Written by Madhava Smullen
Hundreds of thousands of devotees, holy men and pilgrims will gather for the Vrindavana Kumbha Mela, taking a ceremonial dip in the sacred Yamuna River at Keshi Ghat on Saturday January 30th.
The event is held once every twelve years, alongside the official Kumbha Mela, which rotates between the holy places of Prayag, Haridwar, Ujjain and Nashik.
The Vrindavana Mela, held in the village where Lord Krishna appeared on earth 5,000 years ago, and at the river where He once bathed, is always special. But in recent times, there has been an added urgency to the participants’ prayers.
Devotees say that the sanctity of Vrindavana, and especially of the Yamuna River, is in danger. Among other efforts, ISKCON’s second-generation—known as “Kulis”—have launched “Global Kirtan for the Yamuna River,” a prayer which is offered with the intention to save the future of the Yamuna River and Vrindavana in general, and which they will synchronize with ISKCON Vrindavana’s 24-Hour Kirtan chanting program.
This year’s event is the second in a series of Global Kirtans. Organizer Krishna Devata McComb introduced the first in November 2008 after a trip to Vrindavana revealed how much the sacred village had changed since her childhood.
“I was born a Krishna devotee and first bathed in the Yamuna when I was five years old, with my two-year old brother Bala Gopal,” she says. “I have very precious memories of that time.”
The next time Krishna Devata returned to the Yamuna in 1998, it was to offer Bala Gopala’s ashes into its waters. The sacred river offered her solace in her grief at her brother’s passing, as she offered incense, flower garlands, and petals into it and then bathed in the water herself.
“Bathing in the Yamuna is a tradition of transformation, rejuvenation and purification,” she says. “Yet today, we see this place of deep personal prayer and meaning under heavy construction, with its waters diverted, and sewage and garbage being dumped into it. When I visited the river recently with my own daughter and son, who were the same ages as Gopal and I had been when we first bathed there, it was shocking to see how much had been lost in only one generation.”
According to Krishna Devata, many holy sites related to the Yamuna have been covered and displaced from its banks. The tree at Chir Ghat, where Krishna is said to have enacted His pastimes with the Gopis, is now hundreds of yards from the Yamuna, and the view of the holy river has been replaced by the on-ramp of a by-pass highway. The focus of development in Vrindavana, Krishna Devata says, has become service to the automobile rather than to God.
Perhaps the development currently taking the most prominence is a bridge being constructed alongside the Yamuna. Started back in May 2008, the project is intended to facilitate a 130km pipeline through Vrindavana, Mathura and Agra, which will provide water in areas that have been battling a shortage for decades.
It’s essentially a good cause. However, local and international devotees and environmental activists, working under the Save Yamuna to Save Vrindavan campaign, are saying that the implementation needs to be rethought. “They are destroying nature and culture,” said environmentalist Swami Sewak Sharan. “Ordinary folks in Vrindavan have no voice while the ‘developmentalists’ are out to murder a rich heritage.”
Mathura-Vrindavan Development Authority Vice Chairman R.K. Singh denied the charges and claimed they had been raised by people who do not understand development or environment. “They are just obstructing,” he said. “We have got proper studies done. The Keshi Ghat was any way crumbling. The bridge is a little distance away from the ghat. Pointless controversies are being raised.”
PWD Chief Engineer C.D. Rai added, “The bridge on the river does not affect environment in any manner, nor does it obstruct the flow of the river. We will later take up the renovation of the Keshi Ghat.”
But devotees and Vrindavana residents say that the developers have not revealed the full plans of their project to the community and show no sensitivity to the historic sacred site. The bridge will facilitate traffic to Delhi, Agra, and the Taj Mahal, and they fear that the noise, dirt and pollution will render Keshi Ghat a place that’s no longer peaceful for spiritual reflection.
“Some solutions include restoring water flow to ancient ghats, garbage management and water-treatment, although it will take collaboration and care from tourists and residents of Vrindavan to create lasting change,” Krishna Devata comments.
She admits that much of this is beyond her understanding or capacity to impact. However, what she can do is bring people together to make them aware of Yamuna Devi’s plight, and to unite their voices in prayer—in a Global Kirtan.
The January 30th event is backed by the Kuli Mela Association, which organizes ISKCON second-generation festivals and projects around the world, and which Krishna Devata is a founding member of. Other entities lending their support include World Prayer and Kirtan Day, Mandala Publishing, World Vaisnava Association, UNESCO, Sri Sri Radha Raman Temple, Save Yamuna to Save Vrindavan campaign, and many participating ISKCON Temples.
The Global Kirtan concept is that people “think globally and pray locally.” So far over one hundred locations around the world—in India, Canada, the United States, Europe, South America, South Africa, the Carribean, and Russia—have confirmed their participation, holding kirtans which will coincide with the Vrindavana Kumbha Mela and 24-Hour kirtan at the Yamuna River.
Many of these participants are ISKCON temples and preaching centers, while some are home programs, yoga studios, book-stores, and sanga groups. Some 24-hour kirtan events—such as those in Radhadesh Belgium, Hillsborough North Carolina, and one hosted by Radhanatha Swami in Mumbai—were prescheduled, yet their organizers decided to dedicate their prayers to the Global Kirtan cause.
“Because this is about calling attention to the current condition of the Yamuna River, which affects many people from many different lines and faiths, this is a call-out to all who will answer,” says Kuli Mela Association member Chaitanya Mangala. “The mood is one of openness and inclusiveness—this is an opportunity for everyone to come together and share in a time of solidarity.”
Those participating will include many well-known kirtan singers: Gaura Vani and As Kindred Spirits will perform at the ISKCON temple in Brooklyn, New York; Karnamrita will perform in Durban, South Africa; The Kirtaniyas will perform in Los Angeles; and the Mayapuris will perform in San Francisco.
“At this auspicious time of Vrindavana Kumbha Mela, sadhus, yogis and pilgrims of all kinds and from all traditions will gather to honor the Yamuna River,” says Krishna Devata. “On the full moon, thousands will simultaneously bathe in the river in a huge act of devotion and peace—chanting, dancing, and honoring Yamuna Devi together.”
Already, she says, kirtans are sounding in tents along the Yamuna, and puja and prayer offerings are being made.
And it looks like the prayers are already being answered. On January 21st , an Uttar Pradesh High Court Order was issued stating: “Until further order of the Court, the respondents are directed to stop further constructions over the bridge which is being constructed along side river Yamuna and other illegal constructions on the land which falls between the ghats and river Yamuna on both the sides and to stop dumping of garbage in river Yamuna or its bank. Respondents are further directed to ensure that no constructions are raised in the aforesaid area by any person.”
Devotees are preparing themselves for a further hearing at the High Court on February 23rd. Until then, their prayers for their beloved Yamuna River will resound across the globe.
The Global Kirtan organizers can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Or join the Global Kirtan Facebook group here.
Add your name to the petition against building a bridge at the Yamuna below: