By Patita Pavana das Adhikary
Photo credits: Abhaya Mudra Dasi
It would be a journey of not only celebration and worship, but an inner journey of the heart. For the wise traveler knows that any trip worth undertaking should be as good as the destination. Just as Shrila Prabhupada introduced the concept of creating holy tirtha-bhumis in the Western World, so too did the Great Paramhamsa create the concept of traveling for Krishna outside of India. As the Niti Shastra tells us, “knowledge is your friend while on a journey”. And Shrila Prabhupada’s teachings are the well-spring of all knowledge. This, then, is the small story of two devotee’s Shri Radhashtami pilgrimage on the last week-end of August, 2009.
Like Janmasthami or Rathayatra in London, Shri Radhasthami at Hungary’s New Vraja Dham has become a continental tradition for Shrila Prabhupada’s growing family of Gaudiya Vaishanvas. The yatris would be gathering at Krishna Valley three hours south of Budapest to honor the divine appearance of She Who is the Pleasure Potency of He Who Possesses of All Opulence. Soon, the eighth day of the waxing Moon of Bhadra would bless the Holy Appearance Day of the Daughter of King Vrishabhanu, the Most Favored of the Gopis. In a few days we would be celebrating together the Glorious Descent of the fair and golden-limbed Vrindavaneshwari, the Ultimate Source for all expansions of the Goddess energy in this world or the next.
It was after ten at night when our bus pulled into Budapest’s Central Station, much more modern than the Southern Bulgaria terminal from where we had begun the transcendental trip fifteen hours earlier. We were met by taxi driver Yanni, an aspiring disciple of Shri Bhakti Bhringa Govinda Swami, who whisked us towards the ISKCON Center in his Spanish Toledo sedan to the melodious tunes of a Kazakhstani kirtan wafting from the CD player. He didn’t speak much English, but spoke “gas pedal” like a pro, and he knew how to charge the timed green lights right on cue. Yanni reminded me of my own days at the wheel of V-8 Yellow Cab rushing up the summits of San Francisco’s hills while somehow trying to relate the ride to the Bhagavad Gita for the benefit of the passenger in back. Tonight I recall what I contemplated back then: let devotees who find themselves in circumstances that do not suit them just continue to preach Krishna consciousness. By using whatever situation in which we find ourselves as a basis for conveying the message that Shri Krishna spoke to Arjuna, the Lord will recognize our service and deliver each of us soon enough. All that is required is faith in the words of the all-knowing Supreme Lord and His representative.
The taxi whizzed past the late night scenes where the people of Budapest, no different from folk anywhere else, were trying one more time too somehow squeeze another ounce of pleasure from their temporary existence. Budapest, called the Pearl of the Danube, is the home of two million—one fifth of all Hungarians live here. It is a tourist Mecca and an old-meets-new European capital. We passed grand cathedrals, splendid buildings of parliament, historical fountains and alongside them, a Colonel Sander’s Kentucky Fried Chicken. I recalled Shrila Prabhupada’s famous comments about the colonel back in Boston, winter 1969. There was a KFC about a block from the temple then, and Prabhupada revealed to us that the Colonel would have to endure birth as a slaughtered chicken for each chicken served in any one of his thousands of restaurants. The number of years Colonel Sanders would languish in chicken bodies is immeasurable, but the Universal score keeper is the all-knowing Lord Yamaraja. For the non-devotee addicted to sense gratification, there is no escaping karma in this age except by the grace of the holy name.
On a subsequent visit to Boston, Shrila Prabhupada noticed that the KFC logo had been redrawn. It was then that Guru Maharaja quipped that the smiling, late Colonel was now “looking more and more like a chicken.” Here in Budapest, KFC’s new motto boasts, “Life tastes great.” For Colonel Sanders now pecking at a chemical diet of chicken feed, this motto might have a deeper meaning—if only he had the consciousness to understand the terrible results of his ugra-karma. Shrila Prabhupada often commented that this material life is nothing more than “chewing the chewed”, but for Col. Sanders the meaning is reversed. He himself has become the very chewed. He is the secret recipe that is slaughtered, de-feathered, sliced, spiced, fried and sold with a smile over the counter again and again till the end of the universe. True, Krishna consciousness is the recipe to save everybody, but not everybody is willing to be saved.
More American-style Kali Yuga became evident as Yanni’s taxi raced towards the temple. Here and there were posters declaring that Tom Jones—looking trim, sexy and late thirty-ish—was playing Budapest. I have to thank Tom Jones for helping me become a devotee since the tortuous banality of his first hit song in 1965, “What’s New Pussycat”, assured me that there must be something more to life than hearing the same old “what’s new” every time the radio was turned on. In all these ever-rotating cosmos of birth, disease, old age, death and rebirth, there is nothing new except the ever fresh Son of Yashodamayee and His devotees. “Youthful” Tom Jones, now nearly seventy, has been rebuilt, reupholstered and repainted like my high school classic Chevy. Tom Jones has been reinvented and recycled many times over again thanks to marketing and modern cosmetic techniques of imagined immortality. Plastic surgery cannot fool the lord of Death, although even Yama is gladly defeated by the holy name.
It occurred to me, as we flew past the night clubs and posters, that the rich and famous—despite their tinsel wealth—are chained to their karma just as much as the janitor or the waitress. The elite of this world, like the crooner who is forced by his false ego to entertain his fans till his last breath, are no different from any other karmis bound by material activities culminating in their mistaken identity with the material body. In other cities along the way to Budapest we had also seen billboards of Madonna and Leonard Cohen. It would seem that the formerly-famous use Eastern Europe to try to convince themselves that once the chewed has been expectorated elsewhere, it can be re-chewed with imagined relish in places like Sofia or Beograd.
The temple is in the Obuda District, the site of the Roman town of Aquincum, whose ruins are still evident though it prospered here more than 2,000 years ago. It was late when Bhakta Yanni turned the wheel of his Seat Toledo into the ISKCON Budapest driveway, and we were quietly escorted in efficient Hungarian style to our proper guest quarters. ISKCON’s palacial facility was once a church school that had been purchased and modernized by a major communications company. Then, when the devotees acquired it around half a dozen years ago, they once again completely remodeled and transcendentalized it for the Lord’s pleasure. ISKCON’s Budapest Center is a spectacular and precious jewel in the crown of the Hare Krishna Movement. Ornate and opulent in every way, it is a tirtha unto itself, a worthy offering to the most worthy Guru, a product of the vision and genius of HH Shivarama Swami and his hard working disciples. Spotless Italian marble and bright chandeliers adorn a facility that houses blissful devotees who appear as though they have just descended from Vaikuntha in flower airplanes. The Deities, Shri Shri Dayal Nitai-Vijai Gouranga, dance with bliss as do the devotees dance before them. Everyday book distributors pound the streets of Budapest looking for lost souls to take back to Godhead, and hari nama parties go our regularly. Indeed, many locals are enticed to come of their own accord; the temple boasts a small restaurant with Gujarati hand decorated tables, chairs and even a jhulan swing. In the city center there’s also a large Govinda’s near the Chain Bridge, and another will open soon in downtown Budapest. Hungary is famous for pastries, and the best ones will be found at Govinda’s. To say that they are out of this world is no exaggeration because they’re prasadam.
Budapest ISKCON boasts an attention to detail that is so extraordinary it appears as though Shrila Prabhupada has taken Shivarama Swami by the hand and pointed out what should to be done in every corner. To those who might counter that this description is hyperbole, let me respond by urging each reader to make the pilgrimage for himself because seeing is believing. From the temple it is a pleasant twenty minute japa walk to the banks of the Danube, Europe’s greatest waterway, where a peaceful tree-lined shore of the right bank invites quiet meditation upon the holy names.
The next day the temple mini-bus arrived to transport us along with several other devotees the three hours south to New Vraja Dham in Krishna Valley. Crossing over the Danube via the Clark Bridge, Europe’s oldest suspension bridge, we passed Bishop Gelllert Hill. Budapest is built along the base of the Carpathian Mountain, and Gellert Hill is the tallest point in the city. Bishop Gellert, for whom the hill was named, was an Italian missionary envoy of King Stephen, who was canonized as Saint Steven by the Vatican for spreading Christianity in ancient Magyar one thousand years after the death of Jesus. So resistant to Christian proselytizing were those pagans of Magyar, that they sealed Bishop Gellert in a barrel, then hammered dozens of nails through the wood slats and sent him rolling down the hill to a gruesome end.
Beyond the city, the Hungarian countryside is splendid with neat cottages surrounded by gorgeous fruit and nut trees, and vegetable and flower gardens growing all around. Hungarian countryside is reflective of America six decades past before agri-business bought out entire farming communities, and replaced honest work with monstrous machinery. Rural Hungary today is reminiscent of America before farm land was sold off to construct overnight beehives of condos in wood product neighborhoods that would be renamed for English villages to lend a sense of prestige to those who have paid mega-sums to live in boxes.
Two giant elephant statues greet us as we enter the sacred domain of New Vraja Dham. Pass through and the transcendentally uplifting effect is immediately felt. If Hungarian countryside is manicured to near perfection, then the words to describe New Vraja Dham do not exist in our language. When the sage of Magyar, Shivarama Swami, purchased the six hundred acres a dozen years ago, there was virtually nothing on the property. Today it is a breath-taking abode of lovely cottages, heavenly gardens, a large stream that flows into a lake, rich vegetable gardens of every variety, heavenly kunds, dozens of cows and bulls, fruit and nut trees, cobblestone roads and neat walk ways around the many octagonal stone chhatris or kiosks. Thirty thousand tourists visit the property yearly, paying around four dollars each, a small sun for the privilege of entering the Lord’s abode. The 150 resident devotees incessantly serve the Supreme Lord in thought, word and deed; and they serve the world by their example. New Vraja Dham is a model society; indeed, there is likely no superior alternative Vedic lifestyle community to be found on the planet. Like the temple in Budapest, the temple of Shri Radha-Shyamsundar overlooking the valley is immaculate in every detail. For added intimacy of worship, morning aratiks are conducted not by the light of electricity, but by the light of ghee lamps.
Shivarama Swami, who is fluent in Hungarian, would later reveal to us the simple genius behind his planning of New Vraja Dham—how a near-barren landscape was transformed into the abode of the Supreme Lord. Our Godbrother dug up a Google Map of the property and simply overlaid a map of Mathura Mandala upon it. Thus, with painstaking planning, careful construction of roads and agricultural fields—and the power of the holy name—there soon manifested the Yamuna River, Govardhana Hill, Barsana, Nandagram and other holy places of Vrajabhumi. Just as Shrila Prabhupada conveyed the transcendental realm of Vaikuntha wherever he created a Hare Krishna Temple, so has the sacred land of Vrindavana manifested here in Eastern Europe. Again, please don’t take my word for it because a pilgrimage to New Vraja Dham is something a devotee must undertake for himself.
Soon, around eight hundred pilgrims arrived to celebrate the Earthly Appearance of the crest jewel among Lord Mukunda’s most confidential devotees. The list included Swamis Keshava Bharati, Niranjana, Chandramouli and Devamrita. The Festival of Radhasthami was conducted in grand style with incessant bhajans, kirtans and prasad. The many initiations into Krishna consciousness further expanded Shrila Prabhupada’s army. The level of bliss reached its peak in the evening when all the assembled Prabhus were allowed a temple room glimpse of Shrimati Radharani’s lotus feet. And as it turns out, our European pilgrimage was not European at all, because by the grace of Shrimati Radharani’s undeserved mercy we found ourselves in Vrindavana.
Therefore, let us take shelter of Shri Radha by remembering Her glories, as sung by Shrila Raghunath das Goswami, from his Shri Radhika Stotra, the 108 Names of Shri Radha:
narmokti chandrikotphulla krishna kamabdi-vardhini
She Who increases the ocean of Krishna’s desires by the full moonbeams of Her joking words. (106)
She Who is the moonlike resting place for the senses of the Moon of Vraja (Sri Krishna) (107)
krishna sarvendriyonmadi radhetyaksara-yugmaka
The two syllables of Whose name Ra-dha madden all of Krishna’s senses. (108)