American religious studies professor and world-renowned scholar of Braj Bhasha poet Surdas (link to article on Surdas) John Stratton Hawley first visited Vrindavan in 1974 to do research for his doctoral dissertation on the subject of the Rasa Lila performances, which was eventually published as “At Play with Krishna.” Over the last forty years he has made many visits to the Dham. I asked him to write a few words summarizing his general impressions of Vrindavan forty years ago, in contrast with Vrindavan today. We earlier published excerpts in four parts from his book, “The Vrindavan Pilgrimage Experience.” I, II, III, IV. Compare. See also “Was Surdas Blind? What did he really look like?“
Late at night, when it’s time to go to bed, it all comes flooding back — the Vrindavan of the last few months. Every day there’s been something. It’s been great to be back.
Some things haven’t changed. Outside my window, the angles of the buildings converge as if they were competing for a role in a Mewar painting. Roofs confront other roofs at crazy angles, streets curl mysteriously into view — from where? A sadhu asks for alms at a doorway. Pigs settle in for a communal sleep, leaving not an inch between them. Monkeys patrol the battlements, scampering along the tops of compound walls as if those of us inside were inmates in a prison. Sometimes there’s too much to smell.
Other things, though, have changed. Now it’s a city of every-weekend crowds, and the core of the crowds tends to be young. (Was it always like this and I didn’t notice, being so much younger myself?) With youth comes energy. I have been astonished at the din of Vrindavan—the constant, pulsing movement. It’s such a high — all these people here just for the sake of BEING here. Oh, there is the attraction of Banke Bihari and ISKCON and Radharamanji and Prem Mandir, of course, and for some visitors even the sense of being called. But the main attraction, I’ve come to think, is simply the desire to be here. Here is where it happens, and it’s happened here for so long.
On New Year’s Eve, on one of the jam-packed streets near Banke Bihari, I asked a group of young men why they didn’t wear shoes. I’d expected to learn of some new group-validated rite of passage, something like the speed-walk parikramas I’d seen, acts of religious bravado and sharing. But no. What was the answer? It’s the only way to make sure you don’t lose your shoes! With so many temples to go into, how could you hold onto them otherwise? There it was, an ongoing parable of Vrindavan’s central message: Losing hold is holding on.
At Prem Mandir a little boy says to his father, “Daddy, look! Cows!” Well yes: Imagine! Cows in Vrindavan! But the trick is that the cows are made of fiberglass and this little boy has figured out there’s supposed to be a connection between that model and the real thing walking around on the streets. It’s the eternal lila of representation, and it’s just as fascinating for this generation as for any other.
On my last night in town — it was the onset of Ramnavami — some lone guy with a rough and cracking voice cuddled up with a loud-speaker and kept as many people awake as he possibly could. Think of all the merit he was earning by plodding his way through that simple poem! I suspect he was thinking just that. This is the noise of Vrindavan. It made me think of the guy way back in the 1980s who enraged us all by chanting “Om Namah Shivaya” every night until 4:00 in the morning. It’s hard to find acts of religion more confrontational, amnesiac, and self-centered than these. The loud-speaker is the curse of religion. It makes you wonder whether all of religion is really about humanity trying to speak so loud as to drown out the natural sounds of creation and pretend it’s all about us.
I hope not. Vrindavan has a beautifully quiet side too.
And indeed, as counterpoint, we have the unendingly happy energy of the arati at ISKCON and the delightful variety of the music you can hear night after night at Radharamanji. Ninety-five percent of the ISKCON crowd is now Indian—what a change from the 1970s! But Radharaman is different too. I have a friend in Delhi who tunes in on Radharamanji’s darshan every day. He can’t wait to find out what elegant garb the deity is wearing. We exchange notes about it in Khan Market. In the old days I would take a picture of Radharamanji and people would crowd around with their addresses, asking for copies. Now there’s scarcely a need. Everyone is ready to snap and record, and these images go viral as soon as they are formed—virtual Vrindavan.
Many days I was overwhelmed with all that had changed since 1974. A walk down the parikrama path with Shrivatsa and Asim would now be impossible in the way it was then. As everyone knows, there is no path left. The long sandy route through dusty scrub trees, the peacocks calling and dancing on some little hill, someone’s home-made scrawl of Gopal’s name on the side of a little house—all of it is gone. The path is now fully paved, it’s a thoroughfare. Road signs are posted overhead, and we’re lucky we can still find a few ashrams along the way. Gone forever! Gone in the name of progress. Thanks, but no thanks.
And yet before we reconcile ourselves to the fact that it’s dead and gone, before we determine that it’s time to move on because Vrindavan is no longer here, let’s remember that because the name stays on, people still come. They stay, too. There’s no parikrama path, but there are plenty of people to walk it. That for me is the remarkable thing. Vrindavan is still a dham—not in the sense of its being a stable, immovable abode that anchors the world, but in the sense of its being a gathering place, a place to which people are still drawn, a place where the verbal currency is still the names of God. Vrindavan has changed with the times—and in changing, it has somehow endured.
Is it still Vrindavan, though? Is it still the real Vrindavan? Is there actually such a thing? Only you can say.
John Stratton Hawley—more informally, Jack—is Professor of Religion at Barnard College, Columbia University. He has written or edited sixteen books; three more are forthcoming. These largely concern Hinduism and the bhakti traditions of north India, as in Three Bhakti Voices: Mirabai, Surdas, and Kabir in Their Time and Ours (Oxford, 2005 and 2012) and The Memory of Love: Surdas Sings to Krishna (Oxford, 2009). The edited volumes range more widely, e.g., Saints and Virtues, Fundamentalism and Gender, and (with Kimberley Patton) Holy Tears: Weeping in the Religious Imagination. Jack Hawley has served as director of Columbia University’s South Asia Institute and has received multiple awards from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Smithsonian, and the American Institute of Indian Studies. He has been a Guggenheim Fellow and was recently elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
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