The sun rose on the eastern horizon. My taxi wound onward and onward through tiny villages of thatched huts and hand-painted advertisements towards the holy land of Vrindavan.
Five years had spun by since I had last come to Vrindavan. My heart ached with prayers to see past the pollution and noise and Westernization to experience the essence of Vrindavan. The real Vrindavan. The sacred Vrindavan.
We edged closer and closer to Vrindavan and I folded my palms to sing and to pray. Tears came to my eyes. I wanted the real Vrindavan and yet I struggled with the possibility of what I was going to see. I would be in Vrindavan for only three days, conducting both business and pilgrimage. Three days to get it all done, three days to get to the essence.
My second morning, I woke up scribbling shopping lists in my mind. By the time I walked over to the temple of Krishna Balaram for morning services, my mind was SWIMMING with stuff to get done in Loi Bazaar. I was eager to sit down and do a full inventory of all cash outflows on this trip, and my mind raced with plans.
While in the temple, I thought, "I know I have only chanted two rounds of japa meditation, but let me just spend an hour or two on this accounting first. Then my mind will be more at ease and I'll be able to be more focused in japa."
When I came back to my room, I felt: No.
Krishna is first. Krishna is priority. I must put Him first.
I decided to chant a minimum of eight rounds, sitting down, in my room, before doing anything else.
I realized that of course my mind is going to wander. So I was forgiving. I came back, came back to the sound. Every time I came back to the sound of the holy name, there was this feeling of "whuuuumph" like my mind had been flying around and suddenly I was pulled down to land, whuuuuumph, back on the holy name. It was awesome. I almost felt like I could hear that whuuuuumph sound.
Shopping lists dissolved. My burning desire for that lovely scarf faded.
I had thought that I had had important
business to accomplish and to chant japa was a secondary chore. In those moments of listening to the sound of the holy name, I realized that chanting attentive japa actually empowers me to accomplish ten times what I thought I could ever accomplish.
Thus eight rounds became ten, ten became twelve.
In this simple effort of mine to chant the holy name and SHOW my sincerity, I believe that Krishna reciprocated tenfold and He gave me darshan - or divine vision - of Sri Vrindavan Dham.
After chanting, as I had predicted, my mind was razor sharp and I blazed through my accounting.
When I made my final calculation, I put down my pen and picked up my japa bag and headed down to visit the rooms of Srila Prabhupad.
Whenever Srila Prabhupad came to Vrindavan in his later years, he would live in these rooms, and ultimately he left the world in these rooms. Just by walking through the doorway, my mind became as quiet and warm as when I was chanting japa.
Hung on the wall was a picture of Srila Prabhupad that sent chills racing through my body.
Srila Prabhupad's body is emaciated, he is lying on his deathbed, which was in this very room, and a disciple holds a dictaphone to his mouth. He is giving commentary on the tenth canto of the Srimad Bhagavatam.
In those final moments of his life, he was serving. Giving truth. Giving love.
Let me love the way you love, Srila Prabhupada.
I sat down to chant in front of his murti, or sacred statue, which was seated behind his original desk. In my short time there, I saw an elderly woman from Russia and a monk from India and a young couple from South America come to bow before him. I realized that we all owe him our lives. All of us.
When I left Prabhupad's rooms, I was on my way to the Welcome Center to book a taxi to get to the airport on Sunday morning. I ran into a girl I've known for several years now, her name is Indulekha, and we started chatting. I got to connect in with the friends she was traveling with, as well as her mother.
We all ended up having lunch together at the MVT restaurant. At lunch, I was told that tomorrow was the celebration of Holi and it would be impossible to do shopping in Loi Bazaar. It would be dangerous. Scary. Hearing their stories, I felt scared.
It dawned on me that I needed to squeeze in not only the rest of my business but all of my pilgrimage goals into one evening. That evening. Oh boy.
In the late afternoon, we set out for Loi Bazaar, the four of us a motley crew - France, Russia, and the US all rolled into one spicy mixture. We talked about Krishna nonstop. We whirled our way through various stores, on a quest to discover an elusive item. At last we were triumphant at the new Ganga Prasad shop near Radha Shyamasundar temple. We high-fived each other!
When I was paying for the bill, I took out my business binder to account for this expense. The pen that I fished out of my bag was this gold pen that I had brought to India to write elegant thank you notes and such. I wrote the mundane financial equation out in the glittering gold ink and Veni Madhava commented, "Hm, a gold pen,"
"Oh yes," I smiled a little bashfully. I put it back in my bag and fished out a blue pen.
Since we were so close to Radha Damodar Mandir, I declared how much I wanted to go there, and the other ladies were happy to go too. We entered the busy temple, which was blasting with music from the musicians who had set up in the courtyard. Holi was getting into full swing. Radha Damodar were holding little metal Holi syringes, and the other Radha Krishna deities were holding plastic ones! Temple-goers were splashed in bright pink and green and yellow and danced in circles.
The four of us headed into Srila Prabhupad's humble rooms. His murti was there, also seated behind a desk, studiously bent over with his hand poised holding a pen. We commenced to chant japa. Despite the deafening music, suddenly the room felt quiet, like we were in a cocoon.
When the music paused, I said, "Hey, you guys, lets do a little kirtan while they've stopped their music,"
So we all started singing together, and immediately the music started blasting away again, so we just sang louder. We sang at the top of our lungs!! I suddenly realized that we wouldn't have been singing at the top of our lungs with such abandon, grinning from ear to ear, our hearts pounding, if that loud music hadn't been there. And so inside my heart I offered my gratitude to the musicians, for they had provoked our wild enthusiasm and love for Prabhupad with our chant of "Jaya Prabhupada Jaya Prabhupada Jaya Prabhupada Jaya Prabhupada!!!"
When we had triumphantly concluded our brief kirtan, something curious happened. Veni Madhava said to me, "Why don't you give Prabhupad your gold pen, and take the one he's holding?"
I was astonished, surprised with this idea.
"Really? But I've already written with the pen I have, is that okay?"
"Sure," she said.
So with a big smile, I crept forward and replaced Prabhupad's simple ballpoint pen with my gold pen.
The significance of this hit me after we left the temple, and for hours afterward. Prabhupad had somehow guided me so that I would be given his pen, and in his rooms at Radha Damodar where he wrote such powerful scripture in his meditation to save the fallen souls. I am praying that I may follow in his footsteps and write as a service to Krishna.
When my friends left the room, I lingered to offer prayers for a soulful wedding and marriage. When I went to join them, they weren't waiting at the temple entrance. I realized that maybe they had gone to Prabhupad's kitchen. So I headed back inside the temple. My friends weren't there; nevertheless I fell to my knees to offer obeisance.
Propped up against the wall is a picture of Srila Prabhupad quietly eating lunch, taken before he had traveled to the Western world. He is gazing out at the samadhi of Rupa Goswami and his expression conveys his meditation on how to fulfill the Goswami's wishes to share Krishna with the world. So I folded my palms and my prayer came out as a mantra, "The holy name, vaishnava culture, the holy name, vaishnava culture, holy name, vaishnava culture, holy name, vaishnava culture, holy name, vaishnava culture...." I was tingling all over.
When at last we all met up again, my friends said that they wanted to go to the temple of Radha Raman. Although Radha Raman was on my list of places to go, I hesitated because I still had much more shopping to do. But if I didn't go to Radha Raman today, NOW, I would not go at all.
Krishna first. Put Krishna first. Go with the devotees.
I looked at my binder, saw areas where I could adjust, snapped the binder shut and put it in my bag. I would go to Radha Raman.
Darkness had fallen, and our walk to the ancient temple via a shrouded alleyway was fraught with foreboding monkeys and streams of people shouting, their eyes wild and their clothes and faces splashed with crazy colors.
When we reached the quiet and ancient temple, apprehension ran through my blood. When we approached the actual temple of Radha Raman, we saw that right outside of the temple entrance people were throwing color and immediately we were all like, "No way." Ruining our nice clothes was one thing. Possible assault was another.
I folded my palms and called out, "I love you Radha Raman, I do, but this isn't going to work,"
I felt some disappointment but also relief that we were unanimous in turning around. But then Veni Madhava said, "Hey, I have a place to show you to get the special mercy,"
"Really? But how?" I said to her retreating back.
She had turned down another dimly lit pathway. We all followed, dubious. Suddenly I could hear kirtan, and I was amazed. Were we coming into the temple the back way or something??
But no, we had come to a room that was full of babajis singing kirtan. This was Sri Gopal Bhatta Goswami's samadhi, the saint who had established this temple hundreds of years ago and had worshiped Sri Radha Raman with such love. The kirtan was so soulful, so straight-up Vrindavan. In those moments, I stepped through all of my painful surface notions of Vrindavan and entered deep into sacred Vrindavan. My friends circumambulated the altar. I sat down to absorb the singing.
Although we didn't get to see Sri Radha Raman, we got to offer our respects to His most beloved servant, and that was almost like we had taken darshan of Radha Raman Himself, as He is most pleased when His devotees are glorified.
Then we headed out to catch a rickshaw back to Krishna Balaram. We bartered with some of the wallahs there but they were all too expensive. At last, one younger man stepped forward and said that he would take us for 60 rupees. We agreed, and he lead us to a nice auto rickshaw that sat the four of us. Our driver was this old, old man with a turban on his head and a smile upon his bright and weathered face. Just by looking at him, one could see that he was a gentle, sweethearted Brajabasi.
The most amazing thing? He was taking us back to Krishna Balaram via the parikrama marg. This meant that we would have darshan of the sacred places of Imli Tala, Radha Madan Mohan, Kaliya Ghat, Yamuna devi, and so much more. We were being taken on pilgrimage by a true Brajabasi. All of us were so delighted and amazed at our good fortune.
The whole way home we exclaimed over the various holy places and offered our respects as we drove by, the temples and the river all silhouettes in the moonlit night.
This was my Vrindavan day. I am still in wonder, total wonder that somehow, SOMEHOW, Krishna answered my prayers to experience the real Vrindavan. I could have never planned such a day in a million years.
But somehow, each piece of the puzzle fell together, like magic, magic, magic.
I firmly believe, though, that it all began with a drop of sincerity to chant the holy name. Put Krishna first. The magic will follow.