I am back and this time around its been a really long incognito…well the usual excuses I guess- that i was too held up, had loads of work, was just a tad too lazy, didn’t want to be seen blogging in office, there were just too many upheavals at my end that documenting the same didn’t seem a very interesting activity! But then, finally felt this tearing need to break the pause that was getting threateningly long- realized that when I forgot the password to my blogspot ! also had quite a few regulars asking me where I had disappeared ( ooh! As always so flattering!)…so ultimately landed back, not with any vengeance though!
With Ma, Roopa and Vishnu landing here in Gurgaon over varied time lines, life certainly changed for the better. At the least you have someone to return home to; not empty walls looming at you dispassionately. Last week we embarked on this trip to Agra, Mathura and Vrindavan. I was looking forward eagerly to the visit to Vrindavan; remembered a Hindi verse that I had read many summers ago which summed up to something like this:
“When will I renounce the circle of material family life, and, drowning in transcendental bliss, go to Vraja bhumi? O Lord Hari, when will this be?
When will I see Govardhana Hill, my eyes filling with tears? When will I reside at Radha-kund? When, as a result of constantly wandering in Vrndavan, will this body fall down?
When will I become pure at heart by bathing in the waters of the Yamuna?
When will I circumambulate the land of Vraja, wandering from forest to forest? When, becoming fatigued, will I stop to rest on the shore of the Yamuna?
When will I be able to see the gardens of Vrndavan where the great devotees worshipped the Lord?
When will I find relief from the heat of midday by resting in the cooling shade of Vamsivata? When will I associate with the Vaishnavas in the groves of Vrndavana?”
The image of Vrindavan in my mind’s eyes was one that reverberated with Its glorious past with the all pervading looming presence of Krishna in everything and everyone. Well, my fault perhaps as there is certainly no utopia in this world. These images were to take a massive beating through the course of the long day that I spent there.
Around 150 km south west of Delhi, Vrindavan is off the Delhi-Agra Highway and it took us about 4 hours to get there from Gurgaon. Even as your car takes a turn to get into this hallowed township, you get blocked by a huge group of men sporting tilaks and wearing saffron scarves, looking much like their brethren in the much-talked about ‘Parivar’ of Indian politics! They insist that you need to take a guide along with you, as there are almost 5000 temples there and as a newcomer you would simply be lost trying to find your way through and also deciphering which temple is ‘important’ from whatever point of view! Of course it just costs you 31 bucks for this and so we let a lanky lad hop into our cab. He began with a long harangue about how we were the very benefactors of lady luck that made us step on the Holy land of Vrindavan, about how others would’ve just dreamt about this but never accomplished the feat ever, about quotes and sayings that he had memorized to perfection ranging from Sur to Meera to proverbs in the local lingo. Basically a lot of harmless mumbo-jumbo which i seriously didnt mind listening to!
He took us to a temple of ‘Ranganath ji’ built in the typical South Indian style. True to his profession he gave us every possible detail about every possible pillar and brick of that temple, much to the chagrin of Ma who wanted to spend some time in peace there. His focus however ended with materialism about how many kilos of gold were used to embellish the tower, how much silver was used to make the deity, what eatable is offered and when---none of which was of any significance to any of us. Then the strange practice of putting your hands up, clapping and laughing aloud in front of every deity; which he said was absolutely necessary ‘cos those who laughed in Vrindavan would lead joyous lives and those who remained mum or morose would end up ruining their lives! While Ma refused to indulge in these antics, Roopa and me decided to humor the poor guy…thought it must be part of some folklore or belief---which is what all religious places are supposed to be abound with---and laughed like crazy nuts at the sight of every idol !
So far so good. Till we made our way through the narrowest of lanes- the kunj galis of Vrinadavan where Krishna was supposed to have had a rollicking time with his childhood friends and the gopis. We entered one of Vrindavan’s oldest temples- the Banke Bihari temple. Legend has it that the deity of Banke-bihari was discovered by Swami Haridas, the guru of the famous musician Tansen.
The initial aura of the place was truly wonderful—something that even an avowed agnostic like me must concede. It truly did resonate of Krishna’s presence- He seemed to live there to this day, in those narrow lanes, in that huge peepal tree outside the temple, the pond nearby, in the devotion of the numerous old widows who had their abode outside the temple, who were condemned to a life of penury by the existing social customs of the times. It really felt ethereal and I did have my hairs standing at ends for a while.
‘For a while’ I said, ‘cos then we were ushered in to the sanctum by our dear friend. The main priest of that hallowed temple seated us in front of the deity, made us mutter some things in Hindi, rambled a few sentences in a matter-of-fact manner about the supposed miracles of the place and then presto! Took his receipt book out! Then he began reeling out the different ‘rates’ to salvage mine and my ancestors’ souls- starting for a measly 1000 bucks and extending till where our imaginations could lead us to! All along our ‘benevolent’ friend goaded us to make the maximum of this unique opportunity and pay up as much as we can. The priest wouldn’t open the curtain and show us the deity till we gave him a quote. When I protested and said it wouldn’t be possible, ‘pandit ji’ started the bargain in typical vegetable vendor style- “ok, tell me how much would you be willing to pay’? since we settled for a very small amount, he pulled the curtain for a minute or so, frowned at us and closed it off in a hurry and dumped some Prasad in our hands and signaled us to leave! It was such a relief to be out…we felt liberated! It was intense fear and blackmail that happened inside and the feeling outside was so refreshing!
The same sordid affair repeated itself in the palace of Nand where Krishna supposedly grew up as a child. But this time we were once bitten and hence more cautious and simply walked away before we could be put on the hot seat with a million people imploring us to wash our sins off through higher offerings! If any one of them truly believed in the God that they eulogized, they would have read His story where it was a mere tulsi leaf offered with utmost devotion and dedication and not riches that satisfied Him.
I left Vrindavan with a sense of shock, disgust and disbelief. If this was the scenario in the birthplace of one of India's most worshipped heroes, i shudder to think how bad things could be in other places! No wonder then that ‘Hindu culture’ as I know of it is conspicuous by its absence in the bad lands of Northern India. Many south Indian temples including the famed shrine at Tirupati is also undoubtedly steeped in corruption. But then once you enter the sanctum, the entire focus is on quiet introspection and the focus remains the deity there. It never is a tomato-carrot kind of bargain that Ma indulges with her vegetable seller each day! No wonder then that the North shall remain the North and the South shall remain the South and never shall the twain meet! Thank God for small mercies, after all !