The Modern Suffering of Vrndavana
Posted January 18, 2007
First of two articles
A visitor to the Vrindavana area cannot help but notice that in many places literal and figurative filth has been smeared over the body of the Lord. Much of the problem is due to the huge influx of tourists and visitors, from India and abroad, that has steadily increased over the last thirty years. But who has invited all these people? It is Lord Caitanya who asked his followers to excavate the holy places and develop the Vrindavana area, publicizing its glories.
Following the desire of Lord Caitanya, Prabhupada widely advertised Vrindavana throughout the world. The Lord and His servants do not intend, therefore, for Vrindavana to remain as unpopulated fields. We have followed the order to spread Vrindavana's glories, and now we must, ethically, guide that development properly, dealing with the unintended negative consequences of development as our service, as well.
Perhaps we want to take responsibility -- just because we love Vrindavana -- but we feel helpless. The problems seem too big, and the solutions either inscrutable or beyond our capabilities. Yet, if we do the will of guru and Krishna all help will be there, and there are many mundane and spiritual examples of how rapid, deep change is possible. First, we can broadly define the problem. Then we can consider solutions, some of which are within the reach of any and all of us who come to Vrindavana, even for only a day. The problems have to be kept in perspective, since it is still true that the names of Radha and Krishna are prominent all over, and people naturally engage in various services to the Lord. Spiritual life is intrinsically interwoven into everyone's daily life. Yet, the four sinful activities that are Kali's signature are also everywhere. Alcohol is openly for sale, what to speak of tobacco and pan. Gambling is a common, public diversion.
The cows are exceptionally ill-treated. A talk with Kurmarupa dasa of Care for Cows, or Sudevi of Radhakunda's goshalla, opens one's eyes to what is easily missed on a brief visit. Right through Govardhana town the young bulls are roped together to go to the illegal slaughterhouse. A few days later old cows are also on their way. Another day one will see a group of old oxen-they can no longer work so they go openly to be killed. Those who take care of cows generally abuse them. Calves are allowed to drink so little milk that their malnourished bodies are pitiful -- swollen bellies with prominent ribs, skin diseases, and motley hair. The calves often get no exercise, although their natural propensity is to run and frolic after having eaten. The female calves, having been unhealthy since childhood and then carelessly bred, cannot give much milk when they are mature. Calves, cows, and bulls are rarely shown any affection such as petting, scratching, and brushing, although this type of service is prescribed in the sastra. Rather, they receive yells and beatings from their human masters. Horribly, when someone throws on the street any food or peels inside of a plastic bag, cows and bulls will eat the whole bag. This plastic in their stomachs makes them ill, and usually leads to a slow, painful death. These problems also happen with the modernized leaf plates (which cows always eat, especially if there is any food left on them) that have plastic between the layers.
In terms of illicit sex and social sanity, abortion, particularly to kill female children, is accepted. There is strong propaganda in favor of delaying marriage and having few children, two social patterns that erode sexual purity and undermine the idea of marital sex as yajna for children. Devotees have directly witnessed that if a husband in the Vrindavana area publicly beats his wife, no one interferes. Many female children have deep scars on their faces that may be the result of abuse. Prostitution and the resultant spread of disease have become part of the culture. Those who work with Food for Life of Vrindavana note that, in the villages, married women are likely to receive no education or medical care in regards to pregnancy and birth, so that the health of mothers and their children is often horribly affected.
Beyond the four gross sinful activities, sewer water is a common sight, from the foot of Govardhana to temple entrances. Trash piles are a familiar decoration in the villages. Cows' grazing areas are bulldozed for construction. The growing demand for electricity is based on petroleum rather than ecological solutions such as methane (from cow dung) and solar power (amply available). Cars squeeze into ancient streets, injuring animals and people. We could add the cheating that goes on in the name of spiritual life to this list of horrors.
Millions of people now come to Vrindavana. Among the pious business owners who seek to provide goods and services for all these new pilgrims and residents are some who are savvy but greedy, and care little for the spiritual. Generally, development of the Vrindavana area is done without regard to the ecology, cows and bulls, or local inhabitants. Almost every venture to renovate the dhama is aimed at welcoming wealthy outsiders while excluding locals and cows. It seems the attitude is that the locals can stay in their slums and the cows can eat trash. Such places (apartment complexes, hotels and even some temples) welcome anyone who is not a local without question based on their skin color and/or their more refined mode of dress. The dark-skinned, leanly-built, shabbily-clad locals are shooed away, as are the ever-hungry cows.
The new housing complexes focus on luxury, with advertisements full of western-dressed Indians in modern homes. The type of Vrndavana these new developments are offeringseems to haveno place for locals and cows. It's as if outsiders want manicured lawns, trimmed bushes, and private villas without the annoyance of roaming cows and Brijbasi chatter. Maybe a hundred housing complexes are being built in the Vrindavana area, all catering to those from outside the dhama. Practically all of these complexes are destroying the local environment as well as greatly decreasing facility for cows and bulls. One of the most serious problems the new housing complexes pose for Vrindavan is that the added population, even though mostly weekenders, seriously taxes the water supply. People are reporting their wells are going dry. Before where one could bore 90 feet to get water, now water is 150 feet down. The water table is sinking as the water is being drawn out and consumed faster than it leaches in, a sure sign of droughts to come.
What are solutions that we can practically apply? First, we can accept that much of this development has come because we have strongly promoted the dhama worldwide, and the Lord Himself wanted the holy places developed. Therefore, the duty to keep the dhama proper is certainly ours. We know that the root of the problems lies in people's desires, culture, habits, social pressure, and education. Those can be changed primarily through affecting the heart by chanting Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare without offense. So, some will suggest that we simply increase chanting in the dhama.
But, anyone who spends a few hours in the Vrindavana area, what to speak of weeks or months, knows that probably 100 percent of the residents and visitors are already chanting the names of Radha and Krishna, in some form or for some reason, every single day. Along with the Sankirtana movement, Prabhupada preached on how to have an ideal society. In that way, people can give up offenses to their chanting.
The core of the solution lies in Prabhupada's analogy of the blind man and the lame man. The west is spiritually blind, but materially competent. And, India has spiritual vision but material ineptitude. It seems that in ISKCON we usually use this analogy -- or is it Prabhupada's order? -- in reference to bringing India's spirituality to the west, or in using western expertise to preach Krishna consciousness in the west. Have we considered bringing western competency to India in a way that not only preserves, but also showcases, India's spirituality? Outside influences are coming to India whether we like it or not. It is useless to imagine that all of Braja will go back to looking like Vrindakunda or Bilvana does now. If we start with the attitude that western management can complement Indian vision, then we will not see development or increased population in the dhama as an inherent evil. There is some evidence that Prabhupada hoped positive western influence would serve Vrindavana. In Our Srila Prabhupada, A Friend to All, Srimati Patak explains: "My husband's main interest was to make Vrindavana a very beautiful place like it had been in the days when Krishna had His pastimes here.... He didn't like it that there was so much trash and dirt here.... He used to talk to Srila Prabhupada about this.... But in those days Srila Prabhupada would say, 'Yes, this is very nice. However, I have another plan to accomplish it.' Then he would tell of his vision of preaching to the westerners."
How will we do it? Let us first look at the principle of how behavior can be changed quickly and relatively painlessly, with a minimum of legal and political action. Then we will reflect on some of the many possible specifics for the Vrindavana area. Let's consider examples of extreme shifts in the behavior and values of a society.
In the concluding article of this two-part series, Urmila prabhu offers some possible solutions. She calls for reforming rural education, imparting healthier attitudes through media, and devising a social values marketing campaign.