By Urmila Devi Dasi
A visitor to the Vrindavana area cannot help but notice that in many places literal and figurative filth has been smeared over the body of the Lord. Much of the problem is due to the huge influx of tourists and visitors, from India and abroad, that has steadily increased over the last thirty years. But, who has invited all these people? It is Lord Caitanya who asked his followers to excavate the holy places and develop the Vrindavana area, publicizing its glories. “Before Lord Caitanya, the places of pastimes of Lord Krsna was forgotten. People knew only that ‘In these quarters Krishna was born and His pastimes was played here.’ But no particular places were excavated. But Caitanya Mahaprabhu—After Caitanya Mahaprabhu sent Sanatana Gosvami, the importance of that tract of land known as Mathura-Vrndavana became very important. And the importance of that city is due to this Sanatana Gosvami, because Sanatana Gosvami was authorized to go there and establish temples.” (Prabhupada lecture on Sri Caitanya-caritamrta, Adi-lila 7.149-171, San Francisco, March 18, 1967)
Following the desire of Lord Caitantya, Prabhupada widely advertised Vrindavana throughout the world. The Lord and His servants do not intend, therefore, for Vrindavana to remain as unpopulated fields. We have followed the order to spread Vrindavana’s glories, and now we must, ethically, guide that development properly, dealing with the unintended negative consequences of development as our service, as well.
Perhaps we want to take responsibility—just because we love Vrindavana—but we feel helpless. The problems seem too big, and the solutions either inscrutable or beyond our capabilities. Yet, if we do the will of guru and Krishna all help will be there, and there are many mundane and spiritual examples of how rapid, deep change is possible. First, we can broadly define the problem. Then we can consider solutions, some of which are within the reach of any and all of us who come to Vrindavana, even for only a day.
The problems have to be kept in perspective, since it is still true that the names of Radha and Krishna are prominent all over, and people naturally engage in various services to the Lord. Spiritual life is intrinsically interwoven into everyone’s daily life. Yet, the four sinful activities that are Kali’s signature are also everywhere. Alcohol is openly for sale, what to speak of tobacco and pan. Gambling is a common, public diversion.
The cows are exceptionally ill-treated. A talk with Kurmarupa dasa of Care for Cows, or Sudevi of Radhakunda’s goshalla, opens one’s eyes to what is easily missed on a brief visit. Right through Govardhana town the young bulls are roped together to go to the illegal slaughterhouse. A few days later old cows are also on their way. Another day one will see a group of old oxen—they can no longer work so they go openly to be killed. Those who take care of cows generally abuse them. Calves are allowed to drink so little milk that their malnourished bodies are pitiful—swollen bellies with prominent ribs, skin diseases, and motley hair. The calves often get no exercise, although their natural propensity is to run and frolic after having eaten. The female calves, having been unhealthy since childhood and then carelessly bred, cannot give much milk when they are mature. Calves, cows, and bulls are rarely shown any affection such as petting, scratching, and brushing, although this type of service is prescribed in the sastra. Rather, in most cases, they receive only yells and beatings from their human masters. And, horribly, every time someone throws on the street any food or peels inside of a plastic bag, cows and bulls will eat the whole bag. This plastic in their stomachs makes them ill, and usually leads to a slow, painful death. These problems also happen with the modernized leaf plates (which cows always eat, especially if there is any food left on them) that have plastic between the layers.
In terms of illicit sex and social sanity, external appearances continue to seem good. Unlike all other bodily functions which are public—bathing, brushing teeth, urinating and evacuating—any sexual activity is totally private. Even a husband and wife openly holding hands is simply not seen. Local women dress very modestly, although the young girls are quickly adopting fashions of jeans and tight blouses. Of course, most men have taken up Western dress. But the mood is no longer favoring the essence of proper sex—using it for yajna by having children. Contraception, and especially sterilization, are commonplace. Abortion, particularly to kill female children, is accepted. There is strong propaganda in favor of delaying marriage and having few children, two social patterns that erode sexual purity and undermine the idea of marital sex as yajna for children. Because sex is now viewed more as an outlet for lust instead of a yajna for children, the females are suffering. For example, devotees have directly witnessed that if a husband in the Vrindavana area publicly beats his wife, no one interferes. Many female children have deep scars on their faces that may be the result of abuse. Prostitution and the resultant spread of disease have become part of the culture according to world health research. Those who work with Food for Life of Vrindavana note that, in the villages, married women are likely to receive no education or medical care in regards to pregnancy and birth, so that the health of mothers and their children is often horribly affected.
Beyond the four gross sinful activities, sewer water is a common sight, from the foot of Govardhana to temple entrances. Trash piles are a familiar decoration in the villages. Cows’ grazing areas are bulldozed for construction. The growing demand for electricity is based on petroleum rather than ecological solutions such as methane (from cow dung) and solar power (amply available). Cars squeeze into ancient streets, injuring animals and people. We could add the cheating that goes on in the name of spiritual life to this list of horrors.
Millions of people now come to Vrindavana. Then, among the pious business owners who seek to provide goods and services for all these new pilgrims and residents, are some who are savvy but greedy, and care little for the spiritual. Generally, this “development” of the Vrindavana area is done without regard to the effects on the ecology, cows and bulls, or local inhabitants. For example, almost every venture to build up and renovate the dhama is aimed at welcoming “wealthy outsiders” while excluding locals and cows. It seems the attitude is that the locals can stay in their slums and the cows can eat trash. Such places (apartment complexes, hotels and even some temples) welcome anyone who is not a local without question based on their skin color and/or their more refined mode of dress. The dark skinned, leanly built, shabbily clad locals are shooed away, as are the ever-hungry cows.
The new housing complexes focus on luxury, with advertisements full of Western-dressed Indians in modern homes. The type of cleaned up, renovated Vrndavana these new developments are offering seems to have no place for locals and cows. It’s as if outsiders want manicured lawns, trimmed bushes, and private villas without the annoyance of roaming cows and Brijbasi chatter. There are now dozens—maybe a hundred—housing complexes being built at this very moment in the Vrindavana area, all of them catering to those from outside the dhama. Practically all of these complexes are destroying the local environment as well as greatly decreasing facility for cows and bulls. One of the most serious problems the new housing complexes pose for Vrindavan is that the added population, even though mostly week-enders, seriously taxes the water supply. People are reporting their wells are going dry. Before where one could bore 90 feet to get water, now water is 150 feet down. The water table is sinking as the water is being drawn out and consumed faster than it leeches in, a sure sign of droughts to come.
What are solutions that we can practically apply? First, we can accept that much of this development has come because we have strongly promoted the dhama worldwide, and the Lord Himself wanted the holy places developed. Therefore, the duty to keep the dhama proper is certainly ours. We know that the root of the problems lies in people’s desires, culture, habits, social pressure, and education. Those can be changed primarily through affecting the heart by chanting Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare without offense. So, some will suggest that we simply increase chanting in the dhama.
But, anyone who spends a few hours in the Vrindavana area, what to speak of weeks or months, knows that probably 100% of the residents and visitors are already chanting the names of Radha and Krishna, in some form or for some reason, every single day. Along with the Sankirtana Movement, Prabhupada preached on how to have an ideal society. In that way, people can give up offenses to their chanting.
The core of the solution lies in Prabhupada’s analogy of the blind man and the lame man. The West is spiritually blind, but materially competent. And, India has spiritual vision but material ineptitude. It seems that in ISKCON we usually use this analogy—or is it Prabhupada’s order?—in reference to bringing India’s spirituality to the West, or in using Western expertise, in the West, to preach Krishna consciousness. Have we considered bringing Western competency to India in a way that not only preserves, but also showcases, India’s spirituality? Outside influences are coming to India whether we like it or not. It is useless to imagine that all of Braja will go back to looking like Vrindakunda or Bilvana does now. If we start with the attitude that Western management can complement Indian vision, then we will not see development or increased population in the dhama as an inherent evil. Prabhupada writes in his purport to Bhagavatam, 4.25.13, “At the present moment, India may be compared to the lame man and the Western countries to the blind man. For the past two thousand years India has been subjugated by the rule of foreigners, and the legs of progress have been broken. In the Western countries the eyes of the people have become blind due to the dazzling glitter of material opulence. The blind man of the Western countries and the lame man of India should combine together in this Krishna consciousness movement. Then the lame man of India can walk with the help of the Westerner, and the blind Westerner can see with the help of the lame man. In short, the material advancement of the Western countries and the spiritual assets of India should combine for the elevation of all human society.”
Indeed, there is some evidence that Prabhupada hoped positive Western influence would serve Vrindavana. In “Our Srila Prabhupada, A Friend to All,” pages 163 and 164, Srimati Patak explains, “He [Srimati Patak’s husband] told me many times about one thing they [her husband and Prabhupada] talked about: Even in those days, my husband’s main interest was to make Vrindavana a very beautiful place like it had been in the days when Krishna had His pastimes here….He didn’t like it that there was so much trash and dirt here…He used to talk to Srila Prabhupada about this….But in those days Srila Prabhupada would say, ‘Yes, this is very nice. However, I have another plan to accomplish it.’ Then he would tell of his vision of preaching to the Westerners.”
How will we do it? Let us first look at the principle of how behavior can be changed quickly and relatively painlessly, with a minimum of legal and political action. Then we will reflect on some of the many possible specifics for the Vrindavana area.
Let’s consider examples of extreme shifts in the behavior and values of a society. Forty years ago, environmentalism was considered outrageous and socially deviant. It was science and technology that we were told would give us happiness and prosperity. Authorities touted the artificial and man-made as superior. But, today even Wal-Mart carries organically produced produce to meet the huge demand. There are also examples, such as abortion and same-sex marriages, where what was once rejected as abominable becomes an acceptable part of a society, often within a decade or so of the initial propaganda.
Widely disseminated stories, along with facts, can very quickly change values. When values change, social pressure mounts for people to adjust their behavior to match the new values. There is then economic pressure for the behavior to be widely adopted and accepted. If strongly entrenched mundane norms and culture can be changed in a decade or two through well-developed and aimed propaganda, why don’t we use the same principles?
The first arm of propaganda is through media. Television and movies are everywhere in Vrindavana. A few are about Krishna’s lila (not necessarily bona-fide in the content or motive) but most are horrible nonsense inspired by the worst of the West. Suppose, instead, the Brijbasis could watch movies about people like themselves, showing how well they cared for cows and bulls, and how they were rewarded with material and spiritual prosperity. Suppose there were movies about people like themselves who were intelligent and happy, and also followed the regulative principles, and even took care of their trash and waste in a responsible manner. The stories should portray the desired values and behaviors as socially acceptable, with the opposite shown as foolish and inept.
The second way is through children’s education. Most of the schools in the Vrindavana area are either virtually useless or are training children in the worst of Western values. Children are told that it is best if they leave the village, go to university, become a doctor or lawyer, artificially have few children, live in an environment divorced from the cow, and so forth. Of course, this view of the future is not within the grasp of most Brijbasi children. They end up, as adults, simply resenting their village life. Suppose, instead, there were stories in their textbooks, and practical classes, on how to care for the land, dispose of waste, live without intoxicants, value pious family life, properly care for cows, use bulls and oxen for working, and so forth. Just imagine a curriculum, based on sastra, which guided the village children to want to stay in the village with respect for each other, the land, and the cows and bulls! Imagine hands-on classes where students properly tended cows and bulls, learned to farm with oxen, and generate electricity from dung. Imagine textbooks that glorified natural life in relation to Krishna. Imagine teachers who love to live in the dhama the way that Prabhupada taught. The local government in the Vrindavana area is already starting to turn over schools to ISKCON, so creating such a system is on the verge of reality, if we grasp it.
Another way of change focuses not on residents, but on visitors. First, there can be a vigorous educational campaign both throughout India (especially in Delhi), and in Gaudiya groups out of India, that helps people to shop responsibly. Signs, videos, and multi-media shows (maybe one could be added to the Delhi temple’s exhibition) can emphasize only buying from shops that use ox power, paper bags, and clay or glass cups instead of plastic. Each ISKCON center could periodically show videos or have booklets about how to visit the dhama in ways that serve the environment, cows, and local residents. Since a large number of visitors to Vrindavana come because of ISKCON and/or from Delhi, if we concentrate on our existing temples, we will reach enough of the visitors to create a “critical mass.” A group could regularly inspect shops and issue a “plastic free” sign to those that use recycled paper bags instead of plastic. “Ox-friendly” shops can be those that use oxen instead of electricity or petrol to run their machines. We can start certifying milk from cruelty-free goshallas, since most goshallas engage in cow slaughter. Produce produced from ox-power instead of tractors can be so labeled. If consumer demand is created for these products, especially if people are willing to pay a very slightly higher price, farmers and shopkeepers will change their behavior. Greed is what is driving the cows and brahmanas out of Vrindavana. We should devise ways to channel the merchants’ greed to preserve Vrindavana rather than destroy it.
As Prabhupada explains, “We do not expect that everyone will agree. Everybody will disagree. Just like our book. Say, four, five years ago, nobody knew these books. So there was no market. But we have created our market. That is preaching. We have created our market. Nobody was dying for want of these books. So that is preaching.” (Morning Walk — December 11, 1973, Los Angeles)
In a similar way, an education program could target those wishing to visit or move to the dhama, encouraging them only to live in housing complexes that are connected positively with the cow, the bull, and Brijbasis. Each housing complex should have a goshalla where cows are taken care of according to ISKCON guidelines. Bulls and oxen should be used to care for the grounds. Electricity can be generated from cow dung rather than petrol. There should be cows and bulls physically on the premises rather than only a beautifully manicured garden. Grazing grounds should be connected to the housing projects. In these ways, living compounds for the huge influx of people from outside the dhama could be built based around cow protection and farming. Brajbasis could then be offered a simple home with adjoining land in exchange for work with the cow and bull on the land. “Cow and bull friendly housing” as well as “Brijbasi friendly housing” can get a certificate, so people can know where to rent or buy. There is a great opportunity now for business-minded devotees to use the greed of these owners and builders as a wedge for service to the dhama. They are attracting people on the basis of the very place they are disrespecting, cutting the throat of the hen that lays the golden egg.
If you have a video camera, know someone who could write a script and others who can act, you could start producing dramas the Brijbasis will watch. Of course, the videos would have to be in Hindi….If you are a retired teacher, you could work with people such as Rupa Raghunatha Prabhu to write curriculum that would help the Brijbasis to live in harmony with Krishna’s plan, and be happy in such a life. If you have an MBA or business experience (if you also have an Indian body and speak Hindi, that is a bonus!), you could create a market for dhama and cow friendly shopping. Among the talents and expertise needed are…
expert cow folks to train people in cow protection,
electrical engineers to build electrical plants run on cow dung,
mechanical engineer to design machines (for cutting hay etc.) that would be ox-powered,
architects for designing cow-friendly compounds,
graphic designers, artists, writers, and models for producing propaganda books, leaflets and billboards,
teachers and curriculum writers,
film directors, writers and actors for TV shows/movies
diplomats/public relations folks who could ‘pull strings’ with government officials
Certainly there are many people connected with ISKCON who have these qualifications. If we do not personally possess these skills or connections, at least we can encourage those who do to work in these areas. But, suppose we neither have needed skills nor know anyone who does. Is there anything we can do?
It should be clear from this essay that distribution of Prabhupada’s books in Vrindavana, both to residents and visitors, is a very powerful tool for change. Anyone can help with book distribution, at least in a small way.
As for daily habits while in the dhama, we can bring cloth shopping bags with us when in Vrindavana and refuse to get anything in plastic bags. Comment to shopkeepers who deal a lot with foreigners and visitors that you would buy more from people who used recycled paper instead of plastic. We can purchase leaf plates without plastic inside. We can buy drinks in glass or clay cups, not plastic. We can make sure that when we throw plastic bags away, there are no food scraps inside. We can give financial support to the programs already in place to educate local residents, save cows, and help the local environment. These include Rupa Raghunatha dasa of Food for Life, (www.fflvrindavan.org ) Kurmarupa dasa of Care for Cows, (http://www.careforcows.org) and Sudevi (a German lady who is not an ISKCON member, contact through Care for Cows) who does a cow and bull rescue program in Radha Kunda. There are also other devotees and programs to serve the dhama with which I am not personally familiar, but that are worthy of investigation. One can enquire from the above persons in this regard.
We can give food to wandering cows and bulls—and how about brushing them? If we drink milk from a goshalla that sends cows to slaughter, which is most of them, we can pay for the care of cows in their old age. If we buy or rent, we can ask questions about how trash and sewage are dealt with. We can ask how cows, bulls, and local people are part of the housing arrangement. Just asking those questions tells builders and developers that there might be an economic advantage in addressing those concerns.
The most important way we can change values is through our own personal purity through chanting the mahamantra with great care and attention, and begging Srimati Radharani for service to Vrindavana.