I have been back in Australia after a short ten days in Vrindavan. I was reflecting on my experience when I went to the Vrindavan Today website and found Jack Hawley’s piece ‘John Stratton Hawley :: Vrindavan, 40 years later.’ So I copied his title, with the caveat “almost” since I first set (physical) foot there in 1998.
The reason I have been involved for so long is simple: Vrindavan itself. Not Krishna, not Radha, not temples, not bhakti, not anything else. And here Vrindavan means Nature, the Divine Sports Stadium of Life where yugal-bhāv, here represented and manifested as Radha and Krishna, is permanently on show and for the taking if we will only look deep enough.
Vrindavan is both a physical reality and an abstraction. And the person who showed me how to watch and how to find this inner Vrindavan among the eternal natural and cultural world-as-Vrindavan: the well-known local Vrindavan ecologist, scholar, thinker and seer, Shrī Sewak Sharaṇ Jī.
I met Sewakjī when I came to Vrindavan as an environmentalist-devotee in February 1998. At that time he was the convenor of several environmental happenings, namely World Wide Fund for Nature–India’s Vrindavan Conservation Project and Friends of Vrindavan. I took an instant liking to this educated and cultivated man; his demeanour was soft, his English direct and understandable, and what he had to say and what he wished to impart profound: Vrindavan, Nature, is merely a means to arrive at and live the Source, the Centre, “That Which We Are,” as Neale Donald Walsh, author of Conversations with God, would put it. I acknowledged to him and myself that as a 22-year old pilgrim I wanted to learn from him. To use a wellworn cliché, here began one of the adventures of my lifetime, a journey which brought together many strands of my own physical, intellectual, emotional, and ecological search.
It was through six longer and shorter visits to Vrindavan between 2003-2008 that I worked intently with Sewakjī, on synthesizing several what could otherwise be considered disparate strands of sādhanā (spiritual practice). Where Sewakjī’s background is grounded primarily in the Rādhā-Vallabh sampradāya and mine, at least initially, in the Gauḍīya traditions as adopted and adapted in primarily the Australian chapter of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), my attraction to and fascination with Sewakjī as an eco-guru and his eco-philosophy was founded more directly in non-denominational ecological grounds.
By the time I arrived in India, I was a graduate environmentalist. It is these bases upon which not only a formal guru-shiṣhya relationship developed, but one involving deep friendship, cross cultural exchange, language learning, and continued interpersonal interaction utilizing modern communication technologies across international boundaries.
As my senior in age and experience, I approached Sewakjī with respect and with an enquiring mind. Having been schooled in the formalities of the guru-shiṣhya relationship within ISKCON, though never having taken formal initiation, I understood the importance of the particular process of approaching a knowledgeable person who appeared to be well advanced on the path. Not only is it exciting to spend time with such an individual, because they can help you in your search, their presence makes you feel at peace, and want to engage in sādhanā which directs you towards concentricity, the state of being balanced with inner personal and outer world functioning.
The longer I stayed with Sewakjī, the more I realized Krishna had brought me to Vrindavan and then let me free there. Being concentric and equanimous with oneself— self consciousness, with one’s intimate others—other awareness, with nature—nature consciousness, and with society—societal consciousness, leaves religion, sects, and rituals behind. This modern day sage had created a natural and cultural haven in the very now-becoming-urbanized town where he was raised. And out of this dust came concrete and livable methods where one could lead a life we once described as ‘living with nature culturally’ without the superficial dogmas of religion and its parallel rituals.
The fact that I am writing about these events in 2017 is testament to the longevity and significance of this guru-shiṣhya union in both my working life as an academic linguist and in my perpetual striving for fulfilling the instruction Sewakjī set for me in May 2003: “It is my desire that you become a real ecologist for Vrindavan.” The how, why, when, and where of accomplishing this task is less about Vrindavan and the establishment of an illustrative guru-shiṣhya relationship and more about the persistent and dynamic striving for realization of the Nature-Divine-Humanity trilogy as a part of sādhanā-and-world based manifestations. What I wish to express should have relevance outside my own experiences as a sādhak (devotee) and hopefully be applicable beyond the physical confines of Sewakjī’s ashram known as Latā Bhavan on the Parikramā Mārg in Vrindavan, Uttar Pradesh, India.
It became clear that the man who was formerly the manager of Vrindavan’s World Wide Fund for Nature– India chapter was not merely an ecologist who possessed some clear ideas about how the Vrindavan environment could be remediated; he had synthesized a theory describing relationships involving humans, nature, society, and the Divine which was yet to be written or compiled in any significant way.
Moreover, this amalgamated sādhanā practice, a process we later termed E-Sādhanā, of which the ‘E’ element has five elements—electronic sādhanā for the modern age, easy sādhanā, eco sādhanā, ego sādhanā, and everyone’s sādhanā—was yet to be tested or practiced by any shiṣhya, student, or disciple. What I was witnessing was a vast amount of philosophical, empirically scientific, as well as personal sādhanā-based research, which was waiting to be incorporated, practiced, and eventually written up and presented to the world. This labor of love fell on my shoulders.
I am incorporating the details of the Nash–Sharaṇ relationship and the theories we developed as a part of my current postdoctoral studies in linguistics.
“I wish to see you before I depart”
In January 2017 I received an email from a young female devotee who was going to see Sewakjī. I followed up with a phone call. Now 83 years of age, the Swamī requested me to come and see him one last time. He felt his time was limited and he wanted to see me before he left. I had to honour his request. Knowing how important such a trip was to me and not wanting me to live to regret it if I missed the opportunity, my wife Holly encouraged me to go on this pilgrimage, what would most likely be my final chance and concluding darshan with my esteemed and revered guru, co-researcher, and, most importantly, my dear friend Shri Sewakjī.
I dedicated 10 days to this venture, the maximum amount I could take out of my life with Holly and our daughter Olive. Coming to see him felt like visiting an aging father. I am sure there has been something paternal in our years-long interaction. There were tears when I arrived.
“Almost 20 years, Baba,” I said.
“Yes,” he said in a frail voice, “Vrindavan will never let you go.”
Although there had been countless energetic learning and teaching discourses between us relating to how he had synthesized a sādhanā process, which was both theoretically pleasing to me and practically applicable in my life, these 10 days passed in elegant calm. The days of vigorous breathing exercises—prāṇ dhyān—and intricate discussions intended to sow the ground of our working relationship were now well over. These were postdoctoral discussions both literally, because I am a postdoctoral researcher, and figuratively, because the groundwork of almost two decades has been well established.
We discussed pointed specifics like the philosophical application of the rasika poetry of the medieval Vrindavan saints Hit Hari Vansh Goswami and Hari Rām Vyās to the Vrindavan Ecological Concept (VEC), as Sewakjī had termed it, and not the generalities, which we had explored many times before.
The VEC was truly in my vision:
First, Vrindavan is a pilot model for the creation of human sanctuaries. These places can be anywhere provided the sanctity of the soil (Nature), soul (Divine), and society (Humanity) are maintained.
Second, concentricity, the state of balanced human–human and human–nature dealings, will lead to ecologically, culturally, and divinely conducive and amicable behaviour. Concentricity is divine environmentalism. And this is what Vrindavan came to teach, that Vrindavan = Nature + Divinity. That any place where we look to Nature with a Divine vision becomes Vrindavan,
The Human Sanctuary.
This is the attractive aesthetic spectacle Vrindavan offers the world. And this is what makes Vrindavan as a place of ecological study and the VEC as a synthesized philosophy of the Vrindavan environment different from other examples of religion and environment–conservation worldwide. And it was because of these vibrations in this actual geographical location in modern day India which attracted and encouraged Radha and Krishna to descend.
Vrindavan and its message is hallowed; what they have to teach is as applicable thousands of years ago as it is today. However, a germane questions arises: If Vrindavan: The Human Sanctuary can in principle be anywhere provided we are concentric and behave amicably and with reverence towards Nature, why do we need the actual Vrindavan, especially considering the sordid ecological and cultural state of the modern pilgrimage hub?
In some ways we don’t. Where Sewakjī conceded consistently over many years of discussions—“I have failed to conserve Vrindavan”—I disagree that he had failed; through him and in his small ashram a veritable phoenix of ecological and spiritual wisdom had risen up through piles and piles of sectarian and intellectual-emotional detritus and religious fundamentalism, not to mention ecological and cultural destruction. And as he continually said to me, “the fact that you came all the way from Australia to Vrindavan means there is blood in the stone.”
We need Vrindavan like a hole in the head—the noise, pollution, and lameness—yet we need nothing but Vrindavan. As Indic thought tells us: neti neti. I don’t believe there are any failings in Vrindavan, nor was Sewakjī unsuccessful in any way. The lessons are clear, and I have taken it upon myself to write, develop, and publish my own experiences and the theories, methods, and precepts I developed with Sewakjī.
As Vrindavan Today editor Jagadānanda dāsa imparted several times when we met, I am the person with the most complete access to Sewakjī’s theories and thoughts. In summary Jagadānanda said: “Your method and approach to ecology is bhakti. And bhakti is prema (love). Bhakti is then the culture of prema. You’re trying to serve Vrindavan (Nature) as the sacred ground (dhām) of Radha and Krishna’s union, the scene of their love story. Vrindavan is the Stadium, the Cosmic Playground of Radha and Krishna.”
Jagadānanda’s position concurs with that of Sewakjī and mine in that of the four compositional elements of devotee’s sādhanā, namely nām, rupa, līla, and dhām, dhām (place, physical environment, nature) is the most available, most present, and easiest component to approach.
And within dhām, the three-part sādhanā process of prakriti-chintan (meditative contemplation on Nature), prāṇ-chintan (meditative contemplation on life energy), and kāl-chintan (meditative contemplation on time as the motivating entity in Nature) is realised.
Vrindavan is Hotel California, man – you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.
I spoke with Jack Hawley by telephone on 30 March 2017 while he was in Vadodara. A strange turn of fate had it that he left Vrindavan 36 hours before I arrived. He believed I had come to Vrindavan this time to receive a gift; the opportunity to spend quality time with Sewak Sharaṇ, a mahāpurush and one of my best friends, in his twilight days.
As I looked around Latā Bhavan, the Above of Fauna, I saw that young and energetic yet seriously purposed 22-year old ecologist–devotee boy who had bumbled awkwardly into Vrindavan and Sewakjī’s presence. I knew one had to enter this place with an enquiring mind and heart. Hawley’s photograph of the Parikramā Mārg before it was sealed and when nature won out in a pre-developed Vrindavan and a pilgrimage centre where one could sense a divine presence in the quietude of sacred nature reminds me intensely of my initial 1998 pravesh (entering). The scent of those early days will remain with me, as will the memory of Sewak Sharaṇ Jī and his perennial teachings relating the trinity of soil, soul, and society or Nature, the Divine, and the Human.
As Hawley queries throughout his piece, what has changed in Vrindavan? My conclusion is: all and nothing: neti neti. The smells take me back 20 years as do the sounds. I can’t even remember what it was like when the Parikramā Mārg was the veritable edge of the town. How can I even imagine what it was like for Sewakjī and his now late wife when they began staying out here in 1980, with the scorpions and ants and no trees?
As regards change, I saw that monkeys had taken over in Latā Bhavan and that the surroundings were not as they were when I was a permanent resident. However, what is more important was that I realized that Sewakjī has enjoyed my company throughout the years as much as I have his. It felt lovely to be in his presence. I experienced a sense of peace and calm when I looked out over those trees; the years had passed, the sādhanā was done, I had changed. Vrindavan will never leave me and I will never leave Vrindavan. I now live Vrindavan whenever and wherever I am.
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- Vrindavan, (almost) twenty years later - August 24, 2017