Our family – Susan, Ben, Jessica, Lucas & Emma – had come to India for our second sabbatical in 1986-87. Our first had been in Cambridge in England and I wanted something more intellectually lively and children friendly than what we had encountered there. Susan had her reservations about traveling to India with the four children, especially Emma who was only four. We had agreed that after India we would spend two months in Italy, Susan’s favourite European country/culture on the way back to Canada. The day we arrived in India, someone had fired a shot at India’s Prime Minister Gandhi at the Memorial Ceremonies commemorating the death of Mahatma Gandhi. We were staying at Hamdard University, a newer Muslim University in South Delhi where Dr. S. A. Ali headed the Indian Institute for Islamic Studies. Every day we were in New Delhi our two families shared meals in the Ali apartments on the campus. We were staying in Scholar’s House, but did not have kitchen facilities, nor would we have been able to prepare the wonderful food we shared with the Ali family every day. Emma, then four, immediately took to Indian food when she discovered, to her great joy, that she could eat with her fingers. Every evening I would carry a sleeping Emma across the campus back to our rooms.
It was the richness and diversity of India’s religions that had brought me to India. In the early 80s I had met a number of remarkable Indian scholars and religious practitioners. They included the Muslim, S. A. Ali, the Hindu, Sri Srivatsa Goswami, the Tibetan Buddhist, Venerable Doboom Tulku, and the Sikh, Dr. Mohinder Singh. From them I had developed a desire to learn more about their religious traditions. As I told the kids, we are going to India to spend time in different religious communities. Before we had arrived in India, Srivatsa Goswami had invited us to join his family in Vrindaban, south of New Delhi, for a Festival of Dance in late October. Although we had only been in India for three weeks, we were now accustomed to squeezing ourselves into auto-rickshaws, to being in perpetual crowds, to riding down roads that included every type of vehicle known to man – bicycles, rickshaws, cars, trucks, buses, tractors, carts pulled by water buffalo and the occasional camel, as well as cows and people. It all moved with some rule known only to the Indians, it was sheer chaos to us. As we left the quiet campus of Hamdard to catch a train that would take us to Madurai we had already learned the first lesson of this very different world: you had to surrender to India, you could not master it.
When we got down from the train in Madurai, we saw people climbing into auto-rickshaws and bullock-carts as we looked for the promised car from the Goswami ashram in nearby Vrindaban. Finally we spotted the Ambassador – India’s only car until liberalization policies in the 90s changed all that – climbed in and went down the bumpy road to Jai Singh Ghera, the Goswami ashram on the banks of the Yamuna River. We were in the land of Braj, the playground of Krishna and Radha. It was here along the banks of the Yamuna that the blue fluted god, Krishna, had played his flute and danced with the gopis, the women who looked after the cows. It is the playful Krishna and the love of Radha that are central to all of the stories that swirl around this center of Krishna devotion in North India.
It is said that there are thousands of temples to Krishna and Radha in Vrindaban. It is a city of narrow twisting streets and laneways constructed after the Bengali Saint, Caitanya (1486-1534), the reviver of Krishna worship in the 15th century, sent the “five Goswamis” to this area. Filled with people, bicycle rickshaws, and cows, we honk our way through the streets until we come to the large wooden gate that marks the entrance to the ashram. After someone poked their head through the small wooden door in the gate, it is swung open and we enter the compound.
Known locally as Jai Singh Ghera, after Jai Singh, an important figure from nearby Jaipur in Akbar’s (1542-1605) time, it sits on the banks of the sacred Yamuna. Jai Singh was a devotee of Krishna and it was here that he used to come to sit where Krishna sat. Some of the structures go back to his time. It has been in the Goswami family for a couple centuries. Sri Purushottam, Shrivatsa’ father, is the head of this strand of a Gaudiya Vaishnavite community and the family. Vaishnavites are devotees of Lord Vishnu, the preserver god of the Indian traditions, and Krishna is seen as an avatar of Lord Vishnu. Gaudiya Vaishnavites follow the teachings of Caitanya in relation to Krishna. Shrivatsa welcomes us and we are shown to rooms in a part of the ashram that was built to accommodate the Western visitors that come in a small but steady stream to study and live, as well as Indian devotees. Down below is a space and stage for performances of the dance and music that is so central to Vaishnavite devotion to Krishna and Radha. Shrivatsa has devoted much of his effort to maintaining and restoring the dance and music traditions of Vrindaban to the Vaishnavite world. Shrivatsa had also spent two years at Harvard’s Centre for World Religions, taught a course with Harvey Cox, and has been an important guide to a number of Western scholars who have come to study this tradition. He understands the foreigner’s questions, he has become a good friend and has been my avenue into the world of Krishna and Radha. The dance festival will begin in two days, tomorrow we will explore the city.
The next morning we are up before dawn, we are going to do the pilgrimage around Vrindaban. This is a long established practice. We begin down by the river and we will circumambulate this place of Krishna and Radha. The sun is just about to peek over the edge of the earth as we leave Jai Singh Ghera, make our way along the Ghats on the Yamuna and down the shore of the river. We then turn inland on a path that twists and turns through the “forest” where Krishna and Radha played here in the land of Braj. Along the way we encounter others, some counting their beads and some quietly chanting “Hari Krishna, Krishna, Krishna, Hari, Hari…” The really devout are prostrating themselves on the ground, stretching out full body length, then rising and doing it again and again. Along the way Shrivatsa shares his knowledge of this pilgrimage practice and an occasional amusing story. When we pass one of the many Ashrams in the outskirts of Vrindaban he tells us that the resident Guru had recently spent some time in Chicago. When he returned people had enquired about his impressions of Chicago. He had paused, reflected, and then responded: “the milk was very good.”
We had been walking for more than a couple of hours when we came by a friend’s home and Shrivatsa suggested that we stop. He told us that he was involved in efforts to restore the environment around Vrindaban, the water in the Yamuna and the trees that once covered this area. When Shrivatsa called, his friend answered and they exchanged a few words in Hindi. In a couple of minutes, he came out with some cloth to spread on the ground and a copy of the Bhagavad Purana wrapped in saffron coloured cloth, the most sacred writing for Krishna devotees. A few minutes later someone brought tea. When we were all seated, tea was served. Then the Bhagavad Purana was carefully opened as prayers were uttered. He then opened the scripture and read from the text. He and Shrivatsa explained that they had read some passages about Krishna and Radha in the forested land of Braj. Then he turned to us and explained that the devotee had an obligation to their blue god, Krishna, to preserve the trees, the water and the land of Braj since it was loved by Krishna. He told us of his efforts, the difficulties he had encountered, and the joy he felt in doing this as devotion to his Lord. (Later I discovered the WWW.Fund Volume on Hinduism & the Environment which discusses their efforts.) After some time, the Bhagavad Purana was closed and again wrapped in its golden cloth and respectfully put away. We thanked him, said goodbye and continued our pilgrimage.
It was early afternoon by the time we returned to Jai Singh Ghera. It was warm and after some lunch – everything is vegetarian and prepared according to the Brahmin standards of the Goswami family – we took a rest. Later that day we visited some temples in Vrindaban with Shrivatsa as our guide. Those visits included a memorable visit to the “dialogue in stone” as Shrivatsa called the Govindaji Temple. It is one of the larger temples of Vrindaban. It had been built in the 16th century with the assistance of the Emperor Akbar, only to be desecrated a century later by Aurengzeb (1618-1707) who, following a certain rigid version of Sharia law, sought to rid his Empire of what he saw as idolatry. Aurengzeb had deposed his father, Shah Jehan, the builder of the most beautiful building I have ever seen, the Taj Mahal, c. 1658-9. After Aurenzab’s desecration of the Govinda Temple it had been abandoned then, but re-discovered by the British and restored in the 20th century. It has now been rededicated and puja/worship is once again held there. The reason that Shrivatsa called it the “dialogue in stone,” is that it architecturally blends Hindu and Muslim elements in its structure. And it came from a time when there were good relations between the Muslim Emperor and the Hindu majority.
As the sun set we hurried to the Radharama Temple, the one that the Goswami families have a hereditary connection to for the past five centuries. Here there is an especially honoured saligram or sacred black stoned image of Lord Krishna that has been enshrined here since the 1540s. It had been hidden during Aurenzeb’s time. And thus it has the distinction of being the oldest, continuous image of Krishna in Vrindaban. As the bell clangs, the curtain that divides the worshippers from the image of Krishna and Radha is opened. Worshippers flock into the temple. It is time for dharshan. Worshippers not only see the image, the consecrated image sees them. And there is no greater blessing than this. Meanwhile a priest performs an arti or light service in front of the image, as oil candles are lit and placed on the raised portion of the temple where the image sits, swaddled in colourful clothes. People recite prayers, chant mantras, then there is singing, and occasionally a spontaneous dance in praise of Krishna and Radha. We are caught up in the excitement of the temple activities as a steady flow of pilgrims come and go. Later Shrivatsa explains to us something of what was happening in the temple. He is a skilled teacher as he leads us deeper and deeper into the world of Krishna and Radha.
Finally, that evening, after dark – it is approaching 9:00 pm– we head for the dance Festival. It is being held on a raised stage outside the walls of another temple in Vrindaban. Before the stage is a large grassy area covered with people, some sitting on the ground, many other on blankets and cushions that have been spread out in the area in front of the stage. We manage to get some space near a tree, probably about fifteen to twenty of us, including the six Bryants. Like most events in India, this one does not start on time. But finally it begins. The stage is beautifully lit and the background of the temple wall is quite stunning, as it is a sculpted wall with, I recall, some dancing figures on it. Shrivatsa is a principal organizer of this event, but it has been funded by both the state government of Uttar Pradash and the central government in New Delhi. It has brought together dance groups from across India, from Rajasthan to Bengal and Orissa, from Tamil Nadu and Kerala in the South, to Kashmir in the far North. And so it begins. One group after another, with different numbers (sometimes as few as two or three dancers, sometimes fifteen to twenty), different colourful costumes reflecting their state and its culture, different music but always a tabla. Despite these differences, the dances all tell stories of moments and events in the life of Krishna. We have been reading children’s versions of the Krishna legends, and they prove helpful to us all that evening. We do know something of what is going on.
It is a night of the full moon, and the light of the moon is luminous. It is pleasant, the heat of the day has passed and night is often the best part of the day. The groups come and go, one after the other, all of them quite accomplished but some better than others. Occasionally people get up and walk away then return. Others fall asleep. But most are rapt to the colourful almost magical dance and music that is unfolding in front of us. It is probably 1:00 am now, some of the younger children have fallen asleep. But I am still watching and it suddenly dawns on me: I am seeing Krishna and Radha. This is not just a performance. It is not just a reenactment of the lives of Krishna and Radha. No, here they are, right here, right now doing what they have always done: playing their games of love in the moonlight in Braj.