The following is taken from a chapter of the Journal of Vaishnava Studies (ed. J.S. Hawley). OBL Kapoor wrote several important books documenting Vaishnavism in Vrindavan and is best known for his work The Saints of Braj.
Even though each dhama is infinite and all-pervading, the dhamas are said to be situated one above another. Situated above the mundane sphere, which is graded into fourteen worlds – the seven Lokas and seven Patalas – and beyond the River Viraja, is the Brahmaloka, or Siddhaloka, which is the redisence of all the freed (mukta) souls (Chaitanya caritamrta, Madhya 19.153).
Above the Brahmaloka is the para-vyoma, where the infinite avataras, or partial manifestations of Krishna reside, and which is the support of infinite spiritual regions called Vaikunthas (Chaitanya caritamrta, Adi 15.5).
Above all these dhamas is Krishna loka (Krishna’s abode), which, according to the differences in Krishna’s pastimes (lilas) and associates (parikaras) appears in three different forms – as Dwarka, Mathura and Gokula (Chaitanya caritamrta, Adi 5.13). Goloka, the highest of the three, is also called Vrindavana because Vrindavana is the entral portion of Goloka.
The situation of the dhamas above or below each other should not, however, be taken in its literal sense. It actually implies their gradation according to their excellence (mahima). The excellence of a dhama depends on the degree to which it manifests the highest dhama, Vrindavana. Thus the excellence of Siddhaloka is greater than the excellence of the phenomenal world; the excellence of paravyomo is greater then the excellence of Siddhaloka; the eccellence of Krishnaloka is greater than the excellence of Goloka is greater then the excellence of all of the rest of Krishnaloka. The excellence of Vrindavana is the greatest of all.
In the Rg Veda (1.154.6) Vrindavan is described as the highest dhama (param padam) of Vishnu. The Bhagavatam also describes it as the highest dhama. In the Gita Krishna Himself describes it as “My highest dhama”. (BG, 8.21). It is also so described because it surpasses all other dhamas in grandeur (aisvarya) and sweetness (madhurya). But its peculiarity is that its sweetness completely its grandeur, so that everything here assumes a form sweet beyond expression.
Krishna does not appear here as God or even as a king, but as a cowherd boy with the crest of a peacock feather on His crown and a flute in His hand, eternally engaged in amorous pastimes with His with His consorts on the bank of the River Yamuna underneath the Kadamba trees and in the green groves – groves that are laden with sweet-smelling flowers, all of which breathe an atmosphere of freedom and sweetness most congenial to Him and His consorts.
It is therefore not possible to think of Krishna’s presence anywhere else. Krishna in Mathura and Dvaraka is not really the Krishna of Vindavan but His partial manifestation called Vasudeva. When Krishna is said to go out of Vrindavan, as for example, when He goes to Mathura at the invitation of Kamsa, it is really His partial manifestation Vasudeva who goes there, not Krishna Himself, who remains unmanifest during that period in His manifest pastimes (prakata lila) in Vrindavana.
The celestial Dvarka, Mathura and Gokula (Vrindavan) have their replicas on earth in the forms of the geographical Dvaraka, Mathura and Vrindavana, which are known as their prakata-prakasas, or manifest forms.
These appear as parts of the phenomenal world to our clouded vision, but are in essence identical to their celestial counter-parts. Here also Krishna is eternally present with Nanda, Yashoda and His other associates and performs His pastimes with them as in the celestial Dvaraka, Mathura and Vrindavana.
b2535680642cf97abf5b2e647fa5c02a-254x300If we could see them with spiritual eyes, they would without a doubt appear in their true form (Chaitanya caritamrta, Adi 5.20-21). Devotees who attain accomplishment in devotion (siddhavastha) are even today, in their present bodies, blessed with the vision of the divine pastimes of Krishna with His associates; such devotees need not be transported to any other abode or level of existence.
When, however, Krishna descends to these dhamas at the time of his manifest lila at the time of His manifest lila (prakata-prakasa), even those who are not devoted to Him can see Him and His pastimes. Such is the effect of the divine touch of Krishna with these dhamas, which otherwise appear phenomenal.
Besides the manifest forms of Krishnaloka, there is also an unmanifest form of it on earth that has the peculiar power of always remaining invisible; it remains on earth without touching it. Thus, there are two aprakata-prakasas unmanifest forms) of Krishnaloka. One is the Krishnaloka situated abouve the paravyoma, which is called by various names: Goloka, Gokula, Svetadvipa, Vrajaloka or Vrindavana. The other is the invisible Krishnaloka situated on earth, which is different from the prapancika, the phenomenal Krishnaloka visible to our material eyes and actually touching the earth. It is also called Goloka or Vraja.
Rupa Gosvami states in Laghu-bhagavatamrita (1.277.78) that Goloka is a majestic manifestation (vaibhava-prakasa) of Gokula, which is essentially sweet in appearance and therefore greater in excellence. As an instance of the majesty (vaibhava) of Goloka, he cites the Varah Purana, which says the Kadamba trees of Goloka are spread out majestically with their hundreds of branches, which is just in keeping with its aisvarya (opulence), while the Kadamba trees of Gokula are medium-sized, which is in keeping with its madhurya (sweetness).
A special reason why Gokula excels Goloka in sweetness is that in Goloka Krishna is present eternally without birth, on account of which His pastimes in Goloka differ in certain respects from the sweet human aspect in which they reveal themselves in the phenomenal Gokula. Brahma-samhita describes the pastimes of Vrindavana as nara-lila (manlike pastimes) and those of Goloka as deva-lila (Godlike pastimes). This theory is supported by the rasa dance in Goloka, which Krishna in the Brhad-bhagavatamrta to have performed on the head of Kaliya Naga, the thousand headed cobra, although there is no mention of this in the Bhagavatam.
According to Jiva Gosvami also (Gopala-campu, Purva-khanda, 19), Goloka is the majestic manifestation of Vrindavana. He describes Vrindavana as the inner side (antar-mandala) of Goloka, and Goloka as the outer side (bahir-mandala) of Vrindavan. But they are not the outer and inner side of each other in the physical sense, for it is possible to see Goloka in Vrindavana (because Goloka is the majestic manifestation of Vrindavana) but not possible to see Vrindavan in Goloka (Krishna-sandarbha, 116).
According to Rupa and Jiva, (Bhakti-rasamrta-sindhu, Tika 1.4), Goloka can be attained by vaidhi (ritualistic) bhakt, but Vrindavana can be attained only by raganuga bhakti or bhakti flowing spontaneously like a current, disregarding the rules and regulations of ritualistic bhakti. This is a further indication of the difference between the two abodes.
Sanatana seems to differ from Rupa and Jiva in regard to both the relation between Goloka and Vrindavana and the meanso of their realization. According to him, Goloka (or rather the part of Goloka called Gokula) and the phenomenal Gokula or Vrindavana are identical (Brhad-bhagavatamrta 2.5.168).
In the Brhad-bhagavatamrta, Gopa Kumara sometimes stays in Goloka and sometimes in Vrindavana, without being able to make out any difference between them. According to him, both abodes can be attained only by spontaneous devotion and not by any other means.
Thus we may conclude that there is essentially no difference between Goloka and Gokula (Vrindavana). Goloka is a particular manifestation of Vrindavana in which sweetness predominates, but not to the extent to which it predominates in Vrindavan (Gokula).
Goloka is therefore called the majestic manifestation of Vrindavana. Vrindavana proper is attained by spontaneous devotion, whereas Goloka is attained by ritualistic methods. The greater the dominance of spontaneity, the fuller the realization of Goloka’s sweetness.
But when spontaneous devotion is pure, Goloka is realized in its highest aspect which displays sweetness fully and is called the inner side (antar-mandal) of Goloka.In this aspect, Goloka is identical with the phenomenal Vrindavan, and the sweetness displayed here is the same as that in the phenomenal Vrindavan, except for the difference caused by Sri Krishna’s always being present in Goloka as a young boy of ender age (nitya kishora), while in the phenomenal Vrindavan He takes birth and gradually attains boyhood.
The veracity of the claim that the phenomenal Vrindavan, which looks like any other part of the material world to our material eyes, is itself the spiritual Vrindavana, the highest abode, surpassing even Goloka in its excellence, may be questioned. But Sri Chaitanya and His followers are ever so emphatic in their statements about its transcendental character.
Sri Rupa Gosvami says that devotees who have ardent love for Krishna are even today blessed with a vision of His divine pastimes in this very Vrindavan.
Sanatana Goswami says that Vrindavan is here on earth and Krishna’s unmanifest pastimes are going on in it even now, but none except those to whom He and His devotees can see it. Prabodananda Sarsasvati describes how he actually sees this Vrindavana in its real form with all its transcendental beauty and excellence.
Oho sarvaparyati vimla-vistirna-madhurya-sphurac-candra-prayam sphurati mama vrindavanam idam
“Oh, this Vrindavana of mine, stationed above every other abode! How it shines near me like a big moon in all its resplendent beauty!” (Vrindavana mahimamrta 4.83)
No ground is left for any doubt that this very Vrindavan is the highest paradise, where Krishna eternally revels in His spiritual pastimes. Residing here, therefore, is considered one of the most important aspects of devotional service.
Prabodhananda says that if one takes shelter of Vrindavana with faith and devotion, he will be blessed with a vision of the rasa dance of Krishna with His consorts even if he does not perform any other regulative worship.
He concisely states his entire philosophy of Vrindavana in another verse, which says that to reside in Vrindavana is to perform the highest worship, to attain Vrindavana is to attain the highest end, and to realize Vrindavana is to realize the highest truth and the highest bliss. (Vrindavana mahamrta 17.33)