Wherever Śrīla Gurudeva went on his foreign preaching tours, he invited all the assembled devotees to come to India and join Vraja-maṇḍala Parikramā during the month of Kārtika. Inspired by Śrīla Gurudeva’s powerful hari-kathā and enchanting description of Vraja and the love of the Vrajavāsīs for Kṛṣṇa, hundreds of devotees from around the world suspended their normal obligations to attend the annual Vraja-maṇḍala Parikramā. Many would come ten days early to attend the parikramā of Mathurā before Kārtika. In the course of Mathurā parikramā, Śrīla Gurudeva would take the devotees to the houses of congregation members in Mathurā, where he would speak hari-kathā and converse genially with the locals.
Many people came for Kārtika, young and old alike. When Śrīla Gurudeva addressed the devotees before Kārtika, he requested them not to waste their precious time in the dhāma in useless talk and socializing. Gurudeva said, “This is not the place to look for partners to marry. You should seriously endeavor to develop your bhakti. Don’t waste this invaluable chance, for it may not come again. The dhāma will not allow those who pass their time here frivolously to return. Everyone should be serious.”
Śrīla Trivikrama Gosvāmī Mahārāja also attended the annual Vraja- maṇḍala Parikramā. Śrīla Gurudeva would introduce his dear godbrother as an advanced Vaiṣṇava and great scholar hailing from Bengal, and requested him to speak first during hari-kathā gatherings. Śrīla Trivikrama Mahārāja spoke in a grave voice that simultaneously carried confidence and gentle compassion. He was full of wit and humor and always alert. He often joked with Gurudeva during class or on parikramā.
At most places on parikramā, Śrīla Gurudeva would ask Śrīla Trivikrama Mahārāja to speak. Being a true Vaiṣṇava, and knowing that time was limited on the parikramā path, he would speak for only a few minutes, allowing Śrīla Gurudeva the majority of speaking time. Once, in Madhuvana, Śrīla Gurudeva asked Śrīla Trivikrama Mahārāja to speak. Śrīla Trivikrama Mahārāja spoke for only a minute and then said, “Thank you,” and handed the microphone to Gurudeva. Wanting him to speak more, Śrīla Gurudeva gave his friend a sharp look and refused to take the microphone. Trivikrama Mahārāja insisted, and then Gurudeva gave him a friendly shove. Before proceeding to the next place, Śrīla Gurudeva gave jaya-dhvani, and at the end loudly said, “Śrīla Trivikrama Mahārāja ki jaya!”
Śrīla Bhaktivedānta Trivikrama Mahārāja presented the persona of an elderly gruff man. When sitting on a stage, he would put his head down as if he was asleep while Gurudeva spoke, but would sometimes interrupt Gurudeva in the middle of his speech. To further extract nectar during hari-kathā, Śrīla Trivikrama Mahārāja would often contradict Gurudeva, just as one may poke a bee’s nest to make the honey fall—in doing so the bees become agitated. Similarly, Śrīla Trivikrama would speak contrary to Gurudeva’s mood so Gurudeva would reveal more sweet nectar about Vraja.
Once, at Akrūra-ghāṭa, Śrīla Gurudeva offered the mic first to Śrīla Trivikrama Mahārāja to speak. Śrīla Trivikrama Mahārāja said, “No one can completely understand or express the pastimes of Kṛṣṇa. Even Anantadeva with His countless tongues cannot do so. How will I be able to? Still, kṛṣṇa-tattva is known by the grace of guru and Bhagavān.” After a dramatic pause, Śrīla Trivikrama Mahārāja concluded, “So, although there are many opinions, and many people doubt where Kṛṣṇa was really born, we know Kṛṣṇa actually took birth in Mathurā.”
Śrīla Gurudeva swiftly took the mic and said with a smile, “He is in doubt. But I am not confused. I know that Kṛṣṇa took birth in. . .”
“Mathurā,” Śrīla Trivikrama Mahārāja chimed in “Mathurā,” Śrīla Gurudeva accidentally slipped. In the same moment, he plugged his ears and frowned. Recomposing his mien, Śrīla Gurudeva said, “Nonsense! Kṛṣṇa took birth from the womb of Yaśodā in Gokula. Of this there is no doubt. He did not take birth in Mathurā! He appeared there as four-armed Nārāyaṇa in the jail of Kaṁsa, holding a conch, disc, club, and lotus. Śrīla Trivikrama Mahārāja is a Mathurāvāsī, but we are not Mathurāvāsīs; we are on the side of Mother Yaśodā and all the gopīs.”
Once, after the parikramā arrived at Raval, the brahmacārīs continued singing, “Vṛṣabhānu-nandinī Rādhe Rādhe” as everyone made themselves comfortable and rested from the long walk. Everyone was prepared to listen to Śrīla Gurudeva speak about the locale. Once the melody came to an end, Śrīla Gurudeva took the mic. Śrīla Trivikrama Mahārāja was standing a short distance away and, just before Śrīla Gurudeva could speak, he shouted, “It is pleasing to Kṛṣṇa, not to Rādhārānī.”
“What?” Gurudeva said.
“It is pleasing to Kṛṣṇa, not Rādhārānī,” Śrīla Trivikrama Mahārāja said, louder.
“What is pleasing?”
“Chanting the name of Rādhārānī.”
Gurudeva chuckled and said, “You should not remember or chant the names of Śrīmatī. You are not qualified.”
Amongst light giggles from the audience Śrīla Trivikrama Mahārāja said, “You should chant the names of Kṛṣṇa!”
Once, at Deha-kuṇḍa, as Śrīla Gurudeva was speaking about the incident when Kṛṣṇa assumed the mood and complexion of Śrīmatī Rādhikā, Śrīla Trivikrama Mahārāja interjected, saying, “You know little, not much. You worship Caitanya Mahāprabhu, who has the golden complexion and mood of Rādhārānī, but He entered into Gopīnātha, who is black. Kṛṣṇa is Supreme, not Rādhārānī!”
The audience could not contain their pleasure in seeing these two masters of self-realization faceoff—the epitome of true companionship drew sounds of delight from the congregation.
“Never, never, never,” Gurudeva said. “It is absurd. In Vraja, Kṛṣṇa runs behind Śrīmatī Rādhikā begging Her for mercy. Kṛṣṇa is the mūla-tattva—Original Truth. This is true. But Rādhikājī’s prema is so gambhīrā—deep—that Kṛṣṇa drowns in the ocean of Her love. This is why Caitanya Mahāprabhu has three ambitions. Rādhikā has no ambition at all. But Kṛṣṇa has ambition. He had three wishes that were not fulfilled. He could only satisfy His desires when He borrowed something from Rādhikā—otherwise not. But Rādhikā requires nothing from Kṛṣṇa.”
“This is all duplicity,” Śrīla Trivikrama Mahārāja interjected—but Gurudeva waved him off. Some people could not reconcile Śrīla Trivikrama Mahārāja’s behavior with Gurudeva, and would complain about him to Gurudeva. Gurudeva always defended his godbrother and chastised anyone who spoke against him.
Śrīla Trivikrama Mahārāja externally appeared to be of a different opinion from Gurudeva, but actually his heart was very soft. He would sometimes hug the trees on parikramā and weep. His name before sannyāsa was Rādhānātha—he who is the servant of Rādhārānī; but he concealed his love to further bring out Her glories through Gurudeva. He had immense respect for Gurudeva. On parikramā, Śrīla Gurudeva and Śrīla Trivikrama Mahārāja performed ārati to the trees at places like Bhandiravata, Vaṁśī-vaṭa, Śṛṅgāra-vaṭa, and Imlī-tāla. Once, at Imlī-tāla, Trivikrama Mahārāja offered the ghee wick to the tree in a clockwise motion, then he turned slightly to face Gurudeva and slyly offered ārati to him, indicating his deep respect. When Gurudeva noticed, he folded his hands and bent to touch Śrīla Trivikrama Mahārāja’s feet, but Trivikrama Mahārāja spryly leapt back.
Śrīla Trivikrama Mahārāja cared deeply for the devotees. He had a wide variety of medicine that he traveled with, and every evening he sat in his room and attended to the ills of the devotees—proffering pills, tablets, tinctures, or antibiotic ointment for cuts. In this manner, he revealed his affection for everyone.
The Parikramā party visiting the holy places in Vraja-maṇḍala followed a general sequence of events. After Śrīla Gurudeva led the pilgrims to a location on the parikramā path, the devotees would first offer praṇāmas to the place of Kṛṣṇa’s pastimes, or to the Deity in the temple they visited. Śrīla Gurudeva would offer full daṇḍavat-pranāma, laying his entire body on the ground as a gesture of deep respect. At every stop, Śrīla Gurudeva would offer full prostrations in the dust of the holy site, and made sure the other devotees would follow suit. If Gurudeva saw devotees gingerly bowing down, trying not to get a speck of dust on their spotless outfits, Gurudeva would chastize them and tell them to properly offer obeisances.
Śrīla Gurudeva would then rise and give a monetary donation to the presiding priest. The pilgrims would follow suit, and then everyone would take a seat. Śrīla Gurudeva would then call on a leading kīrtanīyā to sing a bhajana relevant to the location. After the kīrtana, Gurudeva would cordially request a devotee to speak regarding the location. Śrīla Gurudeva would then speak himself. Then the pilgrims would rise and continue along the parikramā path.
Śrīla Gurudeva would be very involved with the kīrtana and proceedings of parikramā. He would often stand in the midst of the crowd and raise his hands, signaling everyone to dance and sing in kīrtana— often Gurudeva began dancing and singing in great bliss. He also gave directions to the kīrtana leaders. If Gurudeva saw devotees chanting on their beads, instead of singing in the saṅkīrtana, he would rebuke them for not participating. Sometimes he would even take away their beads, only giving them back later that day. In this way, Śrīla Gurudeva directly looked after the welfare of all the devotees and taught them how to perform parikramā of the dhāma.
Gurudeva joked, “I will find out who does not do kīrtana and will punish them!” Seeing one tall, older devotee silently plodding along, Śrīla Gurudeva raised his hand playfully to slap him on the head. “Why aren’t you singing like them?” indicating those who were enthusiastically engaged in kīrtana. The devotee meekly began to sing in a soft voice. If Gurudeva saw anyone playing karatālas off time, he would take the cymbals and exemplarily play them. A swift crowd encircled him whenever this happened.
The devotees would become exhausted from walking all day in the heat with little provisions, or getting on and off buses after intermittent rides between each stop. But their fatigue vanished, seeing Śrīla Gurudeva’s beautiful smiling face and tireless enthusiasm at every site.
The devotees on the Parikramā party would sometimes have to walk through mud or rocky areas, or on hot dirt roads that burned the feet. But Gurudeva checked to make sure no one wore shoes. Seeing anyone disobeying the injunction to go barefoot to the holy places, Śrīla Gurudeva said, “Half of the benefit of going on parikramā will go to the shoemaker!” And if anyone went on a rickshaw, Gurudeva said, “Three-quarters of the benefit will go to the rickshaw driver.” The devotees would intermittently step on thorns or sharp stones on the path, but trained well by Gurudeva, they exclaimed, “tat te nu kaṁpām—I am being purified of my anarthas and sins,” and continued on, limping along the path.
Śrīla Gurudeva did not enjoin awe and worship from his disciples. Instead, there was a sweet and familial mood towards Gurudeva. Still, everyone held great respect for Gurudeva, and if not directly realizing his exalted position, they had firm faith he was their savior—an eternal associate of Rādhā-Kṛṣṇa from the spiritual realm of Vraja.
While on parikramā, some of the Western devotees forgot or were unaware of the etiquette that disciples should not walk in front of their Gurudeva, but should instead keep a respectful distance and literally follow in the master’s footsteps. Often, young or ignorant devotees would walk abreast or ahead of Gurudeva. Gurudeva would often put his arm around the shoulders of the young Western boys who walked next to him. He raised their arms and encouraged them to dance. Once, a little girl, about eight or ten years old, walked directly in front of Gurudeva on his right. After a few steps together, Gurudeva plucked off her large yellow hat and placed it on his own head. She turned around to see who had done it and gasped in wonder, seeing Gurudeva adjusting her hat on his head with a crooked smile.
The parents taught their children to offer praṇāma to Śrīla Gurudeva, and to also chant harināma on their beads. But Gurudeva taught them the subtler points of etiquette. Once, a young girl of six or seven took her hand out of her bead bag, bowed down, and touched Gurudeva’s feet. She then put her hand back in her bead bag and continued chanting. “You should not do praṇāma like this,” Gurudeva gently said. “It is disrespectful to harināma. You should first wash your hands, and then chant.” The girl shyly tried to step back and keep chanting. Gurudeva wouldn’t let her get away so easily. She had two pouches around her neck, and examining the second one Gurudeva said, “What is this for?” The girl’s mother stood next to Gurudeva, but gave no answer. Gurudeva opened the pouch and saw coins. “Oh!” he said. “May I have some?” The girl looked down, and everyone around laughed. Śrīla Gurudeva thereby endeared himself in the hearts of the devotees by his sweet and gentle behavior.
Many of the temples in Vraja are small, and the large crowd would often get too close for comfort amidst the commotion. Devotees slowly pushed their way past the altar so they could have darśana of the Deities. When devotees lingered too long or blocked Gurudeva’s path, he would push them, or knock them on the head with his sannyāsa-daṇḍa. Whoever Gurudeva touched like this felt buoyant and graced.
On the forested path to Bandhiravan, Śrīla Gurudeva once turned to face the crowd and began to speak. They gathered around him, anxious to hear. Śrīla Gurudeva said, “All of these trees were decorated so beautifully in Kṛṣṇa’s time. The creepers are golden, like the gopīs, and they are winding around the tamāl trees, which are like Syāma. How beautiful! Kṛṣṇa used to graze the cows here. I long to see a glance of this scene. How beautiful it is now! And just imagine how beautiful it was 5,000 years ago during the time of Kṛṣṇa. There were so many stones, but the stones were soft like rubber. The whole land, nature, and everything in Vraja served Kṛṣṇa. Fifty years ago when I came with my Gurudeva, there were so many more tamāla and kadamba trees. The area was lush and green, and there were thousands of peacocks and parrots. But now it seems desolate. There are not nearly as many trees or birds, and in a few years it will all be gone.”
“I have performed Vraja-maṇḍala Parikramā every year for almost fifty years,” Gurudeva said. “Many years I have come here more than once; I have thus visited these places more than 60 times. There used to be so many trees and flowers. It was so beautiful. Now, only a small portion of this natural beauty remains.”
When the Parikramā went to Caraṇa-pahādī, where the footprints of Rādhā, Kṛṣṇa, the sakhās, sakhīs, and animals are melted into the rocks, Śrīla Gurudeva would assure the devotees that the footprints are authentic. Śrīla Gurudeva showed the devotees the footprints and counted the toes with them. He said, “These are the real footprints of Kṛṣṇa and the Vrajavāsīs. They are not chiseled into the rock. All of our previous ācāryas have come and respected these places.”
Someone asked Gurudeva, “Why are some of the footprints so large, and others small?”
“At that time,” Gurudeva said, “when Kṛṣṇa walked on the stone, it became like clay, so when Kṛṣṇa put His foot here it slipped a little and made the imprint larger in some parts. In some parts, Kṛṣṇa stepped lightly and left a small impression, and in others, the stone moved like soft clay. But the stone did not become molten; it was cool and pleasing to the touch.”
Śrīla Gurudeva arranged for daily refreshments and prasāda for the devotees on parikramā. The Parikramā would halt for breakfast at different sites and the brahmacārī’s would serve out kicari, bananas, or malpua and halavā, or Vrajavāsī rotis, peta sweets, and buttermilk. Śrīla Gurudeva would sit with the devotees and humbly take prasāda with them. Sometimes he personally handed out the prasāda with affection. He always took care to make sure the devotees ate to their satisfaction. Once, Gurudeva took a stack of rotis and climbed on the platform around a tree. A crowd immediately formed. Gurudeva started breaking off pieces and handing them out. More people surrounded the platform and eagerly held out hands to receive a mouthful of prasāda. Gurudeva would hold out a piece to give someone and then pop it into his own mouth, causing everyone to laugh and smile.
Although at times lighthearted in his dealings with devotees, Śrīla Gurudeva strongly emphasized again and again that one must be serious in his practice of devotion.
Every year during Kārtika, Śrīla Gurudeva orchestrated celebrations for the appearance and disappearance days of ācāryas occuring during the month of ūrja-vrata. Especially grand and intimate was the disappearance festival for Śrīla Svāmī Prabhupāda. This occasion was annually held in Varsānā, until after the Giridhārī Gauḍīya Maṭha was built. On this day, a huge feast was prepared. In the morning, Śrīla Gurudeva spoke on the glories of Śrīla Svāmī Prabhupāda and of his relation with him. In the evening, and throughout the following days, he would call on Prabhupāda’s disciples to offer puṣpāñjali to their spiritual master. The devotees would spend a few hours in the afternoon speaking remembrances of Śrīla Prabhupāda and glorifying him to the best of their capacity. Gurudeva was very pleased with this and instructed the devotees to always continue this tradition.
Annakūṭa is one of the biggest annual festivals in the Gauḍīya calendar, and it is celebrated during Vraja-maṇḍala Parikramā. On this occasion, the pastimes of Annakūṭa are narrated, beginning with how Kṛṣṇa convinced the Vrajavāsīs to worship Girirāja, and continuing with descriptions of how Girirāja appeared and accepted all the offerings. Kṛṣṇa then told the Vrajavāsīs, “Indra never came and directly accepted your offerings, but Girirāja has come, and he will fulfill all your desires.” When Girirāja appeared, the Vrajavāsīs prayed only for Kṛṣṇa’s welfare.
Śrīla Gurudeva narrated the benefits of serving Girirāja: “When you do parikramā of Girirāja, Girirāja will be aware of what you desire. Many people do daṇḍavat-parikramā, offering 108 prostrations in one spot before taking the next step—but they only want Girirāja to satisfy their material desires. They don’t desire love for Kṛṣṇa. They are so unlucky. So, do not desire anything worldly. Do not pray for enjoyment or liberation—only pray to become the maidservant of Rādhikā. Girirāja has the power to give this. Kṛṣṇa has given Girirāja the power and authority to grant this prema. So, pray for that.”
On the day of Annakūṭa, inspired by Śrīla Gurudeva, the devotees prepared over one thousand items to offer Girirāja. As the energy of the gathering climbed to a climax, devotees converged around the main hall, anticipating the joy of serving Girirāja, and Gurudeva personally placed an offering on the head of each devotee. The sounds of mṛdaṅgas, karatālas, and singing mixed with the clamor of the crowd. Everyone was pleased and smiling—even those who were not sure exactly what was going on. Hundreds of devotees carried the beautifully decorated clay pots and covered plates, and started out for Dāna-ghāṭī.
A few devotees went ahead of the crowd so that they would be ready to place the offerings along the hillside. This was the climactic moment of the day’s celebrations. The offerings began to take up a large portion of this particular section of Girirāja. As the plates and clay pots were placed all over the hillside, Gurudeva ensured everything was done according to scriptural standards. He placed garlands on the Girirāja-śīla. Next, while chanting mantras, Gurudeva bathed Girirāja with milk, yogurt, honey, ghee, and sanctified water. The kīrtana and shouts of jubilation from the host of pilgrims combined with the sights and sounds of the ceremony created an unprecedented experience of overwhelming gratitude for the gift of life.
Śrīla Gurudeva then offered ārati and bhoga. Afterward, Gurudeva recited select verses glorifying Girirāja and had the crowd of devotees repeat these verses line by line. He then told everyone, “Girirāja Govardhana can grant anything. But we should pray exclusively for the service of Śrīmatī Rādhikā.” Gurudeva then had everyone repeat after him, “Please, O Girirāja, make me the maidservant of Śrīmatī Rādhikā! I want nothing else.”
Gurudeva said, “Anyone who participates in this festival will never be poor. Lakṣmī-devī may beg, but those devotees who prepare an item to be offered to Girirāja on this day, or who participate in any way, will never have any scarcity. What to speak of this, they will attain the highest goal of life, pure love of Kṛṣṇa and relationship with the Vrajavāsīs.”
Śrīla Gurudeva took the garland that was offered to Girirāja and touched it to the devotees’ heads. One by one, they reverentially bowed their heads and felt as though all their worries had slipped away as the soft petals momentarily lay upon their heads. Śrīla Gurudeva then turned to face the crowd, which naturally surrounded him on all sides, and raised his hands in triumph, indicating that everyone should dance and sing the names of Hari. Afterward, the plates were once again placed on the heads of the devotees and carried back to the āśrama, where dozens of items were served out to a host of pilgrims.
In the evening, Śrīla Gurudeva glorified Girirāja Govardhana. Gurudeva would emphasize that Girirāja Govardhana is a manifestation of svarūpa-śakti, Śrīmatī Rādhikā. He said, “If Girirāja was not from Śrīmatī Rādhikā, if he was a servant, or viṣṇu-tattva, or a sakhā, or one of the parents, then he could not witness the intimate pastimes of Kṛṣṇa with the gopīs. Govardhana has become caves where the gopīs meet and serve Kṛṣṇa without shyness. Since Girirāja is witness to Rādhā-Kṛṣṇa’s intimate pastimes, Girirāja must not be a male. Girirāja is hari-dāsī-varya, a manifestation of Śrīmatī Rādhikā, and can give us gopī-prema and rādhā- dāsya. So, we should pray only for this. Many people worship Girirāja, but mostly with material desires that they want fulfilled. Please do not pray for anything like that. Only pray for rādhā-dāsya—to become the maidservant of Śrīmatī Rādhikā.”
The last week of parikramā was spent in Vṛndāvana, at Rūpa-Sanātana Gauḍīya Maṭha. During this time, the devotees visited the newly built Durvāsā Ṛṣi Gauḍīya Āśrama.
In a few short years, the Parikramā party became too large to be housed in the Rūpa-Sanātana Maṭha. Because of necessity, Śrīla Gurudeva inspired his disciples to construct Gopīnātha-bhavana, a beautiful āśrama on the bank of the Yamunā, adjacent to Imlī-tālā. Once this temple was complete, the Parikramā would be hosted at both Rūpa-Sanātana and Gopīnātha-bhavana.
At the end of parikramā, Gurudeva addressed the devotees before they returned home: “You have heard so many sweet pastimes of Kṛṣṇa in Vraja. Please take something home with you in your pocket. Don’t forget everything. I know you may have suffered some discomfort, being away from the facility of your homes, but please remember the good experiences. Tell others you meet how nice the prasāda was, that there was no difficulty, and that they should also come next year.”
In the first years, the mood was sweet and informal. After some years, the mood became more formal. Śrīla Gurudeva’s physical appearance on the pilgrimage path decreased. More people came, which meant more buses. Other preachers would speak more and as it transformed from a simple family-like gathering into a serious operation in which thousands of people had to be cared for, the sweet intimate mood that the devotees shared with Śrīla Gurudeva in the early years was more elusive and difficult to find.
Srila Gurudeva ki Jaya! (Excerpted from the Bhaktabandhav book publication, “Sri Guru Darshan”. Available from firstname.lastname@example.org )