Radha Kund, 2017.02.06 (Vishakha Dasi for VT): Last week Shri Sitram Bharadwaj kindly shared with me about his experiences as part of the Pushtimargiya Shri Krishnalila Sansthan in Vrindavan.
I am not sure he realizes this, but it was kind of a dream come true for me. When I saw the group perform for the first time at the Sandipani Muni School around 2009, I was absolutely blown away by the expertise and heart they brought to their art.
And when the late Shyam Das and Krishnaa Kinkari Devi presented a Raaslila play about the great saint Ras Khan’s life story, it was Sitaramji in the title role. That was a particularly glorious performance. Ever since then, I had wished for a chance to learn more from them.
The Pushtimargiya Shri Krishnalila Sansthan of which Sitaramji is a part, also produces English translations of Pushti Marg literature through their publishing company Vraja Kishori Publications. Excerpts from those translations are a regular feature here at Vrindavan Today.
With the proceeds from book sales, they serve the community in various ways through charitable distributions and supporting children’s education.
But what is most interesting to me is their new project – a Raas Lila school where interested devotees and the children of Raasdhari families can go to learn the traditional music, dance and literature of Braj.
So far, they have started offering voice lessons at their property on the banks of the Shri Yamuna River near Madanmohan Temple. The lessons are taught by a young gentleman named Deveshji – Sitaramji’s son who recently portrayed Radharani in their productions. Deveshji is currently teaching several students including a few foreign devotees from the Jiva Institute.
I also took advantage of the chance by signing up for his class. And that is how I got the opportunity to do this interview with his father, Sitaramji.
(If you would like to learn the traditional music of Braj from these expert artists, please contact Pandit Ghanshyamdas at (0)941-228-0802)
V: When did your family start performing Raaslila?
SB: Our family has been doing this for 125 years. It began with my grandfather, who was a famous sarangi player of Braj. His name was Swami Lakshman Prasadji.
V: Why Raaslila?
SB: The tradition of Raaslila anukaran originates in the Shrimad Bhagwat. The gopis performed the Raaslila, and the first Raaslila anukaran was also from them. [Sitaramji was referring to the chapter in Raas Panchadhyayi where the gopis act out Shri Krishna’s pastimes in a state of total absorption in the grief of separation from Him.]
After that, in Nimbark Sampraday there was Shri Ghamand Devacharya. Shri Thakurji appeared to him and gave him His crown, and instructed him to perform this Raaslila. But when he placed the crown on the boy’s head, the children disappeared. You know this story… you must have gone to Karhala before. [Read the story here].
From that time, the Raaslila tradition really began. When Shri Acharya Charan (Shri Gusainji Shri Vitthalnathji) came to Braj, he also called the Raasdharis to perform. Since Chandra Sarovar was one of the places where the Maha Raas occurred, Shri Acharya Charan came with his sons, Shri Balgopalji, Shri Giridharji, and others to watch Raaslila there. It is a very old tradition.
One can say, just as Shri Shukdev Goswami spoke the Bhagwat, and after that the tradition of Bhagwat Katha was passed down through guru-parampara (the lineage of gurus), and still today Shrimad Bhagwat Katha is performed – in the same way, the Raaslila tradition has been passed down from one generation to the next in an unbroken succession, and still today this tradition is maintained by Brajwasi Brahmins.
Our ancestor, Swami Lakshman Prasadji created a Raasmandali, or a Raas Lila anukaran mandal (group). But the Raaslila tradition itself, which he followed, is from beginningless time. Our family is continuing the tradition set by our grandfather. We are now in the fourth generation.
V: The audience at a Raaslila have a particular experience. Some people in the audience may be feeling that, this is actually Thakurji onstage, this is actually Radharani Herself, this is actually Ras Khan, and so forth. But I would like to know, what is your experience? For example, if some great saint of Braj is sitting in the audience and watching, feeling that you are Radharani… I can understand this may be a private question and I can understand if you don’t want to answer. But I was wondering, how does that feel?
SB: Listen, Vishakhaji, I will tell you about that experience. Whatever feelings there are, happen on their own. Whichever swaroop (divine Person) we portray, we have to become completely absorbed in Their feelings and dive into that swaroop.
Like during the Maha Raas, the gopis were completely absorbed. One gopi said that “I am Kanhaiya,” and she began to act like Kanhaiya; one said “I am Balram,” and she acted as Balram; one said “I am Yashoda,” and she acted as Yashoda. This is anukaran. We perform as in a play, but from time to time by the Lord’s grace, such feelings come that when we are portraying a part, we have no recollection whatsoever that we are on the stage and performing a play. The feelings come within the heart, for Shri Thakurji or for Shri Radharani, as if we are completely immersed in Ras Khan or whomever.
The play is happening, the saints are sitting in the audience and we are presenting some jhanki of Thakurji, but at that moment a special feeling comes within the heart and with that bhaav we portray the scene. And later, when we change out of our costumes, we cherish those moments of bhaav from the heart. Whether it was for two seconds, five seconds, ten minutes or fifteen minutes, those moments are very beautiful for us, because we feel that that day, for that amount of time, through the medium of Raaslila anukaran, we were connected with Thakurji.
Yes, there are also some instances, which happened in front of my eyes, that a boy is in Kanhaiya’s swaroop, and a devotee comes and says, “I am in great pain, please help me”… and Thakurji says, absorbed in who knows what bhaav, “It shall be done.” And later we find out that indeed, the needful happened for that person. But unless and until one has bhaav towards the swaroop…
See, the saints and rasiks and devotees sitting in the audience are ascending the stairway of upasana (spiritual practice and worship). If someone is sincerely following the path of upasana, on any bhakti path, this Raaslila is for him or her. If I see you in the audience and think, “There is Vishakha sitting there…” Or, see, [gesturing to Deveshji], this is my son but when he is in the swaroop of Radharani, or a gopi, as long as he is in that swaroop, I should keep that bhaav towards him. If I keep that bhaav, then my upsansa will be nourished. If I do not, then it will be just like any other material interaction.
The devotees in the audience [who have this mood] receive great nourishment for their upasana. If you read Shrimad Bhagwat or other scriptures, then you are only performing shravan. Shravan means to listen, for example hearing Shrimad Bhagwat or a discource by any saint. Or when you read, you get bliss from that reading. But Raaslila is such a medium that it gives you shravan, darshan, gun and chintan as well. You get everything all together.
Just as amongst the nine rasas – hasya, virya, shringar, etc… one famous saint of Braj said in a beautiful verse:
nav ras mein kaviyan kahyo
saras adhik shringaar
taahu me puni ati saras
so yaha raas vihar
“Amongst the nine rasas, shringaar ras (the romantic mood) is foremost. But above even Shringar ras is Thakurji’s Raas Lila.”
If you see with laukik (materialistic) bhaav, it is a downward path. The bhaav [towards Thakurji’s divine romance] is rooted in the understanding that Shri Radha is Krisha’s atma – His Soul. Where paramatma and His atma meet, there is no kaam (lust or desire). There is only sukhanubhuti (the experience of supreme bliss). It is the loving Union of the Supreme Soul with His very own Soul. This is the mood.
The devotees who are sitting in the audience and watching Thakurji’s nitya vihar are experiencing the meeting of Thakurji with His own Soul. We must not approach this with a materialistic mood. Those that do are brought low, but those who approach this lila with bhaav attain the supreme end.
V: Have you been in Raaslila since your childhood?
V: At what age did you start?
SB: When I was four years old.
V: What did you do at four years old?
SB: First I appeared in a gopi swaroop. After that, when I got a little bit older, I started to portray Thakurji. Our mood is that when a child reaches the age of sixteen or seventeen, they remove that boy from the role of Thakurji and place a new boy, who till then had portrayed child Krishna, in his role. My grandfather felt that a boy may portray Thakurji only as long as laukik vichar (worldly thoughts, ie. about men and women) has not entered his heart.
Before, there was also a tradition that when the role of Thakurji was bestowed upon a boy… like my elder brother before me, and after me Ghanshyamji – we have all taken the swaroop of Thakurji… so at that time, a Brahmin Bhojan would be held, and the crown of Shri Thakurji was bestowed upon the boy by the hands of a saint, thus initiating him into the role. And the child would also be bathed in panchamrit, just as abhishek is performed for the Deity in a temple. And as long as he donned the crown of Thakurji, he was not to portray any other part other than that of Shri Krishna.
V: That was before? Not anymore?
SB: In our family it is still done. I cannot say say anything about other mandalis, but we follow the tradition, and we will continue to do so as long as Thakurji thus blesses us.
It’s a wonderful thing. I started at the age of four and now I am forty-six. My whole life has passed with this [Raas Lila] as my seva, my karm, my dharm. This has been my life, and going forward, my hope is that I may continue serving Shri Girirajji in this way until He calls me to His lotus feet. What could be more wonderful than that?
V: Do you have a favorite lila?
SB: Yes, for me the most beautiful one is the conversation between Uddhav and the gopis. It is completely absorbing from the start and whether it lasts for three hours, four hours, five, six, seven, eight… even sometimes it goes on for ten hours; still it is completely consuming, and it feels as if we are in that Braj four and a half thousand yers ago, when Kanhaiya lived here [in manifest lila]. And we imagine at that time how, if Brajwasis today, simply reinacting that lila come to the point where we cannot stop our tears… if we had been there at that time and our Kanhaiya had left our Braj… what must have been the state of the Brajwasis then?
The poets have spoken that the tears of the gopis became another Yamuna River. And it is actually true. And whenever I see this lila, whether in Braj or abroad in Gujarat, or any other place, I cannot forget that sight and for two or three days afterward, the memory persists in my heart and I continuously relish it.
Vishakhaji, people cry for this material world – that this is my mother, this is my father, this is my brother. But if a few tears fall in remembrance of Shri Thakurji, the bliss of that is so much greater [than anything in this world]. For us, this Raas Lila is pooja. It is just like how a sadhu chants naam jap, and however much naam he chants, that is accumulated in his account. No one can take that wealth away from him. In the same way, we feel that during the time of anukaran, when we were there in Thakurji’s presence or we received that bhaav, then that is accumulated wealth for us, and no one can take it away.
V: There are so many songs about Uddhav lila, especially by Surdasjii. Do you have a favorite song from Uddhav Lila?
SB: Yes, there are many pads of Surdasji and we perform them, but more or less we can say that however many poets there are, most of them have written something on Uddhav lila. But yes, there is one particular pad on Uddhav Lila by Surdasji.
In that song, Uddhav Ji comes to Braj, and he is telling Yashoda that Kanhaiya has sent a message.
kaan kahyo sun yasomat maiya
avenge din paanch saat me hari-haladhar do bhaiya
Uddhav explains that Kanhaiya has said, “Don’t worrry! Balram and I will come home in just five or seven days.”
There is a line in this song where Kanhaiya says to Yashoda Maiya:
praat na kiyau kaleu maine, sanjh na pii gaiya
ja din te mai tum te bicharo, kaahu na kahi kanhaiya
Kanhaiya is saying, “Mother, you used to feed Me breakfast with your own hands. But since I left Braj, I never ate breakfast again. And never again did I drink milk as in the evening, at the time of milking cows, you used to feed Me milk straight from the cow’s udder – one stream into the dohani (pot) and one into My mouth.
“And Mother, since I have left Braj and left you, nobody has called me Kanhaiya. They call Me Mathura Nath, or Mathuradheesh, or Maharaj. But the way you called me so lovingly, “Kyo re Kanua? Kanhaiya…” Nobody has called me so sweetly till today.” For me, this pad of Surdasji is the most beautiful.
In the end, the bhaav we experience [in Raas Lila anukaran] is completely dependent on Shri Thakurji’s grace. Sometimes it also happens that the lila is going on but, by Thakurji’s grace, the bhaav doesn’t come. And at other times, we perform and the bhaav arises in the heart all on its own. But this happens only by Thakurji’s grace.
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