Chakra Discussions

Devotees Should Set Example in Vrndavan

by Ravi das

Posted January 24, 2007

I have noted with interest the recent submissions by Her Grace Urmila devi dasi (Part 1 and Part 2) and the follow-up by Srimati Karuna Purna dasi. There are also articles and comments on Chakra on similar environmental topics by other devotees. There seems to be a growing awareness that perhaps as devotees we have to improve our rather lacklustre record in connection with environmental issues.

They all express understandable concern and consternation about the current situation in Sri Vrindavan Dham and proffer some solutions. On one level this is very positive: many devotees becoming inspired on the same topic. I have often found that this is the precursor of the Lord inspiring devotees into action in that area, so there is cause for optimism.

I have lived in Vrindavan working as a researcher for the past two years with the Braj Foundation and also worked for several years before that with the Friends of Vrindavan. In regard to the holy Dham I would humbly advise to step with some caution. Apart from the complexities of changing the working of a community, we have to be careful that we don't become too critical. In western society we are awash in criticism and have honed to perfection our highly developed faculties. It is relatively easy to be critical, and much more difficult to do a better job in challenging circumstances.

Firstly we have to set an exemplary standard ourselves. If we complain about the urbanisation, noise and pollution of Vrindavan, while our leaders and congregation jet in for the festivals, drive to the holy places in big cars and continue to build environmental disasters of concrete (with required air conditioning) on every square foot of Vrindavan -- all funded by foreign exchange, thus making the cost of land skyrocket -- can we really be taken seriously? Is this new-found mood of environmental responsibility for "us" or for "them"? There are many dedicated Vaishnavas in Braja who have been endeavouring for change -- some for many years -- with little support or encouragement. We have to be careful not to overlook their sincere efforts and the positive news (rare as it is). We cannot come in for two weeks as the all-conquering superheroes beloved of western culture and expect to be taken very seriously. We have to learn that as we have been part of the problem we have to become part of the solution.

In the Braj Foundation we work on the rule that you cannot criticise until you have provided an appropriate alternative. If the problem is indestructible plastic bags, cups, plates etc. -- a topic on which I hope we will all agree -- there has to be an alternative in place before we can attempt to reduce their use and clean up the mess. For the alternative to be in place there often has to be some system of education or training, actual brahminical work. Imagine the frustration of engaging an army of cleaners when each day the refuse mountain simply increases more and more. We have approached many large ashrams requesting them to use biodegradable leaf plates and the traditional clay cups, only to hear that they cannot get the quantities of clay cups and leaf plates any longer (as the local producers cannot compete with the plastic industry). On the positive side there is upcoming legislation that will ban the production of certain types of non-recyclable plastic.

There are many challenges in the realm of skill loss and diminishing expertise. It doesn't take very long: important skills can be lost in one generation. If you didn't see your father plough with a bullock, and you don't have the people to train them in field work, how will you show future generations? The accelerated pace of change, economic development and its inevitable environmental cost is shocking and gives rise to knee-jerk reactions. The long-term solution is not simply to throw money at the problem. To introduce simple living should not cost millions of dollars (although the land on which to live simply might cost that much these days). Where are those devotees who have the vision and are willing (or able) to set the example of living simply?

We must take our philosophical understanding from our Acharya, the self-effulgent Srila Prabhupada. We read in Hayagriva's book Vrindavan days a discussion with the devotees voicing similar concerns.

"Why has Krishna allowed His dham to deteriorate, Srila Prabhupada?" Gurudas asks. "It has not deteriorated," he replies.

"Well, you just said that the Goswami temples were neglected." "That's a fact. But Vrindaban has not deteriorated."

"Most Americans would be shocked to see what I saw this morning," I say. "How's that?" Prabhupada asks.

"Well, for one, they'd consider it unhygienic." "Just see. For a materialist, everything is topsy-turvy, because his vision is perverted. Beauty and ugliness are in the eye of the seer."

"But what's this veneer covering the holy dham?" "The ugliness that you see here is yoga-maya," Prabhupada says. "It's Krishna's covering. Vrindaban appears this way to drive away the atheists and impersonalists, just as New York attracts them. For a devotee, this Vrindaban is as good as Krishna's transcendental abode in the spiritual sky -- Goloka Vrindaban. But you must have the eyes to see."

But wait a minute, I hear you say to yourselves, Isn't this the same Ravi who wrote the article about being chased by the mining mafia destroying Krishna's sacred hills? He is working with the Braj Foundation, engaged, as Rochan prabhu commented recently, on the external aspects of protecting and restoring the holy Dham. What is he talking about? Isn't the purpose of the Braj Foundation to restore the sacred groves, kundas and hills of Braja?

I must admit it was a dilemma for me when I came here after retiring. I received diksha from Srila Prabhupada in his rooms here, so Vrindavan feels to me like the place my devotional life started. I wanted to give something back to a place where I had received such an inconceivably precious gift. I was inspired by Srila Prabhupada's words again from Vrindavan Days:

"Therefore I'm recommending a general program of clean-up, preservation, and restoration," Prabhupada says. "True, the beautiful temples of the Goswamis -- Madana Mohana, Govindaji, especially -- are crumbling due to neglect."

"Sometimes people even use them as stone quarries," Dr. Kapoor laments. "So, we must first protect them. Then restore them to first-class condition, install Deities, and conduct daily aratiks. Then many people will come and benefit."

So why the advice on caution? Well in a talk on Nectar of Devotion Srila Prabhupada guides us: "As Vrajendranandana Krishna is worshipable, his Dham, Sri Vrindavan, is also worshipable. We should be very much respectful toward Vrindavan Dham. Otherwise, we will be offender, Dham aparadha. If we remain here in Vrindavan, we should know that we are living with Krishna. How much we should be cautious, how much we should be careful, if we actually understand what is Dham. The Dham is also Krishna."

So how do we reconcile our conditioned vision with our internal realisation? In the transcendental body of the spiritual master, from our limited viewpoint we may perceive some fault or infirmity, but we should understand that it is Sri Guru's special mercy so that we can render intimate devotional service and become more attached to his lotus feet. Similarly the Dham, being non-different from the Supreme Personality of Godhead, is simply allowing us to purify ourselves by rendering some small service.

Let us do our little bit to act as instruments of the Lord. Working together in the mood of devotion to manifest Braja Dham in all its natural glory.

How wonderful would it be to visit the holy Dham where we can chant peacefully in the shade of forests of kadamba trees and parks full of the flora and fauna reminding us of the connection with Radha Krishna's lila -- lakes and kundas with graceful swans and full of blossoming lotus flowers, with devotees living simply in full surrender, caring for the cows and finding innovative solutions that are not based on imported, inappropriate technology (e.g., flush toilets, in an area where raw sewage goes into the holy Yamuna), economic factors or uncontrolled consumption, but manifesting the simplicity of real Braja life. I honestly believe that, if the Brajabasis and the millions of pilgrims/tourists who visit the Dham saw a wonderful functional example of simple, peaceful life, many would become inspired.

In my work I generate many statistics that point to an impending disaster. We could become depressed that of the 137 vanas (forests) only two remain, or that 95 percent of the peaceful cows who once roamed in Braja have been replaced by buffaloes, and the noble bull by tractors. The Rajasthan Thar desert is rapidly encroaching. With increased cash-cropping (to pay back the loans to buy the tractors) and inappropriate technology, there is enormous pressure on the water resources, and the water table is plummeting, but it is all simply the Dham's inconceivable mercy, encouraging us to become pure in our sadhana so we can change the hearts and minds of those who are presently creating so much disturbance, focus our efforts and work in co-operation with the whole community. We know that the only real lasting solution is Krishna consciousness. Where better to implement our philosophy than at the very heart of our culture? If we cannot have the vision to do it here, is there much possibility of manifesting it anywhere else?