The most prominent doctrinal presentations of Vaishnavism build on scholarship into the aesthetics of rasa (bliss, delight) and the role of leela (play) in Krishna worship. The Vaishnava poets who present this devotional vision of a human god playing in his paradisial abode of Vrindavan is filled with descriptions of its charms, its beauty, its lakes and the river Yamuna, its abundant forests with all manner of fruit and fodder for the cows, all an essential part of any Hindu vision of paradise. Svāyambhuva Āgama is a pertinent example of this imagery in the following meditation:
An intelligent person should remember the Kālindī River, which is dear (vallabhā) to Krishna, with creepers of nectar overhanging her, where many creatures reside, giving pleasure in all seasons, with crystal clear waters, granting happiness to all living beings; her waters appear dark blue like the blue lotus leaf, rippling in the gentle breezes and made fragrant by the Vṛndāvana pollen; with golden lotuses on its banks and bowers on the shores in which there are places for young damsels to enjoy.
O Devi, the sādhaka should then meditate on Vrindavan, filled with joy and made colorful by ever new flowers blooming. That land is described by words that reveal that it is the superior happiness of Krishna’s own bliss. It is embraced by the sounds of many colorful birds and intoxicated bees who buzz about among the jeweled creepers.
The ground is sprinkled with thought gems, and a net of moonlight. All fruits and flowers from all the seasons brighten the forest, and all the vegetation trembles in the light breezes that come across the Yamunā. Vrindavan is filled with flowers, varieties of trees and birds. It is the one pleasure garden of the Lord, the manifestation of the happiness of the three worlds, the place of amorous people, set and organized beautifully.
In that Vrindavan is a beautiful throne made of various gems, pleasing, more soft than flowers, covered with a soft cloth, having the four legs of dharma, artha, kāma and mokṣa, and adorned by the crest ornaments of Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh.
One should then meditate on a young boy sitting on that throne. The boy is overwhelmed with love, dressed in yellow, blue like the sweet pea flower, the very embodiment of luster, submerged in the bliss of the ocean of līlā-rasa, the ocean of happiness, having the hue of a new cloud, decorated with a peacock feather in the locks of his hair.
Despite this vision of an archetypal natural paradise, most of the Vaishnava poets even going back to the original foundational works of Krishna mythology like the Bhāgavatam make no explicit link between their theological concepts of Vrindavan as a dhāma, or “penumbra” of the Lord, or the kinds of discourse that exist in modern ecological thinking. However, since Vrindavan is understood as a specifically divine locus integral to their theological idea that the wholeness of Deity the includes the natural surroundings of an earthly paradise, i.e., nature, it seems to naturally serve as the ontological basis for a particular environmental perspective growing out of the worldly Vrindavan of today.
This pilgrimage town is now undergoing environmental shocks and stresses of rapid 21st century development, urbanization and the consequent destruction of almost all natural habitats, what to speak of the human sanctuaries that surrounded the ashrams and temples of the old town in the classical model of the tapo-vana, the forest hermitage. Indeed, it is rather more surprising that this wholesale destruction has not met with more protest, and that the potential for a robust ecological theology has not been more powerfully realized to this date.
Though I have not done a study to document all these Vrindavan-theology-based environmental perspectives, some of the more prominent ideas can be summarized as follows:
- Vrindavan is conceptualized both as the transcendental realm of Krishna and as the physical environment. Both of these locations are very important ecologically, with the latter serving as a terrestrial representation of the former.
- Religious and spiritual methods of understanding Krishna theology and its relationship to Vrindavan must involve ecological considerations.
- The mismatch between scriptural depictions and the actual physical state of Vrindavan reflects human mismanagement and a lack of balance in human priorities.
- Idealized stances including the idea that only the transcendental Vrindavan matters as opposed to managing and addressing the current ecological state of the terrestrial Vrindavan are not taken seriously.
- Self-introspection (sādhanā) and spiritual practice through service (sevā) are integral to achieving a balanced personal state for the individual and hence a balanced ecological state with the natural and cultural world. Krishna’s personal example of self-balance and its resultant nature-world balance serve as a model of personal ecological awareness-creation and environmentalism.
- In Vrindavan, nature is inherently divine. Trees, plants and animals are our teachers, and we should become aware of their divinity and worship them.
- Ontologically, the actual location of Vrindavan provides the understanding that any place or environment, when perceived with awareness of its inherent divinity, is Vrindavan. The raison d’être of Krishna’s incarnation as an environmentalist in Vrindavan is to teach and live this.
The description of the devotional characteristics and symbolization in scriptural and devotional injunctions has not been directly related to explaining the existence and outcome of ecological activities in Vrindavan. In contrast, instances of this detailed aesthetic and ecological imagery abound in the rasika (devotional) poetry of many medieval saints of Vrindavan such as Hari Ram Vyas, Swami Hari Das or Hit Harivansh.
However, as is clear from the current state of the Vrindavan environment: ‘there is trouble in paradise today, on earth if not in heaven’. This discord between the ideal and the real requires a review of how development has negatively contributed to this state and how environmental groups have worked with the local community based on present, historical and scriptural ideals.
Seven Levels of Human Ecology
One area that has not been considered in the above intersection of theology, mythology and ecology is the more practical real-life dimension of pilgrimage. The present economic development model for the current Vrindavan-Mathura municipality is to make it a tourism-cum-pilgrimage center, for both in-country and foreign visitors. In the interest of the general environmental future of India — which, make no mistake, is in for serious problems in the current fever-pitch development, it is imperative that they be accompanied by an understanding of modern ecological concerns that will be able to communicate to both a secular and a religious audience.
Here I present a model based on pilgrimage and human ecology, developed over the past 20 years in the course of conducting fieldwork with Vrindavan environmental NGOs. I use the model of human ecology as a tool to observe pilgrimage in terms of a cycle.
The cycle begins with the Divine or divinity and ends with ecology. The model treats humans as custodians in this balance. It illustrates how ecological and spiritual awareness can evolve from pilgrimage and how pilgrimage nurtures a holistic understanding and connection with nature.
These levels occur simultaneously and incorporate each other to form a representation of a holistic totality or vision that sees beyond religion, geographical location, class or caste, or borders of any kind. Here the seven levels or dimensions of human ecology are presented as an interpretation of pilgrimage. They are:
- Divinity/spirituality – The world within and without is divine by its very nature.
- Nature – This is the outer manifestation, the curtain, of this inner (divine) truth.
- Culture – All creatures learn from nature, and as human beings, we give and take from it, and this becomes our culture.
- Heritage – Specific cultural expressions are maintained over time; they become deeply embedded in our personal dealings and our environment, e.g., art, music, architecture, food and lifestyle.
- Pilgrimage – A method where we can see differences and similarities across time and environments through physical, intellectual and emotional travel.
- Human welfare – Pilgrimage helps us to realize that ultimately human beings share similar strivings, problems, needs, desires and will to find peace in life. This is related to human welfare in social and environmental domains.
- Ecology – When human beings are in consonance with themselves, their close social group, greater society and nature, then the possibility of ecology and a balanced relationship between the human and nature is arrived at.
Vrindavan is a prototypical example of this relationship. This ideal of human-nature-spirit interaction is termed Vrindavan – The human sanctuary.
I have worked with Shri Sewak Sharan Ji on refining this model to form a theoretical description posing scientific, religious and pilgrimage-based questions as to why Vrindavan ecological perspectives and practical incentives have not lived up to their own expectations and how environmentally aware pilgrimage is an essential aspect of Krishna pilgrimage.
Environmental awareness does not appear to be a major priority for pilgrims to Vrindavan; this seems especially so for ‘weekend pilgrims’ from Delhi.
Writers such as Kiran Shinde have attempted to account for the reasons why this beliefs or knowledge beyond borders has not been synthesized or accepted by the masses of pilgrims that converge on the town every year. Shinde claims that a large majority of pilgrims fall into the category of ‘sacred sightseers’.
The dramatic increase in (pilgrimage) tour operators and food venues in the vicinity of Vrindavan’s most popular temples suggests that there has been a great shift from traditional pilgrimage to consumer pilgrimage, where visitors demand good accommodation and contemporary food.
Traditional Vrindavan pilgrimage, which is intimately connected to the land and myth of Braj and Krishna, has, like other pilgrimage locations in India, become dwarfed by the increased emphasis on the economic benefits of tourism. Such a shift has also been seen in pilgrimages in other Third World locations and through the process of religious commodification.
My own suggestions for this shift away from ecologically aware pilgrimage are based on observing almost two decades of vast ecological changes in Vrindavan, which are commonly associated with tourism-based changes.
Pilgrims and the ‘pilgrimage industry’ have begun to commodify the pilgrimage process and experience. Pilgrims tend not to undertake the long tirtha-yatras (journeying to holy places) common in the past. Vrindavan pilgrimage has been made easily accessible to the uninitiated through the increase in the speed of travel to Vrindavan from Delhi, the increase in creature comforts available in Vrindavan guest houses and the more fluid facilitation of popular and easily approachable pilgrimage ends such as darshan (sacred vision of the deity) and access to the company of modern spiritual leaders and scriptural orators.
Through this modernization, the traditional process of what is more ‘ecologically aware’ pilgrimage, connected to the land and appreciating and meditating on the legends associated with it, has been lost.
While not necessarily detrimental, the ecological effects of this pilgrimage shift have been great. Pilgrimage in Vrindavan has brought about such large changes in the town’s landscape that it is now difficult to perceive the town in terms of its past; the forest groves described as Krishna’s playground now appear as a romantic reminder of what exists only in scriptures and perhaps in the minds of some older and earnest pilgrims and spiritual practitioners.
The seven levels of human ecology model help to explain how the attraction of traditional processes of pilgrimage may have declined due to their disconnection from nature and limited awareness of the sensitive cultural and religious heritage of Vrindavan.
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