New Vrindaban Days – Chapter 3

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New Vrindaban Days

As New Vrindaban enters its 50th anniversary (1968 to 2018), I wrote this series of articles for the Brijabasi Spirit in an attempt to give the reader not only an “understanding,” but more importantly a “taste,” of what life in early New Vrindaban was like – through the stories of one devotee’s personal journey.

The title of the series, “New Vrindaban Days,” is in tribute to the wonderful book “Vrindaban Days: Memories of an Indian Holy Town” written by Howard Wheeler, Hayagriva Das. He was one of Srila Prabhupada’s first disciples, a co-founder of New Vrindaban, and, a great writer. As with Hayagriva’s book, this series focuses on a period of time in the 1970’s.

I would also like to acknowledge and thank Chaitanya Mangala Das, for spending untold hours assisting me in refining my writing for your reading pleasure.

I have been asked to describe certain aspects of early New Vrindaban Community life such as the nature of the austerities, what it was like for a new person coming here, cooking, anecdotes about particular devotees, etc.

I attempt to tell these stories in some semblance of a chronological order, beginning with my first meeting with devotees in 1968, leading to my arrival in New Vrindaban in late 1973 and carrying through to the official opening of Srila Prabhupada’s Palace in 1979.

Advaitacharya Dasa

Chapter 3: Captured by the Beauty of Sri Sri Radha Vrindaban Chandra

Advaita & Billy New Vrindaban Bahulaban 1974

Bhakta Emil (pre Advaitacarya Das) & his brother Billy in New Vrindaban, early 1974.

It is the last half of 1973 and I have been chanting Hare Krishna for the better part of 2 years. I visit the Henry Street ISKCON temple in Brooklyn regularly and bring lots of friends. I have personally been in the presence of Srila Prabhupada and the devotees are constantly badgering me to move in. There is one thing holding me back. My entire hippie days I have been harboring the idea of moving to the country with my closest friends to form a farm commune.

During a visit to the temple I meet Yamunacharya Das, a devotee familiar with New Vrindaban, having been assigned by Srila Prabhupada as Kirtanananda Swami’s personal servant, after he was awarded sannyasa. Yamunacharya has been telling me stories about New Vrindaban ever since. After meeting him my idea of starting a commune first morphs to starting one near New Vrindaban. After chanting as long as I have, the idea has now morphed to just moving to New Vrindaban.

When I inform the devotees at the New York temple I am considering a move to New Vrindaban they browbeat me with spiritual logic.

“Bhakta Emil, Krishna put you in New York City for a reason. Look at how many people you bring to the temple. You’re obviously meant to preach. That’s what’s best for Krishna. You should surrender.”

I hate to admit it but it makes sense. My desire to go and live on a farm outside the city must be sense gratification. They break me. I meet with the president of the temple and make arrangements to move in the following week.

I shut down the apartment I’m living in and move back with my parents. My girlfriend doesn’t want to move into the temple so it’s likely we are breaking up. The days go by and my moving in date is getting closer. Being from NYC although I am twenty years old I do not drive. Most of my friends do not drive. The fact is I only have one friend that does and he adamantly resists driving us anywhere. Besides, this particular friend is not exactly head over heels about Hare Krishna. I am completely shocked when he approaches me.

“Hey, guess what? There’s a festival in New Vrindaban this weekend. How about we go?”

“To New Vrindaban? I can’t. I’m supposed to move into the Brooklyn temple.” I respond.

“C’mon man, you always said you wanted to check the place out. What difference is a few days going to make?”

“I wasn’t aware of any holy day. What’s the festival for?” I ask.

“It’s a Vedic fire sacrifice. Five couples are going to get married in the ceremony.”

I give in and my brother Billy, my girlfriend, the driver, and two other friends make the long journey. It is December and we fight bad weather the entire way. When we hit Moundsville we are so exhausted we search out hotel rooms and crash for a day. Eventually climbing out of bed, we complete the last leg of the trip to McCreary’s Ridge and pull up to Bahulaban in the darkness of evening.

New Vrindaban Welcome Sign Bahulaban 1973

The New Vrindaban Welcome Sign at Bahulaban – circa 1973.

Exiting the car I peer up the hill and find no sign of life. Only three light bulbs cast rays into the darkness but the effect is spectacular. The storm of the day before has covered everything in a thick blanket of ice. The golden rays reflect off the surrounding trees making them sparkle as if they were covered in diamonds.

My New York City bred nostrils are enticed by the foreign fragrance of wood burning fires. I begin walking up the hill but find myself stopping halfway up the driveway leading to the compound above. There are no longer any questions. No more trips to be taken. Nothing else left to look for. I know I am home.

New Vrindaban Bahulaban Farm early 1970s

The Bahulaban Farmhouse, early 1970s.

We finish the walk up the drive and are met by a devotee exiting the ramshackle farmhouse we will later discover to be the temple. He identifies himself as Parambrahma Das and invites us inside. “Would you like some prasadam?”

He has sounded the perfect chord. We are starving. He calls to Bhakta Mark (Madhava Ghosh Das) and Bhakta Haynes (Hari Dhama Das), asking them to serve us prasadam while excusing himself to the cow barn.

Since I’d first seen the devotees those many years before, with their bed sheets and mismatched socks, the NYC devotees have over the years stepped up their wardrobe. They’re now sporting Indian kurtas and cotton or silk dhotis. The two bhaktas Parambrahma hands us off to are throwbacks donned in hole-ridden long john tops and dhotis made of what appears to be rough cuts of badly dyed polyester. I was not too concerned as my mind was now filled with thoughts of prasadam.

I envision the white flour puris covered in powdered sugar and preparations like sweet rice and halavah, which I am accustomed to at the New York Temple’s Sunday feast. I am lusting. Indeed, even salivating. In a few minutes Bhakta Mark comes out from another room carrying a tray on which sit stark stainless steel bowls with red numbers painted on them. In the bowls is a hot murky liquid which smells faintly of cinnamon. Perhaps a prasadam appetizer or broth I was not yet familiar with, I thought. But as we had never been disappointed by prasadam, we all greedily lift the bowls to our mouths and begin sipping. In a word: Awful. In two words awful and horrible. I will stop there.

Curds & Whey

“It’s whey drink made from the cow’s milk.” Bhakta Mark says.

I am familiar with curd and how it is made but have never done anything with whey but pour it down the drain. The taste of this preparation convinces me that I have been doing the right thing.

Seeing the look on my face Bhakta Mark chimes back in, “There’s nothing in it but cinnamon. Not even sugar.”

A thought runs through my head. Is this actually an ISKCON temple? One time I had curiously stumbled into a Hindu temple in New York and what they offered me as prasadam was nowhere near what I had experienced at the hands of the ISKCON devotees. I also thought the “Hypno-wheel” they had on the altar was a bit out of the ordinary. It was certainly not the Sunday Feast of Sri Sri Radha Govinda. Perhaps I have curiously stumbled again.

After the lackluster meal of “whey drink,” they try to figure out where we will sleep. It turns out that the Bahulaban farm we have arrived at is the Brahmachari ashram and there is really no place for my girlfriend and I to sleep. After some discussion it is determined that the two of us will sleep on the floor of a small cinder block building that serves as the incense warehouse for the community’s business selling Spiritual Sky products. There is only a narrow walkway between shelves full with scented oils and incense packages. It smells good but it is not very comfortable.

Before we go to sleep we notice a cork board hung on the wall. On it is an article cut from a local newspaper. The article explains how just a few months before the community members were attacked by a “biker gang” and a few of the devotees had actually been shot. The strong smells and the biker story makes for a night of more than a little anxiety and a host of strange dreams.

New Vrindaban Kirtan Bahulaban 1973

Sankirtan at Bahulaban – 1973.

The next day the weekend feasting is scheduled to begin. The problem is all of the cooking is done on wood and there is no wood in the shed. Because of the ice, the horses have not been able to go up the hill and into the forest where the trees have been cut. The shod horses cannot walk on the ice, what to speak of pull a load of wood.

It is decided that about 30 men will walk the quarter mile up the frozen hillside and then down another half mile into the forest where the “Shyama Kunda” reservoir, of New Vrindaban is located. From there ice covered pieces of wood will be dragged by hand ¾ of a mile up and down frozen hills to the wood shed where it will be cut and split into pieces to be used in the cooking fires.

My New York crew is included in the 30. That day I become friendly with many of the brahmacharies of the community. They explain to me that the Shyama Kunda in Vrindavan, India is one of the planet’s most sacred places. It is the place where Krishna and his cowherd boyfriends spend time swimming. This frozen pond deep in the woods of New Vrindaban, they explain, is a manifestation of that same Shyama Kunda in India, magically transported to West Virginia, by the will of the pure devotee, Srila Prabhupada.

The austerities required for the weekend of feasting are mind boggling. It is cold everywhere you go and there is no hot or running water. Just to wash pots requires a visit to a hand drawn well, using a rope and a rubber bucket. There is no soap. The pots used for cooking are badly burnt from the raging wood fires and are scrubbed using rocks and wood ash. There is no refrigeration. When it is time to bring in the sweet rice for the feast, the cook, Amburish Das, asks my brother Billy and I to accompany him to a snow bank. From deep underneath the snow we dig out a 40 gallon pot and drag it to the temple. Everything about the place is impossible.

On the other hand, the kirtans are joyfully explosive. The quaint farmhouse temple room is transformed as community president Kuladri Das sits pouring ladles of ghee and adding pieces of wood to a small fire in the center of the room. Before him are five couples with brides including Tarkik Dasi and Sukhada Dasi donned in fancy saris, far more beautiful than the cotton ones usually worn. Their faces decorated with gopi dots and their hair with flowers. The sweet rice and all of the other preparations served at the feasts are unbelievable. Sri Sri Radha Vrindaban Chandra are more than beautiful. The experience is overwhelming.

Radha Vrindaban Chandra Bahulaban New Vrindaban early 1970s

Sri Sri Radha Vrindaban Chandra on Their altar at the original New Vrindaban farmhouse, early 1970s.

On the second or third day of our visit, as I exit the temple room after the morning program, I see Kirtiraja Das, who is one of the managers of the Brooklyn temple, walking with Kirtanananda Swami. Knowing I am supposed to have moved into the New York temple by now he turns as I come out of the temple room archway, looks directly at me and blurts, “What are you doing here? You were supposed to move into the New York temple!”

The Swami looks at me and smiling turns back to Kirtiraja saying, “I think this boy has been captured by the beauty of Sri Sri Radha Vrindaban Chandra.”

No truer words have ever been spoken.

Later that day I inform the Swami that I would like to go back to NYC to get my stuff and then come back with my girlfriend and brother Billy. I ask if there would be a place for us to live in New Vrindaban. I get the okay.

Kirtan Radha Vrindaban Chandra Bahulaban New Vrindaban early 1970s

A rousing Kirtan before Sri Sri Radha Vrindaban Chandra at the Bahulaban Temple.

On the drive back to NYC I can still see Sri Sri Radha Vrindaban Chandra in my mind’s eye. I can hear the bell hanging from the archway in front of Their altar, with the Swami standing under it, pulling its rope. I feel the power of the kirtans and I can still taste some of the various dishes – bharats in yogurt, ice cold sweet rice – that were served at the feast.

Indeed, I have been captured.

New Vrindaban Radha Vrindaban Chandra Bahulaban 1970s

Their Lordships Sri Sri Radha Vrindaban Chandra, Whose beauty captures the hearts and minds of many. (They are on the altar at the originial New Vrindaban farmhouse,)

Did you miss the previous chapters? Click the links below to catch up:

Chapter 1: Every Journey Begins With a Single Step

Chapter 2: Srila Prabhupada – Jaya Radha Madhava

Stay tuned for Chapter 4: Fired Up – We Depend on Sri Sri Radha Vrindaban Chandra.

The next monthly installment will be posted July 2018!

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