We often hear about how modern Vrindavan has been transformed from a bucolic forest village into a “concrete jungle.” In 1829 the French traveler Victor Jacques Mant described Vrindavan in his diary,
Next to Benares, Vrindavan is the largest purely Hindu city that I have seen. I could not discover in it a single mosque. Its suburbs are thickly planted with fine trees, which appear from a distance like an island of verdure in the sandy plain.
In the current situation of rapid urbanization and extreme environmental degradation, we are frequently reminded that Krishna stands for living in harmony with his environment and that he exulted in the beauty of this forested land. A closer look at the original texts makes this version a little more complex.
Everyone knows the canonical version of how Krishna was taken by Vasudeva across the Yamuna from Mathura to Gokul and exchanged there for Ekanamsha, the incarnation of Durga Devi. There he was to be kept safe from the vicious Kamsa amongst the forest-dwelling cowherds led by Nanda.
In the Bhagavatam, Krishna and Balaram’s joy on arriving in Vrindavan after leaving Gokul is described as follows:
vṛndāvanaṁ govardhanaṁ yamunā-pulināni ca |
vīkṣyāsīd uttamā prītī rāma-mādhavayor nṛpa ||
“O King, seeing Vrindavan, Govardhana and the banks of the Yamuna, a supreme delight arose in both Balaram and Krishna.” (10.11.36)
Indeed most of the original glorifications of Vrindavan in the Puranas are found at this point in the narration of his life. According to the Bhagavatam, this move took place when Krishna was still a toddler and constitutes one of the principal events of his childhood.
The first version of this story is found in the Harivaṁśa, but its description of the events in Krishna’s life differs somewhat from the Bhagavata version, which is the one that is most widely known.
According to Harivaṁśa, the cowherd community remained in Mahavan or Brihadvan until he was seven years old and had already started taking care of the calves (2.8.1-2). In the later canonical version, the move takes place when Krishna is still much younger and he only takes up taking care of the calves when he has already arrived in Vrindavan.
This section of the Harivaṁśa strikes me as one of the most realistic portions of almost the entire Puranic corpus, in that it honestly depict the thinking of a contemporary nomadic tribe.
Nanda and his clan of gopas are there described as an Abhira tribe of cattle-husbanding nomads. They lived in their oxcarts, like gypsy caravans, though when finding a particularly fertile territory for grazing their herds, could settle down permanently. The word vraja itself comes from a verb meaning “to move.” Vraja was the territory in which the gopas led by Nanda moved about.
According to even the earliest accounts, Krishna’s early childhood in Gokul was marked by many attempts on his life. The first was made by Putana, the sky-flying child murdering witch, and followed by Shakatasura and Trinavarta, the whirlwind demon. The fall of the twin arjuna trees was the final straw that prompted Nanda and his the five brothers led by Nanda and Upananda to think that the land there was somehow cursed and take the decision to move. At least this is what we hear from the Bhagavata.
But in the older tradition of the Harivaṁśa, there is an extensive description of devastating wolf attacks that are given as the real final straw for the great exodus from Mahavan-Gokul. It says that not only cattle, but many children and adults were killed in the attacks. The problem was so great it seemed as though the cowherds were afraid they would no longer be able to maintain their livelihood.
The first time the idea for moving comes up, however, is when Krishna speaks to his brother Balaram directly after the first descriptions of the wolf attacks (52.8-17). The reason he gives for these attacks: is deforestation. Krishna there tells us that Mahavan has become desolate due to overuse (bhukta-känanam). There has been excessive cutting down of trees, he says, and the cows have stopped grazing because the grass has been sullied by their own and human excrement. The cows have to wander quite far from the settlement to make sure they get sufficient pasture. Moreover, the milk they give is not so good or abundant due to eating bad grasses . He says,
Where once there was a thick cover of forest we now see but sky everywhere. Not only is there insufficient wood, but also a lack of forest vegetation for us to forage and eat.
What has the wood been used for? Some of it has been sold in the city, Krishna says, a lot has been used as fuel. Moreover it appears also that the Abhiras had been turning to a more sedentary way of life and wood was also being used for construction. Krishna says in words that leap out of the page, ghoṣo’yaṁ nagarāyate, “the cowherd camp is turning into a city.”
It is at this juncture that Krishna first praises Vrindavan as a kind of promised land (52.18-29). Some of those verses are quoted later by Sanatan Goswami (Vaishnava Toshani 11.28):
“I have heard there is a lovely forest named Vrindavan with a very full covering of grass and delectable trees and waters. It is free of thorns and troubling insects and is decorated with all the sylvan virtues. Situated on the banks of the Yamuna, it is filled primarily with kadamba trees. The wood is an auspicious place, blessed with pleasant and cooling breezes, and every season there is beautiful. The charming change in forest will bring happiness to the gopis. The great mountain Govardhan is also not far away, ornamenting the land with its high peaks like Mount Mandara in Indra’s heavenly garden. In the midst of Vrindavan is a great banyan tree named Bhandira, spreading over an area of twelve kilometers, decorating the land like a blue cloud in the sky. We will see Govardhan hill, the Bhandira tree, and the beautiful Kalindi river and that will bring us great happiness.” [HV. 52.22-26,28]
Harivaṁśa then describes that Nanda and the elders take the decision to move (53.6-11). But here again the attacks of the wolves are given as the main reason, and no mention is made of any of the other demons. “In every home the cry went up, ‘My son was killed by wolves!’ ‘And my brother!’ ‘And my calf!’ ‘And my cow!'” And so without any further delay, the decision is taken to abandon the now dangerous area “before we are all killed.”
No doubt this was a common pattern for nomads. The India of several thousand years ago was not the same as it is today, nor was it as seen in the imaginative portrayals of that mythical age in cinema and television dramas. It was a time when a nomadic tribe could use up all the resources of one place and then move on to another without any impediment, and have a place to go. In the meantime, nature is restored, trees will grow, and in a generation they can move back.
It seems that already by the time of the Bhagavatam, the primitive simplicity of the nomadic tribe of cowherds had been replaced in popular imagination by a more sedentary and prosperous view of their life. At the same time, the story of environmental degradation is forgotten. Even so, the glorification of Vrindavan as a natural paradise there includes more than one paean to trees.
Perhaps the destruction of the forest through overuse in Gokul was seen as a warning to be more protective of the natural world. Trees are specifically glorified by Krishna himself as life exemplars in more than one way. A consciousness of the forest as integral to their lives and a proper relation to nature are also implicit in the story of Govardhan puja and the chastising of Kaliya. Here’s what Krishna has to say about trees:
gandha-niryāsa-bhasmāsthi-tokmaiḥ kāmān vitanvate
"The trees fulfill everyone’s desires with their leaves, flowers, fruits, their shade, roots, bark, wood, their fragrance and essential oils, charcoal, and young shoots." (10.22.34)
paśyaitān mahā-bhāgān parārthaikānta-jīvitān
vāta-varṣātapa-himān sahanto vārayanti naḥ
aho eṣāṁ varaṁ janma sarva-prāṇy-upajīvanam
sujanasyeva yeṣāṁ vai vimukhā yānti nārthinaḥ
"Look at these greatly fortunate trees, which live exclusively for the benefit of others, not only tolerating the wind, rain, heat and frost themselves, but also protecting us from them. Ah, their lives are most exemplary for they nourish the lives of all the other creatures. They reject no one, just as a kind and charitable person never turns away any supplicant." (32-33)
gandha-niryāsa-bhasmāsthi-tokmaiḥ kāmān vitanvate
"The trees fulfill everyone’s needs with their leaves, flowers, fruits, their shade, roots, bark, wood, their fragrance and essential oils, charcoal, and young shoots." (10.22.34)
etāvaj janma sāphalyaṁ dehinām iha dehiṣu
prāṇair arthair dhiyā vācā śreya evācaret sadā
"The extent of an embodied being’s success in life can be measured by how he acts constantly and exclusively for the benefit of others, using his life energy, his wealth, his intelligence and his words." (10.22.35)
And this example subsequently becomes central to the entire vision of the Vaishnava way of life:
vṛkṣa yena kāṭileha kichu nā bolaya
śukāñā maileha kāre pānī nā māgaya
"When a tree is cut down, it does not protest, and even when drying up, it does not ask anyone for water." (CC 3.20.23)
jei je māgaye, tāre deya āpana dhana
gharma vṛṣṭi sahe, ānera karaye rakṣaṇa
"The tree delivers its fruits, flowers and whatever it possesses to anyone and everyone. It tolerates scorching heat and torrents of rain, yet it still gives shelter to others." (CC 3.20.23)
uttama hañā vaiṣṇava habe nirabhimāna
jīve sammāna dibe jāni’ ‘kṛṣṇa’ adhiṣṭhāna
Although a Vaishnava is the most exalted person, he is prideless and gives all respect to everyone, knowing them to be each one the habitation of Krishna. (CC 3.20.24)
ei mata hañā yei kṛṣṇa nāma laya
śrī kṛṣṇa caraṇe tāṅra prema upajaya
"If one chants the holy name of Lord Krishna in this manner, he will certainly awaken his dormant love for Krishna’s lotus feet." (CC 3.20.25)
In the next step, the trees and forest, Vrindavan itself, become even more than simply sources of livelihood, or even more than moral exemplars in life, they become sacred in their own right. Their sacredness may be rooted in their value for life and so on, but as participants in Radha and Krishna’s play as their playground, as their servants, they are treated as divine. In the way of imagining Vrindavan in the Age of Bhakti, in the Vani writings in Braj, the forest is a central and active part of the divine prema drama:
vṛndāvana ke vṛkṣa ko marama na jāne koya
ḍāra pāta phala phūla pai śrī rādherādhe hoya
"No one knows the secret of the trees of Vrindavan. On every piece of wood, every leaf and flower is written the name of Radha, over and over."