Want to know everything about the compelling history of Vrindavan?
Vrindavan is perhaps best known today as one of the most exciting places to celebrate the Spring festival of Holi. Every year, photos of the crowded streets, color-drenched celebrants and vibrant clouds of colored powders fill the newspapers and the Internet.
Written by Katie Walter
Some know Vrindavan as a place to visit famous temples, such as Prem Mandir, a 54-acre temple complex over 12 years by at least 1000 highly skilled artisans; Krishna Balaram or ISKCON temple, where temple decorations and foods offered to the deities are known far and wide for their quality and beauty; or Banke Bihari temple, where the Krishna deity is known to have brought about innumerable miracles.
Others still have learned in school that Vrindavan was an important place connected to political and religious developments in medieval India. However, none of these delightful aspects of Vrindavan would exist were it not for Divine events and related traditions that have taken place over Vrindavan’s long history.
Why It Is Important To Know About Vrindavan’s History
Why is it important to know more about Vrindavan? Because Vrindavan is a singularly unique a place with a power to help us experience, access and even become completely immersed in the divine. Such a place of experiential crossing over between physical worldly realms and dimensions to divine ones is called a tirtha. Vrindavan’s status as a tirtha has made it the center or a number of practices and traditions that make the place important in ways that, while devotional in nature, affect important aspects of life for everyone, regardless of his or her faith.
Why and how is Vrindavan a tirtha? About 5000 years ago, Lord Krishna came to live in Vrindavan expressly for the purpose of reveling in His own creation – and He did not come alone. Every single divine being took form as something or another in Vrindavan so they could witness Krishna’s divine play (lila).
Today, everything in Vrindavan is still infused with and inhabited by this divinity and thus it facilitates experience of the spiritual for those who seek it. This amazing characteristic of Vrindavan has been the catalyst for countless forms of art and cultural expression as well as religious devotion. Knowing more about Vrindavan, one will likely find new ways of looking at and appreciating everyday aspects of life and culture in India and beyond which are in fact connected to Vrindavan tirtha.
The Etymology Of Vrindavan
Before we talk about the history of vrindavan it would be very beneficial to know the meaning of word “Vrindavan”.
One of the divinities joining Lord Krishna in his Vrindavan lilas was Vrinda Devi. Considered a form of goddess Lakshmi, Vrinda Devi appears as the tulsi (sacred basil) plant, which covered Vrindavan as an expansive forest. Vrinda Devi helps seekers attain Krishna as She is always close to Him; in fact, it is said that Krishna does not like taking food or flower offerings which are not accompanied by Tulsi. It is for this vast forest of Tulsi that Vrindavan is named: Vrinda means Tulsi, or holy basil, and van is the word for a forest.
Vrindavan And India’s Sacred Texts
The great poet Tulsidas, who made the Ramayana accessible for the general reading public by translating it into a dialect of Hindi, took part in a miraculous event at Vrindavan which resulted in a temple there being dedicated to him. Today one can visit this Tulsidas temple at Gyan Gudri, Vrindavan.
The story goes as follows: Tulsidas visited Vrindavan and noticed all of the Krishna devotees, he decided to visit a temple to see Radha and Krishna. The priest of the temple told Tulsidasji as he was bowing to Krishna that he should only bow to his ishta devta or personal God. This God for Tulsidasji was Lord Ram. Tulsidasji reacted by speaking directly to Lord Krishna, saying:
“O Lord, how shall I describe today’s splendour, for you appear auspicious. Tulsidas will bow down his head when you take the bow and the arrow in your hands.”
In response, Lord Krishna immediately fulfilled Tulsidasji’s request, putting down His flute and taking up the bow and arrow of Lord Ram.
India’s great epic the Mahabharata mentions Vrindavan, as Krishna is a central character in the story. mentions Krishna’s early life in a village of cow herders. The Mahabharat of course contains the Bhagavad Gita, one of Hinduism’s most popular and oft-cited texts. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna consults his friend Arjun on living a life of purpose based on a knowledge of the higher Self, guided by righteous principle and made possible through persistent (and eventually constant) devotion to the divine.
The Puranas are also linked to Vrindavan in various ways, either directly or through mention of Lord Krishna. The foremost of these is the Bhagavata Purana or Srimad Bhagavatam, the most popular of all of the eighteen major Hindu puranas. The Srimad Bhagavatam recounts the life of Lord Krishna, including his many lilas in Vrindavan and the surrounding areas, in its tenth canto. The Srimad Bhagavatam also presents bhakti, or loving devotion, as a means for achieving union with the divine (Lord Krishna). Krishna’s life in Vrindavan is also a divine subject in Vishnu Purana as well as in the Sanskrit text Harivamsa, which is considered a Puarnic text by some. In the Varaha Purana, Varaha says that He will take form as Krishna and that Vrindavan will be the holiest place to witness His divine play.
The History of Ancient Vrindavan
It was about 5,000 years ago that Krishna loved and played in Vrindavan, with a host of divine beings that manifested as the cows to which He tended; his cowherd friends; the lovely milkmaids with whom he enjoyed long and lovely evenings in the forest, and all of the many other plants and creatures such as peacocks, parrots, monkeys, trees, creepers, and even blades of grass. The river goddess Yamuna features prominently in Krishna’s divine retinue; she serves an important role helping those seeking Krishna to attain the moods and modes of being necessary to do so.
Many years after Lord Krishna’s passing, His great-grandson, Vajranabh, was asked by the devotees to go to Vrindavan and restore the lila sthals (places of Lord Krishna’s lilas). These sites, where Krishna’s life events – full of miraculous feats, playful joy, childhood mischief, and divine romance – had been long forgotten. After praying to Sri Radha and Sri Krishna, Vajranabh was filled with their divine presence and Vrindavan’s long-forgotten lila sthals – forests, water tanks, hills, trees and more- were revealed to him. Vajranabh established temples and installed deities at a number of these lila sthals.
History of Vrindavan: In The Time Of Lord Krishna
When Sri Krishna lived in Vrindavan, it was just a small village of cow herding people. Vrindavan, along with the other places where Krishna performed his lilas, make up the greater area of Braj, which is spread over 3,800 square kilometers. Pilgrims regularly come to the area to perform the 84 kos Braj yatra, a walking circuit of about 300 kilometers encompassing some of Krishna’s most well-known lila sthals.
In Krishna’s time, Braj was made up of twelve beautiful and sacred forests and all of these are included in the popular Braj yatra pilgrimage: Bhadravana; Bilvavana (Belvan); Lohavana (Lauhavana); Bhandiravana; Mahavana; Madhuvana; Talavana; Kumudavana; Bahulavana; Kamyavana, Khadiravana, and Vrindavana.
The city of Mathura, where Lord Krishna was born, was the capital of Braj and was much larger than the small villages surrounding it. Mathura is famous in its own right as one of India’s Sapta Puris, or places where great saints and divine avatars have been born or taken form. The Buddha visited Mathura, which was a great Buddhist center up until the 9th century C.E.
History of Vrindavan: The Medieval Era
As centuries passed, the sites identified by Vajranabh, along with their deities and temples, again faded from the awareness of the world. The twelve forests of Braj again became overgrown and forgotten. Amazingly, yet another instance of rediscovery and renewed devotion and worship took place! This happened in the medieval era, when the northern portion of the Indian subcontinent was brought under Mughal rule.
During this time, a number of great saints and seers came to Vrindavan and again rediscovered and excavated the places of Lord Krishna’s divine play as well as deities that had been hidden for centuries. Some of these deities were swayambhu, or self-manifestations of Krishna which were never made by human hands!
The devotion of the saints of this era can still be felt in Vrindavan today and the deities that manifested in their presence or were re-discovered or newly installed are still there, attracting devotees from around the world to visit and have darshan. These deities include Radharaman-ji, Radha Shyamsundar-ji, Banke Bihari-ji and others.
The great saints who, through their devotion (bhakti) and divine visions re-discovered Krishna’s eternal presence in Vrindavan established or became part of a number of different devotional lineages. Some of the most well-known of these are the Radhavallabh sampradaya (associated with Hit Harivansh Mahaprabhu), the Nimbark and Haridasi lineages (associated with Swami Haridas ji), and the Vallabhite or Pushtimarg lineage (associated with Mahaprabhu Vallabhacharya).
However, the saint with perhaps the most profound influence over Vrindavan’s re-emergence was Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, founder of the Gaudiya Vaishnav sampradaya and considered by followers as an avatar Lord Krishna himself.
He, along with his associate Nityananda Mahaprabhu and the men who came to be known as the Six Goswamis of Vrindavan – Rupa Goswami, Sanatan Goswami, Raghunatha Bhatta Goswami, Jiva Goswami, Gopalla Bhatta Goswami and Raghunatha Dasa Goswami – established temples and practices throughout Vrindavan that remain deeply influential over and connected to local culture.
Temples established by the Six Goswamis of Vrindavan are still referred to as the seven main temples of Vrindavan. They are: Sri Sri Radha Madana Mohana Temple; Sri Sri Radha Damodara Temple; Sri Sri Radha Syamasundara Temple; Sri Sri Radha Ramana Temple, Sri Sri Radha Gokulananda Temple and Sri Sri Radha Gopinatha Temple.
The devotional practices and miracles of Vrindavan’s saints and their deities drew attention from all over the world, bringing visitors such as the Mughal Emperor Akbar, who experienced divine visions of Vrindavan after his encounter with Swami Haridas. Emperor Akbar even granted land and donated red sandstone for the construction of the Govind Dev (Sri Sri Radha Govinda) temple.
Centuries later, another great emperor would be drawn to visit Vrindavan. In 1891, Nicholas II of Russia (then Crown Prince) was brought there and admired the beautiful small town, saying that it reminded him of Venice.
Vrindavan Bhakti As A Global Movement
As previously mentioned, practices of Krshna bhakti (devotion) and sites and temples associated with Krishna and his lilas have had enduring influence throughout India since their revitalization in the medieval period. In the 20th century, this influence became global in its reach. In 1965, at the behest of his guru, a 69 year-old, Abhay Charanaravinda Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (Srila Prabhupada) came to the United States of America. What happened between then and Srila Prabhupada’s death in Vrindavan in 1977 is nothing short of a miracle: The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) came into being and was popularized all over the world!
The new Krishna devotees joining Srila Prabhupada from all corners of the world – including celebrities such as George Harrison – came to know of the special divinity that pervades Vrindavan and its surrounding areas. Many forign devotees even came to settle in Vrindavan to absorb themselves in the divine experience and perhaps ultimate achieve liberation. Devotees from western countries and their passion for devotional service to the deities of Vrindavan brought even more attention to Vrindavan’s sacred places and spaces.
Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada established Krishna Balaram temple in Vrindavan in 1975. Its standards of service to the dieties – flowers, food offerings, and devotional music – have made perhaps it the most popular temple in all of Vrindavan. Srila Prabhupada’s Samadhi is also here and the temple remains a primary center of the worldwide ISKCON movement.
History of Vrindavan: Cultural Heritage
Vrindavan has an incredibly rich cultural heritage, largely due to its sacred geography and spiritual practices, which have inspired a wide array of fine and performing arts, architecture and more. Several people have already moved to make Vrindavan a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Some of Vrindavan’s most well-known performing arts are the Raslila, traditional performances of Lord Krishna’s play and heroic feats as well as Ram Lila, traditional performance of the Ramayana (which features on UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage).
Local foods are also art of the cultural heritage and the former cowherd Vrindavan is especially famous for its dairy products. People all over India will very excitedly tell you about the delicious lassis one can get in Vrindavan, served in small clay pots with a thick layer of curd on top! Temple kitchens prepare delectable milk sweets for Lord Krishna and then distribute them as Prasad. Other local dishes include kachoris and samosas and of course several delicious vegetarian dishes cooked with pure ghee (clarified butter). Of course, many who live in Vrindavan’s ashrams practice simple living and high thinking, taking only very basic foods. But in Vrindavan, nearly all food is offered to the Lord and perhaps this is why even the simplest foods such as kichadi and chapatti are very delicious.
Vrindavan, which today is a town of around 63,000 people, is a place in peril. It continues to attract ever more people from around India and around the world, with some estimates putting the annual number of visitors at over 32 million!
However, most of these visitors leave their waste behind them. Large feasts are taken on thermacore (Styrofoam) plates that are left behind in large non-biodegradable heaps. Municipal waste management and NGOs that support them cannot keep up with the garbage coming into the city.
Due to destruction of forest lands of Vrindavan and the surrounding forests of Braj, monkey populations have been forced into the city, where they spread disease and injure and otherwise harass people. Vrindavan, which itself was a vast forest, only has two small vans – or forests – left. Nidhivan and Seva Kunj. Seva Kunj is almost completely encased in metal fencing to avoid its destruction by the displaced monkeys.
The Yamuna river, considered by devotees a Goddess who grants closeness to Krishna, is extremely polluted in Vrindavan. Upstream dams and farm and industrial pollution have placed the river in a horrible state before it even reaches Vrindavan, where untreated sewage still goes into the river. Squatters build on the Yamuna floodplain necessary for the maintenance of underground water tables and even government agencies are building illegally without considering their environmental impact. Meanwhile, Vrindavan’s medieval town remains a place of open sewers where people are extremely vulnerable to water-borne diseases such as diarrhea, malaria, dengue, chikungunya, etc.
Fortunately many efforts are beeing made to Save Yamuna river.
Vrindavan remains a place filled with religious and cultural beauty, but it is steadily being degraded by numerous destructive forces of greed and consumerism. Nowadays, it is the devotees only who see the beauty of this place, with casual visitors seeing only the garbage, the crowded traffic and the beggars.
Vrindavan’s future remains uncertain. There are several different religious societies and NGOs trying to counter the problems Vrindavan is currently facing. Local individuals have brought court cases against destructive government constructions. Others have built beautiful sanctuaries hidden in some small place or just outside of town. Government leaders have been thinking about how to use tourism as a means of bringing more economic growth to the area and have come up with different ideas for improving Vrindavan’s infrastructure and capacity to handle the traffic and waste for its giant influx of visitors.
However, more needs to be done if Vrindavan is to retain its culture for which it is known all over the world and if the people who live there can live with access to clean water and without fear of disease. Everyone should join in the effort in whatever way he or she can to save Vrindavan from the forces that are currently destroying it. This way, the beauty of Vrindavan, offering its visions of the enduring presence of Lord Krishna, will continue not only in isolated temples and caged-in gardens, but across all of Braj for the benefit and enjoyment of generations to come.