One look at Vrindavan today and it’s hard to imagine this is the village that Krishna enthralled the gopis in. Conversely, reading about the Rasa Lila of Krishna in Vrindavan from the Bhagavata Purana (10:21), it’s hard to imagine that this village is the one spoken of in such glowing, magical terms.
Then, ‘the place that was cooled by the breezes sweet of the fragrance from the lotus filled lakes’ was known and named for its Holy Basil groves. Now, the groves have died away and the old growth trees have been cut down to make space for land developers like Jain Realtor Ltd. New trees planted by concerned activists are overwhelmed by the displaced monkey population.
Then, the Yamuna River was pristine as it flowed by Vrindavan. Now the river is diverted to Maryana at the Mathini Kund Barrage before it even reaches Vrindavan. What flows in the ancient Yamuna riverbed at Vrindavan now is the effluence from Delhi.
Then, gopis (married women who herded cows) enjoyed family life, livelihood, freedom of association and respect. Now, Vrindavan is known as ‘the city of widows’ with as many as 20,000 women in a population of about 56,000 abandoned by family, blamed for the death of their husbands and left on the doorsteps of charitable organizations to feed and shelter. The vast majority of these women are living on the streets. This ‘ancient tradition’ of widow abandonment began just 300 years ago, coinciding with the rise of the Mughal Empire in the region of Delhi (Shahjahanabad) and the battles at Anandpur fought between the Rajas of Sivalik Hills with Mughal alliances against Guru Gobind Singh and the Sikh Khalsa. If Sikh gender equality was among the Rajas’ contentions, it’s rather difficult to see evidence of a Sikh victory in Vrindavan.
Sure, over the years between the frolicking pastimes of Krishna’s childhood and the penning of Bhagavata Purana some 3,500 years later, the stories were glamourized to accentuate the divine nature in the mischievous toddler, who grew into a charismatic cowherd and ended life as the victim of a wayward arrow far removed from the delightful home of his youth. Perhaps the times in which the Bhagavata Purana was inked were also dark and the people yearned for the happier times of the past and so the legend grew into a fable. As the Bhagavata claims, it was first told to the dying Parikshit by Shuka, the son of Veda Vyasa. With just 7 days to live, Parikshit begged of Shuka to tell him of Krishna’s life, as he had long since passed away. It’s hard to know just what portion of the stories is fact and to what degree they have been embellished to soothe the ache of broken hearts and beaten bodies.
But I think and I want to believe that Vrindavan was heaven on Earth once and it captured the impressions from the Dance of Divine Love. Yet, I also have to acknowledge that that love and divine purity have been worn thin by the relentless pace of human ‘progress’ that characterizes our time. Have we forgotten how much has been sacrificed to fuel our passage into the present state of environmental and social degradation? Is it any wonder that Bhakti and Advaita Vedanta, with all emphasis on the illusory nature of this existence, have grown so much in popularity since the Middle Ages?
As though walking backwards, it seems most of us observe things from our past shrinking away and mistakenly think that it is us becoming bigger than the things we leave behind. Of course, others look back and feel diminished and humbled by the ravishing of time. Yet, perhaps it is best to simply remember and accept that the Laws of Thermodynamics govern the future. Thermodynamic equilibrium – that changeless, steady state – awaits us all, big and small.