This Keśava-vrata is mentioned in all Gauḍīya-Vaiṣṇava calendars; still, most devotees do not follow this vrata and many even criticize those who do. The same occurs with Kātyāyanī-vrata. Those who follow are criticized. But why have they written the starting and ending days of this vrata in all the calendars! And why is this vrata mentioned in the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, followed by none less than the gopīs, who Mahāprabhu instructed His devotees to emulate—ramyā kācid upāsanā vrajavadhū-vargeṇa yā kalpitā. “That is only for the gopīs,” some say. But whose followers are they? Are they in the Gauḍīya-sampradāya or not? People also question Keśava-vrata. “Where has this come from?” they ask. But before you ask this, please explain why you have written the dates of this vrata in the calendar you follow? Kṛṣṇa Himself followed this vrata to develop relation with the Vraja-devīs. He thought, “I am Viṣṇu, I am Nārāyaṇa, Nṛsiṁha, Rāma, Kalki. I am everywhere. I am Dvārakādhīśa and Mathurādhīśa. But how can I always be with the Vrajavāsīs? How can this be My permanent situation?”
Bhagavān is very restless. As Rāma, He ran away from His loving father and as Vāmana, He left Kaśyapa and Aditī. He now wondered, how can I stay permanently in Vraja-maṇḍala? For this purpose, Kṛṣṇa started this vrata. Keśava wants to be accepted by the Vraja-devīs into their group. “How will they accept Me? I will learn how to serve, then this will be possible.”
Where will the tendency to serve come from? This knowledge is with Viśākhā Devī. The rules of Keśava-vrata are not so hard. One should go to the Gaṅgā every day in the evening and perform ārati. At her banks one should offer puṣpāñjali, do kīrtana like Keśavāṣṭakam, Vṛndā-devyāṣṭakam, and Kalayati-nayanaṁ, and then bathe in her waters. One may perform Keśava-vrata in this way. In this Vaiśākha month, Nṛsiṁha-jayantī will come, as well as Akṣaya-tritiya, Candana-yātrā, and the opening of Badri-Nārāyaṇa’s doors. We will also select some prayers that contain the mood with which Kṛṣṇa prays to Śrīmatī Rādhārānī and the Vraja-devīs. These moods are in the kīrtanas of our gosvāmīs.
We should try to follow Keśava-vrata properly. If we can do this, our lives will be successful. If we do not follow the rules and regulations of the sādhus, then we are not in sādhu-saṅga. Eating and sleeping is not sādhu-saṅga. The animals also eat and sleep. Only staying in the same place as the sādhu is not sādhu-saṅga. The sādhus are always busily following and understanding the deep significance of these rules and regulations. They are always in a state beyond this world, and are always ready to serve.
Many people offer śālagrāma 108 Tulasī leaves, while chanting gopāla-mantra, as part of Keśava-vrata. This process started in Satya-yuga. Sages in the forest used to chant gopāla-mantra and offer Tulasī-mañjarīs and candana to śālagrāma. If you go to Uḍūpī, you will see special worship performed like this.
How can we have perfection in the chanting of gopāla-mantra? Śrī Kṛṣṇa has promised:
jalasya culukena vā
vikṛīṇīte svam ātmānaṁ
Śrī Kṛṣṇa, who is very affectionate toward His devotees, sells Himself to a devotee who offers merely a Tulasī leaf and a palmful of water.
Tulasī and Gaṅgā water are particularly dear to Bhagavān. If we do not offer these things to Him, what is the use of living? Do this every day. One may say, “Where will all the Tulasī come from?” If this is a worry, then do this offering in the mind, while praying:
bhaktyā vihīnā aparādha-lakṣaiḥ
kṣiptāś ca kāmādi-taraṅga-madhye
kṛpāmayi! tvāṁ śaraṇaṁ prapannā
vṛnde! numas te caraṇāravindam
O Vṛndā-devī, I offer my respectful obeisances to your lotus feet. Those who are devoid of devotion to Lord Hari, and who are thrown by their offenses into the waves of lust and other inauspicious qualities, may take shelter of you.
“O Vṛndā-devī, please protect me. Give me a chance. How may I offer myself as you have? How can I be dear to God as you are? God does not accept anything without you. How can I be your servant? I long to be your follower; then God will accept me.
Gaṅgā water and Tulasī and candana are the most important paraphernalia in the execution of Keśava-vrata. During this month, Brahmā sang the prayers known as Brahma-saṁhitā. With the desire to serve ādi-puruṣa Govinda, he submitted these prayers one by one, as offerings of puṣpāñjali.
Śrīla Bhaktivedānta Svāmī Mahārāja first taught the Western people this Brahma-saṁhitā. By the regular recitation of these ślokas, ādi–puruṣa Govinda is pleased. In South India especially, faithful bhaktas recite this Govinda-stotram, or the Brahma-saṁhitā. They recite one verse and then offer Ṭhākurajī one Tulasī leaf with candana and Gaṅgā water. They offer this like it is their heart, praying with humility that He purify them.
Without Keśava-vrata; without Viśākhā Devī’s vrata; without a guardian; without a tutor we will be orphans. We will lose everything. Guru-pāda-padma has left us with the śikṣā-guru–varga. If we practice, we can have the perfection of our lives.
Now, every day we sing the Keśavāṣṭakam written by Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī, who is praying to Keśava. He mentions how Keśava is in Vraja-maṇḍala, with the Vraja-devīs. He fills the Vraja-devīs with delight. But that Keśava wants to learn something from them. Therefore He accepts training from Viśākhā Devī for one month.
In Mahāprabhu’s līlā, Viśākhā Devī, in the form of Rāmānanda Rāya, became the constant companion of Mahāprabhu after sannyāsa. Mahāprabhu learned from him and then taught the jīvas.
Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī Prabhu explains how Kṛṣṇa went to Viśākhā Devī at Śṛṅgāra-vaṭa, on the bank of the Yamunā, desiring to learn the skill of dressing and decorating Śrīmatī Rādhārānī’s hair and divine body. Śrī Keśava is Parabrahma, Parameśvara. All demigods worship Him. All the Vraja-devīs serve Him. But just see, the worshipful is now the worshiper.
Śrīla Śukadeva Gosvāmī said:
bhagavān harir īśvaraḥ
yan no vihāya govindaḥ
prīto yām anayad rahaḥ
Certainly this particular gopī has perfectly worshiped the all-powerful Personality of Godhead, Govinda, since He was so pleased with Her that He abandoned the rest of us and brought Her to a secluded place.
Hari Himself does worship of Śrīmatī Rādhikā.
Śiva Ṭhākura said:
ārādhanānāṁ sarveṣāṁ viṣṇor ārādhanaṁ param
tasmāt parataraṁ devi tadīyānāṁsamarcanam
Śrī Padma Purāṇa 6.253.176
Of all types of worship, worship of Lord Viṣṇu is best, but even better than the worship of Lord Viṣṇu is the worship of His devotees.
What is the highest ārādhana? Who has the most exalted position? Kṛṣṇa Himself worships the Vraja-devīs, especially Śrīmatī Rādhārānī. Kṛṣṇa took training Himself, and then taught everyone this ārādhana. Viśākhā Devī administered Keśava’s training. Therefore, this vrata that is followed in the month of Vaiśākha is called Keśava-vrata. This vrata is performed under Bhagavatī Paurṇamāsī’s and Vṛndā-devī’s guidance.
Param Gurudeva wrote prayers of unprecedented depth and insight to that Kṛṣṇa who is not worshiped by Śrīmatī Rādhārānī, but who is the worshiper of Śrīmatī Rādhārānī. The Gauḍīyas wish to see Kṛṣṇa serving Śrīmatī Rādhārānī. Kṛṣṇa should worship Rādhārānī. Kṛṣṇa should always think of Her. This is the mood in the Gauḍīya line.
At the time of Vāsantī-räsa, near Imli-tāla, Rādhārānī saw that Kṛṣṇa was with Her, but all gopīs were also with Him. They were dancing with Him, holding His hand, playing, and singing with Him, and were all very happy. Śrīmatījī thought, “Oh, Kṛṣṇa is treating these gopīs as equal to Me?” She left that place, and as soon as She left, Kṛṣṇa stopped everything.
In his songs, Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura sings how on the bank of the Yamunā, within the groves of Vṛndāvana, Kṛṣṇa is present with hundreds of crores of gopīs. Although this great number of gopīs is there, Kṛṣṇa is restless without Śrīmatī Rādhārānī. When Śrīmatījī left, Kṛṣṇa went and sat under the tamarind tree at Imli-tāla, where He played His flute.
śata-koṭi gopī mādhava-mana,
rākhite nārilo kori jatana
Millions of lovely cowherd damsels are unable to keep Mādhava’s attention, although endeavoring very hard to do so.
veṇu-gīte dāke rādhikā-nāma,
eso eso rādhe! ḍakoye śyāma
The flute song calls the name of Rādhikā, and Śrī Śyāmasundara petitions Her, “Come here, come here, Rādhā!”
With His flute song, Kṛṣṇa does kīrtana of Rādhārānī’s holy name. Thinking deeply on Śrīmatī Rādhārānī, He lost His own color and nature. His kīrtana soon changed to “Kṛṣṇa, Kṛṣṇa, Kṛṣṇa.” He now forgot His own identity.
The sakhīs came to see what Kṛṣṇa was doing. He was senseless and in this mysterious state of absorption. Not receiving the darśana of Rādhārānī, Kṛṣṇa’s situation became very serious. Syāmā, Lalitā, and Viśākhā searched for Rādhārānī. Śrīmatī had gone to Māna-sarovara, on the other side of the Yamunā. She flooded the area with Her tears. The sakhīs and mañjarīs came and prayed at Her lotus feet. They offered many beautiful prayers to try and pacify Her. They called Kṛṣṇa to try and cool Her māna. Kṛṣṇa chanted the thousand and eight names of Rādhārānī. He prayed and did tapasyā and was waiting for Her with great pain in His heart.
Śrīmatī wondered, “Who is chanting My names in this dense forest?”
Viśākhā and other sakhīs told Śrīmatī, “A botu–brahmacārī is determined to have Your mercy. He has been doing austerity for a very long time, but You are not giving Your darśana.”
“Who is He?” Śrīmatī asked. “Where has He come from?”
“He chants Your names lifetime after lifetime, yuga after yuga. He has undeviating desire for Your mercy alone and does not look toward any other Devī. He only wants Your blessings.”
“What kind of blessings does He want?”
“All He wants is that You be pleased with Him and give Him some service. If He lacks the adhikāra for service, He only asks that You bless Him by kindly looking upon Him and saying that You are happy with Him. This will satisfy Him. Without this, He will suffer, cry, and do strong tapa. That tapa’s intensity will disturb brahmā-loka. It will cross even brahmā-loka and reach Vaikuṇṭha. Even crossing Vaikuṇṭha, it will affect Vṛndāvana. It will burn everything. Everything will be destroyed. This botu-brahmacārī’s austerity is very strong. Will You not give Him mercy?”
Śrīmatī said, “I will examine to see who He is.” She was led to the place where the botu–brahmacārī was doing austerities. Śrīmatī saw that He was very young, nine or ten. He sat atop a lush patch of grass in a peaceful kuñja. His eyes were closed and He chanted Her names. Rādhārānī stood and listened. The boy was chanting very sweet names, each new, and more sweet than the previous:
Whose beautiful complexion is fair as gorocanā, whose garments are splendid as sapphires, and whose beautiful braided hair is crowned with colorful flowers.
Whose beautiful face, which has already conquered both the lotus and the moon, holds Kṛṣṇa as its prisoner, and whose eyes enchant Hari and fill the cakora birds with wonder.
Rūpa-mañjarī and all the mañjarīs were surprised and delighted to hear Śrīmatī’s names chanted by this botu–brahmacārī. Śrīmatī went closer. She took a flower in Her hand and said to the brahmacārī, “I am pleased with You. May You be satisfied. You shall have no problems in Your life. You have done strong austerity, but where You have come from, I do not know. I do not know Your identity. I do not know what You want. But because You are praying to Me so sweetly, I give You My blessings.”
Kṛṣṇa said, “I am just a small cowherd boy. I do not know anything. I like a respected resident of this Vraja-maṇḍala, but that person has rejected Me. I have met with many persons, but they are not like that person. I am ready to do anything for that person. If You are pleased with Me, then please give me the blessing that You will never be angry with Me; not just in this life, but for millions of lives. Can You make this promise to Me? Your pleasure is My pleasure.”
Śrīmatī smiled. How tricky were the words of this botu–brahmacārī. People do austerity for their own benefit, but this boy only wants that I be pleased. She said to Viśākhā, “There is a dreadlock in this boy’s heart. Dreadlocks cannot be combed out straight. I cannot give the blessing this boy is asking for.”
She turned to leave, but the botu–brahmacārī cried and chanted Her names even louder. The area of Māna-sarovara became hot like the inside of a volcano. First, it had become hot from Rādhārānī’s māna, and now it was heated by Kṛṣṇa’s austerity.
Śrīmatī Rādhikā said, “Viśākhā, I cannot stay here any longer.”
“How can You go?” Viśākhā Devī asked. “Look at this forest. It is as if on fire. Everything will be destroyed by this brahmacārī’s austerity. His austerity is so strong because He only chants Your name and desires Your mercy.”
“Did You not hear Him?” Śrīmatī said. “He does not want My mercy but My happiness. He wants that I be pleased and never disturbed with Him. He wants Me to never reject Him. What is this matter? Who is He? Why does He not tell Me His identity? Where did He come from? How long has He been doing this austerity? He does not explain Himself. Why does He want Me to by happy?”
Then, very politely, Lalitā and Viśākhā explained, “This boy went to Imli-tāla. He sometimes sat, stood on one leg, and sometimes even stood on one toe under the tamarind tree, all the while He chanted Your names alone. Why not be pleased with Him?”
“No,” said Śrīmatī. “I keep no relation with cheaters and the followers of cheaters. I shall not give this cheater one drop of My favor.”
“In what way is He cheating?” Viśākhā Devī asked. “Look at Him; He is tamal-syāma. Look into His completely clean heart. If You look just once, You will be pleased. You have not had a close look at Him. Just see His long eyes and curly hair. Attracted by His fragrance, bumblebees have come to rest on His curling locks. Will You not look at Him? How long will He perform such austerity with tears running down His face? Gaṅgā and Yamunā seem to flow from each of His eyes. Do You not see these streams of tears? He has done so much austerity to please You.”
“Alright,” said Śrīmatī. “I will arrange for His happiness, but not My happiness. I do not like the nature of His prayer. If He does not ask for My happiness, and instead asks for His own, then I will help Him.”
In response to this, the botu-brahmacārī replied, “Yes, I will tell You what will make Me happy. If You are never disturbed with Me, if You never reject Me, if You never send Me distant from You, if I may continuously chant Your holy names and serve You, if You accept Me as Your small disciple and teach Me how to serve You, then I will be very pleased and happy.”
“A disciple surrenders himself,” Viśākhā Devī said. “And a disciple offers praṇāma. Will You not offer praṇāma to whom You have surrendered?”
Śrīla Jayadeva Gosvāmī has written about this in His Gīta-govinda. He thought, “How can I write this:
mama śirasi maṇḍanaṁ
Śrī Gīta-govinda (10.8)
O My beloved, Cupid’s powerful poison is devastating me. Please be merciful to Me and place upon My head the cooling, tender petals of Your lotus feet.
Jayadeva Kavi tried to write this but could not. Lord Parabrahma will offer praṇāma to Śrīmatī Rādhārānī’s lotus feet? How is this possible? He could not write this.
Jayadeva Gosvāmī said to his wife, “Padma, I am troubled. I will now go to the Gaṅgā, bathe, and chant mantras. Please put away my book and pen. I will be back to take prasādam, and will write after that if some realization comes to me.”
He gave his book to Padma and took the path to the Gaṅgā, which was a few kilometers away from their āśrama. Only five minutes later, Padma saw her husband returning. He came to her and said, “Padma, Padma, please give me my book and pen.” She gave them. “I will write something now,” he said, and then sat down and wrote.
“Will you take prasādam now?” Padma asked.
“Yes. Please bring prasādam.”
Padma fed him. When he finished eating he lay down to rest and Padma massaged his feet. She then went to take the remaining prasādam.
“Yes,” Jayadeva said, “I shall rest now. I have become very tired thinking about this which I have now written.” He retired to his bedroom.
Padma had half-finished the small amount of prasādam that remained when the voice of her husband called from outside the house, “O Padma, I am back.”
“Where are you coming from?” Padma asked, confused.
“Why, the Gaṅgā.”
“What are you saying?” said Padma. “You already came, took prasādam, and took rest. I am now taking your remnants. How could you possibly be just coming now from the Gaṅgā?”
“No, I am very disturbed. I am wondering how to write what I am feeling. I bathed in the Gaṅgā and prayed there for a long time, but found no solution. How can I write that Parabrahma Kṛṣṇa offers praṇāma to Śrīmatī Rādhārānī’s lotus feet and prays to Her. It is very difficult for me to write this.”
“What are you talking about?” said Padma. “You just came to me asking for your book and pen, and that you would write something immediately. I gave you your book and pen and you wrote. You gave me back your book and pen and then took prasādam. This is what I saw. Now I am taking prasādam. I only do this after you.”
Jayadeva Gosvāmī said, “Bring me the book.” Padma did so. Both of them saw written there the verse that Jayadeva Gosvāmī was hesitating to write:
mama śirasi maṇḍanaṁ
Śrī Gīta-govinda (10.8)
Kṛṣṇa expressed to His beloved, “Oh You who are so kind, I am proud and hard like a rock. I never offer praṇāma to anyone. You are the greatest. I always look down at everyone. But now I bow My head to You and pray that You put Your lotus feet on My head. How can My heart be clean? How can the disease in My heart be cured? No heart can be purified if one does not offer praṇāma to Your lotus feet. Please give Me the fortune of having those feet on My head.”
Kṛṣṇa Himself, disguised as Jayadeva Gosvāmī, wrote this. Jayadeva Gosvāmī looked at Padma, and weeping, said, “You are extremely fortunate. Śrī Kṛṣṇa has come and written what I could not.” He touched the book to his head and held it to his chest. “Kṛṣṇa wrote this verse personally to prove that it was absolutely true. O Padma, how lucky you are! He ate from your hand directly. He ate and rested here. Now, please give me some of your remnants, which are also Kṛṣṇa’s direct remnants.”
In this way, Kṛṣṇa showed the glory of Śrīmatī Rādhikā. Śrī Keśava performed this vrata. When His vrata was complete, Śrīmatī Rādhārānī was pleased.
Viśākhā Devī then said, “Offer praṇāma to Your guru. Then You will receive blessings.”
Botu–brahmacārī offered sāṣṭāṅga praṇāma to Śrīmatī Rādhārānī and prayed, “Rādhe, now give Your blessings? Now give Your mercy. You have promised to never reject whoever takes shelter of You. Now, please bless Me.”
Śrīmatī Rādhārānī said, “Tathāstu.” Kṛṣṇa then begged something from Her. “And now, Rādhe, please give Me Your māna.”
Māna-sarovara līlā is very deep. From that day, if Śrīmatī was ever in māna, Her sakhīs would remind Her, “He is your disciple. He is Your student. How can You neglect Him? Do You remember Your promise?” At these times, Rādhārānī would smile, forget, and forgive.
Śrī Kṛṣṇa taught this and Mahāprabhu also. This is the way of the Gauḍīya-paramparā. Lord Keśava performed this vrata as well as Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu. Mahāprabhu took sannyāsa at the age of 24 and continuously chanted the sannyāsa–gopī–mantra. Do you know what the sannyāsa mantra is? It is the mantra chanted by those who wish to be followers of the gopīs. Caitanya Mahāprabhu, who is Kṛṣṇa Himself, chanted this mantra day and night.
Kṛṣṇa does austerity for Rādhārānī’s mercy and direct service.
vraja-gopī-bhāva, hoibe sva-bhāva, anā bhāva na rohibe
I shall take birth in Vṛṣabhānu Mahārāja’s town and will marry in the nearby village of Yāvaṭa. My disposition and nature will be that of a cowherd maiden, and no other.
āmi to rādhikā-pakṣa pātī sadā, kabhu nāhi heri tā’ke
“I will know that Rādhā’s pleasure is Kṛṣṇa’s only source of joy. Therefore I will never desire to abandon Her lotus feet to meet Him. I am always in Rādhikā’s party and I never even glance at those who have left Her group.”
This is the prayer of Keśava-vrata. This is the line of the Gauḍīyas.
Rādhārānī never does vrata. But Kṛṣṇa does vrata. The living entities are His part and parcels. Therefore, if He, Keśava, does this vrata, then all jīvas should do this vrata. If they do so they will have spiritual realization.
One time, Pūjyapāda Bhakti Jīvana Janārdana Mahārāja, a disciple of Prabhupāda Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Ṭhākura, asked me, “Hey, how long have you been in the temple?”
“Mahārāja, I do not know,” I said. “I did not join the temple. I came here to eat, sleep, and work. I saw that everywhere else there is so much fighting and torture over making a living, but here prasādam is very easily available, as well as a room to live in. There is good facility here, that is why I came.”
Mahārāja said, “Hey! Don’t waste time. You must memorize Rādhārānī’s 108 names.”
I said, “Mahārāja, this is impossible for me. My brain does not work.”
Mahārāja did not relent, “No, You have to learn Śrīmatī’s 108 names.”
“This is impossible for me,” I said.
“It is possible!” he shouted. “I am telling you. Learn them by tomorrow.”
“I am too busy.”
“If you do not learn them, I will not eat your prasādam.”
“Now this is a problem,” I thought. Mahārāja was old and had no disciples with him. How could he fast? Now what am I to do? How could I remember all those verses? I said to him, “Mahārāja, I have never memorized any verses. I am happy when my mind can be free and I can move here and there, doing my business.”
“Today, I have ordered you,” Mahārāja said. “In the morning, you must repeat all the verses to me. When you have done this, only then shall I eat.”
“He will fast if I don’t learn them?” I was worried. Then I looked at the verses. “Wah!” I marveled. “These are beautiful verses.” I learned a page of them. Before I knew it I had learned two pages and then the whole selection of verses.
In the evening, Mahārāja asked me, “Did you learn any of the verses?”
“Yes,” I said.
That night, I did not sleep. What could I do? Mahārāja said he would fast if I did not know them. Somehow, I was able to memorize all the verses that night.
The next day, I said to Pūjyapāda Janārdana Mahārāja, “Mahārāja, you have mystical power. You are a magician!”
“Yes,” he said, “from Prabhupāda’s time, by his mercy, I learn two verses every day. I read them, write them down, circumambulate them, and pray, ‘May these ślokas be the property of my heart. May they never leave me.’ I write them ten times, repeat them, do parikramā, and pray like this. Then, it makes a place in this brain of mine. Then, I always chant Rādhe Rādhe—nothing more.”
When Mahārāja gave class in Hindi, He would always use the feminine gender. For example, he would say, “Mai karungi, mai jaungi, mai khaungi,” which means, “I will do. I will go. I will eat,” in the feminine gender.
People asked him, “Mahārāja, don’t you know proper Hindi?”
“This is my nature,” he would say. “This is my svarūpa. Why should I say that I am male?”
The nature of such personalities is like this. How can ordinary people understand? How can we also have such feeling of presence in and connection to Vraja-dhāma? Keśava teaches us this process.
Keśava Himself does vrata. He chants these names. All our gosvāmīs have written the glories of Śrīmatī Rādhārānī and service to Her lotus feet.
Srila Gurudeva ki Jaya! Sri Kesava-vrata ki Jaya! (excerpted from the book Sri Kesava-Vrata”; availabale from email@example.com )