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Three days in Barsana

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The Brahmachal hills of Barsana are amazing. When you walk along the ridge from Maan Mandir towards the Jaipur temple, with all these shriveled trees and the skinny monkeys, it seems to shimmer with a divine luster.

The monkeys run like mad when Vinode Baba comes distributing his goodies — sweets and chapatis. I don’t think there is that much food on the mountain. The monkeys in Barsana are much smaller than their cousins in Vrindavan. Amazingly, however, they don’t go down into the town to cause trouble and ravage the garbage dumps wherever they find them. Nor do they steal glasses. There are thousands of them on the mountain, but they are barely noticeable down below in the town – which disproves my theory that the red rhesus monkeys will always gravitate to human refuse and remain indifferent to their natural habitat. Maybe there is something different about Nature in the rocks of Brahmachal.

It is almost impossible for me to speak of Brahmachal without talking about refuse. The other day while on Parikrama with Vinode Baba, he took a slight detour to go around Dahiya Kund. I had never been there before and I noticed the Braj Foundation had put up a stone information board, explaining the lila and the Braj Foundation’s role in repairing the kund at the request of Ramesh Baba.

Well, though this work was done only a few years ago, it looks like an abandoned outpost from the Nehruvian period. Decorative pillars have fallen. Stone slabs are overgrown with grass and weeds. Local residents use the place for drying cowdung and protect their valuable patties from damage with thorns. The kund itself is practically empty of water, except for a puddle or two, and fast-growing eucalyptus are growing rapidly along with other acacia bushes. It is hard to say what good has come of the TBF’s work if it is reduced to a ruin so quickly. Things degrade very quickly in this country, and if they are neglected in this way, that is what can be expected.

What is worse is that most of the water that is meant to supply the kund never makes it. The Parikrama path around the kund, and also built by TBF is like walking on stepping stones through the middle of a bog. I would say wetland, but since it is wastewater from the buildings at the bottom of the hill in Gahvarvan and is filled with all the usual kinds of refuse it feels more like .a sewer. It might be nice if it wasn’t a sewer.

We are all very proud of Ramesh Baba and his Padma Shri award and all the good work he has done for the environmental movement. But quite frankly, the garbage disaster that is on Brahmachala starts with Gahvar Van and Maan Mandir and continues unabated all the way to the Ladili Mandir. It is impossible not to notice and I wonder why so many people don’t!

Perhaps it is that they only see the sacred and do not perceive at all that the plastic wrappers and a thousand other variations of garbage that litter the entire length of the Parikrama.

And I am not being entirely negative here. I barely saw it this time either, and certainly, I looked at it with barely any emotional charge, as we foreigners often feel. Brahmachal does really vibrate at a frequency that transports you into some kind of world of light. I got an inkling of Rupa’s verse__

 dṛṣṭaiḥ svabhāva-janitair vapuṣaś ca doṣair
na prākṛtatvam iha bhakta janasya paśyet |
 gaṅgāmbhasāṁ na khalu budbuda-phena-paṅkair
 brahma-dravatvam apagacchati nīra-dharmaiḥ ||6||

One should not look upon a devotee as a mundane being after seeing the flaws of body or mind produced by his nature. It is like the fact that the Ganges waters lose their divine nature as liquid Brahma because of the bubbles and mud that are in the nature of river water. (Upadeshamrrita 6)

So I stuck to the happy mood and dashed off to the Ladili Lal temple where one enters yet another world. There is a kind of joyful anarchy, something of a crazy community of multiple groups of devotees doing their own bhakti thing, or tourists and pilgrims wandering round gazing at everything – the sadhus, the Gosais, the people in general, just milling around and looking down at the town or Jaipur mandir from the verandas.


View from Ladli ji Mandir

Ramesh Baba sits somewhat regally surrounded by his very distinctive looking inner group – vairagis with dreadlocks and wearing a few rags, flamboyant Radha Kund tilak all over their body. And so, of course, anyone coming into the temple, especially someone important from the devotee world, has to come and give his pranam. The local children, many of whom are beggars, harass him for sweets without caring for the distinguished Vaishnava raj sabha.

Sometimes Brijbasis or temple Gosais come and regale Baba with folklore and legends. Sometimes they even put on a show for him spontaneously, singing devotional Braj-related songs and stories from a well-developed long tradition. It is bliss. It really is bliss.

The temple courtyard is surrounded by steps and two meters of verandah. People sit here, many of them Babas and other sadhu types, chanting japa or just watching. Many have their regular place where they come day after day, waiting for the curtains to open and arati to begin with a great crash of bells.

Everyone at arati sings their own song, or don’t sing at all. Arati is about just looking, or staring at the deity, darshan, if you can get a glimpse through all the heads. But when it is over, there is a great cry from the devotees Jai Radhe! And there is a hurling of flower petals at the Divine Couple.

And then start the stotras. Two main groups chant different mantras. In the back it is the old Gosais and in the front it is the youth. The young men chant Kripa Kataksha Stotram with unparalleled vigor. The meter is very rhythmic (short long short long, etc.) and unchanging, totaka, I think it might be, and so lends itself to increased tempo and staccato regularity, kada kari?yasiha ma? k?paka?ak?abhajanam…. And then they sing “Radha Kishori daya koro”, with lots of utsaha. The result is uplifting.

In the back the old Gosais chant a potpouri of verses, some standard and many from the Radha Rasa Sudha Nidhi. The temple is filled with a joyful racket while a priest takes the burning lamp through the crowd to offer it to some other shrines When he comes to the steps at the back of the courtyard leading to the open veranda, the Gosais separate to make a path for him and they take the flame prasad as he passes.

Then you do parikrama of the temple and go down one of the three ways down the hill on that side. An interesting one is in Rangili Gali which breaks off from the main stairway. It is very narrow, very unchanged from the old times. Anyway, it looks unchanged.

I have a friend from Birnagar, Krishadas, who lives with his wife in one of the houses on that lane. He invited me to lunch one day. There is no electricity. There is a great view of the Ladili temple from the roof. I thought it was pretty cool.

And this is something that was very cool for me this time is that I seem to have some interesting friends in the Vaishnava community there. The first day I saw Anurag Baba in the temple and he told me to come and see him. I went the next day. We sat and mostly he talked. The man is a wealth of information about North Indian religion, and knows everyone and all the stories about everyone. He is originally from the Punjab. His father was a professor and an Arya Samaji. But he used to give Ramayan readings also. Anurag came to Braj when still a teenager and has been here ever since. He goes everywhere, knows all the histories and traditions. He told me that he was depressed because in the last year or two so many (23 he said) great Vaishnavas left the world. His bhajan, he said, is not to chant japa of the holy name, but to repeat the names of 2000 saints on his mala.

We mostly talked about parampara because I have been thinking about it a bit lately. Anurag Baba is initiated in the Nitai Gaur Radhe Shyam parivar, but he is one of those extreme independent types. From the time of Boro Dada and Ramdas Babaji, the Nitai Gaur Radhe Shyam panthis have a great tolerance as well as respect for eccentricity. So on the parampara issue he was very liberal, saying that no one can restrict the will of the omnipresent and omnipotent God to reveal himself in response to a soul that establishes a relation with him.

At any rate, I can barely remember a word of it and of course I did not have a recorder because I was without gadgets for a day or two. He told me so much about Shyam Charan Das, the founder of the Shuk sampradaya, who did not have a sampradaya himself. Hit Harivamsh, and so on. He said, “Are these not mahatmas?” Basically, his objection is only to those who are narrow-minded and claim that their revelation is the only authentic one. He also knows a lot about Sikhism and its Hindu roots, Nanak and Guru Govinda Singh and so on. Like I said, the man is a treasure trove.


Vinod Bihari Baba with Pandit

And of course, that is not all that I have to say about Barsana! I really go for the kirtan at Vinode Baba’s and to listen to him talk.

It seems that his entire face has been shaped around a smile, with high round cheeks and twinkling eyes. This becomes most manifest when he is doing kirtan or quoting a good verse that hits the point about some aspect of bhajan. Yesterday it was about nistha, total commitment. Vinode Baba sticks to the basics, Gita and Bhagavata. He doesn’t go off on lila sphurtis or poetic descriptions from Radha Rasa Sudha Nidhi or anything like that. He talks a good vairagi line. Nama bhajan, that is the main thing.

The kirtan is always resounding, no matter how many people. No matter who else is there, or even whether Baba himself sings, It always takes you into a world the kirtan itself creates in that environment. Vinode Baba’s band of merry men is really dedicated to the Maha Mantra. They are mostly good singers and instrumentalists, and guests and vairagis (renunciates) from the neighborhood are naturally attracted and participate. Often there are talented musicians who come.

In the Priya Kunj ashram, people are constantly coming for darshan, but most are disappointed. They don’t know that the best time for darshan is kirtan time. It is a bit late in the evening (around 9), but that is when Baba makes his appearance…

After what I said about Dohiya Kund, I should mention that Priya Kund, which I wrote about effusively not so long ago is also showing the signs of deterioration and neglect. The water is filling up slowly with empty plastic bottles and chip wrappers. Half of the structures and steps are not swept or maintained, and many of the pillars or domes on the chatris have been broken. Several of the chatris have already disappeared entirely. This is less than two years after the refurbishment! But they sure do keep pumping water into it, and it is still a playground for the youth in the hot season.

Jai Radhe!

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