We’re in Brindavan now, the village (now a town) where Lord Krishna tended his cows and frolicked on the banks of the River Yamuna with the lovely Radha and other gopis (milkmaids). Through the centuries, Brindavan has remained a sacred site dedicated to Krishna and Radha. The typical greeting everywhere is “Radhe Radhe,” or “Hari Bol,” invoking the presence of the divine couple constantly throughout the day.
We came here after spending 3 days in Jageshwar, another ancient place, with many, many stone temples dedicated to Lord Shiva. In the main temple compound, there are 124 temples made of stone. All are exactly alike, except they vary in size. A fascinating thing we learned is that they were constructed using a paste made of urad dal (a type of lentil) as mortar. The stones still fit so perfectly together that you couldn’t slip a razor blade between them. (Okay, maybe not a razor blade, but they’re tight!)
One hundred twenty-two of the temples contain shivalingams inside. Of the remaining two, one is dedicated to the goddess, and one to Hanuman. They were built at the bottom of a steep valley of pine trees about 1300 years ago (that’s actually when construction began–the building went on for a couple of centuries).
The story, which comes from the time of the Mahabharata is that, having been exiled by the Kauravas, the Pandavas were sleeping near the place that is now Jageshwar. A man came to wake them, warning them that the Kauravas were coming. He helped them safely to another location where they would not be found, and thereby forced to live an extra year in exile. It was determined later that the helpful stranger was none other than Lord Shiva himself, and the temples were built in gratitude for saving Arjuna and his clan.
We also visited “Old Jageshwar,” at the very top of the ridge, and got clear, stunning views of the 5 main peaks of the Himalayas, called Panchachuli. We took offerings to two babas there, one over 125 years old named Sitaram Baba. His mind is perfectly clear (although eyesight pretty bad), and he asked about several of our friends who had visited him in the past. He also spoke about Neem Karoli Baba and some of the other great saints of India, referring to them as “gurubhai” (guru brothers). Two of those he mentioned died as elderly sadhus in the 1920s!
On our return from Jageshwar, we spent 3 days relaxing at the Evelyn Hotel in Nainital. This is a beautiful resort town built on the shores of a serene and beautiful lake in the Kumaun Hills, not far from Kainchi. The town, which dates back to the days of the British raj, is quite charming and quaint, a popular honeymoon spot for modern Indian couples. The Evelyn Hotel is the old satsang hangout, where devotees of Neem Karoli Baba often stayed when he was alive. The family who owns it are old devotees as well, and we felt as if we were with our “Indian relatives” while there.
We had a TV in our room at the Evelyn–our first and last time to see one since leaving America. We were stunned to learn of the southern California wildfires on CNN. We were also stunned to see commercials recommending the “morning after” pill.
Our adventures in Brindavan to follow…
After leaving Nainital, we caught an overnight train to Mathura. We arrived at 4:30 am and caught an auto rickshaw to the Neem Karoli Baba ashram in Brindavan, about a 45 minute ride.
Upon arriving here, we met with Dharm Narayan, who runs this ashram. He is also the son of Neem Karoli Baba, and bears a remarkable resemblance to his father. I am daily astonished at the likeness, and sitting with him, I can hardly believe he’s not Neem Karoli! He is a very kind, gentle soul, and always has a twinkle in his eye.
One day, we asked Dharm Narayan about growing up with such a great being for a father. We have always heard that the family did not know that their father, businessman Lakshmi Narayan Sharma, was known in other circles as Maharajji, or Neem Karoli Baba. Dharm Narayan said this was not the case–they always knew of his “other life.” They knew he was a saint–they just didn’t know how GREAT a saint he was, and how widely known! He said that Maharajji was a wonderful father, very loving and sweet, and that he always treated them very well.
Brindavan has its challenges to my western sensibilities: thick dust everywhere (that makes breathing difficult), open sewers throughout the town (the smell of which makes breathing difficult), sleeping on the floor, mosquitoes (this is malaria country), some days no water–we have to haul water in buckets from spigots outside. What used to be an idyllic forest village with a parikrama (circumambulating) path is now paved and overrun with cars, trucks, buses, and auto rickshaws, sharing the very narrow roads with pedestrians, bicycle rickshaws, horse carts, ox carts, even camel carts–not to mention dogs, monkeys, cows, and vendors lining the sides of the streets. But I slowly acclimated; the ancient sacredness and utter sweetness of the place and the people began to seep through the external considerations and outweigh the discomforts. Despite the outer difficulties and occasional resulting psychological stresses, I have a subtle feeling of swimming in a delicate reservoir of loving consciousness that, while barely perceptible, is somehow the underlying reality of all the outer appearances and experiences. It seems that the folks who live here simply abide in this reality, and even those who live in extreme poverty exude a sense of happiness and inner contentment.
In our first week here, our friend Mohan, who was about to undergo open-heart surgery, came to Brindavan with his wife Swamini, and 2 other friends, Shyamdas and wife Tulsi. We all visited a nearby beloved baba who is affectionately called “little Maharajji.” He is another one over 125 years of age, and is about 4 1/2 feet tall. He is the personification of kindness. Mohan came here (in part) to get his blessings before surgery.
Another day, we visited Shyamdas and Tulsi at their home in Gokul. After serving us an awesome meal that he had cooked, Shyamdas took us on a tour of famous temples of Gokul. One of these was a beautiful ashram near the Yamuna that was built beneath a grouping of banyan trees, all of which are offshoots of one huge tree in the center of the ashram grounds. From there, we hiked down to the river and watched the sun set as Shyamdas and friends sang exquisite devotional songs to Krishna.
More from Brindavan…
One day, two travelers from the Sivananda ashram arrived here, one wanting to celebrate his guru’s birthday. The other westerners who were here pulled together and created a beautiful evening for him: we cleaned one of the large dormitory rooms in the ashram, and made an altar. Our young friend Anandi (Amanda), who is a very talented Odissi dancer, offered several dances, one honoring the guru, and another depicting Hanuman carrying Ram’s ring to Sita. We had borrowed the ashram’s harmonium and mridangam ( a 2-headed drum) and I led the group in kirtan songs to Shiva. Shankar then told us about his guru’s life, and handed out prasad–excellent sweets from one of the shops in the bazaar.
Anandi accompanied us another day to Agra, where we visited the Taj Mahal as well as 2 other Muslim tombs that were built in the same style. All are examples of mindboggling craftsmanship, with ornate designs made of colorful inlaid stones.
There were 3 pujas in the ashram, one right after the other, at Diwali time. Diwali is the New Year, and the fesitval of lights. You may recall that the Durga Puja we attended in Kainchi celebrated the portion of the battle in the Ramayana in which the goddess Durga helped Ram to overcome the demon Ravana. After defeating Ravana and retrieving his wife Sita, Ram returned to Ayodhya with Sita to claim his rightful place on the throne. According to legend, the people lit candles and lamps to light their way back to Ayodhya. Today, lights are lit in their remembrance, in homes and businesses everywhere, and it is a festive time. The lights are also lit to show the way for Lakshmi, goddess of wealth and abundance, to enter and give her blessings for a prosperous year to come. Ganesha, the elephant-headed Lord of New Beginnings, is also invoked, as is Saraswati, goddess of wisdom and learning.
At Diwali time in the ashram, Ganga Ram (an American friend who has settled in Brindavan) and Anandi conceived a magnificent project involving 1008 oil lamps as an offering to Lakshmi. They created a “rangoli” design of concentric circles of lotuses 18 feet wide, which they drew out in red kumkum powder on the marble floor in front of the samadhi shrine. They placed 1008 tiny clay dishes along the lines. For 3 days before Diwali, our friend Radha, Shivaya, and I had twisted little wicks out of raw cotton, which were placed in the clay dishes. At dusk on the evening of Diwali, the dishes were filled with oil, and about 7 or 8 of us began the process of lighting them from the center out. It was great fun, and the finished product was fabulous–although hard to keep all the lamps lit at the same time!!
A formal Lakshmi Puja with priests followed the next day. Then a few days later, another puja was held in the goshala, where the ashram cows are kept. This was a Govardhan puja, honoring a sacred mountain called Govardhan, scene of miraculous episodes from the life of Krishna. A humanoid-shaped image was created on the goshala floor out of cow dung, representing the spirit of Govardhan. Three priests came and held a ritual to invoke the spirit, which included feeding the image, and pouring milk into a hole in his belly, as well as making other offerings. When they were finished, everyone walked 3 times around the image, which was considered the equivalent of circumambulating the actual mountain, and brought blessings and merit to all who were present.
The following weekend, there was an elaborate 2-day fire puja, also in the goshala. A large canopy was erected, and no less than 5 fire pits were dug and painted in ritual patterns. Quilt walls were strung up around the area, and several priests chanted mantras and oversaw the fire ceremonies for those two days. Many people filled the ashram and attended. Shivaya and I chose to watch from our balcony, rather than sit on the brick floor and inhale the voluminous smoke from the 5 fire pits. (Not to mention that if you get up to go to the bathroom, you have to bathe and dress in fresh clothes before reentering the puja.)
One of the great things about these pujas is the bandhara (feast) that always follows!!
Next: crossing the river to visit a saint, seva at little Maharajji’s ashram, and walking the parikrama path…
During the week of Diwali, our friend Bihari was visiting the Brindavan ashram. One day Bihari, Anandi, Shivaya, and I walked to the Yamuna–a good long trek–and took a boat across the river to the ashram of Deoria Baba. Deoria Baba was another long-lived saint, documented to be well over a hundred twenty-five years old at the time of his death in 1990. Shivaya met him many times while he was alive, and he is known to have been very powerful, another of the “miracle” babas, another great saint of India. Two young boys, Deva Das and Ram Sevak Das, were raised by him, and became his successors when he left his body.
Deva Das was travelling in Russia on the day we went to the ashram, but Ram Sevak Das–now in his late 30s–received us all graciously. I have never encountered anyone quite like him. He is an utterly innocent being–a very expansive and beautiful spirit, with clearly not a negative thought in his mind. No airs whatsoever, just a nurturing, humble, giving soul.
We sat in the gorgeous ashram grounds under a canopy of trees, in the most peaceful setting we have enjoyed on our whole trip. Only the sound of birds and forest animals could be heard in the background, as Ram Sevak Das gently spoke. For nearly 2 hours he talked in an eloquent stream-of-consciousness manner, giving teachings on a wide range of subjects, including mantra, sadhana, right living, and even the state of the world. He wove in stories about various saints, and his own life with Deoria Baba. During this time, several other people came for darshan. He gave them all prasad and sent them out, keeping our group there with him. When we left, he inquired how long we were staying in Brindavan, and told us to come again before we leave. (As it turned out, I was sick the whole last week of our time there, which was when we had planned to go back to see him.)
During her stay here, Anandi had undertaken a seva (service) project at Little Maharajji’s ashram. There are several painting of deities in a folk-art style on the front wall of the ashram. They need to be repainted every year or so, due to the excessive amounts of dust blowing about, and rain during the monsoon, etc. Anandi was touching them up until her last day here, and we walked over to admire her handiwork. They are fabulous paintings, bright and colorful. As it turned out, she didn’t quite finish the last one before she had to go to Orissa to continue her dance training. So Shivaya and I jumped in and finished painting Shiva, and then got drafted into repainting a murti of Shiva and his bull, Nandi. The murtis, created by Little Maharajji, are seemingly made out of mud, and repainted with high gloss enamel paint from time to time.
Finally, one day shortly before we left Brindavan, it was another auspicious day (we’re not quite sure why), and there were thousands of pilgrims walking the parikrama path (now a road) that goes around the outside circumference of the town. Shivaya and I had already walked part of the way to go to a market, and we decided to join the others and walk the whole parikrama. We spent about 3 1/2 hours in a massive colorful parade of humanity–most walking barefoot. The energy was very high and festive, and we felt blessed by the occasion–but we still don’t know why!!
As I mentioned, I came down with a virus that “everyone in Brindavan gets this time of year,” according to the doctor who came to the ashram to treat me. It was brutal, and I spent the last week of our time there with vomiting, diaharrea, and feverish hallucinations. I managed to recover just in time to catch our train in early December, bound for the south. We boarded the train in Mathura, where it was quite cold, and 36 hours later we hopped off on a warm and balmy evening in paradise–Kerala, South India.