The following essay by Joshua Nash was first published in the Journal of Vaishnava Studies. Joshua Nash is a linguist and an environmentalist. His research intersects ethnography, the anthropology of religion, architecture, pilgrimage studies, and language documentation. He has conducted linguistic fieldwork on Norfolk Island, South Pacific and Kangaroo Island, South Australia, environmental and ethnographic fieldwork in Vrindavan, India, and architectural research in outback Australia. You can find out more about him here.
This is the first of three parts.
Abstract: This critical essay explicates several key ideas associated with Vrindavan environmentalism and the hypothesizing of the holy pilgrimage town as a Human Sanctuary. The nature and rationale of environmental fieldwork spanning more than 17 years is outlined along with the foundation of the resultant philosophy which is labelled the Vrindavan Ecological Concept (VEC). Several connections between idealized scriptural depiction of the town of Vrindavan as the center of Vraj pilgrimage and actual modern environmental manifestations are made which lead to a posing of Vrindavan as place and ecological idea(l) as a reconciliation of past, current, and possible environmental futures. Self-introspection (sadhana) lies at the (human focused) center of this resolution and harmonization. [First published in the Journal of Vaishnava Studies, 24.1, 2015]
Vrindavan is unusual, and faces special ecological problems. . . . it is also a specifically religious problem for the devotee of Krishna. . . . Pilgrims come to Vrindavan with the hope of seeing Krishna’s land, that is, having darshan of God in the form of his ponds and forests. . . . Devotees have cited the appearance of the region as causing despair. . . . The conflict between descriptions in ancient devotional texts and the reality of Vrindavan today is stark.1
Vrindavan is everywhere
To be granted “sanctuary” can be equated with being granted asylum. Philip Marfleet tells us about early sanctuary and how it relates to the nonsecular:
The Church had disseminated ideas about refuge across Europe, so that one of the most consistent features of religious observance throughout the medieval period was acceptance of the special status of cathedrals, abbeys, monasteries, shrines and local places of worship as sanctuaries . . . 2
Sanctuaries have been associated directly with the gods, with the sacred. Often they were specifically designated spaces in the inner area of temples or other places of worship, which contained manifested representations of deities and symbols—statues, paintings, engravings—and were used for rituals including offerings and sacrifices. The Greek sanctuary “was a sacred space located within or outside city walls or in the countryside near springs, rivers, caves, hilltops, woods (‘sacred groves’) and other natural phenomena.”3
I apply the idea of sanctuary as “sacred grove” to the trinity of Human-Nature-Divine as a conceivable and appreciable complex within scriptural and modern realizations of Vrindavan ecology. Specifically, I employ what is not yet a well-known catchphrase within academic and Vaishnava circles—Vrindavan: The Human Sanctuary—to explicate the basis of the Vrindavan Environmental Concept (VEC), a philosophical, practical, and sadhana focused directive I have been a part of since first traveling to Vrindavan as an environmentalist pilgrim in 1998.
Modern environmental concerns are not new to Vrindavan. Friends of Vrindavan (FoV), set up in 1996 by British devotee and writer Ranchor (Richard) Prime, the Word Wide Fund for Nature–India’s Vrindavan Conservation Project (WWF– India’s VCP), begun in 1991 as the Vrindavan Forest Revival Project, and many other environmental initiatives have existed and continue to exist for more than three decades. These directives comprise what I term the modern Vrindavan environmental movement, a loose descriptor for a conglomerate of Indian based and international people and bodies who do not necessarily agree on what Vrindavan conservation should entail. The position I take is based in my practical and personal involvement with local Vrindavan sadhak, ecologist, and teacher Shri Hitkinkar Sevak Sharan and our development of the VEC.4
I entered Vrindavan for the first time in early 1998 around the time WWF– India’s VCP was drawing to a close. At that time, Sevakji was the director of the project, after which he retired to his garden ashram (hermitage) at Lata Bhavan (“the Abode of Flora and Fauna”), also know as Tehriwala Bagicha on the Parikrama Marg, the circumambulation path around the town. The personal report I wrote which described my experiences as an outsider being a part of a once burgeoning project was one of the final documents ascribed to the work of WWF–India in Vrindavan.5
Although quite a naïve and unpolished piece of work, I eventually tended several of these nascent ideas in the fertile devotional, emotional, and spiritual soil of Lata Bhavan in subsequent years, primarily from 2003–2011. While the details of the relationship between Sevakji and myself, the sadhana practice we devised based on environmental principles, and the VEC philosophy are the subject of a forthcoming book, this shorter essay serves a briefer and more precise program: to summarize a philosophical core around which the basis of the following argument can stand: Vrindavan is a human sanctuary because Vrindavan — as a metaphor for nature, the world, jagat — is everywhere.
Vrindavan = Nature + Divinity
The external reason I travelled to the subcontinent was to work for WWF–India. The internal reason was associated with the seeking of adventure, language, culture, and eventually a way to reconcile my own personal conflict and internal journeying as a devotee and as an environmentalist as well. In this sense, my presentation is both a personal document and an objective documentary. I am both the sadhak and the writer. Although Sevakji at this time was the director of the VCP, a position, title, and job I believe he most likely was not overly interested in pursuing, by the late 1990s he was the most qualified candidate to continue the work WWF–India had begun on the Project in 1991.
By the time I arrived, Vrindavan had already had a steady influx of Western pilgrims, the majority arriving in the early 1970s, with some in the late 1960s, in connection with Bhaktivedanta Swami’s then rapidly expanding Krishna consciousness movement: the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). There had by this time been serious interest, both Western and Indian, in protecting the town as a cultural and religious pilgrimage centre of significance, around which the environmental focus was paramount.
Vrindavan was posed on the world environmental stage as a pilot case study in religion and environment in 1986 when some 800 people gathered for the celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) at the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy. My 1998 impressions are critical. I believe I caught a glimpse of a Vrindavan which is no longer, one of an unasphalted Parikrama Marg, a final moment before what seems to have become a hyper commercialization and commodification of Krishna consciousness and Vrindavan pilgrimage. The cogs of this system were moving forward by the late 1990s but the wheels were not yet in full motion. The fact that one could still find resting places of ecological significance and potential quietude during one’s pilgrimage around the town stands in glaring contrast to the mushrooming Delhi-esque suburbia that lines the now highway-like Parikrama Marg.
The preliminary thoughts relating to my work as an environmentalist and a devotee, and their connection to the state of the Vrindavan environment and to researching the history, philosophy, and ontology of Vrindavan perspectives on the environment led to my sadhana practice there and my deeper study of Vrindavan environmentalism. When I returned to Vrindavan in the heat of May 2003, by which time I was 27 years old, I was more equipped to appreciate the depth of experience that Sevakji possessed of both practical Vrindavan ecological understanding as well as its ontological and sadhana-based realities. I wanted to learn more, and I felt able to grapple with and note down the majority of the ideas he was presenting. For 14 days I sat, listened, and wrote by Sevakji’s blackboard and chalk slate, tools from another age that appeared to work just as well as any modern technology available at that time.
I questioned Sevakji on the intricacies of the eco-philosophy he had developed around his own sadhana practice, his nature worship as he called it. He and his wife, Shrimati Chitra Sharan, had embarked upon this spiritual journey learning directly from nature since the beginning of their stay at Lata Bhavan in the Atal Van area on the Parikrama Marg in Shri Vrindavan Dham. The garden, which began as a desolate landscape back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, became one of the last remaining natural hermitage ashrams in Vrindavan. My 2003 stay with Sevakji led to more than five years of intense association with Sevakji, his wife, and his garden ashram within the greater Vrindavan community, an association that is ongoing.
1. Sullivan, B. (1998). “Theology and ecology at the birthplace of Krsna.” In Purifying the earthly body of God: Religion and ecology in Hindu India, Lance E. Nelson (ed.) New York: SUNY, pp. 253–254.
2. P. Marfleet (2011), Understanding ‘Sanctuary’: Faith and Traditions of Asylum, Journal of Refugee Studies 24(3), p. 440-441.
3. Ibid, p. 442.
4. I affectionately refer to Shri Hitkinkar Sevak Sharan Ji throughout as Sevakji.
5. This document was published in hard copy as J. Nash (1998). Vrindavan conservation – A perspective. New Delhi: WWF-India. It was available online at HYPERLINK “http://www. fov.org.uk/india/report.html” http://www.fov.org.uk/india/report.html until 2013 but is now offline. Digital copies are in possession of the author.
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