Estimated reading time: 10 minutes
Scheduled for publication in the Journal of Vaishnava Studies 29.1 (Fall 2020).
In his new book, Krishna’s Playground: Vrindavan in the 21st Century, scholar Jack Hawley shines a troubling light on modernity’s impact on Vrindavan.
by Joshua M. Greene
What an extraordinary work this is, part dramatic reportage on the effects of modernity on a holy town, part historical analysis of past transformations, part personal memoir, part pilgrim’s journal offering brief biographies of local dignitaries, all blended with musings and insights from a deeply introspective connoisseur of India’s bhakti tradition.
“At the heart of religion,” Hawley comments, “is the question of what’s real, and the idea of Vrindavan has always raised this very question.” Which Krishna, he asks, is to rule creation: the maintainer of dharma, the speaker of the sacred Gita; or the breaker of dharma, the lover who is the center of the rasa lila? Religion, he reminds us, is about “grappling with the unreality of so much that seems patently real.” The tension in that bifurcated creation is highlighted in his alliteration of “the soul…closer to the soil untilled: the forest, jungle, wilderness,” old and new in perpetual dialog, or perhaps perpetual friction—it is an uncertainty that pervades the text.
The book reports on Vrindavan’s dramatic transformations in seven chapters that take readers from a reminiscence of the author’s first visits a half century ago, through a summary of current environmental and political affairs; an analysis of the Vrindavan Chandrodaya Mandir—a proposed 70-story tower that embodies shifting attitudes over the meaning of “sacred”; an overview of dynamic new attitudes toward and initiatives by women residents; a loving biography of one of the author’s teachers, Shritvatsa Goswami, one of Vrindavan’s most distinguished scholars, and his efforts to preserve and protect the holy land; and a concluding section that puts the urgent condition in sharp relief.
Hawley uses three ways to survey the current situation: a walk down Chatikara Road to determine whether recent structures do or do not reflect the old Vrindavan, an exploration into real estate developments that surround the road, and an overview of new gurus who flourish here. As if this were not already an ambitious undertaking in less than 300 pages, he also manages to describe open sewers and the spillage of untreated waste into the Yamuna River, environmental damage, government corruption, traffic jams, noise pollution from twenty-four-hour loudspeakers, and the chronic annoyances caused by free-roaming pigs and gangs of predatory monkeys. There is also as breathtaking a description of cremation (Shrivatsa Goswami’s father) as one is ever likely to read. The range of topics is impressive.
In an interview with Niharika Gupta for “The Wire,” Hawley described himself as “an outside observer” but also “an involved observer,” and that involvement informs his disturbing portrait of the sacred under lethal assault. Hawley attended graduate school at Harvard, expecting to study religion and psychology, then discovered the bhakti texts and Krishna. His studies led to a first visit to Vrindavan in 1974. The town “seemed a kind of paradise back then,” he writes, a stepping back in time, with pilgrims arriving by horse cart or foot and everyone bathing in the beautiful Yamuna River. The lazy horse carts and quiet cycle rickshaws are nearly gone, replaced by traffic jams of noisy motorcycles, auto rickshaws and private cars; and the Yamuna is so polluted almost nobody bathes in it and fewer dare drink its water.
Hawley recalls with relish his early visits and pleasant walks along the Yamuna’s sandy parikrama path and “the pleasure of that soft and granular dust on your feet as you honor the sacred space by this ever so basic means.” Today, except for a tiny segment around Keshi Ghat, the sandy parikrama path had been turned into a paved road, and new construction is taking place on illegally dumped landfill. Hawley argues that the paved parikrama and other changes have fundamentally altered the pilgrimage experience. I wonder, though, whether this is true only for those old enough to have known the barefoot walks of old Vrindavan, and that’s part of a meta-issue. If someone never knew old Vrindavan, are they really missing something of importance to them, or only to those of us who do remember? My students never use libraries. Are they missing much? I think they do, but they don’t.
In the 1970s the town was cleaner and smaller. The opening of ISKCON’s Krishna Balaram Mandir in 1975 triggered a dramatic increase in visitors and since then, this quiet, lightly forested area on the outskirts of town has become the center of Vrindavan with rows of shops, hotels, ashrams, real estate offices, and restaurants. An array of apartment complexes and gated communities crowds the landscape. The crowding was exacerbated with completion of a massive expressway in 2012, which essentially made Vrindavan a suburb of Delhi, part of a convenient day trip to Jaipur and Agra. Vrindavan’s population skyrocketed from 65,000 in the 2011 census to 100,000 in 2018. “The wilderness of Vrindavan,” Hawley writes, “is being flooded with Delhi.”
Some changes to Vrindavan culture are relatively benign, such as cell phones or New Year’s celebrations, and in this otherwise bleak portrait there is some good news. A new generation of women’s ashrams has emerged that is moving away from the old condescending model of Vaishnava widows’ homes. The new ashrams are training centers, social action headquarters. Gender taboos are also changing, with women teachers such as the teenagers Devi Shri Shail Kishori and Vishnupriya Goswami giving public discourses.
Still, dire concerns overshadow these pockets of progress, and in response two groups of planners have emerged: those looking to develop and bring Vrindavan into the modern world, and those looking to save Vrindavan’s beautiful historic waterfront.
Hawley reserves his choicest words for the real estate developers, who advertise to prospective homebuyers, “Live like a king in the Lord’s own kingdom,” and in particular the team behind the Vrindavan Chandrodaya Mandir (VCM), which he describes as having an unabashedly Disney-like agenda, hence no sacred-secular boundary. The VCM will have an immense parking lot to accommodate huge crowds, and plans call for rides for kids, including an Aghasura serpent-monster water slide; little cars that will take young ones beneath the giant Bakasura bird, with sound effects and light show; and a typhoon blowing around the mountain-high Trinavarta whirlwind creature. The VCM will feature high-speed elevators to whisk visitors to the top of the tower, where they will emerge into an open gallery that offers a panoramic view of Vrindavan. Through telescopes they will zoom in on Krishna’s birthplace in Mathura or Radha’s home in Barsana or follow the course of the Yamuna. In other words, visitors will circumambulate Vrindavan in minutes, without ever having to go anywhere, and with 3-D goggles they will witness a Vrindavan that purports to show the town as Radha and Krishna saw it 5,000 years ago. The whole plan for such a massive entertainment complex strikes Hawley as contrary to the pastoral Vrindavan that Krishna inhabited.
Hawley toggles back and forth between nostalgia for the past and concern over the threat of modernity, in particular the 70-story VCM tower which would have visitors “leveraged into a new reality…where virtual and real are all the same.” Is the VCM going to be a part of Vrindavan, he asks, or its replacement? Is the VCM “perhaps a death knell to all that was”?
The bleak portrait painted in Krishna’s Playground is not wrong; if anything, it is scarily accurate, yet what’s missing from this otherwise praiseworthy book is not a call to action—something Hawley has sounded with Kurukshetra-like clarity—but, at the risk of sounding a bit pious, a call to prayer, prayer not as an escape from harsh problems but as a portal into invisible solutions. When confronting the impossible, all of bhakti theology compels followers to recall that there is a mystery to creation that can transform the impossible into the possible, darkness into light, defeat into victory. “I am victory and adventure,” Krishna reminds Arjuna (Bhagavad Gita 10.36), who saw similar disaster and impossibility in his call to military action.
Hawley seems to have set aside the importance of bhakti in addressing real life issues, as though the two were separate concerns. “I worry about some of the theology,” he writes, “that has helped propel this process. I think it will not do to imagine Krishna as someone whose very essence is to attract to himself… It makes him too much a symbol of our narcissist species, Rather, I think, his attraction radiates from the fact that he reflects the world he naturally inhabits.” There follows an analysis of Krishna in two features: the male-dominant lord Vishnu, the all-seeing ruler; and the child Krishna who, “wily as he is, is really just a boy with a voracious appetite for butter [who] lives in an ecosystem where [his appetites] can flourish…. He is still a hero…but he doesn’t have to be big to accomplish the feat.” It is human-size Krishna who lifts Govardhan Hill, he reminds us, and chastises the Kaliya serpent.
In both cases, however, Krishna is responding not only to environmental threats but to his devotees’ prayers. He lifts Govardhan Hill not merely to restore ecological balance but to protect the residents of his town. He admonishes Kaliya not simply because dharma needs realigning but because the serpent’s poisonous fumes pose a risk to his cowherd friends. Hawley has chosen to not address this dimension of the lila, arguing that “the serpent’s heat is unbearable, just as Vrindavan’s heat and the world’s heat, stoked by the release of masses of carbon from beneath the earth’s surface, become more unbearable year by year…. Krishna [by banishing Kaliya] acts on behalf of humanity in distress, but he does so without compromising his place in the wider world, a world that displays the interplay between humans and the rest.” He closes by stating, “Everything depends on seeing Vrindavan as the image of the world, yet we see how fragile the real Vrindavan is.”
Perhaps. There was no climate change back then and no indication of this in the Bhagavata Purana. It has become a trope of modern bhakti scholarship to envision such parallels, and certainly they have value, but the tradition would deem them supplementary to the greater value of self-surrender. “Of all yogis, those who give themselves to me in love and devotion are the greatest of all.” (BG 6.47) Hawley’s is an expansive, noble mind at work, one that is constrained to find meaning that anyone can appreciate, but which runs afoul of Krishna’s declaration that “Everything depends on Me” and not on a metaphorical image of Vrindavan as a mirror of the larger world.
Krishna reassures us that the “sense of the sacred” Hawley so yearns for is not divorced from Himself as “the source of the sacred” (aham bhija pradak) and that he will respond if we invite him. Full disclosure: having passed 70, for many years I’ve been an admirer of Jack’s ability to navigate so freely between the formality of academia and the informality of Krishna’s world. Yet I cannot share his hope for a cure to Vrindavan’s woes solely based on the recommendations he offers in the book’s final section, including application for World Heritage Site funds to build light-rail public transportation, new sewage treatment plants, more favorable wages for street-cleaners, plastic regulations, speed limits, and a humane capture-and-release program for the town’s monkeys. Without the change of heart induced by devotional practice, clean-up efforts alone will do nothing to stop interlopers from finding other means for their exploitation. In the extreme, such longing for an old Vrindavan of cherished memory, no matter how noble, should be viewed with concern, as it might prove vulnerable to misappropriation by Hindu nationalists. To draw a parallel, Jurgen Habermas, in his essay “1989 in the Shadow of 1945: On the Normality of a Future Berlin Republic,” warned that a new emphasis on more positive periods of German history—new “historical punctuations,” as he put it—would diminish the importance of the collapse of civilization in 1933-45 and increase the risk of its recurrence. Any romanticizing of a presumed glorious past runs that risk.
Already the ISKCON project in Mayapur (the Bengali parallel to Vrindavan’s VCM) risks preempting by the BJP as an icon of India’s noble Vedic history and a monument to Hindu nationalism. Removing the blacktop from Yamuna’s periphery and restoring a sandy parikrama path will not change the habits of those who see Vrindavan as nothing more than real estate.
Along with oversight, the resurrection of Vrindavan will require insight, the product not of political maneuvering but heartfelt devotion. Legislation and funding in one hand and the Gita in the other—that might get the attention of bureaucrats.