Steven J. Gelberg, a religious studies theorist, has attempted to provide an explanation of how Vrindavan evokes ‘spiritual emotions’. The foremost spiritual emotion is Bhakti – the desire to become the Lord’s instrument with the selfless desire to please the Supreme Lord.
Before describing how Vrindavan helps to awaken this highest of spiritual emotions, Gelberg explains what Bhakti is, saying: “Bhakti is not mere theoretical acknowledgement of, or pious regard for, the Deity, but (in its most evolved form) direct, profound, ecstatic, mystical apprehension of (and active relationship with) God, conceived in the most personal of terms.”
Of all the religions in the world, there is something special about Hinduism, especially some of the varieties of Hinduism that are practiced in Vrindavan. Gelberg quotes Charles Brook’s explanation of the superiority of the understanding of human psychology that is found within Hinduism:
“Perhaps in no other religious system have human emotional potentials been so considered, categorized, and sacralized than in the codification accomplished by the Bengali Vaishnavas.” These writers produced numerous texts delineating the path of bhakti, categorizing and elaborating the various stages of mystical devotion, even typologizing varieties of religious ecstasy – always tying in their highly nuanced analyses to features of and episodes from the Krishna story….Some of the terms they use, such as ‘rasa’, ‘bhav’ and ‘prem’, have entered into the vocabulary of every devotee of Krishna.
Terms such as ‘rasa’ and ‘bhav’ derive from Sanskrit drama and poetics, and refer to the various aesthetic moods invoked by dramatic and poetic works.← Worshipable representation of Rupa Goswami at Radha Damodar temple
Rupa Goswami, in particular, transmuted these aesthetic categories into mystical ones. Thus rasa, which in the poetic sense refers to “the supreme relish of literary enjoyment” comes to refer to the sublime mystical sentiments experienced by t in relation to Krishna. Brooks explains that these mystical rasas:
“are patterned primarily upon the emotions that result from various dyadic relationships common to all humans, and these serve as paradigms for the mystical variety. They are specifically based, however, upon the set of relationships that Krishna had with the inhabitants of Vrindaban during his descent to earth, and which are believed to eternally exist in the heavenly Vrindavan…Bhava, on the other hand, “indicated a predisposing emotion that one has toward Krishna which becomes rasa only when it is highly refined and integrated into the devotee’s entire being through experience. “
Vrindavan is seen by both the scholastic theologians and the pilgrims as the place most conducive to the development and experience of these mystical emotions.
The environment is already saturated with Krishna Bhakti, due both to the presence of widespread, intensive devotional activity, as well as the “invisible” mystical presence of Krishna’s eternal spiritual realm, wherein the devotional rasas are played out in their fullest perfection.
Hariram Vyas, a mystic and poet who lived in the Vrindaban area in the late sixteenth century, praised Vrindaban as (in Entwistle’s paraphrase) “the capital of all those who are receptive to sublime aesthetic feelings.”
It is the place where one may experience the bliss that arises from beholding Krishna and Radha. Residence in Vrindaban offers the best chance of attaining…the full experience of the eternal and transcendent dimensions of the environment in which they sported.”
Pilgrims and residents engage in a wide variety of activities that help them to connect with the transcendent Vrindavan – visiting temples, participating in kirtan, watching Rasa Lila performances, performing Parikrama, rolling in the dust on the streets…the list is endless.
The enormous variety of devotional activities itself helps to indicated the different bhavas. Seeing other people’s engagement in devotional activities encourages newcomers to take up a practice that suits their mood, so momentum builds up and everyone in Vrindavan finds themselves getting engaged in some or other devotional activity.
Modern philosophers confirm that the desire to engage in religious activity is part of being human – that we are in fact religious entities. Mircea Eliade coined the term “ontological thirst” to describe the innate desire for the sacred:
“the sacred is pre-eminently the real, at once power, efficacy, the source of life and fecundity. Religious man’s desire to live in the sacred is in fact equivalent to his desire to take up his abode in objective reality, not to let himself be paralyzed by the never-ceasing relativity of purely subjective experience, to live in a real and effective world, and not in an illusion. This behaviour is documented on every plane of religious man’s existence, but it is particularly evident in his desire to move about only in a sanctified world, that is, in a sacred space.”
Gelberg goes on to describe other emotional drives that propel people to go on pilgrimage to Vrindavan: The yearning for paradise; the desire to escape from restrictive social structures that prevent spontaneity; nostalgia for childhood pastimes (similar to Krishna’s childhood pastimes); desire for liberation from the material world and the desire for ecstatic experiences.
Even if a person can only ‘mentally live in Vrindavan’, Vrindavan residence has a powerful impact on a person’s life. Gelberg quotes Haberman’s explanation of the prominence given in Hinduism to mental projections:
“The world of mental images or imagination is taken much more seriously in India than it is typically in the West. If one could somehow hold in mind (smarana) a mental image harmonious with Ultimate Reality, one would live in or participate in…that reality. One becomes what one “holds in mind”. Therefore, the Vaishnavas strive to meditate on, or remember, the Ultimate Reality…an in this way attempt to share in that reality.”
For those who believe in the ideal realm, the material is an imperfect reflection of the spiritual world, and, once we leave Vrindavan, our memories will be an imperfect reflection of the material Vrindavan.
Anyone who has ever lived anywhere else other than Vrindavan, may find themselves wondering whether they are actually in the ‘real Vrindavan’, and there is a thick curtain of illusion (maya) that protects Vrindavan from prying eyes and prevents ‘real Vrindavan’ from being easily perceived.
Hence, as Gelberg concludes:
“It thus appears that however much the transcendental atmosphere of Vrindaban might normally inspire lofty, sublime states of devotional consciousness, there are those who can physically be there without really “being there”; while others can “be there” even if they are thousands of miles away. Vrindaban is, then, a state of mind, a mode of being, a sacred space that is at once nowhere and everywhere, a place in the heart and in the soul.”
Whether or not one is physically in Vrindavan, loving devotional service (bhakti) is the key that provides entrance to transcendental Vrindavan. Seeing others practice bhakti, the desire to be in Vrindavan and the perception of ‘spiritual emotions’ like rasa, bhava and prem (in oneself and others) help to open the doors of the mind to the authentic Vrindavan experience.
(Article based on: Steven J. Gelberg, “Vrindavan as a locus of Mystical Experience”, Journal of Vaishnava Studies, Vol 1, No. 1, 1992, (ed.) Steven J. Rosen.)