Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Marriage of Two Traditions

I had the honor of being present for the two wedding ceremonies of my friend, Gokul Vilasini. One honored the Sikh tradition of her family, and the other honored the Vedic tradition in Krishna Consciousness.

By the time the sun set, I was immersed in the intensity and solemnity of each tradition.

I present to you a photo essay of the bangle ceremony, Gokul's Sikh wedding, and a glimpse of the Vedic wedding.




chanting on her way to the Gurudwara

begging for blessings from Malati devi

Sikh Ceremony

Vedic Ceremony

"In the first round of the marriage ceremony, the Lord gives you His instructions for married life. Instead of performing rituals by routine, embrace the righteous life of Dharma, and do nothing that separates you from God. Meditate on God's name." 
- from the Anand-Karaj, the Sikh wedding ceremony

"Who has given this heart and to whom? Love has given unto love. Love is the giver, love is the receiver. Love has entered the ocean of love. I receive you through love. Oh love, this heart is yours." 
-  vow from Kathaka-Samhita, the Vedic wedding ceremony

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Essence of Marriage

"A man must be willing to die for his wife." - Radhanath Swami


[With Pitambar Gauranga's and Gokul Vilasini's permission, I have published this story]

I'm at Gokul Vilasini's bridal shower here in Columbus, and all the women's hands are decorated with fragrant henna. My own mehndi is drying on my palms. We go around the room to shower our love upon Gokul with memories that glorify her intense, chaste, and beautiful character.

But the guys keep crashing the party.

Granted, they're the videographers and photographers. But then Pitambar Gauranga himself descends the staircase. As entrance, all of us demand that he convince us why Gokul should marry him. His sincerity touches our hearts, and several eyes tear up.

"Okay, where's the ring?" Dhira Lalita calls out.

"Why?" Pitambar says.

"Look, Pitambar, you're in America now," he teases, "You gotta get down on one knee and pop the question."

How funny - the pair is getting married on Friday! The roomful of women at the party laughs. Many of us scoot forward.

Pitambar produces the wedding ring and sweetly fumbles to get on one knee. Gokul laughs and laughs.

I suppress my giggles. In those suspended moments, I reflect on how only six months ago when I was traveling with Gokul in India, she was single and we often conversed about where our marriage fates would take us.

When Gokul called me in February to let me know of her engagement, I felt effervescent with happiness. I could hear the deep contentment in Gokul's voice. I asked, "Gokul, may I ask you a question?"


"Do you believe that Pitambar would die for you?"

Without hesitation she replied, "Yes, he would die for me."


"Oh yes. I got that sense within the first two weeks, even though he never said it."

So how hilarious that only now is this man getting down on one knee... two days before the wedding! It just goes to show that love goes much deeper than rings and proposals and even formal weddings. I wonder at what that spark is.

"Gokul Vilasini," Pitambar intones, "will you marry me?"

Everyone is grinning in silence. Gokul is still laughing, trying to keep a straight face. "Ummmmmmmm... YES!"

We all cheer and since our palms are covered with mehndi, we try to clap with the backs of our hands. Then Pitambar slips the wedding ring upon her finger.

A little while later, I come close to Gokul to bid goodnight. Our conversation is sober. Gokul says, "You know, Bhakti, I did not get all these facials, my nails done, or get so beautiful today with makeup and this nice salwar for Pitambar."

"Really?" I said.

"Yes, this is not for Pitambar. I feel like I am preparing myself for the beginning of my spiritual life. A life of service to Krishna."

And I realize that that is why Pitambar Gauranga would die for Gokul Vilasini.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Neverending Love Song

Have you ever sung a love song for 24 hours straight?

Impossible, you may say. Love songs get old after 24 minutes!

I beg to differ.

This weekend at the 24 Hour Kirtan festival in New Vrindavan, I took a vow of silence (mauna vrata) and committed to chanting only God's name. 8 hours or so into the festival I stopped singing a love song and started living in one. Every heartbeat, every breath, every movement - I lived in the world of the holy name.

Hour after hour, the holy name soaked into even the most forgotten crevices of my heart. I grew up in New Vrindavan with the deities of Radha Vrindavan Chandra, and yet during one kirtan especially (Acyuta Gopi's), I glanced over to Their beautiful forms and fell in love all over again.

At around 2:30 in the morning, I began to realize that this love song never got old - I only became more and more addicted. My room was upstairs above the templeroom, but I couldn't sleep. When I tried to sit down and write in my journal, the kirtan from downstairs thrummed through the very floors; I slammed my journal shut mid-sentence and ran downstairs to dance!

Even when exhaustion settled over me at around 5:30am and I somehow stumbled back to my room - still, the kirtan resonated through my body. Half-asleep, I listened to each melody as each person sang, and deep down I wanted to jump to my feet and dance.

And when the last kirtaniya sang the last kirtan, I felt a longing that this love song would never end... that it would just go on and on and on... and on...

 Bhakti Charu Maharaj

 Gatorade - the mridanga player's best friend

 Beautiful and soulful Jahnavi (violin) and Jaya Sita (cello)

 Gaura Vani - organizer of the festival 


His Grace Aindra Prabhu - the one who started it all

Friday, June 10, 2011

No Fear

“Old age means that one is close to death. I am in an old body and you are in a young body, but death may come at any moment for either of us. So we are both old.” [paraphrased quote by Srila Prabhupad]

When I was 17, I moved out for the first time to attend the University of Hawaii in Hilo. Sometime that spring, a flash flood hit the city – 11 inches of rain fell within 24 hours. Wainaku River swelled to a furious rage of white water.

A day or two later, the sun emerged with a vengeance. The River calmed and I innocently yearned to go swimming along with my friends.


In the laundromat, I wait for my clothes to finish drying amidst ten other whirring dryers. I feel like I’m IN a dryer - I feel woozy with the waves of heat. Only a couple blocks away, I know that Wainaku River is flowing cool and clean and fresh.

When at last I finish, I walk down the street and spot my friend Kishori. “Hey!” I call out. “Let’s go swim in the river!”

“Let’s!” she calls back. We don our swimsuits and head toward the river, singing, our hair down.

We jump in the crystal clear water with exhilarated shouts. Kishori crosses the river and I follow suit. Despite my strong stroke, the current sweeps me down the river with surprising strength. Panic flutters through my chest, but I quell it when my fingers find purchase on some rock. I climb up on a small rock island in the middle of the river.

Kishori seems miles away. I should swim to the close bank, get on land, and stop the day’s swimming. The river is too wild.

Or I could swim my way up to Kishori.

Come on, what’s adventure without the fear factor?

I choose the latter.

As soon as I slide in, the river clamps around me in a vice and my hands scramble for a hold. I never find it. I still face upstream – I turn my head and realize I am being carried into the jaws of a frothing white rapid.

I am powerless. My scream is cut off when the river thrusts me into the raging chaos, shoving water into my ears, nose, and mouth. I tumble and tumble.

I struggle for air. The current pushes me through a narrow, violent canal of white water. When I gasp for air at last, sheer terror runs through me because I know what’s coming: I see only a void ahead. And I hear an even greater roar than the river.

The Waterfall.

In these moments, I look Death in the face.

Suspended moments… falling… water pounds me from every side and I plunge 15 feet. The power from the falls shove me to the very bottom of the river floor – 15 feet or more – and my knees scrape the rocks.

The river keeps pulling me.

I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. Anything for air. I shoot for the surface, my lungs burning, my hair wrapped around my head.

I surface, choking.

But it’s not that when I reach the surface I can breathe. I’ve swallowed so much water all I can do is choke. I suck in only a sliver of air before the river pushes me under another side waterfall, which forces me under again, water in my mouth. I fight for the surface. I fight for air. Another waterfall ahead. This time I instinctively swim away from it, choking… can’t breathe…

The river loosens its chokehold and calms, still carrying me in overwhelming currents.

I spot the island that divides the river in two up ahead, and I weakly kick my way towards the massive, steep black rocks. If I don’t make it, I don’t know what will happen to me. I could be carried further down the river, down more waterfalls… into the ocean.

I grasp ahold of the rocks.

I can’t climb out. I can’t think. I can’t respond to Kishori’s screams, “Bhakti! Bhakti!!”

I can only cling to the rocks with my weak grasp. And only one whisper comes out of my mouth, over and over and over again. I don’t know what I’m saying, I don’t know where it comes from, the name just comes: “Krishna. Krishna. Krishna.”

My religion is stripped away from me. I do not think of a blue boy with a flute. I do not think of festivals or saris or temples or scriptures or people or places… nothing.

Even when the current picks up again and plasters me to the rocks, I can’t think, I can only hold on and say that name over and over again: “Krishna. Krishna. Krishna.”

Kishori is in a panic. She jumps into the river and swims to the island. I have climbed out by now and sit in the sun, eyes closed, and the heat of the black rocks warms my shivering skin.

When Kishori reaches me I admit I’m shaken, but I play it off. We warm in the sun awhile longer and I realize I still have to go to work.

Shakily, I swim the short distance to the shore, climb out and walk the rest of the way back. I head back to a friend’s house, get dressed, and hop on my bike. Life goes on.

But life doesn’t go on. At work, I wash my face with water and I realize I feel sick. I clock out. I lay down outside in the peaceful summer afternoon.

I begin to sob and sob. Scenes of water and rocks and feelings and no air flash through my mind and through my body. The fear washes through me in waves.

Why am I still alive? In one moment I could have hit my head, I could have swallowed too much water, I could have been carried further and further down the river, down more waterfalls, into the ocean...

What unnerved me the most was that I was not thinking of God in the midst of all that chaos, and I was definitely not thinking of a blue boy who plays the flute. Survival was my only instinct – just air. And yet if I had died in those moments, what would I have been thinking of?

That afternoon I had a crisis of faith that I have reflected upon for many years. I have come to a conclusion: I may have abandoned the holy name but the holy name never abandoned me.

Krishna is not Hindu or Christian or Muslim or Indian or this or that or this or that… Krishna is God, and He came for me when my mind was shattered.

Someone once asked Srila Prabhupad what he feels when he chants the holy name. Immediately he replied, “I feel no fear.”

I realize that I am old, so very old, because at any moment death may come for me. Yet I have nothing to fear, for the holy name is holding me in His arms.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Atlanta Panihati Photo Essay

Last weekend I jumped in a van and headed up to Atlanta for the Panihati Festival. I rode the waves of serendipity - when I arrived, I did not even know where I was going to stay.

I'll tell you a secret, though - I belong to the biggest family on the planet. Within oh, maybe a half an hour, a godbrother found me a place to stay with absolute strangers who became instant friends. 

That's what happens when people have Krishna in common. 

This particular Panihati Festival brought me straight to Mayapur - Bengali prasadam, Bengali bhajans, and most of all Jayapataka Swami himself. I felt so honored and so happy to be amidst such a whirlwind of color and devotees and kirtan and devotion.  

To write is to dare the soul. So write.