bathe it clean, fresh, and ready to go.

Lord Chaitanya desired, “People fortunate enough to be born in India should perfect their lives by Krishna consciousness and spread it for the welfare of others.” With Srila Prabhupada’s guidance, the people here in Orissa, already pulled toward Lord Chaitanya, can learn how to systematically follow His teachings, and Lord Chaitanya’s desire can be fulfilled.

Journey to Navadvipa

Complexity: 
Easy

To the casual visitor, this holy land is much like the rest of rural India. To the devotee of Lord Chaitanya it is a transcendental paradise.

First a long and tedious flight. Then retrieving baggage and waiting in long lines to clear Indian immigration and customs. Then four hours on a bus bumping through Calcutta’s teeming streets and on through dozens of timeless, dusty villages. Finally the pilgrims sight the temple domes that stand high above the treetops in the holy land of Navadvipa. They feel relieved and alert with transcendental expectation. Navadvipa’s “skyline,” now a familiar sight to thousands of devotees throughout the world, is like a homecoming beacon that announces the journey’s end to weary travelers.

To the uninformed, this spacious flat farming area near the junction of the Ganges and Jalangi rivers may seem like the rest of rural India. The heavy bulls turning clods of earth with hefty plows, the thatch-roofed mud houses, the ancient- looking riverboats, and the slight, wide-eyed people make the customary sights and conveniences of the West no more significant or relevant than a faint memory.

Navadvipa—literally “Nine Islands”—is a sacred tract of land in West Bengal. The nine islands, sculpted by the fingers of the Ganges as she reaches down to the Bay of Bengal, are dotted with numerous towns and villages and checkered with plots of farmland—wheat, rice, beans, sugar cane—and occasional groves of bananas, coconuts, or papayas.

But Navadvipa is much more than a quaint, picturesque area where time has all but stopped. It is the birthplace of Lord Chaitanya. It is transcendental.

Lord Chaitanya is Krishna Himself in the role of His own devotee. He appeared in India in 1486 A.D., and His birth was predicted in revealed scriptures like the Srimad-Bhagavatam and Mahabharata. But unlike other incarnations, He presented Himself not as God but as a devotee of God. He did this for two reasons:

He wanted to fully relish the sweetness and depth of a devotee’s love, and He wanted to show people how to best evoke their dormant love of God. Because Lord Chaitanya benevolently distributed that transcendent love to everyone, He is known as the most munificent incarnation. His method was sankirtana, the congregational chanting of the names of God. This, He taught, is the most expedient way to become self-realized in this age.

Srila Prabhupada, the founder and spiritual guide of the Hare Krishna movement, referred to Lord Chaitanya innumerable times in his writings and lectures, and he trained his international family of disciples to follow in the footsteps of Lord Chaitanya by chanting Hare Krishna, dancing, and enjoying krishna-prasadam (food offered to Krishna). In the introduction to his book Teachings of Lord Chaitanya, Prabhupada wrote,

Lord Chaitanya is the ideal teacher of life’s prime necessities. He is the complete reservoir of all mercies and good fortune, and He is worshipable by everyone in this age of disagreement. Everyone can join in His sankirtana movement. No previous qualification is necessary. Just by following His teachings, anyone can become a perfect human being.... I sincerely hope that by understanding the teachings of Lord Chaitanya, human society will experience a new light of spiritual life that will open the field of activity for the pure soul.

The bus rumbles along the narrow winding road, looking incongruous among the bullock carts, rickshas, cows, goats, and pedestrians. The pilgrims peer out the windows. Five centuries ago. Lord Chaitanya used to tread this very land daily, and the white-steepled temple that the bus passes marks the place where, on February 18, 1486, the Lord appeared.

The funds to purchase the land and build this temple were raised by the great forefather of the Hare Krishna movement, Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura. A century ago Srila Bhaktivinoda researched extensively to discover the exact site of Lord Chaitanya’s birth. After his findings were confirmed by his spiritual master, he personally arranged for the construction of the sacred shrine that still stands today.

Srila Bhaktivinoda also published a book revealing the importance of Navadvipa, and before he passed on, he instructed his son, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta, to continue his work. It’s because of the service of these great devotees and of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta’s disciple Srila Prabhupada that Navadvipa’s significance was established.

At Srila Prabhupada’s temple, Mayapur Candrodaya Mandir, just one mile from Lord Chaitanya’s birthplace, the bus finally stops. Each year since 1972 Srila Prabhupada’s disciples from all over the world have joined together in Navadvipa to celebrate the appearance day of Lord Chaitanya. And this year—1986—will be the largest and grandest celebration—the quincentennial.

What Srila Prabhupada and his predecessors and followers have done in broadcasting the glories of Navadvipa is similar to what Lord Chaitanya and His followers did five hundred years ago to broadcast the glories of Vrindavana.

Vrindavana is a beautiful area not far from Delhi (but seven hundred miles from Navadvipa) where Lord Krishna passed His childhood and youth during His appearance fifty centuries ago. Forty-five centuries later, when Lord Chaitanya visited Vrindavana, it was a miniscule, relatively unheard-of and undeveloped farming village. Lord Chaitanya requested six of His leading disciples to live there, establish temples, excavate the holy places of Krishna’s pastimes, and write books about Krishna consciousness. As a result, Vrindavana today is famous among all Hindus and devotees. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims regularly visit the thousands of temples and holy places of Vrindavana.

In Navadvipa, Srila Bhaktivinoda, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta, and Srila Prabhupada have also founded temples, excavated the holy places of Lord Chaitanya’s pastimes, and written books on Krishna consciousness. In one sense Vrindavana and Navadvipa are one, as much as Lord Krishna and Lord Chaitanya are one, being the same Supreme Person in different features. But in another sense, although one, Vrindavana and Navadvipa are simultaneously different, as are Lord Krishna and Lord Chaitanya.

Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura describes the difference in his book Navadvipa-dhama-mahatmya:

Navadvipa is the crest jewel of all holy places, being the most merciful of all. In other places of pilgrimage (like Vrindavana), an offender is severely punished, but in Navadvipa the offender is not only forgiven, he is purified and receives the treasure of love of God.

To illustrate this point, Srila Bhaktivinoda cites the example of the brothers Jagai and Madhai, who were born in a good family but became drunkards and debauchees. When Madhai injured a devotee who had requested him to chant the holy names of God, Lord Chaitanya was immediately ready to kill him. But when the Lord saw that Jagai and Madhai were repentant and willing to reform. He forgave them. Later they became renowned for their devotion. Srila Bhaktivinoda continues,

One who lives in Navadvipa is very fortunate, for he attains ecstatic love for Krishna birth after birth. One who happens to go there becomes freed from all offenses. What one attains by traveling to all other holy places is attained just by remembering Navadvipa, and what yogis attain after ten years is attained in Navadvipa in three nights. The impersonal liberation one gets after arduous endeavor at other holy places you can get simply by bathing in the Ganges at Navadvipa. In fact, all material enjoyments and liberation remain as obedient servants to the pure devotees in Navadvipa.
Therefore, give up all other desires and attractions and simply fix your mind intently on Navadvipa.

However, reading this and experiencing Navadvipa may make one doubtful. Sometimes a pilgrim hears mundane cinema songs drift over the Ganges while he’s taking his sacred bath. Locals with not-so-innocent stares may inquire about his camera, watch, and tape recorder. And anyone who goes to the city of Navadvipa, on the western bank of the Ganges, will surely be struck by the lack of cleanliness and organization.

At the end of his book, Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura explains these apparent incongruities:

Since no material thing or person is ever situated in Navadvipa, a film of dull matter has been spread over it to keep it covered from the materialist. The people who have no relationship with Lord Chaitanya simply live on top of that covering, blind to the real truth. Though one is thinking, “I am in Navadvipa,” maya [illusion] happily keeps Navadvipa far away from that person.

In other words, it takes more than a rattling, grumbling bus to bring a pilgrim to Navadvipa. For Navadvipa cannot be reached simply by buying a ticket and going there. It is a transcendental place where Lord Chaitanya eternally resides, just as Krishna eternally resides in Vrindavana. Pure devotees see Lord Chaitanya in Navadvipa today, chanting and dancing with His associates. Srila Bhaktivinoda explains this in a song:

When the eastern horizon becomes tinged with the redness of sunrise, Lord Chaitanya, taking His devotees with Him, journeys through the towns and villages of Navadvipa.
The mridangas resound and the hand cymbals play in time, and Lord Chaitanya calls to the sleeping people, “Wake up, sleeping souls! Wake up, sleeping souls! You have slept so long on the lap of the witch Maya. I have brought the medicine for destroying the illusion of Maya. Chant this maha-mantra: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.

Navadvipa can be reached by chanting the holy names of God with faith and conviction. In this mood a pilgrim can begin his journey to Navadvipa, and before long he will surely arrive in that holy land.

Manipur

Complexity: 
Easy

A Land of Krishna Conscious Culture

On the far side of the barbed wire that marks the parking lot from the airfield, an Army guard, turbaned Sikh, looks on patiently, rifle in hand.

A drought is on. This is mid March, supposedly a season of rain showers, but the last rain was in February, and that gave only a little. But, drought aside, today is the second day of the festivities for Holi.

A group of devotees meet us and festoon us with fluffy garlands of cotton thread—bright red, white, green, yellow, with some silvery tinsel mixed in. Then we’re into a jeep, some cars, and Maruti vans, and on our way to our temple.

We get down a few blocks early: We’re in for a big reception. Awaiting us, lining the road, stand rows and rows of men and women, dressed in garments of bright Holi colors—solid red and pink-scarlet—with drums, cymbals, double conches. The faces are Chinese-Tibetan, and the chanting is Hare Krishna, loud and strong, in a unique Manipuri style.

People pour big pots of water on our feet and toss handfuls of flaked rice into the air—an auspicious greeting. In the midst of it all, Manipuri faces behind video cameras get it all on tape. (Sony has made it to Manipur.)

Ceremonies in the temple, some refreshments, some rest, and we’re off for sankirtana at the temple of Govindaji. The Deity of Govindaji is the ultimate object of love and devotion for people throughout Manipur, and today people have come to see Him and celebrate Him from all over the state.

In the courtyard of the temple, crowds arrive in parties of sankirtana—drummers, cymbal players, conch blowers, banner carriers—singing the glories of Govindaji.

The mood is joyful, and part of the fun is the traditional Holi spraying of colors—water dyed red or pink or purple, sucked up from vats and shot up into the air and onto the crowds from brass syringes the size of rifles. Everyone sprays and gets sprayed, so your clothes and face and arms and all of you gets thoroughly parti-colored. The fun goes on well into the night.

The next morning things have calmed down, the dye (less tenacious than in Calcutta) has mostly washed off your skin, and we’re off to Moirang, about thirty miles south. Along the way, bands of young girls at intervals barricade the road with rope or bamboo, demanding a rupee to let your car pass. In Manipur that’s another Holi tradition. Everyone gives.

In Manipur the Holi celebrations go on for six days. The markets close, and sankirtana parties travel from place to place, chanting the holy names of the Lord—Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.

On our way to Moirang, we stop at several towns along the road. At each stop, arrangements have been made for us to witness a performance of sankirtana. Sankirtana in Manipur is a highly cultivated art. Professional and semi- professional groups perform at birth ceremonies, weddings, festivals, and other such occasions. Usually, several groups perform at every function.

A typical performance takes place at Bishnupur, a fair- sized town (signs on shops: “Vishnu Pharmacy,” “Sanjit Video Parlor”). To start the sankirtana, the first group shouts out, “Gauranga Mahaprabhu ki jaya!” (“All glories to Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu.”) Then the drumming begins.

This is power drumming, with five or seven pungs (Manipuri mridanga drums). Complex rhythms swirl into one another, punctuated by cymbals played with equal finesse. And the drummers dance with acrobatic virtuosity, tightly choreographed. The drummers play and dance with a look of serious, determined intensity, We’re reminded that Manipur has been a kingdom of kshatriyas, royal warriors, people you don’t want to mess with.

The drumming leads into the singing, songs glorifying the Lord. The melodies are attuned to the seasons. The melodies now are those of spring.

Groups take their turns drumming, dancing, and singing, groups of boys, of men, and of women also, the women dressed traditionally in lotus pink.

As each performance ends, the singers and dancers offer obeisances, and at the end of it all, prasadam is distributed—tangerines and apples—and then we’re back on the road.

At Moirang we have another ISKCON temple and ashrama. There, more sankirtana performances and then lunch prasadam. In Manipur the preparation, offering, and distribution of prasadam are also highly cultivated arts. The devotees offer Krishna many delicious varieties of food, made from what’s locally in season. The spicing is sometimes mild, sometimes fiery. Among the special items: vegetables and salads made with the roots of lotuses.

The plates themselves are made of banana leaves or lotus leaves, with the various items of food placed in boat-shaped cups, again fashioned from leaves of banana or lotus.

For the next several days, in the afternoons and early evenings we visit friends and ISKCON members at their homes. There we perform our own sankirtana and speak a little bit about Krishna. This too is part of the Manipuri Holi tradition: sankirtana groups go from home to home, chanting the glories of the Lord.

One ISKCON member whose home we visit is Sri Radhabinod Koijam, the deputy chief minister of Manipur. We chant in his courtyard, and afterwards he gives a few words of thanks: “By your visit, by your presence, our state is blessed, and my home is blessed today. By chanting the names of Lord Caitanya and Lord Krishna—we are convinced—we can have peace, and we can relieve any problems affecting the state.”

Problems there are. Local political movements are in tension with the Indian central government. And the traditional culture of Manipur is in tension with the outside world.

We saw this graphically the last night we were there. As part of a cultural program, an ensemble of tribal people put on a demonstration of their traditional folk dances. Colorful and lively, this was a fairly slick performance by hill people now accustomed to city life in Imphal.

What wasn’t expected, though, was their last number, “The Fashion Show.” For this one, the flutes, gongs, and bass drums gave way to a tape of 1950’s American top 40. The young men and women who in the previous hour, dressed in blue and red indigenous costumes, had regaled us with such items as their harvest dance now lined up in Western-cut suits and satiny dresses and high heels and, one at a time, came forward to sensuously pose and posture in a perfectly serious and perfectly incongruous mimicry of what the world expects from Paris.

Defenders of Manipur, you have your task before you!

Visting Manipur

To visit Manipur, non-Indians need a special permit. Because of political disturbances in the northeastern states of India, requests for such permits are not easily granted. When granted, the permits allow one to stay for five days.

Indian Airlines runs flights daily between Imphal and Calcutta and several times a week between Imphal and New Delhi. Sahara Airlines flies Imphal-New Delhi twice a week.

Manipur: The land at a glance

Area: 8,632 square miles (roughly the size of the American state of Massachusetts).

Geography: The land is hilly, rugged, and generously watered. The Manipur valley (about 700 square miles) lies 2,600 feet above sea level. The hills to the north rise to more than 8,000 feet. Eighty to ninety percent of the land is forested.

Climate: The summers are warm and rainy, the winters cool and dry. Temperatures run from 38 degrees F in January to 82 degrees in July and August.

Population: 1,826,714 (latest census: 1991)

People per square mile: 212

Main language: Manipuri

Literacy rate: 41.35 percent

Religion: Gaudiya Vaishnava 62%, Christian 26% (mainly among the tribal people of the hills), Muslim 8%. The remaining 4% mainly follow various ancestral traditions.

Main occupations: agriculture, weaving

Main crops: rice, corn, sugarcane, oil seeds, fruits, vegetables.

Main manufactured goods: lumber, sugar, and handicrafts.

Capital: Imphal (population 130,000). Manipur has seven other small cities and some 2,000 agricultural villages.

Favorite sport: polo (Manipur is where it started, and where the British learned it).

Political history: Manipur was an independent kingdom until 1891, when it was conquered by the British in the Anglo-Manipuri war. Manipur regained independence, with the rest of India, in 1947. It merged into India in 1949, first as a centrally administered territory and later, since 1972, as a full-fledged Indian state.

How Manipur Became a Krishna Conscious State

The Vedic scriptures tell us that Manipur was a Krishna conscious land even more than five thousand years ago. But for the last several centuries the Manipuris have also worshiped various regional semi-historical deities, who hold a place in Manipuri culture even today.

In modern times, worship of Vishnu first gained prominence in Manipur in the fifteenth century, during the reign of King Kyamba. It is said that the Pong king Khekhombha fo the Shan kingdom gave Kyamba a Vishnu cakra (the symbolic disc of Vishnu). The presence of the cakra seemed to bring about various supernatural events, so on the advice of brahmanas the king had a temple constructed for it and instituted regular worship. The worship was continued by his descendants.

The philosophy taught by Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was first introduced in the seventeenth century by five disciples of the great devotee Srila Narottama Dasa Thakura. The songs of Srila Narottama Dasa Thakura are still sung throughout Manipur, and his birthday is an occasion of festivities.

In the early eighteenth century, the powerful king Garibniwaj embraced the worship of the Personality of Godhead in the form of Lord Ramachandra. But the wave of devotion that turned the entire kingdom Krishna conscious took place during the reign of Garibniwaj’s grandson Rajarshi Bhagyachandra.

The Victory of King Bhagyachandra

Bhagyachandra ascended the throne in 1759, but in 1762 the Burmese, acting in concert with his envious maternal uncle, invaded Manipur, and the king, with his queen and a few attendants, fled to the neighboring state of Ahom, now known as Assam.

The King of Ahom, King Rajeshvara, had heard of Bhagyachandra’s virtues and was pleased to receive him. They became close friends, and Rajeshvara arranged for Bhagyachandra to stay in the vicinity of the royal palace.

But Bhagyachandra’s crafty uncle wrote a letter to the king saying that the person taking refuge at his court was an imposter, not the great Bhagyachandra. The uncle advised the king of Ahom to destroy him.

The message seems to have influenced King Rajeshvara. Though not entirely persuaded, he began treating Bhagyachandra with coolness and suspicion.

The real Bhagyachandra was said to have supernatural powers. So finally, on the advice of senior ministers, King Rajeshvara reluctantly devised a test: In a public arena, Bhagyachandra, unarmed, was to catch and tame a wild elephant.

Confronted with this humanly impossible task, King Bhagyachandra prayed to Lord Krishna for guidance. Lord Krishna then appeared to him in a dream and advised him to enter the arena with a garland and japa beads in hand. Victory, Lord Krishna told him, was assured.

In the future, the Lord said, Bhagyachandra would be the sole king of Manipur. Upon regaining the kingdom, he should install a Krishna Deity, The Deity, Govindaji, should be carved from a certain old jackfruit tree growing on the slopes of a hill known as Kaina, and the physical features of the Deity should match those the king was seeing now.

After installing the Deity, the Lord said, the king should arrange for the performance of a rasa-lila, in which the Deity should be worshiped with songs and dances. The Lord enabled Bhagyachandra to envision in detail the kinds of dress the dancers should wear and the manner in which the songs and dances should be composed.

The next morning, crowds waited on rooftops and treetops to see the fate of the supposed king of Manipur. Bhagyachandra solemnly entered the arena, holding the garland and japa beads and chanting the holy name of Lord Krishna.

The elephant charged from a distance, but as it neared Bhagyachandra it slowed down and then knelt before him. According to some accounts, the elephant seemed as though struck repeatedly by some unseen enemy. King Bhagyachandra alone, we are told, could see Lord Krishna sitting atop the elephant’s head like a mahout. And to that Lord the king offered the garland from his hand. The king then mounted the elephant and rode triumphantly through the cheering crowds.

Thoroughly convinced, King Rajeshvara profusely apologized and offered his full assistance. He supplied men and arms to help King Bhagyachandra win back his kingdom.

After an arduous trek from Ahom through the jungles, Bhagyachandra returned with his forces to Manipur and regained the throne. He restored the kingdom to normalcy and set about to consolidate its small kingdoms into one state, while still preserving cultural diversity.

Lord Govindaji Appears Again

For some reason, some say because of repeated Burmese invasions, Bhagyachandra did not at once install the Deity of Govindaji. But one day a tribal woman appeared at the gates of his palace, insisting on having an audience with the king. She bore a message, she said, from someone even higher than him.

Granted a private audience, the woman told the king that while she was cultivating vegetables in her field a young boy came before her and began playing tricks. He won the woman’s affection and asked her to convey to the king a message: He had made a promise, but now he was neglecting it, and the boy was very angry.

The king at once understood that the boy was Krishna Himself. He returned with her to her village—on the slope of Kaina—and there found the old jackfruit tree of which Lord Krishna had spoken.

The king arranged to fell the great tree, had it brought back to his capital, Langthabal, and appointed expert sculptors to carve the Deity. He described to the sculptors precisely how the Lord should look, according to the vision he had seen, and advised them also to consult the descriptions in Srimad-Bhagavatam.

The sculptors carved a beautiful image, and when the king saw it he acknowledged that the form was superb. But it did not, he said, match his vision. By the king’s order, the Deity was named Sri Vijaya Govindaji and opulently installed. An elderly uncle of the king became the priest of the Deity. The king then ordered the sculptors to carve another.

They began again, but again the Deity differed from the form the king had envisioned. This happened several times. Each time, the king had the Deity opulently installed in a different temple and told the sculptors to try again.

The sculptors were getting anxious—not much was left of the tree—but at last they carved a Deity that the king said matched his vision precisely.

With joyous festivities the Deity was installed, and from the very beginning He was revered as the Supreme Personality of Godhead. The king himself, his court, his entire state—all were dedicated to Govindaji.

Skillfully, the king introduced all the features of traditional worship of Lord Krishna as taught by the followers of Lord Caitanya. Rather than try to stamp out previous traditions of Manipuri religion and culture, by his own example he inspired his people in devotional service to Govindaji.

Devotion to Govindaji became the focus of the spiritual and cultural life of Manipur. The people became Vaishnavas, devotees of Krishna, but they expressed their devotion with a special Manipuri spirit. They were Manipuri Vaishnavas, and they are still known as such till this day.

The First Rasa-Lila

After the installation of Govindaji, yet to be fulfilled was Krishna’s order that the king arrange for the performance of rasa-lila. The king now set about this in earnest. He engaged various experts to compose the music, design the costumes, conceive the dances, and so on. In all matters, the king himself gave guidance.

The dance was not to be merely an artistic performance. Rather, the dance was to be done for the pleasure of the Deity and the spiritual upliftment of the audience. Krishna’s pastimes take place on the highest level of spiritual devotion, and the performance had to convey the pastimes of the Lord in all their purity. Grace, delicacy, chastity, and deep spiritual feeling—all these were to be hallmarks of the rasa-lila.

The rasa-lila was to be performed not in a theater but in a “rasa-mandala” specially constructed for the Deity, Lord Govindaji. Govindaji Himself would be in the center of the rasa-lila.

But as yet there was no Deity of the Lord’s consort, Srimati Radharani. Who then would play her role? For the pleasure of Lord Govindaji, the king selected his own daughter, the young and beautiful princess Bimbavati. And the king himself became one of the mridanga drummers for the satisfaction of the Lord.

The rasa-lila was held in November 1779, on the night of the full moon. By all accounts it was splendidly performed. Over the years, the rendering of rasa-lila through dance and song developed into a highly refined art, and till this day it is celebrated as a sacred tradition in Manipur. And whenever it is performed, a prayer is made to Govindaji on behalf of Maharaja Bhagyachandra.

Perfecting a Life of Devotion

Princess Bimbavati herself was so overcome with devotion that she renounced the world and spent the rest of her life serving Lord Krishna and singing His holy names. She became famous as Sija Lairoibi, meaning “the princess who owned the Lord.” The golden deity of Radharani at the Govindaji temple was later made in her likeness.

After ruling for 39 years, till 1798, King Bhagyachandra decided to retire from political life. With his sons, several queens, and several hundred associates, he left the kingdom for what in those days was a most difficult journey—a pilgrimage on foot to the Ganges at Murshidabad, in what is now West Bengal.

The king handed over the state of Manipur to his eldest son, Labanyachandra, and spent the rest of his days in a life of detachment and devotion. He passed away in October of 1799 at Murshidabad. There his body was cremated, near the tomb of the great Srila Narottama Dasa Thakura, of whom many devotees in those times believed him an incarnation. The brahmanas of those days gave him the title “Rajarshi,” meaning a sage in the form of a king.

By the king’s will, a portion of his ashes was brought back to Manipur and buried at the royal cremation ground, and another portion was brought to Navadvipa, the abode of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu.

Rajkumar Chandrajit Sana, popularly known as RKCS, is a leading artist of Manipur. The paintings shown here come from his series of seventy-two canvases depicting the history of Manipur from 1709 through 1949.

NOTE: For information used in this article I am indebted to R. K. Gopal Singh and Dr. N. Tombi Singh, author of Manipur and the Mainstream.

“The Land of Jewels”

Legends describe that millions of years ago Lord Siva and his consort Parvati danced together in Manipur while the many- hooded divine serpent Ananta Sesha illuminated the dance arena with the jewels from his crowns. Enchanted by the celestial music that accompanied the dance, Ananta Sesha swayed back and forth, unaware that the jewels from his splendid crowns were falling upon the earth. The beautiful site of this pastime became known as Manipur, “the land of jewels.”

The Mahabharata mentions that in the kingdom of Manipur, more than five thousand years ago, the prince Arjuna married the Manipuri princess Citrangada. Their son Babhruvahana ruled Manipur for a very long time. Though some scholars (of course) disagree, most scholars and adherents of the Vedic tradition identify that kingdom of Manipur with the present Manipur state.

Manipuri Names

We’re used to seeing surnames last, but in Manipur the surname comes first. The last name is an indication of caste, usually Sharma for brahmanas and Singh for all others (mostly kshatriyas). One’s given name is the name in the middle. The prefix Raj Kumar or Raj Kumari is used by descendants of the royal family. So, for example, in the name Chingangbam Budha Singh, Chingangbam is the family name, and the given name is Budha.

Manipuri Holy Places Outside Manipur

Because the Manipuri Vaishnavas are devotees of Lord Sri Krishna and Lord Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, they have established many temples in Navadvipa, Vrindavana, and Radha-kunda. Non- Indians unable to visit Manipur can more easily visit these temples.

Navadvipa: Navadvipa has several Manipuri temples, clustered together along the Ganges, across the road from the Devananda Gaudiya Math.

The Anu Mahaprabhu Mandir. Like her father, Rajarsi chandrabhagya, Princess Bimbavati left Manipur on pilgrimage to the Ganges at Navadvipa. There a temple was raised, in which the Deity installed was carved from the same jackfruit tree as the Govindaji Deity in Manipur. Bimbavati lived here till she expired. The temple is now being nicely maintained by six brothers descending from the royal family.

Sri Gopalaji Mandir.Also known as Manipuri Raj Bari (“Bari” is Bengali for “home”). Built by Maharaja Sri Churachand Singh (knighted by the British), who was king from 1891 through 1941. The temple is now under the care of a trust, of which Bhakti Svarupa Damodara Swami is the chairman.

Sri Sri Radha-Krishnachandra Mandir.Temple built by Maharani Dhan Manjari, the wife of Churachand Maharaja. Later in life, the king and his wife were not getting along together so well, so they had different temples. Hers is over the wall from Gopalaji.

Vrindavana: In Vrindavana, five or six small temples are to be found in the area of Keshi Ghata. The temples are about 80 or 100 years old. Most prominently, there is the Manipuri Raj Bari, built by Maharaja Dumbra Singh. (To find them, ask anyone for the “Manipuri temples.”)

Radha-kunda: More Manipuris live in Radha- kunda than in Vrindavana itself. The Manipuri royal family has shown great devotion for Radha-kunda. The present paving around Radha-kunda and Syama-kunda was done by Maharaja Churacand. Radha-kunda has twenty-seven Manipuri temples, most built by the royal family. Among the temples, two are the most prominent.

Sri Gopalaji Mandir.Built eighty years ago by Maharaja Curacanda. The temple is designed so that in autumn the rising sun shines directly on the Deity. The temple is now under the care of Bhakti Svarupa Damodara Swami.

Baro Gunja.This temple, still larger, was also built by the King Gambhira Singh. Installed here is a beautiful Deity of Radha-Krishna. The temple is notable for its attractive architecture.

Elsewhere: Jagannatha Puri. By the western side of the Jagannatha temple is a Manipuri dharmashala for pilgrims, again built by the royal families.

Near Manipur.Manipuris have built temples in the northeastern Indian states near Manipur, such as Assam, Tripura, and Meghalaya. The ISKCON temple in Agartala, the capital of Tripura, was a gift of a descendant of the Manipuri royal family, Sri R.K. Kamaljit Singh. Manipuris living in Agartala have also built temples in Radha-kunda, Vrindavana and Navadvipa.

Large communities of Manipuris live in the Sylhet district of Bangladesh and the Mandalay district of Myanmar (formerly Burma). Manipuri devotees have built temples in both places.

Srila Prabhupada on Manipur: “A Wonderful Place”

In the Srimad-Bhagavatam (9.22.32) it is said, sutayam babhruvahanam manipura-pateh so ’pi tat- putrah putrika-sutah: “By his wife the princess of Manipur, Arjuna had a son named Babhruvahana, who became the adopted son of the Manipuri king.”

Srila Prabhupada gives the following purport:

“It is to be understood that Parvati [the wife of Lord Siva] is the daughter of the king of the very, very old mountainous country known as the Manipur state. Five thousand years ago, therefore, when the Pandavas ruled, Manipur existed, as did its king. Therefore this kingdom is a very old, aristocratic Vaishnava kingdom. If this kingdom is organized as a Vaishnava state, this revitalization will be a great success because for five thousand years this state has maintained its identity. If the Vaishnava spirit is revived there, it will be a wonderful place, renowned throughout the entire world. Manipuri Vaishnavas are very famous in Vaishnava society. In Vrindavana and Navadvipa there are many temples constructed by the king of Manipur. Some of our devotees belong to the Manipur state. The Krishna consciousness movement, therefore, can be well spread in the state of Manipur by the cooperative efforts of the Krishna conscious devotees.”