Saturday, February 21, 2009

Portraits of the Brajabasi: at rest

  Portraits of the Brajabasi: at rest

Krishna is joyful. I am part and parcel of Krishna; therefore I must be also joyful. That is natural. If my father is black, then I am also black. So our father, the supreme father Krishna, is joyful. He is not engaged in some industrial work or heavy machine making. He is simply playing on His flute, and Radharani is there. That is joyful nature. 
- Srila Prabhupada, March 21, 1969

Friday, February 20, 2009

Two: The Mendicant

Touch of the Brajabasi: The Mendicant

Two: The Mendicant

"Like all great travelers, I have seen more than I remember, and remember more than I have seen." ~ Benjamin Disraeli

One day, three women set off to perform pilgrimage of Varsana – the holy land of Sri Radha. These women would journey through villages, mountaintop temples, and forests, and along the way, they would encounter an array of people – from temple guardians to beggars. Each woman would walk away transformed at the end of the day in unexpected ways.

One of those women was me. This is one way that I changed.

As we traveled, I saw my two companions, Bhanu Nandini and Rangadevi, give money to pujaris (caretakers) and to temples. I gave none. I saw my two companions engage in friendly rapport with the natives. I remained silent. I saw them glance compassionately upon beggars. I did not. I stuck to my attitude that I had to be the tough one for all of us. As we were obviously Westerners, to show kindness would be a weakness, instantly exploited. I refused to be naïve. 

And then… she came.

It was mid-afternoon, and our traveling party was traversing a forest path strewn with ancient temples. We rounded a bend, and opposite the path of a quaint temple, an old woman sat on an upraised platform on the hillside. She wore a faded white sari wrapped like a toga and sat behind a little stand that held a large, ancient book. Her eyes were luminous behind her thick glasses. She softly sang from her book.

Ever the photographer, I whipped out my camera. As we approached, the old woman looked up. “No photo!” She scolded and hid her face with her sari. She then hefted her monkey stick and brandished it at me. “No photo!” I gasped and fumbled to stow my camera back in my bag. Let’s get out of here! 

Bhanu and Rangadevi had other plans. They walked right up to the old woman and offered her some money to put in her battered beggar’s can. She accepted it warily. I held back in silence, still standing on the path while the two climbed up to the hillside where she sat. Okay, guys… time to go now. She's still holding the monkey stick…

Bhanu then began to attempt conversation in her broken, spirited Hindi. 

I remembered the way the woman had sung from her book... and suddenly I decided to open up, just a little. Soften, just a little. If Bhanu could, if Rangadevi could, certainly I could.  

“Can we – listen – you sing?” I asked, miming. If anything could unite adversaries, it was the songs of God. The old woman looked at me with mistrust written all over her face. She bobbed her head curtly, and the three of us sat across from her. 

“What is that?” Rangadevi asked, gesturing to the ancient book on its stand. 

The woman seemed to soften. “Ramayan,” she replied. 

The story of Lord Rama? I wonder why she reads Ramayan when she resides in Varsana, the land of Sri Radha.

“Mandir – “ she pointed to the little temple across the path. “Ramchandra,” 

I was still a little mystified, but who says devotion to God must be restrained by time or place? “You – sing?” I ventured. I pointed to the book.

She hesitated, and then looked down to the ancient pages and found her place with her finger.

She began to recite the Ramayan. Her ancient voice transported me to ancient places and ancient people. I absorbed every sensation – how the golden sun infused her sitting place with light, the soft green of the trees, the dappled white and blue wall behind her that brought out her tattered white sari and dark leathery skin. 

She continued to sing and sing, as if she couldn’t help herself, as if the three of us weren’t there listening. I closed my eyes and listened to the rhythm of Sanskrit. Her devotion to Lord Rama seemed to flow all around me and soften my heart. 

Suddenly she stopped her recitation. I opened my eyes. She looked at me and said, “You – photo,” 

My jaw dropped. “What, photo? Me?” 

She nodded. I glanced to my companions and they only nodded vigorously, too. In shock, I fumbled with my bag and brought out my camera. The woman sat a little straighter and continued to recite. In her serenity, I took her picture. 

A long time passed as we sat there and listened to the old woman sing the Ramayan. She did this all day, every day, and she would probably do so until she left this world. We had stumbled across her for only a window of time, catching a glimpse of her life, a drop of her devotion.

When Rangadevi softly interrupted that we needed to continue on our way, she nodded. I walked over and showed her the pictures of her that I had taken. She smiled, then, a wide, beautiful smile. I smiled back. Bhanu asked for blessings. The woman placed her hand on each of our heads, and she lingered on mine. I knelt to the ground and offered her my respects. I lingered, deeply humbled.

When our traveling party had moved on, I glanced back. And there she sat in the golden afternoon sun, singing to Lord Rama.   

"Bhakti," Bhanu murmured. "You were melting back there,"

"I know." I shook my head.

"I know."

Note: In the holy dham, there is a tradition that one may build a little stone house. This signifies that although the devotee cannot physically reside in the holy dham, s/he can build a house that his/her heart can reside in. I built the one below in Varsana, after encountering the Brajabasi in this story. I pray for my heart to reside in Varsana. 

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Portraits of the Brajabasi: at work

Portraits of the Brajabasi: at work

"Keep your health in good condition and work very hard for Krishna. That is our motto of life."
- Srila Prabhupada, March 6th, 1979

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

One: The Mukutwalla

Touch of the Brajabasi: The Mukutwalla

One: The Mukutwalla

The streets seemed almost eerie in their muted commotion. 

I had emerged from my apartment mid-afternoon, bracing myself for the insanity of Vrindavan streets.

But something was different today.

I furrowed my brow, slightly smiling. I walked on to the mukutwalla’s - the deity clothing and jewelry expert - to confirm my order and choose jewelry for my parent’s deities, Sri Radha Raman. I braced myself for this too – the shop was usually busy, the owner of Nanda Kishor usually too preoccupied with other customers to pay me much heed.

But today was different. 

I opened the glass door to the shop. The owner sat placidly in his usual spot by the door, the soft afternoon light slanting in and illuminating him and his shop as he read from a clipboard. I was the only customer.

In India, there are no superfluous greetings or niceties. The owner simply glanced up, then gestured me to sit. With few words, he had arrayed before me boxes and bags of jewelry. 

In the quiet, as I selected jewelry, he began to ask me where I was from, about my family. I felt surprised and charmed by his newfound curiosity. In turn, I asked him, “How long have you been doing this business?”

“All of my life. And my father before, and father before.”

I whistled. I continued sifting through colors and styles of necklaces. 

“You see, up there? My ishta-deva, [my personal connection with the deity form of Krishna,] is Sri Radha Raman,” he gestured to a jeweled frame placed high up on a shelf; the picture of the Krishna deity was black and white. Common history told that the deity had resided in Vrindavan for over 450 years. “It’s a very old picture,” he added.

I became curious. “How long have you lived in Vrindavan?”

“Whole life. Three generations… my great-grandfather moved here many, many years ago.”

I whistled a second time. “Wow. Vrindavan must have been so… so… hidden then. Mystical.”

“Oh yes.”

“I confess, I find Vrindavan very hectic. It’s hard for me to taste the sweetness here.”

The mukutwalla was quiet for a moment. Then he said, “Ah, there is a hidden mysticism to Vrindavan. It is not on the surface. The hidden mysticism of Vrindavan…” he trailed off.

I glanced up from the jewelry array and my hands stilled.  It was just a moment, and unceremonious, but it will remain with me all of my life as the moment I began to see the real Vrindavan. 

I will never forget the expression on the mukutwalla’s face. His eyes were gazing out the window, as if focused on something far off. He seemed to be envisioning Vrindavan in the time of his great-grandfather, a land of ancient forests, hidden mysticism, and the beautiful Radha Raman deity. 

Humility washed over me in a great wave. I knew nothing. Nothing. I was simply a young girl from the West who had come to Vrindavan for barely a month. I had taken this land – and everyone in it – at face value. 

I glanced up to the antique picture of the mukutwalla’s ishta-deva. “You know, I just realized… my parent’s deities names are also Radha Raman,” I said softly.

The mukutwalla turned to me and smiled.

Thursday, February 5, 2009


Touch of the Brajabasi: Prologue
Read the Introduction 


In the golden morning, I sat in a wooden chair amidst the rooftop maze of the brahmacari asram in Chowpatty, facing Radhanath Swami’s room. I basked in the quiet. I reveled in the feeling of waiting to see my spiritual master.

Maharaj emerged in his saffron robes from around a maze corner and smiled to see me. “Ah yes, please come in,” he said.

“Maharaj, I just came to give you this letter. That’s all.” I said.

He gestured to the floor, “Please, sit, Bhakti,” he said, and he settled to the bamboo mats.

“O-okay,” I said, and sat across from him. The walls were covered in beautiful terra cotta swathes of cow dung. Pictures of the seven deities of Vrindavan hung on the wall.

“Maharaj, I am leaving for Vrindavan tomorrow. It will be my first time in the holy dham,”

“Really?” he said.

“Yes. Please, I ask for your blessings to appreciate the holy dham. What are your thoughts?”

He contemplated for long moments. He then spoke with soft deliberation, “Seek out those who are living pure lives. You can socialize anywhere in the world, but Vrindavan is special, it is the holy dham. Seek out the association of the Vaishnavas who inspire you and will guide you.”

“I shall,” I said softly.

As I lived in Vrindavan for the next month and a half, his words echoed within me. For the first full month, I struggled daily to appreciate the holy dham – the streets, the temples, and most of all the people. I just didn’t connect with anything. My mind mostly raged with grievances of the pollution and the poverty, and doubts if this land was holy at all. I saw temples as businesses, every street as a ghetto, every beggar an exploiter of charity. 

I had come during the holiest – and thus the busiest – month of the year, Kartik. When it ended, and Vrindavan slowed to its usual pace of a busy village, I began to see things I had never seen before.

I saw how hard my heart truly was.

Brajabasi means a ‘resident of Vrindavan (Braja)’. Somehow, the Brajabasis who lived pure lives reached out to touch me, they inspired me, and they guided me. They touched my heart in some deep way, softened it, changed it somehow. I’m still trying to understand.

The following three stories are my brushes of fate with the residents of Braja.  

To write is to dare the soul. So write.