As the family of our editorial board member Prabhupada Shrivatsa Goswami is currently enjoying its period of service to Thakur Radharamanji, I thought I would continue to excerpt more of Margaret Case’s excellent book, Seeing Krishna. This installment describes the history of Radharamanji, his temple and his servants.
Sri Radharaman, a small black figure only eleven and one eighth inches high, stands in a relaxed pose with his hands raised to hold a flute to his lips—although, in fact, those hands are never seen to hold a flute. Radharaman’s right hand always holds a cowherd’s staff, by which he is seen to support himself.
He is the oldest image of Krishna in Vrindavan that has never had to leave. Housed in a small temple a block or two from Jaisingh Ghera, he is served by the lineage of Goswamis that includes Maharaj ji’s family. The story of the origin of this image has its roots in the visit of Chaitanya to the holy city of Srirangam near Tiruchirapalli during his tour of south India.
Sri Chaitanya arrived at Srirangam at the beginning of the monsoon season, when religious wanderers traditionally remain in one place during four months. Chaitanya decided to stay in the home of one of the main temple priests of Srirangam, Sri Vainkata Bhatta. During those four months, according to tradition, the saint was impressed with the qualities of Sri Vainkata Bhatta’s young son Gopala, and the child, in turn, made up his mind to take Chaitanya as his spiritual guide.
When Gopala Bhatta came of age, Sri Chaitanya set him the task of traveling to the border of Nepal, to the source of the Kali Gandaki River, to bring back several shalagrama stones—special river-washed, rounded black stones containing ammonites, revered by Vaishnavas as manifestations of the deity. After a difficult trek, Gopala Bhatta reached the lake called Damodar Kund, on what is now the Tibetan border of Nepal in Mustang district, where the most valued shalagramas are found.
From there, carrying his precious shalagramas, he returned via Saharanpur district in Uttar Pradesh and passed through the town now called Deoband. There he acquired three worthy disciples, including the Gauda brahman Gopinath and his younger brother, Damodara.
Sri Chaitanya had already sent several followers to Vrindavan to establish Krishna’s worship there, and Gopala Bhatta joined them. For years, he assiduously worshiped his shalagramas, and at Sri Chaitanya’s request composed an encyclopedic compendium describing the way of life to be followed by a Chaitanyaite Vaishnava, the Hari-bhakti-vilāsa, as well as other works. Chaitanya, in general, gave initiation (diksha) to no one; that is, he took no ritually established disciples—he taught that a renunciant should acquire nothing, even disciples. He seems to have made one exception, however, and made Gopala Bhatta his initiated disciple. As a result, Gopala Bhatta was the only one of the Six Goswamis who established a lineage of disciples. As an indication of Gopala Bhatta’s position, Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu sent his own seat (āsana), his necklace (mālā), and renunciate’s loin cloth (kaupīna) to this holy man of Vrindavan.
After many years of worship, in 1542, it is said that Gopala Bhatta had become discouraged because Sri Chaitanya’s promise made years before (he had left the world in 1533) had not yet been fulfilled. This was the promise that Gopala Bhatta would have his, Chaitanya’s, darshan (equivalent, in Gopala Bhatta’s belief, to darshan of Sri Krishna and Radha themselves) through worship of the shalagrama stones. On the eve of Buddha Jayanti, the full moon of Vaishakh (April-May), Gopala Bhatta was reading the sacred story of the young boy Prahlada, to whom Krishna manifested in the form of the man-lion Nrsimha. Gopala Bhatta was overwhelmed by the realization that this young boy had the good fortune to see the Lord himself through the power of his devotion, but that he himself had not been so fortunate. Acutely feeling his own worthlessness, he lost consciousness. A basket holding the precious shalagramas was hanging from a branch overhead. When he regained consciousness, he noticed that the lid of the basket had come open a bit.
Fearing that a snake had entered, he tried to push down the lid but found it impossible to do so. Then he looked inside and found, instead of the shalagramas, a small black figure, his head tipped slightly to the left, his torso leaning slightly to the right from a slender waist, his knees gracefully bent and his right foot crossed over his left. This “triple-bent” (tribhaṅga) boy was holding a flute to his lips with both hands. This is the image whose home is in Radharaman temple.
It is understood that he is the same as the deity Gopala Bhatta had longed to see—Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the incarnation of Radha and Krishna in one body. The proof that this is a self-revealed image that originated from a shalagrama is said to be that it bears on its back the gold-flecked imprint of the original Damodara shalagramas—although no one but an initiated priest of the temple is allowed to see Radharaman’s back. It is also argued that it could not have been carved because if a cutting tool is applied to a shalagrama it will simply flake away.
This was an era when other manifestations of Krishna were being discovered in Vrindavan and elsewhere in Vraja. In about 1534, Rupa Goswami discovered the image of Govindadeva, about four feet tall, on the hill where the great temple of Govindadeva now stands. Probably within the same decade his brother Sanatan identified the image of Madanamohan and installed it in a temple on another hill. And there were many others. All these images of Krishna were the personal deities of the saints who were founders of Chaitanyaite Vaishnavism in Vrindavan.
Like the thousands of other images that over time became enshrined as the personal deities of devotees, they were entrusted to the care of the immediate families and heirs of those who established them. Temples and shrines of every size, from spacious courtyards down to small household niches or altars, were built and maintained by these families, and Vrindavan is known for these thousands of shrines. A handful of these deities—Madanamohana, Govindadeva, and Radharaman among them—also became foci for the devotion of a wider community. The temples continue to the present day to belong to the heirs of the founders (though they are protected by civil law and cannot be sold as private property), but they attract a circle of regular devotees from the town, as well as pilgrims who come from afar.
Seva in the temple, service to Radharaman, is maintained by members of the group of Goswami families who trace their lineage to Gopala Bhatta. The first link in the chain of inheritance is spiritual, not physical.
Gopala Bhatta never married, and although he asked his elder disciple, Gopinath, to start a family, the latter also remained unmarried and followed a life of spiritual practice in his guru’s footsteps. The demand to found a line of priests to serve Radharaman ji then fell upon Gopinath’s brother Damodara. Damodara married and had three sons, the eldest of whom also had three sons; these three grandsons of Damodara and their two uncles founded the five lineages of Goswamis who currently serve at the temple.
A cousin of Gopinath and Damodara, Sri Hit Harivamsa, who also settled in Vrindavan and who founded the Radhavallabha sect, also initially took to a renunciate’s life but subsequently married. This provided a marriage pool for the lineages of Goswamis in both the Radharaman and Radhavallabha temples at Vrindavan, and elsewhere as well.
In principle, service (sevā) in Radharaman is equally divided among the five lineages, and within them among the forty-odd families of Radharaman Goswamis, and is shared by all initiated males in the lineages. The crucial moment of this initiation involves touching the feet of the deity after proper preparation, and only those who have done so are privileged to have intimate contact with him. Inheritance of the right to receive initiation passes through the male line only; the sons of a daughter cannot serve in the temple.
Most of the priests who serve in Radharaman temple have traditionally lived within Radharaman Ghera (compound). The protecting walls, however, have never prevented the Goswamis from traveling extensively.
Many families have a tradition of learning and culture, and sons have left to study before returning to practice and teach. Many have also moved away, returning only when it is their time to serve in the temple or they may arrange for one of the Goswamis living in Radharaman Ghera to do the rituals on their behalf. Some have gone on to earn a living in secular jobs; others serve Radharaman temples in the diaspora.
The Goswamis of Radharaman have always had close ties to a number of cities and towns throughout north India, and in many of these there are Radharaman temples that were built by followers of one or another guru within the Vrindavan lineage. There are thus Radharaman Goswamis in Patna, Varanasi, Pilibhit, Bareilly, Farrukhabad, Bharatpur, Shahjahanpur, Kanpur, Allahabad, Surat, and elsewhere who still maintain their position at Radharaman in Vrindavan. Some sublineages have communities of disciples scattered across north and west India.
The story of how the Radharaman temple at Pilibhit was founded exemplifies the growth of the diaspora. One of Maharaj jl’s devotees is from Pilibhit, a town about a hundred miles east of Delhi, not far from Bareilly. Her great-grandfather, the owner of a sugar factory, had no sons. He and his wife went to hear a discourse by a Radharaman Goswami, and soon afterward she delivered a boy.
The happy factory owner founded a temple, and a Goswami from Radharaman temple in Vrindavan came to be the priest. But the story does not end there. It seems that over the years the Goswamis in Pilibhit abandoned some of their Vaishnava ways and joined in the luxurious and dissolute ways of the founder’s family. But in the next generation one of the sons was a simple man, a vegetarian and abstainer who married a woman from a Varanasi family whose members were devotees of Maharaj ji. One daughter of this marriage is the devotee of Maharaj ji. There seems, she says, to be one person in each generation of this family who carries on the sevā in the temple; others might attend special events, such as discourses held there, but do not otherwise follow a Vaishnava way of life or are only partially observant.
As for the two sons and three grandsons of Damodara, each took responsibility for sevā at the temple for six months at a time, so each had a turn every two and a half years. This rotation has been passed down through the generations, and within each sublineage the six months have been successively subdivided.5 One sublineage has only one surviving representative, so his turn lasts six months. The other families within the line of succession have much shorter terms. Maharaj ji’s father, for example, had sixty-six days. Maharaj ji was only eleven years old when, after his father’s death, his family’s turn for sevā came around.
He was obviously not able to conduct the sevā himself, but he organized others to act on behalf of the family. Later, the sixty-six days were divided equally among the three brothers. Maharaj ji performs sevā for his twenty-two days jointly with his two sons (and, as of 1997, two grandsons). About five months before these twenty-two days, Maharaj ji has another week of sevā; one family within the sublineage to which he belongs died out, and their time was divided among other families in the sublineage.
These periods of sevā are times of great spiritual concentration and fulfillment for the Goswamis. They wish to offer the best of anything within their resources that can be prepared for Krishna’s enjoyment. All else in their lives flows from this.