Vrindavan, 2017.01.31 (VT): Every Maghi Krishna Ekadasi is a special day at the Tatia Sthan, as the annual jāgaraṇa is held in commemoration of Swami Lalit Mohini Das, the eighth acharya of the renounced order of the Haridasi sect. Though the scriptures enjoin that every Ekadasi one should follow very strict rules, which include keeping vigil, i.e., staying up all night, this is rarely practiced. As far as I know, the Haridasi sect does not follow Ekadasi particularly strictly, but at least on this one night, they do the jagran. And it has become an important event on the Tatia Sthan’s yearly calendar, attended by all the ashram’s sadhus and by many devotees from Vrindavan and beyond.
The Tatia Sthan owes a lot to Swami Lalit Mohini Dev, and it is said that much of the strong tradition of the Haridasi sampradaya that exists there is the result of his work. Though like all the acharyas who followed Swami Haridas he wrote many songs, he was nowhere nearly as prolific as others like Biharin Das or his own guru, Lalit Kishori Das, the founder of the Tatia Sthan. Nevertheless, he is credited with much of the development of the congregational chanting or samaj tradition, giving it its present form. Lalit Mohini also brought the mood of sadhu seva to Tattia Sthan and made it the principal aspect of his service. He also established the worship of Mohini Bihari, the deity that still presides over the ashram.
The Tatia Sthan covers a fairly large area that is filled with venerable and flourishing trees, and though there are numerous individual kutias for the sadhus, it has an open feel to it. The central portion of the ashram where arati and samaj are held is a walled compound near the front gate. One has to pass through a narrow entrance to get there. Here one finds the small temple building of Radha Mohini Bihari, which has the traditional carved red sandstone facade like so many Vrindavan temples from the premodern period.
There are a number of other small buildings, one which houses the waterpot and a shawl that were used by Swami Haridas. There are also several small samadhis. The building with Swami Haridas’ relics is under a large neem tree, and to one side is the raised seat where Swami Radha Bihari Dasji, the current mahant, holds audience every evening during the daily samaj. Other buildings and walls are whitewashed, unimposing. Entrances are arched, often with multifoil arches.
As we entered this compound, we were stopped by a guard at the entrance with the greeting “Shri Haridas,” a rather good form of address if you ask me, for it not only recalls the name of the sect’s founder, but is a constant reminder that each person is also a servant of Hari.
The guard’s job was to get everyone to switch off their cell phones and he insisted on watching us as we did it. No flashlights, phones or cameras are allowed on the premises. Indeed, there is no electricity in this part of the ashram. No recording is allowed. In this age of Facebook and Twitter, I was wondering how I would be able to share this event with my friends, having to rely on words alone to paint the images and replicate the musical sounds. But I can see that this being cut off from the world is an essential step in passing from the outer realm to the inner, the transcendent state of consciousness, the true Vrindavan to which one is to be transported. Indeed, I personally crave this kind of primitive gathering in the sacred intimacy of the darkness, under the sky and trees and on the silken sands of the Yamuna.
We had arrived a bit early and the sandy area in front of Mohini Bihari was being covered with durries for sitting. Clay lamps were still being lit and placed all around the quadrangle including the eaves of the temple and surrounding buildings. Some were placed on stands so that those following along in books could read. The main group of singers was served by a glass case that held several such lamps, and throughout the night, one of the Haridasi babas went around with a bucket of oil and a ladle to keep the lamps filled.
The inner area slowly filled and by nine, there was no room to speak of. The babas were in the center assembled before Swami Haridas’ shrine, other male-bodied entities surrounding them. On the other side of the shrine were about 150 women. I estimated maybe 500 men. The Tatia Sthan has a strong rule about women at night — none are allowed. It being winter, the babas were decked in a wide variety of colorful regalia. Of course, the Tatia Sthan babas as usual had covered their faces with Braja raj and wore their distinctive turbans and kurtas. I noticed a bit of sadhu glamor here and there, though, someone wore a yellow silk kaftan, some others had satin shirts stuffed with cotton for warmth.
The Mahant came in and offered prostrations to the temple and to Swami Haridas’ shrine, took his seat. Most of the people in the audience came to offer him their respects and then returned to their seats.
The program began. There was a flute and a big sitar, a tampura, one harmonium and one pair of manjeera hand cymbals. Throughout the evening the musical instruments were subdued in comparison to the chorus of male voices, which were almost a capella against the quiet drone of the tampura and other instruments. There were no microphones or loudspeakers so the hundreds of voices singing in unison dominated, which is as it should be. The walls and buildings enclosing the small quadrangle provided some echo and amplification.
The audience at first was still a bit restless and there was a bit of talking here and there, but by and large, everyone was attentive in a way that is rare in any Indian gathering, no matter how great the artist. Where people don’t pay, where the sound is cranked up to the eleventh degree, it seems that inattention is the norm. Perhaps people who understand naturally the words that accompany the music have no need of attentiveness, but I have always found it the single most irritating thing disrupting my own concentration to the point of complete disturbance. One of those things about Indian life, like the ubiquitous garbage, that annoys me terribly. But tonight I got a reprieve from that particular pet peeve. This was singing as sadhana, as a meditation. And everyone who was there knew it and achieved a kind of communal union in the harmonious mood of contemplation on the Divine Couple in the Nitya Vihara.
Though the Haridasi samaj has some responsive chanting, occasionally the crowd spontaneously split into two groups to sing different parts of the interwoven lyrics and refrain. The program began in the deepest parts of the lower octave and the first couple of hours seemed mostly to be spent there, but the waves of sound peppered with individual voices that here and there stood out in harmonious congruity built up and fell from crescendo to crescendo.
In all, the first part of the evening, 42 different songs were sung. Most of them were either from the Kelimāla compositions of Swami Haridas himself, or the compositions of Biharin Dev “Gurudeva Ju” and other greats from the tradition. None were, as I expected, songs about the saint himself, nor did they fit into any pattern, but seemed to be nitya-vihāra padas chosen somewhat at random. Two short ones by were written by Lalit Mohini Das himself. The first appears to be a vasanta-pada, meaning one that describes a scene in the springtime (and as I am writing on Vasanta Panchami, it seems fitting to quote it here):
piya piyarī seja banāī āja |
piyarī jhalaka camaka saba
piyare basana banai saba kāja |
piyare phūla banaiṁ saba tana meṁ
piyarī sobhā sahaja samāja |
śrī lalitamohanī yaha sukha dekhata
syāma tanai piyare saba sāja ||
Dear Radha has today prepared a yellow bed.
It shines and sparkles yellow; she has used her lover’s yellow cloth.
She decorates the bed and his body with yellow flowers,
while all the assembled sakhis also glow in yellow beauty.
Lalita Mohani watches this blissful scene,
where Shyam’s black body is covered by yellow costume.
A little before one o’clock, gifts were brought out for the singers — bahirvasa and chaddar — and little bags of prasad were passed out to all the attendees. The first half of the program came to an end and for about half an hour there was a party atmosphere. Some pistachio tea was served, there were several fires burning with groups of guests and sadhus warming their hands and talking. Vrindavan Bihari Goswami walked by me with a blissful look on his aged face: “This is the central place. This is the heart of Vrindavan,” he said.
Many people left before the second half began. But by 2 a.m. there were absolutely no distractions. Though some of the audience fell asleep, others were entranced. The complex harmonies and responses, the intensity of the chorus of male voices… it was how I always imagined kirtan should be — group samādhi.
It has taken me a few days to recover from the all-nighter, but with each passing day, it seems that the effects linger on in profound ways that I have not yet been able to perceive. Right now, the strongest thoughts are reflections on the glories of an unbroken original tradition, on parampara, especially on this one that reflects the roots of the Vrindavan mood more closely than other, more recent manifestations, which for one reason or another have drifted away from the exclusive devotion to Radha and Krishna’s nitya-vihara.
My answer to Vrindavan Bihari Goswami was, “I don’t understand why the Tatia Sthan model has not been cloned. Why isn’t everyone trying to emulate this? You are right, this is the real Vrindavan, the real Vrindavan concept.”
A short history of the Tatia Sthan
The first eight acharyas of the Haridasi sampradaya are given particular importance. The first two, Bithal Bipul Dev and Biharin Das, were direct disciples of Swami Haridas. Their samadhi temples stand in Nidhivan next to that of the sect’s founder.
1. Bithal Bipul Dev
2. Biharin Das (Mahant 1576-1603)
3. Nagari Das (1603-1627)
4. Saras Das
5. Narahari Das (1627-1685)
6. Swami Rasik Dev (1685-1702)
7. Lalit Kishori Das (1703-1767)
8. Lalit Mohini Das (1767-1802)
Up until the time of Narahari, the renounced sadhus of the Haridasi sampradaya had their center in Nidhivan, but Rasik Dev was forced to abandon this original site of Swami Haridas’s bhajan and of Banke Bihari Dev’s appearance, and to establish new ashrams for his disciples. This was because there was some disagreement with the Goswamis of the Banke Bihari temple who claimed the rights over Nidhivan (they were blood relatives of Swami Haridas) and the renunciates were obliged to move away.
This happened at the end of the 17th century and resulted first in Rasik Das opening the Rasik Bihari temple in the Athkhamba area in 1699. Rasik Das’s appearance day is also today, Vasanta Panchami, and is celebrated at Tatia Sthan.
Rasik Das had three main disciples: Pitambar Das, to whom he gave the responsibility for the Gori Lal temple, to Govinda Dev he gave the service of Rasik Bihariji, and to Lalit Kishori Das he gave the kantha and karua of Swami Haridas. Although his guru wanted him to take over the service of Rasik Bihari, Lalita Kishori prefered to live under a tree near the Yamuna banks. Some say that he had been turned out of Nidhivan by envious people in the community.
Though Swami Lalit Kishori Das was living at that spot in great austerity, devotees made the area more delightful by planting trees and flowers. They also built a bamboo hut for the relics of Swami Haridas and surrounded it with bamboo stakes interwoven with branches to form a protective fence, which is called a ṭaṭṭī, hence the name ṭaṭṭīya sthāna.
Because of his exemplary renounced life Lalit Kishori came to be called a “second Swami Haridas.” It is said that when King Jai Singh heard that the sadhus of Tatia Sthan would not observe ekadashi, he became concerned, since he wished for the sadhus of Vrindavan to maintain the scriptural standards of behavior. To test Lalit Kishori he sent a representative with a clay pot full of sweets to see how he would respond. When the servant came to Lalita Kishori, he found him deep in meditation. He waited a long time for his samadhi to break, but only when a poor Brijvasi woman came and offered him some dry rotis did he come back into external awareness. He ate the rotis without leaving his seat, cleaned his hands with the dust of the ground beside him, and then returned to his meditation without paying any attention to the sweets.
Lalita Mohini Das was born in 1724 in Orcha from the same family as the famous Hariram Vyas of Kishore Van near Loi Bazaar. It is said that he more than anyone else set the mood and rules for Tatia Sthan that has been preserved to this day. He also set the standard for the samaj tradition, which makes me suspect that the songs sung during the Jagaran were favorites of his.
One of the features of Lalit Mohini Das’s administration of Tatia Sthan was his devotion to Vaishnava seva. He made no distinction between devotees of different sects and would feed at least 100 people every day. Nevertheless, his rule was that whatever came in to the ashram in the form of food and gifts would be used for Vaishnava seva in the same day. His motto was:
santana bina hari na mileṁ hari ne kahī pukāra
mo sevata sumirata bhaiyā būḍhauge majhadhāra
No one can attain Hari without going through the saints, as Hari himself states so clearly:
“Oh brother! Even if you remember me and serve me, without the mercy of the saints you will still drown before you cross the river of material life.”
rupe se cāvara sone se dāra
tana mana dhana se santana ko vāra
“With your silver buy rice, with your gold purchase dahl.
With body, mind and wealth, serve the saints.”
One story is told of how Lalit Mohini Das attained siddhi through sadhu seva. One time, prasad was being served to a line of devotees at about the same time that a solar eclipse was expected. Some of the Vaishnavas were concerned that it would be inappropriate to engage in any activity during that time. Lalita Mohini simply said, “There will be no eclipse in the Tatia Sthan.” And so it was. When the devotees looked up at the sky over the Tatia Sthan the sun remained uncovered, but on going outside the perimeter, they saw Rahu swallowing it.