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The Hub of the Spiritual World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prabhupada’s Rooms

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

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

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

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

The Samadhi Area

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sri Rupa Goswami’s Courtyard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Other Deities of the Radha-Damodara Temple

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

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

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